Moving from Fault to Cause: Looking for Systemic Solutions to White Supremacy

by Miki Kashtan

Downtown Charlottesville, by Bob Mical

The recent events in Charlottesville have brought even more attention and public conversation to the growing phenomenon of visible, explicit calls for white supremacy. Much of what I have since read and heard is horror and disgust at what has happened, and an intense inquiry about what can be done to make a dramatic shift, and quickly.

Although I experience myself as entirely separate and different from the torch-marchers, from their slogans, actions, and hatred, I consciously choose to maintain the discipline of remembering that they were not born this way; they are not in any special category. There are reasons why more and more people are drawn into such groups, and I want to know the causes, not what’s wrong with the people. Like many who’ve been writing recently, I am confident that fighting back, name calling, shaming, denouncing, and other similar tactics I’ve seen used recently are feeding rather than quelling this upsurge.

Clearly, we are facing a huge problem here; one of many that are challenging our overall ability to sustain ourselves as a species. One of the benefits that our very large brains give us is that we are, as a species, amazingly capable of responding to major challenges by solving complex problems. We know, without having to learn it very much, that to solve a problem we need to understand its cause and then look for solutions based on understanding the cause.

Indeed, over the time of our existence, we have applied this capacity to many problems and issues on the material plane, even if the astonishing results have sometimes caused disastrous side-effects. Not so in relation to addressing the problems that exist within our human family. When we look at social problems, we seem to filter the search for a cause through a very narrow focus, and our patriarchal conditioning makes our search for a cause devolve into figuring out who is at fault. By logical extension, if the “cause” is specific people who are at fault, then the “solution” would be punishing, shaming, removing, or killing the people who are presumed to be at fault. By necessity, this also means that proposed “solutions” would be directed at specific individuals or specific groups rather than at systemic conditions that are identified as the deeper causes of a problem.

This logic operates at all levels. Its net result is escalating cycles of violence. As Kazu Haga reminds us, in Don’t Feed the Trolls, ISIS emerged as a direct result of the violence inflicted in the Middle East in the war designed to combat terrorism. James Gilligan writes about it in his classic Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, where he shows with great care and sensitivity how the methods used to punish criminals are fully intertwined with shaming, which he sees as one of the active causes of subsequent violence. I am quite confident every single one of us can remember a time in our own life when someone tried to shame us into submission and where we either rose up in defiance right there or nursed retaliatory fantasies until we were able to carry them out later.

In each of these cases, the cause is not truly focused on. Change is expected to come from the very shaming, not from thinking through what may have actually been the cause of what the person in question did. For example, bombing Iraq, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of armed and unarmed people in the process, does not address in any way whatsoever the underlying, systemic causes of the hatred towards the US, for example. Attempting to deal with it in this way, through war and/or shaming individuals and groups, can only appear to be reliable if the problem is inherent in the people, which makes the only possible change appear to arise from that “evil” being subdued. Except it doesn’t seem to ever work. The “War on Terror” has only created more hatred towards the US and has driven more people to join groups that target US and other Western entities.

My current hypothesis about shame is that it evolved for extreme cases of threat to the group, and has been appropriated by patriarchal systems for widespread use to protect the powerful. Shame may appear to work in the short term, and usually has disastrous consequences in the longer term, invariably for the person or group shamed, and regularly for those doing the shaming.

This takes us back to some of the roots of patriarchy and its view of life and human nature. This is what I studied extensively and wrote about in my dissertation in the 90s and have been continuing to investigate since. My working assumption about human nature is that we are creatures with needs that we attempt to meet with each other’s support in relationship with the web of life of which we are a part. I am part of a long tradition of thinkers that believe us to be profoundly influenced by the conditions and systems that we encounter when we are born and throughout our lives, regardless of which particular group we are born into. There is no group I can see that is immune to cruelty, nor any group that hasn’t rallied in generosity in response to need.

This is a far cry from what thousands of years of patriarchal systems and cultures have been training us to believe. In the harsh world of separation, scarcity, and powerlessness, we are made to seem as if we were creatures with insatiable self-gratifying needs and with little care for anything else. Each new generation of children is put through a grueling version of socialization emerging from the conviction that we must be controlled or molded to be any good for our fellow humans or for society. (And the sad reality I have observed and examined: the more we do that collectively, the more we create trauma, resistance, defiance, and knee-jerk defensiveness that serve to “prove” the theory about who we are.)

What’s more, we’ve been trained to believe that we are not all fully capable of love or fully capable of hate and separation; that some groups are more capable of the “good” things, and other groups, usually not our own, are more capable of the “bad” things. When you add power and privilege differences to this mess, it gets even more tragic. As my late sister Inbal noted years ago: the ones with power see those without as subhuman; the ones without power see those with power as inhuman; and no one truly sees each other’s humanity.

This is why even with extensive immersion in nonviolence, I hear people who join me on one of my many free calls speak, casually and without conscious choice, about “types of people”. Recently, that language has been used in relation to the growing and, to me, frightening phenomenon of the active rise of the right. Once again, I see the conversation being heavily focused on the people – those who marched with torches in Charlottesville, for a particularly visible and painful recent example of this escalation – instead of the context within which it’s happening. My own wish is to apply the distinction between fault and cause to the current state of affairs to see if we can gain any wisdom from that about how to proceed.

Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally, by Anthony Crider

In aiming to grasp the causes, I find myself drawn into comments made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow; comments I found startling, wrenching, tragic, and hopeful all at once. Based on what she is saying about the aftermath of the US Civil War and, again, the aftermath of desegregation and the Civil Rights Act, my current sense is that the Civil War hasn’t really ended, 150 years later. As Alexander stated, the end of the Civil War was a disorienting trauma for many white people in the southern states. Like all “losers” of war, the terms were imposed on them, unsettling everything they knew as “normal”, forcing them to treat as equal people they previously were brought up to believe were subhuman and undeserving of respect. This, on top of the general humiliation of losing, left them in exactly the position I spoke of before: licking their festering wounds, nursing a sense of overwhelming victimization, and waiting for the moment in which they could re-assert their “rights”. That moment came not long afterwards. This is how the Jim Crow social order was instituted, along with convict leasing and stripping formerly incarcerated people of rights. These moves reversed much that the Emancipation Proclamation sought to establish and created new forms of misery for the recently emancipated African-Americans.

Over decades of struggle the Black community came together to organize for Civil Rights. Against unbelievable odds, they successfully mounted legal and civil resistance campaigns that granted them again rights that had previously been granted and negated. First, school desegregation, and then the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Once again, as Alexander notes, this was a victory imposed on the Southern whites. Their humiliation was once again stirred up, and, again without any attention, care, or outlet, was funneled into powerless rage that went underground, waiting for the opportunity to reassert itself. Both the institutionalization of segregation and the struggles to dismantle it were times when many of the confederacy statues were erected, as a recent Guardian article – Why Is the US Still Fighting the Civil War? – points out. In the 60s and 70s, as the general culture shifted away from racialized narratives, the War on Drugs was born, targeting racial minorities without ever naming them as such, and leading to widespread acceptance of accelerating mass incarceration rooted in the very same unhealed hatred born of defeat.

To be clear: I am all in favor of the Emancipation Proclamation and of the partial gains that emerged from the Civil Rights movement. I am also incredibly moved by the courage and creative strategy of the Civil Rights movement, and wish that the Civil War had not happened and abolitionists had found nonviolent means to achieve their goals. What I notice, however, is that even though the Civil Rights movement proclaimed itself to be rooted in love and aiming for “beloved community”, the experience of the southern whites was the same in both cases: defeat and humiliation. My main concern is that imposing conditions on those who are defeated that affect their sense of dignity can have catastrophic longer term effects. The Treaty of Versailles is now widely considered to be one of the breeding grounds of the rise of Nazism in Germany: many Germans felt profoundly humiliated by the terms of that treaty, and saw Hitler as rescuing them from that fate. Similarly, fast forward 80 years, I see the persistent support for Donald Trump and the growing support for overt white supremacy, Alt-Right, and neo-Nazi movement as rooted in the same kind of dynamic, dating back to at least the Civil War. As Rabbi Mordechai Liebling said in Fighting What the Nazis Fear, “we cannot tolerate white supremacy and we must listen to the fear and pain that many of its supporters carry.”

I am not here trying to imply that racism and white supremacy as overall systems were based on the humiliation of defeat. I am only speaking here of the attempts to create change in those systems which have been done without attending to this dimension and thus failed to create sufficient conditions for true systemic change. Also, the careful historical research into the many variables that affect why sometimes defeat is followed by transcending the conditions that led to war, such as comparing WWII to WWI, is quite far beyond the scope of a blog post. What I am writing here is not a “grand theory” that aims to explain everything. Rather, I am calling attention to the potential to create change in a live and dangerous situation by understanding a particular dynamic and shifting our responses accordingly.

So what is it that we can do? Then, and now? As leaders and as participants? What I know I long for is a clear path that makes sense; that integrates, on the human level, the reality of complex and multiple human needs and perspectives. I fully disagree with the white nationalists that white people are attacked or threatened in any way, or that immigrants are taking away anything from them, for example; yet I don’t have any shred of belief that asserting that will help anyone shift out of believing that they are. And, given that the experience is real, I want to find ways of addressing it.

If I were Lincoln or Johnson in the US, or the Allied Powers after WWI, for example, I would want to build into the very conditions of institutionalizing the agreements that marked the end of certain struggles measures designed explicitly and specifically to support the “losers” in having their dignity and humanity upheld without compromising the safety, gain, or integrity of anyone liberated in those very acts, in the US case that being African Americans.

In a recent email conversation I witnessed, an experienced chemical dependency counselor proposed looking at violence and white supremacy as an addiction; another way to understand why Jim Crow followed slavery and mass incarceration followed Jim Crow. His suggestion: creating ways for grief and loss to take place for those whose behavior we want to change. Perhaps it would mean trauma relief; perhaps spaces where they could simply be heard and solutions for how to move forward without bouncing trauma from group to group would be brainstormed. I am not here designing what such interventions could be. I am only expressing my profound desire to find effective measures to attend to the causes of the resurgence of violence and hatred rather than maintain the ongoing cycles of escalating violence that we are witnessing again.

And what about now, as citizens – of the US or the world – concerned about the potential implications of the legitimacy of hatred and violence that Donald Trump’s presidency came to signify? What is there for us to do in the face of this surge? What’s most pressing for me is to hold in the foreground two realities simultaneously, without dropping either of them. One is the red alert danger of erupting violence leading to serious harm to people who are already vulnerable – immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, Jews, and other groups, and the slightly longer term threat to the solidity of democratic institutions in the US, such as they are. The other is the commitment to humanize everyone, including the brutalizers.

Ultimately, holding this dual intention is key for me in having hope that we can mitigate and transcend the humiliation that perpetuates separation and find our way towards that luminous dream that fuels my work on all levels: a world that works for all, attending to everyone’s needs, interdependently, within the means and in reverent interaction with our one beautiful planet.

INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. Next dates:
Tomorrow, Friday, September 15, 5:30 – 7:00pm, PT
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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

Image Credits: all Flickr: Top: Downtown Charlottesville, Her name was Heather Heyer. 08/14/2017, by Bob Mical, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Middle: Point!, by a2gemma, Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Bottom: Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally, Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate Battle, Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me,” Southern Nationalist, and Thor’s Hammer flags, by Anthony Crider, Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

7 thoughts on “Moving from Fault to Cause: Looking for Systemic Solutions to White Supremacy

  1. Aaron Tardos

    I fully disagree with the white nationalists that white people are attacked or threatened in any way, or that immigrants are taking away anything from them, for example; yet I don’t have any shred of belief that asserting that will help anyone shift out of believing that they are. And, given that the experience is real, I want to find ways of addressing it.

    I also don’t have any shred of belief that asserting that will help anyone shift out of believing that they are.

    Unfortunately as a culture we have linked shame to being wrong (as in believing inaccurate information). I notice that in myself and it’s something I work on.

    There is something that one confronts about who they consider themselves to be when they do examinations of their worldviews and frames of reference.

    As the philosopher Martin Heidegger said: “Existential analysis has the character of doing violence, whether to the claims of the everyday interpretation, or to its complacency and its tranquilized obviousness.”

    So the question to inquire into is: How to effectively invite people to examine their world views, their taken for granted points of view, to have epistemological crises?

  2. Kate Mackrell

    Miki, I have just discovered you (via your PhD thesis!) and your blog, and I am very impressed.

    A thought on being wrong, and shame, that comes from my experience in mathematics education, where everyone (teachers as well!) makes highly visible, highly provable “mistakes” all the time. I’ve noticed that there is a “niceness” to the maths ed academic community (very few people are defensive about their work, for example) – and I’ve just put it together that some of this is that we’ve all needed to move beyond shame at making mistakes.

    My webpage is not letting me leave a longer comment – so a second comment is coming.

  3. Kate Mackrell

    One of the main jobs of a good mathematics teacher is to liberate students from the shame of making mistakes. One strategy is to treat all statements as conjectures and to invite lots of conjectures for discussion. The value is in generating the conjectures – even if these are “wrong” to the teacher, taking these seriously, exploring how well they fit the data and then deciding if one or other is better than the others – which doesn’t necessarily make it “right” in all circumstances.
    I wonder if there is some way to see our world views as conjectures? I’ve just overheard someone stating that the white supremacist world view is that “something has gone wrong”. That sounds more to me like “data” – a feeling of pain, frustration, etc – and something definitely has gone wrong if people are feeling like that. The conjectures that follow – that black people/illegal immigrants/etc are the causes of that pain and that hence the solution is to suppress them – are ones that I personally hate – but I can’t hate the pain.

  4. Doris Wachsler

    I am toying with the idea that an individual’s feeling of shame (about having prejudiced attitudes) is minimized by being in a group that shares those attitudes. Might not the individual feel validated because there is a consensus about those attitudes? Hence a self-examination might not lead to any pain or re-thinking–at least not in the moment. I think that in the present day it is so easy for group-think to occur. How to stop these processes?

    In a recent “Fearless Heart Teleseminar” there was discussion of an interaction in which individuals would form a group to offer a loving, caring response to confront the pain of people who feel powerless. I’m suggesting as a lyric for a singing group–“We do understand you, we do understand you (as in “we will overcome”)–and we’ll work it out someday–for deep in our hearts we do believe that we all want to live with hope.”

    1. Eliane Geren

      Hi Doris, I appreciate that you want to offer understanding. At the same time I found myself getting worried as I imagined someone who’d been oppressed hearing the oppressor sing “We do understand you” to the tune of “We shall overcome.” Would they not respond, “How dare you think that you can understand our reality? You haven’t lived it!” I think we need to listen deeply and hope to hear, “Thank you for listening. I get the feeling you may sense my pain.” Also, using a song that has such deep emotional/spiritual meaning to the Black community may not feel respectful to them. I hope my comment is helpful.

  5. Becky Schaller

    Like Doris, I was also on the recent “Fearless Heart Teleseminar.” Miki, I am so thankful to you for hosting and facilitating these conversations. They are such an immense help to me in thinking through important questions.

    Our discussion started with the question, How can we dignify those that lose in war or conflicts? This was based on this statement from the blog.

    “So what is it that we can do? Then, and now? As leaders and as participants?
    What I know I long for is a clear path that makes sense; that integrates, on the
    human level, the reality of complex and multiple human needs and perspectives.”

    Miki talked about how important it is to be able to empathize with all sides of the conflict. I’m thinking of Marshall Rosenberg who was the founder/creator of Nonviolent Communication. I remember Marshall saying on an audio tape that he predicts we can solve any problem within 20 minutes after each party is able to say the needs of the other party to the satisfaction of the other. (my paraphrase)

    That idea seems so foundational to me. I know it is a huge task. I only need to recall some of my own interpersonal conflicts to be reminded of how difficult this can be. But as I’ve been thinking about the conversation we had during the teleconference, I am also realizing that each solution has to come out of the needs of those particular parties. How do we (as individuals, nations, and a world) learn to understand and find solutions based on the deepest needs of all of us.

  6. Loretta

    I will vulnerably be forthright- I have been thinking and thinking after a long night of unease. I tossed and turned. I rooted my thoughts back to what is behind disconnection-what is behind breakdowns in relation?
    I searched etymological origins of the word ‘family’-found it was born out of organizations of arrangement that roots back to matrilineal clans that created webs of kin. I looked up the etymological definition of ‘clan’ and learned it comes from ‘plant’ with the ‘p’ being replaced with a ‘c’ or ”k’ over time and in translation or vice versa. I pondered on plants and gardens- one not controlled or dictated by the human hand.
    I looked at the etymological definition of kin and realized it is in “kind” as in ‘be kind’ and ‘kindergarten’ or ‘kind garden’ and realized immediately we are constantly searching and asking each other to remember our original mother- that we once had the same mother- we are kin, we are kin/clan/plant desperate to connect and remember we are related in the garden called ‘earth’.
    We call the planet mother earth, not because of ideas of domination over, but reverence for life and life-giving quality of something greater and more mysterious than we are, that which sustains us as humans. Where did we go awry?
    One answer: A (relatively) short historical experiment we have been subjects of and systematically trained to forget our relation, our kin, our clan our interconnection. Is this era of patriarchy? I looked up when this disconnection began, and read that this patriarchy began to take shape when material goods were the focus in place of relationship focus. When material good trumped relationship.
    In this way, relationships can predictably begin to breakdown once attention is turned to focus on materialism or gaining over and at the cost of another’s well being. Material trumps relationship knowledge.
    And, speaking of trumped or Trump- it occurred this morning- a profound sense of clarity. A sense of relating with Donald Trump.
    We have been patriachified.
    Donald trump is not crazy. Kim Jong-un is not crazy. They are patriarchified. We are patriarchified.
    So, what does my definition of patriarchified mean? So far, this morning- as I write this, completely inspired by my need to understand the ache of the state of our world, Miki’s life contribution and the work they have shared that I have been so very lucky and grateful to receive, I also want to keep a sense Marshall Rosenberg’s humor, and might have a laugh hearing, were he alive today. I humbly contribute two initial requirements for being patriarchified:
    1) The belief that one must be dumber or less educated than they actually are
    2) The daily act of training to forget your relationship to all life.
    Miki, I value deeply what you write, what you take time to commit to remember and what you share.
    I look forward, with hope, that we can collectively end this experiment of being patriarchified, because either way, our original mother, mother earth, will perpetuate the interconnections of life- that concept, I can connect with <3.

    In Kind Spirit, Loretta Iris


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