Column: Including all voices helps ensure we are heard

Published March 22, 2019

CHICAGO — I used to have a running conversation with an older, white, male column-writing colleague about how your skin tone impacts your credibility.

He used to stroll over to my desk in the newsroom, practically get on bended knee, and ask for the hand of my immigration issue du jour.

"I don't want to poach in your pond, Esther," he'd always say.

My response never changed: "If I write about immigrant rights, I'm a biased activist with unchecked self-interest because of my ethnicity. If you write about it, you're an informed and impartial advocate for an important and growing segment of the community. You practically need to write about this more than I do."

And so it went whenever news broke about a Hispanic worker getting hurt in an unsafe workplace, immigration legislation moving forward or generalized xenophobia rearing its ugly head. It wasn't perfect, but it was a complementary relationship.

These sorts of cross-collaborations are thornier today amid questions of who can speak for whom, and who should shut up and let others have their chance to talk. After all, there's no shortage of black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian experts in their field who have been ignored or simply discounted when pointing out the ways in which the United States has nurtured racism, white supremacy and power imbalances.

But, realistically, when white males make bold claims, people listen. So we can embrace their voices in the hopes of getting people to pay attention to critical issues they might otherwise ignore.

For example, one recent book that can help shed light on a key political moment for all of us is the book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, by author Jason Stanley. He makes the case for truth as the bedrock of freedom and details how propaganda and rhetoric inflame the move toward fascism.

In an interview earlier this month, he explained to me why, contrary to popular perception on the left, we can't quite use the f-word with our president.

"I don't think Trump is ruling as a fascist," Stanley said. "But classic fascists like Hitler and Mussolini campaigned against globalists seeking to 'destroy the nation' and reminded us about 'past greatness' that involved eliminating 'rampant' crime and the 'threat' of 'liberal conspiracies' designed to bring leftist immigrants into the country."

It sounds awfully familiar as, simultaneously, far-right nationalism flowers in places like Russia, Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and the United States.

Stanley, however, marks a clear distinction between fascist tactics that are used as a mechanism to grab power and an explicitly fascist state ruled by a truly authoritarian leader. And he does it while standing apart from other philosophers — and other commentators whose parents fled Europe as refugees — in his acknowledgment of how racism and inequality fuel political divisions.

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"Where I agree with the left's critique of Trump is that we've always had this kind of propaganda — in Mein Kampf, Hitler praises the 1924 U.S. immigration act and praises white supremacy," said Stanley, who is a philosophy professor at Yale. "But my work differs from that of others because I focus on how the present is not actually a break from the past. Russian propaganda exploits already existing inequalities and exacerbates them with the goal of showing that democracy is fake and that ethnic groups can do nothing more than fight each other."

Stanley told me his book is radically different from other end-of-democracy books because it forces us to look at race relations and look at persistent achievement and wage gaps between blacks and whites and see that our present is a continuity of our past, not a break from it.

"My book is based on African-American history, on Hitler's American model, on the impact of mass incarcerations of black people, on the 'super predator' criminal justice theory that laid the groundwork for Trump," Stanley said.

Whether we like it or not, the history of marginalized groups in the United States is a topic few white people seek out on their own. And Stanley's chilling book does a great job of getting to the heart of why truth is the critical prerequisite for both equality and liberty.

If Stanley can help spoon-feed his insights to the very people already invested in seeking justice for everyone impacted by President Trump's misguided, ill-informed and frankly ignorant policy declarations, then so be it.

Maybe Stanley's work can be a jumping-off point for critical discussions about race, ethnicity, male privilege and white privilege that rule the current political moment — especially among the portion of the population that thinks these baked-in power imbalances don't really exist.

Wouldn't such dialogues be a refreshing alternative to simply blaming all of our political polarization and the death of truth and facts on the reliable and supposedly race-blind excuse of white economic anxiety?

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

© 2019 Washington Post Writers Group