Media justice advocates hear call to fight white nationalism
The civil rights victories of the 1960s drew a backlash from white supremacists. Today that backlash is rising again — meaning it’s time for another movement.
That was the message from Eric K. Ward as he delivered the United Church of Christ’s 2021 Everett C. Parker Lecture in Ethics and Telecommunications.
“This is the point in history when we have the privilege to launch a 21st-century civil rights movement – one that speaks to the challenges of today,” said Ward, who heads a nonprofit devoted to “inclusive democracy.”
He spoke during the online lecture and awards ceremony Oct. 19. The annual event honors people who work for justice, inclusion and fairness in communications media. It is named for the late founder of the UCC Office of Communication, Inc., widely regarded as a leader in media-justice work since the 1960s.
White nationalism’s current rise
Ward gave his lecture from Portland, Ore., where he heads the Western States Center. The agency works to “shift culture, and defend democracy through a prism of race, gender, justice and equity” to create “a world where everyone can live, love, worship and work free from bigotry and fear.”
White nationalism’s rise over the past four years has made that work harder than ever, Ward said. “We have watched the violence, the intimidation, the exploitation and the othering of ourselves and our neighbors,” he said. People have “manipulated and utilized social media platforms to drive division and to organize bigotry.” Media companies have “put their profits over the cohesion and peacefulness of a society.”
“Right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 plots or attacks and 91 fatalities” between 2015 and this year’s attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he said. “… The number of domestic terror plots and attacks are at the highest they have been in decades.”
And though the Jan. 6 insurrection did not succeed, it also “did not end that day in Washington, D.C.” It continues “in cities and counties around the country,” he said. “Health workers, educators, school board members and local elected officials find themselves being threatened, facing physical attacks and disruptions each and every day.”
To fight white nationalism, it’s important to understand its roots, Ward said. “January in Washington, D.C., in 2021, actually began as a backlash against the civil rights movement in the late 1960s,” Ward said. People who saw the world through the lens of white supremacy, Jim Crow and separate-but-equal laws faced a crisis in the face of civil-rights advances.
“They were never going to admit that they lost to growing Black political and moral power in this country,” Ward said. “To do so would be to admit the fallacies of white supremacy and the false belief of racial superiority. So they constructed a new argument.”
And a big part of that argument, he said, was “the belief that there is a Jewish conspiracy to destroy white America.” Grasping this doctrine is a key to understanding white nationalists’ disdain for others as well: people of color, the LGBTQ community, women’s movements and more.
“You see, for white nationalists, their anti-Jewish hatred is also a form of racism,” Ward said. “They claim that the position of Jews as white in American society is the greatest trick the devil has ever played. … It is that fantasy of invisible Jewish power that explains for white nationalists how Black Americans, a race of supposed inferiors, could orchestrate the end of Jim Crow – but also how feminists and the LGBTQ community could upend traditional gender roles and how immigrant workers can mount successful challenges to economic inequality.”
Antisemitism “is so central to white nationalism,” Ward said, “that I believe as a Black person that I, my community, and other marginalized groups will never win our freedom if we’re not also active in the struggle to uproot anti-Jewish hate.”
Different vision of democracy
Two winners of annual awards were also honored at the event:
- Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, received the 2021 Everett C. Parker Award. Siefer founded the nonprofit in 2015, promoting home and public broadband access and local technology training. The award recognizes “an individual whose work embodies the principles and values of the public interest in telecommunications and the media.”
- The 2021 Donald H. McGannon Award went to Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, a nonprofit that works to expand high-speed broadband connectivity across the United States. The award recognizes special contributions in advancing the roles of women and persons of color in the media.”
Ward said the two award winners carry out the kind of daily work needed in a new civil rights movement that counters white nationalism with a different vision of democracy.
“White nationalists and their broader alt-right coalition don’t bring racism, homophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia to our communities,” Ward said. “They simply organize the bigotry that already exists.” The alternative is “not merely about managing threats, but about doubling down on the vision of what we mean when we say an America for all.”
“This is what Angela and Francella do each and every day: Expanding democracy, centering people each and every day,” Ward said. “This is what the Rev. Dr. Everett C. Parker did with his life – committed to opening up space so that all of us can be seen and our stories heard.”
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