Professor targeted by right wing attack speaks out: "It was a blitzkrieg"

Salon talks to Albert Ponce, a professor at Diablo Valley College in California, about white supremacy on campus

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 12, 2018 4:00PM (EDT)

Alberto Ponce (courtesy of Alberto Ponce)
Alberto Ponce (courtesy of Alberto Ponce)

Last week, the Trump administration signaled again that it would be taking additional steps to end affirmative action programs at colleges and universities. This part of a broader campaign of white identity politics where the Trump administration is feverishly working to undermine the human rights of nonwhites both in the United States and around the world.

Professors and other educators are targets for abuse and harassment as part of this right-wing effort to rollback American society to a point in time prior to the 20th century. To accomplish that goal higher education must be destroyed and remade in keeping with the revanchist dystopia that American conservatives dream of inflicting on the country.

Political scientist Albert Ponce felt the weight of Trumpism and the Republican Party's white identity politics come crashing down on him. Last October, he gave a public lecture on the history of the race concept and its problematic connections to "democracy" and "human rights" in the West. There Ponce made a basic observation: Donald Trump both represents and does the work of white supremacy in the United States. Professor Ponce's lecture was recorded, selectively edited, and then circulated across the right-wing echo chamber at sites such as Breitbart and The College Fix. Ponce was then subjected to a coordinated campaign of harassment including death threats and an effort to have him fired from Diablo Valley College in California.

I recently spoke with Alberto Ponce about this experience, his thoughts on the election of Donald Trump, the increase in white supremacist organizing and harassment at America's schools, white privilege, and the so-called "browning of America."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Like so many other educators and other truth-tellers about racism and white supremacy in the Age of Trump, you have been targeted for death threats and other types of violence. How are you doing?

I'm doing good, in spite of all. In this climate when we're doing this kind of critical analysis it's going to provoke a response. In fact, the first thing my wife said was, “Well, I'm surprised they didn't happen sooner.” You have to remain optimistic, but always cautious.

And there's been a lot of other incidents here on our campus. The campus was actually shut down because of a recent threat. There's been other things as well such as white nationalist organizing on campus and vandalizing. When we came back to campus back in November there were swastikas in the restroom. The white supremacist group Identity Europa plastered our campus with posters. The white right-wing is organized and are using this political moment to really expand their forces.

I tell my students and my colleagues, "Credit to them". They are organized, we are not. Some of my colleagues are saying--even those who are allies--that “Maybe you should be careful. You should maybe wait until you do have tenure.” I'm like, “I'm not waiting.” They're going to come after us regardless. It doesn't matter what your title is or what level of protection I supposedly have. If you are telling the truth about these matters they are going to attack. We're not going to be silent.

How do you explain how Donald Trump was able to get elected?

On November 9 I remember coming into my 9:30 lecture and the students were just trying to make sense of what happened with Trump winning. For me and those of us in my circle who study race and politics we've been tracing this for a long time. We are not surprised. White nationalism is the core of the nation. Anything else is rather a deviation.

We just see this retrenchment by Trump's forces back to their white identity politics that were here before the birth of the United States.

For example, a recent report from the Haas Institute showed that there is majority support for deportations and for the ban on Muslims here in California. Even in the Bay Area which is supposed to be very progressive it was still upwards of 44 percent support for both.

Am I being too cynical when I argue that the election of Donald Trump and the white backlash he represents is in many ways just a return to the norm for most of American  history? How are we going to have a black president twice and not have a white backlash?

You're not being too cynical. There was slavery in America for hundreds of years. Then we get to Brown vs. Board and the civil rights movements and other progressive changes in the 1970s. That wasn't a long time ago. When we have to explain the rise of Trump it is built upon that foundation. Even President Barack Obama was part of the larger political project that is maintaining a white supremacist country.

In many ways that is the job description of being President of the United States even if there is this this supposed "browning of America" taking place.

But again, we know from history that whiteness expands to include new groups. What do you think that narrative about the "browning of America" is so persuasive despite all the complications that should be applied to it?

You are describing what philosopher Linda Martin-Alcoff calls "visible identities." When people are moving through public space they see diversity, at least on that symbolic level. We're sitting at a café, we see a diverse group, or we’re in a particular region and we see a different demographic shift, and then we make sense of some new census data. And then, of course, this gets disseminated in the popular mainstream on news channels and the like. Ultimately, there is a lack of critical historical analysis.

For example, whites are a minority in California, to put it simply, and yet all realms of power are still dictated by whiteness or white supremacy.

It is always important to define terms. When social scientists and other experts discuss "white supremacy" they use that term in ways that are usually quite different from the general public.

Definitely, it’s something very different. When people at large in the United States and around the globe think of white supremacy they have images of neo-Nazis or the KKK, in their minds. In reality, white supremacy is not about errant individuals who are running amok. It is the social, political and economic system that privileges whiteness above and over other racial identities.

Or as Charles Mills simply says in his book, “It is the unnamed political system which has made the modern world what it is today.” Recently there is the controversy about how two black men were kicked out of Starbucks. A superficial analysis would suggest that was really about "implicit bias". But that is a microlevel manifestation of a much bigger dynamic. It takes away the focus from how the entire system functions.

Errant individuals are not so errant. They are just manifesting the practices at the micro level of what the entire system allows them to do.

You gave a talk about white supremacy and how it informs America's past and present. What happened afterwards?

Nothing about what I said was controversial. I was providing an overview of how the race concept came into being with establishing the inferiority of other humans and how that informs the creation of social institutions. In the West these proclamations of universal truths of democracy, liberty, freedom have actually only been established and protected for a particular group of people who are deemed "white" and how others have been denigrated over time.

That was the gist of the talk. I did not mention Trump at all until the end. I was simply mapping out the idea of white supremacy and whiteness and the struggles around and against it historically. I called the president “white supremacist" That was the gist of it. It was nothing very controversial or Earth-shattering to me.

The United States is a society structured around racism, sexism and capitalism. Given the abundance of evidence in support of those observations they should not even be considered controversial. It is akin to saying "water is wet."

This is precisely what I said in my talk. This is historical fact. This is empirically verifiable, and how can someone come in and say it is not? This is where I appreciate the honest white supremacist or the honest racist. For example, Richard Spencer is right. When he says something like, yeah, this was a white man's nation. This is the way it worked. It’s built on conquest colonialism. This was not a nation of immigrants. I reflect and say, “I agree with Richard Spencer." Students and other people become shocked. His assessment of history is on point. I agree with what he's saying.

He's absolutely right in terms of how white racial settler colonialism and the origins of the United States were historically imagined by white elites and rank-and-file white folks.

There is a well oiled right-wing outrage machine that targets professors and other educators it deems "dangerous" and "liberal." How did its agents come after you?

There were things posted online about me just before that talk and about my research and my organizing work.  After my talk , which took place in October, it went viral after it got posted online.  A student edited the talk and put it online with right wing groups. It just blew up, and everybody picked it up from College Fix, Campus Reform, and Breitbart. Then it was on Reddit and elsewhere. It was a blitzkrieg. They were very organized.

They hit all the key people to have me fired. But at least I had some assurances from the college President and other administrators here on my campus.

Painting a picture, what were some of the specific threats? 

There were arguments about why we need segregation, how blacks should go back to Africa, how I should go back to Latin America, and this country is for whites only. Why did I talk about Karl Marx, we’re in the United States.

Some of the things happening on campus I don't think are too far removed from what is happening to me personally. I think it has a lot to do with how students and community members feel empowered by Trump's rise to come out as explicit white supremacists.

A student asked me the other day, “Would you have not done the talk or maybe had done it differently?”  My answer is, “No. I wouldn't have."

At the campus where you teach--and obviously talking to your colleagues and peers elsewhere--what is the appeal of white supremacy for these young white people who are college educated? Why are some of them being seduced by such noxious and hollow ideas?

Their entryway with students is simply retelling the story of the American dream. It is under threat. You have the right to be proud of your white race. That's an entry point too. That's what these groups like Identity Europa take their premise from. They also love to say they are not racist. We're just establishing this organization just like blacks have their organizations and brown people have their organizations, and we have a right also assert our rights. I think you can't un-ring the bell. And they’re recruiting without explicitly recruiting. They’re doing it in the classroom discussions. And we do have those students who are doing that here.

What about white folks who get angry about discussions of white privilege because they somehow feel "oppressed" and "hurt" by "the system?"

You have white people who respond by saying that, "I'm out of work." "I don't have work." "I'm in school." "I'm struggling." "I can't pay rent." "I’m poor." My response is that whiteness as a category is a set of privileges. Many will just refuse to critically think about their own advantages in this entire system.

Given this moment in America with Donald Trump what are you hopeful about, if anything? And what are you concerned about?

I'm hopeful. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. This is something that keeps me going. My organizing work also sustains me.

Where there is repression, humans will push back. Politicians don't wake up one morning and they say, “Hey, now, I’m going to let women vote." "I'm going to let black people vote." "I'm going to let Mexicans vote." It is because people are resisting, people are doing something, forcing politicians to do certain things.

The midterms will slow the white supremacist project coming out of the Trump administration down a bit, but I don't think it's going to derail it. That's where the reality sets in. I think the force to changing it just lies in us. It lies in every single individual coming together and standing up for each other.

The reality is if Democrats take over some control in the midterms that people will just retreat and think that is a victory. It is hardly victory. That is a danger. Don't focus on that. I tell my students to focus on continuing to do the work in communities. Focus on advancing during education. If you're concerned with change, link your education as transformation of society.

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Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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