Two important, longstanding questions lie behind Mie Inouye’s reflections on solidarity. One is about the sources of solidarity: what motivates people to act collectively on behalf of shared political projects. The other is about the practice of solidarity: how to build it across difference, particularly for members of dominant groups.
On the first question, Inouye argues that the two dominant accounts of motivation—material interests and morality—are insufficient. A more promising basis, she proposes, is ideology: a shared vision of a just society that aligns with but exceeds narrow material interests. Such shared visions could inspire broad, enduring coalitions of differently situated people with divergent interests, she suggests, but they will not emerge solely from participation in protests, and they necessarily involve conflict. Organizing spaces where participants can disagree with each other yet work together are vital.
I agree with Inouye that genuine political solidarity is always solidarity across difference, but it is not clear how this understanding of ideology solves the problem of motivation to act in concert. Drawing on Iris Marion Young’s concept of “differentiated solidarity,” I’ve argued that rather than requiring mutual identification—that we think of others as being “like us”—solidarity is more usefully thought of as “the product of structural conditions that require people to develop contingent solidarities, however momentarily, every day.” Structural conditions constrain how we relate to each other, as do the moral or ethical orientations we develop in response to them—how we diagnose the problems with our world and what we come to see as the solutions to them. This account of solidarity is consistent with the idea that it does not require unity nor sameness, at least not permanently.
Consider an example. As devastating climate disasters unfold across the globe, there are still many who deny the reality of climate change and are determined to resist or roll back green energy policies. In these conditions, some are moved to action; others accept the role of climate change but don’t alter their individual behavior, join a movement, or demand more from their elected officials; still others actively resist climate justice initiatives and support politicians wedded to fossil fuels. Even among those who agree that we need to take measures to preserve the planet, there can be profound disagreements about how to do so. Some conservationists object to mega renewable energy projects such as wind farms on the grounds that they do not want local landscapes destroyed. Some environmental activists oppose the installation of electric vehicle charging stations because they think we should be moving away from car culture. In these cases, the obstacle to concerted political action is not lack of a shared vision—all want a greener, more sustainable future, without fossil fuels—but disagreements about how best to achieve it. Whether these actors work together will depend on contingent circumstances and the choices they make about how to reconcile conflicting priorities.
Inouye is well aware of these challenges, which is why she argues we need to build spaces that embrace conflict and disagreement. This brings us to the second question: how to exercise solidarity in practice. On this front, Inouye rejects the “deference politics” so prevalent in coalition-building efforts today. Coalitions based on deference are fragile, she argues, because people who see themselves as acting on behalf of others, rather than having skin in the game, quickly become disillusioned with organizing. Indeed, Inouye argues that despite the remarkable displays of interracial solidarity during the 2020 racial justice protests, her students express “deep skepticism about the possibility or even desirability of solidarity across difference.” Nevertheless, such alliances are still being formed. In the Stop Cop City protests in Atlanta, for example, a broad coalition of environmental groups, neighborhood associations, local colleges, and racial justice organizations have come together to oppose the construction of a new police training center and the resulting decimation of the South River (or Weelaunee) Forest, both of which would disproportionately affect Black residents.
In the case of collective political action for racial justice in the United States today, I think the problem is not simply the one that Jared Clemons identifies—that neoliberal capitalism precludes meaningful antiracist action by white liberal professionals (who tend to support only symbolic measures) and the white working class (among whom union membership, which moderates racial prejudice, has declined significantly)—but also that moments of seeming racial progress in the United States have always been met with fierce racist backlash. The civil rights victories of the past faced immediate efforts to hollow them out. In 1967, as he contemplated the aftermath of Black rebellions in Northern cities and the hostile reception to his own efforts to organize for racial justice in Chicago, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that symbolic antiracism was far easier to accept than material transformation. “The great majority of Americans,” he argued,
are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it. . . . The persistence of racism in depth and the dawning awareness that Negro demands will necessitate structural changes in society have generated a new phase of white resistance in North and South. . . . demands that yesterday evoked admiration and support, today—to many—have become tiresome, unwarranted and a disturbance to the enjoyment of life.
Such resistance is resurgent today. White grievance has arisen (and been mobilized for reactionary political ends) in response to both symbolic antiracism—such as the casting of nonwhite actors to play characters in popular film and TV franchises—and measures that have greater material impact, such as affirmative action. White Americans from a range of economic backgrounds experience both sorts of measures as a loss. If the racial justice protests of 2020 did not produce an enduring national multiracial movement against policing and mass incarceration, it is partly because of the sustained racist backlash they did elicit.
At the same time, the protests should not be considered a failure, given their powerful role in transforming political imaginations and shaping ethical orientations. Political scientist Deva Woodly has argued that this is one of the key ways that social movements revitalize democracy and bring about social change. In Reckoning (2021), she argues that the Movement for Black Lives centers a politics of care that will require “new social, economic, and political formations . . . [that] should serve to enable not only or primarily equality, but, most importantly, must facilitate the ability to live and thrive.” Part of what the 2020 protests did was disseminate a vision of a state that does not simply punish, imprison, and kill but rather creates the conditions for Black people to thrive; we see a similar claim about what is required for people to thrive in the current upsurge in labor organizing in the United States. Amid the structural conditions of profound racial injustice, this is a powerful means through which solidarity is forged.