Is Violence Cultural?

 

As the #YesAllWomen hashtag trended over the weekend, I tweeted out a few of my own. In response to one of my tweets [about having been menaced on 3 separate campuses by male students who were antagonized by the low grades or critical evaluations that I gave], a friendly tweep asked whether my experiences could be ascribed to a culture of violence. It was an important question, and I didn’t respond as 140 characters seemed to be rather limiting. I want to think through one part of that question here. But I want to note: my comments are not a reflection on my friendly interlocutor; rather, I’m trying to explore my concern about the phrase.

I’m always surprised when the words ‘violence’ and ‘culture’ are placed in close proximity. Much like the phrase “social construction of race,” the notion of a “culture of violence” seems to create an artificial stopping point at what should be the beginning of an analysis. These days, the phrase ‘social construction of race’ indicates a moment in the political development of theories of race rather than some meaningful insight in itself. Similarly, the notion of a ‘culture of violence’ is often the description given to explain the pro-gun discourse that marks the US in international lights, or the massacres that seem to be occurring with increasing frequency in the United States. The most recent one to come to public attention was the one that a young man, Elliot Rodgers, carried out a few days ago. The phrase ‘culture of violence,’ seems to be immediately problematic in several ways. First, it obscures the specificity of various kinds of violence (a shooting in cold blood versus a woman who shoots at an ex-lover in self-defense; a serial massacre by a young man versus a military massacre of a village). I’m not suggesting that they are all horrific or heinous. Rather, I want to suggest that the level and quality of (dis)approval in each case is affected by the conditions and institutions which supported that action. The second, closely related, way in which the discussion of a ‘culture of violence’ is problematic is that it elides state-led policies that endorse certain kinds of violent actions—based on who is committing the violence and who the violence is committed against—rather than on the action in question.

Examples of the second would include executive policies such as a memo that authorized the use of drones to kill people who are suspected of terrorism (or having a governmental body vote in favor of a federal judgeship for the lawyer who co-authored that memo); or the actions of federal judges who exculpate police officers who shoot young black men while sentencing a political protestor to prison for elbowing a policeman for a boob grab, or a range of bills that unanimously approve the pre-emptive policing, or potential detention, or profiling and entrapment thousands of people who loosely fall into the same group as the 19 men who flew into the World Trade Center in 2001.

You get my point.

‘Culture,’ like ‘social construction,’ seems to sidestep an assumption that certain traits are permanently embedded, without confessing to that assumption. It seems that culture is most often used in 4 different ways:

1. As a marker of identity: Indian culture, Russian culture, Irish culture, etc.

2. As a comparative descriptor, such as when praising a group of people affiliated with a certain society as having superlative values: French culture, Western culture, progressive culture.

3. To ascribe ‘primitive’ or ‘regressive’ traits to a group of people who are united on the basis of some practices or beliefs or (mutual) recognition of identity: Muslim/Islamic culture, Black culture, Masculine culture, etc.

4. To describe a set of (negative) practices that people abide by or embrace (wittingly or not), and therefore become part of that group: A culture of: consumerism, rape, terrorism, narcissism, violence.

Over a decade ago, at the first philosophy conference I attended after receiving my doctorate, my excitement melted into despair as I heard the keynote speaker, a white feminist philosopher of some renown, painstakingly describe how Palestinians and other Muslim cultures were more prone to a ‘culture of terrorism’ than those in Western societies. It seemed to link violence to a population while avoiding references to biology, ontology, or nature. [Uma Narayan, Talal Asad and Edward Said have challenged such a link in their considerable writings, but to judge from its frequent invocation, it still seems to remain an easy go-to place.] And in forging this link, the keynote speaker indicated that these actions were compulsive, driven by the culture to which said people belong.

This kind of deployment of ‘culture’ is striking for its complete bifurcation from a discussion of historical, (geo)political, economic, social, legal structures: what is the history of Palestine (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, etc)? What are the material, geopolitical, social circumstances in which certain men and women engage in certain specific practices? What are the legal structures that punish certain men and women for acts of violence while retaining a blind eye towards others? How do we construe violence or terrorism, when lone individuals or groups associated with non-state entities who blow up cafes become the prime figures of terrorism (and if they survive, will most certainly face punishment at the hands of government or military forces)–while other figures–surrounded by government security personnel as they instruct others to deploy drones against certain persons in Yemen selected by a computer algorithm–are hailed as heroes and voted repeatedly back into positions of power? All this, while those who provide legal validation for such practices are elevated to the nation’s highest courts (the most recent example being, of course, David Barron)?

Such a disarticulation from a discussion of underlying structures entrenches the belief that these practices are inherent – perhaps uniquely so — to the group with whom they are associated. So, to talk of a ‘culture of violence’ suggests that there is a set of violent practices that constitute the fabric of a society, bringing that very society together as a unit, which that society (or some part at least) doesn’t necessarily question, criticize, or challenge.

That may not be the intent of using this phrase, since—in none of the above 4 senses is culture used as a factual descriptor (even when that is the intent of the speaker) but more as a rhetorical descriptor. It is always possible to falsify a statement about culture that presumes that most if not all of its people ascribe to a certain belief. Hindus are not all vegetarian; Not all feminists believe that the hijab is oppressive; Not all Muslims (women or men) believe that the hijab must be worn. The French don’t all believe in republicanism. All of these groups have internal debates about various issues, and it may be impossible without (even with) extensive surveys, to discover which part of the group practices/believes in the belief under question, and whether that part of the group constitutes a majority.

My concern with the above deployment of term ‘culture’, is that the speaker obscures the very structures that s/he claims to take into account by locating violence/narcissism/entitlement/rape in a generic culture. It is true that the phrase ‘culture’ can accurately connote a set of embedded attitudes regarding violence, rape, narcissism or consumerism. But—especially when ascribing these attitudes to a group that is already the subject of criticism—s/he connotes that the actions of these populations are driven by their culture. By ascribing certain events to a ‘culture of violence,’ I wonder if it prevents us from having a more insightful conversation about the specific elements that drive a certain event.

Let me be clear: I do NOT want to exculpate men (or women) who benefit from patriarchy, white supremacy, or other systems validating hierarchies or endorsing oppression against groups on the basis of race, gender or nationality. These are systems—grounded through laws, economic policies, geopolitical history, and social policies of rewards and benefits–which can engender acceptance about the privileges that accrue to some persons on the basis of being – say — male or white (often without regard to class), or to being middle- or upper-class white women. And while it’s possible to talk of a set of beliefs that seem to be shared by those who benefit from patriarchy or white supremacy, I think it’s much more effective and important to prioritize a focus on systems rather than culture.

A useful followup to this rumination might be to problematize the discussion of “privilege”—as in in white privilege, male privilege, etc. That will be for a future post.

The Clintons: Back on the campaign trail with the help of the New York Times

This article was published at Salon.com on December 4, 2013 under the headline, “New York Times’ blind spot on Clinton and race.”

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The New York Times published a piece this week in the service of the Democratic Party’s campaign for the 2016 elections that reveals a grave misunderstanding of recent history. Reporters Amy Chozick and Jonathan Martin profiled the tactics of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, the 42nd president of the United States, to restore their fragile relationship with African-Americans in anticipation of the former’s 2016 presidential run. The Times frames it as an attempt to “to soothe and strengthen their relationship with African-Americans,” apparently strained after Bill’s 2008 comments about the Obama presidency.

Here is the motivation they assign to the Clintons:

This task [of courting the black vote] has taken on new urgency given the Democratic Party’s push to the left, away from the centrist politics with which the Clintons are identified. Strong support from black voters could serve as a bulwark for Mrs. Clinton against a liberal primary challenge should she decide to run for president in 2016.

It would have been illuminating, and accurate as well, to distinguish between Democratic Party functionaries and Democratic voters in their description; I don’t see much in the way of Democratic politicos’ “push to the left”: NDAA 2012/2013, bank bailouts, the ACA, among other laws, don’t strike me as overly progressive.

Chozick and Martin assiduously cover the various black leaders with whom the Clintons have consorted since Hillary’s resignation as secretary of state earlier this year. Along with that coverage is a telling, if not accurate, description of Bill Clinton’s legacy, which Hillary will surely be relying on to vouch for her “progressive” credentials. Here is perhaps the most remarkable paragraph of the article:

Mr. Clinton has a rich, if occasionally fraught, history with African-Americans. He was a New South governor and a progressive on race who would eventually be called “the first black president” by the author Toni Morrison. But he infuriated blacks in 2008 when, after Mr. Obama won a big South Carolina primary victory, he seemed to dismiss the achievement by reminding the press that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had won the state twice and calling Mr. Obama’s antiwar position “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

Many African-Americans took Mr. Clinton’s fairy tale comment to mean that Mr. Obama’s candidacy itself was a hopeless fantasy.

It is true that black Americans were mightily irritated by Bill’s comments. But that’s hardly the only source of the injury.

(Un)surprisingly, even as Chozick and Martin tritely repeat Toni Morrison’s description of Clinton as the first black president, proudly repeated by Bill (and ad nauseam by mainstream media), they don’t offer any context for her remarks.

Morrison, writing in the New Yorker in 1998, was reflecting on the Republicans’ move to impeach Bill Clinton in the aftermath of revelations of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, his intern at the time. She says:

African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”

It is clear that Morrison is poetic and pained here. She analogizes the experiences faced by Clinton to those faced all too often by black men. There is much that can be said about this piece. But the cynicism of Clinton and his supporters is such that her phrase was co-opted as an endorsement of his “progressive” politics, rather than what it signaled at the very least; it is a searing insight into the inferior, abject status of black men in the United States at the end of the millennium. And here is Morrison in her own words in 2008.

But Chozick and Martin, in their own perhaps subconscious cynicism merely repeat Morrison’s endorsement and omit any discussion of Clinton’s policies during his two terms as president, or during his time as governor of Arkansas.

The first “black” president and his partner in devastation proudly designed the prototype of Clinton’s famous 1996 welfare reform bill when he was the governor of Arkansas. Women who applied for aid from the state were required, among other indignities, to name the potential fathers of their children. Yes, yes, save your objections: This policy was created to search out “deadbeat dads,” and get them to pay child support.

But somehow it never occurred to many — not the press, not white liberals, not liberal feminists, much less the Clintons (if they cared at all) — that such a reform would only be effective in further humiliating already poor women, women who, had they other options, would never have resorted to the state for help. Here’s a brilliant letter from a Seattle feminist to N.O.W. back in 2007, which sets out the various assumptions and implications of welfare reform.

The ballast for welfare reform exploited the racial antagonism against black women that was inflated and gained momentum under Ronald Reagan’s administration. But as many, from Barbara Ehrenreich to digby to Jason DeParle, point out, the Clintons and their Democratic buddies endorsed the righteous smokescreen that “workfare” was needed to teach the poor how to keep a job rather than asking for money, and to teach poor (black) women “chastity training.” Patronizing? Racist? Those words don’t even cover half of it, especially as they’re accompanied by the convenient selective amnesia about the legacy of slavery and the still-existent practice of institutional discrimination against blacks. We can see this in the history of the drug war, the prison industry, red-lining, not to mention plain old-fashioned racism as seen in our public school system, post-secondary admissions practices, and employment across multiple industries.

Hillary’s express support for welfare reform enabled Bill to get the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act passed. Peter Edelman, a senior Clinton appointee who resigned in protest of the bill, pointed out that this was the “worst thing Bill Clinton has done.” Due to the remarkable efforts of the “first black president” and his wife, and like-minded “liberals” and conservatives who believed that the poor needed to be taught to climb out of a “culture of poverty,” welfare was no longer the entitlement that it had been for decades (and should have remained as such). Rather, it was transformed into a sporadic privilege periodically and provisionally bestowed on the poor, all the while leaving millions more in poverty. As Edelman pointed out in 2011, that 1996 bill made things much worse for the poor: “There are now people who cannot find work, and who cannot get welfare.”

Needless to say, Democrats and Republicans have managed to augment, enhance, exacerbate the level of nationwide poverty through its support of banking deregulation and absence of serious sanctions for bankers and subprime mortgage companies.

When Chozick and Martin write about Bill Clinton as a “progressive on race,” I have to wonder which criteria they use to measure. They use certain famous black politicians’ comments (such as those of Democratic Rep. James Clyburn or Rep. Elijah Cummings) or public gestures (such as sitting next to “friend and rival” and former Democratic Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder at Howard University’s May 2013 commencement) at face value and out of context. To gauge race progress by which friends a white Democrat sits next to — doesn’t this strike anyone as uncomfortably close to the “Some of my best friends” cliché?

Why not consider the effects of NAFTA and WTO, which decimated the manufacturing industry that employed enormous numbers of African-Americans? Many journalists and left economists have detailed the detrimental impact of the offshoring of corporations, the forgiveness of taxes, the eradication of labor protections for foreign nationals who work at formerly American companies. Why does none of this figure into the assessment of “racial progress”? Even one paragraph might have allowed for the possibility that the Times was engaged in some critical questions about the releases and information that they were being fed by the Clinton campaign.

Why not consider the effects of the 1996 Immigration Reform Bill, which was a precursor to the enormous anti-immigration tide that has swept the country, enhanced by the right-wing and neo-patriotic impulses of both Democrats and Republicans in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks?

Why not consider the effects of the 1994 Crime Bill, which heralded in “three strikes” legislation at the federal level, also signed under the “first black president”? The expansion of the death penalty in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Death Penalty Act?

I can hear objections that Hillary should be able to run on her own record. OK, why not examine a few of her votes? Remember, it was Sen. Russ Feingold — not Sen. Clinton, or Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, or Secretary of State John Kerry — who stood up against the USA Patriot Act, as a harbinger of a (by now) vengeful, 12-year, racist and arbitrary tide of vitriol against Muslims in the U.S., Iraq, Afghanistan, U.K., Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere in the world. How about on the 2002 authorization to invade Iraq? AUMF 2005? The 2007 surge in Iraq? She voted in favor of them. To her credit, she voted against the 2008 FISA bill, citing checks on presidential authority, even as elsewhere she has been in support of increasing it. How does she feel about WikiLeaks? Edward Snowden? The death penalty (supports it, but not for Iran).

These are hardly left votes. These are hardly liberal votes. These are hardly racially progressive votes.

Let’s not judge whether someone is a “race progressive” — especially a politician — by the utterances of his/her friends. Presumably, journalists understand that the notion of an alliance does not confirm the truth of one’s race politics; it merely demonstrates that all other concerns have been provisionally subordinated in order to further one particular goal. Sure, we can call it pragmatic, strategic, realpolitik. But regardless of the term used, journalists — of all people — know that citing such alliances does not offer a valuable insight or confirmation about the truth of one’s politics.

I tell my students that if they want to write about politics effectively and forcefully, they must major in something other than journalism: history, sociology, ethnic studies, politics — something other than a field that disciplines its students to forget that accurate narratives have a long-seated, deeply buried history that cannot simply be articulated through a repetition of sound bites aired by corporate news media or covering poll results. Facts, those snippets that refer to a certain state of the world, must be assembled and grounded by searching through indirect, long-buried records that have long slipped the public (and corporate media’s) memory. Such an excavation requires the skills of an archaeologist and the critical distance of an outsider — not the propitiatory writing skills of someone familiar with the well-worn seat of an election press bus or who lunches with his subjects on a regular basis.

Of course, that assumes that establishment media such as the Times is interested in reportage from a critical perspective. Perhaps that’s the most flawed assumption of all.

Response to Responses to The Onion’s Hipster Misogyny

Singling out a young girl—a child—for that kind of treatment was gratuitous and hostile. It’s hurtful enough to hear it as a young or older woman—but by the time a young woman of color is an adult, she has already heard it: tens or hundreds—or—ouch—thousands of times.  Even Quvenzhané never hears of this tweet, she will likely hear the term directed towards her before she becomes an adult. And it will have affected her in any number of ways; perhaps her wounds will have scabbed over, only to be refreshed by each such horrific insult anew. Or maybe, it will amplify her by then–already politically and socially vulnerable existence, reinforcing a horrific message that women should be understood, not as human beings, but as sexual vehicles.

This is an excerpt that I deleted self-censored from my last piece, a critical response to the Onion tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, on the grounds that it was too pathos-laden. The editor asked if I really wanted to cut it out.  After five minutes reflection, I asked him to cut it.  On 72 hours’ reflection, perhaps I should have left it in–as a way to anticipate and meet the anger that my own outrage generated.

I was surprised that this article generated way more controversy than the previous piece that I wrote on racial double-standards.  I thought it was a kind of obvious argument for political liberals—and so must have others, because later I read similar pieces about the Onion tweet, including two cited below.  And it wasn’t just disagreement, or indifference [“Onion fatigue”—which is funny when you think about it, because presumably fatigue typically causes lethargy]—but serious heated anger.

Some wanted to point out that the Charlize Theron’s ‘mortified’ expression was ‘canned,’—as if that somehow invalidated my point about the nature of the skit or the tweet. Others wanted to teach me about racism. Others thought it was ridiculous to use Critical Race Theory to think about an Onion Tweet. Others couldn’t possibly understand how the Onion tweet was racist. Sexist maybe. Misogynist? Only if you were really sensitive. But racist? Never! After all, we’re libs/progressives and we know that racism is found in political/legal/economic structures–not in satire.

As well, there wasn’t a single interpretation about what made the tweet funny–I was given multiple–often conflicting–explanations. Ditto about what made the tweet humorless/tasteless/bad.

In the US, the term ‘cunt’ is a sexual epithet–of the most painful kind, to be sure. Does it make it automatically racial if the label is directed toward any woman of color? I don’t know.

My motivation in discussing the racial and sexual implications of the Onion tweet was this: I was surprised/upset that there was any context in which it’s okay to call a young child a cunt. At least in the context of the US, it is almost exclusively leveled at women. Many objected to my characterizing the tweet as racist: would it have been racist if it were leveled at a young white girl? Probably not, though it would still be misogynist.

But here is what I wonder: Colleagues tell me that many young—famous—girls such as the person who plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, have had their sexuality unraveled and graphically discussed. But how many young famous or otherwise–white girl-children are laughingly referred to as cunts?  Someone suggested that the same epithet would have been directed toward Shirley Temple in the 1920’s.  I can’t know for sure, but somehow I doubt it.

Others, if not livid, were puzzled that I chose to write about this tweet. But my surprise about the tweet was about a point that I found obvious and had therefore not articulated. As Roxanne Gay said eloquently, the objection is not about the Onion tweet per se, but

 the cultural disease that spawned this tweet, the one where certain people are devalued and denigrated for sport and then told to laugh it off because hey, you know, it’s humor.

But as much, my objection is about the re-iterative, intimate association between the vulgar obscene reference to this intimate/sexual/reproductive body part and Black women, for whom the association has long-standing political, historical, social, significance: as slaves who were but dehumanized/objects of pleasure for white slave-owners. Who, even post-slavery, have less recourse to sexual and political and economic justice—because on the continuum of sexual justice, they fall way below in terms of so many gauges: protection from rape in courts as well as in prison, where so many poor Black women are incarcerated; access to reproductive justice is much more limited for women of color, especially if they are poor; associations with women in power rather than as (single) mothers, nannies, etc. are also extremely limited in media and entertainment.

In large part, this is because Black women are considered still–still–sexually promiscuous beings [through denigrated discourses about welfare, having too many children, lack of moral awareness].  In this case, the term ‘cunt’ is being used in reference to someone whose gender/racial identity overlaps with those who descend from Black women slaves, whose bodies were used as sexual vehicles—forcefully, coercively (even consent isn’t truly consent under slavery—we know that).  There is a long history and ample literature about the continual re-iteration of the sexual objectification of the bodies of Black women.  And context—and consciousness—about this history (even when deeply buried), doesn’t (pdf) disappear quite so quickly. I daresay this is why Blacks—among other populations– worldwide are still politically, socially, denigrated and subjected to dehumanized treatment.

Part of my concern was expressed by this writer:

The underlying assumption is that folks who are outraged about the Onion’s tweet are not also vocally opposed to state-sponsored violence. It’s a snarky way to belittle the justified anger that people were feeling about the Onion’s actions. It also assumes an inability to hold at least two thoughts in one’s mind at once.

The rest of the piece is as poignant and speaks to the concern that underlies the critical comments about the tweet.

Was the Onion tweet so significant? More significant than, say, massive incarceration of Black men through Drug wars? The unjust imprisonment of Black and Latina women? More important than other forms of institutional injustice? Larger than the injustice of a flawed judicial system? The death penalty? Drones? Renditions? Torture? CIA Black Sites? Pre-emptive Detention? OLC White Papers? The Supreme Court’s dismissal of FISA in the Clapper v Amnesty case?  Aren’t these the real issues? The serious issues?

Why must we make the comparison? Can’t, shouldn’t, we resist both? Is it so difficult to allow that the general cultural and social psyche that facilitates the acceptance and casual dismissal of the Onion tweet is part and parcel of a political and legal context in which the status of Black women (and men) is that of sub-persons, as Charles Mills describes in his book, The Racial Contract? That Black women were neither the explicit focus of the 13th Amendment (for emancipation), nor the 15th Amendment (Black suffrage), nor the 19th Amendment (for ‘women’s’ suffrage)?

Is it that outrageous to consider that the attitudes towards people of color, as expressed casually in a satirical tweet is connected to the absence of empathy towards people of color in a variety of other dehumanizing situations—such as all of those listed above?

Many theorists and writers and activists have expressed the connections between material and legal circumstances and the psyche. Alienation is, among other things, the forced disconnect between one’s material conditions and self-understanding. How does one begin to participate in resistance to injustice—except through empathy? It seems that empathy is the place to begin the challenge to legal, political, material denigration.

That is why, I think, we must consider these links—as trivial, as ‘pc,’ as trite, as they may seem.  As importantly, I think this is so for those of us who argue and write about more lofty topics: how we can expect empathy for Black and Brown folks internationally, who are daily assaulted through US-led unjust practices in the name of the War on Terror, when we are unable to muster empathy for US—vulnerable, dehumanized, minority populations who suffer—not just serious political and legal injustices—but the casual denigrated—satirical–reference or treatment as sub-persons?

I think there’s another element here, as well: Quvenzhané is a young Black child. She is hardly threatening, but also considered barely worthy of serious awe or respect—in part because of her youth, in part because of the lack of any formal political status.  It makes it easier to have her be the stand-in to denigrate someone in a humorous context.

But that should also be part of what makes her off-limits for such references: youth, vulnerability, and absence of a legal status of her own.  While I wasn’t a huge fan of the film in which she acted, I thought she was a remarkable actress, especially given her youth. I wish for her achievement to stand without taint.

Maybe it’s just me. But I cannot imagine the Onion making a similar comment about Michelle Obama. Not just because she is FLOTUS and the FBI/DHS/CIA will all come after you for doing so (“Drones! You won’t even know what hit you.”), but because she is considered to be plenty worthy of respect–or least, unworthy of sexual denigration/satire/humor. Ditto the late former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, or Condoleeza Rice, the former Secretary of State under the Bush Administration, or Hillary Clinton, the current Secretary of State?  They are all women whose are either deeply loved or deeply despised.  Yet, I can’t imagine such things because they are so worthy of a sexual (and in several cases) racial hands-offness.  To denigrate them with that kind of a satirical reference would be considered beyond the pale. In part, I think this is because—they are considered worthy of respect in regard to “that” aspect of their personas.  But maybe that’s just me.

Racial Profiling, Islamophobia, and Whistleblowers: Targeting the Unruly Threat

Revised (11:05 am/Feb. 18, 2013).

I’ve been dithering about writing this column for a while. But my Twitter feed in the wake of today’s “Up with Chris” segment about U.S. Air Force veteran Saddiq Long, an African American Muslim who has been placed on the TSA’s no-fly list in both directions, tells me it’s time.

Categorical distinctions are thought to be the cornerstone of philosophy. But there are sometimes important reasons to challenge distinctions, especially when they cleanse reality of important political implications.  Example 1: The CIA didn’t torture detainees. They used “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

As many social science and humanities scholars write, race is not biological, or physical, or about phenotype. Rather, it is ‘socially constructed,’ a once-promising notion that is now stultifying. In part, the ‘social construction’ trope is troubling because it seems to quell further curiosity about what to do with this thing (race) that doesn’t seem to have an objective basis, but which is still very real for many people. There is also the concern, which I share, that the term ‘racism’–or its counterpart, “White Supremacy”—does not address the reality that persecution, harassment, and exploitation isn’t just limited to darker people. I agree: exploitation, persecution, harassment certainly extends to poor whites and sexual minorities, and other marginalized groups—like Muslims of various backgrounds. White Supremacy also seems to ignore that people of color—like Condoleezza Rice, John Yoo, Alberto Gonzalez, Eric Holder, Carmen Ortiz…and yes—President Barack Obama can be actively involved in spearheading racism, exploitation, and persecution against people of color, among others.

Certainly, nothing here can annul the urgency of acknowledging class exploitation and marginalization of various populations. As Prof. Dylan Rodriguez and others, including myself, have discussed elsewhere, White Supremacy can be multiracial.

But there is another lens by which to view the exploitation, marginalization, harassment of various populations throughout the centuries: black, Muslim, brown, poor white, various women, sexual minorities. In that framework, ‘race’ isn’t the foundation, but the effect, of harassment. Race is about power as deployed against the vulnerable, the (much) less powerful, the scary threat.

On my Twitter feed, some disagreed with my insistence that racial profiling (as found in WoT-era policies) are not just randomly directed towards Muslims. Some wanted to insist that the same policies could easily be redirected towards whites, or that it’s a matter of coincidence that darker Muslims– not whites–are being targeted. In fact, the argument that some civil liberties proponents give for being concerned about the extrajudicial and undue profiling of Muslims—is that such policies could easily be extended to whites. Others pointed out that there are white men and women who have also been placed on various watch lists: Jesselyn Radack and late Sen. Ted Kennedy, among others. True. We can safely guess that Julian Assange and Bradley Manning have also been placed on those lists.

Others wanted to insist that because religion and race are distinct categories, “religious profiling” should be distinguished from “racial profiling.” Yet others insisted that Muslims should be profiled because ‘most terrorist acts are committed by Muslims.’  Nope. Not even if you don’t quibble with the definition of terrorism. Also not if you look at the demographics of mass murders, committed with the intent to terrorize some population.

According to Mother Jones, 44 of the last 62 mass shootings since 1982 have been committed by white men. According to UNC sociologist Charles Kurzman’s report, “Muslim-American Terrorism in the decade since 9/11,” Muslim terrorism is a negligible threat: 14,000 murders were committed in 2012 alone. Yet, fewer than 20 Muslims have been indicted annually since 9/11. Between 2000-3000 Pakistanis have been killed by U.S. drones in the last 9 years, although only 900 are defined as non-combatants. Over 114,000 Iraqi civilians have died under the false pretenses by which the US invaded Iraq in 2003. Hundreds of Muslim men have been rendered and tortured at CIA black sites.  U.S.-led terrorism is rampant.

‘Racial profiling’ (as seen in US counter-terrorism policies as well as immigration-regulation and drug wars,) does accord with certain populations being targeted: darker Muslims, African Americans, Latin@s, (Muslim and non-Muslim South Asians and Arabs, Iranians, Palestinians).  Policies like TSA watch and no-fly lists also include some relatively upper-class whites who used to work for the CIA or NSA.

Obviously, we don’t identify all these groups as “races,” per se. Some are ‘religious,’ ethnic, sexual, national, cultural, or class-based groups.  Yet, most of us would be hard-pressed to disagree that under the War on Terror, those groups are more often profiled—for any number of dubious reasons. But these reasons remain largely unknown. As attorney Gadeir Abbas said about Saddiq Long, the reasons he is on the no-fly list are known only to the FBI and God.

So what do they all have in common?  They are perceived as unruly threats. Some might have customs that are hated or feared (being visibly Muslim or not ‘generically’ American). They might have accents, appearances and comportment that the population has been taught to fear (dark skin, hoodies, baggy low-hanging jeans, beards, turbans, hijabs).  Or they are unruly because they criticize/challenge the state (as do dissenters and whistleblowers).

Criminalizing the unruly publicly (and under the pretense of public safety/national security) “clarifies” the good guy-bad guy distinction. It also perpetuates the stigmas that made them vulnerable and hated in the first place.  Which makes them even more vulnerable being kicked outside the gates of the city, so to speak. But look on the bright side: at least this way, the “patriots” know exactly where to stand. Behind the state.

There is little random about this. Those who are stigmatized or feared or hated are likely to be targeted. Those who are wealthy are less likely to be targeted. Those who vociferously champion or parrot the state’s policies are less likely to be targeted. Those who have powerful political connections are less likely to be targeted.

There is nothing universal about this—not all people are equally vulnerable at any given time.  Dick Cheney is hardly about to be placed on the TSA’s watch/no-fly list. And if he is, as Sen. Ted Kennedy was, it will be loudly and publicly announced as an error. Some whites will be vulnerable—if they are critical enough and loud enough for the state to hear. If they are poor. If they are part of a stigmatized group. Most whites don’t need to fear. Ditto for many (not all) wealthy brown and black people who closely conform to a generic, non-threatening, stereotype of “American.”

Racialization is the effect, not the cause, of stigma, vulnerability, and state-led targeting of unruly peoples/groups. Most often, groups are vulnerable because of their darkness or foreignness or relative poverty. We have seen the pattern of targeting the unruly threat over and over again: Enslavement of West Africans; Jim Crow; one-drop rules; Chinese Exclusion in the 19th century; the internment of Japanese migrants and Japanese-Americans in the 1940’s; the criminalizing of protesters through the second half of the 20th century; drug wars; the War on Terror.  But also vulnerable are those who can encourage the public to question the state or other authorities.  Think Socrates, Rosa Luxembourg, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Or white or upper-class whistleblowers and political dissenters such as Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.

There is little accidental about these events, except the precise event that will precipitate the fear, and thereby ‘compel’ the state to clamp down and tame the ‘threat.’

What does all of this have to do with Saddiq Long? Was he placed on the no-fly list because he is African American? Because he embraced Islam? Because he decided to make his post-Air Force life in the Middle East? Probably all of those are relevant to his stigmatization and political vulnerability. Would he still be on the no-fly list if he weren’t Muslim? If he were white?  I don’t know.

But I doubt that “religious profiling” is different from racial profiling in this context.  Among other reasons, those who fear Muslims don’t know jack about Islam; but they do know that they despise what Muslims supposedly represent. If we understand racialization as the systematic attempt to humiliate, dehumanize, and marginalize those who (baselessly) signify a threat to–a state or another population, then race is about the kind of persecution that applies to a range of populations across a range of situations. And it is also possible to understand how a multi-racial White Supremacy is possible.

It makes sense to point to the overlap between GWoT policies and the racial profiling of certain groups. But race doesn’t always pertain to the 3—or 5—or 7—or 42—‘races.’ Rather it points to those who are seen as unruly threats who are vulnerable to the state’s wrath. And that unruliness is hardly accidental or random.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Advantages of Not Being Female, Muslim, or Black*

What I do know is that nothing in the world can justify a man being thus thrown to the dogs.

–Bernard Henri-Levy on the unjust treatment of his friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn

Monday evening, in Manhattan, a private settlement was reached between Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund and one-time French presidential hopeful, and Nafitassou Diallo, a Guinean migrant and part of the housekeeping staff at the NY Sofitel hotel where DSK stayed. There is no word on the amount of the settlement, which marked an acrid public debate about how badly DSK was treated, even though Diallo had charged DSK with sexual assault in March 2011.

In a lame attempt to dilute the gravity of the charges DSK admitted that he had made an “error” and had engaged in a “moral failure,” while avoiding an admission of sexual assault.  By contrast, Diallo had her credibility questioned repeatedly and her words recorded and distorted.

While the French newspapers are dutifully reporting the settlement, their tone is in stark contrast to the outrage and shock that the French media and intelligentsia expressed at the horrific treatment received by one of the foremost political elites of Europe. Strauss-Kahn was a player “extraordinaire”: Charming, elegant, eloquent, and capable of holding his own among the world’s power players. Why, my fellow philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy asked, would DSK be treated so badly when the charges were clearly fabricated?

What I do know is that nothing in the world can justify a man being thus thrown to the dogs.

What I know is that nothing, no suspicion whatever (for let’s remind ourselves that, as I write these lines, we are dealing only with suspicions!), permits the entire world to revel in the spectacle, this morning, of this handcuffed figure, his features blurred by 30 hours of detention and questioning, but still proud.

What I know as well is that nothing, no earthly law, should also allow another woman, his wife, admirable in her love and courage, to be exposed to the slime of a public opinion drunk on salacious gossip and driven by who knows what obscure vengeance.

And what I know even more is that the Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere.

Poor DSK. The treatment he received was horrible. Here is how they mistreated him: they publicly apprehended DSK at New York’s JFK airport, forced him to do a “perp” walk in front of a gaggle of reporters, required him to stay in a NYC prison over the weekend until he was publicly arraigned at a Manhattan criminal court. He was…treated…as suspects were often treated in the pre-9/11 days: as a suspect who would eventually receive his day in court. And eventually the charges against him were dropped, proving further to the French that he was unjustly treated.

Perhaps the treatment of DSK should be compared to that treatment to that meted to Jose Padilla, deemed an enemy combatant in the early years of the war on terror, as described by the ACLU yesterday, as his mother brings a human rights case at an International human rights tribunal to protest her son’s treatment:

In 2002, President Bush declared Padilla an “enemy combatant” and ordered him to be placed in military custody. U.S. officials seized Padilla from a civilian jail in New York and secretly transported him to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., where they held him for 43 months without charge. Interrogators subjected Padilla to torture and other egregious forms of abuse, including forcing him into stress positions for hours on end, punching him, depriving him of sleep and threatening him with further torture, “extraordinary rendition” and death.

Doesn’t quite seem parallel. Perhaps DSK’s treatment resonates with that of Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, who was intercepted at JFK on his way back from a family trip to Tunis, and rendered “off-site” for torture. For no apparent reason besides being Middle Eastern:

We went into the basement, and they opened a door, and I looked in. I could not believe what I saw. I asked how long I would be kept in this place. He did not answer, but put me in and closed the door. It was like a grave. It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep. It was seven feet high. It had a metal door, with a small opening in the door, which did not let in light because there was a piece of metal on the outside for sliding things into the cell.There was a small opening in the ceiling, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was another ceiling, so only a little light came through this.

There were cats and rats up there, and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell. There were two blankets, two dishes and two bottles. One bottle was for water and the other one was used for urinating during the night. Nothing else. No light.

I spent 10 months, and 10 days inside that grave.

The next day I was taken upstairs again. The beating started that day and was very intense for a week, and then less intense for another week. That second and the third days were the worst.  I could hear other prisoners being tortured, and screaming and screaming. Interrogations are carried out in different rooms…

The cable is a black electrical cable, about two inches thick. They hit me with it everywhere on my body.  They mostly aimed for my palms, but sometimes missed and hit my wrists — they were sore and red for three weeks. They also struck me on my hips, and lower back. Interrogators constantly threatened me with the metal chair, tire and electric shocks. The tire is used to restrain prisoners while they torture them with beating on the sole of their feet. I guess I was lucky, because they put me in the tire, but only as a threat.

I was not beaten while in tire. They used the cable on the second and third day, and after that mostly beat me with their hands, hitting me in the stomach and on the back of my neck, and slapping me on the face.  Where they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleeding. At the end of the day, they told me tomorrow would be worse. So I could not sleep.  Then on the third day, the interrogation lasted about 18 hours. They beat me from time to time and make me wait in the waiting room for one to two hours before resuming the interrogation.

Maher Arar was finally released and allowed to return to Canada over 1 year and 10 months later. He has never been given an explanation for his treatment. Nor an apology from the U.S. government. Nor a visa to enter the U.S.

BHL’s words, in the epigraph above, echo as I reread this description of Maher Arar.  But apparently it can be justified–in the same breath as acknowledging that it is immoral. Two days ago, I had an exchange on Twitter about precisely this, even as my interlocutor agreed that torture was immoral.

But I don’t hear my dear colleague BHL exclaiming outrage about the latter cases. Why are earth-shattering screams of outrage only provoked when white elites such as DSK are thought to be badly treated? Why do we hear only mind-numbing silence when Jose Padilla, Maher Arar, Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna—dark, Muslim, non-elite men–are held, detained indefinitely without charges, put in solitary confinement for months and years, beaten with cables, and tortured otherwise? Why do we hear only smug justifications when the US kills US citizens and Muslims such as Anwar Al-Awlaki and, two weeks later, murders his 16 year-old US citizen son, Abdulrahman?  Where are BHL’s protests when African American woman are sentenced to a life in prison for a drug crime that they did not commit? Why do we hear little outcry from BHL and his colleagues when Muslim women in the UK are charged with terrorism for possessing an “Al-Qaeda magazine”?

Perhaps part of the answer can be found here:

“He was arrested just hours before the meeting during which he would face a more orthodox German chancellor to plead the cause of a country, Greece, that he believed could be brought back to order without being brought to its knees. His defeat would also be that of this great cause. It would be a disaster for this entire part of Europe and of the world, because the IMF, under his leadership and for the first time in its history, did not intend to sell out to the superior interests of Finance. And that would really be a dreadful sign.”

The horror then is that someone of such prestige, such wealth, such importance, was having his honor questioned by…a…gasp …“chambermaid” with whom “he had a quick tumble.”  There are virtually no references in the French context to the race of the “chambermaid,” or to that of the former head of the IMF.  But that is not surprising in a nation that still has no official statistics on race, nearly half a century after moving away from its colonial past: This is the French’s version of anti-racism, similar to the American liberal view of “colorblindness.” That is to say, if we don’t name it, then we can pretend it doesn’t exist…or that it will just go away.

As interesting, story after story came out about DSK’s “exploits,” (as if such a casual term could possibly describe what was slowly emerging as a history of sexual assault)—all of which were summarily dismissed by…French elites, prosecutors, philosophers. The regressive attitude toward sexual assault could be seen in the description of the tumble with the chambermaid, and in some of the following stories that soon came to light:

Tristane Banon, DSK’s step-daughter accused of DSK of having attacked her years before, describing him as a rutting chimpanzee. To bring out this accusation when she did suggests that it was hardly a spontaneous act of the imagination. But even then, DSK’s staunch defender BHL stopped at little: accusing DSK’s step-goddaughter of pulling out all an “eight-year” old accusation of attempted rape because of a “golden” opportunity. And what kind of opportunity was this, one might wonder? To accuse one’s family member of rape in public, after years?

And there were other accusations as well—certainly not legal accusations, but rumors of DSK’s sexually coercive exploits, which had floated about France for years. We can be skeptical of them, but it becomes more and more difficult to cast them off when the rumors and incidences and alleged victims multiply.

There are several lessons to be learned here:

1)    the sexuality of working-class, poor, and migrant women of color will always be under more suspicion than the coercive tendencies of the upper-class men who are accused of assaulting them.

2)    When those accusations are corroborated through the stories of other women, the falsely reviled sexual assault victim will rarely, if ever, receive an apology from those who cast aspersions on her to begin with. At least, I think so. Right, Bernie?

3)    The outrage and shock over the simple procedural treatment of upper-class men accused of sexual crimes will be loud and shrill–even in the face of plausible evidence.

4)  The horrendous treatment of Muslim men and women, of Black men and women, will be casually accepted worldwide–even in the face of no evidence whatsoever. And it will be augmented by near silence or smug righteousness.

I can only take a bit of comfort as a settlement was reached between DSK and Diallo, that some tiny little justice was served, even in the face of enormous, unconscionable, gaping injustices for other men and women of color in the US and around the world.

Yet, we can rest assured that upper-class elite white men, like their predecessors, will always be excused from being accountable for crimes they may have committed, while men and women of color and their communities will—for the foreseeable future–have to pay for crimes that they will never commit.

_____________________________

*Corrected Title. This post has been updated and revised.

Fear and Loathing of and by Brown People: Let’s Remember Our Histories

Yesterday, I received this message on a list of family friends and relatives who would self-identify as Indian. The email, which was in 24 point font, replete with a (different) picture of Julia Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister, who supposedly said these things, and an emblem of the United States flag, waving, at the bottom of the missive.

BRAVO!

W O W ! She Did It Again!!!Australia says NO — This will be the second Time Julia Gillard has done this!

She sure isn’t backing down on her hard line stance and one has to appreciate her belief in the rights of her native countrymen.


A breath of fresh air to see someone lead. Australian Prime Minister does it again!!


The whole world needs a leader like this!

Prime Minister Julia Gillard – Australia


Muslims who want to live under Islamic Sharia law were told on Wednesday to get out of Australia, as the government targeted radicals in a bid to head off potential terror attacks.


Separately, Gillard angered some Australian Muslims on Wednesday by saying she supported spy agencies monitoring the nation’s mosques. Quote: ‘IMMIGRANTS, NOT AUSTRALIANS, MUST ADAPT… Take It Or Leave It. I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture. Since the terrorist attacks on Bali , we have experienced a surge in patriotism by the majority of Australians.’


‘This culture has been developed over two centuries of struggles, trials and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom.’


‘We speak mainly ENGLISH, not Spanish, Lebanese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language. Therefore, if you wish to become part of our society, learn the language!’


‘Most Australians believe in God. This is not some Christian, right wing, political push, but a fact, because Christian men and women, on Christian principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools. If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture.’


‘We will accept your beliefs, and will not question why. All we ask is that you accept ours, and live in harmony and peaceful enjoyment with us.’


‘This is OUR COUNTRY, OUR LAND, and OUR LIFESTYLE, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about Our Flag, Our Pledge, Our Christian beliefs, or Our Way of Life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great Australian freedom, ‘THE RIGHT TO LEAVE’.’


‘If you aren’t happy here then LEAVE. We didn’t force you to come here. You asked to be here. So accept the country YOU accepted.’


NOTE:
IF we circulate this amongst ourselves in Canada & USA , WE will find the courage to start speaking and voicing the same truths.

If you agree please SEND THIS ON
and ON, to as many people as you know…

I have received many of these emails before, but for the sake of keeping peace, I have ignored them. But in the last 11 days, there have been eight (8) attacks on religious centers: 1 on the gurdwara in Oak Creek and 7 on mosques around the United States. I am unable to ignore this email.

I am reminded of the admonition made by Rinku Sen in the aftermath of the Oak Creek gurdwara shootings. Sen urged her white friends to “make a fuss, cause a family crisis, become unpopular, speak up” in the face of such statements about foreigners. And even though Sen addressed this to her white friends, I think the same message applies to folks like myself. And like Samita Mukhopadhyay, whose poignant column about her mother’s response to the Oak Creek shootings, I hope we can find the right response.

I grew up in this country surrounded mostly by whites, and very few South Asians. Maybe it explains something, maybe nothing. But it means that I often see the world through the eyes of someone who was bullied and teased mercilessly—for what? At the time, I thought it was because I was so ugly, with my long coconut-oiled hair, thick-framed glasses, unfashionable Sears polo shirts and ill-fitting purple pants—because that’s what they made fun of. I thought it was because my mother didn’t know better than to wear a sari and dot on her forehead, and a nose ring in public—because that’s what they made fun of. I thought it was because my mother refused to let me go to classmates’ houses after school until first coming home so that she could see that I was safe. I thought it was because I deserved it.

It wasn’t until a decade later, when recounting these stories to a grad-school roommate who tilted her head and looked at me quizzically and asked, “You do realize that you were the target of racism, right?” that I realized those stories for what they were.

The above speech can not be attributed to Julia Gillard. It is a chain letter that has been circulating for two years. Whether she harbors similar sentiments, even under the Labor Party, I’ll write about in a future post. But let’s pretend, for a short moment, that there really was someone, akin to the Australian Prime Minister—we’ll call her the Ghost Minister–who said this:

This culture has been developed over two centuries of struggles, trials and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom.

Which culture might the Ghost Minister be referring to? Would it be the culture of prisoners and convicts who were sent to Australia to live out their penance far away from the “civilized shores of England?” Would it be the culture that assumed that Australia was “terra nullius,” an empty land, even though it was inhabited by many indigenous tribes, who were conquered and quarantined by the whites who were shunned by their own English countrymen?

Muslims who want to live under Islamic Sharia law were told on Wednesday to get out of Australia

Does the Ghost Minister know what Sharia Law is? It is not the fundamentalist law publicized by the fear-mongering media and Christian fundamentalists (who would like their own fundamentalist laws imposed upon all of us, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs). As Yale professor of Religious Studies Eliyahu Stern tells us in the New York Times that the efforts to outlaw Sharia Law in the United States

would curtail Muslims from settling disputes over dietary laws and marriage through religious arbitration, while others would go even further in stigmatizing Islamic life.
 

South Asian Hindus have long understood what it means to have a foreign state authority curtail their practices, since they remember when British colonial authorities imposed restrictions on whether women could wear saris without blouses in public, or which religious practices are acceptable.

Similarly, Sharia law reflects precepts that have to do with daily life. How would vegetarian Hindus understand a mandate that they MUST eat meat to supplement the protein in their diets–except as a disciplining and show of state power (and as I write this, I’m reminded of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s restrictions on sodas larger than 16 ounces)?

In France, several months ago, Marine Le Pen, the right-wing candidate for President, started a huge public furor by charging that French public schools, which served lunch daily, were serving Halal meat! Egads! Halal meat is meat that has been produced under Islamic dietary strictures that symbolize hygiene and purity.

Then President Sarko, in a fight to keep his seat, initially refused to be baited, but ultimately rose to Le Pen’s challenge by vowing to look into the matter and ridding the schools of Halal meat. Let us suppose the charge was true (it was never proven to be so). Why, then, did the French state—or at least scions of authority such as LePen and Sarko care? Were they concerned that ingesting halal meat would suddenly produce hordes of young white French Muslims spouting the Qu’ran? Hardly. Perhaps as animal rights activists have suggested, it is a crueler method of slaughtering animals for meat, since it bans the stunning of animals before slaughter, and it bothered Sarko and Le Pen. Sarkozy and Le Pen: Animal-rights activists? I think not.

Rather, it was because Muslim-baiting has become a popular pastime in France, along with virulent xenophobia and anti-immigration jousting. And Sarko lost anyway (only to be succeeded by Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate and a supposedly kinder, lefter guy who’s turning out to be pretty authoritarian himself). Let that be a lesson to…the American voter.

Why would it be acceptable to impose dietary or marriage restrictions on Muslims’ religious laws? These are private matters every bit as much as Hindu religious law is. Unlike the misperception in the bill passed in the Tennessee General Assembly, Sharia law is not something that Muslims want to impose on the larger public. Nor is Sharia Law “a set of rules that promote ‘the destruction of the national existence of the United States,’” as Stern states. He continues:

This is exactly wrong. The crusade against Shariah undermines American democracy, ignores our country’s successful history of religious tolerance and assimilation, and creates a dangerous divide between America and its fastest-growing religious minority.
 
The suggestion that Shariah threatens American security is disturbingly reminiscent of the accusation, in 19th-century Europe, that Jewish religious law was seditious. In 1807, Napoleon convened an assembly of rabbinic authorities to address the question of whether Jewish law prevented Jews from being loyal citizens of the republic. (They said that it did not.)
 

To be fair, the misperception of Sharia Law is widespread. At dinner some months ago with otherwise erudite white American friends, I found myself having to rebuff their kneejerk scorn of Sharia by sharing a story that I heard at a philosophy conference some years ago. It was told by a young white Canadian lawyer who represented a Muslim woman in her divorce proceedings. As the lawyer pointed out Canadian courts, like American courts, only recognize written contracts. This fact made it difficult for her client to obtain compensation as promised by her ex-husband’s family, because it was an oral promise cemented by an imam, and therefore unenforceable in a Canadian court. By convincing the Canadian court to recognize Sharia, her client was able to obtain what was due her.

Sadakat Kadri, author of a book that explores both the hard-line and more flexible interpretations of Sharia, speculates upon the mad fear of Sharia Law in the United States:

It’s crazy, basically. It’s this idea that Shariah is some kind of movement to take over the United States or a conspiracy to overturn American freedoms. That isn’t what Shariah is. There are certainly hard-line interpretations of Islamic law. But these measures don’t even claim to restrict themselves to that. They claim to prevent the courts from taking any account at all of the Shariah, which potentially means that a court can’t, for example, take account of someone’s will. If someone says they want to be buried according to Muslim rituals laid down in the Shariah, a court would theoretically not be able to take account of that. And, of course, it’s possible to say, ‘That’s not what the law’s aimed at. The law’s aimed at something very different.’ But as everyone should know by now, liberties begin to erode when you have laws that are too widely drawn.
 

According to Dwight Garner, who has a review of Kadri’s book in this past Sunday’s New York Times:

In [Kadri’s] reading of the Shariah, he finds rationality and flexibility. His argument is with recent hard-liners who, he writes, “have turned Islamic penal history on its head.”
He is furious that fundamentalists “have associated the Shariah in many people’s minds with some of the deadliest legal systems on the planet.” He calls them traditionalists who ignore tradition. He is disgusted that warped opinions “are mouthed today to validate murder after murder in Islam’s name.
 

It is the misperceptions of Muslims, Sharia, and the outrageous framing of all Muslims as reflecting zealotry and fundamentalism that lead to events like seven mosque attacks in the United States in last 10 days– in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

To my fellow Indians: Does any of this remind you about the stories of British colonialism in India? Do you remember your mothers’ and grandmothers’ stories of how the British whipped, mutilated, and maimed Indians for not obeying their orders? Does anyone remember the Lahore Lynchings of 1915, a mass spectacle designed by the British colonial authority to warn Indians against further thought of self-rule? Although 24 Indians were scheduled to hang that day, the sentences of 17 were commuted— 7 men were still killed as a warning to others who wanted self-rule.

You must remember the mass hatred incited by India’s political elites, pitting Muslims against Hindus and Hindus against Muslims—I’m sure—because through my mother’s stories and the histories I’ve read—I do, and I wasn’t even there.

I remember my mother’s stories of being turned away from job interviews in the United States because she wore a sari thinking it was the most formal outfit she could wear for such a serious occasion. I remember her pink polyester suit, bought for subsequent interviews, because she felt it would be disrespectful to show her legs at work.

I remember my mother’s humiliation at having insults hurled at her in the 1980’s by ignorant young and old white men who proudly called themselves “Dotbusters.” These racist men told her to “go back to her country,” even though she had lived faithfully by the laws of the United States for twenty-five years.

Don’t you remember similar stories of hate directed against your mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts? The British, the Australians, the Americans, The French—and many others engaged in similar acts of savagery condoned by their own governments. Did our mothers and fathers and families deserve this? Certainly mine did not.

Many whites may not see Muslims as deserving of respect and civility. But you can bet that they don’t see me or my family (or yours) as deserving respect and civility either. They don’t care whether you are Muslim or not. They see you, a Hindu, and “them” (Muslims) as one and the same: a brown person who doesn’t speak English (even if you do), or who speaks English with an accent (if you don’t).

I know the stories of Sikhs men who immigrated to California in the early 1900’s. They were harassed, beaten, arrested, and deported, because they were subject to hatred by whites and fear that they were taking away jobs and lowering wages. I have been told of the harassment that Indians were subject to by the British for wanting Self-rule. And I know that the hate-filled curses that were directed against Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims had little to do with whether they “deserved” it, and everything to do with the American and British fear and loathing of Indians.

The Ghost Minister wants everyone to speak English, and not “Spanish, Lebanese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language.” This message has been delivered before, and there is plenty of literature out there to refute it, so I won’t do it here. Suffice it to say that not speaking the language of the land inconveniences no one—except perhaps, the migrant. But it engenders hostility aplenty for reasons that have little to do with the difficulties of language: because it reminds the speaker that he too is merely a traveler on this land, which was taken away from the indigenous, from others, so that he too could grow up on this soil and profess his anger at those who want to live alongside him without succumbing to his norms, his religion, his practices—without succumbing to his demands.

Joining whites in a campaign of racism against Muslims will not garner us, as South Asians, as Indians, as Hindus, respect by those same whites. What I know is that that hatred against Muslims is not warranted. Every single religious group, whether Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, or Jews, has a wing of believers who are militant or radical. But the few don’t speak for the rest of their group, the many who are peace-loving and moderate. By joining in the hatred against another minority group, we betray the innocent, and increase the general hostility towards all minority groups, including our own.

It’s time to stand up to the ignorant bullies, whether American, British, or Australian, or French, or German. It turns out that the above remarks cannot be attributed to Julia Gillard. Still, I don’t doubt that they have been uttered aloud in many places in the world by whites, whose ancestors have been in that country for fewer than 200 years. And I don’t doubt that they will be used again—if not against Muslims, then against you and against me. Isn’t it time to stop standing with racists to harass others who, but for their turbans, beards, hijabs–but for their background—are just like us?

Race, Murder, and Mayhem in America: Considering the Links

Glenn Greenwald is right to be skeptical of any direct causal links between the horrific events such as the Sikh Temple Massacre or the Joplin Mosque and US foreign policy. As he pointed out yesterday,

there are usually a diverse array of complex motives (psychological, emotional, ideological, religious) that drive individuals to engage in violence of this sort, and an equally diverse list of complex causes (legislative, political, cultural) as to why our society fosters and enables it.

And to be fair, most white men who have grown up in the shadow of 9-11 do not shoot up theaters and temples or burn down mosques. But I want to try to be clearer about the links that I’m trying to argue for:

Dylan Rodrigues, a scholar in Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside and author of a great book on Black Radicals in prison, has argued that we need to pay attention to the parallels between the massive numbers of Black and Latino men who are in prison, and our tendencies to incarcerate Muslim men in Guantanamo, or Abu Ghraib. These parallels can alert us to a certain carceral mentality that is mirrored in a country’s international and domestic policies. A number of philosophers and sociologists have argued along similar lines, including Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, and Loiç Wacquant.

Similarly, in my last post and a number of others, that is what I’ve tried to argue that we need to consider: when Dharun Ravi sets up a camera to spy on his gay roommate’s trysts, or Wade Michael Page shoots up a Sikh temple, when US soldiers rape Iraqi women, urinate on dead bodies, and shoot civilians in cold blood in Iraq, we need to move beyond the level of shock and start thinking about the larger political and legal and cultural mentalities in which these events happen.

In particular, we live in a country in which the federal office that oversees the strict regulation of immigrants, visitors, and—yes—citizens, guards the homefront through border security, pre-emptive policing of people’s social, political and financial activity, their emails and phone calls, i.e., “counterterrorism.” That office, ceremoniously renamed the Department of Homeland Security six months after September 11, 2001, is an ostentatious chest-beating symbol of waging a war on “threats to national security.”

In the name of Homeland Security—a hallowed reference to Nazi Germany’s urge to purify their own “heimat”–we have seen the prevalence of United States’ domestic and foreign policies: state-led surveillance of its own people, of the decision to harass foreigners until they leave, i.e., “self-deportation,” of Muslim communities, to incarcerate Muslim men without habeas corpus or a serious legal defense, to outlaw political protest, to give the U.S. president full authority to assassinate and incarcerate “terrorists,” and to the fact of state-led mass destruction in the form of drones, rockets, bombs, chemical warfare and guns?

Why then, talk about white supremactists as if they are loners or part of private gangs? Shouldn’t we remember the US’ emphasis on the Homeland when we watch these shootings and mosque-burnings? When we see images of war and strife in the Middle East? Is it such a strange leap to think of US domestic and foreign policy as part of white supremacist, racial contract, as political philosopher Charles Mills argues (read his book for more on this; it’s clearly written, even for non-philosophers)?

As Greenwald says:

A country which venerates its military above all other institutions, which demands that its soldiers be spoken of only with religious-like worship, and which continuously indoctrinates its population to believe that endless violence against numerous countries is necessary and just — all by instilling intense fear of the minorities who are the target of that endless violence — will be a country filled with citizens convinced of the virtues and nobility of aggression. (the links are in his original piece).

He’s right. I think there’s something else going on as well. At the risk of stating the ridiculously obvious, we live in a country (and still at a time) that has a very difficult time with race politics: And it’s not merely about racial antagonisms having to do with Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis or South Asians and Arabs generally. It has to do with racial hostilities that are legislated against Latinos and Blacks (and by this term, I include all folks who are the victim of anti-black racism, not just African Americans)—and Americans turning a blind eye to these hostilities that are waged against black and brown folks, while expecting white men to act out the scripts of entitlement: declaring and waging war, AND deploying black and brown and working-class whites to war. Americans cheer when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts within the confines of state-led policies and laws—and are shocked when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts outside of those institutions and laws.

Again, Charles Mills calls this the epistemology of ignorance, that is when whites and elites are completely baffled by—and claim NOT to understand– the very same world that they (through slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, mass criminalization through anti-terror and drug laws)—produced. Mills coined this term, the epistemology of ignorance, hand in hand with the racial contract back in 1997. Can you imagine the furor he caused then?

I agree with Mills—mostly.

As importantly it has to do with the very difficult time we have in calling our political leaders to account whether they are white or non-white; but at the present moment, we are having an especially difficult time calling our current President, who is black, into account—especially for those of us who are politically progressive and constructively race-conscious. The tensions that lie in this political dilemma—during this election year—are enormous. But it doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s racially destructive policies: like deporting 400,000 migrants a year; like tearing apart families through forced deportation; destroying childhoods through indefinite detention and deportation of their parents without judicial review.

So, taking a page out of Mills’ book, I would suggest that another term that better describes what’s happening today: the epistemology of indifference. White and elites understand perfectly well the world that they have produced. And those liberals AND progressives who vote for them—despite this knowledge—are guilty of the epistemology of indifference: they know and they don’t care. At least, they don’t care enough to reject the false choices handed to them by the Democratic Party.

It doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s imperially expansive policies. It makes us callous, indifferent, and frankly, part of the problem. Calling him to account doesn’t necessarily make one a racist, unless you are calling him to account because he is black. Similarly, not calling him to account because he’s black is also problematic.

Race in America is an enormously tricky terrain to navigate carefully, justly, ethically. But it needs to be addressed alongside our policies of violence, of invasion, of mass murders in the name of a Secure Homeland, and in ways that don’t celebrate OR vilify single individuals. Rather, we need to clearly, firmly, effectively call those politicians and appointees to account: by voting with our feet to find leaders who share their moral principles, and reject officially sanctioned mass-murders and wars, instead of promoting them as solutions to the racial fears and xenophobia of Americans.