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.

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White Papers, Targets, and U.S. Citizens: What’s All the Fuss?

Revised 6:59 am.

The last few days, the mainstreamish media and Congress have professed shock and outrage over the Office of Legal Counsel white paper and its ambiguous rationale on President Obama’s targeted killing program. But, really, there’s very little new about it, save some ostensible rationale that will facilitate a long-standing politics of execution.

But, much news media and Congress (except for DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz) have known about targeted killings for years. As Tara Kelvey and Josh Begley have noted, the New York Times has covered drones for years, even when they have ostentatiously skirted around the reasons for those killings. Similarly, the Brennan hearings were a perfect place for Congress to engage in, as Jeremy Scahill called it on Up with Chris this morning, “Kabuki oversight”—namely, the spectacle of watching senators like Dianne Feinstein and others to act as if they were overwhelmingly outraged by the non-responsiveness of the CIA, OLC, and WH to their repeated requests for an answer to the question of the rationale for targeted killing without oversight.

Why then are they suddenly exercised over it now? I’m puzzled by the fuss, given the way the sudden controversy is framed is shock and horror that a U.S. citizen might be fingered for death if they are suspected to be an “imminent” threat to America. So, suddenly—what—everyone cares that U.S. citizens Anwar and Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki , Samir Khan, and Kamal Derwish were killed?

Why weren’t our esteemed media and Congress that exercised about the provisions in NDAA 2012 that authorized POTUS to arrest and detain U.S. citizens (um…and foreign nationals) anywhere for posing an imminent threat?

After all, many more U.S. citizens are likely to be intercepted and indefinitely detained by the following NDAA 2012 provision (the one that Obama insisted be included on threat of veto. Remember?):

Subtitle D–Detainee Matters
SEC. 1021. AFFIRMATION OF AUTHORITY OF THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES TO DETAIN COVERED PERSONS PURSUANT TO THE AUTHORIZATION FOR USE OF MILITARY FORCE.
 
    (a) In General- Congress affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note) includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons (as defined in subsection (b)) pending disposition under the law of war.
    (b) Covered Persons- A covered person under this section is any person as follows:
    (1) A person who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored those responsible for those attacks.
    (2) A person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.

The rest of the clause is just as interesting.

After the November elections, Sen. DiFi tried an interesting re-do in NDAA 2013 with an amendment that limited indefinite detention to non-citizens—but you’ll remember that it ‘mysteriously disappeared.’  If anything, U.S. citizens are much more vulnerable to the arrest and indefinite detention provisions from these bills than drones strikes. Right?

Mind you, it is heartening that even ‘forward leaners’ like Kristal Ball are so worked up over the undue authority that the WH/DoJ/OLC is taking to dilute the grounds by which they justify the targeting of U.S. citizens.

But the issue with drones is not just that they target U.S. citizens. But that they miss. And kill thousands of non-US citizens. And thousands of innocent civilians. And hundreds of children. On other sovereign lands. And turn peaceful foreign nationals into hostile, understandably vengeful, potential allies of organizations that the US has deemed to be our enemies.

There are compelling reasons to review the underlying rationales and “logic” of an Administration that wants to maintain a thick shell of secrecy around policies and authoritarian practices as heinous as killing U.S. citizens. The urge to dissect these policies is especially important as we consider future elections in relation to the executive authority that has been expanded for future presidents to exploit.

While the white paper is in the news, it’s worth taking advantage of the timeliness to explore other, older, facets of the Bush and Obama Administrations’ expansion of power.  In the short run, U.S. citizens stand to be much more vulnerable to the provisions of NDAA 2012 than the targeted killing rationale of the white paper.  This is especially true of Muslim-American men, who have been vulnerable to Sec. 1032 of NDAA 2012 since the endless, borderless, War on Terror was declared. And have been vulnerable to much, much, much, muchmuch, more than that.

Drones are being used for tracking here in the U.S, but not yet as lethal weapons. On the other hand, the (ex post?) rationale of Sec. 1032 in NDAA 2012 stands to round many more up in conjunction with anxieties about their acquaintances, associations, and communications in relation to the monstrous fear of Al-Qaeda and the all things “terrorist.” But we know that those ‘more’ will less likely be young white men from the burbs of Mill Valley (to date, we’ve only seen one like that–and he got a trial), than young brown and black men from the “terrorist-laden” terrain of Queens, the Bronx, or the less-than-affluent suburbs of Boston and Portland, OR.

And in so saying, perhaps I’ve answered my own question: maybe we care more about the OLC white paper because it obfuscates the obvious: these aren’t policies intended towards non-Muslims. We can scrutinize the rationale of the white memo as a way to distract most Americans from focusing on the fact that policies like indefinite detention, pre-emptive policing, and—yes—targeted killings—haven’t been and won’t likely be directed towards innocent (non-Muslim) Americans. Rather, such policies will continue to be aimed many more Muslim-Americans (and non-Americans) who won’t–can’t–possibly expect the U.S. to respect their innocence unless there are clear and evident reasons to suspect otherwise.

The Irony of MLK Day 2013: A Renewed Invitation into White Supremacy

I wonder how many consider today to be a magnificent symbolic coincidence rather than a Manichean irony: today, we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the greatest civil rights leaders of modern United States history—a man who went to jail to defend the civil rights of hundreds of thousands of minorities and to speak against injustice at home and abroad.  Today, we will also commemorate the re-election of the President of the Unites States and the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner—a man who supports a drug war that incarcerates hundreds of thousands of black and brown minorities; kills U.S. citizens and foreign nationals; eviscerates civil liberties for alleged terrorists and citizens alike; deports 1.5 million migrants and separate parents from their children; protects bankers while allowing poor homeowners to lose their homes; and persecutes whistleblowers without mercy.

There are those who insist that the wrongs of the last four years should be attributed to the malevolent impulses and political calculations of Congress. It is true that Congress can’t be exculpated from its decade-long foaming submission to the American drive to control what it refuses to try to understand, namely the War on Terror. Its shills and hacks have quickly leaped on the bandwagon to push (lean?) forward to sanction a military budget bill that continues the expansion of the drone program and the U.S.’s continued military presence in Afghanistan along with the expansion of bases in large swaths of Africa, the Pacific, and the Middle East. Congress enthusiastically pushed for the renewal of FISA in 2008 (along with the eager support of Senator Obama). In 2013, Congress again with the relentless leadership of Senator Dianne Feinstein, pushed for the passage of the renewal of FISA (without oversight) for five years, along with the passage of NDAA 2012 and 2013, despite the clear purpose of those bills to eviscerate the separation of powers. Congress eagerly endorsed Obama’s loud requests for unilateral presidential authority to arrest and detain any and all persons that it deems a danger to the United States—US citizens and foreigners alike.

With a couple of exceptions, our politicians in Congress are without initiative or honor.  But Congress is not the source of numerous other wrongdoings.  My optimism for this Presidency has all but evaporated in the face of Obama’s policies—unhampered by Congress–designed to tear apart families in the United States and around the world.  I cannot celebrate the second inauguration of the POTUS, under whose watch in the last 4 years, the minds and lives of thousands of innocents have been broken, if not downright destroyed. By drones, invasions, bombs, torture, solitary confinement, renditions, due process-less proceedings, secrecy, and lack of accountability or transparency.  Instead, I will be retracing the steps that have led to the amorality of the Democratic Party and the Presidential Administration that has been able to retain and expand some of the most heinous policies of the previous Republican Administration, and which has been able to initiate some horrifically destructive policies of their own (click on the link to see just a few of the actions I have in mind).

Today, some writers will invoke Dr. Martin Luther King’s courageous April 4, 1967 speech, and rightfully so. King calls for us to see the connections between the fight for civil rights at “home” and the injustice of the U.S.’s incursions, bombings, deaths, and destruction abroad.  He tells us of the response by those who are puzzled by his challenge to US continued attack in Vietnam:

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask?

In his long, detailed, passionate response—which is as apt today as it was in 1967, Dr. King pointed to one source of his awareness of the links between peace and civil rights:

It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

It is a prescient statement that resonates with the imperialist policies of the United States today. The men and women who enthusiastically endorse sending our young people to war will not suffer the same hurtful ramifications as those men and women who are sent to war–or those on the receiving end of drones, bombs, guns, and destruction. Dr. King’s speech itself is long, insightful, poignant and courageous. Please take some time to read it today if you haven’t already.

What, if anything, has changed between the circumstances of American imperialism in the 1960’s and today? I think it is this: that more and more men and women of color have been invited into the offices of White Supremacy to share in the destruction of other men and women of color who are vulnerable, disfranchised, and rapidly being eviscerated through the policies of a multi-racial white supremacy.

As philosopher and political activist Dr. Cornel West pointed out last week, if Dr. King were alive today, he would have been detained and arrested for his associations with then-terrorist Nelson Mandela, under the auspices of NDAA. Dr. King might have also been arrested for his political speech, namely, his ability to rouse millions with his stirring calls for political justice in the face of American-led atrocities.

By remaining steadfast in their allegiance to illegal overtures in domestic and foreign policy, Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Deval Patrick, Susan Rice, Carmen Ortiz, Preet Bharara and other leaders of color have helped the structures of White Supremacy profit and flourish: The imperialist state has extended its hand to brown and black “liberals” in order to help them into the reigning structures of Imperialism.  It has been remarkable to watch leaders of color as they refuse to challenge the wrongful legacy of colonialism and Jim Crow.  Yes, the civil rights of whites have also been slowly scrubbed away, but—with the exception of poor whites—it is much less than the wide-scale evisceration of the peaceful ability to live for Muslims in the U.S., Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Malians, Afghans, Iraqis.

I think there is another question that we must come to terms with: What is the function of an African American president in a society that has clearly not come to terms with its legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, legalized slavery and racial apartheid in the form of mass incarceration and the widespread criminalization of Blacks?

As Prof. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva points out unflinchingly, given the history in this country, how is it even possible that we could have elected a Black man to the presidency in 2008?

This brutally frank and funny 29 minute interview is worth watching in its entirety. But FF to 4:35 to hear some of Bonilla-Silva’s answer: The successful election of Barack Obama was an invitation to do the dirty work of White Supremacy for it.  He points out that in Puerto Rico, where he grew up, it was hardly unusual to see black leaders engage in the same racial apologetics and detrimental politics that the former colonial Spanish and current American government engaged in vis-à-vis Puerto Rico’s inhabitants. It doesn’t surprise him that this can be so.

There are many other such examples that we can choose from that illustrate similar white supremacist dynamics. Take for example, the White Supremacist government of Rhodesia that selected Bishop Muzorewa to take over the daily administration of its racist state.

But we have even more recent and better-known examples: Bush Administration’s former Secretary, Condoleeza Rice, DOJ attorney John Yoo (author of the Torture Memos), and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who created the marvelous quick-sandlike legal structure of Guantanamo and others.  Their invitations into white supremacy were still novelties, but identifiable because they did so under the auspices of a Conservative Administration that could make few credible claims to anti-racist activity. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration and the Republicans were able to promote their claims to be non-racist by using the presence of these individuals as cultural symbols to distract many of us—especially and including liberal Democrats in the Senate and Congress—from its overt return to a racial mission in the Middle East under the auspices of a colonizing/civilizing project. The War on Terror could thereby be couched as an ostensible hunt for justice and legitimized aim for retribution.

In order to engage the issue of state-led racism initiated, deployed and conducted effectively by men and women in power, we must address a system of multiracial white supremacy. This is a terrifying and politicized term. But we need to wrap our minds around it.  A multiracial white supremacy is a system of power that has invited in—or exploited wherever it could– people of color in order to wage institutional, legal, political assaults on other black, brown, and poor people—at “home” and internationally.

Four years ago, Ethnic Studies Professor Dylan Rodriguez wrote a frank and prescient assessment of the election of the first Black President. It is still painful to read, because it is still relevant. In 2008, Rodriguez wrote:

Putting aside, for the moment, the liberal valorization of Obama as the less-bad or (misnamed) “progressive” alternative to the horrible specter of a Bush-McCain national inheritance, we must come to terms with the inevitability of the Obama administration as a refurbishing, not an interruption or abolition, of the normalized violence of the American national project. To the extent that the subjection of indigenous, Black, and Brown people to regimes of displacement and suffering remains the condition of possibility for the reproduction (or even the reinvigoration) of an otherwise eroding American global dominance, the figure of Obama represents a new inhabitation of white supremacy’s structuring logics of violence.

The only phrase I would change is “new inhabitation.” It is no longer so.

Rodriguez ends his essay with the following:

At best, when the U.S. nation-building project is not actually engaged in genocidal, semi-genocidal, and proto-genocidal institutional and military practices against the weakest, poorest, and darkest—at home and abroad—it massages and soothes the worst of its violence with banal gestures of genocide management. As these words are being written, Obama and his advisors are engaged in intensive high-level meetings with the Bush administration’s national security experts. The life chances of millions are literally being classified and encoded in portfolios and flash drives, traded across conference tables as the election night hangover subsides. For those whose political identifications demand an end to this historical conspiracy of violence, and whose social dreams are tied to the abolition of the U.S. nation building project’s changing and shifting (but durable and indelible) attachments to the logic of genocide, this historical moment calls for an amplified, urgent, and radical critical sensibility, not a multiplication of white supremacy’s “hope.”

Instead, we saw the precise inverse of Prof. Rodriguez’s calls for action: Not only invocations of “white supremacy’s hope,” but languor and denial. In the last 12 months, we heard a constant (white) feminist and (multiracial) liberal moral “shaming” of those—especially whites–who attempted to point to a reality-based truth.  In this sense, the last four years have enhanced the wishes of a dominant power structure that deflects charges of racism through the public responses of “post-racist” liberal feminists, Democrats, and pundits who support African Americans and other minorities in leadership positions while marginally attending to the systemic force-feeding of a US military with black and brown bodies; while remaining silent in the face of the mass penalties that brown and black people face in this country under the auspices of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs; massive foreclosures on homes disproportionately affecting minorities; and in one of the latest international affronts to people of color—while insisting on Israel’s “Right of Self-Defense” in the face of what is clearly a bullying and brutish beat-down of a long oppressed Palestinian population.

What is egregious about the latter is not only the clear indifference and neglect of basic human rights for a group of people whose land has been increasingly diminished, but the willful blindness and insistence that those who have been imprisoned, brutalized, emaciated through sanctions, bombs, and sheer daily terror at the end of the legal machinery and weapons of a colonial police state—are on an equal playing field with a state with sophisticated arms funded and supported by the United States.

As we enter the second term of a Presidency that has proved that the wide-scale destruction of black, brown and Muslim peoples for political gain can be conducted spectacularly and quite profitably, I wonder what it will take for Americans to take stock of their racist and imperialist legacy to challenge the injustices waged at home and abroad? Is it even possible to remember the legacy of Dr. King without being ashamed at the intentional destruction of people of color at home and internationally? And if we can, doesn’t that say more about the dessication of the American moral conscience than anything else?