White Privilege, American Privilege: Does It Make Sense to Be More Concerned with Rights at “Home”?

Updated Version

I love how white folks are going around deploying “white privilege” pejoratively at this particular moment, 6 weeks from the elections. I think the term is useful and can be illuminating in demonstrating racial and political economic hierarchies   But if white folks are going to use it responsibly, the term should be placed up front, followed by a verb, object, and citation to someone—preferably a writer or activist of color– who explains and puts the term in context.

I wonder if they know that lobbing it against someone else doesn’t make them racially or morally superior, it doesn’t exculpate them from their own (white) privilege, and it doesn’t actually do the work of explaining their concerns.

I also don’t think “white privilege,” as deployed by whites, is a particularly illuminating term in pointing to some of the serious issues that trouble people like me.  After all, we know plenty of folks of color who have accepted the invitation into white supremacy, and helped design policies that induced the suffering of many folks of color—through the architecture of torture, justifying rendition practices, cementing the extra-legal category of enemy combatant, among other things: Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo—and that was under the Bush Administration. But plenty of folks of color are doing it today: Governors Nikki Haley & Bobby Jindal on eradicating social structures, reproductive choice, etc. Really, the privilege in question is American (whitish or liberal) privilege: the privilege of not having to know (or know about) foreign nationals or feel particularly obliged to them, or know about the harms done to them, simply because the wars, jingoism, and aggressive foreign policy of the US empire won’t affect you.

White supremacy. Pretty loaded word. As philosopher Charles Mills uses the term in his book, white supremacy is defined to talk about the system of power that is designed to keep whites in power. Mills uses it to talk about the Racial Contract—both as the counterpart of the Social Contract and its foundation. The Social Contract—the one that ensures that white folks will have access to equal and reciprocal rights, can only do so on the backs of black and brown folks, who are sub-persons, in Mills’ terms. And we’ve seen plenty of what this Racial Contract leads to–I write about it here and here and here. But it is certainly possible for brown and black folks to accept the invitation to move ranks—for plenty of good reasons—to escape vulnerability, persecution, harassment. But there are also less than compelling reasons, like doing the work of white supremacists for them: being the architect of torture, of rendition, leading the charge to invade other countries. It’s not unusual that folks of color are invited to do this—and may have some compelling self-interests to do so; but it doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticizing them, or constantly be subject to charges of racism.

In short, yes, there are some—debatable—improvements with regard to issues that affect mostly middle- and upper-class U.S. citizens. But this is hardly a proud record of accomplishments that should be touted as representing “Americans.”  I’m listing the differences on a new page—both to support my position, but also because I don’t want to distract from the argument here. See here if you are interested.

Really, the idea that we must look so hard to find substantive difference between the two parties suggests that at so many levels, empire has finally taken root.  Empire. White Supremacy. Gawd, such loaded words. And yet, really, this is where the U.S. is. Empire is deployed to justify actions and unite those at home against the Other overseas, who have been subject to conquest.

Hannah Arendt, wrote about the links of race and capitalism as embedded in empire in the Origins of Totalitarianism in 1948.  As she explored the roots of empire in the early 1900’s, she found the “inner contradiction between the nation’s body politic and conquest as a political device” an obvious one.” (1948, 128)  But the failure of this contradiction leads to one of two outcomes: either a fully united national consciousness of those who were conquered…or tyranny. Empire was meant to unite folks at home, to insist upon the moral good done abroad, and to expect their conquests to like it.

Arendt pointed out that the drive to expansion and conquest was fueled by the desire for money to make itself and for power (the state) to follow money (the bankers and capitalists). Imperialists wanted “to expand political power without the foundation of a body politic”—without having a political structure that managed and checked capital and secured rights.

Sound familiar? Here is Arendt again:

“The secret of the new happy fulfillment [of the bourgeoisie’s desire to have money beget money]  was precisely that economic laws no longer stood in the way of the greed of the owning classes. Money could finally beget money because power, with complete disregard for all laws—economic as well as ethical—could appropriate wealth. Only when exported money succeeded in stimulating the export of power could it accomplish its owners’ designs Only the unlimited accumulation of power could bring about the unlimited accumulation of capital. (Arendt 1948, 137)

History repeats itself at this moment. This is why it does us little good to separate out “our” obligations to “our own” from our obligations to “Others.” If we try, then we engage in a false disconnect. What happens internationally is intrinsically linked to what happens in the U.S.   Foreign policy influences domestic policy, by insisting that we have to band together against the Other—or it brings the same mentality—and similar policies abrogating rights protections back home—in the form of NDAA, the expansion of FISA, Indefinite detention, wiretapping, FBI databases and fusion centers. Capitalists influence foreign policy in line with their own interests–and consistently in line with domestic policy that lines up with their interests. This seems clear when looking at the list of accomplishments on the parts of the Democrats.

Glenn Greenwald, Jonathan Turley, and numerous others, including myself, have been making this point repeatedly.  This is why I think the term “white privilege” deflects attention from what’s at stake: there is absolutely a privilege in being able to ignore what’s happening abroad, or to insist on our moral superiority or exceptionalism. As Sam Holloway points out:

It’s very revealing that the most consistent argument in favor of supporting Barack Obama (when better options are clearly available) is that the other corporate option (Romney) will be worse. Crystal ball access notwithstanding, this is a terrible justification. It’s a clear demonstration that millions of us are willing to allow atrocities to be visited upon others as long as our own privileges are left more or less intact. We don’t care how many foreign brown children Obama exterminates as long as the wealthier among us still has access to health care, abortions, etc. Let’s be clear– I’m not suggesting those are trivial issues. However, if you accept a situation where you have access and others don’t, then you are reducing these basic human rights to privileges. The same goes for your right to due process; if you tolerate Obama’s extrajudicial killings, then you are saying that life is a privilege that you deserve and that others do not. In addition to being morally reprehensible, this approach leaves you open to having your own privilege (to health, security, life, etc.) revoked at any time.

Isn’t this what we’ve been seeing? In the deportation of migrants, drone attacks, indefinite detention, NDAA 2012, H.R. 347, suppression of speech? These issues are inseparable—when they happen to others, they are used to justify “our” privilege—in this case, American privilege. But “our” privilege can be revoked using the same laws, same authority (or lack thereof) that were used to kill vilified U.S. citizens like Al-Aulaqi, to detain, harass, and confine U.S. citizens without fair trials—like Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh, Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna, Bradley Manning—these will be used against “us” too–starting with the most vulnerable, dark, and threatening first.

Having the right to have my contraception paid for won’t protect you or me against that immoral use of power to hurt, humiliate, torture, incarcerate—lawfully. The violations of bodies of Black and brown folks are intrinsically connected to the lack of respect for the bodies of black and brown women–in the US and elsewhere.  And Mitt Romney may be worse on some of these issues—but his ability to harm all of us will have been made much easier by the likes of our past 2 POTUSes—Democrat and Republican—and the current Administration. Not to worry. That is the devastating future of American –and not just white–privilege.

The Power of Arrogance: the US and the Terrorism Card

Besides marking the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay, Wednesday was notable for the murder of an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mustafa Ahmadi-Roshan.  The NYT reported that, “The campaign, which experts believe is being carried out mainly by Israel, apparently claimed its latest victim on Wednesday when a bomb killed a 32-year-old nuclear scientist in Tehran’s morning rush hour.”

“Mainly by Israel.” Who else would help Israel…but the US, its closest ally?  Before I go on, just want to note here that the NYT reported it, which means that it is a fact that Israel (and a good probability that the US) murdered an Iranian national.  Why?  Because if the NYT is reporting it, it must have been confirmed by US and Israeli government officials.  We know that the NYT’s model of reportage, despite their claims to publish All the News That is Fit to Print, is more Pravda than Colorlines. We also know the NYT reports only what the US state approves for reporting (remember this? Scroll down to paragraph #9).

[NB: Here is a terrific sardonic analysis by Jay Rosen which I read after writing this post, which refers to a query of NYT readers by its Public Blog editor about whether the media should prioritize truth-telling! And here I worried that readers would decide I was a conspiracy theorist. I can’t even make this stuff up.]

Glenn Greenwald asks why, when a Saudi official is targeted for murder by Iranian agents, the US denounces that action as terrorism, but when the US and Israel are found to have collaborated on murdering an Iranian nuclear scientist, it’s called a covert or a targeted killing by most major media outlets.  Greenwald offered ample evidence of the double standards of the mainstream media (MSM) by pointing to clips from ABC News, AP, CNN, Washington Post, Council of Foreign Relations, and the US’ very own office of obfuscation, the Department of Justice, all of whom point to Iran’s actions in terms of terrorism, but find the Israeli/US hit to be merely a covert or targeted killing.

Why the double standard? The obvious, if too simple, answer is because the US has shifted from being an “superpower” to an Empire. And we know that Empires call the shots when they please, as they please, and how they please. And as importantly, Empires can choose which strategy they want to take: Shall “we” engage in direct brute violence and just kill folks en masse and openly (such as the German genocide of the Herero Tribe in Namibia)? Or should “we” codify our violence through the rule of law (such as the British massacre in Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919), and insist that it follows from the word of God, of Nature, or from an obvious consensus of “right-thinking” peoples in our midst at home and internationally?

Of course, Empires don’t have to choose. That is, after all, what it means to be an Empire. I mean, if Empires chose strategies, that might indicate that they were worried about public perceptions, backlash, or reprimands from other superpowers. As in the instances of Guantanamo, renditions, the National Security Entry –Exit System (NSEERS) (used to round up thousands of Muslim men residing in the states after 9/11), material support statutes which can retroactively name former allies as terrorists or terrorist organizations (PKK), the creation of enemy combatants, warrantless wiretapping, pre-emptive and indefinite detention of foreign nationals (and now, of US nationals)–ALL of these can be done under the aegis of the Rule of Law, while also engaging in overt and direct violence without a direct mandate, approval or review from Congress or the Courts.  We see this charade in the decision to attack Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the assassination of Terrorist #1 Osama Bin Laden, the assassination of Terrorist #2, US national Anwar Al-Awlaki (see the absolute absence of evidence of Awlaki’s terrorist credentials even in response to repeated questioning by ABC News’ Jake Tapper. Tune in at 2:24), and the assassination of Roshan.  Now we hear increasing murmurs of an impending attack on Iran.

Again, I know it’s too trite and obvious to reiterate that these actions are all being done in the name of fighting the “War Against Terror,” but let me do so anyway.  I don’t think Greenwald goes far enough when he says,

the fact that Terrorism has no fixed meaning does not mean it is inconsequential. The opposite is true. Terrorism is one of the most consequential words in our political lexicon. The term designates Supreme, Unmitigated Evil. Once someone is successfully branded a Terrorist, it means that anything and everything can and should be done to them without constraints.

The advantage of being an Empire is that we codify the terms we like to use in ways that can be deployed against dissenters, agitators, or racial threats. And that’s precisely the beauty of the seeming ambiguity of the word “Terrorist.”

The most recent definition of “terrorism” according to US Code, Title 18, § 2331, states that

‘international terrorism’ means activities that involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State


“appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce” civilian populations, influence government policies, affect government conduct, or “occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.”

If we substitute “Iran” for the United States in the above definition, it seems fairly easy to apply this definition to the assassination of Mustafa Ahmadi-Roshan. The definition of terrorism as a federal crime, as expressed a decade ago in the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act, was even less artful. Among other things, a terrorist act included injury or death of US nationals outside US boundaries (Sec 808). This definition might have repositioned the murder of Al-Awlaki in a starkly different light. Coincidentally, the PATRIOT Act doesn’t discuss the killing of US nationals outside the confines of the US….by the US.

Legal exegesis is probably best left to (progressive) lawyers, which I am not, and it’s fairly boring outside of a classroom or courtroom, so I’ll stop. But it seems that the definition of terrorism is a little less ambiguous than Greenwald suggests. As we have come to learn especially vividly in the last year, it’s not a terrorist act if a foreign national is murdered, and especially not if the US is doing the murdering.

In many ways, the Patriot Act is not “new” law. Its path was paved by any number of older laws, such as the the 1917 Espionage Act, Executive Order 9066 (signed by Pres. Roosevelt to authorize the internment of migrants and citizens of Japanese descent), 1978 FISA (defanged in 2008), and 1996 Anti-terrorist Act. The ability to circumvent judicial review for “aliens” is also found in various laws over the last decade and before. That circumvention was, again, paved by numerous older laws. See Daniel Kantstroom’s brilliant book, Deportation Nation, for a comprehensive, if turgid, list and discussion of laws that manage, regulated, and criminalized non-“Americans” since the late 1700’s. Nothing new, perhaps.

Still the Patriot Act, at least for those of us born in the last 50 years, felt like a game-changer in terms of highlighting ways to circumvent Constitutional safeguards under the auspices of “fighting” terror. “Terror” became the legalized name for newly visible racial threats (like Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners, South Asians), and of course, we know that the echo chamber called the MSM is very useful in furthering the State’s purposes by helping disseminate its propaganda with images, fear-mongering, heightened hysteria-turned cultural-status quo.

Now, let’s be clear: the notion of racial threats have been long associated with some US populations of color; the legalized names for long-standing racial threats (mostly African American men and women) have been articulated along the lines of violent offenders, murderers, rapists, drug addicts, prostitutes, etc.  So, the notion of constitutional reliability has never been a solid concept for the US black population. Today, the reliability of Constitutional rights evaporates for many more folks, some of whom previously depended on being able to slip into the “good” minority category (Legal scholar Karen Engle has an old but great piece on this).

Another (interesting?) point: the racial threat of terror has been conjoined with the threat of the undocumented. It’s not uncoincidental that the war on migrants has revved up within the discourse of the War on Terror. So, while terror was re-instituted in a legal definition in 2001, the war on the undocumented also dovetails with it through the language of “defending the Homeland” (Seriously? We’re resorting to Nazi terminology?), “our” borders, along with the usual nationalist trash about defending our liberty and way of life, etc. As is always the case with fear-mongering, the law eventually becomes invisible, expressed instead through popular and cultural discourses.

Greenwald’s point remains: Terror is an ambiguous term, but its use is anything but ambiguous: it’s a tool of the US Empire and its allies, deployed against those who go against the mainstream national grain either through their express actions (dissent or protest) or through their racial presence.

It is, as I’ve mentioned before, an Empire State of mind. The state’s response to the Occupy protests around the country stunned many people who had accepted the US line that violence is justly and exclusively directed against those who threaten our way of life. They were surprised to see the authoritarian hand of the state brought out in response to their middle-class college- or  law-school-going children, their professional-class neighbors, and even their grandparents. The passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), perhaps coincidentally, now legalizes the arrest of those same college students, professionals, and grandparents without cause. The arrest of your sweet liberal neighbors has been facilitated by the Patriot Act, but also by the expansions of FISA and the widespread collaboration of the telecommunication companies. Revolt, protest, dissent (whether by challenging the banks or by insistently living as an undocumented migrant in order to achieve…what?…political, economic, religious, sexual, security): these have been long-standing terrorist acts, but typically associated with visible racial threats. When your financially secure children, friends, neighbors are being targeted, that should be an important clue that those that the US Empire deems “terrorists” may be scapegoats or targets in a larger ideological struggle over the hearts and minds of Americans.  These random murders and promiscuous state violence are the consequence of unchecked arrogance couple with unrestrained power.

What’s the antidote to Empire? Unchecked arrogance–in the form of uninhibited state power–requires critical scrutiny, oversight and strict (i.e. not Bush-like) judicial accountability. If we have a state that insists that it knows best regardless of public outrage, then it’s time to jump off the righteous “war on terror” bandwagon.