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.

Why Even Good Law-Abiding People Should Care About Privacy

Coffee Customers at Mardi Gras

Coffee Customers at Mardi Gras

Since my post on Homophobic Harassment and Surveillance, I’ve been ruminating some more on the issues of surveillance and privacy.  The conversation about the importance (or lack thereof) of privacy was renewed for a lot of folks last December. That was when the news came to light that the US Congress banded together symphonically to approve the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Although ostensibly about indefinite detention, the NDAA raised concerns about the increasing encroachment over the privacy rights of US citizens and the increase of pre-emptive and warrantless surveillance. In the public debate, there have been two distinct responses. Response 1 comes from the righteous civil righters (RCRs), which amounts to, “How dare they take away my privacy!” Response 2 came from morally upstanding citizens (MUCs): “Well, if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

Both of those responses seem a bit mysterious to me.  Why should we care about a “right to privacy?” After all, aren’t the MUC’s right?  If you don’t do anything wrong, there’s no reasons to worry about it. And yet…I think there is be more to it than that.  There are plenty of things we do that are legal or that happen to us…that are not things that we might want to share with everyone: having an abortion or gender re-assignment surgery; a teacher’s past life as a dancer in a stripclub; premarital affair with a TeaPartyer; a secret affinity for hot-dog eating contests when you’re the head of a major Weight Loss Organization; or used drugs recreationally during one’s more carefree days before ascending up the ladder to become the policy director at the World Health Organization (This is made-up. Promise).  These are things that aren’t necessarily to be ashamed of; there’s context, there’s moral complexity, there’s a story. But we all have sides of ourselves that we don’t care to explain to others for any number of reasons.  And as we know, when these stories come out, they cause embarrassment or shed a negative light on the person at the center of the story. In other words, when our secrets are broken by someone other than ourselves, there’s a good chance that those leaks will cast aspersions on our character, causing us to lose face, or to prevent us from moving on with our lives or toward our goals. That’s the point of leaking secrets, after all, isn’t it?

How many stories have we heard about teachers losing their jobs because they—umm—shared much more of their trip to New Orleans during Mardi Gras on Facebook than the School Superintendent thought was proper? Newly minted college-graduates not getting called back after an ace interview—because the employer discovered his credit scores were low (due to tragic circumstances rather than irresponsibility—which the employer never learned of)?

But this isn’t about wrongdoing. It’s about growing up, making (bad) judgments, moving on, and remaking yourself. That was part of the point of “going West”: you could shed your past, former associates, bad habits, bad decisions by moving on and starting over. These are some reasons that privacy is so important. But in a world where all of our movements are tracked, our ability to hold on to our humanity erodes to be replaced by fear and self-censorship.

Leaking secrets about an individual in private life is different from leaking secrets about wrongdoings that public institutions have been guilty of: like the case of the US wrongdoing as leaked by Pvt. Bradley Manning or Julian Assange or CIA agent John Kiriakou. Or most recently, by Spanish judge Balthazar Garzon, whose illustrious crime-fighting record was shut down by the Spanish Supreme Court. In all of these instances, the secrets that were leaked show the lack of accountability by the state or some of its officers.  Lone citizens aren’t held to that same standard. Public officers, once upon a time, were supposed to abide by a set of ethics and to have their actions be transparent while individuals could engage in all kinds of activities–respectable or not– in the privacy of their homes without being called out.  Instead, we’re at a place where the actions of individuals are supposed to be transparent while the dubious decisions and unethical acts of public officers—from the US military, to the POTUS, are systemically hidden from view.

After all, this is what it means to have a GPS tracking device in your car—and to make it illegal to remove it.  But POTUS can authorize the killing of a US citizen without being required to provide proof of cause, and he’s hailed as a hero.

While the US Constitution doesn’t have an explicit right to privacy, the Supreme Court has, in groundbreaking cases like Roe v. Wade, interpreted that right to exist through a “penumbra” of other rights as listed in Amendments 1, 4, 5, 9, and 14 (see section V). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights considers privacy a fundamental human right (see Article 12). It’s considered fundamental to human dignity. Why might that be?  In part, it might be because there’s a realm in which you should be able to conduct your life, as controversial as certain practices might be (like having pre-emptive mastectomies to avoid breast cancer) or as intimate as having sex with one’s lover–without having to fear someone else’s judgment AND without having to fear that surveillance will be used to punish you. Now, note here that I’m NOT talking about acts that are harmful or destructive: pedophilia, abuse, violence—these are all acts that harm others, often those who don’t have the defenses to remove themselves from harm. But these are acts are committed by relatively few compared to the enormous number of us who are being surveilled now.

We need to have a fundamental right to privacy because it enables us to make decisions in our lives that enable us to feel human rather than like automatons behaving the way others/states/institutions want us to behave. Being human consists fundamentally of making decisions within the constraints of the lives into which we are born (for example, I can’t become an Air Force pilot if I have bad eyesight). But those constraints shouldn’t be imposed and calculated and created by private insurance companies who decide whether to cover you based on the propensity of cancer or mental illness in your family, or private schools that demand a parent’s driver’s license information on a permission slip for her kid’s field trip (this is NOT made up. Promise), or FBI decisions to stalk you because you go to mosque for your religious reflection.

The ability to make love, medical decisions, lifestyle choices, or bad decisions, to take risks, to find spiritual solace—these are acts that firmly anchor our dignity, and that is why they deserve to be private decisions, free of surveillance.   Just because the MaMa Pajama or the PaPa don’t like it, don’t make it bad…