Meditations on White Privilege and Racial Injustice

Update I & II (below):

In the months leading up to last week’s elections, there were multiple occasions when white liberals deployed the charge of racial and gender “privilege” against other whites. Such accusations were lobbed against those who argued that over the last four years, the Democratic Administration had pursued policies that resulted in serious physical, social, and economic harms against men and women of color in the United States and internationally.

The damage wrought upon minorities under a 9-11 regime began with the Bush Administration, which intensified the scrutiny of all Muslims. In many cases, being a Muslim male became a criminal act. That criminality has been continued and expanded under the Obama Administration. More generally, the active destruction and criminalization of Black and brown men and women can be seen in numerous policies promoted over the last four years.

The U.S. government’s message that poor and vulnerable populations of color are worth little, or even expendable, has been amplified.  It is not too extreme to suggest that the right to live has been greatly mitigated for poor, and vulnerable black and brown peoples. And that is in the U.S.; internationally, the Obama Administration has amplified its focus in assault on brown and black populations of various countries, between drone wars, invasions, and other wars.

Yet, the response to commentators—at least those who are white or male–who have precisely criticized POTUS/Dems on their assaults on the civil and human rights violations of Black, brown, and Muslim folks has been to accuse them of white or male “privilege.” This is a bewildering accusation, especially as it has been lobbed by other white men and women (Black and brown critics of the POTUS/Dems’ racial politics have been largely ignored by those same detractors).

Stated simply, we are not talking about white privilege here. The term “white privilege” is increasingly used for the public moral shaming of whites whose politics other whites disagree with. Not for that reason alone, white privilege is becoming an increasingly ineffective term. White “privilege” relies on its relative politeness to obfuscate the most urgent concern in post 9-11 United States: the state-led power that facilitates the emaciation of vulnerable populations.  By state-led power, I refer to directives, laws, bills, and executive/congressional endorsements of policies that authorize the neglect, indifference, or active harm or persecution of US “minorities” and dark foreign nationals in the US and in nations with whom the US is at odds.

We have ample evidence of this: the expansion of the drug war and more frequent prosecutions of petty drug possessions (despite state—approved medical marijuana laws)[*];  FBIled entrapment of Muslim men for terrorist acts; counterterrorism prosecutions in which the defense is required to do its work with its hands tied (through the absence of known charges, evidence or Constitutional guidelines).  As well, the conditions of incarceration have been shocking for Muslim men imprisoned in the United States for dissenting speech acts (which is about the only provable “crime” in many cases): solitary confinement, Special Administrative Measures which restrict the ability to pray or pray in Arabic, visiting time with family, having fresh air. The list goes on.

Under the Obama Administration, we have seen the institutionalized expansion of unchecked executive power to determine which US citizens, children, and foreign nationals to kill (NDAA), to arrest for protest (H.R. 347), to arrest and cross-check with FBI databases for visa violations (Secure Communities). We now take for granted preventive detention, kill lists, and centralized surveillance in the form of Fusion Centers.

Certainly, there is cultural, “ironic,” aesthetic, media racism–but the most immediate and dire racism is that involved in the violation of the political and legal rights of human beings. Of U.S. and foreign nationals.  When white men point these out, they are using their privilege to highlight those harms to other populations. The attention that they draw to the assaults inflicted upon black and brown bodies doesn’t make them racist. It makes them the allies of black and brown folks who are being injured. It makes them my allies insofar as the harms done to black and brown women and men are among my most urgent concerns.

In fact, many of us, white and brown and black have different kinds and degrees of privilege. But after the 2008 elections and the last four years of a Black president, it is far from clear that we have a more racially progressive society. While a certain visual racial harmony is actively promoted in television and media in the form of interracial friendships, relationships, and children, it obscures the material injustice that is waged below the surface.

Racial or gender progressivism cannot—should not– be assessed from symbolic gestures such as the invitation to cocktails and dinner at the White House, or the public performance of a marriage, or the camera-mediated emotions of public figures.  They may be comforting, but they do not—should not–detract from attention to the damage that state-led policies are imposing on black, white, brown human bodies or psyches.

The racial injustice that must be urgently challenged falls along the grid of human rights violations, that is, the violations to one’s human dignity and well-being. Violations of basic human rights—those which are not articulated in the US constitution, but which nevertheless follow from a shared understanding of humanity—can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). Some argue that the UNDHR is more of a normative—moral—framework, than a political framework. In other words, the idea behind the UNDHR is that, while a number of these rights appear to be similar to those articulated in the US Constitution (for good reason: they were co-authored by Eleanor Roosevelt, spouse of FDR), they are considered to apply to human beings regardless of a person’s national affiliation, and they speak to a positive understanding of rights which emphasizes social and psychic well-being.

I understand the myriad arguments about the unenforceability of the UNDHR. The formidable Ms. A(rendt) was dubious of the capacity to invoke human rights when human beings are forced outside a political system—when they become stateless. My concern, however, is that we must shift our deeply American—myopic, culturally narcissistic, exceptionalist–worldview to consider a different normative model for racial and human justice: one that attends to the well-being or flourishing, of human beings.

Racism and whiteness, as we’ve seen throughout this election and after, often go together. But whiteness can also be used to highlight and criticize the civil and human rights violations that are imposed on vulnerable Black and brown populations, without deserving the term “racism,” or “privilege.” In post 9-11 United States, those who engage in the latter—by allying themselves with darker vulnerable populations–often reap few benefits by speaking out against state-led racism, xenophobia, and material racial and gender injustice.

[*] Will the Feds continue this policy even after 2 successful state measures to legalize marijuana in WA and CO?

Update I: Perhaps an answer to my question above: A petition to insist on states’ rights to legalize, regulate, and tax pot and booze.

Update II: I should note that this essay doesn’t preclude the fact that, even as allies, white progressives have been susceptible to not seeing the racial complexities of imperialism–as we can all be. For example, as in the cases of Syrian and Iran, it is possible to be against the assaults on human beings and also against direct military intervention. The following posts explore these complexities in nuanced ways:
1. Guest blogger Prof. Omar Dahi on Syria.
2. Raha Iranian Feminist Collective essay on the moral and political complexities of a progressive response to Iran.
3. A letter also by Raha on this blog which articulates beautifully a similar point.

White Privilege, the Dems, and the Rhetoric of “Care”

To read some of the exchanges over the last week in the blogosphere, apparently “white privilege” means that one doesn’t attend to race and class issues at home, but instead privileges “foreign policy” and “national security” issues. This implies that there is privilege in worrying about the bodies and violations to foreign nationals over the bodies of brown and black Americans. Ok, let me grant that assumption for a second.  Still, I wonder why issues such as warrantless wiretapping, surveillance, unlawful (and supposedly “lawful,” warrantless) detention of US Muslim men of South Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds, the nullification of judicial review, the assassination of not just 1, but multiple, US citizens, the incarceration of U.S. citizens (black and brown), should be deprioritized by American voters. Are these not issues that should be of concern especially to folks who are unencumbered by an excess of “white privilege”?

Still granting the assumption that worrying about foreign issues involves undue privilege: I wonder, after considering some of the policies that the present Administration has supported and backed (from NDAA 2012, Expansion and Renewal of FISA, Expansion of prisons, expansion of DHS deportations of migrants; expansion of detention centers), in which ways have U.S people of color and poor  people benefited under the present Democratic Administration? There may be some, such as college loans forgiveness, and the absence of a concerted attack on reproductive rights. But there are certainly anti-choice Dems, such as Harry Reid, who have managed to stifle somewhat. I would hardly call Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ decision to revoke access to OTC contraception a big win for pro-choice folks.

According to a number of progressive economists, the top 20% has remained pretty unaffected by the present Democratic Administration, and I’m betting that includes some of the folks lobbing around the “white privilege” accusation.  Could it not be the case that one is exemplifying white privilege by deciding that one should be loyal to the Administration and the Democratic Party in the face of a range of demonstrable discriminations against certain kinds of minority populations? In the face of violations to certain kinds of brown and black bodies? Does such a loyalty not imply that those who are in a position to make choices are simply refusing to see the world that they themselves have made, by insisting on a repeated loyalty to the Democratic Party, despite the years of abusive behavior on the part of the Dems? Charles Mills calls this “the epistemology of ignorance,” namely that state of the world in which whites refuse to see the world that they themselves have made.

According to a report by the Pew Research Center, “Median wealth fell by 66% among Hispanic households and by 53% among black households during the financial crisis, compared with a fall of just 16% among white households.”

Presumably, the President so cared about the devastating impact to US populations of color that he was going to support California Attorney General Kamala Harris to get as much from the banks as she could, right? POTUS’ response was to pressure Harris to accept a ridiculous settlement with the 5 BIG BANKS of $25 billion dollars, which cashes out either to $750 or $840—yes, you read that right– per household for families who lost their houses due to subprime mortgages.

Again, according to the Pew report:

“A disproportionate share of Hispanics live in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, which were in the vanguard of the housing real estate market bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s but that have since been among the states experiencing the steepest declines in housing values.”

Take a look at those quotes again. This is not a “white privilege” issue. It affects U.S. minorities more so than whites. Clearly, the Big Banks must have “cared” about those homeowners, too, right? They must just have been broke, to pay so little. Right. According to today’s Bloomberg, “Even as U.S. unemployment has remained above 8 percent for 43 months, the country’s biggest banks are making almost as much as they ever have.” Namely, a combined $63 billion in profits.  The original rescue was signed by Bush, but what exactly did O require in terms of accountability from the banks? Anyone?

As I mentioned in my last post, the privilege of deciding that the lives of others are easy to sacrifice, the privilege of deciding that certain civil rights are more important than human rights violations will backfire—This is nationalist privilege—American privilege, to be exact. And it has already backfired.  We are seeing the backlash in all kinds of cases—cases like that of Dr. Shakir Hamoodi, Sami Al-Arian, and hundreds of others.

Ultimately, I don’t care who Democrats vote for because I accept the argument that “the structure is broken.”  If it’s broken, voting for the Democrats yet again isn’t going to fix it. Instead, it’s going to amplify the message that Democratic voters have sent for the last 20 years: Please, screw us again. Abandon your constituents for yet another 4 years. And we’ll reward you as you move even further to the right after every term—we’ll send you the message that “we like it, we love it, and we want more of it.” It’s a state-of-emergency politics: It’s an emergency, so we have to vote for the “lesser evil” of 2 states. And the cycle will continue.

If voting for the incumbent accords with your conscience, then by all means do so. If you, like me–despise the Democratic record on wars, drones, murders, assassinations, detention, torture, solitary confinement of foreign nationals without charges (and that includes migrants of various nationalities—since solitary confinement is used more and more widely), but still feel that this vote matters, voting for POTUS is a better option to other options, do what you need to do.

But don’t bake me a dungpie and tell me it’s my birthday. Just tell the truth. Tell the truth about the Democrats’ record on civil liberties issues, on NDAA 2012, on H.R. 347, on S.Comm, on detention policies, on migration policies, on deportation policies. Don’t tell me that the Democrats “care” more, or that “Obama’s heart is in the right place,” or “he would have done more if we didn’t have a GOP-led Congress (um—again, how did that stop the Dems from getting things done in the first two years under Obama?), or that he’s pro-union, or that innocent civilians aren’t getting killed, or that the Affordable Care Act involved actual health care reform, or that Obama’s not interested in cutting Social Security, or that the Dems “care” about civil liberties or human rights violations.

And by the way, how does one know whether Obama or the Dems “care”? Just because they say so? If POTUS is willing to lie about not wanting the U.S. government to be able to kill Americans (thanks, Sen. Carl Levin), then why wouldn’t he lie about whether he “cares” for you, me, or black and brown folk?

Why don’t the same folks who insist that we must vote for the Dems believe that the Republicans “care” just as much? Because of their track record, I hear. Ok, that’s my standard for the Democrats, too. For those who insist that POTUS/Dems cares about poor black and brown folks, I’ve explored the track record on “care” all over this site. For some examples, see here and here and here.

A friend whose political insights I respect tremendously suggested that she was voting for the incumbent precisely because there are racists who will vote against him because he’s black. I can respect that.  Others suggest that they’re voting Dem to “prevent GOP access to power.” Okay, I can live with that—but I don’t buy that this will increase the likelihood that poor folks, folks of color in the US and internationally will be less vulnerable to having social safety nets or economic structures decimated by Democrats.

Just do what you need to do, but stop insisting that folks who reject the false dichotomy between the lives of U.S. folks of color, black and brown, and the lives of international folks of color are “conservatives,” or libertarians.

And the day after the election, for those of you who feel like you had to vote for the Democrats as the least crappy option among crappy options, please, let’s start pursuing the viability of a third party. We need to change the conversation, we need to hold the Democrats accountable for abandoning voters, poor folks, black and brown folks—in the US and elsewhere. Only the threat of not being re-elected, of losing “winnable votes” will bring them around.

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.