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)[*]; FBI–led 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.
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