Paleness as Pathology: The Future of Racism and Anti-Racism in America

Published in LIP Magazine,, May, 2006

Writing about the future — in this case, the future of race relations and racial inequality, but in truth about pretty much anything — is never a good idea. To prognosticate about the fate of our fractured society is to invite retrospectives however long from the time of one’s writing, pointing out that in this or that regard, you were flatly wrong. But although accurate projections about race in the U.S. (or globally) are always risky, the endeavor seems worthwhile, if for no other reason than to get us thinking about how things might be much different than they are now; to examine the kind of world we hope to create and how we might go about getting there.

So, having assumed the risk and burden of discussing the future of racism, let me now make one thing clear: I have absolutely no idea whether the system of white world supremacy is capable of being abolished, or even significantly reformed. What’s more, if it is, I am largely at a loss as to what specific steps will be required in order to finally make such a thing transpire–and in truth, that’s not all bad. Fact is, people of color have been trying to solve the riddle of ending racism for hundreds of years, so if a 37-year old white guy comes along claiming to have the solution that has thus far eluded millions of racism’s targets, you should probably run like your ass was on fire.

Yet, having announced my inability to make clear and unambiguous predictions about whether racism is going to be ended (and if so, how), I can certainly offer up at least a few suggestions about what must be done in order to put us closer to creating a society where inequity on the basis of so-called race is a thing of the past.

Understanding the Importance of Self-Interest

Traditionally, those in the civil rights and antiracism movements have sought to appeal to the decency and morality of America’s majority — that is to say, white folks — in order to secure legislative and policy changes that would promote equal opportunity. While these approaches, combined with the force of social movements amassed in the streets, have secured certain reforms, the truth remains (as legal scholar Derrick Bell has argued), that white America has mostly responded not to its inner decency but rather our sense of self-interest. Only when whites have found ourselves menaced by the status quo, and decided that its maintenance would be a considerably worse idea than acceding to change, has change happened. So during the key period of the 1950s and ’60s civil rights movement, absent the pressure generated by the Cold War to present itself as a bastion of democracy and liberty, it is unlikely that white America would have capitulated to change as quickly as it ultimately did.

Likewise — and as John David Skrentny notes in his book, The Ironies of Affirmative Action — absent the urban rebellions of the ’60s, which ultimately scared white America shitless, it is doubtful that affirmative action programs (however limited they may be in securing true racial equity and justice) would have been implemented.

In other words, whatever moral conscience white America as a collective entity may or may not possess (and I wouldn’t suggest placing too large a bet on locating such a social commodity anytime soon), it has not traditionally been that, but rather self-interest that has finally made whites, at least some of us, wake up to the need for a different direction.

Liberals might not like the sound of this. In fact, I’m certain they won’t. They would prefer to believe that a really well-written position paper, explaining why racism and poverty are bad, will finally persuade policymakers to do the right thing. Maybe Congress just hasn’t seen the latest missive from the Children’s Defense Fund, they speculate. Maybe a few more letters to one’s representative. Maybe another demonstration with really catchy placards. Maybe another bumper sticker slapped on one’s car, reading something like, “It will be a great day when schools have all the money they need, and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy another bomber.” Sure, that should do it.

But who are we kidding? The idea that white America (again, as a corporate entity, not as individuals) gives a rat’s ass about doing what’s right, flies in the face of more than a couple hundred years of experience. In 1963, about three-quarters of white Americans, according to Gallup polls, believed that the civil rights movement was moving “too fast” and asking for “too much.” What can be honestly expected from a population as ethically moribund as that? A group that, at the dawning of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, told Gallup that the new anti-discrimination law should be phased in gradually, and should rely mostly on voluntary compliance by employers? A group that, even as recently as the mid-1990s said that although everyone should have equal opportunity to obtain any job, without regard to race, the government shouldn’t actually do anything to ensure equal opportunity in practice?

No, for persons such as this — persons who couldn’t be bothered with more than a split-second glance at race and racism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and who, according to polls, have since retreated back into their shell of denial and evasion on the matter — the truth, however painful, is clear: White America, in the main, has no moral center to which one can appeal any longer, if it ever did. We have been staking everything on the contrary hope for a long time, with very little to show for it. Whatever changes we now celebrate rarely (if ever) stemmed from white folks waking up to the hell we had made for persons of color (whether in the U.S., Africa, colonial Southeast Asia, or anywhere else) and realizing the moral cost of continued oppression.

There have always been ulterior and much more self-interested motives. Lincoln, by his own accounting, went to war not to free black folks (whom he considered inferior and contemplated sending back to Africa had it only been feasible), but to preserve the federal system. White soldiers certainly didn’t slaughter their blood brothers out of love for the sons and daughters of Africa. Indeed, the suggestion that the conflict might be about slavery, so enraged whites in New York (particularly Irish and German immigrants), that they responded to Lincoln’s draft order by rioting–first attacking government buildings, but inevitably moving on to black neighborhoods, burning a black orphanage to the ground in the process.

Thus, as a matter of strategic concern, antiracists will have to do far more than make the moral case for equity. While such a case is still worth pressing, it cannot, alone, be expected to do very much–a fact that, although perhaps not terribly comforting, really shouldn’t bother us in the least. After all, why do folks of color fight racism? Surely it is not out of the goodness of their hearts, or for some altruistic or charitable reason. Rather, it is because racism is deadly, and harms them: Fighting it is a matter of self-interest for people of color. And so what if it is? Do we really wish to suggest that whites should aspire to more noble motives — as if we should be expected to be more selfless than others — in our struggle against racism? Surely not.

So starting with the assumption that whites will not likely sever their attachment to existing systems of privilege and advantage for the “right” reasons, is it at least possible that they might be made to understand how those systems menace them too, every bit as much, if not more than the former Soviet Union ever did, or more than any urban revolt led by the dispossessed? Again, far be it from me to speculate as to what is or is not possible, let alone likely. Figuring out what will and will not motivate white Americans to head to the barricades so as to push for social change is probably a fool’s enterprise in any event. But if such motivation is possible to come by, conjuring it must surely require a healthy dose of what follows.

Understanding the Roots of Modern Crises

While most of the left has long argued that capitalism is the primary impediment to peace and stability — whether economic, ecologic or otherwise — in fact, white world supremacy may be at least as critical, if not more so. Indeed, the extent to which capitalism is itself an outgrowth of European/white supremacy has been underappreciated by most on the left (particularly the white left, for reasons that are probably easy to understand). Marimba Ani, in her classic work Yurugu: An African Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior, and Charles Ephraim, in The Pathology of Eurocentrism, (among others), have argued persuasively that competitive systems of economics did not simply develop naturally, as if by some Marxian edict of logical progression. Rather, they grew principally out of the dualistic mindset so common to European cultural thought and systems, stemming from Platonic and Aristotelian ethics. The splitting off of reason from emotion, now to be seen as conflicting human characteristics, or the splitting of nature from humanity, whereby the latter is seen as in need of controlling the former, and other such dyads, led to the creation of market systems, as well as racism and patriarchy.

Ani explains that Plato laid the groundwork of “an elaborate trap:”

“Once the person was artificially split into conflicting faculties or tendencies, it made sense to think in terms of one faculty ‘winning’ or controlling the other(s). And here begins a pattern that runs with frighteningly predictable consistency throughout European thought…The mind is trained from birth to think in terms of dichotomies or ‘splits,’ (which) become irreconcilable, antagonistic opposites…one is considered ‘good,’ positive, superior; the other is considered ‘bad,’ negative, inferior. And unlike the Eastern conception of the Yin and the Yang, or the African principle of ‘twinness,’ these contrasting terms are not conceived as complementary and necessary parts of a whole. They are, instead, conflicting and ‘threatening’ to one another…it is this dichotomized perception of reality on which the controlling presence (imperialistic behavior) depends.”

To clarify: I am not saying that racism, in modern terms, preceded capitalism or patriarchy. Rather, I am suggesting that a particular way of viewing reality and the world — a dominant cultural paradigm, or what scholars call cosmology — emanating from Europe, having first taken root in ancient Greece and Rome, is what made the class system (ultimately capitalism), the gender system (patriarchy) and the race system (white supremacy) inevitable. All three are essentially European.

What began as a system of cultural imperialism, and Christian religious imperialism, later became racialized, with the creation of the concept of the white race. Although this concept was, as Theodore Allen has noted, largely crafted so as to rationalize oppression of African peoples, and to divide and conquer economically oppressed persons from one another, what Marxist theorists have often ignored is the origin of class conflict itself, which was necessary for either capitalism or racism to blossom. Most Marxists view capitalism as an inevitable stage of development, and thus, see no need to delve further into its culture-specific roots. But can we really view as merely coincidental the fact that the class system and capitalism as we know it developed in and from Europe? Or should we recognize in this something specific, something unique (and uniquely dangerous) about the European worldview?

As Euro/white supremacy developed into a full-blown system of now racialized and color-coded exploitation, it gained new life in the colonies of what would become the United States, and then the U.S. itself, even as the old European empires were beginning to crumble. Thus, white supremacy increasingly came to be a USAmerican product: after all, being expelled from one’s colonial outposts, as happened with the British, the French, the Belgians, the Dutch and the Portuguese, made it increasingly difficult for Europeans to cling to the fantasies of their own inherent superiority. That dream had begun to die, for them, at the hands of Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, and would continue its slow demise throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Likewise, the visible depravity with which Europeans treated one another — with Nazi Germany being only the most extreme example — made the idea of European supremacy harder to swallow, for those actually embedded in the cultures that had brought forth such monstrosities.

But in the U.S., second thoughts have been harder to come by, if for no other reason than the relative insularity, provincialism and even security that being bound by two oceans has long provided and encouraged. It is the American form of white supremacy, still, as with its predecessor rooted in the dichotomization of peoples into good/bad, responsible/irresponsible, which leads a nation such as the U.S. to believe itself entitled to the resources of the earth, be they oil reserves beneath the sands of Iraq, or coal deposits in a West Virginia mountainside. That entitlement mentality precedes the drive for profit, and helps to place it in its proper context. That same mentality then contributes to the world’s ecological predicament, including global climate change, soil and wetland erosion, polluted drinking water and air, and the related health effects of all these.

It is the same white supremacist mindset that leads such a nation to believe itself worthy of dictating which nations around the globe can and cannot have weapons of mass destruction, or develop nuclear energy programs “responsibly.” White nations can, as can Israel–which although not quite as “white” as the lands of Northern Europe, nonetheless is led by mostly European-descended Jews, in contradistinction to the region’s darker, Arab majority. On the other hand, the black and brown are presumed incapable of possessing such munitions, and are to be stopped whenever possible in their quest to do so.

White supremacy, American-style — which has become the dominant form on the planet today — is what leads U.S. policy elites not only to believe an invasion of Iraq on false pretenses is justified, but also to assume it will be a smashing success. The hubris and self-congratulatory narcissism that predicted Americans would be met in the streets by Iraqis throwing flowers to the troops — and which now cannot seem to fathom how badly things are going for the American empire — stems from the mindset of racial and cultural supremacy that simply fails to see oneself through the eyes of others. After all, privilege and domination has allowed that same culture to never really care, or need to care, what others think. The result of such willed ignorance, is, sadly, now proving to be disastrous.

And it was only white Americans who seemed not to envision such a disaster, or to consider the moral implications of such a course of action. After all, prior to the March 2003 invasion, persons of color were largely opposed to the war in Iraq — especially when the prospect of large-scale civilian death there was raised — while whites, especially white men, remained resolute that the slaughter must go on, no matter how many Iraqis had to perish in the process. While black and brown folks, and even white Europeans, took a more nuanced and critical view of American war plans, that special breed of white person who we might call Caucasoid Americanus — who, unlike their European counterparts haven’t (yet) had their attachment to white supremacy tempered by the crumbling of our own version of colonialism — pushed forward, convinced in the righteousness of the cause, and the invincibility of our gung-ho military.

This same mindset has regularly allowed the brushing off of mass death, so long as those doing the dying weren’t white like us. Five hundred thousand Iraqis dead from U.S. sanctions, according even to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright? No problem. At least 30,000 Iraqi civilians dead because of the current war, even according to Bush–who proclaimed this grim (and no doubt highly understated) fact with no more emotion than one might demonstrate when telling another the day’s weather forecast? Again, no problem. It’s worth it: a sentiment most assuredly to be heard as well, and delivered every bit as coolly somewhere deep in the caves of Afghanistan with regard to 9/11. Sorry, but them’s the breaks.

Even the Cold War was seen by many American war planners as a racial, and not merely economic or ideological conflict. Consider what General Edward Rowney, who would become President Reagan’s chief arms negotiator with the Soviets, told Manning Marable in the late 1970s, and which Marable then recounted in his book The Great Wells of Democracy:

“One day I asked Rowney about the prospects for peace, and he replied that meaningful negotiations with the Russian Communists were impossible. ‘The Russians,’ Rowney explained, never experienced the Renaissance, or took part in Western civilization or culture. I pressed the point, asking whether his real problem with Russia was its adherence to communism. Rowney snapped, ‘Communism has nothing to do with it!’ He looked thoughtful for a moment and then said simply, ‘The real problem with Russians is that they are Asiatics’.”

In other words, even the struggle with the Soviet Union, which drained both nations of such resources, helped squander monies that could have been used for human needs, and led to millions of deaths in Africa, Asia and Central America (and the deaths of more than a few U.S. and Russian citizens as well, in places like Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan) was in large measure predicated on a desire to maintain white supremacy. Quite a cost, this system.

White supremacy also cannot prepare for, though it is directly implicated in, the coming energy crunch facing the West. Largely unwilling to move toward renewable energy — because it is less profitable (at least at the present time), and because it fails to satiate the white desire to consume and destroy, thereby demonstrating the power of one’s will and genius — the West ambles into unsustainable and irrational energy policies (like drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or building more refineries and drilling platforms in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf of Mexico). So, too, we maintain our dependence on Middle East oil reserves, not realizing that given a few more years of American imperialism abroad, OPEC may decide they’ve had enough, and choose to stop trading in dollars as their main currency. A shift to the euro on the part of the oil producing nations (something a few of those states have already talked about) would literally cripple the American economy, demonstrating the limits of white supremacy, American style.

In other words, and to put it in colloquial terms, this cowboy shit won’t work for much longer. At some point, the Indians fight back: economically, militarily, socially and culturally. For those seeking an answer to the eternal (and almost exclusively white) question, “Why do they hate us?” you couldn’t do much better than to come to understand the way in which racism and white supremacy, with capitalism and militarism as its primary transmission belts, has been experienced by the brown-skinned persons of the planet.

These are folks, after all, who know (whether at the level of the actual data, or merely intuitively) that a fraction of our culture’s military budget could save millions of lives if redirected to the immunization needs of their nation’s people; that less than a couple of weeks of spending on the war in Iraq could guarantee sanitary water supplies for everyone in the world. That the U.S. in this way could save millions of children from death every year and yet chooses not to do so, speaks volumes about the fundamental evil of the white supremacist mindset, and fairly guarantees the kind of hatred, instability and even terrorism down the line, that Americans have come to fear.

So, for those concerned about terrorism; upset by how the war is going in Iraq; pissed off at the price of gasoline, or worried about the melting of the polar ice caps, extreme weather events, and related environmental catastrophes: Blame white supremacy. For those upset about the unavailability of health care in the U.S., and the unwillingness of this nation to make such a thing a birthright rather than a commodity, blame white supremacy too. After all, the difference between the U.S. and Europe when it comes to providing a wide array of social services has long been the sense that in America “those people” (meaning the black and brown) would suck up too many taxpayer dollars under such initiatives. Racist backlash to welfare programs has then, ironically, limited benefits for whites as well.

And for those concerned about their wages being too low, don’t just lash out at capitalism: blame white supremacy, too. After all, it is the sense that persons working in sweatshops abroad or harvesting our food here at home are not fully human (and certainly not the intellectual or cultural equals of white Americans) that feeds our unwillingness to push for higher wages and better working standards globally, not just the desire for mega-profits in a vacuum.

Likewise, how else (except as a product of a deeply supremacist mind) can we rationalize the words of former World Bank chief economist (and most recently President of Harvard University) Lawrence Summers, who said in a 1991 memo that the West should encourage polluting industries to locate in “less developed countries,” because “health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages.” He went on to explain, “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that,” and that, in his estimation, “under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted.” While such sentiment poses as mere economic hard-headed rationality, in fact it demonstrates a racist contempt for the victims of such policies, which whether deliberate and thought out, or merely so taken for granted as to approach the level of the banal, results in the same thing: dead brown people for the benefit and glory of whites.

Ironically, by keeping the world’s black and brown poor in a state of destitution (or even making it worse, as Summers would prescribe), we guarantee the kind of economic hardship that will encourage businesses to take advantage of their labor — desperate people, after all, will work for shitty wages and in awful conditions — to the detriment of wage rates and benefits in the U.S. as well. And anyone who has a problem linking such cavalier dismissals of human life and worth on the one hand, to “anti-Americanism” and terrorism on the other, demonstrates a profound inability to connect even the most basic of dots.

At some level, perhaps we already know the linkages are real, even as we are loathe to say so out loud. Consider, just for a moment the meaning of a 2004 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, noting that America has a rate of mental illness roughly double the global average, and five times higher than conflict and corruption-torn Nigeria. And not just for any mental disorders, but specifically for “anxiety related” disorders and substance abuse maladies. Why, pray tell would such a thing be true? Why should the most powerful people on the planet — and we can rest assured that as with all clinical studies, whites were likely oversampled and make up the disproportionate bulk of those examined in the U.S. — have more anxiety and feel more stressed than the world’s poor?

Perhaps it is precisely the privilege and power that remains so tightly in our hands, which generates the anxiety, the sense of dread, the fear that provokes such ludicrous concepts as “preventative war,” so as to get them before they get you. Add to the disproportionate power the mindset of competition and greed nurtured by both white supremacy and capitalism and you have the perfect recipe for mass paranoia. As Derrick Jensen explains in The Culture of Make Believe, such a national ethos causes the world, in the eyes of its people, to “devolve into consisting almost entirely of victims and perpetrators, the fuckers and the fucked…You will perceive that everyone is out to get you. And why not? After all, you are certainly out to get them.” In other words, white supremacy is crazy-making, and not only for its targets.

What it all Means for Social Justice Movements

Only by connecting a wide array of global crises to the overriding system of racism and white supremacy can we hope to persuade white folks to kick their addiction to privilege and power. Even that may not work for most, but it certainly stands a better chance than hoping against hope that white America is going to undergo some moral awakening anytime soon. For movement activists and organizers, this means infusing all of our existing projects with an antiracist analysis that seeks to explore the white supremacist roots of the various single-issue and multi-issue crises we face. By forsaking the exposure of this common thread, we risk continuing the isolated and atomistic efforts that make movements weaker, by allowing activists to conceive of their issues as separate and apart from others. In addition, by focusing only on the economic linkages, as white leftists often do, we fail to account for why so many non-ruling class, and even working class whites continue to support regressive and reactionary politicians and their policies–war in Iraq, budget cuts for social services, tax policy favoring the rich, and so on.

The reason for their fealty to such efforts is, of course, that in the short run it makes sense: their interests as whites are furthered by policies that denigrate, locally or globally, the world’s black and brown. So explaining the underlying, albeit destructive rationality to white conservatism on the part of working people is the first step: otherwise, we risk sounding as intellectual scolds, who insist on explaining to the lower classes their “false consciousness,” which to most sounds like an effete way of saying stupidity. They are not stupid. Rather, they are playing the hand as it was dealt to them. But then, by demonstrating that playing that hand is, in the long run, self-destructive — in other words, that there are absolute interests that are sacrificed by maintaining relative advantage and privilege — we might convince a large enough number to trade in one form of rational behavior for another, more lasting one.

Not to mention, stressing the racist roots of our current predicaments will also likely allow a much broader coalition building than we often see at present. If people of color, who are usually far ahead of white folks in their commitment to equality and social justice, see whites willing to take up these issues of racial supremacy and privilege, and connect those to issues of war, peace, ecology and economics, they will be far more willing to work with whites on projects of joint concern. At present, white liberal and left dismissal of the role of race and privilege in antiwar and environmental work, often fractures would-be alliances and prevents movements from gaining in both strength and militancy, with obvious results that are none too good for said movements.

In other words, we must utterly reconstruct our existing movements for social change, from the bottom up, so as to make them antiracist in both analysis and action. This means refusing to work with activists and organizations unwilling to bring an understanding of white supremacy and privilege to their work: quitting, not going to the meetings, not attending the marches, not giving such efforts your money or your time, no matter how much you support their goals. This means insisting so long as you are in such contingencies that a comprehensive discussion of the racial roots of these problems be brought to the fore. It means insisting on following leaders of color in local and national groups who are struggling with daily issues of survival, and assisting with their efforts, in any way they deem necessary: prioritizing their issues, and demonstrating ones commitment to racial justice and equity as a first order of business. It means standing up as whites and challenging white supremacy and privilege, in ones community and one’s activist groups, even at the risk of being ostracized, criticized and ignored. The key is doing this in a way that makes clear one is acting not so as to save folks of color, but because one sees that racism and white supremacy are at the root of the crises that menace us all. Making this argument clearly will allow us to avoid the anger/guilt response so common to whites when racism is discussed — in other words, the feeling that one is being blamed for hurting others and asked to make amends only for their behalf — and instead focus on self-interest (in the broad, communal sense of the term) as a motivator for action.

In short, the project is to pathologize whiteness, white privilege, and institutional white supremacy. It is to make white culture — the dominant cultural form on the planet today — the problem, the enemy, not only of folks of color, but of whites too. It is to demonstrate that white supremacy is not only homicidal to the black and brown but suicidal to those of us who are members of the club that created it. For thirty years or more we’ve been subjected to one or another analysis, policy paper or best-selling book that sought to pathologize black folks, black culture, and black behavior. Blaming the victim has been elevated to high art in such a short time as this. Only by flipping that script and demonstrating that we have not a “Negro problem” (as it used to be said in the 60s) but rather a “white problem,” are we likely to have a future at all, let alone one to which we should look forward.

On the bright side, we can always take heart in the realization that former white empires, imbued with every bit as messianic and self-assured a mentality of supremacy (and the wealth and power in each case to back up that mindset), ultimately crumbled. They overreached, planted the seeds of their own destruction with their hubris, and ultimately bumped up against the limits of their own ambition, and the immovable will of their victims to finally stop dying en masse.

On the far less bright side, we must recall that the end of those empires came at the expense of many millions of gallons of human blood and tons of human bones, whether spilled and stacked by King Leopold, Hitler, Stalin, or the South African Boers. One can hope that the end of the American Empire will come with fewer spasms of orgiastic violence than these past collapses, that somehow the end will come more peacefully. But the willingness of fading tyrants to bring others down with them is so great, such hope may be more wishful thinking than anything else.

If we wish to see the end of this Empire (and surely we should know that others around the globe are literally dying for such an outcome, and quickly), we must do all in our power to make clear its dangers to others and ourselves. We must attack it from within, not because we hate America (whatever, at long last, that is supposed to mean), but because we love ourselves, our children, and the children of the world more. Because we are tired of being afraid.

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