Whiteness, NSA Spying and the Irony of Racial Privilege

It’s not that I’m not angry.

It’s not that I’m not disturbed, even horrified by the fact that my government thinks it appropriate to spy on people, monitoring their phone calls — to whom we speak and when — among other tactics, all in the supposed service of the national interest.

That any government thinks it legitimate to so closely monitor its people is indicative of the inherent sickness of nation-states, made worse in the modern era, where the power to intrude into the most private aspects of our lives is more possible than ever, thanks to the data-gathering techniques made feasible by technological advance.

That said, I also must admit to a certain nonchalance in the face of the recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s snooping into phone records, and the dust-up over the leaking of the NSA’s program by Ed Snowden. And as I tried to figure out why I wasn’t more animated upon hearing the revelations — and, likewise, why so many others were — it struck me. Those who are especially chapped about the program, about the very concept of their government keeping tabs on them — in effect profiling them as potential criminals, as terrorists — are almost entirely those for whom shit like this is new: people who have never before been presumed criminal, up to no good, or worthy of suspicion.

In short, they are mostly white. And male. And middle-class or above. And most assuredly not Muslim.

And although I too am those things, perhaps because I work mostly on issues of racism, white privilege and racial inequity — and because my mentors and teachers have principally been people of color, for whom things like this are distressingly familiar — the latest confirmation that the U.S. is far from the nation we were sold as children is hardly Earth-shattering. After all, it is only those who have had the relative luxury of remaining in a child-like, innocent state with regard to the empire in which they reside who can be driven to such distraction by something that, compared to what lots of folks deal with every day, seems pretty weak tea.

As Yasuragi, a blogger over at Daily Kos reminded us last week:

(This is) the nation that killed protesters at Jackson and Kent State Universities…The nation that executed Fred Hampton in his bed, without so much as a warrant. The nation that still, still, still holds Leonard Peltier in prison. The nation that supported Noriega, the Shah, Trujillo, and dozens of other fascist monsters who did nothing but fuck over their own people and their neighbors. The nation of Joseph McCarthy and his current-day descendants. The nation that allows stop-and-frisk.

Before all that: The nation that enforced Jim Crow laws. Before that, the nation that built itself on slavery and the slave trade. And before all of that, the nation that nearly succeeded in the genocide of this continent’s indigenous peoples.

So why are you so surprised that our government is gathering yottabytes of data on our phone calls?

Let’s be clear, it’s not that the NSA misdeeds, carried out by the last two administrations, are no big deal. They’re completely indefensible, no matter the efforts of the apologists for empire — from the corporate media to President Obama to Dick Cheney — to legitimize them. A free people should not stand for it.

Problem is, we are not a free people and never have been, and therein lies the rub.

The idea that with this NSA program there has been some unique blow struck against democracy, and that now our liberties are in jeopardy is the kind of thing one can only believe if one has had the luxury of thinking they were living in such a place, and were in possession of such shiny baubles to begin with. And this is, to be sure, a luxury enjoyed by painfully few folks of color, Muslims in a post-9/11 America, or poor people of any color. For the first, they have long known that their freedom was directly constrained by racial discrimination, in housing, the justice system and the job market; for the second, profiling and suspicion have circumscribed the boundaries of their liberties unceasingly for the past twelve years; and for the latter, freedom and democracy have been mostly an illusion, limited by economic privation in a class system that affords less opportunity for mobility than fifty years ago, and less than most other nations with which we like to compare ourselves.

In short, when people proclaim a desire to “take back our democracy” from the national security apparatus, or for that matter the plutocrats who have ostensibly hijacked it, they begin from a premise that is entirely untenable; namely, that there was ever a democracy to take back, and that the hijacking of said utopia has been a recent phenomenon. But there wasn’t and it hasn’t been.

Reaction to the most recent confirmation of this truth ranks right along with the way so many were stunned by the September 11 attacks. The shock in that instance also came from a place of naiveté, wrought by the luxury of believing that the rest of the world viewed us as we did: as a paragon of virtue, which had brought only light and happiness to the world, rather than military occupations, hellfire missiles, brutal and crippling economic sanctions, and support for dictators so long as they were serving our presumed interests. But some people — and again, they were mostly black and brown — were not stunned at all. Having long had no choice but to see the nation’s warts for what they were, and having never possessed the benefit of viewing America as most whites had, peoples of color, while horrified by that day’s events, were hardly likely to be knocked off stride by them. They had always known what it was like to be hated. And hunted. And solely because of who they were.

For myself, I long ago stopped being shocked by anything the empire did in the service of its continuity. Ever since I was in college, and it was revealed that the Central American solidarity group of which I was a member was being actively spied on by the FBI, I’ve taken it as a matter of faith that such things were probably happening, and that it would have been silly to the point of idiotic for me to assume such surveillance were a one-off thing, confined to the inner-workings of the Reagan Administration.

By 1988, at which point I was still a Democrat — hoping against hope to turn that party in a truly left direction — the realization that the government was actively spying on its citizens was fully concretized for me. It was then that I was disallowed from riding in a campaign motorcade for Michael Dukakis (despite being the head of the largest College Democrats chapter in the New Orleans area), because my activism against U.S. policy in Nicaragua and El Salvador had earned me an FBI file and caused me to fail a Secret Service background check.

So yeah, the government is spying on you precious. And now you’re pissed?

This is the irony of privilege: the fact that some have for so long enjoyed it, in its largely unfettered state, is precisely why some of those those same persons are now so exorcised at the thought of potentially being treated like everyone else has been, forever; and it is also why the state was able to get away with it for such an extended period. So long as the only possible targets were racial and religious and class others, shock and outrage could be kept at a minimum. And so the apparatus of profiling and monitoring and snooping and data collection and even targeted assassination grew like mushrooms in the dark. And deep down, most of the same white folks who are now so unhinged by the mere possibility — and a remote one at that — that they will be treated like those others, knew what was going on.

And they said little or nothing. White liberals — with some notable exceptions — mostly clucked their tongues and expressed how unfortunate it was that certain people were being profiled, but they rarely spoke out publicly, or challenged those not-so-random searches at the airport, or dared to challenge cops when they saw them harassing, or even brutalizing the black and brown. Plenty of other issues were more pressing. The white conservatives, of course, largely applauded either or both of those.

And now, because they mostly ignored (or even in some cases cheered) the violations of Constitutional rights, so long as the violations fell upon someone other than themselves, they are being freshly confronted with the surly adolescent version of the infant to which they gave birth, at least indirectly. And they aren’t too happy with his insolence.

Yeah, well, tell it to pretty much every Arab American, every Persian American, every Afghan American, everyone with a so-called Middle Eastern name walking through an airport in this country for the past decade or more. Tell them how now you’re outraged by the idea that the government might consider you a potential terrorist.

Tell it to the hundreds of thousands of black men in New York, stopped and frisked by the NYPD over the past fifteen years, whose names and information were entered into police databases, even though they had committed no crime, but just as a precautionary measure, in case they ever decided to commit one. Tell them how tight it makes you to be thought of as a potential criminal, evidence be damned.

Tell it to brown folks in Arizona, who worry that the mere color of their skin might provoke a local official, operating on the basis of state law (or a bigoted little toad of a sheriff), to stop them and force them to prove they belong in the country. Explain to them how patently offensive and even hurtful it is to you to be presumed unlawful in such a way as to provoke official government suspicion.

Tell it to the veterans of the civil rights struggle whose activities — in the Black Panthers, SNCC, the Young Lords, the Brown Berets, and the American Indian Movement, among others — were routinely monitored (and more to the point actively disrupted and ripped apart) by government intelligence agencies and their operatives. Tell them how incredibly steamed you are that your government might find out what websites you surf, or that you placed a phone call last Wednesday to someone, somewhere. Make sure to explain how such activities are just a step away from outright tyranny and surely rank up there alongside the murder and imprisonment to which their members were subjected. Indeed.

And then maybe, just maybe, consider how privilege — being on the upside, most of the time, of systems of inequality — can (and has) let you down, even set you up for a fall. How maybe, just maybe, all the apoplexy mustered up over the NSAs latest outrage, might have been conjured a long time ago, and over far greater outrages, the burdens of which were borne by only certain persons, and not others.

And yes, I know full well that some were speaking out, loudly and clearly from the start and have never stopped. I am not speaking to them (to you?), so relax (after all, if what I’m saying doesn’t apply to you, why so defensive, buttercup?) But so too, there are those who know (perhaps you?) if they are among those who, like Rand Paul or Glenn Beck or — for that matter — Edward Snowden had never before raised too much fuss about those other things, until it began to potentially affect them and people like them.

Or provide them an opportunity for some publicity. Hero worship. Perhaps (at least in their own minds) martyrdom?

Maybe it is time to remind ourselves that the only things worse than what this government and its various law enforcement agencies do in secret, are the things they’ve been doing blatantly, openly, but only to some for a long time now.

This nation’s government has killed hundreds of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan, openly, in front of the world.

This nation’s sanctions on Iraq in the ’90s contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands more, by the admission of Secretary of State Albright. All of it, out in the open. No secrets.

This nation stood by and even helped propagate massacre after massacre — an attempted genocide even — in Guatemala throughout the 1980s; and not only did we not hide that we were doing it, President Reagan openly praised the architects of the slaughter while proclaiming they were committed to social justice.

We incarcerate 2.5 million people — and have roughly 7 million people under the control of the justice system in all — openly, and increasingly for non-violent offenses: more than any nation on Earth.

We have the highest child poverty rate in the developed world, and there is nothing secret about it. Our leaders don’t even care about covering it up. In fact, an awful lot of them just don’t care. At all.

These are the crimes of empire. These and a lot more. And it didn’t take Edward Snowden to tell you about them. They’ve been hiding in plain sight for a long time.

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