During the past couple of years a number of horrific events – most notably, the police shootings/killings of black citizens – have brought the issue of institutional racism to the forefront of mainstream politics and social life, leading many to admit that it is certainly one of the most deep-rooted and violent features of American culture. Recent movements like Black Lives Matter have done a good job of shedding light on the effects of this racism, but I’d like to examine the logic behind some common rhetoric I’ve been hearing when people speak out against racial inequality in this country.
During the last year, I have noticed that something appears again and again in anti-racism rhetoric: the appeal to American ideals, such as freedom, justice, and equality. In appealing to these ideals, these speakers/writers argue that these rights, which are promised to all Americans yet given only to some, should at last be extended to all Americans. During the campaign last year, I remember hearing Hillary Clinton respond to Trump’s bigotry by saying things like “that’s not who we are” or “that’s not what we stand for.” It was some recurring claim that “we” Americans have certain noble values and that Trump was threatening them. It’s as if she thought that Americans had established a feasible path towards equality and justice and that Trump wanted to lead us off that path.
I find this to be not only problematic but ultimately a failure to engage the white power structure in all its vastness. These American values, benevolent as they may seem, are totally wrapped up in an ideology of American exceptionalism that ultimately bolsters up a world-wide hierarchy in which white people rule over the bodies, lands, and resources of brown people.¹ When we seek to extend things like “freedom” and “equality” to black people in this country, we forget that the freedom granted to anyone inside this country is directly dependent on the unfreedom of people outside of this country.
This might sound strange at first, but let me explain. What is it that “allows” or “protects” our freedom? The answer is guns. The military. “National security.” Killing off Native Americans was the first act of “national security” that initially granted the white people here their freedom.² This logic has not changed. If you find that doubtful, simply observe the dying Syrian refugees, whose brown lives are daily sacrificed because of the mere potential of endangering white lives here at home. (Of course, the US is not the only guilty party in many cases. Europe and other world powers often inflict their own brands of imperialistic violence, but as the largest empire in the history of the world, the US has the most significant impact and therefore should be the first to be held accountable. For an in-depth analysis of this problem, see Judith Butler’s chapter on “Violence, Mourning, Politics” in Precarious Life. Butler examines the American attitude towards innocent Afghan lives that the US military destroyed in the war and links it to a violent post-9/11 obsession with national security.) Our logic says that the certain death of innocent brown lives is most definitely worth the securing of white lives here. Just think about that. Really think about it. It probably doesn’t seem that crazy to you because we’ve been trained to see brown lives as disposable, especially if they’re somewhere else.
We think that the refugee crises have nothing to do with us, when in fact, a vast majority of the tragedies and horrible conditions that people are suffering on this earth are the fault of the great United States, its policies, and its capitalist endeavors. We cause instability in the Middle East. We tear down self-sufficient democracies in Central and South America.³ We overtly claim ownership over the land and the humans of the African continent, a most violent and rapacious practice that continues today.4 We wreak havoc that ultimately leads to all kinds of suffering and refugee crises all over the world. Why? Oil, other natural resources, and the “security” necessary to protect this wealth. The most ironic example is the fact that we cause the crises that end up leading refugees to escape into the US from Mexico, Central America, and South America, and then we get to decide whether they enter, as if their need to flee had nothing to do with us.
If you’re having trouble understanding how this works, think about the Hunger Games. The United States is the Capitol. The Capitol oppresses and terrorizes the people in the districts (who represent the rest of the world, minus those belonging to the West…unless we could say that Europe is the privileged districts 1 and 2?). The natural resources and the cheap labor of these districts fuels the wealth of the Capitol, producing “freedom” and a comfortable life for the citizens of the Capitol. Even though the Capitol is the oppressor, people from the districts might desire to escape into the Capitol in order to make better lives for themselves and their families (the American dream). The citizens of the Capitol probably consume endless propaganda in their education system, which allows them believe that they have earned their wealth through their own hard work and has rendered them oblivious to the fact that they are in fact a collective parasite that feeds off of the districts. Therefore, if they were to see the poor people of the districts and see that these people would rather live in the Capitol, the citizens of the Capitol might experience a self-righteous pity towards these people and would likely want to put them through something like “extreme vetting” before they so graciously allow these outsiders into their land. Of course, these outsiders had better not be lazy, because everything is achieved through one’s own hard work here in the Capitol. As we saw in the third and fourth films, in which the rebels breach the Capitol, the Capitol invests heavily in its security. It not only fortifies its own borders, but also periodically sends the military (“peacekeepers”) out to the districts to surveille the masses and maintain order. Throughout the film, many disasters and much suffering occurs in the districts. As viewers, we know that the Capitol is to blame for these things. But in real life, we Americans are often much more akin to the citizens of the Capitol. We see the tragedies that happen “out there” or “overseas” and imagine that they are not our fault. We may respond self-righteously, or we may elect to send humanitarian aid. Either way, we are blind to our relationship to the rest of the world. We are so distracted, so inward-looking, that we cannot see that we are to blame.
You might be thinking, “okay, cool rant about the Hunger Games, but what does this have to do with racism against black people in America?” That’s a good question. I’m saying two things: 1) focusing only on the rights of people within this country ignores the fact that those rights depend on the economic exploitation of many, many people outside this country and 2) in failing to look outward as well as inward, we forget that the history of racism against black people in America is rooted not in America, but in global white imperialism.
I recently watched the first season of a Netflix original series called “Dear White People.” The show offered up a variety of perspectives on both systemic and individual racism against black people in America (particularly in the setting of an Ivy League college). Near the end of the season, [***spoiler alert***] a character named Reggie has a gun pulled on him by a cop at a party for no good reason. After the traumatic incident, Reggie goes to a poetry reading to recite a poem that he wrote inspired by his experience. The poem begins with a quote from the Declaration of Independence and then veers off into his own interpretation:
We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,
among these – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,
unless you’re loud and Black and possess an opinion,
then all you get is a bullet,
a bullet that held me at bay,
a bullet that can puncture my skin,
take all my dreams away,
a bullet that can silence the words that I speak
to my mother just because I’m other.
A bullet held me captive,
gun in my face, your hate misplaced.
White skin, light skin, but for me, not the right skin.
Judging me with no crime committed.
Reckless trigger finger itching to prove your worth,
by disproving mine.
My life in your hands,
My life on the line.
Fred Hampton. Tamir Rice. Rekia Boyd. Reggie Green?
Spared by a piece of paper,
a student ID that you had to see before you could identify me,
and set me supposedly free.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,
for some of us, maybe.
There’s nothing self-evident about it.
(Taken from the Netflix Tumblr account)
While I completely agree with Reggie’s claim that the rights of black people in America are never protected in the way that white people’s are, I think his idealization of American rights obscures the means by which we achieve and maintain these rights. Bringing all of the many marginalized groups of people in America, whose rights are not respected or protected, into the fold of those whose rights are protected will not alter the fact that our freedoms (as they operate today) manufacture the unfreedom of those outside our borders.
To truly work towards eradicating racism and inequality, we need to let go of the fantasy that these American ideals are achievable or even desirable. When you realize that this country was founded on genocide and slave labor, you will start to see how these racist systems of oppression are necessarily inscribed in our founding documents and our American values. To achieve freedom and equality and justice, we can’t just bring more people into the fold of the privileged. Instead, we have to pull everyone out of privilege. “Security” cannot exist alongside freedom. As long as we limit the scope of our critiques of race relations to the structure within our borders, we miss the point.
1 Here’s one specific example of how this works.
2 See the first chapter of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
3 Noam Chomsky deals with these events at length in many of his writings and speeches.
4 See Kwame Nkrumah’s 1965 book titled Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism, the introduction and last chapter of which can be found online.