The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics IX
It is not surprising that a good portion of even mainstream America should have unequivocally condemned the display in Charlottesville of right-wing terrorism. President Trump cannot be counted among those who came down swiftly on the neo-Nazis and their kinsmen. He did not merely prevaricate but, in a scarcely veiled attempt to exonerate “white supremacists”, took it upon himself to condemn “all extremist groups”—though even this disapprobation was late in coming—before, on August 15th, stating with greater conviction in his pathetically juvenile English that “there is blame on both sides”: “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.” To take only the examples of prominent public figures who cannot remotely be accused of having a liberal disposition, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan described the white supremacists as “repugnant”, while Senator John McCain called them “traitors” on his Twitter account. Even Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, whose own commitment to civil rights is, to put it mildly, exceedingly questionable, but who as the country’s chief law-enforcement officer must at least put forward the semblance of some respect for the rule of law, was moved to admit that “the violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice.”
The widespread outrage over white extremist violence that followed has doubtless been genuine. The liberal constituency in the US is considerable, and most people in that community do not condone violence, at least not right-wing violence directed against other Americans. Moreover, one can even subscribe to racist sentiments and yet forswear violence. In the frenetic world of social media, the hashtag #thisisnotus was at once embraced by thousands. They may have done so to bring to mind the better possibilities that reside in the American self and to invoke a necessary political solidarity for the present. And yet I have the inescapable feeling that the crass affirmation, “this is not us”, creates a much smaller place for reflection and dialog than the unthinkable: #thisisallofus. One could invoke, of course, “the hooded Americanism” that historians of the KKK have documented in such meticulous detail, or the lynchings that were invitations to Sunday picnics in Jim Crow South[i]; one could also point, if one stretched one’s canvas beyond the cruel deprivations to which black America has been subjected, to the genocidal tendencies that have conspicuously been part of the grand design of making and keeping America “great”. Just how do these disingenuous expressions of outrage permit whiteness to remain unscathed even as white supremacists are banished, as they should be, to the realm of the barbaric and the unforgiveable?
White supremacism necessarily entails a profound adherence to whiteness, but (to borrow a phrase from the scholar George Lipsitz) “the possessive investment in whiteness” runs deep through American culture and only manifests itself as white nationalist ideology or outright fascist-style violence occasionally. A large and increasingly growing body of commentary by liberals and left-leaning scholars has now made the idea of ‘white privilege’ a familiar part of American political discourse. Such white privilege takes many forms, some obvious and others scarcely so, commencing with the assumption that is tantamount to the original sin, namely that America belongs to white people just as white people can rightfully, naturally, and preemptively call America their own. The white American, unlike the African-American, Japanese-American, or Chinese-American, has never had to be hyphenated: as Roland Barthes would have it, he belongs to the realm of the exnominated, those who never have to be named, those who can be universalized and whose rules become everyone else’s rules (Mythologies, 1972, trans. Annette Lavers [New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux]). There are other less transparent forms of whiteness, though with even a little prodding they can be easily excavated. Such, to take one example from studies of environmental racism, is the notion that non-white communities should have to bear the burden of toxic and nuclear wastes, pollutants, and the garbage produced in everyday life.
White privilege is perhaps best witnessed in the mounting critiques over US immigration policy and affirmative action in higher education. The Trump regime has, contrary to common opinion, little interest in stemming illegal immigration; by law, those who are in the US “illegally” can be summarily deported. This is apart from the consideration that illegal immigrants are an invaluable asset to the American economy. To understand the true import of pervasive anti-immigrant sentiments, it is sufficient to understand that the slogan, ‘Take America Back’, means nothing but taking America back to the period before the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which made possible Asian and African migration into the US and thereby slowly but surely altered the social fabric of American life. “Make America Great Again” is not only a slogan calling for the revival of manufacturing in the United States and once again turning the country into the predominant industrial power in the world: it is also a call to make American white again. It is thus legal, rather than illegal, immigrants who pose by the greater problem for those who would like to see the US restored as a principally white dominion.
Similarly, the massive white unrest over affirmative action occludes two facts. First, as every study has shown, and as is confirmed by a recent New York Times analysis extending to 100 universities, including Ivy League institutions and the flagship public universities, black and Hispanic students are today more rather than less underrepresented at such institutions than they were 35 years ago. More significantly, it is almost never conceded that the entire system of higher education is effectively the consequence of an unwritten code of affirmative action over decades on behalf of white students. It is white entitlement, not supposedly the lower bar for admission for blacks and Hispanics, that has kept Asian Americans from predominating in elite American institutions.
In speaking of “the possessive investment in whiteness”, George Lipsitz was adverting to something more than white privilege; indeed, the more compelling part of his argument resides in the claim that “all communities of color suffer from the possessive investment in whiteness, but not in the same way.”[ii] Immigrant communities have, in their own fashion, sought to claim whiteness, or at least an approximation to it; whiteness has entered into the sinews, pores, arteries of American society. Ironically, much of white America hasn’t quite fathomed its own overwhelming success; if it had, white Americans would not be staging, as they are today, a new secessionist movement. Robert E. Lee, at least, would have understood the animated and largely cliché-ridden dispute over Confederate statues as fundamentally a proxy war over whiteness. Even as he might have looked askance at having his own statues knocked down, he would likely have been pleased that the idea of secessionism continues to thrive.
[i] On the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings in the US, I would point readers to a few works, among them: Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971, reprint ed., 1995); David M. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, 3rd ed. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1987); and Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond, ed. Anne P. Rice (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003).
[ii] See George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 184.
The two pars of this article were first published as a single piece in somewhat shorter form as “Whiteness and Its Dominion: Letter from America”, in the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai) 52, no. 35 (2 September 2017).