The Two-Headed Hydra of Racism and Imperialism

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Black Lives Matter (BLM) has raised mass consciousness against the institution of police violence and the brutality it inflicts on Black communities around the country. The movement has placed the question of police brutality at the top of the political and juridical reform agenda. The naked display of the oppressive state apparatus has now forced everyone, from the fascist residents of the White House to the liberal democrats of the House, politicians speak of the need to reform policing–more training, more screening, more record-keepings, judicial vigilance, and other haphazard sutures for the centuries old wounds. Many observers have pointed out the depth of this chronic pain and different ways it might be remedied.

Here I would like to propose that this acutely American dilemma needs to be viewed and explicated in close relation to U.S colonialism and imperialism. Race relations in the U.S. and the violence with which the country operates has always been accompanied by the civilizing logic of colonial expansion and imperialist wars that the United States has raged around the world. The two heads of the hydra of imperialism and racism stem from the same body of the political order that defined this imperialized nation from its inception. So long as the American war machine runs on high gear, leaving destruction, devastation, and death around the world, here at home, Black Americans will not be treated as equal citizens. Drone attacks overseas are inherently linked to the murderous impulse of the police against Black Americans.

The concomitant rise of liberal political philosophy and modern colonialism is an established historical fact. One might still question whether colonialism and the atrocities through which it expanded ought to be regarded as an aberration in liberal thought or as an inherent feature of its worldview. But one thing is clear, the British and American founding fathers of liberalism did not understand democracy and colonialism in mutually exclusive terms, both were understood to be different elements of the same civilizing project. Far from contradicting liberal tenets, writes Uday Mehta, imperialism in fact stemmed from liberal assumptions about reason and historical progress. Evoking the same sentiment, more than a century ago, Jamal al-Afghani (1838-1897), the anti-colonial Muslim transnationalist, ridiculed the seemingly incongruous attitude of British colonialists in India: “They drew their swords to cut the throats of the Muslims, while weeping for them and crying: ‘We kill you only out of compassion and pity for you, and seeking to improve you and make your life comfortable.’”

No other liberal philosopher has articulated and justified this contradiction better that J. S. Mill. His philosophy made clear the entanglement of liberal political thought with colonial expansion. John Stuart, like his father James, Mill was an employee of the British East India Company. But economic interest alone cannot explain his ideological commitment to the idea of progress and the higher civilization that the British afforded the backward Indians. He believed that the transmission of civilization to colonized subject could only materialize through a benevolent despotism. “England,” J. S. Mill believed, “had a right to rule despotically because it brought the benefits of higher civilization.” In a chilling assertion in his Principles of Political Economy, he declared that “the question of government intervention in the work of Colonization involves the future and permanent interests of civilization itself.”

There is no doubt that the plunder of human and natural resources of the colonies shaped imperial expansions. But the reality that the inhabitants of Africa, Asia, Oceana, and South America were all subjected to these atrocities has roots in a racialized worldview that gave legitimacy to Europeans to situate themselves on top of the racial hierarchy as the torch bearers of reason and progress. Th light of the world was the Europeans’ gift to all nations to overcome their superstitions, ignorance, tyranny, and backwardness. The light was lit by prey and pray, by plunder and proselytizing, by power and pauperization, and by pots and pans.

Despite her own prejudicial views on race, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt highlights that it was European imperialists who initially reordered “mankind into master and slave races, into higher and lower breeds, into colored peoples and white men” during their conquest and exploitation of much of Asia, Africa and America. That is how the ruling classes “imperialized the nation,” by expanding and acquiring new territories abroad and by solidifying and policing racial hierarchies at home. Expressed in no ambiguous terms by Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president during the Great War, the goal was clear, “to keep the white race strong” and to preserve “white civilization and its domination of the planet.”

The eugenicist structure of the white supremacy that motivated great European and American ruling classes operated with great consistency within and outside national boundaries. The same generals who led the American conquest of the Philippines in 1898-1902 fought the wars of annihilations against American Indians at home. One of them, Brigadier General Jacob H Smith, explicitly stated in his order to the troops that “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn the better it will please me.” More than 200,000 civilians were massacred during the war. During a Senate hearing on the atrocities in the Philippines, General Arthur MacArthur (father of Douglas) referred to the “magnificent Aryan peoples” he belonged to and the “unity of the race” he felt compelled to uphold.

At the end of both world wars, sustaining the purity of whiteness and racial boundaries became increasingly challenging. The world wars shook the old structure of colonialism to its core. But that did nothing to change the colonial powers’ perception of racial superiority. Learning from the experiences of the two wars, the emerging superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, entered a “Cold War” that meant that superpowers ought not to fight their wars in the European theater. Cold War was a misnomer. Proxy wars raged around the world and claimed more than 20 Million lives from 1946 to 1989. The old colonial structures had collapsed, but the propagated racialized ideology that peoples of Asia, Africa, Latin and Central America were incapable of exercising the right of self-determination persisted.

As the atrocities of American superpower proliferated around the world, Black Americans struggled for recognition of political rights and social justice at home. Despite legal gains, the ideology that incentivized the U.S. to commit mass murder around the globe, disincentivized it to put in place meaningful structural changes that would recognize racial hierarchies that informed the existing political order. The growing black population in Europe, Afro-Caribbean, North African, and South Asians among others, forced European states to face the consequences of their colonial past on the streets of Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London. What the authors of The Empire Strikes Back wrote almost forty years ago about the United Kingdom eerily resonates today with Trump’s America that “the construction of an authoritarian state in Britain is fundamentally intertwined with the elaboration of popular racism.” The kind of racism that has historically been exercised through colonialism, slavery, segregation, ghettoization, militarized border controls and mass incarceration.

Racism was and is not about an attitude. Rather, it is the problem of a political order that sustains and perpetuate that attitude through a complex system of legal and economic institutions at home and around the world. Black Lives Matter protests has now razed or forced the local and federal agencies to remove monuments that celebrated the legacies of slavery, lynching, and segregation. Corporate America now “recognizes” the pandemic of racism. Nike employees were offered a paid holiday on Juneteenth. The same goes for workers at Twitter, Target, General Motors, the National Football League and a variety of other businesses. JPMorgan, Chase, Capital One and other banks will close branches early. All those institutions that maintain and perpetuate the dominance of racism and imperialism are at work hard to coopt the movement. Centuries of racism in the Untied States will not wane by bringing down statues or tearing down monuments, despite their significant symbolic values, or having a half-day off at JPMorgan. The entire American political order, economic organization, and social hierarchies are informed by the question of race and a commitment to white supremacy. The veneer of great American ideology of meritocracy and opportunity is crumbling. America needs that ideology, the “American dream,” a myth that turned the land of slavery and indigenous annihilation into the land of milk and honey. “This mythology is not benign, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explores, “it serves as the United States’ self-declared invitation to intervene militarily and economically around the globe.” The United States needs to conceal its racial injustices at home in order to advance and legitimize its imperialist ambitions around the globe.

Police brutality is inextricably linked to the military industrial complex. This link is not only through the sales of surplus hardware, uniforms, and other equipment. Yes, the military leadership stood firm against Trump’s recent transgressions and reminded him that the military cannot get involved in suppressing the right of protest for American citizens. But since its inception, the same military has operated as the instrument of imperialist projects that carried out mass murders and subjugated people of color around the world. In his recent book, Jakarta Method: Washington’s anti-Communist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World, Vincent Bivens shows how the U.S. masterminded the project of annihilation of communists and members of labor unions in Indonesia during the 1965 coup against the nationalist leader Sukarno. Although all the documents about the CIA involvement in the coup that brought the tyrannical regime of Suharto to power are not yet released, those declassified documents show how the CIA operatives provided the names of the unionists and members of the Indonesian Communist Party to death squads for extermination. According to more conservative estimates between 500,000 to one million people were massacred during the coup. More than one million were sent to concentrations camps many of whom vanished. Later it became evident, as Bivens discloses, that it wasn’t only US government officials who handed over kill lists to the Army. Managers of US-owned plantations furnished them with the names of “troublesome” communists and union organizers, who were then murdered.

What Bivens uncovers is that the extermination project in Indonesia, became a model for the U.S. covert operations in Latin and Central America. “Jakarta,” the capital of Indonesia, in this new sinister vocabulary of political oppression became the code word for massacre of civilians. In Brazil, Operação Jacarta became the modus operandi of the military junta. In 1971, in eastern parts of Santiago, up in the hills where many supporters of President Allende lived, a short message was plastered on the walls. “Jakarta se acerca” (“Jakarta is Coming”)! Or sometimes, simply, “Jakarta.”

I do not intend to provide an exhaustive list of atrocities committed by the United State around the world in the name of democracy, in defense of freedom. I bring this up to insist that Black American will not be recognized as equal citizens so long as people of color around the world remain subjected to the brutality of imperialized nations such as the United States of America. The drones that kill the Iraqi, Yemeni, Pakistani, Somali civilians, the bombs, the fighter jets, the missiles and guns that are sold to the tyrants, they are all parts of the same system of oppression that brutalizes Black Americans. The Palestinians know the meaning of ghettoization in American cities. The immigrants who are dehumanized by ICE understand the depth of police brutality and the meaning of murder with impunity. These voices need to hear one another. Black America has given voice to a global movement.

Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi is an Iranian-born American historian, sociologist, and professor.