“Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.”
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
The crimes are too many to list. The immensity is obvious. The individual homicides, in the US, UK, and Australia for example, of Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Christopher Alder, Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell, Ms. Dhu, Tanya Day, David Dungay, the 40,555 (and counting) dead refugees and migrants, victims of Fortress Europe’s cruel policies, and so many more, are all part of a crime against humanity, perpetrated or condoned by states. A glance at the International Criminal Court’s definition should be enough to confirm this:
“a widespread or systematic attack knowingly directed against any civilian population: murder; extermination; enslavement; deportation or forcible transfer of population; imprisonment; torture; rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; persecution against an identifiable group on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender grounds; enforced disappearance of persons; the crime of apartheid; or other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious bodily or mental injury.”
Yet it’s not enough to confirm this because, if a crime against humanity is to be recognized as such, the human status of the victim must also be recognized. The fire that has destroyed the refugee camp in Moria, Lesbos after months of unheeded warnings from aid workers that the appalling conditions in the camp were going to lead to catastrophe, raises this question. Injured refugees fleeing from the fire were teargassed by police who blocked their access to medical treatment. Most of the refugees are from Afghanistan. The Basque lawyer and journalist Hibai Arbide Aza gets to the nitty-gritty of their dehumanization: “If European public opinion believed that they were people this would be a scandal of incredible dimensions”. Dehumanization of the “other” is a key strategy in the racist playbook, not least because the imposition of subhuman status places people outside legal protection. Racial profiling, use of exorbitant and sometimes lethal force by police, the influence of race in death-penalty decisions, disproportionate prosecutions, unfair trials, deaths in custody, humiliating treatment, sexual abuse, and shooting of members of marginalized groups are all well-documented examples of “legal” offences against non-white citizens.
But what is racism? It’s the asinine belief that groups of humans with different superficial traits can be thus classified as superior and inferior, and it’s based on pseudo-biological notions, mainly about pigments resulting from long human adaptation to different natural environments. However, the melanogenesis of “race” obscures its real purpose: increasing and protecting “white” power and privilege in the western capitalist system that has been imposed on the rest of the world and, in particular, by enshrining whiteness as a property right. Cheryl I. Harris sums it up:
“… whiteness, originally constructed as a form of racial identity, evolved into a form of property, historically and presently acknowledged and protected in American law … in the parallel systems of domination of Black and Native American peoples out of which were created racially contingent forms of property and property rights … Even as legal segregation was overturned, whiteness as property continued to serve as a barrier to effective change as the system of racial classification operated to protect entrenched power.”
White entitlement is also a form of blindness, so Steve Martinot asks in a recent CounterPunch article: “How is a white person going to address “racism” if they look at racism’s effects on black people instead of examining how race and racism function among whites, as the means of creating them as white?” Racism isn’t just a crime of commission but also one of omission, or ignorance posturing as innocence and, as James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime”. In his Discourse on Colonialism (1950) Aimé Césaire observed that Europeans know they invented the “barbaric Negro” but won’t recognize it, so “The petty bourgeois … flicks the idea away. The idea, an annoying fly.” The state has a “forgetting machine” churning out what needs to be remembered in statues, art endowments, multiculturalism, liberal revolution, and a framework of human rights that is hamstrung because the idea of “universal” is intolerable. The statistics of barefaced institutional violence are endless but where’s the outrage? Kafka might answer that. “Not the murderer but the victim is considered guilty.” Hence, we have stereotype priming where, in a college-educated American’s reading, the second most common word paired with “black” is “violent” and, with “white”, progressive. Sixth on the list for “black” is “dangerous” and, for “white”, “educated”. These and worse racial slurs insinuate that, if black people are subjected to injustice, at least they aren’t people like “us”.
The left is complicit. From the start, white abolitionist and women’s rights movements in the United States perpetuated racism and quashed anti-racist consciousness in the interests of the enduring rule of white power and privilege, as Angela Davis shows. Environmentalism has a racist history. Humanitarianism is racist. Western radicals talk a lot about the French Revolution but rarely about the Haitian revolution, arguably modernity’s most thoroughgoing attempt at revolutionary change. Hard questions aren’t asked, especially about the annoying fly buzzing with the message that white supremacism is one of the underpinnings of western liberalism. It’s easier to say that skinheads with their Nazi regalia, and boogaloo militia types in their Hawaiian shirts are the white supremacists.
At first sight, Eurocentrism and its assumptions of white supremacy go back to colonization and the establishment of capitalist accumulation as a global standard for labor and market control. Since the system was based on exploitation and dispossession, it required classification of the newly incorporated members of the global system as—by comparison with western “man” (and, to labor the obvious, not woman)—“subhuman”, fit to be exploited by the standard-bearers of western power and knowledge. However, these ideas were undergirded by pre-modern forms of racial prejudice among Europeans. For the ancient Greeks, other Europeans who didn’t meet their bodily preferences, including lighter skin, were barbarians. Scholars like Hippocrates believed that place and climate influenced physical, mental, and moral attributes. Uncivilized peasants toiling in all weathers were darker than the elites, so their condition of servitude was skin-deep, easy to recognize. Discrimination by skin color and by class distinctions of dominance and subservience ran along similar lines.
Civilizing religion also played its part in black-and-white social division by equating non-Christian life with darkness, sin and death. The devil, prince of darkness, was usually depicted with dark skin. If Jews lacked melanin, medieval Christianity made up for it in cultural terms, supporting state-run pogroms with dark accusations of causing the Black Death and practicing black arts. By 1215, Pope Innocent III’s Fourth Lateran Council introduced racial law, decreeing that Jews and Muslims had to distinguish themselves by their dress (a kind of outer skin), and residential enclaves were the forerunners of ghettos. In the twelfth century, (saint) Bernard de Clairvaux, ideologist of the Templars, pronounced that killing a Muslim was not killing a person but killing evil. Today, Muslims are “subhuman” terrorists and can be killed indiscriminately by drones.
Prior to “scientific” racial determinism, proto-racist ideas were nourished by theological, philosophical, and cultural authorities. People were chosen or cursed by God. External signs like skin color were manifestations of an essential nature. Galenic principles concerning the soul and its relations with certain physical conditions were turned into questions of blood. Purity of the soul became purity of blood. In twentieth-century US lore, people had “black blood” and having “one drop” of it meant you were “colored”. The rise of nationalism combined notions of blood, Christianity, nation, and race, culminating in Germany with “bio-mystical” völkisch racialist and nationalist fantasies of pure blood and soil. Arthur de Gobineau, not realizing that the term “Aryan” comes from ancient Persian and Indian languages, claimed that Aryans (Germans, for him) were the apotheosis of white races and should not, therefore, interbreed. But the Aryan Übermensch couldn’t be uber without a foil. They needed the Untermensch, Jews, Roma, and Slavs in Europe and, further afield, Africans, Asians, and Native Americans, who threatened their purity. It was a short step from here to Nazi labor and death camps.
The myth of whiteness didn’t appear in England until after 1613 when empire builders began to feel superior to East Indians. Until then, “white” mainly described upper-class women who didn’t have to work. Elite men weren’t “white”, as it wasn’t manly. So, apart from being a specious and not at all accurate skin color, whiteness is an ameboid category with many pseudopods, constantly adapting to fit historical needs. Initially, “white” referred only to Anglo-Saxon people, basically when Britannia ruled the waves, but as more non-white people gained presence and voice through emancipation and immigration, the category of “white” had to expand in response. Neither did the word have to be uttered in order to be understood so, during the British conquest of Ireland in the sixteenth century, the Gaelic Irish were morally inferior peasants because, even if they were born “white”, their skin was weathered, tanned by labor. Social class was once again gauged by skin color.
By the mid-nineteenth century, “science” strongly buttressed racism. The skull-measurer Samuel Morton proclaimed that African people were less intelligent than others because they had smaller craniums. Josiah Nott and Louis Agassiz pronounced them a separate, degenerate species, only fit for serving their betters. However inane these ideas were, they flowed easily into a socially- and racially-stratified popular culture. Even today, when real science has debunked the old racist theories in many fields and in many ways, the political uses of racism are so entrenched that the president of the United States says that countries run by black leaders are “all complete fucking toilets”.
No relation of oppression exists alone. Like sexism, racism must be understood as intersectional, or entangled with other relations of oppression, with continuities and discontinuities. Racism is as old as humanity. So are murder and rape but they, at least, are considered to be crimes. Racism, however, is so ubiquitous it’s recognized only in its most strident forms. If its criminal nature is to be understood, it must be seen from the perspective of how property, class, social, legal, and power systems intersect and interact to support each other, with racism pervading all these systems. It means trying to understand the origins and nature of “white” identity and the ways in which it inevitably nurtured notions of white supremacy. It means bringing down the whole bloody system. It boils down to what the recently deceased and widely mourned David Graeber understood when he wrote that anthropology “… opens windows on other possible forms of human social existence … [and has] served as a conscious reminder that most of what we assume to be immutable has been, in other times and places, arranged quite differently, and therefore, that human possibilities are in almost every way greater than we ordinarily imagine.”