Wednesday, April 17, 2013

White privilege and terrorism: Indulging in self-hatred for the sheer sport of it

Noted anti-racism activist Tim Wise posted an essay yesterday on his website entitled "Terrorism and Privilege: Understanding the Power of Whiteness." One can guess the subject matter. Over at Salon, David Sirota picked up on Wise's piece and offered his own, with the even more provocative title of "Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American."

From the first:
White privilege is knowing that if the Boston bomber turns out to be white, we will not be asked to denounce him or her, so as to prove our own loyalties to the common national good. It is knowing that the next time a cop sees one of us standing on the sidewalk cheering on runners in a marathon, that cop will say exactly nothing to us as a result.  
White privilege is knowing that if you are a white student from Nebraska — as opposed to, say, a student from Saudi Arabia — that no one, and I mean no one would think it important to detain and question you in the wake of a bombing such as the one at the Boston Marathon.
From the second:
If recent history is any guide, if the bomber ends up being a white anti-government extremist, white privilege will likely mean the attack is portrayed as just an isolated incident — one that has no bearing on any larger policy debates. Put another way, white privilege will work to not only insulate whites from collective blame, but also to insulate the political debate from any fallout from the attack.

It will probably be much different if the bomber ends up being a Muslim and/or a foreigner from the developing world. As we know from our own history, when those kind of individuals break laws in such a high-profile way, America often cites them as both proof that entire demographic groups must be targeted, and that therefore a more systemic response is warranted. At that point, it’s easy to imagine conservatives citing Boston as a reason to block immigration reform defense spending cuts and the Afghan War withdrawal and to further expand surveillance and other encroachments on civil liberties.
In his piece, Wise also provides a list of white terrorists, though he noticeably neglects to include people whose ideologies are not Christian-based or of the far-right sort, like members of the Weather Underground for instance.

Regardless, both pieces proceed from a demonstrably false claim: that political violence perpetrated by white U.S. citizens does not lead to any kind of backlash against a specific group. The very list Wise provides is evidence of this falsity, as it includes many people whose actions resulted in the general blaming of groups like "Christian fundamentalists" or the "Religious Right." The premise that the bombing will be seen as an "isolated incident" as a matter of course if the bomber is white is laughable. It may be, or it may not be, but this will depend on other factors, not on skin color.

Moreover, both pieces deal poorly with the issues of nationality and race, essentially conflating the two when it comes to other nations, but not withing the U.S. proper. And both further limit the dichotomy to Muslims--based on appearance and nationality, apparently--with respect to political violence by "non-white" persons.

For there is the potential of this action being a product of neither group, the possibility--however slim--that the bomber is neither a white Christian nor a foreign-born Muslim (because both writers really fail to identify any "race" other than "white"). In recent years, the New Black Panther Party has drawn criticism for its actions, from voter intimidation--which is a threat of political violence--to the placing of a bounty on the head of George Zimmerman. Yet, this has not led to a wholesale blaming of all black Americans for these actions. One must ask: if the bomber turns out to be a black American, do Wise and Sirota actually believe this will result in the blaming of all black Americans, by and large?

No, of course not. There are too many segments of black America to allow such a leap, just as there are too many segments of white America to allow such a sweeping claim.

What's going on here in these two pieces is simple: self-hatred and imagined guilt are supplanting intelligence, for the sake of making a self-serving political argument. Wise also fails to include James Lee and Jared Loughner in his list. And, to use his own words, "it matters." Why? Consider the facts.

James Lee took hostages at the Discovery Channel headquarters in 2010. When the crisis began, the early speculation was that the culprit would turn out to be some sort of right-wing extremist. But Lee turned out to be exactly the opposite, a full-bore (or rather full Gore) left-wing extremist who also happened to be an Asian American. He was then portrayed--as a matter of course--as a "lone gunman" kind of figure. The incident was labeled an isolated one, not representative of any political group, much less of any racial group. Asian Americans were not suddenly targeted by the government or anyone else because of Lee's actions.

Loughner, of course, is the man who shot Gabby Giffords and others in Arizona on January 8th, 2011. In contrast to Lee, Louhgner is a white American. But in the aftermath of the shooting, there very much was a public targeting of a group: the entirety of the American right for its supposed over-use of violent political rhetoric. But in the end, the specific details of the case proved this to be pointless speculation, while even-handed analysis of political rhetoric demonstrated that neither side had a monopoly on the use of violent metaphors or symbolism.

In both cases, there was an initial blaming of a group, one composed by and large of white Americans. But in both cases, that blaming came under scrutiny when the politics of the perpetrators turned out to be something different (i.e., not "rightwing"). There was ample opportunity to shift the blame to Asian Americans in the case of Lee. If one accepts the premises of Wise and Sirota, this should have happened. But it didn't. In the case of Loughner, the blaming of the "rightwing" continues to this day, despite the facts that prove it to be misplaced.

So where is the "white privilege" in these two incidents? It doesn't appear to exist, at all.

That's not to say there is no tendency to blame the "other," when it comes to terrorist attacks. There most certainly is. And right now, that "other" is in fact the faceless Islamist from another part of the world. But let's be serious: this is because of the severity of 9-11. It's not a function of race, per se, but it is one of culture. This is nothing new and actually serves to explain the attacks to some degree, as well.

Using the Boston Marathon bombing as a platform for a discussion on "white privilege" and based on idle speculation about the bomber's identity and background is both silly and tasteless. And it says a lot more about Wise and Sirota than it does about anything else.

Cheers, all.

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