The Problem with “Innocent” Ignorance: Racism, Whiteness & the Working Class

One of the more interesting debates that has come out of Trump winning the US presidency has been about the role of the white working class in perpetuating racism. Although the white working class did not constitute the majority of white votes Trump received, they have been scapegoated by some as being the reason for why Trump won. This scapegoating, I believe, is wrong, particularly since in this particular case most of Trump’s support came from the white middle class. A class that has increasingly been confronted with the neoliberal reality of the “American Dream” and who have lost more and more as they have become deeply embroiled in a system of debt, credit, and precariousness. However, this class can’t only be analysed in pure class terms, since it is precisely the white middle class that voted for Trump in large numbers. Part of the story is also a backlash to Obama – the first Black president – as well as to the increasing focus on racism in public debates following the excruciatingly high rates at which Black men and women are being killed and imprisoned. As Christina Sharpe has argued in her new book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being” the Atlantic slave trade is a living, breathing part of the United States; it is not the past nor a historical legacy; it is what has formed the US today; Black people are not left out of the system; Black exclusion is the system.

Despite all of this, I have seen a lot of people engage in the discourse of humanising the white working class American who voted for Trump (even if they are not in the majority). We have heard of many stories from white working class America, especially the Rust Belt: men and women who have been forgotten by their politicians, who suffer great economic difficulty, and who the system has failed. They voted for Trump because they wanted change; it is that simple. They did not vote for Trump because they are racist, or sexist, or want a white America. It was a protest vote, as simple as that.

Now obviously this is a very problematic reality. As some have pointed out, it shows the power the white working class still as due to its whiteness: the power to not care about issues of race; to still vote someone who will institute racist policies simply because he aligned with their views on other issues. In other words, Trump’s racism was not a deal-breaker for these voters because his racist policies – a matter of life and death for millions of Americans – did not affect them directly.

Obviously there is sympathy to be had with the white working class. The US is a settler colony founded on capitalism. It has always been brutal to anyone outside of a small elite who amass massive profits off of the exploitation of the rest. For many different reasons, the US ruling class has been able to create an ideology strong enough to maintain its hegemony for centuries: this ideology includes ideas about the American Dream, about working hard till you make it, about material wealth being the result of pure hard work, and so on. We all know it since it’s been exported everywhere. Coming to terms with the reality that this ideology is precisely that – an ideology – has been shattering for working classes across the West, who found this out a long time ago. In fact it’s been the middle classes that have been extremely slow to catch on. And so that is where sympathy lies: with the exploitation of workers by capital.

Now when you ask these people who engage in the discourse of understanding white workers as angry at the system, as opposed to racist, how the connection between the system and racism hasn’t yet been made, they often turn to the age-old response: white ignorance, or, more aptly I would say, white innocence. These voters voted for Trump for economic reasons, and so they cannot be called racist, even if Trump himself is racist and has a racist platform. They voted in their economic interests. But those interests hurt other people. Well, maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they are ignorant. I’ve heard this from people speaking about white working and middle class support for the far right in Europe as well: people are seeing their lives changing, everything is being taken away from them, and so they vote for parties who talk about change. They may be ignorant and so they blame immigrants, but what they *really* mean is that they want economic security.

However, where I think this discourse needs to go is to ask what role this ignorance, or white innocence, plays in perpetuating US imperialism inside and outside of the US, and what role this ignorance, or innocence, has played in allowing Europe to expand its empires everywhere. If, until now, the white working and middle classes have not realized the connections between capitalism and racism, then it is not a matter of innocent ignorance – it is a matter of willful ignorance. European and US capital remains unscathed; the blame has so easily fallen on people of colour and immigrants that they have not even had to justify themselves. When I found out that members of my Dutch family voted for right-wing extremist Geert Wilders, I found myself shocked. Even though they knew us? Even though we had grown up together? Why? Because they could see economic cuts being made around them; they could see that they would not live the life their parents had lived. Things were being taken away from them. Yes, I agree. But by who? Who is cutting the European welfare state? Not the people you think. But how can we excuse this type of innocent ignorance? How can we make excuses for it when we know the very real consequences it has?

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panther Party developed an entire program that showed how US capitalism is racialized – the two cannot be separated. Before them, Black scholars and activists had made this same connection. The slave trade is emblematic of this coming together of capital and race; it could not have happened without the development of both of these systems. The spread of capital needed racism; the spread of racism needed capitalism. And so the Black Panthers realized something that still rings true: liberation meant that both had to go. The Black Panthers have been criticized for not reaching out to the white working class at the time, and for instead organizing along racial lines. Not only is this historically inaccurate, but it puts the blame on the Panthers for another instance of white innocence/ignorance. Now obviously the US state and ruling class played a big role in brutally crushing the US working class, the unions, the Left, as well as any collaborations between the white working class and the non-white working class. They knew that once that alliance was made, there would be a real threat to US capitalism, and no one has shown this better than Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States.”

The point of this post is not to say that white people should be more aware, or to suggest that it is all about race and not about capitalism. In fact the Black Panthers clearly articulated the dangers of the rising Black middle class and how they had been co-opted by the US ruling class. This is something we see across the postcolonial world as well, and something Fanon talked about: the native class that imitates the Western elites. This class gets its power precisely from its class position: it is the class that opens up markets for transnational capital after colonial rule could no longer play that role. The point instead is to point at where the fissures between race and capital lie, and to show that we cannot understand the decision by the white working and middle classes today to vote based on their own economic interests as separate from a long history of them ignoring how their interests depend on the exploitation of others.

It is this white silence, and the history of this white silence, that is important not to excuse. Yes, the white working class and the white middle class are suffering, in both the US and Europe. Yes, neoliberalism has affected them greatly, and yes, they will not live the lives they thought they would. But that does not detract from the fact that in the hierarchy of these countries, they are still  – by virtue of their race – above many others. What Fanon has called the zone of being. Their innocent misunderstanding of how this zone is dependent on the zone of non-being has historically caused immense suffering and destruction. Their ignorance of how their position is dependent on the exploitation of others has allowed European and US imperialism to spread without much resistance. They are concerned with their lives, as we are all taught to be, like good individualistic subjects. They work to make a living, and they vote based on their economic interests. The point is that, not everyone has that privilege.

Historically there have been instances of massive solidarity with non-white struggles on the part of the white working class. Unions have often looked at racism and sexism and how they interact with class. There are enough historical precedents for us not to accept the excuse of white innocence today, and for us not to engage in the discourse of understanding the white working class as acting on economic motivations alone because they still do not see – or do not want to see – the ways in which these are tied to racism and imperialism. My Dutch family member who voted for Wilders is someone I can empathise with from an economic point of view; but her actions have broader consequences. She is able to ignore the effects of her actions and her views, just as I’m sure Dutch people – working class or not – decades ago were able to do when the Netherlands brutally colonised other countries. But the question is: who has the privilege of being ignorant? And who pays the price?

__________

* The idea of white innocence comes from Gloria Wekker’s book on the Netherlands, in which she explores a central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia.

Hannah Arendt, the Nazis and the Banality of Evil

 


It’s been a while since I read a book that made me think as much as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. Her central premise is of course well known: that evil is almost boring in its  expression. She writes,

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied that this new type of criminal commits his crime under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel that he is doing wrong.

Evil is not located in a few psychopaths but rather can be found in most ordinary human beings given the right conditions. It is this focus on the conditions that create or bring out evil that makes this book fascinating.

My favourite part was when she goes through each European country to discuss the details of how they tackled the “Jewish problem.” Here what seemed to matter above all was the extent to which the general population itself was anti-Semitic; and following this, how deep this anti-Semitism was and whether it was directed at foreign Jews or native Jews. In countries such as Italy, Bulgaria and Denmark, almost no Jews were deported or killed because the general population rebelled against directives from Germany to deport their Jews as part of the Final Solution. Denmark above all is an extraordinary story, where the King himself said that he would be the first to wear a yellow star. When Denmark was basically forced to hand over their Jews, they managed to sneak half of them into Sweden where they would be safe, and the other half went into hiding in Denmark and survived. In Bulgaria there were massive strikes against the government when Germany began to demand the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.  And in Italy, although the government did not outright disobey Germany, they played a cat and mouse game which resulted in almost no Jews being deported.

Compare this to countries such as Germany, Poland, France and Romania where almost the entire Jewish population was murdered. Romania in particular, which Arendt designates as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, actually began killing its Jews before Germany did, and many of these killings were done by ordinary Romanians in unorganized pogroms that were especially violent. In fact when Germans found out about this, they were disturbed (!) stating that killing should not be done in such an uncivilized manner.

Arendt’s discussion of Holland was particularly interesting. A large number of Dutch Jews were killed and I had always assumed this was because of Dutch collaboration. She points out that because Holland’s government had fallen and the country was effectively under German command, the Nazis were able to infiltrate and identify and deport most Jews. She points out that Holland was the only country where students went on strike when Jewish professors were fired from universities. The Dutch also offered hiding places to almost half of all Jews in the country. The only reason so many were discovered is precisely because the Nazis had infiltrated the country so well.

What is perhaps most shocking about her report is her consistent demonstration of the central role played by Jewish leaders in orchestrating the destruction of European Jewry. In almost all countries, a Jewish council was formed which basically allowed Jewish leaders to decide who to save and how (usually based on financial leverage) and which almost always resulted in the majority of Jews being sent to concentration camps. Highlighting the role  Jewish leadership in the Holocaust got Arendt into a lot of trouble and yet seems central to understanding how the Holocaust happened the way it did.

To conclude, I want to return to this idea that the level of anti-Semitism in a country played a major role in determining the fate of its Jews. How does this reflect on Europe today where we not only see rising levels of anti-Semitism but also high levels of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism. What does this mean about constructions of European selfhood, identity and nationalism? Why did some countries resist the Nazis while others went even further in exterminating Jews? Returning to Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, how can we connect particular discourses of race, modernity, nationhood, belonging, rationality, science and development to events such as the Holocaust, and indeed to continuing tensions in Europe related to the creation of an us/them dichotomy?

And above all, how have many of these dynamics been reproduced in Israel itself? Indeed Arendt’s warning at the beginning of the book about how the Israeli state was setting itself up as extremely strong and repressive state is above all important in our current time. She notes that because Jews felt so weak after the Holocaust, Israel was the means through which strength was to be projected outwards. This has, of course, happened at the expense of Palestinians. One act of ethnic cleansing has led to another. And yet, when we think of the banality of evil, it makes sense in the context of Israel even more: it is the belief that the killing and torturing of Palestinians is not wrong; it must happen for a whole host of reason. This is precisely what evil is and how it materializes – in the everyday acts and acquiescence of whole populations who believe that a certain thing is necessary.

Racialized in Europe

I am back in Europe for a month and this time around it struck me how the intersections of race, gender and class are becoming more and more clear in the European context(s) as the economic crisis deepens in some places and fades away in others. Being back in the Netherlands and seeing the major changes happening within my own institution as well as other Dutch universities vis-à-vis the continuing neoliberalization of education, where critical knowledge is being pushed out through early retirement schemes or more intense competition for funding, and where formerly critical departments are slowly being transformed into places where ‘responsible’ and ‘useful’ knowledge is produced. After spending one year in the US, it seems clear that the US model is something that not only spread to the UK but is now also becoming somewhat dominant in some European contexts, where the connection between knowledge and commodification is explicit. This is not to say that in these critical departments knowledge was ‘free’ or not tied to capital, but rather that in some European contexts knowledge production in these critical centers was tied to the social democratic project that is now being dismantled.

Going to Frankfurt for a few days made some of these changes even more clear. Frankfurt, the home of Critical Theory, is now also undergoing major changes in terms of critical academics being pushed out of the academy. Here, as in Holland, the gendered and racialized effects of this are clear. Whereas for a period gender and racial ‘minorities’ were permitted into these centers of knowledge production, it seems that they are now being pushed out. This is different, it seems to me, from the US context, where gender and racial ‘minorities’ are quickly co-opted, either by placing them in isolated departments such as Gender Studies or Area Studies (Middle East Studies is a clear example here) and then using the existence of these departments as proof of an academic institution being critical; or when gendered and racialized academics themselves become intellectually co-opted and therefore simply reproduce dominant narratives.

Another fascinating experience in Germany was hearing about the rise of Pegida and how once again these fascist and racist movements are designated as exceptional or a minority, even though the racist discourse they mobilize is extremely widespread in Europe. Similar moves are made in Holland when the PVV and Wilders are constructed by Dutch liberals or leftists as a tiny minority of “crazy people” who have nothing to do with “normal Dutch people.” Dutchness here of course refers to tolerance, liberalism and non-racism. And yet…the ways in which certain events are covered; the ways in which ‘migrant populations’ are referred to or spoken of; and the ways in which everyday racism functions demonstrates that in fact what distinguishes Pegida or the PVV from the mainstream public is perhaps its extremity and its fascism but certainly not its core belief that there is a subject—a European—that needs to be preserved. And there is no doubt that this subject is racialized. Indeed the ridiculous discussions and performances surrounding Charlie Hebdo should make this clear, and should also make clear the complex intersections between race, gender, class, nation and imperialism in European contexts today. It is the mechanisms by which a European self is produced and reproduced that are interesting and that rely on very old distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ even while those critiquing this racist view are accused of binary thinking. And yet…the “failure of multiculturalism” or the “limits of European tolerance” vis-à-vis the endlessly inassimilable migrant point to nothing except the desperate need on the part of many forces within Europe to maintain binaries even as they slowly slip away.

At a conference on ‘diversity’ and ‘intersectionality’ in Frankfurt the discussions revolved around these issues and around the ways in which diversity is being mobilized to completely depoliticize discrimination in Europe and to make it seem as though institutions are attempting to ‘be inclusive’ even while they become increasingly exclusive. Again this strikes me as something imported from the US context, where the narrative of a “melting pot” or this idea that diversity is good (read: profitable) is so strong, and where programs such as affirmative action are imagined to be radical interventions that are enough to fix the problem of representation. This is not to say that affirmative action is not needed, but that it is certainly not enough. And it will not be enough in the European context either.

Perhaps the only consolation here is that after spending on year in the US, it is clear that the gains made by European leftists that led to the institutionalization of social welfare policies can never be underestimated. America’s capitalism is explicit, brutal, suffocating. Europe’s capitalism—for now—is hidden behind walls of welfare and social democratic values and must navigate through leftist and labour movements that are still relatively strong. Although, that said, from the perspective of the Global South, this difference between US and European capitalism makes no difference; Europe’s social welfare policies benefit Europeans on the backs of non-Europeans, and even non-white Europeans must fight to be seen as deserving of welfare. In any case, the dismantling of the welfare state is well under way and we will probably not have one to speak of generations from now in places like the Netherlands.

This trip, and all my others to Europe, make me think about intersectionality from the perspective of a master category, because it seems to me that in the European context – especially among “migrants (a term used for anyone not white, even if they have been there for generations) – race is the underlying cause of multiple forms of exclusion. Not to say that class, gender and so on are not part of this or do not affect this, but in the Global North race continues to exert a tremendous influence on the ways in which the subaltern in these places are treated. Perhaps this also explains why so much of the intersectionality canon – created by activists and scholars mostly in Europe and America – focuses on race and on race in particular contexts, without looking at the globalized nature of racism or capitalism. As Spivak has mentioned, intersectionality is problematic because it often ignores the global division of labour. Again it shows that even when critical theories are developed, they can be Eurocentric and reproduce concerns found in specific locations while erasing others. Definitely more to think about here.

A special thanks to Vanessa Thompson for the inspiring conversations and the lovely Frankfurt trip mentioned in this post.

West & Multiculturalism

I just wanted to share one of the best articles I’ve read recently, called “On the West’s Moral Panic Over Multiculturalism” by Gary Younge.

For certain groups the price for belonging and conditions for banishment have shifted dramatically in Western nations, particularly but by no means exclusively in Europe, in recent years. Citizenship is no longer enough. The clothes you wear, the language you speak, the way you worship, have all become grounds for dismissal or inclusion. These terms are not applied equally to all—they are not intended to be. The intention of this series of edicts (popular, political and judicial) is not to erase all differences but to act as a filter for certain people who are considered dangerously different.

To achieve this, certain groups and behaviors must first be pathologized so that they might then be more easily particularized.

Still cannot believe the racist speech in which Chirac said this:

Jacques Chirac, 1991: “How do you want a French worker who works with his wife, who earn together about 15,000 francs and who sees next to his council house a piled-up family with a father, three or four spouses and twenty children earning 50,000 francs via benefits naturally without working…If you add to that the noise and the smell, well, the French worker, he goes crazy.”

Even as the Catholic Church is embroiled in a global crisis over child sexual abuse and the Church of England is splintered in a row over gay priests, Islam and Muslims face particularly vehement demands to denounce homophobia.

The combined effect of these flawed distinctions and sweeping demonization is to unleash a series of moral panics.

And what I think his most important point was:

At a time of diminishing national sovereignty, particularly in Europe, such campaigns help the national imagination cohere around a fixed identity even as the ability of the nation-state to actually govern itself wanes. It is a curious and paradoxical fact that as national boundaries in Europe have started to fade, the electoral appeal of nationalism has increased; fascism, and its fellow travelers, is once again a mainstream ideology in Europe, regularly polling between 5 and 15 per cent in most countries.

I have yet to meet a Dutch liberal who has not done this:

Many who consider themselves on the left have given liberal cover to these assaults on religious and racial minorities, ostensibly acting in defense of democracy, Enlightenment values and equal rights—particularly relating to sexual orientation and gender.

And this:

The first is an elision between Western values and liberal values that ignores the fact that liberal values are not fully entrenched in the West and that other regions of the world also have liberal traditions.

And this:

The second is a desire to understand Western “values” in abstraction from Western practice.

And now, to multiculturalism:

Unable to come up with a single, coherent new term that both encapsulates the atmosphere of fear, threat, panic, disorientation, confusion, contradiction and paradoxes and unites both far right and liberals, the opponents of this diverse, hybrid reality resurrected an old foe—“multiculturalism.

The beauty of multiculturalism, for its opponents, is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean so long as you don’t like it.

Finally,

The nation-state is in crisis; neoliberal is in crisis; multiculturalism is simply in situ.

I would add that Europe is also in crisis.

Islamophobia in Europe

"For more security" Used in an election campaign

There is little doubt that Islamopobia is rife in Europe, a continent that only 60 years ago was host to the worst genocide in human history, shocking in both scale and execution.  Today, one by one European countries are electing far-right parties into parliament and presidential office, and Muslims and other non-white Europeans are finding it harder to “fit into” European society.

I just read a brilliant article called “The success of Islamophobia in Europe” (here). There is no doubt that things in Europe are getting tense:

Immigrants are caricatured and scapegoated, whole ethnic groups are implied to have criminal personalities and to be anything but normal, moral and hard-working. Wilders, for example, speaks of Moroccan ‘street-terrorists’ while his party proposes replacing civil servants with street militias; the Sweden Democrats commissioned an advertisement showing a woman in a burqa harassing an elderly pensioner; the Danish president of the International Free Press Society, Lars Hedegaard, asserts that Muslim men routinely allow their daughters to be raped by family members, while the Scandinavian internet is awash in tales of ‘Islamic rape gangs’; and the head of Germany´s new Freedom Party, René Stadtkewitz argues that it is impossible to integrate (Turkish and Arab) Muslims into German society without doing fundamental damage to its Judeo-Christian culture.

Top: Zurich 2010; bottom: 20 years later

What is even more worrying is that so many Europeans seem to support anti-Islam rhetoric. In an election in the Netherlands in the summer of 2010, Wilders’ party received approx 2 million out of the 8 million votes that were cast. If that isn’t scary I don’t know what is.

The article brings up many good points.  One of these is the fact that Europe seems to be plagued by the Holocaust, yet not by its colonial past. Why so much guilt over the Holocaust but not the colonial empires so many European countries ruled over brutally?

While the Holocaust has increasingly been taken as the foundational trauma for the whole of western Europe – a shared inheritance enabling an overarching moral project – colonialism has been approached from the opposite perspective. Notwithstanding that at one point 85% of the world was under European control – affecting the economics, ideologies, politics, consumption, and cultures of all Europe and all non-Europe along the way – colonialism nonetheless has been seen as a matter of purely national significance, to be dealt with individually as each nation and state might occasionally see fit.

One major misleading effect is that non-western immigrants are now largely imagined to be encountering Europe for the first time and to be bringing with them a purely alien culture untouched by decades and centuries under European control and influence. It is as if Europe had never gone out into the world in any significant cultural fashion, but only economically and militarily, while its own cultures were somehow left magically untouched.

Another interesting point is that Islamophobia is not necessarily a resurgence of racism:

The critical innovation of these movements, particularly in northern Europe, is that they have managed – for their supporters – to delink Islamophobia from racism so that today it is quite possible to argue that one is both anti-Islam and anti-racist.

This could explain why the Dutch, for example, normally obsessed with political correctness, have no problem complaining about (at the least) or insulting (at the most) Islam. Stephen Gash, co-founder of Stop Islamisation of Europe, has taken as his tag-line:  “racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the highest form of common sense.” This reminds me of how being anti-Islam has become acceptable in many parts of the world. It’s okay to complain about Islam, to generalize about Muslims, and to support anti-Islamic proposals/laws/wars. Muslims are the ultimate ‘Other’ and so any negative action/rhetoric used against them is completely understandable and therefore acceptable.

Across Europe there is legislation against hate speech, against racism and anti-Semitism, against the defamation of whole groups, minorities, and (if inconsistently) religions.

When Muslims appeal to such legislation, said legislation is suddenly accused of inflicting an unacceptable limitation on one’s freedom of speech – a misuse of anti-hate legislation that silences all criticism.

The author suggests 2 solutions to the problem. One: the formation of Islamic political parties in Europe (yeah right! there will be some kind of mass conflict before that happens); and two: remove all anti-hate speech legislation (so all groups can be targeted? isn’t it better to ensure that anti-Islam speech is punished, the way all other hate-speech is?)

Personally, I think the problem at this point can only be solved through socialization. No legal, economic, or political solution will work anymore. The problem is racism, Islamophobia, and the fact that Europeans just do not seem to like people different from them. The colonial past and the Holocaust are two events that make it clear that Europe has an issue with difference. This is not to say, of course, that ALL Europeans are like this; but from my personal experience, many are. This is especially the case with Muslims, who are seen as completely different and simply backwards. They are not modern, rational, and do not support human rights (what exactly are human rights? are they universal or western? when did non-white people agree to these universal human rights?)

In conclusion:

How rare it is for a national politician to claim Muslims as one of his or her own. The fundamental paradox is that while the established and progressive elite of continental Europe are fiercely against rhetorical and institutionalized discrimination – to the point that many consider this a deep violation of their most vital personal and national values – many are at the same time highly unwilling to stop considering Islam and immigrants as backward in one fashion or another.

Elite and populist alike agree on the Muslims´ otherness; they just differ on the question of what to do about it. And as long as they agree on this – through their actions even more than their words – we have nowhere to go but down.