Remarks on Tactics for White People Joining the Protests Against White Supremacy

This post requires a few remarks to frame it and in some sense to disempower it. First, while I have been involved with different coalitions and have participated in protests every year during my adult life, I do not claim to be anything more than just another body on the street standing with other people. I am not an organizer, I am not a leader, and though I think about things a great deal, I don’t know that my theoretical work has ever been of much use to anyone who is organizing and leading these coalitions. I know where my strengths lie (teaching, academia) and I do my best to affect the community I am a part of (the department and university I teach in and the discipline I work within). All of this means that I invite people, especially Black theorists, Black activists, and other theorists/activists of color to push back against what I say, to share wisdom, and, if they feel it worth their time, to add their voice to the conversation (if one starts).

Secondly, while this is a post directed at a certain white reaction to protests, I do not think these protests should be about the white reaction to them. I have written this post simply because it would seem strange to write about the Black community or what the appropriate Black response should be, when I am not embedded within that community nor a major dialogue partner there. It seems to me that, while I would hope for a future in which ideas can be shared without some unconscious or unintended white centering, today is not that day. So, it is not my intention in writing this that it be about white people as such. If I could summarize what I write below it would simply be: “white people who want to show solidarity, stop worrying about purity and just show up, keep quiet, and listen.” It’s a message not to the tone deaf white folk of the intelligentsia or the brocialists itching for another photo op where they look badass screaming at a cop, while making other folks who aren’t ready for that confrontation unsafe. It’s a message instead for those who feel a bit paralyzed by the recognition of their privilege and an attempt to help them see that such paralysis is still caught up in that structure, still a form of narcissism.

So, with that said, here are some thoughts that strike me as sound for white folks who are engaged in a certain amount of handwringing about how to participate in protests and other actions regarding the recent reaffirmation of America’s structural racism. Some may feel that their presence is not wanted at these protests. That may be true to some extent, but there is a kind of way of being absent even in your presence and some of the tactics outlined here may be a form of becoming-imperceptible in terms of one’s whiteness and the effects it may have on the coalition of protesters. For one thing seems very clear: coalitions are needed in these protests and these coalitions should be led by Black people. And lucky for you, whatever city you are in it is likely that leaders and activists from the Black community have stood up. So you should go. You should do what they ask. And when you do go and you do what they ask, simply don’t make it about you. Don’t be concerned about your feelings. Whether those are feelings that get hurt if you hear “mean things” being said about white people or it is your own anger which drives you to try and confront the cops if and when the Black leaders have called for non-confrontation. If such confrontation happens, it gets messy, and if you can put yourself between activists of color and the police, you should do that. And if Black activists tell you not to do something, then don’t do it.

Simply put, our individual white guilt doesn’t help shit. But, maybe your body being there can. So put your body there, but mostly stay quiet. Recognize that this is not an exact science and that you might screw up. It also strikes me for white people who are committed to listening that you are going to find there are a lot of views on the ground that don’t match exactly what is said on your Facebook or Twitter. For example, some Black participants at the recent Philly protests said that we were bothering the folks in the neighborhood and so they weren’t going to march. Others started chanting “all lives matter”. In each case it was a very small group, but regardless in each instance it was not my place to challenge their ideological correctness. Whereas I would have and you should if that happens with white participants. Don’t put that responsibility on the Black activists to do all the work, but do your best to educate these white participants and encourage certain practices foremost amongst them to just shut the fuck up and listen while they’re on this march.

At bottom, to get past this handwringing, you need to trust. Just trust your Black comrades. It’s the whitey in your head that makes you worried. Whether it’s worry over if you should be there or worry that someone isn’t going to say or do the thing you think they should. Know that there is a lot of noise right now. A lot of click bait, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of people working out their power best they can through the mediums available to them. But to know what to do, talk to the activists who organized. Ask what they want. And then follow. That’s the tactic for now. If you don’t like the overarching strategy you have to form a relationship, and go to meetings, and be open to disagreement while inhabiting a disempowered place that will make you feel uncomfortable. But taking up that space at meetings is going to be far fraught. More fraught with the haunting spectre of  reinscribing white supremacy and white centeredness than going to a protest. And the only way to deal with that, to disempower that whiteness, is make yourself available.

Getting Educated About America

This is going to be a bit of a confession. Up front I have to declare to you my naivety, because it helps explain why I’ve been anxious for weeks, on the verge of tears all day, and currently unsure if the food I ate today is going to stay down. So, a confession, though like all confessions it obscures a kind of cunning even I may be the target of.

I want to live and participate in a just country. And, as my physical symptoms evidence, I apparently believe that the United States of America can be a just country. It is embarrassing, because I am an educated person. Politically I was made aware of the kind of country I live in by radical Christians and secular anarchists and socialists during my teenage years. And that early consciousness raising by punk rock was felt in my bones only to be confirmed intellectually as a student reading history and critical theory. But, yet, I must still believe something about America.  Read the rest of this entry »

Society as Protection Racket

A familiar feature of organized crime is the protection racket. In this scheme, a mob leader demands to be paid to protect a business. If the fee is not paid, then that same mob leader attacks the business — hence you are first of all paying the fee to be protected from your protectors themselves.

The same logic repeats itself in mainstream society. Taxes are a protection racket in the sense that if you don’t pay them, you aren’t exposed to the violence of criminals or foreign terrorists, but first of all to the violence of the government itself. The labor market is another protection racket, because in the last analysis you’re not working just to earn money, but to avoid being excluded from the economic system altogether. Many religions also duplicate the same logic, as you are asked to be devout in order to avoid a supernatural punishment that would not be a factor if you didn’t already believe in the religion — so in mainstream Christianity, for example, God is giving you an opportunity to avoid God’s own wrath.

From this perspective, one can understand neoliberalism as doubling down on the protection rackets. The system demands ever more intensive performances of obedience in order to avoid the violence of the system itself. In the mafia scenario, you can pay your fee and go about your business, just as you could imagine paying your taxes or putting in your hours at work and going about your business. Under neoliberalism, though, you are expected to be constantly thinking about your taxes and how to game the complex system of tax credits and penalties, and you must also mobilize all of your resources (all your time, all your social connections, all your hobbies and preferences) in service of the labor market. Even the evangelical Christian groups most in tune with the neoliberal ethos demand more and more constant self-examination and church involvement — you can no longer go to church on Sunday and expect God to leave you alone the rest of the week.

Agamben’s political theory, whereby the signature gesture of sovereignty is to exclude, can be understood as a theory of the protection racket, and his quest is to imagine a political order not structured according to the logic of a protection racket. This is what provides its remarkable contemporaneity, despite its often esoteric and obscure content.

More broadly, I believe we can view the elimination of the protection racket as the ultimate goal of the radical left, and we can define causes as left-wing to the extent that they at least aim to mitigate the protection racket. Hence the push for universal health care, which keeps the job market from extorting one’s participation based on concerns about one’s physical health, or the more radical goal of universal basic income, which uncouples some minimal participation in economic life from the demand to work. It is important in both cases that the provision be in principle unconditional, so that the system of benefits itself does not become a new protection racket that can demand certain performances of obedience — as has happened most vividly in the UK’s welfare system.

The goal is not simply justice, then, but freedom — freedom from continual threats and demands, freedom from having to worry about things. This is surely a more meaningful form of freedom than the abstract freedom of “choice” offered by neoliberalism, a false freedom insofar as we can never be free of the demand to choose, can never go a single moment without getting hassled or evaluated. The goal of the radical left, at least in our contemporary situation, could be formulated as the creation of a world in which society leaves us alone.

Why does the Left keep getting defeated?

Beginning in the late 1970s, capitalist elites began a deliberate, carefully planned attack on essentially every institution that provided a material basis for leftist organization and loyalties. That attack was hugely successful, in large part because most of those institutions had largely devolved into self-serving bureaucracies bent on preserving their own privileges with no eye toward a greater struggle.

At the same time, the Soviet Union entered into a crisis of leadership, revealing that it had been unable to reproduce the conditions for its continued political viability in the “native Soviet” generation that had never known a pre-Revolutionary state of affairs. When a member of this generation (Gorbachev) did finally take control after the last halfway plausible candidate from the gerontocracy had died, it began a sequence of political events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and marked the end of international Communism as a major global force.

Hence within the space of a little over a decade, both the domestic material base for leftist organizing and the external threat motivating some compromise with leftist demands had been rendered effectively moot. This allowed the forces of reaction to accumulate unprecedented military and monetary resources to press their agenda — a trend that only gets worse with each passing year. Even when the capitalist elites were at their weakest, in 2008, they were still able to bounce back and reestablish the trend in their favor, and surely that’s because they had such a huge head start.

In my mind, all of these material factors are much more pertinent than identity politics or rhetorical strategy. Indeed, it seems to me that antagonizing broadly left-wing groups that are organized around particular identities, as many white leftist intellectuals apparently feel duty-bound to do, is the surest way to exacerbate an already terrible situation by alienating groups that are actually able to put “boots on the ground,” if you will.

It’s not about persuasion or arguments, but about trust and loyalty — and if black communities, for instance, don’t trust the white male leftist intellectual elite, then maybe that’s not proof that black people are divisive in their insistence on identity politics, but rather that the white males themselves are the divisive party, squandering what should be a natural alliance on the left in favor of their abstract preference for supposedly more “universal” causes.

I know this may be hard to process, given that white males are trained from birth to regard themselves as the direct embodiment of the universal, untainted by mere particularities. How could we be the divisive ones, given that we are immediate unity itself, the telos to which everyone should aspire? Yet I can’t deny my own experience from the milieu of academic theology: all “identitarian” theologies are in a rich and productive dialogue across groups and with “mainstream” white male theology as well. If a white man is willing to take all of them seriously, they’re more than happy to be in dialogue with him as well (trust me, I’ve tried this and it works). It is strangely the “anti-identitarian” white males, disdainful as they are of the pollution of mere particularity, who are walled off into their own little ghetto, boldly pronouncing their “universal truths” to an audience of basically no one.

And it’s unclear why anyone should give a fuck what the self-appointed white male representatives of leftist universality have to say, given that it was the institutions they built that proved so useless in the face of the neoliberal onslaught. The white-male-first (oh, I’m sorry, class-to-the-rigorous-exclusion-of-any-other-identity-first) strategy has failed, definitively. The left is thrown back onto the part-of-no-part, the unassimilables, the ones the system structurally cannot buy off. Hard as this teaching is for us poor, long-suffering leftist white men, James Cone’s demand that we become “ontologically black” may be more immediately practical than the abstract assertion of a class-first, class-only strategy. For example.

These Young Men Are Heroes: Kill the Whitey in Your Head


It is quite possible that tomorrow we will wake up this photo on the covers of major newspapers. Reportedly the photo was taken in Ferguson, MO where the militarized police force murdered a young man named Michael Brown in cold blood for the crime of being Black in america. The anger at this injustice is not the anger at just this iteration of the open season on Black people in america. No, this anger runs deep, it runs down to the very foundations of anti-Blackness the wealth of the West was built upon. In the morning, today for those reading it, you may have woken up to the media using this photo to spread anti-Blackness. The body of the young Black man as a violent body, as a threatening body. That’s what they want you to see. But they want you to see that because the media is a wing of american white supremacy, it enshrines the cultural values of white supremacy through the way it directs your vision. Resisting that, refusing it, is a small part of the resistance that is required.

The militarized cops in Ferguson and the rest of the structures of the state want you to look at these photos and see scary “black boys” whose violence may be committed against you (and especially the “you” who is white or middle class or can pass as such). But that is not what is happening in this photo. These young men are heroes. These young men are braver than the shock troops of capital showing up with the powers of air, land, and sea to fight individuals with barely any weapons. These young men are braver than the cops in Ferguson, MO who take off their badges and ID tags. Who hide behind machine guns, tear gas, body army, urban tanks, and other accoutrements of the modern cowardly police officer. When you see these young men refuse to pathologize their blackness like the media wants you to do. Did they kill an unarmed teenager? Did they respond to their crime against humanity by refusing to face up to it? And when their community rose up to demand justice did these young men shot teargas, wooden and plastic bullets at people standing on their own lawns? Did they declare a no-fly zone and kick out the reporters, suspending the 1st amendment? No, they did not do that. White supremacy did. A popular piece of graffiti in the 60s read “kill the cop in your head”. Well, today the imperative for you today is to kill the whitey in your head. When I see these young men I see an ultimatum and an imperative. Something that I would hope I could live up to, even while I fear I would not. These young men inspire me. The cops and their actions are ugly, but these young men, well, they are beautiful.

Genocide vs. War

I think we can all agree that the reality that the term “genocide” is meant to represent — the systematic destruction of a race or ethnic group — is a horrible crime. Everyone is obviously against “genocide,” and that is precisely what makes it such a potent tool in legitimating war. Virtually any war could be presented as genocide, because the point of war is to use violence against an enemy group until they either submit or are destroyed.

Civilian deaths can’t serve as the criterion, because contemporary military techniques make civilian deaths inevitable. Even worse, it is difficult to distinguish between combatants and civilians outside the highly idealized context of two recognized nation-states facing off using only uniformed troops.

The difference, in both cases, is intention. They want to kill for the sheer sake of killing, while we do so with deep regret. They hope to kill the maximum number of civilians, while we regard it as tragically unavoidable “collateral damage.”

The parallels with the use of “terrorism” are striking. Again, we can surely all agree that the reality that the term “terrorism” is meant to represent — random violence for the purposes of terrorizing the population at large — is a horrible crime. But here again, it seems that war in general is terrorism by this definition. As is well known, in the ultimate “Just War” (World War II), the US purposely targetted civilians (including with nuclear weapons!), not for purely strategic reasons, but precisely to break the spirit of the population as a whole. How can we distinguish those campaigns, or subsequent ones like the carpet-bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia or “Shock and Awe,” from terrorism?

Again, the difference is intention. Terrorists kill out of motiveless malignancy, while we have a good reason. In other words, they’re evil, while we’re good — hence whatever they do is definitionally evil, and whatever we do is definitionally good.

For the purposes of political discussion, then, I propose that we redefine both terms. Genocide is a term for acts of violence by a state or state-like actor that is not allied with the West. Terrorism is a term for acts of violence by a non-state entity that is not allied with the West. In this respect, both belong to the legacy of Cold War political moralism — where “totalitarianism” designates political systems other than liberal democracy in countries not allied with the West, for instance, or “human rights violations” are, for all practical purposes, definitionally only committed by countries not allied with the West.

It’s like Schmitt says — a claim to transcend politics, as in the postwar attempt to translate politics and war into the sphere of morality, is one of the most aggressive possible political moves.

The (somewhat) rational basis for the US-Israel alliance

As the Gaza crisis intensified, I’m sure I’m not alone in having wondered why the US’s support for Israel is so absolutely unconditional. What’s in it for America? Hasn’t it reached a point where Israel is a liability and should be cut loose?

This post is an attempt to account for the seeming unshakability of the US-Israel alliance, on the basis of what would seem like good reasons to the bipartisan political elite. It seems that the core “US interest” motivating it is the desire to maintain the overall stability of the global capitalist system, which means assuring an uninterrupted flow of oil from the main oil-producing region on earth. Please note that it’s not a question of the US itself directly wanting to steal the oil or something — it’s maintaining the overall equilibrium of the global system in which US corporations and the US military operate.

Once it is conceded that this goal makes sense, the politics of the Mideast do not look promising. You’ve got a lot of potentially hostile factions, some nationalistic, some religious, some a combination of both. The borderlines drawn as part of the decolonization process don’t help, but redrawing them would likely lead to instability and conflict. The religious element is a further problem — an Islamic state is likely to have goals other than the free flow of capital and to be less susceptible to the kinds of incentives the US can offer. Hence: lockdown. Anyone who can keep the oil flowing and keep a lid on the population gets US support.

Yet — and here’s where it gets even uglier, if that were possible — all those dictators, whatever their other merits, are swarthy Arabs. How can (racist) Americans trust such people? Better to go with the more natural ally: Israel, which is led by people who are basically white Westerners. This element of trust became all the more essential after the end of the Cold War, when Saddam Hussein demonstrated that even previously faithful clients can go rogue. Similarly, we can assume that the importance of the alliance with Israel only increased when the Arab Spring called into question the Americans’ traditional methods of controlling political outcomes in the Mideast.

On their side, as the political situation in the Mideast destabilizes, Israel sees increasingly clearly that they are the only game in town for the US and that they can basically do whatever they want without endangering their aid or privileged status. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Does anyone have a better explanation?


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