The Global Privileges of Whiteness

by Kendall CLARK Thursday, 28 June 2001

Whiteness is ownership of the earth. -- W.E.B. Du Bois

I use the term white supremacy...I intend a latitudinarian conception, one that encompasses de facto and de jure white privilege and refers more broadly to the European domination of the planet that has left us with the racialized distributions of economic, political, and cultural power that we have today. We could call it global white supremacy. -- Charles W. Mills, ``Revisionist Ontologies: Theorizing White Supremacy,'' in Blackness Visible

White America's attitudes about race and racism are a mixture of self-congratulation and defensiveness -- ``Yes, we've had some episodes of racism and bias, but that's all clearly in the past.'' But, in truth, White racism hasn't gone anywhere. Its tenor and tone have mutated; it's now expressed in carefully coded messages rather than in crudely overt themes. White racism -- and the White supremacist ideology it reflects and networks of White privilege it maintains -- are alive and well.

In what follows I discuss how racist expressions of White supremacist ideology maintain three particular nodes in the vast network of White privilege: empire, corporate profits, and an aggrieved sense of victimhood.

The Maintenance of Empire

In August, 2001, the United Nations convened the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa. SA faces serious obstacles, including a horrifying AIDS pandemic and Western-dictated structural adjustment programs, demanded as preconditions of expanded trade relations, development loans, and so on. Given the contour of African colonial history, it was appropriate that a discussion of reparations for colonialism and the slave trade was to have been central to WCAR's agenda.

Destroying the World Conference Against Racism

However, as was widely reported at the time, the former colonial powers, including the US, the UK and the rest of the European Union, threatened to scuttle WCAR if reparations and the legacy of colonialism were allowed to remain on the agenda. As Alex Smith reported, in The Independent (UK) on 12 June 2001, during SA President Mbeki's visit with Tony Blair before the conference opened, Mbeki was reminded that one of the ongoing privileges of White Empire is its careful, unblinking avoidance of any responsibility for past horrors.

Blair didn't refuse to take responsibility, he refused to acknowledge that there's anything to take responsibility for. Smith reported that at the conference, European countries would apologize for colonial exploitation, but Blair warned Mbeki that such apologies cannot be used by African countries to press claims of reparation. A formal apology means nothing when the very idea of reparations is off-limits. An apology which cannot be the basis of subsequent, morally appropriate action, such as reparations, is not an apology at all; it's merely words in the verbal form of an apology, signifying nothing but a churlish expression of White privilege.

And it wasn't Tony Blair alone manning the ramparts of White empire. The US and European colonial powers threatened to ruin the conference by sending "junior delegations", if, as Smith puts it, "the issue of compensation for the ills of slavery is allowed to dominate the agenda" -- where "dominate the agenda" meant, roughly, "appear on the agenda at all".

The US, in particular, according to reports in the Financial Times, refused to consider a WCAR agenda which included a "strongly worded apology for slavery". Most of the coverage of WCAR in the US media focused on the issue of whether WCAR would condemn Zionism as a form of racism, and that's the issue on which the Bush administration ultimately pinned its rejectionist stance. But there was fairly clear indication before WCAR was convened that Washington equally rejected discussion of slavery and reparations.

"Some believe the US action regarding Israel is a convenient way," the Financial Times reported, "for Washington to prevent discussion of the slavery issue, which could have deep political and financial implications." The report further quoted an unnamed diplomat as saying that, "For the US slavery is far more important and Israel is a smokescreen."

That such a refusal, even to consider reparations and the legacies of colonialism and slavery at an antiracism conference, is an exercise of White privilege was made perfectly obvious in Alex Smith's Independent report, which said that "Britain, which claims its views are in line with other European countries, says it wants to look forwards, not back." Which was precisely in keeping with the UK's role as the US's junior partner. Ari Fleischer, representing the Bush administration's views, said that WCAR "should be focused on the future on combating racism that exists in the world today." The arrogance of the Bush administration's position with regard to WCAR was stunning. Not content with seeking to dictate unilaterally the agenda of a global conference, it did so in absurdly ahistorical terms. According to reports on 31 August, 2001, the opening day of WCAR, the Bush administration had "consistently demanded that the UN conference focus on current issues of racism rather than the historical debate," rather than being "hopelessly mired in the past".

Uncontent with an injurious, boastful display of the privilege of White empire, the British Foreign Office hastened to add this insult: "'The African group [in Geneva] has put forward a position which makes extensive reference to the historical slave trade. But no one wants a retrospective conference. It is important for international anti-racism mechanisms to be made more effective. We are looking to address contemporary issues.'"

In the US, the boasting and distortion went further, declining into gross historical ignorance and paternalism. One reason the White House offered for neither discussing reparations nor allowing them to be discussed was because doing so would mean that the responsibility of West African nations which, it suggested, played a role in the slave trade would become an issue.

Not only will the US and UK be the sole determinant -- note the nullifying claim that "no one wants a retrospective conference"; Africans, their concerns, their interests simply do not count -- of what is or is not true, of what is or is not morally appropriate, but the US and UK will unilaterally be so in the guise of being ``effectively anti-racist''. Or, even more absurd, in the guise of protecting the interests of West African nations.

No Africans were needed or consulted. The inheritors of colonialism and slavery had nothing to say about the matter; nothing, that is, to which the inheritors of the benefits of colonialism and slavery would listen.

The Privilege of Evading Responsibility

The reasons offered by the Bush administration and the Blair government constitute the pinnacle achievement of propaganda, the total inversion of truth. Thus, displaying and asserting White privilege is effectively antiracist, and justice for African peoples is an impediment to antiracist action.

One of the principal privileges of Whiteness is the subversive evasion of responsibility, by which I mean an evasion of responsibility which seems or appears to be an acceptance or acknowledgment of responsibility. Bush and Blair both made their case against WCAR in terms of opposing the (nearly ubiquitous global) opposition to Zionism, trying to pass that stance off as principled. Whether or not it was principled -- and what principle it reflected -- is a separate question from whether or not the US and UK, as colonial powers, bear responsibility to African nations and diasporic African peoples.

This evasion of responsibility is subversive of the very coherence of public moral language, as it wraps naked self-interest in superficial talk of combating social injustice. It should have surprised no one that, months after giving every signal that it wanted WCAR to fail, the US boycotted WCAR because the agenda could not be made to suit Washington. This evasion of responsibility, which is subversive of the common moral vocabulary of rights and responsibilities, is at the same time a defense and expression of the structures of White privilege. The Bush administration making a pretense of being antiracist in order to impede antiracism is ruinous. Bush and Blair, and the domestic interests they each represent, mocked and deceived those whom they hurt, those whom they continue to hurt, all while claiming the moral high ground.

The Protection of Corporate Profits

The Bush administration freely admitted during the run-up to WCAR that reparations for slavery created problems with some of its domestic constituencies. But it has actively defended its chief constituencey, Corporate America, carefully since taking office. Empire is the servant of corporate (that is, private) profit. Such was the case with European colonial empires, and such is the case with the neocolonial corporate empire which bestrides the planet today. Just as White supremacist ideology was developed, in part, as a justification for European colonial Empire and, particularly, the slave trade, one of its chief uses today is to justify and protect White corporate profits. And that's perfectly clear in the case of American drug companies and the African AIDS pandemic.

During 2001, the Bush administration, in the form of Andrew Natsios, Bush's choice to head the US Agency for International Development, was busy spreading White supremacist ideology to protect corporate profits. Natsios said that it made no sense, as Bob Herbert reported, for US drug companies to make drugs freely or cheaply available to combat AIDS in Africa because Africans

don't know what Western time is. You have to take these (AIDS) drugs a certain number of hours each day, or they don't work. Many people in Africa have never seen a clock or a watch their entire lives. And if you say, one o'clock in the afternoon, they do not know what you are talking about. They know morning, they know noon, they know evening, they know the darkness at night.

And it wasn't just Natsios. An "unnamed senior Treasury Department official" made the same point in April, 2001, according to Herbert.

The Bush administration claimed that a perfectly reasonable idea -- some percentage of the astronomically high drug company profits should be used to ameliorate the AIDS pandemic in Africa -- is actually absurd since Africans aren't sufficiently human to follow a drug regime. We should make no mistake here: to claim that an entire continent of human persons cannot follow a drug regime is to claim that they are not human persons at all. The clear implication of Natsios' claim is that Africans are less than human. His comments revealed an almost total ignorance of contemporary Africa, which contains large urban populations where people can tell time in precisely the same way that all urban, industrialized populations tell time.

All of which begs the question of relief agencies finding some mechanism by which to help people in rural areas, where life is lived by agrarian rhythms more than by clocks, to follow complex drug regimes. The obvious solution is to train local health care workers, outfitting them with the proper equipment and resources, to assist rural people in following AIDS drug regimes. Surely the head of US AID should know that Africa is full of urban metropolises; that, while rural areas may be less clock-bound than urban areas, ready alternatives exist; and that there's nothing unique about Africa in this regard?

The protection of drug company profits, another important Bush constituency, is the real motivation behind its ignorant, racist stance vis-a-vis AIDS drugs for Africa.

The Privileges of Victimhood

The oppressive ideal is for privilege to be so deeply embedded and entwined in the social order that it's hard to see and, thus, hard to fight. One way that White privilege has been made invisible the creation of a widely shared sense of aggrieved White victimhood. If White people are victims of, say, affirmative action's so-called reverse racism, the real claims of people of color and of women will make little sense. False claims of oppression dilute the force of real claims. White aggrieved victimhood is a smoke screen for White privilege.

The cult of aggrieved White victimhood was strengthened by media representations of the Oklahoma City Bombing, which enshrined the tragedy as "the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil" (now superseded, of course, by the 11 September attacks, to which most of the comments here apply equally well). According to the media, the victims and the institutions that McVeigh attacked were White, which is not to diminish the deaths of people of color in OKC, but only to recognize that the public face of the Oklahoma City Bombing constructed by the media was almost entirely a White face.

But by any objective measure the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot was a worse act of domestic terrorism than the Oklahoma City Bombing. White mobs in Tulsa killed about 250 African Americans, destroyed 1,400 homes, and devastated the Greenwood district of Tulsa, one of the most thriving and economically vibrant African American communities in the entire country at that time. (If you want to learn more about the Tulsa Race Riots, two books are newly available: Tim Madigan's The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and teh Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and Alfred L. Brophy's Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation.) Most White people simply cannot comprehend the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot as rioting by White people, but that's precisely what happened. It's crass and insulting to compare the dimensions of human tragedy, but the media started the quantification game, and if they're going to play it, they should be made to play it fairly.

The media representations of the OKC Bombing reinforced White privilege in two ways: first, by obscuring the fact and the enormity of the Tulsa Race Riots, the White privilege of avoiding responsibility for harms is reaffirmed; second, by falsely claiming a unique status for the Bombing, White victims were taken seriously, and African American victims were ignored, made invisible. The effect is to make White privilege invisible because covered by a false picture of the world in which black victims of one of the worst domestic terrorist attacks in American history (and countless other black and Native American victims of White genocidal violence) are denied any semblance of justice; in which the White power structure that committed the act evades responsibility; and in which White victims and institutions are meant to be seen as under attack, both by terrorists like McVeigh and, less dramatically, by the claims of those, primarily people of color and women, who "falsely" claim to be victims of oppression.

The Bombing was a matter of intense governmental and media attention, which reinforced the invisibility of White privilege and the worthlessness of African American lives. The Tulsa Race Riot disappeared down the memory hole because, as a horrific assertion of White privilege, it reinforced the status quo in a way that's far too visible. The same forces which urged public broadcasting of McVeigh's execution, and lamented that he could not legally be tortured to death, demand that, when women and people of color press their legitimate claims for justice, White America is under siege from a "culture of victims". The message is clear: anything to satisfy White victims, but for the survivors of the Tulsa Race Riots and countless others, nothing but the back of the hand. The cult of aggrieved White victimhood is angry and jealous and will acknowledge no other victims before it.


As an antiracist White American, I was taught to think of race and race privilege in terms of individual failings, not systematic structures of privilege and harm, and in very narrowly construed terms of the American experience, not in terms of global Empire.. But radical black thinkers like Martin Delany, W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, and others have always understood that the White supremacist power structure is a global structure. That White privilege is a global privilege, backed by a global ideology of White supremacy. And that it must be seen, understood, and opposed as such.

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