Monday, September 24, 2007
White supremacy is...
...a system. I know, believe me I do, that the very mention of the term 'white supremacy' is supposed to evoke Komical Krackers and Kooks, rednecks, sheet-wearers and fat old southern sherrifs. Because these happen to have historically been among the most visible agents sustaining and protecting white supremacy at least in America (and, so far as the KKK goes, in some of the Pacific outliers of the empire), they have been used in media dramaturgy as the brand label for a caricature of that system as some sort of abberation, or as some kind of funny delusion held by witless doughfaces. (Meanwhile, as movie viewers know, the FBI was an anti-racist activists union, simply aching to bust a few KKK chops on the orders of a cautious White House). However, American policymakers were always smarter than this: they knew that the domestic racial hierarchy was part of a global one that was produced and reproduced through the labour system, and which didn't always have to be protected through de jure segregation. Indeed, the whole point of the Jim Crow laws was not only to disenfranchise black Americans, but in doing so to prevent them from acquiring the education and labour rights that would improve their bargaining power. Suppose those ends could be achieved by other means? Today, the system is still reproduced in the labour market, and is sustained and defended through 'criminal justice'. Naturally, the way that system operates is to colour-code crime, especially violent crime, in a way that is structurally isomorphic to the treatment of international violence. Albert Memmi wrote that "While it is pardonable for the colonizer to have his little arsenals, the discovery of even a rusty weapon among the colonized is cause for immediate punishment." Your nukes are stupid and dangerous, while mine are a delectably intelligent form of global diplomacy. Your invasion threatens civilization, while mine protects it. My segregation is a local quirk, your resistance merits prison or the death penalty. Holocaust cartoons are unforgiveable, while Mohammed cartoons and dangling nooses are mere pranks sanctified by 'free speech'. Yes, we're defending civilization again: and you know it's bad when the official line on a lynching threat is "get a sense of humour".
Jena is a small, largely white, town in Louisiana, and already a euphemism-magnet. You can't talk about the town without referring to "racial demons", "unrest" and "tensions" which mysteriously, unpredictably "erupt", and then "simmer". Sometimes these "racial tensions" even "spark" public rallies. Shorthand is unavoidable, but much of this is ponderous circumlocution. I know American readers were aware of the details of this case long before I was, but UK readers may still be in the dark. When Kenneth Purvis, a black student at the local high school, requested permission to sit under a tree in the courtyard that was customarily reserved for white students(!), he got it, and used it. The next day three nooses were found dangling from the tree. Well, the headmaster apparently wanted to expel the white students responsible, but the superintendent intervened, calling it a "prank", and the mostly white school board agreed with him. A prank, mark you. I must have viewed any number of American high school farces in my younger years, and I never encountered the "zany" lynch-mob. I fear there is a whole outlook on life implied in such a claim that I will never be privy to.
At any rate, they reduced the punishment to three days suspension, thus triggering a massive local row. Lynching is, after all, a form of domestic terrorism that has killed thousands of African Americans. Racist violence has not exactly disappeared from the landscape, has it? For example, aside from the officially sanctioned murder, there was the killing - according to public testimony - of up to 200 black people by white vigilantes during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The most recent case of anyone being tried under lynching laws was when the attackers of Isaiah Clyburn were convicted in South Carolina in 2006. Clyburn survived the attack, by five white men, and the state didn't bother to investigate the racist dimension of it (Clyburn explains that they had yelled racial slurs at him before the attack) because it has no hate crime laws. Clearly, it was a threat, and equally clearly, the subsequent reactions displayed the range of racist resentment that fuelled the threat. (You may be interested to know that they appear to have inspired others, and of course there is now a website calling for the Jena Six to be - what else? - lynched).
There followed said "tensions", with an unsolved arson attack on a wing of the school, a beating being meted out on some black students by a white man named Justin Sloan (who was charged with battery and put on probation), and a gun being pulled on others (one of the students managed to sieze the gun from the assailant, only to find himself charged with theft of a firearm, while no charges were pressed against the original attacker). Shortly thereafter, a six black students beat up Justin Barker, leaving him unconscious and with a swollen eye. Their motive was that he was bragging about an earlier racist assault that a friend of his had made, and had allegedly been taunted black students with the word "n*gger". The students - Robert Bailey (17), Theo Shaw (17), Carwin Jones (18), Bryant Purvis (17), Mychal Bell (16) and an unidentified minor - were arrested. And the District Attorney tried to hit them with second-degree murder. They tried to have most of them tried as adults, though several of them are not adults. The charges were subsequently demoted to aggravated battery. One of the students, Mychal Bell, has been convicted by an all-white jury, and faces up to 22 years in prison for a school fight. I don't know why it never occurred to the courts to dismiss all charges on the grounds that it was only a prank. This is absolutely typical, of course. You could spend a few depressing years compiling details of similar sequences of events in which racist violence has been treated with indifference (and, actually, surreptitious condonement) by authorities, while violence in response has produced a massive crack-down. Sometimes these are outrageous enough, and noticed enough, to produce a movement. Such was the case after the East St Louis riots on 2 July 1917, a bloody and sadistic racist frenzy whipped up in part by the Democratic party which was accusing the Republicans of 'importing' black labour to diminish the bargaining power of white labour and help fix the elections. The night before, a car-load of whites had gone round shooting up black households in East St Louis - fire was returned, killing a couple of policemen. The next day, after a meeting at the Labour Temple, a clutch of white workers marched to black residential areas and began attacking men, women and children on the streets. There was no investigation and no move by the government to make lynching illegal. Six weeks later, and after repeated provocations by both white civilians and police, a hundred members of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry, a black infantry in the still segregated US Army (which was on its way to fight a war for democracy against evil hun at the time), marched to Houston and began firing indiscriminately at white people. They, of course, were not protected by official indifference. 13 of the infantry were executed with no review or appeal. That atrocious episode in an era of extremely violent racist reaction was one of the key factors in the breakdown of support for America's entry into World War I among the African American leadership: why not, Mister President, make America safe for democracy?
Well, the events in Jena are simply an example of the problems that exist across America, which everyone already knows about. There was always a danger that this case would be sectioned off in public discourse, and used to demonstrate the contrary - that the rest of America is a-okay. However, it hasn't worked out like that. Jordan Flaherty of Left Turn believes that this has "ignited a movement". So does the excellent Gary Younge. The protests have barely featured in the British media, but they are making a huge impact in America - an in Jena, where a town of less than 3,000 residents has grudgingly hosted up to 60,000 protesters. Coming after the murder of Sean Bell and the mass murder in New Orleans - by wilful neglect, by deliberate confinement, and by shooting - this crystallises previously existing trends, but also demonstrates the ability of bloggers to disseminate information and help organise disparate groups of people. Perhaps a Third Reconstruction is afoot. I hear that Cynthia McKinney has supported the development of the Reconstruction Party in New Orleans, a labour-based organisation which aims to become a national party for social justice. There is an International Tribunal being carried out to present a more coherent account of the government's performance during Katrina than the official whitewash. America's immigrants, though terrorised by callous government agencies (libertarians, so sensitive to war's contribution to the augmentation of government, should be more attentive to way that immigration controls contribute to state-building), have been repeatedly on the march. But there remain six students at risk of imprisonment for assault aggravated by by being black. It's a civic felony.