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Whiteness and Its Dominion

Vinay Lal (vlal@history.ucla.edu) is professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The happenings in Charlottesville expose America’s “unshakable grounding in a virulent and diseased whiteness” and white America’s incapacity to confront the naked truth.

This article was earlier published on the
EPW Engage website.

“The problem of the twentieth century,” wrote the African American intellectual W E B DuBois in 1903, “is the problem of the color-line” (DuBois 1994: v, 9, 111). Nearly every book on race relations in the United States (US) that has been published since, especially over the last several decades, has dwelled, if implicitly, on the prescience of DuBois’s observation. Writing on the 40th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which pronounced the slaves as henceforth free and thus entitled to the Jeffersonian formula of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” DuBois saw instead that the “very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.” That shadow, which the white man called “prejudice” and no more—something that could be undone, presumably, with education, cultivation of the virtues, goodwill, informed legislation, andsocial engineering—condemned the black person to “personal disrespect and mockery,” “ridicule and systematic humiliation,” indeed “the disdain for everything black” (DuBois 1994: 6).

Though DuBois would have been scarcely alone in his assessment of how the black person had become disenfranchised and consigned to “a second slavery,” he deployed a striking metaphor to characterise what had befallen America and “the souls of black folk” (DuBois 1994: 7). Early in life, he says, it dawned on him that he was shut out of the white world “by a vast veil.” This “veil” is something like Churchill’s “iron curtain,” but DuBois pushes the metaphor much further. The numerous 18th century slave revolts, which suggest that “the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves,” had the effect of “veiling all the Americas in fear of insurrection.” And yet more, since “the Negro” is himself born “with a veil”: in what is the book’s most arresting insight, DuBois describes the veil as one which “yields him no true self-consciousness”; he can only see “himself through the revelation of the other world,” through the eyes of the other. DuBois termed this phenomenon “double consciousness” (1994: 3, 28, 7). Malcolm X was among those who drew on this idea in drawing a distinction between the “Field Negro” and the “House Negro”: though the former was able to maintain some, howsoever indistinct, form of autonomy, the latter was profoundly colonised, unable to see the world except through the eyes of the master.

DuBois’s metaphor of veiling remains apposite for our times, and may have yet ever greater salience, and not only because much of contemporary political discussion, and white anger, in the US has swivelled around the figure of the veiled Muslim woman. It is white America that shrouds itself in a veil,unable to look upon itself, incapable of the self-reflexivity which would suggest both maturity and a capacity to confront the naked truth. To unveil America’sunshakable grounding in a virulent and diseased whiteness, we can do little better than turn to the events in the picture-postcard town of Charlottesville.

What Happened at Charlottesville

Charlottesville, Virginia, a two-hour drive from the nation’s capital, was home to two of the country’s “founding fathers,” Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Each served as the Governor of Virginia and as President of the US, but Jefferson also has the distinction of being the founder of the University of Virginia and the architect of the university’s signature building, the Rotunda. In recent years, Charlottesville, perhaps in keeping with the notion of a “university town”, acquired something of a reputation as an outpost of liberal thought in a state that has long been a bastion of conservatism.

In July 2014, the US National Bureau of Economic Research pronounced Charlottesville the “happiest” place in America (Helmore 2014). In the received view, it is a small town with most of the assets and none of the liabilities of a big city; the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains are nearby, the climate is temperate, and paeans there are many to the town’s supposed gastronomic refinements. Happy are those who know little of the past, one might say: the city, not unlike the state of Virginia, has ugly racial antecedents. Its black population was not permitted to build their own church until 1864, not coincidentally in the thick of the civil war; even more ominously, considering that the US had partaken of two global conflicts to save the world from fascist tyranny and enshrine democracy as the supreme value, in 1958 the city responded to federal court orders to integrate white schools, issued in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education (1954) that declared segregation unconstitutional, by closing all its white schools as part of a concerted strategy of resistance (Muse 1961; Ely 1976).

If the town has indeed become more liberal, or more receptive to diversity, Charlottesville’s black people appear to be thinking otherwise. The black share of the population has fallen from 22% in 2000 to 19% at present (Eligon 2017). Many will put this down to gentrification and rising rents, but of course those have precisely been some of the ways in which black people have been run out of town and excised from the white world.

It is in this pleasure dome of happiness, then, that white America erupted as it does every now and then. The ancient Greeks and Indians were among two people who understood that happiness is ephemeral; as the lawgiver Solon informs the vain king Croesus, “But in every matter it behooves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.” On the night of 11 August, as a prelude to the call by the white supremacist Richard Spencer to “Unite the Right,” white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan marched through the campus of the University of Virginia bearing torches and swastikas, all to the accompaniment of slogans such as “blood and soil,” “White Lives Matter,” and “You will not replace us.”

The following day, they gathered in force at a public park in Charlottesville. The ostensible reason for this gathering was a decision by the town council toremove an equestrian statue of Robert E Lee, the Confederate general who unsuccessfully attempted to lead the slave-holding states in secession from theUnion. These exponents of white terror found themselves facing a vigorous and much larger opposition comprised of liberals, left activists, ordinary citizens—a motley crowd of decent people. Clashes ensued; the police stood by: much of the world, but not most of gun-loving America, would have watched in astonishment at the sight of people openly flaunting assault weapons, automatic rifles, and handguns. Before the day was over, a young neo-Nazi sympathiser had, with intense deliberation, plowed his car into the crowd of protestors, thereby killing 32-year old Heather Heyer.

White Supremacism

It is not surprising that a good portion of mainstream American should have unequivocally condemned the display in Charlottesville of right-wing terrorism, even if President Trump did not merely prevaricate but, in a scarcely veiledattempt to exonerate “white supremacists,” took it upon himself to condemn “allextremist groups”—before, on 15 August stating with greater conviction in his monotonously juvenile English that “there is blame on both sides”: “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.” To take only the examples of prominent public figures who cannot remotely be accused of having a liberal disposition, House Speaker Paul D Ryan described the white supremacists as “repugnant,” while Senator John McCain called them “traitors” on his Twitter account. Even Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, whose own commitment to civil rights is, to put it mildly, exceedingly questionable, but who as the country’s chief law-enforcement officer must at least put forward the semblance of some respect for the rule of law, was moved to admit that “the violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice.”

The widespread outrage over white extremist violence has doubtless been genuine. In the frenetic world of social media, the hashtag #thisisnotus was at once embraced by thousands. They may have done so to bring to mind the better possibilities that reside in the American self and to invoke a necessary political solidarity for the present. And yet I have the inescapable feeling that the crass affirmation, “this is not us,” creates a smaller place for reflection and dialogue than the unthinkable: #thisisallofus. One could invoke, of course, “the hooded Americanism” that historians of the KKK have documented in such meticulous detail, or the lynchings that were invitations to Sunday picnics in Jim Crow South (Chalmers 1987); one could also point, if one stretched one’s canvas beyond the cruel deprivations to which black America has been subjected, to the genocidal tendencies that have conspicuously been part of the grand design of making and keeping America “great.” Just how do these disingenuous expressions of outrage permit whiteness to remain unscathed even as white supremacists are banished, as they should be, to the realm of the barbaric and the unforgiveable?

Dominion of Whiteness

White supremacism necessarily entails a profound adherence to whiteness, but (to borrow a phrase from the scholar George Lipsitz) “the possessive investment in whiteness” runs deep through American culture and only manifests itself as white nationalist ideology or outright fascist-style violence occasionally. A large and increasingly growing body of commentary by liberals and left-leaning scholars has now made the idea of “white privilege” a familiar part of American political discourse. Such white privilege takes many forms, some obvious and others scarcely so, commencing with the assumption that is tantamount to the original sin, namely that America belongs to white people just as white people can rightfully, naturally, and pre-emptively call America their own. The white American, unlike the African–American, Japanese–American, or Chinese–American, has never had to be hyphenated: as Roland Barthes (1972) would have it, he belongs to the realm of the exnominated, those who never have to be named, those who can be universalised and whose rules become everyone else’s rules. There are other less transparent forms of whiteness, though with even a little prodding they can be easily excavated. Such, to take one example from studies of environmental racism, is the notion that non-white communities should have to bear the burden of toxic andnuclear wastes, pollutants, and the garbage produced in everyday life.

White privilege is perhaps best witnessed in the mounting critiques over US immigration policy and affirmative action in higher education. The Trump regime has, contrary to common opinion, little interest in stemming illegal immigration; by law, those who are in the US“illegally” can be summarily deported. This is apart from the consideration that illegal immigrants are an invaluableasset to the American economy. To understand the true import of pervasive anti-immigrant sentiments, it is sufficient to understand that the slogan, “Take America Back,” means nothing but taking America back to the period before the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which made possible Asian andAfrican migration into the US and thereby slowly but surely altered the social fabric of American life. It is thus legal, rather than illegal, immigrants who pose the greater problem for those who would like to see the US restored as a principally white dominion.

Similarly, the massive white unrest over affirmative action occludes two facts. First, as every study has shown, and as is confirmed by a recent New York Times analysis extending to 100 universities, including Ivy League institutions and the flagship public universities, black and Hispanic students are today more rather than less underrepresented at such institutions than they were 35 years ago (Ashkenas 2017). More significantly, it is almost never conceded that the entire system of higher education is effectively the consequence of an unwritten code of affirmative action over decades on behalf of white students. It is white entitlement, not supposedly the lower bar for admission for blacks and Hispanics, that has kept Asian Americans from predominating in elite American institutions.

In speaking of “the possessive investment in whiteness,” Lipsitz was adverting to something more than white privilege; indeed, the more compelling part of his argument resides in the claim that “all communities of color suffer from the possessive investment in whiteness, but not in the same way” (Lipsitz 1998: 184). Immigrant communities have, in their own fashion, sought to claim whiteness, or at least an approximation to it; whiteness has entered into the sinews, pores, arteries of American society. Ironically, much of white America has not quite fathomed its own overwhelming success; if it had, white Americans would not be staging, as they are today, a new secessionist movement. Robert E Lee, at least, would have understood the animated and largely cliché-ridden dispute over Confederate statues as fundamentally a proxy war over whiteness. Even as he might have looked askance at having his own statues knocked down, he would likely have been pleased that the idea of secessionism continues to thrive.

References

Ashkenas, Jeremy et al (2017): “Affirmative Action Yields Little Progress on Campus for Blacks and Hispanics,” New York Times, 25 August, A1.

Barthes, Roland (1972): Mythologies, trans, Annette Lavers, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Chalmers, David M (1987): Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, 3rd ed, Durham: Duke University Press.

DuBois, W E B 1994 (1903): The Souls of Black Folk, Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.

Eligon, John (2017): “For Some in Charlottesville, Statue Dispute Distracts from City’s DeepRacial Split,” New York Times, 19 August, A10.

Ely, James (1976): The Crisis of ConservativeVirginia, Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Helmore, Edward (2014): “Happiness Is a Place Called Charlottesville, Virginia,” Guardian, 26 July, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/27/happiness-place-called-charlottesville-virginia.

Lipsitz, George (1998): The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Muse, Benjamin (1961): Virginia’s Massive Resistance, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Updated On : 1st Sep, 2017

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