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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The diseases of slavery and white citizenship

In one of the more interesting scenes in the smart alternate history mock-umentary, Confederate States of America, we watch a tv advertisement recruiting less than stellar white students into the exciting and expanding field of veterinary medicine - the care and treatment of chattel slaves. CSA explores a "what-if" history in which the South won the Civil War and slavery flourished throughout the entire country. Even the most undeserving white, we learn, can enjoy as a birthright of citizenship a position superior to every Black.

The 'diseases' of slavery

Once enrolled, the commercial promises, students will learn to treat the many disorders and dysfunctions peculiar to slaves, such as 'drapetomania'.
"Drapetomania" was a psychiatric diagnosis proposed in 1851 by Louisiana physician Samuel A. Cartwright to explain the tendency of black slaves to flee captivity. As some slave owners felt they were improving the lives of their slaves, they could not understand the slaves' desire to escape.

As such, Drapetomania is an important historical example of scientific racism. The term derives from the Greek δραπετης (drapetes, "a runaway [slave]") + μανια (mania, "madness, frenzy").

The diagnosis appeared in a paper published in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, where Dr. Cartwright argued that the tendency of slaves to run away from their captors was in fact a treatable medical disorder. His feeling was that with "proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented." Cartwright proposed whipping as the most effective treatment of this disorder. Amputation of the toes was also prescribed [1].

Cartwright also described another disorder, Dysaethesia Aethiopica, to explain the apparent lack of motivation exhibited by many slaves, which he also claimed could be cured by whipping.
Imagine that! The slavemaster's doctor recommends a good whipping as a cure to the slave's problems. It kind of reminds me of that scene in the new Jackass movie where they visit the leecher in India. Got a problem? Guess what the leecher recommends? That's right - leeches! And if the leech attaches to the skin and starts sucking blood then that's proof there was a problem in the first place. What else could it be, after all?

But, in this case it's much more sinister. Having deluded themselves into believing the lie of the mutually beneficial slave/slavemaster relationship and failing to understand the way in which they benefited from the exploitation of others, the slavemaster and most whites in general at the time could come up with no explanation other than a mental disorder for the peculiar tendency of slaves to flee slavery. Since the slave's natural condition was slavery, the argument went, only a mentally ill slave would seek to escape to a freedom to which she was unsuited.

The obvious fact that one didn't see many folks of any color (especially whites) fleeing into slavery seems to have provoked little controversy, though it does undermine the basic notion of insanity as a cause for the slave's rejection of his condition. The insanity defense, such as it was, was not limited to slaves, of course. We know that abolitionists, such as John Brown (as I have discussed recently) were similarly labeled 'insane' for their anti-slavery views by the system's defenders.

'Excited Delirium': Today's Drapetomania

And so it is today. While whites today demonstrate the same aversion to going to prison that they once did to becoming slaves, they nevertheless cling to all kinds of bizarre notions to explain the over-representation of Blacks and other people of color in the country's overflowing prisons. Are minorities more inclined towards crime? Is it that they are merely poorer and therefore more likely to commit crime? Is it the parents' fault? Any excuse to avoid the inevitable conclusion that the system today remains rooted in the exploitation of people of color and that being white means avoiding prison just as being non-white means being targeted by the prison system.

Which brings us to a very interesting AP article forwarded to me by a comrade of mine Monday. Entitled, Delirium - or police brutality?, the article explores the increasing tendency of police forces across the country to explain away their murders with medical diagnoses of the victims.
Police found 23-year-old Jose Romero in his underwear, screaming gibberish and waving a large kitchen knife from his neighbor's porch.

Romero kept approaching with the knife, so officers shocked him repeatedly with a stun gun. Then he stopped breathing. His family blames police brutality for the death, but the Dallas County medical examiner attributed it to a disputed condition known as "excited delirium."

Excited delirium is defined as a condition in which the heart races wildly - often because of drug use or mental illness - and finally gives out.

Medical examiners nationwide are increasingly citing the condition when suspects die in police custody. But some doctors say the rare syndrome is being overdiagnosed, and some civil rights groups question whether it exists at all.

"For psychiatrists, this is a rare condition that occurs once in a blue moon," said Warren Spitz, a former chief medical examiner in Michigan. "Now suddenly you are seeing it all the time among medical examiners. And always, police and police restraint are involved."

Excited delirium came to doctors' attention in the 1980s as cocaine use soared, said Vincent DiMaio, chief medical examiner in Bexar County, Texas, and a proponent of the diagnosis. No reliable national figures exist on how many suspects die from excited delirium because county medical examiners make the ruling, and some use different terminology.

In Dallas, at least three in-custody deaths in the past five months have been linked to excited delirium. This prompted the police department to start offering mental health assessment training they say will stem the sudden deaths.

Other police departments, including San Diego, have done the same to try to prevent community protests and costly lawsuits. In Phoenix, a jury awarded $9 million in April to the parents of a suspect whose death was attributed to excited delirium.
But, is 'excited delirium' even real? There are serious doubts, especially about what's really behind the desire to classify away police brutality as the fault of the victim.
"By explaining deaths with excited delirium, it takes the focus away from where it should be," said Dawn Edwards, director of PoliceWatch at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif. "What it comes down to is the policemen, at the time of the death, were using excessive force."
Yet again we see a system denying the fundamental relationship between white supremacy, oppression and resistance. Unwilling to indict itself, the search for an explanation, leads it to concoct a 21st Century equivalent to drapetomania in order to explain away its treatment of people of color, which amounts to 'they must be crazy,' essentially. After all, what else could explain the way that citizens of color could be so differently treated by the system's defenders?

'Citizen' as a codeword for 'white'

But this shouldn't surprise us. While it has changed form in some significant ways, white supremacy remains at the center of the controlling logic of American society. White and non-white remains the fundamental division in this country affecting everything - even class.

We see this in the Minuteman obsession with citizenship as a criteria for rights and participation in this country. 'Citizen' serves as a codeword for white. A good example of this is the movement to require specific ID to vote. To the Minuteman, it is of no concern that such demands tend to exclude people of color, just as felony exclusions do now and poll taxes and literacy tests did back in Jim Crow days. But Minutemen can dodge the fact that such measures consolidate further power in the hands of white voters because their stated goal is to target non-citizens, not Blacks and other people of color generally. But, their intent is to prevent non-citizens from voting, and when we realize that citizenship operates a code for white, we can see the continuity in the position with past policies.

So, in Southern Arizona, Minuteman congressional candidate Randy Graf launched a new ad aimed at his rival:
A female speaker responds: "Think again. Giffords is a liberal extremist who supports Spanish ballots, amnesty and even citizenship for illegals."

The ad also contends that she supports welfare, food stamps, health care and Social Security benefits for illegal entrants.
That Graf wants to repeal the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to children born within US territory, offers further evidence of this continuity in policy. That's the amendment that gave citizenship to slaves after the Civil War.

While Minutemen will occasionally trot out a person of color to support them, it's painfully clear that their idea of solidarity work with 'citizen' people of color organizations goes 'one way.' We never see the Minutemen defending the rights of citizens of color whose rights have been violated by the police, for instance. Or affirmative action policies for historically discriminated against minorities.

And so we have the case of Tony Dolz, an Assemblyman-wannabe from Malibu, California. Apparently not a fan of irony, the Malibu Times reports that
Dolz is a founding member of the Minuteman Project, an anti-illegal immigration group based in Orange County that sends members to patrol the U.S. Southern border. He is also a legal immigrant, having arriving in this country as a child with his parents from Cuba in the 1960s. Since shortly after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, all Cubans have been allowed to legally enter the United States and become citizens without going through the immigration process of those arriving from all other nations [my emphasis].
Nevertheless, Dolz endorses tight restrictions on access to resources based on citizenship.
Dolz said on Tuesday that he does not support forcibly removing illegal immigrants from the United States, but he would like them to voluntarily leave once incentives for them to stay have been eliminated.

"If they cannot get a job, rent a home, get a drivers' license; if they cannot get anything but service at a hospital here, they will gradually go back to whatever country they came from," Dolz said.
Yet, the end result of such logic remains hard to deny when we look at it critically. A recent article in the LA Times reports that
Two day laborers were injured Sunday when they were hit by a car whose driver and passenger shouted racial epithets as they raced through a Laguna Canyon hiring site, Laguna Beach police said.

The driver, Artem Soloviev, and his passenger, Dennis Katpilniy, both of Laguna Niguel, had gone to the site about 9 a.m., saying they wished to hire someone for a digging project at Soloviev's house, said Sgt. George Ramos.

But when one worker declined the terms of the proffered job, Soloviev, 23, and Katpilniy, 18, started arguing and fighting with the man and another laborer, police said.

The pair returned soon afterward and allegedly drove through the hiring site at a high speed, hitting two workers and damaging several tables and a fence, Ramos said.

Workers were forced to jump out of the path of the car as it circled a parking area, witnesses told police.
Minuteman leader, Jim Gilchrist, condemned the attack, but it further illustrates the racist ideology underpinning the Minuteman Project's logic. Likewise with the cases of Patrick Haab and JT Ready in Arizona, both of whom proved their trigger-happy tendency to view brown skin as a synonym for non-citizen and therefore criminal. After all, as their mantra goes, "What part of illegal don't you understand?" The Minuteman movement is a movement for white rights, but it has adopted the familiar language of citizenship to camouflage its arguments, which generally center around good jobs being lost to foreigners either overseas or at home. Of course, those 'good jobs' generally excluded citizen people of color to begin with.

Beyond the 'unite and fight' logic

Still, while the division within the working class along race lines is easy to see when we look, most whites still cling to the notion that class trumps race in the end. That, whatever the case with the working class, at least when they are middle class or rich, people of color are at least as well off as whites. Wealth is the great equalizer - just look at OJ Simpson, they might say (perhaps with some resentment). A Black boss is still a boss, goes the logic. Any worker knows that there is a certain truth to that. Or a varient: if they system is inherently racist, what do we make of the Black cop, then?

However, since citizenship is defined along race lines in this country, as it has since its founding, certain contradictions and limitations emerge when we apply this pure class analysis further. If, as many anarchists contend, it were simply a matter of class, what explains the fact that to a police officer a white man in an Escalade is a rich man, but a Black man in an Escalade is a thief or a thug? Is that a stolen car? That Black boss may be able to fire you or cut your pay, regardless of your race, but on the street he remains under suspicion thanks to the system of white supremacy, which class mobility is not sufficient to the task of escaping.

Illegal at the Ivy League

So, consider now the case at Ivy League Brown University. Earlier this month, a Black student alleged that university police attacked him after he refused their demand to present ID while heading onto campus late at night. Students organized protests, where they complained that they felt that they were considered criminals even on their own campus.
Theresa McGowan '08 was among those who led the group around the Main Green and Wriston Quadrangle. Outside Wayland Arch, McGowan addressed the crowd and referred to Street's allegations. "He was assaulted on this campus. … He was attacked from behind. … He cried for help," she said to the group of protestors and onlookers.

McGowan then touched on the issue of race as she addressed the marchers, who were mostly students of color.

"We don't want no racism on Brown's campus, we don't want no police stopping us because they think we can't go to Brown. … Brown is brown," McGowan said.

"This doesn't end today. This is ongoing until we get change," she said.

The marchers then returned to the Main Green, where McGowan again addressed the crowd, saying: "They claim they don't know what a Brown student looks like - lets show them what a Brown student looks like."

Other marchers were blunter about their reasons for attending. I'm here to "stop the f*cking police brutality," said Kai Morrison '07. She said police brutality is happening all over the country, even on the campus of a supposedly liberal institution like Brown.

After McGowan spoke, the marchers took to the streets chanting "Brown is brown." They walked to DPS Headquarters at 75 Charlesfield St. and the PPD's Brook Street substation.
Even at an Ivy League school, generally well-off Black students remain suspects in the eyes of police. Despite their status as citizens, the burden of proof lies with them, just as it did under slavery. A traditional class analysis does not explain this.

Putting the struggle against white supremacy in the center

Revolutionaries in the United States need to recognize the fundamental nature of white supremacy in the American system. The division in the working class along race lines was created by the rich in law and is enforced through a combination of official sanction, selective privilege and reactionary white working class defense of privilege, among other things.

In the end this division reinforces capitalism and strengthens the hand of the capitalists - even if it is working class whites that defend it through their own self-organization, as in the case of the Minutemen. Further, this combination puts the white working class very often in a reactionary position in relation to the rest of the working class, and this is the reason why a revolutionary strategy in this country must put attacking white supremacy at the top of its battle plan.

It is also the reason why common front strategies that deprioritize critiquing and attacking white supremacy for shared enemies like the boss, capitalism or the state tend to replicate white dominance and white interests. Too often issues of race are treated as divisive or impediments to revolutionary change. In truth, putting the fight against white supremacy at the center of our revolutionary strategy lays the groundwork for the kind of unity that revolution requires.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you expand on your ideas on citizenship as a codeword for white elsewhere?

Fri Sep 29, 03:00:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

I have touched on this theme before, but the best treatment of it that I have read is The Abolition of White Democracy by Joel Olson. I have had the book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae M. Ngai recommended to me recently, although I have not read it yet. In general, I would recommend Noel Ignatiev and Theodore Allen for a good look into the subject of whiteness and legality more generally. Also, Christian Parenti's recent book, The Soft Cage has a section on IDs and the Chinese Exclusion act that is pretty interesting.

Tue Oct 03, 07:28:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i read joel olson's book and didn't feel it adequately touched on this issue as it relates to current immigration. that's why i was hoping you would expand on it. i'll check out some of those other sources, although i don't think noel ignatiev would have anything very specific to immigration either. both olson and ignatiev tend to write about race in a very black and white way, which i think is important, but doesn't offer much in the current debate on illegal immigration.

Mon Oct 09, 04:09:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

I think it's fair to say that Race Traitor analysis does see whiteness as specifically framed against Blackness, politically. This is probably why BTR is working in the South on prisons rather than in the Southwest on immigration. Ignatiev definitely makes this point about the Irish immigration experience in How the Irish Became White. However, I do think that Joel discusses citizenship as politically white in his book. On page xv of the introduction, he writes,

"It is not so much that racial discrimination is a 'dilemma' for white Americans or that liberal citizenship coexists with ascriptive traditions that exclude people of color. Rather, the very structure of American citizenship is white, to the point where, for most of American history, to be a citizen was to be white and vice versa."

With regards to immigration, it seemed to me that Joel took the position that immigration may impact whiteness in a variety of ways. He suggests that it may take the historical path that Euro immigration took - with current immigrants framing their bid for equal (or white) citizenship against Black people. Or it may mean that immigration from south of the border will contribute to a kind of blurring of the lines, in which whiteness may remain the standard with a series of gradations - perhaps fluid - in between. Of course, I think it goes without saying that he and other New Abolitionist folks hope it takes neither of those paths.

I guess the question is whether the immigrant rights movement will wind up being a struggle for white assimilation or not. I can't say for sure, but I believe that this (not ahistorical) potentiality may be a part of what has tended to lead BTR away from the immigrant rights struggle and back to the more historically safe ground of the white-black dichotomy. I don't know for sure, however. I have heard that the debate on this issue within the organization was not unanimous and may not be over. Others can speak better of that than I can, however.

Wed Oct 11, 08:02:00 PM 2006  

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