Stuff White People Say

June 20, 2009

Lingering white supremacy in South Africa sounds much like United States

Filed under: Uncategorized — jwbe @ 10:24 pm
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by Robert Jensen

Apartheid is dead in South Africa, but a new version of white supremacy lives on.

“During apartheid the racism of white people was up front, and we knew what we were dealing with. Now white people smile at us, but for most black people the unemployment and grinding poverty and dehumanizing conditions of everyday life haven’t changed,” a black South African told me. “So, what kind of commitment to justice is under that smile?”

This community activist in Cape Town said that, ironically, the end of South’s Africa’s apartheid system of harsh racist segregation and exploitation has in some ways made it more difficult to agitate for social justice today. As he offered me his views on the complex politics of his country, Nkwame Cedile, a field worker for People’s Health Movement, expressed a frustration that I heard often in my two weeks in the country: Yes, the brutality of apartheid ended in 1994 with free elections, but the white-supremacist ideas that had animated apartheid and the racialized distribution of wealth it was designed to justify didn’t magically evaporate.

That shouldn’t be surprising — how could centuries of white supremacy simply disappear in 15 years? What did surprise me during my lecture tour was not the racial tension but how much discussions about race in South Africa sounded just like conversations in the United States. There was something eerily familiar to me, a lifelong white U.S. citizen, about those discussions. I have heard comments from black people in the United States like Cedile’s, but I’ve also heard white Americans articulate views on race that were sometimes exactly like white South Africans’. I learned that even with all the differences in the two countries there are equally important similarities, and as a result the sense of entitlement that so many white people hold onto produces similar dodges and denials.

Those similarities: South Africa and the United States were the two longstanding settler states that maintained legal apartheid long after the post-World War II decolonization process. The crucial term is “settler state,” marking a process by which an invading population exterminates or displaces and exploits the indigenous population to acquire its land and resources, with formal slavery playing a key role at some point in the country’s history. Both strategies were justified with overtly racist doctrines about white supremacy, and both required the white population to discard basic moral and religious principles, leading to a pathological psychology of superiority. Both of those settler strategies have left us with racialized disparities in wealth and well-being long after the formal apartheid is over.

The main difference: The United States struggles with its problem with a white majority, while South Africa has a black majority. But what I found fascinating his how little difference that made in terms of the psychological pathology of so many white people. So, as is typically the case, my trip to South Africa taught me not only about racism in South Africa but also in the United States, which reminded me that perhaps we travel to observe others so that we can learn about ourselves.

From a two-week trip I wouldn’t claim deep insights or knowledge about South Africa. My contact in the country, outside of informal chats with people on the street, was limited primarily to university professors and students, or left/progressive activists in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. I didn’t have a chance to get behind the gates in the wealthy neighborhoods or talk to elite business people, and my travels in the black townships were limited in time and scope. But with those limits, some clear patterns emerged about the moderate/liberal/left white people I engaged with.

[A footnote on racial terms: In South Africa people sometimes talk about race in terms of white and black, with “black” in that context meaning all people who aren’t of European descent. More specifically, the black population is made up of black Africans (such as the Zulu and Xhosa), Indians (descended from various waves of immigration from India), and coloured (mixed-race). Most whites tend to identify as of primarily English or Dutch/Afrikaner background. Many people in South Africa try to avoid apartheid-era terminology but still sometimes use these four traditional racial categories, in part because they are the basis for measuring economic progress in relation to various forms of affirmative action.]

The first trend was the belief that whatever racism remained in South Africa, things will get better naturally, as long as South Africans respect all cultures. The argument seems to go something like this: Apartheid is over, we have a black government, and now it’s time to move ahead by understanding that the problem of race in no longer political but one of inadequate cultural understanding and engagement. This celebration of diversity is familiar to us in the United States, where institutions (especially corporations and schools) tend to address difficult questions about disparities in political power and the distribution of wealth through multiculturalism. While there’s nothing wrong, of course, with acknowledging cultural diversity and helping people learn more about other cultures, multiculturalism does not take the place of real politics, no matter how much many white people wish it could. Understanding others doesn’t automatically mean that those with unearned privileged will work to undermine the system that gives them that privilege.

During my first days in the country, my host for the trip, Junaid Ahmad, reported an incident that drove home how superficial such commitment to multiculturalism can be. Ahmad, a Ph.D. student and activist at the University of Cape Town, had been asked to appear on the campus radio station opposite the student government president to discuss race issues. When the other student (a white man) pointed to a recent musical performance in which black African and coloured choirs sang together, Ahmad (a Pakistani-American) challenged the assumptions of multiculturalism-as-a-solution behind the comment. The student body president got more and more agitated with Ahmad’s critique until finally, as the interview was ending, the student president turned to him and said, “You should be careful.”

Ahmad said the man didn’t appear to be reminding him to look both ways while crossing the street or to be careful driving in heavy traffic. The vague warning wasn’t a direct threat, but Ahmad said that given the context of a white man angered by a challenge from an Indian (the category into which Ahmad would likely fit in South Africa), it was hard not to interpret the comment as white-supremacist. The white man had acknowledged that racial issues still haunt South Africa but wasn’t eager to engage in a debate about his assessment of what was needed for real progress, especially not when the critique came from …

Though his expression of his emotional reaction was crude, the young man was not idiosyncratic. In my experience, many whites — in South Africa and the United States — expect their endorsement of multiculturalism to be accepted as evidence of a serious commitment to ending racism.

After a talk at the University of Johannesburg in which I argued for always keeping discussions of race grounded in the white-supremacy of the culture, a faculty member there took issue with the tone of my remarks. If we want to be a “post-racial” society, she suggested that dialogue without all the political baggage was necessary. The only path to racial harmony was to put aside the bitterness and find a common humanity, and part of the success of the interracial dialogues she was part of was the ability of the group to put race aside, she said.

I told her I had no problem with people pursuing such discussions so long as we didn’t pretend we could erase the effects of race with the snap of our fingers. Racial distinctions and racialized disparities in wealth endure, even without the legal enshrinement of them, and that reality has to be acknowledged. She pressed the claim that such a focus on race undermines commonality, noting that as a person of German and Jewish heritage, she knew this first hand. The comments from blacks in the room who disputed her call for color blindness didn’t dissuade her; she was adamant about the proper path. As she pressed on, I noticed a row of black students behind her rolling their eyes, suggesting they had heard this before and were tired of it. The price of admission to these race dialogues was to leave behind what people of color know about race, and one thing they know is that we whites typically are too quick to believe we have transcended race.

There’s nothing new about either of these examples, of course. The student leader’s sense of supremacy that lingered just below his multicultural commitment is a painfully obvious sign of self-deception, but so are the feel-good claims of the fans of race dialogues. In 1970 one of South Africa’s most eloquent voices for justice, Steve Biko, referred to these black-white circles as “tea parties” that turn out to be “a soporific on the blacks and provide a vague satisfaction for the guilty-stricken whites.” Biko can’t be written off as a black separatist from a bygone era who is no longer relevant; he maintained personal and political relationships with principled white allies while he was alive, and today even with a black-run government South Africa’s economy is dominated by whites with privilege. Biko’s analysis rings as true today as it was in the years before he was murdered while in police custody in 1977. Quoting more extensively from that same essay, “Black Souls in White Skins?”:

“Instead of involving themselves in an all-out attempt to stamp out racism from their white society, liberals waste lots of time trying to prove to as many blacks as they can find that they are liberal. This arises out of the false belief that we are faced with a black problem. There is nothing the matter with blacks. The problem is WHITE RACISM and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society.”

In rejecting what he saw as a false integration, Biko made it clear he believed in real integration premised on a struggle for justice:

“If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up by and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it. … If on the other hand by integration you mean there shall be free participation by all members of a society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the will of the people, then I am with you.”

Those principles were central to the black consciousness movement that Biko helped lead in South Africa, and they apply just as clearly to the United States, then and now. As I read Biko’s words while in South Africa, I was reminded of my own attempts in the past to prove my anti-racist bona fides by creating the appearance of solidarity when I had yet to demonstrate real solidarity. I cringed at how much I still struggle to avoid this.

My point is not that all problems in South Africa or the United States are the result of racist actions of whites. In South Africa I heard a steady stream of criticism of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for its failure to live up to the promises in its Freedom Charter that had helped define the struggle against apartheid, for what some see as its willingness to sell out the interests of ordinary people to the white elites who were allowed to retain much of the wealth acquired under apartheid. Leaders such as Biko don’t blame everything on whites but instead analyze the effects of white supremacy and ask for accountability on the part of everyone. For people with unearned privilege, that accountability is too easily avoided. 

I finished reading “I Write What I Like,” the book of Biko’s writings quoted from above, while sitting in the Cape Town airport waiting for my flight home. The book stuck out of my over-stuffed shoulder bag as a white South African sat down next to me and said hello. Tired of reading, I put down my newspaper and responded to his friendly conversation starter. As we chatted about our personal lives and I reported on my experiences in the country, I could see his eyes glance several times over at the Biko book. After a few more minutes he felt comfortable enough to ask me what I knew about Biko. I mentioned I had taken a South African history course around 1980 and had read about Biko right after his murder. But this was the first time I had read his own writing, I said, and I was sorry I had waited so long.

After acknowledging Biko’s political skills and courage, my conversation partner warned me not to be too taken in by the “cult” around Biko. “Remember, he died before he had a chance to get corrupt,” he said. Playing a bit dumb, I asked what he meant, and then the floodgates opened. “Just look,” he said, at the litany of incompetent and corrupt ANC politicians. They’ve gotten rich but are slowly turning the country into “one more basket case in Africa.”

Were there no honest black leaders? Was corruption more common in a black government than a white one?

He conceded that there were honest ANC leaders, and perhaps the ANC was no more corrupt than a white party. But it’s not just about honesty, he said, his sentence trailing off. I asked what he meant.

“South Africa is a modern society. We have advanced technology,” he said. “We’re more like a European country than an African one.”

That is the other face of white liberalism. A “hard-headed realism” that understands you can’t really expect the blacks to run the complex society that whites built. After our initial amiable chatting, I was taken aback by the overt racism, though I knew enough to know lots of pleasant people are racist. I awkwardly excused myself to go to the bathroom, though it was as clear to him as to me why I was leaving. As I walked away I immediately felt ashamed for not confronting him. I told myself that this wasn’t my country and it wasn’t my job, that I was legitimately tired, that the man likely would have dismissed me as a naïve American. I told myself that it was okay to walk away, and maybe it was in that particular situation. I reminded myself that I was emotionally and physically exhausted from the trip, but the more I reminded myself, the less compelling my excuses sounded to me. I couldn’t avoid the fact that I, like other white people, always have the choice to walk away.

Whatever my obligation was that day in South Africa, it is clear what we white people can’t hide behind the litany of excuses we use to justify our failure to confront white supremacy: “you have to pick your battles,” or “you can’t change every person.” Maybe that’s all true, but as I got in line to board the plane and looked up to see the man smirk at me, I realized my failure and recognized my moral laziness. The question for me, and for all whites, is whether we learn from those failures or remain stuck in the laziness.



June 18, 2009

‘I speak as a White’

Filed under: Uncategorized — jwbe @ 10:41 pm

Regardless what continent Europeans ‘discovered’, they established a system of white supremacy, also imposing their culture – Eurocentrism – on others. Eurocentrism, like a virus infecting societies and today, all those societies have one thing in common: There might be no longer laws supporting racism but the oppressive system of racism continues culturally.

White anti-racists may rally on the streets ‘against racism’, they may organize ‘against racism’ or write ‘against racism’, as long as the majority of them fails to realize their Eurocentric perspective and fails to search for alternatives, white anti-racists as a collective will fail to be ‘allies’ in the struggle against white supremacy because they will just change the face of white supremacy like a virus changes to survive.

Different nations have different approaches how to cure themselves from this virus. Understanding whiteness is also trying to understand whiteness in a global context, the similarities of it beyond one’s own national borders and the different attempts to get rid of racism.

“I feel anxiety. In regard to apartheid I must of necessity speak in the voice of the bystander, beneficiary and also at times an agent of apartheid. This is not comfortable. However, it is a reality I must face,” said Professor Gillian Straker in a presentation entitled: “I speak as a White”.

Apartheid Archive Project
The Apartheid Archives project is an international research initiative that aims to examine the nature of the experiences of racism of (particularly ‘ordinary’) South Africans under the old apartheid order and their continuing effects on individual and group functioning in contemporary South Africa. The project is fundamentally premised on the understanding that traumatic experiences from the past will constantly attempt to re-inscribe themselves (often in masked form) in the present, if they are not acknowledged, interrogated and addressed.

June 17, 2009

“Suspicious Men”

Filed under: Uncategorized — jwbe @ 10:54 pm

Banking while Black


What does it need to change white people?

Filed under: Uncategorized — jwbe @ 8:48 pm
Tags: , ,

Germany lost the war. Defeated and with plans of the allied powers to make an agrarian state out of Germany which never again should have the power to rise up again. German women helped rebuilding bombed cities, women tried during the war to survive and to protect their children, with their fathers, husbands and brothers absent as soldiers in an insane war and many of them never came back.

The memories of war ingrained in the brains and souls of the children, and the bombs that didn’t explode back then are still found today on German soil. Still with the power to explode, and sometimes, in these days of absence of war in Germany people are evacuated because of a bomb found.

Germans know what blind obedience can lead to, they know the insanity of dreaming of a pure Aryan race, they know the suffering, the death and ruins coming out of it.

And despite of all of this, the root has survived. The subtle and sometimes not so subtle belief that the white race is the only one deserving and the only race with the right of having access to all resources.

When even a war with millions of dead people can’t change people’s attitudes, why do some/many believe today, that education could do this? Why do we even believe that oppression is a lack of knowledge? Why can’t we just admit what it is – the inability to share resources and the greed to want it all.

And why can’t we admit that we, all humans, are as it seems, the only species on planet earth that finds pleasure in the pain of others.

Why do we believe that ‘diversity training’ and ‘knowing each other’ could change the dynamics of oppression, when our own family structures show dynamics of oppression and when ‘knowing each other’ is no hindrance to people to abuse and to kill each other.

Germans who should know that one can’t trust each other, that in a system of dictationship there is no friend, that those who looked like you could have been your worst enemy and still, whites trust the concept of ‘race solidarity’, when in reality during white history such a concept never truly existed. Whites never had a problem to enslave each other, to destroy each other, to work their own children to death and to invent a white ‘other’ when the system found it necessary.

And still whites are able to believe the lies about the imagined non-white enemy while supporting their own destructive white members. Finding excuses over excuses why racist violent incident number 10,254 is just an individual act, while one violent act committed by a Person of Color is considered like a declaration of war.

The children of WWII grew up in the ruins of Germany their parents and grand parents were responsible for and still they are looking to excuse their parent’s actions and to blame ‘the other’. They are still able to consider them, white Germans, as humans while considering People of Color as less than human. It is the desire to oppress as it seems, finding pleasure in the pain of others, combined with the power to put into practice even the sickest idea and combined with a collective emotional stupidity and egoism which prevents any real social behavior.

Finding excuses for their own racist oppressive actions or thoughts, inventing the excuse of being ‘ignorant’ when in reality they lack the backbone to admit that they see nothing wrong in the oppression of other people.

Germans didn’t learn. Despite the own ruined lives, despite paying reparations and dealing with this part of history quite honestly. So what is it that we still ‘need’ racism to justify our existence? Why do we still believe old ancient lies about the other and also about us? Why do we, the Western world in general, still believe that we are the most progressive, the civilized, the good ones?

What in the white brain is it which enables a group to be in a state of collective amnesia and illusion and to be in an equal state of denial regardless if this is in the US, in Britain, Germany, South Africa or Australia and probably all other Western nations?
And what or why have there nonetheless always been, despite time in history, despite education and nurture, whites who were different, attempting to fight against the status quo?

June 4, 2009

Justifiable Homicide

Filed under: Uncategorized — jwbe @ 5:59 pm

On Racismreview is a post about the tragic shooting of Omar Edwards. There it reads:

“Edwards had seen someone – an actual criminal – breaking into a car and decided to pursue him, even though he was off duty.  The suspect breaking into the car started to run away and Edward chased him with his gun drawn. It was at this point that a white cop, later identified as Andrew Dutton, saw Edwards, yelled “Police! Stop!” and when Edwards turned with his gun still drawn, Dutton shot and killed him.
Why did Dutton assume that Edwards was a suspect? The plain fact of it is because Edwards was a black man and that Dutton interpreted that to mean that Edwards was, therfore, a suspect. 

The other somehow ignored fact in this case is nonetheless, that Edwards was armed. Which doesn’t automatically make him a suspect, but it raised for me the question, how cops make sure/should make sure, that an armed person in plainclothes is not a suspect but a cop. In addition the quote means to me the assumption that in general there is nothing wrong with the police forces, means, police would act always decent towards non-Black people.

I searched for more information how cops can realize cops without uniform and found this:

Off-Duty and Plainclothes Police Encounters

The burden on proving identity in any confrontation should rest on the confronted officer whether on or off duty

A challenging officer should use sound tactics and judgment in approaching the situation

This puts, from my understanding, the confronting officer in a privileged position, where he can get too easily the benefit of the doubt. Which raises another question for me: How should Edwards know that the person confronting him in plainclothes with allegedly shouting ‘Police! Stop!’ is actually a cop?

In the comments section of Racismreview Mordy told me:
“Here, i’ll make it easier for you, find us the time (or 2, or 3 or 10) that a white cop was accidently killed by a group of cops of any race? You will be looking for a very long time. These shootings simply can not be labeled as mistakes for this very reason. If they were truly random mistakes, every 3 or 4 times there’d be a white cop accidently killed. History simply does not bear this out.

and No1Kstate wrote on his/her blog:
“Yeah. I got two stories. One is here from Basically, an off-duty black cop was killed by a white cop basically because he’s black. Yeah . . . I guess someone could argue the same thing would’ve or could’ve happened had the off-duty cop been white. But then, of course, I must ask – why doesn’t it happen that a plain clothed white officer is killed by mistake by fellow officers?

later adding the information:
Update: h/t to commenter jwbe for bringing this to my attention. Apparently, there have been white officers accidently killed by other officers. Though it does seem rare.”

Via the website I found white officers, male and female, being shot by other officers because of mistaken for a suspect. This doesn’t deny the existence of racism as a main-problem in using deadly force, but it raises the question – why do such mistakes happen and are they really always mistakes or are they abuse of power with the most stigmatized group (Black people)the most affected. Why is police even allowed to have a quite immune position when it comes to police brutality and shootings, too much of this considered “justifiable”.

I think that the racism of society contributes to this. Based on my assumption that police brutality or “justifiable homicides” aren’t so widely reported, people can get the impression that there are a) only a few victims and b) only or almost only Black victims. A racist society doesn’t feel inclined to challenge police and their actions when negative police actions allegedly impacts only “the other”. This is the way how a white supremacist nation produces silent by-standers, even if they themselves could become victims, although in lower numbers (rate), of the system they support. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many of those also white victims shot by police are poor.

I was also looking for police using deadly force towards civilians, called ‘justifiable homicides’
according statistics by the FBI:

Justifiable homicide by police 1976-98
In this report, killings by police are
referred to as “justifiable homicides,”
and the persons that police kill are
referred to as “felons.” These terms
reflect the view of the police agencies
that provide the data used in this report.

Of the 183 million whites in 1998,
police killed 225; of the 27 million
blacks, police killed 127. While the rate
(per million population) at which blacks
were killed by police in 1998 was about
4 times that of whites

According to FBI national data on justifiable
homicides by police from 1976 to
1998 —
8,578 felons were justifiably killed
by police in the United States.

• The largest number of recorded justifiable
homicides in a single year was 459
(in 1994), and the smallest number was
296 (in 1987) .
• On average 373 felons were lawfully
killed by police each year.

• 98% of persons justifiably killed
by police were males
• Males were slain by police in justifiable
homicides at a rate almost 40 times that
of females (39 deaths of males per
10 million male residents versus 1
death per 10 million female residents)
(figure 3).

• According to latest statistics (1998),
the average age of felons killed by
police is 32, and half are age 30 or

• Of all felons justifiably killed by police
from 1976 to 1998, the majority were
young white males under age 25 (16%),
young black males under age 25 (16%),
white males age 25 or older (39%), and
black males age 25 or older (25%).

The officer in a justifiable homicide
case is almost always a male (98%)

• From 1976 to 1998 the officer in 84%
of justifiable homicides by police was
white, and the officer in 15% was black

• In most years officers ages 25 to 29
accounted for more justifiable
homicides than any other age category

another source writes
The problem of fatal police shootings in America goes beyond a few bad apples. It points to persistent and systemic problems that lead to ongoing tragedies for communities of color. Between 1980 and 2005, close to 9,600 people were killed by police in America — an average of about one fatal shooting every day. However, the real number may be higher due to underreporting by some departments to the federal government. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by claiming there were 79 fatal police shootings from 2000 to 2005. Yet only 38 fatal shootings were reported to the federal government for the same period. […]

African Americans are particularly at risk of being killed by police. Black people were overrepresented among victims in each of America’s 10 largest cities. This contrast was particularly glaring in New York, Las Vegas and San Diego, where the percentage of black people killed was at least double their share of the general population. “There is a crisis of perception where African American males and females take their lives in their hands just walking out the door,” said Delores Jones-Brown, interim director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in New York. “There is a notion they will be perceived as armed and dangerous. It’s clear that it’s not a local problem.”

The shootings may be explained in part by implicit bias on the part of police officers, according to research by University of Chicago Professor Joshua Correll. In New York, connecting negative stereotypes with racial identity was considered as a factor in the 1999 fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo and the 2006 shooting of Sean Bell — both of which involved black male victims being killed by more than 40 shots fired by officers.

Another key part of the equation: a disturbing lack of internal accountability from local police departments.
Yet little seems to happen to these and other officers accused of killing residents. Chicago’s initial “roundtable” investigations of 85 officers cleared all but one of them — and that officer got a promotion two years later.
A similar situation exists in Phoenix, which had the highest rate of fatal police shootings among the nation’s 10 largest cities. Although there were more than 100 incidents of officer-involved shootings in the city during the past five years, and numerous shootings in neighboring jurisdictions, only one shooting in the county has resulted in criminal charges being filed against the officer who fired — and that was for the fatal shooting of a white woman.
According an article there can be additional problems within the police force that can lead to using deadly force:

In early 1990, Cain shot and killed a man on 12th Avenue in San Diego. Seven months later he killed again, in Ocean Beach. He fired shots at a man in 1993, but missed. […] John Cain was a San Diego police officer. […]
He was among 29 city cops involved in more than one shooting between 1990 and 2001. Those officers were responsible for almost one-third of the 151 officer-involved shootings during those years, according to an analysis by The San Diego Union-Tribune. […]
The Christopher Commission, created in Los Angeles after Rodney King’s beating provoked race riots in 1992, found that 183 officers out of a force of more than 9,000 had four or more complaints against them for shootings or other allegations of excessive force. […]
A 1998 study by Human Rights Watch found that most police departments nationwide do not take sufficient action against officers repeatedly accused of excessive force. […] The state penal code shields an officer’s disciplinary record from public view. However, court files show that at least 10 of the department’s multiple shooters have been sued, some over allegations of brutality and racism.

For me the conclusion is that racism is an additional factor to already disturbing problems within police forces. Facing ‘death penalty’ for being at the wrong time at the wrong place and as an additional high risk factor being a Black male.
Add to this the fact that the US has the highest incarceration rate of the world, that the US still has a corrupt death penalty system with the belief it could be an appropriate way to punish, with life without parole for juvenile offenders, boot camps etc, it becomes quite clear (at least to me) that the executive, judges and juries have too much power without any serious counter-power to challenge them and hold them accountable for their actions and mis-judgements.

The “justice” system in the US represents itself as a very violent one and the question should be asked, of how much worth is human life in a system like this? Not so much, when even innocent people can be legally sentenced to death without a national up-rising and when police gets the immunity of playing judges over death and life without facing serious consequences for their mis-judgements.

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