The White Response: Has the Power Structure Changed?
With the rise of the protests of George Floyd, estimates led to the conclusion that nearly twelve million people, black and white, went out into the streets in protest. However, the difficulty of this form of protest seems to be that the actual structure of power has not changed. Firms modified their corporate policies, some laws were changed, which perhaps were some signs of what liberals would call “progress,” but we should ask ourselves, what really happened as a result?
A lot of white people have expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but for all their rhetorical solidarity there is a single unbearable truth: the structures of white supremacy have not changed. There is a single overwhelming reality that we must confront: history. In these United States, the white public has not come to correct notions of how race was created and how it continues to be created. The white public must come to terms with the role that it has played and continues to play as the foil to rising New Afrikan political power and organization.
The question comes down to a principle first observed by Antonio Gramsci, a leader of the Italian Communist Party, hegemony. What is hegemony? It is the way that capitalist institutions, as well as the state itself, shape human behavior into certain patterns, how they create social institutions. I have been reading the journals of the Ohio Company and further obscure historic documents, and I find that, in order to create colonial structures in the Ohio Valley, there was the creation of a common language of cultural interaction.
This common language was created through interaction. Although a prominent historian, Frederick Turner, theorized that frontier societies were “democratic” he also ignores the colonized peoples, erasing the violence that occurred where settler societies met indigenous power. The indigenous peoples did not view themselves as British subjects, although the British viewed them as such. One Captain Morris gave up the game when he accused the first nations of destroying forts in the belief that they would lead to future settlements. His denial indicates that the view was somewhat popular. Indeed, the Ohio Company agitated for the construction of a fort, raised funds for it, and eventually built one. These forts were centers of exchange and diplomacy. They represented British institutions, and were manned by British garrisons. The reality of colonization is that brute force intertwined itself with British and Amerikan institutions, all in order to enforce a social order.
If we are to understand how race originated, as many now note, we should note that it was tied to the government of the colonies. Sakai described this well in Settlers. Often, the colonial governments don’t seem to represent themselves on the frontiers, but it is worth noting that the people who agitated for settlement on indigenous lands illegally were members of the colonial government. For instance, Robert Dinwiddie, governor of Virginia, was a shareholder in the Ohio Company, as were (at one point) the entire executive council. The government was intricately tied to the expansion of British rule over the region, and they realized that there were only two ways to do this: violence and negotiation.
The implementation of British institutions, and later Amerikan institutions, were mired in violence and genocidal destruction; British officers at Fort Pitt attempted to start a Smallpox epidemic while negotiating with the indigenous peoples, and British officials increasingly came to view the first nations as savage by their very nature. This was another significant development in racial formation in the colonies; as a result of conflicts driven by white settlement, the indigenous peoples were no longer divided into allies and enemies. The colonists came to see them as enemies because they impeded the implementation of British land and legal institutions. The settlement of the frontier, as well as the economic interests that drove it, led to the formation of a whole race of people, no longer attached to an alien culture, but as an opposed economic interest, a competitive holder of land, which led whites to attempt to eradicate that interest.
The formations of justice and the extensions of institutions in settlement, as I have stated before, are born of a genocidal rage. This was due to the hunger and scramble for land in the colonies; as Sakai mentions in his book, land is the basis for the formation of the nation. Hence, frontier concepts of justice and land-rights drove the genocide of the indigenous peoples, and this genocide led to the formation of the judicial institutions of the region.
All of this goes to say that we have to understand the origins of Euro-Amerikan authority in the United States in order to truly come to a reckoning with the past, and to inform our actions in the future. How do we come to a national reckoning with the continued genocide perpetrated by the United States government? We whites must look back into our history and remember that our institutions, our standard of living, how our ancestors made the current society, is a result of racial conflict driven by economic interest. White settlers and the institutions they created did not disappear. Today white academics and people have not come to a reckoning with our role in the past, and how our actions in the past reflect the present. We treat the past as though there is no continuity between it and the present day, as though it was this singular line towards progress, right, and justice. We do not, however, understand what “progress,” “right,” and “justice” really mean, nor the conditions under which all these concepts were created. We have not changed much as white people, as we still do not understand our own past.
We whites urge ourselves to view racial history from the perspective of the colonized without learning to recognize ourselves as colonizers. We do not observe how our settler ancestors actively participated in the racial violence of the past, giving agency only to the black communities, but if we do not recognize how we ourselves had agency, how are we to understand why black people haven’t liberate themselves? The greatest obstacle to racial solidarity is the willful ignorance of the settlers to their role in creating the institutions that they are also now unwilling to change. The actions of the whites we have seen in the streets in protest remind me frequently of the words of Hannah Arendt, words I have mentioned previously.
It is quite gratifying to feel guilty if you haven’t done anything wrong; how noble! Whereas it is rather hard and certainly depressing to admit guilt and to repent…. Those young German men and women who every once in a while — on the occasion of the Diary of Anne Frank hubbub and of the Eichmann trial — treat us to hysterical outbreaks of guilt feelings are not staggering under the burden of the past, their fathers’ guilt; rather, they are trying to escape from the pressure of very present and actual problems into a cheap sentimentality.
What does Arendt mean here? She is attempting to state that the feelings of guilt that the Germans are experiencing are not the results of their reckoning with the past, but a practice in attempting to absolve themselves of the guilt that is associated with them. In other words, they do not care for the past; they are responding to the reality that confronts them in the present, as people consistently view them with suspicion and disgust after the events of the Holocaust came to light. It is much the same with Amerikans today.
White Amerikans are not reckoning with the past, not atoning for it; rather we white Amerikans are reacting to the present accusations of racism, throwing ourselves into the limelight, not because we are necessarily sorry for the past, not because we understand our role in the past, but because we are feeling pressure to change the structure of white supremacy today. It is this type of white activism that hampers any efforts by New Afrikans or first peoples to obtain any sort of economic equality, because we fail to see that the institutions themselves are historical. We do not come to understand how our ancestors in the past have come to bear upon the present.
We settlers deflect the attempts to radically restructure, revolutionize Amerikan society by blaming the institutions our ancestors created in the past, and not accepting that the current institutions are based upon them. By doing this, we deflect criticism, saying “that was in the past” while also observing that the present is not the past! White settlers, in their creation of a distance between themselves and their ancestors, between the current society and the past society, fail to see how the past influences the present, and pretend that the institutions created under the premise and requirements of colonialism were entirely of the past. It is the main way that we prove that there is no peaceful way to solve the problem. And yet, now we chastise the people who advocate violence, who rise up in resistance to our institutions, by weaponizing the very racist institutions that our ancestors created in the exact same way as they did, and so, white settlers are engaged in the repression of both violent and peaceful means of revolution. It is because we have economic interests to keep New Afrikan people in subjection, because we are indebted to colonialism, that we have these impulses. Little has changed, and if Biden is elected, nothing will change as well.
The unfortunate reality of the protests and uprisings is that very little has changed in our system of justice and economics. However, the New Afrikan and indigenous peoples have created new means of solidarity, illustrated their increasing power to the white public, and shown tenacity in their spontaneous organization, proving their power and influence in the face of overwhelming odds and brutal repression. The future will bring further organization and further tenacity, and certainly, the revolutionary fervor of the New Afrikan community has not died down.
We whites, as settlers, must come to a reckoning with the past that intimately attaches it to the present day. If we do not, then we will just stand as another stumbling block on the long road towards revolution; make no mistake, the United States is in a critical moment, today. It is not because of the election, but because of the rising tide of revolutionary organization; white settlers must choose between two options: standing in opposition to the rising anti-colonial movement, or aiding and abetting it against the structures that benefit us. It remains to be seen which choice the class will make.