Tuesday, November 8, 2011

David Brooks and the "Right" Inequality

In his recent  op-ed about the Occupy Movement, New York Times columnist David Brooks draws on a tactic long favored by the 1% and their apologists - locate a potential conflict within the 99% and use it to sabotage the possibility for solidarity. Amusingly, he begins this exercise in "divide and conquer" with an irony-free grumble about our society being polarizing.  

The point of contention he identifies is between what he calls “Blue Inequality” and “Red Inequality,” He argues that the Occupy Movement is focusing on the wrong one. While Brooks concedes that in big coastal cities like New York, LA, and San Francisco, the excessive wealth and influence of the 1% is increasingly conspicuous, this Blue Inequality is getting too much attention from both occupiers and the media. Red Inequality, the inequality between those with and those without college degrees, is widespread in cities like Scranton, Des Moines, and Fresno (he might have just said the “real America”) and should really be getting the more attention.

Brooks explanation for the occupiers’ lack of attention to Red Inequality sounds familiar. To paraphrase, perhaps unfairly, the reasons include the narcissism of urban media, class resentment, and the antipathy of hippies for yuppies. That’s my interpretation. Here’s what he says:
That’s because the protesters and media people who cover them tend to live in or near the big cities, where the top 1 percent is so evident. That’s because the liberal arts majors like to express their disdain for the shallow business and finance majors who make all the money. That’s because it is easier to talk about the inequality of stock options than it is to talk about inequalities of family structure, child rearing patterns and educational attainment. That’s because many people are wedded to the notion that our problems are caused by an oppressive privileged class that perpetually keeps its boot stomped on the neck of the common man.
Ah, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as turning your opponents into Straw Men by accusing them of exaggeration and oversimplification.

Red Inequality is more important than Blue Inequality, Brooks says, because it is decimating the social fabric of the bottom 50%. These people are not only making less money, they are also experiencing lower rates of marriage, higher rates of divorce, and greater numbers of children born outside of marriage. And these trends are perpetuating themselves intergenerationally, leading to legacies of social stagnation and a tragic squandering of human capital.

Well, he is exactly right about the plight of what he calls the bottom 50%, but his analysis of causality is hopelessly muddled by his conservative ideological commitments. And while his division of the world into Red and Blue is tried and true Republican political strategy, it has little to do with real world economics. I can’t say what Brooks sees when he looks at the world, but from here it looks distinctly like the fabric of U.S. society has been ravaged by precisely the policies advocated by Brooks’ ideological co-travelers (and implemented by both political parties, of course).

Is it possible that Brooks really can’t that both income inequality and the deteriorating social fabric are related to the radical restructuring of the U.S. economy since the 1970s? Could he be unaware that decades of cuts in state funding have caused the price of a college education to skyrocket? Or that weak labor-law enforcement along with the industry deregulation and trade liberalization has produced 30 years of wage stagnation? Or that fighting endless wars has put an enormous burden on military families (who almost always come from the 99%) Or that the war on drugs has resulted in the mass incarceration of low-income men of color? Or that the unavailability of affordable healthcare puts millions of marginal workers one serious illness or injury away from homelessness. Or that lack of access to healthy food and disproportionate exposure to toxic air pollution means that chronic health problems are more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods? Or that the foreclosure crisis and the economic collapse, created by the reckless speculation and predatory lending practices of the 1%, has disproportionately impacted precisely the folks Brooks says Occupy is ignoring?

Maybe Brooks’ center-right worldview renders him unable or unwilling to hear what the Occupy Movement is actually saying, which is that the issues are the same in San Francisco and Scranton. While incomes at the very top are exploding, many are lucky just to keep up. Health care and retirement benefits are being cut, the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, home values have collapsed, and those fortunate enough to attend college are graduating with crippling debt and lousy job prospects. The 99% suffer, while the 1% who drove the economy off a cliff get bailed out and make a killing. These are foreseeable consequences of structural inequality run amok. Extreme inequality is not a fetish; it is the malignancy at the heart of our economic and political institutions.

Of course the rhetoric of the 1% and the 99% is simplistic. That's the nature of political speech. Regardless, in terms of how the system works, the 1% vs. 99% metaphor is at least more fitting than the old story of a “middle class” where each generation is able, with hard work, to move up the ladder. There was a time when that story approached reality (for white folks, at least) but no more. Contemporary American workers are embattled. Children have less and less reason to expect they will do better than their parents, and it is no longer just Brooks’ bottom 50% who are losing ground. Sure, it might be more accurate to talk about the .1% and the 80%, but not only would that be less compelling, it would miss the point. The 99% is not a scientific measure; it is a call for solidarity against the creeping feudalism of “too big to fail” Capitalism.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Whiteness and the Enduring Mythology of the American Frontier

Popular historical nonfiction can be a great thing. It can enrich our understanding of the past and bring its events and characters alive in a way textbooks typically do not. Usually such books are written by professional scholars, and we have good reason to trust the soundness of the research and the relative impartiality of the approach. If the writer is an amateur, however, the situation is not so straightforward. History, like any academic field, is complex, and entails an understanding of prevailing methodologies and a deep familiarity with consensus knowledge. If a writer is not a professional historian, and particularly if she or he engages in original research[i], readers need to be highly circumspect.

It would be helpful if, in these circumstances, readers could rely on book reviews to alert them to potential problems. Unfortunately, literary critics are typically no better equipped than the general public to assess the scholarly merits of historical research. A case in point is the failure of the entire literary world to recognize the problems with Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne. I found this book deeply troubling, and perhaps the most troubling aspect of it is the warm reception it has received from the literary establishment. This is not to excuse Mr. Gwynne for his mistakes and blind spots, but he is only one person, and no book is the product of a solitary individual. This book was edited and released by a major publisher, reviewed widely, and ultimately nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Yet, I am not aware of a single professional reviewer [ii] who voiced concern about the book’s ultimately Eurocentric take on “how the west was won.” The real lesson here concerns how easily the dominant (white supremacist) culture reverts to its old colonizer mindset.

Besides entertaining and informing, Empire of the Summer Moon is an attempt to bring balance to our understanding of frontier history. Beginning with the reference to “Empire” in the title, this retelling of events seems designed to counter the notion that Indigenous Americans were simply passive and innocent victims of the territorial ambitions and racist policies of the U.S. government. And indeed Gwynne's description of the four decade conflict between settlers and Comanches on the Texas frontier offers ample support for a more nuanced perspective. Far from simple victims of U.S. aggression, the Comanches were formidable military opponents. Unfortunately, while Gwynne’s portrait does remind us of the tenacity and resourcefulness of Native American resistance, it is far less successful in reminding us of their humanity.

Let me begin with a brief overview of the book and what I take to be its main themes. The book traces the history of the Comanche nation from its beginnings as a simple hunter-gatherer society in the high country of present day Wyoming, to its military dominance of the southern plains, culminating in its protracted war with, and final defeat by, a rapidly expanding U.S. empire. Woven through this narrative are the fates of two key characters, Cynthia Ann Parker and her half-Comanche son Quanah. Cynthia Ann was the daughter of white settlers, kidnapped from their farm on the Texas frontier during a Comanche raid in 1836. She adapted completely to Comanche life and, with her Comanche husband Peta Nocona, bore several children, including Quanah. She was eventually captured by the U.S. cavalry and, along with her young daughter, forcibly returned to her white family. Quanah, who was 12 at the time of his mother’s capture, remained with his Comanche band, eventually becoming a notorious war chief. He continued to lead raids on the frontier and hunt buffalo on the plains as long as that way of life remained viable. After finally surrendering to the U.S. Cavalry in 1875, at the age of 28, Quanah began to make his way, quite “successfully,” in the white man’s world (i.e. earning money and accumulating property), while keeping one foot planted on the reservation and encouraging his fellow Comanches to follow his lead.  

Old Fashioned Indian-Hating

Indian-hating has a long and rich pedigree in Anglo-American thought [iii]. I use the phrase to refer specifically to the ambivalence at the heart of Anglo-America’s attitudes toward North America’s indigenous people. First, of course, there is the stock racist stereotype of Indians as possessing a unique capacity for violence purportedly absent among the more “civilized” English and other Europeans. This attitude is epitomized in the Declaration of Independence, with its reference to “merciless Indian savages.”[iv] Second, there is the Romantic notion of the Indian as a paradigm of independence and dignity. This view, exemplified by Rousseau’s “Noble Savage,” is generally recognized as a product of European anxieties and aspirations. In the figure of the Noble Savage, the European projects the natural vitality and independence he fears he may have traded for the stability and comfort of civilization. I include both contempt and flattery under the label “Indian-hating” because both attitudes dehumanize the real, flesh and blood people behind the projections. Both attitudes are on display in this book.   

On one hand, Gwynne claims that the Comanche male enjoyed a “peculiarly American sort of freedom.” Although he may believe he is offering a neutral report on the absence of “onerous social institutions” in Comanche society, his tone evokes a familiar stereotype. And when he writes, without a trace of irony, that “the Comanche male was … gloriously, astoundingly free,” or remarks that “much was made of the noble and free life of the American Savage,” he signals no awareness that he is rehearsing timeworn racist mythology. I realize that Gwynne is setting up a contrast with the hard life of Comanche women, especially captive women like Rachel Plummer, but literary license is not a license to add insult to historic injury. Incidentally, we should not overlook how frequently the hard life of women in peripheral societies has been used as a rationale for colonial domination.   

The main qualities for which Gwynne flatters the Comanches is their horsemanship and military prowess. Citing the admiration of a contemporary observer who described the Comanches as “the finest light cavalry in the world,” Gwynne declares that they were “geniuses at anything to do with horses.” After describing the Comanches’ talent for handling, training, and even stealing horses, he describes the “sheer military superiority” their expertise gave them over their first European opponents. In recounting the clumsy efforts of the Spanish to push into Comanche territory, Gwynne asserts that, in carrying out the San Saba Massacre, the Comanches lured the Spanish Empire into “its greatest military defeat in the New World.” I support giving the Comanches their due, but given all the battles the Spanish fought in the Americas, it seems a stretch to call the loss of 52 men the “worst [defeat] inflicted on the Spanish in the New World.” In the Battle of Ayacucho, by contrast, the Spanish suffered 2500 casualties and lost control of the South America. 

Along with flattering Comanches for their independence, nobility, and proficiency as warriors, the book indulges plenty of negative stereotypes, which, to make matters worse, are often directed at "Indians" in general. For example, Gwynne declares that “American Indians were warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them.” The frequency and intensity of warfare before and after Europeans arrived is not even relevant. Even if it could be shown that every Native American group fought frequent wars with its neighbors, which is doubtful, “American Indians were warlike by nature” is not a claim about history; it is a claim about racial essence.

Moreover, besides being a fallacy, treating “Indian” as a racial category can result in oddly counterintuitive reasoning. For example, Gwynne states at one point that the Lipan Apaches, “could always be counted on to betray their old tormentors [the Comanches], to sniff them out and go running to the [white] authorities.” Huh? By what logic is the forming of an alliance against a long-established enemy judged a betrayal? The only way this bizarre reasoning makes any sense is if you’re expecting actual material enmity to be superceded by racial solidarity. 

By the way, the phrase “running to the authorities” conveys a contempt that pervades the book’s treatment of the Apaches and Tonkawas. Unlike the Comanches, who are at least admired for their warriorhood, the Apaches and Tonkawas are largely portrayed as weak and pitiable. It is probably no coincidence that these were the very people on whose expertise the militias were forced to depend in their pursuit of the Comanches. Militiamen may have felt the need to compensate for their own dependence by reassuring themselves of their racial superiority. Since Gwynne apparently recognizes the racism of his sources, noting one leader’s assessment of Indians as subhuman, it is unclear why he either echoes their sentiments, as he does with the above, or simply allows their mocking remarks to stand without comment. One example of the latter is where he quotes a militia captain from one difficult expedition reporting with undisguised disdain that “some of the horses froze to death … and the Indians, loath to see so much good meat go to waste, ate the flesh.” Passages like these, which are peppered throughout the book, left me feeling like I was expected to share the Indian-haters’ view of their native allies as lesser beings. 

Meanwhile, while the Comanches are not treated with the outright derision directed at Apaches and Tonkawas, neither are they represented as possessing the intellectual capacity of white people. Gwynne writes, for example, that “the Comanches had a limited vocabulary to describe most things – a trait common to primitive peoples.” He is primarily setting up a contrast with their horse-related vocabulary, but the result is that he reinforces a myth colonizer societies have long used to justify their dominance.[v] Elsewhere, in discussing how polygamy and women captives provided the labor to support the Comanches’ trade in Buffalo hides, he states that “these changes were perhaps more instinctive than deliberate.” Since the author presents no evidence to support this contention, it strikes me as a rather gratuitous denial of Comanche agency.

Another way the book implies that the Comanches do not quite measure up to Anglo-European standards concerns their worldview, though the author seems somewhat conflicted in this regard. On the one hand, he describes them as “primitive,” “low barbarians,” who are “immersed in an elemental world that never quite left the Stone Age – a world of ceaseless toil, hunger, constant war, and early death.” From this description, it sounds like the Comanches needed civilization to remedy their hopeless backwardness. On the other hand, the Comanches’ world was one of “pure magic … an intensely alive place where nature and divinity became one.” And the story he tells about Cynthia Ann Parker’s refusal to accept “civilization” also contradicts his more Hobbesian depiction of Comanche life. Rather than reflecting on this inconsistency, however, Gwynne ends up falling back on an archetype of prelapsarian innocence, sometimes writing about Comanche society as if it was an exotic relic uncorrupted by modernity. He describes how it was being “polluted by the white invaders,” noting that one deserted Comanche camp “was littered with … white men’s goods, evidence of the deep cultural contamination” (italic mine). This view of Comanche culture as either pure or polluted reflects the aspect of colonizer mentality that assesses the value of a culture based on its authenticity and integrity, on its being unsullied by colonial influences. This represents yet another way of erasing the agency of colonized people.  

Whiteness: the View from Somewhere

The issues I have been discussing are only symptoms of a more fundamental problem, which is a direct consequence of the author’s methodology. The most persistent weakness in this book is the ease with which it slips into the perspective of the frontiersman. Despite being written in the 21st century, little of the book, it seems to me, would ruffle the sensibilities of a 19th century pioneer. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but the explanation for this seems straightforward. Gwynne spells it out in his Bibliographical Note: “as I hope will be apparent to the reader, much of this book was constructed using a large number of firsthand accounts from the era.” Original research of this kind is best handled by professionals who are trained to take into account the biases and limitations of their sources. This is precisely what Gwynne seems to miss. He treats his culturally bound, ideologically motivated informants, virtually all of whom represented the Anglo point of view, as if they were impartial witnesses. At the same time, by giving us such a vivid window into the mind of the 19th century settler, Gwynne has actually done us a valuable service. His book offers us a chance to observe the cosmology of whiteness at one of its key formative moments.  

Nowhere is the author’s over-reliance on the settler perspective more evident that in the way he celebrates the character of settlers and “Indian fighters.” The vanguard of western expansion, he tells us, “was not federal troops, but simple farmers imbued with a fierce Calvinist work ethic, steely optimism, and a cold-eyed aggressiveness that made them refuse to yield even in the face of extreme danger.” These were “the sort of righteous, hard-nosed, up-country folk who lived in dirt-floored, mud-chinked cabins, played ancient tunes on the fiddle, took their Kentucky rifles with them into the fields, and dragged the rest of American civilization westward along with them. … They, more than columns of dusty bluecoats, are what conquered the Indians.” Why so? Because the Texans were “tougher, meaner, almost impossible to discourage, willing to take absurd risks to secure themselves a plot of dirt, and temperamentally well-suited to the remorseless destruction of native tribes.” Wow! Those people sound like genocidal sociopaths to me, but the author’s tone conveys an unmistakable note of admiration for their grit and determination. The Comanches must have also had grit and determination, but we are never invited to consider it.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t the “hapless” farmers who did the real dirty work of killing Indians. It was the Texas Rangers, who, according to Gwynne, were “young, reckless, single men with a taste for wide open spaces, danger, and raw adventure … They were sharp-eyed, audacious, and fearless twenty-four-year-olds with little sense of their own mortality and a distinct taste for combat. … They were highly motivated to track Indians and kill them and happily did it without pay or reward. Comanches, of course, had never seen anything like this breed of men.” It is difficult to imagine this sort of glorified language being used to describe anyone whose objective was to murder as many white people as possible. Indeed, when it comes to Comanche exploits, Gwynne finds it “impossible” to read about them, “without making moral judgments.”

Even when the author ascribes ostensibly negative attributes, such as “mean” and “remorseless,” to Indian fighters his tone betrays a certain admiration, especially compared to his descriptions of “Indians” as “hostile” and “savage.”[vi] Moreover, when it comes to the genocidal actions of the Texans, Gwynne seems mostly impressed by their optimism. The only Comanche to whom Gwynne attributes optimism is Quanah, who also happens to have been half white. Of course, with the advantage of hindsight, it is obvious that the white settlers had more reason to be optimistic about the future than the Comanches. Given the demographics of white settlement, the spread of European diseases, and the distribution of technology and power in the 19th century, the ultimate outcome of the “Indian Wars” was perhaps predictable. Political/economic predictability, however, is not at all the same thing as racial destiny. 

Yet, the extent to which Gwynne blurs the distinction between the predictable and the predestined comes uncomfortably close to nostalgia for Manifest Destiny. Consider, for example, how the book frames “getting rid of the Comanches” as a perfectly natural and reasonable goal for the Anglos. Gwynne condemns the federal government’s “incompetence, stupidity and willful political blindness” for their failure to mount a “concerted effort to pursue the [Comanches] into their dark heartland, to destroy them.” Meanwhile, the violence of ongoing Comanche raiding, according to Gwynne, eventually “exhausted the last of the white man’s patience, and ruined forever the arguments of the peace advocates and pro-Indian humanitarians.” After one particularly brutal season of raiding, “whatever sympathy the horse tribes may once have inspired was gone.” For Gwynne, apparently, it was not that the Texans were simply facing resistance from a people who refused to accept the theft of their land and the obliteration of their culture; rather, the Texans were patiently and foolishly trying to negotiate with “irremediably hostile Indians.” Notice, also, how the references to the “patience” and “sympathy” of the colonizers imply that it was the Comanches who were ultimately to blame for their fate.

Finally, Gwynne seems to take on the colonizer perspective when framing the larger meaning of the frontier. Particularly revealing is his description of Comanche territory as “undiscovered,” “untouched,” and “the edge of the known universe.” The implication is obvious and familiar – that only the gaze of the white man constitutes discovery, and that only white man’s knowledge counts as knowledge. In addition, Gwynne refers repeatedly to the “advance of western civilization,” which the Comanches were “holding up.” He writes, for example, that, in the 1860s, “the frontier rolled  backward … canceling two decades of western progress.” Again, one could get the impression that the spread of Anglo-European culture on this continent was preordained.

A Systemic Failure

Needless to say, I found this book deeply disturbing. But let me reiterate that, though my criticisms are directed at the author, the most troubling aspect of this book is how it has been received. I understand how difficult it is, as a solitary writer, to be aware of one’s blind spots. But this book must have been read by dozens of intelligent, educated, and literate people on its journey from draft manuscript to Pulitzer Prize finalist. Did no one along the way notice its limitations? How is that possible? Was there no one among the editors, critics, and Pulitzer committee members who could provide a Native American perspective, or at least recognize its utter absence? Was there no one with expertise in scholarly practice who could call attention to the problems of methodology and voice? In my view, responsibility for this book reaches well beyond S. C. Gwynne. This book is one more product of a system that continues to rely almost exclusively on the voices and perspectives of white people (mostly straight white men), while remaining all but unaccountable to the rest of society.

There is something those of us who are white can do to disrupt this process. We can notice when non-dominant voices and perspectives have not been included in conversations where they have a stake, and simply speak up. I don’t believe most people want to produce one-sided histories or to make decisions based on partial perspectives. But most of us have been badly mis-educated and we need to help each other.

[i] For the uninitiated, original research is research that relies on materials from the historical period in question, such as diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, and official documents. While these are the richest sources of historical knowledge, they are also potentially the most misleading, particularly if the researcher lacks a deep understanding of the larger historical context.
[ii] There are a few user reviews on Amazon.com that do recognize this problem. 
[iii] Melville coined the phrase “The Metaphysics of Indian-hating” in his last novel The Confidence Man.
[iv]He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
[v] On Native American vocabulary, see Bright, W. (1994). "Native North American Languages" in D. Champagne (Ed.), Native America : portrait of the peoples (pp. 397-439). Detroit: Visible Ink Press. 
[vi] While it is true that Gwynne uses the word “savage” in describing behaviors on all sides, he only uses the word as a noun for indigenous people. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reflections on Whiteness and the Ecospiritual Movement

I consider myself somewhat of a veteran of the Northern California counterculture, or at least the Ecospiritual aspect of it. I graduated from the California Institute of Integral Studies, where I studied, among other things, the history of the modern worldview as it has developed in politics, economics, philosophy, and especially science. My own research examined the roots of mechanism and vitalism in biology and the alternative paradigm that is now taking shape at the intersection of evolutionary and developmental genetics. Yet, some of my deepest learning took place well beyond the academy, at places like Esalen and at workshops and retreats, where practices such as talking circles, ceremonies, and encounters with nature were employed to cultivate deep personal and full-bodied integration of the alternative paradigm to which the movement is committed. Indeed, this integral approach comprises the true heart of the Ecospiritual movement.

The reason the Ecospiritual movement emphasizes the integration of personal/spiritual growth and intellectual development derives from the way knowledge itself is understood within the new paradigm. The dominant worldview, which sees the universe as a collection of essentially disconnected things moving in space and interacting according to fixed laws, tends to imagine the human mind in terms of a disembodied rationality, passively receiving information and analyzing it to arrive at an objective representation of the world. The last hundred years of science, however, has revealed that the universe consists of an intricate web of interdependent relationships and processes. Science has demonstrated the embeddedness of human cognition in that web and is reconceiving knowledge itself as a profoundly participatory process, inseparable from the lived body and its milieu. For the Ecospiritual movement, therefore, knowing involves embodiment, rather than merely memorization, and education is part of a much larger agenda, namely, the creative transformation of our civilization.

What, you may be thinking, does any of this have to do with the cosmology of whiteness? Well, it is an open secret that the Ecospiritual movement is overwhelmingly white. In the decade I spent in graduate school in San Francisco, my classmates were almost exclusively people of Anglo-European descent. Outside of the academy, the situation is better, but only slightly. When this lack of racial diversity is pointed out, folks often express some regret, but, in my experience, their attitude is just as often characterized by bewilderment and defensiveness. After all, their reasoning goes, everyone is welcome. It would be nice if there were more people of color around, but we can’t be blamed for who shows up and who doesn’t.

So why does it really matter that there are so few people of color in this movement? Given that the goal of the movement is to transform our civilization in order to head off the catastrophic human and ecological consequences of unsustainable industrial growth, it matters for a couple key reasons. First, never in the history of humanity has a social movement led by the people who benefit from the prevailing order succeeded in bringing about real change.[i] Every major advance in human liberation has been won through the struggle of those seeking to liberate themselves. Second, there already is a massive global liberation movement underway, which is responding to the ongoing catastrophes wrought by the industrial expansion. This unnamed and leaderless movement, documented by Paul Hawken in his book Blessed Unrest, is comprised of and led by those people and communities of color directly impacted by the hyper-exploitation of the Earth and the large scale ecological instabilities generated by these practices. Can the Ecospiritual movement be relevant if it fails to align itself with this larger revolutionary force?

The question remains: what is it about the Ecospiritual movement that makes it appealing predominantly to white people? How might it be expressing itself in ways that reproduce the cosmology of whiteness? I think part of an answer can be found by looking at the Human Potential Movement, which has had a foundational influence on the Ecospiritual movement. The Human Potential Movement (HPM) emerged in Northern California in the mid 1960s based largely on the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. HPM is rooted in the conviction that people are inherently good and endowed with much greater potential than they ever realize. Our highest capacities usually remain unrealized because we are, in various ways, conditioned to accept a limiting story about who we are and what we are capable of. Once we recognize the ways in which we have been mistaken about our limitations, we can become empowered to transcend our self-limiting stories, take responsibility for our lives and, most importantly, begin to make a positive difference in the world.

This sounds pretty good, but there are a couple of things we need to consider. First, I want to suggest that the presumption of individual self-determination, central to HPM, depends crucially on white privilege. The right to determine one’s life conditions has not, by and large, been something people of color in this country can take for granted. From slavery and genocide, to Jim Crow and Native American boarding schools, to Japanese American internment, to the war on drugs and racist anti-immigrant laws, people of color in the U.S. have been and continue to be denied the sort of control over their lives to which those of us who identify as white often feel entitled. The assumption that genuine personal power is equally available to anyone with sufficient self-awareness reflects an obliviousness I encounter all too often among my Ecospiritual co-travelers.  

Another potentially problematic tendency within HPM is the emphasis it often places on sudden and dramatic personal change, due to some revelation about one's personal history. I have heard seemingly countless stories of individuals experiencing remarkable transformations after coming to see the self-limiting ways in which they had been interpreting their lives. My point is not that these sorts of personal shifts never happen. I’ve had a breakthrough or two of my own, after all. Rather, it’s the exaggerated way that these personal transformations tend to be characterized. I too often hear these personal breakthroughs described in transcendent terms, as if one’s personal and collective history can simply be sloughed off as so much dead skin. Though rhetorically compelling, the discourse of radical personal renewal tends to discount the very real power of social and structural influences and the dependence of those influences on legacies of oppression and privilege. Of course, everyone can benefit from less fear and greater self-awareness, but I suspect that people of color suffering real daily oppression might feel less than supported by white people telling them that their problems are self-imposed.

The Ecospiritual movement inherits these tendencies from HPM, but it goes a step further, imagining that transforming individuals is sufficient to transform society at large. Having blamed Descartes and Newton for the mind-body dualism and mechanistic materialism that characterize modern thought, we Ecospiritual types seem to think that once everyone understands the new paradigm of self-organization and interdependence, social change will somehow just follow. Once everyone sees how the universe works, and how everything and everyone is interconnected, we’ll be able bring forth the equitable, peaceful, and sustainable world we all want. Let me be clear. I’m not saying that the people I know actually believe it’s this simple. But whether we believe it or not, its logic still haunts our conversations.[ii] This attitude, however, exemplifies the individualism and habitual innocence that characterizes the white American psyche. Like colorblindness, it denies the momentum of history and disregards the immense institutional power invested in the prevailing order.

Finally, while it might plausibly be argued that the foregoing tendencies are distortions of valid HPM principles, there is a deeper problem, I think, which goes to HPM's philosophical underpinnings. Recall that one of the main forebears of HPM is Abraham Maslow. According to Maslow’s theory, the pinnacle of human potential, self-actualization, exists atop a hierarchy of human needs. Before people experience higher needs, such as the need for self-actualization, they are expected to have met what he called their “deficiency needs,” which begin with food and shelter, and culminate in esteem and respect. Given this structure, the fact that HPM, and, by extension, the Ecospiritual movement, attracts a relatively privileged population should surprise no one. Personal growth workshops must seem pretty extravagant to someone struggling just to keep themselves and their kids safe and fed. 

Needless to say (if you read my previous post or any of the many other accounts of  institutional and systemic white privilege) people of color in the U.S. continue to face significant extra burdens in trying to meet their most basic needs. Besides this obvious fact, Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t necessarily even work the same way for people of color in this country. It may not be possible for black and brown folks in the contemporary U.S. to have their deficiency needs reliably met. Being elected to the highest office in the land was not enough to garner President Obama sufficient respect that he could escape the humiliation of having to show his papers. And, as the recent murder of two Sikh men in Sacramento demonstrates, not even physical safety can be taken for granted when you are perceived as different than the white norm. 

So where does all this leave us? Clearly, if my analysis is correct, white privilege is practically written into the charter of the Ecospiritual movement. But I want to be clear that it is not my intention simply to critique the movement. I consider myself hopelessly committed to it, and I think it has a valuable role to play. I do believe, however, that in order to have the impact we wish to have in the world, we must build genuine alliances with the wider movement for human liberation and justice, which is lead primarily by people of color. And this cannot happen unless the white folks in the Ecospiritual movement are willing to confront our own racial privileges. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I am convinced that the Ecospiritual movement is going to be rendered irrelevant unless challenging racism and white privilege becomes a basic premise of our work.  

[i] I have no research to support this negative claim, but if anyone has an example to disprove it, I’d love to hear it. BTW, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that individuals cannot be committed, to the point of risking their lives, to causes that do not serve their personal or collective interests. The Civil Rights movement provides plenty of counterexamples to that, and the US military is one big counterexample.
[ii] This habit of thought draws its psychic sustenance, I suppose, from the millennialism that continues to characterize Western thinking about the future.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Whiteness and the White Privilege Paradigm

Barry Deutsch / CC BY 3.0

In the previous post I offered some critical reflections on colorblindness, the paradigm that dominates the mainstream conversation on race in the United States. In this post I will discuss the white privilege paradigm. The white privilege paradigm represents a formidable challenge to the paradigm of colorblindness, and it constitutes a vital dimension of the stand I take throughout this blog. White privilege helps account for the durability of institutional and structural racism by reminding us that systemic oppression continues to have real beneficiaries in post Civil Rights America. In addition, the white privilege paradigm reframes the question of racial progress. Whereas the colorblind paradigm portrays a post-racial America, where racism has been all but eliminated, the white privilege paradigm enables us to see the ways in which the advancement of formal human rights for people of color has coincided with the consolidation of informal structural and institutional advantages for those able to identify as white Americans.

As I discussed in the previous post, those who believe in the narrative of racial progress point to the removal of formal barriers, legal and otherwise, which excluded black Americans from certain schools and neighborhoods, from access to public accommodations, and from voting. They also cite surveys that reveal a steady decline in explicitly prejudiced attitudes among white Americans. The reason that these particular types of evidence are considered convincing is that the colorblind paradigm relies on a mechanistic conception of society, in general, and racism, in particular. The methodology appropriate to understanding a machine is to analyze it into its component parts and evaluate its parts in isolation. With respect to racism, the parts appear to be OK. As I said, the laws are no longer explicitly racist and most individual white people at least know how to avoid sounding prejudiced in a phone survey.[i] For those with a strictly mechanistic understanding of society, therefore, the conclusion that racism is largely behind us makes sense.

The white privilege paradigm, on the other hand, derives from a view of society based on systems thinking.[ii] Systems thinking entails a methodology quite different from mechanistic thinking. The methodology associated with the study of systems, especially biological and social systems is twofold. First, because such systems are complex and non-linear, their behavior cannot be evaluated based on isolated observations. Only statistical methods can reveal if there are meaningful patterns in the behavior of such systems over time. I referred in the previous post to the crucial difference between performing a statistical analysis of racial equity in the U.S. and citing individual anecdotes, such as Obama’s election. Interpretations may vary, but no one can deny the persistence of major patterns of racial disparity in virtually every measurable domain. The data leaves little doubt that the ability to claim a white identity in the U.S. corresponds to significantly greater material wellbeing and social mobility.

In addition, in order to understand how the patterns revealed by statistical analysis came to characterize a particular system, one must study that system’s history. If we examine the history of racism in the U.S., and avoid trying to fit it into the preexisting narrative of advancing freedom, we may notice a consistent pattern. Despite significant racial progress in certain areas, the advancement of people of color, as a whole, has been limited, at every juncture,  by the unwillingness of white people, as a whole, to relinquish the unearned benefits we derive from our white identity. I’m not saying that individual white people are necessarily acting deliberately to perpetuate large scale systemic injustices. We are usually just acting individually to preserve social benefits that we have been trained to regard as entitlements. We are like bees, who’ve been blindly following simple local rules, while building and maintaining an elaborate hive of white supremacy. The white privilege paradigm provides a framework for conceptualizing the history of racism in the U.S. in a way that reframes the question of racial progress and exposes its built-in limitations.

The privileges of whiteness include concrete material advantages such as access to “safe” neighborhoods, well-resourced schools, and favorable or fair treatment by most private and public institutions. They also include less tangible advantages such as a confidence (not always warranted) that the system will be forgiving of your and your children’s  “mistakes,” that your bad habits won’t be seen as racial flaws, that portrayals of your race in the media and in history books will be mostly positive, and that your race will remain a norm against which racial and cultural difference is measured and judged. It should come as no surprise that white people act collectively, if not always consciously, to preserve these benefits.

Cheryl Harris and George Lipsitz have each argued that whiteness in the U.S. is treated as a type of property. This means that the system regards the privileges of whiteness as rights, which naturally take precedence over demands for social justice. Harris, for example, shows how whiteness has been treated as property by the legal system. In her landmark paper Whiteness as Property, she notes that, at the very moment when the land ownership requirement for voting was being eliminated, the right to vote was being actively denied to free Blacks, through legal and extra-legal means. The property requirement for voting was thus effectively replaced with a race requirement, explicitly turning whiteness into a form of legal property. Government policies have subsequently protected and enhanced the property value of whiteness, often through laws that make no direct mention of race. The New Deal offers a prime example of this phenomenon. When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, farm labor and domestic service, the main job categories occupied by people of color at that time, were excluded from benefits. So Social Security, as originally enacted, was meant for white people. In addition, the New Deal housing programs, such as the FHA and the HOLC relied on explicitly discriminatory underwriting policies. As a result, practically all available federal home loan assistance went to fund white migration to the suburbs, while people of color remained trapped in substandard inner city housing. 

In his book, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, Lipsitz reveals a continuity between erstwhile strategies for preserving white power and new, less overt practices that have emerged during the post Civil Rights era. Sticking with the real estate example, although fair housing laws eliminated race-based FHA underwriting guidelines and outlawed restrictive covenants, informal practices of racial steering and mortgage discrimination have continued up to the present. Moreover, according to Lipsitz, private lenders, developers, and speculators exploited the provisions of the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act in ways that actually exacerbated segregation, promoting white flight, creating price volatility, and of course producing large profits for themselves. Besides having measurable negative impacts in terms of education, crime, health and employment, residential segregation is also self-perpetuating for the obvious reason that suburban real estate has tended to appreciate over time. This has produced greater intergenerational wealth for suburban home owners, and widened the racial wealth gap over time.

Another way in which whiteness has functioned to maintain its privilege and power in the U.S. is through an ideological backlash against race-conscious public policies. As Lipsitz points out, policies designed to advance opportunities for people of color tend to be accepted precisely up the point at which they are perceived to impinge on privileges that white people regard as entitlements. The most obvious example of this is affirmative action. For centuries, people of color were actively excluded from educational and employment opportunities, and many continue to face formidable challenges due to structural disadvantages such as residential segregation, as well as old-fashion discrimination. Yet, the modest efforts undertaken to correct for these very real disadvantages, such as a little extra consideration in hiring and college admissions, have been met with a sustained and largely successful campaign to reframe affirmative action as unfair discrimination against white people. Meanwhile, the fact that most of its beneficiaries are white women typically gets lost in the rush to cast the affirmative action in racial terms.

Finally, white privilege persists because white people are motivated to preserve the status quo and at the same time are shielded from responsibility by the singular privilege of obliviousness. Indeed, this covenant of ignorance/innocence is perhaps the primary way that whiteness protects its privileged position.[iii] Our cultivated inability (sometimes refusal) to see how the institutions and social structures of U.S. society favor white people allows us not only to enjoy our racial advantages but to defend them tenaciously. It is ironic that, in a society where so many of us are so poorly versed in science and history, the average white person, when challenged, turns out to be capable of expounding eloquently on abstract liberal principles, such as free market competition, individual choice, and the merits of meritocracy.[iv] Indeed, a statement such as “the best person should always get the job” probably sounds like common sense to most people. However, for this to be realized requires not only that every potentially qualified person has an equal chance of being considered, but also that there exists an unproblematically universal standard for making these decisions. In addition, the abstract terms of this discussion presuppose that the race of the people empowered to do the deciding can safely be ignored.

The notion that racism is sustained through our “innocent,” race-neutral actions probably constitutes a pretty radical paradigm shift for most of us. I know it did for me. The shift is made even more difficult by the fact that accepting this analysis of our society entails a responsibility to change it. You are welcome of course to reject this whole argument; that after all is the essence of white privilege. I only ask that you consider: what if this analysis is right? What if, when we fail to question the status quo because it’s hard and because we don’t have to, we are engaged in a collective enterprise to preserve unearned privileges that flow to us at the expense of people of color? Just think about it.

For the white privilege paradigm, racism is not a mechanical process that can be disabled simply by removing race from the law and race prejudice from individuals’ minds. Though originally created by design, racism persists as an emergent property, which perpetuates itself through institutional momentum, social and residential segregation, and countless seemingly race-neutral acts of rational self-interest. While the colorblind paradigm obscures the true nature of this system, the white privilege paradigm lays bare its inner logic, dramatically remapping the moral landscape and brazenly transgressing the cosmology of whiteness.  

[i] The claim that race prejudice has dramatically lessened among individual white people does not hold up so well in detailed studies.
[ii] Systems thinking has by now influenced every scientific discipline, but it should be noted that the it actually has roots in sociology.
[iii] In his book The Racial Contract, Mills calls this covenant an “epistemological contract.” It functions through the ideology of individualism, the discounting & distortion of history, the mechanistic conception of society and of course the colorblind paradigm. 
[iv] See Racism Without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla Silva. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Whiteness and the Utility of the Colorblind Paradigm

The conversation on race in the U.S. is currently dominated by the paradigm of colorblindness.[i] The colorblind paradigm is based on a story that goes something like this: 
There was, at one time, a terrible problem with racism in this country. But, thanks to the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, and the shifting attitudes of the American people, racism is now mostly behind us. Today, although there are still individuals with racist beliefs, the main barrier to the dawning of a post-racial era is the false belief on the political left that racism remains a significant force in U.S. society.
Indeed, according to the proponents of the colorblind paradigm (whom I’ll call race conservatives),[ii] it is this preoccupation with race that actually perpetuates racism. I should add that, although this framing was developed in conservative circles to advance a conservative political agenda, many well-meaning liberals have been seduced by it, proclaiming their post-racial stance with the slogan “I don’t see color; I only see people.”  

One of the race conservatives’ key maneuvers is to set themselves up as the legitimate heirs of the Civil Rights Movement, the true and exclusive aim of which, they claim, was to ban discrimination based on race. This formula was in evidence last summer when Fox News personality Glenn Beck held a rally on the anniversary of one of the movement’s epic moments, the 1963 March on Washington. Indeed, the proponents of colorblindness typically justify their position by citing the part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he expressed his vision of a world where people are no longer judged by their color. Distorting the true intent of his words, they make the demonstrably false claim that Dr. King himself would oppose public policies that directly address historical (and ongoing) injustice. They claim the mantle of King’s legacy and then decry affirmative action, proactive desegregation, and other efforts to redress racism, efforts that King would likely have supported. They label all such efforts “reverse racism,” suggesting that they constitute unfair discrimination against white people.

Being colorblind does not mean simply overcoming discrimination, however. To race conservatives, even talking about racism is inappropriate. For example, to point out the salience of race in some public episode, such as, say, the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. in front of his own home, is to “play the race card.” Because racism is seen solely in terms of the intentions of individuals, to cite race means to call someone a racist. So, for racism to have played a role in the Gates episode, Officer Crowley would have to be personally racist. And the inference that someone is a racist is seen as tantamount to character assassination (unless the target is a person of color). This clever moral reversal, whereby the agent[iii] of injustice is made into a victim of slander, is quite effective at changing the subject, so that we don’t have to discuss the possibility that, even in supposedly post-racial America, mere social status cannot protect a black man from the hazards of his skin color.

Meanwhile, to suggest that the unique experiences and perspectives of historically marginalized people ought to be represented in public discourse is, according to the colorblind paradigm, to indulge in identity politics and political correctness. This dynamic was on clear display during the confirmation process of Sonia Sotomayor. Race conservatives were outraged by a quote in which Sotomayor suggests that her unique life experiences as a Latina woman have enriched her judicial wisdom. The implication that a legitimate alternative to the dominant (white) perspective is possible, let alone beneficial, provoked indignation because the latter is, by its own lights, the epitome of neutrality and objectivity. Indeed, the presumption that the dominant view is neutral and objective – not “colored” by racial or ethnic particularity – is fundamental to the colorblind paradigm. To question that principle constitutes a heresy of the highest order.

Another pillar of the colorblind paradigm is that, in post-Civil Rights America, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. As the story goes, the legislative achievements of the 1960s represent the final fulfillment of the nation’s founding idea of itself as a land where the individual is free to pursue his/her dreams without fear of undue government interference. Notice that this story defines opportunity negatively, as simply the lack of a definite barrier. According to this logic, if there are people of color in the upper echelons of society, there are no racial barriers; ergo, everyone has equal opportunity. But what if opportunity is not an all or nothing proposition? What if it is understood in terms of relative life chances? It should be obvious that, understood in this way, opportunity is not, and can never be, truly equal. The question then becomes, to what degree does race, in particular, still shape the life chances of individuals in America? Whatever the answer to this question may be, to be colorblind means not even having to ask it.

Not having to consider the effect of race on people’s life chances means not having to look for structural or institutional causes. Obviously, everyone who’s paying attention is aware that there remain substantial racial disparities in wealth, academic achievement, employment, etc. However, since the colorblind paradigm presupposes that everyone has equal opportunity, the blame for these disparities can only be attributed to individuals. And since there do not seem to be enough individual racists left to sustain large scale social inequity, people of color themselves must be seen as entirely responsible for their circumstances. Either they are not working hard enough, or they are somehow unfit for the social-Darwinian competition we call the marketplace. Since citing biological differences would violate the tenets of colorblindness (besides being overtly racist), race conservatives lament a lack of discipline and responsibility, for which they fault cultural pathologies within communities of color. Of course, there is another possibility. What if the very existence of these communities is a result of residential segregation practices, whereby white folks sequestered themselves off in virtually all white spaces? And what if, all else being equal, these white spaces offer real material advantages, in terms of economic, educational, and employment opportunities? Once again, being colorblind means being protected from questions like these by unfalsifiable epicycles of victim blaming and white innocence.

Although colorblindness entails conceptual segregation with respect to race, political demagogues still have much to gain from a racialized discourse. Workers in this country have been under siege for four decades, thanks to deindustrialization and corporate globalization. In this environment, politicians and quasi-political figures benefit greatly when the disaffection and frustration of white workers can be channeled into resentment of racialized others. Since the political lexicon has been purged of overtly racist references, however, the mobilization of white racial anxiety is now accomplished by way of coded language that conceals its racially charged implications. Since language like “tough on gangs,” “welfare,” and “Joe six-pack” do not have explicit racial meanings, it is impossible to prove racist intent, but intent is really beside the point. This language is used because it is effective, and it is effective because of the racialized imagery it evokes. Who, among us, pictures someone who looks like Timothy McVeigh when we hear the word “terrorist,” or imagines a Canadian college student with an expired visa when we hear “illegal” used as a noun. If “post-racial” means anything, it means that one no longer needs racist language to stoke white racial fear and resentment.   

Perhaps the most important thing about the colorblind paradigm is that it is a paradigm. That is, it is a system of interrelated and mutually reinforcing concepts. It is all but impossible to overturn a paradigm with facts alone because facts acquire meaning from the very matrix of ideas and assumptions that constitutes the paradigm. This is why race conservatives can always explain, or explain away, all racial disparities without ever calling their “post-racial” approach into question. The entire paradigm is grounded in the doctrine of individualism, which holds that only individuals are truly real. This permits inter-group social dynamics to be rendered invisible along with the five-century history of brutal racial oppression that produced them. But individualism, like historical amnesia and perpetual innocence, is not merely an ideological prop for the colorblind paradigm, it has been, from the moment the first settlers arrived on this continent, at the very heart of the cosmology of whiteness.

[i] My thinking on this topic has benefited enormously from the writings of Tim Wise, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, David Roediger, and others.
[ii] I call them race conservatives to emphasize the irony embodied by the colorblind paradigm. Also, I want to avoid attributing this view of race to all conservatives.
[iii] Note that agent is not the same thing as perpetrator, as the former does not bear sole responsibility for the events in which he or she plays a role.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Whiteness and the Logic of Corporate Personhood

To most of us flesh and blood, breathing, feeling, human animals, the notion of corporate personhood (which was taken to its logical extreme in the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United ruling) seems like the height of absurdity. Bank of America, Chevron, GE, and Microsoft do not have families that comfort or annoy them. They do not worry about a parent’s failing health or experience the exhilaration of new love or the dread of mortality. They do not feel grief or compassion or forgiveness or frustration or hope. They definitely do not despair about what the heedless pursuit of earnings growth is doing to the once thriving communities and life systems of the Earth.

It is only natural to wonder about the apparently twisted logic that led to corporations being declared persons under the law. They are made up of persons, of course. But so is a mob, and no one thinks a mob should be granted the rights of an individual person under the U.S. Constitution. Individuals belonging to groups already have rights, but groups, as such, do not. This is because our political system is based on liberalism, the focus of which is on the equal rights of individuals. At the same time, no one is suggesting that corporations should have no legal rights at all. If corporations are to exist, they obviously need to be able to do things like enter into contracts and own property. But the need for these sorts of limited rights does not necessarily imply that corporations are entitled to legal personhood.

As we reflect on the logic that led to the extension of personhood to corporations, we should also keep in mind that in 1886, when the crucial ruling occurred, the U.S. was still officially a white nation. Naturalization was still only available to white people. First nations people were still being killed, dispossessed, and seeing their culture erased. Although African Americans were enjoying a small window of hope after the passage of the 1866 Civil Rights Act and soon thereafter the 14th amendment, that window would soon slam shut. It would require another century and a great deal of struggle before black folks had their personhood formally acknowledged.

So how was it that, at a time when only white people could access the rights and privileges of legal personhood, a purely legal entity managed to secure that designation? Clues to this puzzle are discernible in the origins of modern political thought. When John Locke and other liberal political philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries promoted ideas about self-government and the natural rights of man, it was not merely an abstract exercise. It was a definite project designed to delegitimize the authority of the aristocracy and increase the political power of the emerging business class. When Jefferson et al penned their famous affirmation of human liberation, “all men are created equal,” the liberation they had in mind was meant solely for white business men. It is all well and good to celebrate and make the most of the revolutionaries' lofty rhetoric. But if we want to understand the logic of the U.S. political and economic systems, we need to understand the true nature of the Revolution that produced them. 

The overt political motivations of the revolutionaries are only part of the story. In order to see why it was easier for the corporation to access personhood than millions of black and brown human beings, we need to look even more closely at the roots of modern liberal political thought, especially the way its architects conceived of human nature. The centerpiece of liberal political thought is Social Contract Theory. It is summarized with epic clarity and concision in The Declaration of Independence as this set of self-evident truths:

That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.  

In other words, governments (whether absolute monarchies or liberal democracies) were created by individual men who decided to give up a certain amount of liberty in exchange for protection of their natural rights.

Notice that the philosophers’ account of the origins of government was informed by an explicit theory of human nature. This theory was eventually to become an implicit keystone of the cosmology of whiteness. The social contract metaphor requires potential signatories - individuals with the wherewithal to enter into a social contract, but who have not yet done so. The philosophers imagined a condition they called the state of nature, in which ancient humans existed without any sort of government. Although men, in this hypothetical natural state, had total liberty, their actions were guided by an innate morality and rationality. Especially for Locke, whose writings on social contract theory and liberalism greatly influenced the American Revolution, human nature entails Reason, a God-given faculty that governs both moral and practical judgment.

The catch is that Reason tended to be understood in a way that was hopelessly bound up with the cultural, religious, and class values of Anglo-American elites such as Locke and the American revolutionaries. Indeed, Reason was typically associated with the economic and moral values that underpinned colonialism, such as industriousness, competition, economic self-interest, private property ownership, sexual/sensual/emotional repression, and the impulse to civilize wild nature. Hence, the self-interested, economically rational, property owning, white Puritan male was set up as the standard-bearer of humanity. This is a primordial moment in the genesis of whiteness - the instant when Race and Reason emerged as intertwined touchstones by which white men could measure their superiority and justify the exclusion of people of color from full personhood.  

Classical economists relied on this model when they imagined the economy as consisting of purely rational and self-interested producer-consumers competing for perpetually scarce resources. They theorized that the natural behavior of these standard economic actors would lead to growth in overall wealth and bring about the greatest wellbeing for society. In this way, classical economics made a virtue of selfishness. According to Adam Smith, who was after all a moral philosopher, if each individual simply pursues his private self-interest, the "invisible hand" of the market will regulate the overall economy, ensuring the greatest benefit for the greatest number. This theoretical economic man was thus promoted to the status of moral paragon, resulting in a moral framework that encourages individuals to substitute the “higher” morality of the market for their personal moral judgment. 

The elevation of the corporation to legal personhood follows naturally from the moral logic of classical economics. While a natural person can only approximate the classical economists’ moral ideal, the invention of the modern corporation institutionalized the disembodied rationality and narrow self-interest of the latter. Now there is no need for individual humans to bear the burden of reconciling personal and business morality because corporate decision making is bureaucratized. The structure of the corporation compels managers to act exclusively in the financial interests of investors and exempts those investors from accountability for the activities undertaken on their behalf. 

The corporation was next in line after white men to attain legal personhood because corporate personhood simply follows from the logic of whiteness. Whiteness was forged out of the cultural, religious, and economic values of the colonial elites and ordained as the paradigm of humanity. It was then used to restrict full personhood to white people, who were granted certain privileges in exchange for their tacit support of the elites’ exploitative imperial project. The paradigmatic values of whiteness were supposed to be universal, but they have always been disconnected from the lived concerns of ordinary people and communities of every race.

This is one of the supreme ironies of whiteness. Generations of European-Americans have bought into the ideal of whiteness, forsaking their own historical roots in order to access the benefits of white identity. But notwithstanding some relative privileges and a comforting, if fictitious, sense of superiority, it turns out that we have failed to grasp that the logic of whiteness does not correspond to the logic of humanity. So, in our effort to claim and preserve unearned advantages, we (and not only white people) have embraced a standard that we ourselves cannot embody and remain human. The logic of whiteness in the context of economics is actually a logic of capitalist exploitation and empire. And, as it turns out, it is a logic that is most perfectly realized by an inhuman bureaucracy, designed to maximize profits and expand forever.