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.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"True Grit" and the Whiteness of Vengeance

I am not writing this post to criticize on the Cohen brothers’ film True Grit for its garden-variety racism. That outlaws and their pursuers seem to outnumber Native Americans in “Indian Country” is not particularly remarkable. Nor is the fact that two of the three Native Americans encountered by the protagonists are horse torturing children, who receive their comeuppance when Rooster Cockburn knocks them off of a porch railing onto the ground, not once, but twice. No. The thing I think is worth reflecting on about this film is what New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calls “that old-time American religion of vengeance [which] runs like a river through True Grit.”

“But”, you may be thinking, “What does vengeance have to do with race?” Well, this is a fascinating question, one which requires us to reflect honestly on the American national character, and the way that character has been, since the first colonial settlements, bound up with whiteness (the U.S. was of course a legally white nation for most of its history) and with vengeance. Vengeance, indeed runs like a river through this nation’s history and shows up dependably whenever the white majority imagines a threat to its collective entitlement to safety.
As early as the 1630s, the colonists’ growing appetite for land set the stage for a confrontation with the Pequot people. When an English trader and his associates were killed (by some unknown persons for some unknown reason) the incident was used by the English colonists to justify the Pequot War. The outcome of this so-called war was the compete annihilation of the Pequot. This pattern in which a story detailing some horrific offense against whites (usually innocent women and children) is followed by genocidal vengeance against “those bloodthirsty savages” was repeated with nauseating consistency throughout the period of westward expansion.

There is hopefully no need for me to do more than remind the reader of the grizzly history of lynching in this country. I’ll just say that this heinous practice was perpetrated primarily against African American men to avenge the honor of white women, whom the men were often accused of raping. Of course almost any “improper” interaction between a black man and a white woman could end up being construed as a rape or an attempted rape, which had to be avenged. 

It would be nice to imagine that the peculiarly American preoccupation with vengeance would have passed into history with the American frontier and the Antebellum South, but I’m afraid this motif is more essential to the American identity that we’d like to admit. The familiar emotional joy ride that satisfies us with a moment of cathartic and justifiable violence is a well-worn formula realized in about a zillion Hollywood films, not to mention books (fiction and non-fiction alike). The reason it never seems to get old may be that its appeal is on the level of myth.

Mythic story telling is, of course, one of the chief means by which a culture reaffirms its sense of identity and thereby sustains and reproduces its cosmology. The reiteration of the vengeance narrative reassures white folks of our treasured identity as essentially good and honorable, but not-to-be-fucked-with Americans. On the level of cosmology, it establishes the desire for revenge as human nature and its realization as a moral ideal. I’m not denying that there is something natural about the desire for retribution, but the way that this emotion and its translation into action are celebrated and valorized in North American culture is, I believe, peculiar to American culture.

And make no mistake. This cosmology is racialized. Besides the history of racist vengeance described above, and the fact that our avenging heroes have traditionally been portrayed as white men, consider the way that the revenge theme is played out at the institutional level in U.S. society. There are two ways that revenge is institutionalized in the U.S. The first is capital punishment. Notwithstanding the deterrence argument, it seems obvious that public support for the death penalty is to some extent grounded in the public’s craving for revenge. I honestly don’t know how else to explain the extreme focus supporters place on the suffering of the victims and their families. And then there are the staggering racial disparities in death penalty sentencing. Not only are black defendants in similar cases as much as four times more likely than white ones to be sentenced to death, the differential in death sentencing between defendants charged with murdering white people and those charged with murdering black or brown people can be even greater, regardless of the defendant's race.

The second example of institutionalized vengeance in the U.S. is our imperial foreign policy. In a manner strikingly consistent since the days of the Pequot War, the state has pursued its expansionist agenda by provoking its adversaries into attacking us (or not, as in the case of the Spanish-American, Vietnam, and Iraq wars), and then going to war in retaliation. That the wars of U.S. imperialism have more often than not been fought against a racialized enemy only makes the connection between revenge and white American identity that much more transparent.

I think I’ll leave it here. This topic could no doubt be a PhD dissertation, but this is just a blog. I hope it provokes some juicy thoughts, and I welcome your comments. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

What I Mean by Cosmology

As this blog is about whiteness as a cosmology, I want make it as clear as I can what I mean by the word “cosmology.” It think it will be helpful to consider how cosmology differs from the more familiar term ideology (although we should keep in mind that the two concepts really constitute a continuum). An ideology is a system of interrelated ideas, woven together by particular stories. For example, Capitalism and Communism are economic ideologies, in addition to being systems. Capitalism holds that free markets and unfettered competition are the best way to create the most wealth for the most people. Communism holds that workers should own the means of production and share equally in the wealth created by industry. A crucial point about ideological beliefs is that, however strongly they’re held, they are always understood as beliefs. That is, even the strongest exponents of an ideology understand that they could, in principle, be wrong. Capitalists and Communists, however strongly they believe in their respective systems, to whatever degree they are certain that they are on the right side of the debate, they know that they are in a debate.

A cosmology, on the other hand, operates at a much deeper, mostly unconscious, level. It is especially difficult to question one’s cosmology because the ideas and attitudes that make it up tend to be so basic as to seem beyond question. A society’s cosmology consists in the basic stories that make the world comprehensible and give the society is fundamental orientation. It provides the context through which society creates shared meaning and determines its most fundamental values and norms. Another way of saying this is that an ideology provides answers to already existing questions, while a cosmology governs what questions can even be asked. For these reasons, calling into question the premises of the dominant cosmology is not only hard, it is, in many cases, practically impossible because to do so is to threaten everything a society holds to be real and true.

Let’s consider money as an example of the difference between ideology and cosmology as it is a notion that has roots in both levels. One standard belief about money is that hard work and talent are the main ingredients to making money (with all that that implies about the poor). There are countless examples of stories that reflect and reinforce this basic meritocratic. The news media, popular historical accounts, and the arts present story after story that portrays individuals combining natural gifts and tireless effort to achieve great financial success. But this belief about money is ideological because it is clearly debatable. Even that most hard core believer in meritocracy can recognize that there are rational people who dispute this view of money.

On the level of cosmology, meanwhile, there are the much more deeply rooted stories about money that practically everyone accepts without question. For example, few of us ever stop to question the principle that money gives one the right to own chunks of the Earth treat it as one pleases (notwithstanding the existing environmental protections, which were very hard won and remain constantly under threat). Nor do we question the fact that one must buy or rent space on the Earth to have a genuine right to be here. But even these ideas are grounded in other more universal (in this society) stories that portray humans as, in some essential way, separate from the Earth and morally obligated to put its resources to human use.

Racism is an ideology. It is a set of oppressive and discriminatory ideas and practices based on certain groups having "different" physical and/or cultural characteristics. Whiteness is a cosmology. It identifies an unmarked, unracialized identity or mode of being based on Anglo-European values and the cognitive, aesthetic, and moral standards that follow from those values. The cosmology of whiteness entails racism even (or especially) when it claims to be colorblind because, given its hegemony, its norms are treated as universal, and whiteness is implicitly equated with humanness.

There will be other posts dedicated to teasing out the threads that make up this fabric, and all the blog posts will, I hope, contribute to the increasing visibility of the entire quilt that constitutes the cosmology of whiteness.  I welcome all thoughtful and constructive comments. 

Welcome to the Cosmology of Whiteness Blog

Welcome to my blog on the cosmology of whiteness and white supremacy. I am a queer man of Anglo-European descent, and I understand that the institutions of American society were established by people who look like me for the exclusive benefit of people who look like me. The land of this continent was stolen from its original inhabitants and given freely to people who look like me. People who look like me exploited that land using slave labor until it was no longer economically viable to do so. White supremacy has gone through several phases during the history of the United States, from an era of legal slavery and government sanctioned genocide, to an era of Jim Crow and overt imperialism, to the current era of colorblind systemic racism, neo-liberal neocolonialism and lately anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hysteria. The one thing that never seems to change is the dominance and unmarked status of whiteness.

I use the term whiteness almost interchangeably with white supremacy. But they are not exactly the same. White supremacy names the system of racial dominance operating in U.S. society (and globally), while whiteness (deriving from W.E.B. Dubois’ notion of “personal whiteness” and currently gaining academic currency via the field of “whiteness studies”) names the system’s epistemic and normative dimensions. It refers to those standards and values that are derived from Anglo-European culture and treated as universal norms (aesthetic, linguistic, behavioral, moral, cognitive, etc.). It also reminds us that this cosmology (see the post on cosmology) is racialized; that is, the supposed beauty, rationality, and industriousness associated with being white depends on the projection of opposing qualities onto racialized groups. This normative structure is then used both to secure and to explain the relative advantages afforded to white people. In other words, white supremacy identifies the racialized stratification of our social system, while whiteness describes the racialized cosmology that supports it.

One of the purposes of this blog is to unpack and explore the ways in which my personal history and the collective history of people who look like me has resulted in a situation in which those who identify as white have opted to cut themselves off from the larger human family in exchange for access to material benefits and a tenuous feeling of racial superiority. I wish both to take responsibility for the benefits I derive from systemic white supremacy and to do what I can to support the healing of the enormous wounds inflicted on the human family by white supremacy. I am committed to expunging the layers of white conditioning within myself and to helping others like me to do the  same. Only in this way will it be possible for me and people who look like me to develop mutually trusting relationships with our black and brown brothers and sisters and engage effectively in the struggle to end white supremacy.

I want to say at the outset (even though I know it probably won’t help) that my aim is NOT to shame white people or to suggest that only white folks are capable of racial prejudice. This blog is about the system of white supremacy - its history and its cosmology. It is not about blaming individuals or groups based on their skin color or racial identity. I do not hate white people or America (though I do strenuously reject that the former constitutes the latter). If anything this blog is rooted in love, and in the earnest desire that those of us who have (however unconsciously) traded our membership in the human family for power and privileges based on skin color can find a way to regain our humanity.

At the same time, not blaming does not mean not assigning responsibility to those of us to whom the system confers power and privilege. I have been playing a game that has long been rigged in my favor. I therefore have a responsibility to change the game so that the rules are fair and to ensure that past injustices are atoned for. This responsibility is completely independent of when and by whom the game was set up.

Finally, I want to make it perfectly clear that every worthwhile insight on this blog owes its existence, to one degree or another, to the five hundred year liberation struggle of the people oppressed by white supremacy. Sadly, we white folks, even those of us who earnestly desire justice, have shown ourselves to be largely incapable of recognizing the operations of white supremacy without the help of people of color. I am no different. Practically everything I know about whiteness and white supremacy I learned from African American and Native American thinkers and activists. I am particularly indebted to W.E.B. Dubois and James Baldwin without whose penetrating insights on whiteness this blog would be empty.