Friday, December 5, 2014

Reflections on Whiteness, Fear, and the Culture of Separation

                               Photo: Twitter         

"One of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don’t know who they are or where they come from. That’s why you think I’m a problem. I am not the problem; your history is. And as long as you pretend you don’t know your history, you’re gonna be the prisoner of it. And there’s no question of your liberating me, ‘cause you can’t liberate yourselves. We are in this together. " 
- James Baldwin

I have been seeing pictures on social media of protesters holding up mirrors to the police so the officers can see what they look clad in full riot gear. While this is a powerful tactic, I want to suggest that the reflections in those mirrors, the helmets and body armor, and the police state they symbolize, are actually a direct expression of the collective fears and anxieties of our society, especially white society. As white people, it is not only dark skinned people we fear. We also fear our own repressed history. And we fear looking at our ongoing complicity in the violence that afflicts communities of color, even as we displace our seemingly limitless capacity for violence onto them, thereby magnifying our fears and justifying the police state we've created to allay them.  

And then Ferguson happened. We have had more than enough of our young brothers and sisters of color being killed by police, vigilantes, and other panic-stricken white people. If you've been paying attention, it's obvious that this has been building for some time. Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, and on and on. It may be a surprise to some, but there is nothing new about black people in this country being killed with impunity. Most black folks have noticed the low value this society places on black lives. What is new is that white people have finally begun to notice the pattern and to look at it through the lens of white privilege.

There have been a good deal of discussion on social media about the very real differences in the way we, as white people, are treated, especially by law enforcement. One particular meme consists of white folks holding signs citing outrageous behaviors that did not get them shot by police. There is an excellent blog post on XOjane in which a white mother lays out all the ways she knows her white sons will be able to roll through their young lives without fear of being bothered, much less killed, by police.

As important as recognizing our white privilege is, however, this is not enough. Admitting that, as a white man, I am treated with respect and deference by institutional power (and don't ever worry that any mistreatment I may receive is due to my race) is a crucial first step. However, observing that the system is unjust in my favor does not, by itself, remedy the situation. This awareness must be coupled with collective political action. Having recognized that, as white people, we have special access to institutional power, we must use that access to demand genuine accountability and begin to co-create a truly equitable society. This is what being an ally means.  

It isn't always easy to hold institutions accountable, of course. In the case of law enforcement, according to Mother Jones, "no agency appears to track the number of police shootings or killings of unarmed victims in a systematic, comprehensive way." This, in itself, is a profound indicator of the depth of the problem. To fill this void, following in the footsteps of Ida B Wells' anti-lynching campaign, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement has issued a report documenting 275 unjustified killings of black people by police, private security, and vigilantes in 2012. As the report shows, very few of these killings resulted in the shooter(s) even being charged, let alone convicted, a fact that attests to the deep and tangled roots of white supremacy in the U.S.  

The virtual police occupation of communities of color in the U.S., along with the school to prison pipeline, and the racist mass incarceration system, is not a product of individual-level racism. It is a product of us as white people acting collectively and consistently based on a distorted idea of our racial self-interest. We may not explicitly support law enforcement tactics that result in human rights violations, but our failure to oppose policies that promise to "keep our streets safe," by being "tough on crime," constitutes our tacit support.

That probably sounds a bit harsh, but I really don't mean it as an accusation. The race discourse is rife with accusation already, whether it's white conservatives and their black allies blaming black culture, white liberals blaming other white people, or activists calling out their fellows. This all helps to create and sustain the culture of separation, which is one of the centerpieces of white culture. What is most needed is healing and reconnection, and where we need to look first (and deeply) is to white socialization. White socialization teaches us not only to see ourselves as separate individuals, but to fear each other. And it teaches us to value separateness, not only from each other, but also from the parts of ourselves that are not acceptable to the false standards of whiteness (innocence, independence, reason, culturelessness).

As white people, we need to build a new consciousness and a new sense of who we are as members of the larger human family, which begins with unlearning some of our white socialization. This is certainly challenging and deeply personal work, but it is not work we can do on our own. There is no individual credential to earn or penance to pay. There is no competition to win. There is simply the opportunity and responsibility to reawaken long dormant capacities for being together in community. Thus it is work that can only be done collectively. Indeed, the real revolution begins the moment we come together with our vulnerability, our uncertainties, our fear, and our longing.  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

When Whiteness Backfires: Isla Vista and the Hidden Cost of Privilege

Anyone who is paying attention has heard by now about Elliot Rodger's killing rampage in Isla Vista last week and about his misogynist and racist motivations. Even the corporate media is happy to talk about these aspects of the situation. As long as there are isolated bad apples (e.g. George Zimmerman, Donald Sterling, and now Rodger) to blame for racism or sexism, there is apparently no need or desire to look deeper or wider. And the corporate media certainly has no appetite for examining the culture of white supremacist hetero-patriarchy that constitutes the real source of these men's worldviews.  This analysis is showing up in the alternative media and blogosphere, so I will just add one perspective that I have not seen, which concerns the role of whiteness, as a source of privilege and an agent of tragedy.

Rodger was a white-identified male. I know he was technically bi-racial. His writings and videos, however, leave little doubt which half of his lineage he identified with and which half have he found despicable. Moreover, his whiteness formed the basis for his feelings of entitlement to the attention of white women and the homicidal resentment he felt when he saw white women hanging out with men of color. In addition, the intersection of his whiteness and his social class were decisive in shaping the way he was treated by the system. One particular incident speaks volumes about the way whiteness (mal)functioned in the weeks leading up to the tragedy.

Either a friend of Rodger or his therapist or someone from his family contacted either the police of the county mental health service because of his disturbing social media posts. Media reports about this notification are vague and inconsistent, but it is clear that the notification did take place because it prompted the police to visit Rodger's apartment on April 30th, one month before the shootings. The police spoke briefly to Rodger at his front door and then departed, having concluded that he did not meet the criteria for an involuntary mental health hold. Sheriff's officials claim that the officers, "handled the call in a professional manner consistent with state law and department policy."

Let me state, for the record, that I have no quarrel with this official account. Indeed, my critique hinges on the fact that this tragedy happened despite everyone doing what they were supposed to do. Let's begin with the offhand way Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown defended the actions of his officers. Brown said, that when the officers spoke to Rodger at his front door, "He was articulate. He was polite. He was timid." Brown did not say, nor did he need to say, why these factors were considered relevant. Their job, I assume, was to investigate the possibility that Rodger was planning to harm himself or others. What does that have to do with him being articulate, polite, and timid? What if he had been inarticulate, or worse, belligerent, or worse yet black (in which case just being on your front porch may make you suspicious)? Would any of those factors have made him seem more like a threat to himself or others? From what the Sheriff said, it seems that, simply by adhering to the white social norms that signal respectability and self-possession to white-dominated institutions like law enforcement, Rodger was able to override legitimate concerns about his mental health.

Interpersonal whiteness was not the only factor at play, however. Another way Rodger's whiteness protected/doomed him was in terms of his mental health history. Among the reasons cited by authorities for not detaining him was that he had no criminal record or history of mental health crises. But of course he did have a history, one that reflected his race and class privilege. The fact that he had access to private treatment meant that he was able to avoid leaving precisely the sort of institutional track record that would have given the police a legal basis to take more action. It is highly unlikely that a low income man of color with mental health issues could reach 22 years old without having been branded in some way by the system. When people of color are dealing with mental health challenges, school systems often respond with harsh discipline. Behaviors such as truancy and addiction are often criminalized, resulting in young people becoming fodder for the school to prison pipeline. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that the system works for youth of color. Mostly the system works for white people, but, in this case, the privileges of luxury, privacy, and autonomy that go with whiteness simply backfired, taking seven people out in the process.

Finally, we must consider how whiteness protected/doomed Rodger by allowing him to avoid having his home searched by law enforcement. Under prevailing law, the police not only did not have probable cause to seek a search warrant, they could not have confiscated his guns even if they had found them. However, anyone familiar with the way the war on drugs is waged or the stop and frisk practices of big city police departments knows that affluent white communities and low income communities of color are subjected to different standards of probable cause. While the concerns of Rodger's family and therapist about his mental health apparently did not justify searching his home or taking his weapons, in communities of color, all it takes is a tip from an anonymous informant to trigger a SWAT team raid. Indeed, police often end up breaking down the wrong doors, terrorizing and injuring innocent families based on these notoriously unreliable tips. I want to be clear, though, that this double standard is not simply about racist police forces. It is the end product of a complex set of laws and practices that has its roots, ultimately, in the politics of white privilege.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on my argument, let me just spell it out. I am not saying that the white male privilege or misogyny or racism or bad policing or the under-funded mental health system caused the Isla Vista tragedy. It was all of them plus everything else. And, at least part of what made it difficult for anyone to intervene, was the system of visible and invisible protections and privileges afforded to Rodger in virtue of his whiteness. Given that mass shootings committed by alienated, resentful, and aggrieved white men are becoming part of normal life in America, it might be time to consider whether this system, which we white people set up to protect us from scary black and brown others, can protect us from the monsters of our own creation.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Whiteness, Microaggressions, and the Threat to White Innocence

A recent article in the New York Times by Tanzina Vega entitled "Students See Many Slights as Racial ‘Microaggressions’" highlights a new movement intended to bring attention to the experiences of people of color interacting with supposedly non-racist white people. Initially, I was pleased to see the dominant media reporting on the issue of racial microaggressions, but I was quickly disappointed by Vega's attempt to offer a balanced take on this "trend." She purports to present both sides, but her superficial notion of balance, which is firmly rooted in whiteness, severely limits the article's potential to add anything useful to readers' understanding of the issue.  

The problem with this article is its unflinching commitment to the white racial frame, and specifically to its post-civil rights liberal offshoot, the diversity frame. According to the diversity frame, the relevant context for understanding microaggressions, as with all  race-related issues is difference, and specifically, difference from a largely unnamed norm of whiteness. Beginning with her implication that microaggressions are occurring as a result of "an increasingly diverse culture," to her closing with Henry Louis Gate's call for equal opportunity oppression, the overall moral picture she paints is of a world where racial differences are more or less neutral, and bear no larger historical or political significance. From the vantage point of Vega's diversity frame, it seems, microaggressions are being discussed now primarily because people from "diverse" groups are interacting with each other more frequently. There is no acknowledgement that microaggressions are actually about white people (consciously or not) perpetuating white cultural dominance.

After characterizing "microaggressions" as "the social justice word du jour" and describing the proliferation of blogs, facebook pages, academic papers, and student theater productions documenting the phenomenon,  she traces the term's popularity to Columbia psychology professor Derald W. Sue, author of an influential book on the topic. This would have been a great opportunity to get a clear articulation of the theory of microaggressions directly from the source. Unfortunately, all we get from Dr. Sue is a conjecture that the increased use of the term is due to the changing demographics of the country. The article is peppered with quotes from few individual students of color describing their experiences of being targets of microaggressions, but the author lets these stand on their own, making little or no effort to situate these experiences in the context of the theory.
Meanwhile, Vega is fairly generous in giving voice to those who are more of less skeptical of the concept. She quotes Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter, who suggests the need to distinguish truly abusive statements - like assuming that every black student on campus is an affirmative action case - from more innocent speech such as an assertion of colorblindness. Vega also cites more serious skeptics, such as Harry Stein (an author noted for his conservative views on race), who criticizes the term microaggression for exaggerating the significance of these encounters and encouraging a victim mentality. The article ends with the venerable Henry Louis Gates Jr. emphasizing that, in the interests of genuine multiculturalism, "the public airing of racial microaggressions should not be limited to minorities."   

An all too familiar feature of the white racial frame is the urge to portray reports of white racial insensitivity as exaggerated and as the cause, rather than the result, of racial tension. Vega makes no secret of her suspicion that much of the discussion of microaggressions may be a matter of "divisive hypersensitivity." This attitude is exemplified by her treatment of Dr. McWhorter's defense of white folks' professions of colorblindness. When McWhorter says that, "whites do not have the same freedom to talk about race that nonwhites do," Vega lets this statement stand unchallenged. This uncritical acceptance makes sense from within a diversity frame which recognizes difference but not power and privilege.

Illustration by Gabriel Ivan Orendain-Necochea/CSUN Daily Sundial

A writer with a critical race frame (which is what is called for here) would have pointed out that the training of whites to avoid talking about race is one of the defining features of post civil rights white supremacy. It is a primary means by which the white power structure maintains itself. Whether the scene is a family holiday, where talking about controversial topics is impolite, or a political campaign, where mentioning racism is "playing the race card," or a community college classroom, where white students are able to shutdown a conversation on race because it's making them uncomfortable, white social norms and white institutional power are very effective at silencing race talk. Moreover, the opportunity to benefit from whiteness while refusing to acknowledge racial differences is the sine qua non of white privilege. Precisely for this reason, from the standpoint of the critical race frame, white people who oppose racism actually have a moral responsibility to talk about whiteness and racism whenever possible.

Another consequence of Vega's white racial frame is her failure to offer any explanation of the theory behind the "trend." Indeed, she fundamentally misrepresents it. In their landmark paper on the topic, Dr. Sue et al. define racial microaggressions as "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color" (italics mine). The definition, which is conspicuously missing from the article, is quite explicit that the psychological impact of racial microaggressions is assumed to be independent of the intentions of the speaker. Moreover, all the literature supporting the theory emphasizes that the negative effects of microaggressions do not arise from isolated interactions, but are cumulative in nature.

No idea is immune from criticism, of course, but there is a significant difference between critique and obfuscation. Rather than challenge the idea of microaggressions on its merits, Vega leaves her readers with the mistaken impression that the discourse is about ascertaining the true intentions of a speaker in order to figure out whether a particular interaction should count as a microaggression. This is clear from the outset, when she wonders if the discussion is useful or whether it represents a "new form of divisive hypersensitivity, in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion." Whether her confusion is genuine or strategic, it comports well with her white racial frame. By concentrating on the question of intentionality, she managed to change the subject in a fairly predictable way. Rather than helping her readers understand the life experience of people of color who are routinely confronted with minor insults, indignities, and invalidations, she opted to wring her hands over the possibility that some "innocent" white people might feel unjustly accused of racism.

This article is a heartbreaking missed opportunity. It could have given Times' readers the gift of a genuine appreciation for the suffering caused by racial microaggressions and made a contribution to the healing of our society's collective racial trauma. Instead, by remaining solidly within a white racial frame, the article ends up simply re-perpetrating that trauma, while giving us white folks more fodder for our claims of innocence.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Whiteness and Self-Evident Truth: Historical Reflections on Reason and Race in Classical Liberalism

It is hard to argue with the basic logic of Dr. Martin Luther King's statement, quoted above, that all Americans should expect to enjoy the unalienable rights and privileges spelled out in the nation's founding documents. Indeed, most of the social justice struggles of the last half century have been grounded in the assumption that the goal of oppressed groups ought to be to gain unfettered access to those rights. It is widely believed that if the liberal principles of the American Revolution were fully realized, our society would at last be racially just. It is also widely believed that we have already achieved this goal, and, according to many, that we've gone too far. But I digress. The purpose of this post is to present the argument that, contrary to the lofty rhetoric about liberty and justice for all, the "all" of the liberal project was never intended to be taken that literally, and indeed, the logic of exclusion is woven into its very fabric.    

I should emphasize right up front that this blog is about Classical Liberalismnot the contemporary liberalism of Democratic politics. Classical Liberalism is the political philosophy that informed the American and French revolutions. It is the intellectual foundation for representative democracy, as well as freedom of expression, religion, and the press. It is rooted in the basic premise that individuals are born free and independent, and that they join with others to form governments only to ensure that their God-given freedoms are preserved. The Declaration of Independence contains this famous and succinct articulation of Classical Liberalism:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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. 

This philosophy remains a touchstone for both conservative and liberal politics.

The contradiction entailed by wealthy slave-owners justifying their democratic revolution by appealing to  "rights of man" is obvious enough to have a name - the paradox of libertyIt is routinely admitted that the American revolutionaries failed to live up to their own ideals, yet we still celebrate them for their visionary aspirations. Certain critics, though, suggest that there was no deep contradiction in the minds of the revolutionaries since the phrase "all men are created equal" was only meant to refer to property owning white men like themselves. If this theory is correct, we'd need only reinterpret the phrase as including all humans. We'd still have to fix our institutions to reflect that, but, since almost everyone agrees with that meaning, it wouldn't be that difficult. If this tactic were adequate, we'd have gotten to the promised land long ago. History, however, doesn't support this conclusion. After all, the founders openly conceded the paradox.

A more cogent critique accepts the revolutionaries' liberalism at face value, and locates the problem within liberalism itself. Critics in this camp note that liberal theory can never fulfill its universalist
promise because, beyond the discrepancy between the idea of liberty and the reality of slavery, there is actually a fatal contradiction within liberalism itself. Although every person is supposedly born equal and endowed with rights that cannot be taken away, personhood is defined in an implicitly conditional way. Specifically, for the liberal philosophers, being a full person depended on the possession of reason, which, though posited as a universal endowment, was construed in a highly gendered and culture-specific way.

Because of the fundamental contradiction within liberal theory, scholars of Critical Race Theory, such as Charles Mills and David Theo Goldberg, doubt that genuine racial justice can ever be achieved by appeals to an unreconstructed liberalism. This post is a contribution to that reconstruction, beginning with a deconstruction of the linchpin of liberal theory, reason.

The Official History of Reason

The peculiarly Western concept of reason was born out of the reflections of classical Greek philosophers. Reason, as the ancients defined it, was the highest expression of human nature. But it was not merely a matter of individual human cognition. They understood the cosmos as a unified, purposeful, and divinely ordered whole, and reason, or logos, was its primary ordering principle. Human reason was an expression of the participation of the human soul or psyche in the structure of the cosmos.

The possession of reason was, for the ancients, what separates man[1] from the other animals. It was also what separates man's higher (human) nature from his lower (animal) nature. Reason was thus set up in opposition to the emotions and appetites, and tasked with controlling them. For Plato, reason must rule over the passions and appetites as a king rules over the masses of peasants and slaves.

At the dawn of the modern era, the development of reason was closely associated with the new cosmology of the Scientific Revolution. Philosophers and proto-scientists of the 17th century, such as Galileo and Rene Descartes, were keenly interested in finding a method by which one can gain direct, reliable knowledge of the universe, independent of scripture and traditional authority. They proposed a method of careful observation and measurement, coupled with mathematics. It may sound mundane and obvious, but it was quite radical at the time. Remember that Galileo caught the attention of the Inquisition for privileging scientific over scriptural knowledge.

To make sense out of their theory of knowledge modern philosophers proposed a new cosmology, which redefined nature as a realm governed strictly by universal laws of motion. Where the ancients' cosmos was an organic whole into which human consciousness was intimately woven, the moderns' universe was like a mechanical clock, entirely devoid of consciousness, will, and intrinsic meaning. Set in motion at the beginning of time, the universe runs by itself, governed only by the laws of mechanics.

Since the new cosmology left no room in the physical world for consciousness or meaning, it became necessary to posit a distinct, immaterial realm for the mind. Descartes proposed that the rational mind occupies its own plane of existence, separate from and independent of the physical world. For Descartes, mind is pure disembodied reason. It may still become clouded by the passions and appetites of the body, but the scientific method enables such distortions to be eliminated, allowing reason to contemplate nature dispassionately. Thus, men no longer needed to rely on scriptural or traditional authority for knowledge of the natural world, since such knowledge could be obtained directly by way of observation, rational analysis, and experimental verification.

In this way, Descartes and other modern philosophers transformed reason from what it was for the ancients - primarily a guide to wise action in human affairs - into an instrument for the prediction and control of the natural world. The extraction of reason from nature represented its ultimate triumph. It became the sole locus of consciousness, meaning, and will in the world, and promised to free man from the darkness and superstition of the past and usher in a new age of human power over the Earth.

The Intertwining of Reason and Racism

I have described the genealogy of modern reason as if its emergence was simply a product of European philosophers struggling to free themselves from the hegemony of the Church in order to advance human knowledge. Indeed, this is the dominant narrative. However, to understand the contours of modern reason fully, we need to consider the political context in which they were formed. Nothing in 17th and 18th century Europe can be understood apart from the rise of colonialism and capitalism. These historical processes engendered conflicts, not only among the various European powers, but also among social classes and, most crucially, between colonizers and the non-European peoples they were attempting to conquer. Reason did far more than secure intellectual freedom for philosophers and scientists; it became deeply implicated in a race-based ranking of humans.

From the mid-15th century onward, European explorers were sailing around the globe, looking for new trade routes and gold. In the process, they came upon a wide variety of peoples, almost none of whom were Christian. The Europeans initially responded to the diversity of religious beliefs and practices they encountered with simple religious chauvinism. Confident in the universal significance of Christ, they convinced themselves that they must spread the Gospel by any means necessary. They also decided that God would want them to claim these newly "discovered" lands in His name. The Church, in fact, supported the dispossession as well as the enslavement of non-Christian peoples.

Despite the early and lasting importance of Christianity to the colonial project, it ultimately proved inadequate as a justification for the subjugation of non-European peoples. For one thing, it is a basic tenet of Christianity that anyone can convert and be saved, which, if taken literally, would have produced a serious moral crisis. It did, in fact, for at least one member of the clergy, Bartolomé de las Casas. De las Casas had the moral clarity to recognize the absurdity of appealing to Christianity to justify slavery and slaughter. His writings, which were widely read, engendered much self-reflection and consternation. These pangs of conscience did not slow the colonial project, of course, but they did undermine the reliance on Christian moral superiority to justify it.[2]

Some time later, leading European thinkers began to write about man's natural rights. In response to the moral inconsistency of the Church and various abuses of power by the aristocracy, these philosophers of the Enlightenment began to argue that all persons have fundamental rights to liberty and self-government.[3] This of course risked creating an even more explicit contradiction between real world practices and professed values. How could the new liberal philosophy be reconciled with the atrocities underway in the colonies? This contradiction was resolved by racism, which deployed the concept of reason to support the natural rights of (property owning) Europeans, while allowing those very rights to be denied to non-Europeans whenever it was convenient.

From its first delineation in antiquity, reason had been put to political and ideological purposes. Plato's theory of human nature already implicitly ranked people according to their capacity for reason. It placed philosophers at the top, and peasants, slaves, and women - since they were supposedly ruled by their passions and appetites - nearer the bottom. Christianity, meanwhile, always gave unequivocal primacy to the spiritual over corporeal and material. Descartes blended the two, and, although he did not address class and gender explicitly, his philosophy clearly elevated discarnate rationality to a metaphysical plane above the physical realm, thereby inscribing the prevailing social hierarchy into his cosmology. The continuity between Platonic, Christian, and Cartesian metaphysics enabled a smooth transition to a secular rationale for European domination. Moreover, the norms of reason, more so than those of Christianity, could be tailored to reflect the agenda of the powerful.

The role of reason in the hierarchical conception of human nature provided vital scaffolding for the construction of racism. Enlightenment philosophers saw their discourse on universal natural rights as a repudiation of the old hierarchies, but many of them also understood that those rights could not really be extended to everyone equally. The solution, it turned out, was readily available. They needed only to affirm that being endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and property [4] was intricately connected to being endowed with reason. Then, anyone considered deficient in reason could also be considered less than a full person, and therefore not entitled the natural rights guaranteed to all men.[5]

The final piece of the new ranking system was the concept of race itself. Race developed gradually, between the 16th and 18th centuries, as a way to categorize and rank humans. Carl Linnaeus, who is famous for developing the classification and naming system that we still use for plants and animals, also produced the first "scientific" racial classification, dividing up humanity into four main groups: Homo Sapiens Europaeus (European), Homo Sapiens Asiaticus (Asian), Homo Sapiens Americanus (American Native) and Homo Sapiens Afer (African). He went beyond mere physical description, ascribing different psychological temperaments to each of the groups, naturally attributing the most positive qualities, including those associated with reason, to Europeans. This should come as no surprise, since the stereotypes on which he based his classifications reflected the views of settlers and slaveholders, precisely the people who benefited from denying full personhood to non-Europeans. The connection between whiteness and reason (i.e. intelligence) has remained central to scientific racism to this day

Racism helped to address the contradiction at the heart of the Enlightenment, while replacing Christianity as a rationale for the colonial subjugation of non-Europeans. Claiming that the possession of reason gave all men equal rights to liberty and self-government, Enlightenment philosophers sought to overturn the unjust power relations to which their social class was subjected. They made effective and clever use of reason to formulate a revolutionary theory of the human nature that delegitimized the power and privilege of the aristocracy and, at the same time, defined non-European people as less than fully human.

The Social and Political History of Reason and Racism

Thus far, we have seen how European philosophy developed its conception of reason into a basis for intellectual and social liberation, and, at the same time, into a rationale for colonialism. The link Linnaeus and other classifiers asserted between race and reason was about categorizing the existing ideology. The ideology itself arose in the context of the colonial project by those who had a direct stake in the land and labor of non-Europeans. In this section, we examine the social-political context surrounding the construction of whiteness and the ways in which reasonable and unreasonable came to reflect the interests and values of those with social and political power. In particular, we consider John Locke's political philosophy, which he developed against a backdrop of ongoing conflicts between colonizers and Native North Americans. Understanding Locke's influence is crucial since his philosophy has been, and continues to be, used by those who seek to deprive non-European peoples of their collective integrity, self-determination, and land.[6]

John Locke was among the most influential of the modern political philosophers. Among his many contributions, he is remembered as the father of Classical Liberalism and as the intellectual Godfather of the American Revolution. Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), served as a sort of instruction manual for Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots as they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Locke's political philosophy was based on natural law. According to this "law of reason," there is a set of universal natural rights, which are revealed to an individual by the light of reason. For Locke, though, there is one natural right that precedes and is a prerequisite for the others, and which is the main factor motivating men to form governments - the right to own and control private property. His entire political theory can be seen as an extension of his theory of property. The logic entailed by Locke's theory proved to be quite useful to those defending European appropriation of the land of indigenous people. Indeed, the same logic continues to be used to justify the privatization of common property in the name of commerce, whether land or water or the electromagnetic spectrum.

Locke's emphasis on property may seem bizarre until we realize that, for Locke, the primary form of property is one's own physical body. The right to own and control one's body, which is self-evident to reason, is the starting point for all other natural rights. From there it inevitably follows that, as the owner of his body, a man must also own his labor and, by extension, the fruits of his labor. If an individual wandering about on the commons (land that is owned by no one in particular) picks an apple from a tree or kills a deer in the forest, these naturally become his property because they have acquired substantial additional value as a result of his body and his efforts. 

This logic extends to the land. According to Locke, land starts out as the common property of all men, but has little value in its natural state. Eventually some industrious soul comes along who is willing to work the land, and, like the apple and the deer, the land becomes his property because his labor gives it value. Once gained, the owner's property rights are not permanent, but rather depend on him continuing to make the land productive[7]. Reason dictates that if he lets his land "lie waste," it should return to the commons. (One doesn't have to do the work the land himself, by the way. In a very telling passage, Locke counts, as his property, "the turfs my servant has cut").

While, from the perspective of the colonizers, Locke's ideas can be seen as liberatory and egalitarian, they had nothing positive to offer Native people or to the Africans brought to America in chains. Indeed, his theory made it easier for the colonizers to justify dispossession of the former and enslavement of the latter. The principles of private ownership, productivity, and progress articulated by Locke constituted an absolute negation of the values and worldview of many indigenous peoples. Thus, not only did Locke implicitly define Indian land as available for appropriation, by representing his culture- and class-specific point of view as self-evident to reason, he deftly consigned any opposing worldview to unreason.

Lockean natural law thus justified not only depriving native peoples of their property rights, but their liberty as well. Although Locke claimed that liberty is a natural right, he reserved the exercise of that right for those who possess reason. With respect to children, for example, Locke wrote: "he that is not come to the use of his reason, cannot be said to be under this law." It follows that the same logic applies to anyone judged deficient in reason. In other words, if one is not subject to natural law, one cannot claim sovereign ownership of one's body or of one's labor. Indeed, it was not uncommon for slave masters to argue that their slaves benefited from the loss of their liberty, since they were not equipped to handle it. It is no coincidence that the early American writings routinely referred to Indians and Africans as childlike.

I want to make clear that my discussion of Locke's theory should not be read as an indictment of Locke as a person. Whether or not he meant for his philosophy to serve as a justification for genocide and slavery in the colonies, seems to me largely academic. Indeed, I think we gain more insight into the way liberal ideology functions if we assume that Locke's intent was genuinely egalitarian. The point is that, regardless of anyone's conscious intentions, the "law of reason" embedded in liberalism reflects the material interests and social values of those in the property owning class who have benefited (and continue to benefit) from the subjugation of people deemed deficient in reason. This also explains why it has proven so influential.


While reason may not have created racism, it has provided ingenious ideological support for the development and durability of global white supremacist capitalism. In my view, this makes liberalism highly suspect as a foundation for a social justice struggle. Yet, if we cannot appeal to the egalitarian ideals of liberalism to support the demand for social justice, what's the alternative? First of all, let me be clear that I am not actually denigrating reason. I am (I hope) making good use of it in my writing. The point is that what is presented as reasonable must always be viewed critically. It has long been established by science and philosophy, for example, that Descartes was wrong. There is no such thing as pure, disinterested, a-historical reason. Reason is always embodied, and always shaped by the complex historical, social, and class situation of the body that expresses it.

Nor am I also suggesting that we ought to jettison the principles of liberty and equality. After all, these ideas have obviously inspired a great deal of social progress. I am simply calling for a deep understanding of their intellectual origins. If we adopt the mantle of liberalism uncritically, without a full awareness of its complex and bloody history, and of who it was intended to liberate, we risk remaining prisoners of its limitations. We may, for example, imagine that institutions designed to maintain white supremacy can easily be reformed to produce racial equity. This may lead us to overlook the fact that Native Americans attempted to abide by liberalism and its standards of reason, signing treaties and taking their grievances to court, only to see their land, their culture, and their children forcibly taken from them again and again. And black folks endured physical beatings and worse to bring an end to legalized racial segregation, only to be targeted by a racist drug war and to end up, on average, economically worse off than they were in 1960. To consider liberalism in terms of its true origins is to understand that these setbacks are not anomalies. They are just more confirmation that liberalism's promise of universal liberty and justice was never really intended for everybody.

[1] A note on gender pronouns. I am using masculine gender pronouns throughout this essay to be consistent with the writers I am discussing. They used "he," "his," "man," "men," etc., not because it was convenient, but because, by and large, they really were only talking about male humans. 
[2] In some cases, the writings of de la Casas merely offered Protestants in America a chance to view their marginally less cruel treatment of Indians as proof of their moral superiority to Catholics. See Lepore, J. (1998). The name of war : King Philip's War and the origins of American identity. New York, Knopf.                
[3] I have discussed elsewhere the internal political motivations for the assertion of natural rights and self government. To this could be added the class struggles that precipitated the end of feudalism and the gender-based struggles that accompanied the rise of capitalism.
[4] Yes, Jefferson took this and substituted happiness for property in the Declaration of Independence. Still, the Constitution, in preserving slavery, left no doubt that property rights would not only trump happiness, but life and liberty as well.  
[5] Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
[6] There is some academic debate about whether this was his intention. Given what actually happened, I would call that question academic.
[7] Locke, John, (1689). Two Treatises of GovernmentSection 28.