“How Liberalism and Racism Are Wed”

This is pretty amazing! Most of the critiques of liberalism that comes from conservatives I find totally unusable, as they are not sincere about helping the working and unemployed poor; and they are definitely not committed to helping people of color. But this sister, approaching it from a progressive perspective, is on point! In public education we are forced to run back and forth between these two camps (liberal-conservative), and our children never get to realize a viable finish line.

How Liberalism and Racism Are Wed
By George Yancy and Falguni A. Sheth
February 27, 2015; N.Y. Times

Falguni A. Sheth, an associate professor of philosophy and political theory at Hampshire College. She is the author of “Toward a Political Philosophy of Race.”

George Yancy: Can you discuss your own view of your “racial” identity and how that identity is linked to your critical explorations into the philosophical and political significance of race?
Falguni A. Sheth: Until 2001, I thought of my identity in terms of ethnicity rather than race. I was an immigrant, and in the American imaginary, immigrants were rarely discussed in terms of race. After September 11, 2001, I tried to reconcile what I saw as the profound racist treatment of people (often Arabs and South Asians) who were perceived as Muslim, with a politically neutral understanding of “racial identity,” but it didn’t work. That’s when I began to explore race as a critical category of political philosophy, and as a product of political institutions. The biggest surprise was my coming to understand that “liberalism” and systematic racism were not antithetical, but inherently compatible, and that systemic racism was even necessary to liberalism. Soon after, I read Charles Mills’s “The Racial Contract,” which supported that view.

G.Y.: In what ways do you see liberalism and systemic racism as complementary?

F.A.S.: There isn’t a simple link. I am seen as a brown woman, but also as racially ambiguous, which has its own set of problems, as Linda Alcoff discusses. Gender is a key component of racial identity. I suppose that if I were less racially ambiguous, I might have been affected by the Asian “model minority” myth, which identifies Asian women as “good” or “docile,” or “smart.” But to both whites and nonwhites (including South Asians), my visible, physical self doesn’t easily lend itself to that stereotype.
The political framework of liberalism, which promises equality and universal protection for ‘all,’ depends on people to believe those promises, so that racial discrimination, brutality, violence, dehumanization, can be written off as accidental … rather than part of the deep structure of liberalism.
Racial identity is also complicated by class: I went to a public high school in a mostly Irish- and Polish-American working-class town with a large emerging population of brown and black kids: Puerto Ricans, migrant kids of Mexican, Colombian, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Brazilian and Portuguese descent. I felt more comfortable there with the brown kids than I did in my middle-class grammar school composed almost entirely of white kids, many of whom, as I realized only as an adult, were racial bullies. To this day, I exhibit personality traits which are stereotypically “Jersey working class,” which make it rather awkward to fit into the “genteel academic” circles in which I often find myself these days.
Aside from the cultural hostilities that are foisted upon brown people, my non-ambiguous brownness sensitizes me to the vulnerabilities — the lack of rights, security, safety, legal protection — of being nonwhite in a polity that understands “good” and “deserving” members as being white and upper- or at least middle-class men and women. I remember my mother being treated roughly by police when she was in a traffic accident and again, their indifference when she was targeted by the “Dotbusters,” a self-appointed gang of racial nationalists that was assaulting Asian Indians in northern New Jersey in the late 1980s.
When I was finally granted an interview for U.S. citizenship in December 2000, I asked a relative to accompany me in the event that there was trouble. The interview was demanded by the government during the American Philosophical Association meetings in December 2000 (it was virtually impossible to renegotiate the appointment without a long, punishing, delay). Despite a heavy snowfall, we arrived an hour early. The I.N.S. interviewer was over an hour late in opening up the office, and cheerfully told me that I was lucky he had decided to show up. Conversationally and with a broad smile, he told me a series of stories about the various applicants he had had deported, even if they — like myself — had been in the United States since they were toddlers or infants, even if they knew no one from their countries of birth, and even if they stood to be in danger there. He emphasized how few protections immigrants had, and his message was: The United States will deport without a second thought, and hey, it’s the immigrant’s problem, not theirs.
Through such experiences, I have come to understand identity not as racial, but racialized, through populations’ relations, and vulnerability, to the state, which also is the basis of my book. The political framework of liberalism, which promises equality and universal protection for “all,” depends on people to believe those promises, so that racial discrimination, brutality, violence, dehumanization, can be written off as accidental, incidental, a problem with the application of liberal theory rather than part of the deep structure of liberalism.
Electing one, two, or even 50 politicians or hiring multiple bureaucrats of color doesn’t end systemic racial inequality or discrimination, although it does provide a convenient (if superficial) defense against charges of racism.
My book attempts to show that racism, racial exclusion, racial violence, is part and parcel of liberalism. For example, we see the exclusions in early liberal writings: In John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government,” he discusses the social contract and the equal opportunity to “earn” property for everyone, except the “lunatics and idiots,” women, and “savages.” The treatise also offers a “just war” theory of slavery. Locke helped write the “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina,” which afforded slave owners complete control over their slaves, alongside representative government. These key ideas are both, “compatibly,” in that document.

G.Y.: When you mention vulnerability to the state, I’m reminded of the American eugenics movement in the early 20th century. Is there a connection here? I’m also reminded of Michel Foucault’s concept of bio-power and its relevance within the American eugenics context. How does your work speak to this sort of policing of certain bodies?

F.A.S.: Certainly, that’s one example. Political vulnerability is intrinsic to any society, but the rhetoric of universal and equal protection conceals the systematic impulse to exclude certain populations at any given time. The groups who are vulnerable are subject to change, depending upon how threatening they are, and/or how useful it would be to those in power to discard them, In the early 1990s, the legal scholar Dorothy Roberts drew attention to how the bodies of American black women were policed. For example, if they were using drugs while pregnant, they were subject to being charged with crimes and thrown in prison. Vulnerability goes beyond bio-power.
Other examples include the internment of Americans, Peruvians and other Latin Americans of Japanese origin during the Second World War, or the deportation of Chinese migrants from the United States in the 1880s, and the disfranchisement of Asians from their United States-purchased land in the early 1900s. And needless to say, the wide-scale disfranchising of Muslims in the post-9/11 United States is but another recent example. In each of these cases, they are deprived of protections because they are perceived as threats in some way, and so they become — explicitly or not so explicitly — subject to laws intended to constrain, dehumanize, criminalize them. It is a gradual process, but they are increasingly vilified, demonized, dehumanized, which then rationalizes the move to strip them of protections under the mantle of “legality.” That is what my work explores.

G.Y.: Given the continuing racial tensions across the nation, how do you see these events as deep problems endemic to liberalism? Or, are such events just a “misapplication” of liberal theory?

F.A.S.: The charge of “misapplication” of liberal theory is, I think, a desire to see selectively — to see only the best possible articulation of liberalism. But liberal frameworks are fundamentally predicated on violence or on rationalizing its effects, such as the conquest of “terra nullius,” of justifying enslavement, or the privation of rights to “idiots,” “savages,” “women.” And it’s not just Locke’s theory that is a problem. Rousseau’s very beautiful “Social Contract” must be read alongside his novel, “Émile,” in which Sophie is raised to support Émile’s political existence as a true citizen. It is a remarkably sexist, if not misogynistic, understanding of women. But even more to the point, for Rousseau, these are not contradictory; they are rather compatible ideas.
While we can make corrections to “ideal” liberal theory, these corrections are at base additive. They don’t fundamentally restructure the foundation of liberal society — namely the promise of universal and equal protections alongside a systematic impulse to violence in the name of “civilizing” the heathens, or for the purposes of maintaining “law and order.” At base, this is what the killing of Michael Brown, and the ensuing encounters between the police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., have exposed: peace, safety, recognition of one’s humanity, law, order, rights will be doled out — or withheld — only in terms that allow those in authority, those with wealth, to remain comfortable. Consider the recent Supreme Court decision to allow restrictive voter ID requirements in Texas — which hurts the poorest citizens. But — and here’s the kicker — until we confront the repeated incidents of dehumanization as systematic, and not just a proliferation of accidental violations of humanity, we won’t be able to address or challenge the fundamental flaw of liberalism: the “compatibility” between the promise of universal protections for some groups, and violence for others.

G.Y.: The discourse of a “post-racial” and a “colorblind” America has been invoked since the election of President Obama. How do you see white power and white privilege as continuing to operate as sites of white sovereign authority?

F.A.S.: The idea of a “post-racial” United States is quite bizarre, but it seems to reflect a narrative of distraction: Electing one, two, or even 50 politicians or hiring multiple bureaucrats of color doesn’t end systemic racial inequality or discrimination, although it does provide a convenient (if superficial) defense against charges of racism. It also assumes that those politicians or functionaries are actively interested and focused — let alone “authorized” or empowered — to change racially problematic policies. In itself, that is a problematic assumption to make, since racism is systemic and deeply embedded in cultural outlooks, laws, ways of life, traditions.
The political philosopher Charles Mills’s understanding of white supremacy is useful here. Mills uses the term to note that the social contract is predicated on a racial hierarchy where whites are at the top, and blacks and nonwhites below. I want to clarify that, in terms of political institutions, “whiteness” is a category of power based on a general, but not universal, correlation between those in power and general racial identity. In my work, “whiteness” is not about any individual specifically but about groups in power, and it is negotiated and contoured by factors of gender, class, ethnic identity, and institutional and historical factors — such as how certain groups are understood at various moments.
In “post-racial” America, white supremacy continues by ensuring that those in bureaucratic, lawmaking, executive, policy-making functions continue to do what those in the top 5 percent — and others who benefit from white supremacy — need to remain on top: ensure that bankers are not punished; pretend that minorities weren’t duped into taking on subprime loans or balloon-payment mortgages; justify rampant invasive surveillance and warmongering in the name of national security; and arrest and detain immigrants — not just adults, but children! Laws and policies that support these events enable at least two things: the siphoning of money away from poorer, darker, vulnerable, vilified populations who have been subject to racism, violence, police brutality and a distraction from the real, everyday problems that affect those populations.
Even in “post-racial” America, the U.S. government has continued to wage war on Muslims and Arab populations: detainees still remain in Guantánamo Bay without charges. Some of them are still being force-fed, but the United States military deliberately no longer offers updates on their status; the current administration has created the “disposition matrix,” and expanded the drone program, which has killed hundreds, if not thousands of Yemeni, Somali and Pakistani civilians. And there is a noticeable absence of a reprimand for the most recent Israeli attacks on Gaza. There is vocal, visible support for these policies, not through invocations of racism but through appeals to national security or “helping bring democracy” to “backwards” regions, through justifications about saving “women and children” or innocent “civilians.” The institutional effect is that Muslims and Arabs and South Asians are still systematically suffering at a greatly disproportionate rate to any possible “transgressions.” It seems that “post-racial” America continues to racialize and dehumanize.

G.Y.: How does an epistemology of ignorance work within this context — in, for instance, the comparison between the experience of black Americans and Asian-Americans?

F.A.S.:As Mills has argued (and as many feminist philosophers and philosophers of race argue), pervasive racial inequality — understood within the frames of legal, social, political systems — persists because “whites themselves are unable to understand the world that they themselves have made.” Here’s what that looks like: “Slavery’s over. Why are we still discussing it? What does this have to do with poverty? After all, look at all those Asian immigrants: They’re not asking for handouts. They’re doing very well for themselves.”
But such a comparison ignores history and context: Asians who migrated post-1965 to 1985 were a different class of migrants. They were migrating as professionals, or for graduate study, and did not have a history of slavery in the United States, nor a vivid history of racism (ironically, because they were almost entirely prevented from migrating to the United States for 40 years, and therefore were largely invisible). They were not migrating on H1B-visas, as many South Asians do today (which restrict access to the full complement of economic and legal protections that permanent residents are eligible to receive). Such a comparison also doesn’t acknowledge that white wealth was built not only on the backs of black slaves, but on the backs of their “free” and mightily persecuted descendants, nor that whites as a group benefit from not being recipients of racist treatment. And of course, it neglects the very pointed goal of redlining, which was to block the entry of blacks into white neighborhoods, and thereby access to better schools for their children, among other benefits. It neglects the specific history of targeted harassment toward blacks, whether in the South, or after they migrated North, as Ta-Nehisi Coates details in his excellent Atlantic article about reparations.
And perhaps most importantly, such a comparison falsely focuses on poverty and wealth as a consequence of individual character, rather than as the result of policies that benefit those who already have, while hurting those who have little. This is why I think discussing racism as a “matter of the heart,” or individual cultural attitudes is useful but limiting. It inhibits us from considering systemic analyses, and thereby systemic solutions to systemic problems.

G.Y.: There are some theorists who continue to want to reduce race to class. My sense is that W.E.B. Du Bois was correct regarding his claim that even poor whites possess whiteness. Do you think that such a distinction has any relevance in our contemporary moment in American history?

F.A.S.: In “Black Reconstruction in America” (1935), Du Bois discussed the wages of whiteness paid to white workers by the Southern white bourgeoisie — through the vehicle of racial apartheid — in order to divide and conquer the working class, and get white and black workers to hate and fear each other, despite, as he says, “their practically identical interests.” There is certainly truth in the claim for today, but it also depends on context, geography, historical moment, and situation—and the racial perspectives of those in power.
Poor whites won’t be racially profiled by white police, or store clerks, or white or nonwhite landlords to the same degree as darker men across economic classes will be. Yet, thinking institutionally, because economic policies adversely impact those who are already disadvantaged, poor blacks and poor whites will both suffer that impact. However, those in power and positions of authority will most often blame working-class and poor blacks for various moral character flaws. We have seen it countless times: from Daniel Moynihan’s infamous 1965 report which traces poverty to character flaws of African-Americans to Ronald Reagan’s vilification of poor black women who then came to be referred to as “welfare queens,” to President Obama’s multiple admonitions to black men to be more responsible fathers. This is despite the fact that we have ample evidence illustrating that black men are incarcerated six times as often as white men, and that they suffer from racial profiling and discrimination and unfair laws like “stop and frisk,” which collectively inhibit them from finding employment, housing or economic success. Presumably, if poor blacks suffer from “character flaws,” then so do poor whites and other populations of color, but we rarely hear the same moral admonitions directed towards them.

G.Y.: Lastly, from what you’ve argued, engaging in a critical overthrow of white supremacy as a system will certainly involve a systemic approach. Yet, people of color must deal with virulent manifestations of white racism on an everyday basis, even enacted by “well-intentioned” whites.

F.A.S.: Certainly. Those, it seems to me, are but symptoms of institutional aggressions, manifestations of virulent racism that are expressed through the larger structures of our society. How can those aggressions disappear without the simultaneous coextensive reform of our larger juridical, legal institutions, federal laws and policies that, at some level, endorse and approve those micro-aggressions? While it is important to note those micro-aggressions, I think, reform, redress, has to occur at the macro-level, with policies that address socio-economic, political change. Many people take their cues from the laws under which they live; if the laws reflect respect and dignity, then…