The West is in freefall.
Liberal-democratic institutions have suffered a near-fatal blow in the United States; Europe, caught leaderless as the United States vacates this position, is in disarray.
Three words have come to define this moment: I can’t breathe.
These devastating words — spoken by George Floyd, Eric Garner and the legion of Black men and women killed by the U.S. state in a series of murders stretching right back to the nation’s founding — rebounded around the world.
Black people, supported by a multi-racial array of supporters, erupted in outrage across the United States at Floyd’s killing; they were soon joined by Black people, people of colour and other protesters who rose up in solidarity around the world. The endurance of the protests ignited by these three words ensure that the racial politics that have shaped the West during the second half of the 20th century — a thin veneer of racial liberalism atop a solid base of white power and privilege — are now no longer sustainable.
That anti-Black racism is a structuring feature of U.S. society has long been argued by Black intellectual-activists, from Ida B. Wells to W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Angela Davis to Hortense Spillers and Stacey Abrams. From slavery to Jim Crow to the mass incarceration facilitated by the “war on drugs,” the racial structure of the United States has been “redesigned,” not eradicated.
Indeed, the actions of the four members of the Minneapolis police force involved in the killing of George Floyd, like those of the officers who stopped Sandra Bland and those who choked Eric Garner, attest to the endurance of the violence of the “Killing State,” that is, the state that uses violence, capital punishment and mass incarceration not to punish individuals but to subjugate the Black population in general.
Similarly, the actions of Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park on the day of Floyd’s killing, were on a spectrum with those of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin and speak to the “civic” practice of lynching that continues to structure the bond between white citizens and this killing state.
The present racial subjugation of African-Americans — poverty, ghettoization, mass incarceration — reproduces the dehumanization of Blackness as a cornerstone of American society. This phenomenon helped shape the three-pronged racial formation that is settler colonialism in North America: the extension of rights and entitlements to white nationals; the genocide and dispossession of Indigenous peoples; the enslavement of peoples of African descent and the indentureship and racial subjugation of people of colour to build armies of cheapened labour. All were interlinked in the making of race as a global structure of power.
The white supremacist politics that instituted this order were, however, made untenable by the early 20th-century anti-colonial movements and the political upheavals of the Second World War. In the case of the United States, this upheaval soon included the rise of Black nationalism and the civil rights movement, and the opposition mobilized by the anti-Vietnam war, left, feminist and “new” social movements.
This changing political climate in the 1960s drove the transformation of the United States into a racial liberal-democracy. U.S. political culture became more complex as a result of the inclusionary civil rights instituted by the state, such that increased immigration and multiculturalism became the official response to the nation’s “race question.”
That this form of racial inclusion helped marginalize and counter the radical anti-racist politics emanating from the ground-up was no small consideration. The resulting liberalization of the racial structure did not put an end to, but rather incorporated, the use of the deadly force of the state along with the promise of inclusion to govern Black, Indigenous and other people of colour in a highly asymmetric socio-economic structure.
The white supremacist response to these developments within the United States would later be seen in the culture wars of the 1990s, with the university and the media among the preeminent sites for many public battles. Republicans, as well as Democrats, took on the management of this racial rearrangement by tilting to the right when possible and then to the left as needed.
Neither party rooted out the white supremacist tendencies within the population or in their own ranks, nor did they end the public scapegoating and terrorizing of peoples of colour. Instead, the political establishment accommodated itself to the incorporation of elite sectors of Black and other peoples of colour into racial managerial positions, including into the nation’s higher echelons.
This, then, is the “liberal-democracy” now being upended by the white-resentment that fuels and sustains the Trump presidency; this scion of a profiteering landlord rode the waves of anti-Black racism, the “Muslim ban,” and the demonization of migrants as rapists and drug dealers right into the White House.
Trump’s political ascendance began with the birther movement which questioned Obama’s citizenship on the basis of his father being Kenyan, the issue of Obama’s birth certificate became a focal point for the Tea party’s mainstreaming of the white backlash against his presidency. Ta-Nehisi Coates famously called Trump “the First White President,” his point being that here was the first U.S. president with nothing other than his whiteness to qualify him for the position.
If birtherism rendered suspect Barack Obama’s citizenship, it also rendered illegitimate his entire presidency by constructing him as a closeted Muslim. In an inverse racial logic, the birther movement rendered legitimate Trump’s suitability for the presidency on the basis of his white supremacist politics and ideology.
The point here is that Trump was hardly an anomaly in terms of the nation’s racial politics, as many historians were quick to point out. Rather, a white supremacist administration was a long time in the making.
For a powerful sector of the U.S. corporate elite linked to the radical right as well as the “free-market” conservatives who opposed “big government” was sponsoring and funding the racial counter-revolution during the closing decades of the 20th century. Their aim was to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement and defeat the liberalism that dominated state institutions by destroying social programs, labour rights and health and environmental protection regulation.
The endeavour had gained traction during the Reagan presidency, its racial investments continued apace with the multicultural trajectory within national politics that eventually brought about the election of president Obama. The creation and promotion of the Tea party to harness white racial resentment across classes would become the vehicle to political domination.
This counter-revolution now has control of the presidency and has transformed the U.S. political landscape for the foreseeable future. However, it is not enough to study these developments in terms only of the nation’s changing domestic politics. For these “internal” shifts have been simultaneous with, and are structurally connected to, a far-reaching transformation of the international order. Uncannily, the remaking of the international order was also inaugurated by three words, only these emanated from the highest levels of the U.S. state: unlawful enemy combatant.
These three words were institutionalized by the Bush administration to launch the “war on terror”; they transformed the international juridical order by unleashing a series of invasions, wars and occupations that also spoke to the foundational violence of the West. The newly minted category — unlawful enemy combatant — remade the figure of the Muslim, Black and brown, into that of the “terrorist,” now a threat to “humanity” itself.
These three words destroyed the idea that the rule of law, such as it was, should prevail in international relations. Instead, the category sanctioned violence as the modality of governance for Muslims, in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also within the West itself and in other parts of the world.
Along with these wars and occupations, vigilante violence became the reality for brown and Black bodies, that is, Muslims and those who “look like” them, as the nation-states of the Western alliance calibrated their domestic and foreign policies at the nexus of militarization and securitization. But despite amassing the unprecedented military, political, financial and cultural resources of the alliance against “radical Islamic terror,” the United States ended up lurching from one monumental disaster to another in the global war.
The political and social infrastructure was destroyed in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, with hundreds of thousands killed, maimed and displaced.
Despite this, the Taliban remained defiant, eventually forcing the United States to the negotiating table; in Iraq, the occupation gave rise to the Islamic State and with its defeat, strengthened the influence of Iran, Turkey and Russia in the region. With the entire Middle East plunged into further chaos by these new occupations which also compounded the occupation of Palestine, proxy wars, coups and counter-revolutionary movements (secular as well as Islamist) enabled the Western-backed regimes to refortify their authoritarian rule by squelching the liberatory possibilities of the Arab awakenings.
These momentous shifts have sparked waves of migration that transformed the Mediterranean into a mass grave as Europe responded by shutting down its borders. For the hundreds of thousands of Black/brown bodies fleeing the catastrophic violence, environmental collapse, and poverty that has been wrought by Western wars and imperialist aggression, the desperate bid to enter Europe offered the only lifeline. Even now, two decades after its invasion of Afghanistan, the Western alliance remains unable to contain the consequences of the conflicts which it so cavalierly escalated.
This inability of the U.S.-led alliance to win its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is a vital factor feeding the white supremacist rage that is now remaking the western political culture; the contribution of these failures to the 2016 electoral fortunes of Donald Trump cannot be underestimated.
While his winning slogan, Make America Great Again, spoke to the economic consequences of neoliberalism for the “left-behind” white masses in the United States, it also spoke to the diminished stature of the United States on the global stage, a process that began with the lies that were peddled in the invasion of Iraq and escalated with the revelations of the Abu Ghraib torture.
While the United States’ loss of status was somewhat mitigated during the Obama presidency with its multicultural administration, this was not to be regained any time soon, despite Obama’s personal popularity around the world. Indeed, his very popularity further enraged the Republican base into the white backlash that was Trump’s ticket to the White House.
Trump was, of course, rigidly confrontational in his racist statements, he was also unrelenting in his denigration of the idea of the rule of law, at the international or domestic level. Not surprising, he brought the generals who fought the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq right into the White House.
The linkages between the war on terror and the white supremacist activism, anti-Black racism and police violence have been palpably visible in the streets of the U.S. capital and the many other cities convulsed by the protests against the killing of George Floyd. The connections can be tracked at many levels.
They are evident in Trump’s threat to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to put the military on the streets of U.S. cities; his directive to the army and to the police to “dominate” the cities in which protestors came out in such large numbers; his labelling of anti-racist protestors as “terrorists”; his threat to set “vicious dogs” on protestors (recalling the “slave hunts” as well as the Abu Ghraib tortures); the use of humvees and other heavy vehicles, of military arsenal and battle fatigues, on the streets of Washington; the calling in of the National Guard and the stationing of combat troops outside Washington; the assault on protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets; the presence of unmarked para/military personnel on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the streets of Portland, Oregon; the Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters flying low over Washington; the imposition of nightly curfews on protest cities … the list goes on.
Such intermingling of military and police forces and functions within the territorial borders of the United States cannot be uncoupled from the use of these tactics in the war zones, the criticisms of Trump by military generals notwithstanding. Indeed, such criticism from the military brass itself reveals the depth of the linkages between the global war and anti-Black racism in the United States.
Whatever other considerations may be at work, the public condemnations by high ranking generals of the Trump administration’s use of the army in the presidential photo-op outside St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. undoubtedly stems from their alarm about this institution’s relation with the nation it supposedly serves, and in particular, with Black communities. The infamous photo-op jeopardized this relation to such a degree that the event has since been defined as “a debacle” not only for the White House but for the military itself.
It is certainly no secret that the U.S. army relies heavily on Black people, along with Native Americans and other people of colour, to fight the killing state’s wars around the world. With regard to the National Guards that were deployed in the nation’s capital (60 per cent of whom are people of colour), The New York Times reported that “… Black members of the D.C. guard objected to turning on their neighbors.”
Many admitted to feeling too “ashamed” to tell their families that they had been involved in dispersing the peaceful protests. More accustomed to being revered as “heroes,” these troops apparently found unnerving the experience of being confronted by relatives, friends and neighbors among the protesters. The last thing the military leadership would have wanted at that point was for these guards to refuse orders.
Consider also that people of colour make up 40 per cent of the military’s active troops and reserve pool. Here too one sees the fragility of the situation. A Black serviceman was reported by The New York Times to be “really distraught” at the events in Washington and CNN Pentagon reporter, Barbara Starr, reported that many Black servicemen were speaking out against anti-Black racism within the military establishment.
She quoted a Black general who described himself as “full with emotion” regarding “the many African-Americans that have suffered the same fate as George Floyd,” a comment which reflects how seriously these servicemen were being affected by the police violence. Read in light of these considerations, the military leadership’s criticisms of Trump that were lauded by liberals take on an entirely different hue. The consequences of such distress among Black servicemen and women is not entirely unforeseeable.
The hold of the military over Black, Native American and people of colour in service — and even more important, their buy-in to the system upon which the military depends — is crucial to U.S. operations around the world. Moreover, it is also well known that the U.S. military has been tolerant of the white supremacist recruits who join the army to acquire training, a fact not hidden from the Black and other people of colour alongside whom they serve.
Indeed, the army had to pull back a leaflet with Trump’s MAGA slogan — seen as “a possible indicator of covert white supremacist sympathies” — that was recently distributed in Alabama. Pushed to the limit by such practices in the present political climate, there can be little guarantee that Black, Native American and other soldiers of colour will remain loyal to whatever oaths they may have taken to protect a constitution that upholds the rights of white supremacists to arm themselves and patrol city streets; of the police to brutalize Black and other people of colour communities; of ICE to incarcerate migrants, including infants, in detention centers described as prisons and concentration camps; of corporations to condemn racialized communities to poverty, dispossession and environmental racism — rights that are to be overseen by the justices appointed to the Supreme Court by a white supremacist president.
The Trump administration’s decision to deploy Homeland Security, ICE, Federal Protective Service and unidentified military-style personnel to provoke violence at the BLM and related anti-racism protests in Portland and other cities suggests how deep may be the divide between the army and these other institutions within the state.
Moments of radical upheaval are moments of great peril. The seismic shifts in U.S. and global public opinion regarding anti-Black racism brought about by the Black Lives Matter movement is no small feat. The mass protests and demonstrations, in all their myriad forms, have put anti-Black racism, and racism more generally, on national agendas, not only in the United States but in the United Kingdom, Canada and across Europe, not to mention in many other parts of the world.
Reforms to policing — from banning chokeholds to revamped training, stronger oversight and even defunding — are being quickly adopted by liberal politicians to smooth things over. Meanwhile, political, social, academic and media institutions, along with corporations and unions, and religious and secular organizations, have now also hastily put together public statements of support for Black Lives Matter, whatever follow-up actions they may or may not take in the near future.
Yet a backlash against this demand for change is not outside the realm of possibility. The police are themselves rioting in certain cities. Radical conservatism has run amok; it is now deeply and explicitly entangled with the white supremacist politics that were considered beyond the pale even in the United States in the closing decades of the 20th century.
This racial turn has been decades in the making in the United States; it is hardly likely to retreat, even should the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, win the presidency in the upcoming election. Likewise, occupations, proxy wars and coups, like militarized border control and vigilante violence, have acquired greater public tolerance, if not overt support, in the West as a result of the war on terror.
The possibilities for the undoing of these interlinked forms of violence depend on a thorough dismantling of the white supremacy that remains global in scope.
The Trump administration has made starkly visible the two contending trajectories at play within U.S. nation formation: overt white supremacy and a reformist racial liberalism. Both are, however, deeply shaped by and intertwined within, the global structure of racial-capitalism. The war on terror has made visible the coloniality that continues to infuse Western liberal democracy as well as the genocidal violence that underpins the international order. The wars that sustain these formations are not over yet. Not in the United States. Not outside the United States.
The West is in freefall. How long and how low will it fall?
Sunera Thobani is a professor in the department of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia. She is working on an edited collection on coloniality and racial injustice in the university. This article originally appeared on Jadaliyya.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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