Issue 1/2021 - Geschichte reparieren

Racism, Normative Model of White Hubris

About the Organized „Disarming of the Subjugated “

Gislind Nabakowski

In Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky describes “ten principles of concentration of wealth and power” in the USA. Beginning in 2016, initially during Reagan’s presidency, and increasingly after Trump was elected as the country’s 45th president, neoliberal policies based on private-sector profit accumulation once again mushroomed to a disastrous degree. Chomsky found America’s decline particularly striking after overseas trips. Once democratic structures in education, health care, and social services were decaying. Poverty caused by deregulatory monetary policies marginalized broad swathes of the population. Racism and right-wing extremism gained ground. There was denial of environmental damage across the country, vital climate goals, and even the coronavirus pandemic. Summer 2020 saw the largest revolt in decades, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, when Black Lives Matter took in the streets to protest against systemic racism and rapid-fire lies from law enforcement agencies.
Trump’s rhetoric was grounded in fakes and lies that he drew on when invoking America’s greatness. For radical democrat Chomsky, the “Make America great again” dream as a political model with a slapstick twist always refers to agreements and mirages of national myths and deeply rooted structures of displacement: “The United States was a settler-colonial society, the most brutal form of imperialism. You’d need to overlook the fact that you’re getting a richer, freer life by virtue of decimating the indigenous population, the first great “original sin” of American society; and massive slavery of another segment of the society, the second great sin.”1 Permanently blotting out mercantile motivations, the political norms of the history of displacement also reactivated the innocence-laden myths riddled with superiority peddled by “White Supremacy”.
Towards the end of his legislative term, President Trump and much of the Republican Party consistently refused to acknowledge the Democrats’ election victory after 3rd November 2020. For months he bluffed about the purportedly “stolen election”. On 6th January 2021, he incited a gang of rioters to storm the Capitol. The Trump mob’s incendiary script ran along the lines of cynical endorsement of racism. Terror against the House ensued. Marauding and vandalism occurred inside the building. “It’s gonna be wild”, the then still-president had tweeted shortly before, stirring up his followers.
A little later, the media made out various chaos-oriented groups among those destroying all around them: racists, nationalists, militia, fundamentalist evangelicals, Oath Keepers spreading conspiracy myths that the Democrats were allegedly “Marxist and Islamic”, QAnon supporters, Groyper Army, Bad Boys, and others. Occupiers wearing red Trump caps snapped selfies with great gusto. State property was carried away as stolen goods, including the Confederate War Flag, proclaiming racism and slavery. Trashy fetish gear sported campaign slogans like “Bullshit 2020” and “Keep America great again”. Bodies also became violent advertisements in anti-Semitic T-shirts (“Auschwitz Camp”). Yells rung out as TV equipment was smashed.
In many ways, the decline of hippiedom was reframed. While Euro-American media lurched from side to side seeking to interpret the images, Joseph Pierce, Cherokee Nation Citizen and LGBTQ, had already presented an entirely ironic response. In Pierce’s view, the guy seized by the FBI, with the US colours painted across his face, not to mention buffalo horns, fur hat, and eagle feathers, was not an “old Norse Viking”. Instead, the iconographic folklore of the “white supremacy invasion” springs from the murky legacy of the neo-Romantic 19th century. A manifestation of “martial masculinity” staged as indigenous “Native American heritage” yet “playing Indian” in costume.2

Philosophy of Violence
Although French feminist and philosopher Elsa Dorlin’s book Self-Defense. A Philosophy of Violence3 spans the 18th century to the present, it is not a systematic historical discourse. As a more transcultural study, it attempts a mapping, based on more constellational thinking, to illuminate the economies of racist killings. Fundamentally comparable patterns (for example, lynching in the United States and the sadistic display of tortured people in French-occupied Algeria) are explored as anthropological constants.
It is emphasised that a large part of the interviews archived represent those on the winning side, which is why racism often first has to be cut out of the picture. The text encompasses illegitimate and unlawful “evidence” of the prevailing reversal of the burden of proof as numbering among the typical patterns found in accounts from victims. In the USA (and elsewhere), police officers who murder Black people claim to have been assaulted – although increasingly witnesses and videos recording the evidence quite clearly state the exact opposite. Indeed, as many examples demonstrate, the Black people in question were mostly unarmed. How did this “white paranoia” (Judith Butler) come about? How did exaltation of the white race become inscribed in the nooks and crannies and indeed in the automatisms of everyday life and in legal systems? That, ultimately, is the million-dollar question.
To cite Dorlin’s sober formulation of her core argument, “cultural divisions” still prevail between subjects deemed “worthy” of defending themselves or being defended, on the one hand, and “other bodies” (including, for example, women, migrants, workers), who are only forced into defensive tactics because they are not authorised to defend themselves. The latter only survive if they empower themselves to “self-defence”. This “two-edged sword” as the most effective dimension of racial and sexist hegemony is another cogent argument that the text presents in opposition to unequal testimonies of self-defence.
An 1853 decree prohibited slaves in the United States from owning simple writing implements, pens, and pencils. In imperial contexts, however, systematic use of weapons was authorised for colonists. Comparable rules applied to French settlers in Algeria as a ruling elite. Due to the sharp “demarcation line” that discriminates against the value of non-whites, offences committed by Black people are often tantamount to an “attack on the ruling class” in the eyes of the justice system. In that scenario, democracy is not a self-evident part of lived experience.
This also allows for a partial explanation of acts of hyperactivity and phantasmagorias of racial aggression. The text describes what is known as the “kissing case”, involving an eight-year-old white girl, Sissi Sutton, in North Carolina; in 1958 she told her mother that she had kissed a Black playmate on the cheek. The family immediately gathered an armed mob that headed to the Black neighbourhood intending to lynch the boy, his friend, and his mother. The Ku Klux Klan joined the fray. Although the story was based on the collective phantasm of the Black rapist, the consequences for the under-age teenager and the Black community were catastrophic.
While commonplace life experience of not being authorised to defend yourself as a Black person under attack forms part of the tragic patterns and dispositives of class, race, and gender, the impact of slavery continues to have an impact. Again and again, Dorlin makes clear that the past is thus part of the present, a tipping point, a return to the violence of the unconscious. Colonialism as an “eternal piece”?
One of the text’s strengths lies in the way in which it puts itself in the shoes of the victims of human rights violations. Dorlin’s text openly displays compassion. As the title states (reinforced by the book cover), she also turns her attention to “buried combat ethics of the self”, pro-active instances of self-defence. She enumerates care situations and active rebellion with great precision. Dorlin cites historical moments of self-defence, though later re-interpreted: the slave revolts, the Amazon armies in the French Revolution, the internationalist suffragettes trained in jiu-jitsu in London clubs who played cat-and-mouse with the police while pursuing their right to vote, the Black Panthers of the 1960s, and later queer vigilante patrols. The 1943 Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto was a “thanatoethics” of impotence. Defying the Nazis’ biopolitics, those involved opted for armed struggle rather than suicide. This act of desperation bore witness to “the free world” in order not to be slaughtered without putting up any resistance.
When the Truman Doctrine established the Cold War in 1947, the NAACP4, the oldest association protecting the civil rights of the black U.S. population, alarmed by lynchings, sent a petition to the United Nations that, as Dorlin affirms, “met with an immense response”. In 1947 the core message of “self-protective rage” was that “the threat to the United States comes less from Russia than from Mississippi”. Dorlin’s book does not (yet) address the struggles of the Black Lives Matter riots during summer 2020, largely because it was already published in France in 2017. Her polemic concerning a renaissance of decolonisation went to print before President Trump’s era of protectionist backlash.


Translated by Helen Ferguson


[1] Noam Chomsky, Requiem for the American Dream. The 10 Principles of the Concentration of Wealth and Power. New York 2017
[2] Joseph Pierce, Op-ed, 18th January, 2021;
[3] Elsa Dorlin, Se Defendre: Une philosophie de la violence, Paris 2017 (English translation forthcoming via Verso Books: Self-Defense. A Philosophy of Violence).
[4] National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909.