Elite White Men Ruling and Reducing Democracy

Bank of AmericaUnusual numbers of photos of elite white men are still in the news lately, since the our popular-vote-losing President Donald Trump has filled his cabinet and coteries of advisors with them. Most are from the right wing of the ruling white male elite, and that elite clearly remains in full power, as it has for att least four centuries in this country.

Indeed, in a recently published book Kimberley Ducey and I lay out the many ways in which the elite-white-male dominance system is central to the United States. It is, in effect, a triple societal helix linking together three major systems of social oppression: systemic white racism, systemic sexism (heterosexism), and systemic classism (capitalism). It is odd that no one yet, to my knowledge, has featured the whiteness or white-maleness of these capitalistic malefactors of wealth as a central feature of the often life-devastating economic, social, and political problems we still face globally. One can be sure that if these agents of mass social destruction were women or men of color that the reality of their gender and racial characteristics would be a constant topic of conversation by pundits and politicians, especially in the mainstream media. (To my knowledge there is only one serious academic research study that has ever interviewed a large sample of elite white men on their racial or gender views, one I did with two sociology colleagues. It appeared a few years back in a major Beacon Press book, White Men on Race.)

Come to think of it, elite white men (they named themselves “white” in the 17th century) created the modern Western (now much of the world) economic system. They created the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Or should we say, the Predatory Ethic and the Spirit of Exploitation. Arrogant greed and desire for European male dominance seem to be major motivations (and emotions!) behind the labor and land expropriation and exploitation euphemized by historians as “overseas exploration” and “settlement.” Certainly, powerful white men created, expanded, and maintained the often genocidal taking of millions of indigenous peoples’ lands in the Americas and the Holocaust-like Atlantic slave trade. Mostly white men created the oppressive realities of modern capitalism and North American slavery, and have made huge profits and wealth off of it, now passed along to their descendants, to the present day.

In recent centuries, elite white men have caused much death and destruction, probably more than any other elite group on the planet. White men are certainly not the only major sources of “democide” and related despotism, but they do seem to lead the list. (Consider not only the many indigenous genocides and Atlantic slave trade, but the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, Hiroshima atomic bombing [Its anniversary was yesterday]and Nagasaki atomic bombing, two massive world wars). While elite white men are not alone in such actions, the consequences of their actions have usually been more far-reaching, especially for the planet in general (for example, ongoing and soon massively destructive climate change) than have those of despotic not-white actors.

White men set up the Western legal systems reinforcing modern capitalism and North American genocide targeting millions of indigenous Americans and enslavement of millions of African Americans. They created the dominant white racial frame to explain and rationalize these often savage operations. That white racial frame is a dominant worldview that most white men, especially elite white male leaders, are still operating out of as they today exploit and oppress the world’s majority, the more than 80 percent of the planet that is not white.

And it was these elite white men, together with their white male acolytes, who reinvigorated a strong white-patriarchal frame, with its “great chain of being” notions (God at top, then angels, then European men, then European women, then “other races,” then animals, etc.). In the North American case, they easily extended this great-chain conceptual system to the racial oppression they had devised for Native Americans and African Americans.

These elite white men, centuries ago and now, generally see themselves as heroic and virtuous, even as they have created great destruction and misery for many people. Ronald Takaki speaks of this view of white men as centered on “virtuous republicans.” Note that in this centuries-old process most white men have had little sense of their own weakness and venality, but generally accented their virtues. Today, as in earlier centuries, most white men generally do not see their group’s major weaknesses, major errors, and frequent unvirtuousness. They certainly do not like to admit error. Indeed, elite and other white men now often blame the victims of their actions, as in the case of this white male commodity trader who blamed homeowners and moaned about “losers” with troubled mortgages, and not the banks now being bailed out with billions for playing the central role in creating the housing crisis.

So we seem to be moving today to what may well be a second “Great Depression” in this country’s history, yet this time one that is more than just economic, but is social, political, and political-economic in its downward anti-egalitarian spiral. We see omens of this in the array of reactionary elite white men tapped by our vote-minority president Donald Trump (he did not come close to winning a majority of voters) for his cabinet. The arrogant racial, class, and gender framing and related actions, current and future, of these and a few thousand other elite white men have yet to be problematized and examined thoroughly as the major “social problem” of our era. Indeed, to my knowledge, no such thorough racial, class, and gender examination has ever occurred in our mainstream media and other mainstream public discussions in this society. It simply is not possible to problematize the white male ruling group, as they have too much control to allow for significant problematization.

The still dominant white racial frame is more than a negative framing of the racial “others” in order to legitimate white racial oppression. At its very center, it positively and strongly accents white virtuousness, especially white male virtuousness. It has a dramatic arrogance about what is virtuous and what is not, about who is virtuous and who is not, and about where and when there virtue is exhibited. It assumes that an arrogant greed, a predatory spirit, an overarching patriarchism means white men should be at the head of society–that is, should be masters of the social universe.

Yet, it is the lack of virtue of a great many elite white men that has gotten much of planet Earth into this downward anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian spiral. This lack of virtuousness can be observed in their egocentric racial, class, gender framing — and in their greed, their lack of social intelligence, their lack of foresight, and thus their lack of public-regardingness. For example, a careful report on the “financial crisis and the systemic failure of academic economics” (by mostly European economists) makes quite clear the failure of the (substantially white male) economics profession to research and interpret the last global financial crisis called the “Great Recession.”

Why blame elite white men? Well, the men who have given us global economic crisis after global economic crisis have been overwhelmingly white and “educated,” often from leading universities, but not very good at egalitarian and justice thinking or in regard to the ethics of the “commons.” Then, there is the white collar crime, or at least corruption, that many have engaged in—which is for most rarely discussed in mainstream media. White collar crime and other corruption, economic and political, is usually pushed to margins of public discussion because this is the kind of behavior dominated by white men, especially elite white men. Such actions are often seen as not criminal, as normal, in part because white men wrote the laws about what is “abnormal” and “serious” crime. They decided what is to be punished, and how much. Thus, in recent economic “recessions,” millions of people have lost their homes, jobs, incomes, and pensions, yet we rarely see elite white male capitalists called-out, targeted, photographed, or treated as criminals whose greed or corruption has stolen or otherwise savaged lives–unlike hundreds of people of color who get such treatment by the mainstream media weekly.

Why blame elite white men? A reason, again, is that elite white men mostly control the major mass media corporations, and thus control how white men and their corruption get portrayed in society. They are the ones who force media portrayals of economic, political, and other social crises as situations for which “we are all responsible,” a crisis “no particular group” created. Yet, there are real people, real white male actors, who did in fact create many horrific inegalitarian realities that much of the world now faces.

In one of the most brilliant commentaries in the literature on racial matters, Chapter one of the Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois foregrounded the ways in which African Americans had come to be defined as a societal “problem”:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? … I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience. . . .

So let us now instead define elite white men as the problem when it comes to many matters of contemporary societal oppression, societal inequality, human rights, and human survival.

Then, obviously but quite daunting, the next difficult step is figuring out how to organize and change all this, and thereby create a real democracy in this country and elsewhere, one where people of all backgrounds do have major input into and control of their economic and political institutions, and thereby of their lives.

The March for Women: Kingian Perspectives

As I make plans and preparations to attend the March for Women in Washington DC this Saturday with my teenage daughter—with controversy already swirling around it—I find guiding wisdom studying the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King reminds us that doing what is morally right is often not easy, comfortable or convenient. Well, my daughter does not much like crowds, and we will be getting up at 5am and being on our feet all day, but we’ve done just as much for something more frivolous such as a family vacation. No, the discomfort I believe King spoke of is much less superficial, and much more permanent. Not the discomfort to our bodies, but hurt and pain on our hearts and souls. The kind of reproach and rebuke that might come from someone whose opinions of us we care about, maybe even those we love. Or those with whom we might have marched shoulder to shoulder, whose causes with whom we may have been aligned, under better circumstances.

King is known for being a leader—one of many leaders in the civil rights movement—and I have been awed and inspired by this new generation of leaders who are engaging with the March. Several brave women appear to be living by some of the more difficult Kingian teachings, illuminating the difficulties and complexities of the “long arc” of justice that King described. Not knowing what they did not know, initial organizers first termed the event the “Million Woman March,” but rightly backpedaled and withdrew this title once it was pointed out to them that African American women in Philadelphia marched under this name in 1997. Heated Facebook discussions ensued between women about the long history of race and class tension within the feminist movement in the US, amidst reorganization and broadening of the March’s focus and policy platform to incorporate better not only women of color, but all marginalized and oppressed human beings.

It is difficult to put in words the courage one must summon to accept correction and rebuke and remain engaged in solidarity with others. It is much easier to withdraw and take comfort in those who you perceive will not challenge you. When someone is already feeling wounded, they may understandably take the simpler road for a time until they can build up the strength to engage once more. For example, I have written elsewhere (in my Whites Confront Racism and in Doane & Bonilla-Silva’s White Out about the courage and humility needed to stay on a lifelong path of white antiracism. It is not a path for the faint of heart. You will be called out more than you know. Those who feel like they are doing something special by just showing up will be in for a rude awakening. The courage it takes to say, yes, I made a mistake—not in private by yourself, but with others watching—taking responsibility and walking forward to redress one’s wrongs, is not for everyone. But King’s words can serve as a blueprint and moral compass for such a crossroads:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends [and] Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.

Some who originally wanted to March have now withdrawn, saying they no longer felt “welcomed.” King rightly points out that being deserted and by potential allies is the “greatest betrayal”—much more so than those who we did not expect to support us anyway.

I am inspired by Lena Gardner, a Black Lives Matter group’s co-founder in Minneapolis, who when interviewed by NPR about the March and asked whether she was hopeful or skeptical about it, answered “both-and.” Gardner stated:

We’ve been out in the streets marching for years. And a lot of white people haven’t been there with us. And now, suddenly, they feel like it’s really important that they come out. So are you marching because you’re upset because you didn’t get your way, or are you marching because you recognize that your life and your liberation is connected to mine now? And I think there’s a long way to go between those gaps. But in my work in the past two years, I’ve seen it happen. So I have hope that it’ll happen for some people. I know it’s not going to happen for everyone. But all I can do, again, is meet people halfway and say welcome to this work. It’s really hard. It’s really difficult, and there are no certain answers.

Gardner appears to be taking the first step to which King refers in this quote: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” It would be much easier for Gardner to retreat to a safe haven, to retreat to where she knows she feels more accepted, more whole. Instead, she models what Dr. King describes in this quote about courage:

Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.
[I thank Rev. Travis Harris for bringing the above quote and the one about silence to my attention in his recent sermon on 1/15/17. See http://www.wmbrgblacklivesmatter.org]

The organizers of the March, from the current state of their website, explicitly cite Kingian principles of nonviolence as their guiding vision. They rightly characterize nonviolence as “courageous” (don’t mistake kindness for weakness!), and note that “defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.” Their vision mirrors that of Dr. King, when he says:

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.

King’s wisdom resonates today as clear and as urgent and as relevant as it ever was. The road is not easy, but you dust yourself off, get up again, and do the work, because we all sink or swim together. Ultimately, cutting part of the human family off is not going to get any of us where we want to go.

When the world around you seems to be calling for business as usual–amidst cruelty, lies, and disregard for your human dignity–what is the morally upright course of action? King tells us it is to keep showing up, keep speaking up, and never keep silent, because “the day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.” The Women’s March aims to “join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore.” It is surely a day that will make Dr. King proud, for it will be the result of struggles both internal and external, emerging victoriously knowing that it is precisely our differences that is our strength.

Burkini Ban: Racialization of Muslim Women’s Bodies

For most of my life, I’ve traveled between the US and the Middle East. During the school year, my neighbors and friends were devout Christians in Texas. In the summers, I socialized with my extended family and friends who were equally devout Muslims in Egypt. Each society believed the other oppressed its women. Both based these conclusions on the covering or uncovering of women’s bodies.

My Christian friends often lamented how Muslim women must be subjugated under the headscarves and long gowns that they presumed were imposed on them by men. The hijab, in its various forms, corroborated the Orientalist critique that the Middle East had failed to modernize with the rest of the world. Meanwhile, my Muslim friends pitied American women for exposing so much of their bodies due to a presumed need to please men’s sexual desires in a patriarchal society. Bikinis and miniskirts was further proof that hedonism and materialism was subjugating women in Western society.

Thus, the current debate over Burkinis is just the latest iteration of a transnational fixation on women’s bodies in public debates over morality, modernity, and freedom — with a new twist. Women’s bodies are now at the center of national security anxieties. Weeks prior to the Burkini bans passed by over fifteen French cities, a French citizen killed eighty five people when he ploughed through a crowd in Nice. The tragedy understandably engendered debates on how to improve security in France.

But the perpetrator’s Muslim identity also unleashed collective punishment on France’s Muslim population, with a particular focus on women. Indeed, French controversy over Muslim women’s head coverings has surpassed purported claims to preserve laicite. What a woman wears now affects whether citizens feel safe from terrorism. That is, the very sight of a Burkini in France instills fear and anxiety among (non-Muslim) French citizens.

Such irrational fears are privileged over France’s proclaimed commitment to individual liberty, as the Muslim woman is denied her right to choose what to put on her body in a public beach. Instead of being viewed as an individual French citizen with liberty rights, she is a representative of a group held in contempt solely for its religious affiliation.

The Burkini controversy in France, however, is not much different than the culture wars over abortion in America. Nor is it dissimilar to cultural family honor codes in Muslim majority countries. In America, women’s bodies are at the center of moral debates about life, death, and morality. If a woman becomes pregnant, her choice as to whether to carry the fetus to full term is not a matter of private liberty. Rather, it is at the center of a heated public debate about when life begins and murder occurs. As lawsuits and media campaigns contest these issues, American women’s bodies are transformed into passive vessels. The latest chapter in this culture war was recently on full display when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that shut down fifty percent of the state’s abortion clinics.

Similarly, in many Muslim majority countries, women shoulder the burden of preserving the family’s reputation and honor in society. If her clothing or behavior signals a lack of morals or sexual promiscuity, the entire family’s reputation is tarnished. All the while, her male relatives are often given a free pass if they violate religious tenets. Thus, what a woman places on her head, face, and body are a matter of public concern in a patriarchal society. While most Muslim-majority societies enforce these rules through cultural practices, Saudi Arabia and Iran have codified into law women’s dress codes in public—much like the French city laws banning the Burkini.

Women in both Eastern and Western societies face multiple coercive measures—through law, religious precepts or social pressures—to manage their bodies in ways that appease patriarchal norms. Whether the fight is over a woman’s reproductive organs or her hair, the latest Burkini ban controversy shows that the fixation on women’s bodies traverses continents. Until women’s bodies are no longer the political footballs in policy debates that hold little regard for a woman’s individual liberty, gender oppression will remain a transnational problem.

Sahar Aziz is a professor of law at Texas A&M University School of Law and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. She is the author of From the Oppressed to the Terrorist: Muslim American Women Caught in the Crosshairs of Intersectionality

This article first appeared in The New Arab and is reprinted here by permission.

U.S. Sex Trafficking: Hidden Ramifications of Systemic Racism

On the way home from teaching while attempting to evade the headache that comes from interaction with the average southern California driver, I thought a little music would help me to relax from a day filled with attempts to connect theory to brain, I hit the power button. Instead of the musicality of calm, the deep chest bumping beats of some rapper I had no idea existed was in the midst of some diatribe falsely immersed in wealth, power, and masculinity. Listening and simultaneously keeping my eyes on the road while blindly reaching to change the channel, I could not help but pick up on the overdone theme.

(Image source)

The lyrical artist was drawing a colorful linguistic picture which depicted him as a “pimp” engulfed in “hos,” and luxury. As the new satellite radio station took over the airway in my car, the serenity that ensued “got me a thinkin.’” How have terms such as pimp and ho become so cavalier within our vernacular? How have popular depictions of these terms become so common on our flat screens and within the digital tracks of our CDs? I ask because one cannot escape the glamorization lapidated lyrics of celebrated musical artists transferred through radio waves. The jokes told, amongst those you feel free to divulge your hidden social irresponsibility—“What do you tell a Hooker with 2 black eyes? Nothing you have already told her twice.” Or how about the television dramas and comedies that find a way to make it OK to laugh, while concurrently publicly scorning and blaming the women for their misfortune. The deep thinking caused my stomach to turn and my black brow to curl.

It is evident to me that behind the romanticized representation of pimps, men (loosely applied term of identification…ok, correction…scum) who control women through fear, violence, manipulation, and intimidation; and the proceeding life of the women they prey upon, deserve no glorification. Within a dark world few are willing to broach through legislative action or socially responsible research within the academy, there exists not only human injustice, but also racial injustice.

Though secrecy, unwillingness of victims to come forward, and the all-around nature of sex trafficking, the U.S. State Department notes that we must be cautious when referring to the exact numbers of incidences. But for the sake of conceptuality, it is important to understand the depth of the issue. For example, those trafficked into the U.S., the U.S. State Department stated that roughly 600,000 to 800,000 victims annually cross international borders worldwide. A majority are girls and women, and about half of these victims are younger than 18 years-of age.

Within the U.S., Polaris, a human trafficking advocacy group, noted that for those reported to their organization, 1 in 6 were endangered runaways that were more likely to have been victims of sex traffickers. The economy surrounding the topic is astounding. In 2014, it was reported that cities such as Denver and Atlanta gained 39.9 and 290 million respectively from sex trafficking. In terms of U.S. victims, the Department of Justice reported in 2011 that known cases of sex trafficking victims whose race was known, 40.4, 25.6, 23.9, 5.8, and 4.3 percent were Black, White, Latino, Other, and Asian respectively. For those victims arrested for sex offenses, 55 percent of were Black children. Some have argued the economic angle to describe this occurrence. The Urban Institute reported that when traffickers were interviewed, they overwhelmingly understood that this business is consumer driven. In fact, the demand regulates heavily toward White women. They again understood the economic gain of utilizing all women, especially White women who could yield the highest economic gain. But if caught by law enforcement, they also agreed that by trafficking only in Black women their sentences would be shorter.

The fact that millions of international and national adult women and children (males and females) are exploited, sold, kidnapped, raped, manipulated, at times brained like cattle, beaten, and emotionally scarred should be enough for us to be pursue vigilant activities toward eradicating the trade. But the silence related to the topic is deafening. The lack of real effort regarding sex trafficking occurring within the U.S. does not baffle me one little bit. First, we have a history of ignoring the plight of children and women. Historically, women treated as property and the rate of physical abuse children is not uncommon to the pages of US history. Neither are the ramifications of systemic racism. In relation, the lack of overwhelming public concern toward Black females is not abnormal.

From the rape and medical experimentation performed on enslaved Black women by white “doctors” such as the father of modern gynecology, J. Marion Sims, who without anesthesia performed ghastly experiments to the recent discovery of forceful eugenic sterilization of Black girls and women in North Carolina are all illustrations that lend explanation to the current lack of light shined upon said the current injustice.

Looking back now, I even wonder why I wrote this piece. I am conscious enough to know I made no major blow to foil this dastardly deed of exploitation. What did I do? Maybe I simply informed those who have no information. All I can really hope for is that maybe, just maybe the next time you hear someone call themselves a “pimp” and someone a “ho” in a passing exaltation, you will awaken from reverie to a state of revulsion and outrage.

~ Terence Fitzgerald, PhD, Ed.M, MSW, is Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California (San Diego Academic Center).