As I’m sure you have heard by now, a militia group led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy have taken over a wildlife refuge in Oregon. They are armed and have vowed to stay there until their demands are met.
As the story hit social media, many quickly pointed out the double standards between the militia’s treatment and the treatment and framing of other protests across the country led by Black Lives Matter. Many of these pieces are outstanding think pieces and illustrate the fundamental difference white skin provides folks in this country. But this piece is not one of those.
This piece is not an analysis of racial double standards, not an examination of white privilege, and certainly not a piece meant to distance myself from my people in Oregon by making fun of the way they (may) speak by calling them “Y’all Qaeda”
This piece is about how whiteness works against both sides.
The militia, who call themselves “Citizens for Constitutional Freedoms” fundamentally believe they are entitled to certain freedoms and that the federal government is infringing on those freedoms. They are, as their name suggests, claiming what is Constitutionally theirs. They believe they are acting under the banner of patriotism. They are not wrong, and that is the problem.
One of the first things taught to high schoolers in Civics and Government classes across the country is that our democracy is the embodiment of a specific tradition: the Enlightenment. Specifically, we are taught that the English philosopher John Locke –who articulated life, liberty and property as natural rights– is responsible for laying the ideological framework of our country that “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.”
The obvious questions: didn’t they own slaves? What about the people already here? What about women? What about the poor? are often ignored or dismissed as rectified by future movements. What is not dealt with at all is the system of knowing which gives birth to this contradiction i.e. White Supremacy.
Charles Mills in his work The Racial Contract argues that the social contract, which is a fundamental aspect of the enlightenment, is actually a racial contract. That only wealthy white men could enter into the social contract and therefore be entitled to citizenship, its rights, and ultimately humanity. It is only by understanding the social contract as a racial one that we can make sense of committing genocide against an entire people or a contradiction like chattel slavery existing in a country that claimed all men were created equal. And it is the Racial Contract that helps us make sense of how working class and poor whites can take up arms and occupy a federal building to demand their constitutional rights (with the support of thousands across the country including politicians) while others– also poor, but mostly brown and Black– can protest and end up being ridiculed and demeaned across the country.
The ironic thing is, of course, that the Racial Contract’s benefits still mainly go to those it was originally intended to benefit: wealthy white men. Poor and working class whites are facing crippling poverty in every corner of the country. It is the Racial Contract that steers our anger and angst towards people of color. This divide and conquer is the life blood of the Racial Contract. Who needed trillions of dollars from us after they gambled with our savings? Who sits in the board rooms? Who decides its cost effective to continue burning fossil fuels? Whose sons and daughters fight the wars for those fossil fuels? Whose communities are decimated by oil spills and other pollutants? Whose children are drowning in student loan debt? Whose jobs don’t pay livable wages?
The real question, then, is who is maintaining the Racial Contract. The answer is middle class white liberals. Those folks who comfortably vote Democrat and feel like they are part of the solution. Those folks who call for restraint and to “let the system work.” Those who openly rail against President Bush and his policies, but are silent when it comes to Obama’s. The same folks Dr. King warned us about in his “Letters from a Birmingham jail.” Many of these folks currently hold seats of power in my city, Minneapolis, and all over the country. They are the ones that benefit from the Racial Contract’s subtleties. They point their fingers at folks like those in Oregon attempting to discredit them by making fun of how they speak, a sort of class dog whistle. They want us to believe we have nothing in common with the folks in Oregon. They want us to believe we are like them, that we should aspire to be where they are. This is the Racial Contract at play. We must refuse it. We must reject both the blatant white supremacy of many in the militia movement but also the more sophisticated form coming from these folks. We want a totally new way. A way that brings us together with our brothers and sisters of color and doesn’t require allegiance to the Racial Contract.
Imagine if we could think outside of the Racial Contract. Imagine if working class and poor whites built with Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, the DREAMers and the myriad other organizations demanding their own constitutional rights. How quickly would things change? How drastically?