People of Color Have Agency
the incredible condescension towards people of color in contemporary liberal culture
Several times in my life I have gotten into a fight with other members of the anti-imperialist left over a question that I would not ordinarily consider a question: was Japan an imperial power?
I felt (and feel) that there was not much to debate. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Japan engaged in what would be seen, in any European context, as straightforwardly imperialist behavior. They developed a militaristic and nationalistic ruling philosophy at home and used this as justification for an aggressive and expansionistic foreign policy, conquering and annexing vast swaths of territory, plundering these places for resources and treasure, and setting up puppet governments or out-and-out imposing foreign rule. Nobody, including the people I debated this question with, disputes these basic historical facts. One would think that would be sufficient to settle the question.
Ah, but the Japanese are not white. And for many people I have known in the anti-imperialist left, all historical crimes, especially imperialism, are assumed to be the product of white people and their actions, however many mental hoops you have to jump through to get to that point. You may rush to say that this is an exaggeration, but no. I know people who will unapologetically tell you that there is no such thing as a historical crime conducted by people of color that they are themselves ultimately morally responsible for. I wish I could do a better job of summarizing how this plays out with the example of Japan for you, but I’ve always found the basic claim so ad hoc and bizarre that I genuinely don’t think I can do it justice. The arguments as I understand them include the idea that British and other European actions in China provoked Chinese behavior that in turn provoked Japan’s behavior which we called imperialism, that Japan’s expansionism can be excused because they suffered from land and resource constraints other expansionistic powers did not, that Japan would never have thought to engage in these behaviors if they hadn’t seen the European example first…. One way or another, all roads lead to a world where white people were responsible for Japanese rulers ordering invasion after invasion, slaughtering local populations, and raping local women, where the Japanese committed war crimes and yet were blameless. Blameless - and thus powerless.
This is, on the face of it, anti-white ideology - all of the bad stuff in the world happens as a direct result of white actions, white power. Yet I have always felt that there’s something else going on in these debates. I suspect that placing all of the blame for historical crimes on white people is strangely comforting for white leftists: it advances a vision of the world where only white people matter. It says that the sun rises and sets with white people. It suggests that white people wrote history. It assures white people that, no matter what else is true, they are the masters of the world. That all of this is framed in terms of judgment against the abstraction “white people” is incidental. I think if you could strip people down to their most naked self-interest and ask them, “would you be willing to take all the blame, if it meant you got all the power?,” most would say yes. And of course in this narrative people of color are sad little extras, unable even to commit injustice, manipulated across the chessboard by the omnipotent white masters whose interests they can’t even begin to oppose. All of this to score meaningless political points in debates about inequality and injustice.
The leftist conception of history as a series of crimes committed by white people against the virginal and defenseless brown masses is a perfect example of where radical American politics ostensibly castigates establishment power and the white people who wield it, and yet ultimately comforts those who express them, who are themselves white in dominant majorities. And what I’ve witnessed the last several years is that this condition has been generalized to domestic politics too: in the liberal mind of 2021, white people do, people of color are done to. Were I a person of color, I would find this impossibly insulting.
You may recall the recent controversy at Smith College. A Black student at Smith, staying on campus outside of session, had entered a dorm that had been marked as closed to eat a meal. A janitor, following explicit instructions from superiors, contacted campus security, and the janitor and a security guard instructed her that she had to leave. She responded by posting on Facebook that she had been the victim of racism, racially profiled, and had been in fear for her life because of the security guard’s gun. It turns out that this last part was unambiguously a lie - Smith College security guards are unarmed - but the post still kicked off a major fracas, with many people, totally ignorant of what really happened, blasting the janitor and security guard as racists. They would both face reprisals for their roles in the incident, despite following policy. A later independent investigation by a law firm found that the young woman’s rights had not been abridged and that the employees had been unfairly punished. But Smith’s president was unapologetic and the school has barely acknowledged that any wrongdoing went down at all.
While I am sympathetic to the power relationships inherent to race, and to the tendency for authority figures to target Black people unfairly, this situation always seemed very straightforward to me. The student had gone someplace explicitly marked as closed and was politely asked to leave by people who are empowered by the institution to do so. This is not injustice, by any standard. So when the NYT piece came out and people were debating it, I asked what seemed to me to be a simple question: why could she not simply have followed the posted directive to stay out of a closed building? And, failing that, why would it be any sort of injustice for her to be asked to leave and then face no other punishment, as happened and was appropriate? I debated this topic in several different contexts, online and off, and several times heard this distressing response: you can’t expect Black students to follow such rules, as they are too damaged by white supremacy to comply.
I find this attitude, which I heard from both Black people and white, to be really ugly. Quite racist, in fact. You really have to marvel at where we’ve come in race relations in this country when “Black people are incapable of following rules” is represented as an antiracist position. While exonerating this particular girl and other Black people from their culpability in breaking rules, this attitude posits an entire race of people who are such dysfunctional victims that they can’t possibly undertake the basic steps necessary not only to survive in 21st century America but to navigate any society, which are rule-bound by their very nature. The short-term rhetorical convenience of excusing individual Black people’s behavior in this way comes wrapped in a terrible curse; if this vision of the world is true, Black liberation must be just about impossible, as the hand of white supremacy is so damaging to Black people that it’s hard to imagine a world in which they are able to rise above the bigotry that will inevitably linger into the future. I would argue that, instead, while Black America faces structural disadvantages that are certainly related to historical and ongoing injustice, the right application of policy could dramatically ameliorate their current problems and leave them better able to flourish. Racial inequality is a choice. We could choose to end it. The question is, should progressives view Black people and other people of color as empowered adults with the capacity to make their own decisions, and thus as responsible for the consequences of those decisions, or as noble, permanent victims?
Worth saying, of course, that the large majority of Black people in this country live their lives every day without breaking such rules - including most Black Smith students. But to recognize this is to give the lie to the proffered defense.
We can, I think, generalize this in some ways. The movement that I grew up in that would eventually come to be called the LGBTQ movement once held that queer people were strong, that they were so much stronger than they were given credit for by society. The foundational assumption of the LGBTQ movement of today is that people in those communities are permanently and existentially weak; any insult or injury to them, no matter how small, will inevitably be a life-altering trauma. They are considered devoid of resilience and incapable of recovery. They are portrayed, by their loudest allies, as lost little children, wounded by language, utterly vulnerable at all times to those who could derail them with a bad look. This is not progress.
Current debates about the (very real) spike in violent crime exemplify the patronizing and counterproductive attitude towards race currently gripping progressive America. Liberals and leftists seem, in general, to be confronting this problem by not confronting it. They are either ignoring it altogether or dismissing it with the kind of useless sarcasm that is the stock in trade of today’s left, refusing to countenance the fact that, yes, there are sometimes tradeoffs that have to be made when it comes to crime and policing. Many seem to think that their duty, as defined in the past year of post-George Floyd America, is to simply pretend that crime does not exist as a political issue. They do this supposedly in the name of Black people, ignoring the fact that policing remains popular in the Black community, which is sensible considering that you are more sensitive to property crime when you have less money to replace property and more sensitive to violent crime when you are more likely to be the victim of violence. It seems that discussing crime simply presents too much risk of talking about race in anything other than the most simplistic, good-vs-bad terms that liberals have become used to. So they are hiding in various ways.
Consider this “study” out of the University of Michigan. The authors launched it with great fanfare, particularly claiming that this report debunks the idea that Black men have committed many of the anti-Asian crimes that have been so much in the news lately. How did they arrive at this conclusion? By defining what counts as a hate incident in utterly absurd ways. The report aggregates statements the researchers consider racist with actual violent incidents, leading to (for example) a gross equivalence between the vicious beating of an elderly Asian man with a cruise line refusing to serve those with passports from China and Macau. Of the 184 listed incidents, 55 are just Trump saying his usual looney anti-China shit! This is not what anyone means when they talk about the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Why would they undertake this absurd project? Well, this dishonest aggregation allows them to release headline numbers that show that Black men are responsible for a low percentage of the incidents. They presumably felt the need to do this because, if you have kept up with this news, it certainly seems that a disproportionate number of these incidents (the actual violent attacks) have been committed by Black men. Now they have a mendacious pseudo-study that liberals will be citing until the end of time.
That many of these attacks seem to be committed by Black assailants should be addressed with considerable sensitivity, especially because “seem” is a key word there. An actual, rigorous study that was not a piece of agitprop masquerading as social science would be very useful in this regard. Certainly there is the potential for the fickle ways of local media to influence how we perceive these trends. If it is the case that Black men are disproportionately committing these crimes, that too requires sensitivity and sobriety to discuss. The influence of socioeconomic conditions and other exogenous factors are relevant and important when considering such things. But the current progressive position, which is that we simply must not arrive at the empirical conclusion that Black men are disproportionately responsible for the anti-Asian attacks, is not just a refusal to countenance what might be an uncomfortable reality. It’s an insult to the vast majority of Black Americans who have never assaulted anyone at all. To absolve the Black men who may have committed some of these attacks is to deny the agency and moral behavior of those who have not.
One of the biggest problems with this condescending insistence that people of color are permanent victims is that insisting that they have no ability to make change in the world hinders our ability to make intelligent determinations about choices of relevance to them moving forward. The existence (and persistence) of challenges to nations that were once colonized is routinely chalked up 100% to the influence of the imperialists who were responsible, in the circles in which I run. (Again, not an exaggeration.) Any challenge to a former imperial possession is assumed to be a product of imperialism, no matter how far into the past that history recedes. There is absolutely no doubt that imperial practices continue to influence the modern world, especially among its former victims, and no doubt that there are contemporary practices that mimic many of the exploitative dynamics of that period. But the reality is that the outcomes of different former imperial possessions are quite varied, and simply saying “imperialism made all of these countries what they are” prevents us from drawing intelligent conclusions about post-imperialist policy.
Consider, for example, Botswana and Burkina [edit: Burkina, not Burkini] Faso. Both are African countries that suffered under imperialism for about 80 years, Botswana under the English, Burkina Faso under the French. Both are landlocked, which is typically seen as a significant disadvantage to development. Both must import their oil and do not have the kind of energy wealth that fast-rising African nations like Gabon enjoy. Both count mining of valuable minerals as their major economic driver and have, at times, struggled to diversify. Both face many of the basic challenges to African nations writ large, such as a lack of transportation and telecommunications infrastructure. Yet despite these similarities, their internal conditions are very different. Botswana is flourishing while Burkina Faso struggles. Botswana is currently 100th in the Human Development Index, while Burkina Faso sits at 182nd. Botswana’s stability and relatively low corruption have made it a fast-rising player in tourism, an immensely important industry for developing African nations, while Burkina Faso’s chronic instability makes tourism a challenge. Neither country can rival the developed world in terms of overall quality of life, and both have deep problems. Botswana, for all of its immense progress, continues to struggle with an unusually deep problem with HIV and AIDS. But for the people who live in these countries, the contrast in basic quality of life is considerable. The question is, how can you derive meaningful lessons for the rest of the continent from this difference if you insist that imperialism determines everything?
I would never object if you said that European conquest hurt both of these nations deeply, nor would I ever doubt that the hand of imperialism continues to shape their modern conditions. I in no sense think that Burkina Faso “deserves” its challenges. But to act as though everything that happens in Africa is an expression of the crimes of white people inherently devalues the hard work and sound choices of countries like Botswana. And for what? To insert white people into every conversation? To ensure that every political discussion inevitably becomes a disquisition on the habits of Europeans, who many critics correctly say are overrepresented in published history?
Elite liberalism is a land of misconceptions, and few are more wrongheaded than the perception that complaining about “white people” as a concept is injurious to white people in the specific. There’s a piece in the Times today about a Black novelist whose book challenges the racial inequality in publishing. The article’s headline runs “Her Book Doesn’t Go Easy on Publishing. Publishers Ate It Up.” The idea here is that the first sentence should make the second one surprising, but of course it doesn’t; I guarantee that the elite white liberals in publishing didn’t just eat up the book proposal but specifically the indictment of whiteness it contained. It’s a point that I’ve made many times - most white people, and certainly white liberals, aren’t actually hurt by insults directed at white people. Because white people are not internally racialized by our culture (which certainly is a form of white privilege), these statements will always be easily dodged by our egos; when the subject of an insult or accusation, “white people” transforms unconsciously into “those other white people, the bad ones.” It’s the same reason that terms like “honkey” don’t hurt: my brain asks, which honkey? Where? What does whiteness have to do with me? I am not alone in this.
Meanwhile, the price of the obsessive fixation on white people as the sole movers of all history and current events leaves us in a world where people of color are cast as permanent children, well thought of, constantly “honored” and “celebrated,” occasionally worthy of a little help and a little liberty, but ultimately subject forever to the whims of white people, buffeted by hatred on one side and by toxic condescension on the other. Our discourse makes liars of us and dulls the possibility of cross-racial solidarity by making hard conversations impossible. I assure you, when Asian Americans who are not political obsessives look at the news about these attacks, then read in the newspaper where some elite liberal explains that Black people have nothing to do with it, it does not convince them. It makes them more suspicious of all progressive arguments and leaves them subject to conspiratorial thinking. Again: for what? Who is helped by this condition? No one, in material terms. It just makes white people feel good and enables people’s pleasant fantasy of a simplistic moral universe.
In the Rwandan genocide some half a million Tutsis were murdered by members of the Hutu majority, with the assistance of the Rwandan government. Yet thousands of Hutus resisted this carnage. Many of them paid for this resistance with their lives. Yes, imperialism was a huge part of that terrible situation. German occupiers intentionally stoked internal divisions to help maintain power, a major part of the imperialist playbook, and the animosities remained. Any discussion of the conflict that does not reference imperialism is an impoverished view of history and an act of propaganda. But the fact remains: some Hutus slaughtered their enemies while some risked it all to stop them. If everything that happened there was merely the hand of white supremacy at play, how can we honor the sacrifice of the ones who made the right choice?
Or are you so caught in the absurd and fickle political fads of your moment that you’d presume to say they weren’t choosing at all?