Parts of the US public square have been overwhelmed by a chilling force. The new racialism manifests in Victorian ways with dire consequences for that nation and ours.
Seattle’s Capitol Hill Organized Protest Zone (CHOP) – first called the ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’ (CHAZ) – is, at first glance, an original human experiment. It was forcefully established by #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) protesters in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing to create a ‘cop-free’ zone to protect ‘black bodies’ from ‘systemic violence’.
On 21 June, a 19-year-old was killed in CHOP. Police reports indicate they were unable to respond to the shooting as they were blocked by protesters affiliated with the BLM CHOP establishment.
A few days earlier, on Friday 19 June, the atmosphere in a park located in the CHOP was different, almost tranquil. There was a commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the United States, accompanied by yoga and speeches to argue that slavery never really ended after all. A ‘black-out’ was established for the day.
This meant a cordon around part of the park was set up, guarded by white ‘allies’, inside of which only black people were allowed. You should watch the video above for an overview of the Juneteenth commemoration, and this 41 second video to see how ‘black-out’ enforcement worked. The idea of the ‘black-out’ in CHOP was to create a safe-zone inside a safe-zone where ‘black’ bodies would be uber-safe.
South Africans will find it easy to compare the blacks-only park, guarded by whites, to apartheid, with its designated ‘Bantustan’ areas where black people were supposedly protected from the oppressive forces of capital and modernity, where celebrating ‘their own music’ and spiritual rituals was ostensibly what white ‘protectors’ were trying to safeguard.
And yet the comparison falls short. The architects and primary enforcers of apartheid clearly meant to deny black people property and power in perpetuity. Talk of safeguarding black culture was mostly a ruse. This is totally unlike CHOP, where calls for all white people to give the nearest black person $10 (just as a start) are met with applause.
If white people in CHOP are supposed to give away their money, surrender all power unless they play guardian to blacks-only spaces, and stay silent in the meanwhile, one might wonder why so many do it. What is in it for them?
History of white supremacy
One way to answer this question requires looking back on the history of white supremacy, particularly in the United Kingdom (UK).
At the start of the 19th Century the UK was the world’s leading nation in mechanical invention and seafaring, but this was not just a matter of coal mines and steam engines and trade. The newspaper business took off and Parliament exercised real powers, maturing the constitutional monarchy established by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689.
The crown jewel of the UK parliamentary dispensation was the abolition of slavery. , The trading of slaves was first abolished in 1807, and then slavery itself between 1833 and 1838. This was a very costly reform in blood and treasure, and it did not come easy, as Kwame Anthony Appiah notes his history of ‘moral revolutions’, The Honour Code.
In 1787, Appiah notes, ‘the first mass anti-slavery petition, the city of Manchester – with a population of just 50 000 counting children – produced almost 11 000 signatures’. ‘Friends’ of the abolition movement mushroomed across the countryside and urban centres, de facto think-tanks drumming up support and pooling resources to inject liberal ideas into the public square through newspaper articles and political lobbying.
By 1833, he goes on, ‘it is likely that more than 20 percent of British men over the age of fifteen signed the anti-slavery petitions’ of that year. ‘To sign up that portion of the male population of that age in the US in 2010, you would have to persuade more than 23 million people, and you would have to do it without the resources of the internet!’
Whiteness had nothing to do with it
Is this something white people should be proud of? Certainly not. Whiteness had nothing to do with it.
Appiah’s history demarcates the group affiliations that were actually mobilized to drive moral revolution at the time. Christian affiliation, especially through the Quakers, was at abolitionism’s hard core. This was later conjoined by the solidarity of manual labourers. It was also conjoined by a sense of national pride, the Brits showing the recently lost American colonies that they were superior in virtue.
Race solidarity was notable only by its absence. No one thought slavery should be abolished because it was the proper ‘white’ thing to do, nor could they. Brits who had travelled through Europe were frequently struck by the misery of illiterate, innumerate, filthy white serfs, especially in Russia, the largest ‘white’ empire of all. The French had come to suffer a low estimation too, in British eyes, and they were ‘of the best’ Europe had to offer.
In addition, the competition for national prestige between the United Kingdom and the United States (the latter considered itself superior, having defeated the redcoats and abolished monarchism tout court) fundamentally undermined the notion of ‘white solidarity’, as had the Napoleonic wars, and as would the Crimean War to come.
On top of all that, the concept of ‘white solidarity’ had not yet been invented, nor had scientific racism. Evolution was not even a subject of robust inquiry; Charles Darwin’s grandfather Josiah Wedgwood was one of the primary abolitionists when Darwin himself was not even a proverbial twinkle in the eye.
By the end of the century, however, the tide had turned, as Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa shows. Under Leopold II’s influence (among others) European powers recast the ‘scramble’ as an attempt to ‘help in suppressing slavery’. That phrase comes from the Berlin Act of 1885, signed by 13 European powers.
The most ‘virtuous white’ of all
By 1899, after the Brussels conference, Leopold II was esteemed as the world’s greatest philanthropist and the most ‘virtuous white’ of all. In German leader Bismarck’s words, Leopold II was ‘the chief protector’ of otherwise vulnerable black folk, the guardian who would keep their bodies safe.
Pakenham’s history is subtitled ‘The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912’ precisely because this is how colonial operators came to think of their mission: doing what is right by the standards of ‘whiteness’.
This was perfectly exemplified by the Rudyard Kipling poem sent to US Senator Teddy Roosevelt to encourage the US to show white solidarity by colonizing ‘sullen’ people, too. ‘The White Man’s Burden’ was the title, and the phrase that came to define an era.
To ‘take up the white man’s burden’ was in part negatively defined. Being a proper white ostensibly meant not seeking one’s own profit or gain, but rather ‘to seek another’s profit, and work another’s gain’.
Of course, a little profiteering down the line could be ignored if the positive duties of ‘white burden’ were taken up, especially using violence to establish guardianship over the ‘silent sullen peoples’ who would otherwise continue to stay in ‘bondage’, a state naturally ‘beloved’ to non-whites.
More than anything else, though, the ‘white burden’ was the demand for self-effacement.
‘Check the show of pride’, Kipling urged, and prepare yourself for ‘thankless years’. The ‘old reward’ you should expect is ‘the blame of those ye better/The hate of those ye guard’.
The patriarchal element has been dropped, but see how well Kipling’s code of ‘whiteness’ is revived in CHOP. Those sweet-sounding young white Americans guarding the ‘black-out’ surely think they are doing a noble thing, and just as surely expect no thanks from the black people they are ‘bettering’ by their own exercise of ‘white privilege’ to guard ‘black bodies’.
Quite the opposite. The speeches emanating from the stage behind the self-styled white knights profess resentment against all humans with a white skin, since the taint of ‘privilege’ can never be truly scrubbed off. The burden of guarding the ‘black-out’ is ‘thankless’ through and through.
‘Judgement of your peers’
But it does have its ultimate reward and Kipling gives the clue as to what that is in the conclusion of his poem. The best a white person can hope for is the positive ‘judgement of your peers’.
If your ‘peers’ are defined by race, what counts most in a ‘white life’ of ‘burden’ is that at the end of the day other white people think you are fabulous. ‘Well done’, they should say, ‘you guarded those black people selflessly, thanklessly. All the rage against whiteness they spewed rolled like water from a duck’s back; you showed that is the proper way for whites to behave. You are truly a paragon of white virtue, cheers.’
This problem is not new to the US, or to South Africa, but by my reckoning it is getting worse, more influential, in both.
There should be no race pride in this country, and yet many elites have taken up the ‘white burden’ to protect ‘blackness’ for no apparent self-interest, except the judgement of their ‘peers’ as the wokest whites of all. Whatever these ‘white knights’ have done to the country by shielding kleptocrats, excusing abuses of power and shrugging off Zimbabwe’s collapse, for ordinary South Africans it has not been a walk in CHOP park, followed by yoga and free biscuits.
No, for ordinary South Africans CHOP park’s closer resemblance came later, on Sunday night, when the call for help went unanswered because a racialist mob was willfully obstructing law enforcement, justice, and accountability for murder.
If we are ever to engage real reform, one trope that must go is White-Burden Supremacy, that self-ingratiating code according to which black people should not be respected as adults and held responsible as individuals, but rather guarded and elevated as a whole race on the back of ‘whiteness’ itself. Humility is a virtue, but claiming it as a distinctly ‘white’ virtue is nothing but Victorian racism all over again. Begone.