Among the many unavoidable facts that have bubbled to the surface since the murder of Mike Brown at the hands of St. Louis police is the deep racial character of the killing and the equally racial character of the police response to the popular protests that followed it. This uncontroversial fact can be perceived in the abundance of media reports exploring the dimensions of Black life in America. One of the more glaring additions to this national discussion occurred on the popular Sunday morning political program Meet the Press. Hosting a round-table on the topic of the “Racial Divide in America,” Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal remarked that we shouldn’t “pretend that our morgues and cemeteries are full of young Black men because cops are shooting them.” Rather, Riley argued, “the reality is that it’s because other Black people are shooting them and we need to talk about Black criminality.” The two white guests silently nodded in approval, granting Riley’s comment a level of legitimacy it did not deserve. Aside from the clearly degrading and dehumanizing nature of this statement, it has absolutely no basis in fact.
Anyone with a minimal level of intellectual curiosity and a mild tolerance for empirical data (admittedly, an intimidating task for America’s leading cultural managers) would have noticed this. Writing for the Daily Beast, journalist Jamelle Bouie observed that quite apart from some innate drive to kill (the “thug” mythology), internecine killings among Black people can be attributed to the geographic “proximity” of Black communities and the chronic lack of socioeconomic “opportunity.” Further, “racial exclusivity was also true for white victims of violent crime”: “86% of white victims were killed by white offenders.” Bouie also highlighted the crucial reality that “while it’s true that young Black men are a disproportionate share of the nation’s murder victims, it’s hard to disentangle this from the stew of hyper-segregation (often a result of deliberate policies), entrenched poverty, and non-existent economic opportunities that characterizes a substantial number of black communities.”
Given the transparent absurdity of this myth of “Black criminality”, one would think empirical analysis of this kind would suffice. Nonetheless, this myth and its many analogues cannot be meaningfully debunked unless that empirical critique is coupled with a critique of the ideological prejudices on which they are based. Moreover, these cultural stereotypes are not exclusive to domestic politics. They arise in international affairs as well. As Columbia University political scientist Mahmood Mamdani observed in his brilliant study Good Muslims, Bad Muslims “the history of the modern state can also be read as the history of race, bringing together the stories of two kinds of victims of European colonial modernity: the internal victims of state building and the external victims of imperial expansion.” Accordingly, within the dominant discourses about oppressed communities (Black “thugs”, Arab “terrorists”, Mexican “illegals”, etc.) there exists a sharp ideological continuity in the empire’s portrayal of the inhabitants of its internal and external colonies. That ideological continuity consists of three basic components:
1.) Excise the decisive role of the oppressors in stimulating retail violence through policies of wholesale state-violence.
The “Black criminality” myth and its analogues cannot be sustained unless the role of the oppressor is hidden from view. The violence and misery in oppressed communities is supposed to be the product of “bad culture” or “corrupted values”, not the rational outcome of social and economic policies consciously designed to dispossess and disenfranchise an entire group of people. A graphic illustration of this understanding can be found in the mainstream discussion about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. The typical line goes that Israel, the benevolent guardian, “granted” Palestinians territory in Gaza, but Palestinians, due to their backwardness and insolence, squandered this gift and transformed what could have been a shining example of prosperity into a “haven for terrorists.” As NYU Law Professor Thane Rosenbaum asked in a Haaretz article “Unoccupied for nearly a decade, why do Gaza’s people know little else aside from explosives and martyrdom?”
Systematically omitted from this highly deceitful narrative is the fact that Palestinians in Gaza, unlike populations in US-backed petromonarchies, were able to choose their leadership in a democratic election. Furthermore, and this is a crucial fact, the Bush administration punished Palestinians for this crime of democracy. Also excluded from this fairy tale is the suffocating state of siege that Israel refuses to lift, despite clear requirements to do so under international law. Israel is free to control Gaza’s airspace, borders, territorial waters, electromagnetic spectrum, and even the calories that Gazans are allowed to consume (what Israeli official Dov Weinglass chillingly calls “keeping Gaza on a diet”). Rarely is any of this mentioned as a precipitating factor behind Hamas “rocket” attacks. Like Jason Riley’s mythology of “Black criminality”, the Israeli government relies on the mythology of “Islamic terrorism” or Palestinian “child sacrifice”, as author Elie Wiesel described the Israeli murder of Palestinian children in one of his more appreciated hasbara soup recipes.
Other examples of this norm can be found in the US discourse on sectarianism in Iraq. When Islamic State factions moved into northern Iraq commentators were quick to reduce the internal bloodshed to “ancient hatreds”, which had been simmering just below the surface for over a thousand years. This orientalist narrative has been thoroughly debunked by journalist Murtaza Hussain, nonetheless it persists as a potent explanation of Arab “barbarism.” Any reference to the fact that the Bush administration’s criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent destruction of the Baathist government elicited the sectarian violence is beneath serious consideration in mainstream circles as is the uncontroversial fact that the Obama administration, quite apart from leaving Iraq “to its own people”, was forced out of Iraq after the Maliki government refused to grant the US legal immunity (seriously undercutting claims of US “benevolence”).
2.) Concoct frightening fairy tales about a uniquely nefarious threat with an added racial/religious label or insinuation.
Here propagandists are given free rein to let their imagination run wild. Frightening stories about the evil deeds of a domestic or foreign enemy are concocted to mold the minds of the public into the required shape. As in the first component, Israel excels in this field as well. When Israel commenced its latest round of “mowing the grass” (a euphemism for killing innocent men, women and children) it was necessary to produce elaborate horror stories, all of which were baseless, about the “terror tunnels” that Hamas fighters use to inflict death and destruction on Israeli citizens. “Israelis exchange nightmare scenarios that are the stuff of action movies: armed enemies popping up under a day care center or a dining room, spraying a crowd with machine gun fire or maybe some chemical, exploding in a suicide belt or snatching captives and ducking back into the dirt.” These are the haunting words of New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren, a journalist who, in addition to producing vulgar propaganda of this kind, reserves little, if any, time for Palestinians, plausibly because she’s too busy hanging out with imperial cheerleaders like the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman.
One can document endless examples this culture of demonization from Thomas Jefferson’s condemnation of “merciless Indian savages” to 19th century hysteria surrounding the “Yellow Peril” of Chinese immigrants. In the case of the Yellow Peril, political officials received ample assistance from the intellectual community, foremost Jack London, who envisioned exterminating the entire population of China via bacteriological warfare—“the great task, the sanitation of China”—in his novel The Unparalleled Invasion. Nearly two decades prior to the publication of this genocidal fantasy the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, effectively banning Chinese immigration. Rutgers University cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin examined this phenomenon of anti-Chinese hysteria in his penetrating study War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, writing “the snarling racism of the Yellow Peril literature expresses cultural furies that have shaped the ugliest features of American history,” among them the “savage exploitation of ‘coolie’ labor.” At bottom, this language of fear is designed to neutralize any sympathy for the victims of state-corporate power, thus clearing the way for their oppressors to commence the required task of “taming” the unpeople within the empire’s domestic colonies.
3.) Display how much you are overflowing with compassion for the victims of the fratricide.
While the erasure of the oppressors role in the creation of crises and the construction of frightening narratives certainly probes the depths of moral depravity, the third component of this mythology is arguably the most insidious. In addition to maintaining a situation where the role of the oppressor is concealed from view, the feigning of compassion for the victims of fratricidal violence is consciously carried out in order to elevate the oppressor to a moral plane over and above the oppressed. The violence of the oppressor, under this mode of thought, attains a “moral character” (the IDF is the most “moral army in the world”, America is “exceptional”, etc). As a result, the oppressor is not only blameless for the suffering of the oppressed but their standard of morality hovers so far above that of the victim that their compassion, unable to be contained, extends just as easily to those outside their group. Embedded in this construct is a racist assumption that people of color are so tribalistic and obsessively attached to their racial identity that any act of murder within their group is irrefutable proof that they are savages. The most common illustration of this doctrine can be found in the regular refrain among the Washington elite about disobedient leaders in foreign countries who kill “their own people.” For instance, the violence of Saddam Hussein was perfectly understandable (if loathed) when it was portrayed as being directed at “westerners” but when he used poison gas against Iraq’s Kurdish population this marked the height of savagery. Unlike violence toward “western” leaders, here he was killing “his own people”, which in the racist mind resonates like watching a warthog kill another warthog or an ape killing another ape. Killing within the group, according to this logic, is the supreme transgression of the tribal norm.
Notice how conspicuously absent this doctrine is when the fratricide is occurring within predominately white countries. Take for example the violence in the Ukraine. How many commentators described the violence between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian factions as Ukrainians or Russians killing “their own people”? Incidentally, that phrase would be more appropriate here since both Russians and Ukrainians are of the same race, namely white. This could not be said of Saddam Hussein (an Arab) gassing Kurds (not Arabs).
And political elites in Washington are by no means alone in using this “he-kills-his-own-people” tactic. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also indulged this doctrine in a recent speech. Responding to news that the United Nation’s launched an inquiry into Israeli war crimes carried out in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, he ridiculed the UN committee for “giving legitimacy to murderous terror organizations like Hamas and the Islamic State.” “Instead of checking Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians and the use it makes of Gaza’s residents as human shields, instead of checking the massacre carried out by (President) Assad in Syria, or the massacre of Kurds by Islamic State members, the UN has decided to come and check Israel.” He continued by saying the UN committee should “go see the Syrian army,” where “they will find war crimes.”
Much like Jason Riley, who abhors “Black-on-Black crime”, Netanyahu focuses, laser-like, only on those conflicts where the violence is Arab-on-Arab. Even in the case of Hamas he made sure to note that Hamas uses the people of Gaza as “human shields.” Incidentally, it’s Israel, not Hamas, that has a history of using Palestinians as human shields. Israel also uses Palestinians as guinea pigs for their hi-tech weaponry courtesy of US tax dollars. Through this discourse of Palestinian infamy the specter of the Arab “terrorist” looms large alongside that of the Black “thug.” Anyone who objects to their liquidation under the guardianship of their moral superiors can be written off as hopelessly ignorant or utterly oblivious to why the “morgue” is really full of “young Black men” and Palestinian “terrorists.”
Generally, it’s quite easy to erupt in hysterics when confronted with violence among the oppressed. Self-reflection has always been anathema to power systems. This refusal to look in the mirror isn’t entirely irrational as serious interrogation would inevitably render these myths obsolete and undermine the very power systems that they were formulated to defend. The fact that Jason Riley could utter these patent falsehoods despite the color of his skin is a dramatic testament to just how dangerously intoxicating these fictions remain. Still, they don’t have to be accepted. Other lies have been overcome. We no longer nod in approval to descriptions of America’s indigenous population as “merciless Indian savages” nor would we remain silent in the face of racist descriptions of Chinese immigration as an ominous “Yellow Peril.” The same standard should be applied to the mirage of “Black criminality”, “Islamic terrorism”, “Mexican illegals” and other contemporary iterations of this doctrine. Such a level of intellectual honesty is demanded of those who genuinely empathize with the people of Ferguson County and the countless others in America’s colonies (internal and external) who share their tragic fate.
Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani
War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination by H. Bruce Franklin