Nobody ever knows the heart of anyone else

The hearts of white people, part II « Abagond

I saw this post after a friend on a social networking site posted a link to it. The author, who claims his blog is a means of practising his writing by writing 500 words a day on any subject he likes (it seems to be a he, anyway), claims that White American racism cannot be accounted for by tribalism or “even … by mere power since, like their cousins the Nazis, they exercise that power in sick and twisted ways not commonly seen in others”. He concludes:

There is something else at work. My best guess is that it is a psychological disorder caused by the way they bring up their children. What White Americans would quickly call a pathology if it were found in black people. Whatever it is, it makes them unaccepting of people who are different and gives them a need to look down on and dehumanize others in order to feel good about themselves.

The author, who goes by the pseudonym Julian Abagond, earlier claimed that “white people are born with the same hearts as black people but, because power corrupts, power has turned their hearts to stone”, but has since revised his position because of having read Greek, Roman and Chinese history. The Bible, and modern American history (so he says) makes it seem as if genocide is normal. The other history shows that it is in fact rare. He had quoted Jared Diamond who had suggested that if Africans had invented guns and large ships, they would have been the slave-owners rather than the Europeans; although it was the Chinese who invented “gunpowder and the compass”, it was Europeans who put them to deadly effect in North America.

The problem with this argument is that children were obviously raised very differently in the 19th century, let alone the 18th, than they have been since the late 20th century: they are less likely to be religious (so any talk of the Natives being “heathens” would have no meaning, or be offensive) and their living conditions and surroundings would be more hospitable: there are no new lands to be won and nobody is living a “pioneer” lifestyle. As far as race is concerned, they are less likely to have grown up hearing racial slurs and more likely to have heard someone correct someone else for using them. As for the suggestion that “Egypt, India, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa, for example, would all be far whiter than they are if genocides were common, if White American levels of racism were simply a matter of human nature and advanced weaponry, of tribalism and technology”, the fact is that these countries were much more heavily populated when Europeans (or whichever nations conquered them) reached them than North America was, so another way had to be found of subjugating the populations. Some of the reduction in native population happened for the same reasons as in North America, including the introduction of diseases from the conquerors’ homelands. Genocide is the organised massacre of a population so as to eliminate it, in whole or in part; not every oppression, and not every bloody conquest, is genocide. What has happened in Palestine is not genocide, for example, even though there is oppression and there have been massacres.

I am not sure why he thinks white Americans have anything more to feel guilty about than any of the nations which have invaded or conquered another in recent decades: the Japanese in China, the Chinese in Tibet, the Indonesians in East Timor, the Germans in almost all their occupations (without even considering the genocide of the Jews), the Russians in the Baltic states, in the Ukraine in the 1930s and during their occupation of Germany, the Israelis in their dealings with the native people at any time in the country’s history. Frankly anyone who can say that American dealing with Blacks today shows that there is something particularly special and virulent about white American racism cannot be reading their recent history (never mind ancient Greek ones) very closely. They are not barred from testifying against whites, or forced to live in separate areas, or denied citizenship; they are not having their villages gassed or bombed, or being attacked by mobs with machetes, or their farms and homes deprived of water so that the dominant population can have it. As for the example of the police killing a young girl while raiding her home, one cannot judge entire populations by their police or their army: in most parts of the world if not everywhere, there is police corruption and where the army is involved, there is brutality by them as well.

What distinguishes racism by the police in America (and Britain and other western countries) from third-world police and army brutality is that in a third-world country, nobody trusts the state and the army: traffic laws are disregarded (I saw this at first hand in Egypt), people expect to have to bribe officials (or refer to their connections to high places) to get things done or to get them off their backs. In Britain and America, white people (and especially white middle-class people) trust the police, and although they may accept that Black people suffer undue harassment from them, they do not accept that the police are wilfully corrupt. They will make excuses, not only for this kind of behaviour but also for police who extract confessions from vulnerable people (often those with intellectual disabilities) when there is a high-profile murder to solve, saying they are under pressure or some such thing. This has happened numerous times in the UK, with the victims spending many years in prison for a crime the authorities knew they did not commit, but found it embarrassing to put right until the evidence became overwhelming. In some places, judges flatly refuse to consider accusations that police used brutality to extract confessions: the establishment protects its own, whether it be the police, the prison service or whoever. White middle-class people see no reason to fear this kind of behaviour from the police, and schools will often invite them in to talk to children and present them as a benign force (“Officer Friendly”), when they are often exceedingly unfriendly when dealing with Blacks, including children ([1], [2]) and those with a disability.

The vast majority of ordinary white people have nothing to do with any of this, other than being less than fully aware of their advantage and having inherited the fruits of previous generations’ warmongering and land-grabbing (this is true in most English-speaking countries except the UK and Ireland). In the UK (this may be true elsewhere as well), the worst daily harassment (from ordinary people) is suffered by those with apparent cognitive disabilities of any race (a scene like the lynching in the picture accompanying his article is actually much more likely to involve such a person than any pair of unimpaired Black men). I do not have any truck with the idea of “white guilt”. White privilege is a reality, but a large proportion of us were not raised to be racist (quite the opposite, in fact) and the majority of us are not individually powerful. Individual white people’s power runs from that of Donald Trump to that of a Romanian orphan, or that of some of my bed-bound friends who have suffered enormously because of perceptions of their illness as some sort of luxury for lazy middle-class white people. Nobody who has experience of the UK’s special education system, or its mental health system, let alone its prison system or the way our health system deals with chronic illnesses that doctors cannot understand (and the rest of the English-speaking world is no different in any of these areas), need accept lectures about “white power” or “white privilege” from any middle-class Black person who has not experienced any of this for themselves.

The title of this post comes from a Nanci Griffith song (link to music video), but the tone of Abagond’s post reminded me of a story about the prophet Muhammad in which one of his companions (this is a term used to mean any Muslim who ever met him) told him he had killed someone he had been fighting in battle after he pretended to have accepted Islam — clearly, he judged, just to save his own skin. The Muslims at that time were fighting attempts by the pagans in Mecca to destroy their city (Medina) and community, and it was common to kill an enemy fighter on capture but there was a rule that anyone who became Muslim was not to be killed. The Prophet asked this companion, whose name was Usama bin Zaid: “did you cut open his heart to find out what was inside?”. Nobody can presume to judge what is in the heart of anyone else and then extend this to an entire racial group or to a population of tens or hundreds, of millions. There is nothing elevating his generalisation about “the hearts of white people” above any racial generalisation by whites, or anyone else, about any other group. And it is not an expression of frustration at an injustice; it is a considered ideological statement. Regardless of whether you define racism so as to exclude prejudices held against whites, this makes him no less of a bigot than any white person who would come out with such nonsense about any other group.

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