What kind of a thing is racism? I recently read Hannah Arendt’s On Violence (1970), where she analyzes the different ways that people rule over each other, delineating five different instruments: power, strength, force, authority and violence. Taking as given that racism is a kind of rule by one class of people over another, which specific exercise of rule describes racism best?
To be clear, in Arendt’s time as now, racism is equivalent to the exercise of white supremacy. It is, as Mia McKenzie has pointed out at Black Girl Dangerous, “a system of oppression that denies people access to employment, education, housing, food, medical care, safety from police brutality, fairness in sentencing, media representation, and a host of other things, based on race.” This means that white people benefit from racism, at the expense of non-white life. (Okay, super awkward articulation there, of “non-white life,” but racism is more than anti-blackness. It is settler colonialism and mythologies of model minorities and so many other kinds of systemic disadvantages and destructive stereotypes that characterize the reality of people who do not share in the privileges that characterize whiteness.)
In Arendt’s paradigm, racism is not force. She reserves the use of “force” for technical language describing the release of energy, of either physical phenomena or social movements, that can be measured. Racism is not a release of energy so much as it is an organizing principle with deleterious consequences for those bodies and lives deemed racialized. Perhaps resistance to these forms of organization can be interpreted as forceful (think race riots or peaceful protest marches) but the regular deploy of racism is structural, an insidious order of things that works to make itself seemingly logical (think narratives of hard work justifying access to education or perceived danger justifying murder).
Arendt understands strength to be an attribute of an individual person or thing, like the hardness of a diamond or an undefeated boxer. The individualistic aspect of strength means that strength can be counteracted by cumulative address: diamonds, although hard, can be shaped (through bruting, where two diamonds are set spinning against each other), and the boxer, although brutal, can be beat down by a tag-team. The independent nature of strength does not capture the scope of racial oppression functioning across access to heath care and housing, rates of incarceration and unfair representations in the media (to name just a few places where racism manifests), where the individual’s resilience has nothing to do with their ability to access resources or be fairly treated. Racism precedes the individual; it is social inheritance.
Arendt characterizes authority as a reciprocal relationship, where its exercise is dependent upon the uncoerced recognition from the person subject to its demands. Clearly, racism is not a function of authority because racism is not unquestioningly acceded to by the people whose lives it attempts to exploit and destroy.
That leaves power and violence, and I believe that racism is a child of both these forces. Arendt states that power is the ability to act collectively, and particular forms of power exist so long as they continue to be propped up by a critical mass (not necessarily a majority and this is where violence comes in, “violence appears as a last resort to keep the power structure intact” ). Racism is a social phenomenon. It is registered on the innumerable lives it circumscribes, but it is deployed systematically, manifesting in centuries of customs and laws that privilege white life. There’s the bright glimpse of an otherwise in her observation that “it is the people’s support that lends power to the institutions of a country, and this support is but the continuation of the consent that brought the laws into existence to begin with … All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them” (41). Although white supremacy is entrenched in Canada today, it is easy to imagine a world structured differently, regardless of how difficult it is to imagine the undoing of this one. There is nothing necessary about racism. But her observation also carries the implicit connotation that some critical mass of us are invested in upholding racism, a point she and I will return to below.
Arendt’s main claim of violence is that it relies on instruments, things like guns, bombs and prisons. Given the proliferation of black death at the hands of the state; the proliferation of wars waged by the US, Canada and many European nations in the Middle East and North Africa; and the proliferation of Black and Indigenous incarcerated people across North America, it is clear that contemporary instruments of violence are deployed in ways that maintain racist dispossessions of life, freedom, and human and natural resources.
In a discussion about the dangers of using biological metaphors to understand violence, Arendt notes that “racism, white or black, is fraught with violence by definition because it objects to natural organic facts—a white or black skin—which no persuasion or power could change” (emphasis added) (75–76). It seems she considers racism be violence only, but I say that it is power too. Racism is not just the tangible harms wrought, but institutions that support the exercise of violence and the logics that make certain kinds of violence legible or deemed appropriate. Arendt already admits that it is possible to act collectively—this is what power is at its core—so why is it a stretch to imagine that racism is one of the ways that power manifests? Recall that Arendt’s whole project is to understand the ways that people come to rule over each other. If “power … is actually the very condition enabling a group of people to think and act in terms of the means–end category” (51) then white supremacy is that ends and racism its means.
I wonder if Arendt’s focus on understanding racism as a kind of violence divorced from power is what allowed her to make claims such as the following:
It has become rather fashionable among white liberals to react to Negro grievances with the cry, “We are all guilty,” and Black Power has proved only too happy to take advantage of this “confession” to instigate an irrational “black rage.” Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing. In this particular instance, it is, in addition, a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions. The real rift between black and white is not healed by being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. “All white men are guilty” is not only dangerous nonsense but also racism in reverse, and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality (emphasis added) (65).
Charges of reverse racism, which are meant to describe racism against whites, express a white fear of violence, but it is a charge that breaks down when considered in relation to the collective nature of power and the instrumental nature of violence. Like Aamer Rahman points out in the video above, reverse racism would require a complete re-articulation of thousands of years of history in order to make the systemic dispossession of white life a possibility—there simply are not the support structures (philosophical, political or economic) in place to author such a reversal. Plus, it is not as though prison populations could be swapped out, one race for another, or the directions of warplanes reversed to lose their loads on North American soil. It is telling, for instance, that in a discussion of contemporary forms of violence, racism first enters into Arendt’s analysis in the context of this claim of reverse racism. (Literally, the first discussion of racism in her text is at this point. All other talk of racism follows this.) On Arendt’s own terms, the idea of reverse racism just doesn’t hold.
There are other troubling assumptions in this excerpt. In what sense is black rage irrational? She was writing this immediately following the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. What about that context could have led her to make such judgement? We have the privilege of seeing her ideas in an extended historical context, and we know that racism has not abated. Black rage was justified then, as now. It’s also strange how she uses “‘we are all guilty’” and “‘all white men are guilty’.” These quotations are not footnoted and so I assume she is scare quoting them—putting them in quotation marks to signal that she deems their claims inappropriate or misleading. But these claims correspond to the fact that racism just doesn’t happen, it is upheld. She participated in it. I participate in it. I can work to dismantle white supremacy, but feeling liberal is not equivalent to material change. Further, how is being guilty of racism equivalent to racism in reverse? In what sense could bearing responsibility for racism be a deployment of it? And lastly, yeah, we absolutely deserve an escape from reality: a utopic non-racist future would be a different reality, an escape from this racist one.
Arendt believes that the opposite of violence is power (not non-violence), and although she also admits that “these distinctions [referring the five major categories of rule], though by no means arbitrary, hardly ever correspond to watertight compartments in the real world” (46), perhaps her understanding of racism as violence alone is due to the dialectical relationship she constructs between violence and power. And yet, her proposals about violence, that it appears in the waning of power’s consensual hold, is a useful tool understanding the persistence of racism over time. It can explain how slavery became lynch law became the carceral state, how at every juncture where institutionalized racism is challenged, it’s instrumental nature changes form, new tools for the perpetuation and spread of violence to uphold certain structures of power. For instance, Sudbury’s “A World Without Prisons” clearly outlines how, today, the prison industrial complex secures a consistent and increasing set of inputs, read: prisoners, read: people, read: racialized people.
Arendt goes on to say that “Racism, as distinguished from race, is not a fact of life but an ideology and the deeds it leads to are not reflex actions, but deliberate acts … it [racial violence] is the logical and rational consequence of racism, by which I do not mean some rather vague prejudices on either side, but an explicit ideological system” (76). Reverse racism is not an explicit ideological system, not in a world that is already set up at every conceivable turn to privilege white life. The dangerous nonsense, I would say, is the very idea of reverse racism. Remember, those subjected to racism are already not consenting to its terms. The charge of reverse racism doesn’t represent a reconfiguration of power or a redistribution of the means to enact violence. The charge is, in fact, a tool that attempts to subdue the ongoing refusal of racialized people to be fully conditioned by the terms of racism, in order to secure to perpetuation of privilege and power as deployed in service of white supremacist logics.
Perhaps this seems overly critical of Arendt, but in a text that is about the precise use of language, I think it is fair to interrogate her use of it. And to be fair, bias and discrimination belong to us all, now as then. I wonder what others see in my framing of Arendt’s ideas, what biases or discrimination of my own that I am blind to?
(Page numbers here refer to the Harvest Books edition, published in 1970.)