Welcome to week three of February’s weekly posts. These posts are intended to be topical and relevant to current events, but also tied to the larger theme of the season and the month. It’s February and I’m looking at “The Geography of Whiteness”. It’s winter so the focus is human behavior. It’s also Black History Month, and I’m White. So, I’m looking at what it means to be ‘White’ and what is unique about ‘White’ behavior in ‘America’. What is it about the interaction between people and place that has led us here and where do we go from here?
This week all eyes are on Texas and it’s failing infrastructure. We haven’t yet come to terms as a nation on the effects of climate change and how we come together as a nation to deal with it. The same is true for the effects of injustices. I argue in this post, they’re connected.
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Now let’s go…
“Don’t mess with Texas.” I guess Mother Nature didn’t get the memo. The fate of the state reveals a future of progressively common climate causing catastrophes. The notoriously independent territory, which relies on its own electrical grid, is experiencing the limits of independence and inegalitarianism. Typically when states are in need of electricity they’re able to borrow from neighboring, albeit aging and failing, power grids. Our national grid is a lattice of interconnected power plants and powerlines – like lines connecting stars in the galaxy. Except Texas. They’re a lone star.
Texas has a reputation of being exceptional. In 1836 Mexico had already barred slavery and that didn’t square with the white colonial squatters on the Brazos River in what we now know as Texas. So they decided to fight for their independence. Led by Virginia politician and ‘War of 1812’ veteran, Sam Houston, his band of rebels captured Mexico’s general, Antonio López de Santa Anna, under the infamous battle cry: “Remember the Alamo!” Santa Anna surrendered and Mexico was forced to recognize Texas as an independent state. Texas was its own country, the Republic of Texas, under President Sam Houston for nearly a decade before the U.S. annexed them in 1845. Don’t mess with Texas.
BUILDING THE EMPIRE STATE
In many ways, this story of Texas is a proxy for the story of the United States. A band of white dudes ‘discover’ land occupied by brown people and take it over. Neil deGrasse Tyson says you can explain U.S. history in six words, “Is this yours? It’s mine now!” Why? Because White settler colonialists want to bring their Black slaves, plant some crops, and start making some money. European colonial conquests of Indigenous occupied lands by white men has always been about empire building. The United States is no exception.
"Encouragement of agriculture and of commerce as its handmaid I deem [one of the] essential principles of our government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." — Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.
There’s a common misconception of the origin of nations. There’s a romantic belief they’re self-forming egalitarian social constructs for the purpose of generating prosperity through commerce – a more civil arrangement than the feudal overlords that preceded more modern societies. But it seems it’s the other way around. Nations are born out of empires – land ruled by authority. You can see examples throughout European history; Russian Empire, Ottoman Empire, German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire.
These were elite ruling classes organizing themselves around wealth creation and land acquisition. England and France invented Parliamentary representation to combat feudalism. And yet, these elite political structures put them in control of inhabitants of the land and the land itself. This interaction of people and place is a contract commonly regarded as a state. And a nation is a structure that horizontally unites and organizes their people in their place. People who share a common history, culture, and language. The Indigenous people of America were living as a collection of nations. And many still do around the world. Including the United States.
I grew up encouraged to believe America is a loose collection of uniformly horizontal citizens of united states living in harmony – a nation-state. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. But this belief side-steps the reality of hierarchy that has existed in America from the very start. We were born an empire-state that I was born into – a ruling class of white males that imposed its will over existing territories in an attempt to build an empire.
We Americans are colonizers that conquered and continue to reign over sovereign nations. We then claimed to offer the same rights we have in exchange for assimilation into our culture. In the beginning, some Indigenous American nations agreed to assimilate and many did. And still do. But many more resisted. And still do. Those who resisted were either driven off the land or exterminated – either by force or starvation. And still are. Subjugation of humans — be they Women, Black, or Indigenous peoples — is enforcing a pre-ordain hierarchy which is not nation forming, but empire building.
“The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”
— George Washington to General John Sullivan, May 31, 1779
“This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”
— President Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, December 29, 1813
Jefferson, and his supporters, didn’t want to build just any empire. Certainly not one modeled after England’s. They were looking to build new, more modern, ‘Empire of Liberty’.
“We shall divert through our own Country a branch of commerce which the European States have thought worthy of the most important struggles and sacrifices, and in the event of peace [ending the American Revolution]...we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of Liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.”
— Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, 25 December 1780
YOU KANT BEAT LIBERALISM
Empire and Liberty (capital and freedom) is as American as Apple Pie. The Statue of Liberty is literally in the Empire State. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – the ability to do as one pleases. These ideals have inspired many oppressed people as early as the Magna Carta in 1215. The Enlightenment and political theory of John Locke and philosophical framing of Immanuel Kant form the basis for what became known as Liberalism. It remains the dominant political theory of today and continues to be sold as a colorblind adherence to human autonomy – that every human being is free and equal under the law of the state.
But we all know that is not true. As political philosopher Charles Mills says, “In effect, liberalism, far from being colorless, has been a racialized white liberalism, in which both descriptive assumptions and prescriptive norms have been shaped by race.” We continue to peddle this ideal that our constitution was framed with the belief the founders intended freedom to apply to people of color and to women.
The truth is, America was founded by a bunch of white Anglo-Saxon men who shared a moral belief that equality only pertained to them. They were equal among themselves. As Mills states, “White men were deemed fully capable of creating the socio-political order, but white women and nonwhite “savages” and “barbarians” were not.”
The Declaration of Independence said as much. Though the U.S. Constitution less so. It doesn’t use the same derogatory language as the Declaration or even mention slavery. If you want to see what a more explicitly racist constitution might have looked like, check out the Confederate Constitution of 1861. It seems the authors of the U.S. Constitution pushed the hard questions to the states to answer. Still, the ruling class all knew slavery was tucked away in the constitution implicitly. As Abraham Lincoln said,
“Thus, the thing is hid away, in the Constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.”
Our country continues to twist itself into pretzels over race, gender, and citizenship instead of embracing a morally just universal inclusiveness. We need to look at our country and its history from the perspective of the persecuted to fully understand who we are. Our exceptionalism is intended to represent freedom from the tyranny of a King to form a more perfect union – a new modern government based on a new liberal ideal.
But as Charles Mills reveals, “For people of color, the modern polity is the white settler state expropriating them, the colonial state enslaving them, and the imperial state colonizing them.” White supremacy reigns supreme. Even today violence against people of color is an everyday reality, income inequality is leaving people of color behind, and the majority of Indigenous Americans remain deprived of their land. We still reign over Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and more.
Including Texas. Their struggles to survive the effects of the climate crisis reveals the need for compassion, unity, and an egalitarian reliance on our nation of states for energy, sustenance, and care.
DO YOU KNOW ROUSSEAU?
It’s time we recognize the injustices of the past and present and expose our country for what it really is. Mills writes, “Whether in the ancient, medieval, or modern epoch, the sociopolitical order is characterized by hierarchy, group domination, and moral inegalitarianism.” Many think we’ve moved on to a post-subjugating America by insisting our sins of the past were anomalies. That somehow amendments to the constitution have ‘fixed’ the problems. We can’t wish away our past if we want a better future.
In 1755 Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau wrote a less regarded, but prescient, piece called Discourse on Inequality. While focused on class and not race or gender, his critique of civil society holds true for all three. Rousseau observes a ‘domination contract’ whereby people become dependent on dominant, complex systems devised by the rich as the origins of inequality. Charles Mills calls for us to return to this discourse.
“We need to formally adopt the revisionist domination contract as a metaphor, demand racial transparency about the past and present, acknowledge the actual inegalitarian moral economy, and reorient social justice discussions to non-ideal theory, namely the correction of the flagrant injustices of several hundred years of racial oppression. Only through the exposure of racial liberalism for what it is can the requisite condemnation and egalitarian reconstruction of the racial state be accomplished.”