Drone Policy Is the Most Important Racism
Salon’s arc of fail last week began with David Sirota’s meditation that “we are all targets now,” which spawned a minor revolution on social media and inspired TWiB Prime to break its hiatus for the “This Motherfucker Right Here Hour.” Now, Cornel West, among many others, has repeated the parallel, alleging that Obama is a “global George Zimmerman” because the Administration has sanctioned the use of drones for targeted killing in Yemen and elsewhere.
The strange essence of the critique is that Obama is a hypocrite for publicly, personally identifying with one murdered Black boy while the Administration’s foreign policy justifies the murders of innocent brown people abroad. This inappropriate parallel between Obama and Zimmerman erases the suffering of Black people and other marginalized groups in America, allows white men to co-opt the conversation while claiming that they are anti-racist, ignores crucial differences between vigilante justice and foreign policy, and requires Obama to be superhuman to maintain authority.
There are several incidents of privilege-blindness among the mostly white male drone-obsessed elite. First, their public anger over the drone program seemed to begin when Eric Holder made statements extending the legal justification for the program to killing U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. That implies that these critics think that the U.S. government killing U.S. citizens is new or unusual, when a simple surface-level review of this country’s history shows that the government has always committed sustained and fatal violence against brown people, women, gay people, transpeople, disabled people, and poor people among others.
People who insist on talking about drones as an ultimate evil ignore this history of violence, which is well-known in communities not their own. And, the likelihood that white men personally will be targeted by a drone is absurdly small, compared to the likelihood that a member of a marginalized community will continue to suffer from the government’s active and passive violence. So, hearing these critics air their feelings of being “targets” for the first time is offensive to those from communities that have lived under the gun for generations, especially because these feelings exclude points of view from those communities. If you are privileged enough to suddenly feel scared of the government, you are complicit in denying the violence against marginalized people that has always existed.
The other part of white male critics’ anxiety comes from recognition that the world order is changing. Traditionally, the American president has been a white man who identifies and legitimizes white men’s problems as American Problems. Now, President Obama is the public face of America, and when he identifies a traditionally invisible Black People’s Problem, it becomes, for the first time, an American Problem. By stubbornly forcing Obama’s statements about Trayvon Martin into the framework of opposition to drone strikes, white male public intellectuals are attempting to return to white men the power to define American Problems.
White critics insist that Obama addresses drone strikes above all other expressions of white supremacy, while claiming that they are the “true” soldiers against racism. They apparently believe that they get to decide which policies are “important-racist” and which ones are “unimportant-racist.” It must be a coincidence that the “unimportant-racist” policies are the ones that most directly validate white upper-class male privilege. Also, by arguing that drones exhibit “important racism,” these critics reinforce the narrative that killing Black people is “unimportant racism,” and not as valuable as executing white men’s philosophical priorities.
Of course, Cornel West is not a white man, and his critiques center around Obama’s failure to end all expressions of white supremacy in the system, including drone strikes. West asks more of Obama than anyone could ever deliver. It’s simply not possible for one person to end the white supremacist system. And, if Obama tried, it would require him adopting a non-colonialist, non-interventionist foreign policy that bore no resemblance to any that had come before. The War on Terror, especially, does not support such a policy shift, and many Americans still consider a few civilian deaths in faraway countries an acceptable price for safeguarding American lives.
On the other hand, the Zimmerman case shone a spotlight on discrete racist aspects of the justice system, and Obama’s statements contributed to the public energy around the effort to end them. Obama’s symbolic importance is far from the mere token that West describes: it is powerful enough for white men to start vomiting feelings all over everyone because the President, for once, isn’t talking about them. West’s statements lumping Obama and Zimmerman together discount the vastly different contexts in which both men operated, and dismiss Obama’s contributions to the effort against the stereotyping that pollutes outcomes of the justice system. West’s claims that Obama must clear out all the racism from the system before he can claim moral authority unreasonably holds a Black person responsible for ending white supremacy. As always, the people in the best position to end aggression are aggressors; white people must refuse or lose the ability to perpetuate their own supremacy before it will end.
It is not necessary for Obama to critique the use of drones in order to critique white supremacy in the system. In fact, when the Black president overtly identifies with Trayvon Martin, he interrogates that system in a novel, powerful way that only he can do. Insisting that drones are the most important expression of American white supremacy dismisses problems that the Black community identifies as deeply important and imminently threatening, and dismisses the Black president when he identifies them as such. Remind me how that, itself, isn’t racist?