The Machinery of Dehumanization

“The logic behind white domination is to prepare the black man for the subservient role in this country. Not so long ago this used to be freely said in parliament, even about the educational system of the black people. It is still said even today, although in a much more sophisticated language. To a large extent the evil-doers have succeeded in producing at the output end of their machine a kind of black man who is man only in form. This is the extent to which the process of dehumanization has advanced.”

—Steve Biko, We Blacks

If racism is institutional in the Netherlands, then why do ‘anti-racists’, keep looking for racism in the familiar places? Cataloguing highly locatable racist comments may point out the ubiquity of racist expressions, however, it does nothing to illuminate the work that racialization performs. Black folks and non-Black people of colour hardly need reminding of the scale of overt racism in the Netherlands. The question is, then, who is the intended audience of such cataloguing? Besides, targeting individual (online) commenters and writing them off using ableist and/or classist terms not only strengthens the idea that racism is an individual, psychological, and interpersonal ‘issue’, rather than a constitutive, systemic, and cultural feature of the social body of the Netherlands, but it also suggests that it is OK to challenge racism with ableism and classism. If racism is woven into the very fabric of the social body and its institutions, then why are certain institutions exempt from scrutiny?

It’s easy to point out the overtly racist claptrap of Wilders and his ilk. However, it is far more difficult to locate the covert racial logics of institutionalized anti-racist programmes; the racial logics of white-designed anti-racist programmes remain largely unnoticed—in the main, because they are masked by ‘good intentions’. As you can imagine, I’m not very much interested in expressions of overt racism. Rather, my primary concern is with the forms of socially sanctioned, thus legitimate and unassailable, everyday commonsense racial logics: the racial violence that is systematically rendered innocuous by a patina of ‘good intentions’. I am interested in how normalized, everyday forms of terror and coercion—for example, policing and state-sanctioned anti-racism—discipline Black and blackened folks, and reinforce the logic and authority of the racial state. What legal mechanisms are made available for redress of social injustice?

The legal system is the prime mechanism through which both racial violence and its ‘redress’ are carried out (let’s not pretend, to echo the analytical attitude of Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman, that the quotation marks do not matter). This isn’t by accident: there is no inconsistency between the law and its application. Saidiya Hartman tells us, that “the proposed remedies and correctives to [structural racism]—inclusion, protection, and greater access to opportunity—do not ultimately challenge the economy of racial production or its truth claims or interrogate the exclusion constitutive of the norm but instead seek to gain equality, liberation, and redress within its confines.”

The solutions proffered—inclusion, protection, and greater access to opportunity—are geared toward the preservation of a sustainable neoliberal multiracial society. The nature of anti-racism is seen as a narrative of progress, which is conceived as structurally similar to the equilibrium—disequilibrium—equilibrium trajectory of narrative. To elaborate, what is presupposed is that the state of equilibrium—a state of non-racism—is disrupted by a racist instance, after which anti-discrimination bureaus intervene in order to facilitate a return to a state of equilibrium. However, this narrative arc makes sense only from the point of view of the White subject. For the Black life form the supposed state of equilibrium is an illusory trick; racism is always already there. From the positionality of the Black there is no “unniggarized vantage point from which to see the world or be seen by the world.”

The narrative trajectory of institutionalized anti-racism, which is premised on the resolution of individual charges, represses the unacknowledged paradigmatic violence of White supremacy. What is ultimately restored is not a condition in which non-racism is the norm (which would be impossible in the world as we know it), but the innocence with which the Dutch state is associated; what is recuperated is stability and invisibilization of systemic proto-genocidal anti-black violence. ‘Peaceful coexistence’ of difference in the neoliberal multiracial society can only be achieved through anti-black violence. What institutionalized anti-racism helps sustain is the illusion that the society we live in is fair and just. Thus, as institutions that are essential to the well-being of a diverse civil society, anti-discrimination agencies perform an important role. They are crucial channels in the state-sanctioned framework, through which the illusion of a ‘democratic’ and ‘just’ society is perpetuated.

Surprisingly, there is hardly any attention paid to how institutions that “are involved in the fight against discrimination,” like anti-discrimination agencies, are complicit in anti-blackness. Anti-discrimination agencies extend, for instance, community-oriented policing capacities. Anti-discrimination agency RADAR has been collaborating with various organizations in “Panel Deurbeleid Rotterdam” (Rotterdam Door Policy Panel) to tackle discriminatory door policies in Rotterdam. The Door Policy Panel is a collaboration between representatives from the Rotterdam Youth Council, the Royal Dutch Hotel and Restaurant Association Netherlands, the Rotterdam-Rijnmond police department, RADAR and the municipality of Rotterdam. RADAR has been working with the Rotterdam police department and the Rotterdam municipality—both known for their racist policies—in order to ‘clamp down on discrimination’. On their website RADAR notes that the number of reports of discrimination has decreased considerably, and in that sense it seems that the door policy of establishments in Rotterdam “has improved.”

The number of registered complaints serves, then, as a gauge by which the relative “urgency” of the racism problem is judged. In other words, less complaints equals less racism equals “improvement.” This approach to ‘anti-racism’ promotes the itemization of registered, and therefore perceived, racial problems. The Public Prosecution Service does some cataloguing of its own. “In order to tackle discrimination effectively,” the Public Prosecution Service argues, “it is important to have a clear picture of the nature and scope of discrimination-related problems.” So, it can determine “whether a particular action is an offence or not.” The need for injury to be first established serves only to shift attention away of the perpetual violation of bodies coded as Black, disposable, valueless. I have to ‘voluntarily’, to echo Zine Magubane, commodify my experience as a Black man in an anti-black world, and ‘willingly’ capitulate to a racial calculus, which profits from the (symbolic) “‘atomizing’ of the captive body.”

Institutionalized anti-racism is an exercise in political arithmetic; a method of enumerating and evaluating complaints. The MDI, which “aims at an Internet free from hate and discrimination where users exercise the right of freedom of expression responsibly,” compiled a top 3 list of targeted groups. It noted that Anti-Semitism was, again, the largest category of discrimination on the Internet. There were 250 reported incidents of Anti-Semitism, which is, according to MDI, given the small size of the Dutch Jewish community, “a remarkable fact.” In second place, with 222 reported incidents, came Islamophobia, a category that has long been in the top three. In third place, with 193 reported incidents, came anti-black racism. This third place is “remarkable” given the figures for previous years. The anti-discrimination agency attributed the sudden rise to “the intense debate in 2013 about Zwarte Piet,” which was “unprecedentedly fierce, especially on social media platforms, and led to many discriminatory statements towards people with darker skin colour.”

The itemization of racial injuries transforms the specificity of the experiences of the Jew, the Muslim, and the Black into “equivalent units within the framework of the market,” in which racial injuries are appraised and the need for ‘anti-racism’ rests on the amount of complaints the state and/or anti-discrimination bureaus receive. Moreover, the itemization of racial injury provides both the state and civil society with the illusion of their being ‘inherently’ non-racist and non-violent. Both state interventions “to combat discrimination” and anti-discrimination agencies delimit the definition of racism by placing emphasis on individuals responsible for overt, locatable and ‘isolated’ acts of racial violence, rather than the structural nature of racial violence; they depoliticize, decontextualize, and individualize racial violence.

Labelling everything ‘discrimination’ collapses the specificities of the material history of Black folk and non-Black people of colour in the Netherlands into a set of generalized and contained racialized experiences; this move homogenizes those who are differentially positioned in relation to the White Autochtoon Dutch (note: we are all called Allochtoon—regardless of our specific histories). As I noted previously, “race gathers its libidinal force from anti-blackness.” Black fungibility is the conceptual and discursive catalyst  through which European humanity is imagined and comes into being; Black flesh “serve[s] as placeholder for access to freedoms that are denied the black subject.” As such, civil society has a libidinal investment in the erasure and abjection of Black flesh. Blackness has “little to do ethically with the colour of the skin, and more with the ‘rights and privileges’ of individuals who in their performances and behaviours are either good citizens or not.”As So-treu explains on their blog, “it’s less about the individual experience and more about how how [sic.] the group is placed within a system.” However, the reader should not be quick to disappear the Black body from the scene; John Murillo III reminds us that even though “antiblackness is a symbolic order in excess of acts, forms, or visible structures—it is an abstraction that is aural to the world, its operations, its grammar, and it materializes/condenses into black (marked) flesh.”

Any neoliberal anti-racist politics, which is articulated within the parameters and grammar of civil society, is inherently parasitic on Black flesh. Anti-discrimination agencies, ultimately, shore up the state’s authority and extend its interlocutionary life they disarticulate anti-blackness from Dutch politics. It is, to say the very least, ironic that “[t]he same people who are guilty of the subjugation and oppression of the black man want us to believe that they can now design for blacks means of escape from that situation.” What’s more, it is perverse that the state and the criminal justice system, which disproportionally targets Black(ened) folks and treats them more harshly, position themselves as ‘allies’ and ‘our’ protectors.

Last year, when Black folks spoke out against Zwarte Piet, a figure which the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights has deemed racist, nine undercover police officers of a special tactical unit accompanied Sinterklaas during his official arrival in Groningen. Not only were these officers dressed up as Zwarte Piet, but they were armed and wore bulletproof vests, as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, but that was not the first time police officers dressed up as Zwarte Piet in order “to act as decoys and observers in ‘suspicious’ situations.” These policing tactics are a logical extension of pervasive anti-black police operations; anti-blackness provides the political rationale for the control of public space. The state used the threat of violence by police officers to stave off challenges by assertive Black folk; or, to put it plainly, the state protected and supported White supremacy through coercion and force.

Racial violence operates primarily through coercion—either through direct violence, or threats—and ‘care’. In other words, racial violence works not only through the use of racial terms, but also through legal restrictions or legal options and control of a vast network of spaces. “At the centre of coercion,” as Michael Weinstein asserts, “is effective control of space,” which leads Weinstein to define coercion “in terms of controlling spaces rather than in terms of controlling actions.” (click here to see how that plays out in everyday life) He argues that,

“One is coerced through another’s control of the available spaces for action, or release. In fact, one can frequently be compelled to perform a series of actions that are means to the realization of another’s plan merely because the other can exclude him from certain spaces or confine him to a narrow space at will.”

The proper recourses (space) Black(ened) folks are afforded within the ‘fair and just’ legal framework—if we are discriminated against—serve as disciplinary techniques that reinforce the subjected status of the Black: if we are to be thought of as properly ‘integrated’ or ‘civilized’, we have no other option but to pursue these avenues. Moreover, these proper avenues force us to align ourselves with the state (by requiring us to actively collaborate with the surveillance apparatus). The purpose of neoliberal (state-sanctioned) ‘anti-racist’ politics is, thus, not to bring about the end of an anti-black world, but to redirect anti-colonial struggles into safe business models, such as anti-discrimination agency, which, in a larger sense, manage, redirect, and defuse Black rage. These agencies give us a false sense of hope.

The “the intense debate” on Zwarte Piet did not usher in a “crisis” in the placid ‘racial equilibrium’ in the Netherlands, it merely exposed entrenched anti-blackness. However, instead of offering an unflinching analysis of structural anti-blackness, anti-discrimination agencies, mainstream media, and the state locate racist practices in personal failings that must be addressed and amended by the racist individual—preferably in ways that are easily accessible to others. Racism is systematically packaged in quickly and easily accessible examples. This convenient bracketing of racism simply facilitates the popular expression of anti-racism. Anti-racism becomes a public performance—“the procedural activity of identifying and admonishing bad words and, by association, the ‘bad’ people who intentionally or involuntarily let them slip their lips.”

In essence, institutionalized anti-racist efforts are meant to dispel the ghost of collective responsibility for racial violence, and defend White reputation. The therapeutic discourse of anti-discrimination agencies (the language of ‘empowerment’) pathologizes Black rage; racism is articulated as a personal feeling. As such, racism is decoupled from larger, societal phenomena that are indicative of the fact of blackness: Black flesh suffers an unequal burden of death, disease, and financial distress. Moreover, due to the atomistic individualization of racism (something is racist, because you feel it’s racist), racism is equated with pain (it hurts me, therefore, it is racist). In this scheme, making something “less racist” makes absolutely sense. For it follows that, if one can lessen the pain caused by racism, one can lessen racism itself. Additionally, the calls of anti-discrimination agencies to ‘prevent’ racism not only gloss over the low intensity ethnic cleansing project of the Dutch state, they also obfuscate the structuring force of institutionalized racism. Racism cannot be ‘prevented’, “racism is a structure” that needs to be dismantled. It is through these moves that the state emerges as a ‘defender of rights’. It is through these moves that anti-oppression work can be articulated as charity work. It is through these moves that anti-racism devolves into a project of accumulation—both of racial injuries and of ‘redresses’.

As Black and non-Black people of colour we need to think about how we understand anti-racism. By which I mean, we need to reckon with the “biopolitics of anti-racism,” the ways through which some Black lives are marginally fostered and supported, while other Black lives are made vulnerable, difficult or impeded to the point of death. The devastating irony is, as Saidiya Hartman notes in Fugitive Dreams, that Black people in western societies are less vulnerable because we are “safely situated within the enclosure of empire and foreign capital, which is the very same force making the lives of Africans vulnerable and disposable.” The semblance of humanity (of Black folks in the West) is brought about and maintained through accumulated structural adjustments; the ongoing paternalistic colonial project of fashioning Black people into human beings deserving of rights. “The ethics of being just and kind were the ethics,” as Sylvia Wynter notes in Sambos and Minstrels, “born out of this relation.” In addition, Steve Biko instructs us that,

“The biggest mistake the black world ever made was to assume that whoever opposed apartheid was an ally.”

Black life is a version of flourishing not only highly conditioned by violence—it comes into being through violence. Afro-pessimists, like Jared Sexton, force us to reckon with the destabilizing fact that, “black life is not social, or rather that black life is lived in social death.” Black life is, in the words of David Marriott, “a fatal way of being alive.” We cannot resolve anti-blackness by appealing to the state. Anti-blackness is a constitutive element of its institutions, and its ethics; every action of the state is inherently anti-black. We would be appealing to the state to undo itself—and that is an impossibility. We should not let this web of “rights” and “anti-discrimination agencies” ensnare us into thinking that we can find sanctuary in a system that runs on the physical and psychological death of Black(ened) folks.  I have no intention whatsoever to defend “a system that has no right to exist.”

Note: both RADAR and article 1 of the Constitution (in its current phrasing) came into being in 1983. That’s only 31 years ago. The Netherlands does not have a long tradition of institutionalized anti-discrimination.

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2 thoughts on “The Machinery of Dehumanization

  1. In 1998 a New York policeman and two firefighters were dismissed by their employers because they had worn blackface in a public event (see: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/28/nyregion/28float.html) but in the Netherlands the police are dressing in blackface as part of their work! juxtaposing these two situations illustrates the artficiality and ineptitude of Dutch anti discrimination rhetoric and institutions respectively.

  2. Thanks Egbert, a great write again.. Its indeed very important to become aware of how these anti-discrimination agencies work to again give one the feeling that ‘we the dutch’ are on the right path and that the goverment is on the right side, and that racism is not a structural issue in dutch society. I find the thing with the policemen really extreme actually. I had thought about that at the moment that it happened, because I found it truly incredible. I think that it blurs the line between reality and fantasy to such an extent that a ‘fairy tale’ becomes acted out: the slave descendants see their history of violence and repression repeated in figures that represent themselves. It is not only an extreme form of institutionalized racism, but the state becomes a real part of the fairy tale, which is supposed to be fictive. The vast majority of dutch feel supported in their superiority complex, in which THEY become depicted as the victims, and in which they receive REAL police support to back up their (often of course unconcsious) racist practices. They also receive support for their paranoia that peacefully demonstrating slave descendants would possibly attack or even assissinate their own fictive sinterklaas, the white man. Maybe this goes too extreme but honestly it is quite extreme to dress up policemen as black petes.

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