Of course, it is not fair to judge white supremacists by Mr. Duke, because, let us be honest, most white supremacists are far shabbier still. The participants at a given Klan rally are not likely to be drawn from among the class of mathematicians, opera singers, and chemical engineers. Instead, many white supremacists appear to be as familiar with jail cells as Duke is. I fail to see how this marks such people as superior, let alone supreme.
But even if it could be said that white supremacists really are better than everyone else, it would still not explain what was meant by the adjective “white”. I would like to know if there is anyone in the world who can define this five-letter word. Chickens are white sometimes, and so are their eggs, and mountain snowcaps are white and the hair of old people is often white, too. But these are examples, not definitions. White may be said to be the absence of color, but “elephant” could be defined as “the absence of horse” with equal clarity, which amounts to very little. Description, even predicated in the negative, is not definition, either. Confusingly, white can also be the combination of all colors, which fairly leaves the would-be definer reeling.
When it comes to people it is infinitely harder to work up to a meaning for the word “white”. Who white people are, I simply cannot say. Is it a grouping, a race, an aspiration, a state of mind? On government forms I am occasionally asked to mark down whether I am “white” or not, but how to answer? I have ancestors from four countries in Europe and the ones I knew of ranged from the color of planed olivewood to that of blushing tulip.
If I look at my own skin it seems a kind of soggy paper bag color, although the knuckles on my hands are tinged with little dollops of raspberry yogurt and my knees, when I have occasion to look at them, are like sand grains showing through a dusting of volcanic ash. How odd to say that I am white, when none of me is except perhaps my sock line. And my Cherokee ancestors, who never went to Europe, would be even more flummoxed than I by all this business. There is an “Hispanic” box on the forms the government distributes—one of my grandfathers was from Spain, so does that count?
The category error of “white” is more than just occasionally annoying. It is downright pernicious. It is an artificial assaying of people into census-sized herds, but the concept of race itself is—does this really need saying?—poisoned with anti-human devilry. Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism presents a very good outline of how nation-states rose up by drawing lines between people based on made-up criteria and then absolutizing those arbitrary lines as frontiers between citizens and sub-humans. Without prompting from me, any reader can easily rehearse for him- or herself what all this came to in the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first.
But even if race were somehow not merely a pulpit for the most heinous demagogues to mount, there would still be the problem of “white supremacy” as logically nonsensical in its own right. Whatever it means or doesn’t mean in actuality, “white” as used by the white supremacists denotes a group which the white supremacists claim is better than other groups, and therefore fit to lord it over other groups less well endowed. But this is precisely where the term defeats itself. For, if there is to be supremacy by an arbitrary group then, axiomatically, that group must have superior members. But “white” does not guarantee that anyone will join except the unexceptional, those who have failed in every other endeavor and look to take shelter in comforting myths.
And at any rate, groupism cancels out individuals right off the bat. A family of tree sloths, no matter how many, will never be any faster than its slowest member. And, on average, they will never be fast at all. Tree sloths have no members anywhere who might be called superior in speed. It is the same for white supremacists. They cannot, on the one hand, claim that their group is superior, and at the same time, and on the other hand, claim that they all belong to the same group. Because it is not a merit-based organization, but simply the worship of the collective over the individual. White supremacy is like the dictatorship of the proletariat. Only the mediocre matter, and even then, it’s only their mediocrity that stands out. Everything else gets shunted aside. Individuality gets ground down into oblivion. White supremacy turns out to be a silly fraud. The groupness undoes the supremacy, however one looks at it.
By the same token, I am not allowed—unless I want to be laughed at—to claim that I, as an American citizen, have title to the medals that other Americans won at the Olympics. American supremacy in Olympic medals is because some Americans worked very hard to be the best at a given sport. One does not just swap out any random American and expect the same results. It is funny to think of Paris Hilton competing in the ski jump. It is even funnier to think of Jason Morgan competing in figure skating. Just because Miss Hilton and I are both Americans does not mean that we are both excellent at things at which a very, very few other Americans excel. And yet, the white supremacists would have us look at averages and groups, not at individuals. This is a good strategy for the white supremacists, of course, because—as established at the outset—as individuals, they are striking only in being unremarkable.
Now, denouncing these silly white supremacists are many who claim to be advocating for black lives. Here, too, though, I admit that I am stumped. I have never seen any lives, much less any black ones. Why do people speak in this way? The life that a person lives is the residue of the person him- or herself. So why do we not speak of black persons? Leaving aside the fact, applicable from above, that colors as synecdoches for people simply have no meaning upon more careful reflection, we must also note that “lives” are to “persons” as “footprints” are to “feet”. The residue is in a way the whole. One does not go to the store to purchase “footprint-makers,” one goes to purchase shoes. So why do we speak in favor of lives, but not of the people who live them?
The oddity of this can be explained by pressing down on the contradiction until we reach firmer ground, like digging in the dirt until the shovel tip hits a buried box. The explanation we reach does not satisfy the logical objections thus far raised, but this is because the reasons for the confusing parlance are political, not logical. On the surface, and at least at first, the phrase “black lives” is, was, meant to emphasize that police officers disproportionately kill black people. Whether this is a statement supported by statistics I will leave for others to debate. But the reason that the focus here is on lives, and not people, seems to be related to the fact that it is not so much the misery of the last few moments of a black person’s life that is the problem, as the misery of his or her entire life up to the moment of being killed by the police.
“Black lives matter” means that police should not kill black people, should not end their lives. But if black people mattered, then that would entail asking a whole other set of questions about those people, and not just about the fact that they have been killed. These questions would be sure to discomfit entrenched forces which have long profited, politically and otherwise, from the misery of black people. Hence, the focus on black lives, and not human persons.
Indeed, to say that black persons mattered would be more provocative still. For, while “black lives” emphasizes the tragic last hour of a life, and “black people” the tragic decades of his or her upbringing and adulthood, “black persons” would lead inexorably to a consideration of black human beings inside of the womb. As any Planned Parenthood employee will tell you, such human beings are not persons at all. At least, this is the lie upon which an enormous amount of political edifice in the United States is constructed.
But here we find a most unsettling connection with white supremacy. For, once we start putting some people into groups, we find that the habit sticks and we cannot stop until we have put everyone into a group. And some groups will always need to be put down so that other groups can feel they have risen up. In a fallen world, it will always be lucrative to deny someone’s humanity. Someone will always be ready to profit from another’s distress. Perhaps, in that sense, we should name all non-human black people in the womb “Dred Scott”. But then, of course, Dred Scott could speak for his own personhood, whereas black babies cannot do even that much. So it is taboo to speak of “black persons,” many of whom never get to live a life in the first place, even while lamenting the cessation of “black lives”.
By the same token, a BLM leader from New York recently gave an interview in which he praised Jesus for being a black liberator killed by a white government, but this denies the divinity and the humanity of Christ in a kind of jiujutsu Arianism I think may be new on the heresy list. The same poisoned mindset that denies that black babies are people also denies that Christ is worth following unless He is black. Anyone who sets race up as a defining characteristic is committing a sin against God. Anyone who sets race up as a category for God Himself is sinning against God in a most egregious way.
This is probably why the two watchwords of the present moment unsettle me so. In both of these strange sayings, “white supremacy” and “black lives,” we find the denial of individual, unrepeatable personhood, the almost frantic attempt to erase the soul and focus on some, at best, incidental aspect of the body, namely that it can be called white or black. But even this is nonsense, as I challenge the reader to find anyone who is truly white—not taupe, not ecru—or truly black—not chestnut, not teak. Once we lose the myth of bichromalism, then the myth of groupism falls with it in the same swoop. And once those myths are evaporated we are forced to confront the real, live, eternally-souled human being in front of us, who is neither genus nor species embodied but who is, simply, a man or a woman, a child, a baby boy or girl, a fetus furiously plumping up to be born.
No one names her baby “white”. No one calls her baby “black,” or even “life”. Joshua, Mary, Tahnika, George. Those people we know. They all do much more than just “matter”. They all are much more than just matter. Their lives have meaning because their souls are worth infinitely more than the universe and everything in it. White supremacy and “black lives”—these are not people. White, black—sorry, never heard of them.
--Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.