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The Color of Empire?

by Berry Friesen (August 28, 2017)

If you read this blog regularly, you know I am critical of the ever-expanding practice of racializing public dialogue and debate. By “racialize” I mean the practice of assigning a color (black, brown, white, etc.) to perspectives, points-of-view and diaolgue participants, thereby signaling how seriously to take whatever is being offered.

It’s not that color is irrelevant, either in life’s outcomes or in regard to points-of-view. Nor do I think we should pretend to be “colorblind.”

Our history in the US clearly documents how the so-called "white race" invented 350 years ago by Anglo-American plantation owners has used skin color to justify a comprehensive system of oppression and violence against people of color. This "invention" continues to shape our society today, creating risks, hurdles and disadvantages for "black" and "brown" peoples that "whites" never encounter. Today, it rarely appears in its original form--blatent color-based discrimination--but persists in the myriad ways in which the effects of race-based discrimination have become naturalized (and thus masked) in the social and economic structures of American life.

Yet the colorization of our discourse has had truly pernicious effects we dare not ignore. Here are three of the worst:  (a) group-think, which lowers the quality of dialog and decision-making; (b) the reification of “race” as a thing, which entrenches racism; and (c) the setting of people against one another, thus alienating people who share identities of faith, community and class.

So why am I blogging about "the color of empire?"

For starters, to call the empire “white” would attract attention—much more attention than the topic receives without the adjective. And by speaking of “the white empire,” we easily could proceed to call the empire “racist.” That simple rhetorical move would put “empire” on the agenda of many who ignore it now. Perhaps we’d soon be able to build the first strong anti-imperialist movement since the days of Mark Twain.

And it wouldn’t be that hard to make the case that the empire is "white." Look at the skin color of the empire’s victims:  mostly brown.  Look at the skin color of its beneficiaries: mostly white.

What do you think?  To reveal the dynamics of empire, do we need to colorize it?

Ajamu Baraka, co-founder of the Black Alliance for Peace, 2016 vice-presidential nominee of the Green Party, and long-time global human rights campaigner, provides an example of an anti-imperialist who sees racial dynamics at work in the actions and policies of the US-led empire. Baraka is a coalition builder who reaches out widely seeking allies and collaborators. Because of our high regard for his approach and message, John Stoner and I arranged for him to speak at the recent Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, Florida.

So let’s consider excerpts from one of Baraka's recent essays, “The Story of Charlottesville was Written in Blood in the Ukraine,” published by

“What is the character of racist right-wing politics today? Is it the crazed white supremacist who plows into an anti-fascist demonstration in Charlottesville, VA or can it also be the assurance by Lindsay Graham that an attack against North Korea would result in thousands of lives lost…. but those lives will be ‘over there’? 

“What about the recent unanimous resolution by both houses of Congress in support of Israel and criticism of the United Nations for its alleged anti-Israeli bias? Would that qualify as racist and right-wing, since it appears that the ongoing suffering of the Palestinians is of no concern? 

“And what about the vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to go even beyond the obscene proposal of the Trump administration to increase the military budget by $54 billion dollars and instead add a whopping $74 billion to the Pentagon budget?

“What I find interesting about the current discussion around what many are referring to as the emboldening of the radical white supremacist right is how easy it is to mobilize opposition against the crude and overt white supremacists we saw in Charlottesville. So easy, in fact, that it’s really a distraction from the more difficult and dangerous work that needs to be done to confront the real right-wing power brokers.

“The white supremacy that some of us see as more insidious is not reflected in the simple, stereotypical images of the angry, Nazi-saluting alt-righter or even Donald Trump. Instead, it is the normalized and thus invisible white supremacist ideology inculcated into cultural and educational institutions and the policies that stem from those ideas."

Baraka never uses the word “empire” in his essay, but it’s very clear he is writing about imperial behavior—such as “regime change” operations in other nations. His case in point is Ukraine, where the Obama Administration

“manipulated right-wing elements in Ukraine to overthrow the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovych. Not only was it dangerous and predictably disastrous for the Ukrainian people, but because U.S. support for a neo-fascist movement in Ukraine took place within a context in which the political right was gaining legitimacy and strength across Europe, the political impact of the right gaining power in Ukraine could not be isolated from the growing power of the right elsewhere.”

Liberals and the left both in the US and in Europe generally supported Obama’s Ukraine policies, says Baraka; they failed to realize that “playing footsie” with neo-fascists in Ukraine might indirectly empower neo-fascists elsewhere who are struggling to cope with “the contradictions of neoliberal capitalist globalization.”

Bringing the discussion back to Charlottesville, Baraka nails the point:

“The alt-right that showed up in Charlottesville this past weekend was mimicking the tactics of the frontline neo-fascist soldiers who orchestrated the coup in the Ukraine, yet everyone is saying this is a result of Trump. The objective fact is that the U.S. has become a dangerous right-wing society as a result of a steady shift to the right over the past four decades. The idea that Trump’s election somehow ‘created’ the right cannot be taken seriously . . .”

Of course, if we’re color-coding our analysis, we quickly note that Ukraine was “white” nation before the February, 2014 coup and it was “white” after the coup. So it couldn’t have been "white supremacy" alone that animated US policy in fomenting a coup against the elected Ukrainian government, right?

Certainly Baraka recognizes that factors beyond skin color drive imperialist policies. As I read him, he's trying to understand a more subtle reality: our apparent naiveté as Americans, our bottomless capacity to look past the horrid consequences of US-led violence and imperialism and nonchalantly assume the empire’s policies benefit everyone. What is the root of this clueless arrogance, this sense of unbridled entitlement?

“Trump and the alt-right have become useful diversions for white supremacist liberals and leftists who would rather fight against those superficial caricatures of racism than engage in more difficult ideological work involving real self-sacrifice—purging themselves of all racial sentimentality associated with the mythology of the place of white people, white civilization and whiteness in the world in order to pursue a course for justice that will result in the loss of white material privilege.”

By "racial sentimentality" I understand Baraka to be speaking about the widely held assumption that we Americans are an exceptional people, blessed with the indispensable ability to bring stability, peace and prosperity to the world. Certainly this assumption has been repeated often by US leaders in recent years. Might it function (among liberals and conservatives alike) to justify behavior that is obviously brutal and morally corrupt? Doesn't it suggest a right to rule those who are less capable?

Reflect for a moment on the security enjoyed by the US. No hostile nation sits on US borders.  Two oceans protect against invasion.  Overwhelming military capacity deters attack. Next, consider for a moment the devastation the US-led empire has visited upon Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen in recent years.

How deeply does this schizophrenia--a secure nation engaging in relentless, manic violence--trouble the American people?  Not very much, right? Why not? Aren't we a sane and moral people?

Sure, simple greed explains most imperial behavior. But we humans are social and spiritual beings, even when we are greedy.  We are never content in our greed; it must be rationalized and legitimized in terms of the good of all people, even the victims. This seems to be where Baraka's diagnosis of "white supremacy" fills in the picture; it explains how we justify what is otherwise unjustifiable.

I need more time with this.  The rhetoric of color is divisive. It blocks the formation of coalitions based on common values and aspirations and it plays into the divide-and-conquer tactics of the empire. It suits as a cry of frustration, but not as a constructve way forward. Yet it explains our nonchalance about imperialism better than anything else I’ve come up with. Maybe we should begin to add a bit of "color" into our discussions of empire.

What do you think? Read Ajamu Baraka's entire essay and then share your thoughts.


  1. NO WAY.

    What such would do is make of Charle Manson's Helter Skelter a prophecy.

    If "all violence is white" as Christian Peacemaker Teams emphasized after the Orlando mass murder by violent radicalized Islamists (and which I was denounced by the H-Ws for writing a denial of, labeled as a bigot) then the inevitable result will be when grievances rise to the level subjectively where people feel violence is acceptable and redemptive, that for survival people will have to withdraw for safety to "my race, right or wrong."

    I can't think of a more pernicious approach to resisting empire, than to try to use the poison of pernicious identity politics.

    Using that approach will end one as the progressive standing back in support of, but not getting hands dirty, as masked antifa bash heads, masked in black sheets instead of white, as if a crude cartoon.

    In addition, the definition of fascism, is government and corporate interests bundled and become identical, as unbreakable. As Sheldon Wolen pointed out, we live in an inverted totalitarianism, where finance controls government. The corporations are entirely behind identity politics as a distraction, while fomenting war for both profit and furtherance of their power.

    To embrace them is what progressives have now done, which is one reason there is no serious progressive antiwar movement. Rather, what there is is a community of diverging political perspectives that opposes war and imperial ambition among a minority, which is labeled fake news. Where the great unwashed public agrees, they are termed irredeemable deplorables who don't count, and are just white racists - even though the economic policies favored by the liberals who are "woke" are no different in their pernicious effect on all folks outside the one per cent and those engaged in servicing them.

    The Devil cannot be divided against himself.

    1. M, I am trying to understand how the American people rationalize/legitimize the brutal imperial actions of our government. Some narrative of supremacy is at work telling us that even when "our" government claims the lion's share of world resources, destroys nations that resist domination and kills millions of people in the process, we shouldn't be too alarmed because the course of history is in the right hands. The supremacy of the "white" race (or "white" civilization) may be one such narrative; the "supremacy" of American religion or of "Western values" (i.e., globalism) are other possibilities we could explore. In contrast, I hear you are assert there is presently a strong anti-imperial movement within America, but it is being slandered and misrepresented by imperialists and globalists because it (or at least a substantial portion) supported Trump against Clinton. Yes, I think that is a worthwhile premise to explore and it does suggest a different starting point than I used in this post.

  2. No one ethnic group has a monopoly on the capacity for violence. That the current world empire (and its former rival the Soviet Union) in this era happened to be "white" is the confluence of factors other than race (was Elijah Mohammed right that all whites are spawn of the Devil?). Our problems are not solved by making violence an equal opportunity program - otherwise Barack Obama as President would have met all the promise we hoped for change, but left things as they were as far as course, arguably further along the arc of empire. Having elite persons of color at Goldman Sachs or Citibank in charge doesn't change how people are actually treated by the banksters. If a particular ethnicity hasn't yet behaved with imperial impunity, it's simply that the circumstances didn't allow for it. Think of how some folks in Israel behave, as per your Palestinian example, when they are in a position of power to do so.

  3. I would say this discussion of empire and racism is like juggling knives, a highly dangerous exercise requiring much care and skill to be done successfully. The problem with singling out racism as the fundamental explanation of empire is that it’s like slipping a single knife into juggling a pile of sticks—you may think this is easier because there is only one knife in the pile.

    I read Ajuma Baraka’s essay “The Story of Charlottsville was Written in Blood in The Ukraine” as a warning that a localized and individualized case of racism can divert attention from the global policies of empire that are oppressing billions of people. And that the “project of empire” involves a whole collection of dangerous policies—predatory capitalism, military violence, corrupted religion and camouflaged racism—which look something like a beginner juggling a whole drawerful of knives. The analogy breaks down, but you get the idea. Here is another paragraph of Baraka’s essay which I believe summarizes his argument well:

    “The white supremacy that some of us see as more insidious is not reflected in the simple, stereotypical images of the angry, Nazi-saluting alt-righter or even Donald Trump. Instead, it is the normalized and thus invisible white supremacist ideology inculcated into cultural and educational institutions and the policies that stem from those ideas. That process doesn’t just produce the storm troopers of the armed and crazed radical right but also such covert true believers as Robert Ruben from Goldman Sachs, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Tony Blair and Nancy Pelosi -- “decent” individuals who have never questioned for a moment the superiority of Western civilization, who believe completely in the White West’s right and responsibility to determine which nations should have sovereignty and who should be the leaders of “lesser” nations. And who believe that there is no alternative to the wonders of global capitalism even if it means that billions of human beings are consigned permanently to what Fanon called the “zone of non-being.” ”

    Notice the phrase “White West”—this is not the world’s only case of empire, but it is ours.

  4. The Globalist Empire, using the resources available in terms of military and finance of the elites who direct America, has no love for democratic accountability, abroad or at home. It becomes a cabal of elites worldwide, who have no allegiance to anyone other than those they find most useful, largely their own economic class. Right now, the media obsession - better called out as propaganda - is that there is a vast white supremacist movement, made up according to them of downwardly mobile whites, who are irredeemable deplorables. Thus, the empire elites here in America are anxious to lay a cartoon villain as the threat, the millions of Americans they have disenfranchised as no more than troglodyte Nazis, to avoid local accountability to those they have harmed by their greed.

    It's clever. And identifying the problem of empire as "white" rather than being the aims of empire throughout history - conquest and subjugation of peoples en masse for the benefit of a few megalomaniacs, of whatever ethnic identity, when the objective is no more than what it has always been, booty, is too clever by half. If you convince me that as a disenfranchised person who will be vilified for being " white" you've just given a very strong impetus to the hundred million deplorables I am part of, when it comes to choosing sides for survival, I'll be left with nowhere else to go.

    When Helter Skelter goes down as too many seem anxious to see, there will be no choice for safety but division according to ethnicity.

    1. I'm trying to understand how we Americans of all skin colors rationalize and legitimize a stance and practice of great brutality in the world. Assuming we have a functioning moral compass, we need some narrative to reconcile our national identity as Americans with the reality that our government sows mayhem and death on our behalf. What is that narrative, M?

  5. The color of Empire, is the color of blood.

    I do not believe that the elites running the policies are acting on behalf of average Americans, though it is anxious to manufacture public opinion to pretend that is what it is doing.

    Recent studies have proven what ought to have been evident, that government decisions are driven by what the largest financial entities want for their own interests, and that does not at all conflate with either the desires or interests of the hundreds of millions.

    This doesn't exempt folks from the little democratic accountability they can still exercise. This is a highly narcissistic age of personal appetite, with individuals urged to practice no restraint, because that melds perfectly with corporatist profit aims. The elite individuals don't recognize any limits on their own oversized lusts for money and power, either.

  6. I'd say we are being bombarded by corporate media's narrative that what we have to fear is the nationalism of local control by indigenous populations (including Americans of all ethnicities in flyover country) which they are anxious to propagandize negatively as "blood and soil," as opposed to their own, which is "blood and oil."