On ‘White Powerholders’
Gillborn’s ahistorical stance is also revealed in the final part of chapter 2 when he refers to Derrick Bell’s Chronicle of the Space Traders (Bell 1992).10 As Gillborn (2008, pp. 41-42) explains, this is a short story that recounts what happens when aliens visit the US and offer a simple trade: as much gold and technology as is needed to solve the US economic and environmental crises, in return for every African American being taken away to an unknown fate. There follows a flurry of activities including secret meetings between politicians and capitalists, where the capitalists express concern at losing an important market, and a useful scapegoat. In the end, millions of African Americans enter the trader ships in chains just as their forebears entered the New World in the first place. Bell (1992, p. 13) is right to conclude that ‘an ultimate sacrifice of black rights—or lives’ is ‘[e]verpresent, always lurking in the shadow of current events’
(cited in Gillborn 2008, p. 42), and Gillborn (2008, p. 42) is right that Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent man killed by police with seven shots to the head, was such a sacrifice. However, this is not the decision of ‘whites’ (Bell 1992, p. 13, cited in Gillborn 2008, p. 42), or of ‘White powerholders’ (Gillborn 2008, p. 42), viewed as a perpetual omnipresent and ubiquitous ahistorical and essentialist force, as Critical Race Theorists would have us believe.
These white power holders need to be situated economically, politically and ideologically. They are, as Bell rightly notes in the case of his Chronicle, ‘politicians’ and ‘capitalists’. With respect to de Menezes, they are agents of the Repressive State Apparatus, acting under orders in the wake of mounting Islamophobia (see chapter 3 of this volume), in a period two weeks after the events of 7th July 2005 (7/7). These bomb attacks in London need themselves to be sent in the context of UK-supported US imperialist adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan (see chapter 7 of this volume).
Gillborn (2008, pp. 42-3) describes a radio programme, almost a year after 7/7, which focused on a high profile raid by 250 police in East London which involved the shooting at close range (not fatal) of a Muslim man. Two Muslim men were taken into custody, and released later without charge.
In response to the question, ‘are you prepared for the police to make mistakes sometimes?’, the presenter of the UK radio station, Five Live read the following sentiments from listeners without comment:
‘[i]f there were no Muslim terrorists, there would be no police raids on Muslims. It’s simple’.
‘It’sgood that these Muslims, Arabs and Asians are having it rough here’ and ‘I’d rather the odd one got shot than a relative of mine got blown up’ (cited in Gillborn 2008, pp. 42-43).
This is not as Gillborn (2008, p. 42) maintains ‘one final piece of evidence on the matter of the Space Traders’; it cannot be explained in Bell’s (1992, p. 13, cited in Gillborn 2008, p. 42) words simply as a consensus among whites ‘that a major benefit to the nation justifies an ultimate sacrifice of black rights—or lives’, nor by a ‘lack of essential goodness in the human (white) spirit’. Rather this needs to be situated in the context of British Imperialism and its aftermath, as well as New US Imperialism and the global frenzy for more and more surplus value (see chapter 7 of this volume). The listeners’ comments cannot be separated out from success?ful interpellation, from the successes of Ideological Apparatuses of State (Althusser 1971), in particular in this case, the media, and perhaps particularly The Sun or The Daily Mai!-. It is important for Bell to mention the discussion between politicians and capitalists in his Chronicle of the Space Traders, but these reactions also need grounding in the real world. A white supremacist fantasy story may be useful for its shock value (see chapter 3) but it remains that—‘a white supremacist fantasy story’ unless it is situated historically, and in the context of specific eras in the capitalist mode of production, and related to old or new imperialisms. I would like to underline my point by referring to a statement which appeared, at the time of writing in the Guardian newspaper: ‘It is unfortunate that people got killed’ (cited in McGreal 2008).
The young man reported in the Guardian goes on to say, ‘[b]ut they had to go. They do not belong here taking jobs’. ‘Let them go back to Zimbabwe and solve their own problems instead of bringing them here. We have enough problems of our own’ (cited in ibid.). However, this is a long way from the UK, and the context very different and totally unrelated to any notion of ‘White powerholders’ or ‘white supremacy’. This chilling vignette could be almost anywhere in the world where migrants are on the receiving end of neoliberal capitalism. In fact it is in South Africa, and the young man is a black South African. As the Guardian writer, Chris McGreal (2008) explains
No one in Cleveland squatter camp seemed to know the names of the five burned or bludgeoned bodies. They were referred to simply as Zimbabweans, though no one could even be sure they were that. It was enough that they were foreigners accused of taking jobs, houses and women—or of leading a crime wave—by the mobs that killed them and drove hundreds of others from their homes. About 50 people were taken to hospital with gunshot and stab wounds as the gangs smashed their way in to the dozen or so foreign- owned shops in Cleveland, in the south of Johannesburg.
McGreal explains that ‘[h]ostility to Africans from other parts of the continent has long been rife in South Africa but has escalated with the arrival of the Zimbabweans’. They are ‘popular with local employers because many are well educated, speak good English and are seen as working harder than South Africans’. McGreal concludes that seven people were killed earlier in the year, including a Somali, Zimbabweans and Pakistanis and two Somali shop owners. Zimbabean Grace Muzenda tells McGreal, ‘they always hated us. We thought this might happen’ (McGreal 2008). The racism fostered by capitalists’ universal desire for the generation of extra surplus value is not, in this case, colour-coded. As with the reactions of the listeners to Five Live these events need to be understood in context. Since the post-apartheid governments have gone down the road of neoliberal capitalism, rather than social democracy, let alone socialism, improvements in housing, electricity and water supply, health and education that were anticipated after the end of apartheid have not materialised (Talbot 2008). Most of the poor live in conditions that are as bad as or worse than under apartheid (ibid.). At the same time, a tiny minority of the elite in the African National Congress have become fabulously wealthy. The gap between the rich and poor has widened under the ANC government. Black empowerment has created a layer of rich businessmen (ibid.). Echoing developments elsewhere, ‘Government ministers have consistently demonised illegal immigrants, while at the same time making it extremely difficult for them to gain legal status’ (ibid.).
The longer term historical context, in this case, consists of a complex history of three centuries of capitalism and imperialisms, starting with the Dutch and British colonisation of southern Africa, and the intense form of capital accumulation that was apartheid, as well, perhaps, as the categorisation of people into ‘tribes’ by nineteenth century and early twentieth century colonial anthropologists and others (Vail (ed.) 1989). Rule in these three centuries up to and including apartheid most certainly could be described as the hegemony of ‘white powerholders’, but not any more.