Anti-Palestinian Racism: A Resource

By the Anti-Empire Project. CC-BY-4.0.

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The current war throughout Israel and Palestine, focused on Gaza – as Israel’s military campaigns have been since 2006 – is enabled by a powerful force throughout the West, one that is not talked about and rarely named: Anti-Palestinian Racism.

In very recent years mainstream institutions – universities, school boards, media institutions have created strategies (largely ineffective by design) to combat “anti-Black racism”. As ineffective as these have been, naming the problem as specifically anti-Black racism, without subsuming it into a broader category, has been a step forward, making it possible to look for remedies appropriate to the problem. A similar step needs to be taken with anti-Palestinian racism, which is ubiquitous throughout the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, and France (and other countries considered part of the “West”).

So far anti-Palestinian racism has been empowered by the inability to name it. It is time to name it, to recognize it in its examples and details, and root it out completely from every (admittedly small) area that anti-racists control.

The fact that it cannot be named means that any attempt to overcome it is itself immediately attacked. To the extent that you are sincerely, publicly against anti-Palestinian racism in these Western countries, you will to that exact extent be accused of “anti-Semitism”.

What follows is a guide to help identify anti-Palestinian racism.

This resource does not focus on the overt and violent manifestations. Mass rallies of pro-Israel people chanting “Death to the Arabs”, lighting children like Ali Dawabshe on fire and celebrating their deaths, or lynching Palestinians for entertainment are obviously extreme forms of anti-Palestinian racism but only the most extreme racists (admittedly a large group in the West) defend these acts. Such people are not going to read this resource or be moved by any argument in it.

The subtler patterns of differential treatment and differential thinking and treatment of Palestinians is at issue – the ideological aspects of anti-Palestinian racism.

Not Islamophobia, not Anti-Arab Racism

Anti-Palestinian racism is rooted in the racism of settler-colonists towards so-called “natives”. It is “anti-native” racism nearly all of whose tropes are derived from previous settler-colonial projects like Canada, Australia, the US, Apartheid South Africa, and France in Algeria. Israel is a settler-colonial, apartheid state like these others. In the settler-native dynamic, Palestinians very existence is an obstacle to the settler state’s territorial and genocidal ambitions. Palestinian resistance causes the racism to ratchet up even higher. As long as these ambitions are there, racism will also be there. And as long as Western countries want to support these ambitions, these Western countries will support anti-Palestinian racism.

Leftists use slogans: we are against racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism and all other forms of discrimination. Leftists use anti-oppression frameworks and intersectional analysis. Representative statements of this kind include:

“Anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the BDS movement, led by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, is inclusive and categorically opposes as a matter of principle all forms of racism, including Islamophobia and anti-semitism.”

https://bdsmovement.net/faqs

“NSJP stands against homophobia, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, classism, colonialism, and bigotry and discrimination in any form.”

http://www.nationalsjp.org/about.html

These lists are good lists and it could be argued they include anti-Palestinian racism. But anti-Palestinian racism deserves its own categorization. It should be a separate item on the list of oppressions. It has its own unique dynamics and its pervasiveness is the very reason it has been impossible to name. It is a racism that cloaks itself in anti-racism. It is a racism that bullies and intimidates. It is a racism that pervades the structures of power in the West and runs so deep that it cannot be coherently opposed until its name can be spoken out loud.

The first step is recognizing what Anti-Palestinian racism is and what it is not.

Although these racisms are also inflicted upon Palestinians as well, anti-Palestinian racism is not Islamophobia and it is not anti-Arab racism. Indeed conflation of Palestinians and their struggle with either of these (admittedly important and overlapping) problems is itself a form of erasure of the Palestinian and therefore a form of anti-Palestinian racism.

Analytical problems arise when we don’t understand anti-Palestinian racism for what it is. Among them:

  • The false idea that any Muslim or Arab can speak for the Palestinians or negotiate Palestinian rights away on their behalf.
  • The celebration of Muslim-Jewish unity when there is no Muslim-Jewish conflict.

Jews aren’t racist towards Muslims, nor Muslims towards Jews. There is a settler-native dynamic between Israel and the Palestinians, in which Israel is the settler and Palestinians the natives. This dynamic comes with specific racist ideology – it is not anti-Arab racism. And it is not Islamophobia. It is anti-Palestinian racism.

1. Forms of anti-Palestinian racism: Asymmetric rights

All forms of racism deny universal rights and equality. With that rule in mind, it is simple to identify anti-Palestinian racism. Every time Israel/Palestine is mentioned in terms of rights, check for an asymmetry in the rights. If the two sides are not being discussed in terms of universality and equality, you are almost certainly looking at anti-Palestinian racism. Here are some examples.

​1a. Israeli “security” vs Palestinian “freedom”

In 2013, former US President Barack Obama said: “just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.” He continued that Palestinians must “recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state, and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security.” The formulation looks parallel but it is not. Obama contrasts the Palestinian right to “be a free people in their own land” with the Israeli right to “insist upon their security.” Obama’s speech has a subtle implication: these are both aspirations that are in the far distance. Israelis don’t have (total) security now (they have freedom). Palestinians don’t have freedom now (they have nothing). In this asymmetry lies anti-Palestinian racism.

​1b. Israel’s unique right to “self-defence” compared to the need to renounce “violence”.

In the 2021 round of Israeli violence, settlers and police tried to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem of Palestinians and attacked Palestinians while they were praying at one of Islam’s holiest sites, the al-Aqsa mosque. After many days of Israeli ethnic cleansing and violence at the mosque site, Palestinian resistance organizations in Gaza fired rockets at Israel (more on Gaza below). At that point, many public figures in the west who had assiduously ignored the ethnic cleansing suddenly discovered the Violence in the Middle East and lined up to declare their solidarity with… Israel, citing Israel’s right of self-defence when Israel began bombing civilian targets in Gaza and killing children and families. New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang was one such example. The asymmetry here is that no Palestinian right to self-defence is acknowledged. Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, too, gave a speech where she contrasted Israel’s right to self-defence with Palestinians’ right to survive.

Indeed, “self-defence” is only used for Israel, though the exact same actions are called “violence” when practiced by Palestinians. And Palestinians are denounced for not “renouncing violence”. Adam Johnson in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) surveyed 10 years of media coverage and found that 95% requests to “renounce violence” were made to Muslims and none to the US, Israel, or any other white-majority country.

If Israel has a right to self-defence that includes killing civilians, we are already in the realm of racism. But giving this right exclusively to Israel and denying it to Palestinians is worse. All armed resistance by Palestinians is delegitimized by Western media who defend Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza by the thousands as “self-defence”. Anyone who believes Israel has the right to use its many weapons against the Palestinians to defend Israelis must also accept the same rights for Palestinians. To do otherwise is anti-Palestinian racism.

​1c. Israel’s “right to exist” (as a Jewish state) compared to no right at all

Israel’s “right to exist” is often mentioned by anti-Palestinian racists when discussing Palestinians as a “demographic threat” or when discussing the Palestinian right of return as an “existential threat to Israel”, or “the destruction of Israel”. All of these phrases sometimes have attached to them the clause “as a Jewish state”. So, Israel’s “right to exist” is actually “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state”, the “destruction of Israel” is actually “the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state”, etc. Since at least the French Revolution beginning in 1789, there has been an important idea of universal rights. In the French Revolution it was enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. From “man” it was by the early 20th century finally extended to women. In the United Nations Charter, there is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights which enshrines rights for people. States do not have any rights, much less rights to specific demographic composition, much less to conduct demographic engineering to create a Jewish majority. Acts of demographic engineering (forcible transfer, massacre, sterilization) overlap considerably with activities that are called “genocide”. Asserting these supposed “rights” of Israel is symptomatic of anti-Palestinian racism.

​1d. The most egregious Israeli crimes and acts are simply ignored

The 2021 round of violence featured Israeli actions that were impossible to defend even by its most ardent Western defenders. Israeli settlers, with police backup, broke into Palestinian homes to shoot and stab the inhabitants. Israeli lynch mobs stomped people to death in front of singing, dancing, chanting mobs. Israeli masses marched through the streets chanting “Death to the Arabs!” In previous rounds, Israelis burned families in their homes and celebrated the death of Palestinian children by stabbing photos of the child at parties, and taunted Palestinians with the chant “Why is there no studying in Gaza? Because there are no children left!” Rather than being defended as part of any right to “self-defense”, these acts are simply ignored – repressed – in the Western media. Any violence committed by Palestinians is carefully scrutinized and all Palestinians in Western media are asked if they condone violent resistance. No pro-Israel advocate is ever asked if they defend firebombing toddlers or chanting “Death to the Arabs!” This asymmetry is another example of anti-Palestinian racism.

​1e. No right to boycott, no right to speech, no right to organize, no right to be offended

When Israel’s crimes mount and the asymmetry becomes especially monstrous, pro-Israel organizations attempt to stifle all discussion of them.

Palestinian presence as a mental health problem

The principal method is to claim that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, and if not anti-Semitic, then at least insensitive of Jewish feelings, which itself is presented a form of anti-Semitism. The accusation of insensitivity to Jewish (pro-Israel) feelings was a primary accusation against UK prime ministerial candidate Jeremy Corbyn and played a role in his political demise. Could you imagine a western political party having a massive crisis over its leaders being insensitive of Palestinians’ feelings? The fact that this is unimaginable is a measure of anti-Palestinian racism.

One of the arguments was that by being an advocate for Palestinian rights, Jeremy Corbyn made Jewish Britons feel unsafe. Note that it is racist (anti-Semitic) to assume that Jews do not have the full range of human feelings and human opinions about political events, and that “Jewish feelings” are automatically supportive of Israel. The creation of a zero-sum situation – either Palestinians are absent or Jewish Westerners are unsafe – has segregation as its only conclusion. A safe space is a Palestinian-free space. Any other kind of space, in which Palestinian identity or advocacy is present, is depicted as anti-Semitic, even “triggering” in mental health terms. The logic is based on a number of assumptions: 1. Jewish people identify with Israel. 2. Advocacy for Palestinian rights constitutes violence against Israel and therefore against Jewish people themselves.

What if, instead of Palestine advocates having to prove they were not anti-Semites, Israel advocates had to prove they were not anti-Palestinian racists? Why is this not the case? Because of anti-Palestinian racism.

1e.1 Revoking freedom of assembly

France, has arrested people for wearing pro-BDS T-shirts and let paramilitaries run amok during Palestine demonstrations:

In the 2021 round, France forbade public demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians (the protesters marched anyway, and were tear-gassed).

1e.2 Curtailing academic freedom

University administrations across the US and Canada have taken action to prevent public discussion and student organization in solidarity with Palestinians – curtailing free speech rights. Other campuses have required pro-Israel oaths to be taken before allowing invited speakers to speak on campus (journalist Abby Martin is suing one such campus). The same institutions take no action to protect Palestinian or pro-Palestinian feelings from being offended. They do not require pro-Palestine oaths. The asymmetry is symptomatic of anti-Palestinian racism.

1e.3 Anti-Palestinian legislation in the West

Probably the British have gone the furthest. There, on December 12 2016, legislators adopted a definition of anti-Semitism that includes legitimate criticsm of Israel. They’ve also banned boycotts.

Most US states have enacted legislation forbidding any boycott of Israeli institutions or products – they have declared boycotting Israel illegal. Palestine Legal has prepared a map of anti-BDS legislation in the US. The organization fights these bits of legislation in court, as they are unconstitutional. But as long as politicians can be bought or bullied, lawmaking bodies remain fertile ground from which to launch attacks on expression for Palestinians.

Periodically, the Ontario legislature has a debate on whether to condemn the campus movement for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in Israel. For years this took the form of the legislators solemnly gathering to issue a condemnation of a week of campus events – usually a few film screenings and lectures – called Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW).

More recently the legislators get together to denounce BDS itself, as written about by AJ Withers in the article “Boycotting Apartheid: Ontario’s 50 year long attack on the campaign for Palestinian rights.” . In his book Race Against Time, former Ontario legislator and UN envoy Stephen Lewis talks proudly of being the first to introduce a bill boycotting Apartheid South Africa. Palestine has no such champion – instead, today, the legislators get together to endorse the equivalent of the apartheid state and denounce resistance against it.

2. Forms of anti-Palestinian racism: Asymmetric language

The following are just a few examples of asymmetric language that is characteristic of anti-Palestinian racism. Once you are aware of the pattern, the examples will start to jump out at you.

​2a. Palestinian corruption but not Israel’s corruption

Israeli politics has been totally mired in corruption scandals, from the very top to the bottom. This has not affected the billions of dollars given in aid to Israel by the US or EU, year after year. But when the destruction, siege, and de-development of Gaza (and the West Bank) is raised, anti-Palestinian racists claim that Palestinian corruption is to blame. The problem is not the destruction of all of Gaza’s infrastructure and the sealing in of millions of people into a prison, in this view, but the supposed corruption of Palestinian leaders who accept aid money and don’t get it to the people. Using “corruption”, which is present everywhere, as an excuse for the humanitarian catastrophe created by Israel’s genocidal policies is anti-Palestinian racism.

​2b. The use of active voice and passive voice

This one is remarkable for its consistency over decades. On May 14, 2021, after Israel had killed 30 children, and 70 adults; after lynchings and with ongoing pogroms; the following headline was trending on twitter:

“Fighting intensifies between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants as violence enters fifth day”

“The Israel-Gaza conflict has resulted in the deaths of over 100 people in Gaza, nine in Israel and hundreds of more injuries, according to The Washington Post. The exchange of artillery strikes and rockets has not let up, with the possibility of a ground invasion by Israeli troops.”

The passive voice is often decried in media style guides. One of the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White guidelines is USE THE ACTIVE VOICE!!! White apparently repeated it with increasing passion several times. But when it comes to Palestine, the media are militant about using passive voice. The difference in active and passive voice is symptomatic of anti-Palestinian racism.

​2c. No right to self-representation

The 2021 round began with the attempted eviction of Palestinians in Shaikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. These Palestinians are referred to in Western media as “Arab citizens of Israel” instead of “Palestinians.”

3. Forms of anti-Palestinian racism: No right to a parallel or to parity with anti-Semitism

The most intellectually challenging aspect of anti-Palestinian racism is that it is a type of racism that is presented as a type of anti-racism.

Anti-Palestinian racism pretends to be the fight against the new anti-semitism. Anyone who is genuinely anti-racist and opposed to anti-semitism should also be against anti-Palestinian racism.

Steven Salaita has addressed exactly this question. “Criticism of Israel,” he writes, “cannot fundamentally be anti-Semitic unless we concede that the state’s existence only affects Jews. Arabs are central to Israel’s composition in every possible way. If people feel attacked on a cultural level when somebody condemns a nation-state, then that’s a problem of ethnonationalism, not of political critique.” (Salaita 2015, pg. 64) Salaita cites the public, racist statements of a number of pro-Israel scholars, who write of Palestinians’ “mass pathology” (Paul Berman), of Palestinians who “want Palestinian babies to be killed” (Alan Dershowitz), of a Hamas leader’s family being killed as “tough luck, fella” (Eric Alterman) (all are quoted on Salaita 2015, pg. 65). Salaita continues: “Palestinian students hear such things all the time inside and beyond the college classroom”. (pg. 66)

“The fact,” Salaita concludes, “that nobody ever asks about the comfort of the Arab or Muslim student in the first place illuminates the presence of Zionist violence in the mythologies of civility. It’s always the marginal, the undesirable, the wretched, who must justify their humanity to the majority.” (pg. 67)

4. Forms of anti-Palestinian racism – Electronic control and muting Palestine

In the 2021 round, Israel attacked media houses and the satellite and Internet infrastructure of Gaza, rendering Palestinians unable to communicate about what Israel was doing to them. These acts are repressed – ignored – rather than defended by Israel’s advocates. But also in the 2021 round, Israeli generals met with Facebook and Tiktok and warned them to censor Palestinian users on their platforms. The fact that the monopoly social media companies censor Palestinian users and advocates on behalf of Israel is symptomatic of anti-Palestinian racism. During the 2021 round, this particular form of anti-Palestinian racism was criticized under the hashtag #UnmutePalestine.

5. History of anti-Palestinian racism – Rewriting history for anti-Palestinian racism

Racism in the West has a long history with many twists and turns but in the 19th century so-called “scientific” racism emerged and with it a rewriting of history to disclude Jews from ancient history and to disclude African people in a particularly conspiratorial way from ancient history, as Martin Bernal wrote about in Black Athena. Asia, of which Palestine was a part, was dismembered by colonialism after WWI according to these racist ideologies. The treatment of Palestinians and other people from the Arab and Muslim world is part of this colonialism that afflicted the rest of Asia and Africa in the 19th century in virulent racist form. It was then that the “settler”-”native” dichotomy was created and an entire science of controlling and subjugating natives through violence and terror was developed. Paradigmatic was Winston Churchill talking about the use of poison gases against certain tribes; but the racism was pervasive in British, German, French, American, and Canadian cultures (among other Western countries). This attitude was adopted by the Israeli settlers who took over the British colony in 1948 and have continued the colonial process towards the Palestinians with full help from the other colonial powers, especially the US. In a sense you will find in 19th century colonialism all of the tropes that are familiar to you when you witness the way Palestinian “natives” are discussed in the West, and all of the practices of colonialism are also being practiced on the Palestinians.

The re-writing of history for purposes of anti-Palestinian racism is on-going. One of the worst claims made by anti-Palestinian racists is to claim that the reason Israeli bombings kill so many children in Gaza is because resistance organizations use children as human shields. In fact Gaza is majority children, and Israel bombs civilian homes and infrastructure freely, killing many children in every attack. That is contemporary history that is being written; but Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu rewrote history when he made the absurd racist claim that Hitler enacted the Holocaust based on advice from the Mufti of Jerusalem. Anti-Palestinian racists are willing to revise the history of the Holocaust to try to provide new pretexts for violence against Palestinians.

An additional thought: The rise of the right and global anti-Palestinian racism

Some final thoughts. In 2016 a NYT article made a very interesting point about white nationalism and Zionism that is worth quoting at length:

“Whereas liberalism depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race, Zionism consists in the idea that the State of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish. As such, the country belongs first and foremost not to its citizens, but to the Jewish people — a group that’s defined by ethnic affiliation or religious conversion.”

“Richard Spencer, one of the ideological leaders of the alt-right’s white nationalist agenda — which he has called “a sort of white Zionism” — was publicly challenged by the university’s Hillel Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, to study with him the Jewish religion’s “radical inclusion” and love. “Do you really want radical inclusion into the state of Israel?” Spencer replied. “Maybe all of the Middle East can go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that?” … The rabbi could not find words to answer, and his silence reverberates still.”

“Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump”, NYT

In fact Israel has many alliances with anti-Semites. As Suzanne Schneider wrote in 2017:

“Jewish life flourishes in pluralistic societies within which difference is not a “problem” to be resolved, but a fact to be celebrated. The alliance of right-wing Zionists and the “alt-right” should not be viewed as an abnormality, but as the meeting of quite compatible outlooks that assert — each in its own way – that the world will be secure only once we all retreat to our various plots of ancestral land. Nationalist thinking of this sort wrought more than its fair share of damage during the 20th century. Let’s not enact a repeat performance in the 21st.”

Suzanne Schneider

Conclusion: Palestine’s national struggle is the alternative to anti-Palestinian racism

The expectation that the oppressed should keep to nonviolent resistance has been around at least since William Lloyd Garrison, the famous white abolitionist, clarified that he would never advocate for slaves to revolt. Western solidarity with nonviolent struggle has a long history and is based on a series of premises: that it will be easier for solidarity activists to win more followers to the cause if the oppressed refrain from using violence; that nonviolent ‘soul force’ has more power than actual material force (per Gandhi); that with a ‘free press’ the images and stories of nonviolent resistance cannot but move Western publics to stop supporting colonial abuses (per Orwell). In the Palestinian case it is the Western solidarity activists who have failed. Perhaps Western democracies aren’t as democratic as we think they are, perhaps the Western press isn’t as free as we think, or perhaps the Western public is more supportive of settler colonialism (anti-Palestinian racism) than we would have wished. In any case, having failed to fulfill our end of the bargain through our failure Western solidarity activists have left Palestinians alone to liberate themselves (with some regional help, for example from the equally demonized Iran and Hizbollah).

As Frantz Fanon taught, it is always the case that the burden of liberation is on the natives themselves. We have seen first hand the limitations of what we are able to do in the West. But the least we can do is refuse to participate in the discourse that accords unequal rights, that uses unequal langage, and that demands impossible standards of the resistance while giving a green light to massive violence by the oppressor.

The language we use influences our thinking. The use of a separate category for anti-Jewish racism, anti-Semitism, is a necessity for understanding the complexity of a social phenomenon with a unique history and its own current forms.

Update your anti-racist training manuals, your anti-discrimination policies, and your slogans. We are against discrimination in all its forms, including anti-Palestinian racism.

Monsters in our Midst 2: Anti-Black and Anti-Palestinian Racism are Connected

Anti-Black and Anti-Palestinian Racism are Connected

Episode 2 of a mini-series on Israel/Palestine by Dan Freeman-Maloy.

Sometimes the connections are obvious. The American-Israeli Meir Kahane, for example, worked as a white-backlash activist in the United States, targeting Black-led social movements, before moving to Palestine and coaching settlers to kill Palestinians, with what Jewish organizations across the world then denounced as racist hate and violence. 

More generally, the Scramble for Africa — that is, the classical period of white colonization of the African continent — was part and parcel of the same imperial expansion that swept across Palestine during World War I. It was then that Britain extended its reach across Palestine and that the road to Israeli statehood was paved. Theme by theme, European settler colonial politics that had been crafted in the Americas and in Africa were applied to Palestine. The association of the Zionist movement with British settler polities (the “Dominions”) was once proud.

The connections are manifold. European colonization in Africa and West Asia (or the Middle East) shared key patterns and was shaped by some of the same personnel, just as national liberation movements in both areas have a rich history of exchanges. In this episode, we focus on some of the shared patterns of deception that empire developed as it told moralizing tales about its righteousness in different parts of the world.

As Malcolm X phrased it: “if you study how they do it here, then you’ll know how they do it over here. It’s the same game going all the time.”

Civilizations 33c: How Racists rewrote History and Literature

How did history get so eurocentric?

Justin reads the Afrocentrists and makes a pitch; David hangs on to the universalist perspective, as we talk about all the racist rewriting of history, the famous racist literature of imperialism, and the stunningly racist statements by public figures of the 19th century, from Kipling to Roosevelt and more.

Civilizations 33b: Scientific Racism

Racism is embedded in a surprising number of scientific endeavours

The old saying goes that Science ain’t an exact science, and nowhere is that more true than with the Scientific Racism of the 19th century. From its predecessors in the 18th century, we get into the unholy trinity of Pearson, Galton, and Fisher. We talk about craniometry, phrenology, IQ testing, “race development” (now called International Relations), and racism in all your favorite fields, from criminology to anthropology, to political science and economics, to sociology and statistical science itself. We talk about the history, so you can ponder the question: has science moved past all this racist baggage?

Civilizations 33a: Darwin and 19th century scientific advances

Darwin and 19th century science

Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species was read by Lord Elgin before he burned down the palace in Beijing and by Marx, who was so excited he asked Darwin if he could dedicate a volume of Capital to him (Darwin politely declined, not wanting to offend religious sentiment). We talk Darwin and the debates he spawned, physics, Freud, and about the scientific advances and missteps of the late 19th century. Part 1 of a series on Science, Scientific Racism, and Racism in the 19th century.

AEP 72: Artificial Whiteness with Yarden Katz

A discussion of the book Artificial Whiteness, by Yarden Katz

Step off of the Artificial Intelligence hype train with me and my guest Yarden Katz. Yarden is the author of Artificial Whiteness: Politics and Ideology in Artificial Intelligence. AI is a squishy concept, and under scrutiny it is full of imperialist and racial assumptions. We go over some of the many ideas in this idea-packed book, which I highly recommend.

Can We Address That British Eugenics Scandal?

The racist analogies have not held up for centuries, and yet they continue to crop up from unqualified and prominent figures today.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been known to have an interest in eugenics, but despite the persistence of support for this discredited idea over the years, eugenics is a scientific and moral failure.

In February, an adviser to Johnson resigned when some old racist posts he wrote in 2014 emerged. The contractor, Andrew Sabisky, called himself a “superforecaster” by trade and trafficked in theories of race and intelligence. Footage resurfaced of Boris Johnson talking about genetic inequality and IQ in 2013. Articles announce that “eugenics is back” every few years (2018, 2016, or 1989), so it is probably the case that eugenics never left. With the political right in the ascendant in many parts of the world, it is inevitable that the pseudoscience of eugenics would be on the rise with it.

Some academics will also follow, as they have from the days when craniometry justified the British Empire. Richard Dawkins, a retired Oxford biologist active on Twitter where he was called a “tedious old racist” in 2018, tweeted in February what was likely a reaction to Sabisky’s eugenics scandal:

“It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.”

The comparison of human “races” to dog breeds is so pervasive that it should be answered comprehensively, and the tweet should be picked apart in detail. The comparison has nothing to do with science, as I will show, and should be abhorred by the scientifically minded.

Dawkins’ posture is one where he claims to want to distance himself from eugenics “on ideological, political, moral grounds,” while suggesting that the “facts” are in favor of eugenics. The “facts” in this trope aren’t a matter of argument and evidence but some kind of secret magic that only those with a strong stomach can handle. The less brave and bright resist the “facts” out of fear that they will clash with our “ideological, political” commitments. But as far as eugenics goes, there are no “facts”: eugenics has been an intellectually corrupted project from its inception in the 19th century. Eugenics comes to us from a time when the British Empire was plundering the world and its proponents went looking for evidence to prove racist conclusions they already believed. No one who understands science fears that racists will abuse eugenicist “facts.” As anthropologist Jonathan Marks writes in his book Is Science Racist?: “[T]here is no fear of potential abuse of knowledge. There is simply the collection and dissemination of intellectually corrupted information. That is the legacy of scientific racism.”

Like climate deniers who work in fields of science other than climate and make public statements to try to pretend there is no consensus on the topic, Dawkins used his authority as a retired biology lecturer to tweet claims outside his area of expertise. A scientific organization that has authority on the topic, the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG), made the following three points in a 2018 statement:

“Genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically distinct subcategories”

“Genetics exposes the concept of ‘racial purity’ as scientifically meaningless”

“[T]he invocation of genetics to promote racist ideologies is one of many factors causing racism to persist”

ASHG

Dawkins’ defenders might now argue that his tweet had nothing to do with racism and that it is just about eugenics. That the entire pseudoscientific history of eugenics, pervaded and corrupted with racism, is irrelevant to his claims about “practice” and “facts,” by reference to other species. Dawkins mentioned the breeding of “cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses.” There are different flaws when each of these comparisons is put under the microscope.

Roses? Spraying fertilizer on roses helps them—does it help us? There is almost nothing that works for the plant Rosa gallicanae that also works for us, so that can be quickly dispensed with.

Cows and pigs are bred to be docile, to pack on as much edible meat as possible in a short amount of time, and ideally to go quietly to their deaths. Unless Dawkins envisions a cannibal future, cows and pigs are irrelevant to this analogy with humans. (It is worth mentioning that these are also two of the planet’s three most abused animal species—the chicken, of whom 69 billion were slaughtered in 2018 compared to 1.5 billion pigs and 302 million cows, wins this heart-rending competition.)

That leaves horses and dogs.

Horses were once our choice animal for transportation. Now that we use fossil fuels, most horses today are involved in what the Equine Heritage Institute calls “recreational horse use,” in which the horse is made to carry a person on its back and run fast for our entertainment.

With the other animals eliminated, Dawkins’ argument comes down to the comparison between humans and dogs. Dog breeding has been done for many thousands of years, and dogs have been bred for many jobs.

Does it “work”? Specifically, since the idea is if it works for dogs it could work for humans, does breeding work for the species being bred (dogs, or in Dawkins’ implicit proposal, humans)? Of course not. From the perspective of the dog, it is a nightmare.

A couple of popular internet memes sum up what thousands of years of dog breeding have achieved for the bred species. In one, a stunning photograph of a wolf is shown thinking: “Humans at a campfire… It’s cold and I’m starving, maybe I should ask for some scraps. What’s the worst that could happen?” Below, captioned “10,000 years later,” is a photo of a pug in a knitted hat made to look like a birthday cake. Similarly, photos of a wolf and a pug are used in another meme, where the photo of the wolf says “product of evolution,” and the photo of the pug says “product of intelligent design.”

This latter meme reveals the irony that Dawkins of all people should make the eugenicist claim that dog breeding “works.” In The God Delusion as well as much other work, Dawkins’ principal argument against the existence of God is that evolution can produce more complex forms of life (including human intelligence) than any divine intelligence could. Similarly, the artificial selection of dog breeding has—as the humorous memes demonstrate—propagated traits that are disadvantageous to dogs compared to what natural selection was able to do for the wolf.

The 2008 BBC documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” investigated the UK’s Kennel Club and the breed standards that have led, by breeding exclusively for appearance, to a dog population with hundreds of genetic diseases. What is called “breeding” to achieve these traits is better called “inbreeding,” with brother-sister, mother-son, father-daughter, and father-granddaughter matings regularly made—there are no incest taboos, no health considerations, and no concern for genetic diseases made in awarding prizes at dog shows. Perfectly healthy puppies—like Rhodesian ridgeback puppies that don’t have the ridge, which actually brings with it additional health risks—are killed at birth to maintain the “purity” of the breed. Kennel Clubs and breeders were offended by comparisons of dog breeding to racism, but the shared history is beyond dispute. Kennel Clubs were founded in the late 19th century, after Carl Linnaeus, Comte de Buffon, and Arthur de Gobineau had laid the intellectual foundations of scientific racism, and there was the freest exchange of ideas between eugenicists and dog breeders. Also in the late 19th century, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, whose statues have had travails in Montreal and Toronto leading to scolding and arrests, said that “the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics… the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful.”

In “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” the documentarians show old photos of breeds like German shepherds and bulldogs that had long legs and upright postures, contrasting them with the top dogs in those breeds today, whose legs get shorter and shorter as their mobility decreased. Those are the “show dogs.” But “working dogs” aren’t beyond question either. Bulldogs were bred, as the name indicates, for fighting with bulls for entertainment. Pit bulls, for fighting one another. Dobermans, for protecting a rent collector. Is this work that should be done? In reality, breeding dogs for these jobs was of dubious benefit to human society; trying to make the case that it was beneficial to the dogs, as a species, is preposterous. And if that is true for dogs bred solely for work, how much sadder is it for the pedigree dogs bred solely to meet circular aesthetic criteria (one breeder, asked about the morality of killing puppies who lack the ridge, responded: “Well, if it doesn’t have the ridge, it’s not a ridgeback, is it?”)?

Perhaps Dawkins envisions a well-funded eugenics department that could overcome incest taboos and ethics reviews, as well as the small matter of human reproductive freedom, to use inbreeding to create human breeds. But what most eugenicists are really interested in is not such a scientific project. They are interested in the idea of racial differences in intelligence.

But dog breeds provide no insight into how this aspect would work for humans either. Dogs, the outcome of artificial selection, have breeds that can be identified by their genotypes. A paper about the differences between dog breeds and human “races” that appeared in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach in July 2019 stated that about 27 percent of dogs’ genetic variation could be explained by breed. Humans are the outcome of natural selection, and most genetic variation occurs within human groups. Classifications of humans by genotype don’t match up with what racists think of as the different human “races.” The closest science can get to the racist position is the trivial point that people who are close together geographically are (relatively) close together genetically. And even this regional variation can explain only 3.3-4.7 percent of human genetic variation, according to the paper.

It is this regional variation that is being exploited by mail-order genetics companies like 23andMe, which Marks calls “science-lite,” because its users accept the findings they like and reject the ones they don’t, which is probably the intended way to use the test. As for “race,” there is no such thing, except for racism, which is the unscientific belief that there are such things as distinct human “races.”

So, is dog breeding successful? Dog breeding has been disastrous for the dog as a species. Does dog breeding provide evidence that eugenics could work? The analogy between dog breeds and human “races” is broken.

If racists want to push eugenics, the rest of us should realize that they do so without the backing of science, which has moved on, leaving the detritus behind.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 37: Postcoloniality and the Racist Legacy of the British Empire

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 37: Postcoloniality and the Racist Legacy of the British Empire, with Navyug Gill and Dan Freeman-Maloy

A wide-ranging and admittedly bookish discussion with William Patterson historian Navyug Gill and frequent guest and sometimes host of the show, Dan Freeman-Maloy. We talk about postcolonial studies, history, and the British Empire, and the ways that its racism lives on. 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does Bruce Lee wrong — and much else

Tarantino’s mastery seems to be in reading the mood and making a movie for it. His latest movie is perfect for the Trump era, based as it is in nostalgia for a racially homogeneous Hollywood.

The genre for Once Upon a Time… forces some choices on both the storyteller and the audience. The movie treats the day that actor Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson, but it reverses that murder and ends with Sharon and friends having a nice drink in her house after the would-be murderers have been eaten by a dog, bashed in on various surfaces of a house, and incinerated by flamethrowers. But the whole hook of the movie is its ability to evoke the Hollywood of 1969, which Tarantino clearly wants us to think was a good time. So, which parts of it were real and which were changed? These were the decisions Tarantino made, the consequences of which moviegoers have to suffer.

Here’s one decision I was wondering about. Since all the protagonists were white, did they not use casual racial slurs in their conversations with one another back then? They certainly are vitriolic towards the “f#@in hippies”. But I didn’t hear them use the n-word even once. No anti-Semitism among these paragons either. At Manson’s ranch, one of the villains, “Squeaky”, or “the red-head” tells Brad Pitt’s character that she “doesn’t want to be gypped” of her time watching TV with George, the ranch’s mostly incapacitated owner. “Gypped” is a racist term that implies that gypsies, or Roma, are thieves. Like the Jews, the Roma were targeted for extermination in the Nazi Holocaust, and indeed, the term “gypped” is used interchangeably with “jewed” by racists. Tarantino inserted the word “gypped”, presumably to add some verisimilitude about the casual racism with which people talked back then. So why no casual anti-Black racism or anti-Semitism, which was also the coin of the realm at the time? Tarantino used to do that, with anti-Black racism at least: Reservoir Dogs is full of n-bombs dropped by the white cast, in all kinds of shameful ways, with deniability for the storyteller to say, hey, I’m not racist, my characters are.

Aside from the protagonists’ hatred of the “f#@in hippies”, the film is all about not showing you anything of the 1960s social movements against the Vietnam War, the effects of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers — or even the East L.A. Walkouts of 1968 or the Watts riots of 1965. The only mention of that context is when one of the Manson-following villains (played by Margaret Qualley), trying to seduce Pitt’s character (a Vietnam veteran), says that “real people are dying in Vietnam”. One of the would-be killers, who gets incinerated by Leonardo Di Caprio, delivers a critique of media violence before her attempted murder and elaborate death. 1969 Hollywood was a better, cleaner place, Tarantino is saying, with the only encroachments on this purity coming via a death cult of “f#@in hippies” (not via any real Black people or people with genuinely held anti-racist values).

On the theme of purity, Tarantino’s camera worships Margot Robbie’s angelic character, Sharon Tate, lingering on her golden hair, her pristine white boots and her beautiful smile as she dances and enjoys the audience reaction to her acting (a significant amount of the movie’s runtime is of Sharon Tate watching her own movie — which means a significant amount of the audience’s time is actually spent watching someone watch a movie). The camera follows Robbie (and Qualley in a different way, since she’s a bad) the way you’d see in a Michael Bay movie or a James Bond film, with Robbie as the good Bond girl and Qualley as the bad one.

And on Bond films: if Once Upon a Time… were a Bond film, the superspy role would go to Brad Pitt’s character, Vietnam veteran and possible wife-murderer Cliff Booth. And the main way we know of Cliff’s superpowers is by way of an encounter with Bruce Lee — for me, the most insulting part of this insulting film.

Bruce Lee is portrayed as a fan of Muhammad Ali, which of course he was. Bruce’s philosophy was to learn about fighting from every possible source. At that time, Muhammad Ali was displaying attributes and skills to astound anyone, but even more so a student of martial arts like Bruce. A story known by every Bruce Lee fan:

Another time Yeung, aka [Bolo] went to see Bruce at Golden Harvest Studios. Bruce was screening a Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali] documentary. Ali was world heavyweight champion at the time and Bruce saw him as the greatest fighter of them all. The documentary showed Ali in several of his fights. Bruce set up a wide full-length mirror to reflect Ali’s image from the screen. Bruce was looking into the mirror, moving along with Ali.

Bruce’s right hand followed Ali’s right hand, Ali’s left foot followed Bruce’s left foot. Bruce was fighting in Ali’s shoes. “Everybody says I must fight Ali some day.” Bruce said, “I’m studying every move he makes. I’m getting to know how he thinks and moves.” Bruce knew he could never win a fight against Ali. “Look at my hand,” he said. “That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.”

Bruce was a keen teacher, and a great showman (see the videos of his martial arts demonstrations), but he was no braggart and he spent all his time picking apart and analyzing fighting methods, practicing them, and teaching them to others. So, of course, Tarantino portrays him exactly as a loudmouth braggart and a bully, who picks a fight with Brad Pitt’s strong, silent character on a set. The fight starts when this cartoon Bruce (in direct defiance of what the real Bruce believed and said) tells someone that he would turn Muhammad Ali “into a cripple” if they fought — this, Brad Pitt’s character cannot abide. So Bruce — who in real life reluctantly accepted challenges on-set from blowhards (ie., who was much more like Pitt’s character was portrayed) — fights Cliff, who gives the foreign braggart a good old-fashioned American beating.

In the real world, Bruce Lee faced a glass ceiling in the racist Hollywood of the time, despite his extraordinary gifts. Playing Kato in the Green Hornet, the story goes that Bruce refused the plan in a crossover episode to have his character defeated by Batman’s sidekick, Robin. No one would have believed it. Screenwriters changed the fight to a draw.

So, how would Brad Pitt’s character, a stuntman and Vietnam veteran, have approached a fight with Bruce? Presumably he would have been trained in the Army Combatives system at the time — a system Bruce knew and studied. Maybe Cliff also even knew American boxing and wrestling — which would have been no surprise to Bruce, who taught American students with these backgrounds. So, would Bruce have opened with a lot of fancy movement and kiai sounds and a flying sidekick, like he does in the movie? Would he have done that same kick after challenged by Cliff to do it again? What we know of how Bruce behaved in sparring situations says no (look at this YouTube MMA analyst’s breakdown of a sparring session). Nor would Bruce have reacted to Cliff’s attacks with stunned surprise: he was an experienced fighter who would have seen it all before.

It gets worse. Because in the fight choreography Tarantino chose for the scene, Pitt’s character actually uses wing-chun style close-quarters hand-fighting for a portion of the fight (this was the first style Bruce studied before developing his own). Pitt’s stance and movement incorporate moves that were introduced to North America by (the real) Bruce Lee, who did a lot to change and improve both real martial arts training and fight choreography. While disparaging the real Bruce, Tarantino freely uses his martial arts to make his movie look cool.

In the end, Bruce is just a stepping stone, a foreigner whose fancy moves are no match for the all-American hero, a foil to show the invincibility of the white protagonist. The very role the real Bruce chafed against his entire career.

There’s more to say about the class dynamics of the movie, the way in which Pitt’s working class character knows his place and is uncritically loyal and ever-grateful to Di Caprio’s upper class character. But I’ll leave that for someone else. I’ll just say that while this movie rewrites a gruesome murder and spares the actual victims, it is also an attempted murder on, among other historical realities, the real Bruce Lee.