The Whiteness of the Assault on Iraq

From the beginning, the movement that tried to stop the assault on Iraq knew it was a racist war, just on the face of it. A white imperialism was Eurocentrically attacking a derogated people of color through the usual criminalizing generalizations: all Iraqis were attacked in the name of Saddam Hussein, all Arabs were attacked in the name of Iraq (and ultimately, all Islam was attacked through the denigration of Arabs). That a people of color was targeted through some warp in the structure of justice recalled for many the inner dynamic of the prison-industrial complex, racial profiling, illegal mass detentions, racialized cutbacks in social services, etc. When Bush beat his war drum to whip up an international posse, it was as if to invoke that familiar line from the movies: “Come on, boys, get that rope; we know he did it.” And right on cue, though almost as an afterthought to the mob mentality, there was the claim to purity, the sanctified goal of “bringing democracy and freedom” to Iraq. But the Manifest Destiny to which this referred had never been a liberating mission toward real people; instead, across the American continent, it had involved implanting white Anglo-Saxon governance through settlement by white people where former societies were either cleared from the land or segregated upon it in the name of white republican principles.1 In Iraq, these “republican principles” will take the form of multinational corporate contracts.

The messianic idea that freedom and democracy can be “imposed” by intervention may still be popular, but it is innately self-contradictory. Democracy cannot be established by intervention because democracy depends on sovereignty. Because intervention is always a direct violation and destruction of sovereignty, it stands in necessary contradiction to democracy. Instead, the repeated proclamations of American democratic intentions effectively echo its own defense of slavery 200 years ago; at that time, staunch patriots argued that freedom meant dominating someone, so that in dominating absolutely (through the slave system) the US was the freest of nations.2

But aside from the familiarity of a rhetoric rationalizing violence, the question remains, why does racism always work so well in the US, to rally support for that violence? What underlies its illogic to make it always both familiar and permissible, regardless of whether the intervention involves any economic interest?

Three rhetorical elements characterized the assault: 1) a series of unfounded charges against Iraq (for instance, WMD, aggressive potential, ties to Al-Qaeda), each of which was proclaimed to pose a threat; 2) insistence on a consensus of national defense to meet the threat, whether real or imaginary; and 3) an aggressive posture that violated international treaty and law, and dissolved both skepticism and opposition in a solidarity (“support the troops”) that ignored the assault’s patent criminality. In attacking Iraq, the US actually violated the very Security Council resolution (#1441) it sought to enforce. Its policy of pre-emption reduced all issues (of “threat” or otherwise) to abstraction, located in Iraq’s mere existence. And the violence of military assault succeeded in making all imaginary threats appear real. In short, the driving force of this war was a paranoia, which generated the demand for an allegiance to defensive consensus, that in turn expressed itself as support for gratuitous violence (arbitrary illegal invasion) that then rationalized the demanded consensus and legitimized the original paranoia as having been real. The violence (war) legitimizes the paranoia, the paranoia legitimizes the demand for allegiance, and the demand for allegiance legitimizes the violence.

This is the form that intervention has taken repeatedly over the past 20 years: Grenada (1983), Nicaragua (1984), Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1995), Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and now again Iraq. Each received extensive popular support (as “patriotic”) because each was rationalized through a paranoid criminalization of another nation concretized through military invasion.

This triadic cycle is neither new nor an alien structure in the US. In fact, it first appeared in the process of inventing race and whiteness itself in the 17th-century Virginia colony. It is the cycle by which the concepts of “whiteness” and “race” themselves were born.

When they first landed in Virginia, the English did not have a sense of themselves as racialized, or as white, nor did they have a juridically codified concept of slavery; the two evolved together over roughly a century. Whiteness as a racialized social structure was produced in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676). Bacon’s rebellion brought the colony’s corporate project to the brink of extinction. It also brought both African and English bond-laborers together under arms in the same ranks. At the time, the number of African and English bond-laborers was fairly even; and they generally made common cause in escaping (the only viable mode of resistance to their common chattel status as labor). To reconstitute its power, the Colonial Council set in motion a number of measures whose cumulative effect was to racialize the colony.3

Its first step was to generate a social paranoia against the African bond-laborers. Invoking the hardships of social disruption that had occurred during Bacon’s war, it legislated warnings against the threat of “negro rebellion” (as it was put in the statutes). At the same time, the Council increased the importation of Africans, giving them predominance in the labor force. Rebellion itself, which English bond-laborers had so recently embraced, was thereby transformed into an “enemy within” that was seen to threaten Englishness as such. At the same time, the hardships of plantation labor were intensified, where they could easily have been alleviated in the interests of social stability; the effect was to socially concretize the concept of a threat.

The second step was to codify African slavery (1682), creating an absolute juridical distinction between the African bond-laborers and the English. This juridical distinction then justified an enforced call to social solidarity by the elite, bringing small farmers and English bond-laborers together against the Africans. The codification of African bond-laborers as estate wealth (equating plantation wealth with that of the colony itself) generated a complex sense of common self-interest among the English.

The final step was the organization of slave patrols. The patrols’ job was to guard against runaways, to disrupt meetings and gatherings of slaves, and to violently suppress any expressions of autonomy or resistance among them. The patrols were conscripted from English laborers, small farmers, and lower middle class colonists under the direction of the elite. Any failure of patrol duty was punishable. The patrols became a force for gratuitous violence against the slaves, creating a general aura of violence around the African bond-labor force. This led to greater approbation for the patrols among the English, who saw their violence as proof of a social necessity, and thereby productive of peace and stability. In the name of providing absolute social control over the slave popu- lation, the patrol violence functioned in fact to render the slave system unquestionable. And this formed the core of a new, consensual social identity; the English began to see themselves as white, rather than English. Culturally, this involved a linguistic shift in the use of terms such as “white” or “black” or “negro” from descriptive adjectives to the names for racialized social categorizations.

This then is the structure of racialization. Beyond demonizing a group, or proclaiming it alien, or simply expressing a prejudice against it, whites racialize themselves as white by racializing others. Racialization as a structure consists of a system of oppression, a discourse of paranoia, a call to allegiance to social consensus, and a reliance on violence to cement the consensus by making the paranoia seem real. It is in these terms that the assault on Iraq, unfolding in the same structural terms, gained consensus, accep- tance, and familiarity; structurally, it was an operation of white racialized identity, a white supremacist project. The interplay of paranoia, allegiance, and violence is what permits the ethical inversion of criminality and intervention. Like proclaiming freedom as depending on slavery, or democracy without sovereignty, the criminalization of the other used to prepare the intervention serves to decriminalize the violence used to intervene, relying on that violence to impart a reality to the prior criminalization of the other.

Social paranoia has threaded its way through US history since the beginning. In the 1830s, a movement arose against the imagined threat of a foreign power seeking to subvert the “American way of life” through an alien ideology. The foreign power was Austria, and the ideology Catholicism; but the rhetoric and syntax of the movement were identical to that used during the Cold War against Russia and communism. Where the first led to extensive anti-immigrant riots and pogroms, especially against the Irish, the latter led to wars in Korea and Vietnam. From the Alien and Sedition Acts (1795) through Jim Crow, to the Red Scare against industrial unions, the war on drugs used to incarcerate masses of people of color, and now a war on terrorism used to wage technological war against third world populations, the US has built its social cohesion as a nation through endlessly creating social paranoia. Today this takes the form of police profiling and a prison population (the world’s largest in per capita terms) of whom 75% are people of color.4 This does not just represent a paranoid “style,” as Richard Hofstadter describes it; it is a social structure on which the ruling class can call at any time to garner support.


1. Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 240.

2. Larry Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), p. 116.

3. For a more complete account of how this occurred, see Steve Martinot, The Rule of Racialization (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), Chapter 1; and Theodore Allen The Invention of the White Race (New York: Verso, 1997), Vol. 2.

4. Angela Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex,” Colorlines, vol. 1, no.2, Fall 1998. See also, Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New York: Verso, 1999).

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