The United States of America represents the triumph of self-interest over reality. “America” means your individualistic view or experience is all that exists. So if you’ve never seen a political prisoner in the U.S., and probably haven’t even read about political prisoners in this country, then political prisoners must not exist. And if you’re white, you very likely have not been compelled to take into account how your particular view of the world is empowered by a system, based on its interests.
Since it is not in the interests of capitalism, and it is consequently not in our interests– as white people– to question the validity of these master narratives, then we can just impose our subjective reality on the rest of the globe. And if this imagined view proves to be incorrect, we can claim ignorance. “Black people experience state oppression and extreme violence? I had no idea!” This willful ignorance on the part of white people is tremendously dangerous, but it’s also by design: our lack of political consciousness, and our narrow view of ourselves and the globe, are used as weapons of imperialism against the globe.
White people– especially whites in the U.S.– are agents of empire, as our individualism, patriotism and lack of objective knowledge are used by capitalism to impose our will– which is its will– on humanity. So the United States becomes incredibly powerful and rich, and can boast about all these success stories. Yet, at the same time, the United States also becomes a monument to ignorance and its triumph over material reality, as well as humanity. As far as scientific understanding and human decency are concerned, or our shared morals and feelings of empathy are concerned, the United States of America is a monumental failure.
One of these towering failures of the “American” imperialist ideology is the belief of whites who are women, or LGBT, or disabled, or poor that we must have it as bad as Black people and so-called people of color. We can always measure our specific individual experience against some imagined, hypothetical Black person who is better off than we are. Then we ignore the statistical evidence, and the narratives of oppressed people. We just go by some imaginary Black person who is wealthier, happier, healthier– who went to college for free and then got “our” job and, meanwhile, we’re struggling to make ends meet, and we’re gay or transgender or chronically ill. If some Black or Brown person at some time in history made fun of a gay person or a trans person, then, well, we’ve got it as bad (or worse) than that Black cishet man driving that nice car, because we are gay or trans and he’s not. Or we saw a successful Black person on TV (for example, giving a nationally televised address from the White House) and we thought– that guy took my place, he has it so much better than me. Of course, it never occurs to us to consider how racist it is to believe it was our place to begin with, or that the media that shows these images is controlled by wealthy, racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, Islamophobic whites who want us to take our frustrations out on Black people and so-called people of color. No– we just go right along and impose our subjectively idealist view on the world, because we are empowered by a global economic system (capitalism) to do so.
The point isn’t who has it the worst overall– who feels the most oppressed, or who believes they are the most exploited. We live under an inhumane, backward capitalist system: of course it’s bad for nearly everyone. Even the rich get migraines from counting all that cash. The wealthy executives lose their voice telling their lazy, worthless employees they’re fired. If we go by subjective reality, everyone is oppressed. But the point of recognizing systemic oppression is to ask: if you’re gay or trans, and white, how does your reality statistically compare with a Black person or African who is gay or trans (or both)? Statistically, there is no doubt who is experiencing greater systemic oppression: Black people.
And, of course, having wealth and access to resources is going protect anyone from capitalist violence, at least to a certain extent. However, if we look at the way capitalism treats middle-class white women versus the way it treats middle-class Black women, there is no question who is oppressed (especially if they are Black trans women). It doesn’t matter if they’re middle-class or wealthy– in fact, it shows just how oppressive the capitalist system of power is when having money still isn’t enough to avoid racist violence. But if we’re a poor, exploited white worker, we compare our situation to the richest, happiest Black person we can imagine– or see on TV. We don’t consider that we’re acting out of jealousy, and also believing the white identity is entitled to certain privileges, and that maybe we just aren’t as smart, hardworking or determined as they are. And this willful ignorance on our part is money in the bank for capitalism– it wins elections, it gentrifies neighborhoods, and it leads to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people, including political prisoners who are criminalized and punished for their beliefs and for struggling against objective or material conditions of oppression, not on account of their hurt feelings and headaches.
Yet the white population in the United States, having been objectively empowered by our whiteness, can just go on believing that political prisoners don’t exist in this country– not like in Cuba and other “backward” countries where Black and Brown people live as the majority. The whiter the country, or the whiter the neighborhood, the more that white people think it is free from political repression and terrorism– rather than considering that its greater whiteness is evidence of its greater violence.
Any population that ignores the ongoing repression of political prisoners– and even their very existence– is simply widening its own contradictions between what it believes to be good and decent and its actual behavior, which is evil and inhumane. Our values and ideals are bound to come crashing down on our heads because of this volatility between what we believe and want and what the world actually is. And capitalism itself– as expressed through the state power of the United States– is built on this unstable foundation, or, rather, this lie: “America” is a society whose subjective reality is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the belief that people are created equal, with justice for all, while the material reality for its power and wealth has been slavery, colonization, and ongoing genocide against Africans, Indigenous peoples and the majority of humanity.
Nothing exposes this contradiction more than the existence of political prisoners in this “free country”; so, of course, capitalism empowers whites only to see rich Black people, successful Black people and Latinxs and Native people, happy Black and Brown people in a wonderfully diverse, progressive society. Or, if they aren’t rich and happy, they must be criminals, thugs, terrorists– so we allow the state to lock them up and then hide their very existence from our view. Then we just look at all the pictures of the pretty monuments to slave-holding “Founding Fathers,” and think about what a great country “America” is, wandering around in our dreams, in our white neighborhoods, until the oppressed people of the globe wake us up one day and make us recognize our crimes.