White Supremacy in the Movement against the Prison-Industrial Complex

By Appel, Liz | Social Justice, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

White Supremacy in the Movement against the Prison-Industrial Complex


Appel, Liz, Social Justice


WHITE SUPREMACY IS DEFINED AS A "HISTORICALLY BASED, INSTITUTIONALLY perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege" (Martinas, n.d.). It is deeply embedded and entrenched in the foundation and social institutions of the United States. I wish to explore the role and various manifestations of white supremacy in leftist politics, specifically in the emergent movement against the prison-industrial complex. I posit that white supremacy is (re)produced and perpetuated by most white, self-proclaimed activists who fight different aspects of the prison-industrial complex. Through various forms of paternalism, reformist politics, romanticizing struggle and violence, exotification and exceptionalism, and neocolonial divide-and-conquer tactics, whites propagate their privilege and power in their organizing and activism. I use the terms "we" and "white activists" almost interchangeably, for this article is primarily directed to an audience of white progressives, a group of which I consider myself a member.

The crux of my argument is not that white supremacy is an inevitable evil that is the undoing of any social movement. Instead, I attempt to critique white progressives whose actions, though well intentioned, are laden with manifestations of white supremacy and challenge them to embrace a more radical politics, one that makes anti-racism a central tenet in any analysis and subsequent action against a white-supremacist state. We cannot begin to fashion a creative blueprint for a struggle that attempts to actualize a world free of domination without fundamentally understanding the ways in which our various actions, as white individuals and organizations, perpetuate the hierarchies and oppressions against which we wage our battle. Proceeding without fundamentally questioning the forms of oppression that are reproduced in our "activist" work ultimately relieves the state of the need to take an active role against our efforts. That is, we will have already fulfilled the prophecy of white supremacy and ensured the failure of true freedom. We must not deny or make light of its power to destroy movements for justice. Therefore, we must be consistent, disciplined, and cognizant of ourselves, which means being unafraid to check the reproduction of privilege on the part of fellow whites. In this fast-track, fascistic police state, in which racist sentiments of nativism and xenophobia are becoming as American as apple pie, there is an ever-present need for white activists to dedicate themselves to an anti-racist struggle. They must reframe and interrogate their roles within the larger movement. Before we can begin to transcend the barriers of race, we must understand the deeply rooted nature of white supremacy and the various forms of oppression faced by different peoples of color.

The movement against the prison-industrial complex is multifaceted in its efforts to dismantle and combat different evils. Thus, hundreds of organizations throughout the nation are working on issues such as the death penalty, detention of immigrants, police brutality, health care within prisons, policing of youth, and the militarization of public schools. This work is necessary to build a mass movement that seeks to destroy the prison-industrial complex, and ultimately the state and its founding principles (capitalism, white supremacy, and male supremacy), but we must critique the methods and politics of many white liberal individuals and organizations involved in this work.

The international movement around political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal is a perfect example in terms of its ability to highlight the various manifestations of white supremacy. A large percentage of Abu-Jamal's supporters were galvanized by the conflicting "facts" used to convict him of murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. …

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