How privilege-blindness stops us understanding the roots of terrorism
By Priyamvada Gopal /

'White supremacists are all too frequently declared to be psychotic loners, where others are seen as part of organised ideological networks'. Photo: Heiko Junge/AP

An independent inquiry has established that Anders Behring Breivik, the clean-cut white supremacist who methodically murdered 77 people in Norway, moved around unchallenged for three hours after detonating a car bomb, despite police receiving eyewitness accounts of an armed man in protective gear.

Were the police looking for a different kind of killer? Or, despite the existence of a long-established white power underground in Norway, was it assumed that this was not a terrorist attack which would have triggered a protocol of nationwide alerts and roadblocks? The verdict on Breivik, whom prosecutors wanted declared insane and who believes multiculturalism has harmed "white Christian identity", is due in a few days.

While mass killing always has a madness to its method, white supremacists are all too often declared to be psychopathic loners, where others are seen as part of organised ideological networks.

Following the massacre of Sikh worshippers by another white supremacist in Wisconsin last week, little was made of the similarities between this apparently "senseless killing" and the recent firebombing of a Missouri mosque. Had Wade Page been Wadi Pervez and his victims predominantly white, talking heads would have debated the relationship between his religion and violent inclinations while "moderate Muslims" would distance "the community" from him.

Instead, there were suggestions that Page had targeted Sikhs "unfairly", alongside irrelevant discussions about Sikhism. Chances are that Representative Peter King will not hold hearings, as he did for Muslims, on the "extent of radicalisation in the American white Christian community and that community's response".

While black and, more recently, Muslim anger are widely seen as the problematic pathologies of our times, and thus subjected to the full weight of sociological, scriptural, political and even economic analysis, declared white rage is routinely relegated to the fringes, written off as the result of individual psychopathy, and eliciting passing interest only after blood is shed. Supremacists warn that there are "thousands of other angry white men like Page out there, the vast majority of them unknown". Yet as former department of homeland security analyst Daryl Johnson points out, an extensive report on rightwing terrorism, including white extremism, was angrily repudiated by Congress in 2009 and the number of security analysts devoted to domestic non-Islamic terrorism slashed to just one.

This marginalising of the real and present danger of white terrorism at a time when other forms of religious or nationalist militancy are under unprecedented scrutiny has to do with how "whiteness" itself operates.

Sociologists note that in Europe and America, whiteness and the privileges that have accrued to it historically are reliant on invisibility. To have white privilege is to not identify or be identified as racially specific unlike, say, "black athletes", "Asian entrepreneurs" or just an ethnic minority air passenger.

White supremacists make it difficult to uphold the individualist axiom that society is now "post-racial" or "colour blind". By asserting racial affiliation and calling for (the perpetuation of) an endangered white domination, they paradoxically undermine a more quotidian white power which, writes scholar Richard Dyer, "secures its dominance" by remaining ostensibly featureless and general. It can sit aloof from "multiculturalism", which is deemed a special pleading thing that only ethnic minorities do.

Whiteness is no more scientific or natural than any other racial category and is as internally diverse, but it still has huge operative force. It has expanded over time from an Anglo-Saxon and Nordic provenance to include, for instance, the Irish and Italians. Historians such as David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev have shown how who was deemed white was often linked to capitalist imperatives, such as union-busting, increasing earning power and dividing labour forces. That economic affluence still bears on ideas of whiteness is clear from pejoratives such as "chavs" or "white trash" attached to "poor whites", the qualifier itself implying contradiction.

While its institutional force is denied, a sense of collective whiteness is still appealed to for political purposes, often in code, through invocations of "shared Anglo-Saxon heritage" or attacks on immigration, criminal "black culture" and "leftie multicultural crap". When David Cameron knowingly invokes "Indian dance" as a time-wasting activity that justifies target cuts as sports fields are sold off, the address is to the presumed racial solidarity of the "you and I who wouldn't think of [it] as sport". It's the multiculturalism, stupid!

Though all white supremacists are not poor, a brutally inequitable economic order generates underclass anger, and there is encouragement for this sometimes murderous rage to be displaced on to foreigners, Muslims, gays, blacks, Jews and immigrants.

With ongoing military conflicts also pitting a "civilised west against archaic others", is it sheer coincidence that Page was an ex-soldier now thrown, like many veterans, into an economy where there are neither jobs nor prospects?

No murderer represents a community. But all killers, however psychopathic, act in a context, whether of economic deprivation, racism, militarisation, gun proliferation or lack of mental healthcare. To minimise these social realities in favour of individual psychopathy condemns us all to shooting in the dark.

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How privilege-blindness stops us understanding the roots of terrorism