on Badiou’s “The Racism of Intellectuals”

Badiou’s essay “The Racism of Intellectuals” is a concise polemical reframing of a contemporary “problem” that Pothik Ghosh in the comments section of my translation of the article says is “now globally universal.” The evidence for the widespread nature of racism as a social-control formation cultivated and nurtured by intellectuals and utilized and incited by ruling elites on the bourgeois “left” and right is overwhelming, but nevertheless racism still persists in the polite, bourgeois mind as problem of the uneducated masses and their evil right-wing leaders. Badiou points the figure in the other direction, at the liberal elites and intellectuals who hold so much political and media power, but fail to create a systematic anti-racism and instead actively work to support and reinforce a racist society and racist politicians (whom they often electorally “oppose”). The idea that racism is somehow “innate” is a widely-believed banality in American culture, supported by such elitist theater as Clybourne Park (a Pulitzer Prize winning play whose insidious ideology I criticize here), and the reactionary song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the Tony Award winning musical Avenue Q. This is only to mention the isolated and elitist domain of Broadway, but this is precisely Badiou’s point: Racism as an ideology is reinforced by the intellectual work of “philosophers”–why not add artists?–who create a body of work that leads an audience towards an obsession with territoriality, innate hatred and Hobbesean selfishness rather than working to show how these techniques are rather those of a power intent on cynically confusing, manipulating and inciting an exhausted population.

A riot in Tel Aviv a few days ago erupted when protests against a growing population of Sudanese who have sought refuge in Israel as war rages in their own country devolved into racist violence. Haaretz reported that

Demonstrators attacked African passersby while others lit garbage cans on fire and smashed car windows. Another group of demonstrators stopped a shuttle taxi and searched for migrant workers among the passengers, while banging on the windows. (…) Several protesters smashed the windows of a grocery store that served the migrant workers community, broke the windows of a barber shop and looted it.

There may be as many as 3000 Sudanese refugees in Israel and the to the obvious economic stress the country is undergoing as the massive 2011 marches proved (which were triggered by a protest against rising rent) can be added a more sinister variable of the racial menace– “They are coming for our jobs and our women”– the Sudanese have been accused of many rapes and theft. Racist pogroms in America have often begun with the accusation of a rape, as in the bloody rampage of the Omaha Race riot in the Red Summer of 1919. As Americans for Peace Now blogs:

The ongoing dehumanization of African migrants, legal or illegal, is just the latest symptom of the erosion of democratic values inside Israel.  It is part and parcel of the growing intolerance and dehumanization aimed at the Israeli left, at organizations working for human and civil rights, and at the longstanding dehumanization of Palestinians, both Israeli citizens and those living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

But how was that longstanding dehumanization of Palestinians achieved? Haaretz writes in an editorial that

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein supports the expulsion of citizens of South Sudan to their country. The next morning, a call went out, led by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and including the mayors of five other cities, for the imprisonment and expulsion of the migrants. (…) Our elected officials are trying to profit politically out of people’s misery and at the expense of a poor and helpless group. Human rights activists have also become a target. The history of the Jewish people – rife with instances of incitement, persecution and pogroms – does not resonate with the inciters.

The overweening power of the Israeli state, police and military clearly has the ability to forcefully end this potentially explosive situation, but without a clear command and political will from above the violence is essentially encouraged. Haaretz now reports that mass deportations are being planned. A country of refugees unwilling to physically protect, let alone shelter, refugees.

In an era of militarized police power of unbelievable technological sophistication, the explosion here and there of racist, nascent-fascist violence is in direct proportion to the intellectual and political foundation on which rests an edifice of racist culture, power and politics that is immobilized against the true menace of a persecuting majority because of the decades of intellectual labor required to dehumanize another human being. As Badiou writes, if there are to be mass deportations may we have the wisdom to deport our leaders and not any convenient scapegoat immigrants.

If Badiou exposes and blames the institutional elite apparatuses that nurture and fan the flames of systematic racism, what does this mean for the “classic Foucauldian problematic” of the nature of power against the “cliché” of “taking state power”? What would a powerful campaign of anti-racism on the march look like? What institutional forms would it require to be successful? Race is not class, but can reveal the varying topography of class in striking and subtle ways. Without the camouflage of racism how would this landscape appear?

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