Buffalo Skulls

When Raphael Lemkin first coined the term “genocide,” it was a word for what he was against. But the direct, programmatic, and industrial murder of an ethnic group—as has come to be exemplified by the Holocaust’s trains, gas chambers, and crematoriums—was not the only, or even the primary meaning of the term; it was not the only thing he was against. Today, for better or for worse, most people understand a genocide to be mass killing, organized and state-sponsored, with the Holocaust the original for all the other holocausts which must Never Again. Genocide is mass-killing, full stop. But Lemkin had begun thinking about legal protections for sub-national groups well before the second world war—starting with the Armenian genocide—and the crime to which he would eventually give a name was something more broad and expansive: any systematic and organized destruction of a collectivity’s ability to exist as a collective.

In 1944, for example, he wrote that “genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation”: “It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.”

A people’s plurality could be destroyed in many different ways, and Lemkin’s great unfinished work was to be a general history of world genocide, with dozens of different and variant examples. For Lemkin, then, settler colonialism was clearly genocide: his general world history would have included chapters on “the indigenous people of North and South America, the Aboriginal Tasmanians, and the Herero of German Southwest Africa.” Organized mass-killing was only one way to end a people, and far from the only one: individuals could survive a genocide, for example, but if the basis for their collective life had been destroyed, then a genocide had still occurred. When settler colonialism makes it impossible for survivors to live indigenous life-ways—as when the Australian government removed Aboriginal children from their parents, for example, or when US policy towards natives was to “Kill the Indian, save the man”—then assimilation becomes a vector of annihilation. The survival of bloodlines is precisely not the point; with the possibility of living in a native sovereignty destroyed—the impossibility of living the collectivity that had made them as such—genocide was only the word for what had happened.

Settlers always know what they are doing, of course; it was why they worked so hard to slaughter the buffalo: they wanted to kill indigeneity, not just individual indigenous people. A people who marked time and history by the buffalo could not survive in their collectivity without it. And so, as “Plenty Coups” of the Crow nation put it,

“When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

His point was that without the buffalo—the object on and through which his people existed and made collective meaning—their history could not continue. Individuals could survive, as he had, but the people had (arguably) come to an end.

"White genocide" is the phrase that white nationalists use to describe racial integration. When white nationalists began targeting George Ciccariello-Maher for a pair of tweets—and for living the life that he lives—they didn’t accuse him of advocating “racial integration,” though that is, of course, what they object to. But even Drexel University would not have found a reason to call his opinion “reprehensible” if that was what he had called for. Instead, they accused him of advocating the mass killing of white people. They were able to do this because his first tweet—“All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide”—was followed up by “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a very good thing indeed.” If you combine these tweets--and accept their framing--it becomes possible to hear only the more limited sense of genocide in the phrase “white genocide,” to hear a call for the mass-killing of white people. This is how the public relations officer that crafted Drexel’s proclamation seems to have (mis)understood the two tweets: a leftist professor comparing white people, today, to Haitian slave owners, and advocating their mass-murder. But this is, of course, not what Ciccariello-Maher meant, just as it is not what white nationalists really mean when they use the phrase (which is why they carefully use it that way). The entire "controversy" is stupid, by the design of those who cannot bear the reality of an America that is already multi-racial: “white genocide” is a trap, designed to blur the incredibly important distinction between racial integration and mass-killing. These are not similar things. And yet, because university public relations is where thought goes to die, white nationalists like Richard Spencer see it as a major victory.

Words are powerful. Lemkin’s word, genocide, made it possible to look at what the 19th century sometimes called “manifest destiny” and see a crime. To the white settlers flooding the American west, their destiny to rule the Americas was “manifested” in the fact that their populations were growing and the native populations diminishing; the phrase “manifest destiny” is a way of looking at a genocide manifestly in progress and naturalizing it, of seeing a people fading from existence and making destiny the author of their misfortune. To call it “genocide” is to observe that it was planned and put into effect. The settlers who killed the buffalo did so because they knew what they wanted and how to achieve it.

Is “white genocide” a thing in this sense? Ciccariello-Maher’s response to being targeted was to observe that white genocide is “an imaginary concept” and “a figment of the racist imagination,” and, of course, he is right. The birth of a mixed-race child is nothing like the mass-killing of white people; to argue that they are similar is nonsense. But does the mixing of America threaten “white culture”? Does immigration and diversity threaten the possibility of living a collective life as white people in America? In David Lane’s “White Genocide Manifesto,” for example—a bastardized version of Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 The Rising Tide of Color—Lane opens by asserting that “the term 'racial integration' is a euphemism for genocide”; because whiteness is a recessive gene that needs to be carefully protected from any competition (“The inevitable result of racial integration is a percentage of inter-racial matings each year, leading to extinction”), it cannot survive its dilution. The one-drop rule was once a Southern strategy for maximizing its unfree labor force; today, it poisons the groundwater of white nationalism.

In this sense, “white genocide” is exactly as real as “whiteness” itself. Whiteness is also an imaginary concept and a figment of the racist imagination, of  course, but that doesn’t make it any less real, or deadly; whiteness is a thing because people insist that it is, and use force and violence to make it so. Whiteness is a thing because white supremacists needed a name for their violent subjugation of others, and so they gave it one. In this way, whiteness is a uniquely virulent and pathological form of social identity. It cannot survive its loss of supremacy; it cannot abide competition or mixture or “impurity.” Created by racial slavery and given a second wind by European imperialism, whiteness depends on the violent subordination of all others. Celebrate your Irish heritage if you must, or your Pennsylvania Dutch grandparents; that has nothing to do with the whiteness that names me, now, but which (partially) excluded my Irish and German ancestors when they came to this nation. Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch can and will survive incorporation into a multi-ethnic nation, but it is the sine qua non of whiteness that it cannot and will not. Inextricable from racial subordination, whiteness has no other content at all: whiteness is what’s left in the melting pot after everything else has been burned away. Without that xenophobic fire, it has no meaning, no substance, no fundamental.

This is why “white genocide” actually does have a meaning beyond “racial integration.” If you take away a white person’s ability to live as the undisputed master of the universe—to take his own experience as normal and privileged, and to presume all others to be debased copies of his own primary existence—then you take away his whiteness. His heart will fall to the ground and he will not be able to lift it up again. After that, nothing will happen: whiteness will be dead.

We should welcome this manifest destiny. White people will not be systematically murdered, after all; non-white people mainly want to live as full human beings in the societies in which they were born, and they don’t need to kill white people to do it. In the 18th century, they did: if enslaved Haitians wanted to live as full human beings in the societies in which they were born, they did have to kill white people to do it; the only thing to regret is that enslavers laid the seeds of their own misfortune.

We do not live in the 18th or 19th or even the 20th century. Donald Trump’s generation can remember America before the civil rights movement, before California and Texas—and so many of our cities—became majority-minority, before their cause became a lost one. In a generation, Donald Trump’s generation will all be dead, and they’ll be replaced by the least white generation in American history. The arc of demographics is long, though: we’ll live the rest of our lives in a world where whiteness is backed in a corner, wounded and angry. We’ll live in a world where it has never been harder for a white person to live as the undisputed master of the universe, to take his own experience as normal and privileged, and to presume all others to be debased copies of his own primary existence, where whiteness is a plurality, still, but not a majority, where white people have dominance but no longer have hegemony. Because hegemony is dominance that doesn’t need violence to maintain itself, this is a dangerous world to live in: post-hegemonic white supremacy is organizing for war, and we will not be free of it for a long time. Because white supremacists see their morbid collectivity vanishing, they are willing to die for it, and to kill.

We can live for it, I hope. My children, if I have them, will speak Spanish, and in their life they will assimilate me into the new world we can all dream of creating together. Whiteness needs to die, because it was only ever about death in the first place. We can dream of something better, and more to the point, we can live it. A term like “white genocide” will not help us do that. But it’s good to look at what they are against, what they fear, what they hate, and remember what it is that we can be unironically for. There is probably a word for it, and I hope we all live long enough to learn what it is.