The Settler Blindness to the U.S. Empire’s Internal Violence

Rainer Shea
Settler-colonialism creates a blindness among the colonizers. There’s a disconnect between what settlers see, and what’s actually happening in their surroundings. This can be the case even for settlers who consider themselves sufficiently educated on white supremacy. The colonial contradiction on this continent—and therefore the class contradiction that proletarians of all colors have an interest in eliminating—can’t be addressed until this deficit in understanding is done away with.

The most concise way to phrase what the settlers need to comprehend about their conditions is that there’s a war perpetually going on around them. A war between the colonized and colonialism. And war is not something to be taken lightly. Wars entail bloodshed, trauma, distrust, animus, severe security measures on the parts of the sides engaged in combat, and cycles of violence and recrimination. Their consequences are too complex and wide-ranging to be solved through simple solutions, and carelessly inserting oneself into their areas of conflict will bring those consequences upon oneself. If you treat a war zone like a playground, venturing into it without regard for its violent nature, you’ll get killed, severely injured, or end up recklessly endangering the innocents caught in the crossfire. This is the framework with which settlers need to understand the struggle against colonialism.

The colonized nations in the imperial center are fighting against the most powerful and violent oppressor in history. The U.S. empire has kept these nations shackled and chained for centuries, working to exterminate them both culturally and numerically. Those within these nations have historical trauma that stems from slavery, torture, forced relocations, the colonial destruction of crops, mass sterilizations, and terror that’s ranged from lynching to the burning down of houses to police brutality. The settler state has political prisoners from these nations such as Leonard Peltier and Kevin Rashid Johnson, keeping them incarcerated for decades on bogus charges and subjecting them to the torture of solitary confinement.

The empire has built the world’s biggest mass incarceration system, disproportionately targeting the colonized. Slavery, particularly of Africans, continues via this for-profit carceral state. Africans, Chicanos, and Natives continue to have their communities systematically impoverished, making them die of Covid-19 at highly disproportionate rates compared to whites. An increasingly militarized police state, its officers trained by the enforcers of Israeli apartheid, subjects the colonized to wanton and disproportionate murder. Through COINTELPRO, which surveys and infiltrates anti-colonial organizing, the FBI maintains the environment of surveillance and counterinsurgency that defined the Cotton Kingdom.

These are the conditions within which this war is taking place. A constantly tense environment, where racialized violence is continuous and where the members of these nations can be brutally targeted at any given moment. These nations are living under an occupation, one that designs life to be pervaded by repression, deprivation, and surveillance. The latter factor reinforces the occupation’s claustrophobia. As Simone Browne writes in Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness: “In the time of slavery that citizenry (the watchers) was deputized through white supremacy to apprehend any fugitive who escaped from bondage (the watched), making for a cumulative white gaze that functioned as a totalizing surveillance. The violence of this cumulative gaze continues in the postslavery era.”

Is it any surprise that when fighting for their liberation, the members of these nations have responded proportionately to this violence rather than casually brushing it off? That they’ve not just armed themselves and read the revolutionary theory, but carried out the disciplinary and retaliatory measures that are necessary when settlers interfere with their goals? In 1968, white activists descended upon Chicago to participate in the “Days of Rage” surrounding  the Democratic National Convention. The Chicago Black Panthers told them not to, because the city’s Black people would be the ones who suffered the consequences of the police backlash which this adventurism was going to produce. The whites didn’t listen, with white Weather Underground member Mark Rudd later admitting to the bad-faith motivations he and the others had for this decision: “we did not listen to the people on the ground because we were racist.”

During the Panthers’ meeting to confront the activists, Fred Hampton punched Rudd in the face for his refusal to heed the Panthers’ warnings. But this didn’t stop the Weather Underground from changing their minds, with Rudd only having engaged in public self-critique decades later. The consequence of this chauvinistic stubbornness and pride was a police crackdown against the area’s colonized peoples, with Hampton having been killed by the police during the year following the “Days of Rage.” The adventurism of the settlers at the very least contributed to law enforcement’s narrative precedent for this and other anti-Black police killings which followed the convention.

It’s unsurprising that the Chicago Panthers grew hostile towards the Weather Underground, despite the Weather Underground’s members claiming to have nothing but idolized the Panthers. When the Panthers stormed the Weather Underground’s office, made off with printing equipment, then kicked Weathermen down the stairs after they told the Panthers they didn’t want to share their printer, it was a consequence of these settlers behaving out of bounds. They fucked around, then they found out. As will any other white leftist who acts like they can do whatever they want on the battlefield of decolonial struggle.

It didn’t matter that Rudd eventually realized his white chauvinism. The damage was done. All that we whites in the communist movement can do is take this story as a lesson for our own behavior. What’s notable for us about the racism of the Weather Underground is that they harbored it at the same time they espoused anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and otherwise communist rhetoric. They even believed that they held great respect for the Panthers, seemingly viewing their disregard for the wishes of the Panthers as merely a friendly disagreement between allies. There are aspects of the racialized surveillance mentality in this story; to believe you have a right to swoop into an oppressed community, and tell this community what is or isn’t good for it, is the same intrusive reasoning which goes behind the Klan’s prerogative that Black communities need to kept in check. Yet these kinds of racists viewed themselves as the polar opposite of the Klan. Their racism was insidious in this way, taking the form of sheer hubris. Hubris which stemmed from failure to reject the entitlement which settlerism instills.

Settlerism cultivates this entitlement in the mind of the settler by walling them off from reality. By bringing up the settler—even the poor settler—with immunity from the types of violence that are particular to the colonized. No white person has been discriminated against for their skin color, or deprived of water by the government that stole their land, or had their parents need to explain to them how not to get murdered by the police, or had to carry the trauma in their genes from ancestors who got stolen from their homelands and tightly packed into filthy slave ships. So the settler is made incurably blind to a certain extent, only able to partially alleviate this blindness through humility and studying.

The outwardly reactionary settler denies the very existence of white supremacy, and contorts reality on a whim whenever it contradicts their fantasy of a post-racist utopia (like when reactionaries make up police violence statistics to make law enforcement racism seem milder, or alter police brutality stories to portray a given murdered Black person as having been to blame for their death). These types of settlers even rewrite history to fit their preferences, denying that genocide was committed against Natives and portraying the old slavery as having been morally acceptable. These are the levels of blindness that the settler is capable of. Just because a settler believes themselves to be above this kind of racism, doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of participating in racism, or of having settlerism’s blindness impact their thinking. Unless they’ve conquered the racial entitlement that their conditions have encouraged them to harbor, they’ll end up harming the decolonial liberation movement they believe themselves to be allies with.

Rainer Shea: Exposing the lies of capitalism and imperialism. Subscribe to his newsletter on Substack.