What is the appeal of the MAGA mantra “stop the steal”? The answer may have something to do with whiteness as property.
“Whiteness as Property” is the title of a 1993 Harvard Law Review article, in which Cheryl Harris argues that U.S. law has constructed “’whiteness’ as an objective fact, although in reality it is an ideological proposition imposed through subordination.” For Harris, being white comes with a “set of assumptions, privileges and benefits” that make whiteness “a valuable asset” that many are keen to defend. Its suppleness is one of its strengths. “Whiteness at various times signifies and is deployed as identity, status, and property, sometimes singularly, sometimes in tandem.” Harris traces the formation of whiteness as property through a series of US Supreme Court cases, but we can see it operating plainly today in American politics and culture.
If we think of the U.S. as a regime of whiteness as property, that helps explain why democratic claims by people of color to share equally in the regime’s assets are experienced as theft by a significant minority (as many as 40%) in the US. For them, the dubious claim that an election was stolen may feel true because the regime of whiteness as property treats voting as a white asset. The belief is not just that Black votes should not decide white futures; at the national level in the U.S., there are not enough Black votes to decide white futures. But there are enough Black, and brown and white votes together, in America’s increasingly multicultural and multiracial democracy, to decide a national election. When that happens, as it is did in 2008, 2012, and 2020, it may feel to the 40% like a stolen election, though it isn’t. In the regime of whiteness as property, “Stop the Steal” and “Make American Great Again” amount to the same thing. This is what the perspective of whiteness as property illuminates: the “steal” refers not to an election, but to a country. The former is a synecdoche for the latter and this is another way in which, as is so often noted, elections have been nationalized.
Those opposed to the MAGA agenda also want to stop a steal. From their perspective, the thieves are those who degrade democratic institutions, thus robbing them of the public trust that is their lifeblood. This doesn’t mean we cannot criticize public things, including the government! Holding institutions accountable by exposing wrongdoing or reporting on the claims of whistleblowers is part of the practice of public trust. Casting unfounded aspersions on them is not. Dousing them with disinformation is definitely not: it is, rather, a kind of arson.
Another tactic of democratic degradation involves privatization. Privatization is a technique of whiteness as property, which collectivizes white assets and withdraws from the integrated public things that bring people together in democracies. Pulling children out of neighborhood public schools because you want more control over their education may feel like power, but in a democracy such moves are better described as a kind of violence. Call it: democracide.
The political theorist, Hannah Arendt, who lost her homeland to fascism in the 1930’s, wrote about the importance of public things, and the specific powers of political action as “action in concert.” She distinguishes power and violence, arguing that violence, which seeks to control and master, is anti-political because it is instrumental. Power, by contrast, is quintessentially political, by which she means: it is generative and contingent, arising out of relations among diverse equals struggling together to bring something new into being. Power depends on promising and forgiveness because the former joins us together and the latter recognizes that sometimes events will have their way with us. Power also has its own affect. When we gather to march together on behalf of a cause, we experience a thrilling energy of mattering together, a feeling that is different from anything we feel alone. When we march on behalf of equality without knowing for certain what the outcome will be, our exhilaration points us North on the moral/political compass of democracy. In that moment, we experience something special: call it, demophilia. It is the fuel of democratic life.
As an example of how whiteness as property violates Arendtian power, consider Heather McGhee’s story, in The Sum of Us, of the decision by white citizens of Montgomery Alabama, in 1959, to drain the town’s public swimming pool rather than integrate it. To them, integrating community pools was like welcoming squatters to your private home. But public things are built with public funds to which all contribute. And public things do not just reflect community, they help constitute it. Their magnetic powers bring people to them, like a crowd at a cool pool on a hot day, and offer to an ever-expanding and diverse circle of citizens and residents the spaces and opportunities they to rehearse sharing, disagreement, and consensus-building.
Those who choose to restrict access to public things, or destroy them, are hoarders. And hoarding is the antithesis of democracy.
It is surely significant that as American democracy now teeters, hoarding flourishes. Hoarding disorder affects an estimated 2% to 6% of the U.S. population, the Cleveland Clinic reports. A neuro-psychological disorder this is surely inflected by our political economy’s promise that things will make us happy, hoarding may, however, also be a symptom of something else.
When hoarders, 90 % of whom in the U.S. are white, defend their stuff even as it chokes the life out of them, they symbolize the impact of whiteness as hoarding, which is just another way of saying whiteness as property.
Whiteness as property can be life-threatening. We see it in the anti-vaccination movement now. The freedom not to vaccinate was born early on in the pandemic, before vaccinations existed, at the very moment that then-president Trump realized populations of color were more vulnerable to Covid than whites. He saw this as vindication of his racism rather than what it was: evidence of its worldly effects. But as the virus has had its way with us, vaccine-refusing whites in the U.S., confident in their own natural immunity or certain that the virus is a hoax, may end up bearing the brunt of the contagion. Whiteness as property kills, as surely as hoarding.
Power cannot be hoarded. Austerity is unknown to it. So is consumption. The more we gather as diverse equals, the more power we generate. It is the most renewable energy there is. It cannot be stored for later, though stories, as Arendt knew, give it a kind of afterlife. Power is not something we consume and it cannot consume us.
Ironically, consumption is also the name of a disease, tuberculosis, once rife and, like Covid, transmitted by gathering. Perhaps even more ironically, consumption was also called the White Plague, though this was a reference not to race but to the pallor of those afflicted. Still, the old term brings a new reminder that whiteness as property is hoarding. It is in this light that we must consider today’s vaccine-hoarding by wealthier countries from the rest.
Hoarding pops up late in the recent Netflix series, Maid, where a desperate woman hires the series’ protagonist, Alex, to clean her overstuffed house. Alex has seen many disheartening things in her job as maid, but now, confronting a years-long accumulation that would dispirit anyone, Alex does the work without judgment. She does not psychologize or politicize hoarding. She just gets rid of the stuff that has become a torment to the hoarder, offering a new start, but no cure.
A new start, but no cure. That may be the best democracy can hope for now.
Notably, Maid, a series whose politics are more liberal than democratic, nonetheless offers a bit of guidance. Via mere adjacency, the series intimates a connection between rejecting hoarding and turning to public things. True, there are not enough bootstraps in the world to account for all the picking herself up that Alex has to do. But she is also helped out by good people and good social democratic institutions: welfare, a women’s shelter and, in the end, a public, state university. But, first, she has to learn how to access their benefits and this requires mastering the mysterious intricacies of public bureaucracy. Such red-taping is itself a kind of hoarding. But, as with her cleaning, Alex works determinedly through the piles of obstruction and clears a path.
It matters that Alex is no hoarder. A true hoarder would never allow herself to be overheard making her way up the ladder of social mobility. But Alex makes her calls to the university in full hearing of several women from the shelter. When she talks to providers and gatekeepers alike in a voice that says she has every right to a share in the school’s resources, the women around her take note. The women’s shelter, run by good people, is enmeshed in neo-liberal welfare/work requirements. But, in this scene of self-help, we see something more: the guiding light of social democracy and its public things, free for the taking.