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Posts Tagged ‘debt slavery’

Jezebel’s genealogy of these images is, at best, incomplete.  The debt vigilantes aren’t gesturing back to LBJ’s attacks on Goldwater.  Rather, they’re extending the essential social vision on which the right has been operating since Obama’s election.  The discussions of the health care bill as reparations, the ceaseless scandal mongering about organizations of people of color, and, of course, the steady stream of racist humor oozing out of every GOP regional official’s mailbox all work to invoke a picture of white America usurped by the illegitimate Black man in the White House.  The hysteria over the debt has not been widely linked to these more obvious expressions of racial resentment, but the right is drawing from a deep well with their pictures of pretty little white girls and breathless warnings about the economic slavery of future generations.  In the early twentieth century, ‘white slavery’ was a potent concept for organizing a number of anxieties revolving around race, class, and gender:

The image of the migrant prostitute as ‘white slave’ fit in to racist conceptions of Americans and Europeans. For many Europeans, as Guy points out,

it was inconceivable that their female compatriots would willingly submit to sexual commerce with foreign, racially varied men. In one way or another these women must have been trapped and victimised. So European women in foreign bordellos were construed as “white slaves” rather than common prostitutes (1992: 203).

Accounts of the day stressed the ‘whiteness’, equated with purity, of the victim:

The traditional Western connotation that whiteness equals purity and blackness equals depravity flourished in a myth that appealed to the moral and prurient natures of its audience (Grittner 1990 :131).

Only ‘white women’ were considered ‘victims’; [7] for example, campaigners in Britain against the ‘white slave trade’ to Argentina were not concerned about the situation of native born prostitutes (Guy 1991: 24), nor were American reformers concerned about non-Anglo Saxon prostitutes (Grittner 1990: 56).

The ‘white slave’ had as her necessary opposite the ‘non-white slaver’. ‘Non-whiteness’ was usually literally represented, but also figuratively, with ‘otherness’ from whichever social group conducting the campaign serving as a marker of ‘non-whiteness’. The very name ‘white slavery’ is racist, implying as it does that slavery of ‘white women’ was of a different, and worse, sort than ‘black’ slavery. In America, in particular, this contrast was explicitly used to downplay the black slavery experience (Grittner 1990). In both Europe and the United States ‘foreigners’, especially immigrants, were targeted as responsible for the traffic. Jews, in particular, were seen as responsible [8](NVA 1910, Bristow 1982, Grittner 1990, Guy 1991). According to Bristow, the term ‘white slavery’ first appeared in 1839, in an anti-Semitic context (1982: 34).

Sometimes the reliance on this discourse has been quite explicit.  Generally, however, it’s been one step removed, with whiteness being invoked primarily through images, rather than words.  Even the anti-Chinese current is generically appropriate, as moral panics about white slavery in American Chinatowns ran rampant around the turn of the century.  Later, in the 1960s, this discourse was repackaged into a kitschy sexploitation flick, The White Slaves of Chinatown.
Here, finally, is the true ancestor of the both the little girl and the pretty blonde freedom fighter, whisked away to god knows what sexual torture in the debt prisons of the celestials. This is why it is a mistake to see GOP game of debt ceiling chicken as merely the product of misguided economics or political opportunism by Obama (though both of these surely play a role). It is another aspect of right wing racial praxis in the United States.

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