Chapter News

Race and Political Sovereignty

Jennifer Jopp
January 17, 2021

As we reflect on and analyze the events of January 6th, when our republic teetered and men called to action by our own president described their actions as a “coup,” we cannot fail to note the differential treatment of white (often armed) protesters and black (unarmed and peaceful) protesters at our nation’s capital.

The thin security presence, even in the face of weeks of Trump’s calls for his supporters to rally in Washington to disrupt the counting of the electoral votes, is alarming. It is more alarming when contrasted with the heavy police, security force, military force, and National Guard presence at Black Lives Matter protests in recent months. 

More alarming still is the idea that the protesters were perhaps aided by the forces of the Capitol Police in breaching the fence and swarming into the Capitol building. Newscasters expressed their surprise and shock at the sense of entitlement with which the white and largely male crowd moved through the corridors of  power. 

One way that this difference has been explicated is in terms of race. Certainly, a racial lens is an appropriate one. Yet, a lens of settler colonialism can help us further understand the ways in which whites have come to be seen as carrying their sovereignty with them, while people of color are - by default – seen to lack legitimate access to the halls of power.

Using the lens of settler colonialism to examine the history of our country reveals that- far from the exceptional status we claim- the United States in the 19th century was only one of many states that developed a set of shared characteristics. Among these characteristics are the arrival of new settlers, the eradication of Indigenous populations and the extinguishment of their land rights, the importation of immigrant workers without citizenship rights, and the control of power and resources in the hands of those regarded as “white.”

Thus, among the legacies of settler colonialism is both a global color line and the creation of governments around the world in the hands of “whites” who reserved all power and land for those deemed “white.” The plundering of Native lands then distributed or “free”- gave newly-arriving settlers the basis of wealth on which to build a conception of sovereignty associated with “whiteness” as these governments denied all forms of citizenship to people of color. 

The legacy of these centuries of plunder and unequal resource allocation is a conception of political sovereignty that “whites” carry on their person and is – thus accorded great reverence by all the forces of law. Those deemed – consciously and unconsciously- to lack this sovereignty are assumed to be “lawbreakers” in the presence of the forces of the state.

We must fundamentally rethink our conception of sovereignty: all the people who live in our country- no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, age, class status, or physical condition- must be treated as equal citizens under the law and deserving of the protection of the police and held equally accountable.