I want to add a few thoughts to the article being circulated titled “Yes, What Israel is Doing to Palestinians is Actually Genocide” – because the author omits some important points about race and genocide.

I did a presentation in graduate school a few years ago at a conference on violence – where I argued that the United States is guilty of genocide against black people. The only criticism I received – from a handful of professors – was that my word choice of “genocide” was too strong – and that “crimes against humanity” was a more appropriate designation.

It occurred to me that there is a racialized monopoly on what is recognized as “genocide.” The legal concept of “genocide” began in 1948 with the United Nations; just a few years after the end of WWII and the Holocaust. The entire framework of “genocide” was conceived and written with Jewish plight as its baseline. We know this because – just three years later – in 1951, William Patterson and other notable scholars (i.e. W.E.B. DuBois) wrote “We Charged Genocide”, which argued that the United States was guilty of genocide against black people. The United Nations completely ignored the charge.

President Jimmy Carter declared that the Holocaust was “the most unspeakable crime in human history.” No reasonable person would or should ever deny the occurrence or severity of the Holocaust. But it is problematic to argue that the Holocaust was “the most unspeakable crime” – when there are atrocities that are rarely – if ever – mentioned. For instance: the Nazis killed 6 million Jews, but King Leopold of Belgium killed 15 million people in the Congo. The former is considered “genocide” – the latter isn’t even discussed.

There are two general tendencies in recognizing what counts as “genocide”. The first is when the victims are white or at least white-striving. A “genocide” can only be recognized as such if the victims are accepted as human to begin with. Killing 15 million in the Congo, colonizing the Americas, enslaving black people, etc. simply do not count as “genocide” because the victims do not “count” as *real* people.
The second tendency appears contradictory at a moment’s glance, but isn’t upon further inspection. Genocide is typically recognized as such when the perpetrators are non-white. Think back to relatively recent media coverage of “genocide.” It is easy for folks to recognize the atrocities in Rwanda, the Sudan, and Guatemala as “genocide” because of the intra-racial, or at least non-white dynamic. This feeds into the racist, right-wing narrative about “black on black crime” and all of its rhetorical siblings – which allow white people to point their collective finger at “uncivilized” countries who are “killing themselves”. The goal here is not to recognize the “humanity” of victims – it is to demonize the overall group and exonerate whites of any culpability (remember: Europeans played divide and conquer with African countries, and the U.S. trained and installed Montt in Guatemala). What we decide to call “genocide” largely omits the violence committed by whites against non-whites.

By way of conclusion: we have to be careful in the implicit arguments and assumptions we make, especially when it comes to talking about “genocide” in the legal sense. The entire framework of “humanity” – at the ontological level – requires the exclusion of marginalized groups. In arguing that “genocide” is being committed against Palestinians (or any other group), we run the risk of recognizing, petitioning to, and strengthening the model of humanity which will always exclude masses of people.

Photo credit