The Power to Kill: the Immunologics and Necropolitics of Whiteness

Salvador Herrera // Racial thinking evolves and adapts, but earlier ideas tend to linger and splice with other discourses in a chain of pervasive and dangerous myths. The danger of these myths lies in their hierarchical notions of racial inferiority. Logics of race are evoked to justify war and genocide against foreign bodies, as if violence were a natural immune response.[1] On August 3rd, 2019, a white terrorist identified twenty-two Mexican/American Walmart patrons in El Paso, Texas as pathogenic invaders of an imagined nation-body. Because of their race and assumed relationship to the state, he targeted them for mass murder in an exercise of necropolitics: the power to kill.

The murderer posted his racist manifesto to 8chan, otherwise known as Infinity Chan, hoping to live in infamy and inspire other white supremacists. As such, the man himself is not the subject of this article, nor is he named here. As part of an uptick in racially motivated attacks across the globe, he is not particularly unique. My decision not to directly link to his manifesto comes on the heels of ethical discussions concerning media coverage of racist viral texts.[2] However, I do believe that an engagement with the specificities of language used is warranted if one is to critically map ideologies of race and their intersections with science, medicine, and other sources of knowledge that drive exercises of power.[3]

To make sense of this event and events like it, my writing here revolves around a single question: what are the functions and ramifications of when race and nation meet biological and health metaphors? I argue that the strain of white supremacy that the El Paso shooter subscribed to—while multifaceted and thereby internally contradictory—hinged on narrative metaphors and logics of immunity to justify genocide. Radicalized by racist conspiracy theories of ethnic replacement through migration leading to “white genocide,” the shooter imagined himself as a defender of the nation-state against a “Hispanic invasion.” While white supremacy was the impetus for his attack, his rationale depended on a metaphorical understanding of the nation as a bioorganic body in need of “preservation” and immunity.

The shooter believed that the United States is politically “rotting from the inside out,” with the Democrats sponsoring an “ever increasing Hispanic population” to stage a “coup” against the Republican party. This language of decay in his manifesto narrates a body politic composed of two organs of the state at war: a division that would bring about the downfall of America through the migration and reproduction of people of color. [4] As a white agent out for blood, the killer rushed to the artificial frontier of El Paso-Ciudad Juarez to attack foreign bodies and prevent “race-mixing.” This act of genocidal population control was meant to inspire terror, and the message was clear: leave the body, or else.

Here I am invested in interrogating what I call the immunologics of whiteness that bolster necropolitics. Political theorist and philosopher Achille Mbembe defines necropolitics as “the subjugation of life to the power of death.”[5] It is from this understanding that I draw the title for this article, “The Power to Kill.” Mbembe is principally concerned with those sovereign subjects who, in the name of “autonomy,” seek “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations.”[6] These genocidal figures, for Mbembe, are part of the normative social order rather than lone-wolf exceptions. What I call the immunologics of whiteness are just one of many “instrumentalization[s]” that facilitate what he calls necropolitics.

The immunologics of whiteness are a set of ideologies that draw on scientific and medicalizing discourses of immunity to promote white supremacy under the guise of defense. Whenever the nation is narrativized as “rotting” and falling prey to foreign, racialized bodies, the immunologics of whiteness are at work. Whenever racial mixture is a justification for murder in the name of “impersonal” biopolitical fitness, the immunologics of whiteness are at work. Whenever the supposed purity of whiteness is the basis of sovereignty and determines the selective permeability of the nation’s borders, the immunologics of whiteness are at work. [7]

These immunologics have their corollary in the realm of science. Current schematizations of the human immune system are militant. They narrate the body’s first line of defense against “infectious disease” as an absolute war contra difference. [8] Scientists and educators metaphorically liken white blood cells to “soldiers” who fight “foreign invaders” that are “unfamiliar to the body.” These metaphors naturalize war and violence against “unfamiliar” or “foreign” organisms marked for termination. Similar logical instrumentalizations and violent metaphors of immunity allow white supremacists to tie notions of racial purity and fitness to the political health and sovereignty of an imagined nation. [9] Sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman defines this practice of racism as “a practice that combines strategies of architecture and gardening with that of medicine – in the service of the construction of an artificial social order, through cutting out the elements of the present reality that neither fit the visualized perfect reality, nor can be changed so that they do.” [10] Understanding the role that “medicine” and other discourses of science play in this racial ordering of “reality” is particularly pertinent for critiquing the immunologics of white nationalism from a health humanities and critical race perspective.

These immunologics inform an overall practice of necropolitics inherited from legacies of modernizing projects that are outside the scope of this article [11]. Nevertheless, in the present day, these logics are further facilitated by a modern state apparatus that fetishizes scientific knowledge while protecting private interests and the right to bear arms at all (human) costs. Genocide marks trauma on two fronts: where the friends and families of those directly affected are left to grieve, and where the border hits home for Latinx people who are hunted across the country because of their race. Racism is a global health crisis.

Acknowledgements: thank you to all of the scholars and friends who have graciously lent an ear or critical eye as I was thinking through this complex issue and tragic event.

Endnotes

[1] Political scientist Ed Cohen finds that legal conceptions of “immunity” from ancient Rome, and militant conceptions of “self-defense” and “natural rights” from the English Civil War, crystallized in the late-19th century to form the modern biopolitical body (3). “Immunity-as­-defense” describes the ways in which Western science and medicine naturalize the politics of battle and violence in conceiving of the immune system, as opposed to earlier notions of bodily healing and vitalism.

[2] See Barrett; Donovan.

[3] This is an alternative to a “strategic silence” that would stop at mentioning that he left a manifesto behind, with the understanding that racism is straightforward and uncomplicated and that an engagement with the language of racial hatred is fruitless.

[4] The body politic evoked here will ring a bell to those familiar with Aesop’s “The Belly and The Members.” This is not to say that the notions of race discussed in this article are classical, but that earlier, biological understandings of society have intersected with notions of race overtime.

[5] See Mbembe 39.

[6] Ibid. 14.

[7] That is to say, the sovereignty of the United States depends on criminalizing and murdering racial others whether they are citizens or not. Mistaken deportations of Latinx people, who were born and raised as U.S. citizens, is evidence enough of these flawed, instrumental logics. Columnist Jennifer Wright goes as far as to claim that the denial of U.S. passport renewals to Latinx populations, and reports of ICE agents taking away citizens passports in their own homes, are next-to-genocidal acts. Non-white migrants and asylum seekers who die in captivity on account of the willful negligence of private and state-sponsored actors further evidences these necropolitics.

[8] See “White Blood Cells.”

[9] By logical instrumentalization, I mean the strategic rationalization of ideological beliefs to bolster truth claims. I would liken this trick of race to what Fields and Fields call “racecraft.”

[10] See Bauman 65.

[11] For Bauman on the Jewish Holocaust and Nazi racism, the very tools of modernity “made racism possible” (61). Racism as we know it “would be unthinkable without the advancement of modern science,” “technology,” and “state power.”

Works Cited

Barrett, Brian. “The Wrong Way to Talk About the El Paso Shooter’s Manifesto.” Wired, Aug. 2019. http://www.wired.com, https://www.wired.com/story/wrong-way-talk-about-shooter-manifesto/.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cornell University Press, 2001.

Cohen, Ed. A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body. Duke University Press Books, 2009.

Donovan, Joan. “Men like the El Paso Shooter Aren’t ‘Lone Wolves’ — They’re Never Alone Online.” NBC News, 5 Aug. 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/el-paso-shooter-wasn-t-lone-wolf-his-so-called-ncna1039201.

Fields, Karen E., and Barbara J. Fields. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. Reprint edition, Verso, 2014.

Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, translated by Libby Meintjes, vol. 15, no. 1, Jan. 2003, pp. 11–40. read.dukeupress.edu, doi:10.1215/08992363-15-1-11.

“White Blood Cells.” University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, https://www.uwosh.edu/med_tech/what-is-elementary-hematology/white-blood-cells.

Wright, Jennifer. “Why Stripping U.S. Citizens of Their Passports Is a Precursor to Genocide.” Harper’s BAZAAR, 7 Sept. 2018, https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a23010174/stripping-american-citizens-passports-genocide/.

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