Rich White People Are the Biggest Looters on the Planet

by Stacey Patton

From looters to those disrupting traffic, from those dying-in at shopping malls to those wearing tee-shirts that say “I Can’t Breathe,” from those chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” over Christmas carols to those venting and grieving on social media, the punditocracy has once again characterized protestors as a criminal element.

For some talking heads, these protestors have not only ruined people's holidays, but their so-called “inflammatory rhetoric” and criticism of the police is now responsible for Saturday’s killings of two NYPD officers in Brooklyn. At least that is message. This narrative is a continuation of what we witnessed in the aftermath of the non-indictment in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson.

These narratives represent another means of deflection from talking honestly about the genocidal violence of white supremacy, and they prevent us from working together to find solutions on how to destroy it before it kills us all.

Let’s revisit what was said about the protestors and the “looting” that took place during the Ferguson rebellion. Amid the mass demonstrations there was also some vandalism, burning of businesses and cars, and petty theft. But looting and violence are not features unique to black protests.

Predictably, conservatives lamented and condemned the rioters as criminals looking for an excuse to be lawless. FOX News pundit Bill O’Reilly noted, "These looters could not care less about Michael Brown. They are criminals, and that was obvious last night." Similarly, MSNBC news commentator Joe Scarborough described them as violent “hordes” that destroyed black businesses and their own communities.

“It’s like looting tourism,” noted one officer. “It’s like they are spending their gas money to come down here and steal.”

While some black leaders, including our commander-in-chief, asked for calm, or patience, or prayer, or non-violence, Charles Barkley called the protestors “scumbags” and said they aren’t “real black people.” CNN’s Don Lemon expressed limited patience for the uprising in Ferguson, “There was nothing peaceful about last night. It was hard to be peaceful in that crowd… I think there needs to be a stronger hand in people marauding the streets and people having the potential of setting fires… and the potential of harming people… It doesn’t matter what color someone who is marauding or looting is.”

Denying the political implications and the legitimacy of rage, it became yet another moment to lament black criminality. It became yet another instance to castigate the black community for working against their own interests, “for burning down it’s own community,” despite limited evidence of who was engaged in the destruction and whose businesses were destroyed.

From the punditocracy to the ordinary trolls on social media and news sites, this criticism is used to describe black people as savage animals that need amped up policing. (We are already witnessing this rhetoric from police in New York City who are out for blood on the heels of the latest cop killings in Bed-Stuy.) This criticism is ironic given that white people, namely rich white people, have historically been and still are the biggest looters on the planet.

Historic examples of white people looting stretch back to the arrival of the first European settlers who, through war, disease, the rape of women and girls, and trickery massacred tribes of Native Americans that lived in the eastern part of North America. The history of America’s colonization of indigenous lands is a story of racial violence and looting: theft of land, mass extermination of indigenous people, and the breaking of treaties. President Andrew Jackson was of one America’s O.L. – original looter.

Of course, he isn’t alone.

President Polk looted Northern Mexico of its land, resources, and people with the Mexican-American war.

President McKinley’s execution of the Spanish-American war was all about the looting of the Philippines, Hawaii, and the Pacific.

“Manifest Destiny” is America’s greatest looting ideology (along with white supremacy).

In America’s big book of looting, one must include the looting of black bodies as unpaid labor for slavery, along with looting of black women’s bodies through rape and ownership of their children as “property.” And you want to talk about theft from a convenience store and some broken windows. Take a look in the historic mirror.

Looting during the Atlanta Riots of 1906 and the destruction of Black Tulsa are but two more examples of white America’s long history with looking.

Want some more? The destruction of black churches and schools during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and during the Civil Rights Movement, and even most recently the larger history of looting in the name of power and white supremacy.

Let us not forgot the looting of Japanese-American lands resulting from Alien Land laws and Internment; or the stripping of the land of black farmers. As a result of institutional racism and racial violence, lands owned by black farmers dropped from 15 million acres in 1920 to 4.2 million acres in 2007.

The looting is not just historical.

Rich white people are looting as you read this piece! Just look at the various kinds of looting that have taken place over the last 30 years: Savings and Loans bailouts; CEO golden parachutes; the looting of pension funds; During the Presidency of Barack Obama, 95% of the income gains have gone to the top One Percent. If that isn't "looting" we don't know what you call it!

The subprime mortgage crisis, a.k.a the war on black wealth, has looted Black America of economic power. Black households lost a staggering 53 percent of its wealth between 2005 and 2009.

Gentrification is a form of looting. Black communities from Harlem to Brooklyn to Ferguson, Latino communities from the Mission District to East Los Angeles have been destroyed by gentrification. White developers got rich, while communities of color have been destroyed.

Municipal courts in places like Ferguson loot by extracting capital from poor people through fines for things like traffic tickets; civil forfeiture laws and the war drugs is more of the same. Just because it’s written into law, and reimagined as policy, doesn’t mean it isn’t violence, it isn’t theft, and it isn’t looting.

From conquest of indigenous lands to slavery, from economic plundering to the rioting that seems to follow sporting events, pumpkin’s festivals, and a Saturday night on a college campuses, the history of America, and more specifically white America, is one of looting.

Yet, this history is distinct from the Los Angeles uprising or the most recent expression of rage in Ferguson and other cities across the nation. One expressing frustration and “airing legitimate grievances” and the other … well, you know the history.


Stacey Patton is a senior enterprise reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of That Mean Old Yesterday. Follow her on Twitter: @DrStaceyPatton.

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