The Zero-Sum Game of White Supremacy

Sexuality and gender-based civil rights and religion are now largely considered incompatible. In the United States, the media consistently poses this as a case of irreconcilable values, beliefs, and practices. However, this is not a problem of conflicting essential differences. Rather it is a flawed framework for thinking about citizenship and belonging. Much like the challenges to systemic affirmative action in the 1990s, the “zero sum” thinking in this flawed framework poses an all-or-nothing power struggle between American population groups. It reproduces notions of population “minorities” as threats—a legacy of white supremacy that continues to undergird how we talk about changes to institutional policies and processes.

While the history of sexuality and gender in the United States is distinct in terms of its historical exclusion from citizenship and belonging, the zero-sum logic emerges as a powerful framework for Othering and engendering violence.
In late June I received an e-mail from our anthropology department administration, informing us that several states had been added to the California Travel Ban after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Mississippi’s law, HB 1523. This law permits individuals, small businesses, and religious organizations, including Churches, to refuse to provide services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons. Depending on who one asks, this is discrimination based on sex and gender or otherwise “a violation of…religious or moral beliefs.” It is my point here that we take seriously not both or either points of view, but the framing of the argument. We must address what kinds of logics and reasoning devices are used to build a case of polarization in which one side wins while the other suffers great injury.

HB 1523 builds on the federal government’s Religion Freedom Act, which, in the last few years, has troubled the meaning of “expression” of religion—and of identity. When is freedom of expression infringed upon? And, when does it begin to harm another person’s civil liberties? While these questions might seem abstract and theoretical, in practice these answers result in same-sex couples being denied the purchase of wedding cakes, employment of adoption services, legal protection from workplace discrimination (see map below), and, for transgender persons in particular, qualification of healthcare benefits. Those who cite religious and moral beliefs, such as Kevin Theriot from the Alliance Defending Freedom, defend these practices as a matter of coercion and consent, stating, “Should you be forced… to do something you deeply disagree with?” Certainly, as someone who identifies as left-leaning, my answer to the problem posed above is clear. As someone who also grew up in a Mexican and “culturally Catholic” household, this also makes me pause to think about the various different tactics and approaches I have used over the years to talk about gender within my family.

“U.S. counties and cities with sexual orientation and gender identity protection.” Female bodybuilder enthusiast/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

My proposal for pushing these conversations forward is this: The zero-sum logic is flawed and benefits no one—neither the LGBTQ community nor the conservative religious—but instead creates exclusions around who is allowed the privilege of being American. Wedding cakes are unsold, more children are placed in the care of the state, and people do not receive the healthcare or the income they need. This zero-sum logic—an economic theory in which one wins all, and the other loses all—does not help us understand how economic desires and necessities are negotiated, and how these decisions have been made to create belonging in the United States. In other words, the ability to do things “American,” such as raising a family and demonstrating romantic commitment through rituals, have—for much of history—been denied to non-White, non-heteronormative groups since the birth of this slavery-dependent country. To provide just on example, slaves, also robbed of their children, “jumped the broom” to symbolize a marriage they were forbidden to create.

Many scholars have written that these practices of exclusion form part of American nation-building projects riddled with White anxiety, fear, and paranoia over knowing and living next to the “Other.” In narrating early slavery abolition debates, Kenneth Prewitt (2013) wrote that legislators, doctors, and civic members pushed for the enumeration of the black population and pseudoscientific methods to determine whether slaves were mentally stable as free subjects. They drew on the measurement of cranial differences to argue that freed black persons were exceptionally more likely to be “insane and idiots” (2013, 49-50), suggesting that they posed a threat to the respectable white populations, and that it was also in the black population’s interest to be enslaved. As black and other groups were racialized and their claims to citizenship and belonging became limited, European ethnic-groups also became white.

Following the logical conclusions of zero-sum thinking shows that this framework is founded on anxiety over the idea of losing power, rather than any given reality. Here is what I mean: Talcott Parsons (1963) once argued that sometimes political power works like a zero-sum game, like money, in which people give up power as an “investment… in the expectation that [it] can later be ‘cashed in,’ this time in the activation of binding obligations” (1963, 256). When people give up power, but are not given anything in return—a perceived contractual agreement—they challenge it. In the last years, such challenges have taken the shape of the Tea Party, the re-invigoration of the Ku Klux Klan, and the emergence of the Alt-Right. In the end, the ensuing hate is disassociated from an understanding of how people across these divides often times share similar interests and needs.

The Human Right’s Campaign has called HB 1523, the “Worst Anti-LGBT State Law in the US,” and several states have since passed similar laws. While the history of sexuality and gender in the United States is distinct in terms of its historical exclusion from citizenship and belonging, the zero-sum logic emerges as a powerful framework for Othering and engendering violence. Projects of inclusion, including institutional and workplace policy and process changes, cannot be tacked on to a legacy of systemic violence as if they represented a seamless transition into acceptance and belonging. Rather, we need to directly address this framing and create alternative visions and logical devices to create a more equitable future.

Luzilda Carrillo Arciniega is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is writing her dissertation, Making Corporate Inclusivity: Discrimination and Expertise in Post-Affirmative Action America. Find her on twitter: @luzildac

Cite as: Arciniega, Luzilda Carrillo. 2017. “The Zero-Sum Game of White Supremacy.” Anthropology News website, July 31, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.529

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.