By Wilson Riles Guest Commentator


A listening-person does not need to “dive” very deeply into our experience here in this country to encounter bedrock oppressive ‘American’ values that are barriers to justice for all. I should say “U.S.” values since America includes all of North America, Central America, and South America; people from countries outside the U.S. have fallen silent on their criticism of our “occupation” of the definition of what is American. That appropriation of other folks’ identities is itself oppressive and that folks have given up trying to fight it is too typical of the historical, psychological response to unrelenting oppression. This is very much like what happens to individuals who are the target of domestic abuse: folks give up, take it, and move on to something else. The injustice continues and sinks below the surface or in to the background. Those of us resident in the US are not the only Americans and our dominant culture does not – by far – represent the most important positive human values that have sprung out of the inhabitants of this continent.


The mythological conceptualizations of the abuser, despite the social psychological and physical harm that have been caused, are assumed to be factual and are rarely critiqued. The readers of Black Commentator know this phenomenon from the prospective of racial identity and characterizations against which we continue to successfully struggle. What I call the Buffalo Soldier Syndrome is a persistent mythological conceptualization which too many of us swallow without thought. Too many enlist in the oppressors ‘army’ to oppress others or adopt the oppressor’s strategy and tactics in a manner that strengthens the mythological conceptions rather than expose them and tear them down. This is another way of giving in. This allows the abused to believe that he/she has achieved some relief and success for a moment to some significant degree. These Buffalo Soldier Syndrome situations are always transitory and end up petering out or encountering additional or evolved oppressive barriers.


The plight of Black veterans returning from war is the classic example of this phenomenon. Obama’s accepting of the economic analyses of Lawrence Summers and Tim Geitner is another. However, there are other more subtle examples.


In my humble opinion, there are two key aspects to the success of this Buffalo Soldier phenomenon. One is the confusion of camaraderie with community and the other is the absence, suppression, cooptation, and erasure of the availability of alternative ways and means to successfully oppose oppression. These two key aspects are linked when the alternative ways and means are undermined by that version of the Buffalo Soldier who has succumbed to the drama and addiction to adrenalin that characterizes the strategy and tactics of the oppressor. The abused become the abusers; they contract the disease. They become culpable in their own blindness. They occupy, suppress, and disrespect the same folks that the principle abuser targets – for little and short-term gain for themselves. Like soldiers willing to return to an unjust war, they would do it all again for that fix of drama with adrenalin and that intense dependence on those in the trenches with them.


Part of the oppressor’s background mythology is that there are ‘naturally’ some humans who are better, more deserving, and justifiably better-off than other humans. As it is in almost all mythologies, there is a kernel of truth here. People vary to some degree on almost every scale and perspective you can conceive. Some are taller than others. Some are smarter on certain mental tasks and less astute on other mental tasks. Some are stronger or faster or more flexible, etc., etc. Some are more musically talented – like Obama singing Al Green versus Mitt Romney singing anything. None of these measures of human difference have any real relationship with the mythology of race. These differences occur within all groups of humans and amongst humans in total within a specific range and, almost always, the differences are distributed in the statistical configuration of a Bell Shaped Curve: most folks bunch in the middle of the range with 99.6% falling within three standard deviations on each side of the middle line.


The untruth in the abusers mythological conceptualization of this result is that the oppressor thinks that he/she stands out more than three standard deviations on the justified power, affluence, and righteousness end of the scale and that everybody else is so fatally flawed that they should not be measured on the same scale, thus defining White supremacy, American exceptionalism, and other ‘isms’ to justify social and economic oppression, occupation, and appropriation. The abusers self-assessment is an unnatural outlier. When money and wealth is the standard, a billionaire is way out beyond three standard deviations. The billionaire is an unnatural human.


Buffalo soldiers think they are standing on the same scale because they become comrades or competitors playing the same “game” as the oppressor. They confuse camaraderie as a “team” member with inclusion in “the” community. But the game is oppression and when a specific match is over, the team members go to different communities and unjust and unequal circumstances. When we pick up the occupation tactics of the oppressor, we strengthen the background mythology: that might is right, that assets are a measure of humanity, that individualism should always triumph over community. We reinforce the blindness that our oppressors desire for us and cripple ourselves.


Camaraderie is built on intense opposition to some “other;” if there is no “other” – the Cold War ends, police are seen as humans rather than fascist devils, the Irish change from being people-of-color to being seen as White – an “other” has to be invented to maintain the conditions for a field of camaraderie. Community, the “beloved community,” can exist without the necessity for a dehumanized “other.” The tactics and strategies of the abuser and the oppressor require this dehumanization of the “other.” Guest Commentator, Wilson Riles, is a former Oakland, CA City Council Member. Click here to contact Mr. Riles.


Tags: buffalo, soldier

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