Category Archives: Intersections

The New Jim Crow

10802160Michelle Alexander (2012) The New Press

This book is remarkable not so much for its content — while that is impressive, it draws from the work of so many others who have been fighting the prison system and the criminalization of our youth for a long time. There is little that is new here. What is new (at least I think it’s new but I could be wrong as this is not entirely my subject) is the way that it is all brought together with devastating impact through the overarching argument that mass incarceration represents a new system of racial control and exploitation, the third in a series that began with slavery and continued with Jim Crow:

Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service-are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. [5]

In terms of thinking through the meaning of racial caste

I use the term racial caste in this book the way it is used in common parlance to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration.

It may be helpful, in attempting to understand the basic nature of the new caste system, to think of the criminal justice system–the entire collection of institutions and practices that comprise it–not as an independent system but rather as a gateway into a much larger system of racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization. This larger system, referred to here as mass incarceration, is a system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls–walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws… [12]

This is a system well served by a few people of colour in high positions: ‘the current system of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it’ and does not require overt white racism: ‘racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago’ (14). Of course, the history of the U.S. has made it obvious that you can always count on indifference, with plenty of hostility and overt bigotry.

It begins with America’s beginnings: ‘Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery–as well as the extermination of American Indians–with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the colonies’ [23]. Here in American many prefer to forget such beginnings, or that ‘The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system–slavery–while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites’ (25).

Then came the long struggle for abolition, the civil war, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Increasingly the rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was mobilised against the Civil Rights movement battling to dismantle Jim Crow:

Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive “lenience” toward lawlessness, thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then- vice president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.”37 (41)

This would become a new building block:

As Weaver notes, “rather than fading, the segregationists’ crime-race argument was reframed, with a slightly different veneer,” and eventually became the foundation of the conservative agenda on crime.48 In fact, law and order rhetoric-first employed by segregationists-would eventually contribute to a major realignment of political parties in the United States. [43]

And drawing on the work of the Edsalls

Race had become, yet again, a powerful wedge, breaking up what had been a solid liberal coalition based on economic interests of the poor and the working and lower-middle classes. In the 1968 election, race eclipsed class as the organizing principle of American politics, and by 1972, attitudes on racial issues rather than socioeconomic status were the primary determinant of voters’ political self-identification. The late 1960s and early 1970s marked the dramatic erosion in the belief among working-class whites that the condition of the poor, or those who fail to prosper, was the result of a faulty economic system that needed to be challenged.

And this is where a lot of the stuff I knew but didn’t know came in – the war on drugs. I knew it was terrible, but had no idea just where it had sprung from, how it had come about, and really I didn’t understand just what a new kind of terrible it really was in the inner-cities of this country – having grown up on the border and worked with refugees I connected it always more with the new militarization of the border and post cold-war conflicts in Mexico and Central and South America. I thought poor neighbourhoods had always been that controlled and screwed over by police, not realising that the levels and extent of it were something new (because poor people, especially people of colour, have of course, always been screwed over by police). I’m not even that young, but this is part of the generation gap I suppose. Alexander writes

In October 1982, President Reagan officially announced his administration’s war on Drugs. At the time he declared this new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation .72 This fact was no deterrent to Reagan, for the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race. By waging a war on drug users and dealers, Reagan made good on his promise to crack down on the racially defined “others”–the undeserving (49).

I knew the general numbers of incarcerations, but had never connected these to the war on drugs per se

Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. 1 Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41 , 100 in 1980-an increase of 1, 100 percent.2 Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began.3

The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service, or probation) has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen. In two short decades, between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans-or one in every 31 adults-were behind bars, on probation, or on parole. 7 [60]

Nevertheless, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men. 19 The racial bias inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men .2 For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control-such as probation or parole.21 These gross racial disparities simply cannot be explained by rates of illegal drug activity among African Americans. [100]

Again, I knew police in practice mostly did what they wanted to do, but I didn’t realise how statutorily powerful the police are in this war, and how far protections against racism and bias have been eroded. This was both terrifying and infuriating and elicits despair of any change. How can this be possible:

First, consider sentencing. In 1987, when media hysteria regarding black drug crime was at fever pitch and the evening news was saturated with images of black criminals shackled in courtrooms, the Supreme Court ruled in McCleskey v. Kemp that racial bias in sentencing, even if shown through credible statistical evidence, could not be challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment in the absence of clear evidence of conscious, discriminatory intent. [109]

The combination of recent case law has ensured that ‘The Supreme Court has now closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing. The system of mass incarceration is now, for all practical purposes, thoroughly immunized from claims of racial bias’ (139).

This when evidence shows that whites more than any other race are more likely to use and sell drugs. So why the focus on the ghetto? Partly because of the political pay-off against a population far less powerful and spatially removed

The enduring racial isolation of the ghetto poor has made them uniquely vulnerable in the War on Drugs. What happens to them does not directly affect-and is scarcely noticed by-the privileged beyond the ghetto’s invisible walls. Thus it is here, in the poverty-stricken. racially segregated ghettos, where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factories have disappeared, that the drug war has been waged with the greatest ferocity. [124]

Though more academic explanations have been in the foreground

Numerous scholars (and many law enforcement officials) attempt to justify the concentration of drug law enforcement resources in ghetto communities on the grounds that it is easier for the police to combat illegal drug activity there. The theory is that black and Latino drug users are more likely than white users to obtain illegal drugs in public spaces that are visible to the police, and therefore it is more efficient and convenient for the police to concentrate their efforts on open-air drug markets in ghetto communities. Sociologists have been major proponents of this line of reasoning, pointing out that differential access to private space influences the likelihood that criminal behavior will be detected. Because poor people lack access to private space (often sharing small apartments with numerous family members…[125]

Thus

Today, the War on Drugs has given birth to a system of mass incarceration that governs not just a small fraction of a racial or ethnic minority but entire communities of color. In ghetto communities, nearly everyone is either directly or indirectly subject to the new caste system. The system serves to redefine the terms of the relationship of poor people of color and their communities to mainstream, white society, ensuring their subordinate and marginal status. [188]

It redefines this relationship through a new kind of racial segregation, locking up vast populations behind bars, but Alexander argues that more important is its symbolic production of race:

Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen ). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black. [197]

the conflation of blackness with crime did not happen organically; rather, it was constructed by political and media elites as part of the broad project known as the War on Drugs. This conflation served to provide a legitimate outlet to the expression of antiblack resentment and animus–a convenient release valve now that explicit forms of racial bias are strictly condemned. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer permissible to hate blacks, but we can hate criminals. Indeed, we are encouraged to do so (199).

Then, drawing on the work of French Sociologist Loic Wacquant, Alexander frames the economic argument behind today’s mass incarceration

By 1984, however, the black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled, while the white rate had increased only marginally. 85 This was not due to a major change in black values, behavior, or culture; this dramatic shift was the result of deindustrialization , globalization, and technological advancement Urban factories shut down as our nation transitioned to a service economy. Suddenly African Americans were trapped in jobless ghettos, desperate for work. [218]

Desperate for work in a society outsourcing work, thus become superfluous, and leading to Wacquant’s argument that

the one thing that makes the current penal apparatus strikingly different from previous racial caste systems is that “it does not carry out the positive economic mission of recruitment and disciplining of the workforce.”86 Instead it serves only to warehouse poor black and brown people for increasingly lengthy periods of time, often until old age. The new system does not seek primarily to benefit unfairly from black labor, as earlier caste systems have, but instead views African Americans as largely irrelevant and unnecessary to the newly structured economy-an economy that is no longer driven by unskilled labor. [219]

And so finally we reach the final arguments – the failure of today’s civil rights movement to deal with the real issues at stake. Partially because of the return to legal strategies the movement took after the movements of the 60s, while ‘Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve–i.e. problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem’ (227). But more importantly because of long-standing strategies for overcoming discrimination:

Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation–when black men were more likely to be lynched than to receive a fair trial in the South—NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of blacks accused crimes unless the lawyers were convinced of the men’s innocence.6 (226)

Since the days when abolitionists struggled to eradicate slavery, racial justice advocates have gone to great lengths to identify black people who defy racial stereotypes, and they have exercised considerable message discipline, telling only those stories of racial injustice that will evoke sympathy among whites. [227]

Yet these are the realities of our society – ‘While many black people get stopped and searched for crimes they did not commit, it is not so easy these days to find young black men in urban areas who have never been convicted of a crime. The new caste system labels black and brown men as criminals early, often in their teens, making them “damaged goods” from the perspective of traditional civil rights advocates’ (228). The very nature of the system itself victimises our children in a way that makes it unlikely that NGOs will defend them or take up their cause. This is what has to end. As well as any support of ‘colourblindness’, even if it seems that will solve problems in the short-term: ‘Our commitment to colorblindness extends beyond individuals to institutions and social arrangements. We have become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste in America’ [241].

I love most the call to fight this system, fight for everyone incarcerated, and to fight the rhetoric of colourblindness.

Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream-a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for. [244]

Angela Davis: Women, Race, Class

Angela DavisAn important work marking the intersections of class, race and gender…and all the history behind people you’ve vaguely looked up to because no one ever talks about the way they really felt about Black people. So you can respect some of what they’ve done, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger are forever debarred from my cannon of heroes.

In criticising the 14th and 15th amendments, Stanton and Anthony descended into a horrifying racism, and I believe Davis is right when she writes

Granted they felt they had as powerful a case for suffrage as Black men. Yet in articulating their opposition with arguments invoking the privileges of white supremacy, they revealed how defenceless they remained–even after years of involvement in progressive causes–to the pernicious ideological influence of racism.[76]

Anthony confessed to having capitulated to racism ”on the ground of expediency”, and remained chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association through 1900. Despite knowing people like Frederick Douglass (whose incredible grasp of movement and the importance of fighting on fronts of race, class and gender simultaneously is so incredibly inspiring)and Ida B. Wells.

Davis writes

In the eyes of the suffragists, “woman was the ultimate test — if the cause of woman could be furthered, it was not wrong for women to function as scabs when male workers in their trade were on strike [139-140]

With Davis I would agree this was a deeply damaging viewpoint, but one that must be critiqued and should never be forgotten–like Sangar’s flirtation with eugenics.

What I love is how this book rescues the real heroes, the people who should also never be forgotten. The working class women that joined the privileged group at Seneca Falls like Charlotte Woodward, who said:

We women work secretly in the seclusion of our bed chambers because all society was built on the theory that men, not women, earned money and that men alone supported the family … I do not believe that there was any community in which the souls of some women were not beating their wings in rebellion. For my own obscure self, I can say that every fibre of my being rebelled, although silently, all the hours that I sat and sewed gloves for a miserable pittance which, as it was earned, could never be mine. I wanted to work, but I wanted to choose my task and I wanted to collect my wages. That was my form of rebellion against the life into which I was born.

I had never known the extent of Ida B. Wells’ work. Her first pamphlet against lynching was published in 1895. Called A Red Record, she calculated over 10,000 lynchings had taken place between 1865 and 1895, she writes:

Not all nor nearly all of the murders done by white men during the past thirty years have come to light, but the statistics as gathered and preserved by white men, and which have not been questioned, show that during these years more than ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution. And yet, as evidence of the absolute impunity with which the white man dares to kill a Negro, the same record shows that during all these years, and for all these murders, only three white men have been tried, convicted and executed. As no white man has been lynched for the murder of coloured people, these three executions are the only instances of the death penalty being visited upon white men for murdering Negroes. [184]

The way she was treated in the mainstream press is almost unthinkable today, the New York Times editorializing in 1904:

Immediately following the day of Miss Wells’ return to the United States, a Negro man assaulted a white woman in New York City ‘for the purposes of lust and plunder.’ … The circumstances of his fiendish crime may serve to convince the mulatress missionary that the promulgation in New York just now of her theory of Negro outrages is, to sya the least, inopportune.’ [192]

Davis deals with some of the ways that this connects to gender construction through the characterization of black men as rapists, and to class as ‘white workers who assented to lynching necessarily assumed a posture of racial solidarity with the white men who were really their oppressors. This was a critical moment in the popularization of racist ideology’ [190]. These are issues that definitely needed — and have received — much more attention since this was published, but as a summation of all that we knew, a rescuing and restating of feminist and anti-racist and marxist histories, and a call to future scholarship, this book is brilliant.

For more on intersections of race, class and gender…

 

Black Feminist Thought: Patricia Hill Collins

I loved Black Feminist Thought, the way it battles to discover what is unique to black women’s voices and experiences, and how they can empower, aid in resistance, and form part of the larger coalition that is needed to create a more just world.

I’ve pulled out her own basic summary of what she wants this book to do and be, because it highlights what is missing from much other work, and because it is ambitious and beautiful and she almost does it all:

First, I was committed to making this book intellectually rigorous, well researched, and accessible to more than the select few fortunate enough to receive elite educations.

Second, I place Black women’s experiences and ideas at the center of analysis…I take a similar stance regarding Marxist social theory and Afrocentric thought. In order to capture the interconnections of race, gender, and social class in Black women’s lives and their effect on Black feminist thought, I explicitly rejected grounding my analysis in any single theoretical tradition.

Third, I deliberately include numerous quotations from a range of African-American women thinkers, some well known and others rarely heard from. Explicitly grounding my analysis in multiple voices highlights the diversity, richness, and power of Black women’s ideas as part of a long-standing African-American women’s intellectual community. Moreover, this approach counteracts the tendency of mainstream scholarship to canonize a few Black women as spokespersons for the group and then refuse to listen to any but these select few.

Fourth, I used a distinctive methodology in preparing this manuscript which illustrates how thought and action can work together in generating theory. Much of my formal academic training has been designed to show me that I must alienate myself from my communities, my family, and even my own self in order to produce credible intellectual work. Instead of viewing the everyday as a negative influence on my theorizing, I tried to see how the everyday actions and ideas of the Black women in my life reflected the theoretical issues I claimed were so important to them. Lacking grants, fellowships, release time, or other benefits that allow scholars to remove themselves from everyday life and contemplate its contours and meaning, I wrote this book while fully immersed in ordinary activities [xiii]

Fifth, in order to demonstrate the existence and authenticity of Black feminist thought, I present it as being coherent and basically complete. This portrayal is in contrast to my actual view that theory is rarely this smoothly constructed. Most theories are characterized by internal instability, are contested, and are divided by competing emphases and interests. When I considered that Black feminist thought is currently embedded in a larger political and intellectual context that challenges its very right to exist, I decided not to stress the contradictions, frictions, and inconsistencies of Black feminist thought. Instead I present Black feminist thought as overly coherent, but I do so because I suspect that this approach is most appropriate for this historical moment. I hope to see other volumes emerge which will be more willing to present Black feminist thought as a shifting mosaic of competing ideas and interests.

Finally, writing this book has convinced me of the need to reconcile subjectivity and objectivity in producing scholarship. Initially I found the movement between my training as an “objective” social scientist and my daily experiences as an African-American woman jarring. But reconciling what we have been trained to see as opposites, a reconciliation signaled by my inserting myself in the text by using “I,” “we,” and “our” instead of the more distancing terms “they” and “one,” was freeing for me. [xiv]

It is a key for the theorisation of movement I think, the ways in which different struggles come together. I find that I quite hate the words ‘identity politics’, they carry with them a negativity now, as though women, African-Americans, queer folks did not need to find their voice and power and address the terrible things that they faced unique to other groups. Class politics are not seen as identity politics, though class is an identity as much as anything else. She begins to work through the differences between autonomy and separatism, though I think more needs to be done

In her introduction to Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, Barbara Smith describes this difference: “Autonomy and separatism are fundamentally different. Whereas autonomy comes from a position of strength, separatism comes from a position of fear. When we’re truly autonomous we can deal with other kinds of people, a multiplicity of issues, and with difference, because we have formed a solid base of strength” (1983, xl). [35]

… the full actualization of Black feminist thought requires a collaborative enterprise with Black women at the center of a community based on coalitions among autonomous groups. [36]

How this will actually work in practice is what is absent from this book, but helping to form a position of wholeness and strength from which to work and struggle in solidarity is its strength. It also opens up a greater analytical depth in analysis of oppression, she writes

Replacing additive models of oppression with interlocking ones creates possibilities for new paradigms. The significance of seeing race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression is that such an approach fosters a paradigmatic shift of thinking inclusively about other oppressions, such as age, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. Race, class, and gender represent the three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American women. But these systems and the economic, political, and ideological conditions that support them may not be the most fundamental oppressions, and they certainly affect many more groups than Black women.
Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the center of analysis opens up possibilities for a both/and conceptual stance, one in which all groups possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege in one historically created system. In this system, for example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed. [225]

This, to me, summarises how we all need to be looking at the world and our place in it. She draws from bell hooks to look at how the ‘matrix of domination’ works along axes of class, race, and gender, and how these are experienced and resisted at three different levels: the personal, the group or community, and systemic level of societal institutions. All three must be studied, challenged. I particularly liked the examination of ‘the objectification of the black woman as other’, as much of this was more new to me (my own fault I know) and I had never really thought through how black and white identity are so intertwined through the ways in which those with power have posited them in opposition and in destructive binaries that made me physically nauseous. The ways in which such awfulness has infected everything, particularly sex and self-valuation I found so important, so obvious when pointed out but something like an unknown source of pain until it was.

I also loved that it ended with a way forward, I always love books that do such a wonderful thing, and they are so rare. But Collins outlines an afrocentric feminist epistemology that I find quite useful, especially in highlighting what is absent from academia today. The main headings are:

1. Concrete experience as a criterion of meaning. This puts a huge crack in academic expertise, which perhaps explains why I still find experience, even professional experience, not valued in academic institutions.

2. The use of dialogue in assessing knowledge. Sitting down together to talk through an issue to discover deeper truths? My favourite thing, and more effective than debate in my opinion.

3. The ethic of caring. A respect for individual uniqueness, for the emotions attached to our words, a development of our capacity for empathy. How better to theorise the making of a better world?

4. The ethic of personal accountability. What we do impacts others, and we can disempower, empower, or best of all? Co-create.

I feel like this should be a manifesto that people sign on to.

I know that this is early work, and in a later essay I’ve read Collins offers some critique and talks about the ways in which her thinking has moved forward, particularly around her thinking on autonomy and etc, I so look forward to moving with her! And until I read this I had never heard of June Jordan, but there are a couple of quotes in here that gave me a huge writer crush. The way that Collins draws on such a wide array of authors makes this also an amazing resource for voices rarely heard but very wise…

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Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis

Sugrue - The Origins of the Urban CrisisThomas Sugrue (2005) University of Princeton Press

Stunning really, searing and beautifully thorough research on race, political economy and the urban fabric of Detroit.

He engages with some central questions: what the hell happened to rust belt cities, how did they turn from industrial centers to economic backwaters, how did the ghetto form, how did segregation and racism persist? He then answers these questions, in the process knocking the almost the entire body of literature on the ‘underclass’ out of the ballpark. He does build on those that contained some structural analysis, but looks at a multiplicity of structural forces rather than just one or two (like deindustrialization or racism) and also follows a more historical approach, seeing the origins of the urban crisis in the 1940s and 50s. He does not avoid the question of agency — and there is so much in here about grassroots action — but paraphrases Marx when he says “Economic and racial inequality constrain individual and family choices. They set the limits of human agency. Within the bounds of the possible, individuals and families resist, adapt, or succumb.” His main thesis:

Detroit’s postwar urban crisis emerged as the consequence of two of the most important, interrelated, and unresolved problems in American history: that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately borne the impact of that inequality.

I find his work most interesting in the way he looks at race and space, though I don’t fully agree with his view of race. He writes “Discrimination by race was a central fact of life in the postwar city. But the dimensions, significance, and very meaning of race differed depending on its cultural, political, and economic context. … Racial ideology, a shifting and fluid popular vernacular of race, served as the backdrop to the relationship between blacks and whites in the postwar city.” Discrimination and ideologies of race are indeed shifting things articulated with cultural, political and economic context, but never a backdrop. The opportunity this book misses is a deeper theorisation of the way the events it relates also formed racial ideologies. This is not to deny that ideology also worked on more of a national level, and that ideas of blackness

In mid-twentieth-century Detroit, as in the rest of the nation, racial identities rested on Widely held assumptions about the inferior intelligence of blacks, notions that blacks were physiologically better suited for certain types of work, and stereotypes about black licentiousness, sexual promiscuity, laziness, and dependence.

did not shape history as much as ideas of whiteness

On the other side was the persistent association of whiteness with Americanism, hard work, sexual restraint, and independence. These assumptions about racial difference were
nourished by a newly assertive whiteness

He argues that in addition to culture, “Perhaps most important in shaping the concept of race in the postwar ‘period, I argue, were local and national politics. Race was as much a political as a social construction.” But for me, the most interesting thing about this is that he is the first (that I have seen) to deeply examine how race and space intertwine, and the consequences of this third factor in conceptions of race:

Perceptions of racial differences were not, I argue, wholly, or even primarily, the consequences of popular culture. If they were, they would not have had such extraordinary staying power. In the postwar city, blackness and whiteness assumed a spatial definition. The physical state of African American neighborhoods and white neighborhoods in Detroit reinforced perceptions of race. The completeness of racial segregation made ghettoization seem an inevitable, natural consequence of profound racial differences. The barriers that kept blacks confined to racially isolated, deteriorating, inner-city neighborhoods were largely invisible to white Detroiters. To the majority of untutored white observers, visible poverty, overcrowding, and deteriorating houses were signs of individual moral deficiencies, not manifestations of structural inequalities. White perceptions of black neighborhoods provided seemingly irrefutable confirmation of African American inferiority and set the terms of debates over the inclusion of African Americans in the city’s housing and labor markets.

Much later in the book he goes on to say

“Racial incidents encoded possession and difference in urban space. Residents of postwar Detroit carried with them a cognitive map that helped them negotiate the complex urban landscape. In a large, amorphous twentieth-century city like Detroit, there were few visible landmarks to distinguish one neighborhood from another, But residents imposed onto the city’s featureless topography all sorts of invisible boundaries-boundaries shaped by intimate association, by institutions (like public-school catchment areas or Catholic parish boundaries), by class, and, most importantly, by race.

The sustained violence in Detroit’s neighborhoods was the consummate act in a process of identity formation. White Detroiters invented communities of race in the city that they defined spatially. Race in the postwar city was not just a cultural construction, Instead, whiteness, and by implication blackness, assumed a material dimension, imposed onto the geography of the city. Through the drawing of racial boundaries and through the use of systematic violence to maintain those boundaries, whites reinforced their own fragile racial identity.”

How fascinating is that? And depressing. I read this with a little pit of fear that I would run across family members in the accounts of furious blue collar white Catholic homeowners (I didn’t).
But what makes this book so fantastic is its breadth. It looks at space and segregation, but also at work and the process of deindustrialisation, it looks at struggle — both that of African Americans and the grassroots efforts of whites to preserve their neighborhoods, it looks at layers of party politics both local and national, it looks at developers and real estate agents. It looks at gender, at class divisions in the African American community, at union politics and schisms and the way that race consistently trumped class and how homeownership shifted working class consciousness, at the development of discourses around rights and property and housing, shifts in the meaning of liberalism.

This is scholarship to aspire to, the kind of research we need to understand the complexities of race in our cities today and think about effective struggle, and I look forward to reading it again, as its breadth ensures I will find a whole new excitement in it I am sure.

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My Blue Heaven: South Gate and White Working Class Identity

My Blue Heaven - Becky NicolaidesBecky Nicolaides’ My Blue Heaven is a marvelously well researched and incredibly detailed look at the lives of people in South Gate, one which challenges a number of common assumptions about the suburbs while providing evidence for others.

I love how it details the ways that ideas and meanings of home and community were constructed, and their change over time. My Blue Heaven‘s principal argument is that from the 1920s through WWII, home was primarily a survival strategy for the working class. They bought affordable lots and built homes as and when they could, using extensive yards to grow food, thus provisioning themselves against want outside of the cash economy. At this time, residents felt that lower taxes were more important than school segregation for example, highlighting the precariousness of their living situation. This shifted after World War II, as South Gate came to resemble other suburbs such as Lakewood in its infrastructure and tract housing, and as owner salaries rose and situations improved, their homes became principally investments and marks of status. This led to a very strong feeling around taxes. Thus their bitter struggle against school integration, and defensive posture around residential integration to protect home values.

It is an interesting thing to think about, that poverty should make people less inclined to active racism when there were incentives to the contrary. Yet racism was no less virulent for communities made up of so many Southern migrants:

In 1925, the local booster-editor asserted “Home Gardens is a town of, by and for workingmen — and we want hundreds more of them. The only restrictions are racial — the white race only may own property here,” [27]

But this tension isn’t explored as much as I wished it to be, although the racial tensions post WWII are quite well documented. This is also true of the shift in how individuals saw taxes, and the foundations of Prop 13, and the today’s anti-tax conservatism. It is a fundamental dynamic in American politics, and this is some of the best evidence I’ve seen in terms of understanding how American politics has developed, both in the origins of strong-held opinions on the importance of low taxes:

When boom hit bust in the 1930s, their assumptions about the role of individuals and government began to shift. As both the politics of development and education revealed, residents began with the unspoken assumption that the burden of financing municipal services-from streets to schools-should fall on the backs of individual property owners, including the humble working-class home owner. Embracing an ethos of privatism, they believed property ownership conferred the responsibility of municipal stewardship. All property owners- regardless of wealth-became urban stewards. It was thus up to individuals, not government more broadly, to pay for services. In a poorer suburb like South Gate, residents simply chose to limit these services, to create a modest infrastructure that they could reasonably afford. There was no assumption that urban services were a right, and that they should be financed through a redistributive system of taxation. This reflected their deeply held ideals of individualism, self- help, hard work, plain-folk Americanism’ and anticommunism, an outlook asserting that urban fiscal policy ought to be based on a private approach rather than a collective one.

and then the ways in which discussions around taxes have also become coded in terms of race through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s

In numerous public statements, “taxes” became a coded reference to civil rights and programs for minorities, an excellent local example of the national trend that saw an overlapping of race and taxes as political issues. “While you work and sweat to protect your earnings and property, the politicians scheme with their minority supporters to put you in a hopeless position to protect yourself against raids of everything you work for…. Today CORE, NAACP, COPE [302] and their like are the only participants who pressure our legislators for the kind of government we have now, while today’s citizen is a drone, quite impotent in local affairs because he stays home, and our taxes continue to go up, up and up,”

It is extraordinary to watch a working class community shift from supporters of EPIC and the New Deal, to supporters of conservative Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. But through this historical view it finally makes some kind of sense…it also contains a lot of more ethnographic and quite fascinating information on daily life, entertainment, and particularly labor. Nicolaides argues that home became the center of people’s lives rather than their work, and explores some of its implications for labor.

Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in any of these topics, and a beautiful example of an in depth historical view of a single suburb that manages to give insight into key historical forces happening all over the country.

[Nicolaides, Becky M. (2002) My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]

Black Marxism – Cedric J. Robinson

Black MarxismBlack Marxism is a book of immense scope and impressive in its immensity. It felt absolutely overwhelming as I read it, but going back over it, it feels more like some kind of treasure trove that will continue to yield new things every time I open its cover — so some initial lengthy yet also paradoxically brief notes…

The European Roots of Capitalism

It begins at the European beginning of Capitalism, going through the rise of the bourgeoisie through first cities, then absolutist and colonial states. As Robinson states: “European civilization is not the product of capitalism. On the contrary, the character of capitalism can only be understood in the social and historical context of its appearance.” [25] And because this is true, the age-old conceptions of race, enemy and exploitable other simply translated itself into new terms as the world changed: “As an enduring principle of European social order, the effects of racialism were bound to appear in the social expression of every strata of every European society no matter the structures upon which they were formed. None was immune. [29]”

He moves on then to look at the English working class, and how their formation was also entwined with racialism. Marx and Engels both acknowledged the existence of racial divisions, but believed that these would be erased as capitalism developed, even though there did not appear to be signs of it happening. As Robinson pointedly notes:

Neither Marx nor Engels were unaware of the proletariat’s failure to become a universal class.76 Both studied the Irish Question closely, were active in the attempt to resolve its destructive impact on the historical processes of English working-class formation, and commented on its import for future proletarian organization. Nevertheless, the impact of their experience with the English proletariat on their theory of the proletariat’s historical role appears to have been slight. [51]

He’s scathing of the whole Socialist tradition really, particularly in its early stages, and in my opinion entirely rightly. Its solid basis lies in the bourgeoisie itself, with no connection to the working classes:

It is a period dominated by eccentrics, visionaries, and didacts. The wistful trails of Godwin, Paine, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Cabet, Pecquer, lesser and grander lights, preoccupy the historians, along with the most often short-lived utopian communities associated with some ofthem. The agitations, rebellions, riots, and struggles of artisans, wage laborers, peasants, and slave laborers are largely irrelevant to the tradition in the early nineteenth century and mostly constitute a background “noise” in this the era of the socialist writer. … Their work becomes a demonstration of the independence of socialist theory and social movements from one another. When once again they collide, in the 1840S, 1870S, and early 1900S, each had assumed forms and prerogatives only slightly tolerable to those of the other.

He returns Marx to his time and place, from 1848 to the rise of Bismarck in 1862. He traces the ambiguities of Marx and Engels’ positions on nationalism, and argues that they did not understand it, in the same way that they failed to understand racialism: that it was neither an aberration nor a stage, but something as determined by history as their world revolution failed to be. He argues that ideologies have in fact “helped to abort those social and historical processes believed to be necessary and inevitable; have catalyzed rebellions and revolutions in often unlikely circumstances and among unlikely peoples; and have assisted in extraordinary historical achievement where failure was “objectively” immanent.” [82]

Only then do we return to race:

In short, there were at least four distinct moments that must be apprehended in European racialism; two whose origins are to be found within the dialectic of European development, and two that are not:

1. the racial ordering of European society from its formative period, which extends into the medieval and feudal ages as “blood” and racial beliefs and legends.
2. the Islamic (i.e., Arab, Persian, Turkish, and African) domination of Mediterranean civilization and the consequent retarding of European social and cultural life: the Dark Ages.
3. the incorporation of African, Asian, and peoples of the New World into the world system emerging from late feudalism and merchant capitalism.
4. the dialectic of colonialism, plantocratic slavery, and resistance from the sixteenth century forward, and the formations of industrial labor and labor reserves.

It is now a convention to begin the analysis of racism in Western societies with the third moment; entirely ignoring the first and second and only partially coming to terms with the fourth. … In each instance, the root of the methodological and conceptual flaws is the same: the presumption that the social and historical processes that matter, which are determinative, are European. All else, it seems, is derivative.

Black Marxism is a refutation of such a framework.

Moments of Black struggle

And so on to rebellion and uprising in Africa and its diaspora flung across the world by the European slave trade. He writes:

Black radicalism, consequently, cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis. It is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black. Rather, it is a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western civilization: [97]

Robinson finds how this was ignored in a deep historical look at previous contacts between Blacks and whites, the shift of Blacks being seen as Islamic militants and soldiers to slaves and a very different set of stereotypes. From there he looks at the long history of the slave trade, mentioned earlier was the Italian trafficking of ‘Tartars’ and ‘Poles’ and ‘Cathays’, but now it has expanded into the extraordinary movement of tens of thousands of people in the trans-Atlantic trade. Thus we arrive at black radicalism. As he states at the opening of chapter 6:

However, Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or deculturated Blacks-men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.
This was the embryo of the demon that would be visited on the whole enterprise of primitive accumulation. [173]

And thus follows a whole splendid history of Black resistance through the ages, uprisings and revolts, some of the marron comunities you might have heard of like Palmares but many that you probably have not. It ends with Africa: Revolt at the Source. In delving deeper into the nature of the Black radical tradition, he finds in fact that “one note has occurred and recurred: the absence of mass violence.” [242], in contrast to the ‘massive and often indiscriminate’ brutality of the Europeans in quelling such revolts. He claims that such an absence shows that

This was a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.
It becomes clear, then, that for the period between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, it was an African tradition that grounded collective resistance by Blacks to slavery and colonial imperialism.

He goes on to argue for a particularly African tradition of granting primacy to the metaphysical, not the material. A tradition of resistance through collectivity. I’m not entirely convinced by the psychology of it, but there’s definitely something there. “They lived on their terms, they died on their terms, they obtained their freedom on their terms.” He argues that this cast doubt on the idea that capitalism was able to ‘penetrate and reform’ all social life, or strip life down to bare survival.

The Formation of the Black Intelligentsia:

Black Marxism then moves on to the third section to look at W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright. It is an immensely rich look at Du Bois, my favourite passage distilling some of the wealth in Black Reconstruction:

And in every instance, peasants and agrarian workers had been the primary social bases of rebellion and revolution. Nowhere, not even in Russia, where a rebellious urban proletariat was a fraction of the mobilized working classes, had a bourgeois social order formed a precondition for revolutionary struggle. Revolutionary consciousness had formed in the process of anti-imperialist and nationalist struggles, and the beginnings of resistance had often been initiated by ideological constructions remote from the proletarian consciousness that was a presumption of Marx’s theory of revolution. The idiom of revolutionary consciousness had been historical and cultural rather than the “mirror of production.” The oppositions that had struck most deeply at capitalist domination and imperialism had been those formed outside the logic of bourgeois hegemony. [324]

C.L.R. James loved fiction! Who knew. This section looks more at his critiques of Marxism, some interesting reflections on Black Jacobins and this interesting passage: “It implied (and James did not see this) that bourgeois culture and thought and ideology were irrelevant to the development of revolutionary consciousness among Black and other Third World peoples. It broke with the evolutionist chain in, the closed dialectic of, historical materialism.” [386]

And the section on Wright, so rich on how writing and experience and political consciousness fold together, there is so much here, I can’t sum up. There’s this:

For Wright, it was not sufficient for Black liberation that his people come to terms with the critique of capitalist society. He had observed: “Marxism is but the starting point. No theory of life can take the place of life.”55 As a critique of capitalist society, Marxism was necessary, of course, but it was ultimately an internal critique. The epistemological nature of historical materialism took bourgeois society on its own terms, that is, presuming the primacy of economic forces and structures.56 As such, the historical development from feudalism of the bourgeoisie as a class served as a logical model for the emergence of the proletariat as a negation of capitalist society. Wright appeared quite early to have understood this thesis as a fundamental error in Marxist thought. Even as early as 1937, he had begun to argue that it was necessary that Blacks transform the Marxist critique into an expression of their own emergence as a negation of Western capitalism.

Brilliant stuff on ideology and violence, the importance of experience, but I will let Robinson himself do the final summing up of the contributions of each to a valid theory of liberation:

Du Bois

It was, Du Bois observed, from the periphery and not the center that the most sustained threat to the American capitalist system had materialized. … Just as important for him, however, was the realization that the racism of the American “white” working classes and their general ideological immaturity had abnegated the extent to which the conditions of capitalist production and relations alone could be held responsible for the social development of the American proletariat. The collective and individual identities of American workers had responded as much to race as they had to class. The relations of production were not determinant. [448]

James

No revolutionary cadre, divorced from the masses, ensconced in state bureaucracy, and abrogating to itself the determination of the best interests of the masses, could sustain the revolution or itself. [449]

Wright

Wright evoked in his writings the language and experience of”ordinary” Black men and women. In this way he pressed home the recognition that whatever the objective forces propelling a people toward struggle, resistance, and revolution, they would come to that struggle in their own cultural terms. [449]

And my final quote which I believe deserves much thought:

Western Marxism, in either of its two variants-critical-humanist or scientific-has proven insufficiently radical to expose and root out the racialist order that contaminates its analytic and philosophic applications or to come to effective terms with the implications of its own class origins. As a result, it has been mistaken for something it is not: a total theory of liberation. [451]

Roediger on How Race Survived US History

7986411This was quite a brilliant look at how and why the idea of race has developed in the United States. I haven’t read Roediger before so I can’t really compare it to his previous work, but given it’s written for a more popular audience, which I think is important, I did not mind the lack of footnotes. While it was reasonably short, I confess it took me a long time to get through and I’m not sure if that was because of the language or the weight of the ideas, but I didn’t regret a second.

It begins with a definition of race. For Roediger race is not a natural category, it is something new. It has been laboriously constructed to divide and sort people and thereby define how they relate to property, management, punishment and citizenship. The first of the two clearest examples of how this works is of course slavery, which took many different people of many different languages and cultures and defined them as black, as uncivilised and less than Europeans if not less than human, and only worthy of being slaves. The second is in the conquest and genocide of the Native Americans. Initially seen in the period of British rule as tribes with whom to ally with or fight against in the wars against other European powers, as a new nation began to create itself and push its boundaries they quickly became defined as red, as savages, as shiftless and lazy, and therefore worthy of being dispossessed of their lands. When they fought back? Jefferson himself argued shortly before his death that they be exterminated.

Through these stories we begin to come to grips with the two other key ideas about race contained in the book. The first is that of ‘whiteness as property’. Skin colour comes to define almost everything about an individual: where they live and work, what they can aspire to, the texture of their everyday life. When all else fails you can still cling to whiteness to put yourself above other people. You are a citizen. You cannot be enslaved. You are better than others. Your skin colour has a value, whiteness comes to be worth something in itself, something that distinguishes you and puts you above others. There was a time before this was true, when indentured servants and slaves escaped together, when the mixing of races was voluntary rather than from the rape of slaves. Laws made of whiteness something to be defended: banning interracial marriage, penalizing indentured servants who run in the company of a non-white, ruling that children share the freedom or the servitude of their mother, ruling people of color less than human and non-citizens. It was a combination of enticement and terror, whites either acted to their own benefit by buying into it or were punished severely for its transgression.

On the opposite side you found a law in Barbados from 1668: “An Act declaring the Negro-Slaves of this Island to be Real Estates.”

The second point is based on Stuart Hall (who I love). As Roediger says of him, he “acutely points out that racism emerges and is recreated from the imperatives of new sets of realities, not just from the bad habits of the past” [xiii]. The first key is that there are imperatives that drive this social construction of race, such as the desire for free labor to develop open land, the greed for land and expansion both in terms of speculation and profit, and to vent the building anger of the working white classes who are not finding in America their promised prosperity and demanding free land while threatening revolution. The second: that these imperatives do not just happen in some past time and continue on through inertia or habit (though the weight of the past cannot be treated lightly). The key is that racism still exists because new imperatives exist to ensure that it does. Until we understand them, we cannot end racism.

In a nutshell: “White supremacy persisted not only by working against the forces of freedom, of openness, and of economic rationality in US history, but also by working through them. Such complexities complicate the verb ‘survive’ in this book’s title, in that many of the forces pushing against the logic of racism at the same time validated, created, and recreated white supremacy.” [xv]

He goes on to explore and draw out these ideas through American history, looking at 4 key points where racism could have ceased, but didn’t. In very simplified terms:

How did it survive a revolution? Because honestly, it’s a bit ingenuous to revolt in the name of ideals of liberty and self-determination against British oppression while you yourself hold slaves. This is the classic ‘American dilemma’, which Roediger argues to be false. The revolution was funded by slavery, and Du Bois noted that the Constitution was in fact a huge blow to the slave liberation movement, Roediger sums it up succinctly: “[the constitution] made even indentured whites (their race unnamed) into “free persons”, it read Indians (who were named) out of citizenship, and it counted enslaved “other persons” (named neither racially nor in their servile position, by what one delegate called an “ashamed” constitutional convention) not as holders of political power, but as sources of such power for their own enslavers.” [51] Thus America becomes a white man’s country, welding together large and fractious class divisions through the imperative of expanding into Indian territory and maintaining race status.

How did it survive capitalism? Because even the Marxists argued that race would dissolve in the crucible of the working class. But in fact capital thrives on having different groups of workers in a hierarchy and in competition with each other, and it became policy to play these groups off one another. And slavery was not some pre-capitalist formation, it grew up with capitalism.

How did it survive jubilee and the abolition of slavery? That was the moment there was the most hope…but “Jubilee did not collapse under the weight of internal contradictions, but under extended assault.” The rise of the KKK, in one small town in Louisiana 60 republican party members were murdered during reconstruction. And then the fateful election where the Republicans gave up reconstruction all together and abandoned blacks to their fate for an uncontested election. Hayes almost certainly lost the popular vote, but he became president anyway.

How did it survive the immigration of those white Europeans most discriminated against? Through a process of coercion and aspiration and immense exploitation they slowly became accepted as white. In a sense they thus agreed to accept the rules of privilege rather than struggle against them.

And so it is still with us, Obama notwithstanding. The main point is “how unlikely it is that a force so longstanding, formative, and persistently recreated as white supremacy has been in United States history will be abolished by accident, as a result of the momentum of forces like capitalism or immigration that themselves have no anti-racist agenda.” [xv] We have to actively fight it, and to do so we have to understand it. This book takes us a great deal of the way I think. It is very US specific, while the drama of race has played out globally (as has the US role) and yet none of that is connected here which I found an absence. But this is an important book.

C.L.R. James on History and the Haitian Revolution

775985This is an in depth examination of Haiti and the splendour of its revolution, while at the same time James writes the history of places the way they should always be written, as playing a part on a world-wide stage, deeply influenced by and deeply influencing other countries. France’s wealthiest colony, San Domingo funded the French Revolution, it diverted a sizeable number of (and bested) British forces from the war against Napoleon for years, and in turn decimated the immense flotilla that Napoleon himself sent against it.

To my shame, and a history of willful ignoring by the world, I knew very little about the Haitian Revolution. I had never heard or read of the immense importance this small island played in ‘European affairs’. The other side? “The blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman.” [198] It makes the key point that to write of a colonial power in the absence of the influence of its colonies makes as little sense as to write of colonies without connecting that history to the struggles within the Colonial power. An insight still ignored by too many who split knowledge and importance, cause and effect, by geography. The slave trade and mercantilism connected the world and its events in ways rarely acknowledged with any depth.

James rarely rises above his text to make this point (or the others), he simply makes the connections in the way he writes history. This is a strength in terms of thinking through how history is studied, but frustrating also, as I wanted a bit more filling out of these more theoretical insights, and the ones that follow, but they must be pieced together.

He is a key thinker on race and colonialism, of course, and here we see him putting together how race was constructed, and it is clearly constructed in his account, and how race and class intersect. The first chapter is titled “The Property” followed by “The Owners”, beginning with the economic relationship of profit, but not ignoring the many factors at play in this complex society. On the class differences between the white settlers:

“This was the type for who race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves, of which they had few. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental. It was their all. In defence of it they would bring down the whole of their world.” [34]

“The higher bureaucrats, cultivated Frenchmen, arrived in the island without prejudice; and looking for mass support used to help the Mulattoes a little. And mulattoes and big whites had a common bond — property. Once the revolution was well under way the big whites would have to choose between their allies of race and their allies of property. They would not hesitate long.” [44]

On the mulattoes and free blacks:

“In a slave society the mere possession of personal freedom is a valuable privilege … Behind all this elaborate tom-foolery of quarteron, sacatra and marabou, was the one dominating fact of San Domingo society — fear of the slaves” [38]

“The advantages of being white were so obvious that race prejudice against the Negroes permeated he minds of the Mulattoes who so bitterly resented the same thing from the whites [42-43]

Mulatto instability lies not in their blood but in their intermediate position in society. [207]

This was no question of colour, but crudely a question of class, for those blacks who were formerly free stuck to the Mulattoes. Persons of some substance and standing under the old regime, they looked upon the ex-slaves as essentially persons to be governed.” [166]

A sophisticated analysis of race and class and political expediency, the idea of whiteness as privilege and property, a tale of how racial categorisations and boundaries were devised and then cemented into place. So impressive. A final quote on race and revolution:

Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrection shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.” [106]

Unknown - NYPL Digital Gallery
Unknown – NYPL Digital Gallery

Of course, most of this book is about how Toussaint alone, ex-slave, genius, of inexhaustible physical stamina, and incarnation of the desire for freedom, could have led the struggle to end slavery.

Which leads into James’s thinking on revolution itself, and I suppose that’s where I break with him most. What I most fundamentally disagree with are statements like this, on Dessalines’ betrayal of a fellow commander to the French just before he rose up in rebellion:

“It was a treacherous crime, but it was not treachery to the revolution.” [346]

It’s the old question of ends and means of course, and so what I find most chilling is this combination of ends justifying the means with an emphasis put on individual leadership. But that’s always what I’ve found most chilling about Lenin and Trotsky.

This is activist history, which I much appreciate. I think it’s vital that radical history should interrogate what went wrong and what we can learn, which C.L.R. James does openly (again thinking through race as it intersects with class):

Criticism is not enough. What should Toussaint have done? A hundred and fifty years of history and the scientific study of revolution begun by Marx and Engels, and amplified by Lenin and Trotsky, justify us in pointing to an alternative course. [282]

It was in method and not in principle, that Toussaint failed. The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. [283] … Whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware of every step, and explained carefully the exact position of the bourgeois servants of the Workers’ State, Toussaint explained nothing, and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies were being favoured at their expense. … and to shoot Moise, the black, for the sake of the whites was more than an error, it was a crime.” [284]

Toussaint’s error in this description was that he lost touch with the masses, which was a tactical mistake. It was not his bid for power. James plays down the constitution that appointed Toussaint governor for life with the power to name his own successor with the curious phrase, “Constitutions are what they turn out to be…”

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Jean-Jacques Dessalines

I suppose my own belief is that an individual will always go wrong, will always fail, will always make mistakes, will always be corrupted by power. This is a good portrait of a man who was undoubtedly most extraordinary, but I believe revolution has to be a collective activity to continue to be revolutionary. That seems to be just a political difference until you realise how little in this book there is about Dessalines or Moise or any of the other ex-slave leaders, what they thought and how they fought and how they worked together day in and day out with Toussaint (or not as the case was).

Of course, what I love about James is that he seems to be continuously interrogating his own orthodoxies and challenging his own statements, there’s a brilliant footnote on page 338 drawing parallels with a quote from George Lefebvre on the fact that we shall never know the real names of the leaders of the French Revolution, the ones who did most of the work and actually raised the masses far from the orations of the figureheads. James writes that “the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership.” [25], the question becomes what that leadership should look like and how it carries out its role.

My last caveat is just that James definitely seems to share some of the Western and white prejudice floating around, although more critical of it than most. He writes:

“It is probable that, looking at the wild hordes of blacks who surrounded him, his heart sank at the prospect of the war and the barbarism that would follow freedom…” [107]

Always he supports and rationalises Toussaint’s own defense, not to say courting, of the whites, his refusal to redistribute land or government position:

“It is Toussaint’s supreme merit that while he saw European
civilisation as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it conferred any moral superiority.” [271]

So again you see a very orthodox Marxist sense of civilisation as being European, the march of history in a material though not moral sense. The clear descriptions of not simply the amorality, but the true barbarism of the Europen slavo-owner, the stripping of that moral superiority is incredibly important however, and undeniably differentiates him from almost all other historians. I think there is plenty of places in the rest of the book where James arguably undercuts some of these same ideas on progress and civilisation as well to some extent.

A classic. Just a couple more choice quotes to end with, not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they are both punchy and provocative, and a final rumination on the character of Toussaint that I’m not quite sure I understand and am still pondering:

That calm confidence in its capacity to deceive is a mark of the mature ruling class. [294]

The rich are only defeated when running for their lives. [78]

But in a deeper sense the life and death are not truly tragic. Prometheus, Hamlet, Lear, Phedre, Ahab, assert what may be the permanent impulses of the human condition against the claims of organised society. They do this in the face of imminent or even certain destruction, and their defiance propels them to heights which make of their defeat a sacrifice which adds to our conception of human grandeur.

Toussaint is in a lesser category. His splendid powers do not rise but decline. Where formerly he was distinguished above all for his prompt and fearless estimate of whatever faced him, we shall see him…misjudging events and people, vacillating in principle…

The hamartia, the tragic flaw…was in Toussaint not a moral weakness. It was a specific error, a total miscalculation of the constituent events. [291]

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Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag

In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney's representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney’s representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Golden GulagGolden Gulag is written by an activist trying to answer questions asked by mothers fighting for the lives of their children in prison, and grappling with the theory behind her work, so you know I loved it. I found it quite challenging though, and I’m still thinking about how she frames the political economy of prisons and how that intersects with race.

In a nutshell, she argues that “…prisons are partial geographical solutions to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis” [26]. She draws on the work of Hall and Schwartz in how she thinks about and defines crisis: “Crisis occurs when the social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the pre-existing system of social relations” a very technical definition I must confess. But essentially it means that change has to happen, the system of social relations or the social formation must shift. She argues that one way (maybe the only way, I’m out of my depth but I imagine one way) for society to find itself in such a crisis is through the build-up of surpluses. Capitalism depends on a cycle of accumulation of goods and their sale at a profit, it goes into crisis when goods simply accumulate. This crisis is not simply economic, but also political and social. In examining the political economy of California, she find four key surpluses provoking crisis. The state could have chosen different ways to resolve these surpluses, but instead they chose to embark on the largest prison building program the world has ever seen.

So this is the crux, the four surpluses are (in highly simplified form)

finance capital: investors specialising in public debt were having a hard time getting bonds through, they had money and couldn’t lend it to a very large and wealthy government

land: given drought, debt and development, farmers have increasingly been withdrawing irrigated land from production – ceasing to invest in irrigation infrastructure as it is no longer economically feasible. In addition there are large amounts of surplus land in and around depressed towns throughout California, together with high unemployment.

labour: manufacturing left, and hit poor communities of colour the hardest. The increasing number of prisoners has kept pace, and in many ways controlled, the rising levels of unemployment, and the highest percentage of prisoners comes from those areas with the highest levels of unemployment

state capacity: with the tax revolt that took place in California in the 1970s, the state was forced into crisis by lack of funds and lack of mandate to redistribute wealth through programs and services, while still maintaining it’s bureaucratic architecture. The State needed some other way to maintain that architecture.

And thus, prisons. More of them than anyone has ever seen. The rest of the book is looking at why these surpluses resulted in this particular solution.

It’s certainly a deeper and more complex argument than many of the prevailing ideas that she outlines: crime went up, we cracked down; drug epidemic; structural changes in employment opportunities; privatization of prison functions and the search for profit; provision of rural jobs and development; reform. It accounts for all of these things really, drawing them all into a more complex story.

She also draws on Hall and Gramsci to analyse perceptions and changing definitions of crime. I like her take on ideology:

Such change is not just a shift in ideas or vocabulary or frameworks, but rather in the entire structure of meanings and feelings (the lived ideology, or “taking to heart”) through which we actively understand the world and place our actions in it (Williams 1961). Ideology matters along its entire continuum, from common sense (“where people are at”) to philosophies (where people imagine the coherence of their understanding comes from: Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Marx, Malcolm X, the market).” [243]

Her invocation of race is also interesting:

As the example of racism suggests, institutions are sets of hierarchical relationships (structures) that persist across time (Martinot 2003) undergoing, as we have seen in the case of prisons, periodic reform. Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. [28]

I have often seen this quoted, but usually in addition to other definitions. It is curious that she relates it solely to premature death, I’m trying to wrap my head around that, why you would limit it to that, whether that doesn’t leave important things out. I suppose life and death is the most important question after all. She also includes a chapter that tries to grapple with the lived experience of how such a political economy of prisons and race intersects, what that means to people over and above it’s roots in political economy:

From the mothers’ vantage point, we can see how prison expansion and opposition to it are part of the long history of African-Americans and others whose struggle for liberation in the racial state has never achieved even a fully unfettered capacity to be free labor. The development of political responses to legal dilemmas indicates how profoundly incapacitation deepens, rather than solves, social crisis. This chapter … personalizes and generalizes the morally intolerable (Kent 1972) to highlight objective and subjective dimensions of the expansion of punishment and prisons, the demise of the weak welfare state, and the capacity of everyday people to organize and lead themselves. [185]

I like how this is done, but found it hard to connect it theoretically to the sections that preceded it on political economy, it almost felt like a world and story apart. But that might be a reflection of my own experience in how hard it is to bring these two worlds together.

I am also thinking through her comments on activism and scholarship, activism and power. She uses Gramsci in a way I hadn’t thought of and like immensely:

On the contrary, in scholarly research, answers are only as good as the further questions they provoke, while for activists, answers are as good as the tactics they make possible. [27]

grassroots organization should be the kind that “renovates and makes critical already-existing activities” of both action and analysis to build a movement (Gramsci 1971: 330-31)

Ordinarily, activists focus on taking power, as though the entire political setip were really a matter of “it” (Structure) versus “us” (agncy). But if the structure-agency opposition isn’t how things really work, then perhaps politics is more complicated, and therefore open to more hopeful action. People can and do make power through, for example, developing capacities in organizations. But that’s not enough, becayse all an individual organization can do is tweak Armageddon. When the capacities resulting from purposeful action are combined toward ends greater than mission statements or other provisional limits, powerful alignments begin to shake the grounds. In other words, movement happens. [248]

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Massey & Denton on American Apartheid

American ApartheidAmerican Apartheid set my teeth on edge, and it was hard for a while to figure out why as I agree with many of the findings, and their research into changing levels of segregation over decades in cities across America is vital and well carried out. They describe segregation as one of, if not the, principal ills of American society, and one far too long and too often ignored. Like Stephen Meyer, and writing long before him, they see white racism as a principal factor in this and have worked to document it, but do not fail to note the institutionalised forms it has taken through real estate practices and government regulation and policy. You know I liked all of that.

I think it’s firstly the use of the term ‘underclass’. This is my first foray into the literature and I know it has been a common term even among well-meaning people, but frankly if you called someone underclass to their face it would be considered an insult. How then can you label thousands of inner-city residents as such en masse just because you do so in books you think they will never read? It’s a basic question of respect, the most basic demand of all inner city residents who have to fight for it every day, unlike academics. And to me it is emblematic of where you stand, and the perspective from which you write.

They quote a few rap lyrics, and god knows enough of those are problematic. But there is nothing about the brilliant and long-standing tradition of political commentary and consciousness emerging from the ‘underclass’ in rap and R&B. They go on to quote Skogan and essentially use the broken-windows theory as part (not the principal part to be sure, but it makes the hackles rise) of their argument about the ghetto’s impacts, blaming unkempt properties for rising crime without properly fixing blame. They don’t seem to really see the massive struggles of local homeowners to get funding to fix up their properties (the difficulties are noted elsewhere to be fair, but not in this context) and just how much they achieve (and maintain) in the face of all odds, or the struggles of tenants and local organisations to improve slum housing. Having spent years of my life on this issue, I believe the real problem is an absence of credit for those who live there (except in the case of predatory lenders), and the incredibly high density of absentee landlords milking properties for maximum profit until they are literally falling down (and killing tenants when they do so), burning them down when that makes business sense. How can anyone be more or less offhand about the impunity of such a thing? As fundamental as the question of how people are contained within the ghetto is the very real problem of who owns it, and what they are allowed to do with it and to it. The ‘downward spiral’ they describe corresponds to profits extracted and resources withdrawn.

But of course such a criticism is not really to the point, as this book is entirely about getting people out of the ghetto, seeing it as backward and possibly harmful to try and improve conditions within it. My principal issue is that such an objective of ‘dismantling’, whatever that means exactly, might well have to be carried out in spite of many ghetto residents themselves. Massey & Denton criticise Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton when they problematise integration, blames black politicans and business owners for their material interests in maintaining areas of concentrated blackness. In South Central there may be plenty of people who want to get out, but there are plenty who call it home, who love it as much as they hate aspects of it, who are working hard to make it a better place. Gentrification is making this a particularly poignant issue, as some neighborhoods are becoming integrated again for the first time in decades–often due to the successes of local groups in improving their neighborhood conditions–but only for a fleeting moment before the people of colour are pushed out into the hinterlands where they may arguably be worse off than they were in the inner cities.

I understand the practicalities of a ‘sensible’ and easily applied policy solution, the idea that fixing housing discrimination (without major changes to current law even, through simple enforcement!) fixes the problems of race relations and the poverty of the ghetto might have appealed to politicians (though it clearly didn’t). But this data, this narrative to me points to the fact that we need to rethink housing and land use all together, that the housing market itself might be a problem in a country where working for minimum wage keeps you below the poverty line and thus safe, secure, and healthy housing is never affordable without immense (and almost nonexistant) subsidies. There are deeper issues, and looking to successes in other countries shows we need to escape our current definitions of liberal and conservative. Why can we not reimagine public housing?

But on their own terms, I simply don’t think litigation alone ever solves problems, however heroic such efforts are. That those living in the ghetto have been victimised by society none can deny, but even if you don’t believe that they are capable of understanding or fighting these dynamics, at the end of the day political will to tackle issues of poverty and race only comes through greater struggle.