Tag Archives: race

This tomb is the property of…

The amount of people I now realise are fascinated by graveyards makes my own fascinations rather less interesting than I once thought they were… still. I join the ranks of those who puzzle about their place (along with all of their practicalities and their meanings) in the city, who love how they often sit palimpsestic in familiar spaces suddenly rendered strange when you uncover what lies beneath, love how they also provide pockets of green, whether made open parks or retaining their gravestones. I love cities where they are integrated into the fabric like this, a reminder to live life well.

So I could hardly resist the Granary Burying Ground while walking past it in Boston. The grave of Crispus Attucks and four others killed in the Boston Massacre. Paul Revere, Sam Adams and others (where the tourists clustered and I did not).

I found this the most interesting.

Granary Burial Ground

‘This tomb is the property of Elizabeth Hickling and Mary Hooten heirs of Deac. John Lee’. A classical obelisk, and a startling conception of property ownership beyond life itself. A proclamation even. You can’t take it with you, but I suppose you can try to claim it with the presence of your bones. I also note they were not daughters, sisters, wives, mothers but only heirs.

No one else seemed to find this startling.

It made me wonder whether their lives were really self-defined by property and its relations. How cramped and sterile, how tragic, yet how little there would be to mourn. If it were true.

I confess I was also rather amazed at the memento mori on most of the gravestones (apart from the classical obelisks like the one above, and a handful of fat angels). Rarely found by me in English (or Irish) graveyards, I have only ever seen this abundance in Valleta’s St John’s Co-Cathedral, belonging to the Templars. The knights had dedicated themselves to ‘protecting’ Christendom and fighting the Moors (for pillage and plunder), I am wondering if it is this battle against the fierce ‘other’ they held in common with the protestants of Boston on their lands conquered and taken by force. Pure speculation.

Granary Burial Ground

Granary Burial Ground

Granary Burial Ground

Preoccupations with property, preoccupations with death. There is always such a very different glimpse into social relations that the ceremonies and geographies of death clarify. Like the importance of property ownership. Like the value of life.

Granary Burial Ground

Children become persons at the age of 6, men and women after 12. Blacks are buried more cheaply than whites. I have not yet read Chloe Spear’s narrative, but I have read Phillis Wheatley (the surname of the man who believed he owned her).

I suppose the reduced rates reflect the fact that they were only to be buried with those who claimed ownership.

I continued my walk to the north end to meet someone, a welcome break from the thousands of geographers and the mad networking of the AAG. Very shortly I saw this, by way of contrast yet also continuity as it was almost Easter.

Easter window

Off to Katie’s neighbourhood, and a walk under the bridge past this haunting graffiti after some pizza, some coffee, some wine…

Walking away from Sullivan Square

For a dinner of pupusas, glorious pupusas that I have not had for years, provided by the vibrant Salvadoran community there that I never knew existed, and flavoured more richly through memories of our time together at CARECEN. And old pictures.

Piri Thomas on Harlem’s Mean Streets

I enjoyed Piri Thomas writing about growing up Down These Mean Streets of Spanish Harlem, though for a little while I thought it would be too much, too close to all those boys I knew. The ones I admired but were always too cool for a shy little school girl like me when I was a teenager, the ones that when I was older and wiser just infuriated me and broke my heart as I watched them break the hearts of their families when I was working in LA. I love that they got heart and style, but this hustler roll where it is always ‘me first’, well, I never did get that. I watched them steal from their mothers, cheat on and steal from their girlfriends. Saw their privilege to sleep with anyone (and I mean anyone) alongside that clear division of the pure, ‘good’ girls they might marry and all the rest who are just putas. Saw girls fighting each other over them, not fighting them Came to hate all of that and I still do. I was hoping this might help explain where that comes from, but I still don’t know. Something about city streets, because sure seems there ain’t much difference between LA and NY. Yet I knew other kids this age immigrated somehow from El Salvador or Mexico to work and working like hell to send money home to their moms instead of constantly asking for more or stealing some more from her.

Anyway, enough about all that. What I loved — the way that this is a bit of a love song to Harlem, for all its flaws.

Man! How many times have I stood on the rooftop of my broken-down building at night and watched the bulb-lit world below.

Like somehow it’s different at night, this my Harlem. There ain’t no bright sunlight to reveal the stark naked truth of garbage-lepered streets.

Gone is the drabness and hurt, covered by friendly night.

It makes clean the dirty-faced kids. (vii)

I loved to the feel of walking a while down Lexington Avenue in his shoes:

I’d walk on Lexington Avenue, where a lot of things were going on, and hear the long, strung-out voice of a junkie, “Hey, man, you got a couple charlies you can lend me?”

“Sorry, man, I wish I did have two bucks, but here’s half a man,” and I really wouldn’t hear the the “Thanks, man,” as I slid half a dollar into a hand that somehow would convert that change into a fix of heroin that would drive away for a while whatever needed driving away.

The blocks would fall back, and without feeling the distance I would have gone twenty blocks. At Ortiz’ funeral Parlor there would be a wreath of white flowers indicating that death had copped another customer. I’d try not to become involved in all the sorrow sounds that loved ones made for someone that was beyond their loving.

I’d turn and head for my block, noticing the overflow wash strung out on front fire escapes and thinking about the people who complain that clothes on front-side dire escapes make the block look cheap, that people who do that have no sense of values and destroy the worth of the neighborhood. But I liked it; I thought it gave class to the front fire escapes to be dressed up with underwear, panties, and scrubbed work clothes. (106)

Crazy how even in Spanish Harlem this stupid fight over whether hanging laundry is low class or not was happening. I’m all for hanging laundry.

He continues — and here is the joy and companionship of the street, the experience I’ll only ever be reading about.

I’d meet my boys, and all the other hearing and seeing suddenly became unimportant. only my boys were the important kick, and for good reasons — if I had boys, I had respect and no other clique would make me open game. Besides, they gave me a feeling of belonging, of prestige, of accomplishment; I felt grande and bad. Sometimes the thoughts would start flapping around inside of me about the three worlds I lived in — the world of home, the world of school (no more of that, though), and the world of street. The street was the best damn one. (107)

I like this sense of three worlds, I think especially when you’re a kid you got so little choice over things — school is school with its rules and those same kids you got to deal with year after year and you just have to get through it, your family the same. The street is the only place you really can make your own unless there are some other options for you. Only thing is with the street you got to belong somewhere or you are fair game. I hate that too.

Some real interesting stuff here around race, the difficulties in understanding what it meant to be a Puerto Rican, but one who looks black when your mom and siblings look white. The difficulty in understanding where you fit in US racial hierarchies, especially because no one else seems to know. The lure of maybe being able to choose to be white, or at least not an American black man, because then you are not at the very bottom.

So there’s a whole lot in here about the complications of this social construction we call race, and how it breaks down. How speaking Spanish somehow complicates the Black white binary, but no one knows quite how. how this gets fought out between fathers and sons, between brothers. How this could send a NY puertoriqueño onto a boat headed down South to see what this race thing is all about, and not really finding any answers just a lot more anger.

Because this is mostly about New York this all works a bit different, it was so funny to read how whites are usually referred to by Piri and his crew as paddies. I find that a bit crazy, especially given how long it took the Irish to become ‘white.’ But on reflection I suppose it is exactly because of that — part of that whole process was a lot of violence against people of colour as part of the work to draw that line more powerfully than ever, but with the Irish on the white side of it. They shared these neighborhoods due to their poverty, but race trumped class and so they became the personification of whiteness:

“Look, Piri,” interrupted Brew, “everybody got some kinda pain goin’ on inside him. I know yuh a li’l fucked up with some kind of hate called ‘white.’ It’s that special kind with the ‘no Mr.’ in front of it. Dig it, man; say it like it is, out loud — like you hate all paddies.”

“Just their fuckin’ color, Brew,” I said bitterly. “Just their color — their damn claim that white is the national anthem of the world. You know?”

“Yeah.” (122)

I like though, the recognition that the real hate is for the claim made for a color, a claim that continues to fuck us all up.

Environmentalism and Economic Justice in the Southwest: Laura Pulido

Laura Pulido is one of my heroes, and returning to Environmentalism and Economic Justice now that I have some disposable income to buy it…well. It’s brilliant. (Though actually I am realising I don’t actually have any real disposable income at all. Breaks my heart).  It brings together the theory that I believe most needs to be brought together, using the postcolonial and subaltern theory to look at struggles in the US and knocking apart some of the most frustrating aspects of writing around ‘new social movements’ and social movement in general. Then rebuilding it of course, in ways I find particularly useful and illuminating.

Subalternity is not often used in relation to the U.S. — this is how Pulido describes the economic structures and the role of racism in creating conditions of subalternity:

…subaltern environmentalism is embedded in material and power struggles, as well as questions of identity and quality of life. Dominated communities engaged in environmental struggles do not disaggregate their various identities and needs. Although they may engage in strategic essentialism, the practice of reifying aspects of one’s identity for political purposes, they recognize the multiple identities and the various lines of domination and power that need to be resisted and challenged. They build complex movements which simultaneously address issues of identity as well as a wide range of economic issues (production, distribution, and uneven development), thereby defying the various models and paradigms social scientists have created to impose meaning on collective action, in particular, environmentalism. (xv)

This is because for some communities, environmental problems are not just simple quality of life issues, rather:

From the perspective of marginalized communities, environmental problems reflect, and may intensify, larger existing inequalities and uneven power relations. (xv)

While Pulido celebrates the new, postmodern opening up to struggles beyond production such as identity, I love her argument against ditching political economy. Love that she looks to Watts as well as to Arturo Escobar to bring the two together. Because poor people of color experience a complex reality in which resistance is required along lines of both class and race among other things. We need to understand

how multiple forces interact in creating inequality and oppression, and how complex struggles form to overcome it. (xviii)

Elsewhere she writes this intersectionality:

Even though their struggles may be categorized as class conflict, racism, or patriarchal resistance, what is usually at stake are multiple forms of domination, exploitation, and resistance, that narrow applications of class may prevent us from appreciating. (5)

The two studies featured in this volume were chosen to complement the principal focus of environmental justice work at the time, on toxics primarily in urban areas. I like how this expands the focus — though of course, so much work has been done in the past eleven years to further develop this, as can be seen in The Colors of Nature or The Environmental Justice Reader.

A final ingredient is the focus on struggle, and that of course, it recognises that oppression also helps create the conditions for its resistance:

For oppressed communities, a dignified life means being able to live free of cultural oppression and racial and ethnic inequality. Hence, while culture and racism are critical to understanding oppression, they are also essential to illuminating the process of mobilization (xx).

So a good summary of the subaltern nature of environmental justice struggles:

This new form of environmentalism goes by a variety of headings: grassroots, popular, livelihood, resistance, environmental justice, and resource struggles. What they all share is a counterhegemonic, or subaltern, location — they exist in opposition to prevailing powers. (4)

New Social Movements (NSMs)

For NSM researchers, identity has emerged as as a key area of focus…understanding how individuals coalesce and fashion new collective identities is the crucial question in understanding the emergence of social movements.

I understand why she has to engage with this literature more broadly, it was the thing after all. But still I am frustrated with its limitations. Of course Pulido also brings in old favourites — on the transition to post-fordism, she looks to Stuart Hall (1991) to understand the new decentring of self and identity, and how we are made up multiple identities and positions, identify in multiple different ways. Gilroy is in here too on the complexities of it all.


The claim that NSMs are only about quality of life issues, or the disagreement over whether racial struggles are NSMs or should be catagorised among older movements? Not so useful. Pulido writes:

The concept of NSMs has become problematic precisely because it has been so widely applied. In reality, its true value is in helping us see what is unique about a limited number of movements. (12)

The idea that some people have to struggle on multiple fronts? Obvious I would have thought, and yet…apparently not to everyone. But it is to subaltern scholars:

Subaltern movements are simultaneously about both material concerns and systems of meaning, thereby challenging the notion that identity issues are not of concern to those struggling to survive.

She quotes Arturo Escobar rather extensively (I love Escobar, haven’t managed to write about him yet, and will find it difficult precisely because of the desire to quote him even more extensively than I usually quote people, his book is full full full of underlining)

It is essential to recognize the importance of economic factors and their structural determinants. But just as crucial as the reconstruction of economies — and indelibly linked to it — is the reconstitution of meanings at all levels, from everyday life to national development. Social movements must be seen equally and inseparably as struggles over meanings as well as material conditions, that is, as cultural struggles…  Contemporary social movements in Latin America have a multiple character, as economic, social, political and cultural struggles.(Escobar 1992b)

She continues:

I would argue that the same could be said for the environmental struggles of the subaltern, regardless of their location. (13)

It works well, I think, to see the struggles of people in the colour and potentially the poor more broadly in the US in these terms, and I like the opportunities it opens up for broader alliances across race and nationality and particularly across national borders. I also think there is still a lot of work to be done here:

Activists are acutely aware that racism is manifest in every corner of society and that racist attitudes are deeply entrenched and institutionalized, but they have not developed a textured understanding of how racism interacts with various economic forces and hegemonic forms of cultural life. Instead, they have emphasized overt forms of discrimination… (17)

At the same time I think this is worth saying (and so eloquently):

It could be argued that for racially oppressed groups, racism is the primary axis of domination. All encounters of the oppressed–whether in the job market, at school, at home, or as a consumer–are experienced through racial subordination. Conversely, the racialized structure of the United States results in a benefit to whites. White privilege is so hegemonic that few whites are even cognizant of it. (18)

This stuff is… really hard, and I think people are all over the place in terms of how clearly they understand it and how well they are able to articulate it. It certainly shapes struggle though, and where communities are at. Pulido quotes Robert Bullard’s insight that African Americans really came to understand the importance of environmental issues only after linking them to civil rights and inequality.

The key to …  inclusion rest on linking environmental issues with the social justice concerns of minority communities… (Bullard 1993a)

I’m wondering for how many other issues this might be true, and what this means for white consciousness. But the point is well made:

This is critical to understanding the dominant discourse of subaltern environmental struggles in the United States. Racism and the struggle for equality are the entry point for marginalized groups in the United States; livelihood is the entry point for Third World communities. (19)


I found Pulido’s thinking here so so useful in thinking about positionality in a robust and useful way, something I feel like I’ve been stumbling around my whole life with gradually increasing clarity:

I argue that the issue of positionality is most important in distinguishing mainstream and subaltern environmentalism. Activists of all sorts may be involved in the same environmental issue and even have the same political line, but mainstream and subaltern actors hold different positions within the socioeconomic structure that, in turn, frame their struggles differently. It is important to realize that positionality does not refer to a specific person or group per se but is rather a position that can be filled by any individual.

Contrary to mainstream efforts are the actions of subaltern environmental movement who, because of their position, are not in control of the economy and, in general, do not benefit from a continuation of the status quo. For these individuals, environmental issues are important in that they affect their livelihood or impact their health and physical well-being. Consequently, not only are they more physically and socially vulnerable, but they may require a change in the prevailing social relations tor each a satisfactory solution. Hence, on a very fundamental level, participants in subaltern struggles encounter environmental concerns not only from a different perspective, but also from a different structural position that may entail entirely different solutions and course of action. (28)

It emerged so clearly in both our organising and my own research the ways that these structural positions demand recognition in both strategy and goals in ways that people outside the struggle often do not understand:

Due to their position, the subaltern are not able to distance themselves from the political or economic consequences of either the problem or the proposed solutions. (29)

I think the key here is, does someone, do you benefit from the maintenance of the status quo? If you do, better said where you do because almost all of us have aspects of our identity that do not, then it is certain you’ll have some blindspots. It is nice to see it so clearly explained why there cannot just be one axis. But also the way Pulido grounds her work in economic relations, so she is also able to:

recognize how economic relations are mutually constituted by racism and issues of identity. A materialist analysis is crucial in identifying the structures and forces leading to the formation of subaltern environmental struggles. (31)

And highlights some of the key questions in looking at movement and thinking about resistance:

The task is to identify the ways in which racism, cultural oppression and identity interact with economic forces to create unique forms of domination and exploitation. (32)

Above all this book explores how important culture is to these positions — and the ability to find strength there:

For subaltern groups, quality-of-life issues are expressed within their economic projects. “People fight not only for more but for the possibility of defining a way of life expressive of deeply held values” (Plotke 1990, 93)

Given the development of white supremacy, these values are often key both to imagining alternatives, and to challenging the constantly promoted superiority of whiteness.

Racism must be challenged in the economic, social and cultural spheres.

Consequently, while the UFWOC’s [United Farm Worker of California] movement is a class conflict, it was also an antiracist struggle. It was antiracist in its efforts to counter the racialized division of labor, a racist class structure, as well as the larger racist ideology which rendered rural Chicanos as a despised population. (32)

Again this is part of identifying the multiple modes of oppression, of fighting on all fronts:

When poverty, racism, and culture come together to oppress people, they also interact to create unique forms of oppression that become the basis of resistance. Each of these factors must be countered individually and collectively, and one of the first steps in attempting to do so is the creation of an affirming, collective identity. (33)

Some axes, some definitions


I struggled a lot with why I have not focused on gender in my own work, and again Pulido nailed exactly why I did not and why I was uncomfortable with doing so artificially — in the struggles she studied gender was not articulated as an axis of domination and resistance, so she chose not to include gender as its own axis as it were. While ever present as an issue, Pulido writes:

Emphasizing this line of inquiry, however, would have take the analysis in a different direction, emphasizing unspoken forms of consciousness and interaction. … the fact remains that gender was not strategically used by the organizations in either understanding their oppression or mobilizing against it. For this reason I did not make it a separate category. Instead, it us interwoven throughout the discussion and reflects not only individual gender consciousness, but its intersection with other dynamics that create fully textured lives. (33)


The definitions found here are great, especially in the ways that they build on — while also moving beyond — traditional Marxist understandings:

In short, there are many ways to be poor and economically marginal which are beyond the bounds of class. Understanding the specific conditions and relationships which give rise to poverty and inequality is essential in order to analyze them and ascertain the motivating force of struggles. (34)

Looking at Northern New Mexico, and its underdevelopment it becomes more clear just how this works, and how this is connected to space and place:

Because they have been relatively exempt from the homogenizing forces of modernity, such communities often carry the illusion of a traditional lifestyle…

It is imperative to understand the role of capital in the creation of places. (35)

This does not discount the importance of class, or the division of labour as an important analytical category in all advanced economies, but it explores the complexity of this as it intersects, or too often overlaps far too perfectly, with race. While there may be contradictions, too often

there may be an almost perfect fit, leading to a racialized division of labor. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than among California farmworkers. (37)

Like Harvey’s more flexible reading of Marx, Pulido emphsasis the relational aspect of class, an individual can occupy more than one class position. At the same time there is often a collective relationship rather than just an individual one.

Of course, neither poor people nor workers automatically constitute a class. Only when people unite to struggle on issues related to production, the appropriation of surplus value, and domination — only when they exist in opposition — do they then become a class. (39)

This raises the question of domination and power, and resistance to it.


Race is socially constructed. Of course. She uses Peter Jackson’s definition of racism (1987) which I hadn’t come across before (I don’t think?)

…a set of interrelated ideologies and practices that have grave material effects, severely effecting black people’s life chances and threatening their present and future well-being (1987, p 3)

But expanded beyond the Black/white binary of course. I like this definition very much. Another key:

In order to be effective, a racist ideology must become so pervasive and natural that it becomes hegemonic, and therefore, rarely questioned. (43)

Interesting too, how this becomes transferred to behaviours:

Although much of our racial discourse centers on the words “color” and “skin” — and although many people continue to be racist based solely on the idea of phenotype — skin color has essentially become a signifier for behavior considered objectionable by the dominant group. (44)

and both become tied up with neighbourhood and place, as described by Charles Mills.


As NSM literature demonstrates, the formation of a collective identity is a necessary first step in building a movement. People, regardless of how oppressed they might be, do not inevitably have a common identity. A shared identity must be cultivated and refined through interaction and struggle with other groups. (46) … while an affirmative identity will not necessarily lead to mobilization, it is, at the least, crucial to retaining one’s dignity in the face of oppression. (47)

The point is how to make it an affirming, positive identity, and as inclusive as possible…it would be good to think more about that and I think some people are. Strategic essentialism is part of this perhaps. For those who complain endlessly about identity politics:

Obviously, the creation of an affirmative identity can never be fully distinguished from resistance because the action and consciousness required to build such an identity, even if it simply allows one to live with a shred of dignity, is an act of resistance and an exercise of power in itself. It is the power of self that is the crucial first step in imagining the possibility of resistance or another reality. In my study of subaltern Chicano environmental struggles, ethnicity was the primary form of identification, and culture provided much of the raw material for that identity. (47)

The question, as I say, is how this is developed through struggle and conscientização so that it builds towards alliances, solidarity, broadening of movement.


Quotes Aldrich, Carter, Hone and McEvoy (48):

Ethnicity is the identity which members of the group place upon themselves, race is a label foisted on to them by non-members… While racial identity may be a crippling disability, ethnicity acts as a positive force for the protection and promotions of group interests.

I never thought of it like this… I have so much more reading to do I know. I still think of it as defined on the immigration forms I helped people fill out long ago.

Anyway. To end. Without getting much into the struggles themselves, whose inspiration fills the bulk of the book and I loved and might find time to write more about.

Bringing it all together?

So how does Pulido connect political economy to these concepts, these axes of domination and subordination? She describes three cultural concepts that are helpful:

  1. Bauman’s concepts of differential and hierarchical culture (1973).  Anglo-American culture is regularly seen, described, taught as better than others, part of the necessary struggle is that subaltern cultures turn this on its head.
  2. Values, beliefs and material culture… different cultural forms exist in subaltern struggles which can become outward symbols and expressions of cultural differences and ways of proclaiming that there is an alternative. Examples are UFWOC’s use of La Virgen de Guadalupe, or Ganados anchoring their economic development project in wool and weaving.
  3. Praxis. She defines this in a unique way (to me, I am wonderig if this is how it is used in postcolonial studies) and I like how it brings together resistance, culture and material struggle:

Praxis is action. It is the social relations that actually create a culture. It is the stuff of which culture (and life) is made. Praxis usually refers to practices of which people are not overtly conscious but which appear to be the natural way of doing things. An illustration of praxis is how people organize their family life. Praxis is critical to understanding domination, mobilization and resistance. … In order for a movement to be successful, it must begin where people are. It must begin with the familiar and everyday. One reason that both of these case studies were successful was the emphasis on praxis, which allowed people to feel comfortable in new experiences and situations. (55)


The Scholar Denied: Aldon Morris on W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois The Scholar DeniedI read this not long after seeing Aldon Morris himself talking about both Du Bois and The Scholar Denied, a wonderful evening. He gave us a taste then of his background, what brought him to this project. In reading the book, this is the autobiographical phrase that stuck with me:

I am a member of what sociologist and freedom fighter Joyce Ladner coined the “Emmett Till Generation,” blacks traumatized by by the lynching, which left a lasting imprint. (x)

#BLM show what little distance we have come. Also these shared questions, the way he was always moved by social movement:

What stirred in the souls of black people to cause them to be swept into the vortex of a powerful social movement? What changed in these people who had been taught to obey racists or face the awful consequences? Would they be able to overthrow Jim Crow? I was consumed with issues social scientists would come to conceptualize as human agency and the ways oppressed people could use it to generate change. (xi)

This is what social movement studies should be asking, no? Instead they have such a different feeling and I think much of that is driven by the same dynamics that led to Du Bois being marginalised, to the extent that Morris found him entirely absent from his sociology classes (as did I in undergrad):

My purpose in writing The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of American Sociology is an ambitious one, namely, to shift our perspective on the founding, a hundred years ago, of one of the social sciences in America. …  I show that such intellectual schools are not merely the products of intellectual networks and original, meritorious ideas but are deeply entangled with power, ruling ideologies, and economics. … I lay bare the racism and power of dominant whites responsible for suppressing a seminal body of social scientific thought. (xvi-xvii)

And in spite of all this, such a body of work may still flourish. Because this flourishing is demonstrated here as well. This is a book of inspiration as much as anything, and always a book belonging to movement. You can see it in the acknowledgment that Du Bois was not an isolated genius, but flourished in institutions — there’s Du Bois kicking it in Germany where he was treated as an equal, studying under Weber himself and his later friendship with Boas who helped him see for the first time the greatness of African civilization — as well as in collaboration with black (and some white) intellectuals in Atlanta: Monroe Work, Richard R. Wright Jr, George Edmund Haynes. Two women were also instrumental in the Atlanta School, Lucy Craft Laney and Mary White Ovington. It was an uphill battle, however, and not just against white racism.

The Scholar Denied documents clearly the ways Booker T Washington and Robert E Park ‘conspired to obstruct and silence Du Bois politically, and how their actions imperiled Du Bois’s influence as a founder of American Sociology’ (xviii). The ways that Du Bois’s work was suppressed by scholars subscribing to white supremacy, ‘because it concluded that there were no scientific grounds on which to justify racial oppression and because they could not view Du Bois as an exemplary scholar who pioneered scientific sociology.’ (4)

A note here on this use of the word scientific — I was always a bit conflicted about that because it rings of positivism, of ‘objectivity’ but this is not the sense in which wither Morris or Du Bois use it. It stands, rather, for critical study. Rigorous and scholarly investigation based on interviews and actual fieldwork (still revolutionary for the time really, even after Booth). Du Bois was one of the first to get out of the proverbial armchair.  Of course The Philadelphia Negro (1899) is the primary example…and hell yes it should be. What an impressive, incredible book. It attempted, as I have written before, to turn the whole white-crafted question of the ‘the negro problem’ on its head.

Because of stiff white resistance to black aspirations, Du Bois, at the beginning of the twentieth century, concluded that the major unasked question of whites regarding blacks was: How does it feel to be a problem? (7)

Oh Sociology

Sociology has gone on to some great things, but has a rather ugly past. I suppose even so they were no worse than Geography — and possibly better for all their multiple sins. Still, the 1st issues of the 1st American Sociological journal — The American Journal of Sociology, founded by Chicago sociologist Albion Small in 1904 — contained a lead article by Galton, father of eugenics, on (wait for it) ‘Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims’. This was no fluke or passing fad, the article was reprinted in the 1921 sociology textbook ‘Introduction to the Science of Sociology’ edited by Park and Burgess. So popular in curricula across the country it was known for decades as the “Green Bible”, it established sociology as an ‘abstract science’  (19, 138) and thus eugenics as a valid field of that study I suppose. But it helped define Du Bois right out of the field.

Park and Burgess drew upon Du Bois’s work, as almost certainly did the rest of the Chicago school, though they did not credit him. his voluminous papers were not included in these or other edited collections, not was he invited to key conferences of the field. All this despite the fact that Max Weber himself ’embraced Du Bois’s scholarship and declared him to be one of the greatest sociologists in America.’ (149)

Weber’s respect had much to do with his pioneering of methodologies, especially with The Philadelphia Negro. Interviews, participant observation, surveys, data crunching, spatial analysis. The manner in which Du Bois studied North AND South, urban AND rural and all over time and all rooted in their historical context because he saw all of this as deeply connected. Also Du Bois’s engagement with social problems and concerns that Weber also saw as important though it was eschewed by the Chicago school as unscientific and unobjective.

Upon returning to “‘nigger’-hating America,” Du Bois embraced his life’s work: the production of careful sociological studies of African Americans steeped in empirical data that could be used to discredit the dominant sociological and popular doctrine that blacks were forever stuck at the bottom of human civilizations because nature made them inferior. (22)

The Philadelphia Negro was written while an assistant instructor at UPenn — where Du Bois felt utterly marginalized as he was not allowed to teach white students. Morris quotes him writing:

It goes without saying that I did no instructing save once to pilot a pack of idiots through the Negro slum. (56)

After The Philadephia Negro‘s publication, Du Bois hoped to be able to establish a research program to study the black community. White universities refused to host such a program, white scholars refused to collaborate. So the scholar denied went down to Atlanta University, which segregated neither faculty nor its ‘sprinkling’ of white students. Du Bois and his students began quite an incredible project, collecting data on black urban life in Atlanta year by year, year after year. Their goal was to hold a conference at the end of each year to sift through it, analyse and publish it, maybe change the world with it…because they probed at its deep roots.

The Du Bois-Atlanta school of sociology was guided by a scholarly principle: sociological and economic factors were hypothesized to be the main causes of racial inequality… (58)

Du Bois created a ‘Laboratory in Sociology’ (75),  his goal was to do these yearly studies every year for 100 years…can you imagine? The wealth of information that would have generated. All this even as Jim Crow was ramping up. Although their work, just like The Philadelphia Negro, was officially ignored it clearly had an impact on the field (as did Jane Addams’ publication of the Hull House Maps and Papers in 1895). Yet it was The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920) that is cited as the 1st great empirical study of American sociology (68). A fairly incredible fact after reading Du Bois’s work, or looking at the reproductions of some of Du Bois and his students’ incredible hand-drawn and coloured charts (many of which can be seen here in this incredible collection on public domain review).

So it would be bad enough if it were just the Chicago School ignoring an uppity black scholar, but this story is so much more involved than that. I never liked Booker T,  I really hated Up From Slavery as much as I allowed myself to judge (because, you know, I haven’t all that much right to judge). But damn, Morris is right in this damning praise:

Just seven months after Douglas’s death, white Americans, and European powers involved in colonizing Africa received a wonderful gift of black leadership — Booker T. Washington. (9)

Washington preached that inequality was driven by the fundamental inequality of blacks themselves and a lack of black civilization. This was picked up and echoed by the Chicago school of sociology (12), because you know why (apart from its convenience?) I never knew Robert E. Park took a job at Tuskegee, as director of public relations and a ghostwriter for Booker T himself. Du Bois had rejected the position.

Bloody hell. The insult of such an offer.

So it becomes oh so clear where Park’s ideas are founded, how they were sustained in this view of blacks as rural, simple, safest away from cities and their temptations. Above all the necessity of extremely gradual (we’re talking centuries), rate of changing race relations. Of course Washington saw Du Bois and his colleagues proving full equality and demanding full rights as a threat and a challenge. Park joined him in this view, retaining an intense loyalty to Washington through the years after leaving Tuskegee, catapulted as he was into leadership at Chicago. His utter lack of qualification in comparison with Du Bois is painfully obvious. By 1905, Booker T was on the warpath, threatening Atalanta University and its funding if it continued down the path laid out by Du Bois (he wrote openly that Du Bois’s work at Atlanta University wished to destroy Tuskegee — extraordinary and vile). Funding did dry up at his word, though Du Bois managed to eke it out for another 10 years. This explains a lot I think, about the Chicago School.

The Chicago School

The Chicago school was guided by two major theoretical principles formulated mainly by Park. The first was that sociology was an objective science whose mission was to formulate natural laws determining human behavior. The second was a unique social Darwinism that combined evolutionary principles with social interaction analyses. (112)

There is so much packed into the book on the subject of Park’s opinions and writings that you can see threading through future scholarship like a malignant spirit. A call for objectivity, a ‘ridiculing of reform-oriented sociologists’ in a quest to uncover ‘universal social natural laws.’ (114) A belief in racial hierarchy, whites at top and blacks at bottom. Park drew on Simmel, whose student he had been, in theorizing basic social forms: competition, conflict, accommodation, assimilation. (115) He believed in ‘racial temperaments’ transmitted biologically and that blacks would be forever both culturally and biologically inferior (117). Terms used to describe them were ‘primitives, folk people, aliens, and savages‘ (119) despite the claim that they had lost all cultural ties during the middle passage.  Always an emphasis on blacks remaining rural and South as cities required ‘civilized’ persons to inhabit them. (120)

It’s awful reading — and recognizing — the litany.

Park wrote an utterly vile piece on ‘Negro’ music, describing how the songs show them to be sunny tempered and optimistic. He somehow managed to find in them no trace of Africa. He describes leading authority on Black spirituals to be a white Colonel who collected them from black soldiers. Madness.

But also bad scholarship. You can see the devastating impact of racist views on any shred of intellectual validity. I mean, as a scholar all he had to do to know better was read the incredibly well researched work of Du Bois.

Du Bois himself debunked and warned against all of it, particularly the use of natural sciences to understand society. He was able to see how it was being used to maintain white supremacy. I suppose it is small wonder that Washington and Park together worked to marginalise Du Bois’s contribution to sociology, ‘render [his] scholarship invisible’. (137)

Engaged Scholarship

There follows a discussion of Du Bois as engaged scholar, he would of course go on to play a pivotal role at the head of the NAACP and the publisher (editor, writer) of The Crisis. This could be found in households across the country, unlike, say possibly, The Phildelphia Negro.

Part of this is Morris’s exploration of the role of intellectual schools and the importance of networks in developing ‘greatness’. Here is where engaged scholarship comes to the fore — as Du Bois was excluded from white networks (funding, position, publication in certain journals or collections, invitations to conferences and etc) and given his refusal to accept black inferiority, he found his own way through:

He developed counterhegemonic networks and a counterhegemonic form of capital that have not been identified or analyzed in the literature. (187)

Morris describes this as ‘liberation capital’, donations of time and money that sustained a counterhegemonic institution and its research. This underlay the Du Bois – Atalanta school and its impressive body of research, showing that that:

Merton and Collins are right to argue that intellectual networks and scientific settings such as universities are crucial to producing excellent science, Yet networks and institutional theory err in the assumptions that great science can be produced only in elite institutions… (192)

And this is the achievement of the Du Bois-Atlanta school, a large measure of the inspiration alongside and in addition to the awesomeness of their scholarship and the ways that they blazed a trail in the ways urban studies could be done. Not only are these historic achievements now slowly being recognized, but they remain of great theoretical importance. Just one example:

As Decker states, “The rereading of Du Bois’s works became the stating poin for critical whiteness in the United States in the late 1980s.” (220)

And of course, the question remains haunting academia and its continued embeddedness in a white elite setting despite the increase in diversity (and you just have to read Patricia Hill Collins or Angela Davis or bell hooks or any other number of scholars of colour to see just how difficult and precarious their situations remain)

To what extent do progressive white scholars of today unwittingly interject racist biases in their science even while believing they stand above prescientific racial assumptions? (221)

Violence, Coercion and Struggle in Mills’ Racial Contract

Charles Mills the Racial ContractA final post on Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract (here you can find posts one and two, though I warn you they are hell of long). Because a third strand of my work on race and space is also on violence and hegemony’s uneasy balance between coercion and consent, I was pretty enthusiastic about these sections. Mills doesn’t really use the language of Gramsci, but he explores this area with great insight that parallels one of my favourite thinkers:

In seeking first to establish and later to reproduce itself, the racial state employs the two traditional weapons of coercion: physical violence and ideological conditioning. (83)

You wield these weapons in the context of white supremacy, and of course you get a prominence of domination against nonwhites:

The coercive arms of the state, then–the police, the penal system, the army–need to be seen as in part the enforcers of the Racial Contract, working both to keep the peace and prevent crime among the white citizens, and to maintain the racial order and detect and destroy challenges to it, so that across the white settler states nonwhites are incarcerated at differential rates and for longer terms. (84)

Of course this is part of the consent-building process of whites. Thus (many, but not all) whites (because here is where class really becomes a bitch) see police as their protectors, but for others?

There is a well-known perception in the black community that the police–particularly in the jim crow days of segregation and largely white police forces–were basically an “army of occupation.” (85)

This may have been more prevalent back in the day, but you will hear it plenty now, and you can see it too. But violence never was restricted to the police, and it never occurred to me to trace white mob violence, vigilante violence all the way back this, but it makes sense…

But official state violence is not the only sanction of the Racial Contract. In the Lockean state of nature, in the absence of a constituted juridical and penal authority, natural law permits individuals themselves to punish wrongdoers. (86)

That feels so innately American somehow, this tangled question of justice the subject of 90 percent of the Westerns I’ve ever seen. Maybe deep down they weren’t about cattle rustling at all, but lynching. I loved this sentence:

Patterns of systematic massacres when there have been shakes to the system of white supremacy, causing an ontological shudder, calling forth white terror… (86)

Thinking of the massacres, especially that red summer of 1919 and those pictures of whites smiling over tortured bodies of black men still smoking. Unrecognizable. This terror combined with a sliver of carrot, in a system that

Attempts not just to shape the ‘white citizen’ but also, in James Baldwin’s words, ‘only the Negro they wished to see.” (88)

There is a world of tragedy in the ways that even for nonwhites, this system can be internalised, come to be seen as ‘consensual’.

It is a powerful system of collective consent, one that works to maintain privilege through a particular exercise of morality. Mills describes how

the Racial Contract creates a racialized moral psychology. Whites will then act in racist ways while thinking of themselves as acting morally. In other words, they will experience genuine cognitive difficulties in recognizing certain behaviour patterns as racist… the Racial Contract prescribes, as a condition for membership in the polity, an epistemology of ignorance. (93)

This explains so much, why it just keeps going on and on…This explains, but is miles away from excusing, the absence of rigour in interrogating the dominant social and political systems.

By their failure to denounce the great crimes inseparable from the European conquest, or by the halfheartedness of their condemnation, or by the actual endorsement of it in some cases, most of the leading European ethical theorists reveal their complicity in the Racial Contract. (94)

He also talks about the ways that this continues to deform theory, particularly any with pretence to liberation if they don’t root out these structures from the beginning:

The actual details of the basic values of the particular normative theory (property rights, personhood and respect, welfare) are not important, since all theories can be appropriately adjusted internally to bring about the desired outcome: what is crucial is the theorist’s adherence to the Racial Contract.  (96)

Yep. I won’t go into Kant again, but damn. So ultimately this system has shaped the broad white experience in incredibly damaging ways. It has ensured that they:

a) take for granted the appropriateness of concepts legitimizing the racial order, privileging them as the master race… and later the appropriateness of concepts that derace the polity, denying its actual racial structuring.

b) Because of the reciprocally dependent definitions of superior whiteness and inferior nonwhiteness, whites may consciously or unconsciously assess how they’re doing by a scale that depends in part on how nonwhites are doing

c) because the Racial Contract requires the exploitation of nonwhites, it requires in whites the cultivation of patterns of affect and empathy that are only weakly, if at all, influenced by nonwhite suffering.  (95)

It is this that I find hardest to understand, the white inability to see anything but thugs when the pictures of children shot by police or vigilantes are set in front of them. I can’t understand their inability to mourn these deaths, demand change. But, like Wendell Berry’s writing I think, this helps explain just how the mind and heart could become so twisted. Mills writes of  ‘partitioned moral concern’, and ‘moralities of exclusion’. Segregation lies at the heart of empathy and rationality, not just between homes and lived realities. But to believe yourself moral, while at the same time living a life that is deeply unjust because of its structural  foundations, well, that takes some work.

Evasion and self-deception thus become the epistemic norm. (97)

Just to deal with the horrors of conquest, slavery, ongoing massacres, the white life has to be placed higher and the nonwhite life devalued. So what is left as a way forward? First and foremost:

There is a choice for whites — to speak out and to struggle with its terms…

Second, understanding the importance of positionality:

The term “standpoint theory” is now routinely used to signify the notion that in understanding the workings of a system of oppression, a perspective from the bottom up is more likely to be be accurate than one from the top down. What is involved here, then, is a “racial” version … a perspectival cognitive advantage (109)

Third? Embracing this, furthering our understanding of this so that it can be dismantled. To speak in cliche, becoming part of the solution.

There is obviously all the difference in the world between saying the system is basically sound despite some unfortunate racist deviations, and saying that the polity is racially structured, the state white-supremacist, and races themselves significant existents that an adequate political ontology needs to accommodate. So the dispute would be not merely about the facts but about why these facts have gone so long unapprehended and untheorized in white moral/political theory.

By its crucial silence on race and the corresponding capacities of its conventional conceptual array, the raceless social contracts and the raceless world of contemporary moral and political theory render mysterious the actual political issues and concerns that have historically preoccupied a large section of the world’s population. (124)

We have a choice.



Charles Mills: Race and Space in the Racial Contract

Given how much my work focuses on the relationship between race and space, I loved it when this appeared in Charles Mills’ theorisation of the Racial Contract.

The norming of space is partially done in terms of the racing of space, the depiction of space as dominated by individuals (whether persons or subpersons) of a certain race. At the same time, the norming of the individual is achieved by spacing it, that is, representing it as imprinted with the characteristics of a certain kind of space. So this is a mutually supporting characterization that, for subpersons, becomes a circular inditcment: “You are what you are in part because you originate from a certain kind of space, and that space has those properties in part because it is inhabited by creatures like yourself. (42)

There is so much here to unpack — this connection between our perceptions of a person and the place they are from. We all know how we judge and are judged. For many, it is a constant battle to escape the violence of such judgments, rooted in a dark and violent past. Rooted in Colonialism, conquest, genocide.

The Racial Contract in its early preconquest versions must necessarily involve the pejorative characterization of the spaces that need taming, the spaces in which the racial polities are eventually going to be constructed. … Creating the civil and the political here thus requires an active spatial struggle (this space is resistant) against the savage and the barbaric, an advancing of the frontier against opposition, a Europeanization of the world. (43)

Conquest is necessarily a struggle over land and geography, and demands a spatial understanding of the world. The understanding created through years of colonialism was one of Europe as civilised, deserving to conquer (because if it didn’t advance it would surely be forced to retreat before brutal hordes) the rest of the savage world.

The battle against this savagery is in a  sense permanent as long as the savages continue to exist… So it is not merely that space is normatively characterized on the macrolevel before conquest and colonial settlement, but that even afterward, on the local level, there are divisions, the European city and the Native Quarter, Whitetown and Niggertown/Darktown, suburb and inner city. (47)

You see, we live with these divisions still.

Mills quotes David Theo Goldberg:

“Power in the polis, and this is especially true of racialized power, reflects and refines the spatial relations of its inhabitants.”

Mills continues:

Part of the purpose of the color line/apartheid/jim crow is to maintain these spaces in their place, to have the checkerboard of virtue and vice, light and dark space, ours and theirs, clearly demarcated so that the human geography prescribed by the Racial Contract can be preserved.

This echoes Fanon’s observations of colonial world cut in two, the segregation that still exists in our cities, the divisions between deserving and undeserving that echo an early Christian world of  vice and virtue alongside an emergent/protestant ethic of settlement and industry. The land should belong to white’s because they are the only ones who can make it fruitful. And the end result:

Since the Racial Contract links space with race and race with personhood, the white raced space of the polity is in a sense the geographical locus of the polity proper. (50)

Over and over again in racist texts is this idea of America as white, of citizens as white. Whites fought to defend this idea, and to live amongst their own (See Sugrue, Hirsch, Meyer and so many more).

Thus one of the interesting consequences of the Racial Contract is that the political space of the polity is not coextensive with its geographical space. In entering these (dark) spaces, one is entering a region normatively discontinuous with white political space, where the rules are different in ways ranging from differential funding (school resources, garbage collection, infrastructural repair) to the absence of police protection. (51)

Finally, there is the microspace of the body itself… The black body. The crazy amounts of fear and hate whites have invested in the skin of others. Mills draws a historical distinction between the old regime of Christian thought in which other races were still ‘salvageable’ and could still be saved until this shifted:

The new secular category of race, by contrast, which gradually crystallized over a century or so, had the virtue of permanency over any given individual’s lifetime. …

For the first time ‘slavery acquired a color. But for the colonial project in general, personhood would be raced, hence the concept of “subject races.” The crucial conceptual divide is between whites and nonwhites, persons and subpersons, though once this central cut has been made, other internal distinctions are possible… (57)

It is the Racial Contract that ‘constructs’ race as a group identity. Makes whiteness the norm. Toni Morrison has long pointed out that ‘Americanness’ has long meant whiteness:

deviation from which unfits one for full personhood and full membership in the polity. (54)

All of this, yet race has not been seen as central — and I know I explored this in the first post on the matter, particularly in relation to political theory and philosophy. Yet it is too often absent from geography too. I feel like this acknowledgment of what always seems to go unquestioned cannot be repeated enough:

Insofar as race is addressed at all within mainstream moral and political philosophy, it is usually treated in a  footnote as a regrettable deviation from the ideal. But treating it in this way makes it seem contingent, accidental, residual, removes it from our understanding. Race is made to seem marginal when in fact race has been central. … we should say frankly that  for whites the Racial Contract represented the ideal, and what is involved is not deviation from the (fictive) norm but adherence to the actual norm. (56)

It cannot be repeated enough that America has always been  a white supremacist state:

for which differential white racial entitlement and nonwhite racial subordination were defining, thus inevitably molding white moral psychology and moral theorizing

It is built, like European conquest was built, on some strong philosophical foundations. Kant — I never though of Kant as the modern father of race, but Mills makes a good case for it. I’d never heard of Kant’s 1775 essay  on ‘The Different Races of Mankind’, but there it is, for me to find and read. In the meantime, Mills writes:

The famous theorist of personhood is also the theorist of subpersonhood…as Eze points out, Kant taught anthropology and physical geography for forty years, and his philosophical work really has to be read in conjunction with these lectures to understand how racialized his views on moral character were. (70)

Of course, I have never heard of these lectures. Mills summarises some of Kant’s opinions, such as his feeling that there is

some hope for Asians, though they lack the ability to develop abstract concepts; the innately idle Africans can at least be educated as servants and slaves through the instruction of a split-bamboo cane (Kant gives some useful advice on how to beat Negroes efficiently); and the wretched Native Americans are just hopeless, and cannot be educated at all. (71)

Jesus. I thought I was getting to old and well-read for those moments when things you thought you knew give a great shake and fall.

So to return briefly to the differences between contracts: the social contract is always discussed and seen as a concrete event that happened at a specific time — or at least, that is how it is theorised. It’s important to understand that the Racial Contract actually exists, its construction can be witnessed over time, and by contrast to this once-upon-a-time moment theorised for the social contract,

…the Racial Contract is continually being rewritten to create different forms of the racial policy. (72)

This reminds me so much of Stuart Hall’s continual focus on the ‘work’ that racism is currently performing at any conjuncture — the importance of understanding how things shift and change to help those in power and privilege maintain that power and privilege. Two ways of theorising the same insight.

So in bringing this to bear on our history we see it transform:

In the first period, the period of de jure white supremacy, the Racial Contract was explicit, the characteristic instantiations — the expropriation contract, the slave contract, the colonial contract– making it clear that whites were the privileged race and the egalitarian social contract applied only to them.

In the second period, on the other hand, the Racial Contract has written itself out of formal existence. The scope of the terms in the social contract has been formally extended to apply to everyone, so that “persons” is no longer coextensive with “whites.”

But tensions remain ‘between continuing de facto white privilege and this formal extension of rights… a crucial manifestation is simply the failure to ask certain questions, taking for granted a status quo… (73)

This reminds me of the silences written about by Trouillot. These periodisations have been noted by Manning Marable, Michelle Alexander, Cornel West and others. These things seem so obvious, depending on where you stand.

To bring it back more fully to space, to geography, we leave the sphere of the nation and the body to look at the globe as a whole.

Globally, the Racial Contract effects a final paradoxical norming and racing of space, a writing out of the polity of certain spaces as … irrevalent. (74)

He quotes Frederick Jameson

Colonialism means that a significant structural segment of the economic system is now located elsewhere, beyond the metropolis, outside of the daily life and existential experience of the home country…Such spatial disjunction has as its immediate consequence the inability to grasp the way the system functions as a whole. (‘Modernism and Imperialism’, 1990)

Out of sight, out of mind and protection from knowledge of spatial exploitation becomes just another privilege enjoyed by those in the privileged spaces of the privileged nations.

So much here, such a short book.

[Mills, Charles W. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.]


Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Knowledge and the Struggle

I loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle almost as much as Between the World and Me. Because the writing is so beautiful — you know, all those days he spent filling notebook pages full of words paid off. This is an incredible window into the struggle of a father, a mother, and all the woke people in a community to save their youth from catastrophe that rode through the neighbourhood like a whirlwind. That peak of violence and despair in our cities that emerged from structural violence and disinvestment and crack. It is the kind of voice I never hear in the pages of best-selling books, and I am so goddamn glad to hear it here.

I loved it for talking about the Knowledge. How much more important this book must be for those who were immersed body and soul in it, whether they liked it or not. It meant much to me, just having been on the weak wanna-be fringes of it. From somewhere that wanted so much to be hard like some big city, from among kids who saw themselves in movies and imagined themselves in rap lyrics and defended their territory and their honour. Kids who still had guns in their glovebox, and a hitch in their walk just looking for a reason to show how bad they were.

‘You looking at me?’ The phrase that haunted my nightmares. The phrase I never understood.

Later I’d understand that the subaudible beat was the Knowledge, that it kept you ready, prepared for anyone to start swinging, to start shooting. Back then, I had no context, no great wall against the fear. I felt it but couldn’t say it. (37)

‘School girl’ was the other phrase. A prelude to shame and fear and freezing in place like a goddamn rabbit. I never did hit back. I did my best to sound like everyone else if I absolutely had to speak, and to blend into every wall.

My style was to talk and duck. It was an animal tactic, playing dead in hopes that the predators would move on to an actual fight. It was the mark of unKnowledge, a basic misreading of nature and humanity. (47)

Yep. I read that so wrong too. it wasn’t life and death with me though. I am lucky, especially in the way I had it easy, getting on my school bus, living out in the desert. Most of  my abuse was verbal. Still hurts. But it’s easier being younger, dorkier, non-threatening, no one anyone’s boyfriend would look twice at. Only at risk as the nerdy weird kid. Only had those corridors to fear, and home room when the teacher left. When I went to work in LA I was old enough (21, so old) that my white skin in a place no one knew me put me forever outside all of that.

But now I knew that this was not chaos, that the streets were a country and like all others, the streets had anthems, culture, and law. (115)

Wish I’d figured that out a little earlier, before skin privilege kicked me out. And this:

That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledge feared the streets. But the rhyme pad was a spell book — it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of who had your back. (111)

Everyone was afraid. I had a different kind of spell book, but a spell book all the same.

Baltimore though. Baltimore comes through clear here, and maybe a few more unlikely hearts will break at the knowledge of what we have done to our cities, how  many kids we have lost.

We went to watch Moonlight on Saturday, with the same kind of unlikely audience I am sure were there on their Oscar rounds. It is another meditation on this subject, in this context, where being gay piles on even more risk, puts you even more in flight from yourself and others. I loved that it showed this enclosed world (and didn’t bother to reach out to audiences by having a saviour or a sidekick). Showed the way the violence of it twists and shapes and beats into shape and uses a knife or a bullet to cut short potential. Yet it showed too that the potential remains and there is something never fully beaten. But god does the world try, surely we must do better than this. I cried like a fucking baby.

I did laugh at least once, however, when Juan tells Little he should never sit with his back to the door. I laughed because I still can’t sit with my back to the door. I remember when I first realised that my general watchfulness came from an assumption that any stranger around me could attack me at any time, either physically or verbally. I am still aware of my surroundings in terms of who might be a danger. Still see people who walk while reading or wander around looking lost as stupid in the way they mark themselves as targets. I am still likely to be hit with Adrenalin if someone comes up behind me and tries to do something stupid like cover my eyes. I don’t even quite know where all these things came from, nor why they still linger now I have removed myself from anywhere such vigilance might still be required.  I am also well aware that this is an experience I share with many of my class, but probably not so many of my skin colour.

I still remember the amazement of bumping into someone and having them apologise. I was ready to run, you know?

Anyway. How did it come to this? How did a community, how did a beautiful collective struggle for civil rights and a fullness of life end in this?

The story began in our glory years with the banishing of Bull Conner and all his backward dragons. Never had the mountaintop seemed so close at hand. But marching from victory we stumbled into a void. And now we were here in the pit, clawing out one another’s eyes. We were all — even me — so angry. We could not comprehend how it came to this. (105)

I am still not sure. I hope we have emerged, to never go so far back. But the courage of those who fought to save young men and women at the receiving end of all this — inspiring.

But in the midst of Reconstruction’s second collapse, Lemmel fought back. The headmasters arranged their students into teams, and named each one after the Saints — Douglass, Tubman, Woodson, King. (23)

And I loved reading about Howard, the Mecca.

but somehow they were changed there, and left possessed by the spirit of Howard’s legendary professoriat, of Eric Williams and E. Franklin Frazier, and they fled South to be flogged by sheriffs and Klansmen. (26)

The struggle remains a beautiful one, a shifting one, but full justice and equality fought for in mutual respect and love for one another is the only key to living well in this world I think. So no more kids have to grow up with promise and potential cut short, snuffed out.





Charles Mills: The Racial Contract

Charles Mills - the Racial ContractYears ago my friend Ryan told me to read Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract, and it feels of central importance in my thinking now. Yet I bought it, and started it and put it down and did not pick it up again until recently. Too dry, too difficult, and contract law?

What an idiot I was.

This is a brilliant book, and perhaps my experience is testament to just how much reading philosophy and theory becomes easier with practice, but also, what an idiot. This would have been so useful for my thesis. But it is never too late. Going back over it, I kept thinking this nails it, this nails all of it. It is hardly a surprise that Charles Mills should be from Jamaica and have studied there, before moving to teach in the US (at present in NY at CUNY). This book is amazing, and my reflections in trying to write my way into grasping its essentials fill at least three posts, starting with the big picture.

It opens:

White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. … But though it covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years. And this omission is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination… It is just taken for granted; it is the background against which other systems, which we are to see as political, are highlighted. (1-2)

Really that’s it in a nutshell, right? There is an under-representation of people of colour in philosophy and women, though the number of women has been increasing and have done more work to reconceptualise the field. Still, it remains very white and male, both cause and effect of the system we live within.

A word here at the beginning about how race is socially constructed, and the way that Mills avoids essentialising whiteness — any race could have done this.

Whiteness is not really a color at all, but a set of power relations. (127)

To explore this system of white supremacy, Mills uses the lens of the social contract — ubiquitous in explanations of our government and society just as the names of Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and America’s founding fathers are — but correcting for the fact that:

in its obfuscation of the ugly realities of group power and domination, it is, if unsupplemented, a profoundly misleading account of the way the modern world actually is and came to be. (3)

Mills hopes — and I echo that hope — that the racial contract as a lens can serve to bridge two segregated areas — mainstream ethics and political philosophy with the world of Native American, African American, and Third and Fourth world political thought and their focus on colonialism, imperialism, white settlement and etc. I am consistently frustrated with the way work becomes siloed, insights in one valuable arena of struggle and scholarship are lost, reinvented in another. But that’s another matter.

The Racial Contract is inspired by Carol Pateman’s feminist work The Sexual Contract. Have to read that. Both, go back to the ‘classic contractarians’: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant. Names I heard in high school, read in college. Haven’t really thought too much about since then.

Charles Mills is making three simple claims:

the existential claim — white supremacy, both local and global, exists and has existed for many years; the conceptual claim — white supremacy should be thought of as itself a political system; the methodological claim — as a political system, white supremacy can illuminatingly be theorized as based on a “contract” between whites, a Racial Contract. (7)

They sound simple, but let me tell you, it’s a crazy racial rollercoaster from here with loads of ah-ha moments. So. Overview. At least, I do my best.

The racial contract is political, moral, and epistemological. (9)

Big words. I always forget what epistemological means, maybe one day I will remember. I need to start using it daily in sentences, which will make me so popular.

The racial contract sets up a moral hierarchy:

the general purpose of the Contract is always the differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the nonwhites as a group, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them. All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites are not signatories to it. (11)

That’s the key difference there — all whites benefit, even though all whites do not agree with its provisions or help with its maintenance. So we best be working to destroy it.

Never forget that the power in this contract sits all in one place:

It is a contract between those categorized as white over the nonwhites, who are thus the objects rather than the subjects of the agreement. (12)

And this racial contract establishes a racial state:

where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom. And the purpose of this state, by contrast with the neutral state of classic contractarianism, is, inter alia, specifically to maintain and reproduce this racial order… Correspondingly, the “consent” expected of white citizens is in part conceptualized as a consent, whether explicit or tacit, to the racial order, to white supremacy, what could be called Whiteness… From the inception, then, race is in no way an “afterthought,” a “deviation” from ostensibly raceless Western ideals, but rather a central shaping constituent of those ideals. (14)

Yes, hell yes. It is so frustrating to find race over and over again treated as something separate and incidental rather than a fundamental structuring reality. It is brilliant to find clarity in how this racial hierarchy sets the parameters for discussion as a whole. Thus disputes between Locke and Kant are still disputes that sit comfortably within and remain limited by this framework.

So it is fairly astonishing — until you think about it I suppose — that this framework is consistently ignored by whites. ‘[O]ne has an agreement to misinterpret the world’ writes Charles Mills.

Thus, in effect, on matters related to race, the Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made. … Whiteness…is a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities. (18)

I think under Trump we are reaping the rewards of this epistemology of ignorance with a vengeance. Sad.

In classic contractarian thought or Rawls-inspired contracts or even Carol Pateman’s Sexual Contract, the focus is on the ideal. Mills argues that the Racial Contract, on the other hand, is an historical actuality. It is a global reality created over five hundred years of European domination and active consolidation of white supremacy. What always shocks me — it doesn’t matter how many times I read it — is the openness with which those in power once discussed their moral, political and economic rights as white European Christians over the rest of the world. The openness with which a battery of arguments was used to prove nonwhites less than human.

This must always be remembered. These things happened at the same time, these philosophies and these conquests, often by the same people. So we also must remember:

European humanism usually meant that only Europeans were human. (27)

You have to remember that George Washington was known to the Senecas as “Town Destroyer” (28).

You have to remember that white settler states — US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, South Africa — were all founded on extermination, displacement and the forcing of indigenous populations onto reservations. Pierre van den Berghe coined the term Herrenvolk democracies to characterise them and the many traits that they share. This was cited, and supported, in The Global Colour Line as well… still, I’ve been meaning to read den Berghe for ages.

Yet none of this has been seen as an appropriate subject for political philosophy?

The fact that this racial structure, clearly political in character, and the struggle against it, equally so, have not for the most part been deemed appropriate subject matter for mainstream Anglo-American political philosophy and the fact that the very concepts hegemonic in the discipline are refractory to an understanding of these realities, reveal at best, a disturbing provincialism and an ahistoricity profoundly at odds with the radically foundational questioning on which philosophy prides itself and, at worst, a complicity with the terms of the Racial Contract itself. (31)

The classic social contract is primarily social/political, but also economic — Locke is all about private property and its protection, right? But it is the economic aspect that is most ‘salient’ in the Racial Contract as it is

calculatedly aimed at economic exploitation…. There are other benefits accruing from the Racial Contract– far greater political influence, cultural hegemony, the psychic payoff that comes from knowing one is a member of the Herrenvolk (what W.E.B. Du Bois once called “the wages of whiteness”)–but the bottom line is material advantage. (32-33)

At the same time whites across the spectrum have steadfastly ignored or played down the role of colonial conquest and African slavery in Europe’s development. Mills describes many who have challenged this view like Walter Rodney, writing about the ways in which Europe’s development is built upon the underdevelopment of its colonies. But the mainstream academy has relegated them to the margins, just as it has relegated an understanding of  ‘the centrality of racial exploitation to US economy and the size of its payoff…’ Mills continued:

this very centrality, these very dimensions render the topic taboo, virtually undiscussed in the debates on justice of most white political theory. (39)

Where are we now? A stag described by Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Manning Marable and others. One where ‘colourblind’ is the watchword because it is claimed that we are all now equal since the death of a Jim Crow supported by law:

Whereas before it was denied that nonwhites were equal persons, it is now pretended that nonwhite are equal abstract persons who can be fully included in the polity merely by extending the scope of the moral operator, without any fundamental change in the arrangements that have resulted from the previous system of explicit de jure racial privilege. (75)

But all of this is only possible in a world where white supremacy reigns.

But in a racially structure polity, the only people who can find it psychologically possible to deny the centrality of race are those who are racially privileged, for whom race is invisible precisely because the world is structured around them, whiteness as the ground against which the figures of other races–those who, unlike us, are raced–appear. (76)

To finish this post, I end with a starting look at what might be required to move forward — I like that this is incorporated, and it resonated strongly with some of Gilroy’s work.

A genuine transcendence of its terms would require, as a preliminary, the acknowledgment of its past and present existence and the social, political, economic, psychological, and moral implications it has had both for its contractors and its victims. (77)

[Mills, Charles W. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.]

















Manning Marable on the Second Reconstruction

Manning Marable’s Race, Reform and Rebellion is a most solid history of struggle and resistance over the past sixty years.

The title reflected the general historical parallels between the “first Reconstruction” following the U.S. Civil War, occurring from 1865 to 1877, and the dramatic political struggles represented by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Both of these turbulent phases of U.S. history were periods of intense political conflicts and ideological debates about the future of African American people within U.S. democracy. (vii)

Manning Marable pulls no punches either.

More than any other modern nation in the world, with the possible exception of South Africa, the United States developed from the beginning a unique socio-economic structure and a political apparatus which was simultaneously racist, stubbornly capitalist, and committed to a limited form of bourgeois democracy: a racist/capitalist state. (4)

This is a brilliant and detailed book, so I’ve just pulled out some of my favourite facts and quotes from it, but highlighted Marable’s divisions of history, and his characterisations of each period, giving what he argues is the flow of recent movement.

First Reconstruction:

I still haven’t read W.E.B. Du Bois on this, I am still promising to make this failing good. But to turn to Marable’s work, there is some awesomeness in here as background to more modern struggle. Like the fact that in 1865, in Washington D.C., Sojourner Truth led a boycott of public transportation facilities to protest segregated street cars.

In 1865, the first bus boycott.

Again it highlights how many rights were erased over a period of only a few years — that we have not been steadily moving forward as I feel we are taught, but catching up to a period just after the Civil War. In Alabama, 181,000 blacks were eligible to vote in 1900, two years later there were only 3,000 registered black voters.

How in the hell does this sit with notions of democracy? Understand this, and much becomes clear I think. Marable writes:

The Jim Crow system of racial exploitation was, like slavery, both a caste/ racial order for regimenting cultural and political relations, and an economic structure which facilitated the superexploitation of blacks’ labor power. Unlike slavery, Jim Crow was much more clearly capitalistic, since white owners of factories did not have to purchase entire black families in order to obtain the service of a single wage-earner. However, in both caste/ racial relations, both systems were dependent on the omnipresence of violence or coercion. (10)

Quotes W. E. B. Du Bois — such an incredible quote, and the best possible explanation of why standpoint theory is important:

This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish. Either he dies or he wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilization in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man, or he will enter not at all. Either extermination root and branch or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West.
— from Black Reconstruction, p 703 (p 11)

I know I am more interesting in continuation, in how movements grow and build off of the work of the past, with the support of elders in the struggle. I look at the lives of people like Ella Baker, organisations like the Highlander and SCEF and how important they were over decades. Look at all of the many people and institutions in place making the Montgomery Boycott possible, for example, and that it really sprang out of the active work of women’s groups and Jo Ann Robinson, as well as some leadership from E.D. Nixon as claimed here.  This means I am a little wary of  claims that there was little popular protest for segregation between the end of WWII and the Montgomery County bus boycott in December 1955 — and for this reason also little studied. I think maybe now we realise we didn’t know how much protest there was because it was little studied, but by that I don’t mean to lessen the impact of the repression brought during this period or deny there was a huge increase in the mid-50s:

The impact of the Cold War, the anti-communist purges and near-totalitarian social environment, had a devastating impact upon the cause of blacks’ civil rights and civil liberties. (17)

I didn’t know or had forgotten that in 1944, Blacks in South Carolina formed the Progressive Democratic Party to challenge white democrats, had organized chapters in 39 of state’s 46 counties. Carried some momentum after the war. Marable argues it had slowed down by early 1950s, still an important early movement.

I also can’t say how nice it is to see the damage of anti-communism spelled out:

In the face of growing racist opposition, the NAACP counseled continued reliance upon the Truman administration, legal challenges to segregation laws, and a general policy which spurned direct action. The failure and tragedy of this conservative approach to social change was in its parochial vision and tacit acceptance of the Cold War politics. By refusing to work with Marxists, the NAACP lost the most principled anti-racist organizers and activists… The anti-communist impulse even affect CORE, to its detriment. (25)

Marable describes how CORE had ‘all but ceased to exist’ by 1954, after the red scare. (26) It would continue to be haunted by a fear of communism. Marable looks as well to the impact of the government’s prosecution of Du Bois.  Despite his acquittal all his works were removed from libraries and universities. He had his passport withheld by the State department. During it all,

The NAACP Legal Defense lawyers made no overtures to provide assistance. The central office contacted NAACP local chapters with strongly worded advice about “not touching” Du Bois’s case. (27)

It makes me so frustrated to read, even now distanced as I am. I am glad this was said:

By serving as the “left wing of McCarthyism,” Randolph, White and other Negro leaders retarded the black movement for a decade or more. (31)

There must be more analysis of this turn to the right…but then having read Walter White’s autobiography it is perhaps not altogether surprising.

There is the class composition of white reaction:

In 1955-59, White Citizens’ Councils were initiated in almost every southern city, comprised chiefly of middle-to-upper income whites in business, white-collar professionals and the clergy, who vigorously opposed desegregation. (42)

And then one of the more useful characterisations of black nationalism over time that I have read:

Since the 1850s, a significant portion of the African American people have tended to support the ideals of black nationalism, defined here in part, as a rejection of racial integration; a desire to develop all-black socio-economic institutions; an affinity for the cultural and political heritage of black Africa; a commitment to create all-black political structures to fight against white racism; a deep reluctance to participate in coalitions which involved a white majority; the advocacy of armed self-defense of the black community; and in religion and culture, an ethos and spirituality which consciously rejected the imposition of white western dogmas. At certain historical moments, such as in the 1850s and the 1920s, a majority of the black working class, rural farmers and the poor were in their political and social behavior extremely nationalistic. (53)

Brilliant. It encompasses Marcus Garvey, of course, later dominated by the the Nation of Islam. A brief note on the genius of Malcolm (Marable’s book on Malcolm X also high on to-read list)

Malcolm X made the simple distinction between desegregation and integration which Farmer, Rudolph, Wilkins, Marshall and other Negro leaders could never grasp. “It is not a case of [dark mankind] wanting integration or separation, it is a case of wanting freedom, justice, and equality. It is not integration that Negroes in America want, it is human dignity. (55 — Malcolm X and James Farmer, ‘separation or Integration: A Debate’ Dialogue Magazine 2 (May 1962))

Anyway, on to Marable’s descriptions of the Phases of the Second Reconstruction:

We Shall Overcome 1960-1965

The Second Reconstruction actually began in earnest on the afternoon of 1 February 1960. (59)

He dates this from the first sit in, by students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Izell Blair.

Black Power 1965-1970

This witnessed a key theoretical and strategic movement, partially embodied in King’s move in 1966 away from reform, towards an understanding:

that America’s political economy of capitalism had to be transformed, that the Civil Rights Movement’s old goals of voter education, registration, and desegregated public facilities were only a beginning step… (101)

For Manning 4 pivotal factors explained the rapid collapse of the Jim Crow system during the 1950s and 1960s:

(1) the outbreak of the Cold War…which resulted in international pressures for American governments to abandon support for their undemocratic and irrational policies of racial domination;

(2) the independence from European colonial rule of Caribbean and African states…

(3) the great migration of five million African American sharecroppers and working people from the South into the urban ghettoes of the Midwest and Northeast between 1940 and 1970, a migration that transformed the political character of urban society and deeply influenced the patterns of American popular cuture, sports, education and social relations; and

(4) most important, the growth of popular democratic resistance movements, led by King and thousands of local activists, that used the nonviolent, direct-action protest techniques of Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha. (210)

Black Rebellion: Zenith and Decline 1970-1976

An interesting return to class here, I like that the intersectionlity is highlighted here:

Most historians fail to observe that the massive efforts waged for desegregation and, to a lesser extent, for Black Power, were basically workers’ movement. Black workers had comprised the great majority of those who had sacrificed during the local battles to uprrot Jim Crow. (112)

Again there is noted the move of Bayard Rustin and A Phillip Randolph to the right of labor over the 1960s, but interesting in the ways that this opened up space for new leadership in the movement, challenge and change.

There is the 1972 Gary Convention — the largest black political convention in U.S. history. Marable sees this as the zenith. About 3000 delegates attended from all strands of the movement, as well  a total of around 12,000 people over the whole of its course. He writes:

The collective vision of the convention represented a desire to seize electoral control of America’s major cities, to move the black masses from the politics of desegregation to the politics of real empowerment, ultimately to create their own independent black political party.

What almost no nationalists and only a very few BEOs recognized before maneuvering for political power were the many structural crises which confronted America’s major cities. (121)

Some of the flowering of this could be found in the documents collected in Eyes on the Prize, some of the sterling work and words of new black mayors. But Marable notes that no one then knew the real condition of the finances of the cities, what the fate of these efforts would eventually be.

This was part of the decline, and then there was white reaction. A campaign around ‘law-and-order’ by Nixon and friends, because

‘It was clear that many white American shad to be prepared ideologically to accept the massive violation of civil liberties, the denial of human rights, and the illegal executions which were necessary to blunt the rhetoric and reality of black militancy.(124)

They more than succeeded.

From Protest to Politics: The Retreat of the Second Reconstruction 1976-1982

This is just sad and depressing. I stopped wondering why we are nostalgic for the 60s and 70s a while ago, after reading Angela Davis’s autobiography where she is so sure the revolution will come any day, after reading book after book full of people who believed a new world was possible and was on its way. I don’t think anyone in my generation could really believe that, though perhaps today’s youth are managing.

There is a rather fascinating aside about Reverend Jones and the People’s Temple, which flirted with politics, with AIM, which registered and turned out voters in California.  Then it relocated to a 3,000-acre estate in Guyana called ‘Jonestown’ with 1000 American citizens living there. Investigate by a Congressman, who was then murdered with his party then the whole camp committed suicide. This story has so many parallels with Ti West’s The Sacrament, which we watched not so long ago. But that is a digression.

There’s a decent discussion of problems with sexism, the prevalent view that racism was specially damaging to black manhood, which meant women needed to support their men rather than fight their own struggles. So this period did see a great flowering of black feminism, a true gift to struggle. Here there is discussion of bell hooks and Angela Davis, lights in a dark time.

There’s the growth of the Klan through the 1970s and into the 80s.

Then there’s the defection of Rev Abernathy and Hosea Williams to Reagan’s camp. That shit is crazy, I was too young to know just how crazy. This constant bleeding to the right.

Reaction: Black Society and Politics Diring Reagen Conservatism 1982-1990

This was a grim time, but there is some helping thinking through the larger picture behind what was happening here. The solidifying of class boundaries:

But opportunity in a capitalist society is always a function of social class position, which means ownership of capital, material resources, education and access to power. For the unemployed, the poor and those without marketable skills or resources, for those whose lives were circumscribed by illiteracy, disease and desperation, “race” continued to be a central factor in their marginal existence. (184)

The intersection of race and class. There is an interesting look at the difference between ethnicity and race. Ethnicity, Marable argues, ‘was derived from the cultural synthesis of the population’s African heritage and its experiences in American society…’, while on the other hand:

Race is a totally different dynamic, rooted in the structures of exploitation, power and privilege. “Race” is an artificial social construction, which was deliberately imposed on various subordinated groups of people at the outset of the expansion of European capitalism into the western hemisphere five centuries ago. the “racial” consciousness and discourse of the West was forged above the bowels of slave ships… (185)

So what does this mean then, for African Americans and others in the U.S.:

Race, therefore, is not an abstraction but an unequal relationship between social aggregates, which is also historically specific. the subordinated racial group finds itself divorced from the levers of power and authority within the socio-economic order. ..The racial group’s political status is marginal or peripheral, as full participation and legislative representation are blocked. Finally, racial categories are constantly reinforced in the behaviors and social expectations of all groups by the manipulation of social stereotypes and use of the legal system to carry out methods of coercion. (186)

And what does it mean for whites?

White power, privileges and prerogatives within the capitalist economy and the political and social system do exist. Whiteness is fundamentally an index of the continued patterns of exploitation of subordinated racial groups which create economic surpluses for privileged groups. to be “white” in racial terms essentially means that one’s life chances improve dramatically over those of nonwhites, in terms of access to credit, capital, quality housing, health care, political influence, ad equitable treatment in the criminal justice system. (186)

There is also this curious feeling that I have heard so often expressed in so many different ways — the most recent and the most brilliantly memorable being Paul Beatty’s The Sellout:

No black American could ever be “nostalgic” for Jim Crow. Nevertheless, the absence of a personal background of struggle casts a troubled shadow over the current generation of black Americans who are poorly equipped to grapple with the present complexities of racial and class domination. (188)

Marable argues the existence of two central crises in the 1980s and early 1990s — the external:

federal government’s retreat from equality and consolidation of mass conservatism.

All under Reagan. The internal?

the ordeal of the African American family, neighborhood, cultural and social institutions, caught in the vise of violence, crime, social destruction and drugs. (188)

The 1980s, he argues, saw a fundamental political shift:

for black Americans, the central political characteristic of the 1980s was the conservative reaction to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the apparent capitulation of both political parties to a more conservative and repressive social order. (194)

With a brief aside about Larouche (I had almost forgotten about him!), the reality of this shift must be faced:

In the 1980s, more than anything else, Reaganism represented a break with the half-century-old notion among both Democrats and Republicans that the state had a political and ethical obligation to reduce the vast chasm separating the society’s wealthiest classes from the poor and the unemployed. (203)

Into the Wilderness: the Twilight of the Second Reconstruction 1990-2001

God this period is grim, I know, because I’ve lived through it. I read through this section, got through it, continued on.

The New Racial Domain: The Politics of Racial Inequality

Things are continuing pretty badly. Marable flags up one of the key characteristics of our modern era:

The cardinal characteristic of the New Racial Domain of post-Second Reconstruction America was the hegemony of “color-blindness” and race-neutrality. (250)

This is one he talks much more about elsewhere. And with this we reach the end of the book, though not the struggle.

[Marable, Manning (2007) Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006, 3rd edition. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.]


Beginning Postcolonialism: John McLeod

Beginning PostcolonialismBeginning Postcolonialism by John McLeod was quite good as a starting place for understanding major currents of thought, major debates, and the principal theorists as well as literary figures. For a long time I’ve always felt a bit of disdain for these kinds of introductory books, I’m not sure where that comes from. I think from auto-didactically reading some of the ‘classics’ and finding them so very different from how they were taught me in my early years in school. But as a place to begin, not end, in developing my understanding this was very helpful indeed, and will be worth going back to once I’m a little further along. In terms of learning on one’s own, I actually quite appreciated its format of exposition interspersed with sections highlighting key questions for consideration, and the way it walked the reader through a couple of key theoretical and fictional texts to better illustrate the methodologies used.

Postcolonial Basics

I also really appreciate clarity. Perhaps a little too much, but it’s nice to start with the basics. Like this explanation of the debate over using postcolonial versus post-colonial:

the hyphenated term… seems better suited to denote a historical period or epoch, like those suggested by phrases such as ‘after colonialism’ (5)

Without a hyphen?

referring to forms of representation, reading practices, attitudes and values…. postcolonialism does not refer to something which tangibly is, but rather it denotes something which one does: it can describe a way of thinking, a mode of perception, a line of inquiry, and aesthetic practice, a method of investigation. (6)

Ah. Useful, right? This also explained the trajectory, especially within academia, from ‘Commonwealth’ to ‘Postcolonial’ studies — something I’d never quite known about. Another distinction was in the difference between colonialism and imperialism — McLeod cites Peter Childs and Patrick Williams as they argue that imperialism:

is an ideological project which upholds the legitimacy of the economic and military control of one nation by another. They define imperialism as “the extension and expansion of trade and commerce under the protection of political, legal, and military controls.* Colonialism, however, is only one form of practice, one modality of control which results from the ideology of imperialism, and it specifically concerns the settlement of people in a new location. (9)

Again, that is such a nice encapsulation of something I’ve been thinking about a while. Other things are very new indeed, such as the difference between new ‘postcolonial’ critics from earlier literary studies:

…their insistence that historical, geographical and cultural specifics are vital to both the writing and reading of a text, and cannot be so easily bracketed as secondary colouring or background. (18)

Said, orientalism and literary studies

There is the key role that ‘representations’ and ‘modes of perception’ play — these aren’t terms thrown around a great deal across a large portion of the social sciences. In theorising colonial discourses, McLeod draws out the ways that Fanon and Said, for all their differences:

explore the ways that representations and modes of perception are used as fundamental weapons of colonial power to keep colonised peoples subservient to colonial rule. (19)

What together they brought to postcolonial studies was the idea that:

Overturning colonialism, then, is not just about handing land back to its dispossessed people. relinquishing power to those who were once ruled by Empire. It is also a process of overturning the dominant ways of seeing the world, and representing reality in ways which do not replicate colonialist values.(25)

This is slightly different from what I myself pulled from Said or Fanon, coming from a different tradition, so it’s interesting to read more of  how Said’s Orientalism has been developed further in literary studies, with three main strands of textual analysis prominent:

  1. re-reading canonical English literature in order to examine if past representations perpetuated or questioned the latent assumption of colonial discourses.. (26)

  2. examining ‘the representations of colonized subjects across a variety of colonial texts’ drawing on Derrida, Foucault, Lacan — Spivak and Bhaba (27)

  3. A look at how ‘literatures were primarily concerned with writing back to the centre, actively engage din a process of questioning and travestying colonial discourses in their work.’ (28)

This included the forming of new ‘englishes’, which I quite love, and am very familiar with having grown up along the border. I find them quite subversive, but think the debate around language is so important — to write in the coloniser’s language, to write in your own, to write the creative hybrids that tend to flourish…

I like the focus on change, on struggle (and the self-reflective debate about the efficacy of postcolonial theory in doing either):

‘postcolonialism’ recognises both historical continuity and change. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the material realities and discursive modes of representation established through colonialism are still very much with us today, even if the political map of the world has altered through decolonisation. But on the other hand, it prizes the promise, the possibility and the continuing necessity of change… (39)

Returning to Fanon, it shows the ways that others have built on his insight that, for the person who is colonised:

Ideology assigns him a role and an identity which he is meant to internalise as proper and true, and he is made subject to its iniquitous and disempowering effects, both psychologically and socially.

McLeod argues that Foucault expands this understanding — and I like this explanation of Foucault’s understanding of power (though I don’t think he cites Fanon, I don’t know if he ever read him):

Although the example of Fanon soberly highlights the pain of being represented pejoratively by other people, Foucault argues that power also worked through gratification. Power is not simply punitive; if it was, it could not function so successfully, gain so much day-to-day support nor ultimately maintain its authority. … Indeed, we might consider that colonial discourses have been successful because they are so productive: they enable some colonisers to feel important, superior, noble and benign, as well as gaining the complicity of the colonised by enabling some people to derive a sense of self-worth and material benefit through their participation in the business of Empire. (45)

More useful summaries of the activities outside my own field — what colonial discourse analysis does:

‘first…refuses the humanist assumption that literary texts exist above and beyond their historical contexts. (46)

‘second…is caught up in the sordid history of colonial exploitation and dispossession…’

third, the attention to the machinery of colonial discourses in the past can act as a means of resourcing resistance to the continuation of colonial representations and realities…. (46)

Texts such as Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre have been as much a part of this analysis as those by writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Chinua Achebe. Another key distinction that is nice to just read clearly stated:

‘Orientalism’ and colonial discourse do not amount to the same thing. They are not interchangeable terms. (47)

Just as I found this a very useful summary of Said’s work in headings:

  • Orientalism constructs binary oppositions

  • Orientalism is a Western fantasy

  • Orientalism is institutional

  • Orientalism is literary and creative

  • Orientalism is legitimating and self-perpetuating

  • There is a distinction between ‘latent’ and ‘manifest’ Orientalism

Of course McLeod also summarises the critiques of Said: that Orientalism is ahistorical, that it ignores resistance by the colonised, that it ignores resistance in the West, that it ignores the significance of gender.

But what a foundation to build from. It does feel very contained however. I liked thinking about how Bhaba looks at why the two aspects of orientalism never quite work as they are pulling in two different directions, in his own words:

colonial discourse produces the colonised as a social reality which is at once “other” and yet entirely knowable and visible.’ (63)

So of course there is room here to maneuver.

Bhaba argues that within colonialist representations the colonised subject is always in motion, sliding ambivalently between the polarities of similarity and difference, rationality and fantasy. He or she will simply not stand still. hence the prevalence for stereotypes in colonialist discourses: stereotypes are an attempt to arrest this motion and fix the colonised once and for all. (64-65)

All fail to achieve to fixity, but it is interesting to think of stereotypes in this way.

I haven’t read enough Bhaba, I will fix that.  The above insights I find useful and hope to work more with, others I find interesting and am still thinking about, such as his descriptions of the threat of ‘mimicry’:

Hearing their language coming through the mouths of the colonised, the colonisers are faced with the worrying threat of resemblance between coloniser and colonised. This threatens to collapse the Orientalist structure of knowledge… (66)

What I do love, though, is his focus on struggle. For example, Bhaba critiques Said in not seeing

how colonial discourses generate the possibilities of their own critique. (67)

Nationalism and nationalist discourses

There is another chapter on nationalism and nationalist representation, ie negritude and how important these came to be for struggles for independence. This is followed by a chapter of the  discussion and critiques that this inspired. Impossible to summarise it, I shall just focus on bits and pieces that jumped out at me, like Gilroy’s lovely definition of race from After Empire:

“race” refers primarily to an impersonal, discursive arrangement, the brutal result of the raciological ordering of the world, not its cause. (132)

The there is Balibar writing about the way that

nationalism always has a reciprocal relation with racism (although the nature of that relation can take many different forms): where one is found, the other is never far away. Therefore, in using nationalist, it is claimed that decolonising peoples are in danger of perpetuating a concept which tends t support divisive processes of racialisation. (133-134)

Again returning to Bhaba’s work, where

nationalist discourses are ultimately illiberal and must always be challenged. (142)

With a quote from Robert Young, McLeod also notes that it is not simply race at play in these discourses:

nationalism is frequently a gendered discourse; it traffics in representations of men and women which serve to reinforce patriarchal inequalities between them. (136)


I wish intersectionality was woven into this discussion, that people like Patricia Hill Collins or bell hooks were quoted and part fo these theoretical discussions. But there is a chapter on feminism, that opens up with a definition from June Hannam that I hadn’t seen before and that I think I like:

a set of ideas that recognize in an explicit way that women are subordinate to men and seek to address imbalances of power between the sexes. Central to feminism is the view that women’s condition is socially constructed, and therefore open to change. At its heart is the belief that women’s voices should be heard — that they should represent themselves, put forward their own view of the words and achieve autonomy in their lives. (Feminism, 2006, 3-4, quoted p 198)

This is where we really start to come to grips with Spivak. McLeod discusses some of the debates and difficulties around naming, the problems that surround the use of ‘first-world’ and ‘third-world’ and yet a need to have some way to mark identities in recognition of power differentials etc. To get around this to some extent — acknowledging its flaws but hoping to salvage what is useful, McLeod writes…

So, although such phrases will be used in this chapter, they remain provisional categories of convenience rather than factual denotations of fixed and stable groups. (200)

I like that way of managing it. Some of the starting points for Spivak…

As poststructuralism would have it, human consciousness is constructed discursively. Our subjectivity and consciousness are constituted by the shifting discourses of power which endlessly ‘speak through’ us, situating us here and there in particular positions and relations. In these terms we are not the authors of ourselves. We do not simply construct our own identities but have them written for us; the subject cannot be wholly ‘sovereign’ over the construction of selfhood. Instead, the subject is ‘de-centred’ in that its consciousness is always being constructed from positions outside itself. (218)

Spivak argues that this is as true for colonial or working class subjects, but Foucault and Deleuze both wrongly often fall into speaking of them as essentialised and centred subjects. I found McLeod’s interpretation of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, which I tried to read too long ago and found very difficult, so can’t judge if this is fair but regardless it is quite interesting:

Rather than making the subaltern as female seem to speak, intellectuals must bring to crisis the representation systems which rendered her mute in the first place, challenging the very forms of knowledge that are complicit in her silencing. (221)

I also like Spivak’s idea of ‘strategic essentialism’, which he explains:

involves us in actively choosing to use a concept which we know is flawed, often as a way of challenging the very system which has fashioned that concept in the first place, (222).

I like this mix of theoretical rigor and bowing to practicality, I’ve always meant to try reading Spivak again. I like how much of the postcolonial debate is about how we move forward without erasing the past, about finding the points of hope without turning away from past points of despair.

Moving forward: borders, hybridisation, collective difference

I like how often these involve ideas of borders, though possibly just because I am from one…

In Bhaba’s thinking, the disruption of received totalising narratives of individual and group identity made possible at the ‘border’ can be described as an ‘uncanny’ moment, where all those forgotten in he construction of, say, national groups return to disturb and haunt such holistic ways of thinking. This uncanny disruption brings with it trauma and anxiety. It serves as a reminder that exclusive, exclusionary systems of meaning are forever haunted by those who are written out and erased. (254)

This is trying to tackle at one of the key questions of our times, I think. How to we come together made stronger by our differences to find justice? McLeod writes:

The problem posed in ‘New Ethnicities’ by Stuart Hall has remained: how are new communities forged which do not homogenise people or ignore the differences between them; communities based on crossings, interactions, partial identifications? Can there be ‘solidarity thorough difference’? (264)

Which is part of why I love Stuart Hall. I love Paul Gilroy’s idea of conviviality as well, though still find it slippery:

Gilroy’s answer lies in the ways in which different cultural practices circulate in the black Atlantic between groups in different locations, creating contingent transnational forms of community. ‘Solidarity through difference’ can be built by plotting the ways in which diaspora peoples in any one location draw upon the resources and ideas of other peoples in different times and places in order to contest the continuing agency of colonialist, nationalist or racist discourses at various sites(267).

This is the hope for the future, this, and as the conclusion emphasises, the habit of ongoing dialogue and reflexivity within the discipline.

[McLeod, John (2010) Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press]

*An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory, Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997, p 227