Tag Archives: racism

Solidarity Blues: Richard Iton on Race, Culture and the Left

Richard Iton’s Solidarity Blues was so good for thinking not just about how race and the American left have articulated, but the nature of the left in general. I use that word ‘left’ often, struggle with it, often distinguish between an elite left and a grassroots left (you all know which one I’m for). Iton takes a step back, to look at the broader ideas in motion:

I attempt to understand how the forces of individualism and collectivism interact in different contexts. (5)

This is much broader than the ‘left’, starts to capture some of the things that happen outside of movement. But I like his broad understanding of the left as well, looking at it in three different aspects:

  1. the conventional conceptions, labor movements and socialist parties

  2. the availability of a certain set or type of public goods

  3. the prevalence of a certain sensibility or set of cultural values. (6)

I like too, this case for just how different America is from the other ‘developed’ nations and how it contrasts with other countries where:

certain things are taken for granted: comprehensive health care, inclusive voter registration procedure, affordable higher education, and a certain standard of public safety. (7)

Not in the US as everyone knows. Which begs the question:

Why so slow, so reluctant to provide public goods?

the answer — constructions of race — and instead of choosing to allow race to disappear or lose its significance,

at every opportunity the choice has been made to remake race in some potent form at the cost of community. (22)

So, to summarise Iton’s arguments on the articulation of race with these three principal aspects of the Left.

Labour Movements and Socialist Parties

Labour movements are sustained by a collective identity of labour opposed to capital. In the US, this collective identity was fractured by race in three principal ways — that follow one from the other and that in themselves show the complexities of this I think.

  1. the popular identification of organized labor with racial progressivism (an association that was accurate at times and ironic at others)

  2. the energies consumed by internecine battles within the labour movement between nativist and racist constituencies and those advocating a more inclusive movement

  3. the decisions made by nativists, racists and their opponents to forego challenging the racial status quo and organizing immigrant workers, in the belief that a successful labour movement could be sustained without the participation of those groups, and that these issues and constituencies  could be dealt with at some later point… (25)

This helps explain the rise of someone like Samuel Gompers in the AFL — fucking Samuel Gompers, the UK has some responsibility for him too as he was born here. He promoted a focus on today’s battles rather than a broader struggle or movement — small wins, craft unions, the exclusion of people of colour, such an ugly politics that wasn’t arguably even practical given it created large pools of strikebreakers. He actually fought while in the cigar makers union to have white labels placed on cigars made by white labour so racists would know and could but white and union.

No wonder you get Du Bois writing that the  ‘AFL not a labor movement, but monopoly of skilled workers’.

There are some brighter lights, though they may have shone briefly. Hurrah, for instance, for the Western Federation of Miners, founded in 1893 in Montana (Montana! No longer somewhere such a movement could blossom I think). From them grew the IWW in 1905 — and of course Iton notes the greater homogeneity of the west coast and how it shaped their politics, it was easier not to be racist. But still. While Iton argues their importance was more symbolic, he does quote Dubovsky:

so feared were the Wobblies that probably no group of labor agitators before or since has as suddenly or disastrously experienced the full wrath of state and national authorities. (51)

On the whole though, Labor’s record in the US is dismal.

labor’s job is to ensure that its constituency can control the circumstances of its existence. Organized labor in the United States has largely either been afraid to do so, or, because of internal and external compromises, been unable to do so. (78)

Where it has been successful in building solidarity, Iton notes, it has actually been along racial lines rather than lines of work or labour.

Southern Politics and Parties

Nothing establishes better the broad weaknesses of the left, and how racial conflicts have prevented it from creating a more collectivist society, than a hard look at the impact of Southern ‘Democratic’ party politics. Iton summarises his argument that it created a:

  1. constant division of leftists activists over issue of whether organizations would be interracial, segregated, or separate but coordinated.
  2. popular rejection of those movements which have pursued interracial alliances …IWW, UMW, CIO
  3. …the race issue has just been a problem to be solved at some future date (84)

Jim Crow disenfranchised Blacks, but also increasingly poor whites, concentrating power in Southern elites against which the whole country has been held hostage through the Democratic party.


There was, of course, that brief period when Lenin in the 2nd congress of 1920 directed the Communist Party to support the self-determination of oppressed peoples within nations — this included the Irish and  African negroes as revolutionary groups, which ensured that the CPUSA  for a time did its best to pursue equal rights for blacks, and in South proposing in proposed a black belt nation. In the North, party activists began doing grassroots organizing work with tenants, particularly around rent strikes and the unemployed councils. In 1936 they formed the National Negro Congress, and at this time also began reaching out  to other race communities, such as Mexican farmworkers.

‘By 1935…11 percent of the party’s roughly 27,000 members were black, and in the South, blacks composed an even higher percentage. (118)

Change in CP policy led widespread abandonment of earlier causes, but this isn’t really mentioned. It does help explain some of the automatic connection between race equality and communism that is still so prevalent today, though I mostly think this has been a convenient labeling to facilitate isolation and repression. Of course, it meant the red scare had an even greater impact on those fighting for racial equality. Like Gerald Horne, Iton writes of this period after WWII, which saw:

a unique collapsing of the realms of racial and class politics…the effective end of the traditional left in American politics and a further truncation of the acceptable range of debate concerning economic issues and alternatives. (125)

The radical politics emerging from the Great Depression could have been a time when working classes came together, but instead they split over race. Party politics since then has not sought to challenge current attitudes, but work within the very limited gains staying within them can achieve… White privilege was just a little too strong I suppose. Old FDR himself maintained a 2nd home in Warm Springs Georgia, and promoted himself in 1932 election as a “Georgia planter-politician’.

And now? Iton cites Robert Greenberg’s 1985 study of Macomb ,Michicgan and the switch from Democrat to Republican among white working to middle-class Americans

These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything else that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a place a decent place to live. (129)

Bloody hell.

Beyond the Left

Iton describes how race conservatism has allowed rights to vote to be curtailed, slowed and reduced medicare and medicaid, opposed fair employment practices committee, ensured no best practices taken from Europe as US the only superpower post WWII. But this is a question that continues to pester me:

While I do not want to overstate the importance of the cultural politics of the post-McCarthy era from a progressive standpoint, the inability of the American left to survive the era that produced the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism says something about the American left, as well as American society. (218)

For Iton the why is at least partially found here:

the characteristically American resistance to collective strategies reflects an attachment to the rights and prerogatives of individuals over and above and particular communities. (234)

This of course emerges from Turner’s ‘frontier thesis, or Louis Hartz or Seymour Martin Lipset’s work.  But this doesn’t go deep enough, why this push towards individualism?

The liberal individualism Hartz and others have cited has been rhetorical residue remaining after the battles among the competing “we” claims promoted by different ethnic and racial communities. In other words, while an examination of the speeches of politician might reflect a particularly American preference for individual liberties, the unstated realities have often been shaped by the ethnic and racial calculations made by different groups. (235)

This has never been dealt with by the left in its goal to appeal to the broadest number of people and rejection of the call to help with the ‘maintenance and relaization of a collective sensibility and human civilization.’ (245-246). There is more to dig into here about the way that race has structured capital (see Cedric Robinson), or about how racism has help form a concept of whiteness tied to privilege (as does David Roediger), but the result has been tragic. The book ends with this thought:

The particular and exceptional extent to which the American left has been removed from the main stage of American life has been a direct function of its inability or unwillingness to transcend these hurdles in an especially demographically diverse context, and a result of the popular attachment to a realm — race — that can generate few larger meanings, resilient identities, or practical moralities. (246)


Iton, Richard (2000) Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture and the American Left. Chapel hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.







Barbara Fields on Class, Race and Racism

A classic and groundbreaking piece from Barbara Fields, ‘Ideology and Race in American History’ is such a brilliant piece of work, a foundation that made so much other work possible on the concrete and changing historical formations of socially constructed ideas of race. A fight that still needs fighting because this is still true:

It is my intention to suggest that Americans, including many historians, tend to accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding. Ideologies, including those of race, can be properly analyzed only at a safe distance from their terrain. To assume, by intention or default, that race is a phenomenon outside history is to take up a position within the terrain of racialist ideology and to become its unknowing-and therefore uncontesting-victim.

The first false move in this direction is the easiest: the assumption that race is an observable physical fact, a thing, rather than a notion that is profoundly and in its very essence ideological.(144)

Thus the construction of race must be studied in its social and ideological context.

Race is a product of history, not of nature. And as an element of ideology, it is best understood in connection with other elements of ideology and not as a phenomenon sui generis. Only when set next to contemporary ideas having nothing to do with race can ideas about race be placed in the context of the ideological ensemble of which they form a part.(152)

I am still not as familiar with this early period as I should be. Fields looks at Walter Rodney’s study of the Portuguese, and the complex relationships between Europeans and the people along upper Guinea Coast:

They were capable, as are all human beings, of believing things that in strict logic are not compatible. No trader who had to confront and learn to placate the power of an African chief could in practice believe that Africans were docile, childlike, or primitive. The practical circumstances in which Europeans confronted Africans in Africa make nonsense of any attempt to encompass Europeans’ reactions to Africans within the literary stereotypes that scholars have traced through the ages as discrete racial attitudes. (148)

I think this is a key point, and one that bears repeating because I still find it shocks me every time I see anew the extent to which human beings are capable of being perfectly at ease with a common sense view of the world that incorporates completely conflicting views.

The idea one people has of another, even when the difference between them is embodied in the most striking physical characteristics, is always mediated by the social context within which the two come into contact. This remains true even when time-honored tradition provides a vocabulary for thinking and talking about the other people that runs counter to immediate experience. In that case, the vocabulary and the experience simply exist side by side … An understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations-not by enumerating “attitudes” which, endowed with independent life, are supposed to act upon the historical process from outside, passing through it like neutrinos to emerge unchanged at the other end.

The view that race is a biological fact, a physical attribute of
individuals, is no longer tenable. (148-49)

The sarcasm in here is something to relish. She later writes:

Precisely because ideologies consist of contradictory and inconsistent elements, they can undergo fundamental change simply through the reshuffling of those elements into a different hierarchy. (154)

This echoes Stuart Hall’s idea of articulation, and how formations change over time. Similar also, perhaps, to his focus on understanding the work that changing, and highly conflicted constructions of race performs is this:

In the end we cannot resolve the problem quantitatively, by the addition of example and counterexample. We can resolve it only by posing the question “What kind of social reality is reflected-or refracted – in an ideology built on a unity of these particular opposites?” … If ideology is a vocabulary for interpreting social experience, and thus both shapes and is shaped by that experience, it follows that even the “same” ideology must convey different. meanings to people having different social experiences.(155)

But this argues a more complex understanding I think, where very different understandings and experiences of race exist  depending on personal history, experience and positionality — which opens up room in thinking about alliances and where change can happen. I wrestle so much with the relationship between class and race, the pitfalls and possibilities of solidarity along class lines rather than the continuous fracturing along lines of race, and so found her views on their nature and articulation particularly interesting:

Class and race are concepts of a different order; they do not occupy the same analytical space, and thus cannot constitute explanatory alternatives to each other.15

class is a concept that we can locate both at the level of objective reality and at the level of social appearances. Race is a concept that we can locate at the level of appearances only. A material reality underlies it all right, as must be true of any ideology; but the underlying reality is not the one that the language of racial ideology addresses. … because class and race are not equivalent concepts, it is erroneous to offer them as alternatives to each other; and because any thorough social analysis must move simultaneously at the level of objective reality and at that of appearances, it is self-defeating to attempt to do so.(151)

This creates a very different view of white supremacy — not in the totality of its effects but in how it is understood and…er…practiced (?) by different groups. She writes:

White supremacy is a slogan, not a belief.29 And it is a slogan that cannot have meant the same to all white people. Those who invoke it as a way of minimizing the importance of class diversity in the South overlook this simple but basic point….

But white supremacy was not simply a summary of color prejudices. It was also a set of political programs, differing according to the social position of their proponents. Prejudices fed into them, naturally; but so far from providing a unifying element, they were as likely as not to accentuate the latent possibilities for discord. (156)

This is actually a rather hopeful understanding of white supremacy perhaps, one that can be levered apart, maybe dismantled little by little. Maybe. Though it’s complicated, right? A holistic view also shows how multiple aspects of life prop up understandings of white supremacy, and even life experience does not necessarily challenge that.

But racial ideology constituted only one element of the whole ideology of each class. And it is the totality of the elements and their relation to each other that gives the whole its form and direction; not the content of one isolated element, which in any case is bound to be contradictory. (158)


Racial prejudice is sufficiently fluid and at home with contrariety to be able to precede and survive dramatic instances of interracial unity in action.37

Pretty depressing. It highlights the necessity of work in the Freirean tradition where action is always followed by reflection. But how better to describe some of those who have brought Trump to power and continue to support him in face of everything:

The racialism of the black-belt elite, after all, carried with it the luster of victory. That of the white common people became ever more tightly bound up with the rancor of hard blows and final defeat, as they watched the basis of their proud independence eroded by economic and social forces with which they were finally unable to cope. Their rancor became pervasive in the cultural atmosphere of the South and lent itself to demagogic manipulation by politicians seeking to turn it to electoral advantage. But it could never be fully assuaged; quite the contrary. Arising from a bleak day-to-day experience to which the slogans and rituals of white supremacy offered no material solution, that rancor only grew larger the more it was fed. (159)

This kind of gives me chills it makes so much sense — especially the extra-chill factor of the bolded bit.

A racialist ideology harnessed to a ruling-class will, intention, and capacity to dominate both blacks and whites may be characterized by a patronizing tolerance, while that of a rednecks’ movement to unseat their white masters may be virulent and homicidal.38 … Historical analysis cannot distinguish these positions as “more” and “less” racist. Rather, they represent the different shape of the space occupied by racialism in different ideological ensembles. To think of them as different quantities of the same ideological substance is fundamentally mistaken. (160)

Academia and the non-profit world are both rife with examples of ‘patronising tolerance’, I find so useful this understanding of the distinction between the two. We have to look to history to understand the shapes of these ‘spaces occupied by racialism’, always a key to US politics from its beginnings with slavery.

Slavery thus became a “racial” question, and spawned an endless variety of “racial” problems. Race became the ideological medium through which people posed and apprehended basic questions of power and dominance, sovereignty and citizenship, justice and right. (162)

This is echoed in Roediger, who has done some of the best work in understanding how this space has been shaped. His work also supports Fields’ argument that it just didn’t have to turn out this way, that this was not in fact what most people wanted.

While the freedmen were being hustled into the market economy at the well-intentioned (though not always disinterested) initiative of various groups of Yankees, the white yeomanry was also being drawn into that economy: in their case, through a combination of indebtedness and complex changes in law and social usage that followed in the wake of the Civil War. Both groups, as more and more studies make clear, would have preferred a different outcome.52 Secure tenure of land and peace in which to pursue essentially self-sufficient farming, with only incidental resort to the market, would have suited their desires more than conscription willy-nilly into the world of commercialized agriculture, with its ginners, merchants, storekeepers, moneylenders, and crop liens. There never was much chance that they would get the kind of world they wanted. (166)

Fucking capitalism. Zombie capitalism even. I don’t think she gets the credit for the term, and I am not sure this is dialectical enough for me, but I love this imagery:

It is not that ideas have a life of their own, but rather that they have a boundless facility for usurping the lives of men and women. In this they resemble those creatures of horror fiction who, having neither body nor life of their own, take over the bodies and lives of human beings. The history of racialist ideologies provides excellent examples. (153)

I will end where Field ends:

Race is neither the reflex of primordial attitudes nor a tragically
recurring central theme. It became the ideological medium through which Americans confronted questions of sovereignty and power because the enslavement of Africans and their descendants constituted a massive exception to the rules of sovereignty and power that were increasingly taken for granted. And, despite the changes it has undergone along the way, race has remained a predominant ideological medium because the manner of slavery’s unraveling had lasting consequences for the relations of whites to other whites, no less than for those of whites to blacks. There are no tragic flaws or central themes in which to take shelter, however reluctantly. There are only acts and decisions of men and women in a society now past, and a responsibility which, because the outcome remains provisional, we are obliged to share with them. (168-169)

Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. Ed. Morgan J. Koussar and James McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, 143-177)





Robert F. Williams on White Racism

While the bulk of Negroes With Guns deals with self-defense and the story of trying to organise for political, racial and economic equality in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert F. Williams also gives some real thought to the problem of white racism. Know your enemy. He writes:

What has happened and continues to happen in Monroe,
N.C., illustrates an old truth: that words used in common
by all men do not always have a meaning common to
all men. Men have engaged in life-or-death struggles because
of differences of meaning in a commonly-used word. The
white racist believes in “freedom,” he believes in “fair trial,”
he believes in “justice.” He sincerely believes in these words
and can use them with great emotion because to the white
racist they mean his freedom to deprive Negroes of their
basic human rights and his courts where a “fair trial” is that
procedure and “justice” that decision which upholds the
racist’s mad ideal of white supremacy. On many desperate
occasions when our constitutional rights were denied and
our lives were in danger, we called on the Justice Department
and the FBI to investigate the Monroe situation, to protect
our lives and to restore our constitutional rights-in
other words, to administer justice. And they always refused
our request. (54)

It can still shock me, I realise, to read those words written decades ago and realise how true they still are. These words still ring with emotion in the mouths of Trump supporters, don’t they. Without understanding this dissonance, there is no other way to explain patriotic white discourse around ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ and ‘justice’, when at the same time children are being shot dead and nothing happens to their uniformed (or even non-uniformed) killers. When the NRA can defend to the death the right to carry any kind of arms whatsoever with no controls at all ever. Unless you are Black.

An aside to say that Robert F. Williams actually formed a chapter of the NRA while they were training with guns. That has a sweet taste to it, though some bitterness too.

I appreciate a section with the title:

Minds Warped by Racism

Because you can see it, and it is not pretty. Williams continues:

We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis. When I have described racial conditions in the United States to audiences of foreign newsmen, Cubans and other Latin Americans, they have been shocked to learn of the depths of American race hatred. (72)

I, too, am still continuously shocked. Stretching from the hatred directed at Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin to those gloating white faces over bodies that had been lynched and burned, it can only be a kind of psychosis. That is too easy a word really, it needs more unpacking from the likes of Fromm and others. But it begs the question of an adequate strategy in its murderous face. Williams asks:

Why do the white liberals ask us to be non-violent? We are not the aggressors; we have been victimized for over 300 years! Yet nobody spends money to go into the South and ask the racists to be martyrs or pacifists. But they always come to the downtrodden Negroes, who are already oppressed and too submissive as a group, and ask them not to fight back. There seems to be a pattern of some sort of strange coincidence of interest when whites preach a special doctrine to Negroes. Like the choice of theology when the plantation-owners saw to the Christianization of the slaves. Instead of the doctrines which produced the rugged aggressively independent and justice-seeking spirit that we associate with Colonial America as the New England Conscience, the slaves were indoctrinated in the most submissive “trust-your-master,” “pie-in-the-sky after-you-die” form of Christianity. (75)

Even Martin Luther King would tire of this liberal refrain. Nor did he have an entirely easy relationship to strict non-violence. The very real threat of violence meant that many communities he visited armed themselves and sat watch to protect him, as they did for the youth of CORE and SNCC — Cobb writes of this across the South. Williams was not alone in his assessment of white violence, and the means to prevent it.

This is one of the more eloquent statements on self-defense, and the challenge even this poses to white liberals, that I have read:

This fear of extermination is a myth which we have exposed in Monroe. We did this because we came to an active understanding of the racist system and grasped the relationship between violence and racism. The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a “militant” because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system-the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say that they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists. We have shown in Monroe that with violence working both ways constituted law will be more inclined to keep the peace. (76)

I put my favourite part in bold, but I like all of it. I like the acknowledgment that it is through lack of challenge that the system perpetuates itself, which means all of it needs to be challenged. I like the questions this raises for piecemeal change — not that we don’t need small steps to move forward, but that we should understand that they are steps. I feel that he understood both the potential and the limits of the Montgomery bus boycott before most commentators and civil rights leaders did (Ella Baker is one clear exception to this of course, I know there were others):

The Montgomery bus boycott was a victory-but it was limited. It did not raise the Negro standard of living. It did not mean better education for Negro children, it did not mean economic advances. Just what was the issue at hand for the white racists? What sacrifice? Remember that in Montgomery most white Americans have automobiles and are not dependent on the buses. It is just like our own experience in Monroe when we integrated the library. I called the chairman of the board in my county. I told him that I represented the NAACP, that we wanted to integrate the library, and that our own library had burned down. And he said, “Well, I don’t see any reason why you can’t use the same library that our people use. It won’t make any difference. After all, I don’t read anyway.” Now, this is the attitude of a lot of white Southerners about the Montgomery bus boycott. The white people who control the city didn’t ride the buses anyway. They had their own private cars, so it didn’t make any difference to them. But when Afro-Americans get into the struggle for the right to live as human beings and the right to earn the same amount of money, then they’ll meet the greatest amount of resistance, and out of it will come police-condoned or inspired violence. (77-78)

The limits came from how little it challenged the true structures of Black oppression — though it is terrifying really, even now, just how hard they had to fight for such a small change.

An inspirational chapter title:

“The Future Belongs to Today’s Oppressed”

And finally, the fact that Williams never did give up on the struggle, nor on white people. His theory, that they needed an honest look at themselves:

Whenever I speak on the English-language radio station in Havana (which broadcasts for an audience in the United States) I hope in some way to penetrate the mental barriers and introduce new disturbing elements into the consciousness of white America. I hope to make them aware of the monstrous evil that they are party to by oppressing the Negro. Somehow, I must manage to clearly reflect the image of evil that is inherent in a racist society so that white Americans will be able to honestly and fully see themselves as they really are. To see themselves with the same clarity as foreigners see them and to recognize that they are not champions of democracy. To understand that today they do not really even believe in democracy. To understand that the world is changing regardless of whether they think they like it or not. For I know that if they had a glimpse of their own reality the shock would be of great therapeutic value. (85)

An honest look is still what is needed. Wendell Berry too talks about the need for a double consciousness required from this level of injustice inflicted on another groups of human beings, the illusion-building needed and the distortions that it has caused. But instead of taking a hard look, those who most need it have elected, and continue to support a president handing out nothing but lies.

Not that we all don’t need a good long look in the mirror on a regular basis.


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.]

















Wendell Berry on Racism: The Hidden Wound

Wendell Berry The Hidden WoundIn 1968, Wendell Berry wrote The Hidden Wound — a fascinating look at U.S. racism and its connection to land and work from this incredible environmentalist who grew up in a family that still remembered owning slaves. I’ve been trying to get my head around the way that the current terrifying onslaught of policies of hate and fear are so closely tied to Christianity — and yes I know Crusades and witch burnings and pogroms and the Inquisition and… I know. But this helped explain the particular moment we are in as Americans better than anything I’ve read in while from a point of view that I don’t often read.

It opens with a frank admission:

I have been unwilling, until now, to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound–a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life….If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound unto himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society. (3-4)

This damage now erupted brutally into the open keeps me up at night.

Berry writes of the casual stories told by his family, remembering the past. There is one story in particular of a slave that had to be sold because he would not be good (and how much Black pain lies in that white concept of ‘good’?):

The story has passed from generation to generation in flight from its horror. It has been told and retold, surely, because in the depths of our souls we all have recognized in it an evil that is native to us and that we cannot escape. (8-9)

Still, slave owners tried to escape its consequences, and this required particular habits and manners of thought. Berry describes the double nature that had to exist in religion, for example. We all know the Bible says to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, to ‘lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth’, to do unto others as you would have done unto you — all things Southern society would be glad that slaves (and their descendants) should live by. But whites clearly did not, could not live these beliefs, without freeing slaves (or returning all that land to Native Americans rather than attempting their total destruction). This shaped white Christianity in very particular ways, and Berry’s description of it resonates so strongly today…

Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. the question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation. (17)

I think current events have been ripping the covers off, revealing the fruit of this.

Berry also shares thoughts on language, how this double nature existed there too and shaped the words people used, how they thought.

Within the context of prejudice and segregation, the two races had to get along, and so there was an etiquette of speech that one learned from the cradle: one “respected the feelings” of Negroes, when in their presence one did not flaunt one’s “superiority” or use the word nigger… But more important, within the language there was a silence, an emptiness, of exactly the shape of the humanity of the black man; the language I spoke in my childhood and youth was in that way analagous to a mold in which a statue is to be cast. The operations, then, were that one could, by a careful observance of the premises of the language, keep the hollow empty and thus avoid the pain of the recognition of the humanity of an oppressed people and of one’s own guilt in their oppression; or one could, willing or not, be forced by the occasions of sympathy and insight to break out of those premises into a speech of another and more particular order, so that the hollow begins to fill with the substance of a life that one must recognize as human and demanding. (19)

Later he writes:

The word nigger might be thought of as rattling around, with devastating noise and impact, within the silence, that black-man-shaped hollow, inside our language. (50)

This is so chilling, makes so much sense. There is so much to undo, and Wendell Berry writes about the difficulties of undoing it:

I am trying to establish the outline of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness–the sense of being doomed by my history to be, if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak. (48-49)

This is a process deeply rooted in history, in the origins of the country, in the ways that whites sought to take what was not theirs, and then to force others to work on it.

From the beginning also, as the white man made his drive into the continent, to take it from its wilderness and its original inhabitants and possess it, there were two great necessities: one was to own the land, to establish and maintain a legal claim; the second was the enormous and continuing labor it took to convert such ownership into the profits which would preserve and augment it. In the parts of the country where there was a black labor force these necessities were divided, in theory at least; the white man was to be the owner, the black man was to be the laborer. (80)

The results could only be a twisted and misshapen society whose ultimate values had been conquest and profit. Berry writes:

The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of a meaningful contact with the earth…The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal. (105)

He also writes:

Whereas the whites, as a group, have produced here only a pernicious value system, based on greed and egotism and the lust for status and comfort, without either an elemental knowledge on the one hand or a decent social vision on the other. What the whites have produced of cultural value had come into being in the face of either indifference or opposition on the part of most whites… (81)

And yet for so many years, race has been seen as the ‘Negro Problem’ (or the Mexican problem, or the Asian problem…), when not only is it a problem of all Americans, but resonates through each and every one of our relationships:

It seems to me that racism could not possibly have made merely a mechanical division between the two races; at least in America it did not. It involves an emotional dynamics that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. It has made divisions not only between white people and black people, but between black men and black women, white men and white women; it has come between white people and their work, and between white people and their land. It has fragmented both our society and our minds. (91)

This not least because

Whites fear what they feel, secretly or otherwise, to be the righteousness of the anger of blacks; as the oppressors they feel, secretly or otherwise, morally inferior to those they have oppressed. (92)

Where does wholeness lie? A better future? In recognising that

…no man is alone, because he cannot be; he cannot arrange it so that either the good or the bad effects of his life will apply only to himself; he can only live in the creation, among the creatures, his life either adding to the commonwealth or subtracting from it. Men are whole not only insofar as they make common cause with each other, but also insofar as they make common cause with their native earth, which is to say with the creation as a whole, which is to say with the creator. (104)

It involves recognizing the crimes against native peoples, and in all humility learning from them.

For examples of a whole and indigenous American society, functioning in full meaning and good health within the ecology of this continent, we will have to look back to the cultures of the Indians. That we failed to learn from them how to live in this land is a stupidity–a racial stupidity–that will corrode the heart of our society until the day comes, if it ever does, when we do turn back to learn from them. (107)

It involves recognising the humanity of all.

As soon as we have filled the hollow in our culture, the silence in our speech, with the fully realized humanity of the black man–and it follows, of the American Indian–then there will appear over the horizon of our consciousness another figure as well: that of the American white man, our own humanity, lost to us these three and a half centuries, the time of all our life on this continent.

It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black people and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them. (108)

There is more here I want to write about, about race and land, work, memory… but later. For now I will end with a quote from the Afterward, written in 1988, a plea to recognise the only things that could possibly make us truly safe and secure:

There is no safety in belonging to the select few… If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared. We would be looking too for another another kind of freedom. Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please…But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.

Our place of safety can only be the community, and not just one community, but many of them everywhere. (129)

[Berry, Wendell (1989, 2010) The Hidden Wound. Berkeley: Counterpoint.]











Patricia Hill Collins: Domains of Power, or Making Foucault More Interesting

I love the domains of power framework as it is developed here by Patricia Hill Collins in ‘Learning From the Outsider Within Revisited’. I find a great deal of insight in Foucault (like Society Must Be Defended) but a few things have always bothered me…such as in Discipline and Punish where in charting the history of the prison in France, he never really deals with the French Revolution or the fall of the Bastille. That bewildered me, where is struggle, then, in his theorising? Look at what Collins writes:

Power may be everywhere, as French philosopher Michel Foucault points out, but what exactly does this mean? If power is manifested and organized everywhere, how might we develop a language of power that is useful? (71-72)

Ah. She asks, how do we? And then she does. If I had read this a bit earlier, domains of power might have been my chosen framework for my thesis rather than Stuart Hall’s theories of articulation, because it seems full of explanatory power:

The framework identifies four interrelated domains where power is organized. (1) a structural domain, where social institutions of a society, such as banks, hospitals, schools, corporations, retail establishment, government agencies, and health care, routinely discriminate in favour of whites and against everyone else; (2) a disciplinary domain, where modern bureaucracies regulate race relations through their rules and practices, primarily surveillance; (3) a cultural domain, where ideologies, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, and heterosexism, are constructed and shared; and (4) an interpersonal domain that shapes social relations between individuals in everyday life. (72)

She gives as a short example the treatment of African American youth — everything that limits chances and stunts lives:

  • Structural power as it works through resegregation of housing and schools, hypersegregation of African Americans within cities
  • Disciplinary power — unspoken roles for different races, racial profiling, ‘neutral’ policies that have unfair impacts (testing, etc), police in schools…
  • Cultural domain — the new ideology of colourblindness, portrayal of a more integrated American through media
  • Interpersonal domain – strategies of everyday racism

Of course, all four of these domains are interrelated — again in seeking to think through this I reach for Stuart Halls ideas of articulation, his theorisations of how the political, the economic and the ideological (I add, of course, the spatial myself) shift and change and act upon each other to come into new formations. Comparing the two, you realise on the one hand just how much needs to be packed into the idea of structural power. This is at both the economic and the spatial, political structures and more. I like separating that out a little more maybe. Yet there is also the way in which the disciplinary domain  works across all of Hall’s areas, and demands to be addressed yet his framework does not require it. How the interpersonal and everyday kinds of violences are also often lost. They don’t quite map onto each other, while each seems to highlight key aspects of a liberatory analysis — I am just starting to think about how they might be brought together, or carried out in succession. Or something. Everything is so interconnected that I rather lose myself if I think about it too much…these are only ever conventions to help lend a little clarity to a very complex world.

A few more of the insights that Collins’ framework can give:

The domains of power framework also sheds light on the ways that ideas about difference can uphold social inequalities within and across all four domains of power. For example, within the structural domain, new commodity relations have found the focus on difference profitable. In the search for ever-expanding consumer markets, understanding differences of race, gender, class, and sexuality helps in identifying segmented consumer markers. “Racial” profiling and market research are two sides of the same coin. (73)

How this impacts within academia itself:

Within this context, people who claim outsider-within identities can become hot commodities in social institutions that want the illusion of difference without the effort needed to change actual power relations. (73)

how we as academics can, and must, use it for social justice. I love that always always Collins brings it back to this:

our scholarship does reveal how ideas about difference and its related constructs matter in both upholding and challenging racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism as systems of power. But sharpening our focus on power and developing tools that enable us to see how its domains are organized and can be changed, our engaged scholarship creates space for change. (76)

Women around the world are marching today — two of my most treasured possessions came to me yesterday, pictures of my aunt and uncle with placards in front of their Philly home. The times are dark but the struggle seems to be strong. From the marathon hacking to save government data on climate change to the myriad calls to action around Trump’s cabinet of CEOs cutting out the political middleman for pure corporate control. All this as I sit home sick and rather sad at heart…




Patricia Hill Collins: Academia, Education and Speaking to Power

Patricia Hill Collins is brilliant not just on intersectionality ‘out there’ a safe distance in the wider world, but with how we ourselves deal with it, particularly within academia. I thought writing this blog today would help me face a little better the prospect of tomorrow when Trump is sworn in, when I am far from the U.S. and all of my friends most at risk and deep in the struggle for survival. This is the long game we are playing.

For myself, so much of what she wrote seemed so obvious, yet it felt so good to see it named, to see the conflicts laid out, to benefit from her view on these issues all of us with some level of outsider status face within the academy from a perspective and positionality I have much to learn from.

Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8)

More that rings so true:

Living one’s life as a person on the bottom involves listening for lies all the time. The challenge lies in thinking critically about race, class, gender, and sexuality without driving yourself and your loved ones crazy. When oppressed groups embrace their own experience to challenge dominant curricular offerings and classroom practices, they create space for their own self-defined view of the world. (132)

This is why being in the position of academic is so difficult:

As individuals, each of us occupies a dual location: included in some groups, yet excluded from others. The issue for most of us lies in being a pure insider or outsider than in terms of our participation within all of the venues to which we belong… Negotiating the contemporary politics of knowledge production from “outsider within” social locations raises some fundamental dilemmas. (xi)

That whether or not we think about these dilemmas, they still affect us. Seeing them transforms us, and that is no easy thing. A wonderful quote from James Baldwin:

One of the problems of education is that “precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. it is your responsibility to change society, if you think of yourself as an educated person. (132)

In academia any fiery stance in this war is flattened by crushing hierarchy, feels like a series of endless hoops through which we move, and the undeniable derogation of work seen as too ‘popular’, work that’s too ‘political’ and thus not seen as academic, and in a world where institutions claim monopoly on knowledge production. We ourselves have to assert our claims on knowledge production as part of that, and so all that is co-produced or collectively created is seen as inferior.

We are groomed in very distinct ways, but we can choose a different path:

My lengthy educational training was designed to equip me to wield the language of power to serve the interests of the gatekeepers who granted me legitimacy. My teachers did not consider that I might choose to use those same weapons to challenge much of what I learned… (xii)

So how do we challenge? There are a number of ways, working on a number of levels — and I love that the essential knowledge that we must fight remains, while the complexities of how we conduct that fight are explored.  I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to think that maybe this doctorate wasn’t a huge mistake, that actually truth to power can be — needs to be — spoken from this position.

Much of my academic writing strives to speak the truth to power, namely, to develop alternative analyses about social injustices that scholarly audiences will find credible… Speaking the truth to power in ways that undermine and challenge that power can often best be done as an insider. … Challenging power structures from the inside working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly. (xiii)

Broadening the cracks in the system… That is one way. Another:

A second strategy of intellectual activism aims to speak the truth directly to the people. (xiii)

Both of these are necessary, and both must subvert the dominant understandings of intelligence, scholarship and value. It isn’t often I throw around words like epistemology, but this is so key:

How do power relationships shape who is believed, who is disbelieved, and why? These questions lie at the heart of epistemology, a theory of knowledge that examines the standards used to assess what we know or why we believe what we believe. (24)

At this level perhaps we have the chance to shape these larger frames, while holding ourselves to this standard she lays out in the form of three questions to :

help us navigate new paths for engaged scholarship:

  1. does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought speak the truth to people about the reality of their lives?

  2. does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought equip people to resist oppression?

  3. does engaged scholarship move people to struggle in favor of social justice? (26)

I like too, the emphasis on our accountability:

In this sense, there is an important distinction between scholarship in support of social justice and scholarship in service to social justice. scholarship in support of social justice implies a lack of accountability on the part of the scholar…In contrast, scholarship in service to social justice invokes the responsibilities that are associated with the idea of service itself… (43)

This means as committed academics we have to work on multiple levels. That of concrete action:

The overarching goal of scholarship in service to social justice is not to explain social inequality or social injustice, but to foster social justice, to bring about some sort of change. (42)

But that it is okay that not all of our work is at that level. I also appreciate more every day this distinction between ourselves, our struggle, and our job within the institution:

I’ve always recognized that one can do intellectual production in many different locations. When it comes to my scholarship, I have survived by reminding myself that I always have a choice. I never mistake my job as being synonymous with intellectual activism or my own life’s work. I also remind myself that, despite the fact that intellectual work remains devalued within U.S. society, I know that the power of ideas matters. (110)

I also appreciate more every day the necessity to find others, to do this collectively, to support one another:

There are so many different kinds of people from all walks of life who care deeply about building a better future. We need to develop better ways of recognizing and finding one another. Continuing to do social justice work, including intellectual activism within sociology, requires building communities of practice of people who value social justice work, especially if they look quite different than us. (111)

The importance of drawing sustenance from unexpected places — although given my shyness growing up, I always had this kind of relationship with authors I loved. Which is why I am an author now myself. It is hard in life to find like souls:

In the course of investigating the absence, I found a nurturing political community among people I could not meet face to face. Many of them were dead, were unknown to the rest of academia, or were not considered to be intellectuals or theorists. Yet, their ideas spoke so strongly to my experiences. (112)

We can look to other forms of pedagogical practice, like those of Paolo Freire and Myles Horton, educational processes for liberation. Substantively? She lays out a good list of what we still don’t quite know how to do in moving the struggle forward.

These judgments by category must be replaced with fully human relationships that transcend the legitimate differences created by race, class, and gender as categories of analysis. We require new categories of connection, new visions of what our relationships with one another can be.

Our task is immense. We must first recognize race, class, and gender as interlocking categories of analysis that together cultivate profound differences in our personal biographies. But then we must transcend these very difference by conceptualizing race, class, and gender to create new categories of connection. (215)

That means:

…we must shift our discourse away from additive analyses of oppression. (215)

That means we must find new, mutually respectful and supportive ways to come together, build stronger, better, broader coalitions to achieve fundamental changes. We need to be better.

Sharing a common cause assists individuals and groups in maintaining relationships that transcend these differences. Building effective coalitions involves struggling to hear one another and developing empathy for the other points of view. The coalitions that I have been involved in that lasted and last and that worked have been those where commitment to a specific issue mandated collaboration as the best strategy for addressing the issue at hand (225)

and of course, individual accountability…developing empathy and finding respect. She writes

Deconstructive politics may seem radical in the moment of destroying the walls of segregation that separate people from one another. The pile of rubble left behind holds the promise of a new society, yet it cannot be a new society until we build something new with the pieces. (235)

But I believe with her, that still today one of the essential questions in our world structured as it is continues to be:

Over and over again this question, ‘What will it take for Black women to be free?’ (50)



Patricia Hill Collins: Space, Identity, Intersectionality

Patricia Hill Collins blew me away the first time I read her in any depth, and continues to do so every time I return. She is someone who helps me get through every time I despair of academic and intellectual endeavours, and On Intellectual Activism is full of both inspiration and knowledge, spanning he wide range of her work and thought.

A book to treasure. Especially given we face the inauguration of Donald Trump. It still seems unreal.

I’ve been working through some of the main ideas that jumped out at me this time around, some felt new and others, like intersectionality, felt solidified. In introducing the collection of essays and extracts, Collins writes:

Two main ideas are at work here, both of which focus on social structural sources of power….developed throughout my scholarship, I have used the thesis of intersectionality and the idea of the matrix of domination as interrelated constructs to describe social structures of domination. Intersectional thinking suggests that race, class, gender, nation, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and other forms of social hierarchy structure one another. My goal has been to conceptualize intersectionality and study its manifestations in a matrix of domination from one social setting to the next. (xvi)

I am working on organising my thoughts a little more on how this structuring takes place, how this conceptualisation sits alongside and works together with Stuart Hall’s ideas of articulation. So that will come later. Today just a collection of thoughts really. While these notes are from a very long time ago, I started giving them some kind of structure on Martin Luther King Jr day, so it was nice to come across this — a good place to start in thinking about Collins and her contributions to struggle because it starts with a goal and a vision — Martin Luther King Jr’s Beloved Community ():

The idea of Beloved Community envisions a public space that is heterogeneous and participatory, and where we each see how we are responsible for bringing it about. (145, from ‘Making Space for Public Conversations: An Interview, 2011)

she further writes:

I envision the Beloved Community as a social group that embraces all of its members. Yet, within the space of Beloved Community, with its ethos of social justice, there is also space for disagreement. People seem to assume that communities are happy places where no one disagrees. But to construct a vision of Beloved Community, there must be conflict and dialogue, and not running away from the conflict that might come from dialogue across differences. Communities negotiate power relations across differences. What makes a community a “beloved” community is that people within it are committed to working through these differences in power in ways that make communities fair for everyone. (148)

This kind of sums up in a most beautiful way what she is trying to accomplish — to not shy away from disagreement, from hard truths as we see them, but to communicate them respectfully. To explore them. To find strength in differences. To fix what is broken. And so much is broken, not least how we often conduct our justice struggles. Collins reflects:

Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8, from ‘Why Black Feminist Thought’ presented 1990-93)

This helps explain why King, much as I love him, is the civil rights figure celebrated with a public holiday and to whom many not down with the struggle will point, rather than Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Jo Ann Robinson or Rosa Parks in her role as secretary of the NAACP and the many others working for justice. Why feminism has been so important, why the LGBTQI struggle has been so important — and Patricia Hill Collins has been central in thinking how to create a politics that works against all aspects of oppression rather than just one. I love her critical thinking on the differences between collective and individual “identity politics”:

the Collective advanced a powerful theory of action, one grounded in analysis and experience with “identity politics” as the phrase that captures these complex relationships. In contrast, contemporary approaches to identity politics rely on an individualist notion of identity: identity as freedom from social constructions, no matter the power relations. (54, from ‘Still Brave? Black Feminism as a Social Justice Project’)

The erasure of an understanding of power here is key to the problem:

Social structures of intersecting systems of power disappear, to be replaced with by an endlessly changing flow of individuals, each trying to understand him- or herself. (68, from ‘Learning from the Outsider Within Revisited’)

The erasure of the collective is as problematic as well, like Freire, Horton and Baker, Collins sees work and theory as needing to be collectively created through struggle. The goal for her?

Black girls would not be consumers of Black feminism–instead they would create it (66).

This creation is central to a liberatory practice, because it matters where you stand, as she writes:

…the social location of being on the edge mattered. (66)

Taken all together, we have to understand power and identity in new ways:

I don’t see racism as a cardboard, one-dimensional filter…Instead, I see racism as an ever-changing system of power relations that works with and through gender, class, sexuality, age, ethnicity, citizenship, and other similarly structured systems of power. (178, from ‘Are We Living in a Post-Racial World?’)

Working on segregation and privatisation as I do, this viewpoint brings valuable insights into both:

The logic of segregation says: Separate people into boxes (e.g., categories of race, gender, class, and sexuality), keep the boxes separate from each other, and rank each box’s worth. Racial segregation is the most visible, yet it is only the tip of the iceberg. The logic of segregation affects all aspects of U.S. society and global politics that carve up the world’s people into nation-states. The whole notion of borders, boundaries, and segregation has been a very important cognitive frame for American perceptions of its peoples and the world. (33, from ‘Black Sexual Politics 101’)

This remains, despite the new rhetoric of colourblindness, their new geographic codes:

One distinguishing feature of the new racism is how it continues to rely on a logic of segregation that remains powerful yet masks its own operation. … not the stark either/or kind of the past…but a more genteel  version coded through euphemisms of “good” and “bad” neighborhoods…(34)

Their new social codes:

overt racial language is replaced by covert racial euphamisms that reference the same phenomena–talk of “niggers” and “ghettos” becomes replaced by phrases such as “urban,” “welfare mothers,” and “street crime.” Everyone knows what these terms mean, and if they don’t, they quickly figure it out. (35)

It is also described, justified, sanctified in terms of family values:

Family values are everywhere, motivating behaviors concerning race, class, and national priorities. For example, whites are told that the decision to move into a white neighborhood is not about upholding racism, but rather constitutes a personal choice to protect the interests of their children and provide them with a “good” education. (202)

She makes the connection between privatization and race, looking at academies and the white flight from public schools as changing other institutions as well so that

…the public sphere becomes a curiously confined, yet visible location that increases the value of private services and privacy itself. Public places become devalued spaces containing Latinos, poor people, African Americans, the homeless, and anyone else who cannot afford to escape. In this context, privacy signals safety; control over one’s home, family and community space; and racial homogeneity–all qualities that can be purchased if one can afford it. This version of privatization dovetails with Guinier and Torres’ notion of the privatization of power. If private spaces are better, then shouldn’t private entities run the public itself? (83, from ‘Going Public: Doing the Sociology That Had No Name’)

And of course, she ties it all back in to our history, to a global context

I see segregation as a metaphor for a broader set of social relations stemming from colonialism and nationalism. These political systems required drawing strict boundaries to determine citizenship, status, and the benefits and costs of belonging. Historically, sociology was uncomfortable with itself because it was a border discipline during a period of separation where, to know who you were, you had to pick a side…(108, from ‘Rethinking Knowledge, Community and Empowerment’)

These were just a few of the highlights of her wisdom around what we face, I’m still working through more on intersectionality and power, theorisations of violence, and the role of the intellectual…



Drawing the Global Colour Line — Connecting White Supremacy

2551707Drawing the Global Colour Line by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds — such a good book. It charts how whiteness as an identity was constructed across the British Empire rather than just within individual colonies — it’s a brilliant examination of global formations of racism and its rhetoric, especially given the usual focus on a national context. I might quote with exaggerated enthusiasm here because much of this was new to me when I read it, though I realise it is much more familiar to those working in postcolonial theory. I’m catching up slowly.

This book argues, following Du Bois,  that the assertion of whiteness was born  in the  apprehension of imminent loss…and it charts the spread of whiteness as a transnational form of racial identification, that was, as Du Bois noticed, at once global in its power and personal in its meaning, the basis of geo-political alliances and a subjective sense of self. (loc 73, 84)

This combination of the global and the personal, the connection between privilege and great fear of its loss, are shown to be key to understanding many of white racism’s dynamics, and it was eye-opening to read the constructions of racist beliefs growing in concert and conversation.

In recent scholarship, ‘whiteness studies’ have emerged as a productive new field of historical enquiry, but most investigations have conceptualised their subject within a national frame of analysis, identifying local dynamics at work within histories deemed distinctive or even exceptional.15 Studies that now acknowledge the necessity for a global context still confine their own analyses within a national interpretative frame and that has been especially the case with United States scholarship.16 But, as DuBois and contemporaries on the other side of the colour line saw clearly, the emergence of the ‘new religion’ of whiteness was a transnational
phenomenon and all the more powerful for that, inspiring in turn the formation of international movements of resistance, such as the pan-African and pan-Asian alliances… (loc 99)

A little more on the purpose of the book itself, its focus on racial technologies, and the nature of the global colour line. I find the authors most eloquent so these are long quotations:

In Drawing the Global Colour Line, We trace the transnational circulation of emotions and ideas, people and publications, racial knowledge and technologies that animated white men’s countries and their strategies of exclusion, deportation and segregation, in particular, the deployment of those state-based instruments of surveillance, the census, the passport and the literacy test. The project of whiteness was thus a paradoxical politics, at once transnational in its inspiration and identifications but nationalist in its methods and goals. The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach, nationalist in its outcomes, bolstering regimes of border protection and national sovereignty. (loc 103)

Again, the importance of understanding what is happening at different scales, differences around particular implementations and histories but also to a great degree unified, particularly around a shared glorious racial past and the sharing of ‘best practices’.

Though recently established, white men’s countries sought legitimacy through locating themselves in the long tradition of Anglo-Saxon race history that dated back to the mythic glories of Hengist and Horsa. They shared an English-speaking culture and newly ascendant democratic politics, priding themselves, as Anglo-Saxons, on a distinctive capacity, indeed a genius, for self-government. It was their commitment to democratic equality that made racial homogeneity seem imperative. In the tradition of J. S. Mill, they argued that democracy could only survive in the absence of distinctions of caste and colour.

White men’s countries rested on the premise that multiracial democracy was an impossibility. (loc 139)

They used specific wordings to promote such ideas, which underline the geographies of race and democracy:

Colonial leaders preferred, however, to speak not of ‘local’, but of ‘self-government’, which they would later invoke to argue their sovereign right to racial homogeneity. (loc 614)

This connection between ideas of democracy and the need for racial homogeneity is a particularly important one to my own research, and seen over and over again. It is also one that continues to emerge in these days of ours, though often divorced from such openly racist rhetoric. Yet at the same time it is a connection glossed over or completely left out of most work on democracy and its workings.

They continue:

Previous studies have charted racial discourse across the British Empire or drawn attention to the links between the anti- Chinese policies of California and the Australian colonies, but few have analysed the inter-relationship of British and American racial regimes in the same analytical frame.29 Yet, crucially, the idea of the ‘white man’s country’ crossed and collapsed the imperial/republican divide, drawing on the discursive resources of both traditions to enshrine the dichotomy of white and not-white. The British Empire drew a distinction between ruling and ruled races; republican ideology drew a distinction between races fit and not fit for self-government. United States naturalisation law rested on the dichotomy of white and not-white.

In the figure of the white man, the imperialist became a democrat and the democrat an imperialist.
(loc 170)

Mills’ The Racial Contract is brilliant on exploring the underpinnings of this in terms of ideas of democracy, ‘social contract’ and race, but more on that later.

This worldview worked to simplify, to make binary a complex reality:

One indicator of the global ascendancy of the politics of whiteness was its ability to recast the previous multiplicity of nations, races and religions – Aryan, Caucasian, Chinese, Hindus, Kanakas, Islanders, Malays, Blacks, Lascars, Moslems, Japanese – in binary terms as ‘white’ or ‘not-white’. English-speaking countries were pace-setters in this regard. (loc 180)

We still suffer from this binary, still don’t quite have the words to deal with its falsity imposed over reality given it has wielded and continues to wield such force.

The Racialisation of Labour: Workers and Masculinity

There is clearly an important connection to be made here with masculinity as well as with democracy:

…when ‘glorious manhood asserts its elevation’, in the words of New South Wales republican poet, Daniel Deniehy, when pride of manhood found expression in pride of race to enshrine the white man as the model democrat. In the New World encounters of diverse peoples, the masculine democracies of North America and Australasia defined their identity and rights in racial terms: the right of Anglo-Saxons to self-government and the commitment of white workers to high wages and conditions, against those they saw as undermining their new-found status, whether they be aristocrats of ‘coolies’.

When glorious manhood asserted its elevation, white men monopolised the status of manhood itself. Coolies, Islanders, Asiatics and Blacks were cast as not simply deficient as workers, colonists and citizens, but also as men. They were docile, servile, dependent, unfree. Hence, the struggles of coloured and colonised men to achieve recognition, or restitution, of their manhood as well as national independence.
(loc 148)

So many remarkable interchanges occurred between countries despite the thousands of miles between them, as interesting as the differences.

Anti-Chinese agitation began to centre on complaints of cheap labour, low wages and unfair competition. Industrial employment as well as gold were claimed as the exclusive preserve of white men.

Agitation against the Chinese in Australia was frequently inspired by the example of California.14 A significant proportion of the miners on the Victorian fields had come directly from the lawless districts of the Pacific Slope and they often carried their preference for direct action with them. (loc 271)

Ah, the old spectre of grassroots violence. Makes it a bit harder to talk about the ‘grassroots’ as positively as we so often do.

Workers were in movement, and so were ideas, organising strategies and racism — here from California to Melbourne but drawing on anything useful, with labour pressuring the government to stop immigration (a familiar sort of current, I wish I could say differently today):

The Commission recommended a Californian-type tax to ‘check and diminish this influx’, but the Victorian government also introduced the first form of ‘immigration restriction’, utilising, at the suggestion of the Colonial Office, the British Passengers Act, that limited the number of passengers for health and safety reasons to one passenger for every two tons of ship’s burthen. (loc 300)

A goldfield in Australia called Jim Crow…Jesus:

Agitation against the Chinese continued. In 1857, for example, a public meeting at Geelong ‘numbering not less than one thousand persons’ sent a petition demanding the parliament ‘check any further increase of the Chinese race in Victoria’; the Local Court at Castlemaine presented a Memorial against the ‘Chinese influx’ while miners at a goldfield named ‘Jim Crow’ near Ballarat collected 345 signatures in favour of Chinese exclusion.23 (loc 315)

A transnational identity as a man and as a worker is being crafted here, but a racialised one:

When anti-Chinese activists thus campaigned against the Chinese as colonists, citizens and workers, they also impugned their manhood. ‘Rice-eating men’, declared Australians and Californians in chorus, had neither the rights nor responsibilities of masculine ‘beef-eating’ men. (loc 412)

I remember reading very similar phraseology at this same point in time from authors like Henry Mayhew writing about the Irish in London, and the ways they can live on a single potato or on nothing at all. Hardly surprising, I suppose, that it should be used independently or displaced against others, often by the Irish themselves.

The results:

International doctrines of freedom of movement thus collided with the ascendant democratic power of white manhood. In an age when “glorious manhood asserts its elevation”, in the words of republican Australian poet Daniel Deniehy, Chinese labour, represented as docile and servile, was cast as a profound threat to the new-found status of the independent, upright working man, a figure increasingly coded as ‘white’.47 (loc 415)

Workers were white men, and they were white men ‘under siege’:

In demanding the exclusion of Chinese workers, the labour movement increasingly defined the by his “civilized” standard of living. The difference between the Chinese worker and the white worker, said one supporter in the Victorian parliament, sounding an international theme, was the difference between ‘a rice-eating man and a beef-eating man”. “People who can subsist on a handful of rice and content themselves with the barest shelter are formidable opponents of European labor”, said a colleague.64 Moreover, the “unfairness of the competition is added to by the intense industry of these Asiatics. They stand in as little need of rest and recreation, apparently, as they do of a generous diet or wholesome housing…” (loc 473)

These constructions of masculinity were emerging both from workers and politicians, intertwining with more upper-class justifications and discourses of Empire:

Just as British statesmen looked to the United States as a future ally, so Americans looked to British imperialism as a model for a re-invigorated United States manhood. On a visit to Britain in 1895, the previously sceptical Lodge was impressed by the role of imperial government in building English manhood. ‘I am more than ever impressed with the vast difference between the Englishman who has travelled and governed abroad and those who have not’, he wrote on his return. ‘The latter are insular and self-absorbed and stiff as a rule and the former are almost always agreeable and worth meeting’.65 Imperialism was character-building, for man, nation and race. ‘I believe in the expansion of great nations’, Roosevelt affirmed to his friend, Spring Rice, in December 1899. India had done a great deal for ‘the English character. If we do our work well in the Philippines and the West Indies, it will do a great deal for our character’.66(loc 1569)

Women could only suffer in this equation, being pushed further into roles of pure motherhood to uphold the race. One example:

The Royal Commission placed the blame for the decline of the birth rate on the selfishness of women.64 A copy of the report was sent to the United States at the request of the Department of Commerce and Labor.65 White men’s countries shared the preoccupation with race suicide. (loc 2226)

The other tragic result? The focus in so many liberation movements on ‘recovering’ the masculinity of men of colour. We watched Marlon Riggs’ awesome documentary Black I is, Black I ain’t last night, which is eloquent in showing the cost of this to women of colour and to those finding themselves outside of definitions of masculinity through their sexuality or expressions. To those facing demands to conform or ostracisation.

Motherland v Colony: the complexities of Empire:

One of the most enlightening things for me were the differences, at least initially, in the attitudes and discourses (though not in levels of racism itself) of Britain as the coloniser of a far-flung empire, and its subjects who established settler colonies. I had never quite grasped the strength of the idea of a multi-racial commonwealth, all subject to the Queen. This created complex allegiances amongst the empire’s members, even in its highly imperfect state.

I remember a strange loyalty to this idea puzzling me to some extent in Gandhi’s biography when I read it very long ago, and I am fascinated by quite what that meant, and how it shifted along with power, technologies of exploitation and discourse:

But the imperial status in which Gandhi invested so much – the status of British subject – was fast being eclipsed in the self-governing colonies by the ascendant dichotomy of white
and not-white. In making an argument that Natal should follow New South Wales rather than the United States and declare explicitly against the immigration of Asiatics, one member of parliament was moved to observe that colonists should forget about Colonial Office objections on behalf of coloured British subjects, for ‘the idea of the British subject was fading more and more every year’. (loc 1905)

This kind of attitude was made possible by the nature of empire, by governing from a  country that remained white, an illuminating quote:

The shoe doesn’t pinch us; for in the first place each Asiatic in Natal must be multiplied by eight hundred to produce a proportionate effect on the population at home; and secondly this country being already fully populated, a relatively large influx of a foreign element could only be brought about by a corresponding displacement of the native element.36

Racial hierarchies existed within these limited categories of colonial subject, though all as a rule were seen as unfit for the duties and responsibilities of white men:

But there was a further problem in Natal: the presence of several hundred thousand ‘natives’. Even if a few Indians were to be granted self-government, they could not be trusted to govern blacks. The Colonial Office noted the impossibility of one subject race being governed by another:

In the contingency which this Bill deals with – that of Asiatics becoming the majority in a tiny electorate – a result would appear, which no-one ever contemplated, and which would be most anomalous and perhaps hazardous in itself viz the Government of a subject Race, which itself does not understand and is permanently unfit for representative Government, by another Race which does not understand it either which has no experience of it, and whose capacity to work it must be doubtful representative government is the monopoly of the European Races.37 (loc 1754)

Yet they remained subjects — a limited status yet one that settler colonies demanded be stripped. Thus it was the colonies that drove this process, and remarkably late in a sense — the end of the 1800s, which also saw the end of reconstruction in the US and the rise of Jim Crow:

The Australian legislation of 1896, in dividing the world’s peoples between white and not-white, regardless of their standing as powers or status as British subjects, marked a radical new departure in international relations. But the move was a logical development of the binary thinking that governed British imperial rule – the division between Crown colonies and self-governing Dominions or between ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ races – and United States naturalisation law, that divided the world’s peoples into white and not-white. White Australia was produced in a convergence of these binary classification systems with the result that a vast range of diverse nationalities, ethnicities and religious groups Afghans, Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, Moslems, Negroes, Indians, Malays and Pacific Islanders – were lumped together (loc 2036)

Again, this underlines how this growing understanding of whiteness as identity, the creation of whiteness came from both bottom up and top down as it were, to return to the workers:

The project of White Australia was thus a contest over the meaning of civilisation itself. Much Labor vitriol was directed at the Japanese demand to be recognised as a civilised power. The Australian Worker reported the story of a confrontation between a local Labor man determined to ‘take down’ ‘a Jap standing outside a laundry’, who dressed above his station:

There you are looking like a crow decked out with peacock’s feathers thinking, I suppose, that you represent an up-to-date and enlightened nation. A great Power you call yourself, with your navy and your army, that you haven’t paid for yet, and your factories and other such western civilised innovations wherein you don’t earn enough in a week to keep a white man in beer and tobacco for the same period. (loc 2148)

But it’s all happening a bit later than I usually think of it, though the roots go very deep. We see Labour taking up the rhetoric of justice and democracy only when both are restricted racially:

In the new Commonwealth of Australia, Liberal and Labor parties agreed on the necessity of the state protecting the wages and conditions of white working men, an approach given expression in the policy of New Protection, so named because tariff protection would depend on employers paying workers a fair and reasonable wage. Deakin explicitly theorised White Australia as an exercise in social justice: ‘it means the maintenance of conditions of life fit for white men and white women – it means equal laws and opportunities for all; it means protection against the underpaid labour of other lands; it means social justice so far as we can establish it, including just trading and the payment of fair wages’.55 (loc 2171)

I hate seeing words social justice appearing in sentences like the one above. This was not, of course, only happening in Australia, and it became part of a political toolbox, part of the increasingly hegemonic mix of ideas through strong-held faith alongside canny manipulation and political operating within and between nations:

Above all, metropolitan governments realised that here was an issue capable of mobilising whole communities and creating new transnational ones, of changing voting behaviour and political allegiances . The British Ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, noted ‘an identity of feeling and of interests (real or supposed)’ between the Canadian inhabitants of the Pacific Coast and their neighbours in the United States.86 Washington and Ottawa talked about the possible secession of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California – “where the same question is agitating the public mind, and threatens to combine all classes, irrespective of boundaries, in one common cause” – leading to their amalgamation into a new republic.87 The British government feared that the United States would stand forth as the leader and protector of white men’s interests… (loc 2606)

I had to pause a moment to imagine the ‘what if’ of a west coast nation, especially given the onset of Trump. But really what is important is that it should be international rivalry in leadership pushing the British Empire to move away from earlier ideas that bestowed some rights and some degree of humanity within the term ‘subject’:

The British, too, worried about the Empire disintegrating, Britain being marginalised and the United States assuming leadership of a new white men’s alliance. In his paper ‘Suggestions as to Coloured Immigration into the Self-Governing Dominions’, prepared for the Colonial Office, Charles Lucas observed that this was ‘a question second to none in difficulty and importance’ for the Empire. The British government should endeavour therefore to show some leadership on the question:

There is also to my mind a constant and serious danger that, if we do not take the initiative, the United States may stand out on and through this question as the leaders of the English-speaking peoples in the Pacific as against the coloured races. This is not my own view alone.92 (loc 2621)

Roosevelt’s world tour with his ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1907 helped to establish US naval power while also consolidating  ideas and a solidarity amongst the white settler nations, working to push England to a similar position.

Provocatively, he told a correspondent of the New York Times that the visits (New Zealand was added to the itinerary) were intended to ‘show England – I cannot say a “renegade” mother-country – that those colonies are white man’s country’.33

The drive towards this conception in the colonies was, of course, a lot about the white ownership of land…

Whites in California had been critical of Japanese arrivals, even while they appeared as birds of passage, but their concern turned to alarm when the new settlers established themselves as successful farmers in settled communities. As Yamato Ichihasi observed, agitation in parliament and the press continued unabated. By 1913, it concentrated on the question of ownership and control of land. The claim to be a white man’s country was fundamentally a proprietorial assertion. Senator J. D. Phelan, who had become the most powerful figure in the state Democratic Party machine, set out his case for forcing the Japanese from the farming districts in an article published in the New York journal, the Independent, the same journal, ironically, that had published W. E. B. DuBois’ ‘Souls of White Folk’ on the claims of whiteness to the ownership of the earth forever and ever.

The second post looks more at the intellectual architects and popularisers of ideologies to support conquest, settlement, white democracy and genocide. I’ll end this terribly long one with some timely thoughts on some of the results on whites themselves:

According to a Frenchman, Baron d’Estournelles de Constant, who had been to the fore in summoning the second Hague conference in 1907, the brutality of imperial rule was not only destructive to the colonised, but rebounded on white men themselves and their ‘mother-states’:

Where is the white man, however excellent, who can be perfectly certain that in the great wide spaces of our various European colonies he will be able to resist the terribly demoralising effect of unlimited power, conjoined with the influences of solitude and climate? Where is the white man who has not in Africa and Asia felt himself to be more or less master, with power to act as he will, with power to oppress? There is . . . a regrettable and retrograde tendency among white men once left to their own devices to cultivate and foster deliberately a brutality whose evil traditions they then bring back with them to their mother-state.45 (loc 3338)







Erich Fromm: Evil in the Heart of Man

8860483Paolo Freire refers to Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man a number of times in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, how could I not read it? He wrote it while teaching at UNAM in Mexico City. I remember too, the only time I have heard a living person refer to him spontaneously it was walking through a London night with my friend Demetrio, as he exhorted me to read him on ethics, on good and evil. Fromm was the favourite philosopher of Demetrio’s grandfather, himself a philosopher in Reggio, who had helped raise him. His grandfather was one of the best men in the world, he said. Given the kind of person Demetrio has turned out to be, he is undoubtedly right.

I read this over the summer…I think my next few posts will either be yay Malta or the oh.my.god kind of struggling to come to terms with the election. This is in the second category, a look at good and evil via Freud and Marx seems appropriate, especially when focused on human liberation in a way that I really wish postcolonial and critical thought had taken up. Rather than Freud via Lacan.

From the preface:

I try to show that love of life, independence, and the overcoming of narcissism form a “syndrome of growth” as against the “syndrome of decay” formed by love of death, incestuous symbiosis, and malignant narcissism. (13)

I: Man — Wolf or Sheep?

That is a question/ statement I have often heard in various forms. We are both, neither, really we can choose to move towards growth or decay, life or death. This is always the great choice we make, the great distinction in our actions and our pathologies. Towards life or towards death… So this does not shy away from any of the darkness inside, rather tries to grapple with its nature, and the springs of violence within us.

II: Forms of Violence

Fromm distinguishes between violences, they sit along a spectrum.

playful violence …. those forms in which violence is exercised in the pursuit of displaying skill, not in the pursuit of destruction, not motivated by hate or destructiveness. (24)

reactive violence … that violence which is employed in the defense of life, freedom, dignity, property — one’s own or that of others. It is rooted in fear, and for this reason it is probably the most frequent form of violence… This type of violence is in service of life, not death; its aim is preservation, not destruction. (25)

frustration, envy and jealousy are aspects of this, and while it can be twisted, ultimately it still is towards life.

revengeful violence … the injury has already been done, and hence the violence has no function of defense  (27) … all these forms of violence are still in the service of life realistically, magically, or at least as a the result of damage to or disappointment in life… (30)

On to the violence in service of death….

compensatory violence … violence as a substitute for productive activity occurring in an impotent person. (30) … If, for reason of weakness, anxiety, incompetence, etc., man is not able to act, if he is impotent, he suffers …

how is this overcome? In rather frightening ways:

One way is to submit to and identify with a person or group having power … The other way … is man’s power to destroy. (31)

Reading this is seems so simple, yet terrifying.

To create life requires certain qualities which the impotent person lacks. To destroy life requires only one quality — the use of force. (31)

This is also present in all of us:

Only if one has fully experienced the intensity and frequency of destructive and sadistic violence in individuals and in masses can one understand that compensatory violence is not something superficial, the result of evil influences, bad habits, and so on. It is a power in man as intense and strong as his wish to live. It is so strong precisely because it constitutes the revolt of life against its being crippled; man has a potential for destructive and sadistic violence  because he is human, because he is not a thing, and because he must try to destroy life if he cannot create it. (32)

Always through my life I have been haunted by such destructive, sadistic violence, brought alive through my relationships with survivors of civil war, kidnapping, rape, torture…and the occasional encounters with torturers themselves. These occasional encounters that were harder to understand than anything else. But this book makes more sense of them than anything else I have yet read, and I don’t think that’s just because I seek for hope…

Compensatory violence … indicates the crippling and emptiness of life. But in its very negation of life it still demonstrates man’s need to be alive and not to be a cripple. (33)

This in fact makes sense of so much. I love Fromm in that he does not just focus on the violence, but on its opposite — the kind of person we can strive to be as opposed to the kind of person who lives in fear, who wants to shut things down, the fear in people I have tried and failed to work with, the fear I see splashed across the news.

But I thought perhaps in this post I would focus on violence and evil, because there is too much here. So in the next post I look at biophilia, and the material conditions that make it possible (as a good Marxist should). Also like a good Marxist, the ways in which Fromm argues that a wish for life and for death are always in relationship to each other, a contradiction that is not resolved:

The contradiction between Eros and destruction, between the affinity to life and the affinity to death is, indeed, the most fundamental contradiction which exists in man. This duality, however, is not one of two biologically inherent instincts, relatively constant and always battling with each other until the final victory of the death instinct, but it is one between the primary and most fundamental tendency of life–to persevere in life–and its contradiction, which comes into being when man fails in this goal. (50)

One example — and I like how Fromm anchors these more abstract explorations of the mind to that which makes no sense in the world yet that could destroy us all. Fromm asks, for example, how can we understand the lack of more widespread protest of nuclear weapons?

There are many answers; yet none of them gives a satisfactory explanation unless we include the following: that people are not afraid of total destruction because they do not love life; or because they are indifferent to life, or even because many are attracted to death. (56)

III – Individual and Social Narcissism

Fromm writes:

One of the most fruitful and far-reaching of Freud’s discoveries is his concept of narcissism. (62)

Fromm further develops this concept to understand violence and war — to do so he removes it from where Freud has ‘forced his concept into the frame of his libido theory.’ (62) Instead, Fromm argues the concept comes ‘to its full fruition…if one uses a concept of psychic energy which is not identical with the energy of the sexual drive’ (64), as described by Jung (and Freud moved towards this in his later years). It is an energy that Fromm argues

binds, unifies, and holds together the individual within himself as well as the individual in his relationship to the world outside. (64)

All of us have a degree of narcissism, it helps us survive and so again, there are a spectrum of behaviours (and a curious list of behaviour that offer clues to the narcissistic individual, one that delights me as a novelist) explored by Fromm. These range from the simply self-preoccupied with the self, to the narcissism focused on ones children, to the psychopath.

Narcissism is a passion the intensity of which in many individuals can only be compared with sexual desire and the desire to stay alive. In fact, many times it proves to be stronger than either. (72)

It’s dangers:

The essential point…is that the narcissistic person cannot perceive the reality within another person as distinct from his own. (68)

In a different form:

The most dangerous result of narcissistic attachment is the distortion of rational judgement… He and his are overevaluated. Everything outside is underevaluated. …

An ever more dangerous pathological element in narcissism is the emotional reaction to any criticism…(73-74)

Both explosive anger or depression are reactions — a depression often deflected by turning on purpose to anger. A third reaction? The attempt to make reality itself conform to a narcissistic image of self or the loved one. Hitler being the best example of such a course. There is the extreme narcissism of the infant, and of the insane. And then the particular instance of narcissism on the borderline between sanity and insanity — Ceasers, Borgias, Hitler, Stalin:

They have attained absolute power; their word is the ultimate judgment of everything, including life and death; there seems to be no limit to their capacity to do what they want. They are gods, limited only by illness, age and death.  (66)

It only occurred to me reading this that these are the beliefs of insane people, and yet for this small group such beliefs actually were true in reality. This made them even more isolated, their feelings of paranoia buttressed by people actually trying to kill them, all of which ensured they remained borderline sane — they had not actually lost all touch with reality, whereas

Psychosis is a state of absolute narcissism, one in which the person has broken all connection with reality outside, and has made his own person the substitute for reality.  (166)

It becomes clear how this could be the root of so much evil. From individual cases, Fromm moves on to look at group narcissism, primarily racial narcissism as seen in the American South and Hitler’s Germany, and Jesus does this ring true in thinking both about the recent US election and Brexit:

In both instances the core of the racial superiority was, and still is, the lower middle class; this backward class; which in Germany as well as in the American South has been economically and culturally deprived, without any realistic hope of changing its situation… has only one satisfaction: the inflated image of itself as the most admirable group in the world, and of being superior to another racial group that is singled out as inferior.

Group narcissism is less easy to recognize than individual narcissism. (79)

Side note in parentheses here

(What the majority of people consider to be “reasonable” is that about which there is agreement, if not among all, at least among a substantial number of people: “reasonable,” for most people, has nothing to do with reason, but with consensus.) (79-80)

God, narcissism explains so much, and most of the world’s religions and philosophies actually work to curb narcissism in multiple ways — Fromm sees it as the goal of (hu)man to overcome narcissism, but more on that next post.

The rest…

There is another chapter on incestuous ties…which did not speak to me, but the more postcolonial theory I am reading the more I wish I had paid more attention here, grappled with Fromm to counter Lacan. So I may come back to this. Later. For now I will end on Fromm’s own summation of evil, before going on to look at how he thinks we should fight for good:

1. Evilness is a specifically human phenomenon. It is the attempt to regress to the pre-human state and to eliminate that which is specifically human: reason, love, freedom. …. Evil is man’s loss of himself in the tragic attempt to escape the burden of his humanity. And the potential of evil is all the greater because man is endowed with an imagination that enables him to imagine all the possibilities for evil and thus to desire and act on them… (148)

2. The degrees of evilness are at the same time the degrees of regression. The greatest evil is those strivings which are most directed against life; the love for death, the incestuous-symbiotic striving to return to the womb, to the soil, to the inorganic; the narcissistic self-immolation which makes a man an enemy of life, precisely because he can’t leave the prison of his own ego.

3. There is lesser evil, according to the lesser degree of regression. There is lack of love, lack of reason, lack of interest, lack of courage.

4. Man is inclined to regress and to move forward; this is another way of saying he is inclined to good and to evil.

5. Man is responsible up to the point where he is free to (149) choose for his own action [and see the next post on the material constraints on freedom, which are vital to remember here]. But responsibility is nothing but an ethical postulate… Precisely because evil is human…it is inside every one of us. The more we are aware of it, the less are we able to set ourselves up as judges of others.

6. Man’s heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. … We must not rely on anyone’s saving us, but be very aware that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves. (150)

I rather like this description of evil, I think it is something we must think about but in the West, liberal academia is a little too removed from their own wars and the death and destruction and torture and poverty that surround them to find this an important subject. But look at our world. What else should we be talking about, and in what other way than one well-grounded both in our psyche and the material conditions in which we live and struggle?

[Fromm, Erich (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. NY: Harper & Row.]