Black Pathology is Anti-Woman

27 Mar

I have always had a complicated relationship to Miles Davis. On the other hand, he was a brilliant musician and bandleader from whom I learned much about a kind of deep quiet and confidence that allows silence to the point of terseness. I suspect many of us read things into sounds and in the taut economy of his phrasing and in the ways he would let his tone crack either on purpose or because he declined to avoid those difficult notes, I heard a vulnerability that could be embraced.

On the other hand, he beat women. He relates the story of slapping Cicely Tyson during an argument. The biopic version of artists would connect the two, and explain his domestic violence through the vulnerability I thought I heard. I’m not sure that’s the most helpful or accurate reading, or that the two need to be connected. Our artists need not be good people, though we want them to be. Their lives and minds are messy, inconsistent, and occasionally awful, just like ours. We have to be careful what we valorize and what we value, because we have to be mindful of what we let influence us and how.

I was reminded of Miles’s pitiful record by Pearl Cleage’s essay, “Mad at Miles,” which resonated with other contemporary conversations around Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and R. Kelly, none of whom I am willing to listen to. I can only imagine that for a woman listening to them, and so many other contemporary rap and R&B artists, the question is even more stark. There are no mainstream artists who lyrically or literally abuse black men. Some things are obnoxious to me as a black person, but rarely am I made to feel my maleness. When I think of him I also think of Cicely Tyson, a gifted artist in her own right, independent of him. It’s a small thing, not nearly enough. But it remembers her, and that she’s not a prop in his story.

Miles was important in another way: he was bad, he was universally acclaimed as cool (and still is), and he was dark. Until very recently, there have been almost no dark skinned people to emerge as crossover stars. It is hard to imagine Barack Obama being as dark (or as black) as Miles and achieving the success and visibility he has. I think that’s important because with Miles being universally acclaimed as cool, more people are likely to be exposed to him. His image is more likely to be on postage stamps, in schools; we are more likely to happen upon his face somewhere and feel that people who look like him are welcome. It’s easy to take that for granted, but it can be very important. Discovering Miles and jazz was very important for me in that regard.

But he abused women.

I have written in this space about the ways an ideology of antiblackness underpins many existing policies and informs definitions of the thug as constitutively non-citizen. Not far beneath the surface of that antiblackness is an even less well concealed contempt for women. When Hadiya Pendleton, the teenaged honor student who performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration was shot and killed, black women and men pressured Obama to speak on black vulnerability, to announce some plan, or just to acknowledge what was happening. He came and talked about the importance of the involvement of black men in the lives of their children, the need for them to serve as role models.

It’s not a bad sentiment, as far as it goes. But it falls well short of what people called for, just as his newest “my brother’s keeper,” as I understand it, is agnostic about the causes of black immiseration, focusing instead on a supposedly autonomous “culture.” Others have discussed the limitations of this particular version of bipartisan black pathology that neglects or downplays persistent structural factors. Rather than telling us to beat the odds, as Jelani Cobb notes, he could have made it clear that, as president, he wanted to try to even the odds. More than a picture, such a statement from the president of the United States would be a clear signal that black people belong here.

But even worse is the unstated: if the children need men in their lives, then the failure belongs to black women. This is a recurrent theme in such uplift talk, never directly stated. Indeed, the women are often praised for the efforts that fall short. Coupled with a steady diet of reality tv that shows black women always at each other’s throats (thank you to Gaye Theresa Johnson for pointing that out last night), it’s not hard to see why black women are valued so little in this society before we get into the deeper history.

Whose picture will we hang in the school to show little black girls this is their place? Whose beautiful dark skin will be the epitome of style and cool, even as we teach children how to admire without idolizing? How do we uncouple cool from abuse against women (this cuts across racial lines–in almost every era, if a man was upheld as cool, he was also an abuser, a lothario, or a rapist)?

And we need to figure this out. Black women are under assault in this country every bit as much as–and in some domains, like the domestic front, more than–black men, but it’s worse because their abuse and precariousness has been so normalized that it’s difficult to see. Black women allege sexual assault against black men and men, especially black men, quickly come forward to counter-accuse them of being gold diggers, having ulterior motives, having made poor decisions, of putting themselves in the path of a rapist as if that person had no will or responsibility.

People oppose Stand Your Ground in Florida, but how many men have raised their voices in support of Marissa Alexander, sent to prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband and separated from her children, one of whom was a newborn? How many have spoken up about Renisha McBride who, like Jonathan Ferrell, was shot dead for seeking help in the wrong neighborhood? Where will the voices come from in defense of Shanesha Taylor, a homeless woman jailed for leaving her children in her car while she interviewed for a job?

If you asked why she didn’t make some other choices with her children you’re assuming that she had other choices. If you’re asking why she didn’t make other choices and not asking why she was homeless, you’re thinking she’s just another n*gger. I don’t use that word lightly. I’m thinking of Richard Iton who notes that the n*igger is the other to the citizen, the other to the civilized subject, the non-incorporable other that modernity needs in order to set the bounds of normalcy, and desert.

Remember how we laughed when Chris Rock said he loved black people and hated n*ggers? Remember how you nodded and grinned that books are kryptonite to n*ggers? How you assured yourself that you weren’t them, but maybe something lingered behind like a bad taste that really he was talking about you? Remember when Bill Cosby and others lambasted black parents for not teaching their children how to act (that is, how not to be n*ggers) and blamed them for their children’s poor outcomes? Remember when Obama told black parents not to feed their children Popeye’s chicken for breakfast before saying that men needed to be more involved? Whom did you think he was talking to if not black women since the men are absent?

That kind of conservatism has always had at least a mild note of desperation to me, an acknowledgment that no matter how much we believe in progress justice continues not to be color-blind. But it’s its own form of blindness. When black men are murdered or imprisoned (and we know mass incarceration is an epidemic among black women, too), do we also consider the extra burden on the families and communities they are taken from, including their wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters? It’s not helpful to frame crises that affect whole communities simply in terms of men or women.

There are many crises in this country that includes mass incarceration, increased economic disparities, the casualization of labor, and a host of other issues. And I think Iton and other thinkers are right: racial disparities within these crises reflect a general aversion to the n*gger, the “non-working” (are there jobs?) “inner city men,” in short, a fundamental antiblackness around which the sign of the citizen has been constructed. I won’t pretend to have the answers, but we have to recognize that where there’s a crisis, women are catching the worst of it. If antiblackness governs our concepts of citizenship then misogyny governs our concepts of the exercise of citizenship. So when we speak of crises of black men we need to mention and be mindful of crises for black women, which include shouldering the blame for the crises.


Postscript: Love and Labor

22 Mar

When I wrote this post yesterday (3/22/14), I had neglected to read Evan Kindley’s piece, which Yasmin Nair engages. The following are just a few questions and provocations inspired by his very helpful post. He sketches a history of publishing that emphasizes the “golden age of the American little magazine (roughly 1900-1960), which was, by anybody’s standard, well before the rise of neoliberalism (usually taken to be an elite response to the political and economic crises of 1973-74).” I will add only that the success of neoliberal strategies as a response to those crises means that neoliberal ideology existed well before them. The crisis only created the conditions where that ideology could have broader appeal to historical conditions.

As for the the little magazines, I take his point about the tensions between an aesthetic/intellectual avant-garde and socialist practice. But this account, to my mind, still leaves unresolved broader questions about even mainstream publishers, especially the relationship of freelance writers to “big magazines.”  And one would have to consider the economies and ecologies of contemporary literary journals (Poetry, so far as I know, still publishes). Those are, perhaps, more properly the heirs to the modernist “little magazines.” If that is so, then I would like to know more precisely who is following whose model, for anyone who has tried to publish a poem or short story probably had in the back of her mind that an agent or similarly powerful person would see it, and that this publication would be a stepping stone to writing with greater financial stability.

I would also like to see scholarship that considers the relationship of those magazines both little and big magazines to publications like The Crisis and The New Masses but also, I think, to other publications in Kindley’s golden age that fashioned themselves as alternatives to “big magazines.” (I’m not entirely convinced that The New Left Review, Dissent, and The Kenyon Review all belong in the same conversation, especially without considering this larger history.) I know some of that work is happening, and I think it will only clarify questions.This is just to say, again, that there’s a complex history here, but the point has to be that neoliberalism reflects a fundamental shift not just in relations of production, but in the ruling ideological consensus of the day.

There will always be labors of love, but I’m less sanguine that “that is a good thing.” It rings a little too much of “the poor will always be with you” for my tastes and commitments. In a piece so concerned with history, the “always” especially rings false: the same practice does not carry the same meaning across time. If there has been a shift, as Nair persuasively suggests, then the question is which relations have been or are being actively selected against, and what alliances (which are not strictly class alliances in a reductive sense) are being forged, even unconsciously? If there is a deeper history of this particular kind of exploitation and of academics being pitted against other intellectuals in publishing, how has that exploitation changed, and how do current arrangements exacerbate existing antagonisms? How do we act in a way that does not take for granted that there is a necessary antagonism between people who write from the security, however tenuous, that having another source of income provides and those who make their living strictly as freelance writers? (Here again, as Nair is quite good on, these are not strictly matters of “class” in the customary sense.)

That there will continue to be labors of love may or may not be a good thing. I still don’t see understanding yourself to be laboring out of love and demanding adequate compensation. It is a trait of neoliberalism, and its fetish for austerity in so many forms, that one thinks true love also teeters on the brink of destitution without meaningfully challenging or even taking seriously structures of oppression except to wave them off. Or worse, to assert the priority of personal choice. (I need not rehearse the old saw that we do not make history in the conditions of our choosing.) The challenge is “doing what you love” in a way that sustains your own practices, and those of strangers, and lets us all do what we do better, with more freedom, more capacity.

Service Without Servants: A note on Love, Intellectual Labor, and Scabs

20 Mar

In fine, can we not, black and white, rich and poor,
look forward to a world of Service without Servants?

– W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater

This is a note in advance of future sustained engagement with questions of academic labor as labor. I begin from the assumption of ambivalence toward labor, and a desire to separate some forms of labor from others in order for some to understand their labor as of a special class, distinct and more valuable, so valuable that they are willing to give it away without compensation. But, we must recall, demanding labor from others without compensating them is the foundation of modernity. I also begin from Du Bois’ optimistic desire to imagine a world of service without a permanent servant class, and without labor being so thoroughly debased. That, finally, is what I think is at stake in many debates of our neoliberal era (a term I don’t especially like, but it does important work describing the reorganization of values and institutions of the liberal framework), but I will only touch on it in passing.

What is the value of intellectual labor? Why is it so hard to consider intellectual labor and monetary–rather than social–value together? I’ve been grappling with this for some time, and Yasmin Nair’s post and response to her critics helped me to crystallize a couple thoughts. I am remote from the world she describes, as I have not yet been approached about publishing in any of the venues she discusses (this is not a veiled invitation to approach me). She calls academics employed by post-secondary institutions “scabs,” inviting college and university scholars to think of themselves in league with independent scholars who may be trying to make a living as freelance writers. The analogy is straightforward: scabs depress wages, and weaken organizing. They are often the pawns of the bosses whether they know it or not.

This paragraph, I think, is the heart of her initial argument:

If you’re an academic/professional/activist who writes for free, or edits print or online publications which won’t pay their writers but prides themselves on having all the bigbigbig names write for nothing: You are part of the problem of neoliberalism.  You are making it possible for publishers to refuse to pay professional writers what they’re worth.  We are seeing the adjunctification of the writing world, where a false scarcity of funds allows those in power to essentially blackmail their workers: You won’t work for the measly amount we’ve offered you?  Fine, I’ll just get BigNameProfessor to do the same work for free.

One could quibble with cause and effect, perhaps, but her point is an important one, and the analogy to the scab is both apt and troubling. In broad historical terms, scabs–replacement workers during strikes–have fallen into two overlapping groups: internal migrants and immigrants whose ignorance of working conditions and relative precarity management exploits, and people (like teachers, nurses, police officers, etc.) who decide that their obligation to the greater good outweighs the exploitation they must endure. They represent fundamentally political problems, at least in the the small slice of this complex history that I have studied: the replacement workers come from people that the unions would not or could not convince to join in league, often because the workers were willing to sacrifice more universalistic goals to sustain racial advantage. Or, as with the recent VW debacle, the unions were unable to make their case strong enough, or in the right terms, to appeal to the people whose support they wanted.

Academics, as I understand her argument, are akin both to im/migrants and those to whom the political case for solidarity has not sufficiently been made. I invoke the immigrant and migrant to underscore the extent to which exploitation may not seem like exploitation, especially given the nature of academic publishing (about which a word below). The affective economies are different but similar, and both tolerate uncompensated labor in exchange for prestige and security. In both worlds, the more you publish, the more you can publish.

But there’s a bigger historical question I do not have time to research now: to what degree has the writing world changed? To what degree was it ever possible for large numbers of writers to support themselves primarily through freelance work? To what degree does the expansion of the post-WWII university jibe with what was going on in other spheres of intellectual labor? Simply, I wonder whether the analogy to the adjunctification of the university holds, or if there might not be some other way to understand shifts in the field of non-academic scholarship.

In a society that equates wealth or monetary worth with value, the mechanisms of assigning cost take on a greater value. They can also serve to mystify fundamental questions, especially in a neoliberal environment that personalizes every interaction and outcome, actively selecting against and discouraging systemic analyses. Personalization means that even discussions aimed at describing systems fall into the personal. So, one is inclined to respond to the analysis of “privilege” as if the term named an absolute rather than a relative unstable position within definite contexts of and contests over politics. The man without shoes, to invoke a proverb, is privileged relative to the man without feet, and is yet more privileged relative to the woman without feet. Yet, thinking of himself relative to the men wearing $600 ostrich boots, that person will refuse to recognize any such privilege.

Given the state of higher education with classes increasingly taught by adjunct labor rather than tenured and tenure track labor, “privilege” is an odd term, and perhaps an unnecessarily invidious one. To people outside higher ed, association with an institution of higher ed equals status, whatever our relative position within the larger post-secondary world. To the extent that people are aware of the crisis, they are likely to shrug and offer some version of “that’s their problem,” which is neoliberalism is in a nutshell: transforming all outcomes to personal ones, transforming exploitation to personal failure, and refusing accounts of historical or structural factors that shape “free choice.” As Nair ably put it:

But what is neoliberalism if not the rationalisation of capitalist exploitation under the rubric of “choice”?

I think there must be some better term for unearned, random traits that give one an advantage in concrete historical situations. “Privilege” should do that, but personalization allows the privileged to point to the more privileged, ignoring the basic egalitarian push to eliminate rather than painstakingly define privilege. Aggressive point missing is the political strategy of the day. But so to is having service without servants in a way counter to Du Bois’ (and mine): people want things to appear before them, but don’t want to have to think too much about those who produced it. I suspect that this attitude, which I would again attribute to this country’s general disdain for work and workers, is what allows the adjunct crisis to continue, and allows people not to ask about the conditions under which the articles they read were produced.

What I wonder is this: people say they publish for free because they love what they do, but what kind of love is this that asks so little in return? Taking the rhetoric of “love” at face value, there is no necessary contradiction between doing what I love and expecting to be fairly compensated for it. “Fair” is a relative term, and there may be situations where it means I will write without compensation. If I do so, it is because I have another source of income that subsidizes my labor time (research, writing, editing, etc.). “Honest pay for honest work” is not a revolutionary concept. The extent to which it seems like one reflects on the centralization of power and wealth in corporations, and the naked hostility toward a robust idea of the citizen as anything other than taxpayer, a consumer of government services with no other investment in the government.

If “progressives” and self-styled “radicals” actually want to bring about change in the world (rather than burnish their “brand”), and want to do it through writing, then reflecting on the institutions of writing and the conflict between the means of production and the relations of production, should similarly be non-controversial.

A quick parenthetical about academic publishing, which is uncompensated. It participates in a more general (often flawed) set of gate-keeping mechanisms of higher education. While it is typically uncompensated, the publishers are  usually non-profit, and operate on the (increasingly incorrect) assumption that those who publish scholarship have some other means of income. But the editorial staff for journals, and the editorial review boards for academic presses, are typically members of the faculty themselves, with all that that entails. Ideally, this gives the faculty themselves a large degree of influence over the shape of discussions, again for better and for worse.I think there are forms of cooperative publishing online subsidized by universities that work on a similar model, and those to me seem qualitatively different. They model a form of cooperative sociality derived meaningfully from existing models, transformed to different ends.

If we stipulate that intellectual labor is labor, and that labor happens within a capitalist mode of production, then we have to be attentive to our working conditions. So, we should ask of it what we should ask of any publishing–that is, any way of selling the products of our labor. It also seems to me that with academic and non-academic publishing alike, women, people of color, and poor/working class people have historically had a harder time negotiating gate-keeping mechanisms. For this reason, of for no other, it makes sense to resist the pull of the personal and think in what I can only think to call categorical terms. I do many things because I love them, and I expect to receive no compensation for them. Writing posts like this one, for example. But as a more general ethos, “labor of love” just props up insidious neoliberal ideologies that transform systemic exploitation into choice, deprivation into virtue, and oppression as “the lesser of two evils.”

I won’t pretend to have the answers to questions people better qualified than I have been working out. The last thing I want to do is to parachute into a long discussion and act like I have the solution, especially regarding different models of web publishing as an outlet for public scholarship. Yasmin Nair’s posts and responses to it, and before that Toshio Meronek and Eric A. Stanley’s article on social media in Truth-Out has given me some pause. It points out the potential discrepancy between the democratic possibilities of social media and the anti-democratic practices of the corporations from tax avoidance to support for illiberal policies.

On my more cynical days, the labor-of-love rhetoric as a rationalization of exploitation reminds me of that repeated scene in Tom and Jerry cartoons, when Jerry puts Tom’s tail between two buns and convinces him to take a big bite. On some level Tom has to know it’s his own tail, yet he gets so enraptured with the idea of a good meal, so convinced that this time he will actually get what he desires, that he suspends his own good sense. Miya Tokumitsu has written about this phenomenon:

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, [the ethos of Doing What You Love] distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it.

I like the emphasis on obligations to all who labor. In the field of intellectual labor, rigor is one way we have of showing love for our objects and fields of study, and for our colleagues whom we may never meet. Certainly, I can’t imagine working as hard as I do for another reason, even though I have to work to keep my job. But it’s not just my satisfaction that matters, but yours as well, that of the stranger I never met who built up this field before me, and who will work after me. And it’s for you, the stranger I’ve never met, who turns to something with my name on it who needs me to do my job well in order that you may do yours. We have many ways of caring about, and considering our obligations to others.

Especially the way the rhetoric of choice participates in larger political strategies, why not extend that care, that love, to anonymous others who need me to hold up my end by demanding for fair compensation? Why not let our work also be to expand and enhance opportunities for others, for strangers we’ve never met? Why not, in our actions insist that at minimum work has value and one of the ways we have to show we value each other’s work is by reading it, and, if we’re in a position to publish it and profit it from it, pay for it? At a minimum, it seems that that would be to treat laborer and the one purchasing the product of the other’s labor on equal footing. That would be closer to a love worthy of the name.

Race, Ideology, and Understanding (Slight Return)

8 Mar

This blog is an exercise in thought, and in writing as a form of thinking. Sometimes I don’t quite get things right, but usually I let them go. In particular, I wanted to unpack a sentence from last night’s post:

When people protest that they want their country back, is that not evidence that they recognize all too well, articulately or not, the ways wealth has been created and maintained not just in this country, but the world over, through transactions between whites over the bodies of blacks?

(Forgive my obnoxious self-citation.)

Recognition is too strong a word. Rather, the idea of “wanting one’s country back,” which many liberals, leftists and people on the right immediately understand to have a racial charge, is a misrecognition of the actual history and social relations that have shaped their lives, but that misrecognition takes the form of an active revision of the past that authorizes a particular version of the relevant political problems of the present. The official doctrine of “color-blindness” in Federal policies, for example, willfully (that is, deliberately) allows for the unacknowledged continuation of discriminatory practices, trusting that discrimination will run its course.

Such a formulation lends itself to the presumption of intention and conspiracy, which I think misses the point. To refer to structural or institutional racism is to refer to the operation of a set of institutions, legal norms, practices of interpretation and habits of mind so deeply entrenched into the fabric of our social life that, unchecked, they will operate to (re-)produce the desired hierarchies. In a different vocabulary, structural racism simply identifies that race is an articulating principle of the social, political, and ideological structures of a society. Saying so does not mean that everything is really “about” race, but that the key social, political and ideological arguments necessarily touch on and are affected by race. Intrinsic to the constitution of the laboring classes at economic, political, and ideological levels of social formation, Stuart Hall argues that “Race is thus, also, the modality in which class is ‘lived,’ the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through.'”

Hall’s deployment of Althusser to discuss semi-autonomous “levels” of social formation helps forestall simplistic understandings of ideology as “false consciousness,” and does away with the need to discuss racial strategies as the activities of bad actors. Racial exclusion or authorized exposure of populations to premature death need not derive from some conscious genocidal desire. On the contrary, no one thinks it important to consider those exposed to such death, and their deaths will register as the result of some poor choices or “tangle of pathologies” that left them exposed. Promoting understanding can raise structural issues to the level of conscious thought where people can rationally “fight through” these issues, but the whole point is that no one has to consciously believe in the superiority of the white land-owning class fraction. Racism at that level is a dominant means of ideological representation that helps define the good, the worthy, the valuable, in a phrase, the common sense and the common itself.

“Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance” is justly esteemed, and it’s well worth working through. One of its advantages is that it gives race both practical and theoretical heft in understanding more complex forms of alignment, including the alignment of the dominated with the dominant factions and apparently “against their interests.” But I wanted to work out in a preliminary way the limitations of understanding. I keep returning to Justice Taney’s Dred Scott decision, which it’s worth reading at some length (my emphases):

They [people of African descent] had for more than a century before [the framing and ratification of the Constitution] been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics which no one thought of disputing or supposed to be open to dispute, and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.

Taney throughout seems outraged that the question of black citizenship had even been brought before the court. By underscoring the “civilized portion of the white race,” he distinguishes “civilized” from “uncivilized” whites, and defining civilization through the exclusion and subjection of people of African descent. It is not a simplistic vision of race that extends benefits to all whites, but only to certain whites: the land-owning whites whose legal, social, economic and ideological arrangements structurally uphold the superiority of whites, and the inferiority of blacks. In this specific sense, “we want our country back” echoes, even unconsciously, a world in which wealth is created among whites and those amenable to this version of white supremacy over the black bodies and the bodies of those not recognized within the economic, ideological, and political arrangements necessary for the reproduction of this system–both the mode and relations of production implied.

I try to keep these posts short – sketches and rough drafts of thought, so I’ll leave it here for now.

If Only They Understood

8 Mar

I’d been meaning to write a post for a few days now with the title “Why Do You Care” to address something probably everyone has observed: that tendency when there’s some controversy followed (on Twitter) by a series of hashtags, re-tweets, and a general click economy Lester Spence brilliantly outlines at the beginning of his post on Adolph Reed’s essay in Harper’s, Nothing Left.” The short version of what I planned to write is that what is at stake is a claim to social relevance, and a larger contest over the domain of the popular, and what “our” priorities ought to be. Defining the important issues of the present, fighting to maintain in view that which we care for is one way we define a “we,” and one way we conceive a future. The latest album (or the latest insult) is frequently an occasion to name the tradition or legacy from which it comes, and the values one wants to see continue. No doubt a familiar claim.

So this is a short postscript to a post I didn’t write. I came across an article by Edward E. Baptist and Louis Hyman, “American Finance Grew on the Backs of Slaves,” which sketches the ways slavers mortgaged their slaves, then turned those mortgages into bonds. Two points stood out to me. Quoting them:

1. As slave-backed mortgages became paper bonds, everybody profited — except, obviously, enslaved African Americans whose forced labor repaid owners’ mortgages.


2. But though slavery ended in 1865, in the years after the Civil War, black entrepreneurs would find themselves excluded from a financial system originally built on their bodies. As we remind our students in our new online course American Capitalism: A History, African-Americans — unable to borrow either to buy property or start businesses — lived in a capitalist economy that allowed them to work, but not to benefit.

This isn’t entirely new information, but it’s significant, especially for the ways the authors link that history to the present. (Baptist has a book forthcoming on “Slavery and the making of American Capitalism,” and Lyman has published on debt. The book also connects arguments Ian Baucom makes in Specters of the Atlantic about the relationship of finance capital, insurance and slavery, and that Saidiya Hartman makes in Scenes of Subjection about the ways freedom for the emancipated slaves was figured as a kind of debt: emancipation,she writes, was “both a breach with slavery and reproduction or reorganization of the plantation system.”

I mention these–the first two that occurred to me–just to say that the conversation has been going on for a while, but it’s a conversation about slavery, which is one of those things certain to be met with “why are you/they talking about that.” To the extent that that’s true, the obverse of that statement is “if only they understood,” with the assumption being that if “they” understood “they” would be part of my “we.” So, it’s related to the question I began with.

But why do we assume “they”–anti-black racists and other conservatives (not using that term as it maps onto U.S. political categories)–don’t “understand”? In other words, when people praise films like 12 Years a Slave for raising awareness and promoting understanding, what does that understanding do? When people protest that they want their country back, is that not evidence that they recognize all too well, articulately or not, the ways wealth has been created and maintained not just in this country, but the world over, through transactions between whites over the bodies of blacks?

In short, reducing matters to a question of understanding–the supposed “ignorance” of, say the Tea Party or whichever person has said the latest outrageous thing about people of color, or women, or sexual minorities–we miss part of the work of politics, which for me has to be not only what do they want, but how is it that their message can be successful. “We” know that poor people in strongly Republican states are voting against “their” interests, but in saying so we aren’t curious enough about what interests they understand themselves to have. Actually hearing how people identify their interests and their understanding of the world can be boring, and even terrifying. But conservatives have been very good at listening to those anxieties and desires and articulating them with capitalist programs and the whole neoliberal agenda of diminished rights, redefining citizenship in terms of consumption (i.e., concern over the fates of “my tax dollars”), a diminished role of the state (including the dismantling of the welfare state), and notions of freedom and citizenship that continue to be defined in opposition to slavery. At the very least, the political classes do understand the past, and they want to be sure the present and future are defined in those terms.

Thug Culture

16 Feb

In the wake of yet another predictable failure of our legal system to punish a man for murdering a black child, this time in what the press took to calling the “loud music trial,” I wanted to return to my previous post on thugs with a slightly different focus. I earlier argued in essence that the designation “thug” marks (and makes unremarkable) certain lives and deaths. It participates in a larger project of the administration of death and the hierarchical–that is,  racial–structuring of lives (and deaths). That hierarchical structure, always a fundamental social antagonism, is often mystified in terms of geography or, especially in an era when societies congratulate themselves for granting equality, in terms of “culture.”

The ruling classes’ fantasy of the other’s pathological culture makes the deaths of those attached to it the sad but predictable outcome of the Other’s failure, the sign of a subculture unfit for modern society, rather than the indirect result of policy and the myths a corrupt social order needs to uphold itself. But it also keeps the conversation abstract. “Loud music trial” conjures away a dead black child and transforms the trial into a conversation between–and consolidation of–the ruling classes over literal black bodies. “Loud music trial,” at least to my ears, resonates with a long history from from the early imperial era to the White Citizens Councils and other fears of “jungle music” corrupting white morals and literally driving white men crazy:  “It appeals to the base in man, brings out animalism and vulgarity.”

The thug is the other of the citizen and the human. S/he is the one not intended or counted in “all men are created equal.” The thug is usually, but not exclusively, black. Thuggery constitutes the constitutive outside of civil society. That’s what I thought before, but that doesn’t go far enough. I accented Hobbes’ argument that “fear of oppression [by others] disposeth a man to anticipate [attack first] or seek aid by society,” but the more relevant part is

To have done more hurt to a man than he can or is willing to expiate inclineth the doer to hate the sufferer.

Notice how that rhymes with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia:

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

Notice how it rhymes with the “riots” in Elaine, AR (1919) and East St. Louis (1917). Notice how it rhymes with all the incidents I’m too weary to name at this moment when black presence is unwelcome. And we could add to that list: you can’t inspect your own property if you’re black. The lesson is repetitive: black people are not welcome in this country, but a certain ideal black person is necessary in order that the country can celebrate its myth of having reformed and extended equality to all. It’s easy to see why people cling to respectability–if only you pull up your pants, speak English a certain way, hold yourself to the highest standards, maybe then it will be enough and we won’t keep having to hear the news of black children filling the jails and cemeteries, learning daily how this country will see them if it’s too dark, they’re too loud, or in the wrong neighborhood.

Last night, my partner reminded me of some sentences from James Baldwin:”People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” It’s tempting to feel pity for those people holed up in their homes, stockpiling weapons, fearing that at any moment their reckoning is at hand. Centuries of unpunished violence, from slavery to lynching, might convince one that there is no justice on earth or in heaven for the crimes you commit, just a seething black mass awaiting its moment of revenge. It’s easy to see how people who grew up in cultures that protected the identities of neighbors who lynched children and bombed houses of sleeping families, people whose relatives and neighbors served on juries that declined to convict in cases where a black person was injured by a white might distrust government institutions. But too often others pay for the lives born of that culture. And surely “thug culture” is the name for a society built around such lawless violence, a culture that kills with impunity, sacrificing lives that scarcely register as lives for the sake of a myth.

A Note on Thinking with Stuart Hall

12 Feb

The continuing depressing climate of left political commentary makes Stuart Hall’s passing weigh especially heavy. Like so many scholars, his work in particular opened my eyes to different possibilities and responsibilities for thinking, researching, understanding the world and writing. I use gerundives deliberately: thinking as ongoing process not as object, “some unmeaning thing they call a thought” (Pope) or some unthinking thing they call a “think piece.”

Many noted that Hall did not produce a monograph. When you could do with Hall could do with an essay, or an interview, what use would a book be? Just consider his commentary on Barack Obama. He avoids substituting style and rhetoric for substantive engagement, and clearly articulates the challenges and risks for the left following the historic election of the first black president in an unusually conservative nation whose national myths and administrative structures make large-scale change difficult.

Or consider the ways he takes up Althusser in his “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance”. That essay remains a model to me of generosity and rigor, taking a difficult thinker and showing how Althusser’s thought might lend itself to a situation Althusser had not directly addressed. Nothing in Hall’s work is frivolous. There seem to be no ornamental quotes or half-digested ideas, no splashy “critiques,” just the labor of thought; defining and identifying problems with an eye toward solutions or more accurately naming a problem.

Perhaps my favorite example of this is in his reply to Jessop et al., who had critiqued Hall’s work an advanced an alternative thesis in New Left Review he found unpersuasive. For my purposes in this very brief note, I find the beginning and the end of the essay most striking. He sets a clear agenda up front:

I should like myself to take issue with some aspects of their argument, not so much to defend my work as, through mutual discussion and debate, to advance our understanding of the phenomenon of Thatcherism.

The emphasis is on the thinking still to be done, refined, clarified, revised. At the end, however, is the moment that continues to stay with me, particularly when I’m inclined to indulge in pointless point-scoring, mindless pedantry, needlessly ungenerous assessment of another scholar’s work, or other forms of engagement that betray the substantive and urgent work of thinking:

I am afraid they have sometimes had their eye cocked more towards scoring points than deconstructing Thatcherism. Nevertheless, they have contributed substantially to our understanding of many of its perplexing aspects. Perhaps, now that the sound of conceptual gunfire has died away, we might all get back to the far more important task of understanding the real complexity of the Thatcherism phenomenon, the better to defeat and destroy it.

I wish I had discovered this in graduate school. Certainly I am guilty of engaging in many long arguments with people about fine points of interpretation, or differences of accent that, really, made no difference. But one must learn somehow, after all, how to remain focused on the important tasks of thinking, interpreting, and confronting the world. There’s much more work and thinking to be done, and he left behind many thoughts-in-progress for us to take up, and an unparalleled example of political and intellectual engagement with the world we share unevenly.