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Race and America’s Long War: An Interview with Nikhil Pal Singh
Interview conducted by Rosa Burc & George Souvlis
Can you start by talking about your formative political and academic experiences?
My parents emigrated to the United States from Bombay, India in the late 1960s. My father had been an engineer working for ESSO, my mother, an elementary school teacher. A company fellowship gave my dad an opportunity to complete a business degree at Tulane University in New Orleans. Initially, my parents had no intention of staying in the United States. Liberalisation of US immigration law, plans to nationalize India’s oil industry, considerations about economic and educational opportunities for their children changed their minds. After Tulane, my father took a job at W. R. Grace in New York City, and our family settled in northern New Jersey. US citizenship was a requirement for becoming a public-school teacher where we lived, so my mom (who grudgingly naturalized only a few years ago), stayed at home to care for my me and my older sister (and our brother, who came along a later).
My parents had scant savings, but after a few years advanced along a path of upward mobility, affirming a conventional American story of immigrant success. Mine was outwardly a no less conventional middle-class upbringing in a relatively well off, WASP-centered town that voted GOP from the top to bottom of the ticket (until 2016 when it swung for Clinton and elected a Democrat mayor). My father commuted into the city, worked long hours and devoted himself to ascending the American class ladder. From the vantage point of growing up in Delhi’s close-knit, Sikh community where he witnessed the carnage of India’s murderous partition first hand, he shrugged off or refused to see the petty racist slights that came his way from the suburban country club set. My mother, born and raised in a farming village in the English midlands dissented from all of it more vocally, nursing a quiet loathing of all things American.
Neither of my parents viewed the world through a US lens. The child of an Irish Catholic father, whose brothers had died in the ’16 Easter Rising, my mother was a formative influence on me. A socialist, she raged against Richard Nixon, cried when George McGovern got wiped out in the ’72 election, danced a jig when Nixon was impeached. Both she and my father opposed the Vietnam war, condemned Henry Kissinger’s support for Pakistan’s generals, and Pinochet’s coup against Salvatore Allende in Chile. I vividly remember spending childhood summers during these years with my grandparents in the English countryside, around the wireless listening to unfamiliar names like Nkomo and Mugabe as incantations of possibility even as they were sounded in official mournful tones of BBC commentary on the fall of Rhodesia. It was more a feeling than understanding, but I count these as some of my earliest political memories.
In high school, I gravitated to the punk scene. I saw my first police riot outside the Clash show that was preemptively canceled at the Bonds casino for fire code violations. When we weren’t studying, or playing soccer, (which was still mostly an immigrant, outsider sport), my friends and I wore army fatigues and my father’s old Nehru jackets, scavenged the vestiges of New York City’s 70s counterculture in record stores and thrift shops and snuck into late night shows in dive bars from the Jersey shore to the east village. The Sandinstas were our heroes because they beat the American empire (or so we thought), though we knew less about them than we did about the Brixton riots and the Red Brigades. It was cosplay, but it represented a kind of political development all the same. Of course, we had no idea of the scope of the political reaction that was underway, or that we had been warming ourselves on the embers of another generation’s dying radicalism.
I attended Harvard in the mid-1980s where I studied Social Studies, a no less vestigial, radical formation. Founded by ex-New Left intellectuals, including Barrington Moore, Stanley Hoffman, and Robert Paul Wolff, it prioritised interdisciplinary social sciences and history, the historical context of social problems and close reading of modern social theory, with Marx and Weber (with decided emphasis on the superiority of the latter) at the centre of a year-long seminar, Social Studies 10. Reading Marx for the first time in college, particularly the 1844 manuscripts, was electrifying for me. In retrospect, I’ve never been at place so self-assured about its centrality and importance to ruling order. I knew which side I was on, though whatever rebellious inclinations I had were still captive my own thwarted desire to really belong to it. Student acquaintances of mine, some of whom became cherished comrades, saw things more clearly, erecting a shantytown in Harvard yard to protest the university’s endowment investments in apartheid South Africa, the formative student protest movement of the time.
Arriving at Yale’s American Studies PhD program at the end of the 1980s, I started to think more seriously about the relation between theory and practice as the basis of any future intellectual and political work. More importantly, it was here that I began what became a lifelong dedication to what poet and theorist Fred Moten has described as ‘black study’, or a commitment to understanding the singular ‘problematisation of black people’ for/within a modernity that had come to be dominated by the United States, and the concomitant discovery of the black radical tradition, one of the most durable modern countercultures, and perhaps the most visionary and expansive oppositional tradition to grow out of the corrupted US democratic experiment. During these years, I became involved more directly in organising and movement building through the graduate student unionization struggle that developed under the tutelage of union locals 34 and 35 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE). Work as a staff organiser encompassed most of my time in New Haven, and was an indispensable political education.
In this formative period, completing my graduate studies, I was lucky to have generous and influential teachers, friends and interlocutors, including David Montgomery, Michael Denning, Hazel Carby, and Paul Gilroy, among many others. It was Michael who gave me my introduction to the thinkers of the Birmingham school, and Stuart Hall in particular, whom I had the good fortune to meet at after a lecture he delivered to a packed crowd in Harlem in 1991, “What is this Black in Black Popular Culture.” It was a creative moment in the post-1970s re-emergence of black music, black studies and critical race theory, with young intellectuals based in New York like Robin D.G. Kelley (already a full professor at NYU in his 20s), Bell Hooks and Cornel West (the latter two in their 30s) at the epicenter. The following year, I moved to Park Slope to write my dissertation, at a time when you could still rent a studio apartment for $400 a month. Apart from a 10-year stint in Seattle at the University of Washington, I have lived and worked in NYC ever since.
In your first book, Black is a Country, you construct an alternative history of civil rights in the twentieth century by focusing on radical visions that were articulated by intellectual activists from W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1930s to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Can you tell us what motivated you in this approach and why radical hopes have been central to the history of black struggle?
Black is a Country grew out of my Ph.D. dissertation, though most of the book was written during my years in Seattle in dialogue with another remarkable group of scholars and activists, including Chandan Reddy, Moon Ho Jung, Alys Weinbaum, Jodi Melamed, Andrew Jones, Michael Honey, and Tyree Scott, founder of LELO (Labor Employment Law Office). I would add that this work should be read alongside Climin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings Jack O’Dell, a collaboration with Jack O’Dell, whom I first met in Vancouver, B.C. in 2003. Both books explore what I, (and other scholars at the time) argued was a black freedom struggle of longer duration than conventional histories of the civil rights movement generally posited. The effort to think anew about periodization raised fundamental questions about the political, economic and ideological contexts and valences of black social movements, particularly as they were related to broader contours of US state formation, America’s rise to globalism after WWII, labour organisation and the prospects of progressive, if not, revolutionary social change.
Specifically, I argued that the modern black freedom movement emerged along with the reshaping of federal state power under the New Deal – a decisive break with what has been called the minimal US ‘state of courts and parties’ that accelerated during the prior ‘Progressive era’. The consolidation of New Deal liberalism nationalised black politics in important ways, beginning a longer process of undermining and de-legitimating a Southern exceptionalist basis and conception of the US racial order. Black intellectuals and activists, many of them products of waves of migration out of the US South to urban centres grew in prominence along with the development of black counter-publics and institutions of widening scope, including the first modern civil rights and black nationalist organizations, but no less important, trade unions like A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – all within in a context intensifying class struggles with significant communist and socialist influences and trajectories.
The last point is crucial: federal state management of the terms of class struggle, no less than the internal political and compositional dynamics of left and labour organization, confronted ethno-racial division (and more bluntly, state and class racisms) as a fundamental stake. In the 1930s and 1940s, black movement leaders, strategists and intellectuals engaged in a series of formative debates about race and class-based organization that were central to, if often poorly understood within the left and labour movement (broadly construed), but with long term consequences. It is also important to emphasise (as I do in the book) that black movements were not and have never been monolithic: intense disagreement unfolded within and between important black political formations, their representative spokespeople, and class fractions about the primacy of race-first community, or race-blind labour organisation, disagreements with on-going relevance to left conversations today.
If the field of class struggle and intra-left argument is one crucial constituent for thinking about the period of robust intensification of black freedom struggle explored in Black is a Country, a second is the field of international relations recast by war and emergent decolonisation struggles around the world. As the great black sociologists St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton put it in a masterful study of Chicago, Black Metropolis, black publics during the war were more ‘international-minded than the rest of the population… a blow for freedom in Bronzeville finds its echo in Chungking and Moscow, in Paris and Senegal. A victory for Fascism in the Midwest Metropolis will sound the death knell of doom of the Common Man everywhere.’ The foundational (racial) exclusion from full citizenship within the US had long made the international arena a site of black freedom struggle. In the context of intensifying local struggles against empire and the global circulations enabled by WWII, anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles merged and fused in important new ways.
Let’s speak a bit about the concept of ‘American Universalism’. The US has been described as the world’s exemplary nation-state that is built on the fundaments of civic nationalism. While the assumption is that national universality integrates racial particularities, you argue that in the American case the concept of ‘universality’ actually creates and sustains racial division, even to the extent that black achievements in particular can embody and sanction American national pride. Can you speak about the ambiguous relationship between racial particularity and national universality in the American case? What are the underlying paradigms of national identity in the US?
American universalism has at least two iterations. The first is foundational and synchronic: American universalism is essentially the expansionist discourse of US nationhood, one that posits a categorically open relationship to both territory and population. In its founding iteration, American universalism links together the idea that the United States is an exemplar within the world at large: ‘the hope of all continents, creeds and races’, as court historian of post-WWII liberalism, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. put it, (echoing Thomas Paine), but also exceptional unto itself, set a part from, and setting out upon an ‘errand into (barbarian) wilderness,’ and leaving behind the corrupt, fallen, class-riven nations of the ‘old’ (European) world.
This story of US nationhood has been told over and over, its primary claims grounded in claims about religious toleration, later expanded into assertions about fundamental civic openness (or ‘civic nationalism’), suggesting that membership in the polity has proceeded without regard to prior status or ascriptive categories, and promising unprecedented upward economic mobility to settlers. The Constitution is the primary fetish/repository for these visions, a document that signifies national origins in open/democratic consent (or political freedom), rather than pre-existing orders of rank, ancestry, blood and belonging. Of course, apart from a certain openness to newcomers from Europe, such claims have always been fictive. As early as 1790, US naturalisation law quietly restricted membership in the polity to ‘free white persons’, while the US Constitution reconciled slavery, racial alienage and second-class citizenship until at least the mid-1960s. Millions of African slaves, included without their consent, hundreds of indigenous polities scattered across a continent slated for extermination or removal, racially suspect denizens and migrants segregated and deported, limned the murderous internal and external boundaries of American universalism, with heavy consequences into our own time.
But American universalism is not just a shibboleth, it has also been a site of struggle. ‘Race’ and racial formation — linked most prominently with the enduring black presence within the body politic – remained the most glaring ‘contradiction’ to what Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal in the early 1940s called ‘the American creed of liberty and equality for all’. This formulation of race and racism as contradiction, a kind of ‘original sin’ in need of correction, cleansing or expiation became central to post-WWII liberal re-iterations of American universalism, though here again, the imperial and expansionist kernel remained intact. As the US Justice Department amicus brief in the case Brown v Board of Education put it at the onset of the cold war, racial inequality was a problem because it threatened American claims to world leadership and undermined the idea that America’s (exemplary and exceptional) Constitutional democracy was ‘the most civilised and secure form of government devised by man.’
Since this mid-century moment, normative expressions of American liberalism (in both centrist and conservative guises) have sought nothing less than to put ‘race’ under erasure, to which the notion of ‘colorblindnesss’, the preferred metaphor of the juridical right, attests. Of course, visible racial difference only grew as a contentious element within US politics during and after the period of black-led civil rights struggle. Nonetheless, conceptually, the tendency to counterpoise ‘race’ as particularism (either to be valued as inconsequential ‘diversity’, or denigrated in new iterations of black fecklessness or criminality), with ‘nation’ as a universalizing horizon, continues to structure the American political imaginary in unhelpful ways. What is unhelpful is that this opposition tends to conceal or underplay how racial animus (especially anti-blackness) and racial division remains, in both manifest and latent forms, a structuring and symbolic dimension of power, place and personhood in the US (and in the world). In short, racial difference is less the contradiction to America’s vaunted universalism, than the enduring, supplementary trace of its founding and renewed violence.
It is in this sense that I argue that American universalism is less an antidote to racial division than the font of its poison. This does not mean abandoning or rejecting claims to insurgent universality. To the contrary, efforts to redefine the horizons of universalism against the enclosures and foreclosures of the US as both an internally racialised nation-state, and an expansionist empire have been at the centre of the history of black freedom struggles. In many ways, James Baldwin put it best in the context of his linked indictment of the anti-black violence of urban policing at home, and genocidal ‘police action’ overseas in Vietnam: ‘One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore’, Baldwin writes,
one scarcely dared expect anything from the great vast blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans – and for their sakes after all—a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves. Part of the error was irreducible, in that the marchers and petitioners were forced to suppose the existence of an entity which, when the chips were down, could not be located.
It is likely that we are living through another decisive, even fatal re-articulation of American universalism. Since the early 2000s, Bush, Obama and Trump in different ways have openly signalled the end of ‘American exceptionalism’, throwing into question its progressive historicist dynamics of ethno-racial inclusion, upward mobility, and global expansionism. Bush’s Iraq misadventure launched in part as to spur a ‘new American Century’, but whose lies and torture exposed the squalor and corruption of the US governing order, ended his reign presiding over the fiscal destruction of American middle-class prosperity. As the nation’s first black President, Obama initially presented as a corrective, and as American universalism’s apotheosis via unprecedented racial inclusion: the fulfilment of a national ideal, where as he put it on the night of his election: ‘anything is possible’. The stubborn intractability of economic inequality and stagnation, resurgent racist opposition, state sanctioned racial murder and permanent war, quickly gave the lie to ‘hope and change’. Trump’s doom-saying represents the latest inversion, as he envisions an America that can only remain ‘great’, by restoring founding logics of exclusionary racial order, and by setting literal, concrete limits around its own borders.
In the recent movie, I am not your Negro, it is argued that in the end of the life of Malcolm X there is a convergence between his and Martin Luther King’s political vision. What is your take on this opinion? Was there such a convergence between the two figures of the black liberation movement and if yes, in which ways?
I think there is a strong case to be made for convergence. The division between King and Malcolm is typically framed around the question of racial integration and juridical reform as the priority of the kind of civil rights liberalism for which King has been made the exemplar, and that Malcolm X typically excoriated as supplicatory and ineffective. But at the end of their lives, when each man was shadowed by intrusive government surveillance only to be cut down by shadowy assassins, both had embraced anti-war and anti-imperialist politics, and both recognized the necessity for cross racial movement-building, with specific overtures to labour and the left, as requisite to building the kind of political power that would be necessary for large-scale, transformative, social change. It is of course useless to speculate on what might have happened had either of them lived to develop their ideas and practices and worth remembering how young they were when they died.
In Black is a Country you argue that a meaningful reconstruction of racial equality and universal political ideas beyond the problematic universalising tones of liberalism and global democratic imperatives can only be carried out by a black public sphere that is constantly critical of the imposed limits of US democracy. How has this black public sphere been created in history and today? Along with the public sphere, would argue that a political vehicle is necessary to give specific political shape to these ideas?
The idea of a black public sphere, or ‘counter-public’, owes a lot to the work of Nancy Fraser and particularly Michael Dawson, whose book Black Visions is essential reading. It is less a normative ideal, than something that materialises within a given conjuncture, that is to say it is the product of on-going trans-local organising and institution-building that has occurred in response to racial despotism, and has included development of heterogeneous strategies and struggles from mutual aid, riots and protest marches, to legal challenges and more institutionalised forms of political contention. Black is a Country traces a specific arc of black public contention from the 1930s to the 1970s. It suggests that the concept of a black public is more useful for grasping the dynamic contention between independent, black organisation and broad, multi-tendency struggles for social justice during this period, than either reified notions of a wholly separate black ‘community’, or normative conceptions that define the horizon of racial justice in terms of racial integration into some larger corporate body (i.e., class, citizenship, nationality).
In the 1940s, C. L. R. James formulated this issue in a way that remains unsurpassed: ‘The independent Negro struggle’, James wrote, ‘has a vitality and validity of its own; it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggle; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling to one degree or another’, and comprises a ‘crucial pivot of the American political system’ as a whole. In the 1960s, King argued similarly: ‘the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes’, he wrote, ‘it is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws, racism, materialism and militarism. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society.’ Reflecting back on his own 1984 and 1988 Presidential campaigns under the Rainbow Coalition, Jesse Jackson likewise observed that black struggles had been the ‘trigger struggles’ for broadly democratic and egalitarian transformations of American political culture and its public sphere, influencing a host of related struggles across the front of gender, ethnicity, ability and sexuality.
The point of these examples is that they suggest the tight rapprochement between black-centered, anti-racist struggles and the society-wide struggle for more general democratic and egalitarian goals. But the context matters no less than the balance of forces. Writing in the early 1940s, James and others believed that insurgent black politics and the labour movement under the leadership of the CIO would come together synergistically, pinning their hopes on cross-racial labour insurgency in the US south that never materialized. At the time of King’s death, American trade unionism, was on the brink of its historic decline, compromised by its support of empire and confronting growing racial fractures between the working and workless poor that manifested in the urban riots and sharp law and order turn of the late 1960s. To the extent that official commitments to racial justice persisted, they became increasingly restricted to meliorist, class-bound policies such as affirmative action. Meanwhile black power politics was diverted into strategies of governance and intra-racial class mobility at municipal scales, even as open, racist revanchism fueled the rise of what would become the world’s largest carceral state.
In our own period, the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist valences of a prior era of black struggle have been either repressed or abandoned, while more anodyne conceptions of racial inclusion and ‘diversity’, have been effectively incorporated, at least on the surface, as the progressive face of a corporate-media-university complex. This has led some on the left to a simplistic, frankly reactionary conclusion that anti-racism and more specifically, struggles addressed to ‘black lives’ are now merely a species or reflex of neo-liberal ideology. In contrast, I would say that we continue to live in a society structured in dominance in which racism and class exploitation constitute overlapping, coeval dynamics. Race and racism remains a major pivot on which US capitalism turns, for both the waged and wageless, who are subject in different ways to diminishing health, life chances and crushing market dependency. We should not be surprised should we find ourselves truly capable of broaching questions of economic justice under the aegis of renewed labour and class struggles that it occurs in tight, if at times tense, rapprochement with a resurgence of militant anti-racist struggles.
In sum, as I have written elsewhere,
in the US historical experience, black freedom struggles offer key insights into how radicalizing opposition to racial domination is a route to a universalist politics of human emancipation grounded in political economy. In the era before WWII, elite consensus viewed capitalist civilisation as a racial and colonial project. Despite claims of ‘post-racial’ and post-colonial transition, it is not clear that capitalism suddenly stopped being what Cedric Robinson termed ‘racial capitalism’. From structural adjustment to subprime mortgages, the naturalisation of the unequal worth of peoples has been retained as one of the surest ways to justify and profit from collectively enforced misery.
By the same token,
black organising and anti-racist activism was at the forefront of the most radical reform periods of U.S. history, including Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the Great Society, while from the early cold war to the Reagan revolution into the present day, overt and implicit racism has been the bedfellow of political reaction. Rather than deriding race-first politics as a mode of neoliberal incorporation, it is healthier when the left actively supports and promotes, as black radicals from CLR James to Ella Baker counselled, independent black political initiative as the bellwether of broader radicalisations.
Let’s also speak about Black Lives Matter. Would you argue that the Black Lives Matter movement is a civil/human rights movement that is creating a new black public sphere? What do you say about the rise of demands for communal self-governance put forward by black communities in the US? Looking at the contemporary ruptures on state power by grassroots struggles across the world, thinking of the Arab Spring, the Occupy Struggle, Rojavan Revolution and Black Lives Matter, do you see commonalities?
It is undoubtedly the case that black lives matter is a new iteration of black counter-public politics in an age of digital media, carceral expansion and hyper-segregation. As important, it is a form of activism born of an era of circulation and social reproduction struggles against the backdrop of secular economic stagnation. The great black radical geographer, Ruth Wilson Gilmore has movingly described what she calls ‘the triple workday’ of black women doing wage work, domestic care work, and social justice work that includes traveling long hours to maintain affective ties with incarcerated loved ones. Women’s work of this kind has long been indispensable to black freedom struggles, and yet also behind the scenes, and often rendered invisible by the practice and discourse of male-centred leadership, and undifferentiated claims about ‘the black community’, (as if it too were not sundered by divisions of labour, gender and sexuality). Black lives matter, by contrast, the hashtag coined by three creative women organisers in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder, has not only foregrounded women’s leadership, but following the pioneering legal and scholarly interventions of black intellectuals like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Cathy Cohen, emphasised the ‘intersectional’ dimensions of racial domination specific to a period that has been defined by the ‘advanced marginalisation’ of the black urban poor.
How black lives matter relates to the movements of the global wave of 2011–2012 remains open and demands a longer, collective discussion. We remain within the long crisis-conjuncture defined by secular stagnation and populations rendered surplus to the requirements of production. In the US, as has often been the case, African Americans in the old urban core were canaries in the coalmine. As early as 1970, sociologist Sidney Wilhelm published a book, Who Needs the Negro? that envisioned a situation in which blacks, increasingly rendered surplus by automation and deindustrialization, would become a population slated for elimination in the manner of the ‘American Indian’. A few years later, in a vitally important book, Policing the Crisis, Stuart Hall and his collaborators observed how a new coercive edge of state racism had begun to re-jigger the domestic Keynesian logic that prized hegemonic consent, toward a tutelary law and order discourse that targeted the racialised poor, black arrivants from former British colonies, theorised as surplus populations.
Neither of these works foresaw the scale of the development of mass incarceration in the United States that was just beginning, and whose leading racial edge metastasised into an arrest and incarceration complex of staggering proportions – one that has grown, in spite of racial disproportionality, across racial lines, and that now also merges with no less formidable migrant detention and deportation complex. Young men without advanced education who were once exploited and used up in the factories and fields, are now slated for idleness and diminution in prison yards, with fastest rising rates of incarceration now occurring among the white, rural poor. Law and order increasingly became something that an ever more austere social welfare state was still able to do, making bondholders and ambitious prosecutors cum politicians, wealthy and successful beyond their wildest dreams, and giving some economically devastated towns and regions a lifeline of public employment via prison labour. It is increasingly clear that this state of coercion and stagnation is producing society wide pressure and instability. Less clear against this backdrop is what will comprise the agency and agent of transformation in what radical poet and theorist Joshua Clover has convincingly described as our ‘age of riots’.
In your work you show how black radicals have tried to adapt a political analysis of colonial societies to American conditions. You have also visited Palestine as part of a delegation. In terms of different forms of racial discrimination and colonial policy, do you see parallels between Israel and the United States; black liberation and the Palestinian question?
Many plausible explanations have been proffered for US support for Israel, including historic guilt for the Jewish victims and refugees of Europe, the establishment of imperial proxy relations in the heart of the world’s energy resources, and the influence of specific lobbying entities inside the US Congress. Yet, an explanation that may require further exploration and elaboration is how Israel became a political-cultural representation of the oldest of US national conceits: the settler colony as the beleaguered Western outpost in a savage and fallen world. More than a ‘special relationship’, US politicians from across the political spectrum tend to imagine Israel as part of a single political community — one whose unity, even across radically dispersed geography and jurisdiction, is precisely defined by its precariousness and justified paranoia in the face of existentially threatening ‘others’. Shadowed by the history of racism — the denial or refusal of any other human precedence in the zone of enclosure — each settler colony has proven uniquely resistant to decolonisation. Persistently disavowing the violence that institutes its rule, it can never be secure, and so it violently doubles-down on its own escapist illusions.
What is new in the Israeli situation today is not settler colonialism which has been the policy of the state of Israel since its inception; it is the breaking apart of the legitimating formula in which Israel is imagined as a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state. ‘Democratic, when and only if Jewish’, would be a more accurate formulation. Indeed, settlers (many of them Americans by birth) increasingly decry Israeli squeamishness around the term democracy. As one veteran Israeli settler leader put it, ‘We didn’t come here to establish democracy, we came here to return the Jewish people to their land.’ Under these terms, support for the millions of indigenous people of this land, the Palestinians, who live here side by side and in exile, and whose demands for equal rights, equal sovereignty, and historical and political recognition already constitute an enormous concession on their part, is increasingly seen by Israel as a threat to the survival of the state itself. This is at the core of the hysterical response to the critique of Israel today – for it is Israel that demands the unwavering equation between Zionism and Judaism, and it is the Zionist project today whose political instability and moral and ethical bankruptcy is visible to anyone willing to see it clearly.
Unsurprisingly, radical black organisations like SNCC and the Black Panthers, and black civil rights leaders, not only leftists, from Jack O’Dell, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson in the 1970s to Angela Davis and Marc Lamont Hill in our own period linked black and Palestinian struggles as part and parcel of the struggle against colonialism, spatial apartheid and unequal citizenship. Where the earlier generation pointed out Israeli support for South African apartheid, the current generation has been at the forefront of challenging Israel’s role in counter-terrorism and police training in the US. Nor has the traffic been only one way. In Ferguson, MO where 2014 protests against police murder of Michael Brown achieved sustained intensity, Palestinians famously tweeted advice to protestors about how to deal with police tear gas, observing that similar tear gas canisters, ‘made in the USA’, had been used on them.
In your recent book Race and America’s Long War, you define race making as a product of American history that goes back to the imperial, settler-colonial, and slaveholding origins of the country. What was the motivation for you to write this book? Can you elaborate more on the intersection of US race and empire? Which are the main arguments that you make?
This question demands a long answer, so I encourage people to read the book! In brief, I’ll say that I began writing the essays collected in this book immediately after the publication of Black is a Country, and in the context of the onset of the Iraq War. It is my effort to make sense of a new era of permanent war in the US and its relationship to new iterations of racial despotism, and it also marks some preliminary thinking about better ways of positing the coeval development of historical racisms and capitalism.
On the eve of the Iraq War, in an essay, whose negative example first inspired me, Michael Ignatieff argued that, whether or not we settled on the term empire, US military intervention in the world at large after 9/11, including the impending Iraq War which he supported, was acceptable because, the US, unlike empires past was not built on ‘colonisation, conquest and the white man’s burden.’ A couple of years later, as Hurricane Katrina exposed the depths of America’s organised abandonment of poor people of colour and the scandal of torture in Iraq and at Guantanamo exposed the gratuitous violence and impunity of America’s overseas wars and military occupation amidst Arab and Muslim peoples, US Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice doubled down on this claim, going Ignatieff one better: ‘Across the empire of Jim Crow, from the upper Dixie to the lower Delta the descendants of slaves shamed our nation and with the power of righteousness redeemed America at last from its original sin of slavery’, Rice argued. ‘By resolving the contradiction at the heart of our democracy, America finally found its voice as a champion of democracy overseas.’
Around the time of Rice’s speech, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco offered a strikingly different directive to Louisiana’s National Guardsman – enjoining them to shoot to kill suspected looters in New Orleans historically African American, ninth ward: ‘These troops are fresh back from Iraq’, she noted, ‘well trained, experienced, battle-tested, and under my orders to restore order in the streets … They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded … [they] know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, if necessary, and I expect they will.’ Running directly counter to the assuring story in which domestic racial progress supposedly ensures the preservation of a benign, world-ordering American empire (one that the election of President Obama three years later once again sought to affirm), Katrina illuminated a different set of through lines long charted within black radical imaginative and activist traditions: namely how the moral and technical infrastructures of imperial warfare overseas and racialised policing at home have consistently blurred in a zone of indistinction.
Race and America’s Long War explores this nexus: the reciprocal relationship between race making and war making in US history, from the lynching-trophy style photographs from Abu Ghraib circulated by soldiers, many of whom previously served as the jailers and wardens of prisoners at home – to the black sites and torture imported into Chicago other urban police precincts after the Vietnam war, even as veteran urban police officers were seconded as interrogators to Guantanamo and various ‘black sites’ of the global war on terror a generation later. As the great black radical activist and intellectual Jack O’Dell wrote in 1967, ‘the road which leads from the Indian massacres of the last century to the Pentagon, an another from the oppressive slave plantation to the ghetto are the major conjunctive highways running through the very centre of US life and history.’ It is a remarkable passage – one that limns the conjunction of what I call “the inner and outer wars” – the continuum of war and policing that marks the most consequential differentiations of group life and death in the history of the US. Equally telling is O’Dell’s use of the metaphor of the highway – framing race and racism as a kind of infrastructure – one organises in an ongoing way, the creation and unequal differentiation of publics and peoples in time and space.
One chapter in the book that may be of specific interest here develops the idea of racism as infrastructure in relation to Marx’s oeuvre, and in particular the concept of so-called primitive accumulation, arguing that when we talk about race and racism in historical terms, we are talking about what has been under changing circumstances, necessary to police and govern life under capitalism in both a technical and an affective sense. The infrastructural aspect helps us to see the ways race/racism is made and remade as a form of material-spatial-symbolic ordering of relations of appropriation (that exceed ordinary relations of class/exploitation) within capitalism. This is important for understanding the durability and reproducibility of racial distinctions via prior infrastructural determinism, much of which has rested on overt racism and colonial dispossession, but that also persists and renews itself even in a context of successful challenges to the legalisation and normalisation of racial ascription.
In some current work in progress, I argue that empire and race should be thought together as practices of government and institutional forms (encompassing more than issues of sovereignty or territory) that have been intrinsic to capital accumulation both via the exploitation of living labor, but also via the appropriation of what Jason Moore calls cheap human and extra human natures (and given social and ecological relationships). Racial and colonial relationships are constituted at this nexus, primarily through creation of fungible commercial and military infrastructures of separation/extraction from these same ‘natures’. Racial and colonial relationships might also be thought of as toxic by-products of this process of creative destruction and destructive creation, leaving poisoned atmospheres, toxic social relations and social identities marked by injury and trauma. It is in this sense that ‘race’ is more than ideological ‘superstructure’ and more (like) an infrastructure: a renewed technical and moral matrix of modern forms of anonymous collectivity.
I believe this approach offers a way out of a common impasse within discussions of race and racism that oscillate between a view of race/racism as a mystification, i.e., superstructure/ ideology/social construction (the left-progressive argument), and temptations of returning to a view of race in terms of ontology, i.e., as the more or less fixed and invariant emanation of anti-blackness as it acts upon bodies (the Afro-pessimist view). It also allows us to recognise how structural racism and capitalism are functionally inseparable. US racial formation has been remade and reworked via large scale public/private partnerships that fashioned material spaces/structures enabling circulation, exchange, extraction, and (unequal) accumulation for some, while enforcing isolation, immiseration, dispossession and arrest, upon others. Once again, in this way racial differentiation is neither ontology/essence nor ideology/superstructure — it is more (like) an infrastructure (think suburbs, prisons, pipelines, or border walls) – a technical and symbolic matrix shaping (probabilistic) communal formations and material distributions of/within modern institutions of anonymous collectivity, (and most pointedly and contentiously within collectivities that share a sphere of legitimate political representation, even though the reach of race/racism as infrastructure is extra-national, and inextricable from capitalism itself).
Many people on the left believe that the Democratic Party cannot be the political organization that will bring significant social transformation in favor of the interests of the subaltern classes. Which is your take on this? Connecting to this issue – what role did Obama play in the recent conjuncture of American politics? Do you agree with the liberal media’s characterization of Trump as a fascist? How is the best way to conduct antifascist politics in the current conjuncture?
In the current moment, the Democratic Party is unlikely to be the vehicle to bring significant social transformation to the US; it is simply too beholden to big donor and corporate interests. That said, for the time being, and in the absence of significant, well-organised extra-party left opposition, it remains a vehicle that is worth struggling over. It will not be easy to break the party duopoly, therefore, I am skeptical of third-party challenges from within the electoral system. Our best hope now is to continue to rebuild the sources of dual power, inside and outside the official Democratic Party, in social movements and in the arena of renewed labor organising. Whatever we do, the forces that are moving will not stand still, and it is likely that we face a long period of political sclerosis within the ruling order, in combination with rising levels of more of less spontaneous upheavals of social discontent and struggle with an uncertain political trajectory.
Obama offered the system temporary stabilization in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash and the military adventurism and illegitimacy of the W. Bush years. The election of a black President speaking soft populist tones of hope and change may have seemed unprecedented, but it was mostly a project of providing soothing balm and laundering a decade of fiscal and military recklessness. In contrast to his critics, I think Obama was actually a competent imperial manager, and perhaps he even believed that restoring government competency was adequate to the crisis-conjuncture and historical precedent he sometimes claimed for himself. He also faced an intransigent and irrational far-right opposition that framed his moderate, even right-leaning centrism as the monstrous off-spring of Bolshevism and the Mau Mau. Rhetorically and intellectually, Obama affirmed the best aspects of the American liberal reform tradition from abolition to the New Deal to the civil rights movement. At times, he explicitly invoked this ‘better history’ as a spur to needed reform. But in the end, he simply ran out the clock to the tune of cautious moderation.
Trump arose as Obama’s self-styled doppelganger. In the campaign, he ventured recklessly outside the proscribed progressive, neoliberal and imperial shibboleths, welding a populism oriented to abandoned heartland producers, advocating a foreign policy combining disengagement with scorched earth unilateralism and sadistically inverting the niceties of neoliberal diversity talk with promises of racial, gender and sexual punishment. But Trump is neither an exception, nor is his a fascist administration, (though he personally may have fascist leanings). The US even under Trump remains a Constitutional democracy. And it is worth remembering that the most vile and violent episodes of US history, from Indian removal to the defense of fugitive slavery, Jim Crow, police repression, red scares and genocidal wars – what black poet Langston Hughes once called ‘our native fascisms’ – have retained a Constitutional imprimatur. Likewise, American racism has long functioned as a medium of decentralised despotism, mediating legal (or state-sanctioned) and extra-legal violence, that is, police power. Still the case.
In short, Trump rides on the train of this history (call it America’s ‘worst history’). Ironically, his fundamental incompetence, vulgarity and illegitimacy poses problems for the right, and even for the center that long ago learned to couch racial and imperial violence in the guise of civility, the rule of law and even human rights. This does not mean that Trump is not dangerous or damaging. Nor does it mean that we are not living in the midst of renewed far-right movements globally. But when Trump finally departs the scene, there will be another attempt to clean up the mess, and to tell us that all is still for the best in the best of all possible American worlds. But it won’t be any more true then than it is now, and when the next shoe drops, those of us fighting for another world, a better world, built on mutual recognition across lines of difference, economic justice, ecological sustainability, and life worth living, better be ready.
The current upsurge of consciously left electoralism, first inspired by Bernie Sanders insurgent 2016 campaign in the Democratic primary, now resumed in 2020, is especially promising as it represents a return to an older and more antagonistic language of class struggle, further to the left of anything we have seen in recent memory and hearkening back to the origins of New Deal era. But Sanders is also fighting a two-front war, against a rapidly consolidating nationalist conservatism that pegs populist themes to deepening racial animus (especially toward migrants), and entrenched boardroom progressivism that has made racial diversity, gender and humanitarian sensitivity tokens of class rule.
Unfortunately, the necessary challenge to persistent race and gender inequality and disparity in economy and everyday life now flows into a politics that is largely captured by political, university and media professionals jockeying for positions within a narrower and more formidably encased class hierarchy. Challenging white supremacy and patriarchal sexual prerogatives, a hallmark of a broad emancipatory aspiration on the left, has in turn been substantially reduced in practical terms to an individualized politics of shame and accusation, one that is also sometimes deployed cynically and opportunistically to take down political opponents and advance careers. Worse, downwardly mobile, non-college educated white voters are often depicted as the font of dangerous racism and reactionary politics, an approach that hinges anti-racism to class contempt.
Deindustrialisation, declining rates of unionisation, spatial apartheid, hyper-incarceration, the criminalisation of immigration policy, moreover, have combined to reconstitute the field of class struggle. A situation in which the nationally bounded working and workless poor are divided and decomposed into the contracted and undocumented, the stable and informal, the fully-employed, under-employed, and formerly incarcerated barred from work, poses serious challenges for a left interested in renovating majoritarian politics centered on the needs of ordinary working and poor people. Solidarity is likely to prove elusive if forms of super-exploitation, labor disposability and criminalised indebtedness, charged by race, gender and national status discrimination, is effectively made the enemy of class politics.
Less concretely, open-ended military authorisation and decades of war-making in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has engendered a more generalised atmosphere of civil insecurity and protean racial animus, including the militarisation of domestic policing and border politics, conflicts over the rights of citizens to bear military-grade weaponry, and recurrent episodes of aleatory mass slaughter. Adding to these challenges, face to face political socialisation developed through neighborhood and class-based workplace associations has given way to anonymous, undisciplined, and easily manipulated social media interchange. University students though increasingly open to left politics, are saddled with unprecedented levels of debt and uncertain employment prospects. Professional non-profits, networked to philanthropic resources and big donor influence hoover up any sign of bottom up, collective initiative, the latter tending to break out more widely, only in ephemeral forms of riot and assembly.
The desire for, and necessity of, an insurgent and organised mass politics capable of articulating political demands remains, but the ecology of collective politics has been fundamentally corroded, fragmented and atomised. The burning question remains: how to get there?