This season of darkness and of lights is traditionally a time of taking stock, both spiritually and politically, of assessing where we are and asking where we are –and ought to be– going. And we cannot help but enter this season deeply troubled. This year brought a Republican victory in the US general elections and the verdicts in the Brown and Garner cases which cannot help but draw attention to the constitutive and enduring role of racism in the United States.
If we are to understand these events properly, however, we must situate them against the background of both the specific character of racism in the United States, the broader period of civilizational crisis which we are now entering, the structural dynamics of fully realized global Capital, and the constellation of forces which has been in place since the election of Barack Obama and the Great Recession. The conclusions at which we will arrive are sobering, but we must come fully to terms with them if we are to move forward.
There have, historically, been two broad positions regarding the nature of racism in the United States. The caste/class theory, rooted in the interpretive sociological tradition but embraced in only slightly revised form by much of the moderate left, regards racism as fundamentally a means of legitimating the system of planation slavery, in the context of which most (though not all) African Americans were slaves by birth. The Civil War and Emancipation ended slavery but not the plantation system and Jim Crow replaced slavery as a way of controlling African American labor. It is only with the mechanization (and liquidation) of Southern agriculture and the resultant Great Migration that the social conditions for transcending racism emerged. And even then, the existence of split labor markets and discrimination which kept African Americans in nonunionized, lower skill, lower technology sectors slowed progress. But within a few decades, as a result of of the Civil Rights Movement, explicit discrimination based on race became illegal in the United States. This does not mean that racism has disappeared but, according to advocates of this theory, such as William Julius Wilson, whose Declining Significance of Race is the principal contemporary statement of it, racism is no longer the principal problem facing African Americans. Rather, it is the fact that most are resource poor and cannot take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the Civil Rights Movement. It is, in other words, a question of class rather than racial oppression.
There is much to commend this theory. Among other things, Wilson is quite right that whatever affirmative action may have accomplished, it is not enough to address the situation of many inner-city African Americans. But Wilson’s approach offers little to help us explain either the Ferguson or Staten Island verdicts, or the reaction of most of “white” America to these verdicts.
The second approach to the problem of racism in the United States considers racism as an ideology which legitimates national oppression. According to this view African Americans are a colonized people, either an emerging nation in their own right or part of a larger Pan-African nation. The struggle against racism is fundamentally a struggle for national liberation understood as self-determination, up to and including the right of secession. The question, of course, is just who and what would “secede” from what and how? Advocates of the Black Nation thesis, such as the Communist Party of the USA, historically argued for the existence of an African American homeland in the Black Belt South which would be the subject of such a national liberation struggle, not unlike anticolonial struggles in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Pan-Africanists have generally regarded historically Black territories as part of a larger Pan-African civilizational domain, leaving the political content of “self-determination” for the Pan-African nation rather more difficult to define.
This thesis too has merits. Clearly African Americans constitute a people and self-determination as a people is integral to transcending racism. And how ever unproductive polemics between Pan-Africanists and Black Nationalists may sometimes have become, sorting out what constitutes a shared African and African diasporic identity and what is unique in the Black American experience is an important task.
This said, it was never clear how control of the poorest, most underdeveloped parts of the South, however much they may have been the cradle of the emerging African American people, would constitute just compensation for centuries of slavery and oppression. And “soft” implementation of the self-determination agenda, relinquishing nominal control of major city governments and related institutions to African Americans, where these institutions lack adequate resources to perform their basic functions, is nothing more than a neocolonial ploy. Self-determination: yes! But what can it mean in the present period, under the social conditions which have actually emerged?
The fact is that these two theses are neither incompatible nor, even when brought together, fully adequate. From a material standpoint, the oppression of African Americans has taken a variety of forms, from plantation slavery, through share-cropping supported by Jim Crow, to exclusion from the more highly skilled, unionized sections of the proletariat. It is also true that, as William Julius Wilson has argued, these precapitalist forms of exploitation and split labor markets have been very largely transcended, so that those African Americans with access to capital, economic, political, social, or cultural, can in fact advance significantly, while those without these resources are left behind. And these diverse forms of economic exploitation were the product of the conquest of Africa and the formation of a colonial plantation society in the Caribbean Basin, something which formed an integral part of the process of primitive accumulation of Capital, especially for England and North America. This, in turn, gives the process of African American ethnogenisis an anti-imperialist character which it shares with other national liberation struggles.
Such an analysis, however, leaves out two factors which are essential to understanding racism in the United States. First, from the economic vantage point, it says little about the current economic trajectory of the African American community, and especially the part of that community which has been “left behind.” Second, it misses the specific form which racist ideology takes in the United States, and thus leaves opaque the forms of oppression still suffered even by those African Americans who have benefited significantly from the Civil Rights Movement, affirmative action, etc.
With respect to the first factor, the critical development is the gradual emergence on a global scale of mass surplus populations. As information technology advances, routine human labor, even skilled labor, becomes redundant and more and more of the population is simply incapable of being profitably exploited by Capital. This is the economic reality behind the genesis of what Girogio Agamben calls the homo sacer, human beings who, lacking any value to Capital, are progressively stripped of any juridical status whatsoever, so that they become fair game for those who, finding them a mere annoyance –or more likely a profound threat– choose to eliminate them.
While this process is just beginning, those African Americans who lack the assets to profit from affirmative action are among the very first populations in the United States to be affected by it. They lack the skills to be productively exploited and it is simply not worth the investment, from the vantage point of Capital, to provide them with such skills, since it is no longer a question of simply learning a trade or technical skill, but rather of becoming a high level innovator and problem solver. This same process is, however, also affecting other sectors of the population, including many so-called “whites” with higher skill levels and a history of occupying a more privileged –if still exploited– niche in the marketplace. These “whites,” not surprisingly, have become increasingly anxious to defend their rapidly eroding privileges and prevent their own, ultimately inevitable transformation into surplus population effectively outside the Law of Capital, which is ultimately the only law that matters.
Both the reduction of African Americans to the status of surplus population and the “white” resistance to their similar reduction takes the form of an invocation of the specific form racism which is peculiar to the United States. This is the imputation to all African Americans of what amounts to the status of hereditary felons.
This might at first seem like a bizarre thesis. Certainly no one, even the most rabid racist, actually goes around thinking about African Americans as hereditary felons. But that is because like all really effective ideological dynamics, this one is batin or hidden, and operates below the level of conscious awareness. In order to find evidence of it we must read deeply and between the lines …
The text we must read is John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Most of us have read it, to be sure, but most of us have also missed entirely what is being said. This is because, especially in the United States, the text is usually read as an argument that human beings are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property, that governments exist to protect these rights, and that governments can be removed when they fail to do so. It is read, in other words, as the background text to the Declaration of Independence, which is regarded as a modest improvement on the original, substituting “the pursuit of happiness” for property. We rarely ask how or why the Creator endowed us with these rights.
When we begin to look more closely at the text, we discover that the foundational right, for Locke, is really that of property. One owns what one creates, and God created us, so we are His property. Because we are God’s property, no one can rightly kill, harm, restrain, or steal us. Even we can’t do these things. We can’t commit suicide and we can’t sell ourselves into slavery. And we enjoy a subsidiary property in the things with which we mix our own labor, or life, subject to God’s right of eminent domain.
Our liberty, therefore, is founded on our status as the property of another, i.e. on our condition of slavery to God. This is a peculiar way to ground liberty, but it would seem, at least, to rule out the enslavement of one human being by another. Except that it doesn’t.
John Locke was deeply implicated in the emerging institution of Plantation Slavery in North America and the Caribbean Basin and wrote the Constitution of the Carolina Colonies which permitted chattel slavery. We could, to be sure, simply dismiss this as inconsistency or hypocrisy. Neither is uncommon. But there is, as it turns out, a hermeneutic key hidden in Paragraph 23,, Chapter IV, of the Second Treatise which provides another way to legitimate slavery. Human beings cannot sell themselves to another, but there are those who have, however, “by fault forfeited [their] own life, by some act that deserves death” and “he to whom he has forfeited it may, (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service, and he does him no injury by it.”
Now it is not clear that Locke understood or intended this clause to legitimate a system which, in his time, was only beginning to emerge. But if one regards an individual as legitimately enslaved, while upholding the rest of Locke’s system, the implication can only be that the slave is a felon –indeed one worthy of capital punishment.
This might seem like it tells us more about Locke’s implicit racism than it does about racism in the United States today –until we realize that one of the enduring forms of racism, even after all the victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the election of a Black man as President of the United States, is the mass incarceration of Black Men and the subjection of the African American community as a whole, including its more privileged members, to arbitrary detention under circumstances when a “white” person would be unlikely to even be questioned, and to systematic police brutality of the sort which manifested itself in the Brown and Garner cases and the verdicts which followed.
The implication is simple but stark. Blacks may have served their sentence (slavery), but the status of felon endures and is indeed inherited. Every Black is regarded as, at root, a criminal and therefore a threat subject to “special attention” from the criminal justice system. It is this, I would argue, rather than any conviction of biological or cultural inferiority, which defines racist ideology in the US. Indeed, other subaltern peoples are subsumed under this criminal status by various mechanisms suitable to their situation. Latinos generally and Mexicans in particular become “illegal immigrants,” when in fact no criminal law has been violated. Muslims become “terrorists,” etc.
One might, of course, look elsewhere for ideological sources of the mass criminalization of African Americans, such as the old idea of the Curse of Ham. But this was always a marginal idea and while it might still influence (explicitly or subliminally) a handful of extreme sectarians, the core form of racism in the US is, at the ideological level, at least, the idea that African Americans are not members of a common body politic which exists to protect rights they share with “whites” and everything else in God’s creation, but rather the very threat to these rights for which the body politic was established in the first place.
If this is the nature of the problem, then what is the solution? The answer is quite simple but, unfortunately, as the past six years have shown us, also fantastically difficult. Transcending racism means redefining what it means to be an American. We must leave behind the Lockean narrative in which America exists to protect the God given rights of (white) property owners and embrace in its place a de Toquevillian narrative of America as a communitas communitatum in which many different peoples have come together to create a shared space in which they can follow different and even competing ways, creating a complex, multilayered and multitextured narrative in which no one thread is dominant.
From this point of view the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, both because he is an advocate of such an understanding of what it means to be an American and even more so because he is of African heritage, was a momentous occasion. It will be a long time before France elects a maghrebi President, or Germany a Turkish Chancellor. The United States is at least open to a discussion about what it means to be an American.
The fact that the President of the United States is head of state and not just head of government, in fact, makes the election still more momentous. One cannot be both homo sacer and sacral monarch, which is a function the President of the United States fulfills while in office, even if he does not take on this status personally.
This said, those of us who celebrated Obama’s election as a victory may have overlooked the significance of one of the critical events during the course of his campaign: the Jeremiah Wright affair. Let me say to begin with that I utterly reject Rev. Wright’s comments on the role of Jews in the United States and on the nature of the state of Israel, as organically antisemitic. That said, the impact of the controversy on the Obama campaign and the Obama presidency was disastrous. When Obama was put in a position in which he had to reject his association with Rev. Wright he was forced, in effect, to distance himself from the African American religious tradition, of which Rev. Wright is a fairly mainstream member. A caveat was, in effect, added to Obama’s election victory reading “this electoral mandate shall in no way be interpreted as implying the official integration of the African American narrative, as embodied in the traditions of the African American Church, into the larger American narrative.”
The Jeremiah Wright controversy was, to be sure, not enough to entirely undercut the impact of Obama’s election on American Civil Religion. The chorus of post-election attacks claiming that he was not born in the United States, is secretly Muslim, etc., i.e. not a real American, demonstrates that the impact of his election was real. But the affair was enough to leave the President wounded and his mana drained. (It is a further commentary on the dynamics of American Civil Religion that the award of a Nobel Prize which was, to be sure, arguably premature, almost certainly hurt his standing more than it helped it at home.) And so now, six years later, a country which should have been basking in pride at how far it had coming in transcending its racist history by electing a Black Head of State is instead in midst of yet another racist relapse.
Where do we go from here? Clearly it is important to improve police recruitment, training, pay, and accountability, especially accountability to the communities served. But antiracist policies can only go so far towards transforming racist structures.
It is also important to continue to re-tell the American story. I think that there is good reason to believe that as Barack Obama leaves behind his imperial and sacral monarchic responsibilities, he will embrace the prophetic calling which has been his true vocation all along. He may be far more powerful beyond the presidency than he has been in it, and if so then our story is about to rewritten in ways we can only imagine.
But African Americans cannot win this battle on their own. They need, rather, for Americans of European descent to begin to deconstruct the “white” identity we have embraced for too long. This is, in fact, a vacuous identity with no real ethnoreligious content. It is, indeed, an identity most of us were granted only on condition of relinquishing our authentic identities as Polish, Jewish, Italian, Sicilian, French, German, Irish, Scottish, and yes even English Americans. It is the identity of the property owner whose rights the state exists to protect against those outside the law. But in truth we are not those property owners and imagine that we are only at our own peril. We, too, are increasingly “surplus population.” We, too, are homo sacer. And it is only when we embrace both our authentic history and our emerging identity with and as the dispossessed and the radically excluded that we will be able to address what faces us in this, the final stage of Capital.
And this brings us to our final task. Racist ideology cannot be defeated until its material basis has been overcome. We imagined that we had done this in ending slavery, sharecropping, and the split labor market. What we did not realize was that these targets fell so easily only because they were losing their value to Capital. (And of course the split labor market was overcome, at least in part, by abolishing its more privileged stratum). Capital and its techne are rapidly liberating themselves from the need for human labor at all. We are all becoming redundant. And the idea that those who are unemployable (read unexploitable) are outside the protection of the law, are in fact what the law exists to protect property owners from in the first place: this is the legal premise of the emerging Saeculum, a premise which is racist at its leading edge but universal in its ultimate implications. Defeating this idea and the Saeculum it sustains is the condition of any possible human future.