I am reading The New Jim Crow in preparation for a class that I teach on inequality and social policy. As I read I keep thinking to myself, “This is why Black people emigrate from America.” I know that emigration is no panacea (believe me I do), but the U.S. has been and continues to be such an abominable expression of the dehumanization of African people.
What’s more, we are presented with (sham) democracy as one solution to our problems, yet little historical evidence suggests that this has ever been consequential in us improving our lot here. In fact we have yet to mount an effective response to the corrupting influence of neoliberal capitalism on the American political process so as to remove obstacles to the unfettered expression of our agency.
The most visible and vocal response that we have seen of late by African people to America’s continued odyssey of racial terror is the use of mass protest and civil disobedience. While these do have a place in movements for social change, they are also ill equipped to facilitate both a transformation of the political-economy of U.S. society or to provide the ideological and tactical instruments requisite for us to transform our communities. Impassioned appeals to or denunciations of a recalcitrant foe will not bring about their undoing. In the end, when the emotional fervor has inevitably exhausted itself, we will be back where we started.
Our history at the end of the 19th Century demonstrates two responses wherein community formation were central to our resistance to White racist tyranny. The formation of independent communities was one. This was a dynamic solution that saw the establishment of independent Black communities throughout the nation. This is something that we must study in order to understand the ideological and structural mechanisms that compelled these acts. While our capacity to do this today may seem limited due the capitally-intense nature of such an approach, we mustn’t dismiss the enormous waste that occurs in our slavish indulgence of America’s culture of mass-consumption. Money that could (re)build a Black economy now enriches the already super-rich.
Another response from over a century ago was emigration. But this was a far cry from what we see today, the movement of individuals and families to far-flung global destinations. Instead people sought to create societies and communities for those who dared to leave the U.S. Of course these efforts abounded by contradictions, which must also be studied. However they do offer lessons. Moreover, the centuries’ old ideal of African American’s resettling abroad is gaining new traction as many seek to relocate their bodies and their human capital elsewhere. A particularly compelling potential manifestation of this might be the creation of a modern community on the continent that acts as a beacon for diasporic Africans that provides assistance in such tangible areas as resettlement, housing, entrepreneurship, education, and the like. The formation of a single community of this kind or of several would be an interesting signpost of the maturation of the emigration strategy in modern times.
I will close with an excerpt from a book chapter that I’m writing on Du Bois and Woodson that aptly captures our past and present, but hopefully not our future. “Du Bois and Woodson recognized that Black people, as ever, stand at the precipice, facing on one side a familiar tyranny and on the other a new world that exists just beyond the bounds of our knowing and the fruits of our unfettered social agency.”
Like a body that rejects a transplanted organ, so too has America continuously repulsed any effort to reconcile the contradictions inherent in its inception—its allegiance to white supremacy in the face of its vaunted democratic ideals. The hard-fought independence won at the end of the 18th Century, the attempt to erect a legal framework ensuring a limited racial equity after the Civil War, and the Civil Rights victories of the mid-20th Century all reveal themselves to have been illusory in so far as the status of African Americans is concerned.
The backlash against these progressive gains and the general institutionalization of a truly multi-racial democracy are not just the features of a bygone era. They live in the dogged pursuit of alleged voter fraud that results in recurring challenges to African American voters, the provision of insufficient polling places that serves to discourage Black voters during major elections, partisan redistricting that reduces African American voting power, the invocation of racist hostility in the form of xenophobia and recalcitrant opposition to the generally moderate presidency of a man of African descent, the antipathy towards the mild suggestion that Black life has some value necessitating reform of policing practices, the transformation of the Black community into an open air prison via processes of mass-incarceration and policing practices that amount to racialized containment, the dismantling of the state apparatus which disproportionally affects African American lower and working class citizens, the denial of capital to African American communities, the targeting of Black borrowers for high-interest home loans, the pervasive underemployment and unemployment of African Americans, the generalized and institutionalized failure of schools serving Black communities, and on, and on, and on.
The American body has rejected a retrofitted “racial tolerance” and the call to move beyond pretense to actual democracy. The vitriolic rhetoric of politicians about Muslims, Mexicans, and African American activists are not novel occurrences in and of themselves. They are an echo of another time, a time that, far from resembling the horror that was the lived experience of many people of color in general and Black people in particular, is reconfigured as a halcyon mirage of idyllic tranquility, where naked racialized terror was but one instrument of White dominion. The appeals to that past are also an invitation for its return. After all, it was never truly rejected, simply asked to stand aside while the sham of a multi-racial democracy was momentarily instantiated, undermined, and then summarily dismissed as untenable due to the incompatibility of the American body with the incessant demands for an honest redress of its past and present misdeed
But like any body that rejects a transplant, the American body does so at its own peril. The fervor to embrace a virulent, racist past encoded as a restoration of greatness and order, is also an appeal to a profound simplicity, the notion that reactionary ideology is sufficient to solve the deep structural problems born of decades of deindustrialization, disinvestment in the public sector, privatization of state assets, the slow erosion of civil liberties, resource scarcity, militarism, and climate change is beyond foolhardy—it is madness. But America, in the abyss of madness masked as courageous defiance, may mistake lunacy for reason, after all the howling mob is invariably convinced of the rightness of its actions. To this, many a decimated Black soul can attest.
The longing for home is most acute among a people dispossessed of one. Some of us, in desperation, lay claim to the desert, seeking to make a home for ourselves within it. Predictably however, the desert does not give life. It takes life and returns death.
Since we’re at this supposedly progressive moment, with the state declaring a posture of non-interference in the rights of sexual minorities to legally marry, I wonder if this sentiment of non-interference can now be extended to the cessation of the extra-judicial killings of Africans, the cessation of destabilization campaigns and surveillance of African social movements, the cessation of the media assaults on African American culture and identity, the cessation of neoliberal structural reforms in African states and communities globally, the cessation of birth control schemes in Africa, the cessation of medical experimention on African Americans, the cessation of population displacements (i.e., Black urban removal) in the global metropoles and their satellites, the cessation of toxic dumping in African communities globally, the cessation of political assassinations by the west of African political leaders, the cessation of economic terrorism by the banking industry in African American communities, the cessation of the mis-education and de-education of Black children, the cessation of the displacement of Black educators via contemporary educational reforms, the cessation of promoting the false iconography of Black deviance and criminality, and ultimately the the cessation of the historic and on-going suppression of the rights of Africans to be self-determining. However we all know that these actions are and will continue to be incessant. Thus absent a fundamental dismantling of the systems of white supremacy and global capitalism I see little cause for celebration.
This moment of jubilation for some is a mere adjustment, the inclusion of a formerly marginalized group within the state apparatus. It is a reformist victory. It is not in any way revolutionary.
The state continues to drip with the blood of extinguished Black lives. The machinations of our collective demise function unimpeded.
Embrace the revelry of forgetfulness for remembrance dampens the jubilant spirit.
Darren Wilson was held to account today to the same degree that he would have been in 1914 for the murder of an unarmed Black person. The passage of a century does not signify any humane valuation of Black life. Quite the contrary, Black folks are viewed as a social malignancy, subject to arbitrary violence, harassment, and neglect. There is nothing new here. White supremacy continues to dominant America.