Racism in American culture: Some observations

It seems to me that since the late 1990s and early 2000s, structural and personal racism in American culture have gotten significantly worse, undoing much of the progress that was achieved from the 60s through the 90s. Representation of people of color in popular culture has declined, and the criminalization of blacks through the War on Drugs was accelerated by the advent of “broken windows” policing. The War on Terror exacerbated the problem, leading to racial profiling and a situation where the majority of people of color portrayed in the media were either domestic criminals or foreign terrorists. Meanwhile, Islam was racialized in a much more intensive way. The same administration that demonized Muslim countries could display criminal neglect of the black victims of Hurricane Katrina, whom the mainstream media shamed as looters and savages.

Paranoia surrounding Barack Obama, a black man with Muslim heritage, brought together both of these racist threads. His presidency was widely viewed as showing that we lived in a “post-racial” society, but the practical effect was to intensify the racist paranoia of a non-trivial portion of the population — it was as though their worst fears had come true. Obama himself is studiously centrist in all of his policy proposals and has consistently been eager to make a deal with Republicans at almost any price, but racially-driven hatred of Obama and a desire to deprive him of any achievements or legitimacy have led them to refuse to take yes for an answer almost constantly.

On the grassroots level, a growing movement of people who are literally protesting against state-sponsored random murder of blacks has faced an uphill battle for recognition and legitimacy in the public sphere, as the criminalization and demonization of black men leaves the majority of whites still giving the police the benefit of the doubt.

Thoughts? Am I being naive about previous eras? Are there some signs of progress that I’m missing?

Policy debate in the age of neoliberalism

Fiscal austerity gets the most attention, but there’s another type of neoliberal austerity that is arguably just as important: possibility austerity. Every policy “debate” is backed into a corner by artificial constraints, where certain obvious solutions are ruled out in advance. For instance, once the idea of Medicare for all or some other single-payer solution is deemed “off the table,” our only options become continuing the status quo or something like Obamacare. Under those constraints, I obviously choose Obamacare — but why were those even the options to begin with?

It’s not just in domestic policy. Perhaps the crassest example of this paint-yourself-into-a-corner logic is the “debate” about drone strikes. Whenever someone criticizes Obama’s flying robot murder program, it’s all but inevitable that a sensible liberal centrist will come along and point out that it’s preferable to sending in ground troops. And maybe it is! The idea certainly has an initial plausibility when we reflect on the trainwreck of Iraq. But again, why are drone strikes and ground troops the only options? There’s one particularly tantalizing option that you never hear much about: simply not killing those people at all. They’re thousands upon thousands of miles away. There’s no evidence I’ve seen that any of them have terror cells based in the US. So just leave them alone. That option leads to no civilian deaths and reduces the deficit.

For my money, the most elaborate version of this logic is education reform. Here we start with the premise that urban public education is impossible. Funding cannot be increased, even though many urban areas are gentrifying at an astounding rate and hence there should be more property tax money available than ever before — but Tax-Increment Funding districts make sure that money never materializes. So basically things are just going to get worse and worse.

That’s the baseline. Within that set of constraints, you know a lot of children will inevitably be left behind, and so you figure out a way to make sure that the good old talented tenth has a way to escape (and join the mainstream power structure). You also might try a few hail-Mary passes, like setting aside public money to gamble that talented edupreneurs can devise some magical new mode of education, or cutting teacher salaries to make sure that everyone who goes into the field is motivated sheerly by love — hence presumably increasing your odds of an inspiring educator and an “O Captain My Captain” moment (although you shouldn’t stand on the desks because the maintenance budget was cut a while back).

In this context, the most heroic political gesture of the last decade came during Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security. Republicans admittedly aren’t as good at coming up with convincing constraints, and so the ruse was much more immediately transparent: either we switch to a private retirement system or else Social Security will go bankrupt and everyone will die. Nancy Pelosi rejected the privatization plan, and when pressed for an alternative, she said: “My alternative is nothing.” In a world of fake crises and forced choices, perhaps doing nothing is the most subversive gesture possible.

Posted in neoliberalism, politics. Comments Off on Policy debate in the age of neoliberalism

The good inequality

My working theory is that virtually no one wants equality as such. They want inequality, but the good kind, the justified kind. Hence it is plausible that someone could rail against the power of the 1% and yet still get snippy: “They want $15 an hour for flipping burgers?!”

The good inequality now would be based on getting a college education, but whether you received that education and the degree of quality would be based solely on your merits and efforts rather than your wealthy parents. Hence the focus in mainstream education reporting on making sure that Harvard’s student body is representative. Never mind that Harvard commands such vastly superior resources in a world where adjunct professors have to buy their own chalk.

It’s weird the directions that meritocracy starts taking you, though. Have you ever noticed how many firm believers in meritocracy seem to assume that taking race into account automatically cuts against a merit-based approached? How the people displaced by the “affirmative action” candidate are always qualified white men? It’s not surprising if we realize that racism was once considered the good kind of inequality. The racial hierarchy — scientifically established, mind you! — was a reflection of inherent merit. After all, how could whites be so much more powerful if they weren’t somehow better on the ontological level?

Those for whom the race-based meritocracy was too crass leaned on the superiority of cultural institutions. Westerners had developed a better culture, more open to innovation, less beholden to sclerotic traditions, more rewarding of good hard work. Never mind that the average peasant from any part of the world worked unimaginably harder than an enlightened colonial administrator could ever claim to. Never mind that every culture by its very nature is continually changing and thus innovating, that every tradition is an ongoing dialogue with the past and not some kind of robotic carrying out of obscure ancient instructions. And of course, one should ignore the fact that Islamic institutions had always been more supportive of commerce and social mobility, highlighting the dumb luck of the West in stumbling upon new technological approaches first.

The same strategies are repeated today when we learn that the black community’s culture is defective, insufficiently supportive of monogamy, sobriety, and responsibility. It’s not that they’re racially inferior, of course, it just so happens that one racially defined group has developed systematically better institutions than another racially defined group, which justifies the differential treatment of the two groups… And so we’re back to classic racism in all but name.

More enlightened approaches to the good kind of inequality recognize that every race has its “talented tenth” — and seeks to harvest that 10% to serve the dominant power structure. This seeming equality of opportunity, by depriving subaltern communities of their most talented potential leaders, reinforces the subordination of the whole even as it allows greater room to maneuver for selected individual members. One might think here of the juxtaposition of a black president and the callous murder of blacks by the police.

Even in the best kind of inequality, someone’s life chances have to be thwarted. Someone’s single life on earth, the only shot they get, has to be squandered. People demonize equality as totalitarian uniformity — but true equality would be the equality of a livable life for everyone. That would look different for different people, and I think it’s fair to say that such a life might contain its share of tedium and toil (rendered more bearable by its being shared and unstigmatized). It’s hard to predict in advance how to achieve this in all cases, but it seems to me that seeking the good, justified form of inequality is always going to lead us back to racism — hence it’s worth the effort of trying to figure out the elusive “what it would look like.”

What’s lost in the immigration debate

The majority of immigration to any given Western country comes from areas that have either been colonized by that country or else stand in a looser relationship of subordination and dependency. While presumably there are still at least two or three people who believe the ideological bullshit of the “civilizing mission,” most adult human beings recognize that the whole point of colonization and subordination of other countries is to gain access to their wealth and resources so that they can be expropriated for the enrichment of the colonizer or dominant country.

Hence it’s not just that the target country happens to be rich while the immigrant’s home country happens to be poor (or, I might add, in political turmoil, in a state of civil war, etc., etc.). Those conditions hold in the home country because of the destructive effects of Western involvement — not just during the era of “official” colonization, but on an ongoing basis. People generally don’t leave prosperous, self-sufficient countries en masse in order to drive cabs and clean hotel rooms in a foreign country where they will be hated and scapegoated.

Rather than recognize this simple truth and act with some basic human decency, though, the former and current imperial powers choose to demonize the immigration their own exploitative and unjust domination has produced — and they would rather let the people whose nations they continue to despoil drown or die in the desert than let them drive those cabs and clean those hotel rooms.

Expelling the Demos

If dramatic inequality and profound immiseration are the phenomenological appearance of the manifold contemporary economic technologies for extracting surplus value and enacting surplus populations, these ever more primitive accumulations require thinking beyond the usual terms of “injustice” and “poverty.”  Saskia Sassen has recently proposed the paradigm of “expulsion” to understand today’s plutocratic brutality. In the domain of politics, Wendy Brown has similarly suggested that “the demos” has been expelled from democracy.  What are the interrelations of these dynamics?  InterCcECT is delighted to host a mini-seminar on these questions with Professor Ignacio Sanchez Prado, who will guide us through the first chapters of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution and Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy.

4pm, 4 May, Institute for the Humanities, UIC

request readings from interccect at gmail dot com

While he’s in town, Professor Sanchez Prado will also give a talk at the University of Chicago on 5 May, “The Golden Age Otherwise: Cosmopolitanism and Mexican Cinema, circa 1950″

What if the Iranians are people too?

I can’t claim to be an expert on the internal politics of Iran, but my meager efforts are surely better than the active anti-knowledge that is spreading around the Iran nuclear deal. I’ve ranted on Twitter a bit, and I thought I’d write down some longer-form thoughts here, in no particular order.

It was rational for Iran to seek a nuclear deterrent. The US had already toppled a democratically-elected Iranian government and replaced it with an autocrat. They were able to regain their independence, and since then they have been treated as a total pariah. Two neighboring countries were subsequently invaded by the US simultaneously, after the US had declared Iran to be part of the “Axis of Evil.” They could also see that the US helped to overthrow the government of Libya after Libya had given up its nuclear ambitions and become a “good citizen” in the “international community.” It would be insane for a country in that position not to seek the ultimate weapons trump card to prevent an invasion, because an invasion is literally the worst thing that can happen to a country.

Iran is not going to commit national suicide to destroy Israel. Everyone knows Israel has a nuclear deterrent. The very fact that Iran was seeking a nuclear deterrent shows them to be rational actors, and so we have to conclude that they would also be rationally deterred by a nuclear deterrent.

Negotiating an end to the nuclear program was also rational. Creating a nuclear bomb takes a long time and is difficult to hide. It was becoming increasingly clear that Iran could not get across the nuclear finish line before their very efforts to deter a future invasion directly caused a present invasion. Hence, quite rationally, they sat down to negotiate with the most reasonable US president they were likely to get. It’s also in their interest to quite unambiguously comply with the agreement, because again, they are rational people who care about their country and don’t want to see it overrun and destroyed.

It is legitimate for a country to seek to influence events in its own region. People act as though Iranian influence in the Middle East is some nefarious and illegitimate agenda all rational people should oppose. In reality, Iran is in the Middle East. It is actually physically located there. It would be ridiculous for it not to seek to influence events that directly impinge upon it in physically contiguous countries. What’s more, Iran is a relatively rich and powerful country with a long history of taking a leadership role in what is, just to review, its own part of the world.

Colonialism is a terrible historical evil. We in the West are inclined to view the 20th Century as the story of overcoming the two great evils of Nazism and Communism, but everyone else would add a third item to that list: colonialism. Resentment toward colonialism is especially great in the Middle East given that the US continually meddles in their affairs, usually in hugely destructive ways, and given that the Middle East includes the most recently-established settler colony, which is itself backed up by the meddling imperial power. We’re always on the lookout for the next Hitler, but in the Middle East, they don’t have to be vigilant against one of the great 20th century evils because it is constantly ongoing. And the US is responsible for maintaining that situation!

“Anti-American rhetoric” is thus not some kind of randomly chosen prejudice, but an understandable response to the US’s ongoing actions. Anti-Semitism is obviously more unfortunate as a reaction, but we should understand its context in colonialism and not imagine that it’s “religious” which makes it magically determinative of all their actions in a way that defies reason (hence their supposed willingness to commit national suicide). In reality, the only leader in history who was willing to risk national suicide to kill all the Jews was a Western leader named Adolf Hitler, whose rise was enabled by the bungling and vindictiveness of other Western leaders in very specific historical circumstances that are absolutely nothing like anything that is even remotely happening in the Middle East right now, you fucking ignorant fucks.

So yeah.

Exhausted Politics: A Few Comments on the Video for Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes (and Count to F**K)”

Run the Jewels just released a video for one of my favorite songs on their recent album. The video is hard to watch, if only because there is something hard to watch in the fictional violence against a black man that is expressive of the images of real violence we have seen every month and that others have been seeing long before social media made this available to wider audiences. The video is open to lots of poor readings, including one I saw on Facebook by a certain popular, nihilistic appropriator of black culture. It’s not really important to name names here, but the reading he gave was that there is a certain reversibility in the image of the struggle between the white cop and the black man. It’s a poor reading in large part because it takes an abstract expression captured by film as if it were supposed to be a documentary or even as if these images were supposed to be didactic. But it’s also poor simply because the supposed reversibility is not present. The cop expresses his positionality as an instance of an institution with his uniform, with his gun, his mace, with his handcuffs, with this lights and sirens, and so on. These are progressively lost throughout the video, but it isn’t as if the black man gains them, or takes on the position. The only one who is able to issue a command, to make a declaration, thereby being the voice of an institution, is the cop (“Don’t you fucking run!”). Of course the only response to such a demand is to start running and to look for a weapon as you do. In so far as the black man expresses he does so through without the recourse to language, without the structure that would project him into transcendence, he has no ground but his own existence, his own expression in the flesh.

Generally I tend to avoid reading an artist’s statement on their own work. The work itself expresses and when I write on that work I like to think I’m building and riffing off the work, rather than providing the true reading of it. But I see the artist’s statement as their own act of riffing and building, without any particular access to the truth of the work either. So I’m largely setting aside AG Rojas’ remarks aside. But, he is very clear that these two figures are not meant to stand for the reality, that these are precisely archetypes in his words. Instead of looking at the video as an instance of reversibility, shouldn’t we see it rather as an instance of the struggle between the master and the slave? And perhaps this exhausted tussle is an advance upon the mixed determination present in Hegel of these figures. That they are an abstraction is the point. They are an abstraction in the form of thinking through the problematic of America, not just police violence against black people, but America as such as a country built upon violence against black people and that’s why the video is largely successful in my view. As the tussle plays out upon a background emptied of any people, of anything but the struggle, we are given a meditation on the relationship of blacks/whites as such. In that relationship the few glimpses of triumph or relative transcendence are scenes of the black man. Free from the relationship with the cop as such, but this only exists as a virtual possibility as they sit on the marriage bed, a loveless marriage to one another as the train that calls itself progress rings in the distance.

One of the first things that struck me as I was watching was a remark that James Cone made in an interview with Bill Boyers some years back.

JAMES CONE: […] Now, you don’t get away from that by not talking about it. That’s too deep. Germany is not going to get away from the Holocaust by not talking about it. It’s too deep. So, America must face up that we are one community. We– you know, if anybody in this society– if anybody is brother and sister to the other, it’s black people and white people because there is a– there is a tussle there that you cannot get out of. It is a– it is deeply engrained in our relationship to each other in a way that’s not with anybody else–

BILL MOYERS: How do you mean?

JAMES CONE: –in this land.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

JAMES CONE: Because 246 years of slavery, number one. We have built this country. White people know that. Then, after slavery, segregation and lynching, we still helped built this country. So, it’s a history of violence […]

This familial tussle (either between brothers or something more sinister) plays out as exhaustion in the video. The relationship is one of exhaustion precisely because politics is exhausted in this relationship. While one form of (white supremacist) politics is constituted by this relationship (a politics we are all exhausted of), even the higher politics is exhausted by this relationship. Even the cop, a willing pawn in the construction of the exhausting politics, is exhausted. Or, as Fred Moten puts it to white people regarding any possible coalition, “I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

I can think of no better filmic expression of the feeling of exhaustion than this video, of being exhausted before the present political options, and so expressive of the need to think of something else. Or at least to find a way out of the exhausting relation of this kind of politics as such. Or at least that’s my reading.

Posted in politics, pop culture. Comments Off on Exhausted Politics: A Few Comments on the Video for Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes (and Count to F**K)”
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