Mon. Oct 22nd, 2018

Can A Leopard Change Its Spots? Undermining the Black Studies Tradition

By Tryon P. Woods

Speaking at a 1971 symposium sponsored by Atlanta’s Institute for the Black World, C.L.R. James made the observation that “all political power presents itself to the world within a certain framework of ideas.  It is fatal to ignore this in any estimate of social forces in political action.”  This is a basic precept in the black studies tradition, but in the post-civil rights era, after the quarantine of Black Power and the emergence of “postracial” discourse, antiblack frameworks function in treacherous and insidious ways.  For some people, the Donald Trump presidency has been as upsetting as his election was shocking.  Many of the books published since Trump became President of the United States have sought to put these developments into perspective, but most of them do not stand outside of the very same framework of ideas that they identify with the president and for which they excoriate him.  “Trumpism,” we are told, is some new kind of especially pernicious white supremacy; or, a vindictive turn in the culture of whiteness—with Supreme Court nominee Brett Cavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in September 2018 depicted as the latest evidence that things have really gotten out-of-hand.  Alternatively, it seems to me that the black studies tradition would behold racism, misogyny (including against Mother Earth), homophobia, and general unabashed elitism and cronyism coming out of the slave-built White House as having long been the order of the day.  From the perspective of the black freedom struggle, we should recall that things have been out of hand, as it were, since at least the time of the first U.S. presidential election, when the slaveholding class anointed one of its own to oversee the consolidation of what Gerald Horne argues is properly understood as the American counter-revolution against the enslaved. 

In his recent book, Race and America’s Longest War, Nikhil Pal Singh offers a long perspective on the historical forces that Trump’s ascendancy has laid bare.  As Singh puts it, the Trump presidency highlights “the violent contradictions of the inner and outer wars,” and brings with it a return to the ideology that “making history sometimes requires turning other people into victims” (183, 180).  The notion of “inner and outer wars,” of borders/policing/racism/violence within and without, is a driving theme across Singh’s book which considers American democracy as a multi-scalar project of conjuring, culling, and confronting enemies domestic and foreign.  These inter-relationships serve as the canvas on which Singh presents a particular conception of “the afterlives of slavery, continental conquest, overseas expansion, and contention with fascism” that reveal the contradictions of a democratic society riven with division and “sectarian racialism” (182, 181).  Race and America’s Long War explores “race making” and “war-making” as an “enduring nexus” of governance, with a particular focus on “how racial devaluation has been inextricable from the state management of capitalism’s destructive creation and creative destruction” (182).

While Singh is not the first scholar to explore these themes, his contribution is noteworthy, in the least, because it indexes contestation over the meaning of racial regime in the post-civil rights era.  Singh’s book is of particular value in its elaboration, across each of its chapters, on how the U.S. is an imperial state, not a nation-state.  Reflecting the recent prominence of settler colonial studies and indigenous studies in the study of race and nation, RALW yokes enslavement and indigenous genocide together, suggesting that the dispossession of Native Americans was always a defense of slavery.  The so-called Indian wars framed U.S. nation-building as war-making by transforming racial violence into the material gains of inclusion and national subjectivity.  Racial violence against enslaved Africans and dispossessed indigenous people thus drives “a racially alchemical conception of U.S. nationality” that continues to shape American imperial reach (34).

On the other hand, a close reading yields concerns regarding the book’s implications for black thought, suggesting that the framework in which Singh critiques U.S. race-making, in fact, may be inimical to black liberation.  First, Singh’s citation practices recall those of the “imperial scholar” that Richard Delgado took to task in his landmark 1984 article on civil rights literature.  Delgado showed that the leading scholars on civil rights law, all staunch advocates for racial justice, were mainly citing each other, and not the burgeoning scholarship of black and Latino scholars in the field.  The consequences of this pattern of neglect, argued Delgado, include “blunting and skewing” the treatment of race, leading to an overall impoverished discourse on a vital set of topics.  Singh, likewise, foists an analysis of racist society upon his readers that is stunted by its reliance on European thinkers well-known for their disavowal of slavery, racial violence, and the unique position black people inhabit in the modern world:  Agamben, Arendt, Clausewitz, Foucault, Kant, Marx, Schmitt, and so forth.  Of course, across one hundred and ninety pages many additional sources are cited, but none of them displace the central framework of ideas traceable back to these European theorists.  In particular, Singh fails to draw upon a black studies tradition that features explicit critiques of these very thinkers.

Singh’s excision of a tradition of black thought means that Race and America’s Long War repeatedly defaults to the fallacious framework of Western social theory and its white nationalism, leading Singh to find historical ruptures where only continuities exist.  Singh states, for instance, that slavery was abolished by “a war of cataclysmic proportions” and “the evolution of ‘standards of decency’” comparable “to the rejection of torture” (89, 117).  On the contrary, as W. E. B. Du Bois explains in Black Reconstruction, the white nation went to war with itself (for at least the second time in its short history) over how to preserve slavery, not whether it should be ended.  The course of history was indelibly altered by the actions of the enslaved peoples themselves, who forced the issue in a variety of ways, not the least of which was their “general strike,” as Du Bois called it.  Thus it is no surprise that during the Civil War’s aftermath, wherein slaveholding culture extended itself beyond the formal institutional and geopolitical boundaries of the slavocracy’s political economy, the “standards of decency” had not evolved much.  Of this post-war period, Singh writes that it “inaugurated an era of state and private violence that seized control over black household formation, sexuality, and embodiment” (89). 

The inauguration of such violence, rather, must be dated back to at least the eighth century when the racial slave trade began in the Indian Ocean by Arab slave traders.  Walter Rodney shows in A History of the Upper Guinea Coast that the slave trade induced Africans to overhaul the social basis of their societies, destroying social bonds within tribes and families, down to the security of the body, in a deathly march from which black people have yet to recover.  As Ayi Kwei Armah writes, “the time will come when those multitudes starting out on the road of death must meet predecessors returning scalded from the white taste of death.”  And so it has been across the generations.  Without this context, Singh repeats the common misconception that the militarization of policing is new.  On the contrary, the maintenance of slavery always mandated a militarized society; and he further errs when he asserts that policing and war make race when they operate beyond “normative barriers to police violence” and “legal barriers to war’s limitation” (67-68).  Against Singh, I would suggest that slavery and its afterlife today informs us that policing is racism’s other name, and as such, is inherently violent; and since impunity is central to the police power against black freedom, policing is law while slaveholding is by definition a war without limit. 

Singh’s imperial scholarship becomes counter-insurgent when it comes to his dismissal of recent developments in black thought regarding slavery’s importance to the contemporary culture of politics.  He asserts without explanation that distinguishing between the worker’s exploitation and the slave’s social death “offers no better answers,” produces intractable analytical and political division, and “express[es] a certain pessimism or even impotence with respect to conjunctural possibilities and ameliorative strategies” (77, 148).  Singh concludes that thinking about the slave’s social death amounts to “thinking at the limit,” which “seems to limit thinking (especially critical thinking) to the most austere conceptualizations of enduring, or entirely unchanging, modalities of racial dominance and state violence (without hegemony) over time” (77, 148).  Why?  And what of it?  Since he does not engage with the substantive grounds on which the theoretical and axiological interventions presented in the work to which he refers stand, the reader cannot know, exactly, to what Singh is objecting so strongly.  Another word for “ameliorative strategies” might be gradualism, and there is ample black thought militantly opposed to the litany of black death associated with such approaches.

In fact, Singh’s entire chapter on “From War Capitalism to Race War” seems geared to send recent scholarship on antiblackness to the back of the multicultural academy’s bus trip into irrelevance.  Namely, Singh appears to be writing against that critical seam in black studies identified with the work of Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson and brusquely termed “Afro-pessimism.” Although Singh does not deign to actually engage with Sexton’s and Wilderson’s work (only acknowledging Wilderson once in a footnote), he nonetheless makes sure to appropriate some of the language that they have helped popularize in recent years (such as “fungible,” “antiblackness,” and “social death”).  Singh’s oblique dismissal of one of the significant theoretical developments in black studies in recent years, claiming without justification that it sows division, pessimism, and impotence, points to the individualist, interpersonal, and emotive dimensions at which he is working, rather than the structural diagnostics in which the so-called “Afro-pessimists” trade.  In the chapter “From War Capitalism to Race War,” nonetheless, Singh puts the “afro-pessimist” intervention on trial in absentia, announcing that his objective is to adjudicate the “links between human bondage and capitalist abstraction, and subsequent racial differentiation within capitalism” (75).  Singh argues that racial domination has always been “woven into the management of capitalist society,” and yet thinkers in the Marxist tradition have failed to adequately attend to this reality (79).  What follows is an extensive discussion of racialism within the history of capitalist production and how Marx does and does not address this phenomenon.  All of this is fine as far as it goes, but what is the point of trying to quarantine slavery within this history, making it a component of capitalist production?  What is to be gained?  What is avoided?  And why is Singh trying to make Marx work on territory that he is not suited for?  The leopard cannot change his spots. 

This approach enables a non-racial analysis that transforms slavery’s foundational position in modern society into an effect of capitalism.  “[W]hiteness did not issue directly from ownership of property, let alone slave property.  Rather it emerged from the protection of private property…” (37).  Why revert to this level of abstraction in the face of recent detailed theoretical and empirical work in black studies building upon the foundational insights of black thought across the generations, from Du Bois to Frantz Fanon to Sylvia Wynter, showing that the purpose of slavery was not solely or even always primarily about the extraction of surplus value?  Du Bois’ notion of “double-consciousness,” proffered immediately on the heels of Marx’s original deconstruction of value, should have forever altered the course of critical thought on the matter by bringing Marxism back down to Earth, recalibrating it for the world as it is, a world constituted in slave relations, rather than wage relations, the fantasy world imagined by Marx and continuously dreamed about by the multitudes of thinkers (including Singh) working from the assumptive logic of exploitation and alienation as the primary language of human suffering.  Du Bois would go on to contribute mightily to revising Marxist thought, from his Black Reconstruction onwards.  But his earliest cut sliced to the bone:  in an 1897 Atlantic Monthly article entitled “The Strivings of the Negro People,” which was later republished in 1903 as “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois introduced the concepts of “the veil” and “double-consciousness” to address the fact that black people alone are alienated from their personhood, not simply from their labor power, and not as a result of capital’s dominance but because of antiblackness. 

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.  One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Du Bois is saying that to be human (“an American”) he must be antiblack (“a Negro”).  In other words, black people embody dis-value, the antagonism is irreconcilable (“two unreconciled strivings”), and in the final analysis, the struggle is to not be antiblack:  with “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”  As Sylvia Wynter reflects:  “I suddenly began to see what Du Bois was trying to get at and what Fanon was going to get at with Black ‘self-alienation,’ which is that ‘I have a consciousness that does not function for my best interest!’  THERE HAS TO BE A WAR AGAINST ‘CONSCIOUSNESS.’  BLACK STUDIES WAS A WAR!”  Above all else, blackness is a cultural value of total negation which all racialized groups are institutionally shaped to know, in their bodies, as if it were natural and as if the culturally constructed categories of blackness and non-blackness were actually biological ones.

Needless to say, Singh must entirely bypass these essential black studies insights in order to conclude as he does that “racism’s toxicity…is a by-product of capitalist abstraction and a material event” (97).  Singh even calls out notable entries in this black studies archive that counter this conclusion—but only to sidestep them.  For instance, he notes that Frederick Douglass “consistently describes slavery as something other than the theft of black labor, emphasizing instead its violent, totalizing claims on black life” (94).  He cannot go there with Douglass, however, for that might force him to think differently about the realities of social death so trenchantly probed by the very black studies scholars that he refuses to name but whose interventions he is clearly motivated to undermine.  What does this mean for Singh’s “use” of Douglass?  Is this not an example of the classic parasitism in which non-blackness consumes its black host?  Or, an example of what Sexton and Wilderson have been teaching about the fungibility of blackness?  Singh’s use of Douglass, then, appears opportunistic and cynical, designed to put a black studies notch in his belt when the larger framework he employs actually works against black historical struggle.  In order for disagreement to be productive, critique must have integrity.

The dismissal of recent scholarship on antiblackness underwrites the study of policing and punishment popularized in recent decades.  The explosion of studies on mass incarceration almost exclusively works through a political economy framework that recognizes suffering in terms of exclusion, alienation, or exploitation, and based on a white nationalist narrative of history in which changes to the state form with deindustrialization and the rise of finance capital spawned a newly draconian policing and punishment apparatus.  Singh enjoins this limited account of our present and how we got here, claiming that the “practices and institutions of the carceral state have long been central to the constitution of regimes of nonpersonhood that overlap with and potentially supersede regimes of racial exclusion” (115).  One might wonder how the prison could supersede that which produces it as but one institutionalization of a slaveholding culture that exceeds any one particular political economic arrangement—but Singh does not explain.  “For at the very moment,” he continues, “when color-blind jurisprudence began to demand the elimination of racial references in law and institutional practice, crime and punishment, particularly under the auspices of the ‘war on drugs,’ began to fashion the prison as the preeminent U.S. racialized space” (115).  Although this statement appears uncontroversial, because Singh is merely reciting the mainstream common sense refrain regarding mass incarceration, the consequence is a crowding out effect on a black studies framework that bears crucial insights for today’s freedom struggle.  The clause in the Thirteenth Amendment, for instance, that remands enslavement to the purview of the criminal justice system, is frequently cited, as Singh does, towards an understanding of the prison as an exceptional racialized space.  This narrative is an example of bad faith.  The clause in question is a design feature, not a design flaw, historically consistent with the original agenda of the Civil War to extend, not end, black unfreedom.  The Thirteenth Amendment, therefore, does not represent the provincialization of slavery, a discrete winnowing of the scope of enslavement to criminal convicts.  On the contrary:  since criminalization is first and foremost a political-symbolic tool, it harkens not to individual behavior but rather to the social itself, to an onto-epistemic framework structuring social relations.  As such, the Thirteenth Amendment oversees the relaboration of democracy’s basis in social captivity—no plantations, no auction blocks, no laws, no prisons necessary.  This analysis is amply on offer in the annals of black radical thought, especially in the writings of political prisoners.  For this reason, Anthony Farley argues that the narrative of historical progress up from slavery is a lie which “is told juridically in the form of the rule of law.”  The prison is not exceptional any more than the police officer who engages in “police brutality” is merely a “bad apple.” 

Singh’s effort in the chapter “Racial Formation and Permanent War” to update Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s decadent racial formation framework reveals what Race and America’s Long War is ultimately about:  it charts the contours of liberal discourse and its multicultural anxieties about democracy and empire.  As with the preceding discussions of Marx and capitalism, this is plateau work:  it does not engage with the ample critiques of racial formation on offer, nor does it seek to elevate racial theory.  We are continually told throughout Singh’s book that “new racial orders are constituted,” but without actual explanation of how the order of antiblackness established through the slave trade and played out daily across the globe today has withered or transformed or been superseded, I am left with a strong feeling of avoidance.

Tryon P. Woods is Associate Professor of Crime & Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth and Special Lecturer in Black Studies at Providence College, and the author of Blackhood Against the Police Power: Punishment and Disavowal in the “Post-Racial” Era (Michigan State University Press, 2019).

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