In studying race-liberal orders, my goal has been to illuminate the de-materializing properties of official antiracisms, when it comes to redistributing life-sustaining materials and ending group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, and the generative properties of official antiracisms, when it comes to postwar capitalist globalization.1 In other words, the narrative is one of how dominant antiracisms have disconnected racial reference from material conditions, even as they have linked the overcoming of racism to U.S. leadership for global capitalism.
The rationalizing and normalizing powers of antiracist knowledges have made this possible, and I’ve concentrated in particular on the usefulness of literary studies for producing and regulating knowledge about difference and on how state antiracisms have powerfully monopolized the rationality for understanding “how things are.”
As race-liberal orders of difference have shaped the permissible content of both national cultural discourses and more specialized discourses (e.g., law, politics, history, and economy), they have integrated the knowledge architecture that structures historical global capitalist development (possessive individualism, property rights, culture as property, market economies, and deregulation) into what racial equality may signify, or what may signify as racial equality. Since the decisive suturing of U.S. globalism to official antiracisms, the tendency of dominant antiracist knowledges has been toward more and more abstraction. This movement has cohered with the fact that official antiracisms have been necessarily better at dissimulating global capitalism as fair, beneficial, or socially progressive than capitalism has been at alleviating oppression. With neoliberalism, antiracism has become so abstracted and dematerialized that now, at the same time that a multicultural formalism provides unity for national and global publics, racial capitalism is as vicious as ever, spurred by neoliberal conditions of extreme wealth inequality and the privatization of race-based exclusions.2
The fact that in the circles of white ressentiment called the Tea Party “White” has become the “New Black” illustrates how extremely antimaterialist (anti)racist discourses have become. Tea Partiers see themselves as victims of racism, even while advocating, with only decorous indirection, for a white supremacist resurgency. Taking to the extreme the neoconservative position that government has become an instrument for serving racial minorities, Tea Party members claim love for the Constitution not as a founding document of government but as the bible for aggressive American individualism, even as they repeatedly use the N word to refer to Congress and its elected members.3 One of the chief propagandists of the movement, Glenn Beck, has repeatedly claimed a deep identification with Martin Luther King Jr. and even held a large rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream Speech.” Such claiming of Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero by leaders of antigovernment, prowhite affinity groups has become commonplace.4 Going beyond neoconservative appropriations of King’s famous statement elevating “content of character” over “color of skin” to advocate color blindness, they appropriate King as a symbol for the righteousness of placing personal morality above government, public welfare, and the law (itself tainted as too public when not in line with their beliefs). Along these lines, Tea Party congressional representative Rand Paul once called for private businesses to be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, making the case for resegregation in the name of personal freedoms putatively defended by the Founding Fathers and even King himself (even as he vowed to hate such racism privately in his heart and to exercise his moral choice not to patronize such establishments).5
Through the lens of analysis offered here, such sentiments are not so much aberrations as a logical development of official antiracist discourses. Race-liberal orders began by negating the efforts of anticolonial and civil rights movements to prioritize the value of racialized lives and common social goals over private property rights and individual preference. Instead, racial liberalism and the civil rights compromise tried to norm antiracist goals with property rights and market freedoms, limiting the horizon for racial equality to the extension of liberal freedoms and individual rights. Under the conditions of neoliberal sovereignty, which apotheosize individualism and market freedoms, what are now called economic liberties triumph over substantive antiracism, keeping race matters from affecting state calculations and allowing privatized racial preference to influence the enveloping conditions of social reproduction, such as education, health, social geographies, and life chances.6
David Theo Goldberg’s recent analysis of “racial americanization” explains how the racial discourse of the Tea Party movement, which identifies with racial disenfranchisement yet uses racist codes, can be understood as revelatory of neoliberal racialism in general and not a throwback to white supremacist times. According to Goldberg, a “newly privatized segregation [is] at the heart of … racial americanization.”7 Since the 1960s, desegregation of public institutions has essentially been accompanied by publicly subsidized resegregation in the private sphere as whites have either claimed their own municipalities through suburbanization or turned to private providers for schools and other services. Neoliberalism and the growing power of wealth introduce even stronger privatized modalities of redlining, exemplified by today’s gated communities. For Goldberg racial americanization allows historically produced and then privatized racial preference schemes to be taken as if they were the nature of things. As “homogenized apartness is taken as the deracialized norm …[i]ntegration … comes over as unnatural … requiring intervention by the state at the cost of individual liberty.”8 Under neoliberal conditions not only has it become even more irrational for the state to be perceived as acting against liberty, individualism, and the benevolence of market economies, which have come to stand for America itself, but in light of the modern state’s shedding of its caretaking functions, private property, now “equated with nationalist identification,” “[functions] to rehomogenize the body politic.”9 Thus, the privatizing of racially exclusionary preferences—what Goldberg refers to as “racisms deregulated”—has become the general condition.10 What distinguishes Tea Party discourse from ordinary white racial discourse is the willingness of Tea Partiers to express a pervasive social ethic of communitarian individualism as a preference for whites (seen as the historical victims of state excess) and to demand that the state use its remaining coercive powers against racialized others (undocumented immigrants and members of Congress alike) who they believe threaten their safety, profits, well-being, or liberty.
As Goldberg has identified, in the 1990s neoconservatives, who represented the state as an institution dedicated to the support of African Americans and other racialized minorities, found neoliberal commitments to privatization, reducing state expenditures, and individual freedoms increasingly relevant to their own interests. Currently, as this combination of neoconservatism and neoliberalism strengthens privatized racial preferences, these interests also benefit, in the public sphere, from the antiracist formalism of neoliberal multiculturalism. Taken together, these private and public differential value-making systems represent a complex formation of neoliberal-racial capitalism. As such forces enter into state calculations, they impel a bankrupting of the social welfare functions of the state, even as they enhance state capacities to punish, police, enforce, and secure the interests of neoliberalism’s beneficiaries.
This shift is complexly related to the fear and anger that characterize the political emotions of Tea Partiers.11 Some of this fear can be attributed to a depletion of the psychic wages of whiteness for those whites who cannot be identified as multicultural global citizens because of their class background, lack of tertiary education, staunch regionalism, or cultural conservatism. Because economic disenfranchisement still “blackens,” Tea Party whites who are downwardly mobile in a neoliberal economy may fear the groups they sometimes scapegoat (immigrant laborers, black men) as projections of repressed apprehensions. What distinguishes the most extreme anger of Tea Party discourse is its nihilism and antistate fascism. The Tea Party is indeed an antipolitics masquerading as a political movement.12 And yet, this description does not capture the tenor of its sacralized violence. When this description appears, especially among those more often identified as militia members than as Tea Partiers, it deploys a racialized language that sorts humanity into categories so abstracted, so manipulable, yet so Manichaean that the speaker can self-identify as both oppressor and oppressed with terrorizing effects. In one example, a group in Flathead, Montana, protested against “Nazi-like” government environmental regulations by burning a swastika, deploying the power of this symbol (and its citation of a burning cross) to evoke white supremacist terror even as they self-identified as victims of government racism.13
Tea Party members’ desire to starve the same pastoral functions of government that subsidized the economic mobility of whites for most of the twentieth century is clearly ironic. But Tea Partiers also fail to grasp that white is not what it was under white supremacist modernity. Rather, a formally antiracist, liberal-capitalist modernity has advanced to the point that well-off is the new white. Or perhaps, neoliberal capital itself is the new white. For now it is not just a matter of the socially whitening effects of class but, rather, that whiteness (in the privileged form of multicultural whiteness) is deployed by neoliberal structures for profit making and for enhancing and augmenting its modes of accumulation. In other words, racial capitalism may have reached a tipping point where white, or multicultural, has become more of an economic than a social formation. Melissa Harris-Perry similarly argues that our current moment is one of a “blackening of America,” in which the “social, economic, and political conditions that have long defined African-American life [civil liberties eroded, stereotyped as dependent, endangered in health and body] have descended onto a broader population.”14
With the threatened collapse of the global financial system in 2008, the crisis management that has reinforced the power of class elites, and the rise of the political fortunes of Tea Party libertarianism, we may be witnessing the emergence of a new formation we can call neoliberal-neoracial capitalism. The hallmark of this new formation is an extremely flexible and aggressive recursivity between the rationalizing procedures of racial orders and the speculative practices of capitalism. As the shock doctrine chickens of neoliberalism have come home to roost, rationalizing procedures for neoliberal capitalism have become remarkably abstract and flexible, allowing extreme differentials in value making to be converted to normative orders of difference and fixed to forms of humanity in a given instant, to fit the needs of class power and to keep up with the flexibility and speed required for speculative neoliberal capitalism.
Neoliberal neoracialization operates dynamically in the fields David Harvey usefully has described as the “state-finance nexus,” the “central nervous system of capital accumulation,” where structures of governance whose relays cannot be separated out as either political or economic syncopate state management of the circulation of capital and circulate capital in a manner that conditions state functions, which also become increasingly monetized, commodified, and privatized.15 Repertoires of neoliberal neoracialization employ racializing code dynamically within confluences of state and financial power to keep speculative capital at work.
One example of the new aggressive recursively between neoliberal neoracialization and speculative capital is Arizona State Law SB 1070, which was drafted by an alliance of state legislators and private prison industry executives. Initially, these parties met together under the umbrella of the American Legislative Exchange Council, where Arizona state legislator Russell Peace, cowrote and wordsmithed SB 1070 with representatives of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the world’s largest private prison company.16 The violent recursivity of race and capital here is that in writing SB1070, CCA representatives were able to rationalize thousands as racially “illegal” in an instant to simultaneously generate new forms of permissible state violence and capital accumulation.
In designating this emergent formation neoliberal-neoracial capitalism, I use the term neoracial to express how signs of value and value-lessness once central to material social processes, such as subject formation and knowledge production, now in the first place index value making that enables financialization. Within this formation the idea of human capital seems almost quaint, because the human is not the locus of investment but rather a minimum referent—almost an empty signifier—in the rationalizing processes that enable the flow of capital. An obvious example is the cannibalizing of those most mainstream of antiracist goals, that everyone should be able to own a house and get an education, by financial capital, which uses these as occasions for credit baiting and asset leveraging, inventing new forms, from virtual colleges to balloon mortgages, that commit to the built forms of the concepts of education and home only enough to provide a transfer point for capital.
With neoliberal crisis as usual, the function of state antiracisms after the racial break—to norm and restrict social goals to market freedoms and private property rights—has reached a tipping point where the collectivity of social life itself is being dematerialized with the help of dematerialized racial reference. In Wisconsin, where I reside, language historically applied to devalue racialized laboring classes is now being applied to all public employees. Governor Scott Walker and other Tea Party Republicans represent this mostly white government workforce as lazy, parasitical, shiftless, violent, and slobby. The goal is not merely to devalue labor or even to end public employment itself but to complete the transition of government into a minor corporation in the portfolio of class power for neoliberalism’s elites. There is little new about the fact that Wisconsin’s budget repair bill makes teaching into an unskilled profession, allows for no tracking of achievement, so that charter schools can make money simply by parking students, or gives the governor the power to kick thousands out of state-managed health-care systems. This is just more of the same necropolitics, the generalized instrumentalization of human existence for profit, accompanied by the material destruction of human bodies and populations, that working-class communities of color have seen in Wisconsin since the 1970s. Yet now neoliberal-neoracial capitalist extraction is more functionally, and perhaps more ironically, color-blind.
The new racial capitalism has never been the whole story, however, and it only falsely appears as a totality. Race-liberal orders have ceaselessly been opposed by constantly reforming concatenations of materialist antiracist practices, thinking, and politics. In fact, today social movements rooted in the everyday, experiential understandings of nonnormative communities are successfully revealing the racialized material violences of present orders. These nonheteronormative, nonculturally normative, and nonpolitically normative movements include diasporic queer rights movements, the new abolitionism of antiprison movements, indigenous peoples’ movements, and coalitions against the “Juan Crow” system of increasingly systematic repression against brown people without immigration documents. Notably, these groups put into practice a pragmatic intersectional analysis in affinity with that of women-of-color feminism. That is, they do not maintain the discreetness between categories of difference that subjectify human beings. Rather, they examine how procedures of race, class, gender, and sexuality and economic forces aggregate and interlock to create the lived conditions of the everyday. As they analyze prison economies emerging from racialized impoverishment as neoslavery, assert indigenous rights to not develop lands and resources, and assert the impossibility of human illegality, their knowledge systems reclaim difference to make racialized oppression visible by using modes of analogy, comparison, and relational thinking excessive to conventional divisions of knowledge and sanctioned representations of difference.
The questions for university-based knowledge producers are, What kind of retheorizing can we do under rubrics such as critical ethnic studies to help revitalize antiracist materialisms for our times? Can a still normative commitment to antiracism be leveraged in order to reinvigorate state possibilities of securing the general well-being of all people? Can the agency of antiracist social action be detached from neoliberal multiculturalism as a force for privatization, deregulation, and corporate rights and be secured to social action to reclaim public agency? Can a materialist antiracism yet arrange desire to strengthen the social support sector of government? Given the privatizing and reparceling of authority under conditions of neoliberal sovereignty, calls for public well-being will not be effective if they only address the nation-state, and it is doubtful whether the nation-state can be bypassed. Rather, a materialist antiracism must address the globalizing reach of biopolitical calculations that cynically deem the welfare of others to cost too much economically, politically, or culturally.
One of the most destructive things that liberal and neoliberal multiculturalism has done in U.S. universities is to limit the question of “materialism” itself. To quote Chandan Reddy once more: “Modern Western knowledges … have been productive of certain expressions of personhood, experience, historical process, materialism, and so forth, while foreclosing other historical, material, and epistemic organizations of subjectivity, historical process, and the so-called natural world.”17 Reddy further reminds us that it has been the canniness of postcolonial studies, queer-of-color analysis, and critical ethnic studies that has seen
in the archival terms ‘Indian’, ‘Negro’, ‘Mexican’, ‘Asian’, and so forth not a description of an empirically true ‘people’ upon which negative or positive meanings, narratives, policies, and practices were attached. … Rather they serve as limit figures, tropes and textualized problems enunciated within forms of knowledge that enabled the substantive violation of nonwhite peoples and their social imaginaries as coincident with the extension of ‘autonomous’ and ‘universal’ knowledge to all ‘members’ of the globe.18
As Reddy suggests, multicultural terms of representation cannot seal off empirical complexity, the real histories of material violence, fragments of materiality, and empirically real experiences, all of which challenge, in their very existence, the forces that run the world. The need to repress this threatening empirical surplus is one of the reasons women-of-color-feminism has been so misunderstood and caricatured. Women-of-color-feminism’s “theory in the flesh” demands a reckoning with the full materiality of the lives of women of color in a way that gives the lie to the divisions of knowledge and epistemic structures that at once constitute and disavow the links between liberal freedoms and regulatory violence, while insisting on the need to act communally to craft social relations and value forms relatively unbound from those of capitalist globalization.
It is imperative to ceaselessly critique the role of the university and education in general within the racialized genealogy of morality Roderick Ferguson has discussed, which ties demands for freedom to types of regulation so that the civil and politically enfranchised subject is always also the good, moral subject.19 Spinning education as preparation for moral citizenship is especially egregious now, as accountability becomes more and more elusive, being structurally unavailable in terms of both the conglomeration of powers that is international civil society (whose developmental logic allows for only a management-style approach to addressing “they, the people,” as Gayatri Spivak puts it) and the state, where the possibility for citizens who are not corporations to act as “we, the people” is closing down.20
One egregious narrative about education in circulation presently comes from Nicholas D. Kristof, whose New York Times video exposé “Books over Beer” airs what he calls a dirty little secret about the so-called poor in the global South, which is that they spend 20 percent of their money on alcohol, soda, and other sinful consumables, including expensive vegetables, while spending about only 2 percent on education.21 We may counter this in the classroom by teaching Uwem Akpan’s “An Ex-mas Feast,” a short story written by a Nigerian Jesuit priest of Ikot Akpan Eda tribal origins who was sent to seminary in Nairobi and spent time getting to know children and families in the streets and learning to feel his way through their linguistic specificity and diversity, including Kiswahili slang.22 In the “Ex-mas Feast,” it is the internalized desire of every member of the street family to educate the oldest boy child that precisely negates or Xs out their tenuous bonds and leads to the family members’ whizzing off in separate directions. The story’s fixing on fragments of materiality unassimilable to the narratives of moral worth in capitalist globalization—on the maternal love that expresses itself by saving all the family’s glue for the children to sniff and dampen their hunger, on the twelve-year-old sister who has absorbed NGO narratives of responsibility, so that she refuses to beg with the family’s baby and instead prostitutes herself for her brother’s school fees, and on the eight-year-old boy who runs away to stop being an alibi for the economic and cultural forces rupturing family relations. These fragments of narrativized materiality undermine the discourses of mission, benevolence, and service that are otherwise training U.S.-based students to play their parts in neoliberalism’s civilizing and disqualifying regimes.
This book cautions suspicion of literary studies discourses that promise a blueprint for racial reform. Indeed, positing a relationship between antiracism and literature has been useful for dematerializing racial discourse and producing an aestheticized orientation to antiracism. In all three phases of official antiracism, the call for reading literature to change attitudes and create antiracist subjects has overvalorized what culture can do when confined to the normal politics of cultural pluralism that have stabilized postwar capitalist economies and U.S. ascendancy. It is appropriate to recall the warning that Gloria Anzaldúa inserted into the second edition of This Bridge Called My Back in 1983, at the beginning of the canon wars: “[T]oda palabra es ruido si no esta acompanada de accion … all words are noise unless accompanied with action.”23 And yet, the work of resignification, and the even more difficult work of rearranging practical consciousness, necessarily accompanies action that seeks to fundamentally reconfigure material conditions, the domain of politics, and social organization.
Literary scholarship can participate in a resurgence of antiracist materialism. Indeed, between the lines and in the footnotes, this study has surveyed some features in the landscape of a contemporary race-radical practice of literary scholarship, even as it has sought to map out a race-radical tradition in postwar American literature. The difficulty comes from the central role that literary studies has played in stabilizing the dominant meaning and significance of race in the United States since World War II. It also lies in the fact that race-liberal orders have consistently defined literature as a privileged domain for getting to know difference, that is, for legitimating as the whole truth of the matter the representations of difference that official antiracisms disseminate. What seems to be called for is a persistent critique of representations of difference that make no difference. This means that literary scholars have to make it clear that information bits about difference gleaned from literary texts are not knowledge, particularly when they come across in a moral register. The limits of global English must be marked. The aestheticizing and abstraction that occur under the sign of representation, authenticity, voice, and identity must be guarded against. No more represent and destroy, and yet every representation, every deployment of a will to knowledge, entails destruction and assembly. One lesson to take from the history of race-radical traditions is the importance of working simultaneously inside and outside universities and of connecting to the social and institutional bases of new race radicalisms (or material antiracisms): the communities, epistemes, and cultures that neoliberal-multicultural formalism cannot transact, the activism that it cannot incorporate, and the day-to-day practices of resistance that politicize its conditions of existence.
My hope is that the analysis and denaturalization of official antiracisms will contribute to the ongoing work of constituting an antiracist materialism that is up to the challenges of neoliberal times. I believe that because race/antiracism remains a valorized ideological domain, it still articulates together processes of signification and materialization to a high degree. The goal is to recapture how race/antiracism can be politically mobilized, so that it reveals the perniciousness of today’s racial capitalism. In this way, race/antiracism can be put to work by those who insist on the possibility (viability) of economies—in the broader sense of circulations of meaning, relations, materials, and resources—somewhat unbound from neoliberal-capitalist forms. The trick of racialization needs to be turned around, so that instead of legitimizing processes of lethally uneven accumulation, racialization appears as the fixing of extreme differentials of worth to human beings and signals the necessity of altering material conditions.