The Challenges of Black Autonomy
This book is about challenges of Black autonomous analysis and political organizing. It examines how research and progressive multiracial efforts that address Black suffering are often unable to engage foundational, structural, multigenerational, and ubiquitous forms of antiblackness. Such efforts also crowd out the possibility of Black self-determination. This work not only calls into question a progressive canon of multiracial analysis and mobilization, but also argues for Black self-determination as a necessary condition for the effective identification, challenge, and overcoming of antiblackness. To do so, however, it must backtrack. In Parts I and II, it looks at what constitutes antiblackness in multiracial contexts of the diaspora: in formations of residential segregation, punitive schooling, juvenile imprisonment, policing practices, and political mobilization. In typical critical analyses and progressive multiracial mobilization addressing these formations, Black suffering is acknowledged while antiblackness is negated. As Part III shows, the negation of antiblackness often occurs due to the need for establishing common grounds of oppression among Blacks and nonblacks, the basic principle underlying canonical critical social analyses as well as the progressive multiracial bloc. Over time and across countries, the permanence of antiblackness, however, signifies the imperative of Black self-determination as a collective organizing principle and mode of critical and transformative analysis.
The case for self-determination is indicated in the fact that, in the United States and in Brazil, we are, once again, on the cusp of a shift in Black people’s engagement with politics, so-called civil society, and the empire-state. Whether and how this shift is going to fully actualize itself is impossible to say. In public events when Black people, especially the youth, talk about what is going on in their communities—continued brutalization and assassinations of women, children, and men by the police, enduring poverty, disease, isolation, and stigmatization—one of the most often used expressions is that “we can’t take it anymore,” “não aguentamos mais.” Although terror has always defined Black existence as the condition of modernity—and Black people’s perception that their lives are worthless in supposedly multiracial democratic polities is hardly a novelty—there is an emerging agreement that traditional forms of political mobilization, which engage agents of the empire-state and civil society, and require a specific Black political subject, need to be radically remodeled, maybe even altogether dismissed. This emerging agreement does not surface purely, without attachment to more traditional modes of protest. For example, the charges of structural police misconduct, and even that of genocide, are often leveled against the empire-state apparatus (the occasional recourse to international courts notwithstanding). This approach requires that the political bloc engaging the official bureaucracy employ a specific vocabulary, demeanor, and ultimate belief in the redemptive capacity of the process. Such requirement produces a specific type of legible Black political subject: the researcher, academic, NGO operative, community organizer, and social movement militant who are able both to dialogue with Black people and to engage representatives of the empire-state and civil society. Yet, rage at the systematic actualizations of antiblackness, as it did in the past, intermittently but significantly, is turning into a negation of the empire-state and its protocols, including the legible Black political subject who, in the multiracial political bloc, uses Black suffering as a bargaining tool. So-called violent and irresponsible street manifestations—which in the United States and in Brazil lead to the intervention of “special” militarized force against protestors—the refusal to negotiate with officials, the disillusionment with the electoral process, and indeed the increasing emphasis on Black self-determination, are all evidence of this shift. Again, the shift is still incipient, seemingly uncoordinated with similar initiatives, and its manifestations are not yet completely divorced from normative Black politics and its commonly supportive multiracial blocs.
Here is a report on a case of “unrest” following the all-too-common police use of lethal force against Black people, published in the New York Times on August 15, 2016, as i was finishing this preface:
The burning buildings, smashed police cars and scuffles between police officers and angry protesters on Milwaukee’s north side over the weekend might have seemed like a spontaneous eruption.
Milwaukee is one of the United States’ most segregated cities, where black men are incarcerated or unemployed at some of the highest rates in the country, and where the difference in poverty between black and white residents is about one and a half times the national average. There are barren lots and worn-down homes all over the predominantly black north side, while mostly white crowds traffic through the restaurants and boutiques downtown, or inhabit the glossy lakefront high rises.
Add to that the disrespect that many black people say the police show them, and many of Milwaukee’s African-American residents are unsurprised by the volatile response after a police officer fatally shot a black man on Saturday—even though, as it turns out, the officer was also black.
“This isn’t just, ‘Oh, my gosh, all of a sudden this happened,’” said Sharlen Moore, 39, who lives in Sherman Park, the mostly African-American neighborhood where the shooting and unrest occurred. “It’s a series of things that has happened over a period of time. And right now you shake a soda bottle and you open the top and it explodes, and this is what it is.”
This “unrest” is a manifestation of collective revolt against long-term patterns of antiblackness. Such patterns far exceed the period of mobilization in the United States that followed the February 26, 2012, assassination of Trayvon Martin. They define the Black experience in the diaspora. Just as defining is the cyclical social awareness that the empire-state and its institutions are irremediably antiblack. When this awareness emerges, so do collective actions, such as “unrest,” “riots,” and “uprisings” that reject institutional mechanisms of redressing grievances. For example, after the March 4, 1991, KTLA broadcast of the videotaped brutalization of Black motorist Rodney King by four police officers that had taken place the previous day, Blacks and their allies in Los Angeles patiently waited over a year, until May 29, 1992, in the hopes of obtaining a legal victory against law enforcement. It was only after the not-guilty verdicts were announced in the Simi Valley court that the streets of South Central Los Angeles, the city’s historically Black area, became the stage on which to voice multigenerational grievances and rage against the antiblack society. The Los Angeles rebellions, therefore, resulted from a rational choice to wait for the court verdict; they also materialized from a subsequent evaluation that the justice system, and indeed the larger social structure, did not work for Blacks. These were not “riots,” whose naming by the media monopoly suggests irrationality and criminality. Rather, the rebellions represented a shift, from a belief (or a suspension of disbelief) in the justice system and its attending political institutions and modes of operation, that included peaceful public multiracial demonstration, to a realization that only collective revolt was able to express long-term exclusion and perhaps bring about change.
Today, similar shifts occurring in the diaspora are compounded by the collective frustration at two ineffective two-term presidencies, one headed by a Black man and former community organizer in the United States, and the other by a leftist labor unionist in Brazil. From a purely pragmatic Black standpoint, these federal administrations proved themselves futile in addressing, let alone combating, a litany of structural social vulnerabilities that define the majority Black experience. To be sure, the Lula presidency diminished poverty and opened access to consumer credit and first-time homeownership to the economically poor in unprecedented proportions; it aggressively implemented affirmative action policies in public universities and a number of public sector occupations; the rising tide lifted many boats of the impoverished Black population. There were programmatic changes, albeit short-lived, and they are already being reversed (see Part II). The two Obama terms, however, were unable to produce even a modicum of programmatic improvement for the Black majority. According to Census Bureau figures, while in this period the national unemployment rate dropped to 7 percent, the jobless rate for Blacks hardly declined, from 12.7 percent in 2009 to 12.5 percent in 2014. In this time frame, poverty for Blacks sharply increased, from 12 percent to 16.1 percent. Moreover, although median income diminished by 3.6 percent for White households, to $58,000, it decreased 10.9 percent, to $33,500, for Black households. The differences in Black and nonblack wealth, which provide a more accurate measure of transgenerational disadvantages, are staggering. And while the U.S. homicide rate showed signs of improvement, the homicide rate of Black people remained far greater than the country’s average. In Brazil, the homicide rate for Blacks actually spiked while the country’s average declined. There is no better proof of structural, long-term antiblackness than continued vulnerability to disease and premature death by preventable causes, which includes homicide by the police but goes far beyond. The litany of disproportional incidence of cardiovascular ailments; AIDS/HIV infection; various diseases caused by environmental exposure to toxic chemicals as well as insects and pests; malnutrition; deficient and unavailable health care; and cancer, is evidence of how Black lives don’t matter. Protests against the use of deadly police force on Black people galvanize unaddressed grievances against the vast inventory of antiblack processes. This context explains why multiple groups of young Black people have begun to explore autonomous strategies of self-defense and collective support. In impoverished Black communities, in prisons, artistic venues, independent study groups and publications, Black youth are pushing back at their structural stigmatization while repudiating traditional progressive analyses, strategies, and mobilization. Of course, most of the reports the world receives of this new wave of protest suggest a multiracial front. It is not accidental that the photograph accompanying the article quoted at length above focuses on a Black man beside a White man. But what the framing of these protests reveals is precisely the canonical multiracial imperative, which crowds out Black autonomy. What is presented as a solution—multiracial solidarity, or multiraciality more broadly—becomes part of the problem, for it reveals deep fears of Black autonomy.
Still, the logic of the continued multifaceted and transgenerational oppression of Black people has nothing to do with either the Lula or Obama administrations. This book points to the elementary contradictions of a social formation that on the one hand purports to abide by principles of multiracial democracy, and on the other is spectacularly structured against Black people in methods at once foundational, essential, ever changing, and ubiquitous. One of the current contradictions is that, while there appears to exist a greater social awareness of Black suffering, there is a generalized incapacity to locate, particularly revealing in progressive circles, the antiblack logic at the very core of these empire-state formations. It is this logic that, unexamined, continues to systematically generate Black suffering. There prevails a belief, even among the progressive-minded, that multiracial formations can bring about full equality and inclusion of the oppressed and the Black. This belief is carried out by collective efforts that, since at least the 1960s, have relied on, produced, and reproduced the figure of the Black cyborg: the super-, extra-human being, of infinite wisdom, boundless knowledge, unassailable strength, and universal love. The Black cyborg and his/her multiracial bloc believes in, and thus legitimates, the empire-state project of integration (chapter 6).
When Blacks begin to shift their political practice away from the cyborg, the principles and totality of the empire-state are also called into question. To grapple with the Black cyborg’s dilemmas is to engage the empire-state’s project of multiracial integration. Yet the social order that requires and sustains the cyborg’s multiracial progressive bloc is not about to go away. Multiraciality, and the invested belief in the empire-state’s redemption, is still strong and normative, which means that the social willingness to address antiblackness is embryonic.
Nevertheless, incubated in a newfound awareness of structural antiblackness, insurgent imaginaries are relearning accumulated lessons of the past. Such is the Black imperative of transcendence. The figure of the slave, and her social practice and imagination, incarnate this imperative.