Our Lives Are Our Deaths
Antiblackness and Oblique Identification
The Denial of Antiblackness focuses on an intriguing social phenomenon, one that manifests itself across two of the largest countries of the African diaspora, Brazil and the United States: while there seems to be an increasing social awareness of Blacks’ experiences of discrimination, there is a denial of antiblackness as a foundational and structural fact. There is multiracial mobilization, outrage even, against the recent police killings of unarmed Black women and men, but there is not a comparable public willingness, or capacity, to debate structural and historical forms of antiblackness as explanations for these recurring events. Antiblackness is seldom, if ever, considered a possible foundational reason for the ways these allegedly multiracial democracies function. In these two main countries of the Black diaspora, there exists the simultaneous acknowledgment of Black suffering and the denial of foundational and structural antiblackness.
What makes the denial of the structural, historical, and enduring facts of gendered antiblackness all the more intriguing is that it is happening when antiblack forces are now affecting nonblacks in unprecedented ways, at the levels of perception and experience. Blackness is always and already gendered, as subsequent chapters will show. Antiblackness is fundamentally gendered not only because gender modulates how blackness is perceived and experienced (e.g., violence against Black males is related to but quantitatively and symbolically quite distinct from violence against Black females) but also because blackness shapes the ways in which gender is perceived and experienced, which means that normative (i.e., nonblack) assumptions about femaleness (e.g., as equated to subordination) and maleness (e.g., as equated to domination) hardly, if ever, apply unproblematically to Blacks.
As i explain below, even though Blacks are still, by far, the most disproportionately affected by such processes, police brutality and mass incarceration are now increasingly affecting nonblacks in the United States and in Brazil as well. Nonblacks are now directly impacted by antiblack forces and/or are seemingly more aware of them. So why does the denial of antiblackness persist (especially but not exclusively) among nonblacks? How does this negation take place? What political horizons does the negation of antiblackness engender?
By stressing that much of our current mechanism of social containment and repression is due to antiblackness, i am making a case that is as simple as it is controversial: take Blacks out of the picture, and such dynamics of containment and repression, and their corresponding institutions and socially shared values, make little, if any, sense. The diasporic war on drugs, stringent criminal law, and massive incarceration of vulnerable communities: without Blacks, those scenarios lose most of their social meanings—that is, their collectively sanctioned symbolism, organizing principle, legal underpinnings, historical roots, and indeed their sheer intensity and brutality. Hypersurveillance, dispossession, and death of Blacks constitute the central logic and are the expected result of ever-expanding panoptical police empire-states. This does not exclude other logics that are at play (e.g., the logic of capital and its funneling of surplus to the unprecedented construction of prisons in California in the 1970s and 1980s), nor the specific ways in which nonblack groups experience such processes. Rather, my point is to suggest that antiblackness is a central, but certainly not exclusive, overarching principle that combines with the empire-state’s desire to police and contain its so-called dangerous classes, among whom—or, as we shall see, in contradistinction to whom—Blacks occupy a unique position. Antiblackness merges with, appropriates, intensifies, and indeed defines the inherent impulses of the Western penal system. In the process, it renders the Black subject its paradigmatic object, which is to say, it renders the Black subject a nonsubject. According to Michel Foucault, the penal system’s panoptical logic reproduces its own desire to know, catalog, and capture, in minute detail, figuratively and practically, as many subjects as possible. “The ideal point of penalty today,” Foucault affirms with relation to the drive of criminal justice, “would be an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgment that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of an examination, a procedure that would be at the same time the permanent measure of a gap in relation to an inaccessible norm and the asymptotic movement that strives to meet in infinity.” If there is a simple truth about the U.S. criminal justice system’s operation since the dawn of the so-called war on drugs, it is its rapid expansion. In the early 1970s, activists and researchers were perplexed at the two hundred thousand people the United States incarcerated domestically. With about seven million people under some kind of correctional supervision, including 2.5 million currently behind bars, it is evident the U.S. carceral machine operates under the imperative of a “file that was never closed,” a permanently expansive drive whose very existence depends on its capacity to capture as many individuals as possible, as well as their corresponding data universes. Students of the carceral regime have showed the very specific ways in which the employment of ever-morphing surveillance and policing technologies, in a transhistorical climate of barely dissimulated social hostility toward Blacks, produces its own demand for more data, which in turn drives additional and improved technology, staff, and public and private support for expansive and efficient forms of social management, including policing. It is only fitting that, after the legal condemnation of New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, the new approach, endorsed by progressive mayor Bill de Blasio, is called Omnipresence. The persistent disproportional targeting of Black women and men by these policing practices, and the corresponding disproportionality of Blacks under the supervision of the criminal justice system, as we will see throughout this book, indicate the antiblack logic of such ever-expanding enterprises of social control.
One could argue that, because Latin@s, Asians, Indians, and vulnerable Whites are also affected by massive criminalization and imprisonment, the underlying logic of such processes of massive surveillance and warehousing is not antiblack; or, that when such processes affect nonblacks they acquire a distinct logic and thus are, or become, something other than a product of antiblackness. As i show in chapters 1, 2, and 3, young Latin@s’ experiences with incarceration do indeed suggest a logic distinct from that of young Blacks under the same conditions. While in confinement, Latin@s are not as severely punished as Blacks; and once “in the free,” Latin@s can expect relatively better outcomes in employment, education, and future contact with the criminal justice institutions, including the foster care system. Chapters 4 and 5 show the ways in which, like Blacks, nonblacks in Brazil find themselves in spaces of social vulnerability and experience the police through violence. However, based on recent demographic studies, in contrast to Blacks, vulnerable nonblacks may encounter police brutality often, but not structurally; the same is true for residential segregation, and deficient medical and educational institutions. So in Brazil, like in the United States, there seem to be distinct logics according to which Black and nonblack persons experience suffering.
Nevertheless, in both empire-state contexts, antiblackness becomes a compelling overarching explanatory category when we consider the very disproportionality of Blacks within institutions of confinement, impoverished segregated urban spaces, and indeed their unique experiences of punishment in schools—which often lead to their first encounter with the empire-state’s punitive institutions. These factors, in turn, explain and are reinforced by the unmatched historical levels of Black unemployment, underemployment, and vulnerability to early death by preventable causes. When nonblacks experience such geographies of punishment, isolation, and dispossession, they experience the collateral effects of a transhistorical, society-sanctioned, institutionalized logic of antiblackness. Thus nonblacks do not experience antiblackness in the same way Blacks experience antiblackness. Nonblacks’ experience of antiblackness is distinct from Blacks’ experience of antiblackness insofar as nonblacks are not the paradigmatic objects of antiblackness; as such, nonblacks do not experience social death and early physical death by preventable causes as omnipresent, permanent, structural, and defining features of social life. Nonblacks do indeed experience aspects of preventable physical and social death, but such experience is of a different nature than what Blacks encounter: as the various chapters show, it is not as transhistorically and structurally persistent as it is for Blacks. Hence the distinct logics that operate for Blacks and nonblacks affected by antiblackness.
Antiblackness, as an overarching social principle, affects Blacks and nonblacks in related but distinct ways. This differentiated impact makes antiblackness mostly incommunicable to nonblacks. It is thus unsurprising that while currently there is nonblack acknowledgment of Black suffering and oppression, there is a seeming incapacity, or unwillingness, on the part of nonblacks to grapple with the transhistorical structural aspects of antiblackness. “You are playing oppression Olympics!”—the predictable accusation against the focus on the logic of antiblackness and its effects—not only serves to disqualify the analytical effort on, and pivot the conversation away from Black experiences, but also reveals the canonical people-of-color framework this study analyzes in chapter 7.
To examine these related yet distinct experiences, this work investigates evidence of continued antiblack institutional and everyday practices in Brazil and the United States. It focuses on the excesses such practices have generated. What types of demographic outcomes, social awareness, and collective mobilization emerge when antiblack technologies of surveillance, isolation, and containment increasingly affect nonblack social groups at the corporeal and/or perception levels? Because antiblack forces are currently impacting nonblacks in ways legible to researchers, policy makers, popular culture producers, and broader publics, they are creating conditions for, and indeed incipient traces of, what i call oblique identification. Oblique identification is the central concept i utilize to make sense of these curious social processes through which are manifested, on the one hand, a seeming empathy toward Blacks’ victimization by the empire-state, and on the other, a refusal to engage with the foundational and structural aspects of antiblackness.
Oblique identification between nonblacks and Blacks takes place when nonblacks recognize as worthy of their concern, and/or are victimized by, processes that, historically and contemporarily, have disproportionally affected Blacks—processes, therefore, whose ideological core, institutional memory, and everyday manifestations are antiblack. Among these paradigmatic Black social phenomena that now increasingly figure in nonblacks’ collective awareness and/or experience are police misconduct, court bias, and mass incarceration. I call oblique identification this mode of relating to eminently Black processes. Oblique identification means that such Black processes are recognized only partially, belatedly, indirectly, reluctantly, or even unknowingly.
Though imperfectly, oblique identification engenders various and varying forms of nonblack–Black recognition. To make matters more interesting, oblique identification emerges in a political climate marked by narratives of and collective efforts aimed at empire-state redemption that seek to redress current injustices perpetrated against Black and nonblack persons, and actualize inclusive, democratic, and multiracial ideals.
The Denial of Antiblackness starts by establishing the social facts of antiblackness. It employs multiple disciplinary studies, as well as ethnography, drawn from geographically and historically varied social sites, to examine current events such as residential segregation, school discipline policy, juvenile and adult incarceration, the continued and predictable brutalization and killing of Black people by empire-state agents, multiracial and Black public protests, and the national and international debates about public security and democratic multiracial societal redemption. Taken together, the chapters show the continued and compounded effects of transgenerational cycles of dispossession subjugating already marginalized communities in the United States and in Brazil. While these empire-states are differentiated by their specific formations of social stratification and corresponding collective representations, as part of the Black diaspora they actualize analogous patterns of marginalization that are greatly dependent on intersecting dynamics of race, particularly blackness, and gender.
A relational analysis, rather than a comparative approach, establishes a diasporic continuum whose fundamental logic, informing cognition, sociality, and the management of life and death technologies, is antiblackness. In both empire-states, social and economic indicators suggest that, local inflections notwithstanding, experiences in the spheres of work, housing, criminal justice, and health are correlated to one’s racial positionality: the closer one is to blackness—a measure that is always affected by social class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, among many other factors—the more intensely one meets social disadvantages and the more likely one is to die prematurely. In Brazil and the United States, greater social disparities exist between Blacks and nonblacks than exist within discrete racial groups, yet another pattern indicative of a diasporic antiblack gendered logic of social antagonism. Once we center on antiblackness, we are able to suspend the comparative impulse, thus opening up Black analytical and political orientations. Sexton argues for the connection between the relational method and its impact on the resulting political field of possibilities:
If the oppression of nonblack people of color in, and perhaps beyond, the United States seems conditional to the historic instances and functions at a more restricted empirical scope, antiblackness seems invariant and limitless (which does not mean that the former is somehow negligible and short-lived or that the latter is exhausting and unchanging). If pursued with some consistency, the sort of comparative analysis outlined above would likely impact the formulation of political strategy and modify the demeanor of our political culture. In fact, it might denature the comparative instinct altogether in favor of a relational analysis more adequate to the task.
Antiblackness, as an underlying and mostly unaddressed logic (a structure of positionality, as i discuss later in this chapter), generates oppression in units of and across the Black diaspora: this is the broader analytical framework with which i make sense of the selected empirical data, forms of sociality, and political imagination. By moving from Austin to Rio de Janeiro to Los Angeles, the chapters in The Denial of Antiblackness suggest persistent antiblack dispositions. In these two empire-states, neighborhoods continue to be defined by antiblackness in such a way that the greater the concentration of Blacks, the more impoverished, the more vulnerable to unemployment, and the more likely to produce early death by preventable causes a residential area will be. Black areas concentrate higher levels of imprisonment and homicide committed by agents of the empire-state. As occupied zones of dispossession, Black residential areas across the diaspora also tend to have the worst schools, health-care facilities, urban infrastructure, and overall living conditions, including disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards. Zones of dispossession are zones of social and physical death by preventable, manageable causes. The chapters show the ways in which contemporary intersecting antiblack social forces—and most crucially, an overdetermining antiblack logic—are a critical, albeit often denied, aspect of how democratic and multiracial empire-nations are imagined and managed.
All of which is to say that, while this book is devoted primarily to the study of pragmatic social facts through quantitative, historical, and ethnographic data, these social facts are merely a partial consequence—a deficient translation, and at times a complete negation—of the antiblack logic that produces them. The logic of antiblackness far exceeds, and can indeed be disavowed by, its practical social manifestations. (On the disavowal of the logic of antiblackness by recourse to practical social facts, it is easy to imagine someone saying “But we just had a Black president,” or “Things have come a long way since the days of slavery and Jim Crow, and now there are laws that prohibit discrimination,” or even “Criminal justice reform recognizes mistakes of the recent past and attempts to restore the country’s inclusive [multiracial] democratic principles.”) So the analytical challenge is to access the logic of structural antiblackness through an imperfect medium, that of pragmatic antiblack social processes. Imperfect as it may be, this investigative angle has a strategic advantage: that of engaging the seemingly more robust and widespread recognition of Black suffering since at least the death of Trayvon Martin in the United States and the campaigns against the genocide of Black people in Brazil since at least the late 1970s, thus offering possibilities of a critical dialogue about the logical and structural mechanics of antiblackness.
Still, The Denial of Antiblackness moves beyond the analysis of intersecting pragmatic antiblack processes. It also examines what happens when these processes reach a saturation point and affect nonblacks physically and/or at the level of perception. Examples of antiblack saturation and its consequences on nonblacks abound. In the United States, home of the world’s greatest prison population and highest incarceration rate, in 2009, following long-term patterns traceable to Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs, Black men were incarcerated in state and federal prisons at 6.4 times the rate of Whites, and Latino males at 2.4 times the rate of Whites. Recent findings on imprisonment between 2000 and 2009, however, point to new trends. These trends are indications of the saturation point. While rates of incarceration declined for Black men and women, incarceration rates for White men and women rose. For Latin@s, the men’s rate declined slightly, while the women’s rate rose 23.3 percent. The shifts in racial disparities among women have been particularly intense. Although Black women’s incarceration rate remains almost three times that of White women, and 1.5 times that of Latin@ women, there have been new, forceful, and curious developments. For example, while the incarceration rate for Black women in this period diminished 30.7 percent, for White women it increased 47.1 percent, and it increased 23.3 percent for Latina women.
Although Black adults and juveniles continue to be the most disproportionately incarcerated compared to other groups, incarceration rates increased for White men as well as for White and Latina women. Expressing the increasing proportion of White men and women along with Latina women among the incarcerated, such trends reveal two processes: one, the saturation of institutions of confinement with Black persons relative to the overall Black population, which explains part of the “1.5 million missing Black men [and yet to be calculated number of Black women and children]” reported by the New York Times on April 20, 2015; and two, the renewed and increased presence of the repressive apparatus in nonblack social spaces. Although we are indeed witnessing new and surprising trends, the underlying antiblack logic that structures and produces industrial incarceration remains unchanged. Not only do Blacks continue to be, by far, and consistently, the group most disproportionately represented in institutions of confinement; but also, more fundamentally, the social logic, the collective agreement, that must devalue Blacks in order for these facts to be true remains sovereign.
In Brazil, police repression featured prominently in the grievances of the more than one million protesters who, in 2013, took to the streets of the country’s main cities. The protesters, themselves victimized by acts of police brutality, were mostly nonblack youths. What’s perhaps most astounding about the timing of the massive public protests in Brazil is that they happened when, nationally, homicide rates, including homicides committed by agents of the state, although diminishing for nonblacks, were increasing for Blacks. More specifically, between 2002 and 2010, Brazil’s homicide rate for Whites fell 25.5 percent; for Blacks, homicides increased by 29.8 percent. Over the same time period, the relation between rates of Black homicide and rates of White homicide—what is called the National Index of Black Victimization—has shown a steady increase: in 2002 it was 65.4 percent (i.e., proportionally 65.4 percent more Blacks died than did Whites), 90.8 in 2006, and 132.3 in 2010. While these trends suggest, on the one hand, a disconnect between nonblack protestors’ episodic (and declining) experiences of violence and Blacks’ foundational (and increasing) experiences of violence, they also point to, on the other hand, the phenomenon of oblique identification. Oblique identification takes place in the context of antiblack saturation. In the Brazilian case, antiblack saturation is indicated in the continued and intensifying rates of homicide of Black persons. Even though such rates represent an idiosyncratic Black phenomenon, what undergirds those rates—institutionalized antiblackness—spills over, so to speak, to affect nonblacks. This impact happens at the levels of perception and/or experience. The practical effects of antiblackness at times become so concentrated and expansive, so saturated, that they affect nonblack social worlds.
Multiracial mobilization against police brutality affecting primarily Black people, as chapters 4 and 5 show, was part of the 2013 countrywide wave of protests. This mobilization, however, while unwilling or unable to address structural forms of antiblackness, generated enough of a critical understanding and organizing momentum that, following the well-publicized police torture and death of Amarildo de Souza in Rio’s largest historically Black area, it morphed into a wave of support for Black victims of police brutality, as chapter 5 shows. While this wave of support did not engage structural and foundational antiblackness, it generated the potential for nonblack relative conscientization of Black experiences. Oblique identification thus engendered the simultaneous temporary collective awareness of Black suffering and the denial of structural and foundational antiblackness.
An emerging social climate across empire-state borders appears to be related to the recognition of the excesses of antiblack oppression. Traces of this climate, in the United States, include the determination of federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin that New York’s stop-and-frisk practices evidenced unconstitutional racial profiling against Latin@ and Black youth; widespread reform in drug law and mandatory sentences at the state level; and former attorney general Eric Holder Jr.’s announcement of a new Justice Department policy according to which federal prosecutors would no longer apply harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The attempts at reforming drug laws and mandatory sentences, which cannot be dissociated from the ever growing criminalization and incarceration of nonblacks, and especially Whites, are also rooted in an expanding, albeit oblique, awareness of the evidence that such laws and sentencing guidelines disproportionately affect impoverished persons, particularly Latin@s and, paradigmatically, as it will be shown, Blacks. In the wake of the violent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Jones, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Yvette Smith, Tarika Wilson, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, and David Joseph, and many other anonymous victims of quotidian antiblack state or state-sanctioned terror, there have been widespread protests, often markedly multiracial, against police brutality and the criminal justice system. Based on a Department of Justice report about the Ferguson police force, which found systematic discrimination of Blacks, Holder affirmed he was prepared to dismantle the offending institution. The result of thorough and independent research, the national organization Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) recently published a report showing that in 2012 an agent of the state, or someone supported by the state, killed a Black person every twenty-eight hours. Based on this report, MXGM, following the 1951 Civil Rights Congress headed by William Patterson, is campaigning to charge the United States with genocide against its Black population.
Meanwhile in Brazil, the Worker’s Party federal administration adopted some of the analysis found in the Black movement’s similar condemnation of genocide, and began a multi-ministerial campaign, symptomatically without the acknowledgment of antiblack genocide (preferring instead to affirm “institutional racism” as the culprit), to avert alarming homicide rates of Black youth; as seen above, the 2013 mass protests demanded the end of corruption in all levels of the public administration machine, including the police; and a new public security paradigm in the state of Rio de Janeiro promised to extinguish the drug commerce–related perennial violence in historical Black areas and bring about greater law enforcement accountability.
Oblique Identification: Engaging Black Suffering, Denying Antiblackness
The Denial of Antiblackness explores the hypothesis that such an emerging social climate is creating conditions for nonblack oblique identification with Black people and historically Black social phenomena. As nonblack subjects identify with and support legislation redressing social problems that disproportionately affect Black persons, they gesture toward a political formation that despite its internal contradictions is able to produce graspable results, such as seemingly pro-Black legal victories and institutional reform, that some people find satisfactory. Yet it is a fraught political formation because (most of, but not exclusively) its nonblack members seem unable to grasp the underlying antiblack transhistorical logic that produces Black oppression and suffering.
For a brief illustration of the argument, let us reflect on the Black–nonblack political formation that in the 1940s and 1950s opposed residential segregation, a quintessential antiblack social phenomenon—and one whose current incarnations we’ll revisit in chapters 1, 4, and 5 as they take place in Austin and Rio de Janeiro. The writings of civil rights lawyer and scholar Derrick Bell are instructive on the limited conditions under which Whites support pro-Black legislation, as in the events leading up to the 1954 Supreme Court’s decision Brown v. Board of Education. Bell states, “The decision in Brown to break with the Court’s long-held position on these issues cannot be understood without some consideration of the decision’s value to Whites, not simply those concerned about the immorality of racial inequality, but also those Whites in policymaking positions able to see the economic and political advances at home and abroad that would follow abandonment of segregation.” If and when it happens, nonblack support of pro-Black policies suggests a considerable dosage of self-interest, rather than, or together with, moral indignation at antiblack phenomena. This conditional support (in this case conditional to White self-interest) makes nonblack support of Black causes, and thus nonblack recognition of Black experiences (including Black articulated political desires), oblique.
To expand on this illustration, a host of reasons other than or conjugated with self-interest can be added to explain nonblack oblique acknowledgment of Black experiences. The adoption of the people-of-color analytical framework is key among the reasons explaining oblique identification. According to the more progressive version of this framework, due to the effects of capitalist cisheteropatriarchal White supremacy, the Black experience is analogous to, or commensurable with, that of the nonblack (including the impoverished White), LGBTQ people, the immigrant, and the refugee. In this people-of-color framework, such groups, including Blacks, in various forms and degrees suffer due to the aggregate causes and effects of alienation and exploitation, and therefore should struggle together against their common source of oppression—the supporters, practices, and institutions of White supremacy.
Yet, alienation and exploitation are not categories that capture the Black condition satisfactorily. Following Hartman’s reasoning, fungibility provides a more precise measure of contemporary Black experiences rooted in transhistorically imposed abjection through terror. Black subjugation is not explainable as solely a product of capitalist pragmatic logic; Black subjugation is as much about a libidinal economy—a regime of desires and abjections—shaping the ways in which the enslaved were at once dehumanized, transformed into discardable and interchangeable machines, and made into a medium for the expression of the subjectivity of the nonblack. Of course this scheme functions paradigmatically for the White, but not exclusively. In our proposed Black–nonblack dyad, the nonwhite also elaborates her subjectivity in opposition to the Black’s subjectivity, made absent by cultural agreement. Specifically:
The relation between pleasure and the possession of the slave property, in both the literal and figurative senses, can be explained in part by the fungibility of the slave—that is, the joy made possible by virtue of the replaceability and interchangeability endemic to the commodity—and by the extensive capacities of property—that is, the augmentation of the master subject through his embodiment in external objects and persons. Put differently, the fungibility of the commodity makes the captive body an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others’ feelings, ideas, and values; and, as property, the dispossessed body of the enslaved is the surrogate for the master’s body since it guarantees his disembodied universality and acts as the sign of his power and dominion.
Later in this introduction i argue for a perspective on slavery that has less to do with its historical specificities and more with its logic: slavery is a socially enforced theory of human relations, a theory that resists the passage of time. Fungibility suggests the thingification and replaceability of the Black, rendering her a necessary yet disposable entity. As a process and as part of an underlying theory of the social, fungibility targets, requires, and annuls Blacks qua autonomous and valuable humans; it produces unique Black experiences. That is not to say, however, that Black experiences are reducible to such process and logic, but that Black experiences cannot be understood without them. Yet the progressive version of the people-of-color framework presents the experiences of blackness commensurable with nonblack experiences. It thus relinquishes the necessary appreciation of the uniqueness of blackness—a uniqueness that is revealing of the ways in which our social worlds are structured by the accepted, amply reaffirmed in our quotidian, yet hardly centered, fungibility of the Black body. Abdicating this resolute engagement with antiblackness, the people-of-color analytical framework is unable to imagine what an anti-antiblack world would look like. Adopters of this framework, as chapter 7 shows, are incapable and/or unwilling to grasp that to embrace anti-antiblackness is to imagine nothing short of a complete overhaul of our social cognition, modes or relating, institutions, and of course principles for distributing resources—that to engage antiblackness is to imagine freedom at its fullest.
In spite of—or perhaps precisely due to—its peculiar limitations, this type of oblique identification, that stresses common denominators between Black and nonblack experiences rather than the specific, structural, and defining aspects of blackness, has already proven that it is effective in bringing to public attention, even if partially and/or indirectly, the ways in which the empire-state apparatus carries out, and social actors tacitly support, antiblack policies of control and punishment. Oblique identification, specifically as chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 show, indeed enables the articulation of multiracial alliances. By bringing together racially diverse subjects, oblique identification incites a common set of political demands toward which Black and nonblack constituencies converge. The resulting multiracial bloc coheres around specific political objectives and broader democratic principles. Specific political objectives, formulated by social justice researchers and civil rights activists, include the analysis and reform (if not abolition) of the prison–industrial complex and its attending criminal justice institutions and practices. Broader democratic principles, seemingly resonant in multiple social locations—from policy makers to street protesters to cultural producers—embrace the empire-state’s multiracial constituency and affirm its allegedly inclusive and solidary vocation.
However, while the multiracial constituency appears indignant about what seem like episodic excesses of the empire-state machine, it nevertheless appears unwilling or unable to consider the full dimensions of the foundational, structural, recurring, yet simple fact of gendered antiblackness. When the multiracial bloc’s racial analysis emerges, it is one that, even though it originates in pleas against phenomena that are fundamentally antiblack, such as police use of lethal force, often metamorphoses into a multiracial problem, one that affects Blacks, Latin@s, and other oppressed groups, if not equally, then at least in comparable ways. This study shows that Black experiences, while related to those of nonblacks, are unique; such uniqueness is a manifestation of the antiblack logic that informs much of pragmatic social facts. To stress common denominators between Blacks and nonblacks is to bypass such uniqueness; it is to ignore a fundamental, ubiquitous, and structural feature of this social world.
It is this expected, canonical practice, particularly but not exclusively in progressive camps, that needs to be interrupted: i want to pause the swift political move that goes from a recognition of Black oppression to the assertion of multiracial analogy. The focus on antiblackness allows for a critical perspective on the ways in which even progressive political formations obviate a coming to terms with the antiblack foundation of modern multiracial political and cultural formations. The Denial of Antiblackness thus interrogates, rather than takes as a given, the inclusive and solidary vocation of the empire-state. Multiracial political efforts that affirm this vocation are thus also scrutinized. At stake is not whether contemporary democracies are essentially antiblack, but how.
The peculiar ideological construct that references yet elides the specificity of Black experiences so as to emphasize multiracial common denominators cannot be attributed to lack of evidence of eminently antiblack institutional practices. For example, the 2015 Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice report on its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department (FDP), in the wake of the police assassination of Michael Brown, was unambiguous in its findings about the FDP’s antiblack orientation. In no uncertain terms, the Department of Justice stated the following:
Ferguson’s law enforcement practices overwhelmingly impact African Americans. Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 show that African Americas account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population. African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non–race based variables such as reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search.
Based on the awareness of such unambiguous antiblack institutional and everyday phenomena, organizations in Brazil, the United States, and elsewhere in the diaspora push for unapologetic Black perspectives and collective practices. Many of them, such as Black Lives Matter and Reaja ou Será Morta! / Reaja ou Será Morto! also address the deep complicity between heteropatriarchy and antiblackness. Despite such unequivocal evidence of antiblack institutional practices, and the no less assertive recent emergence of collective mobilizations that stress Black standpoints, at the many recent multiracial public events against police brutality across the Americas antiblackness is diluted and often crowded out of collective impulses that privilege common denominators across race, social class, sexual orientation, and nationality. For example, in the United States, following the death of yet another Black person by the police, a common refrain used by public protestors of all races was that “police brutality impacts all of us.” Nonblack LGBTQs, Latin@s, Muslims, and Asians often claimed that they, too, were negatively affected by state repression, and thus empathized with Black suffering. While the show of empathy had the obvious effect of constituting and numerically strengthening the multiracial bloc, by suggesting an analogy between nonblack and Black victimization it also negated the specificity of police homicide of Black people. This ubiquitous refrain and its underlying logic were in evidence during the February 11, 2016, debate between Democratic Party presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. In preparation for the primaries in Nevada and South Carolina, where Latin@ and Black voters are a substantial part of the electorate, Sanders and Clinton were trying to show engagement with the many Black Lives Matter protests across the United States against police misconduct and, as Clinton put it, the expanding consensus to “end the era of mass incarceration.” Both candidates addressed Blacks’ disproportionate victimization by the criminal justice system, staggering rates of incarceration, and incomparable figures of unemployment among the youth which, according to Sanders, hovered around 51 percent. Clinton remembered Dontre Hamilton, a young Black man killed in 2014 by the police in Milwaukee. Let me say that i’ve been teaching courses on the criminal justice system for the last fifteen years; i frankly could not have anticipated the day when targeted mass incarceration, this defining antiblack social phenomenon of our times, would become a part of a presidential campaign debate.
Alas, while the candidates uttered strong statements about Black disproportionate victimization, the undeniable antiblack logic of criminal justice was crowded out. The focus on Black experiences was not sustainable. Both candidates quickly pivoted to affirm the criminal justice system’s impact on Latin@s and Whites. Tellingly, one of the moderators, Gwen Ifill, after saying that “when we talk about race in this country we always talk about African Americans, people of color,” asked a pointed question about White people: “Don’t they have a reason to be resentful?” Ifill explained how working-class Whites, “underemployed in many cases,” already outnumbered in the public school system, will be a numeric minority by mid-century, and are living shorter lives than their parents did. The question led to the candidates’ discussion about vulnerable White people’s oppression, including mounting rates of drug dependency and incarceration.
In Brazil, despite well-known cases of police assassinations involving unmistakably Black persons—Amarildo Dias de Souza and Cláudia Silva Ferreira, among many other victims of state-sanctioned genocidal practices—multiracial protesters often articulated that police brutality affected “the poor, the Black, and the residents of the periphery.” To be sure, the inclusive refrain can be interpreted as a good-faith attempt to morally sensitize and politically mobilize nonblacks (and Blacks who resist acknowledging antiblackness), thus making Black experiences of discrimination matters that concern the entire society, not just aware Blacks. The search for and assertion of transracial and cross-class common denominators is, after all, precisely the sine qua non of multiracial political efforts. Along similar lines, one could affirm that, as it challenges police brutality and the disparities in the criminal justice system as a multiracial, cross-class injustice, the multiracial bloc demonstrates the effectiveness of its initial plea for a collective protest against antiblack oppression.
Yet these inclusive refrains that reverberate across the diaspora, and the cognitive device they represent, if on the one hand generate an imagined sense of familiarity with Black suffering, on the other have the effect of pivoting away from, thus attenuating, thus misrepresenting, the foundational antiblackness that animates the criminal justice system in particular and the normative principles of sociability more generally. Morally indignant, the multiracial bloc, tethered to a people-of-color logic, is not analytically able or willing to consistently explore the hypothesis that the empire-state, its institutions, and its supported modes of sociality are immanently antiblack. Imagined familiarity with Black oppression and suffering equates with a refusal to consider antiblackness as foundational. Transnationally, despite overwhelming evidence of antiblackness, the progressive public consensus is unwilling and unable to push for a debate agenda that asks deep and unrelenting questions about antiblackness as a structuring principle. This alternative agenda means stepping away from the people-of-color analytical framework that consistently denies antiblackness as fundamental, ubiquitous, and transhistorical. It means suspending the belief in the empire-state’s interest in and capacity to bring about multiracial integration that is not dependent on Black abjection; interrupting the demands of reform (e.g., criminal justice reform, policing reform, political reform); taking very seriously the hypothesis that antiblackness inflects our basic parameters of living collectively under the empire-state’s umbrella, thus engaging our elementary principles of sociability; and imagining analytical and political strategies able to identify and challenge the core institutional aspects of antiblackness. If antiblackness is foundational, then nothing short of detecting and destroying our structuring codes of what it means to be human in society will get rid of it.
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The Denial of Antiblackness shows that, as antiblack processes reach a saturation point and increasingly affect the nonblack physically and/or by way of acquired awareness and even relative empathy, they create possibilities for oblique identification between nonblacks and Blacks. The central questions structuring this work are as follows: What are the conditions in which oblique identification emerges? And what are the manifestations and consequences of oblique identification and its denial of antiblackness? While there are quite apparent, vivid, and seemingly positive outcomes of this curious form of identification—renewed public awareness of institutional excesses and the victimization of Blacks—there are other, not so obvious consequences. Oblique identification manufactures silences, gaps, erasures, and avoidances. That is to say, while oblique identification enables the relative (re)cognition of Black suffering, it also denies the analysis of structural and foundational antiblackness that informs Black and nonblack experiences. Could it be that the very condition of possibility of nonblack relative empathy toward Blacks is precisely the elision of antiblackness? In the United States and Brazil, the popular Netflix series Orange Is the New Black is an example of the complexity of oblique identification and its disavowal of antiblackness: as it suggests a greater public awareness of and willingness to engage targeted mass incarceration (in particular its impact on nonviolent women drug users), it also forecloses a serious and sustained engagement with forms of antiblackness that structure the emergence and maintenance of targeted mass incarceration. Currently, the sincere multiracial efforts at empire-state redemption across the Black diaspora take place in this curious and contradictory political atmosphere. What does the denial of structural and foundational antiblackness say about these projects of empire-state redemption?
This book draws on one short-lived and three long-term ethnographic experiences in Brazil and the United States. Between 1996 and 2006, i collaborated with activists at the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA) in Los Angeles, coordinated by Black Panther Michael Zinzun. Founded in 1975, CAPA was primarily focused on the quotidian police brutality that marked the South Central Los Angeles ghetto. It provided legal advice and logistical and moral support to victims of police abuse. CAPA’s primary activist intervention was to transform cases of police brutality into community mobilization in which the repressive presence of the state was denounced as one of many aspects of Black people’s subjugation. Unemployment, substandard education, food insecurity, exposure to environmental hazards (including toxic chemicals and disease-carrying pests such as cockroaches and rodents), and general susceptibility to early death by preventable causes (including domestic violence): these were some of the problems affecting Black people that CAPA was able to engage as it battled the everyday militarized police presence. Over the years, CAPA developed a series of programs targeting local youths, such as computer literacy, photography and video production, silk screening, and public speaking. As chapter 6 shows, Zinzun used his personal funds to support these initiatives, at great cost to him and his family. Following a Black Power orientation, Zinzun made concerted efforts to connect local and diasporic organized struggles. He traveled to Europe, Africa, and South America frequently, and in his journeys made it a point to bring young people—impoverished, formerly incarcerated, members and victims of gangs—with him. For example, in 1983 he traveled to Brazil for the first time, taking with him fellow organizers from various U.S. cities. He arrived in Rio de Janeiro shortly after the infamous Candelaria massacre, when the police killed eight young Black people while they were sleeping on the steps of the homonymous downtown church. There he interacted with local activists, such as members of the Research Institute of Black Cultures (Instituto de Pesquisa das Culturas Negras, IPCN), and organizers in Black communities. Zinzun maintained these contacts until he passed in 2006.
When i first met Zinzun, in 1995, he had recently come back from an international trip that included Rio and Salvador, in Brazil. At the time i had just moved to Los Angeles and was determined to live in South Central and work at CAPA. My youthful enthusiasm and analysis indicated that, if the Black-majority area had rebelled in 1992, it would again soon enough. At the very least, i would learn the rebellions’ conditions of possibility. It was my hypothetical understanding that such scale of mobilization that became inaccurately known as the “L.A. riots,” as if it was a product of irrational spontaneity, could not have happened without sustained and informed local mobilization. It did not take long for me to learn that, in fact, CAPA had an important role in the uprising. Zinzun, a survivor of police brutality, as chapter 6 shows, was a central activist in the organized struggle against militarized police presence in Black and nonblack areas, but he was also instrumental in bringing about the 1992 gang truce between Crips and Bloods. It is an often-forgotten fact that the truce happened before that year’s rebellion, and that much of the concerted actions of resistance against armed and ready to shoot-to-kill private property owners and agents of the empire-state were the result of meticulous coordination between the now united gangs. More important, i soon discovered through working at CAPA daily between 1995 and 1998, and interacting with allied organizations and individuals, that the so-called rebellions’ “hot spots”—where the greatest concentrations of people, fire, and resistance against antiblack armed individuals and agents of the state happened—were precisely the areas where local organizations were the most dynamic, and established. South Central activists and residents had been ready for the rebellion.
All of which is to say that, when in 2000 Zinzun told me about an organization in Rio de Janeiro that required my urgent attention, i knew that he had already seen in it a very specific type of potential. At the time i was employed in Austin, and i hadn’t been back in Brazil since 1994. So it was through Zinzun and CAPA that i contacted Rumba Gabriel, one of the main organizers of the Favela Popular Movement (Movimento Popular de Favelas, MPF), and effectively reconnected with my country of origin. In 2001, by participating in the planning and the implementation of weekly meetings in various of Rio’s participating favelas, i became involved in the MPF and Jacarezinho community, where Rumba was the resident association’s president. To this day, MPF is seen as a unique political experiment; contemporary activists cite the short-lived MPF as a model of collective intervention. MPF brought together more than sixty of Rio’s favelas, and elaborated autonomous favela-based demands about infrastructure, education, and the police. MPF activists consciously employed strategies and discourses aimed at denouncing racial injustice while, often intentionally, raising nonblack anxiety: with Black children and adolescents, they occupied shopping malls; in various marches they protested the systematic use of lethal police force against Black youth; they encouraged the burning of buses to call attention to deficient public transportation and urban infrastructure; and they constructed walls and installed cameras around some of the historical Black communities as a way to incite public debate about safety and policing in impoverished areas. Synthesizing hopes of a more just society while inciting deep nonblack fears of the allegedly unruly Blacks, the MPF activists, and Rumba in particular, often repeated the threat that, if their demands were not met, the “favelas will come down to the asphalt and claim what is ours.”
Intimidation, brutal repression, Rumba’s incarceration and subsequent disappearance—and yes, the state’s incorporation of some of the activists into its bureaucratic machine—led to MPF’s disbanding in 2002. Shortly thereafter, in great measure due to my evaluation that one of MPF’s shortcomings was its lack of a gendered antiblack critique, i began conversations with Criola activists in Rio. Founded in 1992 by Black women who grappled with various feminist collectives’ incapacity to reflect on race and the traditional Black movement’s refusal to engage gender, Criola emerged shortly after São Paulo’s Geledés; today, Criola and Geledés are the preeminent autonomous Black women’s organizations in Brazil. One of Criola’s coordinators, medical doctor Jurema Werneck, often stresses that they are not a feminist collective, but an organization that is rooted in the ancestrality, experiences, and thoughts of Black women. This, in part, is to distinguish what Werneck finds to be mostly a European–Anglophone and U.S. academic practice, feminism—which according to her tends to rely on a curious mixture of victimization, unchecked privilege, and individualism—from a much broader set of imaginaries and collective strategies embodied by Black women in Brazil and the diaspora. Part of local, state, national, and international networks of Black women, Criola focuses on combating various forms of racism and sexism. Criola activists and their allies, many of whom are rooted in, supportive of, and inspired by communitarian practices developed in the Black spaces of Candomblé, a Brazilian religious practice derived from African symbolic matrices, have engaged in a number of awareness and organizing campaigns. Examples of awareness campaigns include those focusing on domestic violence against women, lesbophobia, and sexual and reproductive health. In 2016, for example, Criola spearheaded a national campaign titled “Virtual Racism, Real Consequences.” Criola collected racist comments posted on social media like Facebook and, after locating the geographical origin of the comments, placed those comments on billboards near those locations. The objective was both to denounce the persistence of antiblack racism and to create a national conversation about it.
Criola members considered “Virtual Racism, Real Consequences” a successful awareness campaign. It received widespread attention in activist, media, academic, and various civil society circles. This campaign emerged in the wake of a much larger effort, undertaken in 2015, to bring about the “Black Women’s March.” Organized nationally with the objective to convene Black women from all over the country to the capital, Brasília, the march sought to call attention to Black women’s struggles against “violence, discrimination, and racism.” Several months of national preparation, in which Criola played a prominent role, culminated with the congregation of more than fifty thousand people in Brazil’s capital, in the streets and in study and discussion groups.
My collaboration with Criola, built around an annual course on the Black diaspora, is ongoing. In 2016 we completed the tenth edition of the course, originally intended as a workshop for the formation of Black movement cadres. Over the years, the course has served as a forum where more than two hundred Black women and men of various social, political, and sexual orientations discuss and strategize approaches against the ongoing genocide defining the Black diaspora. As chapter 4 and 5 show, much of what i learned working and dialoguing with Criola members Lúcia Xavier, Jurema Werneck, José Marmo, Sonia Santos, Luciane Rocha, Maria Aparecida Patroclo, and Luceni Ferreira informs my analysis of diasporic forms of Black suffering, including the resistance, even by progressive Black fronts, to come to terms with the specificity of gendered antiblackness. Even though the chapters on Brazil focus on specific events—the 2013 street protests, planned youth gatherings called rolezinhos, police pacification policies, and the torture and death of a Black worker in an impoverished neighborhood in Rio—they reveal the ways in which transhistorical and structural antiblackness continually manifests itself.
Much like CAPA, Criola centers the experience of blackness. Unlike CAPA, Criola stresses the gendered aspects of blackness and their institutional and everyday manifestations. CAPA, MPF, and Criola make demands to the state and act in so-called civil society. A number of former ministers of racial equality, and Black public functionaries at the local, state, and federal levels, frequently seek counsel with Criola, whose members participate in state-sponsored events and engage in state-generated initiatives and forums. Rumba was eventually employed by the state of Rio’s public security secretariat. Zinzun ran for an elected position similar to that of a city councilperson in Pasadena. This means that, as critical of Black exclusion as these organizations and people are, they engage established forms of power and spaces of political articulation as necessary and perhaps the only available arenas of struggle. The antiblack empire-state, its apparatus, rituals, and representatives, are thus rendered legitimate, even if reluctantly.
A similar assessment can be made of my involvement with Save Our Youth (SOY). Between 2008 and 2012, in an Austin juvenile detention facility, with Czarina Thelen and Rene Valdez, i participated in a twice-a-week writing workshop with incarcerated young people, mostly Black and Latin@. SOY was an initiative of poet and activist xicaníndio Raúl Salinas, also known as raúlsalinas, developed in previous decades and implemented in schools and juvenile justice institutions throughout Texas. Significantly for me, Salinas knew Zinzun. They had collaborated in California, and probably were incarcerated at the same time and place. Salinas and Zinzun reconnected in Austin in 2004, when Zinzun delivered a series of talks at the University of Texas.
Employing poetry and music as means to facilitate debate, the SOY workshop was designed to encourage critical thinking, foster confidence, and cultivate social and historical awareness among the mostly Latin@ and Black children. At the Austin juvenile facility, the workshop’s continuation depended on our renewed ability to make the case to the prison’s administrators that we, the facilitators, aided both the institution and the kids. As i show in chapters 2 and 3, we had to constantly negotiate with the facility’s administrators the terms of our interventions: the content of our sessions, the vocabulary that we employed and allowed the young people to use, and the format and substance of the publications that resulted from the workshops. We were instructed to discourage the kids to produce any and every expression that “glorified gangs, gang symbols, gang activities, and gang territory.” We even had to police the language used in the workshops. Because Spanish was prohibited, we often found ourselves telling the kids to revert to English. Of course not all rules were followed, and of course, over the years, we found ways to circumvent many of them. For example, at some point we pleaded with the prison administrators that, because some of the kids incarcerated were not English speakers, and given the fact that both Valdez and Thelen were fluent speakers of Spanish, it made no sense not to translate the workshops for those kids. The administrators agreed, and thus relaxed the no-Spanish rule during our sessions. Some of the kids interpreted the concession as an invitation to use Spanish in their writing and reading of their poetry. But the fact remains that, even though we worked to empower the incarcerated kids, we also, even if unwillingly, contributed to the management of their confinement. And, as i show in Part I, if the logic of confinement—which is to say, the logic of social management that far exceeds the prison—is deeply antiblack, then a considerable part of our actions, as facilitators, furthered this perverse antiblack logic.
The five-year work in the juvenile prison with young Black and Latin@ women and men was challenging. Full of life and imagination, the youths were confronted with the daily and long-term reminders that their confinement was not restricted to the juvenile facility, but included their schools, their neighborhoods, and their options in the formal economy. Although Black and Latin@ young women and men often shared neighborhoods, schools, and experiences of exclusion, they rarely interacted across racial lines as easily as they did within their racial groups. Black and Latin@ kids recognized and spoke of their distinct social worlds; they experienced social death in related but quite distinct ways. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 argue that, relative to Latin@ kids, Black kids remain disproportionately represented in institutions of confinement; they are more severely punished while in the juvenile criminal system and in their schools; their social networks are significantly more negatively affected by technologies of surveillance and punishment; and their prospects of adult incarceration and unemployment are more likely. For these reasons, which in turn speak of a pervasive antiblackness that affects the Black and the nonblack, Latin@ recognition of Black experiences, even in spaces of confinement where physical closeness was imposed, remained ephemeral and partial at best. Such an evanescent type of recognition is an example of oblique identification.
The activist partnerships introduced above provide ethnographic insight into the everyday, local, institutional, and political dynamics analyzed in each chapter. Because they reveal and produce continuities across borders of time and geographical space, because they transcend their local and finite actualizations, these dynamics suggest a transhistorical and diasporic logic. In other words, the specificities of Black suffering reveal a fundamental structural linkage between social realities contending with the enduring problem of the Black presence. Therefore, each chapter, as it grapples with manifestations of Black dispossession (including dispossession of one’s self) and hypersurveillance (including auto-surveillance), is but an expression of the foundational, structuring, and geographically widespread logic of antiblackness. The dynamics of antiblackness translate the logic of antiblackness, but neither do they accurately translate it, nor do they exhaust it. The analytical challenge, then, is to present convincing linkages between the manifestations of antiblackness and the principles of antiblackness.
Rendering matters more complex, the dynamics of antiblackness also disclose ways in which social actors struggle with antiblackness, even by denying it. Progressive activists, incarcerated young people, protestors, police officers, journalists, bureaucrats, and elected officials at times recognize aspects of foundational and structural antiblackness but often fail to sustain analyses and actions that address it fully. The recorded occurrence of multiple forms of Black exclusion in the diasporic recent past, and their predictable repetition in the near future, impels the search for innovative analytical, social, and political alternatives. On the one hand, such alternatives must be able to contend with, in a sustained manner, the transhistorical, ubiquitous, and structuring fact of antiblackness. On the other, they must be able to detect, or even prefigure, oppositional glimpses that refract from, rather than bypass, the prism of antiblackness. This latter requirement is presented here to tell the reader that a focus on antiblackness is not pessimistic, if by such term one means the absence of possibilities beyond the inescapability of antiblackness. The focus on antiblackness, rather, is the paramount translation of transcendental possibilities. Such possibilities, however, must suspend all accepted wisdom that sees, hopes, or authorizes possibilities of redemption in our current formations of empire-state, including “radical” theorization and modes of collective organizing that accept and enforce multiracial solidarity as a self-evident positive given. Don’t get me wrong. To engage antiblackness is not to preemptively negate analyses and modes of collective organizing that focus on multiracial constituencies. Rather, it is to focus, first, and comprehensively, on antiblackness, and only thereafter move on to nonblack experiences and multiracial possibilities. It will become apparent that the specific activist partnerships from which i draw, immersed in and defined by their multiple transnational commonalities, are themselves also evidence of our current difficulty, or utter failure, to confront antiblackness. This work is in pursuance of the transcendental, the visionary.
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Below i introduce a number of concepts that will inform my analysis, concepts that attempt to approximate the dimensions of antiblackness as indeces of a transnational, foundational, and transhistorical logic. This brief account is meant to establish points of departure, not fixed references: heuristic propositions that will be tested against social processes, and possibly modified. I offer these in an attempt to train our gaze and direct our efforts in ways that address antiblackness rather than avoid it. To provide theoretical references against which the concept of oblique identification gains specificity, i focus on the notions of antiblackness and social death. I start with an analysis of antiblack racism as a subset of antiblackness. I propose to linger on antiblackness not as an exercise of nihilism. Quite the opposite. To confront antiblackness is to revive a utopian perspective that seeks to destroy socially shared assumptions that naturalize Black suffering. To model the embracing of antiblackness i am proposing, i draw a self-critique of my previous works that uncritically engaged in a people-of-color framework and in the process foreclosed a more comprehensive analysis of antiblackness. The effort is to find ways to bypass, or at least challenge, not only our normative methodologies but, as importantly, and inextricably, the implicit structuring tropes of antiblackness we all employ and sanction by simply being part of our global culture. For example, if recent social psychology experiments are correct, we all harbor subliminally the Black–ape association, Black abjection at its most elementary. To do away with our complicity in Black dehumanization, we thus need to undo our fluency in normative social grammars that impact, and are inflected by, modes of thinking, methods of inquiry, and political imagination. The insurgent pro-Black proposition, then, is to negate coherence, which means to negate accepted wisdom. In particular, we must interrogate progressive research and organizing agendas, including academic programs, whose oblique identification is manifested in their timid efforts at engaging antiblackness as foundational, structural, transhistorical, and ubiquitous. I conclude by arguing for a Black–nonblack dyad, meant to correct and replace the canonical White–nonwhite framework.
The Obstinate Vivacity of Antiblackness: Structural Antagonism and Social Death
Antiblack racism is a constitutive aspect of the social world in the Black diaspora. Antiblack racism, according to Lewis Gordon, is a form of bad faith, which he defines as “the effort to hide from human reality, the effort to hide from ourselves. From the standpoint of bad faith, racism is the ossification of human reality into a monadic entity identical with any other aspect of its assumed duality. The racist is a figure who hides from himself by taking false or evasive attitudes toward people of other races. The antiblack racist is a person who holds these attitudes toward black people.” Expanding these insights to the social, antiblack racism can be conceptualized as a shared set of attitudes, and their assumptions, that translate into everyday practice and measurable results. This shared antiblack symbolic universe and its corresponding social protocols engender and justify a hierarchy of worth according to which human beings are classified. Although the resulting scheme allows for certain disadvantages to the otherwise privileged (e.g., White women are disadvantaged in a number of material and symbolic ways vis-à-vis White men; transgender White men are disadvantaged relative to cisgender White men), it consists of structured advantages for the nonblack and structured disadvantages for the Black. A fundamental consequence of this hierarchy is that antiblack racism determines how and thus for how long members of racialized groups live. Since it negates the very humanity of those who are less valued, for nonblacks antiblack racism guarantees the transgenerational accumulation of relative advantages. For Blacks, antiblack racism is synonymous with transgenerational accumulation of disadvantages, which consistently diminishes life expectancy.
The Black, in this symbolic universe—our world—is abject. To such an extent that, as will be argued at greater length below, the Black is not included in the hierarchy of human worth. The Black makes possible that hierarchy but is not of it. The Black is not human. It matters little that she objects the abjection by resisting, performing, finding joy, organizing. Although it leaves its odious marks on the realm of the lived experience, the social-pragmatic world—who gets what, when, why, and how—antiblack racism functions primarily, more effectively because seldom detected, and transhistorically, at the structural level. Antiblack racism structures not only social outcomes, including well-being, but fundamentally how we culturally think about and relate in and to the social world. It is a form of structural bad faith because it renders human difference essential, static, predictable, and classifies those differences according to a hierarchy of value; it renders humanity unattainable for the Black.
Shaping social cognition whose fundamental principles reside in the unconscious, or subliminal, antiblack racism establishes the assumptions informing and inflected by the field of sociability. There exists a feedback loop between shared subliminal assumptions and social practice, between structure (the structuring of social practice) and agency (the realization of the structure via practice). Yet, antiblack structuring principles have been impervious to the considerable pro-Black gains in political and social rights since the mid-twentieth century. Antiblack racism—and more broadly, aversion to all that is related to and suggests blackness, antiblackness—is thus structuring and inescapable unless and until the very structures of our cognition and sociability are deeply transfigured, removed, destroyed. To get to this desired and necessary transformative moment, however, we need first to figure out what exactly needs to be replaced. The exercise of identifying and analytically staying with, instead of pivoting away from, antiblackness, in its painfully present, transhistorical, ubiquitous yet elusive underlying nature, is as urgent as it is incipient. Such is the imperative of freedom.
Targeting the logic of antiblackness, my effort is to revive—not abdicate—the utopian expectation, and corresponding political-intellectual projects, based on the assumption that insurgent social practice can identify and destroy socially shared structuring principles. I am not defending a Black-only focus that precludes attention to nonblack, negatively impacted social groups. As i show in every chapter, the structural positionality of the nonblack is necessarily connected to and indeed dependent on the structural positionality of the Black. This doesn’t mean such experiences are analogous, or commensurate; it means, more precisely, that insofar as Black and nonblack structural positionalities are necessarily linked, albeit fundamentally distinct, their related experiences acquire more detail when juxtaposed to each other. Because antiblackness is ubiquitous and foundational, it links Black and nonblack experiences; because antiblackness is experienced differently by Blacks and nonblacks, it suggests categorically distinctive logics informing these differentiated yet linked experiences. To focus on Black experiences and on antiblackness, therefore, is to gauge a social force field that affects everyone. James Baldwin, aware of the structural centrality of blackness in the formation of modern subjectivities, and the earth-shattering effect that a change in such arrangement would produce, put it this way: “The black [wo/]man has functioned in the white [wo/]man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as [s/]he moves out of [her/]his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundation.”
I am pressing for a slower, comprehensive analysis—one that lingers on antiblackness, grapples with its minutia, understands its nature, depth, and reach. A self-critique contributes to centering antiblackness. My two previous books, Catching Hell in the City of Angels and Never Meant to Survive, reflecting the canonical expectations of diasporic Black studies and politics, are examples of a standard analytical prism: after examining a litany of antiblack phenomena, and how Black folks survive and succumb to them, i proceeded to emphasize methodological and political angles enabling broader (i.e., beyond blackness) analyses and multiracial alliances. Despite the attention they directed to Black experiences, those books were structured by an underlying multiracial focus, itself related to the people-of-color analytical framework with which i’ll grapple further in chapter 7. I now suspend those canonical moves, take a step back, and ask how these very same analytical procedures are themselves reflections of and substantial contributors to the ongoing, everyday, and seemingly as-graspable-as-ever antiblack phenomena. In other words, the multiracial analysis is made part of the problem as it often interrupts, decenters, and dilutes a focus on antiblackness. To suspend canonical tropes of analysis is to recognize, as the realist perspective for which Derrick Bell and others passionately argued, the obstinate yet often made elusive vivacity of structural antiblackness. As Bell characteristically reminded us:
In spite of dramatic civil rights movements and periodic victories in the legislatures, Black Americans by no means are equal to whites. Racial equality is, in fact, not a realistic goal. By constantly aiming for a status that is unobtainable in a perilously racist America, Black Americans face frustration and despair. . . . While implementing Racial Realism we must simultaneously acknowledge that our actions are not likely to lead to transcendent change and, despite our best efforts, may be of more help to the system we despise than to the victims of that system we are trying to help.
The canonical avoidance of antiblackness at minimum prevents a detailed exploration of Black lifeworld specificity. As troubling, it preempts an appreciation of possible investigative and political alternatives incubated in the midst of Black experiences. It is disconcerting to realize how powerful is this canonical imperative, and the missed opportunities it produces. Had i lingered at greater length with what residents of South Central Los Angeles in the 1990s were doing and saying, before i began searching for commonalities between their experiences and that of nonblacks, what would i have found? What would i have found had i stayed longer with the political imagination Black activists in Rio de Janeiro were putting into practice in the early 2000s? In both contexts, the imperative of multiracial analysis and alliances disavowed a more detailed exploration of these questions. The fact that i have no satisfactory answer to these questions reveals not only missed opportunities, but also an underlying normative cognitive force that ascertains the sustained focus on antiblackness as suspicious, incomplete, inviable. To avoid antiblackness is to sidestep blackness, and vice versa. Against the grain of this paradigm, this book zeroes in on antiblackness; it is particularly attentive to the normative conventions that prevent the stability of antiblackness as a legitimate analytical and political focus. This book proposes that, instead of complying with the canonical requirement of adding nonblack foci to the study of antiblackness, this addition becomes a possibility. This countermove, from requirement to possibility, equals the suspension of the people-of-color analytical framework.
To center the obstinate vivacity of antiblackness, then, is to find ways to bypass canonical methods, which means to bypass normative expectations. And normative expectations are often, although of course not exclusively nor more effectively, reinforced through the socially shared unconscious mind, or the culturally implicit. Here i am suggesting that our methodological limitations are related to cultural bias, which operates often undisturbed at the subliminal, unconscious level. Our conscious minds can and often do obviate these cultural biases. Recent social psychology experiments, designed to bypass the conscious mind and access unconscious cultural codes, show how implicit—subliminal—bias consistently associates Blacks to apes, and apes to Blacks. This Black–ape association, then, has nothing to do with, and indeed happens quite independently of, what people say, think, and suggest about their views on racial difference. At the level of the culturally shared, beyond the threshold of consciousness, our current multiracial moment does not show signs that it is much different than what it was before the civil rights era and its legal and conscious cultural achievements. By conscious cultural achievements—the recently transformed empire-state collective superego—i mean the relatively established ethical consensus and the institutional apparatus signaling that racial discrimination is unacceptable. Yet, U.S. White, Asian, and Black college students, when primed to engage their subliminal cognition (and thus unaware of their subliminal reactions), not only consistently employed the Black–ape association, but did so at approximately the same frequency. This association—proof, if you will, of the socially established and structural fact of Black abjection—is manifested subliminally, and thus takes place in spite of, or together with, one’s conscious reaffirmation of egalitarian principles. Because it is manifested subliminally, the Black–ape association is present even when one is consciously resisting, performing, finding joy, organizing. Or put another way, to be a member of our culture is to be fluent in our social grammars. To be fluent in our social grammars is to have internalized—rendered unconscious, subliminal—cultural biases. To be fluent in our social grammars, then, is to be fluent in, albeit not necessarily aware of, antiblackness. Evidence of an empire-state superego that is tolerant and even accepting of nonwhite racial differences as ethically, aesthetically, and juridically valuable does little to affect the grammar of antiblackness. Indeed, as quantitative and qualitative analyses of the marked increase in antiblack racism during Barack Obama’s presidency suggest, the tolerant collective superego coexists happily with contemporary forms of Black degradation. Such is the quandary of the Black diaspora: as it affirms its attention to, and even the embracing of, blackness, it is fundamentally structured by the naturalization of antiblackness.
The culturally sanctioned avoidance of coming to terms with antiblackness, which the people-of-color framework, and multiraciality more generally, perform exemplarily, is tantamount to the authorization of antiblackness. To engage antiblackness, then, requires moving beyond the force field of the culturally acceptable. Frantz Fanon is a reader of dominant culture who locates in it the preeminent symbolic and structuring force of antiblackness. His writings offer an analytical toolkit useful to contend with the inescapability, centrality, and urgency of antiblackness. “Ontology,” he explains, “does not permit us to understand the being of the black [wo/]man. For not only must the black [wo/]man be black; [s/]he must be black in relation to the white man.” The being of the white man, however, is not dependent on the black because “the black [wo/]man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.” A peculiar semantic field, one whose meanings and experiences depend on structured positionalities, is thus configured. Structured positionalities refer to the preordained relation between each and every subject. Although the existential aspects of antiblackness are certainly relevant—how they manifest on one’s body, mind, and soul—in this proposed scheme they are best understood as consequences of structured social relations. Such structured relations precede and frame the ways in which actual interactions between social actors are comprehended and performed. Positionalities are the principle by which one’s understanding of oneself is produced.
These positionalities form a nonsymmetrical diagram of simultaneous articulations. It is a nonsymmetrical diagram because the differently gendered and racialized positions—as indicated, for example, by Fanon and Gordon, and further examined in this book—don’t influence each other in the same intensity and quality. Importantly, the Black subject, in an antiblack world, is both irrelevant and critical to the formation of the nonblack (including the White) sense of being. The Black is a nonsubject against whose positionality all nonblack subjectivities define themselves. One is because one is not Black. The Black nonsubject is the central reference; but because the Black is not a subject, she is also a nonreference. Thus the Black nonsubject is the fundamental absent presence (or present absence). It is the Black nonsubject’s absent presence that structures the world’s range of nonblack positionalities. And even though the Black is symbolically required in her absent presence, her unqualified presence, or absolute absence, is impossible for it would cause irreparable damage to this “precarious balance of reality.”
As a generative proposition, as a proposition to be tested in this study, however, the grammar of antiblackness and its asymmetric field of structured positionalities is normative, ubiquitous, transhistorical, subliminal, and thus effectively shielded from contestation. This grammar establishes Black absence as self-evident. The fact that Blacks share and draw from the exact same antiblack symbolic universe only exhibits the degree to which this field of positionalities is naturalized and omnipresent. For blackness “is regarded, even by the black, as the antithesis of fulfillment in an antiblack world.” In this world, in this symbolic and cognitive structural setting, an eminently Black, avowedly pro-Black perspective, is impossible. A Black perspective, a consciousness that is not tethered to the ubiquitous grammar of antiblackness, is only possible when antiblackness and the cognitive and social world it establishes—the social world that emerges from the grammar and the facts of antiblackness—is destroyed.
Frank Wilderson suggests that the worldwide semantic field gains coherence through antiblackness. Even though this formulation may appear to calibrate theories on global White supremacy by adding to them the perspective of the Black, it is rather a considerable theoretical shift, one that reflects on global modes of relational identity by centering the Black structural positionality. Instead of conceptualizing all nonwhite racialized groups as affected by a common source of White supremacist oppressive forces, which differentiates these groups in hierarchies of social worth, thus making their conditions fundamentally commensurable, Wilderson takes up Fanon’s model and from it draws a map of structural antagonisms. In this conceptual map, the antiblack social world’s semantic field establishes Black positionality as the embodiment of the afterlife of slavery.
According to Saidiya Hartman, the afterlife of slavery is a cause and product of the foundational and continued subjection and abjection of Blacks regardless of the progressive expansion of rights and formal citizenship. Hartman argues for the transhistoricity of Black abasement by stating that, following emancipation, “while the inferiority of blacks was no longer the legal standard, the various strategies of state racism produced a subjugated and subordinated class within the body politic, albeit in a neutral or egalitarian guise. Notwithstanding the negatory power of the Thirteenth Amendment, racial slavery was transformed rather than annulled.” In the world’s semantic field—in which empire-states are necessarily immersed—Blacks occupy a unique and incommunicable position because the afterlife of slavery means that they continuously experience violence as structural and gratuitous. To a Black person, violence is structural because, as per Fanon’s scheme, s/he is positioned outside the realms of humanity and civil society. Civil society, then, is a permanent state of war, a landscape where Black bodies magnetize rape and bullets. On the normatization of rape against Black women, Hartman states the following: “The rape of black women existed as an unspoken but normative condition fully within the purview of everyday sexual practices, whether within the implied arrangements of the slave enclave or within the plantation household. . . . In this case [that is, the omission of the crime of rape against the enslaved in slave laws], the normativity of sexual violence establishes an inextricable link between racial formation and sexual subjection. As well, the virtual absence of prohibitions or limitations in the determination of socially tolerable and necessary violence sets the stage for the indiscriminate use of the body for pleasure, profit, and punishment.” Hartman thus presents a libidinal economy that accumulates, interchanges, abuses, and discards Black bodies according to a logic that far exceeds and thus differs from the profit motive. Blacks experience gendered violence not because of what they do, but because of who, structurally, they are—or rather, who they are not. Gratuitous violence constitutes a state of terror that coexists with liberal laws, rights, and citizenship. Gratuitous violence is terror because it is unpredictable in its predictability, or predictable in its unpredictability. For a Black person, it is not a matter of whether she is going to be randomly brutalized; it is a matter of when. Gendered antiblack violence is gratuitous because, contrary to what the nonblack experiences, it is not contingent on transgressing the hegemony of civil society.
As unsavory as this theory is experienced when one resists coming to terms with antiblackness, plenty of mundane events remind us of its simple truth. In 2015, my son Toussaint, then eleven, as he followed the news barrage about yet another unarmed Black person shot dead by the police, asked me for a bulletproof vest.
Antiblack gratuitous violence, then, is a constitutive, not incidental, element of our social world. Orlando Patterson equates this type of violence with “the necessity or the threat of naked force as the basis of the master-slave relationship.” The field of asymmetrical structured positionalities, reproduced by slavery’s symbolic mandate, is exemplified in the following remarks: “When we say that the slave was natally alienated and ceased to belong independently to any formally recognized community, this does not mean that he or she did not experience or share informal social relations. . . . The important point . . . is that these relationships were never recognized as legitimate or binding.” Consequently, the slave “could not have honor because he had no power and no independent social existence, hence no public worth.” Slavery, then, is “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.” Slavery is not defined by the fact that slaves are property objects—many nonslaves can be and are types of property. Think of professional athletes bought and sold by individual impresarios, teams, and corporations. Moreover, slavery is not exclusively, nor centrally, about labor. Slaves are not slaves because they are involuntary workers. Involuntary workers are not necessarily slaves. Rather, slaves are slaves because they have been rendered socially dead. In Patterson’s formulation, ever present violence, actual or potential, together with natal alienation and dishonor, are three defining traits of social death. And social death, in Patterson’s work, which relies on an expansive analysis of sixty-six social formations across time and geographical space, demarcates slavery.
A central aspect of the slave’s existence is her social symbolic function. Just as the Black, in Fanon’s scheme, allows for nonblack subjectivity (the Black is seen by the nonblack, which affirms who sees, but the Black’s gaze is irrelevant to the nonblack, thus evidencing the Black’s ontological invisibility), the slave’s degradation reveals, by contrast, who belongs, who has honor, who can trace genealogies, and who is not subjected to gratuitous violence. One is of the social world, one is human, in varying degrees, because one is not a slave. For our purposes, the concept of the afterlife of slavery defines the experience of contemporary blackness as coterminous with that of the slave. Slavery, as Joy James insists, is an ongoing fact, present tense. Slavery, more specifically, is the underlying algorithm of antiblackness. If that is the case, then social death, as a condition that is defined by vulnerability to permanent symbolic and raw violence, the disintegration of social and genealogical bonds (natal alienation), and lack of honor, defines paradigmatically the representation and experience of blackness.
Fanon, James, Gordon, Hartman, Patterson, and Sexton are some of the authors Wilderson identifies as theorists of Black positionality from the perspective that the entire world’s ensemble of social meaning relies on and reproduces antiblackness. Antiblackness equates abjection to blackness, and establishes that the Black, qua object of terror and absent reference against which the human is constituted, is the quintessential, transhistorical slave. Social death defines Black social life.
It is quite predictable that, in a diasporic moment marked by the denial of antiblackness, a conceptual scheme that insists on focusing on antiblackness as the fundamental matrix of the world’s symbolic universe will be met with all kinds of resistance and refusal. At a moment in the United States, especially in a number of progressive formations, including research institutions and academic departments, when a considerable amount of energy, resources, and reputation is funneled to the study and celebration of blackness through art, performance, and multiracial social mobilization, these theorists’ insistence on social death compels us to approach an analytical field that the denial of antiblackness prohibits. In public events when such concepts are mentioned, rather than an informed engagement, what i continue to witness is an avalanche of the expected preemptive rebuttals that begins with variations of “But Black people have been resisting since . . .” The problem here is not the focus on Black resistance, beauty, love, sexuality, or spirituality. It is, rather, with the unwillingness to momentarily shift our analytical minds, affective attention, and political horizons so that the performativity of the social can be comprehended in conjunction with, and not in opposition to, the proposed structure of antiblack relational positionalities.
Adding to the difficulty in the dialogue between theorists of social death and skeptics, the first tend to be perceived by the latter as conveying a certain disdain for the empirical while questionably overemphasizing structures. This perception dismisses how theorists of social death and the afterlife of slavery constantly pivot between the structural aspects of antiblackness and the facts of the social—what actually happens in the messy negotiations of the everyday. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection is replete with exegeses of everyday acts of the enslaved’s resistance; Wilderson’s memoir, Incognegro, is a good example of a close analysis of personal and social facts as they happen within, interact with, and inflect structures of power in South Africa and the United States. Still, it is correct to point out that, in these analyses of slavery and its afterlife, social facts are presented as indices of how the antiblack structure of positionality remains untouched in spite of individual agency and social upheaval. In South Africa as in the United States, past and present—and in the Black diaspora, as i am arguing here—there remains a social cipher, a structuring logic that, except for fleeting moments of truly revolutionary insight—which means moments when this world’s antiblack premises are made contingent rather than necessary—presents the Black as a sentient being without presence, a being defined by its non-being-ness, by social death. But that is the point. Unless these moments of revolutionary insight are analyzed with relation to the antiblack structure of positionality, they remain just that, fleeting and unable to address the social cryptograph that kills the Black before she is physically dead. Theorists of the afterlife of slavery propose a theoretical move that forcefully asks us to conceptualize the realms of performance and outcomes of the social in necessary relationship to the antiblack structure of positionality. This relationship is overdetermined because, save for the unusual transfigurative moments—when social imagination and collective action are able to project the end of this antiblack world—the social structures of Black abjection remain active even in the presence of resistance and of apparent social gains. This analytical move reconfigures the social as an arena that is necessarily a function of, even though obviously not always limited to, the global, foundational, transhistorical, and ubiquitous force field of antiblackness.
Anti-imperial research connects defining aspects of the Black diasporic experience—hypersegregation, unemployment, punitive education, police brutality, incarceration, exposure to environmental toxins, disease, and early death by preventable causes—to the empire-state’s management, and therefore reproduction, of structural antiblackness. The absence of sustained work along those lines in the U.S. and Brazilian research and academic environments suggests an authoritative consensus that disallows potentially transformative agendas. As an employed professor in a public institution in the United States, i am inescapably part of an imperial caste. One of Sylvia Wynter’s generative insights supports this proposition. Commenting on Fanon’s distrust of the colonial, and thus antiblack social symbology with which he nevertheless subjectively experiences himself, Wynter imagines to hear him say, “I am now fief to an order of consciousness whose powerfully induced reflex responses of desire/aversion impel and induce me not only to desire against myself but also to work against the emancipatory interest of the world-systemic subordinated and inferiorized Negro population to which I belong! For these reflex responses of desire/aversion are not my own!”
In contrast to contemporary dominant formations of progressive research, pedagogies, and collective organizing, the conceptual ensemble that insists on the structural underpinnings of the afterlife of slavery scrutinizes the specificity of Black positionality and the normative denial of antiblackness that interdicts an appraisal of what exists within and beyond social death. Paraphrasing Fred Moten, in the last decade or so, Afro-pessimism, a subset of this conceptual equipment, has offered one of “the most exciting and generative advance[s] in black critical theory, which is to say critical theory.” This agenda of inquiry, Moten continues, “refreshes lines of rigorously antidisciplinary in(ter)vention, effecting intellectual renewal against academic sterility. . . . Wilderson and Sexton keep on pushing over the edge of refusal, driven by a visionary impetus their work requires and allows us to try to see and hear and feel.”
Visionary is the broader conceptual ensemble that stresses slavery not as a fact, but as a structuring and contemporary social agreement. Such impetus, while mostly unrealized in progressive collectives and institutions, including academic jurisdictions, is graspable in realms where Black transformative imagination is exercised. For example, creative writers Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward, both from Mississippi, have produced works describing the very graspable experiences of Black life immersed in social death. Here is Ward, in a memoir that recounts how the death of young Black men, including her own brother, marked her coming of age in Mississippi in the early 2000s:
The land that the community park is built on, I recently learned, is designated to be used as burial sites so that the graveyard can expand as we die; one day our graves will swallow the playground. Where we live becomes where we sleep. Could anything we do make that accretion of graves a little slower? Our waking moments a little longer? The grief we bear, along with all the other burdens of our lives, all our other losses, sinks us, until we find ourselves in a red, sandy grave. In the end, our lives are our deaths. Instinctually C. J. [one of Ward’s cousins] knew this. I have no words.
Premature death of Black young people is normative, expected, uninterrupted. Laymon’s narrative is equally trained on the imminence and ubiquity of early physical death as well as on the structuring and ubiquitous aspects of social death. Like Ward, he stresses both the defining structural positionality of blackness—that which makes Black experiences of oppression fundamentally incommensurable to those of nonblacks—and one of the logical consequences of that positionality, self-annihilation:
I know that as I got deeper into my late twenties, and then my thirties, I managed to continue killing myself and other folks who loved me in spite of me. I know that I’ve been slowly killed by folks who were feverishly in need of life and death as I am. The really confusing part is that a few of those folks who have nudged me closer to slow death have also helped me say yes to life when I most needed it. Usually, I didn’t accept it. Lots of times, we’ve taken turns killing ourselves slowly, before trying to bring each other back to life.
The challenge is not to bring joy, resistance, and organizing to this picture as if joy, resistance, and organizing are incompatible with social death. As the vital and myriad expressions of blackness attest, they of course are not. The challenge, rather, is to engage with blackness as part of a unique and extreme social universe—one that is constantly at its limit, which means that it is at the limit of this current human world. The vanishing and therefore always urgent world of blackness, while encoded by the premise of its own destruction, suggests a sensibility that is necessarily transcendental. A transcendental sensibility simply means that, because of its familiarity with death—social death, bodily death, ubiquitous death—blackness is necessarily a pathway for imagining beyond the logic and results of the antiblack structuring principles, that is, the here and now. “Pathway” can mean a theoretical effort, an organizing principle, an aesthetic drive, a metaphysical musing. This sensibility—a Black transcendental sensibility—demands that we imagine a different social configuration. In Never Meant to Survive i called this the imperative of Black genocide. Insofar as the imminence and ubiquity of death render this world impossible, they engender another universe. In the realm of blackness, just as slavery is present tense, so is transcendence. When Cedric Robinson affirms the fantastic, i think he is talking about this transcendence, as an imperative. In an event at the Southern California Library in Los Angeles in 2012, when reflecting on the meanings of Oakland, his home city, Robinson said he liked to think of it as the space of the fantastic. This of course is in line with the unabashedly utopian tenor of his transformative book Black Marxism. It should be pointed out that in this monumental effort at reflecting on Black revolt in the diaspora (as well as canonical Black male thought), the fantastic—the enslaved’s emphasis on the ontological totality, collective property, the structures of the mind—is inextricable from the enslaved’s familiarity with death, both as a social structuring condition and a bodily event. Tellingly, one of the overarching findings in Robinson’s research on Black revolt throughout the diaspora since European colonization of Africa and the Americas was the enslaved’s willingness to participate in suicide missions. While this willingness dumbfounded nonblacks and especially slave owners, it is quite logical as both a political strategy and the expression of a shared imagination that, acutely aware of the pervasiveness of structural antiblackness, insists on transcendence, on the metaphysical, on the ontological totality that is realized beyond bodily death. Transcendence is the anti-paradigm. Robinson and his admirers would almost certainly disapprove of what comes next. The conjoining of antiblackness, death, and the fantastic suggests that Robinson’s project—one that is explicitly about rewriting history from the perspective of Black insurgency—has more in common with the theories of the afterlife of slavery, including Afro-pessimism, than their preemptive demonization suggests.
Sylvia Wynter affirms this imperative of transcendence when she proclaims the urgency to reach the until-now unreachable. When Wynter points to, in the words of Katherine McKittrick, “the imperative need for a new intellectual praxis, one that enables us to now both consciously and communally re-create ourselves in ecumenically inter-altruistically kin-recognizing species-oriented terms,” she is pressing for the need to realize the “unknowable conception of human freedom that is to be now imperatively realized.” Transcendence, the urgency to reach the until-now unreachable, is thus essential. When we avoid a full engagement with structural antiblackness and by default reaffirm normative analyses of Black suffering, we deny coming to terms with this specific, urgent Black transcendental sensibility. We thus miss the chance to appreciate the visionary impetus that the afterlife of slavery in particular, and blackness in general, necessarily conjures. We miss the chance to exercise the imperative of freedom. Wilderson describes this impetus as such:
If a social movement is to be neither social-democratic nor Marxist in terms of structure of political desire, then it should grasp the invitation to assume the positionality of subjects of social death. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we must admit that the “Negro” has been inviting whites, as well as civil society’s junior partners [the nonblack worker, the immigrant, the woman], to the dance of social death for hundreds of years, but few have wanted to learn the steps. They have been, and remain today—even in the most antiracist movements, such as the prison abolition movement—invested elsewhere. This is not to say that all oppositional political desire today is pro-white, but it is usually antiblack, meaning that it will not dance with death.
This challenge to our imagination is unambiguously rooted in a commitment to insist on the centrality and uniqueness of Black experiences. To do so is to make antiblackness foundational. Which brings me to the final heuristic proposition that i would like to employ to this study: that a Black–nonblack dyad reflects with greater accuracy our world’s antiblack structure of positionalities. The uniqueness and irreducibility of the Black experience calls into question canonical analyses of racial oppression. Canonical analyses, derived from and indicative of the people-of-color framework, rely on the assumption that the dyad White–nonwhite provides the reference from which to measure and evaluate the effects of White supremacy. According to this assumption, whiteness correlates strongly with privileges while nonwhiteness correlates with disadvantages. A hierarchy of human value informs advantages and disadvantages; in it, Blacks are at the most disadvantaged extreme, which means they are the least valued humans. The formula is flexible enough to account for White relative disadvantage and nonwhite relative advantages. These variations take place both within and across racial groups, and are the product of the interplay between racial identity and a combination of power as it correlates with color, social class, formal education, gender, sexuality, and nationality, among others. Still, the White–nonwhite dyad is overdeterminant, which means that the paradigmatic social differences are between Whites and nonwhites, making intramural conflict exceptional, or at least derivative. Here is a passage from Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States, a significant publication that encapsulates what has become accepted wisdom, at least in progressive camps:
Racialized groups are positioned in unequal ways in a racially stratified society. Racial hierarchy pervades the contemporary United States; that hierarchy is preponderantly white supremacist, but it is not always that way. There are some exceptions, specific urban areas where groups of color have achieved local power, for example, in the administration of social services and distribution of economic resources. In cities like Oakland and Miami, this had led to conflict between blacks and Latin@s over educational programs, minority business opportunities, and political power, with dramatically different results depending on which group held relative power. In these cases, some groups of color are promoting racial projects that subordinate other groups of color. While such exceptions do not negate the overarching reality of white supremacy, they do suggest that differences in racial power persist among groups of color. Inter-group racial conflict is not unidimensional; it is not solely whites vs. people of color, though whiteness still rules, OK?
In their efforts to bring about a more just world via critical analyses, proponents of the people-of-color framework locate White experiences and whiteness as the defining references. The racial force field changes dramatically when Black experiences and antiblackness are centered. The bodies are the same, but the symbolic–gravitational pull that each racialized body exerts on the others attains an altogether distinct set of directions, values, and meanings. When blackness and antiblackness are centered, a distinct landscape is configured, which produces a distinct scale of human values. This landscape, i am proposing, reflects with greater precision the state of our worldwide sociality. If we engage the field of relational positionalities as that which constitutes nonblack bodies as human while Blacks are the absent inhuman references, then the dichotomy generative of social difference and self-understanding becomes Black–nonblack.
According to the White–nonwhite dyad, to be White (and Western and male and propertied and cisheteropatriarchal) is the paradigmatic embodiment of humanity. In our proposed global landscape of relational positionalities, the Black–nonblack dyad represents (and allows for grasping) an expanded continuum of nonblack humanity according to which degrees of humanity accrue, not only in relation to whiteness, but also in relation to their distance from blackness. The range of differentiated humanity would then include Whites and nonblack nonwhites while excluding Blacks. This is quite different from the canonical scale of humanity, which the White–nonwhite dyad represents. In this canonical scale, Whites and nonwhites, including Blacks, are placed on a continuum.
The Black–nonblack dyad is not only a theoretical attempt to adjust our perspective so that it centers antiblackness. It is also an apprehensible social fact. Drawing from the 1999–2000 Lilly Survey of American Attitudes and Friendship (LSAF), for which he was a co-researcher, George Yancey argues that, compared to the largest nonblack racial groups in the United States, Latin@s and Asian Americans, Blacks are uniquely rejected and paradigmatically excluded. The LSAF data derived from telephone interviews with more than 2,500 U.S. persons randomly selected; the findings are thus generalizable. Yancy shows that Latin@s and Asian Americans do face discrimination, and that in certain contexts they can experience more prejudice than do Blacks. His analysis, however, shows that the Black positionality is of a distinct kind, irreducible to that of nonblack groups:
My argument is that African Americans generally have a level of alienation that is qualitatively greater than that of these minority groups [Latin@s and Asian Americans] and because of this alienation do not possess the same ability to become incorporated into the dominant culture as nonblack racial minorities. . . . It is the rejection (alienation) of blacks that serves as the standard by which nonblack racial groups can find acceptance. Because nonblack racial groups can avoid the label of being “black,” they can eventually be given a “white” racial identity. African Americans are in a quasi-caste system by which they occupy the lowest level of social prestige . . . and it is in the social interest of all nonblack racial groups to keep them at the bottom.
Yancey’s findings suggest that “it is rejection of African Americans rather than acceptance of European Americans that shapes this hierarchical structure.” Blacks show willingness to live in integrated neighborhoods and marry nonblacks at far greater rates than nonblacks are willing to live next to and marry Blacks. Yet, Whites, Latin@s, and Asian Americans show rejection toward Blacks that is significantly higher than the rejection they show toward every other racial group. Nonblacks’ preference for proximity to Whites cannot be the fundamental explanatory concept; rather, it is hostility against Blacks that drives their choices of neighborhoods and lasting intimate partnerships. This explanation supports the adoption of the Black–nonblack dyad. It also suggests a correspondence between our theoretical incursions into the world of structural antiblackness and actual social facts.
Back to the Black Diasporic Relational Perspective
The examples focusing on African American experiences should be taken in their broader sense. From a transnational Black diasporic relational perspective, “African American” refers to Black experiences in and beyond the United States. As will be made apparent in this book, even though formations of empire-state such as Brazil and the United States employ their specific technologies of social management and reveal unique sociabilities, they are originally dependent on, and continually reproduce, antiblackness in ever-changing configurations. For now, it suffices to point out that in Brazil levels of residential segregation, unemployment, police abuse, incarceration, medical negligence, and death by preventable causes, including treatable disease, are consistently more pronounced for Blacks (that include “pretos” and “pardos,” Blacks and Browns, or Blacks and mixed, according to the official Brazilian bureau of statistics, IBGE) than for nonblacks. To be sure, there are at least two features of the Brazilian social formation that require attention in our relational perspective. First, the nonblack category, given the relatively small number of Asians and Indians, who together constitute just over 1.52 percent of the population according to the 2010 census, is less expansive than in the United States, and thus self-declared Whites, who constitute 47.73 percent of the population, are distinctively dominant among the nonblacks. And second, as in the United States, there are variations in social outcomes for Blacks by skin color, according to which, often but not always, lighter skin tones correlate with relative privilege. Nevertheless, the significant, paradigmatic differences in accumulated and transgenerational disadvantages manifest between Blacks and nonblacks. Recently published dot maps, indicating where individuals identified by race reside, plotted from the most recent Brazilian census data, show Rio de Janeiro’s stark pattern of residential segregation. Contrary to what the proponents of the Brazilian racial democracy thesis and its variations continue to advocate, the maps reveal a persisting Brazilian apartheid. The areas where Blacks are mostly absent, the so-called Zona Sul (south zone), are also where there is documented higher income, better schools, better urban infrastructure, better access to health care, and higher life expectancy, including lower vulnerability to homicide and police lethality. Black areas are characterized by just the opposite patterns, all of which translate into greater social vulnerability, including greater chance of police homicide and considerably lower life expectancy. Compare the dot map of Rio to those of Brazilian cities such as São Paulo, Brasília, and Salvador. Antiblack residential segregation structures the distribution of racialized bodies on social geographies. Salvador, the eminently Black Brazilian metropolis, not surprisingly, shows its antiblack logic more intensely, and is therefore the most segregated. There, as organizations such as Reaja ou Será Morta! / Reaja ou Será Morto! insist, the police are notoriously genocidal. Racial democracy—the concept, its proponents and revisionists, and the institutional and corporate apparatuses that sustain it—is nothing but the denial of antiblackness masqueraded as an elegy to the country’s fictional inclusive multiraciality.
The 2010 United States Census–based maps of metropolitan areas show similar patterns. All major cities display geographies of antiblackness, but those are particularly salient in places like Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., where there are sizable Black populations and hence a greater societal disposition for containment. Across the Black diaspora, just as the absence of blackness guarantees relative privileges, antiblackness equates to geographies of death.
The book is divided in three parts. Part I presents analyses of surveillance, dispossession, and social death in the United States via a case study on urban space and juvenile criminal justice system in Austin, Texas. Latin@ and Black kids’ experiences prior to, during, and after their incarceration are examined as lenses through which to reflect on what i call asymptotic recognition, a form of oblique identification that arises from the simultaneous sharing of social conditions and divergent life trajectories. Chapter 1 provides the demographic, education, and criminal justice institutional background that informs the routines in the juvenile justice facility in Austin where i conducted a writing workshop with inmates (analyzed in more detail in chapters 2 and 3). A Latin@ numeric majority, an overrepresentation of Blacks, and an underrepresentation of Whites mark juvenile probation referrals. The deeper Black kids move into the punitive system—from referral, to adjudication, to increasingly more severe forms of punishment, which sometimes culminate with being legally considered an adult—the greater their levels of overrepresentation. For White kids, the inverse process is at play: the deeper they move into the juvenile system, the lesser their proportions become. Throughout the various stages of the juvenile system, the proportion of Latin@ kids remains close to their proportion of the overall population. Latin@ youth thus occupy an intermediary position between Blacks and Whites. As Latin@s move through punitive schools, juvenile detention, and the adult criminal justice system, they experience patterns of surveillance and dispossession that are quite familiar to Blacks. However, in each of the above institutions, Latin@s tend not to be punished as severely as Blacks. Still, because of the shared experiences of marginalization, there remain possibilities of identification between Latin@s and Blacks, even if oblique.
Examining (a) the routines of the juvenile detention facility, (b) the writings the incarcerated youth produced during writing workshops, and (c) the assumptions, expectations, and methodologies the facilitators, the young people, and the staff shared, negotiated, and fought over, chapters 2 and 3 zero in on the tensions as well as the forms of relative identification between Black and Latin@ incarcerated youth. Chapter 2 is devoted to the analysis of young men’s experiences, while chapter 3 engages those of young women.
Through the critical examination of the 2013 mass protests, most recent public security policies applied to historically Black areas in Rio de Janeiro, and multiracial demonstrations that followed a well-publicized death of a favela resident, Part II focuses on types of recognition and misrecognition that antiblack social control generates between the nonblack and the Black. Chapter 4 shows how Black assertive and autonomous presence is antagonistic to hegemonic sociality, the empire-state machine (especially, but not only, the police), and more broadly, the Brazilian multiracial project of development. Because it destabilized the structure of Brazilian social organization, Black presence as temporarily displayed in the early 2010s—relatively empowered economically, formally backed by a host of pro-Black sweeping federal affirmative action policies, and often embraced by sectors of Brazilian Black movements—had the effect of bringing to the surface elementary principles of social interaction that excluded Blacks from realms of conviviality, capitalistic transactions, and politics. In other words, the Black relative economic improvement made more evident principles and practices of antiblackness.
At the same time, however, these events generated moments when nonblacks identified, even if ephemerally, with Blacks who were absent from the protests but were a majority during rolezinhos. When focusing on police lethality, imposed social isolation, and poverty, protestors often addressed, even if indirectly, experiences that characterize the Black condition in Brazil. Chapter 5 maintains this focus on the ways in which nonblacks often address Black experiences only obliquely and thus leave structural antiblackness unaddressed. The 2013 police murder of Amarildo de Souza, a Black construction worker resident of Rocinha, the largest historically Black area in the city of Rio de Janeiro, is contextualized by ethnographic observations and news media reports collected over the last fourteen years, a critical appraisal of the new statewide public security paradigm implemented in 2008, and recent studies on violence trends in Rio and Brazil more generally. Reflecting on the multiracial protests against police lethality that followed Amarildo’s death, the chapter closes by considering the ways in which the excess of empire-state violence in impoverished communities is creating new, but limited, forms of nonblack awareness and identification with Black Brazilians. Importantly, if and when traces of the denial of antiblackness emerge in these multiracial protests, what do they reveal about the project of social change these protests support?
Bringing the previous chapters together, Part III reflects on oblique identification from a diasporic perspective. In dialogue with James Baldwin’s political philosophy, including his cogitations on the ideal Black political subject, in chapter 6 i argue that Michael Zinzun was a Black cyborg: a modified, improved human whose expansive ethical, physical, intellectual, and spiritual capabilities generated unusual wisdom, strength, knowledge, and boundless love. Zinzun was a Black Panther Party member and longtime coordinator of the Coalition Against Police Abuse in Los Angeles, from the mid-1970s until his death in 2006. I collaborated with him between 1996 and 2006. A person of great charisma and energy, Zinzun was successful at disrupting the normalized workings of the police in Los Angeles. Despite constant harassment from agents of the state, which in 1986 culminated with an act of police brutality that left him blind in one eye, Zinzun engaged his activism with unfailing vigor. He embraced the assumption that he, like other committed Blacks, had the uncommon yet indispensable ethical and historical responsibility to restore the country, and indeed other nations of the Black diaspora, according to their multiracial, inclusive, and democratic ideals. However, to his multiracial collaborators Zinzun was legible only insofar as he performed his political persona based on ethical and experiential common denominators that were assimilable and immediately recognized. Excluded from this political universe were the claims of Black phenomenological uniqueness vis-à-vis racialized nonwhite groups, and antiblackness as a structural, foundational, and overdetermining fact. Immersed in the people-of-color ethos, and identifying with blackness only obliquely, the Black cyborg’s multiracial political bloc could not address antiblackness methodically, and thus left untouched the foundations of the antiblack empire-state.
Reviewing the principal findings of each chapter, chapter 7 unfolds the proposition that the political possibilities of oblique identification are contingent on and actualize an incongruous relationship with the Black subject. Prototypically represented in the figure of the Black cyborg, the Black subject of democratic integration enables the progressive multiracial bloc, yet this same bloc denies the antiblack structural conditions that generate continuous Black suffering. The multiracial bloc’s assumed familiarity with Black oppression and suffering is integral to the people-of-color concept and practice. I argue the people-of-color framework is part of a diasporic paradigm shift that claimed to replace the perceived undue emphasis on the Black-White binary. To come to terms with some of the foundational traits of our diasporic multiracial political moment—one that is squarely intent on redeeming the project of the integrated multiracial empire-state—is to understand the simultaneous acknowledgment of Black suffering and the denial of the foundational, structural, historic, and continued aspects of antiblackness. Oblique identification informs a type of multiracial political ethos in which Blacks are at once central and, by virtue of the denial of antiblackness, not recognized as social beings paradigmatically engaged in structures of foundational dehumanization. To stress the foundational aspect of antiblackness is to call attention to the ways in which the supposedly democratic and multiracial polis of the Black diaspora still grapples with the problem of the Black presence. To analyze the Black subject’s embattled presence is to evaluate the conditions of possibility, the promises, and the shortcomings of our contemporary progressive multiracial political projects. From the Black subject’s perspective, the current empire-state multiracial political projects are fundamentally antiblack. To engage anti-antiblackness, then, is to begin to imagine a world not structured by a type of sociability that demands Black abjection. The Conclusion briefly introduces the figure of the slave as the cyborg’s alternative. The slave renders transcendental imagination imperative; she is the visionary.