Tag Archives: Race

The Dangers of Remembering MLK

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As a national holiday, the commemoration of Martin Luther King jr. has been fraught with problems. Aside from the resistance to its creation, the act of collective remembrance itself is a deeply political affair. The building of monuments, the preservation of moments, and the mythologizing of symbols, people, and places are much more than a simple, dry cataloguing of dead facts. They are acts of creation that can be deeply contentious, as other recent conflicts surrounding Confederate symbols and statues have (again) reminded us. These fragments of pasts are commonly portrayed as something like a woven quilt, with patchwork pieces that we stitch, replace, and re-stitch together to tell shared stories that inform our understanding of the present and convey values and lessons for the future. We can also think of them as weapons, to be used and deployed in struggles over those same understandings, values, and lessons. As weapons, these commemorations can be dangerous, depending on how they are wielded and to what ends.

What dangers are promised by the remembrance of MLK? What dangers should be promised? There are three particularly important dangers that we should keep in mind as King is invoked in our present circumstances.

The first danger is posed by those who seek to co-opt MLK as a truncheon in defense of the status quo. It is the official representation of MLK in state speeches, the version adopted into the national pantheon, and the one safely relegated to the past and the Bad Old Days. This MLK Has a Dream of a future, one which is made politically palatable today only by virtue of the implicit notion that his imagined future is already our past. Or, as the Washington Post argues in its recent Whiggish, nationalist version of King’s thought and work (accompanying an equally superficial and selective portrayal of American conservatism as an ideological disposition and movement), he had always been a creature of the nation’s alleged true principles which had simply been forgotten or ignored, conveniently, for two centuries. That he was effectively a persona non grata of the state is  certainly not taken as a lesson in and of itself for practical struggles today.

In this safe portrayal, King is no longer a danger to existing racism, militarism, or massive class divisions and structural violence, because the beatification of King into a bumper sticker saint is premised on the notion that these problems have already been mostly vanquished. Having played his part and fallen conveniently off the stage at the end of the final act, this MLK is used primarily to silence present social criticisms and dissent under a flurry of milquetoast platitudes and moralizing condemnations, usually about proper ways to protest, but also in defense of a colorblind silence about race itself.

The second danger is instead posed by those who look to King’s life and ideas as a living, incomplete resource from which to draw lessons in order to disrupt and destabilize the racism, police brutality, militarism, and economic violence that remain pervasive. This is a dangerousness that should be embraced. This kind of commemoration is of the evolution of a man from a cautious, relatively safe, middle-class liberal reformer to an unapologetic radical. It is of the critic who found it more and more difficult to ignore the interconnected nature of the various manifestations of violence and oppressions found throughout the world, from Jim Crow to Vietnam, Apartheid to Harlem, capitalism to empire.

This is the King who warned of the greater dangers posed by the white moderate than the KKK in the fight against racism; who challenged the myth that time moved along an inherently progressive path of its own accord, without struggle; who defended the necessity of conflict and creative social disruption as a means to force those in power to the bargaining table and to achieve equality and freedom; who blamed institutional violence and man-made economic deprivation for social unrest; who refused to apologize for the U.S. government’s mass killing of millions of people in Southeast Asia, even though it lost him credibility and influence within the Democratic Party establishment; who was harassed, threatened, and undermined by the FBI.

The third danger is not one of remembrance as much as forgetting, namely forgetting King’s limitations. King is often invoked as a kind of secular authority within the American political discourse. In doing so, we are encouraged to forget many things. We forget that King was one political actor among many, and that he was not The leader of the Civil Rights Movement, even though he was (like Gandhi) adept at acquiring the credit from many other people’s labor. We forget that his strategic vision and arguments – especially regarding “nonviolence” – were often viscerally contested and rejected by others involved in those same struggles. We also forget that he was judged to be the comparatively “safe” option to be embraced by white liberal reformers, especially when judged against the threats posed by the emergent Black Power and Black nationalist movements inspired more by the likes of Malcolm X or Fred Hampton. It is important not to forget that the reason we have an MLK commemorative holiday at all is because of King’s limitations, as well as his achievements.

Martin Luther King jr. is indeed a dangerous figure today. The more important question, however, is for whom.

 

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Filed under MLK, Monuments, Race, Structural violence, Time and temporality, Violence

Juneteenth

 

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Juneteenth celebration is today, honoring when chattel slavery was finally ended in all former Confederate states. The Union Major General Gordon Granger landed in Texas, the last slaver state bastion, on June 19, 1865 with enough military power to finally enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. The Republic and then annexed State of Texas was already established in large part as a militant pro-slavery revolt against the Mexican empire’s ban on slavery, but as the luck of the Confederacy dwindled during the war, slavers had further migrated to Texas. Fully a quarter of whites held slaves by the time Granger landed, and 30% of the population were slaves. Chattel slavery would not be formally ended nationally until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December. Also, the re-creation in informal slavery through the Black Codes, debt bondage, and punitive sharecropping immediately after the Civil War, and then Jim Crow laws after the end of Reconstruction further retrenched white supremacy. Yet, Juneteenth is an important holiday commemorating a rare moment of victory, however incomplete, in the dismantling of the system of racial dominance and inequality that has defined the character of the United States and citizenship within it since its creation.

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Filed under American Civil War, Juneteenth, Race, Slavery

Concepts of Note: What is Herrenvolk democracy?

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[[ The purpose of Concepts of Note entries is to provide summaries and reflections on important concepts in political theory, social science, and the humanities ]]

Herrenvolk democracy” is a crucial concept for understanding the potential racial dimension of democratic belonging and exclusion within a political body, as well as the inequalities of power, rights, and resources that follow. Coined by Pierre van den Berghe, a Herrenvolk democracy is a political order that is “democratic for the master race but tyrannical for subordinate groups” (p.18). There is equality, but only within the dominant racial group. Most importantly, the sociopolitical equality enjoyed within the dominant racial group is premised upon rather than in contradiction with the inequality that sustains the order as a whole. The idea that this should be considered a “real” form of democracy at all may sound strange or appear hypocritical on its face, especially to contemporary citizens of liberal democracies. The fierce international criticisms and boycotts of the apartheid regime in South Africa (where whites ruled, and people of color were disenfranchised, segregated, and stripped of citizenship) during the second half of the 20th century exemplifies this sense of its illegitimacy. Yet, the apparent contradiction of Herrenvolk democracy is something that was fought for and achieved, rather than being transhistorically obvious to all.

Consider the formally racialized character of democracy in the United States from its inception to at least the 1960s. Those who could successfully claim to possess “whiteness” (as judged by those others who already possessed it) were able to access a slate of benefits (unevenly, along gender and class lines especially) including voting rights, higher wages and two-tiered wage scales, minimal expectations of courtesy and status in the public sphere, more lenient court sentencing, exclusive access to some jobs, privileged access to public services, informal “first hired last fired” employment insurance, privileged potential access to housing, loans, and capital, a sense of superiority over all non-whites, and (most importantly before the Civil War) the right to avoid enslavement. Those who were judged to be not-white were denied or given restricted access to these economic, political, cultural, and psychological “wages” that came with whiteness (Du Bois; also Roediger). While certainly also being inflected by gendered and class divisions, the “color line” between the “white world” and the “dark world” that WEB Du Bois describes was the foundational principle of inclusion in or exclusion from the power, resources, and privileges of the democratic order, however else they may be inequitably distributed. As Joel Olson argues, whiteness was the essential characteristic defining full American citizenship as such.

In order to lay claim to what Judith Shklar refers to as American citizenship’s provision of “standing”, the necessity of being able to prove one’s possession of whiteness was ever-present and operative through widely inculcated discrimination norms and practices among whites, threat of state persecution through law, lynching, mob violence, and a generalized extralegal enforcement of racialized terror. Continue reading

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Filed under Concepts of Note, Democracy, Herrenvolk democracy, Race, Uncategorized