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The role of Academia in the fight against anti-black racism: a hopeful road

nolesBased on human rights principles, States have the obligation to promote and protect the rights of all their citizens alike, as well as to generate the conditions to advance their full development and social inclusion. Historically, black societies have found themselves at the lower ends of the social scale due to systematics racial stratification of wealth, opportunities and access. This paradigm has restricted their access to basic rights and opportunities, as well as a full inclusion within their territories.

Phenomena such as globalization and the increasingly transnational adoption of neoliberal economic policies, are deepening the inequality gap across all nations. Consequently, more and more human groups are finding themselves disadvantaged and vulnerable. The scenario that this presents for the human groups that were already at the margins is extremely delicate as they are being pushed further out to the point of actual disposability. 

In this essay, I argue that, as a result of these policies, anti-black racism have become a generalized phenomenon more often than not, intentionally upheld and reproduced by governments, and hence they bear an obligation to address it in order to bring it to an end. I add, however, that there is a bigger role for academia to play within the enterprise.

The significance of the argument, as previously stated, hinges on the fact that the disadvantage black communities experience across the globe has often being considered a default from social and economic inequality; and very seldom characterized as an intentional plan of precarization by the hand of national States. Indeed there is literature that makes these claims when it comes to Brazil or the United States as isolated cases. We argue that Brazil and the US are not such but evidence of a world-wide trend of State-enforced plans. At the same time, as I plan to showcase academia and civil society contributions to the eradication of anti-black racism, I intend to present a possible road map for academics and activists alike.

The value of human lives

In her book, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, Ruth Gilmore (2007) recounts one of the most pervasive effects of capitalism, the increment of prison facilities and consequent augmentation of prison population, in that order. Indeed the author drafts an explanation of the process over which the State of California finds itself with an economic, land, people and State capacity surplus. To address this crisis (need for expenditure), the State decides to build new prison buildings. Consequently, even when twelve prison facilities had been built in the State of California between 1852 and 1964, from 1984 to the year 2000, twenty-three more were built. Gilmore will also assert that the majority of people later imprisoned would be part of the working class or less advantaged.

The building of new infrastructures seems like an adequate decision to address a surplus of almost all the elements mentioned above. This decision would create jobs, use lands, and the bureaucracy that is at surplus. When used to address and ‘resolve’ the surplus of people, it becomes problematic. To support the criminalization of entire communities on economic policies calls into question the role of the justice system and what are the interests behind it. At the same time, it is in direct conflict with the notion of policing for the protection of peoples. A situation that is addressed by Lesley J. Wood (2014) on her book Crisis and Control: the militarization of protest policing.

In her work, Wood evaluates the economic dimensions of the shift towards the militarization of protest policing and the reconfiguration of the protestor as a subject to be controlled by any means necessary. Under this economic new model, the protestor is actually considered more of a threat to the economic status quo than a citizen with valid concerns. By comparing policing trends and agencies in the US and Canada, the author concludes that protest police has become a mechanism for the State to ‘contain’ the raise of social discontentment that arises proportionally for the application of neoliberal economic policies that make the rich richer and the poor and disadvantaged poorer.

The notion of people as externality of economic national policies is also addressed by Rob Nixon in his book Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. In his work, edited in 2011, Nixon uses a number of examples where State action has left entire communities either disenfranchised (Nixon, 2011, 152), permanently affected without reparation (Nixon, 2011, 65), or where communities are actively neglected by the State as it responds to natural or man-made disasters (Nixon, 2011). The author appeals to the violent effect that State responses has on communities and characterizes it as a process of intentional violence grounded in the perceived residuality of these communities, and on a structural system of violence that has vulnerable communities at the end of the spectrum as perpetual victims.

Nixon (2011) would identify in his work that because the violence inflicted on vulnerable or made-vulnerable communities is not close and often difficult to quantify as their long-term effects are not visible in the present time, the real scope of State action has to be reframed in these terms. The responsibility of States goes beyond the specific and concrete act of violence to extend to its unseen and extended effects. After all, “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space” (Nixon, 2011, 2) is still a violence that States have to be accounted for.

In light of these ideas, the value of human life has to be brought into question. The adoption of neoliberal economic policies that put a greater strain on vulnerable communities and push them further to the margins of society seems to be a new normal for most nation-states. Indeed “austerity policies have furthered income inequalities between rich and poor, and cities have been transformed accordingly” (Wood, 2014, 5). On the other side of this paradigm, the active neglect or slow violence at which these communities are subjected constitute what seems to be an intentional plan of precarization undertaken by States to dispose of entire communities that are no longer necessary or that cannot keep up with the capitalist liberal model that is exacerbated by globalization.

Although States have a responsibility before the lives and livelihood of its citizens, we see constant and intentional transgressions to this principles and mandates time and time again for what seems to be economic reasons. Further, when these are based on “power relations that are capitalist, objectifying, and that depend on the devaluing of human beings according to both market values and to ascriptions of race, gender, social class, sexuality, nationality, age and others” (Costa Vargas, 2010, xxi)

The vulnerability of black lives

The particular vulnerability of black communities is brought to light when we consider that at the time ofGilmore’s publication, two-thirds of the State of California’s 160,000 prisoners were either African American or Latino. (Gilmore, 2007, 7). That in current times, in the US, “there are more black men under correctional control –in prison or jail, on probation or parole- than were enslaved in 1850” (Levi, 2011, 12). That nearly half of the women in prison facilities across the US are women of color. (Levi, 2011, 17). That Katrina, or what has been recognized as an act of active neglect of an entire American city inhabited mostly by black people after a natural disaster, is one of the examples Nixon is talking about; And over all, the “ongoing marginalization and premature, preventable death of disproportionate numbers of black persons in the African diaspora” (Costa Vargas, 2010, x). Indeed, “evidence of poverty, unemployment, persistent residential segregation, exposure to environmental toxins, substandard schooling, (and) disproportionate presence of children in the foster care system, police harassment, and imprisonment” (Costa Vargas, 2015) impacts not only blacks but also poor white and non-black communities. These conditions and experiences however, “uniquely define the transgenerational social and physical death experience of Blacks” (Costa Vargas, 2015).

This conditional despair is acutely described by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and me (2015) where the author brings us into his own reality as a black man in America and the owner of a black body; a disposable, burdensome, and dangerous-to-carry safely black body. Through the exploration of his personal experience carrying a black body, while being a son and later a father, Coates gives us a glimpse onto this experience highlighting the notion of the black body being “allowed” to come to existence but always aware of its otherness and the greater risk it entails. Coates calls consistently into the realization that the system that black bodies function in is articulated in a way where they are tolerated but never welcomed. Alive, only while they behave, and hence, disposable.

Sadly, if the reader esteems that the examples presented before seem inconclusive, there are more experiences to be drawn. Also, if it was not clear so far, the particular vulnerability of black communities extends far beyond the US, affecting many countries in the African diaspora, much to the acquiescence of States and/or direct action of States, let us recount the case of Haiti and its relationship with the Dominican Republic (DR).

From its conception, Haiti is a black country. Its whole history of existence points towards the formation of a country inhabited originally by the Tahino Indians and to which enslaved people from Africa were imported to, to work in sugar cane plantations under the crown of Spain and later France. The sovereign nation of Haiti is established in 1804 by the enslaved and free people taking over Napoleon Bonaparte’s army hence becoming the first independent nation in the region.

The current State of affairs of the tense relationship that the Dominican Republic and Haiti keep, that on its history includes the massacre in 1937, where the DR government responded to the Haitian “silent invasion” (Paulino, 2006, p.271), with the slaughtering of at least 15000 Haitians and Haitian descendants in the country’s territory (Paulino and Garcia, 2013, p.111), has the DR State enforcing a citizenship law that has stripped of nationality a number of Haitian-descendants in DR’s soil considering them Haitian and enforcing mass deportations. In fact, “between May and September 2005, nearly 3000 Haitians (and Haitian descendants) living in the Dominican Republic were deported to Haiti” (Paulino, 2006, p.265). This followed an unprecedented interpretation of the law where DR courts reclassified Dominican citizens of Haitian descent as migrants in need of regulation (Canton and McMullen, 2014) and that is enforced even today much to the recommendations against it of the international community and human rights supranational bodies.

The case of Salvador de Bahia in Brazil is also illustrative. Brazil is the largest black nation outside of the African continent (Costa Vargas, 2015). And although blackness is part of their identity discourse, and many aspects of blackness are exalted as conforming the national fabric, and hence the Brazilian culture, as it is advertised for the world, the mere presence of black bodies is rejected with lethal violence in a strike that collects black lives daily by the hand of police and national authorities.

In fact, Costa Vargas (2010) argues for this phenomenon to have reached a genocidal scale under the acquiescence of all of us, including States. That, indeed, the elimination of black lives do not constitute a number of isolated black killings but the systematic elimination of black lives as a continuum that started well before colonization (Smith, 2016) and that goes on past us. In that regard is constant and repetitive and rooted in a system that deems it as regular and part of the social dynamic. The deaths of black bodies are “trans-temporal, trans-spatial repetitions—performances, so to speak—that replay scenes, plots and storylines of anti-black violence that occur and reoccur across time and space” (Smith, 2015).

Anti-black racism?

It is difficult to bring into existence what is not named. In that regard, from Costa Vargas (2010) to Smith (2016), a number of authors studying black communities in the African diaspora have identified the consistent inequality black communities across the world shared rooted precisely on their blackness. Consequently, to call this paradigm “racism” is no longer enough. There is an urgent need to call attention to the specific subject behind the motivation of racism; especially as it is structured in a way that rejects blackness and the black subject majorly. Indeed, the reality of racism points towards the understanding of racial stratifications as a model where one race is deemed better than other. Bringing blackness into the equation describes the phenomenon of racism against black people specifically. Moreover, it is of pivotal importance to verify who/what groups are the recipients of racism and racist acts in order to have an honest conversation about the topic in a way that is conducive to find any solution.

Addressing the complexity of anti-black racism today requires a multi-tier approach as it its results have far exceeded the possibility of just being “resolved” by the State, academia, or civil society alone. In fact, “we are (all) complicit in the reproduction of the power relations that sustain our present polities” (Costa Vargas, 2011, xxi). For the longest time, as this problem evolved and grew by not being addressed or even acknowledged by governments, civil society held the task of shining light on what was happening to black communities around the world coming up with resistance efforts mainly implemented from the ground, up. Perry (2013) however would urge us to recognize that social movements cannot afford to stand-alone anymore. We need to recognize the need for international and transnational solidarity and learn to see the world through their eyes; the eyes of the disadvantaged, the eyes of the ones that we, ourselves, are allowing to be considered disposable.

So what is for us to do?

As we know, the efforts of civil society are regularly a clear reflection of the social climate of a country. In the case of anti-black racism, this is not an exception. In fact, there is a number of examples of social agency that we can reference as resistance efforts. The role of academia within this paradigm, however, has not been as clear. On the one side, social movements need visibility as “public visibility imbues them with social and political relevance” (Currier, 2012, 1); on the other side however, academic papers or approaches tend to have a restrictive audience, and a format that may not be widely accessible outside of educational spaces. Still, there is a lot of value in the synergy that academia and civil society can create to bring light to this issue and foster solutions. As a case in point Perry (2013) and Ross (2010) are great representations of academic efforts that using an ethnographic approach, work as an amplifier for the voices of these unheard communities without losing their academic rigor.

In her work, Black Women against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil, Perry (2013) chooses to showcase the women of the neighborhood of Gamboa de Baixo in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. These women, leaders on their community have carried on their shoulders the role of defending said neighborhood against a calculated process of eviction undertaken by the local authorities on behalf of the construction of Contorno Avenue; a strip that constitutes an actual demarcation of the city that renders Gamboa de Baixo invisible making them outsiders within their own city. In a context where their livelihoods and living conditions are under permanent risk, the women of Gamboa de Baixo stand strong against for their right to own the land they live in, and adequate housing. With this work, Perry is successful in recounting their stories in an academic fashion without losing sight of the possibility of reaching a broader audience hence using her platform to bring light and hopefully an expanding attention into the situation of the peoples of Gamboa de Baixo. At her time, Ross (2010), presents almost two decades of research in her work Raw life, new hope. Decency, housing and everyday life in a post-apartheid community, where she explores the reality of the residents of The Park, a town in the outside of Cape Town, South Africa. With the use of pictures, recipes and the transcription of conversations and interviews along with her own analysis, the author is able to bring the reader into this environment where the community is trying to make sense of their own lives and relationships. Like Perry, Ross uses her academic tools to translate her interpretation of life in The Park into multiple codes of communication. Her language is indeed very accessible without losing academic validity.

What is left for us to do is recognize that the task of ending anti-black racism concerns us all, and that we are all accountable for the loss of human lives in general, and black lives in particular. As organizations continue to be pivotal in this process, there is definitely a place for academia as a catalyst for change. States need to rethink the adoption of social and economic policies that further endanger black lives, and with our participation, actively deconstruct the social structures that facilitate the disposability of these lives. We can continue to highlight the work of activists, and organizations or become advocates ourselves, as well as build transnational alliances in order to propose reflective, but solution-driven dialogue with the end goal of putting an end to this epidemic.


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