A version of this talk was delivered originally at a teach-in on “Ferguson and Beyond: Race, State Violence, and Activist Agendas in the 21st Century” at the University of Washington on January 23, 2015. Video of the teach in can be viewed here.
Let me begin by pointing out some obvious, but oftentimes overlooked, points. We live in a society where we can’t escape the US state and its insistence on allegiance and loyalty. But, for many of us, the US state—and I use that term to refer to all levels of government, be it local, state, or federal—has historically been constructed not for our protection. Rather, the US state has been constructed to protect America from us and what we represent. The US state has been the embodiment and instrument of white supremacy far more than it has served as a means to reducing its impact or its visibility. In a nutshell, that’s why we can’t trust the US state.
Those may seem like simple and simplifying points, but they’re worth reflecting on, especially in our current historical moment. Let’s begin with the US Constitution. In drafting the Constitution, the Founding Fathers took great pains not to mention the word slavery, but their document could not avoid the institution of such social, economic, and political importance in the new republic. There was the clause delaying the prohibition of the slave trade, which was referred to as the “Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit.” There was also the infamous three-fifths clause, mandating that representation in elections would be based on “the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
Perhaps most significantly to American slaveholders, the Constitution also included a fugitive slave clause, requiring that persons “held to Service or Labour” who crossed state lines had to be “delivered up” to those who claimed them. The clause defined the founding relationship between the US state and black people, a relationship rooted in property rights. It sanctioned and produced a clear racial divide between those who were policed and those who did the policing. That racial divide is still with us today.
And what was the US state supposed to do with those “merciless Indian Savages,” as the Declaration of Independence called them? For the first century and beyond, two of the most central functions of the US federal government had everything to do with advancing the US empire: to wage wars (mostly with indigenous peoples); to sign treaties (again mostly with indigenous peoples). And US imperial wars would make millions (and now potentially billions) of people subject to US state violence—those living in what is now the American Southwest, Hawai‘i, the Philippines, Latin America and the Caribbean, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The places and peoples have changed over the years, but the underlying logic of race and empire hasn’t changed. All of these wars were bloody and violent, but they were all deemed necessary—for the sake of civilization, freedom, and democracy.
In response to black struggles for freedom before and during the Civil War, the US state incorporated major amendments to the Constitution that abolished slavery and formally extended citizenship rights to African American men. But Reconstruction ended almost as soon as it began, as the postbellum socioeconomic order, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, “murdered democracy in the United States so completely that the world does not recognize its corpse.”
Shortly after Reconstruction, the US federal government began passing laws restricting and prohibiting immigration. But how could the so-called “nation of immigrants” bar people from entering its shores? The Supreme Court provided a key rationale. In a monumental decision sanctioning Chinese exclusion in 1889, the court ruled that the federal government had the power to enact laws for the nation’s “protection and security.” That was its foremost duty. If the US government categorized “foreigners of a different race” as “dangerous to its peace and security,” the justices argued, that designation could not be disputed or challenged. It did not matter that the Chinese were not waging war against the United States. The conjoining of race and national security has persisted not only in matters of immigration but also in the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, in anticommunist laws on the detention of “subversives” during the Cold War, and, more recently, in the systemic arrogation of state power in the ongoing “war on terror.”
All of this is to say, for many of our communities of the past and the present, we have been the targets of US state violence—as slaves, as illegal immigrants, as colonial subjects. Deemed savage, barbarian, slavish, and disloyal, we have been vilified and racialized as threats to US national security. For most of our history, we have sought protection from the violence enabled and inflicted by the US state.
Against this violent backdrop, aggrieved communities have demanded change, in part by appealing to the federal government. That’s not all they did, but it was a sensible strategy. When the lynching of African Americans escalated dramatically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, local and state governments did nothing. In fact, lynch mobs often included the active participation of local police officers and government officials. In that context, African Americans demanded that the federal government pass an antilynching bill, to make lynching a federal crime. The US Congress never passed an antilynching law.
Even as African American individuals and organizations made their appeals to the federal government for civil rights throughout the twentieth century, they also recognized the limits and contradictions of those appeals. As Nikhil Singh has argued, that defined the radicalism of the black freedom movement. What made the movement radical and effective was not a certain policy position or a particular ideology or strategy. What made it radical was its heterogeneity, its flexibility—its ability to embrace and exploit American nationalism, even as it interrogated America’s limitations and contradictions.
The black freedom movement, as a whole, made demands on the US state, to hold it accountable, to demand equal citizenship rights for all. At the same time, it also raised questions on the inherent limits of the US state and revealed a larger history of race, empire, and state violence. What do I mean by that? Let me give you a quick example. This past Monday was Martin Luther King Day, when we hear his “I Have a Dream” speech over and over again. When King demanded “citizenship rights” for African Americans, speaking of a dream “deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” if you listen carefully, you can hear his skepticism, his deep sense of irony.
And we know King’s vision and critique ran much deeper. Within four years, he would be condemning US state violence in Vietnam. Calling the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” King identified as a “citizen of the world.” Racial justice could never be limited to American citizens. The struggle for racial justice meant embracing a sense of belonging beyond America and confronting the violence orchestrated by the US state.
King’s vision provides critical lessons for us today. We need to continue to make demands on the state, to hold it accountable. We need to demand an end to the prison industrial complex, to demand the enforcement of civil rights and voting rights, to demand comprehensive immigration reforms, and to demand an end to mass deportations. There’s too much suffering out there to stop making these demands.
Even as we continue to make these demands, we need to recognize that we can’t stop there. We need to recognize that we will not find racial justice in and through the US state. As Arundhati Roy has been arguing so eloquently over the last decade, we should not see ourselves as “American citizens” or “Indian citizens” or whatever passport we might be carrying. Roy says that she speaks, writes, and acts as “a subject of the American empire.” So, while many of us demand change as “Americans,” let’s not forget that larger history. We were and are racialized subjects of the US empire, racialized targets of US state violence. That is something we cannot forget. The past is always present.
And that is the vision that Ferguson has helped to unleash. In August of last year, when Ferguson emerged as the center of racial politics, activists congregating there put out an amazing statement. Let me conclude with their powerful words and vision. They said: “We are striving for a world where we deal with harm in our communities through healing, love, and kinship. This means an end to state sponsored violence, including the excessive use of force by law enforcement. . . . Mass incarceration and the over criminalization of black and brown people must forever end, leaving in its place a culture that embraces our histories and stories. This means an end to racial bias and white supremacy in all its forms.” They didn’t stop there, though. They went on: “Our dreams are directly linked with those resisting militarism, war, and state repression around the world. We will achieve this new beloved community hand in hand, step by step, in global solidarity with all people committed to lasting peace and full justice.”
Let’s make demands on the US state. Let’s work with anyone who will support our vision, or even parts of our vision. But let’s not kid ourselves. Claiming to be full-fledged “Americans” will not get us very far. We have to strive for something bigger, something radically different. We can’t afford to put our trust in anything less.