Do Black *and Brown* Lives Matter?

Image: Painting by Roman Reyes, presented to President Obama at the César E. Chávez National Monument dedication ceremony.

During the first Democratic presidential debate last October, an African American boy posed a politically charged question to US Senator Bernie Sanders: “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” To the untrained ear, the dilemma sounds false. Aren’t black lives a subset of all lives, so that affirming all lives automatically affirms black lives, too? But more is at stake in the phrase “All Lives Matter” than logic. The platitude is in fact white America’s color-blind retort to “Black Lives Matter.” This political slogan, and its eponymous social movement, emerged in the summer of 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of African American teenager Treyvon Martin. Sanders’s affirmation that black lives matter was the right answer, for it echoed the movement’s insistence that black Americans are specifically and disproportionately subjected to violence and murder. Sanders refused the false universality that allows whites to ignore the persistence of white supremacy in the United States. In this talk, I want to ask a follow-up question: Do black and brown lives matter?

While the phrase “All Lives Matter” conceals racism by substituting the abstractly universal all for the specifically black, this question wonders about the effects of the conjunction and. Does the combination of African American and Latino political struggles also obscure racial specificity? Or can and function as what Stuart Hall called “articulation”? These questions have major practical consequences in the United States, for what is at stake in them are the possible futures that may open up after whites lose their demographic majority and political mass base in the middle of this century.

The first obstacle to thinking articulation is what Nicolás Vaca calls the “presumed alliance” between Latinos and African Americans. Like many people on the left, I have taken for granted that these two peoples share experiences of racialized poverty, the natural ground out of which coalition is supposed to blossom. Especially in my native California, with its large brown and black metropolises, an alliance between Mexican and African Americans has seemed obvious. But these coalitions are rarer in California than the presumption of alliance allows, and they face significant obstacles in the contemporary conjuncture.

The presumed alliance is usually a species of what Hall classified as the economistic view of race, which reduces racial difference to a common class identity. In the seminal essay “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance” (1980), Hall critiqued “simplistic political recipes based on the call for ‘black’ and ‘white’ labor to sink their differences in a common and general class struggle against capital—the famous call to ‘unite and fight.’” Such political demands are abstract, Hall continues, because they are “based on theoretically unsound foundations, since they do not adequately grasp the structurally different relations in which ‘white’ and ‘black’ labor stand in relation to capital.” Hall’s references here to labor and capital make clear that he, too, is arguing for an economic approach to race, but one mediated by Althusser, Gramsci, and the sociologist and anti-apartheid activist Harold Wolpe. Allow me to provide the briefest summary of Hall’s theoretical position in this essay.

racial map of LA
Race in LA county. From The Racial Dot Map, Demographics Research Group, University of Virginia. Blue dots = whites. Red dots=Asians. Green=African Americans. Orange=Latinos.

Hall argues that a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for comprehending the structurally different relations of racialized groups is analysis at the level of the mode of production. In place of the classical Marxist notion of a teleological succession of modes of production, based on the European experience of the transition from unfree feudal labor to formally free capitalist labor, Hall builds on Althusser’s claim that social formations are composed of multiple modes of production, “structured in some relation of dominance.” Applying these concepts to his central case study in the essay, apartheid South Africa, Hall echoes Wolpe’s argument that while South Africa is certainly capitalist, its form of capitalism preserves precapitalist modes of production, in particular rural subsistence economies and forced labor. What can this more complex understanding of the economic level, Hall asks, contribute to the study of racism at the level of ideology? As a materialist, Hall is dedicated to analyzing racism by way of what classical Marxism called the economic base and the cultural superstructure, but only insofar as these levels of the social formation are articulated. By “articulation” Hall means, citing another theorist, “a metaphor used ‘to indicate relations of linkage and effectivity between different levels of all sorts of things’”—but things, he adds, that “require to be linked because, though connected, they are not the same.” Hall then turns to Gramsci to elaborate the political dimension of articulation. Hegemonic class alliances articulate base and superstructure in historically specific ways. As a hegemonic discourse and practice, racism elaborates a “common sense” through which groups experience social relations and their relations to one another. “Race is…the modality in which class is ‘lived,’” to quote Hall’s celebrated formulation, because race is a powerful means of ideological and hegemonic articulation, educating and interpellating subjects into a specific constellation of economic and cultural practices, of dominating and dominated groups, while making these appear biological. Crucially, Hall insists that racism is not a mere “ideological trick,” but rather works on and through material differences within class formations, that is, the different ways that racialized groups stand in relation to the ensemble of modes of production.

Although Hall focuses on black and white relations in this essay, and strangely identifies Mexican immigrants with whites in his single reference to Mexicans, I take his call to study race within an articulated social formation as a fruitful starting point for theorizing a broad Latino and African American political coalition. For this coalition must itself be a complex unity, in which the groups are articulated through similarity and difference, neither side identical to nor expressive of the other, yet linked in a counter-hegemonic class struggle. This complex unity cannot be reduced to a common class identity that is “automatically” generated by racialized economic exploitation, but it must be articulated nonetheless with the specific ways that each group stands in relation to capital, which itself must be grasped as a complex ensemble of residual, dominant, and emergent modes of production (to borrow now the terminology of Raymond Williams). I believe the political future of the United States will hinge on whether these articulations, and further articulations with Asian Americans and white allies, can be carried out in practice.

The present conjuncture in southern California underscores the urgent need for such articulations, for it appears to show pure racial strife. This is the second major obstacle to articulating brown and black politics. Stories of race war in LA have often made the news in the last decade, leading one commentator to suggest that “animosity between Latinos and blacks is the worst-kept secret in race relations in America.” Mass racial brawls have broken out in high schools and prisons. Data compiled by the LA county commission on human relations indicate that, while the total number of hate crimes has decreased in recent years, the majority of hate crimes against African Americans are committed not by whites, but by Latinos, against whom the majority of hate crimes are committed in turn by African Americans. Perhaps the most startling case—and for me, as a Chicano, the most shameful—is the racial cleansing campaign waged by one of California’s largest and most powerful prison gangs, the Mexican Mafia. Several reports indicate that the Mexican Mafia has directed its affiliate gangs on the streets of LA to kill off not only rival black gang members, but all black people.

In a strange twist, it seems that some Mexican gangs are exhibiting what Arjun Appadurai’s book Fear of Small Numbers theorizes as the “anxiety of incompleteness”:

Numerical majorities can become predatory and ethnocidal with regard to small numbers precisely when some minorities (and their small numbers) remind these majorities of the small gap which lies between their condition as majorities and the horizon of an unsullied national whole, a pure and untainted national ethnos.

While Mexican Americans are nowhere near a national majority, they have indeed become majorities in many historically black parts of LA, including important cultural reference points like Compton, Watts, and South Central (see map above). Once imagined as a “white spot” on the map, LA’s white population has been in decline since 1960. The black population, which grew substantially in the Great Migration from the south during and after World War II, has been in decline since the 1990s. In contrast, Latinos, the majority of which are Mexican, have grown to four times the size of the black population. At 47% of the total population of LA county, they are by far the largest group overall.

One consequence is that African Americans increasingly participate in anti-immigrant discourses that claim that “illegals” from Mexico are “invading” black neighborhoods and “stealing” jobs from black workers. If one searches for the keywords Mexicans steal jobs on YouTube, for example, the fifth result is a video posted by an African American man titled “Mexicans are Taking Jobs Away from Black People.”

If one wades into the always dangerous waters of the comments section, one finds not only a large database of racist invective against Mexicans and African Americans alike, but even recommendations to vote for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. But if demographic change has led to the weird formation of African Americans for Trump, has it also led, as Appadurai’s framework might suggest, to a desire among Mexicans to achieve a full racial majority in the city by waging genocide against African Americans? Is LA witnessing a kind of minority racial nationalism, in which a historically racialized minority, swelling with a new sense of local demographic and spatial power, reproduces the national desire for racial purity on a smaller scale and on its own terms? Or is it just that deep down, everyone is racist against everyone else, as whites are particularly fond of claiming, since it implies that there is ultimately nothing historically unique about white racism?

In Hall’s view, the “sociological” approach to race would simply describe all these factors—demographic change, immigration, gangs, jobs, innate racial hatreds—in their plurality and autonomy. To this we could add a number of other elements, including conflicts over the Spanish language and African Americans’ fear of losing hard-won political representation at the municipal level. While Hall would caution that these elements cannot be reduced to the economic level, he nonetheless provides a convincing account of how racism between the brown and black working classes remains trapped in hegemonic articulations: “Capital…dominates the divided class, in part, through…internal divisions which have racism as one of its effects. It contains and disables representative class institutions by neutralizing them—containing them to strategies and struggles which are race-specific, which do not surmount its limits, its barrier. Through racism, it is able to defeat the attempts to construct alternative means of representation which could more adequately represent the class as a whole…against capitalism, against racism”—what I have been calling a black and brown coalition. “The sectional struggles,” Hall continues, “articulated through race, instead, continue to appear as the necessary defensive strategies of a class divided against itself, face-to-face with capital. They are, therefore, also the site of capital’s continuing hegemony over it.” I think this theorizes quite precisely what it means for Mexicans to parrot hegemonic white racism against African Americans, and for African Americans to echo hegemonic white nativism against brown “illegals”: these are the defensive strategies of a class divided against itself, face-to-face with capital, sadly and shamefully and infuriatingly demonstrating capital’s continuing hegemony, its power to define the terms and direction of class struggle, which in southern California takes the form of two of the most oppressed racialized minorities fighting each other over the scraps that fall from the master’s table.

Yet, again, black and brown conflict isn’t an “ideological trick,” but instead arises indirectly from the different ways that these groups stand in relation to capital as an uneven ensemble of modes of production. In closing, I want to propose an admittedly hasty and insufficient account of these different stances and their articulation with different modes of production, which might provide the basis for a complex unity of struggles in the current conjuncture. The key lies in the claim that undocumented Mexican workers steal jobs from black workers. This turns out to be partially true, as long as we reject the ethical language of stealing, and situate it in relation to a particular class fraction, the working poor.

black and Latino unemployment in LA
Manuel Pastor, “Keeping it Real: Demographic Change, Economic Conflict, and Interethnic Organizing for Social Justice in Los Angeles,” in Black and Brown in Los Angeles, edited by Josh Kun and Laura Pulido (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 53.

The African Americans who are most directly affected by the disproportionate size of the Latino work force are those who don’t have a high school diploma. In comparison with these African Americans, Latinos have somewhat higher annual earnings, not because they get better wages, but because they tend to be hired over black workers for the lowest paid jobs. From 2005-2007, only 38% of Latino immigrants, a significant portion of whom are undocumented, had little to no work, compared to 50% of non-immigrant Latinos, and a whopping 63% of African Americans.

In other words, the structural position of LA’s black working poor is that of unemployment, while the structural situation of the city’s Latino Americans, and especially Latino immigrants, is long hours for low pay, that is, exploitation. Thus, when the poster of the YouTube video that I mentioned earlier claims that Mexicans are stealing jobs from black people, what he is expressing, through the lens of hegemonic white nativism, is a struggle among the working poor over the thin line between unemployment and exploitation. As Michael Denning puts it, under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited. The most desperate fractions of LA’s working class are racially divided over the bad and the worst of life under capitalism, over who gets the “opportunity” to respond to capital’s demand to sell their lives for a wage, and who is rendered superfluous.

I use the term superfluous deliberately, for what is at stake here is precisely a racialized class struggle over the formation of what Marx called “a relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to capital’s average requirements for its own valorization, and is therefore a superfluous population.” While I intend this point to be a partial account of the different ways that brown and black workers stand in relation to capital, the one group providing a large pool of the most exploitable labor, the other unemployed and superfluous, I also think these positions can be articulated with uneven elements within the mode of production. For the situation of labor in southern California mixes the exploitation of undocumented workers who don’t qualify as the juridically free laborers of the European capitalist model, since they are not recognized or protected by the law, and the hyper-exploitation of low-wage service and light assembly workers, who have replaced the old working classes in the auto, aerospace, and steel industries. Manufacturing was devastated from 1990 to 2005, as LA lost 41% of its manufacturing jobs, which disproportionately affected black workers. To put the point rather elliptically, I think Mexican and African American workers are at the center of an ensemble of modes of production that exploit unfree labor, extract surplus value from formally free labor, and replace living manual labor with fully automated production.

A political demand that might articulate these segments of the working class into a complex unity, that recognizes and cuts across their different relations to capital, allowing us to declare that black and brown lives matter, is the demand not for more, and more fully legalized, work, but the demand to be free from work. Mexicans aren’t stealing our jobs, but we can, and should, give them to robots, in return for universal basic income. Finally, it is the black and brown peoples whose relation to capital places them closest to the perilous edge of superfluity who must declare that all lives matter, regardless of their market value.

Presented at “Wrestling with the Angels: Exploring Stuart Hall’s Theoretical Legacy.” TU Dortmund, 25-27 February, 2016.

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