Banal Liberal Calls to Unity

An excerpt from a 2016 interview with professor, author and organizer Dylan Rodriguez, re-posted from

The following interview was conducted by Casey Goonan, an editor with True Leap Press. It originally appeared in the independent, open-access journal Propter Nos

Casey Goonan: The US white-supremacist state operates today through a different set of discourses and cultural structures than in previous epochs. Your work interrogates such shifts at a level of depth and nuance that is of particular importance for emergent struggles against racist state violence. “Multiculturalist white supremacy,” “post-racial liberal optimism,” “white academic raciality”—such terms are utilized throughout your work to interrogate a myriad of theoretical and historical conundrums that define the post-Civil Rights era, particularly in regards to racial violence and subjectivity. Can you, in very broad strokes, lay out what you are trying to accomplish with these interventions in the discourses, practices, and forms of embodiment that so violently delimit the possibilities for radical social change in the United States?

Dylan Rodríguez: The aftermath of American apartheid’s formal abolition has been overwhelmed by a grand national-cultural vindication of “Civil Rights” as the vessel of fully actualized gendered-racial citizenship. This fraud has, in various ways, facilitated rather than interrupted the full, horrific exercise of a domestic war-waging regime. For the sake of momentary simplicity, we can think about it along these lines: the half-century narrative of Civil Rights victory rests on an always-fragile but persistent common sense—the idea that national political culture (“America”) and the spirit of law and statecraft (let’s call this “The Dream”) endorse formal racial equality. Bound by this narrative-political context, the racist state’s mechanics shift and multiply to rearticulate a condition of normalized racist violence that is condoned or even applauded by the institutionalized regimes of Civil Rights. (It is not difficult to see how the NAACP, JACL, LULAC, Lambda, NOW, Urban League and other like-minded organizations condone or applaud domestic racial war, so long as it is directed at the correct targets: gang members, drug dealers, “violent criminals,” terrorists, etc.). In other words, the contemporary crisis of racist state violence is not reducible to “police brutality” and homicidal policing, or even the structuring asymmetries of incarceration: it is also a primary derivative of the Civil Rights regime.

This regime is in some ways inseparable from the emergence of post-1960s technologies of criminalization that resonate with—rather than offend—the (defrauded) dream of vindicated Civil Rights citizenship. After all, the racial/racist state is still being called upon to legislate, protect, and serve the Civil Rights Citizen, even as it is the subject of militant demands for reform that will align it with the Civil Rights versions of America and The Dream. This is the contradiction that yields more and more layers of gendered racist statecraft in the post-optimist’s Age of Obama.

The widespread, Black-populated and Black-led resistance and revolt that is responding to legally-sanctioned racist police killings should therefore be interpreted as a complex form of insurgency. It is, in significant part, a strike against the respectable, non-scandalous, legitimated forms of policing that have constituted the everyday racist truth of post-Civil Rights nation-building. This insurgency is also, then, a critique of the Civil Rights regime’s complicity in that fifty-year process of national-racial reconstruction.

So the racist state has metastasized in the last half century, and created new infrastructures and protocols of civil and social death (the industrialized, militarized policing and criminalization complexes) as well as proto-genocidal methods of targeted, utterly normalized suffering, misery, and physiological vulnerability for peoples on the other side of White Being (the paradigm and methodology of human being that we have inherited as universal, unquestioned, and godlike—here I’m referencing Sylvia Wynter’s lifework, of course). I’m thinking, among so many other things, of the levees in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, strategic ecological disruption of indigenous lifeways throughout the hemisphere and in Native Hawaii, redirection and isolation of toxic water to the poorest, Blackest, and Brownest of places, and the seemingly endless continuity of legalized police assassinations of ordinary (and asymmetrically poor, Black, and Brown) people that stretches back as far as modern policing has existed.

So, if shit is this bad—and it’s so, so stunningly clear that it is almost always worse than we want to believe it is—what is the historical responsibility borne by people who differently inherit and inhabit this condition?

I am against “unity”—militantly so—and full of desire for radical community (militantly so). At the risk of making the case too bluntly: we experience and condone banal liberal calls to unity (which are often depressingly nationalist or patriotic) so incessantly that they are inescapable (e.g. those stupid fucking French flag colors that folks superimposed on their Facebook profile pictures after the street attacks in Paris, which was like global advertising for White Lives Matter; or the absurd compulsion to insist that one is not “anti-police” when mourning yet another life destroyed by the full force of the police apparatus—because it’s never just one or two or five racist cops, it’s what protects and enables them). These are concessions to a form of political life (which is to say a particular genre of human life—White Being) that cannot be tolerated as such, if some of us expect to live or see others live. I think such concessions must be critically exposed for what they are: disciplinary exercises in assimilating different peoples’ political dreams to the conformities of White Being. At the very same time—and this is the hard part—these critical gestures have to somehow participate in creating possibilities for collective exercises of radical, creative, political-cultural genius that demystify White Being and embolden (or even productively weaponize) other insurgent practices and methodologies of human life. This is difficult, scary, and beautiful work. And if more people don’t attempt to engage in it, we know who will be the first to disappear.

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