The Wages of Non-Blackness: Contemporary Immigrant Rights and Discourses of Character, Productivity, and Value
I have an article in the latest issue of InTensions, “(De) Fatalizing the Present and Creating Radical Alternatives,” guest edited by Anna M. Agathangelou and Kyle D. Killian. The special issue also features new articles by Jared Sexton and Frank B. Wilderson, III, as well as others. The full article can be accessed for free here.
Drawing from W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the psychological wage of whiteness, this article explores how contemporary rhetoric promoted by immigrant rights advocates in the United States valorizes non-white immigrant workers in relationship to African Americans. Specifically, I examine moralized claims regarding immigrants’ character, productivity, and value as well as their contributions to the U.S. and global economy. I emphasize how this discourse echoes and draws upon managerial and capitalist perspectives of labor as well as anti-Black rhetoric regarding African Americans as lacking a work ethic, militant, xenophobic, and costly to society. Finally, I briefly consider whether the wage of non-Blackness differs from the wage of whiteness as well as the possibility of an ethical immigrant rights discourse.
In October I presented on a panel that examined how race and notions of illegality intersected at the conference “Imprisoned, Forgotten, and Deported: Immigration Detention, Advocacy, and the Faith Community.” Below are my remarks.
“Race, Illegality, and Detention”
October 13, 2011
The questions that we have been asked to explore are ones that I have thought about a great deal in the last decade, as a former activist in Asian American and immigration politics and as a scholar and educator who researches, writes about, and teaches about these issues. These questions are:
- How does race and racism operate in U.S. immigration and detention policy?
- How is whiteness implicitly or explicitly operative in U.S. detention policy?
- What are the similarities and differences between the criminalization of African Americans and newly arrived immigrants? Why are some groups of immigrants welcomed and others criminalized?
- How might the criminalization of particular racial others in U.S. detention policy be changed legally, politically, and culturally?
- Given the social and political polarization of U.S. society, what are the limits and possibilities of changing the role of race in U.S. detention policy?
I want to explore how race and racism are conceptualized and the implications for how we consider criminalization, legality, and the similarities and differences between African Americans and immigrants of color. While I and many of us here can discuss how white supremacy informs immigration policy, I think our point of departure for thinking about race cannot be whiteness or white supremacy. And I say this as an Asian American who is all too well aware, from research, from observation, from shared stories, and from the lived experience that I take on my body every single day, that white supremacy is ubiquitous and banal. White supremacy is the stench of dog shit left all over gentrified neighborhoods and the smiles of white children who, as babies, already have more power than the majority of grown people of color will ever possess. But despite the mundane nature of white supremacy, I think a Black/non-Black divide framework is much more useful for analyzing racial realities as well as for pragmatically addressing the issues of criminalization, surveillance, policing, incarceration, and deportation.
The Black/non-Black divide framework posits that being Black in the world is much more significant in terms of shaping life chances and ontological realities than being non-white. Sociologists, notably George Yancey, author of the book Who is White: Who is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide, have studied the social rejection and isolation of African Americans and the implications for how we understand assimilation. As Yancey notes in his book, “A black/nonblack dichotomy produces more understanding about contemporary race relations. It suggests that the informal rejection of African Americans, rather than a tendency by the majority to oppress all minority groups in a roughly equal manner, is the linchpin to the American contemporary racial hierarchy.”
Most social scientists of assimilation don’t generally address the issue of surveillance and incarceration and have focused on indicators such as interracial marriage rates, residential segregation, educational obtainment, and income, and increasingly wealth. Instead, they tend to focus on how African Americans do not tend to empirically demonstrate the assimilation patterns of not only whites but also non-Black people of color, including the “new immigrants.” But anti-Black racism cannot be simply identified at the level of individual cases of suffering, of which, a significant number becomes a social problem, according to the celebrated sociologist C. Wright Mills. Rather, anti-Black racism is a political project, a generative force, and a logic of social organization. As Jared Sexton puts it, there is a “fundamental social truth” and it is “not simply that antiblackness is longstanding and ongoing but also that it is unlike other forms of racial oppression in qualitative ways— differences of kind, rather than degree, a structural singularity rather than an empirical anomaly.”
Considering anti-Blackness as a logic of social organization gives greater clarity to the nature of the state, of which immigrant rights activists constantly engage and confront. While scholars such as Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that the state is a racial state, some have made it clear that the state is not only racial but racist and not only racist but specifically anti-Black. For example, Anthony Monteiro describes the U.S. state as “the principal organizer of racialized power. As an instrument of racialized power, i.e. the power of white people over non-whites, especially black people, it functions to mediate class conflict and fissures among whites and to exert primarily command-and-control functions with respect to blacks.”
This is not to suggest that African Americans are the only ones affected, targeted, or criminalized by the state. One of the common strategies for not dealing with anti-Black racism is to claim that African Americans are not the only ones who experience racism or state violence, a sentiment that some could say animates this very gathering. But the scholarship that has informed my thinking never contends as much and only a willful misreading could lead to that conclusion. Instead, an emphasis on anti-Blackness brings into clearer view what Sexton describes as “the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system”: that Blacks serve as “the prototypical targets of the panoply of police practices and the juridical infrastructure built up around them”—what Monteiro termed the “command-and-control functions” of the state.
Explained by Sexton:
Every analysis that attempts to understand the complexities of racial rule and the machinations of the racial state without accounting for black existence within its framework—which does not mean simply listing it among a chain of equivalents or returning to it as an afterthought—is doomed to miss what is essential about the situation. Black existence does not represent the total reality of the racial formation—it is not the beginning and the end of the story—but it does relate to the totality; it indicates the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system.
What relevance does the anti-Black nature of the state have for immigrant detention, deportation, illegality, and criminalization? Whereas I could give numerous examples, there is one major point I want to address here: immigrant rights advocates need to re-examine their beliefs about Black citizenship.
Under the racial state, there is no such thing as Black citizenship. The myth of Black citizenship scaffolds immigrant rights activism as well as the academic scholarship that supports it. Regarding the latter, in Asian American Studies, numerous scholars are quick to emphasize that African Americans gained citizenship before Asian Americans and their comparisons of Blacks and Asians tends to argue that the racial formation of which the latter is subject is civic ostracism and exclusion—as if the racial subjugation of African Americans is somehow unrelated to the practices and logic of civil society. In Latino Studies, there is an evident animus to African Americans, expressed as concerns about Black xenophobia and Black insensitivity to illegality. The thread that binds Asian American Studies and Latino Studies scholarship is a belief in Black American citizenship, a hostility to which actually demonstrates that the legal document, in the case of Blacks, does not actually matter. What both Asian American Studies and Latino Studies, as well as immigrant rights activism and non-Black liberals and progressives in general presume, is that Black people have citizenship but that spectacles of anti-Black racism—such as the recent Troy Davis execution, the Oscar Grant murder by a white police officer at the Bart station in the Bay, or hurricane Katrina—demonstrate the contingent and flexible nature of citizenship. Such gestures attempt to re-imagine African Americans as akin to immigrants of color, whose status is tenuous, contingent, and flexible to the demands of the nation-state, capital, and whites.
But for Blacks, there is no such thing as circumstance, pretext, or even, to use the words of immigrant rights activists, legality or illegality. To assume as much means that we can identify historical moments in which Blacks are not guilty. Of course, Blacks are not always guilty of committing the criminal acts they are accused of and in some cases, the courts have affirmed as much. But Black people are never not guilty of being Black and thus their experience of being criminalized—which is ontological and not behavioral—cannot be conflated with or subsumed under frameworks common among immigrant rights advocates. Or, as Kenyon Farrow, in his remarks at the recently held New York City Troy Davis Memorial succinctly put it: “we must come to accept that to be Black and ‘innocent’ is an oxymoron in the world we live in.”
Model minorities versus Black (reverse) racists: Blacks, Asian Americans, & South Philadelphia High
Tamara K. Nopper
December 18, 2009
As a resident of Philadelphia and an Asian American concerned with and engaged in research and writing about Black-Asian relations, I have been following Asian American students’ recent boycott of South Philadelphia High School after almost 30 of them were purportedly physically attacked by a group of Black and Asian students on December 3, 2009. The whole situation makes me sad. Yet I’m concerned with how Black people are being implicated by some of the media reporting and political support for the students. Specifically, I am concerned with how some are taking advantage of the situation to promote the all too popular and white supremacist charge of Black reverse racism, even when some of the alleged perpetrators have been identified as Asian American. In the following I explore the image of Black reverse racism and how some non-Blacks have used this to marshal support for their causes. I also consider how the Asian American students at South Philadelphia High are being depicted by some of the media and supporters as model minorities in opposition to Black criminals and reverse racists.
This essay will appear in the upcoming newsletter of the Association of Black Sociologists.
Tamara K. Nopper
November 3, 2009
In the past fifteen years, the call to go “beyond black and white” has gained momentum and resulted in a growing body of scholarship about non-Black people of color (hereafter NBPOC) produced by academics, funded by granters, and published by presses. More job announcements in the sociology of race or ethnic studies request that applicants engage in comparative research. As an Asian American sociologist who first began researching and writing about racial conflict between Blacks and Asian Americans during my sophomore year, my work could easily be labeled comparative. Today, I examine how dominant institutions (state, finance, etc.) influence the socioeconomic inequality among people of color. However, I have encountered some common responses to my research that have led me to wonder what people mean by comparative when promoting comparative research.
One response is the argument that by examining conflict between people of color, we normalize whiteness and thereby let white supremacy off the hook. I understand this criticism since whites generally go out of their way to avoid accountability and are also quick to enjoy watching people of color fight it out publicly. Such tendencies occur in the scholarship; there are several white sociologists who focus on the impact of NBPOC on the color line but never mention whites, whiteness, or white supremacy.
Related, efforts at making critical comparisons between people of color are sometimes met with the response that we can not allow people of color to be politically divided and conquered. As someone who came to sociology and activism with an interest in multiracial organizing, I understand this gesture. It can be difficult at times to draw attention to inequalities among people of color because it disrupts a desire for multiracial coalition. For those, like me, who are inspired by the dreams of the 1955 Bandung Conference, multiracial unionism, and third world united fronts, suspending coalition for the sake of sociological inquiry can be challenging. But a desire for what could be shouldn’t usurp a serious investigation into what is.
Finally, the most common response I have encountered is that sociologically, people of color are not comparable because compared to Blacks, NBPOC are too ethnically and economically diverse. There are a couple of concerns that I have about this response.
This is a recent post of mine that ran on the blog Everyday Sociology, sponsored by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Top Chef and the Black/non-Black divide
By Tamara K. Nopper
June 7, 2009
I love the show Top Chef. I watch it religiously and regularly chat about it with fellow fan and friend Kevin Eddington. Although more of a foodie than me—he actually knows what sous vide means—we share concerns about the show’s racial dynamics, some of which I want to discuss here. Specifically, I want to explore how Asian Americans and African Americans are represented on Top Chef and in the process, draw from approaches emphasizing the Black/non-Black divide.The Black/non-Black framework is proposed by George Yancey in his book Who is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide.
According to Yancey, this framework is more helpful for analyzing racism than a white/non-white paradigm because Blacks experience a unique degree of social isolation, as evidenced by how whites, Latinos, and Asian Americans reject them as potential neighbors and marriage partners yet remain open to each other. Yancey’s conclusion bears out on the show.
To continue reading, go here.
For those interested, you can read two of my academic publications here; they are “The 1992 Los Angeles Riots and the Asian American Abandonment Narrative as Political Fiction” and “Why Black Immigrants Matter: Re-focusing the Discussion on Racism and Immigration Enforcement.”
There are always stories behind what we write. With both of these articles, I found data that was rarely ever used but relatively easy to access. In the case of the Los Angeles Riots article, I rarely saw in print any mention of how the federal government publicly responded to the riots. While the 1992 Los Angeles Riots is indeed a watershed moment in the articulation of post-civil rights discourse, state organization (police, military, and funding), and Asian American identity politics and activism, research and popular writings did not present much data about how then president George H.W. Bush responded.
One day I began searching on the internet, putting in keywords such as “Bush and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.” What came up were Bush’s public library and several speeches he gave immediately following the events in the greater Los Angeles area. My article examines 17 of these speeches. A general weakness of the article is that in one section, I draw from military documents without being critical enough of official state accounts regarding the political in-fighting between then police chief Daryl Gates and military officials. While this in-fighting may explain some of the LAPD’s response, in-fighting does not necessarily explain why some groups are rescued and others are not—in-fighting is often suspended to assuage white suffering.
Despite this limitation, I do, however, attempt to reframe the notion of Asian Americans as sacrificed than what is typically presented in most Asian Americanist work on the riots.
In terms of the article on race and deportations, I had originally written an on-line article about the topic utilizing data found in another one of my internet searches. My interest in the topic stemmed from having once been actively involved in Asian American activism, which included working at a progressive Asian American community organization. I had attended several immigrant rights and anti-deportation gatherings on both the west and east coasts and was thinking about its implications for the Chinatown community in which I worked. What struck me about both these gatherings and the available activist literature and informational material is that I rarely heard about patterns of deportation. As a qualitative sociologist and someone who has read about the troubled history of western science and statistical models, I am familiar with the tendency to privilege numbers over detailed stories and case studies—especially that generated and documented by those “from below.” Yet I also found the emphasis on localized information to be too selective, especially because—and this was in 2001 and 2002—the activists I was around tended to act as if it was primarily Asian Americans and Middle Easterners being deported.
I remember how, following the 2002 signing of the repatriation agreement between Cambodia and the U.S., a South Asian co-worker complained that she didn’t understand why some organizations were focusing so much on Southeast Asian deportation, when, according to her, South Asians have been deported way before 9-11. Another co-worker, also a South Asian, reminded her that “all immigrants” have been deported. This, along with the fact that many activists began deportation history with the 1996 Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), compelled me to find out who was being deported. I looked up numbers on the BCIS website and found that despite the spectacle of South Asian and Middle Eastern detentions and deportations, Black immigrants had a pattern of being deported regularly. Further research examining a range of available data from government institutions, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the DHS, and academic scholarship showed that Black immigrants have been adversely affected by both immigrant policies enacted after 9-11 and the growing intersection between immigration enforcement and the criminal justice system. Indeed, Black immigrants (here operationalized as those from the Caribbean) tend to be deported more for criminal reasons—which results in never being able to legally enter the U.S. after deportation—regardless of nationality. This is not the pattern for other groups.
My findings were meant to challenge the dichotomy between anti-Black racism and anti-immigration that was taken as real in the existing activist discourse. That is, I wanted to show that immigrant rights movements must deal with how anti-Black racism is foundational to the experiences of all immigrant groups, even those who are non-Black because anti-Black racism is fundamental to how the state and the general public think and organize around issues of “criminality,” “innocence,” and policing. My position was at odds with that of the immigrant rights movement, which tends to suggest that African Americans need to stop being ignorant of what is happening to immigrants due to an assumption of an existing “natural alliance.” What happened instead is that people took my article as a rallying cry for coalition. Several exchanges over email and in-person—including at panels—revealed that many thought that I was hoping for a diversification of the immigrant rights movement in terms of increased attention on Black immigrants. Such a gesture does not necessarily address my main concerns but rather encourages Black immigrants to differentiate themselves from African Americans through the existing practices and discourses of the troubled multiracial immigrant rights movement. While Black immigrants do need more attention, as I mentioned in a radio interview aired on CKUT Radio this past summer, I took my findings to validate African American claims regarding policing and racism, claims that have often been dismissed as overly-selfish by the immigrant rights movement and non-Black groups.
The illusion of Afro-Asian solidarity?: Situating the 1955 Bandung Conference
By Tamara K. Nopper
August 17, 2008
The following is a modified and extended version of introductory remarks given at the forum The State of Black-Asian Relations: Interrogating Black-Asian Coalition 50 Years after Bandung that was held in Philadelphia on August 2, 2005. About 100 people attended the gathering at which different Black and Asian American activists and intellectuals addressed the issue of whether coalition was viable between the two groups.
On the first page of his book The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference, African American writer Richard Wright described first hearing about the Afro-Asian Conference that was held in Bandung, Indonesia from April 18-24 in 1955. An expatriate residing in Paris, Wright recalled the headline that leapt from the newspaper he had been sifting through: “Twenty-nine free and independent nations of Asia and Africa are meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, to discuss ‘racialism and colonialism’.”
The headline was an exciting discovery for Wright. As he continued to read about the conference and who was expected to attend his mind began to race: “A stream of realizations claimed my mind: these people were ex-colonial subjects, people whom the white West called ‘colored’ peoples…Almost all of the nations mentioned had been, in some form or other, under the domination of Western Europe: some had been subjected to for a few decades and others had been ruled for three hundred and fifty years…The despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed—in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting. Here were class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale. Who had thought of organizing such a meeting? And what had these nations in common? Nothing, it seemed to me, but what their past relationship to the Western world had made them feel. This meeting of the rejected was in itself a kind of judgment upon that Western world!”
Upon reading about the upcoming gathering at her husband’s insistence, Ellen Poplar Wright exclaimed, “Why, that’s the human race!” To which Wright responded, “Exactly. And that is why I want to go.”
When Poplar Wright asked her spouse why he insisted on going and what he will do while there, he replied, “I don’t know. But I feel that my life has given me some keys to what they would say or do. I’m an American Negro; as such, I’ve had a burden of race consciousness. So have these people. I worked in my youth as a common laborer, and I’ve a class consciousness. So have these people.”
Wright’s book The Color Curtain was originally published in the United States in 1956 and was one of the few books written and circulated at the time—and even to this day—about the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference. More commonly called the “Bandung Conference” or simply “Bandung” after the Indonesian city in which it was held, the gathering would be, as Wright’s excitement indicated, historic and significant to many.
And how could the Bandung Conference not be significant? Bandung convened only ten years after World War II ended and the United States emerged as the world’s superpower. It was during this period that the goals of the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference—including the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now known as the World Bank)—began to be institutionalized. And of course it was the beginning of the Cold War. A political period whose moniker was coined by financier and White House insider Bernard Baruch, the “Cold War” came to signify the struggle between the first world of the west (which included the US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) and the second world of the east (comprised of communist Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies). As we know, the Cold War was anything but cold for the majority of humanity given that non-European countries were forced to carefully negotiate their relationships with both the west and the east and too often were treated as collateral damage. Many territories of course were engaged in fierce decolonization battles and others were faced with the challenge of trying to develop as autonomous nations in an era that was strategically transitioning to a global neo-colonial framework.
It was in this context that a third world emerged. While the term third world was an analytical concept coined by the economist Alfred Sauvy in the August 14, 1952 edition of the French magazine L’Observateur, it meant much more to those who convened in Bandung with the hopes of creating what would later become the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which was initiated by India, Indonesia, and Yugoslavia in 1961. The Non-Aligned Movement was an effort to neither align with the first world or the second world. Its participants continue to meet today, even during an era of globalization that is certainly marked by alignment or at least a lack of neutrality. A great deal of attention has been given to what Martin Luther King, Jr. would describe in his tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois as the United States’ obsession with communism. Yet less material is available about how the US engaged non-alignment. As such, an exploration into the Bandung Conference gives us a brief glimpse into this topic.
Not surprisingly, the US did not take well to neutralism and saw it as similar to aligning with the enemy or being ready to do as much. As if to foreshadow a contemporary quip heard ’round the world, the US government believed that you’re either for it or against it. And so it was within this context that twenty-nine African and Asian nations convened in Bandung, Indonesia in an effort to denounce colonialism and what they termed “racialism,” maintain neutrality, promote economic and cultural cooperation, and critique nuclear weapons. In doing so, participants of Bandung were issuing a mighty challenge to the both the west and the east, a challenge that has great significance and meaning for the many of us who did not or could not attend Bandung but who can identify with its goals.
The significance and meaning of Bandung, then, makes it difficult to intervene in the conversation about the conference, to speak in a way that troubles the gathering, or at least explores it from a slightly different angle. I have often been accused of being at best, negative, and despite what some may think, I am not going out of my way to live up to this image. But I want to take on the challenge, as daunting as it may be, to reevaluate Bandung. After all, our forum today is less about celebrating Bandung but more about commemorating its memory by interrogating Black-Asian coalition, which has become a hegemonic and institutionalized impulse in the 21st century. And so I will try to engage in the dual task of both describing Bandung and evaluating it in the process.