Black Lives Matter Syllabus Project

The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, Week 14: Graham Denyer Willis on Taylor’s #BlackLivesMatter to “Black Liberation”

The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to present the latest entry in on ongoing series The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, which will mobilize anthropological work as a pedagogical exercise addressing the confluence of race, policing and justice. You can see a growing bibliography of resources via our Mendeley feed. In this entry, Graham Denyer Willis discusses Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation


American cities are archipelagos. They are clusters of lived islands made meaningful by real and symbolic boundaries, constructed and reproduced in divisive and mundane ways. These boundaries are racial and economic, ascribed by forms of dull and acute violence dealt to Black bodies by White institutions, made palatable and acceptable to eyes that matter by pseudonym, euphemism and metaphor. This violence, and the boundaries it enforces, is circumscribed by capitalism, which makes unexceptional that lives should be categorized by value. The only way to liberate those held within this archipelago is to change the political economy of that which defines the boundaries. This means forging new kinds of solidarity across the bounds of division. This is my synthesized reading of From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation (Haymarket 2016), an outstanding and unyielding book by Princeton Assistant Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Take an example, from my own reading: New York City is an archetype of the archipelago cast of both urban and geomorphic islands – each of which denotes a different kind of racial violence, acute, dull, mundane. The islands of this city are both visible and connected to the city, and disconnected and invisible. New York’s urban islands within the five boroughs, are made and remade through everyday forms of violence, acutely channeled through police institutions and practices – stop and frisk, arrest quotas, the use of COMPSTAT to map crime and justify the disproportionate allocation of beat cops to particular ‘hot spots’.

These three islands are central, mutually dependent, to the American archipelago of capitalist racial violence.

But if these islands of urban violence against Blacks are reasonably well known, and often evoked in crime maps or notions of ‘the problematic’, there are others. Just 75 meters from LaGuardia Airport is Riker’s Island, a geomorphic island home to the city’s jail, where a disproportionately Black prison population of thousands is cloistered pre-trial. This space, recognized as one of the worst jails in the country, has radiated crisis after crisis. It is a space of fluidity and transition with other islands – a node within a debilitating punitive system, where crises serve only as brief moments of white visibility, and rarely as politically sufficient moments of the widespread outrage that might undergird demands for change.

Further up the East River is another island, Hart Island. This island is a ‘potter’s field’, a place where more than one thousand people are buried every year in mass graves –stacked in crude pine boxes in long trenches dug by industrial machinery. Administered by the New York City Department of Corrections, Hart Island absorbs the lost urban poor, those unclaimed and those unable to pay. It does so with the labour of Riker’s Island inmates, who, for 50 cents an hour, bury these valueless lives, pushed to the outer islands. But Hart Island is more than just racial. It bears both the racial face of urban poverty, and the scale of the loss of the white working class, too.  Hart is an island noteworthy only for its concentration of the most mundane shittiness of capitalist violence –a violence whose responsibility is made opaque.

While the first two kinds of islands have been widely discussed in debates surrounding Black oppression, the third, with its mundane on going and invisible appall, has been under-recognized as part of the systemic picture. These three islands are central, mutually dependent, to the American archipelago of capitalist racial violence.

Re-enter the work of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Taylor’s work takes the entirety of the archipelago as a given, recognizing that these islands cannot exist without each other. To adequately remove the forms of violence in New York’s urban islands, will eliminate the rationale of both Rikers and Hart islands. All are underpinned by the foundations of an economic system premised, and historically reflective, of the maintenance of islands, cheap labor, and devalued life.

All are underpinned by the foundations of an economic system premised, and historically reflective, of the maintenance of islands, cheap labor, and devalued life.

In this book Taylor tracks the recent history of American racism, government policy and Black rebellion in the United States, examining the evolution of Black political consciousness, its white responses, and the ways in which a new racial politics of liberation can be made possible.  Crucially, From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation does not ask the easy and limited questions about how we might end the War on Drugs, how to we can work together to reform or make police more accountable, or how we might bring Black faces to high places. Rather, Taylor illustrates how the marginalisation of Black lives has been central to American capitalism, to wealth and privilege and to the American Dream –the temporary policies, forms of accountability or positions of leadership that exist within it are irrespective. Race and racism have not been exceptions to the norm in this country. Rather, Taylor shows, they have been the “glue” that has held the United States together, existing in different guises – having been given those guises as a means to make liberation seem only a distant possibility.

The historiography of this book vitally illustrates the connections between periods of racial consciousness and subsequent political moments fixated on the obliteration of that same consciousness. Centuries of acute and mandated segregation that culminated in the political consciousness of the Civil Rights Movement, the demise of Jim Crow and the Voting Rights Act was one such moment of consciousness and change. With many gains behind them, Martin Luther King and other political leaders, some aligned with the Black Panthers, rode the wave of a generally sympathetic Johnson government that acknowledged the unshakeable history of slavery, promising a breadth of government that would, in its mild recognition of capitalist inequities, sow the seeds of a Black middle class.

Yet the political shift from Johnson to Nixon, Taylor explains, brought a political sea change that washed with tides of crippling revanchist and conservative policies –with racial oppression as their focal point. Nixon actively sought to obliterate Black political gains, especially under a law and order logic, using it to rebuild the weakened Republican party upon the very foundations of racial division. Pandering to racist Southern Dixiecrats cast aside by the Democratic party in the wake of the Vietnam War and its political upheavals, Taylor describes how a notion of ‘law and order’ –then as now, and always- was about maintaining the racial status quo, setting the Black population back into its place by whatever means necessary.

From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation tracks the ways that all of this historical continuity has shaped the current landscape of Policing and policing upon blacks, coupling the uses of Black life with forms of extraction and accumulation

Taylor describes how the policies of Nixon took on a new tone. Explicitly racist language and codified racial segregation were not deemed necessary or prudent, and Nixon’s administration adopted a more palatable racism of liberal euphemism. Nixon’s attention to stemming the ‘urban crisis’ of the late 1960s came in quick succession with the murder of Martin Luther King. With it came new efforts to clamp down on black political agency under the pretense of colorblindness, a sugarcoating of supposed overall progress, where the absence of racial insult was made to mean an absence of racial discrimination. This was a moment, Taylor points out, where the War on Drugs could be passed on to the public as though it were a novel and universal policy, implemented equally across populations –even as few could deny its deleterious interest (and attractiveness) in tearing apart Black and revolutionary politics.

This coupled with a turn towards explicit crime and punishment governance, the carving back of more progressive housing, employment and labor policies through the 1970s –including under Carter- took a dramatic toll. And it did so while also providing momentum and fertile soil for the cutting racial conservatism of Ronald Reagan.

Taylor delineates how the benefit of sugarcoating racism is that it makes the object of oppression more difficult to identify. Violence against the Black community came from a variety of angles. In the Reagan years new tropes emerged, some actively constructed by that President and others enabled by media consumption of the rapidly accelerating War on Drugs.  Using examples of new political constructions of the ‘welfare queen’, the atrophy of the Black family and the intransience of a ‘culture of poverty’, Taylor outlines how these were strategic bedfellows with rapid neo-liberalization that continued to reallocate any remaining notion of responsibility for the violence against Blacks life (or the public good) from the state and society to the individual.

But Taylor also illustrates that if Reagan created the racialized trope of drugs, Clinton capitalized on the feverish fear of Black bodies. Clinton used the Black body to get elected on a tough on crime platform that, when brought to legislative fruition, included a series of devastating “truth in sentencing” initiatives, “three strikes” laws, an expanded death penalty scope, while also ushering in a dramatic new period of police-as-solution – 100,000 alone tied to the 1994 crime bill. Taylor makes expressly clear that the use of Black bodies for political gains, as a gestural body of pseudonym and euphemism, transcends all formal politics. Democratic or Republican, racism unexceptionally undergirds American party politics.

From there, From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation tracks the ways that all of this historical continuity has shaped the current landscape of Policing and policing upon blacks, coupling the uses of Black life with forms of extraction and accumulation. Whether this came under the disappointment of Black mayors coopted by capitalist formal politics, the commodification of Black residents for arrest warrants, bail bonds and traffic stops, what Taylor makes clear is that black lives –especially Black male lives- have become central to the logic and justification for policing. The black body enables a simplified gesture of violence that merits no explanation. Not just so, that gesture has becomes central to the logic of COMPSTAT, to stop and frisk, and to the very need for police budgets to at least stay the same. “Broken Windows” policing, a policing of extraction that fits within a moment of private prisons and urban gentrification has become a perfect justification for the predatory policing of the Black urban poor.

Not only so, the mass incarceration of black men, and the contained labor and NYSE-listed commodity they become, follows the same logic. Taylor describes the practice of “convict leasing” as an outflow and extension of slavery, showing that the trajectory of forced servitude post-slavery, became bound up in justifications of order and criminality that appealed to whites. This has become subsumed in unavoidable ways in the acceleration of private prisons, and with police budgets –the only state budgets that continually defy austerity measures. The guise that the Black man is dangerous is an everyday reiteration of the justification for an ongoing and generally unquestioned extractive machine centered on the same.  It is impossible not to see this relationship in the Black prisoners of Riker’s Island burying the Black urban poor and the working class at Hart Island in New York City. There, the categories of capitalist extraction, capitalist violence and capitalist creations of criminal threat merge.

These are systemic questions. American exceptionalism and the American Dream, makes invisible the bodies upon which the mirage is premised. Cheap or free labor and bodies as sites of extraction and accumulation, are inseparable from such a systemic logic. Taylor point to ways that under this teetering house of racial pseudonyms in a ‘post-racial’ world, the easy solution of ‘police reform’ is not the right solution. Just last week, the killer of Walter Scott – in a killing that was as clear cut as any- was sent free after a mistrial. This violence is made normal by much more than the discretion of individual officers and in the police agencies behind them.

From# Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation speaks to exactly why the killings of young Black men, and also women, has not resulted in convictions for the offending officers. Even when this violence is made publicly visible, it struggles mightily to overcome the burdensome logic of a capitalist system where the usefulness of Black bodies is the glue. As Taylor shows, if, in his killing the Black man becomes uncancerous and empathetic, the Black body becomes less politically and economically productive. Under such a scenario, the logics and justification of policing are peeled away, and notions of lack of innocence can be transcended and confronted by a much broader political sphere, and a larger political consciousness.

To this end, Taylor (206) writes:

“It is widely accepted that the racial oppression of slaves was rooted in the exploitation of the slave economy, but fewer recognize that under capitalism, wage slavery is the pivot around which all other inequalities and oppressions turn. Capitalism used race to justify plunder, conquest, and slavery, but as Karl Marx pointed out, it would also come to use racism to divide and rule –to pit one section of the working class against another and, in so doing, blunt the class consciousness of all. “

Taylor does not explicitly foresee the current American political crisis and the outcome of the recent United States election –which brought a revanchist zealot in the Nixonian image to the presidency. But she does argue that Black Lives Matter is an opportunity to forge new forms of class consciousness. Life in the United States is bleak for many, and in divisive ways, which is why ‘island’ and ‘archipelago’ metaphors are useful – they speak to the forms of inequality that are consistently being further aggravated. But her historically rooted words about the Black Lives Matter movement resonate strongly, even so:

“No one knows what stage the current movement is in or where it is headed. We are very early in the most current rendering of the Black awakening. But we do know that there will be relentless efforts to subvert, redirect, and unravel the moment for Black lives, because when the Black movement goes into motion, it throws the entire mythology of the United States –freedom, democracy, and endless opportunity- into chaos. For the same reasons, the state ruthlessly crushed the last major movement of the Black freedom struggle. The stakes are even higher today because what seem like an alternative –greater Black inclusion in the political and economic establishment- has already come and failed.”

Obama has not brought liberation for Black Americans. But the ways that Black Lives Matter, and the historical moment in which it exists, is destabilizing the historical order is plain to see. If race is the adhesive in the house of cards that is the racist American dream, then Black Lives Matters is a potential solvent – unhinging some of the ways that such a mirage has been fastened together by an archipelago of suffering. What matters now is that we confront the newly elected ‘relentless effort’ to unravel this promising political movement and consciousness.

Graham Denyer Willis is University Lecturer in Development Studies and Latin American Studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, Fellow and Director of Studies in Geography at Queens’ College, and Visiting Scholar at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology.  He has recently published his first book, The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil (UC Press 2015), an ethnographic study of homicide detectives’ investigations of police killings of citizens and homicides carried out by an organized crime group, establishing links between forms of violence and consensual governance of urban space in São Paulo, Brazil.

One thought on “The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, Week 14: Graham Denyer Willis on Taylor’s #BlackLivesMatter to “Black Liberation”

  1. Pingback: The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, Looking Back and Looking Ahead | Anthropoliteia

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