How do we have a serious conversation about race that moves beyond the brevity of Twitter or an op-ed? In this episode of POSTSCRIPT (a New Books in Political Science series from Lilly Goren and Susan Liebell), three scholars engage in a nuanced and fearless discussion grounded in history, data, and theory. There is no way to summarize this hour of engaged and enraged conversation about racism in the United States. The scholars present overlapping narratives with regards to racial violence and unequal citizenship – but they also openly challenge each other on first assumptions, definitions, and the contours of racism in the United States.
Dr. Davin Phoenix (Associate Professor, Political Science Department, University of California, Irvine ) focuses on anger and black politics as the “politics of bloodshed”– in which all forms of violence are used to destroy the political standing, well-being, and equal citizenship of Black Americans. Some listeners will remember Dr. Phoenix’s conversation with Heath Brown on New Books in Political Science to discuss The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2019) or may have seen his June 2020 op-ed in the New York Times, “Anger Benefits Some Americans Much More Than Others.” His article on Political and Racial Church Homogeneity on Asian American Political Participation was published earlier this year in Politics and Religion and his forthcoming article in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology interrogates the effects of hope on African American participation. In the discussion, Phoenix focuses on political psychology, Black identity and political behavior to argue that not all anger is created equally – the anger leveraged in politics widens the participation gap between Black and White people. Whites have the privilege of expressing anger and defiance – and we need to carefully interrogate the frames (e.g., destruction of property v. destruction of lives by law enforcement) used by the media and public officials. The specter of the “angry Black” stereotype and the lack of collective efficacy exhibited by Black people—which he labels racial resignation—results in a racial anger gap. Anger consistently mobilizes White Americans toward a wide range of political actions more effectively than African Americans, who are more consistently mobilized by positive emotions, such as pride and hope.
Dr. Frank B. Wilderson III (professor and chair of the African American Studies Program, University of California, Irvine) thoughtfully challenges the assumption that citizenship can be equal for Black Americans – even with radical reform. His highly acclaimed book, Afropessimism (Liveright/Norton, 2020) argues that the social construct of slavery – as seen through pervasive anti-Black subjugation and violence – permeates our principled and practical assumptions. Slavery is not a relic but a worldview that supports our conception of, for example, what it means to be human. For Wilderson, Blacks remain slaves in the human world because “at every scale of abstraction, violence saturates Black life.” To define what it means to be human, we require people who are slaves. I was privileged to talk with Wilderson about Afropessimism on New Books in Political Science in May.
Wilderson’s afropessimism and understanding of Black Americans as “things” and “property” has been relied upon by Dr. Kihana Miraya Ross in her New York Times op-ed, “Call It What It Is: Anti-Black Racism” and is the subject of a provocative (though not necessarily accurate) July article in The New Yorker. A three-part interview in The Guardian with Zamansele Nsele (I, II, III) provides a remarkable overview of the book and his life.
Dr. Wilderson spent 5 and a half years in South Africa where he was one of two Americans elected to the African National Congress in 1992. By day, he conducted ANC business and taught college literature. By night, he worked underground in the ANC’s military arm. His journal became the basis of his first book, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile & Apartheid (Duke, 2015) which won an American Book Award in 2008. Dr. Wilderson’s Red, White & Black (Duke, 2010) provided an unflinching account of race and representation in film in – emphasizing three essential subject positions: the White (the “settler,” “master,” and “human”), the Red (the “savage” and “half-human”), and the Black (the “slave” and “non-human”).
Dr. Cristina Beltrán (associate professor and director of graduate studies in the department of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU) interrogates whether American ideals rely upon uninterrogated violence and oppression. Her forthcoming new book, Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy (University of Minnesota, Fall 2020) insists that we cannot fully understand contemporary American debates about immigration, violence at the border, or the turn towards authoritarianism without interrogating longstanding American conceptions of frontier freedom that combine racialized practices of conquest and dispossession with participatory forms of settlement and democratic civic renewal. For the majority of its history, the United States should be understood as a “white democracy,” a polity “ruled in the interests of a white citizenry and characterized by simultaneous relations of equality and privilege: equality among whites, who are privileged in relation to those who were not white.
Dr. Beltrán builds on articles in Political Theory, the Du Bois Review, Aztlán: A Journal of Chicago Studies, Political Research Quarterly and her first, award-winning book, The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity (Oxford 2010) in which she offered an original and theoretically driven account of the Chicano and Puerto Rican movements of the 1960s and '70s to demonstrate how labeling of all Latinx voters as the “Latino vote” erases essential political diversity. Beltrán has appeared as a political commentator on MSNBC for the last few years and the podcast includes her thoughts on how the format of our news impacts the substance and depth of our political discourse.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013) and, most recently, “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at email@example.com or tweet to @SusanLiebell.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.