CESA 2011 liveblog: White Supremacy and Settler Colonialism plenary

Liveblogging from the Critical Ethnic Studies Conference at UC Riverside; last edited on March 13 to clean up text. Please correct any misquotes or add attributions and references in comments! There may be noncomprehensiveness and occasional blips in attention; supplements would be great.

Consider this something akin to a collection of archived tweets rather than a full transcription, please… And bear in mind that I’m trying to archive what was said rather than to thoughtfully comment on it.

Plenary: Settler Colonialism and White Supremacy

Andrea Smith, introduced as “Professor of a fun and radical revolution to abolish the settler state.”

Native scholars have argued they should not be part of an ethnic studies project that positions Native people as ethnic minorities without the framework of decolonization. But the project of seeking representation within the ideological state apparatus of the academic industrial complex doesn’t work for anyone––asking for money due to the ‘specialness’ of being oppressed, seeking to be recognized by the powers that be, doesn’t create solidarity.

Yesterday’s proposition: we need to dismantle the United States. Why does this sound so absurd? Why not want to live in a settler state founded on genocide and slavery? We have so normalized genocide that we cannot imagine a future without it. Even radical activists often see the US Constitution as a ceiling for activism. But the Constitution doesn’t say what everyone thinks it says, and if it defines our ceiling for racial and gender justice we are in trouble. Rather than the ceiling for ideas of justice, the Constitution should be the floor.

Native societies pose a threat because they provide a vision of self determination that shows the European-modeled state is not natural; therefore genocidal destruction of those communities becomes part of the logic of perpetuating that state.

We complain about racism in the academic industrial complex as if administrators giving ethnic studies more money would be the solution––but if we were to try to imagine a liberating model of education, would this be it? We should learn from the prison-industrial-complex organizing that puts forward a model of abolition: building alternatives that squeeze out the current system. When Arizona wants to ban ethnic studies, we assume the state has the right to make that ban; but ethnic studies is a project of social movements and social justice and it will exist forever and wherever we go. Did we expect ethnic studies to be legitimated in a white supremacist capitalist academy? If it becomes so legitimized, it has failed.

What is the content behind terms like decolonization, sovereignty, self determination? A Bush voter can use the same language as a radical anticapitalist, but what does it mean? Cites rhetoric from Native activists using language of self-determination “we just want the US to leave us alone”––but through a logic of white supremacy we understand that the US cannot “just leave us alone”; none of us are free unless all of us are free. Projects for self determination will end up replicating the US state if they are not radically critiquing it and working to imagine alternatives.

Spatial vs temporal organization (citing but I didn’t catch the name): Native land-based tradition as spatial vs the Christian teleological frame of colonization. But activist projects are framed by a temporal frame of prior occupancy rather than a spatial framework of radical relationality with the land. ‘We were here first’: land becomes a commodity that must be occupied.

The Native quest to have sovereignty recognized is a quest to be responsible. Denise da Silva’s work: the self not as a self determining subject that gets to do what it wants regardless of others but as a self radically responsible to and connected to the world. In 2008 World Social Forums, indigenous people of Latin America were critiquing the nation state and articulating indigeneity not as ‘everyone should go home’ but as ‘everyone must live in a new relationship with the land.’ These members of communities are undergoing genodical oppression yet are arguing for a change that is a change in the whole world.

When land is not a commodity, migration is not the problem. And thinking this way also avoids the problem of an indigenous relationship with land as something that is always already lost. Traditions may be severed, but communication with the land can always be renewed. Citing scholar Scott ??? (possibly Morgensen) — on Native identity that is figured as stable yet also always vanishing.

Proposing alternatives: revolution through trial and error. The project of liberation as a creative project, making the world we want to see, a revolution people will want to join; creating a different way of living together, a revolution of collectivity, radical relationality and fun.

Building the educational system we want to see: not enough to think cool groovy revolutionary thoughts, we have to work together. The system is not threatened by thousands of revolutionary academics each acting alone. The process is an important as the content: how we teach, how we grade. Rather than organizing as another drag on time, it should be integral to the lives we already lead–change the academic work we do to make it inherently revolutionary. And working outside as well as within the academic industrial complex.

Concluding: the logics of white supremacy are multiple, we are differentially affected, and all logics are interrelated. You can’t run a revolution on your own, and anything less than a revolution is not worth our time.


Cheryl Harris

Critical race theory: coming from a recognition of the limited framework of antidiscrimination law. The standard story is a progress narrative of US moving toward ever greater racial justice. Critical race theory argues that law and race are co-constructed: a deeper problem that demands a more revolutionary response.

Race, nation and citizenship from Dred Scott to the 14th Amendment. Famously excluded blacks from national citizenship; resolved by 14th amendment giving birthright citizenship.

Forced exclusion from citizenship of Dred Scott also forced black people into the body politic: forced belonging. 14th amendment reeneacted moments from another scene of forced belonging.

Factual truths vs ideological truths: slavery constructed as integral to the American national identity. The decision in Dred Scott claims that no free blacks were citizens, which was factually wrong but reflects the construction of racial citizenship. Black people were crucial to the project of defining national citizenship through the opposition between an enslavable class and white citizenship, a measure by which white men’s rights could be defined.

Slavery ideologically central to the nation; Dred Scott decision can’t separate race from slavery, another factual mistake that reflects the ideological truth that slavery was more than an individual status or an economic system. It was a racial system within which blackness is associated with bondage.

1883: “it would be running the slavery argument into the ground” to make it apply to every case of discrimination; court says “get over it” — the historical connection to slavery that organized the 1857 Scott decision has been hidden.

14th amendment to now. After formal desegregation, schools are de facto segregated and often function as holding cells until students are imprisoned. Court has stated that looking at race in order to remedy segregation is unconstitutional because unfair to white parents; antisegregation decisions have been effectively overruled.

Complex dialectic between forced belonging and exclusion. Creation of black as a legal category that marked coerced denaturalization. Forced divestiture of all marks of identity, shaping distinct people into subordinated Africans and then into an enslavable caste of “blacks”. In Scott decision, black people excluded from citizenship but “belong to” the nation––inside the nation, outside polity. Stateless and yet a critical part of a nation. Racial sovereignty mirroring territorial questions; as certain territories belong to the US and are not part of it.

Did blacks want to belong? How did they envisage belonging? Idea of back to Africa (supported by Stowe and Lincoln) vs claims to citizenship from Douglass et al. But belonging had its genesis in violence; so 14th amendment connected also to a history of subjugation.

Not a linear story of movement from slavery to citizenship. An underexamined history of black voices calling for a different relationship to the state. Debate about federally sponsored land redistribution: longing for a material base from which to negotiate the terms of belonging.

Multiple lines of demarcation & shifting border manipulations: citizens, aliens, legal/illegal, nationals and combatants. Not only historical questions; not a project to resurrect any kind of separatism. The violence of slavery cannot be resolved by abolition or an amendment granting citizenship, and the effects of that are with us today.


Glen Coulthard

June 11: official Canadian government apology to Native people for residential school system. “A new beginning and opportunity to move forward in partnership”; Truth & Reconciliation Committee formed.

“Reconciliation”: restoring damaged relationships, almost universally conceived as necessary overcoming of pain, anger, resentment in the wake of injustice or harm. Cathartic process through which one aspires to overcome the destructive effects of grievances.

Generally negative evaluation of anger/resentment in literature around reconciliation owes much to Nietzche’s analysis of ressentiment. What Nietzche refers to scornfully is an appropriate and defendable position in the context of colonialism; can perform a radical critique of the weak neoliberal project of reconciliation [applause, and I know he phrased it much better than that!]

Resentment: inability to let go, to forget. To wallow in resentment is to refuse to move on, to get on with life. Similarities with reconciliation paradigm; Harper is able to speak of the crimes of settler colonialism as a strictly historical matter, a sad chapter in history from which we can all move on on what is now “our” land. Apology ends “God bless us all and our land”–a phrase rendered meaningful through the logic of genocide.

Settler colonialism: characterized by domination, interrelated forms of power in the form of a relatively secure set of hierarchies continue to dominate and dispossess. Colonial domination in Canada structurally organized around control of land––away from Native practies and toward capitalism. Reconciling Native people’s condition within colonialism as an ongoing event. To be resentful within this structure is to resist–“of course I fucking hate colonialism.”

Nietzche’s framing of resentment/revenge as a reaction rather than action. The subject of resentment is passive, constituted by the injuries it seeks to bring to the fore. We are created by our wounds–cf Wendy Brown.

Fanon: Wretched of the Earth and colonized populations’ pent up resentment as motivator for action. Playing out in action rather than the passivity of which Nietzche warned us. Turn to the past and construction of something new: destroying the underlying structures that produce resentment. Our anger is creative and ought to be embraced.


Dean Spade (who talks really fast!)

Panel’s theme in relation to visible LGBT equality projects. Engaging in close examination of racial projects requires us to look at technologies of statehood.

Article (didn’t catch authors) Decolonizing Antiracism. On the ways antiracist struggle can ignore colonialism, eg the origin of land that is fought for or the logics that underlie immigration law. Response article: Decolonizing Resistance. Critiquing civil rights discourses and liberal multiculturalism.

What investments do various resistance projects make in settler colonialism? US gay&lesbian activism and imperial politics: looking for access to regimes that distribute stolen property through genocidal legal logics.

Jared Sexton (?) Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery. On the investment of nonblack civil rights projects in antiblackness; the obvious example being hate crimes laws. Drawing on Andy Smith’s work on the pillars of white supremacy: giving gay and lesbian people access to colonizing power in a junior partnership with the state. The pressure to make legible frames for our demands: the nondangerous, noncriminal, good citizen that will deserve recognition.

The national story about race law in the US asks us to focus on antidiscrimination, a progress narrative of becoming equal along the law; he’s interested in administrative law, the bureaucratic administration of life and death. Daily embodiments of settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy, ablism.

Stateness as relating to violent capacities: Foucault, the state as a mythicised abstraction, regimes of practices that congeal in institutions. The state is something that must be continually practiced. It collects and sorts data. Changing uses of identity data: changing moments of state practices.

Resistance practices in queer and trans politics disrupt state administration’s connections with their targets: eg creating alternatives to calling the cops. We must look to where our resistance practices recreate technologies of stateness.

One eg of a technology of stateness that gets reproduced in resistence movements: data collection and empiricism. James C Scott’s work in Seeing Like A State: data collection as condition of possibility for creating a state. Racial data collection in US statemaking.

Increasing emergence recently of statistical data to support gay&lesbian politics: Williams Institute gathering data in support of gay marriage: look how much money they will spend, gay veterans kicked out of the military are expensive to replace, gay gentrifiers increase property value. Spade working with a mathematician to study this; uses of statistical methods that were invented by eugenicists [my insertion: google Francis Galton, who coined the term “eugenics” and invented fingerprinting, if you want to learn about this fascinating and disturbing history]

Our resistance practices often include demands to be counted, collections of empirical data. What are the assumptions of such projects and the implications of such tools? How might such data be essential to logics of the nationstate like prisons, border control, private property?


Ruth Wilson Gilmore (these are the sketchiest notes; my fingers are getting tired!)

Ruthie makes us stand up and stretch. She says we still haven’t figured out how not to have talks with people standing at the front and an audience applauding the best parts…

Made up a new title: Resentful Revolutionary Fun vs Counter-Revolutionary Fear, or, Innocence Won’t Save Anyone.

1 in 100 US residents are currently locked in a cage; 2 more under direct control of criminal justice system.

Historicizing these issues under discussion at the conference in order to answer the question: How do we develop and enliven a critical ethnic studies?

Katrina (no such thing as a natural disaster; all disasters are political). Many in response stated they had not yet known how bad it was to be a poor person of color living in the richest country in the world: reminded the world how difficult and dangerous it is to be black in the US. Images demonstrated how political the disaster was: armed white men preventing black people leaving New Orleans for higher ground.

100 years earlier, more white men with guns: the same space site of lynching. Ida B Wells’s work. To bear witness not only to the fact of the events but also their meaning, their context, their ends: this was critical ethnic studies. Wells showed the role of lynching in regional accumulation of capital, gender. Every lynching was exemplary which meant it was not quick; detailed descriptions of torture in newspapers would invoke the “naturalness” of human sacrifice and justify the torturers by defining the victims as subhuman.

Victors present themselves as defining human nature, homo imperial; masculinity of imperialism maintained by myth of black male danger to white femininity and Wells’s publication of the open secret that white women had consensual relationships with black men. Sex part of the justification for torture, creating a discourse of sanctioned torture: explosive horror of interracial sex to be fought with the explosive horror of torture and lynching. The gendered hierarchy of racism visible in the rape of women of color and the violence within households; violence not an eruption but an underlying presence.

New Orleans context, Human Rights Commission questions asked: why are there so many poor people, why does racism persist, why have the effects of Katrina (still) not been redressed? How can the nation that wrote the constitution and that claims to define human rights so undermine them? Native peoples in the US have never been mystified by this question, the US having broken every treaty made with them. Genocidal basis for US nation state.

Wells: saw the active connection between race making and outlaw making, lynching “an attempt to turn us into a race of rapists and desperadoes.” First act in post Katrina New Orleans to turn the bus station into a prison. Buses symbolic of working class mobility & Civil Rights movement to desegregate infrastructure.

Recent phenomenon of the cage as a solution to problems. Reformist purpose of modern prisons to replace bodily torture; didn’t replace it in the US but works alongside. End of c19: modern business corporation, technocratic view of systems and structures. Progressivism misunderstood as a democratic movement by which common people might contest racial capitalism. Rhetorics employed to make prison growth seem other than what it is: a machine that makes race by exploiting group defined vulnerability to premature death.

Gilmore skips section discussing Abu Ghraib and discussing the idea that technical tweaking of what defines torture could somehow improve things; and the idea that some prisoners are more innocent than others will be enough to save them.

Today: the regime of the antistate state where the social wage is channeled to plutocrats. Reform of education doesn’t improve things in the classroom and prison reform doesn’t improve things in communities where people are imprisoned. Trusting that somehow, enough people with training to support capitalist markets will show up in the system somehow; arguments that better educated populations etc will raise GDP just don’t work any more.

How do we free territory to free ourselves, find ways to be on the planet such that irreducible differences create the fun of revolution? (Missed the exact wording there).

She doesn’t agree with her colleagues: proposes that infrastructure is essential, both material and in feeling. Might we find a theory of an abolitionist state? Is there a way to coordinate, not be coordinated?

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