An Interview with Dylan Rodríguez
Casey: 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: 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.
Could you speak a bit more on what you mean by emphasizing the need to “embolden” and “productively weaponize” other practices and methodologies of human life?
I’m talking about how necessary it is to take seriously how peoples (in the most differentiated sense of the notion of “peoples”) have created forms of relationality, cultural reproduction, survival, revolt, and collective being under the eviscerating conditions of this Civilization. This happens everywhere, all the time. In 1496, 1896, and 2016. Down the street and on the other side of the planet. It’s the underside of human being that the official scripts and dominant narratives of the modern world can never adequately rationalize or eliminate. This is to say that decisively displacing the universality of the White Being—and of any such universality altogether—is only a fraction of what is at stake. The fact is—and this is a long-running fact, at least half a millennium old—there are other ways of inhabiting “human being” that are constituted by the violent vulnerabilities normalized by global white-supremacist power, in all of its misogynist, colonial, chattel, and sexual normative (including “homonormative”) iterations. This is just what the fuck it means to try to live under the Civilizational regime. And this work of living, of being, of figuring out ways to thrive, when and where possible, absolutely does not require trying to deform and self-mutilate into the “human” methodologies of the White Being. Peoples everywhere have proved this.
Look, i also don’t want to be too easily mis-read here. There isn’t just one way of White Being, and we cannot overemphasize enough that White Being cannot be conflated with “white people.” Undoubtedly, Fanon is still correct in stressing the epidermalized, physiologically activated structure of power that inheres in white bodies (however white bodies are socio-politically formed and institutionalized in a given moment). My point here is that White Being constitutes another layer of dominance precisely because it is capable of hailing other beings, inviting them, seducing them—and this is yet another method to humiliate and degrade (perhaps even “de-humanize”) the “underside peoples” i am referencing.
Finally, we have to admit to ourselves that one of the most important struggles is against the desire to coalesce with White Being, both in the sense of political affinity and the conception of good living. It doesn’t make sense to funnel all manner of insurgent activities (art, organized protest, underground political work, etc.) into demands, of this particular global racial order, that peoples targeted by White Being (now and forever) be enfolded into White Being, whether by virtue of Rights, Citizenship, Marriage, or something else. Those demands may be momentarily necessary and vital for the sake of resisting state violence, but have been demonstrated over and again to work, in the longer historical span, in the service of White Being and no other beings. What, then, would it mean to not only decisively displace the ascendancy of White Being (Civilization), but to also seek to thrive as the descendants of our particular, differentiated conditions of historical vulnerability?
Thank you for clarifying that point. Given your work as a scholar and student of radical movements that are engaged in political activity from within what you consider to be civil society’s carceral underside (i.e. the US jail/prison), what would you say are the most significant contradictions or points of antagonism arising between the terms of engagement which define the current phase of popular movement addressing criminalization and police violence and the current (and ongoing) work of imprisoned activists and intellectuals? One place we might start is recalling the aftermath of the assassination of Yogi Pinell last year at New Folsom. In this moment, it became rather apparent that a number of theoretical and practical fractures still exist between popular mobilizations on the “outside” and the political labors (and lives) of imprisoned activists “inside.” Just going off the basic fact that news of the murder of this beloved elder in the Black/Prisoner liberation struggle (clearly orchestrated by the CA prison regime) scarcely circulated in the public discourse, barely galvanizing the sentiment of free world activists (outside of certain political circles), I believe, is revealing of the types of slippages and antagonisms I am alluding to.
This is difficult to cleanly answer, because in my view (and experience), there are sites and moments of overlap between these forms of political and cultural movement that both illuminate and blur the assumptive alienation between prison/jail and the “free world.” Further, my perspective is deformed by the fact that i am at best a reader, theorist, and interpreter of incarcerated radical praxis. Still, i think it’s possible to identify a couple points of contradiction and antagonism between: 1.) movements by and of incarcerated people and 2.) movements of revolt against anti-Black racism and homicidal police violence that are based in spheres of civil society.
First, while it is not always the case that carceral insurgencies are led or predominated by Black people held captive, it is very often a fact that such movements explicitly recognize the carceral regime as a paradigm of anti-Black violence. This is why recent political and cultural movements by incarcerated people so consistently make use of the rhetorics, symbols, and legal archives of racial chattel slavery in their internal and public discourses (including platforms and demands issued by captive people engaging in hunger strikes in places like Georgia, California, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere). On the other hand, i think there is work to be done to adequately understand whether and how current, free world-based struggles against anti-Black racist state violence may be hanging onto a fraudulent dream of (Black) citizenship even as they catalyze forms of art, critical thought, liberationist praxis, and (Black) human being that push the imagination against and past the delimited institution of citizenship (a stand-in for White Being) and toward other kinds of political-cultural vistas. That’s one thing.
The other thing is this: the weight of institutionalized dehumanization (and that’s what the carceral regime is, in its gendered-racial violence) is mind-numbing, vast, and almost entirely incalculable. We can recite statistics all day, but there is no way to adequately communicate how the last half-century of criminalization and human captivity has permanently altered peoples’ worlds. Here’s the thing, though: people who are or have been incarcerated for any length of time spend a lot of energy—during and after their actual incarceration—trying to narrate and communicate this mind-numbing, vast, incalculable violence anyway. Consider it the voice of a human species that is illegible to White Being, and is largely illegible to those of us invited by or seduced into the ceremonies of White Being.
It would be helpful here if you could briefly walk us through how the “inside”/“outside” relation operates in the discourses and political imagination of the Establishment Left. I am also really curious to hear you speak more on the possibilities that “Black Lives Matter” offers as a mobilizing paradigm capable of disrupting this “inside” versus “outside” mode of thinking and seeing?
Central to the formation of the contemporary Establishment Left in the US and elsewhere has been the emergence of a nonprofit/NGO complex, planned and funded by a collaboration between state, philanthropic, and corporate bodies (that is, both individual people and officials representing organizations). It barely takes three clicks into a Google search to see how the “inside/outside” relation is established by the Establishment Left. Incarcerated people (and formerly incarcerated people) are overwhelmingly addressed as clients or impersonal constituencies, and are invoked in rhetorics of state criminological reform. This is what leads to the Establishment Left’s persistent return to notions of “nonviolent crime,” “disparity,” and “mass incarceration.”
In their totality, these rhetorics reproduce problems inherent to liberal- progressive political desires, including the fabrication of a vacillating definition of those worthy of decarceration, and those whose criminality requires their civil carceral death. In none of this is there anything approaching a serious attempt to clarify, much less directly engage with, the unfolding half century infrastructure of gendered racial domestic warfare. “Disparity” is a bullshit concept, when we already know that the inception of criminal justice is the de-criminalization of white people, particularly propertied white citizens and those willing to bear arms to defend the white world. “Mass Incarceration” is worse than meaningless, when it’s not the “masses” who are being criminalized and locked up. So there is some furtive and fatal white entitlement involved in this discursive political structure. As far as Black Lives Matter goes, i think it’s imperative to appreciate the spectrum of people and political positions that inhabit this movement, and to constantly pay attention to how its place in the public discourse creates both opportunities for radical departures and burdens of political respectability that constantly attempt to domesticate its own insurgent tendencies.
And it’s these liberal-progressive political desires that we must now more than ever be vigilantly criticizing in our writings, analyses, discussions, and pedagogy, correct? Even amidst the possibility of having a classically “Right-wing” reactionary iteration of white nationalist subjectivity, once again, residing in the Oval Office? I know you have written about a particular notion of fascism, as it relates to the idea of liberal capitalist democracy—one that builds on the incarcerated writings of Angela Davis and George Jackson from the early 1970s. Would you say a broader public conversation about fascism and its relationship to the liberal-progressive political desires you are speaking about is necessary?
I think people are already having the conversations about white nationalism and fascism in various ways, although once again, the problem is that these problems are reduced to a narrowed, particular, spectacular set of articulations (i.e. Muslim expulsion, Great Wall of ‘Merica, Blue Lives Matter, etc.) rather than analyzed as the generalized political framework through which most acceptable, or “hegemonic” notions of politics and political culture unfold. I think Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump are pretty much first cousins (though maybe estranged first cousins), in this sense. If we take a serious approach to the analytics of fascism, updated for the contemporary condition, the differences across this hegemonic political-cultural spectrum tend to be a matter of degree, not of kind. It’s pretty easy to see, for example, the ways that Trumpism installs assumptively extremist positions and proposals into the public discourse in ways that catalyze and legitimate reactionary white (and overwhelmingly male) violence through symbolic, state, and physical forms. What a lot of us are in denial about, however, is how much this moment of reactionary white nationalism overlaps with the prior decade of multiculturalist white supremacy and the refabrication of US patriotism via “postracialism.” So while not everyone agrees with subjecting Muslims to an American Inquisition, for example, there are some guiding agreements about whether and how people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent ought to be subjected to rationalized, responsible forms of profiling and policing. And the bottom line of this still-unfolding, historically specific policing and criminalization technology is, of course, the Civilizational formation of racial chattel and land-ecological conquest as the permanent (that is, not historically episodic) condition of political discourse generally. So what we are seeing now is a pretty fucked up situation in which some of us are actually surprised that people who look like us, and share genealogical blood with us, are fully in favor of Trump’s Bozo the Clown burlesque act. We are indignant and shocked silent when we encounter other Black, Brown, Indigenous, and queer people outside of academic left and activist circles who tell us they might—or will— cast a worthless ballot for that dude. We should not be that surprised.
I agree, we cannot be surprised. And, accompanying these reactionary articulations, there is an entire other side of the fascist problematic, right? The gradualist reformers who “mediate” the crisis . . . who co-opt, defuse, and redirect oppositional energies into the projects of the Establishment Left. Here you have a range of “compassionate” and “caring” folks—from petite bourgeois liberals to progressive nationalists to an array of “color-blind” white left-folk—all of whom, it seems, desire more so to distance themselves from the backwards or “regressive” whiteness embodied in the Trump campaign, rather than challenge it in any serious or politically meaningful way. And when the desire to confront it does exist—when it is out there, loud and visible—that very desire appears to be a force that legitimates their own privileged positions. They become the “reasonable” whites . . . the “civil” whites . . . the transcendent historical subjects capable of continuing the white-supremacist nation-building project. “I am not Donald Trump,” therefore my presence and manner of being/Being is universally justified. Or “I am not that murderous pig,” therefore my imagined physiological integrity, my chauvinistic comportment, my freedom of bodily mobility couldn’t possibly be linked in a parasitic way to the policing and criminalization of Black people, or that which necessitates the crisis of racialized capture and incarceration. It’s a kind of postracial desire characteristic of left-liberal whiteness in the post-Civil Rights era: a move (whether conscious or not) to disaffiliate from the cultural and political spheres of “old-school” white racist identity, which in turn only serves to shore up and affirm their own comfortable inhabitations of civil society, of “rationality,” of white life, of “White Being” (as you have so eloquently described it). But I guess that’s what you’ve been saying throughout this entire interview, right? It’s a constant evasion of political and “ethical” responsibilities that is systemically condoned. The problem lays with White Being as a larger, enveloping aspect of the fascist social condition we all (albeit differentially) inhabit.
And to add to your entirely appropriate and necessary polemic against (white) liberalism—a task that i am happy you embrace so urgently given your own social and gendered racial position in the world—i have to stress that there are other layers to the violence of White Being that have nothing to do with the “problem of white people.” There are specific ways, in this moment of compulsory diversity and institutionalized multiculturalism, where the post-apartheid United States is actually doubling down on gendered-racist state violence by fostering delimited avenues of social mobility (i.e. affirmative action and its aftermath) and ideologies of “empowerment.” These are usually affixed to spectacles of dark-skinned peoples’ exceptional achievements, talents, and rarified “opportunities” that work, always and incessantly, to ideologically crowd out the everyday social truths of systemic degradation and evisceration. This is just a glimpse of the mess that the ascendancy of White Being creates in its extra-supremacist moments, when it thrives on gestures of seduction, invitation, and inclusion that accompany the sturdy apparatuses of warfare, policing, and incarceration. A lot of us would kill (and sometimes do kill) for the chance to have “White People Problems” on a constant, uninterrupted basis, you know? That’s the fatal, violent, sometimes auto-homicidal and suicidal dilemma i’m talking about.
So then, what would you suggest . . . or maybe . . . how do you envision a revolutionary politics being further proliferated in the current historical conjuncture; in terms of organization and strategy, principles and program? For instance, given the current political climate, how might a more deeply radical consciousness be fostered in the institutional and organizational spaces one inhabits? Are there useful historical approaches to oppositional intellectual work that could be revisited and revised to broaden the public discussion of political possibilities?
I’m only capable of offering a minor, situated, fragment of a response to this question, given my own limitations of experience, position, and insight. Here’s how i’ll respond: the question is not whether there is some kind of activist praxis, organizing method, or cultural strategy that can incite radical-to-revolutionary possibilities in-and-of-themselves. Rather, in this particular moment, i think the question is how to create, exemplify, and experiment in rigorously scholarly, thoughtful, historically situated forms of praxis (which may or may not take a typically “activist” form). Whether people are nourished by Sylvia Rivera or Malcolm X, the Zapatistas or the Panthers, AIM or Idle No More, there are so many exemplary forms of radical work that are also radical in their intellectual-theoretical contributions to the historical record of revolt against Civilization. This fact should enable us to engage in our creative, experimental practices in a manner that is both humbled and deeply emboldened.
I have some questions prepared about revolutionary organization and the politics of “spontaneity” that I would like to briefly pose before we wrap this interview up. First off, what are some central themes that must be accounted for in the formation of principled “aboveground” and “underground” counter-state organizational structures? Do you see something still useful in distinguishing a relationship between the two? What must occur differently today than in past iterations of the above/below-ground split?
This is not something i’d want to substantively write or talk about on the record, right now. What i will say is that yes, there is absolutely a need and usefulness to drawing clear practical, strategic and theoretical distinctions between legal and illicit, “responsible” and explosively contentious, aboveground and underground forms of praxis and organizing. I will say that i am in a privileged position to work in the generalized realm of aboveground, legal activities but this does not mean that i abstain from supporting, theorizing, and critiquing other kinds of political work.
What of political action that appears at first to be “spontaneous,” for example, street skirmishes and larger, more organic insurrectionary mobilizations such as riots? Could you say these have a dimension of organization to them as well?
Yes, always. Spontaneity is usually in the eye of the beholder. Shit doesn’t just go down because of a random act of God, or some kind of incomprehensible magic. There is always a reason: as we know, these spontaneous irruptions are often counter- insurgency tactics employed by the state and reactionary elements who wish to provoke popular backlash against a particular community or insurgent movement; other times, people have simply had enough, and are unwilling to tolerate dying and suffering “peacefully,” or “nonviolently.” And if that’s not a praxis of human being against White Being, i don’t know what is.
Do you have any suggestions about the role of writing and public intellectual work during (and in the immediate aftermath of) rioting and other forms of open insurrectionary struggle? You know . . . these periods of heightening antagonisms that disrupt the quotidian, everyday reproduction (the so-called “peace”) of white civic life. And this question doesn’t only have to be directed towards instances such as Baltimore or Milwaukee recently. It could even be expanded to encompass the phase of struggle inaugurated this summer more generally (with its array of direct actions, traffic blockades, and protest mobilizations). These are periods when clarity and sober reflection on reactionary shifts in the hegemony of “law and order” are needed in the public discourse—especially if we wish counter the effects of a state and corporate media apparatus that dehumanizes insurgency and strives to appropriate grassroots revolt into dominant cultural and political blocs.
We’re talking about the radical, indispensable work of speaking and writing a historical record, and compiling a present tense archive. There are so many cultural forces and institutional forms that mitigate against this work, and which try to discipline and bully people out of their obligation to undertake this labor and art form (all narrative is art, don’t get it twisted). My word of encouragement and incitement is this: while there are people who are employed or otherwise materially rewarded to do the work of writing, talking, and critical reflection, the fullest sense of the radical archive draws on the creativity endemic to the practice of human being against the ascendancy of White Being. This means the historical obligation to do the work—to produce the art—is far-reaching.
Who are some central thinkers that you would recommend aspiring young activists and students in the movement read and listen to today, in regards to the strategic dimensions of radical anti-racist and Black liberationist struggles?
I suggest a deeper, collective, critical reading and discussion of those folks in the Hall of Fame: Audre Lorde, W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, Angela Davis, Paolo Freire, Haunani Kay Trask, Stuart Hall, the Combahee River Collective, Toni Morrison (recall the “Seven Days” organization from Song of Solomon), Ida B. Wells, the Civil Rights Congress (We Charge Genocide, 1951), Sonia Sanchez, Vine Deloria, and so many others. The point is not merely to read and listen, it’s to read and listen actively, collectively, and in conversation with other people.
Okay, so one last question for you Dylan. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. Do you see any major differences that need to be accounted for in the ways that student activists mobilize on campuses and attempt to struggle today, as opposed to previous eras? Over the course of your work in the university, have you seen any transformations in the way students mobilize around racist policing, surveillance, and imprisonment (for better or worse)?
The campus—whether university, junior college, high school, or some other schooling site—has played a significant role in almost every major or minor transformation of oppressive and systemically violent conditions in the history of this wretched Civilization. Students face a compounded problem in the current iteration of the neoliberal white-supremacist university/college regime, however, because they tend to be subjected to untenable financial and hence labor burdens as soon as they set foot on school grounds. So students engaged in activist work today must bear even heavier demands on their energy, and are forced to survive different and often heavier physiological stresses than their counterparts from, say, 15 years ago. (Come to think of it, maybe there is a way that students today can politicize their burdens and collective immiseration in a manner that doesn’t rely on the grandstanding of Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.) Finally, the most profound difference i have seen in recent years of student activism around criminalization, policing, and incarceration has been the circulation of the political identity “abolitionist.” Far, far greater numbers of students are embracing this position, and many are doing so even when their professed political beliefs are closer to anti-racist reform (of police, laws, etc.) or progressive decarceration (of those deemed most deserving of release from prison/jail). In other words, many student activists call themselves “abolitionists” when their political agendas are fundamentally opposed to abolition! So that leaves us with the task of teaching and demonstrating what it means to inhabit the long historical responsibilities that accompany the declaration that one is an abolitionist. You have to be willing and able to say that shit to Sojourner Truth’s ghost.
[From the first issue of Propter Nos.]