For Philomena

Preface and Acknowledgments

This is a book about race and its exclusionary, humiliating, and violent expressions, historically produced and contemporarily articulated, yet so often in denial. About the transformational grammars of race and racisms as neoliberal political economy has assumed a more or less firm grip on different societies, across varying regions. I am concerned with what is unique to those geo-regional expressions, and what can be generalized across them.

The numbers are notorious, almost numbing.

Ten million enslaved Africans perished in Middle Passage, on reasonable estimates. Death en passant to a life more often than not worse than death. Starved, worked, beaten, suffocated, diseased to death. Numbers as large again prematurely killed in new world slavery. Systemically, brutally worked, beaten, saddened or maddened into death. Seven million aboriginal inhabitants of Australia wiped out by European colonization and modernization. A lynching every other day in the southern states of the US throughout the 1890s. Ten million battered into death by Leopold’s vicious regime in the Congo between 1885 and 1908, half of the population of the area castrated and delimbed and diseased in a brutality matched only by the six million Jews and nameless others gassed and shot and tortured to death by Aryan superiority in the 1940s, for which the Congolese experience served as a pre-cursive laboratory. Each death exceptional in transnational processes of violence and violation all too sadly not. One million people murdered in 1994 in Rwanda in the ethnoracial name of not belonging. In one month. More than 70 percent of the more than two million people rotting in US prisons (up from 200,000 less than 40 years ago) people of color. A percentage eclipsed perhaps only in (post-)apartheid South Africa. Countless lives foreshortened by segregation and apartheid, urban decay and globalized labor conditions, smart bombs and stupid politicians.

All in the name or wake – explicitly or implicitly, structurally or analogically – of ethnoracial configurations and their legacies. People reduced to the abstraction of a group, groups classified as abstracted numbers, belittled, rationalized as animals, treated as beasts by those whose actions would make them better candidates for the designation.

What do these sorts of numbing numbers (repeatable ad nauseam, if one is not already nauseated) say about race and how we have come to think about racial ordering and racial theorizing? About racial futures and their connections with what counts as history? About an ordering, valuing, ways of being and thinking that enable and allow the cults of death and violence, that threaten the wellbeing of so many? And later ignores their legacies. So how are the mentalities of racial being and seeing made, manifested, managed over time, at different times, to different social or governmental purpose? What are their products and productivity, their currency and the value they create, sell, and purchase? What fates does this order(ing) of images and ideas, values and virtues seal, and seal off?

What indeed about color-consciousness and colorblindness, about conscience and connectedness, about community and collectivity? And what about racial cultures and resistance, domination and representation? About racial memory and forgetting, apology, apologetics, and forgiving? About grief and grievance, identity and injury? About racial resonance and suggestibility, refusal and possibility? What, in other words, of that question first asked critically by the likes of Fanon, about the connection between race and culture? What, as Said asks in Culture and Imperialism, is culture both productive and reflective of the historical moment(s) in which it is produced? Is there something systematic about the cult(ure)s of race across time so that one can conjure, as Said argues about imperial culture at once more generally and more specifically, a “structure of attitude and reference”?

The set of reflections that follows across the pages of The Threat of Race, then, is about retrospectivity and prospectivity, legacy and latency, pasts as horizons of futures. It is about race in structure and representation, order and rationalization, arrangement and narration. It is then also about what race does about itself, how it represents itself and what it does around and in the name of such representation and extension. About the suffocation of history’s weight but also about living through and beyond, because and in spite of it. It is, one might say, to pause between, to reflect on the stains and strains of history, of histories. But the book is also about standing up and brushing off. About digging out, and picking up.

In this, my concern is to mold a critical analytics and a critical analytic vocabulary towards comprehending racially driven neoliberalisms and neoliberally fueled racisms: racial regionalizations and critical regionalisms, born again racisms and social prophylaxis, enduring occupations and permanently temporary states, euro-mimesis and Muslimania, mixture and violent duress, political theology of race and racial secularization, racial compulsions and their resistances, socialities of the skin and racial evaporations, racisms without racism and neo-neoliberalism, homogenizing and heterogenizing dispositions.

How, then, to write in the name of and against a title? A title fraught with prospect and promise, with the ambiguities of racial erosion and erasure, on one side, and antagonisms, violence, death, and their charges, on the other? A title in the shadow of which histories are taken to be over, past, evaporated and in denial, yet the conditions of which, as they are buried, misremembered, mis-membered, remain very much alive.

A book of this sort, it may already be evident, conjures if it doesn’t emphatically call for a different kind of writing. I have composed a work in which I have tried to retain passion rather than purge it for the preference of a neutral disposition, whatever that might mean, preferring to wed passion to a critical analyticity, commitment(s), and to theoretical reflectivity. I have tried to write with writing in mind. Which is to say with speaking to colleagues and those unknown, shouting at claims from which leave is taken, which leave one not so much cold as furious. How to write with passion and yet remain coolly critical, cutting, incisive? About pressing matters cutting today as deep to the bone as any moment in my lifetime. How to write about complex and difficult matters, but clearly? How to resist and insist, through argument? These are my challenges.

This is a text, accordingly, free of footnotes or explicitly referenced intra-textual citations. Which is different than saying there are no references, or better yet reference points, allusions, conversational interjections. The book is conceived in conversation, with many texts, multiple voices, various expressions of opinion. A bibliography of works consulted, conspired with or against, critically taken up or cast aside, follows each chapter. Where I suggest in passing within the flow of a chapter’s argument that so-and-so says such-and-such the general reference will be included in the chapter’s bibliography.

We are often in denial about just how collaboratively produced single-authored monographs are. I owe enormous debts of gratitude, from the detailed and definitive to the deep and comprehensive, from the institutional to the invested, the abstract to the personal. The abstract first. The writing was driven in good part by the music in the presence of which it was so often composed. Philip Tabane and the Malombo Jazzmen, Feya Faku, McCoy Mrubata, Greg Georgiades, Paul Hanmer, Wessel van Resburg, Madala Kunene, Tlokwe Sehume, Sibongile Khumalo, Gilad Atzmon, Max Roach and Abdullah Ibrahim, Jack De Johnette and Foday Musa Suso, no doubt among many more. Above all Zim Ngqawana and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I can only hope the rhythm of the writing resonates with something of their timbre and timing, their inimitable spirit.

Bits of argument and versions of chapters were read in public fora far and wide – across the University of California and the United States, repeatedly in the Netherlands, Britain, Sweden, Ireland, and France, as well as in South Africa, China, Singapore, Australia, and Canada. I learned in other ways from workshops in Costa Rica and Mexico. I am grateful to my generous hosts in each instance and to the critical comments, insights, and thoughtful provocations following from these interlocutions that more often than not prompted me to think anew, to revise and reformulate. If the book took longer as a result to complete, it is inordinately the better for it.

The earlier chapters were much improved also by their reading and commentary from my colleagues in the Critical Theory Institute, Irvine. An insight here or revision there found its way into the book prompted by impromptu conversations often in unlikely settings with friends and colleagues Etienne Balibar, Gayatri Spivak, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Judith Butler, and Ackbar Abbas. Close friends read or listened, often repeatedly, to my rantings, gently setting me straight and saving me from embarrassment on matters major and minor. The book would be so much the worse but for Ana Paula Ferreira, Michael Hanchard, Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Geraldine Heng, John and Jean Comaroff, Lisa Lowe, Gabriele Schwab, Saree Makdisi, Ronit Lentin, John Solomos, Michael Keith, and Barnor Hesse. A public conversation with Paul Gilroy organized at the University of Manchester by Virinder Kalra () not only happily renewed an old friendship but led me to rethink a couple of points I had thought settled in my mind.

Sadly, our dear friend Tanya Reinhart passed away suddenly before I could share the chapter on racial palestinianization with her. I learned more casually about matters in that troubled region from Tanya and her partner, the inimitable Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai, than from most all else combined. We miss her immensely.

My day job throughout the conception and composition of this book has been administering a research institute serving all ten campuses of the University of California. The incomparable staff not only invariably lightens the sometime tedium of the day-to-day administrative detail and the everyday challenges of fundraising. They have protected my time from the inevitable intrusions of daily demand, without which the manuscript still would not be complete. An unqualified pleasure to work with, knowing that things will be so well done despite my distractions.

In similar vein, the distractions have often been a consequence of matters unrelated to The Threat of Race. Through it all I have worked closely with Cathy Davidson, running a national network promoting work at the interface of the humanities and digital technology, and overseeing a series of grants. Cathy, too, has occasionally suffered my writing distractions when I owed her a response or a proposal draft, despite which she was always one to cheer me to completion, sending me relevant articles or urls pertinent to my argument which proved only all the more distracting from our work together. I have long been fortunate to have fabulous research assistants. Kim Furumoto for the earlier parts of the book and Stefka Hristova more recently have been the best of the best. Both have been more interlocutors than assistants. Stefka has been instrumental in making it possible for me to draw on accompanying images and to design the website to accompany the text (see ). Muriam Haleh Davis has repeatedly posed probing questions about the argument and conceptual apparatus, prompting me to be clearer than I otherwise might.

Jayne Fargnoli, editor extraordinaire, left me alone when most others would long have called in the chips, prodded me gently along when others might have chided in frustration, cheered me to the finish line when others might have turned out the light. She exchanged reflections about Shaq and Miami’s demise, the Knicks implosion, and the Celtics’ ascendancy, just the distraction for an author struggling to find his direction. Or found other Blackwell projects to which I might contribute so as to keep her bosses at bay. When I requested Brigitte Lee Messenger to copy-edit the manuscript, the deed was done. Laboring under her own trying conditions, Brigitte as always lived up to the expectation, and then some.

Throughout I have engaged in spirited conversations with a small group of close confidantes. I have burdened them with drafts of chapters and half-baked ideas, troubled them over details disturbing their own time with halfhearted arguments, often while collaborating on something else entirely. Always they have laughed me through my knots, angling me in corrected and renewed directions. Donald Moore has borne all of this burdened by the enormous challenges of his own situation, drawing my attention to points overlooked, a nuance by-passed, inevitably to a reference about which I was unaware. Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind gave me a hearing no matter what part of the world to or from which they were rushing. Conversations with my sometimes skeptical son, Gabe, just leaving his teenage years, occasionally kept me from making claims for which my evidence was less than compelling.

Susan Searl Giroux read and taught the manuscript repeatedly, drew my ideas out in an extraordinary interview, found insights in my work I had not known were there.

Over the past number of years now and throughout the book’s formulation I have been engaged in a conversation with my dear friend Achille Mbembe ranging across politics and culture, the postcolonial and post-South Africa, conviction and compulsion. It was out of one such critical conversation before students in a graduate course that I thought to write about the political theology of race. These engagements with Achille, teaching and working together in California and Johannesburg, continuing to be moved by his generative writing and probing thought, have conjured ideas that could have come to me in no other way.

And finally, Philomena Essed has listened to me thinking aloud on these issues on a literally daily basis. Always thinking with me, she has more often than not offered me the gift of ideas discovered and uncovered, prompted and polished, helping invariably to deepen insight or abandon thoughts with no nuance and less future. The book’s title came together only after months of fretting across meals and travels and conversations over an appropriate characterization. As also many a critical turn or subtle twist, a way of looking or a line of argument. Without her boundless care, support, and generosity, this would be a much lesser book, if one at all.

Amsterdam and Irvine

January 2008

Author’s Note

We have created a website to accompany The Threat of Race:

While intended as a stand-alone site, it includes images and links to images informing and embellishing the text, in a sense an essay next to and in conversation with the argument in the book. Somewhat experimental in form, it will incorporate also a forum for commentary and ongoing conversation. We hope you consult it and find it an engaging presence.

I am grateful to Stefka Hristova, Erik Loyer, Shane Depner, and Khai Tang without whom it would still be struggling to see the light of day.

In the following pages I include a critical account of the Royal Belgian Museum for Central Africa in the context of discussing colonialism, racial europeanization, and cultural memory (see pp. 169–75). My analysis was composed on the basis of a visit to the Museum and institutional catalogues and materials predating 2007. The Museum has since signaled a comprehensive commitment to renovate the building and reconceive its exhibits. As an announcement greeting visitors to the Museum today declares, “The aim of the restoration and renovation [due to be completed by 2013] is to bring the Museum in tune with the needs and requirements of the 21th [sic] century, but without affecting its charm.” Finally realizing that the Museum could no longer continue as an unapologetically colonial institution, the permanent and temporary exhibits already seek to indicate that its leaders are grappling with its troubled past. These developments came about too late to incorporate into the pages of this book. Instead, I have composed a brief supplementary reflection on the anxious, ambivalent attempts now being initiated to save the Museum’s troubling “charm.” The posting appears on the website accompanying this book (see ).