On Black Death and LGBTQ Politics

On Friday, December 12, I had the profound pleasure of attending the Kessler Award ceremony hosted by The Center for LGBTQ Studies: CLAGS at The Graduate Center, CUNY in honor of Professor Cathy J. Cohen (University of Chicago). Cohen has a large body of work at the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality, but is perhaps best known for a 1997 GLQ article, referenced this talk, called, “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics” (locked). The title of her talk was, “#Do Black Lives Matter? From Michael Brown to CeCe McDonald: On Black Death and LGBTQ Politics.” What follows is a brief summary of her remarks, and the video and transcript are linked below.

Cohen’s talk began with the screening of a video that included the murders of Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Kaijeme Powell, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice in one devastating 2-minute clip, she said to “re-center us and remind us what the movement is about.”

Cohen then turned to a discussion of the context surrounding the murder of Michael Brown, what she calls the ‘multicultural turn in neoliberalism.’ She uses the traditional definition of neoliberalism, as a “prioritizing of markets and a corresponding commitment to the dismantling or devolution of social welfare.” She argues that with the election of the first African American president in Barack Obama, neoliberalism has taken a “multicultural turn” that requires us to “complicate our understanding of state power and neoliberal agendas.” About this, and as part of her critique of Obama, she said:

Colorblind racial ideology, by both decrying racism and designating anti-racism as probably one of the country’s newly found core values, actually works to obscure the relationship between identity and privilege. Thus, through colorblind ideology one can claim to be in solidarity with black people while at the same time denigrating the condition of poor black people, faulting them for their behaviors or lack of a work ethic and not their race. Moreover, one could declare that ‘black lives matter’ while undermining any state-sponsored programs that would address the special needs of poor black people. One could say, in fact, that I’m heartbroken with the death of Trayvon Martin because if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon, and recognize that that means nothing in terms of justice for black people.

She began here, with neoliberalism and its multicultural turn because “it is a reminder of the sustained attack on the basic humanity of poor black people that provides the context in which we should understand the killing of young black people, in particular young black men, and the less visible assaults on black women and the murder of black trans people.”

The second section of her talk, called “Performing Solidarity: LGBT Complicity = Black Death,” was a thorough recap of the critique made by Urvashi Vaid, Lisa Duggan, Dean Spade and Michael Warner, of the way that mainstream (read: predominantly white) LGBT organizations have prioritized a neoliberal agenda with policies agendas that emphasize, marriage, access to the military and increased criminalization through hate crime legislation. Then, she argued that the kinds of letters issued by mainstream LGBT organizations in support of Michael Brown’s family

The third part of her talk, which she called “This is Not the Civil Rights Movement: The Queering of Black Liberation,” is where she addressed the possibility of transformational politics. She began this section by screening this short video:

This young brother, Tory Russell is from Hands Up United, one of the grassroots groups organizing people in Ferguson, Missouri. In response to a question from Gwen Ifill (PBS Newshour) about what he sees happening now, Russell says:

“I mean it’s younger, it’s fresher. I think we’re more connected than most people think. I don’t, this is not the civil rights movement, you can tell by how I got a hat on, I got my t-shirt, and how I rock my shoes. This is not the civil rights movement. This is an oppressed peoples’ movement. So when you see us, you gonna see some gay folk, you gonna see some queer folk, you gonna see some poor black folk, you gonna see some brown folk, you gonna see some white people and we all out here for the same reasons, we wanna be free.”

In many ways, Russell here articulates Cohen’s vision for transformational politics and what she refers to as substantive, rather than performative, solidarity.

Cohen, along with a growing chorus of voices, sees what is happening now as a movement, rather than simply a momentary response to aggressive policing.

Near the end of her talk, Cohen describes this movement, echoing Russell, as a “movement made up, as Tory Russell described, made up of some gays, some queer folk, some poor black people, some brown folks, some white folks, …all of them united in their position as oppressed people, aka politically queer, and all fighting for freedom, not marriage, not increased criminalization, not access to the military, but for freedom.”

You can view Cohen’s lecture online here (beginning about the 25:50 mark). A transcript of Cohen’s remarks is available here.

Racism, Whites and Neoliberalism

RR welcomes new contributing blogger, Randy Hohle, Assistant Professor, D’Youville College, Buffalo, NY

Neoliberalism is the political and economic framework based on privatizing public works, removing rules and regulations over businesses that protect citizens, and tax cuts for the wealthy.  You might wonder why anyone outside of the wealthiest 1% would support such policies. Here’s my theory: neoliberalism was made possible by a racialized language of privatization that defined all things private as “white” and all things public as “black.” This language was first articulated in the post-war South as whites were responding to the black civil rights movement and the modernization of the southern economy.  I’ll use post-war Alabama to make my case.

In Alabama, the white response to the Brown v. Board of Ed ruling was to privatize the public school system in favor of letting private and non-profit entities run the schools on a racially segregated basis.

The predominantly white Alabama business community felt that subsidizing businesses to relocate to the South was a bad idea because businesses didn’t stay and states were losing revenue. They pushed for tax breaks on businesses and opposed additional taxes based on the idea that taxes are bad for business, thus, bad for the economy.

In contrast to the ardent segregationists, the white business community negotiated with the civil rights movement to offer blacks employment in the low-pay, low-skill service sector. Yet, this was no act of racial sympathy. The white southern business community sought to integrate blacks in this limited way in order to enhance the idea that the ‘new south’ was more racially tolerant and, thus, a safe place for northern and federal investment.

Whites in Alabama used both privatization and tax cuts to direct all public resources to the most privileged segments of the white community. The language of ‘privatization and tax cuts’ became synonymous with ‘white, superior and preferred’ while ‘public’ implied ‘black, inferior, and inefficient.’ By the mid-1960s, this racial coding of a political ideology formed the pretext of what it meant to be white in America, and thus, made the larger neoliberal turn that started in 1979 possible.

The realities of the white/private, black/public code continue to be found in all major policy debates. And for the most part, the neoliberal crowd has been winning. The rationale for charter schools and educational credits are the grandchildren of the original school privatization bills. The movement against national health care used terminology like ‘the public option’ and ‘Medicaid for all’ to explicitly link national health care with black/public.

The reality is that white resentment towards blacks has made neoliberalism possible despite 30 years of failed policy and to the detriment of whites and blacks.

Suggested further reading:

Cobb, James C. 1999. Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South. Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press.

Feagin, Joe R. 2010. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. NY & London: Routledge.

Hohle, Randolph. Forthcoming 2012, “The Color of Neoliberalism: The ‘Modern Southern Businessman’ and Post-War” Alabama’s Challenge to Racial Desegregation Sociological Forum.

Hohle, Randolph. 2009. “The Rise of the New South Governmentality: Competing Southern Revitalization Projects and Police Responses to the Black Civil Rights Movement 1961-1965”. Journal of Historical Sociology 22(4): 497-527.

Kruse, Kevin Michael. 2005. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1975. Powershift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenges to the Eastern Establishment. New York: Random House.