JUS 633 Community Research

This week I have been thinking about the relationship between state security protects and “white democracy” (Olson, 2011), particularly as I consider the purpose of a state security project like Secure Communities. I am thinking through how state security projects may relate to another piece I am working on where I argue that Arizona’s “attrition through enforcement” strategy – best exemplified by SB 1070 – is an example of ethnic cleansing within a democracy.  The purpose of attrition through enforcement according to our representative Jeff Flake (R – AZ) is to produce untenable lives for migrants; lives that are characterized by such pervasive vulnerabilities that migrants “voluntarily” leave the state. In similar ways, both tactics (attrition through enforcement and Secure Communities) result in the dispersal of migrant bodies through arrest, detention, deportation, or forced out-migration. Both tactics also rely on certain assumptions about what makes people secure and who deserves the protection of the state. In this case, migrants from the global South are targeted for premature death by state security projects.

The literature on “Radical Abolition” (Gilmore, 2011) and Black Radical Thought suggests a different way – one oriented toward creating authentically democratic institutions by abolishing white democracy and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC).  Abolishing the PIC challenges us to “think politics without security” by building movements “that not only end violence, but that create a society based on radical freedom, mutual accountability, and passionate reciprocity. In this society, safety and security are…based on a collective commitment to guaranteeing the survival and care of all peoples” (Critical Resistance-INCITE Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex, 2006). Radical Abolition demands a critique of state security projects and provides critical imaginings of a different future, where our conditions of possibility are not limited by white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and colonization.


Historically, two theoretical approaches to interethnic relations were predominant: the assimilation-acculturation model and the ethnicity-pluralism model (Lei 2009, pp. 12-13). The first model, assimilation-acculturation, is more commonly known as the “melting pot” phenomenon – where ethnic groups migrate to the United States, give up their cultural values and “distinct identities”, and adopt the norms and values of white America (p. 12). The second model, ethnicity-pluralism, was developed in response to the civil rights movements here and struggles against imperialism abroad. This model recognizes and valorizes difference among ethnic groups – what becomes America’s strength is not a melting pot resulting in one culture, but rather, the resiliency of ethnic identities that create America as an “ethnic mosaic” (p.12).

In the nineties the “power-conflict” school, led an effort to “retheorize” ethnicity and race to better explain persistent socio-economic inequalities along lines of power and difference. Theorists, particularly Omi and Winant, argued that race is not only used to differentiate groups of people, but is also “a formation process imposed by the social structure, which closely relates to the politics and power relations in American society” (p.15). Professor Wei Li situates her work along these lines. She suggests a new model of ethnic settlement – the ethnoburb. Ethnoburbs “express a set of contemporary ethnic relations involving interethnic group and intraethnic class tension or cooperation in a unique spatial form and internal socioeconomic structure. Ethnoburbs are suburban ethnic clusters of residential and business districts within large metropolitan areas” (p.29).

In her book Ethnoburb and her more recent piece on pre and post-Katrina migratory patterns, Professor Li’s work spatializes the complex dynamics of race, power, and difference in the United States. Methodologically, these pieces gave us a chance to see how a mixed-method approach can enrich our work and how collaboration with an interdisciplinary group of scholars can lead to a more comprehensive and dynamic approach to research. Wei Li, along with other scholars who study the “geography of racism” remind us to be attentive in our own work of, as George Lipsitz says “the spatialization of race and racialization of space.”

“They can take my body, but they can never take my spirit.” – Troy Davis

I wish I had a catchy phrase, but I just call them perspective moments – when I am struggling to finish a book exploring queer diasporas and South Asian public cultures, listening to my mama tell me about my little brother’s refusal to finish high school, losing sleep over the hum-drum of graduate school (“Who will be my chair? “Where do I begin? “Will I finish?), and always the negotiations between me and those I care for – a (Black) man is executed (murdered) by the state of Georgia in the face of overwhelming evidence that he did not kill the (white) (male) Police Officer so many years ago as charged.

My backyard vigil for Troy Davis was organized around the one star I could find (when I was little I believed that when “good people” died they went to live on stars and occasionally I still look up to them – pun intended – when I am feeling sad) and I tried to (re)center myself and heed Troy’s words to continue to fight, because there will be another Troy Davis as long as the logics, or pillars to evoke Andrea Smith, of white supremacy are central organizing principles in the United States. This is all to say that the execution of Troy Davis is a perspective moment and I returned to Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Desires to see whether the text suggests strategies for creating new worlds.

In Impossible Desires, Gopinath raises the following question: How can we theorize diasporic queerness in a way that does not simply replicate the violent effacements of conventional diasporic and nationalist formations (p. 78)? From my reading, Gopinath explores South Asian popular culture, predominately film and music, as way to demonstrate how ostensibly queer, antiracist productions often (re)center gay male queerness that then “renders queer female desire and subjectivity impossible” (p. 78). These queer projects (re)produce a binary between queerness and feminism. Gopinath’s goal is to “dislodge the insistent, obsessive focus on patrilineal inheritance that structures diasporic narratives…[which then] enables us to reconceptualize diaspora through a queer feminist lens” (p. 65). Privileging queer female subjectivity radically reconfigures home as “outside of a logic of blood, purity, authenticity, and patrilineal descent” and thus disrupts conventional (nationalistic masculine) diasporic narratives.

Methodologically, Gopinath’s text asks us to pay attention to “those who lack power, but have presence,” to ask “different questions of dominant, recognizable archives and to rethink what constitutes a viable cultural archive in the first place” (p. 57). In relation to my project, Impossible Desires opens a space for me to ask, “What would it mean to queer our notion of security?” One of my goals is to (re)imagine security-safety without relying on the logics of the prison-industrial complex. Do I begin by situating how the logics of the PIC already shape our notions of security-safety? Questions for today.

At all times we should try to set an exemplary example of the type of [personhood] we are advocating: self-determining, strong, sensitive human beings” (Gidra, qtd in Pulido, 2006, p. 205; italics my own).

Pulido’s chapter “Patriarchy and Revolution” spoke the most to me as it illuminated the ways in which activist communities are capable of reconstituting the very relations they/we are attempting to dismantle – racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, sexual violence, heteronormativity, and so forth. I think questions about how to heal the self, of understanding, as Incite reminds us that “the revolution starts at home” must be addressed. In short, we must decolonize our minds (see Perez, 1999). Recently, The Crunk Feminist Collective (CFC) posted a blog devoted to this question. They drew from Toni Cade Bambara’s essay, “On the Issue of Roles”, where Bambara argues: “If your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order.” CFC followed with this analysis:

“Talk about crunk. Bambara gives the side eye to the notion that you can attack capitalism, racism, or other systems of dominance out in the world without challenging those same systems (especially hetero-patriarchy) within one’s own relationships. That, in fact, leaving your own house “out of order” not only jeopardizes but it, in fact, undermines both your potential for good work and your potential for intimacy and happiness. Indeed, for me, Bambara’s call for us to essentially get our ish together charges us to recognize how important—how revolutionary—it is for us to love (and love on) each other and ourselves fiercely and fearlessly.”

While academic and community work can serve to both highlight and inform our theoretical and practice analyses of systems of power and domination, there is less of an emphasis, particularly in academia, on healing and recovering from our own experiences with physical-emotional violence(s). Feeling questions are rarely asked in academia. How can we work to heal ourselves? How can we put our house in order?

More broadly, Pulido’s text raises a number of interesting questions: what role can (or should) nationalism play, if any, in social movements oriented toward liberation? (How) Can white people serve as effective allies in people of color led movements for social change? (How) Does Pulido’s text help us to better understand the “politics of solidarity” and, therefore engage in coalition building?

Catching Hell in the City of Angeles: Life and Meanings of Blackness in South Central Los Angeles demonstrates how different “modalities” of Blackness operate as political-epistemological orientations or positionalities with radical and perhaps revolutionary (using Joy James’ definitions) possibilities. Or, to use Costa Vargas’ own words, “the very contradictory natures of [B]lackness show that, if an ethical commitment to liberatory politics is the energizer of self-making, [B]lackness is absolutely necessary as a source of knowledge of the social world, survival, resistance, and community maintenance” (p. 216; italics in original).

In relation to the objectives of this course, I found Costa Vargas’ text particularly insightful as an example of how to write a compelling ethnography that both “hooks” the reader so-to-speak and generates theoretical incitements, while suggesting openings for (re)imagining our future. Costa Vargas also reiterates several of the themes from our reading on activist-scholarship – notions of reciprocity, humility, accountability, and so forth. His particular ethnographic techniques were not as transparent in the text. How, for example, did he learn to take ethnographic field notes? What does his writing process look like? How did he inform Shannon, Vivian, Kody, and so on that he was going to write about their everyday struggles and negotiations in the face of premature death/Black genocide?

In relation to my own work, I thought the text actually provided, albeit unnamed as such, examples of alternative security projects (the gang truce; community run police) based on the lived experiences of communities threatened by genocide – the police, and social workers for that matter, clearly exacerbated rather than contributed to a sense of security among residents. The intense occupation, but also abandonment of the state, to use Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s framing, forces South Central residents to generate a sense, however tenuous, of security (in this case primarily physical/emotional and to a certain degree economic) outside of or in opposition to the state.

In her book, Against the Romance of Community, Miranda Joseph demystifies the notion of “community” by arguing that we must conceptualize communities as “economic units [and] that the bonding produced by particular values serves the abstract needs of the circulation of capital” (p. 139). Joseph’s ethnographic research reveals how identity-based groups often deploy the language of community as a disciplinary and/or exclusionary tactic (see p. ix) to achieve some end. For me, one of the most disruptive (?) points Joseph makes in her book is to demonstrate folks’ tendency to construct “community” as a place outside of the material and social relations engendered by the capitalist mode of production and I think Joseph goes to great lengths in her book to demonstrate that communities in fact often reproduce the very harmful social relations they seek to subvert, create refuge from, or do away with all together. Identity-based organizations carry the risk of (re)producing subjectivities and social relations that facilitate rather than challenge modes of capitalist accumulation – so that both the sense of community and the actual people these organizations profess to represent, preserve, protect, promote, engender, and are less likely to become sites of liberatory social change (although this may have never been the purpose of the organization in the first place). I don’t read Joseph as suggesting that identity-based organizations/social movements have not created legitimate and meaningful changes in people’s lives, but rather “constitutions of community as precisely autonomous from capital [can] enable community to operate as a supplemental to capital and that community thus enables exploitation” (p. 172).

I read Joseph as a cautionary tale – I don’t think she dismisses the notion of “community” all together, but rather, urges us to be mindful of its discursive deployment, to trouble its use in our own work and political activism. Personally, it was an interesting week for me to engage with her text, because I have been thinking a lot about beginning a project around the “Secure Communities” (SC) program – a federally designated (im)migration program that has been a source of recent protests across the country. Briefly, SC requires that local law enforcement hand-over fingerprints to ICE, who then run screens to identify folks here extra-legally. The program purports to identify, detain, and deport the “most dangerous” migrants – a claim that has been widely challenged. Joseph’s book has given me some tools to think more critically about the deployment of “community” in this program that will compliment my line of inquiry – notions of security/safety, alternatives to policing, creating security/safety in relation to the state, and so forth.

In class, I hope we discuss Joseph’s argument – I understand it in a basic sense, but have questions around her notions of “the performativity of production” and the “absent subjects of capitalism” (see p. 111 for example) among others. I think talking through some of her examples and examples from our own work would be useful as we try to work through her argument.