Another Moment in the Long History of White Reconstruction
Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Dylan Rodriguez, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at UC Riverside, about White Reconstruction, the false narrative that the term mass incarceration creates, and more
Eddie Conway: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore. Recently there has been a lot of reaction on the ground around the removal of the Confederate statues and there has been reaction around the rallying of the right wing alter nationalist groups.
So to join me today to kind of look at that and unpack it a little bit is the professor from Riverside University in California, Dylan Rodriguez. Dylan, thanks for joining me.
Dylan Rodriguez: It’s an honor, it’s always good talking to you Eddie.
Eddie Conway: Okay, can you tell me a little bit about what this white reconstruction movement is that’s developing?
Dylan Rodriguez: Yeah, let me give it to you in a nutshell. The argument that I would make here is that the language that has circulated in recent years that attempts to address the half century following the height of liberation movements, in the latter 20th Century meaning the period from around the late ’60s until now. The language that people have used to describe that half-century is generally inaccurate and is politically misleading. People have used different kinds of phrases to try to think about what that half century has entailed. People have used the phrase “post-civil rights,” people have used the phrase more recently, “post-racial,” that didn’t seem to last very long. The current moment people are starting to use the language of fascism, of white nationalism, of white populism, of white supremacy even.
The argument that I would make is that what we’ve been inhabiting for about the last 50 years or so is another moment in this long, American, white supremacist tradition of White Reconstruction. It’s not unlike other periods in U.S. history in which there is a nominal abolition as well as a structural change in a particular kind of racist and gendered racist power structure, whether it’s chattel slavery, whether it’s formal Jim Crow apartheid, or something else. In the aftermath of the nominal abolition of those structures there’s a period in which the kind of white supremacist animists of the United States reconvenes itself in the shadow of that reform. What it starts to do is it starts to try to figure out what systems of dominance can be reinstituted in the aftermath of the reform that will reinstall the kind of social and cultural order of white supremacy while also not unduly provoking another moment of liberation struggle on the part of oppressed peoples.
What we’re inhabiting in this particular historical moment is the logical outcome of this rough half century. What I think is important for us to understand is that to think about the emergence of the Trump era as somehow exceptional to an otherwise upwardly progressing liberal, democratic, multicultural narrative of the United States is the worst possible mistake that we could make in terms of understanding what the American national culture has been drifting and organizing itself around for the last 50 years.
What we’re in right now is symptomatic of a certain moment in Reconstruction, and the danger is that if and when the Trump-istas are sidelined, if that happens, then there will be another period of reform in which the white supremacist structures and systems of this nation state reconvene their clothing of civility, their veneers of respectability, and that’s the danger here. The fact that we have an asshole as president is not as important as the fact that what he represents is really just symptomatic. That’s not at the heart of what we’re inhabiting, he’s symptomatic.
Eddie Conway: So let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. You’re saying after the Civil War and after slavery in that form ended and black Reconstruction took place, you’re saying that there was a white Reconstruction took place immediately after that, that changed the equation and the relationship of the races again to kind of put the white population back in power, and you’re saying that happened in Jim Crow laws and it happened probably during the labor stuff? Is that what you’re saying?
Dylan Rodriguez: It’s something like that. It’s this, we don’t think about white supremacy in all of its flexibility. We don’t think about white supremacy as capable of engaging in projects of reform. The reason for that is because we tend to understand white supremacy exclusively as it is represented by those far right-wing, Neo-Nazi, KKK-type groups that we saw in the recent spectacle in Charlottesville and elsewhere. That’s not what white supremacy is. Right?
Eddie Conway: Okay, well, who’s behind this? I mean, we see those groups, it’s like almost a thousand of those groups on the ground according to some research, but who’s behind those groups? Because most of them are small, most of them don’t really have a very large following. What’s in the background behind those groups in terms of pushing and driving this movement that you call White Reconstruction?
Dylan Rodriguez: Let’s think about those groups this way, Eddie. Let’s think about them as the grassroots of white nationalism and White Reconstruction. They’re marginal by nature, but that is also their purpose. It’s precisely their marginality that enables them and actually empowers them to engage in the kinds of tactic and rhetorics and kind of cultural and militarized on-the-ground struggles that they’re developing right now all over the United States and elsewhere.
I think it’s a mistake to think that there is someone or something that is behind these moves. They are what they are. They’re a grassroots expression of the United States itself, in that sense they are actually really not extremist groups. They’re groups that express something that’s at the very heart of this nation state.
Eddie Conway: Well if you look at groups like the Promise Keepers, the Oath Keepers, Alex, the state militias, are all of those groups also involved in this drive towards white reformists?
Dylan Rodriguez: Absolutely they are. Part of what they represent is one pole of an internal debate about what direction White Reconstruction needs to take. Here’s the thing that I think we need to constantly remind ourselves: between militia groups and respectable Republicans and liberal Democrats there are points of broad agreement. Part of their points of broad agreement are they want to continue to ensure that there is a global war against terrorism, for example.
They agree that there should a domestic war. A domestic war that is racialized and gendered against poor black and brown people, against queer and trans people, and particularly against black people. There are broad points of agreement about that. There’s different rhetorics that they’ll use, and that’s where the debate happens. Some will say, “Well, we want to claim this as a white nation,” others will say, “No we disavow that. We want a diverse and wealthy cultural nation but we want to continue the fight against criminals, thugs, and terrorists.”
If we get right down to it they’re not disagreeing about the overall nation-building strategy, what they’re disagreeing about is the rhetoric in which that nation-building strategy is being cloaked. They’re disagreeing about certain systemic tactics in which the consolidation, expansion of that white supremacist nation state-building project is gonna be conducted and what kind of cultural structure it’s gonna rely on.
In that sense we need to see these things as organically connected. We need to see the people that are on each side of that white supremacist spectrum as being in fact part of the same spectrum instead of diametrically opposed.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Well, one of the things I looked at the gathering up in Boston recently, and it was tens of thousands of people came out, and I noticed that there’s activity around the country in terms of some places. They even took down the monuments, some they were planning on taking. I mean, people on the ground. This pushback, is this pushback gonna lead to a greater conflict with those grassroots groups on the ground?
Dylan Rodriguez: The short answer to your question is it’s kind of up to us. Okay? So let’s think about what it is that these various grassroots movements to take these Confederate statues down signify? Because they don’t just mean one thing, I mean, I would argue that there’s one part of that movement that is ashamed. That is entirely conducive to sustaining the project in multiculturalists and liberal multiculturalists form of the white American nation building project. But it disavows white supremacy. It is ashamed of the Confederacy and of slavery and it wants to conduct its work with the airs of respectability and civility and good multicultural kind of liberal and neoliberal inclusion.
They want to continue the domestic war, they want to continue the global war, and they want to ensure that there’s not a radical transformation of the social, cultural, economic fabric of the United States, but they want it to be done respectably. So there’s those folks, right?
Then we have a bunch of folks from all over the spectrum that is outside that spectrum. People who are actually engaged in projects of creative struggle, of liberation, who desire revolution transformation and that kind of thing. For these folks the point is to engage in a creativity that comes out of symbolic destruction that I think needs to be praised and valorized. These are folks who understand that taking down a Confederate statue doesn’t mean shit if that’s all that you do. What they do understand and take seriously is that the cultural significance of destroying monuments that testify to and valorize American white supremacy is a meaningful initial act in a longer struggle for transformation and liberation.
It’s a complex set of folks that are engaged in those struggles. We just need to make sure that we’re sustaining the kind of liberationist, transformative, and revolutionary impulses that are present and that are creative and that are thriving in all these places and not letting them get drowned out by the liberal multiculturalist kind of hegemony.
Eddie Conway: You know, two things concern me, but the first one I want to bring up is that these movements in and of themselves to take down the monuments or demand to take down, they come together as a protest, it’s almost like a flash mob. They come together, they react to the statues, etc., they get them down, then they go home. There’s no structure built, there’s nothing built, is this detrimental in the long run to how people are organizing and building movements in America?
Dylan Rodriguez: We don’t yet. We don’t know yet. Now, I know what you’re saying, which is that there’s a need for more organizing, for more sustained organizing infrastructure. I mean, I’m on board with you on that. The reason I say we don’t know yet is because we might be in a period where folks are rethinking in a creative way what it means to do political organizing. Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t still need to be attentive to sustained infrastructure, it just means we might be in a period where we have to creatively rethink what a movement infrastructure looks, acts, and feels like.
Again, I agree with the spirit of what I hear is your critique, which is that if all that happens is the statues goes down, certainly there’s some cultural value in making that kind of a strike against the symbols of white supremacy, yes. But what we desire is something much more sustained and creatively destructive that just taking down one particular monument. But I’ll say we need to be open to rethinking how it is that the long term political and cultural and creative work is gonna happen.
Eddie Conway: Okay, okay. The second thing, as you was talking and I was thinking about this whole white reform drive thing, I was thinking about the prison industrial complex and how many black and brown bodies have been scooped off the street and warehoused in places throughout rural America, and it kind of brought to me that whole thing of Nazi Germany, fascism, concentration camps in terms of gaining control of populations. I’m wondering now beyond the fact that America didn’t have the ability to supply jobs for a vast majority of these people that end up in the prison system, and for the vast majority of people that end up running the prison system I’m wondering if there isn’t a more serious, cynical, racial component to this prison industrial complex.
Dylan Rodriguez: First of all I want to thank you for saying prison industrial complex instead of repeating the term that I’m hearing so widely used nowadays, which think is completely worthless and misleading, that phrase that we hear mass incarceration. The reason I say that is this, it’s not mass incarceration. What we’re seeing happening over the last 30 or 40 years is not mass incarceration, it’s targeted, it’s gendered, and it’s racial. If we say mass incarceration what we lose are all those aspect of how it is that the criminalization and incarceration of people is based on a gendered, racial profile and how of the 2.5 or so million people that are incarcerated under U.S. auspices both at home and abroad, more than half of them are black. This is not mass incarceration, this is not mass incarceration. This is targeted and it’s based on racial domestic war.
When we think about what you just raised, which the concept and the terms of fascism, I think that what we need to maybe shift our focus on is the possibility that what we’ve been inhabiting and experiencing over this period of time is a logic of proto-genocide. This is not a new analysis, this is not a new rhetoric, and we have to be attentive to the fact that when we think about the logics of proto-genocide we are thinking alongside but also in a sense against the way that the United Nations defines genocide.
Now, there are parts of the official UN definition of genocide that are worth thinking about. But when we think about proto-genocide we are taking seriously the dynamics that you mentioned, which is when you’re thinking about systems of incarceration, criminalization, and policing that have as their effect, not necessarily as their intent, it’s hard to prove intent, but you can prove effect. That have as their effect the large-scale and targeted containment and social neutralization of entire populations in particular kinds of geographies and places, then what you have is actual proto-genocide. Some would argue that it is a form of social neutralization or liquidation that fits certain definitions of genocide that have been conceptualized by everybody from various indigenous groups to William Patterson in the document We Charge Genocide.
When we think fascism I think we actually understate the extent to which the forms of power relation and racist state power and gendered state power that we’re experiencing are structuring the large-scale suffering and immiseration of people. It might be actually directly physically eliminating and exterminating them, but that’s because it wants to keep them alive. But it wants to keep them alive under conditions of profound suffering and vulnerability. That is the system. That’s not a flaw in the system, that is the system, and that’s why we have to entertain something beyond the terms of fascist.
Eddie Conway: Okay, well, one of the things that I’m looking at, because all this to me is related to the label market, the job industries, etc., the automation cybernation. I know these jobs are not coming back even though Trump says he’s bringing jobs back, the fact of the matter is jobs are not coming back, America is still the number one manufacturer in the world with automation and cybernation and a very shrunken workforce. So into the future where these problems that exist now in the rural areas as well as in the urban centers of massive unemployment on certain parts of the population it’s gonna continue to develop and increase, where do you think all of this is gonna lead us?
Dylan Rodriguez: Well, we’re starting to get a little taste of it right now. Because, Eddie, what you’re talking about is a condition that’s been around for a few decades now, which is in the aftermath of deindustrialization in the United States and in the context of the state itself facilitating the flight of neoliberal capitalism, you have large populations that are permanently redundant or you can think about as disposable to the political economy, the domestic political economy of the United States.
So the bullshit that Trump is throwing around, everybody knows that that’s obsolete. He keeps talking about Made in USA but his own corporate practices don’t actually engage in Made in the USA, so we know what that is. That’s ideological pandering to a certain kind of voting base that still remembers the 1980s and the resistance to Japanese manufacturing and whatnot. That’s what that is.
Neoliberal capitalism is not going anywhere, you’re right about that. The fact of permanent and structurally redundant populations, meaning populations that don’t have a place in the political economy in the United States as labor, that’s not gonna change. What we’re beginning to face down are the various forms of, we can call it solution, resolution, reform, that will deal with that structural reality.
The last point that we just talked about has been one of those strategies which is the conduct of large scale, targeted profile, gendered, racial, domestic war that structures systemic policing and incarceration of poor black populations primarily, indigenous and brown populations in certain political geographies and poor white people as well. That’s one kind of cultural, social, and state solution that we’ve seen unfolding in recent years.
Now, what you’re seeing unfold right now are particular white populist and white nationalist groups, reactionary groups that essentially seek some form of either expulsion of those populations, their long term exclusion from the United States, and some would actually just desire that some form of social Darwinism play itself out and those populations just die off. That they be allowed to obsolete because these are folks who believe in the notion that a kind of social Darwinian evolution will naturally lead to the sustenance of the white population and the death of other populations.
The resolution for these things as we’ve seen them play out are swinging between different kinds of reactionary solutions that are based on liquidation, neutralization, elimination. On the other hand, you have struggles like, for example, the struggles around the Dakota Access pipeline in which the solution is radically different. That the solution that requires a rethinking of one’s relationship, not merely to other human beings, but to ecology and economy and land itself. The more we think about those kinds … we’re thinking about folks who are reanalyzing what it means to be part of a particular kind of community that’s engaged in the struggle for transformation, liberation, and freedom, that it might not necessarily mean participation in a traditional capitalist economy, it might not mean equal engagement in electoral politics. What it might mean is some form of radical sovereignty and self-definition that is completely against the existing fabric, cultural, economic, and otherwise.
Now, these are folks who always engage in different kinds of struggles on the ground, we need to make sure that we’re amplifying those voices. I mean, that’s part of our job, our jobs as teachers, as journalists, as thinkers, as talkers, it to elevate those creative visions of what a future might mean if there is gonna be a future for some of us and on the other hand what it means to think about those visions for the future alongside struggles and sometimes counter warfare against the forms of reaction against our very existence that threaten so much misery and death.
Eddie Conway: Okay, you raised the issue of the environment, and one of the things that I notice is that a lot of thinkers, scientists are suggesting that this might be another era of mass extinction with 2 to 600 species disappearing from the planet every day, but I also noticed that people are saying that the tipping point for this climate change is right at the very edge now, and these pipelines and other things could actually push it over to the point where we could not recover and then I noticed that on the government level the efforts to cut our social services, the safety net, whether it’s health care, whether it’s food, so on which is effecting all kinds of populations, supporters of Trump as well as non-supporters.
What do you see from your ivory tower there? Although I know you engaged in struggle and that kind of stuff, but what do you see as the most pressing threat to us going into the future?
Dylan Rodriguez: You raise an interesting term in your question, the term species. I think the most imminent and acute threat is one that we’ve already been inside for years. Which is this, if we understand that humanity is really not one species of human being that what we live inside of is a concept of humanity that’s been imposed on the world by a dominant species of human being. When I say species of human being I’m talking about a way of being human, I’m not talking about the kind of biological fabric of it, the DNA composition of it, I’m talking about a way of living.
If we understand that we’ve been living in a particular people’s imposition of what I means to be human for about the last half millennia or so and that this is evolved and deformed over time in different ways then it helps to demystify what’s happening right now. That the issues that we’re dealing with around climate change, that their resolution does not have the majority of human beings on the planet in mind. It does not have their lives and best interest in mind.
What it has in mind is the survival and continued dominance of what we can think about as the dominant human species. The Global North, the First World, whatever you want to call it and that all other species of humanity, the Global South, The Third World, The indigenous, The aboriginal, the Afro descendant, et cetera, are not even being considered within most concepts of environmental, for that matter, social justice.
Part of where we need to begin is to understand that human being are in fact species, that there’s more than us on this planet, there’s more than one way in which people choose to live and think about what it means to be human, and we see this every day. We see it in our own neighborhoods, we see it in other parts of the world, we see it in the crowds at these demonstrations and movements that we’ve been seeing on television, on peoples cellphones for the last period of time.
You’re talking about people who think about community and family and love and beauty and humanity very differently and so part of what we need to understand is that to save the planet does not necessarily mean that you’re gonna be saving all of human being. You’re saving one particular species of humanity and that’s what we need to challenge. We need to understand the different levels of vulnerability that each of us has under the rubric of trying to save the planet because some of us are being left for dead as we speak right now and that’s gonna continue to happen even if you have environmental justice moving forward in the ways that it tends to move in the dominant narratives.
Eddie Conway: Okay I’m sorry that we’re out of time because this is interesting, but we’ll have to revisit this again so in the near future would you please join me?
Dylan Rodriguez: Are you kidding me? Anything you say.
Eddie Conway: Huh?
Dylan Rodriguez: I’ll do anything you say, Eddie.
Eddie Conway: Okay. All right. Well thank you. Thank you for joining me at The Real News.