In thinking about antiracist practices, as a white professor, before I work through my thoughts on choosing antiracist texts (which I hope will be helpful to you), I first need to acknowledge and credit the Black and Latinx thinkers who have informed this process for me.
First, I need to talk about the framework I use. I call the framework “critical thinking/critical imagination.” It comes from a talk I attended given by two Latinx professors, Genvieve Carpio and Juan D. DeLara. Both professors had written recent Marxist histories of the Inland Empire. I am relatively new to the Inland Empire. During the Q&A, I asked what I as a 1A professor could do to empower my students. Carpio said “Have your students question why things are the way they are,” (critical thinking) and DeLara said “Ask your students to imagine the way they want things to be.” (critical imagination).
With that being said, I also need to back up in time a little bit. I’ve been practicing antiracist andragogy for 10 years now. This antiracist practice has recently, in the last 5 or so years, also become anticapitalist. This is due, in part, to Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983). One of its arguments builds on the idea of racial capitalism, and argues that capitalism needs racism to function. Capitalism needs groups of workers to be utilized for, as Angela Davis argues, “super-exploitation,” and we construct race to figure out which workers meet that criteria. And as Robin D. G. Kelley explains, “There is no such thing as non-racist capitalism.”
Over the years, when I review my antiracist/anticapitalist text selections and the units in which they exist (and by text I am referring both to written articles and multimedia) one thing I have noticed is that some units speak to something universal and unchanging about racial capitalism, while others speak to specific moments and therefore need to be changed out when that specific moment changes. This is because, as Robinson argues in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning (2007), “racial regimes are unrelentingly hostile to their exhibition,” and
are subsequently unstable truth systems. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, they may “collapse” under the weight of their own artifices, practices, and apparatuses; they may fragment, desiccated by new realities, which discard some fragments wholly while appropriating others into newer regimes. Indeed, the possibilities are the stuff of history.
And I realized, as I moved from my Spring to Summer classes this year, that we were moving into a new historical moment after the public execution of George Floyd. As Angela Davis argues: “This particular historical conjuncture holds possibilities for change that we’ve never before experienced in this country.” This change includes demands not only for the police who murder to be brought to justice, but for things like police defunding and prison abolition, for a re-imagining of social relations which would empower workers, especially Black and Latinx workers.
But if we look at the current bourgeois sanctioned political landscape there is very little for our Black and Latinx students to feel invested in. They are forced to watch, powerless, as one political party is determined to march us into a fascism crafted onto an existing structure of white supremacy, and the only other viable political party is unable to ultimately stop that march because they have been forged inside a tradition which refuses to understand the racialization of the liberalism they desperately want to save, caused by a cognitive dissonance regarding race identified by Charles W. Mills in The Racial Contract (1997), which produces “the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.” So, as instructors, how do we begin to change that? How do we select texts which will create a site of struggle for our students which will leave them empowered rather than defeated?
To begin this journey for myself at this particular historical moment, I returned to one of the many texts I’ve been reading over the past few years to familiarize myself with California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007) which charts the whys and hows involved in California becoming the largest carceral state in the largest carceral nation on the planet. And while this text is too advanced to use in class, it is a place to start in thinking about my criteria for new 1A selections because its arguments are related to this particular historical moment.
One argument stood out to me: Gilmore’s argument regarding how labor functions within the spaces of the prison industrial complex. She argues that the super-exploited under racial capitalism have suffered “organized abandonment” as their jobs have been displaced or replaced by forces like globalized capitalism and technological change. This abandonment stems from the government at all levels who, in this current iteration of neoliberal capitalism, see their role, as Reagan so famously put it, as getting “out of the way of business” so that money can be made. (We can see this in the two major political parties today: Republicans see it as the state’s sole purpose while Democrats see it as the primary purpose). Of course, because surplus value can only be derived from labor, this then is at the cost of the worker.
And as more workers’ livelihoods evaporated in the name of increasing profits for less owners, there are two groups of workers who emerge and fuel the rise of prisons: those excess workers who have been convicted of “crime” engaged in to survive and are now being housed in prison, and those workers who, desperate for any job that will provide them with something close to a middle class existence, are in charge of transporting, housing, monitoring, and disciplining those caged excess workers. I then thought of my relationship to this second group of workers, as the first stop in college, or in the human capital development they need to ultimately find employment within one of the many and overlapping areas of the prison industrial complex, which include policing and healthcare. I had found my starting point.
Once identified, the first step for me is to problematize the issue. I try as much as I can to put as many of the things “on the ground” for students using texts which contain narrative elements and, whenever possible, are local. I came across “Somebody’s Gotta Help Me,” a ProPublica investigation into the 2017 death of a Latinx man from Indio while in Riverside Police Department’s custody and in the care of the Riverside University Health System. All of the boxes are checked here: it presents the problem, it is local, and it uses narrative elements.
Once the issue has been problematized, I move onto critical thinking. One place I like to go for this is NPR, especially its “Hidden Brain” podcast. And in looking through them, I found one, “In the Air We Breathe” which deals with implicit bias within the framework of policing. One thing I like about “Hidden Brain” is that it shows students how to work through critical thinking; it shows them that exploring different angles on an issue, and even questioning your own thesis, is not only okay, but should be encouraged. But while it is good for critical thinking, it is not good for critical imagination. And now we are at the point where our Black and Latinx students may feel ultimately defeated within a framework that offers no viable solutions for them other than “reform,” which can at its best only aspire to a performative version of actual change.
To move on to critical imagination, I turned to the thinkers who are engaged with these issues and returned to Gilmore who, because of this new historical moment in which our conceptions of race are being reworked, has been doing interviews on prison abolition, something she and others like Angela Davis have been arguing for since at least the 1990s. One podcast in particular “Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition” stood out to me for three reasons. First, you have two African American scholars, Chenjerai Kumanyika and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in conversation. This is very important. Not only should our Black and Latinx students consume texts by and about people like them, they should see people like them in the academy, especially if we as instructors are serious about diversifying our own ranks. Second, they talk about issues already talked about in the last two texts, so connections can be made by the students. Third, Gilmore not only critically imagines a new future but also discusses different areas we can work on right now to move towards that future.
To finish out the unit, I am using the concluding chapter “Abolitionist Alternatives” of Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003). I like to use concluding chapters of works in my 1A, especially towards the end of the semester, because it shows students that a conclusion can be complex and that it can span more than one paragraph. Davis’ work here, like Gilmore’s interview, frees itself from the confines of what is to imagine what could be and offers some concrete first steps to get there. Both this work and Gilmore’s interview model critical imagination for our students; and while some may reject it, others will be empowered by the model to build their own solutions from the first steps outlined by Gilmore and Davis, free of the confines of racial capitalism, which we are taught to regard as inescapable.
When the two were collaborating on the original Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, Hy Thurman of the Young Patriots, a white street gang, was given the following advice on organizing by Bobby Lee of the Black Panthers, a radical organization which had evolved into multiple chapters across the country and was administering different types of mutual aid programs for its communities, including free breakfast for children to maximize their education: “If you don’t know where to start organizing, you walk to your front door and you look in front of you, you look behind you, you look to the left, you look to the right, and then you pick a direction.” This is, ultimately, the kind of empowerment I want my students to have when they leave my classroom at the end of the semester. And one of the first steps towards that empowerment is my selection of antiracist/anticapitalist texts.
Below are a few questions to get you thinking about your own practice:
- Have you been resistant to making changes like this in your classroom, and if so, why do you think that might be?
- What sites of struggle do you want to set up in the classroom for your students?
- What areas of critical imagination do you want your students to engage with and why?
- Looking at your current text selections, are there any that could be used for critical imagination?
This is Part I of a post on choosing inclusive and empowering texts. To read Part II, click here.