Saturday, March 5, 2011

Baldwin, Racism and Illegality

In one of those strange, serendipitous overlapping of course content, this past week found me reading not only Fredrickson's Racism: A Short History, Fanon, but also James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. For those of you unfamiliar with Baldwin, as I was only a few days ago, this book is - for lack of better words - totally brilliant, anguished, magisterial, transformative etc. It consists of a series of two essays, the first of which is addressed to James Baldwin's young nephew.
At one point, he writes: "This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition, were thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being." (7)

Writing as a African American in the early 1960s, Baldwin words are clearly confronting the specific realities of anti-Black racism in the United States. But I think that these words, and the work in general, have a universality which transcends Baldwin's historical context, and speaks to fundamental questions of our human condition. There are are a number of ways that this quote could be extended into our class discussions, especially in regards to military-foreign policy, but I think another topic to which it speaks profoundly is our immigration debate. The notion of illegality, as a means to describe the legal status of people who live in this country, although distinct from, but nevertheless related to race, also serves to define millions of lives in this country. To be illegal, that is to say without documentation, dictates where you live, where you work, where and if you attend school, and imposes a certain limitation to what your life is feasibly capable of achieving. Illegality also, as the Arizona immigration law so markedly illustrates, carries certain racial connotations.
Fredrickson outlines in his book the decline of overtly racist regimes, and in its stead, the rise of a new cultural racism which replaces racial groups with cultural/religious groups. In understanding what Baldwin can mean to us today, we have to look not just at racial groups, but at the ways in which racist ideologies have transformed into ways of excluding and oppressing other subaltern groups. That is to say that while keeping the black/white paradigm in our vision, we need to look at it not as the the epitome of racism, but rather a model for how racism works amongst our human societies.


  1. There are some really good points in your post, especially about immigration. I'm in intro to Sociology and the whole course pretty much focuses on inequality in our society. Your post made me think of the circumstances that all human beings are born into and the inequalities that some people are tragically and arbitrarily given. Why is one child born to alcoholic parents and one is born into a overly strict Christian household? I know there are no definite answers to these general questions, but we are tossed into the world and some people get good circumstances and some get horrible ones.

    "You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason"

    I think that's so beautifully bleak, terrifying, and true.

  2. Baldwin definitely has a great point in his book and you highlighted it perfectly, regarding the issue of placement because of a single, unchangeable characteristic.
    I would be one to argue though that illegal immigrants are not a victim of the circumstances that Baldwin describes. At least not permanently. Illegal immigrants are forced to live in certain places, do certain jobs, and live a certain way because they entered the country illegally. It's the law that people cannot enter the country without proper documentation. As soon as they undergo the proper process for becoming legalized citizens, the restricted ways in which they are forced to live are lifted.
    At that point, they (they being those who immigrate from Mexico) then only have to battle with being a minority in America.

  3. Hey Jarrett,
    I think you are right to say that there is a differnce between Baldwin's Black/White Analysis and the current debate on immigration, but the similarities in the two examples are really important.

    First of all, of course you are right in saying that people who enter the country illegally are breaking the law. But we have to recognize that despite the official stipulations of the law, there are unwritten economic and social laws which allow, if not encourage, undocumented workers to come and stay here. It is precisely the status of "illegal" that makes them attractive -- they can be paid less, are afraid to complain against unfair work conditions and the like. The reason the law is not enforced - or is only enforced strategically - is because there are certain tangible benefits to having illegality define the status of people, which derive from the vulnerability entailed in this position. It becomes, like in the case of anti-black racism, a justification for maintaining an exploitative order of power, or, in other words, allows us to treat "illegal" people in ways that we would find reprehensible if applied to ourselves or our family. There are millions of people (not just Mexicans as it were, but from every part of the world) whose lives are made illegal, whose legal status is allowed to define their humanity. If that doesn't have something to do with Baldwin, than I really don't know what does.


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