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Articulating the Interconnectedness of Our Racist Present & Past

Hyeree Ellis (PhD Student in English)

On Friday, February 4, 2022, Professors Roderick Ferguson (Yale), Mishuana Goeman (UCLA), Viet Thanh Nguyen (USC), and Alfonso Gonzalez Toribio (UCR) kicked off “Making It Plain: Articulating Our Racist Present,” the first event in the year-long series “In Plain Sight: Reckoning with Anti-Asian Racism,” organized by the Unit for Criticism and the Department of Asian American Studies. As a panel of four, the professors took turns offering one to three key terms critical to setting up a wide-angle view of racism and anti-racist politics today.

Drawing on the wide applicability of Black radical traditions, Roderick Ferguson offered fascism as the first key term. To engage this term, Ferguson turned to the widely anthologized speech first given by Toni Morrison at Howard University in 1995 and later published in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (2019). In this speech on racism and fascism, Morrison recharges the history of fascism away from a comparison with WWII Axis Powers and towards the macro and micro instances that help to build fascist orders in contemporary society as she states, “Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution there must be a first solution, a second one, and even a third.” Ferguson recounted some of the steps Morrison contends are necessary in moving toward a final solution. He quoted, “construct an internal enemy as both focus and diversion; pathologize the enemy in scholarly and popular mediums; criminalize the enemy; then prepare, budget for, and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy especially its males and absolutely its children.” Contextualizing the sociopolitical climate that prompted Morrison’s speech, Ferguson reminded the audience of the 1994 “Contract with America,” issued by then Republican leader Newt Gingrich. The Contract, which was intended to secure midterm elections for Republicans, included a recommendation that “Black children of unfit parents be taken away and put in orphanages.” Indeed, for Morrison, these demonizing constructions and many others like them laid the foundation for fascism in the United States.

Moreover, according to Morrison, fascism “is recognizable by its determination to convert all public services to private entrepreneurship, all non-profit organizations to profit-making ones so that the narrow but protective chasm between governance and business disappears. It changes parenting to panicking so that we vote against the interests of our own children against their healthcare, their education, their safety from weapons.”

Ferguson situated Morrison’s definition of fascism within a long history of Black radical thinkers who have insisted that anti-Black racism and racism in general are functions of fascists formations. To conclude his portion of the panel, Ferguson turned to the original 1995 speech; he noted that Morrison not only provided fascism’s description but also its antidote—one that involves sustaining and building critical and interventionist institutions and subjectivities. Hence, he ended his talk with a charge for the audience: “to deal with fascism we need only immerse ourselves in the intellectual and political wealth all around us.”

Howard University Founders Library
Founders Library at Howard University, one HBCU among several that were threatened with bomb threats on the first day of Black History Month as mentioned by Ferguson.

Adding to the discussion, Mishuana Goeman offered the terms relationality and scale. She turned the audience’s attention to Indigenous feminisms and epistemologies, citing Aileen Moreton-Robinson from whom she quoted, “relationality forms the conditions of possibility for coming to know and producing knowledge through research in a given time, place, and land. Relationality is grounded in a holistic conception of the inter-connectedness and inter-substantiation between and among all living things and the earth, which is inhabited by a world of ancestors and creator beings.” For Moreton-Robinson and Goeman, social research must begin with an awareness of our proper relationships to the world and must be conducted with respect, responsibility, generosity, obligation, and reciprocity. These extra steps allow us to live a good life or what is referred to as a “good mind” in Haudenosaunee philosophy, which is “where the actions you take think forward to future generations.”

Our approach to racism, then, must have a future aspect of thinking forward to future generations—it must promote the continuation of life for all living beings.

Citing our current moment, Goeman asserted that in times of COVID, when “some are left to die,” relationality allows us to relate together in a broader sense of kinship, which should not be understood through the European apparatus that prompts one to only care about one’s immediate family, but rather through an Indigenous understanding of kinship as an active network of connections among diverse, extended multi-racial families of relatives and friends that care deeply for each other. Our collective anti-racist efforts, then, must consider how we can support each other in futures where we can work together despite a white supremacist structure that attempts to keep us apart. To discuss her second term, scale, Goeman briefly considered the critique that labels Indigenous Studies as too narrow, too small, or too geographically specific. Indeed, such criticism attempts to diminish Indigenous frameworks and approaches while failing to acknowledge the ways in which an Indigenous understanding of relationality can be scaled to interpersonal, international, and even global considerations that make more evident the interconnectedness of imperialism, colonialism, militarization, climate upheavals, and nuclear power. In much the same way, attention to scale in anti-racist efforts helps us consider violence on an interpersonal scale specific to our communities but also at other, larger scales that reveal the complex nexus of global white supremacy.

Following Goeman, Viet Thanh Nguyen offered three terms: decolonialization, solidarity, and self-critique. Using his own lived experiences as a Vietnamese refugee as a framework to discuss these three terms, Nguyen referred to when he chose to be an Ethnic Studies and not an Asian American Studies major at Berkeley. Even as an undergraduate student, Nguyen continued, he felt that it was crucial for him to understand not only his particular history, but how to locate that in relation to other groups both within the United States and internationally in the context of anti-colonial struggles. As a term and concept decolonialization is critical for Asian Americans who Nguyen argued are “conditioned and encouraged to think about our experiences purely in racial terms, in terms of diversity, in terms of multiculturalism, in terms of empowerment of our groups and not in terms of the questions of colonization and decolonization.” Nguyen reached this realization when he considered the fundamental event of his life, the Vietnam War, not simply as an isolated war, but “one episode in a much longer history of American warfare that goes back to the very origins of what we call the United States.”

Thus, Nguyen argued that anti-Asian racism must be understood relative to colonization, that anti-Asian acts of violence from recent years are not simply contemporary manifestations of a long history of anti-Asian violence in the United States, but that these acts are in fact related to the anti-Asian acts of violence that constitute American wars in Asia.

For Nguyen, to connect these forms of violence across time and space is to increase the scale of our political horizon as we understand how our struggles are related to others, building solidarity across racial and geographical lines. Indeed, any kind of resistance to colonialization must be global in its efforts for solidarity as well. Such work, Nguyen continued, necessitates self-critique. Nguyen identified the critical need for self-critique citing neoconservative Asian Americans who are not invested in decolonization, solidarity, nor relationality, but instead see themselves as part of a settler colonial state. In this case, self-critique would enable such individuals to understand the ways in which global white supremacy operates within oneself.

Next, Alfonso Gonzales Toribio presented the final set of terms for understanding and combatting racism now. For Toribio, overcoming racism requires a discussion of neoliberal capitalism, neo-eugenics, and anti-communism. Too often, Toribio asserted, anti-racist efforts in academia focus on the oppressions of particular racial or ethnic groups, which may be necessary in particular contexts, but in others, isolate race from the broader social historical processes such as decolonization mentioned by Nguyen. According to Toribio, such issues stem from modernity which brings about the expansion of capitalism through colonialism. It is only when we start to think about race as part of these broader social historical totalities that we can go beyond simply being in dialogue with folks who look like us and toward discussions of overcoming neoliberalism or specifically neoliberal capitalism. Toribio defined neoliberal capitalism as a “particular historic moment in capitalism that undid the post-World War II global economic and political order shaped by the Bretton Woods Agreement and System, the United Nations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  The Keynesian economics grounding the post-War global order allowed many groups across the globe—starting with Black, Mexican, and Native Americans coming back from the War—to articulate their particular struggles and demand a certain standard of living.

Since then, neoliberalism has dismantled the Keynesian order, producing “a very brutal social order in which we’ve undone the social safety net” creating a system “that is beginning to resemble 19th century capitalism.” Thus, now again in the 21st century, we see a rise in 19th century pseudo-scientific theories of eugenics used to promote racist politics under the guise of empirical evidence.

The UN Secretariat building under construction in New York City in 1949
The UN Secretariat building under construction in New York City in 1949.

To conclude his portion of the panel, Toribio briefly considered current forms of anti-communism that identify China as the “greatest force [or] threat” to US global hegemony as the defender of global capitalism. Hence it is precisely because China is able to threaten US hegemony, Toribio argued, that anti-Asian racism in the United States focuses on the Chinese and is ultimately applied to other Asians as race becomes the dominant organizing logic of the 21st century in US politics.

To start the Q/A portion of the panel, Junaid Rana (UIUC) asked the participants to elaborate on a shared thread in all of their thought processes, that is, how they are conceptualizing their terms as both analysis and action. From there, questions regarding sources of both personal and scholarly inspirations and current events were taken from the audience by individual members of the panel. For the full recording of the panel and Q/A, see Video Collections.

Funded by the Chancellor’s Call to Action to Address Systemic Racism and Social Injustice Research Program, “In Plain Sight: Reckoning with Anti-Asian Racism,” is a year-long series dedicated to addressing the historical and contemporary forms of anti-Asian racism alongside other racial justice struggles.