Excerpt from Race and America’s Long War by Nikhil Pal Singh
In his excellent introduction to Race and America’s Long War, Nikhil Pal Singh asks: who is an object of dread and elimination, and who is a subject of rights and inclusion? With the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday coming up and in light of the current administration’s recent disparaging comments about protections for people from Haiti and African nations, we’re sharing an apt excerpt from the book’s epilogue. Examining the relationship between war, politics, police power, and the changing contours of race and racism in the contemporary United States, Nikhil Pal Singh shows how racism and the current pursuit of war is part of a longer history of imperial statecraft at the heart of our present crisis.
Donald Trump, who led a consistent and consciously racist opposition to Obama’s presidency, is now in ascendancy. With Trump, the violent contradictions of the inner and outer wars are laid bare. For unlike Obama, Trump based his appeal on the promise to intensify divisions along lines of race, nation, and religion. His additional vow to abandon climate-change mitigation denies the very problem of the imperiled ecology that humans share. Trump poses an old question: who is entitled to freedom and security—or, more precisely, to the freedom of an unlimited security and the security of an unlimited freedom? One of the hallmarks of liberal-democratic claims to superior civilization has been the commitment to mitigate boundless violence in the name of boundless freedom for everyone. Though the oppositions between Obama and McCain, or Obama and Bush, or Obama or Clinton and Trump, are convenient shorthand for all those characteristic efforts to distinguish good from bad U.S. nationalism (that is, the civic from the racial, the patriotic from the jingoistic, the democratic from the statist), Trump reminds us that one feature is constant: to make (American) history, one still needs the stomach to make victims. . . .
. . . At the end of his life and at the height of opposition to the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. argued against the idea that the achievement of civil rights had inaugurated an era of normal politics for the racially excluded in the United States, just as he challenged the belief that the pax Americana had delivered a just and legitimate developmental framework for previously colonized peoples. King took the risk of condemning the war: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos,” he declared, “without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” Through neglect of this legacy—the urgent challenge of just and sustainable development abroad and at home—the Obama presidency, and the hopeful alternatives it recommended to forty years of rightward drift of U.S. social, economic, and foreign policy, came to little. Rather, to use King’s words, for many it added “cynicism to the process of death.” To genuinely break this destructive spiral, a more insurgent and less teleological conception of our better history is required: the moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but power concedes nothing without a demand.
King’s commitment to nonviolence led him to recognize the intertwining of a history of racial self-definition (i.e., white supremacy) and militarization in defining the United States as a political community. Taking this stand did not necessarily make King a communist (as the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover asserted), but it did align him with a black radical intellectual tradition that conceptualized the global production of racialized disparity in terms of African slavery, colonial rule, class apartheid, and imperial statecraft. This approach refused to permit incremental racial integration within the United States to serve as a rationalization for policies that continued to thwart economic justice and just security for the world’s peoples.
Learn more about Race and America’s Long War.