Raceocracy: An Interview with Dr. Barnor Hesse – Part 1

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“If you’re going to mobilise against racism as an ideology and want to affirm the importance of democracy, you’ve got to realise that, in terms of its performative immediacy, western democracies promote racial equality and sustain racial inequality.”

In the first part of an interview series Dr. Barnor Hesse, Associate Professor of African-American Studies at Northwestern University, talks to student journalist Rónán Burtenshaw about how the performance of race shapes our politics and governance.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about your intellectual background?

I grew up in a politically left-wing family in Liverpool, with a father from Ghana and a mother from Jamaica, and a younger brother also born in Liverpool. My father was particularly influential on my thinking, given his activist experiences in anti-racism, anti-colonialism, trade unionism and Left Labour party politics more generally. Without digressing too much into my background let me say, by the time I was doing my PhD in Government at Essex University during the early 1990s in the “ideology and discourse analysis” program, I had acquired enough intellectual and activist dislocations and concerns of my own to begin questioning the ways in which we have erroneously come to understand the political institution of race in the West and how black politics, has  been socially pathologized and violently repudiated by western liberal democracies, while remaining remarkably under theorized by its practitioners. Add to that gestation the fact that my approach to these matters is heavily indebted to cultural studies, post-colonial studies, African American studies, post-Marxism and post-structuralism, and you have a quick portrait of me as a Black British academic.

Since becoming a professional academic my particular theoretical interests have been focussed on rethinking the meaning and materiality of race as a form of western colonial governance, and trying to provide a more theoretically sophisticated account of black politics as symptomatically oppositional to that regime. The latter was always interesting to me because growing up and living as a person of colour in the west, it is impossible to escape being saturated with white western scholarship, where various lineages of blackness in politics, cultures and histories are pathologized, marginalized or exorcised. Routinely what you find as an black academic or activist, particularly in Europe, is that the intellectual lineages in which you seek to locate yourself are mostly available as raw empirical, statistical experiences or as histories of racist images for white European thinkers to theorise, and that’s assuming black related experiences are even seen as worthy of theorisation in the western academy; often they are not. This was always the difficulty with finding one’s self located in the British academy. Nevertheless I have always been interested in trying to understand the West’s European colonial formation and its politics of race as constitutive of its mainstream liberal democratic institutions rather than exceptions to their rule, which is the conventional understanding.

This is how and why I draw upon the perspectives of those whom we now call post-colonial thinkers and black diaspora thinkers. What’s interesting for example about people like WEB Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Homi Bhabha and Stuart Hall for example, is that when you examine them beyond the constraining stamp of particularity they are given in the western academy, it becomes clear they are actually more global and more inclusive than white European or American thinkers, if only because they deal not only with the very issues of westerness and whiteness that exclude or demean them, but also with the dispersal of communities and discourses that have been dispossessed and restrained by western institutions. So you don’t have to look for yourself – you’re there, and so are most other people. The concerns, concepts and histories of diverse people in the world are more often there in the work of, say, WEB Du Bois, than in Max Weber, and much more in the work of Stuart Hall or Paul Gilroy than in the work of Foucault or Agamben.

So it’s a strange, counter-intuitive situation – where thinkers who are associated with particularistic experiences are actually more universal than the white thinkers who are regularly associated with conceptualizing universal experiences and whom are seen as emblematically western.

Q. Do you think that the academic and intellectual culture in the US is more progressive than Britain’s because of the development of African-American studies? I would think it’s a standard assumption on this side of the Atlantic that European political discourse on racial issues is more progressive.

I think there are two things going on here.

European political and intellectual culture is more progressive on broader issues around theory, class, leftism and, in many respects, anti-racism. But that’s a very narrow aspect, the anti-racist part of it, as often (particularly outside the UK and Ireland) it is all too easily conflated with the legacy and inflections of anti-Nazism. The US is more progressive in terms of questions of diversity, linking race, gender and sexuality and particularly discourses around black politics.

Comparatively, progressive white American academics are positioned to be more familiar with questions of race and not so easily unnerved as their white British counterparts who are so easily scared to death and much more dismissive. American publishers engage with these issues more so than British publishers, particularly university publishers. And we can see that transatlantic-Atlantic contrast played out in British university culture generationally. British universities deeply mired in a racially exclusive whiteness in terms of student profiles, academic recruitment and subjects for study, that’s certainly the case with the so-called elite universities.

There is however a small network or community of progressive academics of colour and white academics in the UK, mostly concentrated in London, who have developed the most sophisticated critical work over the last 30 years, but somehow it remains largely marginal to the British academy, despite the global success of British cultural studies. This is why it has to be said when you examine the US university culture, the political impact of African American studies departments has been huge, not only in opening up the academy to new forms of inter-disciplinary work and different configurations of subject matter, but in terms of impacting other disciplines and departments, in the social sciences and humanities inducing and challenging them to become more empirically critical and  theoretically sophisticated, as well as professionally more inclusive and diversified.

I taught for a number of years at the University of East London, and endured, despite its large population of minority students, a white racial regime that mostly undermined and demoralized me. Without doubt British universities need a multicultural reformation, but they continue to be powerful resisters to that kind of change. My going to the US to teach at Northwestern University’s Department of African American studies in 2004, was primarily the result of becoming profoundly disillusioned and drained by the racial restrictions and racial psychological assaults of negotiating British universities. Indeed a significant number of black British academics have crossed the Atlantic to get their careers established, my story has been repeated many times.

Q. I’m interested by the term “Raceocracy”. I’m aware that you spoke at length about the term in your recent lecture, but would it be possible for you to give a distilled version of this for our readers?

It’s an idea I have developed to account for the way in which race (not as biological ascription but as colonial ascription) rules performatively – which is to say the way in which race orders the political and social lives of people – without being accountable to any spoken or written discourse, simply because it’s performed as a shared social and institutional orientation. In other words, it’s racially performed in such a way that it sustains a broad range of people’s relationships by facilitating conventional aspects of life that everybody appears to agree upon.

For instance, immigration control facilitates particular citizenship aspects of social and cultural life whereby everyone seems to accept that people must be regulated in terms of who can enter a country with less surveillance and restrictions and who cannot. What that does, apparently, is to give a country social and welfare protection; it enables a country to manage and define its citizenship rights and entitlements. But the historical origins and political lineage of immigration control, symbolized by the emergence of the passport, lie in its colonial bureaucratic assembling of populations as racially different, its performances of race in the marking of racial demarcations between deserving white European populations, who can move freely without hindrance, and undeserving non-white, non-European populations, who, at different times, in different ways, are regulated more heavily and penalized more frequently.

The capacity and potential for this performativity of race can be invoked at any time, it has not been disestablished from the conventional parameters of immigration control. To object to that performance of race governance, usually described as ‘racial profiling’ almost obliges you to object to immigration control per se because in the West we have no other way of thinking about this other than through the authority of the white gaze. Unfortunately, because it simply constitutes racial distinctions through performing them, and race is not part of its legislative form or policy remit, it’s almost as if western immigration control is universally achieved outside of race. This optical illusion occurs because we have inherited a tradition of contesting questions of race in terms of explicit discourse and ideological representations not its unspoken practices, its systemic performativity. .

What I am suggesting is that you find this formation, what I call ‘raceocracy’ emerging almost as a kind of silent, racially peformative bureaucracy, that regulates populations through assembling them as racial demarcations that require no accountability to spoken or written discourse but are nevertheless racially guaranteed as the outcome of commonplace social practices in quotidian terms that routinely evade questioning: for example disproportionate arrests and imprisonments of black populations in the criminal justice systems of Britain France and the US. None  of this is seen as having the credibility to provoke any kind of mass public outrage against racism, because it is taking place in western democracies not only opposed to racism, but who construe racism as less commonplace, and more ideological than this. Raceocracy is my description of what’s happening performatively as race governance, going unmentioned and untreated, at the same time as it is performed with politically unjust effects in western liberal democracies that are constitutionally positioned against racism.

Isn’t it bizarre the extent to which we proscribe the N-word and oppose racial discrimination all within the context of governing western societies through the performativity of race? The US legal scholar Michelle Alexander has referred to the current mass incarceration of Black and Latino populations in the US as the ‘New Jim Crow’ in  the ‘age of color blindness. This is what I call Raceocracy. It is the performative other of racism, where racism is generally understood as an ideological formation.

Q. In your work, you differentiate between a number of definitions of racism. Could you spell out some of the fundamental difference between these definitions, and then what your definition of racism is?

Most scholars when they think about defining racism do it in one of two ways. The first approach says that racism is the belief, or better still, the ideology, that distinct populations are biologically different collectivities known as races. These so-called races are then seen as occupying naturally some kind of hierarchy or relation of domination and subordination, and it is argued that this belief propensity has always existed, and that you can find that ideological propensity in various different cultures.

This is known as biological racism. The second approach highlights something known as cultural racism, although those associated with this belief routinely condemn any idea of biologically superior or biologically different races (think of the English Defence League), by focussing instead on incommensurable cultural differences, they usually depict western nations as being torn apart by the so-called ‘natural’ antagonisms between immigrant cultures that refuse to be assimilated and tolerant indigenous cultures that are being assailed by ‘them’. Here cultural racism says different cultures are so self-contained that they are inevitably antagonistic to each other; we shouldn’t live in proximity to each other. We can see this in the nationalist reactions to Muslim communities in the West. It has a biological understanding of culture. This is partly what underpins what the US sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes as ‘colour-blind racism’, where cultural differences are assumed as the basis of disparaging and discriminating against minority populations, within a professed commitment to avoid racial language and racial sensibilities.


Now what I am trying to ask in my work is how have how we arrived at those particular definitions of racism, as ideology. Not even to contest them, but how did we arrive at them? What do those definitions do? Or what does it mean conventionally to call something racism?

If we look at the beginning of the 20th century, it’s clear that the habit and practice of calling something racism developed then. To call something racism means putting into question, interrogating and challenging a particular way of thinking and doing race. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were a number of ways you could have questioned race, if you really wanted to. You could have looked at the world in the 1920s and said, “Well, quite clearly the white, western world controls the world largely through colonialism; we need to question the idea that white supremacy is a natural way of governing the world.” Nobody in the West was hiding from those colonial regime facts, everybody knew it. No western political elite contested it, whether it was in Britain, Ireland, Australia, Canada or the US. It was (and still is) established as the natural basis of governance of international relations.

But in the 1920s and 30s, with the exception of political movements among diaspora black populations and anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia, that’s not put into question by white western elites and many progressives, that colonial way of doing and performing race. What is put into question is the way in which the emerging, nationalistically powered Nazi Germany develops through a democratic polity, an ideological form of regime based on race legislation and race science. Once the racial polity of Nazi Germany begins to create and exclude an abject Jewish population, expelling Jewish populations from their European citizenship and, in effect, their whiteness, using science and the rule of law to justify this; only then do western regimes begin to put race into question. And that was the case despite the existence of Jim Crow and lynching in the US and sterilization laws in some US states during the same time-period. To repeat, it is the use of race science in Nazi Germany, and race legislation to sequester Jewish populations into ghettos initially and ultimately concentration camps, and the role of race discrimination against the Jews in terms of their elimination from employment, their inability to marry who they choose, as factors, up to, including and beyond the holocaust, that influence the formulation of racism as a concept and object of condemnation in the second half of the 20th century.

What happens in the two decades after the second world war then, is that the people who are mobilising anti-colonialism, organizing for civil rights and later developing the black-power and black feminist movements, as activists and intellectuals begin to use the new concept of racism to represent the legitimacy of their challenges. In effect they are saying, “You said racism was an outrage unacceptable because of Nazism and what happened to Jewish populations, so look at our experience, we too are experiencing racism.” Du Bois said this, so too Fanon, Césaire. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They’ll all make reference to Hitler’s Germany. What then tends to happen is that – when you get these grudging concessions from the US, later Britain, and to some extent France, Australia – it’s because they realise that they have established principles like human rights that require them to come to terms with these values. But they only come to terms with those values when pushed through tremendous struggles in the recently established United Nations and outside of that armed rebellions and civil disobedience. But racism is largely seen as an ideology, not as a performativity.

The result that we get is a very uneasy truce around how race will order our lives. The West will outlaw racial discrimination, spoken and written, particularly legislative, but will not recognize the performance of race that maintains a certain social order, a certain relation of regulation or governance with respect to ‘non-whites’ or ‘non-Europeans’, because it has become conventional in a non-spoken and non-written kind of way. So, if you look at a place like Chicago where I now live, or other places where you get deeply entrenched racial residential segregation, nobody speaks about that, and even if they write about it, it remains conventionally, an established part of social geography, a mundane landmark.  

Q. When you use the term “raceocracy”, you talk about race being the rule as opposed to the exception. That being the case, how do you bring that understanding to political discourse without losing the moral force exerted against racism in popular movements as an exception, or something that is an affront to existing politics and society?

My approach carries with it the conceptual awareness of a double-edged sword, I think. I’ll give an example.

If you know anything about the history of the police, and particularly the history in the UK and Ireland, they are introduced initially to contain, and impose upon   the activities of working-class populations. They are brought in to regulate the street. In the early 19th century history of the police, there are a lot of clashes with working-class populations who don’t accept the legitimacy of the police. Throughout the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, you find the development of the legitimacy of the police as they are called in to resolve disputes that are happening in working-class communities, or to protect them from things like burglary and violence and so on. The police, at the same time as enforcing law and establishing order, also act in oppressive ways towards working-class communities and minorities, criminalizing them as deviant populations and so forth. You may be persecuted by the police but nevertheless need the police to come and investigate a crime or prevent a crime. So, here’s an institution that works for and against you. In any society that is profoundly unequal and hierarchical, disaffected populations at the lower-end of social mobility experience institutions of authority in that deeply double-edged way. And that’s how we experience anti-racism in western democracies.

If you’re going to mobilise against racism as an ideology and want to affirm the importance of democracy, you’ve got to realise that, in terms of its performative immediacy, western democracies promote racial equality and sustain racial inequality. You might then say that what we need is a better democracy to get rid of the inequality. But if you think about that, politically and conceptually – even if you go back as far as the Greeks – there’s never been a notion of democracy without inequality or exclusion. The original democracies were always restricted. Athenian democracy was restricted to householders, males over 21. Excluded from that were women, children, slaves, the poor, the designated barbarians. Has there ever been a western democracy without exclusions, particularly racial exclusions? No. People might say, “Well, we understand exclusion on the basis of citizens and non-citizens.” But why would democracy be based on the national state? After all, the original Greek form is based on the city-state. So, one might have to say, “Should there be an exclusion from democracy based around nationalism?” But more importantly I am arguing western democracies object to racism ideologically as representation while underwriting the rule of race as performativity.

Democracy itself isn’t a pure concept. It’s an impure construct, still important, but it’s one that’s racially double-edged. And this is what we have to remember in anti-racist social movements: the paradoxes and complexities that racial rule has created over the course of centuries in the West has resulted in liberal democratic societies profoundly against racism but seriously for raceocracy.

Barnor Hesse’s book, Creolizing the Political: a Genealogy of Race Governance and Black Politics, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

Dr. Hesse was in Dublin for a talk with the Department of Sociology at Trinity College.
Photo credit: Dargan Crowley-Long