America’s Imperial Unraveling – Transnational Legal Discourse on Race and Empire


(playful tones) (relaxing music) – So now it’s my tremendous
honor to introduce our featured speakers for this keynote, Professor Aziz Rana
from Cornell Law School and Professor Vasuki Nesiah from NYU. Professor’s Rana’s going
to offer the keynote and he’s truly among
the premier authorities on constitutional law and
how it interacts with race, colonialism, power, and freedom. And to have the two of them
talking about this together, I think you’re in for a real treat. Professor Rana’s had a 2010 book, “The Two Faces of American Freedom,” that quickly became a
touchstone in the areas of law and government that are
the focus of this symposium. I know he has a forthcoming book, as well, on the rise of the Constitution. Looking at, among other
things, how support of the US Constitution solidified
in the mid-20th century and the interactions
with what was happening on the world stage as that was happening. He’s a frequent media
commentator on these issues and many more, and we’re
just delighted to have him here with us today. I also have learned that
his mother and her partner are here with us, as
well, so let’s thank them for helping to,
(audience applauds) helping to raise and support
such an excellent scholar and human, right.
(audience laughs) I say this as a mother, right. But it’s really terrific
to have Aziz back in LA and it’s great to see you. Before joining the faculty at Cornell, Professor Rana served as the Oscar M. Reubhausen
Fellow in Law at Yale and he holds both a
bachelor’s degree and a PhD in political science from Harvard and a JD from the Yale Law School. Professor Nesiah, who
will offer commentary after the keynote, has
also published widely on the history and
politics of human rights, on international criminal
law, on feminism, and on colonial legal history. Her current scholarship focuses on the critical issue of reparations. In addition to teaching
at NYU, she’s a member of Harvard Law School’s Institute
for Global Law and Policy, and she earned her bachelor’s
degree in philosophy and government from Cornell, and her JD and her SJD from Harvard Law School. So thanks to both Of
them for traveling to LA to be part of this conversation. I think you really are in for a big treat. Aziz has told me that
his topic is going to be broadly speaking on
American imperial unraveling and so we look forward to
hearing what you have to say, let’s give both of them
a very warm welcome. (audience applauds) – All right, so first I’d also like to say thank you to Dean Mnookin foo that incredibly generous introduction, to Tendi and Usla for
bringing us all together and all of their hard organizing work and intellectual labor
with this conference, to Morris and Alvina
for all of their work, as well as, again, all
of the staff and students that have been involved in making sure that today comes off. And then last but not
least, thank you to Visuki for providing comments on my talk. This is a particular challenge because she has no paper from which to draw from. So I appreciate your willingness
to indulge me nonetheless. So the title of my comments, “America’s Imperial
Unraveling,” draws from a piece that Usla and I wrote
together and in a way this is sort of prompted
by many of the themes that we’ve been working on
collaboratively for many years. And so much of this is indebted to her, as they say all of the
errors you can direct my way. To me, in order to
understand the relationship between race and empire in
transnational legal discourse, you have to be able to ground it in an account of the present. And so a lot of what I’m
gonna try to work through is just making sense of the present moment in the international legal order, and as a background
argument I’m gonna contend that we can’t make sense
of this present moment and what possibilities might be available, let’s say going forward into the future, without drawing both
explicitly and implicitly from critical race theory,
CRT, and from TWAIL. There are really two parallel developments that we see right now. The first has to do with,
let’s say, domestic US law. There’s been a classic
account of the meaning of the American legal project,
and that’s an argument that says from the
founding the US has always been committed to principles
of freedom and equality, that the US is exceptional,
it’s exceptional because unlike Europe it’s
the place where feudalism did not take hold. To the extent that the US has had problems of native expropriation
or African enslavement, these are really marginal
to the basic identity of the country, we can think of the US as incompletely liberal that’s on a path to fulfilling its essential project. And right now in the era of Trump, in the context of the
rise of white nationalism, the return of a virulent and explicit form of white nationalism, against the backdrop of institutional paralysis,
constitutional crisis or rot, that’s the relevant
discussion that you have constitutional scholars
in the US engaging with, it’s very difficult for the classic mythos about the American domestic
order to be defended. And this a difficulty that
experienced not just by those that have previously been
on the radical edges, but even within the mainstream elements of popular discussion, political action, and legal scholarship. So that the US is facing,
let’s say, the limits of its own national mythology. That’s one development that we’re seeing. There’s a second parallel
development and we can think of this as occurring at the global level, which is there was a similar
story about international law and the international
order, especially post-’45, so that the world is a product
of formally equal states regardless of whether or not they’d been previous colonizers or colonized,
and that international law established a framework for
shared peace and prosperity grounded in multilateral
institutions that imposed constraint on all and lifted all boats. It was also bound to an account of how this sort of progressive notion
of international operates. It moves from the
center, the global center especially in the US and in Europe, to what was seen as the periphery, the problems tend to
be problems that exist at the periphery, but
the progressive spread of international law,
international legal protections, is one in which everyone
eventually will be governed through this shared framework. That, too, today, is facing the
limits of its own mythology. It gets very hard to sustain
those arguments in a context where, again, you see
the return of a rampant white nationalism in Europe,
you see the breakdown of multilateral institutions
as a meaningful way of organizing international
life, and then you see the growing use of preventive war, unilateralism, and various
forms of explicit coercion in violation of the traditional
notions of constraint. And as just one recent example
that highlights the ways in which these two things
are bound, we can think at the beginning of this
month of the assassination of Soleimani and the near
war that the US plunged the world into, vis a
vis Iran, as an example where you have assassination,
preemptive war, unilateralism, and all racialized in ways that are consistent with
discussions from the last panel around threats that presumably come from Muslim communities that
are understood to be outsiders. Now, using an American
example is noteworthy because in a way what stands at the center of these two parallel
developments is a breakdown, a breakdown in the
framework of what’s defined American power and indeed
American national self-conception that links the domestic
and the international since at least World War II. And so what I’m gonna try to
do for the rest of my time is to just work through how
this breakdown occurred. And as part of it, again, what
I’m gonna argue implicitly is that the traditional
mechanisms of understanding US constitutional law on the one hand, which CRT long-term had a
dialogue and contestation with, and international law,
which TWAIL has been sort of in a conversation, contestation
with the traditional forms of public international law, do not have the internal capacity
to make sense of this. And in a way, even if
not all of the purveyors of traditional modes of constitutional law and public international law
are willing to accept this, there is an analytical
crisis that’s taking place in the heart of the
traditional disciplines that have defined both constitutional law and public international law. So I’m gonna work through
this through four parts, the first is gonna be, let’s
say, the most significant part of my own conversation. And that’s I’m gonna just sort of assess the two basic modes of US imperial power, what I’m gonna describe as
settler imperial, settler empire, and American global primacy. And I’m gonna argue in
the process that we can only understand these two
by putting at the center of our discussion CRT and TWAIL. And also, that one
cannot separate the two, that the two are deeply and
intricately interconnected with one another so that
it’s not just that the US was a settler empire first and
then a global hegemonic power afterwards, but we could
only understand both as joined conceptually together. Then I’m gonna turn to what law has meant especially for the project
of American global primacy. And then the third element will be, well, what’s the breakdown
of what we can call the post-World War II order,
notions of American power? And I’ll end with some quick reflections on what that means for
transnational solidarity and the project and pitfalls of transnational solidarity today. So let me start with the
classic imperial frames of American life, beginning
with settler empire. So this is the central
thesis of my first book, I apologize for those of
you that this is familiar and also for people that
in the audience have had to listen to me say this previously, so I’ll try to be quick. From the 17th to the 19th century, to the end of the 19th century, the defining way of
organizing American legal and political life was through
what I call settler empire, in which the US was really a project not unlike various
other settler siblings globally especially the French in
Algeria, the British, English in Australia, South Africa,
Canada, New Zealand. And that what defined this settler project was a basic legal and
political distinction between the rights that
were afforded to colonists and their descendants and those that were provided to non-settlers. And there are two basic
categories of non-settlers in the US, though there’s
a great deal of variety that we might be able to get into, for my purposes we can
think of native peoples whose land was expropriated
as the basis for settlement and enslaved African workers
and their descendants whose coerced labor was essential for the reproduction of
material wealth and prosperity. This project of settler empire had four key components in the US. The first was a primary focus on property and property owning. So what settlers brought from England was a radicalized account of
the Republican tradition that emphasized economic
independence, control over land as key to the conditions of being free. And so that emphasized the
importance of owning property and having property as a basis for a broadly equal distribution of material resources, social mobility among included insiders. Two, this meant that territorial expansion was also central, that you needed expropriated
native land in order to be able to ensure the terms of broad-ranging social mobility, relative economic equality,
and independence for insiders. It also meant, and I’m gonna
get into this in just a bit, that American borders
were not fixed in advance by anything that amounted to
constrained legal frameworks. American borders were provisional. So the idea of the continental
US is a contingent fact of the direction of American empire. We could’ve imagined
different other formulations, invasions of Canada that occurred, ideas of a Caribbean basin, etc. Three, freedom was not universal. The idea was that for
some to enjoy the benefits of economic independence
and free citizenship, you had to have others that engaged in hard and degraded forms of work, in particular enslaved African workers, and then once consigned
to those forms of work, that position gets racialized. So it’s precisely because you’re African that justifies that sort of
dependent economic status. And then four, that settlement requires more than just those that
initially came from England, that you actually have to have a growing and dynamic population,
and that that population then produces striking
practices of migration openness for Europeans that are included
as ethno-racial insiders. And so you have policies that
would be surprising today, like voting rights even for non-citizens that happened to be of European descent, access to western land
grants for non-citizens that are of European descent. In other words, the border is
essentially a port of entry dependent on your racial identity. With that, there are two
really significant implications of this analysis that, in my
view, this is maybe I’ll do a little bit of intellectual
biography, are drawn from CRT and from TWAIL. So the first implication is that the idea of the US as a break from the
European imperial imagination is fundamentally false,
that we can actually only understand the terms
of legal and political life and the ways in which
inclusion and exclusion are stitched together
in the US by recognizing the extent to which the US is
part of a colonial project. Now for me personally, when I was starting to think through this
argument, when I was working on the dissertation of
the book, there was a book that has just come out, one
of our panelists in absentia, Darryl Lee, we were friends, he was like “You know, you’re grasping
at these kinds of arguments, “there’s this book by
Tony Anghie, it’s called “‘Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making “‘of International Law,’ you
might consider reading it.” And indeed, reading that
book was eye-opening, and it was eye-opening
precisely because of the way in which rather than a break from Europe, the classic presentation
of the American Revolution, it allowed me to understand
how actually the foundation of the American republic was precisely through the law of nations
that had been organized among European empires. So going back to the idea of
the US borders as provisional, where does US sovereignty come from? US sovereignty comes from a claim about the so-called doctrine of discovery, which asserts European,
Westphalian state sovereignty and rejects indigenous
sovereignty over the land that native peoples possess. And it’s also grounded in
the idea that if, let’s say, England or France were to
attack indigenous peoples within the terms of the American landmass, that is not an attack on
indigenous sovereignty, that is an attack on US
sovereignty as the only relevant political power, so that the entire frame,
sort of the precondition for American statecraft, is a continuation of an imperial project drawn from Europe. Two, whiteness within this
context becomes essential to social cohesion in the US. So there’s this basic
question about, well, if the US is a particular
kind of colonial project tied to practices of
European empire, how is it that that gets racialized as whiteness? And there was a second piece
that was really essential for me in thinking
through this, and that was Cheryl Harris’s “Whiteness as Property,” which is, well, it’s not self-evident that whiteness would
be the basis for making the distinctions between
insiders and outsiders, and yet by the time we get to
the end of the 19th century, whiteness itself has a
specific status that provides distributions of political,
legal, and economic rights and that is grounded in a deep sense in one’s capacity to
own and transfer wealth. How is it that that happens? And the argument that I
try to make in the book is that we can only
understand the centrality of whiteness as social
cohesion by frontloading the question of settlement,
recognizing how the basic divide from the 17th to the 19th century is not citizen versus
non-citizen, you could be African-American and be a
citizen if you weren’t enslaved, but denied all of the basic rights that go hand in hand with full membership. The basic divide is between
settler and non-settler. And what that ends up meeting relatedly is that over time the
republic requires people beyond the initial folks that are coming, and so that means that
you can’t organize life on a presumption that the only insiders are Anglo Protestant from
England, that you’re gonna need new European migrants,
perhaps Catholic migrants from places like Ireland and Germany, and that expands the terms of
who necessarily gets included. And as the terms get
expanded, so this is a way in which whiteness is an
inclusionary framework, the focus moves from Anglo Protestantism and an exclusive focus on
one’s spiritual politics to an argument about white solidarity and the kind of ethno-racial
grounds of membership. And that, of course, goes hand in hand with the transformation of blackness into the justification in evolutionary and increasingly scientific
terms behind one’s not only exclusion but
subordinated status at work. And it leads to a second
kind of really key point about the American imagination
during this period, which is the focus on demography. In other words, what the US is is a particular kind of imperial project that’s claiming land while
settling bodies and populations, it’s not about holding
distant colonial dependencies. And that’s important because
key to this is the idea that you actually have to
replace one population, so native peoples, with white bodies and to construct a white republic. And we’re gonna see how
this notion of demography is essential to the conditions
of having a free republic become really key going forward. All right, how does
this start to collapse? There’s a crisis in settler ideology in the late 19th, early 20th
century that’s a product of the closing of the
frontier, that has to do with industrialization, the
ways in which industrialization generate class conflict, that has to do with who’s coming from
abroad, especially from Europe as migrants, and how that destabilizes definitions of whiteness. Can you actually include Jewish people or southern Europeans as white? And one of the responses
to all of these forms of destabilization is to
say, well, we need to now double down on the basic driving element of the American kind of
imperial imagination, which is expansion, territorial control. And it produces a move by a new generation of imperialists, we can
think of Teddy Roosevelt, Elihu Root, others at the end of the 19th, early 20th century, to actually go out and claim colonies abroad
as a way of solving a basic crisis that’s
taking place domestically. But what’s interesting is
that this moment occurs at just the period where not
only has the colonial scramble for land among European empires already more or less concluded,
but that you start to see the first significant generation of non-white political assertiveness. And that’s what the US finds
itself hitting up against in places like the
Philippines, in Puerto Rico, elsewhere in the early
part of the 20th century. And in a way there’s a
kind of premonition already that’s circulating about
the extent to which explicit white solidarity is gonna be able to sustain itself at
the international level. So there’s a very well know book that Reynolds and Lake in their work have sort of focused on. This is a book by
Charles Pearson from 1893 called “National Life and
Character, a Forecast,” and Pearson’s an Australian
journalist and he says we’re gonna begin to see a world, this is an interesting
inverse of DuBois’s discussion of the color line, where
it’ll be impossible simply to exclude non-white persons from the global stage, and that the era of explicit white dominance
may well be coming to an end. In this way, the US and
South Africa all understood as white men’s country, and Australia, are kind of outliers,
they’re white outposts in a non-white world
that they might no longer be able to control. As just an anecdote about
this, Oliver Wendell Holmes thinks this is a totally fascinating book, it has its moment in the sun
at the end of the 19th century. In 1893, he writes a letter
to his various friends about, well, you know, what are the books that you should read? He recommends reading
Mahan’s work on sea power, “Das Kapital” by Marx, so Marx has made it across the Atlantic, “Emma” by Jane Austen ’cause you need some literature, and Pearson’s “National Life
and Character, a Forecast.” This ends up over the
next two to three decades working its way through
American policy-making elites, particularly in the
context of US practices in places like the Philippines, or in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Where one of the things that
occurs in the Philippines is just to maintain control over territory in the context of an intense
anti-colonial guerrilla war. The US administrators
have to hand over power, they have to like give over power. And they have to give over
power to indigenous elites. And that raises a basic question, which is if the condition of being
able to control the territory is giving up power to the
people you’re supposed to be able to control,
how can you justify that? And the argument becomes one that’s drawn really from the Civil War
and Reconstruction history, which is to say, well, classic modes of imperialism,
just straight-up extraction, is not, in fact, what defines
American global power. That the US instead is
defined by a principle of constitutionalism grounded in the Declaration of Independence and given institutional teeth through the federal Constitution. The US is the first
truly universal nation, that’s what makes it exceptional. Then there’s, of course,
a second basic question, which is if that’s what
makes the US exceptional, why should it assert control
over communities globally? And the argument becomes, well, the US doesn’t actually have
traditional imperial holdings, rather what the US is
engaged in is facilitating self-government among the various states where it finds itself
interacting with local elites. And that it has this
legitimate role to play, you know a kind of tutelary role, precisely because of the
particular cultural history in the US that from the
earliest days of colonization, fulfilled through the Constitution, that Americans have been able to develop a kind of cultural history
in how you exercise self government, how you
construct constitutional practice. And the figure that best
embodies this is Woodrow Wilson, and that’s really key because Wilson is consciously combining
universalism and white supremacy. And this is one of the ways
in which the settler logic and the logic of global primacy ended up getting interconnected. Wilson’s argument is that
the world is organized in a hierarchy that’s developmental
among distinct peoples with Anglo-Saxons at the very top. And that that hierarchy
suggests both a legitimate role to play by Americans in asserting control over the non-white world, but also what the world should look like. The problem of European
empires, so Wilson would say, is that they imagined
that ethno-racial identity could be combined in
these plural arrangements, that you could have an
Austro-Hungarian empire that links together, or an Ottoman empire that links together many
different kinds of peoples. That’s an impossibility, this is a kind of supercharged defense of demography drawn from the settler imagination. The only way you can have
genuine self-government is if each state is bound to a very specific ethno-racial people and that the meaning of
American power is to create a world of self-governing
states that are nation-states organized as distinct
ethno-racial communities. And this becomes really essential, especially by the time
we get to World War II, to how Americans conceive of
their project internationally. And it gets interconnected
to the confrontation with Nazi Germany and
then to the confrontation with the Soviet Union,
where the US is different from its totalitarian foes
because it’s an open society, it’s an open society
grounded in principles of self-government that’s
attempting to replicate national self-determination everywhere, its interests are the world’s interests, the US is the world in miniature. That means that American
security objectives are equivalent to whatever might be viewed as the security objectives domestically. If the US says that something
in its national interests, it therefore by definition
is in the global interest. All right, well that is a background and now I’m just gonna move more quickly. What does this mean for law in
the era of American hegemony? And this is where I think
critical race theory is actually really essential. Much of the foundation of the
American legal imagination is based on universalism
and formal equality. It’s all about every state
should be formally equal and what the US does is it
promotes constitutionalism within the internal
dynamics of states abroad and it also promotes
constitutionalism as a principle at the international level. So the US is attempting to
replicate throughout the world state structures that combine capitalism with representative government and constitutional constraints,
checks and balances. That’s what it’s projecting,
and internationally a system of multilateralism that’s supposed to constrain any excess power. That seems like a universal project, and yet at the same time the period of American dominance,
of the American century, we saw Lumumba who was
assassinated in part through the facilitation of the CIA, is one marked by systematic
and continuous violence. So how is it that both of those things are operative at the same time? The only way you can make sense of it is by recognizing the
extent to which what the US is projecting internationally
is racialization and a systematic structure
of racism embedded in its account of universality. This is much like the
conversations we have domestically about how can the US both
be a colorblind nation, post-racial, and organized
around principles of Jim Crow and mass
incarceration, the new Jim Crow. And the way that this works in particular is by an account of why
you’re seeing instability. Now in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, where is the instability coming from? It’s coming from local populations actually committed to self-determination that read American
intervention as neocolonialism, that are contesting the
framework of ethnicity as the defining way of
organizing collective life, and so this Pan-Arabism,
Pan-Africanism, the NIEO, efforts to actually break
beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. For American policy makers,
though, this instability is precisely because of the failures of local communities to live
up to the ideals of market, constitutional structure,
representative government, and requires continuous intervention. Moreover, continuous
intervention precisely because there’s this threatening
other, the Soviet Union, who’s essentially attempting
to transform or usurp national independence movements to serve a Communist and totalitarian agenda. And all of this gets framed
through a new version of Wilson’s developmental
account, that sort of modernism. That you see this instability
because traditional societies have yet to fully develop
and that because they’ve yet to fully develop,
you don’t actually have adequate responses to local pressures. Now, of course, the solution
is what’s causing the problem. Those two things are deeply interlinked, but that’s not something
that can be conceived of through the frame,
instead the only way that American policy makers
can think of what to make of the violence that it’s generating is through an argument about hypocrisy. Well, you know, you’re
fighting these implacable foes, Communist enemies, you
have to use dirty hands, maybe in Niebhur’s terms you have to deal with a moral man but an immoral society. And so you’re stuck by
necessity in struggling with these tensions, of course, the fact that you’re struggling with
these tensions highlight, justify American global
power because they show that you’re the most moral
army on the face of the Earth, you’re so concerned about the violence that you engage with, and it generates a very specific form of exceptionalism, which is the idea that the US rightly, because it has to
maintain this whole order, needs to step in and out
of law and constraint. It’s the one state that might
have to act unilaterally, might have to engage in assassination, might have to engage in various
kinds of unholy practices because that’s the only way you can safeguard the whole order. And what this highlights is
that, again, the settler moment and the global primacy moment,
the American century one, are linked together, they
cannot be disentangled because the logics that
developed the account of universalism are themselves grounded in a notion of white supremacy. Okay, so how is it that
this ends up collapsing? First, I think it’s really
important to appreciate that for all of the
problems, all of the ways in which American global
primacy was ground necessarily in the perpetuation of
intervention and violence, it had its own underlying legitimacy among a large number of elites, including the elites in the global south. And that’s because the
confrontation with the Soviet Union imposes various kinds of constraints, it produces a need domestically, and this is the Cold War
civil rights argument, to move toward greater
forms of racial inclusion. It produces a need at
the international level to defend principles of
formal equality among states in the postcolonial world, to promote shared material prosperity
through practices like the Marshall Plan
and various other kinds of social welfarist provisions. And it means that the
US is exercising power, there are real critiques that
are coming from the left, but there’s a kind of internal
legitimacy that also exists. And then what ends up
happening is that with the end of the Cold War, the US
effectively over the last 30 years has experienced defeat in victory. And by this I mean that the winning of the Cold War validates all of the extreme versions
of national self-conception that had emerged from the
first half of the 20th century and become established
during that Cold War period. And it, again, supercharges
them internationally. It emphasizes austerity,
neoliberal economic policies as something that the US
is going to project abroad because the US has the
only perceived model of economic growth and
development, it justifies the need for unilateralism internationally
because it’s precisely the American exceptional
role that won the Cold War. And by emphasizing
unilateralism against perceived new forms of instability,
which are really the same forms of instability written into the order that the US itself was so
central in constructing. The US quickly becomes a
state that is defecting from the rules that it
established as a basis for its own hegemony. And that produces two things by the time we get to the present
globally and domestically. Domestically, it produces
a world within which not only is neoliberalism
something that’s being projected abroad, increasingly
it comes to define how economic practice operates at home. And so you have the hollowing
out of all of the kind of foundations of social
welfarist policies domestically, you have institutional paralysis because of hyperpolarization
now that you no longer have a Soviet Union to rein
in, especially the right, and you have a return of
explicit white solidarity in this context of paralysis
and economic dislocation as a way of defining the basic terms of American life for large
swaths of the white public and again especially housed
in the Republican party. And at the same time internationally, the US defection makes
increasingly implausible the idea that you can actually
organize peace and prosperity through multilateral means, and it also goes hand in
hand with a similar return of whiteness as a defining
category of self-identification, we see this through Brexit, we see this in the right-wing populist
politics that mark Europe. And all of it highlights
the profound fragility of the American century,
the contingent dynamics that generated it, and the
extent to which each one of those three elements, the
correlates of capitalism, representative institutions,
and constitutionalism are themselves coming apart at the seams in a way in which the very center, the US, no longer seems to have faith
in its own imperial project, nor clarity about its direction. What that ultimately leads to is a present in which the US continues
to assert profound forms of raw power, so the US maintains
a kind of hegemonic status when it comes to sheer, raw power, but without any of the
legitimating discourses that marked the mid
part of the 20th century and without any clarity
about what the function of that power is supposed
to actually serve. And it produces a present
where one could imagine truly dystopian outcomes
especially against the backdrop of climate change and ecological disaster where you have raw American power vying with managed
authoritarianism in a world marked by just pure
realpolitik and violence. But, it also raises the
possibility of a kind of openness that the world has not
seen in a half century toward alternative forms of solidarity, political organization,
and movement politics. And here’s where I’m gonna end. This moment, the kind of
breakdown of the American imperial frame, the period
essentially increasingly after the sureties of the US century, is one in which we see the revival of the political
constituencies and movements that gave birth, in various
ways, to CRT and TWAIL. So if we go back to CRT and TWAIL, that these are academic
formations that emerge effectively after the collapse of
black radical politics in the ’60s and ’70s in various ways and the third-world
internationalist agenda of anticolonialism and
genuine, substantive, not just formal independence. And it’s those intellectual traditions that then provide us a
capacity to make sense of the present within which we live. But interestingly, now, in the context of those intellectual traditions, we see the reemergence of the black
radical tradition politically as something that’s viable domestically and third-world internationalism and transnational solidarity as something that we see as viable on the global stage. And how is it that it’s present? With black radicalism, you can
think of black lives matter, the movement for black
lives, and in particular, it’s already been noted, discussions from Ferguson to Gaza, the way in which the vision statement for the movement of black
lives very consciously is thinking of solidarity as not bound to national identity, that
understands solidarity as organized between
those that share the same kind of experience of subordination and structural oppression
wherever they live in ways that can test
the idea that you share the same interests with
people that you just have a bare nationality with, and so requires an internationalism
that can make sense of racial capitalism domestically. So this is a politics that’s real and it’s part of our last few years. And internationally we see the revival of a kind of transnational
vision that linked various Arab publics on the ground during the so-called Arab Uprisings, the Arab Spring in
2011, but we see persist from Chile, to Hong Kong, to Lebanon, to Sudan, to Algeria and elsewhere, and it produces a moment of, I think, genuine hopefulness in
a sense that we live during times in which the
ideological commitment to internationalism that emerged through these various
traditions, at home and abroad, if not dominant are certainly ascendant, but with a very particular problem, which is the problem of
institutionalization. The thing that defined
the ’60s, ’70s moment, that last time where we had a linkage directly politically
between black radicalism and third-world internationalism was one in which the politics was built around anticolonial,
state-based resistance. And that was organized
through maintaining alliances between groups like the Panthers and national liberation
organizations that existed in, could be the ANC in South
Africa, the PLO in Palestine. And what defined these
relationships is that the various institutions,
including the Panthers, could claim that they had constituencies, they actually represented real publics. And that because they
could claim that they had constituencies, you could make alliances among these different entities in ways that would suggest changes to statecraft. Now, there were all sorts of problems about what ends up
happening, including the way in which postcolonial
statecraft becomes defined by a kind of authoritarian
imagination that we can get into, but one of the things that’s happened in the last half century
is that the capacity of institutions as intermediary
forces to represent transnational and solidaristic attachments among different groups
has largely collapsed. The PA is not the PLO. And what that means is that
you end up having today kind of free-floating
activists, intellectuals that are seeking to find
spaces in which to be able to speak in transnational
and solidaristic terms, but without any clarity about
who they themselves represent and with the tendency to fall back into precisely the kinds of
defenses of state sovereignty that were critiqued before. Like maybe it’s just
easier to say that Assad represents the Syrian
people than to figure out who, in fact, represents the Syrian people in the context of a
profoundly contested conflict. And that suggests that there is both a profound opening today that needs to be taken advantage of, but a real problem, which is you have the
emergence of popular, grassroots political connections organized around the principles
and themes that marked past moments of utopian thinking and emancipatory possibility, but without the institutional
frameworks that can give them tangible control over statecraft
at the nation-state level and to intervene at
the international level beyond, let’s say, the generations of third-world kind of lawyers, of which I myself am also a part. And that requires a very specific kind of conceptual thinking
against the backdrop of the story, let’s say
the dystopian story, about raw American power,
managed authoritarianism and violence itself
unconstrained from legitimacy. So I’ll stop here. (audience applauds) – It’s great to be here
and a tough act to follow in responding to Aziz’s riveting talk. As Aziz mentioned, he
didn’t have a written paper, but was going to speak
from notes, and while I am full of admiration for
Aziz’s sort of youthful verbal athleticism in
keeping perfect timing, being an old fart, I need
my crutches to ensure I keep within the time allotted to me. So in a sort of stodgy
and old-fashioned form, I wrote part of my response
to a paper that was still in the future, so these
remarks are both a performance of the future interior,
while as you will see an argument for thinking this
juncture of CRT and TWAIL in the future interior. So once again, many thanks to
Aziz for this wonderful talk that did so much to illuminate and clarify this historical moment, our
present condition in the world, but offering such a sharp
and cogent articulation of the stakes of critical
race theory and TWAIL in navigating these treacherous times. What I want to say is more
in the vein of a supplement, a supplement from the south, if you will. Aziz spoke eloquently about the unraveling of the American imperial project,
liberal humanitarianism’s loss of legitimacy, and the opportunities that are opened up by these developments towards radical alternative futures. In that vein, one friendly
supplement to the story that Aziz tells is that we
need to tell more histories of American empire from a perspective outside America’s shores. So not only the US in
the Philippines in terms of how it reflects a projection
of American interests, but also in terms of the
Philippines’ domestic dynamics. These are complementary, I
think, to what Aziz was saying, but it just shifts us to
a different standpoint, to looking at the elephant so differently. In other words, in addition
to looking at the elephant from the perspective of
American law globally in its imperial role, not
only in its projection of American interests
through its military, or tutelary role, or otherwise,
but we need to also see what the elephant looks like
from other perspectives. And I think one dimension
of the CRT-TWAIL synergy is that it allows us to tell
the story of American empire from the perspectives of legal and political struggles elsewhere. For instance, a story of anti-terror laws, laws targeting minority
populations, and the criminalizing of dissent in Myanmar, Egypt, and Turkey is a story about American
empire, but it’s also a story about all of those countries. The story of personal debt and change in financial regulation
in Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Nicaragua, these are all
stories of American empire, but they’re also stories that need to be grounded in those countries. The story of privatization
of water and struggles over the corporatization
of public utilities in Nigeria, Bolivia, and
South Africa is a story about American empire, but is also a story about what’s happening in those countries. The story of laws
advancing a feminist vision in Colombia, India, and Rwanda is a story about American empire, but is also a story about what’s happening in those countries. This then is a research agenda that tells the history of American empire in ways that traces how empire
travels, is challenged, and reproduced through, to
sort of quote Homi Bhabha’s old phrase, mimicry and
mimesis, but perhaps then actually becomes something
that is distinct from and complicates the histories
we tell of American empire in ways that are attentive
to gaps, conflicts, and ambiguities, had to
throw in a bit of CLS there. This part of the story of the
fragility of American empire that Aziz highlighted, as suggested by sort of the larger arc of your story about the relationship,
but what he refers to as a settler empire on the one hand and American global primacy on the other, these different legal
geographies of domestic law in contexts that range
from Sri Lanka to Lebanon, Egypt to Colombia, are not
sequential, contingent, or supplementary to American empire, but fundamentally implicated
with it, as he argued, but so are the gaps and contradictions in the fabric of American empire. And I guess that’s partly
what that supplement is about, it’s about being attentive to
those gaps and contradictions, and the fact that American
empire, as huge, and terrible, and awful, and as sweeping
as it is, is not something that is not without those
gaps and contradictions. So if a more global
history of American empire and it’s legal architecture
is one supplement, another supplement in the
register of the future interior is a story about the
future that is not anchored primarily in American
empire, although of course that is part of the story. For those who once subscribed
to the possibilities of cosmopolitan humanism,
this is a moment of faith, however, how did those who look
for those who had no faith, how did those things look to those who had no faith to begin with? Some who participated in
the world of American empire and international law as it was received, not because they believed in
the promise of liberalism, but because people realized,
to paraphrase Marx, that even if you want
change, you don’t necessarily make change in the conditions
of your own choosing. Here as C. Baghroboodhi
and many others remind us, people elsewhere have
always had their own visions of worlding and world order
and even when they are in the shadow of empire,
we need to work our way to the light filtering
in between the shadows to see and work with
knowledge systems and meanings that can inflect and illuminate alternative futures differently. If we don’t do that, if
we stay with the weight of colonial and racial oppression, we unwittingly risk
reproducing what has been referred to as epistemicide,
the destruction of alternative knowledges and meanings through which we make sense of the world and imagine alternative worlds. From that perspective,
the future of the world after the decline of
American empire may not be only about the ashes of
liberal humanitarianism, although it is that too, of
course, but also the ashes of received notions of modernity and development in electoral democracy, indeed the larger post-World
War II visions of the future, I think there’s a resonance
here in what Michael was talking about this morning in terms of decentering received approaches to challenging Eurocentrism that don’t then re-inscribe Eurocentrism. The task here is what
Wayne Yang and others have described in the context
of settler colonialism and the heuristic of settler native slave as theorizing in the break. This is what is being
activated by those protesting in the streets of Delhi and Hong Kong, Lebanon and Chile, Iraq and Paris. These protests sometimes,
in Iraq for instance, explicitly reference American empire, but they also are about the
range of other structural crises and political promises,
local, regional, and global. They’re also about the nested
temporalities of these crises, the immediacy of current
government policies in this context, the longer
timeframe of the world order that is a legacy of last century, and the even longer
timeframe of the world order that was the legacies of
slavery and colonialism, and the even larger epochal temporalities of the anthropocene and the
ravages of climate change. I don’t want to romanticize
this, but to some extent the alternative knowledges
that are getting activated here come out of the shadows
not because of optimism but because of despair. Indeed, some of these struggles
have emerged precisely in the interstices of the loss of faith, not just in collective futures,
but in the future as such. If there’s no promised future to lose, then we might as well die with dignity rather than be conscripted
into our annihilation in slow violence. Protestors in Cairo at
the end of last year were no longer brought
out by the heady optimism, for instance, of Tahrir Square in 2011, but in the sense that
there is a war against them even if they don’t come to the streets. If there’s no safe space, why not at least fight for the dignity of choosing risk. A final supplement I want
to add to Aziz’s story is continue work that develops genealogies of the categories of race and colonialism, and there’s been some
discussion of this already this morning, in ways that speak to their dynamic and unstable histories. As the morning panel spoke to somewhat, there is a way in which
both race and colonialism, or race and the third
world, often mobilize, even in critic, even in our work as TWAIL and CRT scholars, in
ways that are rendered rigid and rarefied and understood in binaries of the west and the rest, or whiteness and the other, stable dichotomized
categories recognizable across place and time. Here, even as we as legal scholars we explore the synergies of CRT and TWAIL, I think we can also
learn from complementary intellectual traditions
of racial capitalism, world systems theory,
and subaltern studies in developing a more fluid, historical, and systemic understanding of
both race and colonization, traditions that have
their greatest presence in disciplines other than law. For instance, as Robin
Kelley often reminds us in “Black Marxism,” Cedric Robinson argues that racialization within
Europe was very much a colonial process,
one involving invasion, settlement, expropriation,
and racial hierarchy. Indeed, again as Michael
reminded us this morning, whiteness travels in
the global south in ways that cannot be reduced to bodies of and systems seen as inheritors
of Euro-American empire. Or as Shareen’s last comment at the end of the last session
indicated, we see whiteness reemerging in Modi’s vision in India, or we may add in the
Netanyahu-Kushner plan in Israel and Palestine. In this moment when white
supremacy is both in a moment of prominent revival, but also
in a moment of deep crisis, how can we supplement a story of race and racial capitalism
that includes, but is not bracketed within, the received parameters of the American story of race? Sukarno in his opening address to Bandung, refers to the Bandung Conference
as the largest meeting of people of color in the world, at least in terms of
the nations represented, in terms of both formal and
informal representatives that were present. But to me what captures the
conjuncture and challenge here is Paul Robeson at the Bandung Conference. Robeson was keen to attend
alongside Richard Wright and others, but the US
State Department impounded Paul Robeson’s passport because
he was under investigation at the time by the House
Committee of Un-American Affairs, linking Robeson and the goals of Bolshevism and the Russians. But not withstanding
Moscow, Robeson anchors his un-Americanness in the global south. He is, and this is what of interest to me, how he focuses not in
his intervention here not in terms of Moscow and Russia, but in Bandung, Indonesia. And he phones into the
Bandung Conference and sings “Ol’ Man River” to the
conference delegates. This is both a displacement
of American empire and a challenge to it. It complicates the binaries of empire, making meanings and
connections that scrambled empire’s geography in ways that are barely audible, but still that phone call, singing through the static
to be heard in the break, that wild, absent presence
of Paul Robeson in Bandung, at once barley audible,
and yet with loud resonance beyond the halls of Bandung, in mapping those alternative
geographies, the intimacy, as Lisa Lowe says, the
intimacy of four continents. Paul Robeson singing “Ol’
Man River” through the static speaks to this conjuncture
of CRT and TWAIL in the junctures and views through which the Mississippi River flows
into the Indian Ocean. And maybe that alternative
provocative geography is a supplement to Aziz’s framing of the possibilities of
solidarity as he ended with that is emerging from the rise
and fall of American empire as we sit on the eve of
the alternative futures of the world after American empire, but also a moment that is the
eve of the alternative futures of CRT and TWAIL. Thank you.
(audience applauds) (peaceful music)

11 comments

  1. Er not as fast as China is unravelling – and bith at the hands of big pharma and a very corrupt WHO – this is what happens when a species gets greedy and wants to put its faith in chemical snake oils…

  2. ¡after my u.S. army time, i eventually became aware of the verified: selfish, greedy, corrupt, evil deeds of the united States of America, especially the current Democrats and the current Republicans supported by college and university educated idiots! – written at 6:19 PM Pacific Standard Time on Tuesday, 25 February 2020

  3. Insipid, Spineless and Pathological.

    Truly, these are deluded human beings.

    Their own minds are in decay due to a self induced “cancer” of thinking.

  4. reparations to all oppressed peoples is the ongoing conversation! Question : should Egypt pay the Jews for the years they where SLAVES! its ONLY FAIR! or when the CZARS of Europe who owned the surfs as SLAVES should Russia PAY UP! I am a Black Russia Jew waiting for my reparation check! I hope a democrat can win so all of us OPPRESSED can get our CASH!

  5. Talking about not having a lot of time to make your point and repeating your thanks seem like something intelligent and logical professors would not do.

    But before my speech, I'm going to characterize what the former speaker said. Then I'll state a number of words and refer to "the story" of those things with a vaguely derogatory tone without making any argument.

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