JIE/ Prison Education Program, Columbia University
Interview given to Nikos Giannopoulos, journalist for the Greek newspaper News247, on the protests following the murder of George Floyd. The interview was published Saturday, 30 May, 2020. Neni Panourgiá provided her translation from the original Greek interview.
Nikos Giannopoulos: The first question that comes up for anyone who has not lived in the United States is how it is possible that this country has failed to eradicate the phenomenon of racism? Why, in 2020, Blacks are still being considered pariahs of the system?
Neni Panourgiá: I think that the answer to the question is very simple, and thus elusive. The question of race is not a political question; it is a social question. Cornel West reminded everyone a few days back that this country was unable to solve this problem when it had a Black president, a Black Attorney General, and a Black Minister of Defense simultaneously, in the same government. Because ultimately, no matter how many laws exist, and there are legion, someone needs to apply them. And when the problem arrives to the judicial level, either because the laws are not being applied or because they are being disregarded, the process is prolix. The other major problem lies, of course, in the specific strength of the country, which is the state system, a system that defends state laws except when they are found to be unconstitutional. In this regard, federal laws often protect minorities against state laws. Even though federal laws have a greater legal weight, state laws are configured according to the general sense of the particular state. This is the system that allowed Jim Crow to exist in the South, a practice that was rendered unconstitutional only by appeals to the Supreme Court which enforced the Constitution. This is not much different than what happens in Greece, or other European countries, in regards to Gypsies, Roma, the Left, or refugees and migrants. The difference is only one of scale.
The other reason that the race issue is still an issue is because the dehumanization of Blacks, Indians, and many other minorities that were formulated later in US history is inaugural in the process that constituted this country. African slaves and Native Americans were relegated from the beginning to a space that straddled that of the human and the animal. The bibliography on whether Blacks and Native Americans are human and have a soul is long and skirts this history to today. The question is not new, nor is it exclusively located in the US. We only have to think back to the Sepulveda and De Las Casas debate. Or remember that Sylvia Wynter was reporting in 1994 on the acronym N.H.I., No Humans Involved, used by the police as a code when they had to respond to an event that only African-Americans were involved.
NG: Would it be correct to think that the insurrection that we are witnessing these last days is not a response restricted to the murder of George Floyd but also addresses the disproportionate effect that the coronavirus has had on the Black community?
NP. The fact that the coronavirus has hit Black and Brown communities the hardest is intimately connected to the murder of George Floyd, they are both part and parcel of the grammar of racism. The actionable violence of racism, murders, lynching, humiliations, is the enactment of an ideology that organizes both the judiciary and the syntactical structures of the everyday. The healthcare structures in minority neighborhoods is minimal, the hospitals are overwhelmed, and the means of administering health are underfunded and degraded. African-Americans have inadequate access to healthcare because they have to sell their labor to precarity, doing two or three part-time jobs at the same time, none of which offers health coverage. The ER has for decades been the only access they have to a doctor, especially before the enactment of the ACA, which was the first target for dismantling by the Trump administration. The result is that there has not been equal access to preventive medicine so that people would not be dying needlessly of diabetes, or the flu, or to the management of infectious diseases, such as the coronavirus. On top of the social devaluation and excision experienced by Blacks in the US for 401 years, sits the absolutely understandable and explainable position of suspicion held by the Black community towards any initiative that originates with the state. Black workers who are employed as unskilled labor in positions deemed as essential (janitorial, food preparation and distribution, mass transit, delivery, or shelf stockers and cashiers) were left without any protection against the virus. The suspicion in the relationship between Black subject and the state was salient as it manifested itself in the first months of the pandemic in primarily minority neighborhoods in East Harlem, the Bronx, and various areas in Queens, and organized the resistance towards the use of prophylactic measures against the virus, mainly the use of masks and physical distancing, where the use of masks was treated as a suggestion.
NG. What class dimensions are there in this insurrection? What are the demands that the protests are laying down?
NP.: In a recent article in the Washington Post Heather Long and Andrew Van Dam showed that the economic disparities between Blacks and whites in 2016 were at the same levels as in 1968. Despite the post-segregation mass mobilizations of the ‘60s, changes in the law, the introduction of fields of study in all three sectors of the educational system that seek to analyze and expose the historical parameters and conditions of the Black presence in the country and to form a new landscape that could be dislocated from the specific historicity, any amelioration in the position of the Black community is still considered as special treatment and not as a right. The article reports that $6.674.00 was the mean income in 1968 for a middle-class Black family, while $70.786.00 was the mean income for a white middle-class family. In 2016 this inequity had grown even more, to $13.024 and $149.703 respectively. In other words, there has been no progress in covering the difference. Even more, higher educational levels for Black households does not translate to economic equity. Income for a Black family where the head of the household is a university graduate is lower than a white family where the head of the household has only a high school diploma. During the pandemic, Black employment has dropped to below 50%, in contradistinction with white and Latinx employment that is above 50%.
NG: For the time being the insurrection does not seem to have found a specific political subject that would enable the expression of the object of the protests. Do you think that there is a lacuna of political representation in the US?
NP: The political subject of the recent movement is existential in its most basic form. The young people who are the lever and the motor of this insurrection are expressing the realization that not only can they not live, but they cannot even exist unless they are united. There is no “white” future in the US, and that is something that transcends race or gender. It has to do with the fact that there is a new political subject that has come into being that is located in the experience of intersubjectivity of the youth. Blacks, whites, Latinx, Asians are together in the streets, moving as one subject. There have been a lot of comparisons drawn between now and the movements of the sixties. But, keeping in mind that the tactics of the sixties are useful in moving in the streets, in the demonstrations, in protesting, the defining difference is that there is no singular political or partisan formulation that has percolated to the top to claim responsibility or ownership of the movement—everyone shares in the responsibility, everyone is liable to everyone else, there is no vanguard, there is no leadership. And the youth are learning from each other.
NG: Is there a possibility for the development of a movement from below that would be capable of standing the test of time and of interrogating neoliberalism effectively?
NP: We must always keep in mind that racism and socio-political exclusion predate neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is not the cause but a symptom of racism. And we should also keep in mind that neoliberalism will not suffer any defeat unless it is first defeated from below, defeated as the organizing principle of our desire—a new iPhone every year, a new car every two years, indifference towards the political, the inability to recognize that there are not only important but, rather, earth-shaking differences between the different political formulations, the ease with which we accept a politics that destroys others if it does not affect us personally, the banality of sitting aside when we see an injustice being done thinking that it is a victimless crime. What is being performed in the US right now is the redetermination not of who, but of what is the political subject.
NG: Why does Trump consider antifa to be such a danger?
NP: There is no question in my mind that Trump has no clue as to what antifa is. Neither do his advisers. It seems that they all think that antifa is a party, or an organization much like Al Qaeda, or ISIS, or the communist parties of the past. The announcement that antifa would be declared a terrorist organization is based on that ignorance. Apparently, someone in the White House realized the idiocy of this position and we haven’t heard anything more about that. I am certain that Trump has no idea that “antifa” is an acronym; someone told him that antifa is responsible for the protests. But there is no question about the fact, also, that Trump, his advisers, and the leadership of the Republican Party are feeling a much greater affinity with the fascists than with the antifascists.