“If they come for you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” James Baldwin to Angela Y. Davis
The shock and awe presidency of Donald Trump carries on. With its/his daily eruptions of formal and informal initiatives, the two consistent themes are destabilization of societal institutions and increased vulnerability for already marginalized beings. While this administration is a roving, reckless storm that seems to move somehow at breakneck and slow-motion speeds all at once, it is not a new storm. It has been well seeded in the idea of incremental inclusion based on worthiness. Or put more simply, self-anointed winners narrating who are the losers and why they’re on the outside.
Incremental inclusion is the baseline seduction of the United States – a needful narrative that makes meritocratic promises of upward mobility and wellness to all, but in practice stratifies wealth for a few and suffering for millions.
Meritocracy cuts two ways simultaneously. Those who are in higher stations in life are deemed to have attained those positions through grit, determination, naturally endowed abilities, and morality, and those who fail have no one else to blame but themselves. Play by the rules, be a good person, and work hard – these are the key components of the core American ideology of meritocracy. What makes meritocracy an ideology, rather than an idea, is that it hinges together several other associated concepts and mechanisms. It relies on a steadfast belief in individualism – the idea that people as single units are wholesale worthy or not. It collapses population-level analysis into what an individual did or did not do. Winners and losers. No wonder this reality show dumpster fire has ascended – we’ve long loved rapid-fire assessments of merit.
Meritocracy also loops in an unattainable understanding of growth and prosperity – promising it to all who play by the rules within a capitalist structure which necessitates a constant underclass foreclosed from well-being, let alone wealth. It is a poor student of capitalism who believes that all can prosper under capitalism, but this same student is an excellent parrot of meritocracy. It is also a poor student of coloniality who sees class structure outside domination of race, ability, gender, and sexuality. But within a society yet to truly reckon with the truth of its settler colonial structure, incremental inclusion’s seductive narrative shines brightly.
Incremental inclusion is without a doubt a mirage, but it also actively exacts significant material and imaginative tolls.
If we believe that some people are simply worthier, more beautiful, smarter, it makes it easier to believe that other beings deserve to suffer or belong in cages. It makes it easier to believe that excess happens naturally, instead of being created and cultivated for the exact purpose of containing that excess. Incarceration hasn’t ballooned by happenstance. Cages of various institutional kinds have not taken up the practices of surveillance, seizure, and expulsion by some quirky coincidence. The idea that some human beings are excisable and subject to bans and cages proliferates with politics of partial and incremental inclusion.
When James Baldwin wrote the opening quote in an open letter of solidarity to Angela Y. Davis, he must have deliberately chosen the words of the same 24 hours. It wasn’t at night but that night. They are coming for us because they have been able to come for you. Intersectional analysis requires understanding not only that systems of oppression operate simultaneously but also that they cannot breath without each other. Ableism begets racism. Racism quickens with capitalism and heteropatriarchy. While expertise is always needed, we no longer have the luxury, if we ever did, to think that migration rights are isolable from trans rights, are isolable from civil rights, are isolable from stewarding the Earth.
We pay dearly for having incremental approaches to single issues. We become challenged to imagine into existence a reality in which all living beings, human and nonhuman, are afforded well-being, care, and dignity. When we can’t imagine it, it has no chance of emerging or being remembered into being. Neither does it have the chance to struggle through the rough patches, the failures, the revisions we need to radically face in making a society into existence that is not based on incremental acceptance or domination. This also means that we don’t have the imaginative bandwidth to make mistakes, to atone, to repair, to right, to build collective vulnerability and learn collectively. The collateral damage to liberatory imagination is too high, and without practice, we are susceptible to domination masquerading as art.
Just last week, the creators of HBO’s Games of Thrones were given the greenlight to develop a series that writer Roxane Gay called “Slavery Fan Fiction.” As Gay points out, not just one but many well paid media executives shared in the paucity of imagination required to fantasize about ongoing slavery. Little imagination is required to imagine a reigning class of wealthy white landowners, Black peoples restricted from social wellness, and Indigenous peoples relegated to invisibility. We live in something like that fan fiction tale.
And we also are living in something like the alternate world that H.G. Wells described in the 1904 short story, The Country of the Blind. In this story, a man named Nuñez takes a bad fall into a valley where he happens upon a community of peoples who, over time and complicated history, have all become blind. Blind is the norm. The injured Nuñez is confused by this community but as he heals, so does his opportunism. He tried time and time again to assert his domination as a person with sight. The villagers basically DSM-V Nuñez based on their normal and schedule him for surgery to alleviate him of the clear cause for his confusion: these protuberances on his face. His eyes. In some versions of the story, Nuñez escapes. In other versions, the story simply ends the night before the surgery. I assign this story to many of my classes. The connection to ableism is clear. But the core learning is about normalness and its quickening with domination and hierarchy. that is the purpose of all the -isms.
Classificatory violence will never satiate its appetite. It is fickle and quixotic, but consistently pursuant to quests for power. It will destabilize and destroy with the lust that gain for a few will be possible in the wake of suffering.
The good news is, of course, that we have agency and can refuse to feed the need that domination has for classificatory violence. There are historical and contemporary joys and victories that beckon us to refuse a politics of partial inclusion in favor of collective freedom dreaming.
I have been thinking to the many classes about coloniality I fought to establish and teach, alongside students who demanded a better education. Courses like Critical Race Theory are fundamentally about the damage that coloniality, specifically whiteness and heteropatriarchal capitalism, has done in creating and protecting itself. Those courses are sadly vitally necessary as coloniality continues and thrives. And there is a more, a before, and a beyond. As a closing to every class session, I would remind myself and my students of this with a mantra:
Coloniality has been trying for centuries to collapse Blackness into chattel and it has failed.
It has been trying for centuries to collapse brownness into coolie labor and savage threat, and it has failed.
It has been trying for centuries to erase Indigeneity and make women kneel, and it has failed.