Race and America's Long War

Race and America's Long War

by Nikhil Pal Singh

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Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency in 2016, which placed control of the government in the hands of the most racially homogenous, far-right political party in the Western world, produced shock and disbelief for liberals, progressives, and leftists globally. Yet most of the immediate analysis neglects longer-term accounting of how the United States arrived here. Race and America’s Long War examines the relationship between war, politics, police power, and the changing contours of race and racism in the contemporary United States. Nikhil Pal Singh argues that the United States’ pursuit of war since the September 11 terrorist attacks has reanimated a longer history of imperial statecraft that segregated and eliminated enemies both within and overseas. America’s territorial expansion and Indian removals, settler in-migration and nativist restriction, and African slavery and its afterlives were formative social and political processes that drove the rise of the United States as a capitalist world power long before the onset of globalization. Spanning the course of U.S. history, these crucial essays show how the return of racism and war as seemingly permanent features of American public and political life is at the heart of our present crisis and collective disorientation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520318304
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Nikhil Pal Singh is Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University and the founding faculty director of the NYU Prison Education Program. Singh is the editor of Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell and the author of Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, winner of the Liberty Legacy Foundation Award from the Organization of American Historians and the Norris and Carol Hundley Prize from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.

Read an Excerpt


Race, War, Police

[For] preventing the many dangers and inconveniences that may arise from the disorderly and unlawful meetings of Negroes and other slaves, patrols should be established.

Georgia General Assembly, 1818

The police power is the counterpart ... to the realm of individual liberty.

John Burgess, 1899

Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman's bullet.

Civil Rights Congress, 1951


It is common to speak of the militarization of policing, and the blurring of the boundaries between war and police in the United States today. In the context of the long history of U.S. racial formation, policing has arguably never been distinct from a kind of civil warfare. Criminal assignment has linked presumptions about individual and group propensities to antisocial behavior and threat to embodied stigma and subjection to sanctioned violence that exceeds the logic of civil compact. Policing makes race and race has defined the objects of police at the point where relations of force take primacy. W. E. B. Du Bois famously observed this race making dynamic, writing that a black person is someone who must "ride Jim Crow in Georgia." Extending this point, we might now say that to be black is to be a target of sanctioned force that often takes on an extrajudicial or arbitrary character, a force that reaffirms rightlessness as a shadow law written with violence upon the body.

At the founding of the United States, more than 20 percent of the entire population were slaves. Blackness had already come to identify the enslaved and enslavable: that is, it was constructed within the ambit of property law. The transformation of the armed seizure of black bodies and the theft of black labor into bills of lading and acts of sale, however, covered up a crime that made severe demands on the body politic. A key challenge for founding U.S. statesmen was to reconcile the creation of a legal order with support of a criminal enterprise. The inability to resolve this contradiction introduced a slippage, in which the plunder of black bodies was transferred to the natural criminality of the enslaved. The slave was "by nature a thief," Benjamin Franklin, argued, later amending this assertion to argue that a propensity for thieving was a consequence of slavery as an institution. Thomas Jefferson claimed that the emancipation of slaves would threaten U.S. society itself, leading to the need for a permanent sequester of freed people far from U.S. shores. Blacks unable to forget the terrible wrongs done to them would nurse murderous wishes and intentions, while whites would live in a state of anticipatory fear that urged preemptive violence, resulting in a likely "extermination of the one or the other race," that is, race war. Regardless of its ascribed source or etiology (oppression from whites or the nature of blacks), the racial line constructing civil life marked a materially and existentially consequential mistrust born of criminal acts.

A similar logic can be observed in justifications of land appropriation. Like the black presence within, "the red men" on the border, to paraphrase James Madison, presented an obstacle to the perfection of the republic. Although Indians were also enslaved in the early colonial period, U.S. settlement was predicated on a presumption of (limited) Indian freedom, including title to land that could be transferred only to the new nation-state, under federal authority. The problem, as John Jay complained to Jefferson in 1776, was "Indian affairs have been ill managed. ... Indians have been killed by our People in cold blood and no satisfaction given, nor are they pleased with the avidity with which we acquire their lands." The killing Jay deplored was on the order of extrajudicial murder and therefore problematic for those who worried about the dispositions of stable, centralized governance and legal order. Yet punishing these actions as crimes risked an even more destabilizing settler revolt. Jay's framing of Indian killing as a managerial problem and with respect to those denoted as "our People" demonstrated that such killing retained an implicit government imprimatur.

At both the local and the individual scale, the ideal of freedom as self-rule was directly linked to a moral and legal right to murder or sequester racial outsiders — designated as savages and slaves — in the name of infrastructure development, collective security, and private accumulation. The production of the normatively and legally valorized white citizenry was the basis of national sovereignty. Defined by statute, white status carried with it the presumption of innocence, protection, and fair dealing for those inside its civic ambit. Over time, and as its boundaries grew, it conferred a set of distinct yet conjoined social, political, and economic "freedoms" across a social order based on sharply unequal levels of private accumulation.

Insofar as slavery and settlement were defined by laws of property, whiteness has been rightly discussed as akin to private property or self-possession. But whiteness did not issue directly from ownership of property, let alone slave property. Rather, it emerged from the protection of private property and the interests of its holders in relation to those who were thought to have no property and thus no calculable interests, and who were therefore imagined to harbor a potentially criminal disregard for a social order organized on this basis. Whiteness, in short, was designed as an intermediary status distinction that worked to extend, fortify, and equalize the government of public life in a world dominated by private property holders whose possessions included other human beings and lands already inhabited, but unframed by claims of legal ownership.

Slave owners and large landholders were a distinct minority in the new nation. Asserting whiteness as its own peculiar form of property, allowed them to offer a quasi-democratizing stake in an order that supported land-and slave-owning interests. Whiteness suggested a relationship between the differential valuation of human beings and valuable access to indigenous land and human capital (that is, slaves), and later to skilled jobs and varieties of state support. In the antebellum South's minimal state, the slave tax was a significant source of public revenue, and extraordinary levies on slave property were made by the federal government in times of war (and by the Confederacy during the Civil War). For the majority destined for waged (or wageless) life under capitalism, claiming and asserting whiteness promoted access to public benefits, as well as to the sadistic pleasures and material rewards derived from the management of racial order itself. The racial differentiation of society over centuries has been continuously remade as the quasi-democratic counterpart to the publicly sanctioned accumulation of private wealth and the social costs, divisions, forms of remediation, and crises that it has engendered. The democracy in question, however, foreclosed aspirations toward material equality even as it promoted the idea that policing as a method for regulating and securing the unequal ordering of property relations — was arrogated to white citizens.

Policing has been broadly understood as preventive mechanisms and institutions for ensuring the security of private property within public order, including legal uses of and narrative justifications for coercive force. Policing is anticipatory: it comprises, in Foucault's influential account, those "supervisions, checks, inspections and varied controls, that, even before the thief has stolen makes it possible to identify whether he is going to steal." Where discipline in Foucault's schema seeks to arrest the movement of wrong[doing] bodies in space by means of varieties of artificial enclosure, security enables the proper circulation of people and things across great distances. Policing, in this sense, as John Burgess noted, is the paradigmatic institution for a society founded on individual liberty. It marries juridical consistency with administrative prerogative, coordinates the proportion of carceral space to open space, and balances the necessary use of force with the inherent riskiness of a society dependent upon consent of the governed. Policing further differentiates between the need to arrest and the imperative to develop; it determines, finally, who must be subjected to discipline so that others can pursue their self-interest.

Often overlooked by Foucault-inspired accounts of policing and security is the way the constitution of this predictive, self-aggrandizing power within the United States, as well as in other slave-owning, settler-colonial, and colonizing societies, has been bound to plural forms of racial differentiation against which an elastic and inclusive sense of national belonging coalesced. The American settler colonies' break from British imperial control accelerated independent social, political, and material development through territorial expansion achieved by white settlement. Though ascribed to providence and nature, the design was consciously economic and biopolitical, the product of elite policy formulation that broadened the latitude and democratic basis of settlement by rooting it in private ownership and control of land, and a relatively open and flexible conception of political membership. The homogenization of the nonslave, settler polity (some three-quarters of whom were propertyless) was underlined by the designation "free white persons" quietly inserted into the first U.S. immigration statute, of 1790, which provided a path to citizenship requiring a short two-year residency. Judgments about settler and emigrant sameness, or their capacity to become the same: a "new race of men ... an American race," in Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's memorable formulation, was the basis of a novel ethnology of government.

Demographic engineering and abstractions and simplifications of parceled land jointly produced American national legibility. Benjamin Franklin's famous longing that an "Edenic" North America might become a production hub for the world's "purely white people," though not borne out, was no pious wish: it supported conscious government intervention in the sociobiological constitution of human collectivity across long arcs of migration and encounter. Jefferson viewed the "federative principle," underlined by a homogenizing political anthropology, as unassailable and potentially limitless: "It is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms and by similar laws," he wrote, in an echo of Franklin. "Nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface."

The prevention of blot and mixture required more than moral suasion: in a polity founded on slaving and land appropriation, the criminalization of blackness and redness was an indispensable feature of liberal government. The Declaration of Independence, authored largely by Jefferson, constituted the democratic future of those endowed with inalienable rights as vulnerable not only to threats from the despotic powers of the British king, but also to dangers that the crown was accused of inciting: "domestic insurrections" (a code for slave revolts) and alliances with the "inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." This radical view of settler liberty defined the new sovereign nation against a stratified British empire, decried by Thomas Paine as "that barbarous and hellish power which has stirred up the Indians and Negroes to destroy us," Two decades later, the anti-Federalists advanced the case for the possession of Louisiana on the grounds that French imperial meddling would lead "the tomahawk of the savage and knife of the negro to confederate," an outcome that promised "no interval of peace."

The influential writings of John Locke made a lasting contribution to the argument for colonial settlement in North America: the idea that Indians remained in a "state of war" with a close kinship with beasts of the forest. Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government envisioned an original condition, a benign state of nature comprising "the vacant places of America," that yielded to the rational consent of men of wealth who justly acquired landed property but who agreed to cede their otherwise unlimited natural liberty to form a civil government that precluded the exercise of arbitrary power in their relations with each other. In a second, more concretely historical view of the state of nature, however, Locke foregrounded the threats that motivated civil compact. The state of nature may devolve into a "state of war" — the result of the presence of a vaguely defined "ill nature" and of the persistence of "criminals" and "noxious Creatures," who "declared War against all Mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a Lyon or a Tyger, one of those wild Savage Beasts, with whom Men can have no Society nor Security."

Classical liberal thinking about war and peace, in this founding vision, opposed an already "moralized" state of nature — whose tendencies toward individual labor and (unequal) private accumulation led automatically toward the development of rational self-interest, civil regulation, and peaceful modes of trade and conflict resolution — against the persistence of zones of wild, uncultivated nature — where the absence of propertied interest promoted a state of war and justified removals, evictions, enclosures, enslavement, and settlement. Settler encroachment, Indian raiding, irregular warfare, and ensuing cycles of revenge and retaliation were the historical backdrop to these reflections, embedding conceptions of the savage enemy deep within the most reflective and progressive thinking of the colonial era. The prospect of feral Indian terror was not only the antithesis of liberal order but also invited an extreme violence, even terror, in response and as a requisite to securing that order. In its meditations on "America," classical liberalism thus discovered a basis for exceptions to the universal applicability of natural law and for limitations on the coercive power of sovereign governments in their relations with each other and their citizens, by preserving and extending an older tradition of the "just war," defined as resisting the irruptions of the state of nature against the state of civil law.

Classical liberalism similarly justified the enslavement of captives. Enslavement was an alternative to killing an enemy in a just war that embedded the power to enslave and to dispose of the life of slaves within modern conceptions of political sovereignty. The links between war and slavery were well understood in the Carolinas, where Locke participated in drafting the Foundational Constitution (1669), Here, warfare with Indian tribes and enslavement of captives existed alongside the African slave trade. The fact that Locke offered arguments for the reconciliation of slavery and natural rights is generally ignored in most commentaries. "Master and servant," Locke writes, "are names as old as history," and bound by contract. "But there is another sort of servant, which by a peculiar name we call slaves, who being captives in a just war are by right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their master. These men having, as I say forfeited their lives and with it their liberties."

The doctrine of war slavery limned the historical convergence of settler expansionism and racial slavery in North America, linking both to the idea of the just war or police action against an "ill nature" that supposedly precedes (but in fact persistently shadows) the establishment of civil order, political consent, and the moral and legal regulation of warfare and state violence inside and between empires and settler polities that claimed the sovereign title of nations. As elaborated in an imperial, settler-colonial, and slaveholding context, liberalism's typical "limitation of power" was thus selective and bounded: it paradoxically licensed a flexible and expansive ideology of war at the margins of civic order. Significantly, Locke framed crimes against property, including those that did not threaten physical harm, as warranting punishment up to and including homicide. Despite stating concerns about punishment proportionate to criminal acts, Locke writes, "It is lawful for a man to kill a thief." This is because theft of property de facto entered the criminal, outlaw, or thief into "a state of war" that threatened the natural rights of the individual and the basis of civil government.


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Copyright © 2017 Nikhil Pal Singh.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

Introduction: The Long War
1. Race, War, Police
2. From War Capitalism to Race War
3. The Afterlife of Fascism
4. Racial Formation and Permanent War
5. The Present Crisis
Epilogue: The Two Americas


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