The Affective Work of Blackness: On the Value of Black Labor for the White Imagination

Cliven Bundy’s ranting on race has been pretty widely shared now and he’s been pretty roundly denounced as a “nut job” by many white people on the left and right.

But instead of doing the work of distancing him from us even more, I wanted to think about the ways his statements belie an intimacy or entanglement that we’re best not to ignore. I want to elaborate how his words and behavior depend on the affective labor that blackness performs. By affective labor, I simply mean how the figure of blackness is used to conjure up certain affective responses, strengthen social bonds, or ideas and imaginations that bolster white subjectivity and capitalistic notions of property, accumulation, and wealth.

Bundy starts by playing the role of the conjurer. He wants to tell us “one more thing about the Negro,” as if he is a seer with secret information on black life, inviting us to step a bit closer and listen as he deepens our knowledge of the black. But instead of a revelation about black life, this moment turns into a revelation about white supremacist imagination and it’s chronic forgetfulness.

in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids – and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch – they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.

Here I want to note that for the white imagination, there is no interiority to blackness. All Bundy needs to know about blackness, he can surmise from black exteriority. This is an instance of what Karen and Barbara Fields call “racecraft,” whereby the practice of racism performs a sleight of hand that locates the offense in the blackness of the skin (or the blackness of the biology) instead of the force and violence of the law that positions blackness as always already in transgression of the law. Playing on the word and ideas behind witchcraft, the Fields note how in our current imagination, the ideas people used to legitimate witchcraft seem utterly ridiculous, yet they deployed them as reasonable just the same and were able to pass laws, create religious doctrines, take land, murder, etc., because of these notions of witchcraft. Similarly, racecraft performs the same kind of ludicrous work, but is still active in our imaginations, so that the kinds of associations Bundy makes between blackness and abjection, blackness and a (lack of) labor, etc., are made all the time without a thought.

Here, Bundy assuredly works his racecraft as if he’s performing a task as natural as rounding up cattle: he sets the scene of abjection (the projects); he lays out the players (black adults and kids with nothing to do); and, he works his magic. For, it is the people afflicted by blackness who are made to be morally culpable in his logic: “ They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.” Indeed, the failings of civil society are made coterminous with a lack of black moral and personal responsibility. The magic trick is complete now. With everyone focused on Bundy pondering whether blacks are better off than they were in slavery, the magic he’s performing, mixing blackness and some American mythology to conjure the rightness of his own entitlement—his own subjectivity—goes unnoticed.

The Limits of Liberty

Liberty and labor go hand in hand here in the land of the free. They go hand in hand, all over the country, plucking up rights to land and accumulating wealth along the way.

That this liberty and labor might depend on the shackled labor of another never crosses the mind of the constitutionalist, or the liberal democrat, or the conservative republican. That liberty is the problem and not the solution is not an idea you’ll find argued on Meet the Press, or Up with Chris Hayes, or Morning Joe, or maybe even the Melissa Harris-Perry show. But it’s not a liberty that is available for blackness because all along it’s been built as a wall between citizenship and blackness—blackness being the limit to how far citizenship and its rights and entitlements can extend.

Yet all around we go on perpetuating this notion that what America values more than anything is, to quote our president, “If you work hard, you can make it in America and that’s the chance we have in this country.” But the chance at liberty has always been a risky gamble for black folks, who know liberty was invented with a coffle and a violence. The inherent value in hard work that Americans keep repeating can’t be true with its shoddy history of fairly compensating those who are doing the hardest work and its complete lack of ability to provide redress for past grievances, whether that be stolen land, uncompensated labor, or being the objects of undue violence. Thus, it is not a degraded work ethic that keeps those black folks congregating on the porch with “nothing to do … nothing for their kids to do … nothing for their young girls to do.” It is the recognition that the ethic of work in this country is far from ethical and will be as long as it depends on making blackness a depraved body in need of redemption.1

Putting Blackness to Work

Mistaking the exteriority of black suffering for moral failings is common in the white imagination. It’s also one of the ideas about blackness that is sedimented in white American Christianity. Where being a Christian becomes synonymous, not with following Christ, but with following the market. Instead of creating disciples, then, one must create laborers. The work of the gospel is converting bad laborers into good ones for the sake of the market. There is an accumulation here, not just of capital and wealth, but of laboring bodies and space within which those bodies are put to work. The spread of the gospel is the spread of productive spaces, spaces where there is no congregating on the porch “doing nothing” because there is some work to be done.

It’s no surprise, then, that particularly Christian takes on startups, uncritical calls for sharing economies, and localism in urban environments are gaining such purchase in young white imaginations as the ways in which justice ought to be pursued. This is because, in white Christian imagination, justice is tied to redemption and the urban environment, especially the “inner-city” (which is code for places where black people live), is always a place to be redeemed in the white Christian imagination. Making the work of the gospel about justice is actually part and parcel of the work of redeeming the abject. Thus, land that holds black bodies congregating becomes fallow, and needs to be put to work for another purpose which is the accumulation of wealth, and an education in the virtue of labor.

A video I came across recently depicted the kind of unthinking logic that what black people in poverty most need is white patriarchal guidance and an education in labor. The founder of the skateboard company startup is also tied to a church that might as well be called a startup.

Salemtown Board Co. from Salemtown Board Co. on Vimeo.

What was so fascinating to me about this video is the narrative that what’s wrong with this neighborhood is a lack of fathers and a lack of labor. Indeed, the ways fatherhood is tied to inheritance and the accumulation of wealth is foundational to the founder’s idea of what justice looks like. That his own father owns a woodshop an hour outside of Nashville and the historical means by which this land and woodshop were acquired can’t, of course, be brought into question. And of course, this relationship of the father passing on his inheritance is caught up in ideas of God, the heavenly father, who bestows wealth on his obedient children. 2

Here we see that access to wealth and wealth creation is often dependent on access to land. And, in light of the systematic disposession of black and indigenous and asian Americans, these ideas of redeeming the “inner-city” depend on erasing the work “redemption” has already been doing on black neighborhoods and communities. The cycle of disinvestment from black neighborhoods followed by their reinvestment as a way of displacing black people isn’t new and is tied to these notions of the lack of work ethic. What these spaces need, it is proposed, is to be put to work, never thinking about why they weren’t working in the first place except to the extent the failure to work can be posited as a moral failure.

But we know the idea of black fathers being absent is a myth3, that proposing marriage and more work as the solutions to what ails black people is to ignore that those “solutions” are what have plagued black people for centuries.4 That is, the accumulation of wealth and property through marriage for white people has never worked for blacks in the same way, and that is intentional.5

It is a cruel irony, then, that people (especially white and middle class people) persist in positing an influx of white people with middle class ideals about labor, liberty, and morality as what will save poor black people from themselves. Indeed, no one ever wonders at negative effects of such an education. That we may not want the Christian/capitalist-driven ideals these missionaries to the “inner-city” (which we might as well call them) are hoping will rub off on black people.

None of these white seers like Bundy or Henley, who have such clear insight into what plagues black communities, ever argues that the problem with black folks is that they have been over-educated in capitalist accumulation (though they will argue that blacks are too materialistic, to which I would respond, “so they’re capitalists? Isn’t that what you want?”). We don’t get treatises from these white missionaries proclaiming that what has been degrading black communities, black sociality, black life, is a systematic prevention of black generational wealth through the legal apparatus enforced by white militias and the violence of the state.

This notion that we need to educate black people in the way of capital misses the fact that this education in capitalistic accumulation is precisely what America’s project has always been and extreme black poverty under the guise of progressing freedoms is where it has brought us to, or rather, where it has stayed.

In this country, when black people’s lives have been most profitable for ourselves (rather than for a white plantation owner, or corporation—which is a bit redundant, since the two are so similar—or for a white nation-state that profits on black misery) has been when we are “doing nothing” together. When we steal away to do “nothing” like plotting escapes together. When we hide in a crawl space for years to do “nothing” like refusing the sexual violence of slavery. When we do “nothing” together like congregating on a porch as a Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, defending our right to do “nothing”. When we do “nothing” like sitting in a segregated restaurant as the shaking jowls and violent threats of some white folks signal the ability of this “nothing” to outrage and disrupt the “something” that capital was putting to work in those white businesses.

When black people get together and work “nothing,” shaping it into some kind of critical material that resists being put to work by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—this is when we are the greatest threat to the political economy of misery.6

And this critical labor—doing “nothing” together—is precisely why white supremacy wants to put us to work.

  1. The refusal of labor here, which through a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal lens (because we must note how he singles out the young girls as having nothing to do) looks like laziness and abjection, is actually a site of black sociality. That is, rather than laboring, striving to produce an illusion of rights to land or wealth, they are laboring to accumulate blackness as the idea of a critical culture and share it amongst each other.
  2. I’m actually intending to write about whiteness, Christian imperialism & coloniality, and prosperity gospels soon.
  6. As Emilie Townes would call it.
  7. Here’s the video of Bundy speaking


2 thoughts

  1. Thanks for a very high quality post on many levels. W/R/T to the dignity of work, how come “whites” who are 90%??? of the U.S. population can’t get a job playing corner back in the NFL. In fact, unless you’re talking about offensive line or qb, it’s tough for them to find a job on any NFL roster. I’m not the one to do it and I’m not sure it’s a great idea, but if “white” people want to talk about “work,” maybe that’s an issue they should address.

    I don’t have a solution to these next three issues, which are tangential to your main points, but I’ll raise them anyway.

    IMHO, anytime we use terms such as (1)race, (2)white/black, it’s a big win for white supremacists.

    Maybe there’s a biologist who can correct me, but I thought dolphins and humans had racial differences. I thought differences among humans were ethnic.

    Bundy wouldn’t have been ushered out of the GOP talking points so quickly if he hadn’t included anti-Semitism in his white supremacy. On blogs when folks start using the term “white,” I think it’s “helpful” to press them for details. Is Jessica Alba “white?” Do you consider “Jews/folks with semetic ancestors,” as “white?” What about the Irish? I don’t think Margaret Thatcher considered them “white.” If you let the Irish in, what about those of us with Polish ancestors? If you let the Irish and the Poles in, what about the Italians? If the “Italians” are “in,” the white club, what about anyone with any Latin blood? ….. If there’s a disagreement about who is “white,” is there a court that adjudicates that?

    IMHO, what well-educated white supremacists mean by “white,” is ethnic purity, 100% European-American. That doesn’t roll off the tongue or keyboard quite as easily as “white,” but imho it better reveals their real objective.

    I’d like to see someone ask Bundy (or anyone who claims “whiteness” matters) to take a DNA test. My guess is that the real percentage of 100% European-Americans is tiny.

    1. A separate issue you post connects with is labor-saving robots.

    “With Farm Robotics, the Cows Decide When It’s Milking Time”

    IMHO, a federal job guarantee, such as FDR envisioned or a basic income guarantee, (aka negative income tax) or a combination which even Milton Friedman and Nixon supported, or a combination of both are critical to bringing appropriate technology which rescues workers at the bottom from mind-numbing/killing jobs.

    Obviously there are great dangers that robots can accelerate the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1% of the 1%.

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