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Holding All The Slavery: Michelle Alexander, Jose Antonio Vargas, and the New Citizenship of the Same Old Notblackness

This past week, the New York Times published an Op-ed by Michelle Alexander entitled “None Of Us Deserve Citizenship.” And for anyone who’s been following Mrs. Alexander’s work recently, the subject matter—while a departure from her previous scholarship on the incarceration of black men as a modern analog to Jim Crow—probably doesn’t register as too much of a surprise.

Last November, she sat down with Jose Antonio Vargas—the author of the book Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen—at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary for an installment of the institution’s ‘Spirit of Justice’ series. During the discussion, the two used Mr. Vargas’s memoir as an entryway into exploring ‘vital questions of our time,’ all of which were informed by precisely the sort of nervous, hand-wringing worry over our apparently hypocritical and morally bankrupt relationship to the concept of citizenship that Michelle Alexander expressed in her Times column last Friday.

As was plainly evident that night, Mrs. Alexander and Mr. Vargas share a sympathetic view of undocumented immigrants and are equally troubled by prevailing attitudes toward the group. To use Vargas’s own words, his work aims to shift our understanding of immigrants away from one in which they are “seen as mere labor”—their “physical bodies judged by perceptions of what [they] contribute, or what [they] take”—and toward an understanding grounded in compassion in which their existence is no longer “as broadly criminalized as it is commodified.”1

Yet for all of its concern with the dehumanizing plight of undocumented immigrants, Dear America is noticeably void of references to figures both past and present who have actually fought for rights on behalf of that group and advocated for exactly the sort of liberal immigration policy that the book itself seems to uphold as the enlightened, progressive model we ought to strive to implement. People like Sylvia Mendez, Rodolfo Gonzales, Luisa Moreno and Ravi Ragbar receive no mention at all in the two-hundred plus pages given over to encouraging a reader to reimagine what citizenship means; to—as Vargas had said that night at Union Theological Seminary—think of citizenship not “as by law or by paper,” but rather as a fundamentally moral way of belonging in the world that first asks “what is my relationship to other people?”2

Instead, it is to African-Americans—particularly Civil Rights leaders and writers—that Mr. Vargas predominantly appeals when putting forward the radical argument that we ought to jettison citizenship as that which confers certain civic and legal rights onto an individual. Which is to say that the group whose history has been a lethal struggle to actually even just partially secure citizenship as some kind of basic defense against the otherwise wholesale assault on black life in America—let alone be able to meaningfully participate in the opportunities offered in the world’s richest nation (riches they made possible)—is the very group Mr. Vargas would point to when trying to advance a project that ultimately seeks to make that access available to anyone on the planet.

This leveraging of the particular U.S. black experience in the service of other marginalized groups was apparent onstage in November when he was asked by Michelle Alexander essentially the same question that animated her recent Times column: that is, if there is no moral justification for our political borders, then what? Mr. Vargas began his response by saying, “Migration is going to be the defining question of the twenty-first century,” a claim which recalls nothing so much as it does W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous proclamation from The Souls of Black Folk, where he writes, “The problem of the twentieth-century is the problem of the color line.”

Of course what’s so troubling about Mr. Vargas’s assertion is the assumption which—at its core—suggests that we have meaningfully resolved that social dilemma here at home of which Du Bois spoke, and that we should now apply our resources toward providing relief for a new generation of victims of U.S. foreign policy. Or that—insofar as we concede that we have not resolved it—there shouldn’t be any reason to view the sort of justice owed the black community and the plight of undocumented immigrants as fraught with any sort of tension, or as mutually exclusive given certain realities in our political economy.

It’s this attitude which—if adopted uncritically in a broader movement of social justice—is one that necessarily threatens to undermine the specific justice claim of American descendants of slaves, one by which citizenship can be conceived as the primary mechanism for holding government accountable for its constitutional transgressions against them as a group. Nonetheless, when Michelle Alexander asks Mr. Vargas if he is optimistic about African-Americans adopting a position wherein their citizenship ceases to serve that specific emancipatory possibility, he responds again by appealing to a member of their group: “I have the James Baldwin answer,” he says, “I cannot afford to be a pessimist because I am alive. And to be a pessimist means that life is nothing but an academic matter and so therefore I am forced to be an optimist.” He then says “it’s inevitable,” and that “the only way out of this mess that we are in is to insist on how these issues and these peoples are interconnected, all intersectional.”


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James Baldwin is referenced a total of five times in Mr. Vargas’s book. “Baldwin challenged my very core,” he writes. Toni Morrison is mentioned seven times: “No book stimulated me more than Morrison’s [The Bluest Eye]”. Along with Maya Angelou, these authors comprise what Vargas considers his “holy trinity of spiritual guidance.” Black writers, he maintains, “gave [him] permission to question America.”

There is, though, a thin line between permission to critique and permission to co-opt. And it appears Vargas is very much engaged in a project of the latter with respect to the African-American struggle in this country. Dear America is filled with instances that betray a total cluelessness of how the black experience in America is fundamentally an experience of continuously being made to undergo the consequences of coming from chattel slavery, a particularity whose essential economic dimension differentiates it from that of other minorities who—precisely because they emerge from an entirely different historical circumstance—have been afforded a relatively greater degree of social mobility in America.

That Vargas is either indifferent toward this distinction, or simply oblivious, is apparent when he writes: “Understanding the experience of black people in America—why black was created so people could be white—pried open how Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups have been historically oppressed through laws and systems that had little to do with what was right.” In fact, a genuine understanding of the experience of black people in America would necessarily acknowledge the specific quality of its injustice, and not try to shoehorn the struggle to right that wrong in with a plurality of oppressed groups who have all historically enjoyed a modicum of advantage at the expense of black people who were repeatedly excluded from access to opportunities to be lifted out of grinding, generational poverty.

That advantage is in fact nowhere more obvious than in Mr. Vargas’s own family’s experience in America. His great Aunt, who was married to a former U.S. marine, owned the 3-bedroom house in California in which Vargas lived throughout his childhood.3 The name of the town Vargas grew up in is Mountain View, which is located in Santa Clara county.

Like so many American cities, Mountain View was extremely hostile to efforts at residential integration. In his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein tells the story of Ben Gross, the chair of the Ford automobile plant’s union housing committee. After Ford executives announced plans to close the plant in the Richmond-Oakland area and move production to an expanded facility in Milpitas about an hour south, Mr. Gross tried to find a developer to create an interracial subdivision that would provide housing for the plant’s approximately 250 black workers whose union had negotiated an agreement that allowed them to keep their jobs and be transferred to the new plant.

Rothstein describes how—looking at Mountain View as a possible location—the developer “could not find a financial institution in the San Francisco Bay Area willing to provide funds for a development that would permit sales to African Americans.” Forced to look elsewhere for financing, a loan was eventually secured from the vice-president of New York’s Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. However, as Rothstein says, “when the builder’s intent to sell to both blacks and whites became known, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors moved to rezone the site from residential to industrial use.” On the developer’s next attempt to obtain a different plot of land in Mountain View for integrated housing, city officials informed him “they would never grant the necessary approvals” for a project of that nature. Soon after, Rothstein writes, “the builder gave up.”

During this same time was when another developer—a man named William Blackfield—broke ground on Rex Manor, a tract of 394 homes in Mountain View, one of which would become the house that Mr. Vargas’s great aunt and her husband would own.4 That house, located on Farley Street, is now valued at 1.7 million dollars, which is in fact the median price of homes throughout Rex Manor and just slightly less than the median home value in the Mountain View area more generally, which is 1.9 million. Given the racially restrictive history that Rothstein described, and the way in which that pattern of segregation tends to get reproduced each generation, it does not require much thought as to which group holds effectively none of that wealth. Indeed, the black population of Rex Manor—at 2%—is basically nonexistent. And on Farley Street—where Mr. Vargas presumably began to absorb the full measure of the black experience in this country—it is literally 0.0%.


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“The parallels are endless,” Michelle Alexander told Mr. Vargas in November, between the phenomenon of mass incarceration and that of mass deportation. “People don’t generally think of mass incarceration as being a response to demographic shifts,” she said, with Vargas sitting beside her in an attitude of thoughtfulness, nodding along, “but that’s exactly what it was, as suddenly this huge new population of people were entering into new neighborhoods, new jobs, and then people began to fear the loss of their white racial status.”

In a way, it was sort of baffling to have witnessed firsthand the nation’s preeminent scholar on mass incarceration describe in such baldly misleading terms the circumstances that led to the unprecedented imprisonment of black men in the U.S. We need only look to a place like Mountain View for a clear understanding of how black people were essentially made incapable of moving, of ‘entering new neighborhoods’ and ‘new jobs.’ The jobs left them, and they were left to neighborhoods like Richmond and Oakland, where a festering of crime is simply the natural outcome of isolating and quarantining an already profoundly wealth-poor group of people, and then heavily policing the resultant symptoms of poverty. And while it’s convenient for the purposes of Mrs. Alexander and Mr. Vargas’s argument to suggest that the two groups have historically shared a similar degree of agency when it comes to physical mobility, the fact is that—while the undocumented come here5—American descendants of slaves are here only because their ancestors were brought here. And because they were kept in a condition of constraint and immobility so total that it still today ripples through the generations, they’ve been rendered an almost continually-palsied people with respect to economic opportunity. They have none because the rigidity of an economy built on antiblackness simply would not by its very design permit it. There couldn’t be an integrated Mountain View, and so there must be necessarily be a black Oakland. And Oakland must be made so that the essential feature of American blackness—an economic condition of near-total constraint and easily sourceable profit—gets reproduced and manages to persist even despite the twentieth-century sleight of impartial, ‘colorblind’ policy. Oakland becomes, in effect, one of many urban areas in which slavery and Jim Crow are reconstituted so that whiteness elsewhere can continue to be anything that is built on top of black failure.

In light of Rothstein’s account, what else is Mountain View, really? It’s where everyone who wasn’t black and saddled with the cost of coming from chattel slaves went to become white. As Yvette Carnell at Breaking Brown repeatedly says, “whiteness is normality.” She describes America as being “a place where everybody—white, black, brown—comes to make themselves white.” Similarly, Antonio Moore frames whiteness in those same terms: not as a type of privilege that is strictly limited to white skin, but rather as a relatively superior ability to navigate American life by being able to plug into opportunities of advantage. This exact concept of whiteness as a thing that can be inhabited haunts nearly every page of Dear America. Throughout, there is the extremely uneasy tension between the sort of ‘spiritual mentorship’ provided Mr. Vargas by black literary figures—which shapes in him a kind of consciousness of racial justice, a kind of critical attitude toward whiteness—and the professional mentorship that he receives beginning at a very young age, which is provided exclusively by white people, and that actually materially shapes the whole of Mr. Vargas’s life.6

That the professional mentorship he receives while in America is routinely one accompanied by the mentor’s financial support speaks to the glaring contradiction at the heart of a project that aims to subvert whiteness as a power structure without first confronting and meaningfully challenging the grounds—the negation—on which it is essentially constructed and by which it continues to be accessible to any person, regardless of skin color, who does not come from that history of transgenerational deprivation that Mr. Vargas’s spiritual mentors wrote about at such length.

At one point in Vargas’s memoir, he writes, “There comes a moment in each of our lives when we must confront the central truth in order for life to go on.” However, the closest that he gets to acknowledging the central truth of how literally everything in his life is anchored in the financial stability of whiteness—which is to say, the contingency of black exclusion—is when he writes, “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if I had not attended a relatively wealthy school in a community of privilege.” And while there is in this reflection some suggestion that he is at least dimly aware of all that white wealth has made possible for him—how it was the white people in his life “who would find windows and try to open them when doors were shut”—there is really no attempt at all to think beyond his extremely rare and individual experience of white philanthropy in order to connect that to a larger project of advocating for institutionally-based reparative justice for the black community, a community to whom he repeatedly makes clear he owes such a tremendous spiritual and (although it is unquestionably less clear to Mr. Vargas) material debt.7


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The word reparations appears zero times in Dear America. This despite the fact that his life here simply does not exist without the exclusionary policies that prevented black people from having the sort of access to opportunities that allowed Mr. Vargas a place in society that—in so many ways—vastly exceeds the semblance of belonging that has defined black citizenship in this country since the Civil War amendments.

And insofar as he is attempting to now advance a concept of citizenship that he describes as a “citizenship of participation…[of] using your voice while making sure you hear other people around you,” then he utterly fails at his own project by not explicitly naming what so obviously drives the disorder of black disadvantage, and which has prevented descendants of slaves from, as a group, ever really participating in American life in any recognizably normal manner.

Mr. Vargas’s notional citizenship is defined by “how you live your life.” A way of being in the world that is implicitly present. And as long as that mode of relating to others is not exactingly attentive to history, or is not one that prioritizes the need to structurally adjust how whiteness as a power structure has been perfectly accessible even to members of marginalized groups whose legacy is not its very foundation; as long as that mode of relating claims to be in opposition to white supremacy but is not premised on an undoing of black disadvantage that entails some sacrifice—some loss elsewhere—then whiteness or notblackness will always be sought after, and opening up the borders absent that commitment will only accelerate the cementation of a caste system in which black people are at the absolute bottom. White supremacy does not go away simply by the addition of more people of color who—in the idealistic open borders fantasy—are somehow not going to compete for their families.

And this is precisely the problem. It’s hard to think of a time in recent memory where the Left doesn’t treat its mission of social justice for the black community like something that resembles a torch relay, with that group’s plight supposedly needed to ignite another’s and so on and so on with each new leg of the race. The assumption is, of course, one of mutual benefit, of reciprocity in the progression towards universal justice. And while the Left has been encouraging them to participate in the relay using this strategy for some time now, it would seem the Left is nearing the limits of their apparent theoretical wisdom to actually produce some empirical proof of concept. And that it’s going to get more and more difficult to continuously counsel patience, or to demand more compliance as being for the black community’s own good, all while ignoring the overall result being that—while other marginalized groups get to run with all the moral force of the African-American struggle—the descendants of slaves simply get left—as Yvette Carnell says—holding all the slavery.

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NOTES

1. Vargas’s nonprofit group, Define American, wears its apoliticalness proudly. “Our tactics, from the outset,” Vargas writes, “have focused on neither policy nor politics.” Define American instead proceeds from a belief that “you cannot change the politics of immigration until you change the culture in which immigration is seen.” In this way, Define American is entirely invested in the depiction and portrayal of immigrants through media (and insofar as the organization is committed to the cause of advocating for all oppressed groups more generally, the depiction and portrayal of all victims of discrimination and prejudice as well). No doubt storytelling and narrative are an important and powerful part in—if not changing attitudes—at least helping shape the discussion in a way that promotes a more accessible type of engagement with the various struggles of marginalized groups. And while Define American’s cofounders seem to represent a kind of panoply of oppressed groups, the conspicuously absent representative in the mix is an American descendant of slave. Jehmu Greene, the African-American slice of diversity at the committee’s helm, is the daughter of Liberian immigrants. And so what are the implications of founding an organization intended to shape broad cultural understandings of victimization while, at the same time, leaving out a voice that can personally speak to the singular plight of American descendants of slaves? Certainly it would seem that, if there were one group that would be essential in shaping a kind of consciousness about what ‘defines American,’ or really challenging the assumptions of what constitutes our place here, it would be the group whose victimhood is foundational to America as a nation in the first place; the people who were violently coerced to come here, made to labor for free in the service of creating the richest nation in the world, to only then later be terrorized and excluded from accessing any of that wealth.

2. Although his name doesn’t make it into the book for reasons which should become clear, Mr. Vargas did once cite Larry Itliong during an interview with Ruben Navarratte. “When I get down,” Vargas said, “I find a lot of comfort in history. In knowing that whatever I am going through, other people survived it. Look at Americans like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, Larry Itliong.” The mention of Itliong in a promotional interview for a book about lax immigration policy, and written with the intent of changing dominant attitudes toward the plight of undocumented workers is perhaps one of the most complicating and undermining elements of Vargas’s whole project. It exposes not only his own limitations with respect to historical knowledge, but also offers an illuminating example of the limitations of an ideology that recognizes no tension between the importation of a supply of vulnerable workers and the capacity of the U.S. labor movement to make meaningful inroads in the fight against capital. This is something that Larry Itliong himself—who is most known for his leadership role in the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee—understood. AWOC was a leading opponent of Public Law 78, and the Bracero Program, in which Mexican nationals were brought into the U.S. to work the fields at very low cost to the growers. Moreover, AWOC—whenever it became aware of growers engaging in the use of workers who undermined the farm labor movement—routinely protested to the relevant state and federal agencies. Itliong’s actions, one would think, would be totally repugnant to someone like Vargas.

3. Occupancy of the family in the house was arranged to take advantage of the third bedroom, which, Mr. Vargas says, “was rented out to a friend,” and which presumably functioned as a supplemental income for the family.

4. The home was an asset acquisition which—owing to Mr. Vargas’s great uncle’s military service—was likely assisted by the FHA-VA loans that, for African-Americans in postwar America, were virtually impossible to obtain.

5. And typically come here thanks to their community possessing an initial measure of wealth that makes the process of immigrating (legal or otherwise) possible in the first place. In Vargas’s own case, his grandfather paid “forty-five hundred dollars” for young Jose’s fake green card and passports. In today’s money, that is the equivalent of $8,000. Moreover, his grandfather hired a professional smuggler to get him into America. Today, these costs can range anywhere from $4,000 – $10,000.

6. There are truly too many instances to count where Mr. Vargas is provided an advantage by his proximity to whiteness. He describes how the “parents of well-to-do students were generous to many students from working-class families like [his], paying for field trips, no questions asked.” Fees for speech competitions “would be covered, with no trace of who paid for what.” In discussing the obstacle his undocumented status presented with respect to pursuing higher education, Vargas says his “adult mentors…were determined to figure out a way to send me to college.” That method would turn out to be “identifying a scholarship program that did not ask or care about [his] immigration status.” That scholarship was established by a “venture capitalist named Jim Strand,” whose children were Jose’s classmates at Mountain View High School. Mr. Vargas would go on to attend San Francisco State University on a four-year scholarship. Later, Jim Strand would arrange meetings for Mr. Vargas with immigration lawyers. “[Jim] covered the cost,” Mr. Vargas writes. When he is later in jeopardy of not being evicted, Jake Brewer—a friend of Jose’s—”transferred money to [his] Bank of America account so that [he] could make rent.” Jake Brewer also flew Mr. Vargas’s family and a handful of his friends out to Washington to be in attendance for his congressional hearing in an effort to help pass immigration reform: “Jake…took care of the logistics, flying everyone from California to Washington. Lola, Auntie Aida, and Uncle Conrad, joined by Pat, Rich, and Jim. Jake made sure they were all taken care of.” Throughout the memoir, there are also constant allusions made to the comforts he enjoys as a result of his social mobility courtesy of white charity. He “[flies] so much…that [he] often gets upgraded to first class.” He talks about purchasing a “big-ass place” and decorating his “massive loft,” and mentions his residences in some of the nation’s most expensive cities: Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

7. There’s this line in Dear America where Vargas, talking about his financial supporters, writes, “They did it because they could afford to; more importantly, they did it because they wanted to.” And so in a way, I guess Vargas’s advocacy of the philanthropic-centric approach of providing opportunity for marginalized people is merely an abiding belief in the result of his own experience; the belief that—because he had the good fortune of meeting some nice, wealthy white people—as long as we can convince more nice, wealthy white people to privately support efforts at uplift for marginalized peoples, and open the borders to provide an infusion of struggling groups, then we can meaningfully fight systemic racism. The shortcomings of this approach should be obvious enough. There are going to be plenty of nice, white wealthy people who are not interested in investing their money in black people for whatever reason. And because we are so segregated as a nation, it’s real unlikely that a nice, wealthy white person would even know a black person who they would be moved to invest in in the first place. Instead of relying on scenarios like his, where people “took an interest in [him]”, it would seem much more effective to advocate on behalf of groups who may not be so fortunate (or whose misfortune, it’s probably more exact to say, your good fortune is really only a result of); and to do this by pointing to government—the only entity that has the institutional juice to effect justice on that scale for black America—to coerce otherwise nice (but not that nice) white wealthy people to pay into a system actually interested in repairing their disadvantage.


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