“Viral Convergence”: Interconnected Pandemics as Portal to Racial Justice
"'Viral Convergence': Interconnected Pandemics as Portal to Racial Justice" by Catherine Powell was originally published on Just Security. This article is part of a special Just Security “Racing National Security” symposium edited by Just Security editorial board member Matiangai Sirleaf.
I want to start my contribution to this symposium on Racing National Security as James Gathii did – in his important essay – congratulating two rising stars, Matiangai Sirleaf and E. Tendayi Achiume, for their appointment to the Just Security editorial board. As part of the first group of Black scholars on the editorial board of the American Journal of International Law, Gathii and I have seen first-hand how, beyond representation, scholarly conversation has been enriched by broadening the range of experiences and perspectives. Further, as with the Négritude and Pan Africanist intellectual movements from generations ago, this Racing National Security symposium is one of a set of interventions that have bridged Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL). Such bridge building has led to novel insights – indeed, new paradigms of knowledge and political alliance.
Public Health Threats and Pandemics
My article sits at the intersection of CRT and TWAIL – and honors both – given my focus on the viral nature of injustice and the need to create frameworks of what Ruha Benjamin calls “viral justice.”
We live in a moment of interconnected pandemics – this era of COVID-19 pandemic has provided a window into the pandemics of policing, poverty, and racism around the globe. The fact that police officers arrested and killed George Floyd – and earlier, Eric Garner – for a crime of poverty, highlights the misguided ways that the United States (and other nations around the globe) wrongly address economic insecurity through the criminal justice system rather than through more effective, enduring solutions. The uprisings over police brutality and the murder charges brought against Derek Chauvin (the officer who placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds) are widely viewed as paving the way for a racial reckoning.
In order that we may live up to America’s founding ideals, the main argument in this article is that national security observers need to broaden the lens for analysis beyond military security – and what Trump today (and Nixon in the 1970s) opportunistically calls “law and order” – to encompass economic, physical, and human security. This more expansive understanding of “security,” in turn calls for transformative change, beyond incremental reform.
President Obama took a step in this direction, recognizing, for example, that “defending democracy and human rights is related to every enduring national interest.” When I worked for the White House National Security Council, I saw first-hand how elements of Obama’s foreign policy sought to promote economic and other forms of justice as cornerstones of our national interests in a secure and prosperous world. Of course, police violence has a long history in the United States, including during the Obama era, when Freddie Gray and Michael Brown were killed by police – the latter leading to the Ferguson uprising.
But today, we witness even larger and more sustained protests – with global dimensions – sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (the EMT worker who was shot by police “sleeping while Black”), Ahmaud Arbery (who was attacked by a former police officer “jogging while Black”), as well as many others. Thus, we have an opportunity to go even further toward transformational change, by viewing the COVID-19 pandemic as a “portal,” in the words of author Arundhati Roy, to a more just world.
Public Health Threats and Pandemics
For years, we have been told that it was not possible to provide everyone with a guaranteed basic income, and yet, with COVID-19, governments around the world have done just that (or provided expanded unemployment benefits). We have been told that it was not possible to ensure health access for all, and yet, with the current health crisis, governments around the globe provide free coronavirus testing and other subsidized care. Here in the United States, notably, calls to reverse Obamacare have subsided, at least for the moment, as even the Trump administration has begun slow-rolling its support for the legal attack on the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court, ensuring the Court will not address the merits of this latest challenge to the increasingly popular health program until after the 2020 election. So, it turns out transforming the law – and the march toward justice – was not impossible after all. As Martin Luther King (and abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker before him) intuited, bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice requires political will. And political will depends on political activism by “We the People” – at home and abroad.
The Pandemic as a Portal to “Viral Justice”
We might view racism itself as a virus – as a contagion that is sometimes invisible, but can kill. Turning this insight on its head, Ruha Benjamin calls for “viral justice.” Rather than viewing acts of racism as isolated incidents (or the acts of “a few bad apples”) Benjamin squarely confronts how:
[Racism] is systemic, connected, constructed, productive. We say racism is socially constructed, but we fail to state the corollary: racism constructs. It’s viral. If we were truly in this together, we would not be in this forever. [Racism] is not inevitable – it’s a series of choices. (emphasis in original)
To combat the virus of racism, Benjamin argues we must “recoup virality.” But more than a fleeting meme that goes viral, the virality of #BlackLivesMatter (or #MeToo and other social justice movements that go global) has moved beyond the performative to more meaningful calls for transformative change in our approach to public safety at all levels.
Small, individual acts of using a hashtag need not be superficial virtue signaling, othering, or reliant on celebrity popularism (as Kamari Clarke cautions in the context of the hashtag activism of the #BringBackOurGirls transnational campaign on behalf of the Nigerian Chibok girls abducted by Boko Haram militants). As Benjamin points out, “Small is not superficial. Creating spaces to breath is not superficial. The hashtag is a perfect example of the accumulation of many, connected individual acts. For us to each do better and demand better.” And yet, we must be mindful of what Zeynep Tüfekçi describes in her brilliant treatment of modern protest, Twitter and Teargas, as “the power and fragility of networked protest” as well as the raced terrain of internet (as Charlton McIllwain notes) and technology (as Tendayi Achiume’s recent United Nations report illustrates).
Tracing intellectual antecedents of CRT and TWAIL suggests both shared commitments and how we might recoup their critically significant shared tradition for developing a robust notion of “viral justice.” What might Black intellectual thought teach us about reconceiving (and “racing”) the notion of national “security.” Whose security? Security for what ends? To answer these questions, it is helpful to look backwards to draw on a rich intellectual tradition in determining how to move forward. Looking backwards reveals ways in which Black thought leaders have consistently linked domestic civil rights to international human rights.
Origin Story: America’s Raced and Colonial Founding
Since America was “raced” from its founding, our Constitution has never been truly color-blind, and, as journalist Eugene Scott observes, “all politics are identity politics.” Reflecting back on America’s Founding, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Malcolm X saw the establishment of the nation as “a continuation of European projects of empire.” As Aziz Rana brilliantly notes, “the governing origin story obscured the real persistence of a colonial system in North America, organized around a fundamental racial dichotomy between settlers and non-settlers.” Tracing the work of Dubois and others, Rana’s work elegantly locates the United States alongside other settler nations that divide insiders from subordinated outsiders – whether disposed indigenous groups or racial and ethnic minorities.
According to Rana, even though “the reality of American life was one of settler colonization, the anti-imperial narrative of the American Revolution meant that those ethnically included did not see themselves as colonizers.” According to this view, “the failure of U.S. constitutionalism to see the nation in colonial terms meant that [a]lthough dominant legal narratives in the twentieth century accepted the sinfulness of slavery, they essentially viewed the United States as an incomplete liberal society.”
In Du Bois’s view, the failure to perceive the colonial nature of America’s Founding, not only severed the linkage between U.S. domestic civil rights and global anticolonial struggles, “it also downplayed the systematic forms of economic and political subordination that marked the pervasive experience of most blacks [as well as most nonwhites generally].” The problem for Du Bois, as historian Manning Marable writes, was that the mainstream civil rights movement failed to appreciate how “the Color Problem and the Labor Problem [are] two sides of the same human tangle.” In his trenchant critique, Derrick Bell lambasted the prevailing mainstream civil rights/legal reformist focus mainly on ending formal segregation and emphasizing middle-class respectability. Echoing Bell, Rana notes that this approach “emphasized social mobility for black elites and inclusion for some into arenas of corporate and political power, but it left prevailing socio-economic hierarchies largely intact.”
Abolition and Suffrage: From Civil Rights to Human Rights and Intersectionality
Despite the failure of the connection between U.S. domestic civil rights reformers and global anticolonial struggles to take hold in the popular imagination, by the Civil War period, key Black intellectuals made this linkage in critical ways. Unsurprisingly, the anti-slavery movement is now recognized as one of the earliest international human rights movements, as Jenny Martinez illustrates. Camille Gear Rich and I recently examined a gap in the literature left open by Martinez, by examining both the domestic dimensions of human rights as a framework for abolition, as well as the critical role of Black women in articulating this vision of rights at the intersection of the abolition and suffrage movements.
In fact, Black intellectuals who were active in both the abolition and women’s suffrage movements embraced a shared notion of rights – one in which Black women were central in articulating and embodying. This shared approach to the idea of rights and citizenship had to be more robust than the more constrained rights idea then recognized by the status quo as a way to move beyond the existing conception of rights that limited the right to vote to White men. This shared vision of rights was a human rights vision – broader than the prevailing civil and political rights framework of the Progressive Era (in which voting rights for Blacks were being rolled back, and women were still disenfranchised prior to the U.S. Constitution’s Nineteenth Amendment). As Gear Rich and I have explained elsewhere, the human rights approach had to be capacious enough to cover those inhabiting the liminal space between subject and citizen and provide protection to “shadow populations” – then, women and Blacks – who had been stigmatized not only by the broader society, but also “even to each other as too incompetent or too untrustworthy to exercise the franchise.” This human rights vision, honed at the intersection of abolition and suffrage, became the basis for building strong bridges between Black voters of both sexes as well as between Black and White women.
Two Black leaders were especially important in articulating this human rights vision: suffragist Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, and the abolitionist/suffragist Frederick Douglass.
Recognizing the potential for coalition building, Watkins Harper forcefully outlined the critical significance of an intersectional approach during Reconstruction, stating that “[w]e are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul”– an insight importantly illuminated in historian Martha Jones’s work. Appealing to the ways that support for Black women at the intersection of gender and race could benefit both White women (in securing suffrage) and Black men (in maintaining their voting rights) alike, as historian Rosalynn Terborg-Penn notes, a “coalition-building strategy was at work here, for African American women hoped that all three groups – Black women, Black men, and White women – could see the need to pull together in order to accomplish similar goals.”
Frederick Douglass also embraced a human rights vision grounded in the idea of intersectionality, even more explicitly invoking the terminology of “human rights.” For example, in his autobiography, Douglass reflected on “a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights.” In the context of woman’s suffrage, as Gear Rich and I note, Douglass stated those most directly affected – including women at various intersections of identity – should be placed at the center and heard in coalitional politics.
The 1960s: Martin Luther King and Human Rights
Of course, the promise of Forty Acres and Mule – which would have addressed the economic rights of freed Black Americans following the Civil War – was abandoned as part of the greater backlash toward Reconstruction. However, the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech, and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in the aftermath of World War II, began to address this lacuna.
Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther King moved from civil rights to human rights, both with regard to his opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as in his linking of racial inequality and poverty. When King was assassinated in Memphis, he was in the midst of supporting local sanitation workers organizing for justice against poverty wages and conditions. In his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?,” King argues that with the rights Black Americans secured through the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts, all Americans should come together to combat poverty and advance racial equality through initiatives such as a guaranteed basic income – an idea Andrew Yang would advance years later in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. More recently, a global temporary guaranteed basic income has been promoted by the U.N. as a means of helping to protect the world “poor and vulnerable” from the ravages of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
King’s advocacy for economic security – even as the United States was fighting for more militaristic forms of national security in the Vietnam War – resonated with the linkage between civil rights and economic rights reflected in the UDHR. As historian Carol Anderson discusses in “Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955,” some civil rights leaders (including Du Bois) filed petitions with the U.N. challenging school segregation and other poverty conditions created by Jim Crow, arguing that they constituted “genocide.” However, with the Cold War and mistrust of anything that smacked of economic rights, such efforts to link race and poverty have been largely sidelined, even up through the current moment where “left-leaning” political figures who seek to make this linkage are branded as “socialists.”
2020 and Beyond: Human Rights as a Site for Interest Convergence Theory
The global protests touched off by George Floyd’s killing – and the expression of cruel indifference reflected by police officer Derek Chauvin as he held his knee on Floyd’s neck – reflects resentment not only at American hypocrisy in failing to live up to its own ideals, but also anger with home grown racism and police brutality in sites around the world. Further, the demonstrations that have spread across the globe illustrate opposition toward the history of American imperialism generally and, to at least some extent, the Trump administration specifically.
As Frederick Turner notes in his 1893 essay, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, as the U.S. western frontier closed, America had to expand beyond its borders and become imperialistic internationally. But within its own borders, the country continued to engage in domestic imperialism by treating human bodies as frontiers for racialization and revisionism – where resource extraction took shape in a system of racial capitalism, a term coined by Cedric Robinson. The racialized body is itself a frontier of conquest. This conquest operates in multiple sites, including (among others): the labor market, criminal justice system, immigration policy, and housing policy (as Trump recently tweeted to remind suburban voters that they would “no longer be bothered” by a fair housing rule he gutted). A national context wherein Whites, like Amy Cooper, enlist state violence by calling the police, even when Blacks, like Christian Cooper, are merely engaged in mundane activities, such as “birding while Black,” evokes an eerie echo of Emit Till, who was lynched for allegedly flirting with a White woman.
Building on the idea of “viral justice,” we might capitalize on the ways this moment demonstrates Derrick Bell’s insight regarding interest convergence. According to Bell, meaningful racial justice can only be secured when the interests of oppressed racialized groups coincide (i.e. “converge”) with the interests of Whites. For Bell, the Supreme Court’s decision (and Justice Department’s support for the result) in Brown v. Board of Education was, at least in part, motivated by an interest in improving the country’s international image during the Cold War. In her book, “Cold War Civil Rights” and other writings, Mary Dudziak supports this view.
Today, rather than “Making America Great Again,” with Trump’s intolerant and derogatory remarks on Black Lives Matter protesters, Latinx immigrants, the “China virus,” and Native Americans (such as calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”), Trump’s clear goal is to “Make America Hate Again.” However, by attacking so many marginalized groups at once, Trump has also spawned coalitions in the best tradition of Bell’s interest convergence theory. Not only are the current protests multi-racial, they have also often emphasized the intersectional identities of many affected by police violence, including Black women such as Breonna Taylor and Black members of the LGBTQ community. White and Black allies, building bridges through grassroots networks, such as the “Wall of Moms” (founded in Portland, but now popping up nationally), have stepped forward to support Black Lives Matter. And writers, such as Robin DiAngelo, in her best seller “White Fragility,” have called on Whites to do work within their own communities to address racism.
In writing about the Color and Gender of COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve focused on how this moment of health and economic crisis impacts those at the intersection of different forms of oppression, but also creates opportunities for interest convergence as well. Ultimately, the human rights framework could provide a way for lawyers and advocates to bring these interests together, as a group of us did in preparing a “Human Rights at Home” policy blueprint transition paper we shared with President Obama’s transition team – providing a roadmap to reconceive civil rights in human rights terms.
Shortly before his death, in a June 20 press release, civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis characterized Trump’s executive order replacing the administration’s much-maligned family separation policy with one permitting the indefinite detention of children, an “assault not just on immigrant families but also on our country’s legacy of affirmatively protecting human rights” (emphasis added). Elsewhere, I have written how Trump’s immigration policies draw on raced and gendered tropes of nationhood as a means of normalizing human rights abuses – a point akin to Jaya Ramji-Nogales’ insights in this symposium on the “racialized border.” Congressman Lewis was not alone in invoking human rights. Activists are increasingly returning to the language and substance of human rights to draw interconnections among various movements at home and abroad. Hopefully, this return to the idea of human rights – including the indivisibility of rights and addressing harm at the intersection of identities – can provide a platform for, combining the insights of Benjamin and Bell, a “viral convergence” of demands for the racial and economic justice the United States so desperately needs.