Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Taking Space


Editor’s Notes: This is Part III of a three part series on carceral colonial logic and the prison industrial complex.  Part I can be found here and Part II can be found here

“This is the only sort or universality there is: when, from a specific enclosure, the deepest voice cries out.” –Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation

Settler Colonialism is a political process which is meaningfully different from other types of colonialism in that its goal is not merely the extraction of the natural resources of a particular territory, nor is it a form of abduction as in the capture of chattel slaves, but rather seeks land. In order to take the land, settlers seek to eliminate the indigenous populations on the land they intend to take. Kelly Hernandez in her trailblazing work City Of Inmates writes, “the United States is a settler society. As such, its cultures and institutions are rooted in a particular form of conquest and colonization called settler colonialism.” She then identifies that the first institution the Spanish colonizers built to inaugurate, “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles,” was a jail which contained almost exclusively Native American people. The jail, the prison, and the immigrant detainment camp are all architecture of a permanent society of racial exclusion, domination, and elimination. But not these institutions alone; rather, the university, “the market,” the very law itself are also connected in a state centralized effort to impose white-supremacist Eurocapitalism.

George Jackson, America’s most notorious political prisoner, divided the major socio-political institutions into two distinct but mutually reinforcing types: one designed by the state to move people into certain actions, and others to discourage, curtail, or completely deny certain other actions. Consider the inside-out representation of Black, Latinx, and other oppressed nations in universities and prisons. The prisons contain all those oppressed nations people who have refused to play along with Eurocapitalist careerist paradigms, and the university is concerned about diversity quotas which will result in the “professionalization” of people they only recently deigned to admit in their institution.

In other words, all space is political in a settler society. Only some spaces are less nuanced in their racially-eliminative force, such as the prisons almost all named after former colonies or plantations.

“Courtroom: Such a bizarre place. It’s where lives are being shattered and careers are being made. Low lives, law school graduates, and love ones all in one room. The only thing separating the accused from their family is a waist high wooden wall. All that space but it feels like a closet when you are the one standing in front of the judge.“  - Eddie Paredes

Andrea Smith takes up the question of structural white supremacy by dividing it into three architectural logics, or as she calls them, pillars: “slavery/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, and orientalism/war”. The three pillars are meant to illustrate that white supremacy is founded by three distinct and related logics, refusing to give any one pillar the appearance of an isolated struggle, since white supremacy cannot stand without all three.

The first pillar of slavery/capitalism refers to the commoditization of Black people for the purposes economic award to white power through mechanisms of slavery, prison labor, community service, and generally cheap labor for low pay. The second pillar focuses on the long genocide and/or social death of whole populations that is necessary for the perseverance and success of colonial efforts such as the massacre of indigenous people, the shrinking of reservation lands, and even the construction of new prisons and immigrant detention centers which weaponize spaces to mute and contain racialized populations unto death. And lastly, the third pillar, orientalism/war, which seeks to elucidate white supremacy’s need to instigate war with foreign territories to eliminate opposition while deriding the very identity of people from those regions and convicting all those implicated domestically. An example of this is the global northwest’s recent bombing of Libya into a nomadic refugee existence and subsequent blaming of the massive immigration wave this caused for its own wealth inequality.

Smith prompts us to think of these logics as related, such that critiques of anti-black racism to understand the PIC simultaneously involve attacks on the U.S./Mexico border politics, and military aggression in Palestine. It is in this sense that prison abolition is direct and concrete decolonial work, and decarceration tactics are always an incision to the colonial project in that it frees and mobilizes those principally under attack by the white supremacist project. Not only is the direct destruction of these white supremacist torture houses a decolonial effort, but also would necessarily imply a re-thinking of the border, since the prison-wall and the border operate in tandem for settler-colonial world construction through seclusion, arrest, isolation, and blockade.

Across the scope of the colonized territory of the U.S., from the palm trees along the shore of our west coast to the opulent Hamptons on the east, the most incarcerated people are those descendants of indigenous populations, or of hostages stolen form the shores of Africa. Prisons are unequivocally the largest form of public housing, the reservoir for those who can’t afford to care for their mental health, the “poor house.” It is no longer surprising to us that we build more prisons than schools. It is no mystery that vacant houses outnumber our homeless population by huge margins. It is not happenstance that schools and houses in the working-class neighborhoods of the Midwest are overcrowded while prisons lobby for more prisoners. The Latinx and Black spaces of the U.S. colony are overwhelmingly cramped existences: the emergency room, the temp agency, the factory, and the community college. Let no space pose as innocent, and let no political neutrality pose as mysterious: there is a settler ruling class, with their exploitative state sanctioned violence, and there are its victims.

 Leopold Lambert’s sky view of the architecture of a prison next to a gated community

Leopold Lambert’s sky view of the architecture of a prison next to a gated community

Andrea J Pitts, a Latinx professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, often collapses the experience of the colonized with that of the incarcerated in their writing on decolonial praxis. While naming this similarity between incarceration and colonization may be uncomfortable for some, Pitts is not merely speculating. What they mean can be teased out by the first section of a 2014 article they wrote titled “White Supremacy, Mass Incarceration, and Clinical Medicine: A Critical Analysis of U.S. Correctional Healthcare.” Neo-colonialism usually refers to late stage colonialism which secures its core power through the smoke screens of representation of oppressed nations people in old mechanisms of power: a Black president who carries out Eurocapitalist agenda, a Latinx police officer who terrorizes neighborhoods that cared for and birthed them, trans soldiers aiding the imperialist fights in the third world etc.

This representative development of course does not constitute any real power shift to the hands of historically oppressed peoples, since it is only by their complicity with white supremacy as such that they are admitted into these positions. This is merely the latest strategy of white supremacist expansion, stretching even into the minds of its principle opponents. As such a vital principle for a decolonial praxis is that no representational answer can be a sufficient resolution to the material fracturing of communities of oppression. Without the complete overhaul and physical dismantling of colonial structures of power like the prison and the police, the inclusion of Black and Latinx people as correctional officers and police officers is a cruel and insidious tactic of blame shifting for the larger expansion of colonial power.

The movement from classic colonialism to neo-colonial rule, Pitts argues, comes from the mounting Black liberation movements in the 1960’s which effectively threatened white supremacist power structures with the prospect of losing direct colonial control of black and brown communities. Consequently, power maintained itself by introducing black and brown intermediaries between colonial rule and the colonized, in the form of a Black and Latinx middle class, Black and Latinx owned business, and Black and Latinx elected officials. Former President Obama figured as the face of Black upward mobility over and against the overwhelming institutional aggression of police violence, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, and health care discrimination. The colonial rule of structural white supremacy for eight years dressed in drag while deporting more people than all previous presidents combined and ramped up significantly foreign aggression, bombing flat more countries and territories under Obama than even the George W Bush tenure.

“Border: A man-made imaginary line. But at the same time it can be so real. My mother is originally from Guatemala, she had to cross two borders to get to the states (she often joked that she was a double wet back). She’s been deported four times and now that border is more real than ever. She lives 1000 miles away but that border makes the space feel like 1,000,000.” - Eddie Paredes

Structural white supremacy, then, will allocate just enough space for Black and Brown existence to ward off the reemergence of a Black Panther Party, a Young Lords, or a Yellow Peril in the same way that it will allow for just enough space for Indigenous reservations which are near constantly beset by big business encroaching and dominating the territories that are only merely surviving extreme colonial conditions. We must be more ambitious than the desire to have racialized groups represented in white supremacist domination, we must be able to fight materially rather than abstractly, we must dismantle the very infrastructure of oppression rather than add more Black and Brown participants to it. A Black president, Brown warden, or queer congressman will not stymie the sweep of genocidal social death underway and uninterrupted by reform efforts.

Revolutionary movements hit their stride of power in multi-national unity of action. Put simply, the revolutionary movements of the 60’s teach that Eurocapitalist colonial rule hinges on fractured, antagonistic, and spatially segregated poverty. Hence, the prison is the pinnacle format of colonial rule: the cellular architecture, the violent repression, the intensification of punishment follows the logic of isolation, segregation, and ultimately solitary confinement. And what exactly are incarcerated people punished for on the inside? The most common infractions are suicide attempts and “gang organizing.” 

This binary speaks volumes. White supremacist power needs you alive enough to build its prisons, police its territory, and fight its wars. But it doesn’t want you alive enough to build communities of resistance and self-empowerment/self-determination. The physical and practical effort of organizing one’s own neighborhood, work place, and city are concrete decolonial effort when Eurocapitalism depends on the socio-metaphysical belief that we are all dislocated and sovereign individuals who owe each other nothing. In the simplest terms: opening lines of communication between community members, forming solidarity around structural dangers common to all community members, meeting physically as regularly as is possible, and patrolling the alien police presence as a community. Reclaiming the space that we share as shared space.

“Segregation Cells: High security is 24 hour lockdown with a cell mate. 6‘ x 8‘, that is what the State believes is a just amount of space for two men to share. Not including the bunkbeds or the toilet. We sleep here, eat here, shower here, shit here, work out here, live life. If I spread my wings I can touch both walls at once. As a punishment we get stuck in smaller cells and have our space invaded. And they still expect us to grow.” - Eddie Paredes

James Baldwin in an interview was asked if he felt that all white people were racist. Baldwin responded that he couldn’t possibly presume to have access into the hearts and minds of all white people in the United States. But that he could, however, judge from the country’s institutions that the churches were segregated, that the unions were mostly white, that the real estate lobbyist kept Black and Brown people in the ghetto, that the public schools were underfunded, etc. In short, the question of personal attitudes of multitudes of individual white people is wrong-headed, as to where the material effects of institutions that wield power are manifest daily. Thus, to be anti-racist is not to be the conversational opponent in a coliseum of ideas or language police in our personal lives, but the physical struggle to dismantle the racist institutional stronghold which sustains and reproduces the ideas that suffuse it.

Stokely Carmichael almost in unison with Baldwin famously contended “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.” And it is along these same theoretical lines that Pitts continues their discussion of structural white supremacy, in other words, that white supremacy is not the personally held belief that white people are superior to others by virtue of their whiteness. Rather, it is “the material differences in terms of rewards and harms sanctioned via institutional social practices”. Thus, thinking through the political relevance of the PIC and its rapid expansion since the 1970’s requires us to think through the way it distributes material benefits (psychological, social, and economic) that reinforce and restructure the hierarchized racial social system. In other words, we must make limpid the linkage between the nascent colonial beginnings of what is now a reified institution of capture.

 Prisons are Slaveships on Dry Land

Prisons are Slaveships on Dry Land

Settler anxiety is now the spectacle dejour with white supremacists taking the streets chanting “you will not replace us,” and cops mimicking oppressed nations slogans with “Blue Lives Matter,” and mocking “Whose streets? Our streets.” As such, it is high time we both recognize the long historical process of settler colonialism, and especially its relation to its most extreme forms: prison industrial complex, the border, and imperial aggression abroad. The claustrophobia felt by the oppressed and repressed today is self-same with that of the colonized in the time of the European invasion. We simply cannot understand the scope and intensity of this domestic apocalypse without demonstrating how settler colonialism structures the space of our prisons, borders, and neighborhoods.  This is a history of invasion, occupation, displacement, criminalization, confinement, and isolation. Decolonization will mean unity in action for reclaiming space from the settler, the colonizer, the oppressor from the entire architecture of white supremacy.