Working Intersectionally to Abolish White Supremacy:
An Interview with Alyosha Goldstein
by Luis J. Beltrán-Álvarez
In what follows, I interview Alyosha Goldstein, who is a professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Goldstein dedicates his research to the study of colonialism and decolonization, critical race and Indigenous Studies, social movements, and social and political theory. He is the author of Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century (Duke University Press, 2012) and Editor of Formations of United States Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2014). He also co-edited (with Alex Lubin) “Settler Colonialism,” a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly 107, no. 4 (Fall 2008) and (with Jodi Byrd, Jodi Melamed, and Chandan Reddy), “Economies of Dispossession: Indigeneity, Race, Capitalism,” a special issue of Social Text 135 (forthcoming in June 2018).
I chose to interview Professor Goldstein because he is a recognized academic on the topics of Native American Studies, settler colonialism, and dispossession and capitalism linked to race. Also, Professor Goldstein works hand-in-hand with the Native Americans groups, both in academic production and in current social movements. Another important aspect of interviewing him is that he links the studies of settler colonialism and black political thought to work on territories of the United States, including my home, Puerto Rico.
Beltran (B): How did you become interested in studying settler colonialism and Native American communities? Why did you decide to pursue your research through the field of American Studies? How do your personal life and your academic work intertwine?
Goldstein (G): My first book, Poverty in Common, which began as my dissertation, sought to understand international development and modernization frameworks of the mid-twentieth century cold war era as part of the longer historical context of imperialism and colonialism. I began by asking how forms of liberal governmentality in the United States during this historical conjuncture relied on the construction of a single category of “the poor” and how liberal governance sought to secure its own authority and contain radical challenges to the capitalist world system (at “home” and “abroad”) through programs emphasizing the inclusion and participation of impoverished people. The community action programs of the War on Poverty exemplified this approach and were also directly related to more radical social movement groups such as the Black Panthers, the Young Lords Party, and the American Indian Movement, members of which had often worked in government-sponsored antipoverty endeavors such as Mobilization for Youth and became frustrated with their reformist orientation and wanted to make antipoverty organizing part of more expansive liberationist or revolutionary politics.The project emerged from an interest in scholarship on colonialism, subaltern studies, and postcolonial theory. I wanted, as someone situated in what is currently the United States, to better understand how this work could inform an analysis of the U.S. The field of American Studies appealed to me for this reason—not so much because I wanted to study “America,” as that I thought it was important to begin from my own location and situate this in a global historical context—and because, during the 1990s when I began graduate school, it was an interdisciplinary project significantly shaped by the Birmingham School of cultural studies (Stuart Hall, etc.). Work such as Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease’s edited collection Cultures of United States Imperialism provided me with a starting point, but, to a certain extent, seemed to sustain the idea of U.S imperialism as happening elsewhere or as exclusively past. I was interested in trying to understand how the Black Panther Party’s linking their community survival programs to a global “intercommunal” revolutionary project was part of a radical anticolonial internationalism discussed in books such as Penny Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire; how the Young Lords Party organizing among the Puerto Rican diaspora in the U.S. mainland was grounded in an ongoing anticolonialism and independence movement on the island; and how the emergence of the American Indian Movement against police brutality against Native peoples connected to the founding of the International Indian Treaty Council and global Indigenous coalition building.
When I started working on my dissertation I had relatively little knowledge of Native American studies. The faculty with whom I was working were not especially knowledgeable of this scholarship, but they were supportive of my developing the project and research in the directions that interested me. Reading work by Vine Deloria Jr. was an enormously important point of departure for me. A brief reference in Custer Died for Your Sins to the National Congress of American Indians delegation to Puerto Rico during the 1950s became a central part of one of my chapters. I learned how the War on Poverty community action programs were some of the first instances where federal funds went directly to tribes without the Bureau of Indian Affairs serving as an intermediary, which tribes such as the Navajo Nation used in important ways to further assert self-determination and challenge the prevailing norms of colonial administration. Working on my dissertation and then revising this into my first book was my introduction to Native American studies scholarship and, although I would not describe myself as a Native American Studies or Critical Indigenous studies scholar, made clear that the work of such scholars needed to be at the center of any critical inquiry into U.S. imperialism and colonialism.
While working on Poverty in Common, it also became clear to me that part of the specificity of the U.S. context was understanding colonialism as a historical condition in the present and work such as that of Patrick Wolfe was useful in further clarifying the particularity of the ongoing settler colonial dynamics in places such as the U.S. I was interested in maintaining the specificity of this focus but also trying to understand its broad global circumstances. To this end, I co-edited a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly with my colleague Alex Lubin on settler colonialism which brought together scholars using the analytic lens of settler colonialism to critically address Palestine, South Africa, Hawai‘i, Argentina, Ethiopia, Mexico, and the U.S. For the issue I wrote an essay that sought to place the politics of Native American self-determination and white settler racism in the context of the then recently established UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The more I worked in such areas the more I began to learn about the field-defining work of scholars such as Joanne Barker, Jodi Byrd, Mishuana Goeman, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, and Audra Simpson, among many others. I continue to learn a great deal from being in conversation with my UNM colleague and friend, the Diné historian and scholar Jennifer Denetdale. The book project that I’m presently completing seeks to think with this scholarship, as well as critical ethnic studies and Black studies, to focus on the entanglements of U.S. colonialism, racial capitalism, and economies of dispossession and conciliation in the historical present.
I try to approach academic work as one part of an interrelated set of commitments. I’ve found that working collaboratively on various kinds of projects is important. Also key is trying to develop alternatives to the narrow form of educational institutions beyond the typical institutional and disciplinary boundaries of cultural and academic work. So, for instance, I’ve been working with Denise Ferreira da Silva and Mark Harris (both of whom are now at UBC) to organize an annual multi-day workshop that brings together scholars, artists, filmmakers, architects, curators, and performers in a communally-run arts space. I’m also a member of the coordinating committee for the SouthWest Organizing Project’s Albuquerque “campus” of the Universidad Sin Fronteras—a community-based anticolonial and anti-capitalist initiative that originated from a series of meetings in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2009.
(B): What is the role of academic research on settler colonialism in the political and social struggles of historical and contemporary Native Americans? How can we, as academics, undertake scholarship in ways that are ethically responsible to the people we study and write about? Have scholars of Native American nations in the U.S. begun to do a better job of addressing Vine Deloria, Jr.’s scathing criticisms of past practices?
(G): Academic research and writing is always only a small part of confronting and contesting the common sense and material conditions of the colonial present. Academic interventions are neither uniquely important nor uniquely irrelevant to political contestation. Depending on the specific intervention and circumstances, academic writing and research can contribute to everyday struggles against colonialism, racism, and heteropatriarchy and for social justice and emancipatory collective life in a variety of ways. While it is necessary to continuously develop and reimagine the terms of critical inquiry in this regard, these terms and critical analysis more broadly must be informed by the everyday contexts and power relations of social struggle against the reciprocal entanglements of colonialism, capitalism, racism, heteropatriarchy, and cis ableism. It’s not enough to read and write about such struggles. This work has to emerge in some way from the difficult messiness of interacting and working with different people and groups. Theory comes from grappling with the particularities of those conditions historically and in the present and is only ever mistakenly “applied” to places and peoples. It begins from social struggle and is a collective and collaborative process of thinking together. Theory is not something limited to academic discourse—everyone theorizes. Nonetheless, the deep and sometimes contradictory relationship between scholarship and social struggles or everyday life can serve to shore up the power and privilege of institutions and individuals as much as it can be a means of dismantling and reimagining the social relationalities of present and future collective liberation. Lenape scholar Joanne Barker puts it quite clearly when she says that at the end of the day it comes down to how we treat one another. Speaking, writing, or otherwise working toward collective liberation is at best disingenuous if you are abusive, exploitative, disrespectful, or dishonest—or otherwise invested in exercising power over others—in your everyday relationships and interactions with other people.
Non-Native scholars writing about Native peoples—or really anyone not of the communities they study and write about, and in certain respects even for those scholars writing about their own communities—must make themselves accountable to the peoples and communities we write about and in some way with. We must listen; must be self-critical and assume that we understand less than we think we do; must understand that there are things that we won’t or shouldn’t know or have access to. Too often scholarship reenacts colonial violence in extraction and taking. The hackneyed liberal rhetoric of “giving voice” to and “making visible” oppressed communities is a self-aggrandizement and evasion, and, in this sense, merely reaffirms the prevailing order of power and privation. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples is a good starting point for thinking about how to go about these questions in a responsible and respectful way for students and scholars. Audra Simpson’s discussion in her book Mohawk Interruptus of what she calls ethnographic refusal is a brilliant reflection on this dynamic as well. Conducting research and writing in an ethically responsible way also means continuously acknowledging the broader conversations from which your work emerges and to which you hope to contribute. For instance, being aware of the ethics of citational practice and the power dynamics of citation are significant in this regard—not just citing white men or scholars with established careers, but also working against the egotism encouraged in the style of academic argumentation which rewards the appearance of individual “brilliance” and imagines ideas as a form of individual property rather than something shaped through collective engagement.
I believe scholarship is most useful when it follows the lead of and collaborates in some way with the people most affected by a given ensemble of power relations. At the same time, white people—and white men especially—are often willfully ignorant of our presumed entitlement and structural advantages. Similarly, the problem with the idea of being an “ally” as it’s often invoked is that this fails to account for one’s own complicity and entanglements. Settlers (although not a very precise term, I’ll provisionally use this term here as a short-hand reference) and anyone living on stolen land or under structures of racism or heteropatriarchy are complicit to various extents with those structures of power in ways that exceed our conscious awareness. I don’t think, for instance in terms of colonialism, that it’s useful to understand the position of non-Native people as allies to Native people in contesting colonialism on behalf of Native people. We must work with Native peoples toward decolonization because we ourselves are variously situated in relation to colonial structures and dynamics of power and must collectively dismantle those structures and dynamics. It’s not a selfless or charitable act. These are violent and inequitable circumstances of which we are a part, and we must therefore contribute to their ending and playing a part in the difficult work of collectively creating futures lived in relations of difference (something akin to what Grace Kyungwon Hong calls the “impossible politics of difference”).
(B): What are the primary goals of struggles against settler colonialism by Native American communities in the 21st century? Faced with a growing White Supremacy movement, the so-called “Alt-Right”, and xenophobia in the United States, what are the obligations of academics toward excluded peoples and Native Americans?
(G): I cannot speak on behalf of Native peoples’ goals in the twenty-first century. I think the work of groups such The Red Nation (https://therednation.org), Idle No More (http://www.idlenomore.ca), the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (http://www.nativeyouthsexualhealth.com), and Tohono O’odham Hemajkan Rights Network (https://www.facebook.com/pg/tohrn520/about/), as well as the initiatives to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (#MMIWG) in North America are exemplary as anticolonial endeavors. The coalitional work of No One Is Illegal in Canada (http://www.nooneisillegal.org) is an important model as well.
I believe that academics need to de-exceptionalize our work as scholars. Academic scholarship can complement and work in tandem with activist knowledge production, journalism, community-based social engagement, and various forms of cultural work. Although there certainly are a small number of college and university faculty who are relatively privileged and can imagine themselves as in some way aligned with or are invested in reproducing an earlier era’s notion of academia as disengaged from the rest of the world, most are simply educational workers in an increasingly deskilled and underfunded “service”-oriented industry. (Currently in the U.S., according to the AAUP, more than 50 percent of all faculty appointments are part-time and over 70 percent of all teaching appointments in higher education are non-tenure-track positions.)
We have to work intersectionally and in coalition toward the abolition of white supremacy. It’s important not to disconnect the recent visibility of white supremacy and upsurge of racist authoritarianism and fascism from intensifying regimes of global capitalist predation and militarism. This is not to say that these are equivalent, but to insist that, in the U.S. context, Obama-era neoliberalism and the Democratic Party status quo are not the solution to Trumpist white nationalism.
(B): Recently, you have been writing about “Racial Capitalism.” What is the relationship between capitalism and race historically and in contemporary society? How can the concept of racial capitalism be a tool that helps to illuminate the ongoing struggles of those dispossessed by colonialism and neocolonialism?
(G): “On the Reproduction of Race, Capitalism, and Settler Colonialism” is a paper that I presented at UCLA in October 2017 addressing the relationship between capitalism, race, and settler colonialism (https://www.academia.edu/35446492/_On_the_Reproduction_of_Race_Capitalism_and_Settler_Colonialism_).
As I note in that paper, following the work of Cedric Robinson, Robin D. G. Kelley, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Jodi Melamed, among others, the term “racial capitalism” is not intended to differentiate between capitalism in general and racial capitalism in particular, but to foreground racialization as constitutive for capitalism. Gender and sexuality are likewise not external but central to capitalism as well. As such, capitalism is a historically specific ensemble of social relations that change over time and in response to social antagonisms that remain unsettled and unsettling, as much as they are shaped by uneven control of resources and the means of production and distribution. Colonialism and neocolonialism remain historical formations distinct from racial capitalism. Yet understanding the racial, gendered, and sexual constitution of capitalism necessarily entails the historical and present-day role that colonization and colonialism play in relations of dispossession and possession more broadly. Moreover, this involves understanding that “so-called primitive accumulation,” as often equated with colonialism and slavery, is not simply the historical foundation of capitalist development but describes an ongoing relationship of forced incorporation—of land, labor, life, the more-than-human world—into capitalist social relations that is both reproduced and contested in the present.
(B): One of my first encounters with your work was with a paper you wrote about debt in Puerto Rico and the “Promesa Act.” What motivated your investigation of the case of Puerto Rico? How do you understand its relationship to your other work and research interests?
(G): Puerto Rico was at the center of my book, Poverty in Common. Throughout, chapters focus on the División de Educación de la Comunidad (DIVEDCO/Division of Community Education), the role of the Luis Muñoz Marín administration in making Puerto Rico a “showcase” of democracy and development, the exchange between Puerto Rico and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) already noted above, Peace Corps training on the island, and the Young Lords Party (especially the 1971 “Ofensiva Rompecadenas” [“Break-the-Chains Offensive”] on the island). This focus evolved after I came across the work of DIVEDCO, which seemed to me to bring together the liberal governmentality of local participation and self-representation with efforts to manage anticolonial movements and expressions of Puerto Rican sovereignty against U.S. colonial rule in very interesting and contradictory ways. Subsequently finding out about the NCAI delegation prompted me to think further about the simultaneously radically dissimilar circumstances and shared context of U.S. colonial rule facing Puerto Ricans and Native Americans, as well as the strategic negotiation of U.S. colonial rule under conditions where thorough-going decolonization didn’t seem an immediate or pragmatic option. My interest in the heterogeneity of U.S. colonialism—in grappling with the multiplicity of colonialisms, settler colonialisms, and imperial horizons that comprise the U.S. and that, as such, must be understood in relation to one another and, in some sense, as mutually constitutive—is what motivated editing the collection, Formations of United States Colonialism. This heterogeneity belies the supposed coherence and settled character of the United States as a uniform and self-evident geopolitical entity. I also hope to expand the research I did for the essay on PROMESA into a book-length project at some point because of the ways in which the complexities of the Puerto Rican context can be especially generative for thinking further about the constraints and possibilities of the U.S. colonial present, as well as addressing the Puerto Rican context in its own specificity. The current schemes of venture and finance capital to further opportunistically plunder the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as well as the concerted forms of Puerto Rican resistance to this intensified pillaging, also make Puerto Rico a crucial flashpoint in this regard.
(B): Following from the previous question, how would you compare the situation in Puerto Rico with other struggles of indigenous an in the Americas and globally against dispossession, debt, and racial capitalism?
(G): This question is a bit beyond the scope of what I can respond to here. In terms of combining an inquiry into race, Indigeneity, and colonialism, excellent work on the Caribbean to begin thinking about this question would be the brilliant books Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment by Yarimar Bonilla, Creole Indigeneity: Between Myth and Nation in the Caribbean by Shona N. Jackson, and Sheryl Lightfoot’s Global Indigenous Politics: A Subtle Revolution, which reflects at length on the category of indigeneity itself in world politics. Each national context is so distinct and, broadly speaking, the treaty histories of the U.S. and Canada make for very different terrains of struggle than in many places throughout the Americas. The conferences of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association are an important forum for examining this question, especially as the participation of the Abiayala working group continues to expand, although discussion of Puerto Rico has not to my knowledge been addressed at any length in this context. Although it provides little in the way of a focus on Indigeneity per se, the Puerto Rico syllabus project (https://puertoricosyllabus.com) is an excellent resource for beginning to ask questions about the relationship among dispossession, debt, racial capitalism, and colonialism. The essay you mentioned that I wrote on PROMESA was my attempt to ask how the conditions of Puerto Rico can inform a variety of anticolonial struggles more broadly. I also wanted to examine the tension between Indigeneity as a strategic category in global anticolonial politics and as a heterogeneous category that resists equivalence in important ways—such as Indigeneity in the context of tribal membership in North America that contends with a particular set of colonial regimes of recognition as distinct from, for instance, the Chicana/o claims to Indigeneity that María Cotera and Josie Saldaña-Portillo theorize in their essay “Indigenous But Not Indian?: Chicana/os and the Politics of Indigeneity” as “mestizo mourning,” which is a relation of incommensurability under conditions in which colonial genocide has effectively severed living forms of kinship and obliterated manifest genealogies of Indigenous political community.
(B): Considering the continued legacies of oppression, the complexity of the structural and direct violence of contemporary capitalism, how can or should we envision an intersectional struggle among Black people, Native Americans, immigrants, and other oppressed groups and peoples? How would you describe the current challenges to forging a collective struggle of the oppressed against the systems and forces that dominate them?
(G): These are precisely the sort of questions that I seek to address in my current book project The Colonial Bind: A History of Dispossession in the Present Tense. My focus is on intersectional struggle and the complex relationalities that comprise this historical present. The book is a study of the entanglements of U.S. colonialism, racial capitalism, and the economies of expendability and inclusion. The Claims Resolution Act of 2010 (CRA) serves as the primary lens through which I examine how these genealogies of dispossession are mutually constitutive, persist, and significantly shape contemporary struggles over historical injustice and present-day inequalities. The CRA assembled and funded a series of class-action lawsuit settlements that were milestones for civil rights and Native American claims litigation in the United States, including: In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation, a suit against the USDA that was the single largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history; Cobell v. Salazar, a case against the Interior and Treasury Departments for the mismanagement of American Indian trust accounts created by the 1887 General Allotment Act; and four monumental American Indian water rights settlements. This legislation also authorized an extension of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grants, which I analyze for the ways in which TANF’s time-limited promotion of “healthy families” and “responsible fathers” serves to amplify the class, patriarchal, and gendered terms of the assembled settlements.
Although I wouldn’t suggest that the book provides a full or adequate response to the questions you’re asking, I hope that it will contribute to a critical engagement with such concerns. In the book I focus on the connections and differences between the “settlements” included in the Claims Resolution Act in order to show how racialized and colonial dispossession have been in tension and mutually constitutive in various ways over time. This study emphasizes the transnational context as a means to address the expansive afterlives of slavery and dynamics of racialized labor as not only national but globally interconnected, the significance of inter-imperial geopolitics for national and regional economies and social conflicts, and the political collectivities of Indigenous peoples as never truly subsumed under the status of “domestic dependent nations.” This book demonstrates how attending to the changing dynamics of these relations provides scholars with ways to differently comprehend social inequalities historically as they are manifest and reshaped in the contemporary United States. The Colonial Bind argues that the mechanism of legal settlement in these cases aims to foreclose colonial and racial dispossessions as being definitively past and to stabilize federal authority through recognition of historical wrongdoing. Yet, rather than concluding and reconciling historical injustices, taken together, the settlements reveal salient ways in which specific forms of liberal property, conjugal domesticity, economic and inter-group competition, and the differential devaluation of racialized groups link the conditions and practices of past and present dispossession. I aim to show how histories of settler colonialism and chattel slavery and its racialized afterlives previously treated as fundamentally distinct are in fact profoundly entwined in ways that significantly shape the dynamics of social inequality today.
Luis J. Beltrán-Álvarez is from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. He earned his bachelor degrees in Political Science and Sociology from the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Campus. Recently, he started his Ph.D. Studies in Political Science at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His general research interests are in Political Theory, Political Subjectivities, Social Movements, Decolonial Thinking, Necropolitics, Populism, and Discourse Theory.