Contested Bodies: Immigrants as a Singularity in Minnesota's Political Terrain

Contested Bodies: Immigrants as a Singularity in Minnesota’s Political Terrain
Minnesota Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride Internship Paper
January 27, 2004
Yongho Kim

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride of 2003 was a national movement aimed at claiming immigrants’ rights in the legislative branches of the United States. It gathered a critical mass of religious, labor, progressive and other political organizations and individuals to actively demonstrate and lobby in the Congress and the streets of New York City, and strategically located towns positioned along the path from the twelve departure cities to Washington, a move that intentionally followed the path laid by the freedom rides from the civil rights era.

The Minnesota Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (MN IWFR), planned by the two organizers who took a leading role during the national ride, Mariano Espinosa and Quito Ziegler, came together as a state-wide initiative that consisted of thirty immigrant riders and allies riding a bus that connected various key cities for voter mobilization and immigration law reform. Riders made connections with local organizers, contributed to voter registration efforts, and lobbied with representatives to have them support pro-immigrant legislation, symbolically marketed through AgJobs and the DREAM Act.

In this paper, leaving the effectiveness of the movement aside (as the process is still ongoing), I argue that pro-immigrant efforts such as the MN IWFR injected a dose of instability and self-doubt in Minnesota’s political arena prior to and after various Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives, and the U.S. presidential, elections.

In so doing, this paper explores the position of the black body within the dialectic of civil society in the U.S. through the eyes of Wilderson, Farrow and Kim; argues that the immigrant body constitutes ideologically a black body from a subversive and a theoretical dimension; examines how the emergence of a discourse centered around the blackened immigrant body compels various pre-existing political forces to contend for the immigrant body’s appropriation, destabilizing in the process their own support base, membership, funding, and the assumptions of a discourse on civil society.

Civil Society, Citizenship, and the black body

Frank Wilderson argues that Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, on which Gramsci claims universal applicability just as Marxists claim an universal structure of worker alienation, is narrowly focused around the white body. Gramscian Marxism can problematize the pains of the underpaid, or the overworked, by positioning the worker in the matrix of the waged economy where there exist two clearly antagonistic axis – the waged and the wager. However, framing an entire society around the rights of the waged and his antagonism to the wager creates an epistemic vacuum that is brutally intolerant to the unworking (in the sense that it is unwaged) black body. Wilderson writes:

… the slave makes a demand, which is in excess of the demand made by the worker. The worker demands that productivity be fair and democratic (Gramsci’s new hegemony, Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat), the slave, on the other hand, demands that production stops; stops without recourse to its ultimate democratization. (Wilderson, 2000)

While Gramsci’s concept of hegemony can frame the discussion around struggles by those waged and exploited in the process, because his dialectic conceives labor as intrinsically connected with a wage of one form or another, the idea of an unwaged slave “destabilizes” and “emerges as a scandal” of historical materialism. Capital was initially developed by approaching the black body with “direct relations of force”, hundreds of years before the notion of a waged labor in the market was introduced in European thought. When the black body does not fulfill expected relations of wage and labor, gramscian discourse “unthinks” it, puts it in a void, because “civil society is not a terrain intended for the Black subject. It is coded as waged and wages are White.”

Kenyon Farrow and Kil-Ja Kim explain that the existence of an enslaved black body is an antithetical necessity for a “rights” discourse about civil society and democracy. In a dialectical view of citizenship, where the question asked is “who deserves these rights and why?”, there lies the contingent answer, “those who are not citizens (or white) do not deserve these rights, because they are not citizens (or white)”; there must exist those who make up the uncitizenry, a group against whom the notions of “freedom”, “the (white) state”, and “citizenship” are constructed in direct opposition.

we [Kenyon Farrow and Kil-Ja Kim] take issue with Moore’s defense of immigrant detainees: “It is un-American to incarcerate a large group of people when there is no credible reason to think they are dangerous.” The obvious problem with this statement is that it’s very American to lock up people without any credible reason, a point buttressed by the fact that the US has the largest imprisoned population [the black body] in the world. (Farrow and Kim, 2004)

When Moore makes the statement that “it is un-american” to incarcerate innocent people (read: citizens), he ignores the black body in the process, because as un-citizens, they do not belong to the “citizen” axis of the citizenry dialectic; just as Marxism ignores the existence of an unwaged black labor. Farrow and Kim point this out as a problem of language and cognition, but I see it happening also on the plane of political choices and material action.

Gramscian marxism ignores the initial contribution of the black body to capital, and its life-saving recent supply of dead bodies to the prison industrial complex in white smalltowns, precisely because it is the black body which sustains a structure of capital accumulation. It would prefer to point an accusing finger at the slaves who destabilized the struggles by white waged workers, and since the black bodies are already here in the U.S. and they need to be incorporated within an universal scheme of hegemonic competition, it renders them invisible beneath the all-covering concept of “privileged position”, and thus forcefully lumping various forms of labor together.

Are “aliens” black?

Do immigrants in the United States without a citizenship constitute a black body? Janine Young Kim explains that the notions of “black” and “white” have been projected in various, often competing sociopolitical frameworks. From her six dimensions of the black/white paradigm, I highlight the theoretical framework of otherized selves, and the subversive dimension of claiming blackness.

Kim defines the white gaze as a construction of whiteness, in which those who are not white are conceived as black, being black signifying the portrayal of attributes deemed undesirable by the white people. In this state of otherized positions, people of color including blacks are pushed to the margins of a rights discourse through a series of “race-based exclusion laws, naturalization laws, and miscegenation laws”. She observes that in the last century, whites have used the model minority myth to claim reverse discrimination, while at the same time Asian Americans have adopted such model to claim superiority over other peoples of color, thereby creating a diffuse middle buffer between the black and white poles of otherization. This is the theoretical dimension of the black/white paradigm.

More importantly for comparison purposes with “aliens”, the subversive dimension consists on Asian Americans actively identifying as blacks for no other purpose than increasing the number of those oppressed by a white racist society. Through this measure, racial groups reconstruct racial discourse through a small glitch in race rhetoric that Ijima calls “reverse discourse”. Kim quotes Biko:

The Judge: But now, why do you refer to you people as blacks? Why not brown people? I mean you people are more brown than black.
Biko: In the same way as I think white people are more pink than white.
(Donald Woods, 1978:165. cited from Kim, 1999:2388)

Thus in a sense the subversive use of the black/white paradigm is a form of strategic anti-essentialist sabotage against established race discourse in the U.S. It puzzles the white supremacist gaze and bares it of its internal contradictions. White supremacist discourse claims that racism and racial discrimination is a matter of the past and that those claiming structural racism are caught in a false “minority consciousness”, that whites don’t care about race anymore and minorities should learn from them. Which is, notably, the same criticism leveled against essentialist feminist discourse.

For example, a statement issued by José Valencia, born in Ecuador, in his interview with Leonid Zaslavsky on his appointment as president and executive director of the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), an organization primarily serving Jewish refugee populations from the former Soviet Union and the CIS, is a case in point. In his statement, Valencia claims that his appointment was a matter of him being “in the right place at the right time”, and that no strategic considerations were made regarding the first ever appointment of a latino in an organization that had been hiring jewish people for fifty five years.

Rather, it was a well measured move intended to achieve face friendliness to latino organizations working in the same areas that NYANA worked as the population being served shifted towards central american refugees. While the caution to call this move a coincidence might be an interest in keeping a low profile in the media, the external pressures – imagined or real – that forced the board of directors to present the decision as devoid of racial considerations is a phacet of white supremacist discourse reigning in the non-profit sector of New York.

So there is merit in explicitly identifying shared points of interest, common enemies, and similar racist structures that “aliens” and blacks navigate alike. By recognizing their shared status of an unthinkable, unwaged body that creeps its way into white marxist rhetoric, immigrant advocates can blatantly request exploitative structure-sustaining measures such as a meager increase of wages and grants of citizenship, for their goal is not a fair and democratic mode of production, as conceived by a white Gramscian notion of hegemonic struggle.

Aggressive identification and coalition among socially marginalized groups is an ongoing phenomenom. Sook Hyun Kim points out that most of the allies with korean citizenship in the Myungdong sit-in demonstrations for undocumented migrant workers (the term “migrant workers” in the south korean context necessarily signifying those with darker skin tone) were women, and argues that migrant workers and women both struggled for work visas:

Especially when put next to male migrant workers, there are points of conflict – from nationality- and gender- based perspectives – over our privileges. But we share the fact that both of us are fighting for work visas. If what migrant workers want is a “physical” [work] visa, what I want as a korean woman is a “symbolic” [work] visa. (Kim, 2004)

Without necessitating a theoretical framework for developing lines of mutual identification and coalitionary effort, Kim recognizes that it is the same exclusionary state structure that corners “blacks, who are the last women of these times”, alongside with “homosexuals, the disabled, and migrant workers”, to the margins of a rights discourse. Similarly, they are marginalized as “area movements” from what Kim describes as the “able, male, straight, citizen-ed labor movement” – a hierarchical core that parallels the white waged working class, with the difference that empire lurks in the latter.

Kim observes that there have been active manifestations of solidarity between migrant workers and contingent workers. Migrants workers had participated en masse in the Korean Women’s Alliance conventions of March 7th of 2004, and regular contingent worker conventions for contingent labor law reform. In response, day labor construction worker’s union had organized friendly conventions for the migrant workers as well, in a symbolic move between two interest groups, which “looked from the armchair, would seem to be in a hostile, competing relationship”.

The more standard relationship between blacks and immigrants, however, is that of competition, both as portrayed by the media and spoken out by prominent community leaders. The issue narrows down to the availability of waged labor opportunities. George Lipsitz summarizes the reversal in relationships between recent and established immigrants and blacks and women as follows:

The legacy of the Fourteenth Amendment has not prevented women and Blacks in contemporary California from supporting anti-immigrant nativism through Proposition 187 aimed at denying immigrants and their children needed state services or through Proposition 227 banning bi-lingual education in the state’s classrooms. Post-1965 immigrants from Asia, who owe their entry into the U.S. to the civil rights movement and its exposure of previous national original quotas as racist, have not been immune to pursuing the privileges of whiteness for themselves by opposing affirmative action and school desegregation policies vital to the well being of Blacks and Latinos. (Lipstiz, 2004)

While it is true that hostile attitudes and actions take place among marginalized movements such as those by blacks and latinos and immigrants as a result of their preying over the benefits of white waged citizenry, such lack of solidarity does not implicate the lack of a shared base of wage and citizenship based oppression. For those of them who are not documented (constituting a critical target majority for proposed legislation such as AgJobs and the DREAM Act), employers often deny them any wages at all, claiming that because “they came illegally to the U.S.”, they are “not legally entitled to receive payment”. Indeed, Homeland Security closely cooperates with such initiatives by overriding immigration restrictions over labor rights with increasing frequency. Thus, it can be argued that the immigrant body is indeed an unwaged black body insofar as it is undocumented (which it is most of the time).

Contested Immigrant Bodies

In a marked contrast with the incarcerated black bodies who now “constitute an arm shot to faltering white communities” by filling in prisons, immigrants, along with the latino population are becoming a center of attention in the political spheres. During the summer of 2004, Minneapolis StarTribune issued a special report series calling immigrants “the New Activists”. Legislation on immigration reform has started to be introduced with bipartisan support at the federal level. A number of Minnesota congresspeople have expressed support totwards the MN IWFR, including a contingent of republican senators.

The fact that immigrant advocacy seeks balanced support both from pro-labor, and anti-labor, political forces might be a reason for many in the pro-labor camp to worry about immigrant advocacy’s political leanings. Democratic supporters of the progressive tint are concerned that minority advocacy, a tendency that is supposedly trademarked by them, might be adopted by more conservative forces for a short term benefit for the republican party (i.e. potential swing voters leaning towards the republican party). Again, subtle accusing fingers rise pointing at immigrants for causing internal division. Why do immigrants destabilize the struggles of white waged workers by freely associating with either party at will? Or, how do they dare play with both parties?

Although the MN IWFR organizers met with a number of republican (and democratic) senators, and announce it proudly in gatherings and public talks, the media has covered the fact only once, in workday Minnesota’s “Four-day ‘Freedom Ride’ is a call to action” (September 30) and without mentioning the party membership of republican senator Robert Kierlin, while DFL representative Carlos Mariani gets his party mentioned. (“Time for reform is now, Freedom Riders say”. workday Minnesota, October 4) It seems as if the white waged working class is lurking in the political arena, expecting immigrant workers’ advocates to publicly support them, to become incorporated as part of the larger labor movement, and otherwise ready to bury the issue in indifference. A similar phenomenon occurs with the other party, except maybe for the assumed lack of handicap. The immigrant body is a contested one among varoius diverging political forces.

Immigrants cannot afford to link their luck with either political party, Espinosa says. It’s a dangerous game, where the balances need to be carefully laid, but at the same time he knows that both party members are anxious to know which leaning immigrants in general will take, and derives profit from this uncertainty. Reciprocally, neither party can claim a fully fledged support for immigrants’ issues, because the support base of both parties is naturally a white majority of some form, and there always is a strong anti-immigrant contingent in the core of the parties.

Paraphrasing Wilderson, the immigrant “demands that production stops”; and I may add, if the production is not to stop, then in their condition of the exploited worker they may freely request measures that alleviate somehow their task. The very urgency of the working conditions of the often unwaged immigrant body compels its advocates to seek measures that would otherwise seem short sighted in an overarching labor (are they “labor”?) movement.

The North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE) analyzes the role of Unemployed Workers Councils (UWCs) during the depression of the 1930’s as an incubator for labor activists and organizers for the coming industrial unionism that swept the United States, while industrial activity was being reorganized and labor unions were having a hard time following through the changes. Divided by interest groups, the UWCs focused on the immediate needs of the unemployed workers, such as food, rents, and pensions, and were instrumental in passing a series of legislations that protected workers, including the Social Security Act. When unions were ready for a change in strategy to successfully organize the industrial scale contingent worker population towards the end of the 30’s, UWC organizers started acting in labor organizing. (NAFFE, 2002)

In a parallel process, the decomposition of the “post-war compact” unionism in the 70’s and 80’s brought about the rise of Worker’s Centers for contingent workers across the U.S. Organizers in these centers, or community-specific focal points, work on attending immediate, short term worker needs, such as basic legal services, English as a Second Language classes, computer training, labor education, and the like.

While the MN IWFR is not a worker’s center, but it serves the needs of a particular working class group that is mostly unattended by existing labor union structures. Organizations like the MN IWFR may be “incubators” for future generations of labor organizers under a new strategy; but the white waged working class cannot expect the immigrant body to work in synchronization with them, insofar as the immigrant body is a black body stripped from citizenship and wages and the terms for this condition do not change.


Farrow, Kenyon and Kil Ja Kim
2004 Connecting the Dots: Michael Moore – White nationalism and the Multiracial Left. In ChickenBones: A Journal.

Kim, Janine Young
1999 Are Asians black? The Asian-American civil rights agenda and the contemporary significance of the black/white paradigm. Yale Law Journal, 108(8) Pp. 2385-412

Kim, Sook Hyun
2004 Migrant Workers are Socialy constructed as Women: Why am I “addicted” to the Myungdong Cathedral Sit-down Demonstration. [이주노동자는 사회적 여성: 명동성당 농성에 ‘중독’된 이유] Ilda [일다], March 22.

Lipsitz, George
2004 Abolition Democracy and Global Justice. In Comparative American Studies: Towards a Transnational Field Imaginary.

North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE)
2002 Worker Center Strategies: A NAFFE Working Paper.

Wilderson, Frank
2000 The Indifference of Marxism to the Black Subject. In The Mundanity of the White Supremacist State: Working Papers on Racialization.

Zaslavsky, Leonid
2004 First ever Latino heads Jewish immigrant organization. Russian Forward, October 14. Trans. by Ilya Prechikovsky.