The Black Body as a feared Necessity in the Post-Industrial Urban Economy

response paper to the Sixth Annual African American Studies Conference at Macalester College

Freedom Movements
February 16, 2005
Yongho Kim

In her keynote speech Democracy and Captivity, Joy Ann James argues that the prison-state constitutes the institution through which neoslave narratives are embodied in the United States. A neoslave narrative, James argues, is “a recycling of the fear/hate of the black body”, but in her use of the prefix neo, I think, she is also pointing out parallel structures of doxa regarding the slave and its relationship to the master in american public discourse, both during pre-“emancipation” and in the current times.

As Rose Brewer and Nancy A. Heitzeg, and several other speakers/participants argue throughout the conference, the prison-state weaves itself closely together with the prison industrial complex, an economic structure aimed at squeezing a critical surplus required for sustained economic growth. With the rise of the post-industrial ghetto, white america fears and decimates the unnecessary black bodies while simultaneously depending on its cheap or free labor to sustain a new economy.

In this paper, I trace the path of this development through a small sample of focus points in history and try to set the grounds for understanding the business downtown/inner city ring/suburb as an expression of neoslave narrative.

Structures of Immobility and the Post-Industrial City

The first instance of a neoslave narrative is the “free” movement of black labor to the north and its justification. In the film Nothing But a Man, Frankie’s ex-partner moves to the north, ostensibly Chicago. She seeks better paying jobs and pursues something that James labels “the promise of redemption”, an almost religious belief that the slave, or the quasi-slave, will be freed of exploitation and prejudice by simply moving to the “free states” in the north.

The second black migration of the 1930’s, in which Frankie’s ex-partner might have taken part as the film is positioned in the 1950’s, however, was not provoked in order to give blacks freedom but rather to increase the number of able bodies around Detroit and surrounding industrial areas. This would in turn bring up unemployment rates and guarantee flexible wages allowing for a critical accumulation of capital required for early industrialization. Steve Jones explains in his talk to the singers of the concertized theater Forgotten: Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant that in the early 1930’s, Henry Ford promised a daily wage of $5 that doubled usual car factory wages, creating an explosion of mobile population in the Detroit area. The promised wage was reserved only to those who were “qualified” upon examination by sociologists collaborating with Ford to crack down labor organizing, and the burgeoning population allowed Ford to be picky about wages. (Jones, 2004)

An initial feedback circuit of the movements of black labor and the ideology of industrialization in the north can be charted as follows:

Chart 1. North and South, early industrialization and black labor. Early 20th Century.

This is something that James might have been alluding to when she refers to the promise of redemption – a political slogan serving early industrialization needs. James describes a process of mobilities and immobilities forced upon the black body, when she is talking about how in upstate New York, the imprisoned blacks bring with their bodies the right to be represented, but their right to vote is being held immobile. As a result, whites living in rural areas in upstate NY see their political power increased, as their congressional districts “increase in population”, while the number of votes within the district remains the same.

When Teresita Marti’nez-Vergne discusses Mimi Sheller’s Consuming the Caribbean: From Arwaks to Zombies, she highlights Sheller’s study of how certain immigrant bodies are allowed into the United States while others are not, contingent upon circumstantial political and economical situation in the Western Hemisphere. Immigrants escaping a dictatorship are classified as “refugees” by the INS only when said government is in a hostile relationship with the United States. “Natives”, as in the tourist industry speech, are only allowed in the all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean when the tourist demands to “be part of nature”, to experiment with other elements of the tourist area; otherwise the tourist resorts are presented as deserted landscapes with no live humans, and are delivered as such. (Marti’nez-Vergne, 2004)

An extension of Sheller’s idea of conditional mobilities and immodilities can be applied upon the phenomenon described by James. Blacks are mobile, that is, they can intrude into sacriligeal white spaces in rural upstate NY, only as biomaterial bodies that demand to be fed, rested and to be represented politically. But they are bound to immobility in matters of political will, or voting power – in other words, blacks are welcome to white spaces as long as they return to being slaves, and let the White Man to speak on their behalf. In a further interpretation, black bodies are crushed into malleable pieces and then transported to different places where they serve fluctuating needs of postindustrial capitalism.

Chart 2. New York City and upstate New York, the prison-industrial complex.

In Black Noise Tricia Rose points out a curious phenomenon in postindustrial New York: simultaneously with the great white flee, whites need to return to the geopolitical heart of the city in order to perform traditional economic tasks in the business areas. In 1959, government authorities initiate the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, that links New Jersey and Long Island, New York, while cutting in half and dispersing the population residing in what was then called the “slum” of Bronx. (Rose, 1994: 31-34)

Racialized Bodies as Performances for Capital Accumulation

I argue that the incarceration of black bodies in the prison-industrial complex and the media rhetoric thereof dialecticizes the marginalization of urban blacks in inner city rings; that is, locating urban blacks within a narrative framework of crime and prison punishment dehistoricizes/unlinks the continuum of the black folks’ positionality in the deindustrialized city and their history of uneasy complicity with industrial capitalism.

What does the incarceration of black bodies consist of? Brewer and Heitzeg quote Silverstein, who says that “the prison industrial complex is… a confluence of special interests … as a method of economic development”. They go on to argue that it is a feedback system intended to bring about benefits in capital and political power for the prison-state, and enumerate its many instances:

The prison industrial complex is a self-perpetuating machine where the vast profits (e.g. cheap labor, private and public supply and construction contracts, job creation, continued media profits from exaggerated crime reporting and crime/punishment as entertainment) and perceived political benefits (e.g. reduced unemployment rates, “get tough on crime” and public safety rhetoric, funding increases for police, and criminal justice system agencies and professionals) lead to policies that are additional designed to insure an endless supply of “clients” for the criminal justice system (e.g. enhanced police presence in poor neighborhood and communities of color; racial profiling; decreased funding for public education (…)
(Brewer and Heitzeg, 2005)

It is also of note that the political/economic effects of the prison industrial complex does not only negatively affect blacks, as Brewer and Heitzberg claims, but also benefits whites, in particular the white working class. Lorna Rhodes points out the enthusiasm with which prison jobs are received at faltering rural white communities. (Rhodes, 2004) In other words, the prison-industrial complex is a crucial element of the U.S. economy.

Frances Negro’n-Muntaner argues that racialization does not end in the body, but that racialized bodies need also to be performed. Among Puerto Rican and Caribbean communities, she claims, a big butt is a sign of their African diaspora origins, earthly excesses that challenge white “puritan ideologies, heteronormativity, and the medical establishment” (Negro’n-Muntaner, 1997: 189). In Jennifer Lo’pez, this racialized body claims to be performed by their Puerto Rican reviewers after the success of Selena:

…there came a moment during the interview when the question had to be posed to Jennifer Lo’pez: “¿Todo eso es tuyo?” (Is that body for real?) In other words, is that big butt yours or is it prosthetic? … She stood up, gave a 360 degree turn, patted her butt, and triumphantly sat down: “Todo es mi’o.” It’s all mine.
(Negro’n-Muntaner, 1997: 186)

Jennifer’s Butt is not racialized by merely sitting on herself; her racialized body is a signifier negotiated between Jennifer and the audience, and this negotiation takes the form of racial performances, intended for those outside of the performing self. Accordingly, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled portrays the (contentious) liberatory act of performing minstrelsy with African-Americans taking the license of “acting out the negro”.

Delacroix intends to perturb the comfortable space of white political correctness by reenacting one of the most racist cultural products in, U.S. history, while at the same time dangerously claiming the right for a subaltern reading by becoming the willing actor in the spectacle. Delacroix’s scheme of fooling the white media conglomerate gets out of hand, I argue, when the White Man claims back ownership over the production and control of minstrelsy performance: when the white audience can get over the initial disturbance and partake in the enjoyment of the spectacle as a performer, not a disturbed spectator, and most importantly, when Delacroix’s boss punishes one of the performers for refusing to “act black”.

Likewise, when I questioned andre’ carrington on how he managed the various facets of repression and agency within the prison system, he acknowledged the poem written about Jo B’s racial, sexual, class and political dialecticity as a performance that was aware of such fact. Jo B writes that he becomes white when with blacks, black when with whites, male when with females, gay when with males, (carrington, 2004) and so forth in a circle of socialy functional identities that constutitue a performance of expected behavior.

When the body is in this way performed, it becomes a product of labor of some sort – almost like an object of art. In a similar sense that a choir may sing an opera and the audiovisual experience becomes a commodifiable artifact. This object, as I pointed out earlier, is put in different pieces that serve various needs of postindustrial capitalism. Karl Marx observes that under a capitalistic mode of production, a worker who cannot own her or his product becomes alienated from his labor. (Marx, 1967[1844]: 289) So the selective mobilities and immobilities of pieces of racialy performed black bodies between the inner city ring and the rural prison-industrial complex constitutes a form of alienation.

“Bumpercropping” Critical Surplus in a “New” Economy

Frederickson advances a point well established in the literature, when he argues that early industrialization in Western European societies was accomplished only through a critical accumulation of capital that required an accelerated ransacking of resources, mostly precious metals, from the overseas colonies (the African continent standing at the forefront of this process), as well as reliance on slave labor or wage levels equivalent to such status. (Frederickson, 1981: 200)

Chart 3. Core and Periphery, critical accumulation of capital. 18th century.

Peter Rachleff argues that a difference pointing to a differentiated strategic reaction to white supremacy and its foundations in the accumulation of capital between South Africa and the United States is the racial makeup of both societies. While in South Africa blacks have always been the majority behind primary-industry based growth, in the U.S. the white working class has been the engine supporting manufacturing industry based industrial development. (Rachleff, 2004)

I disagree, because I don’t see why whites in England would have been unable to achieve early industrial development without resorting to extracting a critical surplus out of its overseas colonies where the United States would have been successful at doing so without said colonies. My suspicion is that while the white working class worked under explotivie conditions as in any other preindustrial society to maintain a gradual buildup of capital and products/consumption, it was the presence of the initialy free, and then severely underwaged (when compared to whites) working class of color, that while a minority, squeezed the critical surplus of capital required for the activation of a larger industrial machinery.

Jack Weatherford presents an argument shared among many social scientsts today. that overt racism in public discourse has disappeared from U.S. society, although more subvert forms might have creeped in personal spaces and microdiscourses. (Weatherford, 2004) A more critical assesment of this statement starts from considering the contested significances of what constitutes “public discourse”. As Brewer and Heitzeg indicate, legislators know what they mean when they talk about “getting tough on crime”. It is hard to think of congress rhetoric where certain key terms have been merely updated to the industrial times as an ideological space, where racism has creeped to personal discourses and subvert insinuations.

It might be possible to think of the urban core as a site of postindustrial capitalist structure where black bodies are cheaply available for an agonizing growth of service-sector centered around the post-industrialization, post-manufacturing, post-restructuring economy.

Chart 4. Minneapolis, rural/suburban cities and the prison industrial complex.
Source: MINNCOR Industries (2005), Google Maps

In the above chart, I am trying to represent graphically a postindustrial urban economic structure, that in the face of a disuse of the legal slave, struggles to produce a critical mass of surplus that enables the white core units (service sector businesses and chain stores, such as Walmart, Target, and the like) to be financially maintainable. Of note is 1) the continuous influx of cheap labor into the industrial core of the city, which keeps unemployment high and guarantees low wages and little negotiability.

And 2) when bodies cross a layer of structure, expoitation is quite evident (e.g. when black and brown bodies moves from their residential areas to the industrial core of the city in order to provide cheap labor, or when white rural residents obtain employment at prisons), but when bodies cross two layers of structure, white heterodoxia claims them as rightful (e.g. “migra” raids, moving immigrant bodies from residential slums to the prisons, imprisonment of “dangerous criminals”, moving black bodies from slums to the prisons, white commutation to the white core units via highways, and the movement of young white bodies from the suburbs to inner-city NGOs seeking work experience in a highly competitive postindustrial job market)

Dismembering the Black Body

Alessandra Williams asks, “what is it that whites fear about the black body?” after James’s speech. James indicates the many directions in which such studies are being conducted, including Frank Wilderson and others, and takes her stance, resonating with Negro’n-Muntaner, that the aesthetics of the white body, which is assumed to flow into (and not stick out of) the social space, is destabilized by the presence/thought of the black body, (James, 2005) which is imagined as a conglomerate of excesses: “excess of food (unrestrained), excess of shitting (dirty), and excess of sex (heathen) are its [the dark … excess of the Africa in Puerto Rican rear endings] three vital signs.” (Negro’n-Muntaner, 1997: 189).

To this, Rachleff introduces David Roediger’s observation that the white working class, while being further exploited with time, takes relief in the fact that he/she is “at least not a slave” (Rachleff, 2005), engaging in what George Lipsitz terms the “possessive investment in whiteness”.

However, class is not the only factor at stake when examining the White Man’s fear of the black folk, as examined previously in the paper. And here is the reason why I needed to emphasize the need for a concept of racialy performed bodies (which focuses on the historical material body, performed out of racio-economic necessity, and ignores its ideological repercussions – racial stereotypes, claims that brown folk are dumber, and the like – for the sake of analysis) and not the already existing concept of racial performance (which involves the use of agency on the part of the corresponding raced individual to perform the expectations of the white gaze).

Chart 5. The Black Body and the Prison-State in a Neo-slave narrative.

The Black Body as a racial performance is composed of multiple parts, just as the biological body has arms and legs. While the Black Body is ideologically connected in all its parts, its actual execution in the post-industrial, and still capitalistic, city, requires its parts to be mutilated and serve diametric needs of white hetronormative capitalism.

Slavery cannot be detached from the black body, as the late Delacroix might claim. Free performance of labor by the black body is a strong expectation on the part of the prison-state, while at the same time contradictory in its existence, as it undermines the ideological foundations of “fair” capitalism. Therefore, when free labor, defined as 25 cents/hour – 4.8% of the federal minimum wage – as indicated by Rachleff, is performed, it can only be safely located within the walls of the american prison exceptionalism, in the incarcerated black body. Any deviation from this locus would be a scandal to liberal democracy as spearheaded by the New York Times.

Political agency is allowed when they comply with the wishes of the master. Blacks, the early racial justice activists, are regarded with skepticism in any other movement under the fear that they might pursue their own interests. Although desired when their will can be represented through mediation, as exemplified in the increase of congressional votes in upstate NY prison districts, direct involvement is feared as irrational.

Cheap labor, guaranteeing low prices and an anemic consumer economic in light of the postmanufacturing economy, is sought after by chunking communities of color togehter near large service sector employers and thereby encouraging competition for jobs.

This is my understanding of James’s notion of the prison-state. These four projects, however, diverge in oppositve directions, with interests from different parties, strangling the body. Edward Marcus Despard, a conspirator against the British government, was drawn and quartered in 1803. The prison-state of the United States seeks black death, but is too afraid of carrying out the sentence that will collapse its post-industrial urban economy.


Brewer, Rose and Nancy A. Heitzeg
2005 The Prison Industrial Complex: Roots, Realities and Resistance. Paper Presentation, Sixth Annual African American Studies Conference at Macalester – Incarcerated Intelligence: African Americans and the Prison Industrial Complex. February 12.

carrington, andre’
2005 The Situation of Homosexuality: Revolutionary Love in the Writings of Joseph F. Beam and P. Ombaka Tate – Neither constant Orgy nor constant Rape: Intermasculinary Patriarchy among Black Gay Men. Paper Presentation, Sixth Annual African American Studies Conference at Macalester – Incarcerated Intelligence: African Americans and the Prison Industrial Complex. February 12.

Frederickson, George
1981 White Supremacy a comparative study in American and South African history. New York: Oxford University Press.

James, Joy Ann
2005 Democracy and Captivity. Keynote Speech, Sixth Annual African American Studies Conference at Macalester – Incarcerated Intelligence: African Americans and the Prison Industrial Complex. February 11.

Jones, Steve
2004 Talk given to the Labor’s Stories through Music class at Macalester. Recalled orally. April.

Marti’nez-Vergne, Teresita
2004 Presentation given to the Mellon Myers Undergraduate Fellowship Program at Macalester. June 23.

Marx, Karl
1967 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. In Writings of the young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans. by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat. Pp 283-337. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books

MINNCOR Industries
2005 Facility Locations. Accessed Febuary 14.

Negro’n-Muntaner, Frances
1997 Jennifer’s Butt. Aztla’n, 22.2. pp. 181-94

Rachleff, Peter
2005 Freedom Movements class discussion on White Supremacy. January 31.

Rhodes, Lorna A.
2004 Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison. Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rose, Tricia
1994 Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Weatherford, Jack
2005 Anthropology in a Nutshell. Presentation given to the Anthropology Senior Seminar class. February 8.



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3 responses to “The Black Body as a feared Necessity in the Post-Industrial Urban Economy”

  1. The Black Body as a feared Necessity in the Post-

    paper link:

  2. Will

    Yongho this is amazing. Great work.

  3. will, i’m glad it resonates for more than one person. we’ll see you at the meeting today? we’ll talk about the mantra

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