The Subtle Death Not So Civil: A Brief Ethnological Address to Cultural Genocide in the U.S.

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Achille Mbembe (2003) affords us the beautiful construction of necropolitics, a term meant to describe the power to decide who lives and dies. I offer an expansion of the term to suggest that the term also represents the power to decide how death comes and to what degrees or in what ways it shifts, reflects, and reproduces the world around us. Cultural genocide is arguably one of the most subtle and impactful mechanisms of necropolitics, facilitating death through civil processes of violence, removal, and racial segregation. I argue that Indigenous Americans and African American, as well as other disenfranchised populations in America, experience a type of “state of exception” (Mbembe 2003, 11; Foucault 1977).

These states of exception are situated incidents of violence unique to the cultures impacted, making them incomparable to common discourse and ideas about violence but nonetheless real. From Indigenous removals to urban renewal, Black and Indigenous peoples experience these types of genocide in the contemporary era.


Ethnic Removal and Indigenous Americans

Ethnic removal, the process by which an ethnic, race, or group is removed from a social, cultural, or geographic space, is deeply embedded within the history and politics of the U.S. and the Americas. In the 19th Century, American indigenous groups were removed from their homelands and relocated to a series of reservations, confined regions and land where they were argued to have the autonomy of sovereign nations. While being relocated to reservations, they watched as their land was growing slowly into a Nation from which they were excluded and denied the rights of citizenship.

Such processes rely heavily on the erasure of previous histories and the re-historization of the place, space, and culture in order to render the structures of domination blameless and benevolent. Rather than colonizers, White Americans were able to portray themselves as the rebels that liberated themselves from their British brethren and manifested the “Home of the Free” and “the Land of the Brave.” Meanwhile, Indigenous Americans have been subjugated and inoculated into the acceptance of this retold history for nearly two centuries, but the depth and complexities of this cultural genocide are still understudied. Furthermore, African Americans, while performing the role of the enslaved builders of the Empire, have been subjected to second-class citizenship and minimal resources, while elements of their work and culture have been stolen and White-washed. The commonalities of cultural genocide facing these peoples warrants international attention, and this is my reasoning for writing this short article, to honor those struggles.


Erasure of Cultural Significance

In 2016, The Standing Rock Sioux were left to defend their rights to cultural autonomy, as the Dakota Access pipeline was set to be built across sacred and ancestral burying grounds. The incident manifested an amalgam of environmental and social justice issues. First, there was the potential contamination of the Sioux’s water supply at the Standing Rock reservation, as well as in other communities nearby. Second, the pipeline was set to tunnel underneath burial grounds and there was the possibility of disturbing graves.

Therefore, the Sioux petitioned the government to intervene and prevent the companies from building the pipeline on these lands. The Tribal Council attempted to invoke its right to protect the rights and health of its people. Therefore, it demonstrated the ways in which the pipeline would upset cultural stability. Citing several spills near the Northern Sioux homeland, they argued that it was only a matter of time before the oil from the pipeline spilled into their water supply and endangering other fish and wildlife, in addition to the safety of the nation.

Members of the national chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM) were in full support of the protest against the pipeline and traveled to North Dakota to rally with the Sioux and other Plains Nations that protested the pipeline. Despite these protests and the continual destruction of indigenous sites and artifacts, Justice James Boasberg denies a formal injunction against the oil.

The oil companies, with the help of their counsel, argued that the pipeline would not contaminate the water supply, that any risk of contamination would be minimal. Therefore, the company had the right to build the pipeline. Judge Boasberg claimed that the Sioux  and the joint-plaintiff, the Cheyenne, would have no grounds for their lawsuit and have chances of winning.

Members of the BLM chapters in attendance drew connections between the struggles of Standing Rock and Black communities around the country. In fact, many reference the Flint Water Crisis and other environmental justice issues as evidence of similar systems of environmental racism and cultural genocide. Therefore, Kim Ortiz declared:“We decided that we really need to stand in solidarity with the tribes out in Standing Rock because we know very well that all of our struggles are connected, and until we unite, we’re never going to win.”

These words of solidarity conjured the storied histories of Black and Brown displacement in the country. Many cited urban renewal projects and other processes of removing African Americans from urban centers, such as rent inflation, disinvestment, and project foreclosures, as the processes as cultural death. For instance, in the case of the African Burial Grounds project, Black activists fought for the proper burial of former enslaved peoples and their remnants located in Lower Manhattan, NY.

Similarly, recently the remains of activists and children’s remains from MOVE have been recently discovered and placed in an osteology lab at the University of Pennsylvania, with any notice to the families that lost loved ones when the community was destroyed by the police. There is clearly no respect for the dead, the ancestors, and death-related spiritual and cultural practices of Black and Brown peoples. We are either specimens of the scientific gaze or disposable bodies to be dealt with things that do not belong. Whether dead or alive, our removal is imminent and our isolation necessary.


The Revitalization of Space

Relocation and racial segregation are mechanisms of cultural genocide, eliminating cultures and peoples through a socioeconomic isolation which increases stratification and minimizes resources while promoting neoliberal and postracist ideologies that disguise exploitation as the process of rapid individualization and economic autonomy.

In the summer of 2017, I was a graduate researcher and field student at the HEAT (Health Equity Alliance of Tallahassee) Field School in Tallahassee, FL. During my time in Tally, I had the pleasure of learning the rich history of the predominantly Black community, known as Frenchtown. Frenchtown had been predominantly African American since Abolition and had functioned as a hub of Black socioeconomic and political autonomy, similar to Tulsa, Oklahoma prior to June 1921 (when the Black population and the thriving economic community they built were massacred). Unlike Tulsa, there was no massacre in Frenchtown, but slowly over the course of over a century and a half, the vibrant cultural community was systemically diminished.

During my time there, I learned that the decline of the vibrant culture was due to a lack of investment in Frenchtown. Some residents felt that the decline was due to the lack of state involvement and the fear of Black autonomy. “Frenchtown was always Black ran and people owned their houses,” said one resident in a town hall meeting. “Black owned for the most part, that’s how we did it. But then you started to see people try to move in on what we were doing when they realized that we were taking care of ourselves. At one time, we grew our own food and had everything else we needed.”

Oftentimes, Black people in moments of revitalization and gentrification recall past autonomy and moments of independence in order to disclose and contest the ways in which we are denied citizenship, made disposal, and culturally eliminated. With Frenchtown, state investment seemed to imply gentrification, therefore, it meant the removal of the rich history of the area. And even when the revitalization is something that the community desires, they are often excluded and not allowed to reap the benefits of such projects coming into fruition.

In the case of my own work in Albany, NY, residents of historically Black communities had been struck with this fear of removal, as their neighborhood Sheridan Hollow was targeted for a master plan that would address environmental justice issues, such as the toxic run-off and air pollution from closed plants, transformed into a reconstruction of an upper-middle class pocket of downtown Albany, much like the relocation of Jewish and poor European immigrants and their descendants during the process of building Empire Plaza. Such projects often construct and replenish physical space while removing rich histories and traditions, all in the name of making things better. Therefore, the frame of necropolitics fits quite appropriately.

Work Cited

Brulle, Robert J. and David N. Pellow “Environmental Justice: Human Health and Environmental Inequalities” in Annual Review of Public Health 27: 103-24. 2006

Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics” in Public Culture 15 (1): 11-40. 2003

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