Working-Class Politics and the Carceral State

Abandoned facility of defunct Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, (October 2006)

In the United States, whiteness as metaphysical absence is a prerequisite for economic class neutralization, allowing the aesthetic malleability and fetishization of generic working-class suffering to act as a form of blackface. Only by considering race as yoked to commodity labor, what Cedric Robinson refers to as racial capitalism, is it possible to see how whiteness normatively functions in an elaborate disciplining of persons into fragmented laboring bodies that sustain a political economy predicated on working-class exploitation. In the last two years since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, the Warren-Youngstown/Trumbull-Mahoning County areas of northeast Ohio, historically referred to as the “steel valley” region, have proxied as sites of mnemonic recovery, a means of rememoration to understand something about the national poetics of civic democracy driven by destructive capitalism. Confoundingly, Trump easily won Warren-Trumbull County which hadn’t voted Republican since President Richard Nixon in 1972. Media hype about the extent to which a Trump electorate reflects an overwhelming majority of the county has been greatly overstated, however.

The story goes that a severe lack of opportunity leaves these scrappy, blue-collar individualists vulnerable to dog-whistle politics trafficking in pathologies of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia to uphold a white supremacist patriarchy necessary for maintaining plutonomy (an economic system driven by the free-market demands of the rich). What is so disorienting about the adoption of Warren-Trumbull County as a site to unearth the significance of these catastrophic economic shifts is that it has been imagined as a wholly white place, despite its dependence on a city with a population nearly thirty percent Black and led by its first Black mayor. Born and raised in Warren for most of seventeen years before going off to college, returning frequently for family and holidays, and for a time between graduate programs working at nearby V& M Steel (located at the Girard-Youngstown juncture) as well as other manufacturing and assembly plants in the area, I cannot help but to see beyond news media’s entertainment and myth-making.

A city of almost forty-two thousand people, Warren (the largest city and county seat of Trumbull County) has been ranked as the third hardest hit US city yet to recover from the 2008 recession. Nine of the twenty-eight cities ranked are in Ohio; most, including Youngstown, make up The Steel Valley. Suffering the generational effects of poverty invigorated by multiple collapses of its steel and automotive-related industries—especially at the height of Reagan and Clinton-era federal tax deregulations and criminal justice/welfare reforms—Warren-Youngstown and surrounding areas have been gripped by the opioid crisis that has swept through so many economically declining U.S cities and towns. The empathetic face of the drug addiction crisis is very much a young, white, suburban or rural son or daughter; while Black communities plagued by opioid addiction since the seventies have been rendered invisible. Also missing from this white heteronormative sentimentalism is the increasing use of crystal methamphetamine among Black/Latinx queer men and its links to HIV/AIDS.

The dispossessed white working-class voter is a mythopoetic American figure. Dialectically associated with the symbolic fulfillment of an enfranchised citizen-worker, white dispossession as figurative expression reflects the incessant struggle for freedom which overwhelms disenfranchised Black existence as much as it does the violent fiction of nationalism emerging from an allegorical structuring of race consciousness as socioeconomic progress (white privilege). As a model for ‘common man’, the poetic condition of dispossession naturalizes whiteness through an historical ontology (appearance and duration of what is real) in which the universal distortion (whiteness/Americanism) translates the Other into any unique, recognizable alternative to the norm of capitalist progress, materializing the appearance of working-class blackface. To conceptualize this disorientation is to engage a praxis which Fred Moten refers to as “paraontological resistance”—an “uncoupl[ing] from the forms that came to stand (in) for blackness, to which they could not be reduced and which could not be reduced to them.”

What emerges when we examine the spectacle of white working-class grief more closely, lifting the Du Boisian veil that shrouds a geography encumbered by racial folklore intertwined with political history and contemporary economic stagnation, is an industrial city invested in the preservation of structural inequality for its survival in post-Fordist capitalism. Founded in 1798, only fifteen years after the American revolution, Warren factors into the imaginary of Manifest Destiny (western expansion and settler colonialism of continental North America) as a newly formed independent US government established law and order over its Midwest territories. Ideation of this period echoes with the many “spectacular displays of white terror and violence” that supplement quotidian violence against a ‘self-possessed’ black body, as Saidiya Hartman evinces.

In contemporary Warren, everyday violence embodied in an imagined national identity takes spectacular form in civic and cultural institutions. One such example is an all-white, senior male Barbershop chorus named after Stephen Foster, the “father of American music.” Foster exploited the minstrel genre in popular song compositions during a period of heated national debate concerning expansion of chattel slavery into the western frontier. He visited family in Warren several times before a brief residency there, four years prior to his early death in Pittsburgh in 1864. The Stephen Foster Chorus includes Foster’s minstrel songs in its repertoire. At the very least, the contemporaneous performance of minstrels is an expression of white indifference, a related interlocking phenomenon which entails periodic extension and reiteration of inequity. In his research expounding the conceptual neologism of “Blacksound”—racially coded sonic scripts developing out of blackface performance—Matthew Morrison argues that these productions involve a nostalgia that reenacts and perpetuates a sentimentalized disengagement with the real-life effects of structural inequality (119). This overlooked aesthetic of whiteness suppresses art like Kenneth Patchen’s anti-racist, working-class poetry.

The devastation of the rust-belt represents a process of creative destruction, capital accretion through neoliberal techniques of economic and financial restructuring of the social order, or as David Harvey phrases it, “accumulation by dispossession.” Corporate privatization of the public sector along with global free-market strategies leads to the devaluation and inevitable relocation of labor resulting from hypercapitalism­—requiring ever cheaper sources of labor power in a desperate move to expand. This capitalist growth results in a social and economic precarity among the working and middle classes that benefits a wealthy elite. General Motors’ recent announcement that it is shutting-down operations at the Lordstown (Trumbull County) Assembly Complex as part of an overall downsizing strategy involving several closings in its US and Canadian automotive division—even after a $350 million retooling as part of an $80.7 billion bailout in 2008 under the Obama administration—is a real-world effect of economic cycles of creative destruction.

Warren, like much of Ohio, while somewhat ethnically diverse divides along racial lines of black and white, and distinct heteronormative male/female gender binaries. With a median income of less than half the national average and thirty percent less than the county, Blacks and women in Warren experience severe income inequality and disproportionate rates of unemployment and poverty. Nowhere is the disparity more evident, though, than Ohio’s overcrowded prison system. Having the sixth largest prison system in the US, Ohio incarcerates Blacks at a rate seven times higher than whites, largely for non-violent drug related charges. Although Black people in Trumbull County represent only a little over nine percent of the general population, they are nearly fifty-eight percent of all incarcerated persons.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, dealing with racial capitalism as it relates to a surplus population of Black and migrant Chicanx/Latinx workers in Los Angeles, evaluates the complex circulation of a war economy that consumes living labor power for the production, reproduction, and accumulation of dead labor (capital) (70-8). Reminiscent of Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, Gilmore’s Marxian analysis rectifies the normativization of the market economy’s destructive cycles of progress and dispossession, committed through color-blind approaches to neoliberal correctives espoused by academic establishment figures as well as radical leftist critics like Harvey and Noam Chomsky. Developing out of Harvey’s ‘spatial fix’ metaphor to explain capitalism’s addiction to expansion, Gilmore’s “prison fix” concept elucidates how surplus populations of criminalized Black and Brown bodies provide the prison industrial complex with the corporeal means for capital expansion during periods of unproductive accumulation in conjunction with a dismantled welfare state (129-31). But, even while preemptively suppressing any potential political dissention arising from those communities affected by the loss and degradation of human capital, liminalization of the carceral state cannot absorb the shock of every impending crisis.

In 2003, more than a decade before Eric Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” became a mantra of the Black Lives Matter movement, those words were uttered in a video depicting the brutal beating and choking of Lyndal Kimble at the hands of three Warren police officers. The video gained national attention and sparked a debate about use of excessive, deadly force and targeted surveillance against Blacks. In the aftermath of 9/11, with the country on high-terror-alert and government administration of the Patriot Act being instituted at state and local levels, media attention of Kimble’s nonfatal beating was discontinued in a frenzied patriotism that gave false deference to police as first responders. Quietly hidden from national purview, however, as other complaints were made about the Warren Police Department’s routine use of violence, a Department of Justice (DOJ)/FBI investigation was launched. The investigation found “a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers that deprives individuals of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the constitution,” and was settled by Warren PD being placed under DOJ jurisdiction and oversight from 2012 to 2018. In this way, Warren serves as reminder of how the sacred white mask of working-class blackface transubstantiates invisible, muted Black pain and suffering into the grotesque expression of white grief.

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Keelyn Bradley

Keelyn Bradley is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy, Art and Critical Thought Division at The European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland. He is currently writing his dissertation, “Suffering Neoliberalism: Searching for the Meaning of ‘the right to equal protection’ in an Era of HIV/AIDS and Terrorism.” This study intends to research Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt’s theories of violence and embodiment, and their dual relation to Karl Jaspers’ existentialism while addressing the social and historical developments between the aesthetic dimensions of disease, disability, race, and heteronormativity. His first collection of poetry, 'hunger,' is forthcoming. Follow him on Twitter @koal2k.