This book locates the struggles, wins and losses of young Black lives in a structural, institutional and historical context.
“What we see in affluent but unequal societies is a cycle of punitive measures, surveillance and control.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Joy White. White is a Lecturer in Applied Social Studies at the University of Bedfordshire. Her book is Terraformed: Young Black Lives in the Inner City.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Joy White: Terraformed is focused on a tightly defined area in east London. As it analyses how young Black lives experience student debt, invisible homelessness, custodial sentences, electronic tagging, surveillance, arrest, and loss, it has a relevance beyond national borders. Using a new framework – hyper-local demarcation - I discuss and analyze the impact of racism, austerity and neoliberalism on young Black lives. Terraformed is my attempt to connect the dots, to locate the struggles, the wins and the losses of young Black lives in a structural, institutional and historical context. In this way, young people who have grown up under the influence of neoliberalism can articulate their stories as part of a community, not just as individual losses or gains. Young people’s lives are increasingly informed by what it means to be poor in an affluent world, of feeling trapped and stuck in a system that appears to offer few routes out, on, or up. My book was published in May, in the midst of the global pandemic. We can see how Covid-19 lays bare the enduring inequalities that are racialized and classed. By looking at one geographical area, Terraformed shows how, across the global north, in some of the wealthiest countries in the world, social, economic and racial inequalities are produced and reproduced.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope that they will come away with an understanding that the hostile environment towards Black communities in the UK goes back decades. Anti-Black racism in the UK is underpinned by a collective amnesia with regards to the terror of Britain’s colonial and post- colonial endeavors. Although ahistorical accounts often erase Black presence and contributions, there are existing blueprints from the recent past for activists and community organizers and I have tried to bring these to the fore. Young Black people are actively resisting the ways in which contemporary social, economic and racial inequality are depicted as the natural order of things. Communities of mutual aid and support are being established and developed. While hyper-individualism seems to be embedded in our contemporary society, I hope I have shown that we must rebuild our communities with multiple sites of care, nourishment and knowledge. That the systems that purport to protect us are hostile, and often violent institutions. While there is little doubt that young Black lives are lived with and through levels of disadvantage, not to underestimate the hope that comes from creativity in all its forms. Also, hope for the future and hope for a better world is not just desirable, it’s essential to our survival.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope that readers will un-learn and also dismantle the ideology of ‘meritocracy’ – the notion that anyone can make it they just work hard enough, and the hyper individualism that accompanies it. With the mirage of meritocracy, there is little recognition of systemic, structural and racial inequalities. At the same time, neoliberalism masquerades as common sense. For the majority, a neoliberal agenda has not worked and society has become more and more unequal. Forty years of neoliberalism on either side of the Atlantic have embedded nihilistic, consumerist values as though that is the only way for society to move forward. In the United States, while income inequality is at its highest level since 1967, the wealthy continue to enjoy a growth in income that surpasses those in the working- or even middle-class bracket. In the UK, simmering below the surface of luxury new builds and technological advance, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, the haves and have nots, is revealed via the sonic landscape, rising levels of violence and increasingly punitive measures to contain it. Pressures on emotional well-being are enhanced by precarious employment and an ineffective safety net for those who fall on hard times. What we see in affluent but unequal societies is a cycle of punitive measures, surveillance and control. This links to the increasing use of legislation to address social problems that arise as a result of inequality.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
This is a very difficult question, because my work is inspired by a number of writers in different ways, and at different times. In general, I am inspired by Toni Morrison, reading Sula in the 1980s and later novels gave me permission to write, I think. More recently, Toni Morrison said that one purpose of writing is to translate sorrow into meaning, and that’s what I’m trying to do, turn sorrow (and joy) into meaning. However, in terms of the intellectual heroes for Terraformed, my thinking was informed by Paul Gilroy’s work on the borderless flow of Black musical forms as well as his work on the cultural domination of neoliberalism. Loic Wacquant’s concept of “advanced marginality” was a useful tool to analyze the introduction of neoliberal ideas. Additionally, Michel Foucault’s theories helped me to understand the disciplinary techniques of power and procedures of knowledge that are used to create different kinds of space, as well as allowing an examination of how some people become subject to state power ways that they can neither counter nor identify. Christina Sharpe’s concept of the wake and what it means to keep watch; observing and documenting how Black being continues as a form of consciousness, and illustrating how Black youth survives and resists ongoing exclusion.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Terraformed reminds us that extreme inequality is not ‘normal’ or ‘natural,’ it is the result of unfettered capitalism. The response to social issues that arise in an unequal society is a choice, an act of political will. Living with and through economic uncertainty may dull our capacity to imagine new worlds. Terraformed offers a reminder of the importance of creativity, specifically making, listening to and sharing music. How and where music is made reflects the divergent spatialities of inner-city environments. Grime and rap is produced and shared through collaborative efforts. Due to advances in technology, the availability of the Internet and the subsequent explosion of social media, Black British contemporary music has become highly accessible. Grime and rap both work as art, literature and ethnography in creating a sense of belonging. Social interaction fires the geographical imagination and allows for a sonic imagining of place. Music becomes a force that defines place, and for Black youth it is enhanced by Black Atlantic flows that fuse together the local, the national and the global. Black musical creative expression offers a form of flourishing, and provides a way to hold out against a rendering and representation of Black lives that implies they have no value.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]