‘Race’ to Borders or Why Brown Death Matters

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The mass detention of would-be refugees in Texas, recently covered in The New York Times Magazine, is but the latest cruel episode in the material histories of international borders and state-mediated racism. Central American women and children who’ve fled criminal violence in their homeland are being warehoused in GEO owned detention camps while they await asylum hearings. These practices reveal how certain populations are deemed less worthy of life, safety, and security. All too often, these families are banished to their crime-ridden homelands.

I must underscore that to analyze ‘race’ demands the critical explanatory power of racism. Human beings show a remarkable genomic and phenotypic plasticity. It’s structured across geographic space and time. But to mistake this for race commits one to the ideological power of racism. Race in and off itself is a fallacy, a bankrupt concept, ridden with inaccuracies, the fodder for weak analysis, and mystifications of problematic analytic and political import. Conversely, to analyze the materialist histories of racisms serves to demystify power and its accompanying taken for granted rationalizations. It’s to capture how certain groups become racialized, how they are born into or inherit impoverishment, ill health, and all sorts of scales of violence. These fatal couplings of power and difference constitute racism.

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In this respect, the hardening of borders across the West, the prominent calls for increasing the use of enforcement in the Americas or in Europe, is inextricably linked questions of imperialism. The pernicious collapsing of domestic concerns about immigrants and alienage with international concerns about terrorists, and criminal elements, where inequalities, specifically the rights of some populations to thrive while Others are situated closer and closer to death, become naturalized as part of global order of things. They converge in a profound sensibility that borders are out of control: our citizenship and sovereignty under duress. And, they legitimate tactics such as channeling non-citizens who cross the southern border of the United States without documentation into ‘killing deserts,’ where some 5,000 plus have died of exposure or other environmental causation, since the late 1990s, or channeling them into sewer tunnels, where they become subject to the depredations of abjected populations, as I discuss in my award-winning book. They legitimate the mass incarceration of families to discourage―if not terrify―future immigrants.

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Indeed, it’s telling the intensification of lethal military technology and tactics by domestic police forces in the United States, as in Ferguson, begins in the US-Mexico border region with the institution of the Border Patrol, our nation’s largest police force. The militarization of the US-Mexico border, particularly the Border Patrol, draws on strategy, tactics, and technology rooted in the imperial and genocidal adventures of the Reagan administration backed wars in Central America. Ronald Reagan once famously held that ‘terrorists and subversives are just two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.’

The children of these wars are the mothers and their offspring now detained in Texas. Brown death matters in it marks the return of the imperially repressed. Brown death matters―and the privilege of white, sanitized upper class existence―are inextricably tied to an endemic, imperial racism, crystallized at international borders.

Gilberto Rosas, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This piece was originally published in Border Criminologies and is reprinted with permission from the author.

About Gilberto Rosas

Gilberto Rosas is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Latina/o Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His expertise includes questions of state formation, immigration, criminality, political economy and the ever thickening US-Mexico borderlands.
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