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Precarity in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter

WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 45: 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2017) © 2017 by Sean Hill II. All rights reserved.
Precarity in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter
Sean Hill II
Abstract: Guy Standing’s theory of precarity fails to account for the myriad ways in which people of African descent, specifically Black Americans,
experienced precarity prior to the rise of neoliberalism. This facilitates
Black Americans remaining an eternal precariat class and also undermines
the multiracial, progressive coalitions that could assist in solving precarity.
Were Standing’s theory to center those who, both historically and contemporaneously, have been most marginalized, his theory and recommended
solutions would be more comprehensive. The intersectional approach of
the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), and the transformative effect it
is having upon law practice, can guide us in the development of a more
robust theory of precarity that produces sustainable solutions and change.
Keywords: intersectionality, Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), critical
race theory, Black Lives Matter, movement lawyering, National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL)
Two hundred and twenty-eight years. It’s just shy of the 240 years that
America has celebrated as an independent nation. It also happens to be
the number of years it would take the average Black American family to
build the same wealth as their white counterparts (Asante-Muhammed et
al. 2016). This is the financial state of the Black community as it bids farewell to the first Black president and steels itself for the promised dangers
of the Trump administration.
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), launched with the 2013 tweet
#BlackLivesMatter, has become a channel for many Black Americans to
voice their dissatisfaction with a country that, for all of its rhetoric of “freedom” and “equality,” cannot solve long-standing disparities between its
white and Black citizens.
Yet a few years before the inception of M4BL, Guy Standing (2011a)
proposed an explanation for the ever-increasing wealth disparities seen
not just in the United States but around the globe. It is a concept that he
calls “precarity.” The “precariat,” Standing (2011a) claims, is an emerging
class of people denied the security and protections associated with the
postwar Keynesian era—a livable wage, unionization, opportunities for
training and advancement, etc.—as a result of neoliberal policies that encourage the privatization of social services and reliance on a transnational,
unskilled labor force. “Precarity,” according to Standing (2011a), is a relatively new phenomenon, the result of countries rejecting the policies of
the Keynesian welfare state in favor of neoliberalism’s calls for fewer government interventions on behalf of the proletariat. In Standing’s (2014,
2011b) opinion, if we are to solve the issue of precarity, then political leaders must embrace policies that are sensitive to the plight of the precarious
class, like the provision of a basic income and other progressive measures.
Yet when we examine the United States through the lens of precarity, we encounter a glaring contradiction—namely, that Black Americans
have had the markers of precarity since the country’s inception through
to the present day. Their existence as a precarious class in fact preceded
neoliberalism. The last several decades are only unique in that the pool
of precarious persons has now expanded to include white Americans and
others of European descent, the lives that have “mattered” both historically
and contemporaneously. It is this small subset of the precarious class that
Standing is seemingly describing in his scholarship: newly exposed to the
job insecurities of capitalism and especially susceptible to the appeals of
fascist leaders.
I will spend the first part of this article briefly exploring the ways in
which people of African descent have been a perpetual precarious class in
America. I will then proceed to identify the inherent dangers of failing to
account for their precarious status. And in the final section, I will examine
how M4BL can guide us toward eliminating precarity both in America and
on the global stage.
Mapping Precarity in the Black American Community
Precarity, in Standing’s estimation, is a contemporary phenomenon, the
product of industrial nations adopting, exporting, and imposing neoliberal policies on a global scale. Whereas the proletariat, which preceded
Precarity in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter 95
the precariat, was able to secure the seven forms of labor-related security—adequate income-earning opportunities, protection against arbitrary dismissal, the opportunity to gain skills through apprenticeships
or employment, etc.—the precariat is said to lack all of these securities
(Standing 2011a, 10–13). In a world that prioritizes the use of a transnational, cheap labor force, they cycle in and out of short-term, low-wage
jobs that have little to no opportunity for advancement. According to
Standing, they lack a work-based identity and do not feel part of a “solidaristic labour community,” which only serves to intensify “a sense of
alienation and instrumentality in what they have to do” (2011a, 12).
They are “denizens” in that they are denied at least one of the rights afforded true citizens, e.g., civil, cultural, social, economic, and political
rights (14, 87–88, 93–96).
Yet Black Americans carried all of these markers of precarity before
neoliberalism assumed global proportions. Take, for example, Standing’s (2011a) position that today’s precarious classes are defined by an
inability to unionize, and the denial of basic employment and income
securities associated with the labor movement of the postwar era. This
stance presumes there was an era when all or a majority of the members of the proletariat had equal access to the protections and security
of union membership. An examination of America’s labor movement,
however, shows concerted, intentional, and altogether successful efforts
by white laborers to exclude their Black counterparts from unions and
their related rewards (Velez 2015; Honey 1999). As late as 1968, Black
Americans were forced to create alternative union collectives because
the AFL-CIO unions remained deeply discriminatory and persistently
denied admission of Blacks to the higher ranks of leadership (Georgakas and Surkin 1998). Across all seven forms of labor-related security
that Standing enumerates, history shows us that Black Americans have
not just fared far worse than white members of the working class, they
have also more often than not found themselves without any of the labor
protections that the precariat class is only now said to be lacking (Perea
2011; Moreno 2006; Kropp 2002).
Similarly, Black Americans have occupied the role of denizens since
first arriving on America’s shores as slaves, and even after their de jure release from bondage (Blackmon 2008). The era of Jim Crow, which followed on the heels of abolition, rested firmly on the denizen status of Black
Americans, who were not treated equally before the law, not protected
96 Sean Hill II
against crime and physical harm, not entitled to income-earning activity,
and not granted an equal right to vote (Woodward 1974), all of the rights
Standing claims are critical to a nonprecarious existence (2011a, 14). This
denizen status has only continued, unabated, in the age of neoliberalism,
with our ever-growing prison and policing systems acting as the primary
vehicles for the routine denial of basic rights to Black Americans (Hinton 2016; Alexander 2010). In the last several decades, we have seen voter
suppression transform into pervasive felony disenfranchisement (Davidson 2016), rampant discrimination in housing access (Coates 2014), and
severe employment disparities (Desilver 2013) that undercut any claims
of equal access to the various forms of state-sponsored social protection.
Capitalism, which finds its origins in the slave trade, demanded Black
Americans occupy the role of denizens (Quijano and Wallerstein 1992).
Given that Standing counts people of African descent amongst today’s
precariat (2011a, 86), it follows that their denizen status has continued
uninterrupted since chattel slavery into the present.
I am not the first to identify precarity and precarious classes as preceding neoliberalism. In Precarious Existence and Capitalism: A Permanent
State of Exception, Tayyab Mahmud makes the compelling argument that
precarity “is an unavoidable historical and structural feature of capitalism”
(2015, 701) and that neoliberalism has simply served the dual role of expanding and deepening precarity. This expansion has resulted in what he
calls the “hyper-precarious,” a labor pool of undocumented immigrants
that is “large, flexible, super-controlled and super-exploited” (722). He
explains that, “Dislocated from their spaces and communities of affiliation, these workers have to contend with low wages, low-status work, denial of labor rights, political disenfranchisement, state repression, racism
and xenophobic nativism” (723). The racist ideologies underlying their
oppression “help keep the attention of relatively privileged sections of the
working classes away from the crisis of global capitalism . . . undermin[ing]
unity and coalition building among the working classes” (724).
While Mahmud does the necessary and critical work of demonstrating capitalism’s longstanding reliance on precarity, like Standing, he does
not address the perpetual status of Black Americans as a precarious class.
He begins the work of defining a new, hyperprecarious class when Black
Americans have also been exhibiting the signs of hyperprecarity for centuries, including being relegated to low-wage work, and being subjected
to political disenfranchisement, state repression, and racism. And the racPrecarity in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter 97
ist ideologies he identifies as being responsible for division within today’s
working classes were used in nearly identical fashion to divide Black and
white workers in America before the rise of neoliberalism (Honey 1999).
In the next section, I will identify the inherent risks in failing to acknowledge people of African descent as the persistent precariat class. I will
then proceed to identify one way forward in efforts to eradicate precarity
for good: the platform and demands of those in M4BL.
The Dangers and Pitfalls of Failing to Acknowledge Black Americans as a
Perpetual Precarious Class
Failing to account for Black Americans’ perpetual state of precarity has
several consequences, some obvious and others discrete. Chief amongst
these consequences is that it facilitates Blacks remaining an eternal precariat class. Following Standing’s lead, American precarity, for example, is
being cast as an altogether new phenomenon whose effects are being felt
primarily (if not exclusively) by the white working class (Patton 2016).1
There is no shortage of pieces on what Hillary Clinton and the Democrats
did wrong in their appeals to the white working class, and what Donald
Trump got right (Leonard 2017; Kilibarda and Roithmayr 2016; Eisler
2016). This provokes a conversation that is exclusively about what needs
to be done to make the lives of white Americans better, rather than the lives
of Black people or the millions of hyperprecarious individuals residing
within America’s borders (Patton 2016). Policies are recommended and
applied on the basis of what a small subset of the precarious class—white
people—wants or needs, rather than on what would be best for the entire
precarious class (Stephanopoulos 2015; Hutchison 2010). This, in turn,
allows for the ever-greater concentration of wealth and resources in white
communities (precarious or otherwise), while capitalism and its brother, neoliberalism, continue uninterrupted and unabated, using Blacks and
undocumented persons as a perpetual pool of cheap labor. Believing precarity has been solved (at least for them), whites become susceptible to
messages from neoliberals and fascists alike, that Blacks and other hyperprecarious persons have an innate dysfunction that explains their lack of
basic labor-related securities, like steady employment and wages (Franke
2016). These inaccurate and racist tropes distract white members of the
precariat and ensure they do not interrogate the neoliberal systems that
are crushing their own communities (Mahmud 2015, 724). This, in turn,
98 Sean Hill II
allows Black Americans’ status as denizens to be further justified, exploited, and entrenched.
A failure to examine African-descended peoples as a precarious class
also normalizes whites’ routine selection of racist and xenophobic fascists
whenever the privileges temporarily afforded them as white members of
the precarious class (like unionization, a livable wage, social welfare programs, etc.) are at risk of being made available to other members of the
precarious class.2
Standing speaks of migrants, Black and otherwise, being
convenient scapegoats when neoliberal policies prove ineffective (2011a,
90–102), but there is no analysis of how such scapegoating also serves to
concretize what it means to be white. This phenomenon is worthy of its
own full analysis and explanation, given that the white precariat’s reliance
on a shared white identity produces not just fascist leadership but also
leadership that is deeply invested in the oppression of Blacks and other
ethnic minorities (Adichie 2016; Morrison 2016; Painter 2016). It is the
type of leadership that produced a system which routinely and disproportionately cages Black and brown bodies (Alexander 2010), and that routinely exports war and terror on a global scale (Selby 2016). Breaking this
cycle requires an analysis that accounts not just for the degree of precarity
class members experience based on race and ethnicity but also for how
each subset of the precarious class reacts to their precarity, particularly in
the context of political choices and decisions.3
Finally, failing to acknowledge and name Black people as a perpetual precarious class is undermining the ability of progressives to build
the broad, multiracial coalitions necessary to end neoliberalism (Glaude
2016; Laymon 2016). Because Standing’s (2014) and others’ sense of
precarity is divorced from race, it results in policy recommendations and
political platforms that are sensitive to class, exclusively, as opposed to
class and race. The Sanders campaign was routinely criticized for taking
an exclusively class-based approach (Thrasher 2016; Coates 2016), with
some commentators drawing connections between his primary loss and
a failure to make specific, race-based appeals to Black Americans (Starr
2016). An exclusively class-oriented approach will lose even greater traction in the wake of the Obama administration, which regularly claimed
that promulgating and implementing policies on the basis of class would
inevitably result in benefits to Blacks, who make up a disproportionate
number of the precariat (Darity Jr. 2016). But with recent studies showing that Black households would have to save 100 percent of their inPrecarity in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter 99
come for three consecutive years just to close the Black-white wealth gap
(Hamilton et al. 2015), it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince
Black Americans that their full citizenship—including labor security
and basic civil rights—will be realized through policies claiming to help
the entire precarious class but which only help a specific subset: whites
(Taylor 2017).
The next part of this article will examine how M4BL and the broader
demands being made by Black Americans can help guide our visions for a
future free of exploitative capitalism and, thus, precarious classes.
The Movement for Black Lives and the Fight to End Precarity
The most troubling aspect of Standing’s theory of precarity is that it makes
little to no distinction between those who have, for centuries, been relegated to the precariat versus those who are newly experiencing precarity. This
then produces restrictive solutions that are exclusively class-oriented and
do not address the broader systems and institutions responsible for precarity. Standing’s (2014) universal basic income, for example, may raise
the standard of living for certain precariat members, but such changes are
nominal and temporary where racism, sexism, and ableism continue to
relegate certain individuals to the precariat while elevating others (Gaddis 2014; Bessler 2014). Standing’s theory of precarity could be more robust were he to adopt an intersectional approach that acknowledges the
differing degrees of marginalization members of the precariat experience
according to their identities. Intersectionality encourages us to center the
experiences of those who are the most marginalized, which in turn allows
for comprehensive solutions and the reimagining of existing, oppressive
institutions and systems (Crenshaw 1991). M4BL offers guidance in developing a more robust theory of precarity in two ways. First, it does so
by modeling an intersectional approach in both form and substance, and
second, through the transformative effect it’s having upon legal practice
and how privileged professionals work to amplify the voices of precarious
M4BL evinces intersectionality in terms of its organizational and leadership structure, as well as in terms of its policy platforms. Not only was
the movement itself founded by three Black women, two of whom identify
as queer, unlike its predecessor movements, the M4BL does not have a
central body or figurehead. Instead, it is a loosely affiliated network of or100 Sean Hill II
ganizations, collectives, and individuals invested in eradicating anti-Black
racism. This loose affiliation is more than just a pragmatic response to state
surveillance and continued efforts by the state to discredit movements
by discrediting their leaders; it is also an egalitarian approach that facilitates shared decision-making and prioritizes the leadership of individuals marginalized within the Black community itself, specifically women
and those identifying as LGBTQI (Kelley 2017; Teuscher 2015). This
approach stands in sharp contrast to narratives and structures that centered cisgender men during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements
(Chatelain and Asoka 2015). It also provides a radical vision and model
of what leadership that is not steeped in violence and patriarchy can be,
taking Standing’s basic income solution one step further by actually building alternative institutions rather than recommending a nominal change in
existing policies or leadership.
In the realm of policy, the M4BL launches campaigns and issues demands that accommodate and are sensitive to those who are especially
marginalized, namely cisgender and trans* women. While major news
outlets almost exclusively focus on Black men killed by law enforcement
and vigilantes, the collectives and organizations affiliated with the M4BL
intentionally and routinely engage in protests and campaigns that highlight the alarming number of Black women and girls harmed and killed
by the police each year (McClain 2015). In August of 2016, fifty of these
organizations came together to release a platform entitled “A Vision
for Black Lives,” replete with demands and policy recommendations to
achieve Black liberation (Newkirk 2016). A countless number of the
demands—such as the call to abolish prisons or to expand protections
for workers—are premised on the discriminatory and disproportionate
effects certain policies have on Black women and girls (Movement for
Black Lives 2016a). In fact, nearly all of the policy recommendations
appearing in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Say Her Name” report (Crenshaw
and Ritchie 2015), which was specifically intended to help stakeholders
address Black women’s unique experiences of profiling and policing, also
appear throughout the Vision for Black Lives platform (Movement for
Black Lives 2016b).
In addition to modeling an intersectional approach, the M4BL is having a transformative effect upon the practice of the law. This is especially
relevant given that the provision of Standing’s basic universal income
does nothing to transform existing institutions and systems responsible
Precarity in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter 101
for precarity, nor does it offer an alternative to those same systems. The
legal system is often understood as a vehicle for protecting the wealthy at
the expense of the indigent and precarious, and existing methods of legal
practice, such as impact litigation and direct legal services, are prone
to that particular criticism (Freeman and Freeman 2016; Ashar 2008,
362–64). M4BL, however, is breeding a new type of attorney known as a
movement lawyer. These are lawyers who work in collaboration with collectives and movement leaders, to help them build their own power and
capacity so as to effectuate sustainable change (Freeman 2015). In sharp
contrast to Standing’s theory of precarity, these lawyers center and defer
to community members themselves in addressing racial and economic
The New York Chapter of the National Conference of Black Lawyers,
which I cochair, offers an excellent example of this new style of lawyering in the form of its Mass Defense Network. Rather than litigate a series of police brutality cases or launch a campaign for a state or federal
change of policy, our affinity group instead created a network of legal
observers and defense attorneys that provides legal support to Blackled collectives. This network was a direct outgrowth of what collectives,
themselves, said they needed: first, to have culturally competent, Black
and brown legal observers to observe police conduct while protesters
engage in protest and other constitutionally protected conduct, and second, to have defense attorneys that aren’t just zealous advocates but are
sensitive to protesters’ unique needs as members of larger collectives.
Fulfilling these responsibilities amplifies the voices of Black communities by contributing to their having greater confidence and security when
in the field (contrary to the chilling effect heavy police presence and
criminalization are intended to have on protest). Further, this approach
ensures grassroots and movement leaders can continue to build awareness and power within communities, rather than face incapacitation as
a result of undue arrest and over-incarceration. Those directly impacted
by issues of anti-Blackness remain in the fore while attorneys remain in
the background. They instruct the bar on what they need, limiting the
co-optation and hollow reform traditionally affiliated with the law (Siegel 1996). Were Standing to take a similar approach, by centering the
voices of those historically relegated to the precariat, both his theory of
precarity and recommended solutions would set the foundation for solving rather than entrenching precarity.
102 Sean Hill II
In 2012, three Black women reignited the movement for Black liberation
and self-determination with the compelling declaration and hashtag:
#BlackLivesMatter. The demand—that the world stop treating the lives
of Black people and others of African descent as disposable, and instead
vest them with the dignity and respect reserved exclusively for those of
European descent—sprang from the acquittal of George Zimmerman
for the extrajudicial killing of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida (Garza 2014). According to the proponents of what is now
broadly termed the Movement for Black Lives, making Black lives matter
requires more than just an end to white vigilantism; it demands that we
reject all forms of state-sponsored violence against Black communities,
whether that violence manifests itself in police misconduct, housing and
education disparities, or in the ever-worsening wealth gap between white
and Black Americans.
Standing’s theory of precarity offers one explanation for the abysmal
conditions of Black and other members of the precarious class, seeing in
neoliberalism an explanation for low-wage, short-term work without the
promise of advancement or basic job security. While his assessment is
accurate, it is lacking in its failure to account for the long-standing status
of Black Americans as a precarious class. The result: the perpetuation
and fortification of precarity in Black communities, the normalization of
white precariat class members selecting far-right, fascist leaders, and the
undermining of progressive coalitions to combat neoliberalism.
M4BL, with its foundation in intersectionality, can guide us forward in
solving precarity. Such an approach has allowed the movement to center
the voices of those most marginalized within the Black community, as well
as generate new methods of leadership. Moreover, it has transformed how
attorneys practice the law, thus laying the foundation for building entirely
new institutions and systems. Were Standing’s theory of precarity to adopt
similar approaches, this would not only resolve his erasure of people of
African descent, it would also allow for comprehensive solutions that actually address and eliminate precarity on the global stage.
Sean Hill II, Esq., is the cochair of the New York Chapter of the National Conference
of Black Lawyers and on the Steering Committee of Law4BlackLives. He works on bail
and speedy trial reform throughout New York in an effort to end mass criminalization.
He can be reached at [email protected].
Precarity in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter 103
1. Stacey Patton noted this particular phenomenon in a recent article for Dame
magazine, in which she criticizes right-wing media for casting white men as
the exclusive victims in America and as the only demographic denied the
American Dream. This narrative not only “privileges White male experiences of hardship,” but it also “takes attention away from [the] system and the
elites controlling it.” She adds, “It says that the media and politicians need to
understand the White male voter in Ohio or Pennsylvania but not the black
voter in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, or New Orleans that [Trump] wants to
be watched closely at the polls on Election Day” (Patton 2016).
2. Michelle Alexander’s concept of the “racial bribe” can be used to partly
explain this phenomenon. Specifically, she contends that white elites, as a
means of maintaining their dominance over both poorer whites and people
of African descent, have always extended special privileges to poor whites
so as to keep them divided from their Black counterparts. This strategy has
been employed since chattel slavery and resulted in an entrenched racial
caste system, which poor whites have a vested interest in maintaining (Alexander 2010, 25–57).
3. One explanation for whites’ susceptibility may be that the white members
of the precariat classes have no choice but to rally around their (fictional)
identities as white people as a means of filling the identity void that’s left
whenever they are denied labor-related identities as a result of neoliberalism.
It follows that they then select fascist political parties and candidates because
these entities make specific appeals on the basis of a shared national (often
exclusively white) identity. In fact, Blacks could be said to use their shared
identity in similar fashion: to assuage the trauma and concomitant challenges of perpetually being denied labor-related securities and the full range of
rights accorded to citizens. However, Black Americans’ reliance on shared
identity does not result in the selection of far-right candidates and parties,
despite such conduct being a logical outgrowth according to Standing’s conception of precarity (2011b).
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