The Binary & the Spectrum

This is not an essay about transgender rights. I’ll come back to that before the end. First I want to talk about race, what it is and isn’t.

After “black power” expressed insurgent America’s racial awakening in the late 1960s, racial capital’s inevitable, brutal whitelash prevented the “beloved community”, from transcending our dominant, generalized common cultural understanding of race, and – crucially – what can(‘t) be done about it.[1] We got stuck with no “left” theory of race that works together with class, and the MAGA GOP death cult filling that space. Just because liberal Democrats are mostly afraid to talk about it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

That late 60s/mid-70s Nixon-era “safe streets” dogma, at the core of the racist obscenities of war on drugs and mass racial incarceration, froze our aspirations, dreams and mental roadmaps in place. Now we have mass-predatory MAGA reaction, directed from power centers of our society, wielding those archaic dogmas like weapons. Liberals muttering “polarization” like some kind of pathetic incantation. Some melting and reforming is long overdue.

Generalized, progressive cultural understandings and ideals were achieved thru the black power upsurge: minimum expectations of proportional political power, a working system of equal opportunity, if not actual jobs, and integrated schools. In the school integration busing litigation (Milliken v Bradley I) in southeast Michigan around Detroit, the system poisoned, corrupted and began the long-term destruction of the very right to have “rights”, the process we read in blood in May 2022, from the US Supreme Court’s leaky rightwing judicial coup against the constitution, thru the shameful massacres in Buffalo, Uvalde and countless communities across the country.

Let me be clear. I’m shaken. To my very core.

The existing school district boundaries in southeastern Michigan in Milliken v Bradley were the real constitutional issue. It was not the principle of local control. No one ever proposed taking over Livonia Public School District. It was a time and a bellwether community when race as an oppressive force was being frozen into place again after the rebellion. It was transporting black and white children’s bodies across those actual geographical and politico-legal community lines, for purposes of desegregation, that justified segregated white public suburban schools as the proto-Federalist Society’s first scalp in their continuing, bloody war on civil rights and truth.

There is an extremely important lesson here about the reality of “law” and how it really works in our realities, particularly as applied to more recent emergency management experiences. To say that the existing school district boundaries in southeastern Michigan in Milliken v Bradley were the real constitutional issue is to acknowledge the supreme constitutional, politico-legal power in those boundaries, which, as Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dissent memorably foresaw, would divide our great metropolitan areas into two cities, one white and prosperous, the other of color and oppressed. Think about that next time you find yourself out on Mack or Eight Mile on the east side!

It’s all in the power of those lines. All the gentrification and displacement; the corporate-subsidized economic development and underdevelopment of the giant working class communities of color in our cities; the bloodletting of the guns and the corruption of democracy; the post-civil rights Obama-ization of our national politics and emergency management of the black and brown local municipalities in the former Milliken v Bradley region; brushing aside the sacred localities where the issue is fiscally disciplining low income People of color by shutting off their water, instead of black and white children learning together. I could go on in this vein. Forever. But the point is racial capital has oppressed, violated, abused, disrespected, killed, stolen from and lied to the modern heirs of the enslaved long enough. The red blood of white People and the red blood of black, brown, red, yellow and all People are one. We should all be one when it comes to some things. Even if we have to see ourselves on a spectrum instead of a rigidly divided binary (see note 1).

The social construction of race (and other socially constructed identities), in place of arbitrary, dominationist, scientifically bogus binary divide-and-conquer gaslighting scams inherited from the Klan and the Black Legion, is a valuable conceptual tool. It will not make the problems of racism, patriarchy and other evil forms of class oppression go away, but they can help us work to create the conditions where we can resolve these problems.

Since Cornel West was about as far from wrong as he could get when he said that the role of the law in defending and promoting unjust domination is the most explosive issue in US culture; since that was before Uvalde and the emerging Handmaid’s Supreme Court; since our fundamental climate-and-democracy emergency really leaves us no other viable choice, we have to work on creating those conditions. Now.

  1. cf: Critical Race Theory (Crenshaw, et al, eds.) & Elizabeth Hinton, America on Fire. The transgender rights movement, among others, is indebted to Derrick Bell’s real life cadre of Geneva Crenshaws for mapping the questions at the heart of this whole discourse: The Right to Have Rights. How to defend it, extend it and use it to end race and other class injustices. Bell, The Space Traders.


Tom Stephens is a volunteer educator for the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement (DIFSM) and a Peoples lawyer in Detroit.