Reorienting from ‘crisis ordinariness’: a meditation on The Cruel Optimism of Racial Justice
The Cruel Optimism of Racial Justice

Blog post by Dr Shaira Vadasaria, University of Edinburgh

This post is based on a talk from a co-sponsored RACE.ED and CRITIQUE Author-Meets-Critic event held on Professor Nasar Meer’s book, The Cruel Optimism of Racial Justice, held 2 November 2022.

Thank you for the invitation to discuss and celebrate the work of our dear friend and colleague, Professor Nasar Meer, who despite his vast volume of scholarship, accolades and service (which often goes invisible), rarely takes up space to be recognised let alone celebrated for that matter. First and foremost, let me thank you Nasar, both personally and if I may, on behalf of the RACE.ED network for being a rigorous leading scholar of race and whom we’re lucky to consult with both here at the University of Edinburgh but also in the field more widely. Let me also thank Dr Mihaela Mihai as co-director of CRITIQUE – Centre for Ethics and Critical Thought, for approaching RACE.ED to co-organise this book launch for Nasar’s latest book, The Cruel Optimism of Racial Justice.

The Cruel Optimism of Racial Justice guides us through a series of pertinent questions, not at all easy to answer, but as Nasar Meer encourages us to think about, foundational to the legacy of anti-racist praxis past, present and future. Meer asks: what can we learn from the success and failures in the pursuit of racial justice in the UK and elsewhere in the Global North? His insistence that we (those in the pursuit of racial justice) might find resource (affective and otherwise) through a more elongated view of history and in thinking through the simultaneity of colonial wreckage across time (not to be mistaken with a teleological order), indeed helps us pause on the core tension of this book, which is inspired by the work of the late Lauren Berlant and her book, Cruel Optimism. What might it mean to inhabit a mode of praxis that departs from a notion of ‘systemic crisis’ or ‘crisis ordinariness’? This question gets to the core of the affective and psychic life of race.

In Loss: The Politics of Mourning, psychoanalytic race scholars David L. Eng and Shinhee Han help us think about race in relation to melancholia, a state of prolonged mourning with no end in sight. Moving the term away from pathologically rooted Freudian conceptualisations of unresolved individualised grief, they instead approach melancholia as a psychic condition or structure of feeling that explains collective suffering resulting from the psychic violence of race (Eng and Han, 345). This response to race brushes up against several subjects contained in The Cruel Optimism of Racial Justice: nationhood, institutional anti-Black racism within the UK policing system, racial inequalities of Covid-19, the racialized processes that come to underpin and form refugeehood, and, importantly, whiteness and white supremacy. The content of this book evidences over and over again that racism and racial violence are not incidental, transitory pit stops or even exceptional to modern political life but indeed foundational to it. Racism as Meer explains, and in conceptual dialogue with Barnor Hesse, is neither and need not be exceptional or extreme but rather the convention and the norm, so to speak. Why then, as Meer asks, are those of us in pursuit of racial justice, struck over and over again, by the cruelty and harm of race when its very structure lives in the ordinary? Perhaps the self-evident answer to this is that those of us consciously reckoning with race and its violence cannot not be touched by its force, which, as Avery Gordon insists, ‘can reach you, without seeming ever to touch you’. It is, as she explains, ‘what causes dreams to live and dreams to die’ (Gordon, 3). The other question that I see Meer raising here is, how and upon what terms might we refuse a temporality of crisis when it comes to racial injustice and our opposition to it?

This invitation, to think carefully about the affective life of race as it pertains to temporality, also makes me think about the place of futurity in the life worlds of racialized communities. As widely cited now by Ruth Wilson Gilmore in her definition of racism, what we’re talking concretely about is ‘state-sanctioned and or the extra-legal-production and exploitation of group differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies’ (Gilmore, 261). Race structures premature death in a multitude of ways, from the biopolitical and necropolitical management of those casted outside the domain of rights, and whom have very little recourse to justice even as they grieve the killing of their loved ones. Premature death comes to a people whose conditions of life have been made unlivable, uninhabitable, whether through militarized siege and settler colonial occupation, de-development, the constancy of settler and imperial terror or the continuity of surveillance and police brutality. In Meer’s discussion of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, I was struck by the similarities of the young Black woman whom he cites 27 years later (whose name we do not know as it is unacknowledged in the news media piece referenced). Her account had such striking similarities to what came to be known through the audio transcript of George Floyd’s last words in 2020. In her words,

“Having a male officer using all his body weight, burying his knee into my neck and using all the power within him to try to cut off my air supply…I just remember things turning like they looked a bit radioactive to me because…I was losing consciousness…I was pinned down, I’ll say about five, six, seven officers. I couldn’t breathe.” (p. 75).

These visceral accounts of race as they manifest both materially and psychically often arouse a temporary response of indignation by liberal anti-racists, as we saw in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the rise of anti-racist consciousness, largely due to the influential movement of Black Lives Matter. But for many of us in the long fight of anti-racist organising and scholarship, this moment was one when we held our breath, worrying what would come next when the smoke cleared and the racial anxiety lessened. This is where, coming back to the main concern of Meer’s book, we might seriously consider how to resist both the crisis framework and an acceptance of its life in the ordinary. What does it mean to hold both propositions simultaneously, particularly as we know the deep engravements of race within liberalism and its seemingly progressive roots: human rights, humanitarianism, recognition and reparations. We know, too, that these are not apolitical or ideologically neutral projects, but have also come to yield racial power in the very mechanisms and procedures they are activated upon.

One of the key strengths of this work is Meer’s capacity to not just hold such ambivalences but engage with them meaningfully, knowing very well that hope itself is both a form of political or spiritual resource as much as it is a fragile and fraught terrain. That at times, hope or optimism might even get us into as much trouble as a kind of totalising pessimism.

Part of Meer’s thinking on this paradox seems to be around what is required for imagining a different present as well as future as a means to transform the cruel optimism of racial justice into a justified perseverance of hope (Meer, 27).

While I think many of us can speculate on what a future-oriented praxis of racial justice opens to, in terms of their political possibilities – a future of abolition, a global geography unmarked by borders, land-based decolonial reclamations – what does reorienting our sense of hope in the present look like? How might we reorient ourselves not through a reconstruction of the past or utopic imaginings in the future, but through a conscious reckoning of the multitude of ghosts and racial inflictions that inhabit our present? To put it in Walter Benjamin’s words, which Meer recalls, ‘to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed’ (Meer, 111).

The Cruel Optimism of Racial Justice by Nasar Meer was published in 2022 by Policy Press.

Image credit: Nasar Meer, 2022.