Sophie Stiebig EN301 Contemporary Literary Theory 14 December 2020
Biopolitics and residential segregation in the US
Al Mills’ and Nnamdi O. Chukwuocha’s (The Twin Poets) poem “Dreams are Illegal” (2015) raises the still occurring problem of residential segregation especially by racial or ethnic groups in the United States. This problem can be exemplified by focusing on Georgia’s capital city Atlanta, a city whose history has been coined by the civil rights movement, also since it is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth city. Although the Fair Housing Act came into force in 1968, which prohibits discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin (U.S. Department of Housing), there is still inequality and residential segregation that can be discovered in the demographics of the city’s neighborhoods (Pooley, 2015). It is deeply connected to Foucault’s concepts of biopolitics, biopower and race, Agamben’s idea of Homo Sace r and Kristeva’s theory of the abject. The following essay will therefore focus on the interrelation of these concepts, the application on the occurring problems in the city of Atlanta and how they are presented in The Twin Poet’s poem.
Atlanta has according to the American Community Survey (ACS) demographics a population of 51.85% Black or African American and 40.27% White inhabitants (United States Census). But instead of finding heterogenous neighborhoods it can be noticed that there is a major racial divide within the city. Holloway et al. present that there is an increase in black-dominant, homogeneous neighborhoods (77). Additionally, there is a so-called “white flight”, meaning that white Americans prefer living in neighborhoods with a majority of white population, which leads to residential segregation. This results in a concentration of African Americans in the South and metro region of Atlanta (Pooley, 2015; Karner & Duckworth, 2019, 1882) and white American neighborhoods in the northern counties, like Cobb or Fulton North (Markley, 2018). These tendencies are also a result of new urbanism projects, that mainly try to “whiten” non-White spaces and intentionally displacing non-White residents (Markley, 2018). Kristeva’s idea of abjection can be clearly recognized in the observation of the “whitening” or “white flight”. The white Americans can be seen as the subjects, being able to act according to their desires. The object as Kristeva’s explains are seen as abjects that are facing lives of exclusion (4) and are not equipped and approved by the circumstances to choose where they want to live, since it is well known that White households are more likely of being able to afford houses valuing higher prices (Markley, 2018). African Americans are mainly dependent on the circumstances created by the Whites, as “the State functions in the biopower mode” (Foucault Society, 256) which will be exemplified more detailed.
Another way for example of applying the concepts of biopolitics and racism, mainly coined by Foucault, is the purposefully withholding of the emergence of public transportation in dominantly Black and low-income areas, like for example in Clayton County. Additionally, it is proven that households of color are less likely of having a vehicle and are dependent on public transport. (Karner & Duckworth, 1883). Depriving public transport is therefore a knowingly way of concentrating black Americans to a specific area and withholding access to free movement. Furthermore, the right to their “… body, to health, to happiness, to the satisfaction of needs …” (Foucault Will to Knowledge, 145) is practically taken, because they are limited in their movement and infrastructure, including transportation, medical facilities or good schools.
A different obstacle, that for example occurs and plays a major role in equality are disparities between schools in various neighborhoods. As soon as suburban school districts grow in diversity, the “white flight” can be discovered again. This results in leaving minority households in poorer school districts (Pooley, 2015). Their right of choosing the school for their children is therefore withheld. According to Foucault “it is a way of separating out the groups that exist within a population” (Foucault Society, 254f.) through means of housing, transport, education which are all dependent on the neighborhood one lives in. This concept of monitoring and equipping the schools according to what district they in can also be connected to Agamben’s idea of the Homo Sacer and that some lives are more valuable than others (121). In this case for example some students, which are mainly white, are more worthy of getting good education and more likely of going to college. White people in the northern suburbs, having the financial means to move into more governmentally funded areas with good schools and the opposed groups of African Americans living in the South, that are caught in a vicious cycle of having resource-poor schools, which leads to less chances for students to succeed (Agamben, 177; Pooley 2015). Therefore, this concept again can be applied to spacial segregation which is presented in the Twin Poet’s poem.
The previously discussed problems can be discovered in the Twin Poets’ poem “Dreams Are Illegal”. The poem begins with a stanza describing a typical white-middle class family life. A life that can be found for example in a neighborhood in the Northern counties of Atlanta, like Marietta or Roswell, which have been “whitened” through new urbanism projects (Markley, 2018). The speaker is dreaming of the life of a family in “the land of the beautiful”, in a “suburban home”, as if it would be his own life. But after imagining this picture-perfect family, “all these strangers turned to me and said: What are you doing here?” They are purposefully excluding the speaker, telling him that he does not belong and that he should go back to the ghetto where he came from. This end of the scene perfectly depicts the problem of racism and is, as Foucault writes “a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die.” (Society, 254). The perfect scene is disrupted by a break, by the “gunshots [that] ring in the heat of the night”. The family in the suburb would have unlikely been in a situation where there is violence, but they are the ones who decided for the speaker, an African American, to go back into the ghetto. They were the ones deciding that the abject should not be able to choose the place where he lives, that he is not allowed to be in their community and “therefore strays instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing.” (Kristeva, 5). This idea also stresses the title’s claim that “Dreams are Illegal” in an African American neighborhood. They are not allowed to think of a better way of living, because this is what they were assigned to. Their “dreams are stolen with ease”, since they are not the ones allowed to decide what their life should be like and that they are left to die without hope. This spatial segregation for example in Atlanta, “justifies the death-function in the economy of biopower by appealing to the principle that the death of others makes one biologically stronger insofar as one is a member of a race or a population, …” (Foucault Society, 258). It seems like they are purposefully left in those environments to ensure that they stay there which can be seen in the debate about public transport. As the Twin Poets write “Life and death intermix with no disparity, Some children live for nothing, some children die for nothing”, stressing the unthinkable of being able to ever live a White-middle class life. There is for example only a slim chance of building wealth through owning a house, since houses are undervalued in specific neighborhoods or lower chances of finishing school with a good degree, since they are not funded according to their needs (Pooley, 2015).
But Mills and Chukwuocha do not leave the reader with hopelessness. They appeal that their children, in this case children out of ghettos “need to be told [that] they can achieve” and to hold on to their dreams. That there is hope for a better future, can be exemplified when for example Keisha Lance Bottoms was elected in the 2017 mayoral election, as the first black-female governor for Atlanta. Although the election was clearly divided by race, since the southern half mainly voted for Bottoms and the North mainly voted for the white opponent Mary Norwood, there was a win for the so long oppressed black population of Atlanta, being able of looking into a brighter future (Hobson, 2018).
Concludingly it can be said that there is still spatial segregation in several cities, especially in Atlanta, grounded on racism, although public laws prohibit discrimination because of race. This can be seen in a spatially divide of non-White and White neighborhoods and the idea of “whitening” specific areas. Biopolitics and biopower play a major role in the contribution of the population by race and ethnicity, since it is nearly impossible for African Americans to join one of the only White neighborhoods. Indirectly, they are purposefully excluded because of racism, leaving growing disparities, especially in means of public transportation, housing and education. They are deliberately seen as abjects, human beings that are not worthy of being included and educated. Additionally, they are still seen as less honorable, although history has made big steps already. Mills and Chukwuocha criticize the inequality and the not fair education system in their poem. They appeal that kids in African American neighborhoods should be able to have dreams that are probable to be achieved and that they step out of the vicious cycle of being left alone without hope for the future.