Carceral Progressivism: On Savannah Shange’s “Progressive Dystopia”

By Elizabeth Hanna RubioApril 7, 2020

Carceral Progressivism: On Savannah Shange’s “Progressive Dystopia”

Progressive Dystopia by Savannah Shange

IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2019, immigrant justice activists interrupted the Central Committee meeting of the Democratic Party of Orange County, California. We intervened as the Committee discussed whether to adopt a resolution calling for the abolition of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (a.k.a. ICE). Though the declaration was largely symbolic, activists nonetheless saw it as an urgent statement of party and local values. Most members of the Committee opposed the resolution, calling instead for “A Resolution in Support of Reforming US ICE and Responsibility to Care for Immigrants.”

Those in favor of the reformist option made their case through four argumentative strategies typical of mainstream progressives. First, they summoned an abstract sense of unity: “We are all Democrats”; “we all agree that ICE is acting inappropriately.” Second, they appealed to reason and “common sense” — in other words, a “but…” would follow the previous presumption of universality: “We are all Democrats and we all agree that what is happening at the border is egregious, but we risk isolating moderates in mentioning abolition.” Isolating moderates, reformists argued, would imperil the “blue wave” — the hard-fought electoral victories in November 2018 that transferred formerly Republican Congressional seats into the hands of, in two out of three cases, recently Republican-registered Democrats. Third, the reformists stressed individualized, palliative acts of care (e.g., bringing feminine hygiene products to incarcerated immigrants), rather than large-scale restructuring. Finally, they evoked a “return” to a purportedly preferable state prior to the advent of Trump, as if Obama’s program of mass deportations was somehow a pro-immigrant utopia. Taken together, these four appeals — to Democratic unity, common sense, individual benevolence, and nostalgic recovery — disciplined the conversation into pointlessness. Abolition and its advocates were constructed as killjoys, out to disrupt the feel-good march of liberal “progress.” Reformists clung to the fleeting comfort of partial, ameliorating solutions, in the fantasy that getting rid of Trump would be enough to save us.

I have been in and contributed to more “progressive” debates like this than I care to remember. And for those tempted to read the scene described above as yet further evidence of Orange County’s enduring conservativism, I could describe several similarly exasperating experiences in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other ostensibly hardcore liberal enclaves. Savannah Shange’s new book, Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco, has given me powerful new ways to frame my frustration with reformist half-measures, as well as a lens through which to perceive my own complicity in forwarding them. 

An assistant professor of Anthropology and principal faculty in the program in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Shange has conducted years of ethnographic research at a school with an activist and restorative justice orientation that serves mostly Black and Latinx students, and which is located in the supposed progressive utopia of the Bay Area. At the “Robeson Justice Academy” (a pseudonym Shange adopts to shield the identities of her informants), purported “wins” for social justice causes often simply reinforce the carceral state and its disregard for Black life. Shange coins the term “carceral progressivism” to capture this paradoxical dynamic — a term that also names my frustrating (yet all-too-common) experience with the Democratic Party Central Committee.

In brief, carceral progressivism refers to how social reformers who seek to challenge the racialized injustice of America’s penal system often rely on police and other mechanisms of discipline and expulsion in order to maintain a circumscribed vision of “community” and “progress.” Their reformist agenda is less a challenge to racialized power and capitalist inequities than a “routing and rerouting of power through the uneven, interlocked mechanisms of the state, private funders, and civil society,” in which the “material gains […] of redistributive social movements are cannibalized and repurposed as rationales for dispossession.” If carceral logic holds that “they” must be expelled in order for “us” to be safe, then carceral progressivism assumes that those who reject its tyranny of common sense, unity, benevolence, and recuperation must be cast out in order for justice to prevail.

In critiquing progressive framings of social justice “wins,” and the ways these supposed victories fail to meet the actual needs and dreams of Black people, Progressive Dystopia invigorates calls for immigrant justice work in an abolitionist vein, for reimagining what we mean by immigrant justice entirely.

Central to Shange’s argument is a critique of “winning” as the dominant social justice framework. Progressive “wins,” she asserts, often involve extending recognition to an ever-expanding “list of deserving subjects” in a way that fortifies the figurative and literal incarceration of an ever-expanding list of undeserving (mostly Black) others. Each of the book’s chapters demonstrates how an event constructed as a social justice “win” at Robeson Academy merely served to embolden the same carceral state it ostensibly sought to combat. These “wins” — such as the firing of a few racist teachers and administrators, or a school assembly held to display multiracial unity, or the enhancing of college access via Spanish-language acquisition — ultimately constituted palpable losses for Black students. A handful of selective dismissals of racist “bad apples” and token nods to Black and Latinx solidarity absolved the school of its responsibility to examine its own carceral practices and narrowed down visions of an acceptable future.

For Shange, the imperative to “win” in this way is fundamentally opposed to the vision undergirding the abolitionist chant “I believe that we will win.” These are two quite different “tenses of victory”: the latter “conjures a course to freedom” that speaks to “a ritual practice of internalizing the necessity to do the impossible,” while the former is satisfied with the “temporal catharsis” that “disciplines the desire for freedom into a quantifiable goal — an endpoint that can be lauded on a successful end-of-year grant report.” This configuration “domesticate[s] our freedom dreams within the realm of what’s possible, rather than what’s necessary.” The “win” disciplines us to believe that survival is the most we can yearn for. It convinces us that a whole host of expulsions are justified in its name, thus reproducing and emboldening the same ubiquitous carceralism that places like Robeson supposedly seek to dismantle.

Let’s return, grudgingly, to the scene of the Central Committee meeting. Toward the end of our heated debate, an older white person joined the chorus of individuals who laid claim to expertise via their weekend trips to the border to bring necessities to detained families. She appealed to the abolitionists by invoking Trump’s threats to deprive California of federal funding for passing its “sanctuary state” bill: “That mentally ill man in the White House is vindictive. We have a good setup here in OC, we are able to visit the detainees and go support them. He will try to take that away from us. Is that what we really want? We have to protect what we’ve got!”

But what is it, exactly, that we’ve got? Are the “wins” we must struggle for and vociferously protect merely the ability to visit with and provide the most basic necessities to people being housed in facilities where (as The New York Times reports) toddlers, “many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met […] [and] are relieving themselves in their pants,” or where (as CNN reports) six people died in the course of three months — facilities that contribute to our metastasizing mass incarceration system, with $2.7 billion spent on ICE detention facilities in 2017 alone? If centrist electoral victories (made possible, I would point out, by the tireless work of passionate organizers who mobilized the youth of color vote in unprecedented numbers) can support little better than palliative care in ICE’s houses of horror, and if that is what we mean by “winning,” then I fear we are living in a progressive dystopia indeed.

As Shange’s book painfully documents, so many social justice “wins” constitute larger losses for Black Americans. They perpetuate a tendency within multiracial social justice spaces to “cannibalize Black suffering” and to gloss over the foundational nature of anti-Blackness in the United States. Adapting Shange’s argument, I think we need to wrestle uncomfortably with the ways that dominant immigrant justice frames that center on state recognition are, no matter how expansive in their inclusivity, complicit with this dynamic. Offering the following provocations to my fellow activists with love, I ask us to shift our temporal understanding of how to “win” immigrant justice.

Many scholars and activists have shown how the logic, financing, and infrastructure of immigrant detention fortifies a carceral state that feeds on Black death and expulsion. They have also shown how immigrant rights strategies that appeal to innocence, family, or other forms of imagined “deservingness” reproduce the neoliberal logics that pathologize Black lives and justify incarceration. In a significant attempt to move away from these problematic narratives, many activists have deprioritized their “Dreamer” activism in order to pursue legalization for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, regardless of their criminal background or their legibility within neoliberal frames of hard work, upward mobility, and “innocence.” The importance of such a reframing cannot be overstated. It constitutes a refusal to participate in narratives of immigrant exceptionalism that are consistently mobilized to justify Black suffering. Activists have also attempted to resolve criticisms of anti-Blackness within the immigrant rights movement by being more inclusive of undocumented Black voices and focusing on immigration relief programs that affect Black immigrant communities. Yet, as Shange writes, “the demands of abolition exceed a simple respite from antiblack racism.”

Shange’s argument in Progressive Dystopia poses some difficult questions for immigrant justice activists. Does defining victory as expanded citizenship only serve to embolden and legitimize an unjust system? Is such a project inevitably antithetical to the goal of abolishing the carceral state and thus ultimately responsible for further Black suffering? What does it mean to seek membership in a nation built on indigenous dispossession and Black enslavement? What does it mean for activists to assert that “Home is Here” when “here” Black expulsion is constructed as a necessary precondition for protecting the “home”? If, as Shange asserts, Blacks “are the ones who can never come home,” then is the project of seeking inclusion in this home anything other than an anti-Black one? As Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, who teaches African American Studies at UC Irvine, has written, an “abolitionist consciousness pleads with us” to see that “this place is a slaughterhouse” and that its “citizenship is not worth the paper it is written on”; “when you finally do belong,” she adds, “they will eat your children […] they are never full enough of our dreams deferred.”

Progressivism is a necessarily recuperative project, what Shange calls a “state romance.” But why this stubborn will to recuperate? Why this drive to march ourselves into — indeed, to fortify the scaffolding of — the slaughterhouse? True abolition, Shange asserts, requires a “messy breakup with the state”; it leaves us no choice but to envision immigrant justice as a collective march away from the slaughterhouse.

Complex immigration histories spanning three continents, and marked by several arbitrary twists of fate, resulted in both my child and me being born on US soil. As a result, neither of us will ever know the fear of armed agents breaking down our doors to take us away from each other in the night. The ignorance my privilege facilitates aside, I do not take lightly the freedom from fear that my citizenship allows. It is easy for me to pontificate about the limits of justice-as-recognition from my safe perch of guaranteed belonging and state protection. That said, I must always be cognizant of the fact that my citizenship, and the “freedom” it affords, is only possible because of other people’s unfreedom. Shange writes that “[a]bolition is not a pathway — it is the end of paths and the end of worlds.” Abolition isn’t more citizenship. It is the end of it.


Elizabeth Hanna Rubio is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is an immigrant justice activist and scholar.

LARB Contributor

Elizabeth Hanna Rubio is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is an immigrant justice activist and scholar who writes about undocumented Korean American activists and evolving ideas about racialized solidarity within social justice spaces.


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