An Interview with Catherine Besteman, 2022 Public Anthropologist Award Recipient

Professor Catherine Besteman.

Catherine Besteman is Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College, as well as President Emeritus of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology. She has been honored with the Public Anthropologist Award of 2022, for her book Militarized Global Apartheid, and spoke with PoLAR Associate Editor Jennifer Curtis about the book and her ongoing commitment to scholarship on the dynamics that produce and maintain inequality, racism, and violence, as well as her current work on freedom and abolition.

Jennifer Curtis: Would you summarize the argument of your book for our readers?

Catherine Besteman: Militarized Global Apartheid argues that the past several hundred years of what Cedric Robinson identified as “racial capitalism” has created interlinked, overlapping, and iterative militarized bordering practices that systematize the racialized control of labor and mobility for the benefit of capitalists, mostly in the global north. I use the term “militarized global apartheid” to capture the universalist dimensions of this reality, but also attempt to demonstrate the numerous cracks, faults, and forms of resistance that are emerging in response.

Each chapter explores a different piece of this argument: the consolidation of nationalist identities in racial terms linked to sovereign, bordered territories; the utility of borders for extraction and plunder by imperialists, colonizers, and corporate capitalists; forms of containment designed to manage those displaced by borders and extraction; policies and practices intended to manage and control the flow of exploitable labor from the global south to the global north; and the deployment of militarized technologies and security practices to maintain inequality and manage mobility across the globe. The final chapter addresses where the future might lead.

JC:  How did Militarized Global Apartheid grow from your research and activism? What engagements informed this analysis?

CB:  My first significant period of research took place in Somalia just before the onset of the civil war, which displaced and killed millions of people. The breakdown of the Somali state happened for a lot of reasons, but the willingness of the West to continue funding an authoritarian government while investing in projects to shape a capitalist economy based on private property played an important role. I analyzed the relationship between land tenure reforms and the civil war in Unraveling Somalia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), a project that directed my attention to the impact of militarism, militarization, and new expressions of American imperialism more broadly.

I then spent a number of years learning from people in Cape Town I call “transformers” because of their investment in projects of social transformation to overcome apartheid’s legacies of white supremacy, inequality, and racialized boundaries. Transforming Cape Town (University of California Press, 2008) was an attempt to grapple with the question of how to confront and dismantle apartheid’s legacies in materially and ideological meaningful and transformative ways.

Meanwhile, the survivors from the small Somali community where I had lived who made it to Kenyan refugee camps and then into a resettlement program to the US eventually found their way to Maine, where we reunited 20 years after my stay in their community. I spent the next decade reconstructing what had happened to them, which taught me a lot about the intricacies of how the global north attempts to manage and control the mobility of people from the global south displaced by war or other crises. This research resulted in Making Refuge (Duke University Press, 2016) where I recounted the challenges my interlocutors faced in navigating borders, racism, inequality, and poverty to claim, eventually, a stake in the United States.

These three projects brought me to the focus of Militarized Global Apartheid, which I think of as offering an exploration of war and displacement; borders, racism and mobility agency; and the role of militarism in upholding a profoundly unequal global order of heightened mobility for some and interrupted mobility and incarceration for others.

JC:  As thousands of people flee during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we see people of color trying to leave Ukraine for safety, only to face discrimination, exclusion, and intensified insecurity at borders. In the midst of an ostensibly Western conflict how can your book help readers understand the forces of capital, militarism, nationalism, and white supremacy at work in the crisis?

CB:  Yes, it does appear that the argument I make in my book is unfortunately evident in what we are seeing in Ukraine.

JC:  How would you advise the next generation of anthropologists to create engaged scholarship that has public impact?

CB:  First, I guess the question is about the value of and reason for public impact. In the work I do, I feel a commitment to finding ways to share the research results to people beyond the academy, but I don’t believe that this is a requirement of anthropology. Some research is subversive and would endanger people if it is widely disseminated. Some research is undertaken for a specific community who then retains the right to decide what to do with it. So I think the concept of what constitutes public impact is complicated and fraught. The first piece of advice is to figure out why the research is important, and to whom, and then to agree with the research community on modes and genres of dissemination.

In my work on mobility, migration, militarism, racism, and carcerality, I have been interested to find ways to reach audiences beyond the academy, in collaboration with the research communities, through building websites, curating museum exhibitions, writing op-eds, and giving talks in venues like rural public libraries, business associations, professional associations (archivists, teachers, social workers, health providers, etc), religious institutions, community groups, and book groups. I see this work as culture-work, an effort to shift popular thinking about things like migration and imprisonment in ways that might find expression in politics, policy, and notions of community. I do this work in collaboration with those in the research community, of course, but also with students and others who want to join.

I’m concerned about perceptions in the academy of who constitutes a worthy audience. I understand that standards for assessing professional success in the academy do not consider things like talking to local book groups or the local Rotary as important work, but I think things like that are acutely important for stimulating dialogue and critical reflection, and to ensure that those of us working in the academy are not self-siloing.

JC:  What will you be working on next, both in scholarship and activism?

CB:  I am working on building abolitionist educational pathways for and with incarcerated people in Maine. One aspect of this is working in collaboration with others to build new programs to teach across prison walls, which includes, at Colby College, offering classes co-taught by incarcerated and nonincarcerated faculty as well as classes that include incarcerated and nonincarcerated students. Another aspect is the abolitionist collaborative state-wide public humanities project I directed last fall called Freedom & Captivity that aimed to foster abolitionist visions for Maine. It involved over 50 partners who organized art exhibitions, workshops, a podcast series, lectures, performances, essays, background material, teaching and archival materials, and more. I just received an ACLS Sustaining Public Engagement Grant to build a team to curate the material created for Freedom & Captivity into curricula that can be used for teaching, most particularly by incarcerated teachers and facilitators.

This work does not yet have a traditional scholarly expression or output, and I am not sure if/when it will. Currently I am deeply engaged in thinking through abolitionist pedagogies with my co-teacher at Colby this term, Leo Hylton, who is completing his Master’s Degree in Peace and Conflict Resolution while incarcerated at Maine State Prison. We will see where our collaboration goes, but for now we are focused on building bridges from and breaking down barriers in the carceral regime.

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