- Community as a Political and Temporal Construct:A Response to Patricia Hill Collins
i am honored to have the opportunity to think with Patricia Hill Collins about community as a political construct. Collins has argued that, like concepts of family and love, community often has been considered to be part of a nonpolitical sphere, something personal and private even as it is not individualistic. As feminists have shown, however, the personal is political, and as Collins urges, an intersectional understanding of the political can and also should apply to the concept of community. In Collins's words, "instead of being a natural, apolitical space, or even an empty category that can be used for political purposes, the construct of community may lie at the heart of politics itself" (10). The concept of community can be a fruitful place from which to examine and challenge social inequities and other political aspects of our lived experience.
Collins has outlined four dimensions of the construct of community important for thinking of community as political: (i) its usefulness for prompting relational thinking, (ii) its ability to help people respond to change, (iii) its value for negotiating boundaries, and (iv) the way that it can harness people's political aspirations (Collins 25–26). In this essay, I would like to add another dimension of community that I believe is important for thinking about its political relevance: temporality, understood as the way that communities constitute themselves in relationship to time and especially to the past. This dimension is implicit in Collins's work on the politics of community, particularly in what she calls "the changing-same patterns" of social inequality. Over time, inequalities, such as racial inequalities, change. Think here of the end of chattel slavery in the United States. But they change over time by staying the same through it: the end of chattel slavery did not end white supremacy. It just altered its form, and it was accommodated and arguably even expanded by means of legalized segregation, aka Jim Crow laws. [End Page 83] Likewise, the end of Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s changed the form of white domination in the United States, but it did not eliminate it. It persisted via the so-called Southern strategy, the War on Drugs, and other legal and political policies and institutional and personal habits that perpetuated what Michelle Alexander has labeled "the new Jim Crow." As Collins argues, we need something to grapple with the continuities that persist in and through these changes. We need, in her words, "a new language of politics that more effectively addresses how social inequalities simultaneously change yet stay the same" (Collins 8).
For Collins, thinking of community as political and, I would add, temporal can help provide that new language. It leads us to ask: How are power and politics constitutive of communities in ways that allow racist inequalities to persist through changing times? What is the role that the construct of community plays in the changing-same patterns of white supremacy and white privilege, producing the eerie effect of timelessness occurring in and across different years? I also wish to ask: Does or should the new language called for by Collins point to a kind of pessimism about the possibility of making change that isn't more of the same old changing-same pattern? How can that pattern be broken? Can it be broken?
To tackle these questions and to further our thinking about Collins's concept of community as both political and temporal, I draw on Alfred Frankowski's recent work on race, memory, and time, in which Frankowski analyzes how white dominated societies require that anti-Black violence be memorialized in order to relegate that violence to the past. Americans do not know how to mourn their past, and this is because they think it is past. It is also because they desperately want it to be past. But what if the past is an integral part of the present? In that case, Americans would fundamentally misunderstand the present in which they live. Indeed, as Frankowski charges, Americans do precisely this—and white Americans do it above all. They do so willfully, even...