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Digital Subscriptions > Boston Review > 50 Years Since MLK (Winter 2018) > Against National Security Citizenship

Against National Security Citizenship

NO PART of the vision statement for the Movement for Black Lives received as much immediate mainstream pushback as its stinging repudiation of U.S. foreign policy. Its demands, which included a call for military and security divestment, permanent opposition to the War on Terror, and a declaration of solidarity with Palestinians, generated criticism about specific policies (especially with respect to Israel and Palestine) and about the perceived disconnect between police brutality toward black citizens and U.S. military practices in distant lands. The implication was that by extending their vision beyond the national borders, black freedom activists were combining issues that were not inherently connected and better left to the security experts.

Moreover, critics were uncomfortable with the statement’s rejection of one of the most common mechanisms for outsider groups to gain inclusion in U.S. life: national security citizenship. By this I mean the idea that one shows one’s worthiness for membership by supporting—and being willing to fight and die for—the security policies of the state. To this day, the idea that oppressed groups earn inclusion through sacrifice on behalf of the state remains a potent one. Simply recall Bill Clinton’s effort during his 2016 Democratic National Convention speech to reach out to Muslims, a group that had been targeted and demeaned by Donald Trump’s campaign. “If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror,” Clinton offered, “stay here and help us win and make a future together.” Behind the rosy rhetoric, the dear implication was that Muslim’s rights were conditional on their support of U.S. security commitments and that such support was how Muslims cemented their status as Americans.

By contrast, in linking black freedom to opposition to the country’s foreign policy orientation, the Movement for Black Lives’ statement repudiated the classic assumption that the goals of the security state and the goals of oppressed communities should be thought of as one and the same. Instead, it argued, oppressed communities have to articulate their own independent foreign policy grounded above all in the interests of other marginalized groups. As the document reads, “The Black radical tradition has always been rooted in igniting connection across the global south under the recognition that our liberation is intrinsically tied to the liberation of Black and Brown people around the world.” This independent orientation emphasizes solidarities abroad (between poor or colonized peoples) and, as a consequence, directly challenges the security state’s prerogatives. Suspicious of any harmonious “we the people,” freedom activists instead see a shared community emerging, not with fellow co-nationals, but with the oppressed everywhere.

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“Genius. This extraordinary issue reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of America’s most radical philosophers. Forget the dream, he called for a revolution in values that stood in stark contrast with the nightmare of neoliberalism, permanent war, and state-sanctioned violence. These essays will inspire a new generation to return to the source.” —Robin D. G. Kelley