Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Dignity Decoys



Time to read

6 Minutes

Guest post by Jamie Longazel. Jamie is Associate Professor of Law & Society at John Jay College, City University of New York. His recent book, Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania won the 2017 North Central Sociological Association’s Scholarly Achievement Award. He is also the co-founder of Anthracite Unite, an education and organizing collective focused on racial and economic justice in Northeast Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter @JLongazel. This is the third installment of Border Criminologies’ themed week on Dignity and immigration, organised by Vanessa Barker

At the 2019 Law & Society Association Annual Meeting, I was invited to take part in a plenary on 'Dignity & Immigration.' Dignity is a concept I never really wrestled with, yet it still feels so central to my work. The invitation had me both hesitant and excited; I felt like a novice and an expert at the same time.

So, I decided to begin with some self-assessment. I searched through my scholarly writing to see whether and how I used the term ‘dignity.’ My guess was that I probably used it about once per paper, maybe slightly less, and that, when I used it, I used it rather generically.  

Through this exercise I found out that in all of my academic articles and books, the term appears just once; and even then, it’s part of a survey question that I didn’t write.

That’s impossible, I thought. As writers, we all have some go-to phrases, and I knew that some variation of ‘the dignity we all deserve’ is one of mine.

So I expanded my search to include op-eds and essays I’ve written. And sure enough, there it was: dignity, dignity, dignity.

I never realized my tendency to use the term only in more public-facing writing. Reflecting on it, I think I might have done that on the basis of two assumptions: One, that people are craving dignity in this increasingly undignified world we inhabit. And two, I assumed people would therefore latch on to my ‘offering’ the term.

The first assumption I’ll stand by; but in this piece I want to challenge myself on that second one.

I titled this essay ‘Dignity Decoys’ because I think my assumptions might be part of a larger pattern. A pattern whereby we experience or see the stripping of dignity, we seek to reclaim dignity, but, in doing so, we wind up with something that isn’t actually dignity at all.

In other words, I want to suggest there is a difference between authentic and artificial dignity, between ‘dignity from above’ and ‘dignity from below.’

I actually became an immigration scholar by accident. As an adolescent, I was politicized after watching my dad, a fourth-generation American factory worker, be mistreated again and again by folks who in my community we call ‘the ties.’ These are the middle managers at the factory who have the offices upstairs, wear ties to work – they’re almost always men – and come down to the factory floor every once and a while to belittle the workers.

Out of that context, I started studying immigration – specifically, anti-immigrant backlash – after watching white working class people who spent their lives being kicked around in this way fall for the oldest trick in the book: The ‘ties’ – in this case, politicians… ‘the suits’ is probably more apt – telling them that immigrants caused all their problems. This was back in 2006 when my hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania passed the now-infamous Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IIRA), which sprung a flood of similar legislation in the U.S.

And so, dignity was always in the calculus for me. I thought and wrote about dignity as something that’s taken away when migrants are criminalized the way they were in Hazleton. I also thought about it in terms of how white workers in the U.S. have historically accepted what’s been called a ‘racial bribe,’ deciding, in a quite undignified way, to see themselves and their interests as ‘white’ rather than as members of the working class.

Building on the research tradition stemming back to W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, I’ve been examining the symbiotic relationship between racism and capitalism in my work. In contrast to the scholarly and media narrative in the U.S. asking whether it was racism or economic anxiety that led to the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been emphasizing that people don’t just push other people down for the sake of pushing them down; they push them down to lift themselves up. And they feel the urge to lift themselves up when things aren’t going well. When they feel like their dignity has been taken away. Racism and capitalism are partners in crime.

From this angle, we can view racism as something stirred up, intentionally and strategically – as Ian Haney López argues in Dog Whistle Politics – rather than as some inborn trait of poor white folks. The ‘racial bribe,’ in other words, is a dignity decoy – something offered by elites in the place of the actual dignity that would come from addressing material uncertainty.

It’s the construction of an ’Other’ against which alienated people can construct a respectable version of themselves.

The liberal response to this, at least in the U.S. – and this, too, might be rooted in alienation – has been to Other those who are doing the Othering. After the 2016 election, reporters from all over the world were calling me to talk about Hazleton, and nearly all of them knew exactly what they wanted: A caricature of a disgruntled white xenophobe who would capture the essence of ‘Trumpism.’ I obliged to a degree, as this xenophobia is very real and very harmful, but I was also careful to tell everyone about the economic backstory surrounding the IIRA, and about the rich history of labor organizing in the region. But those details, as far as the journalists were concerned, were not fit to print.

The liberal response to Trumpism also includes an assumption that the harms inflicted by Trump and his base will be defeated in the courts and legislatures. Philosopher Jeremy Waldron makes the point that the notion of ‘human dignity’ actually grew out of efforts to democratize the high social status typically reserved for royalty. What we’re seeing he suggests, is a long, gradual process of ‘leveling out,’ which is aided and abetted by law and legal institutions. Trump may have represented a step backwards, but we’ll get there in time.

Don’t get me wrong, I take great pleasure in watching judges swat away pieces of the white nationalist policy agenda. But my point – echoing Samuel Moyn’s response to Waldron – is that doing this without also addressing the underlying material inequality and economic uncertainty can only get us so far. As we have already seen, if the root cause is not addressed, alienated people will not hesitate to bring legal institutions down with them.

Plus, all too often these politics come off as virtue signals. Liberals see horrific things play out, rush to speak out about them, and, consciously or not, present themselves as fundamentally distinct from the wrongdoing. As inherently better than that. I’ll fess up: this is probably what I was doing in my op-ed essays as I issued pleas for dignity.  

Which is all to say, I think it’s important that we monitor our individual and collective humanitarian impulse as a potential dignity decoy. We see dignity being stripped from others and immediately try to get it back for them. When what we should be doing is trying to get it back with them. Our intentions are good. The hunger for dignity is there. Yet, again, what we end up with isn’t dignity in its pure form, and at the end of the day, a paternalistic approach reinforces rather than challenges existing hierarchies. 

Despite it all, though, I think the good news is that when people want dignity, they are going to seek it out. People don’t need professors or judges or politicians to tell them what dignity looks like – and in fact, we might be doing harm, albeit in different ways and to different degrees, when we impose our own visions of dignity from above.

To that end: Let’s let definitions of dignity emerge organically; let’s let the fight for dignity be led by impacted communities, particularly migrants; and let’s make dignified spaces where working class people can unite despite our differences rather than attacking one another on the capitalists’ rhetorical turf. For the only way we’re going to see a ‘leveling out’ is when we can effectively make meaningful, material demands of the contemporary royals – those folks who have us scrambling around, searching for the dignity we all deserve.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Longazel, J. (2019) Dignity Decoys. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/09/dignity-decoys (Accessed [date]) 

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