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Normalizing racism: Vigilantism, border security and neo-racist assemblages


In this essay, we trace the relations among the early years of the US–Mexico borderlands after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), the role of racialist discourse in shaping the border and US immigration policy, and contemporary bordering and security environments. Our ultimate aim is to show how contemporary security knowledge and practices form an assemblage with racialist discourses and practices in the post-9/11 era. Current security thinking is in itself racialized and follows the contours of what Étienne Balibar has described as ‘neo-racism’ (1991), which has offered vigilante groups more credibility in matters of security and immigration than they previously enjoyed. In short, we will show how the racial–territorial nexus of ‘classical’ racism has come together with the security–economy nexus of securitization theory and practice to form a neo-racist assemblage that we identify at the heart of US–Mexico border security and migration debates.

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  1. A brief clarification is necessary on our usage of ‘the Minuteman Project’ and other vigilante groups. We recognize that there are, in fact, many border vigilante groups and organizations, and we acknowledge that a great deal of sectarian in-fighting within and among the groups has led to their frequent splintering, division, dissolving and re-formation. For example, conflict between Minuteman Project co-founders Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist eventually produced a split into two organizations: the Minuteman Project and the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. We use, in particular, the Minuteman Project, the Minutemen, and Ranch Rescue as suggestive examples; we do not attempt a detailed history or reading of every group, a worthy project that lies beyond the scope of this essay.

  2. Our usage of the term ‘assemblage’ follows from Saskia Sassen’s (2006) use of the term, which is rather more straightforward than the way the concept has developed in the wake of the work of Deleuze and Guattari (1987). By assemblage we mean a coming or joining together. We prefer this term because it holds onto a notion of force while opening onto the ambiguity of intentionality. For us, assemblages can include both intentional and unintentional components, yet still act upon or influence society and/or politics with force.

  3. All references to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo refer to the version made available by the Yale Law School Avalon Project.

  4. For example, see Lyons (1846), ‘A War Song for the Texas Volunteers’, which is highly suggestive of the popular tropes that dominated the period. For a concise treatment of the complex historiography of race relations in the Texas territory in this period, see Crisp (2010).

  5. Aztlan is the mythical homeland of the Nahua people, or the Aztecs. The territorial designation of Aztlan crosses the US–Mexico border and is a trope within racialist conspiracy theories that demonstrates what would happen if there was unchecked immigration from Mexico. To reiterate, the Reconquista movement is supposedly an attempt to regain the legendary Aztlan territories. It should also be noted that even though Lou Dobbs is no longer on CNN, the issues he raised and the language he employed on the network have not disappeared from mainstream media.

  6. For a more detailed account, see Jones (2012).

  7. We refer here to ‘sovereign citizens’ groups, of which there are a few different types. One of the most well-known are the groups of US citizens (or others) who gather on private islands or large yachts and attempt to carve out tax havens in international waters and declare themselves sovereign. However, for the purposes of this article, we refer to ‘sovereign citizens’ in a broader context as any group of citizens who privately takes on sovereign responsibilities in the name of shoring up national sovereignty.

  8. Jerome Corsi is a well-known author on the political right. Among other works, he is famous for his 2004 book, written with John E. O’Neill, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.

  9. Indeed, Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1993) is perhaps the prototypical example of neo-racism at work.

  10. To be clear, the depoliticization of border security practice we mention earlier in this essay is not undermined by the repoliticization of the academic field of Security Studies that Huysmans and others have advocated. Security Studies has, in part, reacted to the depoliticization of security practice in its move into the technocratic realm by arguing for its being understood as a realm of discursive and practical power relations. We follow Huysmans, Didier Bigo, and others in this direction.


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The authors would like to thank Philip Armstrong and Reece Jones, as well as several anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

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Correspondence to Joshua J Kurz.

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Kurz, J., Berry, D. Normalizing racism: Vigilantism, border security and neo-racist assemblages. Secur J 28, 150–164 (2015).

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