Solidarity-as-Debt: Fugitive Publics and the Ethics of Multiracial Coalition

From the Series: An Otherwise Anthropology

A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues). Constitutional Court of South Africa, Johannesburg.
Photo by Laura McTighe. A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues). Constitutional Court of South Africa, Johannesburg.

Over the past few years, we have been engaged in a messy collaborative process, theorizing what we have been calling “thick solidarity,” a mode of cross-racial solidarity that doesn’t rely on the slender if of empathy, as in if I were you, but rather pushes into the specificity and incommensurability of our racialized experiences. Who, though, is the we? In the lines that follow, we experiment with an overlapping and contradictory first person. Us denotes both the pair of authors—Savannah and Roseann—and the different ethnoracial collectivities that have produced us—U.S. Black and Chinese American, respectively. This polyvocal us is not a slippage, but a syntactic practice of solidarity that invites readers to step in and out of our linked, distinct subject positions. Thick solidarity is an ethical and methodological principle that guides our anthropological work, writing, and thinking across race and toward something that we can sense and not yet name—something like repair, like ethical cohabitation, like an otherwise world.

We are living in the afterlives of slavery and empire, and specters of these racial schemas condition contemporary Black–Asian sociality through what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013, 61) theorize as a deadly economy of credit and debt:

Debt is social and credit is asocial. Debt is mutual. Credit runs only one way. But debt runs in every direction, scatters, escapes, seeks refuge. The debtor seeks refuge among other debtors, acquires debt from them, offers debt to them. The place of refuge is the place to which you can only owe more and more because there is no creditor, no payment possible. This place of refuge, this place of bad debt, is what we call the fugitive public.

What would it mean for Asian Americans to reject the line of credit offered to us as “model minorities” and to refuse to cash out from being non-black people of color?

Credit has disproportionately shaped the terrains of engagement between Black and Asian communities in the United States. Credit presupposes relations built on capital accumulation, hierarchy, and profit—these dynamics underwrite and overdetermine racial relations in the Americas. In one form or another, Asian Americans have been racialized as having good credit through paying off the debt imposed on us by the state after we received our “freedom” from indentured servitude and were “given” opportunities to access the American dream—this has become emblematized in the figure of the model minority—a good investment and reliable payoff. Black people have been racialized as having bad credit because we haven’t paid off the debt to society since being “awarded” our “freedom.” We are a financial risk, stereotyped as unreliable borrowers: bad investment, doubtful payoff.

This multiscalar redlining is illustrated by the case of Austin Jia, a plaintiff in a recent lawsuit alleging that Harvard’s affirmative action policies disadvantage Asian Americans. The very value of an Ivy League education is its immanent ability to commoditize study—not the kind of study that Moten and Harney say leads to fugitive publics, but the kind of study that leads to capital gains. According to Jia, “less-qualified” Black and Latinx students are unworthy of the lines of credit (i.e. affirmative action) extended to them.

The same blackness that looks like a bad investment now actually underwrote the very system of finance that writes us off—black bodies have been transmogrified from being a form of living currency to a waste of money. These relations of credit have historical antecedents.

Who do we owe, how do we pay?
Who has the right to forgive the balance?
What does debt do that credit doesn’t?

Creditors tells us it’s a zero-sum game, which leads to anti-immigrant and anti-Black retrenchments of the current order. Debt plays by different rules and offers us alternative routes to relation that produce the possibility for solidarities that proliferate and scatter beyond the regime of recognition. We can see this ethics of debt in the crowdsourced Letters for Black Lives project started by Christina Xu to build intergenerational support for Black life among immigrant communities:

In fighting for their own rights, Black activists have led the movement for opportunities not just for themselves, but for us as well. Black people have been beaten, jailed, even killed fighting for many of the rights that Asian Americans enjoy today. We owe them so much in return.

The Letters project advances a mode of debt relation: we owe them so much in return. Rather than expecting non-black racial status to pay dividends in terms of educational and economic privileges, this activist project asks Asian communities to “seek refuge among other debtors” (Moten and Harney 2013, 61) in a move that resists credit’s model of extractive citizenship.

Our communities have survived in ways that escape the legibility of surveillance, and that survival has also come at the cost of a series of betrayals between Black and Asian communities in the Americas. Asian Americans have more at stake literally—we have the highest median income out of all racial groups. This differential access to capital is a challenge to building a radically thick solidarity. Having shared debt means rejecting good credit and rejecting the profits of our non-black privilege.

It’s impossible to control how we are racialized, but not what we make of that racialization—this remaking prefigures both redistribution and reparations. The social bonds of bad debt remind us that we are in it together. The acknowledgment of debt does not predetermine relationship across race. Rather, it precedes the possibility of being in genuine relation. We must remember to forget, and we will never forget.

Harney and Moten (2013, 140) say “fuck a home in this world, if you think you have one.” The cost of thick solidarity comes through acquiring bad credit—once you are among the fugitive public, escaping to the gated community of meritocracy is impossible. As a political imperative, debt leads to foreclosure on the homes built by credit and the cancellation of promissory notes written on Black flesh. As ethnographers, colleagues, and homegirls, we are committed to imagining an otherwise alliance, and to honoring our debts.


Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.