In their bid to find a better life, many of today’s immigrants risk drowning in the ocean, dying in the desert, being stranded in squalid refugee camps for years. And yet others simply get admitted. But why do some people face tougher immigration roadblocks than others? Who erects these barriers? And for what purpose?
Photo of Catherine Besteman

Catherine Besteman, the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology

In her new book, Militarized Global Apartheid (Duke University Press, 2020), Catherine Besteman, the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology, explains how and why the mobility of certain groups of people gets restricted—and at times allowed—around the world. She unveils a contemporary worldwide system that dictates it: a militarized global apartheid.

This system is all about control—of people, migration, resources, and wealth. But it’s not a system that one country, or even a group of countries, created to control the world. Rather, it’s a pattern emerging from shared ideals around capitalism, racism, and militarization and shaping the world in ways similar to a well-known historical event—apartheid—by the same countries that publically condemned South Africa’s notorious racist policies.

But how exactly does this militarized global apartheid work?

Besteman shows how countries in the global North—the United States, Canada, European nations, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, East Asia, and countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council—develop racialized identities that often exclude people of the global South. The global North then carries out both military and imperialist interventions in the South’s affairs to expand its capitalist goals.

“I felt that it was a very important point to make because the apartheid [system] was so resoundingly judged as evil in the rest of the world.”—Catherine Besteman, the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology

The result? Destabilized countries, plundered resources, and lack of opportunities for the global South, all of which drive people there to migrate.

In response to crises of its own making, the global North implements a variety of measures, such as detention centers and refugee camps, to limit the global South’s mobility. This effort also comes with criminalizing unauthorized immigration through methods like mass incarceration and counterterrorism efforts as well as huge investments in militarized border technologies, like “smart borders,” and other new technology and information sharing.

But here’s the twist. When it’s advantageous, the global North backs away from limiting migration and allows it for its own benefits, like for acquiring cheap labor.

This emerging global system is a replica, or rather an extension, of practices from the past five centuries to consolidate capitalism and white supremacy, she said. “The largest overarching dimension of militarized global apartheid, I would argue, is that inequality benefits certain categories of people.”

And each country has its own recipe for establishing hierarchy and creating inequality. In North America and Europe, it’s discourses of white supremacy, whereas in East Asia and the Middle East, it tends to run along cultural or ethnic lines, she explained.

“It just consolidated my suspicion that a new global system was coming into place that was sort of accretive, incremental, and piecemeal. I became obsessed with trying to figure out where this system was growing from, how different players in the system were influencing each other … and trying to tell the systemic story of our contemporary age.”—Catherine Besteman, the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology

These kinds of mechanisms of control reminded her of something: the South African apartheid. She realized that these apartheid policies had their roots in the colonial rule by the countries making up today’s global North.

“I felt that it was a very important point to make because the apartheid [system] was so resoundingly judged as evil in the rest of the world,” she said. “Yes, on the one hand, South Africa became a pariah because of its apartheid policies, but on the other hand, those policies are finding new expression by the very same countries that had criticized South Africa for its apartheid practices.”

While Besteman has previously studied the post-apartheid period, the idea for this book came from her conversations with Somali refugees living in Maine.

 

Hearing stories of these refugees’ relatives trying to make their way through refugee camps in Kenya or Tanzania into places in the global North, Besteman recognized a trend. Regardless of the final destination, she realized, the global North wanted to consolidate its borders against people seeking to leave the very places that were destabilized partly because of the global North. She went on to expand her investigation into East Asia and the Gulf region.

“It just consolidated my suspicion that a new global system was coming into place that was sort of accretive, incremental, and piecemeal,” she said. “I became obsessed with trying to figure out where this system was growing from, how different players in the system were influencing each other—sharing technology, sharing ideologies, and working together sometimes—and trying to tell the systemic story of our contemporary age.”

But this contemporary system, like apartheid, isn’t sustainable, she argues, because it’s too costly for the global North, and it’s so brutal that people will stand up to it. Besteman points to uprisings over the summer and movements like Black Lives Matter spreading across the U.S. and the globe.

Yet, even if this system ends—as apartheid did—it doesn’t mean that the world will be liberated from inequalities, just as South Africa hasn’t been cleared of class and racial hierarchies.

“We all know the aftereffects of plantation slavery in the United States that found a new life in the Black codes, and then found new life in the structures of policing, … et cetera, et cetera,” she said. “Even if the system ends, there will still be new fronts to confront.”

 


 

A Statewide Project in the Works

Stemming from the writing of her new book, Besteman is now working on a statewide project, “Freedom and Captivity,” for the fall of 2021. “It’s an effort to teach about and promote abolitionist goals in Maine,” she explained, “by juxtaposing freedom and captivity and by asking … why freedom of some is predicated upon the captivity of others.” The project will feature art exhibitions, online webinars and workshops, as well as guest lectures. Collaborating organizations include the ACLU of Maine, Portland Museum of Art, and Scholars Strategy Network, based at the University of Maine at Orono. The Colby Museum of Art and the Center for the Arts and Humanities, which will have “Freedom and Captivity” as its 2021-22 theme, will also participate in the project.