From Global to Transnational: Reading Global Justice through W. E. B. Du Bois

s200_in_s.valdezThis is a guest post by Inés Valdez, assistant professor in political science at The Ohio State University. She works on the political theory of immigration, critical race theory, and cosmopolitanism and her articles have appeared in the American Political Science Review, Political Studies, and Politics, Groups, and Identities, among others outlets.Her book manuscript in progress is on Kant and W. E. B. Du Bois’s cosmopolitanisms. This post is based on a recent workshop paper that will be appearing in a collection on empire, race, and global justice edited by Duncan Bell.

An emerging literature in the field of history has made clear that transnational connections between black Americans and anti-colonial movements in the Caribbean and Asia were prominent in the twentieth century (see, among many others, Slate 2012). These connections resulted in more or less institutionalized forms of communication, exchange, and solidarity that influenced politically how these groups understood their own history of injustice and struggle.

These connections indicate that groups within the West saw their marginalization as connected to groups within what we today call the global South and saw the potential of realms of politics beyond the nation as sites of emancipation and justice.

Despite this literature, and the relatively recent events that they cover, the global justice literature is largely unconcerned with them. There are many disagreements within the global justice literature but one assumption is common: that wealthy countries are homogeneously prosperous and poor countries homogeneously poor. Moreover, whenever scholars do note the inequality within the West, they do so to posit that addressing it should take priority over obligations to the non-West. While scholars tend to disagree on the question of whether the West has a duty of justice toward the non-West, neither those who favor a duty to distribute (cosmopolitans), nor those who disagree with it (social liberals), pause to reflect on the potential affinities between marginalized groups within and outside the West.

My goal in this post is to conceptualize the connections between the question of domination within the West and other forms of global (in)justice. It is arguably the case that slavery, settler colonialism, and colonialism were but dimensions of an overarching imperial European project. Contemporary migration, in turn, is arguably connected to the unequal world that emerged out of colonial independence, augmented by failed development projects and Neoliberal globalization. These
historical and contemporary trends result in moderate to stark inequalities along the lines of gender, race, and citizenship status in most Western countries.

The conception of the “global” that animates this literature contributes to the erasure of domination within the West and its connections with non-West instances of injustice. Global approaches—even when critical of inequality—see processes of globalization as homogenizing or neocolonial forces of oppression that move from the West to the non-West (Bhambra 2007). Transnational approaches, instead seek to capture how relations of power, asymmetries, and inequalities create subjects and result in uneven and localized forms of oppression (Grewal and Kaplan 2001, 671). In other words, a transnational approach explores the way in which the encounter of distinct political and economic structures results in sites of oppression that need not track neatly the division between the West and the non-West.

Transnationalism helps us make sense of the variegated topography of injustice that resulted from the slave trade, slavery, colonialism, and settler colonialism, updated by more recent forms of domination structured around transnational movement and exchange. It also offers a critical vantage point to analyze the predominant Rawlsian framework of the global justice literature. In the rest of this post I first examine the notion of association and how it is used in the global justice literature. Second, I propose the notion of “association for emancipation” to conceptualize the transnational instances of politics mentioned above. Third, I expand on the normative dimensions of these associations through W. E. B. Du Bois’s writings on transnationalism.



Social liberals argue that the domestic—as opposed to the global—is the preeminent sphere for justice obligations rely on the Rawlsian notion of societies as associations for mutual advantage. These scholars offer different normative grounds that make associations valuable, including reciprocity, cooperation, a shared national identity and/or accountable coercion (see Blake 2005 and Nagel 2005, for two examples), all forms of “special relationships” that hold among co-citizens and are absent at the global level, thus justifying the differential categorization of obligations in these two realms.

Given the focus on cooperation, we do not get much insight from this literature about relations of domination, despite the fact that—as Charles Mills has noted—a brief look at history shows that most societies in history have had as their central goal “domination and exploitation,” rather than mutual advantage  (Mills 2010, 155-6).

Cosmopolitans, who maintain that obligations of justice exist beyond national borders, offer different extensions of the framework of associations in a way that makes duties of justice hold globally (Abizadeh 2007; Pogge 2008). While these scholars engage with the systemic character of global injustice and the historical legacies of colonialism, they do not attend to the transnational connections between forms of domination within and outside the West.

Associations and the Politics of Emancipation

The construct of associations—as conceptualized in the global justice literature—is incomplete because it does not consider the question of domination as internal to associations. Moreover, the focus on national or global associations obscures the fact that associations also emerge at the transnational level partly in response to exclusion from domestic associations.

Global justice theorists often acknowledge that associations may be exclusionary, even if they do not often delve into the question. Samuel Schffler, for example, argues that:

[T]he relationships that generate responsibilities for an individual are those relationships that the individual has reason to value. No claims at all arise from relationships that are degrading or demeaning, or which serve to undermine rather than to enhance human flourishing. (2002, 108, my emphasis)

This claim opens the door for focusing attention on those who are excluded from the association and the amended forms of obligation that they may hold with respect to the society that excludes them, which scholars like Tommie Shelby (2007) and Shatema Threadcraft (2014) have done. It also allows us to inquire whether these groups form alternative associations, including associations with groups beyond the nation with whom they may find more affinities and possibilities of cooperation than is the case with their co-nationals. This is a possibility that the definition of special relationships logically includes. According to Scheffler, the normative character of special relationships refers to the non-instrumental value that these relationships hold, which translates into:

[the disposition] to see that person’s needs, interests and desires as, in themselves, providing me with presumptively decisive reasons for action, reasons that I would not have had in the absence of that relationship. (2002, 101)

The language in the definition above is suggestive of just the kinds of relationships that motivated the transnational connections among marginalized groups and non-nationals, or what Du Bois calls “the badge of color:”

But one thing is sure and that is the fact that since the fifteenth century these ancestors of mine and their other descendants … have suffered a common disaster and have a long memory. … But the physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage … extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas. It is this unity that draws me to Africa. (1997, 117)

To conceptualize the transnational I propose to think about the associations pursued by the marginalized as associations for emancipation that operate along—and often against—the associations that are at the core of theorizing in the global justice literature.

Du Bois and the Politics of Transnationalism

Du Bois’s writings on transnationalism offer an entry point to further theorize the inter-connection between domestic and transnational injustice and to devise political coalitions to struggle for justice. These writings have so far been neglected by scholars of American political thought, who read Du Bois predominantly as theorist of democracy, as well as by scholars in the global justice literature, who do not consider Du Bois an obvious interlocutor.


To conceptualize these allegiances and how they figure into the discussion of global justice it is useful to turn to Du Bois’s writings on The Crisis about the 1911 Universal Races Congress and the 1919 Pan African Congress. I would like to highlight three dimensions of these writings.

(1) In anticipating the Universal Races Congress, Du Bois draws a contrast between it and the Western peace movement, noting the partial character of the former. While the later excludes from its realm of concern the majority of the world, made up of colored men, and refuses to bring up the topic of race and colonialism in its meetings (Du Bois 1910, 17, 20, 1915, 712), the United Races Congress brought together the people of the world “not as master and slave, … conqueror and conquered—but as men and equals in the center of the world” (Du Bois 1911, 159, my emphasis). In other words, Du Bois decenters the Western subject and carves out a space for black and brown subjects with common grievances in the transnational sphere. Even if the affluent in the West may be responsible for domination (as the global justice literature acknowledges), transnational groupings may have contrasting understandings of the nature of injustice and the steps required to move toward justice.

(2) At the end of the Great War, in 1919, Du Bois finds himself in Paris as a correspondent to the Peace Council meeting, where world powers would discuss the post-war. The magazine of the National Association for Colored People, The Crisis, announces Du Bois’s trip and its goal of putting “all pressure possible” on the delegates at the peace table on behalf of the colored peoples of the United States and the world (Du Bois 1919, 111). His concern with “colored people of the United States and the world” highlights the diverse forms of exclusion from the international sphere of politics. Du Bois creates a space for this public by summoning a Pan-African congress to take place in Paris, which is explicitly opposed by the United States and colonial countries. This intervention makes us aware of the existence of transnational publics that are not acknowledged by formal domestic and international institutions but that are nonetheless stakeholders who articulate grievances and demand redress and accountability from these realms.


(3) Du Bois’ actions bringing about the 1919 Pan-African congress address directly the question of politics and exclusion, underlining that without them the gathering in Paris is an agreement for domination. At this time, Du Bois requested that the former German colonies be administered by a public including “chiefs and intelligent Negroes natives of the German colonies in Africa, the “twelve millions civilized Negroes of the United States,” the “educated persons of Negro descent in South America and the West Indies,” and the educated classes among the Negroes of French and British colonies (NAACP 1919, 119).  This plan contains a broad notion of representation/self-determination and refers to the political affinity among transnationally located blacks that makes any decision on the fate of the colonies simply illegitimate without them.

In sum, Du Bois’s writings decenter Western subjects as the sole agents of global justice, posit the need to inaugurate alternative arenas that contest the domestic and the international, and offer a political understanding of transnational emancipation. The development of these impulses can give rise to reconceptualizations of the global justice literature in more political and transnational directions.




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