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New Book: Segregated Time

Photo: Katie Pierce Boone

Time would seem to be one of the few things that we can all agree on. Whatever your politics or background or cable news channel, a second is a second, a minute is a minute, an hour is an hour, a day is a day, and so on. Right? 

Well, not necessarily. That’s what you realize when you talk to Johns Hopkins political theorist P.J. Brendese, whose new book, Segregated Time, argues that time is used and misused in ways that show clocks can run at very different speeds depending upon your position in the world. 

“You start with the fact that Einstein’s theory of relativity and the discoveries of quantum mechanics have proven that time is not what we think it is,” says Brendese, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. “You realize that the whole notion of Newtonian time, of time being stable, external, uniform, has become a form of political common sense that we have to overcome.” 

French Theorists to Indigenous Authors

But his book is about that idea playing out not in the realm of theoretical physics, but in the political and sociological arena. He sees it in colonizers enforcing a particular view of time on Indigenous communities for the purposes of exploitation. He sees it in cries for racial justice and equality being answered by calls for patience. He sees it in the different perceptions of time one has waiting for an investment portfolio to mature versus waiting for one’s child to get out of prison. 

Brendese draws on a wide variety of sources, from French theorist Michel Foucault to African American author James Baldwin; Indigenous authors, the philosopher of (de)colonization Frantz Fanon, and Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. What he finds is that huge swaths of the world’s population experience time in radically different ways. Yet racial injustices are frequently experienced as impositions on human time—and not just space. 

“In his ‘Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,’ King makes clear that his most potent enemy was not the racists like Birmingham sheriff Bull Conner, it was the white moderates who were telling him, ‘Yes, you deserve to be equal and free, just not yet,’” Brendese says. “Because unlike the rabid racists who were foaming at mouth with vitriol, these moderate clergy coated themselves in moral virtue. But they were imposing their sense of time on King and his struggles. The more I looked into this, the more I realized how people are racially coded in, and by, their ascribed relationships to time.” 

Colonialism and Time

Brendese sees the connection between space and time as fundamental to colonialism. “Look at this continent. The colonizers needed land from the Indians so they argued that they took it because the native peoples did not value the land because they wasted time and didn’t use space as the Europeans defined productivity,” he says. “And they needed labor from their African slaves, so they said, ironically, that the Africans were lazy, but somehow had the inherent rhythm to work for, and entertain, whites. In other words, whites didn’t value the time of racial others, so people of color had to be forced to work to give that time value.” 

By categorizing so many Indigenous populations as literally behind the times, Brendese says the colonizers were saying that Indigenous people were destined to go extinct. “They were weaponizing time to ensure that extinction,” he says. 

White Time

Now Brendese sees an apocalyptic extinction looming in the future due to climate change. But its timing is experienced differently depending on your place in the hierarchy, a position that is often determined by race. In the wealthier countries, its realities can be delayed or even denied by everything from beach replenishment to air conditioning. In poorer countries often defined as the Global South, it is a reality of the here and now. 

“The linearity of white time presumes a certainty about the future,” Brendese says. “It’s when that certainty is threatened that you can see what is meant by white time. That’s why you see an overlap in the people who deny the climate apocalypse and those who espouse white supremacy. Because the real end times in their view is the end of white supremacy.” 

Brendese sees his book not as the final word on these issues but as the opening of what he hopes will be a sustained conversation.