As South Africans interrogate notions of race in a post-reconciliation moment — and there are conservative suggestions the country should embrace an alleged “post-racialism” — The Con publishes a piece by David Theo Goldberg. Goldberg, who is director of the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute, recently gave a public lecture at the Unit for Humanities at Rhodes University (UHURU) titled “On the question of the post-racial”. His latest book is Are We Post-Racial Yet?
Much blood and ink have been spilled around Ferguson and its repetitive aftermath. Together they have revealed deep cleavages across America around race as well as novel modes of racist repression and resistance. And the differences in conception and rationalization, attitude and response, media coverage and public comment regarding race are deeply racially etched. Here then a list of driving, if not completely comprehensive, Ferguson revelations regarding race and racism in America today. Together they constitute something of a current temperature-taking on racial matters and the public “debate” on racism across the United States, and in some ways reaching to countries well beyond.
First, it is now undeniable that far more black than white people in America, especially young black men, are likely to be accosted, violently treated, and ultimately killed by the police. Over the past 30 years, blacks have been shot by police 21 times more readily than whites. And while the numbers differ, some from region to region, city to city, black and brown residents are far more likely to be stopped by police than are whites, both relative to their demographic representation and, more tellingly, in absolute numbers. The more people are stopped the higher the likelihood some wrongdoing will be established, the higher the probability of disproportionate arrest and criminal records that follow. Black citizens as a consequence are far more likely to be stopped by police, arrested, indicted, and ultimately imprisoned than any other racially-defined group.
If one didn’t know beforehand there is now no excuse for not knowing that black and brown men make up 77 percent of the all too large prison population nationally while constituting something like 26 percent of the population. It is telling that young black folks can be imprisoned for a number of years for marijuana possession while privileged young white men of the same age hardly get expelled from elite colleges for serious rapes, including gang rape, and most avoid any criminal charges.
Police, and perhaps most white people more generally, seem readily disposed to regarding black men as suspect, as weaponized, as violent for little or no reason other than they are black. What else convincingly explains the account that Darren Wilson, the white policeman, gave publicly after shooting him about his sense of Michael Brown as a large, violent, probably armed young black man? Or the shooting with absolutely no warning of 12-year-old Travis Rice for carrying a pellet gun in an otherwise empty snow-filled Cleveland park, mistaking him, as the policeman put it, for a 20-year-old? Or the luckily unsuccessful shooting at a black father by mistaking for a weapon the six-year-old daughter he was rushing to save from a severe asthma attack? And on and on.
Second, Ferguson publicly revealed that police departments, equipment, tactics and dispositions to civilians are increasingly militarized. It was little known by other than a few experts before the massively militarized response to the outbreak of Ferguson protests that local police departments were acquiring significant military equipment such as armored vehicles, rocket launchers, night goggles, and now increasingly drones. Some who had been following urban crime control and the “war” on drugs had noticed the surge in use of armored vehicles in raids on suspected drug dealers. But Ferguson revealed both the rapidly expanding program of militarizing urban control across the country and the coherent Pentagon program to pass along to police departments, at almost no cost to local budgets, some of its technologies of weaponized violence and control. Perhaps this was all too predictable in the wake of declarations of war on most every major social condition since the 1960s as well as the dramatic expansion of local securitization in the wake of 9/11 and the massive proliferation of intrusive data collection of the personal across America in the past few years. But Ferguson let us know very visibly that we have supplemented the carceral state of the 1980s and 1990s with the securitized state of late.
Police who have killed in the line of duty are highly unlikely to be indicted, and even less likely to be convicted.
Third, Ferguson made palpable for all to witness that police who have killed in the line of duty are highly unlikely to be indicted, and even less likely to be convicted almost no matter the circumstances. In late May, again, a police officer involved in the “wild ride” death of Freddie Gray in the back of a Baltimore police vehicle that completely severed his spinal cord, was predictably acquitted of all charges. He had been arrested for no good reason at all. Given that more black than white people are killed by police, this lack of accountability is especially racially-charged.
There is no doubt that police work subjects many police to heightened dangers. But there is also plenty of evidence that well-designed community policing programs where identifiable police have a notable presence in the community they are policing not only significantly reduces crime but also the dangers facing police on the ground. It will tend to mitigate the need to artificially establish authority in fraught confrontations, and reduce the likelihood of anger when authority is disrespected, as more readily occurs in more alienated depersonalized environments and events. After all, almost all the police shootings in question both before and since Ferguson are a product of police having no personal presence in the communities they have been literally driving through, or called into occasionally in moments of emergency. It gives another meaning to drive-by shooting.
Fourth, when young black people are subjected to police violence, the media will more readily drag up ignoble characterizations of the victims as mitigations if not rationalizations of the institutional violence at issue. Michael Brown was a bully, a thug, a violent thief high on marijuana, the most typical characterizations went in the wake of his death. Recent release of the grand jury testimony on Darren Wilson, Brown’s police killer, has revealed that the prosecutors – after all, supposed at least neutrally to present the evidence regarding Wilson’s actions to determine whether an indictment is warranted – repeatedly referred to Brown’s marijuana usage to indicate his inherent criminality (he had no prior record) or his unpredictable behavior.
Other cases of police shootings in the U.S. offer a similar rhetorical pattern. It was repeatedly reported that the parents of Travis Rice, the 12-year-old shot in the park by a policeman within seconds of arriving on the scene while the boy was playing unthreateningly with a toy air gun, both have violent histories and criminal records. John Crawford III, a 22-year-old black man killed for “brandishing” a rifle in a Walmart was actually leaning on it as a walking stick while talking on his cell phone when he was shot within a second of police entering the store and shouting “down”. He would later be characterized as aggressive and suffering from mental illness, neither of which was borne out by evidence. (The policeman in the shooting was likewise not indicted.) A 50-year-old black woman was viciously beaten along a busy Los Angeles highway by a large white policeman when she failed to respond to his commands. That she had a history of mental illness was quickly mentioned as explanation of her failure to respond and perhaps mitigation of the policeman’s beating. And in public debates conservative defenders of such police action, such as former New York mayor and global crime consultant Rudy Giuliani, all too readily point out that black people are far more readily killed by other blacks than by the police.
None of these sorts of claims justify the police violence in question, or come close to being relevant to excusing the killings at issue. Indeed, these are all post hoc attempts to reverse the focus of accountability for the wrongdoing from the killer to the victim. As such they are common, if unfortunately all too commonly effective, logical fallacies in practical reasoning.
There is a short fuse between calling a person an animal and feeling licensed to shoot at them.
White and black responses to the likes of Ferguson and these other instances of police repression of blacks have been as segregated, as differentiated, as the structural conditions soiling the society. Whites overwhelmingly have tended to side with the police accounts, blacks deeply skeptical of them. In addition, police officers drawn into altercations that result in police shootings as well as public comment sections in news reports often characterize the black victims in explicitly animalized terms. These figurations serve to dehumanize the targets, effectively turning them into prey. There is a short fuse between calling a person an animal and feeling licensed to shoot at them.
It is revealing, then, that the events surrounding Ferguson have made obvious that the U.S. remains an entrenched segregated society. All too ironically, the deep lines of racial division run from Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that in 1896 rendered racial segregation constitutionally acceptable in the U.S., to Ferguson, Missouri and virtually every other city across the country today. Ferguson, not untypically especially for smaller cities across America, is deeply divided in terms of where people live, are schooled, work, play and party, pray and shop, in terms of access to political representation and power, as well as quality legal representation.
Characteristically for small suburban cities, Ferguson is a segregated city on almost every index. Its population is 60 percent African-American and 40 percent white. Yet there is very little integrated life. The 53-person police force until very recently had only three black members (in the past month a new police chief has been appointed, who is black). The city council until just a few months ago had just one black council member. Blacks, in Ferguson as more generally, live in far more impoverished housing stock than whites, their children attending segregated public schools. Nationally, median wealth of a white family headed by someone with less than a high school diploma today is almost double that of a black family headed by one with a college degree and 20 percent more than that of college-headed Latino families. Consequently, more affluent black and brown residents live in neighborhoods significantly poorer than whites with working class income levels. School segregation by race is the norm, and more likely today than in the late 1960s and 1970s. Black and Latino students are far more likely to attend more poorly funded schools.
There are even more hidden structural differences Ferguson made evident too. In the wake of austerity cuts across states following the great recession from 2008, small cities like Ferguson instituted a range of revenue generating fees, most notably regarding traffic violations, to cover the costs of policing and the like they would otherwise have to cut deeply. In 2013, Ferguson police made a staggering 33,000 traffic stops in a city of 21,000 people (you are not hallucinating these numbers). Obviously, given the demography, most stops were of African-American drivers. In addition to any fines assigned, violators were subjected to filing fees, as well as mileage fees to deliver subpoenas for failing to pay the fine by the deadline. A $100 fine could quickly spiral to $1000. And given structural segregation in the city, the fact that nationally unemployment is always double for blacks than for whites (in Ferguson the overall unemployment rate – 12 percent at the time of Michael Brown’s shooting, 10 percent today – is double the national average, and the city’s black unemployment rate is 2 to 3 times that of whites from 2008-12) means that these burdens of revenue collection fall disproportionately on those least able to afford it.
Finally, this all tells us something quite deep about the nature of supposedly “postracial” America today. To say that America is consequently far from being a postracial society is at once a truism and much too simplistic. We are indeed very much a postracial society in the non-standard sense that postraciality is the new modality in which race today is expressed. Postraciality seeks to erase race from public reference. As Chief Justice John Roberts has famously remarked, the only way to end racial discrimination is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. But erasing racial reference and characterization, far from ending racism, makes it much more difficult to identify especially structurally-ordered and perpetuated racisms of the kind I have sketched above.
In the absence of race as a tool for identification, racisms – the perpetuated contemporary legacies of racially-driven structures and their effects – float free of racial significance. They become literally meaningless even as especially vicious racist acts and expression proliferate all around us, as we have been witnessing. Race disappears, and racisms are “freed at last” of any constraint. Their perpetrators easily deny any racial intentionality, charge their accusers with racial malice thus reversing the effective perpetration of “proper” racist expression to victims, their supporters, and critics of more or less conventional racisms. The legacy of racism is deemed irrelevant to the present, responsibility both for any occasional anomalous outbreak of racism – disconnected from any other – and persistent social disadvantage delimited to individual effort and its lack. Postraciality is the end of race, and in its wake the endless extension of unmarked and increasingly unremarked racisms.
A related set of logics is characteristic of the “Rhodes Must Fall/Fees Must Fall” and “Decolonizing the University” movements
What Ferguson likely predicts then, not for the first and far from the last time, is that we will be seeing much more rather than less police targeting, militarizing, surveillance, and regulation of communities of color across America as the society becomes more diverse and white power grows nervous in being more subjected to challenge. We will witness more, not less, disciplining of black bodies, the technologies of enablement more likely less visible, and less obvious in their routinized – their droning – indiscernibility. They will become increasingly evident not in their application but in their repressing effects.
The one encouraging outcome as a result of these turns, likewise revealed by events in and around Ferguson, is that youthful counter-activists are beginning to realize something novel is afoot. They are beginning as a result to respond by shifting tactics too. They are increasingly engaging in a mix of now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t performance interventions and potentially viral social media campaigns alongside the more traditional large-scale street protests. They are thus calling attention to and into question these conditions of sustained injustice at key sites of their sustenance: at elite cultural events such as the St Louis Symphony, local city hall, and state capitol. They are engaging in “die ins” at popular large local malls frequented more by whites than people of color (there are pretty much no malls remaining in Ferguson itself). And they have made the “Black Lives Matter” campaign a key feature today of political life across America, including electoral politics at the presidential level. It has captured national attention to a degree only very occasionally experienced to date.
Similar tactics have been used in the Netherlands in the campaign to render nationally uncomfortable the annually degrading racisms of Zwarte Piet. And a related set of logics is characteristic of the “Rhodes Must Fall/Fees Must Fall” and “Decolonizing the University” movements in South Africa. It is likely that these sorts of activated responses and their global relation (there are already significant cross-references between Ferguson and Gaza) will gather steam as the repression extends itself too. It remains to be seen whether such novel efforts will have more sustainable fuel and lasting effect to call attention to the ways in which “outbreak” racial events are structurally linked to each other in patterns of institutionalized racisms that continue to order America in less and less visible ways. Anyone concerned about these developments should do all we can to encourage and support these counter-movements and their transformative implications.