Anti-Blackness and Limitations of Contemporary Reformist Frameworks
Everything we experience, we experience through our bodies. It is because of what we experience through our bodies that we can make the world intelligible. In this sense, the way we experience life as embodied beings shapes the types of experiences we formulate. For example, the way that black people experience racial profiling is something that even a “disadvantaged,” “ghetto” White person will not experience. Indeed, White embodied experience differs greatly from Black embodied experience as the very designation as White or Black inscribes a body with distinct connotations. To a large extent, the inscription or marking of one’s body as Black results in added violence against which the White body is cast in relative privilege.
Ta-Nehisi Coates thoughtfully examines the effects of his Black embodiment in Between the World and Me. Throughout the book, he notes several incidents that are caused by structural racism. These incidents include the lack of convictions—and, in some cases, the lack of a trial—of murderers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, to name a few. They also include observations of his West Baltimore neighborhood that was plagued with the crack epidemic and portraits of folks trying to survive despite institutional hurdles put in place in public schools and employment settings. His main argument is how his body, or its negation, is structured entirely by the experience of Africans and African descendants in the Middle Passage. Following from this, he argues two main things: (1) current discussions of race relations only obscure anti-black racism and how it relates to the legacy of the captive’s body and (2) how present-day black bodies are structured by this anti-blackness and the violence inflicted on them via the Middle Passage. I will advance Coates’s argument by using the thinking of Afro-Pessimist scholar Frank Wilderson III and his seminal work, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. In advancing Coates’s argument, I suggest that the value in using Afro-Pessimism is not so much as to prescribe a potential strategy of improvement but to maintain a correct diagnosis of our current state of affairs in the United States. Many scholars and reformists contend that history is a way to understand inequality and rights as they pertain to Black populations and to engage in progressive policy-making. Instead, I argue in line with Coates and Wilderson. By using Afro-Pessimism, we can first gain a correct diagnosis of where we actually are and understand why history does not pave the way for a more progressive world.
Before delving into how violence was inflicted on the enslaved person’s body during the slave trade, it is important to look at how, in order for the slave trade to exist, there must be prior events and ideas that legitimize the violence on which the slave trade is based. With the question of marking bodies as enslaved or non-slave, one should perhaps see the way that bodies are categorized does not begin with race, but rather the state’s control over life. As such, Michel Foucault’s development of the concept of Biopolitics is crucial to our understanding of body politics, including the way the state controls such bodies in relation to race. To begin this discussion on Biopolitics, Foucault notes that pre-modern life revolved around a “sovereign” power to kill or let live whereas contemporary society works through “Biopolitics” in order to foster life or let die (“Society Must Be Defended” 138). With the Biopolitical shift, there is a new range of practices brought into Western society, such as the concept of public health, eugenics, reproductive interventions, and other methods of managing bodies. Many of these techniques of controlling the body deal with an ideal sexuality, as sex, and the attendant possibility for offspring, defines the contours of potential life. Sex as a politicized apparatus was located “at the pivot of the two axes along which developed the entire political technology of life” (145). These axes of sex offered access to the life of the species in the abstract. Hence at the biopolitical juncture, “sex became a crucial target of a power organized around the management of life rather than the menace of death” (147).
In a Biopolitical society, power operates in such a way that it inscribes sexual norms onto its subjects. Subjects then internalize these norms. Often enough, it is this exposure to imposed norms that causes embodied subjects either to reject the norm and act against it or to act towards it. Consequently, contemporary racism is replicated through social constructions that our bodies display and through the stereotypes that the body feeds into or rejects. Body politics in this sense can be understood through Biopolitical paradigms in so far as knowledge of a body is translated into how power manages it. As Shanara Reid-Brinkley notes:
“the physical speaks for us, marking the social body across lines of race, gender, class, and sexuality.” Each social actor finds agency through his or her bodily performance. In this sense, the colored, or more specifically, the Back body is significantly more visible in majority White societies. For it is the flesh, not the internal processes of the body, that signifies, and the colored body signifies an inherent difference from White bodies” (“The Harsh Realities of ‘Acting Black’” 156).
The body is constantly performing a certain set of discursive relays. Whether the body, however, is performing the assumed role that its flesh indicates is a different question. For example, there is a stereotypical portrayal of an “oreo,” a pejorative that refers to Black people who are “White” on the inside, due to a certain manner of dress or speech. Indeed, what the flesh tells us of an actor and what a body actually does are quite distinct.
Looking specifically at the category of the “Black” will shed light on Coates’s first argument in regards to the contemporary black body being shaped by legacies of slavery. The category of the “Black” was one that was created out of devaluation (Wilderson 10). There was no abrupt outbreak of violence that suddenly disposed people; rather, from the Middle Passage onward, what constitutes Blackness is a violence founded in the legacy of slavery. The category of Blackness was developed because slavery made structural incapacity distinct from the disenfranchisement experienced by other people of color (Asians, Indians, mixed-race people, etc.) (23). Because of historical constructions of the Black body that reach into the present, the Black body has been automatically associated with inferiority, malice, and dereliction. The Black body in this sense allows even socioeconomically disadvantaged Whites to claim at least “they were not a slave.” As such, the trauma and violence of the Black body is without analogy. The Middle Passage not only transformed subjects into veritable objects, but also worked to produce a “Black” population out of a lineage of enslaved Africans. Analogous to this line of reasoning is Coates’s argument that “they made us into a race, we made ourselves into a people” (10).
For today’s Black bodies, it means that even if Blackness elevates itself to something regarded as having social worth, the very concept of blackness is still within the bounds of social death. In this context, a body can be stigmatized for merely being Black, as evidenced in occurrences such as Henry Louis Gates’s arrest for simply being “suspicious” outside his own home. These miniscule acts of gratuitous violence are often replicated, and, though they are frequently dismissed as harmless, they solidify narratives of racial violence (Wilderson 120). This is because representations of the Black body are signified through a system of social intelligibility through which Black bodies are read and evaluated in juxtaposition to others. Every White woman who clutches her purse a little tighter when walking past a Black male reenacts the negative construction of blackness, thus playing into structures of oppression.
Looking at Coates’s second argument, that contemporary Black bodies are structured by anti-Blackness, it is helpful to look at scholar George Yancy’s work. He articulates that the body is a living thing rather than a non-living container of the mind. Yancy goes a step further in his analysis by examining the historical experiences through which the Black body has been demarcated. The body as such is created through certain historical and ideological discourses that affect the way we view it today. Indeed, the White body is created through different historical and ideological discourses that construct it as superior. For example, the Middle Passage and the trauma inflicted on Blacks through the Middle Passage was a process that devalued the Black body while increasing value of the White body by forcing ownership of one onto the other (218).
However, the abstract devaluation of the Black body is illustrated in much more than just political discourse.
In the pre-Civil War era, there came explosions of voyeuristic imagery of Black persons being lynched, beaten, and even raped. Many circulated this imagery as public display of violence. This served two purposes. For White Confederates, this circulation helped other Black persons ‘stay in their place’ and not try to infiltrate White situations. This was to say that Blacks had to remain on the outskirts of society and not enter economic, political, social, or even educational spaces. For black persons and white sympathizers, such images helped bring to light the physical violence many black persons had to undergo, and the hope was that their circulation would spur activism. Despite this naïve wish, these images did not do this. Saidiya Hartman points out that these images of torture are replicated with much ease (3). These images assume that even White audiences can empathize with, speak to, and bear witness to Slave suffering. They do this by being replicated and circulated with the implicit goal of inspiring empathy. By referencing identities here, I am referencing the structural limitations of identification. Notwithstanding the prevalence of these images as a means to threatened and/or to instill empathy, in Scenes of Subjection, Hartman criticizes overtly violent imagery and the problems of empathetic identification. She indicates that details often put forth in these images allowed readers to gain a sense of amusement in the face of slavery, even if that feeling was processed subconsciously. Furthermore, photographers could only create empathy for the enslaved by assuming that even a White audience had the ability to ever come to grips with the violence of slavery. In that way, the enslaved person had to step into the place of the viewer and camouflage into the viewer’s humanity instead of being represented as an object with no analog that lacks any capacity with which to be empathized. This is an optimistic reading of those who wish to empathize with characters in Slavery images. For the most part, the very mechanism of slavery, that is, rendering a human being as property—as a thing—the enslaved does not even have subjectivity with which there can be any empathy at all (9). Because of this, there is a critical limitation to these images.
Violent images of Black persons provoke reactions from observers by showing acts of violence as they are being inflicted or the aftermath of these acts. Viewers may imagine that they are experiencing the suffering depicted firsthand, thereby creating a shared experience of horror (Hartman 18). Often times, the voice of the viewer of these narratives not only speaks for the enslaved but also replaces the voice of the enslaved (that is, if the enslaved had a voice in the first place). In trying to empathize, which requires the projection of oneself onto the other in order to better understand the other, the observer starts to feel for himself instead of the enslaved (20). While it can be argued that this is the success of empathetic identification, it is argued that such identification is possible because of the fungibility of the slave body. This is not true identification. Instead, fungibility of the slave body allows for the slave body to be replaced by that of the viewer and/or the reader. Empathetic identification, then, is not with the enslaved person but with the viewer themselves. When looking at it through this lens, it is palpable that true empathetic identification with the enslaved is not only not possible but, when attempted, it sustains dehumanization by erasing the enslaved body and replacing it with the viewer’s. By using fungibility here, I hope to underscore that Black bodies could be traded without the individual ever having a say in where that individual would go. This is obvious in the case of the trans-Atlantic slave trade where enslaved persons had no agency in society, as they were not able to decide where they could go or what relations to be a part of. In the case of images of the enslaved, empathy can be elicited because the viewer can replace the protagonist captive with him or herself.
More often than not, relying on empathy for impact means the White body needs to put itself in the place of the Black body in order to make the suffering of Black bodies visible. Then, even though that suffering may become intelligible, it is only done so through the destruction of the Black body (Hartman 19). Lastly, it is assumed that these images are productive because audiences can understand the other’s pain and overall positionality. This is far from the case. As said prior, instead of the viewer expanding his or her conception of the other, the viewer replaces the other with him or herself (21). Trying to fit into the other’s shoes is the only beginning point of a possible empathetic image. This speaks to not only the violent ramifications of images when discussing the enslaved but also the impossibility of narratives that can be translated to the viewer.
What also contributes to the fungibility of the Black body is that the Black body is always positioned in relation to the White gaze. The Black body is not seen in relation to itself but in relation to how the White gaze situates it. The White gaze, then, is what controls, disciplines, and even dissects the Black body. The Black body under the White gaze does not exist anterior to the performance of White spectatorship (Yancy,“Whiteness and the Return of the Black Body” 222). This most basic act of seeing someone as Black already affects the view one has of that person, including the basic view that person has of him or herself. The view of being demarcated by the Middle Passage is something that disrupts the first-person knowledge of a person and causes difficulties in constructing truly autonomous bodily schema. One only views the Black body as it is already referred to, categorized as, and named as in context of larger semiotics of privileged White bodies. That darkness is what becomes historicized and resides within the White gaze and in a backdrop of anti-blackness.
We can see that the ingrained body politic of all Blacks is one of being locked in the trajectory of the slave. For example, Yancy’s encounter with his White math teacher when he was “discussing about the requirements involved in becoming a pilot . . . he looked at me and implied that I should be realistic (code word for realize that I am Black) about my goals” (218). In this example, the normative body politic leads Yancy’s teacher to expect Yancy, a Black teenager, to be rowdy, and when Yancy deviates from that norm, the teacher cannot accept it. Similarly, the fact that Yancy did not want to pursue the normal vocational occupations that were created for Blacks at that time, his teacher had returned him to himself as a “fixed entity, a niggerized black body whose epidermal logic had already foreclosed the possibility of becoming anything other than what was befitting its lowly station” (219). The fixed mentality of Whites locks Blacks into the positionality of experiencing acts of violence such as the above, moments when bodies are indelibly marked with this stain of darkness. Yancy’s math teacher calculated Yancy’s future by factoring his Blackness, and others do the same. This is most evident in contemporary examples of education and educational discourses where most low-income areas are concentrated with Black kids and are referred to as the “ghettos.” By looking at Yancy and Hartman’s arguments regarding the social and political sphere, we can see that historical instances of “progress” were not really progress, and any other tactics developed throughout history and recycled in the future may not have the progressive effects we hope for them to have. This is mainly because they do not have the Afro-Pessimist identification that is critical of history as mode of progress itself.
The above analysis throws into crisis the contemporary human rights and legal framework that is most often cited when talking about racial inequality. The main question present here is, How can America and the policies it puts forth take into account for all people who make up America? Problematizing this question and the idea of reform via present day frameworks, Coates notes that the starting point of this question is itself incorrect. Instead of questioning how can we create policies that are more inclusive of all types of peoples and battle social inequality, we need to first question who is even considered a person in America (10). A crucial part of this discussion is the development of the Human in opposition of the category of Black. Blackness exists in a state of absolute dereliction. It is the zero-point of all Human endeavors, as it serves to ground humanity’s image of itself during the Enlightenment period and beyond. The Enlightenment, with the rise of science and loss of ontological foundation in God, found itself in crisis, as the very fate and essence of Human could no longer be divinely ordained. Moreover, the alarming awareness that man was perhaps not in God’s image was compounded with the discoveries of peoples in the New World and the depths of the African continent, challenging Europe’s exceptionalist cultural practices and concept of who is Human. For example, consider how startling it was for European explorers to encounter the African tribal life of the Khosian people in the late seventeenth century:
Without the textual categories of dress, diet, medicine, crafts, physical appearance, and most important, work, the Khoisan stood in refusal of the invitation to become Anthropological Man. S/he was the void in discourse that could only be designated as idleness. Thus, the Khoisan’s status within discourse was not that of an opponent or an interlocutor, but rather of an unspeakable scandal (Wilderson “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal” (23).
The Khosian, as something unsignifiable in European coding of Human during this encounter, then served not only to rupture the Human identification of Europe by challenging the social edifice upon which Europe saw itself as civilized man, but it also moved to strike both fear and fascination in the heart of Europe. These encounters demonstrated the possibility that behind the mask of European science, ritual, politics, and life was something as anti-Human and “animal” as the Khosian.
One can easily imagine that, in order to heal the wound inflicted by the loss of God’s grounding, and to reconcile the animal encounter within the civil European, that the obvious step forward by White civic forces was to not only exclude the African from Human life by rendering it animal, but also to juxtapose the African animal figure as a demarcation that granted European’s a new ground for their Humanity: the color of their skin. Crisis was averted in this way. The Human essence was secured by the animalization of another, which paved the way to render Africa a hunting ground for animals; for slaves. This is also highlighted by Wilderson, who notes,
The race of Humanism…could not have produced itself without the simultaneous production of that walking destruction which became known as the Black. Put another way, through chattel slavery the world gave birth and coherence to both its joys of domesticity and to its struggles of political discontent; and with these joys and struggles, the Human was born, but not before it murdered the Black, forging a symbiosis between the political ontology of Humanity and the social death of Blacks (20-22)
With this in mind, one can understand how the Enlightenment period, with all its talk of liberation, was also the period most known for slavery, as it became a method to fabricate the Human essence of White populations. Even the most supposedly progressive of the White resistance, the American revolutionaries for instance, who saw slaves on an everyday basis, could say that they as Whites deserved freedom from such things as taxation, because at the very least, they were not slaves; they were not Black. They were Human.
It is Blackness that serves as a dam that holds the waters of the Human in place even now, lest the referent to Humanity’s essence is lost again. The hierarchical and interlocking relation of White society as Human over-determines and delimits the purview and reach of Black capacity exactly in this way. A Black body, even prenatally, is a priori exposed to a legacy of slavery and cannot transcend itself in assuming other subject positions. The only way to reconcile this bifurcation, far from mere Biopolitical analysis, is to destroy one of the ontological fixtures, Black or White, as they are antagonisms. Blackness as slave could not exist without Whiteness; Whiteness as master could not exist without Blackness. It seems clear then that the obvious ethical alignment is decidedly against the master, who continually murders people of color. This, however, entails a structural, material struggle that cannot occur in the confines of human rights, reform, or legal analysis in so far as neither of these frameworks is attentive to the limits of their discussion of power for oppressed peoples. Similarly, the granting of human rights to populations assumes that there are rights that a citizen must attain. By the prior discussion of who is Human and how Human is defined, I indicate that not all residents of a nation-state will be citizens. Therefore, the concept of citizen and rights that are granted require the exclusion of non-citizens intrinsic to sovereign power. In this case, I treat the non-citizen the same as the anti-Human, the Black. Discourses of rights, then, need the existence of the non-citizen. The role that Black folk and legal/political non-citizens (such as refugees and migrant workers, to just name a few) play is to remain excluded from the political orders of the nation-states they inhabit, instead shaping the modern political order via their exclusion.
The limitations of conventional reform are further illustrated when we investigate the foundations of the institutions (e.g. governments and supranational organizations such as the United Nations) involved. US institutions are purportedly founded upon principles of democracy, justice, and liberalism. Notions of democracy and justice are used as justifications for governments everywhere to intervene and subjugate different populations, inside and outside of their own nation-states. Therefore, these values are used to justify the state’s domination over a group of individuals. In order to create a mutually beneficial relationship between citizens of a nation and the government, John Locke’s theory of social contract was used as a framework for many Western governments. In his Second Treatise of Government (1689), Locke elaborates that the state and citizens of the state would be bound by a moral and social contract to act in each other’s interests. In Locke’s view, the government is only legitimate because the citizens give it the powers to be legitimate. None of Locke’s writings take into account the concepts of race, gender, or class. Locke takes for granted this colorless and universal approach to government and Statism, a system where the state has centralized control over political and economic affairs. The mainstream analytic view of the Cartesian individual as per Contractarian theory influences colorblind theories that justify violence in the name of reason and justice.
In The Racial Contract (1997), Charles Mills asserts that this analytic view ignores the historical and social processes through which identities are formed. The United States’ governmental institutions have their origins in principles developed by political philosophers such as Locke. As a result, our institutions and their methodologies, such as reformist policies, have the same gaps that their originating theories have. Since our institutions have ignored the historical processes through which many person’s identities have come about, they seldom take into account the historical and present discrimination people of color face when engaging in the political sphere. It should be noted here that many argue historical processes have not been ignored, as illustrated by affirmative action and various other equal-opportunity policies. I would argue that these policies address certain individualized instances of racism and anti-Blackness but not the structural instances as such. The policies passed seldom address institutional power and its connection with structures of domination. Having colorblind institutions and a colorblind justice system not only fails to contest racial domination, but they assist in the reaffirmation of anti-Blackness by leaving historically bound and oppressive structures intact.
Beyond the active omission of race, gender, and class from his theory of government, Locke anchors his theory on the principle of property ownership. The state’s primary purpose was and is to protect private property and advance one’s rights to property. Looking at the relationship between Blacks being anti-Human and thus technically property and Locke’s interpretation of rights, it is clear that the state that was created was one that protected slave owner’s rights to enslaved persons and maintained the positionality of a Black person as enslaved. We need not go further than original drafts of the constitution to see examples of this. In the constitution, enslaved persons were described as property that owners had the right to trade and destroy (Wilderson, Red, White, and Black 354). Moreover, enslaved persons, and later on, their black decedents during reconstruction, were not seen as peoples to be educated, to have rights (mostly because they were still property) even though later on, slavery was repealed via law.
If Locke’s theory of government is accepted as the foundation of liberalism, then there remains a relationship between the establishment of Black persons as anti-Human and resembling property instead of ontologically Human in modern day liberal democratic societies. Liberal notions of rights are not only inapplicable to Black folks in modern day society, but also the advancement of liberal rights to sustain a Black person’s positionality as an anti-Human apolitical commodity. Even worse, it is in opposition to this idea that human rights are developed. As the human-rights framework or any liberal-rights framework exists in the status quo, they exist from the foundation of Locke’s liberal notions of rights vis-à-vis protection of private property. It becomes crystal clear that rights-oriented frameworks aggressively work to grant rights to White citizens from the political order of the nation-state that may grant rights in the first place, and, in turn effectively rendering Black people as non-citizens regardless of their legal status. It is this foundation of transforming African peoples to Black flesh through the Middle Passage and adopting Locke’s theory of government that creates the notions of rights through protection of private property on which all rights-oriented frameworks are based.
Indeed if all of the above is true, then does reform have any chance of instituting progress? Can institutional racism be challenged in society, as it exists today? A prominent counter-example is the Civil Rights Movement. It is argued that the Civil Rights Movement was a movement that led to definite progress; it gave Blacks the right to vote among other legal guarantees. Various scholars argue that the Civil Rights Movement was another band-aid solution. The Civil Rights Movement, arguably, did not address the actual conditions of violence Black folk faced. Even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, Black people are incarcerated at higher rates than any other population, experience astronomical rates of HIV infection, poverty, as well as many other material deprivations. Orlando Patterson explains in Slavery and Social Death that no other category but Black and White served to fuel the machinations of Western understanding because of the specific position of Blackness as animal towards Whiteness as agential human. During the Enlightenment period and thereafter, even the most hardened of European criminals could expect death or banishment, but never enslavement—never can a White face serve as an animal in opposition to another category, as it would call into question the content of Humanity itself. For example, the reason that Blacks were enslaved was because they were not deemed as human but as a commodity to be traded. Although this is such a simple point, it is important to reiterate because it means that despite the subjectivity of other races, the Black is dead in so far as it can be reduced to chattel and owned by others. This “death” experience is what shapes the entirety of the Black experience, even when put into the hands of colored masters because it exposes those marked as Black to a specific form of violence experienced by those who are not recognized with humanity.
There has been great debate over how to best challenge social death and discuss whether social death exists at all. Many argue that despite the being socially dead, Blacks can gain power through engaging in rigorous government reform and advocating for themselves. This approach is championed in hopes that power would be materially redistributed where Black populations would no longer be systemically discriminated against. Conversely, there are scholars who argue that social death can only be challenged when we challenge the very existence of US civil society, as it exists in the status quo. As discussed earlier, if we accept the assumption that the construction of the United States itself was an unethical one, then it becomes inevitable that any measure taken via civil society will only work to strengthen that unethical construction of the United States. Because of this, it also becomes inevitable that even the most liberal reformist policies can only alleviate individual instances of discrimination against Blacks but not systemic oppression.
Advancing these sentiments and arguments in a much more personal way, Coates concludes his book by noting that we must also no longer view oppression such as slavery from within Western society but its opposite. I agree with Coates’s take that we must take the standpoint of the oppressed and realize that Black subjugation foregrounds White dominance from the outside and flows into all other aspects of oppression. Only after understanding this and incorporating this framework into all other human rights, politically reformist, and legal frameworks can we create a starting point to address racial inequality in the United States that is not doomed for failure.
Brinkley, Shanara R. “The Harsh Realities Of “Acting Black”: How African-American Policy Debaters Negotiate Representation Through Racial Performance And Style.” PhD diss., University of Georgia, 2008.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Print.
Foucault, M., Bertani, M., Fontana, A., & Macey, D. (2003). “Society must be defended“: lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76. New York: Picador.
Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.
Locke, John and Peter Laslett. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge: Cambridge UPP, 1988. Print.
Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997. Print.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982. Print.
Wilderon, F. B. (2003). “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal.” Social Justice, 2(30), 18-27. Retrieved March 1, 2013, from the Jstore database.
Wilderson, F. B. (2010). Red, White & Black: cinema and the structure of U.S. antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Yancy, George. “Whiteness and the Return of the Black Body.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19.4 (2005): 215-41. Print.