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On Slow and Spectacular Violence

By 01/26/2015March 6th, 2015All Posts, Andrea's Posts

In the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown I wrote about Ferguson, a catharsis of feeling, a mourning for another life taken, a way to choose my side and sadness that I should come from a country so drowned in fear and hate that there could even be two sides. All Americans should have mourned Michael’s loss as they would have their son, father, brother. They should have all demanded change. But that is not what happened.

It didn’t happen for Oscar Grant, for Trayvon Martin, for Eric Garner, for hundreds of Black men and women killed without compunction. We need to understand why because we need to change it.

I didn’t analyze the situation in view of all I had been writing and theorising on segregation and racism for my PhD, intellectualisation felt completely beyond me. So I was happy to see ‘The Making of Ferguson‘ from Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, who comprehensively outlined the decades of public policy that created the segregated city of St Louis and other US cities, the segregation (and resulting decimation of non-white communities) that I agree is central to any understanding of what created Ferguson. Much of this is based on work by Colin Gordon, and his book Mapping Decline (highly recommended, especially for those who love maps). Here is Rothstein’s outline of the policies that created a white world of wealth and resources, separated from the worlds of peoples of colour confined to poverty and desperation:

  • Racially explicit zoning decisions that designated specific ghetto boundaries within the city of St. Louis, turning black neighborhoods into slums;
  • Segregated public housing projects that separated blacks and whites who had previously lived in more integrated urban areas;
  • Restrictive covenants, excluding African Americans from white areas, that began as private agreements but then were adopted as explicit public policy;
  • Government subsidies for white suburban developments that excluded blacks, depriving African Americans of the 20th century home-equity driven wealth gains reaped by whites;
  • Denial of adequate municipal services in ghettos, leading to slum conditions in black neighborhoods that reinforced whites’ conviction that “blacks” and “slums” were synonymous;
  • Boundary, annexation, spot zoning, and municipal incorporation policies designed to remove African Americans from residence near white neighborhoods, or to prevent them from establishing residence near white neighborhoods;
  • Urban renewal and redevelopment programs to shift ghetto locations, in the guise of cleaning up those slums;
  • Government regulators’ tacit (and sometimes open) support for real estate and financial sector policies and practices that explicitly promoted residential segregation;
  • A government-sponsored dual labor market that made suburban housing less affordable for African Americans by preventing them from accumulating wealth needed to participate in homeownership.

Rothstein is anxious to place the blame on public policy, not private racism, because policy is something we can shift, something we can change.

But we have to shift more than that.

It is dangerous to ignore the extreme levels of violence that maintained racial boundaries, the normalisation of white violence that occurred across the country over decades. In my own research on L.A. I found hundreds of incidents, several where death was intended and sometimes achieved. Mobs gathered to threaten families, burn crosses. They left tacks, nails and broken glass in lawns and driveways, hung and burned effigies, threw bottles and bricks and stones, emptied shotguns through windows, bombed and burned down homes. A white gang of youths formed in South L.A. in the 1940s, called themselves the Spook Hunters. They patrolled white neighborhoods and occasionally crossed the ‘Alameda Wall’ to harass Black youth where they lived. The emblem on the back of their jackets was a swollen Black face above a noose. Their community didn’t mind they wore them proudly.

All this, but I know L.A. ain’t no St Louis, Missouri.

One of the most harrowing and best accounts of white mob violence is of Detroit — Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. There is Arnold Hirsch and Cayton & Drake on Chicago. Kenneth Clark’s amazing analysis of Harlem in Dark Ghetto. W.E.B. Du Bois’s study of Philadelphia. Stephen Grant Meyer on organised, violent white people defending their neighbourhoods across the nation, encapsulating a long understood sentiment in his title: As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door. This is the history of every single city. Every. Single. City.

Judith Butler’s recent response in an interview about #blacklivesmatter focuses on some of what makes this violence possible, beginning with slavery:

But when and where did black lives ever really get free of coercive force? One reason the chant “Black Lives Matter” is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized… it is a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat.

It comes down, like the long history of mob and state violence enforcing segregation, to defense:

In other words, every time a grand jury or a police review board accepts this form of reasoning, they ratify the idea that blacks are a population against which society must be defended, and that the police defend themselves and (white) society, when they preemptively shoot unarmed black men in public space.

I didn’t find the tools here, though, to explain either the reality of the violence that the events in Ferguson embody, the exclusion of people from society due to skin colour, or the source of this deeply felt need among whites for defense, one that is so sure of itself, it can justify the murder of unarmed children.

So I turn now to a few of the writers who helped me think through my thesis. This is a provisional thinking through of their ideas in relation to Ferguson and the reactions to #blacklivesmatter that I need to keep coming back to.

The first is more thoughtfulness on violence itself, a separation of ‘slow’ from ‘spectacular’ violence from Rob Nixon that I think we have to understand and strategise around if we are to change anything. Spectacular violence is the kind we are most used to, the Hollywood kind, the police brutality kind, “immediate and explosive, as erupting into instant, concentrated visibility.” The memory of those thousands of lynchings that are also evoked by the recent murders.

Slow violence is different, mostly invisible, even to many of the people who suffer it without quite understanding that it is violence they are suffering. It is violence that is “incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries.” The hardest to explain, the hardest to fix — particularly as the political will galvanised by uprisings and spectacle is usually lacking. Yet slow violence is ultimately a central cause of all of them, simmering away, killing people a piece at a time.

Segregation, and the ghettoes it has created, are constructions of slow violence. From the slum housing within them (damaging families through lead poisoning, rashes, asthma, lack of privacy, depression), to the schools that cannot teach and the hopelessness of the jobs that do not exist and the fast-track to prison and the stripping of human rights so terrifyingly described by Michelle Alexander. It comes in many forms, Nixon uses it to talk about environmental destruction and it applies as strongly to the environmental injustices of factory and incinerator clusters in our neighbourhoods, the poisoning of water, the destruction of land. Included is every form of discrimination, the cumulative effect of which lead to a constant anxiety and self-limitation. Returning to Ferguson, this satire that is no satire from the Onion helps show the longer term effects of each spectacular eruption of police and vigilante murders:

Tips For Being An Unarmed Black Teen

  • Shy away from dangerous, heavily policed areas.
  • Avoid swaggering or any other confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated.
  • Be sure not to pick up any object that could be perceived by a police officer as a firearm, such as a cell phone, a food item, or nothing.
  • Explain in clear and logical terms that you do not enjoy being shot, and would prefer that it not happen.
  • Don’t let society stereotype you as a petty criminal. Remember that you can be seen as so much more, from an armed robbery suspect, to a rape suspect, to a murder suspect.
  • Try to see it from a police officer’s point of view: You may be unarmed, but you’re also black.
  • Avoid wearing clothing associated with the gang lifestyle, such as shirts and pants.
  • Revel in the fact that by simply existing, you exert a threatening presence over the nation’s police force.
  • Be as polite and straightforward as possible when police officers are kicking the shit out of you.

Humour only heightens the terrible truth of this, a list that exemplifies some of the real, heart breaking conversations parents are having with their kids in an effort to keep them safe. The slow, everyday, never-ending violence of the constant fear, moderation of behaviour and limits to freedom and happiness this induces cannot be underestimated, and its destructiveness to any hope for our collective future must be recognised.

The blindness that exists among many whites to this everyday lived reality, the cringeworthy nature of so much commentary around #blacklivesmatter, highlights the ignorance and racism that continue to exist. Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) & Charles V. Hamilton summarised perfectly what is still wrong with this all the way back in 1967:

The tragedy of race relations in the United States is that there is no American Dilemma. White Americans are not torn and tortured by the conflict between their devotion to the American creed and their actual behavior. They are upset by the current state of race relations, to be sure. But what troubles them is not that justice is being denied but that their peace is being shattered and their business interrupted. (21)

Julius Lester followed their book up with some stronger language and an even better summation of the meaning behind white rhetoric that we have been hearing from Fox News and other media outlets since 1969 (in Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, best title ever):

The ‘white backlash’ was nothing new to the black community. They knew all about the backlash, the frontlash, the sidelash and all them other lashes…it simply meant that white folks were a little tired of picking up the papers and seeing niggers all over the front page… The average white person didn’t know what niggers wanted and didn’t much care. By now they should have gotten whatever the hell it was they said they didn’t have, and if they hadn’t gotten it, they either didn’t deserve it or didn’t need it.(16)

We haven’t made any inroads in changing policing either:

‘Law and order must prevail’ has become the cliche of the 1960’s and the biggest lie, because the American black man has never known law and order except as an instrument of oppression, and it has prevailed upside his head at every available opportunity. It exists for that purpose. The law has been written by white men and their property, to be enforced by white men against blacks in particular and poor folks in general (23)

Law and order exist to protect property — just like the stand your ground law that protected George Zimmerman from any consequences for the murder of Trayvon Martin. At the end of the day, this is what is being defended: white privilege and white property under capitalism. It is the defense of white society, a society from which peoples of colour to a greater or lesser extent have been excluded.

The list from Rothstein that opened this blog shows all of the ways that property markets have systematically channeled, and restricted, land wealth to whites. This segregation has meant more than rising asset values, it has also worked to preserve social position: the lack of decent schooling and job training outside of white areas have ensured that open discrimination is hardly necessary to preserve white jobs (though it is still common); their distance from communities of colour alone helps ensure highly segregated amenities like parks and pools and gyms. It is all about power and privilege.

Albert Memmi writes:

Racism is a generalizing definition and valuation of differences, whether real or imaginary, to the advantage of the one defining and deploying them, and to the detriment of the one subjected to that act of definition, whose purpose is to justify (social or physical) hostility and assault. [100]

He continues:

How is one to struggle effectively against racism? Moral indignation and attempts at persuasion have shown themselves to be clearly insufficient. One must take full account of racism’s roots in fear, in financial insecurity, in economic avarice, which are in humans the sources of aggressivity and a tendency toward domination. One must struggle against such aggressions and dominations, and prevent them. It is racism that is natural and anti-racism that is not; anti-racism can only be something that is acquired, as all that is cultural is acquired, at the end of long and arduous struggles, which are never free from the possibility of being reversed. [196]

It is in this struggle against fear, insecurity and avarice that these wide-ranging themes come together, these are the traits that run through our history and explain how we are beginning 2015 with a campaign about the basic humanity of African Americans that should have been won long ago. Martin Luther King Jr. writes:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society…. It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth. This long-standing racist ideology has corrupted and diminished our democratic ideals. It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans now seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness…. (120)

This has been our foundation, and the formation and segregated nature of all of our cities is proof of the continuing majority understanding of just who is a full member of American society, who deserves America’s land and resources, who can be considered a valued part of any American community.

Who deserves justice.

One other key benefit of massive suburbanisation is that it now works to insulate many whites from a clear knowledge of any of this. They are submerged in their own privileges, can live their lives never having to come to terms with what that means, or see the poverty and pain caused by decades of racist planning and policy (see some of Laura Pulido‘s brilliant work on this and environmental justice in L.A.). This keeps the fear of difference alive and well. Keeps them from having those experiences that sharing a street, a schoolroom, a grandchild would give them — an understanding that Black lives are worth as much as any other life and that this should be a time of national mourning and commitment to change.

This problem is as much about changing our geographies as it is our ideas of community and society. There are, as Rothstein states, some policies that will work towards this. But also needed is a coming to terms with this long history of violence and oppression and I think that requires some collective working out as I don’t know that anyone yet has an answer.


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