posted from the now-defunct blog "When Whiteness Attacks"
11 April 2008
I'm an avid NPR listener. Three pieces on today's (11 April 2008) All Things Considered caught my interest:
* How Has the Fair Housing Act Fared?
A piece by Chicago-based Cheryl Corley, identifying some of the ways that real estate agents circumvent the 40-year-old law using coded (and not-so-coded) language and "linguistic profiling," it also interviews some fair housing activists who say that basically we've come a long way and still have a long way to go.
* Marijuana Activists Push for 'De-Prioritization'
This report begins by profiling a Seattle pot activist, who is rolling a joint in a picture that graces the cover of a local paper. He has succeeded in moving marijuana law enforcement to the bottom of the list of the local police priority list. The report then skips across town to interview a resident of Jimi Hendrix's old (black) neighborhood who has just seen a friend get arrested for pot possession. Reporter Martin Kaste gets a quick word about a local ACLU investigation in progress on allegations of racism, takes a narcotics officer's word that they're "not playing favorites," and moves on.
* Tiger's Shot at Slam Hits Rough at Masters
Stefan Fatsis talks about the furor that rose when Tiger Woods said that a victory at the Masters tournament was "well within reason." Fatsis also talks about a Berkeley study that notices a negative and statistically significant effect that Woods's presence has on other golfers, and quotes a tour golfer who says that Woods is playing so well that he's making the rest of the golfing field look as though they were five-year-olds.
On other days, it won't be so easy to connect the mundane stories of a news report to a single big problem. Today, however, all three of these articles that I heard on NPR, are directly or indirectly concerned with the structural antagonism that is most foundational to the United States: anti-black racism.
Tiger Woods's career has been racially charged ever since he first felt compelled to announce his mixed racial ancestry ("Cablinasian") to the press in order to quell any questions about whether he considered himself to be black. Since then, it's been a subdued and coded journey. There was PGA golfer Fuzzy Zoeller's comment. There was (and continues to be) Augusta National's ongoing effort to "Tiger-proof" the course on which the Masters tournament is played. There was even a comment by a friend of mine at a party: "Somebody needs to put that black boy in his place." (My friend was referring to the late Earl Woods, Tiger's father, who had predicted that his son would be the best golfer of his time.) It is useful to note that all blacks who are among the first to join or excel in particular sports or other areas of human endeavor find that racism is something they cannot avoid.
Although it could be argued that Tiger's career may not be overdetermined by racism, the topics of the other two articles, housing discrimination in Chicago and drug law enforcement in Seattle, simply cannot be divorced from thoughts of (and a problematization of thoughts of) anti-black racism.
Why am I concerned about any of this? I am concerned at the level of discourse in the United States about this fundamental antagonism. We should be speaking of the "national obsession" more intelligently than we are. We should be describing as many of the nuances of thought that spin off of our passionate libidinal ids as we can describe nuances of our favorite American Idol personalities or sports star.
I am concerned that we do not see how intimately imbricated anti-black racism is in the life of United States, Western, and world civil society.
I am concerned that people are growing up around others whose positions in a racist society are very different from those of their neighbors, schoolmates, and co-workers--yet, the attempt to create a color-blind society has denied them to tools to think critically about the ways race and racism function, and so we approach race timidly, with what we might think is a polite, conversational, humorous, or even objective point of view-- but that is really just further evidence of how deeply anti-blackness cuts.
The thing that is needed most just now is a willingness to think critically about the choices we make as humankind. Every day humankind chooses not to pose the question to what is the fundamental assumption of any advanced society--the idea that it ought to exist at all and ought to exist basically as it is--black people die and white people have killed them.
I should clarify something about my basic assumptions. When I speak of race, and particularly of blackness and whiteness, I am not referring to the typical understanding of it in US society, a set of legally delineated biological traits used to categorize groups of people. My understanding is that race as phenotype is not a scientifically valid way of defining groups (although ancestry may be???).
When I speak of red, white, and black, I am using Frank Wilderson's tripartite division of the essential structural positions that comprise modernity's civil society (see Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (forthcoming Duke University Press). I do not refer to Asian Americans or Latina/o Americans as having distinct structural positions because I do not think that the structure of civil society in the United States is defined by any positions but the Native, the Settler, and the Slave. "The American Dream"..."Integration"..."Assimilation"--all of these words refer to the process by which individuals, families, and groups of various nonblack ethnicities attempt to escape being positioned as the first and last positions (Native and Slave) and become part of the middle position (Settler or white). (Positionality, as we shall see, is distinct from identity, a fact lost on most scholars of the current multicultural liberal political order of academic discourse.) This escape--along with who is/isn't allowed to succeed at it and under what circumstances, who is born already free and who is born a slave-- constitutes one of the defining dynamics/narratives of American culture. I hope to examine the many forms this success can take--from the ability to hail a taxicab on the street at night to the ability to get elected president to the ability to the ability to avoid being killed while walking down the street or booed when performing on stage or fired from a job.
What do I mean to get out of this blog and why the provocative title? I'm looking for an excuse to write about life (or its impossibility) in modernity, and the thing that confronts me daily is the impossibility of not being defined/doomed by my blackness. In the long term, I suppose I hope to encourage people to apply a range of critical standards to whiteness and blackness and redness as they operate daily in life, in this nation, and in the world.
About the title: Titles are positioned, appropriately, at the top of the page, like a Sword of Damocles. This one is no exception. It's always just a matter of time before whiteness reveals itself, as Obama has discovered in the past months. But maybe I'm jumping ahead. The truth is that it's always revealing itself. It's hidden in plain sight or, to paraphrase Martinot and Sexton, in the mundanity of terror.
Watch this news segment from Charlotte, North Carolina:
Observe the way that white supremacy converts what would be called a joyride-- criminal but emblematic of a "good ol' boy"-type subjectivity if the perpetrators weren't black-- into a spectacle reaffirming white supremacy's own self-referentiality-- its need for itself.
Watch the anchor's lead-in and the two reports on this incident. Notice the distinct and diverse, but ultimately compatible, metanarratives that animate the three reporters (middle-aged white man, young white woman, young Latino man) and their body language-- hence, preconscious interest or unconscious identity-- in recounting this dashing feat of young black male criminality. If the reporters were actors, what would be their intentions? Does the distinctiveness of these intentions from those of the other two reporters confirm what Frank Wilderson refers to as "grammars of suffering"? Clearly, they are enunciating different relationships to both the violence by which the black men appropriated the vehicle and the violent response of the state to the black men.
That's just looking at the framing of the narrative. Look at the content of the footage as well. Observe how the framing set by the white woman reporter comports with (echoes? parrots?) the content of police officer's account of it. "No one was hurt." This is repeated several times throughout the report, even as we clearly see, toward the end of the chase, a large apparently black male police officer punching or slamming one of the young black men so hard that he upends him in full view of local (and, with youtube-- international) television.
Also notice how the second part of the report by the Latino man reporter charts the presence of potential black male intruders by having the camera operator zoom in close on what only register as black smudges on a white door frame. That the door frame is intact seems to suggest that whiteness held the line against what in South Africa was (is?) called the schwarz gewaar or black threat.
Cue in on the body language. The Latino reporter's steady gaze and other facial nuances suggest an attempt to distance himself from what has transpired, to identify with the audience in his neutral, clean-shaven paternal manner that highlights the comparability of white and Latino ethical concerns. He has a distinct relationship to what has conspired in that he is marked, by name in conjunction with dark coloring and black straight hair, as a member of a criminalized racial/ethnic group. He, like the other two, must report on this incident, but he does not give his account with nearly the verve of the other two. The white woman, for example, seemed to be on a high, and, at points, her kinesic code resembled the kind of neck wagging that is usually part of the kinesic code of the black woman and the trash-talking gesturing that rap artists in videos take after having just toked ablunt or gripped a wad of cash, or even just picked up a handgun. Look at how closely she closes in on the camera, as if confronting us and getting "in your face." Her animated style is certainly unorthodox among reporters. Her speech, while not cleared southern in dialect, is more slurred than that of many reporters. (Listen to her first words thanking the anchor-- it's hard to tell if the anchor's name is Bob or Bobby. Her words "as the suspects" and "officers say" elide as though she is drunk. When she introduces the next reporter, she might be saying "Our Mario Roldan" or "Omario Roldan.") But she seems to get away with it. She seems to know that she is getting away with flaunting some rules, and WE (the white we) can honor her irreverence as the entitlements of the "survivor" of this kind of incident, the one who lived to tell about it after a near home invasion by a horde of black males that could have victimized someone just like her. The white man anchor, himself somewhat swarthy, steadily stares at the audience but with a slight and confident smile. At the push of a button, he can have these black men captured again and again-- and it is very likely that the footage had been on virtual loop all afternoon in teasers and promotionals. The Latino reporter, however, is still, almost solemn, as he connects the criminal activity, via a clever trick of editorial juxtaposition, to a white domestic scene. The camera angles make the white father holding his "daddy's girl" seem larger than life. The "safety yellow" color scheme of the "Slow!" for the children at play" street sign (with rounded corners and human-like shape) coordinates with the white door frame and the tree-shaded neutral colors to reconstitute the disrupted domestic scene as a safe and sterile space. In contrast to this, black invasion becomes a matter of public hygiene. It smudges white door frames, ignores clearly posted safety signs, steals an SUV that looks like it could be yours-- and YOU are always white or whitened. Whiteness is innocent and pure as a little white girl in her daddy's arms in an environment so safe that "You don't expect--guys to be busting in your door trying to steal."
(The girl seems almost like a weapon in his arms, so quiet and unmoved is her demeanor. Her appearance in daddy's arms helps explain the absence of the wife/mother, who, presumably, is even more delicate. It seems we are back to the tough young lady whose trash talking began the report. Daddy and daughter together will defend domesticity. Or perhaps we see no mother/wife because this is a home that has suffered loss. Indeed, it enhances the empathetic effect if the only members of the domestic unit are daddy and daughter. Home invasion becomes one more burden on him against which he must defend her, the sole remaining carrier of his legacy. We are left with no closure on this part of the narrative. Only that whites are suffering from black criminality, and have to hold the line by making themselves larger than life. Guns are what is needed.)
The father is exasperated-- dare we say, spent? Cuckolded? Violated? No matter. His manhood is saved by the camera angle, in which he appears threatening. The camera man is on his side, and wants to ward off all other schwarzes who would contemplate this type of deed. The father is the victimized white man about whom great American plays and other narratives are composed. But, unlike Willy Loman of Miller's Death of a Salesman, this man is not victimized by capital. Capital seems to be something he can bear. He can take that, at least-- aye, and without complaint. And, given the size of his house, he seems to be doing all right with it, playing by the rules, and everything's about as fair as one could expect it to be. But how can he anticipate that only minutes from his door exists a breed of being-- not "guys," a word he struggles momentarily to apply to these three young black men-- that would make his home as open to invasion as AFDC's "man-in-the-house" rules, STEP/asset forfeiture laws, and police sweeps have made black "homes"? This is the real threat, always: That the white shall be made black, and the black, white.
As a final humiliation, the Latino reporter says that "the suspects targeted another home... but they were scared off when the homeowner answered the door." This confirms what we have already known about these young black men: that they are children who need a good spanking from the state, that they are cowards, that they are nothing like the reporter who is standing steadily before us-- and WE are always white or whitened-- speaking slowly so as to minimize the detectability of his accent and the slurring of speech in which he occasionally indulges when the focus so etched into his face abandons him for his small moments of enjoyment-- enjoyment of knowing himself as an immigrant with familial ties to whiteness instead of connection to the dead Indian and the wretched Slave-- in which he positions himself as one with the right to enjoy being part of the apparatus of capitivity. He emasculates the black threat with a swift slice of verbal inflection.
This brings up two final points. First, that, as I just mentioned, the media itself appears as part-and-parcel of the apparatus of captivity in this news segment. By seamlessly integrating very clear, news-quality footage (not the grainy police video we often see) of the chase and capture of the "suspects" and its by now standard usage of faux-neutral legal terms like "allege" and "suspect," the news borrows the institutionality and officiality of the state. It is unclear whether the news footage shown was taken by the police or the news helicopter, but it almost doesn't matter. The sounds put the news reporter, and US (whites), in the cockpit, fixing the niggers in our sights as they scamper. It recalls the footage of Operation Desert Storm in which human carnage from above was a nightly family dinner spectacle. But there is no carnage here. The State is merciful. The State is safe. The black males were tackled as though they were playing football-- and football is an arena in which black males, as WE know, thrive amid the violence and pain to which they are impervious and which motivates them to run. The one incident the camera retains of a questionable take down is done by what appears to be a black officer. No questions of race can enter where procedure precedes them.
Finally, the suspects, when they speak-- and only one of them can speak-- speak as though they flout this mercy, which is, after all, not only the State's mercy, but OUR mercy-- the sutured (white or whitened) subjects at the point of consumption. "Cuz I wanted to!" says the nigger. He dares to act as though he has agency, will. He and his "boyz" bopping along like they're hiphop stars, exposing US to their scrotum scratching, which stretches to the very places built in North Carolina to avoid the black scrotum. This hollow display of bravado sets up the final humiliation, deftly performed by the Latino reporter.
This media report operates dramatically as an extension of white positionality. Cued (authorized) by the white man's smirking presence in the news room's command center, first the white woman and then he Latino man reporter (and Wilderson would call white women and Latinos among the "junior partners of civil society") cements solidarity with white phallic ethical concerns: How to create a wall between US and the schwarz gewaar by which we can (1) regulate (liberal), (2) forestall (conservative), or (3) eliminate (radical) the black positionaity's incorporation into civil and political society. This multi ethnic and multi gendered team reports so that you can decide!