Making It Visible to Ourselves

Against the Current, No. 178, September/October 2015

Cheryl Harris

LAST FALL, AT a panel at the Law School entitled “From Gaza to Ferguson,” I started my remarks as follows:

“Days after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 11, a 25-year-old mentally ill Black man by the name of Ezell Ford was killed by the Los Angeles Police Department in South Los Angeles as he walked near his house. The police claimed that as they stopped their car and attempted to speak to him, he kept walking and “made suspicious movements,” including attempting to conceal his hands. When they moved towards him, he tackled one of them, they said, and reached for their gun, and they simply exercised self-defense in shooting him, including some shots which entered his back.

“Neighbors in the area had a very different account; they reported that when they saw the police approach him, they explained to the police that he was known in the neighborhood as someone who had mental illness, and they said that this was also well-known to the police, who normally police the area. At least one witness directly contradicted the officers’ account that Ezell had assaulted the police before they fired, and subsequent to this the medical examiner has said that he was shot in the back of the head.

“Days after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police shot and killed another victim, also well known in the community for having mental health issues, after he was accused by the local storekeeper of stealing a couple of bottles of soda. The videotape shows the man walking towards the police car with his hands at his side when they opened fire.

“On September 9th, the Huffington Post reported 13 killings by the police of Black and Latino men and women; and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement reported on extrajudicial killings, contending that a Black person is murdered by the police, vigilantes like George Zimmerman, or security guards once every 28 hours.”

That was the beginning of what I had to say in the fall of 2014. Since then, the pattern that I was attempting to identify and mark has only become more visible and acute. Increasingly, the tissue of lies that has propped up these assaults, the alleged violent nature of the victims — you will recall that Darren Wilson claimed the “demonic” face of Michael Brown was what caused him to be lethally dangerous, even though he had no weapon — all these lies were exposed through the tape of the shooting of Walter Scott by police officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina.

While the lived experience of Black people and people of color has repeatedly affirmed that the claim that violence is necessary and legitimate, it took that grainy video, taken by a startled yet conscious bystander, to validate the truth of what people have already known.

While Walter Scott was gunned down in cold blood, his killer was confident that the casual impunity which has historically cloaked and excused these actions would work again — not simply to exonerate him, but to praise him, to applaud him for doing his job and defending himself.

That Slager could be so brazen — even against the backdrop of all this protest, all this national work — speaks volumes to the level of protection that he believed he could rely upon. Think about this — everything was under a microscope, and yet that man felt like he could shoot him in cold blood and get away with it. He, like the police in Baltimore, has been indicted, and that itself is a monumental hurdle.

We can compare that to the failure to charge Darren Wilson in Ferguson, even as the Department of Justice documented the efficient operation of a racialized citation-and-collection system that extracted revenue from Black people for state operations that both ignored them, in terms of delivering services, and targeted them.

But we all know from the Trayvon Martin killing that indictments do not equal accountability. And part of the problem is that the daily-routine nature of these [killings] has heretofore been normalized, legitimated, even if there are some of who valiantly and persistently protest against it.

Repudiate “Colorblind” Narratives

What are we to make of this situation? Well, among the things I want to take apart — because Justin Hansford (see ATC 177, “From Ferguson to Baltimore,” — ed.) has pretty much set the table for everything we need to talk about — are some of the predominant narratives that are circulating in response to some of the protests. I’m sure all of you have maybe heard some of this in engaging people who are in your circles, but I think it’s important in terms of just trying to push back against it.

One of the dominant narratives now is that this is a result of individual decisions and mistakes. This is really a popular narrative, particularly among the political class that Justin has identified — not exclusively or entirely, but in particular. And I want to argue that it reflects a presumption against race as a salient social structure in determining outcomes.

There’s such a strong investment in this “colorblind” narrative that naming a pattern as a pattern is itself vigorously resisted, sometimes even by the people who are victimized by it. And this is really a painful but powerful point: to acknowledge that it is a pattern of state-sanctioned violence would be to repudiate the dominant racial framework of colorblindness, which even people of color, some of us, have bought into.

What I mean by “framework” is to refer to what lies between our facts and our perceptions — that is, the structure that allows us to make sense of the world. This is what we mean when we say these facts make sense, as well as when we try to make sense of the facts. So I’m talking about colorblindness as a racial frame, as a conceptual structure that operates at the macro or “big” societal level, as well as the micro, individual cognitive level; that is, the way in which we just process information.

It’s this preexisting frame under which racial disadvantage is understood to be a product of something other than racism. Notions of biological inferiority have largely been repudiated — although it’s a scary thing how salient that remains if you sit and talk amongst some of your colleagues, but that’s another conversation. But because at least in certain ways, notions of biological racial inferiority have been taken off the table, in the contemporary context racial inequality is now understood as a product of cultural dysfunction.

So the issue is not blood, or bad blood, but behavior. If Black people would engage in normatively appropriate conduct — were we to work hard, attend school, avoid drugs, resist crime, save money, not riot — we would transcend our current social status. According to colorblindness, then, Black people are culturally deficient and insufficiently assimilated, Their disadvantage is a product of culture, and racial inequality will disappear when Black people get “fixed.”

What Needs Fixing?

This notion of cultural dysfunction is still quite prevalent, even in terms of the interventions that have been contemplated, and that’s what I want to turn to here. The narrative seems to be that the riots are the product of people who have been rendered dysfunctional in some sense, and that the answer lies in addressing or fixing that dysfunction.

Even before the riots, initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper, for example, that the President has rolled out, acknowledged that there is a crisis, but instantiates that crisis in exclusionary gendered terms, as though there’s a whole half of the community that doesn’t matter. And it also relies upon notions of racial uplift and a politics of respectability that still positions Black people as problematic and needing some kind of “fixing.”

Another part of this myth is that this pattern of individual actions is, in fact, amenable to intervention by better training by the police. The response to some of the murders seems to be quite well-meaning, and thereby all the more pernicious.

While training may make individuals more aware and smarter, it eludes or elides that fundamental change that Justin was talking about. So, training about teaching the police how to handle mentally disabled people, addressing cognitive bias, all of these are important; but they cannot substitute for the long-term questions, because what we see is that the targets shift.

Racial hegemony has the capacity to update itself and change. In other words — think about, for example, the conversation about body cameras. Part of the argument here is that the visibility of these deaths and these murders suggest that, one, the body cams themselves are the mechanism by which we can hold people accountable — “if we can just see it,” right?

Of course, we’ve been seeing it. We’ve been seeing it a long time, and it’s been recorded a long time. Based here in Los Angeles, we can go back to the beating of Rodney King, which was one of the first moments where we saw a sort of visible abuse of a Black body by the police. And there was no accountability.

The question is, what is the gap between that visibility and accountability? The notion that somehow simply making it visible is accountability is problematic; and we know historically that this is not the case.

Normalizing Surveillance and Violence

What do we think body cams will also do? What are some of the risks that are entailed? Please don’t take these remarks to say I don’t want them to have body cams. I’m just trying to say that there are problems; there are contradictions here.

One, I want to argue, is that it will normalize a certain kind of panoptic surveillance. There’s a tradeoff in this notion that somehow, if we subject ourselves happily and willingly — yes, let the police record their interactions with me, somehow that’s going to buy me safety.

Second, it will itself further legitimize the racial project of policing. That is, it does nothing to change the underlying structural problems that Justin was just talking about. I think, it risks projecting visual images of Black and Brown bodies as further evidence of criminality. You all have seen cops, right? Has that done anything in terms of disrupting the association between blackness and criminality? If anything, it has just simply reinforced it.

Third is sort of a technical thing, but hey, I’m a lawyer, I get off on this. Are there a set of rules about when do the police get to review the tapes? There’s actually legislation being proposed in the state of California — I haven’t tracked it recently, but I think it was on the table as of a week ago — that would allow the police to review the tapes before they write their reports. I don’t need to say any more about that.

The problem that we’re facing is structural, as Justin mentioned, but I actually want to pick up on a point that he made and push it a little further. The violence committed within Black communities by the police — as well as by Black people on other Black people, which of course gets brought up in this conversation as well — cannot be isolated from the violence that is perpetuated and sanctioned by the state, which devalues Black life and ultimately subjects all to premature death, either by bullet, by neglect, or by disease.

All the toxic conditions under which too many Black children have lived have predictable and documented consequences in terms of the normalization of violence.

Some of you may have followed Jesse Williams’ brilliant Twitter rant — did you all see it? If not, look it up. It was absolutely brilliant — in which he basically challenged the selective condemnation of violence as a racial project. ( That is, he was saying that the ways in which people are calling out this violence is itself a racial project, which is ignoring the violence that is meted out on a day-to-day level against Black people and other people of color, while excusing white violence.

As Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute has written, what we are witnessing from Ferguson to Baltimore is “the fruits of government-sponsored segregation.” What I would add is that this segregation is a form of psychic, economic and social violence.

As Rothstein pointed out, Baltimore’s innovations — Baltimore’s been very innovative — in the structures of segregation date back to 1910, when it adopted the policy of restricting Blacks to live only on certain blocks. The mayor’s explanation at the time reads like a slightly more frank version of the contemporary policies of state planning and development.

At the time, he said that Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disobedience, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into nearby white neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the white majority.

There’s not a huge amount of distance between that articulation and some of the present policies and politics. And the justifications of this policy of containment is still operative, and so too are the patterns of structural deprivation. I don’t know if some of you saw this, but Baltimore, like Detroit, is shutting off the water to residential families.

So, as for people subjected to these conditions, the political narrative says that we are lawless and rightly contained by lethal force; it’s legitimate, as Robert Cole says, to use the violence of the law, to discipline not only the individual transgressor but to authorize the use of greater state power of surveillance, intrusion, and regulation.

Ultimately, as people are subjected to those conditions, even when those conditions are deplored, the status quo is ultimately justified by appeals to order and the rule of law. And the utter failure of these mechanisms to curtail or mitigate these conditions never becomes visible in the broader public discourse unless there is an eruption.

The massive use of force is authorized not only on outlaws, but on the ordinary. And it’s that indiscriminate use that we’re talking about today. The logic of colorblindness itself, which suggests that race plays no role unless the shooter signs an affidavit to that effect, sets the stage for the continuation of racialized violence as it sustains deniability, however implausible.

Globalized Racial Logic

I want to close just by returning to the point that Justin made in terms of understanding how to situate this violence. One of the things that we’ve seen is: how many cities now? And we’ve only been a year out, right? While these racial conditions are often described as specific and local, they are part of a broader global context.

Just as slavery was a globalized system, so too is the racial logic of white supremacy. And this is what William Patterson and the Civil Rights Congress understood in 1951, when they filed a petition to the United Nations charging the United States with genocide against the Negro people.

The petition specified the evidence supported in the claim, including the long list of racial murders for which there had been absolute impunity. This petition was not heard or decided; the authors of that petition, including Paul Robeson and others, were denounced as Communist and crazy. But it also heightened a contradiction within the movement itself, the civil rights movement, because as those people were demonized, others distanced themselves; and so it was deemed to be a too-radical, internationalist fringe.

The point I’m trying to say about this story is: why did segregation become visible in the 1940s and 1950s? Do we really know? It certainly wasn’t that nobody noticed before. And it was certainly not that people were not protesting before. And it was certainly not that something magical happened.

But I do think that it’s worth thinking about: Why are these police killings becoming visible, in relationship to why did segregation become visible at a particular moment? It’s not about the tape or the video. What I want to argue is that it’s about it becoming visible and important to ourselves.

One of the things that I think we are witnessing through the kind of work that Justin and others are doing — not necessarily to say that we are not interested in stitching together and pulling together a coalitional effort that actually addresses this question — is that at heart, this is really about believing in our own humanity and making it visible to ourselves.

September-October 2015, ATC 178