A lesson from tragedy: Why citizenship does not remedy racial inequality.
The death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Missouri police officer in Ferguson just over two weeks ago has reinvigorated a contentious national conversation about race and justice. An NPR news correspondent, reporting on the President’s remarks on Ferguson, notes that Obama has assumed an even-handed approach, aiming to turn this (and other racially charged events during his presidency) into a “teachable moment.” A groundswell of educators, students, and others have mimicked this tack, taking to Twitter to mint the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus, where users of the hashtag are creating a digital trove of resources, sharing links to books, lesson plans, and other articles of note related to Michael Brown’s shooting and race-based inequality more broadly.
Much of the Twitter exchange revisits racially fraught examples of profiling, prejudice, and resistance, from the not-so distant shooting of Trayvon Martin, to the decades-past Civil Rights Era. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Sarah Mayorga, writing in State of White Supremacy: Racism, Governance, and the United States (the recommended reading, cited in the tweet above), stretch farther back still to the conception of liberalism in the 17th century, in their chapter focusing on citizenship. They examine how that early epoch’s colonial attitudes complicate the Enlightenment’s humanist epiphanies, and continue to frustrate contemporary democracies, particularly that of the United States. As Bonilla-Silva and Mayorga write
We are fascinated, albeit not surprised, by how many scholars of citizenship, human rights, and democracy—the humanistic discourses of modernity—ignore the centrality of race, then and now. Most romanticize Enlightenment figures such as Hobbes, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, and Locke; most universalize the ideas produced by the French and the American revolutions when neither intended this to be the case; and too many read words such as men, liberty, or citizen as all-inclusive terms, even though they were not intended as such.
Ours is a nation of laws for the citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them.
—Pres. Obama on Ferguson
Certainly in United States history, legal interpretations of who counted as a “citizen” have long been mercurial and contradictory, reaching a low point with the unequivocal Dred Scott decision rescinding citizenship to people of African descent writ large. While commenting on the death of Michael Brown, Melissa Harris-Perry recently popularized remarks from the Dred Scott opinion, specifically of Chief Justice Roger Taney, who said, in regard to the case, that black men “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Both she and the authors writing in State of White Supremacy, draw a clear line between this legacy of legal and social alienation, to contemporary racial turmoil. Bonilla-Silva and Mayorga write that even today, “when people of color have had ‘formal’ citizenship, their substantive citizenship experience has always been diminished by state-actors, by the courts, and more fundamentally, by the white citizenry.”
To move our argument forward, we will here make a historical jump from nineteenth-century judicial decisions to current events in order to discuss race matters in a period when most whites believe “Amerika” has become a color-blind nation.
Let us now address the burning matter of racial profiling: of driving while Black or Latino (“DWB/L”), walking while Black or Latino, shopping while Black or Latino, or simply breathing while Black or Latino. A recent case in San Antonio, Texas, illustrates how citizenship inequality works in this area. Joseph Fennell and Coby Taylor, two Black men in their twenties, were walking along a sidewalk toward their respective jobs at Tom’s Ribs and Momma’s Café when a marked San Antonio police car veered into their path. The officer in the driver’s seat, Robert Rosales, ordered both men to put their hands in the air and move toward a fence. Believing Fennell had a handgun, Rosales then fired his weapon, grazing Fennell, who was twenty-four, in the forehead, police said. Fennell had been holding his keys. The afternoon shooting was “a mistake,” said police spokesman Gabe Trevino. Rosales had been investigating a string of armed robberies in the area, and both Fennell and Taylor fit the description of the robber: a short Black man in his twenties. That explanation did not appease Taylor, twenty, who said the officer already had his gun drawn when he drove up (Chasnoff 2006).
The rationale given by the officer is the crucial issue for our analysis: for whites—and “honorary whites” (chap. 8 in Bonilla-Silva 2006) like Mr. Rosales—people of color always fit the description. Whether they are tall or short, have money or not, drive a fancy car or a “ghettomobile,” they always “look suspicious” and thus fit the proverbial description; they must, as Smith, Allen, and Danley (2007) put it, “assume the position.” Accordingly, the rights of people of color can be individually or even collectively violated without much concern from white citizens.
According to Bonilla-Silva and Mayorga, challenging the abstract neutrality of terms like “citizen” is a crucial preliminary step toward underscoring the inequality of outcomes for white citizens and non-white citizens, and eventually, toward redressing the disparities that exist between the “substantive citizenship experiences” of particular racial groups. But by accepting the universality of the term “citizen” in the abstract, its uneven implementation on the ground is masked, and these authors, like many of the protesters in Ferguson, are beseeching us to unmask it.