How participating in protest helps dispel reflexive racism.
Racial phobia is not responsive to reason. Nor is it receptive to factual evidence that reveals its baselessness. The City of Cleveland recently issued a statement concerning Tamir Rice’s death that illustrates this dearth of reasoning in the face of race-based violence. Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy killed by police officer Timothy Loehmann, was playing with a toy gun in the park when he was shot within seconds of the police arriving on the scene. In February the City of Cleveland released an incredulous statement in response to a federal lawsuit brought against Loehmann. In it, the City defended Loehmann’s actions by arguing that Tamir Rice’s “injuries, losses, and damages complained of, were directly and proximately caused by” Tamir Rice, not Loehmann.
Can we expect to obtain justice from the very state and legal institutions that deny the deathly realities of state-sponsored racial violence?
A video of the incident clearly shows that Loehmann fired virtually automatically. As is typical of embodied reflexes motivated by racial phobia, Loehmann never allowed for the possibility that a young black boy actually posed no threat. In the racially phobic structures that shape the skewed sight of vigilantes and many police officers, Eric Garner’s loose cigarettes, Tamir Rice’s toy, and Amadou Diallo’s wallet are converted into threatening signs that trigger deadly outcomes. Even defenseless limp bodies (Tanisha Anderson), bodies laying face down (Africa, Oscar Grant) or those holding their hands up in surrender (Mike Brown) are incapable of convincing those who are racially phobic that there is nothing to fear.
Time and again, communities of color who are systematically vulnerable to police officers’ and vigilantes’ reflexive racial phobias have attempted to obtain justice and recognition for what are conspicuous injustices. Time and again, these communities turn to the law with reasonable arguments and a preponderance of evidence. And time and again, state entities and the law respond to them with “not guilty” verdicts and failures to indict the officers and vigilantes who committed the crimes.
As we witness the intensification and acceleration of racial violence in what has been falsely deemed a “color-blind” era, it seems that our reasonable and evidence-based methods are proving gravely insufficient in the struggle for justice. How are we to penetrate the minds and feelings of racially phobic (predominantly white) Americans who repeatedly refuse to admit their wrongs? Can we expect to obtain justice and recognition from the very state and legal institutions that regularly deny the deathly realities of state-sponsored racial violence? If facts and evidence fail to persuade those who are convinced that the outcomes of their racial phobias are justifiable, how are we supposed to ethically witness and respond to acts of racial violence?
It is easy to individualize racism, to point our fingers to those who commit egregious acts of bigotry in order to evade the ways racism’s logics might also live in us. A more honest approach concedes that our American cultural context constantly encourages us to become emotionally, pre-consciously and institutionally invested in racism—particularly those of us who have inherited the unearned advantages of whiteness through legacies of racial discrimination. An onslaught of daily news sound bites, movies, television shows, magazine stories and educational discourses teach us to associate Black, Latino/a, Native, Arab and Muslim people with various threats: criminality, illegality, taxpayer burdens, terrorism, dependence. Can we honestly say we have remained immune to the ways these hegemonic cultures organize economies of fear toward people of color? And can we really deny that these emotional economies of fear don’t also live in parts of our bodies?
It is easy to individualize racism, to point our fingers to those who commit egregious acts of bigotry in order to evade the ways racism’s logics might also live in us.
Social psychology scholars have proven that, even when people consciously espouse commitments to racial equality, their pre-conscious, affective and embodied responses betray the presence of “implicit racial bias” when they see signs and cues associated with people of color. In other words, despite our best conscious intentions to be antiracist, our emotional and bodily responses suggest that racial fears continue to structure our reflexes. Negative affective responses to signs associated with people of color are certainly evident among white Americans, but they are also visible in the pre-conscious responses of people of color. This should come as no surprise, since hegemonic cultures impact all of our family, religious, educational, media and employment settings. My point here is not to universalize and equivocate all forms of racial phobia and bias. As we know, our ability to act on our racial phobias and prejudices depends on our relationship to racial power. While even people of color may also exhibit fearful responses to racial signs, white police officers apparently have the power to act on their racial phobias with impunity.
The pervasiveness of reflexive and affective racial fears leaves us with a confounding question: How might we go about changing racially phobic responses if, in addition to being unreceptive to reason and evidence, these remain autonomous from people’s avowed commitments to racial equality? In other words, how do we engage in practices that make the commitment to racial justice embodied and actual rather than an empty claim?
I certainly do not pretend to have answers to such a massive problem. But I know that reflexive racial phobias gain their power from representational cultures and institutional practices that fail to posit alternative structures of association and feeling. We diminish the affective power of racial phobia when we create cultures and practices that reveal the complexity of people of color’s lives. A multitude of cultural acts that testify to the rich textures of Black, Native, Latino/a, Asian, Arab, and Muslim people’s lives have the power to diffuse the hegemonic power of a single repetitive association that equates people of color’s bodies with “threats.” Like Naima Shalhoub’s remarkable “Ferguson-Gaza Blues” song and Climbing Poetree’s verses, participating in processes that create a complex field of associations with racial signs allows people to develop alternative structures of identification and emotion about race in general and specific communities of color in particular. If alternative cultural associations are not created, the hegemony of racial phobia stands unperturbed.
Each time we stand in solidarity with families that have lost sons and daughters to police and vigilante racial violence, we also diminish the affective power of racial phobia. It matters that, in contrast to the vehement denials made by the City of Cleveland and police departments across the nation, we affirm and testify that Tamir Rice’s family is not crazy, that Mike Brown’s friends are not suffering from delusions. The wave of community protests in Ferguson that have contested—literally and symbolically—the phobic denials and disavowals of the law and state institutions generate economies of emotion and praxis that value honesty over deception, integrity over selfishness, self-defense over brutality. The affectively charged chants of “We Can’t Breathe” and the embodied “die-ins” across highways and intersections diminish the power of reflexive racial phobias by imagining worlds where people of color’s dignity and bodily integrity is valued more than state power and white racism.
Engaging in courageous acts of protest gives us a way to retrain the emotional geographies of our bodies. Rather than living in fear-ridden bodies, we can live in bodies that are fearless. The fearlessness birthed from participation in collective acts of ethical witnessing give us the strength not only to continue testifying to the truth of systemic racial violence, but to build abolitionist epistemologies and ontologies.