Visible Evidence of Racism

With the passing of Rodney King (which I talked about yesterday), there’s a collective sense that video has changed everything in the digital era when it comes to racism. Now, the saying goes, the whole world is (really) watching and that changes everything. And yet, it’s the video footage that helped acquit the white officers that assaulted Rodney King. How is that possible?

There are clue to the answers to this question in the scholarship that emerged shortly after the videographic evidence of the brutal, racist beating of Rodney King.  Most notable here in the scholarly literature is the anthology Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising  (Routledge, 1993) edited by Robert Gooding-Williams, Surprisingly, none of the eulogies and elegies to King (even the ones by academics) have mentioned this volume by Gooding-Williams.  It was a remarkable volume at the time it appeared, so close after the uprisings following the verdicts, and it still holds up some 20 years later.

 

 

The lead essay in the volume, written by Judith Butler,  speaks directly to the use of the video – seemingly visible evidence of racism – and the way it was used to acquit the white LAPD offocers. In her chapter called “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” Butler writes that while she can write  “…without hesitation,” that ‘the “video shows a man being brutally beaten,” yet, it appears that the (predominantly white) jury in Simi Valley claimed that “what they ‘saw’ was a body threatening police, and saw in those blows the reasonable actions of police officers in self-defense.”

Butler goes on to offer this observation:

“The visual representation of the black male body being beaten on the street by the policemen and their batons was taken up by the racist interpretive framework to construe King as the agent of violence, one whose agency is phantasmatically implied as the narrative precedent and antecedent to the frames that are shown.  Watching King, the white paranoiac forms a sequences of narrative intelligibility that consolidates the racist figure of the black man: ‘He had threatened them, and now he is being justifiably restrained.”  “If they cease hitting him, he will release his violence and now is being justifiably restrained.” King’s palm turned away from his body, held above his own head, is read not as self-protection but as the incipient moments of a physical threat.”

She then turns to Franz Fanon’s exclamation, “Look, a Negro!” to explore the theoretical understanding of the black male body in contemporary popular culture, where the “Look” is a racist indicative that indicates a body regarded as inherently dangerous.  Butler notes that “seeing” with regard to King (the night he was beaten) and “seeing” the video are highly problematic notions infused with racism.  She goes on to say:

“The kind of ‘seeing’ that the police enacted, and the kind of ‘seeing’ that the jury enacted, is one in which a further violence is performed by the disavowal and projection of that violent beating. The actual blows against Rodney King are understood to be fair recompense, indeed, defenses against, the dangers that are ‘seen’ to emanate from his body.  Here ‘seeing’ and attributing are indissoluble. Attributing violent to the object of violence is part of the very mechanism that recapitulates violence, and that makes the jury’s ‘seeing’ into a complicity with that police violence.”

So, what Butler is saying here is that even when it seems that we have incontrovertible visible evidence of racism, the “seeing” of that evidence is contested in various ways.  To be more precise, Butler argues that it is the “white paranoia” that pervades contemporary US culture which made it possible to “see” the defense gestures of Rodney King – as he lay being beaten – as evidence of his threat to whiteness.

As we mark some 20 years since the Rodney King beating, acquittal of the LAPD officers in Simi Valley and the uprisings in Los Angeles that followed, it may be comforting to think that digital cameras are more ubiquitous now than they were in 1992.

Yet, to assume that digital video cameras alone (or, the digital cameras in smart phones), are going to address the plague of police violence and brutality is at best naive.

Judith Butler Refuses Award at Berlin Pride Citing Racism

Last week, noted  social critic and philosophy professor Judith Butler refused the Berlin Civil Courage Award saying, “I must distance myself from this racist complicity” (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter).   Butler was referring to anti-immigrant media campaigns that repeatedly represent migrants as ‘archaic’, ‘patriarchal’, ‘homophobic’, violent, and unassimilable while at the same time prominent (white) gay organizations in Berlin encourage a heightened police presence in gay neighborhoods where there are more people of color.  The group SUSPECT condemned white gay politics and applauded Butler’s refusal saying:

It is this tendency of white gay politics, to replace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement, which Butler scandalizes, also in response to the critiques and writings of queers of colour. Unlike most white queers, she has stuck out her own neck for this. For us, this was a very courageous decision indeed.

SUSPECT is a new group of queer and trans migrants, Black people, people of color and allies whose aim is to monitor the effects of hate crimes debates and to build communities which are free from violence in all its interpersonal and institutional forms.

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(Creative Commons License photo credit: thomasderzweifler)

Angela Davis, noted scholar, activist and UC-Santa Cruz professor, has also voiced support for Butler’s refusal of the prize, saying “I hope Judith Butler’s refusal of the award will act as a catalyst for more discussion about the impact of racism even within groups which are considered progressive”  (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter).

There’s certainly room for such a discussion about race and racism in the white LGBT community here in the U.S., and surprisingly little analysis of it to date.   As I noted back in November 2008, the racism among white gay marriage supporters is a problem.   Prominent white gay men such as Dan Savage make a good living off of saying ignorant, racist crap while claiming the “oppression” card.   This is not to say that people who identify as LGBT are not oppressed in the U.S. and around the world, in fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence to support this claim, including the murder and torture of people because they are same-gender-loving.   This is a human rights issue, and a global one.

What Dan Savage and other privileged white gay men fail to understand is the way one struggle is connected to another.  In part, I think this is because they fail to see the ways that sexuality and race are intertwined.  When you begin to see this, it shifts our understanding of oppression.  Rather than seeing “blacks” and “gays” as somehow distinct, disparate groups, such an analysis allows you to recognize the reality of black and brown LGBT lives (such as the recently out entertainer Ricky Martin, who is both gay and Puerto Rican).   And, such an analysis makes visible the white privilege that still adheres to the lives of LGBT folks like Savage.  The challenge then, for white LGBT folks, is whether they are going to continue to wage a campaign for the rights of some or whether we will join the struggle for LGBT human rights with other human rights struggles.

What’s maddening about the ignorance around race among white LGBT people, is that it represents such a lost opportunity for – as SUSPECT points out in their statement – a “politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation” and replaces it with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement.  What might this look like?  As just one example, the organization Immigration Equality, is coming out against Arizona’s draconian immigration law:

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community knows all too well how easily people who “look different” can be singled out for harassment and prosecution. In addition, LGBT immigrant families are too familiar with the double burden of immigration discrimination. Now Arizona’s LGBT families have yet another reason to be alarmed. The state’s new law threatens to tear apart families, separate children from their parents and rip apart loving couples who are building their lives together. Forty percent of LGBT binational couples in the United States include a Latino family member. For them, and their loved ones, Arizona is now the most dangerous place in America.

As people in New York City and around the U.S. celebrate Pride today, my hope is that we will all embrace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and transformation.