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.

White College Students in Dire Need of Education

A white college student at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah recently dressed in ‘black face’ and then interviewed some of his classmates about some basic questions, like “when does black history month happen?” (h/t Jenni Mueller).This short clip (4:14) reveals that white college students are in dire need of education:

It’s tempting to suggest that there is something uniquely ignorant about BYU students, but I think that the college students featured here are pretty typical of other college students attending historically white institutions.

Cuéntame: Award Winner for Most Racist Ad 2010

The 2010 midterm elections have distinguished themselves for the torrent of racist ads produced by political candidates and their campaign staff. In order to counter this, the Cuéntame the ¡Latino Instigators! are highlighting this ad as the ‘most racist’ ad for 2010:

Cuéntame has done some expert work around combatting racism in the media. They were part of the effort to remove Lou Dobbs from CNN for his immigrant-bashing rhetoric. And, in April of this year, launched the “Do I look illegal campaign?” in protest against Arizona’s anti-immigration law. If you’d like to support the work of Cuéntame , you can connect with them on Facebook.

Frontiers of Racism: Anti-Immigrant Bigotry

Many times, those who defend the anti-immigrant movement do so by denying any connection to racism. This short (6:48) video from The Center for New Community explores the connections between anti-immigrant bigotry, immigration, and African Americans in the United States:

This video (h/t @NativismWatch) makes a connection between contemporary anti-immigration bigotry particularly against Mexicans and Mexican Americans, which seems to be growing, and historical, institutional racism against African Americans.

T-Shirts for Sale at July 4th Festival: “Yup, I’m a Racist”

Some people at the Lexington, Kentucky July 4th Festival yesterday were selling t-shirts with a giant “Yup, I’m a Racist” logo across the front (h/t: ChrisBoese via Twitter). Reporter Greg Skilling of the Louisville Examiner, headed over there with a video camera to investigate (video is 7:44):

There’s not much to say here except that this is yet another installment in the ongoing series “White People, Behaving Badly.” And, of course, to point out the obvious, we’re so not post-racial. I fear that H.L. Mencken was right when he said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

Programming Alert: “Disturbing the Universe” on PBS

Back in December, I noted the new documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.” about the famous (or, infamous) civil rights lawyer.  Now, the film is airing on PBS in most areas of the U.S. on Tuesday (6/22/10).  I’m glad to see this film getting a wider audience through its distribution on PBS because I think that it’s a good introduction to thinking about race and institutional racism more critically.

Woven into the narrative about Kunstler’s life and transformation into a civil rights rabblerouser, the film tells a number of other stories.   The film provides a compelling history of the uprising at Attica, where Kunstler negotiated on behalf of the (predominantly black) prisoners.  And, the film also chronicles Kunstler’s involvement in the seige at Wounded Knee where he served as a negotiator for Native Americans in AIM who were staging a protest there, demanding that the U.S. Government honor centuries of broken treaties.   Kunstler was able to help avoid a massacre there and successfully defended Russell Banks and Dennis Banks, two of the leaders of the protest, at their subsequent trial in federal court.   Later, Kunstler defends Yusef Salaam, one of the so-called “Central Park Joggers,” who was exonerated, after being incarcerated for many years.

The filmmakers are Kunstler’s two daughters – Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler – and they do a good job of providing a thoughtful portrait of their father as a passionate but flawed man.  Their film also offers a much needed reminder of what it looks like to do battle against institutionalized racism.

To find the film on your tv-machine, check your local PBS listing and set the DVR.