A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
George Yancy: In a review of the 2013 movie “12 Years a Slave,” you wrote that neoliberalism — the unquestioning faith in free market values taken to ideological extremes — essentially ignores the existence of systemic racism, and presents it as “anachronistic.” This worldview, which so many of us in the West confront in society, you wrote, “decrees that racism no longer presents a significant obstacle either to individual success or to collective self-realization.” This made me think of, among other things, the killing in April of Walter Scott, a black man who was shot in the back eight times by a white police officer in Charleston, S.C. Obviously, there is nothing anachronistic about American racism. It is alive and well. From your perspective in Britain, how do you understand events like the Scott killing?
Paul Gilroy: I don’t come to the United States very often but I happened to be visiting when Walter Scott was shot by another trigger-happy police officer. I was angry and upset. I hope I don’t need to emphasize that I am a firm supporter of the movement that has arisen in response to this sequence of killings exposed by the ubiquity of the camera phone and the communicative resources of social media. Britain isn’t a gun-loving or -toting nation. Racism in our country doesn’t operate on the same scale as the racial organization of law and sovereign power in the United States, but our recent history also includes a long list of black people who’ve lost their lives following contact with the forces of law and order. Similarly, our police and their various private proxies have never been held to account for those deaths, so this is very familiar ground. Police in many polities can kill with impunity, and racial hierarchy augments their essentially permissive relationship with the law. The officer in this case was charged with murder. We will have to see whether he is found guilty. That would be a very rare outcome indeed.
Of course, to say that neoliberalism presents racism as anachronistic was not to say that racism is anachronistic. Confronting racism is a timely, urgent matter. The casual killing of black people appears to be a pursuit that originated in an earlier phase of American history. In his epochal analysis of historical and cultural process, the prolific Welsh novelist and academic Raymond Williams drew an important distinction in the way that social and cultural formations develop. Drawing upon him, we can say that we live with neoliberalism but it might not yet be fully dominant. There is certainly worse to come. Neoliberalism could still be emergent, while what appears to be the casual habit of murdering people who come into contact with the police might belong to its prehistory and could be considered either dominant or residual, depending on your point of view.
Abstract and reified magnitudes like “whiteness” aren’t, in my view, very helpful in interpreting what is now going on around us. What was especially interesting to me when I was here in April was how the video of Walter Scott’s death was being replayed continuously on television (and certainly shared innumerable times on the Internet) as if, by sheer repetition, it would disclose a hidden or secret detail that might make it somehow legitimate. Perhaps the iteration was a means to deaden spectators and drain the spectacle of its full horror? Perhaps there are obscure pleasures in those patterns of identification, for both black and white viewers, of this racial pornography. The replays were often accompanied by neurotic speculation as to what the killer’s courtroom defense might be. I’m almost as concerned by the constant, compulsive replaying of the event as I am by the event itself. There is a complicity in that gesture which is also part of the way that racism becomes culture.
G.Y.: You’ve written about the Middle Passage, about that tragic transportation of African bodies across the Atlantic. Violent disciplining of the black body, rendering it docile, was one mechanism at work during that passage. What ways to do you think contemporary black people in the United States or in Britain continue to undergo forms of violent discipline?
P.G.: There are many connections between the ways that we inhabit and reproduce the contemporary racial order and the period of slavery. However, we are not slaves. It’s important not to let slavery slip into being a metaphor and blur the difference between our condition and the predicament of the slaves. The racial nomos has changed since the 18th century. How racial hierarchy and the exploitation it sanctions and the terror it requires link the past to the present needs to be understood very carefully. I know I am stepping away from the political liturgy or code used in American discussions of race and politics, but I don’t care for Manichaean styles of thought. Abstract and reified magnitudes like “whiteness” aren’t, in my view, very helpful in interpreting what is now going on around us. Racial categories have to be denatured. We have to see, for example, how whiteness is assembled and brought to actual and virtual life. What are its historical, economic and social conditions of existence? How does it become articulated to juridical, scientific, medical, aesthetic, military and technological forms of expertise? These are concrete problems that open whiteness up to multilayered struggle. [continue reading]
copyright 2015 George Yancy. First published in the New York Times. Reprinted by permission of George Yancy.