David Theo Goldberg: I’m sit­ting here a day past the announce­ment that Darren Wilson, the police offi­cer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri mul­ti­ple times would not be indict­ed for killing him, includ­ing a shot to the top of the head which was the fatal shot that brought Michael Brown to his death. I men­tion this pre­cise­ly because there’s been mul­ti­ple expres­sions of out­rage, both lead­ing up to the announce­ment of the indict­ment and in the wake of it. And it indi­cates a whole range of con­sid­er­a­tions around vio­lence and its his­to­ries in rela­tion to race. There have been con­tes­ta­tions about the evi­dence brought to the grand jury. Multiple con­tra­dic­tions, both between what Darren Wilson him­self said at var­i­ous times about the shoot­ings, as well as what var­i­ous con­test­ing wit­ness­es said about the wit­ness­ing of the shoot­ings themselves. 

I’m not here going to think aloud about these var­i­ous con­tes­ta­to­ry forms of evidence-giving, although much might be said about that in rela­tion to think­ing about vio­lence. But rather to think about the Michael Brown shoot­ing in Ferguson, Missouri and the kinds of police response to it in rela­tion to the his­to­ry of vio­lence and the way in which race shapes said his­to­ry of vio­lence in a coun­try like the United States, although one can point to sim­i­lar, com­pa­ra­ble, relat­ed forms of vio­lence that you will find else­where in the his­to­ry of apartheid in South Africa, even in the his­to­ry of post-apartheid South Africa, cer­tain­ly in con­tem­po­rary Israel/Palestine, and the response of both to the West Bank and the increas­ing and expand­ing set­tle­ments in the West Bank and Jerusalem, but espe­cial­ly the con­cen­tra­tion of Palestinians in the ter­ri­to­ry of Gaza. 

If we go back to think­ing about what the shoot­ing in Ferguson, Missouri tells us, we can broad­en out to think about the forms of vio­lence faced by African Americans, par­tic­u­lar African American men—young men but not only, in the con­text of the United States. Black peo­ple, gen­er­al­ly black men in par­tic­u­lar, over the last thir­ty years in the US are twenty-one times more like­ly to be shot and shot to death than white peo­ple, white men of a com­pa­ra­ble age, in not unre­lat­ed kinds of cir­cum­stances. This is relat­ed to evi­dence, data col­lect­ed in a now-famous set of Harvard University social psy­cho­log­i­cal exper­i­ments that reveals a kind of shoot­er bias, what’s come to be called race on the brain,” where white and black respon­dents are more like­ly to shoot a black man look­ing like he’s reach­ing into a pock­et, pos­si­bly for a gun although no gun would be there. And both black and white respon­dents are more like­ly to shoot in a kind of video game sce­nario at the black per­son, the black man reach­ing into his pock­et than there are into a white man or women reach­ing into their pockets.

So there does seem evi­dence that there’s a kind of dis­po­si­tion in this soci­ety. It’s not nat­ur­al, it’s cer­tain­ly not genet­ic, but a kind of socially-produced quick­ened response to the per­cep­tion that one might be sub­ject to vio­lence, might more quick­ly be sub­ject to vio­lence, on the part of black peo­ple, black men in par­tic­u­lar, than white by both white and black shoot­ers, and police­men have a sim­i­lar kind of response. So that’s the first indi­ca­tion of a kind of dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed con­sid­er­a­tion of vio­lent respons­es in racially-impacted and racial­ly fraught kinds of circumstances. 

The oth­er thing one could point to is the way in which laws like stop-and-frisk laws and reg­u­la­tions in a city like New York lead to far greater accost­ing of black and brown peo­ple on the street, and have led and con­tin­ue to lead, even though stop-and-frisk has now been ruled uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. In 2011, some­thing like 685,000 peo­ple were stopped on the street of New York by police­men in a sin­gle year. 

If you do the quick cal­cu­la­tion that’s some­thing like one per­son per minute, 90% of whom were black and brown, black and Latino peo­ple. And only 10% were arrest­ed, large­ly for mar­i­jua­na pos­ses­sion, or oth­er drug pos­ses­sion but large­ly mar­i­jua­na. And very few arrest­ed for the pos­ses­sion of weapons like guns. And that fac­tors into the way in which young black men, young black and brown men in par­tic­u­lar, are fun­neled into the judi­cial sys­tem and ulti­mate­ly into prison. Although con­sti­tut­ing some­thing like 25% of the American pop­u­la­tion cur­rent­ly. Black and brown men con­sti­tute well over 70% of the prison pop­u­la­tion. Which again repro­duces forms of vio­lence with­in the soci­ety, both with­in the prison con­text and obvi­ous­ly once peo­ple are released. 

If we go back to Ferguson and we think about the imme­di­ate response to the killing of Michael Brown—the leav­ing him lying for four or five hours in the street; the way in which evi­dence was col­lect­ed and not col­lect­ed in rela­tion to Darren Wilson; the fact that he claimed that Michael Brown had reached for and grabbed his gun and yet no fin­ger­prints were tak­en of the police gun; and so on, one begins to get a dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed response on the part of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem to the way in which black men are treat­ed in the sys­tem, and of course to the way in which white police offi­cers are treat­ed in the system. 

But if one then looks at the way in which the police response gen­er­al­ly to the out­pour­ing of protests that occurred almost imme­di­ate­ly from that first night onwards in Ferguson, Missouri, there was a mas­sive mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the police. So if you look at images, the kinds of mil­i­tary weapon­ry that were brought onto the civic streets of Ferguson, Missouri again speaks to the way in which vio­lence gets per­pe­trat­ed by the state in rela­tion to peo­ple of col­or in a large­ly, 60% black city, where most of the peo­ple on the street were African American.

What this revealed in fact was the way in which the mil­i­tary in the US had been licensed to sell—I mean, actu­al­ly a bud­get had been set aside to do this. To sell at very low cost, used mil­i­tary weapon­ry, and indeed in some cas­es new mil­i­tary weapon­ry: armed police vehi­cles; tank-like vehi­cles; high-powered guns; rock­et launch­ers; I mean, it’s pret­ty unbe­liev­able in an urban American context—to police forces around the coun­try that were sup­posed to be used for polic­ing urban out­bursts of the kind seen in Missouri but were in fact also being used for things like drug busts in pri­vate hous­ing and so on.

In more or less two or three weeks on either side of the Michael Brown shoot­ing, there were a series of killings by police across major cities in the United States of one African American per­son after anoth­er, in New York City Eric Garner, in Chicago, in Los Angeles, in Oakland, in Houston, Texas and so and so forth. So sev­en or eight cas­es at rough­ly the same time which got focus in the media for about a day and then dis­ap­peared, where the Michael Brown shoot­ing became some­what icon­ic pre­cise­ly because of out­pour­ing of protest that con­tin­ued and con­tin­ued in the wake of the announce­ment of no indictment. 

So one can link this kind of mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the police to think­ing about the way in which racial neolib­er­al­ism and the emer­gence of post-raciality in the last fif­teen or twen­ty years has fash­ioned the way in which soci­ety is now ordered. Neoliberalism was of course a response to and dis­place­ment of the wel­fare state and the way in which the wel­fare state was dimin­ished as neolib­er­al­ism took hold polit­i­cal­ly from the 1980s onwards, when you think of Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, Pinochet and so on across the world. 

And what one saw was neolib­er­al­ism not so much dimin­ish­ing the state but restruc­tur­ing state for­ma­tion away from the kind of civic under­pin­nings of state for­ma­tion, for bet­ter and worse a way in which the state under the wel­fare sys­tem had pro­vid­ed a social safe­ty net for those con­sid­ered to be cit­i­zens of the state, where the state was run in the 1930s and 40s and imme­di­ate­ly in the wake of the Second World War, regard­ed as racial­ly more or less homo­ge­neous. And when that homo­gene­ity, or that per­ceived homo­gene­ity, began to crack, the state began restruc­tur­ing itself away from that social safe­ty net and pro­vid­ing of a kind of social secu­ri­ty basis and fram­ing, and saw itself as one com­men­ta­tor put it, seek­ing to so dimin­ish the state that you could drown it in a bathtub. 

Which was actu­al­ly to restruc­ture by tak­ing from the pro­vi­sion of that social safe­ty net and adding those resources to the secu­ri­ti­za­tion and the polic­ing of the soci­ety. And so you saw the con­tri­bu­tions to mil­i­tary bud­gets, con­tri­bu­tions to polic­ing bud­gets, going up dra­mat­i­cal­ly as the con­tri­bu­tions to social secu­ri­ty, wel­fare ben­e­fits and so on, retire­ment sup­port and so on, rad­i­cal­ly dimin­ish­ing. And so you’ve got this kind of inverse rela­tion between the diminu­tion of the state in rela­tion to the sup­port for civic engage­ment on the one hand, and the rad­i­cal increase of mil­i­ta­riz­ing tech­nolo­gies and ratio­nales on the other. 

And this went hand in glove as this devel­oped into the 1990s and towards the end of that mil­len­ni­um with the way in which post-raciality emerged as an expressed com­mit­ment against…or, real­ly as a push­back against per­ceived mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, where mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism rep­re­sent­ed both the diver­si­ty of what Stuart Hall would call—did call—multiculture, demo­graph­ic diver­si­ty on the one hand, and of course the kind of cul­tur­al het­ero­gene­ity that came along with it in the wake of increased het­ero­gene­ity of Global Northern states pret­ty much across the world.

And post-raciality emerged as a recon­fig­u­ra­tion of racial con­cep­tion by the state in rela­tion to this new neolib­er­al­iz­ing con­di­tion, where post-raciality rep­re­sent­ed not so much the after­life, in the sense of the end of racism as Dinesh D’Souza called it, or John McWhorter, we should no longer pay any atten­tion to race. And so the ques­tion is not real­ly whether we are or aren’t post-racial yet, but rather what racial work the post-racial came to be doing and the forms of vio­lence it rep­re­sent­ed and con­tin­ues to represent.

And so post-raciality in its racial work came to rep­re­sent the retreat of the state from any kind of racial ref­er­ence, any kind of a racial terms being deployed or employed by the state, the dec­la­ra­tion by the state that it’s com­plete­ly neu­tral in rela­tion to race, even as it’s pro­tect­ing and indeed empha­siz­ing the free­dom of expres­sion of any­body to be able to express them­selves, so long as not engag­ing state resources, in racial terms. Which would mean that pri­vate indi­vid­u­als could dis­crim­i­nate in employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties in rela­tion to race. They could pub­lish in var­i­ous social media of real­ly per­ni­cious expres­sions around race and the state would have its hands tied in rela­tion to being able to do any­thing about it, pre­cise­ly because pri­vate expres­sion under these forms of neolib­er­al restruc­tur­ing would be off lim­its to state intervention.

And the para­dox of post-raciality is seen in the ten­sion between claim­ing that we’re over race, we’re beyond race in state terms, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of racist expres­sion of a quite vio­lent kind that we’ve wit­nessed emerg­ing all over the place, increas­ing­ly pro­tect­ed in var­i­ous ways by a kind of repres­sive set of state appa­ra­tus­es, both inter­nal­ly and exter­nal­ly. And so what one sees hap­pen over here is a set of log­ics appear­ing where you have these racial out­bursts of the kind you’ve seen in Ferguson, Missouri. But you see them pro­lif­er­at­ing all over the place both with­in the United States and beyond. The response to the kind of activism Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands is racist, for exam­ple, has become increas­ing­ly vio­lent. Leave our nation­al mas­cot alone. Don’t touch it. If you do, we’re going to beat you up.” Police beat­ings of peo­ple on the streets of Amsterdam and else­where. And so on; you can point to oth­er instances, whether in Australia, whether in Britain in the wake of the Mark Duggan shoot­ing and so on and so forth.

And so what one has is a series of log­ics emerg­ing in the name of post-raciality that are deeply racial­ly etched even in denial of its terms of racial ref­er­en­tial­i­ty. So some­one who is called on express­ing them­selves in racist terms would say, I had no inten­tion to be racist. Wasn’t me, there­fore I’m not,” fail­ing to look at the way in which a series of expres­sions might be linked to his­tor­i­cal expres­sions and so a kind of dehis­tori­ciza­tion of the very con­di­tion itself, leav­ing the expres­sions free of a kind of charge of racism, or claim to be free of charge of racism, even when it con­tin­ues to repro­duce both forms of racist expres­sion and forms of exclu­sion in the wake of that expres­sion of those who’ve his­tor­i­cal­ly been tar­get­ed and exclud­ed by it. 

And so denial of racism, a denial of race racist intent, comes to be iden­ti­fied as part of this log­ic of the post-racial. Indeed one sees it when a per­son express­es them­selves in racist ways, is called upon it and says…well you know, the apol­o­gy is now usu­al­ly not, I’m sor­ry that I offend­ed you,” rather, I’m sor­ry if you are offend­ed,” right, where there’s a kind of reversibil­i­ty where the offense is tak­en by the vic­tim but not per­pe­trat­ed by the offend­er, right? 

And so it’s part of a more gen­er­al set of a racial reversibil­i­ties that are enact­ed in the name of the post-racial that the forms of racism that are iden­ti­fied most read­i­ly in the name of the post-racial are now sup­posed racisms by blacks against whites rather than the tra­di­tion­al and con­ven­tion­al forms, and con­tin­u­ing forms, of racist expres­sion in denial of say whites against blacks.

So, these forms of racial denial, these forms of reversibil­i­ty, are extend­ed and con­tin­ued in the name of post-raciality, and even one then points to the fact that peo­ple are deny­ing what is obvi­ous­ly a racist expres­sion that becomes a kind of denial of denial, a kind of reit­er­a­tive and recur­sive form of deniability. 

And so one sees the way in which racisms get extend­ed in the name of and in the wake of the era­sures of any terms of racial ref­er­ence. It’s almost as though racisms are being extend­ed in the denial of racism itself. And so there’s a kind of racisms with­out racism, an enig­mat­ic con­di­tion where one finds it almost impos­si­ble even to get one’s hands around the very fact of the expres­sion itself. 

And so you see in the con­text of the United States an extend set of denials that racism is any longer rel­e­vant, that racism is any longer ongo­ing. And when it does exist it’s mere­ly the expres­sion of a one-time event, uncon­nect­ed to oth­er events. That they’re anom­alies. That they’re mere expres­sions of bad apples, of indi­vid­u­als who ought to know bet­ter but the state and the sys­tem and the soci­ety can wash its hands of any respon­si­bil­i­ty or any under­tak­ing for these events.

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