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.