Seeing and the Crisis of Anti-Racist Politics

I’ve been thinking, really thinking, about the act of seeing and the visual realm. Many of the hot-topic issues around race that have crowded our timelines and twitter feeds this summer have pointed out just how malleable seeing really is. We take sight and vision as absolute givens: what I see simply is. Yet flashpoints like the hot mess that is Rachel Dolezal or the pool party in McKinney, Texas have pointed out just how loaded with social meaning the act of seeing is.
While not as timely as other cases, the 2012 shooting death of Black teen Trayvon Martin, and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, illuminates what I’m referring to.
When I first heard news of the death of Trayvon one of the first pieces I read was Ajani Husband’s “The Bullet Next Time: An Open Letter to My Unborn Black Son.” As the title suggests Hubands’ piece is a fictive letter he addresses to his would-be son, in it he instructs his son on how to carry himself when confronted by police. Husbands tells his son, “[when] confronted by an armed individual, assume that’s this person is the police. As such, begin by placing your hands behind you head, fingers interlaced. This will assure that in the eventuality that you are shot and executed, there will be minimum opportunity for analysts and pundits to later ponder if you were the aggressor.” Husbands goes on to chillingly tell his son, “[if] at all possible turn your back on the person (whom we will assume always to be the police). In this manner, you will be shot in the back, another telltale sign that you were the victim. You will not survive your encounter…” Hubands’ words not only to make painfully clear the dangers Black boys face in a society governed by White supremacy and the haunting realities of raising and loving a Black child, they also serve as an agonizing plea for the innocence of Trayvon and the injustice of his murder.

This contrasts greatly with the interview Juror B37did with Anderson Cooper in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal. When asked why she thought race had not played a role in the case, Juror B37 said, “I don’t think it did. I think if there was another person, Spanish, White, Asian, if they came in the same situation where Trayvon was, I think George would have reacted the same way.” When asked why she thought Zimmerman had found Martin suspicious, she stated “…I think the situation where Trayvon got into him being late at night, dark at night , raining, and anybody would think anybody walking down the road stopping and turning and looking…is suspicious.” Juror B37 is suggesting that given the setting of that February night at The Retreat at Twin Lakes anyone would have deemed Martin’s presence and behavior suspicious.
These two narratives appeal to the visual field, one says “Look, an innocent boy!” while the other contends “Look, a dangerous criminal!” They are of course irreconcilable claims, and we know which one won out in the realm of the law.
Judith Butler in theorizing the beating of Rodney King and the use of its recording in acquittals of the officers responsible, argues that the “inverted projection of White paranoia” in the visual field works to posit the object of violence as its subject (Butler 1993: 16). Juror B37 appeals to the commonsense of Black criminality by proposing that the image of Martin’s Black hooded body set against a black rainy night would be frightening and suspicious to anyone, while ignoring (or denying) the potent racial charge of that very image. This displacement of threat, suspicion, violence, and dangerous intent illustrated by JurorB37 works to frame Martin as both the origin and the object of his shooting, “the beginning and the end of the violence done onto him” (Butler 1993:17). Thus, while the act of seeing is social, and therefore flexible, in a nation born out of White supremacy the visual realm is “fully schematized by racism,” such that “the ‘visual evidence’ to which one refers will always and only refute the conclusions based upon it; for it is possible within this racist episteme that no black person can seek recourse to the visible as the sure grounds for evidence” (Butler 1993: 17).
I think People of Color across the US know this, at least implicitly, and yet so many streams of anti-racist politics remain stagnantly tied to visual appeals. The Civil Rights Movement was successful, at least in part, because of the broadcasting of the brutality of Jim Crow racism. Seeing Black Americans hosed, chased by police dogs, and descended upon by the National Guard, among other violent horrors, forced the nation to come to terms with the farce of “liberty and justice for all”. But we are now differently positioned than our forbearers. In a soon-to-be-post-Obama period characterized keenly by the assumption that we as a nation are beyond race and that it is People of Color, with their sorcerous ability to conjure racism from the demonic nether realms of history, who keep the nation in racial retrograde, it is impossible to stage an antiracist politics on the assumed self-evidentiary nature racism. We can look at the widely circulated executions of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, and the subsequent legal and popular responses to their deaths to see how this repeatedly plays out.
Now as we make sense of the death of Sandra Bland we’re seeing the same dynamics at play. In a transcript of the altercation produced by The Huffington Post we can read (as well as see) the inverted projection Butler writes about. Encinia sees Bland as the escalator of the entire situation despite the visual and auditory evidence that he at just about every step escalated the encounter and acted beyond his rights and responsibilities as a police officer. Even if we lend any credence to the narrative that Bland killed herself after having ingested copious amounts of marijuana, the reality remains that she landed in jail in the first place because of the unprofessional and unlawful conduct of a police officer.
These deaths, to say nothing of the countless others, are not only indicative of the present state of White supremacy in the US, they present an on-going challenge to anti-racist politics. In a moment where the old logics of the Civil Rights Movement have been deweaponized how do we intelligibly claim the injustice of these deaths without assuming the self-evidentiary nature of that injustice? Too often we think of racism as exogenous to the US, a kind of cold the nation has contracted and is just now starting to shake off; however, racism has been endemic and intrinsic to American life from its founding and has been adapted and morphed in response to resistance in order to remain a salient and powerful force structuring the lives of all who reside here. The flexibility and malleability White supremacy calls on us to be as adaptive in our writing, thinking, and mobilizing. Racism cannot and will not be undone by static approaches. Thus, for anti-racism to be impactful it must always be emergent and unresolved.

Butler, Judith. 1993. “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia.” Pp. 15-22 in Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising., edited by R. Gooding-Williams. New York: Routledge.