Reflections on Baltimore

Michelle Alexander’s analysis in the New Jim Crow can be so closely applied to the current “riots” in Baltimore.  Alexander writes that it is not only the African American lack of opportunity or poverty- but it is the fact that they are legally not allowed to “move up” in institutions, limiting mobility. She finds that African Americans are treated like an inferior “undercaste” which are “permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society.” This hierarchical system over time is bound to cause anger, as any marginalized society would be.  In this sense, “racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive.”

Even for those who are very well but still educated believe American “meritocracy” works. They are often blinded by their own privilege, internalized repression or color blindness. The genius of this system, she writes, lies in that the failure of African American failure is seen as “voluntary.” This is seen in responses like “why don’t those thugs get a job? Why aren’t they in school?”

Time and time again, law enforcement and the Supreme Court use the language of the “public order.” What is seemingly invisible here is that “order” is a privilege. Simply because people didn’t see the riots, doesn’t mean that they weren’t happening or that they take other forms. Order cannot be possible in a state of institutional injustice. This comes from a long history of thinking of order as the binary opposite of chaos, peace the binary opposite of war, when in fact, the two can exist simultaneously.

Looking at binaries is especially important in the language of violence versus non-violence that has been used (i.e. “I’m not racist but I can’t support violence, they should peacefully protest). What kind of violence is acceptable? Is the excessive use of force by the police not violence?

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse.” The public mourning for a burned CVS more than for a human life taken away from his family and friends is a culmination of how racist law enforcement and racist members of society intersect to accomplish this level of dehumanization not drastically different than that during slavery and the Jim Crow era as Alexander argues.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. When you look at the context in which African Americans in the US are subject to structural violence on a daily basis, it is no longer so shocking that cops are able (and do) manage to kill young innocent black men. As Michele Alexander quotes a letter by James Baldwin to his nephew in 1962, “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.”

Of course, there will be those who immediately will resort to the #NotAllCops argument and forget that as Lopez argues, “legal actors are in some sense both conscious and unwitting participants in the construction of race.” Even good cops, Black cops, cops with a conscious are part of a bigger institution which legally legitimatizes the social perception of the black/brown body as a criminal.

Law enforcement is one of many institutions that treat the deviation from Whitness™ as disruption of the public order, even without the visible display of a “riot.” Demanding one’s rights in a capitalist state which benefits from our silence through a vicious labor cycle, is and has always been a riot. Who gets the right to be “violent” and why?

Nothing will change until people realize that severing Freddie Gray’s spine also breaks the severs the very concept of “life, liberty and the pursuit of justice”, when it is important to march for justice so that peace and order can be for all even when it means “breaking the law” in a state emergency.

Cecily Strong’s joke at the First Black President’s final White House Correspondent’s Dinner, “Your [Obama’s] hair is so white now, it can talk back to the police” was funny because it’s true and I wish it wasn’t.


One thought on “Reflections on Baltimore

  1. Oooo. ‘Order is a kind of privilege’ – that’s really powerful, Jessica. That’s so right. So many ways that plays out: a couple of examples might help. My partner taught in a high-needs high school for many years. One of the things that became clear was that for many students, the high school was the only ordered place in their lives – many lived with their grandparents because their parents were in jail, some were refugees and thus often the bread-winners and translators for their parents, some lived in abusive and violent households. So the school became a place of refuge, where they knew they had allies from whom they could seek help. Now compare that to a privileged students’ life, where the order of their home life and extracurricular activities made school just another site of order. You can imagine how differently the two students might feel about coming to school or how differently they might see the purpose of school. So the order of the privileged student is invisible to him or her – it is taken for granted.

    This was my realization when I stood three blocks south of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The order of life in America is SUCH a privilege, and it is denied to so many around the world. We cannot see that this order we experience (and certainly not all of us experience it) comes at the cost of someone else’s DISorder. So what made that awful day outstanding was not that there was a terrorist attack and thousands of people died – it was that there was a terrorist attack in NEW YORK, and that the vast majority of the thousands who died were WHITE AMERICANS. *These* deaths we care about. *These* deaths we demand recompense and vengeance for. Other deaths – of non-white people far away – they don’t disturb our ordered life, thus our privileged life, and so we can’t be bothered to care. It is such a fundamental lack of empathy. It’s astounding to me.

    And I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the best contemporary observers of race and racial politics in America. His writing is powerful, sad, inspiring, and appalling all at the same time. Thanks for sharing this.


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