In memory of Joel Olson
In the wake of the 1992 acquittal of the policemen charged with beating Rodney King and the social uprising that escalated into riots once the verdict was announced, shocking revelations about the use of a code word, N.H.I., emerged. A report on the LA Police Department’s practices detailed that “public officials of the judicial system of Los Angeles routinely used the acronym N.H.I. to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young, jobless, black males living in the inner city ghetto. N.H.I. means ‘no humans involved.’”1 What was the scale of this anti-black system of classification and perception? How does the dehumanization of another, enshrined in the language of racialized discourse and the political philosophy of white supremacy, become quotidian and banal in verbal utterances, juridical codes, and lived experiential actions?
Twenty years later, we find ourselves asking the same heart-wrenching questions about race, racial animus, justice, equality, democracy, and freedom in America. There are, however, some differences. Whereas the beating of Rodney King involved agents of the police force vis-à-vis a black male body, in the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida a citizen assumed the police power to shoot and kill against another citizen. The King beating and riots were urban, the Martin case suburban. King was an adult, Martin a minor. The four officers tried for battering King were white; Martin’s avowed shooter, George Zimmerman, multiracial. King lived to tell his version of alleged police misconduct; Martin died, unable to contest allegations of innocence by the one who pulled the lethal trigger.
Details are continuing to unfold, the line between facts and norms never blurrier. Nonetheless, we must confront the logic underlying recent events insofar as it includes, yet ultimately transcends, the particularities of Trayvon Martin. To echo C.L.R. James’s prognostications from the mid-twentieth century, the stakes of the world we live in today are twofold: first, the struggle for happiness persists amidst interracial distrust, crisis, neuroses, and catastrophe; and second, the future of American civilization is on trial.2 A core component of the democratic experiment undergirding American civilization is citizenship and the desire for inclusion, and the fluctuations within the polity between models of democracy—Madisonian, populist, deliberative, minimalist, communicative, fugitive, and hybrid—reflect the asymmetrical roles of power, privilege, and division among the polity’s population.3
The exemplary, rather than exceptional, states embodied in Rodney King and Trayvon Martin augur dialectical relations surrounding race that are all too habitual to inhabitants of the United States and to those with knowledge of American social and political history, whether acknowledged, silenced, or disavowed. Moreover, that these recur daily throughout American cities, suburbs, and towns paints a picture of a republic more Calhounian than Madisonian, a republic that affords states rights greater powers, a body politic in which Stand Your Ground Laws can become part and parcel of the rule of law, altering the juridical authority of persons endowed with self-protection and surveillance powers bordering on those granted to the police.
Martin’s wearing of a hoodie was not the problem, as Geraldo Rivera myopically proclaimed in a controversial Fox News interview. It was the being wearing the hoodie—the N.H.I., the disrespected4—that was problematic. This epistemological and existential rationalization is symptomatic of what W.E.B. Du Bois called existence as a member of a racial group deemed a problem people and what Frantz Fanon diagnosed as the anti-black racial gaze thrust upon the black male body, wherein the agent harboring the Look is suffuse with bad faith, prejudices, and preconceived notions of the good, the bad, the human, and the subhuman.5
The Trayvon Martin event has specific relevance for scholars working at the intersections of race and political theory. Scholars and activists writing on the significance of race to philosophy, political theory, and the science of politics habitually find themselves on the fringes of their departments, programs, journals, book publisher lists, and social movement organizations.6 Discourses on race and racism are public and private...