The news of the day (old news, but raw as a fresh wound) is that Black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard. There is a vivid performance of innocence, but there’s no actual innocence left. The moral ledger remains so far in the negative that we can’t even get started on the question of reparations (Teju Cole, “Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s ‘Stranger in the Village’”).
The dead body of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, an African American, lies in a street of Ferguson, Missouri. Blood streams; two shots to the head ended his life.2 Police tape off the area, but Brown’s body remains exposed for four hours to the heat of summer. Even after he is covered up, blood is still visible to the horrified onlookers, mostly Black Americans. Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson who was subsequently placed on paid administrative leave.
The events of August 9th are a gruesome spectacle—the horrific death of a Black teenager and the slap on the wrist of the police officer responsible for killing him. The handling of Brown’s body and the response to the police officer is clear, says committee-woman Patricia Baynes of Ferguson, Missouri: “we can do this to you any day, any time, in broad daylight, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”3 Here we see the disposability of Black lives legally protected, what Dora Apel refers to in her essay below as “modern legalized lynching.”4 Ropes and trees are no longer the implements of public horror—guns, badges, and urban streets will do just fine.
Brown’s death, although tragic, is a mainstay of American history; it is also commonplace that the very institutions responsible for protecting and serving the citizenry, which includes Black Americans, have often been at the helm of such brutality. Consider some past and recent events, many of which remain hidden from the public’s eye: Kimani Gray, unarmed sixteen-year-old teen killed by New York City police officers in 2013; Kendrec McDade, unarmed nineteen-year-old college student killed by a Pasadena police officer in 2012; Steven Eugene Washington, unarmed twenty-seven-year-old autistic man, killed by two Los Angeles gang-enforcement officers. Add to these some of the more famous cases: John Crawford; Eric Garner; Oscar Grant.5 Such events leave one to wonder, as James Baldwin once did, what is one’s role in this country as a Black person?
That Black Americans can legitimately ask this question in 2014—even in light of the fact that a Black person occupies the highest office in the land—throws into sharp relief that they continue to be devalued in American society and that that devaluation undercuts any allegiance and respect otherwise owed to the polity. This disturbing but all-too-familiar undercurrent of American life—the norm of Black devaluation—belies the nation’s presumed success. Allegiance and respect in any civic community is based on reciprocity—the idea of a mutual exchange for mutual benefit. Where Blacks are concerned the exchange has historically been one-sided—a fact that continues to dog the integrity of democratic life. Or, and I shudder to think the thought, this fact may very well signal the health of American democracy, as Tommy Curry will shortly maintain.6
Two ideas mingle together in Ferguson, Missouri: the absence of reciprocity where Blacks are concerned and the disposability of Black lives.
To live in a democratic society is always to endure at the hands of those over whom you have no control.7 Elections come and go and with them winners and losers. Public policies benefit some rather than others. Judicial decisions often have disparate outcomes on the population. The general logic, however, of living in a democratic community is that one’s status as a loser is never permanent—that election, policy, or judicial outcomes are open to being revisited and revised. This general logic mitigates the lack of control we have over our fellows; it guards against the belief that some of us have saddles on our backs while others of us are booted and spurred to ride.8 It signals to members of the polity, that whatever the outcomes may be in society, they are still valued. This is not something communicated in words, but rather actions—society seemingly returns to affirm the equal standing of those that were once losers.
Yet the death of Brown, like so many before him, proves this logic to be a lie where Black folks are concerned. They are perpetually losers in American democracy. Exaggerated words I think not. In all relevant areas—health, education, personal security, and economic security—Black Americans endure the greatest harm and are at the greatest risks. In Ferguson, Missouri alone, a majority African American city, the political leadership of the town is dominated by Whites. In the areas of personal and economic security, Black citizens of Ferguson fair no better. As Eddie Glaude points out in his essay: “Black unemployment in Ferguson stands at 13%. One in four residents in the area lives below the federal poverty line ($23,850 for a family of four in 2014).” Add to this nearly 33,000 arrest warrants for black citizens for non-violent crimes and Black folks paying the bulk of the 2.6 million dollars collected in court fines and fees in 2014.9 The hypermilitarized response by the state to protestors in Ferguson is merely a piece of the deprivation and hostility that Black citizens endure. Ferguson, Missouri and the insecurity of Black life that Brown’s death signifies mirror the larger trend across the nation in which Black Americans are politically disenfranchised and suffer at alarming rates of being victimized, criminalized, and imprisoned.10 American society—its policies and judicial decisions—continues to remind Black folks of their unequal standing.
What might explain the perpetual state of inequality for Black Americans? There are, of course, specific historical explanations related to the economic and personal insecurity Black Americans endure. Lisa Miller’s and Vesla Weaver’s powerful essays in this volume are wonderful examples of how to make sense of Black victimization and criminalization.11 What ties these and other such narratives together, however, is the norm of Black devaluation that makes Black lives disposable. Black Americans, as Chris Lebron and I have separately argued, are not accorded appropriate care and concern that would encourage fair distribution of goods and services.12
Notice the relevant features of the point above: it is not simply that unfair distribution of goods and services result in Black Americans being permanent losers, but care and concern itself is unequally extended, if extended at all.
Care and concern are not sappy elements of democratic life; they are its lifeblood. What generates, for example, outrage when members of our community are unjustly targeted by law enforcement? What forces the community to protest and march when a segment of society suffers because of economic or health policies by state and local municipalities? What generates shame in ourselves and our communities when we come to discover our politicians are not in the business of helping those most unfortunate, but actually in the business of harming them? What stimulates deep sadness and disappointment when we see the life-less body of an unarmed teen murdered by those who are otherwise charged to protect and serve the community? In all these instances, we speak out, we act, and we feel because our care and concern are properly directed to those that experience such harms. Care and concern disciplines our attention, they bring into view the most vulnerable in our community, and they motivate us to establish institutional and personal safeguards against the abuses that would otherwise be exacted on those with whom we share society. These are democracy’s sentiments.
Herein lies a startling point so rarely acknowledged where Black life is concerned: in the absence of appropriate care and concern, even under the best government and laws, members of society, especially White Americans, will find the means to explain away the purpose of that government and its laws. They will find a way to justify their unequal treatment of Black folks, ultimately perverting both governmental action and legal protection. They will rationalize the devaluation of Black life and in turn casually endorse the disposability of Black folks so clearly on display both in the death of Brown and the unceremonious handling of his body. This rationalization will recede so far into the background that it almost becomes indistinguishable from the legitimate and healthy functioning of American democracy.13
We must, scholars and activists alike, lend our energy to helping the nation come to grips with what Ferguson, Missouri and the murder of Brown represent. The magnitude of the moment demands that we think deeply and across intellectual fields to grapple with this gruesome event. In this special symposium, I have enlisted nine scholars from art history, political science, philosophy, African American Studies, and religious studies to engage the moment. The pieces are meant to be intellectual provocations.
The first four essays by Dora Apel, Utz Lars McKnight, Michelle Smith, and Patchen Markell take up the illusions that often frame our handling of tragedies like Ferguson and the death of Brown, and the way those illusions often exacerbate or conceal the more troubling aspects of race and White supremacy in America. Apel’s article begins by asking us to reflect on the “hands up, don’t shoot” mantra that became popular in the wake of Brown’s death. As she explains, the gesture expresses submission that reinforces beliefs of Black folks as passive. The aesthetics of the gesture, literally hands up in the air, splashed across newspapers as it was, only served to manage White fears about the Black protestors and in doing so ultimately disciplined and contained what counts as legitimate resistance. As she explains, “Picturing Blacks as non-threatening and non-resistant effectively places them in a role of limited power; it does not fundamentally threaten White racial power.”
McKnight’s essay explores the illusion that continues to capture our imaginations since the Civil Rights Movement—the appearance of genuine political equality. As he writes in a passage worth quoting at length:
Many Americans cling to the idea that the extent of our legislative vision in the 1960s was satisfied by the ability of some Black people to vote, to be protected from the grosser forms of social discrimination, and to be able to compete with Whites for jobs, education, and housing. But African Americans were also implicitly promised something more, something integral to the democratic aspirations of the society. This was a commitment to political equality, where being Black or White would no longer describe the interests of a distinct community. This promise was not kept.
This is not to reject the progress that has been made, but it is to say that progress does not run as deep as we often think. McKnight’s essay encourages us to consider advances of the 1960s as a smokescreen, a deception that conceals a more persistent form of racial inequality in America.
Smith invites us to reflect on disparate responses by Black Americans to the protestors in Ferguson. In many ways, Smith’s argument tracks the generational divide among Black Americans, with an older generation concerned to foist upon a younger generation decorum and “appropriate” modes of political engagement. As Smith points out, however, this concern with respectability politics constrains what counts as legitimate political responses. The danger is that either we render the actions of the young protestors as unintelligible as politics or we see their activities as unworthy of serious political consideration. Either way, respectability politics obstructs our political imagination and unwittingly participates in the domination it means to challenge.
Markell’s article rounds out the first group of essays. His is a deep meditation on Lee Edward Colston II’s arresting photograph that combines the death of a Black man and the refusal by many to acknowledge it. The photograph was taken one week after Brown’s death in Philadelphia’s famous John F. Kennedy Plaza, commonly known as LOVE Park. The Plaza is so named because of Robert Indiana’s metal sculpture of the word “love.” As Markell reflects on the photograph, the reader comes to discover several things. First, the body of the Black man is either ignored or obscured by the cameras of the tourists, who are otherwise interested only in taking pictures with the sculpture in the background. Second, the metal fabrication—the word love itself—gains deeper significance precisely because it fails to capture the relationship between the tourists and the Black man who lies in the background. In Markell’s essay the reader comes face-to-face with the willful ignorance of the tourists—indeed, America’s willful ignorance—that perpetuates the illusion of a “post-racial” society. The illusion only works to conceal the persistence and magnitude of White supremacy: “How can the individual case, the life and death and name of one young man, be made to illuminate rather than obscure not only the ever-lengthening list of similar cases that mostly pass unnoticed through the sieve of the national media, but the massiveness and monotonous ordinariness of the apparatuses of racial domination—profiling, the securitization of public and private space, mass incarceration, residential segregation, and many others—that pervade contemporary America?”
The next group of essays by Tommy Curry, Lisa Miller, and Vesla Weaver explore the cultural and institutional background that informs Black victimization and criminalization. Curry’s piece asks us to focus squarely on the violence exacted against Black men and boys. At the core of his essay is a three-fold reflection. First, Curry addresses the resistance often displayed toward the study of the death of Black men and boys. Second, he argues that to the extent we fail to intellectually engage this dimension of American life, we also miss an opportunity to illuminate the background cultural and ideological frameworks that makes such brutality a reality. Third, the content of those cultural and ideological frameworks involve seeing Black males as super-predators that ultimately pathologizes Black masculinity in all its variety. The imagery of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, for instance, in the wake of their murders—imagery that paints them as violators of the law or predators lying in wait—is only a consequence of how our society already views Black males. Given that one of the central goals of the state is protection of its citizens, the killing of Black males, Tommy provocatively argues, ironically and tragically serves as an indicator of the nation’s health rather than its malaise.
If Curry’s essay explores culture and ideology, Miller’s essay focuses on the institutional failure to protect Black lives. Racialized state failure, as Miller refers to it, denotes a condition in which Black Americans are unequally exposed to social and political risks. She encourages the reader to step back from Ferguson, Missouri and see the murder of Brown as a continuation of the overexposure of Black Americans to harm. Miller skillfully provides a wider historical backdrop in which to think about our present moment: “Two inter-related developments in the last few decades of the 20th century have left African-Americans exposed to extremely high rates of social risk, including police harassment and brutality and early death from homicide (as well and other preventable causes of mortality). The first is a dramatic rise in violent crime, and the second, a hollowing out of the civil rights project.” The first argument tracks the ascendancy of violent crimes since the 1960s, while the second charts increasing attacks on civil rights that result in contracting the state’s role in protecting Black Americans. The result is unequal protection for Black Americans when compared to their White counterparts, and one such consequence is unleashing on Black folks the now militarized law enforcement that was otherwise meant to protect and serve.
Weaver’s article concludes this next round of essays by combining the cultural and ideological attention on display in Curry’s piece with a focus on Black exposure to harm discussed in Miller’s. In combining these two elements, Weaver insightfully details a process of socialization in which Black Americans come to “learn that Black citizenship itself is suspicious and that your color is itself a challenge to authority.” Asking the reader to step back once more from Ferguson, Weaver paints a dark but true description of the condition of Black Americans: “Michael Brown is dead, but that should not obscure the real issue that violence is done to the black psyche through the everyday, mundane nature of police interactions in black communities, only a few of which lead to ended life, but most of which convey incredible damage to blacks’ conceptions of citizenship and equal worth.” There are, she contends, hidden lessons that Black Americans learn about their standing in the polity from these police interactions that betrays the meaning of democratic citizenship. How this came about has to do with the historical deployment of Black criminalization to obstruct claims by Blacks to equality. As Weaver thoughtfully explains, this long-standing image of the Black person as a predator finds institutional support in the slow development of law enforcement infrastructure that dates back to the 1960s. When this is coupled with the failure of national policy to mandate the protection of Black folks, we come face-to-face with an all-out assault on Black life.
In a society that demobilizes, depoliticizes, and devalues Black folks—a society where criminalization and brutalization of Black folks finds cultural and institutional support—one is left to wonder what options remain open. Steven Johnston’s and Eddie Glaude’s final essays engage this last theme. Johnston’s piece returns us to a presupposition of democratic life in the face of domination—namely, “forceful, militant resistance.” Johnston reminds us that the response by the protestors in Ferguson is consistent with the tradition of American resistance. Rather than picking up on the “hands up, don’t shoot” mantra that Apel critically analyzes, Johnston directs our attention to the legitimate actions of the rebellious protestors. Given how Johnston encourages us to understand the actions of the protestors, the reader is forced to conclude that the police and the state have enacted (and continue to do so) anti-democratic practices that betray the rights of citizens “to hold public officials accountable for the killing of a fellow citizen.” Yet, Johnston’s point is not merely to stage a one-to-one comparison between the protestors and an earlier generation, but to highlight the significance of the capacity for violence as the instrument of democratic change.
Finally Glaude’s essay closes the symposium by encouraging us to see Ferguson as a sea-change. First, Ferguson is a capstone event that highlights the long-standing brutality exacted on Black bodies and it shatters the illusion that Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency is otherwise meant to represent—namely, the wholesale inclusion of Black folks. Second, Ferguson disrupts the notion that a shrinking Black middle class can be representative of all Black folks. As such, the protests present us with new possibilities that are not reducible to electoral politics or what have now become performative marches that fail to do justice to the gravity of the moment. Third, these new possibilities mark both a return to the past of political protestation and a departure from it. It marks a return because the protestors in Ferguson, many of whom we now know are of a younger generation, seem to have more in common with a Black radical tradition than they do with the standard image of the Civil Rights movement that remains in circulation. Yet Ferguson is also a departure from the past because, as Glaude argues, the reordering of political energy underscores the persistence of cultural and institutional practices that devalue Black life and the inadequacy of familiar narratives and political approaches to address the problems at hand. In the absence of familiar methods, democratic energy can only attempt to produce from its own chaos new possibilities. As he concludes: “Now is the time for all democratically minded persons to step into the breach that Ferguson opened and imagine America anew.”
Melvin L. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he teaches political philosophy. He has wide-ranging interests within contemporary democratic theory and the history of American and African-American political and ethical philosophy. He is the author of The Undiscovered Dewey (Columbia UP, 2008), editor of John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012), and co-editor (with Jack Turner) of African American Political Thought: A Collected History (under contract with University of Chicago Press). He is currently at work on a book manuscript titled Democracy and Faith: Race and the Politics of Redemption in American Political Thought. Melvin can be reach at email@example.com; his website is http://www.melvinrogers.com
1. For their comments and careful editing I want to thank: Vesla Weaver, Chris Lebron, Chip Turner, and Eddie Glaude. Theory and Event is to be applauded for including these essays in their pages.
2. Frances Robles and Julie Bosmanaug, “Autopsy Shows Michael Brown Was Struck at Least 6 Times,” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/18/us/michael-brown-autopsy-shows-he-was-shot-at-least-6-times.html.
3. Cited in Julie Bosman and Joseph Goldstein, “Timeline for a Body: 4 Hours in the Middle of a Ferguson Street,” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/us/michael-brown-a-bodys-timeline-4-hours-on-a-ferguson-street.html?_r=0
4. See Dora Apel, “‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’: Surrendering to Liberal Illusions.”
5. Jenee Desmond-Harris, “Beyond Trayvon: Black and Unarmed,” The Root: http://www.theroot.com/photos/2013/06/unarmed_black_men_shot_by_police_20_sad_stories.html
1. See Tommy J. Curry, “Michael Brown and the Need for a Genre Study of Black Male Death and Dying.”
7. On this point see: Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), chapter 3-4; Melvin L. Rogers, “The Fact of Sacrifice and Necessity of Faith: Dewey and the Ethics of Democracy,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 47.3 (2011): 274-300.
8. This is a slightly amended formulation of English Leveller, Colonel Richard Rumbold shortly before his hanging. See The Dying Speeches of Several Excellent Persons who Suffered from their Zeal against Popery and Arbitrary Government (London, 1689), p. 24 <Early English Books Online: http://www.eebo.chadwyck.com>. The same formulation was used by American revolutionaries like James Wilson and Thomas Jefferson. In all cases the metaphor is meant to capture that all individuals are morally equal and therefore no one has a rightful claim to dominate another.
9. See Eddie S. Glaude Jr., “A Requiem for Michael Brown/A Praisesong for Ferguson”; cf. “Is Ferguson Feeding on the Poor? City Disproportionately Stopes, Charges and Fines People of Color,” http://www.democracynow.org/2014/8/27/is_ferguson_feeding_on_the_poor; Joseph Shapiro, “In Ferguson, Court Fines and Fees Fuel Anger,” http://www.npr.org/2014/08/25/343143937/in-ferguson-court-fines-and-fees-fuel-anger; Thomas Harvey, John McAnnar, Michael-John Voss, Megan Conn, Sean Janda, and Sophia Keskey, “ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper,” http://archcitydefenders.tumblr.com/post/94733662328/archcity-defenders-municipal-courts-whitepaper-pdf.
10. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010); Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver, Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
11. See Vesla Weaver, “Black Citizenship and Summary Punishment: A Brief History to the Present”; Lisa L. Miller, “Racialized State Failure and the Violence Death of Michael Brown.”
12. Melvin L. Rogers, “The People, Rhetoric, and Affect: On the Political Force of Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk,” American Political Science Review, 106.1 (2012): 188-203; Christopher J. Lebron, The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice in Our Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
13. The inspiration for this passage is partly drawn from Hosea Easton’s 1837 A Treatise on the Intellectual Character, and the Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States (Amherst, MA University of Massachusetts Press, 1837/1999): “Were a fallen angel permitted to live under the government of heaven, his disposition would first incline him to explain away the nature of its laws; this done, their spirit becomes perverted, which places him back in hell from whence he came; for, though he could not alter the laws of heaven, yet he could pervert their use, in himself, and act them out in this perverted state, which would make him act just like a devil.”