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  • Has the 2016 Election Institutionalized Systemic Social Exclusion and Violence in America—and Perhaps Paved the Way for Authoritarianism and the Possible "Social Death" of Groups Perceived as Undesirable to the New Administration in Washington?
  • Aliza Luft (bio)

"Our institutions will save us." This phrase, repeated time and again as reassurance in the face of mounting uncertainty following the 2016 presidential election, is not without merit. America has long prided itself on the stability of its institutions—on the stability of its democracy and the assumption that its institutions function to undergird, serve, and protect it. However, when the question of social death emerges, we must ask ourselves: [End Page 203] whom have our institutions historically served, whom have our institutions historically excluded, and how, given the clear and unflinching evidence that some groups are more desirable to the new administration in Washington than others, can we learn from the past to confront the present and shore up our institutions so that they are truly representative of all who live in America in the future? In the following essay, I will answer these questions while making historical comparisons with social death mechanisms in the United States. I will then argue that although we are at risk of normalizing further and regressive efforts to produce the social death of victimized subgroups, not only have such efforts never been able to succeed due to the active, constant, and creative resistance of targeted populations, but also perhaps this new phase in which the current administration is preying on so many categories of people simultaneously is presenting us with an opportunity to expand our ideas of Americanness and to ensure that our institutions protect us all.

What Is Social Death?

Social death is a term originally conceived by the sociologist Orlando Patterson to describe the peculiar violence of slavery, which, according to him, was distinct for its denial of personhood via the persistent destruction of social relationships, including natal and genealogical ties.1 Though often interpreted to describe the existential condition of the enslaved, in recent years, scholars have sought to examine social death as a process and experience and not a state of being.2 Following this, the concept of social death has become more useful as a theory of power and domination than as a characterization of the everyday lives of living, breathing subjugated individuals. In turn, there has been a boom in research that examines the mechanisms that function to produce social death as well as the strategies of victimized populations to resist such violence through brave efforts to "make social meaning from the threat of anomie."3 Below, I briefly describe three of these mechanisms and historic efforts to defy them before turning to assess their persistence in, and legacy for, the current political context.

The process of social death comprises three mechanisms: first, the dispossession of individuals of their meaningful social relationships and histories;4 second, the classification of individuals into groups on the basis of inferior traits deemed inherent and immutable;5 and third, the construction of systems and institutions that serve to [End Page 204] separate subjugated bodies in physical space—be it in plantations, ghettos, camps, reservations, or prisons. As shorthand, we can refer to these three mechanisms as extraction, essentialization, and segregation. Combined, they aim to produce the demolition of people's baseline rights to equal personhood within society. Following this, when we define the social death process as a concatenation of mechanisms that serve to totally subjugate entire categories of persons by denying them their heritage, relegating them to an innately inferior status, and separating them from the rest of the population, it becomes clear that social death processes and resistant actions to oppose them have been central to American politics since the founding of the United States itself.

Whom Have Our Institutions Historically Served? Whom Have Our Institutions Historically Excluded?

American democracy developed alongside the construction of racial ideology. Although slavery, indentured servitude, and other forms of unpaid labor were widespread in colonial America, it was the rise of republicanism—the idea that all men are created equal and freedom is their natural state of being—that necessitated justifying the lack of equality...


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