- Racial Purity and Dangerous Bodies: Moral Pollution, Black Lives, and the Struggle for Justice by Rima Vesely-Flad
In Racial Purity and Dangerous Bodies: Moral Pollution, Black Lives, and the Struggle for Justice, Rima Vesely-Flad explains how contemporary antipolice activists are dismantling the contemporary penal system's strategic investment in racialized pollution boundaries. The monograph builds on Vesely-Flad's earlier work on the theological and social implications of contemporary racial justice movements and analyzes the varying ways in which Black Lives Matter activists function in a role somewhat similar to that of religious authorities in that they are actively dismantling and reforming the multiple symbolic constructs that provide meaning and purpose to U.S. institutions and people's institutional affiliations. The struggle over African American communities' treatment by the penal system is consequently a moral struggle, or a conflict primarily geared around the formulation and application of moral constructs. More specifically, not only does criminal law function as a mechanism to maintain distinctive notions of morality foundational to the institutional function of U.S. law, but also and more importantly those distinctive notions of morality are bound up in the assumption that people of African descent pose a physical and cultural threat.
The book's argument unfolds across two sections. The first section, entitled "Race and Moral Pollution," encompasses three chapters. Each chapter historically contextualizes the political, social, and theological forces that converged to racialize pollution boundaries or created and redefined race as a boundary to organize social institutions. Chapter 1 traces the entanglement of race and science from the Age of Enlightenment/Exploration to America's New Republic [End Page 300] and explores how Enlightenment thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant, promoted the idea that critical observations of a person's physical appearance could yield revelations and undisclosed truths about one's inner morality, with physical blackness coming to denote an inward immorality. Chapters 2 and 3 continue this historical analysis through the nineteenth century and trace the formation of America's penal system to the postbellum efforts to protect the assumed purity of Southern land and culture. One of the chief insights of these chapters stems from the idea that the penal system is a sort of holy war in which Americans are actively cajoled into fighting against one another for resources and opportunities on the basis of assumed racial divides. As Vesely-Flad explains, "Contemporary mass imprisonment relies on a war against Black people, who have been symbolically constructed as immoral beings that threaten to pollute the pure society of disciplined, hardworking white citizens" (115).
The second section engages in close analysis of contemporary racial justice movements, specifically the anti-stop-and-frisk movement in New York City and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. While the anti-stopand-frisk movement facilitated legislative reforms, Vesely-Flad explains that it remained particularly concerned with political changes and did not examine the systemic moral or religious dilemmas informing and shaping the legislation. Black Lives Matter consequently emerged as a response to the anti-stop-andfrisk movement's exclusive focus on legislation. In chapter 5, Vesely-Flad outlines this shift and examines how groups of young activists strategically formed partnerships with liberal clergy to challenge the system of pollution boundaries that undergird the penal system. It is for this reason that BLM activists focus on "outrage" as opposed to incremental legislative changes, since the goal is ultimately a moral reckoning with these racialized pollution boundaries that inform nearly every aspect of daily life. Chapter 6 explores this point in detail with an analysis of Michael Brown's transformation into a Christlike figure who exemplifies BLM's commitment to "pushing against social boundaries that demarcate Black lives as inferior, polluted, and socially marginalized" (193).
Racial Purity and Dangerous Bodies contributes to a growing corpus of literature on racial justice movements. Among the book's key contributions are its application of Mary Douglas's idea that purity systems are the basic building blocks of social systems. However, if...