Fifty years after Selma, whiteness still reigns supreme

Local initiatives ignore the framework that makes race problems possible in the first place: white supremacy.

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Malia Obama, Sasha Obama, Marian Robinson, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton
Obama walks as he holds hands with Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten during 'Bloody Sunday' [AP]

The 1965 Selma to Montgomery March is a momentous event in the civil rights struggle that began on slave ships. On March 7, 50 years after that pivotal act of hope in which peaceful protesters were attacked for daring to petition the government, US President Barack Obama summed up the spirit and legacy of that pivotal moment: “[Selma] is not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents.”

Obama invoked the prophetic language of “We the People” and the lofty principles and truths enshrined in the United States’ founding documents to underscore its performative promises.

In the US, the fight for equality still goes on

“These are not just words,” he said, “they are living things” capable of providing the passion and energy for a politics of hope and possibilities. Acknowledging that the US experiment is “not yet finished”, Obama made a passionate defence of the US journey: racism “is no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom”.

Persistence of racism

Many African Americans however argue that the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner demonstrate the persistence of race and racism in the US social and institutional imaginary. Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, race and racism remain largely constant, whatever the transitions and contrasts may be.

As the US Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows, the law enforcement and criminal justice system have not been able to recognise the humanity and dignity of black lives.

Despite Obama’s claims, neither the Civil Rights Act nor the Voting Rights Act, nor America’s cherished institutions have been able to recognise black people and guarantee their equality. Indeed, the police, the jury system, the judicial apparatus, and its extension, the penal system, provided a new conceptual apparatus to police, prosecute, convict, imprison, and disenfranchise blacks in the name of a seemingly abstract, impersonal, and neutral notion of law and legality.

According to the DOJ report, blacks in Ferguson are “more than twice as likely as whites to be stopped while driving”, but “26 percent less likely to be found with illegal contraband”. Evidence suggests Ferguson is not an isolated problem but part of a larger pattern of discriminate and disproportionate attack by law enforcement officers against blacks.

According to the Sentencing Project, one in every 10 black men is in prison. The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that one in three black men are likely to be imprisoned compared to one in 17 for whites; blacks are three times more likely to be searched during traffic stops compared to their white counterparts; black men are 20 times more likely to be sentenced to prison; and they are likely to receive sentences 10 percent longer than whites. Studies have shown that while whites are not less likely to use or sell illegal drugs compared to people of colour, African Americans are 3.6 times more likelyto be arrested for drug use.

And incarceration carries with it an invisible punishment that lasts far beyond the period of imprisonment – disenfranchisement, unemployment, driving bans, occupational bans, exclusion from public assistance and financial aid, etc – that effectively decimate the fabric of black communities.  

As an ideology premised on white supremacy, whiteness operates via frameworks of meaning that generate power-driven stereotypes, prejudices, metaphors and images that function to exclude and dehumanise non-whites.


‘My brother’s keeper’

Obama’s signature racial justice initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, also reflect a similar orientation towards the problem. The initiative seeks to address structural and systemic problems by encouraging “sustainable change” at the local level. While local initiatives like this have the potential to change things on the ground, they ignore the invisible framework that makes those problems possible in the first place: white supremacy.

The persistence of white supremacy is evident in the whiteness of discourses and whitewashing of laws, institutions and apparatuses of knowledge and truth. Obama’s proposal to mitigate the injustices of the criminal justice system through the introduction of police body cameras misunderstands the strategic function of the judicial-penal enterprise in what late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the most ingenious and pervasive forms of discrimination”. 

Instead of disrupting the normative assumptions marking racial boundaries, Obama’s approach risks normalising the status quo. It is a gesture that does little to change the underlying conditions of inequality and discrimination but risks reifying whiteness and white experience.

Whiteness is a potent, yet largely silent, force that operates within the American social imaginary and across the entire justice system. It is a “socially situated capacity” that is both productive and repressive. It operates via impersonal discourses and almost imperceptible legal constructs to preserve the existing configuration of power within the American social body.

For those who possess it, whiteness is both a tangible and intangible asset and an exploitable capital that generates invisible and unquantifiable returns. It grants a “cognitive sanctuary” that makes the claims of its members visible, audible, and credible. As an ideology premised on white supremacy, whiteness operates via frameworks of meaning that generate power-driven stereotypes, prejudices, metaphors and images that function to exclude and dehumanise non-whites.

Through entrenched social and cultural imaginings, whiteness presents whites as the subject of knowledge and emblem of integrity: white represents purity, supremacy, progress, civility, etc. Since black is the literal and figurative opposite of white, blackness symbolises the opposite of whiteness and represents a threat to the purity, sanctity, authority, and civility of whiteness and therefore must be policed. The subordination and control of non-whites is the unwritten yet profound manifestation of whiteness today.

Epistemic injustice

Michael Brown and Eric Garner are victims of what Miranda Fricker called epistemic injustice. According to Fricker, epistemic injustice takes place “when a speaker receives the wrong degree of credibility from his hearer owing to a certain sort of unintended prejudice on the hearer’s part” such as identity, race, or class.

There is a certain background, learned and internalised, which prefigures and informs how individuals respond to the “other” and their testimony. Those individuals who belong to a racial group considered “problem people” by the mainstream society will be subjected to credibility deficit while those who belong to the dominant group enjoy credibility excess. Fricker calls this testimonial injustice.

When Garner cried: “I can’t breathe” six times, the police could not hear him or believe him because of the visceral prejudice that prefigures and informs how they hear a black man. As the racist emails about Obama revealed in the Ferguson report, suggest, even a black president cannot escape such prejudice as he, too, “remain[s] hostage to the broader social structures in which [his] testimonial” is heard.

The identity of Garner and Brown, their blackness, is a liability that distorts their hearer’s credibility judgment: It distorts the police officers’ and the juries’ perception of the testimonies and speeches of the two black men. As a result of these prejudices deeply embedded in the social fabric of the American society, Garner’s plea that “I can’t breathe cannot be heard as an account.

It is misheard and misrecognised, a priori, as a lie and as a noise, not as an account that should count. For the jury that found no criminal liability on the part of the officers, the idea that a black man is to be trusted over the claims of white police officers is something of an epistemological and psychological impossibility.

If we look beneath America’s founding documents and its cherished institutions, we can see that whiteness, and its extension, epistemic injustice, are two potent but largely silent dimensions of racism today.

Awol K Allo is fellow in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.