The light almost seemed to go out of Pete Buttigieg’s eyes as ABC correspondent Linsey Davis put questions to him during the New Hampshire Democratic debate this month. Davis, the moderator, asked him to explain the increased rates of black arrests in South Bend, Indiana, during his tenure as mayor there and refused to let him slip down the escape hatch of well-rehearsed condemnations of “systemic racism”.
It was as if Buttigieg could see the ghosts of the life chances stolen from arrested black people taking their seats among the audience in Saint Anselm College’s auditorium, waiting to hear his first presidential bid.
With applause-seeking one-liners and parroted activist-speak failing to gain traction with the crowd, he resorted to smashing the “in case of emergency” glass and brought out the “gangs”.
Question: “How do you explain the increase in black arrests in South Bend under your leadership for marijuana possession?” Answer, something along the lines of: “We targeted violent gangs.”
Unless all of those arrested black people were violent gang members, this does not begin to answer the question. Yet it might feel like an answer to Americans born into a society with a centuries-long tradition of representing black people as doltish, duplicitous, violent beings.
The mere reference to violent gangs conjures up groups of marauding “blacks”. The need to manage this group justifies or at least serves as an explanation for any police action against any individual black person. There are gangs; that is why they do not have their full measure of rights.
Individual human beings who are black are rounded up as part of the aggregate known as “the blacks”. These “blacks” bear no relation to, nor are they even an attempt at an accurate reflection of, the many different individuals that make up a group of more than 40 million people.
Instead, “the blacks” is an amalgam of historical anti-black invective collected in a bucket and poured over a community. “The blacks” are not people, they are the caricatures that precede actual black people when they enter a room or become the subject of a conversation. Black people – despite ourselves – are seen to be “the blacks”.
The conundrum facing the presidential candidate becomes how to contain (if they are conservative) or be seen to be addressing the concerns of (if they are liberal) these types of people. It is for this reason that referring to violent gangs is offered in defence of discriminatory police practice by the centrist Democratic candidates. The brutality – or if violence is to be sanitised, the “over-zealousness” – of American policing can be forgiven because, well, blacks.
Vice President Joe Biden’s constant reference to his black support often comes across as so cringe-worthy because it feels like he holds blacks as some sort of ace card in his back pocket. Instead of black support suggesting a tendency to approve some of his policy proposals (or strategic voting in an attempt to stave off more concretised white nationalist takeover of the government), in his political cadence, it often sounds like “our blacks”.
Ultimately, it is a claim to property. It is the liberal version of the conservative’s more transparent “look at my African American”. The black crowd he conjures up seems no more individuated, independently-minded or human than those referred to on a “Blacks for Trump” placard.
It would not be so bad if lassoing the multitudes of individual black lives into the amorphous mob that is “the blacks” was where it ended. The problem is, of course, that caricature is a co-traveller with every pogrom. It has gathered crowds into lynching bees, fuelled SWAT teams and supreme courts and, in the 1920s, helped cast 1,000 African-Americans out of the South Bend that would one day elect Mayor Pete.
Racist caricature mobilises the forces that set out to dispose of the people it has branded sub-human. White New Yorkers did not chase down full, human, thinking people with personalities during the 1863 draft rebellion; they hunted Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s minstrel character, Jim Crow.
White Southerners did not burn alive a family man who liked chess or string up sisters, one an aspiring journalist and the other a seamstress with infectious laughter; they killed the duplicitous and uppity “mulatto” in Birth of a Nation, or lynched a slow-witted Prissy in Gone With the Wind.
The policeman who stopped me while I walked up a deserted street in east Toronto at midnight and demanded my identification, asked me what I was doing and forced me to wait while he sat in his car and radioed in to the station did not racially profile me but the black mugshots in his memory. He stopped the conservative radio’s depiction of the black criminal he saw projected into my winter clothes.
Fixed to our bodies and lives and humanity is the sum total of centuries of racist thinking about “the blacks”. They pin us down and muffle every one of our shouting declarations of full humanity. And if we can speak at all it is as a character in Green Book or The Intouchables, some new version of a 1950s bellhop whose presence and story has no other purpose than to stay in the background and stand at the service of racial reconciliation – on white terms.
When he called Cory Booker (the first African American US senator from New Jersey) “well-spoken”, Michael Bloomberg, a Democratic candidate for the presidency and former mayor of New York City, likely expected praise for recognising that a man could be both articulate and black at the same time.
But thinking that blacks are a certain way – that way being generally lesser – might well lead someone like the mayor to champion police powers to stop and frisk black people in black neighbourhoods. One can expand a policing order that forcibly touches all black people because the risk of groping one that does not deserve it would be low – and lead to no consequence.
Blacks being a “type” of people – inarticulate and dangerous – has been key to the legal defence of anyone caught shooting into a car of rowdy, screaming blacks. They could not reasonably have known that one of them was undeserving of being shot.
In 2012, 17-year-old Jordan Davis’s killer, Michael Dunn, said “thugs” should be killed more often for social change. The same year, George Zimmerman’s brother reached for the trusty “blacks are risky” defence of his Trayvon Martin-killing brother. He tweeted: “Lib media shld ask if what these2 black teens did 2 a woman&baby is the reason ppl think blacks mightB risky.” The teens he was referring to were De’Marquise Elkins and Dominique Lang, who were charged with killing a baby in Georgia at the time, and were unrelated to Trayvon Martin.
Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, posted a picture of Trayvon, a 17-year-old African American teenager from Miami Gardens, Florida, raising his middle fingers in an attempt to halt the humanising of Trayvon. It was to return him back into the “pack of N-s”, to use a Mel Gibsonism.
There is not much daylight between President Trump’s depiction of “our African American community” as an uncomplicated, rap concert crowd sitting on the edge of their seat to find out A$AP Rocky’s fate when he was detained in Sweden and Mayor Pete’s “violent gangs”.
In Amy Klobuchar’s tough-on-crime career as a prosecutor in Minnesota that led to the controversial conviction and maltreatment of a black teenager, there stand “the blacks”.
In Bernie’s stand-offish avoidance and constant dissolving of racial oppression into “working class issues” there stand “the blacks”.
You may have to spend hours wading through the candidates’ blacks before you find any evidence that full, individual, thinking, varied, living humans who are black exist at all.
Electoral politics in the US has not moved beyond racial caricature; a more sophisticated, but no less reductive, device than the ethnic slur. Full humans who are black are still “the blacks” for presidential candidates no matter what attempts we make to loosen the straightjacket of reductive representation.
We are no more than an asset or a problem; a prop, never the protagonist. It is not yet curtains for the minstrel show.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.