Ferguson, Racial Tropes and the Politics of Scarcity

“In our view, an individual who loves Blacks is as ‘sick’ as someone who abhors them. Conversely, the black man who strives to whiten his race is as wretched as the one who preaches hatred of the white man.”

“It remains, nevertheless, evident that for us the true disalienation of the black man implies a brutal awareness of the social and economic realities. The inferiority complex can be ascribed to a double process: First, economic. Then, internalization or rather epidermalization of this inferiority…Genuine disalienation will have been achieved only when things, in the most materialist sense, have resumed their rightful place.”

“But once we have taken note of the situation, once we have understood it, we consider the job done. How can we possibly not hear that voice again tumbling down the steps of History: ‘It’s no longer a question of knowing the world, but transforming it.’”

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Press, 2008: xii, xiv-xv, 1.

New Left Lineage, Pseudo-criticism and Racial Tropes

A key factor projecting police violence is the absence of alternative sources of power to redesign police forces and rebuild communities that have become areas suffering from militarized shoot to kill patrols. Economic inequalities and the absence of such alternative power define the politics of scarcity in which statistical racism, stereotypes and other arbitrary systems are used by police. The cultural elites, while sometimes recognizing problems of racism, fail to appreciate or address power imbalances in any coherent fashion. They usually prefer narratives and deconstruction over and above any honest assessment of comprehensive alternatives.   Even “white” members of the cultural elite will reproduce discourse that alienates other whites as they prefer identity politics as the lesser evil when compared to system change. This course of developments represents an intellectual retrogression, a step backward, from aspects of the discourse of the 1960s and New Left period. Essentially, the language from that era is used to block a more systemic reconstruction or even alternatives proposed by radical groups like the Black Panthers. Discourses about race have less to do with eliminating racism than a substitution of cultural politics for reconfiguring institutions. By leaving institutions as they are this discourse becomes a kind of phony outlet for dissent, i.e. pseudo-criticism (“ersatz radicalism”). This replicates a pattern found in how posited allegiances with the underprivileged are used to conceal more than they reveal (as noted by Les Black in his book, New Ethnicities and Urban Culture).

It’s certainly true that there is systemic racism in the United States, Europe, China, Japan, Australia and even a variant in post-apartheid South Africa (where immigrants have been treated badly and attacked, i.e. postcolonial racism by racist postcolonials). Violence by certain white persons against African Americans has a long legacy but the solutions to this violence will be blocked by the use of new tropes extending racial reductionism to whites. Any attempt to homogenize the African American or white population is a form of racial reductionism and racism. Unfortunately, tropes about whites are now an accepted casualty of the larger racist dogma that permeates the United States. Videos where children use faux white accents to satirize white consciousness about African Americans (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXeWr9kQ4Kk) or letters beginning, “Dear white people…,” (see: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/28/white-people-ferguson-facebook-race) might be reasonable if they were not really part of a project promoted by cultural elites to systematically displace issues of class and power. Thus, even when poll data is used to reveal differences among groups, it is rarely followed up with sophisticated questions about why some whites are more sophisticated than others about racial problems and how we might benefit from this enlightenment (see: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/self-segregation-why-its-hard-for-whites-to-understand-ferguson/378928/).

Many African Americans are systematically targeted by police, not just persons engaging in criminal activities but also those playing with toy guns in a park (see: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/cleveland-police-shooting-boy-with-fake-gun-dies-after-being-shot-by-ohio-officer-9878700.html).   The larger context for this targeting are institutional practices adopted by police departments, institutional racism, and a society polarized by gross inequality in economic, political, media, and police power (defined by race and class) as well as systemic failures in integration.

From the Talking Cure to the Overvaluation of Race

Yet, cultural elites are unable to address these systemic problems and are largely concerned with intellectually recycling racism by using what Sigmund Freud called a “talking cure.” They believe that talking about things solves things, rather than an existential approach, i.e. doing things. It is not just journalists and the social media activists who advocate the idea that merely talking about racism solves the problem. Academics are also part of the discursive game whose structure is to combine the language of radical ideas with a totally diluted political substance. One example can be seen in an academic journal article by Amy Aldous Bergerson entitled:   “Critical race theory and white racism: is there room for white scholars in fighting racism in education?,” published by the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Vol. 16, Issue 1, 2003.

The very question posed by the article seems absurd on several grounds. First, everyone has the responsibility to fight racism, not just whites. We get this idea from existentialism, aspects of various religious teachings, and universalist themes which predate the post-New Left fixation on race divorced from other issues. Of course the retort is that universalism conceals racial inequalities, but another problem is how merely pointing out racism can’t combat racist structures. To fight these structures we need solutions involving far more complicated processes than merely referencing racism alone.

Second, Bergerson may be unaware that there are many nonwhites who are not only failing to fight racism, but promulgating it (even if whites hold a hegemonic position in many societies vis-à-vis the perpetuation of such racism). This is something that Fanon himself described in terms of ethnic hierarchies among non-whites. The whole New Left-era debate within the African American community about how to fight racism or whether existing approaches were working are lost to academic analysis that represents a rather diluted version of earlier understandings of race, class and other structures.

Bergerson describes something called “Critical Race Theory,” with the world “critical” apparently signifying something radical, but the word “theory” perhaps suggesting an academic coating. The abstract of the article reads in part: “Critical race theory (CRT) offers educational researchers a compelling way to view racism in education by centering issues of race and using counterstories to challenge dominant views in both research and practice…The author argues that while CRT may not be fully open to white researchers, their strategic use of CRT can help legitimize its use in fighting racism in educational settings…the author suggests that white researchers must work to center race in their personal lives and work, engage in the strategic and sensitive use of CRT, and join in the effort to legitimize research that utilizes alternative methods such as CRT.” Of course, all researchers should try to figure out ways to raise problems of racism and (where appropriate) promote alternatives. Some white persons even gain advantages based on their appearance, although this one potential advantage has often been fetishized by academics at the exclusion of others, e.g. class, being an academic, writing things that are politically innocuous and fashionable, etc. If only academics could write about “innocuous privilege” as opposed to just “white skin privilege” we might get somewhere.

CRT is based on exposing the idea of “neutrality” or “colorblindness,” as if whites use whiteness as their standard. Bergerson writes: “Neutrality is a problem because whites consider whiteness the norm; neutrality is perceived as equivalent to whiteness.” Yet, this very idea treats whites in a racist fashion as if all whites think the same and are not highly differentiated by their biographical trajectories, their class, their milieu, their ethnicity or other factors. In essence, while parts of the academic system trying to fight racism feel obligated to essentialize whites, we have authentic intellectuals like Fanon reminding us that of course non-whites don’t think the same and their differentiation explains outcomes.

The centering of race, or its inclusion in pedagogy is certainly important, but so is the centering of class, militarism, gender, existential trajectories, democracy and the like. The problem, however, with race “centering” is that in practice race has been put in an exclusive domain among parts of academy because the system filters of cultural elites allows only a partial resolution of the underlying problems. The discussion of race without class, budget priorities, control over the media, and a host of related problems is good therapy for those engaged in it but ultimately a piecemeal intervention that won’t address the underlying problems. The turn to make the personal political ends with a politics of self-medication for academics, activists and journalists. Given all the problems facing the United States, these discursive interventions about race have to sound just a bit radical, but not so radical as to disrupt the status quo.   Here we have a genre identified as “postmodern politics” by Stanley Aronowitz in his book Left Turn.

After Katrina, it should have apparent to many that the United States was experiencing something worse than racism (and in some ways slavery). In the slavery regime the slave is usually kept alive to gain the benefit of her or his labor power. In the Katrina regime we saw that large aspects of the population were rendered disposable. This idea of “disposability” articulated by Paul Goodman and Zygmunt Bauman (among others) is partially beyond race and class (or notions of discrimination and exploitation). The population that is disposed is viewed as superfluous. There is no need to discriminate or exploit something you basically want to get rid of or extinguish. So the very notion of “racism” is not as radical as it first sounds, perhaps that is why some journalists and academics toss the word around and use that concept so freely. Of course, objectively disposability is based on racism and class, as poorer African Americans have been among the most vulnerable to this phenomena in a U.S. context. Yet, many working class white people are also being disposed of economically, together with large chunks of the middle class (albeit in less dramatic fashion).

During the 1970s, we saw some persons linking police violence to ideas of disposability such that racism was viewed as part of a power structure rather than a mere narrative. Thomas Plate, in an article about the New York blackout, “Why the Cops Didn’t Shoot,” published in New York Magazine, August 1, 1977, wrote: “Is a police department nothing more than a police force, an occupation army in an otherwise alien society? Or is it a police service, an agency of help? Under the former conception, minority residents are viewed not as citizens, proper members of society, but as the enemy—the neighborhood gooks. Under the occupation army school of policing, the cooperation of the neighborhood gooks, in an alliance with the police against the hard-core thugs, is regarded as nowhere near as clever as the total intimidation of everyone thrown together in one big lump of alleged undesirables. But we tried winning through intimidation in Vietnam. Is there any reason to believe this policy could work any better in our own ghetto enclaves?” The word “gook” is used to signify the disposable not just racism, with the expression “occupation army” signifying a shoot to kill mentality of disposability.

Departing from Plate we see that a key solution might be to not simply discuss racism but the very organizational design of police forces as opposed to potential police services. This kind of alternative framing was precisely the kind advanced by Paul Goodman who critiqued institutional designs and promoted alternative designs, i.e. Goodman didn’t simply deconstruct the narratives of persons working out of dysfunctional institutions. While the words “police racism” gets 115,000 hits in Google’s search engine, the words “redesigning police forces” gets only two hits and “redesigning police departments” gets one hit (search on November 30, 2014). This is a perfect indicator for the superficiality of cultural elites who use seemingly “radical” or “progressive” discourse to displace problems by offering talking cures and self-medication.

The racial background of police has been noted as a key factor in the Ferguson case. As Christopher Moraff writes in The Next City blog (September 15, 20014): “municipal police forces in America suffer from a serious lack of racial diversity — with white officers significantly overrepresented in communities of color. Ferguson’s nearly all-white police force has a long legacy of alienating the city’s predominantly black residents.” Yet, Moraff also quotes Charlotte Gill, Deputy Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, who explains that: “Looking like the community can certainly be beneficial, but it’s not the key” because the way citizens perceive law enforcement is more greatly influenced by police behavior than the racial composition of police. So, here too we see how race itself may be secondary to institutional practice. In fact, in contrast to the idea of “redesigning police forces,” the idea of “community policing” has become highly popular. Journalistic accounts and academic studies show that greater police involvement in communities can reduce tensions if not arbitrary violence by police, although the implementation of these programs is highly uneven (see: http://www.pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2013/05/Kessler-1999.pdf and http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/community-policing-efforts-success-failure). The unevenness is partially based on the self-deception that introducing a policy is unaffected by the structure that implements the policy. So while “community policing” gets over 3,000,000 hits on Google, the expression “governance of police departments” gets only five hits. Thus, here too we see evidence of how popular discussions of “race” or “policy” themselves are the other side of an utterly superficial intellectual climate.

Polls or Political Consciousness?

Basically, we have a large subset of “white” Americans who have little political consciousness about racism in the United States. This lack of consciousness gets reframed by racial reductionism in which those objectively aligned with cultural elites use the media or academic discourse to convey a narrative about “how white people are.”   In January 2014, a Gallup poll asked “nonwhites” and “whites” about their views of race relations. This poll revealed that “the gap between whites’ and nonwhites’ views of where the country stands is wider than at any point in recent history, with nonwhites now almost twice as likely as whites to view the nation’s situation positively.” In 2014, 33% of whites viewed relations positively compared with 57% of nonwhites. These developments are partially rooted in an obvious racial backlash against Obama by some segment of the white population: “More than half of whites (53%) were positive about the country’s current trajectory in January 2008 – 10 months before the presidential election. After President Barack Obama’s first year in office, that percentage fell to 35%. Four years later, that figure is roughly the same” (see: http://www.gallup.com/poll/167072/stark-racial-differences-views-status.aspx).

Attitudes about race relations can tell us very little about certain material realities, depending on the poll, its interpretation and the actual problem being addressed. The above poll about “attitudes” are somewhat useless for understanding underlying economic realities. So one wonders why some element of the cultural elites consistently emphasizes attitudes over structures. Over the last sixty years African Americans have consistently fared far worse than white Americans in the labor market: “In 1954, the earliest year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has consistent unemployment data by race, the white rate averaged 5% and the black rate averaged 9.9%.” In July 2013, “the jobless rate among whites was 6.6%; among blacks, 12.6%. Over that time, the unemployment rate for blacks has averaged about 2.2 times that for whites” (see: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/08/21/through-good-times-and-bad-black-unemployment-is-consistently-double-that-of-whites/). More unemployment means less economic power and hence less political power, greater exposure to highly policed areas, and thus exposure to the occupation armies and the risks attached to disposability. Therefore, if some polls convey the idea that African Americans think more positively about race relations than whites do, this tells us very little.

This is not to say that attitudes are not significant for understanding other questions. An August Gallup poll found that “Combined 2011-2014 data measuring Americans’ confidence in the police shows that 59% of whites have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police, compared with 37% of blacks” (see: http://www.gallup.com/poll/175088/gallup-review-black-white-attitudes-toward-police.aspx). A 2009 article by Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and Patricia Warren revealed systemic racial biases tied to racial profiling, particularly in Missouri: “Missouri, which has been collecting data since 2000, still has large race disparities in searching “practices among its police officers.” Data for 2007 “shows blacks were 78 percent more likely than whites to be searched” and “Hispanics were 118 percent more likely than whites to be searched.” Furthermore, “compared to searches of white drivers, contraband was found 25 percent less often among black drivers and 38 percent less often among Hispanic drivers” (see: http://contexts.org/articles/spring-2009/explaining-and-eliminating-racial-profiling/).

Another important study by Coramae Richey Mann, Unequal Justice: A Question of Color, published by Indiana University Press in 1993, investigated five different possibilities for the “discriminatory police attitude toward and treatment of minorities.” These possibilities involve whether or not the police are “racially prejudiced,” how police attitudes might “reflect the attitudes of the larger society,” whether “police response is related to the socioeconomic status, not the race, of the suspect,” and how “police differential response to minorities reflects cultural biases.” Mann concluded that while various studies offer some support for each proposition, “the preponderance of the literature suggests that racism or prejudice is the major reason for harsher treatment of minorities compared to whites.”

Nevertheless, the existence of racist police forces presents us with something of a dilemma. On the one hand, one can underestimate racism, but on the other hand one can overvalue racism in isolation as an explanatory tool. Michael D. Schlosser, in an article for the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, discusses the former problem: “color-blind racial ideology is a way of overlooking racism and allowing current discriminatory practices of the dominant culture to continue…Color-blind talk is considered neutral and politically correct by most of the dominant culture…which perceives itself to be color-blind and asserts that there are no differences among citizens due to skin color. However, this is unrealistic in the United States where racism is an issue in almost every facet of life.” Schlosser writes: “racism is arguably a defining characteristic of policing in the United States today” (see: http://www.sascv.org/ijcjs/pdfs/schlosserijcjs2013vol8issue2.pdf).

Nevertheless, there are also problems in overvaluing a discourse that reveals how whites are racist. This discourse is potentially problematic on several grounds. First, if whites are as racist as they seem telling them they are racist is not necessarily going to help all that much. It will be helpful or even very helpful, depending upon how it is done. A key principle is how whites (and nonwhites) gain the “cultural capital” (or critical interpretive capabilities) to process and act on information that whites are racist. Some academic studies show that the education of younger students about human rights and the like will reduce racist or discriminatory attitudes. Yet, the directed hierarchy or focus of an educational setting and education about racism and discrimination is a far cry from pleadings by journalists or social media. These pleadings are at best feel good exercises that will have minimal impact on the larger society. At its worst, how is telling a racist that they are a racist likely to change the racist’s views, especially in a milieu where the mass media and so much of contemporary education is superficial? The successes of the civil rights movement were hardly based on simply revealing the racism of the United States. The Black Panthers and civil rights movements were about creating alternative bases of power, e.g. structures be they in law, mass mobilizations or community organizations that went beyond venting a narrative.

Second, given that racist attitudes come from somewhere, one might want to develop strategies that reform the institutions promoting these attitudes, be they police forces, government agencies, schools, corporations, or the mass media. Here racism is a “dependent variable,” i.e. its dependent upon changes in institutions rather than just providing a narrative that people are racists or that whites behave in a certain way as a rule. Yet, almost no one engaging in symbolic politics around race talks about creating community organizing schools to build cooperatives, consciousness about racism and alternatives to inequality, or skills in political tactics on the Highlander folk high school model. No one playing these deconstructive race games talks about developing new community-based radio stations to promote a political agenda to advance economic and political democracy and citizen control over police forces or the creation of a special civil rights department to monitor and limit police abuses. Very few talk about divesting from Ferguson or any community in which police arbitrarily murder unarmed civilians.

Third, one could try to gain community control over police forces where racism takes place. This approach, adopted by the Black Panthers, has the merit of at least problematizing and making a power question out of the ability to project violence against often innocent persons. Even though the Black Panthers as a social movement were far from perfect, the level of sophistication in their analysis makes the contemporary discourse cited earlier look very superficial in comparison. The “progressive” reaction to Ferguson is yet another way in which the Left gets to show us how much we have been pedaling backwards. The reader is invited to review these historical documents around the earlier community control debate and reach their own conclusions (see: http://www.itsabouttimebpp.com/Community_Control/Community_Control_Police_index.html). The approach of African American self-organization in response to violence as one solution is at least 100 years old (see: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/garvey/filmmore/ps_riots.html). At the very least the approach promoted by Marcus Garvey teaches us that the mobilization of a community’s capacities is a starting point for creating a counter-pole to racist violence. Yet, this is a far cry from simply deconstructing white racism.

Fourth, one could assume that a significant portion of whites are sophisticated about racism and inequality or would benefit from an alternative politics. Robert P. Jones in his essay, “Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson,” published in The Atlantic, August 21, 2014 (cited earlier) shows us rather clearly how cultural elites basically diffuse this understanding by engaging in glass half empty arguments. He shows that “more than three-quarters (76 percent) of black respondents say that the shooting [of Michael Brown] is part of a broader pattern, nearly double the number of whites who agree (40 percent).” Rather than focus on the 40 percent and the political implications of mobilizing them differently, Jones’s mission is simply to deconstruct the 60 percent who think the wrong way. Jones relates the following data: “Black Americans were, on average, nearly 20 percentage points more likely than white Americans to say a range of issues were major problems in their community: lack of good jobs (20 points), lack of opportunities for young people (16 points), lack of funding for public schools (19 points), crime (23 points), and racial tensions (18 points).” What Jones fails to analyze is the political implications of the following data he shows: 60 percent of whites say that the lack of good jobs is a major problem in their community, 52 percent of white persons say that the lack of opportunities for young persons is a problem, and that only 31 percent of black persons say that racial tensions are a major problem in their community (using September 2012 polling data). The very data Jones cites but does not interpret fully reveals how trans-ethnic coalitions focusing on the lack of good jobs and the lack of opportunities for young persons could be a way to galvanize social movements and political organizing. Writers like Jones, in contrast to Fanon, tell us nothing about “disalienation,” an idea displaced by racial tropes and deconstruction of white consciousness.

One of the underlying problems which police violence is part of is the economic fallout of the politics of scarcity. In July of 1917, the City of East St. Louis erupted into a race riot after African Americans were hired by the Aluminum Ore Company to help break a strike by trade unions and migrated to gain needed employment: “The violence started on May 28th, 1917, shortly after a city council meeting was called.  Angry white workers lodged formal complaints against black migrations to the Mayor of East St. Louis. After the meeting had ended, news of an attempted robbery of a white man by an armed black man began to circulate through the city.  As a result of this news, white mobs formed and rampaged through downtown, beating all African Americans who were found.  The mobs also stopped trolleys and streetcars, pulling black passengers out and beating them on the streets and sidewalks.” Just as now, a major crisis was followed by very few structural reforms: “After the May 28th riots, little was done to prevent any further problems.  No precautions were taken to ensure white job security or to grant union recognition.  This further increased the already-high level of hostilities towards African Americans.  No reforms were made in police force which did little to quell the violence in May” (see:   http://www.blackpast.org/aah/east-st-louis-race-riot-july-2-1917).   Today, scarcity exists in the form of mass unemployment tied to outsourcing, automation, imports and joint failures by corporations and politicians, and established media to advance solutions. In East St. Louis, African American unemployment is about 30%, so the basic problem remains unchanged about a hundred years later (see: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business-jan-june09-stlouisjobs_05-08/).

The solution to the politics of scarcity requires at least five things. First, a discourse and practice that recognizes that many citizens, regardless of their race or ethnic background, would benefit from coalitions that gain control over the organization of work. This control depends on the integration of: (a) technology, (b) cooperative forms of ownership and decision making, and (c) networks of companies, perhaps even organized in franchises. At the very least such alternatives could take the form of African American cooperatives, a policy solution advocated by various African Americans like W. E. B. du Bois and chronicled in a new book by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage (see: http://www.amazon.com/Collective-Courage-American-Cooperative-Economic/dp/0271062177/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417290001&sr=1-1 and http://community-wealth.org/_pdfs/articles-publications/coops/paper-nembhard04.pdf).

Second, the politicization of procurement streams supported by local technical support systems such that local businesses can gain a larger share of work generated by university, hospital, local government and other institutional purchases. This idea has been championed by Gar Alperovitz, Steve Dubb, the Democracy Collaborative and the “Cleveland Project” (see: http://democracycollaborative.org/).

Third, social movements (including trade unions and civil rights organizations) could further promote initiatives to develop alternative, community controlled utilities and banks to gain a foothold in the economic system. This control can build upon and help promote the accumulation of political capital (see: http://www.globalteachin.com/turn-on-tune-in-drop-in-the-new-economy-virtuous-cycle).  Yes! magazine regularly describes such efforts (see: http://www.yesmagazine.org/) and alternative models exist in the Modragon Corporation in Spain, the JAK bank in Sweden, and the ICA Group in Brookline, Massachusetts (see: http://www.mondragon-corporation.com/eng/, https://www.jak.se/international and http://ica-group.org/).

Fourth, as a defense measure, citizens must mobilize civil rights, religious, and other organizations to create citizen review panels and alternative training systems to monitor and regulate police forces. Without systemic changes to economic, political and media institutions, this is at best a reactive measure. We can build upon and develop earlier proposals developed by various radical groups in the 1960s (see above). Coalitions could even include dialogue groups among various actors, even police unions, who would benefit from a greater understanding of the very communities they police.   New initiatives should analyze how to create police services and change the decision-making structures in police departments.

Finally, we must overcome the barriers created by superficial identity politicians who simply promote their own symbolic capital in the media by deconstructing race rather than reconstructing society. One related problem is the way both whites and black communities are treated as homogenous identities. A study of the limits to certain forms of multiculturalism by Kenan Malik addresses this issue by referring to a report by the municipal council in the Birmingham in the U.K. In his book, Multiculturalism and its Discontents, Malik gives us a clue about how cultural elites use notions of ethnic homogenization as an intellectual focal point that actually blocks comprehensive solutions. Malik quotes a council report which says: “The perceived notion of the homogeneity of minority ethnic communities has informed a great deal of race equality work to date. The effect of this, amongst others, has been to place an over-reliance on individuals who are seen to represent the needs or views of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs” (Seagull Books, 2013, page 61). Class differences are ignored because of this racial homogenization where the language of class becomes a potential bridge to discussions of alternative economic models. In contrast, Fanon noted in Black Skin, White Masks, how even some Afro-Caribbeans would attempt to promote a racial hierarchy with respect to persons from Africa, i.e. the most profound forms of racial solidarity might have something to do with overcoming class and other differences.

Jonathan M. Feldman is a founder of the Global Teach-In (www.globalteachin.com) and can be reached at @globalteachin on Twitter.



Jonathan M. Feldman is a founder of the Global Teach-In (www.globalteachin.com) and can be reached at @globalteachin on Twitter.