Racial Domestic Terrorism and the Legacy of State Violence

Photograph Source: the United States Library of Congress – Public Domain

The sheer brutality of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a viciously violent cop symbolizes not only the unadulterated racism of a culture that looks away in the face of police violence against Black people but also a society in which a form of racialized domestic terrorism has become normalized. Floyd’s murder has to be understood as part of wider systemic politics indebted to the long legacy of a culture of racist terror that extends from slavery and Jim Crow to the scourge of racial mass incarceration and a politics of disposability. How else to explain the senseless murders of Botham Jean, Treyvon Martin and more recently Ahmaud Aubrey and Breonna Taylor. Aubrey was killed by white vigilantes while out running. Taylor was shot in her bed by the police who literally broke into her house with no previous warning. The punishing apparatuses of the racial state have become more barbaric as power is concentrated more and more in the hands of the ultra-rich, white nationalists and white supremacists who now occupy the White House. Neoliberal fascism has taken off the gloves and now resorts to outright terror to keep people of color in check. Every space in the U.S. that people of color occupy is militarized.

The ongoing murder and exercise of state terrorism against Black people is part of a White House ideology that supports the false argument that white people are the real victims, bolstered in part by white supremacist fantasies regarding the alleged nightmare of what they call the threat of white genocide. White supremacist such as Stephen Miller now set immigration policy. In this world of racist fears and conspiracy theories, it is convenient for whites to hate people of color, and subscribe to the notion that the public sphere is a space only for whites. The racist grammars of suffering, state violence and disposability have become unspeakable and removed from any sense of moral and social responsibility. America has become an armed camp and the war on black and brown people a source of pride rather than alarm. Racism has morphed into a badge of honor for the current administration. This administration trades in racist taunts, encourages violence on the part of the police, and believes that Blacks are more dangerous than right-wing terrorists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. People of color are viewed in the dominant discourse of white supremacy as being outside of the bounds of justice; their existence occupies a space between invisibility and terminal exclusion. Increasingly, under the Trump regime, people of color are “thugs” relegated to zones of social abandonment, lacking human rights, and unknowable as lives worthy of value.

Charles Pearce, writing in Esquire, gets it right when pointing to Trump, states: “Where there is hatred, he sows anger. Where there is injury, resentment. Where there is doubt, uncertainty. Where there is despair, poison. Where there is darkness, destruction. And where there is sadness, desperation. There’s something that feeds his soul in feeding the soul of the country to the flames. He has nothing else. He can’t conceive of another way to live. He belongs to another entirely different species of parasite.” Put differently, Trump’s administration has become a engine of social misery, a punitive machine that accelerates the death of those considered excess, valueless, and unwanted. Trump’s regime of wealth extraction, ecological violence, economic shock doctrines, ideological fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, and government of hypocrisy has turned politics, and language into a racist weapon, and state sanctioned violence against black people a signpost for rationalizing a fascist politics.

What we are witnessing in real time is a fascist politics that believes in racial purity, social Darwinism, and supports the collapse of moral and political accountability. We see evidence of this in the viciousness of Trump’s everyday language, as for instance when he criticizes a reporter for wearing mask for being politically correct, when in actuality the journalist was being socially responsible–a notion Trump despises. We also see it in its more obvious toxic forms as when he states in the aftermath of the mass protests, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” All the while echoing a racist phrase by a former Miami Police Chief Walter Headley who liked to brag that he only hired white police officers and prided himself for using violence against Black people. There is nothing new about the police killing black people. Nor is there anything new about the United State engaging in state sponsored violence by way of a racially marked mass incarceration system.

What is new is that in the digital age, these killings are now more visible; yet they have done little to reform either the violent culture of policing or the terror imposed by the racial state. Americans watched a 12-year old child, Tamir Rice, killed by the police. They watched Eric Garner strangled to death by the police for allegedly selling cigarettes on a street corner. They watched Freddie Gray dragged into back of a Baltimore police van because he had a pocket knife, only to die soon afterwards; we watched Sandra Bland get stopped for a minor traffic violation, pulled from her car, only to later to be found hanging in a police station cell. We watched Philando Castille shot by the police in front of his girlfriend and her small child; we watched George Floyd die under the knee of a cop who appeared chillingly indifferent as George’s last breathe left his body. That knee in place for nine minutes, as if it wanted to make clear that it was more than willing to stand proudly as a symbol of what Robert Shetterly called “the blunt instrument of [a racist] history.” We watched as the police in almost all of these crimes, except thus far for Floyd’s death, were exonerated. We watched as almost everyone with power looked away. We watched as the public tuned into their nightly game shows. We watched as the habits of public powerlessness, apparatuses of hopelessness, and collapse of civic courage once more dethroned a viable sense of social responsibility, politics, and democracy itself.

Now we watch as the media focuses less on the historical context for such killings and more on the alleged outside radical leftists/anarchists/ running through the streets committing the alleged real violence. People running into stores taking TVs are labeled a looters when in fact as James Baldwin once said captive populations don’t loot, hedge fund manages, bankers, pharmaceutical executives, big corporations, and the rest of the ultra-rich are the real looters. People who have been robbed of everything, including their very lives don’t loot, they strike back because their very lives depend upon some form of action that will be noticed. The fires burning in our cities are unfortunate, but the real fires go unnoticed. These are the fires burning the spirits of those who suffer daily traumas, fears, police violence, and policy driven hardships are what need to be noticed, addressed, and rouse mass anger. No one talks about the roots of these problems and I do not simply mean their origins in slavery, a culture of lynching, and a deeply ingrained institutional racism, however crucial these events are. I am talking about the roots of a fascist politics in which money counts more than people, and some people count more than others. I am talking about a savage form of capitalism that is incompatible with the slightest vestige of democracy and has to be destroyed, not changed, modified, or made more compassionate. I am talking about the resurgence of fascism in an updated form in the United States–a fascism without apology.

The rage and outbursts we are witnessing throughout the United States is an act of mass street resistance against a society that believes it can kill people of color with impunity; it is an act of resistance that refuses a future defined by racial violence, massive inequality and the descent into authoritarianism. It is everybody’s fight because it is a struggle for equality, justice, and a radical democracy.

The lethal force of systemic racism is now front and center in American society, visible in the shockingly needless death of black people, in the smoldering enclaves of poverty in so many cities, in the images of black men and women terrorized by police who embrace the logic of a racialized militarized society. The force of a deadly racism now occupies the highest levels of political authority in the United States, symbolized in the presence of a Donald Trump and his syncophantic party of white supremacy. Trump is the endpoint of a capitalism on steroids. He revels in the intensification of racist violence and the ethos of a fascist politics. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, Trump reveals his authoritarian and militarized instincts by threatening protesters with violence, the unleashing of “vicious dogs” and ominous weapons” if they breach the White House fence. As Harvey Wasserman argues he is “our Imperial Vulture come home to roost” and he is the contemporary symbol for legitimating and implementing the violence of racial cleansing and the plague of state terrorism. He is the face of fascist terror, but only the face. What is behind that ugly brutal veneer is much worse.

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books include: The Terror of the Unforeseen (Los Angeles Review of books, 2019), On Critical Pedagogy, 2nd edition (Bloomsbury, 2020); Race, Politics, and Pandemic Pedagogy: Education in a Time of Crisis (Bloomsbury 2021); Pedagogy of Resistance: Against Manufactured Ignorance (Bloomsbury 2022) and Insurrections: Education in the Age of Counter-Revolutionary Politics (Bloomsbury, 2023), and coauthored with Anthony DiMaggio, Fascism on Trial: Education and the Possibility of Democracy (Bloomsbury, 2025). Giroux is also a member of Truthout’s board of directors.