Unmasking Racial Terror and Seeing Whiteness

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Tuesday was the funeral for George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officer Derek Chauvin on Memorial Day, as the U.S. COVID death toll approached 100,000. Floyd’s murder was caught on tape: for eight minutes and 46 seconds, Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck.

Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe!” echoing Eric Garner’s, killed six years ago by an NYPD chokehold, became a rallying cry for justice. The local twin cities community, having emerged from the pandemic stay-at-home order the previous Monday, came together to share their outrage. The first three days of protests were large, multi-racial, passionate, and energetic. No one was hurt, no property damaged. The Minneapolis Uprising has inspired solidarity protests against institutional racism within the police state in dozens of cities across the U.S. and around the world.

And the movement has inspired some impressive victories already: in Minneapolis, public entities like the schools and parks have severed ties with the MPD. Los Angeles called for a $150 million cut to the police budget. Two bills have been proposed in Congress, demilitarizing the police and outlawing chokeholds. On Sunday, the Minneapolis City Council – by a veto-proof majority – declared their intention to replace MPD.

Many universities, scholarly associations, foundations, and even corporations have issued public statements in solidarity with African Americans, denouncing state violence against Black lives. Hopefully they are more than what Sara Ahmed referred to as “non-performativity” wherein the act of uttering gets confused with the deed itself.

As Leith Mullings explained, BLM activists have debated strategies such as public statements as well as roles of white “allies.” Can we be trusted? Will this activism be sustained? And how? What are appropriate roles, without adding to the service burden, asking people of color and particularly African Americans to educate us? One way to put our money where our mouths are right now is to contribute to legal defense and bail funds. Another role, engaging “our people,” leads to uncomfortable conversations. While few openly admit to being racist, many people like members of my family pin blame on protestors or trot out stereotypes of ‘black-on-black crime.’

Many white people apparently want to talk about the rioting and looting… Ok. Let’s talk: looking at the specific targets of the looting in Minneapolis, or Chicago, it doesn’t add up. Much of the looting is being done by white people, and in white-majority (yes, some gentrifying) neighborhoods. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter reported that rioters were not from the city, and in fact many were from out of state. Minnesota’s commissioner of public safety John Harrington suspected white supremacist groups, who put calls on their social media for their members to loot businesses in order to incite violence and trigger a reaction. Some even spoke of a “civil war.”

It worked. Trump tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” As Faye Harrison pointed out this was deliberately racially charged, dredging out old stereotypes. This plays to the fears of “good” white people (those who “aren’t racist”), justifying state violence. The national guard was sent in, licensed to kill. On June 1, the commander in chief threatened to involve the U.S. military. Curfews made anyone on the street after 8 p.m. unlawful, legitimating police violence. Not only protestors but dozens of medical volunteers, journalists, and human rights observers are being attacked by police, some killed, like David McAtee in Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was killed by police on March 13.

The Association for Black Anthropologists called this violence an aspect of a “pandemic of anti-black racism.”

Speaking of the other pandemic, Ruha Benjamin’s powerful analysis drawing on Frantz Fanon’s classic of the same title, “Black Skin, White Masks,” points out the ways in which racism shapes the way we see the pandemic: even using the same statistics, white people draw very different conclusions from people of color.

Despite messages circulating social media, disasters like COVID are not the “great equalizer.” While the virus may be “color blind,” it has spread circuits of racial inequality. Inequities in the health care system map onto the mortality rate, which also correspond to patterns in residential segregation. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor demonstrates how racialized poverty that triggers hunger, eviction, and unemployment, combined with limited health resources in Black neighborhoods, mean that African Americans are disproportionately getting COVID-19, and even more disproportionately dying. Despite comprising 13 percent of U.S. population, African Americans account for almost a third of COVID deaths.  In Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s words, “Blackness is a pre-existing condition.”

Similarly race shapes how many white people see police violence. Many call Chauvin a “bad apple” in an otherwise necessary institution. Never mind that Chauvin had little more than a hand-slapping – including from VP hopeful Amy Klobuchar – for his repeated violence until it was caught on tape, like Amy Cooper’s weaponizing white supremacy days before.

These same people who see Chauvin as a “bad apple” fail to see how individual looters might be “bad apples.”

Whiteness is hard for those of us who possess it, who are raised in white society, to recognize. Amy Cooper claimed not to be a racist, as do my family and many other people who know racism is bad but have a hard time identifying how we are complicit. Robin DiAngelo and Joseph Flynn argue that whiteness invisibilizes our privilege in a myth of individualism.

Until we can see beyond individuals and see the historical legacy of slavery, and how our economic system and so-called liberal democracy were built on it – being able to identify connections between issues like COVID and Floyd’s murder – even “well-intentioned” white liberals will continue to misunderstand or appropriate the movement and in #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza’s words, issue “lazy parallels of unity.”

At the very least, the maps of the perimeters set up by the National Guard have made racial capitalism’s boundaries of dehumanization – protecting those whose lives matter outside from those inside, where people are allowed to die – visible for all to see. Manning Marable demonstrated how neoliberal capitalism underdeveloped Black America. An aspect of criminalizing poverty, the (failed) War on Drugs has made the U.S. the most imprisoned in the world, what Michelle Alexander called the “New Jim Crow.”

Also fully out in the open is the police state’s racism regarding public protest, as Irma McClaurin argued. White supremacist groups protested public health provisions, including violent rallies like May 14th at Michigan’s state capitol, with protestors brandishing guns and carrying nooses. They have taken their masks off, literally moving back into public spaces before public health officials’ all-clear signal. Rather than tear gas or threats, police and military gave them carte blanche.

Their actions also ripped the mask off the system that killed Black lives. The coordinated actions of the open white supremacists and the occupant of the White House have made it clear that the struggle is about humanity or profit, human lives – Black human lives – versus the police-military nexus needed to uphold the inequalities foundational to racial capitalism.

For these reasons and others, we white people need be open to criticism and follow the lead of Black activists, respecting and defending the specificity of the struggle. All human life will not matter until Black lives matter. 

Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nonprofit and NGO Studies at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. He is the author or co-editor of seven books, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti. Schuller is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009), and active in several solidarity efforts.