By Darim al-Bassam
We all watched the 2106 American election campaign when Donald Trump’s running discourse focused on remaking American identity along even starker racial lines, declaring that he is representing a “Movement”.
Trump’s harnessed growing anxieties among the white about an emerging non-white majority in the US population, predicted by demographers to occur two decades from now.
Now, more than ever political life is figured as a battle for a particular kind of future; in fact, the future, with the past as a criteria, is the term of the battle itself for the white.
Trump’s signature phrase and line of hats, “Make America Great Again,” is a fundamentally biopolitical statement of a strikingly racialised future.
As he seeks neither global approval nor cross-party electoral appeal, it no longer worries him so much about who is watching.
Coercion is trumping leadership at home and abroad (Inderjeet Parmar, Conversation, June 5 2020).
How should we understand racism and the violence, counterviolence and civil unrest that mark the current era in American “law and order” policing ? How we identify the George Floyd moment in that context?
Millions of people — first, mostly people of colour, then joined by whites and other ethnicities — turned out in street protests in all 50 states and all around the world against racism and the use of excessive force by police and law enforcement.
And, based on this understanding, can we consider the soul searching marches shouting George Floyd’s cry “ I Can’t Breathe” as a tip point moment and as a historical/political opportunity that can lead to transformative changes? Is this a social uprising capable of leading to the end of racial profiling and “Let Die” racial policies? Can it trigger actions to rewrite the rules for a just society and make black lives matter?
To render scientific answers to such questions, sociologists like me need to look at the social dynamics of racism in a systemic way (macro/ structural, meso/ institutional and micro/ agency levels) rather than focus on the characteristics of “bad apple” police officers or angry, revengeful citizens.
I must identify the “Rules of the Game” embedded in the context in which the violence occurs or at how the state/ people of different identities and races interact ?
I am drawing in this regards on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “field” to support my argument that the “game” itself, rather than innate personality traits, shapes the worldviews of the players and make them act in a way that fits the logic of the “field”. This suggests that to understand the behaviours of American police, one must uncover the logic of the “game” they’re playing – policing.
Let me now examine racial dynamics on the three systemic levels I mentioned above.
On the structural level sociological analysis of the social construction of race leads us to take into account both sides of the black/white binary paradigm when addressing racial inequality.
In other words, we need to identify, in the case of the dream land of America, how the prevailing Anglo Saxon ideology “whiteness as the norm” plays a major role since the time of the settling pioneers in sustaining social privilege beyond that which is accorded marginalised others.
The white, Anglo-Saxon cultural and racial dominance in that country is the ‘invisible omnipresent norm’
The concept of “cultural capital” coined originally by Pierre Bourdieu, understood as a particular stock of cultural competencies, help us to explain how within social structure of racialised euro-centric countries like the United Sates, the ideas, values, beliefs and practices associated with legitimate high culture are accepted as the norm and how cultural reproduction, or the intergenerational transmission of prevailing race privilege takes place.
While Bourdieu did not use race in his analysis of social relations, his ideas about power help explain how race, as a structuring or organising principle, can reproduce inequity and discrimination.
Prevailing racial cultural capital and its emanating power relations can exclude other identities from the assets and value added provided by that high culture capital and discriminate against other races, yet often remain ‘natural, normal and unmarked.
It is the effect of the power of normativity and the status quo for replicating the status quo through the soft power of biopolitical practices.
Racialised symbolic violence comes as a result of cultural reproduction.
symbolic violence survives even as oppressed members are understood as active agents.
That soft power, symbolic violence at the macro/structural level turns to hard power, physical violence at the meso/ institutional level of racism.
Systemic racism works as fostering life or disallowing it to the point of death, and in valuations of what constitutes the human, not-quite human, and nonhuman.
It is inherited from Settler colonialism times, premised on “logic of elimination”. From 2015 to 2019, according to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, police shot and killed 962 to 1,004 Americans each year.
According to Ruth Butler (2018) when we are talking about institutional racism in the United States, we have to remember that under slavery black lives were considered only a fraction of a human life, so the prevailing way of valuing lives assumed that some lives mattered more, were more human, more worthy, more deserving of life and freedom, where freedom meant minimally the freedom to move and thrive without being subjected to coercive force.
But when and where did black lives ever really get free of coercive force?
One reason the chant “Black Lives Matter” is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realised.
So it is, according to Butler, a statement of outrage and a demand for equality, for the right to live free of constraint, but also a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralisation and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat.
It may be that even when a black man is moving away from the police, that man is still considered to be a threat or worth killing.
Indeed, in the case of schematic racism, anti-black racism figures black people through a certain lens and filter, one that can quite easily construe a black person, or another racial minority, who is walking toward us as someone who is potentially, or actually, threatening, or is considered, in his very being, a threat. (Butler 2015 )
So let us think about what this is: a man like George Floyd is in a chokehold and states that he cannot breathe, and the chokehold is not relaxed, and the man dies because he is perceived as a threat.
The police sees a threat although George was not resisting, unarmed, completely physically subdued, lying in the ground, handcuffed, crying out for his life and cannot move.
Sociologically, this is a war zone of the mind that play out on the street.
Zones of “let die” biopower and bypolitics.
In fact, the point is not just that black lives can be disposed of so easily: they are targeted and hunted by a police force that is becoming increasingly emboldened to wage its race war by every grand jury decision that ratifies the point of view of institutional racism and state violence.
Whiteness is less a property of skin than a social power reproducing its dominance in both explicit and implicit ways.
It is a “a stylised repetition of acts” that solidifies and privileges white bodies (George Yancy, New York Times, January 2015 ).
Justifying lethal violence in the name of self-defence is reserved for those who have a publicly recognised self to defend.
But those whose lives are not considered to matter, whose lives are perceived as a threat to the life that embodies white privilege can be destroyed in the name of that life.
That can only happen when a recurrent and institutionalised form of racism has become a way of seeing, entering into the presentation of visual evidence to justify hateful and unjustified and heartbreaking murder.
The lives taken in this way are not lives worth grieving; they belong to the increasing number of those who are understood as ungrievable, whose lives are thought not to be worth preserving.
Law was and is crucial in the legitimacy of racial violence and division.
As the historian George M Fredrickson (2002 ) put it: “The legacy of the past racism directed at blacks in the United States is more like a bacillus that we have failed to destroy, a live germ that not only continues to make some of us ill but retains the capacity to generate new strains of a disease for which we have no certain cure’
We can conclude in this regard that despite much positive change in the post civil rights era, institutionalised racism, the American notions of racism and white supremacy remain powerful elements of American culture.
The adaptability and enduring power of these forces can be seen in the emergence of a new historical epoch best described by some researchers as the era of Laissez Faire Racism.
Laissez faire racism, for (Kluegel and Smith 1986), identifies this new era as one where longstanding values of meritocracy, individualism, majority rule and competition in a free marketplace weave together as rationalisation for persistent systemic racial inequality in a putatively antidiscrimination, race neutral democratic state.
So it is not just that black lives matter, though that must be said again and again.
It is also that stand-your-ground and racist killings are becoming increasingly normalised, which is why intelligent forms of collective outrage have become obligatory. (Buttler 2015 )
Finally, on the micro/individual level, sociological research findings show that although racism remains an enduring social problem at the structural and institutional levels, racism is increasingly unacceptable to most Americans.
Few white people see themselves as racist.
But there remains, unconsciously, the “Silent Racism” that refers to the negative thoughts and attitudes regarding the black race and other people of colour on the part of white people, including those who see themselves and are generally seen by others as not racist.
An apparent implication of silent racism inhabiting the “not racist” category is that the historical construction racist/not racist is no longer meaningful. (Barbara Trepagnier 2014)
Moreover, data show that the “not racist” category itself produces latent effects that serve to maintain the racial status quo.
Sociologists proposed replacing the oppositional either/or categories with a continuum that accurately reflects racism in the United States today.
Silent racism underlies the everyday racism that routinely discriminates against people of colour, regardless of the “good intentions” of the actor.
There are white people who may be very convinced that they are not racist, but that does not necessarily mean that they have examined, or worked though, how whiteness organises their lives, values, the institutions they support, how they are implicated in ways of talking, seeing, and doing that constantly and tacitly discriminate.
Undoing whiteness has to be difficult work, but it starts, as Ruth Butler put it, with humility, with learning history, with white people learning how the history of racism persists in the everyday vicissitudes of the present, even as some of us may think we are “beyond” such a history, or even convinced that we have magically become “post-racial.” It is difficult and ongoing work, calling on an ethical disposition and political solidarity that risks error in the practice of solidarity.
It is worth mentioning in our analysis of racial dynamics at this micro level that the millennial generation represents the only hope.
They bridge between an older, largely white America and a much more diverse post-millennial America.
The millennials, at over 75mn strong, constitute America’s largest generation, eclipsing the postwar baby boomers.
Now all over 20, millennials make up nearly a quarter of the total population, 30% of the voting-age population, and almost two-fifths of the working-age population. (Brooking Institute, January 2018)
While much attention has been given to this generation’s attributes — its technological savvy, tolerance and independence, and its sceptical view of established institutions — I would argue the one characteristic of millennials that matters most is their racial and ethnic diversity.
The millennial narrative is more hopeful, portraying a group of young whites who are much more comfortable with diversity than their predecessors.
Indeed, this generation, which is leading “ Black Lives Matter” protests now all over the United States, is poised to be the demographic bridge to the nation’s diverse future.
When asked about the most important issues facing the country, millennials of all racial backgrounds cite racism as one of their major concerns, though there is substantial variation between groups (Pew Resrach Center May 2020)
By the mid-2040s, racial and ethnic minorities are projected to make up about half of all Americans, but the 2020 census will show that the post-millennial generation — people who are younger than millennials — will already be minority white.
This means that millennials, now 44% minority, will pave the way for the generations behind them as workers, consumers and leaders in business and government in their acceptance of a racially diverse America. (William Frey 2018)
Finally, if white millennials are as progressive as recent popular portrayals indicate, particularly with respect to racial issues, then white youth might be less susceptible to well-known psychological tendencies associated with racial group membership than whites in other generations, who have been shown to feel threatened by the nation’s changing demography (Craig and Richeson 2018). This gives hope that the George Floyd moment will pave the way for real social transformation.
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