*This post is the transcript of a presentation titled “Invisible Bodies: A Theory of Genocide in the U.S.” that I delivered at a conference two years ago.
Today, I will present my theory of the State as it relates to anti-black structural violence here in America. I apply three frameworks: carceral continuum, social death, and genocide – for the sake of understanding anti-black violence.
I begin with a question: Is anti-black violence a deviation from the norm, or is it systemic?
To answer this question, it is important to emphasize that race is not a biological fact. The word “race” traces its root to the Iberian Peninsula of the Middle Ages, where the term “raza” was used to group dogs, horses, Jews, and Moors into the same category. Thus, at the foundation of the notion of race is an anthropological question, which is: what does it mean to be human?
Racism is always already violent. Racism is always already dehumanizing. Groups are marked by this social process as either haves or have-nots. In the American context, groups marked as white are included in the racial contract, positioned as a part of the human family, and protected by the state. On the other hand, groups marked as black, or blackened, are not included in the social/racial contract, are positioned outside of the human family, and not protected by the State. It is only through structural violence that a racialized system, as such, can be both created and maintained.
That being stated, racism is a system. Embedded in the discourse of scholars, politicians, and civilians alike is the idea that racism is a matter of bad attitudes expressed by bad people … some bad apples in the orchard. However, racism is a structure; meaning it is entrenched in our institutions and our very ways of thinking. Something that comes out of Critical Race Theory is the idea that the so-called objective tools and the so-called neutral tools that we use to evaluate the world fail – because we seek to evaluate the external world without realizing that our optic itself is tainted. As a consequence of this, the violence against black folks is rendered invisible, and the body count continues to rise.
Framework #1: Carceral Continuum
- Slavery (1619-1865)
- Jim Crow (1865-1965)
- Ghetto (1914-1968)
- Prison (1968-present)
In an attempt to bring these victims into consciousness and into view, I will suggest the first framework for understanding the phenomena of anti-black violence. The first suggested framework for understanding anti-black violence is from Dr. Loic Wacquant – who talks about the four peculiar institutions: slavery, Jim Crow, the ghetto, and the prison. He argues that since 1619, these four institutions have defined, confined, and controlled black existence. As we can see, there is a continuum of domination. This framework is important because it highlights that domination is not reducible to demands for cheap labor. Also, it shows that slavery was more than just a legal institution. This argument certainly jibes with the work of Sadiya Hartman, who talks about the afterlife of slavery; not an aftermath of slavery, but an afterlife of slavery.
The point is that we are haunted by slavery, its ghost, its legacy; in the form of impoverishment, and incarceration. So the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, and the Civil Rights Movement were, at best, re-negotiations of the conditions of enslavement … but the structures and positions of anti-blackness have not been disrupted.
Framework #2: Social Death
- Openness to violence
- Natal alienation
- Generalized dishonor
Which brings us to the second framework for understanding anti-black violence: Orlando Patterson’s three constituent elements of social death. And the concept of social death is important because, too often, we conceptualize death as purely physical – as the cessation of biological life. But there are also social and cultural elements to death, as well.
The first constituent element of social death deals with an openness to structural violence. Because blacks are positioned outside of the protections of civil society and the social/racial contract, they can be victimized repeatedly with impunity.
The second constituent element of social death deals with having no legitimate claim to one’s family. Slaves can be completely severed from one’s family – all ascending generations in the form of ancestors, and descending generations in the form of offspring. There is no legitimate claim to heritage, connection, or lineage regarding kinship.
The third and final element of social death, stemming from the first two, is the notion of generalized dishonor. This element speaks to the way slaves were dishonored across the board on a count of their slave status. Because they were so open to violence and were effectively social non-persons, they were not held in high esteem, were not recognized, or given any respect.
Framework #3: Genocide
So my question at this junction is: What are the ramifications of positioning blacks outside of the human family? My answer, quite frankly is … genocide.
Now – when we think of genocide, our understanding is often limited episodes and physicality. We limit our thinking to concentrated and visible forms of violence in the form of firing squads and overtly heinous attempts to exterminate a group of people. And I am not suggesting that these events do not warrant our outrage. But I am arguing that there are also diffuse and invisible forms of genocide that take place but do not always take the form of outright and visible extermination. There are forms of genocide that are discrete, painstakingly long, and diffuse. And what I mean by this is the violence is so embedded within systems, that it becomes invisible – because it is the structure itself.
My argument is that anti-black genocide is built into the very structure of America.
It may be difficult to charge the U.S. with genocide because we often think of the U.S. as a global big brother – someone who intervenes when other countries have problems. But the very nations that claim to uphold human rights are the same nations that systematically violate them.
That being said, the framework I think is the best to understand genocide is the U.N.’s definition of genocide. While it might seem contradictory, I think the benefits – which are the ability to interpret and recognize genocide – outweigh the negatives of the origin of the definition. Here is the U.N.’s definition of genocide:
“…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
To my knowledge, only one formal charge of genocide has ever been made regarding black people in America. It was in 1951 by William Patterson – in the form of a petition, and it was signed by the notable scholar W.E.B. DuBois. The U.N. never responded, but that does not mean the claim was false. His interpretation of genocide was very broad so as to go beyond the physical – so I will use that interpretation and apply it to conditions of blacks in America today.
Genocide: Killing Members of the Group
Consider the fact that one black person is killed by the police, a security guard, or vigilante every 28 hours. A mantra of police departments around the country is “to protect and to serve” – but the question is: to protect and to serve whom? Blacks are positioned outside of the State, so they are theorized not as people to be protected, but people to be protected from. Hence the history of equating blackness with the boogeyman and criminality. Separating the notion of criminal justice from racism is extremely difficult when we consider the fact that the modern day police department traces its roots to the slave patrols of the American South.
We should also consider the fact that blacks are four times more likely to be murdered than the national average. When we consider the violence of inner cities, we will seriously expand our understanding of ‘war’. We think of war as if it is only something that occurs over there … abroad … but the murder rates in places like Chicago – which had 82 shootings in one weekend – is of such proportions that it is nicknamed “Chiraq.” Inner cities are war zones … especially when we think of the way black communities are militarized now.
A hindrance to understanding this is the notion of ‘black on black’ crime. The problem with this concept is that it frames the ‘black community’ as an isolated and inherently self-destructive group. In other words, black people are totally responsible for their wretched condition – and neither whites nor the State are culpable for such circumstances. These rhetorical gymnastics are made possible by completely disavowing centuries of anti-black violence by the West.
All groups hate black people, including black people. So it is disingenuous to pretend anti-blackness exists solely within black communities. The violence in black communities is “an outgrowth of external and structural violence,” not cultural pathology – such as hip hop music, Stop Snitching, a lack of family values, etc. So-called ‘black on black crime’ is an internalization of State theory and practice
Genocide: Serious Bodily or Mental Harm
So when we get into the idea of inflicting serious mental harm … we can talk about rates of PTSD in the inner cities. We are talking about people that live, day in and day out, in war zones; where they are being shot at, and loved ones are being shot down. People are traumatized. A study just a couple of years ago found that rates of PTSD in inner cities is just as high as returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another way to discuss mental harm is the notion of internalized racism, or self hatred. We live in a society that teaches blacks are inferior – nothing but hedonistic savages and cannibals whose ancestors swung from trees in Zimbabwe. Blacks are taught they have had no positive contributions to the world. I will testify that as a black man … at a very young age, I was taught to hate the darkness of my skin, the fullness of my lips, the width of my nose, and the kinkiness of my hair. I would look in the mirror and see a void staring back at me. And this is detrimental because blacks grow up with a limited sense of self-esteem.
To kinda shift gears … as far as bodily harm goes … blacks are most likely to die from heart disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, strokes etc. Blacks are also most likely to have high blood pressure and diabetes. We can talk about the lack of healthy resources in black communities; the fact that there are typically more liquor stores and fast food restaurants than farmer’s markets or supermarkets where black folks can purchase healthy foods for their diets.
We can talk about the lack of access to adequate medical care. Like right now, in spite of the Affordable Care Act, 17 states have opted out of the Medicaid expansion. These 17 states have the highest concentrations of black people – over 50% of the group’s national population. Blacks are disproportionately trapped in what is known as the coverage gap – so they cannot acquire health coverage.
Genocide: Destructive Conditions
When we think of deliberately inflicting conditions, what comes to mind is hyper-incarceration. There are more black men in jail than in college. 1 in every 15 black men are behind bars, on probation, or parole. 1 in every 3 blacks can expect to go to prison at some point in their life. And what is the collateral damage of being incarcerated? It destroys communities, one cannot gain employment most of the time afterward, and cannot gain access to public programs like welfare or housing.
What also comes to mind is the rates of impoverishment and unemployment among blacks – which has, historically and consistently been higher than the national average.
Also, the lack of educational opportunities for blacks. The so-called school to prison pipeline: where schools have become training centers for prison instead of institutions of learning. Over 70% of prisoners cannot read above a 4th grade reading level. Like Foucault said, the very institutions that claim to lead away from the prison lead straight to the prison.
Genocide: Preventing Births Within the Group
When we talk about preventing births within the group, we find that black women have the highest rates of miscarriage. Many studies have linked this to pollution – seeing as inner cities are often used as dumping grounds – and the lack of prenatal care. And also the highest rates of infanticide.
Black women have abortion rates that are almost five times that of white women. I cite this statistic not as an attempt to take a position in the so-called “pro-life, pro-choice” debate. I am making an argument about black women being socially dead – thus having no legitimate claim to their children. Since they are socially dead, they have no life and they have no choice. I realize that there are a litany of reasons women may receive an abortion. But when we look at survey data of women who have received abortions, one of the top answers, across the board, is the lack of finances. The position of black women at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder undoubtedly contributes to this.
Genocide: Forcible Transfer of Children
When we talk about transferring children of the group, we can talk about foster care. Black children are twice as likely to be in foster care. A goal of foster care is to reunify children with families – but black children are the least likely to be reunified with their families. When we think about the collateral damage of hyper-incarceration, we find that most of the prisoners behind bars report having a minor child. And most prisoners are behind bars for non-violent drug offenses; with sentences, thanks to the ‘tough-on-crime’ era, that are extremely long. So the reunification of family process becomes a problem. In fact, there are roadblocks put in place to make the process more difficult. In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act mandated that when children are in foster care for 15 out of any 22 months, agencies have to begin termination of parental rights proceedings. So now parents, black parents in particular, are losing rights to their children. This certainly ties into Patterson’s notion of natal alienation and social death.
By way of conclusion, my intent in bringing forth this information was to highlight the victims that are rendered invisible by anti-black violence. Since everyone heard this information, no one can walk out of here and say that they do not know. Silence is complicity. In hearing this information, hopefully we are one step closer to changing these conditions. Thank you!