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date: 21 November 2019

(p. 305) Racisms and Neo-Racisms

Abstract and Keywords

Antilynching activism and advocacy are codified in Wells’s writings, particularly the 1892 pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Wells presented an astute political analysis of racial-sexual violence within US democracy that remains influential from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. A review of Wells’s advocacy for Afro-American autonomy and self-defense to counter racial terror and rape, and her critique of the duplicity of antirape discourse that demonizes blacks, suggests that the legacy of Ida B. Wells is discernible in contemporary analysis and activism found in organizations such as Black Lives Matter and the Black Women’s Blueprint.

Keywords: lynching, rape, antiracism, activism, Ida B. Wells, abjection, white imaginary, chora, black agency, black waste, white supremacy, human rights, white class privilege, de facto racial injustice, racial justice movements, racism, technology of race, islamophobia, Muslims, post-9/11 United States, Michel Foucault, solidarity, police brutality, mass incarceration, subrace

Logically, it would seem as though ideas about race would have to precede racism. But the subject of racism is more broad and complicated than the subject of race, for at least these two historical reasons. First, the kind of prejudice (prejudged cognitions and negative emotions) and discrimination (treating people differently on the grounds of group identities) that constitute racism have a longer history than the modern idea of race, for instance in European anti-Semitism. And second, insofar as modern ideas of race have been in the service of dominant interests in international and internal interactions, these ideas of race are ideologies that have devalued nonwhite groups. That is, ideas of race are themselves already inherently racist.

In philosophy, racism has been treated as attitudes and actions of individuals that affect nonwhites unjustly and social structures or institutions that advantage whites and disadvantage nonwhites. The first is hearts-and-minds or classic racism, for instance the use of stereotypes and harmful actions by whites against people of color, as well as negative feelings about them. The second is structural racism or institutional racism, for instance, the facts of how American blacks and Hispanics are, compared to whites, worse off on major measures of human well-being, such as education, income, family wealth, health, family stability, longevity, and rates of incarceration.

Both classic racism and institutional or structural racism result in differences in social status that are remarkably enduring despite the achievement of formal equality through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1965 Immigration Act, as well as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Given the enormous importance of education in upward socioeconomic mobility and social status, Brown alone should have begun to change social racial disparities in lasting ways. However, that has not happened.

(p. 306) In the early twenty-first century, the United States maintains historically high rates of residential racial segregation. The American educational system is locally financed by property taxes, with schools in poor nonwhite neighborhoods struggling with extremely disadvantaged resources compared to schools in mainly white neighborhoods. Poverty and undereducation are strongly correlated with disproportionately high rates of incarceration under what Michelle Alexander has called “the new Jim Crow,” in a book by that title. Moreover, recent high-profile incidents of police homicide of unarmed young black men have resulted in the strange coincidence of a movement called “Black Lives Matter” with the second term in office of the first African American president.

What Lewis Gordon critiqued as Afro-pessimism in Part V is evident in descriptions of contemporary racism that may seem to border on despair as the price of being able to understand contemporary race relations, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Part of such pessimism has been unflinching reflection on some of the worst aspects of past racism. In “The Quartet in the Political Persona of Ida B. Wells,” Joy James examines antilynching activism and advocacy reported in Wells’s writings, focusing on the 1892 pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. James argues that Wells’s political analysis of racial-sexual violence within US democracy remains influential to the present. Wells advocated Afro-American autonomy and self-defense to counter racial terror and rape, and she was sharply critical of antirape discourse that demonized black men by pretending that white women never entered into voluntary sexual relationships with them. In relating Wells’s combative stance to the present activism of members of Black Lives Matter and the Black Women’s Blueprint, James emphasizes how racism continues to kill, as well as demean.

Janine Jones also views a continuity between past and present racism in the perception and treatment of black people as waste. Drawing on metaphysical analysis by Frank Wilderson, Jones claims that whites imagine blacks to be alienated from language and thereby degraded and rendered abject. Jones asks what it means “to be black, excess, and recyclable, as well as black, excess, and nonrecyclable.” She understands the nonrecyclability of excess black embodiment beginning in the late twentieth century to be a situation that no longer allows black bodies to be recycled into white wealth, through their labor. Work is “invested with reason,” but when investment in projects involving black work are no longer profitable, the result is waste. And, “black waste under these conditions is not recyclable. It must be disposed of.” This is where and when Jones claims that mass incarceration and dense segregation have entered the picture. (With very bleak irony, Jones concludes with an account of how the literal excrement of poor black people has been confiscated by police in Cape Town, South Africa.)

The latest new conceptual tool for considering racism is the idea of white privilege. Whites in the United States do not have explicitly designated privileges based on race, but a number of theorists and media pundits now address the contrast in human well-being between whites and nonwhites as a condition of “white privilege.” Shannon Sullivan begins her by analysis of white privilege by discussing racial disparities in wealth, health, incarceration, children as welfare clients, high school graduation, and beauty standards and preferences based on race. She observes that many of the advantages automatically enjoyed by whites are subtle, because the disadvantages experienced by nonwhites may be distributed without reference to race. For instance, when police practice racial profiling in minority neighborhoods (p. 307) that have high crime rates, their behavior can be justified by preexisting crime rates. Or, “zero tolerance” of “disruptive” and “insubordinate” behavior picks out black children for discipline in schools, without mention of their race. Still, white privilege is not monolithic among whites and some nonwhites are better off in economic and social measures than whites. Sullivan therefore suggests that there be a revision in terminology to white class privilege. She argues that while racial injustice often involves violation of human rights for nonwhites, which are not violated for whites, the concept of white class privilege remains useful for understanding how racial disparities and disadvantages ensue from habitual behavior and unquestioned social norms that favor whites.

There is an assumption in arts and letters, as well as philosophy and everyday life, that racial categories and racism are stable—what counts as races does not change over time or within memory in a single life span; and racism is a fixed set of attitudes and behavior directed toward members of a race. However, we have already seen how it is plausible to view racism as logically, as well as historically, prior to race. Falguni Sheth takes this a step further and sees race itself as formed through political action, with new racializations accompanying new oppressive and discriminatory practices. Sheth’s main example or case study is terrorist suspects after 9-11. Her insights are supported by the broad fact that members of the US public did come to think that they could phenotypically identify such suspects on sight, when the groups they belonged to did not stand out racially before 9/11. (Indeed, both Arab Americans and South Asians were officially categorized as racially white on the US Census and other forms, in the 1970s.) At the same time, the terms “water-boarding” and “extraordinary rendition” and accounts of harassment and immediate deportation entered political discourse. There were also new fears of internal terror and considerable tolerance for new inconveniences in airline travel to prevent violence in the skies.

This is not to suggest that there have not been real and continuing dangers from militarized Muslims, but Sheth’s account of recent racialization of Middle Eastern men, Muslims, and South Asians reveals a technology of race that many are not aware has been an integral part of the War on Terror. Preemptive policing, backed up by panicky moral judgment, has spread from Muslim or Islamic “types,” to all immigrants, and not only in the United States. Anti-immigrant sentiment has grown more intense in Europe following terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and as of this writing, it has motivated the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Common Market (Brexit).

In “State Racism, State Violence, and Vulnerable Solidarity,” Myisha Cherry examines what sustains state racism and state violence. She suggests that law can create a “subrace” out of those who are feared and held in contempt by white majorities. In Foucaudian terms, this subrace is countered not by another race, but by a superrace and the overall result is state racism. Cherry’s somewhat optimistic solution is to look toward the creation of solidarity among members of oppressed groups that extends to those who are comparatively privileged, resulting in “vulnerable solidarity.” This optimism arises from the same context in which a political form of race has emerged, that is, “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Cherry refers to US history to support her insight of universal vulnerability: “Even members of the superrace who do not become members of the subrace can nonetheless be impacted by state violence targeted toward the subrace. Although the War on Drugs has been a war on black, brown, and poor bodies, for example, there have been some casualties within the superrace.”

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Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. (2014). Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Find this resource:

Kozol, Jonathan. (1991). Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. New York: Crown.Find this resource:

Yancy, George. (2012). Look! A White!: Black Bodies, White Gazes. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Find this resource:

Zack, Naomi. (2015). White Privilege and Black Rights: The Injustice of US Police Racial Profiling and Homicide. Lanham, MD: Rowman& Littlefield.Find this resource: