Over the past three years the media in the United States has drawn attention to the epidemic of racist murders perpetrated by police officers against unarmed young black men and women (the five murders that received the most attention were those of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray). These events provoked new protests against police brutality and our racist system of mass incarceration at the same time that the media and our politicians portrayed each murder as an “exception” to the norm of a just Justice system that was no longer informed by structural discrimination against African Americans. As President Obama has reminded the nation after every publicized police murder of a young black man, we “have come a long way” since the Civil Rights era of legal segregation and Jim Crow. Since Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States, the media has referred to the American present as a ‘post-racial’ society and scholars have started to explore how this ‘post-racial discourse’ has informed (mis)representations of state violence and precluded opportunities for political activism in the United States.
In his new book, The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning, Alfred Frankowski cautions against the liberatory or teleological narrative that informs so much memorialization about past forms of racial oppression in the United States as such narratives lead us into moral blindness to the extremity of state violence in the present. Frankowski suggests that we adopt a racial realism (of the kind introduced by Derrick Bell) in order to counter our tendency to represent a liberatory account of social justice struggles. He also suggests that we adopt a healthy philosophical pessimism in order to counter the teleological reading of history.
I have two further suggestions for discursive interventions that could help us to question and reject the post-racial reading of America’s racist past and present: we need to recognize the difference between traumatic and tragic violence, and we need to recognize the continuity of genocidal politics in the United States from the massacre of Native Americans and the Atlantic slave trade, to the lynching and imprisonment of African Americans.
Tragic suffering pertains to a terrible, but still recognizably human fate. Tragic drama represents our vulnerability (to disease, war and hubris) and coincides with the depiction of a meaningful death (with dignity, love, community, sorrow). It often portrays suffering as redemptive or as somehow adding to the meaningfulness of one’s life (it reveals the truth, or it testifies to one’s honor or patriotism or bravery). For the Ancient Greeks, tragic suffering is often necessary in order to learn certain fundamental lessons about the human condition.
On the other hand, traumatic suffering pertains to a disruptive, inconceivable experience that overwhelms the capacity of symbolic representation to clarify or understand it as a meaningful experience. Trauma is the product of preventable actions—often normalized as ‘standard operating procedure’—that inflict ex-cessive amounts of gratuitous violence upon vulnerable populations. Traumatic suffering often leads to a meaning-less death that cannot be viewed as either a crime, a tragedy or a sacrifice. Thus in the United States when a cop murders a black citizen he is rarely—if ever—convicted of a crime. Traumatic suffering is not redemptive, and does not testify to the divine or natural order of things. It is made possible by our moral indifference to policies that predictably and systematically allow for extra-legal violence against citizens and non-citizens marked by race, class, gender, age and sex. With this distinction we can see that the violence in US prisons is not tragic or a ‘necessary evil’ to secure our public safety but rather the latest incarnation of the traumas suffered by African Americans in a structurally racist country. In the United States public policy has always served to exclude black citizens from moral consideration and the protection of the law, and to systematically obstruct entire communities from economic and political mobility. When we categorize regular patterns of racist violence as ‘tragic’ as opposed to ‘traumatic,’ the genocidal wounds inflicted by our penal system are justified as ‘justice’ as opposed to senseless violence that undermines the social vitality of entire communities.
Genocide studies is based on the phenomenon of the ‘Event’ of genocide at the cost of analyzing the repetition of genocidal practices over time, made ‘normal’ by the repetition of discursive practices that normalize them. As Frankowski suggests in his book, a repetition of practices over time is a system, and a repetition that conceals a dysfunction is a pathology. Instead of assuming the ontological basis of genocide as ‘Event,’ we should instead consider genocide as a pathological pattern of socio-political practices that undermine the social vitality of entire communities already marginalized by a white supremacist, heterosexist and classist distribution of capital and power. Historically scholars have argued that systemic racism in the United States is not ‘genocide’ for it cannot be understood in terms of a singular ‘intent’ to destroy black communities ‘as such.’ Recent scholarship in Holocaust studies indicates that this model has never served to adequately represent the multiplicity of logics that inform and justify every genocidal assault on a specific population. In fact, it can be reasonably argued that the desire for capital and power through the economic exploitation of specific populations will always be included among the competing motives for genocidal actions.
I have no use for analytic definitions of genocide that misrepresent and so distort the real, historical occasions of state violence still directed against the flourishing of particular populations as such. In the United States the status quo is not livable but instead produces versions of unlivable life. We need to abandon our Platonic adherence to the Form of genocide as the method that guides the analysis of discrete occasions of genocide in different eras and on different continents.
Americans have never had to reckon with the past of American slavery as genocide, and so cannot recognize the transmutation of genocidal policies over time. Instead, since the formal eras of slavery and Jim Crow have come to an end, most Americans believe that our public policies are not based on a legal structure of discrimination and persecution. Michelle Alexander refers to the mass incarceration of African-Americans as “The New Jim Crow” to emphasize how it has served to perpetuate the racist logic of the Jim Crow laws and sustain a racial caste system. However, when we consider the historical conditions of confinement in addition to the disproportionate number of black men who are imprisoned and killed, then we can better grasp how slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration are different forms of state violence in a continuous history of American genocide against Africans and African-Americans.
© Lissa Skitolsky
Lissa Skitolsky is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Susquehanna University. Her research in the fields of Continental philosophy and genocide studies aims to interrogate our cultural and political responses to mass violence and useless suffering. Further research topics of Lissa are political theory, rhetoric and state sanctioned violence.