By Steve Martinot
Black Lives Matter (BLM) broke upon the scene in mid-2013 with the voices of enraged crowds from Baltimore and New York City through Ferguson and Chicago to Oakland and Los Angeles. It added itself to a growing US uprising against police murder, mass incarceration, racial profiling, terror against immigrants and continued racial segregation in housing, employment and education. It quickly took hold as the name for a movement, a catalytic crystal that gave coherence and coordination to hundreds of separate events scattered across the country. And it appeared internationally in demonstrations in Peru, Tokyo, Germany and elsewhere. The world was evidently watching the US very carefully, weary of its pretensions to democracy and humanitarian enterprise, as Black Lives Matter turned the shutdown of expressways and neighborhoods at home from local responses to local atrocities into a global event.
The slogan meant, first of all, that the war on Black people must stop. But second, it demanded recognition of autonomy for all communities of color, their struggles for justice and their power to determine their own destiny. That demand led to a myriad of interruptions of board rooms and brunches, hearings and banquets, by teams of Black people loudly affirming, “We’re here and we exist.” These many groups then coalesced in Cleveland early 2016 to form the Movement For Black Lives, pooling their voices in their “Vision For Black Lives” founding platform to call for “a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized.”1
Behind that proclamation, “Black Lives Matter” became a call for what is essentially a cultural transformation of the world. As BLM cofounder Alicia Garza says, “The existing system is not what we ultimately want, nor will it ever substantively meet the needs of Black people.... Work has to be done [beyond non-participation] to make sure those systems are transformed, or that new systems are built.”2 These broad sentiments, in their common recognition of a national and international endeavor, also dovetail with two specific issues that must be addressed. One is the enormous problem of the huge denationalized population in the prisons of the US, the vast majority of whom are people of color. The other is the nature of race itself, the nature of what it means to be Black and, therefore, what it means to be white.
The United States operates the largest prison system in the world. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the US holds 25 percent of its prisoners. And it is they for whom Garza’s call for cultural transformation is both most urgent and most familiar. They are the ones taken prisoner by a police system that in 2015 killed over 1,100 unarmed Black people in the streets of the US (which averages out to more than three a day; a “war” indeed). Since the majority are imprisoned for victimless crimes, they are there for their race, first and foremost. Those who survive the mind-destroying conditions of indefinite sentences, of decades-long solitary confinements, of torture at the whim of officials, guards and politically-appointed parole boards, are the ones who dream most deeply of a humane and dignifying world.
Of course, the racialization of Black people has always depended on imprisonment. Slavery is more properly understood as “prison labor,” since the “ownership” of a person is blatantly oxymoronic, having meaning only for white landowners. Under Jim Crow, Black people were imprisoned in a debt structure that tied them to the land. Any attempt to escape led to a chain gang, or contract labor on a plantation (indistinguishable from slavery).
Today, not only have prisoners joined the leadership of many of the movements for justice from which BLM has sprung, they have been at the forefront of the search for new mythologies on the basis of which a society that is human—granting dignity to and recognizing the sanctity of human beings—might be possible; as also, a world in which the dehumanization and irrationality of racialized violence would not be possible.
Some among the incarcerated turn to ancient African thinking, others to contemporary (20th century) African philosophy; some turn to various indigenous traditions from the Americas, some to a variety of Asian philosophies and religions; and some simply take a hard look at the degrees of dehumanization that surround them and attempt to imagine an antithesis.
The struggle of the incarcerated for human rights, recently sparking hunger strikes and labor strikes throughout the country’s prisons, has been at the heart of the BLM call.
Those among the incarcerated who politicize their imprisonment are the ones most likely to be thrown into solitary confinement by prison administrations. It was with an intent to destroy them that the government invented the humanity-breaking “control unit” and “secure housing unit” policies in such institutions as the Marion Federal Prison in Illinois and Pelican Bay State Prison in California.
Criminalize at Will
What is often covered up, along with the lives of those thrown into the nation’s solitary confinement dungeons, is the police ability to criminalize anyone at will. They can act autonomously because the system of victimless crime laws relieves them of the need for a complainant. Police racial profiling has been legitimized by the Supreme Court (Terry v. Ohio; see Michelle Alexander’s analysis in The New Jim Crow). Police have been given enhanced obedience statutes that enable them to issue humiliating commands and immediately arrest or punish anyone who defends their sense of self-respect by disobeying. With impunity, they divide civil society between those whose humanity will be respected (the non-profiled) and those whose humanity can and will be disrespected (the racially profiled). In other words, the police have become the new “color line.” They have used it to imprison millions of people.
This is what led the Movement For Black Lives to announce in their founding platform a call for, among other things, “an immediate end to the criminalization and dehumanization of Black youth across all areas of society including, but not limited to, our nation’s justice and education systems, social service agencies, and media and pop culture. This includes an end to zero-tolerance school policies and arrests of students, the removal of police from schools and the reallocation of funds from police and punitive school discipline practices to restorative services.”
Meanwhile, the urgency of the BLM call for cultural transformation poses certain questions. To whom is this call addressed? What are “Black lives”? Do they just stand in opposition to a militarizing government, or is their existence more profoundly linked to the surrounding whiteness of this country’s socio-cultural framework?
We know the institutional elements to which the call is addressed. There are the prison walls constructed to replace the walls of segregation that the civil rights movements tore down. There is the police and prosecutorial impunity that subverts the equality and dignity that the civil rights movements made available. There is the ongoing pillaging of “Third World” national sovereignty by the Euro-American corporate structure, using centralized manipulation of economic factors (interest rates, exchange rates, import-export charges, etc.) to determine local politics in any area of the world.
In other words, to be made Black is not something that happens once; it happens for the rest of a person’s life. But this simply signifies that being made white is also something that never stops. When white people racialize Black people as Black, they are also racializing themselves as white, though generally without awareness that that is what is happening. Their enactments, whether arbitrary cruelty or thinly-veiled contempt, have substance primarily for real or imagined white audiences. And whenever the coherence of that audience is broken, when the hegemony of white cultural identity has been eroded by pro-democracy movements—such as abolitionism, Reconstruction and the civil rights movements—the government has stepped to reconsolidate it.
The Origins of Whiteness
When the English first got to what is now Virginia in 1606, they did not refer to themselves as white. “White” was still only a descriptive and not a racializing term. A racializing language had not yet been developed. The first record in Virginia of the English referring to themselves as “white” as a social identity only occurs in 1691, 85 years later. And it didn’t become a cultural identity until the early 1700s. (I have given a step-by-step account of how this happened in my book, The Rule of Racialization.) “Whiteness” was only “naturalized” as the modern concept of “race” by the European “naturalists” of the 18th century. But the identity of whiteness developed first in the wake of Nathanial Bacon’s 1676 rebellion of white colonists against the Virginia colonial governor. It emerged from a fear of Black rebellion, which fear required an inchoate sense of defensive solidarity, and which solidarity required a violence to make the fear seem real. Today, when a cop shoots a Black person and then says, “I felt threatened,” he is intoning the innermost essence of whiteness as a cultural identity. Thus, the cop and the media that explains him keep making all Black people Black again and again, so that all white people can see themselves as white again, across the verb “to racialize.”
To simply oppose “racism” is thus insufficient. As we grow a movement against racializing violence, following the BLM call to end the war against Black people, we also need a movement that can expose and contest the paranoia that is culturally ingrained in white culture and white identity. And we need a movement that reveals the relationship between white solidarity and white identity, between the project of reconstructing whiteness (the new Jim Crow) and reconsolidating white hegemony as a violently reimposed system.
What Is Black Life?
To address the problem, we must start at the edges. What, after all, is a “Black life”? This is neither a biological nor an anthropological question. It is a cultural question. Is existence in a Black community what makes a life “Black”? But Black people have to be Black before constituting a Black community. Were Black people, therefore, born Black? Only some societies racialize dark-complexioned people as Black, showing that race is a social construct. It happens to people after they are born.
So, in the US, Black people aren’t born Black; they are made Black by a white supremacist society. Similarly, white people aren’t born white; they are made white by the same entity. The difference is that they are racialized differently by the supremacy that constructs them.
If there is nothing inherent in the concept of race, then race is something done to people. It is done in the same sense that poverty is done to people by an exploitative economic structure, and prison is done to people by a vengeful and oppressive judicial structure. Race is “done” by a white supremacist culture. But that means “race” is not a noun. It doesn’t name an inherent condition. It is a verb. The verb is “to racialize,” and it is something that one group of people does to others. In the US, it is something that white people do to those they proclaim non-white.
We all know what a racializing structure does. It marginalizes, it reduces social status, it produces social deprivileging, it disenfranchises (politically and culturally), and it humiliates through the generalizations it imposes on individuals. These are all forms of social violence, enacted by some whites, though not all. Some whites struggle against doing it; some do it unconsciously; some do it even though they try not to; some do it because it is essential to their identity; and some do it because they love the violence and paranoia of it. But ultimately, none escape their whiteness because it is given to them by others. Though their whiteness is given them as a juxtaposition to Black people, it is not Black people but other white people who demand that they accede, whether consciously or unconsciously, to the enactment of that verb.
“White lives” become what they are through having others to racialize, by making others the objects of the verb. Some abjure the alliance this requires and refuse the role. Others become strongly white-identified, white-oriented to the point of embracing their given role as agents of the verb. White anti-Black racism is the result. It is a performance by white-identified people whose audience is other white people, not those racialized by it. Racism is a relationship between white people for which Black people are the means. That is why its irrationality is so egregious. The racialization of others that whites enact becomes a form of dues paid for membership in whiteness as a cultural structure.
It is across this verb of race that Black Lives Matter is spoken. Its real power, then, becomes its ability to “flip the script.” It puts Black people in the subject position of a different verb, the verb “to stop.” And it thus renders all white people, and their governmental institutions, the object of that other verb.
In other words, Black Lives Matter is most importantly addressed to Black and Brown people, to those who suffer the terror of racist assault, and who wonder if they are going to get home each night because there is killing going on. “Take heart, you matter, you count.” This is its inclusionary value... it speaks to the invisible and the unheard. It is the voice of a history that has been dedicated to the same cultural transformation that the present now necessitates. It was the voice of Gabriel Prosser, of Denmark Vesey, of Nat Turner, of David Walker, of Marcus Garvey, of W.E.B. DuBois, of Ida B. Wells, of Malcolm, of King, of the Panthers, of Black Power, of Sandra Bland, and now, of Alicia Garza and the Movement for Black Lives. We/you/they matter. We/you/they count. It is not new. It has been around for centuries in all the areas that call themselves the United States. It appeared in the multiple progeny of the civil rights movements: La Raza, AIM [American Indian Movement], ACT-UP and the vast spectrum of women’s organizations, all wrestling themselves out from under their own objecthood.
We must all take heart. Since “race” had a beginning, it will inevitably also have an end.
BLM not only addresses the government and says “stop;” it also addresses white-oriented people and says, “Get up off the subject position of that verb by letting us be subjects in our own right, and not objects for you to use to construct your cultural identity.” Many white people demur and say, “I don’t see color; I don’t care what race a person is.” But that remains empty rhetoric. It allows the entire cultural structure to speak for them. It ignores the role model for the violence of the prison system, the objectification that police impunity enacts, and the paranoia played up by the media.
White people should welcome removing the verb “to racialize” from the social landscape. It would free them from the necessity to play the role of white person through that verb, to perform all the arbitrary generalizations or objectifications that their membership in whiteness requires. It would enable them to simply enjoy the company and variety of real people.
There is, after all, more than one form of prison from which the incarcerated need to be freed.
Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance and Forms in the Abyss: A Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple). He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.
2. Email interview with Karen Kamp published October 3, 2016 in Moyers & Company