In early spring 1994, I paid a visit to Los Angeles, where I was greeted in the airport at the arrival gate - that was still possible in those days - by my friend Mina Choi, who was a former babysitter to my eldest son when I was in graduate school. Having completed her studies at Yale, Mina was pursuing her writing career in Los Angeles. We embraced each other in a hearty hello, a mundane act expected of good friends, which, however, led to a halt and uncomfortable silence among our fellow travelers, their family and friends. Such was the response to a meeting of Northeast Asia and African America nearly two years after the 1992 Riots/Uprisings. Although Rodney King famously pleaded, "Can we all get along?" there clearly continued to be much doubt.
That is, however, a simplification to look back to those events as fundamentally between Asian-Americans and African-Americans. Although part of the tale - that the value of black life was deeply insulted when shopowner Soon Ja Du did no prison time for shooting Latasha Harlins is one example, and the fact that many Korean businesses were attacked during the riots is another - we should bear in mind that the participation of whites and Hispanics/Latinos (the largest group arrested by the police) brought to bear additional considerations as the initial frustration of black populations, marked fundamentally by the effects of neoconservative polices of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, was transformed into the rage that sparked the unfolding events.
Now, 20 years later, many of the conditions contributing to those riots and a series of others across the globe - as witnessed in the UK last summer - as well as mass demonstrations on the effects of global financial mismanagement and, in many cases, outright class massacre, have not only remained, but have also worsened. It's difficult not to think of Baldwin's well-known, prophetic imagery of fire next time. Yet that could also have been said of 1992 and 1968. As one goes back through the genealogy of the many national conflicts through which race and class converged as fundamental in the face of their continued evasion, the grammar of American "race and class relations," so to speak, is generally one of continued disavowal of their legitimacy, of their being ancillary aberrations of an otherwise pristine societal order. The extent to which endemic racist features of American (and perhaps all modern) society need to be addressed is a question often feared, but, as recent events such as the Trayvon Martin homicide and the plethora of instances of police misconduct on racial matters attest, remains necessary.
To address some of these endemic features, I will first outline, through drawing upon insights from W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, violence in political terms, from a thesis of illicit appearance - the absence, that is, of the right of appearance. This will serve as the condition of possibility by which there was hyper-visibility, which is a form of invisibility, of blacks as the main subjects of the L.A. riots/uprising and the failure to regard the police and agents from the suburbs in a similar vein. I will then examine the grammar set by that portrait, wherein spillage and moving beyond boundaries lead to constructions of so-called "problem people" as monstrosity (warnings) or portents of varieties of "disasters" and a theodicy of social arrangements (for example, criminalization and other forms of pathologizing of racialized subjects) that set the framework for the next two decades of neoconservative and neoliberal political economies of the present.
Du Bois and Fanon on Illicit Appearance
Du Bois succinctly outlined much of what is the basis of Angela Y. Davis' and Michelle Alexander's critical scholarship on the prison industry in the United States when he reflected on the criminalization of blacks in the American system of laws and its enforcement:
... its police system was arranged to deal with blacks alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police. Thus grew up a double system of justice, which erred on the white side by undue leniency and the practical immunity of red-handed criminals, and erred on the black side by undue severity, injustice, and lack of discrimination. For, as I have said, the police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes, not simply of criminals; and when the Negroes were freed and the whole South was convinced of the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first and almost universal device was to use the courts as a means of re-enslaving the blacks. It was not then a question of crime, but rather one of color, that settled a man's conviction on almost any charge. Thus Negroes came to look upon courts as instruments of injustice and oppression, and upon those convicted in them as martyrs and victims.
Among Alexander's observations is not only the alarming number of blacks incarcerated under the war on illicit drugs and other criminalization policies since the 1980s, but also something well known even in the time of Richard Wright, who reflected on the phenomenon in his introduction to "Native Son," namely, the extraordinary number of those who were convicted, although, as evidence attested, they were innocent of the crimes for which they were charged. There is a form of perverse anonymity to the notion of "the" black criminal, which is that it is a place that could be occupied by nearly any black, although usually a black male, because of an overdetermined logic: blacks are always up to something. The consequent system of surveillance necessitated a deputy status to every white man. (The logic of white women as victims of black men created a structure, eventually, of white men as the protector of women - ironically, including black women and other women of color, from black men.)
Du Bois offered theory behind his observation. Decoding the so-called "black problem," he showed the fallacy of making people into problems instead of understanding their relationship to social malediction. To be a problem means wherever one "appears," so do problems. The consequence is illicit appearance.
Fanon argued the same in "Black Skin, White Masks" and "The Wretched of the Earth." In the first, he questioned the logic of self-other relations in the study of racism and colonialism. Self-other relations pertain to the realm of acceptable appearance, where an ethical obligation emerges between the self and an other. Outside of that relation, there are neither selves nor others. Blacks are presumed, often pushed, into that nether-realm, which he called the zone of nonbeing. A peculiar conundrum emerges. If the double order of a realm of legitimacy is one in which blacks are "outside," then their entrance poses a violation of that order. It would be a crossing of bounds, the violation of which is unjust and unethical. Such a rupture, he makes explicit in "The Wretched of the Earth," is not only violent but also violence. The black, from this analysis, commits the crime of illicit appearance.
There is double jeopardy in this notion of illicit appearance. First, there is violation of the thesis that one should not appear. That black invisibility is presumed just, the assertion of visibility could not, then, be a right. Blacks under such a system thus lack even the right to appear. Second, that makes ordinary resources of moral argumentation futile, since the mediating conditions are barred: any movement from one sphere to the other is already outlawed. Thus, third, the black would have to suspend ethics as a mediating condition to the self-other relation and simply enter it by other means. Those other means take the form of political work, which those who wish to preserve the status quo often consider to be unethical. In ironic language, the apartheid structure of racial ethics makes black justice a form of white injustice and vice versa, to read as unjust justice versus just injustice.
Illicit appearance suggests also a paradox of racialized invisibility. The offending blackness is in fact a hyper-visibility, the effect of which is the erasure of individuating or contextualizing considerations - that is, human invisibility. Such hyper-vision manifests epistemic closure, where to see a black as such means there is nothing more to be known or to be learnt.
This odd logic of internality and externality is peculiarly theodicean. Theodicy involves accounting for the integrity of an omnipotent and omniscient entity in the face of evil and injustice. The classic response is twofold. First, the limitations of humanity impede understanding of the deity's ultimate intentions. Second, human free will, granted by the deity, makes human beings accountable for emergent infelicities. Both formulations amount to this: the deity is intact; it is humanity that fails.
The modern secularization of sin has not led to the elimination of theodicean rationalization. By substituting science or the social system for the deity, similar reasoning emerges: those who suffer contradictions of the system must suffer because of their fundamental flaws, which make them external to the system, becoming, in Du Bois' language, "problem people." The history of race in the United States, under this interpretation, is marked by a theodicean problem in which the country is idolized and its contradictions become external. To bring those contradictions to the fore, then, follows the same logic of illicit appearance.
This problem of violation and threats to the social order were hallmarks of the Reagan administration's policy on blacks. Although kept somewhat at bay by the cold war's public relations battle over where the decent society lay, anti-black racism and anti-Communism often converged through the logic of the former belonging outside and the latter being presumed foreign. Thus, while the latter was supposedly an international threat, the former was very much an internal one: the systematic poverty, segregation and humiliations wrought on blacks could be rectified only by addressing their causes within the system, which requires changing it in ways presumed foreign. Black life, from this point of view, became intimately connected to policies that would advance the cause of foreign enemies. The country began to solidify itself from Reagan onward through the affirmation of black exclusion, an effort that also proved lucrative as it generated more markets for its management and maintenance. As prisons grew and social welfare declined, so, too, did new sites of wealth as prospects for equality dwindled. This period, we know, is the age of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Together, these twins of the move from slightly left of center to the right depend on rationalizations of reality devoid of verification and rigor of analysis. Particularly with regard to race, their proponents work more through fictional and often mythic tropes than through reality supported by empirical evidence. This was, for example, the case with the "welfare queen" figure of the Reagan era and the black criminal (Willie Horton) of the George H. Bush period.
The neoconservatives offer the construction of African-Americans as depraved, diseased, deviant, delinquent and intellectually deficient. The correlated disciplinary rationalizations of this ideology are black people as problems of judicial and criminal justice studies, health and education. The specific correlates are studies of crime, AIDS and intellectual deficiency. Their work is theodicean in the sense discussed above. The United States and the entire modern Western tradition are without fault, and the plight of the many whose labor and lives were fodder for the emergence of that tradition not only suffer from their supposed inherent deficiencies but also from an apparent lack of gratitude for the privilege of having some part in this self-congratulatory portrait.
There are many contradictions and double standards in the neoconservative position, including its proponents' lack of memory of the role they played in creating the circumstances they criticize. The decimation of public institutions from the Reagan administration onward, for instance, created dysfunction on a scale that made it appear foolish to seek public solutions to problems of the common weal. At the same time, the bloated military budgets are premised upon the use of public funds for private interests. We could call this what it is: welfare for the rich. That African-American interests tend to be linked to a viable public infrastructure made African-Americans a marked enemy of privatization. In some instances, African-Americans were collateral damage, but in most cases, they were in the direct line of fire.
The neoliberals are not as overtly blatant as the neoconservatives. While they share the neoconservative fetishizing of privatization, they are concerned with preserving some semblance of human rights and democracy in the process. Thus, they are compelled to offer an alternative to the neoconservative mantra of pathological blackness. Instead, they present a conception of democratic life premised upon individualism, which makes the collective needs of a disenfranchised African-American population illegitimate. Privatization demanded an engagement with African-Americans as neoliberals continued the neoconservative attacks on public infrastructure. For neoliberals, African-Americans were, at first, more collateral damage. As it became clear that African-American interests rested upon a model of democracy premised upon group or collective rights, neoliberal critics waged a war on African-Americans in the insidious language of being concerned about the ultimate interests of African-American individuals.
We return, then, to the problem of illicit appearance. No black person is discriminated against as an individual, but the logic of legitimate appearance requires blacks not appearing as a group. This circumstance is exacerbated by the reality of how blackness functions in the perceptual field of an anti-black society; the effect is exponential, where a black translates into blacks. This exponentiality is the aforementioned hyper-visibility constitutive of invisibility. It is why, in spite of the many whites and lighter-skinned Hispanics/Latinos caught on videotape looting during the L.A. riots/rebellion, the portrait of the event is black.
I should here like to add what might be a controversial consideration. The theodicean dimension of national integrity requires the affirmation of blacks as extra-systemic, as "outside." This logic has enabled varieties of once non-white groups, such as the Irish, Italians and European Jews to become part of the national "we" through their conflicts with the nation's "them." The many violent riots against black communities in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century are examples, and the various neoconservative portraits of a broken alliance between blacks and European Jews supposedly due to the emergence of Black Power movements in the 1960s is another.
The status of Asian-Americans and at least light-skinned Hispanics/Latinos in the L.A. riots and subsequent racial conflicts raises the question of the relevance of such a logic of national affirmation. The structure of Korean and other Northeast-Asian-American merchants' relation to black neighborhoods is reminiscent of the dynamics of Eastern European merchant immigrants during Baldwin's time. Although the history of US attitudes toward Asians and Latin Americans is not a rosy one, it is also one of a strict logic of racial economy and differentiation. Where blacks are considered a menace, the rejection of white supremacy need not entail the same for anti-black racism. Thus, although there are Asian-American and Hispanic/Latino groups that fight against white hegemony and racist superiority, it would be naive to presume an instant solidarity with black causes. There are Asian-Americans and Hispanic/Latinos who are anti-black racists without any desire to be white. This failure of alliance has devastating effects, especially the extent to which it works well for policies of infrastructural disintegration through making strong associations with pro-infrastructure policies as black-oriented policies.
I already mentioned the image of Soon Ja Du's shooting Latasha Harlins in the back of the head after an altercation over a $1.79 bottle of juice - an act captured on Du's store's video camera - and we could add to it the many images of armed Koreans defending their stores, bringing together a powerful motif of American politics, namely, protecting property over life. What better rite of passage into American whiteness could there be, and if other markers of assimilation (such as marriage) are any indication, greater solidification with whiteness is an early message gleaned from those events.
Additionally, we should bear in mind that one of the police officers who participated in the beating of Rodney King and was acquitted in the trial that ignited the protest was Hispanic/Latino: Rolando Solano. At no point in the iconography of the accused police officers is there a question of their whiteness. Also, although there was a white woman officer, Stacey Koon (ironic name, no?), there is an almost uniform image of the officers as male. Together, we have the solidified signification of white male officers. This structure is one that is unfolding in the present in unusual ways as questions remain of assimilation premised upon maintaining structural whiteness through anti-blackness.
Of Divine Warnings
The apocalyptic vision of Marines and National Guard troops patrolling decimated areas of Los Angeles bring to mind disaster with portents of natural and unnatural kinds as we consider the varieties of racially inflected catastrophes to come, ranging from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the effects of the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The many intervening and worldwide calamities bring the question of disaster to the fore. The term disaster, etymologically understood, means a fallen star or planet. Such an occasion is no less than a sign, but for whom a sign is issued is of crucial importance. If the witness of the sign is not the one for whom it is signified, that person would be swept up in the course of its transmission and then, in turn, become a sign. Let us call this tide a sign continuum, through which also emerges the notion of disastrous people.
As sign continua, disastrous people do more than portend catastrophe. Their presence is supposedly catastrophic. They are thus, too, warnings, which makes them, in language of old Latin, a form of monstrum (warning), which, in the infinitive, is monere (to warn) and transformed in contemporary language into monsters.
There was a time in which the response to monsters was to learn from them. Serving the purpose of edification - to warn the community of things gone wrong (how else would they have been able to appear?) - monsters were once articulate. Whether creatures of antiquity, demonic ones of the Middle Age, or the prototypical concerns of what was to come in modernity in Mary Shelley's novel, they offered warnings by which humanity could change course before reaching points of proverbial no return. The world of colonialism and racism is marked, however, by, among other things, the form of arrogance that emerges when man believes he has defeated God. Thus, as a potential conqueror of all there is, what warnings need such a human spirit take seriously? With such an attitude, a new development emerges for the role of monstrosity: that of the limits by which self-reflection could be asserted as transcendence. It is, in effect, to make particular groups of human beings take on the role of gods, by which others are left steeped in the babble of irrelevance. The effect is to place opposition to the hegemonic order outside the realm of legitimate appearance and speech. It is a return of the theodicean paradigm.
Being without voice, monstrosity is locked in its body and becomes simply destructive forces to be contained. We could read this process in the events leading up to the riots of 1992. What, after all were Latasha Harlins' complaints to Soon Ja Du but a silenced effort at communication? What was Rodney King's moving body but one that, by definition, was without words - and yet still, somehow, threatening - as he was being beaten to the ground? And how was it possible to determine excessive force when the police officers' use of force was presumed legitimate? Would not the question of degree already be swallowed up in the acceptance of whether or not? Once force (not read as violence because presumed legitimate) is permitted, how could there ever be too much? Thus, when the jurors - most of them white, one Asian-American and one Hispanic/Latino - in Simi Valley were instructed to determine whether excessive force was used against King, what else could they have determined when the force was already presumed legitimate? Moreover, the racial grammar of the jury already said it all since, presumably, black jurors were incapable of transcending prejudice or vicarious attachment, but already, the imagined voice of a more reasonable America is demographically set: national identity solidified through black exclusion.
Locked in their bodies, then, since their words and their thoughts could not become part of the discursive communicative world of legitimate appearance, black bodies reached out through rage - monstrous rage through which Hispanics/Latinos and whites became part of the continuum, but not its illicit appearance. Although already set in motion from policies of the 1980s, the project of containment received renewed force from 1992 onward, and, as we know, legislation leading to more mechanisms of control followed as large numbers of blacks were imprisoned in spite of a declining crime rate in the nation; profits were to be made off of this development, and the privatization of prisons and varieties of other once-public institutions led to an error of dismantling much of the infrastructure that could have provided opportunities for those whose social reach did not extend beyond that of their own bodies.
The neoconservative and neoliberal responses to images of disorder were to radicalize the dismantling of public institutions that could respond to those crises. That effort became global, as witnessed by the negotiation of the transformation of the South African apartheid government into a neoliberal post-apartheid one with, unfortunately, more radicalized inequalities, especially for black South Africans, despite the country's being ruled by a predominantly black political party. Throughout the globe, similar structures of privatization and individuated conceptions of civil liberties led to wholesale violence and incarceration of blacks in the Caribbean and many Latin American countries. The United States and the UK were, additionally, leaders in this process.
The recent economic crisis reflects those developments in rather profound ways. Black male unemployment has remained at double the level of white male unemployment, which raises an extraordinary reflection on the supposed violent tendencies of blacks if we were to ponder what whites would do with, say, a 40 percent unemployment rate. On these matters, we could close with a reflection from Du Bois in another of his great corpus, "Black Reconstruction in America," in which, after pointing out the hijacking of the emancipatory potential of Reconstruction and the conditions forged by Jim Crow, he moved beyond his 20th-century prophecy of the color line to the 21st-century condition for dignity and human worth, which, in his prescient thought, was no less than employment. We are at that moment today, in a world rendered small and fast, through a population seven billion strong and with technological resources that make time and space contracted. It is under these conditions that we now reflect back on the past 20 years and ask ourselves, is it already so?
1. Of which there are many accounts and commentary. For a set of philosophers', social scientists', and literary theorists' commentaries of the event, see Robert Gooding-Williams (ed.), "Reading Rodney King: Reading Urban Uprising" (New York: Routledge, 1993); cf. also Brenda Wall, "The Rodney King Rebellion: A Psychopolitical Analysis of Racial Despair and Hope" (Chicago, IL: African American Images, 1997).
2. For a detailed account of this incident, including a portrait of Harlins, Du, and Joyce Karlin, the white female judge who sentenced Du, see Brenda E. Stevens, "Latasha Harlins, Soon JA DU, and Joyce Karlin: A Case Study of Multicultural Female Violence and Justice on the Urban Frontier," The Journal of African American History 89, no. 2 (Spring, 2004): 152–176.
3. For a summary history and analysis of this list, see, for example, Michelle Alexander, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" (New York: The Free Press, 2010) and Michael Tillotson, "Invisible Jim Crow: Contemporary Ideological Threats to the Internal Security of African Americans" (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2011). The story of Travyon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American killed by George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic/Latino and self-appointed neighborhood watchman, on February 26, 2012, is receiving worldwide attention as this paper is being written.
4. See W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches," 7th Edition (Chicago: A.C. McClurg& Co., 1907 [original, 1903]), note 8, and for discussion, see Lewis R. Gordon, "Philosophical Anthropology, Race, and the Political Economy of Disenfranchisement," The Columbia Human Rights Law Review 36, no. 1 (Fall 2004): 156–158. For Angela Y. Davis, see "Are Prisons Obsolete?" New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003, and "Women, Race, and Class" (New York: Vintage Books, 1983).
5. See "The Souls of Black Folk," as well as "The Study of Negro Problems," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science XI (January 1898): 1-23. Reprinted in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 56 (March 2000): 13–27; see also my chapter, "What Does It Mean to be a Problem?" in "Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought" (New York: Routledge, 2000).
6. See Frantz Fanon, "Black Skin, White Masks," trans. Charles Lamm Markman (New York: Grove Press, 1967) and "The Wretched of the Earth," trans. Constance Farrington (New York; Grove Press, 1963). The analysis that follows is built on these texts and a variety from the black existential phenomenological literature. See, for example, Lewis R. Gordon, "Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism" (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Internaitonal Press, 1995), F"anon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay in Philosophy and the Human Sciences" (New York: Routledge, 1995), and "Existentia Africana," as well as Lewis R. Gordon (ed.), "Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy" (New York: Routledge, 1997), Steve Bantu Biko, "I Write What I Like: A Selection of His Writings," Foreword by Lewis R. Gordon, Preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with an Introduction by Malusi and Thoko Mpumblwana, edited with a personal memoir by Aelred Stubbs C.R. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), and Noël Chabani Manganyi, "Being-Black-in-the-World" (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1973), "Alienation and the Body in Racist Society: A Study of the Society that Invented Soweto" (New York: NOK Publishers, 1977), and George Yancy, "Black Bodies, White Gaze: The Continuing Significance of Race" (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
7. This summary is offered in many texts, such as the Michelle Alexander and Michael Tillotson books already cited. See also Wendy Brown, "American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-democratization," Political Theory 34, no. 6 (2006): 690–714, Joel Handler, for example, "The Poverty of Welfare Reform" (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), "Social Citizenship and Workfare in the United States and Western Europe: The Paradox of Inclusion" (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), Thomas Frank, "The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule" (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008), and C. Bradley and Yaron Broo, "Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea" (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010).
8. The reader should consult the various YouTube postings of the riots.
9. See the many books on how various European groups became white such as Karen Brodkin, "How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says About Race in America" (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998), Eric Goldstein, "The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity" (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), Jane Anna Gordon, "Why They Couldn't Wait: A Critique of the Black–Jewish Conflict over Community Control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, 1967–1971" (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001). Noel Ignatiev, "How the Irish Became White" (New York: Routledge, 2008), David R. Roediger, "Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs" (New York: Basic Books, 2006). 10. See, e.g., Iver Bernstein, "The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), William M. Tuttle, "Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919" (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996), and "Reading Rodney King."
11. See the texts on race, neoliberalism, neoconservatism and the dismantling of the social welfare state, cited above. For critical Latino commentary on this issue, see, e.g., José Alfaro, Ramon Jimenez, Esperanza Martell, Radhames Perez, José LaSalle, Rafael Sencion Marina Ortiz and Zenaida Mendez, "Geraldo Rivera Dividing Blacks and Latinos: Justice For Trayvon — Trayvon Is Us!" National Institute for Latino Policy Newsletter (April 6, 2012). We should also bear in mind that while there has been a pull toward whiteness as means of assimilation for Latino/Hispanic communities, there has also been a history, especially in Puerto Rican communities, of both a political solidarity and affirmation of blackness as exemplified by the significance of the most important collection of archives for the study of African America and the African Diaspora being the (Arturo) Schomburg Center for Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library.
13. For a developed analysis of the thesis outlined here, see Jane Anna Gordon and Lewis R. Gordon, Of Divine Warning: Reading Disaster in the Modern Age (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009).
14. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880 (New York: Atheneum, 1992), originally published in 1935. For discussion, see, e.g., Susan Searls-Giroux, ''Reconstructing the Future: Du Bois, Racial Pedagogy and the Post-Civil Rights Era," Social Identities 9, no. 4 (2003): 563–98, and especially 591–6, and Reiland Rabaka, W. E. B. Du Bois and the Problems of the Twenty-First Century: An Essay on Africana Critical Theory (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).