Many around the nation and globe will be formally grieving, and through their grief, honoring the victims of the recent racism-fueled massacre in South Carolina. Those present in Charleston will include President Obama and myriad other dignitaries, in observance and communion around terror, loss, violence, and perhaps justice and healing. But many will not be mourning. Acknowledging this fact, though, runs asunder to the politics and narratives that currently sustain inequity.
Quickly after the racial terror enacted upon parishioners of the Emanuel A.M.E. church and Black America more broadly, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addressed racial disparities of well-being in the United States in a letter to her followers.
She, or one of her astute and racially literate advisors, wrote: “In America today, blacks are nearly three times as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage. Our schools are more segregated than they were in the 1960s. Black children are 500 percent more likely to die from asthma than white kids — how can that be true?”
It is partly true because of something she [or advisor] wrote a bit later in the letter:
“All of us reeled from the news in Charleston.”
All of us did not reel. Probably only about half of us reeled. The other half may have known about the racial terrorism, likely called it a tragedy or perhaps even a hate crime, but it very likely disrupted almost nothing about their days following this stunningly apt crystallization of the American story. And it’s quite possible that less than half of us will be grieving formally come Friday.
For those deep in grief, the lack of traction, of acknowledgement, of commemoration in others and the world around them, can feel like salt in a gaping wound. Grief is so all-consuming that it bristles at the sight and sound of anyone or anything going about business as usual. It’s the sentiment that W. H. Auden captured perfectly in his poem, Stop all clocks, cut off the telephone: “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun. Poor away the ocean and sweep up the wood.” Grief cannot abide by daily rhythm continuing on, as if nothing has happened.
And yet the condition of Black life, as Claudia Rankine noted with stunning poignancy, is one of mourning. She writes, “historically, there is no quotidian without the enslaved, chained or dead black body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against.“ Rankine joins other scholars, including Fred Moten and Hortense Spillers, who have theorized the deep structures that facilitate the erasure of Indigeneity and anti-Blackness upon which coloniality and its manifestation of slavery were built. In times when it is so easy to divert and collapse systemic change into fleeting proclamations against symbols, their work speaks with a needed rigor, cutting through myopic ahistoricity and political platitudes.
Anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy, as noted by Scott Nakagawa. There is no white supremacy without anti-blackness. This foundational colonial cut to stratify and delineate humanness for the interest of reserving disproportionate wealth and well-being for some draws subsidy from the lie of others being poorer, less well, simply less than. White supremacy needs anti-blackness. Heteronormativity needs transphobia; patriarchy needs misogyny. And this is where the profit lays, subsidized by the inevitable grief borne of structural violence.
Death comes to us all. We all will know grief. But we do not know them in commensurate fashion. Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” That vulnerability for some groups is deeply connected to the seemingly quite bearable lightness of being for other groups.
The silence of so many, the instagrammed pictures of dinner entrees, the steady thrum and hum of business is more than just an unfortunate human contrast between gaping maws of pain and moments of ease. In this deep, ongoing infrastructure of settler colonialism and racist capitalism, the contrast lays bare the profit gained from the transaction of racist capitalism. We are all touched and shaped, not definitively but still, within this system. The attempt to erase Indigenous peoples, and the casting of racialized minorities as models, the seemingly endless appetite for images of Black bodies in pain and death – all are interconnected and distinct coordinates of a larger colonial project.
A materialist analysis of coloniality, one that centers and prioritizes how material well-being and vulnerability are linked, renders insufficient the commonplace call to ‘check one’s privilege,’ and be ‘in solidarity’ as noted by many critical scholars, including Rubén Gaztambide-Fernandez and Andrea Smith. It may also, at a minimum, put in its proper place the comfort food stories that smooth righteous bristles at a world that offends and dictates material suffering with impunity.
Recently, a white friend told me a story about his southern family and race relations. His father, who regularly still uses the n-word to refer to black people, was the owner of a factory. At one point, a small group of white men came to the factory and demanded that his father fire the mostly black workforce and replace them with white workers. His father refused, defending his workers as good people. It was a story remembered and told, I believe, in the interest of understanding and mediating his father’s white racial identity, and likely his own, as Southern men. It may even be a story whose telling propels transformation of practices. But it is also a story about profit.
As has always been the case, it is difficult to know definitely what is in the hearts and minds of people. This is why I both assume and disregard good intentions. What I know definitively from this story is that this person’s father is the one who owned the factory, a fact situated within the ongoing intertwined structures of housing regulation, banking practices, cultural practices, and de facto segregation that structurally benefits and protects whites’ property ownership. I also know that employing a mostly black workforce might have allowed his father to profit from offering lower wages, as every single measure of wage inequality continues to tell us.
A significant part of what sustains the gaps in well-being is that those gaps are not mere happenstance. They are integral to the formation and ongoing structure of racist capitalism, of stratification and preservation of property rights for some, white men mostly, subsidized by the poverty of others, most exaggeratingly experienced by black people. When Clinton, and others, assert that ‘we all reel,’ they spin a narrative that obscures this structure, therefore strengthening it. We don’t all reel because we are socialized to see life in some forms and only cursorily know the violence visited upon others.
On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was acting on behalf of a sophisticated system of white supremacy, so sophisticated that its protection of white materiality can rely not just on whites for enforcement but also people of color. The murder of this black boy by a Latino yet white-identified man tore through many social media circles. And yet, it went virtually unuttered in many others, namely those of white college students, as those social media feeds were focused on rallying to the cause of apprehending and bringing to justice Joseph Kony, a Ugandan perpetrator of violence. The question here is not if Joseph Kony was worthy of notoriety and prosecution but rather, why was it such a palatable story to such a largely upper middle class white population? Why was it easier to pursue this single person version of evil rather than the racist hatred that motivated Zimmerman to see Martin, as echoed in so many other instances, as inherently criminal and himself as inherently heroic? Why were the unknown and distant children in Uganda imminently more grievable to thousands of young white adults than their younger citizen Black brother?
The answer lies somewhere in the profit that has been reaped from grief. Pursuing Joseph Kony represented no threat to that profit; quite the contrary. Acknowledging widespread complicity in such a system that touches all of us carries potential consequences for unearned profits. But it also may, partially, fleetingly, release grief from profit and honor the legacy that Mamie Till Mobley created, as Rankine described, when she demanded that her son, Emmitt Till, be observed and seen on her terms after he had been murdered. Mobley’s demand was nothing short of radical – a demand for recognition when the momentum runs on, profits from, silence and avoidance.
As the nation pays homage to DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson, may we do so with a deference to the history of who has paid whom.