The Red Coates
It’s been something of a mystery to me the extent to which so many white people are personally offended black people are objecting to being stopped and killed by police.
Of course it’s about oppression–each murder serves as a message to black and white communities alike–but where is the line of logic that makes the action an argument, however absurd?
Even the possibility of deescalating a confrontation with a clearly discombobulated Jeremy Dole in his wheelchair earlier this week, captured in the video above, is waved away in favor of a public execution on the streets of Wilmington, Delaware. A firing squad is repeatedly the default response.
As Alain Badiou on the Paris Commune persuasively argues, what happens out on the street is philosophy in practice.
Slavoj Žižek extends the subjectivization to prior to the encounter, wherein even the innocent carry an abstract and indeterminate guilt. Under most circumstances, when those stopped formally acknowledge their subjection, however unfair, the impasse is resolved.
But to many whites–individually and as a group, participants and observers–even that concession isn’t enough.
By a Fanonian sociopathy mined from deep within the country’s metaphysics–from its behavioral bedrock, down to slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow, a criminal legality that has long comprised black people’s open-air incarceration–arbitrarily disconnecting the order of punishment from a subject’s actions represents an important punctuation upon white identity.
To many whites, killing blacks for the wrong reasons is exactly an act of justice. As if hundreds of years of chillingly capricious precedence is jurisprudence enough. The murders–and the rationalizations that follow–codify white supremacy as a self-referential tautology at the heart of the sense of self.
The more unjustifiable the murder, the greater the frisson–and self-affirmation–when the murderer walks. The greater that gap, the greater the jouissance. Objecting to such a veritable sport–here, George Zimmerman guffawing online over Trayvon Martin’s body–threatens a carefully cultivated cultural proprioception, without which many white Americans wouldn’t recognize themselves.
In his new book, a tour de force of a public letter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, ostensibly counseling his fifteen-year-old son around police encounters, unpacks that glut of savage fantasies–the ‘Dream’–around which the white race in America continues to organize, “For the men who needed to believe themselves white, [black] bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization.”
“The bodies,” Coates continues, riffing off Thavolia Glymph,
were pulverized into stock and marked with insurance. And the bodies were an aspiration, lucrative as Indian land, a veranda, a beautiful wife, or a summer home in the mountains…”The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is–the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.
It ain’t all history either, as if the past is ever over. Indeed, Coates completes the self-evident syllogism America spends billions trying to scratch out,
Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not to say this is true of anyone or more true of criminals. The moment the officers began their pursuit of Prince Jones, his life was in danger. The Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition. As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were the guestroom, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers…
Such self-actualizing presumption comes in many ids, extending out beyond deadly encounters on the street to more our beat here.
By a kind of proactive assortment, farmers markets, bastions of consumerist affluence, are as much ‘spaces of whiteness’, as Val Cadieux and Rachel Slocum describe them, as spots to buy a bag of pesticide-free onions. The markets reify ‘whiteness’ as an inherent well of ‘progressive’ change,
The lexicon of the U.S. food movement has expanded to include the term ‘food justice.’ Emerging after approximately two decades of food advocacy, this term frames structural critiques of agri-food systems and calls for radical change. Over those twenty years, practitioners and scholars have argued that the food movement was in danger of creating an ‘alternative’ food system for the white middle class. Alternative food networks drew on white imaginaries of an idyllic communal past, promoted consumer-oriented, market-driven change, and left yawning silences in the areas of gendered work, migrant labor, and racial inequality. Justice was often beside the point.
In an unpublished manuscript, Slocum and Cadieux, with Renata Blumberg, address the contradictions more explicitly,
When an overwhelmingly white group of residents of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, invite Whole Foods (organic, expensive grocery chain) to their gentrifying neighborhood, they may be conscious that they will displace a supermarket that stocked foods for a diverse and less wealthy Latino population… But perhaps they really don’t know. Some progressive food movement activists do not seem to understand or want to learn of these connections even though they would be loathe to knowingly create exclusive spaces. This is how white privilege works; white people disavow only explicitly racist acts, remain ignorant of how systemic racism works, and thwart methods to remove their completely unmerited privilege. Insistence on fair trade chocolate has to exist alongside an understanding of the spatial politics linking white comfort to white rural poor and urban Latino diets.
Such markets, however good-hearted the folk who run them, are tied into white identities as consumers–and land owners and petty bourgeois management–at the exclusion of people of color who work the line in field and factory alike.
Black slaves have been replaced by ‘brown tractors’, exploited immigrants whose labor drives conventional and organic production alike. The food movement as such has pegged its advances upon a consumerist model which at one and the same time fails to address the capitalism driving production and, while patting itself on the back, reconstitutes racial gaps.
I know that’s a picture painted with a broad brush, but still, it seems here a segregation that folds in with agribusiness’s premises about the nature of the economy and social change. That we can only consume our way into a food justice Big Food largely controls.
Slocum, Cadieux and Blumberg, who began food first, propose a way out,
To practice food justice means to change agrifood space. Past and present socio-spatial relations structure food systems everywhere in deeply unequal ways. Racial inequalities, created under imperialism and colonialism, are today found in neocolonial extractive, austerity-based, agrifood development regimes that are among the most important to alter. Food justice, as a radical ideal, seeks to transform these relations, often mobilizing around four nodes–equity/trauma, land, labor and exchange. The spatial politics of food justice involves both a process of engagement with people locally and globally and the creation of different modes of exchange, valuations of land and labor relations. The nodes are entry points for translocal solidarities that must be (and are being) created to secure justice.
The atheistic Coates, working his way race outward, ends his book on a darker prophecy, as it were, tying the ecological fate of the Earth with which so many foodie liberals validate their politics to the racial injustices their consumerism helps enervate,
Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding in the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.
Black Lives Matter acted a force of gravity upon Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, as it continues upon the country at large.
The food movement here in the U.S. needs Fight for $15, immigrant rights, the unionization push, La Via Campesia, and, yes, racial justice activism, among other alternate histories already under way, to do the same.