Charlottesville: Trump, Race and the Logical Utopia/Illogical Dystopia

This blog entry was originally published on the American Anthropological Associations (AAA) Blog. See url here:

https://blog.americananthro.org/2017/09/18/charlottesville-trump-race-and-the-logical-utopiaillogical-dystopia-binary/

By K. Nyerere Ture, PhD, Yale University

In January 2016, during the Republican primary season, Donald J. Trump, an emergent candidate, characterized his loyal supporters as the smartest Americans ever – the smartest to participate in electoral politics. Accordingly, most of these supporters were prepared to return America, substantively and symbolically, back to the practice of serving their (white) interests. To highlight his supporters’ decided loyalty towards his presidential ambition – a presidential campaigned vilely soaked with the bile of ultra-white nationalism – Trump publicly noted that he could, in effect, stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue (NYC) and shoot some anonymous person without the consequence of forfeiting his presidential run. Setting aside the absurdity here and the vague description of his shooting victim, his remark signaled two essential points that underpin white supremacy, namely the resulting spectacle of racialized violence and the racial and organizing construct of the logical utopia/illogical dystopia binary. These two elements were on full display during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Additionally, the idea of spectacles of radicalized violence reminds me of Judith Butler’s foundational analysis of the Rodney King verdict.

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First, given Trump’s spewed webs of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny echoed in Charlottesville, it is immediately clear to the mind of any casual observer that a suitable proxy for his imaginary victim is the marginally situated person categorized beyond the boundary of whiteness. To be certain, Trump’s declaration calls for and describes the spectacles of racialized violence in defense of white nationalism – in defense of whiteness. It is these spectacles that assault the psychosocial wellbeing of their implied and explicitly targeted victims. And yet, while these spectacles of racialized violence reflect real traumatic violence experienced at the corporeal level of the black body, with sensitivity I argue to take up an exclusive preoccupation with the spectacle distracts us from the more fundamental key factor of white supremacy, namely the logical utopia/illogical dystopia binary. This binary is a perceptual construct necessary to understand violent racism that operates across the American cultural landscape. It is a binary, which during its inductees’ uptake of social happenings, they schematically reconfigure those happenings according to racist perspective. To be clear, I do not intend to discount the existence of physical harm borne by victims of racialized violence; however, I do intend to redirect attention to the fact that the binary construct addressed here is the progenitor of the spectacles of racialized violence to begin with.

trump shooting someone on fifth avenue

Nearly eight months into President Trump’s administration, serialized images of terroristic and racialized violence coming from Charlottesville were foisted upon us. I was struck by Richard Preston’s shooting incident in the Unite the Right rally that was eerily similar to what Trump prescribed during the 2016 Republican primary. Preston, a fifty-two-year-old, white male, of Baltimore County, Maryland stood in the middle of the street off the southwest corner of Emancipation Park, screaming the N-word, then removed his fire arm from his leg holster, readied it by cycling one round into the hand gun’s firing chamber, and then discharged that round at a crowd of counter-protesters. Point of fact, this was done just a few dozen feet away from present and attentive state and local police officers. As a former police officer (who now studies police and community relations), professionally trained in officer safety and to seek out social disorder and crime for applying various techniques of social control, apprehension and dare I say incapacitation of dangerous persons, I was dismayed by the absence of any immediate police response. Even further, when the serialized news footage of this incident went viral juxtaposed to the police response to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, the irony of inaction in Charlottesville versus militarized responses towards BLM carried a shrilling critique. Preston was arrested weeks later and inadequately charged with discharging a fire arm within one thousand feet of a school. It is important to understand that the serialized footage of Preston’s shooting was more than a broadcast of racialized violence. In addition, and perhaps instead, it was a palliative response to the anxieties generated by fear of racial threat to whiteness that accumulated/s in American culture and understood here through the logical utopia/illogical dystopia binary. This incident including the legal response provides sympathizers of White Nationalism, who are on edge by the presence of black life in this society notices of security. In other words, despite the horrific spectacle, for them the black threat is being contained. A particularly frightening consideration of the acceptance of Trump’s signal at the federal, state and local levels of police is the fact that they did not pursue Preston with the felonious aggravated assault with racial animus charge (hate crime).

Preston shooting at someone

The logical utopia/illogical dystopia binary, a perceptual and analytical construct to understand racial violence, particularly violence emanating from white supremacy. The logical utopia component orients cultural participants to see whiteness and all that appertains to it beyond reproach. Participants are socialized to see whiteness and those who possess this socially constructed asset as favorable, honorable, and even praiseworthy to the extent that despite witnessing actions that affront the good sense of civilized humanity, everyday citizens and well-trained police officers almost instinctually rework racialized violence against racial minorities into perceptually appropriate schematic narratives that favor whiteness. This includes spectating without perception of violent threats that endanger black life as exampled in Charlottesville. It literally places a premium on whiteness and white life and holds that a society exclusively white is both logical and ideal. On the other hand, the illogical dystopia component represents a condition – a coordination of perceptual facts whereby when the same above observer’s uptake of the most innocuous sorts of social practice performed by racially marginal societal members, it is instantly reconfigured into a schematic narrative that finds those actions morally opprobrious, contagiously villainous, perpetually dangerous, and inherently pathological. This culturally inscribed way of perceiving (dystopian gaze) warrants intensive interventions that can permanently incapacitate racial minorities. It leads to the irrational desirability of a society absent of blacks and other racially marginal determined citizens. President Trump was repeatedly pressed by national media to denounce the hate groups that organized the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and instead of doing so, he found tremendous fault in the counter-protesters whom he characterized as lawless reprobates.

virginia state police at the unite the right rally

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, particularly within this Trump era, signals an invited return and a systematic acceptance for the public normalization of racially violent spectacles and gives a rare glimpse into the logics that undergird white supremacy. As a perceptual construct to better understand the roots of racially violent spectacles, the logical utopia/illogical dystopia binary shifts our gaze towards the more fundamental workings of whiteness suffuse within American culture. Anthropologists and other social-justice-oriented actors must read Trump, the Unite the Right rally, Richard Preston, and past and present spectacles of racialized violence as the culturally corrupt product of whiteness. Anthropologists possess within our wheelhouse of theoretical, methodological, and ethnographic tools, the greatest promise to expose these cultural patterns and to develop corrective interventions. Lest we accept this task of pragmatic solidarity with invigorative and critical interest, we are sure to witness many more varieties of racialized violence where we will be forced to mourn the imagined shooting victim vaguely described earlier, which is to say American democracy.

* Please see the AAA Blog site for the full series of commentary on Charlottesville and Race/Racism here: https://blog.americananthro.org/2017/09/18/charlottesville-trump-race-and-the-logical-utopiaillogical-dystopia-binary/

Also read Judith Butler’s “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia” article, which is a foundational article that influenced this piece.

Additionally, consider reading the powerful writing by Elijah Anderson http://sociology.yale.edu/people/elijah-anderson

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50 years later, a nation still splintered – By K. Nyerere Ture

handsupdontshoot The Baltimore Sun (March 2015)

Almost 50 years ago, an 11-member panel convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson investigated the causes of the 1960s urban riots and proposed intervention strategies for the federal government to transform American society into a real cosmopolitan canopy that included and protected all minorities as full citizens. This panel issued their findings in the “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Rights” otherwise known as the Kerner Commission Report, which ominously declared that America was heading toward a form of domestic unrest far more incendiary and costly than the scorched urban terrains that Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood, Chicago’s Division Street, Newark’s Springfield Avenue and Detroit’s Rosa Park Boulevard were in the late 1960s. Specifically, the panel concluded that three principal factors caused increasing frustrations in African American communities: white racism, police brutality and segregated settlement patterns.

As such, the Kerner Commission panel called for police diversity recruitment efforts, anti-poverty measures, as well as job readiness and vocational training programs that would further the upward mobility for those trapped in urban ghettos — ideally leading to better social integration in the workforce including police departments and all white residential settlements. Additionally, this report urged greater concentration of law enforcement into urban slums for surveillance and to stamp out potential unrest almost instantly. The militarization of police departments, to be sure, is a post-9/11 phenomenon, but the concentration of police in African American communities was signaled by the Kerner Commission Report. Despite the more positive recommendations of this 426-page report, which sold over two million copies, racism flourishes, segregated residential patterns persist, and the racist lens through which both black and white police officers interpret African Americans has caused the ubiquitous shootings of unarmed citizens of color.

Almost 50 years forward, the Department of Justice investigative report of the Ferguson Police Department reveals the haunting and failed measures taken by the federal government post-Kerner Commission. This investigative report concluded that a systematic and unlawful practice abounds in the Ferguson Police Department constituted first by an entrenched racism and second by an avaricious and pecuniary legal method to exploit African Americans. The Ferguson Police Department’s racist culture violated the 1st, 4th and 14th amendment of the United States Constitution as well as other civil rights laws afforded as protections for African American citizens.

Sadly, people of color across the country are subjected to excessive uses of force on a daily basis. We are becoming a society where distrust reflected in the dispositions of law-abiding community members toward police is so great that the misguided urban dictum “don’t snitch” has become an obsolete wedge. There is no profit to gain from hiding the fact that the earnest manner in which protesters collected in American streets against Michael Brown’s homicide was fueled by injustices at the hands of police officers endured and/or witnessed across the country. Vindicated, many protesters, including my students at Morgan State University, now muse: “What would a Department of Justice investigation reveal if it investigated all police agencies across America?”

As an African American and former police officer, I found Darren Wilson’s justification for shooting the unarmed Michael Brown, who was in fact was fleeing contact, to be highly problematic — almost predacious. The Department of Justice determined not to charge Officer Wilson because there was no evidence available to prove a racially motivated animus or intent to violate Brown’s civil rights. Stated differently, any officer’s subjective interpretation is unimpeachable as long that officer, black or white, maintains he or she was acting under “the color of law” and facing a perceived threat when utilizing deadly force. How do we reconcile a report that finds a culture, a systemic pattern of racism deeply ingrained into the mindset and practices of a police department, but fail to indict the actions of an officer, whose behavior was, according to Brown’s companion, consistent with the report’s findings of aggressive treatment of African Americans ?

American citizens are faced with similar questions of the Kerner Commission. Specifically, how do we reverse our splintered nation — one black, one white, separate, hostile and unequal? How might the government intervene to make our society more inclusive?

Let me be clear in offering one solution mentioned in the Kerner Commission Report: Desegregate racially entrenched residential patterns that characterize all of American society, but do so in ways that do not displace working and low-income poor.

Kalfani N. Ture is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Morgan State University. His email is kalfani.ture@morgan.edu.

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-ferguson-kerner-20150309-story.html