Associate Professor, Departments of Political Science and African American Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
“A society once expressly organized around white supremacist principles does not cease to be a white supremacist society simply by formally rejecting those principles.”
The United States has witnessed an eruption of youth-led protests and demonstrations to police brutality against Black Americans. A simple formulation expresses their commitment: “Black Lives Matter.” But how precisely should we understand this utterance? What does it mean to convey? And what, if anything, does it tell us about the country in which it is uttered?
At a basic level, the formulation means precisely what it says, Black lives matter as much as all other lives. And yet the need to say these words tells us something important. The United States is structured so as to make clear that Black lives do not matter in the same way that other lives do. These three simple words highlight a fundamental distinction at the core of American life: the lives of Black Americans are devalued in relation to their white counterparts. White supremacy continues to distort America’s professed commitment to social equality. The racially fueled contexts in which Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others have been killed throws into sharp relief, yet again, the way in which the past continues to haunt the present. We are not merely dealing with police officers that can kill with impunity, but with law enforcement agencies whose practices are framed by habits that treat whites as worthy of being served and protected, while Blacks are exempt from that same treatment.
I must immediately beg forgiveness. I hear the critics say: “White supremacy, you say, but surely this is a misdescription? Slavery has long since ended. Laws and statutes banished Jim Crow. Rights have been formally extended. We now have Black Americans in prominent positions of authority and power. The language of white supremacy appears to be inappropriate. The United States has changed.”
The problem with the criticism above is that it treats those practices—slavery, Jim Crow, and formal exclusion—as equal to white supremacy. With slavery ended, Jim Crow abolished, and rights extended, we can safely say white supremacy is no longer. But this confuses the matter. It treats specific instances of white supremacy as tantamount to its meaning.
And yet we have seen, since the founding of this country, that white supremacy refuses to be confined to any specific practice. It mutates, adapts, and evolves to frustrate efforts to see Black Americans as equals, finding a new life after the death of each of its recognizable forms. Consider the history. In the wake of Black Americans’ participation in the American Revolution, this nation witnessed a slow denial of their standing and contribution to the polity. As Alexander Keyssar documents in his magisterial book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, Northern states such as New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania slowly began to rescind rights previously extended to Blacks, effectively joining their Southern counterparts in constructing a subclass of persons. Although the Civil War amendments sought to recognize the equal status of Blacks, that recognition was effectively denied by the ascendancy of debt peonage, economic exploitation, lynching, and Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement killed Jim Crow, but the policing and subordination of Blacks was reconstituted through the rise of the carceral state [PDF], the underdeveloped welfare state, and unfunded public education system.
To be sure, throughout each of these periods we have witnessed a positive, even if uneven, rearrangement of our political institutions, but those advances have been contained and constrained by a persistent and stable social inequality in which care and concern for Black Americans has been insufficiently extended. In paying exclusive attention to political equality as an indicator of racial advancements, we have ignored the social differential status of Blacks and the way in which that differential status highlights the afterlife of white supremacy. The recent police shootings of unarmed Black men that go unpunished are merely the visible display of a culture in which Back life is devalued and overexposed to violence.
Although social equality is related to political equality, they are distinct. The latter is related to constitutional and legal rights and procedures that structure the basic institutions of society. Political equality thus gives all equal access to participate in the affairs of the state by granting specific rights, such as, the right to vote, contest elections, and speak out against the government. Political equality is essentially a defense against the abuses of others. Each historical extension of rights to Black Americans resulted because they were defenseless against their white counterparts. In this context, political equality assumes that there are persons from whom Black Americans need to be protected. Notice it leaves in place the danger; it takes that danger as a settled fact of being Black in America.
Despite their significance, political rights pale in comparison to the deeper acknowledgement that social equality represents— the sense that one is deserving of respect and concern. Respect is a way of paying proper attention to someone and is fundamentally relational. It acknowledges that one is worthy of recognition. Concern expresses one’s own anxieties about something, as in, “the appearance of the roof on the house concerns me.” But it also denotes something of significance for which one is responsible, as in, “homelessness is the concern of the city.”
Herein lies the important difference between political equality and social equality. Whereas political equality protects us from being harmed by others, social equality is always about paying attention to, feeling for, and directing care toward persons. This is precisely what the “Black Lives Matter” mantra seeks to capture. And yet it is the extension of social equality that white supremacy prevents precisely because its logic refuses to equalize the fundamental worth of Black and white life. As we have seen in the recent death of Michael Brown, to take one example, the consequence of this differential worth can be fatal. White supremacy has remained steady throughout all of the presumed advances, it explains not only the differential functioning of law enforcement in the United States, but the inequalities in education, health care, and economic opportunities that place Black Americans beyond the reach of respect and concern.