Saturday, February 21, 2009

Long Quote: Racism and Death

Following Foucault, Ruthie Gilmore has gone so far as to define racism in terms of a relation to death. Racism, she notes, is the likely promotion of the premature death of those individuals and groups subjected to the debilitating terms and conditions of racist configurations and exclusions. There is something unsettlingly significant in her insight: racism both involves the increased probability of premature death for those who are the victims of its violence and foreshortens the lives of those who, but for its institutionalized pressures and effects, for its mark(s), would very likely (inevitably?) live better, longer, more productive, less fraught lives. The death at issue may be physical or social, and where social it renders those suffering it significantly more vulnerable to physical death too. Racism, then, produces the conditions, directly or indirectly, that serve to foreshorten life directly but also foreshorten life's opportunities. Racism of course includes delimbing, whipping, hanging, beating, bombing, shooting or gassing. But is also targeted or collateral malnutrition (a lack of food and bad food), stress formation, physical debilitation, humiliation, and degradation.

This way of conceiving racism is not meant to belittle or ignore everyday racist micro-expressions such as security guard harassment in stores, sidewalk epithets, refusing or rude taxi-cab or bus drivers and passengers, dismissive, anxious, and unhelpful school teachers, or presumptuous anti-affirmative action litigants. While much of recent accounts about racial matters -- in the US especially -- have focused on these latter micro-expressions, they are disturbing as much because of their cumulative effects to debilitate and render unwelcome their racially conceived objects, to extend their exclusion, and to heighten the likelihood of foreshortened lives as they are outrageous in themselves. In short, accumulated everyday racisms disponse their object populations, exposing them to extended abjection, rendering them readier, more vulnerable targets of legitimated violence and ultimately unnoticed or overlooked death.

Everyday expressions serve accordingly as a form of what Mahmood Mamdani calls "racial branding," marking a group and its members as vulnerable and thereby disposing them guiltlessly to abject treatment and in the final analysis extermination. Considering racism as the rationalized disposition or vulnerability to premature death is intended to shift the prevailing sense in racial studies that racist violence is now anomalous, largely exceptional, and secondary to the lingering conditions of individuated hate or discriminations. This erosion ignores the relation of the everyday to large-scale institutional violence, of individuated expressions to the likes of ethnoracial cleansing, obliviousness among inhabitants of globally powerful states to terrorizing invisibility, and routine threat to large-scale, state-directed preemptive strikes.

-- David Theo Goldberg

No comments: