Black America is tired. The liminal existence of Ellison’s invisible man; Cornel West’s brilliant meditation on “niggerization” as a state of existential fear, where black and brown people are unwanted, unprotected and unsafe in America; and the genius insights of Richard Wright's "Native Son" speak to a stalwart resilience in the face of the racial absurdity that is white supremacy and the color line in America (and the world).
Black Americans are the moral conscience of the United States. In her book by the same title, political theorist and legal scholar Lani Guinier described black folks as a type of “miner’s canary” for a democracy that is still very much a work in progress: a country whose origins are in the twin crimes against humanity that were the genocide of First Nations people and the murder and enslavement of millions of blacks held as human chattel, and one that still struggles to perfect a “more perfect union” in the face of a resurgent White Right, a plundering plutocrat class and the terror of neoliberalism and the politics of human disposability.
Black America is strong. But “Black America” is more of a symbol and an idea than it is a place or a fact. Black Americans are not a monolith, the Borg, or a hive mind. They are individuals who have a shared experience of racialization in a society structured around both maintaining and protecting white privilege and white supremacy.
Individuals have a full range of emotions and life experiences.
As such, what I have described as “the black necropolis in the Age of Obama” — the repeated incidents of unarmed African-American men and women shot dead by police, otherwise brutalized, denied their civil rights—is exhausting for those who may find themselves entombed within it.
American society is extremely segregated. While millions of white Americans may have voted for a president who happens to be black, and the United States’ popular culture is dominated by black Americans, research by the Public Religion Research Institute indicates that 75 percent of white people do not have one non-white friend.
Images of black Americans — of course, tainted by stereotypes and mixed with feelings of worship, ideation, desire, contempt and envy by the White Gaze — circulate in America’s collective consciousness and throughout global popular culture. But, most white Americans do not have authentic interpersonal interactions with non-whites as equals, intimate friends, neighbors, lovers, children, parents or as familial relations. White America may no longer practice formal racial apartheid. Nevertheless, White America’s social networks remain racially exclusive.
Victims of police violence such as Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Victor White, Jonathan Ferrell, Freddie Gray, Manuel Loggins, Kenneth Chamberlain, Oscar Grant and Tamika Wilson are real human beings. Their lives have value.
Those people are not mere abstractions, faces on a TV screen whose personhood and life experiences are transmitted via the mass media…and often in a distorted and inaccurate way. Black America feels and worries about the victims of police thuggery and violence not because of racial tribalism or other language that marginalizes and reduces a sense of shared history and community to the trivial and the prejudiced, but because of self-interest, human dignity and a sense of linked fate.
The concept of linked fate is crucial if one is to understand the disparate life experiences that are the color line in the United States of America.
Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe” is Black America channeling the terror of murder by cop, recorded on video, murder having been committed, and a white jury freeing the cop strangler from any responsibility.
Barack Obama’s basic observation that, “if he had a son he would have looked like Trayvon Martin,” is channeling Black America’s many decades of experience with murder at the hands of white vigilantes and their allies.
The child Tamir Rice, shot dead by an out-of-control and racist Cleveland police department while he played in a park, was described as an “adult” who was “armed” before his life was stolen from him. Young Tamir embodies how Black America’s children have historically and in the present been treated like adults for purposes of punishment and death by White America.
The righteous anger in Baltimore about the murder of Freddie Gray by the city’s police after taking him for a “long ride” are the stories that many black men and women have of their relatives being “disappeared” and killed by America’s cops from Jim Crow to the post civil rights era.
The sum effect of the continual violence against black Americans by the United States’ police, the efforts to delegitimate the country’s first black president (what is a proxy assault on the citizenship and belonging of African-Americans by the White Right), life in a moment when the Republican Party has successfully merged racism and conservatism into the mainstream of the body politic in order to destroy both the Great Society and the social bargains that have governed the United States since the New Deal, as well as the repeated assaults on the progress made by the civil rights movement, is a condition of being that Dr. William Smith and others have described as “racial battle fatigue.”
A recent issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders explores how:
Just as the constant pressure soldiers face on the battlefield can follow them home in the form of debilitating stress, African Americans who face chronic exposure to racial discrimination may have an increased likelihood of suffering a race-based battle fatigue, according to Penn State researchers.
African Americans who reported in a survey that they experienced more instances of racial discrimination had significantly higher odds of suffering generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) some time during their lives, according to Jose Soto, assistant professor, psychology.
Generalized anxiety disorder has both psychological and physical symptoms that are so severe that they can significantly affect everyday tasks and job performance. People with the disorder may have chronic worrying, intrusive thoughts and difficulty concentrating. Physically, the disorder may manifest such symptoms as tension headaches, extreme fatigue and ulcers. Some of these symptoms are associated with "racial battle fatigue," a term coined by William A. Smith, associate professor, University of Utah.
"The results of our study suggest that the notion of racial battle fatigue could be a very real phenomenon that might explain how individuals can go from the experience of racism to the experience of a serious mental health disorder," said Soto. "While the term is certainly not trying to say that the conditions are exactly what soldiers face on a battlefield, it borrows from the idea that stress is created in chronically unsafe or hostile environments..."
Soto said the connection between racism and severe anxiety underscores the negative impact that discrimination has on society.
"This is just one instance of how powerful social stressors can impact healthy functioning," Soto said. "And I would suspect, if we could wave a wand and eliminate racism from our past and our present, we would also eliminate a lot of health disparities."
Ultimately, racial battle fatigue is manifest by the diminished life spans, susceptibility to illness, increasing suicide rates among black children and other indices of the toll that day-to-day life in a racist society takes on the emotional, physical and financial health of black and brown Americans.
The barrier of human experience and consciousness that separates one person from another is amplified by the color line. A given person’s distinct experiences navigating a white racist society (or alternatively benefiting from the unearned economic, political and psychic capital that comes with white privilege) is an additional barrier to bridging the gap of human experience that separates one person (or group) from another.
By analogy, for most white Americans, Black America’s experience with police thuggery and abuse is the equivalent of getting hit by lightning. Most people will, luckily, never have such an experience. But, what if you know someone who has been hit and killed by lightning? What if you have a family member who has been repeatedly hit by lightning and somehow survived? What if being hit by lightning is a common experience among those who live in your community?
Being hit by lightning is a fantastical and a bizarre possibility for most people. But, what if the lightning is police violence and abuse? This is why too many in White America treat the repeated and documented episodes of police brutality against people of color as some type of “surprise” or “unknown, unknown.” Even though black and brown Americans may repeatedly explain that police violence and abuse is a common experience for them, many White Americans are cognitively, emotionally and financially invested in denying that empirical reality.
The fear that they too could be hit by lightning is simply too much to accept. Denial is blissful … until it leaves one unprepared for the hard facts of life, and that America’s militarized and out-of-control police are sharpening their knives on the country’s black and brown citizens — and can and will easily turn on the white working classes and poor when the political and social moment is opportune.
The growing mountain of videotaped and photographed evidence of wanton police violence against unarmed and innocent black and brown Americans could have provided the fuel and basis for an “ideologically disruptive moment,” a sense of moral outrage and shame on the part of White America to reform the country’s police. Unfortunately, images of black pain and suffering have not translated into progressive, institutional political change.
Why? Part of the answer lies in how social and cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that white people, quite literally, do not feel the pain of non-whites.
Psychologists have documented a gap in empathy across the color line between white and black Americans. Other research has demonstrated that whites feel less empathy both for African-Americans in crisis as well as toward members of their own racial group who are experiencing distress.
Doctors and other health practitioners also hold racially biased beliefs that black people are less likely to feel pain than whites.
The capacity for human empathy and sympathy across the color line is also limited by how many white Americans apparently believe that black people possess superhuman and magical powers. As detailed in New York magazine:
In a series of five studies, some involving so-called implicit association tests in which words are flashed on a screen quickly enough to "prime" a subject with their meaning but not for them to consciously understand what they have seen, the researchers showed that whites are quicker to associate blacks than whites with superhuman words like ghost, paranormal, and spirit; are more likely to think a black person as opposed to a white person has certain superhuman abilities; and that the more they think blacks are superhuman, the less they view black people as having a capacity to feel pain.
While ostensibly raising the (white) American public’s awareness of anti-black and brown police thuggery and violence, videos such as that of the killing of Walter Scott, the choking murder of Eric Garner, the child Tamir Rice shot dead by Cleveland's police, as well as many other examples, also enforce a type of social control and emotional terrorism that marginalizes the black poor (and other victims of disproportionate and indiscriminate police violence) out of the polity and full citizenship.
Black men being the first to die in horror movies, and being lined up for execution on death row is the norm — but that is for fun, or behind closed doors. These killings of regular black men, however — in public, dying on camera and reproduced on the Internet — speaks to the same kind of forbidden desire that Girls Gone Wild tapped into. The ability to easily capture and distribute video of overly horny co-eds out to have a good time fed the desires of overly horny people who wanted to experience the thrill of barely legal girls submitting to the lens.
Now, instead of barely legal porn, these actual snuff films, not like those staged versions from the 1970s, are the forbidden jouissance of the moment. The black man’s death is repeated, reproduced, shared, and celebrated in a macabre way specific to the snuff genre. These films and activities have always existed, but in the past people didn’t consume them so publicly, or so proudly outside of public executions and lynchings…
It might seem that the difference between these snuff films and Girls Gone Wild is that people paid cash to watch the women perform for them. But that is merely a sign of the times. The Internet eventually won when the audience decided to pay with clicks instead of cash: The places that brought Girls Gone Wild to an end still have age disclaimers for mature content, and can be blocked by enabling parental controls.
But, when the most explicit imagery of the violence enacted against black bodies can be at the top of The New York Times and the Daily Mail, it says that these are the images that sell in a world where clicks equal cash, and there’s no warning necessary.
This is content everyone should see! Don’t miss this amazing new footage of a black man dying. Warning, graphic content, but the screen capture really sells the tale. The distribution channel isn’t the same as those videos of gyrating youngsters, but it is distributed and monetized just the same.
An exploration of racial battle fatigue in the context of white on black violence, white supremacy and systems of unearned white advantage must speak to the role that White America plays in this social evil, while also being careful not to (re)center white people in a conversation on black life, as the latter is one of the most common ways that white privilege is reproduced in “post-racial” America.
One of the essential questions here is, why do these patterns of obvious and repeated police abuse against people of color persist even in the post-civil rights era?
There are many political, economic and social explanations for this American habit of violence against non-whites. I would suggest that there are several basic components in this puzzle.
Primarily, White America does not care about police violence against black people. Moreover, there is research suggesting that even when made aware of racism in the “criminal justice” system, that whites still support such unfair and disparate outcomes.
Matt Taibbi, writing in a recent Rolling Stone essay, brilliantly summarized the reality of White America’s indifference to police thuggery against black Americans:
This system, now standard in almost all of urban America, is Mayberry on one side and trending Moscow or 1980s South Africa on the other. Why? Because America loves to lie to itself about race. It's able to do so for many reasons, including the little-discussed fact that most white people have literally no social interactions with black people, so they don't hear about this every day.
Police brutality is tough to talk about because white and black America see the issue so differently, with white Americans still overwhelmingly supportive and trustful of law enforcement. But the current controversy is as much about how modern law-enforcement practices have ruined the job of policing as it is about racism. There are plenty of good cops out there, but the way policing works in cities like Baltimore, the bad ones can thrive. And disasters aren't just more likely, they're inevitable.
This indifference to black justice claims is present on both sides of America’s political and ideological divide.
Liberal racists derail and deflect conversations about the particular challenges of black life in the face of police violence with banal and empty slogans such as “all lives matter.”
Movement conservatives, possessed of a racist ideology and stoked to the gills with white racial animus in response to Barack Obama, practice a more obvious type of white victimology and politics of white racial resentment: They believe that black people have a “pathological” culture, and are therefore “natural” criminals. The Republican Party’s law and order fetish, as well as overt animus toward black and brown Americans, embraces police violence against the latter as a type of “just” and reasonable behavior.
The corporate news media is also complicit. It practices white racial framing when black people are victims of police violence: the black victim and not police officer is the central story because the white racial paranoiac gaze must somehow shift responsibility to the dead victim as somehow causing the circumstances of his or her own demise.
The corporate new media’s white racial framing of black suffering — the conditions that help to create a feeling of racial battle fatigue—are not that dissimilar from how White America explained the lynchings of thousands of African-Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.
On this point, historians and media scholars have discovered that:
Some might argue that newspapers -- particularly at the turn of the century, when vigilante-style justice was commonplace -- treated all victims of mob violence, White and Black, with equal ferocity. However, articles on Black lynchings had a special vitriolic quality. Newspaper stories identified the race of the accused, assumed without question that the accused person was guilty, used a number of dehumanizing terms to label the Black victim -- e.g., "wretch," "fiend," and "desperado" -- assumed the Black person's race predisposed him to commit violent crimes, particularly rape, and sometimes self-righteously defended lynching of Black individuals.
The story of racial battle fatigue, “niggerization” and suffering by America’s police has an ironic dimension. Despite all of the available data on how African-Americans (and other people of color) have suffered disproportionately in the Great Recession, and are subject to excessive and punitive punishment by the United States’ police and the “criminal justice system,” blacks and Latinos are much more hopeful about the future than are whites.
Could it be that, perhaps, and despite all of the obstacles and pain inflicted upon them by a racialized and broken Herrenvolk pseudo democracy, black and brown Americans may largely know that American Exceptionalism is a lie inflicted on the dimwitted, ignorant and ahistorical, but yet still have hope in the promise of what a proper and just American democracy could be?
If this deep belief in the promise of American democracy is a function of the special relationship that Black Americans have with the United States, where they are both its conscience and a “miner’s canary,” then the worry becomes that White America, through tacit and active support of police violence, thuggery and gross indifference to black pain, may actually kill and silence those people who are best equipped to help it through these desperate times of “tumult and trouble.”
By killing Black America is White America actually killing itself?