Franco Barchiesi is Associate Professor in Department of African & African American Studies, The Ohio State University.
And then, inevitable, unfailing, came the white liberal shock. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, the question that prevailed across the board of American progressivism, from op-eds and talk shows to the astonished stares of neighbors and coworkers was “how could this happen? And here, in this country, of all places.” In the wake of the event, a powerful feeling set in, throughout civil society, that a momentous breach has occurred. The image of the Trump presidency suddenly determined, among the left, perceptions of a watershed between a hopeful “before” and a gloomy “after”. The insistence by the defeated Clinton campaign and the outgoing president, Barack Obama, that the vote represented a “historic” turning point—the promise of the first woman president to infuse new life and decency to the institutionality of the United States against the ominous specter of a resurgent Fascism—only reinforced, in all the accompanying sorrow, the eventfulness of the outcome.
The elections, in short, hinted at what Black theorist Frank Wilderson calls “a crisis in the commons”, a turmoil in the multitude, a laceration in civil society. For Wilderson, “civil society” is a realm of agency and imagination predicated upon the self-constitution of Whiteness as humanity, which necessarily requires the casting of Blackness as inhumanity. Even a brief summation of his argument is beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say that the inhumanity of Blackness is what allows White humans to build institutions, ideologies of freedom, images of rights, and ethical meditations on democracy. Such political and cognitive capacities posit Black bodies as their inert, “socially dead”, Wilderson writes, yet sentient objects, or outlets of white fantasies of coercion, improvement, imagination, violence, and healing. The inhumanity of Blackness, or the fundamental antagonism between White life and Black death, is ultimately the condition of existence for the political conflicts, moral dilemmas, and social emergencies of civil society, as well as its aptitude to experience and narrativize history as a succession of events. Yet anti-Blackness itself is not an event. It is rather a paradigm, in which Black bodies do not merely confront violence but are actually constituted by it through processes of depredation, coercion, and enslavement sustaining Whiteness as a self-consciously globalized project. Anti-Black violence is thus, Wilderson continues, not only without analogue, but is also gratuitous, it is not violence that responds to prior transgressions. Commenting, in 1900, on racist lynching as America’s “unwritten law”, Ida B. Wells reflected on the elasticity of White violence on the Black body, a violence for which no obvious political or punitive justification existed. Her conclusion was that gruesome killings of Blacks served the quotidian purposes of building the White community, its symbolic order, its gendered roles, and the racial hierarchies it presided over. In Wilderson’s terms, it is not so much a comparative question of how brutal or intense the violence suffered by Blacks is in relation to the violence suffered by others. Rather, anti-Black violence, as justified by nothing but the sheer human power of Whiteness, cannot be analogized to the injuries contingently suffered by other oppressed yet human actors, like immigrants, white women, or workers, on account of specific violations, social relations, or productive status.
Wilderson’s critique, which he terms “afropessimism”, grasps the positionality of the Black not as a subject but an object in civil society, allowing a reframing of Trump’s rise along a problematic articulation of event and paradigm. Conversations that configured the elections, and the entire arc of the Trump campaign, as events were saturated by whiteness. Progressives held firm to the imago of American civil society as universally human and essentially ethical in its commitment to freedom, progress, and inclusion, despite falling short of such norms in this specific instance. Trump himself, on the other hand, summoned whiteness by overtly reclaiming White America as the country to be “taken back” from a host of variously racialized enemies—from “rapist” migrants to chaos in the “inner cities”. The demonization of Muslims and foreigners abundantly drew from, and resonated with, the violently established repertoire of White fear, resentment, and desire. And whiteness answered the call. The Republicans swept the white vote, gaining majority support from white men and women alike, as well as college-educated whites, proletarian whites, poor whites, and rich whites.
In paradigmatic terms, however, the shift from multicultural liberalism to nationalistic supremacism is a change only in the form of Black subjugation. In previous shifts, a substantive continuity has underpinned—after the legal end of racial slavery and under administrations of all ideological persuasions—the succession of legalized Black segregation and disenfranchisement, mass imprisonment, the devastation of Black families and communities through explicitly punitive social policies and, most recently in the age of Barack Obama, a dramatic surge in the killing of Blacks by police enjoying recurrent impunity. Not only was the post-slavery nation committed to using the laws and powers of the state to perpetuate the subordination of Blacks. It also maintained that loyalty to the Constitution endorsed the founding document of a slaveholding society. When, in 1896, the Supreme Court confirmed the legality of racial segregation in the famous Plessy vs Ferguson case, Justice Harlan, opposing the decision, insisted that “the white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is… So, I doubt not, will continue to be for all time if… it holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty”. The avowed timelessness of anti-Black democracy aimed to deny eventfulness to the former slaves, defying the possibility of periodization, and contradicting the very plausibility of an America without Black captivity. Conversely, talks of a “before” and an “after” Trump, or perceptions of his event as a trauma (Fascism’s assault on “liberty”), are implicated in capacities to narrativize temporality, capacities which have not only been made unavailable to Blacks, but actually travestied Black “freedom” as a White project. By separating event from paradigm, the debate on Trumpism is a white drama whose characters enact dilemmas and turmoil against the hazy, receding, fixed, yet coherent “scene”, as historian Saidiya Hartman put it, of anti-Blackness.
Racial violence and generalized aggression on Muslims, immigrants, and the “others” in Trumpian imagination have been clearly on the rise after the elections. At the Ohio State University in Columbus, where I teach, Black and Brown students have publicly voiced fear of leaving their dorms; several have been harassed for wearing headscarves; a Latina student was surrounded by white men shouting at her to “build the wall”. Is the register of traumatic event useful in analyzing this violence? What expressive possibilities does it provide to suffering? Does it merely validate the piousness of institutions using trauma to proffer healing abilities while letting their own anti-blackness off the hook? At the main campus of the Ohio State University, 85 percent of the students, and a similar proportion of the faculty, are white, while programs in Black studies, support for Black students, and opportunities for Black research and critical knowledge have been decimated, for all purposes that are not merely invested in “diversity”, by years of austerity and corporate managerialism. Perhaps, then, the most suitable concept for post-election violence is not traumatic event but, as David Marriott puts it, traumatic repetition, which would bring one back to the paradigm again.
A Black critique of the event, on the other hand, did not wait for Trump’s victory to offer an alternative perspective. Black Lives Matter has, to the scorn of Democrats of all stripes, refused to embrace the appeal of either Hillary Clinton or his socialist opponent, Bernie Sanders. The former was an easy target, on account of her active role in policies that, under her husband’s presidency, eviscerated Black communities through trade and financial liberalization, destroyed Black families by replacing social assistance with temporary payments contingent upon seeking low-wage precarious jobs, and placed Black lives under a continuous state of emergency administered by militarized policing, mandatory sentencing, and mass incarceration via racially inflected redefinitions of crime and punishment. Like the post-slavery legal order Saidiya Hartman writes about, and any other government in between, the Clinton administration deferred to white sentiment, private feelings, and social concerns as sources for the legislation of its targets into racialized problems. Yet Black Lives Matter did not merely compare the players, but rather rejected the White drama as such, hence its spectacular distancing from Bernie Sanders during his Seattle rally in August 2015. In that occasion, activists Marissa Jenae Johnson and Mara Willaford interrupted Sanders with their ethical request not to be ventriloquized by “white supremacist liberalism”, receiving for their action the reproach of white leftists accusing the two Black women of forgetting their “true” interests, which assumed a departure from Black suffering toward other grammars of injury—gender, class, precarity—compatible with the enlistment of Blackness in coalitional politics.
A year later, Johnson reflected on that action and the truths it revealed, namely that “we are embroiled in the white supremacy of our past and in many ways unwilling to address the crisis we now find ourselves in. By bringing to the public our attempt at resistance against the seemingly progressive forces that oppress us, we called the entire system into question.” She indicted the coherence civil society seeks by viscerally turning “Black women fighting for their freedom” into objects of scandal and, crucially for a paradigmatic questioning of the event, offered a conclusion worth quoting in full:
I don’t believe it is true that this controversy arose primarily out of people’s love for Sanders and confusion around BLM. No, I believe that what struck to the core in a way I could have never imagined was the images that people saw on their phones, their iPads and their TVs. Seeing two young black women with long ghetto braids, big earrings and a total disregard for the authority of the state and the power of white supremacy over their lives is what shook this nation to its core. The issue that united white people in their fear and anger around our action wasn’t their love for Bernie Sanders or their dedication to civility; instead it was the visual image of two people, young black women, jumping up out of the caste system American society has placed them in and running up to challenge a powerful white man… Black women rising, with ample conviction and without fear, is a type of resistance that undoes the very fabric of American society. It defies the logic of every system in America that was designed to restrain and suppress black, poor and female bodies. Black women rising strikes fear into America because we are the foundation on which she built her empire.
To take these words, as Sanders has subsequently tried to do, simply as inputs in a progressive “conversation” would obscure their power to assert something conversations among humans are designed to render unspeakable and unrepresentable, the White uses of the Black female body as a pressure point to disarticulate Blackness as a condition of politics and community. The assumption of an indefinite Black bodily openness, as a void only awaiting White intervention and signification, essentially defines, for Black scholar Jared Sexton, anti-Blackness. White appeals to a universal, overriding gender solidarity (let alone the promise of a Hillary Clinton presidency) are thus further ways of unethical habitation of Black bodies since, as Saidiya Hartman writes, “woman” is a notion that “occluded an understanding of the differential production of gender and sexuality” in racialized formations where “subjectivity is tantamount to injury”.
Another Black woman, Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old child murdered by the Cleveland police in 2014, elaborated on the imperviousness of paradigmatic anti-Blackness not only to progressive eventfulness, but to the changing racial composition of institutional leadership, which caused much expectation, now dashed, for a “post-racial” America. Addressing the president himself, she wondered: “Barack Obama, I don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know how you’re able to sleep at night. Just sleep and wake up and see that another murder has happened on behalf of the government. And nobody is getting any justice.” Civil society can sleep at night, Wilderson argues, because it is secure in its conviction of having reformed an unethical world into, among other things, the illusory opportunities for change offered by electoral democracy. In a recent essay on “Why I Don’t Vote”—echoing W.E.B. Du Bois’ similarly titled 1956 piece, which defined American elections as not a choice for the lesser evil, but a legitimation of one evil with two names—Wilderson elucidates how the grounding of democracy in violence is far from merely metaphorical. He shows, in particular, how the electoral college, the mechanism for translating the “will of the people” into leadership selection, was born out of the accumulation and fungibility of Black bodies. Even if slaves could not vote, they were still counted to determine the number of electoral votes for each of the country’s subdivisions, which in practice guaranteed the institutional dominance of slave states. Slaveholders had thus an incentive to increase their political weight through violently enforced slave “breeding”, in other words, compulsory rape. This practice finds a modern correspondence in the “usual residence” rule, with which disproportionally Black and often disenfranchised prison inmates are counted, for the purpose of representation, as part of the population of the locality where they are jailed.
The relationship between the American “body politic” and the body of Blackness is not merely one of authorization of the former’s violence on the latter, but is, literally, White life fortifying itself through Black death. It is in that relationship that a politics of the (electoral) event finds its insurmountable limit.