So far, the post-Trayvon moment has been marked by disappointment. From the vicious attack on Rachel Jeantel, the reluctant star witness, to the casual racism of juror B37, who seemed surprised into silence by the public sentiment about the case, there are so many intertwined layers of racism that unraveling them seems painfully impossible.
Yet, the disclosure of personal racial wounds alongside solid black avatars on Facebook seemed based on just that need to unravel the layers in hope of mutual understanding. But after a couple of weeks, it was time to get rid of the black square and begin to grapple with the existential reality that the symbolism of cultural progress for blacks has come at the expense of justice.
A PEW report sheds light on some of the reasons why: whereas only 5% of African Americans were satisfied with the verdict, 49% of whites were. Whereas 78% of blacks want to talk about the racial issues that the verdict brings up, only 28% of whites feel like talking, and 60% of whites are rolling their eyes because they feel that race is getting too much attention. In other words, we have very different understandings of our daily experiences, and the dominant group largely denies the sentiments of the minority because they simply do not matter in tangible ways – in other words equality is only a formality.
And so, for African Americans the looming question of the post-Trayvon period is “what now?” So far, this question has been met with uncertainty. In spite of efforts to organize, the energy has been dispersed under the heavy reality that after fifty years of cultural, aesthetic and symbolic victories, social and economic conditions are not even simply unchanged, but they are quickly worsening.
(Published in Tidal Magazine)
Today, we are faced with an extralegal killing of a black person literally every 36 hours, a 13% rate of African American male voter disenfranchisement nationally (with Florida, Georgia and Virginia disenfranchising more than 20% of black residents), and a 33% black male incarceration rate.
We are also faced with the disappointing realities of a 20 to 1 wealth gap – rapidly expanded from 7 to 1 in the mid 90s, a 45% downward mobility rate (versus 16% for whites) and 81% of the younger generation shackled with student debt.
Unfortunately, if we look closely, we can see how these realities were set into motion alongside what we commonly understand as Civil Rights victories. We demanded fair access to housing; we got a mortgage industry that targeted us with predatory debt. We demanded education, and we got Sallie Mae. The Education Act of 1965 and Civil Rights Act of 1968 (aka Fair Housing Act) were followed by Nixon’s election in 1969, which marked the beginning of the “war on drugs” and mandatory sentencing laws.
The American Dream is now getting out of debt. The predatory debt system was first tested on African Americans, who could have served as canaries in the coal mine. It has now expanded to the entire 99%, who, instead of wage increases, went into debt to satisfy basic needs. In spite of the narrative we tell, Civil Rights victories were not just the harbingers of a new era of inclusion, rather they also marked the end of the American Dream, and the beginning of the decline into neoliberalism. The dynamism of the system managed the contradictions of Civil Rights demands and we moved from one system of apartheid to another.
Not coincidentally, the debt system and the drug war rely on invisibility and conceal their mechanisms with our blindness, secrecy and shame. As the debt system has grown, the need to control the population through force has also increased. The infamous Moynihan Report of 1965 identified that African Americans would not understand equality as equality of opportunity. Rather, blacks would also expect equality of result. Unfortunately, according to the report, equality of result would be impossible since African American familial structures and ways of being were pathological – as judged against white norms.
Over time, white racial framing created a hegemonic understanding of a “culture of poverty” that led to the myth of the drug addict as black and poor. This myth has justified brutal policing, legitimized inequality, and served the debt system powerfully as corporations experimented with predatory debt business models in the hidden world of blackness.
This shift into a disciplinary debt economy and “new Jim Crow” social order evolved under the cover of media spectacle – Beyonce, Jay Z, Oprah – and a first black president, whose election in many ways symbolized the ultimate Civil Rights’ victory in spite of the myriad of ways that legacy has failed.
The juxtaposition of a super rich celebrity class, who possess access to global forms of citizenship, with the increasingly isolated conditions of black poverty presents the possibility of social mobility, while depriving the majority of blacks of very basic forms of citizenship. This creates an illusion of class mobility and desire to transcend race via the material.
The black elite has been complicit with this program, but complicity was, perhaps, the only available deal. If you want to move up, then you had better play the game. The rules are simple: assert black racial identity only in ways that do not threaten white economic power, leave black collective interests behind. Material signifiers display the distinction from poverty – from blackness. Playing the game is just the price of access. Complicity is automatic since class mobility is tokenized.
It is easier to live inside the fantasy of black progress than it is to straddle the reality of personal achievement yet collective failure. In this way, tokenization becomes internalized as agreement with the powerful logic of racialized capitalist social and economic disparity. This ideology plagues America and is inseparable from the legacy of slavery.
And this afterlife of slavery keeps returning as the ghosts of Trayvon, Ramarley, Oscar, Shantel, Amadou, Eleanor, Sean and countless other lives lost in a continuing genocide – a daily reality for blacks left behind in poverty, but a reality that is easily denied by those who think race gets too much attention. The afterlife haunts us in the increasing spatial segregation and the way the financial crisis played out to devastate communities of color – and the way no one has to care. The afterlife haunts us through our clarity over who gets stopped and frisked, whose agenda is satisfied, who wins, who loses and whose game one must play.
Thus, After-Trayvon is a turning point for understanding African American collective identity. After the verdict we found each other briefly through our masses. That moment quickly faded back into the reality of our invisibility as a political body, and the reality that we only become powerful as individuals through identities that hide our connection to America’s unreconciled past.
The question “where we go from here?” requires us to face this complicity and also the possibility that our post-Civil Rights march toward inclusion in the American Dream was perhaps a wrong turn in our struggle. It is time to revisit the assumptions of Civil Rights; the American Dream is no longer a possibility. What will define a new phase of our struggle?
The struggle for global economic justice is really the same struggle as the struggle for racial justice – and both are really the same struggle Occupy engaged in against inequality, rule by the 1% and profit before people. What undergirds the socioeconomic system is the same white supremacist, capitalist ideology that has enabled its expansion into its current form.
The decline of capitalism is intensifying racial hostilities, as groups compete for access to resources, while simultaneously making race less visible, less political. When this contradiction is ignored, the potential for unity and solidarity is lost – rather than prefiguring a raceless world, capitalism succeeds at creating false divisions.
So far, movements have focused attention on working within borders, yet the systems of power are no longer contained within any state. Power is globalized and resilient as flows collected as material interests, ideologies, laws, policies, and military apparatus.
As borders become porous, new forms of citizenship that are not confined to space could emerge. America’s increasing bellicosity is a sign of the force that will be needed to maintain borders and control internal resistance. Our ability to communicate across borders is already modulated by the illegal use of globalized American power in an effort to maintain the integrity of the state.
After-Trayvon can mean no longer demanding a chance at the dream, but instead strengthening the bonds of solidarity that already exist across borders. Soweto, Detroit, Palestine. Turkey, Brazil, Spain. As social movements recalibrate globally, we need to develop a shared analysis of racialized capitalism that proposes a path toward justice as a human right.
Perhaps, it is in the abandonment of struggle within the nation-state and the abandonment of the attachment to the frames of whiteness that the struggle against capitalism can become common, global, and find power.