On April 19, 2015, Freddie Gray’s name was added to an awful and ever-swelling list. His death, which occurred in the custody of Baltimore’s police department, directed media attention to a town sometimes called Charm City. There is, evidently, no geography immune to the relentless pattern of police brutality whose enormity and scope has stripped away fondly held American illusions of equal citizenry. The underlying assumptions that informed public racial conversations over the last half-century are, without question, false: the civil rights era did not, in reality, afford Black Americans equal political or civil rights.
Recently, the historian and writer Jelani Cobb advanced the term “contingent citizenship” to describe the political status of Black Americans. Unlike second class citizenship, contingent citizenship appears equal to full citizenship until pivotal social and political conditions are stressed or altered. The rights afforded to those with contingent citizenship are then snatched away in a form of political trickery easily excused under the guise of urgency or crisis.
For Black Americans, citizenship is contingent on remaining a domesticated and distanced class that neither threatens nor inconveniences nuclei of power or the orbits those nuclei sustain. Indeed, slavery, the United States’ first grand racial project, was primarily invested in the domestication of black bodies. The fear of blackness so central to that mission found eerie echoes in the death of Eric Garner, whose very body, too large and too black, somehow presented an imminent threat to a group of New York police officers. Distancing black bodies from white, both spatially and psychologically, is the second major, and ongoing, American racial project. The feat’s geographic aims were accomplished by rampant de facto segregation as severe in outcome as pre-Civil Rights era de jure segregation; think not that the freedom to mix stimulated the willingness.
As hammers were taken to legal boundaries, racist psychological borders once undergirded by institutional policy were left without formal protection. Simple narratives that validated a racist society, and assuaged racist group and individual psychologies, were unsatisfactory in the face of a new sociolegal reality. Inherent black inferiority was no longer a publicly acceptable assumption. For racially privileged actors unwilling to seed their superiority, new narratives that obfuscated racist desires were required to maintain the status quo. Regardless of their creators professed intentions, emerging systems of thought, including Oscar Lewis’ “culture of poverty” and burgeoning neo-liberal economic theory, served just that purpose. Dominant discourse explained black disenfranchisement by either scapegoating, and distorting, cultural values and practices associated with impoverished communities or lazily pointing to market-driven forces for whom no one in particular was responsible. Solutions to systemic marginalization were reduced to misinformed cultural reform projects and narrowly envisioned economic development initiatives. The predictable result in countless cases was continued community stagnation or, worse, displacement through ill-conceived city-building efforts that invited rampant gentrification.
A restrictive silence accompanies the culturally focused and economically driven narratives that so dominate public discourse. Questions of political rights — questions on the meaning and privileges of full citizenry — are rarely spoken or heard in traditional media. The use of one narrative to silence another is hardly new historical or intellectual territory; as the scholar Edward Said notes, “history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silence and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.” Silence, to the same degree as content, defines the stories on black bodies and black communities that we currently consume. It is the ever-present and dangerous unsaid that threatens transformative change, aiming not at culture or faceless economics, but at a politics and psychology that denies blacks full citizenship.
As reports from Baltimore construct a narrative replete with coded language, pervasive discourses on cultures of poverty and neo-liberal economic hope are hard at work. When “looters” create “chaos” and protesters “taunt” policemen, images of culturally backwards savages recklessly threatening business are called to mind. When Freddie Gray’s prior legal troubles are slyly noted as a justification or rationale for indifference to his death, we are once again presented with a narrative whose driving impulse is racist justification. Mr. Gray’s death, and his life, becomes little more than the inevitable product of a morally defunct culture or an economic system that simply needs a bit of tuning. The protesters’ reaction to his death becomes that of ill-trained animals incomprehensibly burning down their habitat.
Disputing the flimsy and commonplace narratives presented in popular discourse is not, however, the greatest challenge facing protesters and activists. Crafting a language that can replace those narratives with one that accurately reflects the political and structural conditions under which Black Americans live is. The reality of black life, while still subject to daily terrors and humiliation, was significantly different before the Civil War than it was afterwards. Second-class citizenship, and a host of new social practices, replaced the complete lack of recognition that came before it. Similarly, in this, the post-Civil Rights era, the narratives deployed by abolitionists and civil rights leaders no longer ring true; the inefficacy of older, prominent African-American leaders in engaging movements spawned by Michael Brown’s death is but one indication of this reality.
The complexity of Black Lives requires a novel and nuanced language — one that should include Cobb’s contingent citizenship — that marks the context-driven behavioral borders in which blacks are confined. Critically, nuance should not be mistaken for unreality or confusion. The same twin desires — domestication and distance — that have animated the treatment of blacks for generations provide the basic architecture for contemporary racial borders. Freddie Gray violated rules of domestication when he ran from police; Trayvon Martin violated rules of distance and domestication when he walked through his own neighborhood. The consequences for their actions were nothing short of modern day lynchings, tragically supported by popular narratives on Blackness and, more disturbing still, the truth of black contingent citizenship.