By Angela Davis
Wed Mar 19, 2008
Both race and racism are profoundly historical. Thus if we discard biological and thus essentialist notions of "race" as fallacious, it would be erroneous to assume that we can also wilfully extricate ourselves from histories of race and racism. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to inhabit these histories, which help to constitute our social and psychic worlds.
Neoliberalism sees the market as the very paradigm of freedom and democracy emerges as a synonym for capitalism, which has reemerged as the telos of history. In the official narratives of US history, the historical victories of civil rights are dealt with as the final consolidation of democracy in the US, having relegating racism to the dustbin of history.
The path toward the complete elimination of racism is represented in the neoliberalist discourse of colourblindness. Equality can only be achieved when the law, as well as individual subjects, become blind to race and fail to apprehend the material and ideological work that race continues to do.
When obvious examples of racism appear to the public, they are considered to be isolated aberrations, to be addressed as anachronistic attributes of individual behaviour. There have been a number of such cases in recent months in the US: the noose that was hung on a tree branch by white students at a school in Jena, Louisiana as a sign that black students were prohibited from gathering under that tree; the public use of racist expletives by a well-known white comedian; the racist and misogynist language employed by a well-known radio host in referring to black women on a college basketball team, and finally, recent comments regarding the golfer Tiger Woods.
But if we see these individual eruptions of racism as connected to the persistence and further entrenchment of institutional and structural racism that hides behind the curtain of neoliberalism, their meanings cannot be understood as individual aberrations.
In the cases we have discussed, the racism is explicit and blatant. There is no denying that these are racist utterances. What happens, however, when racism is expressed, not through the words of individuals, but rather through institutional practices that are "mute" - to borrow the term Dana-Ain Davis uses - with respect to racism?
The inability to recognise the contemporary persistence of racisms within institutions and other social structures results in the attribution of responsibility for the effects of racisms to the individuals who are its casualties, thus further exacerbating the problem of failing to identify the economic, social, and ideological work of racism.
There is a similar logic undergirding the criminalisation of those communities, which are vastly over-represented in jails and prisons.
By failing to recognise the material forces of racism that are responsible for offering up such large numbers of black and Latino youth to the carceral state, the process of criminalisation imputes responsibility to the individuals who are its casualties, thus reproducing the very conditions that produce racist patterns in incarceration and its seemingly infinite capacity to expand.
The misreading of these racist patterns replicates and reinforces the privatisation that is at the core of neoliberalism, whereby social activity is individualised and the enormous profits generated by the punishment industry are legitimised.
One in 100
On February 28 of this year, the Pew Center issued a report about incarceration in the United States entitled "One in One Hundred: Behind Bars in America 2008". According to the report, one in one hundred adults is now behind bars on any given day. While the numbers themselves are shocking, the vastly disproportionate numbers of people of colour in jails and prison is for the most part responsible for the figure "one in one hundred."
In 1985, there were fewer than 800,000 people behind bars. Today there are almost three times as many imprisoned people and the vast increase has been driven almost entirely by the practices of incarcerating young people of colour.
Although the figures are not comparable, one can argue that a similar dynamic drives imprisonment here in Australia, with imprisoned aboriginal people accounting for ten times their proportion in the general population.
According to neoliberalist explanations, the fact that these young black men are behind bars has little to do with race or racism and everything to do with their own private family upbringing and their inability to take moral responsibility for their actions. Such explanations remain "mute" - to use Dana-Ain Davis's term again - about the social, economic, and historical power of racism. They remain "mute" about the dangerous contemporary work that race continues to do.
The incarceration of youth of colour - and of increasing numbers of young women of colour (women have constituted the fastest growing sector of the incarcerated population for some time now) - is not viewed as connected to the vast structural changes produced by deregulation, privatisation, by the devaluation of the public good, and by the deterioration of community.
Because there is no public vocabulary which allows us to place these developments within a historical context, individual deviancy is the overarching explanation for the grotesque rise in the numbers of people who are relegated to the country's and the world's prisons.
According to Henry Giroux, "racism survives through the guise of neoliberalism, a kind of repartee that imagines human agency as simply a matter of individualised choices, the only obstacle to effective citizenship and agency being the lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility."
Because racism is viewed as an anachronistic vestige of the past, we fail to grasp the extent to which the long memory of institutions - especially those that constitute the intimately connected circuit of education and incarceration - continue to permit race to determine who has access to education and who has access to incarceration.
While laws have had the effect of privatising racist attitudes and eliminating the explicitly racist practices of institutions, these laws are unable to apprehend the deep structural life of racism and therefore allow it to continue to thrive.
Psychic reservoir of racism
This invisible work of racism not only influences the life chances of millions of people, it helps to nourish a psychic reservoir of racism that often erupts through the utterances and actions of individuals, as in the cases previously mentioned. The frequent retort made by such individuals who are caught in the act is: "I'm not a racist. I don't even know where that came from" can only be answered if we are able to recognise this deep structural life of racism.
The deep structural racism of the criminal justice system affects our lives in complicated ways. What we acknowledged more than a decade ago as the US prison industrial complex through which racism generates enormous profits for private corporations can now be recognised as a global prison industrial complex that profits the world over from postcolonial forms of racism and xenophobia.
With the dismantling of the welfare state and the structural adjustment in the southern region required by global financial institutions, the institution of the prison - which is itself an important product marketed through global capitalism - becomes the privileged site into which surplus impoverished populations are deposited.
Thus new forms of global structural racism are emerging. The deep structural life of racism bleeds out from the US criminal justice system and is having a devastating effect on the political life of the nation and the world.
Angela Y Davis is Professor of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a civil rights activist and former Black Panther. This is an edited transcript of the Vice-Chancellor's Oration, which she delivered at Murdoch University on March 18, 2008.