It would seem that the video-recorded killing of a black man, Walter Scott, by a white police officer named Michael Slager is a 21st-century version of this tale.
Americans of a certain age have most likely heard some version of the following story. Somewhere in the South, two white sheriff’s deputies discover the body of a black man hanging from a tree. There is a rope tied around his neck, his hands are bound and he has also been stabbed in the back. The younger deputy looks at the body and says, “Damn! we have one hell of a mystery here.” The older sheriff replies, “Yup — looks like a n***er version of Harry Houdini. How the hell did he manage to tie his own hands together, stab himself in the back and then jump off of that there tree to commit suicide?”
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We must never forget that when this grand intellectual forum was established, the precious U.S. Constitution was, in practice, a pro-slavery document. To put it clearly yet crudely, the deep democratization of America was pitted against the ugly niggerization in America. Democratization is the best of the American idea — in principle and practice. The sublime notion that each and every ordinary person has a dignity that warrants his or her voice being heard in shaping the destiny of society remains a revolutionary force in the 21st century — in the face of the power of autocratic empires, plutocratic states, and xenophobic communities. Niggerization is neither simply the dishonoring and devaluing of black people nor solely the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of them. It is also the wholesale attempt to impede democratization — to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful, and helpless subjects.
It is not, then, a question of negotiating between what is “seen,” on the one hand, and a “reading” which is imposed upon the visual evidence, on the other. In a sense, the problem is even worse: to the extent that there is a racist organization and disposition of the visible, it will work to circumscribe what qualifies as visual evidence, such that it is in some cases impossible to establish the “truth” of racist brutality through recourse to visual evidence. For when the visual is fully schematized by racism, the “visual evidence” to which one refers will always and only refute the conclusions based upon it; for it is possible within this racist episteme that no black person can seek recourse to the visible as the sure ground of evidence. Consider that it was possible to draw a line of inference from the black male body motionless and beaten on the street to the conclusion that this very body was in “total control,” rife with “dangerous intention.” The visual field is not neutral to the question of race; it is itself a racial formation, an episteme, hegemonic, and forceful.