There is something curious about the bewilderment and outrage many people have expressed regarding the recently publicized episodes of police and vigilante violence against Blacks. To be clear, I am not referring to the inconsolable sadness and outrage expressed by those in Black communities, who have lost loved ones and cherished members of their communities. There is nothing curious or puzzling about their expressions of grief. Rather, what strikes me most are the outraged bloggers and YouTubers of the liberal left, particularly those who are white. They seem to take account of all the racial violence they have observed over the last decade and exclaim, “What happened to America!?” They are surprised to learn of videos emerging which show law enforcement abusing their power, especially when confronting Black men and women. They express exasperation upon seeing video of an entire bus full of college students chanting, “There will never be a ni**** SAE!” Unlike their more conservative counterparts, these white liberals are less inclined to blame the victim and insist that members of Black communities must pull themselves up by their bootstraps; yet they share the sentiment that open racial conflict is somehow antithetical to the America of their childhood.
What is puzzling is that these bewildered whites appear to have no memory. It is like the movie Groundhog Day, but not even the protagonist is aware he has been witnessing the same murder over and over again. Each time is like the first, and he struggles to comprehend what is happening. What is this nonsense with the Ferguson police? How could police so easily default to the use of deadly force against 12-year-old Tamir Rice? How could they kill Eric Garner over suspicion of such a minor offense, and continue squeezing his neck despite repeated pleas for air? What about Freddie Gray (2015)?, Walter L. Scott (2015)? Akai Gurley (2014)? Ezell Ford (2014)? John Crawford III (2014)? Trayvon Martin (2012)? Ramarley Graham (2012)? Oscar Grant III (2009)? Tarika Wilson (2008)? Sean Bell (2006)? Amadou Diallo (1999)? Tyisha Miller (1998)? The Rodney King beating (1991)? The murder of Eleanor Bumpurs (1984)? Clifford Glover (1973)? Fred Hampton (1969)? Delano Herman Middleton (1968)? Samuel Ephesians Hammond, Jr. (1968)? Henry Ezekial Smith (1968)? Benjamin Brown (1967)? Jimmie Lee Jackson (1965)? James Earl Chaney (1964)? Medgar_Evers (1963)? Addie Mae (1963)? Denise McNair (1963)? Cynthia Wesley (1963)? Carole Robertson (1963)? Roman Ducksworth Jr. (1962)? Herbert Lee (1961)? Emmett Till (1955)? Jesse Thornton (1940)? Raymond Gunn (1931)? George Smith (1931)? Mary Turner (1918)? Frank Embree (1899)?
The above names barely amount to a single snowflake atop the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and the racist violence these names recall happened in communities all over the United States (see a map here). The Equal Justice Initiative counted that between 1877 to 1950, there are 3,959 known instances of white "terror lynchings" of Black men and women. But one does not need to go back a full century to see the pattern of violence directed against Black Americans. The average number of annual arrest-related deaths between 2003 and 2009 was about four times higher for Blacks than whites, Looking at teens aged 15 to 19, who were shot and killed by police, the racial gap appears to be even greater. Between 2010 and 2012, police shot and killed about 21 times more Black youth than white youth.
Understanding why racist violence continues to be surprising to so many liberal-leaning whites involves trying to make sense of the glaring contradiction between the racial equality many whites profess to want for the United States and the racial inequality they sometimes uphold through their behavior and allow to persist through their inaction. The popular explanation now propagated by academics and anti-racist educators is that following the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, racist practices of various types went underground (see Bonilla-Silva 2013). Overt and blatantly racist signifiers began a hasty retreat from public view, making racist prejudice and discrimination more difficult to see, harder to prove, and easier to deny. What this means—and this is crucial—is that bigots of all varieties may very well have continued their racist discrimination, but increasingly, they did so without racialized hate speech, or at least without witnesses to hear it. Euphemisms and other new rhetorical strategies have flourished in this environment, so that racialized nouns like “thug” and “you people” have come to replace the n-word.
Newer, more covert racist practices spread through the labor market. Employers who once openly expressed their preferences for white job candidates became rare, but while some employers implemented policies to curb racial discrimination, many more just became less open about their racial preferences. Prosecutors who sought to bring charges of employment discrimination began relying more on the work of statisticians rather than the eavesdropping of fellow employees. If one hoped to expose a particular employer’s racist hiring practices—to make those practices stop—one now needed access to reams of data from the employer about the presumed race of applicants, their qualifications, and whether they were hired. Here again, employment discrimination simply became harder to prove. It did not end.
There is a similar pattern with respect to racist violence, or what are now routinely referred to as hate crimes. Openly racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, to take one example, became less and less palatable to the white majority, and memberships of local chapters began a slow decline. It was no longer acceptable to terrorize and murder Black men and women in such an openly racist manner. But violence against Black men and women in the United States did not necessarily decline. It only became harder to detect and prove.
The data, incomplete though they may be, supports the conclusion that if one includes the violence administered by police officers, a Black person's chances of being harmed or killed by white terrorism is not markedly different than a century ago. The exasperation and bewilderment expressed by many white liberals over the racial turmoil in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and other American cities suggests that these whites have never even contemplated the notion that in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Era racist violence may have never declined. In terms of violence as a means of social control, white supremacy has surrendered nothing. The dirty work of white supremacy may have simply changed hands from vigilante groups to law enforcement agencies. By handing over the reins to those agents of the state who are normatively regarded as the legitimate enactors of lethal force, the disproportionate killing of Black men and women in the United States simply appeared to be "legitimate" outcomes. For liberal whites, who have been living very different experiences from Black Americans, the violence was difficult to detect. For Blacks, it became more difficult to prove.
The fact that racism has become more covert is not a viable excuse for whites who claim to desire equality of opportunity and justice because it is primarily white Americans who are keeping the workings and effects of racism hidden. The manner in which the unrest in Baltimore was framed by the media is but one example. But while whites—particularly those who work in the media—have been centrally involved in the work of making racism more difficult to see, whites are also guilty of their refusal to notice racism, even when it is plainly visible. As alluded to above, the calls to investigate, prosecute, and bring about an end to systematic patterns of violence against Black Americans certainly did not begin with the death of Freddie Gray, nor did such calls begin after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. Black communities were loudly calling for an end to racist police violence well before 1973 when 10-year-old Clifford Glover was shot “T-square in the back, with his body leaning forward” as he ran away from a police officer in Queens, New York. Brave and outspoken members of Black communities were speaking the truth about white terror since well before the late Nineteenth Century when Ida B. Wells-Barnett persuasively decried lynching as a barbarous vice of white men (see Bederman 1995). The bewilderment of white liberals no longer makes any sense. However good their intentions might be, the exasperated cries of sympathy from liberal whites rings hollow.
Given that white supremacy has depended so crucially on whites hiding racialized violence, and refusing to notice the racialized violence that has occurred over generations, is it not fitting that the development of a portable, visually-oriented technology capable of producing digital video at the touch of a button is proving to be the trigger for a public discussion about racism and racist violence? A critical mass of smartphones in racially segregated America has unexpectedly created an opening, a means of forcing a broad swathe of the white public to see again what has been generally hidden. Social movements under the banner of Black Lives Matter and the Black Spring are now attempting to gain a foothold within the fissures upon which rests the foundation of white supremacy. But social change is neither linear, nor inevitalble, and it remains to be seen whether progress will be made in curbing the systemic violence directed against Black lives.
To paraphrase Kwame Touré, in order to be truly helpful, white liberals must be careful they are not simply trying to “help” Blacks adjust to an abject status. Instead, whites must use the power and privilege of whiteness to act by dismantling or reforming white supremacist institutions.
Stand-up comedians exercise a curious privilege, which allows them to peddle controversial conclusions and uncomfortable insights without suffering the usual scorn and admonishment that comes with challenging systems of power. The comedian's stage seems to be a space that has been engineered for bringing indelicate knowledge about the world to the surface. For instance, the suggestion that Americans are deeply divided by race and class usually causes people to fidget, yet Chris Rock was greeted with laughter and applause when he unabashedly criticized the racialized wealth gap in the United States during one of his performances in Washington DC. Similarly, Louis C.K. received a rousing applause when he discussed his privilege as a white male, and Hari Kondabolu made an entire room burst into laughter by exposing the nonsensical logic underlying stereotypes aimed at Mexican immigrants.
Unfortunately, as with superheroes who use their powers for evil, not all comedians use the stage as a venue for delivering social criticisms aimed at exposing injustice. For instance, comedy is just as likely to reinforce stereotypes as it is to criticize them, or to put it differently, the comedian's stage is just as likely to be a place where knowledge is "indelicate" because it is racist as it to be a place where knowledge is indelicate because it is critical of racism.
Consider Jeff Dunham's ventriloquial act featuring his popular dummy, "Achmed the Dead Terrorist." In the clip below, which is taken from a 2007 performance in Washington DC, Dunham draws upon a number of stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, many of which have been around since well before the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Dunham is not deploying social criticism, but is instead uncritically drawing on racist representations for laughs. He is also reasserting and promoting what is by now a worn panoply of orientalist associations. Arabs and Muslims, like the Achmed character, are typically portrayed as religious fanatics. They are often depicted as irrationally angry, and many are self-proclaimed terrorists. But if they are dangerous, they are dangerous buffoons and are often too incompetent to pull off their own deadly plots.
In this way, stand-up comedians can be understood as articulators of knowledge about the world. As I have argued, they contribute to the persistence of stereotypes at times, but they can also articulate convincing arguments against stereotypes. But what is true of stand-up comedy seems to hold for other types of comedic performance as well. Political cartoons, comedy sketches, and even situation comedies all peddle this indelicate knowledge about the racialized other. In "Ali-Baba Bound," a Looney Tunes cartoon from 1940, Porky Pig runs up against Ali-Baba and his "Dirty Sleeves." The humor is constructed around a basic scaffolding of the Arab as dirty and sneaky. Ali-Baba's Arab underlings in the cartoon are depicted as too primitive to competently use rockets and must must run as suicide bombers toward a colonial fort with explosives strapped to their heads.
The articulation and reinforcement of Arabs as buffoons or Muslims as extremists, the elevation of these images above others as iconic representations ironically limits the field of vision. But shortly after 1940, events would transpire so that for a time Arabs and Muslims occupied a relatively small sliver of American concern. The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor the following year ignited a discursive explosion surrounding the Japanese, both those living in American neighborhoods and abroad. It is striking how eerily similar representations of Japanese persons were to those claimed for Arabs and Muslims. However, fed by photographed destruction of Pearl Harbor and the tangible realities associated with the American war machine shifted back into high gear, dominant representations of the treacherous Japanese other went further and faster. Each representation of the "Jap" became more and more fanciful; each illustration seemingly emboldened by the last to push the caricature even further.
"Waiting for the Signal from Home..." Dr. Seuss. February 13, 1942
Celebrated children's author, Dr. Seuss, published a cartoon only weeks before the United States would forcibly relocate 120,000 ethnic Japanese persons living in the United States to internment camps. The cartoon depicts a buck-toothed, fifth column of Japanese Americans lining up from Washington to California for their very own box of TNT. A man with a monocular scales the rooftop of the explosives depot "waiting for the signal from home." Or consider a Looney Tunes cartoon from the period, which is named "Tokio Jokio" and similarly claims buck teeth and buffoonish behavior for all Japanese persons on the planet.
The cartoon elaborates upon many of the typical stereotypes associated with Japanese persons but unlike the Dr. Seuss cartoon, the attempt at humor is harder to miss. Whereas the Seuss cartoon reverberates extant fears about a treacherous Japanese enemy living among us, the Looney Tunes cartoon lampoons them as bumbling idiots. In the Seuss cartoon, their tribal-like loyalties to the Emperor mean they are capable of doing just about anything, but in the Looney Tunes cartoon they are too incompetent to prevent their own Fire Prevention Headquarters from burning to the ground. Such seemingly contradictory representations permeated the American imagination of the time, alternately stoking anxieties while assuring Americans of their national and even racial superiority.
These racist representations aimed at the Japanese were not buried by the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japanese cities. Just as before the Second World War, they have proven to be free-floating to a degree and transferable to our emergent enemies. Today, Arabs and Muslims are routinely depicted in popular cinema as incompetent. In our comedy, they are again the bumbling idiots, simultaneously too stupid to successfully perpetrate an attack against us and just stupid enough to commit truly heinous crimes. What was an imagined fifth column, has become the terrorist sleeper cell. In 1942 we feared Japanese Americans were blindly loyal to "their" Emperor. Today we are bombarded with ideas about the tribal loyalties of American Muslims. So powerful are these loyalties, it is often suggested, Muslims would happily kill themselves to bring about the demise of Western civilization. The fanatical Middle Eastern suicide bomber is the new banzai charger and Japanese Kamikazi pilot.
There is a joke that is now getting tossed around the internet, and it goes something like this, "A friend of mine has started a new business. He is manufacturing land mines that look like prayer mats. It's doing well. He says prophets are going through the roof." What this joke, Dunham's comedy sketch, and the Looney Tunes cartoon all share is that they mark historical moments when the racialized other became so thoroughly demonized and devalued in the public consciousness, our undifferentiated Arab "enemies" became so feared for their treachery and immorality that it became possible to make light of hypothetical and real violence perpetrated against them. What does it say about a people when they find it possible to laugh at a joke about a human detonating a bomb which is strapped to his body? One might speculate that it is strangely intoxicating to spot the boogieman tripping on his shoelaces, embarrassing himself, or dying by his own venom. The Achmed character's tired threat, "I kill you!" is funny, perhaps because his voice cracks like a thirteen-year-old boy, and we are entertained by the irony that someone so evil could appear so weak. "Look at the Muslim boogieman acting so foolishly!" we seem to be saying through our laughter.
Of course Arabs and Muslims are not born evil; the boogieman is a creature that gets created in the accounts of what might happen if the nation ceases being vigilant. But the larger point I am arguing is that comedy, which uncritically trades in the negative stereotypes aimed at Arabs and Muslims and is able to make an audience pop with laughter with references to suicide bombing, is only possible because Arabs and Muslims have been successfully demonized and devalued. Comedians write jokes to get laughs, but as I mentioned at the outset, they also operate from a space which grants them temporary license to openly discuss controversial ideas. Comedians contribute to the discourse, just as readily they respond to it, and their sets are just as capable of exposing hidden discrimination as reinforcing it. This is important to consider because what is at stake here is the differential valuing of human life, and the way representations are organized to aid in that horrific project.
Perhaps five hundred years from now, when historians are able to look back on this moment, freed from the myopic principles of vision and division that currently ensnare us, I wonder if they will find it ironic that during this zenith of global information flows, a time when information about the intimate lives of people in distant lands so easily zipped across the planet, Americans persisted in holding fast to such gross generalizations. And if those historians archive the media which depicts the moral panic of these decades, they would do well to note what made us laugh.