|Publisher:||University of California Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Andrea S. Boyles is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Lindenwood University, Belleville. She is a feminist, race scholar, and the author of Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort.
Read an Excerpt
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The (Re)Construction of Blackness and Identity Politics
INNER-CITY ST. LOUIS — COMMUNITY EVENT — DECADES BEFORE THE FERGUSON CIVIL UNREST
I remember it like it happened yesterday. I was a teenager, and it was a hot, sunny day — perfect for hanging out in "the Lou" (St. Louis, Missouri). I met up with a few friends and attended an outdoor event, where we became caught in the middle of gunplay (a shoot-out). At what had initially appeared to be a peaceful event, everyone was now running and scrambling for cover. I recall people near me motioning and yelling, "Get down, get down" as I immediately lay on the ground and prayed that I would be okay. So I just lay still, paralyzed with fear, waiting for the gunshots to end and for a signal that we were safe. Once the shots stopped, I heard voices saying that it was all right for us to get up off the ground. It turned out that these belonged to the police, giving orders, standing above me and in the near distance with their guns drawn. I was already disoriented, so this visual presented a catch-22, exacerbating my fears with thoughts of a possible renewed exchange between the police and the assailant(s). Despite initially thinking that the police were there to protect me, I still felt unsafe because of the threat of being caught in more cross fire. Should I not have considered this a real possibility, when police had their weapons drawn as if in anticipation? Was it safe, and how was I to get away without being injured by either side — assailants or police? I walked away from that event physically unharmed; others were not as fortunate. Innocent people were shot, and some black citizens comforted and tended to them until they were examined and whisked away by paramedics. Meanwhile, others (re)assured those remaining and still visibly shaken (e.g., crying, dazed) that they were safe. From the beginning of the incident, black citizens had actively tried to protect and serve one another, yelling directives and hurriedly pushing people to the ground, then helping them back up and hugging them after it was over. This is one example of many precarious situations in which I, as a native St. Louisan, felt compromised by exchanges between fellow blacks and police.
GROWING UP IN DISORDER
Growing up in a disadvantaged, troubled inner-city St. Louis neighborhood meant living with pervasive physical and social disorder as a backdrop. In short, I grew up exposed to a broad range of compromising living conditions, ranging from abandoned buildings and vacant lots to public drunkenness and homicides. Nevertheless, I learned to make due — to improvise and navigate as best as I could with few resources and options. Doing so was part of my childhood socialization process, in which even child's play was managed around lack and deprivation. The situation was the same for other youths in my neighborhood, with whom I shared and learned to navigate a rather tumultuous environment. Vacant lots sometimes became makeshift parks in my community. Depending on the amount of grass and rubbish, they served as open play space, mostly for boys, for tumbling on worn, discarded (donated) neighborhood mattresses, among other games. This activity was synonymous with, and yet in stark contrast to, gymnastic lessons and competitions in more affluent communities. Everyone took turns performing a combination of flips and then stood back, rating each other.
Side streets (with less traffic) and sidewalks were great for racing ("track and field"); building and jumping on bike ramps; jumping rope (with 99 cent plastic clothesline); and playing two square, jacks, and with yo-yos and bolo bats. In addition, worn porches and stoops were great for congregating — for talking, listening to music, laughing, and "joning," or what some refer to as "playing the dozens." Corkball, or "cort," as we called it, was also often played in my neighborhood. Young men could regularly be seen playing cort with a broom or mop stick and a tennis ball in gangways — where they established camaraderie and respect through tight spaces, time, and conversations. In addition to engaging in these activities, we also made store runs for penny cookies and candy (e.g., fruit chews, Pal bubble gum), pickles, peppermint sticks, Lemon Heads, and Red Hot Riplets (chips), while a Bomb Pop (i.e., popsicle) truck played music and slowly cruised by in the distance. This was the ambience of my childhood, alternating and overlapping with neighborhood disorder. Relationships were formed and social capital was gained in these everyday creative exchanges, among both youths and adults. This was especially true for those who secured space, offered a place for interaction (e.g., lots, porches, gangways) or equipment (e.g., mattresses, jump ropes, balls), or displayed great athleticism. In short, great reputations could be earned through various forms of neighborhood reciprocity and sportsmanship.
I grew up seeing black citizens adopt informal neighborhood rules — that is, shared, impromptu community expectations with subsequent interactive interpretations that supported our protecting and serving each other in various ways. As a case in point, I remember childhood rules such as having to stay where I could be seen from a window or door while outside playing and having to come inside before the streetlights came on (i.e., before dark). Even if these were not the rules for all neighborhood youth, others knew them to be my family's rules for me and helped me comply. I remember neighbors who watched out for me (and others), admonished me when necessary, and later reported my actions and their consequences to my family. I also remember other favors being done by neighbors, such as those who were away for extended periods entrusting others to keep watch over their homes and apartments during their absence. Similarly, neighbors with cars gave those of us without them rides to places or lifts to bus stops; others allowed neighbors to use their phones and phone numbers for school, work, and family emergencies when their phones had been disconnected. Neighbors doled out things like sugar and butter to each other between meals and trips to the grocery store, and some also shared information regarding neighborhood occurrences, such as people moving in and out, crime, and free activities, programs, and giveaways, so that we would not miss out on alerts, resources, and opportunities.
These protect-and-serve actions were taken by black citizens despite widespread community disorder, and we did not think about or articulate them as "policing ourselves" or informal social control but rather simply as "looking out for one another." Yet these activities and others like them made all the difference by addressing the invisible, everyday limitations and frustrations of poor black citizens when social services and police did not do so in disadvantaged communities. At a minimum, "giving someone a light" (i.e., lighting her or his cigarette) or flagging down a bus for another person made one "cool or good people" — a respected ally in the community. Such acts created or reflected social ties and served as the goodwill gestures necessary for relationship building — buffering or managing disorder in the absence or lack of trusted public service and the ensuing community frustrations, all of which have been challenged post-Ferguson. White critics and others use persistent civil unrest and neighborhood violence (e.g., black-on-black crime) to leverage discriminative ideas such as that blacks inherit criminal tendencies or to imply that black unity and neighborhood organization is impossible or only temporary.
Let us return to the inner crime scene just hours after Brown's death, to present more early exchanges between black citizens that garnered relatively little or even no media coverage.
LAP DISSOLVE TO:
CANFIELD GREEN APARTMENTS — INNER CRIME SCENE — DAY ONE, DUSK
I stand where Brown lay; he is being memorialized at the scene of his death.
Following the initial call to organize (see the introduction), the somberness of the crowd transcended into an immediate twofold strategy with directives. This was now a call to action, with goals that contextualized emotion, message, and music, becoming the premise for Ferguson and twenty-first-century direct action and grassroots efforts well before the national/international emergence of Black Lives Matter as an organization and the subsequent dominant backlash against blacks nationwide for protesting. As if officiating at a funeral, the older black male organizer continued:
We got a lot going on in our community. They [police] are killing us, and we're [black citizens] killing ourselves. So we got a twofold thing to begin to stop this kind of crazy violence in our community [Male voice in the background: "Yes, sir!"]. And the only way we're going to do it is that you all have to really seriously get organized [Male voice in the background: "Right!"]. All this other play stuff, it should be out! We've got to get real serious because our children's lives are at stake [Female voice in the background: "Amen!"].
As we huddled together there, this portion of the speech was the actual mobilization plan, proposed by one of the first black organizers on the scene to the black community just hours after Brown's death. Noticeably, this twofold agenda (addressing both police brutality and interpersonal neighborhood crime) to thwart violence in the black community received little to no media coverage. The significance of the current project is that it offers a counter to routine stereotypical narratives about black solidarity and interactions — a seemingly never-ending catch-22 — that always appear negatively because of dominant construction and politicization.
THE POLITICS OF RACE: ESSENTIALIZING BLACKNESS AND ROMANTICIZING WHITENESS
When white Americans essentialize blackness ... they often do so in ways that maintain "whiteness" as the master trope of purity, supremacy, and entitlement. ... Alternately, the trope of blackness that whites circulated in the past — Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel, Jim Crow, Sambo, Zip Coon, pickaninny, and Stepin Fetchit ... and now enlarged to include welfare queen, prostitute, rapist, drug addict, prison inmate, etc. — have historically insured physical violence, poverty, institutional racism, and second class citizenry for blacks.
JOHNSON (2003, 4)
Race is conceptualized through age-old, traditional uses of oral and written language and visuals through which we continue to derive semblance. From the ancient etymology of black as meaning "to scorch" as a consequence of being in the sun, to biblical allegories (e.g., the story of Noah's son, Ham) of black as a curse, to simple descriptions such as "dark," "bad," and "negative," the definition of black has been cumulatively extended to denote "people of African descent." More directly, especially in US law, the terms slave and black became synonymous. Correspondingly, blackness in cultural imagery has meant "Other" or "different" and because of blacks' enslavement has been metaphorically associated with defeat and conquest.
Race has also operated as an "identity signifier" and thus has been used ambiguously to exclude or include people. Consequently, black and blackness have become testaments to racial classification and ranking. They are based on physical attributes (e.g., skin complexion, hair texture) and socioeconomic and political arrangements (e.g., slavery, poverty, gerrymandering), resulting in persistently defaming consequences for African diasporic citizens. Furthermore, as previous research linked the origin of blackness to "black skin" and "dark skin" to negative physiological presumptions, blackness became, and in many ways remains, an outward sign to many of supposedly internal inferiority — something inside that is deep and more sinister. In addition to increased economic demands as a motivation for engaging in slavery, it was in this vein that African enslavement and the suggested "white man's mission" (white supremacy) became principled.
As the conceptualizations of black and blackness rest in mostly white traditional intellectual thought and artistry — from discriminative lessons on black inferiority, to classical Western philosophical literature (e.g., the writings of Kant, Hume), to the exaggerated darkness of Africans aboard slave ships (e.g., in European portraits) — it is important to note that past portrayals are still poignant and influential in the current era. Black and blackness are still stereotypically regarded as innately bad and through various means are romanticized as such in the minds of many people. Whether we are considering dated and false scientific vernacular or current media outlets (e.g., the Internet, television, movies, music), cultural agents continue to fuel false perceptions of what blackness means or, more directly, to present disparaging portrayals of black people.
Using prototypes or prototypical representations, media and other cultural agents routinely portray blacks as mostly engaging in unconventional roles and behaviors. Such instances become encoding for "habitual ways of thinking" that encourage the negative "appraisal" of blacks. This activity was evident in the repeated showing of footage of Brown's alleged strong-arm robbery. That is, the replaying was a constant display that reinforced stereotypes about him and blacks in general as criminal, "overpowering," and people to be feared, justifying displays of unremitting aggression by police and others even, when confronting them. As an example, police officer Darren Wilson described part of his confrontation with Brown to the grand jury thus: "The only way I can describe it is [that] I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan." Other descriptive, racially encoded words Wilson used when describing Brown were it and demon: "The only way I can describe it [is that] it look[ed] like a demon." Based on Brown's complexion (i.e., with black/blackness being equated with "darkness/bad"), this now permanently fixed image of him presented him not only as "inhuman" (it) but also as a "supernaturally" darkened force akin to Satan (demon). It is through this kind of repetition that the denigrating definitions, ideologies, and portrayals of blacks have come full circle to post-Ferguson America. This usage has been a consistent trend. Dominant cultural agents have persistently projected and solidified misconceptions and implications of race — conflated with discriminatory prototypical images — that have been passed off as real in the minds of many. Then, in cyclical fashion, negative incidents involving populations of color have been disproportionately covered, exaggerated, and unquestioningly believed — and worse, without context.
Identity Politics and Political Alliances
Since the inception of the United States, the broader culture and its major entities have been constructed to benefit white interests. To counter this situation, minorities have formed alliances. Currently the ideal is to create political space wherein a minority's particular in-group concerns and general wellbeing are prioritized rather than systemically excluded and discarded. For example, there are two police unions in the city of St. Louis, the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA) and the Ethical Society of Police (ESOP). The St. Louis Police Officers Association is predominantly white, while the Ethical Society of Police is predominantly black. ESOP was formed in 1972 as a response to "race-based discrimination within the community and [the] St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department." In other words, ESOP became an alternative organization to a policing agency that disproportionately protected white interests and enabled a culture of racial bias. Consequently, it is important to note how racial identity has influenced distinct positions and actions even among the police. At the time of the Ferguson civil unrest, the SLPOA called for five St. Louis Rams players to be disciplined for standing at football games in solidarity with activists in Ferguson. ESOP responded with a statement of support commending the players' action. This union did this because for black citizens, identity politics is intrinsically linked to "conceptions of social justice."
As this project examines social ties, we should consider the idea of blacks loving themselves and each other as a stark cultural contrast. Since racial construction posits white citizens as endearing and black citizens to be feared, "loving blackness" becomes a "political stance," so much so that when present, it leads to dominant suspicion of black citizens and racial pride among blacks as a form of political resistance. This is how James Brown's 1968 song, "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud," as well as similar slogans, hashtags, and so forth, became embodiments of identity politics and protests. It is also through perspectives such as "loving blackness" as a form of political resistance that we critically assess and deliberate on the delineation of "black" and "blackness" in post-Ferguson narratives and efforts.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "You Can't Stop the Revolution"
Copyright © 2019 Andrea S. Boyles.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.