See Brian Jordan Jefferson’s most recent contribution to Society & Space here: Digitize and punish: Computerized crime mapping and racialized carceral power in Chicago

Recent videos of racialized police killings and the uprisings mounted in response have shaken the field of US politics to its core. During the past two years, at least 1,431 Black Lives Matter demonstrations have occurred across the country and beyond. What is more, the spectacle of these extraordinary mobilizations has been amplified by equally impassioned defenses of police executions, which has provided rallying cries for entire communities, and platforms for upcoming national elections. In times of such turbulence, the entire fields of public discourse and political rhetoric are upset. So too are the habits of the critical analyst.

During ordinary times, the analyst labors to stay ahead of the curve. Here, she unmasks concealed forms of exploitation and marginalization with an eye toward what lies ahead. That is, she focuses on the future implications of current trends, or searches for the means to secure a future that is qualitatively different from the present. But during extraordinary times, the analyst moves in the opposite direction. Now she is compelled to work backwards through history, and retrace the accumulation of forces that gave rise to the current state of affairs.

This essay attempts to articulate the historical significance of those defending racialized police violence. It asks: how has a phrase like “black lives matter,” so patently banal, become so politically explosive? How can the same factions revitalized by the mantra of “small government” defend the most extreme form of government intervention possible—killing its citizens? What is the critical analyst to make of the summer of 2016? The essay makes the case that underneath the rhetoric of crime, law, and order, and respect for the law, the vehement defense of police violence reflects a crisis spawned from internal contradictions in racial capitalism. It shows how similar reactions have occurred in the past, under comparable conditions. It chronicles how the defense of racialized police violence marks a repetition of history that, no matter how farcical, retains a tragic character.[1]




A historical treatment of the current crisis helps to supplement contemporary works on the carceral state and race. On one hand, a number of critical geographers have linked intensifications in police strategy to structural changes in the political economic system. These works demonstrate how police strategies since the 1990s have been developed and deployed to assist urban redevelopers, manage deskilled surplus populations, and make cities more attractive for foreign investors, gentrifiers, tourists, and high-end consumers (Beckett and Herbert, 2011; Gilmore, 2007; Herbert and Brown, 2006; Jefferson, 2015; MacLeod, 2002; Peck, 2003; Smith, 1998; Vitale and Jefferson, 2016; Wilson, 2005). This scholarship demonstrates the indispensability that “quality of life” and “zero tolerance” policing policies have in removing unwanted populations from redeveloping areas, and strategically enclosing them in the urban periphery. In short, this scholarship shows how the scope and intensity with which policing force is unleashed on (especially) black and latinx subjects is relationally linked to their economic utility in metropolitan regions (Parenti, 2008; Peck and Theodore, 2008; Vitale, 2008; Wacquant, 2008; Western and Beckett, 1999).

On the other hand, scholars in the exciting field of critical ethnic studies provide new insights on the nature of “race” and racialization, which deepen our understandings of the violence attendant to shifting police strategies (Cacho, 2012; Elia et al. 2016; Gilmore 2002; Hong, 2015; Melamed, 2011; Rana, 2011; Reddy, 2011; Rosas, 2006; Silva, 2007; Tadiar, 2012; Weheliye 2014). These studies show that racial identities are inextricably tied to differential distributions of human value, vulnerability, and access to legal protections. This perspective explains why, when DeRay Mckesson denounces Gavin Long’s retaliatory attacks by explaining that Black Lives Matter pivots around a “call to end violence,” something short-circuits in mainstream debates about police violence. Killing blacks cannot be equated with killing whites within the calculus of race, because black death is neither equally mournable nor equally meaningful to white death (see especially Weheliye, 2014). This intrinsic and inextricable aspect of race is precisely what the #Alllivesmatter movement fails to grasp. If, in reality, all lives did matter, then Black Lives Matter would not have come into existence in the first place.

But insightful as these studies are, one crucial historical agent escapes scrutiny: the white subproletariat (and others who perceive their self-interests in kind).[2] Hence the importance of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. In his pathbreaking Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Du Bois interrogates the role that racial identity played in turning the white subproletariat against its own material interests before, during, and after the Civil War. How is it, he asks, that white would-be agricultural workers defended to the death the very economic system—chattel slavery—responsible for their own poverty and unemployability? Why, after the abolition of slavery, did the white subproletariat so violently turn against freed blacks, and thereby sacrifice any and all collective bargaining power vis-à-vis the aristocratic planter class? Du Bois answers thus:

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness…The newspapers specialized on news that flattered poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule (pp. 700-701, emphases added).

David Roediger (2007) builds upon these insights and examines how this dynamic and dialectical relationship unfolded in the north during the early nineteenth century. His findings reconfirmed those of Du Bois, showing how, for white workers grappling with the whirlwind unleashed by industrialization, whiteness served as a coping device to deal with societal transformations beyond their control and comprehension.

This view brings the conditions of our present crisis into clear view. As the white precariat sinks deeper and deeper into subproletarian status, black (and Muslim, Mexican, and South American) death fulfills a symbolic function disturbingly similar to those chronicled by Du Bois. This is of especial importance as the white precariat is subjected to what Melissa Harris-Perry (2011) calls the “blackening” of America. By this she means the political, economic, and violent conditions quintessential to black experiences in the US have crept across the color-line, and increasingly affect ordinary whites. Since the Great Recession, white unemployment has hovered around 10 percent, a rate blacks have been subjected to for the past 40 years. In airports, whites are subjected to invasive frisking and questioning by increasingly armed men and women in blue uniforms. They are ever more subjected to constant fears—rational or not—of falling victim to extra-legal, terroristic violence. Since 1999, death rates for low-educated, middle age whites has been on the rise. Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and suicide have driven the demographics’ death rates up at the same that black and latinx rates have declined. This blackening of white experiences is to a great extent what has sparked this latest convulsion of racial necropolitics (Mbembe, 2003), which serves as an outlet to release anxiety and confusion about a world they do not understand.

Therefore, when we observe the staunch defense of police officers that kill defenseless and guiltless black people, one must bear in mind that such instances of:

…total depravity, human hate and Schadenfreude, do not explain fully the mob spirit in America. Before the wide eyes of the mob is ever the Shape of Fear. Back of the writhing, yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake, is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings, and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. Of what? Of many things, but usually of losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, or crime. And of all of this, most ubiquitous in modern industrial society is that fear of unemployment (Du Bois, 1998: 678).

This perspective, I believe, provides an explanation for those struggling, scared, and stressed white workers drawn by the symbolic allure of the weapon that killed Trayvon Martin, the defamation of Tamir Rice’s grieving mother, or the torturing of Muslims. Nonwhite death induces a collective effervescence for a class that dimly senses itself in a state of ontological flux. The racialized death-wage restabilizes things. Thus, drawing out relations between racialized police killings and lynching is quite apt, as both convey brusque reminders of racial hierarchy during times of economic disruption. Indeed it must be remembered that spikes in festival lynching during the 1890s were linked to small farmers faced with a depression that threatened their property and sense of autonomy (Tolnay and Beck, 1995). When the institutions of civil society fail the white precariat, the state of nature will suffice.

Such entwinements of economic uncertainty and violence find their concrete expression in the ascendance of Donald Trump, an adept outsourcer of low-skilled jobs, enslaver of labor, and rhetorical proponent of law, order, and anti-terrorism. (That his oratory in actuality fosters lawlessness, disorder, and racialized terror is beside the point). While Trump has proven a mortal enemy of workers’ rights and interests, his embrace of racialized police violence, coupled with proposals to forcefully remove Mexican immigrants and kill Muslim families reaffirms a color-line that many feel is fading away. Trump’s meteoric rise illustrates that, for a century and a half, the transaction between capital and the white precariat remains fundamentally unchanged: low-skilled whites resign themselves to a “lifetime of economic and political subalternity”[3] in exchange for fringe benefits. During normal times, these benefits include whites’ ability to ignore the existence of nonwhite suffering, or revel in that suffering without censure. But during exceptional moments these benefits manifest in material violence. Whiteness breaks through the fourth wall of superior culture and civilization and sets its sights on the destruction of human beings coded as nonwhite. Time and time again we see such eruptions during moments of economic dislocation. Thus while the “blackening” of the white working class advances, racialized violence pushes back to maintain the color-line. Such faceless and nameless brutality is in fact the material basis of the color-line.




But, by way of Du Bois (and Freud), it is important to keep in mind that the death instinct moves in tandem with the life instinct. Beneath the bloodlust lies a collective will to live and nourish certain relationships. Thus, beyond Trump, another figure embodies what is perceived as a last trench of white survival: the police officer. For one, the police officer does the thankless, dangerous, hard labor that, in the minds of many, keeps the country from slipping into chaos. But, in all fairness, he is also a kid from the community. He went to local high-school, perhaps he played football. He earns a decent salary and enjoys many of the same leisurely pleasures as the rest of the hardworking folks that occupy his lifeworld. So too is his wife a local product. Perhaps she was a cheerleader. His children, prized accomplishments, are raised by the village that now defends him. In short, police in the US are, as Tocqueville (2003) recognized long ago, “nothing but the majority under arms.” And when outsiders criticize him, demand that he lose his job or be sent to prison, the community recoils in his defense. And when those outsiders look different, have different politics, and hail from a devalued and demonized social stratum as blacks do, defense quickly becomes offense.

Thus the grim spectacle of sanctioned racialized killing is recompense for a class duped, declassed, and ultimately discarded by more than three decades of Reaganomics—that philosophy of empowering capital to unilaterally dictate public policy, labor conditions, and, ultimately, social reality. The killings also bring the increasingly disenfranchised and desperate class together under a common cause. Defending their own furnishes a sense of purpose and meaning, those symbolic supplements for the materially marginalized. Rallying behind the police helps release a collective anxiety born from material conditions they struggle to understand. The racialized death-wage is merely the last visible sign of the color-line in the eyes of a group that is thoroughly convinced we’ve moved into a post-racial era.

From this perspective, a radical transformation in racialized police violence (and incarceration) would imply a radical transformation in white subjectivity, the bulwark of racial capitalism. In an ideal world, class consciousness would supplant this subjectivity. But we do not live in an ideal world, and the myriad of trenchant obstacles to such a metamorphosis is well-documented (Du Bois, 1906, 1998 [1935]; Fields, 1982; Fraser, 2004; Foner, 1984; Laclau and Mouffe, 2014; Marable, 2011; Roediger, 2007; Saxton, 1991). “America became white,” reminds Baldwin (1984), “because of the necessity of denying Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation.” To look this subjugation squarely in the face would threaten the wages of whiteness, so it has historically remained marginalized from mainstream debates.

And thus we return to Black Lives Matter, an ever evolving and extending movement that has set its sights beyond racialized police violence, and toward the material conditions that fuel it. If transforming subjectivities requires transforming material conditions, critical analysts stand to learn immensely from following the fate of BLM praxis. Through careful analysis of the successes and shortcomings of this intrepid movement, scholars can obtain new knowledge about the micro-mechanics of racial capitalism. It provides an aperture through which we may observe how racial capitalism navigates social uprising, how it fractures labor and turns it against each other, how it feeds on and fuels racialized hierarchy. But close attention to BLM also aids the analyst in pinpointing the cracks in the edifice of racial capitalism, and where critical interventions might be made. For these reasons, Black Lives Matter’s fight against the racial death-wage offers a fertile site for understanding the race-class nexus, and should be treated to mindful and meticulous critical analysis across our disciplines.



[1] For a masterful analysis of this dynamic in the British context, see Hall et al.’s (1978) book, Policing the Crisis.

[2] One notable exception is in the epilogue of Jodi Melamed’s (2011) excellent book, Represent and Destroy.

[3] See Pfeil (1995) for similar discussion about the white precariat in a different context.



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Brian Jordan Jefferson is Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.