Violence and Racialized Lives

  • Chalmer E. F. ThompsonEmail author
Part of the Pan-African Psychologies book series (PAAFPS)


Racism is a phenomenon borne out of centuries of violence. It began with physical acts of violence at the hands of slavers and colonizers from Europe who exerted physical aggression combined with economic, social, and psychological control over indigenous and African people as they simultaneously built the wealth of Western nations. These violent actions laid the foundation for a system of thinking, beliefs, and feelings about human worth that would become difficult for the people who lived in these societies, the enslaved and non-enslaved, not to be ensnared in it. The system would also provide opportunities for Europeans and Whites to render moral reasoning and decisions about non-White people in unjust ways and in the face of glaring contradictions about the perpetrators’ and their beneficiaries’ perceptions of themselves as fair and decent people.

Racism is a phenomenon borne out of centuries of violence. It began with physical acts of violence at the hands of slavers and colonizers from Europe who exerted physical aggression combined with economic, social, and psychological control over indigenous and African people as they simultaneously built the wealth of Western nations. These violent actions laid the foundation for a system of thinking, beliefs, and feelings about human worth that would become difficult for the people who lived in these societies, the enslaved and non-enslaved, not to be ensnared in it. The system would also provide opportunities for Europeans and Whites to render moral reasoning and decisions about non-White people in unjust ways and in the face of glaring contradictions about the perpetrators’ and their beneficiaries’ perceptions of themselves as fair and decent people. Race would become the impetus for White people to determine which groups of people would be seen as variously deserving or not deserving of being violently seized, exploited or not exploited, and which would be the targets of being captured and treated like animals. From the powerful who perpetrated the acts to those whose lives were imperiled, and everyone in between, racism became a cemented fixture in the U.S. and in societies around the world. What would also become a fixture is the sustaining presence of violence associated the violence that yoked the free with the unfree. James Baldwin captured this yoked relationship when he wrote that “the glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another — or others — always has been and always will be a recipe for murder” (1963, p. 334).

The term racialized violence is used in this book to emphasize the violence that has and continues to give shape to the sustaining presence of race. How violence was used to wield power and terror in the lives of Black people is clear in accounts of the Transatlantic slave trade for example, is ostensibly more palpable than in more contemporary accounts. However, this violence is realized repeatedly in the experiences of Black people in relation to the experiences of Whites, with both groups being defined racially in matters of life and death and in prosperity and failure. It is violence that informs people’s racial lives and therefore, the potential for terror and contrariwise, the potential for escaping it save the episodic experiences of retaliatory danger. This paradigm of race as a relational phenomenon is at the base of Manichaenism psychology, described by Fanon (1952) as societal constructions of polar opposites that affirm the goodness of a population of people (Whites) as it simultaneously affirms the badness or undesirability of other, less powerful populations (Blacks and other People of Color).

The accounts of the racialized violence that the Europeans leveled against African people have been captured in books published in the early and mid-twentieth century. The scholars who were among the first to write about these accounts include W. E. B. Du Bois in 1915 and 1947, among many by the prolific author, and later in the latter part of the twentieth century by C. L. R. James (1963), Ivan van Sertima (1976), Walter Rodney (1972), Cheikh Anta Diop (1963), Ali Mazrui (1986), Chancellor Williams (1987), and John Henrik Clarke (1998). The early historians who wrote about the experiences of enslavement in the United States included John Hope Franklin (1947), John Blassingame (1977, 1979), C. Vann Woodward (1951, 1957), and Eugene Genovese (1965), just to name a few. I cite only the early works of several of these authors most of whom have written several books or later editions of the original books. Notable books have been written more recently by several authors, some of which are cited in this chapter, and include insightful examinations of the nuanced experiences of Black people based on the intersecting influences of social class, gender socialization and sexism (e.g., Berry, 2005; Hine, 1997, 2000; Ransby, 2003, as pertaining to Black women).

There are myriad examples of the violence that underlies the construction of race as a phenomenon that inveighs the destruction of Black people as the undesirable population and the parallel construction of wealth and other freedoms for White people as the good and more desirable, deserving population. In reference to King Leopold’s of Belgium’s horrific rape of Belgium, Du Bois (1920) described how the regime resulted in the deaths of twelve million natives. It was also a regime in which

… the real catastrophe in the Congo was desolation and murder in the larger sense. The invasion of family life the ruthless destruction of every social barrier, the shattering of every tribal law, the introduction of criminal practices which struck the chiefs of the people dumb with horror — in a word, a veritable avalanche of filth and immorality overwhelmed the Congo tribes… Yet the field of Belgium laughed, the cities were gay, art and science flourished…. (p. 190, Du Bois, 1920, emphasis added)

Negritude scholar Césaire (2000 [1972]) wrote:

I am talking about millions of men in whom fear has been cunningly instilled, who have been taught to have an inferiority complex, to tremble, kneel, and despair, and behave like flunkeys… I am talking about natural economies that have been disrupted — harmonious and viable economies adapted to the indigenous population — about food crops destroyed malnutrition permanently introduced, agricultural development oriented solely toward the benefit of metropolitan countries, and the looting of products, the looting of raw materials. (emphasis in original; bold font added, p. 43)

I turn next to further explaining the generational violence and how it morphed into new forms that persist in the modern-day world.

Defining Violence

Through conventional lenses, violence constitutes actions in which there is intent of one person or group of people who exert harm to another or others. The harm can result in injury or death, and might typically entail emotional intensity, as in a violence of “passion,” or hate. Yet how violence is perceived and understood by many is far more complex and thus makes it a subject that deserves considerable scrutiny. Bulhan (1985) notes that definitions of violence may be confined in terms of the more received view, as that which is not sanctioned, as in the execution of those deemed guilty of heinous crimes, the killings that occur at the hands of a soldier at war, or the demise of individuals who have committed murders at the hands of law enforcement. Violence also can have immediate or long-term consequences to individuals, and generationally, to groups of people when acts of violence have been directed on them based on their groupness.

Bulhan’s definition of violence is one I adopt as we pore further into the phenomenon of racialized violence and its ravaging impacts on individuals and collective groups. He defines it as

Any relation, process, or condition by which an individual or a group violates the physical, social, and/or psychological integrity of another person or group. From this perspective, violence inhibits human growth, negates inherent potential, limits productive living and causes death. (emphasis in original, p. 135)

In this definition, violence is not simply isolated acts, or direct ‘hits,’ or entails ‘emotion.’ His definition also shows that violence is not merely physical, but also social, and psychological and involves demonstrable damage to the victim. Conscious intent becomes less critical, especially in view of environments in which definitions of what counts as violence and what does not count is a function more of sustaining a type of guiltlessness by those in power. Stated another way, defining violence in the absence of its impacts on victims can serve the purposes of condoning the violence and diminishing any emotionality that is experienced by the violator. An excellent example of this is in psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s (2003) A Human Being Died That Night, in which any guilt or other emotion experienced by state-sanctioned police of the apartheid era in South Africa could be suppressed or entirely dashed altogether in part by religious programming aimed at urging these death-squads to kill Black people.

The extent to which the violence has had impact not only on individuals, but also on the systems—the police, procedures, ‘accepted’ practices as in the expression of disgust and outrage by the Indianapolis Police regarding the murder of Aaron Bailey followed by the television reporter’s attention to a careful array of ‘balanced’ sentiments expressed by Blacks and Whites—is what Bulhan (2015) coined metacolonialism. Metacolonialism refers to the evolution of the violence that emerges from “classic” and neo-colonialism. Meta-colonialism refers to the sustained and sustaining nature of the violence that effects all manner of everyday living. The concept also explains how the perpetrators of violence, whether in brute physical form or structurally can resemble the people to whom the violence is directed. This occurrence of African descended people who adopt the role of sub-oppressors in perpetuating the violence is done at the bidding, pay, or approval of the originating oppressors.

Structural violence is the form of violence that begins and ends with physical violence, but importantly, refers more directly to the cyclical and encompassing nature of the phenomenon. Peace scholar Schwebel (2011) captures the definition well in the following passage:

In part, [the increased attention by peace psychologists on both physical as well as structural violence] is because the two forms of violence are seen now as intertwined in this fashion: the conditions of structural violence may lead to violent crime, rebellion, and terrorism, and then to the state’s violent repressive measures, setting up an unending cycle of violence. Starting in the opposite direction, the consequences of war can include the destruction of farms, housing, and pure water supplies leading to illness and death and later to violent rebellion. (p. 86)

How Violence Operates in Racialized Societies

The work of historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot is an important base from which to frame this examination of racialized violence. In his book Silencing the Past: The Power and Production of History, Trouillot (1995) explores how answers to the question of what happened in history is influenced by a powerful elite and conversely, by the suppression of the perspectives of the unpowerful. As an academic discipline, history as conveyed in textbooks, in public celebrations and the mainstream media, and virtually every aspect of our lives, presents us with stories that are widely perceived as “truth.” The power is exercised by the people whose versions of these accounts become part of dominant landscape and settle into common understandings about past events for many people. The question of what happened?, as well as questions of how it happened, who the major players were, and why the account of such events matter to anyone take on reverberating effects. History as taught in mainstream classroom environments and through “conventional” knowledge can be seen as something real and legitimate without consideration of the power it holds, in what and how it is told, and for whose benefit.

In a slight re-framing of Trouillot’s work, I propose here that history also “works” by perpetuating power differentials borne of centuries of violence in racialized countries like Haiti and in the United States. In this section, I examine how our past and present are knottily intertwined: racism built on the violence of Europeans continues unabated with the insistence that Black lives are expendable relative to Whites lives. Over time, there can be modifications about which Black lives are more expendable than others while no serious alteration has occurred to destroy the pathological, hierarchical structure that first began the malignancy of racism.

According to Clarke (1998), “Nowhere in the annals of history have a people experienced such a long and traumatic ordeal as Africans during the Atlantic Slave Trade” (p. 25). Daniels (2008) refers to the transatlantic slave trade as a system because the Europeans who planned, orchestrated, and profited from it did so by a fairly standard set of processes (see interactive graphic, Kahn & Bouie, 2015). The set of processes was intended to fulfill the objective of seizing, transporting, and selling human beings for slave labor and material profit. These processes also were characterized by measures to impose and maintain absolute control of their human wares through the use of brute force, human degradation, and efforts to disrupt the culture—that which helps people communicate, make sense of life, people and the spirit (Nobles, 2008). The base, criminal behaviors of these men reveal extreme measures of cruelty at the expense of the well-being and survival of the captured. They used daggers, as well as instruments like branding irons, iron coffers and shackles, and bronze muzzles on board the ships (Daniels, 2008; Kazembe, 2018). Blacks on the ships were tightly packed by their White captors, treated like animals, and where vomit and excrement of the men, women, and children surrounded the existence of the captured, and where those who died would remain shackled with the living. The system then became one of subhuman treatment, implemented by the European abductors with the freedom to wield violence at will as in the cases of rape without regard for the horror it instilled in those considered objects and vilely treated.

In a book of slave testimonies, Blassingame (1977) revealed the extreme nature of the violence that Whites used, “where floggings of 50 to 75 were not uncommon” (p. 263). Blassingame noted further that “planters also branded, stabbed, tarred and feathered, burnt, shackled, tortured, maimed, crippled, mutilated, and castrated their slaves” (p. 262). The White men raped the captured African women aboard the slave ships as well as when they survived the passage and reached the shore.

The personal narratives of enslaved Africans, shared in interviews, reveal some of the details of the violence that was steadily present in their lives and he interpersonal dramas that accompanied it. For example, Ann Garrison was a 51-year-old woman who was enslaved in 1791 in Maryland at the time she was interviewed. She spoke in the narrative of the five children (and later 2 more) she bore in slavery, of how she dreaded losing them and was initially assured by her owners that her children would not be sold. Besides the death of her six or seven-year-old son by drowning while fishing, her owners sold each one of her children. At one time, one owner sent her son to prison for money, and at another time, she and three of her children were sent to prison by White people for apparently the same reason. After learning that one of her sons contracted for his freedom, she appealed to a ‘young colored woman’ (p. 216) she knew to have the woman’s father write to her son to inform him of her circumstance of imprisonment with his siblings. Ms. Garrison’s son eventually was able to reach her and pay for her freedom—news she revealed that made her heart leap with joy—“but in a moment, when I began to reflect that I must leave my three dear children in jail, to be sold as slaves, separated one from the other, and taken where they would never see each other, or I see them again, I was filled with the utmost anguish” (Blassingame, p. 216).

James Thompson was born in Nassau New Providence in 1812, and enslaved by Whites in Cuba where he was forced to work on a plantation as a worker and eventually a house servant. He was interviewed in 1843 at the age of 31. The son of an Irish (White) slave master and an enslaved African mother, Mr. Thompson’s father manumitted his mother and him prior to his death and allotted them a piece of land. When Mr. Thompson was eight years old and living in Nassau, his sister’s husband tricked him into traveling with him to Cuba, enticing him to join him on a “frolic” to visit his sister. Mr. Thompson’s sister and her husband were White. After arriving in Cuba, Mr. Thompson learned that his sister was unaware of this kidnapping scheme. Both Thompson and his sister responded angrily. The brother-in-law beat him and eventually sold him to a cigar maker. These events were followed by a succession of deceitful sales of Mr. Thompson as chattel by Whites. At one time, he determined that his White mistress loathed him because of his mixed blood, jealousy over his desire to marry, and his ability to pool financial resources and purchase poultry and stock. This mistress had him and his betrothed punished by flogging them 250 lashes each, side by side, and burning their poultry and stock before their eyes. After the flogging “a mixture of rum and cayenne pepper was poured upon the wounds” (Blassingame, 1977, p. 256), and they were sent to the hospital where they remained to heal for three months. The enslavers looked on as the entire process occurred. The atrocities for James Thompson and his fiancé did not end there. Thompson’s story is one of constant floggings, depression and eventual suicide of his betrothed, as well as the perils of various escapes.

Lavinia Bell was interviewed in 1861, of unknown birth date, born in Washington, DC and enslaved as a field hand in Texas. White slavers and slave capturers (of runaway enslaved Africans) tortured and abused Bell through much of her life. The torture consisted of cutting off her fingers, slitting her ears, using hot iron to brand her on her stomach, and daily floggings during a prolonged period of at least fifty lashes. Her torturers used a method termed a buck that doubled her body in two until her legs passed over her bed, and placed sticks across the back of her head. While in this position, the torturers “whipped [her] to such a degree that the overseer, more humane than the master, interfered to prevent a murder” (Blassingame, 1977, p. 343). The master then rubbed her wounds with salt and water and pepper to keep away the green flies. At another time, her slaver struck her with a hoe-handle several times and broke her skull. Her owners then left her for a number of days without anything to eat or drink. Her story is one of running away, being captured by both Whites and Blacks, being sent to jail, and on more than a couple of occasions, escaping it. She finally made it to her freedom, but at the time of the narrative, she still was seeking a way to reunite with her child.

To be sure, there are countless narratives throughout the world and over the course of history about the cruelty of a people toward another group or population deemed savage and needing to be controlled and persecuted. Yet historians have written about the “peculiar institution” of the enslavement of Africans in which Whites’ villainous treatment would reveal a strain so base and sinister that it has captured the attentions of scholars for many years (e.g., Adams, 2016; Blassingame, 1979; Clarke, 1998; Franklin, 1947; Genovese, 1965, 1974). In these and other slave narratives, we see the interplays of interactions between White people who did not merely seize control of Black people for the purpose of exploiting them, but also indulged in cruelty for their edification, to unleash aggressions that pertained to their own personal insecurities and likely invoked by the realization that the enslaved Africans were as cognitively capable, loving, and importantly, human as they believed themselves to be as a White referent group. There were also instances of rebellions and uprisings and these were the indicators that the Whites would need to exercise more control over the enslaved Africans, and that the enslaved Africans considered themselves worthy of humane treatment and freedom. That the cruelty appeared to be relatively accepted among Whites even suggests that Whites may have feared that their Black victims were more capable, loving, and human. Consequently, the extreme violence would be on public display for other Whites to join in on what may have been seen as the needful killing of a people whose existence dared to challenge the superiority of Whites, and that it was Whites who had the rightful, maniacal upper hand.

The vast majority of Africans who endured the transatlantic passage were taken to Brazil and the Caribbean during the 315-year slave trade. The stories of torture and cruelty are similarly heinous. For example, TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson (2007) wrote of how the French in Haiti before the revolution dealt blows to enslaved African men and women when they were compelled to take a rest as they worked hours in the cane fields. The French also killed the Haitians for the amusement of French spectators. According to Robinson, French general Donatien Rochambeau routinely killed large numbers of Blacks in public squares and drownings. In one account, the general ordered that his military begin the “entertainment” by gouging Black bodies with bayonets and then allowing dogs to tear the Black slaves apart to devour them. Robinson (2007) also wrote of the historical reports of French human rights commissioner and noted historian Claude Ribbe, who wrote of Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign of genocide against rebelling Haitian slaves by gassing them in the galleys of ships.

In these accounts, we may potentially visualize the tortured lives of Black people who were the victims of the abuse and killings. We also might imagine the tortured lives of the Blacks who survived the murders of other Black people and the association they developed between Blackness and a terror-filled existence. By comparison, because Whites could end the lives of Black people either directly or by endorsement of the violence—by witnessing, invoking, and doing little or nothing to stop it, life for them would become synonymous with freedom, protection from racialized violence, and escape from racial terror (Baldwin, 1998 [1965]). The strife surrounding the association between Blackness and the sanctity of human life was extended in those cases when Black people witnessed or learned about the killings of other non-Whites, like Native Americans and Mexican people, as well as those Whites like John Brown who fought against slavery.

The strife would come from the macabre dimensions of the pathology of racialized violence. History has shown that Whites treated dead Black people with contempt and irreverence. In The Underground Railroad, Pulitzer Prize author Colson Whitehead (2016) re-created some of the outrage over the mining of Black cadavers when grave robbers were having a more difficult time with extracting White bodies. From Whitehead’s re-enactments of the lives of Black people in the United States during one of the eras of heightened terrorism, Blacks did not post sentries over the dead as Whites did, or pound on the door of the sheriff or newspaper staff because “no sheriff paid them any mind, no journalist listened to their [Black people’s] stories” (p. 139). These actions that were not performed were in contrast to the actions which Whites conducted in the search for their loved ones. Instead with Blacks,

The bodies of their loved ones disappeared into sacks and reappeared in the cool cellars of medical schools to relinquish their secrets. Every one of them a miracle,… providing instruction into the intricacies of God’s design. (p. 139)

Whitehead’s fictionalized novel was drawn from the interviews of ex-slaves from the 1930s and taken from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Federal Writers’ Project.

A Rare Look at the Other Side of the Racial Construction of Violence

In a rare series of studies, psycho-historian Adams (2015, 2016, 2017) analyzed the writings of White people in the antebellum South and how the violence that was perpetrated by other White people to enslaved Africans influenced White people. Adams directed his attention to the witnesses to understand not merely if the violence had an impact on White people, but importantly how. Among the accounts of White witnesses, observers, and even the reproducers of violence that Adams examined were those who observed violence against Blacks at early ages. Adams wrote of how former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who was a slaveholder, noted some concern over the effects of African bondage on slaveholder children. Quoting Jefferson, Adams (2015) wrote:

The whole commerce between master and slave… is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this… and learn to imitate it… The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by its odious peculiarities. (p. 1, Jefferson in Adams, 2015)

What Adams reveals in his research is that Whites responded to violence against Black people in varied ways—as can be expected. Yet the hegemony of violence influenced how certain responses become normative and considered more acceptable than others. Barbaric acts essentially could be tolerated as a matter of the “needful” as portrayals of Blacks and of Whites in ways to help uphold these actions had to be maintained. What also had to occur was that White people needed to withhold any personal accounts that would question the call for violence, especially in its most vile forms like the beating death of a crying Black infant by a White plantation mistress who reported that she could not bear the noise. This withholding of information would mean an erasure of their experiences with Blacks as the nurses of White babies, inventors, artists, spiritualists, midwives, and tradesmen. It would also mean withholding simultaneously their experiences of other Whites as possessing qualities that exceeded Blacks and elevated their levels of humanity above that of Black people.

By directing his focus on Whites, Adam’s research reveals Whites’ inner, psychological reasons for the violence, such as uncontrolled rage, inadequacies about their sexuality, or otherwise deep-seated torment about their personal inadequacies in general. Adams describes the slaveholder father in historical writings as the person who wielded particular influence over the sustainability of violence. Slave-holding fathers, according to Adams’ analyses, perceived the violence against Black people as necessary and as a primer for instruction for his children to sustain it. These fathers conveyed the message that the violence had to be exacted to distinguish and reinforce racial boundaries. This message seemed especially important when the White child showed any objections to the violence.

Adams’ analyses also show that White slave-holding parents also committed forms of violence against their White children. The slave-holding father was the one who mainly dealt the corporal punishment in the family. Typically cast in Christian theology, “spare the rod, spoil the child,” Adams proposed that physical violence was seen by these families as an instrument of control that reinforced notions of obedience and control. It also reinforced White male patriarchy, whereby the stature of White men as the power-wielder on the plantation, community, and society was further reinforced. Violence and its preservation were essential to the establishment of this stature.

Emphasizing the bounded relationship between the Black slave and White master and the part that violence played in its constitution, Adams concluded that

The gallant effort of African Americans to overcome the obstacles placed in their path by relentlessly-hostile white society fits the Horatio Alger niche in our national mythology and is a more compelling tale than the psychosocial origins of white malice, supremacy, and terrorism, and yet, the valor of the former is impossible without the horror of the latter. (p. 2)

The Reproduction of Racialized Violence: When African-Descended People Revolt

Scholars have documented how Africans used a wide array of measures to revolt against their abductions, torture and subhuman treatment when Whites were committing these acts and, with other Blacks in anticipation of the battles that would ensue. They would come to learn that their lives were imperiled by these reactions and they believed that the risks were worthy of the human costs. For example, enslaved Africans insurrected on the slave ships, fought with, killed, and used poison to kill their masters and mistresses, as well as planned armed resistance to escape their plight in retaliation of the slavers and to secure their freedom (e.g., Aptheker, 1943; Douglass, 2012 [1845]; Gates, n.d.; James, 1963).

These writings reveal that Whites reacted in fear to these rebellions. Frederick Douglass’ (2012 [1845]) narrative account of his 2-hour beating of his master resulted in his master ceasing his frequent lashings, but in other accounts, there is strong evidence that Black rebels incurred further violence that would be directed on the perpetrators as well as other Black people. What unfolded within the constancy of violence was not ending the violence and mistreatment, at least not on the larger scale, but rather, for the Whites to wield more power on Black people. This brutal suppression of rebels was used by scholars to convey that the enslaved Africans were not rebellious at all. As historian Henry Gates pointed out, one of these earlier historians portrayed an image of Blacks that diminished any hint of retaliation, but instead indicated a conceit of their plight as needing to be obedient and subservient. Gates quoted Harvard historian James Schouler who wrote in 1882 that enslaved Africans were not capable of rebellion or resistance but possessed “innate patience, docility, and child-like simplicity” and was an “imitator and non-moralist, learning deceit and libertinish with facility, and being easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots and in short, were a servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip, [and] children in imagination” (Gates, n.d.).

“Obedient to the whip” as written by Shouler can also serve to justify the use of violence by White people. But importantly, what can clearly be legitimate observations by Shouler of Black people as servile and obedient is accompanied by the absence of the context in which the servility and obedience is bred. Violence is wiped away from the portrait, but it would seem impossible to wipe it away entirely from the consciousness. What Shouler and other Whites would uphold in these perspectives is that an environment that counteracts the image of Whites of deserving of retaliation by Blacks would be important, if not necessary to their perceptions of themselves as White people in relation to Black people. As Black people are seen as harmless and child-like, then White people can be seen as possessing the adult qualities to control and continue to exploit them for White purposes. This construction needed to re-define violence and even obliterate the perception and reality of its extreme nature as perpetrated by Whites onto Blacks. To merely whip a person for the purpose of curtailing behavior, as one theoretically would do with a child or child-like people would be to operate within the bounds of human decency and compassion. Instead, extreme violence was executed and endorsed by Whites with the insistence of defining and limiting the value of Blacks as human beings relative to the value of Whites. This extreme violence would have an impact on the persistently savage treatment of Black people, and on how Black people saw themselves and one another. The persistence has been characterized over time with the use of Black codes, for example, to ensure that Black people did not cross certain thresholds of Whites’ understanding of their limited value. Black codes were rules of conduct that could land Black people in jail for minor offenses like not stepping off the sidewalk in the presence of a White person. These codes also served the economic goal of feeding an industry of free labor when the violators of the code were incarcerated (see also Nobles, 2008).

Following two hundred years of harsh captivity at the hands of the Spanish and French conquerors of Hispaniola, the enslaved people of Ayiti (Haiti) revolted in strong solidarity in 1791 and triumphed in freeing themselves from their European captives in 1804 (James, 1963). Haiti remains the only country in the world to become the first Black Republic and whose people successfully revolted against a brutish regime of enslavement and colonialism for their freedom. Napoleon Bonaparte and other European imperialists continued to invade and re-conquer Haiti, but its victorious position remained intact to the present day. The success of the slaves in Haiti inspired the slaves of many regions to also rebel and Haitians offered their aid and assistance as needed (Clarke, 1998).

Yet the revolt that freed the Haitian people from slavery compromised the economic freedom of Haitians. French governments imposed a hefty tax that has imperiled the growth of the Haitian economy for generations. The conspiratorial alignments between Haitian “elites”—often the wealthy and lighter complexioned inhabitants—and world leaders from Europe and the United States also proved perilous to the people who comprised the masses. The majority of Haitian people today live in abject poverty in one of the economically poorest nations in the world. At multiple times between 1991 and 2004, liberation theologian Bertrand Aristide was elected as the president of Haiti, but his tenure was interrupted by coups both within and outside of the country. In 2004, President Aristide was abducted at the orchestration of U.S. President George W. Bush, a fact that is rarely addressed in American media outlets, and Aristide remained in exile until 2011 when he returned to Haiti. Haiti’s history of despotic leaders has translated over time into mass killing sprees that have received support from foreign governments (see Robinson, 2007).

In this prolonged configuration of interactions between the powerful and unpowerful, Blacks knew that to rebel or revolt against racialized violence is to face further violence, to concede and/or fight harder and better. Meanwhile, Whites would learn that violence was a vital tool for maintaining their lives of relative wealth and freedom, even when they were poor. For example, in her 1861 book titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs wrote about a festive gathering among armed White people who terrorized enslaved Africans by rifling through their meager shacks and belongings to reveal any sign that the slaves would revolt. Jacobs (1973 [1861]) points out that these annual “musters” as they were called were also present opportunities for poor Whites to be united with Whites from the upper economic echelon, thus allowing opportunities for the “low Whites” who had no negroes of their own to scourge” (see Jacobs (1973 [1861]) in Roediger, 1998, p. 336). These musters also provided the chance for the lower socioeconomic Whites to scatter gun powder in Black shacks for the purpose of whipping enslaved Africans “till the blood stood in a puddle at their feet” (p. 336).

The bartering among Whites for the purpose of Whites wishing to maintain or increase their sense of superiority and power over Blacks has occurred throughout the world and over the course of history in relation to labor practices, and decisions on how wealth is distributed primarily to White versus primarily African-descended regions of the world. For instance, in the 1876 presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, Southern Democrats who felt enraged at their loss in the Civil War and the loss of slave labor commandeered a deal to allow Hayes, then presidential candidate for the opposing Republican party, to become president even though his opponent won the election by popular vote. The promise made to the lobbying Whites was to remove the federal troops from the South and thus allow Southerners to manage their own municipalities as they wished (History: “Rutherford B. Hayes,” n.d.). This decision brought an end to the Reconstruction Era. Reconstruction began in 1867 to restore the South in the aftermath of the end of the Civil War and to allow newly enfranchised Blacks to have a voice in government for the first time in American history. Also for the first time, Blacks won elections to southern state legislatures and to the U.S. Congress.

The Constancy and Spread of Violence in Present-Day Societies

Racialized violence works to help create and constantly reaffirm the distinctions between White people and Black people and the relative value and worth of the groups based on their differences. Psychologically, to maintain distinctions about better-and-worse and good-versus-bad, one has to believe that the distinctions are real, inherent qualities about people based on their race and that the realities of dire circumstances of many Blacks in disproportion to Whites are a byproduct of the distinctions. Evidence that the distinctions are not real and inherent can be discomforting at best, and could leave many Whites feeling hopeless about what they can do. With other Whites, seeing themselves as not possessing qualities of goodness, moral fortitude, intelligence, and so forth that are presumed to be beholden of White people relative to Blacks, is to confront a most disturbing dissonance. To settle the dissonance, they can rather easily discredit the messenger and the message based on a racial hegemony and/or engage in violence.

A hegemony of racialized violence, in both physical and structural forms, relies on omissions and distortions of facts. Structurally, these omissions have to do with the lack of attention on the violence and its relevance to the perpetuation of racism in society. In a labyrinth of absented stories, fabricated history lessons, and a preoccupation with the past—“the way things once were”—in which there are certain admissions to racialized violence, deception is cast. The deception informs people’s socialization. It serves to protect Whites in current-day society to rely on ideologies about White superiority over Black people and other people of color. The force of these protections of hidden and distorted knowledge is accompanied by ongoing violence, which is justified by the powerful elite. For example, the membership of Ku Klux Klan was stemmed by the 1915 release of the film Birth of a Nation (Griffith & Woods, 1915). In this movie, writer Griffith tells the story of the disaster imagined had Reconstruction continued, whereby Black people would have control over White people. Black men were portrayed in the movie as incompetent in government, criminal and lecherous toward White women. Importantly, the portrayals of Black people in the movie were matched by portrayals of Whites: whereas Blacks were criminal and morally bereft, Whites’ portrayals were characterized in contrast as keeping and maintaining order, and even as beautiful. The Klan appeared at the end of the movie, and in saving the day, as well as the sanctity of Whiteness, they kill the Black man (a White actor in blackface) who made unwanted advances to a White woman, the latter of whom was so enrapt in fear that she leapt off a cliff and killed herself. Prior to the release of the movie and in anticipation of its release, a Klan chapter climbed Stone Mountain in Georgia to burn a giant cross.

Sitting U.S. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly commented about the film: “It’s like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true” (Clark, 2018). Although these words have not been confirmed, there were indications that Wilson’s views about the film were positive. For example, the film was screened at the U.S. White House. Clark (2018) also noted that the film was screened and re-screened throughout the 1920s, and in one photo on her website, there is a group protesting the re-release of the film in 1947. The protesting group was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who protested the movie from the time of its first release.

Clark continues about the impacts of the film:

On opening night, Simmons (founder of the modern KKK] and fellow Klansmen dressed in white sheets and Confederate uniforms paraded down Peachtree Street with hooded horses, firing rifle salutes in front of the theater. The effect was powerful and screenings in more cities echoed the display, including movie ushers dawning white sheets. Klansmen also handed out KKK literature before and after screenings.

The NAACP unsuccessfully protested The Birth of a Nation but the film’s popularity was too strong. With black troops from WWI returning from France and the migration of black people to the North, there were new racial tensions in northern cities, like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

Today there are many hate groups in addition to the Klan as reported by the Intelligence Report online publications of the Southern Poverty Law Center (e.g., see SPLC, October 26, 2018). The threats of violence directed at Black people continue to occur. Alarmingly, these threats occur at the hands of state-sanctioned authorities, and by a host of legal, school, and media apparatuses that continually manufacture and uphold it. The physical forms of the violence are often incurred by certain groups, like Black people in poor, urban areas and those in the penal system. Consequently, those who disassociate from, speak out against or even look different from these “certain groups” are assumed to be immune from racialized violence. They may quite consciously work diligently to be the exceptions to the stereotype of a menacing, violent Black person and, as will be developed in the next chapter, their exceptionalism feeds into the cyclical and expanding nature of racialized violence.

The qualities presumed to be characteristic of certain groups of Black people are generalized to all Black people, consequently, the notion that one can successfully avoid the stereotyping is elusive except under certain conditions like physically appearing like a White person. These stereotypes are maintained despite the vast complexity to which Black people obviously evince because they also collectively promote fear, exclusion, and justification for low or no concern for the members within these certain groups. These qualities inveigh disproportionately, at least by dint of public perception, that they are not enured of White people by and large, at least not of Whites as Whites but rather, of Blacks as Black people. It therefore becomes important for some Black people to doff the violence-attraction of Blackness altogether.

Historian Khalil Muhammad (2010), in his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, examined how the construction of race in the early canon of social science literature relied on a profile of Black people who migrated from the South to the North of U.S. society to be inherently criminal. The Great Migration, in what has been called the largest migration of people in modern history (Wilkinson, 2011), consisted of 6 million Black people who fled the U.S. South between 1916 and 1970 to various towns throughout the North. Their migration was prompted by a need to escape violence and to avail themselves of opportunities to earn wages and establish new lives for their families in regions they saw as holding promise for them.

Blacks faced novel forms of racialized violence in their new surroundings. Muhammad’s (2010) research revealed how the social science literature began building its foundation of “legitimate” science with omissions and distortions about the role of racialized violence for Black and White people in the North during this migration. This literature largely ignored the daily lives of Black people. The literature also ignored evidence of how the life conditions of European immigrants were mostly improved by their migration to the United States from their countries of origin. Significantly, the construction of the two groups of migrants—one as Blacks whose move would be portrayed as indication that locale mattered little in terms of criminality, and the other, new European immigrants who would eventually evolve from their nationalities to White people—helped mark the formation of race in the urban communities of Chicago, Illinois and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Muhammad’s research began with the 1890 U.S. Census because it marked twenty-five years of freedom for Black people and consequently, contained data that was a much-anticipated source for assessing Blacks’ status in a post-slavery era. Muhammad learned that the violence that occurred by Blacks in these communities in the early 1900s were no higher than that of their White immigrant counterparts, but that police targeted Blacks in these communities more. Moreover, interventions such as settlement houses had dedicated attention to immigrant populations specifically to decrease the violence among these youth, but these interventions were not accorded to either Black or Latinx populations. According to Muhammad,

Following the 1890 census — the first to measure the generation of African Americans born after slavery — crime statistics, new migration and immigration trends, and symbolic references to America as the promised land were woven into a cautionary tale about the exceptional threat black people posed to modern urban society. Excessive arrest rates and overrepresentation in northern prisons were seen by many whites — liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners — as disputable proof of blacks’ inferiority. What else but pathology could explain black failure in the land of opportunity? Social scientist and reformers used crime statistics to mask and excuse anti-black racism, violence, and discrimination across the nation, especially in the urban North. (p. 4)

Statistical evidence, which was a relatively new phenomenon for social scientists as they forged their identities, showed that African Americans, as twelve percent of the population, made up thirty percent of the nation’s prison population. These scientists ignored all data that would could be used to inform Black arrests and imprisonments, including specially designed race-conscious laws, new forms of everyday racial surveillance which had been institutionalized by the 1890s as a way to suppress Black freedom, and punishments based specifically on the (Black) race of assailants. The perspectives of these social scientists were that their findings were “incontrovertible, color-blind, and objective” (p. 4). Muhammad (2010) continues:

At the dawn of the twentieth century, in a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and demographically shifting America, blackness was refashioned through crime statistics. It became a more stable racial category in opposition to whiteness through racial criminalization. Consequently, white criminality gradually lost it fearsomeness. (p. 5)

Further, he concluded from his findings that

From the 1890s through the 1930s, from the Progressive era through Prohibition African Americans had no monopoly on social banditry, crimes of resistance, or underground entrepreneurship; and the “weapons of the weak’ and ‘lower-class oppositional culture’ extended far and wide and in many directions”. (p. 5)

Muhammad’s research ties in with a growing movie industry in which White criminality was glamorized at a time when the celebrity status of White actors like Edward G. Robinson (himself an immigrant from Romania) and James Cagney was soaring as they played the roles of gangsters in movies of the 1930s and 1940s. In contrast, but necessarily in tandem with the racial construction of criminality, Blacks in commercially released films were rarely portrayed at all. Only later in the 1960s, and as part of a canon of feature films to appeal to Black audiences, were movies that offered more sympathetic portrayals created (e.g., Bogle, 2016).

Structural Violence, Poverty and Wealth

The structural violence that Blacks experience is frequently tied to disproportionate poverty and wealth relative to Whites. The ongoing violence that encircled Black lives with the use of sundown restrictions (to refer to towns where Blacks were not allowed after the sunset; see Loewen, 2005), as well as structurally through exclusions from jobs. In Aaron Bailey’s town of Indianapolis, Indiana, one of the states included in Loewen’s examination of sundown towns, Blacks were largely relegated by Whites to a community many had known to be the font of Black businesses, entertainment, and a Black high school that had from 1927 until the 1960s boasted successes in student achievement (Bump, May 5, 2017). At the time of Bailey’s killing, the Black unemployment nationally stood at 7.9% as compared to 3.8% for Whites. A nearly identical trend was found during this same period in Aaron Bailey’s town of Indianapolis, Indiana (7.3% for Blacks, 3.8 for Whites; Economic Policy Institute, May 17, 2017).

According to Grusky, Verner, and Mattingly (2017), the U.S. Census Bureau reports that Blacks in the United States comprise 12.3% of the total population. Yet Blacks disproportionately are among the most poor as a racial group on various indicators of poverty and wealth. Grusky et al. refer to the gaps in poverty across several domains, including home ownership, health, earnings, mobility, and incarceration. With home ownership, long considered a measure of relative prosperity, their study found that in 2014, 71% of White families lived in owner-occupied housing as compared with 41% of Black families, a gap that is partly attributed to “the still-substantial wealth, income, and employment gaps among racial and ethnic groups” (p. 2). “We might well have hoped that, some eight decades after the New Deal’s expansion of home mortgages, the most important racial and ethnic inequalities in homeownership would have been largely resolved” (p. 1). Although the earnings gap between Whites and Black narrowed somewhat, most of the decline was secured in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement.

Incarceration, which I expand on further below, also has implications for Black wealth and poverty. Grusky et al. (2017) found that 9.1% of Black men between the ages of 20–34 were incarcerated, a rate that is 5.7 times higher than that of White men at 1.6%. Pettit and Sykes (2017) wrote that “the sheer scale of criminal justice contact among racial and ethnic minority men makes it a central concern for accounts of inequality in the United States. Despite growing policy attention to criminal justice reform, incarceration persists at a historic high and remains disproportionately concentrated among racial and ethnic minorities.” The authors also report that incarceration rates peaked in the mid-2000s, with young Blacks close to eight times as likely as young Whites to be incarcerated even with recent declines in incarceration. Further, the authors stated that “spending time in prison or jail has negative consequences for employment, earning, and other indicators of economic self-sufficiency… the weight of empirical evidence suggests that parental incarceration negatively impacts measures of child well-being and undergirds the intergenerational transmission of inequality” (pp. 25–26).

Cajner, Radler, Ratner, and Vidangos (2017) examined racial disparities in key labor market outcomes for men and women over the past four decades, with a special emphasis on their evolution over the business cycle. Blacks have substantially higher and more cyclical unemployment rates than Whites, and observable characteristics can explain very little of this differential, which is importantly driven by a comparatively higher risk of job loss. In contrast, the Latino/a-White unemployment rate gap is comparatively small and is largely explained by lower educational attainment of (mostly foreign-born) Latino/as. Regarding labor force participation, the remarkably low participation rate of Black men is largely unexplained by observables, is mostly driven by high labor force exit rates from employment, and has shown little improvement over the last 40 years. Furthermore, even among those who work, Blacks and Latino/as are more likely than Whites to work part-time schedules despite wanting to work additional hours, and the racial gaps in this involuntary part-time employment are large even after controlling for observable characteristics. Their findings also suggest that the robust recovery of the labor market in the last few years has contributed significantly to reducing the gaps that had widened dramatically as a result of the Great Recession yet the racial disparities remain substantial.


The standardized testing movement for intelligence and aptitude grew out of beliefs about the heritability of intelligence and that tests could be used to bear out the truths about the differential intelligence of Whites and other racial groups (Gould, 1996; Thomas & Sillen, 1972). Despite years of extensive criticisms about the use of these tests to make high-stake decisions, such as which performance “track” a student may be put in, access to honors programs and scholarships, and entrance into rigorous schools at the grade school, college and post-college levels, research on cultural equivalencies in which students’ abilities are assessed by other measures or by improved tests are rarely done (e.g., Boykin, 2010; Helms, 1992).

Disproportionate incarceration of Blacks relative to Whites has implications also to educational persistence. In 2018, fully one-third of young Black men who dropped out of high school were incarcerated (see The Education Trust, n.d.). By the end of 2015, the Black-White gap in incarceration for high school dropouts was substantially larger than the gap among those with some college education or more, one prompt that led education scholar Lisa Delpit (2003) to call for “seed people” to help bring dramatic change to schools in which Black students attend. In the People’s Report (n.d.), 100% of Black boys surveyed from the streets of Wilmington, Delaware had dropped out of school.

That school performance and the rate of incarceration has some overlap in urban districts has yielded a phenomenon called the “school to prison pipeline,” whereby poor performance in school by Black and Brown children, the disproportionate assignment of these children of color into special education programs, and the high suspension and expulsion rates relative to Whites signal that the school environment is not suited for them (e.g., American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], n.d.; Carter, Skiba, Arredondo, & Pollock, 2017; Chenoweth, 2015). This phenomenon exists despite the evidence that at very young ages, children of color and White children are similar in the age they begin to read and other indicators of native intelligence (Boykin & Noguera, 2011).

Blacks in Urban Settings: How Violence Begets Violence

As written earlier, Trouillot (1995) wrote that learning how history works is important to our understanding of the past as well as the present. History constitutes the stories we all are reasonably capable of recounting. These are the stories of our own and other people’s lives that are shaped by current realities. We can only recount stories based on what we view to be important and how our worldviews have been shaped. Consequently, the past and present are conjoined. When members of the powerful elite, for example, many academic historians, tell stories of the past that lack insight about their investments in what gets told and how it is told, then societies give birth to distorted knowledge that become institutional fixtures. Endowments by the powerful elite help fill libraries with fabricated stories. Monuments are commissioned and people the landscape to honor the heroics of figures whose complexities are shorn to present them as near-perfect people. Celebrations that spread to all corners of the nation fill the minds of the young at very early ages.

The nontransferable distance of race is unceasingly reaffirmed, and the humanity of Black people hangs in the balance. Against this backdrop are a people who have been dehumanized over the generations and, for some, who seek to discover their humanity. Some seek this humanity by contrasting their worth to others, a theme beset by a hegemony of racialized violence. To them, to exist in a society in which they are the targets of racialized violence is to be at variance with Blacks whom they perceive to embody the pathologies inherent in racism. Like a “pile of wreckage,” (West & Buschendorf, 2014), the enduring nature of racialized violence works by creating cleavages among the targeted, Blacks and other people of color. Many have come to believe that White racism or more broadly, the racism embedded in White-serving institutions are relics of the past and that Black people are solely at fault for racial animus, exclusions, and so forth. The justification for these beliefs lies in the corruption and violence that has existed and continues to exist in countries like Haiti, and in various countries in Africa. African-descended leaders wield violence against other African-descended people for purposes of greed and control. In the United States, urban communities led by Black mayors and whose local governments and schools are managed by Blacks have not battled vigorously against the spoils of racialized violence and have even seeded it. Interpersonal problems that range from exclusions related to skin color, hair texture, African nationality, and so forth are part of long-standing narratives that have created divisions and ire among Black people (e.g., Gyasi, 2016).

The “code of the street,” the title of Elijah Anderson’s (1999) book on violence in urban cities is defined as “a set of prescriptions and proscriptions or informal rules of behavior organized around a desperate search for respect that governs public relations, especially violence,” (pp. 9–10). Among youth and adults in urban areas in the United States, E. Anderson stated that the code is where the negative influence of the police ends and the personal responsibility of the individual begins. It is a life where one has to learn to protect him or herself and loved ones. It is based on an undisputed insistence on respect. For Black heterosexual men, it is equated with masculinity, as into prove himself manly, and it does not come without a web of complications characterized by a need to be safe and show oneself to be distinguished from a woman or, for the heterosexual male, from a gay man. Jones (2010) wrote about one young Black man from the city, Craig, who had been shot in the hip and whose story reflects a complex negotiation about manhood and sexuality:

Yeah, I don’t fight no more,” he says, “I can’t fight [because of injury]… So, I really stop and think about stuff because it isn’t even worth it… unless, I mean, you really want it [a fight] to happen… I’m going to turn the other cheek. But I’m not going to be, like, wearing a skirt. That’s the way you got to look at it. (p. 6)

The masculinization of violence is evident in Craig’s words, which points to problems in society’s reinforcement of violence and aggression among men of all races. This association may relate in fact to the overwhelming number of men who commit crimes of murder, rape, and assault (Katz, 2006). For Black American men, this association can have implications for violence against women because women are seen as “less than” and men are perceived most manly in violent environments when they can show absolute control over women with terror tactics. The aversion to “feminine” can translate to a similar aversion to appearing gay. The implication is that for a Black male to appear unmanly, defined especially by a code that stringently insists that he also is not feminine or gay is to be met with violence by other Black men (Katz, 2006; Majors & Mancini Billson, 1993).

In her research involving interviews with Black teenaged girls living in the poorest areas of Philadelphia, Jones (2010) revealed narratives that expose dilemmas in navigating fighting with other girls. In addition to the violence these teens encounter to environments in which there are drug wars that transfer from neighborhoods to the schools, drive-by shootings, abusive boyfriends, and intrusive policing by White and Black police officers, the girls also face the expectation of fighting other girls. Jones discovered that the mothers and grandmothers and other older women from these neighborhoods also had to help their daughters navigate the extremely challenging terrain and potentially life-threatening environments. These older women might be involved not only in teaching or guiding their daughters about fighting, but also in being involved in the fights themselves Mothers, in particular, might supervise fights, instigate them or even arrange to fight the mother of the targeted threat—another adolescent girl.

As Jones points out, adolescent girls in these environments have no manhood to defend, yet they face threats to violence and were forced to learn how to organize their social world around violence. Jones found that the girls in her study negotiated between being “good” that is, conforming to mainstream ideas of femininity in appearance and behaviors, and being “ghetto.” To be ghetto meant to be aggressive and often ready for a fight, even to look for one. For both the girls who strove to be good and the ones who were “ghetto,” there was a bind: to be good meant limits on friendships where fights were expected to prove loyalty. To be ghetto meant that one constantly faced danger in proving her toughness, but that this reputation did not necessarily bode well when the girls sought acceptance outside these communities, for example, when they sought jobs, letters of recommendation from principals for college, and so forth.

Mass Incarceration: A Close Look at the Free and Unfree

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander (2010) wrote that the promulgation of the mass incarceration we observe in the United States today, during the 1970s, jobs had suddenly disappeared from urban areas across America, and unemployment rates had skyrocketed. In fact, in 1954, Black and White youth unemployment rates were equal, with Blacks actually having a slightly higher rate of employment in the age group sixteen to nineteen. By 1984, however, the Black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled, while the White rate had increased only marginally. This shift was the result of deindustrialization, globalization, and technological advancement. Urban factories shut down as the nation transitioned to a service economy. Alexander write further

Suddenly African Americans were trapped in jobless ghettos, desperate for work … The economic collapse of inner-city black communities could have inspired a national outpouring of compassion and support. A new War on Poverty could have been launched. Economic stimulus packages could have sailed through Congress to bail out those trapped in jobless ghettos through no fault of their own. Education, job training, public transportation, and relocation assistance could have been provided, so that youth of color would have been able to survive the rough transition to a new global economy and secure jobs in distant suburbs. Constructive interventions would have been good not only for African Americans trapped in ghettos, but also for blue color workers of all colors, many of whom were suffering too, if less severely … Instead we declared a War on Drugs. (p. 218)

According to Alexander (2010), the War on Drugs actually was a war on Black people. What occurred alongside the collapse of the urban setting were mechanisms in which Black people were being hauled into prisons in droves (see also Peery, 1990). The ones who had committed crimes were vilified in media during electoral campaigns, condemned for their conditions, thus setting off and building on a fierce sentiment over a course of history of equating frightful, street crime with Black people.

Notably, the War on Drugs has become an engine of mass incarceration and a primary cause of gross racial disparities in the criminal justice system and in the ex-offender population. In Chicago, alone, 90% of those sentenced to prison for drug offenses in the state of Illinois are African Americans. Further,

White drug offenders are rarely arrested and when they are they are treated more favorably at every stage of the criminal justice process, including plea bargaining and sentencing. Whites are consistently more likely to avoid prison and felony charges even when they are repeat offenders. Black offenders, by contrast, are routinely labeled felons and released into a permanent racial undercaste.… the total population of Black males in Chicago with a felon record (including both current and ex-felons) is equivalent to 55 percent of the Black adult male population and an astonishing 80 percent of the adult black male workforce in the Chicago area. This stunning development reflects the dramatic increase in the number and race of those sent to prison for drug crimes. For the Chicago region alone, the number of those annually sent to prison for drug crimes increased almost 2000 percent, from 469 in 1985 to 8,755 in 2005. (Alexander, 2010, p. 189)

These findings are mere fractions of the entire story, unfortunately. Alexander continues:

In the past, the criminal justice system, as punitive as it may have been during various wars on crime and drugs, affected only a relatively small percentage of the population. Because civil penalties and sanctions imposed on ex-offenders applied only to a few, they never operated as a comprehensive system of control over any racially or ethnically defined population.… Today, the War on Drugs has given birth to a system of mass incarceration that governs not just a small fraction of racial or ethnic minorities but entire communities of color. In ghetto communities, nearly everyone is either directly or indirectly subject to the caste system. (p. 188)

The rash of publicized police killings may suggest that the tragic deaths of Black men and women in the United States are isolated incidents, but evidence would prove otherwise. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (2018) shows that the most likely contact with police for the majority of Americans is a traffic stop, and that in 2011, the latest report on these statistics, Blacks are more likely to be stopped by police than Whites (12% versus 10%) and that 68% of Blacks reported that they believed they were stopped legitimately by police in comparison to 84% Whites and 74% Latinx. Voigt et al. (2017) conducted a study of Oakland, California police body camera recordings for the month of April 2014, to find differences between how police treated Black versus White motorists they stopped. Oakland, California is a racially diverse city in the United States. First, they found that of the 981 stops, 682 involved Black drivers and 299 were White drivers. This finding of racial disparity mirrored the trend identified by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2018) data which show that of the 26 million traffic stops recorded each year, a higher percentage are Black drivers.

Using human panels of 70 people, as well as computer algorithmic analyses, Voigt and colleagues found that out of the 36,000 exchanges by police officers, that there were several indicators to confirm that these officers treated White motorists with more respect than they did with Black motorists. With both the human panels and computer algorithmic analyses, the team found that the officers used more informal and disrespectful titles when referring to Black motorists than with White motorists (e.g., “dude,” “bro,” and “sis”), among other indicators. The team was interested in exploring more about the potential words or actions that may have provoked officers and their language, however, over the course of a single traffic stop, the use of respectful language increased more quickly for Whites than for Blacks. In other words, the researchers discovered that there already was a race gap in respect “even when the community member hasn’t had much time to say very much at all” (p. 6524).

This research provides some evidence of the precariousness of being Black when it comes to being stopped by law enforcement. Like Muhammad’s conclusions based on an abounding social science literature, Alexander too concludes that the phenomenon of mass incarceration, conveys what it means to be Black. Mass incarceration therefore is the defining means for Blackness.

Looking Ahead

All of the problems that spring from racialized violence can prove challenging to people psychologically. It is the terror one imagines in the experience of being abducted as slaves and being the objects of violence onboard ships, and of Blacks who were ruthlessly lynched, burned, and gassed, as well as the accounts not covered here of the Congolese, Angolans, and of the Africans and Caribbeans who were at the mercy of the colonizers who abused them. It is the terror, as Byron Stevenson (n.d.) labels it, of being lynched, and of Whites threatening Blacks when they tried to prepare the person for burial. The White people involved in the lynching wanted the body to serve as a reminder to Blacks of the power Whites would use to maintain the racial-social order.

There is a psychological toll that unfolds as racialized violence abounds. It inflames “in-fighting” to deadly proportions, as in the scourge of gang violence, that is occasioned within regions of the world with other African-descended people across regions. For example, in addition to the killing sprees within the borders of Haiti mentioned earlier, there also was the slaughter of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans by Dominican Republic President Rafael Trujillo in 1937. An admirer of Adolph Hitler, Trujillo commanded his soldiers to kill unsuspecting Haitian workers by the droves. To determine which people to kill, the soldiers killed the dark-complexioned workers. However, because this physical measure was not a guarantee in distinguishing the Haitians from their Dominican counterparts, some of whom were killed as “collateral,” the soldiers would ask the workers to pronounce the English word for “parsley”—“perejil” in Spanish, which was pronounced differently by Haitians than Dominicans.

These experiences prove anguishing for people even to speak about many decades later. In an interview, Dominican author, Julia Alvarez spoke of the silencing surrounding the Parsley Massacre, and of the persistence of human rights violations of Haitians in the Dominican Republic (National Public Radio [NPR], 2012). According to Alvarez, “even though it happened in the way past, that same massacre mentality is there to this day with the way that the human rights of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian origin are denied in the Dominican Republic.” In the same interview, Haitian author Edwidge Danticat who wrote The Farming of Bones, a fiction about the Parsley Massacre, also spoke of the silence and with it, the ongoing entrenchment of second-class citizenship among Haitians in the DR:

It’s not something we [Haitians] talked about, but it was transmitted through all history. I had people in my family who went to work in the sugar cane in the Dominican Republic, and it is an atrocious situation that’s current. It is not one of those situations where you say, this is over. You know, but there are still things that, even as we come together to remember, the fact that people can be in the Dominican Republic for generations and not get a birth certificate and they can’t go to school and all, these things are sort of part of the current migration, so the history sort of overshadows the present at the same time and there’s always a fear of repeats, which is why it’s so important when people come together to talk about the past, not just for the sake of talking about the past, but also to talk about how we can create a different future with what we know of the past. (NPR, 2012)

This trend of not talking about past violence is what Jason Byrne (2014) wrote about in his account of the Ocoee, Florida massacre in the United States on election day 1920. Other events occurred in the space of 1920 to the present—including a sign posted on the town line in 1959 that said “Dogs and Negroes Not Welcome,” but today, as Byrne described, Ocoee is an integrated city with around 40,000 people, 15% of whom are African-Americans. He writes:

But the ghosts of the past cast a long shadow. The descendants of long time residents shy away from discussing the shameful history and prefer to pretend the horrific events of 90 years ago never happened at all.

The silencing has an impact on African-descended people psychically and with one another within and across regions. The silencing also has an impact on Whites and notably, the on production of continued racialized violence in its various forms. Sociologist Nancy DiTomasco’s (2013) study is an example of a manifestation of structural violence by revealing how the manufacturing of silence and distortions influences White people and the environments that serve their interests as White people. She studied a group of White people about their perceptions of how they achieved success in their jobs and careers. DiTomasco discovered that relatively few were able to see that they were hoarding opportunities for employment, such as passing along access to good jobs to their friends and family members, and affording themselves of other exchanges in social, cultural, and financial capital among other White people. She also found that Whites, when asked, do not see themselves as racist, apparently failing to see the increasingly hostile political behavior that concerns mostly Whites, and they also tend not acknowledge the hoarding. In fact, in her study of interviews with nearly 250 Whites, DiTomasco’s participants attributed their success to their own efforts and talents rather than the social context or circumstances in which they live. “What is surprising about this dynamic is not how many people rely on the use of social resources to ‘get ahead’ in their lives, but how few of them recognize that social resources were their route to their success” (p. 9).

DiTomaso noted that this problem of what she calls the disengagement of Whites from promoting change in racial inequality is one in which there is “racial inequality without racism,” and where the normative environment quite regularly erases and downplays racism and especially its role in Whites’ promulgation of it.

DiTomasco’s findings suggest that the silencing of racism arguments the piled wreckage. The toll racism exacts on Black people too often goes diminished and written off as “unfortunate” at best or “deserving” at worst as the growing demise of Blacks’ lives increases. As advanced in the next chapters, racism also contributes to the severing of the moral and cultural connections that Blacks have had with other Black people. These are the connections that have been formidable in the past in combating against racialized violence. It follows that a major task for Blacks in persistently addressing racialized violence is to understand it and its impacts on self and society. It is a deeply personal act that necessarily affects our role in developing and repairing relationships. We turn next to how this task can be accomplished.


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Indiana University – Purdue University IndianapolisIndianapolisUSA

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