In the months following September 11, my colleague Cornel West offered this insight: national political elites used the devastating attacks to promote the “niggerization of the American people.” West understood that long before 9/11, African-Americans were intimately familiar with terrorism. Through the Jim Crow century, they were routinely and randomly brutalized and murdered by well-organized groups of whites acting beyond the confines of the official state but with the tacit consent of their society. Under the shadow of lynching, black Americans learned what it meant to feel, as West describes, “unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated for who they are.” After 9/11 far too many Americans, unaccustomed to this sense of collective intimidation, felt helpless to halt an unjustified war or the erosion of civil liberties. Thus, whether or not they were black, Americans were “niggerized” by the attacks.
In recent months, I have been reminded of Professor West’s analysis because one way to read our current moment is as a blackening of America. The social, economic and political conditions that have long defined African-American life have descended onto a broader population, and it has been instructive to watch how the nation has responded.
Initially, conservatives argued that Tea Party activists had every right to be disgusted with national leadership and to demand swift economic intervention to combat the near 10 percent unemployment rate. Since the mid-1970s, except for a brief dip between 1998 and 2002, unemployment among African-Americans has routinely exceeded 10 percent, yet African-Americans were rarely encouraged to blame systems or organize collectively. Instead blacks were stereotyped as lazy and undeserving. This characterization has been an effective ideological tool for politicians intent on limiting social programs, cutting welfare, ignoring cities, slashing job training and neglecting housing.
Within months, the Tea Party shifted its focus to the deficit. As it did, policy debates about the poor and unemployed came to mirror decades of discourse about black Americans. Extensions of unemployment insurance were decried as “creeping socialism.” Echoing theories of dependency leveled against African-Americans for decades, one conservative blogger suggested that extending unemployment benefits would create “a permanent entitlement and would perpetuate unemployment.” Perhaps, in this moment, Americans understood how dangerously corrosive the characterization of the poor as “idle” is for black people.
This past November the TSA introduced screening procedures that many Americans—liberals and conservatives alike—deemed intrusive, random and demeaning. But for decades urban police forces have regularly employed race-based traffic stops and pedestrian stop-and-frisks in African-American communities. These policing practices have done little to make neighborhoods safer, but they have contributed to massive incarceration rates for black men. Justifying their racially punitive behavior as a reasonable response to potential crime, police forces have acted largely with the consent of white Americans, some of whom later decried the TSA’s new procedures. Perhaps, for a moment, they felt the stinging humiliation that routinely accompanies black life.
Few events more clearly demonstrated the blackening of America than the standoff in Wisconsin. Like the nineteenth-century leaders of Southern states who stripped black citizens of voting rights, public accommodation and civic associations, Wisconsin’s Republican majority dismantled the hard-won basic rights of Wisconsin workers. Like those Confederate leaders, the Wisconsin GOP used intimidation, threats and even the police against demonstrators and rival officials. As the saga unfolded, many Wisconsin citizens felt stunned that their once-secure rights might be eliminated. For a moment, perhaps, they glimpsed the experience of black men and women who watched the shadow of Jim Crow blot out the promises of emancipation.
The 1880s were also the decade when efforts to create corporate personhood were initiated by wealthy railroad barons. In a 2010 article, James and Tomilea Allison (psych professor at Indiana University and former mayor of Bloomington, respectively) traced how these corporate interests misrepresented past cases so that the Supreme Court eventually relied on nonexistent precedent to twist Fourteenth Amendment protections intended for newly freed slaves to instead offer shelter for profiteering corporations. More than a century later, these arguments were crucial to the Citizens United decision, which putatively endowed extraordinarily wealthy corporations with an “equal” right to electoral influence but in practice gave them breathtakingly unequal representation. Perhaps, as they are reduced to a fraction of a citizen, other Americans now catch a glimpse of what it means to be codified as only three-fifths of a person.
Today corporate greed, conservative ideology, manufactured right-wing populism and progressive complicity are making more and more Americans into, as Professor West might characterize them, “niggers.” Rather than try to escape the pain of experiencing some small familiarity with blackness, Americans could choose to learn from generations of African-Americans who resisted dehumanizing processes of domination and inequality. During the 2008 election Obama’s detractors tried to smear him by suggesting that “Hussein” was a terrorist’s moniker. As a demonstration of solidarity, thousands of Americans informally declared that they too would be known by the middle name Hussein. It was purely symbolic, but it rested on a belief in the power to change meaning by embracing rather than eschewing that which is labeled subordinate, alien, dangerous and shameful. By embracing our collective blackness, perhaps we can find the fortitude and creativity necessary to face the continuing erosion of our national social safety net in the face of a persistent economic crisis.