the body politic

Racism Doesn’t Blink

The public performance of white supremacy is key to upholding it.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

In the midst of the most eruptive, widespread, and hopeful uprising against systemic racism and injustice of my lifetime, white supremacy is once again staring straight into a camera and declaring that nothing can break its deadly grip on power.

This is all I could think about this week, as I read about the perversion of democracy that happened during Georgia’s primary election, in which precincts in African-American communities were plagued by broken voting machines and lines extending so long that voters brought food, water, and stadium chairs. It was all I could think about when I heard that Donald Trump would hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the 1921 massacre of African-Americans by a white mob and one of the deadliest instances of mass racist violence in this country’s history, on Juneteenth — Freedom Day, the anniversary of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation to the remaining enslaved people in Texas in 1865, a celebration of Black liberation already tinged with irony.

Both the Georgia primary and Trump’s Tulsa rally are intended as open performances of white power, meant to threaten and discourage Black voters who overwhelmingly cast their ballots against Trump in 2016 (and Georgia governor Brian Kemp in 2018), and assure white voters who supported these leaders that whiteness still has the nation in a choke hold.

These political shows of force are the hallmarks of the era in which we are living, reminders of what’s not so different from an American past many would like to think of as more undeniably racist than our present. But they recall something very present, very recent: the cold face of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, staring brazenly into the cell-phone camera held by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier as she captured the murder of George Floyd. Chauvin’s drive to stare straight into Frazier’s lens, to show this young Black girl that she and the camera she was pointing at him held no power over him as he took a Black life, is a particularly American performance of power.

It’s part of what the nation’s white political and economic systems (and the tactics used to police them) have been built around: open intimidation, the ostentatious display of cruelty and dominance, making an example of one to underscore the oppression of many. These exhibits are inherent to the country’s history of lynching, its open and unapologetic suppression of the Black vote, and the unrepentant rhetoric of its most racist political leaders. Even now, Klansmen and white supremacists are unafraid to do glossy photo shoots in full garb in their own homes, broadcasting their aggression as an affirmation of their power. And while these remorseless shows surely offer thrills to the tyrants, autocrats, and murderers performing them, part of that thrill is tautological: They can be cocky about their cruelty because of their certainty that they will be protected by the system they enjoy supremacy within. Their showiness makes their impunity even more real.

Because very often, they have been right. They will face no consequence. That fact is key to what gives them the confidence to keep staring straight into that camera as they loot and maim and disenfranchise.

Through generations, the voyeurism, the assuredness that an audience is looking on, has been a key component of racist brutality. As Melanye Price recently wrote in the New York Times, “Black death has long been treated as a spectacle. White crowds saw lynching as cause of celebration … their children would pose for pictures in front of swinging corpses, and those photos often became postcards.” The impunity for those who had abused their power was part of what they were celebrating, and in turn advertising.

In 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were found not guilty in the killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. The trial itself was a news spectacle, but getting away with murder wasn’t enough for Milam and Bryant, who months later found an even bigger lens to stare into; they told the story of the murder to a reporter for Look magazine, to detail and make explicitly clear what they’d done without consequence, how their whiteness had kept them above the law.

Six decades later, Donald Trump got away with it. He ran a presidential campaign on undisguised racism, breathtakingly cruel assertions about Mexicans, open calls to his raucous and racist white crowds to enact harm against protesters, braggadocio about grabbing women against their will. It was a specific point of pride, and in his mind a signal of his strength, that he could act so malevolently in public and answer for nothing: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” he said during his campaign. You can see in real time the raw power that has become increasingly discernible to him over the last four years, alongside his reflexive drive to show it off as garishly as possible.

In the end, he was right, and those who predicted that his flagrant exhibition of racism and misogyny would spell his end were wrong.

In 2018, Georgia’s then-secretary of State Brian Kemp got away with it, too. He was overseeing the state’s midterm election, in which he was also running as a gubernatorial candidate against Stacey Abrams. His open mismanagement of the election — which included purging more than 1.5 million registered Georgians from the rolls, closing more than 200 polling locations, and failing to send absentee ballots or confirm that voting machines were working — helped to ensure that, despite Abrams drawing the biggest vote share of any Democratic candidate in recent Georgia history, he was able to beat her by about 55,000 votes.

The vote appeared to have been so shamelessly suppressed that Abrams and her team, via an initiative called Fair Fight, filed a federal lawsuit against Kemp. That lawsuit is ongoing, and yet Georgia’s current Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, spent $107 million on 30,000 unreliable electronic voting machines this cycle; and in May, Kemp canceled the Georgia election for a Supreme Court seat, instead appointing a judge himself. It was full-scale voter suppression, enacted in plain sight — with newspaper and television and social media covering every instance of malfeasance in a state that has two senate seats in play this fall — and that was part of the point. Brian Kemp and his state’s Republicans weren’t going to let Abrams, the Black woman holding the camera, think she had any power to stop them.

The public performance of supremacy is key to feeling sure of it, and thus upholding it.

Which is why, in the midst of potentially nation-reshaping unrest, Donald Trump is doing the equivalent of shooting someone on Fifth Avenue: holding a rally in Tulsa, where in 1921 the prosperous Black community was ravaged by an angry white mob, who set fires, shot at, and firebombed more than 35 square blocks in one of the most violent racist conflagrations in American history. Oklahoma is not a swing state; Donald Trump is not going there to win voters; he is going there to stare into the camera and telegraph a furiously insistent signal to his white base about his absolute authority.

And maybe he’ll get away with it. Or perhaps the signal is getting jammed.

Those whom Trump intends to frighten remain uncowed; protesters are refusing to be intimidated, are — as they long have done — resisting and inverting the show of dominance, insisting on justice, consequence, tearing through the symbolic displays of white supremacy. And in a newer turn of events, at least some segments of white America are losing the appetite and appreciation for the public performances of white-supremacist power.

All around us, aesthetic tributes to dominance are coming down: On Wednesday, Trump defended the Confederate monuments that are being defaced, crushed, and removed by protesters. Those monuments were themselves this kind of display of public power, as the historian Emily Farris has noted, built not immediately after the Civil War, but as Reconstruction ended. The monuments, Farris writes, “were put up not only to falsely celebrate the Confederacy, but more important as a modern effort to assert white supremacy and create a system to reassert domination,” or as the Alabama historian Wayne Flynt told Errin Haines in 2015, as an “in-your-face reminder of who runs this place.”

And around the country, these monuments and other devices meant to shape the American narrative into one that celebrated white supremacy are being obliterated. Derek Chauvin, whose look telegraphed his confidence that he would face no consequence, has been charged, first with third-degree and now second-degree murder in the killing of George Floyd. Amy Cooper, who signaled her assuredness that the police would work on her behalf as she stared straight at Christian Cooper’s camera in Central Park and enacted what Adrienne Green has called a “malicious and deliberate performance of victimization,” has lost her job and her reputation. That incident was an example, Errin Haines wrote, of the lens being used as “both a tool and a weapon” of this era.

Cameras are operating in multiple ways, not just in the direction that the powerful are counting on them to. There is precedent for this, too. In the 1950s and ’60s, televisions broadcast images of fire hoses and dogs being turned on protesters for Civil Rights, of students being beaten as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge (itself named for a Klan member and proslavery fanatic); these images worked not to reify white power, but to finally bring white Americans into a fight they’d stayed out of for too long, long after courts had ordered that they and the nation they’d enjoyed unchallenged dominance within, change. White people had to see something from which they could not turn away in order to understand their responsibility and complicity.

These public displays can work to affirm white America’s dominance. Or they can force white America to look in a mirror and see its own barbarity, and perhaps — as happens too rarely but occasionally to transformative effect — reject it. So in these weeks, what is white America seeing when it looks straight into the face of its own taunting brutality? And how will we respond? Do we want to see and admire our own suffocating power, or do we want to repudiate and remake it?

Racism Doesn’t Blink