If Black innocence never exists to the state, how can passivism and perfect victimhood save us?
[Banner photo: A headline from The Daily Kos seeming to play up the fact that Jordan Edwards was unarmed and an “honor roll student”]
By Zoé Samudzi
On May 20, Richard Collins III, a young Black soon-to-be graduate of Bowie State University, was murdered by Sean Urbanski, a member of a white supremacist Facebook group called Alt-Reich Nation, whilst waiting for an Uber. The murder will be investigated as a hate crime. In the wake of recent emboldenings of white nationalists across the country, Black Americans are increasingly caught between a state and non-state white supremacist hard place. What does it mean when our sense of freedom and liberation is tied up, in the words of Shannon Houston, in having been trained to negotiate with terrorists?
One of the defining characteristics of the modern state is the monopoly on violence, which sociologist Max Weber described in 1919 as the state being the “only human [community] which lays a claim to the monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force,” and that violence is a tool for the state’s “organized domination.”
“Legitimate violence” in this country runs the gamut from how the police are rarely held accountable for their enacted brutalities, to interconnected anti-indigenous and anti-Black settler colonial logics and material harms. The state must produce deep inequities in order to sustain itself, and racial capitalist exclusion and violent suppression are both necessary for the continued existence of the United States.
In this context, how do we understand the promotion of “proper” and respectable ways of attempting to negotiate with the state to bring about more favorable social conditions? And how do we understand the historical and contemporary shaming of forceful resistances not permitted within the norms of liberal civilities?
Too often, our understanding of deservingness and citizen value revolves around notions of “innocence” that exist within the white liberal imagination. Jackie Wang’s framing (and rejection of) this phenomenon perfectly summarizes why this anti-racist political formation is unhelpful: Black suffering becomes intelligible within whiteness only if a victim in question is able to pass the litmus test of respectability.
They are real victims if they were unarmed and un-drugged, from a stable and ideally two-parent family, begging for their lives, running away, and killed in a geographical space that registers within the white imaginary (e.g. a widely used public transportation stop or public park in a safe neighborhood, as opposed to the projects or within the confines of some kind of detention center). They are only real victims if they are an unassailable and undeserving “perfect victim.”
This fails to hold up because Martin Luther King, Jr., the pinnacle of Black respectability, was still assassinated. But “perfect victim” logics push even further from innocence the likes of CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman who was convicted of second-degree manslaughter after killing an attacker who confronted her with racist and transmisogynistic slurs and smashed a drink in her face. Blackness can never be innocent, and Black trans womanhood is not even visible enough to the cisnormative gaze to appear on its radar.
So what is the function of claiming an innocence that does not exist but can easily be weaponized against others? Asserting that particular conditions do not permit the extrajudicial murder of some Black people necessarily posits conditions that justify the state murders of other Black people. Compare, for example, the murder of 15-year-old popular student-athlete Jordan Edwards to that of 15-year-old Darius Smith, who was fatally shot by an off-duty border patrol agent who alleged Smith and his two friends attempted to rob him at gunpoint. The former is a tragedy, but the latter is “more justifiable,” yet neither, based on historical trends, will see justice.
These politics of conditional innocence fail to indict the entire state structure the produces anti-Blackness, and instead caters to white sensibilities to try (and always fail) to make Black suffering legible.
In this political moment where Black people are rejecting respectability politics and articulating increasingly confrontational politics, I thought the police killing of 23-year-old mother Korryn Gaines (who was killed in her home following an armed standoff with the police) would be some kind of flashpoint. More than anything, she felt like a contemporary embodiment of the iconic black and white photograph of Malcolm X peering out of his curtained windows holding the M1 carbine that apparently deeply resonated with many in the community. Surely he would have used that gun to defend his own family if and when the need arose, just like Gaines.
While there is an historical understanding of the need for–and even fetishization of–symbols associated with forceful resistance (like the gun-toting Black Panthers), there was so much judgement in the collective assessment of her decision-making as a Black mother, and her sanity and mental health. But why did her articulation or vision of resistance — a refusal to validate the state’s monopolized claim to violence — not complement acts of armed resistance that we celebrate (like Harriet Tubman or Angela Davis or Assata Shakur or Joan Little)?
Insistences on Black non-violence and passivity, particularly from white moderates and progressives, reveal a complete absence of social and political urgency as well as the ways that pacifism operates as an anti-Black pathology. Liberal appeals for “peace” and “dialogue” with white supremacists completely ignore the fact that so many iterations of white nationalism call for returns to previously existing material conditions and are not simply abstract politics.
They also ignore the very immediate threat to racialized people’s safety posed by the public platforming of these politics via claims of “protecting free speech.” It is deeply ironic that the WWII defeat of European fascism/Nazism occupies such a critical position in American cultural-political memory, and yet the ethics of punching Nazis is highly contested (despite a long and justified history of the act) and anti-fascists’ violent confrontation of neo-Nazis is frowned upon by many.
Why is fighting back so unacceptable? What does it mean for us to no longer value state-maintaining order over justice (à la Dr. King’s forever salient critiques of the white moderates)? In this moment, Black gun club membership and firearm purchase are on the rise, and it is worth noting that one of the only gun control efforts, the Mulford Act, came on the heels of the Panthers’ enthusiasm for open carrying.
What is the state signaling by cracking down on Black gun possession in light of white men posing the greatest domestic security threats yet not being engaged with the same terroristic controls as Muslims? Why are “rebranded” Nazis met with far less urgency? Is it that their hate speech aligns with America’s genocidal values? How can we truly understand violence when Black reactions to historical subjugation are met with more criticism than the state’s own violence? In saying “Black Lives Matter” as an unequivocal and unqualified truth, then doesn’t Black self-defense matter, too?
Zoé Samudzi is a queer African feminist, writer, and Sociology PhD student at the University of California-San Francisco.