‘Violence Against Black Bodies’ is About More Than Black Deaths – Book Review by Elwood Watson

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not now at least. America is firmly within the twenty first century, yet we are struggling to deal with the problem that W.E.B. Dubois so aptly identified in 1903 as the problem of the twentieth century. That problem was the color line, which refers to institutional racism, discrimination and segregation. Looking ahead over a century later, it seems little has changed. While that assertion is unfair to a point—after all, we had a black president and legal segregation is prohibited –certainly the dynamics of racism are still as vibrant, conspicuous and ubiquitous in American life as ever—there is a problem throughout U.S. history that never subsides, and, as if to operate in cyclical fashion, sometimes gains momentum.

Fast forward to the second decade of the new century, and we have, on the one hand, a multicultural nation that is on the verge of becoming California, where people of color are in the majority. Already, in the country that once enslaved people of African descent and slaughtered indigenous people, a majority of babies born in the country are black and brown. And yet, despite this reality, perhaps even because of it, the country is failing to come to terms with a legacy of color-coded violence, and a system originally designed to prop up wealthy white male landowners at the expense of everyone else.

While there has been racial progress in this country, today America is backsliding. Obama and all he represented—the hopes and aspirations of people of color–gave us Trump, a personification of white backlash against black progress, and the front man for policies that mete out violence against the poor, immigrants, women, LGBTQ folk, Latinos, Muslims, black people and others. Now, we find ourselves in a nation in which there are no racists, or at least there is plausible deniability on matters of who is culpable, who is responsible for racial oppression. Whites can proclaim that because they did not burn a cross today, did not invoke racial epithets and did not raise a Confederate flag—though more of that is happening, as hate crimes are on the rise, and someone is committing them—their hands are clean. However, to personalize racial violence, to distill a 400-year pathology into whether someone called a black man a name is to miss the point entirely. Racism continues through systems of oppression against people, institutions that target their victims and perpetuate the violence in an intergenerational manner—as if to pass the trauma through the DNA– but also an intersectional way.

In recent years, the Black Lives matter movement has grown in response to the physical violence against black bodies—specifically police violence (such as Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice) and vigilante violence (Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis).  However, understanding that racism is multifaceted, the Movement For Black Lives issued a policy platform addressing the war on black people in its totality, moving far beyond police brutality to cover issues such as economic justice, mass incarceration, immigration, political power and community control.

A new book written for the Black Lives Matter era captures the full breadth and scope of the covert and overt violence this community endures.  Violence Against Black Bodies: An Intersectional Analysis of How Black Lives Continue to Matter, edited by Sandra E. Weissinger (Assistant Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville); Dwayne A. Mack (Associate Professor of History at Berea College), and Elwood Watson (Professor of History, African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University) examines how discrimination permeates all aspects of Black lives, including but not exclusively death. After all, black deaths are but one form of violence black people face on a daily basis.

A collection of 14 insightful essays, the book examines the racial order in America as a hierarchy designed to produce trauma and discrimination. Racialized violence is a phenomenon in which racism, sexism and homophobia/transphobia intersect. Violence Against Black Bodies devotes space to a discussion of media stereotypes of Black people– including fearmongering against black men and the marginalization and demonization of black women– and the role of media in normalizing white supremacy and obscuring the existence of systemic discrimination. The authors address the stigmatization of black youth in society, but also reveal the generational trauma they experience from witnessing and experiencing violence. Rounding out this extensive and liberating analysis is a treatment of the invisible hand of institutional racism, forms of violence such as the school-to-prison pipeline, and racialized violence against black bodies in an academic setting.

In his essay, “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin articulated the sentiment permeating this book:

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. …You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason.  The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

One of the invaluable contributions of this work is its searing indictment of age-old injustices, viewed within the prism of the “disciplined anger” that a burgeoning new social justice movement promises in the Trump era. The writers discuss the impact of racial violence and the response of its victims, but also the attempts to whitewash black suffering through “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” They invoke the role of power elites in increasing anti-black violence by persuading white working class that people of color are the greatest threat to their existence, bribing them to side with wealthy whites to upward wealth redistribution. And they emphasize that segregation continues to thrive despite legal proscriptions. “Segregation practices do not just hurt black people,” the editors note. “Practices such as redlining, restrictive covenants, and discrimination in the rental and sale of housing not only lead to residential segregation by race, but also continue to shape whiteness, and frame narratives about what constitutes blackness.”

Although the authors perform a valuable service in illuminating the myriad forms of violence African-Americans face, they also provide solutions, such as the use of social media for nonviolent resistance. “The point of all these chapters is to show how violence saturates every aspect of the social fabric of life for black folks and to empower the reader to do what they can, where they can. To be of assistance as opposed to being a psychological drain on those doing the work for social justice,” the editors write. “This means turning off degrading and racist media. This means divesting from discriminatory and abusive corporations. This means calling out Jim Crow and Jane Crow whenever you see them. And this is tiring work. Ask any person of color, who faces microaggressions most every day, if this is not so.” The book also emphasizes that while no policies can heal racial violence, self-care by black people and white allies and others making amends are initial steps to alleviate the harm done to black bodies.

For experts and practitioners in racial justice work, novices and laypeople alike, Violence Against Black Bodies is an informative read.  The subject matter resonates for me, as someone who has had much time to consider the nature, scope and consequences of this violence.  As a journalist and activist who has worked with the traumatized victims of police brutality and mass incarceration and other forms of injustice, I can appreciate the timeliness of this book. Moreover, as a black man in the U.S. who knows from firsthand experience the ramifications of race-based trauma—stemming from the steady drips of microaggressions we experience each day, to the sudden, jolting, life-altering episodes that attempt to rip us of our dignity and our lives—it is validating to read about that which is real. And yet society continues to promote this as a figment of the black imagination.

Elwood Watson

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