by Joan Harvey
I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people. —James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
…American society is blind to hundreds, even thousands of murders perpetrated in its name by agents of governments. — John Lewis
I had begun thinking about how the coronavirus made very visible the shambles of our society, when the murder of George Floyd took place. Disasters pull aside the veil, and make an underlying reality more apparent. Already the coronavirus had exposed the reality of racism, capitalist economics, the weakness of our food system, our health care crisis, the extreme vulnerability of so many populations, and the built-in structural violence. The George Floyd murder, and the subsequent protests and riots, were police brutality made visible, and rage against the brutality made visible.
Activist and epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, referring to the way the virus has been mishandled, asks:
How many people will die this summer, before Election Day? What proportion of the deaths will be among African-Americans, Latinos, other people of color? This is getting awfully close to genocide by default. What else do you call mass death by public policy?
His comments apply equally to the public policy that allows so many to be killed by police. Writing in 2014, civil rights leader John Lewis mentions a recent study that reported that “one black man is killed by police or vigilantes in our country every 28 hours, almost one a day.”
Ed Cohen points out that the word epidemic contains the Greek demos, which refers to its political character: “. . . an epidemic becomes an epidemic if and only if its effects traverse the thresholds of the political; otherwise it is just illness.” Apparently we needed an epidemic to actually see the “essential” workers around us, though by essential workers we mostly meant disposable and sacrificial people of color. Black workers in nursing homes where most residents are African-American were given rain ponchos and swim goggles instead of effective PPE. Even though black men and women have been dying at a disproportionate rate from Covid-19 they are less likely to be tested or treated when they visit hospitals. The shameful history of redlining has forced black people into densely populated and impoverished communities where the virus has more chance of spreading. Black men fear that wearing masks may cause white people to perceive them as even more frightening. With the shut-down African-American businesses have suffered far more than those of other racial groups, and most African- Americans have much less of a financial cushion.
In his article “The Coronavirus was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying” Adam Serwer addresses the invisibility of the racism built into our system:
The underlying assumptions of white innocence and black guilt are all part of what the philosopher Charles Mills calls the “racial contract.” If the social contract is the implicit agreement among members of a society to follow the rules—for example, acting lawfully, adhering to the results of elections, and contesting the agreed-upon rules by nonviolent means—then the racial contract is a codicil rendered in invisible ink, one stating that the rules as written do not apply to nonwhite people in the same way…
The racial contract is not partisan—it guides staunch conservatives and sensitive liberals alike—but it works most effectively when it remains imperceptible to its beneficiaries. As long as it is invisible, members of society can proceed as though the provisions of the social contract apply equally to everyone. But when an injustice pushes the racial contract into the open, it forces people to choose whether to embrace, contest, or deny its existence. Video evidence of unjustified shootings of black people is so jarring in part because it exposes the terms of the racial contract so vividly. But as the process in the Arbery case shows, the racial contract most often operates unnoticed, relying on Americans to have an implicit understanding of who is bound by the rules, and who is exempt from them.
It seems we need graphic videos of the murder of black men and women to see the constant threat to their lives. But while on the one hand, these videos have been essential to make white people actually see the violence done to black people by the police and vigilantes, on the other hand, this intense public viewing of the murder of someone beloved, this footage played over and over, can be extremely traumatic to the families of the victims, and to the whole community. Especially, as Kia Gregory writes, when there is no conviction after a murder is shown to have clearly transpired, and when there is no resulting police reform. Today, even when the video of George Floyd clearly shows his murder, the coroner found he died of previous health conditions, and “potential intoxicants in his system.” What does that even mean?
Black people are both unseen and under constant surveillance. This tension between invisibility and extreme visibility exists in the word overlooked. James Baldwin wrote “Negroes are . . . ignored in the North and are under surveillance in the South, and suffer hideously in both places. Neither the Southerner nor the Northerner is able to look on the Negro simply as a man…” Jeremy Travis coined the term “invisible punishment” to describe the drug war, in which primarily black men are charged with felonies, incarcerated, and hidden from public view. Locking black men up makes them both invisible and surveilled, just as segregation has and does.
Of course when black men are seen by white people, they are often seen as something to be feared. There is the recent, well-publicized example of Amy Cooper, calling the cops on a black birdwatcher. When I lived in New York, on the liberal Upper West Side, a black boyfriend, who happened to be a doctor, told me people were frightened of him and thought he might be breaking in when he came to visit me, though fortunately no one called the police. Baldwin describes his time in the hamlet of Woodstock: “My color had already made me conspicuous enough in that town—this is putting it mildly indeed—and, from a distance, the townspeople stared. I had a feeling that they were waiting to be selected as members of a firing squad.” While I’ve had the unnerving experience of receiving long hostile stares a few times, both in a formerly East German sea resort and in a small Mormon town in Utah (probably due in part to my wild black hair), as a white woman these are minor and rare events; when black men leave their houses, if they aren’t in black neighborhoods, they are marked. The stories black men tell of the precautions they have to take when simply going out for a jog are completely heartbreaking.
Questions of race and visibility are of course complex. Sara Ahmed writes that whiteness is “invisible and unmarked, as the absent center against which others appear only as deviants or as lines of deviation.” Susan Stewart mentions the “invisibility and blindness of the suburbs.” White privilege is invisible and white people are unseeing. White crimes against black people are made invisible; Ruha Benjamin describes how officer Betty Jo Shelby had her record “wiped clean” after being acquitted of murdering an unarmed black motorist, Terence Crutcher. During the recent protests in Denver a white woman purposely swerved her SUV to run over a black man, and, as I write, she is still walking free.
In Colorado peaceful protests for the murder of George Floyd were organized by the black community, but were somewhat hijacked by white people, who, in their desire to battle with police, incited violence. The black organizers of the protest had to ask white people not to be violent as the violence would either hurt black people directly or rebound on their community. Alvertis Simmons, a leader in Black Lives Matter Denver, put it this way:
You cannot have a black movement with 100 white people in front of it saying Black Lives Matter and then they go and destroy the community! No, no, no, no, no. Black folks understand that that was a black man that died, and we care about whites and we want them to come, but we don’t want them to hijack this event.
Tay Anderson, another leader said, “If you’re not going to adhere to the demands of the black community, those that are impacted, then this is not the protest for you.” He adds, “Now we’re the people who have to face the unintended consequences.”
The night after the black organizers in Denver told people to go home it looked as if at least 90% of the protestors who remained were white guys. Though I’m sure there were right-wing instigators, I also think that a lot were anarchists and people who want to be antiracist, but who have learned from anarchist literature to believe that black leadership has also been co-opted by the system, and therefore should be ignored. Combine this with testosterone, excitement about being able to go out after having been cooped up by social distancing rules, and wanting to act on their mostly very valid hatred of the police, and naturally things turned violent. James Baldwin spells it out: “The arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police…by the most powerful forces in American life—otherwise, they would not dare to claim it, would, indeed, be unable to claim it—creates a situation which is as close to anarchy as it already, visibly, is close to martial law.” But while much of the rage of the white protesters was no doubt genuine, this was also a clear example of black voices not being heard by white people with little to lose. Even when the issue was black lives, black voices were ignored.
What this all boils down to is that what is most unseen is the basic humanity of black men and women (as well as most people of color and gay and trans people and others who don’t fit the norm). Trump referred to unauthorized immigrants as “animals,” and it is no doubt only his dim awareness that he might be going one step too far that keeps him from referring to black people that way as well. Black people (and their supporters) protesting the murder of Floyd are “thugs” whereas white people with AR-15s invading state capitols are “very good people.” I’ve been depressed that black men have felt the need, after the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, to post videos in which they tell us personal details about themselves, their jobs, their quirks, that they like pork chops and do yoga, that they have two young children. A plea for white people to see them as human. It’s extraordinarily painful that this should be necessary in any way.
While black men are seen as something to be feared, black women are literally unseen. Poet Claudia Rankine in her prize winning book Citizen: An American Lyric tells this concise story:
In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh my God, I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.
This recounting of a black woman literally not being seen may sound unusual, but I’ve observed the exact same thing happen here in progressive Boulder. At a very well attended town hall with our very liberal state representatives, people were invited to line up and ask questions. An African-American woman was at the end of the long line of white people, and when everyone else had asked their questions, our reps looked around saying, “I guess we’re done now, no one else has a question.” They literally did not see her standing there, though she’d been waiting a long time. A few of us protested, and then she was allowed to ask her question, which was about the disproportionate incarceration of black men in the local jail. This time they did not hear her, and replied with something about more money for prison guards.
Because black women are so often invisible, the murder of Breonna Taylor, a 26-years-old EMT, got far less attention than the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, but recently it has made the news. Taylor was shot in her bed on March 13, 2020 by police who came into the wrong apartment unannounced and murdered her. It took close to two months before this killing got any attention, and this was only because her boyfriend survived to talk about it. How many murders of black women and men go unreported because there is no video, or no survivors? I listened to a number of black women discuss Taylor’s killing. It is clear that if a policeman can come into your home under a no-knock law and shoot you eight times in your bed, there is literally no space in the country where you are safe. Black women carry a burden unshared by their white counterparts, both in the hard jobs they so often do, and in the fear they constantly have for the lives of their sons and lovers who are frequently murdered, or incarcerated on bogus charges. The attempt to find any kind of justice becomes traumatizing and exhausting, and can result in an almost unrelenting cycle of pain and grief.
Mourning makes grief visible, but the president has refused any public mourning. (His refusal to unveil former President Obama’s portrait is another example of making black lives invisible, though understandably Obama isn’t interested either). If the more than 100,000 deaths from the virus are not acknowledged, are unseen, perhaps the president can pretend they don’t exist. The New York Times did a good job printing the names of a thousand people who died from Covid-19, but as the performer Mx Justin Vivian Bond has pointed out, when 100,000 people died of AIDS, the notice was buried on page eighteen, mentioned no names, and was just an Associated Press squib. There are plenty of communities we don’t see or refuse to see. A 16-year-old Navajo boy, Larry Jackson, had to remind Americans that 30 percent of people in the Navajo Nation still don’t have clean running water or electricity, so that simply to wash one’s hands might require a 40-mile trip.
During the time things were shut down to flatten the curve of the coronavirus, there was a lot of talk about “freedom.” But as James Baldwin wrote “The country will not change until it re-examines itself and discovers what it really means by freedom. … It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim one sees oneself.”
I’ve quoted Baldwin because I think he is the most essential thinker for our time. So I’ll finish with his words: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
We must all open our eyes to our own blindness and look at how we participate in an often invisible genocide.
James Baldwin: Collected Essays: Notes of a Native Son / Nobody Knows My Name / The Fire Next Time / No Name in the Street / The Devil Finds Work / other essays: (Library of America #98)
I am extremely grateful to artist Françoise Soulé Zinsou Duressé for permission to use images from her work.
I also want to thank artist and writer Ilana Simons, whose Zoom meeting on Covid-19 and race helped initiate some of my thinking here.