[T]he function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. […] And you don’t have to do it anymore. […] Where the mind dwells on changing the minds of racists is a very dank place. […] Racial ignorance is a prison from which there is no escape because there’re no doors. And there are old, old men and old, old women running institutions, governments, homes all over the world who need to believe in their racism and need to have the victims of racism concentrate all their creative abilities on them.
— Toni Morrison (Portland State Black Studies Center, 1975)
Texas State Trooper: Okay, Ma’am. You okay?
Sandra Bland: I’m waiting on you. This is your job. I’m waiting on you …
Texas State Trooper: Oh, you seem very irritated.
TEN YEARS AGO, I lived in New York, and spent one Monday evening every fortnight teaching GED courses at the women’s prison at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. The women were highly engaged students. To hear their stories, their setbacks, and their aspirations was a privilege. They handed me the heavy inertia of mass incarceration for a few hours at a time, giving me a chance to wrap my mind around its density — its Americannness. Of the 15 women in my course, one was white and many did not speak English as a first language. The months, and sometimes years, that these women endured, locked away on the island, had scrambled the lives of their loved ones. My courses were not meant to stop the shock wave caused by their absence, but I hoped they would dim its effect by preparing the women to return to daily life and to secure jobs. I always worried that by teaching those courses, I was polishing the doorknobs of the prison — legitimating the violence of incarceration by making it palatable.
My colleague Abena and I often rode the prison bus back to the Queensboro Plaza subway stop in silence. I never asked her how she felt. We would typically discuss the lesson, occasionally a story told by one of the women, but we never really checked in with one another emotionally. I was always empty, drained of every ounce of energy. The women were motivated to learn, but there was a pessimism that we were all fighting — a scandalous skepticism about the future. As far as work goes, the teaching was not transformative, although it probably built the confidence of the women, and perhaps gave them tools to progress in an employment environment invariably cold to those with prison records. However, the work certainly constituted a transgression. Not the reading comprehension exercises themselves, but the act of teaching and learning, there and then. There was a tacit acknowledgment that we were all convened in the education wing of the building to collectively reckon with a racial, patriarchal, heterosexist system of criminalization to which none of us, neither teachers nor students, was immune.
In the context of teaching and learning, each session, alongside and sometimes by way of grammar review, grappled with a different contour of power. It was not planned that way, but it is an inevitable part of communication between human beings to establish a connection, to inquire about certain gestures or levels of energy such as a frown or lethargy, to situate oneself and one’s partner in the most basic of ways. I knew that the women at Rikers were giving me an education, and that some lessons would take years to process. On the bus across the water back to Queens, the nighttime pressed hard on my lungs. I watched the floodlights flicker and disappear over the bridge, a dark blanket swallowing the prison and everyone in it.
Rikers Island is the same prison in which a teenager named Kalief Browder was held for three years until his case was dismissed and he was released. Kalief killed himself earlier this year. The 22 year old had experienced the worst phase of his life at Rikers and was unable to bounce back. I thought about the women I had met on the island when I read about Browder’s death.
Today, #blacklivesmatter and notably #sayhername and #transblacklivesmatter have mobilized to struggle against police killings of black people and to highlight the invisibility of deaths of black women and trans people. They organize with a keen awareness that the movement to stop police shootings is part of a larger struggle against the everyday structural violence that defines the criminal justice system. Ruth Gilmore, in Golden Gulag, defines racism as the “state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” In this view, the current movement aims to stop deaths, some spectacular and some mundane, some immediate and some delayed, but all premature.
The enforcement of criminal law against the police gestures to the legacy of slavery and racial subjugation that we seek to address, alongside individual incidents of violence. It is a gesture of historical reckoning. As the Equal Justice Initiative reminds us, the recent killings of unarmed black people are not recent as such, but rather they are legacies of the lynchings carried out in the Jim Crow era. Police enabled and participated in fatal violence against black people and others in an attempt to enforce a white supremacist patriarchy with state power. This was, and continues to be, structural racism in action, and it is central to the relationship between the US state and all who live within its domain.
After each death, I find myself mouthing a cumbersome chain of lawyerly words, hoping for ironclad prosecution and maximum sentences, to bring to justice those who have killed Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, and numerous others. I hear myself invoking the heroic terror of the criminal justice system. I make no illusions that this will spackle the gaping fault of the United States’s racial terrain. To digress for a moment, I also work on refugee law, and though I support and believe in refugee claims for securing better lives for individual applicants, these prosecutions seem to me much like the promise of refugee law to affect real change: vacant. The international refugee law system, while important to scores of individual claimants, represses a more meaningful commitment to free movement and serves to further stabilize and legitimize a system of border violence and geopolitical exploitation. Criminal prosecutions in these cases of police murder are (sometimes) offered as individual sanctions only after the harm has been done, and they do not seek to reduce the widening net of carceral politics. But then again, is this the time to abandon the use of criminal justice?
Patricia Williams in her seminal work The Alchemy of Race and Rights reminds us that while logics of rights are dangerously reliant on the fixtures of state domination, we do need legal protection, if only to maintain some basic room to breathe and exist. So perhaps we need rights to deflect the point of the knife of systemic violence, even if it does not prevent us from catching the edge.
To some extent, relying primarily on criminal sanctions against aggressors suggests that we value the symbolic strength and coercive force of law. This seems a mocking compromise for, as it stands, we know the police and, by extension, the state is not equipped to protect us from itself. Not all of us, anyway. We use the law though we are terrified of it, contemptuous of its Janus face. We ask the police for what we need, hoping they will not kill us before we have finished stating our claims.
So how do we put on hold our critiques of the constant, structural violence of the criminal justice system, including the prison industrial complex, while attempting to ensure that the lives of people of color are protected? Is it only the force of criminal sanctions that will keep police from killing us, or must there be something more sustainable? And can that “something more” wait until we begin to dismantle the prison of racism, or must the state’s coercive violence be invoked now to prevent the everyday carnage that we experience at the hands of the police?
Toni Morrison suggests that we should consider the seriousness of distraction. She contends that distraction is the work of racism and that racism is like a prison, incarcerating its subscribers. Morrison describes the ritual of inquisition, whereby people of color are asked to validate their heritage and their authority to speak and create. This idea of distraction, considering the constant, tireless negation of the authority of nonwhite people to produce knowledge, can easily be applied to the #blacklivesmatter context inasmuch as spectacular violence also serves to distract. It can reorient social thinking, and movement politics, around the tip of the blade rather than the long edge of the knife. Distraction conditions us to think reactively, defensively, about our own inclusion. It is in the words we use and the size of the continents on the maps in elementary schools. It is being asked whether our own degradation upsets us. Distraction is not the shine of a coin; often it is the glint of a blade.
For the purpose of illustrating the point of distraction, it is helpful to think of the officers who have killed unarmed black people as agents of the state, rather than merely as individuals. Of course these officers enjoy more protection as individuals precisely because they are agents of the state, but an additional concern with resting hopes on individual prosecutions is that they call upon the state to regulate its own behavior. While we can push for greater efficiency and procedural equality for the prosecution of individual officers, the more transformative potential of contemporary antiracist movements is on the level of systemic and structural change, a far more difficult endeavor.
Various groups are doing work to critically connect police killings with other forms of structural violence, such as the African American Policy Forum and its work on the overpolicing and educational exclusion of young black and Latina women and girls. The voices of #blacktranslivesmatters have highlighted the extremely high proportion of trans women of color murdered in the United States. Importantly, this thought assemblage led by queer and trans people of color has consistently invested in a prison abolitionist approach, in which it links the structural violence produced by incarceration with that of racism, gender, and body norms, capitalism and imperialism. This analytical position, advanced by Reina Gossett, CeCe McDonald, Janetta Johnson, Miss Major, Dean Spade, Sarah Lamble, Angela Davis, and many others, suggests that prison abolitionist politics and practices occupy a central position in advancing the creative potential of broad-based social struggle.
Acknowledging the politics of prison abolition as a way to open ourselves to the possibility of transformative change affords us the space to ask: Who benefits from the prison system as we know it, and who stands to lose the most from its perpetuation?
Strategically, then, we must be in at least two places at once if we hope to transform the environment in which we live. We must be seen and heard by the state and by law, but we must also present another vision of what our connectedness looks like, another way of being together. Distraction makes racism and state violence seem like moving targets, difficult to critique amid the constant, shifty inquisition. But we cannot forget that it is not racism that is moving — it does not have the potential to move very much, and we know its techniques better than those imprisoned within it. We are the ones with the ability to move, to envision a different place. We have to spend a great deal of time outside the prison to be able to recognize ourselves if and when we find ourselves inside it, reproducing its structures and logics, especially when we are in the service of disassembling it from within.
It is difficult not to allow the metronome of police killings to set the pace for antiracist political struggle in the United States. While organizers are thinking ahead of reactive politics, the distraction of the prison of racism threatens constantly to blur our focus on the material prison, the carceral state. Morrison’s point is that we should not allow our creativity to be curtailed. If, as she suggests, those of us who are not constrained by the prison of racism are free, then we should never relinquish our ability to stay in motion, to strategize around our positions and negotiate our creativity on our own terms.