57 Varieties of Whiteness (Part 1)

Written by:  Angela Harris

There were maybe twenty of them. One or two women beamed encouragingly as I stood up. I love the ones who support you: open faces that track your face, smiles and nods, puzzled looks when they get lost. But the bodies of the ones who drew my attention were rigid and tight. Arms folded over chests. Gazes studiously focused on nothing. I was there with my black face and my assigned readings to talk to this colleague’s criminal procedure class about race and space.

There must be at least fifty-seven varieties of whiteness, and here is one of them: the rigid, shut-down kind. These bodies were performing the physical equivalent of the “Decline To State” racial identity box. Were they “Affirmative Action Casualties” (AACs), to use Camille Gear Rich’s terminology? Were they “racially fatigued”? “Post-race millennials”? Right. I doubted these students were post-race. They were tense and silent, with a dense, sullen, ferocious energy. Maybe wounded. Certainly expecting attack.

My theme for the class was the contradictory expectations that the police should both enforce the law and maintain social order, and what that has to do with place and race. One of our opening readings was Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, decided in 1972, which condemns the use of police discretion to harass black people, multiracial groups, “Negro organizers,” and people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (like the defendant arrested for loitering in the driveway where the police told him to stand). In Papachristou and similar cases, like Kolender v. Lawson, the Court used the “void for vagueness” doctrine to strike down criminal offenses like vagrancy and loitering that granted “unfettered discretion” to the police that might be used in “arbitrary and discriminatory” ways.

Papachristou and Kolender are not “race cases,” however. The opinion in Papachristou cleverly calls attention to the racial identities of the defendants, but says nothing more about race, other than waxing rhapsodically about the joys of loafing in Puerto Rico. (Read it yourself if you don’t believe me.) The opinion in Kolender never says anything about race at all, despite Edward Lawson’s certainty that he was stopped fifteen times in less than two years because he was walking while black and wearing dreadlocks. The Court seems determined to undermine racial profiling without mentioning race.

It’s the silence of “everybody knows.” We know, but are not allowed to say, that it was discriminatory but hardly arbitrary for the police to target Lawson. My students knew, when I made them talk about it, where the invisible lines were in their neighborhoods. They knew which neighborhoods were “nice” and which were “not safe.” Racial and class geographies organize the places we live in, and both are linked to perceptions of crime. With the help of articles by I. Bennett Capers and Jeannine Bell, I reminded them that segregation is not naturally occurring, or the product of “choice” (as they were quick to declare), but was accomplished, and is maintained, by markets and also by violence and intimidation.

And the pendulum is swinging. With loitering and vagrancy statutes ruled unconstitutional, scholars like Nicole Garnett see new means of maintaining race and class boundaries evolving. We now have land-use regulations and city planning strategies — injunctive “bans,” “homeless campuses” — to keep people in their place. And the police are now directed to target entire categories of people: sex offenders, “illegal aliens.”

So my lesson plan wasn’t “about race,” but it wasn’t not about race either. And my students were, and stayed, locked up tight. Were they just dedicated to not talking, fearing a public shaming by an Official Black Person, or did they honestly not know what they know?

My theory is that white people of this variety — the tense, shut down kind — are like abused children. They know what race and racism feel like in their bodies. But they are schooled in not knowing it, schooled in the moral discourse of racism as meaning “the worst kind of person you can be.” They have no language in which to talk honestly and sincerely about race in a world where, as Rich notes, white students believe that they do not “have diversity,” whereas student of color do.

In fact, you just aren’t allowed to notice race. Oh, wait: except in those carnivalesque spaces marked out by comics like Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler. Those wacky, pretty white girls who have made white supremacy fun again!

But that’s another post. I went home and lay in bed for two hours after class, exhausted by the pressure of things unsaid. Official Black Race Conversator fails again.