I’ve been horrified by the recent events in the segregated and disadvantaged St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. A half century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the essential civil liberty of being in public space is far from secure for Black people in particular and racial minorities in general, who can be killed by the police while unarmed on a public street (women face a different set of restrictions on their ability to be in public that are privately enforced but sanctioned by state inaction against sexual violence).
I’m preparing to teach a course on race in America as an interdisciplinary study, and the social psychology of implicit bias and threat perception are highly salient to this question. One internet commenter has poignantly noted that Black men appear to possess a magical ability to convince white police officers and vigilantes that they are holding deadly weapons. Perhaps many of these white agents of public safety harbor genuine animus against Black people (it’s possible). Yet, another possibility, not a mutually exclusive one, exists: that whites’ responses to Black people in public represent a convergence of the psychological phenomenon of implicit bias through the ideological constructs of self-defense by armed force promoted by the gun industry.
The habitus of whites in America–the everyday conditions under which most white people live, and the ideas they draw from those conditions, constitute a pedagogy about race and danger that, despite the growing disrepute of racial supremacy in public speech, is nonetheless powerful. It affects whites’ support of policing, and it sustains their support for harsh sentencing and longer incarceration when they are made aware that Black people are disproportionately incarcerated.
These and other social science perspectives on race are valuable; integrated, they point to what Barbara Reskin calls a “race discrimination system” in which the interaction of diffuse parts of society–institutions, ideologies, and accumulated legacies of past discrimination–produce emergent and ongoing racial disparities. It’s important to understand racism as something alive that is being reproduced every day rather than as something inert and dead that is being eroded slowly and gradually.
I of course want to think about how a series of systemic moments link across space and across time. That is, I want to do history with this. George Lipsitz has a useful term, the “public pedagogy” to describe how the spaces created by racial segregation channel opportunity, embed existing prejudices, and create the conditions under which today’s “color-blind” or “laissez-faire” racism can flourish as whites identify the local social and economic traumas of systemic racism with the presumed cultural attributes of Black or other nonwhite people. Lipsitz’s book How Racism Takes Place is a lucid and compelling account of this process across time, and how interventions in urban planning, the law, and ideological production, among other factors, have sustained a public pedagogy that puts over the lesson with stunning effectiveness that Black people are dangerous and must be contained. Coincidentally, Lipsitz writes a great deal about St. Louis in parts of this book, and it’s all very urgent in light of current events.
Another historian whose work should get significant attention as a way of understanding the tragedy in Ferguson is Colin Gordon, whose book Mapping Decline shows the spatial reallocation of real estate wealth and insurance coverage in metro St. Louis in the post-WWII Era, and exposes the evolving pedagogy of place that informed and grew out of bureaucratic decisions made by planners, urban renewal experts, bankers, and insurance agents. These processes seem dry and technical, but they sustained, with profound consequences, the idea that Black people’s presence in St. Louis’s neighborhoods was dangerous to the personal and economic safety of whites and the health of the body politic, and needed to be contained by mapping the metropolitan area and delineating whose bodies would be welcome and whose would not. These decisions drove white flight but they also determined that more affluent Black St. Louisans would run on a treadmill of property, acquiring suburban residence as white neighbors left, taking access to credit and insurance, as well as social esteem with them. One of Gordon’s interviewees would call the transition of University City and Ferguson among other close-in suburbs “Ghetto spillover,” which dramatically misconstrues the social agency involved, placing, as so often happens, blame for the area’s perceived decline on the people most directly affected by it.
You can see some of those maps here.