Liberal euphoria surrounding the election of the first African American to the presidency in 2008 heralded the arrival of a “post-racial” era in the United States. Here, finally, was proof that the nation’s formative crimes and their epistemic orders – racial, gendered, classed – showed signs of giving way to the yearnings of a modern, inclusive, race-transcendent nation. A signifying theater of immense affective power, the discursive formations of “post-race” seemed, at long last, to reorder the spatiotemporal configurations of W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous admonition that the problem of the twentieth century would remain the problem of the color line.
Hegemonic discourses, of course, rarely speak with untroubled authority, and the riotous ascendance of post-racialism, likewise, remains open to the lash of ridicule and scorn, as little beyond a cruel joke in its denials of savage inequalities, violence, and trauma that ply familiar circuits of epidermal difference, blood, and biology. Police killings of black men and women, then, cohere as damning counter-evidence, testifying to the fantastically hollow promise of post-racialism. But post-race is not merely liberal fantasy, distressed and shattered on the streets of Staten Island, Ferguson, and on and on. Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson are not solitary rogues, racist cops acting out state excesses secreted in out-of-touch sentiment. The grand juries that fail to indict them do not perpetrate miscarriages of justice.
Rather, within the epistemic configurations of post-race, scaffolded by neoliberal bootstraps individualisms within which race – or, indeed, gender or class – survives as the difference that makes no difference at all, this is violence that must be administered as part of, not as an exception to, the sanguine rationalities of the official antiracisms of our time. Cordoning off some racial knowledges and experiences as “laughable, odd, impossible,” such anti-black violence does not misapply, miscalculate, or misinterpret the rules of the game. This is violence that is neither random nor, indeed, racist. Instead, by its very logics, post-racialism, powerfully cathected to denials of racial privilege as well as stigma, demands rational orders of everyday violence directed at those who are most unsafe, unable, or unwilling to heroically eke out their own survival and security. These are failed subjects who deserve blame, pain, and suffering at the knife-edges of neoliberal capital. Far from troubling the antiracist conscience of post-racialism, the precarity, abandonment, and, indeed, death, of specifically racio-gendered members of these surplus populations are required conditions, just and necessary, of the general wellbeing of the population. The fantastic promise of post-racialism, then, is its vigilance in rendering neoliberal capital, the shabbiness, unreliability, and brutality of its social worlds, neutral to race rather than being structured by it. Under the terms of its antiracist purview, police killings of black men and women convene visible spectacles of moral panics as well as outrage, which embed and normalize, each in their affective particularities, the everyday calculus of those who must be made to live and those who can, and must, be left to die.
Roopali Mukherjee is associate professor of media studies at Queens College, and a faculty member in QC’s Film Studies and Africana Studies programs. She is author of The Racial Order of Things: Cultural Imaginaries of the Post-Soul Era.