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The Machinery of Whiteness

Camille Goodison (cgoodison [at] citytech.cuny.edu) teaches English at the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn. She has written for Monthly Review and Teachers and Writers Magazine among other publications.

Steve Martinot, The Machinery of Whiteness: Studies in the Structure of Racialization (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 223 pages, $25.95, paperback.

Jordan Flaherty, Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six (Chicago: Haymarket Books), 303 pages, $16, paperback.

Steve Martinot, critical race theorist at San Francisco State University, begins his book with the example of a bulldozer demolishing a freshly abandoned house. Everyone who witnesses this scene would see the same thing: the personal belongings of the previous tenants being destroyed and removed by a large machine. Martinot focuses on the things we do not see, or see but will not acknowledge. For example, instead of uncritically accepting the legitimacy of the scene, would any bystander feel free to ask whether the residents’ home and status deserved to be destroyed or whether the reason for the destruction could possibly match the damage done? These questions are not as facile as they appear and in his book, The Machinery of Whiteness: Studies in the Structure of Racialization, Martinot makes an excellent case for how our refusal to look at America’s race machine allows for people’s lives to be destroyed over and over again despite social advances such as an end to Jim Crow and progressive civil rights legislation. Martinot examines what it means to racialize the other. He looks at how this is done, why it continues to be done, and what we can do to stop it. He uses the verb “to racialize” as Franz Fanon did, that is in contrast to “humanizing.” When white people racialize black people they are defining black people as not completely human—three-fifths of a person, perhaps, and maybe even less. “Race” is something that Europeans have done to the people they have colonized throughout history. By thrusting these colonized people into a subordinate status, racialization is by its nature dehumanizing and makes true racial justice impossible. Martinot is not so much interested in individual acts of racism as he is in examining how the concept of race was produced in the first place, and how we can work to expunge the negatives of “race” from our daily lives so that we can see each other as we truly are. The latter cannot be achieved without getting to what he feels is the real root of the problem: the social machine that makes racialization routine no matter the era.

There is a second book that looks at this problem at a different angle but in a more familiar way. While Martinot gives the theory, New Orleans community organizer Jordan Flaherty’s Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to Jena Six gives the practice. Flaherty is more concerned with the practical, everyday ways in which activists can create the racially just society Martinot hopes for. The men and women Flaherty describes are unselfconscious, anarchistic, do-it-yourself types who act first and theorize later. It turns out that this is not such a bad thing when the place you are trying to straighten out is post-Katrina New Orleans, with its history of vigilante justice and extreme social stratification. Flaherty and Martinot identify the same ground zero, the U.S. South, and both eventually move further out to address issues of gender and sexuality, the present increasing anti-immigrant fervor, and U.S. foreign policy particularly in the Near East. Martinot’s book begins where Flaherty’s ends (but, also, really begins), with the Jena Six case. The impetus for both books clearly comes from the same place: trying to figure out what happened in Jena a few years ago, just as the nation considered the possibility of Barack Hussein Obama for President of the United States.

The story of the Jena Six began in 2006 after the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Jena is a small town in Central Louisiana’s LaSalle Parish; thanks to oil money, it is one of the state’s wealthiest communities. Jena is also 85 percent white, and like many small Southern towns of this type it has a history of understood, if unwritten and unspoken, rules for its black minority. At Jena High School one such rule was apparently that the races do not mix and it was said that white students and black students socialized separately to the extent that even at the school assembly, white students would be seated on one side and black students on the other. At one of these assemblies a black student asked the principal if he could sit under a tree in the school’s courtyard. No black student had ever sat there; it was understood as being for whites-only. Shortly after asking this innocent question three nooses were found hanging from the tree and black students were understandably outraged at the message being sent.

Jordan Flaherty, in the penultimate chapter of Floodlines (“Fight for What’s Right: The Jena Generation”) details what happened next. The LaSalle Parish school superintendent dismissed the nooses as a “harmless prank” and told the students to move on. The town’s district attorney told the black students to stop making such a big deal about the nooses and that if they did not stop making trouble (the students had taken to non-violent protest by standing under the tree) he could make their lives “disappear with a stroke of [his] pen.” The atmosphere at the school remained tense as the underlying injustices went unaddressed. Later that year, in early December, a white graduate of Jena High threatened several black students with a gun. The students disarmed the graduate and left with the gun. One of the black students was charged with theft, robbery, and disturbing the peace. The following Monday he was jeered at by white students and a fistfight broke out. A white student was badly beaten and had to be hospitalized. A few hours later six black students were arrested for the beating of the white student. The youths, ranging in ages from fourteen to eighteen, some now facing jail terms of up to fifty years, became known as the Jena Six.

Civil rights activists from across the country took up the cause of the six youths who were felt to be victims of seriously unequal treatment. The white perpetrators went uncharged although many people felt they were, at the very least, just as culpable. Prominent Jena Six supporters like the NAACP and the Reverend Jesse Jackson believed the youths were victims of Southern injustice and racism, but Martinot thinks this approach does not get us very far, as it ignores and so grants permission to the historical network of systems in operation—the machine that never stops and which has given us various and infinite incarnations of the same injustices. For Martinot, calling what happened to the six black youths “racism” ignores how the system really works and where it gets its legitimacy:

after his indictment, this black student’s ability to inhabit this world with dignity, which is contingent on his ability to defend himself against assault, has been bulldozed by a cold and distant legal process. His residence in the sanctity of personhood has been judicially damaged, his freedom chained to a bail bond. We can see who signed the order. But the fact that there was an indictment to be signed in the first place marks the operation of this social machinery. It lurks without recourse until it invades the space of certain people’s lives. We search for the right of self-defense under the rubble.

How has it come to this—that everyone accepts that some people have the right to defend themselves against bodily and psychic harm, almost as certainly as others do not? Why are some people’s criminality and aggression legitimized, and defended as a right, while others’ peaceful response to such aggressive acts criminalized? Why does it remain this way no matter what kind of social transformation or historical progress takes place? Martinot and Flaherty speak critically about the prison industrial complex which exists as a large and obvious example of this machinery of whiteness. It served as a replacement for the slave plantation post-Emancipation, and is allowed to exist as part of this cultural structure of racialization that maintains white privilege throughout the centuries and preserves segregation and the continuing subjugation of poor black and Hispanic people. Our present-day prison system has also come to define perfectly this idea of legitimizing revenge. It is Martinot’s contention that racialization relies on decriminalizing vengeance and assuming it is okay to attack others while the perpetrators themselves go free.

Martinot argues that the arrest of the youths challenged their right to defend themselves against attack. Another way of saying this is that the rights of the black youths to be heard, and of their hurt feelings to be acknowledged, was not possible as the system was founded on denying the possibility of such feelings in the first place. In the arrest of the student who disarmed his attacker, Martinot says “we discover an ethicsthat contradicts the human dignity preserved in the right of self-defense.” And yet the history of oppression enables this ethical violation. Racialist ideology universalizes this discounting and makes it so normal that to point out the affront, or to dare resist this violation, lands you in jail. Martinot argues that if ethics refers to how we relate to each other and what is allowable and what is not, then it is something which is fundamental to human society. What if our system of ethics is imposed from one group upon another while denying them the right to their own sense of what is right or wrong? According to Martinot, you get a system made up of people who can “invert justice, fairness, democratic procedure, and the ideals of human sanctity, which they rationalize on the basis of a concept of race[people] who speak and act as parts of [that machine’s] destructive operations, [people who] think they are doing the right thing.” Plainly stated, Martinot believes we have built a system where revenge is justified and accepted for keeping black people in “their place.”

He explains all the reasons why this is so and how it came into being, starting with how and why race was invented nearly 400 years ago by the Virginia Colonial Council’s laws on matrilineage and miscegenation. But the more fascinating parts of the book are his examples of how white aggression has been sanctioned and why this poses the ultimate challenge for those of us interested in a society where everyone’s humanity is recognized. His arguments on the in-group performance aspects of white privilege (he says white supremacy) are equally fascinating. Martinot makes a good case for how many of these racist aggressions are simply performances that white people act out for each other as a way of raising or solidifying their status.

Flaherty’s Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six fleshes out many of Martinot’s theories, providing real-world and real-time examples of his ideas on race and racialization. Flaherty introduces us to many community activists and street organizers who made a commitment to rebuilding the U.S. Gulf Coast after Katrina. In keeping with New Orleans tradition, they are a colorful and serious lot, and Flaherty gives a block-by-block, street-by-street rundown of the present-day activist scene. Flaherty covers a lot of ground and gets into great personal detail as he describes how individual activists try to take back their city even as the local government seems to want them out. From schools to jails to Mardi Gras, community activists want the people of New Orleans, people whose families have lived on the same street for many generations, to determine their own destiny. But because of his scope, including American foreign policy and the politics of immigration, Flaherty flirts with spreading himself thin. The best parts of the book are its local emphases and its focus on the African-American community. But as a juxtapose to Martinot’s Machinery of Whiteness, Flaherty’s eye-witness detail and firsthand accounts of life and struggle on the streets of New Orleans gives us a glimpse of what exactly it means to be a cog in the machine, even as you are actively working to dismantle it.