The Corona virus has been temporarily replaced as the outstanding narrative in the United States by the sadistic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As a symbol of the horrors of centuries of white oppression, it has triggered a range of responses from peaceful demonstrations to violence to looting and property damage. Governors and mayors all over the country have painstakingly tried to separate out the legal peaceful activities from the illegal violent and destructive ones – encouraging the first group of activities and taking a firm stand against the second group.
The looting and property damage can be broken down into two categories: looting in central business districts and white suburban malls, on the one hand, and looting in the poorer black neighborhoods on the other. And it is here where an important question can be raised? Some of the small businesses in the black neighborhoods are owned by Asian immigrants, and some are owned by blacks. However, they all serve the essential needs of the black residents. Why are these businesses being looted, damaged, even burnt to the ground, when there will be nothing to replace them for a long time? And chain stores – grocery stores, drug stores and discount department stores – that should have been treasured for what they provided. Also looted, damaged, and sometimes burnt to the ground.
Granted that some of the looters may have been opportunistic organized gangs that came from outside the communities. But certainly not all. So how can sane people be swept into such activities that lead to short-term gain, short-term kicks, but such long-term despair and suffering? What are people going to do for food in areas of their cities that in the best of times were already considered to be food deserts? How can the looters justify what they did?
The most common explanation is that they were lashing out against white oppression. But, if so, why get involved in something that is going to hurt black people so much? I think the answer lies in how we define the nature of the harm that has been done to black people by racism. Much of the time when we talk about this situation, we use the term oppression to mean the way that white policemen treat black people. This implies two things: white physical aggression, but more fundamentally, white direct acknowledgment of the existence of black people. It implies maintaining a relationship, even if it means a negative relationship. It implies that white people care, even if it is in a perverse negative way, about blacks.
In many ways, all this is valid, but in other ways, another kind of relationship has developed. And that is a relationship of indifference. The scars of racism after all these centuries still exist, but many white people, who wouldn’t openly espouse a racist philosophy to themselves, don’t want to deal with black people. Because of modern technology, the model for the proper functioning of society today is that of a smooth-running, relatively frictionless machine. These white people live in the numbness of androids. Although this relatively frictionless machine has created psychological pathology for them, this is what they are used to. For white people to have to really deal with the scars of racism, it would require them experiencing a level of stimulation that they would find at this point to be simply painfully overstimulating. It would require dealing with the very human needs of people who have problems that go beyond the surface solution of trying to superficially integrate them into a smooth-running machine. To ask many white people to really feel the problems of many African-Americans today is to ask them to feel analogous things that in many cases they can’t feel in their own lives. If you talk about disinvestment in black schools, the white establishment can say that school budgets are based on local property taxes, the same rule that applies to everyone else. If you talk about lack of access to loans from banks, bank officers can say that their loans are based on the reliability of their debtors to pay off their debts. For businesses and homes, these loans can be based on the quality of the neighborhoods.
Because blacks are being shunned by this so-called system, in many ways, they also experience themselves as living in numbness, in an experiential vacuum. This aspect of their relationship to American society can be, to a certain extent, as difficult as or even more difficult than dealing with the physical aggression of policemen. At least, in the latter case, African-Americans have a defined discrete enemy to focus on. How do they pin the blame when they are dealing with a whole nebulous system where people with power can say that they are just following the rules.
This is what black people were living with when the cruel murder of George Floyd gave them a focused symbol to act as a vehicle to help them explode out of their numbness and start their protests and rioting and violence and looting and burning. Which leads to the answer to the question posed at the beginning. African-Americans are burning down businesses in their own neighborhoods as an extreme method to pull themselves out of their numbness and, for a few moments, feel very alive. It is like the depressed people that practice self-harm: everything from cutting one’s wrists to committing suicide. Suicide can give a person a final rush of sensation to feel alive.
Combine this layer of numbness with the numbness of sheltering in place for the Corona virus, and the numbing loss of economic power as a result of the growing unemployment from the Corona virus, and you have the perfect formula for a perfect storm. And this is what African-Americans have been experiencing these past few days.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow