As America slogs through its two week zenith in national partisan electoral messaging, rolling out first in Cleveland, then on to Philadelphia, an existential struggle is playing out in New Haven, Connecticut. At its heart is the operation of visibility and invisibility in American public consciousness. Corey Menafee, an African American Yale dining hall worker who, on June 13, smashed a stained glass panel housed in Yale University’s Calhoun College dining hall depicting enslaved Africans carrying cotton, has become a metaphor for the inscrutability of the experiences of black, white, Native American, immigrant, LGBTQ, and other marginalized groups. What is the relationship between Corey Menafee, this moment in national politics, and the representation of seemingly disparate segments of the United States population — low income black and white workers, both currently identified as “marginal” in U.S. society and its economy?
The first clue relates to the concepts of framing and visibility, which are integral to shaping public consciousness. In some instances invisibility is power. Take, for example, the representation of the white male as the normative measure of achievement in the United States (and foil to competing images, such as women, immigrants, persons of color) which frames white male authority as ‘traditional’ —the central, default position.
In other contexts “invisibility” is a form of civic death, as highlighted by this year’s “#Oscars So White” campaign, which cast a light on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ continued refusal to recognize the excellence of black/brown artists. One of the most damaging effects of the pall of invisibility emanating from the Academy is that it leaves entrenched power relationships unchallenged.
The operation of white male authority is presumptively rational and makes reasonable the exercise of authority traditionally associated with the white power structure which, in American culture, is still linked with the police force. The collective chant of “Law and Order” at last week’s Republican convention — channeled through its most authoritarian mouthpieces, Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie, and Donald Trump — make this clearer than ever.
The unquestioned rationality of police power persists even in the face of evidence to the contrary, demonstrated by the televised executions of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, and most recently on view during last week’s shooting of Charles Kinsey, an unarmed, black caretaker of a 23-year-old autistic mental health center client. Mr. Kinsey, who clearly understood the implicit rules of engagement, was shot lying down on the ground in a preemptively prone position, hands up, shouting “Don’t Shoot” while attempting to protect his autistic client, who was holding a toy truck. When the officer was asked why he shot Mr. Kinsey with an assault rifle, among his many inconsistent and troubling responses: “I feared for Mr. Kinsey’s life” [meaning: the officer was trying to protect him] followed by “I don’t know.”
By contrast visibility in a distorted media landscape can be psychically damaging. Throughout history, African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color have been held captive to Madison Avenue’s demeaning representations of their experiences ranging from the omnipresent cinematic urban black “thug,” the iconography of a Washington DC sports team, the proliferation of desexualized Mammy characters updated for the 21st Century consumer by the manufacturers of Mrs. Butterworth and Aunt Jemima, and featured in the recent Popeye’s Chicken television campaign with yet another iteration of the sassy black woman. Though retrograde images of black and brown people daily engulf the media consumer, they remain frustratingly out of reach and resistant to change.
Visibility and distorted representation have consequences: black and brown bodies now embody danger, rendering them subject to random violence and too visible to law enforcement. Recently actress Leslie Jones stepped out of a traditionally assigned “black” space in the latest Ghost Busters film to explosive hostility and threats of violence, echoing Star Wars actor John Boyega’s experience when it was announced that he was cast as —and would signify — a hero in the revered franchise. Meanwhile the public learned that Breaion King was yet another victim of implicit black dangerousness. After being stopped for driving 15 mph over the speed limit, violently thrown to the ground from her car, and transported to jail, one of the responding police officers answered Ms. King’s unspoken question: why are blacks treated this way? Because they have “violent tendencies.”
Enter Mr. Menafee, who challenged the singular, dysfunctional relationship that African Americans are compelled to navigate with their representational selves at the same time that America is celebrating Hillary Clinton smashing the infamous glass ceiling. Mr. Menafee’s destruction of the open and notorious image of 19th century black subordination routinely on display in Yale’s dining hall constituted a visible act of resistance — one that cost him his job and, by operation of vocal protest, may lead to his being reinstated. The exploitive image had accompanied generations of Yale students into the present, framed as historic and unquestioningly accepted as such. One wonders about the public response in other contexts, where cultural sensibilities have not been trained to accept the subordination, exploitation and dehumanization of a depicted group. How might a woman respond to an open portrait of sex trafficking victims? Would such an image remain simultaneously visible yet invisible, tucked away where generations of students could continue to be desensitized to its meaning? Is it ever an acceptable response, simply, that it is a representation of history? Though Yale has been compelled to be more circumspect, many believe this act of reflection comes late.
But larger questions remain. Is the strategy to remedy ingrained white supremacy to remove its remnants? If we destroy all images of the very real and exploitive history of slavery and other events, how will society explain them to our grandchildren? Would we interrogate slavery by deciphering the image of Aunt Jemima? Even though, unlike white persons, blacks live with daily reminders of the small social frame that they inhabit, perhaps the answer lies in ensuring that a fully visible and contextualized account of the complicit and pervasive involvement of American institutions, like Yale, is front and center. This requires a collective commitment.
The Second Clue: Uncovering the Link Between White and Black Economic Marginalization
The outrage unleashed by both Bernie Sanders and Trump is the second clue to the puzzle. The economic suffering of the lower segment of the working population is not new, particularly among those with low levels of education, both white and black. But the white narrative has yet to be penned — far from being visible or recognized in mainstream society. Yet the difference between the political alignment of the black and white worker lies in the framing of their respective narratives.
The narrative of the black worker as outsider has been ingrained throughout United States history — grounded in his so-called inability to integrate into or economically compete in American society: the narrative of white superiority is contingent upon this account. The black outsider has been a heathen (outside Christianity) in the colonial era, an “inferior being” justly held in servitude (later explained by early theories of biology and Eugenics), an oversexed, dangerous migrant to the urban ghetto with little to no morals. Even the Johnson Administration’s expansion of the social welfare structure during The Great Society was rooted in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “pathology of the black family” as the explanatory account.
White privilege, formerly a shield against economic competition and a minimal guarantee of relative status in a racialized society, has become something of a Damoclean sword. This form of privilege was based upon the imaginary sensibility of whiteness, which, as Steve Martinot writes in The Rule of Racialization, early on fostered a mythic solidarity between upper and lower caste whites by erasing considerations of class and disingenuously lumping everyone together as Americans. Today upper caste economic interests have continued to diverge from those of the white working class to the extent that some are now able to perceive a palpable class divide — 99 percent versus 1 percent. Yet a recognition of these circumstances is denounced as “class warfare.” Because the reality of white poverty is counter (invisible) to the dominant American narrative, the economic hardship experienced by this segment of the white population is out of focus. The last time that the American media focused meaningfully upon poverty in a white community was during Kennedy’s visit to Appalachian West Virginia in 1960.
It remains more acceptable for lower caste white Americans to vent their outrage at changing events in nostalgic or moral terms, expressed as “we’re losing control of our institutions, our churches, schools, police” or simply “Hillary for prison.” This is preferable because so much of white identity is relationally framed as an inverse of the black outsider narrative, such as “we do not suck up government handouts.” Unfortunately the account is deficient. Because it is devoid of a structural economic analysis, this population is vulnerable to the violent demagogic pandering from the likes of a Donald Trump.
Crystal clear is the groundswell for re-writing our social contract in accord with human rights— to be one that makes America’s resources available across the whole of its citizenry —while exploring the very real and damaging images and acts of past and present exploitation. Black and white workers alike are feeling alienated, but do not share an explanatory social narrative or structural demands. It’s not just the stained glass panel at Yale or Hillary’s glass ceiling that needs to be reexamined and even shattered, but the limiting narratives that lock everyone in. We should work to move beyond these distortions and barriers toward a shared purpose as we careen past convention season.
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Kimberly Westcott is an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Columbia University School of Social Work.