White Supremacy, Fear and the Crises of Legitimation
Reflections on the mistrial in the murder case of Walter Scott and the election of Donald Trump
For many of us, December 5th was a jarring day. Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman declared a mistrial in the murder case of Walter Scott. That the jury could deadlock was surprising. Many of us recall the video of former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager, who is white, firing a barrage of bullets in the back of the fleeing Scott, an African-American. The decision underscored once more the categorically unequal status that non-whites, especially African-Americans, occupy — an inequality that fueled a series of major protests in cities across this country, beginning in 2014, and propelled the Black Lives Matter network to national recognition.
We are, however, likely to miss the importance of this decision if we do not connect it to another jarring day: November 9th. Many of us woke up (some of us never slept) to the announcement that Donald J. Trump would be the 45th president of the United States. Given that Trump’s campaign was fueled by racism, xenophobia, and concern for the economic precarity of white Americans in particular, and that it received the support of white nationalists, it seemed surprising that Trump secured the presidency. Not because Americans necessarily believed those dimensions of our cultural and political life had died. Rather, because we believed that those features were insufficiently robust and organized to secure Trump the presidency. Yes, we all know the data is complicated, but we would be hard pressed to deny that for those who voted for Trump, his political vision of racist exclusion and domination was not enough to disqualify him from the presidency. Van Jones’ now famous remark on CNN regarding Trump’s historic win still seems appropriate more than a month later: “This was a whitelash against a changing country.”
These two seemingly disparate moments — Slager’s mistrial and Trump’s win — both call into question the legitimacy of the political and legal institutions that define the American polity. The first crisis of legitimacy relates to categorical insecurity, while the second is tied to the presumption of power by white Americans, which was perceived to be under assault, leading to the reactionary politics that produced Trump. But the two legitimation crises are not of the same character and, in fact, are at cross-purposes with each other, generating an impasse that is not readily overcome.
In the wake of similar high-profile police shootings where wrongdoing seems so clear, but goes unpunished, the Slager trial crystallizes what many believe — that police officers can kill black Americans with impunity. The greatest obstacle to freedom and equality thus appears to be a society in which citizens are habituated to recognize some among themselves as worthy of care, concern, and justice, while believing they can withhold these important moral goods from others. Black Americans thus find themselves living in a society in which they are asked to follow the law, and yet, are simultaneously unprotected by political and legal institutions. The direction of loyalty goes from black Americans to the state, but not the other way.
This condition is the quintessential expression of a legitimation crisis — what philosopher Jürgen Habermas described in 1973 as an inability of the state to secure, institutionally and morally, the goods for which it was established, thus destroying any faith the citizenry would otherwise place in its institutions. The ascendancy of Black Lives Matter is not merely the result of trying to properly align one aspect of American society — in this case, the criminal justice system — to the appropriate values that define our political and social life. Rather, the movement is a claim that the way we order our collective lives and dispense justice benefits only one group.
And yet, the Trump victory makes clear that a sizeable segment of the population rejects an American future that is more diverse, more inclusive, and potentially more equal. It rejects, in other words, precisely the vision to which Black Lives Matter gave expression. The “whitelash” to which Jones points should be read as an attempt by white Americans to address what they too perceive as a legitimation crisis: they can no longer trust their racial identity to secure for them the entitlements (including economic ones) that it previously had.
Both of these crises of legitimacy are fueled by the workings of white supremacy, but they are in obvious and inescapable conflict. The first crisis — namely, that non-white lives are valued less than white lives — cannot be addressed without intensifying the second. And addressing the second, as through the ascendancy of Trump, involves doubling down on the politics of domination and arbitrary violence that generate the first.
When we treat white supremacy as the operating logic that ties these two moments together, we are faced inexorably with white supremacy’s other operating feature — namely, fear. In police shootings of unarmed black people, the police officer is often found saying that he “feared for his life,” or in the case of Slager, felt “total fear.” White supremacy creates a condition wherein the “natural” or “normal” status of black people easily mingles with traits of criminality in the minds of observing citizens and conditions their behavior toward black people, regardless of any observable nonthreatening conduct on display. After all, in the case of Michael Scott, he was running away. White supremacy thus creates a social epistemic context that renders the status of blacks — the lives they lead and the activities they undertake — uncertain, subject to arbitrary domination at best and death at worst.
But such dangers are unable to come into view precisely because of the normalization and legitimation of the claims of fear often provided by police officers specifically, and white Americans generally. Just as the logic of white supremacy involves valuing white lives more than others, it leads to the presumption that white Americans are thus (a) accurate when they describe the context in which they engage nonwhites as threatening and (b) are therefore legitimate in their display of force to extinguish the source of fear. This is because the security of white lives is to be affirmed at all costs, even when it renders non-white lives disposable. Black Americans are not unique in suffering as a result of this logic, even if they are the most obvious victims of it.
This leads to a deeper problem. The avoidance of a legitimation crisis for white Americans not only involves legal and political institutions channeling the supremacy of whiteness, but also protecting whites from the existential fear that is the hallmark of non-white lives. This involves a constitutive distortion of democracy. As John Dewey made clear in his 1927 work, The Public and Its Problems, democracy involves treating public life as an open sphere — a network across which problems and concerns get communicated by different groups seeking relief, and in our coordinated effort to address such concerns, we build a shared life together founded on the principle of equal regard. In contrast, white supremacy involves a distortion of democracy by treating the concerns of white Americans as the true and legitimate concerns of the polity and therefore the only concerns in need of redress. If democracy opens the space of power by preventing any one group from claiming exclusive authority to use it, white supremacy renders public life static by tethering it to whiteness. The result is to render the concerns of non-whites as either of less importance or unworthy of any consideration if such consideration involves a diminution of whiteness. This is something about which African-Americans have long been aware, from the nineteenth century to the present century, even as they debated whether to see this distortion as partial or total.
But we know that black Americans are not unique in suffering as a result of this logic if we focus on Donald J. Trump’s campaign for the presidency. “Make America Great Again,” the mantra of his campaign, was consistently wedded to the proposition that America is no longer great because “illegal” immigrants are stealing jobs from white people — largely white men — because Muslim-Americans are threatening to supplant the values of American democracy, and because America is in danger of being effeminized by both the disabled and the LGBTQ community. Similar to the treatment of black Americans, Trump demonized or pathologized all other groups. As Charles Blow rightly observed in August: “‘Make America Great Again’ is in fact an inverted admission of loss — lost primacy, lost privilege, lost prestige.” But these loses take on the force that they do because they generate the perception of uncertainty regarding one’s status, and, correspondingly, fear of falling to a level that would make white Americans merely equal to their non-white counterparts.
The legitimation crisis for white Americans is thus a legitimation crisis of whiteness and the security their identity otherwise provided them. And yet, it is precisely the institutionalization of whiteness that various groups such as African-Americans often see as the culprit for their ill treatment. But herein lies the rub and the source of the impasse: who among us would readily give up such security, even for the noble values of equality, freedom, and justice? The troubling issue that we must grapple with is the possibility that white supremacy generates far too many psychological, libidinal, cultural, political, and economic goods to be sufficiently destabilized or decentered. And the goods, although not few in number, that seemingly come from a racially inclusive society that affirm the equal dignity of persons appear far too weak to create an ethical society that can find institutional and cultural support. Overcoming this impasse suggests, at a minimum, that tinkering within the existing structures of the United States or imagining that those structures would permit a radical transformation of values would simply not match the gravity of the problem.