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Saturday, May 02, 2015

Baltimore

It seems to jerk a certain chain with the right whenever it is discovered that the cop who kills or maims the black person is black too. The point made is that this is, then, a priori not a racist act.
There is a larger point here, a truth that is in real conflict with the conservative vision of America – for surely it is not only a racist act. The militarization of the police, and their elbow room to do illegal acts and acts of brutality, is not simply racist. It is also the effect of the way in which domestic affairs in America, since the Nixon era, have been framed in military terms – for instance, the War on Crime. It is also the effect of class. The overwhelming number of victims of police brutality are in the bottom of the income and wealth brackets. And the African-American population has long been on the bottom of the pole, statistically, with regard to wealth and income. It is a fact that nobody cares about in the United States that the Great Recession struck black households harder than anybody else. Pew Research had this to say in 2014:
“The wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. Likewise, the wealth of white households is now more than 10 times the wealth of Hispanic households, compared with nine times the wealth in 2010.
The current gap between blacks and whites has reached its highest point since 1989, when whites had 17 times the wealth of black households. The current white-to-Hispanic wealth ratio has reached a level not seen since 2001.
1989 – twenty years of painful progress wiped out. Do we want to talk about this every day? No,  we don’t want to talk about this every day.  We will not talk about this on a boat, we will not talk about this with a goat, we will not talk about this on the tv news and we sure as hell won’t talk about this in the halls of Congress.
Clearing out the underbrush, then, we still have the fact that three of the cops charged in Freddie Gray’s death are black.
Here, I think we should turn to the indispensible Charlotte Linde and her ethnographic study of an insurance company. In explaining how the insurance company tells a story about itself, Linde made the point that the persistance of the company depends upon “drafting” people into that story: this she called  “narrative induction.”
 The title of her article is:  “The acquisition of a speaker by a story: how history becomes memory and identity.”
Narrative induction properly locates story as part of a process of initiation (which, being a “native” thing, or occult, failed to qualify for the verbal place held by identify with). Linde, in this paper, is obviously moving from her concern with stories people tell about themselves – the point of which is to say something significant about the self, and not the world – to stories people tell about the world. Those stories often are about experiences not one’s own. They are non-participant narratives.

Linde divides the NPN process– as she calls it – into three bits: how a person comes to take on someone else’s story; how a person comes to tell their own story in a way shaped by the stories of others; and how that story is heard by others as an instance of a normative pattern.

This is all about how the police work. Police departments lean on their members to become police, to identify as police, to see their enemies as the police define their enemies, to define their friends as the police define their friend. As Linde points out, most of the work on this kind of thing has been done in religious studies. Specifically, the study of metanoia, conversion stories. But there’s metanoia and then there’s metanoia. There’s St. Paul on the way to Damascas, and there’s Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, on the way to the relative wealth of a Toyota Car Dealership, owned by his father-in-law. That’s why Linde, not having access to St. Paul, opted to study the trainees of a major American insurance company in the Midwest. Linde is interested in class issues. In particular, stories of occupational choice. In her Life Stories book, she presented some evidence that professionals present their occupational choice stories in terms of some vocation or calling, while working class speakers present it, more often, in terms of accident or need for money. Philosophy professors rarely will say, for instance, well, I needed a steady paycheck, looked at the job security of tenure, loved the idea of travel and vacation time, so I went into philosophy. They will give a story rooted in their view of themselves as emotional/cognitive critters.
Police work, in America, has often served as a transitional profession, over generations, from working class to white collar. Since police unions successfully raised the benefits and pay of police forces in the eighties in cities around the country, the benefits are sometimes comparable to that of a middle manager. However, it is very much the case that, like philosophy professors, many a cop will say that they always wanted to be a cop – not that, all things considered, driving a truck paid less than being a policeman. There’s a strong vocational charisma, here.  Blue doesn’t erase black and white, but the kind of white that the police represent – that formed the police consciousness, so to speak – is a legacy that the integration of police departments has not negated – merely modified.


The right has never recognized racism as a structure – in the same way that it has refused to recognize class as a structure. Alas, the latter has now become mainstream: as the countervailing power of labor unions  has dwindled, there is little sense, even among supposedly lefty academics, of class or for class. There’s been a large blindness about the class based imaginary that makes it hard to understand class conflict when it rears back and punches you in the face. In Freddy Gray’s case, you have a trifecta of racism, class conflict, and the militarizaton – or should I call it the death squadization? – of the cops.  

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