How to Read a Noose
by Troy Duster
Troy Duster is past president of the American Sociological Association and director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at New York University, where he is a professor of sociology. He is also a chancellor's professor at the University of California at Berkeley. His books include Backdoor to Eugenics (Routledge, 2003).
Now about those nooses. News media highlight events with dramatic, immediate, personal content because they are symbolic violence, evoking the long history of physical violence. But such coverage typically neglects more-fundamental acts that are much more consequential to the persistence of racial hierarchy in American society.
In June the recently appointed chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, presented a decision much more far-reaching than any symbolic noose. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race," asserted Roberts, "is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." Roberts said this to justify his deciding vote in a 5-4 decision to revoke a plan to increase racial integration of the heavily segregated Louisville, Ky., school system. Dissenting from this reasoning, Justice Stephen Breyer discussed the tragic irony of Roberts's use of the language of colorblindness to overrule any practices or policies that limit the historic privilege of whites. Without using a noose, the Supreme Court's defenders of white privilege successfully appropriated rhetoric from the civil-rights movement, morphing the symbolic language to effectively sustain the old racial order. Both George Bushes no doubt approved.
Forget the nooses for a moment, and look at the rest of the front page. I find myself wondering, for instance, about the racial composition of Blackwater troops in Iraq. Those private-sector contractors are paid five and six times more than their heavily African-American and Latino public-sector counterparts. While the media have focused on the noose on the doorknob, one sees nary a word about what looks to me like the reincarnation of the white army of segregationist 1917, but now so much better compensated. And what might Justices Roberts, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas have to say about this development? Well, they're colorblind. Confronted with the Blackwater example, they might unanimously argue that private market forces are productively at work.
My point is that market forces and Supreme Court decisions are far more effective than symbolic nooses in maintaining structures of white privilege. But the day that Blackwater, say, is effectively pressured to integrate, don't be surprised if there's a front-page Times story about a noose on the door of a new African-American recruit.
November 7, 2007
From the Chronicle of Higher Education: