Monday, 20 October 2014

Four thoughts on Ray Rice: 3. Race and violence

Nathan Kalman-Lamb

Ray Rice is now one of the most notorious people in the world. I will not explain why, but if it is possible that you are unaware, I invite you to click here. (The link takes you to the story, NOT the video.) In the next few days, I will provide four reasons why we need to stop demonizing Ray Rice as an individual, and start examining his behaviour as a product of some powerful cultural forces. For reason number one, click here or two, click here. Today, reason number three.

3. Chuck Knoblauch. Josh Lueke. Brett Myers. Patrick Roy. Semyon Varlamov. Ray Rice.

The people on this list have two things in common: they are all athletes and they are all alleged perpetrators of gender-based violence. However, only one member of this group has become the centre of a popular culture and media fire-storm. Can you guess who that is?

Oh, yeah, and there is also this: only one is black.

That one, of course, is the now infamous Ray Rice. In this post I will attempt to explain why the vilification of Rice as an individual has deflected attention away from the persistent racialization of black masculinity as inherently violent and criminal.

The starting point for this discussion is the simple fact that we all know who Ray Rice is and what he did. This is noteworthy because what he did is so disturbingly common, including amongst  athletes in all the major sports. I contend that one of the primary reasons why we have all been so quick to indict Rice is because of his identity as an African-American. Again, as I have said before, I do not in any way condone what Rice did -- I consider it fundamentally abhorrent. However, what I want to remain attentive to is why it is Rice we are up in arms about and not the other names on the above list.

In order to answer this question, I believe we must make a brief examination of the role of race as a socially-constructed form of identity in American history. By stating that race is socially-constructed, I mean that there is nothing biological that separates human beings into discrete racial categories. Rather, race is an inconsistent and unsound idea developed by humans to explain superficial physical differences. Yet, the fundamental insufficiency of race as an explanatory concept has done little to inhibit the radical impact it has had on modern history. This is another way of saying that although race itself is not real, the idea of race is, and that idea has come to shape the social organization of the world we live in in profound ways.

The history of the United States bears this out. Prior to the mid-19th century, the defining feature of American society was the institution of slavery, an institution ideologically-predicated on the idea of race. African-Americans were understood to be less human than whites by the dominant white society and were sold as slaves who were compelled to labour for the material gain of their owners. Part of this dehumanization was the notion that black people were naturally better-suited for physical labour, that they were, in a sense, more animal than whites.

The U.S. Civil War abolished slavery, but it did not abolish the idea of race, nor of racial hierarchy. What it did was create insecurity among whites who had previously felt comfortable in their status as the dominant group in society (note: this is an obvious generalization, as significant class differences existed among whites). The end of slavery ushered in the spectre of class mobility and the possibility of competition. So, in order to enforce a new racial order -- the order of Jim Crow segregation -- the practice of lynching was developed. Lynching involved the false accusation that a black man had raped a white woman. The consequence of this accusation was the murder of the black man by a white lynch mob, a form of terrorism designed to enforce a racial order. The consequence of this practice for the idea of race was to instil in the popular imagination the notion that blackness was associated with dangerous, aggressive, violent sexuality (the myth of the black rapist).

What emerges out of this history is a popular notion of black masculinity closely associated with animal violence and sexuality. This is an idea that is reproduced today through the notion of the black criminal who must be policed through racial profiling and deadly violence (think Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, etc.), a paradigm that Ray Rice fits neatly into. It is easy for America to accept that Ray Rice is a deviant criminal because that is the pathology of the black man. The public excoriation of Rice is a convenient way for a society that continues to be governed by hegemonic whiteness to wipe its hands of responsibility for gender-based violence. After all, it is simply a black problem. Meanwhile, Knoblauch, Lueke, Myers, Roy, and an entire society marked by coercive entitlement and rape culture deftly evade accountability.

There is another side to the issue of race, Ray Rice, and gender-based violence, as well, and that is the question of why the NFL's original suspension (two games) was so short. The unfortunate reality is that the length of the suspension may have had some correlation with the race of the survivor of the assault, Rice's partner. The reality is that we live in a society in which non-white women are subjected to much higher rates of violence than their white counterparts. In the United States, 29% of black women report having experienced intimate partner violence, and, although they comprise only 8% of the U.S. population, black women make up 22% person of intimate partner homicide victims. In Canada, indigenous women are three times more likely than non-indigenous women to experience violent crime.

In this context, the mere fact of violence against a black woman was apparently not enough to warrant more than a token punishment for Rice. Sadly, this is all too representative of the fact that violence against non-white women does little to raise eyebrows in our society. Indeed, even in the rare situation in which a story of the murder of a black woman is sensationalized -- the murder of Renisha McBride, for example, who was killed for seeking assistance at the home of a white man in the Detroit area after an auto-mobile accident -- media coverage sought to blame McBride for the violence (the Associated Press, for instance, tweeted: "Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder for killing woman who showed up drunk on porch."

For all these reasons, then, it is impossible to divorce the Ray Rice saga from the broader context of structural racism. Rice fits all too neatly into the mould of the criminal, animal, violent black man, just as his wife can be carelessly discarded as just another non-white woman subject to violence. Black men are always already criminal, while black women are never truly victims of crime. The Ray Rice story manages to reproduce both of these narratives. This is why it is essential that we make the connection between race and Rice; the failure to do so too often results in a form or representational racial violence.

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