Skip to content

Social Death

November 26, 2014

In studying the present effects of past slavery, the great sociologist Orlando Patterson developed a concept he called “social death”:

“The fundamental feature of being a slave is that slaves are socially dead – both metaphorically and literally. They have no recognized legal existence in the society. They do not belong to the community, because they belong only to the master, and exist only through the master. I use the concept of natal alienation: they have no rights at birth…. In the eyes of non-slaves they do not belong, they are non-citizens.”

I’ve struggled to explain my belief that racial prejudice is not a historical artifact, dead and buried with slavery or Jim Crow or the civil rights movement or the election of our first African-American president. I am completely convinced that racial prejudice remains pervasive, and I find myself frustrated at the unwillingness of white people to acknowledge the damage that racial prejudice continues to wreak on African-American life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

I have explained my opinions that prejudice is a human evolutionary adaptation; that therefore all humans hold prejudices; that holding prejudices is therefore human but not evil; that the simultaneously evolved human capacity for reason enables us to seek out our prejudices and argue with them; and that holding prejudices does not require us to act on them, or even to believe them.

But I was completely unable to explain in any satisfying way why racial prejudices regarding African-Americans in particular are so pervasive and powerful – until I recently came Orlando Patterson’s concept of social death. After slavery ended, Patterson says:

“Americans … found it so hard to accept black Americans …. The culture of slavery still persisted, which is the idea that ‘you do not belong.’ They were nobodies; people were horrified at the idea that they could vote, like citizens. It even lingers to this day. What is the thing people who don’t like Obama say? They try to make out that he doesn’t have a birth certificate – that he doesn’t belong. Even a black president does not belong!” 

Ending slavery was just a legal act: the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But as the saying goes, you can’t legislate morality; you can’t legislate culture. Suddenly nobodies were presuming to vote, to own property, to engage in commerce and to negotiate trade – as if they were equal to us!

The Ku Klux Klan’s original mission was to terrorize African-Americans into foregoing their newly accorded legal rights, to maintain the “nobody-ness” of African-Americans, and to remind African-Americans that they were non-persons. Lynching served the same purpose, all the way into the 1960s. Poll taxes, exclusion from juries, racially restrictive property covenants, employment and housing discrimination, racially abusive commercial and lending practices, Jim Crow laws and legally enforced segregation served the same purpose. Negative stereotyping in popular media carried the cause of “nobodying.” Racial differences in law enforcement, medical care, educational and employment opportunity – racial inequalities in all aspects of life remind African-Americans that they do not belong. Demanding to see President Obama’s birth certificate fulfills the “nobodying” function today.

Treating people as unbelonging, undeserving nobodies does real and lasting damage. A young child lacks the psychological strength to withstand an entire society’s assertions of the child’s own nobody-ness, and the child carries the scars for life. As a gay man, I know this first-hand.

And this kind of prejudice perpetuates itself. If African-Americans are unworthy of education, property ownership, and commerce, and are therefore denied those things, then not surprisingly African-Americans remain less educated and poorer. People who grow up in a society consisting of more educated and better-off white people and less educated and worse-off African-Americans form their own racial prejudices as if anew.

And so on, even unto this day.

The popular commentary on events in Ferguson includes lots of statements by white people to the effect that Michael Brown was a felon and a thug who assaulted a police officer. The point does not seem to be that he deserved to die, but that Officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting him to death.

These comments generally reject even the possibility that race played any role. But listen carefully to Officer Wilson’s own account of events. He drove up to Brown and his friend because they were walking in the street, and he told them (quite respectfully, he insisted) that they should walk on the sidewalk: “I had asked Dorian Johnson … to walk on the sidewalk, and his reply was, well we’re almost to our destination. And I was like, OK, well, what’s wrong with the sidewalk?” Despite Officer Wilson’s insistence to George Stephanopoulos, I am skeptical, to say the least, that the officer would have bothered if Brown had been, say, a middle-aged white man in a suit, a.k.a. me.

Listen closely to Officer Wilson’s description of Brown: he looked like a “demon”; Brown was “very large,” “very powerful,” like “Hulk Hogan.” After Wilson believed he had hit Brown with three shots, he said, Brown “looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”

Throughout, Wilson attributed animal-like strength to Brown, brute power combined with inexplicable rage – as if being “mad” about getting shot is somehow unreasonable.

Wilson told Stephanopoulos that when Brown assaulted him in his patrol car, he went through his mental check-list of escalating force options. He said that he decided not to use his mace, because inside the car there was too much chance that he would incapacitate himself and leave himself defenseless. But Wilson did not explain why, after he knew he had shot Brown three times and Brown was “bulking up” to charge him – why he did not then use mace, but instead fired another volley .

Officer Wilson told Stephanopoulos that he was bewildered by Brown’s response to “nothing out of the ordinary besides a conversation.” But that conversation was only ordinary in the context of a police officer talking to a young black man who presumed to walk down the middle of a street. To the young black man in question, Officer Wilson was probably one more aggressive white authority figure treating him like a nobody.

Unlike many commentators, I am not convinced that Wilson committed criminal homicide. I don’t believe that a prosecutor could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Wilson used force first, and therefore I don’t believe that a prosecutor could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the shots Wilson fired from inside the car were criminal. The second volley of shots is more questionable. Wilson fired those shots after Brown ran, then turned and returned 25 feet toward Wilson. I’ve seen no explanation why Wilson didn’t use mace then, and even more so instead of the third volley of shots, which killed Michael Brown.

But I utterly reject Officer Wilson’s claim that race played no role. There would likely have been no interaction at all if Michael Brown and his friend had not been young African-American men, and I seriously doubt that Wilson would have fired twelve shots, instead of taking other control measures, had Brown not been a young African-American man.

Officer Wilson holds prejudices because he is human. He holds prejudices about African-Americans because he grew up in a society, as we all did, in which African-Americans are nobodies. Unfortunately, Officer Wilson’s protest that race played no role shows that he has yet to deploy his capacity for reason into combat with his prejudices.


Leave a Comment

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: