Flash Points: Racial Profiling, Riot Porn and the Zombie Apocolypse

Racial Profiling

The Trayvon Martin shooting has become a touchstone for a nebulous and unresolvable ‘conversation around race’. Part of the reason, of course, is that Martin’s death raises uncomfortable questions about racial profiling within democratic societies. The stalking and fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager has established one thing beyond a reasonable doubt: Martin’s real crime was being black.

The circumstances of his death — and the police department’s initial failure to investigate and prosecute — drew attention to a conversation that many black parents have with their children. It’s called The Talk, and this survival guide essentially alerts black children to the threat police pose to them everyday. As John Derbyshire reminded us, however, there is a conversation that many white parents have with their children too, and he calls it The Talk: Non Black Version.

These two conversations brought to light a very troubling fact: many black and white people similarly perceive each other as a threat. Derbyshire’s version of the talk, however, resulted in controversy and subsequent martyrdom for daring to tell the truth. Derbyshire may have been banished to the margins of the lunatic fringe, but racial profiling is here to stay. While Derbyshire’s more recent defense of white supremacy is difficult to take seriously, his version of ‘the talk’ continues to resonate.

Derbyshire reminds us that racism is more than skin deep: it’s much more insidious and pervasive than many of us would care to admit. As the Implicit Association Test (IAT) indicates, the divide is not just between the races. The disturbing truth is that there is a separation between our unconscious attitudes and stated values. Consequently, any attempt to identify a racist threatens to talk in circles.

Whatever the failings of Derbyshire’s version of ‘the talk’ — insensitive timing, inflammatory statements, fallacious reasoning, etc. — it nonetheless remains a valuable insight into the logic of racial profiling. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the way it attempts to bridge the other divide. Specifically, Derbyshire attempts to bring unconscious fears into alignment with stated values. Derbyshire simultaneously presents a profile of a racist and the picture that emerges is disquieting.

‘The Talk: Non Black Version’ offers living proof that an intelligent and loving parent can also be an incredibly ignorant and hateful person. Anyone who wants to understand and combat racism should therefore consider it morally instructive — and mandatory reading. Derbyshire has provided a community service by laying bare the tacit reasoning underlying racism. The step-by-step guide lays down the building blocks for racially motivated thinking and grounds it in statistical common sense. Derbyshire manages to talk his way around the fact that a statistical truth is only relatively true, and that the statistics are colored by their own relationship to institutionalized racism.

Derbyshire’s statistical common sense also happens to conveniently whitewash a bigger truth. Statistically speaking, it’s much more commonplace for black people to commit violence against one another . Black people don’t so much pose a threat to white society as to each other. The tragedy is that ‘black on black’ crime remains symptomatic of structural inequalities: this is what happens when a predominantly white society displaces and marginalizes members of its own population. Derbyshire, however, is not interested in having that conversation — such idle ‘talk’ threatens to humanize people of color. Given his roundabout approach, the color of a person’s skin may therefore be seen as a sign of something else — it’s a general indication of the content of their character.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Derbyshire’s logic effectively justifies the vicious circle of racial prejudice — that we should marginalize and stigmatize black people based on what we already ‘know’ about them. According to Derbyshire, the only thing you really need to know is your own fear and ignorance.


Fear of a Black Planet

Hip-hop has become another way to talk about race relations. While the CNN of the ghetto speaks to the despair of a community often without a voice , hip-hop also confirms that actions speak louder than words . The rising popularity of World Star Hip-Hop.com offers ample proof that there is truth in (and a market for) harmful stereotypes. The content aggregating video blog shows that hip-hop provides a continuing soundtrack to antisocial behavior and reinforces the stereotype that a thuggish and adversarial stance is a proper response to a presumptively racist society (John McWhorter, ‘Hip-Hop Holds Black People Back’, 2003).

As Tupac and Niggers with Attitude independently urged more succinctly, “it’s a thugs life” and “fuck the police”. Indeed, the ‘gangsta’ and ‘hustler’ have become cultural icons and standard bearers: racial profiling even spoke to Trayvon Martin through his own twitter account NO_LIMIT_NIGGA .

The problem is that the commercialization of hip-hop has ensured that the complex question of racial relations has been manipulated by an increasingly corporate ownership . The music industry essentially sells racial profiling to millions of consumers in the form of ‘entertainment’. A supposedly egalitarian society actively encourages racism through misrepresentations and caricatured images of black people. Particularly unfortunate is the subsequent rise of the wigger, or the wholesale ‘theft’ of hip culture by young white people trying to ‘keep it real’ while doing their homework. The real tragedy is that many black people can only break the cycle of poverty and violence by becoming complicit in their own racial ‘profiling’.

Speaking of which: Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s latest music video is likely to give John Derbyshire nightmares. Indeed, he could even cite it as empirical proof that black people pose an imminent threat to society. Particularly threatening is the way No Church in the Wild reaffirms the two rappers street cred as they sit upon their thrones. Unfortunately, the video makes few concessions to the conspiracy theorists but will satisfy people looking for “riot porn” (to quote Salon).

Given the music video’s immediate popularity online, its riot imagery has apparently stimulated and excited millions of viewers. And when some of these people talk about the new video, they say something like it starts by depicting a black man in sunglasses and a keffiyeh throwing a Molotov cocktail at a crowd of police sheltered behind their riot shields. If we look closer, however, that is simply not true. It begins with Jay-Z’s and Kane West’s names ‘branding’ the dissent that is about to erupt onto the screen — but not before director Romian Gavras wants to leave his mark on the crowd, too.

During the next five minutes, viewers will need to provide their own context and interpretations. There’s no storyline or reason given for the rioting. It supposedly speaks for itself, as we watch a predominantly black crowd angrily take to the streets and turn it into an urban battleground. The riot police naturally respond with a beat down while some of the rioters give as good as they get. Nonetheless, the two rappers provide the real beats to this display of antisocial behavior. While it’s been observed that capitalism might be tempting fate with these inflammatory images, such an observation fails to see the bigger picture.

As last year’s consumer society riots indicated, our identities remain wrapped up in the values of consumerism and can be utilized to enfranchise our characters. Indeed, the source of the rioter’s perceived power appeared to be located in their freedom to make informed consumer choices: which items were worth stealing or could help brand their individuality? These latest images are therefore not an incitement to violence but part of the pacification process — it simply capitalizes on anger by aestheticizing it within a controlled social space. No Church in the Wild effectively controls this anger by diffusing and/or displacing it into the safety valve of a cool music video.

Indeed, the video can appeal to white supremacists and oppressed black people equally: it simultaneously fuels some people’s worst nightmares while providing others wish fulfillment. If either of these people want to see something genuinely subversive or confronting, they could do a lot worse than watch the Hi Five Collective’s unofficial video for No Church in the Wild (released online eight months earlier). It provides a historical context for racial relations, and shows that the best way to challenge stereotypes is by inverting them.


Slave to the Rhythm

If there is one thing white people fear more than a black uprising, it’s a zombie apocalypse. Perhaps that’s because black men have typically provided the moral compass during these terrifying times. As George Romero observed, zombies are really about revolution (and) one generation consuming the next. If you’ve seen any of Romero’s zombie films, you already know that black people figure centrally in his critique of consumer societies and social inequality. To some extent, this is a legacy of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie — a film set on a sugar plantation and explicitly about slavery and superstition as a contagion.

Zombies don’t literally exist, of course: they’re intended as metaphors for (say) mindless conformity or our increasing inhumanity to one another. This seemed to be of little relevance to the hordes of people who turned ‘zombie apocalypse’ into Google and Twitter trending topics in response to horrific events. Reports began to circulate about ‘outbreaks’ of unspeakable acts — and the vultures seemed to circle around ground zero in particular: the story of a black homeless man eating the face off a homeless white person.

The question, of course, is why have internet users similarly exhibited a pack like mentality: we’ve fed off these stories as if we were eating one another’s ‘brains’. The explanation for this unfortunate feedback loop is pretty straight forward. There appears to be something in the air: the ‘virus’ invariably mutated and replicated itself within our own thoughtless behavior. To quote Romero about the blogging, uploading, navel-gazing infotainment age from four years ago. “It’s scary out there. There’s just so much information, and it’s absolutely uncontrolled. Half of it isn’t even information. It’s entertainment or opinion.”

The horrific acts would have ideally left us mortified and speechless. Our general lack of understanding, however, ensured that we would go on to speak about ‘the horror’ in entertaining ways. We encouraged each other to laugh and entertained wild speculation. The appropriately named Daily Beast went so far as to provide a Google map tracking news of instances that may be the precursor to a zombie apocalypse. Blue pins represent suspicious incidences or infections, while red pins represent acts of strange violence . And in case the road map is hard to follow, the Beast also showed us 11 Signs of the Zombie Apocalypse by way of an annotated picture gallery.

It’s no wonder the Centers for Disease Control felt compelled to issue a statement saying CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead, or one that would present zombie-like symptoms. The irony is that a year ago the Centers for Disease Control had itself capitalized on the popularity of the zombie craze and issued zombie preparedness advice (in a) lighthearted way of getting people to think about (real) disaster preparedness.

Perhaps what’s most unfortunate about all this talk is that many consumers appear to have missed the moral conveyed by the consumption metaphor. Zombies primarily speak to the dehumanizing effect they have on human survivors — the metaphor is even made literal in The Walking Dead (the title refers to the human characters struggling to hold onto their humanity in a post apocalyptic world).

While these real life events have obviously horrified us, we haven’t exactly been barricading ourselves in our own homes or running for the hills. Consumers have instead turned other people’s pain and suffering into mere entertainment value. As the tasteless and racist ‘Miami Zombie Attack Prank!’ indicates, we like nothing more than cheap thrills at someone else’s expense (seven million views and counting in less than a week).

We’ve conveniently ignored the fact that our own desire for violence as entertainment might be feeding the news cycle (in the form of copycat crimes and a mass media catering to consumer taste). And the way we’ve been talking about these unspeakable acts seems to have inoculated us from ‘the horror’ — there appears to have been safety in numbers or a closing of our ranks.

We have invariably revealed ourselves to be the ‘real’ zombies in this new wasteland. Instead of talking about the plight of homeless people or the horrors of mental illness, we’ve opted to lower the level of discourse in the pursuit of ourselves. Mindlessly following one another’s lead to a dead end has become the default standard. Perhaps what’s most telling about ‘The Talk: Zombie Version’ is that we chose to understand real life horror within the comfort zone of movie references and tropes. We’ve effectively tried to make the horror ‘unreal’ in order to keep the horrifying reality at arm’s length. If zombies are supposed to be a metaphor for revolution — to stand for or represent real world transformations — what should we make of this complete turnaround?