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Bodies Under Re/view? Mediating Racial Blackness

Published onAug 20, 2013
Bodies Under Re/view? Mediating Racial Blackness

“In our allegedly postracial moment, where simply talking about racism openly is considered an impolitic, if not racist, thing to do, we constantly learn and re-learn racial codes. [. . .] In short, it was Trayvon Martin, not George Zimmerman, who was put on trial. He was tried for the crimes he may have committed and the ones he would have committed had he lived past 17.” – Robin D.G. Kelley, “The U.S. v. Trayvon Martin: How the System Worked

In a 1995 keynote address titled “On Identity Politics,” critical race theorist Mari J. Matsuda cautions against assumptions “that racial identity is the cause of racial division rather than a product of it.”1 For Matsuda, critical race theory emerges “[o]ut of the struggle to understand the ways in which mainstream legal consciousness is white, male, Christian, able-bodied, economically privileged, and heterosexual.”2 That is, how legal consciousness itself signifies a type of whiteness that excludes and marginalizes difference, difference that is seen in opposition to this constructed whiteness – i.e. black and other non-white subjects, queer subjects, women subjects, and so on. Matsuda’s assertions bring into relation a politics of law, race, and gender that persist today, and demand a consideration of what these mediated relationships tell us about histories of identity formation particular to race, gender and sexuality in the U.S.

In his controversial book Against Race: Political Imaging Beyond the Color Line (2000), scholar Paul Gilroy declares, “skin is no longer privileged as the threshold of either identity or particularity.”3 With developments in new media, digital imaging, and other emergent visual technologies, Gilroy urges us to let “old visual signatures of ‘race’ go.”4 In all its polemical glory, Gilroy’s text, much like Barack Obama’s two-term U.S. presidency, is a touchstone by which the limits of post-racial discourse are measured and contested, a discourse that some critics argue only holds weight in the scales of the Wall Street Journal. Gilroy’s ‘radicalism’ - a humanism unbound by what art historian Jennifer A. Gonzalèz calls the visual hegemony of race5 – borders on a colorblind universalism that fails to map onto a unique history of race relations and persistent racial disparities in the U.S. Nevertheless, the recent State of Florida v. George Zimmerman case has imbued post-racialism with a new currency, igniting global inquiries into the visual implications of race, and, inversely, the racial implications of the visual. What is the status of raced, sexed, and gendered bodies within neoliberal fantasies of post-racialism in spite of visible markers like skin color? What do we do when these markers are mobilized to interpellate racial subjects, particularly with regard to law? Is race still visual?

Eibo Jeddah, Racism, Digital Photograph, 2009

To address these questions, I turn to two cases of precedence that establish relations between the U.S. justice system, racial blackness, and visuality. In 1921, Leonard ‘Kip’ Rhinelander, an affluent white male from a wealthy New York family met and courted Alice Beatrice Jones, a working-class woman of mixed-race ancestry. Jones’s fair skin color permitted her to pass for white and it is unclear whether or not she self-identified as white.6 Over the next few years, Rhinelander and Jones grew closer and shared a number of intimate encounters, at least two of which were known to be sexual. The couple eloped in October 1924 and enjoyed secluded bliss – Rhinelander’s parents did not approve of Jones – until scandal ripped through the relationship.7 Soon after, Rhinelander filed for an annulment. The charge? Racial fraud; Rhinelander claimed Jones had misrepresented her blackness.

Rhinelander v. Rhinelander would become one of the most infamous race trials of the 20th century. The basis for determining Jones’s guilt or innocence rested on one question: was her body marked by racial difference? Rhinelander’s lawyer Isaac Mills claimed the plaintiff was delusional and argued that Jones’s physical (read: racial, specifically black) features were visually ambiguous at best.8 Lee Parsons Davis, Alice’s defense counsel asserted that, contrary to Mills’ argument, Jones’s racial identity was indeed visually obvious. As such, Davis suggested that Jones’s blackness could be easily discerned by simply looking at her body. The fact of Rhinelander and Jones’s sexual relations in turn justified Davis’s claims to the fact of Jones’s blackness since, according to Davis, Rhinelander had seen Jones’s ‘black’ body in full view during the sex act. Jones, whose testimony was reduced to this lascivious spectacle (she never took the stand), was forced to expose her body in her defense to an all-white, all-male jury; her blackness literally put on trial. On December 5, 1925 in a landmark outcome, the jury ruled in favor of Jones, a decision that established race as an inherently visual characteristic in legal terms. In essence, Jones’s racial subjectivity, regardless of her own self-identification and representation, was confirmed by others’ sight, significantly the jury’s collective white male gaze.

Rhinelander v. Rhinelander participates in a long history of race spectacles and the disciplinary process of seeing blackness in the context of the law. Take, for instance, the 1991 videotaped beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King in which, after a high-speed chase, seven LAPD officers accosted and repeatedly struck an unarmed King with batons. The incident was caught on tape, a portion of which was broadcast globally, sparking debates around racism and police brutality. One of several events that triggered the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings, four of the officers involved were acquitted of assault and use of excessive force charges.

Reduced resolution screenshot from nationally televised footage of Rodney King beating (March 3, 1991)­. The original home video was shot by George Holliday.

In “‘Can you be BLACK and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” Elizabeth Alexander examines how race-based looking has spurred a practical national memory in relation to black bodies as sites of difference, abjection, and violence. Constellated around the recording and its subsequent re-presentation within various media outlets, Alexander writes,

Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries. This history moves from public rapes, beatings and lynchings to the gladiatorial arenas of basketball and boxing. In the 1990s African American bodies on videotape have been the site on which national trauma – sexual harassment, date rape, drug abuse, AIDS, racial and economic urban conflict – [have] been dramatized.9

For Alexander, brutalized black bodies on display on television and in the courtroom stand as sites of projection for white anxieties that uphold racist assumptions and practices, for fear of what a black body could do, say, or mean. Alexander’s account of the King spectacle echoes Judith Butler’s apt inquiry: “How could this video be used as evidence that the body being beaten was itself the source of danger, the threat of violence, and, further, that the beaten body of Rodney King bore an intention to injure, and to injure precisely those police who either wielded the baton against him or stood encircling him?”10 As Alexander and Butler highlight, King is victimized twice – by the police and by a history of racism that conditions how we see racial difference. King is interpellated as a volatile racial subject, a threatening presence before, during, and after his beating. And the videotape and its many versions serve to contain him and all that his black male body signifies.

If the Martin-Zimmerman echo chamber rendered everything outside of black/white, left/right enclosures as white noise, then the remaining silence – a history of imaging and imagining racial difference considered mute in post-racialism’s sphere of influence– was surreptitiously exposed. In an age of techno-optimism and post-racial sentiments, a politics of race-based looking in the contemporary moment (that is squarely positioned at the intersections of gender and sexuality as the cases of Rhinelander and Rodney confirm) begs us to consider the ways in which race and racialization persist vis-à-vis emergent mediums, digital imaging, and the internet. Not to mention the intersections between heavily televised/sensationalized/racialized crime trials and the popularity of U.S. ‘reality TV’ shows such as COPS, The First 48, and CRIME 36011 among others. Where do we locate a politics of new media in relation to race if that very relation threatens to render racial struggles obsolete and misrecognize or erase forms of oppression? The answers to this question continue to unfold, but as Kelley, Alexander, and Butler echo each other at various historical moments espoused above, history indeed repeats.

Tiffany E. Barber, PhD Student in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester

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