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Political: Race and Racist Institutions

In this video, Eduardo Mendieta (Penn State University) asks "What are the consequences of race thinking and the institutional and legal forms of segregation if race is not real? Why do we categorize race as a real thing based on visual perception and how is such a category anti-democratic?"

Speaker: Dr. Eduardo Mendieta, Professor of Philosophy, Pennsylvania State University.

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Video transcript

(intro music) Hi! I am professor Eduardo Mendieta, and I teach philosophy at Stony Brook University. But in the fall semester of 2015, I will start teaching at Penn State University. Today, I want to talk to you about race, and more precisely about racism. What I have to say will address the following seeming paradox. How is it that while most scientists and philosophers claim that race does not exist, it nonetheless has such material consequence in the lives of most individuals? Let us begin with a thought experiment. If you're white, how much are you willing to pay to become black if you're black? If you're black, how much are you willing to pay to become white? The point of this thought experiment is to get us to recognize that we do have a basic intuition, or awareness, that being of one or another race entails certain kinds of privileges and assets, or liabilities and privations. I am going to claim that while race does not exist, it is in fact produced, renewed, and made enduring by racist institutions. Following the work of Angela Davis and Loïc Wacquant, two great critics of US racism, I will talk about four key institutions that have habituated US citizens into anti-black racism. The first institution is the slave plantation. Most historians of the peculiar institution of slavery in the US have noted that it was slavery in the US that chained blackness to servitude and whiteness to liberty. Slaves historically have been all races, but in the US, the institution of slavery created a chromocracy, a hierarchical order in which "blackness" was legally defined as "servitude," and "whiteness" as "freedom." Over two hundred and forty-five years, the institution of slavery produced blackness as a race that was marred by dispossession and dehumanization. The second institution, or rather, set of institutions, is what was called "Jim Crow," which is shorthand for "Jim Crow laws" that were legislated after the end of the civil war. Jim Crow, de facto, was the juridification of segregation. Buses, trains, bathrooms, water fountains, schools, neighborhoods, voting booths. In general, almost every imaginable public institution was racially segregated. But we can't understand the impact of Jim Crow and the production of race if we don't first note how it emerged. Slavery was abolished with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reads: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime whereof the party should have been duly convicted shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction. This is indeed a remarkable text. On the one hand, it abolished slavery as a form of private property that sustained the whole political economy and cultural life of the South. On the other, the text created, immediately, a legal exception. Slavery will endure, but now as a form of punishment to be enacted by the state. Now, state-run slavery, as a form of punishment, defines "blackness" as "criminality." At the very moment that blacks were freed, their entry into civil society and the social space of freedom is immediately made conditional. In fact, during the reconstruction period, a whole set of what were called "black laws" were issued that de facto criminalized any and most activities of recently liberated blacks. This process of criminalizing blackness culminated with the 1896 Supreme Court ruling "Plessy versus Ferguson" that ratified the constitutionality of the separate-but-equal doctrine. The third institution I want to talk about is the black ghetto. The ghetto is not simply an urban space. It is a series of legal, economic, political, and of course educational institutions. The black ghetto is a direct result of Jim Crow. And we could say that the ghetto is the crystallization of the separate-but-equal doctrine in urban space. It replaces the slave plantation as a way to contain, marginalize, segregate, and dispossess in the African-Americans. The fourth and final institution that I will discuss is what I would call the "ethnoracial prison." The US constitutes five percent of the world population, yet it has twenty-five percent of the world prison population. In 2015, the United States has a prison population of about 2.2 million prisoners, representing a five hundred percent increase in the last three decades. Of this number, more than sixty percent are made up of African-Americans and other minorities, mostly Latinos. While one in every seventeen white males has the likelihood of being in prison, one in every three black males is more likely to end up in prison. In fact, for black males in their thirties, one in ten is either in a prison or a jail on any given day. But if we look at these rates of incarceration, what we have in fact is a racial prison industrial complex. Prisons are a way to deprive supposed criminals of their freedom, as a way to pay society for their crimes and violations of the social contract. They began as institutions of reform and reeducation, but have turned into sites of political disenfranchisement, economic privation, and desocialization. In this way, they perform a dual-role: they're sites of dispossession and sites of capital extraction. They're political, economic engines that transfer economic wealth and political capital from blacks to whites and those that benefit from whiteness. In the history of the United States, these four institutions have been intricately entwined, seamlessly transitioning into each other. Over the last four hundred years, these racist institutions have produced, reproduced, renewed, and made racism enduring in the US. Over the last four hundred years, they have produced blackness as a race that is associated with dispossession, criminality, marginality, and privation. Race does not exist, precisely because it is the relationship among these institutions and how they create a certain habit that determine how we interact with each other on assumptions and prejudices about who we think is black. A radical philosophy of race allows us to think through the seeming paradox of the non-existence of race, yet grapple with its visible and violent effects. With Angela Davis, we can say that slavery has yet to be abolished, as its long shadow continues to darken our democracy. Thank you. Subtitles by the Amara.org community