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White Witness and the Contemporary Lynching

The belief that passive viewership can translate into structural justice is an idea as misguided as it is old.

Frank Rockstroh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

We are presently embroiled in a redundant public debate about whether it’s appropriate to watch and/or circulate images of black people being murdered by the police and other, nonstate killers. The videos, like that of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, are being watched and circulated regardless of the persuasiveness of arguments pleading otherwise, and I think this question—“Should we watch?”—now misses the point. Rather, why are these videos being watched? Specifically, why do white people continue to make cases for watching them? 

Central to the white argument for watching these videos is the idea that viewership begets justice or somehow emphasizes the notion that black life does matter and that black life is grievable (never mind that black people have long been in a near-constant state of grief and mourning over the violent negations of the lives of our kin). This reasoning was the centerpiece of an article recently published in The Intercept arguing that without these videos, “there is rarely public and official recognition that the taking of a black life, simply because of the person’s blackness, is an injustice.” One version of this logic, expressed in the more neutral language of “accountability” or reportage, acts as justification for its wide circulation and repetition through traditional media. But the translation of passive witnessing into structural (that is to say, punitive) justice is an idea that is as misguided as it is old: This was the very rationale deployed in campaigns against colonial atrocities in, for example, the Congo Free State in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Photographs taken by British missionary Alice Seeley Harris depicted Congolese natives shackled in chains or with severed hands or feet, the latter of which was the bullet-saving punishment for enslaved laborers who failed to meet collection quotas for rubber, ivory, or palm oil. The images were released by the Congo Reform Association (whose American branch counted W.E.B. du Bois and Mark Twain among its members) as an exemplar of abolitionist witnessing in a case against King Leopold II’s brutal management of the colony as his personal plantation. Because of the international propaganda effort and the targeted nature of coordinated and complementary efforts, Leopold lost his colony in 1908. But a hyperfocus on the logics that arguably facilitated the success of the missionary’s visual campaign obscures a proper situating of the humanitarian photograph in the white imaginary.

In addition to the nebulous idea of “awareness-raising,” which we’ll return to, the humanitarian image does two important things. First, it permits an affective distancing through the production of a far removed “other.” By making known the suffering of said “other” and absorbing it as one’s own (what one might begin to call altruism or empathy), “this suffering is occluded by the other’s obliteration,” writes Saidiya Hartman in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Where empathy exists, it is not sufficiently urgent to move white people to actually seek to alleviate witnessed suffering. It serves, actually, as a reinscription of white supremacy: a reification of the boundary between the white self and the black “others” through a passive bystander witnessing and the enforcement of race through public violence. 

From a distance, it seems like enduring the brutality of these videos is a badge of honor, an assumption of apparently anti-racist political responsibility. It’s like a demonstration of moral fortitude by—though one may flinch—refusing to turn away and so refusing to remain ignorant of the anti-black violence at the heart of American life and spreading the message of that cruelty to others. But there is no awareness to raise. This is at best ignorant-naïve liberal projection, and at worst, complete mythology.

We’ve seen antebellum images of enslaved black people whose backs were marred by whip marks, we’ve seen Bill Hudson’s photographs of black protesters being attacked by high-powered fire hoses and police dogs at the command of Bull Connor. We’ve seen pictures of the rubble of the 16th Street Baptist Church after it was bombed by the Klan in 1963 and the smoldering remnants of the MOVE commune after it was bombed by a Philadelphia police helicopter in 1985. We saw the recordings of Rodney King being tasered and assaulted by four Los Angeles police officers in 1991 (as well as the riots that followed their acquittals), Oscar Grant being pinned down and shot in the back on a train platform in 2009, and Eric Garner being choked to death on a Staten Island sidewalk in 2014. If the argument is that witnessing this violence is enough or is necessary to galvanize action, my single question is when? When will these acts become too unacceptable to simply continue to watch? In how many more decades, and after how many more dead?

Violence against black people occupies an understatedly important place of pleasure in the white racial imaginary, evidenced by the countless depictions of grinning whites and scenes of afternoon leisure in twentieth-century lynching photographs. Some attendants of these lynchings scrambled to collect burnt clothing, pieces of bone, or tufts of hair; Leigh Raiford wrote that “lynchings incorporated elements of ancient traditions and antebellum nostalgia.” So, too, do the video-recorded successors that are bookmarked on our phones and computers. Whiteness transmutes atrocity images into ephemera, into a thing to be collected, more quickly than we would like to imagine. Arguably, the almost industrial production of these lynching videos—circulated in loops on cable news, shared widely across social media—de-exceptionalizes the event. The pattern of learning a new hashtagged name and face and collectively petitioning for some semblance of punitive justice is heartbreakingly banal and psychologically depleting. (And what of the many we never come to know?) It does not sufficiently push a critical mass of people toward a crisis of racial consciousness, and it instead feeds into a piercingly mundane echolalia that flows seamlessly into the tapestry of American inequality. 

The killings, in a way, become a macabre method of marking social and political time. Trayvon Martin’s murder radicalized many of us in 2012, and Renisha McBride was killed in November 2013, just a few months after the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The fatal shooting of Michael Brown set into motion the Ferguson uprisings of 2014, and the in-custody killing of Freddie Gray animated protests in Baltimore the following year. In 2016, Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of these racist deaths, and the latter was functionally blackballed from the NFL. The quarantine-time killings of Arbery and Breonna Taylor, who was killed in March when police entered her apartment during a no-knock warrant, remind black people that even a pandemic will not stem the tide of anti-black murders and that, in fact, violent racism makes many black people rightfully wary of wearing necessary protective face masks in public.

In Arthur Jafa’s Dreams Are Colder Than Death, Rich Blint describes the end of white supremacy as “the end of safety.” There are a number of reasons why self-identified white progressives or leftists (I won’t speak to the far more obvious politics of those who would exonerate their skinfolk murderers with or without video evidence) watch these videos, and I think one of them is reassurance. Of course, the purportedly not-racist white person understands intellectually and reminds themselves and others that racism is bad, evil even. But the destabilization of white supremacy is unimaginably worse. They invest time arguing for a punitive “justice”—the elusive process of arrest, indictment, prosecution, and conviction—that is an overwhelming statistical improbability. But the videos reassure them of the statis of their subject-position, while their public affronted pearl-clutching at and condemnation of the filmed horrors permits them to claim moral-political superiority over other whites. It allows for action without disruption. A reassuring sameness.  

Racial hierarchies are maintained and mediated through a theater of violence that seeks to protect the public through the neutralization and elimination of the black safety threat—“theatricalization,” Samuel Weber has named it. Black people’s a priori guilt and so deservingness of extrajudicial murder at the hands of police is a part of this theater; while a state is defined by its monopoly on violence, the self-deputization of ordinary white citizens who take this fatal law into their own hands. 

It’s telling that white urges to watch these videos deploy a collective “we”—a familiar trope in media and social response, and in stating the boundaries of what is even knowable in these cases—rather than a far more honest individuated “I,” because we all already realize that every gesture made at the white multiple is always an individual confessional. They will continue to act as interlocutors for Mamie Till (as Dana Schutz did in her 2017 Whitney Biennial–included painting, Open Casket) and other black mothers who demand we do not turn our gazes away from the murders of their children and other kin because they have no legitimate or even novel case otherwise. They know that within the confines of this present material world, there is no white life without black death. And so, as we die again and again, they will continue to watch, they must watch, again and again.