By Rodericka "Ro" Applewhaite
Over the course of the last few months, news stories regarding race have reached a new height of salience as families across America grapple with its prevalence in society and impact on the future. From mass incarceration, to affirmative action, to a community’s response to the perception of racially motivated assault, the events of 2014 have covered it all. This is not to suggest that the tension that arose through these happenings is a bridge not crossed by society before or disregarded by the academic community. In fact, so much has occurred to contribute to this ongoing national conversation that we can revisit past theories to both chart where race relations are headed, uncover which mechanisms of inequity have been made obsolete, and further the theories within to better understand the world around us. Loïc Wacquant’s “Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and mesh” has particular potential for the latter, as his analysis of the carceral institution’s race-making capabilities can be applied to anecdote of one family and the experiences of countless others. Lawrence Otis Graham’s account of the precautions his family takes to navigate through white society details the evolution of Wacquant’s theory from the prison being the physical ground zero of the color line to an idea that perpetually looms over the heads of Black Americans and dictates the way they must interact with their white counterparts.
Before delving deeper into the connection Wacquant has to Graham’s story, a deeper understanding of the father’s narrative must be achieved. The essay “I taught my black kids that their elite upbringing would prevent them from discrimination. I was wrong.” details his son’s experience with being called a racial slur while attending a predominately white boarding school. Graham uses this instance to explain that though he and his wife grew up in a much more racially hostile time in American history, the cynicism his son developed towards social interaction as a result of the taunt undercut any progress that has been made. Furthermore, it justified the precautions made in Graham’s parenting skills crafted to remove the negative pretense of blackness in his kids as they navigate through the upper class. But most importantly, the incident exposed a reality that America’s minorities know all too well: the fact that race is not a harmless superficial characteristic, but the unwavering means by which society projects the potential, norms, and expectations of an individual.
“Deadly symbiosis” spends most of its time charting the timeline of institutional black suppression at the macro level, but the logical progression of Wacquant’s claims towards the ‘racial division of everything’ in the individual is clear. It is no longer (and has arguably never been) the case that someone must directly engage with the ghetto or the prison in order to experience the “civic death” associated with it. It is a practice of social exclusion so expertly perpetuated by the carceral system and the ‘peculiar institutions’ before it that the cycle is now self-maintaining. The presumption of its omnipresence regardless of socioeconomic and geographic standing, as evidenced by the racist remark casually directed at Graham’s son, is a clear establishment of the prison’s “contribut[ion] to the ongoing reconstruction…between praiseworthy ‘working families’…and the despicable ‘underclass’ of criminals, by definition dark-skinned and undeserving” (Wacquant, 120). Simply put, Wacquant’s and Graham’s pieces blend together so seamlessly because the former’s profound statement that “the massive over-incarceration of blacks has supplied a powerful common-sense warrant for using color as a proxy for dangerousness” is not directly reiterated in Graham’s article but the understood foundation for the 9 rules
he’s driven into his children (Wacquant, 117). This is a burden that uniquely belongs to the black community, as Graham points out that instilling such principles aren’t a thought in the white community, regardless of status. Despite the number of ways blacks are seen as society’s proverbial ‘other,’ injustices are regarded as “a ‘one-off’ that demand no follow-up” and are quickly forgotten (Graham, 2014). It is the reason why Graham’s family feels the need to rally around the few blacks that have achieved the elite class to exchange suggestions “on how to minimize the likelihood of the adolescents being profiled…simply because their race makes them suspect,” a search for thicker insulation than flawless diction and polite behavior (2014).
The white privilege that Graham references is a two-tiered harm. It is a social mechanism that papers over the present-day remnants of slavery, Jim Crow, and the ghetto by using the institutions’ obsolete status on a whole to embolden the ‘get over it’ counterargument presented when blacks claim disenfranchisement. Simultaneously, this privilege draws on the legitimacy of the prison and legal system to back minorities into a logical bind where expressing contempt of hyperincarceration would “validate the very conflation of blackness and crime in public perception that fuels this crisis” (Wacquant, 118). On a smaller yet more astonishing scale, Graham’s young son is already aware of this. He initially did not want to report the incident to school officials and had to be coerced into doing so by his father as he prioritized “not wanting the white students and administrators to think of him as being ‘racial’…and thinking about race every time they see [him]” (Graham, 2014). Observing this sentiment through the lens of “Deadly symbiosis” exposes the argumentative extension inherent within. Not only has the prison contributed to the “solidification of the centuries-old association of blackness with criminality and devious violence,” it has also created a reality where self-reported harms to blackness has become synonymous with ‘playing the race card’ and looking into the color line with too much sensitivity (Wacquant, 118). A black person’s capacity for their account of injustice to be received by their white counterparts as objective analysis rather than emotional exaggeration is inextricably linked to their success in “forcefully communicat[ing]…that they have ‘absolutely no sympathy and no known connections with any black man who has committed a crime’” (Wacquant, 118). Black America can expect for the color line to be just as bold if this trend continues.
The biggest indicator that the impacts of the prison now loom over the heads of all blacks, including those that have never interacted with the ghetto, is clear in the long-lasting effects of the racial slur on Graham’s son. This includes the fact that he no longer makes eye contact with pedestrians or drivers (the slur came from two men in a car), visits his local library after sundown, and is suspicious of cars that pass by him slowly (Graham, 2014). The author laments:
“He asks us to bear with him because, as he explains, he knows that the experience is unlikely to happen again, but he doesn’t like the uncertainty. He says he now feels
both vulnerable and resentful whenever he is required to walk unaccompanied” (Graham, 2014).
This negative feeling towards society in general was furthered by the fact that the school administrators that were notified “act[ed] with the same indifference that so many black parents have come to expect” (Graham, 2014). The uncertainty created proves a shift in the overarching argument posed by Wacquant, the idea that “to be a man of color of a certain economic class and milieu is equivalent in the public eye to being a criminal” (118). The economic class has been deemed irrelevant by white society. Simply looking like those that dominate the penal system is now “tantamount to being made [the inescapable negative connotation of] black” (Wacquant, 118). As Graham concedes, he made an error in assuming that the privilege he and his wife worked hard to secure for their children would in turn make them immune to discrimination.
In viewing Wacquant and Graham’s works side by side, a better understanding of how race is made, maintained, and received by all members of society is achieved. Wacquant’s argument was already upheld through the extensive amount of statistical data within it, but Graham’s story revitalized those claims into modernity. Conversely, the experiences of Graham’s son demanded the extension of Wacquant’s logic. It justified the importance of thinking about the relationship between the privileged and the suppressed, and the injustice that has stemmed from it as a result, as a timeline rather than random occurrences not founded in anything. Overall, the fact that neither author presented a means by which rampant inequality can be abated proves that America still has a long way to go.
Appendix: Graham’s Rules for Reference
1. Never run while in the view of a police officer or security person unless it is apparent that you are jogging for exercise, because a cynical observer might think you are fleeing a crime or about to assault someone.
2. Carry a small tape recorder in the car, and when you are the driver or passenger (even in the back seat) and the vehicle has been stopped by the police, keep your hands high where they can be seen, and maintain a friendly and non-questioning demeanor.
3. Always zip your backpack firmly closed or leave it in the car or with the cashier so that you will not be suspected of shoplifting.
4. Never leave a shop without a receipt, no matter how small the purchase, so that you can’t be accused unfairly of theft.
5. If going separate ways after a get-together with friends and you are using taxis, ask your white friend to hail your cab first, so that you will not be left stranded without transportation.
6. When unsure about the proper attire for a play date or party, err on the side of being more formal in your clothing selection.
7. Do not go for pleasure walks in any residential neighborhood after sundown, and never carry any dark-colored or metallic object that could be mistaken as a weapon, even a non-illuminated flashlight.
8. If you must wear a T-shirt to an outdoor play event or on a public street, it should have the name of a respected and recognizable school emblazoned on its front.
9. When entering a small store of any type, immediately make friendly eye contact with the shopkeeper or cashier, smile, and say “good morning” or “good afternoon.”
Graham, L. O. (2014, November 6). I taught my black kids that their elite upbringing would
protect them from discrimination. I was wrong. In The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/06/i-taught-my-black-kids-that-their-elite-upbringing-would-protect-them-from-discrimination-i-was-wrong/
Wacquant, L. Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and mesh. Punishment and Society, 3(1), 95-134.