MARCH 1, 2021
THIS IS THE 48th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Vincent Brown, who is Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2008); producer of Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, an audiovisual documentary broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens; and is most recently the author of Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War.
BRAD EVANS: Too often in our societies we see authors and even critical theorists deliberating on violence in ways far removed from its lived realties. As a child growing up in 1970s America, when did you first realize that violence was even a problem? And how did these early encounters shape your understanding?
VINCENT BROWN: Maybe part of the problem is that it has become hard to tell where the physical reality of violence ends and where its cultural significance begins. It’s hard for me to say when I first realized that violence was a problem because, as an American I have been trained to think that violence is the solution — to nearly everything. The early lived realities of violence for me were less physical than symbolic, the pervasive and persistent messaging that to be a man, you had to train for violent encounters. That your capacity to act in the world was directly linked to your success in projecting force. We fetishize guns in our popular culture. Men especially see firearms as essential tools for manifesting one’s will in the world. The way you resolve a plot in movies is usually to shoot something. Kill stuff, get stuff is the prevailing logic of most video games. That impulse creates a demand, which is part of the reason why there are more guns than adults distributed across US territory.
Looking back, I recognize that this is part of what it means to live in a country engaged in constant warfare. Perpetual war cultivates militarism in the citizenry. Even things that have nothing to do with the military are described in militaristic terms, so war becomes the go to metaphor for all kinds of things. Added to that, I grew up in San Diego, California, one of the most potent military garrisons in the history of the world. Several of my high school friends joined the Navy or the Marine Corps, which are big institutions in the area. But even though my father had been in the Army and my uncle served two combat tours in Vietnam, my parents wouldn’t let me play with toy guns. They frowned on the little green army men all the kids played with in the 1970s. So, to the degree that I have been able to unlearn militarism, those lessons started with my parents.
I’ve lived through the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the War on Poverty, the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the Gulf War, and the Global War on Terror. There are something like 800 US military bases in 70 countries around the world. And yet we still have poverty, crime, and drugs, there are still American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prestige of capitalism is waning, and our people live in fear. And Christmas still comes every December, even though liberals have supposedly been waging a crusade against the allied forces of Jesus and Santa Claus for years — the elves and the apostles refuse to surrender! Can we ever demilitarize or are we just expected to fight all those wars forever?
The Pentagon’s annual budget is $738 billion, as compared to $11 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite the fact the current global pandemic has killed more Americans than all the wars since the end of World War II, and more than in that war itself, half a million Americans and counting. The year 2020 was the deadliest year in the history of the United States. Maybe the CDC should be renamed the Department of Defense and given the resources it needs to defend our population.
There is no way to look honestly at what has happened over the last year — the failures of political leadership, the shambling public health system, the denial of reality, and the outright sabotage of our system of government — and not see US society as pathetically dysfunctional. I think this failure is related to our militarism, and the widespread idea that aggression can solve every problem. Many commentators identify the source of our troubles as the unwillingness or inability to defend the truth. But as the old saying goes: truth is the first casualty in war. A sure sign of belligerence is the will to blind yourself to nuance, complexity, and change and instead see only binary oppositions. The need to separate friends from foes overwhelms every other political thought. We are a warlike people, and we are increasingly shooting ourselves in the foot and training our weapons on each other. For decades, we papered over our problems with military might. Now we see the results.
From The Reaper’s Garden to your latest, Tacky’s Revolt (which I found to be such a phenomenally insightful and compelling book on both the brutality of British colonialism and the desire for freedom), there is an evident approach you adopt that looks upon “history” as a living and breathing concern. How do both these projects speak to one another? And perhaps more importantly, what do the resurrected spirits you bring to life teach us about the history of racial persecution?
In both books, I’m interested in looking to the past to understand the ongoing processes that have shaped our world. The predicaments in which we find ourselves derive in part from the history of colonial conquest, slavery, imperial warfare, and the inequalities that resulted. Our struggles for freedom and dignity emerge from that history. By understanding it, we might discern the scope, force, direction, and likelihood of the changes ahead — and be guided in our decisions by the example of our ancestors.
Many people have the idea that the past is over because its events and its actors may be long gone. But processes of transformation — their motivating forces and legacies — are continuous; they connect the past, present, and future. Reaper’s Garden showed how people maintained relations with the dead in Jamaican slave society, and how those relations shaped their political activity, with real consequences for the course of history. Tacky’s Revolt explores one complex slave insurrection as an eddy within a larger current of transatlantic warfare. It highlights connections across space and time, showing how successive generations fought a sprawling war that never really ended with particular defeats and victories. I guess both books offer another way of speaking about inheritance.
In 1980, on the way back from a junior high school trip to Knott’s Berry Farm, I saw a burning cross on the side of I-5 freeway. The Ku Klux Klan was holding a rally in Orange County, California. To most folks, the KKK seemed like a relic from a bygone era. I didn’t know it at the time, but after the Civil War many former Confederates settled in Orange County, where they continued to espouse the values of the slaveholding South. Generations later, while none seriously thought they could re-establish a slaveholder’s republic, many still believed in some version of the racial conservatism handed down by their forefathers.
When I look at those horrific lynching photos that circulated as postcards in the early 20th century, I never look at the bodies of the Black victims. I’m more interested in the faces of the bloodthirsty spectators. Many of those people had children who had children, who had more children in turn. It would be naïve to think that the ideas and attitudes of those spectators didn’t survive and spread through the generations, even if transformed into less murderous anti-Black attitudes. Just look at the White nationalist rallies and riots stoked and encouraged by the former president, culminating in the mob that sacked the US Capitol on January 6. Our enduring struggle against racism is part of the same process as the earlier history I write about.
I would like to bring this thinking to bear on the contemporary moment. In a previous conversation, you mentioned to me that what sets apart the United States from many other countries was the levels of police brutality. You also noted that it was important to also account for violence committed by the police forces against persons from poor White communities as well. Given the evident racial stakes, why do you also think it’s also important to address state violence beyond the racial divides?
According to The Washington Post, US police have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people in each of the last five years. I read a few years back that the police in Norway hadn’t killed anyone in a decade. It’s not like Norway is crime free, it is just not as acceptable to kill people there. There has understandably been a focus on the disproportionate killing of Black people in the United States. Stereotypes about Black aggressiveness and the longstanding devaluation of Black and Brown peoples’ lives makes them seem less deserving of protection and sympathy, and therefore more socially permissible to kill.
If you accept the sociologist Orlando Patterson’s classic definition of slavery as the “permanent violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonoured persons,” slavery itself can be considered a state of low-intensity warfare. You don’t have to take Patterson’s word for it; that is how many slaves described their predicament at the time. In this state of endemic hostility, White people sought to use the law and its execution to make themselves invulnerable. There were few to no penalties for the injury or murder of enslaved people by Whites and spectacular punishments for the harming or killing of free White persons by slaves. So the legacy of slavery informs the racial patterns of crime and punishment today. But in societies where it was more permissible to kill some classes of people, it was also just more permissible to kill people, full stop.
Belligerence was a central organizing principle in slave societies, and that principle did not disappear when slavery ended. State and private violence continued to target “generally dishonoured persons,” who were disproportionately but not exclusively Black. Anti-Black militarism was one dimension of this larger phenomenon. Our elevated level of police violence separates the United States from other rich countries, to be sure, but not from other former slave societies. Rates of police abuse and violence in places like Brazil or Jamaica — where the cops are mostly or all Black — are even higher.
Of course, the current crisis has more proximate causes. Government initiatives such as the wars on crime, drugs, and terror, political decisions about how to manage the changing economy, and court decisions that have diminished police accountability are more immediately responsible for the present state of affairs. These combine with the anti-Black inheritance from the days of slavery.
The relation between racism and state violence is real, but it is more complex than we often think. The problem is systemic, meaning it transcends the personal actions of individual people, of whatever color they happen to be. It is important to remember that while Black people may be the disproportionate victims of state violence, as they are of violent crime more generally, they are not its exclusive victims. The police kill a lot of White people, too. The criminal justice system is skewed against low-status people in general, and that includes Latinos, working-class immigrants, and poor Whites in great numbers.
Black lives must matter for all lives to matter. Systemic change won’t be change just for one group of people. I think it is important that nonblack people see that it is in their own interest to have a system of law and order that is actually just. Not only because there won’t be peace until we do, but because justice is in everyone’s interest as an end in itself.
I wonder if we might connect these concerns to issues regarding who actually has the power to subjugate and kill in societies. I recently encountered notable hostility for an article I wrote that voiced my concern with the concept of “White privilege.” It wasn’t that I sought in any way to deny the history of slavery and racial persecution or to deny the enduring legacies and effects of systemic racism, but I do find the concept too often deployed in a way that’s counter-essentializing, and perhaps even worse, a displacement of colonial guilt by White bourgeois academics onto the backs on the poor. What are your thoughts on the concept and the way it’s being mobilized today?
Your concern is warranted. Look, it’s undeniable that there are certain luxuries afforded to White people that are unavailable to nonwhites. Being White is rarely a burden. Black skin, Black speech, and Black style are widely associated with low social status and communal danger. In most situations, Black people just don’t get the benefit of the doubt, and the consequences can be deadly. On the other hand, you often see White perpetrators treated gently, or even with deference by law enforcement.
As far back as the 1960s, activists talked about what they called “White skin privilege,” which is now generally called White privilege, and has extended to encompass a whole discourse about privileges some people enjoy that others don’t, merely because of who they happen to be, nonwhite or nonmale or non-wealthy. These differences in status, and in the meaningful associations people read off of them, develop over time. That fact should direct our attention to the process of differentiation, how and why it happens, and more importantly, how the process changes and what we can do about it. But people too often emphasize the way things are over how they might change.
I’m not going to deny the importance of naming things. Activists want us to see these meaningful associations clearly, so that they don’t masquerade as neutral, natural, or, God forbid, universal attributes of humanity that leave others appearing to be intrinsically flawed or deficient. Still, we shouldn’t be more concerned with naming and denouncing the bearers of privilege than in examining the process of its creation, which has uneven results. A wealthy Black woman enjoys prerogatives that poor White men can only dream about. The fact that White men are far more likely to be rich offers little comfort to people of modest means, or to those who feel themselves slipping behind. White privilege sometimes seems to be imagined as a kind of indissoluble rank, a view that, ironically, concedes too much to racism itself.
Once we’ve convinced ourselves that all White people have privileges that all nonwhite people don’t have, it’s too easy to forget that in a society where the myth of boundless opportunity obscures expanding inequality, those privileges can be meager indeed. They don’t mean that White people can’t be impoverished. They don’t mean that White people can’t get screwed over by the same system that’s screwing over everyone else. They don’t mean that White people don’t get abused by the police. If the recognition of privilege becomes a ritual of denunciation, it offers yet another excuse to demonize other people and deny them empathy, making it harder to find common cause in solidarity with others who might seek positive change. Simply put, the politics of naming may be important but name-calling is distracting and counterproductive.
What you describe here reminds me again of the considered attention you give to historical processes in your latest book. This suggests a way to rethink the shared experiences of suffering in a way that’s all about asking who has power and who is being denied even the most basic claim to a shared humanity.
Even within the history of colonial conquest, slavery, and systemic racism, it’s important to keep the motive forces of historical transformation in view. In Tacky’s Revolt, I argue that the violence of slavery “did not arise from the peculiar properties of the people involved […] but as products of the larger processes that had produced their antagonisms.” Keep your eyes on the ball, not on its shape but on how and where it moves.
People with power are often quite happy to harm other people with less power. In this country, as a result of our history, that often means White people hurting nonwhite people. Our recent former president is a cruel and criminal human being, a true sociopath, I think. While enjoying enthusiastic support from police unions across the country, he boasted of sexual assault, intentionally separated immigrant children from their parents, and gleefully pardoned war criminals. In the meantime, he purposely misrepresented the progress of the COVID-19 plague, resulting in the additional deaths of tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans. This person consistently maintained electoral support from a majority of White voters, and only of White voters. So, someone might forgive you, Brad, for automatically associating American White people with sexism, racism, corruption, sedition, and mass death — the past several years would seem to confirm all the worst stereotypes. But you would still be making a mistake. If you think that only Whites are capable of this kind of depravity, you are ignoring a fundamental lesson of human history:
When people can get away with harming others they don’t care about, they’re more likely to do it, no matter their color or creed, and they will invent rationales to justify their actions. Until we can resolve that larger problem, people with more power and privilege — racial, economic, ethnic, religious, sexual, or whatever — will feel free to commit acts of violence on those with less.
I couldn’t agree more with you on this and I think even having such conversations as this shows that another way of seeing the world is not beyond us. Mindful of this, I would like to turn to a towering figure who strangely brings both our worlds together: the late and still so relevant Paul Robeson. Growing up in the mining valleys of South Wales, you learned from a young age from your grandparents about the importance of Robeson and how he represented something that shattered the myths that poor White communities were inherently racist or prejudiced. History shows us otherwise. What does Robeson mean to you? And how could his specter point to a critical opening that allows us to rethink the possibility of breaking out of pernicious identity divisions?
Paul Robeson was among the most interesting Americans of the 20th century. He was a genuine polymath, good at just about everything he did. His presence on stage, screen, and audio recordings embodied dignity. Above all, he was a fearless and tireless fighter for human equality. His life speaks to me in many ways, even though his political views don’t align perfectly with my own. Most importantly for this conversation, his activism highlighted the vital importance of solidarity across social differences.
Robeson understood the importance of making common cause with people who weren’t like him. And he knew that people were so much stronger when they banded together to pursue collective goals and weaker when they nurtured their particular grievances and resentments. He understood that those miners in South Wales shared a predicament with sharecropping agricultural workers in the American South: their subjection to mine owners and plantation owners. This was more important than what divided them. You could almost imagine him saying, “We are the 99 percent!” Robeson knew the world will be a better place when we align against those who plunder the fruits of our labor, foul our habitat, and incite us to hate and fight each other. That message is more relevant than ever.
In conclusion, I’d like to turn our attention to the surreal and no doubt highly symbolic events of January 6 you mentioned earlier. While I feel some of the narratives concerning attempted coups have been overplayed (perhaps I am being a bit old-fashioned here as I tend to think of coups involving the military and tanks), I am also reminded that what we witnessed was the exposure of violent banality of racial violence. How do you think history will or should judge the assault on Capitol Hill?
Well, it has become pretty clear that the previous president did indeed hope to stay in office, despite decisively losing the election. We can be thankful that he did not have the military on side. What I think has been overplayed is the comparison to European history. You see January 6 being described as an analogue to the Nazis’ Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. I tend to see what happened on January 6, and the weeks and months preceding it, as more analogous to the Redemption period following Reconstruction in the United States, when White mobs helped to put an end to interracial democracy in the former slave states until the mid-1960s. We shouldn’t even call that an analogy, really, but rather an earlier phase in a long process of racist anti-democratic political violence. It’s easy to see the symbolism: the Trumpists erected a gallows with a hangman’s noose and were chanting for the lynching of the vice president, while some paraded the Confederate battle flag through the US Capitol. As to the substance, it was more like what happened in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, when a White mob overthrew an interracial local government. Those who recently attempted to disrupt the democratic process descend politically from the racial nationalists who established Jim Crow segregation — which the Nazis admired, by the way. We don’t necessarily need to find parallels abroad to understand what is happening here, we just need to see the continuities in our own history.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.