Postracial Justice and the Trope of the “Race Riot”

Postracial Justice and the Trope of the “Race Riot”

Jennifer Heusel (Coker College, USA)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9728-7.ch012
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Abstract

This chapter examines the trope of “race riot” as a rhetorical strategy in news media that disciplines race-conscious protest. Adopting a rhetorical genealogy inspired by Michel Foucault, the analysis reads together the news reports about the 1906 riots in Atlanta, Georgia and the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. The century dividing these two events may seem too distant, but is necessary in order to identify the legacies of state-sponsored white supremacy that continue to shape expressions of “justice” in the United States. Although white supremacy is generally understood as no longer relevant, racial violence against people of color remains legitimate while exercised by those enforcing law and order. Attention on two racial-antagonistic events divided by a century can assist in highlighting the discursive legacies of state-sponsored white supremacy. The chapter concludes with contemplation on postracial justice, or the expression of justice that is assumed to be beyond the influence of race.
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Introduction

Anticipating the closing arguments in the criminal trial charging neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman with second-degree murder for the 2012 shooting-death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office released two public service announcements (hereafter PSAs) asking local youth to “Raise your voice and not your hands.” Tensions in Sanford, Florida were high throughout Zimmerman’s trial. His defense centered on Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which “broadens the use of lethal force in the name of self-defense” (Davidson, 2013, p. 34). The shooting sparked peaceful protests in Sanford and across the United States because Martin was unarmed and simply walking home after visiting a convenience store. Although the sheriff’s PSAs never mentioned the term, “riot” quickly entered the public lexicon about the protests in several national news sources. A week after the PSAs were released, the conservative news site Breitbart.com released a story with the headline, “Broward County Sheriff’s Office Prepares Zimmerman Verdict Riot Plan” (Shapiro, 2013). The trope of “race riot,” although not stated explicitly, went viral. See for example Jonathan Capehart’s Washington Post blog (2013) two days after the Breitbart headline, which observed that in the Twittersphere “people are openly fretting that African Americans will riot if the killer of Trayvon Martin isn’t convicted of something” (para.1). Some commentators such as Marc Polite (2013) in Time Magazine reflected on the addition of the trope as “racial fear mongering.” Others like Lauren Williams (2013) in Mother Jones questioned the rationale for the term “riot” in light of the non-violent public response to the whole situation. She suggested that “a prediction of a calm response to a Zimmerman acquittal wouldn’t further a convenient narrative about blacks and violence, and it’s not as exciting a story as a massive race riot” (para. 11). References to “race riot” in news and social media are not surprising. Rather, rhetorical translations, such as marking a race-conscious protest as a <race> riot, are normal expressions of traditional racial hierarchy in the US. Such hierarchy maintains whiteness as invisible and always innocent, and blackness as highly visible and criminal.

In this chapter, I approach the references to “<race> riot” in US news media as a rhetorical strategy that disciplines race-conscious protests.1 The author's analysis adopts a rhetorical genealogy, which is a method of reading discourse inspired by Michel Foucault. After explaining the value of this method for uncovering attitudes of racial power in US public discourse, the next two sections of this chapter describe the central case study discourses: local and national news media about the 1906 race riot in Atlanta, Georgia and about the 2014 racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. The century dividing these two events may seem too distant, but such distance is necessary in order to identify the legacies of state-sponsored white supremacy that continue to shape expressions of “justice” in the US, or expressions of fair treatment in social and civic situations in light of racial hierarchy. Narrating these events in news reports are shaped by US white/black racial relations, which have perpetually adhered to a racial hierarchy privileging ideological “whiteness” (Dyer, 1988). Identifying such legacies are important because white supremacy is generally understood as no longer relevant (or at least no longer practiced) in the US since the Civil Rights Legislation of the 1960s. As Lindsey Lupo (2011) noted in her study of US riot commission reports, since the adoption of this legislation, “white sympathy for the status of blacks and minorities shifted to antagonism” (p. 221). Couched in the language of individualism and equality of opportunity, she found that such antagonism is not understood as shaping current expressions of “justice.” Attention on two racial-antagonistic events divided by a century can assist in highlighting the discursive reaches of state-sponsored white supremacy. The final section of this chapter contemplates on what I call postracial justice, or the expression of justice that is assumed to be beyond the influence of race. A rhetorical genealogy will illuminate the racial hierarchy undergirding assumptions about postracial justice.

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