The Body’s Experience of Inequality

In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats describes the physical toll of racism. He looks at how we make abstractions and create philosophical thought out of ideas, reactions, and prejudices. In his view, violence and physical manifestations of inequality are hidden and explained away in our thought processes and communication, saving us from having to acknowledge the true human cost of racial tribal behaviors.

 

“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

 

Coats’ passage above has numerous points that accurately describe the world we live in today and the state of racial violence and injustice on our planet. In our country we are struggling with how we choose to remember the men and women of the Confederacy who were not just Americans, but were soldiers, mothers and fathers, and even patriots. This is the idea of heritage that is meant to be preserved and honored by their current day descendants, but Coats reminds us that this heritage is built on a legacy of violence against black people. A violence that existed at the whims of men in power one hundred and fifty years ago and a violence that selectively destroyed the human bodies of black men, women, and children. The reality, which Coats’ quote does not directly address, is that the heritage and legacy being protected today, is a heritage of fighting to preserve a place of honor for men who fought to preserve a system in which black men were enslaved, controlled, and tortured for the economic benefit of white men. There was no divine truth or scientific backing for the racist behaviors of men in the past, there was only tribalism, instincts of self preservation, and exploitation.

 

What Coats’ passage is truly meant to focus on, however, is the way in which our prejudices, known or unknown, manifest in the real world, outside of our minds. When we marginalize groups of people, we begin to look at them as less then human, as less than a whole human being. In this context, the human rights that we defend in our Bill of Rights and claim to protect for all people, are discounted and discredited for those who we view as less than ourselves. This happens to minorities, poor people, and those who serve as scapegoats to pacify the tribal part of our brain that wants to protect our group and denigrate those who are others.

 

Once we have established that the outsiders no longer have rights that matter, and that they are less than human, we can stop respecting their physical body and the space in which they exist. We can physically abuse them because our moral standards do not extend to this person who is less than human. Our excuses about human nature, about economics, and about personal responsibility are just thoughts, but they are brought into the world through our physical actions, landing on the body of the oppressed as described by Coats. Our thoughts may live inside us, fully justified in the echo-chamber of our mind, but our actions (and our inaction) bring about physical realities and consequences stemming from the mental models we harbor.
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