For the New York Times Opinionator, George Yancy interviews Paul Gilroy, Professor of American and English Literature at King's College London, on what the "Black Lives Matter" movement might look like in the UK. The full version here.
George Yancy: In a review of the 2013 movie “12 Years a Slave,” you wrote that neoliberalism — the unquestioning faith in free market values taken to ideological extremes — essentially ignores the existence of systemic racism, and presents it as “anachronistic.” This worldview, which so many of us in the West confront in society, you wrote, “decrees that racism no longer presents a significant obstacle either to individual success or to collective self-realization.” This made me think of, among other things, the killing in April of Walter Scott, a black man who was shot in the back eight times by a white police officer in Charleston, S.C. Obviously, there is nothing anachronistic about American racism. It is alive and well. From your perspective in Britain, how do you understand events like the Scott killing?
Paul Gilroy: I don’t come to the United States very often but I happened to be visiting when Walter Scott was shot by another trigger-happy police officer. I was angry and upset. I hope I don’t need to emphasize that I am a firm supporter of the movement that has arisen in response to this sequence of killings exposed by the ubiquity of the camera phone and the communicative resources of social media. Britain isn’t a gun-loving or -toting nation. Racism in our country doesn’t operate on the same scale as the racial organization of law and sovereign power in the United States, but our recent history also includes a long list of black people who’ve lost their lives following contact with the forces of law and order. Similarly, our police and their various private proxies have never been held to account for those deaths, so this is very familiar ground. Police in many polities can kill with impunity, and racial hierarchy augments their essentially permissive relationship with the law. The officer in this case was charged with murder. We will have to see whether he is found guilty. That would be a very rare outcome indeed.
Of course, to say that neoliberalism presents racism as anachronistic was not to say that racism is anachronistic. Confronting racism is a timely, urgent matter. The casual killing of black people appears to be a pursuit that originated in an earlier phase of American history. In his epochal analysis of historical and cultural process, the prolific Welsh novelist and academic Raymond Williams drew an important distinction in the way that social and cultural formations develop. Drawing upon him, we can say that we live with neoliberalism but it might not yet be fully dominant. There is certainly worse to come. Neoliberalism could still be emergent, while what appears to be the casual habit of murdering people who come into contact with the police might belong to its prehistory and could be considered either dominant or residual, depending on your point of view.
*Image via Daily Stormer