The Fire This Time: Black Youth and the Spectacle of Postracial Violence

In 1963, James Baldwin published an essay entitled “The Negro Child – His Self-Image,” in The Saturday Review. Later celebrated as “A Talk to Teachers,” his prescient opening paragraph unfolds with the following observation:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced … from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to “go for broke.” (1)

2015_0526gir_Signaling the existential crisis engendered by a profound political crisis, the first title resonates more powerfully with the current historical moment, especially as Black youth are increasingly assaulted, even killed, by White police officers in alarming numbers. Baldwin’s essay also points to both the need for resistance and the hazardous price one might have to pay by engaging in open defiance. Baldwin was right then and his words are more powerful today as we are truly living in “dangerous times.”

The killing of young Black men such as 16-year-old Kimani Gray, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Michael Brown, 22-year-old John Crawford III and 25-year-old Freddie Gray, among others, are part of a historical pattern of racial terror in which Black populations have been contained and controlled by so-called legitimate mechanisms of state violence. (2) Not only is a Black person killed by the police “every three or four days,” but “the rate of police killings of Black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century.” (3)

Rather than seen as victims, Black youth are vilified, and viewed as suspicious, delinquent or dangerous by mass media. They are the most recent populations once again regarded as the “wretched of the earth,” considered excess and treated as human refuse, and preyed upon by the criminal legal system, private probationary companies and the financial elite who have brought back the debtors’ prison. (4) While violence waged against Black people in the United States is nothing new, we have witnessed the appearance of new death-dealing military weapons and the militarizing of entire police forces. In addition, there is the more recent neoliberal economic destruction of entire cities, and the collapse of the welfare state, the war on terror and the rise of the punishing state, all of which add a new and more capacious register to a long history of such racist violence. (5)

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