--Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
America has always been and remains an apartheid state. The latter part of that sad but increasingly undeniable fact was made apparent last night in Ferguson, Missouri to a group of peaceful protesters amidst tanks, deafening LRADs, a haze of tear gas and a firestorm of rubber (and real) bullets. The other tragic fact made apparent in Ferguson last night is that America is only ever a hair's-breadth away from a police state... if we understand by "police" not a regulated body of law-enforcement peacekeepers empowered to serve and protect the citizenry, but rather a heavily-armed, extra-constitutional, militarized cadre of domestic soldiers who provoke and terrorize with impunity. Much of the time, we are able to forget or ignore these unfortunate truths about contemporary America-- and by "we" I mean our elected officials, our bureaucrats and financiers, and a lot of self-delusionally "post-racial," though really white, people-- but the mean truth of gross inequality, both de facto and de jure, remains ever-present in spite of our disavowals, simmering steadily just below the allegedly free and fair democratic veneer of our polis.
Greg Howard, journalist and parrhesiates, said it about as plainly as it can be said this past Tuesday in his article for Deadspin: America is not for black people. The truth of "American apartheid" should make us all ashamed, saddened, angry, deeply troubled as moral and political agents. And, what is more, it should frighten us all.
We can of course, manufacture a nominally significant difference between the contemporary United States and mid- to late-20th century South Africa (the only "official" apartheid state in world history), but to do so these days would require an masters-level facility for intellectual and conceptual contortion. Statistically, the United States is a racially divided (and divisive) country. That is about as close to a brute fact as one can say about a nation of 317 million. Race divides us socially, politically, economically, educationally, religiously, existentially and, perhaps most tragically, it divides us with respect to the likelihood of our falling into carceral custody, of our achieving average life-expectancy and of our generating for ourselves something approximating a minimally decent life.
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on truth commissions and, as a consequence, I consider myself an expert on apartheid. So, let me state unequivocally and for the record: I am thoroughly convinced that to name our current state "American apartheid" is not only long overdue but also descriptively accurate: legally, morally, politically and philosophically. When black mothers and fathers have good reason to raise their children to fear being assaulted, arrested or killed without provocation, when peacefully-gathered black protesters are forced to hold signs that say "Hands up. Don't shoot." in order to exercise their Constitutional right to free assembly, when black neighborhoods are regularly subject to martial law and only irregularly (if at all) served and protected by police, when the least reported fact in the wake of an unarmed black teenager's shooting by police is that he was unarmed and killed, when the journalists who try to report more are summarily harassed and arrested, and when neither the police, locally elected representatives nor the President feels the need to intervene or explain ... we have entered into an entirely new domain of injustice.
In international law, apartheid is classified as a "crime against humanity," as that term was prescribed by the Rome Statute and by the United Nations General Assembly. The technical definition of the crime of apartheid is: "inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them." By that definition, there has only ever been one historical instance of the crime of apartheid -- South Africa between the years of 1948-1990-- and, because of apartheid's classification as a crime against humanity, there has been extraordinary resistance to ascribing that term to any other state since. (Former President Jimmy Carter used the word "apartheid" to describe the Palestinian state in 2007 and suffered a vicious international backlash for doing so.) There are, of course, legitimate and complex reasons to insist on what philosophers call a "hard" meaning or sense of the term apartheid, as opposed to a "soft" meaning or sense, not the least among which are (1) "race" and "racial groups" are almost impossible to designate without controversy, (2) "systematic oppression" can be executed de facto without being executed de jure, making it difficult to hold states or heads of states accountable for not-strictly-legal or -political, but rather social, practices, and (3) it is nearly impossible to satisfy the burden of proof when it comes to establishing the intention (i.e., "for the purpose of...") with which inhuman acts are committed. To wit, "apartheid" has remained so far in history a singularly site-specific crime.
Afrikaans term meaning something like "the essence of being apart" or "apart-hood." There is no equivalent in any other language for the word "apartheid"; it is an utterly idiomatic term or, as Jacques Derrida once described it, a "unique appellation," not only untranslated but untranslatable. Of course, what the word "apartheid" really names is as common and as not-new as the New World: it names racism (political racism, to be more exact), an invention and a product of the European Enlightenment and its concommitant projects of exploitation, expropriation, colonization, subjugation and domination. But because, today, we need to disavow the ubiquity and banality of our racism-- especially those of us in the post-racial global North and West, even more especially in the United States-- we desperately hold the word apartheid in reserve like a loaded gun, waved threateningly but never fired, deployed to frighten but never to correct.
As long as we treat the word apartheid as if it were the last word of racism and not as the most appropriate adjective for a still-too-common state of affairs that it is, nations like ours will continue to reconcile, with a theo-political sleight of hand, their dually racist-but-not-"criminally"-racist natures in something like a hypostatic union. And it will remain the case that in these free and democratic United States, a black man will be extrajudically killed every 28 hours by police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes.
Frantz Fanon's prescience with regard to those he (rightly) called the "wretched of the earth," which I quoted as the epigraph to this post, ought give us pause to think much more carefully and critically about what happened last night in Ferguson. Humanity was threatened and humanity was, temporarily and provisionally, defended. Whatever happens henceforth in Ferguson will be but one more battle in this protracted war. As all wars go, the weapons employed will only get more deadly, never less so, and we ought not be surprised to see those whose primary interest is to secure the victory of humanity defensively sharpening their swords. It would be best if we could disarm their attackers before anyone else dies. Short of that, we ought get out of the way of their sharpening.