August 2, 2021

“Racism has multiple bodily effects”

By Valentine Faure

Posted today at 01:52

“Here’s what I want you to know: in America it’s a tradition to destroy the black body – it’s a legacy. “ Black anger (Autrement, 2016), by essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, accompanies the revival of the American anti-racist movement. Sold to 4 million copies, it focuses on the subjective experience of “Black body” – the expression is used 82 times in this short text addressed to his son in this America that we still hoped for “post-racial” a few years before. The vast protest movement that followed the death of George Floyd saw this rhetoric of the « black body » taken from statistics attesting that a century and a half after the end of slavery, living in a black body still shapes lives, signs a fate, worse, exposes to fatality.

But unlike civil rights anti-racism, as expressed by Martin Luther King who aspired for a black man to be judged like the others , the achievement of equality here requires, on the contrary, to look at the race, to become aware of the “White privilege”. Does this anti-racist struggle, by inviting us to consider races, be they social, reinstating this notion of race?

Professor of political philosophy at the University of Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne, Magali Bessone works on critical theories of races and racism, as well as on contemporary theories of justice and democracy. She wrote Do justice to the irreparable. Colonial slavery and contemporary responsibilities (Vrin, 2019). She returns to the fluctuating place of the body and the color of the skin among thinkers of the racial question by inviting us to get out of the categorical distinction between social and biological.

The revival of anti-racist discourse relies heavily on “black body” rhetoric. How did WEB Du Bois, a major thinker of racial inequality, who published “Les Ames du peuple noir” in 1903, tackle this question of the body?

Du Bois insists on the idea that the black question was constructed politically and administratively, first by slavery, then by the establishment of official segregation and what is called the rule of « one-drop rule », who wants one to be assigned to the administrative category “Black”, regardless of his appearance, if there is a drop of “black” blood among his ancestors. Thus, for Du Bois, it is necessary to distinguish this administrative category and the color of the skin. In Souls of the Black People, he describes the people he meets with very varied adjectives – gold, copper, fawn, beige, dark brown… There is a whole range of colors, which correspond to the administrative label “Black”. But that does not mean that “Black” means something totally artificial or theoretical, because the assignment to this category has very concrete, material and physical effects, including life and death – I am thinking in particular of the chapter in which he describes how his 18 month old son dies, because he failed to find a black doctor to save him. Later, in his autobiography, Du Bois comes to think that race cannot be a concept, but rather a group of forces, facts and tendencies, among which something of the order of feeling, physical. He established a link with Africa and with the slave trade and slavery.

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