OK, first of all, I promise I won’t shout out any more of my friends' books for at least a week. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

HystericalBlackness recently mentioned to me (I’ve been reading HumanityCritic a lot lately and one of the many things I’ve learned – besides kicking people in the chest as a method of conflict resolution - is that it’s fun to refer to people by the names of their blogs) that much of what we’ve all heard about the social aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was not, strictly speaking, in the conventional sense of the word, um,“true”. As such.

I looked into it & here’s what I found, presented in Q&A form for your convenience:

Q: Did people really get murdered at the Convention center?
A: No.

Q: Did people really shoot at rescue workers who were trying to help them?
A: No.

Q: Did evacuees really act stupid in the towns they were evacuated to?
A: No.*

Q: Were evacuees really ungrateful for the help they received?
A: No.

Q: Will White people believe anything you tell them about Black people, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense?
A: Apparently.**

Q: Would people in power really use the fear of Black people to manipulate white people?
A: Now who would do a thing like that?

Q: So people are really making up fake stories about hurricane victims wilding out?
A. Yes.

Q: Don’t you think that’s a little weird?
A: Yes.

Q: No, seriously. Do these people actually want the hurricane victims to be perceived as ungrateful and/or violent?
A. I guess.

Q: Why would they want that?
Funny you should ask, although really it’s not that funny considering you’re not an actual person but a rhetorical device that exists specifically to give me the opportunity to say what I’m about to say, which is that I read an article on precisely this subject on the way home from b-boy practice last week.

In the new (September 2005) issue of American Quarterly, the journal of the American Studies Association, Devon W. Carbado, a law professor at UCLA and British-American of African descent, discusses how stereotypes about scary Black people 1) directly discourage real Black people from exercising their rights, and 2) create a social environment where not exercising your rights seems normal:

Presumably, everyone feels some pressure to be polite and courteous in the context of police encounters. Presumably, everyone employs technologies of the self. Each of us negotiates the pressures of governmentality. But for blacks, the pressure to be polite, and the self-discipline and self-regulation it engenders, is often experienced as a survival strategy. The reason relates to stereotypes. To the extent that blacks are perceived to be criminal and dangerous and that both of these perceptions invite police surveillance and control, there is an incentive for blacks to direct their performance of obedience toward disconfirming or negating stereotypes.

One way blacks may attempt to negate or disconfirm stereotypes is to consent to more police searches than they otherwise would. If, for example, Toney, a black man, consents to the search of his person and the search yields nothing, Toney may believe that he has demonstrated that he is not criminal, disconfirming or negating the stereotype that he is. Another strategy Toney might employ is to respond to questions such as “Where are you going?” “Where are you coming from?” and “What are you doing in this part of town?” under circumstances in which, as a matter of formal law, he is not required to do so. Toney may believe that answering questions of the foregoing sort sends a clear signal that he has nothing to hide, that he is not in fact “up to no good.”

One can think of stereotype-negation strategies in the Marxian sense as a kind of surplus compliance. Surplus compliance is productive (“surplus”) not only in the social sense of helping to make the stop play out smoothly; it is productive in an affective sense as well, creating a sense of comfort, ease, and naturalness to the stop. More generally, surplus compliance is naturalizing in that it reflects and reproduces a “normal” way of being American and a “normal” understanding of a particular American identity. From the perspective of the police, black people are supposed to perform surplus compliance; it is “natural” (sometimes articulated as “rational”) to expect them to do so. From the perspective of black people, surplus compliance is a constitutive part of their American lives – an existential “what is.” The Americanizing economy of police interactions not only creates the racial demand for and supply of surplus compliance, but it profits from the production of this racial obedience.

(Carbado, “Racial Naturalization”. American Quarterly 57: September 2005, p. 650)

I had to read that last paragraph a few times before I got it, but it’s kind of brilliant. Or at least it got me to think about the issue in a way I had never thought of it before, which is good enough for me.

*OK, some – some - evacuees having been acting ignorant. But if you took any hundred thousand people from any ethnic or class background and destroyed their town, I guarantee you the same percentage (whatever that may be) would flip out. And whatever percentage of them were jackasses before the disaster would probably remain jackasses afterwards. But what does that prove?

**I was surprised to learn recently that many black people don’t know that many white people are under the impression that if they go to a black neighborhood they will immediately be surrounded, beaten and robbed, just for being white. I’ve mentioned this to several people of both constituencies and have for the most part gotten consistent responses:

Black people: “WHAT??!!”

White people who don’t have regular interactions with Black people: “Wait…you mean that’s not true?”