Public Comment

Racializing the homeless

Steve Martinot
Friday February 07, 2020 - 03:13:00 PM

The cruelty of law

Torture, as a form of cruelty, is illegal. Yet it is practiced by police and government agencies, all over the country. Some people cannot stop themselves from being cruel to others. There are cops who have subjected persons to repeated shocks from a stungun (aka taser). We know it was done just to see them writhe and scream, because the victim was already in handcuffs. Some people have died from this treatment. Judges have been known to overlook obviously falsified evidence in order to convict a person. The list is long, and populated mostly by those with a graceful brown color to their skin. 

Racial profiling is also illegal, though it is practiced by police departments all cross the country. Racism itself is a form of cruelty because of the disparagement and deprecation implicit in singling out and discriminating against people of color. It is an especially bloated cruelty because it enacts a tradition of intentionally defining people as "other" in order to devalue them (via harassment, exclusion, denigration, etc.). To act in a cruel manner always means to define the victim of one’s cruelty as "other." 

What do we do, then, when we are confronted with a cruelty on the part of our own city government, who find it in their hearts to invent a form of discrimination, and to produce an arbitrary "otherness"? What do we do with a city government that can deploy a structure of racialization through that process? 

Where do we find our city government acting in this way? For one thing, it is in their attitude toward the RV dwellers, who are a fraction of the total homeless population of the city. 

The city of Berkeley has a little clause in a proposed ordinance banning RVs from the streets of the city that implements itself by banning sleeping in an RV between the hours of 2 am and 5 am. This is alightly inaccurate. No RV can be parked in Berkeley during that time, which amounts to the same thing since the RV is the "home" of a person who has to wake up to move it. Since RVs park in public areas and on public land, and are licensed by the state, this becomes a regulation about machines rather than people. But it is the person sheltered by these machines who is besieged, in order to induce them to leave the "polite" territory of this city. In the midst of a national crisis of homelessness, the selfishness of this kind of measure is outrageous. 

Its hypocrisy, of course, is that it refers to people who, though priced out of normal "housed" existence by greed, have been able to partially shelter themselves (more than the city is able to do). The city can’t shelter them, but when they shelter themselves, it punishes them for it. That is, the city has chosen to punish them for their accomplishment where the city has failed. The horrendousness of this lies in the fact (yes, the "fact") that the city has chosen to do this through sleep deprivation – a process internationally recognized as a form of torture, and thus of cruelty. 

In the extreme case of a cop torturing a person with taser or nightstick or constraint equipment, anyone with human compassion would see the wrong being committed, and the hypocrisy of doing so in the name of law and order. But how do you name it when it is being done subtly, in a hidden and back-handed manner? 

Government is chartered to provide protection for its residents against assault and torment. When government actually creates the stress and torment, where does one go to get protection? Where does one go when one has to protect oneself against the institutions charged with protecting one? 

We might not have pictures of the cop’s orgasmic face as he repeatedly presses the trigger of his stungun. We may have to imagine the corporate officers of large real estate companies smiling as they raise glasses of expensive wine, and toast each other for the windfall of dehumanizingly high rents. But we can see the self-satisfaction in the faces of our City Council when they think of their success in dealing with the economically-generated plague of RV dwellers. . 

Berkeley City Council has had 8 months to expunge this clause from its books and its record after it had been identified for them as a form of torture. They have not done so. An apology would be timely, since enforcement has not yet occurred. After enforcement begins, we could justifiably require these persons, our "representatives," to undergo therapy. 


But it gets worse

The genius of cruelty is that it can always figure out a way to make things worse. And so it is with the Berkeley City Council. In that same ordinance, they included a little expression, “priority population,” which will constitute the dividing line between those RV dwellers granted recognition as human (and given temporary permits) and those subjected to discriminatory behavior by the police (ticketing and expulsion from the city). 

“Priority population.” In the US, we know what that expression means. It brings enormous historical baggage with it through its invocation of a supremacy assumed by white people. That is, it refers to the arrogation of the power to define others as "other." 

Why attempt to turn some of the RV dwellers against others by proclaiming some to be a “priority population”? In a lame way, the city explains that it has been looking for places for RVs to park, and hasn’t been able to find places for all. What they cannot find, with the crippled consciousness they use, is the idea of letting them park where they are now, on the street. That would simply be outrageous. They are willing to spend money to lease lots for RVs to park, but not to hire gaurds to assure that the RV dwellers on the street are safe, and that they get the same trash pick-up and necessary services (pumping out) that regular houses get as “infrastructure.” 

Right now, most of these RVs are parked in industrial areas, or along parks, away from residents. They are not interested in clogging up anybody’s space, or interfering with parking by the public. They are conscious of their condition, and desire only a way of fitting in. Yet regardless of that, they are harassed by those who intentionally separate them from other city residents, and then divide them up against themselves through a multileveled process of privilege. 

As "other," they are, in a metaphoric sense, racialized with respect to the "housed." And then, among themselves, the city creates a hierarchy. To proclaim some people privileged is to reduce the others, excluded from that category, to a form of discrimination. Discrimination against those whose social status is defined as “other” is illegal. Yet the city finds an end run around that by focusing on those who drive licensed pieces of machinery. If you look only at the machinery, and at the markings you make on streets, then you don’t have to look at the people involved and affected by what you do. You don’t have to consider the cruelty involved. 



But what does "racialization" mean? Does it refer to race? Or is it the means be which race is created? Out of nothing? Is it a way of dividing something in which there is no division? 

"Race" pretends to be a division of human beings according to color (primarily, with other traits added in). The problem with human coloration is that it is continuous. There are no natural divisions according to color. Between any two people of different color, one can find a third person whose color will be between those two. European colonialism legislated the only division available to it, that between white and all others, based on the fact that the child of a white produced with a person of color from the colonized population would have a color different from both parents. In order not to share administration of a colony with its indigenous inhabitants, colonialism created a "racial" difference to insure that colonial rule remained white. That is not only how “priority population” came to be synonymous with whiteness, but also how the difference between “white and other” became the basis on which race was defined in the first place. 

How does racialization work? 

Race is defined in different ways in different cultures. Mexico has its own way, as does Brazil, and Japan. If race exists only by definition, then it matters who defines it, and who enacts the definition. Those who define it bring it into existence. That means that the race they define for others is imposed. It is something done to them, which implies that it is done from a position of power or control. In that sense, the concept of race is inseparable from originary colonial dominance, an overlordship which lives and breathes supremacism, as the “priority population.” 

In practice, this means that a black person isn’t born black. They are made black by white supremacist society. It is white people, exercising the power to define that they have arrogated for themselves, that do this. It also means that white people are not born white. They are made white by white supremacist society, imposing its power to define again.  

If race is not inherent in people, because it results from an act of social definition, then the word (“race”) is not a noun. There is no "thing" or attribute that it names. It is a verb. It is something that one group of people does to others. 

The verb is “to racialize.” When white society makes black people black, it is racializing them. When white society makes white people white, it is racializing them. These two forms of racialization may occur from the same origin, but they are different. Whites are racialized to be absorbed into racializing society, and black and brown people are racialized to be excluded and dispossessed of their humanity (to varying degrees). For white people, equality in society is an assumption. For black or brown people, equality in society is a constant struggle. Even today. 

There are white people who would not choose to be white if they had a choice. It is socially bestowed upon them by other white people. But there is no escape. Try as they might to abandon this imposed whiteness with its horrendous history of enslavement, segregation, domination of others, violence and murder in the name of race purity, and its inherent fallaciousness of the concept, they cannot give up their white identity. As soon as they walk out into the street, everyone there gives them their whiteness again. In an uninterrupted manner, it is socially bestowed. Only a cultural transformation will alleviate this situation. 

The term "racism," then, doesn’t pertain to the difference between groups produced as races. It names the systemic activities of some that result in the racialization of others as “other.” It is the name for the multiplicity of enactments that divide society into the racializers and the racialized. 

Isn’t this what City Council has done to RV dwellers, defining one group as belonging to those who will be protected by City Council, and another group that will be excluded and expelled from the society over which City Council presides? In dividing a diverse humanity, it obeys a white privileged power over it – like a structure of racialization. Indeed, its act of defining a "priority population" appeared entirely "normal" to it. 


RV dwellers

The full reality of this situation should be staring us in the face. The homeless are not born homeless; they are made homeless by other people. Being made homeless is something that one group of people does to others. 

The homeless don’t deprive themselves of homes. They are deprived by others. It is this division of society into the deprivers and the deprived that gives substance to the notion that housing is a human right. It doesn’t matter what the deprivers do or where they get the power to deprive others, it is the structure of deprivation (of human standing, through the deprivation of housing) that counts. And it matters that the structure by which some people are deprived of human standing is the same as the structure of racialization. 

The state of California has laws against racial discrimination, laws which the city of Berkeley supports. Yet that same city has a law on its books, written a year ago, that creates a distinction between people that has the same structure as racialization – a distinction between a “priority population” and those defined as "other." 

The real crime, in racialization, is the culture of white supremacy that empowers the racialization enacted. And the real crime committed by Berkeley City Council is its assumption of an elitism by which it can make "othering" rules because it makes them as an elite, without the participation of those the rules are about. 

When some white people in power get together and decide to disenfranchise black people, which has happened several times in US history, they do not ask black people to participate in creating that disenfranchising policy, though it will affect them. Black people would have vetoed the measure. Similarly, when City Council writes an ordinance barring sleeping in an RV between 2 am and 5 am, it does not include any RV dwellers in the making of that policy. They would similarly have vetoed that rule as cruel. Procedurally, white supremacy and City Council elitism enact the same anti-democratic paradigm. Those who will be affected by a policy are excluded from involvement in making the policy that will affect them. 

This is not a good way to run a city.