The Perception of Rodney King in the Eyes of Racist Community

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In “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” Butler unpacks the difference between ‘seeing’ and ‘reading’: while ‘seeing’ suggests viewing an object in a neutral way, ‘reading’ objects are to ascribe them with culturally-sanctioned thoughts, values, and feelings. However, when it comes to race, the visibility of other races is determined by whiteness in that this visibility feeds the legal and social structures which are maintained and powered by white hegemony at the expense of oppressing non-whites. Butler’s discussion on the violence against Rodney King sheds light on how the societal construction of the black male body, the “racial production of the visible,” threatens white normativity and how this “production” is normalized and manipulated to curtail feelings of guilt surrounding racial inequality and prejudice. When brought to court, the automatic argument against King was that he was the one who had instigated the police as “his body being beaten was itself the source of danger,” and in turn they had a ‘reason’ to take action. To read King as the one creating the violence while he is repeatedly beaten requires viewing the video evidence through a thick racist lens and justifying the policemen’s kicks and beatings as evidence of King’s threat to whiteness. As a reader, I ask how seeing this video can lead to the statement that “Rodney King was not being abused.

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Rodney King was directing the action” and that “[King] never lost control…he was in complete control.” Butler explains that there is a white racist episteme that conveys the black male body as a strong and constant threat to the white male body, that “the virgin sanctity of whiteness” will be endangered by the proximity of blackness, and therefore, whiteness must be protected. That being said, according to this racist episteme, every movement made by King was interpreted as defiance of the police and every kick and beating by the police was a justified retaliation to King’s blackness. This logic that results in the exoneration of the police who take away unarmed, innocent black lives is a result of a form of thinking in the legal justice system, one that ratifies that idea that blacks are a threat to white society and society must be defended, to which violence is asserted to unarmed black men and women. Furthermore, the theoretical understanding of the black male body as a threat to the “virgin sanctity of whiteness” can be explored by turning to Franz Fanon’s exclamation, “Look, a Negro!,” in the video. Here, the “Look,” constituted through notions of fear, regards the body as inherently dangerous and in turn, this racist perception and the normalization of violence against innocent black lives in the name of self-defense are ratified by the police and the public. Therefore, even when King did not threaten or have a weapon, anti-black racist authority figures, through a racist lens and filter, were able to easily ‘read’ King as someone who is a threat to whiteness, and this form of thinking is reproduced through numbers of minorities stopped and subject to police violence and the prejudice against them justified of as lives not worth grieving for.

In my pod group, we thought that Butler’s differentiation between ‘seeing’ and ‘reading’ helped us get a better understanding of how we acquire these racialized thoughts and feelings through our experiences and knowledge of the world. We agreed that the law is a performance of paranoia because we felt that, especially after the brutality and racism King faced, the law is out to get those who hold a different mindset, one different than the nations’ and we are subject to obey the law and subject to the paranoia of going against the law to maintain our freedom or get out of any trouble. Next, we talked about how legal scripts about ‘danger’ is essential to nation building in that the law is trying to make everyone with different ideas to be one mind and one body. This reminded me about the political ideals of Hobbes in which we submit our power and freedom to the law for its protection from the ‘dangers’ of society and the ‘dangers’ of acting on our own without any guidance from the nation. Overall, the criminal justice system and visual media not only continues to deny racism in the justice system, but continue to facilitate and depict racial acts to be socially significant and essential to nation building.

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