Racial Authoritarianism

DC Politics National Politics

New Orleans      Rochester, New York is an interesting place in its own right.  The heart of downtown is a semi-wasteland, but along the edges there are bike and running trails along the canals.  The Kodak building is a monument to what was, just as the statue of Fredrick Douglass is one that still is.  The lake effect snow comes in hard.  There are heated tunnels between buildings at Rochester Institute of Technology, where our son graduated in Criminal Justice.  The resignation and retirement of the police chief, the deputy chief, a commander and several others, coupled with the suspension of seven officers in the killing of Daniel Prude should give them some extra time to take some of the same courses at RIT, maybe emphasizing the “justice” part of the phrase.  They claim there was no coverup, but everyone can tell there was also no justice.

Sadly, it won’t be a simple fix that some adult education can solve, because the problem goes much deeper.  John Hopkins Professor Vesla Weaver and Yale Professor Gwen Prowse coined a powerful phrase for the problem in the current issue of Science by terming this experiential reality “racial authoritarianism.”  The concept immediately hits you like a brick to the head.  We all hang on to the belief that we live in a threatened political regime cloaked in the ideology of democracy with practices that so often contradict that mythology from voter suppression to White House rants.  Still, we think of preparing to vote this November as doing our part to prevent a drift towards authoritarianism and still point to leaders in other countries like Russia, Turkey, and Hungary as best examples, rather than stepping back and viewing our own country more clearly.

The professors turn all of those notions upside down by pointing out that the practices of authoritarianism are deeply entrenched and have been for years, but racialized in a way that dominant groups still find possible to ignore.  As they write, “One segment of the population effectively lives under a different set of rules, and, as a result, experiences differential power and citizenship.”  They argue persuasively that this authoritarianism is hiding in plain sight.  Examination of national institutions frequently covers up this reality by not focusing on life at the local levels in our highly decentralized governmental practice and experience.  The police, as we see too frequently, are the local enforcers of this authoritarianism.  Citing an extensive narrative database, the professors are clear that “US residents have a sophisticated understanding of the actual operation of democracy and are witnesses to its relationship with authoritarian practices.”

The heart of their brief in Science is to advocate for a more robust theory of political life in the United States than the way existing theory has “segregated” the experience of Black, brown, and other minorities. Scholars have been clear about the way it worked in the South, but have pretended that the systemic impacts diminished after the 1960s and were not structural but regional.  The professors argue that scholarly work in Latin America has been more clear-eyed in looking at the detritus of military-rule, than stepping back and looking at home.

Perhaps now that they have named the problem, their colleagues will pay attention and heed their call.  More critically for the rest of us outside the academy, their terminology has powerfully described the reality of life for so many in our country living and suffering under authoritarianism now, that it is more than a call for better study of our democracy.  It is an indictment of our democracy and a demand for more action.