This morning, I came across a newly published article in the New York Times on the history of lynching in the U.S. south. Curiously, I noted that the author racialized the lynching victims – they were repeatedly referred to as black – but the race of those who did the lynching was left unmarked. In the article, blacks were lynched by “a group of men”, a “mob”, or simply by no one at all (using the passive voice). Not once in this article about a horrific chapter of the racial past was it ever explicitly acknowledged that whites did the lynching. Even more disturbing to me, when the author characterized lynching as “racial terror”, he used quotation marks. As if the phrase was in question.
Reading this piece of journalism, early in the morning before I’d even had my coffee, felt like a slap in the face. I wondered about the depth of denial required to not only write, but approve, an entire article about racial lynching—during Black History Month, no less!—that implicitly masks the role of white people in the bloody affair. But this pattern of denial was as unsurprising as it was upsetting. Not only is the erasure of whiteness and white responsibility a general feature of white supremacy, it is also one of my main findings about the representation of racial history on the other side of the Atlantic, in France. This latter topic is the subject of Resurrecting Slavery, the book I’m currently completing during my leave.
The lynching article illustrates similar patterns of asymmetric racialization and white erasure at work in the way slavery and colonialism are depicted in French society today. In official representations, I found that the enslaved were very often racialized as black – yes in “colorblind” France – but whites were rarely acknowledged. But this is far from the entire story. Outside of official speeches and texts that promoted white erasure, whiteness was at times recognized and deconstructed in commemorative events on the ground, especially in arenas where people of color had the opportunity to engage each other and openly discuss the history and legacies of slavery. These spaces of discussion and contention among ordinary people are important sites of knowledge production where minorities and anti-racist whites can produce alternative understandings of race, challenging the post-racialism and denial of the French state.
In Resurrecting Slavery, I argue that it’s a mistake—in France and elsewhere—to think that “breaking the silence” about racism or racial history is itself anti-racist. Racial history is all too often represented in ways that perpetuate the invisibility of white people’s role in (re)producing racism. This is particularly the case when authors, politicians, commemorative officials or academics join in masking, denying or justifying white people’s agency and responsibility for racism in the past and/or present. Take, for example, the 2001 “Taubira Law” that made France the first (and to this day, the only) country in the world to recognize slavery as a “crime against humanity”. On its face, this legislative development might seem like a significant step in the fight against racism. After all, no other Western nation has explicitly enshrined in law any recognition for the criminality of transatlantic slavery—a practice that was routinely legitimated and justified with racist ideology by European practitioners throughout its history. Yet, a closer look at the text of the law reveals certain peculiarities. The three main articles of the legislation read as follows:
The French Republic recognizes that the transatlantic negro slave trade as well as the trade in the Indian ocean on the one hand, and slavery on the other, perpetrated from the 15th century in the Americas and in the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean and Europe against African, American-Indian, Malagasy and Indian populations constitutes a crime against humanity.
The academic curriculum and programs of research in history and the human sciences will accord to the negro trade and slavery the consequential place they deserve. Cooperation which permits and places in articulation written archives available in Europe with oral sources and archeological knowledge accumulated in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and in all other territories having known slavery will be encouraged and promoted.
A request for recognition of the transatlantic negro trade as well as the trade in the Indian ocean and slavery as a crime against humanity will be introduced before the European Council, international organizations and the United Nations. This request will equally target the selection of a common date on an international scale for commemorating abolition of the negro trade and slavery, without preference for the commemorative dates of each overseas department.
The text of the law makes it clear that the French state now acknowledges that transatlantic slavery was criminal and calls for educational and commemorative efforts to resurrect this aspect of the past. But, as other scholars have pointed out, the legislation decries a crime without a culprit. The wording also singles out specific groups that were targeted and exploited: African, American-Indian, Malagasy and Indian populations. Further, the law implicitly reifies a racial category—in this case, blackness— with four references to the “negro trade” (traite negrière). But how are those who carried out enslavement characterized? The first article declares that slavery was “perpetrated”, yet no perpetrator (individual or collective) is mentioned. More to the point: not only are the perpetrators of slavery not named, they are not racialized. The slavery past is represented in terms that resurrect certain aspects of race, but only the race of the victims.
Many sociologists have argued that race is socially constructed. Resurrecting Slavery draws attention to an aspect of racial construction that is rarely addressed by social scientists: the way our understandings of race are intertwined with ideas about time. Colorblind discourse (which is hegemonic in
France) not only denies the existence of racial groups (especially whites) generally, it also asserts a specific temporal representation of race. As critical race theorists have shown, colorblindness is, first and foremost, an attempt to erase race from representations of society and often entails a denial of various aspects of race in the past and present. At times, people are able to challenge this erasure by constructing what I call racial temporality—making connections between racial categories, relations and processes across time. Such temporal labor is, I argue, both a key component of racial cognition and an important tool of anti-racism.