Faculty Spotlight

“Black Lives Matter: Disrupting the Duality” An Interview with Dr. Aaron Rosenthal

The following is a conversation with Dr. Aaron Rosenthal, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Simmons University, and Taylor Eubanks, graduate student in the Gender and Cultural Studies program at Simmons University.

Here they discuss his book-length project The State You See: How Government Visibility Creates Political Distrust and Racial Inequality, which asks how government is made visible in the lives of Americans, as well as his forthcoming article “Black Lives Matter: Disrupting the Duality.”

What project are you currently working on?

Aaron Rosenthal: My essay, “Black Lives Matter: Disrupting the Duality,” is an extension of a current book project where I examine how government visibility has shifted over the last five decades of American history. And when I say “government visibility” I'm speaking about the way in which government presents itself in people's lives. In the book, I show that over the last 50 years a duality has been created within government visibility, wherein the government appears in white people's lives in a way that fundamentally differs from the way it appears in the lives of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). 

For example, what we've seen with whites is a rising number of benefits that the government provides but are hidden within the tax code. We can think about things like the home mortgage interest deduction which is provided as a tax cut only to homeowners and the value of the deduction goes up as the homes get more expensive. Racist housing policy, and ongoing racism within America's housing market, means that the benefits like mortgage interest deductions go disproportionately to whites. Policies like this within the housing market, and labor market, are similarly structured to benefit whites.

For both people of color and whites, the ways that government is visible have made each side of this divide less trusting of government.

At the same time that whites have become less aware of how they personally benefit from government, they have become more aware of how they perceive racial others benefiting from government policies. The rising visibility of what we often call “welfare,” or direct cash assistance has increasingly become a political topic, a campaign topic, so when white people think about government, they think “this force doesn't provide any benefits to me but takes my tax dollars and uses that money to provide assistance to Black people, BIPOC more broadly, through welfare.” So, it's flawed on both sides: whites receive huge amounts of government benefits that are hidden in tax code and, of course, welfare has been slashed repeatedly over time. And in fact, the majority of welfare recipients actually are white, but this is the logic of government visibility that's been created over the last 50 years.

On the other side of things, over the same five decades, we've seen the rise and conspicuousness of what I call the “criminal legal system,” or what is usually called the criminal justice system. Within the lives of BIPOC, and particularly Black people, is the rise of mass incarceration. This is the divide that exists in government visibility, but what's important to understand is that they have disparate or different impacts on political attitudes and behaviors. For both people of color and whites, the ways that government is visible have made each side of this divide less trusting of government, and there are different political consequences that flow from this divide.

What are some of those consequences?

Aaron Rosenthal: We can see both whites and people of color have become less trusting of government over the last 50 years. Where white people's distrust gets them more involved in the political process, it has the exact opposite impact on people of color and often distrustful people of color are less likely to engage in the political process. White people feel sort of fueled by their distrust and feel they have to get involved in change. Whereas the distrust among people of color comes from this feeling of policing, control, surveillance, that feels very, very much like government is a threatening entity that's best avoided. This pushes people of color away from the political process.

Earlier you said the “logic of government invisibility.” Can you elaborate on what this means?

Aaron Rosenthal: The logic of government visibility refers to what people think government is and does, and how when asked, they tend to rely on the most visible manifestations of government to describe its purpose. But visibility isn't necessarily a part of government that you are encountering every day. For instance, public schools versus policing; teachers don't wear uniforms or drive cars that say “I'm connected to the State, I'm part of government” even though public schools are government systems. Whereas it’s obvious when you're dealing with a police officer that you're dealing with authorities vested in the State. There is no way of ignoring an interaction with police is an interaction with government. That's what makes the police so visible as a manifestation of government, particularly in communities of color. On the other hand, for whites visibility tends to be a lot more indirect – through exposure to rhetoric from politicians, social media, conversations with friends – ways in which government is talked about but not directly interacted with.

Your article “Black Lives Matter: Disrupting the Duality” explores the changing visibility of government for white people, and you connect that to the Black Lives Matter movement. How is BLM changing visibility?

Aaron Rosenthal: I think whites have been able to disconnect the police from government. A lot of people are able to listen to politicians who have made what I would consider to be a contradictory logic, simultaneously advocating for smaller government and more law and order, which we don't even think of as contradictory. Yet it really doesn't make any sense to call for smaller government and increased law and order. 

So white people have long been exposed to rhetoric in which it’s normalized to think “yes, I want smaller government, and I want more police presence in other people's communities.” But Black Lives Matter disrupts that way of thinking, and it does so in a way that I think is really powerful because it's so often not mediated by political rhetoric. Because you have the rise of camera phones and social media, people are forced to confront videos in which it's clear what the State is doing – again police officers wearing uniforms so State authority is very visible. You're forced to confront that connection between the police and government in a new way.

Because you have the rise of camera phones and social media, people are forced to confront videos in which it's clear what the State is doing.

I think the pandemic has made Black Lives Matter particularly potent, and I talk about this in the article. People were home, they were consuming more news, they were consuming more social media and that compounded with the very visceral, horrifying details of the George Floyd video, making for a particularly strong disruption. It forced white people to reckon with police violence in a new way because they saw that violence being carried out in a more heinous manner. All of that comes together to create this moment in 2020 that I think was particularly powerful in disrupting that epistemology of ignorance among whites.

Along with race, how might class and gender complicate the visibility of government?

Aaron Rosenthal: There are certainly class dimensions to this. I’m creating broad camps that are in some ways unfair. I chose to form a boundary placement between whites and BIPOC, and this is always going to illuminate certain truths at the expense of others. By placing the boundary in the way that I have, I’ve blurred or erased other differences that are existing across class lines, across gender lines, across a big category of BIPOC that, of course, is heterogeneous.

I see this as a first step. I'm expecting other people will build on this and critique my work and break it all down in other ways. I think class obviously plays a big role; the police are most present in Black, lower socio-economic communities, what we would call “race-class subjugated communities,” in the United States, where you have the intersection of race and class coming together to create an intersection or disadvantage.

But at the same time, we might think about the idea that some of the people who are experiencing high amounts of police visibility, or at least interactions with the police, are actually middle and upper-class Black people who may live in white neighborhoods and they're more likely to be stopped or seen out of place. To the extent that these are individuals whose class position might suggest police wouldn’t be so visible in their lives, police can in fact be very visible. 

I think this suggests there is real power to creating this division based on race, in a way that cuts across class lines, but there are all sorts of other sources of variation that are being lost, such as gender. Class and gender differences are something I’m hoping to delve further into with future work.

You use the term “criminal legal system” instead of “criminal justice system.” What is the significance in that?

Aaron Rosenthal:  A lot of feminist and critical race scholarship have used the terms “criminal legal system” or “criminal punishment system.” Really the language is designed to unsettle or challenge the idea that the system as it's currently constituted delivers any form of justice. The more we can start to turn away from that language of criminal justice, the more that we force people to think differently about what the system is actually doing.

The language is designed to unsettle or challenge the idea that the system as it's currently constituted delivers any form of justice.

Finally, remind us why this project is important.

Aaron Rosenthal: To me it's important to discuss the ways in which we can create change. Obviously, there's an understanding now, among many people, that we need to change the way the criminal legal system functions. There are new calls for reform that are built on the work of Black Lives Matter. Only by understanding how white ignorance has been constituted around these issues, how it's been created and eventually disrupted, can we think about the ways in which we move from a place of awareness to a place of advocacy. Which is really where I see everything needing to go. It’s one thing to say “okay, white people are now aware of what the criminal legal system is doing,” but awareness isn’t advocacy. The next step is to get to a place where we can actually talk about reform and I’m hoping this work helps us move toward that place.

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