Django Unchained and the Mask of American Race

After tackling World War II anti-Semitism with Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has now tackled the issue of American chattel slavery with Django Unchained. Specifically Tarantino is concerned with whether slavery was good or bad. And just in case anyone has forgotten, slavery was bad. It was like very, very bad. And say what you will about Quentin Tarantino—“He’s a bloviating shitbag, but he makes great movies”—at least he stands firmly on the side of morality when it comes to the issue of American slavery, which comes as a relief because there was a definite undercurrent in American society that had begun to suggest that 19th century American chattel slavery perhaps wasn’t so bad and we should maybe reconsider its abolishment.

Or not. Because close to no one has really been in favor of slavery at least since Strom Thurman passed in 2003 or at least since the Republican National Convention back in September (their slaves are simply poor people and women). Thus apart from a few mottled Strogh’s beer enthusiasts populating some Mississippi backwater trailer park, reviving chattel slavery hasn’t really been a topic of American discussion for quite some time.

However Tarantino believes that this film, along with every other one of his self-proclaimed masterpieces, is politically relevant today. In regards to his film’s portrayal of slavery, Tarantino has compared the institution of slavery to that of America’s prison system. “The scenes that we have in the slave town, the slave auction town, where they’re moving back and forth—well, that looks like standing in the top tier of a prison system and watching the way prisoners are traded back and forth.” In another interview with George Stroumboulopoulos, he elaborated further that “This whole thing of this ‘war on drugs’ and the mass incarcerations that have happened pretty much for the last 40 years has just decimated the black male population. It’s slavery, it’s just slavery through and through.” While it’s entirely worthwhile to note the disproportionate racial composition of America’s prisons and question the war on drugs’ efficacy, it’s problematic to compare this institution to that of slavery.

Mass incarceration did not emerge in response to the same conditions as that of chattel slavery, which isn’t to say that mass incarceration is necessarily any less racist. It’s only to say that slavery performed a very different function in response to a set of very different circumstances. Instead of dividing two groups (poor indentured whites and poor enslaved blacks) that shared a common economic status, today’s mass incarceration has instead been argued as having emerged in part as a response to growing urban unrest precipitated by rising unemployment and a sensational, racialized image of urban blacks as criminals and drug offenders. Rather than wage a war on poverty, as both Martin Luther King and President Johnson had advocated, a war came to be waged against crime and the perceived progenitors of urban street crime. No less racist in its outcome, as evidenced by statistics referenced below, this yet represents a wholly different kind of racist institution from slavery that Tarantino mistakenly identifies as being the same, and it also requires an entirely different set of mechanisms to overturn.

New Rose, New Name

The distinction between chattel slavery and racism is a rather crucial one. Slavery was, after all, first and foremost a distinction between who was slave and who was not, and the racial distinction between slave and non-slave was not inherent in its earliest inception but rather emerged later. The planter elite of the American South needed an effective means of separating poor and indentured whites from their black counterparts, all of whom shared the lowest relative social tier in Southern society. Collusion between these two groups threatened to undermine the planter elite’s status, as evidenced by Bacon’s rebellion of 1676. As a result of this failed multiracial rebellion, Southern planter elite began to rely more heavily upon non English-speaking labor imported from Africa as opposed to indentured servants from England as a way of preventing easy collaboration by these two groups. Buttressed by emerging concepts of race and a clear distinction between bonded African slave and poor indentured servant, poor whites were soon assured of their difference from the lowest on the socioeconomic ladder on account of their whiteness in opposition to Africans’ blackness. In this way American racial beliefs emerged in tandem with racial hierarchies that served to mask class realities that might otherwise have betrayed similarities rather than differences.

Yet even as American chattel slavery came to be defined along racial lines, this did not prevent freed slaves from living alongside whites and owning slaves themselves. As F. James Davis notes in his book Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition, “Until the 1840s in South Carolina … both known and visible mulattoes could become white by behavior and reputation and could marry into white families,” and he provides the example of the Metoyer family which “became wealthy, cultivated the arts of education, bought freedom from slavery for their own relatives, and themselves owned slaves” (36). Foregoing a discussion of the nebulous and socially constructed definitions of race, this account helps to illustrate how chattel slavery differed from later American segregation.

It should be understood that segregation during the era of slavery would have proved not only grossly impractical, but unnecessary as well. Racial divisions may have emerged to buttress the institution of slavery and further distinguish  poor whites from bonded blacks, but slave and non-slave remained the principal division of social caste. Therefore it was unnecessary to segregate races when the prevailing division was between slave and non-slave, to say nothing of the inconvenience it would pose to erect an institution of segregation that would prevent your slave from being in close regular contact with you. What makes the development of segregation most strange and largely antithetical to the prevailing understanding of American race relations is that segregation was born in the Northern states before moving to the South. As C. Vann Woodward points out in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, during the era of slavery “the Northern Negro was made painfully and constantly aware that he lived in a society dedicated to the doctrine of white supremacy and Negro inferiority” (17-18). Woodward also points out that in Southern slave states “the races lived in closer proximity and greater intimacy of contact and association than they did in any other part of America” (14).

With the abolition of slavery, that former close association between whites and blacks morphed into a system of segregation that redefined Southern social relationships. This is not to say that this shift, or that slavery itself, was inevitable. Both institutions’ racial features were designed in part to exploit class resentments among poor whites competing with blacks for jobs and economic status. As most scholars will tell you, Jim Crow segregation was designed in large part to mask class disparities and turn the difference between rich and poor whites into a distinction between white and black, allaying poor white class resentments with the understanding that their status was contingent not upon their wealth but upon their ‘whiteness’ in opposition to others’ ‘blackness.’ Both poor whites and blacks were thus inducted into a system of exploitation predicated upon a perceived material difference in their identity (their race) that obfuscated their shared class status (their poverty).

So while slavery emerged as a distinction between slave and non-slave that largely corresponded to perceived racial differences, it was not entirely racial in nature insofar as blacks could purchase their freedom and later own slaves themselves. Segregation, meanwhile, was marked entirely by racial divisions. Race would come to be defined by the state as a biological reality identifiable not by appearance (as is often thought the case) but by one’s ancestry and the “one drop rule,” wherein the presence of at least one black ancestor marked an individual as legally ‘black.’ The landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson ushered in federally sanctioned segregation practices and notably declared Homer Plessy black due to his one-eighth African ancestry despite his white appearance. This federal definition of race was therefore entirely different from the earlier definition of slave, and not until the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 would this definition be overturned on the grounds that there is no scientific basis for the designation of racial identities, making differing treatments of races that don’t exist not only unjust, but entirely devoid of rationale.

Much like slavery and Jim Crow before it, the war on drugs and its commensurate mass incarceration of blacks emerged from a specific set of social and economic circumstances. Though it had its origins in the 1970’s, the War on Drugs was officially inaugurated in October of 1982 with President Reagan’s announcement of his federal initiative to tackle the apparent specter of America’s drug problem. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, at that time less than 2 percent of the American public considered drugs the most important issue facing the country. Most Americans were instead concerned with difficult economic issues facing the country. Alexander shows that “By 1984 the black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled … not due to a major change in black values, behavior, or culture; this dramatic shift was the result of deindustrialization, globalization, and technological advancement” (218). In other words, deindustrialization, globalization and technological advances which replace blue collar labor with machines had a disproportionate effect on black workers throughout the 1970’s. Many blacks lived predominately in urban centers where such industrial jobs had once been plentiful, and because blacks were yet emerging from several generations of Jim Crow and its impoverished education system for black students, they were less likely to have the skills and higher degrees needed for work in America’s burgeoning service economy which came to replace its industrial one.

Thus the war on drugs’ apparent targeting of inner-city blacks can also be seen as having targeted the skyrocketing unemployment associated with urban black neighborhoods. Most sickeningly, federal money that could, or rather should have been used for programs designed to ameliorate urban poverty through assistance and retraining programs was instead funneled into the criminal justice system. Alexander points out that by 1996, “Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent)” (57). Prisons, in other words, had seemingly become the answer to the country’s urban housing problem.

One way in which the war on drugs’ racial bias is expressed concerns disparate mandatory minimum sentences for possession of cocaine in its various forms. Before President Obama signed legislation reducing the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, possession of crack cocaine was punished one hundred times more punitively than possession of the same amount of powder cocaine. Obama decreased this disparity to eighteen-to-one, which still unfairly punishes possession of the same amount of cocaine in “rock” form versus its powdered form, but it at least reflects a marked improvement from its earlier one hundred-to-one ratio. One must ask why there should be such a large disparity in the first place unless it was to target and penalize users of crack cocaine, a drug that is largely found in the predominately black urban ghetto.

The stark disparities between the American penal system’s incarceration of blacks and whites certainly indicate a systematic bias. Consider that:

  • Drug offences alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000.
  • As of September 2009, only 7.9 percent of federal prisoners were convicted of violent crimes.
  • Between 1980 and 2000 the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails rose from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million.
  • By the end of 2007 more than 7 million Americans—or one in every 31 adults—were behind bars, on probation or on parole.
  • Human Rights Watch reports that in at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of whites.
  • In 2006 one in every fourteen black men was behind bars in 2006.
  • In major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.
  • If current trends continue, one in three young African American men will serve time in prison.

(Alexander 29-81)

And yet the war on drugs greatly differs from segregation because it is couched in race-neutral terms that mask the system’s disproportionate effect on black communities. Such race-neutral terms make it possible for the state to evade legal challenges that should otherwise demonstrate an evident racial bias and thereby compel a change of policy on the grounds of its unconstitutionality. Alexander cites two important Supreme Court decisions, the first McCleskey v. Kemp and the second Armstrong v. United States, that have shaped the way in which the war on drugs and mass incarceration has proceeded in America.

In both cases, plaintiffs asserted racial bias on the part of the court system, and in each case the Supreme Court ruled against them. Alexander shows that as a result of these decisions

defendants who suspect racial bias on the part of prosecutors are trapped in a classic catch-22. In order to state a claim of selective prosecution, they are required to offer in advance the very evidence that generally can only be obtained through discovery of the prosecutor’s files. (Alexander 117)

In other words, in order to prove racial bias on the part of the courts, you must first provide evidence that only the court can provide, but you will only be provided that evidence if you can first prove racial bias on the part of the courts—it is just as circuitous and fucked up as it sounds.

You’re not poor, you’re …

While each of these three American systems—chattel slavery, Jim Crow apartheid and mass incarceration predicated upon the war on drugs—reflect a racial bias, the underlying problem is not, as one might presume, inherent racial biases. To be sure there are plenty of racists in America, just as there are in the rest of the world, but people tend to hate others for a variety of reasons, and those resentments can be amplified and exploited for any number of reasons for any number of purposes. The underlying problems of institutionalized racism are instead State policies designed to mask economic class injustices—institutionalized racism simply becomes a more visible injustice laid over class injustice. Slavery emerged as a way for planter elite to preserve their powerful status and power by affirming the difference between poor indentured whites and bonded blacks. Later Jim Crow apartheid would likewise avert multiracial collaboration between poor whites and blacks by creating a social hierarchy predicated not upon the difference between slave and non-slave but upon the imagined racial difference between white and black. Race itself became a state institution, and once again a barrier between poor blacks and poor whites was affirmed.

As the short-lived Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War faltered and Southern Redemption instituted the segregationist codes that would constitute Jim Crow apartheid, at least one political philosophy attempted to stem the tide of Southern racism by offering a multiracial class approach. The radicals of the late nineteenth century, who would later form the Populist Party, addressed both poor white and black Southerners thusly:

You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism that enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars you both. (qtd. in Alexander 33)

The deception is manifest here in the mask of racism and its constituent racial hierarchy which conceals the economic one. And because economic hierarchies function independent of race insofar as both whites and blacks may be exploited by its mechanism, the argument is that a racial hierarchy makes no sense. In fact, it makes no sense not only because racism is unjust but because the putative reality of biological differences upon which racism relies is fallacious. There are no biological races, as the world’s geneticists will tell you, only socially constructed ones, and only by first creating race and then establishing a racial hierarchy can the economic hierarchies be masked. Thus only by first dismantling the architecture of race, as Martin Luther King Jr. advocated and largely succeeded in accomplishing with the Civil Rights movement, can the underlying economic injustices then be addressed. And this is the work that King initiated shortly before his assassination with the Poor People’s Campaign.

But dismantling the architecture of race is not what Tarantino or many other filmmakers and novelists alike have in mind. (See my article on The Help for more on this point.) Instead what we get from Tarantino’s film is a reification of that mask of race. The illusion is not dispelled but rather reinforced by the gratuitous, sometimes fun revenge race fantasy that constitutes the film’s plot. Django Unchained reminds 21st century viewers that American slavery was racist and bad, and the attraction to the film’s action is rooted in part in the idea that black audiences can escape into a gratifying revenge fantasy while white audiences can confront and repent for the guilt of their ancestors’ racism. In other words, we get nothing amounting to a refutation or dismantling of race by way of satire but rather a reaffirmation of the putative reality of essentialized races and the putative predominance of racism—thus the commensurate media controversy surrounding the film’s use of the word nigger and depictions of racial brutality.

Controversies ignited by a film like Django Unchained only serve to reaffirm our belief that a prevailing culture, and not an institution of racism constitutes America’s problem. Any concern with today’s institutionalized policy-driven racism would be apparent not in the depiction of the abolished institution of slavery but in the depiction of America’s prison system and the war on drugs. And the mechanism by which such institutional racism is corrected is not through violent revenge fantasies which reinforce the mistake of race but rather by less exciting though far more efficacious legal challenges and public outcry against those institutions. State institutions that persist in the mistaken oppression and persecution of one race over another are nothing if not unjust, and the public outcry and corresponding legal challenges are best motivated not by the idea that racial oppression alone is mistaken but by the understanding that the very architecture of race itself is a mistake. Furthermore if Tarantino is truly concerned with “standing in the top tier of a prison system and watching the way prisoners are traded back and forth,” he would do better to make a film that addresses this contemporary concern rather than one which depicts the extinct institution of American chattel slavery.

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2012. Print.

Davis, F. James. Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition. Pennsylvania State University: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. Print.

Luster, Deborah. All photographs.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1966. Print.

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