Friday, August 16, 2013

The Visible Hand of the Market: Public Inequality and Private Violence

Dear Readers,

Pardon the hiatus, if you would be so kind. I can't say that I won't go away again, but instead I will promise to post some of the thoughts I've begun but not completed over the last six months. It seems that, now, this is how I blog.

The following are notes I took while trying to think of something to move the discussion about the Supreme Court hearings on DOMA from where it got stuck--namely, in simple assertions that gay marriage is the new interracial marriage, and denials thereof.


Drawing these equations is fraught, I know. We know about the similar objections: opponents have variously asserted that gay marriage and interracial marriage are unnatural, antisocial, and confusing or outright damaging to children. Advocates for a liberalizing gesture argue that unrestricted choice in the marital arena is as much a hallmark of a free person as the ability to select any new model of cell phone.

I'd like to come at these from a different angle and talk about the shared status of both interracial and same-sex trysts as open secrets. In the spirit of the tried-and-true feminist dictum that "the personal is political," I'd like to sketch out some ways that the open secret of widely-known private affairs connects with the official world of law and economics.

While reading black newspapers of the nineteenth century with my students last semester, I noticed a recurring canard: advocates of black civic equality had to continually assert that black men allowed to vote after Emancipation would not immediately cart white women off to bed. I guess you couldn't be too careful. Black men allowed to hold that pristine white paper and insert it in the box. It was so sexy, they were bound to get ideas. It was the Victorian era!

As Ida B. Wells later exposed at such great risk to herself, the repeated fiction of black men's assaults on white women was but a fig leaf: too small to cover consensual sex between white women and black men, on the one hand, and coerced sex between white men and black women, on the other. As Wells demonstrated, the likeliest victims of lynching were black men attempting to open shops and compete with white vendors. Thus, while accusations of rape covered an economic motive, the act of lynching itself, the relish taken in dismemberment, exceeded any strictly economic motive.˚

In Eileen Malvin's "Mistress and Slave," a poem published in the black newspaper The Christian Recorder in 1863, the reader approaching the "gate" of the Big House is greeted by children "with the master's shame" on their faces, so similar to his. In more recent times, we recall Strom Thurmond, the stalwart advocate of segregation of the races, with a secret "black" child born out of wedlock. We know that during slavery and Jim Crow, white men fathering but disclaiming children with black women was not an isolated incident; nor was it unknown to wives, parents, siblings, neighbors and pastors.

As I read of this well-known legacy, I find myself thinking of the numerous Congressmen, Senators, coaches, and clergy in or our own day caught having sex with males--often with minors and young interns.† Given a segregationist Strom Thurmond and the homo-antagonism of guilty preachers and Congressmen, we usually point out their hypocrisy and leave it at that.

But the greater matter might be this: the men who have engaged in these prohibited activities are not necessarily "hateful" in the way we have come to expect. That is, they do not have some automatic reflex that causes them to hate people who aren't white or straight at first sight. Rather, they are insisting on the right to benefit privately from social inequality maintained publicly.

When a society makes race, religion, gender, or sexuality principles for distributing property, education, pleasure, and protection, that decision renders certain groups vulnerable to predations in wide-ranging social arenas. Some of these occur in the public sphere: segregated accommodations, wage discrimination, and the like. But these same inequalities reappear in other guises in the intimate sphere, serving up vulnerable populations to be consumed or humiliated. (Nor, of course, should we forget that, for women like Essie Mae Washington's mother, the Thurmond home was someone else's domestic space, her workplace, and a site of sexual coercion. The same might be said of prisons, which are dwelling places, and often sites of labor exploitation and sexual violence, as well.)

It is really not surprising, then, that racists and homophobes can be sleeping with their social subordinates. Nor should it surprise us that such secrets were and are well known and well-guarded by friends, family, and neighbors--all of whom have a share of the social goods that have been distributed to their social set. The official, public register of law, housing, government, and work always exists in a relay with tastes and predilections indulged off the record. In the act of protecting property interest, official politics necessarily protects private access to vulnerable populations.

While it is certainly not the case that gay marriage is the last great civil rights struggle or that it will, by itself, undo global capitalism or US imperialism, changes in the intimate sphere have a significant impact on the daily existence of vulnerable populations. Because these are matters of immediate physical safety, it is unacceptable to reduce politics around gender, race, and sexuality to a struggle to obtain recognition of or sensitivity to the cultural practices of one's ethnic group. There is a whole continuum of acts, from sexual violence to murder  designed to impose social deference through humiliation--at the threat of death. The very survival of those punished for bitchy, queer, or uppity behaviors is at stake--and that's as material and objective as any version of "class" proposed by the anti-identity politics crowd.

Rather than dismissing changes in the intimate sphere for not being "the total revolution"--whatever that might be--it is probably more useful to think of them as an integral and necessary aspect of it. For, in reality, vulnerability in the public sphere is nearly always attended by vulnerability in the intimate sphere. To question and resist one can absolutely be a gateway to resisting the other. The goal for those who rightly rail against economic inequality, then, should be to more securely link the two, rather than to continually trivialize that which occurs in the dark. For that hand kills much faster than the invisible hand of the market.


˚ Of course, it wasn't black men who had sex on the brain while voting. Rather, the confusion of the two acts was a result of a paranoid fear exemplified in the testimony of one James Atkins, in Congressional hearings on Georgia and other insurrectionary states in 1871. Generalizing about his fellow white Southerners, the IRS collector said: "They take the question of equality in its broadest sense. If you talk about equality, they at once conclude that you must take the negro into your parlor or into your bed—everywhere that you would take your wife." This remarkable testimony actually does not say what we expect. It does not say that a black man voting will want to take a white man's wife or daughter. In Atkins's telling, an enfranchised black man would actually be the white man's bedmate. Without a woman in sight, the white man could find himself in the role of wife in that pairing. 

† I want to be clear that sex with boys and young men did not replace sex with black mistresses. The rumor-mongering about John McCain's alleged black child showed how that scandal could still derail a campaign in 2000.

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