Race and Violence in America: Symbols and Experience of Power

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

If something constructive is to come from the fraught cultural moment in America now–as debate, protest, and Presidential comment have bubbled in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal of criminal culpability for killing Trayvon Martin–we have to focus on the symbolic yet mobilizing force of violent exclusion in all its forms. In my last two posts, I have commented on the Trayvon Martin case as generally important for becoming aware of the violent symbolic, exclusion-focused underpinnings of American political life. This is important, because so many of us respond to and participate in ideological stories of violent exclusion, and doing so makes American society inevitably incompletely democratic. At the same time, awareness of this widespread, fundamental cultural-political problem of violent exclusion has to grow from awareness, more specifically, of American racial identities as revolving around practices of Black exclusion. As American Anthropological Association President Leith Mullings has just written:

[as] a discipline, anthropology has a special relationship to race—the concept that figured so strongly in the Trayvon Martin case… Anthropology is the discipline that fostered and nurtured ‘scientific racism,’ a world view that transforms certain perceived differences into genetically determined inequality and provides a rationale for slavery, colonialism, segregation, eugenics, and terror. Our discipline also has a significant tradition of anti-racism that emerged from the tumult leading to World War II.

And as she continues to discuss, the divergent reactions or assertions about whether racism drove George Zimmerman’s actions … well, this socio-cultural divide certainly calls for explanation. Mullings adds:

Though prosecutors, many journalists and large segments of the public saw the case as a quintessential example of race profiling—there is ample evidence, many believed, that Zimmerman profiled the teenager because he was a young Black man—during and after the trial both teams of lawyers and the jurors tripped over themselves proclaiming that neither the murder nor the subsequent not guilty verdict had anything to do with race. How do we explain these startlingly different responses as to the role of race?

Issue #1: Did George Zimmerman, armed and actively monitoring his neighborhood for possible criminal activity, rely on racial profiling to decide that he should act on his kernel of suspicion about the boy who turned out to be Trayvon Martin? This issue is legally key, of course. If George Zimmerman was motivated by a simple racist stereotyped belief about what young black men in hoodies are like, it would be unambiguous that he had no right to “stand his ground” with his handgun. The testimony and evidence reported in the media suggest that, whatever other ambiguities might remain about the event timeline, Zimmerman actively chose to confront Trayvon Martin. Thus, there is a plausible case that he had no “stand-your-ground” right of self-defense, regardless of motivation, racist or not. Yet, Zimmerman’s lawyers successfully mounted a defense, asserting that time had elapsed between this initial confrontation and a subsequent one in which Martin ambushed Zimmerman. Here, whether or not the prosecution could have countered this argument more effectively before the jury is–on a fundamental level, although this is certainly zero consolation for Martin’s family–beside the point. It’s ambiguous whether George Zimmerman was motivated by racism. More importantly, he is thoroughly part of a culture of violent exclusion, one that is systemic and remains central to the social, practical constitution of American society. This broader, heterogeneous society–interconnected through the status, history, and institutional power of the United States of America as a sovereign nation state–is not focusing on the problem of violent exclusion. It is focusing on the problem of race. More specifically, of Black racial identity in relation to … White? Every other group that seems less dark? Because the legally admissible evidence of George Zimmerman’s racist nature–or lack of it–is limited, the American public clearly feels conflicted over the role of racism and racial identity in the case:

7-22-2013 6

Issue #2: Was it right for Judge Debra S. Nelson to rule–during the trial proceedings–that the lawyers could not speak of racial profiling? This issue takes us beyond the ambiguity of whether Zimmerman was a racist, and it puts us smack in the middle of (and here it is): how race symbolically connects to moving narratives of violent exclusion. Such narratives emotionally engage and actively mobilize politicians, campaign donors, media commentators, and key voting blocs to create and support the institutions that, in turn, wield the sovereign power to use violence for exclusion and marginalization of individuals and groups, within and without US borders … in turn, creating new narratives of violent marginalization.

Basically, the judge’s instructions to the jury–and it’s inescapable to mention the observation that among those presiding over, arguing, or deliberating, no one was black–were to ignore racial identity and racism as factors to consider in the case. As legal scholar and journalist Marjorie Cohn recently reported:

Florida’s self-defense law prohibits “initial aggressors” from using force if their own conduct has provoked that force. So if a defendant “initially provokes the use of force” against himself, he cannot claim to have acted in self-defense, unless he withdraws or retreats.

The prosecution asked the judge to instruct the jury that it could consider who was the first aggressor in the altercation between Zimmerman and Martin. If the judge had agreed to give that instruction, the jury might have concluded that, by following Martin, Zimmerman provoked a physical response from Martin. The defense objected to the instruction, and the judge decided not to give the first aggressor instruction.

The jury was instructed to consider only whether Zimmerman reasonably believed deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself – when he later tussled with Martin on the ground.

Again, the judge, the jury members, the defense lawyers, and the prosecution team included no people of color. Why is this relevant? After all, it’s rather likely that these key players in the Zimmerman case aim, in their everyday lives, to treat all people equally, without racial bias. More generally, although White racism is unfortunately not yet on the verge of extinction, it is safe to say that fewer and fewer White individuals in America harbor and act on racist sentiments, recoiling when others voice or act on racist notions. Yet, structural racism persists in many government and private institutions, involving mortgage lending, access to healthy foods, access to high quality K-12 education resources, and–of course–treatment in the legal system. My aim here is to threefold:

  • I want to explain why the bigger issue about race in the Trayvon Martin case stems from Judge Nelson’s removal of race from consideration in George Zimmerman’s trial.
  • I want to explain how widespread White denial of responsibility for racial disparities in health, education, and incarceration is intimately, but subtly, linked to narratives of violent exclusion that unjustly affect millions of Black people in the United States.
  • And I want to explain why–more generally–those in dominant social positions are usually unaware of the structural advantages that come from their position, but when the position is challenged or resisted, they are all-t0-often moved by narratives of violent exclusion.

As Leith Mullings and others have recently underscored, White-Black racial distinctions in America are–for the most part, of course–no longer produced by direct White segregationist rhetoric backed up by violent intimidation, but still, rhetoric about a color-blind, post-racial America is actually rhetoric mobilizing and supporting the political and economic interests of mainly older, White Americans at the expense of doing something substantial about the structural racism that disproportionately negatively affects Black, Hispanic, and Native American life experiences and opportunities. Given the dramatic statistics about racial disparities in incarceration, poverty, health, and school discipline/suspension problems, why does “color-blind” rhetoric succeed in diverting so many peoples’ attention from this well-documented persisting inequality? Especially when stories about racial difference as defined by group-level biological boundaries and differences are scientifically disproven (Hartigan 2010: Chapter 3) and have less societal, symbolic traction than ever? My argument is that Judge Nelson’s instructions not to speak of racial profiling–specifically addressing all-White lawyers and jurors–is very clearly an instance of “color-blind” rhetoric implicitly but clearly supporting the narrative asserting that non-Black identity is legitimated by morally justifiable exclusion–violent and lethal, if necessary–against young black men who are treated as outside the order of proper American society. And in turn, this is an instance of cultural myth creation, reinforced by the dramatic courtroom ritual, in which sovereign power production in America–while not an all-White privilege anymore–is produced at the expense of Black people seen as threatening.

From a biocultural perspective, I argue that we have to connect how symbolic relationships structure our social actions with something else: how continuous embodied, emotional experience in a material environment structures non-nested hierarchical value relationships among symbols. OK. I try to minimize jargon here, but I guarantee that it’s worth working through this way of stating things. Mainly because race is not biological. Rather, it’s something that has a duality fundamentally analogous to the wave-particle duality of electromagnetic radiation behavior. Seriously. Race is sometimes more appropriately analyzed in terms of symbolic relationships that structure and constrain our beliefs and actions. Race is other times more appropriately analyzed in terms of continuous work that we do, constantly experiencing our environment and adjusting our actions. In short, race is both a socio-cultural web of interrelated, mutually evocative symbols AND continuous bodily interaction with our environment. The result of the former aspect is that racial identities and relationships are defined in terms of symbolically evocative stories. The latter aspect means that we are doing, creating racial identities–our own and others’–so often that we’re not aware of the symbols affecting us and how our actions reinforce prevailing stories of racial identities and relationships. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t realize how often we are influenced by, and in turn, influence stories of exclusion and power that define racial identities in America.

sacred threshold as markedIndeed, the process of culture is always symbolically structured, but it is also recurrently dramatized and emotional. Narratives of violent Black exclusion are mythologized and ritually produced, yielding symbols that legitimize the social order. The problem is, whereas the vast majority of White people can go about their mundane activities, interacting with the material and social world without substantial concern that they will be violently excluded, Black people are frequently–sometimes constantly–symbolically reminded that they or their Black friends or loved-ones are on the threshold of being unjustly singled out–often violently–for exclusion. The cultural effect: a non-nested hierarchical difference in social experience and awareness. White identity is broadly associated with Black exclusion as restoring or maintaining social order, and Black identity is based on awareness of the threat of exclusion.

If we are members of a dominant group--the everyday identity of which is unmarked in relation to a dominated, marked group--we all to often allow ourselves to be moved, swept up in mythologized or ritualized narratives of violent exclusion. Here, individuals from the symbolically marked identity group are defined as subject to violent control--outside the bounds of moral society--in order to define bounds within which the dominant group's moral life is not challenged or strained, is experienced simply as unmarked. The unmarked-marked relationship between social identity groups is central--in biocultural evolution--to the emergence of sociopolitically complex communities, in which sovereign power--as philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1998) has defined it--is successfully produced by creating a lacuna, a state or space of exception within the realm of the politically constituted AND cosmologically imagined universe, where violent exclusion strips some individuals to "bare life," in order to dramatically, ritually legitimize the wielding of sovereign power. Thus, violent exclusion--whether symbolically based on race, gender, ethnicity, generational difference, religious sectarianism, socioeconomic class, or some intersection of these relational aspects of identity--can mobilize an excess of power, backed up by excessive force, in an otherwise democratic society.
If we are members of a dominant group–the everyday identity of which is unmarked in relation to a dominated, marked group–we all to often allow ourselves to be moved, swept up in mythologized or ritualized narratives of violent exclusion. Here, individuals from the symbolically marked identity group are defined as subject to violent control–outside the bounds of moral society–in order to define bounds within which the dominant group’s moral life is not challenged or strained, is experienced simply as unmarked. The unmarked-marked relationship between social identity groups is central–in biocultural evolution–to the emergence of sociopolitically complex communities, in which sovereign power–as philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1998) has defined it–is successfully produced by creating a lacuna, a state or space of exception within the realm of the politically constituted AND cosmologically imagined universe, where violent exclusion strips some individuals to “bare life,” in order to dramatically, ritually legitimize the wielding of sovereign power. Thus, violent exclusion–whether symbolically based on race, gender, ethnicity, generational difference, religious sectarianism, socioeconomic class, or some intersection of these relational aspects of identity–can mobilize an excess of power, backed up by excessive force, in an otherwise democratic society.

One of the peculiarly pervasive and interesting general structural relationships that give meaning to the symbols we use–in terms of mutually defining contrasts between two articulated symbols–is what the linguists Nikolaj Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson developed as the unmarked-marked relationship (Waugh 1982). And as many anthropologists have observed, racial identities often are mutually defined in an unmarked-marked, non-nested hierarchical relationship–a relationship that makes the social advantage of the hierarchically more powerful identity seem natural, be accepted as taken for granted (e.g., Hartigan 2010).

In general, information depends on sufficiently clear contrast between symbols that are articulated spatially or temporally. And what Trubetzkoy and Jacobson identified in the early Twentieth Century, as they helped to pioneer modern linguistics, is that–in social practice–we bring some pairs of symbols into articulation, metaphorically revealing their contrasts in a conspicuously asymmetric way. As Waugh (1982) discusses, one of the clearest examples of this metaphorical process of asymmetric “bringing into awareness” is how contemporary English grammar usage asymmetrically contrasts present-tense with past-tense verb forms. The present tense is used not only to talk strictly about the present. It is also used to point toward situations in which time is not really relevant. “All dogs go to heaven” refers not just to dogs going to heaven now, but also to dogs in the past and future. The timelessness of the statement is not articulated in English through a special timeless tense. Rather, English speakers use the same form they would use when pointing to particular dogs and saying, “Those dogs go to heaven, too.” Thus, present tense is minimally evocative, establishing timelessness or lack of change over time as the default point of reference for picking up on contrasting symbols, pointing to information about temporal dimensions of the environment. When we use the past tense, though, it elicits a more specific detailed awareness of context and evocation. “Those dogs went to heaven” utilizes the verb tense to focus our attention on our temporal relationship to the dogs, the assertion of their heavenly ascent, and their individualness and concreteness compared to the generality of timeless aphorism, “All dogs go to heaven.” The basic metaphorical construction boils down to the analogy: present tense:past tense::generally non-evocative:specific and evocative. While complex and subtle, the unmarked-marked symbolic relationship of past to present tense in contemporary English grammatical usage reveals the dynamic, metaphorical, generative nature of thought and symbolic language. I would suggest that unmarked-marked symbolic relationships are particularly common because they constitute a kind of cognitive algorithm that compress representational data in our minds. As a consequence, we can more efficiently focus our attention on what is socially relevant, rather than sorting through the range of logically evoked related symbols in constructing relevant representations.

But what is especially key for understanding the construction of asymmetrically socially valued racial symbols is the fact that unmarked-marked symbolic relationships can contribute to potent political narratives. Indeed, as Waugh pointed out in her classic (1982) review of the marked-unmarked concept, Roman Jakobson already noted the political implications of Trubetzkoy’s initial observations about marked-unmarked relationships among phonological sound symbol patterns that, in turn, constitute distinctive, recognizable, meaningful word symbols in a spoken language. Jakobson observed that ideological claims for political power are often claims for unmarked symbolic status in relation to political opposition groups … or more generally, politically dominated or ruled groups. Waugh (1982:309) included the relationship between White (unmarked) and Black (marked) as a culturally familiar example of hierarchically, asymmetrically related identity symbols.

The unmarked-marked relationship is especially important for explaining the fact that White privilege exists statistically, relative to the distribution of opportunities or quality-of-life experiences of American people of color, although so many White people are unaware of their relative advantages, perhaps remaining more worried about marginal tax policies or how to get the best deal on their childrens’ student loans, whereas so many Blacks or Latinos are worried about the unfair treatment of their children or siblings in the criminal justice system. Basically, the way the unmarked-marked relationship works, especially between White and Black American identities, is that in most everyday activity and discourse, most White people are not confronted or challenged by experiences that would evoke the ideologically potent awareness of White-Black difference … and, possibly, the Black threat to order and safety. Thus, Whiteness is a social identity that is minimally evoked in the experience of those with greater resources and power. In contrast, most Black people experience daily life with repeated evocation of their Blackness in relation to Whiteness, with further awareness that they are EITHER invisible to most White people OR experienced by White people as a threat to order and safety (or perhaps, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). If you think I’m exaggerating, please look closely at the Pew Center opinion survey results, broken down by racial identities, in the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal. Here, the unmarked-marked symbolic relationship structures the social experiences and practices that continue to contribute to the racial disparity over whether America needs to talk more about racial relationships or whether we already talk too much about race. In the Pew sample, 60% of White adults stated that race is getting too much attention after the Zimmerman acquittal. 78% of Black adults stated that the Zimmerman case raises important issues about race that need to be talked about. John Hartigan, Jr., (2010) provides one of the best introductory overviews and analyses of ethnographic evidence for the unmarked-marked dynamic shaping White and Black identities in relation to one another.


There are certainly many ways in which unmarked, socially dominant group identities have emerged over time and in different human communities. Indeed, the ways that dominant identities are constructed and maintained as unmarked are–at the very least–complex. The same community is likely to be constituted by cultural processes in which multiple dominant unmarked identities are opposed to marked counterparts, so that in some contexts, these identities seem entirely distinct, whereas in others, they may be metaphorically compared. Thus, unmarked male domination may be similar to White domination in some American social contexts, but in other settings, Black male identity may be symbolized as excessively wild, dangerous, possessing an excess of male potency and strength. Consequently, Black male identity can become metonymically represented as fundamental to Black identity as a whole. This can occur in narrative representations and in many White peoples’ emotionally constituted experiences, when challenged by resistance to the unmarked embodied assumption that Black men or Black people in general need to be controlled, their behavior, movements, speech contained, in order to maintain conditions of safety, so that White people can slip back into mundane routines without being aware of their social advantages… That such White narratives were already being recreated in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s shooting should not be surprising. It is interesting, though, that one of the most prominent political criticisms of Obama’s recent comments on the Zimmerman acquittal has come from a Black Republican politician: “Virginia Republican lieutenant gubernatorial nominee E.W. Jackson on Tuesday criticized President Obama for ‘racializing’ the Trayvon Martin shooting and distracting from the problem of epidemic violence among young people in the United States.” The narrative claiming that Obama is racializing (or re-racializing) the Zimmerman case is a way of claiming that it is OK for White people to ignore structural racism and that the violence inherent in such structural disparities is morally justified. The one (ironic) thing that is promising in E.W. Jackson making this claim–that is, from my perspective of seeking a more inclusive, fair, democratic society–is that the inclusion of non-White people in the dominant group will eventually undermine the racialized symbolic definition of the unmarked politically dominant identity. The problems that remain are twofold. One is that this effective deracialization is unlikely to occur until the violent domination and exclusion of mainly people of color–through structurally discriminatory public education, health, and legal systems–is brought to an end. The more profound problem, as I’ve argued in my previous two posts, is that stories of violent exclusion should not move us emotionally, should not blind us to the moral problem of using violence to exclude some people as we seek to define the boundaries of our ordered, safe society. We should not allow this violent non-democratic lacuna in our democratic society to continue to be ignored.


Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics). (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.) (1 edition.). Stanford University Press.

Hartigan, J. (2010). Race in the 21st century: ethnographic approaches. New York: Oxford University Press.

Waugh, L. R. (1982). Marked and unmarked: A choice between unequals in semiotic structure. Semiotica, 38(3-4). doi:10.1515/semi.1982.38.3-4.299