N.H.I.: Sylvia Wynter Said There’d Be Days Like This…

ap_abc_george_trayovn_kb_130625_wgIn fall of 1992 when I was a senior in college, Sylvia Wynter published an essay forever etched in my mind:  “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues” in Voices of the Black Diaspora ( pages 13–16). That letter was her response to the acquittal of the white police officers in 1992 who brutally beat Rodney King and the jury who further co-signed this social epidemic of white violence.  In fall of 1994, the journal, Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, published Wynter’s letter in its entirety in its very first issue themed “Knowledge on Trial.”   Both the journal and our mission as part of Institute N.H.I. (named from the charge of Wynter’s letter) was to follow-through on Professor Wynter’s call.

Now 20 years later, after a jury of white women and one Latina have sanctioned and anointed the murderer of Trayvon Martin, I find myself re-reading Professor Wynter’s letter.  After the verdict, as I sat for hours and reread her words, I am clear that things are even worse.  

In particular, Wynter reminds us in the letter that our social crisis is one that teachers/theorists/educators have created.  These people who have normalized anti-black brutality are, in fact, our students, the people who have been educated by us within paradigms that require the murder and annihilation of black people.

Here are the first two sections from the opening to Wynter’s essay. I will continue to post sections of the essay in the coming days (until I get thrashed for copyright issues):

Dear Colleagues,

You may have heard a radio news report which aired briefly during the days after the jury’s acquittal of the policemen in the Rodney King beating case.  The report stated that the public officials of the judicial system of Los Angeles routinely used the acronym N.H.I. to refer to any case involving the breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettoes. N.H.I. means ‘no humans involved.’

Stephen Jay Gould argues that ‘systems of classification direct our thinking and order our behaviors’ (Gould, 1983).  By classifying the category as N.H.I., the public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with members in any way they pleased.  You may remember too that in the earlier case of the numerous deaths of young Black males caused by a specific chokehold used by Los Angeles police officers to arrest young Black males, the police chief Darryl Gates explained away these judicial murders by arguing that Black males had something abnormal with their windpipes. That they had to be classified and thereby treated differently from all other North Americans, except to a secondary degree, the darker-skinned Latinos.  For in this classificatory schema too all ‘minorities’ are equal except one category— that of the people of African and Afro-mixed descent who, as Andrew Hacker points out in his recent book, are the least equal of all.

‘Certainly,’ Hacker writes, in Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (1992) ‘all persons deemed to be other than white, can detail how they have suffered discrimination at the hands of white America.  Any allusions to racist attitudes and actions will find Cherokees and Chinese and Cubans agreeing with great vigor… yet… members of all these intermediate groups have been allowed to put a visible distance between themselves and Black Americans.’

‘The Vietnamese,’ Richard Pryor quipped, ‘have learned how to be good Americans.  They can now say nigger.’

Where Did This Classification Come From? The Point of My Letter To You

TMYet where did this system of classification come from?  One that was held both by the officers involved in this specific case of the routine ‘nigger breaking’ of Black males, as well as by the mainly white, middle class Simi Valley jurors?  Most of all, and this is the point of my letter to you, why should the classifying acronym N.H.I., with its reflex anti-Black male behaviour-prescriptions, have been so actively held and deployed by the judicial officers of Los Angeles, and therefore by the ‘brightest and the best’ graduates of both the professional and non-professional schools of the university system of the United States? By those whom we ourselves would have educated?

How did they come to conceive of what it means to be both human and North American in the kinds of terms (i.e., to be white, of Euroamerican culture and descent, middle class, college-educated and suburban) within whose logic the jobless and usually drop-out/push-out category of young Black males can be perceived, and therefore behaved towards, only as the Lack of the human, the Conceptual Other to being North American?  The same way, as Zygmunt Bauman has point out, that all Germans of Jewish descent were made into and behaved towards as the Conceptual Other to German identity in its then Pan-Aryan and Nazi form (Bauman, 1989).

If, as Ralph Ellison alerted us to in his The Invisible Man, we see each other only through the ‘inner eyes’ with which we look with our physical eyes upon reality, the question we must confront in the wake of the Rodney King Event becomes: What is our responsibility for the making of those ‘inner eyes’?  Ones in which humanness and North Americanness are always already defined, not only in optimally White terms but also in optimally middle-class (i.e., both Simi Valley, and secondarily Cosby-Huxtible TV family) variants of these terms?  What have we had to do, and still have to do, with the putting in place of the classifying logic of that shared mode of ‘subjective understanding’ (Jaime Carbonell, 1987) in whose ‘inner eyes,’ young Black males, can be perceived as being justly, shut out from what Helen Fein calls the ‘universe of moral obligation’ that bonds the interests of the Simi Valley jurors as Whites and non-Blacks (one Asian, one Hispanic), to the interests of the White policemen and the Los Angeles judicial officeholders who are our graduates?

In her book on the 1915 genocide of the Armenians by the Turkish pan-nationalists, and on the Jews by the Pan-Aryan racialists of the 1930s-1940s, Helen Fein points out that in both cases there was a common causal factor.  This factor was that the millennium which preceded their group annihilation, ‘both Jews and Armenians had been decreed by the dominant group that was to perpetrate in the crime to be outside the sanctified universe of obligation— that circle of people with reciprocal obligations to protect each other whose bonds arose from their relation to a deity or a sacred sources of authority’ (Fein, 1979). In both cases, although the genocides were inflicted in the secular name of a now sacred ‘national’ identity, based, in the case of the Turks on the discourse of a historical Pan-Turianism and, in the case of the German-Aryans, on that of the sanctity of a ‘pure’ racial stock, both groups had been defined ‘within recent memory similarly to pariahs outside the sanctified social order.’ It was this discursive classification that had enabled them to be misrecognized as aliens, as strangers who were, as if it were, of a different species, strangers, ‘not because they were aliens but because the dominant group was alienated from them by a traditional antipathy’ (Fein, 1979).

This is the same case, of course, with the N.H.I. acronym. For the social effects to which this acronym, and its placing outside the ‘sanctified universe of obligation,’ of the category of young Black males to which it refers, leads, whilst not overtly genocidal, are clearly having genocidal effects with the incarceration and elimination of young Black males by ostensibly normal and everyday means.

Statistics with respect to this empirical fact have been cited over and over again.  Andrew Hacker’s recent book documents the systemic White/Black differential with respect to life-opportunity on which our present North American order is based.  Nevertheless, this differential is replicated, and transracially so, between, on the one had, the classes (upper middle, middle, lower middle and working, whether capital owners or jobholders), who are therefore classified within the ‘universe of obligation’ integrating of our present world system and its nation-state subunits, and on the other hand, the category of the non-owning jobless young of the inner cities, primarily Black and Latino, and increasingly also, White, assimilated to its underclass category.

In the wake of the Civil Rights movements, and of the Affirmative Action programs which incorporated a now new Black middle class into the ‘American Dream,’ the jobless category has been made to bear the weight of the Deviant status that, before the Sixties had been imposed on all Americans of African and Afro-mixed descent, by the nation-state order of the U.S., as an imperative condition of its own system functioning.  Indeed, it may be said that it is this category of the jobless young Black males who have been made to pay the ‘sacrificial costs’ (in the terms of Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat, 1986) for the relatively improved conditions since the 1960s that have impelled many Black Americans out of the ghettoes and into the suburbs; that have made possible therefore the universal acclamation for the Cosby-Huxtible TV family who proved that some Black Americans could aspire to, and even be, drawn inside, the ‘sanctified category’ of Americans just like us— if still secondarily so, behind ‘women’ and the other ‘minorities.’

The price paid by the jobless Black male category for this social transformation is inescapably clear.  With respect to the judicial apparatus itself, statistics show that whilst Black men constitute 6% of the U.S. population, they have come to make up 47% of the prison population.  Whilst, in the entire prison population, in the wake of the mandatory sentences for drug offenses imposed by (largely White and middle class) Drug War officials, both Afro-Black young males and Latino-Brown ones, are to be found out of all proportion to their numbers in the society.  The May 7, 1992 New York Times editorial which gives these statistics, also points out that it costs $25,000 a year ‘to keep a kid in prison; which is more than the Job Corps or college.”  However, for society at large to choose the latter option in place of the former would mean that the ‘kids’ in question could no longer be ‘perceived in N.H.I. terms as they are now perceived by all; nor could they continue to be induced to so perceive themselves within these same terms, as they now do, fratricidally turning upon themselves, killing each other off in gang wars or by other violent methods.

Where does this ‘inner eye’ which leads the society to choose the former option in dealing with the North American variant of the jobless category of the post-Industrial New Poor (Bauman, 1987), the category to which at the global level, Frantz Fanon has given the name les damnés, the condemned (Fanon, 1963), come from?  Why is this ‘eye’ so intricately bound up with that code so determinant of our collective behaviours, to which we have given the name race?

‘It seems,’ a sociology professor, Christopher Jenks, points out in the wake of the L.A. uprisings ‘that we’re always trying to reduce race to something else.  Yet out there in the streets race does not reduce to something else’ (Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 1992).  I have come to believe, after struggling with this issue from the ‘lay’ perspective of Black Studies (which was itself able to enter academia only in the wake of the Civil Rights movements, the Watts urban riots, and the protests which erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King), not only that ‘race’ cannot be reduced as an issue, to anything else, but that it is we in academia who alone hold the key to ‘race’, and therefore to the classificatory logic of the acronym, N.H.I.

My major proposal is that both the issue of ‘race’ and its classificatory logic (as, in David Duke’s belief that ‘the Negro is an evolutionarily lower level than the Caucasian’) lies in the founding premise, on which our present order of knowledge or episteme, [Foucault, 1973) and its rigorously elaborated disciplinary paradigms, are based.

(pages 42-47)

Citation Information:  Wynter, Sylvia.  “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues.” Forum H.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century 1.1 (Fall 1994): 42-73.