On November 23, 2012, a seventeen-year-old African American boy named Jordan Davis was shot and killed at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. During a verbal exchange with Davis over loud music being played by Davis and three friends, the shooter, a forty-seven-year-old white male named Michael Dunn, pulled out a handgun from his glove compartment and fired ten shots at the parked SUV that Davis occupied; three bullets struck Davis, piercing his liver and killing him, with the other seven riddling the side and back of the SUV as it drove off. In his murder trial, Dunn justified his actions as self-defense, arguing that he feared for his life. Yet Dunn’s fear-induced response seems clearly excessive, begging us to question what fuels this fear that inspired him to fire ten times at a retreating vehicle. Dunn’s case, which ignored a focus on racial motivations and led to both his conviction for attempted murder of Davis’s friends and a mistrial on the charge of murder for succeeding in killing Davis, exacerbated national outrage about the apparent lack of value placed on the lives of young black men in America, a debate already ignited months earlier by the Florida not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the killing of another black teenager, Trayvon Martin. Both these cases help to demonstrate how race functions in contemporary American society. They point to the need to understand race not strictly as an embodied fact but as a projected reality, the contours of which are drawn in our minds but experienced in the real world. They call for an understanding of a psychic reality that governs racial interactions.
The Dunn case in particular brings to the fore issues of psychic fantasy and racial imagining. Dunn claims that he pulled out his gun and decided to shoot first because he saw Davis pick up what he assumed to be a shotgun from the floor of the SUV. Though Dunn would later admit to police that it could have been a pipe or a broom, no weapon (or other object resembling a shotgun) was found by police. In addressing the mistrial, State Attorney Angela Corey explains, “A person in [Dunn’s] position doesn’t have to see something (an actual weapon), but there has to be reasonable fear”; “that,” she says, “is the way Florida law reads.” If fear is thus sanctioned by the law as justification for the killing of others, it seems even more imperative that we understand its source.
Read from this book’s Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective, Dunn’s fears facilitate analysis of not just race but also the core process of othering that is constitutive of racial difference. These fears point to a deeper hatred of the other that is veiled by the restrictions upon self-expression imposed by America’s shifting discourses on race. Blurring the lines between self-defense and hatred, what today complicates cases such as Dunn’s and Zimmerman’s is our increased inability to account for racist motivations. Though African Americans remain largely convinced that race continues to be a primary factor in American life, as a result of the successes of the civil rights movement, Americans have become more conscious of the moral impropriety of racial bias. While this self-consciousness has led to more respectful treatment of African Americans, it has also allowed Americans to become more adept at a kind of self-policing that enables the expression of racially biased opinions through the screen of politically correct speech. In the supposedly post-racial era initiated by the presidency of Barack Obama, in which race purportedly no longer matters, it is impolite both to express racist views and to accuse others of racism. Thus the discourse of race has shifted to such arenas as culture, which recall race without naming it.
In evading direct reference to racial difference through a focus upon the boys’ “behavior” and the rap music they enjoy, Dunn simultaneously divulges a hatred of the other that extends beyond race toward what Jacques Lacan calls the other’s jouissance, or enjoyment, the very core around which, I suggest, otherness articulates itself to constitute racial difference. It is against this jouissance that Dunn’s actions must be read, and it is this jouissance that explains the possibility for hatred in contemporary America to address itself at racial difference without need of acknowledging this difference.
Lacanian theory defines jouissance as the pleasure made available to the subject through the mediation of discourse, the pleasure availed this subject by his or her ability to ground a psychic sense of the self as coherent, autonomous, and self-controlled through use of the mechanisms of language and fantasy. Where Lacan reveals the subject to be psychically split, most noticeably between the conscious and unconscious, control over the discourses that define the self, and over the environment this self occupies, becomes a means of veiling the gap that fissures all individual subjectivity. This book identifies white racial identity as just such a discourse for white Americans, serving to ground white identity in the jouissance of language and fantasy. Fueling Dunn’s fears and hatred is apprehension over the dwindling hegemony of this discourse.
Dunn defends himself not just against his would-be attackers but also against an entire race of people taught by a culture of entitlement to grope after the pleasures of a jouissance that should rightfully belong to white Americans.
In evoking a discourse about black entitlement, Dunn’s case engages more far-reaching contemporary debates about the rights accorded to black Americans. These debates have played out in such matters as the Supreme Court’s upholding of the University of Michigan’s ban on race-based college admissions in a decision rendered in April of 2014 and in the Court’s earlier overturning, in June of 2013, of a key feature of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discriminatory voting practices to gain preapproval for changes to their voting laws. What is being debated in these cases is how far we have progressed as a country, given the presidency of Barack Obama and other positive social changes, and how much weight should be granted to arguments about the lingering legacies of America’s racist history. But at the core of these debates, I would submit, is an effort to balance jouissance, to weigh what is taken away from others in attempts to establish equality for African Americans.
Trauma and Race suggests that such a balancing act is made necessary because the racial history of America has bound African Americans discursively to excesses in jouissance. Though contemporary etiquette insists that these racialized individuals not be read differentially, African American identity remains open to rearticulation by a historical lineage of racial significations that, even when functioning through the vagaries of culture, has psychological import for both Americans and African Americans.
For African Americans specifically, vulnerability to dominant discourses productive of racial otherness leads also to exposure to a psychic trauma that issues from the racial past and repeats itself in the present through the agency of the signifier. I call this trauma the trauma of slavery, and I will define it as a continual assault on African Americans’ fantasies of being. Though this trauma is bound to slavery, I will show that what slavery made manifest to black Americans was the fundamental psychic condition of the subject who, at root, is alienated from being. Where fantasy and discourse mask alienation through such concepts as racial whiteness for white Americans, this alienation confronts African Americans repeatedly through signifiers of otherness that oscillate between pinning African Americans to undeserved excesses of jouissance and binding them to notions of inferiority that question not just their access to being but also their very humanity.
for many African Americans, what the cases of both Dunn and Zimmerman reinforce is a long historical past of violence and trauma that extends to slavery.
We feel the weight of this traumatic past in the responses to these cases that issue not only from the outspoken African American individuals who populate the outer premises of the courts during the trials holding signs that demand justice but also in the deeply personalized responses to the Trayvon Martin case articulated even by the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama. Though Obama is well known for his emotional collectiveness and though he had rarely addressed the issue of race in America before Martin’s killing, upon being asked for an impromptu comment on the case, Obama punctuates his statements with the assertion, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Calling this his “main message . . . to the parents of Trayvon Martin,” Obama suggests his own familial and racial ties to Martin. What Obama’s response displays is the manner in which racial trauma, the excesses of jouissance that emerge from the transgressions of others, often becomes the source of a bond that constitutes and coheres African Americans as a racial group. Obama, occupying the distance of the presidency and acknowledging his necessary legal impartiality as “the head of the executive branch,” is interpellated into identification equally with a racial identity and a racial past traced in a lineage of African American suffering.
In this tracing, we see a shift from past notions of racial essentialism, such that racial identity is determined by commonalities in experience, by similarities in the discursive relation to being that is established by a racism that questions one’s subjective value. This shift, like the move to culture described above, defines racial similarity through jouissance, through a relation to modes of enjoyment and experiences of suffering that repeat across time.
It is this focus on a jouissance bound to both language and the history of slavery that will guide much of Trauma and Race. Through a Lacanian understanding of the function of the signifier in language, I will present slavery as a traumatic past that, by means of the signifiers of race, comes to repeat itself in the present to organize both racial relations and personal identity around a fantasy relation to being. Where this fantasy relation articulates itself through mediation of structures of jouissance that emanate from slavery, I read racial identity and racism as efforts to manage and manipulate the jouissance of being that emerges from the trauma of this past. The paradox of race as an apparatus of jouissance, however, is that it binds African Americans to a past in which race was used to decimate the enabling fantasies of being that enslaved blacks sought to establish for themselves.
It is this paradox that centers the analysis of this book. Critiquing the allegiance to race that many African Americans maintain today, Trauma and Race argues that by embracing the concept of race contemporary African Americans become psychically bound to the traumatic past of slavery. While articulating the psychic and political limitations of race in chapters 1 and 2, the book argues for a freeing up of identity that goes some way toward relieving the self from a determinative relation to the past. Using the literature of Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison in chapters 3 and 4, I not only suggest the pathological extremes to which race urges subjects both white and African American — extremes that extend even to the point of what Lacan terms perversion and neurosis — but also present through these works models of how a traumatic relation to the past may be altered. Throughout, I suggest the urgency especially for “African Americans” to embrace a more expansive conception of the self, one that recognizes and celebrates the self as more than racial. Arguing that it is the intensity of one’s adherence to racial identity that opens one up to a reliance upon the identity structures of the past that produce for African Americans a traumatic relation to being, I advocate for an identity politics that makes room for full expression of the psychic lives of those individuals who would call themselves African Americans. Where the pursuit of both racial whiteness and African American fantasies of being seek after an impossible unity meant to mask the fragmentation inherent to the psyche, what I promote is a relation to being that embraces the multiplicity of the self. It is beyond these racial fantasies of the whole self, I will suggest, that both white Americans and African Americans must come to establish a truly salutary psychic relation to the being that is stricken from all our subjectivities.
Sheldon George is a Professor of English at Simmons University in Boston, Massachusetts. From Trauma and Race: A Lacanian Study of African American Racial Identity by Sheldon George. Copyright © 2016 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.