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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Northwestern Professor Spotlights Forces Behind Structural Racism in Liberal Democracies

Why do racial injustices, racial inequalities and racial disparities in democracies persist over time without redress? Why has police violence against Black citizens persisted in the post-civil rights era? Northwestern University Associate Professor of African American Studies Dr. Barnor Hesse discussed these questions and more this week in a Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs webinar on “White Sovereignty and The Law of Racial Rule.” Hesse highlighted some of the reasons why liberal democracies are the sites and sources of continuous racial injustices, inequalities, and disparities, despite claims to liberty and equality as universal ideas and practices. Here are three key takeaways:

Understanding white sovereignty is critical to understanding structural racism.  While precise definitions of sovereignty can differ considerably, nearly all offer a clearly defined lens through which to understand claims to and enforcement of power. In U.S. political history, who is the “we” referenced in “we the people,” “we abolish slavery” or “we made the world safe for democracy? This “we” is in explicit reference to white citizens, who possess the sole capacity to define America and to supervise and authorize that definition, Hesse said.

The enduring power of white sovereignty is based on the repetition of three social forms of violence. White settlers’ foundational violence established the historical right of conquest, and created the space over which whiteness regarded itself as the sole power, Hesse said. “This form of violence plays out each time a black person is subject to stop and frisk or killed by the police.”

The second form of violence uses language to externalize and impose whiteness as the primary authority in society.  This plays out in our criminal justice system any time a police officer is not charged or convicted of a crime, or when black people are disproportionately arrested, convicted and incarcerated, Hesse said. And reiterated violence, which is instituted to ensure the permanent authority of whiteness, recurs in benign and ordinary situations such as when the presence of a black person is questioned by white citizens, he added.

These three forms of social violence work in tandem to create a problem that extends beyond the shortcomings of law enforcement or other institutions. “They demonstrate that the capacity for social violence rest in the hands of white citizens as a legacy of white colonial settlers, and reproduce the idea of white domination and authority,” Hesse said.

Liberalism and democracy play a role in the perpetuation of white sovereignty. Liberalism theoretically offers black citizens an opportunity to assimilate to the universal ideals of individualism, but without any reference to the structural formation and history of race, ensuring white sovereignty prevails. It presents the white narrative as the universal, which in turn systematically closes any opportunity to raise the issue of race in any meaningful way.

Likewise, democracy offers little incentive for white citizens to forego their structural domination or allow their accounts of the world to recognize structural racism.  The white majority has the ability to democratically decide what is or is not discussed openly, and thus conversations about race are ultimately silenced, Hesse said.

This webinar is part of Northwestern Buffett’s "Building Sustainable Futures: Global Challenges and Possibilities" webinar series. This series will focus on a different United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) each quarter, beginning with UN SDG #16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Dr. Hesse’s talk was the first in a series examining how existing infrastructures uphold and promote violence, with the aim of exploring what we must do to build more effective and accountable institutions.

Watch the full video below: