Death, injury, and pain are not distributed equally—they affect specific communities more than others, and touch certain lives while leaving others unscathed. This disparity points, in part, to the political, economic, and other histories that continue to warp our present. A system of mass incarceration scars African-American and urban communities; legal structures calibrated to combat perceived, national threats mark the daily life of those who differ from the white, heterosexual, Christian male American law for centuries imagined as the ideal citizen.
But the disparity also highlights the need for communities to come to terms with this distribution of death and injury in ways that make the present livable and, perhaps, empowering or invigorating. It is this aspect of pain and mourning that, in addition to larger political structures, forms the center of Laurence Ralph‘s work. An anthropologist at Harvard, Ralph looks not only to questions of political action, but also to the felt realities that emerge from environments in which death or disability remains a constant presence. His work in Chicago—found, among other places, in his book Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago—places individual stories and memories at its core. These stories are the nexuses of national politics and everyday life—as well as tales of suffering, joy, death, and meaning. I spoke with Professor Ralph in his Cambridge office about his writing, the politics of mourning, and activism in the contemporary United States.
—Lewis West for Cosmologics
Cosmologics: How have you seen the concepts of race, politics, and death intersect in your field, in your work, and in your ethnographic research?
Laurence Ralph: There’s a lot of ways in which they intersect. For me, as an anthropologist, I think about it less in terms of politics with a capital “p”—in terms of voting or even social movements—but in relation to how the political context shapes lives. I work in urban communities, so I think about the way in which risk is funneled into particular communities so that it disproportionately affects their lives and disproportionately subjects them to injury and premature death. That, for me, links the politics of the everyday to death. I also study how people mobilize around the fact of death, the fact that they feel they can encounter death on an everyday basis, and the fact that they know loved ones who have died prematurely, whether it’s through issues like gun violence or health care concerns. For me that’s how death and politics are related.
Cosmologics: Could you talk a little more about the mobilizing around those questions that you’ve seen?
Laurence Ralph: There’s a lot of ways to look at that as well. Now, in the context of police violence, you see a kind of aggressive mobilization around death: people are trying to raise awareness through Black Lives Matter, other campaigns like that, and the shear amount of protest in different cities around the issue of police violence. Mobilizing around death then becomes a way to talk about the injustices of society, of the government, more broadly. So it’s not just about the death of Eric Garner, or Michael Brown, or Trayvon Martin, but also about countless other deaths that go unrecognized; it’s a petition to make those deaths recognizable, valued, and legible to the government in some way.
Cosmologics: You’ve also, in Renegade Dreams, written about how focusing on death can block certain aspects of everyday life that we need to talk about. Could you expand on that?
Laurence Ralph: What I try to distinguish between, in my work, is death (as the expiration of life), on one hand, and how people try to make sense of their own lives through commemorating the dead, on the other. Vincent Brown, for example, in his work, The Reaper’s Garden, talks about how slaves had all these rituals that had to do with death and burying the dead. There were ritual forms around death that had a lot to do with life and sanity and valuing one’s loved ones, even in the context of slavery. What I’m saying is that there’s also a kind of political formation that emerges around death, and that emerges around the injustice of cutting a life short.
Often one tells a linear narrative about how far the country has come, or about what we’ve learned from those episodes, without acknowledging the changing material circumstances that produce the inclination to riot or that produce disproportionate policing and surveillance in different cities.
The way I theorize this in my work is as an attempt to grapple with injury. People are really trying to wrestle with injury, trying to reimagine injury, trying to reimagine the possibilities for what injury could mean. How people understand injury is important socially, because when it comes down to many social issues—such as gun violence, which I talk about in my work—most people don’t actually die. There are a number of ways that people are debilitated: they’re in wheelchairs and they have to wrestle with the consequences of those injuries for the rest of their lives. Through the concept of injury, I try to answer questions like: How do we think about not dying? How do we think about these consequences, which are going to affect people throughout their lives, in ways that aren’t exclusively about death?
Cosmologics: So what sort of resources have you found, in thinking about disability studies or injury, that supplement talking about politics and death in isolation? What are the important connections for you?
Laurence Ralph: One of the important connections, I would say, is to examine how people belong to their communities before and after a traumatic event happens. We often think about things in terms of the traumatic event. But we don’t necessarily think about what happens after that event. I think that, in many ways, what happens after the shooting, what happens after the murder—it involves many people. It involves a community. In examining how a community responds to an event, we can get a better sense of their social world, and the problems that affect it. By observing what happens after an instance of violence, in other words, we see that the ways people manage their grief in those occasions are ways injury or death affects communities. In trying to understand or come to terms with something traumatic, we can actually gain insight into what death means, what injury means, for particular communities that are most often affected by certain kinds of death and injury.
Cosmologics: Moving back to Renegade Dreams, one of the things that I thought was very helpful was how you constantly linked the everyday and broader historical narratives. I was wondering if you could say a couple words about the present moment in conversation with these larger narratives, but also what you see as the overall value for making and reinforcing that connection.
Laurence Ralph: I like to talk a lot about what gets erased in historical narratives, as well as the way people understand history and the way they understand the present. We can understand a protest, or a reaction to police shooting, in terms of a larger history in the US of riots, of civil unrest in different American cities. So it’s important to reflect on those facts. But often one tells a linear narrative about how far the country has come, or about what we’ve learned from those episodes, without acknowledging the changing material circumstances that produce the inclination to riot or that produce disproportionate policing and surveillance in different cities.
What I’m trying to do is to give a cultural, social, and historical rendering of what the sentiment of a protest, for example, could mean, and why it takes shape in this particular fashion at this particular point in time.
History’s important because, on the one hand, we’ve seen some of these things before. But on the other hand, a lot of the way that the U.S. polices poor communities now, and its connection to mass incarceration, is unprecedented. We have to grapple with what is similar and what is different from what we’re seeing in the historical record, as well as how scholars make sense of those reactions.
Cosmologics: How do you understand your place as an anthropologist, specifically, and then broadly as someone in the academy, in relation to social justice? And how does that affect your own work and your attitude as an academic?
Laurence Ralph: I think this is a historical question as well, actually. When we look at a younger generation protesting, or reacting to some kind of injustice, we often have particular models of activism in our head, of what they should do, of what should work. We often say—whether it’s Occupy or Black Lives Matter—what is their program? How are they going to petition legal or political bodies? How are they going to get representatives? We have a very clear narrative of what politics looks like and of what it can do. We don’t necessarily understand why people would lose faith in such a system. My goal as an academic is to try to bridge the gap between the kind of expectations “experts” or academics may have, and the young people who I work with. Maybe the job of the protester is not actually to develop a program to petition Congress; maybe that’s the job of a policy maker, maybe that’s the job of an expert in another field. My job is to translate those frustrations into a kind of social and historical context that gives it another audience, one that will value their responses to social inequality.
When it comes to these issues, if we’re really serious about solving the social problems that affect a society, we have to take advantage of our abilities and our talents in a multiplicity of ways. What I’m trying to do is to give a cultural, social, and historical rendering of what the sentiment of a protest, for example, could mean, and why it takes shape in this particular fashion at this particular point in time. In other words, we have to work together if a change is going to result from this activism. I think the danger is to dismiss it if it doesn’t take shape or congeal in a particular way without realizing that it took a multiplicity of efforts for any movement to gain shape. It took lawyers, who adjudicated the cases, it took academics, who expanded it to another realm, it took public policy people. The same thing has to occur if we’re going to gain insight and change from the frustrations that people currently feel in society.
Laurence Ralph is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Departments of Anthropology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of (University of Chicago Press). His scholarly work explores how the historical circumstances of police abuse, mass incarceration, and the drug trade naturalize disease, disability, and premature death for urban residents, who are often seen as expendable.
Lewis West is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.
Image from Flickr via Genial 23