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Basing politics on the gratuitous violence of racism usurps understanding of political economy—this legitimizes neoliberal ideology and mystifies class antagonism


Reed 2013 – professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in race and American politics. He has taught at Yale, Northwestern and the New School for Social Research. An expert on racial and economic inequality, he is a founding member of the Labor Party and a frequent contributor to The Nation (2/25, Adolph, Nonsite, “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How “Cultural Politics” Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why”, http://nonsite.org/feature/django-unchained-or-the-help-how-cultural-politics-is-worse-than-no-politics-at-all-and-why)
In both films the bogus happy endings are possible only because they characterize their respective regimes of racial hierarchy in the superficial terms of interpersonal transactions. In The Help segregationism’s evil was small-minded bigotry and lack of sensitivity; it was more like bad manners than oppression. In Tarantino’s vision, slavery’s definitive injustice was its gratuitous and sadistic brutalization and sexualized degradation. Malevolent, ludicrously arrogant whites owned slaves most conspicuously to degrade and torture them. Apart from serving a formal dinner in a plantation house—and Tarantino, the Chance the Gardener of American filmmakers (and Best Original Screenplay? Really?) seems to draw his images of plantation life from Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, as well as old Warner Brothers cartoons—and the Mandingo fighters and comfort girls, Tarantino’s slaves do no actual work at all; they’re present only to be brutalized. In fact, the cavalier sadism with which owners and traders treat them belies the fact that slaves were, first and foremost, capital investments. It’s not for nothing that New Orleans has a monument to the estimated 20,000-30,000 antebellum Irish immigrants who died constructing the New Basin Canal; slave labor was too valuable for such lethal work.

The Help trivializes Jim Crow by reducing it to its most superficial features and irrational extremes. The master-servant nexus was, and is, a labor relation. And the problem of labor relations particular to the segregationist regime wasn’t employers’ bigoted lack of respect or failure to hear the voices of the domestic servants, or even benighted refusal to recognize their equal humanity. It was that the labor relation was structured within and sustained by a political and institutional order that severely impinged on, when it didn’t altogether deny, black citizens’ avenues for pursuit of grievances and standing before the law. The crucial lynchpin of that order was neither myopia nor malevolence; it was suppression of black citizens’ capacities for direct participation in civic and political life, with racial disfranchisement and the constant threat of terror intrinsic to substantive denial of equal protection and due process before the law as its principal mechanisms. And the point of the regime wasn’t racial hatred or enforced disregard; its roots lay in the much more prosaic concern of dominant elites to maintain their political and economic hegemony by suppressing potential opposition and in the linked ideal of maintaining access to a labor force with no options but to accept employment on whatever terms employers offered. (Those who liked The Help or found it moving should watch The Long Walk Home, a 1990 film set in Montgomery, Alabama, around the bus boycott. I suspect that’s the film you thought you were watching when you saw The Help.)

Django Unchained trivializes slavery by reducing it to its most barbaric and lurid excesses. Slavery also was fundamentally a labor relation. It was a form of forced labor regulated—systematized, enforced and sustained—through a political and institutional order that specified it as a civil relationship granting owners absolute control over the life, liberty, and fortunes of others defined as eligible for enslavement, including most of all control of the conditions of their labor and appropriation of its product. Historian Kenneth M. Stampp quotes a slaveholder’s succinct explanation: “‘For what purpose does the master hold the servant?’ asked an ante-bellum Southerner. ‘Is it not that by his labor, he, the master, may accumulate wealth?’”1

That absolute control permitted horrible, unthinkable brutality, to be sure, but perpetrating such brutality was neither the point of slavery nor its essential injustice. The master-slave relationship could, and did, exist without brutality, and certainly without sadism and sexual degradation. In Tarantino’s depiction, however, it is not clear that slavery shorn of its extremes of brutality would be objectionable. It does not diminish the historical injustice and horror of slavery to note that it was not the product of sui generis, transcendent Evil but a terminus on a continuum of bound labor that was more norm than exception in the Anglo-American world until well into the eighteenth century, if not later. As legal historian Robert Steinfeld points out, it is not so much slavery, but the emergence of the notion of free labor—as the absolute control of a worker over her person—that is the historical anomaly that needs to be explained.2 Django Unchained sanitizes the essential injustice of slavery by not problematizing it and by focusing instead on the extremes of brutality and degradation it permitted, to the extent of making some of them up, just as does The Help regarding Jim Crow.



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