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Torture: what’s race got to do with it?

By Rebecca Gordon

June is Torture Awareness Month, so this seems like a good time to consider some difficult aspects of torture people in the United States might need to be aware of. Sadly, this country has a long history of involvement with torture, both in its military adventures abroad and within its borders. A complete understanding of that history requires recognizing that US torture practices have been forged in the furnace of white supremacy. Indeed the connection between torture and race on this continent began long before the formation of the nation itself.

Every torture regime identifies a group or groups of people whom it is legally and/or morally permissible to torture. To the ancient Romans and Greeks, only slaves were legitimate targets. As Hannah Arendt has observed, the Greeks in particular considered the compulsion to speak under torture a terrible affront to the liberty of a free person.

The activity of identifying a group as an acceptable torture target simultaneously signals and confirms the non-human status of its members. In Pinochet’s Chile, torture targets were called “humanoids” to distinguish them from actual human beings. In other places they are called “cockroaches,” or “worms.” In Brazil’s military dictatorship, people living on city streets suffered fates worse than those of the pickled frogs dissected in high school labs. They were swept up and used to demonstrate torture techniques in classes for police cadets. They were practice dummies.

In the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, we see naked men cowering like prey before snarling dogs. In one of the most famous, we see a man who has been assigned a dog’s status, on all fours, collared and led on a leash by the US Army Reservist Lynndie England. As theologian William Cavanaugh has observed, it becomes easier to believe that that torture victims are not people when we treat them like dogs. Furthermore, the very vileness of torture reinforces the vileness of the prisoner in the minds of the public. Surely a “good” government such as our own could only be driven to such extremes by a terrible, inhuman enemy.

Witness Against Torture: Detainees, Forward. Photo by Justin Norman. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via shriekingtree Flickr.
Witness Against Torture: Detainees, Forward. Photo by Justin Norman. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via shriekingtree Flickr.

So what’s race got to do with it? In this country, the groups whom it is permissible to torture have historically been identified primarily by their race. The history of US torture begins with European settlers’ designation of the native peoples of this continent and of enslaved Africans as subhuman savages. Slaves—almost exclusively persons of African descent—are treated as literally less than human in Article 1 of the US Constitution; for purposes of apportioning representation in the House of Representatives to the various states, a slave was to count as three-fifths of a person. “Indians not taxed” didn’t count as persons at all. Members of both groups fell into categories of persons who might be tortured with impunity.

Institutionalized abuses that were ordinary practice among slaveholders—whipping, shackling, branding and other mutilations—were both common and legal. Nor were such practices incidental to the institution of chattel slavery. Rather, they were central to slavery’s fundamental rationale: the belief that enslaved African beings were not entirely human. As would happen centuries later in the US “war on terror,” the practice of torture actually ratified the prevailing belief in Africans’ inferiority. For surely no true human being would accept such degradation. Equally surely, good Christians would only be moved to such beastly behavior because they were confronted by beasts.

Nor did state-sanctioned torture of African Americans end with emancipation. The institution of lynching continued from the end of the Civil War well into the 20th century, with a resurgence during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Lynching, in addition to its culminating murder by hanging or burning, often involved whippings, and castration of male victims, prior to death. Lynching served the usual purpose of institutionalized state torture—that is, the establishment and maintenance of the power of white authorities over Black populations. In many places in this country, lynchings were treated as popular entertainment. They were not only permitted but encouraged by local officials, who often participated themselves. The practice even developed a collateral form of popular art: photographs of lynchings decorated many postcards printed in the early part of the 20th century.

US torture in the “war on terror” has displayed its own racial dynamic, although this may not be obvious at first glance. Those tortured in the conduct of this “war” are identified in the public imagination as a particular kind of terrorist. They are Muslims. Some efforts have been made in political rhetoric to distinguish “Islamists” and “Islamofascists” from ordinary “good Muslims,” but a relationship to Islam remains the key identifier. But isn’t “Muslim” a religious, rather than racial, category? Not for most Americans, for whom Islam is a mysterious and foreign force, associated with dark people from dark places. Like “Hindoo,” which was at one time a racial category for US census purposes, in the American mind, the term “Muslim” often conflates religion with race.

There is another important locus of institutionalized state torture in this country, and it, too, is a deeply racialized practice. Abuse and torture—including rape, sexual humiliation, beatings, prolonged exposure to extremes of heat and cold—are routine in US prisons. Many people are beginning to recognize that solitary confinement—presently suffered by at least 80,000 people in US prisons and immigrant detention centers—is also a profound, psychosis-inducing form of torture. Of the more than two million prisoners in the United States today, roughly 60 percent are people of color, while almost three-quarters of prison guards are white.

Fortunately, we can end institutionalized state torture in this country. I encourage readers to donate to, or better yet, get involved with the work of one of these excellent organizations: National Religious Campaign against Torture; Witness against Torture; School of the Americas Watch.

Rebecca Gordon received her B.A. from Reed College and her M.Div. and Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory from Graduate Theological Union. She teaches in the Department of Philosophy and for the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Letters From Nicaragua, Cruel and Usual: How Welfare “Reform” Punishes Poor People, and Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States.

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