Racialized Violence and the Shaping of the US Urban Landscape

An Opening Gesture

Riding on the city bus gazing upon the transformed streetscapes of Harlem at a moment when the reassertion of the Black body as an acceptable site of summary execution for private citizens is trending (Trayvon Martin, Reneisha McBride…), I wondered how my burgeoning research on the development of Harlem coupled with a historical-ethnographic perspective could add to the understanding of this horrible yet deep American tradition? In both researching and contemplating the role of early twentieth century race riots in shaping the formation of the racialized urban landscape, I came upon a historic incident which exemplifies the complicity of both state institutions and actors in events of white citizens’ exacting violent summary (in)justice upon Black bodies. This incident, known as the “Tenderloin Riot of 1900”, would be one of the causal factors in what would be a highly profitable (for real estate interests) transformation of Harlem into a Black enclave over the next few decades due to many Black people feeling less safe in the “Tenderloin” area of Manhattan. I offer a brief summary of the incident here:

On a summer night in 1900 in the Tenderloin section (a nickname for the Red Light and Entertainment district) of Manhattan a Black man named Arthur Harris went out to a nearby saloon. Around 2 am his girlfriend Mary Enoch left their apartment to look for him; simultaneously he was leaving the saloon and came upon a white male, Robert Thorpe. Thorpe, who turned out to be a police officer in plainclothes, was accosting and manhandling Enoch. Harris confronted Thorpe, whom reporters of the incident claimed was attempting to arrest Enoch for solicitation. A scuffle took place and Harris stabbed Thorpe twice; he later died. Enoch had a black eye, but sources claim they were unable to determine whether or not she had it before the encounter with Thorpe. At Thorpe’s memorial, anger among white locals reached a fever pitch. According to “witnesses”, “The word spread that a ‘nigger chase’ was on.” Two days of white mob violence against local Blacks ensued ending with numerous injuries. Meanwhile, Harris had escaped the lynch mob by fleeing to Washington D.C. He was eventually detained and died while serving eight years hard labor in Sing Sing state prison. In the aftermath, dozens of African Americans submitted affidavits attesting to police complicity, participation, and exciting of the riotous violence. No significant action was to be taken. In the weeks following the riot local Blacks began to purchase guns for protection but were soon finding themselves racially profiled, searched, and arrested more often.

I would like to highlight how this race riot in the Tenderloin district of Manhattan presents a useful example by which the everyday alienation of the Black subject in white space erupts into violent moments where the mere presence of Black bodies elicits violence. It is from here that I wish to gesture toward a hypothesis that the de facto segregation of northern cities, which has become a national condition in this Post-Civil Rights Era, requires a corporeal logic as the fulcrum of the racial capitalism propelling U.S. urbanism. This corporeal logic can be defined, according to geographer Punam Kholsa, as a “…biopolitical and carceral drive to control and socially construct…racialized bodies.” It is this corporeal logic, and the political economy it undergirds, in the production of Black subjects in white spaces, which must be explored in order to further grapple with this issue of the rearticulation of a more diffuse and fragmented Colorline in the contemporary gentrification of US urban spaces.

Everyday social life in the interracial yet microsegregated neighborhood of the Tenderloin exploded into acts of vigilante injustice exacting collective punishment on any Black bodies accessible in the community at those moments, including children. All of this to reiterate the White patriarchal domination that was challenged in Harris’ murderous defense of Mary Enoch. The gratuitous violence enacted as collective retribution against random innocent Blacks in the Manhattan riot is but one of far too many examples of the reduction to phenotype and controlling image that Black subjects in white spaces suffer too often, beyond alienation, unto death.

Racialized violence has shaped the urban landscape of the US. It continues to do so through the everyday violent behaviors of state-sanctioned actors, such as police officers, in programs like New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk. As Glen Ford noted, “There is ample anecdotal evidence that the relentless pressures of stop-and-frisk have substantially contributed to the mass exile of Blacks from New York.” So, added to the higher cost of living, another cause for the demographic changes of gentrifying New York City neighborhoods is the very rational fear of encounters with police officers; encounters that can, at best, wear one down psychically through harassment and, at worst, lead to death with all the various violent possibilities in between. But it is not only in these more obvious programs of physical interactions that the racialized violence that shapes the urban landscape takes place; it is also in the structural violence of both the legacy and ongoing racial discrimination practiced in the networks of institutions which produce the city that we must also seek to expose the normalized violence of this century’s fragmenting and re-articulating Color-lines.

Dane C Ruffin is a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. His interests include racism and political economy as well as the histories of the (mal)development of racialized urban spaces in the US in global perspective. He is currently beginning work on his dissertation entitled: “Past-Futures of Harlem,” which will focus on formal and informal development plans for Harlem’s 125th Street that fell through.

Contributions to this column can be sent to ABA Contributing Editors Tiffany C Cain (tcain@sas.upenn.edu) or Diana Burnett (dburn@sas.upenn.edu).

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