The Silence of Law and Order

Curator's Note

Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign for president was founded on a platform of “law and order”—a discourse that would be central to the post-civil rights revival of the racial state.  As the slogan “This time vote like your whole world depended on it” suggests, law and order was a way of making clear to a white electorate that their world was under threat, and Nixon and the police were its savior. Nixon did not want “you” to vote as if the world depended on it, but “your” world, and “your” world was not the world.  “Your world” was the world threatened by the success of the period’s liberation movements.  Indeed, Nixon appropriated anti-racist rhetoric (“the first civil right”) in order to justify the violent suppression and criminalization of the period’s anti-racist and anti-imperial movements.  Following the doublespeak of southern segregationists, Nixon gave a new name to a very old project—the containment, regulation, and discipline of any threat to the properties of whiteness.

It can be hard to understand how close revolution was at this moment.  The breathtaking violence of police and prisons, the horrors of imperial violence in Vietnam, and the signs of an emerging economic crisis all seemed to signal that the United States was coming to an end.  Millions of people thought that the worst had arrived, and that a new world was dawning.  If many imagined the end of the world as it was, Nixon was afraid of their success.  But Nixon was not concerned with the fate of the world, but “your world,” “your” way of life—what Frank Wilderson calls “white life.”   As Nixon argued, life for the white subject was under threat, and the law would realign the racial order of things.

The lasting impact of law and order is difficult to convey and almost impossible to imagine.  Law and order has been foundational to building the world’s largest prison system—a regime of racialized and gendered “hyperincarceration” that currently warehouses 2.5 million people.  Yet, one of the most profound legacies of law and order lies with what this ad does not say: Nixon speaks race without ever saying its name.  The terrifying brilliance of contemporary white supremacy is that its stunning uneven distribution of life and death operates under a structure of silence and invisibility.  The challenge becomes abolishing something that is always disappearing.


Justin Owen Rawlins and Zenia Kish's picture

Ongoing mutations of white supremacy

 This is a really interesting campaign artifact, and your analysis is very on-point. Considering the sense of impending collapse of American white supremacy and economic and moral hegemony this ad was meant to appeal to, I wonder what (if any) correlate can be drawn with the current presidential race? It’s very interesting that while we are only a couple of years out from widespread discourse about the financial crisis being a watershed moment for (American) capitalism, ‘surely’ leading to dramatic changes to prevent such a meltdown from occurring again; the country continues to face budget emergencies due to an unsustainable imperial war deficit that has taken many lives; we currently stand on the edge of a climate change precipice; and OWS was widely depicted as a destructive, anarchist movement threatening personal safety and property for average Americans, we don’t see a ‘return to law and order’ message dominating this race as a counter to these deeply disruptive forces.

Has it been, in part, that the incarceration and deportation of racialized bodies has been taken up at the state and city level so effectively that it can be disappeared from/rendered invisible at the level of the presidential race? In this context, how does one read the driving issues of the need to return to traditional family values and liberate the middle class/jobs creators from fiscal and social responsibility to the demos? Are these variations on the white supremacist polarization tactic you point to above, or is this a different tack, a different means of processing the fear of losing privilege and power? Polarization is now being exacerbated on the level of cultural values as a campaign strategy, and I’m almost surprised that the law and order theme hasn’t been more dominant so far. It’s often brought up as comfort food for the white middle class at times like this.

Great, provocative post.


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