By Blanche Cook
Blanche Cook is an Assistant Professor of Law at Wayne State University School of Law. She was Assistant United States Attorney, 2005–2014, United States Department of Justice. This article is aadapted from her TED Talk, entitled “Caught: Calculating the Moves of Power in Our Midst.” She says, “A special thanks to my tireless, loyal, and brilliant research assistant, Sharae Smiley, who transcribed this entire piece in just a few days. As well as Harold McDougall and Jacqueline Yee, who fine-tuned the editing.” View this TED Talk here.
Dmitri Mendeleev and I share the same birthday. We also both build algorithms. He built an algorithm that captured all matter and reduced it down to its basic elements, and then he categorized and organized those elements in a way that made them perceptible, understandable, knowable, and useful to us. I build algorithms to capture white heteropatriarchal power; I build algorithms to capture power as it is raced, classed, sexed, and gendered. I build algorithms to capture racism, sexism, classism, and all the ways in which those things are intertwined, enmeshed, and intersectional.
When I say power, I’m talking about the way in which white heteropatriarchal power takes its desires, fantasies, and agendas, and materializes those things out in the real world using the vehicles of racism, sexism, and classism. You may say, “Why, why do you want to build an algorithm to capture power?” As a former federal prosecutor and now as a law school professor and legal scholar, I believe you can capture, try, and correct power. You can capture it. You can arrest it. You can reduce it down to its basic elements, maneuvers, moves, and functions. And then you can subject all of those things to rigorous scrutiny, interrogation, investigation, and an actual trial, all in an effort to redistribute power and get us much closer to our ideals involving equality, full human flourishing, and justice.
You may ask, “How do you plan to go about building this algorithm to capture power?” The answer to the question “how?” is actually a story or a parable. Specifically, the parable of the Woman Caught in Adultery.1 This particular story encapsulates the basic ways in which racism, sexism, and classism operate, but the story also gives us some possibilities for liberation.
The story begins with Jesus Christ, the Rabbi, the teacher, out in the world teaching. And as the Rabbi is teaching, a group of Sadducees and Pharisees come up to him and say, “Hey, Rabbi, we caught this woman in the middle of adultery and under Mosaic Law, we must stone her to death.”2
Let’s unpack a little bit of that: the Sadducees and the Pharisees are the leaders of law and religion. They embody law and religion. They are metaphors for law and religion. Hold on to that because that’s going to become terribly important in just a moment. It’s also important that the body they bring to the Rabbi, to impose the death penalty, judgment and sentencing, is a vulnerable body—they bring a woman’s body. It’s equally important that they caught this woman in the middle of adultery. Not the beginning of adultery, or an introduction to adultery, or adultery-prep, or the after-glow of adultery, the results of adultery.
Now, you may say, “Why is that important?” No matter how hard you try, no matter how hard you strive, no matter how much you work at it, and put your backbone into it, you just can’t commit adultery all by yourself. You cannot commit adultery alone; it inherently requires at least one other person. We know that they caught her in the middle of adultery, so there was another person there. And yet, the Sadducees and Pharisees only saw fit to bring the vulnerable body to the Rabbi for sentencing and judgment.
Let’s go back to the story. So we’ve got the Rabbi out in the world teaching. The Sadducees and Pharisees come up and say, “Hey, time to impose the death penalty, woman caught in adultery, time to throw some rocks, all under Mosaic Law.” The Rabbi turns to the Sadducees and Pharisees and says, “Let those of you without sin cast the first stone.”3 In other words, you can participate in the death penalty, sentencing, and judgment, but you have to have clean hands. The Sadducees and the Pharisees give this some thought, and then they begin to leave, starting with the oldest.4 The Rabbi turns to the woman and says, “Well, where are your accusers? Hasn’t anyone condemned you?” And she says, “No.” And he says, “Well neither do I. Go forth and sin no more.”5
This particular parable contains the basic ways in which racism, sexism, and classism operate. But it also gives us some keys to liberation. I want to focus in on three basic moves of power as they’re contained in this parable. There are actually a lot more moves, but the TED people only gave me eighteen minutes, so you’ll have to invite me back in order to unpack the rest of this parable. But for now, the top three hits of power: (1) obfuscation—deliberately confusing things; (2) performance; and (3) the gaze.
So, Michael Foucault says,“Power is tolerable only on condition that it masks a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to an ability to hide its own mechanisms.”6 In other words, in order for racism, sexism, and classism to be effective, they have to render themselves invisible, imperceptible, natural, legitimate, just the way things are, inevitable, and, furthermore, righteous and good. Not only is power’s success predicated on its ability to hide, it’s also proportionate to its ability to hide. So if power can hide really well, it can do a whole lot. If it can’t hide so well, its effectiveness is greatly diminished. Now, one of the ways in which power renders itself invisible and legitimate at the same time, is it highjacks the function of law and religion in order to do its dirty work, in order to exact its agenda. When power colludes with law and religion, the effect becomes totalizing. It becomes omnipresent, ubiquitous, everywhere. So, let’s bring in an example to prove the point.
This is the classic case of Dred Scott,7 decided in 1857. It’s the slavery case. In this case, a majority held that anyone of African descent was not a citizen. The majority occupied, dominated, and controlled the field of citizenry, and then relegated any body of African descent outside the boundaries of citizenship, including the protections, the rights, and entitlement of citizenship. It didn’t matter if you were free, it didn’t matter if you were enslaved—male or female—you were outside the boundaries of citizenship.
And, if you’re here and you don’t enjoy the protections of citizenship, you’re vulnerable. You’re vulnerable to sexual exploitation as well as physical exploitation. So, if you were someone of African descent and someone violated you sexually or physically, or exploited your labor, you couldn’t go to the police for help, and you couldn’t go to the courts to vindicate your rights because you didn’t have any access to the courts and you didn’t have any rights. Then, religion kicks in and says, “Well, God says you ought to be a slave, and God says that slavery is good for you. And, God says that slavery is good for you because slavery will save you from your criminal, evil, treacherous self.” There again, when power colludes with law and religion, the effect becomes totalizing. It becomes ubiquitous, omnipresent, everywhere. It becomes part of history, psychology, and philosophy. Other examples: undocumented workers. If you’re an undocumented person and you’re here and someone violates you physically or sexually, you can’t go to the police or the courts without calling into question your own status. And, as a result, you’re vulnerable.
Another move of obfuscation in the confederacy of power—and this I call the functional equivalent of dangling a shiny ball in front of your face and stealing your wallet—and that’s where power says one thing and does another. When you measure what power says against what it does, you get this huge discrepancy. So, the Sadducees and Pharisees come up and say, “We’re here to enforce Mosaic Law. We’re here to enforce morals and 95
ethics. A sexual perversity, a sexual transgression has occurred and we’re here to fix that.” The question becomes is that really what the Sadducees and Pharisees are there to do? Well, the answer to that question is no. And, how do we know that? Because, remember when we went through that little exercise and established that you can’t commit adultery alone? That it inherently requires at least one other person? And, we know that this woman was caught in the middle of adultery, so there was at least one other person there? And, yet they only saw fit to bring the vulnerable body of a woman to the Rabbi for the purposes of sentencing and judgment? Because what they’re really interested in doing is playing and performing on that vulnerable body; controlling, dominating and subjugating that body.
Now, you religious and biblical scholars will say, “You know what? This is the problem with legal scholars interpreting the Bible. See, little Miss Law School Professor, you ought to know that in the days of Biblical antiquity, only women could commit adultery. Only women could be charged with adultery. Only women could be charged with adultery and be guilty of adultery because it’s a woman-only crime. Which is why the Sadducees and the Pharisees only brought the woman.” But you see, that would be my exact point—you see how power highjacks the function of law and religion in order to do its dirty work? In order to exact its agenda, which is really playing and performing on a vulnerable body? And, under the auspices of law and religion, it renders itself legitimate and invisible at the same time? My exact point.
Other examples of power: saying one thing and doing another. In this country, we’ve had a war on drugs We’ve reached a societal consensus that we’re going to declare a war on drugs. And yet, when you look at the demographics of people who’ve been incarcerated as a result of the war on drugs, they’re disproportionately people of color, leaving a lot of people to argue that in fact we didn’t have a war on drug. We had a war on vulnerable bodies of color. Some will argue as well, that we use the criminal justice system to define crimes in ways that turn those vulnerable bodies into property again.
Another example of power saying one thing and doing another is in our houses of worship. Sometimes you may hear a scathing criticism leveled against “homosexuals”; that homosexuals are going to cause the end of the earth, the great apocalypse, the end of days. How homosexuals are directly responsible for all natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes. How homosexuality is the greatest sexual perversion and travesty in history. Now, the question becomes, is that scathing criticism really interested in sexual perversity and sexual violence? Perhaps not. Because if they were really interested in sexual violence, they would turn all of that energy and ire and anger toward all of that sexual violence that occurs under the roofs of our homes and in our intimate spaces, which is where a lot of sexual violence occurs. And, that, in fact, that kind of scathing criticism is really interested in playing and performing on a vulnerable (gay) body. Which gets us to our next move, performance.
Anthony Farley, a law school professor, suggests that racism is a compulsion that performs as pleasure; that racism, sexism, and classism are all compulsions that perform as pleasure; that we do ourselves a tremendous disservice when we oversimplify racism, sexism, and classism. And, one of the ways in which we oversimplify power is when we reduce it down to hatred or animus only; in fact, these things are far more complex than that. In fact, these things embed themselves inside our minds. They saturate every part of our brain, even that layer of fantasy because what the Sadducees and Pharisees really want the Rabbi to do is to join with them in a fraternity and to engage in a figurative gang rape of this woman that serves the same function as a lynching. The stoning, gang rapes, and lynchings are all performances. And, what they perform is who’s powerful and who’s vulnerable. Who’s deserving of pain and who’s deserving of pleasure. Who’s good and who’s evil. Who’s deserving of life and who’s deserving of death. Who’s deserving of being judged and who gets to do the judging. Which brings us to our third move of power, the gaze.
Implicit bias research teaches us that the moment we see a black or brown body, we immediately associate that body with dangerousness, suspiciousness, and the need to be controlled. We do it instantaneously, automatically. We do it so quickly because we’re convinced about it. It does not require some sort of deliberate, conscious cogitation. And, then when we see a white body, we immediately associate that body with goodness, innocence, and righteousness. And, again, it happens instantaneously. It happens so quickly that these associations actually become lodged and entrenched inside our minds. They become architectural structures anchored inside our brain. They become a frame through which we see the world. They become a filter through which we see evidence. They become the judgment that we cast before we’ve seen the body of proof.
These things, these associations are so fixated in our minds, that they affect the way we see things, such that when we see a black or brown body engaged in actually innocent conduct, we create narratives of dangerousness, suspiciousness, pathology, criminality, and treachery. Then, when we see white bodies actually engaged in mischief, mayhem, and criminality, we create narratives of innocence. Because, you see, when that body [pointing to a photo of Trayvon Martin] goes to the store to get some candy—and how much more childlike can it be then for a child to go to the store and get some candy?—but when that body goes to the store to get some candy, the narrative that gets created is one of dangerousness, suspiciousness, the need to be controlled and the need to be put down. Because, you see, this body [pointing to a photo of Trayvon Martin] is never entitled to innocence and never entitled to childhood. Yet, when this body [pointing to a photo of Donald Trump] freely admits that it’s engaged in sexually predatory behavior and sexual violence, we create narratives of innocence. It’s just locker-room talk; boys will be boys; men will be men. This is natural and, furthermore, it’s kind of good because it’s so manly.
So, some other examples of the gaze of pathology and the gaze of over-valorization—battered women. Battered women come forward and they say, “I’ve been battered.” And, immediately we start asking, “Well, did you fight back?” “Why did you stay?” “Why didn’t you go?” Because we keep that gaze of pathology fixated on that vulnerable body. We engage in all of that victim-blaming. We know from Foucault that power operates at the level of distraction, because when we stay fixated on that vulnerable body, we never get around to asking the accused, “Why do you hit women?
Rape victims. Rape victims come forward and they say, “I’ve been violated.” And, immediately we start asking questions like, “Isn’t that shirt too tight?” “And isn’t that skirt, uh, too short?” And, “Why were you out there?” “Why were you out there so late?” “Why were you drinking?” “Why did you pass out drunk?” “Why did you wait so long to bring these accusations?” Because, there again, we keep problematizing and pathologizing that vulnerable body, and we never get around to the accused.
But, part of the beauty of the Woman Caught in Adultery, is that the Rabbi takes that pathological gaze off the vulnerable woman’s body and shines it on the sources of power—the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Because when the Rabbi asks, “Let those of you without sin cast the first stone,” the Rabbi initiates the very first phase of the cycle of liberation.
Cycle of liberation
This is a calling for all of us, where we critically reflect on our thoughts, where we interrogate our minds candidly, and we ask where racism, sexism, and classism have embedded themselves inside our minds. Make no mistake about it, if you’re talking about implicit bias, whether it’s race, class, sex, or gender—it doesn’t matter—we’re not just talking about thoughts. These thoughts lead to actions where we play and perform on vulnerable bodies from microaggressions to macroaggressions. So, we must be as skeptical about our actions as we are about our thoughts.
Within the parable, everybody has agency. The “oppressors,” the Sadducees and the Pharisees, have the agency to critically reflect on their thoughts and actions. If those things are tainted, if they don’t measure up against full human flourishing, they have the agency to refrain from imposing the death penalty. To refrain from imposing any kind of adverse action that’s tainted by power.
Also within the parable, there’s a redistribution of power. There’s a redistribution of agency that creates a much more democratized space that gets us much closer to our ideals of full human flourishing. And, then full human flourishing becomes the standard by which we measure our thoughts, our actions, our ability to find agency, and our efforts to redistribute power.
There’s absolutely nothing new about state violence and police power playing and performing on vulnerable bodies. There is absolutely nothing new about state violence and police power playing on vulnerable bodies of color because state power—state violence—and the police power have played on vulnerable bodies of color in this country since the beginning of this country. State violence and police power have been playing and performing on vulnerable bodies since the days of biblical antiquity. And, we don’t need to look any further than the Woman Caught in Adultery to make that point.
But, what is new is all of the agency that technology gives you. Technology gives you the agency of your cell phones, where you can record and document and bear witness to these killings (pointing to a photo spread of black people killed by law enforcement). But, then technology gives you more—you can upload these images on your social media spaces, Facebook, your blogospheres. And, when you do, you can begin to draw similarities and symmetries between these cases. Then, you begin to realize that we’re not just dealing with aberrant conduct in the South, or the North, or the East, or the West. That, in fact, what we’re dealing with is something that is systemic, something that is an epidemic if not a pandemic. But technology gives us more because on our blogospheres, we can engage in a national discourse, a new narrative, a political activism where we take that pathological gaze off the lives of these people and we shine it on the sources of power like, for example, law enforcement and the law. We can begin to ask questions and problematize. For example, we can ask how the grand jury process was so manipulated as to sanitize and legitimize the deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Gardner, just to name a few. But then we go further because technology also gives us the ability to engage in that national discourse, that new narrative where we can recognize the humanity of these people.
So, in closing, I’m going to end pretty much where we began. Because you see this picture [pointing to a series of photos of victims of police shootings] kind of looks like a periodic table. You see, we can take power and we can distill it down to its basic elements, moves, maneuvers, and functions. And we can subject those things to scrutiny, interrogation, investigation, all in an effort to redistribute power in a way that gets us much closer to our ideals involving full human flourishing. Much like the woman caught in adultery.
- See John 7:53-8:11.
2 See John 8:3-5.
- See John 8:7.
- See John 8:9.
- See John 8:10-11.
- Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: AnIntroduction86 (Robert Hurley trans., Vintage Books 1990) (1976).
- 60 U.S. 393 (1857).