Talks

The Thin White Line: Policing and the Whiteness of Blue Lives

American Studies Association Meeting
Atlanta, GA
November 8–11, 2018

In 2016, in the fourth year of the Black Lives Matter movement, John Bel Edwards, the Democratic governor of Louisiana, signed a bill revising his state’s hate crime statute. The statute protected victims of crimes motivated by race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and national origin. To that, the new bill added victims targeted because of “actual or perceived employment as a law enforcement officer or firefighter.” A felony deemed an anti-police hate crime could add as many as five years to an offender’s prison sentence. It was the first “blue lives matter” bill passed into law. Kentucky followed suit, and at least fourteen states introduced their own bills the next year. Even South Carolina, which doesn’t even have a hate crime statute on the books, introduced one. With the number of officers killed on the job nearing an all-time low, and amid declarations that black lives matter, state legislatures sought additional protections for blue lives.

This paper will examine the white racial politics of blue lives. Building on the work of Cheryl Harris, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Nikhil Pal Singh, who call attention to how whiteness has governed the preemptive protection of property in the United States––“the whiteness of police,” in Singh’s words––it argues that white men, whether working in law enforcement or not, have embraced “blue lives” to assert their own minoritization on the basis of their white skin. Not all police officers are white men, but all blue lives are because the Blue Lives Matter countermovement is responding not to an increase in police casualties but, I will argue, to a perceived decline in white male status since the 1970s. Like earlier veterans’ rights movements, Blue Lives Matter hails white men as universal and yet marginal, race-neutral (identified with state-issued uniforms) and yet raced (necessitating hate-crime protections). It bridges the racial ideologies of conservative color blindness and liberal multiculturalism to form an antiredistributive white racial consensus. The political response to the killings of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, including the Obama administration’s National Blue Alerts Act of 2015 and the hate-crime legislation of 2016 and 2017, shows how white men, by associating themselves with vulnerable soldiers, police officers, and firefighters, have staked a claim to the center and margin of post–civil rights America.


The Authenticity Workshop: New Humanism, the GI Bill, and the Philosophy of Creative Writing

Modern Language Association Meeting
Chicago, IL
January 3–6, 2019

This paper will investigate how authenticity became the driving ethic of the creative writing workshop. The first graduate programs in creative writing were founded in the years after World War II, and their classes were dominated by combat veterans attending college on the GI Bill. These men, as Wallace Stegner wrote of his first students at Stanford, “came mature and experienced and serious; they had something to think with and something to feel with and something to say.” They had something real to relate because they had seen war. Stegner’s belief in the inherent morality of authenticity derived in part from his graduate education at the University of Iowa, where he studied under New Humanist philosopher Norman Foerster, who also trained Paul Engle, the influential director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The writing of Stegner, Foerester, and Engle shows how New Humanism, a minor philosophical movement even then, and the combat vet converged in Palo Alto and Iowa City to institutionalize authenticity as the first principle of the creative writing program. It is often asked whether creative writing can be taught. This paper will argue that we should instead ask whether authenticity can be taught through writing, and what it has meant to believe we can.