Dignity, police killing, and France’s racial uprising

1 November 2023

** This is the second post in our Black Dignity and Death forum, focusing on Vincent Lloyd’s Black Dignity: The Struggle against Domination and Norman Ajari’s Dignity Or Death: Ethics and Politics of Race. Each day this week one article from a different scholar will be published

Previous posts include:

Black Dignity vs. Liberal Anti-Racism by Vincent Lloyd

Subsequent posts include:

Cross-reflection on Black Dignity – Reading Vincent Lloyd and Norman Ajari by Nathalie Etoke

Racial Symbols and Black Death by Dalitso Ruwe **


Dignity or Death: Ethics and Politics of Race by Norman Ajari

While writing the original French version of Dignity or Death between 2016 and 2018, I was haunted by multiple instances of lethal violence or neglect targeting racialized people in Europe in general and in France in particular. One of them was the sinister fate of the exiled losing their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean. Another was police brutality, which Francophone public spheres erroneously tended to label as a specificity of the United States, foreign to European traditions of civility. Numerous racialized men were executed or raped by the police during this period. Some of them, more often than not due to the dedication of activists, became topics of public conversation such as Théo Luhaka and Adama Traoré in France or Lamine Bangoura in Belgium. A march for Justice and Dignity occurred on March 19, 2017 in Paris, protesting against police brutality and racism. I often witnessed the use of the notion of dignity in Black and brown radical political circles.


Before starting to work seriously on the issue, I had a certain distaste for the concept of dignity. This is because it has long served as a conservative, even counter-revolutionary instrument. After the Second World War, drawing from Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, numerous liberal democracies integrated the idea of respecting human dignity as integral to their constitutions. The plan was to ward off the evils of totalitarianism and racism by inscribing enlightenment philosophy at the hearth of the state apparatus. To me, the problem was that it posits at the same time the state as the guarantor, if not the bearer, of people’s dignity. In such a context, politically claiming one’s dignity can always be interpreted as an attempt at integrating civil society, according to the state’s terms. However, the discourse and action of radical activists was telling a completely different story, which was not about compliance to the desiderata of liberal democracy.


Witnessing the courageous deployment of struggles against police brutality and institutional racism, sometimes contributing to it, and researching the history of Black radical ideas and anticolonial resistance, I slowly became convinced that the frequent use of the political concept of dignity casted out an entirely different tradition. It does not aim at seeking recognition from the state, as the legitimate instance on that matter. Rather, it imposes racialized people’s denied humanity rather than pursuing it. Historically, such a process relates to the omnipresence of death and dying in colonial, postcolonial, and neocolonial circumstances. A politics and an ontology of dignity respond to a social environment in which the lives of racialized people are considered to be of lesser value, as their humanity is not fully acknowledged. Despite its affirmative appearance, dignity always presents itself as a negative concept, in that sense that one only asserts their dignity facing a considerable threat. We start thinking of our dignity when we feel that we are treated in an inhumane fashion. As Vincent Lloyd writes in Black Dignity: “Dignity is impossible without indignity; indignity may become dignity.” In other words, dignity in that sense is always in negotiation and struggle with death, violence and dehumanization. We must understand that the very meaning of what a life is in such dire conditions differs from what European philosophers of dignity and Western states had in mind reflecting on the concept.


Some events this summer seem to confirm the approach and ideas developed in Dignity or Death. On June 27, 2023, 17 years old Nahel was killed by a point-blank bullet to the head shot by a police officer in Nanterre, northwest of Paris. Video footage shows the scene: we hear the cop threatening the young man to blow his head off, and his colleague clearly encouraging him: “Shoot! Shoot!” Probably terrified by the threats, the brown teenager presses the gas pedal, while the cop pulls the trigger and backs off, letting the car accelerate and crashing in a billboard meters away. Nahel was legally too young to drive a car in France, leading commentators to resort to the absurd moral reasoning that, as the adolescent’s driving constituted a threat, that individual shot dead right away made up for the possibility of one dead or more later on. Such a sordid arithmetic of cadavers only draws its validity from the assimilation of French poor racialized boys with mere creatures whose life does not matter. This is confirmed by the reaction of an influential police union press release, which unambiguously dehumanizes immigrant boys, describing them as “savage hordes” and inciting police to “combat pests.”


This statement was issued in response to a massive wave of uprisings throughout the country following the release of the video. As in 2005, when similar events sparked similar outrage among the youth, massive rebellions gained France. We see cars burning, but also police stations, city halls, and schools. Repressive power, political power and the institution of mental slavery are undoubtedly targeted. We also witness massive appropriation of commodity, with businesses sacked and damaged.


“If anti-Blackness so thoroughly infects the world, revolutionary change is needed. Dignity entails revolution. But revolution today means something quite different than in the 1960s, on in the nineteenth century,” Lloyd writes. He adds that this new understanding of revolution is a negative rather than an affirmative one. It is free of any particular model, as evidenced in the contemporary resurgence of the notion of abolition. I agree with the diagnosis. However, this return of the negative can be interpreted in two different and conflicting ways. First, paradoxically, it can be correlated to a general consent to our world order, like in the case of the aforementioned state monopolization of the concept of dignity. It amounts to assuming that only a few elements require adjustment and critique, as there is no need to envision a completely different world. Here the notion of negativity blurs into the liberal idea of reformism. The second approach differs greatly from this apology of the status quo. According to the radical perspective, we must proceed negatively because of the radicality and pervasiveness of racism and anti-Blackness, which prevents us from adequately imagining the contours and content of a post-racist world. With this new approach comes the realization that being is not always better than nothing.


Riots and rebellions that burn institutions and shops to the ground question our attachment to the profound Western metaphysical idea that Being, as an effect of the Creation, is inherently good, while evil always takes up the form of destructive power, negativity or, in other words, nihilism. The media coverage and public commentary of France’s uprising often accuse the rioters of destroying “their own neighborhoods,” “their own schools,” “their own city halls,” without realizing that these are on the contrary often experienced as sings of people’s own profound dispossession. Public schools are seen as strongholds of institutional bullying, dispensing a mixture of propaganda and untruths. Stores earn fortunes by fleecing the community, so their plundering seems a fair return. These institutions do not belong to the people of the ghettos, but are in the hands of people who do not look like them and who look down on them.


One of the tasks I gave myself writing Dignity or Death was to elaborate a framework to make such events thinkable in philosophical terms, beyond quick condemnation and intellectual snobbery. A political truth regarding these racial upheavals is that they are always insufficient but never supererogatory. They are not the brutal or barbaric supplement to a more genuine organized politics. They express a massive rejection of institutional racism and brutal policing that shows its path to such organized politics to those capable of seeing it.


Correlatively, the argument I developed in Dignity or Death is twofold. First, I showed how racial violence exhibits a peculiar necropolitical dimension, meaning that it generates indistinction between life and death. Second, I insisted on afro-descended people’s historical possession and recreation of imaginaries and ontologies apt to face such violence. If necropolitical acts dehumanize its victims, blurring the frontier between the living and the dead, Black dignity consists in a capacity to convoke worldviews and narratives in which death is not the ultimate limit, the abyss of non-being. As part of a politics of mourning and grief, riots and rebellions consecutive to police killings relate to this tradition. The underworld is inhabited with ancestors and deceased whose everlasting presence is still felt among the living. In other words, in those worldviews, the dead are still active through their absence. What liberal sensibility may interpret as a display of senseless nihilism is often a way of confronting death in the midst of a world that ostensibly despises us. Facing a generalized loss of the value of Black and brown lives, dignity becomes a revolutionary capacity to stand up between life and death and to draw on its resources. The meaning of dignity in the Black radical tradition is fascinating as it always stands at the border between the human and the inhuman, between life and death. It is the lived experience of these frontiers which feeds political rebellions and social uprisings. It is intrinsically a form of empowered liminality.


Norman Ajari is Lecturer in Francophone Black Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Dignity or Death: Ethics and politics of race (Polity, 2023) and Darkening Blackness: Race, Class, Gender, and Pessimism in 21st Century Black Thought (Polity, 2024). He is also a member of the executive board of the Frantz Fanon Foundation.

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