The Zombie as Racialized Other

The slaughter of film zombies, justified as defense of the species, gives rise to killing sprees of unbridled violence that may be seen as a metaphor for colonial violence, activating a state of exception, in Giorgio Agamben’s terms, that allows for the elimination of whole categories of people. Cultural critic Gerry Canavan suggests that the racialized nature of the zombie and the sense of justified violence that zombies unleash are perhaps most clearly seen in the real-world analogies of the black victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the destructive earthquake in Haiti in 2010.З6

When isolated doctors and nurses at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans came to believe that “crazy black people who think they’ve been oppressed for all these years by white people” would storm the hospital looking for drugs, or raping people, they began refusing treatment to select patients to conserve resources and deliberately euthanized as many as twenty-four people.37 Similarly, at the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans, two black people were killed and four wounded when they were shot by five police officers who then invented a cover story to explain opening fire with assault rifles on an unarmed family looking for food and water. A New Orleans Federal Court jury convicted the five officers of myriad counts in 2011, including the deprivation of civil rights (however, citing prosecutorial misconduct on the part of federal lawyers who made anonymous comments online, a New Orleans judge threw out the convictions in 2013 and granted a new trial). In both cases the black victims effectively became zombies, conjuring “racial panic” and the conviction that they needed to be actively eliminated, thereby instantiating historical and ongoing racist and colonial violence^8

Likewise, Haitians were immediately consigned to a state of exception by white authorities following the earthquake, which is to say, Haitian life, even under such dire circumstances, was seen as threatening, untrustworthy, and even undeserving of life. As a result, the U.S. military, which took control of the international aid effort, established as its first priority its own security, bringing in thousands of troops to secure the island while diverting international aid flights and before allowing any food drops from the air. As Ben Ehrenreich reported on Slate.com, the U.S. military

built a wall around itself, commandeering the Port-au-Prince airport and constructing a mini-Green Zone. While thousands of tons of desperately needed food, water, and medical supplies piled up behind the airport fences—and thousands of corpses piled up outside them—Defense Secretary Robert Gates ruled out the possibility of using American aircraft to airdrop supplies: “An airdrop is simply going to lead to riots,” he said. The military’s first priority was to build a “structure for distribution” and “to provide security.” (Four days and many deaths later, the United States began airdropping aid.)39

Canavan observes that this is what we do when zombies strike, even though “outside the walls there are only other people just like us.”40 The zombie is always the racialized other, the outcast, the walled-off, the displaced, the one who is excluded, left to die or killed outright.

In Madison, Wisconsin, during the demonstrations against Gov. Scott Walker’s bill limiting bargaining rights for most of the state’s unions, one of the ways protesters chose to show their opposition was to dress as zombies. This masquerade suggests both their perceived sense of delegitimization as workers and the threat to their autonomy that deunionization represented. The zombie as a figure of protest demonstrates that the icons of the ruin imaginary can be mobilized to produce political critique and protest. As the racial- ized other in a state of exception and a figure of exhausted value-producing labor, the zombie is emblematic of what we fear becoming.

From the perspective of the state, disempowered migrants differ only in degree from citizens who are chronically unemployed or underemployed. The ruling elites view the poor with contempt, seeing them as relentlessly consuming resources rather than producing wealth and contributing to the state, a view that defines the ethos of neoliberal capitalism. Mitt Romney clearly articulated this perspective during the 2012 U.S. presidential election when he was secretly recorded at a fundraising dinner making the following speech:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president [Obama] no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48 —he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.41

There is no ambiguity here: food, housing, health care are all regarded as “entitlements” for which Romney and the corporate capitalists he represents see themselves as bearing no responsibility. Rather than looking to the government to support the population, corporate capitalists believe that they should be supported by the nation’s citizens. In particular, they believe they should not have to pay taxes because they have taken “personal responsibility” for their lives and should be able to keep the profits they have earned for themselves. What is left out of view is the direct relationship between the impoverishment of the majority and the wealth of the minority, not to mention the basic democratic principles of a society organized for the maximum benefit of all its members. Instead the scions of capital today regard the “unproductive” as an “alien-nation” who are “entitled” to exactly nothing, while the impoverished and downwardly mobile sink further into despair and dark visions of the future. In the neoliberal state, where rights are dependent on one’s economic worth and contribution to the welfare of the state, the more menial, humiliating, and alienating the form of labor, the higher the rate of zombification and loss of autonomy.

 
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