Jennifer Carlson, Assistant Professor, University of Arizona

Michelle S. Phelps, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota

The Spectacular Politics of Peculiar Institutions

Racial Visuality in the Deaths of Sam Hose, Emmett Till, and Michael Brown

The recent media barrage of photos and videos of Black men and boys shot by the police in the U.S. has brought the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the mainstream and ignited vigorous debate about the possibility of visual protest to disrupt racial politics. At the same time, commentators have linked police shootings to lynching, suggesting that both serve as forms of racial terror that reflect and reconstitute white supremacy. Building from critical race and law perspectives, we develop a theoretical account of how the struggle over assigning “truth” to such images of racialized violence plays a critical role in racial formation. To trace these historical processes, we analyze three flashpoint racial spectacles: the 1899 lynching of Sam Hose (under the Jim Crow era), the 1955 murder of Emmett Till (during the Civil Rights era), and the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown (under the “Color-Blind” era). Using secondary sources and analyses of contemporary media discourses, we examine the visual evidence mobilized in each case to adjudicate the innocence or guilt of both the victim and perpetrator of violence as well as the broader resistance efforts sparked by the case. Our contention is that by tracing racial visuality through these episodes, we can better understand how looking as a social practice shapes how justice is imagined, enacted, and opposed.