Professor Rodriguez’s research focuses on the culture of policing, criminalization and incarceration, progressive and revolutionary social movements, and the historical relationship between racism, state violence, and genocide. He is the author of “Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime” and “Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide, and the Filipino Condition.”
On Moral Panic
There is a concept called moral panic that helps explain much of the current cultural and political climate in the United States and other parts of the world. When spectacular, exceptional incidents of violence occur in places that are presumed to be insulated from immediate and extreme personal vulnerability – places like Paris and government service buildings in San Bernardino, California – there is an immediate, hyper-magnified, and massively exaggerated response from allegedly responsible and sober institutions and people.
This kind of response becomes especially dangerous when it preys on existing racial, religious, gender, and ethnic stereotypes to stoke the flames of a public outcry. Moral panic ensues when ordinary people react to such incidents out of all reason and proportion to any actual threat to their physical safety, whether individually or collectively.
This kind of moral panic in part reflects a global racial and historically white supremacist hierarchy of life and death. When people and places generally understood to either represent or actually embody “white life” are suddenly subjected to the kind of momentary violence that is experienced on a far more regular and widespread level in much of the rest of the world, a moral panic ensues that is generally structured by key terms like crime, terrorism, and even disease. It is a panic over the spectacle of white death, even when those dying are not necessarily exclusively white or European.
Such a form of moral panic becomes especially dangerous when the popular reaction it incites leads to a widespread climate of suspicion, fear, and aggressive attack against people and communities deemed to be suspect. This is why the recent comments of powerful and wealthy white men like Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr. should really not be seen as even remotely surprising or extreme. Their comments are just representative of the common sense of moral panic in 2015.