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Codes of Exclusion

The Legal Protections of White Privilege

LEFT: A brass coin created and distributed in 1940 by Hugh T. Fisher, a former member of the Kansas senate, to stimulate “democratic thinking” in Kansans. RIGHT: Ferguson youth activist Dontey Carter.
“This isn’t just a stand for Michael Brown. This is a stand for everybody that needs justice. The officers need to protect and serve, not reject and keep us scared. We need this and that is why as young people this is our civil rights movement. We will take it all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to.”

ISSUE:  Winter 2018

Human skin layers of “tanned skin.” <i>Dictionnaire universel d’histoire naturelle</i>, Charles Dessalines d’Orbigny. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen.

As he headed to the St. Louis neighborhood of Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, to photograph people protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown, Benjamin Rasmussen was reading about the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 case that established that “Negro” descendants of enslaved people could not be American citizens. Rasmussen learned that the petitioner in the case, Dred Scott, was buried in St. Louis, farther down but on the same street where the protestors were demonstrating. This coincidence moved the photographer to consider what he calls “the shortness of American history, where you have ripple effects, but the ripple effects are in a really small pond.” 

When people on the left call for reparations for slavery, or for commemoration of the government’s decision to put Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II, a go-to reaction from the right is “You need to stop living in the past.” It’s a part of white privilege to feel that it’s possible to exist as a unique individual, totally free of the weight of history. Rasmussen’s project shows how the history of American legal decisions on the matter of citizenship and belonging, which is permanent in its effects even as laws are amended year to year, makes that dream of “living beyond the past” impossible for marginalized groups. 

This work is a series of evocative juxtapositions. Rasmussen places the language of Supreme Court decisions that have determined the nature of American citizenship side by side with images of historical documents and artifacts, complementing these with contemporary portraits of people whose lives have been affected by the court’s decisions. The project isn’t meant to be a definitive accounting of American history, rather suggestive and essayistic, prompting viewers to make their own connections between word, image, and document. 

Rasmussen likes to source the historical artifacts he photographs on eBay. “It’s this thing that’s so specifically American,” he says of the marketplace’s “monetizing” of history. On eBay, Rasmussen finds plenty of material to support his sense of the compressed timescale of American history. He points to one example: Roger Taney, the Supreme Court Justice—Chief Justice at the time—who wrote the Dred Scott decision, was memorialized on revenue stamps as late as the middle of the twentieth century. (“This whole idea of [Dred Scott] being a decision we disagreed with as a culture as soon as it was made is complete revisionist history,” Rasmussen says. “This is a man who was still being celebrated as a legal scholar well into the 1950s.”) Via the invisible hand of eBay, a sheet of stamps with Taney’s face on them, perhaps found in somebody’s deceased grandfather’s study, can arrive at your doorstep in a matter of days—a tangible reminder of how close we are to 1950, and how close that was to 1850. 

The contemporary portraits of people affected by this history, often taken in the course of assignments for magazines and newspapers, convey a searing sense of immediacy and presence. In some cases, Rasmussen spoke with the subjects about the history this project explores. When he photographed the material on the Sand Creek Massacre, he was traveling with a writer whose ancestor had participated in the killing of defenseless Cheyenne and Arapaho people in what was then the Colorado Territory in 1864. In photographing the descendants of a survivor of that day, conversations about the persistent weight of that history felt natural. In other cases, he says, he spoke more about the present day, working to make sure that those he photographed felt that the portraits he took represented them. 

In part of the work, Rasmussen offers an assembly of artifacts that show how the history of whiteness might fit into this story. “I’m still trying to figure out a way to include white supremacist ideas without giving a white viewer an easy way out,” he says. So far, the answer seems to be to evoke times that white supremacy has been mainstreamed. To that end, he includes documents from the presidential campaigns of George Wallace, an image of shrouded Confederate monuments, and a portrait of President Trump’s broad, suited back. 

Perhaps because of Rasmussen’s own heritage—he grew up in the Philippines, the son of a Danish father and a white American mother—it’s in this section that the images of historical artifacts seem most personal. A Wallace campaign poster on a rust-stained wall, evoking a dark vision of decay, was staged and photographed in Rasmussen’s studio. An eBay-purchased coin, produced as late as 1940 by a former Kansas state senator to promote the slogan “America for Americans,” sits in a white palm—Rasmussen’s—a subtle reminder of the photographer’s presence, and his race. The past is never past, even for those with the privilege of forgetting. 

— Rebecca Onion

Whatever their precise shade of color may be defined to be, they are confessedly not white persons, either in fact or in accordance with common understanding. — The Petition of Easurk Emsen Charr (1921) A slide holding the DNA of twenty-four people for heritage testing at Family Tree in Houston, Texas. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. <p>A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a “citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution...[For] if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted, and instead of the sympathy of mankind to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and receiv Dred Scott’s grave in the Calvary Cemetery on West Florissant Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. LEFT: Franklin Knight from Jennings, Missouri. <br>“I am standing up and being accounted for like they had to do years before with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela.” <br>RIGHT: Karen Hill from Ferguson, Missouri. <br>“I am from right around the corner from where Mike Brown got killed. It would hurt me real bad to see one of my children gone. You can give me all of the money in the world, but that can’t bring my son back.” Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. A mural along West Florissant Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. Webster describes a person as “a living soul; a self-conscious being; a moral agent; especially a living human being; a man, woman, or child; an individual of the human race.” This is comprehensive enough, it would seem, to include even an Indian. – Unites States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook (1879) An American flag shield made by former marine and full-blooded Cheyenne Rayburn Orange. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. At sunrise on November 29, 1864, a 675-man force of the Colorado US Volunteer Cavalry led by Col. John Chivington massacred a peaceful and unarmed settlement of Arapaho and Cheyenne at Sand Creek. <br>The view Col. John Chivington and his men had as they rode in on the settlement at Sand Creek. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. After the massacre, a small Arapaho boy was found hiding in a camp stove. Taken by Cpl. Lemuel Graham, the boy performed in Graham’s circus, whose other attractions included a rattlesnake and a bear. He was returned to his tribe when he was seven years old and given the new name Tom White Shirt. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. In the eight successive generations, Tom White Shirt’s line has expanded to include at least 331 people. These are twenty-two of them. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. The view the Arapaho and Cheyenne had as Chivington’s men came toward them. At least 163 of them were killed. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. <p>If you really look at it, it was the turn of the century, that’s when we were a great, when we were really starting to go robust… I would say during the 1940s and the late ’40s and ’50s we started getting, we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do, yeah around that period. – Then Republican candidate Trump in an interview with the <i>New York Times</i> (March 25, 2016) President Donald J. Trump entering his living room in the White House Residence. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. LEFT: Stamps from George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. RIGHT: Miss Korea USA 2016, Jasmine Cho. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. LEFT: Miss India Florida 2015, Ritika Singh. RIGHT: A poster from George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. Miss Liberia USA 2016, Gboea Flumo. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen. Miss Arab USA 2016, Baian Taleb. Photograph by Ben Rasmussen.


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