The Sonic Color Line, Black Women, and Police Violence

This post is part of our online forum in honor of Sandra Bland, coinciding with the third anniversary of her death. The forum includes historical and contemporary perspectives–and creative pieces–on Black women’s susceptibility to state-sanctioned violence. 

(Photo: Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr)

On June 18th, 2018, Pro Publica released a soul-wrenching 8-minute audio recording of Central American children keening for their parents in one of the U.S. Government’s newly-erected border internment camps in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Attained via civil rights attorney Jennifer Harbury, the recording came from an anonymous client who, Harbury said, “heard the children’s weeping and crying, and was devastated by it and had to act.” Now circulating widely on the Internet, the audio calls upon us to do the same.

Without a hint of hyperbole, this audio is utterly devastating. Except to the unnamed Border Patrol agent who callously remarks in Spanish to the crying children: “Bueno, aqui tenemos una orqueta. . . lo que falta es un conductor” (“Well, here we have an orchestra. . .what is missing is the conductor”). Over gasps and sobs he then shouts an abrupt, frustrated “No llores!” (Don’t Cry!”). These remarks—both delivery and content—reveals the active, oppressive presence of a long historical relationship between race, gender, power, and white listening in the U.S., a socially-constructed but materially-reinforced aural border between white people and all “Others,” what I call the sonic color line.

The sonic color line is the learned cultural mechanism that establishes racial difference through listening habits and uses sound to communicate one’s position vìs-a-vìs white citizenship. When the patroller taunts the children, he sonically performs the hierarchical border between white male U.S. citizen and brown “illegal” migrant. It’s no small thing that he chooses their native language to communicate their smallness; he could so easily use it to comfort them instead. Rather he speaks as an annoyed patriarch, insinuating the children cry about something small, like a scuffed knee.  His teasing voice trivializes the children’s massive loss and the direness of our vast humanitarian crisis while erasing his own culpability, reframing their cries as the problem, not his actions and the state authority authorizing them.

The patroller’s deliberate tone ensures the “joke” reinforces the sonic color line as a cage, entrapping the children’s cries in the racialized category of “noise,” stripping the sounds of their immediacy, their deep—and translatable—meanings, and their very humanity.  Referring to them as a chaotic “orchestra” offers the children—and unknowingly, us—precise visceral information regarding how the white patriarchal listening ear interprets Latinx suffering: as sonic evidence of its own power. The orchestra remark comes from a colonial tradition of stereotyping sounds produced by Black, brown, and indigenous people as “wild” noise in need of taming—the European musical concepts of the orchestra, symphony, and opera operate as sonic metaphors for a world where everything and everyone finds their “proper” place in the global colonial hierarchy.

While the children’s situation has particular temporal and cultural resonances I am sensitive to, I heard its immediate connection to the sounds of another excruciating sonic display of Texas law enforcement: the dashcam footage from white Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia’s patrol car after he pulled over Sandra Bland on July 10, 2015 for “failing to signal a lane change”—the prelude to Bland’s death three days later in a Waller County Jail cell.  Though Prairie View is only 370 miles from McAllen, where the largest of these children’s detention centers operates, connecting these recordings might seem a stretch; however I argue the sonic color line and the listening ear enable us to hear important resonances across them, particularly how U.S. policing weaponizes the learned callousness of white patriarchal listening and enforces racial difference via the sounded authority of “cop voice.” I define “cop voice” as how police use vocal cadence and tone to exert unearned racial authority via the sonic color-line to terrorize brown people, immediately escalating “routine” interactions with people of color.

Encinia’s recording amplifies the aural, physical, and psychological brutality (usually quietly) visited on Black women by police. In the wake of dashcam video’s release, much public conversation centered around Bland’s sonic performance. After publicly viewing the recording—which showed Encinia speaking harshly to Bland, threatening to “light her up” with a taser, pulling her roughly out of her vehicle, and dragging her along the ground—Waller County’s district attorney, Elton Mathis, defended Encinia’s actions, stating “Sandra Bland was very combative. It was not a model traffic stop. It was not a model person that was stopped.” Though DPS director Steve McCraw maintains “citizens have the right to be objectionable—they can be rude,” Encinia’s actions reveal how white authority figures expect Black people to perform more visible, overt, and extreme forms of visual and aural compliance than they demand from white subjects. Unarmed white people who display “noncompliant” behavior do not face violence, punishment, or death at the same rates as Black people, as a Guardian study finds.  The ability to be audibly annoyed at getting a traffic ticket—and live—has become contemporary marker of an old strain of white privilege embodied through sound.

Echoing Encinia’s affidavit characterizing Sandra as “combative and uncooperative,” Mathis’s remarks regarding Bland’s alleged lack of “model” citizenship operate as more than commentary; they are listening instructions, guiding audiences to hear combativeness only in her speech and voice, therefore justifying—even necessitating—Encinia’s response.  Rather than blame Encinia for making this everything but “a model traffic stop,” the white listening ear interprets the sound of a Black woman’s upset response as an immediate marker she is “not a model person,” and therefore deserving of violence.

News outlets, too, focused listeners on Bland’s speech and response. The New York Times prefaced their display of the footage with warnings of “vulgar language,” with no similar caution about Encinia’s violent display of force.  Because Sandra used words some consider obscene—though in self-defense and under extreme duress—her “loud disapproval and emphatic use of curse words registered her blackness and womanhood threatening. News reports coded her as less feminine and therefore threatening because of her direct verbal confrontation with Encinia,” as Regina Bradley argues in Sounding Out!.

Media emphasis on Sandra’s voice normalized Encinia’s refusal to listen, directing attention away from his hostile “cop voice.” Focusing on Encinia’s tone, cadence, and speech, however, reveals a similar performance of white supremacist listening as the border officer’s cruel joke, and an equally gratuitous display of unequal power: just as the children are already caged, Encinia had already issued Bland’s ticket.  Encinia only needed to hand Sandra the ticket and drive off, yet he prods her about seeming “very irritated.”  When she proceeds to tell him she is, in fact, irritated—explaining she had changed lanes only because he had sped up behind her and she wanted to let him pass—he answers with a dismissive and surly “Are you done?”

In both tone and content, “Are you done?” enacts the sonic color line connecting detention center to prison cell to the U.S.’s increasingly militarized public space, particularly for people of color.  “Are you done?” communicates that nothing Sandra says matters, that the officer need not listen, even to her answer of a question he himself posed. If anything, Encinia compelled Bland to voice her anger so he could perform his not-listening, so she could feel her smallness, her not-mattering.  He hears her anger as a “symphony” in need of a conductor, a “lawful order.” Everything he does after—his insistence she put her cigarette out, his dragging her out of the car, his vicious yelling as she screams in pain—flows from the not-listening stance of “Are you done?” While Encinia’s angry eruption terrifies, how he immediately calms his voice when speaking to the other officer present and slips so suddenly into bland bureaucratic sing-song when telling the dispatch to “send me a first available for arrest,” chills to the bone. These shifts suggest not a proverbial bad apple’s uncontrollable rage, but the institutionalized discipline of the listening ear.

Identifying and really hearing “cop voice” from multiple perspectives honors Bland’s life, and is absolutely critical as the U.S. erupts once again in overt racist violence and a criminal justice epidemic of epic proportions. But it is more than high rates of incarceration, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes in From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation: “the perpetuation of deeply ingrained stereotypes of African Americans as particularly dangerous, impervious to pain and suffering, careless and carefree, and exempt from empathy, solidarity, or basic humanity is what allows the police to kill Black people with no threat of punishment.” Especially insidious, “cop voice” performs the conditions for its alleged necessity; it is an act of violent escalation heard by police as “justice.” Regardless of context or content, the cadence of white supremacy doesn’t speak to Black and brown people, it speaks of them, invoking painful pasts, a dangerous present, and a future that contracts, recedes, and fades.  How law enforcement listens—as well as how they speak and to whom—is the front line of American citizenship, racial inequity, and all too often, who lives and who dies.  No, we are decidedly not “done.”  We’re just getting started.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Jennifer Lynn Stoever

Jennifer Lynn Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out!. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University, where she teaches courses on African American Literature, sound studies, and race and gender representation. She is the author of 'The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening' (NYU Press, 2016). Follow her on Twitter @soundingoutblog.