Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign for president was founded on a platform of “law and order”—a discourse that would be central to the post-civil rights revival of the racial state. As the slogan “This time vote like your whole world depended on it” suggests, law and order was a way of making clear to a white electorate that their world was under threat, and Nixon and the police were its savior. Nixon did not want “you” to vote as if the world depended on it, but “your” world, and “your” world was not the world. “Your world” was the world threatened by the success of the period’s liberation movements. Indeed, Nixon appropriated anti-racist rhetoric (“the first civil right”) in order to justify the violent suppression and criminalization of the period’s anti-racist and anti-imperial movements. Following the doublespeak of southern segregationists, Nixon gave a new name to a very old project—the containment, regulation, and discipline of any threat to the properties of whiteness.
It can be hard to understand how close revolution was at this moment. The breathtaking violence of police and prisons, the horrors of imperial violence in Vietnam, and the signs of an emerging economic crisis all seemed to signal that the United States was coming to an end. Millions of people thought that the worst had arrived, and that a new world was dawning. If many imagined the end of the world as it was, Nixon was afraid of their success. But Nixon was not concerned with the fate of the world, but “your world,” “your” way of life—what Frank Wilderson calls “white life.” As Nixon argued, life for the white subject was under threat, and the law would realign the racial order of things.
The lasting impact of law and order is difficult to convey and almost impossible to imagine. Law and order has been foundational to building the world’s largest prison system—a regime of racialized and gendered “hyperincarceration” that currently warehouses 2.5 million people. Yet, one of the most profound legacies of law and order lies with what this ad does not say: Nixon speaks race without ever saying its name. The terrifying brilliance of contemporary white supremacy is that its stunning uneven distribution of life and death operates under a structure of silence and invisibility. The challenge becomes abolishing something that is always disappearing.