IN CHAPTER 3, I explored how Safety Orange highlights (even as it purports to compensate for) the shrinking of the state mandate to care for its citizens under the neoliberal order. But, as I argued, the standardized use of orange falsely presumes that all subjects are interpellated alike. Precisely because it is so ubiquitous it seems universal—to speak to everyone in the same way—and its differential effects tend to be obscured. While orange indexes the withdrawal of state attention in certain spheres, it also indexes the state’s overattention in others—specifically, in the overpolicing of poor communities of color. The state disproportionately fails to provide resources to these communities, while it overinvests in their surveillance and incarceration. Safety Orange’s capacity to mark subjects as dangerous is deeply familiar to those most vulnerable to the abuses of U.S. state power. Indeed, the feeling of chronic crisis signaled by orange, the sense of never-ending high alert and imminent danger, has often been the experience of Black and diasporic, immigrant, and refugee communities of color living in the U.S.1
In this chapter, I explore how the exceptional temporal logic of Safety Orange binds various projects of American imperialism, most prominently the exponential growth of the prison-industrial complex and investment in local law enforcement, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the blanket expansion of post-9/11 surveillance protocols. By permanently installing a warning in principle meant to be temporary, the color has been used to deflect the structural racism on which is premised the project of American securitization (of keeping the homeland and its citizens safe). Associating orange with safety elides how the very notion of safety makes some subjects especially vulnerable to state-sanctioned violence—and how the color has been used as a profiling technology that flags bodies precisely for such violence. Orange encodes the process by which, as Mimi Thi Nguyen observes, “the gangbanger, the undocumented person, and the terrorist are rendered knowable through visible signs and screens fully schematized by racism.”2 In Safety Orange we glimpse the racial logics that undergird the twin projects of U.S. militarism and securitization at home and abroad: the color helps us see how with the post-9/11 rise in racial profiling, the U.S. security state has been ever more deeply entangled with the carceral state.3
Consider the iconic orange jumpsuit. While orange is not the color standard for all prison uniforms, it is the color that signifies “prisoner” in the public imagination, and it is used as a shorthand for incarceration in film and television, such as in popular shows like Orange Is the New Black.4 In the 1970s, prisons began to use orange uniforms for incarcerated individuals in special detention situations—in temporary facilities or during transit—to mark a deviation from the norm and flag the wearer for extra surveillance.5 By the 1990s the U.S. prison system had introduced orange jumpsuits into regular use.6 After 9/11, these same orange jumpsuits were worn by Guantánamo Bay detainees, as seen in photos released by the U.S. military. These photos blazoned Safety Orange across international newspapers and televisions, where it telegraphed globally the American state of exception: “Transmitted to the world, the orange jumpsuit was offered by the Bush regime as proof of ‘normal’ American punishment procedures in, what was put across by politicians as, a justifiably ‘exceptional’ situation.”7 In the jumpsuit, Safety Orange is a symbol for conscripting subjects into American imperialism’s hegemonic power.8 That symbol has, in turn, been weaponized by foreign militants who dress U.S. citizens in orange jumpsuits before executing them on film.
What does orange’s use as the shared code between ostensibly discrete domestic and international security apparatuses reveal about the nature of neoliberal governance? What we find in both is orange’s tendency, discussed in chapter 1 as encoding a state of perpetual risk, to present permanent measures as temporary. The orange jumpsuits at Guantánamo Bay encapsulate the suspended temporal logic of the U.S. security state,9 which holds “enemy combatants” indefinitely, with no promise of resolution: detainees may neither be returned to their home countries nor charged, nor even executed. Guantánamo has become the paradigmatic site of the U.S. state of exception—the law that authorizes the suspension of the law in the case of an emergency. In Guantánamo we see that the emergency never ends. Orange is a reminder that the War on Terror is never over, it is always at Threat Level Orange.
The U.S. War on Crime, too, is never-ending—another permanent state of emergency. Indeed, in the aftermath of 9/11, Angela Davis invoked Guantánamo Bay to argue that the U.S. prison serves a similar ideological function in the public imagination “as a fate reserved for others”—or for “evildoers,” to use the term popularized by George W. Bush: “an abstract site into which the undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.”10 In both contexts, the state of exception is spatially and temporally literalized, with prisons and Guantánamo occupying “abstract sites” for indefinite periods of time. The prison-industrial complex grew exponentially in the 80s and 90s, Davis observes, as the prison changed from a short-term tool for behavioral correction to a permanent holding pen, a place to indefinitely stash Black and Brown bodies marked as “dangerous.” It is in this context that the orange prison jumpsuit emerged—a technology of punishment through which to shame and objectify the racialized incriminated and incarcerated body, to mark it out for heightened discipline and surveillance.11
In the domestic U.S. context, orange’s equivocality—its ability to dress endangerment up as protection—plays out in the legal and policy discourse addressing “at risk” populations. In principle, this label is meant to identify populations most in need of support and resources, to flag them for additional care. In practice, it has often been turned against these communities, which are largely communities of color. “At-risk” means “risky,” a future threat (“Code Orange”), legitimating the use of extreme forms of state violence against them: surveillance, police harassment and brutality, incarceration, and death—campaigns tantamount to state-sanctioned terrorism. The social construction of the “at risk youth,” observes historian Elizabeth Hinton, was key to advancing the federal law enforcement programs (such as the Reagan Administration’s Anti-drug Abuse Act) that laid the groundwork for the mass incarceration of African Americans.12 Impoverished neighborhoods were framed as posing sustained levels of threat—as “high risk zones,” where “low-level crimes and misdemeanors created an atmosphere of disorder.” This legitimized preemptive state responses that would contain the putative threat:13 police programs like Stop-and-Frisk and predictive policing algorithms like PredPol, which treat poverty and race as predictive of threat. These preemptive technologies justify the criminalization, racial profiling, and further oppression of marginalized communities,14 pushing vulnerable, “at-risk” populations into the ambit of the prison; since 2002, Stop-and-Frisk alone has resulted in over five million stops and street interrogations, 90 percent of which targeted Black or Latino people.15 The racialized surveillance enabled by the rhetorical slide of “at risk” from “in danger” to “a danger” has been made highly visible in responses to the coronavirus pandemic: social distancing guidelines are enforced unevenly, with police sometimes violently arresting people of color for not wearing masks while giving white antimaskers a pass. These enforcement patterns, which treat people of color as posing a higher risk of spreading the virus, further compounding the virus’s already disproportionate impact on communities of color.
Orange can thus signify either privilege or lack of privilege, as its referent changes with the color of the body that wears it. It can signify either state recognition and care (firefighters’ uniforms, road workers’ safety vests) or state regulation and surveillance (prison jumpsuits). Occasionally, the color designates both protection and warning at once. Recent reporting on the historic wildfires that ravaged the West Coast show California inmate firefighting crews, suited up in orange uniforms, battling on the front lines for only a few dollars a day, under a sky turned orange.16 Such examples of the equivocality of orange make clear that those subjects construed as most risky are the first to be sacrificed in the name of collective well-being.
But Safety Orange’s hypervisibility can go both ways. When ISIS militants responded to Guantánamo by executing U.S. citizens on camera in orange jumpsuits, they repurposed the symbol—drawing attention to the invisible work being done by the hypervisible color. Similarly, the same Safety Orange that marks out certain bodies for racialized surveillance has been used to draw attention to the legacy of state racism that underpins carcerality: A number of African American contemporary artists and performers have employed the color to highlight the routinized surveillance of Black bodies and systemic racial violence in America.17 David Hammons’s Orange Is the New Black (2014–15), for example, presents a series of pastiched African masks and fetish objects, all painted a uniform orange. Hammons juxtaposes the cultural power of these Nkondi sculptures, traditionally protective objects, with the oppressive carceral force of the orange prison jumpsuit to which the work alludes.18 Cameron Rowland’s 1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011 (2016) features an orange Nomex firefighter suit manufactured by prison laborers forced to work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The work underlines the persistent legacies of the U.S. slave economy in contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Hank Willis Thomas’s We the People (2015) repurposes decommissioned prison uniforms in a quilt that spells out the democratic incantation opening the U.S. Constitution. In her performance-based video ORANGE JUMPSUIT (2019), Cauleen Smith creates an orange floral arrangement the color of prison uniforms, which the artist leaves as a memorial outside of the L.A. County Jail. Finally in the performance-based works White Room 4 (2015) and Orange People Are the Grid on the Ceiling (2012), William Pope.L employs the color orange to emphasize the arbitrariness of the concept of race.19 These artworks all play on the popular association of Safety Orange with mass incarceration to problematize the implicit and explicit relationship between race and color, as well as to bring attention to the institutions that perpetuate and profit from racial discrimination and violence.
All of these artworks insist that race in America is not only an issue of black and white but also of orange. Through its very abstraction and mobility as a sign, as these artists demonstrate, Safety Orange both distills racial violence, acting as its material trace, and displaces this violence away from the Black body onto a “neutral” color. Mimi Thi Nguyen makes a similar argument—that Blackness does not stop at the limits of the body—in her tour de force article on the racist optics of the hoodie. Nguyen takes the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin as her point of departure. Before shooting Martin, George Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher that he followed the teenager after becoming suspicious of his “dark hoodie.” Nguyen argues that the hoodie surrogates the Blackness of its wearer and his exposure to racist violence.20 She shows that the hoodie, by virtue of its separability from the body that wears it, offers an alibi for disavowing the racism visited upon its wearer, lending anti-Black violence a form of plausible deniability.21 Displacing race from body to clothing, the hoodie creates an “ontological confusion between subject and object,” and as such “provides cover for racism’s slide into lethal structures that claim to assess and predict threat with disinterest.”22 In a terrible irony, the same hoodie that affords Black men a way to resist certain forms of surveillance also marks them for excessive scrutiny and violence. This irony is captured by what Frank B. Wilderson III has called “the cardinal rule of Negro diplomacy”: Black subjects, men especially, are expected to make those who regard them as “too black for care” feel safe (a routine familiar in stories of traffic stops: black men who have to reassure the cops who are supposed to protect them that they are not in danger).23
Like the hoodie, orange testifies to the abstractibility of race; both partake of the same distancing logic, whereby a sign ambivalently gestures toward and away from their referent. Where the hoodie simultaneously marks and masks Black bodies, orange codes people and the spaces they inhabit as both potentially under threat and potentially threatening. But where the racist logic of the hoodie only converts hiding into hypervisibility and self-protection into criminality, Safety Orange might still allow the ambivalence inscribed in its hypervisibility to be redirected as a tool of resistance and solidarity, as we’ll explore in the next chapter.