What are the Candidates Thinking…?

I have to say, this one really puzzles me. The Republican presidential candidates are skipping the debates hosted by Tavis Smiley and it’s not clear to me what their thinking is here. In case you’ve missed this story in the news, here’s the lede from today’s New York Times’ story by Michael Cooper:


As the Democrats debated last night in New Hampshire, a debate broke out about the decision of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls to skip a televised forum tonight that focuses on issues important to black and Hispanic voters.

None of the leading Republican candidates plan to attend the forum, which the television host Tavis Smiley will moderate at Morgan State University in Maryland and which will be broadcast live on public television. All the leading Democratic candidates attended a similar debate moderated by Mr. Smiley in June at Howard University in Washington.

Don’t get me wrong…it’s not that I think the presidential candidates care, especially, about Black and Hispanic people, but I have come to expect a certain level of Machiavellian strategizing from the Republicans. It seems to me that they’d want to at least appear to be interested in voters who are also Black and Hispanic. Curious.

Bill O’Reilly and the “Contact Hypothesis”

New Yorkers know that if you want good soul food, the direction you head is uptown, to Harlem, and the destination-of-choice is Sylvia’s. Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News commentator (and former “Hard Copy” anchor and easy target for all sorts of critics), dined at Sylvia’s recently with Al Sharpton, and afterward opened his mouth to share this fatuous remark (quoting her from NY Daily News):


“I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. It was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks [and has a] primarily black patronship,” O’Reilly said. “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea!’”

“It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people [who] were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all,” he said.

The racism in this statement seems fairly obvious, but the objectionable bit of course is that he was surprised by “sameness” between Black and white restaurant-goers (as if,…well, you get the idea).

O’Reilly is such an objectionable figure on any number of levels (and there are lots of others lining up to take shots at him), and there’s no point in my piling on to the ad hominem attacks against this guy. The reason I raise this issue here is to draw attention to this notion of the “contact hypothesis” which has a long tradition in social science research. First posed by Gordon Allport in the 1950s, the notion is that ” the more one gets to know personally individual members of a minority group, the less likely one is to be prejudiced against that minority group” (Ray, 1983).

This hypothesis suggests that “not knowing” or “lack of contact” is at the root of intolerance, prejudice, and racism (all slightly different concepts). The idea that “contact” will increase tolerance is what is at the root of all those corporate diversity trainings. I sat through one of those once in which the Black people sat on one side of the room, the white people on the other side of the room, and we — in our racially segregated groups — were to come up with a list of “things I like about being my race.” Perhaps I’ve been studying white supremacists too long, but when someone says,”let’s all the white people put our chairs together and talk about what’s good about being white,” I tend to get a tad suspicious. Such an exercise is predicated on a belief in a kind of pluralism in which all other things are equal and we can all come to a table situated within a racially just society, which is as yet, an unrealized dream.

The fact is, the social science research on “the contact hypothesis” is voluminous and mixed. Some studies show limited support for “more positive racial attitudes” among whites following interracial contact. For example, in a 1993 Social Forces article, Sigelman and Welch report on results of a nationwide telephone survey of 231 African Americans and 1,315 whites that demonstrated some support for the “contact hypothesis”: in certain instances, interracial friendship or neighborhood contacts were associated with more positive racial attitudes, particularly among whites. In a different study, published in a 2001 Social Science Quarterly article, Hanssen finds no support for the “contact hypothesis” in an examination of a natural experiment among white baseball players who have more contact with African Americans as teammates.

There are a number of problems with this line of research, summarized best I think by Dana Bramel in her in-depth discussion of the field in “The Strange Career of the Contact Hypothesis.” She writes that such studies are “plagued by hidden and untested assumptions about a homogeneous American culture” ( 2004, p.63).

What the Bill O’Reilly’s of the world continue to illustrate for us is that we need much more than “contact” to undo systemic racism.

Outraged TV Audiences: The End of White Supremacy?

Writing for, or rather re-blogging for, the Huffington Post, Michael J. Klarman writes about “Why Little Rock was Important.”  He is a well-respected legal scholar on the civil rights movement and provides a thorough review of the events of fifty years ago in the post linked above.  In his last paragraph, Klarman offers the following analysis about why Little Rock was important:


“When such violence erupted — in places like Birmingham and Selma, Alabama — it outraged national television audiences. Newspapers called the violence ‘a national disgrace.’ Citizens voiced their ‘sense of unutterable outrage and shame’ and demanded that Congress take action to suppress such ‘barbarism and savagery.’ President John F. Kennedy went on national television to announce that civil rights were a ‘moral issue as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution,’ and his administration introduced landmark civil rights legislation. It was the violence inspired by confrontations like the one in Little Rock that made such legislation possible. Ironically, the harder southern whites fought to maintain white supremacy, the more they seemed to accelerate its demise.”

I have to agree with the commentor there that goes by “SouthHouse” on HP who remarks on the “unintended irony” of Klarman’s assessment about the demise of white supremacy. And, indeed, there are some important elements of the story left out of Klarman’s account, like the fact that white supremacy didn’t end at Little Rock, but continues in forms that are both overt and institutionalized, as well as subtle and covert. I find it deeply ironic that given the current controversy Klarman didn’t address the issue in Jena. And, he also fails to mention the research which shows not only are schools more segregated now than they were fifty years ago, but that racial segregation is increasing.

I do think Klarman is right, however, when he says that the images from Little Rock, and later the images from Birmingham and Selma “outraged national television audiences.” This is true, people (and here, “national” is a euphemism for “white”) were outraged. This outrage, along with grief over President Kennedy’s death, is part of what made it possible to get the Civil Rights Act passed. Yet, there’s a disconnect in the collective consciousness of the nation. Somehow, this level of outrage at the images on the television screen rarely translates into steps that would effectively dismantle institutionalized white supremacy.

Racism & Education: 50 Years After Little Rock

Most of the major news outlets today are running stories about the fiftieth anniversary of the date when Minnijean Brown Trickey and eight other black teenagers, escorted by 1,200 soldiers through spitting and jeering white crowds, desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The integration of Central High School stands in stark contrast to the recent events at the high school in Jena, and to the racial pattern of school discipline throughout the nation. Howard Witt writing in an article in the Chicago Tribune (and republished at Common Dreams), notes that nationwide:

“African-American students are almost 60 times as likely as white students to be expelled for serious disciplinary infractions. “

Yet, it’s not that black students are no more likely to misbehave than other students. The social science data suggest that’s not what is happening. Quoting Russell Skiba, a professor of educational psychology at Indiana University whose research focuses on race and discipline issues in public schools, Witt’s article continues:

“There simply isn’t any support for the notion that, given the same set of circumstances, African-American kids act out to a greater degree than other kids. In fact, the data indicate that African-American students are punished more severely for the same offense, so clearly something else is going on. We can call it structural inequity or we can call it institutional racism.”

Of course, it’s not just about sitting in detention either. As Witt notes, tudies show that a history of school suspensions or expulsions is a strong predictor of future trouble with the law-and the first step on what civil rights leaders have described as a “school-to-prison pipeline” for black youths, who represent 16 percent of U.S. adolescents but 38 percent of those incarcerated in youth prisons.

White Racism and the Jena 6

*The following pamphlet was written by Thomas Volscho and handed out at the Jena 6 protest held at the University of Connecticut. The rally in support of the Jena 6 was organized by the Graduate Students of Color Association at the university and held on Thursday September 20th, 2007 following a teach-in held the previous day.

Unable to attend the rally, I drafted this short essay putting the event into a sociological context with my training in racism studies. I sent it to fellow UConn Sociology graduate student Ayanna Bledsoe and she circulated it at the event.

White Supremacy, White Terrorism, and White Racism: The Case of the Jena 6
The case of the Jena 6 in Louisiana can be understood by using the sociological concept of Racist Rituals outlined in the book White Racism: The Basics (Feagin, Vera, and Batur 2001). This model provides a “criminal profile” of such rituals and what functions they serve for organized racial oppression in America.
In racist rituals, “whites” often play the following three roles: officiants, acolytes, and passive observers. Such actions may target African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, Latino/as, and other ethnic groups in America who are not considered “white”. The range of actions in a racist ritual may include gestures, words, avoidance, and physical attacks. Instruments and props may include job evaluation forms, burning crosses, nooses, police batons, etc. Myths and Controlling Images refer to stereotypes and propaganda images of people of color.

Officiants are the direct and main participants in racist rituals. In the case of the Jena 6 the first officiants are the “whites” who hung three nooses (instruments and props) from the “white tree”. The nooses symbolize the terrorism of lynching campaigns. The probability that one or more of the African American students at Jena High School has an ancestor who was lynched during the Jim Crow era is almost certain. The school superintendent dismissed the nooses as “a prank” instead of connecting the act to an obvious and long history of oppression. Studies show that such a response is commonplace.

In Feagin and McKinney’s (2003, p. 47) study The Many Costs of Racism for instance, one African American employee reported how when a “white” co-worker referred to her as “Buckwheat” and she reported the incident to her supervisor, her supervisor claimed she had no idea what “Buckwheat” meant, said that the employee did not look like a “Buckwheat” to her, and never sanctioned the officiant. By not sanctioning the officiant, the supervisor is acting as a passive participant, one who may feign ignorance and deny that racism is a problem. In Jena, Louisiana, the superintendent of the school system dismissed a racist ritual as a mere prank (acting as a passive participant).
The African American students, since the end of legalized segregation (along with the fact of their very existence in a school with “whites”) cannot be legally barred from sitting under a tree. However, an informal system of reproducing Jim Crow segregation remains in effect in the United States (though it times it appears more explicit in the southeastern states). When the African American students in Jena protested the inaction of punishing the racist act on the part of the school district, the District Attorney acted as an acolyte who knowingly or unknowingly carries out the prerogatives of white supremacy by using his position of power to enforce white supremacy.

“I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Walters allegedly said. “I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.”

In a later racist ritual, a “white” student called an African American student “nigger”. This term carries much more historical weight and significance than many “whites” understand. For instance, one elderly African American psychologist said that whenever he hears that term, it sets off the image in his mind of a “black” man hanging from a tree (Feagin and McKinney 2003, p. 48). This particular racial epithet was often chanted during the thousands of lynchings across the southeastern United States (3,500 of which are known where the targets where people of African descent). To get a visual sense of the horrors of lynching, James Allen has published early photographs of “whites” posing (often smiling) with the bodies of men (and to a lesser extent women) who had been lynched (available online at: www.withoutsanctuary.org). Many times the photos would be turned into postcards. Far from being the work of a few psychologically troubled bigots, entire communities (including young “white” children) would turn out for these particular racist rituals and pose by the human remains. In modern times, the District Attorney, in a predominately “white” community has the power to excessively punish the “black” students, in what amounts to a school yard fight, by charging them with “second-degree attempted murder”. In doing so, the D.A. is symbolically defending white supremacy and enforcing the structural violence of an inherently racist social system.

A large element of trying to “put the brakes” on how this particular case connects to systemic racism in America is to get the case to “go away”. The threat of a case like this is that it can galvanize a modern Civil Rights movement. The murder of Emmett Till had such an effect and the Jena 6 could potentially have such an effect. We can expect the white power structure to try and “squelch” the case and claim that it is simply an “unfortunate, isolated incident.”

Whistling Dixie in the NYTimes

Paul Krugman writes in today’s New York Times that despite his newspapers (and other media outlet’s) “tone of amazement” at the protests in Jena last week:

“But the reality is that things haven’t changed nearly as much as people think. Racial tension, especially in the South, has never gone away, and has never stopped being important. And race remains one of the defining factors in modern American politics.”

While Krugman is correct on this point, he errs by failing to recognize the ways in which the racial dynamics he’s attributing exclusively to the South are in fact, quintessentially American. To support this view, he quotes political scientist Thomas F. Schaller who, in his book “Whistling Past Dixie,” makes this assessment:

“Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters to depict American conservatism as a nonracial phenomenon, the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past.”

Yet, it’s systematic racism – like that in housing – that reveals part of how deeply embedded racism is in this society as a whole. The first suburbs in the nation were built outside New York City, and those suburbs, such as the original Levittown, were built exclusively for whites at the same time that people were rising up against racist segregation in the south. Making racism a regional-disorder is provides an easy out for white liberals who would rather ignore the racism in their own backyard.

Cyber Racism: Overt & Subtle

I blogged recently over here about the overt sort of cyber racism of the backlash against the Jena 6 and their families. This is kind of overt cyber racism is typical of the white supremacists like Bill White who is targeting these families by posting their addresses online. In a more subtle form of cyber racism akin to white liberal racism, the progressive (predominantly white) blogs have been largely silent on the Jena 6 story, as Pam notes on her blog, Pam’s House Blend.  As I argue in a forthcoming piece called “Race, Civil Rights & Hate Speech in the Digital Era,” in the MacArthur series on Digital Media & Learning, white supremacy has entered the digital era. And now, cyberspace is a contested terrain in the landscape of racial politics in the U.S. and globally.

Apartheid as American as Apple Pie: The Case of Jena

On Thursday September 20, the march in Jena ended peacefully and most thought, successfully. African Americans attending the march applaud the success and celebrate the fact of proving some of the white residents in the town and around the world that this was in fact a very peaceful event. Leading up to this event, car dealers removed their cars from the lots; businesses taped and closed their businesses, all in the belief that trouble was inevitable. According to a local minister attending the marches:

“This showed them; we were here for a purpose. That purpose was to tell whites that we are tired; it shows blacks that we can and should stand up for what’s right. This march in Jena is to say that it is time to stop treating us unjustly in the system.”

Most of the commentary coming from those who attended the march in Jena describes the beauty and tragedy of the march in the same breath. Another African American minister describes this event this way:

“It was the most beautiful thing to see all those people together supporting equal justice. You had to be here to feel the atmosphere and unity. There are no words to describe the feeling. The pictures and the news reports could never do it justice. At the same time, it is very sad that this event was very necessary. People want to say that we [blacks] need to get over things; that racism and hatred is in the past. This ain’t about the past. This is about the past, present, and the future. Obviously, this is still and always has been an issue.”

A Jena resident and participant talks candidly about the recent events leading to the march by saying that the call to equal justice was long overdue:

“I have been here all my life and what is happening here with racism has been happening all my life. This was nothing new, but I am glad that this is getting attention. Not just for the Jena 6, but for everybody. This place is filled with racism; it is filled with David Dukes; they just don’t wear the white sheets in public. The point is, racism is still here, I guess we are supposed to be quiet about it.”

So, what is the outcome? African Americans still feel that the march and the visits from broadcast media outlets are necessary and beneficial, but this is not the only thing that is happening; racial threats are also becoming a commonality. The first African American minister quote above comments again:

“My church has been getting some serious threats from supremacist groups. We have been getting them all day, every day. I have been personally getting them. These people are saying that they will kill all of us that are deeply involved with the Jena 6. The morning after, they called my organization office and asked for me personally to tell me that they were there with us in the march and they would kill me and kill us all. I am not concerned about this. They can’t hurt me.”

These threats are once again a sign that the old legal segregation and its extreme and violence oriented behavior is still part of the lives of many African Americans in the South. Social science research shows this clearly, yet the mass media mostly ignore the findings of researchers. The coverup of this reality is again one of the great tragedies of the United States. No country can be a democracy where many of its citizens must fear for their lives just for exercising their civil rights and civil liberties.

Sterilization and Women of Color

In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, activists and academics noticed a widespread trend among women of color: sterilization. The particular type of sterilization is medically referred to as “tubal ligation” and commonly known as getting one’s tubes tied. It permanently terminates a woman’s ability to have children. Concern over widespread abuse emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s when it was found that disproportionate numbers of African American, American Indian, Puerto Rican, and Mexican origin women were undergoing the surgery compared to European American women. One of the cases that brought racially-targeted sterilization abuse to national attention was the 1973 case of the Relf sisters—two African American early adolescent-aged sisters who were sterilized at an Alabama family planning clinic that received federal funds.

The sterilizations of Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf were performed by the Family Planning Clinic of the Montgomery Community Action Committee which was funded and controlled, at the federal level, by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). This case is often cited as an exemplar of sterilization abuse in the form of surgical sterilization, but the case involved other dimensions of reproductive abuse such as the use of the Relf sisters (including Minnie Lee and Mary Alice’s older sister Katie, aged 17) as guinea pigs for “investigational drugs” (i.e., Depo-Provera injections twenty years prior to their approval by the Food and Drug Administration).

Parental permission for the administration of these shots was never sought nor obtained. In early March 1973, Katie Relf was taken to the Family Planning Clinic for insertion of a dangerous IUD (intra-uterine device) without permission sought from parents. Katie, as a minor, acquiesced at the urging of clinic staff to accept insertion of the device. Several months later, a clinic Nurse picked up Mrs. Relf and her two youngest daughters and drove them to a physician’s office. Mrs. Relf thought the girls were being taken for the shots that they had been receiving. From the doctor’s office, and having not spoken with anyone, Mrs. Relf and her daughters were then transported to the local hospital where the girls were assigned a room. Hospital staff asked Mrs. Relf, unable to read or write, to put an ‘X’ on a consent form authorizing tubal sterilization for her youngest daughters. No informed consent was sought nor were details on the nature of the surgical procedure provided. After signing, Mrs. Relf was driven home.
Minnie Lee and Mary Alice were left alone in the hospital ward where a nurse came in and had Minnie Lee sign a false document indicating that she was over age twenty-one (she was in fact fourteen years old). Minnie Lee did not understand what the document meant or authorized. At this point, neither the parents nor the daughters met the physician who was going to perform the operation nor were the two young adolescents or parents aware of what was going to happen to them. Before the operation, Minnie Lee borrowed change from another patient in the ward, called her mother, and asked her mother to take her and her sister home. However, Mrs. Relf did not have any means of getting to the hospital. The next morning, both sisters were placed under an anesthetic and surgically sterilized. A little known fact is that on the same day the nurse picked up Minnie Lee and Mary Alice, and brought them to the clinic, she returned to the Relf home and attempted to pick up Katie, the eldest sister, to go to the hospital for sterilization. Katie locked herself in her room, refusing to go.

The complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) indicated that this was abusive and coercive because 1) neither the mother nor her daughters ever sought to for the two young women to be surgically sterilized, 2) prior to the operation neither the mother nor daughters met the physician who would perform the operation, and 3) before the operation no physician or other healthcare provider discussed the consequences of tubal sterilization with either the mother or the daughters (Relf vs. Weinberger 1974). During the trial one of the sisters was asked if she planned to have children and she answered “yes”, which indicates she was never made aware of the consequences of the surgery. Furthermore, as noted in the legal complaint filed by the SPLC:

When Community Action moved the Relfs to a public housing project in 1971, the Family Planning Service began the unsolicited administration of experimental birth control injections to Katie. No parental permission was sought or given. Indeed, the agency sought out the Relf children as good experimental subjects for their family planning program. The F.D.A. approved this experimental drug for use by the Family Planning Service of the Montgomery Community Action Committee (p. 9).

In addition to the use of the daughters as unwilling test subjects for Depo-Provera, the clinic used federal funds to pay for the surgery. The main reason the clinic stopped injecting the girls with Depo-Provera shots is because it was found to cause cancer in lab animals and thus it was decided that sterilization would be an appropriate substitute for the shots. Not long after the Relf case, many other African American, Native American, and Latina women came forth with similar stories. This case is illustrative of a larger pattern of reproductive abuse targeted at women of color. While many cite it as a case of sterilization abuse, the case has greater significance because the it touches upon all elements of racially targeted reproductive abuse: coercive surgical sterilization, assumptions about the sexual behavior of two young women of color, use of a dangerous unapproved sub-permanent sterilizing drug (Depo-Provera), coercing “consent” to have an IUD inserted (Katie), and manipulating parents through the welfare system to allow their children to be used as a ‘test case’ for the state to see if it could limit the reproductive abilities of women of color. In the end, two young women, at the age of 12 and 14 were robbed of their ability to have children thereby stripping them of their human right to procreate.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri, an American Indian physician, began looking into the sterilization of American Indian women after a twenty-six year old patient walked into her Los Angeles clinic and asked for a “womb transplant”. The patient was told by the doctor, who had performed a complete hysterectomy on her, that the surgery was reversible. The woman left the clinic in tears. Dr. Pinkerton-Uri then performed her own investigation and found that nearly 1 in 4 (or 25 percent) of American Indian women had been sterilized. Her research indicated that Indian Health Services (IHS) facilities “…singled out full-blooded Indian women for sterilization procedures.” The Government Accounting Office performed a study to refute Dr. Pinkerton-Uri’s allegations that only studied four of the twelve IHS facilities. However, their findings were consistent with Pinkerton-Uri’s conclusions.

The extremely high rate of sterilization, many scholars contend, fits within the parameters of the United Nations’ definition of genocide which includes acts that specifically limit the number of births within a group.

Recent data show widespread racialized variation in sterilization. For example, my tabulation of the 2002 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey data indicate that African American, American Indian, and Latin American women (age 18-44) have a very high rate of tubal sterilization compared to European American women. In 2002, 32.9 percent of American Indian women, 26.2 percent of African American women, and 25.5 percent of Latinas reported having a tubal ligation compared to 18.9 percent of European American women. Given the past history of sterilization abuse in the United States directed at women of color, the current extremely high disparities suggest that similar such practices may have continued into the twenty-first century.

Women of color have actively fought against abuses against reproductive rights since slavery. Two contemporary organizations fighting for the reproductive rights of all women include: SisterSong, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence