Context for Jena: Criminal (In)Justice in America

Several of the white commentators on the corporate-broadcast media outlets last night wondered aloud what I’m sure many whites in America were wondering: why was there such an outcry about the events in Jena?

In his lead-in to the NBC Nightly news report “Why are protestors coming to Jena?” (video available here) Brian Williams says:

“There have been many racially-tinged cases in this country over the years, so why has this one prompted all these people — thousands of them as we said — to make their way to what is, after all, a six stoplight town in the middle of Louisiana?”

The report that follows, filed by Mike Tiabbi, is not completely uncritical, but missteps by ignoring the key, critical point about the underlying issues beneath the Jena-protests: the criminal (in)justice system in America. According to data published in a report by Marc Mauer’s non-profit The Sentencing Project:

“African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six (5.6) times the rate of whites and Hispanics nearly double (1.8) the rate.

Three states – Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania – have a Hispanic-to-white ratio of incarceration more than three times the national average.

Prior research from the Department of Justice has demonstrated that if current trends continue, one in three black males and one in six Hispanic males born today can expect to go to prison. Rates for women are lower overall, but exhibit similar racial and ethnic disparities.”

For the last several years, I’ve worked on a research project focused on the incarceration of adolescents at Rikers Island here in New York City, and I can tell you that the jails here in the city, like those in the Jena, Louisiana, are filled with Black and Latino people, not whites. There are lots of sociological factors at play in these kinds of racial disparities — a political economy built on racial inequality, an on-going lack of job opportunities, especially for those who have been incarcerated, and an inherently unequal educational system — but one of the key factors in is the institutional racism built into every aspect of the criminal (in)justice system, from policing, to the courts, to the massive prison-industrial complex. What most white Americans don’t understand — and the mainstream media certainly doesn’t help clarify — is that the protests in Jena are not a response to an isolated incident but rather, a response to the criminal (in)justice system in America.

Quick Tour of News from Jena, La.

There’s a bit of news on the blogs today from Jean, Louisiana.  I imagine there will be a lot more tomorrow.  For now, here’s  quick tour of what’s out there.

Boo Goo Doo Boom  has a great image posted on his site, writes this to go with the image:

Get up and stand up for your rights. Thousands have descended upon Jena, Louisiana today to deliver a message to the entire world – Justice for ALL.

Tip of the hat to Rap Up for pointing me over there, and to Writers Block:

Me and my homie were trying to plan the trip to Jena but we waited last minute to really plan things out. But when we mapquested the directions and found out Jena was about 9 hours from Atlanta, we pretty much fell back on making the drive last night. Still, I’m rocking my black tee in support of the cause and I hope you’re rocking black today too.

And a few white liberal bloggers got into the action as well, including John Edwards, the ACLU, and HRC.  And, lots of interesting stuff on YouTube.com if you search using “Jena.”   I’ll post one the best in the video archive tomorrow.

More analysis tomorrow.

Blogs Crucial in Jena Protest Planning

One of the largest civil rights demonstrations in years is set to take place in Jena, Louisiana today, and blogs have been crucial in making this protest happen. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, popular black radio talk show hosts and other celebrities will converge in Jena today to protest the unequal treatment of African-Americans there. And, a number of news outlets are taking note of the fact that this is a protest driven by blogs. For example, Howard Witt writing for the Chicago Tribune notes:

“..this will be a civil rights protest literally conjured out of the ether of cyberspace, of a type that has never happened before in America—a collective national mass action grown from a grassroots word-of-mouth movement spread via Internet blogs, e-mails, message boards and talk radio. … As formidable as it is amorphous, this new African-American blogosphere, which scarcely even existed a year ago, now comprises hundreds of interlinked blogs and tens of the thousands of followers who within a matter of a few weeks collected 220,000 petition signatures—and more than $130,000 in donations for legal fees—in support of six black Jena teenagers who are being prosecuted on felony battery charges for beating a white student.”

One of the people that Witt goes on to quote in the article is Shawn Willliams, who publishes the Dallas South Blog. More from the Tribune article:

” ‘In traditional civil rights groups, there’s a pattern—you call a meeting, you see when everybody can get together, you have to decide where to meet,’ said Shawn Williams, 33, a pharmaceutical salesman and former college NAACP leader who runs the popular Dallas South Blog.

‘All that takes time,’ Williams added. ‘When you look at how this civil rights movement is working, once something gets out there, the action is immediate—here’s what we’re going to write about, here’s the petition, here’s the protest. It takes place within minutes, hours and days, not weeks or months.’

This new, ‘viral’ civil rights movement now taking shape still benefits from the participation of well-known leaders like Jackson or Sharpton—it just doesn’t depend on them, bloggers say.

It was black bloggers, for example, who first picked up the story of Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old black girl from the east Texas town of Paris who was sentenced to up to 7 years in youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at her high school. The judge who heard her case had given probation to a 14-year-old white girl charged with the more serious crime of arson.

After the bloggers and their readers bombarded the Texas governor with protest letters and petitions, Texas authorities freed Cotton—days before Sharpton had scheduled a rally on her behalf.

Is there a new ‘viral’ civil rights movement driven by bloggers who can bypass the white-dominated mainstream media? Let’s hope so….and work to make it happen.

Can Obama or Clinton Win a Presidential Election?

Many mainstream media analysts and web analysts of various political persuasions have focused on the virtues and liabilities of Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the talented and pioneering Democratic Party candidates for president. The election of either would be a major breakthrough in U.S. politics. Among other things, these breakthroughs would be against an array of stereotypes and understandings that make up major racist and sexist frames still held in the minds of many in this society.

Yet, however much many analysts seem to think that their election is possible or probable, they need to do some tough reality checking. The racist and sexist framing of this society is still extremely strong and mostly unchallenged in a great many minds of likely voters. Yet, the mainstream media seem to tiptoe around these obvious issues of old racist and sexist frames, especially as they affect electability.

The reason for this seems to be the naïve but common notion that somehow we as a country are “beyond racism and sexism.” (Indeed, even if they lose in electoral attempts, mainstream explanations will not note widespread racist and sexist thinking as the reasons, but rather something like Obama’s political inexperience or Clinton’s alleged flip-flopping.)

The data are reasonably clear on public resistance because of race and gender. For example, in December 2006 a national Newsweek Poll of registered voters found that 14 percent would not vote for a “qualified” woman for president or were unsure, with 7 percent indicating they would not vote for a “qualified” black candidate for president or were unsure.

In the same poll 30 percent of registered voters thought the country was not ready for a Black president, with 35 percent saying the same for a possible woman president. Fourteen percent more were unsure in the case of a woman president (for a total of 44 percent), with 10 percent unsure for a black candidate (for a total of 45 percent). . Fourteen percent more were unsure in the case of a woman president (for a total of 44 percent), with 10 percent unsure for a black candidate (for a total of 45 percent). Similarly, in January 2007, a national CBS News Poll asked adult respondents if the country was ready to elect a Black president (42 percent said no or unsure) or a female president (43 percent said no or unsure).

Given that many survey respondents speaking to a stranger on the phone are likely to try to sound unprejudiced in racial or gender terms (the social desirability response), these latter percentages of people saying the country is not “ready” for a Black or female president may well be closer to the actual percentages of voters who will not vote for such candidates once in the voting booth. Having done considerable research on racial and gender issues with hundreds of U.S. respondents, my educated but speculative guess is that the actual percentages would be in-between those for the direct questions and those for the general-readiness questions. (For research data on the high levels of antiblack racism expressed by whites among friends and relatives, see Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin, Two Faced Racism, 2007).  That is, they would be very substantial.

Of course, we cannot be sure what these voters might do in an actual election, after there is intense discussion and debate and the candidates are well presented to the voters, but the great depths of racist and sexist framing in this country make it likely that both Obama and Clinton would get a lot of voters voting against them just because of the racial or gender characteristics.

Some might counter a pessimistic view of their electability chances with the argument that both Senators have already been elected, and have garnered votes from those who might have been expected to vote against them. Both have done well in statewide elections. However, they have both been elected in very blue states where the Republican opponents have not been particularly strong and where a minority of counter-voters could not make the critical difference. If the Republicans run a reasonably strong candidate in a national election, the movement (especially in key states) of just 2-8 percent (possibly much more) of the registered voters from a Democratic candidate to Republican candidate because of their deeplying racist or sexist frames might guarantee the Republican victory.

It is great political news that such candidates are being seriously considered in the United States, but given the power of continuing racist and sexist frames, and the continuing failure of U.S. political and educational systems to counter these frames in strong and systematic ways, the likelihood that a black or female candidate can be elected in a national election is very, very low.

Better news can come in the future, but only if we as a nation work aggressively to change such results by deciding to disrupt and break down the dominant racist and sexist framing once and for all. Of course, this is a huge moral, educational, and political challenge, but since we human beings made these oppressive frames, we human beings can also undo them.

Segregation and Racism in Jena, Louisiana

Imagine a small Louisiana town with about three-thousand residents, of which some 12 percent are black. This is Jena, Louisiana, a town located in LaSalle parish.  This well-known racist environment, where African Americans have found their daily lives being riddled with racist events, has finally received national attention. In this case, the focus is on events that showcase the long-standing inequality in the U.S. justice system. The officially enforced norms of the old segregation system are not dead.
Mychal Bell, 16, the last of the six black students still in jail for assaulting a white student, will request to be released on bail after his conviction was overturned late last week.  On Friday September 14, 2007, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal overturned Mychal Bell’s felony conviction of aggravated battery, saying that the charge should have been handled in juvenile court.  LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters says that he will appeal. Initially, six black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder; the charges have since been reduced for four of the six students to aggravated second degree battery.

To understand the charges faced by these Black teenagers, we have to examine how and why this started.  This began a year ago in September 2006 when an African American freshman asked the principal of his high school if he could sit under a shade tree on the school grounds during the day.  What this new student did not know is that this tree is known at school to be the “white tree.”  The principal told the student that he could sit anywhere he liked.  The day after the African American student sat under this particular tree three nooses were found hanging from it. 

Many in the Black community called for the expulsion of the three white students proven responsible for the act, but white authorities deemed the act an innocent prank.  For this prank, the students received only in-school suspension.  As a reply, the day after the nooses were hung, black athletes and other students organized a silent protest under the same “white tree” to show dissatisfaction with nooses and the mild in-school suspensions.
Later, the police and district attorney were called to an assembly taking place at the school.  At this assembly, the old segregated South was in evidence as Black students sat on one side while whites sat on the other.  At one point, the district attorney, Reed Walters, lifted his pen and said, “I can be your friend or your worst enemy.  With one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear.”

A few weeks later, on November 30, someone set fire to the school, and this crime is still unsolved.  The following day, a few black students tried to attend a party hosted and attended by whites.  While at this party, 16 year old Robert Bailey, a black student and one of the defendants, was attacked and beaten.
The next day after the party, another highly charged racial event took place.  According to news reports, at a local convenience store, Bailey was approached by a white student from the party, and harsh words were exchanged.  The white boy ran to his truck and pulled a loaded shotgun on Bailey and his friends.  Bailey wrestled the gun away from him.  Bailey and friends ran home, with the gun and eventually police got involved.  Bailey was charged with theft of a firearm, robbery, and disturbing the peace.  The white student was not charged.

The following Monday, December 4, a white student took the news of the party fight back to school and loudly taunted blacks by saying that a black boy was “whipped” by white boys.  When he walked into the courtyard, he was attacked by several black students.  He was punched and kicked and taken to a hospital. His injuries were reported to be superficial; he was treated and released and attended a class ceremony that evening.  Six black students were charged with aggravated assault, but the district attorney increased the charges to second-degree attempted murder. This aggressive act provoked a wave of black protest.
The previous incidents in which whites attacked Black students were treated as school fights. Why were the actions of the young Black students not treated the same way?
Bell was the first to go to trial.  On the morning of the trial, the district attorney reduced the charges from attempted second degree murder to second degree aggravated battery and conspiracy.  (In this case, the students’ tennis shoes are apparently considered a dangerous weapon.) Bell’s public defender did not call any witnesses on his behalf, and he was found guilty by an all-white jury.
Notice the key event here: A white protest using nooses against white space being occupied by a Black student. Whites, especially young white men, still make much use of hangman’s nooses, the N-word epithet, and other symbols of the extreme racial oppression of legal segregation era. Some use these symbols intentionally while others do not realize why they cause so much pain and anger for  African Americans. In an important book of interviews with middle-class African Americans, Living with Racism, Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes report that an experienced African American psychologist explained to them that when he encounters a old symbol of racial oppression, such as the N-word epithet, he often sees in the back of his mind a black man hanging from a tree. He grew up during legal segregation era when lynchings of Black people were more common than today. Not surprisingly, thus, Blacks’ past experiences with discrimination inform and contextualize their interpretations of present racist events. In contrast, the impact of racist events such as hanging nooses and yelling racist epithets may well be underestimated by naïve or venal whites, as well as by other non-Black observers.
Notice in the Jena events too that some whites signaled to the African American community that the symbols of bloody lynchings were not very serious, and should be quickly forgotten. Indeed, the psychologist cited above indicated in his interview that his white friends will sometimes tell him to just “let go” of racist comments and events and “move on.” Many whites seem to believe that such insults are “trivial” or “innocent” and thus do not hurt or cause psychological damage. They are, the data makes clear, quite wrong. Such a white perspective suggests that its advocates have not been the recipients of regular put-downs and routine questioning of one’s worth.

~ Louwanda Evans and Joe Feagin

Color-Blindness and the Color of Inequality

In a recent talk at Emory University, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Professor of Sociology at Duke University, raised two questions: “Why do we have such a high level of racial inequality in a country where ‘racism’ is presumably a thing of the past? How do whites explain the contradiction between their professed color-blindness and the color of inequality?”

Writing for the campus paper EmoryWheel.com, Se Hwan Youn summarizes Bonilla-Silva’s main arguments like this:

The professor argued that whites use four central rationalizations, or “frames,” to deny the racism that remains in American social, political and economic systems. The four frames, he said, are abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism and minimization of racism.

Reiterating his claim from his book Racism without Racists, Bonilla-Silva said abstract liberalism “can make whites appear moral and reasonable because they appeal to ideas associated with political liberalism, such as equal opportunity.”

Naturalization is “a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences,” Bonilla-Silva said. He said whites justify associating primarily other whites by arguing that racial minorities also tend to self-segregate — in other words, “lack of mixing is really just kind of lack of desire.”

He said cultural racism is the most widespread frame. It relies on stereotypical arguments to explain the low social standing of minorities, such as “blacks eat too much” or “Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education,” he said.

For the final frame, minimization of racism, people insist that there are few racists and they are hard to find, so racism is not widespread.

Minimization of racism is also associated with people’s hesitance to openly discuss racism in public, Bonilla-Silva said. He gave an example of an interview with a white person who said minorities use racism as an excuse “if things didn’t go their way,” and that whites suffer from reverse discrimination.

Other examples taken from his interviews with many white people showed similar responses, Bonilla-Silva said, which indicates many whites’ firm belief that blacks are playing “race cards” to gain preferential treatment.

Bonilla-Silva concluded the lecture by suggesting “five things we [minorities] ought to do,” including developing counter-arguments for the four frames and starting a new civil rights movement to demand true equality immediately.

I couldn’t agree more about the need for a new civil rights movement.

Jodie Foster as Bernhard Goetz Proves Popular

The box office was good this weekend for closeted-lesbian Jodie Foster’s new movie “The Brave One” this weekend (she both stars and is credited as Executive Producer). Some reviewers have compared this film, directed by Neil Jordan, to “Death Wish,” and it does share similar gun-violence and revenge-fantasy themes with that earlier film. But for me, more salient referent is Bernhard Goetz, the white racist subway vigilante that gunned down four African American teenagers on the 2 train at 14th Street in 1984.

Now, before I continue my critique of this film, in the spirit of full disclosure I have to confess that I saw this film over the weekend, so some of my coins (ok, $11 here in Manhattan) went to the box office totals. I also went to see this film with my long-term partner, Julie, and we did enjoy Ms. Foster’s, ahem, acting. As lovely as she and her chiseled jawline, cropped hair and form-fitting t-shirts are, she is a perennial disappointment in terms of her politics. The fact that someone of her stature doesn’t have the strength of character to come out publicly confirms the kind of societal level homophobia that contributes to the high rates of suicide and homelessness among LGBTQ teenagers. Her recent donation to The Trevor Project doesn’t ameliorate the larger message of her being in the closet, in fact, it only serves to highlight the duplicity of what Michael Musto calls “the glass closet.”

Her abysmal sexual politics are now joined by some pretty deplorable racial politics in “The Brave One.” [SPOILER ALERT: For those of you who haven’t seen the film and plan on it, the rest of this post contains numerous spoilers.] Foster’s character in the film, Erica Bain, is an NPR-style radio host who is engaged to a dark-skinned South Asian (male) nurse, David Kirmani, played by Naveen Andrews. The white woman – dark lover idyll is meant to signify that the Foster character is “not a racist,” as is the presence of a Caribbean woman who is her neighbor, and later voices the moral of the film (more about her in a moment).

As the couple walks their dog late at night through Central Park, entering ominously through the “Stranger’s Gate” at 106th Street, they are attacked by a group of tatooted, bandana-wearing, whisky-guzzling Latino thugs who are equipped with metal pipes as weapons, and with a small, handheld digital video camera to record the attack. Foster’s character is badly injured and is in a coma for three weeks, her boyfriend is killed. After she emerges from the coma, she goes on a grief-stricken killing spree as a sort of vengence-as-recovery strategy. She kills a number of people, some of them white all of them men, in her revenge spree, but the quintessential moment in the film is the incident on the subway by two young African American guys, and as with Bernhard Goetz, she doesn’t only shoot them, she unloads her gun into them. The rather straightforward white racist reaction (two young African American guys on a subway must be a threat), is complicated by the gender and class dynamics. After the two African American guys harass a young white guy and steal his iPod, a current urban symbol of class status (and make fun of his musical choices on the iPod as they steal it), the subway car empties and they turn their menacing attention to Foster’s character, who – – packing a Glock – – has chosen to remain on the subway. As the two men approach, they make an explicitly sexual threat to her involving a knife, and she responds by emptying the gun into both of them and calmly walking away. This image, of two, large, Black men, one with a phallic-and-threatening knife, approaching an assumed-to-be-innocent white woman resonates with the deepest strains of white supremacy in the U.S. The entire history of lynching was premised on just such an image of gendered racism, and the response is evokes from most whites is one of fear, outrage and identification with (or a desire to protect) Foster’s character. However, the image of a woman with agency, who acts in her own defense and does not wait to be rescued, barely registers on the American political landscape; so, for most of the film, people don’t suspect Foster’s character because they assume the vigilante is a man. The subversive possibilities of a woman fighting back against male violence (“who’s a b*tch now?” she asks as she shoots one of her perpetrators) are competely overshadowed by the regressive racial and class politics of the film. Once she as is back at home, Foster listens to an audio recording of the shooting again and again, much like the perpetrators of the attack on are assumed to have watched the video recording of the attack on her, thus blurring the lines between them. Yet, it’s not the similarities between Foster and the various Black, Latino and even white, perpetrators that the audience is left with, but rather the distance between her and her attackers marked by racial and class differences.

While Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing the film for Salon, writes that the Dublin-born director Neil Jordan “has a surprisingly strong grasp of what living in New York is like, and he translates it beautifully onto the screen,” I think Jordan completely misrepresents the city and what it’s like to live here. More accurate is Neil Rosen’s take in his review for NY1 in which he writes that, “Although the movie is set in the present, the crime ridden New York that’s depicted in the film bears more resemblance to the 1970’s.” And, this is a key point in my critique of the film. While Foster’s NPR-radio announcer character refers repeatedly to New York as “the safest big city in the world,” a line from the Guiliani-administration, neither she nor the film as a whole make reference to the police state that Guiliani established that has made Black and Latino young men are the primary targets and vicitms, the very people configured in this film as the menacing villains. The reality of living in New York City today if you look like white and middle-class, is that it is one of the “safest big cities in the world.” However, if you’re a young Black or Latino man, and also happen to live in — or are just passing through — one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, this is a very dangerous city, and that danger very often comes from the police. For example, the New York Daily News this morning is reporting a story about the teen-aged African American son of an NYPD veteran who was repeatedly tasered, hit him 15 times with a nightstick and put into a choke hold for no apparent reason at a “community sponsored” barbecue at 126th St. and Park Ave. last month. The carcicatured portrayal of young Black and Latino men on the screen, and the spectacle of one after the other gunned down, the last one with help from the police detective played by Terrence Howard, renders the film an apologia for the police-state in New York City, rather than simply entertainment or, as one might hope, a cogent social analysis wrapped in an entertaining package.

It is not only Black and Latino young men who are targets here of racial profiling by the filmmaker: a Black woman is also portrayed in stereotypical fashion. Ene Ojala, who plays Josai, the apartment-building-neighbor to Erica and David. Josai first appears as a large, gruff presence that Erica and David make jokes about. Then, once Erica begins her revenge-killing-spree, it is only Josai, in almost supernatural fashion, that discerns Erica’s secret. Josai conveys the central message of the film when she tells Erica, “There are plenty of ways to die. You have to figure out a way to live.” And, fulfilling the “mammy-role” by serving as nurse to Erica who shows up wounded in the apartment hallway in the middle of the night, Josai is not moved when Erica tells her she killed a man, and Josai replies that “in her country” (which is unnamed) she saw lots of killing. The final shot of Josai in the film is one from above, further depersonalizing her, as she scrubs Erica’s blood off the hallway, on her hands and knees. By giving Erica a neighbor who is Black and an immigrant (as well as her boyfriend), director Jordan intends to deflect the broader racial implications of a film in which Jodie Foster plays a thinly veiled version of Bernhard Goetz. Such casting also allows white audiences to go and enjoy Foster and Jordan’s creation with little thought about what is implied.

There is a rich legacy in this country of progressive, even radical, white lesbians who are anti-racist, such women as Lillian Smith, Adrienne Rich, Mab Segrest, and Dorothy Allison. Yet, Jodie Foster — who had access to an elite education — seems unaware or unmoved by such a legacy. While there is no denying that Jodie Foster looks great in a t-shirt, and she just looks better with age, her politics are more troubling than ever.

Racial Discrimination in Mortgage Lending

The Washington Post yesterday reported on a new study released by the Federal Reserve which details the realities of racial discrimination in mortgage lending in the U.S. According to the Fed’s report:

… minorities received loans with higher interest rates or other increased charges in greater percentages than white applicants did. Controlling for various factors, the report found 30.3 percent of the loans for home purchases by African Americans were higher-cost loans, compared with 17.7 percent of loans for whites. The gap of 12.6 percentage points exceeded the gap of 10 percentage points found in the 2005 survey.

Black borrowers received high-cost loans 52.8 percent of the time when they refinanced home loans last year, vs. 49.3 percent in 2005, the Fed report said. Hispanic borrowers received high-cost refinancings 37.7 percent of the time, up from 33.8 percent in 2005. The rate for white borrowers was 25.7 percent last year, compared with 21 percent in 2005.

The Federal Reserve report coincides with increased scrutiny by Congress of lending practices that contributed to the collapse of the subprime-mortgage market which is having a disproportionate impact on African American and Latino homeowners (but that goes largely unreported in this story). And, while the Washington Post story goes on to note that:

African Americans’ homeownership fell nearly two percentage points in the first six months of this year, to 46.3 percent, compared with a half-percentage point drop for whites, to 75.4 percent.

There is little to no attention to the racial discrimination in mortgage lending on the part of Congress. Perhaps it’s time for Congress to take pay attention? Given that the Democratically-controlled Congress can’t seem to get it together to pass legislation that would stop a widely unpopular war, I won’t be holding my breath to see if they take up the issue of racial discrimination in mortgage lending. Of course, the other point to make about the Federal Reserve point is that it calls into question the kind of story I commented on yesterday in USA Today, that this is a “more tolerant” nation. If survey data reflects less overt racism, yet institutionalized racism is as deeply entrenched as this data suggests, who benefits from this? Arguably, it’s white people who reap the benefits here, both in terms of getting better mortgage rates and simultaneously congratulating ourselves on being more tolerant.

USA Today: Becoming More Tolerant?

Reflecting on 25 years of publication, the newspaper USA Today is running a series of Op-Eds-and-blogs about race that assert the nation is becoming more tolerant. Michael Gartner, writing today’s installation, includes comparisons between greater acceptance of ‘homosexuality’ and interracial marriage to make the case that the U.S. is becoming more tolerant, such as these two:

  • In 1982, 34% of Americans believed that homosexuality was an acceptable alternative lifestyle. Now, the number is 48%.
  • In 1983, 43% of Americans approved of marriage between blacks and whites. Now, the number is 79%.
  • Gartner continues:

    Some of this increasing tolerance is the result of more exposure to people who are different than we are. These days, nearly everyone knows an unmarried couple living together — there are 9.8 million Americans who live with an unmarried person of the opposite sex. That’s up 72% in the past decade and 10 times the number in 1960. When we work or go to school or go to church with people of different living styles, different sexual orientations, different religions, different races and backgrounds, we quickly learn that we need not fear — or disparage — those people.

    Some of the increasing tolerance is the result of legislation. In 1990, and again in 1997, Congress broadened the Education of All Handicapped Children Act that made it easier for children with autism and other learning disabilities to receive special education or to be mainstreamed into schools. By last year, this law was aiding more than 6 million students ages 6 to 21. In 1991, 5,094 autistic children benefited from this act. In 2005, the number was 192,643.

    This exposure leads to acceptance, tolerance and affection. My 10-year-old friend and baseball-going buddy Tyler Steinke has an autism-like disability, and he is in a fourth-grade classroom at an elementary school in Urbandale, Iowa. “The other kids help him and like him and include him and look out for him,” says his father. “The teacher says it’s remarkable.”

    While Gartner acknowledges some, relatively minor, “backlash.” He concludes that:

    On balance, though, we have become a remarkably more tolerant nation in the quarter century since USA TODAY was born. This is a good thing for all of us — because most of us belong to one minority or another that has been discriminated against in eras past — but it is a particularly good thing for my grandson.

    At some level, I understand the point that Gartner is making here. Things have changed for the better in some small ways that can be measured with attitudinal survey data. And the reason they’ve changed is because people involved in the Civil Rights and Gay/Lesbian Rights movements have struggled, protested, and agitated for those changes, not because people have simply “become more tolerant.” (This is one of those examples of the passive voice hiding the real meaning of a sentence.) In painting this overly rosy picture of race in the U.S. today, Gartner fails to acknowledge the continuing prevalence of hate crimes by whites, such as the one I discussed here yesterday, as well as the kind of racism that many African Americans, even middle class Blacks, report contending with on a daily basis. Yet, in my more generous moments, I think that this kind of writing by whites speaks to a desire to be our highest selves, to be the heroes, rather than the villains, in the racial narrative in the history of the U.S. It’s similar to the impulse behind much of the “Selling of the Holocaust,” to use Tim Cole’s phrase. In Cole’s analysis, he demonstrates that, from movies to museums, the “feel good” Holocaust is being mythologized in America in which “we are all Schindler” while the frightening reality of the Holocaust is being forgotten. Similarly, in the U.S., whites want to re-write themselves onto the history of racial politics as heroic saviors in the narrative of civil rights, rather than the perpetrators of vicious attacks and staunch advocates of racial inequality.

    Woman Attacked, Held Hostage in Vicious Hate Crime

    This is one of those stories that makes you want to grimace, look away, and think about something else. Bill Hutchinson, writing for in today’s NY Daily News, reports on the ordeal of 20-year-old Megan Williams, an African American woman who was held hostage and attacked during a week-long ordeal by six whites. The white racists are not associated with any organized racist group. The six whites included two mothers and their adult sons.

    The Daily News’ headline screams “racist sickos” and runs the photos of four, poor, white West Virginians, under arrest. While there’s no denying the sound reporting of the News in this instance — it is no hyperbole to call these people “racist sickos,” but rather a cold, factual description — the juxtaposition of this extreme violent incident, the photos, and the headline confirm the image of what most white people conjure when they hear the term “racist.”

    What goes unquestioned in such reporting, however, is the larger context of white racism, what Joe Feagin refers to as the “white racist frame.”

    If there is good news in this story, it’s that four of the white attackers are under arrest (two are still being sought), and they will be charged with felony hate crimes. I’m sure that’s small consolation for Megan Williams.