Racist Attack in Liverpool Raises Questions about How We “See” Racism

The BBC reports on the sentences just handed down in the stabbing death of a young man of mixed race, Marlon Moran 21, in south Liverpool (UK). The stabbing took place in May (2007). According to the BBC, Daniel Masher, 18, of Byron Street in Garston, was cleared of murder but found guilty of manslaughter and given an indeterminate sentence. Three other teenagers were cleared of murder at Liverpool Crown Court. There are a few noteworthy items in this story to me, looking at this report from another culture and across a huge bit of geographic distance and through the lens of critical race theory. First, it’s interesting to note the relatively light sentences handed down. Remarkable given that in our country we’re busy handing out life sentences to juveniles.

The other thing that I wanted to remark on is the “visual.” Marlon Moran If you check the photo of Michael Moran, who is described as “mixed race,” but to my American-eye, he appears to be “white.” So, is race “visible”? It was certainly “visible” enough to get this young man killed, according to the BBC report. There was in relatively recent U.S. history when immigrant groups we sometimes refer to as “white ethnics” (e.g., Irish, Italians, Jews) were regarded as “non-white.” What transpired over in that cultural transformation? Did people’s appearance change? Or, did the way the rest of society regard their appearance change? What is “visual” about ‘race’ and ‘racism’? Is it what we see, or how we look at those we regard as ‘other’?

Monument to Racism

The United States government has officially sanctioned itself as in the business of human trafficking. Like the international sex trade, the federal and state governments attach monetary value to bodies: they sell lives and futures for profit. Unlike the sex industry and the adoption hierarchy, however, this form of human trafficking privileges the bodies of Black, Brown and poor youth. The business is the prison-industrial complex: an entire economy and industry based upon “putting people in cages.”

Books Not Bars is a documentary that is a digital media advocacy project that documents the activist responses to California’s Proposition 21, in which the state would have built a “superjail,” a structure that was to be the largest per capita juvenile detention center in the country. This superjail, Van Jones, National Director of the Books Not Bars Campaign, calls a “monument to racism.” But I would extend this brilliant phrase even further: we have merely replaced slavery, an institution of racism, with its contemporary form—prisons—which are simply another institution and economy of racism.

And like the photographs of lynchings discussed by Smith, the criminalization of youth of color terrorizes both Whites and communities of color—further reifying the hegemonic social order. As the lynching photographs did at the turn of the twentieth century and as current images of murdered and tortured Iraqis do, the prison-industrial complex and the media’s visual construction of it, say more about whiteness than they do about those being warehoused, disposed of, erased and silenced. Importantly, the media also plays a “doubleness” in the case of the prison-industrial complex, where it both constructs this issue at the same time as it provides a format for introducing to the public at large information that the mainstream either warps or silences while also serving as a successful medium for resistance; as is the case with Books Not Bars. Regardless: race is visible.

Costing over 10 times as much to keep a young person in a juvenile justice facility then it does to educate them, the prison-industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline are current tentacles in a long history of America’s war on youth, and they offer a way to traffic and warehouse poor, youth of color. This documentary critically contributes to this conversation. As James Bell, Staff Attorney at the Youth Law Center remarks in Books Not Bars, the U.S.:

“is a society that does not like teenagers and likes to keep them at arms length. And when you add coloredness to it, it leads to fear.”

Public knowledge is, inherently, the sum of what the public knows. And what the public knows is a direct result of what the media tells it. Given that the majority of the U.S. receives its information through major media outlets—which are structurally and systemically raced, classed and gendered—the public is grossly, “profoundly, exponentially misinformed” by the media about the accurate account of youth crime, and therefore the “public has little context to judge” this issue other than what the media, or news, constructs and disseminates. Media is involved in the business of “the production of unreality.” For example, only 15% of all violent crimes are committed by youth, and yet the public thinks that 60% of violent crime is committed by youth. Yet this misimpression is also racialized: with African American adolescents being arrested at rate 48 times their White counterparts. The message is clear: we are not only pervading our war on youth, but as Vincent Schiraldi, President of Justice Policy Institute reminds us:

“Black kids matter less than white kids.”

Books Not Bars also delicately challenges society’s fear, distrust and dislike of youth, where they are the problem, by offering a perspective of youth as the solution. (For a discussion of the historical roots of the racialized construction of youth delinquency, see “Tracing the Historical Origins of Youth Delinquency & Violence: Myths & Realities About Black,” by Dr. William Cross). The message of activism in Books Not Bars is also achieved through its macro stance, locating the problem in systems, and not on individual bodies. It asks not about what youth behaviors are, but instead about what the structural arrangements are facilitate the proliferation of the prison-industrial complex.

Despite the prison-industrial complex and the criminalization of youth being an issue that invades the social, political, economic, historical, and human rights fabric of our society (or as James Bell says, “the civil rights, human rights issue of the 21st Century), Books Not Bars does not steer us into believing we are in imminent social doom. Effective for its use of a variety of visual and audio imagery, Books Not Bars weaves together a fine balance of information and history with a variety of successful, current activist campaigns and, most importantly, with a persistent theme of the way that the audience can get involved in fighting this issue; this documentary creates—as the finest of digital media advocacy does—“a space for action.”

It is worth mentioning, that as a result of the Books Not Bars Campaign and the Youth Force Coalition’s work, they were able to force a withdrawal of the $2.3 million dollars the state had earmarked to build the superjail.

~ Jessica Ruglis, PhD Candidate
CUNY-Graduate Center

Tiger Woods and Talk of Lynching

The Sports-Law blog has a very good summary of key issues regarding golf commentator Kelly Tilghman’s comments on golfing competitors thinking about “lynching” Tiger Woods to keep him from winning:

“Unfortunately, barely hours into 2008 we were hit with what can only be described as a breathtaking breach in the world of sports and race equality. A few days ago, while broadcasting a PGA tour event, Kelly Tilghman, the Golf Channel’s main play-by-play anchor commented nonchalantly to co-anchor Nick Faldo when discussing Tiger Woods’ dominance on the Professional Golf Tour that his competitors should ‘lynch Tiger Woods in a back alley.’ Tilghman stated on live television that today’s young players should ‘lynch Tiger Woods.’ “

She made these comments in a time period when we have had noose incidents in many places across the United States since the Jena, Louisiana events last year. All too often, nooses seem inconsequential to many white Americans, as do racist jokes about lynching black Americans. Yet nooses and lynching jokes are contemporary signs of white Americans’ 400-year rationalizations of the oppression of African Americans. Too many white minds are still deeply filled with what I have termed the white racial frame, a framing of African Americans that includes a great many negative images and emotions aimed at black men, women, and children. Whites like this commentator seem so isolated from the reality of the discrimination and subsequent pain that African Americans face that they appear clueless and out of touch with societal reality.

Thus, in recent years the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and similar federal agencies have received many thousands of complaints of racial harassment in U.S. workplaces. Not long ago, at just one major power company worksite at least five hangman’s nooses were scattered about apparently to threaten black employees. In a midwestern workplace white workers, including a supervisor, paraded around in Klan costumes. In many other workplaces black employees have encountered hangman’s nooses, racist graffiti on walls, racist cartoons mocking African Americans, and white employees in KKK hoods or sheets. White workers have also put up effigies (such as coconuts in blackface) of black workers or family members, with racist epithets written on them. (Andrew R. McIlvaine, “Hostile Environments,” Human Resource Executive Magazine; and Gregory Weaver, Indianapolis Star, January 14, 2001; and see Jessie’s earlier posts here about noose incidents in the news.)

Whites who do this type of harassment often think it is funny. Indeed, many white employers allow this type of “joking” behavior to continue in worksites. Such racial harassment is a violation of U.S. laws. While many white Americans would likely see much of this as discriminatory and improper, most do not see that these recurring harassments bring major psychological and stress-related physical costs to their African American targets.

Such racist practices do much harm. (See, for example, Feagin and McKinney, The Many Costs of Racism). Hangman’s nooses and other KKK symbols suggest today to most African Americans the brutal violence that African Americans have endured at the hands of white supremacists for hundreds of years. I once interviewed an elderly African American professor who explained that when he hears racist epithets (such as the N-word), he often sees in the back of his mind a black man hanging from a tree. Actually he grew up when lynchings were more common, and his past experience with violent racism is recalled by racist acts in the present. He reported that white friends will tell him to just “let go” of such racist comments from bigots and quickly “move on.” However, even this sympathetic perspective suggests that whites do not understand how one incident can trigger the accumulated pain of past racist events. Indeed, most whites, perhaps like Kelly Tilghman, do not realize the great extent of the past and continuing damage of racial oppression in this United States.

(Re)Segregating Education

Amanda Poulson has a good piece in the Christian Science Monitor (to me via Alternet) about the fact that our educational system increasingly looks like the segregated system of the pre-Brown vs. Board of Education era. Poulson’s article is about a new report on the re-segregation of education.

“The most segregated schools, according to the report, which documents desegregation trends, are in big cities of the Northeast and Midwest. The South and West — and rural areas and small towns generally — offer minority students a bit more diversity.”

The organization that conducted the study, The Civil Rights Project (at UCLA) found some disturbing trends in the nation’s educational system:

“It’s getting to the point of almost absolute segregation in the worst of the segregated cities – within one or two percentage points of what the Old South used to be like,” says Gary Orfield, codirector of the Civil Rights Project and one of the study’s authors. “The biggest metro areas are the epicenters of segregation. It’s getting worse for both blacks and Latinos, and nothing is being done about it.”

About one-sixth of black students and one-ninth of Latino students attend what Mr. Orfield calls “apartheid schools,” at least 99 percent minority. In big cities, black and Latino students are nearly twice as likely to attend such schools. Some two-thirds of black and Latino students in big cities attend schools with less than 10 percent white students; in rural areas, about one-seventh of black and Latino students do. Although the South was the region that originally integrated the most successfully, it’s beginning to resegregate…”

Fifty years ago, there was a social movement that took as one of its fundamental tenets that integration was a good thing and something worth fighting for. It remains to be seen if, in the current political and economic context, a new movement will take up this cause.

This just gets more interesting…

Do you Twitter? This is a kind of instant-message service for “friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” I’ve recently become addicted to Twittering and find some interesting stuff there. Somehow, I ended up following / being followed (Twitter-speak for whose updates you get) Tavis Smiley. Or, more precisely, some intern that works at the Tavis Smiley Show. Anyway, some good stuff has popped up there recently, such as this teaser for tonight’s show with Sen. Ted Kennedy:

“Why do many white, male senators support Obama but majority of the Congressional Black Caucus supports Clinton?” Sen. Kennedy responds tonight on Tavis Smiley.

And, even more interestingly, a link to this blog entry, “Race for the Race Vote,” written by Rose Capozzi. Here’s a snippet:

Some are calling the South Carolina primary the “black primary” because African-Americans will make up the largest voting demographic for the Democrats. Of those African-Americans voting, there will be more women than men at the polls.

For Senator Clinton, South Carolina may not be a make-or-break for her campaign, but it will certainly be a test of her appeal with minorities. Can Bill Clinton’s reputation as the “first black President,” transcend to his wife, or will African-Americans favor someone who is actually black, as Katharine Seelye of the New York Post [sic] puts it.

The African-American vote is going to make a big difference in this election, if not in numbers, then at least in perception. For the black female vote, individual cultural expectations will compete with individual gender expectations. The results of the South Carolina primary will send a message to those of us listening—it may very well tell us what matters most for black Democrats: race, gender, or political differences between the candidates.”

It’s a thoughtful piece (though she meant New York Times, not the New York Post), and I’m gratified to see someone mentioning the black female vote. And, I’m delighted to have stumbled across this via Twitter. If I figure out how to post a Twitter ‘badge,’ I’ll post that up.

Canada Skips UN Racism Conference Over Antisemitism

A couple of days ago, Matt commented on a post from back in September about antisemitism. His comment had me thinking about the relationship between antisemitism and racism, then this news comes from our neighbors to the north:

“Canada will not take part in a major United Nations conference on racism next year because the event is likely to descend into ‘regrettable anti-Semitism’, a top official said on Wednesday.”

Of course, this is all tied up with support of, and criticism for, Israel. I don’t know of any scholarly work that looks on these connections: between antisemitism and racism in the current political context of heated debates about what it means to support or criticize Israel. I’d love to learn something new about this. Matt mentioned a new book by Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton UP, 2007). I wonder if there are other titles to add to this reading list? Drop a reference in the comments, if you have one.

Re-Framing Poli Sci Textbooks

Inside Higher Ed has a good piece today (written by  Scott Jaschik) about a study that explores the portrayal of black folks in Political Science textbooks.  The study by the American Political Science Association’s Standing Committee on the Status of Blacks in the Profession. The study appears in the January 2008 issue of PS: Political Science & Politics.  Here is a snippet from Inside Higher Ed:

The committee reviewed 27 textbooks used in intro courses, and published or in circulation (in many cases as updated editions of previously issued versions) from 2004 to 2007. Of those texts, 74 percent had a chapter on civil rights, 19 percent combine civil rights and civil liberties, and 7 percent had no specific chapter. For those books with a civil rights chapter, the average number of pages with references to black issues outside of that chapter is 13 — not a large number on books that averaged 569 pages.

‘Our analysis reveals that African Americans’ active participation in America’s political development has been treated as a separate entity from the rest of the country’s development…. [T]extbooks do not discuss African Americans as active agents (if at all) until the civil rights movement, when they are discussed as collective “recipients” of government action,’ says a report on the study by Sherri L. Wallace, an associate professor at the University of Louisville, and Marcus D. Allen, an assistant professor at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.

In part, the study attributes the relative absence of black people from the texts as reflecting a larger bias in the discipline, in favor of powerful government institutions over less officially powerful (but in many cases extremely important) social movements. “Because political science as a discipline typically studies institutions and elites as decision-makers, it thereby largely ignores the presence and questions of African-American politics,” the report says. One example from the study: If you are searching for an image of a black woman in one of these texts, the person you are most likely to find is Condoleezza Rice.

Although this study focuses on poli sci textbooks, I think an enterprising scholar could replicate this study using intro sociology textbooks and likely come up with similar results.  Given Joe’s work on the white racial frame, it’s interesting that the piece concludes by talking about “new frames” that textbooks should consider adding, such as:

  • The evolution of political parties’ views on slavery.
  • A focus on “race and racial issues in a global context,” noting the interactions among various racial and ethnic groups.
  • Using “the lens of race and ethnicity” more in consideration of political issues.
  • Citing more work by black scholars.

While these are important shifts, I think they don’t go nearly far enough and suggest an internal inconsistency.  If Condoleeza Rice is a troubling image of African-American women in politics,  suggesting that textbook authors are doing something transformative by merely citing more work by black scholars seems a necessary, but not completely sufficient step toward using a “different frame.”   Still, it looks to be a significant study and serves as an example that other disciplines should follow.

Herbert in NYTimes: Racism Still With Us

Bob Herbert has an excellent Op-Ed in today’s New York Times. His focus is on South Carolina.  And given that I’m teaching a visual media course in which we’re discussing the use of non-fiction films to address issues of racial injustice, I was particularly struck by Herbert’s mention of the documentary, “Corridor of Shame,” about racial disparities in the South Carolina educational system.   I’ll have to add that one to my list of films to see.

In reviewing the historical context of racism in South Carolina, Herbert makes reference to Benjamin Tillman, aka “Pitchfork Ben,” who served as both a governor and senator there. Herbert writes:

“A statue of Tillman …. is on prominent display outside the statehouse. … A mortal enemy of black people, he bragged that he and his followers had disenfranchised “as many as we could,” and he publicly defended the murder of blacks.

In a speech on the Senate floor, he declared:

‘We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.’

Real change is more than problematic in a state so warped by its past that it can continue to officially admire a figure like Tillman.”

Much of the MLK-holiday-themed rhetoric would have us believe that we’re past “that kind” of racism, but when monuments to Tillman still stand and when white supremacists still march (even when outnumbered), it seems to me that this type of racism is part of the fabric of this society, rather than a regional or historical aberration.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., African Americans, and Equality

The heating up of racial issues in the Democratic Party’s primary campaigns has brought many media commentaries in recent days, not the least on the day honoring Dr. King.  Major media outlets gave more attention to the slanted comments of Bill Clinton against Barack Obama than to Dr. King and the significance of the African American movement he helped to lead.

Let us reflect on a few of King’s forgotten comments about racial equality and the broader significance of the civil rights movement for equality in the United States.

Just before his assassination, Dr. King passionately argued that the main problem of equality in the United States was not so much the great discrepancy between the idea of equality and the conditions of African Americans, but rather that there is:

“not even a common language when the term ‘equality’ is used. Negro and white have a fundamentally different definition.”

King continued, noting African Americans:

“have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white Americans at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most whites in America in 1967, including many persons of goodwill, proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap — essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community, 1967).

For King and most in the critical movement, the central issue was, and still is, not just new opportunities but social justice and a closing of racial inequality gaps.

Elsewhere Dr. King was regularly eloquent, as when he asserted that:

“Justice for black people will not flow into this society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. . . . White America must realize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” (Coretta Scott King, The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1983).

Large-scale structural change was the message Dr. King strongly asserted. Today, this is still the message that whites must somehow heed and act on if the U.S. is to survive this century.

From the beginning of the new United States, ideals of equality and freedom were significantly shaped by African Americans. These ideals started, at least as publicly published, as a white-stated viewpoint, but as African Americans gained access to writing tools and publications, they carried the equality and freedom message well beyond what the founding whites envisioned. After the revolutionary war, and during and after the Civil War, African Americans pressed for a broad view of political/economic equality that included destruction of slavery and, later, of growing racial apartheid. A brief Reconstruction was ended by violent white terrorism in the form of the Klan and similar groups, and most of the Southern white leadership’s Civil War goals were finally secured, with extreme segregation (a near-slavery) across the southern United States country becoming the reality. As they had since the 17th century, millions of white supremacists under legal segregation continued to argue for the permanent inferiority of black Americans and the fiction of “separate but equal” was used to justify complete legal or de facto segregation.

Until the 1960s a substantial white majority fought to keep the definition and meaning of equality limited to whites. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Black Americans pressed hard, often more or less alone, to expand racial equality to mean not only the right to vote but also equality in public accommodations, on juries, and in civil liberties. For decades well past the middle of the 20th century, this Black vision was violently opposed by most whites, north and south. These whites sought to maintain the permanent political, social, and economic subordination for African Americans. It took nearly a century for the white public’s understanding of equality to move significantly away from the idea of most founding fathers that only white men had a right to freedom to a much broader view that all men and women have a right to legal and political equality.

The American ideals of freedom and equality have gradually changed over time, in substantial part because of brave and consistent efforts of very large numbers of African Americans, such as Dr. King and those who followed him, fighting for these liberty and justice ideals. Beginning in the early 1900s, African American leaders and ordinary members of Black communities began to organize again for racial integration and reasserted strongly the American goals of racial equality and social justice—for all Americans. They pressed hard, until finally in the 1960s large-scale movements finally brought down legal segregation.

Yet, even today, numerous white intellectuals and leaders have shown much fear of any possible trend to expanded liberty and justice. Daniel Bell, for example, has expressed fears that modern populists and other social activists have a desire for “wholesale” egalitarianism that insists on “complete leveling.” Government social welfare programs and affirmative action programs are cited as examples of the “equality revolution.” Pulitzer prize winning journalist William Henry III, has argued against the view that everyone has something significant to contribute to society and the argument that most cultures offer something worth knowing. Multiculturalism is said to be “deeply harmful,” and such programs are said to miss the point that European conquest was successful making “inferior” cultures adapt to the modern world.

Many whites, especially white conservatives, still seem to fear racial and other societal equality because in their view it destroys white power and authority. The equality and freedom ideals have regularly generated “radical” political activity among the many Americans who take them seriously. They will likely continue to do so, and they will likely continue to expand in their scope. Indeed, as Dr. King often made clear, substantial equality of condition and opportunity is a prerequisite for the full exercise of personal and collective liberty.