Systemic Racism and the White Racial Frame

We talk a lot here about the ideas of systemic racism and the white racial frame. Let me develop these ideas a bit, mainly from several recent books. See here and here and here and here . The North American system of racial oppression grew out of extensive European exploitation of indigenous peoples and African Americans. It has long encompassed these dimensions: (1) a white racial framing of society with its racist ideology, stereotypes, and emotions; (2) whites’ discriminatory actions and an enduring racial hierarchy; and (3) pervasively racist institutions maintained by discriminatory whites over centuries. White-generated oppression is far more than individual bigotry, for it has from the beginning been a material, social, and ideological reality. For four centuries North American racism has been systemic–that is, it has been manifested in all major societal institutions.

The white racial frame is a generic meaning system that rationalizes the system of material oppression. The white racial frame has long been propagated and held by most white Americans–and even, in part, accepted by many people of color. For most whites, the racial frame is deeply held, with many stored “bits,” including stereotyped knowledge, racial images and understandings, racial emotions, and racial interpretations. Not all whites use the dominant frame to the same extent, and in everyday practice there are multiple variations. By constantly using selected bits of the dominant racial frame to interpret society, by integrating new items into it, and by applying its stereotypes, images, and interpretations in many discriminatory actions, whites imbed their racialized frame deeply in their minds.

Take this key example from the early development of the dominant white racial frame. Among the self-named “whites,” who also named “black” and “Indian” Americans, were US founders Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. They had conceptions of black Americans as very inferior to white Americans, who were seen as greatly superior in civilization. In Jefferson’s only major book, Notes on the State of Virginia, the white framing of African Americans is fiercely racist: enslaved black Americans smell funny, are natural slaves, are less intelligent, are uglier in skin color, are lazy, are oversexed, not as sophisticated in serious music, cannot learn advanced knowledge, and can never be well-integrated into white America. Significantly, most of these racist elements are still operative in much current white thinking. (See also here.)

This frame was, and still is, designed by whites to rationalize an extensive system of racial oppression, with its central racial hierarchy, one with whites on top. The old racial hierarchy is rooted in coercive exploitation and resource inequality and is rationalized by the deeply held white racial frame. First centered on African Americans, and to some extent Native Americans, the white racial framing placed later groups of color–such as Chinese Americans after the 1850s and Mexican Americans after the 1840s–well down the already dominant racial hierarchy. Whites were central from the beginning to creating the North American system of racial oppression and its dominant racist frame, including all key words (“white,” “black,” and almost all racist epithets) and interpretations in that frame. Today, as in the past, the white racial frame is not just in the United States, but is fundamentally constitutive of it.

Another key idea I suggest we need to analyze US racism is that of resistance and counter-framing. Counter-frames are grounded in counter-system thinking and have been important for groups of color to survive and resist oppression over many generations. Certain leaders and thinkers in racially oppressed groups, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, have developed articulated counter-frames, but so do ordinary people, the “organic intellectuals” in these oppressed groups. In these resistance/anti-racism counter-frames whites are defined as problematical, and ideas and strategies on how to deal with whites and white institutions are developed. Among other things, a developed counter-frame includes understandings of how discrimination and racial hostility work, examples of dealing with discriminatory whites from family and friends, and teachings about safety and various passive and active strategies of resistance to a variety of white discriminators.

Geraldine Ferraro’s Racism (unabridged version)

Geraldine Ferraro’s recent comments about Barack Obama underscore just how far we haven’t come in America in understanding issues of race and gender. Ferraro said:

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

Ferraro’s inference is quite clear: that sexism is a bigger problem in America than racism, and that as a Black man Obama “has it easier” than Hillary Clinton because racism is not quite as oppressive, fundamental, and entrenched in society as sexism. Ferraro is not alone in making this claim. These sorts of statements have been made recently by other white feminists such as Gloria Steinem, generally arguing that media coverage is biased in favor of Barack Obama and against Hillary Clinton, and that this is evidence of the primacy of sexism over other “isms.”

Feminists who are making these statements are rehashing the same tired, clichéd arguments that alienated working-class and racial minority women from the feminist movement back in the 1970s and 1980s. The debates over whether gender is more of an oppressive factor than race are self-defeating and miss the point. Privileged white women can be, and are, disadvantaged by virtue of being women in a patriarchal society. Simultaneously, they are also advantaged by virtue of being white in a racist society and because they are wealthy in a capitalist society. Attempting to pit gender against race sets up a false dichotomy between the two, and it draws attention away from the interlocking systems of inequality that exist in this country. Simplistically declaring that “sexism is worse than racism” obscures the way the two systems exist together in an interlocking, complementary fashion. And since both sexism and racism utilize the same basic tools—domination of others, oppression, stereotypes to legitimize unequal opportunity—feminists and other activists would all be better served by eradicating all forms of structural inequality rather than futilely attempting to rank them.

You would think Ferraro would know this. She’s no stranger to feminism and ought to be well aware of the numerous critiques that mainstream, liberal feminism undermines its cause when the attempt is made to address sexism without simultaneously denouncing—and working to end–racism, capitalism and heterosexism.

[edited at 1:42pmEST to add:] Making the case that sexism is worse than racism or even that it is the primary source of women’s oppression ignores the experiences of minority and working-class women (who simultaneously contend with racism and capitalist exploitation) and ultimately alienates these women from feminism and feminist causes. Ferraro’s statement that if “he were a woman of any color he wouldn’t be in this position” does not demonstrate an awareness of the particular challenges faced by minority women; in fact, it smacks of tokenistic attempts made by privileged white women to invite minority women to join “their” movement. Were Ferraro truly attentive to the ways racism and sexism doubly disadvantage minority women, she would recognize that suggesting that they can be hierarchically ranked marginalizes minority women’s experiences and continues to distance them from feminism by reinforcing the (erroneous) idea that feminism isn’t for them.

Further, Ferraro’s ludicrous response that “she is being attacked because she’s white,” demonstrates how completely out of touch she is with the racial realities of America as well as her unwillingness to come to grips with white privilege. She is quoted by a local reporter in Torrance, California (and later reported by CNN) saying:

“Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this campaign down and says, ‘Let’s address reality and the problems we’re facing in this world,’ you’re accused of being racist, so you have to shut up. Racism works in two different directions. I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?”

Contrary to Ferraro’s ridiculous claims, racism does not work in two different directions. Whites, as a group, are advantaged by virtue of racial privilege that affords them unjust enrichment in terms of housing, health, education, political power and representation, legal treatment, and many other areas that have been documented by a plethora of sociologists and other researchers. For racism to work both ways, racial minorities, at minimum, would have to be in the position of enjoying the accumulation of centuries of advantage in these areas, and they would enjoy these advantages as a consequence of centuries-old, institutionalized policies that deny the same opportunity to whites. Racism does not work both ways because Geraldine Ferraro gets criticized for minimizing its existence.

Geraldine Ferraro and many other women who make claims similar to hers have been involved with the feminist movement for longer than I’ve been alive. But it’s really sobering to realize that despite their lengthy commitment to the movement, they still haven’t learned that it can’t succeed when they deny their own racial privilege and narcissistically attempt to tailor feminist messages, rhetoric, and ideals only to their own experiences.