Archive for May, 2008
USA Today has a recent story on how the Bush administration is not vigorously pursuing housing discrimination cases even as discrimination complaints against real estate agents, landlords, and lending companies have grown in recent years. (photo: Licht)
In effect, real estate agents, landlords, lenders, and other (mostly white) housing actors can discriminate on racial, gender, and other illegal grounds in the United States until the cows come home, with very little chance of suffering any significant penalty for that discrimination. This has been true for many years in this country. That is, our civil rights laws in the housing area are not enforced or they are weakly enforced. The USA Today reporter summarizes the U.S. reality of no redress for housing discrimination:
Most renters and buyers who seek help from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are unlikely to get relief for their complaints, which can include alleged discrimination by landlords and sellers based on race, religion, sex or disability. The agency is throwing out a growing number of complaints, federal data show. The housing agency, responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases under the Federal Fair Housing Act, filed 31 discrimination charges in 2007 and 36 in 2006. Charges for those two years combined dropped 65% from the last two years of the Clinton administration — 111 charges were filed in 1999; 82 in 2000. Complaints during the same period rose from fewer than 7,100 in both 1999 and 2000 to more than 10,000 in both 2006 and 2007.
The shocking lawlessness of HUD can be seen in the continuing lethargy in charging housing discriminators this year, with only 12 housing providers being charged so far this year, with two other cases referred to the Justice department. The article quotes National Fair Housing Alliance head, the veteran housing advocate Shanna Smith, as noting that none of the major Bush agencies responsible for enforcing fair housing laws is doing its job: “It’s a drop in the bucket for the number of complaints that happen annually.”
HUD defends itself with the claim that they prefer to negotiate settlements, rather than to go to court:
The agency is settling more cases overall than during the previous administration, but the percentage of settled cases has declined. In 1999, HUD settled 778 cases, 42% of the total investigated. In 2007, it settled 948 cases — 36.5% of the total investigated.
No presidential administration since the housing laws were passed has made this national housing scandal a priority to address. There are millions of housing discrimination acts in this country each year, but only 10,000 people file complaints—and only a few thousand cases (at most) of the housing discrimination cases are resolved each year by federal agencies or HUD-certified and funded local and state housing agencies.
A major Urban Institute study done for the previous HUD administration in 2000 involved 4,600 paired tests in 23 metropolitan areas. These paired tests involved a person of color and a white person posing as home seekers as they visit real estate or rental agents and inquire about advertised housing. According to this report, rental agents in metropolitan markets were less likely to give people of color information about available housing or an opportunity to inspect available housing than they were for whites. Nationally, rental agents subjected African Americans and Asian Americans to discrimination about 22 percent of the time; Latinos, 26 percent of the time; and Native Americans, 29 percent of the time. In metropolitan markets, real estate agents were less likely to give home buyers of color an opportunity to inquire about or inspect available homes in predominantly white neighborhoods. Agents were less likely to give home buyers of color assistance with financing. African Americans homebuyers were discriminated against 17 percent of the time, and Latino home buyers were discriminated against 20 percent of the time, with Asian American and Pacific Islander home buyers experiencing discrimination about 20 percent of the time and Native American home buyers facing discrimination 17 percent of the time.
Moreover, if we look beyond this initial-stage (one-visit) discrimination and examine later-stage housing discrimination, such as for multiple housing searches and dealing with mortgage lenders, and if we extrapolate these data to all people of color searching for housing across the country over a year, we can reasonably estimate that several million cases of housing discrimination are carried out each year, a large proportion being racial discrimination cases. Roberta Achtenberg, assistant HUD secretary in the 1990s, estimated that the number could be as high as 10 million cases of housing discrimination annually.
It is interesting how often whites, especially white conservatives, claim we are no longer a racist country. I gather that looking at actual data on housing and much other institutionalized discrimination as it affects Americans of color is too much of burden for these analysts. (photo: josho99)
Note: In addition to the National Fair Housing Alliance, the National Fair Housing Advocate Online has good research discussions on fair housing issues, as well as good links to helpful legal and other resources.
The May/June 2008 Issue of Colorlines (an excellent source for current events in the racial area!) has an interesting article by Almah LaVon Rice on the “The Rise of Street Literature,” the new Black fiction since the late 1990s. This new fictional literature is often termed “street lit,” “ghetto lit,” and “urban fiction,” and it is increasing youthful black readers dramatically. The article notes how it started in 1999 with activist Sister Souljah:
That’s when breakaway success greeted the novel The Coldest Winter Ever penned by rapper-activist Sista Souljah. Still considered to be the one of the best offerings in urban fiction, Souljah’s tale chronicles the hustling life and times of Winter Santiaga, who stole clothes and transported drugs for a living. Now considered classics, other novels from the late ‘90s include Teri Woods’s True to the Game and Vickie Stringer’s Let That Be The Reason. Both writers published their own books and sold them from the trunks of their cars after collecting numerous rejections from mainstream publishers.
According to Essence magazine’s count from African American bookstores, this type of urban fiction includes most of the best-selling paperback books there these days. There is a significant debate about the new literature, however. On the one hand,
Critics and supporters of the genre are pleased that Black youth in particular are reading. But some have mixed feelings about promoting literacy by any means necessary. “To some extent, there is an exposure to a part of urban culture that has rarely been explored in a way that it is now…which can be a starting point for civic dialogues,” offers Tracey Michae’l Lewis, who teaches writing and literature at Community College of Philadelphia and Philadelphia University. “Unfortunately, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What is this costing us?’”
And the cost includes increasing the stereotyped portraits of African Americans, especially youth, that this literature has made significant use of, as well as the new rush of commercial publishers, that is the dominant white-run publishing companies, into this new publishing arena, seeking of course the almighty dollar. African Americans, the article, suggests
appear to be reading street lit to find themselves and escape themselves at the same time. Some readers enjoy losing themselves in portrayals of preternaturally lavish lifestyles, racy sex and ride-or-die dramas of the streets, while others enjoy the genre for its reflective qualities. It’s hard to say, though, how many readers actually have a personal connection to what they are reading. Some even insist that “keeping it real,” the towering commandment of the hip-hop era, is, well, not very real. “Most folks ain’t living that life in the hood,” argues Constance Shabazz, who maintains an online bookstore. “And even those who are don’t see the glamour in it.” It brings up the question of how much entities like Simon and Schuster are implicated in shaping ideas about cultural and racial authenticity—and then selling them to the communities they supposedly come from.
Shabazz adds a critical point too that she knows excellent black authors who could not get contracts with major white-run publishers because they would not write this type of exploitative urban novel. Once again, powerful whites pick up on black creativity, then control and channel it for substantial white profits, much like they did with a good proportion of rap music. This savvy article makes further critical points that are on target, it seems:
But writing about the streets does not a street lit writer make. Classics such as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ann Petry’s The Street are lauded as examples of nuanced, complicated treatments of Black urban life.
Beyond this quality issue, there is also the problem of accenting old themes from a white racist framing of black Americans, the one that accents black violence and violent black men, which once again white publishers love:
Ultimately, street lit arouses contention because issues of race and representation have repercussions beyond book covers. Noting the spike in Black-on-Black crime in Seattle, teen-service librarian Wadiyah Nelson declares, “So it is OK to kill off Black men on the streets, in movies, videos, music and now in books.” How does literary liberty align with racial responsibility? Do the anti-heroes of street lit have a duty to be more, well, heroic?
And the article concludes with some soul searching:
And who we are in print should be represented as prismatically as who we, in fact, are. It is a shame and an irony that expansive depictions by Black writers are censored by market forces because they contradict the racist mirage of real Blacks. . .Black folk can be highly visible and still seldom seen.
The allusion here is to Ralph Ellison’s brilliant American classic, Invisible Man. At the beginning of that famous book, the black protagonist asserts:
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
In this still-racist system, Black men, women, and children are often not recognized for what they really are by the dominant white community. Their real bones, fiber, and minds are invisible to most whites, like the captains of the U.S. entertainment industry, who do not see them as full human beings with distinctive talents, accomplishments, virtues, and burdens. The loss from accenting old racial stereotypes is huge, including for this society in general.
Earlier this month, Bishop T.D. Jakes, leader of one of the largest congregations in America (“Potter’s House” in Dallas Texas), responded to CNN’s claim that he and other “prosperity” preachers are ignoring the largely egalitarian messages of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King(photo: directionstoorthodoxy). Prior to publishing his article, Jakes stated that “personal responsibility, motivating and equipping people to live the best lives that they can” are more pressing than the pursuit of social/racial equality.
In response to the attention given to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jakes defined the mission of Christian congregations and their function in larger struggles for racial justice and social equality. In an editorial Jakes wrote for CNN, he claims that a Christian congregation should not segregate itself on the basis of race or politics. Rather, “its relevance and vision must go beyond its community and reach the world for which Christ died.” This, for Jakes means that congregations (and presumably the congregants that fill them) should fill a “broader role in politics, business, media and impacting societal ills.”
In order to address societal ills, and more broadly, bring about social and racial equality in America, Jakes suggests the following: Americans dissolve their membership in monoracial churches and join multiracial congregations; and Americans unite across lines of race, class, and gender to provide resources to at risk groups.
Though sociologists such as Korie Edwards, Michael O. Emerson, and George Yancey continue to examine the role of multiracial churches in the quest for racial equality, the primacy Jakes gives to “social capital” is disturbing. Social capital refers to a community’s “trust, norms, and networks” (Robert Putnam). When used effectively, and by that I mean when communities form relationships with each other, resources can be distributed from the proverbial haves to the have-not’s. Sociologists Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Gianpaolo Baiocchi (2007) argue that this social capital approach involves a weak understanding of racism. This understanding ignores that: Social networks and norms of social behavior are often mobilized to defend racial exclusion in a racialized society; individuals in a racialized society do not have equal access to networks, and networks themselves are racialized. And the assumption that social capital leads to certain virtuous norms of behavior is both untenable and confusing of causes and effects. For Bonilla-Silva and Baiocchi (2007), proponents of this social capital perspective fail to acknowledge that America is a nation built and sustained on white domination of Blacks, Hispanics, and the white underclass.
Scholars such as Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Shayne Lee, and Jonathan Walton claim that the leader of the Potters House, one of the largest and most diverse congregations, possesses a thin framework for understanding contemporary problems of race, class, and gender. These scholars argue that Jakes provides weak solutions to social problems. Jakes’ editorial did little to address those critiques.
Instead, in this and other works, Jakes dismissed Wright as angry and irrational while claiming to advocate for the Black community–a community that as Michael Dawson shows, shares the same views regarding racism as Wright. Sadly, like Booker T. Washington before him, Jakes’s weaving together of (a) American individualism and with that, a weak understanding of racism, with (b) an alleged concern for the Black community, not only separates Jakes from the thoughts and opinions of most mainstream Blacks regarding racism, but more importantly, any realistic hope of changing the racialized social system that hinders the advancement of Blacks and the white poor.
~ Ryon Cobb
Ford Foundation Fellow
Doctoral Student, Florida State University
The Chronicle of Philanthropy has an interesting debate on studies of systemic (structural) racism funded by a few foundations. In a May 15, 2008 article, “Philanthropy’s Jeremiah Wright Problem,” William A. Schambra argues sensationally thus:
“Many Americans were startled to learn that the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose campaign is built on an uplifting message of national unity and racial reconciliation, belongs to a church in Chicago where a very different view of America is preached by its longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Then he adds melodramatically:
Americans might be further surprised to learn that grants from the nation’s largest foundations sustain a similarly harsh view of a nation riven by an unrelenting and deeply oppressive racial divide. America, in this view, is steeped in “structural racism.” This “refers to a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial-group inequity,” according to “Structural Racism and Community Building,” a 2004 report from the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change (supported by the Annie E. Casey, Charles Stewart Mott, W.K. Kellogg, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations, among others).
He is critical of this foundational support for research and perspectives on structural racism, which concept and historical reality he seems to know nothing about. (He could look here and here, for a little education, perhaps.) He concludes his reactionary piece, thus:
Senator Obama ultimately decided that Mr. Wright’s “incendiary language” — language so similar to that thrown about freely by structural-racism theorists — reflected “views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation.” Could the same be said about some grants made by our largest foundations?
Then there is the supportive view of what a few foundations are doing on systemic racism issues, and a critique of Schambra’s white-oriented thinking playing down systemic racism, by Aaron Dorman & Niki Jagpal, “Foundations and ‘Structural Racism’: Take Another Look,” a reply to the reactionary article on May 28, 2008:
But a clearer, more accurate picture of structural racism begs for a comprehensive definition that takes into account the milieu of the analysis. Moreover, Mr. Schambra uses the most seemingly provocative statements from the many reports he cites, but when read in context, the quotes are far less “startling” than Schambra would have readers believe. Andrew Grant-Thomas and John A. Powell offer a simple framework that describes structural racism as emphasizing “the powerful impact of interinstitutional dynamics, institutional resource inequities, and historical legacies on racial inequalities today.”
Then they point out that foundations are not doing all that much in support of critical systemic racism analysis:
Readers are left with the impression that our large national foundations are aggressively funding some radical leftist agenda that the American public is utterly unfamiliar with and, if enlightened, would be unsupportive of. Unfortunately, he fails to take into account key giving trends, resulting in an inaccurate, if not misleading, picture of the current state of philanthropy in the United States. Let’s look at the numbers. In a 2005 report, Independent Sector and the Foundation Center found that social-justice grant making in 1998 and 2002 comprised a meager 11 percent of overall foundation giving, and only a fraction of that was grants for issues identified by the structural-racism framework as barriers to equality. . . . . Is it true that our large foundations are so acutely aware of race and oppression in their grant making that they prioritize racially specific grants? Again, the data suggest otherwise. The 2008 edition of the Foundation Center’s annual Foundation Giving Trends: Update on Funding Priorities notes that in 2006, funding for racial or ethnic minorities increased by only 5.5 percent, while overall grant making rose by 16.4 percent.
Then they add this:
The structural-racism framework posits that analyses of racial inequality that ignore the historical decisions that led to institutional barriers to equality of achievement are insufficient in understanding race in the United States. To that end, explicitly identifying deliberate policy decisions that persist as barriers to equality is an integral component of any work that truly seeks to affect change in American racial attitudes.
Then take Schambra to task too for misrepresentations of philanthropic foundations:
In fact, a decade of research by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy shows how conservative foundations have been strategically advancing their agenda by providing sympathetic think tanks and advocacy organizations with flexible and multiyear grants, and supporting programs that specifically target public policy and promote conservative ideas.
And conclude with a pregnant question indeed:
In response, we ask: Why are the small percentage of structural-racism grants a cause for concern among Mr. Schambra and leaders of conservative foundations who have been so successful themselves at actually influencing government and policy decisions? Why should progressive foundations apologize for seeking to effectively address the needs of marginalized communities by funding organizations that seek to transform the institutions that perpetuate social inequities?
[Yanick responds from Africa to a post by Yoku on ethnic conflict in Africa.]
Benin is a model of pluralism in Africa. Supporting this idea are recent interviews I conducted in various parts of Benin. The data show the Beninese having no problem with interethnic marriage. This marriage is a welcome “brassage,” because adding a “different flavor” to the existing mix. The pierced jar, a national symbol of unity is no longer pierced. It is holding water. Its holes are filled by citizen participation.>Why is Benin so far from the African ethnic conflict normative? Or, is this normative another construction of African reality? (photo: mercywatch).
On tribalism and racism. These “isms” originate from different sources: one cultural, the other perceived-biological. Chances of deconstructing the cultural seem greater than influencing perceptions of the biological. Though in many ways (not every way) their outcomes appear similar, I dare say tribal (or ethnic) ethnocentrism is different from that which leads to racism. Along the same line, I see a difference between stereotypes of Africans originating from African neighbors and stereotypes of Africans in the West. Yes, in America the same stereotypes might be “racist and crass,” but because directed at a racial outgroup. While in Ghana (staying with the same example) the stereotypes also target an outgroup, it is an ethnic outgroup which, outside of that country, is transformed into a national ingroup.
The Beninese I interviewed express deep discontent at the treatment of “Africans” in France, this without ethnic distinctions. The attack comes from outside of the African continent, so differences with the attacker appear greater. Fon, Yoruba, Dendi, Bariba, Mina, or other, Africans unite with their African brothers and sisters. Internationalization of the problem sheds light on the relative meanings of stereotypes, ingroups and outgroups. (Photo: Djéhami, Queen of Allada)
Finally, it is time to minimize focus on the role of colonizers in ethnic conflict and maximize research on the contributions of ethnic groups in their own problems. While it is important to recognize the intersections of history and biography and be guided by memory, the more responsibility placed on the colonizer for contemporary problems, the more gains for this colonizer in terms of power and superiority. Using Benin as model of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, how can Africans in Africa and the Diaspora contribute to a peaceful resolution of ethnic conflicts wherever they exist, seems to me a much more positive and respectful approach which assumes Africans capable of mistakes, of thinking, and of conducting their own affairs.
~ Yanick St. Jean
At the Gallup website, Frank Newport does a provocative gender/racial analysis, titled “Obama Faces Uphill Climb vs. McCain Among White Voters. He shows that white women, not white working class voters, are the key to Clinton’s greater polling success versus McCain:
Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee, will likely enter the general election with more of a handicap among white voters than would have been the case if Hillary Clinton had been the nominee, based mainly on Clinton’s stronger performance among white women.
He offers this chart from a recent survey:
A new Gallup Poll analysis of Daily tracking data collected between May 1 and May 17 shows that Clinton’s edge among white voters is not, as some have hypothesized, based on Obama’s problems among blue-collar white men, but reflects more the fact of Clinton’s strength among white women.
In this recent survey both do equally poorly versus McCain among white men:
In general, Obama and Clinton perform exactly the same among non-Hispanic white men when pitted against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain. Both Obama and Clinton lose to McCain among this group by 21-point margins, 36% to 57%.
He then provides the key implications for Obama, who is the likely Democratic candidate versus McCain in November:
The bigger issue appears to be Obama’s problems among white women, when compared to how Clinton would perform among this group. Obama loses to McCain by nine points among white women, while Clinton wins by three points. Clinton does better than Obama among both blue-collar and white-collar white women. All in all, although both Democrats are to a degree handicapped against McCain among white voters, Clinton would perform better than Obama in a general-election matchup among non-Hispanic whites.
In spite of all Clinton’s difficulties, she is still the stronger candidate versus McCain in numerous opinion polls. This suggests the power of anti-Obama feelings, some of it likely the white racial frame again, among significant segments of white voters. It also suggests the very strong desire of many (white) women to see a woman win the presidency. Also, Newsweek just released another poll showing serious problems for Senator Obama (versus McCain) among white voters–yet more evidence for racist issues in this election.
Does Senator Obama have any chance to win versus McCain if white women voters in the Democratic Party remain angry, as many are, over the openly sexist treatment of Senator Clinton by the mass media and some of Senator Obama’s supporters? The lack of honest and extensive public discussions of both US racism and sexism is one of the saddest realities of this electoral season.
The New York Times has a regular “bloggingheads” feature on their website, wherein two people who might otherwise be referred to as “talking heads” are invited to perform a dialogue with each other for the benefit of Times’ readers/viewers through the automagical quality of the web. While I enjoy the multimedia techno-wizadry of it all and applaud the NYTimes for leading the way with this innovative use of technology (with great audio/video quality – how do they do that?!), the substance of these conversations suffers from the same sort of watered down, mainstream analysis that inflects the rest of the NYTimes’ franchise. Further evidence of this anemic analytical framework comes from the two “bloggingheads” featured in today’s installment, John McWhorter (of the Manhattan Institute) and Glenn Loury (of Brown University) which runs about six minutes:
It’s stunning here to listen to McWhorter set the terms of this “debate” as Loury goes along with this “birds of a feather” defense of white racism. The whole discussion here, like McWhorter’s other work, is anemic for its lack of recognition of systemic racial inequality and offensive for the way it serves as an apologia for white racism. Loury should know better, but the NYTimes loves a black conservative, so it’s not surprising really that Loury leans into embrace that limelight.
The central flaw in this dialogue between McWhorter and Loury, which is really more of a monologue by McWhorter, is the slippage in the analysis between race and racism, that McWhorter takes great pains to point out. Kai offers an excellent analysis of how the NYTimes’ frame of “race” rather than “racism” is thoroughly impoversished in this post at Rebelology. Once he makes that distinction, it’s a short analytical hop, skip and a jump to the flawed logic of “symmetry” – if blacks can “flock together” (to use McWhorter’s metaphor) and that’s a positive cultural thing, then why can’t whites “flock together”? The thing is, racism isn’t symmetrical and neither is race. Race and racism are asymmetrical because there’s a power differential wherein whites have more power. The fact that the NYTimes orchestrates this “dialogue” between two black conservatives and frames it with their question “Is Racism Over?” is really more an act of racial ventriloquism than a meaningful dialogue on race, and it completely subverts any critical analysis of racism.
The widespread character of white racism in this country often makes it difficult to envision a hopeful future. But the courage of African American women like Michelle Obama is striking and does provide a reason to hope about a better US future.
Sadly, there are continuing attacks on her of various kinds today in this country. There is a conservative white racism and racial ignorance, seen in attacks such as those of Fox news on her “patriotism,” and a liberal white racism and racial ignorance, seen in some liberal media and blog posts. The May posting (now removed) by a liberal writer at the dailykos website of a caricatured image of white-robbed Klan members whipping, branding, and likely lynching a black woman whose apparently photoshopped head is that of Michelle Obama appears to fall into that latter category. (I will not post that image, which reminds one of celebrations of the early 1900s Klan-celebrating movie, Birth of a Nation, but you can find it here.) The dailykos writer attempts a critique of Republican attacks on the Obamas and Republican race baiting, but in the process of political commentary unreflectively uses (and may help normalize) an image of a black woman being tortured and killed by the world’s oldest terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan–and without any critical assessment of that long white history of white violence or of the many contemporary violent attacks against black women.
As Marc Lamont Hill put it, can anyone imagine a prominent political site or commentary portraying the bloody lynching of Nancy Reagan to make a political point? Chauncey DeVega (also see this analysis) has responded to this photo imagery and his comments are on target:
Ultimately, the image of Michelle Obama . . . is utterly “real.” Because it is “real” there is no possibility of irony. In its utter “realness” it speaks to an ugly reality. . . . I believe it is important to write Michelle’s name because it removes the protection and insulation offered by historical abstraction (read: black people were lynched; read: black women were lynched; see how this is different from writing Michelle Obama was lynched?). She is a human being, a real person being threatened with murder and violence. This threat, a threat through implication and historical allusion is no less hurtful, real, or shocking–notice I did not say surprising–than one made through active speech in the present.
Indeed, Michelle Obama is a real human being who is being unreflectively portrayed as a target of KKK violence.
Consider the great heroism that Michelle Obama has shown in this campaign to bring some sanity back to U.S. politics after a long era of decline. She and her husband have received death threats. It is time for the top political “leaders” of this nation to recognize this publicly and to take action against this real and threatened racist violence — and to recognize the degree of courage required just to hang in there day after day.
Clearly, such visual messages–however well-meaning the writer may have been–likely suggest visceral and hidden racial messages to readers of all ages across the Internet. Strikingly, most whites of all backgrounds have no clue just how often black women have historically faced such violence at the hands of whites—and still do.
Hundreds of thousands of enslaved black women were raped by white slavemasters during this country’s 240 years of extreme racialized slavery. After that, there was the near-slavery of legal segregation. Since the 1870s whites have lynched an estimated 6,000 black men, women, and children, not counting the legal lynchings of police and courts. And this bloody record is the tip of the iceberg. Recent research by one of my African American students, Ruth Thompson-Miller, has shown that a great many black women, including many still living, were targets of white male rape and other unpunished violence over long years of legal segregation. They and the men in their families were often targeted by whites for violence, and those numbers run into the millions.
Recall too that in speaking with a caller Fox’s Bill O’Reilly used this lynching language in trying to say he might give Michelle Obama, who said she could now be proud of her country, the benefit of the doubt:
I have a lot of sympathy for Michelle Obama, for Bill Clinton, for all of these people. . . . And I don’t want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there’s evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels. If that’s how she really feels — that America is a bad country or a flawed nation, whatever — then that’s legit.
A casual mention of lynching again! Also, I have news for racially illiterate media folks, the United States can be shown from much social science to be a racially flawed nation, starting with millions of violent attacks on black women, men, and children historically, and the continuing attacks on many African Americans in the present.
We also need to remember the courageous responses to this violence on the part of black women, men, and children. Historically and today, they have often stood up bravely against white violence, when no white leaders did, or now will, speak out against it. We have quoted in a previous post from a Washington Post review by Glenda Gilmore of a Paula Giddings biography of heroic anti-lynching activist and black civil rights leader, Ida B. Wells-Barnett:
For speaking plainly about rape, sex and murder, Wells lost her home and her livelihood. For the rest of her life, she had to defend her reputation against both white and black people who called her a “negro adventuress” and “Notorious Courtesan.” A black newspaper editor suggested that the public should “muzzle” that “animal from Memphis,” and the New York Times dubbed her “a slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress.”
We still live in a country where the reality and meaning of historical and contemporary violence against black women and men, just because they were/are black, is not understood or critiqued by most white Americans.
Thirteen years ago, when I first started out on the lecture circuit, speaking about the issue of racism, it seemed as though everywhere I went, someone wanted to know my opinion of Louis Farrakhan.
To some extent, this was to be expected, I suppose. It was 1995, after all, and Farrakhan had just put together the Million Man March in DC. So when race came up, that, and sadly, the OJ Simpson trial and verdict seemed to be the two templates onto which white folks in particular would graft their racial anxieties. Though OJ has long since faded as a matter of conversation among most, discussion of Farrakhan never seems to end. As controversy has erupted regarding comments made by Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Wright’s occasional words of praise for Farrakhan’s community outreach programs have caused many to suggest that he, and by extension, Obama, are somehow tainted. Although Wright has never indicated that he agrees with the more extreme comments made by the Minister over the past two-and-a-half decades (and indeed, much of Wright’s own ministry and approach to issues of race, gender and sexuality suggests profound disagreements with Farrakhan on these matters), his unwillingness to condemn the Nation of Islam leader is used to write him off as an extremist and a bigot. But the simple truth is, Louis Farrakhan is not the problem when it comes to racism, sexism or heterosexism in this country; nor is he any real threat to Jews as Jews, or whites as whites, contrary to popular mythology.
Honestly, what ability does Farrakhan have to do me any harm, or any Jew for that matter? When was the last time those of us who are Jewish had to worry about whether or not our Farrakhan-following employer was going to discriminate against us? Or whether our Fruit of Islam loan officer was going to turn us down for a mortgage? Or whether our Black Muslim landlord was going to screw us out of a rent deposit because of some anti-Jewish feelings, conjured up by reading the Nation’s screed on Jewish involvement in the slave trade? The answer, of course, is never. If anything, members of the Nation, or black folks in general, have a much greater likelihood of being the victims of discrimination at our hands–the hands of a Jewish employer, banker or landlord, and certainly a white one, Jewish or not–than we’ll ever have at theirs.
Even worse, for white Americans to condemn Farrakhan, while still admiring some of the people for whom we have affection–who have not only said but done far more evil things than he–is evidence of how compromised is the principle we now seek to impose on others. It is evidence of our duplicity on this subject, our utter venality as arbiters of moral indignation. It isn’t that what Farrakhan has said about Jews, or gay and lesbian folks is acceptable–it isn’t. But the fact that his words make him a pariah, while white folks actions don’t do the same for us, is astounding. Louis Farrakhan didn’t bomb the home of a foreign leader, killing his daughter in the process, or arm a rebel group in Nicaragua responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 civilians, or give guns to governments in El Salvador and Guatemala that regularly tortured and executed their people. One of white America’s favorite white Presidents, Ronald Reagan did that. And millions of white folks (and pretty much only white folks) cried tears of nostalgia when he passed a few years ago, after which point thousands of these went to his ranch in California to pay tribute; and they name buildings and airports for him now; and some even suggest that his face should be added to Mt. Rushmore. Louis Farrakhan didn’t say that his adversaries should be hunted down until they no longer “remained on the face of the Earth.” One of America’s most revered white presidents, Thomas Jefferson, said that, in regard to American Indians. And he’s on the two-dollar bill that I used to buy some coffee this morning.
And even if we were to restrict our comparative analysis to extreme statements alone, the fact is, white folks who say things every bit as bigoted as anything said by Farrakhan remain in good standing with the media and millions of whites who buy their books and make them best-selling authors. Take Pat Buchanan, for instance. Despite a litany of offensive, racist and anti-Jewish remarks over the years, Buchanan remains a respected commentator on any number of mainstream news shows and networks, his books sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and rarely if ever has he been denounced by other pundits, or grilled by journalists, the way Farrakhan has been, in both cases.
So, for instance, Buchanan has said that AIDS is nature’s retribution for homosexuality; that women are “not endowed by nature” with sufficient ambition or will to succeed in a competitive society like that of the United States; and that the U.S. should annex parts of Canada so as to increase the size of the nation’s “white tribe” (because we were becoming insufficiently white at present), among other things. Most relevant to demonstrating the hypocrisy of the press when it comes to Farrakhan, however, consider what Buchanan has said about Adolf Hitler. When Farrakhan said Hitler had been a “great” military and national leader–albeit a “wicked killer” (which is the part of the quote that normally gets ignored)–he was denounced as an apologist for genocide. Yet, when Buchanan wrote, in 1977, that Hitler had been “an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the great war,” a man of “extraordinary gifts,” whose “genius” was due to his “intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path,” it did nothing to harm his career, and has done nothing in the years since to prevent him from becoming a member of the pundit club in Washington. Nor would he receive the kind of criticism as Farrakhan–at least not lasting criticism–when he wrote in 1990 that survivors of the European Holocaust exaggerated their suffering due to “Holocaust survivor syndrome,” and that the gas chambers alleged at Treblinka couldn’t have actually killed anyone because they were too inefficient.
In other words, a white guy can praise Hitler, can cast aspersions on the veracity of Jews who were slotted to be killed, and can make blatantly racist, sexist and homophobic remarks and ultimately nothing happens to him, and no white politician is ever asked their opinion of him, or made to distance him or herself from the white man’s rantings. But black folks will have to do the dance, will have to make sure to reject Farrakhan, because otherwise, apparently, we should intuit that they are closet members of the Nation, just waiting to take office so they can pop on a bow tie and put Elijah Muhammad’s face on the nation’s currency. Perhaps when white folks begin to show as much concern for the bigoted statements and, more to the point, murderous actions of white political leaders as we show over the statements of Louis Farrakhan, then we’ll deserve to be taken seriously in this thing we call the “national dialogue on race.”
~Tim Wise, Author, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. See longer version at www.timwise.org.