Archive for June, 2008
There seems to be no end to mocking of the language and speech of people of color by whites. A Los Angeles Times article recounts some mocking of the names of black high school students, likely from a white high school student:
Administrators at Charter Oak High School in Covina are investigating how a student on the yearbook staff was able to get fake names for Black Student Union members, including “Tay Tay Shaniqua,” “Crisphy Nanos” and “Laquan White,” into the published yearbook.
Beyond this hateful racist mocking there are deeper issues. Whites and some others do not seem to understand that many working-class and middle-class black parents provide their children with nontraditional first names to provide them with something special and distinctive–and not with the “white” first names that are commonplace in society. (Adia has made this point to me in discussion.) Such naming is often a type of resistance to whiteness and white folkways. Historically, whites have done a lot of mocking of the language and speech of all Americans of color–African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and others—and name mocking in the Covina case seems in this tradition of negative racial framing of Americans of color. Mock Spanish and mock Black English seem to be esp. popular these days, including on the Internet. There are many websites mocking the speech of other Americans of color. Whites often say such mocking is “just joking,” but as we have known since Freud, racist joking is often far more than joking.
In movies, on television, in newspaper and magazine columns, and on the Internet whites, including well-educated whites, are among those who mock or ridicule black language and behavior. In Hollywood films the “good guys” often speak prestige versions of the English language, while those portrayed as “bad guys,” including black Americans and other Americans of color, often speak some negatively stigmatized version of English
Anthropologist Jane Hill has studied mock Spanish, which is common in the US. Otherwise monolingual whites use made-up terms such as “no problemo,” “el cheapo,” and “hasty banana,” and phrases like “hasta la vista, baby.” Mock Spanish is on billboards and in movies, gift shops, and boardrooms. Racialized ridicule of language, speech, and naming reveals an underlying stereotyping of people of color among many whites who might reject more openly racist practices.
The Covina school officials have not yet comprehended fully the damage done to the Black students and have weakly responded in regard to remedies, so far at least:
Calling the incident a “regrettable mistake,” Clint Harwick, superintendent of the Charter Oak Unified School District, said Friday that school officials had spoken to the student believed to be responsible…. The school has made stickers with the correct names available for students wishing to cover over the false names. [Principal] Wiard said the school was also considering replacing the entire page because so many names, not just those of BSU members, were incorrect.
However, black parents see this as far too little too late:
[Toi] Jackson, who said the school was insensitive to her daughter and the other club members, said she expected the school to take “significant” measures to correct the yearbooks and discipline any responsible student. But more than anything, she said, she hoped everyone in the community could learn from this incident. “No one wants their character to be attached to something negative for nothing, for being African American,” she said. “All I know is, at the end of the day, it’s all wrong. It affects us, and it affects my child.”
Ridicule of African American and Latino (or other Americans of color) names and language or accent is usually racist because it has meaning only if one knows the underlying racist stereotypes and images. While it may appear to some relatively harmless, social science research shows that such mocking enables whites to support traditional hierarchies of racial privilege without seeming to be racist in the old-fashioned, blatant sense. Researcher Rosina Lippi-Green has noted, such mocking shows a “general unwillingness to accept the speakers of that language and the social choices they have made as viable and functional…. We are ashamed of them, and because they are part of us, we are ashamed of ourselves.” Language mocking and subordination are not about standards for speaking as much as about determining that some people are not worth listening to and treating as equals.
Texas college student blogger LeftofCollegeStation, who called my attention to this now national story (thanks!), has a good comment on local action that should be taken:
This becomes an example to white students of race relations, and the way in which the school administrators handle the situation will give the students a perception of what is acceptable. This is absolutely giving white students the wrong impression. It is giving the message that if something offensive is done to a person of another race that pacification and appeasement are acceptable. That the only yearbooks that will be changed are the yearbooks of the students that are members of the BSU sends this message. Charter Oak High School like many institutions in America is going to ignore an opportunity to talk about race in a constructive way. This incident will be brushed aside, and called an “isolated incident.” However, as many of the people in the community and in the country know, this was not an isolated incident. Racism happens every day in the hallways of our schools, in the offices where we work, and on television that we watch.
Well said. Dear readers, what do you make of this incident? Have you heard of similar mocking?
ABC News has a disturbing and tragic story about a South Asian American father
convicted in Atlanta of setting up the murder of his daughter-in-law reportedly because she was Black:
Atlanta jurors have found an India-born businessman guilty of masterminding the murder of his black daughter-in-law because he feared the mixed marriage would smear the caste-conscious family’s name. Chiman Rai, 68, was convicted on seven charges, including felony murder and burglary. Prosecutors will seek the death penalty. According to Associated Press reports, two women arrived at the apartment of Rai’s son Ricky and his new wife, pretending to deliver a package. A 300-pound hit man then choked Sparkle Reid Rai with a vacuum cleaner cord and stabbed her a dozen times within earshot of her 6-month-old daughter.
Indeed, a tragic murder story involving a South Asian father and his family, and great loss for a Black woman and her family. Then the reporter puts the usual media “race relations” spin on the story, one that is basically white-framed:
This case, which turned from a simple murder investigation into an alleged hate crime across two communities of color, highlights the complexity of race relations in a country that has often framed its prejudice in black and white. But racial intolerance, sometimes in the form of violence, is increasingly more inclusive. Experts say that such bias is nothing new, although the national immigration debate has fueled that hate, giving bigots of all complexions more excuses to act on their ignorance.
Yes, the immigration debate has fueled racial hatred and more in this country, but it does that by reinforcing and resurfacing an old white-racist framing of Latinos. Indeed, that seems to be a deflection strand in the report, which is pursued for much of the article. A long section on immigration and hate crimes deflects the reader from the more central issue of white racism, which is not mentioned in the reporter’s analysis.
In the Atlanta case, the central issue is likely the stereotyped framing of a Black woman, a negative framing now 400 years old and part of the enduring white-racist frame. The usual language in this ABC report of “racial tolerance” and “hate crimes” and “prejudice,” as well as the notion in the headline for the story that “Racism [is] Not Always Black and White,” are weak tools for getting at these realities of a country whose foundation is white-on-black oppression. The South Asian father was reportedly concerned about the status of his family being hurt (India has a caste system), and was probably thinking to some degree out of the white frame–with its negative view of African Americans and interracial marriages–which he had picked up from being here a long time – like almost everybody here does over time.
So, this murder story was in fact about “black and white” racism. (Aside: Why is “black” so often first in this type of paring? Self-named “whites” invented U.S. racism, including the words white and black in their racist meanings. Why not then, “white-on-black racism”? )
This point about foundational white-on-black oppression should be obvious to reporters (and their editors) if they looked just a bit more into our racialized history, but somehow reporters, editors, and owners regularly put out the misleading notions that “everybody is prejudiced” and “all people are racist” and “all ‘ethnic’ groups are in conflict” as ways of taking white Americans off the hook for creating and maintaining a society actually founded on racial oppression (think: slavery for 246 years, plus legal segregation for another 100 or so years, nearly 90 percent of our history).
Interestingly, right at the end of the story the reporter adds quotes from a South Asian civil rights leader that should have clued her and her editors into deeper analysis:
American-born Amardeep Singh, director of the national Sikh Coalition, which defends the civil and legal rights of Sikhs, admits that his own ethnic group is capable of bigotry. “You don’t come to American to learn to be a bigot,” Singh said. “There is bigotry in India. The caste system is deeply ingrained and South Asians in the U.S. still practice caste exclusion.”… “It’s sad that a minority like the South Asian community has taken on the prejudices of the majority community,” Singh said. “You’d think members could rise above that.”
The “prejudices of the majority” community and their impact on all groups, including Americans of color – that is indeed a better place to start here, and then move onto a much deeper analysis of systemic racism.
Racism has entered the digital era. This means that old forms of racism have joined with new online forms of communication to create a social phenomenon that’s different from what we’ve seen before. I refer to this phenomenon in general as cyber racism, and it manifests in a variety of different ways. One of the manifestations is in what I call “cloaked” sites, that is, websites published by individuals or groups who conceal authorship in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda. Thanks to my friend Kellie Parker, I now have another example of cyber racism. A couple of days ago, The Michelle Obama Watch (quickly becoming one of my favorite sites), noted the Fake “Black Power” site, using the cleverly deceptive domain name, Power2Obama.
But the real credit for some pretty savvy sleuthing goes to Undercover Black Man whose investigation into who was publishing the site turned up the guy’s real name and his other website (which he has registered under his own name). UBM also turned up guitar solos of the author-in-question via YouTube, UBM writes:
Mike Cornelison is a bass player and author of the book “Classical Masterpieces for Electric Bass.” He needs to stick to music and leave the right-wing political sabotage to the pros
What’s most amazing to me about the whole turn of events in this case is that Mike (the author of the cloaked site) actually showed up (de-cloaked himself?) at UBM’‘s site and posted a bunch of comments and got a lot of well-deserved abuse from other commenters. Finally, all this abuse in the comments section is what causes him to abandon the site and post a semi-contrite apology.
This is remarkable on a couple of levels. First, the whole use of cloaked sites seems really different than other kinds of racism we’ve seen in the past. In many ways, it’s analogous to the use of different kinds of propaganda in the print-only era (especially so-called “black propaganda” where the source is disguised). Yet, in the digital era, determining that a source of information is disguised is much more difficult than in the print era.
The other thing that’s remarkable about this case is the particularly Internet-based ways that UBM took action and forced Mike to take down the cloaked site. UBM used a combination of digital methods to find out the author of the cloaked site, including the WhoIs Registry, email, another website maintained by the same author (that more explicitly revealed his political views), and his book (about guitar playing), as well as a digital video of him loaded to YouTube. Those are all tools in fighting racism in the digital era, not weapons anyone would have used in the civil rights era of fifty years ago, but absolutely crucial for combatting cyber racism.
The June 26, 2008 issue of the Integration Report (useful website here) has a disturbing, but predicable story on what is going on in Seattle public schools since our right-wing Supreme Court (in effect, an undemocratic legislature with no oversight) handed down its June 2007 Seattle/Louisville Supreme Court decision that makes it very difficult to use racial characteristics in student assignment plans aimed at reducing school segregation:
Today Seattle schools boast a diverse and multiracial student population. Black and Asian American students make up 22% of public school enrollment. The fastest growing group – Latino students – comprises 12% of the student population.12 However, nearly one-third of Seattle’s schools are considered racially imbalanced, with student populations that disproportionately reflect the district-wide racial/ethnic enrollment. Twenty schools are comprised of student populations that are over 90% nonwhite.
The reason is past and present racial discrimination:
These patterns reflect housing segregation fostered by restrictive covenants and discriminatory lending practices. The boundary lines of the Seattle school district yield a long, narrow geographic space dotted by several lakes and bordering a bay on the western side. Many of the predominately white schools are located in the northern and western portions of the district, while schools with majority nonwhite populations are clustered in eastern and downtown areas.
The price we pay for our still-apartheid, racialized society is great, and includes major racial isolation, as social science data clearly indicate. I pointed to some of this research in a recent article (“Legacies of Brown: Success and Failure in Social Science Research on Racism,” in Commemorating Brown, edited by Glenn Adams et. al., American Psychological Association 2008):
Desegregated schools with large numbers of white children are more likely to have adequate media centers, computers, and other technology, as well as newer buildings, more classes for advanced students, and more teachers with substantial experience (Mickelson, 2003). When schools are desegregated, white officials typically spend more money on schools; when they resegregate, the opposite usually happens. In addition, children of color educated in desegregated settings generally have much better entrée into job and other important information networks (Orfield & Eaton, 1996). Black young people educated in desegregated public schools are more likely than similar students from segregated schools to attend desegregated colleges, work in desegregated employment settings, and acquire friends from other racial groups (Braddock & Eitle, n.d.).
The savvy Integration Report closes with this sad overview:
Seattle’s lack of policy response to resegregation trends in the district over the course of the past year is perhaps reflective of community ambivalence towards school integration. Busing ended in Seattle over 15 years ago, and school district leadership has failed to take a strong stand against resegregation patterns in the intervening time…. As we approach the one year anniversary of the Seattle/Louisville decision, the resegregation occurring in Seattle underscores the challenge of creating or maintaining integrated schools against the backdrop of residential segregation and judicially imposed limitations on attempts to combat school segregation.
Administrators and Supreme Court Justices now routinely, with little public questioning, operate out of the old white racial frame — and usually act to protect white group interests. Clearly, we need to do some major reform of our very undemocratic Supreme Court, the only one of its kind in the Western world. It now has several reactionary lawyers dictating both moral and political policies on racial remedy matters. In addition, a massive new civil rights movement in this country, one committed to real desegregation, is the only way out of this dilemma, in my opinion.
We are setting this up as an open thread on Nader’s comments. Please comment below as you see fit.
According to the Chicago Sun Times, Ralph Nader had some strong words on Senator Obama and his campaign today. Nader said:
‘‘There’s only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He’s half African-American,’’ Nader said. ‘‘Whether that will make any difference, I don’t know. I haven’t heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What’s keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn’t want to appear like Jesse Jackson?’’
When asked if Obama does try to ‘‘talk white,’’ Nader replied, ‘‘Of course.’’ He also said that Obama doesn’t want to appear to be ‘‘another politically threatening African-American politician.’’
‘‘He wants to appeal to white guilt,’’ Nader said. ‘‘You appeal to white guilt not by coming on as black is beautiful, black is powerful. Basically he’s coming on as someone who is not going to threaten the white power structure, whether it’s corporate or whether it’s simply oligarchic. And they love it. Whites just eat it up.’’
Senator Obama just gave his reply.
Obama said Nader hadn’t been paying attention because he has discussed predatory lending, housing foreclosures and similar economic issues throughout his campaign. ‘‘I think it’s a shame because if you look at his legacy in terms of consumer protections, it’s an extraordinary one. But at this point, he’s somebody who’s trying to get attention and whose campaign hasn’t gotten any traction,’’ Obama said.
What do you think?
Just a brief note on our blog. Our RacismReview blog has been successful so far on standard blog measures. The fact that this “expert” blog has been published (and very active for about ten months) for more than a year is significant. According to 2003 research by the Perseus Corporation, a majority of the 4.2 million blogs people created lasted, on average, only four months.
In terms of unique visitors (those who have ever visited) to our website, RacismReview has now had over 100,000 visitors to date, and now averages about 1,300 daily readers. We thank you all for coming, and would like to ask you for any input you would like to make, including on the question of what you would like to see more discussion of.
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Thanks, Joe and Jessie
Back in April, Joe wrote about the major new book, Inheriting the Trade by Thomas Norman DeWolf, about a slave-trading family of “The Deep North.” Tonight, the related documentary, “Traces of the Trade,” by Katrina Browne airs on PBS (check your local listings). And, while I’m not great at predicting future trends, I think we will increasingly see non-fiction books combined with documentary films geared for (near) simultaneous release. Mark my words, this is a trend in search of a name, and it has implications for those of us in the classroom as well.
And, I stumbled upon another documentary called “Resolved,” (currently available on HBO in demand). It’s a documentary about high school debaters, predominantly white, and one debate team from a predominantly black school. It’s deeply engrossing – and not just because I did speech and debate in high school. I was unexpectedly blown away by this film, especially the Freire-ian-turn it takes. I highly recommend this film.
Finally, a brief thanks to Melissa F. Weiner, Assistant Professor at Quinnipiac University, for her suggestions for additional video titles. I’ve updated the video page with her suggestions.
Addendum from Joe: I just finished reading the very personal book by Tom DeWolf, Inheriting the Trade, and it is indeed dynamite. You learn not only about the central role of New Englanders in the slave trade, but also about the way in which some members of a large and extended white family learned about their heavy slavery history and tried to come to grips with it, including travels to slave regions of the US and to Africa. I highly recommend the book to you and for class use from high school to graduate school. It will likely change, a little or a lot, all who read it seriously.
In the International Herald Tribune, Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education & history at New York University, offers an opinion piece from Accra, Ghana, on how Senator Obama’s campaign is playing out globally. Some popular-culture data indicate much (credit: nova3web) excitement throughout much of the African diaspora about a son of Africa being a possible president of the powerful United States:
There’s a new hit song in Ghana this spring. You hear it everywhere: in bars, restaurants, shops and taxicabs. It has a catchy rhythm, a melodic chorus, and a loud note of praise for an American presidential candidate. The song is entitled simply “Barack Obama.” Recorded by the Ghanaian reggae-rapper Blakk Rasta, it celebrates Obama’s ascendance as a “great sign” for black people everywhere.
Beyond Africa popular culture and other data indicate similar excitement:
It joins a host of other pan-African musical tributes to Obama, from Jamaica and Trinidad to Cameroon and Kenya.
He adds a comment on the fears of many people of African descent about Senator Obama’s welfare in a country where, as we noted in a previous post, white supremacists are organizing dramatically as a result of Senator Obama’s nomination:
But the Ghanaian song adds two starkly negative chords. Over the rat-a-tat-tat of simulated gunfire, it cautions Obama about white racists who could harm him.
Given the growth in supremacist organizations, this is a realistic concern, yet it gets much more attention overseas than in the United States. Why is that? In addition, Zimmerman points out yet more complications down the line for support for Senator Obama, as certain political views become much more visible in the African diaspora. The Ghanan song next
warns that [Obama’] entire nation faces doom on Judgment Day, because of “legalizing abortion in America.”
Zimmerman asks a rhetorical question about whether this song’s writers, and much of Africa, is yet aware of Senator Obama’s strong support of abortion, as well as of gay rights. Zimmerman notes that in most of Africa abortions are banned by law. In addition,
in most African countries, all homosexual activity is illegal. In Kenya, the birthplace of Obama’s father, gay sex is punishable by five to 14 years in jail.
Zimmerman ends by wondering if a majority of Africans will continue to be excited about Senator Obama’s nomination once his political campaign gets more attention there.
These are complicated issues indeed. It is interesting how much this presidential election in our hyper-accentuated cyber and media age has shown the very close connections of peoples across the globe, with much more international concern over this election and the U.S. presidency than ever before.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq certainly has contributed in major ways to increased global interconnectedness, as has the declining economic power of the United States and its increasing dependence on Asian economic powers and on other non-European (for example, oil) countries. Now, too, the serious nomination of the first person of color ever for the top political office in the United States, indeed in any Western country, has made this country yet more an un-detachable and dependent part of the international world political-economic system. Stay tuned.
The Washington Post is reporting that the traffic is up at white supremacist sites (hat tip to Bryan for letting me know about this article). The drive behind this increased interest in the white supremacist message seems to be Sen. Obama’s historic victories in the Democratic primaries. Estimating the number of hate groups and hate sites is always difficult, and now, that number is an ever-moving target. One of the experts interviewed for the article, Deborah Lauter, civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League, observes:
“The truth is, we’re finding an explosion in these kinds of hateful sentiments on the Net, and it’s a growing problem,” said , which monitors hate group activity. “There are probably thousands of Web sites that do this now. I couldn’t even tell you how many are out there because it’s growing so fast.”
While there’s little to suggest that the white supremacist sites are going to launch a serious political challenge to Obama’s candidacy, but you can be sure that the struggle over race, racism and white supremacy has shifted to the Internet. Indeed, as the Washington Post article notes, earlier this month, Obama’s campaign launched its own site to refute the rumors that hate-mongers spread on the Internet. The site lists a series of myths and lies about Obama — that he is Muslim; that his books contain racist passages; that his wife, Michelle, used the word “whitey” — and debunks them.
At the same time, white supremacists are also engaged in a struggle over racial truths and myths online, according to the article:
Don Black spends 16 hours each day on his laptop computer reading hundreds of derogatory Obama comments posted on Stormfront.org, a Web site with the motto “white pride world wide.” A site that drew a few thousand visitors per day in 2002 has expanded into Black’s full-time job, attracting more than 40,000 unique users each day who can post on 54 different message boards…
The article goes on to note that “almost all” white supremacist websites are reporting an increase in traffic. In my new book, Cyber Racism, I explore what the real threat of these sites might be. I argue that there are three main threats, including: 1) easy access and global linkages (white supremacist discourse is easier to access because of the Internet and it’s easier for white supremacists to connect with each other); 2) harm in real life (sometimes, white supremacists take violent action against people based on their beliefs); and 3) cultural values (in other words, these sites represent a threat to the way we acquire and produce knowledge about race, racism and civil rights in the digital era). To illustrate that third threat, about how racism online threatens cultural values and our ways of knowing, let me share a quote with you from David Duke, another white supremacist who is quite active online:
“The Internet gives millions access to the truth that many didn’t even know existed. Never in the history of man can powerful information travel so fast and so far. I believe that the Internet will begin a chain reaction of racial enlightenment that will shake the world by the speed of its intellectual conquest.”
As David Duke suggests in this quote, his goal in bringing white supremacy to the Internet is “racial enlightenment” by making “the truth” available to millions via the Internet. Duke’s brand of white supremacy seeks to undermine hard-won political battles for racial and ethnic equality by rearticulating an essentialist notion of white racial purity using the rhetoric of “civil rights.”
From my perspective, Duke represents an example of the epistemology of white supremacy. The epistemology of white supremacy is, as philosopher Charles W. Mills has noted, “an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance,” which produces the ironic outcome that whites in general, are “unable to understand the world that they themselves have made.” The epistemology of white supremacy reinforces the white racial frame by allowing whites to retreat from pluralistic civic engagement and into a whites-only digital space where they can question the cultural values of tolerance and racial equality unchallenged by anyone outside that frame.
As the lived experience of the civil rights movement fades with time, hard-won political truths about racial equality slide into the realm of mere opinion, open to multiple interpretations. In my book, I discuss at length what’s at stake here with cyber racism, but for now, let me just share a couple of brief examples. In interviews I conducted with young people as they surf the Internet for information about “civil rights,” I asked them how they interpreted the sites they were reading. In the first example, a young (teen-aged) woman reads a cloaked white supremacist site describing American slavery as a “sanitary, humane, relaxed” institution, and remarks, “well, I guess there’s two sides to everything.”
In another example, a different young woman, reading a legitimate civil rights site associated with The King Center in Atlanta, questions the site’s validity because, “it’s created by his widow, so it could be biased.” The two sites, and the two misinterpretations of them, suggest that the very ideas of “civil rights” and “racial equality” become eroded within a digital media landscape that renders all websites more or less equivalent. While the cloaked site and the King Center site both present information from differing points-of-view, just saying that each is “biased” is to misunderstand the larger meaning here. It’s precisely taking into account the standpoint of the site and the reader — whether situated in the white supremacist movement or in struggle for civil rights and against racism — that facilitates the more accurate reading.
As white supremacists shape the online struggle for definitions about race, racism, civil rights, indeed for “truth” shifts in the new digital landscape, we need more and better critical thinking about race, that is informed by standpoint theory.