Why Can’t ABC News Discuss Racism? New Poll on “Race and Politics”

A new ABC News story on a recent survey of 1,125 adults (with black oversample; 3 percent margin/error) includes this conclusion in its headline: “Poll Finds Four in 10 Think Obama’s Candidacy Will Improve Race Relations.” I would have titled it, “Poll Finds Many Whites Think in Racist Terms, Will Not Vote for Obama.

According to the news report 40 percent of Americans think Senator Obama’s candidacy will “improve race relations” in the U.S. The story then adds:

Three in 10 whites express less racially sensitive views, such as having some feelings of prejudice or believing that blacks in their communities do not experience discrimination; they hold generally critical views of Obama and favor John McCain for president by a 26-point margin. But an additional two in 10 whites are at the high end of racial sensitivity — and they favor Obama by 19 points.

By “less racially sensitive” whites, as Mordy pointed out in a previous post today, they mean “racist” whites, but somehow cannot bring themselves to talk candidly about racism from their own poll. And notice that for these white folks who admit to racist views, McCain has a huge advantage. The smaller group of whites at the other end of the spectrum are viewed as counterbalancing the more racist whites:

Yet the views of these whites are counterbalanced by the preferences of the most racially sensitive whites, a smaller group (21 percent of whites) but broadly pro-Obama. These are whites who have a black friend, who think blacks in their area suffer discrimination and report no personal feelings of prejudice; they support Obama by 55-36 percent.

Somehow 30 percent is balanced by 21 percent? Is this a type of new math that works only on matters of racism?

And the write-up makes a big deal of the findings on whites reporting black friends. One would think they might check out the research literature on this matter. If they did, they would find studies showing that whites often exaggerate when it comes to “black friends,” who often do not exist or are just fleeting acquaintances at work. Then the ABC report continues:

All told, just 21 percent of whites say the race of the candidate is very or somewhat important in their vote — and Obama’s support is essentially the same among those who say race matters and those who say not…. Obama’s race shows little if any net effect on vote choices overall.

At no point do they seem to realize that many whites misrepresent their racial views in surveys. Like most pundits in the television media, they seem to take such polls as true readings of white sentiments. And then, of course, they can conclude that race will have no net effect on white voter choices in this election. Oh, Really?

Senator Obama Speaks Out on Race and White Fears

A Reuters article on the ABC News website is titled, “Obama Says Republicans Will Use Race to Stoke Fear” (Caren Bohan). This commentary by the Senator is clearly attempting to head off what is his most serious barrier to election, what we here call the “white racism factor” (and not by the quaint media term, “the Bradley factor”).
John Judis, a New Republic editor and expert on demographic/polling analyses, recently did a detailed article on whether whites (other than liberal Democrats) will vote in large enough numbers for Senator Obama to win in November 2008. His conclusion, drawing on data from the implicit association test research, political psychology research, and exit polls, is that the antiblack vote will be 15-20 percent of white Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. (Already, 9-12 percent of liberal/moderate white voters in Democratic party primaries have said race affected their votes, when they did not vote for Obama.)

Yesterday Senator Obama argued explicitly about some racial matters and voters:

“It is going to be very difficult for Republicans to run on their stewardship of the economy or their outstanding foreign policy,” Obama told a fundraiser in Jacksonville, Florida. “We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run. They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?”

He is speaking of course to white voters and is quite right about the way that the emotions of racism are key to white voting, but does not elaborate. And he hits Republicans hard on their weaknesses, probably his best strategy for winning (that is, take the focus off race and accent the economy). Then argues that Republicans have already shown their race cards:

“We know the strategy because they’ve already shown their cards. Ultimately I think the American people recognize that old stuff hasn’t moved us forward. That old stuff just divides us,” he said.

Senator Obama is trying to inoculate himself from the coming racist attacks. This is probably a smart move, although the argument that Republicans have shown their cards is a bit premature. The Republican attacks have barely begun. The argument that racist stuff has not moved us forward is certainly true, but that argument does not work well with many whites. In fact, racist arguments, if they are not too overt (like Trent Lott was on legal segregation) do in fact work well, especially with the millions of whites who hold firmly to racist stereotypes of the white racial frame and have much racialized resentment toward African Americans.

The Reuters writer then adds a very important point:

It has been rare for him to bring up the topic during his presidential bid. In March he gave a widely praised speech on the subject after receiving criticism over racially charged comments by his longtime pastor.

This writer accents what may be Senator Obama’s Achilles heel, the Dr. Wright and similar racialized stories that accent in white minds that he is a “dangerous black man,” a theme that Republicans will likely use again and again in various ways. The point about the rarity of race as a topic for the Senator is on target, for this does seem to be only the second time in the campaign that he has explicitly focused this much on racial matters. (His last major speech was whites-oriented too, but on black fathers, not on racism.) And he still has not spoken candidly about white racist views and actions being a central U.S. problem. Indeed, he has not given a major speech yet on the continuing reality of racial hostility and discrimination in society and the need to aggressively enforce civil rights laws–to mention just the start of what needs to be done on white racism.�

Are We Living in a Police State?: Americans of Color

Colorlines has a very good story by Caroline Kim and Jenna Loyd (“Is Riding the Bus a Ticket to Jail?”) on racial profiling of bus riders and others who travel and use public accommodations in the United States. The USA has become something close to a police state not only for black Americans, who have faced this problem for nearly 400 years, but now for everyone who does not look white. The story indicates that reports by the Detainment Task Force, a Northern New York group, has found that Border Patrol agents in upstate New York cities–Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo–now routinely engage in racial profiling by questioning only those

who appear to be Mexican, Central American, South Asian, Asian, Afro-Caribbean, or Middle Eastern. Border Patrol officials deny that the agency racially profiles….But common understandings of race in the U.S. fuse nationality and ethnicity so that some groups are permanently deemed to be “foreign.”

Yet, none of the people interviewed for their report noticed that blond-haired or blue-eyed white travelers were being stopped by the Border Patrol. The authors discuss next a legal U.S. resident:

The story of Tomas, who is from Guatemala, illustrates the ways in which law enforcement’s use of racial profiling—and the collaboration of local law enforcement with Border Patrol agents—impedes people’s ability to travel. In July 2007, Tomas and his friend Salvador were driving to a doctor’s appointment. As they pulled out of the toll plaza … in Syracuse, a state trooper stopped them. Tomas has a valid U.S. driver’s license and a properly registered vehicle. The state trooper gave no indication of why he had stopped the vehicle, but he did ask Tomas and Salvador about their immigration status and then called Border Patrol agents. “The police officer stopped us because we have Hispanic faces,” Tomas said.

DWH, “driving while Hispanic,” is a apparently crime in the United States. The article continues:

Last October he was traveling to Syracuse on Greyhound when Border Patrol agents boarded the bus at the Rochester bus station. “The Border Patrol agents questioned all the Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian passengers,” he recalled. “They did not question any of the white passengers except some women who were wearing veils. Border Patrol had dogs with them and checked the whole bus.”

If you are a person of color, traveling by bus now can be like traveling in the Germany of World War II, with uniformed police checking for identification papers just like Nazi German agents on trains and buses in the old Hollywood movies. I remember dozens of those movies well, when I was a kid. They were supposed to teach us how bad authoritarian regimes were.

And then, according to the Colorlines article, it happened again in another place:

A separate incident occurred in December when Tomas was at the Syracuse bus station with another friend. They were speaking to each other in Spanish as they approached the ticket counter where a Border Patrol agent was stationed. “As soon as the Border Patrol agent heard us speaking Spanish, he asked me for my papers,” he said.

The oldest European language in North America, Spanish, is now a signal to Border Patrol agents to do racial profiling, which some/many do with impunity.

Are such warrant-less searches and asking for identification illegal? They are if there is no probable cause to do so. A recent ACLU lawsuit reported by the National Immigration Law Center makes this clear:

The Rhode Island Affiliate of the ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit against the Rhode Island State Police, challenging the legality of the detention and transporting to immigration officials of 14 Guatemalan nationals who were stopped in a van on I-95 on July 11, 2006, after the driver changed lanes without using a turn signal. The lawsuit … argues that the actions by the state police violated the state’s Racial Profiling Prevention Act, as well as the driver’s and passengers’ constitutional rights to be free from discrimination and from unreasonable searches and seizures.

. . . the state trooper who stopped the van first confirmed that the driver’s registration and license were valid and that he had no criminal record. The trooper nevertheless opened the vehicle’s doors and, with the driver interpreting, asked all the passengers to also present their IDs. When some did not produce any, the trooper asked them if they had any documents demonstrating that they were U.S. citizens, and no one was able to produce any. Ultimately, the trooper advised the passengers that they all would be escorted to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Providence…. he instructed the driver that if any passenger attempted to escape from the van en route to Providence, the passenger would be shot. The suit argues that the defendants “knew or should have known that the search, seizure and detention of the Plaintiffs were without reasonable or probable cause and were therefore unlawful under the circumstances.”

Skin color and language are not adequate reasons for requesting identification or for search, seizure, and detention in a “free” country with a Bill of Rights. One can apparently be shot for holding too close to the Bill of Rights’ fourth amendment, which reads thus:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Whiteness & Thinking Critically about “Race” and Racism

Last week a local paper here reported a story about a five dollar bill that someone found stamped with “Let’s Keep the White House White!” (story and image from:Staten Islander). In a similar vein, a vendor at a GOP event was selling buttons that read, “If Obama is President, will we still call it the White House?” All this drives home the point that Joe has made here about the importance of race and the white racial frame in this election. Another sociologist, Andrew Greeley, has recently made a similar point in an article for the Chicago Sun-Times. Greeley writes:

How many of the male readers of this column who are habitues of bars, locker rooms, commuter train bull sessions, pool rooms and men’s clubs have not heard the indigenous racial slurs of such environments applied to Obama?

And surely some of the explicit chatter during the campaign was racist, especially the obsession with the various clergy who mounted the pulpit of his church. By what stretch of sick logic could the candidate be responsible for what his clergy said and did?

Certainly there are solid political and personal reasons that some Americans might have had for voting against the senator that would not be in principle racist. He is one of the most “liberal” members of Congress. He stole the election from a woman who was entitled to it. He is one of the “boys” beating up on the female candidate. He is a not a patriot dedicated to final victory in Iraq. He is weak on national security. He lacks experience. He supports abortion. Yet behind these arguments, might racism lurk?

The point is that racism permeates American society and hides itself under many different disguises. The nomination of an African-American candidate was a near-miracle. Only the innocent and the naive think that the November election will not be about race. [emphasis added]

Someone should get Greeley a copy of Two-Faced Racism, as his analysis seems to echo many of the points in there. Unpersuaded by this analysis, The Bad Idea Blog takes on Greeley, and advocates what could be called an “ignore it and it will go away” approach that is popular among whites:

Race as a subject in politics is a sort of catch-22. If you don’t pay much attention to it, then people can later argue that you ignored a really important sub-text. It could be, as some fear, that a considerable number of racists will quietly vote against Obama this year. But on the other hand, making a lot of noise about race is as good a way as any to ensure that bitter racial disputes will come to the fore, and dominate the debate in an ugly way. Based largely in innuendo and interpretation, along with healthy doses of cultural disconnect (which is not the same thing as racism), racial tensions in politics tend to feed on themselves.

And in any case, if racists really are likely to quietly vote against Obama, it’s hard for me to see what making a significant fuss about it is going to accomplish. If people consciously act out of secret racist motives, then aren’t they quite unlikely to change their votes because of some general accusation of widespread racism? And if they subconsciously have racial motives, as Greeley alleges, then calling them out on it isn’t going to make people already in denial more self-aware: it’s just going to make them feel insulted and see Obama’s defenders as taking cheap shots for petty advantage.

I guess I just don’t see what good focusing so much on the problem would do (aside from firing up the Democratic base) no matter what you think the level of secret or overt racism at play is. If you think that Obama’s candidacy faces its greatest hurdle in some sort of ubiquitous American racism, then fine. No one can easily prove or disprove that view… but what can we really do about it aside from kvetch?

It makes far more sense, in my mind, for Obama’s well meaning allies to give up on bemoaning racism, and focus on just convincing people like the man and his policies directly. If people are quietly racist, then the best cure is for them to discover that they like and respect the candidate who happens to be black.

It’s hard to know where to start unpacking the bad ideas from this blog post, but the upshot here – that it’s better for “well meaning allies to give up on bemoaning racism,” seems egregiously misguided not to mention incredibly naive about matters of race and racism in the U.S. It’s as if racism had no history before this election cycle. What’s perhaps more pernicious in this sort of perspective is the way that white racial frame get perpetuate in statements like that “race as a subject in politics is a sort of catch-22” and “I guess I just don’t see what good focusing so much on the problem would do.”  This is very typical of the way that whites in the mainstream approach any discussion of race and racism: ignore it and hope it goes away.   At the same time, this sort of view makes the logical error of assuming that “race” an analytical category that only applies to “non-whites,” thus failing to apply a racial analysis to whites and white behavior and thinking.   It really seems as if whites are encumbered by white privilege in the sense that it prevents them from thinking critically about (their own) race and racism.

There are some writers out there who are taking a more nuanced view of whiteness in this election cycle.    For example, in a really thoughtful piece by June Kronholz, called “Racial Identity’s Gray Area,” in the Wall Street Journal, she does a nice job of illuminating the ways that the definition of “whiteness” has shifted historically.   To her credit, Kronholz notes the privileges attached to whiteness as when she writes:

Whiteness and the privileges that came with it were so closely guarded that in 1912, a House committee held hearings on whether Italians were really Caucasian….

Race is a malleable category, as Kronholz notes in this article, but whiteness and the privileges that attach to it endure.   What we need is more critical thinking about race, racism and whiteness, not less.

Race and “Sex and the City”

I recently saw the “Sex and the City” movie, which continues where the television show left off (photo credit: drp).  If you’re  unfamiliar with this phenomenon of popular culture, “Sex and the City” was an HBO series about the deep friendship between four single women in New York City and their romantic and sexual relationships with men. The show has been alternately described as the series that made it “cool to be single,” and has also received attention for its depictions (often graphic) of women as sexual subjects rather than simply as objects. Carrie Bradshaw, Samantha Jones, Charlotte York (later York MacDougall and then York Goldenblatt), and Miranda Hobbes alternately questioned and reinforced commonsense assumptions about gender, sex, friendship, relationships, and love.

I can openly acknowledge that I enjoyed “Sex and the City” (the show and the movie) for its depictions of women’s friendships and the central role these ties play in contemporary women’s lives. However, watching the “Sex and the City” movie confirmed for me something unpleasant that I’ve long suspected about the show. Despite being sometimes shocking, often hilariously funny, and always provocative, “Sex and the City” has a real racial problem.

The show was frequently and heavily criticized for its racial homogenization of New York City. During the first and second seasons of the show, minorities were rarely depicted in any scenes. The four protagonists of the show are white women, and while this is technically sociologically accurate (in the sense that friendships, like most aspects of American life, are unfortunately quite segregated), the deletion of any people of color from background scenes, street scenes, and everyday life is a gross misrepresentation of the demographic realities of New York City.

In the third season, the show attempted to correct this by introducing an interracial “relationship.” However, in this episode, “No Ifs, Ands, or Butts,”  Samantha—the member of the quartet known for her voracious sexual appetite and appreciation for anonymous sex—has a sexual relationship with a black man that is eventually undermined by his disapproving sister. The sister is depicted as an “angry black woman” who irrationally opposes their relationship because Samantha is white. The black man is referred to on the show as a “big black pussy” who can’t stand up to his domineering sister to continue his sexual relationship with Samantha. This type of pandering to racial stereotypes—a controlling black woman who emasculates a black man—does not represent progress from the preceding season’s virtual omission of other racial groups. Racist stereotypes are not, in my view, better than nothing at all.

Miranda’s relationship with Robert, a black man, in season six, was in many ways an improvement over Samantha’s sexual/racial excursion in season three and perhaps represents some evolution on the writers’ and producers’ behalf. Unfortunately, any progress came to a crashing halt with the racial representations in the “Sex and the City” movie. In the film, we meet Lily, Charlotte’s ever-present but curiously silent adopted Chinese daughter. This depiction is uncomfortably evocative of other stereotypes of voiceless Asian American women, which reinforce the image of their passivity and controllability and further justify their labor market exploitation. There are also the Mexican workers at the resort who are only there to serve the four main characters. Lest I forget, there’s also Miranda’s charge to follow the “white guy with a baby” as a way to locate an available apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood.  Hooray for revitalization.

Then there is perhaps the most problematically-rendered minority character in this film.  In what some reviewers have described as an attempt to “pass the torch,” the movie features Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson in a supporting role (photo credit: Sharyn Jackson). Some have argued that Hudson’s character Louise is supposed to be a younger, newer version of what Carrie Bradshaw initially was—idealistic, romantic, and looking for love in the big city. However, if this is the case, then why is Louise cast in such an obviously subservient role as Carrie’s personal assistant?

This is a disappointing throwback to the Mammy image of earlier films—the darker skinned, full figured black woman who was content to tend to her white family at the neglect of her own, and who typically was responsible for providing emotional support and nurturance to a white woman who couldn’t take care of herself? This image is present in “Gone with the Wind,” “Imitation of Life,” and as noted sociologist Patricia Hill Collins brilliantly describes, is updated in several contemporary media depictions. I recognize that aspects of Louise’s personal life are shown, and this is a minor improvement from the prototypical Mammy who had no life outside of caring for her white family. However, it’s still problematic that an Academy Award winning, brilliantly talented young black actress is not cast in a role that is on equal footing with the central character. If the sole intention was for Carrie to pass the torch to Louise, then why couldn’t she have been cast as a young, up and coming writer that Carrie meets and mentors? Is it necessary for Louise to clean up Carrie’s apartment—and her life—as well?

The decision to put Hudson in this role has so many implications. Let’s not forget that we are in the midst of a presidential campaign season where many white women have accused black women of failing to follow a feminist mandate to vote for and support the (white) woman candidate. I have to wonder if the ways in which black women are packaged into recognizable media caricatures plays a role in shaping white women’s perceptions of us. Do these types of representations contribute to some white women’s ideas that they should lead and black women should follow? It’s images like these, though, that undermine the myth of sisterhood and some white feminists’ desire to believe that gender is the “most restricting force in American life.”  When your fictionalized “sisters” seem to believe that your primary job is to clean up their emotional and personal messes—not to mention their expensive Manhattan apartments—it’s hard to think that it’s only gender holding you back. When your real-life “sisters” astutely decry how sexism undermined Hillary Clinton’s campaign but are silent about the racist and sexist descriptions of Michelle Obama as Barack Obama’s “baby mama,”  it doesn’t do much to promote the gender-based unity these white feminists want to see deployed to Hillary Clinton’s benefit. It does suggest to me that the longstanding idea of black women as best suited for servitude and denied their full humanity is still pervasive and dangerously in full force.

“Post Your Comment Here”: Cyber Racism

Participatory online media, often referred to as Web 2.0, refers to technology – like this blog – where anyone can contribute content to a website. In the early days of Web 2.0, there was a lot of talk about how new media technology would facilitate democracy. And yet, the reality of Web 2.0 at all sorts of sites where people are encouraged to post their reactions to current events, suggests that the technology is allowing white people to vent racism that might otherwise remain hidden. Here’s just one recent example, in which MediaTakeOut.com points out the way (competitor) TMZ.com approves racist comments on the site, allegedly to increase traffic to their site. (I say “allegedly” because we don’t know the motives of the people approving the comments at TMZ.com.) What seems clear is that all sorts of places online have become venues for whites to display racism that is usually reserved for the whites-only backstage, as I noted some months ago about Facebook.

This sort of cyber racism seems particularly pronounced at YouTube, the popular video sharing site, as this blogger notes. In a recent Sociology honors thesis submitted for his degree at UC-Berkeley, undergraduate Albert Wang conducted a content analysis of hate speech on YouTube. Wang screened 10,579 English-language comments posted to 45 videos, of which 599 comments met my criteria for hate speech and were thus included in his sample. Of these 599, most dealt with blacks, who were targeted by 209 hate comments, and women, who were the targets of 190. Sixty-one more comments targeted Muslims, forty-eight targeted whites and twenty-nine targeted Jews. The remaining biased comments targeted Hispanics, homosexuals, men and a variety of ethnicities and nationalities, such as the Japanese and the Turks; some also attacked non-whites in general. In all, 271 comments targeted race, 197 gender, 93 religion, 22 nationality, 9 sexuality and 7 ethnicity.  Among those that targeted race, Blacks were the most frequently targeted group.

Wang also attempted to interview people who posted hate speech on YouTube. to hate occur on YouTube.  The conclusion he reaches based on the larger quantitative analysis and his small sample of interviews (7 responded out of 34 requested interviews) with posters is that hate speech online exists in a variety of forms (e.g., most frequent targets are Blacks, women, Jews and Muslims), and the reasons for it range from resentment of what is viewed as the liberal establishment to anger at racial tension. Wang identified two important similarities. First, hate comments are an inherently online form of discourse as people take advantage of the Internet’s anonymity and the relative ease of posting comments online. Second, online hate speech does not appear to present any new ideas but instead rehashes long-standing stereotypes and malice.

Wang’s research is consistent with my own research in my new book, Cyber Racism, which looks at the way white supremacists have translated their rhetoric into the digital era. Central to my argument in this book is that white supremacy has entered the digital era and old forms of racism are being adapted to new technologies.  Avowed white supremacist extremists, such as David Duke, were early adopters  of digital media technologies; they were among the first to create, publish and maintain web pages on the Internet.   The reality that David Duke and other white supremacists were early adopters of digital media, runs counter to two prevailing notions: one, about who white supremacists are, and the other, about the Internet.  The first is that white supremacists are gap-toothed, ignorant, unsophisticated and uneducated; the second is that the Internet is a place without “race.”   In fact, neither of these notions is supported by the empirical evidence.  White supremacists have customized Internet technologies in ways that are innovative, sophisticated and cunning.   And, the Internet is an increasingly important site for political struggle where meanings of race, racism and civil rights are contested. The emergence of cloaked websites illustrates a central feature of propaganda and cyber racism in the digital era: the use of difficult-to-detect authorship and hidden agendas intended to accomplish political goals, including white supremacy.

Of course, there is also important, progressive organizing that simultaneously happens online.   Democratic movements, organized at the grassroots by people of goodwill with Internet-enabled mobile phones, have transformed elections.    Cyberactivists organized the march of nearly 10,000 people against a white supremacist judicial system in Jena, Louisiana through email, blogs, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube.    And, almost ten years earlier,  Black women excluded by the white-dominated mainstream media and male-dominated African American press, took advantage of the participatory quality of Internet technologies to organize the Million Woman March.    Yet, some take these encouraging signs about the use of the Internet to mean that the technology itself is inherently democratizing.    Still others see the presence of white supremacy online as evidence that the Internet is an inherently dangerous place.   What we need is a more nuanced analysis enables a way to rethink our ways of knowing about racial equality and civil rights in the digital era.

“Monkey See, Monkey Do”: The White Mental Health Problem

Well, it has happened again. Some whites love to spread racist monkey and ape imagery for people of color. A white entrepreneur came up with an idea for a sock-monkey doll made to look like Senator Obama. Capitol Street and numerous other bloggers picked up on the monkey-doll story and pressured the company to back off. It just issued this apology:

An Apology: We are very apologetic to all who were upset by our toy idea. We will not be proceeding with the manufacturing of this toy. Thank you.

The manufacturer claimed not to know about the racist monkey and ape imagery often used by whites, indeed for centuries, to mock and stereotype African Americans. Numerous media outlets have noted that this is hard to believe and have associated this type of stereotyping with earlier white views under legal segregation. However, these views go back much farther than legal segregation.

Animalizing people of color is a very old part of the white racist frame. In framing what they were doing in North America, early European colonists made substantial use of an old Western image-schema, an up-down ladder pattern called the “great chain of being,” a concept dating back to ancient Greek thinkers. The higher up the chain of being, the more valued and human a group is, and the lower down, the less valued and human. Consciously or unconsciously, European Americans have long extended the language and understandings from the great chain of being model to defend or prescribe the societal hierarchy in which European Americans are dominant and African Americans and other people of color are subordinated.

Thus, much colonial language described Indians as “wild beasts” who should be “removed from their dens” and killed. In Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, he articulated an aggressively racist white frame with strong images of Black Americans: In his mind, they smell funny, are much uglier physically, and are ape-linked and animalistic, among many other negative images he clung to.

This animalizing of the racial others by whites is still strong in the country today, as we showed in a recent story about a bar owner who made Obama T-shirts with Curious George images. We also reported on our recent study of white college students. They often use racist terms, including the N-word and terms like “porch monkeys” in frequent racist commentaries, especially backstage with friends and relatives. In diaries from just 626 well-educated white students we got 7,500 accounts of blatantly racist performances and commentaries. We have also reviewed other research studies revealing that whites consciously or subconsciously associate Black Americans with apes and are more likely to condone violence against Black criminal suspects as a result of this stereotyping and their broader inability to accept blacks as “fully human.”

Clearly, among the common white stereotypes and images in the dominant racial frame today is the old view of Black Americans somehow still being closer to the animal kingdom than to the “white race.” This and other chronic antiblack stereotyping is a huge white problem, yet one no one white in policymaking positions seems at all interested in focusing on and talking about. It is time for it to be forced out of the closet and focused on as a serious mental disturbance, a mental unhealthiness, in all too many white minds.

Senator Obama’s Critique of Black Fathers: Playing to the White Frame?

CNN featured a news story today about Senator Obama lecturing the Black community today, and especially young Black men, on the need for them to be better fathers. (His prepared remarks are here. Photo: jmtimages) In this part of his speech in a predominantly Black church, Obama sounded much like Bill Cosby recently, and like most of white America, on the issue of “failed” black parents. Whites have been blaming the Black community for its supposedly self-generated “families” problems since at least the late seventeenth century, without of course dealing with the extreme circumstances that a highly racist and discriminatory system creates for all Black parents, past and present. According to CNN:

Barack Obama celebrated Father’s Day by calling on black fathers, who he said are “missing from too many lives and too many homes,” to become active in raising their children. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it,” the Democratic presidential candidate said Sunday at a largely black church in his hometown.

Obama does not deal with the racism these Black men face in his speech. What is always striking about such one-sided critiques, no matter who makes them, is that this problem is not a “Black fathers” problem. In the first place, this is a white-American and general American problem. He could have raised it in a much more balanced way. Why did he not address his sermon to all young men, including the large numbers of the “irresponsible” young fathers who are white? And, perhaps more importantly, where is the strong critique of a racist society that cannot provide decent educations and decent-paying jobs for young black men, indeed for every person who wants to work. Good fathers need decent jobs.

This critique of black fathers would be more honest if the hostile racist settings and racist job environments they face every day got at least equal time in talking about their lives. Why not do that? Is Senator Obama trying now to look more “moderate” to racist white America? Is that the only way to be elected in this country, to play into the white racist framing of black families?

And it is striking, if the CNN report is a full report and the website official speech is accurate, that he did not celebrate the fact that the majority of young black parents somehow, in this still highly discriminatory society, manage to create supportive home environments and to raise kids who do not “get into trouble.” Why not celebrate with equal time all those successful black fathers of all ages, past and present, especially on fathers’ day? This is a day to celebrate fathers.

And then of course there are all the black mothers, who have to deal with fathers who die young, get ill or disabled from lousy work conditions, or who end up in the crime/prison world because of getting involved in the drug economy, one of the few places that men of color can find jobs these days. Fortunately, Senator Obama does mention their struggles and importance but does not really celebrate their courage and he once again does not bring up the gendered racism they face every day.

The CNN reporter comments thus on Obama’s speech:

The issue adds to his family values credentials and lets voters see him delivering a stern message to black voters.

Notice here the white racist framing of the story. Like a fish in water, the reporter (or editor) does not even see the racist thinking in this sentence. The first “voters” word of course does not mean “voters” but actually means “white voters,” as those are the ones who want to see him preach like a white person to African Americans about their “family values” problems.

It is very sad that the very people who have had to work much harder on the average over four centuries of white-imposed oppression just to keep their families alive and surviving—those who were enslaved (for 246 years) and legally segregated (90 or so years)—than average whites had to work over that same 336-year period, get no credit for maintaining families and “family values” under such extreme circumstances to the present day. It is time to write more about the heroism of Black parents, like Robert Staples, fathers and mothers, in the past and the present, and to cease these one-sided playing-into-the-white-frame distortions of Black families and Black history. There is much more to this story than the “family values” and “broken families” rhetoric ever reveals.

According to CNN, Senator Obama accented another classical white-framed approach, to mention injustice but to play it down and to play up individual responsibility:

“We can’t simply write these problems off to past injustices,” Obama said Sunday. “Those injustices are real. There’s a reason our families are in disrepair … but we can’t keep using that as an excuse.

He did not, unfortunately, spend any time on these “injustices.” (And where is the word “racial” for the injustices here?)

In my view, such preaching about family issues is OK, but only if the real world of extensive racial discrimination, few decent jobs, and a still white-run racist society are brought in and given at least equal time with preaching one more time about the “problems” of “family values” in black communities.

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“Race” Will Affect Senator Obama’s Chances. A Gallup Survey

Over at the Gallup website, Frank Newport reports that “Most [Americans] Say Race Will Not Be a Factor in Their Presidential Vote.” In a recent Gallup phone survey of 1,102 “adult” respondents nationally (plus an extra sample of Black Americans), Gallup reported this chart on how people feel about the impact of Senator Obama being Black on votes for him:



The largest percentages of both groups are guessing there will be little effect, with about a fifth estimating some gain. It seems likely that Blacks and whites have different groups in mind too when they are thinking about “gains” here. The “cost him votes” position is chosen by 28 percent of Blacks and 26 percent of whites. It is my educated guess that this 26 percent of whites is likely the minimum percentage of whites who will actually vote against Senator Obama in November just because he is Black. The percentage is much lower when whites are asked directly about whether his being Black might affect their vote (just 6 percent in this survey), but social desirability likely kicks in when whites are responding about personal racial views to a stranger over the phone. New research on backstage racism (see also here) certainly suggests there is a very high level of antiblack thinking in much of the white population today, and this is certainly going to affect voting patterns in November 2008.


Gallup also presents another chart from this national survey that indicates respondents’ choices on a question about whether the Republican Party is likely to use “race as an issue” this November. That pattern is thus:

Some 70 percent of black respondents think the Republican Party is very or somewhat likely to make use of “race” in the campaign, compared to a still sizeable but smaller 49 percent of whites.Well, actually, this has already happened, just to take one major example, in the widely discussed case of Dr. Jeremiah Wright, whose story has been widely circulated by various Republican groups and sympathizers in the mass media. These attacks are usually straight out of a white racist framing of African Americans and their leaders.We have also seen recently overtly racist attacks on Michelle Obama from Republican Party activists and their right-wing sympathizers in the media (like Michelle Malkin who defended Fox in the “baby mama” slur).

(Note: These Gallup respondents are not registered voters, so that makes interpretations of their possible voting behavior somewhat less clear. Gallup also asks quite weak questions on these racial issues and voting, apparently with no follow-up questions asking about why people give such answers. Given how central racism is to the election this year, it seems yet another sign of the white racial framing, that many relevant questions are not asked and answered. Also, why do they not do some focus groups to get at how whites and others articulate these views in their own words?)

Jasper, Texas: 10 Years After a Racist Murder

Ten years after the racist murder of James Byrd by three white men in Jasper, Texas. Today on my local NPR affiliate, WNYC, they aired an interesting interview (available online after 7pmEST) by Michele Norris of two ministers from Jasper who were crucial in creating an environment of racial healing following the murder. Norris talks to Father Ronald Foshage of St. Michael’s Catholic Church and Pastor Kenneth Lyons of Greater New Bethel Baptist Church about how they worked to avert further racism in their community immediately following the murder and in the years that followed. The two ministers reflect on the healing process that took place between blacks and whites in the town and how important the show of a larger number of whites showing up at James Byrd’s funeral was to healing the wounds in that town. They also give praise to the Byrd family for their forgiveness from the very beginning. And, they mention how many whites in Jasper did not want to mark the tenth anniversary of this horrible crime, yet leaders like Father Foshage and Pastor Lyons led the way emphasizing the issue of remembrance for addressing racism. For a good account of this event, see Joyce King’s Hate Crime (Random House, 2002).

: Here are some details on the lynching of James Byrd, Jr., from my Racist America book (references can be found there):

In June 1998, a black man, James Byrd, Jr., was walking down a Jasper, Texas, road. Three white men, with tattoos suggesting ties to white-supremacist groups, beat him savagely, tied him to a pickup, and dragged him along a road until his head and arms were severed. One man reportedly said to the others, “We’re starting The Turner Diaries early,” referring to violence by white supremacists in that racist novel. The girlfriend of one of the men said that, while she knew he was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and did not like blacks, she did not see him as a racist. This lynching was not just an isolated incident. Indeed, it brought to national attention the larger social context of antiblack violence. After the lynching a Ku Klux Klan group held a rally for the white supremacist cause in Jasper. In addition, this area of Texas is known to be white supremacist territory. A white militia group has a training facility in the county, and a few Christian Identity churches are in nearby towns. The Jasper lynching triggered copycat crimes in at least two other cities, Belleville, Illinois, and Slidell, Louisiana, where several white men in cars reportedly attacked and injured black men.

The Jasper lynching and similar violent personal attacks on black men and women, as well as such attacks on other Americans of color, are most often carried out by working-class whites. Yet the responses of some elite and middle-class whites to the Jasper lynching revealed a certain indifference to these crimes. For example, the first New York Times article on the Jasper lynching was buried on page 16; the bloody lynching did not rise to the level of a front page story. In addition, one New York Times article spent considerable space on the problems of the black victim himself, describing his alcoholism and unemployment—as if such things mattered in assessing the meaning of his Klan-type lynching.