Racism and Urban “Unrest”

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has a terrific post over at “Making Light,” in which she dissects current reports that police are concerned about urban “unrest” if Obama loses the election (hat tip to Paul at Brainstorms).  Nielsen Hayden (last name corrected, thanks to Tom W.) refers to this article at The HIll, the leading newspaper of Congress and Capitol Hill, and here’s the relevant bit from that article:

Some worry that if Barack Obama loses and there is suspicion of foul play in the election, violence could ensue in cities with large black populations. Others based the need for enhanced patrols on past riots in urban areas (following professional sports events) and also on Internet rumors.

Good grief.  I study, read and write about racism all the time and yet sometimes, I’m still shocked by it, as I was by this nasty turn of events.  Nielsen Hayden, for her part, is spot on and calls the report (and the police preparation) out for what it is:

This is setting up a fraudulent racist narrative: that any unrest on Election Day will consist of inner-city blacks rioting because the black candidate didn’t win. Some of the things that narrative fails to take into account:

—The most notable recent instance of rioting while an election was in progress did not involve a local urban black population. It was in Florida in 2000, and the rioters were known Republican campaign operatives brought into the state on the national Republican Party’s nickel.

She makes an excellent point.   And, when I read about the police preparation for “urban unrest,” I don’t think it’s meant to conjure the image of all those RNC staffers in their causal-Friday-Gap-wear (erroneously dubbed the “Brooks Brothers Riot,” but they just weren’t that well dressed).  Nielsen Hayden goes on in the rest of her post to detail other parts of this “fraudulent racist narrative,” and if you’re following the election closely I highly recommend reading her post in full.

White Guys and the Prospect of an Obama Presidency

In this recent piece in the New York Times, Paul Krugman compares Richard Nixon’s political strategy to John McCain’s, in particular, the central idea that:

By exploiting America’s divisions — divisions over Vietnam, divisions over cultural change and, above all, racial divisions — he was able to reinvent the Republican brand. The party of plutocrats was repackaged as the party of the “silent majority,” the regular guys — white guys, it went without saying — who didn’t like the social changes taking place.

Krugman’s piece along with Rush Limbaugh’s (“it’s all about race”) reaction to Powell’s endorsement of Obama  has me thinking about white guys and the possibility of an Obama presidency.   When it comes to white men and this election, it looks like there’s a pattern, as Joe has noted here before.   Of course, some white men are supporting Obama.  Indeed, where I live in the liberal-bubble that is Manhattan, I see a fair number of white men each day wearing Obama buttons (image from here).

Seeing this emerging trend of white-guys-with-Obama-buttons in my neighborhood makes me ponder what the prospect of an Obama presidency might mean for racism and social change in the U.S.

I mean, maybe, just maybe, if the economy continues to tank, and if the voter fraud is held to a minimum, and if all the newly registered voters show up on election day, then we’ll actually have the first African-American president in our nation’s 400 year history.  And, then what? Declare that racism has ended, cue the hallelujah chorus and close down the blog, perhaps?   If Obama wins this election maybe it just proves the point that I’ve misjudged white guys.  Maybe white guys really do want social change after all.  I mean, Christopher Buckely has endorsed Obama and he’s about as white as it gets.

Perhaps.     But, let’s look at some data and see what we know about white guys and whether or not I might have misjudged them. Continue reading…

Politically Recycling the Great Divide

Recently the world has had the chance to observe the political maneuvering of presidential hopeful Sen. McCain’s political cohorts, who have produced loathsome mock ten-dollar food stamps with Sen. Barack Obama’s face attached to a mule alongside watermelon, Kool-Aid, barbecue ribs, and Kentucky Fried chicken; all of which are stereotypical to Blacks.

Hopefully no one has forgotten the Obama monkey sock puppet that was produced by a Utah based company. Recently, cronies within the Republican Party of Virginia have created and sent out mailers with a picture of a face that makes it difficult to determine if the person is Sen. Obama or Osama Bin Laden.
The mailer states, “America Must Look Evil in the Eye and Never Flinch.” The ambiguity between Sen. Obama and Bin Laden leads people down a dangerous path. Examples of the path are exemplified within the weight of the words of an elderly woman at a Minnesota McCain/Palin rally where she called Obama an “Arab.”

How about the death threats noted by the Secret Service at McCain rallies? Due to the media’s lack of attention to the depths of hatred displayed at McCain jamborees, few are privy to the racist sentiments at an Ohio McCain/Palin gathering where an Al Jazeera camera crew caught this exchange that Jessie posted earlier:

I’m afraid if he wins, the blacks will take over. He’s not a Christian! This is a Christian nation! What is our country gonna end up like?”
“When you got a Negra running for president, you need a first stringer. He’s definitely a second stringer.”
“He seems like a sheep – or a wolf in sheep’s clothing to be honest with you. And I believe Palin – she’s filled with the Holy Spirit, and I believe she’s gonna bring honesty and integrity to the White House.”
“He’s related to a known terrorist, for one.”
“He is friends with a terrorist of this country!”
“He must support terrorists! You know, uh, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. And that to me is Obama.”
“Just the whole, Muslim thing, and everything, and everybody’s still kinda – a lot of people have forgotten about 9/11, but… I dunno, it’s just kinda… a little unnerving.”
“Obama and his wife, I’m concerned that they could be anti-white. That he might hide that.”
“I don’t like the fact that he thinks us white people are trash… because we’re not!”

Yep, McCain must be so proud. The rest of us, well, let’s just say those polls should tell the story. These statements and acts of verbal violence toward Sen. Obama are fascinating when one recalls Sen. McCain publicly defending all those supporters who come to his rallies within the last presidential debate.

Public meetings beginning with fiery rhetoric from religious and conservative political fanatics in combination with the fear mongering exhibited by McCain’s political propaganda–I am reminded of the tactics used to divide the White and Black farmers after the U.S. Civil War. History tells a story of the flourishing Populist Party during the 1890s which scared the base of both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Some members of the Populist Party and other outside influences feared the power of connecting poor Blacks and Whites together.

“The People Party’s” success to unite White and newly freed poor Black farmers, and factory workers, was later destroyed by the use of fear, racism, intimidation, bribery, and threats of violence to divide working class Whites from continuing to connect with Blacks in their efforts for change against the wealthy. In essence, poor Whites were basically assured that they may not have had equal access to wealth, but they were at least comforted in covering themselves with the flag of White supremacy that ensured that being White secured riches Blacks could and should never own due to the negative betrayal of what they represented to Whites.

Today within the political landscape, days before this historical presidential election, we as Americans are witnessing the surfacing of a tactic of the past. By invoking fear, White supremacy, and the reproduction of racism, the Republican Party is guilty of attempting to divide and conquer. Today, remnants of control and racism are still present within the policies and procedures of politics. Oppressive systems and people who operate on the grounds of the systemic social reproduction of racism who simply “want distinctions and advantages to be given by birth to those who simply declare themselves by decree to be best” (Memmi 2000, p. 19).

Racism Among Obama Supporters?



Over at zmag.org the historian, journalist, and activist Paul Street—who has recently published his book, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics– has some interesting commentary on issues of racism in both the McCain and Obama camps.

Street points out some of the racialized reasons that some whites support Senator Obama, reasons and issues that get very little attention in mainstream media discussions. He quotes an exchange reported in the New York TimesCaucus Blog:

between white voter Veronica Mendive and white Obama volunteer Cathy Vance: Ms. Mendive: “I’ve never been around a lot of black people before. I just worry that they’re nice to your face but then when they get around their own people you just have to worry about what they’re going to do to you.” Ms. Vance: “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are really more white than black really.”

First, here is the old worry that African Americans are not saying to white faces what they are really thinking, which in a racist system is not too surprising. African Americans do have to spend a lot of time and energy in their backstage settings recounting whites’ racist actions and figuring out how to counter them. But that is not what whites are worrying about when they think about the Black backstage. Whites seem to worry most about what Blacks might “do” to whites. The volunteer assures the voter that Obama is OK because of his white ancestry and socialization. This reasoning may well be one common way of thinking about Senator Obama among whites, and it is interesting that (to my knowledge) no one in or out of the mass media has researched this important political and racial issue.

Street then recounts another Times interview with someone who is apparently working for Obama:

According to Times reporter Adam Nossiter, Oaks is “pleased by Mr. Obama’s lack of connection to African-American politics.” Oaks spoke to fellow whites at a local church and with approval of how Obama “doesn’t come the African-American perspective – he’s not of that tradition. . . . He’s not a product of any ghetto.”

One reason that Senator Obama is getting some (many?) white votes, thus, is because they see him as “an exception to his race,” a very old notion that has been part of the white racial frame since at least the 17th century. He is seen as not fully “Black” in the negative sense that idea has in the white racial frame, especially since he was raised mostly by whites. And he does not have the “African American perspective,” which I would guess means that unlike veteran Black civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al. Sharpton, Senator Obama has been very careful (with the exception of his one Philadelphia speech) not to talk openly about the racial hostility and discrimination, the systemic racism, perpetrated by a great many white Americans.

In working on our book on “race” and the Obama campaign, Adia and I have discussed why Senator Obama has carefully avoided discussing civil rights issues and the venerable Black civil rights agenda, which includes getting the government to vigorously enforce U.S. civil rights laws—which it has not done. Presumably, he must do this to be elected.

A society founded in and still grounded in white racism means, among other things, that a Black candidate running in a predominantly white district or area (the entire nation in this case) cannot talk candidly about the continuing and deep impacts of racial hostility and discrimination against African Americans and other Americans of color—that is, he or she must still act in ways that please whites, at least a significant enough group of whites to be elected. He or she cannot talk about what may be the nation’s most serious problem.

Even then, a majority of whites are still hard to persuade. A check of recent polls indicates that in this last week Research 2000 found that Senator Obama leads Senator McCain significantly among all registered voters, but is way behind among white voters (52-40 percent split in favor of McCain). Gallup shows less of a divide, but still a 48-44 percent white voter split in favor of McCain.

Given that the economy is in a meltdown mode, that we have the most negatively regarded president in recent memory, that the Republican brand is in poor repute, that Senator Obama is extraordinarily capable and has run what is probably the best organized and technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, why is it that white voters are still strongly tilted to McCain?

What do you think about this?

American Racism

American racism is getting more coverage on the mainstream news than it has since the Civil Rights era.   And, that’s not surprising given antics like this image included in a mailing from the Chaffey Community Republican Women, a regional arm of the GOP in California (more on the story and image source here).  For her part, the group’s president, Diane Fedele, draws on the rhetoric of “race-blindness” to defend her actions.  She reportedly said that she received the illustration in a number of chain e-mails and decided to reprint it for her members in the group’s newsletter because she was offended that Obama would draw attention to his own race. She said she doesn’t think in racist terms, pointing out she once supported Republican Alan Keyes, an African-American who previously ran for president. She continues this “race-blind” rhetorical strategy when she says:

“I didn’t see it the way that it’s being taken. I never connected,” she said. “It was just food to me. It didn’t mean anything else.”

Now, the somewhat encouraging news is that lots of people are pointing out this overt racism and calling it what it is, including those on rather mainstream (albeit left-leaning) blogs and cable news networks.

However, the way stories like the one about the circulation of this image of “Obama bucks” are overly focused on individual racism, rooted in psychological explanations.  For example, Fedele made the top of Olbermann’s “Worst Person” list on his nightly broadcast, as have others in this political season who’ve been guilty of engaging in the most overt racist tactics.  And, in a perfectly fine piece at the Huffington Post, Peter Wolson has a thorough discussion of the psychology of “othering.”   I don’t disagree with either of these. Indeed, I welcome more discussion of American racism in as many venues as possible.  The problem with these is that the focus on the individual and psychological aspects of racism within a larger political discourse of “race-blindness” elides the way in which racism is systemic, built in, institutionalized, and structural.

The focus on the individual expressions of overt racism and the psychological roots of such expressions also forestall any sort of discussions about responses to racism by society as a whole. To illustrate this, note the contrasting response to individual racism in Denmark recently.  A 33-year-old woman was convicted under Danish laws against racism after posting racist remarks on her personal web page (she was given a fine).   Unfortunately, in the U.S. we seem reluctant to adopt such a societal-level response to overt expressions of racism, even in this political season and even when many, many people see such expressions as wrong and immoral.   Instead, there is a knee-jerk, libertarian response to any call for accountability under the law for such expressions in the United States.  In point of fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has made a number of decisions that restrict certain types of racist speech that don’t make a contribution to the public sphere.    Yet, prominent figures such as Rush Limbaugh, get away with what amounts to enciting racist hatred with their speech, such as this recent tirade against black children allegedly “raised as militants.”

Identifying individuals who engage in overt racism is important, and understanding the psychology of such expressions is valuable, but coming to terms with American racism takes much more than that.  And, dealing with it will require a broad-based political will and systemic social change.   We’re not there yet.

Not So Subconscious White Racism

An article in the Washington Post earlier this week asked “Does your subconscious think Obama is foreign?” (Hat tip to HarlemWriter via Twitter and Light-Skinned Girl).  Shankar Vedantam, the author of that piece, went on to cite the work of Mahzarin Banaji at Harvard, one of the developers of the Implicit Association Test, which we’ve written about here before.   Vedantam has a provocative interview quote from Banaji in which she says: “African Americans in their [own] minds are fully American, but not in the minds of whites.” And, indeed, this seems clear in this short video clip (2:08) that includes interviews with white Ohio voters:

In these interviews, reporter Casey Kauffman reveals the misconceptions, racism, and just plain foolishness of these white people (to me via Alternet).  It would be funny if it weren’t so scary.

McCain Supporters Reveal Racism

While the McCain/Palin campaign tries to run a “respectable” official campaign by apologizing, his supporters continue to display some pretty overt racism in a variety of ways.   For example, a white man attending a McCain/Palin rally over the weekend showed up with a “Curious George” doll with an Obama sticker on it (link opens a video).    Nice.

And, there’s this photo of a sign in Warren County, Pa., taken on Oct. 5 by Maryland resident Kurt Kolaja, who was attending a wedding in the area (and first published here).  Very nice, indeed.

So as the McCain/Palin campaign tries to officially distance itself from these overt expressions of racism, attributing this sort of thing to the actions of the “occasional nut.” While I was initially willing to cut McCain some slack when I heard him challenge some of his supporters this weekend, as time rolls on, his protestations seem half-hearted and disingenuous.   All of this raises the issue of whether or not the campaign should be held accountable for their supporters’ amped up the racist expressions that seem emboldened with a sense of entitlement and outrage.

Rep. John Lewis stepped into this controversy with the following statement:

“What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse,” Lewis said in a statement.

George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights.

I agree with Jill (at Jack & Jill Politics) that Lewis was right to draw this parallel.  What do you think?

The Most Segregated Hour of the Week — Still



The ABC News website has an interesting article, “Two Nations Under God: Segregated Churches the Norm,” by Imaeyen Ibanga. The article cites a new study by the Pew Center that shows the huge racial divide in churches in the United States. The journalist summarizes thus:

Every Sunday parishioners head to their respective churches, the vast majority of which are filled with worshippers predominately of one race. Only 7 percent of American churches are racially integrated, according to the Pew Center.

These data show just how racially segregated the United States is now well into the third millennium–and also accent how unusual it is to have an African American with a serious chance to become president right now. One white churchgoer is quoted as explaining the church segregation this way:

You go into a society that’s all white, you’re gonna typically have an all-white church, and vice-versa with other ethnicities as well.

One Ohio minister, Cliff Biggers, is trying to break down the racial segregation by (photo: Obama site) taking his

black congregation out of its comfort zone to a white church every fifth Sunday. Often times Biggers and his congregants are given a warm welcome, inviting visitors to meals and fellowship. But sometimes the response can be less than enthusiastic. “I think people are a little put back, sure. You have people walking in that, number one, you don’t know them; number two, they look different than you.”

A little put back, indeed. As I was reading this article, I have also been thinking about a revealing new book by social scientist Korie Edwards that I have started reading. Called The Elusive Dream, it examines the impact of institutional racism (and thus white racial framing) in churches that are consciously interracial. The book description puts her findings this way, starting with one interracial church service:

A black pastor and white head elder stand before the sanctuary as lay leaders pass out the host. An African-American woman sings a gospel song as a woman of Asian descent plays the piano. Then a black woman in the congregation throws her hands up and yells, over and over, “Thank you [Lord]!” A few other African-Americans in the pews say “Amen,” while white parishioners sit stone-faced…..Even in this proudly interracial church, America’s racial divide is a constant presence. . . . . [I]nterracial churches … help perpetuate the very racial inequality they aim to abolish. . . . [M]ixed-race churches adhere strongly to white norms. African Americans in multiracial settings adapt their behavior to make white congregants comfortable.

The black members are thus forced to conform to white norms and racial framing of the church situations. The very long history of white-imposed segregation and white norms and framing helps to explain these disturbing findings. The ABC news article notes the centuries-old historical reality in regard to racial segregation in religion for African Americans:

The first black churches were built by freed slaves and many of them where open to whites on principle, but Jim Crow laws brought fresh division and wounds. “They had to sit in that last pew and if a white would come and families would come, even though they were in that pew they had to get up and give them their pew,” said Sister Eva Regina Martin, mother superior at Holy Family Sisters in New Orleans. . . . “It’ll take many years but I think as the years go by people will allow people just to be…,” said Martin, who is the head of just one of three black orders of nuns.

Many years, indeed.

White Men: Still Substantially for McCain — Why?



The Gallup polling outfit reports that the racial-group breakdown of polled registered voters, most recently (Sept.29-Oct. 5, 2008 polls), was thus:

Whites —– Obama (42%) McCain (50%)
Blacks —– Obama (89%) McCain (2%)
Hispanics — Obama (64%) McCain (26%)

They also reported that white men were now for Obama at 38% and for McCain at 55%, with white women tied at 46% for each candidate. Last June their polls showed a breakdown for 36-52% for white men and 41-46% for white women. This suggests more of a shift to Obama among white women than among white men.

Clearly, this election continues to have an important racial dimension to it. If it were up to whites right now, McCain would have a substantial victory. Yet whites make up only 75-80 percent of registered voters. Still, past national elections suggest that Obama needs to get at least 40-42 percent of the white voters to win the election, and to have significant turnouts of African American and other voters of color at these Gallup-indicated levels to win the election.

It is clear too that once again the Republican Party is the “white party” in the US, as given the near-Depression economic meltdown and extremely failed Republican presidency (worst since 1920s?) whites should overwhelmingly favor a more liberal (even socialist) interventionist party right now, like they almost certainly would in most European countries. Why is there such a reluctance among the majority of white men to support Senator Obama? The white racial frame?

Crisis of Capitalism, Opportunity for Racial Equality?

It seems that each day brings worse and worse news about the economy, but this crisis of capitalism may just be an opportunity we need for solving a number of ongoing social problems, including racial inequality (image source).     In a recent post for the Huffington Post, former Senator Gary Hart suggests that the current financial disaster along with “a weakened Wall Street and a chastened conservative community” provides a unique opportunity for the next president to transform the U.S. economy and a “sober re-regulation of markets.”  Hart is insightful here when he writes:

But recreation of another Rooseveltian period of 1932 to 1940, with a new set of rules for intricate financial institutions, is not enough. We must transform our economy from one of consumption to one of production, invest much more heavily in new technologies, research, and invention, and start the process of creating a post-carbon economy. The current wreckage must not simply be put back together to recreate the old economy. It must be pushed out of the way to make space for a new, 21st century economy.

The same may be said for foreign policy. Merely returning to the pre-Bush status quo will not work because the new century features a host of new realities: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the rise of stateless nations; the threat of pandemics; failed and failing states; mass south-north migrations; climate change; globalized economics; and the list continues. An Obama administration will have responsibility for repairing damaged traditional relations. But it will also have the opportunity to create a new round of international institution-building that includes international financial regulation and cooperation, international administration of a post-Kyoto treaty, reduction in nuclear weapons, integration of public health services, and so on. Our new foreign policy should be patterned on the immensely creative 1945 to 1948 Truman era.

And when troops and equipment are returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, our military should not merely be “re-set”, the Washington code word for rebuilding the Cold War military. Our defenses in the new century must acknowledge the transformation of war and the changing nature of conflict which will require new military structures, command and control systems, and even weapons themselves.

I heartily agree with this assessment and am disappointed that there’s not more of this kind of rhetoric coming from the Obama campaign (but, I get the political reality of just-getting-elected).   I’d also suggest that Hart doesn’t go far enough.   While the national and international leaders are trying to figure out how to clean up the detritus from the party of greed and excess that the capitalists threw for themselves, this is a moment of great possibility for thinking in new ways about old problems.    Some months ago, I wrote here about racism, suburban sprawl and what it might be like to imagine a green future.   The disaster in the financial markets is, in many ways, deeply tied to the idea of suburban sprawl and the “American lifestyle” which is doomed.  And, now that ultimately unworkable style of living is, to hear some tell it, unraveling.    I don’t disagree.   And, added to that noxious mix of an economic boom squandered is one of the oldest problems in the U.S.:  racial inequality interwoven with economic disparities.  The combination of these two systems of oppression create all sorts of other havoc in people’s lives.

Yet, even as all the forecasts for the U.S. economy look dour, I’m feeling uncharacteristically… well, not officially optimistic…. but at least mildly hopeful.  It seems to me that there’s kind of a perfect storm of bad, even cataclysmic, events happening at once that just make real change possible.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this is the moment where people get together and force their leaders to make real changes – as Hart suggests – in shifting away from a carbon-based economy to one that’s based on clean energy.   Perhaps people will get together and force their leaders to invest in education, green jobs, and re-builing the infrastructure, rather than in foreign wars to support our dependence on oil.  Perhaps, just perhaps, this is the moment that people can get together and demand more reform like the Green Jobs Act of 2007, which will make $120 million a year available across the country to begin training workers (and would-be workers) for jobs in the clean energy sector.   Van Jones describes the benefits of this best when he writes:

At their best, green-collar jobs offer living wages and upward mobility — in growth industries. And most of these jobs simply cannot be outsourced to other countries. The reason is simple: the solar panels and wind farms must be constructed here in the United States, not overseas. And the millions and millions of buildings that need to be retrofitted to save more energy cannot be shipped over to China. They all must be weatherized where they stand — right here in the United States.

Therefore, green-collar jobs can provide secure employment for U.S. workers.

The key is to make sure that those people who most need the jobs — urban youth, returning veterans, struggling farmers, displaced workers from our manufacturing sectors — can get all the training they need to fill those posts.

The allocation for this ($120 million) now seems like a tiny amount now (compared to the $700 billion devoted to the economic bailout of Wall Street), but this kind of innovative thinking may just be one of the pathways out of the current mess.  And, if we could ensure that these kinds of programs actually helped those most in need of jobs, it might go a long way to ameliorating economic and racial inequality.    Unfortunately, neither of the presidential candidates is suggesting anything quite this innovative.   The fact is the people will have to lead on this, and that is long overdue.