Whitewashing the Election Results?

As you’ve probably heard or read about by now, many commentators and analysts (see here) have announced that there was no evidence of a “Bradley Effect” (or more accurately called the “white racism” effect). Obama’s victory was indeed monumental, and more whites supported him than John Kerry in 2004. Pollsters like Blumenthal at Pollster.com have declared the results “unambiguous” in the rejection of any Bradley Effect. Still, there were 22% of U.S. counties that increased their vote for Republican John McCain, and they are concentrated in places like my home state, Arkansas (see here). Obama actually did ten points worse among white women than John Kerry did in 2004. Some I’ve talked to here think that was due to a “Hillary Effect,” but I don’t buy that, given her endorsement and campaigning for him, as well as their policy similarities. See the following table, which breaks down the white votes for states in the southern/southeastern U.S. (McCain’s percent is listed first in each category):


AL —– 88-9—– 88-12—– 88-10

AR —– 68-30—– 67-31—– 68-30

FL—– 55-42—– 57-42—– 56-42

GA—– 78-21—– 74-26—– 76-23

KY—– 64-34—– 63-36—– 63-36

LA—– 83-16—– 85-13—– 84-14

MS—– 90-9—– 87-13—– 88-11

SC—– 76-23—– 70-29—– 73-26

TN—– 64-31—– 63-36—– 63-34

As Blumenthal has noted, it’s difficult to tell if the Bradley Effect was a factor in these states, since so few polls were taken in these states—being considered safe states for McCain quite early during the cycle. However, the few polls I have reviewed do suggest that white support was higher in the polls than what occurred on Election Day. But regardless whether the Bradley Effect was involved or not, what explains such overwhelming support of McCain over Obama in these states? I think that there is a whitewash in effect for yet another slice (certainly an important one) of U.S. history, in which powerful whites interpret an event that credits whites for its successes (while often marginalizing nonwhites for the successes or even demonizing nonwhites for the failures; see the Prop 8 coverage, as Jessie discussed or atfor example ).

Obama’s victory in Florida, for example, was essentially due to his support from Latino/a voters. Second, I think there is yet another attempted denial of white racism, still alive and well in our society. This election certainly presented us evidence of regional—as well as generational, educational, community type, etc.—differences among whites and how it affects their voting patterns. White denials of racism require selective consciousness and attention to events. Now we have to listen to commentators discuss the “end of racism,” despite the evidence in the data that it indeed persists.

(Note from Joe: also see the correlational analysis by Charles Franklin of the black vote versus the total white vote. He concludes thus:

There is considerable variation in the percentage of whites who voted for Obama. Where African Americans made up less than 20% of the vote (according to exit polls), whites varied from 30% to 60% in their support for Obama but with no relationship to the size of the African American vote. As the African American electorate rose above 20%, white support for Obama fell sharply to barely 10%.


Racist Murder of “Mexican” Marcello Lucero

There is a vigil and protest tonight in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, to mark the gang of seven white teenage boys murdered Marcello Lucero, because they wanted to go get a “a mexican.”  Marcello Lucero was, in fact, an immigrant from Ecuador.  Lucero, 37, was a gifted athlete who moved to America 16 years ago seeking a better life.

The seven racist white boys drove around searching for victims and found Lucero and another Ecuadorian man near the Long Island Railroad station. The white boys jumped out of the car and cornered the two men on the street, stabbing Lucero to death in a brutal attack.  The other man escaped and was able to idenfity the attackers.

The murder – lynching, even – of Lucero, follows months of racist, anti-immigration agitation by whites in Suffolk County.  The teens accused of the attack were all from Farmingville, the epicenter of anti-immigrant organizing on Long Island. Farmingville first gained national attention in 2000 when two young men abducted a pair of Mexican day laborers and beat them nearly to death.   Farmingville made headlines again a few years later when five high school students burned down the house of a Mexican family, who barely escaped with their lives.   That racists are unable to, or perhaps unwilling to, distinguish between someone who is Mexican and someone who is Ecuadoran, speaks to the vast well of ignorance that fuels white supremacy.  Yet, I wonder if it’s not time to revisit the acceptably white-liberal terms of “Latino” and “Hispanic” as they perhaps provide cover for better-educated versions of the same inability and unwillingness to distinguish between people of different cultural backgrounds (as the photo of this man’s t-shirt suggests).

The New York Times reports on this story today and does a decent job of describing some of the social context for this murder.  According to the Times,  the attack against Mr. Lucero, if not his murder, was foretold:

Some report being threatened and physically harassed in the streets, with bottles thrown at them and their car windows smashed during the night. Anti-immigrant epithets and racially motivated bullying are common in the hallways of the schools, children say. “They tell us to go get a green card, ‘Go back to your community!’ ” said Pamela Guncay, 14, an Ecuadorean-American born in the United States.

From my perspective, what’s most telling in the Times article are a couple of lines near the bottom, which read:

Since Mr. Lucero’s death, local officials have almost universally played down any suggestion that ethnic and racial tension had been prevalent in the community. Nonetheless, local, county and state officials have responded to the killing with various plans, including the introduction of sensitivity task forces, outreach programs in the Latino community and community forums.

This cognitive dissonance – and the actual distance –  between these two points of approaches to a racist murder suggest a great deal about where we are at this moment socially and culturally around racism.  In this instance, there is, in the present tense,  a racist murder committed by young white boys in the affluent, suburban, north-eastern U.S.  In response, “local officials” play down the idea that there is persistent racism in the community; one community leader even called it a “reminder” of the “saddest page in our history.”    At the same time, activists are pushing those same officials to respond to the racist murder in various ways.     This conflicted mix – of murderous, overt racism, along side denial of racism on the one hand, and pressure to act on the other hand – is characteristic of what we are faced with at this particular moment in the U.S. if we wish to address racism.

If you want to do something to get involved in the action in support of Lucero’s family and in solidarity against the racist murderers, organizers are asking that you do the following:

Please send this to everyone you know far and wide, including those in New York. Tell them you’re taking a stand with us. The second thing I ask is to visit our blog, www.longislandwins.com and leave messages of support for Marcello Lucero’s family and the people in New York who are coming to support them in this difficult time. Take pictures with signs of support. Show the Lucero family that there are loving and caring strangers in this world. Show Suffolk County politicians that the whole world is watching.

Racism, as it turns out, is not over.

Blatantly Racist Responses to Obama’s Victory

The Vanity Fair website has a short article by Bill Bradley (H/T. Jessie) listing probable racist incidents across the country, especially in the smaller cities and rural areas. These are of the white supremacist type and come from many different sources, such as these (they list others):

In Midland, Michigan a man paraded through an intersection in a KKK robe. [MLive]

A noose was hung from a tree at Baylor University. [Baylor Lariat]

In Loxahatchee, Florida, a family home was covered in racist graffiti. [WPTV.com]

In Stokes County, N.C., a man crossed his flag with a black X and hung it upside down. [Winston-Salem Journal]

In Apolacon Township, Pennsylvania an interracial couple who supported Obama found a burned cross in their yard. [Star-Gazette]

In Mount Desert Island, Maine black effigies were hung from nooses. [Bangor Daily News]

Will these incidents increase over the next year? There certainly is a lot of violent talk on various open websites across the web. And why do mainstream media ignore often violence-oriented white supremacist stuff? Clearly, this racist outburst does not fit their “ending of racism” and “healing the racial divide” versions of the white racial frame.

The derelict mainstream media also mostly ignore the data showing landslide votes against Senator Obama in states like Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Georgia and much of the South among whites, especially white men. (Only nine percent of white male voters there voted for Obama; some 90 percent voted for McCain!) Why so few votes for Obama from white workers in much of the South, many of whom have economic interests in line with Obama’s economic plans?

The Washington Post accents this meme:

Can he be not only the president of the United States but also the racial healer that many in the country clearly believe him to be? It’s a tough task for one man.

Tough, indeed. In spite of such media implications and explicit calls for Obama to “heal the racial divide,” Obama’s election along obviously cannot end blatant white racism–or the much more common covert and subtle white racism that is everyday-ness across the United States. Only aggressive civil rights law enforcement (which would be new for this country) and continuing antiracist organization has a chance of doing that. And that does require national awareness of it, and attention to it.

Racism (and other issues) among Gay Marriage Supporters

My joy at the news of last week’s presidential election was quickly deflated as I learned about the passage of Proposition 8 in California and a number of other anti-gay measures around the nation.   What’s particularly heartbreaking to me personally  (as a member of the LGBTQ community) is that alongside the legitimate anger this defeat has prompted (image of some of that anger from here), it’s also generated some racist name-calling in street protests as well as some much more measured and supposedly reasonable race-baiting by prominent white gay writers, like Dan Savage.

What writers like Savage and Andrew Sullivan and other relatively privileged white gay men fail to understand is that supposedly single-issue propositions, like Prop 8, are still embedded in larger systems of inequality that have to be at least partially addressed with voters in what we’re calling “the ground game” now.  Worse still, they are actively scapegoating black people for this defeat.   The defeat of Prop 8 and the other ballot measures last Tuesday at the same time that our first African American president succeeded, is clear evidence to me that gay marriage organizers failed at the ground game.    Let me break it down.

White LGBT folk need to learn about race and racism, especially their own. There’s just no excuse for rally-goers at a No on 8 rally dropping the N-bomb on black people, and the fact that these particular black people happened to also be gay and carrying “No on 8” signs makes the whole thing even more absurd and inexcusable.   In addition to that kind of overt racism (which, I thought we were over and was a myth anyway, but I digress) is just part of what LGBT white folks need to educate themselves about.  While some prominent white queer people have denounced overt racism, they could also stand to learn a little about inclusion.   According to Daily Voice blogger Rod McCollum, there was not one black LGBT couple in any of the “no on 8” ads.  Not one.

Beyond stopping overt racism, and learning about inclusion, white LGBT folk need to get much, much smarter about race.   For those just beginning to think about race in the marriage equality movement, let me recommend this Open Letter to White Activists by laura.fo is a good starting point (hat tip: Lizhenry via Twitter).  Included in her list are the following:

1) Think about the way you use civil rights imagery; 2) Think about you talk about “sex” and “freedom” ; 3) Think about how you talk about Black churches…

And, further down her list, “Stop assuming Black support.” To anyone that’s thought critically about race, there’s often a cringe-worthy quality to the rhetoric of the gay-marriage movement in the thoughtless appropriation of civil rights rhetoric while simultaneously assuming Black support and disparaging church folk (more about which, in a moment).  This is not a winning strategy.

The scapegoating of black people for the failure of Prop 8 assumes that black people are more homophobic than white people.   Terence, writing at Pam’s House Blend, has a long and incredibly insightful piece in which he argues that, in fact, blacks are more homophobic than whites because of a long history of having their own sexuality “queered” by the racial oppression of our society.    This is similar to an argument that Michael Eric Dyson makes (who is cited in the post) and an argument that Patricia Hill Collins makes in Black Sexual Politics.

Yet, such claims are flawed to the extent that they erase the lives of black and brown LGBT folk.    In a statement by Dean Spade and Craig Willse titled, “I Still Think Marriage is the Wrong Goal,” (hat tip Julie Netherland) the authors write about the move to blame black folks for the failure of Prop 8:

“Beneath this claim is an uninterrogated idea that people of color are “more homophobic” than white people. Such an idea equates gayness with whiteness and erases the lives of LGBT people of color. It also erases and marginalizes the enduring radical work of LGBT people of color organizing that has prioritized the most vulnerable members of our communities.

Current conversations about Prop 8 hide how the same-sex marriage battle has been part of a conservative gay politics that de-prioritizes people of color, poor people, trans people, women, immigrants, prisoners and people with disabilities. Why isn’t Prop 8’s passage framed as evidence of the mainstream gay agenda’s failure to ally with people of color on issues that are central to racial and economic justice in the US?”

I heartily agree with the authors’ re-frame of the failure of Prop 8.  The mainstream gay political movement has failed to do the hardwork of coalition building with people of color, whether straight or LGBT.  While I’m not prepared to argue that gay marriage is inherently racist as some do (download pdf), I do think the fight for marriage equality has got to re-think it’s white-led agenda and connect to broader social justice goals in order to be successful.

Class and gay marriage. When people in the marriage equality movement frame their struggle exclusively in terms of “rights and benefits,” they unconsciously adopt a class-based rhetoric that excludes many potential allies, including straight people across races and LGBT people across classes.   It’s hard to know how marriage equality “benefits” should resonate as an issue with poor and working-class straight or queer people who often work in jobs that have no benefits.  While it’s tragic and wrong when, for example, a terminally-ill lesbian cop in NJ is not able to give her partner the death benefits that she would receive if her partner had been a man, these are not the working-class images we typically see in the struggle for marriage equality. (Although, given NJ’s recent history with racial profiling by state police, one wonders about the wisdom of a cop as an example that’s supposed to a resonate for people of color who are the target of polic brutality.)   A more radical – and racially diverse – approach advocated by the organization Queers for Economic Justice includes an effort to expand the dialogue on marriage equality to make benefits available whether or not one is married.  

Gender, race and “normal” families. Advocates for gay marriage need to check their gender politics.  For women who came to feminist consciousness in a certain era, marriage is and remains a repressive patriarchal institution based on the transfer of women-as-property. Hence, the battle to be “allowed in” to marriage is similar to the battle to be “allowed to” serve in the military, in which the ultimate prize of acceptance is a dubious goal.  Thus, it’s not surprising to see this movement as a largely (white)male-led movement.   Still, I’m enough of a sociologist to recognize that marriage is the primary way that our society recognizes people as adults, as citizens, and as human beings.  So, by denying an entire group of people the right to marry it really is denying them (us) a basic, fundamental human right.  

But the movement for gay marriage, and indeed much of the scholarship on this issue, is framed in terms of assimilation and acceptance as “normal families” rather than in terms of human rights.  The “normal family” is a central feature of the white racial frame as in the “virtuous white Ozzie and Harriet family.”  This is an unfortunate strategy as it excludes the large number of the population that do not live in such an arrangement and the possibly larger number that have no desire to do so.

Still, this is a powerful narrative in our culture and it is has taken on a noticeably racial inflection at this moment.    The idealized image of the “normal” Obama family is part of what got Barack Obama elected.  And, indeed, the image of Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha counters age-old racist stereotypes about negligent black fathers and irresponsible black mothers.   A recent article in The New York Times explicitly connects the success of the real-life Obama to the fictional “Huxtables” created by Bill Cosby (and indeed, The NYTimes article credits the show, at least in part, with Obama’s success).   This idealized family image of the Obama/Huxtable family is one that requires a particular heteronormative gender performance from all the participants.  After all, the Huxtables are variations on the “virtuous white Ozzie and Harriet family” of the white racial frame which was front and center in this election.  Any deviation from the Ozzie-and-Harriet model by the Obamas was severly punished (yet, the McCain’s numerous steps outside this went largely unremarked upon).   For example, Michelle Obama/Mom got in trouble for being too assertive,  Barack Obama/Dad was lauded when he attacked black men as irresponsible, and their daughters must dress and act appropriately “girl-like”  (hat tip to Joe for this insight).   What white gay marriage advocates seem to encourage looks and sounds a lot like assimilation into that heteronormative model of the family.  A movement that emphasized social justice and human rights would allow for and celebrate a range of expressions of gender and sexuality rather than conformity to a particularly narrow conceptualization of what constitutes a family.

Religion, race and gay marriage. Advocates for gay marriage need to work on their religious intolerance (image from here.)  The Mormon church and others on the religious right funded the political campaign to take away marriage rights in California, following on a long history of religious-sponsored vicious hatred toward LGBT people.  Understandably, many LGBT people have no patience with religious arguments intended to undermine our rights.  Yet, for many people, including black people and LGBT folk, the church is the central social institution.  As Joe pointed out recently, most churches are still among the most racially segregated institutions we participate in.  Given the fact that marriage is both a religious rite (as well as a human right) that is being defended by religious people in racially-segregated congregations means that those interested in marriage equality need a ground game that engages, rather than alienates, church folk and does so with a real awareness of racial issues.  The “No on 8” graffiti that appeared on several churches (as pictured above) following the defeat last week is not the way to win supporters.   The rhetoric of gay marriage supporters that polarizes “black churches” and all religious folks as diamterically opposed to “gay supporters of No on 8” keeps both sides locked in a symbiotic relationship in which each side significantly affects the evolution of its counterpart, as Tina Fetner explains in her new book.   Such dichotomous, either/or, views of marriage equality ignore the fact that it’s religious LGBT folk who have been pioneers in the movement.

I agree with Jasmyne Cannick who writes that: 

“Black gays are depending on their white counterparts to finally ‘get it.’  Until then, don’t expect to make any inroads any time soon in the black community on this issue — including with this black lesbian.”

And, for this anti-racist white lesbian, I’m not so interested in a marriage equality movement that fails to “get it” about race.  What gay marriage supporters must do if they hope to win on this issue is to address the deeply intertwined politics of race, class, gender and religion in ways that frame marriage equality as an important human rights issue that other people should care about rather than a luxury denied already privileged white gay men.

Media Denials of Racism: Sad Reactions to a Great Victory

Well, as predicted numerous white and other pundits in the mass media are using this election to do what they do best–that is to deny that there is still significant U.S. racism. The Wall Street Journal even calls on Obama to lead this effort:

While Mr. Obama lost among white voters, as most modern Democrats do, his success is due in part to the fact that he also muted any politics of racial grievance. We have had in recent years two black Secretaries of State, black CEOs of our largest corporations, black Governors and Generals — and now we will have a President. One promise of his victory is that perhaps we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country. Mr. Obama has a special obligation to help do so.

The intensity of this white denial should be a dead giveaway that there is something going on just beneath the surface, like the continuing white-racist framing of society and discriminatory actions. (And the irony is lost on the writer too, as he/she admits that whites did not vote in the majority for Obama.) Even as African Americans are collectively celebrating a great victory against U.S. racism—one they can best understand and feel–only a minority of whites are also celebrating the victory (and usually with a different historical experience to bring to that celebration) and numerous whites in media are denying now that there is any significant racism left.

However, against this backdrop, a summer 2008 USA Today/Gallup poll of nearly 2000 adults finds that even a bare majority (51 percent) of white Americans still admit there is widespread racial discrimination targeting African Americans. The proportions among Americans of color agreeing there is widespread discrimination against African Americans are substantially higher– some 59 percent of Latinos and 78 percent of black Americans. The report notes

Americans also see racial discrimination as a major or minor factor in four specific problems facing the black community — lower average education levels for U.S. blacks, lower average income levels for U.S. blacks, lower average life expectancies for blacks, and a higher percentage of blacks serving time in U.S. prisons.

Not surprisingly, thus,

On all four issues, blacks are more likely than whites and Hispanics to see racial discrimination as a major factor. In fact, a majority of blacks say racial discrimination is a major reason each problem is occurring. Whites are more inclined to view racial discrimination as a minor reason in three of the four areas, but a plurality of 44% of whites believe it is a major factor in higher prison rates for blacks.

Assessing the implications, Gallup can only manage to add this:

As on most issues involving race in the United States, blacks are much more likely to see racism as a problem than are whites.

Could it be because they are daily targets of subtle, blatant, and covert racial discrimination? How quaint and feeble is this Gallup analysis? And Gallup finishes up, like most such assessments, with an optimistic and also quaint note:

However, other questions in the poll showed that Americans remain optimistic that race relations could improve, if Americans could hold an open national dialogue on race and if Barack Obama were elected as the first black president. (I blogged on some of these optimism items this summer.)

At least the latter happened. Now is there any chance for a national dialogue on race? Probably not. And it is indeed time for the media pundits like those at the WSJ to start paying attention to the empirical data like the large Gallup poll: Even a bare majority of whites think racial discrimination is still a serious problem in the United States.

I, Too, Sing America: A Different Perspective on Obama

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.
–Langston Hughes

Like Jessie, I too have been overwhelmed by Obama’s victory.  I’ve been uplifted every day this week simply by thinking to myself, “We have a black president-elect” (image from here).

My background is very different from Jessie’s. I grew up in North Carolina in the 1980s, a beneficiary of the gains made during the Civil Rights movement. However, coming of age in the post-Civil Rights south was hardly idyllic. I never had to integrate any lunch counters, buses, or schools, but even without the structural machinations of legal segregation in place, racism was still manifest and evident. Whites still found a way to make it clear that while we could now use the same facilities and attend the same schools, in no way did they consider us equal. By the time I was eight I knew that the Klan still existed and was acutely aware of my (black) family’s relative vulnerability. Around age ten I remember noticing a pattern of whites getting better treatment than people of color in restaurants and stores. By thirteen, I had developed what C. Wright Mills would call a “sociological imagination” when it came to assessing issues of race and inequality. At fifteen, I discovered sociology and decided on the career path that would help me make sense of and name many of the things I’d seen growing up.

Being aware of these things so early on meant that by the time I reached adulthood, regular issues with racism and discrimination simply became par for the course. At age twenty four, when I went to view an apartment and the potential landlord visibly blanched when she saw me and grabbed her purse with one hand and her young daughter’s hand with the other, it didn’t faze me. I just decided not to bother calling her about an application. At twenty one , when my dad and I were driving through Virginia and he got pulled over for speeding, I didn’t stop to think about how sad it was that my immediate reaction was a paralyzing fear that the traffic stop could end with some cruel  humiliation or him being hurt. I just considered us both lucky that he was released with only a ticket.  When I was nineteen and my mom showed me the anonymous letter someone left in her mailbox that described the ways “people of color” (not the term they used) were all drug addicts and welfare mothers who were taking over a white country, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t have much of a reaction.

My point here is that if you grow up in this country as a black American, too often these things become part of the fabric of everyday life. They become so commonplace and regular that it’s not hard to become desensitized to them, which in a way, is the worst part of racism. You think to yourself, well, today, I’ll get dressed and meet friends for lunch, but I’ll need to allow extra time for the subway since cabdrivers won’t stop for me, and I’ll have to make sure I tip the waitress well to do my part to offset the stereotype that black people won’t tip, and so on…just another day. To borrow a phrase from Thomas Shapiro, these are some of the other hidden costs of being African American.

This is the context in which I followed Obama’s path in the primary and the general election. Black people know well that in this country we are routinely devalued, marginalized, and subordinated in a myriad of different ways. There are the overt and horrific (think James Byrd, Jr. of Jasper, Texas) and the subtle and easily-overlooked (see the ABC Prime Time Live segment “True Colors”). But part of being black in America means confronting and coping with the consistent message that you still aren’t equal, don’t belong, and often can’t expect to be treated with basic human dignity. This is why none of the black people with whom I spoke were completely confident Obama would win, despite the poll numbers, inconsistent McCain campaign, and tanking economy. We know what it means when race pushes you to the margins of society. When black people of all ages say emphatically, “I never thought I would live to see this day,” to me, that speaks to the recognition we all have of how regular experiences with racism take a toll on us, shaping our expectations and our lives.

When I saw “Barack Obama Elected President” flash across the bottom of my TV screen, it brought up all the feelings and thoughts I’ve been describing here. It made me fully aware of how often being black means coping with daily onslaughts, being excluded from the political process, and being forced into “outsider within” status. It made me aware of these things by contrast, because—like Michelle Obama–for the first time in my life, I felt included. The glass ceiling had been broken. For the first time ever in this country, someone who looked like me, who could relate to my experiences, would be occupying the nation’s highest office. When I saw other black people on TV sobbing or even just tearing up, I knew what they felt because it was in me too. We experience so much negativity, pain, and oppression in this country that sometimes we don’t even notice it. In this context, Obama’s win meant so much to all of us because it was a welcome shift from the exclusion and hostility that characterize much of our basic experience as black people in America.

I do not want this to be misread as a statement that if only black people believed in ourselves, we could defeat racism and accomplish any goals. This is not what I’m saying, and such a statement is shortsighted and profoundly factually inaccurate.  All of the racial issues (prison industrial complex, health care inequities, educational disparities, economic and wealth inequality, and more) that we write about on this blog are still happening and won’t disappear just because we have a black president. But I predict that the success of President-elect Barack Obama will have a long-lasting and meaningful effect for many, but for Black Americans in particular. It provides a bright spot in an otherwise often bleak sea of inequity. On November 4, we too sang America.

What Obama Means to Me: A Personal Note

I don’t know about you, but I’m still periodically crying in celebration and relief at the news of an Obama presidency.    I feel as if something that I can’t yet name has broken loose, and I think it’s important to continue to mark this celebratory moment and talk very specifically about what it means and why it’s important.   I have a video clip of an election night montage, including part of Obama’s acceptance speech, saved to my iPhone and it makes me cry every time I watch it, and I’ve watched it every day since Tuesday.  I watched it riding the 6 train to Union Square yesterday and cried all over again, sitting there among all those strangers (image from here).   I have no intention of deleting it.   At some point, I’m sure the impact of this important symbolism will fade a bit, but it certainly hasn’t yet.

Part of why the election of Obama as president is meaningful for me is that it marks some significant distance traveled in my lifetime.   I was born in the same year as Barack Obama, 1961, but to parents who existed on the other side of a vast racial chasm from his parents.   Indeed, my parents in South Texas would have seen the union of Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. as evidence of all that was wrong with the world at that time.   And, the birth of Barack would have illicited – at best – some “tsk,tsk,tsk’s” from my parents about the “tragedy of a mulatto child” who would have to bear the mark of his parents’ thoughtless act of bringing him into the world.   I could easily imagine any of my grandparents, all four of whom were still alive in 1961 (and one of whom had been a KKK member in the 1920s), talking casually about the murder of an African man who had married a white woman, or their interrracial child, as part of what would set the world right again.  I can easily imagine my parents agreeing with them, if not initiating that conversation.   I can imagine these things because I heard similar conversations growing up about black leaders of the day; vile racist messages were the stuff of easy dinner conversation where I grew up.   And, on Tuesday I, along with millions of others, voted for Obama and danced in the street in Harlem in celebration.

So, what accounts for this distance traveled?  As I said, this is a personal note, so for me the distance traveled is about a “life-long struggle with the notion of white superiority” as one reviewer wrote about my work (Van Ausdale, Social Forces, September, 1998).  Those early dinner conversations about race were part of what spurred me to study race and racism in graduate school.   One of the most powerful experiences I had in the process of unlearning racism was working on Joe’s book (with Melvin Sykes), Living with Racism.  As part of work as a research assistant, I transcribed all the interviews in that book.  When I sat down to begin that work, I had moved away from the views of my parents and shared the views of most of my white liberal friends that racism was a bad thing but that it was an anomaly, and that charges of racism by blacks were either “exaggeration” or looking for grievance based on historically distant acts.  As I began listening to the recordings of middle-class black Americans talk about their daily experiences of racism, I initially objected to what I was hearing and wanted to take exception with the respondents in that study.   But the reality of the transcribing task is that you listen, carefully, and write down every word.  And, so I listened.  Carefully.  Noting each word.   Eventually, I learned to stop objecting and just listen.   After transcribing more than 200 hour-long interviews, I was a different person.   What I heard were people who were not “exaggerating” about racism, but rather often tried to minimize it.  The people in these interviews had learned really effective, often elaborate, coping skills for how to deal with something that was just a reality in their lives.   And, all of the people in the study were far more accomplished (in terms of education, occupation and income) than anyone in my family despite all the barriers that they had faced.   That experience of deep listening radicalized me.

In the preface to my first book (here), I wrote some about what my particular standpoint at the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality has meant for my own work on white supremacy.  What I couldn’t know then is that writing that preface would cost me.   After I wrote that, I sent it to my father (my mother had died by then).    When my father read the preface, he reacted badly which is to vastly undrestate the case.  He tried to stop the publication of that book, tried to have me locked up, and we never spoke to me again.   (He died two years later in an industrial accident.) The fact is speaking out about racism, and in particular the lineage of racism in my family and connecting that to the larger story of white supremacy in American culture, was seen as a deep betrayal by my father.  I was supposed to uphold white supremacy, not call it out for the lie that it is.   It was about this same time that I also changed my name – from the one my father, and his father the Klan-member gave me – to one that reflected the anti-racist tradition I wanted to claim instead.  As my new namesake, I chose Jessie Daniel Ames, the white woman anti-lynching activist who founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.   For me, an Obama presidency represents an important symbolic shift in the legacy of white supremacy that has shaped my own life and has been the inheritance of this nation.

I don’t mean to exaggerate the racial progress that is represented by one black man being elected president.  As if “one black man could make it as a president, Katrina didn’t *really* happen just years ago,” as BFP cogently observed.  Yet, it still makes me cry tears of joy and relief, in part because it’s taken so very long.

Today, I write critically about race here and in academic publications, I teach in an institution that serves predominantly non-white, first-generation college students, I’m a member of a multiracial congregation, and there are beautiful biracial kids in my family.   None of this happened by accident, by being “color blind,” or as the result of some inevitable march toward “progress.”   The distance that I’ve traveled from being the daughter of ardent segregationists to being an anti-racist activist is one that is marked by intentionality.  I set out to learn about race and unlearn my own racism, and in the process, engage others in that process as well.   There’s a lot more work to be done on my own individual racism and on institutional racism, such as the school-to-prison pipeline that continues to operate unabated.

While some delusional commentators will mark this moment by declaring that racism never existed, others are offering much more nuanced examinations of what this election means, and how we might expand and continue the work of examining racism in an Obama-era.  The hope I have for an Obama presidency is that this is the beginning of widening that circle to include more people in thinking critically about race and taking action against racism, both individual and institutionalized.   For now, I’ll continue to get deep joy from knowing that after four hundred years we finally have a black president.

Supposedly We Now Live in a “Post-Racial” Society?

I was looking for news clips to show to my Race and Ethnicity class today and I remembered that a friend of mine had told me about some of Karl Rove’s comments during Tuesday’s election results on Fox News. Listening to them today, he does have a few positives to share about what these results mean…that is before he compares the Obama family to the Cosby show by saying “Well look, we’ve had an African American first family for many years in different forms. You know, when the Cosby show was on, it wasn’t a black family, it was an American family.” While that alone is worthy of a blog post, what was also concerning to me was a comment Rove made before that. He was asked, as a “realistic political analyst,” to talk about the degree of color-blindness in our country:

I think particularly among younger people, they are color-blind. Uh, you know, older people, people who grew up and remember the 60s and remember the 50s and the 40s and the 70s, they to varying degrees remain observant of the color of, of the color break in America. But you go on a college campus or you go be around younger people, and they are “post-racial.” You know, and just, the idea of race very rarely enters into their thinking.

While I think many of us will agree that things have changed in some positive ways since the 60s and that this election has been historic in a number of ways, I’m not sure anyone is ready to say that first of all, we live in a society where race isn’t a factor anymore and second that young people don’t think about race anymore. Rove’s comments seem to imply that once older generations pass on, everything will be fine in terms of race, because young people just aren’t thinking about it. In my research talking with Latino undergraduate students, I found instead that for many of them, race continues to be a salient issue on their campuses.

A student at Southern University talked about how some major racial incident seemed to come up on his campus a few times a month when I spoke with him in the Fall of 2006.

This is my 7th semester here. In all my semesters, I’ve never seen like racial tensions like I have right now. (Oh really? What’s going now?)…Like students in the law school had like a ghetto party. They dressed up as stereotypically hip-hop clothing, and they wore like nameplates of stereotypically black and Latino last names. Um, there was a black face incident during Halloween where a couple of students took some pictures and they posted them online on facebook.com. It was a couple of members from a historically white fraternity… Even I mean yesterday the Young Conservatives had an Affirmative Action bake sale…like their own way of protesting the affirmative action policies in this country…I mean…usually like every semester like one or two big things happen, like at the most, but this semester its literally been like one or two big things every month. (“Southern University” Latino Male, 22)

His statement, as well as the comments of others on this campus indicate that race in the thinking of young, white students on college campuses. And it’s not only in their thinking, but it is evident in their racist actions on this campus. Incidents like this one demonstrate that racism is still alive and well on college campuses.

Another student at Southern University talks about an encounter she had with some white students before a football game. Again, we see that the whites racialized the situation in a way that would indicate that they are not free from prejudice:

I just have heard and I got the taste of a kid, of boys came in for the “Southern Tech”- “Southern University” game and uh, we were listening to Shakira, some friends of mine. There was another Hispanic girl in the front seat with me and then a Bosnian girl in the backseat…But we were having so much fun and we needed to sell our tickets and so these guys had their windows open. And we asked “Hey, do you guys want a ticket?… And they said “Oh, we don’t speak Spanish.” And at first I was I like, “What did he mean by that? I wasn’t, did I speak Spanish?” Because I don’t normally speak Spanish. And then I was like “Oh, oh…that still happens? Like, people still are like that?” And so it was just kind of, I was taken aback. And my friend started crying actually. But I was just like, I didn’t realize that still happened nowadays. ( “Southern University” Latina Female 23)

When this woman asked in English if the men in the car next to her needed tickets, they immediately racialized the interaction by informing her that they don’t speak Spanish. The Latina students were shocked and hurt by this reaction. Perhaps initially they thought things were more positive between the races, as Rove seems to think, and then were disappointed and discouraged to find out that, in fact, these incidents still happen.
These incidents were not isolated to just Southern University, so we can’t make the claim that somehow racism only exists in the South. In fact, on each of the campuses (one in the South, one in the Southwest, and one in the Midwest), students faced discrimination when they spoke Spanish on campus. They faced assumptions that the only reason they were attending their university was because of Affirmative Action policies and not because of their own academic talents. One student talked about an experience he had a football game at Southwest University.

I was at a football game last week. . .And somebody said, one of the fraternity guys that were yelling “Immigration bus is here. It’s waiting for you. Get on it.” Even though [At the other players?] Yes, at [the other] players. “Juarez is not here. This isn’t Juarez.” They were calling them all sorts of bad things. . .And they were just being, real, real bad about it. Even though the make-up of [this] football team is hardly any Hispanics. . .And so it was kind of surprising to me that, why would you say such things? (“Southwest University” Latino Male 26)

Notably, Southwest University is almost 35% Latino and still this was the response of white students in the crowd. They heckled the other team by implying that because they were coming from a predominately Latino school. And ironically, whites were racializing a football team that was mostly white!
Even light-skinned Latinos who reveal their racial background faced discrimination:

You see the tone of their voice, how they look at you, what you’re gonna say. After they know that I’m Mexican and stuff, some are like “Oh that’s so cool,”. . .They’re like ‘Wow, you look Italian’ and I’m like ‘I’m 100 percent [Mexican]’. . .So they’re like ‘Wow’, a little bit shocked. They would not talk to me after that. And you feel it, but it’s their problem if they’re not accepting. ( “Midwest University” Latino Male 18 )

This student went on to say that sometimes whites respond that they feel like he lied to them by not revealing this information when they first met him. Somehow, he was under some obligation to reveal his racial background and by not doing so, he was being deceitful. So contrary to what Rove claims, college students are concerned about race in a variety of ways that are both overt and quite subtle. By proclaiming such things, Rove is distorting the reality of the pain that students of color face on a daily basis because of discrimination and mistreatment based on race. As these examples, and many more like them that I could have shared, demonstrate is that racism is not absent from our universities and college campuses or in the mind of white students. Our society has made history this week, but this does not mean we’re living in a “post-racial” utopia.

Voters of Color: Unsung Heroes of the 2008 Election

According to the CNN and ABC exit polls, white Americans overwhelmingly wanted John McCain to be the next US president. The white vote was lopsided for McCain at 55-43 percent. If the 2008 electorate had the same demographic character as any before about 1980 (that is being nearly 90 percent white), Senator John McCain would currently be the president-elect.

But as we know that did not happen, because the electorate this time was only 74 percent white, and those voters who were not white voted very heavily for Senator Obama. ABC News’ exit polls are reported this way, in terms of percentages for Obama/McCain:

White Americans: 43/55
Black Americans: 95/4
Latino Americans: 67/31
Asian Americans: 62/35
Other Americans: 66/31

Some high-density Asian American counties on the West Coast voted at even higher rates of 70 percent, and Shari’s (H/T) check of local sources on Native Americans reveals that their vote was lopsided too:

The Native American numbers I got from looking at the election returns in counties that have reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado [show] the range of the Obama spread was from 62 to 87 percent.

The role of voters of color in electing Senator Obama the next president is in my view one of the most important stories of this historic election, yet I have not seen serious mainstream media analysis of this and of what it means about the rise of a multiracial democracy and the decline of white political dominance in the United States. Why is this story not getting major attention? Perhaps it is because the white-controlled, intensively white-framed mass media are all caught up in declaring this to be a “post-racial” or “post-racist America.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Another obvious fact about this election, which has also gotten little play in the media, is the continuing reality of the Republican Party being mainly the “white party” of the United States. This party gets very few African American voters and does not get even 40 percent of any other group of color.

I have seen a little media commentary on whether the Republican “southern strategy” is still viable, but no discussion of the fact that such a term is only another racism-denying euphemism for what is in fact the “white southern strategy” or “white racist strategy” of the Republican Party. (It is correctly called these latter terms because some 20-40 percent of “southerners” are not white, depending on the area of the South.) Since the 1960s this Republican strategy has been a “white southern” strategy but almost no analysts in or outside the mainstream media are willing to call it by its correct name–just as they are unwilling to call the so-called “Bradley effect” by its correct name (either the “white racism effect” or the “whites-lying effect”). The Republican Party currently has no Black members in Congress or in other high elected offices, and none in high party leadership. It has only a very few (token) appointed officials in high office and has indeed shown no significant leadership on or commitment to civil rights enforcement issues since the 1960s. (For more, see here. ) It is indeed still the “white party,” as this election dramatically reveals and as even Howard Dean let slip in August this year.

“Ground Game” in PA: Anti-Racist Organizing

Pennsylvania has rather infamously been described as “Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in the middle.”  After Obama’s win, there’s a lot of armchair-quarterbacking going on, a good deal of it has to do with the “ground game,” which refers to those community-organizing strategies like knocking on doors, contacting people in person, by phone, and wherever they happen to be hanging out to engage them about the candidate.  As just one of dozens of examples, last night Jake Tapper of ABC was talking about Pennsylvania as “the big prize” for the Obama campaign.  In his on-air analysis, he suggested that the winning strategies of the campaign were focusing on economy and paying attention to the “ground game.”  Following Tapper’s analysis, ABC commentators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopolous agreed and went on to praise the Obama campaign for their “ground game.”   If you lift the hood and look at what this actually involved in those face-to-face and door-to-door conversations, it looks a lot like anti-racist organizing.

This American Life has an episode called, “The Ground Game” (from 10/24) that illustrates what I mean by this.  The segment called “Union Halls,” features the really admirable efforts of Richard Trumka (image from Wikipedia).   Here’s the description of the segment from the show’s website:

No one much likes to talk about it out loud, but everyone knows it’s true: There are a lot of people out there who say they won’t vote for Obama because he’s black. To fight this problem, Richard Trumka, secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, has been traveling around the country giving a speech to fellow union members. It ends with a plea: You must stand up, and deal with race directly. Talk about it. Producer Lisa Pollak spent a month hanging out with union members, eavesdropping on their conversations, to see if Trumka’s directive was working.

They way they’ve framed this story is interesting: “What no one much likes to talk about but everyone knows it’s true…” is that there’s racism.    True enough, “no one much likes to talk about it,” it’s part of why we maintain this blog.  And, less true, “everyone knows it’s true,” there seems to be a lot of protestations to the contrary (but that’s the subject for another post).   The seventeen-and-a-half-minute segment is worth listening to in full and you can listen to it here (link opens to the full length episode, this is “Act Three,” about 25 minutes in).   What you learn from listening to Trumka’s story, and the story of lost of union members who worked hard in the “ground game” confronting and cajoling people about their racism.  As a union leader, Trumka developed something of his own stump speech, that was an impassioned call to anti-racism for union members.    In that speech, Trumka is plainspoken about the racism he’s encountered:

“We can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there, a lot of them are good union people, who just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man.”

From my perspective, there has been – and continues to be – a great deal of “tap dancing” around the issue of racism, including discussion of the “ground game” that doesn’t explicitly acknowledge this kind of direct engagement with people’s racism (such as the ABC report above).  Another story that Trumka uses in his speech and that makes it into the radio segment linked above is this one:

“This woman walks up to me. I’d known her for a long time, and I ask her ‘Have you decided who you gonna vote for?’ ”

“There’s no way I’d ever vote for Barack Obama,” the woman responded.

Trumka said he pressed her as to why. First, she said it’s because Obama is “a Muslim.” Trumka responded that Obama is actually a Christian.

Then, she told him Obama never wears an American flag pin on his lapel. Trumka told her that, too, is false, then asked her why she wasn’t wearing one if that is such an important issue.

Trumka said he continued to push, until “her eyes dropped down and she said to me, ‘Well, he’s a black man.’ ”

Trumka said he told her to look around at their town, the mining community where they both had lived for so long. “And I said to her, ‘This town is dying — literally dying.’ ”

“Our kids are moving away because there’s no future here,” Trumka said in the United Steelworkers convention address. “And here’s a man, Barack Obama, who’s going to fight for people like us, and you won’t vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?”

It wasn’t only union leaders like Trumka that engaged in this anti-racism political organizing, it was rank-and-file union members.   This sort of one-on-one engagement with people about their racism is a good part of what’s euphemistically described as the “ground game.”  And, this is just the kind of thing we need in this new era.