Archive for December, 2008
We’re taking a short haitus from blogging. We’ll be back to regular updates Jan.2, 2009. Peace!
At Slate’s online site, Meghan O’Rourke, has a brief article reminding us that President-elect Obama has picked a prize-winning, provocative African American poet, Elizabeth Alexander, to read at his inauguration ceremony. He is one of few presidents ever to invite a poet for such a task.
O’Rourke notes that Yale Professor Alexander has four books,
the last, American Sublime, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A professor of African-American studies at Yale (from which she also matriculated), Alexander writes poems that are metaphorically and linguistically dense, layered, and subtle. Her work speaks about black experience. . . .But she can’t be said to privilege identity politics over aesthetics; her poems work more at being complex than didactic. In this sense, she’s an analogue to Obama, who doesn’t privilege identity politics over his strategy of inclusiveness.
Among other important works, Alexander has written a powerful poem about the extreme oppression visited on the enslaved African woman, Saartjie Baartman (1789-1815), whom virulently racist European whites termed the “The Venus Hottentot.” She was a Khoikhoi woman enticed by promises of splitting her earnings by the brother of her Dutch slaveowner in Africa if she would go to Europe to be physically exhibited to whites. Put on as a sideshow exhibit in Britain and France, she was forced to exhibit naked. After she died of illness in Europe in 1815, her remains– skeleton, genitals, and brain–were displayed by and for European “scientists” like an animal’s remains in a prominent Paris museum–even until the mid-1970s! Yet another aspect of the “Western civilization” some of our leading pundits like to brag about.
In her poem Alexander attacks this extreme exploitation and its associated scientific racism more eloquently that we can ever put into prose. I recommend the portion of her poem posted on her website here. Her GrayWolf press collection, The Venus Hottentot is described here.
This is a brief letter that the savvy scholar of US racism, Steve Steinberg, had published in The Nation just recently. It shows how the left itself has trouble with thinking beyond the white racial framing of things.
His letter was in response to this article in the December 29, 2008 The Nation.
Colorblind? Your lead editorial, “The First 100 Days” [Dec. 1], issues a welcome list of ambitious initiatives that would “get a real start on repairing our nation,” including a renewed war on poverty. No mention, however, of race and racism, despite the fact that a mobilized black community provided the margin between victory and defeat. A colorblind approach will not address the distinct problems African-Americans confront: occupational apartheid that leaves almost half of black men in cities like Chicago and Washington without jobs; the evisceration of affirmative action by all branches of government; mass incarceration that exceeds 2 million, two-thirds of them black or Latino, often for violation of drug laws; rampant discrimination in housing; a scurrilous lack of enforcement of civil rights laws, especially Title VIII. Can we “repair our nation” without confronting the legacy of slavery? Is the colorblind left going to participate in the charade of using Obama to sidestep racial issues? And is the Democratic Party willing to risk a backlash from blacks who feel betrayed by the election of “the first black President”? ~ Stephen Steinberg
Racism usually seems to be the elephant in the room that whites of all persuasions cannot see, or do not want to see ( photo credit: kimberlyfaye). Where is the concern with racial justice going to be put in this new administration? In the goals of progressive media and organizations?
The Secret Service, like the majority of government policing agencies everywhere, is mostly run by white men many of whom, apparently, still have not moved much beyond the hard version of the old white racial frame ( photo credit: troshy ). They claim to be colorblind, but have allowed in the last decades much overtly racist activity to go on within their confines, or done it themselves — and when they are caught and called out they usually do not take remedial action.
Well, a brave federal magistrate judge in DC handed down a decision sanctioning the U.S. Secret Service
for stonewalling plaintiffs in a race discrimination case against the agency. The judge concluded that the plaintiffs have “established a prima facie case of discriminatory non promotion” because of the agency’s repeated misconduct in not producing documents and that the agency must pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees for the related motions for sanctions.
This is, sadly, an old case involves more than 100 African American agents (a huge number for one such agency) that should have been resolved with quick anti-discrimination action long ago:
The lawsuit, filed nearly a decade ago against the service on behalf of more than 100 current and former black agents, alleges that managers discriminated against them when they considered promotions. . . . The suit has revealed that senior managers at the service circulated e-mails with apparently racist imagery and messages, which the plaintiffs claimed were a manifestation of the discriminatory culture of the agency. . . . Hogan & Hartson’s Melissa Henke, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement, “For years, the Secret Service has aggressively hidden the truth about the culture of pervasive racial discrimination at the agency. The court’s sanction is a positive step towards correcting the prejudice suffered by former and current African- American special agents as a result of the Secret Service’s misconduct in this lawsuit.”
Some readers may have seen or heard about the racist emails that some high-level managers circulated at the agency, action that is all too typical in white-controlled policing agencies across the country:
They included a video of an interracial couple confronted by Ku Klux Klan members with a burning cross, a message with a crude sexual joke about blacks and American Indians allegedly sent by an agent who served on the detail of President-elect Obama during his campaign and other e-mails that targeted prominent blacks, from activists to entertainers.
Ken Bolton and I did a book that involved interviews with fifty African American police officers in federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, and this stuff is tame compared to the extraordinarily racist stuff many of these officers have seen and experienced. One example of the hostile racial climate in many agencies, generated by white fellow officers, is seen in this black trooper’s interview:
I reported and was told that I’d be riding with another [white] officer who was going to show me around. There was another [white] trooper in the [highway] median and as we, he pulled over into the median to see that trooper to talk, he looked over and saw, you know, that there was another new trooper there. And he said it as a joke, but it wasn’t funny at the time. He used the word “nigger.” “Oh, that’s just what we need, another fucking ‘nigger,’” you know, and laughed, and they laughed and carried on. And I looked, and they could see I wasn’t laughing.
Or the commonplace discrimination in promotions (like at Secret Service) can be seen in this interview of another black officer:
I’ve faced a lot of opposition toward promotion. I’ve been up for lieutenant eleven times, and I’ve been passed over even though I’ve passed every exam. . . . I was just recently transferred back to [an old post] where I have [whites] who are my junior, people that I had recruited that have been promoted and that are now my supervisors. They have less education, they have less time in grade, they have less experience as an officer, but now they’re my supervisors. So, I’ve faced much opposition, simply because I’m very outspoken.
Or what happens if you protest systemic racism can be seen in this older, veteran black officer’s interview (also like at the Secret Service):
Some people used to say I was a troublemaker, I said, “Troublemaker, how? What have I done to cause trouble? Because I won’t let you say ‘nigger’ in front of me? That’s a troublemaker? Because I won’t let you treat people wrong, that’s a troublemaker?
The “people” who are the problem in regard to hostile racial climates in all too many law enforcement agencies are well-trained, educated white police officers, including those up in high management positions. The “good old boys” still are the problem well into the 21st century. And for each of these cases, our interviews have hundreds of other examples. (I have encountered many others in doing expert witness duty in policing cases too.) These examples are not isolated problems of bigots, but as in the Secret Service example are about systemic racism–about well-institutionalized racism few whites are willing to acknowledge, much less do something about ( photo credit: @ly$ in wonderland ).
A.C. Thompson, writing at The Nation, has a new piece about white racism in New Orleans that’s worth reading in full for what it tells us about how seriously we take racism in this country (h/t Paul via Brainstorms).
I grew up spending many of my summers in New Orleans ( photo credit: pwbaker )
with cousins who lived there. Partly because of that, I’ve always thought of it as a sort of second home town. I would spend a summer there and come back home with a Southern Louisiana accent, dropping my g’s until they were completely gone and saying Nawlins just like my cousins did. My uncle, my mother’s older brother, owned a tiny corner store in the heart of a predominantly black neighborhood in the crescent city. Their family of five kids lived in in the white, working-class suburb of Slidell. As a young man, my uncle had moved to New Orleans from Texas to be a musician. He could play just about any instrument, but was probably best at playing clarinet in various Dixie Land jazz bands (when I started band in junior high school I inherited his tenor sax). My uncle was also a racist. Some of my earliest memories are of hearing him and the other adults talk about the “thieving” black people (not their term) who were the main customers of his little store. And, I also remember quite clearly the way that my other relatives viewed my uncle as a victim of that neighborhood because he was white. At some point, he bought a gun “for protection.” Although that was all many years before the natural and human-created disaster that has become known simply as Katrina, the kind of racism that I witnessed as a child seems to persist according to Thompson’s report.
What Thompson found in the course of an extensive eighteen-month investigation is disturbing not only for what it reveals about New Orleans in the days after the storm when the city fractured along racial fault lines, but also for what it says about the country as a whole.
If you followed the news closely following Hurricane Katrina (as Joe and I both wrote about here and elsewhere), or if you saw Spike Lee’s film, When the Levees Broke, you’ll recall the horrific story of Donnell Herrington, who was shot by whites. Thompson recounts the story this way:
The way Donnell Herrington tells it, there was no warning. One second he was trudging through the heat. The next he was lying prostrate on the pavement, his life spilling out of a hole in his throat, his body racked with pain, his vision blurred and distorted.
It was September 1, 2005, some three days after Hurricane Katrina crashed into New Orleans, and somebody had just blasted Herrington, who is African-American, with a shotgun. “I just hit the ground. I didn’t even know what happened,” recalls Herrington, a burly 32-year-old with a soft drawl.
Herrington shouted at the other men to run and turned to face his attackers: three armed white males. Herrington says he hadn’t even seen the men or their weapons before the shooting began. As Alexander and Collins fled, Herrington ran in the opposite direction, his hand pressed to the bleeding wound on his throat. Behind him, he says, the gunmen yelled, “Get him! Get that nigger!”
This happened in the U.S. in 2005. And yet, no one has been brought to justice. Here’s Thompson again:
So far, their crimes have gone unpunished. No one was ever arrested for shooting Herrington, Alexander and Collins–in fact, there was never an investigation. I found this story repeated over and over during my days in New Orleans. As a reporter who has spent more than a decade covering crime, I was startled to meet so many people with so much detailed information about potentially serious offenses, none of whom had ever been interviewed by police detectives.
Not only have the shooters of Herrington never been prosecuted, but Thompson’s investigation revealed far more about a broader pattern of violence:
…evidence indicates, at least eleven people were shot. In each case the targets were African-American men, while the shooters, it appears, were all white.
The evidence that Thompson uncovered supports Joe’s concept of the white racial frame. Here’s Thompson again:
The new information should reframe our understanding of the catastrophe. Immediately after the storm, the media portrayed African-Americans as looters and thugs–Mayor Ray Nagin, for example, told Oprah Winfrey that “hundreds of gang members” were marauding through the Superdome. Now it’s clear that some of the most serious crimes committed during that time were the work of gun-toting white males.[emphasis added]
And, there’s still very little interest in prosecuting those whites. The fact that there are gun-toting whites indiscriminately killing black citizens may sound like something out of a previous era, but this is the contemporary U.S. My uncle could easily have been one of those gun-toting whites, propelled toward violence out of his own misplaced sense of victimhood. Instead, my uncle ended up turning that rage inward and the gun on himself. The white racial frame obscures our understanding of racism and clouds the realities of white male privilege, and the twin afflictions of rage and victimhood when that privilege is challenged.
Dedrick Muhammad has an interesting publication, 40 Years Later: The Unfinished American Dream, out of the Institute for Policy Studies (April 2008) that provides strong challenges to the end-of-racism nonsense that we hear much about these days. In his summary he accents these points:
Since Dr. King’s death, the African American high school graduation rate has increased by over 214%. At this rate, African Americans will reach equality with white Americans by 2018.
It will take more than 537 more years for Blacks to reach income equality with whites if the income gap continues to close at the same rate it has since Dr. King was assassinated.
If the racial wealth divide continues to close as slowly as it has since 1983, it will take 634 years for Blacks to reach wealth equality with whites.
Forty years since Dr. King called for the abolition of poverty, the annual decline of poverty for Black children is about a quarter of a percentage point per year. At this rate it will take over a century to end poverty for Black children. Today a third of Black children live in poverty.
These facts about racial inequality are well-known to researchers and activists in this area.
photo credit: caboindex
Since not long after Dr. King spoke often about them, since the late 1960s, they just have not had much impact on public policy action, especially in recent years. We certainly are a country where such catastrophic racial inequalities, which reflect basically the past effects of hundreds of years of past and present systemic racism, somehow stay on the policy backburner while white-collar, almost all white male, criminals on Wall Street get their companies bailed out with a trillion or more–and usually get golden parachutes of millions personally—even as they have raped and destroyed our economy.
Muhammad also makes two points that you probably have never heard in the mainstream media or among social science researchers:
While the incarceration rate of African Americans is extraordinarily high, the probability of incarceration for white men has been increasing at a faster rate (268%) than for Black men (240%) since 1974.
The increase in the share of white children living in a single parent home has been much higher (229%) than for Black children (155%) since 1960.
So, there is, in terms of acceleration in recent decades, a very serious problem of increase in white crime and incarceration and in terms of white children living without two parents. Of course, the baselines for whites are relevant here to the percentage increases, but these percentages are in any event very sharp increases, to say the least.
I certainly have not heard ANY politician or media commentator (or other scholar for that matter) make a point out of either one of these white problems. Why isn’t the “problem of white families” and their “lack of family values” being discussed? Or the problem of “increasing white incarceration” being discussed? Maybe if they were we could start getting into deeper issues of why these might be seen as “problems,” and what “family” really means in this society. Or is that wishful thinking?
There are two hate crimes in very different parts of the world, one in the UK the second in Russia, that have me wondering about how much of American-style racism gets exported overseas ( photo credit: sylvar ).
In Britain recently Nathan Worrell, a neo-Nazi who waged a racist campaign against a mixed-race couple and was stashing loads of bomb-making materials in his flat, was arrested, tried and convicted on charges related to the case. He was sentenced to seven years in prison on two charges: “possession of material for terrorist purposes,” and “racially aggravated harassment.” Among the materials found in Worrell’s flat were a video showing how to make a bomb from household items, and what police described as “a significant amount of far-right propaganda, as well as membership cards for groups such as the Ku Klux Klan….”
In Russia, last week Stanley Robinson, an 18-year-old African American exchange student from Providence, Rhode Island, was stabbed by unknown assailants in Volgograd. Russian n an attack officials say may have been racially motivated. Robinson remains in grave but stable condition. According to published accounts, the student’s mother, Tina Robinson said: “I believe it happened because he is a person of color. It was completely unprovoked.”
Some may chalk up such horrific stories as just another example that “the whole world is full of inequality, injustice… “ [as Robert Berger suggested in his comment on this blog awhile back]; and, others may erroneously suggest that racism is overblown and that efforts to call attention to racism are part of a “racism industry.” I, however, have a different perspective on these incidents. To me, these suggest that American-style racism may be exported from the U.S. to other countries with deadly consequences. The fact that Worrell in the UK had propaganda from the KKK, a U.S.-based racist organization, certainly suggests this. Of course, Worrell also had material from British far-right groups as well and the UK is no Johnny-come-lately to racism. And yet, the fact that there are materials from the U.S. that are tied to the racist actions of a neo-Nazi in the UK suggest that there are global flows of racism. Add to that the fact of America’s cultural and political hegemony in the world today (although quickly fading if recent shoe-tossing incidents are any indication of the nation’s standing in the eyes of the world), and it suggests that American-style racism may be seen as the “standard bearer” for racists around the globe.
The second example, of the African American exchange student attacked in Russia, also suggests that the American-style of racist hate crime has been exported to regions far beyond the borders of the U.S. If, as this young man’s mother suggests, he was in fact a target of a racially-motivated assault this raises some puzzling questions about how this is possible. Russia is a country with a completely different history than the U.S. when it comes to race and racism. So, the question becomse, how is it that this young African American teenager is even “seen” as a target of a hate crime? That he was even fathomable as a target of such an assault suggests that this young man had to first be recognizable as a racial subject. To put it plainly, he had to be viewed by his attackers as a young black man. And, his racial subjectivity, his “blackness,” if you will, had to be interpreted through the lens of the white racial frame. Within this frame, a young black man gets read simultaneously as a dangerous thug and as a racial target. Without this interpretive lens, Stanley Robinson would just be another exchange student exploring another culture. Within the white racial frame, Robinson became a target.
It would be bad enough if America were simply exporting racism if we, as a country, were also doing something in the international community to combat racism. But, alas, this is not the case. In forum after forum in the world arena, the U.S. is the notably absent guest not seated at the table to discuss how to resolve racism globally. Sometimes this is couched as a concern about free speech rights, sometimes in terms of defending the right of the state of Israel to exist, both worthy concerns. Even so, the point remains that the U.S. is not in involved in these discussions at the same time that the country is exporting American-style racism. It’s analogous to the U.S. environmental policy in many ways. As a country, we’re about 4% of the world’s population, yet we’re responsible for something like 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, yet the U.S. government under Bush refused to sign the Kyoto treaty which would have held accountable for reducing those emissions. Now, I realize that reducing carbon emissions is not going to do anything to eliminate racism, but it seems to me that part of the change we need to see in the U.S. is to try to rejoin the international community as responsible global citizens. A big step forward would be to stop exporting American-style racism and sit down at the international table to discuss how to address global racism.
During the long electoral campaign, and now after the election, there has been continuing debate over how black President-elect Barack Obama is. Media reporters and pundits have recently, even excitedly, accented questions about whether he is black, white, biracial, or some other mix. Many like Associated Press reporter, Jesse Washington, have recently asserted that increased intermarriages and a “decline of racism” in the United States have been
dissolving ancient definitions. The candidate Obama, in achieving what many thought impossible, was treated differently from previous black generations. And many white and mixed-race people now view President-elect Obama as something other than black.
These post-election efforts by various people to make President Obama substantially or mostly white, not really black, fit well into a white racial framing that cannot accept a highly talented and successful black American for what he (or she) really is, but must find in him (or her) some white-like aspects in order to make him an “exception to his race”—to favor him, vote for him, or regard him with respect. Blackness is so negatively viewed within the dominant white frame that the majority of whites seem to feel it necessary to assert his whiteness (e.g., his light skin color or his mother and grandmother) over his blackness (e.g., his father or African relatives).
Washington notes later on that this new, mostly white (but some biracial) folks’ questioning of the blackness of Obama will create negative reactions from many black Americans
who feel that at their moment of triumph, the rules are being changed to steal what once was deemed worthless — blackness itself.
We also see in this reporter’s words more “decline of racism” talk that will curse us over the coming four years because it fits well into the contemporary “colorblind” version of the old white racial frame that, among other things, insists there have been shifts in numbers of individual actions such as blatant frontstage bigotry and hate crimes (which actually may not have decreased in the last fifteen years–we do not have good data), yet always ignores the continuing reality of institutional and systemic racism.
Over the next four years, how will President Obama be viewed by most whites? As fully black American, or as more white than black?
And will he be willing or able to act aggressively against racial discrimination in this society?
What is your take on all this?
There are some interesting dates to note today, given that our first black president has a Kenyan father:
December 12, 1963 – The African colony of Kenya gains its independence from the colonial power, United Kingdom.
December 12, 1964 – Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta becomes the first President of the Republic of Kenya.
Is it odd that the mass media has shown so little interest in the Kenyan background of our president-elect? Is Africa still the “dark continent” (the old racist, colonialist term), for the mainstream media? Will this change with our new president coming into office?
And, by the way, Barack Obama will be officially elected as president only as of next Monday when our highly undemocratic institution, the electoral college, which was bestowed on us mostly by white slaveholders in 1787, meets to vote.