In Post-Racial America, Black Officials Still Get Racist Caricatures

Over at the Comic Riffs blog of the WaPo, Michael Cavna, has a provocative January 28, 2009 entry about all the cartoonists who are drawing President Obama with big lips. (Cartoon from WaPo) He puts it this way:

An unnerving number of North America’s political cartoonists are bizarrely obsessed with President Obama’s lips. . . . If you don’t believe me, scan dozens of current political cartoons. For every Steve Benson or Mike Luckovich who is zeroing in on a swell, spot-on Obama, there seems to be a cartoonist who invokes “caricature” in the most grotesque sense of the word. Obama’s lips have been rendered in such unnatural tints, and at such dimensions. . . . And of course, this physical area of caricature — unlike, say, Obama’s ears — comes freighted with a legacy of ugly racism and cruel, blackface-era mockery.

He later asks if he is making too much of this trend among cartoonists.

Are too many cartoonists not subtly skilled enough to draw a deft caricature of our first African American president? I seriously doubt that’s it. When you truly study art, you delve deeply into all shapes and sizes and learn to “see” — and learn to see skin not as one single hue, but often as more than a dozen hues (subtle reds, flecks of green, etc.). Of course, perhaps a few cartoonists aren’t looking deeply enough at Obama. Yet even the most highly trained comic artists are quite fallible. As Comic Riffs contributor David Betancourt says of one comic giant: “Drawing large lips on an African American is a huge debate — I couldn’t read any of Will Eisner’s original ‘Spirit’ strips because I couldn’t stand the site of the way he drew [grotesquely caricatured] Ebony Ivory.”

Condoleezza Rice got a lot of the big lips racist caricaturing too, when she was Secretary of
state, as Ampersand points out. In this Oliphant cartoon (Source: Ampersand):

And remember the big lips on the Obama Waffles racist box satire stuff?

Some whites are arguing these classical caricatures are really harmless and not racist. That just shows their ignorance of US history. Anyone who has paid much attention to the many 1000s of racist cartoons and caricatures of black Americans over the last century knows that big lips are part of the standard racist caricature in the white racial framing of black Americans. They have been since at least the 1830s. Whites seem to want to make black folks have especially big physical features, even to an absurb level. Is this some kind of “physical envy”?

And racist images, to paraphrase the cliche, are worth a thousand words in communicating that very old white racist frame. Cartoonists were doing this racist stuff long before photographs and such appeared in the media, for centuries now.

Even rather thin-lipped folks like President Obama suddenly get thick lips because they are black. After the big lips, what? Over the next 4-8 years, are we going to see our President caricatured with chicken and watermelon on his plate? Then what, Michelle Obama as a mammy? Welcome to the post-racial America, indeed.

Resisting Systemic Racism: From Two Immigrants

From our quotidian experiences as contemporary nonwhite immigrants and our gaze as sociologists, we recognize a certain ‘structuration’ of resistance, or ‘recurrent practices’ deployed at different times and in different places to challenge racist frames or systemic racism in our daily interactive spaces. We figured this to be so because we have engaged in such practices ourselves as contemporary immigrants. We wonder about the ways in which new immigrants of color perform race, and the alternate frames of reference used in race narratives. We pose several questions about these practices.

This essay represents our way of having a broad conversation about the contexts of our racial lives in the United States. As members of contemporary minority groups who have settled in this great land of immigrants, we would like this conversation to be about expressive control or a structure of resistance to racial thinking, if you will.

It is also a conversation about how we stage ourselves when it is difficult to transcend the context of race in America. Continue reading…

More on the Grant Case: More Police Racism or Brutality?

The San Francisco Chronicle has a revealing update involving a newly discovered video of the beating and killing of Mr. Grant by BART officers: (Photo: facebook)

The cell phone video…shows a male BART police officer walking over to three men lined up against a wall near a female officer, and then striking one in the face…. It appears that the officer who punches the man is the same person who later is seen kneeling on Grant’s head when he was shot. … He and the other officers present at the time of Grant’s shooting all remain on paid administrative leave. . . . Police investigators have said Grant put up a brief struggle with officers but was restrained and had both arms behind his back when he was shot.

A local law school professor and researcher on the police, Peter Keane, has suggested that

the video shows a “vicious, unprovoked and inexcusable assault” by the other police officer that should be prosecuted and that seems to have set off events that led to the shooting. “With that powerful punch, he slams Mr. Grant in the side of his head and knocks him down even though it doesn’t appear Grant is doing anything but talking – maybe he is mouthing off but there was no physical provocation.”

This case is being investigated, and hopefully this is a serious investigation (many are not nationally) and it certainly appears like the classic case of police brutality, and as Jessie and I noted before the data show that almost all cases of serious police brutality involve men of color as targets and white officers are overwhelmingly the perpetrators.

E-race-ing Racism in Post-Racial America: Is a Transformative Moment Enough?

The willingness to believe in the possibilities of America is the social ideology underlying the inauguration of America’s first non-white President, but is it enough to usher in a post-racial America?

We stand at the brink of a new history — one whose name is more contested, whose identity is more ambiguous and whose future has hardly been conceived. The symbolic implications of race are transforming now, just as the symbolic implications of race were transformed with the Civil Rights Movement. Then, black was beautiful; black styles were cool and profitable; and black upward mobility was possible. Now, the congregation of an estimated one plus million people spanning every sector of the race-gender-age continuum on the National Mall in 20 degree weather on Inauguration Day is more than testament to the capacity of America to evolve beyond the lines which divide us. This transformative moment Obama
Creative Commons License photo credit: neil cummingsseems to be the embodiment of the much-heralded and often-scolded American Dream.

Yet, a closer examination of the contradictions underlying American realities show evidence of both progress and stagnation in e-race-ing the vestiges of racism. Post-racial ideologies by pundits of all colors and political persuasions imply that:

  • voting for a non-white man as President (or a political party that has associated itself with issues concerning non-whites as a collective) proves that America has moved beyond race.
  • the accomplishment of figures such as Oprah and Colin Powell is evidence that race no longer differentiates success for Americans.
  • an increase in levels of support for the extension of civil rights to previously-disenfranchised racial groups and in optimistic attitudes towards racial dynamics is a sign that America is fundamentally a land of opportunity.

If those who endorse post-racial ideologies are right, then even by their measures, post-racial America has not arrived.

First, the dominant racial group in our society as a collective still has not moved beyond race: 43% whites voted for Obama. (Still, in 33 states whites displayed a higher willingness to vote for Obama the Democrat than for Kerry the Democrat; in most of the Deep South, they were actually less willing to vote for Obama than for Kerry.) In only 13 states were whites more likely to vote for Obama than McCain. In fact voting patterns in Election 2008 show that if it were not for the growing political presence of non-whites (and the increasing racial polarization of political interests), there would be no transformative moment. While most whites did not vote for Obama, most non-whites did: 62% of Asians, 66% of self-identified others, 67% of Latin@s, and 95% of blacks voted for Obama.

Second, even now at the height of our hope, the statistics do not lie. Blacks and Latin@s, while visible in elite institutions, still make up less than 12% of all doctoral degrees conferred. Blacks have higher levels of mortality, send their children to less endowed schoolsand confront lower re-employment rates at the end of recessions than other racial/ethnic groups. Black men are fuel for the prison industrial complex as they trade paying income taxes for sitting behind the walls of jails on petty drug charges; black women bear the brunt of the spread of HIV/AIDS to previously uninfected populations. Black children face segregated spaces, neighborhood decline, and foreclosure at higher rates than other children.

Last, the philosophy of hope, while noble, still is not hand-in-hand with support for affirmative action and government interventionist policies that will redress inequalities. Instead of outright violence, the subtle subtexts of inferiority are etched into racial attitudes regarding the disloyalty of blacks, the motivational roots of inequality and the hypersensitivity of those who perceive discrimination.

Possibly, 40 or so years from now, a new generation of hopefuls will usher in the post-racial America many claim is here. However, today, we are still heirs to a society where civil liberties, opportunity structures, and social distresses are racialized.

As a land of immigrants, the “browning” of America has always been deeply American; thus, this “new” America is indeed the authentic perfect union. As much as President Obama is a sign of change, he is the living and breathing embodiment of tokenism. He represents the good blackone whose looks, speech, and pedigree do not threaten those in power. If nothing else, we must remember that this transformative moment was facilitated not by the erosion of the foundations of American racism, but by a deepening economic crisis, a wholesale disdain for anything Bush-related and a near-perfectly organized political campaign.

The idea currently circulating that we as a society could, with a series of elections, move beyond a system of domination that was built into our foundation before the Constitution was even written and by policies and public tolerances that debase the humanity of a whole portion of its members is naïve. Instead, we must embrace the multiracial society that has always been America. Neither a vote for nor the inauguration of the first non-white President of America can or did erase the racial divides that make fellow citizens strangers to each other.

Instead, I challenge this new generation of hopefuls to find ways to organize for racial equality — not just by one act at one transformative moment, but by acknowledging the very complexity of race in our everyday lives.

Note: Excerpts of this piece were taken from Despite transformative moment, racism still common in America” (Abigail A. Sewell) published in The Herald Times December 10, 2009: A9.

~ Abigail Sewell
PhD Candidate, Sociology
Indiana University

NYC Racism: “Drunken Negro” Cookies for Sale at Greenwich Village Bakery

Racism is alive and for sale in pastry-form in New York’s Greenwich Village.  I’m working on a longer, more thoughtful post, but just had to quickly put this up because, well, the mind-boggles sometimes. Here’s the story (h/t: dumilewis via Twitter):  a New York City baker,  Ted Kefalinos, proprietor of Lafayette French Pastry, is selling a cookie he calls the “drunken negro cookie” (photo and details of the story from Gothamist).  A  customer told a local news outlet that Kefalinos, asked her:

“Would you like some drunken negro heads to go with your coffee? They’re in honor of our new president. He’s following in the same path of Abraham Lincoln; he will get his.”

A bit later, another customer reportedly came into Kefalinos’ shop, asked about the name of the cookies and said Kefalinos corrected her about the name of the cookies, saying they’re actually drunken “N-word” cookies. The second customer says that the baker then repeated the suggestion that, like Lincoln, President Obama “will get what’s coming to him.”

Despite several attempts by various reporters to let Kefalinos come up with a resonable explanation for his actions, he remains apparently clueless.

I have a few of thoughts about this, some of which I’ll explore in the longer post I’m working on, but briefly: 1) let’s retire those silly notions about racism residing exclusively below the Mason-Dixon line;  2) the mere presence of President Obama is, as a friend of my said the other day, “goes down hard” for some people; and, so, 3) let’s not kid ourselves that just because we’ve got a African American head of state that everyone’s ready to embrace racial harmony and sing kum-ba-ya.

Briefly Noted: Updated Documentary List

While classes are already underway for some folks, like Bridget, classes start again for me on Monday.  So, I wanted to briefly note that I’ve updated our “videos” page and added some new documentaries to the list.

The list includes documentaries that are useful for teaching and learning about race and racism.  Looking over the list, it seems heavily skewed toward a black-white dichotomy.  I’d love to include more films about race and racism beyond this false dichotomy.  I’m particularly interested in documentaries about Asians and Asian Americans, Latinos, and the experiences of biracial and multi-racial folks that explicitly deal with issues of race and racism.  If you’ve created such a film, or just know of one, you’d like to suggest, please drop me a note.  Also, if you’ve bookmarked this page someplace, please update it as I’ve changed the URL.

Open Thread: Thoughts on a Post-Racial America?

According to a new CNN poll around two-thirds of blacks asked indicated that they believed Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had been fulfilled (h/t RaceWire). This is a marked increase (up from 34% ) who indicated similar feelings in a poll taken in March, 2008. Now compare that to whites who only had a small increase from 35% to 46%.

I shared the graph I created from these findings with students in my Ethnic & Race Relations course (hello students who are reading this!).

Prior to sharing these results, I talked about the media discussion of America as post-racial. They listened to the statement by NPR’s Daniel Schorr. I showed this clip from CNN’s coverage (opens YouTube video) of the election (h/t Sociological Images). I also passed around The New York Times from the day after the election which announced: “OBAMA Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.” I then asked students: are we in a post-racial society?

There were a lot of really thoughtful answers. One student asked if it was post-racial (race no longer matters) or post-racist (no longer racist) – indicating we were not the first but moving towards the second. Another pointed out the generational differences, younger whites voted for Obama in large numbers. Still others noted that it seems with his victory that we are judging now on character and not based on race. Largely, the white students in the class gave voice to the opinion that we were NOT post-racial, while the minority students argued that we were (although one young lady had not made up her mind – fair enough, in my opinion). (Of course, students reading this, feel free to comment below about what you think if I misrepresented you).

The remaining class time was spent discussing and showing examples of personal levels of racism (such as Obama bucks, sock monkeys, statements that B.H.O. is a terrorist and the assumptions about Muslims and Arabs these stereotypes reveal). We also discussed Nas’ Black President. At the end, I returned to structural racism and historical causes as the main reasons we are not, and will not soon be, “post-racial” – reasons we will explore in the coming weeks.

Here is the question: Why the difference in perceptions between blacks and whites on the question of fulfilling MLK’s dream? We weren’t sure. We explored the idea of the front stage and back stage as discussed so well by Picca and Feagin. I similarly mentioned Tim Wise’s discussion of white bonding that he brings up in White Like Me (a book we’ll be reading later in the semester). What do you think?

~ Bridget
Sociology Instructor
Midwest U.S.

Obama’s Inauguration & A New Era of Learning about Racism

A glorious moment after 8 years of dumbing downEveryone, it seems, has high hopes for the new Obama administration.  My hope is that this marks the beginning of a new era of learning about racism. If the news coverage of President Obama’s inauguration is any indication, then there is a steep learning curve ahead for the predominantly white media.

President Obama’s inaugural address (Creative Commons License photo credit: Wolf Gang) never referred to the martyrs of abolition and the civil rights movement that made his ascent possible, and made only the slightest, passing reference to the racist discrimination in the U.S. when he said:

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

Fortunately, both Rev. Lowery’s benediction and the inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, referenced this legacy. In Alexander’s inaugural poem she said:

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

If there were a press that was well-versed in American history, we might have had journalists who were filling in some of details of that legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and present-day institutional discrimination.  Yet, very few news outlets made any reference to the fact that enslaved Africans and African Americans, who counted as only 3/5’s of a person in the U.S. Constitution, built both the White House and the US Capitol.

However, a number of the predominantly white, mainstream news outlets have begun to note an ever-so-slight shift in the cultural zeitgeist for talking about issues of race.   For example, The New York Times in a recent piece in the “style” section, declared that it’s now “OK to talk about race,” because President Obama offers a comfortable way for whites to approach a topic that they generally regard as taboo.    And, the Washington Post noted the shifting social scene in D.C.,  observing that whites and blacks will now mingle socially because:

“With a black first family in the White House and a diverse group of appointees and Cabinet nominees, the all-white dinner party feels all wrong.”

Fascinating.  So, day before yesterday, an all-white dinner party felt so right?   In another example, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow acknowledged on her show the night before the inauguration (h/t to Michelle Rediker for the exact quote),

“The good news is that the first African American is being sworn in as president that that means the media will talk about race. The bad news is that the first African American is being sworn in as president and that means the media will talk about race. We really are not that good at that good at this. Notice I said ‘we’? Ok a little humility here is in order. Why do we so often fail at talking well about this most important of topics? Well, Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell will be here to talk about….”

In the rest of the cringe-worthy interview, Maddow asks Harris-Lacewell if the Obama inauguration ushers in a ‘grace period’ for whites in talking about race.   Harris-Lacwell deftly handles the Maddow’s quesiton, acknowledging that black people always have a ‘grace period’ in place for talking to white people about race, “we get asked about our hair, that sort of thing” she said.  As refreshing as it is to see any African American woman consulted as an expert on one of the major networks (and Harris-Lacewell is extremely smart and telegenic), Maddow’s clumsy forays into discussions of race are telling.   Like her counterparts, the other white journalists at The New York Times and the Washington Post, Maddow still approaches the subject of race from within the white racial frame.  Within this frame it is only blacks who “have race” and thus, whites need blacks to come on the show to educate the uncomfortable and unenlightened white host.  I have to confess that I’m a huge fan of Maddow’s (she’s wicked smart, the first out-lesbian Rhodes Scholar and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Oxford), so it pains me to see her struggle so publicly with this blind spot.  In my view, Maddow has a tremendous opportunity to lead the way for white liberals and show them how to get smart about issues of race and racism.

Maddow asks the rhetorical question:  Why do we so often fail at talking well about this most important of topics? Yet, she seems unable to answer this question.

The answer to that question is “we” fail because “we” don’t know the history of racism in this country.   Of course, the “we” in both the quesiton and answer here refers to white people.  And, “we” white people need a new era of learning about racism.  The Obama Presidency is an opportunity for white people, especially white people in the mainstream press, to educate themselves about both the history of racism and the present-day reality of racism in the U.S. and around the world.

Some are suggesting that the end of the Bush regime with the inauguration of a president who is the author of two books and a former law professor, signals the end of America’s love affair with stupidity.   I hope this is true.  I also hope that this love of ignorance about America’s pervasive problem with race and racism is over, too.   In one of the many lists that are making the round of the Internet these days, one caught my attention, called the “7 Things You Can Do To Help Obama Restore America. (h/t Jakrose via Twitter).  Number 4 on this list is “Learn American History.”  I like that as an action step, but it needs to be amended to be “African American History,” as this is where all the stuff about race and racism usually gets stashed.  As Joe writes in the opening to his book, Systemic Racism:

“Do you Know who Ann Dandridge, Wilism Costin, West Ford, and John Custis were? Very few Americans can answer this question in the affirmative.  Yet these Americans should be well known, for they were all close relatives of George and Martha Washington.”

As he goes on to recount, these were also enslaved people whose names are largely unknown.  Until we understand the intricate ways that race and racism are woven into every aspect of the U.S., from George Washington through to Barack Obama, from those who “picked the cotton and the lettuce,” from those who built the White House and who clean and serve in it today, to those who now live in it, we’ll remain struck dumb, literally rendered mute by our inability to talk about race and racism.  It’s new day for learning about racism.

The Dream and the Election

Art Gallery window, GeorgetownToday, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the first black president of the United States (Creative Commons License photo credit: runneralan2004 ). The inauguration ceremony will take place the day after the nation commemorates the birth of our greatest civil rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As Jessie noted in her post yesterday, many of us are contemplating this confluence of events.   What would Dr. King say about the nation now that it has elected a black man as its forty-fourth president?  Would he say that “the Dream” has been fulfilled, that America has finally become a post-racial society? Would he advise little black boys and girls that they no longer have to deal with the unspoken or spoken belief that opportunities are limited by race?

If Dr. King were alive today, he certainly would have a front row seat at the inauguration ceremony. His mind would probably race through the defining moments in African American history.  He would see generations after generations of blacks in the prime of their lives being hunted down like animals, separated from their families and villages, and loaded onto ships anchored off the coast of West African. We would feel the pain of his ancestors who were packed like sardines into the belly of these ships for the long voyage to America and then forced to work from dawn to dusk for over two centuries just to provide economic and social comfort for white Americans. Going through the mind of the very old Dr. King would be the words of the nation’s highest court written with such unabashed racism in the Dred Scott decision (1856):

“the negro had  for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and so the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Dr. King might remind himself that Chief Justice Taney’s words were merely reflective of the attitudes of the vast majority of white Americans toward blacks at the time. He might quiver as he thought about the magnitude of the hatred whites had for blacks and the incredible amount of social disadvantage that racism placed in the lives of blacks both enslaved and free blacks alike.

Sitting in the January cold, the elderly Dr. King would also reflect upon post-slavery America.  Especially now, it is difficult to fathom that, but for a brief period of reconstruction, slavery was not replaced by a system of equal rights. The system of racial savery folded into a regime of racially repressive laws in the South and racially repressive social norms in the North. These Jim Crow laws and customs were constitutionalized by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  Jim Crow forced blacks into the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst educational systems, and the worst social position.

Dr. King must feel a warm sensation as he thinks about mid-twentieth century America. After the Second World War (the war to save free societies), most intelligent Americans knew that Jim Crow’s days were numbered. Dr. King played a central role in the eventual death of Jim Crow. But the Supreme Court struck the first significant blow against this regime of racial oppression when in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Court overturned school segregation laws in every state of the Union. With the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and early 1970s, Congress struck the final blow, killing de jure segregation and outlawing racial discrimination in most segments of American life.

The death of Jim Crow has brought unprecedented racial opportunities for blacks. There are many wealthy and influential black Americans (such as the oft-cited Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and the black captains of industry) as well as many political successes, including black congresspersons, governors, presidential appointees, and now, of course, the presidency itself with the election of Barack Obama.

Dr. King would certainly acknowledge African-American racial progress. But he would probably be more concerned about the great racial challenges still facing the nation. He would be troubled by the fact that, even as the first black president of the United States is being sworn in: about 21% of black families (compared to only 6% of white families) live below the poverty line, the median annual family income for whites is $26,000 higher than that for blacks; white males with bachelor or advanced degrees earn about $20,000 a year more than their black male counterparts; young black men are seven times more likely to go to prison than young white men, and less than half as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than young white men; and the median net worth (bank accounts, stocks, bonds,  real estate, and other assets) of white families is ten time more than that of black families.

As the very old and very wise Dr. King takes in the events of this historic day, he can only conclude that America is far from being a post-racial society.  The election does not complete “the Dream,” it only keeps it alive.

~ Roy L. Brooks
Warren Distinguished Professor of Law
University of San Diego – School of Law

Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy with Anti-Racism

Today, we in the U.S. celebrate Martin Luther King Day, honoring the legacy of Dr. King.   Jesse Jackson, Sr. has an opinion piece in The New York Times reflecting on what this great civil rights leader might have thought about the inauguration of Barack Obama tomorrow.   Jackson writes:

What would Dr. King, who spent much of his life changing conditions so that African-Americans could vote without fear of death or intimidation, think of the rise of the nation’s 44th president? I can say without reservation that he would be beaming. I am equally confident that he would not let the euphoria of the moment blind us to the unfinished business that lies ahead. And he would spell out those challenges in biblical terms: feed the hungry, clothe the naked and study war no more.

While I know that some of my friends on the left (especially many of my queer friends) cringe at any reference to ‘biblical terms,’ but I think it’s important to remember that the civil rights movement was steeped in a progressive social gospel that interpreted the Bible as a text of liberation, not one of oppression.  And, I agree with Jackson’s assessment that King would have spelled out the challenges we face today in terms of a social gospel to feed those who are hungry, clothe (and house) those in need, and work for peace not war.   Increasingly, people are taking the MLK holiday as a day of service, and many of those efforts will get people involved in soup kitchens and food pantries, feeding the hungry and the homeless.  We should also recall that Dr. King was an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, and reinvigorate our commitment to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ironically, one feature that often gets left out of the efforts on the national day of service is any discussion or push toward anti-racism.  This seems like a missed opportunity to me, and one that I’d like to see change.  In my view, MLK Day should be a time for those who are committed to anti-racism to talk about the strategies of the civil rights movement and address what’s left to be done.   And, make no mistake, there’s still plenty work to be done.  If you’re unsure about how to get started taking action against racism, I suggest Damali Ayo’s steps as a good beginning place:

Jesse Jackson closes his piece in The New York Times this way:

We should celebrate the election of our new president. And then we should get back to work to complete the unfinished business of making America a more perfect union.

This is what we must do about racism, as well, on this important holiday.  Celebrate the wonderful accomplishment of the election of the country’s first ever African American president.  And, then we must continue the work of dismantling all forms of racism.