Archive for February, 2009
In a post in March, I discussed a report by the Pew Center on the States documenting the dramatic increase in the number of citizens incarcerated in the United States over the past three decades, making this country’s incarceration rate the highest in the world ( photo credit: hoyasmeg). The vast majority of those incarcerated (91.4%) are being held in state prisons and local jails for nonviolent offenses, and young black men and women are disproportionately represented among the prison and jail populations. This week the Pew Hispanic Center released a new report, “A Rising Share: Hispanics and Federal Crime,” showing that the racial and ethnic composition of the federal prison population has significantly changed since 1991, with Latinos now making up the majority of sentenced federal offenders and about one-third (31%) of the federal prison population.
According to the Pew report, 40% of sentenced federal offenders in 2007 were Latino, even though they make up only 13% of the U.S. adult population. Their representation among adults sentenced in federal courts nearly doubled since 1991 when they were 24% of offenders sentenced in federal courts, making them the single largest racial/ethnic group among sentenced federal offenders in 2007. The increase in Latino federal offenders accounted for more than half (54%) of the overall increase in federal offenders from 1991 to 2007.
Who are these people and what crimes have they committed? Data in the Pew report show that more than 72% of Latinos sentenced in federal courts in 2007 were not U.S. citizens. The percentage of Latino federal offenders who were not U.S. citizens rose from 61% in 1991 to 72% in 2007. The majority of Latino federal offenders in 2007 were convicted of immigration offenses (48%), and of these, about 75% were convicted of entering the United States illegally or residing in the U.S. without legal authorization. But of Latino federal offenders who were not U.S. citizens, 61% were convicted of immigration offenses, and of these, 81% were convicted of entering the United States illegally or residing in the U.S. without legal authorization. Indeed, the Pew report concludes that an increase in undocumented immigration coupled with an intensified focus on strict enforcement of immigration laws has “changed the citizenship profile of federal offenders,” (p. 1), leading truthdig.com to label the period 1991-2007 the “age of crimmigration.”
The Pew analysis shows that Latinos sentenced in federal courts were more likely than non-Latino offenders to be sentenced to prison (96% and 82%, respectively), and Latinos who were not U.S. citizens were more likely than Latinos who were citizens to be sentenced to prison (98% and 90%, respectively). But Latinos receive significantly shorter sentences than non-Latinos, on average 46 months compared with 62 months for whites and 91 months for blacks. And Latinos who are not U.S. citizens receive on average shorter prison sentences than Latinos who are citizens (40 months and 61 months, respectively). These shorter sentences are indicative of the non-serious nature of immigration offenses, which raises the questions of whether the criminalization of undocumented immigration is the best strategy for addressing the problem and the best use of federal criminal justice resources. At this point, it remains uncertain how long the “age of crimmigration” will continue.
The elite white media, including elite white bloggers, fail to get it when it comes to talking about race and racism (photo of News Corp Building, from here). So, how is the elite white media handling race and racism in the wake of the Obama election? The short answer is: not very well. One of the longer, and better, answers out there is from Janine Jackson of FAIR. Jackson has a really excellent piece (to me via Alternet) exploring some of the elite white media’s response to Obama:
Journalists were sometimes embarrassingly frank about how they interpreted Obama’s blackness and what they hoped his success might mean. “No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery,” declared NBC’s Chris Matthews (1/21/07). “All the bad stuff in our history ain’t there with this guy.” “For many white Americans, it’s a twofer,” opined the New Republic (2/5/07). “Elect Obama, and you not only dethrone George W. Bush, you dethrone [Al] Sharpton, too.” (See Extra!, 3–4/07.)
Looking to find parallels for the “stuff” they did like, journalists turned to fiction, as when Jonathan Alter (Newsweek, 10/27/08) alleged that voters “decided they liked Obama when he reminded them more of Will Smith than Jesse Jackson,” or when CNN (6/22/08) told viewers that Michelle Obama “wants to appear to be Claire Huxtable and not Angela Davis.”
The fondest hope seemed to be that an Obama victory (if not his strong candidacy alone) would absolve us of any need to talk about racism any more. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (5/14/08) wrote that, in announcing his run for office, Obama was making a statement: that his candidacy would be the exclamation point at the end of our four-century-long argument over the role of African-Americans in our society. By electing a mixed-race man of evident brilliance, moderate mien and welcoming smile, we would finally cease seeing each other through color-coded eyes.
Remember, these are the supposedly liberal media. Note that part of what is so appealing about the Obamas, both Barack and Michelle, is that they are perceived as non-threatening to this elite white media. They embrace real and fictive African Americans that they find attractive and appealing, such as “Will Smith” and “Claire Huxtable,” and eschew those they find threatening or too “angry,” such as “Sharpton” and “Angela Davis.”
And, of course, one of the chief characteristics of elite white racism is the neurotic need to never, ever talk about race. You can see this deep desire not to talk about race is characteristic of growing up white, and glimpses of it emerge in the book and the film about the DeWolf family inheriting the slave trade. As one family member recalls their “No Talk Rule”:
“You don’t talk about unpleasant things. There’s a line in one of our family books that one of our ancestors said, that we should never talk about sex …. religion … politics ….and the Negroes.”
The elite white media is largely drawn from this WASP-y cultural milieu and you can often see them squirm as they try and figure out how to wrap their heads around talking about “the unpleasantness” that is race in their minds. But the reason that this is “unpleasant” to talk about for white liberals it that the silence covers up deeply held beliefs about black inferiority and white superiority, as well as fears about the “threat” that black people pose to unearned white privilege. This elite white “No Talk Rule” when it comes to race extends beyond the old media to include the new media world of blogging.
There’s been a good deal about the liberal bloggers in the mainstream news recently, including this piece in The New York Times, which reports on the coalition of labor unions and MoveOn.org to push the Democratic Party to the left. Yet, nowhere in this article does it mention race or racism as a salient issue for the left. Nor do the academics examining this issue ever discuss the whiteness of the Netroots Lefties, a large part of why race never gets addressed in this eddy of the blogosphere.
As for the elite white media response from conservatives, we need look no further than the recent actions of various Murdoch News outlets, such as FoxNews and The New York Post, which I’ve written about here and here. Of course, as far back as 1993, FAIR was reporting that the paper was a “militant white daily” and that pattern of media racism continues through to today.
Whether it’s the more aggressive form of media racism practiced by those on the right, or the WASP-y form of denial and cringe-worthy patronizing racism practiced by those on the left, the elite white media continues fall short in addressing race and racism in the Obama era.
Our new blog contributor, Danielle Dirks, wrote her inaugural post for us about the SPLC’s report on the rise in hate groups, which other bloggers have noted as well. I wanted to say just a bit more about one aspect of that story, the presence of racism and white supremacy online in the Obama era. I’ve referred to this here and elsewhere as cyber racism.
While one conservative blogger claims to “debunk” the SPLC’s Intelligence Report and Don Black’s assertions about his website’s traffic using Alexa web trafficking data, the fact is that using Alexa’s data supports the claim of an increased interested in white supremacy online driven by the election of President Obama. Take a look at this graph of the last six months of traffic to the site:
As you can see, there’s a significant uptick in traffic to Stormfront around the time of the election and then again a few weeks after that. However, web traffic to the site seems to be falling off more recently (I’d predict a slight uptick following all this coverage).
Now, data from Alexa can be tricky and shouldn’t be taken at face value. Let me explain. The way Alexa is able to track web traffic is by getting information from people that have downloaded the Alexa Toolbar to their browser, as the plainly state on their site:
Alexa’s traffic rankings are based on the usage patterns of Alexa Toolbar users and data collected from other, diverse sources over a rolling 3 month period.
Ok, show of hands…how many of you reading this have downloaded the Alexa Toolbar? Right. Not that many. So, in effect, Alexa is estimating web traffic based on the statistical probability of the behavior of toolbar users; this is what they call “Data Normalization” :
We correct for potential biases in the data collected from our Alexa Toolbar to better represent those types of site visitors who might not use an Alexa Toolbar.
Alexa is a standard, and fairly reliable, tool that web designers, marketing folks and even sociologists (I included a few Alexa graphs in my forthcoming book), but it’s important to know that as a statistical measure it has some limitations. Faced with an imperfect measurement tool, sociologists often do what’s called “triangulation” which is just another way of saying they find another tool to double-check the first one. In this case, if you wanted to double-check the traffic at Stormfront using a source that was separate from their reporting, you could use Big Boards, a site that keeps track of web traffic for sites that use discussion board software, like the vBulletin software that Stormfront uses. By looking at Big Boards, you can see verification of the upward trend at Stormfront over the last few months:
As you can see from these two charts generated by Big Boards (not Stormfront), the trend in traffic is clearly upward over time. Furthermore, the statistics for registered users for Stormfront according to Big Boards is: 160,516. When my book went to press a couple of months ago, I’d listed the number of registered users as Stormfront as “over 124,000″ and in the CNN report, Don Black actually underestimates the number of members as “110,000.” So, there does seem to be evidence to support the idea that the election of President Obama has spurred an increase in traffic to these sites. The key idea to keep in mind here is not that the Internet is luring people into white supremacy online, it’s that people are seeking out these kinds of ideas in response to our first African American president.
One final note about the methodology of the SPLC report. The authors of the Intelligence Report explain their method, in less than sufficient detail, here:
This list was compiled using hate group publications and websites, citizen and law enforcement reports, field sources and news reports. Hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing. Websites appearing to be merely the work of a single individual, rather than the publication of a group, are not included in this list.
While this is maddeningly little detail by sociological standards, what this snippet does suggest is that we should be cautious about conflating “registered users” and “social movement membership.” In other words, just because someone is a frequent visitor to a racist website doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re members of the white supremacist social movement. But then, that’s a post for another time.
The Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual The Year in Hate Intelligence Report on hate groups in America. This year the SPLC identified a record 926 active hate groups, a 4% increase from 2007, and a 54% increase in documented groups since 2000. Perhaps unsurprising though is that the failing economy and the election of President Obama have accounted for the uptick in recruitment and membership:
“Barack Obama’s election has inflamed racist extremists who see it as another sign that their country is under siege by non-whites,” said Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report, a quarterly investigative journal that monitors the radical right. “The idea of a black man in the White House, combined with the deepening economic crisis and continuing high levels of Latino immigration, has given white supremacists a real platform on which to recruit.”
This CNN report by Stephanie Chen about the increase includes an interview with Don Black, the founder of one of the largest online “white nationalist” sites in America, Stormfront:
On the day after Obama’s historic election, more than 2,000 people joined his Web site, a remarkable increase from the approximately 80 new members a day he was getting, Black said. His Web site, which was started in 1995, is one of the oldest and largest hate group sites. The site received so many hits that it crashed after election results were announced. The site boasts 110,000 registered members today, Black said.
Chen goes on to quote Don Black’s compatriot in the movement, David Duke, former Klan leader and Louisiana legislator:
Obama serves as a “visual aid” that is helping respark a sense of purpose in current supporters and lure new members, said neo-Nazi David Duke, the former Klan leader who was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in the 1980s. Duke said he fears “the white European-American” heritage will soon be destroyed. He added that his Web site sees around 40,000 unique visitors a day, up from 15,000 a day before Obama won the election.
The complete SPLC Intelligence Report can be found here. SPLC also provides an interactive map with state-by-state numbers of groups.
~ Danielle Dirks, PhD Candidate
University of Texas-Austin
Last week, I wrote about the remarks of Attorney General Holder in which he suggested that the Department of Justice (DOJ) might actually lead the nation in addressing racial inequality, has been extremely upsetting to lots of folks, and in particular, to those on the far right (Civil Rights Memorial image from here).
For example, as Ali Frick at ThinkProgress noted recently (h/t: Paul Younghouse via Brainstorms), Holder’s statements were especially upsetting to Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. Interviewing Juan Williams on February 19th, this exchange occurred about Holder’s remarks:
KELLY: He said they [the department] has a special responsibility in addressing racial ills. That — that strikes fear down the spines of many conservatives in this country, because they don’t want the Justice Department taking us back to the day when they get heavily involved in things like affirmative action, and things like voter registration rights. […]
WILLIAMS: What you will see I think is more aggressive enforcement in terms of existing civil rights laws. And that was the fear that the existing civil rights laws were not being enforced by the Bush justice department.
KELLY: Well a lot of people thought that the Bush Justice Department sort of got us back to the point where we were — we were being reasonable.
If Megyn Kelly and others like her on the right think that the Bush Justice Department “got us back to” a point that was “reasonable,” then it’s worth taking a look at exactly what the Bush regime meant to civil rights at the Justice Department.
The recent Inspector General report spells out in great detail the unabashed racism in the Bush DOJ Civil Rights Division. Heavily implicated in this report is Randy Scholzman, the acting director of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Scholzman, as regular viewers of the cable news networks may recall, was called to testify before Congress about his hiring practices at the DOJ. The report clearly reveals that Scholzman lied when he testified and that he illegally used political considerations to replace nearly 1-in-6 lawyers in the division with “good Americans,” and members of “the team,” ie: conservatives and ardent Bush supporters.
More to the point here, the report reveals how Schlozman’s racism shaped the hiring practices at the DOJ. Scholzman tried to have one African American woman that he described as a “Democrat in hiding” removed because she “wrote in Ebonics,” “was an idiot,” and “was an affirmative action thing.” However, the racism at the Bush DOJ was not limited to Scholzman, nor to his attacks on this one African American woman (Scholzman has since left the DOJ and is private law practice in Kansas).
From 2005 to Jan. 14, 2009, the head of the Civil Rights Division at the DOJ was John Tanner and he used his position to systematically disenfranchise minority voters in order to assist the Republican party. As one DOJ staffer told the Brad Blogger upon news of Tanner’s resignation in January:
“Since becoming Section Chief in 2005 and even before, Tanner demonstrated that he cared only about serving his Republican overlords’ desire to suppress minority voting to help the Republican Party win elections and not about the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. A great many long-time members of the Voting Section staff are overjoyed at the news of his departure,” the staffer tells us, adding that a celebration is in the works.”
As the Brad Blog reported in 2007, Tanner over-ruled the majority opinion of career staffers in his own department in order to approve a controversial polling place restriction in the state of Georgia that would have required a Photo ID in order to vote. The measure was later found unconstitutional and declared to be a modern day Jim Crow-era poll tax by two federal courts. In commenting on this decision, Tanner is captured on video saying that it’s a “shame” that the elderly might be disenfranchised by such laws, “minorities don’t become elderly the way white people do. They die first.”
The particular expression of racism that finally forced Tanner to resign was not his efforts to systematically disenfranchise black and Latino voters, rather it was an email that surfaced about how he liked his coffee: “Mary Frances Berry style – black and bitter.” For those of you born after 1970, Mary Frances Berry is a civil rights leader and now, a professor at UPenn. It’s worth noting here, if only tangentally, that in the backstage documents that have come to light, both these white men have viciously attacked black women. Why they didn’t attack black men in similar fashion remains unexplained. Tanner apologized and resigned the following day.
With Scholzman and Tanner both gone from the DOJ, Holder’s presence is refreshing, which is to vastly understate the case. And yet, the legacy of that these racist thugs leave behind is greater than merely a trail of personal insults and offensive emails (as heinous as that is). Tanner and his underlings created real policies, and failed to enforce existing civil rights laws, in ways that had real consequences for democratic society. During his confirmation hearing, Holder addressed some of the egregious racism that the Inspector General’s report revealed and said:
“What we have seen in that report I think is aberrant, but is also I think one of the major tasks the next attorney general is going to have to do. You have to reverse that …It is my intention to devote a huge amount of time to the Civil Rights Division and restoring [its] great traditions.”
What I think really “strikes fear” in conservatives (like Megyn Kelly) about this is that the old GOP political strategy of disenfranchising black and brown voters for political gain is being seriously challenged. So, Holder has quite the challenge before him and one that raises some interesting questions about the institutionalization of racism and discrimination. Surely, as we’ve noted here numerous times, racism is more than merely the sum of attitudes rooted in individual psychology. And, yet, individuals do matter to the extent that they can and do get into high office and shape the way institutions operate.
The difficult task ahead is dismantling unequal systems and inequitable practices, replacing them with ones that promote justice, until justice rolls down like waters.
Yesterday, I joined a small crowd of fellow New Yorkers fed up and outraged by the racism of the New York Post’s editorial cartoon. (The image is one that I took, you can see the full set of photos at Flickr.) As usual with any protest about racism here in New York, there were lots of black and brown folks there, and not so many white folks. Not surprising, but disappointing nevertheless. One of the most notably missing white faces in this crowd was Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has not issued a statement about the cartoon. Governor Patterson, speaking yesterday at an event unrelated to the cartoon at the New York Academy of Medicine, did respond to questions about the racist cartoon, saying that it is incumbent upon Post editors to explain “what the cartoon was intended to portray.” Paterson added, images equating blacks with primates “do feed a kind of negative and stereotypical way that some people think,” and thus stretching the definition of “understatement.”
For its part, the editors at The New York Post have issued an apology that is a non-apology, saying:
Wednesday’s Page Six cartoon – caricaturing Monday’s police shooting of a chimpanzee in Connecticut – has created considerable controversy. It shows two police officers standing over the chimp’s body: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill,” one officer says. It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period. But it has been taken as something else – as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize. However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past – and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback. To them, no apology is due. Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon – even as the opportunists seek to make it something else.
Those of you who’ve been following this issue closely will recall that the previous statement from The Post referred to Rev. Sharpton as a “publicity opportunist,” so this statement is clearly directed at him and others affiliated with his National Action Network. As Rev. Al said last night when asked by Keith Olbermann about the “publicity opportunist” charge, “I’m an activist, so getting publicity is part of what I do. At least they are acknowledging that I’m good at my job.”
The official written response from the editors of The Post is consistent with what I witnessed yesterday happening in midtown just beyond the perimeter of the protest. The white office workers who came to the window at the News Corp building laughed, pointed and jeered. One of my fellow protesters said they saw someone at the windows give the one-finger salute to the crowd gathered below, but I didn’t see it. The white office workers on their lunch break that I overheard along 6th Ave. (across the street from the protest), said things like, “Wow – look at all of them! I can’t believe they got that many to come out in the middle of the day, I guess they don’t have jobs.”
Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do in this putatively post-racial era. If you’d like to take some action on this particular issue, you can sign on to the letter of protest at Color of Change. If you’re in the New York City area, there’s another protest in front of the News Corp building (6th Ave., between 47th and 48th) later today, Friday, February 20th, at 4:45pm.
UPDATES (2/24/09): Lots has happened on this story since Friday. Among the highlights (or, low lights if you prefer): There are widespread reports of dissention in the ranks of The New York Post over the cartoon, ranging from an email sent by editor Sandra Guzman to reporters, saying she had “nothing to do with the cartoon,” to today, Murdoch including his own, slightly less half-hearted, apology in the paper. Michael Wolff, author of a book about Murdoch, appearing on Olbermann’s MSNBC show speculates that Murdoch is “livid” about the cartoon, and predicts that this is a career-ending decision for Col Allen, the current editor of The New York Post. Meanwhile, Benjamin Todd of the NAACP is calling for the firing of Sean Delonas, the cartoonist who drew the offensive chimp-cartoon. And, I continue to be amazed (I know, I know – I shouldn’t be) by the number of white people (and some other folks) who just don’t get the racism of this cartoon.
In a speech given in honor of Black History Month at the Justice Department yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder said that we are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to addressing “racial matters” (h/t HarryWaisbren via Twitter). As readers here will no doubt recall, Holder is the first African American Attorney General (image of from here).
Here’s the longer quote from Holder’s speech, courtesy of Amanda Terkel at ThinkProgress:
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been, and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issue in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial. […]
And we, in this room, bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example, the Department of Justice — this Department of Justice — as long as I’m here, must and will leave the nation to the new birth of freedom so long ago promised by our greatest president. This is our duty, this is our solemn responsibility (Watch Holder’s speech here).
I tend to agree with Holder and find it both refreshing and somewhat startling to hear someone in power speak the truth. Not surprisingly, neo-con Jonah Goldberg has his panties in a twist about Holder’s remarks, but then, I wouldn’t expect anything else from the guy who wrote Liberal Fascism.
I’d add one thing to Holder’s assessment. In my view, it’s whites who are the cowards when it comes to talking about racial matters. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back, most of the discussion about “race” in schools gets stashed in classes called “African American History.” For the most part, whites don’t sign up to take those classes because they don’t see them as relevant for their own lives or their understanding of this country. And, that’s just the 25% or so of the U.S. population that makes it to college. There’s still no K-12 curriculum that addresses the history of racism in this country; the Amistad Commission set up to address this educational void here in New York State is remains stalled after four years. The cumulative effect of these sorts of choices, this national cowardice – refusing to engage in conversation about racism, no educational initiative to teach school children about racism, and college-attending whites’ lack of interest in African American history – is willful ignorance. Based on my long history of knowing white people personally, that by remaining ignorant about racism, many whites are hoping that that absolves them of any culpability for doing anything about it. Like I said, that’s just a guess, I don’t have any research to back that up.
I say it’s way past time for us, as a nation, to have a little courage and start having these conversations. What do you say?
Today’s New York Post, a tabloid paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, published an editorial cartoon that shows two cops talking, standing over a chimpanzee they’ve just shot (a reference to this recent story in nearby Connecticut). The caption reads, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill,” a clearly racist jab at President Obama, comparing him to the chimpanzee. You can see the image here (h/t to Emery Graham, Jane Adams, Andrea Siegel, Jerry Krause, Eric Margolis and all the good folks on the IVSA listserv).
The cartoon is created by Sean Delonas, who as Hamilton Nolan at Gawker notes, has a rich history of creating similarly vile, loathsome cartoons.
As I’ve pointed out here before, racist jokes and cartoons are nothing new, and indeed, racist cartoons and jokes were a consistent strategy used by detractors to Obama’s campaign. In fact, Obama’s presidency has created a whole new category of racist jokes and cartoons. A Google search of “racist Obama jokes” today yields 1,910,000 results; a similar search for “racist Obama cartoons,” yields 1, 050,000 results.
What’s really remarkable here is that this particular racist cartoon is not just getting published on some individual’s website dedicated to racist “humor,” but in fact, it is being published by a major (albeit, tabloid) newspaper in New York City. Rev. Al Sharpton gets is right when he says that the cartoon is “troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys.” (An aside about Rev. Al: Y’all can say what you will about Rev. Al, but living in New York City and seeing him at most of the same rallies I go to and hearing him on local news, he gets it right more often than he gets it wrong. In the national mainstream press, he’s regularly treated with derision, but I have a lot of respect for him.) In fact, I think he doesn’t go quite far enough here. What’s also troubling about this particular image is the not-so-subtle threat (again) to President Obama’s life and the similar way in which this cartoon legitimates the police-shootings of so many young, black and brown men on the streets of New York City and beyond. Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, anyone? It doesn’t matter though, they were just “monkeys” – as one of the commenters on this blog referred to Oscar Grant just a few weeks ago. For those of you who might be new to studying and understanding how dehumanization works, one of the first steps is comparing human beings to animals. This makes their mistreatment, torture, and murder easier to accept. It’s an especially effective tool when a major newspaper runs images that dehumanize whole categories of people.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, the Post is standing behind the cartoon. New York Post Editor-in-Chief Col Allan said:
“The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist.”
Right, so Rev. Al is an opportunist and therefore Allan doesn’t have to take anything he says seriously. Well, I have a feeling there are going to be a lot more people outraged about this one.
If you’re in the New York City area, and want to get involved in a protest about this, there’s one tomorrow, Thursday, 2/19 at noon, at the midtown offices of the New York Post, 1211 6th Ave., between 47th and 48th Streets. Rev. Al and I will be there.
In response to my post on bystander intervention last month, an anonymous commentator maintained that the behavior of a deli clerk in an ABC News social experiment was not racist. Rather, the commentator argued, the deli clerk was reacting to the lack of assimilation on the part of the Mexican day laborers who could not place their order because of their lack of English proficiency. If they want to live in the United States, Anonymous asked, shouldn’t they learn English? Aside from the victim-blaming nature of the comment, I thought that Anonymous raised an interesting question, and in my brief reply, I mentioned that I’ve traveled to many countries where English is not the primary language and where I could not speak the native language, but I was always assisted by native speakers in ordering food, getting directions, finding transportation, and the like. Moreover, I pointed out that learning a foreign language takes time. But in thinking more about Anonymous’ question, I was compelled to explore the issue of foreign language acquisition further.
I was curious, for example, to learn just how long it does take for a non-English speaker to become proficient enough in English to be functionally literate (i.e., to be able to perform basic tasks of everyday living without difficulty). Not surprisingly, a number of factors play a part. One of the most important variables is the amount of formal schooling individuals have received in their first language. In a longitudinal study (1982-1996) of about 700,000 English language students who had no background in English, Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier found that children 8-11 years old who had had 2-3 years of formal education in their native language took 5-7 years to become proficient enough in English to reach native speaker performance (i.e., 50th percentile) on normed tests. However, individuals with little or no formal schooling in their native language (e.g., children younger than 8, or individuals who were below grade level in reading and writing in their native language) took 7-10 years to reach native speaker performance. Thomas and Collier reported that these findings do not differ by native language (e.g., they studied Asian and Hispanic students), country of origin, or socioeconomic status, although we know that socioeconomic status itself is directly related to educational achievement.
Drawing on Thomas and Collier’s findings, Judie Haynes, writing for everythingESL.net, argues that maintenance of literacy in one’s native language should be encouraged and fostered while English is being learned, and she advocates a developmental bilingual or two-way immersion program in U.S. schools, an idea that “assimilationists” would no doubt consider anathema. Additional research, though, supports Haynes’ position, showing that bilingualism is positively, not negatively, associated with scholarly achievement (see, for example, research cited by Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut in Immigrant America: A Portrait, 3/e, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, especially Chapter 7). But other studies indicate that the assimilationists needn’t worry: Among immigrant families to the United States, monolingualism is the norm within one or two generations after arrival. Portes and Rumbaut examine research that shows a clear historical pattern in which first generation immigrants learn enough English to get by, but continue to speak their native language at home and often in social settings with other immigrants; the second generation – those who immigrated as children with their parents or were born here – may speak the language of their parents at home, but English everywhere else, thus becoming fluent English speakers and “anglicized.” Members of the third generation typically speak only English, both at home and elsewhere (see also analyses by the Pew Hispanic Center). As Portes and Rumbaut argue:
Fears of linguistic and cultural fragmentation, like fears of ethnic radicalism, play well in the popular press, and harping on them has made the fame and fortune of many a pundit. However, historical and contemporary evidence indicates that English has never been threatened as the dominant language of the United States and that, with well over two hundred million monolingual English speakers, it is not threatened today. The real threat has been to the viability of other languages . . . (p. 242).
Indeed, the National Association for Bilingual Education reports that compared with other countries, the United States lags far behind in terms of the percentage of citizens who speak a second language. While only 9% of Americans speak both their native language and another language fluently, 50% of Europeans are fully bilingual. As Portes and Rumbaut quip,
“What do you call a person who speaks two languages?”
“And one who knows only one?”
“American.” (p. 207)
Though humorous, one unfortunate outcome of the reality this fictitious dialogue represents is that by stubbornly adhering to the false “English-only ideal,” most Americans “[sacrifice] the possibility of looking at things from a different perspective and [become] bound to the symbols and perceptions embedded in a single tongue” (Portes and Rumbaut, p. 242).
Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday was last Thursday. He and Darwin were born on the same day, an interesting coincidence. Lincoln was just voted recently by historians as the number one U.S. president of all time. Presumably this is because he presided over the country during the difficult Civil War, and much action he took during that era deservedly gets this high level of praise.
photo credit: Tony the Misfit
Yet, virtually none of the current discussions of Lincoln –in this hagiographic mood the country is in–seriously focuses on Lincoln’s extensive racist framing of U.S. society and what that has meant, then as now. Most historians dealing with Lincoln now touch on his racism, but only a few like Lerone Bennett, Jr., in his much debated but pathbreaking Forced into Glory, get to the heart of the matter. Even left historians seem to lack the conceptual tools to make sense out of Lincoln’s deep racism. Their discussion usually focuses a few of Lincoln’s views and actions, with an argument he got less racist over time–and not centrally on the much bigger picture of racial oppression being the foundation of the nation, then as now, and on the white racial frame that was essential to rationalizing that foundation, then as now. And not centrally on how the war and Lincoln, and the war’s aftermath, were shaped by and shaped that systemic racism and its rationalizing frame. And what it meant that Lincoln stayed very racist in his views to the end.
Lincoln was a willing servant of that foundational racism. Several years before he became president, in his famous debate with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln demonstrated that he operated out of a strong version of the white racist frame. For example, he argued in that debate that the physical difference between the “races” was insuperable:
I am not nor ever have been in favor of the social and political equality of the white and black races: that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the free negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office or having them to marry with white people…. I as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man.
Soon to be called the “Great Emancipator” because of his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had made his white supremacist views clear, and his racist framing would later be cited by southern officials many times, including in their 1960s struggle to protect Jim Crow segregation against civil rights demonstrators. They are still quoted by whites, especially in supremacist groups, today. One reason is clear: They reflect in some ways a deeply held white racist framing of African Americans as inferior to whites that is still all too commonplace.
By the time of the Civil War, a majority of whites in most northern areas held to a white-nationalist view of this country. African Americans were routinely seen as dangerous aliens. Across the country, in all regions, the overwhelming majority of whites held an image of this relatively new nation as ideally a “white republic.” Lincoln and other whites unsympathetic to the spread of slavery also saw the nation as fundamentally white. The great 19th century poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, asked in an 1856, “Who believes that the Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate?” He answered his rhetorical question much as the slaveholding founders like Jefferson did:
Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not America for Whites? And is it not better so?
Henry Clay, who enslaved many African Americans, was an influential leader of his day, a border state slaveholder and U.S. Senator, a man whom Abraham Lincoln once said had taught him all he knew about slavery. Lincoln was fond of minstrel shows, where white performers made up in blackface did musical numbers and other comedy skits on the stage. Extreme racist caricatures and mimicking of black Americans were centerpieces of these shows.
As president, Lincoln was willing to support a constitutional amendment making slavery permanent in the existing southern states if that would prevent a civil war. Some members of the Republican Party talked with representatives of the southern planters and proposed a thirteenth amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery in the South. Lincoln was willing to accept this. However, the southern slaveholding oligarchy rejected this compromise proposal, apparently because they thought they could win a war.
December 18, 1865 is arguably the date of the real birth of a United States committed substantially, if still rhetorically and haltingly, to expanding human liberty. That was the day that the actual Thirteenth Amendment freeing all enslaved Americans was finally ratified. This legal action would not likely have taken place without the active resistance to oppression by African Americans, who thereby played a central role in bringing their own liberation. At base, it was not Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation that did the most to bring an end to slavery, but rather the active efforts of those who had been enslaved. This included the 200,000 African American soldiers and the several hundred thousand support workers who helped the Union win the war in its most difficult years.
Significantly for the country’s future, the antislavery white legislators who composed and fought for the Thirteenth Amendment in the U.S. Congress understood it to mandate an end not only to slavery but also to the “badges and incidents” of slavery. (“Badges” referred to indicators of racial rank, while “incidents” referred to heavy burdens accompanying enslavement.) Senator Lyman Trumbull, an Illinois Republican, introduced the Thirteenth Amendment in the U.S. Senate in 1864. Two years later, when he and his colleagues sought passage of a comprehensive 1866 Civil Rights Act to eradicate those “badges and incidents” of slavery, Trumbull aggressively defended the view that this Thirteenth Amendment gave Congress the authority to
destroy all these discriminations in civil rights against the black man, and if we cannot, our constitutional amendment amounts to nothing. It was for that purpose that the second clause of that amendment was adopted, which says that Congress shall have authority, by appropriate legislation, to carry into effect the article prohibiting slavery. (This was, interestingly, quoted in the important 1968 Supreme Court decision, Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., on racial discrimination in housing.)
That is, he was thinking in systemic terms, and breaking to a significant degree with the white racist framing of Lincoln and others of his day.
Today, the Thirteenth Amendment, as well as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, should still be read as exerting significant pressure for the eradication of the many vestiges of slavery that appear in the guise of contemporary racial discrimination that is still at the heart of our systemic racism. We have in 2009 not yet ended the “discrimination in civil rights” against African Americans and other Americans of color.