Archive for March, 2009
Part of John Hope Franklin’s legacy has been preserved by StoryCorps, America’s largest nonprofit oral history project whose mission is to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.
In this powerful story, Franklin tells about being a Boy Scout in the 1920s. Take a listen here (about 2 minutes).
This particular story was collected as part of the Griot Initiative whose mission is to preserve the life stories of African Americans. All interviews recorded as part of this initiative will be archived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.
The great U.S. historian, John Hope Franklin, died yesterday at a Duke University hospital. He was a pioneering scholar and civil rights leader. He did pathbreaking work as one of the leading scholars working on this history of African Americans and U.S. racial oppression, scholarship building on the earlier work of scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois. His most famous and widely influential book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, was an essential text for many of us who have become researchers in this area and is still widely read and used in its numerous editions. Franklin was professor emeritus at Duke, which put out an obituary summarizing his great contributions to this country, to all Americans of all backgrounds.
This summary of his life is candid about the discrimination Duke inflicted on him, indeed as southern libraries and universities often did:
At the time From Slavery to Freedom was published, there were few scholars working in African-American history and the books that had been published were not highly regarded by academics. To write it, he first had to give himself a course in African-American history, then spend months struggling to complete the research in segregated libraries and archives – including Duke’s, where he could not use the bathroom.
Yet Franklin persevered:
Franklin worked on the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case, joined protestors in a 1965 march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. and headed President Clinton’s 1997 national advisory board on race.
My only personal contact with Dr. Franklin was when he asked me to testify before President Clinton’s 1997 task force on race, at its stormy Denver, Colorado session. He was chair of the advisory board for this effort, called One America: The President’s Initiative on Race. As chair of that board, he was still strong as a civil rights leader, though somewhat frail in body. The Duke obituary adds this further recollection:
In January 2005, he spoke at Duke at the celebration of his 90th birthday, displaying the fire that motivated him throughout his long life. While others at the event talked about the past and reminisced about his accomplishments, Franklin focused squarely on the future. He described the event, held the same day as President George W. Bush’s second inauguration, as a “counter-inaugural” … He recounted some of the historical inequalities in the United States and recalled some of his own experiences with racism. He said, for example, that the evening before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, a woman at his club in Washington, D.C., asked him to get her coat. Around the same time, a man at a hotel handed Franklin his car keys and told him to get his car. “I patiently explained to him that I was a guest in the hotel, as I presumed he was, and I had no idea where his automobile was.
Even as a leading scholar and civil rights leader, well into his 80s, Franklin still faced the ugly reality of U.S. racism in his everyday life.
The grandson of a slave, Franklin’s work was informed by his first-hand experience with injustices of racism — not just in Rentiesville, Okla., the small black community where he was born on Jan. 2, 1915, but throughout his life. . . . The realities of racism hit Franklin at an early age. He has said he vividly remembers the humiliating experience of being put off the train with his mother because she refused to move to a segregated compartment for a six-mile trip to the next town. He was 6.
He survived the Tulsa race riot (actually a white pogrom in which at least 300 black citizens were killed by whites) of 1921. Unable to attend the Jim Crowed University of Oklahoma, he went to Fisk University, to study law but was convinced to study history by a white history professor there. That professor loaned him the money to begin study at Harvard, where he got his Ph.D. degree in 1941.
He began his career as an instructor at Fisk in 1936 and taught at St. Augustine’s and North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), both historically black colleges. . . . Then in 1947, he took a post as professor at Howard University, where, in the early 1950s, he traveled from Washington to Thurgood Marshall’s law office to help prepare the brief that led to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1956 he became chairman of the all-white history department at Brooklyn College. Despite his position, he had to visit 35 real estate agents before he was able to buy a house for his young family and no New York bank would loan him the money. . . . He spent 16 years at the University of Chicago, coming to Duke in 1982. He retired from the history department in 1985, then spent seven years as professor of legal history at the Duke Law School.
The Duke obituary adds this summary of his extraordinary research work:
Franklin was a prolific writer, with books including The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, George Washington Williams: A Biography and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North. He also has edited many works, including a book about his father called My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, with his son, John Whittington Franklin. … He received more than 130 honorary degrees, and served as president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the American Studies Association, the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.
Recently Franklin wrote his Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (2005) and you can hear an interview with him about it at this Duke site.
We will miss him greatly.
We are still getting various commentators today who like to play down the seriousness of slavery as part of our history. We are a nation based on about 246 years of slavery, more than half of our history.
The extreme oppressiveness of U.S. slavery is thus not taken seriously by many white Americans. Not surprisingly perhaps, brochures circulated by some southern state governments still provide a distorted view of U.S. history. One South Carolina brochure provided to visitors at the state’s travel centers has a two-page history of the state from the 1500s to the present, with not a single mention of slaves or slavery there.
Yet, slavery was central to the state’s economy for a very long period of time.
Similarly, a recent research study in North Carolina examined the way slavery has been portrayed at twenty slave plantations that are now tourist sites. Seven of the plantation websites do not even note the presence of slavery there, and only three devote serious efforts to present the experiences of those enslaved. The others sites accent such things as the furnishings, gardens, and the white families. Some play down the brutality of slavery and project images of “happy slaves.”
The lead researcher, Derek Alderman, accents the point that “plantations were not just about their white owners. As we come to terms with the legacy of racism in the United States, we have to recognize . . . that there was brutality that happened in the Old South.”
The NAACP has filed lawsuits against two of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders — HSBC and Wells Fargo — alleging “systematic, institutionalized racism” in their subprime lending (image from here). But this lawsuit is really just the tip of a very large, and deeply racist, iceberg.
Part of this has to do with the way that housing – and what former President George W. Bush once called ‘the ownership society’ – was the only path to wealth creation in the U.S. In other words, most of the wealth that people have and accumulate in the U.S. is through home ownership. This has been a central tenet of the American Dream for decades. Unfortunately, this dream was only available to a few and that availability was often based on race. Listen to this short video (1:52) in which Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw explains the roots of this inequality with journalist Laura Flanders.
Joe Sims of Political Affairs, writes in his extensive piece entitled, “The End of Neo-Liberalism and Bush’s Last Scam: How Racism Sparked the Financial Collapse,” that:
Still, as the main civil rights organizations charged in the summer of 2008, the racist origins of the subprime mess are difficult to ignore. A cursory glance at some of the statistical highlights provides ample evidence. An excellent study authored by United For a Fair Economy entitled “Foreclosed” suggests several indicators, chief among them the disproportionate numbers of people of color holding subprime loans: over 50 percent of all mortgages held by African Americans fall into this category. The figure is 40 percent for Latinos.
While some political leaders blamed the “mismanagement” of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and demagogues like Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan blamed Black and Latino families for the economic collapse of the subprime mortgage market, the fact is, as Sims points out that bad credit was not the primary factor for distributing the loans, a myth conveniently circulated and repeated to this day. Sims refers to Rep. Charles Schumer who refutes the bad credit explanation, quoting the Wall Street Journal:
Based on the Journal’s analysis of borrowers’ credit scores, 55 percent of subprime borrowers had credit scores worthy of a prime, conventional mortgage in 2005. By the end of last year, that percentage rose to over 61 percent according to their study. While some will have damaged their credit in the interim, it’s clear that many subprime borrowers have the financial foundation for sustainable homeownership, but may have been tricked into unaffordable loans by unscrupulous brokers.
Basically, the subprime mortgage scheme was a way for Wall Street bankers to drive up profits (some were pushing for 25% profit margins, according to Sims) and doing it on the backs of mortgages to predominantly African American and Latino homeowners. Sims speculates:
Perhaps this explains at least in part why no Wall Street insiders had qualms about their activities or why in recent weeks the issue seems to have almost disappeared from discourse on the economic recession.
So what made the loans predatory? According to Sims and a study by a group called United for a Fair Economy:
One factor is their marketing and sales to inappropriate customers. Another is pre-payment penalties. Seventy percent of subprime loans had such penalties. A third element was Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMS), which often carried unexplained ballooning interest rates that increase payments by as much as one-third. A majority of subprimes were ARMS. Yet another condition was the exclusion of tax and insurance costs when estimating the monthly payment for a potential home-buyer. And finally the encouragement of ordinary borrowers to take interest-only loans, where in the initial year or two only the interest is paid on, after which the principal rates kick in raising the cost dramatically.
The stimulus package and economic recovery needs to acknowledge that what are often referred to as “marginal” home owners or borrowers were largely Black and Latino working-class families struggling to make ends meet, targeted by Wall Street financiers. Recovery is likely to further entrench racial inequality if leaders fail to acknowledge the role of racism in the current economic crisis.
The former president of the American Anthropological Association, Jane Hill, has a fascinating new book, The Everyday Language of White Racism. She analyzes how whites’ racial oppression, white power and privilege, are daily created and reinforced in routine English. Central here is analysis of hundreds of cases of mock Spanish phrasing (“hasta la vista, baby; no problemo; knock back some cervazas, etc) and how widespread that is–and how it assumes racial stereotyping from the white racial frame about Mexicans, Mexican Americans, or other Latinos.
Hill reports, significantly, that almost no whites she has presented the material to are willing to see how such mock Spanish embeds racist stereotyping and framing.
She offers a probing and provocative analysis of whites’ use of other racist language, such as the insistence in Arizona on preserving the name of a mountain as “squaw peak,” “squaw” being a derogatory and racist term used by whites for Native American women some time now. There is also much language mocking by whites of so-called “black English” and of the speech of Asian Americans.
Hill offers excellent discussions of how and why whites come to define racist outbursts, such as those of Senator Trent Lott, comedian Michael Richards, and talk show host Don Imus, as only “gaffes” that do not reveal racist framing by whites who engage in such behavior. This research makes clear the central role of the English language in embedding and perpetuating the white framing and the system of racism that it defends.
Hill makes great points about how everyday racist language and “gaffes” contradict the arguments not only of white defenders of this still-racist society, but also of some critical race analysts who want to describe contemporary reality only as a “new racism.” In her view the widespread character of these examples of everyday racism, and the way they also get discussed obsessively and circulated extensively around the society, indicate that the old-fashioned racism of the past has not disappeared and been replaced by a new racism, not at all. At most, what is new is only a thin veneer of denial–as in white denial that mock Spanish and other language mocking is racist.
Research here takes notice too of the absences and omissions in what many whites do “say” in many cases. Much racist commentary now uses codewords that (wink wink) communicate racist ideas or inclinations without actually using the old racist words (for example, “lack of sense of humor” or “oversensitive”–or, even more concretely, “public housing, “inner city,” or “gangbangers”).
Hill is savvy about how much white defensive behavior operates when challenged, as in the cases of mock Spanish or the Arizona debate over the mountain peak. Whites have constantly denied that their perspective was racist and harmful, even as many people of color pointed out the harm and damage the mocking language caused. A key factor in how the white racial frame and systemic racism operate today is what Hernan Vera and I have called “social alexithymia,” the inability of whites to understand where people of color are coming from, the lack of cross-racial empathy. As Hill puts it, this lack of empathy
Involves a chain of reasoning that goes something like this: “I am a good and normal mainstream sort of White person. I am not a racist, because racists are bad and marginal people. Therefore, if you understood my words to be racist, you must be mistaken. I may have used language that would be racist in the mouth of a racist person, but if I did so, I was joking. If you understood my meaning to be racist, not only do you insult me, but you lack a sense of humor, and you are oversensitive.” Notice that this entire chain of reasoning makes the speaker the sole authority over what her worlds shall mean.
One central question today is: Why are whites so unwilling to listen to the views of those who are targeted daily by racism, even about the reality, character, harm, and pain of that everyday racism? The intensiveness and emotional scale of that denial seem to signal substantial proof of the continuing reality of everyday racism.
In a report just released from the NIH, as many as 1 in 100 black men and women develop heart failure before the age of 50, which is 20 times the rate in whites in the same age group. In public health terms, these racial differences in health are referred to as “health disparities,” and the newly released report from the NIH raises questions about why there are such stark disparities across racial groups ( photo credit: derek*b).
According to the NIH, this sharp rise in heart failure is directly related to the increased levels of hypertension (aka, high blood pressure) for blacks. There’s a growing body of scientific literature which points to the experience of racism as a major factor in elevated blood pressure, one of the leading risk factors for early heart failure. David Williams was a pioneer in this field with his 2001 article, “Racism, discrimination and hypertension: evidence and needed research,” (Ethn Dis. 2001 Fall;11(4):800-16). That piece spawned a bunch of others, including an excellent piece by Wyatt and colleagues entitled, “Racism and cardiovascular disease in African Americans,” (Am J Med Sci. 2003 Jun;325(6):315-31), which posits that there are three levels of racism that affect the cardiovascular disease (CVD) of African Americans, namely:
First, institutional racism can lead to limited opportunities for socioeconomic mobility, differential access to goods and resources, and poor living conditions that can adversely affect cardiovascular health. Second, perceived/personally mediated racism acts as a stressor and can induce psychophysiological reactions that negatively affect cardiovascular health. Third, in race-conscious societies, such as the United States, the negative self-evaluations of accepting negative cultural stereotypes as true (internalized racism) can have deleterious effects on cardiovascular health.
And, in a recent cross-sectional study that included African American men (n = 393) and women (n = 717), researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that the likelihood of hypertension significantly increased with higher levels of perceived stress following racism from non-African-Americans.
While many people contend that racism is no longer a relevant or life-threatening issue, this kind of evidence persuades me that addressing racism is more crucial than ever.
Writing here recently, Joe and Sean talked about the problematic issue of white men. Larry Wilmore makes a similar and does it with humor, via The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (just under 10 minutes):
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||M – Th 11p / 10c|
|The New White Face of Crime|
New York State has a punitive and racist drug laws, and it’s time to change them. In a recent piece, Russell Simmons, hip-hop mogul and activist, and Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance, write about Rockefeller reform (image from here). In case you’re not familiar with the Rockefeller Drug Laws, here’s a little background from the article:
The Rockefeller Drug Laws passed in 1973, mandate harsh mandatory minimum prison terms for simple, low-level drug offenses. Under these laws, people convicted of first or second time low-level drug offenses receive long prison terms-not the treatment or support services they often need. … Today, there are approximately 12,000 people in New York prisons under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, more than 90 percent of who are Black and Latino. There is no excuse for this disparity – whites and people of color use and sell illegal drugs at approximately equal rates.
There’s a new documentary film called “Lockdown, USA” that examines the effort Simmons, and a few other folks, have been involved in to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The film focuses most closely on Simmons and one family that he works to help. It’s compelling to watch Simmons work the phone and get in the face of politicians who are unaccustomed to his style of lobbying for reform. Although the film does a good job of exploring the injustice and waste of the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, the racial inequality is implied rather than directly explored. In the DVD’s extras, there’s an interview with an African American woman and lobbyist who talks candidly and persuasively about the inherent racism in the laws, but unforutnately this didn’t make into the film. Still, it’s an excellent look at the messy business of working to bring about change.
The hard work of Simmons, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Drop the Rock campaign, the New York Academy of Medicine, and countless individual activists has finally begun to pay off. Right now, there’s a bill in the New York State Assembly that will dramatically reform this institutionalized racism, and you can get involved by taking (online) action to let New York Governor Patterson know that you support the end of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Today in New York City and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage(photo credit: ktylerconk). What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.
Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.
Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.
Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.
And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.
Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.
For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.’” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.
As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.