Racism Harmful to Mental and Physical Health

Racism is harmful to the mental and physical health of those who are the targets, yet little research has explored the impact of racism on those who perpetrate racism (photo credit: JessieNYC).  2778062796_f83a6b9366

First, the health impact of racism is well documented.  I’ve written about this many times before, as have other scholars who blog here,  but here are a few of the relevant studies.

In terms of physical health and longevity, there is evidence that racism shortens peoples’ lives.   A U.S. study found that discrimination increased mortality (rates of death) among African Americans compared to whites in a large sample (N=4154) of older adults.   At the beginning of life, racism also takes a toll.   Another study in the U.S. finds that black-white difference in infant mortality (deaths among those 0-1 years old) is due to racism, not race per se.   (More about racism and infant mortality here.)  And, if you take into account Native Americans’ health, the research clearly documents they suffer worse than average rates of depression, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (lots more on Native American health here).

In terms of mental health, racism costs people their sanity.   One Dutch study of 4,074 people found that those who felt victimized by discrimination and forms of racism were twice as likely to develop psychotic episodes in the following three years.  Being on the receiving end of racism creates intense and constant stress which boosts the risk of depression, anxiety and anger.

And, of course, because of the mind/body connection, factors like depression, stress (as Claire noted in her recent post) and anger can lead to or aggravate high blood pressure and heart disease.    Even when people seek care to address these health issues, research consistently shows that racial and ethnic minorities receive inferior care compared to whites, even when everything else is equal (e.g., insurance, income, age, and severity of conditions).

Camara P. Jones, MD, MPH, PhD, is research director of Social Determinants of Health for the CDC is a leading specialist on the health impact of racism.  According to an interview with Jones:

“We know that black folks are at higher risk of hypertension, but in childhood, there are no differences between black and white blood pressure rates. By the time you get into the 25-44 year-old group, you start to see changes. We have evidence that in white folks, blood pressure is dropping at night, but not in black people.    There’s a kind of stress, like you’re gunning your cardiovascular engine constantly if you’re black that results from dealing with people who are underestimating you, limiting your options. It results from little things like going to a store and if there are two people at the counter — one black and one white — the white person will be first approached. If you have stress from other sources, like a bad marriage, it’s not something you think about constantly. But the stresses associated with racism are chronic and unrelenting.”

Jones goes on to say that her research suggests that 50% of blacks think about their race at least once a day (and 22% said they think about it constantly), while in sharp whites rarely give any thought to their race in the course of a day.

And, it’s this part of the racism and health puzzle that’s little researched.  While “whiteness studies” have been en vogue in the humanities and social studies for about 10 years, the academic trend has yet to have much of an impact on the study of health disparities.     Few medical or public health researchers have taken up the investigation of what Joe has called the  white mental health problem of persistent racism.

In a 2006 piece I co-authored with my colleague  Amy Jo Schulz (Daniels, J., & Schulz, A.J. (2006). Constructing whiteness in health disparities research. In A. J. Schulz & L. Mullings, (Eds.), Gender, Race, Class, and Health (pp. 89-127), in which we examined the way that whiteness and white racial privilege are part and parcel of health disparities research.   Here’s a brief excerpt that describes what typically happens in the “disparities” research:

“..the use of racial categories and comparisons with no consistent foundation for theorizing, understanding, or interpreting observed racial differences (or their absence) in health outcomes provides space for a wide range of potential explanations.  Each of these “explanations” implicitly or explicitly constructs both race and Whiteness.
For example, within the literature on racial disparities in cardiovascular disease, comparisons of Black or Latino/a to White Americans show disparities not only in cardiovascular mortality rates (Cooper and others, 2000; Wong and others, 2002) but also in multiple risk factors, including high blood pressure (Cooper and Rotimi, 1997; National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, 2004; Crespo, Loria, and Burt 1996), obesity (James, 1999; Kumanyika, 2001), physical activity (Brownson and others, 2001; Crespo and others, 1996), and intake of micronutrients and macronutrients associated with cardiovascular risk (Li and others, 2000).  In the absence of an explicitly social theory of race, analyses explaining racial disparities in cardiovascular disease in terms of biological, “lifestyle,” or “cultural” factors can reify racial differences and obscure connections to socially structured inequalities. In other words, explaining racial differences in health in terms of individual biology, genes, or behavior can locate health problems in the bodies of those most negatively affected by social inequalities.  Such explanations fail to make explicit connections to histories of racism and the struggles against oppression by subordinated groups (Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Mullings, 2005).  In the process, they also take out of the equation—and thus make invisible—the processes through which Whites maintain positions of relative advantage or privilege within racial hierarchies. In this sense, such explanations are consistent with the “colorblind” strategies of neoconservative and neoliberal Whiteness projects described above, in that they explain racial disparities in health in nonracial terms. “

Put another way, there are no actors in the world of health disparities research.  There is only the passive voice of ‘structural inequality.’   Indeed, I witnessed this firsthand in on a meeting I sat in on recently about how to address infant mortality in New York City.   When one of the people of color gathered around the table raised the issue of addressing racism as a root cause of infant mortality, one of the white people responded with a laugh, “well, I don’t think there’s much we can do to address racism.”   This kind of flippant defeatism on the part of whites is surely part of the problem.

The fact is, racism continues to extract a toll from people of color in terms of physical and mental health.   It brings death sooner to the elderly and diminishes the life chances of the newly born.    As this inequality persists and there continues to be lots of agreement among liberals that this sort of inequality is wrong, there is scant little attention paid to the ways that we can dismantle racism and improve everyone’s health, rather than continuing the current system of inequality that systematically and disproportionately benefits the health of white people.

Predicting Rise in Hate Groups, Ignoring Racism

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has uncharacteristically shifted its focus away from terrorism overseas and toward right-wing terrorism here at home. Yet remarkably, the recently released report points to the failing economy rather than racism as the culprit.

The new report, called Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, points to the economic recession, the election of America’s first black president and the return of a few disgruntled war veterans as key factors in the predicted rise in white power groups.

Unfortunately, the major thrust of the report is on the current economic decline as a driving factor in the rise of racist groups.  Not surprisingly, there is virtually no discussion of the pervasiveness of racism as a root cause for this phenomenon.   About the closest the report gets is in the discussion of immigration:

“Over the past five years, various rightwing extremists, including militias and white supremacists, have adopted the immigration issue as a call to action, rallying point, and recruiting tool.”

According to one news report, this new emphasis on domestic terrorism could signify a shift for Homeland Security under former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. A German magazine quoted Ms. Napolitano as rebranding “terrorism” as “man-made disasters.” Since it was founded (in 2003), the department has focused primarily on radicalization of Muslims and the prospect of homegrown Islamist terrorism.

White Privilege: Texas Lawmaker Suggests Asians Adopt “Easier Names”

In their classic 1967 treatise, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton critically observed a characteristic common to societies built around racial supremacy:

Whenever a number of persons within a society have enjoyed for a considerable period of time certain opportunities for getting wealth, for exercising power and authority, and for successfully claiming prestige and social deference, there is a strong tendency for these people to feel that these benefits are theirs ‘by right.’

They were, of course, referring to the tendency of whites within the U.S. to experience the many privileges they derive from their structural position in the racial order as totally normal, proper and customary. As with so many of their keen analyses, this observation has, unfortunately, stood the test of time, as evidenced by a recent situation involving a North Texas legislator.

During recent House testimony, Texas State Representative Betty Brown (R-Terrell) suggested that Asian-American voters should adopt names that “are easier for Americans to deal with.” As reported in Thursday’s Houston Chronicle, the exchange occurred between the clueless Brown and Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans who was offering testimony to the House Elections Committee on Asian American voters issues.

Ko testified that people of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean descent often face problems when voting or with other forms of identification because they may have a legal transliterated name in addition to a common English name that is used on their driver’s license or school registrations.

While ensuring that all citizens have access to one of the most basic rights of citizenship – the right to vote – has always occupied a central goal in civil rights efforts, apparently Rep. Brown thought the solution for Asian Americans was as simple as changing one’s name (as Shakespeare said, what’s in a name, anyway?). Speaking to Ko, Brown urged:

Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese – I understand it’s a rather difficult language – do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” She added later, “Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you adopt a name . . . that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”

While many whites will defend Brown’s comments as a simple attempt to resolve an identification problem, her suggestions show the normality of white privilege highlighted so well by Ture and Hamilton.

White people often assume that the privilege to live in a world made for their use and enjoyment – where racial “others” must adjust to their ways and where they never need reciprocate to ensure the basic human dignities of such others, even when they are supposed to belong to the same polity; and where they possess the right to denigrate and strip away the culture of others, for their own gain, ease, or just pleasure – is theirs “by right.” It is only in this kind of racialized context, where an elected representative can so cavalierly suggest to citizens that they shed their very name for an “easier” (and thus, obviously “better” one), the way someone might discard an old pair of shoes and pick out a new pair.

In this context it is quite possible that Rep. Brown, her supporters, and many fellow whites believe in the “sincere fiction” that her comments were not racially motivated. Because whiteness is so centered in our society, whites regard the concession of others toward whiteness as totally reasonable, without considering the damage of their pressure-cooker expectations on individuals and communities of color.

Rep. Brown’s comments are also highly offensive in reinforcing the pernicious stereotype of Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners.” By referring to Ko as “you and your citizens,” and suggesting that such individuals adopt names “easier for Americans to deal with” (both my emphases), Brown implies that such individuals stand outside the American polity, that they are not like Brown, that they are not “her” citizens, and that they are not Americans. She is thinking out of the white racial frame that assumes “Americans” do not include Asian Americans, who have no trouble with Asian names. This is a problem well-demonstrated in interviews with 43 Asian Americans analyzed recently by Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin; there Asian Americans report much discrimination by whites who do not see them as real Americans, but as foreign.

We wonder if Brown or her supporters would find such suggestions reasonable if the “old” shoe were on the other foot. How many parents dream of the names they will impart to their newborns while they wait those long nine months? How many children receive the cherished gift of a name handed down from a beloved relative, or in honor or some folk hero, or through a revered cultural practice? How many people carry such names in pride? And what special significance does a name have for an immigrant struggling to make their place in what should be the multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy of the U.S.?

Surely, our fellow citizens deserve better than to be asked to just toss this piece of their identity away for the “ease” of white people who can’t be bothered to learn a few new syllables, expand their cultural repertoire, and make a place at the national table for all.

Poverty, Stress, and Achievement: What Role Does Racism Play?

Day 58 _ a reveiling day
Two weeks ago, the results of an important study –
“Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, and Adult Working Memory” – were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers, Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg, examined the relationship between poverty and poor academic achievement, which they note has been studied extensively for many years (Creative Commons License photo credit: frerieke). What makes their research unique is that they measured the mediating effects that chronic stress, resulting from living in poverty during childhood, have on later achievement. They found that the chronic and intensive stressors caused by poverty leads to “working memory deficits” in young adulthood.

Because working memory is critical for language comprehension, reading, problem solving, and long-term retention of information learned, weakened working memory from poverty-induced stress may be central to explaining why young adults who lived in poverty as children have poorer educational outcomes than young adults who lived above the poverty line as children. The longer the child was poor, from birth to age 13, the weaker her or his working memory was as a young adult.

I read Evans and Schamberg’s study with great interest because of its important implications. Poor parents have long been exhorted to spend more time reading to their children and taking them to museums and other educational venues where admission may be free on certain days of the week, with the expectation that these activities, routinely provided by more affluent parents to their children, would improve poor children’s academic achievement.

However, while undoubtedly enriching, the Evans and Schamberg study indicates that these activities are not sufficient to compensate for the negative impact of the daily stressors inflicted by a life of economic deprivation.

Those stressors must be alleviated as well. As important as the findings are, though, the Evans and Schamberg study may not be generalizable to children of color. That’s because their sample was composed of 195 white male and female young adults. This surprises me given that, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, while 12.1% of white families live below the poverty line, 29.1% of black families and 24.3% of Hispanic families live in poverty. And the further impoverished a family is, the more likely they are to be black or Hispanic.

Certainly, poor black and Hispanic families experience the same kinds of stressors that poor white families experience: e.g., housing problems, the dangers posed by living in high-crime neighborhoods, stretching the limited income available to buy food and pay for other necessities. But poor families of color experience a stressor that poor white families do not experience: racism.

There is a substantial body of research that shows that racism is a chronic stressor throughout the life course for people of color, and that the stress caused by racism has serious negative effects on both psychological and physical health. For instance, Nancy Krieger and Stephen Sidney found that stress induced by racial discrimination has as much or more of an impact on blood pressure as smoking, lack of exercise, and a high-fat, high-sodium diet (“Racial Discrimination and Blood Pressure: The CARDIA Study of Young Black and White Adults,” American Journal of Public Health, 86(1996):1370-1378). Ruth Thompson-Miller and Joe Feagin found in their interviews with elderly blacks that memories of racist interactions with whites produced a number of negative physical and psychological reactions indicative of what they call “race-based traumatic stress,” the impact of which lasts a lifetime (“Continuing Injuries of Racism: Counseling in a Racist Context,” The Counseling Psychologist, 35(2007):106-115).

Importantly, Thompson-Miller and Feagin show that men and women of color experience race-based traumatic stress regardless of their social class. But when we consider the additional stressors of poverty and the fact that people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, the need to examine racism as a stressor in research such as Evans and Schamberg’s seems essential.

Although they do not mention examining racial differences or the potential role of racism on working memory or other indicators of academic achievement in future studies, I hope Evans and Schamberg, as well as other scientists, will undertake this challenging but important research.

For an extensive review of research on the physical and especially psychological impacts of racism on people of color, see a special issue of The Counseling Psychologist. I’m grateful to Ruth Thompson-Miller at Texas A&M University for bringing this special issue to my attention.

Celebrating Black Women: Michelle Obama

One of the best analysts of U.S. racism ever in my view, Patricia J. Williams, has a great column in The Nation on Michelle Obama (Creative Commons License photo credit: AlexJohnson). (I wonder how many of us considered her one of the best reasons to vote for Barack Obama last November?) She begins with how Ms. Obama defies:

Michelle Obama

the boxes into which black (as well as many Latina, Asian and white) women have been caged; she expands the force field of feminism in ecumenical and unsettling ways. . . . given the centuries during which black women have been relentlessly taxonomized as mammy rather than mom, many black and brown women find this phenomenon paradoxically, even sweetly transgressive. In some ways it’s an echo of the cultural tension within the “women’s lib” movement of the 1960s and ’70s: relatively privileged white women wanted to be liberated into the workplace; relatively exhausted and exploited black women wanted to be liberated from it.

Patricia Hill Collins, currently American Sociological Association president, has critically assessed these traditional black female stereotypes in her writings, which have helped to develop the now strong black feminist thought tradition.

Williams, of course, is not trying to criticize either type of women’s situation (home or outside workplace) as such, but accenting that what is

frequently missing from the discussion of black women is their role as loving mothers, beloved wives, valued partners, cherished daughters, cousins, relatives. . . . Where, for heaven’s sake, is a picture of black femininity (in particular, that of darker-skinned, nontragic femininity) that might signify beauty, chic, elegance, vulnerability, sophistication? . . . And so Michelle Obama represents a more comprehensive identity for all women, but particularly for black women. . . . hers is a well-rounded life, one of multiple roles and layered humanity. She is powerful yet approachable, highly educated yet colloquial, bare-armed but modest, playful but consummately civilized.

And she has an international impact as well:

She projects a powerfully modern image to conservative constituencies around the globe, whether in the Muslim world; or in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox newspapers recently airbrushed out all the women from a photo of Netanyahu’s new cabinet; or in China, where male children are so fetishized that each year thousands of boys are kidnapped and sold.

Race, Gender & Rampage

IMG_6439Understanding the two rampage shootings in the news recently requires a grasp of the way race and gender are implicated in both cases (Creative Commons License photo credit: ankarino).

On April 3, In Binghamton, NY a Vietnamese immigrant,  Jiverly Linh Phat Wong — (or Voong) — blocked the back exit of a civic community center where immigrants attended English-language classes and shot 13 people to death before killing himself.  On April 4, Richard Poplawski shot and killed three Pittsburgh, PA police officers  – and injured two others – during a standoff that lasted nearly four hours.  Understanding race and gender is crucial here given that one of these is about anti-Asian discrimination, the other is about antisemitism and white supremacy, and both are about masculinity.

Rampage & Race: Reacting to Anti-Asian Discrimination

Understanding what happened in Binghamton requires understanding the way anti-Asian discrimination operates in the U.S.  Many people don’t even realize that there is such a thing as anti-Asian discrimination, so perhaps it’s best to start with a recent example, such as the truly asinine remarks of Rep. Betty Brown (R-Texas). On Tuesday (April 7), Brown said that Asian Americans should consider changing their name to make it “easier for Americans to deal with.” Brown has resisted efforts to apologize for her remarks.   This sort of comment might be offensive enough from an ordinary citizen, but coming from an elected official with legislative power to implement her racist ideas is alarming and indicative of the kind of discrimination that Asian Americans routinely face.  This sort of discrimination takes a toll.

In the opening chapter of The Myth of the Model Minority, authors Chou and Feagin highlight the many costs of anti-Asian racism on mental health:

Few researchers have probed Asian American mental health data in any depth. One mid-2000s study of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrant youth examined acculturation to the core culture, but only briefly noted that some of these youth experienced substantial “cultural stress, such as being caught between two cultures, feeling alienated from both cultures, and having interpersonal conflicts with whites.”47 Another study examined only Korean male immigrants and found some negative impact on mental health from early years of adjustment and some mental “stagnation” a decade so after immigration. Yet the researchers offered little explanation for the findings. One recent study of U.S. teenagers found that among various racial groups Asian American youth had by far the highest incidence of teenage depression, yet the report on this research did not even assess the importance of this striking finding.48

In the modest statistical analysis that exists, Asian American statistics on suicide and alcoholism stand out. Elderly Chinese American women have a suicide rate ten times that of their elderly white counterparts. While Asian American students are only 17 percent of the Cornell University student body, they make up fully half of all completed suicides there.

Despite the high-profile cases of Asians and Asian-Americans involved in violent crimes, such as the Binghamton and Virginia Tech cases, the majority of Asian-Americans tend to hold in their rage over discrimination, part of what is responsible for the highest suicide rates of all racial groups in the U.S.

Andrew Lam, author of  Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, writes at New American Media, that:

Whenever a minority commits a heinous crime, it seems to beckon us in the media to search beyond an individual motive for a cultural one.

Yet, there is a certain level of hypocrisy in this, as Lam points out, because there is very little analysis of American culture when these crimes make news.

If the Asian shame-based culture is still prominent, keeping its citizens in line and well behaved, it is the gun culture in America that is most conspicuous. It is there on TV and video games and the Internet and the silver screen, and it is the most accessible language for the tongue-tied. For them the gun –- be it in video games or at the practicing range — speaks volumes.

So, for instance, when a white man commits one of these rampage killings, there’s very little analysis of the dominant white culture in most of the mainstream news reports about the event. The incident in Pittsburgh is a case in point.

Rampage & Race: Acting on Antisemitism & White Supremacy

Several press reports have noted that Richard Poplawski, the shooter in the Pittsburgh case, held virulently antisemitic views and frequented conspiracy-theory websites such as Alex Jones’ Infowars. CNN refers to him as a white supremacist who believes that Jews control American media, financial institutions and government and that federal authorities plan to confiscate guns owned lawfully by American citizens, based on ADL reports about Poplawki’s postings at Don Black’s Stormfront.

Mainstream press accounts like the one from CNN tend to represent Poplawski as a “nutcase,” without offering any sort of analysis of how his views might be shared by other whites.  David Weigel, of The Washington Independent, does make this connection between mainstream white culture and incidents like the Pittsburgh shooting.   He writes that after spending the weekend attending the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky where all manner of Third Reich memorabilia was available for sale, that he is not surprised by Poplawski’s beliefs. Weigel also calls out conservative talk show host Glenn Beck for fanning the flames of conspiracy theorists with rants like this one.

Gender & Rampage: Enacting Violent Masculinity

Unfortunately, what almost no one in the mainstream press or the blogosphere has pointed out about the recent shootings is the connection to gender, and specifically, to a particulalry violent form of masculinity.   Harvard sociologist Katherine Newman and colleagues in their 2004 book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, observe the following about the relationship of rampage shooters in their study to violent masculinity:

“The shooters appear to be working from widely available cultural scripts that glorify violent masculinity.    …. The shooting solves two problems at once:  it provides them the ‘exit’ they are seeking and it overturns the social hiearchy, establishing once and for all that they are…’gutsy and daring,’ not ‘weak and slow-witted.’  The problem is they didn’t just fail at popularity — they failed at the very specific task of ‘manhood,’ or at least they felt that way.  The solutions to this failure are popularized in the media in violent song lyrics, movies, and video games.  But the overall script of violent masculinity is omnipresent.  ‘Men’ handle their own problems.   They don’t talk; they act.  They fight back.  And above all, ‘men’ must never let others push them around.” (Newman, et al., 2004: 269).

While the Binghamton and Pittsburgh incidents did not take place within the context of schools, as did the incidents that Newman and colleagues studied, there are some real similarities between them with regard to violent masculinity.   The stance that Wong adopted for his pose with the guns he later used for murder and suicide evokes the cool pose of violent masculinity that is glorified in any number of mainstream American movies, music and television.    Poplawski’s former girlfriend filed for a domestic abuse protection order against him because he dragged her by the hair across the floor and threatened to kill her.   Both Wong and Poplawski seem to have internalized, and eventually acted on, a violent version of masculinity in which they “handled” their problems in a way that reaffirmed their manhood – at least in their own minds.   And, given the ways that becoming a “real man” in U.S. society is tied to the economic success and the role of “breadwinner” for the family, the continued economic decline suggests even more of these kinds of violent rampages by men who are unable to earn a living.

* * *

Shooting rampages like the ones in Binghamton and Pittsburgh are becoming more common here in the U.S.   As Nickie Wild writing at Sociology Lens explains, this may be part of a “super anomie,” in which the gap between what one wants to achieve and what seems possible widens (or seems insurmountable) and then violence increases.  Others have pointed to the shooting incidents as indications that U.S. gun laws need re-thinking, and this is truly the case.   Yet, to really understand what’s behind these sorts of rampage shootings, we must have a more complex understanding of the ways race and gender are intricately woven into the fabric of these violent incidents.

SPLC Report on Increases in Racist and Other Hate Groups

The Southern Poverty Law Center just put out its spring 2009 “Intelligence Report,” with important articles on racist and other hate groups, on the “sovereign” movements, and on anti-immigrant groups like the “minutemen.”

The report has this to say about the striking increases in racist and other hate groups in the last year or so:

From white power skinheads decrying “President Obongo” at a racist gathering in rural Missouri, to neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen hurling epithets at Latino immigrants from courthouse steps in Oklahoma, to anti-Semitic black separatists calling for death to Jews on bustling street corners in several East Coast cities, hate group activity in the U.S. was disturbing and widespread throughout 2008, as the number of hate groups operating in America continued to rise. Last year, 926 hate groups were active in the U.S., up more than 4% from 888 in 2007. That’s more than a 50% increase since 2000, when there were 602 groups.

Immigrants are a major target now for these groups, with much new support for the racist anti-immigrant groups coming from commentators in the mainstream mass media. The language of immigrant “invasion” and “flooding,” as well as animalizing words, is very much increasing across the media and the Internet, extending the language attacks so well described by linguist Otto Santa Ana in his work on the Los Angeles Times back in the 1990s. He discovered numerous reports on Latin American immigrants that used racialized metaphors. Reporters often used words and metaphors portraying Mexican and other Latin American immigrants as animals, invaders, and disreputable persons. They wrote of the need to “ferret out illegal immigrants,” of government programs being “a lure to immigrants,” of the appetite for “the red meat of deportation,” and of government agents catching “a third of their quarry.” Other terms and metaphors portrayed these immigrants as dangerous, as a burden, dirt, disease, invasion, or waves flooding the nation.

Today, as earlier, In the mainstream media those who craft such images of an alien people flooding and threatening the nation are not working class whites. They are middle and upper middle class whites. Working class and lower middle class whites may pick up on, and extend, such negative metaphors. Today, as a decade back, on numerous Internet websites, as well as in videos and books, white supremacist and other anti-immigrant groups describe Mexican and other Latino immigrants as a “cultural cancer” or a “wildfire.” They too are sometimes concerned that Mexicans have a plan to “reconquer” the United States.

The SPLC report adds this chilling note on increases in hate groups:

As in recent years, hate groups were animated by the national immigration debate. But two new forces also drove them in 2008: the worsening recession, and Barack Obama’s successful campaign to become the nation’s first black president. Officials reported that Obama had received more threats than any other presidential candidate in memory, and several white supremacists were arrested for saying they would assassinate him or allegedly plotting to do so.

Racism of the Absurd: Chia Pets & Fried Chicken

For all the talk of a post-racial America with the election, there’s a lot of news about the persistence of the most retrograde, even absurdly so, racist stereotypes.    Back in January, I wrote about the bakery here in New York that was producing (and selling at a brisk pace) “Drunken Negro” cookies.   These cookies featured distorted and caricatured features of President Obama in a truly bizarre racism that the baker tried to pass off as homage.   A few months ago, I might have said that this was an isolated incident, but not it looks as if this sort of racism of the absurd is becoming a trend.

Two recent news stories highlight this trend.  Again, here in New York, there are two fried chicken outlets that have recently changed their names to “Obama Fried Chicken.” Writing in today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed, John L. Jackson, Jr. correctly notes that:

“Both stores advertise themselves as serving halal food prepared in accordance with Islamic mandates, and some defenders would like to use that fact as a way to let the owners off the hook. These are people of color, the argument goes, serving black communities and trying to express a kind of flat-footed solidarity with their customers. They might have miscalculated. heir strategy might backfire by offending the sensibilities of certain segments of their local communities, but they definitely can’t be equated with KKK-esque attempts to purposefully lampoon Obama by deploying age-old tropes of racial savagery and difference. The latter may be true, but that doesn’t satisfy many residents in those neighborhoods, some of whom have already uploaded their own YouTubed video responses to these new stores.”

Jackson goes on to explain that in one of those neighborhood-created created video responses to these stores, the videographer is “laughing about the utter absurdity of the store’s name.” Jackson concludes by calling this development “crazy.”

My current vote for winner of most absurd expression of racism, is the “Chia Obama” recently pulled from the shelves of Walgreens’ stores in Tampa and Chicago.  Walgreens spokesperson Robert Elfinger said, in a telephone interview:

“We got some complaints from people that they thought it was racist.”

Really?  Ya, think?

Part of what is happening with the rise in what I’m calling the racism of the absurd is how tone deaf people are about the ways that language and images involving race and racism reverberate in the broader culture.   The mere fact of an African American president of the U.S. provides an opportunity for people – of a variety of skin colors and racial/ethnic identities – to have discussions that otherwise might remain in the backstage of private conversation erupt into the frontstage (for more on this, see this post and read, Picca and Feagin, 2008).    Thus, what might have seemed funny in a private conversation, suddenly appears absurdly racist in the frontstage.

AP Posts Tale of Segregationist, Now a “Reformed” Racist

08KKKfamilyPortraitThe U.S. press has always been fond of redemption tales, especially those involving whites seeking exoneration for earlier crimes against black communities (Creative Commons License photo credit: Image Editor). This recent news story from the Associated Press about an older, now apologetic segregationist and Klan supporter, Elwin Wilson, is no different. This extensive piece written by Helen O’Neill and posted on the Yahoo.com homepage adheres to all the confines and revealing silences of traditional white discourse on racism.

Wilson has apologized publicly and often to this history:

The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to atone for the cross burnings on Hollis Lake Road. He wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for hurling a jack handle at the black kid jiggling the soda machine in his father’s service station, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961

Once wonders where the attempt at serious reparations is. Apologizing seems rather too weak, indeed.

For another thing, the journalist’s piece reeks of the prevailing white folk theory of racism. As outlined by Jane Hill, the conventional white folk theory of racism treats white racism as a mere pathology held by individuals, something which can be rooted out with education and socio-economic uplift. The author of the AP tale seeks to present Elwin Wilson, a “former Ku Kluxer,” as a redeemed white man who has been enlightened to the error of his old segregationist ways. His apologetic actions play into the white racial frame by pushing white racism, past or present, to the margins of society, rather than being seen as inherent in the dominant white perspective and perpetuated, allowed, or beheld as actions by many, if not all, whites.

According to Otto Santa Ana, the prevailing metaphor for U.S. racism is Racism as Disease. The AP journalist plays into this old white metaphor by describing Wilson as “a sad, sickly man haunted by time.” By characterizing him in this individualistic manner, the (assumed to be white) reader can dissociate him/herself from the aging Wilson, a former Ku-Kluxer suffering from the individual pathology of racism. This tactic of pegging Mr. Wilson as someone suffering from a “peculiar” disease only reinforces the dominant white view that U.S. racism is an individual-level problem, something to be confronted by individuals and not something foundational to the operating of U.S. society. The author reveals her naiveté when she fails to acknowledge the institutionalized, structural nature of racism or its very long, continuing, and unjust history. Wilson did not act alone or as an innovator.

Wilson himself fails to grasp this systemic racism, when he states that “his parents treated everyone equally.” This denying attitude about the segregation era resonates with the findings of Houts-Picca and Feagin, who show from college student diaries just how much whites seek to deny racism even as they do it, and how often they describe as “good” and “fun” or “nice” the white friends or relatives who do blatant racism. By defining recurring racism as a pathological trait beheld by otherwise “good” individuals, it becomes impossible to locate responsibility for white racism.

Also, the journalist unquestionably accepts an Us vs. Them dichotomy when discussing Wilson’s segregationist past and other racial matters with Wilson, who himself seems more concerned with gaining entrance to heaven (his words) than actually righting the wrongs of his past. Wilson refers to African Americans as “[those] people I had trouble with,” and his wife nonchalantly states “they’re going to be [in heaven] with you.” Later he even states, “By the time I went to college I had dropped all that jumping on them, [but] I still didn’t want to marry one or anything like that.” (By jumping, he means violence.) We can see just how unchanged Wilson’s othering attitudes are. Though he may be touted as a repenting celebrity by many whites and some others, especially those who have internalized the myth of the U.S. now entering a “postracial” era (see the article itself for quotes from some of his elated admirers), one can easily sense ambivalence and continuing white racial framing in the man’s contemporary words and actions.

The AP article is but another example of white writers stroking the egos of the white public, who see whites as rather easily “overcoming” the openly-racist rhetoric and action of the past. Instead of confronting the latent, deep, and commonplace remainders of white-on-black oppression today, this breezy article reinforces the prevailing disease metaphor for white racism and pushes understanding that systemic racism again to the margins of society.