Celebrating MLK with Lessons from Obama’s Inauguration

A couple of articles have inspired me to add a brief word about this MLK Day. (See Boyce Watkins at TheGrio.com) Hopefully, my words are in keeping with both the spirit and beliefs of Dr. King himself.

A year ago this week, I joined nearly 3 million people in the nation’s capital for the inauguration of President Obama. The entire week, especially inauguration day, encapsulated much of what I understand about the “civil rights” movement and Dr. King’s legacy. Being a child of the 1980s, my understanding of Dr. King and the movement is a contested conglomeration of familial discussions, white-frame “civil rights” history, and independent study. Like most people my age, I may well be more in touch with the myth than the memory of King.

The morning of the inauguration seemed to mirror King’s 1963 march. The crowd came from all over the country and braved extreme temperatures (if on opposite ends of the thermometer) with grace and enthusiasm. The millions on the Mall that morning were very conscious of the parallels between contemporary and 1963 events. I saw hundreds of middle-aged and elderly African Americans making their way to the service. Everyone was so appreciative of their presence and sacrifices. I am convinced no Black person over age 60 would have had to so much as touch the ground with her own feet if she did not want. It was truly a remarkable and unforgettable moment.

The event itself was a reflection of what we were all celebrating. In name, we were witnessing a ceremony centered on one man, Barack Obama. In truth, we were actually there to culminate and celebrate a massive, multiracial, cross-coalitional effort that we hoped would produce meaningful and lasting institutional change. Everyone cheered the new president, but we all shared stories of sustained local efforts to mobilize America’s oppressed classes. The mass effort and happy gathering reflect the hopeful imagery and activist narrative associated with Dr. King.

After partying with friends (and strangers), I decided it was time to go home. On the edge of one of D.C.’s many Black neighborhoods, I found myself in need of a cab to get home. After a few blocks, I reached a busy corner and tried hailing a cab. Despite the festive occasion, I received the same treatment we Black men (and women) receive all the time. Cab after cab passed me by and quickly picked up white passengers.

A young white woman, whose name I still do not know, witnessed the entire scene. The hour growing very late at this point, she confidently approached me with a brilliant offer. If I would use my status as Black and male to safely escort her to the next corner where she was meeting some friends, she would use her status as a white female to get me a cab. I quickly agreed. Within 30 seconds of connecting her with her friends, the white woman told me to follow her to a cab. She said she would hail the cab and when the cabbie opened the door for her (a taken for granted response), I was to jump in. Local law, apparently, prevented cabbies from evicting passengers without cause. Needless to say, she executed the plan flawlessly and got me home without at hitch.

The past year, like inauguration day itself, is a microcosm of Dr. King’s life and legacy. Having won symbolic federal victories and peering briefly over the mountain at the potential for meaningful change. We forgot that these victories required massive mobilization and sustained multiracial, cross-class effort. Instead, we allowed white media to attribute the work to one man, and we left that man to carry it out virtually alone. In life, Dr. King never labored alone. But the mythological legacy recast him as a great man, producing systemic change through personal will and determination alone. That myth, now thrown onto Obama, has left Obama to labor alone (to the extent he actually wants to). Obama’s isolation is evidenced by the general failure of the DNC to remobilize the massive campaign volunteers in support of the president’s agenda (see NYT article “Health Debate Fails to Ignite Obama’s Grassroots” and The Washington Post’s “Obama’s Machine Sputters in Effort to Push Budget” for examples.

Part of the reason the multiracial grassroots effort “sputters” also parallels King’s life and legacy. Despite the rhetoric of the times, neither the day-to-day structure of the United States remained then and now. My anecdote about getting a cab makes the case for the moment of Obama’s inauguration. As Dr. Watkins’s points out, “Dr. King was very unpopular at the time of his death” as he tried to realize the goals outlined in his speeches. Whites never fully embraced King in life. Their support for his impotent corpse and white-framed memory would not convince Dr. King.

Obama’s situation is similar. As Harvey-Wingfield and Feagin (2010) document, the majority of whites voted against now President Obama. A recent article in The New York Times () documents whites’ increasing opposition to Obama:

According to an analysis of New York Times and CBS News polls, Obama has the lowest approval rating among whites at the end of his first year in office than any president in the 30 years that The Times and CBS News have collected such data. And the gap between Obama and the others is significant, ranging from 10 to 36 percentage points.

Like Israelites in the wilderness, whites dream of Egypt, a plurality saying Obama is a worse president than George W. Bush.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I hope and pray we will learn the lessons Dr. King taught us. Regardless of what the majority of people say, progressive American rhetoric remains miles ahead of its deeds (see King’s brilliant sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”) and gradualism is not the answer. Only collective action, creative and sustained civil disobedience, and mobilization of people of color and poor–for whom cooptation and/or cessation are not viable options—are the only potential means for achieving and sustaining real and systemic change.

Martin Luther King: I’ve been to the mountaintop

Today, the U.S. celebrates Martin Luther King Day as a national day of remembrance for Dr. King and the civil rights struggle. This is Dr. King’s last speech, given the night before he was assassinated, on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee:

Martin Luther King, Jr: “Mountaintop” speech full length from Filip Goc on Vimeo.

The full text transcript of the speech is available here.

Racial Inequality and Faculty of Color at Elite Universities: An MIT Report

A new report from MIT’s Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity, according to this summary, examines

how race affects the recruitment, retention, professional opportunities and collegial experiences of Black, Hispanic and Native American professors at MIT [and] urges the Institute to strengthen its efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented minority (URM) faculty.

The report took two and half years on the part of nine faculty members. The methodology is this:

[A] quality-of-life survey administered to the entire faculty in January 2008, in-depth interviews of all URM faculty and a small comparison group of White and Asian faculty, and a salary analysis. To compare promotion and tenure rates and other hiring data by department and school, the committee also reviewed a cohort analysis of faculty who came to MIT between 1991 and 2009.

The report notes there have been gains in the URM faculty, but are very uneven across colleges and departments. MIT President Susan Hockfield is quoted as accepting the report and commenting that “A richly diverse America does not await us, it is upon us; it is our present and our future.” The main findings of the Initiative are these:

* MIT recruits heavily from its own departments and from a few peer institutions — such as Harvard and Stanford — which suggests that broadening the recruitment search could yield larger numbers of URM faculty.
* Compared to their White peers, a higher percentage of URM faculty leave before or after they are promoted to associate professor without tenure, suggesting that efforts to retain URM faculty may be especially critical in their first three to five years.
* Poor or negative faculty mentoring experiences are more frequent for URM than for non-URM faculty, partly because mentoring across the Institute lacks consistency.
* Overall, URM faculty report more dissatisfaction than their White counterparts. However, it is the URM non-tenured faculty, particularly black faculty, who are most likely to be “very satisfied” with their lives at MIT.
* There is “great awkwardness” in addressing race and racial differences openly at MIT, meaning that discussion of race-related issues is avoided.

Sadly, these are findings the researchers on this site could have easily predicted. The recruitment of faculty, the report notes, is very heavily and disproportionately from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, and then from other elite schools–which will of course severely limit the diversity of a faculty hiring pool. This is the kind of incestuous racism that takes place at elite colleges and universities and has for many years. This is not meritocracy, but elite-ocracy at work.

The next two points really signal internal racism in operation, a failure of mentoring and support of many kinds. Some of this internal racism in universities is blatant and intentional, but much of it is subtle or a type of passive bystanding wherein white faculty members “do not want to get involved” or “do not know how to relate” to people of color. Such faculty have mostly never had an education in such things as stereotyping 101, racism 101, and antiracism 101. Like most of the population in the country.

On the faculty dissatisfaction side, they could have long ago learned a lot about what everyday college life is like for faculty of color from key books and research articles on the subject by leading scholars like Professor Christine Stanley (also a vice president now for diversity at the fortunate Texas A&M University), Professor Mark Chesler, and Professor Roxanna Harlow. Or this report I did for the American Council on Education (see discussion here). Apparently, reading social science on these matters is beyond MIT’s leaders? They did not need to spend so much time here reinventing the wheel. Science?

The main MIT report recommendations for change are these:

* Each academic unit should work with its academic dean and the associate provost of faculty equity to develop strategies for improving recruitment efforts of URM faculty. … Formal mentors should be assigned to junior faculty hires, and mentors and mentees should be informed about expectations. …MIT should broaden faculty searches to other carefully selected institutions. MIT should create forums where race and cross-cultural interactions are openly discussed, and the Institute should harness its most highly respected scholars, scientists and engineers to act as spokespeople on diversity issues.

Typical stuff and useful if there is commitment at the very top to carry this through, and well. But this is not enough. Change should begin, IMHO, with a very thorough study of MIT’s own deep structures of white racism, those long structured within the hoary institution, and with a real commitment to change those as well.

Powerful New Civil Rights Documentary: “Soundtrack for a Revolution”

While the nation will celebrate the holiday on Monday, today is the actual birthday of Martin Luther King. He would have been 81 years old today had he lived. There seems no more fitting way to celebrate than to share this new documentary about the music of the civil rights movement, “Soundtrack to a Revolution.” The film is on the short list for upcoming Academy Awards. Here is a short (about 2 minutes) trailer for the film:

I had the chance to see this film last weekend at the Tribeca Film Institute (random name-drop: Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte were there). The film follows the story of the civil rights movement by charting the music that was most powerfully identified with it. There are moving, contemporary versions of classic songs sung by top musicians in studio settings and there are engaging, acapella renditions of these songs sung by the people who lived through the movement. My personal favorite was Richie Havens singing a civil rights ballad over images of civil rights pioneers – black and white – who were killed in the fight for racial justice.

It’s an excellent film that would be suitable for using in the classroom for teaching about race, political struggle and resistance, the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King. In a Q&A session with the filmmakers following the screening, they noted that educating young people about the civil rights movement was one of their intended purposes in creating the film. Sadly, they also noted that in pre-screening the film in high schools that a majority of students and their teachers (!) did not know most of the civil rights leaders featured in the film.

If you’re considering using the film in a college classroom, I have a couple of companion book recommendations. The first is a wonderfully creative way of looking at social movements through the art that inspired them, called The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle,by T.V. Reed. The second is a compelling analysis of the way television was used by the civil rights movement, and in particular, how prescient Dr. King was in his use of television, called Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights,by Sasha Torres. Both books are excellent, and suitable for advanced undergraduates or graduate students, and will further elaborate some of the themes addressed in the film.

More on Haiti: Will Racism Hinder Relief?

There’s a lot of good news about relief efforts to Haiti.  As just one example, Haiti-born musician Wyclef Jean’s online and mass media efforts to help his home country have raised $400,000 in the first day.  Yet, at the same time, there is a strong current of racism directed toward Haitians that may hinder relief to this devastated Island nation.

In a conversation with Dr. Goddess on Twitter yesterday, she brought my attention to the casual racism of this individual (if her profile is to be believed, a young, white female who loves both beer and Jesus in equal measure):


But surely, I can hear the objections now, this is just the misguided rant of an uneducated person.  This young woman is surely an outlier, the exception, rather than the rule.   Perhaps.    About the same time, I heard the reports of Rev. Pat Robertson explaining what had happened in Haiti:

“…something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, Napoleon III, or whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said we will serve you if you get us free from the French. True story. So the devil said okay it’s a deal, so the Hatians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since then they have been cursed by one thing after another. Desperately poor, the island of Hispanola is one side, on the one side is Haiti, on the other side is the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts et cetera, Haiti is in desperate poverty. They need to have, and we need to pray for them, and out of this tragedy I’m optimistic something good may come, but right now we’re helping the suffering people and the suffering is unimaginable.”

So, rather than a proud history of resisting colonial oppression, Haitians are – in Robertson’s mind – aligned with the devil.   This seems rather stark racism, in my view, but certainly coat-and-tie racism.   While it’s easy to dismiss Robertson as a crank, his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) has a global television audience.  CBN was at one time the largest supplier of 24-hour cable programming in the world, claiming to reach 66 foreign countries through 150 local stations, 2,500 satellite cable systems, and even through the U.S. Armed Forces Radio and Television Network.  Although the influence and reach of the network has declined in recent years, it would be a mistake to underestimate Robertson’s influence on his audience.    The Haitian Ambassador, Raymond Joseph, offered an eloquent rebuttal to Robertson’s nonsense on Maddow’s show last night, saying:

“I would like the whole world to know — America especially — that the independence of Haiti, when the slave rose up against the French and defeated the French army — powerful army — the U.S. was able to gain the Louisiana territory for $15 million. That’s 3 cents an acre. That’s 13 states west of the Mississippi that the Haitian slave revolt in Haiti provided.  Also the revolt of the rebels in Haiti allowed Latin America to be free.  So, what pact the Haitian made with the devil has helped the United States become what it is.”

Unfortunately, Maddow and the rest of MSNBC do not hold much of the audience share compared to conservative outlets, such as Fox. So, while this thumping by the Haitian Ambassador is getting lots of play by liberal and left-leaning bloggers, it’s not making much of a dent in the conservative reverberation chamber.

And, that brings me to the largest (ahem) conservative pundit of them all, Rush Limbaugh, sometimes referred to as the de facto chair of the Republican party.    Limbaugh seems to be the hands-down leader so far in efforts to use racism to hinder relief efforts to Haiti.  His recent remarks on the earthquake:

“In the Haiti earthquake, ladies and gentleman, in the words of Rahm Emanuel, ‘we have another crisis simply too good to waste,'” the conservative talk show host remarked. “This will play right into Obama’s hands, humanitarian, compassionate.”

“They’ll use this to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community, in the light-skinned and black-skinned community in this country,” Limbaugh added. “It’s made to order for them. That’s why he could not wait to get out there. Could not wait to get out there.”

In fact, as Allen McDuffee points out at his blog, Governmentality, it’s right-wing organizations like the Heritage Foundation, that are eyeing the Haitian earthquake opportunistically.

Limbaugh also suggested falsely that the U.S. has “already donated” to Haiti through U.S. income.   Limbaugh, like Robertson, would be easy enough to dismiss were it not for the large audience his show commands and the rather remarkable political power he wields.

And, then there is the liberal racism of mainstream television shows that obsessively report about white, Western victims of the earthquake while spending comparatively less time on the majority of indigenous, Haitian residents, as if whiteness is the sine qua non for personhood and empathy.

Whether or not racism – from the crass Twitter comments, to the racist propaganda of Robertson and Limbaugh, to the white hegemony of television talk shows –  will hinder relief efforts to Haiti, only time will tell.   My hope is that this crisis will, in the words of Ferentz Lafargue, prompt us to think not only “about Haiti’s plight today, but to whatever extent possible two years and two decades from today” (h/t @dumilewis, @DavePurcell).

Earthquake hits Haiti, causing destruction to an impoverished nation

As you no doubt heard by now, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude on the Richter scale has hit Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its epicenter was just a few miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Large buildings in Port-au-Prince, including the National Palace, built by the US Marines in 1915, and the United Nations headquarters, have been destroyed.   Many large cement structures are now piles of rubble.   The extent of the damage remains unknown, as communication between Haiti and the rest of the world has been difficult since the earthquake hit.

Haiti is a country of ten million people, and some reports estimate that at least 100,000 have died and three million people have been affected directly by the earthquake. The capital, Port-au-Prince, is home to nearly three million people, many of whom are recent migrants to the capital and who live in substandard housing.

Thirty years ago, Haiti was self-sufficient in terms of food production, particularly rice, one of the staples of Haitians. Unfortunately, over the past three decades, trade and aid agreements between the US and Haiti have created a situation where rice farmers can no longer make a living in Haiti.  A prime example of this is when rice, grown by subsidized farmers in the US, is dumped on the Haitian market, pushing Haitian farmers out of production. Because of these and other US and IMF economic policies over the past three decades in Haiti, people from the countryside have been unable to make a living in rural areas, and have migrated to the capital.

Many of these urban migrants live in houses made of cinderblock or other substandard materials that are very susceptible to earthquake damage. The fact that so many people live in inadequate housing structures adds significantly to the destruction caused by the earthquake.

Haiti was founded in 1804, and is the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere.   Haiti also boasts a proud history of a successful slave revolt.    Despite its noble beginnings, Haiti’s history has been fraught with violence and poverty, and the United States has played a significant, contributing role in the lack of political and economic stability in the tiny island nation.

Haiti was occupied by the United States from 1915 to 1934. In 1994, Aristide Bertrand was democratically elected by the Haitian people – the first democratically elected president of Haiti. Eight months later, he was ousted by US-backed forces.   Following this, the US occupied Haiti.   Haiti was occupied again by US and UN forces in 2004.

Hurricanes have hit the island regularly over the past decade, adding to the troubles faced by the people of Haiti. The recent earthquake is the worst to hit Haiti in 200 years. The earthquake, with its fires and the massive destruction of buildings, “seems like the abyss of a very long history of natural and political disasters” (Edwidge Danticat, January 13, 2010 on Democracy Now).

When Haitian citizens have left their own country to come to the US (a form of forced migration), the US government has systematically discriminated against them.   Currently, there are currently 30,000 Haitians being held in immigration detention centers in the United States.  Subsequent to the most recent hurricane in Gonaïves, Haiti, immigrant rights activists mobilized to request that Haitians not be deported to Haiti, because of the destruction wreaked by the hurricane. These demands for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) were denied. In the aftermath of the present disaster, it would be inhumane to send deportees from the United States to Haiti.

President Obama has promised to help the Haitian people get through the present disaster. Given the troubled history between the two nations, and the extensive corruption involved in foreign aid in Haiti, Obama will face many challenges in delivering this much-needed assistance. Granting Haitian immigrants presently in the United States Temporary Protected Status would be a crucial first step in the effort to help Haiti get back on her feet.

If you’re interested in helping the people of Haiti, Dumi Lewis has a good list of organizations over at Uptown Notes.

Update from admin 1/15/10: U.S. Suspends Deportations to Haiti.

~ Tanya Maria Golash-Boza teaches at the University of Kansas and blogs about her research on the consequences of mass deportation at http://tanyagolashboza.blogspot.com/

The Common Ground of Reid and Steele: From White Racial Framing to Hegemonic Whiteness

There’s been a lot said about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nevada) comments in Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s new book Game Change, which hit bookstores yesterday.

The authors quote Reid as saying Obama, as a black candidate, is successful because of his “light-skinned” appearance alongside his speaking patterns “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Along these lines, I refer readers to Joe’s post from yesterday, which deals with the “white racial framing” of Reid’s remarks.

Yet, one of the most vociferous challenges to Reid’s comments comes from GOP chairman Michael Steele. On Sunday, Steele called for Reid to step down. The remarks, Steele stressed, were just as contemptuous as those made by former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who once praised Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential candidacy.

As a former student of mine, Taylor Harris, wrote:

Forget Michael Steele’s inane comparison of Reid’s comments to Trent Lott’s in 2002. Lott endorsed a segregationist, Reid endorsed a fair-skinned Ivy-Leaguer. As national anti-racist educator and author Tim Wise posted on his Facebook page, “That’s like the difference between saying, on the one hand, ‘gee Tim, you don’t look Jewish,’ and ‘Wow, those Nazis were really on to something.’ One is insensitive and stupid, while the other is monstrous.

Whether Steele is right or wrong in demanding an apology and a resignation is moot. This is the same Michael Steele who recently remarked that African Americans should join the Republican Party because he was going to offer “fried chicken and potato salad,” or his very recent remarks in which he matter-of-factly dropped the phrase “Honest injun.” Here, both Reid and Steele are employing the same historically-embedded worldview—one of white racial framing.

Rather than examine how white supremacist invective invades the wordplay of both the left and the right, the debate remains hijacked by the familiar “culture war” saga of red v. blue and right v. left. Most discourse centers on whether the left only criticizes the right for racism and excuses it amidst its own ranks, or whether or not Steele (and the right) is engaging in hypocritical political opportunism as a way of jump-starting predicted Republican gains in the House and Senate come the next election cycle.

In either case Reid implicitly reproduces the notion that being “too black” is a political liability in our supposedly “post-racial” age, while Steele explicitly reproduces a virulent stereotype ripe from the text of Amos ‘n Andy, the bulk of the discourse misses that white supremacist discourse has been so normalized that is has become common-sensed or “hegemonic.” Such white supremacist logic knows no political boundaries and cannot be reduced to such.

My own sociological research bears this out. In a forthcoming article in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies (advance copy here), I present data from two politically-opposed racial organizations: a white nationalist group and a white antiracist group. I found that both often relied on similar “scripts,” if you will, to construct a robust understanding of white and non-white identity on a personal, interactive, micro-level.

In particular, both groups engaged in what I call an “Identity Politics of Hegemonic Whiteness”—they both possess analogous common-sensed “ideals” of white identity that function to guide their interactions in everyday life. These “scripts” serve as seemingly neutral yardsticks against which cultural behavior, norms, values, and expectations are measured. Hence, white identity is revealed as an ongoing process of formation in which (1) racist and reactionary scripts are used to demarcate white/non-white boundaries, and (2) performances of white racial identity that fail to adhere to those scripts are often marginalized and stigmatized, thereby creating intra-racial distinctions among whites. As just one example, and akin to Leslie and Joe’s book, I found that both groups reproduce overt and hostile racism in private settings whereby they feel more free to engage in language and actions deemed politically incorrect. For those whites that didn’t “go along with the crowd,” they often found themselves the brunt of jokes, marginalized within their respective organizations, and framed by others as somehow lacking in mental, physical, and/or cultural acuity.

Unless we can have a more robust public discussion of how white supremacist logic has invaded the dominant discourse of both the left and right, and intimately influences how many whites are encouraged to create a sense of their own racial selves, I’m afraid we may be missing the larger point.

Matthew W. Hughey, PhD is Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate faculty member of African American Studies and Gender Studies at Mississippi State University. His research centers on racial identity formation, racialized organizations, and mass media representations of race. He can be reached at MHughey@soc.msstate.edu. His website is http://mwh163.sociology.msstate.edu

Senator Reid’s White Racial Framing: Obama as the “Exception to His Race”

Well, I had several interviews yesterday on the Senator Reid story with CNN television and radio, so I thought I would jell my thoughts a bit more here. As the Associated Press story put it, summarizing some of the gossipyGame Change book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Reid said privately that Barack Obama

should seek – and could win – the White House because Obama was a “light skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Reid is operating out of an older version of the white racist frame. The words “Negro dialect” suggest his age and background (senator from a pretty white state), but certainly does not excuse it. Reid seems to be accenting here the view that Obama is an “exception to his race,” an old racist notion in white America dating way back to slavery days. In this view Obama speaks well because he does not use the “Negro dialect,” and with his being light-skinned and other things, that makes him attractive to voters. He, of course, does not say, but means white voters since most black voters are unlikely to be put off by Reid’s supposedly “bad” qualities here.

The Reid comments, brief as they are, raise interesting questions that few in the media have raised. What, for example, does he mean by “Negro dialect”? He likely means a certain stereotyped way that many whites think, often erroneously, most black Americans speak. (The provocative “Field Negro” blog puts this point rather sharply here.) Of course, whites’ mocking of what they think is the “Negro dialect” is extensive in this country, and there are reportedly hundreds of websites that get into extensive mocking of what whites think and construct as “Negro dialect.” (No similar array for “white speech”?)

For example, on one site there is the mocking translation of a speech by Socrates: “How ya’ gots felt, O dudes o’ Athens, a hearin’ de speeches o’ mah accusers.” Such mocking of black speech is linked on many white-generated Internet sites to a broad range of racist stereotypes, jokes, and images. The site also listed events at a fictional “Ebonic Olympic Games”: the “torching of the Olympic City” and the “Gang Colors Parade.” Antiblack websites spread racist images globally. There is at least one antiblack site in Russian. (These examples are from the research of Margaret Ronkin and Helen Karn in Journal of Sociolinguistics).

Interestingly, commenting on Reid, Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell takes this language issue in a quite different direction:

Obama was not a viable contender until he learned to execute the cadences, rhythms, word choice and cultural references shared in many black communities. His stiff, wonkish approach in the 2000 congressional race led many African-Americans to be suspicious of his rootedness in black communities and his understanding of black community issues.

She thus contends that with some black voters (Reid seems to forget them in his comments) Obama had to accent certain cadences and other distinctive ways of speaking. This is a quite different language issue than what Reid had in mind.

Harris-Lacewell also questions whether lighter skin actually makes a difference with most white voters:

Some social science research finds that white voters demonstrate an unconscious preference for black faces with lighter skin and narrower facial features. It is likely that physical characteristics, like skin tone, may influence voters in this third group to view light-skin candidates as more “like them” and therefore “safer” to choose in an election. [However] These effects are negligible in determining election outcomes. Issue positions, partisan identification, assessment of electoral viability and previous elected office have far greater effects on vote choice.

I think she may be missing the main point here. Reid is considering skin color as just one characteristic along other features of Obama’s white-middle class orientation or “style,” not by itself. There is also the often unconsciously sensed danger-of-dark-skin motif in much white framing, as the cited research suggests. As Adia and I put it in our book on the Obama election and racism: Had Obama been a darker-skinned black man, he likely would have faced greater difficulty in escaping the “dangerous black man” characterizations that are part of the white racial frame. Some recent research is interesting on this point. For example, research on the impact of skin color and distinctive “black features” has shown that in court proceedings white judges tend to give harsher sentences to darker-skinned African Americans that lighter-skinned African Americans with similar records.

When Adia and I were researching our book we found several news stories that illustrate Reid was correct in some of his implications that numerous white voters would like Obama’s language, orientation, background, and/or style. Reportedly drawing on the canvassing approach of trying not to make voters mad, one white Obama campaign volunteer cited on a New York Times site made this comment to a potential voter: “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are more white than black really.” The volunteer thus assured the voter that Obama was acceptable because of his substantial white ancestry and white relatives’ socialization. Another white community volunteer reportedly spoke to fellow whites at a local church about how Senator Obama “doesn’t come from the African-American perspective – he’s not of that tradition. . . . He’s not a product of any ghetto.”

(Reid also has a track record on racial matters that makes one less likely to give him the benefit of the doubt in these matters. For example, he reportedly opposed some leading (and well-elected) black politicians in Illinois as unelectable replacements for President Obama.)

The white racial frame is so strong in white minds, even in relatively liberal white minds like Reid’s, that it is blurted out from time to time, and thus shows what many whites are really thinking–thinking they mostly try to hide in frontstage settings. We should take Reid’s commentary, and other such liberal-racist commentary, as a sign of what is really going on in the society. Reid’s commentary, and much more vulgar forms of it, were likely very commonplace across white America during the 2008 primaries and election. They still are. It is just that somehow this bit of the backstage got out without the cover of more socially “correct” language. One issue that has not come up much in the public controversy so far is the profound meaning of this backstage racist reality—the extensive blatant racism that goes on in the white backstage, something we have examined numerous times on this blog.

I should point out too that the book that generated the Reid controversy has even more dynamite quotes indicating the anti-Obama and hostile racialized views of Bill Clinton, such as those he made to and about Ted Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama. To Kennedy, Clinton reportedly said, “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.” And Clinton also said, “the only reason you are endorsing him is because he’s black. Let’s just be clear.”

‘Race Riots’ a Misnomer for White Mob Action

Recent news reports from Italy contain reports about “race riots,” but in fact, this is a misnomer.  A more accurate term would be “white mob action.” In this case, against African immigrants in Italy.    According to one report, Italian authorities moved more than 1,000 people, mostly temporary workers from sub-Saharan Africa to immigrant centers around Italy in an operation that lasted from Saturday through to the early hours of Sunday.

The clashes started on Thursday, when a gang of white youths in a car fired air rifles at a group of African immigrants returning from work on farms. The attack set off a night of rioting by dozens of Africans, who smashed car windows with steel bars and stones and set cars and rubbish bins on fire. That in turn sparked more attacks from residents determined to drive the immigrants out of the area.

The Italian context is obviously very different from the U.S., but there are also some similarities in which this form of intolerance is manifest.  In Italy, approximately 8,000 undocumented immigrants work in Calabria, most of them working as day laborers picking fruit and vegetables.   This is very similar to the position of Mexican undocumented workers in the U.S. who labor in the same kinds of agricultural jobs and endure a not dissimilar form of intolerance here.

The rhetoric from right-wing politicians in Italy seems akin to that espoused in the U.S. as well.  Roberto Calderoli, a minister from the same far-right Northern League party as interior minister Maroni, said with unemployment at 18 per cent in the south of Italy, “work should go to the Italians… not to illegal immigrants.”

Of course, I’m sure there are important differences between the U.S. and Italian contexts, and I look forward to reading the dissertation about that at some future date.

What I want to get back to, though, is the rather striking (at least, to me)  use of the term “race riot,”  in many of the news reports about these incidents.    This term seems to suggest that there was some sort of equal fight between two groups.  In fact, this was clearly white-led, mob action directed toward (black) African immigrants.   The use of the term “race riot” is a case in which the term obscures more than it explains or accurately describes.

This is not the first time that the term “race riot” has been used to blur the culpability of white-led mob action.   Over the weekend, I visited the New York Historical Society to see their “Lincoln” exhibit, which included an extensive exploration of the events in New York City known as “The Draft Riots.”  (Disappointingly, the NYHistorical Society has a crappy website, so I’ll link to some better resources.)  What I was reminded of, seeing that exhibit, is that the “Draft Riots” were in fact, white-led mob action, much like what’s happening now in Italy.   Here’s some information about what actually went on during the Draft Riots:

By analyzing who and what the rioters targeted for attack during the riot we can begin to understand the complicated social, economic, and political conflicts that divided New York City’s citizens in July 1863. The city’s black citizens were perhaps the most obvious and visible targets of the rioters’ wrath. By the end of the first day of rioting, It was not safe for African Americans to appear in public. Rioters beat individual black citizens and, in several instances, brutally murdered and mutilated. African-American men. Black New Yorkers weren’t even safe inside their homes as roaming bands of rioters attacked black neighborhoods. Not only were African Americans in danger; rioters also attacked white New Yorkers who provided shelter for endangered African Americans, sacking and burning the homes of white sympathizers.

This is not a “race riot.”  It’s a mob action, led by whites, intended to terrorize blacks.  This was true in the U.S. in the 1860s (and for decades following), and it appears to be happening in Italy today.   Let’s call it what it is, shall we?

Islamophobia: Popular, Acceptable Form of Racism

Islamophobia, and the racial profiling of almost anyone not white, seems to be the popular and acceptable form of racism these days.  Following the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airplane bound for Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, a Nigerian and a Muslim, a majority of Americans favor racial and ethnic profiling be used in airline security.   Recent poll data from Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds:

“…59% of adults say factors such as race, ethnicity and overall appearance should be used to determine which boarding passengers to search at airports. Twenty-six percent (26%) say these factors should not be used to determine which passengers to search. Another 15% are not sure. Interestingly, however, even more Americans (71%) believe such profiling is necessary in today’s environment. Eighteen percent (18%) disagree and see profiling as an unnecessary violation of civil rights.  Men feel more strongly than women that profiling is necessary in the modern environment. Sixty-eight percent (68%) of men say profiling should be used to determine which boarding passengers to search, but just 51% of women agree. Sixty-two percent (62%) of whites and 52% of those of other races say profiling should be used at airports. African-Americans are more closely divided on the question.”

This is striking data suggesting that Americans are quite willing to jettison civil rights in the service of stereotypes and racial prejudice.   It’s also based on faulty reasoning.  Quite simply, racial profiling doesn’t work.  As Arsalan Iftikhar, writing for CNN, points out:

For years, the concept of “racial profiling” has reportedly undermined important terrorist investigations here in the United States. Most notably, these examples include the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in which the two white male domestic terrorists, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were able to flee while officers operated on the theory that the act had been committed by “Arab terrorists” for the first 48 hours of the investigation.

Similarly, during the October 2002 Washington-area sniper investigation, the African-American man and boy ultimately accused of the crime reportedly were able to pass through multiple road blocks with the alleged murder weapon in their possession, in part, because police ‘profilers’ theorized the crime had been committed by a white male acting alone.

According to a report last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rights Working Group to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination: “Both Democratic and Republican administrations [in the United States] have acknowledged that racial profiling is unconstitutional, socially corrupting and counter-productive, yet this unjustifiable practice remains a stain on American democracy and an affront to the promise of racial equality.”

If the fact that racial profiling is tremendously ineffective doesn’t seem to deter the American impulse to want to “do something” following this lastest attempt at a terrorist act, perhaps considering the fact that this sort of knee-jerk, McCarthyism stands in stark constrast to democratic ideals of equality will temper this reaction.  I fear that such an appeal will fall on deaf ears and there’s growing evidence that this is so.

Consider, for example, a recent interview with Retired Lt. Gen. on Fox News (opens video), in which he flatly states that we should profile and strip search all 18-28-year-old muslim men.  In my view, this qualifies as Islamaphobia – prejudice and discrimination against Islam and against Muslims.  It seems clear that this is a popular, and increasingly acceptable, form of mainstream racism.

And, as another example, Ed Koch – former mayor of New York City – saying in another recent interview (opens video) that “not every Muslim is a terrorist, but “hundreds of millions are,” which is just patently false as the protest by peace-loving Muslims in Detroit, outside the courthouse where Abdulmuttalab was being arraigned, demonstrates.   But, as we see again and again on this blog, such racism is unlikely to be moved by logic and rational argument.

A writer using the name ‘unspeakable’ asks at Daily Kos: do Arabs and Muslims have a place in America? I want the answer to this rhetorical question to be a resounding, “yes, of course!”   Increasingly, I fear that my country is saying “no.”