Alabama Killings: Faculty of Color



I have been reading much CNN and ABC online news, and watching the network coverage, but only the Root blog seems to have this extra information on the killings at the University of Alabama Huntsville:

The three University of Alabama Huntsville faculty members who were killed Friday were all people of color. Gopi Bodila, the, the chairman of the biology department, was of Indian origin. Dr. Adriel Johnson, an associate professor, and Dr. Maria Ragland Davis, an assistant professor who specialized in plant sciences, were both African-American. Amy Bishop, a Harvard PhD who was denied tenure, has been charged with capital murder in the killings. Three other faculty members were wounded, two of them critically, at a faculty meeting on the Alabama campus.

The alleged shooter is a white woman from Massachusetts, with a Harvard degree. The media interviews with family and other there suggests this may have been an incident involving tenure not being granted.

Children Learning Racism



The Intelligence Report has a very interesting article on how and where children learn racist ideas, with a focus on children of white supremacists. The report quotes a number of scholars on this how and where issue:

“Overall, there’s not a lot of evidence that, at least in the long term, kids get their prejudice from their parents,” said Charles Stangor, who runs the Laboratory for the Study of Social Stereotyping and Prejudice at the University of Maryland. “I would call it more of a community effect than a parental effect. The community fosters tolerance or prejudice.”

What is this “community”? The article cites another researcher:

That community includes peers and other adults, such as teachers, coaches and clergy, said Frances Aboud, a psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who studies the development of racial prejudice in children. “There are so many other influences in a child’s life [besides parents], particularly once they start kindergarten.”

The account only mentions peers in passing, but research that Debi Van Ausdale did for 11 months in a multiracial daycare center showed clearly that children learn a great deal about racial matters from other children. That they form important peer groups and learn much from each other is a key finding of this study, yet these children’s groups still do not get enough attention in social science research on racial learning and systems of racial oppression. 512ENERVJDL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_Children, as young as three years old, teach each other the basics of the white racial frame and the dominant racial hierarchy.

There is much else to the lives of children and racism that does not get enough attention. Teachers are quite important, and some research does focus on them and the curriculum.

And then there are the children of the supremacists. The fears and stresses of children of white supremacists are explored a bit in the Intelligence Report article:

Children of racial extremists may have to contend with other effects of their parents’ bigotry, Aboud said. “I think [they] probably become sensitive to that type of adult; other kids might not be aware that there’s that kind of extreme emotional hate toward people,” she said. “[Children of racial extremists] might have lived with more fear. They might have felt vulnerable themselves to that kind of hate: What if I cross my parents in some way — am I going to get that hate directed at me?”

This is yet another seriously under-researched area.

Lessons in Anti-Racism



When I was in graduate school, Tom Pettigrew used to remind us that many white Americans hold their racial prejudices and stereotypes at a rather superficial level, mainly as a way of conforming to whites and the white supremacist culture/society around them. (He suggested that a smaller proportion held these views very deeply, as a Freudian-type “crutch” that held their very troubled personalities together.) The clear lesson he was offering is that for many whites some significant change in racial views should not be difficult. The learning context matters.

Recently, one of my former graduate students, now a professor, sent me this comment about a new white student in her class:

I am beginning a new semester of my Race class. I decided to formally introduce your “white racial frame” concept the first week of the semester this time…My students journal free-form every other week or so, and here is the very first journal entry I read. I particularly love the last line of the first paragraph:

White Racial Frame: When first entering this course I never imagined that within the first class session my mindset would be changing about race and the role it has in the world today. The idea of the “white racial frame” is what immediately caught my attention. The idea that there is a term for a frame of mind I never knew existed struck me. I am the typical definition of a “white girl” and I know it. Blonde hair, blue eyes, sheltered lifestyle and never struggled a day in my life, I know I am a white girl. I just never considered that my frame of mind about the world is compromised because of it.

I always thought of my life as fair. I had the ideal mindset that the United States represents all that is fair; everyone has their own chance and makes their own choices from a totally level playing field. It is only now that I can see that things may be set up differently. My view was that my parents work hard for what we have and that anyone can do the same for their families. Maybe it is a naive frame of mind to believe the world to be fair, but it was nice that way. It is only in more recent years I can see the trends that lead me to believe that all is not fair and the world is a tough place. I believe that is partially due to my sheltered life that I grew up with and partially because of the “white racial frame” that I did not know I possessed.

Society prioritizes the white race and does not even realize it. I have done it and only now realize it. Everyday simple situations I find myself choosing someone who is white for a job, or maybe being more comfortable with a white person than anyone else. Even in my relationship preference I have only dated white men. Have had several opportunities to do otherwise, but simply never acted upon it. Before this class I never questioned that the president has always been a white male (until Obama obviously). I am realizing that the “white racial frame” expands into so many things in our lives. It can be as simple as daily life within my own home, and can expand all the way into politics in the world. I am excited to be in this course to help open my mind to more of these situations and to educate myself more on the role of race in society.

Things can change. Excellent teaching and teachers matter.

Woman Kills White Supremacist Husband (updated)

There’s an under-reported story out of Belfast, Maine that merits some attention here (h/t: Cheryl Fuller).   Amber Cummings, 32, admits to killing her husband James Cummings, a white supremacist.

On December 9, 2009, Amber Cummings walked into her husband’s bedroom and fired two bullets into his head while he slept, then fled with her 9-year-old daughter to a neighbor’s home and called police. On January 8, 2010, Cummings appeared in court and received a suspended sentence for the killing.   In granting the suspended sentence, the judge said that James Cummings had subjected his wife and their daughter to years of extreme abuse.   What’s noteworthy in the story for discussing here is this bit about James Cummings:

The killing drew the FBI’s attention after Nazi mementos, radioactive materials and instructions on how to build a ‘dirty bomb’ were found in their home. ….Her husband was angered by Barack Obama’s election as president and the bomb-making materials were discovered near the time of Obama’s inauguration…

James Cummings, then, gets added to the growing list of white people – mostly white men – who are so angered by the election of black president that they are contemplating resorting to violence.   Amber Cummings reported feeling an “escalating sense of doom” about her husband’s plans to set off large scale destruction and his increasing abuse of her and their daughter.   Following the sentencing, Amber Cummings referred to her husband as “mentally ill,” and that’s undoubtedly one part of the explanation for his behavior.  I also want to offer another explanation that directly takes into account race, gender and sexuality.  James Cummings’ abusive treatment of his wife and daughter and his white supremacy are connected to more mainstream manifestations of gender and racial entitlement.

Entitlement is the sense that one is deserving of some particular reward or benefit.  In many ways, gender and racial entitlement are a defining characteristic of white men in contemporary U.S. society, whether as “white saviors” in popular culture or as “masters of the universe” in banking, white men – by their own words – see themselves as those who are most entitled to material wealth and psycho-sexual power over individual women and children.    Yet, if anyone dares to point this out, there are lots of people – frequently white women – who are eager to call this is “lunacy.”

Examples from the mainstream of this sort of connection between gender and racial entitlement abound, but there is a very recent one in the news that makes this point quite nicely.   John Mayer, a white male, a pop singer, most known for his ballad “Wonderland,” and for dating actress Jennifer Anniston.  Mayer is about as far away from the popular notion of a ‘white supremacist’ as anyone would imagine.  He’s also not visibly mentally ill.  In a recent interview for Playboy magazine (to understand how the underpinnings of this magazine’s founding in a sense of male entitlement, read: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Hearts of Men), Mayer revealed perhaps more than he intended.   When asked if he dated black women (actually, the interviewer revealed his own racial/gender assumptions by asking “do black women throw themselves at you?”), Mayer’s answer was no, because his (male member) “is sort of like a white supremacist,” and went on to refer to it as “David Duke.”  While Mayer’s racist response has quite reasonably offended lots of people and he’s apologized for the interview, it’s emblematic of the same sort of intertwined gender and racial entitlement that extreme white supremacists like Cummings exhibit.    Interestingly, while Mayer is not being portrayed as “mentally ill” for his statements in the interview, at least one report attributes his remarks to the fact that he was drinking Scotch during the interview, which brings me back to the putatively mentally ill James Cummings.

Entitlement, in its extreme form, is often associated with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and this may have been part of what went so terribly awry with James Cummings. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss this story as merely a personal tragedy separate and apart from a broader social and political context.    In that broader context, white men have a disproportionate amount of resources, wealth and privilege and feel entitled to it.   Like the old joke that Jim Hightower used to tell about George W. Bush, “he was born on third base and think he hit a triple.”  That’s the essence of entitlement.   Whether or not Amber Cummings did the only thing she could by killing her husband, I don’t know.  The fact Amber Cummings took extreme action to save her daughter and herself from – and possibly lots of other people – from her husband’s excessive sense of aggrieved entitlement and violent tendencies is a symptom of a larger set of social conditions.

Updated (Friday, 2/12/10): Another name to add to the growing list of angry, violent white men: Gregory Girard, a Massachusetts technology consultant who said he feared an imminent “Armageddon” and appears to have been active in the Tea Party movement, was found with a stash of military grade weapons, explosive devices including tear gas and pepper ball canisters, camouflage clothing, knives, handcuffs, bulletproof vests and helmets, and night vision goggles, reports TPM.   Online news reports I found did not mention whether Mr. Girard was married, or whether his wife was also heavily armed.

Gorillas in The Mist?

Here ye’!
Here ye’!
Here ye’!
Come one! Come all!
Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye [Dante’s Divine Comedy].

Come and see the mysterious, allusive, dangerous, and sexy promenade like a powerful lion across the concrete safari. Dare to come face to face with the results of an unequal system that many of you so blindly, but between you and me; internally desire and need to validate your hold on power and resources in this great country we call America. This Los Angeles tour of “the hood” (LA Times: “The ‘hood as a tourist attraction: Activists hope to use money from bus tours for community good.”) will allow you to experience the real flavor of Black and Brown people. Smell poverty, injustice, and disillusionment. Learn jive talk 101! Increase your Swagger, or as the natives call it, “Swagga.”

Through us, you will also be able to hear the loud 21st century drums and safely experience the people as they have traditional dance offs between their rival neighborhood crews. On site, for a small fee, get your authentic graffiti tagged T-shirts. This item of clothing is a sign to your friends when you get back to your segregated neighborhoods that you were actually in the Hood and survived the animals. Even without the scrapped and controversial plan to perform fake water gun drive-bys on tourists, you and your family still will have a memorable time.

Legal Disclaimers: LA tour does not guaranteeing accidental shootings, absence of tears falling from witnessing the pain of others, and that one’s wife will not develop a fetish for Black men, and husbands’ love Black women when witnessing them dropping it like it is hot when dancing.

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American Tea Party Movement Fosters White Racial Resentment

At the National Tea Party Convention held in Nashville, Tennessee this weekend, leaders in this movement sought to turn the fringe group into a serious political force by fostering white racial resentment and suggesting a return to the Jim Crow days of literacy tests for voters.  Several news commentators, including Rachel Maddow at MSNBC (opens video) and Rich Benjamin at Alternet, have commented on the racial subtext of the Tea Party Movement, and there’s building evidence of this based on the recent convention.

Tom Tancredo, former Representative (R-Colorado), was the initial speaker at the convention.  Addressing the overwhelmingly white crowd, Tancredo said, “It is our nation.”    Tancredo repeatedly referred to President Obama by his middle name, Hussein, and said he was thankful Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona lost the 2008 presidential election because Obama has mobilized an uprising.  “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House,” he said.  The kinds of literacy tests Tancredo suggests were once used in the U.S. under Jim Crow to keep blacks from voting.  These racist laws were overturned with the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965.

The big news story out of the convention was, of course, the keynote speech by Sarah Palin. Rich Benjamin is spot on when he writes in his analysis of Palin:

“Packed beneath her beehive is a spitfire brew of optimistic, yet aggrieved, whiteness. Palin embodies a bizarre, sometimes alluring, combination of triumph and complaint that many Caucasian Tea Partiers identify with through and through.  Deciphering the racial codes on the movement’s ubiquitous placards does not require a doctorate in semiotics. One popular sign shows the president’s face and a caption: ‘Undocumented worker.’ Another combines Obama’s image with this caption: ‘The Zoo Has an African Lion and the White House Has a Lyin’ African!’   Aside from the festive, ad hominem attacks against President Obama, the Tea Party’s leaders and its rank-and-file rarely mention race in debate, instead tucking it just under the surface of ‘nonracial’ issues like health care reform, public spending, immigration, and pointedly, taxes.”

There is evidence that these sorts of subtle racial cues matter in political elections.  A study by researchers Valentino, Hutchings and White published in American Political Science Review (2002), 96:1:75-90, suggests that subtle racial cues in campaign communications may activate racial attitudes, thus altering political decision making.  In an experiment, they tested whether subtle racial cues embedded in political advertisements prime racial attitudes as predictors of candidate preference by making them more accessible in memory. Results show that a wide range of implicit race cues can prime racial attitudes.

Such research lends support to the critiques by news analysts on the Tea Party Movement’s attempts to gain political support by fostering white racial resentment.

Boston Cop Fired for Racial Slur in Email

Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis said Officer Justin Barrett was fired yesterday for violating department rules when he sent the e-mail on July 22, 2009.  In the email, Barrett called Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates a “jungle monkey.”  The email was sent following the incident in Cambridge last summer when Prof. Gates was arrested in his own home on a disorderly conduct charge.  “(Gates’) first priority should be to get off the phone and comply with police, for if I was the officer he verbally assaulted like a … jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC deserving of his belligerent non-compliance,” the e-mail said.

Barrett, for his part, said at the time, “I am not a racist.” Barrett sent the email to several individuals and to the Boston Globe.     He went on to explain, saying, “It was a poor choice of words. I did not mean to offend anyone.”

No doubt some will argue that Barrett’s  “right free speech” has been violated with this decision, but from my perspective it seems like an appropriate step on the part of the Boston Police Department, and a step in the right direction for those interested in equal protection under the law.

Racism and Health: Henrietta Lacks Revisited

The life of Henrietta Lacks is the subject of a new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.   Ms. Lacks is a notable historical figure for her unwitting “donation” of her cells to scientific study.   David Strohecker wrote about Ms. Lacks’ here back in October, around the 50th anniversary of her death from cervical cancer.  Dwight Garner gives Skloot’s new book a rave review in The New York Times (hat tip: Jessica in Austin), and here’s a longish clip from that review:

“The woman who provides this book its title, Henrietta Lacks, was a poor and largely illiterate Virginia tobacco farmer, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves. Born in 1920, she died from an aggressive cervical cancer at 31, leaving behind five children. No obituaries of Mrs. Lacks appeared in newspapers. She was buried in an unmarked grave.

To scientists, however, Henrietta Lacks almost immediately became known simply as HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), from the first two letters of her first and last names. Cells from Mrs. Lacks’s cancerous cervix, taken without her knowledge, were the first to grow in culture, becoming “immortal” and changing the face of modern medicine. There are, Ms. Skloot writes, ‘trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.’ Laid end to end, the world’s HeLa cells would today wrap around the earth three times.

Because HeLa cells reproduced with what the author calls a ‘mythological intensity,’ they could be used in test after test. ‘They helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization,’ Ms. Skloot writes. HeLa cells were used to learn how nuclear bombs affect humans, and to study herpes, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and AIDS. They were sent up in the first space missions, to see what becomes of human cells in zero gravity.

Bought and sold and shipped around the world for decades, HeLa cells are famous to science students everywhere. But little has been known, until now, about the unwitting donor of these cells. Mrs. Lacks’s own family did not know that her cells had become famous (and that people had grown wealthy from marketing them) until more than two decades after her death, after scientists had begun to take blood from her surviving family members, without their informed consent, in order to better study HeLa.

Ms. Skloot tells the story of Mrs. Lacks’s life, from those tobacco fields in small-town Clover, Va., to the ‘colored’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the 1950s, where she was treated for her cancer, and where her cells were harvested. She follows the members of Mrs. Lacks’s family to East Baltimore, where many of them live today, still struggling with her complicated legacy. As one of Mrs. Lacks’s sons says: ‘She’s the most important person in the world, and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?

Ms. Skloot writes with particular sensitivity and grace about the history of race and medicine in America. Black oral history, she points out, is full of stories about ‘night doctors,’ men who could pluck black patients off the streets to experiment on their bodies. There was some truth behind those tales.”

While I’m glad that Ms. Lacks’ story is getting the attention it deserves in this new book, it would be mistake to regard this compelling narrative as an anomaly in U.S. history.   Rather, the experience of Ms. Lacks and her descendants is in many ways an archetypal story about racism and health in the U.S., as Harriet Washington documents in her thoroughly researched book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Russian Neo-Nazis Killed 71 in Racist Attacks in 2009

Racist neo-Nazis in Russia killed 71 people in 2009, according to reports from Sky News (h/t: Hope not Hate). A group known as “Slavic Union,” is intent on eliminating anyone who appears to be “non-Russian” from Russia, including through violent attacks. A leader of the group, Dmitry Dyomushkin, says that he is interested in cultivating a “respectable image” for himself and the group, claiming that 60% of Russian citizens support the groups’ goals. However, he asserts that “even with this majority we are not allowed to be part of the political process because the government has squeezed out opposition.The whole new generation of Russians are nationalists – our influence on young people is very strong.” This short video clip (3:16) about the group is chilling:

This news story also mentions that the neo-Nazi group has made digital videos of their attacks on immigrants and posted them online. Despite this bold move, no one has been arrested in this attack. This form of cyber racism, which seems to be characteristic of Russian neo-nazis, is one that I highlighted a couple of years ago on this blog. In 2007, CurrentTV featured a story called “From Russia with Hate,” about neo-nazis in Russia who are filming racist attacks on immigrants, then posting these digital videos online.

The rise of neo-Nazi violence in Russia, and the use of digital video to publicize their racist violence, is an alarming trend that warrants our attention.