Archive for March, 2010
Over time – from the first census in 1790 to the 2010 census today – the number of categories has grown and the racial designations have changed, all except for one = “white.” While the category “white” has remained a constant on census forms, the meaning of whiteness – and who is, and is not, included in the category “white” has changed a great deal. In this fascinating interview (7:39) from The Takeaway, scholar Nell Irvin Painter the changing definition of whiteness and the U.S. census:
She’s discussing her new book, The History of White People. One of the points that she makes is this:
“Until the 1960′s, there were two racial dialogues going on the United States. One was more or less Southern, and that was black-white. The other had to do with various kinds of white people.”
The audio piece above includes an audio recording of NY-Governor Al Smith talking about “every race in the world” in which he lists a number of groups that we would now regard as white.
We see this kind of changing definition of whiteness taking shape in the 2010 census as well. There is a active movement among Arab Americans to resist being included in the category “white” in the current census. The “Yalla! Count” campaign, whose slogan “Check it Right, You Ain’t White,” as Jillian C. York points out is, for some, “simply a matter of feeling recognized as a distinct group, separate from the White majority,” and for others, it’s a deeply political issue and an important site of resistance.
The census, for good or for ill, is a key mechanism in shaping how we think about, research and analyze race and ethnicity, including what it means to be white.
As I waited in the bus for the rest of our riders to come trickling in, two middle-aged, men, Ricardo and José, slowly walked in, clearly fatigued after the pre-march rally, immigrant rights march, four-hour rally and long hike to the stadium where hundreds of buses were parked. As they stumbled in José asked “and now what do we tell Obama”? “Nothing more for now”, responded an exhausted Ricardo as he plopped on his bus seat. “We have already spoken with our bodies”.
Four years ago when I started researching the immigrant rights movement in Chicago, a march of this magnitude in DC was barely imaginable. I was one of a group of scholars at the University of Illinois at Chicago who were closely studying the megamarches in Chicago while observing from afar the multitude of marches in cities large and small throughout the country. Spurred by by a loose coalition of organizations, churches, religious groups and unions in light of the collective fear of a bill that would have criminalized immigrants and those who supported them, the megamarches were a sign of Latino political potential, albeit ones that relied primarily on the strengths of each home base. The kind of national organization and coordination of grassroots efforts that a megamarch on DC would have required still seemed quite distant. Moreover, after an immigration reform bill introduced in the Senate failed in the summer of 2007, some feared that perhaps the Latino muscle shown would be hard to revive. The marches continued, but dwindled significantly in numbers in 2008 and 2009.
However, interpreting this decline in the number of marchers as a decline of the immigrant rights movement would be a serious mistake. Post-2006 activism and advocacy continued in many forms. Throughout the country new community organizations proliferated in many major cities but also were created for the first time in small cities, suburbs and villages that had great immigrant demographic growth but low preexisting levels of organization. For example, last year, in the Chicago metro area, PASO, the West Suburban Action project, was founded, bringing together two large churches and several suburbs to organize for immigrant rights among other issues. Barely four months ago, a group of undocumented youth created the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) , born out of an arduous and ultimately successful campaign to prevent the deportation of a local college student. Eleven days before the DC march, the IYJL staged its first major action, a march and rally. Stating that they were undocumented and unafraid, eight undocumented youth publicly came out of the shadows, telling their painful stories of what it means to grow up undocumented in the US, emphasizing their need to speak for themselves about their lack of freedom and opportunity in the only country they consider their home.
To many, the very fact of a census taker asking “what race are you?” evokes a racist past that we’d like to move beyond. Today in our week-long series on “Race and the U.S. Census,” I’ll consider some of the recent arguments about whether the census use of racial categories is, in itself, a form of racism.
(Photo by Ed Clark from here.)
Dr. Kelly, writing at CNN’s iReport website, argues strongly for the case that the categories themselves reinforce a greater valuation of “white” over “black” and that the whole notion of referring to people as colors is wrong-headed:
The reason we should not be referring to people as colors is because in our society, colors have meaning. The color white, for example, is associated with most things good (e.g., birth, weddings, angels, goodness, purity, virginity, etc.), and the color black is associated with most things bad (e.g., death, funerals, evil, bad luck, uncertainty, fear, etc.). In referring to people as colors, we are applying labels that subtly socialize individuals to associate being White with being good and being Black with being bad. The Census needs to set an example and stop referring to people as colors.
Meanwhile, some scholars and journalists have noted that the use of the word “negro” on the census form is offensive to some and should not be used in the 2010 count. However, sociologist Dr. L’Heureux Dumi Lewis has a different take:
I am all for rallying around a cause. I’m just not sure I can meet ya’ll down at the Census offices for a protest over Negro. Focus groups, lettering writing campaigns, and write ins suggest some of our older brothers and sisters still support the term. Let’s focus energy in creating greater political clout, not appropriate nomenclature.
Lewis goes on to point out three issues that are worth paying attention to, in his view, around the census (the counting of prisoners, who gets counted as white, and undercounts), and we’ll get to those later in the series.
The fact is, many observers are wary of the census when it comes to race. Jillian C. York writes at the Global Voices Online blog that:
This year, there has been controversy in the Arab-American community over the question of race, because “Arab” is not included. Arabs are supposed to check “White” as their race, or can write in “Arab” or their chosen ethnicity (e.g., Syrian, Saudi), though they will still be counted as officially white. Maytha at Kabobfest believes that this is dis-empowering to Arab Americans…
The kind of push-back by Arab Americans that York notes is what has happened in the past with the census categories. Part of the reason that the census categories change each ten years is that activists demand inclusion in the census. And, every ten years, there are complaints from groups that are undercounted or left out of the census completely.
So, the question becomes then are these categories themselves problematic? Is it better to count and include racial categories however flawed, or not count race at all? We’ll explore these issues, and more, in coming installments in the series.
This week at Racism Review, we’ll be doing a special series on “race and the U.S. Census” with contributions from a number of guest blogger-scholars (hat tip to @eclisham for suggesting the idea). I thought that this clip from Jon Stewart’s show featuring an interview with Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, the administrator of the census:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Gary Locke Pt. 1|
The racist and homophobic, and sometimes violent, explosion by the almost all white teabaggers seems to have accelerated, according to this McClatchy newspapers story:
Demonstrators outside the U.S. Capitol, angry over the proposed health care bill, shouted “nigger” Saturday at U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia congressman and civil rights icon who was nearly beaten to death during an Alabama march in the 1960s…. Lewis said he was leaving the Cannon office building to walk to the Capitol to vote when protesters shouted “Kill the bill, kill the bill,” Lewis said. … A colleague who was accompanying Lewis said people in the crowd responded by saying “Kill the bill, then the N-word.” . . . “It was a chorus,” Cleaver said. “In a way, I feel sorry for those people who are doing this nasty stuff – they’re being whipped up. I decided I wouldn’t be angry with any of them.” Cleaver’s office said later in a statement that he’d also been spat upon and that Capitol Police had arrested his assailant.
Gay members are also being attacked:
Protesters also used a slur as they confronted Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., an openly gay member of Congress. … Frank said the crowd consisted of a couple of hundred of people and that they referred to him as ‘homo.’ A writer for The Huffington Post said the protesters called Frank a “faggot.”
The fact that so much of this racist, homophobic, and/or violent rhetoric and action has easily take place in and around the Capitol building suggests how pro-conservative so much of the leadership of this country has become. Where is the speaking out against this extremist activity by conservatives of integrity? Will we see assaults on members of congress soon from these extremist groups?
Indeed, it is also striking how seldom the whiteness of these extremist movements is seriously analyzed in the mainstream media. Whites usually seem to be let off the hook when they are operating out of extreme versions of the white racial frame and/or the extreme anti-government frame. I feel sure that if they were black Americans or other Americans of color, that reality would be centered in a good many stories. What do you think?
March 21st marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre of at least 69 unarmed civilians in a now-famous South African township. Here is a Wikipedia summary of the events:
On 21 March, a group of between 5,000 and 7,000 people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books.
This was part of a large-scale effort of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which was competing with the African National Congress in protesting these highly offensive, authoritarian, and racist pass laws:
By 10:00 am, a large crowd had gathered, and the atmosphere was peaceful and festive. Fewer than 20 police officers were present in the station at the start of the protest. Police and military used low-flying Sabre jet fighters to attempt to intimidate the crowd into dispersing. . . . The police set up Saracen armoured vehicles in a line facing the protesters and, at 1:15 pm, fired upon the crowd. Police reports claimed that members of the crowd threw stones at them (or at their cars) and that inexperienced police officers opened fire spontaneously. The police were armed with Stens and tear gas. Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police forces at Sharpeville, denied giving any order to fire and stated that he would not have done so. Nevertheless, his attitude towards the protest is revealed in his statement that “the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence.” . . . The police continued firing even when the crowd had turned to run, and the majority of those killed and wounded were shot in the back. There was no evidence that anyone in the crowd was armed.
According to the official record, some 69 people were killed, with 180 suffering injuries—at least 68 of whom were women and children. The impact on anti-apartheid organization among Black and other South Africans was great:
The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of the PAC and ANC and was one of the catalysts for a shift from passive resistance to armed resistance by these organisations. The foundation of Poqo, the military wing of the PAC, and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, followed shortly afterwards.
Once South African apartheid fell, Sharpeville became the site where new President Nelson Mandela signed the new democratic Constitution of South Africa. This day is now commemorated as human rights day in South Africa, and is a day for all of us to remember in the global anti-racism struggles.
The recent highly publicized approval of a social studies curriculum by the Texas Board of Education (TBOE) highlights not only the extremism being increasingly spread by decision-makers in the state, but how those ideologically driven decisions will soon infect the education of students across the country. Simultaneously, it reveals much about the white supremacist framing of educational standards and how white people’s attempts to reframe and romanticize history in their honor continue to serve this ongoing “racial project.”
Last Friday the TBOE, divided along party lines, approved a curriculum that puts a religiously, politically and ideologically conservative mark on history and other textbooks to be used in the state. While the problematics of the Republican’s 100+ amendments were far ranging, from a racial perspective the TBOE actions are part and parcel of the continued retrenchment in education (as in other major institutions) toward the values of white supremacy. These members assumed the traditional white privilege of defining history toward their interests, with a stunted regard for truth or justice. Indeed, standards originally drafted by professional standards writing committees composed of professors, teachers and curriculum experts, were sliced and diced by board members, who ideologically reframed multiple matters with a simple majority vote.
That these non-experts/non-historians/non-scholars simply changed curriculum standards to better align them with their own racist, sexist and religiously monolithic worldviews is alarming enough. Indeed, even Don McLeroy, leader of the board’s conservative Christine faction and a dentist by trade, himself asserted in an interview with ABC Nightline that the power of the board “boggles his mind.” Equally concerning is that the influence of these unabashedly agenda-driven board members extends nationally, as publishers craft their books to meet Texas standards because the state forms one of the largest consumer blocs.
Specific examples of the racial problematics of the TBOE’s historical revisionism abound. While professional history experts attempted to appropriately adjust characterizations of nineteenth and twentieth century U.S. State actions from “American expansionism” to the more historically accurate “American imperialism,” the TBOE swiftly reverted the curricular standards back to the seemingly neutral, even benevolent “expansionist” terminology. This framing effectively nullifies the racism of events such as the genocidal removal and slaughter of Native Americans, land dispossession of Mexicans in the American Southwest, and the imperialist actions driving much aggressive foreign policy in places such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Indeed, such actions were fundamentally driven by the economic interests of white elites, and legitimized by the racist ideologies of Manifest Destinyand white superiority and civilization.
On the topic of the continued discrimination faced by people of color, conservative members of the TBOE were boldly invalidating. In his live blog of the three-day meetings, Steven Schafersman of The Texas Observer documented that board member Barbara Cargill baldly insisted “that the country has been very good to minorities” and “things are much better for them.” In a move suggesting her actions were more malevolent than ignorant, Cargill led a successful effort to remove a standard that asks students to “explain how institutional racism is evident in American society.” Revealing just the kind of white-framed worldview from which board members were operating, amendments such as this ensure that future generations of white children will continue to internalize this white racial framein an uninterrupted, uncritical, unchallenged manner.
Conservative members were successful in many other such racially troubling efforts, as they blocked the passage of numerous amendments that would have corrected the gross underrepresentation of Americans of color in history books by more accurately reflecting their individual and collective contributions to the nation. They similarly succeeded in such endeavors as removing the Central American freedom-fighter Oscar Romerofrom a list of individuals who led resistance against political oppression, and “hip hop” as an example of a significant cultural movement (inserting country music instead). In perhaps the most blatantly racist amendment, Conservative members succeeded in the attempt to subvert impressions of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement by ensuring that students would study the “violent philosophy” of the Black Panthers alongside the nonviolent approach of Dr. King. Members clearly seek to characterize the more “militant” factions of the movement as dangerous enemies of American justice, and to contextualize white backlash to the civil rights agenda as reasonable. To be sure, this characterization is a flagrant misrepresentation of the Black Panther Party, which rightly and courageously condemned the racism and violence of American society and organized around the self-defense and self-determination of oppressed black communities. This brazen move is wholly indicative of the TBOE’s efforts to undergird the values of white supremacy on which this nation was founded and has operated ever since.
In a point that must be a primary feature of any racial analysis of the board’s action, Schafersman insightfully observed that “[the TBOE] claim[s] they are responding to the ‘revisionism’ of the ‘liberals,’ but in fact they are reacting to the long-overdue presentation of accurate and reliable history for the first time in Texas public schools.” Because the U.S. is ordered around white supremacy (the concentration of all forms of – power, economic, political – in the hands of whites) and white privilege (the unearned privileges that white people gain as a result of this structural organization of power), efforts to alter that order generate much intense backlash from whites. More simply stated, when the world is crafted toward your benefit, the move toward justice feels like victimization. The Board’s efforts clearly demonstrate that when the “normality” of white power is threatened, white elites will react to restore what appears to them a natural order of national and global white dominance.
While the efforts of the professional standards writers to correct social studies standards toward a more inclusive, critically honest curriculum fall far short of the major overhaul of education needed, the TBOE’s actions destroyed what little progress might have been made. Conservative members efforts to “bring balance” must be read as retrenchment toward white supremacy.
For about a week now, the nation has been howling about the new standards the Texas Board of Education passed for social studies (including history, economics, civics) education. Because Texas controls so much of the textbook market, the standards Texas’ Board of Ed sets have near national influence. I do not want to go into a full critique of the standards. You can find that in many places (e.g. revisionaries , and the Examiner has a brief list). All of the changes promote conservatism by suggesting the US was founded as a Christian nation, claiming the superiority of capitalism, and teaching conservative politics positively (for example, one member explicitly states that his second criterion for history books is whether they sufficiently praise Ronald Reagan).
I believe a good portion of the conservatives’ curriculum battle is part of the larger white effort to rescue “the racist generation.” The racist generation is that generation of whites who were adults and/or came of age during the Black Civil Rights Movement (peaking 1950-1970). I call them the racist generation, not because that generation is/was any more racist than the generations of whites before or after them. That generation, born 1925-1955, is “the racist generation,” because that is how subsequent generations of whites have tacitly characterized them.
The argument goes like this: Whites who came of age after the CRM are desperate to present themselves as “non-racists.” They claim colorblindness and are terrified by the notion of being labeled racist. These whites admit that pre-CRM America was racist. Slavery and Jim Crow are obviously racist, and today’s whites cannot always shake their connection (ancestrally or as inheritors of the nation the “founding fathers” gave them) to pre-CRM white generations. But, young whites do not want to subject those previous generations to the ugly epithet of being racist. Therefore, they defend distant white generations (i.e. 1607 – 1925) as good people who were products of their time. “Ancient” whites weren’t “bad” (i.e. energetically racist) people; they were just born at a time when racism was the social norm. Therefore, ancient whites’ racism is excused. Similarly, post-CRM whites (born 1955-present) came of age too late to be responsible for fighting against the CRM. Post-CRM whites claim to be the vanguard of the post-racial era. They have no sins from which to be saved.
But “the racist generation” remains. Pictures of whites angrily initiating lynchings (warning: graphic), police dogs, anti-busing campaigns, anti-school integration, and assassinations testify to the consciousness and viciousness of the racist generation’s racism. Although post-CRM whites diminish the severity and frequency of pre-CRM racism, they cannot completely deny the history because acknowledging the racist past is essential to their claims of racial progression.
Necessary as it is to young whites’ self image, maintaining the racist generation is very painful to whites for several reasons. First, to paraphrase, the racist generation represents “Jim Crow unwilling to die.” Whites explain continuing findings of anti-black attitudes and discriminatory practices among whites by referencing a small collection of klan-like racists and the presence of an old racist generation. Whites claim that white racism will decline and eventually die as the elderly (i.e. the racist generation) passes away. In the meantime, old whites’ pre-CRM, non-colorblind language and attitudes bring these “ugly” things close to home. The racist generation also serves as a way for anti-racist people of color to defeat the claim that racism was too long ago to be relevant. The perpetrators are still alive.
But whites now want to rescue the racist generation from the racism critique. Now age 85-55, the racist generation is aging and passing away at increased rates. The post-CRM children of the racist generation wants to send their parents and grandparents off well and remember them as kind and loving, not vitriolic racists.
Consequently, a new project is underfoot to recast the racist generation as something…anything else. We saw a first effort when Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) tried to rescue arch-white supremacist, Strom Thurmond (R-SC) at a birthday celebration. But Thurmond (b. 1902) was too old and had too public a record of racism to be successfully redeemed by Lott. Now, the Texas Board of Education is attempting to rescue the racist generation by recasting history in a way that legitimates the racist generations’ racist perceptions and actions.
One of the most important changes the Texas Board of Ed made is inclusion of black militants’ rhetoric in history textbooks along side that of MLK. The obvious idea being that MLK’s nonviolence and soaring rhetoric cast the racist generation as unnecessarily violent and motivated only by aggressive racism. Including black militants is supposed to intimate that black civil rights activists were dangerous; the racist generations’ angry response was a reasonable reaction to the extremist threat. Related, the Board’s decision to defend McCarthyism by demanding that texts include findings documenting the presence of communists in the United States during the 1940s and 50s, many of whom were civil rights activists further legitimates the fears of the racist generation. The implication is that the racist generation really was under violent attack from clear enemies of America. Though unpopular, aggressive attempts to root them out, such as the methods McCarthy used, may be necessary. Finally, the Board’s requirement that textbooks thoroughly teach the conservative resurgence of the 1980s-2000s–including the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, Ronald Reagan, and contract with America–represents the restoration of the racist generation to the mainstream. Only now, it is sanitized of racism. Despite the fact that every part of the conservative resurgence had clear racist roots and purposes, which innumerable volumes document, the leaders of conservativism pioneered and popularized the currently dominant technique of doing racist actions via seemingly race neutral language and policies. Consequently, when whites define a racist as a person who uses explicitly racist words and has a public discrimination policy, the racist generation will no longer fit the description.
The Texas Board of Education is attempting to redeem the racist generation by redefining racism, recasting the black CRM as a dangerous movement, justifying the racist generations’ viciousness and legitimating its fears, and linking that generation to more familiar entities (e.g. Ronald Reagan, the Heritage Foundation, the Christian Right) who are unquestionably not racist in very young whites’ minds. In the end, the Texas Board of Ed not only redeems the racist generation, the Board resurrects it by restoring the racist generation to the larger narrative of progressive white goodness. The Board famously cut Thomas Jefferson from the approved list of 18th century visionaries because he coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” The Board argues that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, whose white and Christian leadership has steadily guided the nation toward national and international success. Each generation of white whites has progressively built on the morality and superiority of previous generations.
But the racist generation was a problem for the narrative of white goodness and benevolent supremacy. The emergence of an evil, racist generation in the middle of the nation’s history challenged the idea of steady progress. It also begged the questions: “Where did this racist generation come from? Did our founders lay the seeds for that generation the same as they laid for the good generations? And worst, if the narrative of benevolent, progressive white goodness/supremacy is not true, what kind of heritage is that for contemporary whites and what is their moral basis for racial domination (in outcome)?
By reshaping history in this particular way, the Texas Board of Ed undermines the racial critiques of the racial generation, puts the racist generation and future white generations back into the narrative of progressive white goodness, and permanently redeems the racist generation by ensuring that future generations will have no charges to levy at them. In the memory and spirit of the late Howard Zinn, we must recognize this moment and do all we can to tell the people’s true history.
This short video (5:28) from Ronald Jackson (@ronaldjacksonX) offers a glimpse at the signs of the “Teabag Party” movement which illustrate the deep racism of the movement. You may have seen some of these, but most of the signs rarely make the mainstream news broadcasts:
If you don’t have speakers, don’t worry – you can still watch the video. The audio is just background music only on this one, playing over sign after sign of racism, Islamaphobia, and the occasional sexism. As I’ve written here before, I don’t believe that all opposition to Obama is fueld by racism (I have my own disagreements with his policies), but this “movement” certainly is. The other point to keep in mind about the “Teabag Party” is that it is largely an astroturf – fake grassroots – movement originated by powerful, right-wing lobbyists such as Dick Armey. This cynical strategy of the “Teabag Party” is one that trades on the racism and fear of people in order to advance a republican agenda.