Archive for November, 2010
One of the ways I came to be interested in issues around race, was that my father identified as Native American and with the struggles of native peoples, yet for the most part passed as white (what a friend of mine refers to as a “chera-honkey”). My dad also frequently expressed overtly racist and antisemitic views about black and Jewish people, while he spoke with admiration about our Mexican American neighbors in South Texas. That, my friends, will set you on a lifetime of trying to figure out race and racism.
I mention this personal history because there was a something really flawed – and telling – in my father’s logic of “comparing” the plight of Native Americans with what he referred to as the “whining” of blacks about racism. In his view, Native Americans had it “much worse” than black Americans and still do. I think that my father’s “reasoning” here is not isolated but rather a common misunderstanding about the politics of race in the U.S., and a view I’ve seen here on this blog in the comments.
Rather than trying to rank order oppression and which group “had it worse,” it’s important that we see these as connected. Here, for example, we’ve talked a lot about “the new Jim Crow,” and the system of mass incarceration of black and brown people. Of course, this system isn’t all that new, really. In fact, it’s directly connected to the legacy of colonization, forced migration, and oppression faced by Native Americans.
This photo essay and talk (h/t @TheAngryIndian) by Aaron Huey of the native Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, based on five years of work there, is a compelling example of visual sociology. The talk is on the long side (16:00), but worthwhile (even if he needs to learn to not back out of his own spotlight). It was recorded at TEDDxDU, Denver, September, 2010:
One of the things I appreciate about Huey’s talk is that he clearly situates the health conditions among the Lakota as a direct consequence of forced migration and the loss of native lands, rather than on the pusillanimous “health behaviors” that so pervades the language in public health. Huey’s talk is a powerful reminder of the deep roots of institutional racism in the U.S.
The New York Times is reporting that retired Supreme Court Justice Stevens has written an essay that offers a devastating critique of the death penalty as “shot through with racism.” In a detailed, candid and critical essay to be published soon in The New York Review of Books, Stevens wrote that personnel changes on the court, coupled with “regrettable judicial activism,” had created a system of capital punishment that is “shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria.” While other justices (e.g. O’Connor and Souter) have offered some commentary since retiring, their rather abstract discussions of legal issues is, apparently, nothing like the blow-by-blow critique in Justice Stevens’ death penalty essay, which will be published in The New York Review’s Dec. 23 issue and will be available on its Web site on Sunday evening.
In 2008, two years before he announced his retirement, Justice Stevens reversed course and in a concurrence said that he now believed the death penalty to be unconstitutional. But the reason for that change of heart, after more than three decades on the court and some 1,100 executions, has in many ways remained a mystery, and now Justice Stevens has provided an explanation. He will also be on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night.
The essay is actually a review of the book Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition, by David Garland, a professor of law and sociology at New York University. The book compares American and European approaches to the death penalty, and in the essay Stevens appears to accept its major conclusions. Garland attributes American enthusiasm for capital punishment to politics and a cultural fascination with violence and death. According to the New York Times article, Stevens notes that the problems with the administration of capital punishment extend beyond the courthouse and into the voting booth. Referring to the “race-based prosecutorial decisions” allowed by the 1987 McCleskey v. Kemp, ruling that even solid statistical evidence of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty did not violate the Constitution, Stevens wrote:
“That the murder of black victims is treated as less culpable than the murder of white victims provides a haunting reminder of once-prevalent Southern lynchings.”
This bold move by a retired Supreme Court Justice is good news for those concerned with the injustice of capital punishment.
Recently, I was in an academic setting with several people and the “holidays” came up, a particularly sensitive race scholar noted that I do not celebrate “Thanksgiving.” The observation itself was noteworthy for its rarity. There is absolutely no reason for a Native American to celebrate Thanksgiving. It is an event which celebrates the survival of a people who would go on to perpetrate possibly the most far reaching genocide in human history. This post began as a historical retelling, and if you are looking for corrections to the historic record Jessie has excellent ones hereand here and Joe does a wonderful job here. An interesting note on Thanksgiving is that the turkey is known as the giveaway bird because he is willing to sacrifice everything to help the people live. Whereas, many outsiders see the turkey as a silly bird, he embodies a fundamental concept about sacrifice and survival in Indian country
Thanksgiving creates interesting reactions in Indian Country and in my household. On the one hand, it is very Native. All special times and ceremonies are celebrated with the inclusion of a feast and a giveaway. So, any ceremonial occasion could be Thanksgiving. Every Thanksgiving, we take time to remember that if we were a less trusting or less honorable culture, we would not have Thanksgiving. We would also not have stone carvings of genocidal men carved in the Sacred Black Hills and drilling set to commence at the foot of Bear Butte. We fill a pipe and make prayers, with small hope, that Leonard Peltier will see the Black Hills again before he dies. We sing songs in languages that are barely surviving and teach our children to sing it as well so that it may survive one more generation. We are grateful to have our children since for so many generations they were stolen away to missionary boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their language and sexually assaulted with regularity while being indoctrinated with “Christian” principles those Pilgrims brought over.
We make prayers for the elderly and the children on reservations with no heat and inadequate housing. We hope that we will not be attending the celebrations of their life as they succumb to death by exposure as so many do each winter. In my household, we bring out choke cherries saved from the summer picking up North and a bit of buffalo to keep us connected to home. We set out the gifts received from others in the many ceremonies through the year and make prayers for them and smile in appreciation of them. We do all of these things before we put on the turkey and dressing and get ourselves ready to join in the dominant pastimes of food excess and football. Because we too have become a part of that colonizing culture in so many ways. Some years we duck those traditions and spend the entire day remembering our ancestors and relatives in ceremonies more in keeping with our culture and take a moment to be thankful because we are still here against all odds.
A sports bar in St. Paul, Minnesota is featuring a blatantly racist ad to attract business over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend (h/t to reader Gina Kundan for alerting us to this ad).
While I’m a little puzzled by what it means to “party like a Pilgrim” (were they big partiers?!?), the invitation to “drink like an Indian” – with the illustration of a passed out Native American man leaning against a white cowboy in the background – trades on some of the oldest stereotypes of Native Americans as “drunks.” The convivial image of a white cowboy and the “drunk” Indian as companionable drinking buddies, obscures a history of genocide. (Would it be possible to imagine a similar image featuring an SS officer and a Jewish person in such an embrace?) The image of the supposedly indigenous woman in the photo (I have my doubts) dressed in a sexy outfit and provocative pose also plays on the gendered racism of Native American women as squaw, princess, sexual slave.
Is it possible to get a drink in this bar without the bad politics? Bartender: I’ll have a shot with a beer back, hold the racism.
Not only is this racist, but rather ignorant about the history of the Massachusetts Puritans (including those called ‘Pilgrims’). They actually were very strict in their morality and condemned many such “amusements” like this as very corrupt and sinful. They would be horrified to be identified with hard drinking and partying like this suggests. And, of course, the Massachusetts Puritans also engaged in genocide against indigenous societies like the Pequots in the Massacusetts area. At one point, in 1637, they surrounded an Indian village and burned it down with hundreds of Indians in it. Then shot others, sold remainder to slavery. A nice bunch for indigenous people to party with, right? Many Americans, especially whites like these, seem to be just plain dumb about North American history.
White women dominate popular culture and the collective imagination about crime in ways that undermine our ability to grasp the reality of race and racism. There are so many examples of the representation of white women in popular culture, it’s difficult to narrow the discussion to just a few. Even though white women are seemingly everywhere in popular culture, their race, their whiteness, is rarely remarked upon.
Pop Culture: Movies. While there’s some discussion of the lack of leading roles for women in Hollywood movies, there’s relatively little attention paid to the fact that the preponderance of the women’s roles go to white women. And, it’s not simply a question of casting, it’s also a matter of what kinds of stories get told. In the scripts, as well as in the casting, white women are often at the center of movies in particularly racialized ways. Here are just a few examples:
In Eat, Pray, Love a recent film based on the best-selling memoir by the same name, and starring Julia Roberts, an upper middle-class white woman leaves her husband, and sets out to travel the world in a journey of self-discovery.
Sandip Roy points out the many similarities between the lead characters’ quest and that of colonizers, where:
“They wanted the gold, the cotton, and laborers for their sugar plantations. And they wanted to bring Western civilization, afternoon tea and anti-sodomy laws to godforsaken places riddled with malaria and Beriberi. The new breed is more sensitive, less overt. They want to spend a year in a faraway place on a “journey.” But the journey is all about what they can get. Not gold, cotton or spices anymore. They want to eat, shoot films (or write books), emote and leave. They want the food, the spirituality, the romance. … She tries not to be the foreign tourist but she does spend an awful lot of time with the expats whether it’s the Swede in Italy, the Texan in India or the Brazilian in Bali. The natives mostly have clearly assigned roles. Language teacher. Hangover healer. Dispenser of fortune-cookie-style wisdom. Knowledge, it seems, is never so meaningful as when it comes in broken English, served up with puckish grins, and an idyllic backdrop. The expats have messy histories, but the natives’ lives, other than that teenaged arranged marriage in India, are not very complicated. They are there as the means to her self discovery. After that is done, it’s time to book the next flight.”
Although Roy names quite clearly the first-world privilege of this movie character, I would extend that analysis to include her race and her gender. While it’s possible to imagine a woman of color in the leading role, or even a (white) man in the leading role, it’s unlikely that such a film would have been produced had the lead been say, Tyson Beckford (lovely as he is). More to the point, if we’re engaged by this story of a white woman who struggles because she has “no passion, no spark, no faith” and needs to go away for one year, this raises the question (as Roy does) about where do people in Indonesia and India go away to when they lose their passion, spark and faith? It’s precisely because this is a white woman that producers believe that we as an audience will be interested in this story.
Last year’s Blind Side is another example of the white woman as a central, racialized figure in a movie. As you may recall, the movie is based on the true story of a white woman who adopts an African American boy who comes from a poor family. I wrote about this movie when it came out last year and noted that it’s a version of the “white savior film” that many sociologists have studied. The film was a huge hit at the box office (grossing approximately $255 million dollars) and earned Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress. It also seems to have prompted something of a life-imitating-art moment for Bullock who, shortly after the film – and her marriage – ended, adopted an African American child.
The entire premise of the film Blind Side rests on the race and gender of the lead character; there’s no story here without the central fact that this is a white woman adopting a black child. Imagine a Tyler Perry production where Janet Jackson is the playing the lead and she takes in a poor, African American child. It might get produced (by Perry and maybe Oprah) but it’s not going to do $255 million at the box office and Ms. Jackson (lovely as she is) is not getting an Oscar nod. The whiteness of the lead female character is the sine qua non of the Blind Side.
The appeal of white women as lead characters holds true in films produced outside Hollywood as well. The wildly popular Milliennium trilogy of books by the late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson has been made into a series of films. In the first of these, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, down-on-his-luck journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) joins forces with bisexual-computer-hacker-in-a-black-leather-jacket Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) to fight a ring of serial killer neo-Nazis (no seriously).
The Lisbeth Salander character – both in print and on film – is being widely heralded as a feminist icon for the current era (although there’s some debate about whether the feminism in Larsson’s trilogy is weighed down by the heavy dose of sexual violence). The Salander character’s Otherness is marked through her bi-sexuality, yet she remains a “white savior.” As sociologist Matthew Hughey has noted about the classic white savior from a film of another era, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lisbeth Salander embodies a new white savior with a punk, quasi-feminist flair.
Collective Imagination about Crime: Missing White Woman Syndrome. One of the most telling, and damaging, ways that white women’s central place in the collective imagination shapes how we think about race and racism has to do with crime. The overwhelmingly majority of crime in the U.S. is intra-racial crime, that is crime committed against people by members of their own race. And, sadly, a disproportionate amount of crime that occurs is black-on-black crime. Our jails and prisons house some 2 million incarcerated people, the vast majority of those black and brown people. Yet, what consistently captures the collective imagination (and the news cycle) are white women who’ve gone missing.
The undeniably tragic case of Natalee Holloway, who went missing while on vacation in Aruba, is just the most recent in a long line of missing white women who have captured the public’s attention, including: Polly Klaas, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, and Brianna Denison. This phenomenon is becoming so widely recognized that the Missing White Woman Syndrome now has its own wikipedia entry. As communications scholar Carol Liebler points out in a forthcoming article in Communication, Culture & Critique, the Missing White Woman Syndrome is also about middle-class status and perceived attractiveness. Conversely, when black women are victims of crime, the convergence of gender, race, and class oppressions in the news coverage tends to minimize the seriousness of the violence, portrays most African American women as stereotypic Jezebels whose lewd behavior provoked assault, and absolves the perpetrators of responsibility. (For more on this, see Meyers, “African American Women and Violence: Gender, Race, and Class in the News,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 21, No. 2, June 2004, pp. 95–118).
This fetishizing of white womanhood has expanded to childhood. There is perhaps no more telling example of our culture’s obsession with white femininity than the swirl of media attention around the death of JonBenét Ramsey.
When 6 year old JonBenét Ramsey was found dead in the basement of her parents’ home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996, there was extensive media coverage of the investigation. All of the networks covered the murder both on their evening newscasts, and other shows such as “”Larry King Live,” “”Dateline” and “”Hard Copy,” all did dozens, if not hundreds, of shows around the case. Just the year before, in 1995, 763 children under age 9 were murdered in the U.S., according to the most recent FBI statistics available. This means that, on average, two children in this age bracket are murdered every day. Yet little, if anything, is known about these children or the circumstances of their deaths because these stories are rarely are these stories picked up by national media. Scholar Carol Leiber, noted at the time,
Her death should not be more newsworthy than that of another child because she was a white little girl with well-to-do parents. But it has been.
As with the adult version of the Missing White Woman Syndrome, the Ramsey case brought together elements of race, gender and class. And, because the child had been involved in pageants, the case stirred up a lot of debate about the appropriateness of pageants for young girls and, among some feminists, concern about the sexualization of young girls. The sexualization of Ramsey was also racialized. Her success in beauty pageants was premised on her whiteness, as well as her overt sexualization.
Why it matters. So, what difference does it make that white women are placed at the center in pop culture and our collective imagination about crime? In my view, this matters for several reasons, including:
- The relentless focus on white women is a key part of the white racial frame. This frame undermines our ability to grasp the reality of race and racism.
- The Missing White Woman is a distraction. When our collective attention around crime is on the latest Missing White Woman, as tragic is that is for the individual family of that woman, what we’re not talking about is the mass incarceration and the establishment of a New Jim Crow that disproportionately affects black and brown people.
- White feminism, without attention to racial justice, gets you Sarah Palin. As I noted yesterday, white feminism – if it’s only focused on a kind of crude parity with (white) men – is not incompatible racism. In fact, many of the avowed white supremacist women I studied in Cyber Racism view themselves as feminists. And, there’s nothing inconsistent between white supremacy and white feminism. That’s why it’s so important for a critically engaged feminism include a committment to racial justice.
White women hold a central place in the western, cultural imagination (for more on this point, see Vron Ware’s classic book, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History, Verso Press, 1992). Yet, their whiteness often goes unremarked upon (for more on this point, see Ruth Frankenberg’s excellent book, from which this series of posts is borrowing a title, White Women, Race Matters, University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
White women are at the forefront of the Tea Party, a political movement that’s trying to move American backward on race and civil rights. Sarah Palin, former Vice Presidential candidate, half-term governor of Alaska and likely presidential candidate in 2012, is the charismatic leader of the Tea Party movement, if not the official head of it. Palin has a new book, America by Heart, due out soon (just in time for pre-presidential-run campaigning). In passages leaked from the book on perceptions of racial inequality in the U. S., Palin slams President Obama, who, she asserts, “seems to believe” that “America — at least America as it currently exists — is a fundamentally unjust and unequal country.” And then she goes after First Lady Michelle Obama:
“Certainly his wife expressed this view when she said during the 2008 campaign that she had never felt proud of her country until her husband started winning elections. In retrospect, I guess this shouldn’t surprise us, since both of them spent almost two decades in the pews of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church listening to his rants against America and white people.”
(Sarah Palin at an event launching her new bobble-head doll
from Scott, Flickr/Creative Commons)
Sarah Palin’s dog-whistle racism should be no surprise to anyone that has followed her or paid attention to the rise of the Tea Party. (She’s wrong, of course, but that’s another matter.) In fact, recent research from The Nation Institute‘s Investigative Fund, documents the ways that the Tea Party is working hand-in-glove with white Patriot movement radicals – many of whom have close ties to neo-Nazis and anti-government armed militias (reported by Alternet). Yet, what many writers on the left are missing in this important story is the key role that white women are playing in the movement. Sarah Palin is not the only woman involved in the Tea Party. At a recent Tea Party rally in Paducah, Kentucky, singer Diana Nagy performed for the crowds (pictured below).
(Diana Nagy performing at Tea Party Rally,
from Gage Skidmore, Flickr/CreativeCommons)
Nagy’s song, “Where Freedom Flies,” (she composed and sings it) has become something of an anthem for the Tea Party movement, and Nagy something of a poster girl. The song is in the genre of Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to be an American,” and it’s fine if you like that sort of tune: heavy on the patriotic lyrics, light on the social criticism, and completely devoid of a driving back beat. The video of her song on YouTube, is a short clip (2:01) with about 19,000 views. There are a couple of telling features of the video: the images used and the link at the end. The song is meant to be a tribute to those serving in the military (although, presumably not the gay/lesbian soldiers – but I digress). It makes sense that the images used in the video would all be of soldiers, but after the first :30 seconds or so (flags, promotional slide of Nagy, another flag), all the images of soldiers are almost entirely white (near the end the backs of two men are shown that may be men of color, but it’s hard to tell). Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I suspect it’s part of the larger iconography of the Tea Party, which is intentionally appealing to white peoples’ fears, rooted in racism. It’s the end of the video clip which is the most telling, however, as it invites viewers to “get the entire song” at MoveAmericaForward.org.
As it turns out, MoveAmericaForward is another far-right group, also run by a white woman, Melanie Morgan (pictured below).
Morgan, along with Howard Kaloogian (another Tea Partier), formed Move American Forward in 2004 as a pro-war group. According to SourceWatch, Morgan gained national notoriety in the summer of 2006 when she suggested that Bill Keller, an editor of The New York Times, be killed in a “gas chamber” for the crime of “treason” after the Times’ reporting on US government spying on Americans. Perhaps that’s just Morgan’s brand of hyperbole, but when I hear someone suggest “gas chambers” I immediately conjure Nazis and antisemitism, but maybe that’s just me. She seems undaunted by criticism that she might be fomenting racism and antisemitism with her remarks.
In a July 2007 appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, Morgan repeated her claim that Keller and other journalists who reported on the government’s SWIFT program for tracking terrorist bank transactions “should be tried for treason. If they were found guilty of treason, I would have no problem with them being executed.” Morgan continues to make such claims on her website, and, is a promoter of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Today, the underlying MoveAmericaForward message is conveyed in the website’s imagery: soldiers are white, terrorists are black, and the government needs to be “taken back,” preferably by George W. Bush.
So, why does it matter that these are white women, and what does it have to do with race? It matters for a few reasons.
- Because of sexism, white women get a pass on racism. – There’s a pervasive myth that women are somehow less racist, less capable of evil, than men. It’s not true, and it’s an idea rooted in a kind of sexism – that women are inherently somehow kinder, gentler, and by extension, less racist, than men. It’s just not the case, but it’s a powerful idea that still holds a lot of sway, nonetheless. What this means is that white women are called out less, taken to task less than men are for their racism.
- White (straight) women benefit from all kinds of unacknowledged privilege. The fact is that all these women, like other women on the far-right, benefit from privilege – heterosexual privilege, white skin privilege, and many of them, class privilege. That unacknowledged privilege makes them not that different from the men in the Tea Party and other far-right movements. It also feeds into the “born on third base, thought I hit a triple” version of meritocracy that they espouse.
- Asking if these women are “feminists” is the wrong question. Lots of people have been posing the question, “Is Sarah Palin a feminist?” and I would argue that’s the wrong question. Sure, Sarah Palin’s a feminist if she wants to call herself one. So are Diana Tagy and Melanie Morgan. I get that makes some feminists who don’t share the racist agenda of the Tea Party uncomfortable. What we should be asking instead is why is (white) feminism so easily compatible with racist, far-right movements like the Tea Party?
I’ll be back tomorrow with Part 2 of “White Women, Race Matters,” in which I’ll explore the media and cultural portrayal of white women beyond the realm of political parties.
Chalmers Johnson, one of the sharpest critics and analysts of US imperialism today across the globe — much of it involving some oppression of the world’s non-European peoples–died Saturday at age 79. Those who work to try to understand US imperialism will greatly miss him.
As one analyst put it over at commondreams.org:
Before 9/11, Johnson wrote the book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. After the terrorist attacks in 2001 in New York and Washington, Blowback became the hottest book in the market. …. He then wrote Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, and most recently Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope. …. Johnson was the more serious, the most empirical, the most informed about the nooks and crannies of every political position as he had journeyed the length of the spectrum. . . . Many of Johnson’s followers and Chal himself think that American democracy is lost, that the republic has been destroyed by an embrace of empire and that the American public is unaware and unconscious of the fix.
Here is a link to his last book, a blockbuster laying out one major way out of this imperial mess and hubris.
All these books are sharp and well-argued. He will be missed.
ThinkProgress has an important piece on Saul Anuzis, onetime head of Michigan Republican Party, who is running for the job of increasingly-attacked Michael Steele, who is head of the Republican National Committee (RNC). According to their article, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC, see their general hate-group map here) has reported Anuzis’s links to a right-wing student leader
Kyle Bristow, who was the head of the Michigan State University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (MSU-YAF). “This is exactly the type of young kid we want out there,” Anuzis said . . . [in] 2007. “I’ve known Kyle for years . . . .”
Bristow’s YAF has reportedly been involved over these years in an array of racist and homophobic events, some like those the YAF groups engage in at various other campuses:
MSU-YAF staged events like “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day,” held a “Koran Desecration” competition, jokingly threatened to distribute smallpox-infested blankets to Native American students, and posted “Gays Spread AIDS” fliers across campus. Bristow … invited Holocaust denier Nick Griffin, . . . leader of the whites-only British National Party, to give a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Center … .
He recently wrote a novel with a plot that “evolves around a series of violent revenge fantasies against Jewish professors, Latino and Native American activists,” …. “Several notable white supremacists and anti-Semites have endorsed the novel.”
Anuzis knew of MSU-YAF actions when he made his comments about Bristow. Has the Republican Party decided, once again, to ally itself with those operating out of an extreme white racist framing of society? Whatever happened to the moderates and liberals (like Jacob Javits) in that party?
Such actions as those involving the MSU-YAF rather clearly counter notions that we are in a “post-racial society” where whites, including young educated whites, are no long openly racist, but at most only subtly or implicitly acting on their racist impulse and ideology.
“Strange Fruit” is a term that refers to the legacy of lynching in the U.S., and it’s the title of a documentary exploring the history and legacy of the Billie Holiday’s classic song by the same name. [wrong video clip - removed. JD]
photo credit: moniquewingard
The film tells part of the story of race in America through the evolution of this song’s evolution. The saga brings viewers face- to- face with the terror of lynching even as it spotlights the courage and heroism of those who fought for racial justice when to do so was to risk ostracism and livelihood if white – and death if Black. It examines the history of lynching, and the interplay of race, labor and the left, and popular culture as forces that would give rise to the Civil Rights Movement.
The film’s distributor, California Newsreel, is offering a limited time (through end of November) free preview of the entire film, here. Highly recommended for those teaching race, gender, popular culture, American Studies, and for any one who wants to learn more about racial violence and resistance to it through art.