Racist Cupcakes? Ministrelsy Persists

The Vancouver Sun has a story about a new cupcake/cake glaze product. The commercial company DH had the film company Filmaka create some YouTube commercials

designed to portray how the new product “makes dessert sing.” The first video in the series was themed “hip hop”, created by director Josh Biner. In it, a series of vanilla cupcakes sit on a counter until topped with the chocolate flavoured Amazing Glazes – as the glaze hits them they sprout lips and eyes and break into singing and dancing.

Clearly, the company’s media staff is not familiar with (or did not think it serious racism) the long racist tradition of blackface minstrelsy– in which images of Black Americans (such as big lips and buggy eyes) are stereotyped in extreme and degrading ways for white entertainment—now for at least 180 years or so

The Sun notes too the music that went with the commercials, which were quickly pulled from Youtube when there were protests:

[They] chose not to soundtrack the commercial with hip hop, but an instrumental electronic and beatbox track. Hip hop magazine The Source furthers the argument: “First, they aren’t even rapping! If you’re going to have inanimate food objects make music then they should at least have a real song or beat.”

Reportedly, nearly 20,000 people viewed these racist-image commercials. Was this commonplace ignorance of our extremely racist history, or much more? I suspect many whites (and some others) today do not see this type of conventional racial imagery as racist mocking and like old minstrelsy.

President Obama’s Base is Not Just White Progressives

Ishmael Reed has a very important piece on some recent political attacks on President Obama, especially by certain white progressives. After explaining how often his teachers in school considered him a discipline problem, and how more recently his articles have sometimes been characterized as “rowdy,” he discusses the attacks on President Obama by these mostly white progressives:

Progressives have been urging the president to “man up” in the face of the Republicans. Some want him to be like John Wayne. On horseback. Slapping people left and right. One progressive commentator played an excerpt from a Harry Truman speech during which Truman screamed about the Republican Party to great applause. He recommended this style to Mr. Obama.

Why are these calls for Obama to “man up” rather problematical:

What the progressives forget is that black intellectuals have been called “paranoid,” “bitter,” “rowdy,” “angry,” “bullies,” and accused of tirades and diatribes for more than 100 years.

If Obama ever appeared like Harry Truman or John Wayne did he would of course be very strongly attacked and dismissed as an “angry black man.” He will be caught in the very negative white racial framing of black men if he ever moves in that direction. Reed also points out the white liberals’ racist framing of who the “base” is that President Obama is supposedly alienating:

When these progressives refer to themselves as Mr. Obama’s base, all they see is themselves. They ignore polls showing steadfast support for the president among blacks and Latinos. And now they are whispering about a primary challenge against the president. Brilliant! The kind of suicidal gesture that destroyed Jimmy Carter — and a way to lose the black vote forever.

Very important insights indeed, yet this appears to be the first post in the mainstream media that notes that President Obama’s black and Latino (and I would guess Asian American and Native American) base is not slipping much. And Reed notes why:

Unlike white progressives, blacks and Latinos are not used to getting it all. They know how it feels to be unemployed and unable to buy your children Christmas presents. They know when not to shout. The president, the coolest man in the room, who worked among the unemployed in Chicago, knows too.

In our book, Yes We Can? Adia and I also assessed the great importance of candidate Obama’s “cool” approach (“Will Smith” approach) thus:

Given his unusual biography, newness on the political scene, and African-origin name, candidate Obama was well aware that the political odds were against him. He also knew that it was imperative that he present himself in a way that would be palatable to many voters, especially nonblack voters, given that he was not then a familiar figure to most in the U.S. electorate. Obama thus attempted to counter the way that his opponents depicted him using the old hard racial framing. His “cool strategy” enabled him to avoid many of the gendered-racist representations of black masculinity that are part of the white racist frame— the “angry black man,” “buddy,” or “sidekick”—because those would render him unpresidential. What he could do was maintain this cool strategy in which he was consistently unruffled, poised, and in control at all times. In this fashion he could still embody the gendered (and implicitly white) characteristics many people ascribe to presidents— that is, being assertive, in control, and decisive—without crossing the line into being angry or threatening. Establishing himself as someone with a typical American story, with a normal nuclear family, who was cool under pressure … was an approach that worked well for him in the national political sphere.

Black Images in Western Art: Greeks, Romans, and Others (slide show)

Theroot.com has a very interesting slide show of artists’ renditions of Black people of various ages here. The slides are prefaced with this introduction:

The numerous contacts that Greeks, Romans and other Europeans had with people of African origin have been portrayed in art for thousands of years. The objective of “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University and editor-in-chief of The Root, is to capture and catalog that interaction for all of us to enjoy. Four of 10 projected volumes . . . are now available.

Republican Rep. King’s Racist Framing: Black Farmers and Obama

Truthdig.com has a good report on the racist commentaries of Iowa’s resident right-wing provocateur, Rep. Steve King. His comments were in regard to the class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, which attempted to get some redress for the large-scale and routinized discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) against black farmers in the 1980s and 1990s

As we summarized the case in our book, White Racism: The Basics:

Government denial of legal redress to the aggrieved black farmers who were protesting discrimination in Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs resulted in a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Across the nation black farmers gave evidence about widespread discrimination in many aspects of the process of getting FSA loans and benefits. This discrimination took the form of FSA officials misinforming black farmers that there were no loan applications or benefits available in particular local FSA offices. Or, if a farmer somehow got an application, some FSA agents held back the information necessary for its completion. In many cases, completed applications were lost, delayed in the extreme, or denied for no legitimate reason. Once complaints from black farmers started coming in, the USDA went into a stonewalling mode for more than ten years and refused to deal with them.

Eventually, the targets of this discrimination had their day and court and won a major settlement of the class action suit, which was approved by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The black farmers involved could choose among three options: reject the settlement, get $50,000 if they could show injury, or petition for more in binding arbitration. However, for many farmers the standard compensation offered was insufficient as a response to many years of discrimination, for they had lost their homes, farm equipment, and land, some of which had been in the family for generations. In the initial complaint, the requested damages had been for $1 million for each farmer, which appears to be more appropriate compensation for the damages and pain incurred by most of those involved.

The truthdig report indicates that

The USDA settled out of court in 1999, admitting to widespread racial discrimination against black farmers …. About 15,000 farmers were paid a total of more than $900 million in the settlement, but tens of thousands of farmers filed claims after the deadline, and many charged that the government’s outreach had been insufficient and that they had incompetent legal counsel, causing them to miss their opportunity. … President Barack Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack promised an additional $1.15 billion to cover the remaining claims, which was [belatedly] appropriated by Congress.

Speaking about this lawsuit, Rep. King let loose with his unreflective white racist framing:

Obama supported the farmers because he is “very, very urban”. . . . “King emphasized the word ‘urban’ ” in his speech by “drawing the first syllable out.”

This is a case about rural farmers, so “urban” here is a barely disguised way of saying he did it because he is black. Truthdig continues with King’s website comments:

On Dec. 1, King’s website described the case as a “fraud” because 94,000 African-Americans have submitted claims when the authorized compensation encompasses only 18,000. [However]… Tens of thousands of farmers never had their claims considered because they missed the deadline due to bad legal advice. On Nov. 30 he stated that Obama introduced “legislation to create a whole new Pigford claim.” [Yet] …The “new claim” was actually an act to make all injured parties whole, including those who didn’t get the best legal counsel because they couldn’t afford it or because the statute of limitations expired.

King keeps pushing his white racial framing, also claiming that all these black farmers wanted was reparations for slavery. Yet, much statistical data cited in the truthdig piece and in our book show that the real problem is contemporary racial discrimination, institutionalized racism, not slavery:

The farmers were seeking equal funding by the USDA for work they did within their lifetimes, not for the unpaid work of their ancestors.

King just cannot keep quiet. On one right-wing talk show he continued but arguing that

Obama supports the farmers because he “has a default mechanism in him that breaks down on the side of race, on the side that favors the black person.” . . . All of this speaks to the larger issue of who gets to define what “side of race” Obama, the USDA or anyone else favors. It is striking that nobody is calling King’s opposition to the farmers and the president his “default mechanism of breaking down the side of race” in action.

Maybe that’s . . . because the default mechanism for the white side of race is, in fact, our default.

Indeed, well put.

Racial and Class Exclusion and Marginalization: Major British Universities

A recent Guardian report shows dramatic racial and class tracking and racial/class exclusion in major British universities:

A bleak portrait of racial and social exclusion at Oxford and Cambridge has been shown in official data which shows that more than 20 Oxbridge colleges made no offers to black candidates for undergraduate courses last year and one Oxford college has not admitted a single black student in five years. . . . one black Briton of Caribbean descent was accepted for undergraduate study at Oxford last year.

In addition, the overwhelming majority of those at Oxbridge are drawn from the top social class groups, mostly from among whites.

The same extreme racial exclusion can be seen in the academic and lab staff at Cambridge University. University data show

of more than 1,500 academic and lab staff at Cambridge, none are black. Thirty-four are of British Asian origin.

The sharp increases in university fees, up to £9,000 a year, that are now likely will further make the universities even more class and racially exclusive, with very few students from working and lower middle-class backgrounds. There are also significant geographical differentials, with large areas of Britain not having any students at Cambridge. Some groups are pressing for change:

Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust, a thinktank that promotes racial equality, said: “If we go for this elite system of higher education … we have got to make sure what they are doing is fair. If you look at how many people on both frontbenches are Oxbridge-educated, Oxford and Cambridge are still the major route to positions of influence. If that’s the case we shouldn’t be restricting these opportunities to people from minority backgrounds.”

Such commentaries seem quite tame and understated. Britain seems far behind the US in moving toward more diverse university student bodies, which is not to say the US is doing very well at its major (especially “elite” universities). The anti-affirmation laws and court rulings (such as Michigan’s Gratz and Grutter cases), as well as state referenda, have contributed to the atmosphere and/or state and university actions that have reduced students of color at major universities, which often do a poor job any way of intelligent students-of-color recruiting and retention. In addition, the report shows that British students of color who do well at lower school levels tend to go to certain urban universities:

A boom in university participation in recent years has led to a more diverse student body, but black students are concentrated in a handful of institutions. In 2007-08 the University of East London had half as many black students as the entire Russell group of 20 universities, which include Oxford and Cambridge.

Clearly, the British system of higher education remains the route to power and the better jobs in Britain, yet remains much more elitist and racial/class biased than that of the United States.

Motivation to Work on Ending Racism

There’s new research that sheds some light on the motivation to end racismTracie L. Stewart, professor of psychology at Georgia State University, found that whites who both felt guilty about their racial advantage and believed that they could create change, were motivated to do work on ending racism.

Stewart was inspired to conduct the study based on her evaluation of a popular diversity training program. Her experience with the program was that it reduced many white participants’ bias in the short term, “…some white participants later reported that the exercise left them with feelings of guilt and self-directed anger about continuing racial inequality,” she says. “Others talked about how they left feeling helpless about changing institutionalized racism.” And people who feel helpless don’t feel motivated to bring about change. So she and her colleagues, Ioana M. Latu and H. Ted Denney of Georgia State and Nyla R. Branscombe of the University of Kansas, wanted to see if they could change how people act by making them believe their efforts would be successful.

(via James Callan Flickr CreativeCommons)

For the experiment, they recruited 82 white university student participants. In a fictional cover story, each participant was told about a pattern of racial inequality at their university, particularly in regard to African American students having fewer African American faculty role models. They were then asked to write a letter to the university administration, expressing the need to hire more African American professors. But first, the experimenter said something about whether the effort was likely to work, ending with, “I’d guess that there’s probably a 95 percent chance that our efforts will affect the administration’s hiring practices.” Other participants were told there was a 50 percent chance of success, and some were told 5 percent.

After hearing that introduction, the participant wrote the letter, filled out some questionnaires, and, finally, was given a chance to take some anti-discrimination flyers out of a folder. The experimenter left the room — so that the volunteer wouldn’t feel obligated to take more flyers than they wanted to — then later counted the remaining flyers to see how many the volunteer had taken.  People who believed there was a high chance of success took more flyers, evidence that they were willing to take more action to fight racism. These people also had more positive attitudes toward African Americans.

The most interesting finding to me is that the researchers also found that white participants’ guilt about how their own racial privilege from inequality wasn’t bad; rather, it inspired them to take action. However, participants only felt guilty if they believed that they could be efficacious in fighting institutional racism.

Participants who felt low efficacy to make a difference rejected feelings of guilt and, consequently, exhibited less positive racial attitudes and less engagement in anti-discrimination action. The next step, Stewart says, is to incorporate this sense of efficacy into diversity training programs, to get people out there and acting.

Of course, there are limitations to this study.  It’s a small sample, just 82 university students. (Some people have suggested that college students are the most over-studied group anywhere.)  The missing piece here, of course, is talking about the wider lens of the pervasiveness of structural, systemic racism, but then that may not be a fair critique for a small psychology experiment.  Still, this research offers some intriguing findings that suggest we need to continue to focus attention on changing systems of racial inequality.

Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real

I get all kinds of email about this blog, a good portion of it is what you might call “hate” mail.  Basically, some people who come across this blog (I assume they don’t stay around as regular readers), find it objectionable that we write about race at all.  We are, according to them, making the world a whole lot worse through our little bit of bandwidth focused on racism, because “race doesn’t exist.”   I’ve been meaning to address this old argument here for awhile.  Just recently, I was reminded of a scholarly article* that does just that and takes on this flawed logic.    So, this post is for those haters in my inbox.

I ♥ Haters
Creative Commons License photo credit: The Infatuated

Race as Biology. When I first started teaching “race and ethnicity” at a large state university in the early 1990s, many of the textbooks in sociology defined “ethnicity” as cultural (e.g., language, religion, clothing, food, rituals) and “race” as, at least partially, “biological” (e.g., skin color, hair texture, “phenotype” – roughly face shape).  Most scholars and textbooks within sociology have moved away from this crude definitional distinction, but the notion that race is a biological one has deep historical roots.

The idea that race is a biological, discrete and meaningful scientific category emerged beginning in the 17th century (1600s) and solidified in the 19th century (1800s), often based on armchair-speculation about different cultures encountered through colonialism.  These baseless claims were used as ideological justification for enslaving people to steal their labor so that white colonists could extract (illegal) profit from that labor.  This is the part that people miss when they argue “there’s always been racism, and there always will be.”  Racist ideology has a specific history, it started a a moment in time (for a discussion of what the world was like before that, see this book).  This is important because if racist ideology was created it can also be dismantled.

The rise in the idea that race is a biological category very closely tied to the development of science, but that’s different than saying race is biological. The vast majority of those doing research in this area that race is a social construction.   Certainly, biology matters.  And, there are physical differences between people.   But what’s significant about these when it comes to race is not the biology of those differences, but the social weight we attach to them.    The fact is that race still matters because racism is a real social problem.

Racism as Social Problem. So, if race isn’t a meaningful biological category, shouldn’t we just stop talking about it?  No, because the fact is that race as a social category remains a significant predictor of which groups get access to goods and resource and which groups face barriers.  While the Civil Rights Act outlawed de jure forms of discrimination in public accommodations, housing, employment and education, the fact is that de facto discrimination persists.  While overt individual discrimination is often easier to identify, it’s also part of that de jure discrimination that was outlawed.  More pervasive today in many ways is institutional discriminationthe uneven access by group membership to resources, status, and power that stems from seemingly neutral policies and practices of organizations and institutions.

There are lots of examples of this form of racism today.  The educational system is failing, and its failing black and brown kids more than any other.   This failure is what one scholar has called “the educational debt.” Unemployment among blacks in the U.S. is expected to reach a 25-year high this year, hovering between 17.2% and 20%, double the unemployment rate for whites, which is around 9.8% nationally.   The criminal justice system is perhaps the leading example of institutional racism.  With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now has more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and many of these are African American. One in every fifteen African American men lives in a prison or jail cell, while powerful corporations like CCA profit from this system.

These systems work together, as well.  There’s an excellent – if chilling – example of this in the recent documentary, “The Lottery,” (a better film about educational inequality than the Gates-promoted “Waiting for Superman”).   In the film, Susan Taylor former editor of Essence magazine and now a philanthropist, tells of a story of having a rich, white woman (unnamed) in her living room for a fund-raiser for her charity. The woman tells Taylor, “I want you to put my husband’s corporation out of business.  They build prisons.  To estimate the number of cells they’ll need they find the number of black boys failing fourth grade and project from the number of prison cells they’ll need based on that number.”   Taylor says she’d heard that before but didn’t believe it until then.   There’s also powerful research that explores the way the school-to-prison pipeline words for young, black boys.  Ann Arnett Ferguson’s Bad Boys (University of Michigan Press, 1991) and Pedro Noguero’s The Trouble with Black Boys (John Wiley & Sons, 2008) are just two examples of this growing research field.

One final aspect of this racism as a social problem is that within each of these areas – education, employment, and criminal justice – is that race as biology is often used as a justification by haters to explain the inequality caused by systemic discrimination.

So, once more, for all those haters in my inbox… race and racism are not the same thing, but I know that haters are gonna hate.

*This post draws on an article [pdf] by scholars Audrey Smedley (Virginia Commonwealth University) and Brian Smedley (Institute of Medicine) with the same title as this blog post (subtitle: “Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race”) in the January 2005 issue of American Psychologist.

European Racism vs. “Underground” Racism in the U.S.

There’s an interesting discussion happening about European racism versus “underground” racism in the U.S. that I thought readers here might be interested in.

Creative Commons License photo credit: jsayer

Matt Yglesias writes at Think Progress:

My casual-ish impression is that in 2010 racism is generally a bigger problem in Western Europe than in the United States. We’re obviously far from perfect in this regard, but progressives can I think legitimately count substantial progress in fighting bias as a major achievement and the European experience as illustrating the fact that the challenge is a non-trivial one.

I love that Yglesias refers to fighting racism as “a non-trivial” concern.   Understatement, much? I appreciate it when anyone at the more general political blogs like Think Progress decide to take on racism head on.  It’s refreshing to see the topic addressed, yet it’s hard not to be frustrated by Yglesias’ “casual-ish impression” about racism when there’s so much actual research about the subject, much of it discussed on this blog.    Yglesias’ lack of interest in reading any of the scholarly research on racism, combined with his rather privileged (white, heterosexual, male, upper-middle-class, well-educated, elite liberal) perspective make his impressions, well, the opposite of non-trivial.

Riffing off Yglesias’ post Jamelle Bouie writes at The American Prospect:

… because racism is almost exclusively identified with Bull Connor and the Ku Klux Klan, discussions of institutional racism are incredibly difficult, if not impossible (see: nearly any discussion of affirmative action). That said, I can’t help but prefer “underground” racism to its above ground counterpart; as someone who has been the target of overt racism, and who will probably encounter it in the future, I kind of prefer a world where racism is banished from polite society, even if the result is a hard fight against systemic bias.

Bouie here is one of the few that point to systemic bias which is an ongoing, current, and important issue here in the U.S.   The problem here is with accepting the frame that racism is “underground,” which is really to cede to a white racial frame of this issue.  While it’s true that it’s no longer ok to say the n-word in some mixed groups, there’s plenty of evidence that racism – even the crudest forms, and alongside some new forms – still abounds in the contemporary U.S. in plenty of above ground.

John Brown was Hung on December 2

This is the day they hung John Brown for his failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

As one history website puts it:

In the mid-1850s, abolitionist John Brown went to Kansas Territory to fight against the spread of slavery. Then in 1859, he came east to Virginia, hoping to liberate slaves. On October 16, he and a small group of militants seized the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry and its weapons, but waited in vain for the uprising they hoped would follow. The next day, U.S. Army officers Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart brought in a company of marines and stormed the fire-engine house where Brown had retreated. They captured him and his band, and killed two of his sons. Brown was hanged, along with six other conspirators. In death he became a martyr for abolitionists. “I am worth inconceivably more to hang,” he said, “than for any other purpose.”

His little band had both white and black conspirators, and significant financial support from white and black abolitionists. Still, not only did white conservatives react negatively and in the extreme to his raid after it happened, but some African American leaders also feared it would make things worse for the abolition cause — and that Brown as a white man had ignored black dissenting voices on the matter. There was much discussion over the issue of black people needing black, not white, leaders of resistance to their racial oppression.

Take Action: DreamAct Vote Tomorrow in U.S. House of Representatives

We’ve written here before about the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act would enable the children of immigrants to apply to become permanent residents and put them on the path to citizenship.   Under the DREAM Act, young people who meet a number of requirements, including: arriving in the U.S. before their 16th birthday, living here for at least five consecutive years, have a high school diploma or GED, and demonstrate “good moral character,” which in this context means no criminal justice involvement, would be eligible to apply for citizenship.  While there’s plenty of room to criticize the DreamAct for setting up a distinction between “good” immigrants and “bad” immigrants, the fact is, tens of thousands of children grow up in this country as de facto citizens but then are blocked from pursuing their dreams of a college education or military service because of their de jure legal status.   It diminishes all of us as a society when these hard-working young people are not allowed to pursue their dreams, or worse yet, forced to leave the country.

2010 11 13 - 0877-0879 - Washington DC - US Capitol
Creative Commons License photo credit: thisisbossi

There’s more detailed information from the National Immigration Law Center here (pdf).  If you’re ready to take action, now’s the time. The vote in the House is set for TOMORROW AT 10AM! Tell your representative to vote YES. The general line for the House is 866-967-6018.