Victim Blaming to Maintain the White Frame: Reflections from a Bronx Classroom

Part two. (Recall that along with a few other Middlebury College students, I spent my January winter term working in a public school in the Bronx. Our Education Studies Program coordinated this valuable learning experience outside of Middlebury’s “bubble.” However, I found this “bubble” not easily escapable; at each turn I found the racist pumps that keep it inflated and witnessed rapid “repairs” to any momentary puncture of its surface, those longing for the fresh air of a counter-frame silenced by the same dominant ideologies that plague the halls of my campus. The following is part of a reflection on my experience.)

Many of my students in the Bronx sleep with multiple generations of their family in the same room at night. Many at 11 years old have had to assume responsibilities that most at Middlebury are years away from having to worry about. Many cannot turn to family for assistance with homework because their parents come home too late after their second or third “menial” job. Some barely have time to think of homework at all when they come home burned out from work themselves. One student told me that after school she works five hours straight on her feet at McDonalds, dealing with perpetually rude customers for $7.20 an hour.

When students walk into the classroom they are blamed by teachers for “trying” to fail instead of empowered to challenge a society that has failed them: “At a certain point the teacher has done all we can do, it is not our fault, but yours. Going to summer school was not a badge of honor when I went to school, but maybe it is here.”

Who wants to engage in school when your community is disproportionately affected by social ills that your education does not prepare you to respond to? Who wants to learn when the curriculum fails to recognize your history and culture?

Louis Michael Seidman argues that Brown v. Board of Education did not radically change the face of education, but rather served to legitimate current arrangements: “True, many blacks remained poor and disempowered. But their status was no longer a result of the denial of equality. Instead, it marked a personal failure to take advantage of one’s definitionally equal status.” We must challenge this racist individual ideology that allows me to “deserve” to get to Middlebury and my students in the Bronx to “deserve” to fail.

Middlebury to the Bronx: Reflections on Integenerational Insurance against Integration

Along with a few other Middlebury College students, I spent my January winter term working in a public school in the Bronx. Our Education Studies Program coordinated this valuable learning experience outside of Middlebury’s “bubble.” However, I found this “bubble” not easily escapable. At each turn I found the racist pumps that keep it inflated and witnessed rapid “repairs” to any momentary puncture of its surface, those longing for the fresh air of a counter-frame silenced by the same dominant ideologies that plague the halls of my campus. The following is the first part (of three, two more to come) of a reflection on my experience.

Bronx, #1 train stop at 231st Street
(Creative Commons License photo credit: Susan NYC )

Each morning my alarm goes off at 6 am. I hurriedly prepare for the commute from my comfortable host family’s apartment in Greenwich Village to the poorest Congressional district in the country. With the passing of each stop in the subway the demographics of the passengers drastically changes. Soon I am the only white person left in the train. As I get off the subway in the South Bronx I emerge to a different world.

I am not alone in having a long commute. For our New York City Urban Education Internship we were graciously provided housing with current Middlebury parents, staying in the beds their children vacated while in Vermont. Although nearly all of us were placed in public schools in the Bronx, not one of us was placed in housing there.

While the Bronx is comprised of a diverse and impoverished population, Middlebury is an elite private institution with a tremendous wealth bias in its admission practice despite its boasting of a “need blind” policy. This bias is precisely why none of us were staying in the Bronx and why one host family even had a private elevator that opened up directly to their living room. Another had not only a housekeeper at their assistance all day, but also an entire additional apartment in the elaborate residence that presently sits empty, waiting to be occupied by their son when he graduates.

Housing segregation in America maps along with class inequality and is a long-term consequence of slavery, a form of systemic racism that is, as explained by Joe Feagin in Racist America: “maintained by social inheritance mechanisms that transmit wealth and privilege over the generations.” As whites have accrued economic benefits and built up housing equity, often red-lined and deed-restricted into being the only group able to do so throughout most of our history, they accrue intergenerational wealth easily converted into educational capital.

~ Jay Saper is a student of sociology at Middlebury College

Racist Science: An Evolutionary Psychologist on Black Women

In a recent post in Psychology Today, Satoshi Kanazawa wrote an incendiary post titled “Why are African American Women Less Physically Attractive than Other Woman.”

In Kanazawa’s post he purports that black women are categorically and scientifically less attractive than men and women of other racial groups, including black men. His “findings” are based on Ad Health (a longitudinal study funded by the US to analyze “adolescent health outcomes”) interviewers’ “objective” ranking of the attractiveness (on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1=very unattractive and 5 =very attractive) of white, black, Asian, and Native American Ad health participants.

Kanazawa does not specify the race and background of the Ad Health interviewers.

Kanazawa takes as fact the rankings of the Add Health interviewers and based on their opinions he purports that indeed black women are the most unattractive group of individuals regardless of sex and race. Kanazawa concludes his argument stating:

The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone. Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races, and testosterone, being an androgen (male hormone), affects the physical attractiveness of men and women differently… In contrast, women with higher levels of testosterone also have more masculine features and are therefore less physically attractive. The race differences in the level of testosterone can therefore potentially explain why black women are less physically attractive than women of other races, while (net of intelligence) black men are more physically attractive than men of other races.

Kanazawa’s argument is of course baseless and there is no scientific evidence to support his notion that black women have more testosterone than other races of women. The perception of Kanazawa and the Ad Health interviewers is a direct reflection of the historical social construction of black women (and whites) by elite white men, such as Thomas Jefferson and Georges Cuvier. This is a society historically constructed by elite white men, whereby their notion of beauty is treated as the irrevocable truth. A socially created “truth,” that has not only been accepted by whites, but also by some people of color. As far back as the 15th and 16th centuries, European travelers and scientists have defined black women as innately inferior to white women in beauty, sexuality, and femininity. These early European travelers often defined black women as masculine and thus fit for the hard life of slavery.

My recent research examining 134 contemporary white men’s perspectives of black women reveals the deep seated racist and sexist frame that many white men operate from as it relates to black women. This is a frame that unfortunately has been adopted by some people of color. Overwhelmingly the white male respondents in the study, rooted in the historical social construction of black women, found black women only attractive if they met a white normative standard. Those black women considered physically unattractive were those with traits defined as “black,” such as, coarse” or “nappy” hair; “black” facial features, “big lips” and “wide noses”; dark skin; and “larger” and “disproportionate” body shapes (using the language of the participants).

For example, one respondent in his 20s stated the following about black women and the standard of beauty:

There are some black women who are attractive. And they aren’t full black. The only black women I find attractive are a mix of black and [E]uropean, black and [L]atino, or black and [A]sian. They end up with the tan complexion, and hair that doesn’t look frizzled or like a brillo pad.

Similarly, another respondent in his 50s stated the following about black women and attractiveness:

I think black women’s features are too extreme; they are too dark, and they usually are much too large for my tastes. The black women I have know[n] are very aggressive and have terrible attitudes…The only black women I have found even marginally attractive are smaller, lighter-skinned black women with nice rear ends. ala Beyonce.

Another respondent, an older working-class male, articulated one of the most racialized and gendered social constructions of black women, when he stated:

“I tend to read African features as somewhat masculine. The ‘blacker’ the person, the less femininity I tend to see.”

Whereas the other respondents alluded to black or too-black features as a negative “extreme” that indicates unattractiveness, this respondent articulated that perceived unattractiveness as a sign of masculinity. His assertion that black features on black women are masculine is rooted in the deeply racialized and gendered construction of the black female body, which includes the firm denial of femininity, beauty, and womanhood.

Hence, it is no surprise that people like Kanazawa hold such negative perceptions of black women’s beauty as irrevocable fact. Kanazawa and the Ad health interviewers have adopted a deep seated frame of reference where whiteness and white defined notions of beauty are so deeply entrenched that they are not recognized as the racist and sexist constructions that they are. For them and a large proportion of this global world it is simply the unquestioned norm.

Critics of Cornel West: Roasted by Chris Hedges

The usually hard-hitting Chris Hedges has a column at that sharply critiques the critics of Cornel West. Ignoring the big debate over West’s personalizing and supposed ego-tripping in his critique of President Obama, Hedges nails the main point West made:

The liberal class, which attempted last week to discredit the words … West spoke about Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, prefers comfort and privilege to justice, truth and confrontation. . . . It refuses to challenge . . . the decaying structures of democracy or the ascendancy of the corporate state. It glosses over the relentless assault on working men and women. . . . The pillars of the liberal establishment—the press, the church, culture, the university, labor and the Democratic Party—all honor an unwritten quid pro quo with corporations and the power elite . . . on whom they depend for money, access and positions of influence.

Hedges then cites the troubling role of President Obama in this continuing U.S. political drama, much like Dr. West did:

The liberal class . . . functions like a commercial brand, giving a different flavor, face or spin to the ruthless mechanisms of corporate power. This, indeed, is the primary function of Barack Obama. The liberal class . . . will decry the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or call for universal health care, but continue to defend and support a Democratic Party that has no intention of disrupting the corporate machine.

He ends up with a kind of social realism that reminds me greatly of Derrick Bell’s racial realism:

To accept that Obama is, as West said, a mascot for Wall Street means having to challenge some frightening monoliths of power and give up the comfortable illusion that the Democratic Party or liberal institutions can be instruments for genuine reform. . . . It means a new radicalism.

Interestingly, even Hedges does not note just who the leaders of this corporate state and political-economic machine are, that is, elite white men. It is highly significant that even the most radical critiques of this society almost never call out and analyze in some detail exactly who are the elite white men who run almost all our major institutions—and how they view the world, make decisions, and oppress most of the rest of us one way or another. Elite white men make up at least 95 percent of the ruling elite in this country, even though white men are just a third now of the U.S. population. Why and how do they still rule this country so easily and without much sustained attention? What is your take on all this?

Dreaming of Justice: Undocumented Students and Punitive Immigration Policy

Undocumented students across the country are torn between achieving their dreams of an education, and knowing full well that once they complete their college degree they may not have many options to pursue their careers. This is because the political rhetoric surrounding immigration is punitive and it is time for it to stop. The costs to us all are too great.

One cost is to children raised in the U.S. but brought here illegally by their parents. Rather than giving them the opportunity to attend university by allowing them to pay in-state tuition and passing the Dream Act, so that upon completion of their degrees they can become contributing members of society, we currently leave them in a state of limbo. Those that do make it to university live in constant fear for their futures once they complete their degrees, but even while they attend college they are not able to fully participate in the college experience because they cannot participate in work-study programs on campus or participate in the many study abroad programs. Our current attitude towards immigrants, especially towards Latinos must change. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education argues that undocumented students who pay in-state tuition at universities not only attend university at higher rates, but they have lower dropout rates, and bring financial benefits to the states who allow in-state tuition as well.

However, there are three fundamental challenges in changing this punitive focus on immigration policy:

First, a because of the white racial frame Latinos encounter discrimination, whether immigrant or citizen, even among Latino professionals. We must become aware and challenge the white racial frame. Feagin demonstrates that the current rhetoric of America as a post-racial society is wrong. He states, “this new colorblind rhetoric has just papered over what are still blatantly racist views of Americans of color that have continued in most whites’ framing of this society” (p. 97). This important awareness of racism in America is the first challenge that must be overcome before immigration policy can turn away from its punitive direction.

Secondly, until we can see immigrants as human beings who come here because of crippling poverty, poverty that is so great and unimaginable to most Americans that they resort to doing unthinkable acts just to be here. I recently heard a story of a mother and father who got caught trying to cross into the U.S. illegally and left their four year old daughter with a hotel front desk worker until they could safely get her. Imagine the conditions in Mexico to make parents risk this kind of behavior with their most precious children. A recent report from La Opinion reports that immigrants are also increasingly willing to cut the ends of their fingers off for thousands of dollars in order to not be fingerprinted.

Finally, until we see immigrants as a contribution rather than a cost to America the punitive focus of the immigration debate will not change. There are too many studies which demonstrate that the millions of illegal immigrants who are working in the US are actually providing great services and wealth for small businesses and large corporations. They are contributing not costing America. This economic debate should have been over a long time ago.

Until immigration political rhetoric and policy change from its current punitive position, not only will be continue a racist immigration agenda, endure many humanitarian costs from leaving one’s children vulnerable to cutting ones fingers off to avoid detection, but we will continue on a path bad economic policy as well.

Most sadly, there are too many victims of punitive and misguided immigration policy. And this will not change until we all fight against the white racial frame for immigrants allowing them to express some dignity and humanity while they try to provide for their families in the face of our racialized society today.

Cornel West: President Obama as Puppet of Plutocrats?

In a recent probing interview with Chris Hedges, Princeton Professor Cornel West, a leading US intellectual who campaigned exhaustively for Obama, made a harsh assessment of President Obama as selling out to white elite interests. Obama is

a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.

West then briefly painted a broad picture of U.S. imperialism and decay to back his strong critique and call for action:

And even at this moment, when the empire is in deep decline, the culture is in deep decay, the political system is broken, where nearly everyone is up for sale . . . . [What we need instead is] civil disobedience, going to jail, supporting progressive forums of social unrest.

West says he expected a President Obama to be constrained by capitalism, but also expected

some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck.

Yet, with few exceptions, Obama did not do that, but appointed members of the moderate wing of the established white elite to his administration and only pretended “intermittent progressive populist language in order to justify a centrist, neoliberalist policy” of the centrist Democratic Party politicians.

West has gotten major pushback for his bold comments from numerous white and black commentators, and some black leaders, and especially for his further comment that his “dear brother Barack Obama” was afraid of independent black men who would stand up to the white corporate elite:

As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. . . . When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. . . . He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination.

West concludes that Obama is passing up what he thinks may be the country’s last real chance to counter the corporate plutocrats and oligarchs and bring some semblance of real democracy to the United States.

Several prominent white and black analysts have been very critical of West for his personal comments, including some indicating West feels he has been snubbed by the president. Washington Post commentator, Jonathan Capehart, has accented West’s more personal comments and asserted West is espousing an ignorant perspective and trying to be one of the

self-appointed guardians of what it means to be black — a decidedly limited and ignorant perspective that has more to do with the accuser’s insecurities than the alleged transgressions of the accused.

Over at The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry, also a Princeton professor, is very critical of West for his personalizing attack on Obama’s heritage and whitewashed background, even as a hypocritical West himself has lived in a mostly white world since adulthood, especially as a professor at elite white universities. However, like several others, her critique is almost entirely about West’s own life and personal situation, but she mostly ignores West’s on-target structural critique of Obama’s (obligatory?) selling out to corporate America.

Indeed, West is correct that working class and strong progressive, especially independent and forthright black, Americans have very few prominent voices in the top ranks of the Obama administration, including just one cabinet member not from the political or economic establishment. What the critiques of West leave unsaid is that what West is focusing most on how individual black success in U.S. politics, as for Obama, has not meant significant advances for black Americans as a group, nor for Americans of color collectively. Indeed, what is missing from West’s own critical analysis is the next obvious question: Why does the “not independent” Obama play up to the interests and issues of the dominant white elite and larger white population? This is not a character flaw, but rather about the foundational reality and continuing strength of the white racist system. That is the elephant in the room that not even West calls out.

As I and my colleagues have argued before, black candidates for state and national political offices, like President Obama, cannot adopt, even occasionally, a black counter-framed perspective (see chapter 7 here) on the action necessary to deal the extensive discrimination and severe socioeconomic problems faced by black communities and other communities of color, and expect to win. Even in part, black candidates cannot articulate what they will do to deal with extensive racial discrimination and related racial problems if they are elected, yet when white candidates tell white communities what they will do for them, almost no one accuses them of “playing the race card.”

In contrast, black candidates need only to touch on issues of developing anti-discrimination and desegregation programs for black Americans and other people of color, and they are often called out as biased or extremist. Even if the black candidates’ associates or mentors call out the white-racist system, as with Dr. Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 primary elections, they must disassociate themselves from their friends and almost all honest evaluations of a racist U.S. society.

White candidates and elected politicians regularly take action openly benefitting white communities. Although Obama has not ignored the needs of communities of color in his presidency, he has had to take modest action, and that quietly, to benefit the black community, such as on improving funding for black colleges. He has not been able, and will not be able at any point, to talk openly about the massive and systemic racism of U.S. society, including the highly racialized “Jim Crow” system of our oppressive and extensive prison-industrial complex.

White Republicans: Political Decline in California?

The Republican Party in California is in real trouble with only 30.9 percent of registered voters currently registered as Republican. According to a new article by Garry South in the Huffington Post the combination of demographic shifts in the state, which is now 60 percent minority, the lack of Asian, Latino, and Black Republicans, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric by Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, all portend trouble for Republicans in California.

One element missing from the discussion is redistricting. In 2008 California voters approved Proposition 11, which allows for a citizen commission to draw district lines, after the public became furious when both parties drew an outrageous district scheme to protect their seats in 2000. If Prop. 11 works to effectively reduce gerrymandering then the Democrats could not only be in the majority but they could soon be a supermajority in the legislature allowing them to make budget and taxation decisions without having to consult with the Republicans.

The demographic environment in California, with minorities leaning towards the Democrats, plus the changes in the redistricting laws could change the outcome of California politics on many fronts.

Another point is that business interests, which are typically represented most strongly in the Republican party, aren’t going away. So, where will they go? It seems to me if the Republican party continues on its anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, anti-people of color bent, then big business will follow the money, or in this case follow the voters, which are increasingly going to be Democrats of color. Will Democrats become the party of “minority friendly” big business, while Republicans become the party of “White Americans R US”?

On the other hand, Dr. Melissa R. Michelson, professor of political science, at Menlo College points out, “The Democratic Party is also not so popular with Californians these days.” In addition, Michelson adds that as the no-taxes/cuts-only budget realities hit the voters, and they see so many programs cut that serve communities of color, such as the cuts to education, who will be blamed?”

When Republican Assemblyman Donnelly invites the sponsor of Arizona’s anti-Latino legislation for a public event it sends a clear message to California’s minority communities, and they have responded by abandoning the Republican party. When Democrats are in power and vital programs for communities of color are cut this too will send a message to minority communities. Who will these communities—which are disproportionately affected by state cuts—blame? And how will they respond?

When are Republicans going to quit being so fearful about the changes in the country and realize that racism and xenophobia will end up being their demise?

Will the old cliché the way California goes, so goes the nation be appropriate here?

Programming Alert: “Freedom Riders” on PBS Tonight (May 16)

Make plans to see this fabulous documentary, which airs on PBS tonight (in most markets), called “Freedom Riders,” about the young people who protested racial segregation by riding buses into the segregated south from May to November 1961. Here’s a short (2:16 ) preview:

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

There is also a traveling exhibit that includes a detailed narrative of the Rides, illustrated with archival photos and newspaper clippings that document this pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. Look for it in your city.

Newt Gingrich calls President Obama “Food Stamp President,” Bristles at Charges of Racism

If last week is any indication, the 2012 presidential election has begun in earnest and it’s going to be ugly.  Newt Gingrich (Republican) recently announced his candidacy for presidency and then almost immediately began using racially charged language to score political points.  First, he said that he would make the nation “look more like Texas”  while Obama would make the nation “look more like Detroit.” Texas is a big state, but I’m guessing that he’s counting on the people he’s talking will conjure the more affluent Dallas County rather than Hidalgo County, which ties The Bronx for the greatest share of people receiving food stamps: 29 percent.  Shortly thereafter, Gingrich said he wanted to be the “most successful paycheck president” while contrasting that to President Obama whom he derided “the food stamp president,” The “food stamp” reference suggests one of the racist cartoons (“Obama Bucks”) that circulated during the previous campaign.

David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” accused Gingrich of racism for the food stamp comment. Gingrich denies any racism.  Ta-Nehisi Coates writing at The Atlantic points out that, of course, there are no racists, at least not in mainstream American politics.

In American political rhetoric, there is a long history of using the language of public assistance – “welfare” or “food stamps” – as codes for racial slurs.  Former President Ronald Reagan, with the help of Lee Atwater, was a master at this.  Reagan once referred to “strapping young bucks” who used food stamps to “buy T-bone steaks.” It was Reagan who, in 1976, introduced the term “welfare queen” into popular culture and this slur continues to have a devastating effect on women of color who must rely on public assistance and on public opinion. In my first book (White Lies, Routledge, 1997), I demonstrated how the language of mainstream politics connects seamlessly with the overt racism of white supremacist publications.  (And, it’s not just white people that engage in this, as I noted in that book, Clarence Thomas referred to his own sister as a “welfare queen” when he was testifying before Congress to become a Supreme Court Justice. She wasn’t, for the record.)

Gingrich was engaging in (barely) coded racism, as Joan Walsh writing at Salon points out.  While it’s certainly possible to oppose the idea of welfare or food stamps without pushing a racist political agenda, the fact is that for most people words like “welfare” and “food stamps” are racially coded. Even though the reality is that the majority of those receiving food stamps are white, and increasingly the working poor, meaning they are employed at jobs that don’t pay enough to buy food, “food stamps” and “welfare” are code for “black” and “poor” and “undeserving.”   There’s research to support this claim that this language is racially coded for most Americans.

Martin Gilens’ book Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy (University of Chicago Press, 2000) takes a look at this question systematically.  Part of what Gilens finds is that media portrayals of the poor are heavily skewed toward portraying blacks rather than whites as the symbolic representation of poverty. In his content analysis of mainstream news magazines, he found that:

  • 62% of stories about poverty featured African Americans
  • 65% of network television news stories about welfare featured African Americans
  • fewer African Americans were featured in “sympathetic” stories about poverty and welfare.

Gilens also found that the belief that “blacks are lazy” was a strong predictor of support for cutting welfare. Sixty-five percent of whites who hold this belief support eliminating welfare, compared to 35% who believe “blacks are very hard working” said they wanted to cut welfare.

And, wrongly held beliefs about who the majority of welfare recipients are also affects peoples’ support for welfare.  For those who (incorrectly) believed that the majority on welfare are black, 64% think that most people on welfare “do not really need it.”   Gilens argues persuasively, and with data, that the language about welfare, food stamps, and public opinion about supporting it, are imbued with racially charged ideas that are not based in reality.

I’m guessing Newt Gingrich (and his handlers) know all this.  MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow contends that Gingrich is “pretend-running” so that he can fuel his consulting business that relies on his appearing to be a viable political force. Jon Stewart, meanwhile, has lampooned Gingrich’s flaccid attempt at running for president.

From where I sit, satire may be the best response to someone like Gingrich who is clearly playing the fool.

Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans

New Orleans is one of the most fascinating cities in the U.S., in part due to the richly diverse history of the area. In particular, the neighborhood Faubourg Treme holds a special place in American history as one of the oldest black neighborhoods and the birthplace of jazz. During slavery, Faubourg Treme was home to the largest community of free black people in the Deep South. Unlike the rest of the U.S., in New Orleans people who were black and white and Creole, free and enslaved, rich and poor came together socially, politically and culturally in ways not possible elsewhere.
A recent (2008) documentary, Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans conveys some of this history. The following short (2:52) clip of the film gives you a taste of the film:

While the Treme district was damaged when the levees broke following Hurricane Katrina, this is not another documentary about that disaster. The filmmakers Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon began documenting the historic district years before Katrina and, in turn of amazing good luck, their tapes survived unscathed. Critics have called the film “devastating”, “charming”, and “revelatory.”

The film originally aired on PBS and for the month of May, the good folks at California Newsreel are offering a free preview of the entire film, which you can view here. Enjoy!