Some Liberal Racism?

There is a very good discussion of “liberal racism” online right now. I was pointed to this debate by this “smartypants” site’s excellent discussion. It began recently with a commentary by Professor Melissa Harris-Perry at the Nation, where she suggests somewhat cautiously that significant aspects of the backtracking from support of and political attacks on President Barack Obama from liberal/left whites are often racialized:

Electoral racism cannot be reduced solely to its most egregious, explicit form. It has proved more enduring and baffling than these results can capture. The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.

She later accents Obama’s sharp decline in white support in opinion polls and certain contrasts with what happened politically to President Bill Clinton:

I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

Her analysis of subtle racism is of course right on target, even too cautious, as almost all whites still view the society out of a strong white racial frame and do not even try to look seriously at it the way many people of color do. Not to mention the still high levels of blatant racist thought and activity documented in much social science research.

Then the liberal columnist Gene Lyons at Salon attacks Harris-Perry rather aggressively, from a liberal version of the white racial frame:

One Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane professor who moonlights on MSNBC political talk shows, wrote an article for the Nation titled “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” . . . . See, certain academics are prone to an odd fundamentalism of the subject of race. Because President Obama is black, under the stern gaze of professor Harris-Perry, nothing else about him matters. … not 9 percent unemployment, only blackness. Furthermore, unless you’re black, you can’t possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession increasingly resembles a photo negative of KKK racial thought. It’s useful for intimidating tenure committees staffed by Ph.D.s trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds.

So a white Arkansas columnist mocks a reasonable racial and political analysis by a savvy analyst and tosses issues of white racism out the window, comparing this black professor’s views to, of all things, the KKK. This actually demonstrates the privileged racist framing of too many white liberals. Indeed, “Smartypants” asks readers to post a call for an apology from Lyons for such wild assertions at the Salon site.

White liberalism often has had much trouble with the issue of marginalizing certain common black views and majority opinions, for white liberals also operate out of some version of the white racial frame most of the time.

Commentator Ishmael Reed raised related issues some time back. He suggested that much of Obama’s conformity in regard to tough political realities is necessary given that he is a black man operating in a fully white-controlled society. Reed criticized white and other progressives who have periodically asserted that “He’s weak, he’s spineless, he’s got no balls, primary him in 2012.” The prominent white progressive analyst, Glenn Greenwald, has regularly criticized Obama for being weak in dealing with Republicans:

Obama supposedly “doesn’t try, doesn’t use the weapons at his disposal: the ones he wields when he actually cares about something (such as the ones he uses to ensure ongoing war funding . . . . [This] leads to the rational conclusion that he is not actually committed to (or, worse, outright opposes) many of the outcomes which progressive pundits assume he desires.”

Indeed, Obama’s policy actions, especially on economic matters, have often suggested to many progressives that he is only a political moderate and not the liberal they expected.

Looking at these difficult political decisions, Ishmael Reed has emphasized that the white progressive critics miss certain key racial and other structural realities surrounding Obama. These white progressives

have been urging the president to ‘man up’ in the face of the Republicans. . . . 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.

Therefore, if President Obama ever appeared too aggressive, say like Harry Truman did, he would be strongly dismissed by most whites as another “angry black man,” which is a very negative part of traditional white framing. Such widespread dismissals would make policy goals very difficult to achieve. Instead, President Obama’s rather “cool” approach to political action, as Adia Wingfield and I have argued, has involved being at all times and places calm and in control, never really being angry or threatening. Always conciliatory. The continuing white-racist contexts that prevail inside and outside U.S. politics make this a necessary strategy, as likely seen from Obama’s own perspective.

The Common Good and People of Color



In an upcoming chapter in Governing Washington: Politics and Government in the Evergreen State Luis R. Fraga and I examine the political incorporation of ethnic and racial communities by asking the question: Do ethnic and racial communities fit within the state’s general understanding of the common good and the public interest? This is important because the choices political leaders make regarding the state’s growing ethnic and racial diversity will have long-term consequences for how inclusive and responsive state government will be to all citizens and residents in the state of Washington. If Washington State serves as a model for the rest of the country, then political incorporation of people of color as the nation continues to get more diverse does not look good.

Like many states across the nation, the 2010 census reveals that during the last decade Washington State has experienced notable growth and profound shifts in its population. In 2000, it had a total population of 5,894,121; in 2010 its population rose to 6,724,540, a growth rate of 14.1 percent. It is estimated that 73% of all population growth in the state over the last decade was due to increases in its nonwhite population. Over the last ten years, Hispanics/Latinos increased by 37.8%, Whites increased by 27%, Asians by 18.8%, people of two or more races by 8.6%, African Americans by 5.4%, Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders by 1.9%, and American Indians/Alaska Natives by 0.4%. Whites were 78.9% of the state population in 2000, but by 2010 they had declined to now comprising under three-quarters of the population at 72.5%. How will this growing racial and ethnic diversity affect politics and policy-making? Will Latino, African American, Asian/Asian American, and Native American communities and their interests will be included within the state’s and in the larger country’s general understanding of the common good and the public interest?

In Protest is not Enough, Rufus Browning and his colleagues define political incorporation as “the extent to which group interests are effectively represented in policy making” (1984, 25). Looking at just a couple of measures such as political representation and material well-being through poverty measures and unemployment levels help us to answer the level of political incorporation of people of color in Washington. For example, ethnic and racial minority groups in Washington are not particularly well represented at any level of government. It was only in 2010 that the first Latina was elected to Congress. She is the only minority member of the state’s congressional delegation. There are two Asian Americans and one Latina serving in the state senate, comprising only 6% of the 49-member body. There are also only three Asian Americans, one Latina, one Latino, one African American, and one Native American serving in the 98-member state house of representatives. Together they comprise only 7% of all the members of the House, 27.5% of the population of the state is comprised of ethnic and racial minority communities.

Another way of gauging the political incorporation of communities of color is by examining levels of material well-being that, in part, result from the distribution of national- and state-level policy benefits. Overall, an estimated 15% of all people living in Washington live at or below the federally-established poverty level. Based on cross-group comparisons, Latinos have the highest poverty rates in the state; it is estimated that 30% of all Latinos live below the official poverty level. While 12% of Whites live at or below the poverty level, and over a quarter (27%) of African Americans live at or below the poverty level according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2009 and 2010 Current Population Survey. Rates of unemployment by racial ethnic group statewide, demonstrate that both Latinos and African Americans have unemployment rates that are noticeably higher than that of their White counterparts. It is estimated that 9.2% of Latinos across the state are unemployed, whereas the figure for Whites out of work is 6.4%. African Americans have the highest estimated unemployment rate of any racial/ethnic group, registering 12.3%.

In sum, measures of policy benefits regarding poverty rates, and those who are unemployed reveal that Latinos and African Americans do considerably worse than Whites in the state of Washington. Undoubtedly, this pattern of systematic inequity in condition can be documented in virtually every state in the nation.

We are at a critical juncture to determine whether politics and policy-making processes have the capacity to effectively engage the growing ethnic and racial diversity in America. The choices made by the national and states political leaders will directly affect whether the country will incorporate communities of color. They will affect how well local communities of all classes, races, and backgrounds are empowered by the way they decide to adapt to demographic changes. Whatever path political leaders choose, the results of their decisions over the course of the next decade will be with us for generations and will impact how diverse communities are included in conceptions of the common good in America.

The Death Penalty, Racism and the American Practice of Lynching

“A man was lynched yesterday” read the banner that flew outside the NAACP headquarters at 69 Fifth Avenue in 1938. Some 73 years later, such a banner is still relevant as the American practice of lynching continues in ways new and old in the 21st century.

(Image source: Library of Congress, NAACP)

On Wednesday, in what the typically reserved New York Times called “a grievous wrong,” the State of Georgia executed Troy Anthony Davis at 11:08 pmAlbert Camus observed that “capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders,” and that was never more true than this week when Georgia proceeded with the killing of Mr. Davis in spite of serious doubts about his guilt and in spite of national and international media attention about the case, and an outcry from various celebrities and luminaries including President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI. Much of the outrage is that there was simply too much doubt (as the Twitter hashtag #toomuchdoubt suggested) about Davis’ guilt. There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime for which he was convicted, and 7 of the 9 witnesses recanted their testimony. If Georgia ends up exonerating Davis, it wouldn’t be the first time that state later recanted it’s prosecution of an African American accused of killing a white person, but it may take awhile.  Sixty years after Lena Baker, an African American woman, was convicted – and executed – for killing a white man, the State of Georgia exonerated her.

The other part of the outrage about this case has to do with the systemic racism of the death penalty: Davis was African American and the victim in this case, Mark MacPhail, was white (and an off-duty cop).  Some have even referred to the execution of Davis as a “legal lynching,” an especially ironic phrase given that the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which refused to stay the execution with no dissents from the bench, not even from Justice Thomas, who once claimed to be a victim of “high-tech lynching” because of Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment.  But, perhaps this is just hyperbole. What is lynching?  Is there any evidence that links the American practice of lynching to the death penalty?

Continue reading…

Obama and Civil Rights Enforcement

Over at her “pragmatic progressive” political blog, the head of nonprofit organization in Minnesota analyzes some data collected by a right-wing group on the impressive lawyer appointees being added by Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black attorney general ever. The right-wing group is very disturbed that Holder is moving the agency away from weak or no enforcement of civil rights laws to much more aggressive enforcement. This includes the hiring of many (106 so far) new career lawyers, almost all with real-world experience in the area of civil rights and civil rights enforcement in regard to gender, racial group, and gay/lesbian groups — which experience seems to qualify them all as “leftist” as seen by the right-wing group. Take a look at their mostly impressive resumes.

It is more than odd that numerous progressive government policy changes under President Obama, such as much more aggressive enforcement of the civil rights laws, has gotten little mainstream media coverage. This is one of many Obama actions that provide a major contrast with the weak or nonexistent enforcement of civil rights and other human-protective laws under the George Bush administration.

This paradigm shift is worth much more media and scholarly analysis, right?

Troy Davis Case Highlights Racist Death Penalty: Take Action to Stop His Execution

Nearly twenty years ago, Troy Davis (who is black) was tried and convicted of killing a white police officer. Today, nearly all the so-called “witnesses” have said that they lied and Davis is, most likely, an innocent man. Yet, the State of Georgia has scheduled his execution for September 21. The fact is, capital punishment doesn’t work as a way to lower crime rates. And, the death penalty, both in the U.S. and around the world, is discriminatory and is used disproportionately against the poor, and black and brown people. When victims are white (as in this case, where the victim was a white police officer), those trials are much more likely to end in the death penalty. Troy Davis’ case is just the most prominent example of this egregious pattern of state-sponsored racism, a pattern that is not unique to Georgia. This short video (7:18) by Jen Marlow describes some of the discrepancies in the case and includes an interview with Mr. Davis’ sister:

If you’re moved, as I was, by this injustice, I urge you to sign the petition to stop the execution of Troy Davis, here.

Another Myth from Today’s White Frame: Students of Color Get A Lot More Scholarships

One of my graduate students is teaching an undergraduate course where a student, once again, insisted that students of color get privileged in getting a lot more college grants and scholarships than white students do. The insistence that students of color get a disproportionate percentage of scholarships and grants is a common experience for those who teach introductory and other social science courses. Yet, for the most part this is yet one more public falsehood and “sincere fiction” from the contemporary white racial frame. Among other reasons, such fictions are designed to take white and other American minds off the past and present realities of widespread racial discrimination.

Here is one more study — by Mark Kantrowitz — that shows that students of color actually get less than their proportionate share of private fellowships and institutional grants that white students. This is his summary (September 2011):

This paper presents data concerning the distribution of grants and scholarships by race. It debunks the race myth, which claims that minority students receive more than their fair share of scholarships. The reality is that minority students are less likely to win private scholarships or receive merit-based institutional grants than Caucasian students. Among undergraduate students enrolled full-time/full-year in Bachelor’s degree programs at four-year colleges and universities, minority students represent about a third of applicants but slightly more than a quarter of private scholarship recipients. Caucasian students receive more than three-quarters (76%) of all institutional merit-based scholarship and grant funding, even though they represent less than two-thirds (62%) of the student population. Caucasian students are 40% more likely to win private scholarships than minority students.

We are still a nation of socially constructed illusions when it comes to many racial matters.

White Stratagems: Interfering with People Of Color’s Vote



What in the world could Arizona’s challenge of the Voting Rights Act and the requirement passed in 12 states that citizens show government-issued picture ID’s before voting have in common? The answer is simple: Both are being used by white racists to impede people of color’s right to vote and nullify their vote’s impact.

One tactic is the removal of the Federal Government oversight of the often tainted state electoral process. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s anti-racist agenda. It outlawed poll taxes and other obstacles that impeded people of color’s access to the ballot box.

Arizona has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of parts of the Voting Rights Act. The parts in question require states that did not meet certain requirements in 1972 to secure federal approval for any state legislation or change that could affect voting. Arizona is one of the states.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who filed the lawsuit, said that the original criteria for pre-approval are no longer relevant or constitutional, and Arizona no longer needs the federal government’s scrutiny. “The historical Voting Rights Act was meant to overcome horrendous voting discrimination that occurred in the South,” Horne said. “We are being severely penalized for something that happened in 1972 that was corrected in 1975.”

Many Mexican American legislators disagree. They argue that federal government oversight is still necessary in Arizona. They say that the Department of Justice was forced to intervene on numerous occasions, as was the case ten years ago when it mandated a redrawing of proposed legislative boundaries that would have put Mexican American voters at a disadvantage. Rep. Richard Miranda states their current goal succinctly:

We are asking the Independent Redistricting Commission not to dilute the impact of minority voters.

A second subterfuge pertains to the requirement that citizens show government-issued ID’s before they can vote. In an August 26 New York Times Op-EdJohn Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia, discusses a law passed by 12 Republican state legislatures this year. The law requires “that citizens obtain and display unexpired government-issued photo identification before entering the voting booth.” It so happens that as many as 25 percent of African American voters lack adequate identification.

Conservative supporters of the law allege that this regulation is necessary to forestall voter impersonation. However, there is no evidence that voter impersonation is a widespread problem. When the state of Indiana defended its picture ID provision before the Supreme Court, it could not produce evidence of even one instance of the offense in Indiana. Similarly, in the last ten years Kansas, another state that passed the legislation, experienced a larger number of alleged U.F.O. sightings than claims of voter impersonation.

I believe that if these white attacks fail, more will follow. Racism is a tough nut to crack.

More Wisdom from Frederick Douglass: The Struggle



Clearly, much discussion about continuing struggles over racial oppression is generated daily across the country, although often outside the mainstream media and political sectors. Given the racial realism so well argued by Derrick Bell (see philosopher Tommy Curry’s provocative summary of these issues here), one has to wonder, can real multiracial democracy ever come to the United States? I ran across some provocative writings of Frederick Douglass today that always make me pause and think deeply about the ongoing struggles for justice and equality in this country.

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of the three or four greatest Americans ever in my view, said this in a famous speech in Canandaigua, New York, on August 3, 1857:

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. . . . If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others. (Frederick Douglass, “The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies,” The Frederick Douglass Papers, ed. John W. Blassingame [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986], Volume 3, p. 204.)

Racial Analyses in the Times: Deferring to Elite Whites?



It appears that racial issues are finally getting a little more attention in some parts of the mainstream media. José called my attention to these two recent and interesting New York Times articles. The first is a short book review by Brent Staples, a journalist who notes that

As Randall Kennedy reminds us in his provocative and richly insightful new book, “The Persistence of the Color Line” . . . the Obama forces disseminated several messages intended to soothe the racially freighted fears of the white electorate. On one channel, they reassured voters that he was not an alien, but a normal American patriot. They also made clear that he was a “safe,” conciliatory black man who would never raise his voice in anger . . . .

Then he ads that candidate Obama himself sent out certain messages:

On yet another wavelength, the candidate proffered his bona fides as a black man to ­African-Americans who were initially wary of his unusual upbringing . . . .

It is a bit odd that Staples does not even note other, probably much more critical, books on race, racism, and the Obama campaigns–such as the one that Adia Harvey Wingfield and I did not long ago. Had he done so, Staples could perhaps have made even more sense out of the data on the white-racialized dimensions of both the Obama campaigns and Obama’s presidency.

There is also another interesting article in the Times by Desmond King, American government professor at Oxford University and Rogers Smith, a political science professor at Penn, that discusses the failure of both political parties to openly discuss racial matters seriously, such as the extreme unemployment rates for African Americans:

The economic crisis in the United States is also a racial crisis. White Americans are hurting, but nonwhite Americans are hurting even more. Yet leaders in both political parties — for different reasons — continue to act as though race were anachronistic and irrelevant in a country where an African-American is the president.

They are quite correct on this point, and their brief data on racial inequalities is highly germane to their general argument, but I kept waiting for them to discuss why there is such systemic racial inequality and who the key white decisionmakers mostly are in this regard. Not only are whites (or the dominant white racial frame) not called out as agents of discrimination, but even more seriously the elite white men whose racial and class frames and actions have mostly created the party and societal neglect (and much actual reality) of racism at issue are not specifically called out or critically discussed as elite white male agents (more than just “leaders”) shaping these structures.

As in the Staples review (and perhaps in Randall Kennedy’s book?), this white male elite remains unnoted and unmarked as such, once again. Is it still too dangerous now in this society to call them out and analyze their critical and continuing role in racial discrimination and their dominant white racial framing that shapes both our politics and our society more generally?

“Skin Color” Thicker Than Water: Limbaugh Again



Rush Limbaugh, the father of the conservative noise machine, is at it again. He now claims he knows how former Secretary of State Colin Powell will vote during the 2012 elections–that he will vote for Obama.

But if Powell says he will not support Obama for re-election, he has good reasons. Powell, a moderate Republican, is known for supporting centrist causes, if these causes help the marginalized and voiceless. Limbaugh believes without a doubt that Powell will vote for Obama because “skin color” is thicker than water.

Limbaugh knows “skin color” is thicker than water, a historical fact we cannot dispute. Limbaugh knows this because “whiteness” bestows all the “opportunities, freedoms, and rewards that this nation offers white Americans.” Beyond this, Limbaugh is well aware that whites have looked out for each other since the founding of this country for the same reason he believes Powell will vote for Obama: “skin color.”

Of course, the only way Limbaugh could know Powell will certainly cast his vote for Obama is that Powell will have to change his mind and announce his support for Obama, for no voter can know with certainty what other voters will do when they enter the voting booth.