Daily Texan Political Cartoon on Zimmerman/Martin Case



UT student Stephanie Eisner, a white Latina from Houston is the cartoonist behind a controversial political cartoon concerning Trayvon Martin. This is a description of the cartoon:

A woman sitting in a chair with “MEDIA” on the headrest is reading a book titled, Treyvon Martin and the Case of Yellow Journalism to a young child. Eisner reads the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case with this caption: “And then…the BIG BAD WHITE man killed the sweet, handsome, innocent COLORED boy.” The child’s mouth is wide open in shock at the portrayal of the characters in the media. (see here for cartoon).

Eisner’s use of “colored” and the fonts/capitals deployed by Eisner demonstrate her white racial framing of the Trayvon Martin case. Eisner perpetuates racism in the media and appears to assume Martin was at fault and Zimmerman not a serious suspect.

The white racial frame (WRF) is “an organized set of racialized ideas, stereotypes, emotions and inclinations to discriminate.” This white racist framing is normalized by systematized processes of racial oppression in various realms (economic, justice system, education, political, etc.) which artificially naturalizes white dominance in those sectors. The consequence is a material reality which justifies and synthesis the abstract WRF and ideology systemic racism to produce reality, white supremacy. White supremacy becomes “common sense” to whites due its cyclical occurrence in society which reproduces the dominance of whites not only in these life-determining sectors, but also the portrayal of whites and people of color in the media.

Mass media are a primary facilitator of this concept of synthesizing the WRF and racism perfecting white supremacy. Elite white men mostly own the media markets so they much of who people see themselves and the world. Media constitute a cultural object of human production which shapes our worldviews. W.E.B DuBois believes media shapes and reinforces the dichotomy of “Black” and “white”: “bad” and “good” respectively, which subconscious becomes subscribed in our daily thought “with a thoroughness that few realize.” Eisner’s cartoon also perpetuates this dichotomy with her racist language toward Trayvon Martin.

The text of the cartoon is important content for analysis of Eisner’s WRF for two reasons: differentiation of emphasis and exaggeration of the adjectives used to reference Martin and Zimmerman and the usage of “colored” to describe Martin’s race. Zimmerman’s adjectives were only bolded and in all capital letters in one font, while Martin’s were in different fonts in different sizes of varying degrees. This technique of “font play” between Zimmerman and Trayvon shows her likely racial bias toward Zimmerman instead of creating an “ambiguous cartoon,” her stated intended goal.

The use of “colored” to address Martin’s race is racist when used by whites. “Colored” is presented in all capitals and bold. Eisner, a “white Hispanic,” felt the need to use a racist term in her poorly executed tactic to make her case. Her biracial background does not give her a “I cannot be racist” pass, but only points to how “race” and “racism” are constructed within the WRF.

Eisner could not escape her WRF of the Trayvon Martin case. The synthesizing of the WRF and racism has resulted in a white-framed narrative of the Trayvon Martin case. I have demonstrated her “font play” of the text and use of “colored” both show WRF influence on her worldview. (See #IAMTRAYVONMARTIN)

Eisner, since the initial posting of her political cartoon, has apologized and been relieved of her position as a cartoonist from the Daily Texan. However, a petition at change.org is asking for the reinstatement of Eisner.

Trayvon Martin, Racism and Social Media

Racism and the struggle for civil rights are happening online. This is a central point that I made in an earlier book and in talks I’ve given around the country.

The Trayvon Martin case illustrates two important points: 1) that the fight against racism has shifted because of social media, and 2) it demonstrates rather starkly how racism hasn’t changed. I’ll start with the second point.


(Image from @Llapen)

The murder of Trayvon Martin is an event in the embodied, material world that connects to other, similar acts in which the ‘black body,’ is marked as both threatening and worthy of killing (see Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, 1997). Martin’s murder at the hands of a vigilante connects his death to that of previous victims of lynching, the archetypal form of violent white supremacy (see Koritha Mitchell, Living with Lynching, 2011). During the height of lynching, activists used the means available to them – newspapers, town halls, banners, plays, word-of-mouth – to try to sway public opinion about the vigilante killing of African Americans.

Today, the tools available to activists have changed. People have learned about the Trayvon Martin case very quickly through social media. The social media campaign began with the unlikely character of Kevin Cunningham, a white guy who describes himself as “super Irish” and who was also a Howard Law School University alum. Cunningham saw a link to the story on a email listserv called Men of Howard. Cunningham wanted to do something so he started a petition on Change.org demanding that Sanford Police charge Zimmerman with a crime. It got 100 signatures that first day, March 8, just 11 days after Trayvon Martin was killed.

Prominent bloggers began to pick up on the story, and within the next week the online petition had moved past the 100,000 mark.  On March 16, Charles M. Blow wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. As the 911 tapes were released and began to raise troubling questions about the shooter’s pursuit of Trayvon and the Sanford Police investigation. These tapes prompted Judd Legume of Think Progress on March 18 to put together a set of simple facts titled “What Everyone Should Know About Trayvon Martin (1995-2012)”; that story quickly went viral, with 147,000 likes on Facebook. The petition topped 200,000 signatures, and it seemed that everyone on social media was talking about the Trayvon Martin case.

The social media activism even resulted in some old school in-the-streets-activism, with a “Million Hoodie” march in New York City on March 21st (pictured above).

This is an extraordinary example of how social media can be used to affect awareness about an issue (if not quite change). As Kelly McBride at Poynter observes:

“This is how stories are told now. They are told by people who care passionately, until we all care. Think of the Jena Six, the story of six black teenagers unjustly prosecuted in 2007 for attempted murder following a fight that erupted as a result of racial tensions. Black bloggers kept that story alive until Howard Witt, then a writer for the Chicago Tribune, brought it into the mainstream media. That took almost a year. Trayvon’s story took three weeks.”

The online petition now has 1.5 million signatures (the largest ever in Change.org’s history), although all this social media attention hasn’t resulted in an arrest in the case yet.

So, this is all very good news about the power of social media. Perhaps it really is making us better, more socially engaged and politically active,  as sociologist Keith Hampton argues.

There’s more to this story of Trayvon, racism and social media, however.  There is also an amped up, racist smear campaign that is trying to promote the idea that Trayvon was a “drug dealer” who is far more dangerous than the mainstream and left-leaning blogosphere has depicted.

While it might be easy to dismiss the people behind sites like WAGIST as right-wing nut jobs (RWNJ), that’s too easy. Dismissing them as fringe also doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening around Trayvon, racism and social media.

In fact, there’s been a convergence of extremist and mainstream media around the Trayvon Martin case that illustrates a point I made in a previous book, that the “extreme” white supremacy has a lot of similarity with the mainstream version of whiteness.

The thoroughly mainstream, if right-leaning, Business Insider has made a linkbait-cottage-industry out of news about the Trayvon Martin case, including a photo it reported was of Trayvon in a “thug” pose and used it to question the supposed bias in media reporting. Unfortunately, the photo was not of the Trayvon Martin who was killed but of someone else.  The source for the Business Insider photo: white power message board Stormfront. And Business Insider wasn’t the only one. Michelle Malkin, right-wing pundit, also reproduced the photo on her site. The fact that Business Insider and Michelle Malkin are reproducing images from Stormfront illustrates the point I made earlier about the overlap between extremist and more mainstream expressions of white supremacy.

The racist smear campaign against Trayvon Martin continues.  Today, it’s reported that a white supremacist hacker that goes by the name “Klanklannon” has broken into the private Facebook account of Trayvon Martin and published the contents on the message board 4chan—called “/pol/.”The messages were posted on four slides, designed to back up the racist argument Trayvon was “dangerous” (and therefore deserved to be killed).  A slide titled “Trayvon Martin Used Marijuana Habitually,” features an exchange between Trayvon and a friend about getting high. Another slide, “Trayvon Martin was a Drug Dealer,” features Facebook messages and photos that supposedly prove Martin dealt drugs, including a picture of Martin posing “aggressively with a large amount of cash in his hand.”  The hacker also grabbed Trayvon’s @gmail account that found nothing more sinister than a high school student searching for colleges and selecting the best day to take his SAT exam.

As Adrian Chen at Gawker points out, it’s impossible to verify the hacked messages’ authenticity—like other anti-Trayvon Martin propaganda, they’re probably a mix of real and fake content— and they are now being passed around on message boards like the neo-Nazi hive Stormfront.

The central point about Trayvon Martin, racism and social media here is that the struggle for civil rights is happening online as well as offline. Sometimes, these new forms of social media can be used to work expose racial injustice at record speed and amplify calls for action. At the same time, old forms of racism – lynching and vigilantism, stereotypes of young black men as ‘menacing drug dealers’ – exist alongside these new forms of activism. Meanwhile, white supremacists and mainstream pundits use the same tools as racial justice activists to spread racist propaganda that confuse and bespoil the public sphere.

Sociologists and other scholars are just beginning to come to terms with what all this means. One thing we do understand is that we cannot disentangle the online and the offline. The digital and the material are imbricated, as Saskia Sassen argues. That is, the “online” forms of racism and struggle against overlap and are intertwined with the “offline” and material forms of racial inequality.  In other language, our material reality is augmented by digital, social media as Nathan Jurgenson contends. When it comes to race, that means we have to see the face-to-face racism that took Trayvon’s life as connected to the online forms of social protest meant to redress that harm and the smear campaigns intended to assassinate his character after his death.

Finally, for activists who would fight for racial equality and civil rights today, the message seems to be clear: learn to use social media or be left behind in the fight against racism.

NOM Strategy: Use Race to Divide Marriage Equality Supporters

There’s a lot of buzz about the just revealed internal memos from the National Organization for Marriage’s (NOM) which make plain their divisive racial strategies to oppose marriage equality. The key strategy NOM has employed is wedge politics, that is, seeking to drive a wedge between African Americans, Latinos and those in the LGBT movement.

Here is just some of what the NOM memos say about blacks:

The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots. No politician wants to take up and push an issue that splits the base of the party. Fanning the hostility raised in the wake of Prop 8 is key to raising the costs of pushing gay marriage to its advocates and persuading the movement’s allies that advocates are unacceptably overreaching on this issue.

NOM’s strategy for Latinos looks like this:

Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We can interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity.

You can read all the documents here, thanks to HRC.

To say that NOM’s strategy is racist is stating the obvious. Sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious, but I want to make a slightly less obvious point, and that is that the revelations about NOM’s racial politics highlight the LGBT movement’s need for a racial justice agenda.

The truth is that African Americans and Latinos are just as likely to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, as white people. And, Zack Ford makes the excellent point that:

“NOM’s tactics seek to erase an entire population of people who live at the intersections of these experiences, limiting their ability to fulfill their complete identities.”

That’s exactly right. The NOM strategies are not only racist, but they assume that “gay” and “black” or “lesbian” and “Latina” are somehow mutually exclusive categories, that you can’t be both gay and black, or lesbian and Latina. The reality is that the LGBT movement has also ignored the “both/and” identities. How else to explain the popularity of the “Gay is the new Black” slogan popularized by during the Prop 8 campaign? We’re right to get outraged as NOM’s racial strategy to divide “gays and blacks” – but this division is one we have to take a serious look at within the LGBT movement which currently lacks a racial justice agenda.

IMG_0873.JPG
(Creative Commons License photo credit: tantek)

What would it look like if the LGBT movement had a racial justice agenda?  Well, for starters, we’d see our struggle for equality tied to other movements for justice, not just by analogy. So, for example, there’s been a noticeable silence about Trayvon Martin on most of the mainstream gay blogs, probably because most (white) gay folks don’t see the case as “our issue.”

But, as Zach Stafford pointed out here recently, gay folk should care about Trayvon Martin because all of us who are “outsiders” – whether because of sexual orientation, gender non-conformity, or race – can be targets of violence.

When we say that “gay rights is the new civil rights movement,” we’re playing into the divisive racial politics of NOM.  We have to do better than “gay is the new black.”  We have to see that the fight for sexual equality hasn’t replaced the fight for racial equality, because that’s not over. When the LGBT movement moves beyond shallow slogans like “gay is the new black” to embrace a racial justice agenda that sees our struggle tied to others, then we’ll have truly won a victory against opponents like NOM that can only see “gays” and “blacks” as an easy place to drive a wedge.

~ This post originally appeared on HuffPo Gay Voices.

Walking While Black: The Senseless Killing of Trayvon Martin



The recent slaying of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin is yet another reminder of the every day presence of racism in the United States. I find it necessary to remind everyone that this is not an isolated incident, but one that occurs daily across America for most black men. The difference here is that the normal threats and harassment that Trayvon would typically encounter on any given day as a black man, turned into his innocent death. As Malcolm Gladwell discussed in the death of Amadou Diallo, an innocent black man in New York City who was mistakenly shot 19 times by 4 police officers (who fired a total of 41 shots), the decisions that George Zimmerman made about Trayvon Martin were done in a “blink of an eye”. His actions, on the other hand, were done in justification of his already conceived (and likely subconscious) thoughts about this young man rather than in response to Trayvon’s clearly non-threatening behavior. Any one of Zimmerman’s compilation of actions that fateful evening, if terminated, would have likely resulted in a different outcome, one where Trayvon would still be alive today. But Zimmerman is operating on societal-based stereotypes and assumptions of anti-black racial frames about black men that has been around since the mid-1600’s and continues in today’s white-dominated society.

I find it hard to understand why anyone would be foolish enough to discount the continuing assault on the black male presence. Black men have always been public enemy number one in white America, and that has not changed much in 400 years. Since slavery times, African American men were seen as threats to white manhood. Unrelenting white racial stereotypes around black male bodies provided the perfect justification for the incredible violence directed at them, whether in the cotton fields or working for his master in the big house.

Black men were clearly not on equal footing with other men, especially white men for centuries. The conditions, stories, received wisdoms and other discourses created by whites about black folk constituted predictable cognitive road maps or frames that white folks enacted on black bodies. Frames are patterned ways of thinking about human differences such as race that apply generally to people at large and influence our legal system, schooling, healthcare, unemployment and housing to name a few. The white racial frames created around “Black” were and remains anathema, which is certainly the case with Trayvon’s senseless death. The shooter, George Zimmerman, a man of apparent Latino heritage and self-proclaimed neighborhood watch captain, mystifies many white observers. Given that both black and brown people in American are oppressed, how could this be? What’s happening here is that Zimmerman is acting on the existing white racial frames that operate as unconscious scripts on how to interact with racial “others” in our society.

White racial framing of black male bodies is a large-scale centuries-old undertaking that not only affects white behavior toward Blacks, but black and Latino behaviors toward each other and themselves. These racial understandings have existed ever since Europeans first stepped foot on the Western shores of Africa and began a long and tortuous relationship with Africans. And this continues today where the steady stream of media portrayals of young black men as “dangerous” predators is too prolific in our society to ignore. Anyone reading this blog can certainly think of one or more stereotypes about black men. When you think of the face of crime, it is easy to conjure the image of Trayvon or another young man of color as the scary and dangerous “other” or the boogey man. Minorities are not immune to this frame or thought process. Latinos, Blacks and other Americans of color receive and act on many of the same white racial stereotypes and impulses, and Mr. Zimmerman is no exception.

Now, take the context of white society from its historical vantage point and see how it continues the play out (albeit less overt at times). Floridians have instituted a law that has resurrected the Wild Wild West, which allows an individual to take the law into his/her own hands. A law seemingly provoked by the looting that occurred following several Florida hurricanes. After filtered media images following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the assumption is that the people looting are black. Thus, the law can be interpreted such that if a black man is stealing, a white man can shoot and kill him. And the onus is placed on the victim from prove he was innocent of a crime before being shot. We have now gone even beyond the egregious “eye for an eye” and moved to a place where a heart can be taken for the loss of a finger, but no one seemed to care that the law implied it was the heart of a black man until it was taken literally. What results is that someone like Trayvon Martin has become caught in the crosshairs of a nation that has yet to truly reconcile its profoundly racist past.

While the nation continues to mount an all out and justifiable assault on the circumstances surrounding Trayvon’s death, let’s not forgot the conditions that gave rise to this young man’s death in the first place: white supremacy, or to put it nicely, a white dominated society. Rest in peace Trayvon Martin; may your death not be in vain.

Please sign this petition and forward to all concerned stakeholders.

How Does it Feel to be a Problem? A Reflection on Trayvon Martin



My heart has been heavy since I heard about Trayvon Martin. I’ve read all the coverage and signed all the petitions. I’ve talked about it with family and friends and sat my own teenaged son down for yet another “talk.” I have read the commentary of a lot of very smart people on this case that make the historical and social intellectual connections better than I could have. Like Mark Anthony Neal, here. R. L’Heureux Lewis here. And the Crunk Feminist Collective here.

What is compelling me to write is much more personal than academic. I have a 15-year-old son. He’s 5’11” and football linebacker size (left guard, actually). He is sweet and kind and mild mannered. He is polite to adults and more courteous than your average teenager. What breaks my heart is that it’s not enough. There isn’t enough kind or polite or courteous in the world to outweigh the skin he’s in. This marker that he carries with him every day, that in his adolescent daze he is only partially aware of, sometimes… is everything. It was all there was when George Zimmerman decided that Trayvon was suspicious. It was everything when Amadou Diallo was gunned down in New York City, there was nothing more when Andre Burgess was shot in the city carrying a candy bar, it was THE thing when Jordan Miles was beat down in Pittsburgh. It is what led WEB Dubois to ask, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

The fact that my son walks through the world looking suspicious just because of who he is, because of his body, just destroys me sometimes. It makes me want to hold him close, to limit his movements, to tell him, no…you can’t go out.

“Mom, why? Don’t you trust me?” “It’s not you baby… It’s not you.” How many mothers and fathers have had this talk with their sons? Did Trayvon’s mother have that talk with him? “Son, when you’re out in the world, people don’t just see you as you are.” “Boy, when you’re in a store, make sure you don’t look like you could be stealing anything.” “My son, if the police stop you, make sure you cooperate.” “Baby, when you’re in public…not too loud, not too fast, not too slow, don’t look at them in the eye, step off the curb, shuffle your feet, cooperate, lay down, smile—but not too hard or too long, put your hands behind your back, pull your pants up, take your hood down BECAUSE THEY ARE KILLING BLACK BABIES OUT HERE.”

Most of the parents of black children I know have had that conversation with their children. “You’re black honey…and that means certain things to certain people.” We do it to protect them, to give them a lens so that when they’re treated out of line they don’t think they’re crazy, or that something is wrong with them. We do it so they can survive this world that encodes crime and drugs and lust and danger on their bodies. And yet, there’s Trayvon, there’s Jordan, and hundreds of others beaten and killed because they wear the ‘suspect’ suit as their birthright. It’s not new—of course. It’s old. It’s Emmett Till old. It’s slavery old. Both the racism and this talk, this lesson, is as old as black dirt.

And despite the fact that I’m a sociologist and generally avoid individual level tomes on race, what I’m really thinking about right now is “How does it feel to be a problem?” How does this knowledge affect our sons? The ones we have left. What we know is that our children go to schools that look more and more like prisons. That have punitive cultures where sagging pants, facial hair and braids earn behavior demerits. Where they are asked to walk along lines painted on the floor. Where they are more likely to be disciplined, suspended and labeled special needs than their white classmates. (This study has the data and more references.)

I’m thinking about all of the potential mindspace that is stifled or lost because of the need to not draw suspicion or negative attention from school or legal authorities. I wonder what it must feel like to walk through the world without so many damned unearned restrictions. I’m also thinking about how tragic it must be to not be able to see Trayvon Martin’s humanity. How limiting it is for someone like George Zimmerman to walk through the world in fear of black children. How truly sub-human it is to not be able to see humanity. And how the entrenched anti-black sentiment we live with every day is to blame.

I guess today I’m thinking of these two sides of the coin, what would the world look like if black boys had all of their available ideas and dreams and hopes and could walk through the world in a way that reflected them? And what if the rest of us could open up to our full humanity by being able to see these sons in their full humanity?

But mostly, my heart is heavy and I’m having trouble sleeping, and I have a headache because my son is Trayvon Martin. Because I have participated in limiting my child because I know that George Zimmerman exists, and that some of them have badges and the authority of the state behind them when they kill black boys. Because, “It’s not you baby…It’s not you.”

So please sign the petitions, go to the protests, call the Sanford County chief of police—I’m sending him Skittles at Chief, Bill Lee. Sanford Police 815 West 13th Street, Sanford, Fl 32771. I also invite you to join me in thinking creatively about parenting as activism and activism as parenting in a way that combines the lessons we teach our children with the larger struggle against media misrepresentation, racism in the criminal justice system, unequal policing, racial inequality in education and the rest.

Race Still Matters in America — Part Two

Although many whites (and some blacks) deny it, skin color still has a pervasive influence on peoples’ lives in America. Even the place where you live is related to your color. While new research indicates this country is becoming less residentially segregated, the vast majority of us still live in homogeneous areas with a smattering of people from other racial groups. This was a vestige of official U.S. Government policy that proscribed integrating established white neighborhoods. Today the Department of Housing and Urban Development annually investigates around 10,000 fair housing discrimination complaints—a hopeless situation given their limited resources and the estimated 2 million annual racial housing discrimination cases in the United States according to the United Nations.

One of the most deplorable examples of racism can be found in our judicial system that incarcerates over 2 million people, more than any nation in the world. About half of those locked up are people of color. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that there are more blacks in prison, jail, on probation or parole than there were enslaved before the Civil War. Nearly 1 in 9 young black Americans is incarcerated, more than any other group, and they receive harsher sentences than whites for similar offenses. Thanks to modern technology, we are getting candid glimpses of the verbal and physical abuse people of color must endure at the hands of some law enforcement personnel, and the Innocence Project has demonstrated racial inequities in capital sentencing.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Despite attempts to improve the health status of blacks and Latinos, they still lag far behind whites. Blacks live five years less, and have more than twice the number of infant deaths than whites, and, along with Latinos, they die more often from infectious and communicable diseases, heart attacks, diabetes and other problems that could be attenuated by preventive behavior and adequate health care. Once again, the data demonstrate that these disparities are not the result of genetic differences. The landmark study “Unequal Treatment” conducted for Congress by the Institute of Medicine concluded

Racial and ethnic minorities tend to receive a lower quality of healthcare than non-minorities, even when access-related factors, such as patients’ insurance status and income, are controlled.

Republicans, who are overwhelmingly white, are not oblivious to these disparities. They prefer to attribute differences in opportunities and the way people are treated to individual aberrations—solely the fault of recalcitrant blacks and Latinos who violate norms of probity and civility. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the darling of Republican conservatives and an aspiring Vice Presidential candidate, reinforced this in a speech last August at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library:

The free enterprise system does not create poverty. The free enterprise system creates prosperity, not denies it. . . ; [And] . . . we must understand that poverty does not create our social problems, our social problems create our poverty.

This popular myth has been woven into the fabric of our society through a public school system that perpetuates segregation, and dashes the hopes of millions of children of color and poor whites. Over 7,000 students drop out of school each day in the United States. Because of the demise of busing and the court’s acquiescence to the principle of unitary status, there has been a reemergence of neighborhood schools. Since most neighborhoods in this country are de facto segregated, schools are now more monochromatic than before the Brown decision in 1954.

Republican leaders’ strategy of unifying white middle and working classes against the supposed excesses of minorities is inherently perverse, blaming the victims of racism when they themselves are struggling to keep their head above water. It may help some people retain a shred of dignity believing that despite their misfortune, they are still superior to others below them on the social ladder—even if the rungs separating them are moving closer as the wealth of the nation becomes centered in the hands of the few.

Demographic changes in our society will make the Republican Party irrelevant if it does not change its rhetoric and become more inclusive. In a few decades minorities will be the majority. Focusing on issues of values and morals may temporarily capture the public’s attention, but they will find that blaming the victims of institutional deficiencies and greed is hardly a formula for success.

H. Roy Kaplan was the Executive Director of The National Conference of Christians and Jews for the Tampa Bay area. His most recent book is The Myth of Post-Racial America.

Justice for Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, unarmed black teenager was shot and killed last month in a gated community in Florida, after a man saw him walking down a street and thought he looked “suspicious.” The case has attracted a great deal of attention because George Zimmerman, the man who has admitted to shooting Martin, has not been arrested. Melissa Harris-Perry has more in this short (4 minute) video:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

If you want to see justice for Trayvon Martin, you can sign a petition here.

Update: Here is part of a letter you can sign that is being sent out by color of change to the US Attorney General and Florida Attorney General, that updates some of the information on the police (lack of?) investigation:

At the crime scene, the Sanford, Florida police botched their questioning of Zimmerman, refused to take the full statements of witnesses, and pressured neighbors to side with the shooter’s claim of self-defense. Sanford’s police department has a history of failing to hold perpetrators accountable for violent acts against Black individuals. The police misconduct in Trayvon’s case exemplifies the department’s systemic mishandling of investigations involving violence against Black victims. And now the State Attorney’s office has rubber-stamped the Sanford police’s non-investigation, claiming that there is not enough evidence to support even a manslaughter conviction for Trayvon’s senseless and entirely avoidable death.

Race Still Matters (But Republicans Won’t Admit It) — Part One

Among all the Republican candidates’ rhetoric about the necessity to create jobs and get people back to work, there is never a reference to racism and its impact on our society. It’s a topic they studiously avoid, but it is embedded within their ideology—an ideology that continues to have pernicious effects on our country. As a sociologist and community organizer (also disparaged occupations among some segments of society), I would like to share a few facts that I hope will cause them to reconsider their aversion to the subject and become engaged in a discussion about fairness and the quality of life here.

Although much contemporary Republican rhetoric is ostensibly designed to encompass everyone, their speeches are sprinkled with euphemisms and code words that reinforce stereotypes about people of color and the poor, e.g. dwelling on concepts of welfare, food stamps, immigrants, and miscreants who are supposedly sapping the strength of this nation. In actuality, the Republicans’ penchant for demonizing nonwhites and the poor is a calculated attempt to unify whites in a struggle to retain the power and privilege they have monopolized since the country was founded.

One of their most egregious errors is their failure to acknowledge the common origins and destiny of the people of this nation. Though they came from different places and for various reasons—some willingly, and others under duress, scientists have established through DNA research that we are all descendants from ancestors who lived in Africa about 60,000 years ago. There is only one human race, Homo sapiens, and there are no significant differences in intelligence or athletic ability based on the color of one’s skin or the shape of their ears, nose, lips or texture of their hair.

Now this is a difficult pill for some Republicans to swallow since the essence of their platform resides in assumptions about the innate moral inferiority of some people who are demonized as slackers, cheats, and ne’er-do-wells. It is much easier to blame the victims of racism and dysfunctional, unresponsive institutions than to tackle the systemic causes of the problems that plague our society. If we only expel illegal immigrants, lock up all the criminals, throw the welfare cheats off the public dole, curtail unions that shield incompetents and slackers, then we could save our society. And the plans they put forward at the local, state and national level are designed to do just that without regard to a few basic facts.

Republicans’ assume that the United States is a meritocracy with level playing fields that afford everyone equal opportunities to succeed, but research indicates that there are significant differences in the way people of color are treated, especially blacks and Latinos. Today, there are more Hispanic children living in poverty than white, over 6 million, even though Latinos account for less than a quarter of the nation’s children.

High school graduation rates (the percent of students who graduate with their peers in four years) reveal that less than half of black and Latino males complete high school compared to three-quarters of white males. Even more shocking are the incredibly low graduation rates of black and Latino males in some cities, hovering under 30 percent in Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, New York City and St. Petersburg. Places where the white male rates are only around 50 percent—also deplorable.

The level of education has a direct impact on one’s earnings: high school graduates bring in $8,000 more a year than dropouts, and college grads $27,000 more. The types of jobs workers obtain are also linked to their education, with the more interesting and autonomous jobs going to the higher educated.

I’ve heard the retort that things have changed. We’ve got a black man in the Office of the President. We’ve got 640 black mayors across the country—a far cry from the ‘60s when there were none. But the political power of cities has vastly declined along with their wealth. Most are on life-support.

“Well,” they say, “there are 43 black Congressmen and 25 Latinos.” Yet, political power is still wielded by whites in this nation. There are no black Senators and only two Latinos. There have only been four black Senators since reconstruction. There is only one black governor (Patrick of Massachusetts) and two Hispanics (Sandoval of Nevada and Martinez of New Mexico). Since blacks and Latinos account for over a quarter of the population, they are underrepresented in both Houses of Congress and governorships. They have not fared any better on the Supreme Court, with just 2 blacks and one Latina in its 220 year history.

Looking at the economy, there are only four blacks and five Latinos heading Fortune 500 corporations. For decades the unemployment rate of blacks and Latinos has been double that of whites, and large numbers of them are stuck in low-paying dead-end jobs. This is partly a function of their low education attainment, but research shows that blacks and Latinos earn less than whites with the same educational attainment in the same jobs. Other studies show that people with ethnic names are less successful in job hunting—less likely to be asked for interviews than whites with Anglo names.

While some blacks and Latinos have significantly improved their social and economic status over the last five decades, it is apparent from these facts that political and corporate power still resides in the hands of relatively few white men who are reluctant to share it. Our next installment will focus on other types of racial disparities and explore the Republicans’ ideological support for blaming the victims of inequality and perpetuating the myth of meritocracy.

H. Roy Kaplan was the Executive Director of The National Conference of Christians and Jews for the Tampa Bay area. His most recent book is The Myth of Post-Racial America.

St. Patrick’s Day, Irish-Americans and the Changing Boundaries of Whiteness

Today in New York City and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.'” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.

From the archive (originally posted 03-17-2009)

Kony 2012: Whiteness, Social Media and Africa

There is a viral video spreading across social media platforms called Kony 2012 created by an organization known as Invisible Children. Just released on Monday, March 5, the video has already passed 75 million views on YouTube. This is a phenomenal reach for a video on the long side (30 minutes) about Joseph Kony a Ugandan war lord, that until now American audiences had demonstrated little interest in. The viral video has been amplified through reports at major, mainstream news outlets in the U.S. A week into its existence, the video campaign has even been spoofed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

There have also been some scathing critiques and reactions against the #StopKony campaign.  Ethan Zuckerman has an excellent post, “Unpacking Kony 2012″ that details many of the problems with the video, including that the film gives Ugandans little agency in determining their own destiny.  Sarah Wanenchak wonders whether any viral video will necessarily be as overslimplified as this one is. For those that are interested in the mechanics of how this organization was able to pull off this viral campaign, there’s some fascinating data at SocialFlow (the key: pre-existing networks established with Christian youth).

What none of these excellent analyses examine, however, is the role of whiteness in the Kony 2012 phenomenon, and I want to focus on that aspect here because I think it’s central to the viral video’s appeal.

Sarah Wanenchak identifies the central, symbolic moment in the video:

“What is perhaps the film’s most revealing moment occurs quite early, when the director shows his five-year-old son a picture of Kony and the survivor Jacob and explains the situation – in a child’s terms. The child responds, ‘Stop him.’ Which is really the entire film in two words, on essentially the level of complexity at which it is delivered.”

That moment is captured in this digital still photo from that scene:

 

Obscured in this image is the photograph of Joseph Kony (just out of frame to the left). The image that’s visible is Jacob Acaye, a former child soldier in Uganda. The adult hand holding the top of the photograph is the boy’s father and the filmmaker, Jason Russell.  Throughout the film, we meet Jacob several times, and he is described as “a friend” by Jason and his well-coached son. In some ways, Jacob drives the action of the film as it is the promise that Jason Russell makes to him (to “make it stop”) that propels the rest of the video.

It’s this moment, and the image here, that carry the central message of the film, and it has much to say about “whiteness.”  It is, in effect, a white savior film with social media added in. This film is, (as Richard Dyer argues about another film) “organized around a rigid binarism: with white standing for modernity, reason, order, stability and black standing for backwardness, irrationality, chaos and violence” (1988:49).

The added dimension of social media also gets coded as constitutive of whiteness. As the voice over narration in the video observes, “we’re living in a new world, a Facebook world.” And, this new world is going to “stop” the atrocities of the “old, primitive” world. You see this throughout the video in the large crowd shots of the young people involved in the ‘Invisible Children’ campaign, who are almost universally white, are presented as the image of the ‘new, Facebook world’ intent on saving Africa. This is a deeply ironic claim given the importance of mobile technology throughout the continent, often at rates that out-pace the U.S.

The absurdity of this is playfully skewered in the “First Day on the Internet Kid” meme (“Share Kony Video, I Fixed Africa”). Yet, the more serious implications here are the ways that this kind of white racial frame is rooted in colonialism. The notion that Jason Russell – a white, heterosexual, American man – is going to “stop”and “fix” the problems in Uganda ignores the work already happening there in favor of a white-led campaign advocating military intervention.  One of the moments the video portrays as a victory #StopKony campaign is the order by President Obama to send troops to Uganda. The iconography of (predominantly white) U.S. troops with “boots on the ground” in Africa, flying an American flag conjures the very essence of colonialism and whiteness.

The Kony 2012 video’s binarism is, in the broadest sense, racist but not in the narrower sense of operating within a notion of intrinsic, unalterable, biological differences between groups of people (Dyer 1988:51). There is also a strong theme of evolutionism in the video as well, that the, good, liberal whites portrayed in the video are charting a path of progress that is potentially open to all. The video takes pains to draw a distinction between the “bad African,” Joseph Kony, to save the “good African,” Jacob Acaye, who we learn aspires to be a lawyer (as in the image above). Jacob, unlike Joseph Kony, is portrayed as reasonable, rational, humane, and liberal. White viewers are invited to root for (if not identify with) Jacob Acaye, and in so doing, the film positions itself as ‘white savior’ of this young man and the other children he represents.

Kony 2012 is, then, an endorsement of the moral superiority of white values of reason, order, and now social media against the supposed chaos and violence of Africa.