Free Speech for Anti-Semites and Other Racist Folks: Debates in Europe

There are some important and interesting debates on hate speech in Europe, with critics of new and old hate-speech laws often parroting “first amendment” arguments one often hears in the US.

The useful e-zine called Eurozine has several interesting article now on various sides of this debate. Check it out here and here.

And there seem to be more interesting websites debating “free speech,” such as this one, Free Speech Debate.

Earth Day 2012: Toxic Environmental Racism in Tennessee Threatens Family

The long and hard fought war against toxic racism is nearly over for the Harry Holt family, an African American family in Dickson, Tennessee whose well was poisoned by the leaky Dickson County Landfill, located just 54 feet from the family’s homestead property line. Five generations of Holt family members grew up in the rural all-black segregated community on Eno Road in Dickson County. The Holt family survived the horrors of slavery and “Jim Crow” segregation, but it may not survive the toxic terror of the deadly trichloroethylene (TCE) chemical leaked into their wells from the nearby landfill.   In 2003, the Holt family and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) sued the city and county of Dickson, the state of Tennessee, and the company that dumped the TCE. And in 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sheila Holt Orsted and her mother Beatrice Holt filed a lawsuit against Dickson City and County governments seeking cleanup of alleged water contamination.

very toxic...
(Creative Commons License photo credit: gonzales2010 )

After more than eight years of litigation, on December 7, 2011, a $5.6 million settlement agreement was finally worked out with the Dickson City and County governments on the NRDC and Holts’ suit and a $1.75 million settlement to be paid to eleven Holt family members on the family’s NAACP civil rights suit with monies from an October settlement reached with three companies that were defendants in the Holts’ NRDC case.

In response to the Holts’ demand for a personal apology from the City and County of Dickson, the settlement agreement includes the following statement: “The county and city regret the Harry Holt family well was contaminated with TCE and the issues experienced by the Holt family.” One would have to assume the “issues” the city and county government officials are alluding to in their statement refer to the fact that the Holt family’s well water was poisoned by a city and county owned toxic landfill and the fact that the Holt family members are sick and some have died. Harry Holt died of cancer in January 2007.  His daughter, Sheila Holt Orsted is recovering from breast cancer.  The county spent more than $3 million and the city almost $1.9 million on the lawsuits.

The industrial solvent TCE is widely known to be harmful to humans. A 2011 EPA study found that TCE is even more dangerous to people’s health than previously thought–causing kidney and liver cancer, lymphoma and other health problems. This new EPA study lays the groundwork to reevaluate the federal drinking-water standard for TCE:   5 parts per billion in water, and 1 microgram per cubic meter in air.

Despite the recent settlement agreement, the Holt family’s toxic nightmare on Eno Road, described in the 2007 Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report as the “poster child” for environmental racism, is not yet over.   Nor is their quest for environmental justice complete since the state of Tennessee, a defendant in the Holts’ civil rights case, has not worked out a settlement. The case is scheduled to go to trial next year.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) is the chief environmental and natural resource regulatory agency in the state.  With its $426 million annual budget and 2,900 employees, TDEC is charged with “safeguarding the health and safety of Tennessee citizens from environmental hazards and protecting and improving the quality of Tennessee’s land, air and water.” The Harry Holt family members are law-abiding Tennessee citizens who deserve to be protected just like other Tennesseans.

The mission of TDEC’s Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste Management is to “protect and enhance the public health and environment from existing and future contamination of the land through proper management and remediation of solid and hazardous wastes.” Clearly, this state program failed the Holt family. Dickson County covers more than 490 square miles. Yet, all of the solid waste landfills in Dickson County permitted by the state of Tennessee are located in the mostly black Eno Road community. This is no random accident since African Americans make up only 4.1 percent of the Dickson County population.

Government records show that the state of Tennessee approved the Dickson County Landfill permit on December 2, 1988–even though state test results completed on November 18, 1988 on the Harry Holt well showed TCE contamination. On December 8, 1988, the state sent a letter to Harry Holt informing the family of the test results and the finding of trichloroethene in his well. The letter states: “Your water is of good quality for the parameters tested. It is felt that the low levels of methylene or trichloroethene may be due to either lab or sampling error.”

 

 

Two years later, on January 28, 1990, government tests found 26 ppb (parts per billion) TCE in the Harry Holt well, five times above the established Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 5ppb set by the federal EPA. The MCL is the maximum concentration of a chemical that is allowed in public drinking water systems.   A year later, on December 3, 1991, the federal EPA sent the Harry Holt family a letter informing him of the three tests performed on his well and deemed it safe. The letter states:  ”Use of your well water should not result in any adverse health effects.”  The letter further states: “It should be mentioned, that trichloroethylene (TCE) was detected at 26 ug/1 in the first sample. Because this detection exceeded EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 5 ug/1, the well water was resampled. TCE was detected at 3.7 ug/1 in the second sample, however, it was noted this sample contained air bubbles.” EPA then took a third sample with results nearly identical to the second (3.9 ug/1).

Although the Holts’ well was evaluated in 1991 as “safe” by the EPA, state officials continued to discuss the TCE contamination among themselves and with EPA officials in 1991 and 1992 internal memoranda.  On December 17, 1991, an internal TDEC memorandum expressed concern about the level of TCE contamination found in the Holt’s well.  The state officials agreed that Mr. Holt’s well should continue to be sampled as a precaution. The letter states: “Our program is concerned that the sampling twice with one considerably above MCL and one slightly below MCL in a karst area such as Dickson is in no way an assurance that Mr. Holt’s well water will stay below MCL’s. There is a considerably seasonal variation for contaminants in karst environments and 3.9 ppb TCE in only slightly under the MCL of 5 ppb.” Although state officials expressed concern, they took no action to protect the Holt family and allowed them to continue drinking TCE contaminated well water.

A January 6, 1992 TDEC memorandum continued to express concern about the level of TCE contamination found in the Holts’ well. The letter states:  ”Mr. Holt’s well was sampled as a result of the Preremedial Site Investigation and Ranking package on the Dickson County landfill for NPL consideration.  Mr. Carr told me the field investigation was complete and that he was not in a position to sample Mr. Holt’s well again even though it had sporadically shown TCE contamination above MCL’s.  He agreed that Mr. Holt’s well should continue to be sampled. There may be some chance of the site going NPL, but that will be at least 1-2 years away. Mr. Carr suggested I contact Nathan Sykes at (404) 347-2913 to determine why it was not felt that further monitoring or an alternate water supply was necessary.” No additional follow-up sampling was conducted by the state and no alternative water supply was provided the Holt family.

A March 13, 1992 TDEC memorandum eventually sides with EPA on the Holt family well water being “safe.” The letter states: “Since EPA has already completed a site investigation, has identified the pollutants involved, and has, in part, determined the extent of the leaching, I would suggest that they, EPA, continue with their chosen course of action, rather than create the added confusion of various agencies making their own agendas. I would suggest that, if Mr. Holt is concerned about possible health risks in using his well water between now and June (when EPA’s priority decision is made), that he should rely on bottled or city water for cooking and drinking purposes until he is convinced that his well water is safe.”  Unfortunately, the Holts were not privy to these internal memoranda and discussions between the state and EPA officials about the safety of their well water. Not having this information, the Holt family continued to drink water from their well.

The way the state responded to black families and white families is like night and day. In 1993, nine white families in Dickson were found to have TCE contaminated wells. A detailed written action plan was developed for each family. The families were notified by the state within 48 hours of that determination and informed not to drink the well water. On March 2, 1994, TCE was detected in a spring used by two white families. On September 2, 1994, state officials notified the white families in writing that “they should not use the water for drinking until further notice.” The white families were immediately provided bottle water and later placed on the city water system.

An alarm should have gone off on February 2, 1997 when the state detected TCE in a production well (DK-21) operated by the City of Dickson and located northeast of the landfill. The Harry Holt well lies between the leaky landfill and the DK-21 well. And on April 4, 1997, the city stopped using the DK-21 well as a supplement to the municipal water source after a call from the state. It seems a bit strange that the Holt family well was not monitored each year as state officials recommended and after TCE was detected in 1991 and after TCE was found at the DK-21 well in 1997. According to the 2004 Dickson County Landfill Reassessment Report (see Table 2) prepared by Tetra Tech EM, Inc. for EPA, the Harry Holt well was not tested at all between 1992-1999.

The Holts’ well was not retested until October 9, 2000–when it registered a whopping 120 ppb TCE, 24 times higher than the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 5ppb set by the federal EPA.   The Holt family was placed on Dickson City water on October 20, 2000–twelve years after the first government tests found TCE in their well in 1988.   And on October 25, 2000, a second test performed on Harry Holt well registered 145 ppb–24 times higher than the MCL. This “dirty justice” is unacceptable. The state of Tennessee needs to step up and do the just, fair and right thing by the Holt family members. They have suffered enough.

 

~ Robert D. Bullard is Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled “Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States” (APHA Press 2011). This post originally appeared here.

Art,Transnational Whiteness and Racism

There’s a cake that’s creating quite a stir around the world and around the Internet. The controversial cake was prepared to mark the 75th anniversary of the National Organization of Swedish artists, attended by culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. The cake was designed by artist, Makunde Linde, an Afro-Swede, known in Sweden for provocative work that aims to challenge racial stereotypes. Whether or not his art does, in fact, challenge racial stereotypes – or simply reproduce them – is the subject of some debate.

It’s the picture of the event – the cutting of the cake and the culture minister (pictured) feeding the cake to the artist (that’s him, in blackface, posing as the head) is really what created the big stir. At the centerpiece of this piece of performance art is the degradation and mutilation of (if symbolically) of a black woman’s body, for the entertainment and enjoyment of a group of white people.  And, this as readers here well know, has a long history in Western culture.

After people reacted to the picture and called it racist (which seems self-evident), the events followed a rather predictable course: 1) the Swedish culture minister apologized 2) the artist gave interviews and explained that his “intention” was not to create racism (and sexism) but rather to expose it, 3) lots of people came out defending the artist and 4) lots of other people, including the National Afro-Swedish Association called for the Culture Minister’s resignation.

Perhaps most predictably of all, a blogger at The New York Times framed the issue in the quintessentially American frame of “free speech.” At the same time, the piece completely ignores any connection to racism in the U.S. by comparing the racist-Swedish-cake incident to another European incident where there was debate about use of the n-word (and variations on the word) in French.  The New York Times’ account is a terrific example of the ‘white racial frame’ - of looking at something through a white interpretive lens that comes out of the perspective of white elites and resonates broadly with people beyond the elite stratum.

I think that the cake and the cake-cutting and the controversy surrounding it are about something slightly different that I haven’t seen elsewhere. he fact that it’s performance art, “that must be allowed to provoke,” is being treated as an end-point to the discussion about what’s so disturbing in this image.

But there’s more to this.

In my view, what’s happening here is that this picture exposes transnational whiteness and implicates these individual people in this interaction that’s imbued with racism.

Let me explain.

Les Back uses the term ‘translocal whiteness,’ to refer to the way neo-Nazis and others are organizing and connecting online, across national boundaries (Les Back, “The New Technologies of Racism,” in D.T. Goldberg and J. Solomos (eds.) A Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002): 365-377). This is an idea that I expanded on in the Cyber Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) book. (Here, I’m using the term ‘transnational’ as a synonym for ‘translocal’ because I think it makes more sense intuitively.)Part of what’s happening in this photo is that we recognize whiteness as decidedly noticeable, and it’s recognizable across national boundaries.

Even though whiteness studies has been around almost 20 years now, most white people are still shocked when they’re noticed because of their race. The aim of most studies of whiteness  has been to make visible and to problematize whiteness which has largely remained invisible, unremarked and ‘normal’. Yet, whiteness studies remains incredibly insular and almost excessively focused on whites in the U.S. (on this point, see the work of Alastair Bonnett, particularly, “White studies revisited.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2008, 31(1), 185-196). The Swedish cake incident calls attention to the need for a more transnational framework for whiteness studies.

We’re also disturbed by in this image is the way that these individual people in the image are implicated in racism by delighting in the cake-cutting ritual. This is part of why people are calling on the culture minister to resign, because she participated fully – in looking like a racist. And, in fact, there’s no other way to be in that position. To not “be racist,” she would have had to disrupt the entire event (which many have pointed out would have been a good idea).

And, yet ‘whiteness’ is not just about white people – it’s about white practices.  Raka Shome explains this a little further when she writes:

” [w]hiteness…is not a phenomenon that is enacted only where white bodies exist. Whiteness is not just about bodies and skin color, but rather more about the discursive practices that, because of colonialism and neocolonialism, privilege and sustain the global dominance of white imperial subjects and Eurocentric worldviews (‘Whiteness and the politics of location’, in T. Nakayama and J. Martin (Eds), Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity, 1999, pp. 107–128, Thousand Oaks: Sage).”

So, part of what we recognize and what disturbs us is whiteness and the colonialism, neocolonialism, privilege and global dominance of white imperial subjects and Eurocentric worldviews that are so perfectly summed up in the act of the white culture minister devouring the cake and then “feeding” it to her “subject.”

Further, whiteness is tied to the twin legacies of European colonial power and American delusions of “manifest destiny.” These legacies are rooted in racist acts of physical or verbal violence.  In the photograph, the white people in the crowd, smiling, laughing, cameras raised, taking pictures as the cake and symbolic woman are cut, evoke the lynch mob. This picture is the essence of colonialism and neocolonialism, and of a privileged Eurocentric view, and that is part of what is repulsive in this image. Such representations circulate very widely through social media, yet often with little or no critique or analysis, only reproducing (in every sense) the image and its unintended consequences.

For its part, a spokesperson for the museum where the cake appeared had this to say:

“Moderna Museet understands and respects that people find the pictures and video clips from World Art Day upsetting, especially when they are shown out of context. The intention of KRO and Makode Linde was to draw attention to and discuss today’s racism, not to reinforce it.”

I actually don’t object to the performance art aspect of this piece, I just don’t think it went far enough in exposing the racism it wanted to subvert. The racism that the pictures and video clips of the event were not “upsetting” because they were “shown out of context.”  It’s the context and the racism embedded in it that is disturbing. That the artist, the museum and the culture minister failed to understand that speaks to the complicated ways that art, transnational whiteness and racism are intertwined.

 

Is Love Enough? Limits of Whiteness in Transracial Adoptions

The recent explosion in transracial adoptions (especially white parents adopting black children) within United States, especially by high profile celebrities such as Sandra Bullock, Madonna and Angelina Jolie, sends a dangerous message to ordinary Americans that race, racism and the persistence of discrimination has all but faded from our national memory. And more so, that love alone is enough to raise a child of color. White parents that definitively espouse, “Love is enough” are doing a huge disservice to their black children.

Research shows that black adoptees experience a high degree of uncertainty in deciphering the onslaught of race-based information (particularly with regards to self-image) they inevitably encounter in predominately white communities where they are raised; the adoptees often experience daily racial micro-aggressions that are typically “unseen” or misinterpreted by the white parent, thus leaving them exposed without developing effective coping strategies in a life-long battle for their racial identity. The concern is not that these white parents are willing to love and raise a child of a different color, but that they are typically resistant to openly examining our nation’s racial history and identifying their role as benefactors in a system of white privilege where white people receive a multitude of unearned, hassle-free benefits.

One of the limitations of white-adopting parents raising black children is that the parents are viewing race through the lens of whiteness. In the history making of what it means to be white, this constructed lens is what white people use to view society and the world. This has been a privilege undeservingly bestowed upon Whites in which they do not have to think about what it means to be a white person in society, but this poses a barrier to raising mentally and emotionally healthy children of color who will be confronted with their position in society on a daily basis. White privilege, which includes views on race through a white lens, stems from this nation’s history of race and racism. Part of the challenge of being a white parent adopting children of color is comprehending the children’s racial group history in relation to past and present. In order to understand racism today, one must examine its origins and evolution in history. To understand this is to gain some awareness of what a person of color experiences and the burden they carry for this country’s past deeds. In that process, a white parent has to come to grips with racism and his/her place in a white racialized society. Only then can a parent begin to provide their child with the tools (tools that black parents tend to pass down as received wisdoms through mere experience) to have a strong racial-identity and to contest the experiences and challenges they will surely encounter as a person of color in America.

Nearly two and a half centuries (more than half this country’s history) of white racial framing of black Americans as the objects of white scorn has left a legacy of deep-rooted demons that lurk about just beneath the surface of consciousness, dictating how we think and act on our racial assumptions. Hence, the body has become a canvas on which (racial) discourse is painted according to the unconscious and conscious images seen, providing the interlocutor with specific understandings and awareness about human difference, whether real or imagined. According to Lakoff and Johnson (1999), “Consciousness goes way beyond mere awareness of something, beyond the mere experience of qualia (the qualitative senses of, for example, pain or color), beyond the awareness that you are aware, and beyond the multiple takes on immediate experience provided by various centers of the brain. Consciousness certainly involves all the above plus the immeasurably vaster constitutive framework provided by the cognitive unconscious, which must be operating for us to be aware of anything at all” (Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, p. 11).

Because these thoughts exist below the level of conscious awareness, unconscious frames developed which are cognitive maps or conceptual systems, ways of thinking about human difference. Racial frames are specific forms of knowledge production around black bodies that evolved from uneven historical conditions of far-reaching black exploitation and, in a number of significant ways, built up and sustained the wealth of the nation for centuries through the horrors of European colonialism and African slavery. White elites (i.e., lawyers, doctors, scientists, clergyman, etc.) extorted socially constructed ideas about blacks to justify that exploitation. Racial frames are deeply rooted in the image of the body and are remarkably resilient. Thus, each successive new generation of Whites is racially primed with old racist folklore inherited from their white forbearers and reinforced through media portrayals as well as the larger white context of family and friends. For example, white racial frames about black males as scary are well known among a substantial numbers of Whites and, unfortunately for black men, can result in life or death. Certainly George Zimmerman acted on white racial assumptions of black males, which in part lead the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. The recent shootings in Tulsa that left three black men dead and two critically injured is an added reminder of the salience of race in American life. Black Americans know all too well the continued high costs of living with racism.

The election of President Barrack Obama as the nation’s first African American commander and chief emboldened the rhetoric among many white Americans that race no longer matters as a significant U.S. problem. The Obama presence in the White House only strengthens and reinforces in the minds of many that racism is nothing more than randomized situations where individual “acts of meanness” directed at one racial group by another play out. Through this mindset, any one person can be racist, but most Americans see themselves as not racist. Unfortunately, these popular understandings of race are “normal” thinking that largely ignores our racial history of white-generated forms of oppression and violence directed at African Americans and other Americans of color, the aftermath of which can still be felt presently in our modern day society from school performance to the criminal justice system. Whether it’s recoiling in the presence of a black man on an elevator, attending same-race church services or selecting a mate, race matters in virtually ever aspect of our lives.

Given that race remains is a salient factor in the lives of African Americans and other Americans of color, white Americans remain mystified when it is suggested that they are the recipients of unearned white-skin privilege that considerably shape the quality of their life experiences. The uncritical examination of race by white Americans and the perpetuation of the platitude of “colorblindness” to succeeding young white compeers only forestalls any real efforts toward progressive change. As humans, we are generally not open to the idea of evaluating and correcting our personal shortcomings, particularly when it pertains to distasteful parts of our identity and self-image (or ego). Ask any African American or progressive white person and they will invariably tell you that white folks are not particularly receptive to robust discussions about the continuing problems of racial injustice especially if such discussions involve reparations or social justice as it pertains to black Americans. But fear of white offense and their subsequent silencing should not detour important moments of discussion with the goal of radically transforming our society toward a more democratic way, principally in the practice of transracial adoption where white adopting parents have an incentive and duty to rear physically, mentally and emotionally healthy black children.

Black adoptees must be inoculated against white racial understandings, stereotypes and insults to black identity by well-intentioned and not so well-intentioned Whites, and ignoring or de-emphasizing the needs of black children’s racial identity development can have a profound effect on mental health. Black children need an outlet to discuss, process and analyze race in ways that are both productive and protective for them. Because many white Americans hotly contest their own culpability in the maintenance of white racism, how is it then possible for white Americans, the most racially privilege group, to effectively teach black Americans, the least privilege group in our society, to cope with race-based mistreatment? In other words, how can whites parents teach their black children how to handle being black in America?

In 1972, The National Association of Black Social Workers (NASBW) expressed strong reservations against the practice of transracial adoption for many of the reasons mentioned above. Although I strongly understand their viewpoint and agree whole-heartedly with their rationale, I also believe that white adopting parents have every good intention in raising their children with love. The reality is that the majority of black children in foster care will stay there until they age out on their eighteenth birthday, and I certainly cannot say that this is a better alternative to being reared in an all white context. However, I believe there is an additional alternative, and that is to encourage white parents to educate themselves and take ownership of their place in history and the unearned benefits they receive from a racist society. The recent death of Trayvon Martin combined with the Tulsa killings should be a troubling wake-up call for those who thought racism was a thing of the past and particularly concerning for white adopting parents as foresight of what potential pitfalls their children may face by simply being black in America. By pretending that racism doesn’t exist or suggesting it only exists in localized settings, parents are setting their children up for a lifetime of grief and self-doubt. Instead, parents must provide their children with cultural armor to protect them against the pervasiveness of daily racists insults and practices. By giving your black children the understandings of our whitely framed world and the tools to handle this world, you are only preparing them with positive strategies to engage inevitable circumstances that they will encounter.

There are ways in which white parents can gain understanding and skills that are useful for their black children. For example, read books by well-written, black authors on the subject of white privilege and white racism, move into more racially integrated communities, attend an African American church and other social functions, and finally, increase friendships with more African Americans of equal status. I remain hopeful that white adopting parents have the desire, courage and conviction to move beyond the racial frame that “race no longer matters in American society” and to recognize their own white privilege which represents a considerable stumbling block to improving the overall quality of experience of transracial adoption for adopting parents and children alike. However, if Whites fail to take ownership of this problem in order to deflect any semblance of racism away from them, then we as a society further fail in our efforts to instill wholesale change.

~ Cross-posted from Prof. Darron Smith’s blog (www.darronsmith.com).

Racist Framing and Action by White Progressives: Some Hard Questions



I am slowly revising my book, The White Racial Frame, for a second edition. A new white activist acquaintance in Minnesota sent me this comment in response to my questions to some folks of diverse backgrounds up there working in several effective anti-racism groups. She first made some kind comments on the book’s virtues, but then noted a discussion in the book that needs much more amplification and discussion:

Your research regarding the level of continuing negative stereotyping of people of color, through purposefully coded front-stage communications and through blatant back-stage communications, is most compelling. White readers of The White Racial Frame come away from the book much more able and motivated to interrupt these racist performances. What I would also hope to see more of in the second edition is articulation of the ways in which progressive/liberal/radical social justice activists (some likely readers of your book) act out of the white racial frame, making their organizations and themselves toxic to people of color. Why are almost all the liberal progressive organizations in Minnesota (environmental activists, child care advocacy groups, affordable housing lobbying groups, etc) virtually exclusively white?

Such white folks disavow any racist thinking on their own part and decry it in others. But in what ways are they reproducing the white racial frame in their personal interactions and within these progressive organizations? Clearly they are acting out of the frame, but they are (seemingly) completely unaware of this. On page 128, you point out that highly-educated whites often think and write, unreflectively, out of a strong and unexamined version of the white racial frame. “Holding that [white] racial frame in their heads, but trying to suppress overt actions reflecting it, whites frequently send powerful nonverbal signals, as real feelings … leak out into cross-racial interactions. “ (p. 135)

What forms do such subconscious performances of dominance and assumed superiority take? How do whites typically manifest the power and privilege of their social location in unconscious ways? What is being communicated non-verbally, and how is that being done? What assumptions are controlling our behaviors? In what multitude of ways on a daily basis do we assume that the white experience is also the experience of people of color, with that assumption informing our perceptions, feelings and understandings?

In the social networks I am part of, people of color tend to find these subconscious white behaviors more damaging than the explicit racial references whites engage in.

She and a Black colleague she works with then added that they

have found very little in the literature naming, surveying or researching such subconscious performances. So anything you could contribute to the understanding of this would be appreciated. Your book, with its articulated focus on the White Racial Frame, provides and ideal time and place for those of us who are white to consider such issues.

Because of her (and their) insightful, and on target comments, I have been thinking a lot about this way liberal/radical/progressive/anti-racist whites do conscious, half-conscious, or unconscious racialized and white-framed performances that alienate people of color and make organization difficult or impossible across the racial lines. Indeed, in a request earlier today about examples of what she is talking about, one of my Latino graduate students sent me this response as I was finishing up this post:

[She] raises an interesting point of the lack of interracial organizing. From my own experiences organizing in the Logan Heights (predominantly Mexican/Chicano) community in San Diego, white leftist/radical organizations and individuals such as C.P. USA, ACORN, labor unions (i.e. S.E.I.U), American Friends Service Committee often approach issues as “leaders” and don’t do enough to understand/involve the perspectives/concerns of the minority community. In essence, white progressives often (my own experience) have a difficult time relating to a non-white constituency, I suspect it due to race and class and the power/status discrepancy they create. Blee’s (2012) Democracy in the Making study of grassroots in Pittsburgh, PA also notes the lack of interracial organizing, and it resulting from white progressives who often talk about diversity/expanding their base. The book does not do enough to investigate the reason behind the lack of cross-racial outreach (but did cite in one case how white activists did not feel safe flying in minority communities.)

Very good points, indeed.

I would also welcome your thoughts on these matters (in the comments, for example), and any existing research or discussions you may have seen on these very important issues. Thanks.

A Reflection on Being a White Anti-Racist and a Call to Do It Anyway

The Trayvon Martin tragedy is a “racial barometer” moment. The kind that erupts every now and again and acts as a lightening rod all around. As Dr. Joyce Bell recently wrote here, moments like these often inspire scholar-activists to speak from a voice that is utterly personal. Compelled, that is what I’m also here to do.

As a white anti-racist I’m very consciously reminded in moments like this that I, too, am a problem. I am not who DuBois had in mind when he posed the agonizing question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Yet I ache under a weight of suspicion as I reflect on what the barometer reveals about the path I’ve chosen for my life.

(The author, left, at a Trayvon Martin protest in Houston. Photo from Houston Chronicle.)

When I speak publicly about systemic racism and analyze incidents like the Martin killing from that lens, I know that meanings and beliefs about who I am and what compels my actions will be mapped onto me – with or without my approval. To be sure, sometimes they are positive. I’m keenly aware that I’m often privileged to speak critically about race and have my voice and perspectives valued in ways that my friends and colleagues of color can rarely assume. To many, I’m a curiosity – a white person speaking frankly and passionately about race – how about that? And, I’ve been rewarded to be embraced as a sister, friend and ally in the struggle for racial and social justice, freedom and self-determination.

Nonetheless, I know too, there’s a flipside.

I mark myself when I speak critically about Racism. White Supremacy. Whiteness. And yes, White People.

And, I will pay costs for doing so. Certainly, I will pay less of the direct, material costs that people of color pay for their activism; let alone their simply “being non-white” in the world – costs they don’t choose but which have been chosen for them. But at a bare minimum I can count on paying psychic and personal ones.

I often feel deeply misunderstood: curiosity-turned-grotesque; ally-turned-enemy. My academic and experiential knowledge – that which I’ve dedicated my life’s work to – is dismissed by many people, particularly many (most?) white people. I know that the racialized socialization most white people experience both ensures this will happen (often with near-automation) and provides many tools for my invalidation. Rationalizations, justifications, retorts that explain away racial causes for racial outcomes and solidify our collective white privilege – all plentifully available. To these folks I am at best, unrealistic idealist working from the “unreality” of the ivory tower – at worst, I am crazy, misinformed, brainwashed, hateful, evil. Fill in the blank. I know these are costs that have long been born by people of color; choosing to be a white anti-racist means they are my costs now too.

Unlike people of color, I’m much less likely to have a “natural” community of support around me, to encourage me in my efforts – and indeed, love me for them. Choosing to be a white anti-racist scholar-activist has meant that I often feel alienated, particularly from fellow whites who I wish to call “brother” and “sister.” Always difficult, this alienation is most painful when it distances me from the people in my life I deeply love, including family. Even when it doesn’t include direct animosity (which it often doesn’t), please know, feeling at all outside of the circle of family I call “home” hurts.

If I need advice on financial matters I call my brother. He’s an analyst. If I need to know something about home or car repair, I call one of my other brothers. Between them they know how to fix just about anything. I call my sister for any number of the hundreds of things about which she has knowledge. And what of my expertise? I have long been regarded by my family as someone who has a good head on my shoulders, who possesses both intelligence and common sense. I know white worlds well and have been privy to the worlds of people of color in ways that most white people I know have not. I have 20 years of an awareness forged by scholarship and deeply intimate relationships – things learned in and outside of classrooms, in the real worlds of workplaces and homes and countless public spaces. Nonetheless, I sense my knowledge as something to be tolerated, but rarely sought, rarely praised; at times, resented. Perhaps they feel I don’t understand them. Perhaps they feel they don’t understand me. I’m not sure. And then again, they’ve never asked, what in the world did make you choose this unusual path? People of color ask me that all the time.

Usually the white people in my social circles can ignore my racially politicized self as we play out a sort of implicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of our own. I imagine they may think “You know, that’s just Jenni – she studies race, she hangs out with black people, she listens to hip hop – she’s just like that.” And then we all agree to pretend that doesn’t matter. But racial barometer moments make the work of ignoring personal racial politics harder to do, for me and therefore, for them.

There was a time I listened to a voice of fear in my head and managed the expression of my politics (little ‘p’) with some of the white people in my life, including my family. If I wanted to post a race critical article or idea on Facebook, for example, I sometimes excluded certain people in my white networks from the posting. Even though I knew this was a direct violation of my personal politics, I did it. Not with a lot of people, but with some. Not all of the time, but on occasion.

And then Trayvon Martin was killed. Parents mourned. African American families anguished, outraged, protested. Precious life and potential wasted; signs of an all-too-familiar and well-documented miscarriage of justice afoot.

(Photo by the author)

I’m not new to the game. I can offer a sharp, race critical analysis of probably any social issue, including the structural patterns that both define and create a tragic outcome like this. Nonetheless, this societal racial barometer was a personal one too. It forced me to call my failed integrity – however “minor” and “reasonable” – into question. I decided then that I had to be, as Audre Lorde encouraged, “deliberate and afraid of nothing.”

I knew I must crush any remaining shred of fear that might ever silence me. Because mothers and fathers panicked for the lives of their sons and daughters. Because the many people of color I love, too, struggle to raise their children healthy and happy and productive and in love with themselves in a world that devalues them and “encodes crime and drugs and lust and danger on their bodies,” (as  Joyce captured so perfectly and tragically). Because there are those in this world that will desperately and unflinchingly and dispassionately explain away their murders as the result of anything other than racism. Because these are, quite literally, matters of life and death. Who was I to be called sister/friend/ally if I was complicit in any way with shielding anyone from these truths? And so many, many more.

I don’t hate white people – or myself. I do not operate out of a sense of guilt. I don’t have some blind or romanticized or misappropriated love for people of color. And though as a sociologist I am trained to examine the social forces that impact people’s lives, I am never blinded from recognizing the power of personal responsibility, of using personal agency to direct the course of our lives positively, to the best of our abilities as people. As I recently told my sister, I am only doing what I believe is just and right, and I’m never going to stop. In that way, I'm certainly a product of the background I share with my siblings, who are giving, kind, wonderful, beautifully-intentioned people. We are each the product of our parents, who taught us to live out our integrity by their example.

In riding the wake of these personal reflections I came to a sad conclusion: that many of the white people I care about in my life will love me (hopefully) in spite of what I do, but maybe never for it. I know the more fearless I become, the more of a problem I am. Even if there is no direct confrontation, the very way I life my life may be experienced as an implicit challenge. But, as I’ve learned through personal experience in the past, the challenges of our lives often create potentialities.

I think of what DuBois wrote about the famous abolitionist John Brown, written into history as a crazy, fanatical murderer, put to death for his criminal actions in working toward the cause of justice. DuBois wrote that as people at the time watched his trial unfold "wider and wider circles were beginning dimly and more clearly to recognize that his lawlessness was in obedience to the highest call of self-sacrifice for the welfare of his fellow men. They began to ask themselves, What is this cause that can inspire such devotion?" I often meditate on this thought. I try to hold onto the hope that in continuing to seek and speak truth and work toward justice, even as I pay different costs for doing so, some might ask "What is this cause that can inspire such devotion?"

I'm no John Brown. No. But I will stand forever, side-by-side, with all my brothers and sisters in the struggle, whoever they may be.

 
~ Jennifer Mueller is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Texas A&M University.

The End of Civil Rights Revolution: Dr. King’s Assassination



April 4, 1968, about 6:01pm. We should always remember that time. It has now been 44 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was moving conceptually and in his actions in a more radical direction combining antiracist, broader anticlass, and antiwar efforts—which efforts likely had much to do with his assassination.King (Photo: Wiki-images)

I remember the day vividly, like it was yesterday, and can still remember the time of day when one of my students at the University of California called me to tell of the terrible event, and I can still remember well my and his distressed emotions as we talked about the shooting. (We did not know Dr. King had died at that time.) He was one of the few African American students then at that university and as one would expect was devastated by the event, as I was too

In some ways, King’s assassination marked the apparent end of much of the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, not necessarily a coincidence. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about this historical timing — or to wonder where this country would be if thinker/leaders like Dr. King and Malcolm X had lived to lead an ever renewed rights and racism-change movement.

The events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination need to be taught everywhere. In late March 1968 Dr. King and other civil rights leaders participated in and supported the local Memphis sanitary works employees, black and white, who were striking for better wages and working condition.

Conditions in Memphis, as elsewhere, were very oppressive for workers, in both racial and class terms, as this wikipedia summary makes clear:

In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.

King gave his last (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) speech at a rally for the workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis.
This is the famous section near the end of his prophetic speech, where he reflects on death threats he had often received:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

Let us remember him well, and especially his prophetic antiracist, anti-capitalistic, and antiwar messages, on this day, April 4, 2012.

“Unaddressed Racism” : Alice Walker on Travyon Martin’s Killing

This is a long (45 minute), but good, interview from Democracy Now with Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet and activist Alice Walker about the root causes of the Trayvon Martin killing. Worth a listen:

Walker observes that “We are a very sick country. And our racism is a manifestation of our illness and the ways that we don’t delve into our own wrecks. … As a country, we are a wreck.” Powerful words.