The Paula Deen Scandal: White Racial Framing in Action

Professor Tricia Rose of Brown University has an interesting and savvy op-ed piece on the Paula Deen racism scandal. She makes this key set of points:

With each heartfelt tearful statement, Deen seems completely uninterested in the broader contexts of her comments, missing ample opportunities to address the reality of racism today both in the form of cultural and social interactions, but even more powerfully by policies and actions.

I heard her speak very little about the extraordinary injuries and injustices black people face, I have not heard her show alliance with those who fight racism nor show solidarity with or compassion for black people based on the profound impact racism has on their lives.

I grew up in similar circumstances to those of Deen, the assertively and comprehensively Jim Crow South. That is a central part of that “broader context” of her comments. Virtually all white southerners (and most in the North too) then grew up with, and had drilled into them, a very aggressive version of the white racist framing of society—replete with many thousands (and I do mean thousands, empirically speaking) of references by older whites, parents and others, to black southerners of all ages and conditions as N-words. Virtually all young white southerners used that word, as they unreflectively mimicked parents and peers. And a dozen other antiblack words.


(Image Source)

 

The even more important point missed in almost all discussion I have seen of Deen is that the overtly and brutally racist language of the southern (and northern) white racial frame was not isolated, for it was (and still is) connected to many dozens of antiblack and other racist stereotypes, ideas, narratives, images, interpretations, and inclinations to discriminate. It has been now for nearly four centuries.

The real issue is this white racial frame, this white worldview, not just one major racist word, or two. As a white person drilled in the white racial frame, you do not just give up using one word (and often just in public, too) and, suddenly, become a virtuous non-racist. You have to work constantly and aggressively to deframe and reframe away from that dominant white racial frame in the antiracist direction–and that takes much effort. And that effort is never finished over any white lifetime.

So, where is the public discussion of this broad and deep white way of looking at society, a framing that in some version is the backbone perspective for most white Americans today–and most especially in many of the racist performances of a great many prominent and not-so-prominent white conservatives today.

Central to the common white defensiveness on these issues is the heart of that centuries-old white racial frame – the sense that white people are the most virtuous, civilized, and intelligent Americans. Yet these “virtuous” whites created systems of racial oppression in the form of 246 years of slavery and nearly 100 years of Jim Crow that rival the worst systems of oppression created over long centuries of world history. And widespread contemporary racial discrimination as well.

In her piece Professor Rose raises a very good question about why Deen does not just come out and take an anti-racist stand. In my view that would be one that accents and condemns the current discriminatory treatment African Americans and other people of color still receive in this country–and emphasizes the need for this country’s white leadership to aggressively confront their own racism and that imbedded across the institutions of this still racist society.

That seems an elementary response, at least looking from outside the dominant white racial frame critically–for example, from the perspective of those people of color oppressed by it for so long.

Striking Lack of Diversity in Ivy League’s Top Positions

The June 14 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education (“At the Ivies, It’s Still White at the Top”) presents a remarkable pictorial display of the individuals in the top levels of university administration in the Ivy League (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale). This pictorial display is more powerful and compelling than any statistical report in portraying the absence of diversity in university leadership. It reminds us of the dimensions of the administrative landscape as it exists today and emphasizes the fact that we are truly only at the beginning of the long journey toward inclusion in the top tiers of our nation’s educational institutions. This journey begins with representation as its first phase, next proceeds to the development of a representative bureaucracy that reflects the changing demography of student populations, and ultimately requires the creation of inclusive cultures at all levels.

The lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the top administrative ranks is not limited to the Ivies, but also pertains to public and private research universities as well as four-year colleges throughout the United States. A 2008 King & Gomez study found that close to 85 percent of the top-ranked positions in doctorate-granting institutions are held by whites and 66 percent held by males. Similarly, a NACUBO (2010) survey, found that Chief Financial Officers are 90% white and 68% male.

Furthermore, as Bryan Cook, former director of the American Council of Education, notes in the lead article by Stacey Patton in this Chronicle special edition, the lack of racial and ethnic diversity at 149 four-year colleges has persisted for 25 years. Cook also observes that institutions rarely replace a minority member with another when he or she leaves. As Ms. Patton perceptively notes, the frequent argument about “lack of qualified candidates” for these top roles becomes a loaded and coded divergence—a smoke screen that feeds stereotypes of minorities as less capable, intelligent, or experienced (p. A4). The few minorities that are selected for these highly visible roles experience what researchers William Tierney and Robert Rhodes call the double-edged sword of “a perverse visibility and a convenient invisibility.” For example, in her essay, “The Making of a Token,” in the edited volume Presumed Incompetent Yolanda Flores Niemann reports her “inordinate visibility” as a minority female professor in a mainly white male department. Subjected to overt racism and isolation, her negative self-perceptions and lowered sense of self-efficacy in the academy increased, until, as she reports, “I no longer recognized the person in the mirror.” Hiring one or two minorities at high levels within our institutions of higher education cannot be expected to solve the sense of exclusion, perceptions of token status, heightened visibility, or differential expectations that can accrue to the singular individual or nominal number of individuals in these top roles.

There are, however, some promising developments on the horizon. David S. Lee, professor of economics and public affairs and the director of the Industrial Relations Section at Princeton University, was just named provost last week, as the current provost (Christopher Eisgruber) ascended to the presidency. Unlike its Ivy comparators, Columbia University had the highest percentage of minority administrators (42 percent), although only 3 of its senior-level administrators are minorities. And women have certainly attained the highest levels with female presidents at all of the Ivies except Yale (Dartmouth has an interim female president).

As Alvin Evans and I share in our forthcoming book, The New Talent Acquisition Frontier: Integrating HR and Diversity Strategy, diverse talent is an accelerator of innovation, demanding a shift in the structures of top-down, command-and-control leadership that characterized the Industrial era. In this era of globalization, universities can no longer afford to ignore the need for diverse, collaborative, intergroup leadership. The leadership of diverse executive teams will create common ground in an environment of shared governance, promote inclusive campus climates, and position the university to respond to the changing educational needs of students in an interconnected, global society.

Interracial Cheerios – What We’re Still Ignoring

A recap for those of you who haven’t been following the cereal saga. On May 28 General Mills aired a YouTube Cheerios ad featuring a Black father, White mother and their young biracial daughter.

The 30-second clip was immediately bombarded with racist remarks referencing Nazis, “troglodytes” and “racial genocide.” It got so many negative reactions the comment section was taken down a day later. It is now impossible to verify any of the racist vitriol that was submitted there. But that wasn’t the end of it anyway. Commenters on the cereal’s Facebook page said they found the commercial “disgusting” and it made them “want to vomit.” One viewer expressed shock that a Black father would stay with this family writing the mother was, “More like single parent in the making. Black dad will dip out soon.” Simultaneously a Reddit stream on the ad turned into a debate about the accuracy or likelihood of the mixed-race family comprising a Black man and White woman, rather than a Black woman and White man. The negative responses drew explosive and infuriated attention across the Internet and then media. The result was an overwhelming and massive outpouring of support. America rushed to defend the bi-racial family en masse. Now, if you Google “Cheerios ad,” there will be no end to the pages and pages of results you find. Indeed as I write, the commercial has received close to 3.5 million views. The comments section is still disabled.

A couple weeks later, the saga seems to be coming to a close. Americans are still a little shaken but ultimately appeased by the final tally (i.e. the dramatic outnumbering of positive to negative responses). To date however the discussion never really included an examination of some critical points that could have propelled us forward. And so we may continue to tread water. First, we have been greatly influenced here by a history we like to forget and neglect. We have long feared interracial unions particularly between Black men and White women because they presumably pose the greatest “threat” to White male control. Remember, 18th and 19th century opposition to race mixing aimed to protect White male interests in an era of colonial expansion. While Black women’s lives were tragically treated as inconsequential, male freedom to choose a White partner made access to White women a barometer of power. For instance, when White men, who held the highest position of privilege, crossed the racial border in having consentual and nonconsentual relationships with Black women, they were seldom penalized. But Black men who crossed, or who were even suspected of crossing the racial divide by having relations with White women, were severely beaten or killed. These social politics rooted themselves in stereotypes that still profoundly affect us:

“Black men are thought to lust after white women; white men are thought to be envious of black male sexuality; black women are supposed to be more sexually satisfying than white women; and white women are dehumanized as trophies in competition between men…The system of racial apartheid and oppression that defined the early years of this country’s racial history remains in force today. Racial and sexual stereotypes are still very powerful, and double standards still abound. White men were ever vigilant about black men’s sexual access to white women – and they still are.”1

Second, I think it’s worth asking which character really had us up in arms. The mother, the father, or the CHILD?? I suggest it was the body/appearance/phenotype of a young multiracial child who centrally sparked this race controversy. Her character represented living proof of sex between a Black man and White woman, fanning an age-old fear of Black male virility and the dismantling of White supremacy. The Cheerios child also embodied a commitment to longevity on the part of her parents. This was not a tale of dangerous romance swept up on wild winds, but the story of a steadfast family living their every day life. The message being, we’re not going anywhere; a direct challenge and deconstruction of what has long been the dominant American family prototype (i.e. White heterosexual parents and their White children, a dog and house with white picket fence).

(Image from here)

What’s perhaps even more important to note here however is the way a multiracial body again became a platform for race deconstruction while its voice and experience went largely unnoticed and unacknowledged. And how we continue to avoid having race conversations with mixed children and perhaps most children in general. Much of the Cheerios debate has been dichotomous and adultcentric, focusing on interracial partnership/marriage and the Black/White divide. But we need to ask ourselves, how does the divide translate for the mixed race child? Does she herself feel divided when she sees she is poised precariously on a tight rope in “the middle”? These are the children of the future and they are being asked to represent race redefinition without the privilege of weighing in. Case in point, when MSNBC interviewed the child actress, Grace Colbert, and her real-life parents, her Black father was asked most of the race questions. His daughter meanwhile bore silent witness while sitting attentively at his side. And when Grace’s White mother, sitting on her other side, was asked if the backlash had “pushed sensitive conversations at home” with the kids, mom answered, “Not really. Um our kids are very open. And you know they – I inquired about, to my daughter, about it and she actually just thought the attention was because she had a great smile. So. She really had no idea.” This answer was given within obvious close hearing range of Grace’s fully capable ears. Grace just wordlessly continued to flash her great smile. But we are left to wonder – what was she really thinking?…

~ Sharon Chang blogs at MultiAsianFamilies

Note 1. See Root, Maria P. P. Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Print.

The Moral Issue Remains: Medgar Evers and the US Fifty Years Later

Two events that took place just hours apart 50 years ago serve as a metaphor for our nation’s struggle for racial equality.

On June 11, 1963, John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the nation demanding that the federal government aggressively put in place measures to guarantee the constitutional rights of blacks. JFK was comprehensive in his goals, insisting that the federal government be actively involved in addressing institutional racism in housing, the labor market, schooling, access to voting, and public accommodations. This call for racial equality occurred when Jim Crow laws were the norm, a majority of public schools were racially segregated, and blacks were politically disenfranchised. When JFK gave his speech, more than 80 percent of all black workers were concentrated in farming, manual labor, and service-sector jobs that guaranteed subsistence wages and intergenerational poverty.

JFK’s call was righteous, radical, and quintessentially American. It was a demand for equal rights and opportunity based on the Golden Rule. Kennedy argued

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue . . . whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.

The next morning, in Jackson, Miss., white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith sat hidden behind a bush, waiting for Medgar Evers, the local NAACP field secretary and a father of three, to return home. Beckwith shot the civil rights activist in the back, and he died within the hour. Although the evidence linking Beckwith to the murder was overwhelming, he was acquitted twice by all-male, all-white juries. Thirty years later, Beckwith was retried and convicted of murder. He died in prison in 2001.

Social scientists are fond of pointing out that when individuals, typically white individuals, discuss racism, they use the past tense. As a nation, we like to believe that the odious and racist views of people like Beckwith have died out and been replaced by the idealism of an equitable and just society embodied in the aspirations articulated in JFK’s speech on racial equality. How much has changed in 50 years? Is our democracy self-correcting, with our moral arc consistently bending toward justice, as evidenced by Beckwith’s eventual conviction? Or is this just another example of “justice delayed is justice denied,” an enduring feature of how this nation treats racial minorities and newcomers?

JFK’s own words allow us to empirically examine the progress in racial equality over the last 50 years. He observed

The Negro baby born in America today . . . has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.

Compare JFK’s statistics with today’s. In 2010-11, whites graduated from high school at a rate of 76 percent and blacks at 60 percent. In 2010, whites graduated from college at a rate of 62 percent, blacks at 40 percent. In 2013, unemployment for whites was 6.7 percent; it was 13.2 percent for blacks. In 2010, 35 percent of whites and 24 percent of blacks worked in “management, professional, and related occupations.” A salary of $10,000 in 1963 would be worth $75, 990 today; 18 percent of black families and 34 percent of white families made $75,000 or more. On average, whites live five years longer than blacks. Median household income in 2011 was $55,214 for whites, $32,229 for blacks.

At least in the categories mentioned by JFK, it is undeniable that progress has been made. A mountain of earth remains to be moved, however, to level the playing field.

We like to believe that people like Beckwith die off or are marginalized by good people of conscience, and that their exit means social progress is being made. We are invested in the narrative that growing racial tolerance necessarily means shrinking racial inequality, although this equation no longer depicts reality. A black president can be elected (twice), and we may not blink at an interracial couple walking down the street, but that doesn’t mean that racial inequality is in decline or in its death throes. The recession has hurt almost everyone, but it has disproportionately wreaked economic havoc on some racial minorities.

What we should be asking ourselves is, Where are the speeches like Kennedy’s that appeal to the citizenry’s better angels to right a social wrong? Where are the pleas to Americans on moral and ethical grounds by those who can use the bully pulpit to raise public awareness of the social inequalities that continue to plague our nation?

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Charles A. Gallagher is chair of the department of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. E-mail him at gallagher@lasalle.edu. See some of his work here.

The Craziest Person in the Room: Reflections on How a Mediocre White Guy Can Try to Be Useful

[Edited version of a talk at the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education in New Orleans on June 1, 2013.]

I recognize that the title for this presentation—“The Craziest Person in the Room: Reflections on How a Mediocre White Guy Can Try to Be Useful”—is not particularly elegant or enticing, maybe not very clear or even coherent. So, let me begin by explaining what I mean by some of these terms.

First, the “white guy”: For some years now, I’ve begun talks on injustice and inequality by acknowledging my status: White, male, educated, comfortably middle class, and born in the United States—in short, a privileged citizen of a predatory imperial nation-state within a pathological capitalist economic system. Borrowing a line from a friend with the same profile, I observe that, “If I had been born good-looking, I would have had it all.” That approach communicates to people in this room who don’t occupy these categories that I recognize my unearned privilege and the unjust systems and structures of power from which that privilege flows. (It also indicates that I am not afraid to look in a mirror.)

But today I won’t offer much more of that reflexive white liberal/progressive/radical genuflecting, which while appropriate in many situations increasing feels to me like a highly choreographed dance that happens in what we might call “social-justice spaces.” In rooms such as this, such a performance feels like that—just a performance. So, yes, there are some things I don’t know and can’t know because I’m a white guy, and that demands real humility, a recognition that people on the other end of those hierarchies have different, and typically deeper, insights than mine. But after 25 years of work to understand the world in which I live, there are some things I am confident that I do know and that are more vitally important than ever.

This confidence flows from an awareness that I am mediocre. About “mediocre”: Don’t worry, I don’t have a self-esteem problem. I am a tenured full professor at a major state research university, a job that I work hard at with some success. This is not false modesty; I believe I’m an above-average teacher who is particularly good at expressing serious ideas in plain language. I describe myself as mediocre because I think that, whatever skills I have developed, I’m pretty ordinary and I think that most of us ordinary people are pretty mediocre—good enough to get by, but nothing special. If we put some effort into our work and catch a few breaks (and I’ve had more than my share of lucky breaks), we’ll do ok. Too many bad breaks, and things fall apart quickly. I think this is an honest, and healthy, way to understand ourselves.

So, for me, “coming out” as mediocre is a way of reminding myself of my limits, to help me use whatever abilities I do have as effectively as possible. I’ve spent a quarter-century in academic and political life, during which time I’ve met some really smart people, and I can tell the difference between them and me. I have never broken new theoretical ground in any field, and I never will. I probably have never had a truly original idea. I’m a competent, hard-working second-tier intellectual and organizer.

As a result, I’ve focused on trying to get clear about basic issues: Why is it so difficult for U.S. society to transcend the white-supremacist ideas of its founding, even decades after the end of the country’s formal apartheid system? Why do patriarchal ideas dominate everywhere, even in the face of the compelling arguments of feminists? Why do we continue to describe the United States as a democratic society when most ordinary people feel shut out of politics and the country operates on the world stage as a rogue state outside of international law? Why do we celebrate capitalism when it produces a world of unspeakable deprivation alongside indefensible affluence? And why, in the face of multiple cascading ecological crises, do we collectively pretend that prosperity is just around the corner when what seems more likely to be around the corner is the cliff that we are about to go over? Those are some really heavy questions, but people don’t have to pretend to be something special to deal with these challenges. We can be ordinary, average—mediocre, in the sense I mean it—and still do useful things to confront all this. Instead of trying to prove how special and smart we are, it’s fine to dig in and do the ordinary work of the world. But people like me—those of us with identities that come with all that unearned privilege—do have one opportunity to do at least one thing that can be special: We don’t have to pretend to be the smartest, but we can strive to be the craziest person in the room.

Third, and final, clarification, about “crazy”: In this context, I mean crazy not in a pejorative but in an aspirational sense. I want to be as crazy as I can, in the sense of being unafraid of the radical implications of the radical analysis necessary to understand the world. When such analysis is honest, the implications are challenging, even frightening. It is helpful to be a bit crazy, in this sense, to help us accept the responsibility of pushing as far and as hard as is possible and productive, in every space.

I take that to be my job, to leverage that unearned privilege to create as much space as possible for the most radical analysis possible, precisely because in some settings I am taken more seriously than those without that status. If it’s true that white people tend to take me more seriously than a non-white person when talking about race, then I should be pushing those white folk. If I can get away with talking not just about the need for diversity but also about the enduring reality of racism—and in the process, explain why the United States remains a white-supremacist society—then I should talk “crazy” in that way, to make sure that analysis is part of the conversation, and to make it easier for non-white people to push in whatever direction they choose. Once I’ve used the term “white supremacy,” it’s on the table for others who might be dismissed as “angry” if they had introduced it into the conversation.

If it’s true that men tend to take me more seriously than a woman when talking about gender, then I should be pushing the envelope. If I can get away with talking not just about the importance of respecting women but also about the enduring reality of sexism, then I should talk “crazy” about how rape is not deviant but normalized in a patriarchal culture, about how the buying and selling of women’s bodies for the sexual pleasure of men in prostitution, pornography, and stripping is a predictable consequence of the eroticizing of domination and subordination.

I should talk about the violent reality of imperialism, not just questioning the wisdom of a particular war but critiquing the sick structure of U.S. militarism. I should talk not just about the destructive nature of the worst corporations but also about the fundamental depravity of capitalism itself.

As someone with status and protection, I should always be thinking: What is the most radical formulation of the relevant analysis that will be effective in a particular time and place? Then I should probably take a chance and push it a half-step past that. I should do all this without resorting to jargon, either from the diversity world or the dogmatic left. I should say it as clearly as possible, even when that clarity makes people—including me—uncomfortable. This isn’t always as difficult or risky as it seems. Outside of overtly reactionary political spaces, most people’s philosophical and theological systems are rooted in basic concepts of fairness, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people. Most of us endorse values that—if we took them seriously—should lead to an ethics and politics that reject the violence, exploitation, and oppression that defines the modern world. If only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths—incapable of empathy, those who for some reason enjoy cruel and oppressive behavior—then a radical analysis should make sense to lots of people.

But it is not, of course, that easy, because of the rewards available to us when we are willing to subordinate our stated principles in service of oppressive systems. I think that process works something like this:

–The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.
–Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits, and some limited number of people in subordinated classes will be allowed access to most of those same rewards.
–People are typically hesitant to give up privileges, pleasures, and benefits that make us feel good.
–But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of the vast majority of those in the subordinated classes.
–Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.
–One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are “natural” and therefore inevitable, immutable. There’s no point getting all worked up about this—it’s just the way things are.

If this analysis is accurate, that’s actually good news. I would rather believe that people take pains to rationalize a situation they understand to be morally problematic than to celebrate injustice. When people know they have to rationalize, it means they at least understand the problems of the systems, even if they won’t confront them.

So, our task is to take seriously that claim: Is this domination/subordination dynamic natural? Yes and no. Everything humans do is “natural,” in the tautological sense that since we do it, human nature obviously includes those particular characteristics. In that sense, a pacifist intentional community based on the collective good and a slave society based on exploitation are both natural. We all know from our own experience that our individual nature includes varied capacities; we are capable of greedy, self-interested behavior, and we also can act out of solidarity and compassion. We make choices—sometimes consciously, though more often without much deliberation—within systems that encourage some aspects of our nature and suppress other parts.

Maybe there is a pecking order to these various aspects of human beings—a ranking of the relative strength of these various parts of our nature—but if that is the case, we know virtually nothing about it, and aren’t likely to know anytime soon, given the limits of our ability to understand our own psychology. What we do understand is that the aspect of our nature that emerges as primary depends on the nature of the systems in which we live. Our focus should be on collective decisions we make about social structure, which is why it’s crucial to never let out of our sights the systems that do so much damage: white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism. There are serious implications to that statement. For example, I do not think that meaningful social justice is possible within capitalism. My employer, the University of Texas at Austin, doesn’t agree. In fact, some units of the university—most notably the departments of business, advertising, and economics—are dedicated to entrenching capitalism. That means I will always be in a state of tension with my employer, if I’m true to my own stated beliefs.

Education and organizing efforts that stray too far from this focus will never be able to do more than smooth the rough edges off of systems that will continue to produce violence, exploitation, and oppression—because that’s what those systems are designed to do. If we are serious about resisting injustice, that list of systems we must challenge is daunting enough. But it is incomplete, and perhaps irrelevant, if we don’t confront what in some ways is the ultimate hierarchy, the central domination/subordination dynamic: the human belief in our right to control the planet.

Let me put this in plain terms: We live in a dead world. Not a world that is dying, but a world that is dead—beyond repair, beyond reclamation, perhaps beyond redemption. The modern industrial high-energy/high-technology world is dead. I do not know how long life-as-we-know-it in the First World can continue, but the future of our so-called “lifestyle” likely will be measured in decades not centuries. Whatever the time frame for collapse, the contraction has begun. I was born in 1958 and grew up in a world that promised endless expansion of everything—of energy and material goods, of democracy and freedom. That bounty was never equitably distributed, of course, and those promises were mostly rhetorical cover for power. The good old days were never as good as we imagined, and they are now gone for good.

If that seems crazy, let me try again: The central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy—propped up by a technological fundamentalism that is as irrational as all fundamentalisms—is that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social arrangements, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: This high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump. We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.

Does that still sound crazy? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of dead zones in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction). Instead of gently putting our foot on the brakes and powering down, we are slamming into overdrive.

And there is the undeniable trajectory of global warming/global weirding, climate change/climate disruption—the end of a stable planet.

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points (June 7, 2012, issue of Nature) and planetary boundaries (September 23, 2009, issue of Nature), about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.” (Anthony Barnosky, et al, “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” Nature, June 7, 2012).

That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson wrote that, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.

I’m not moving into rapture talk, but we do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life.

All this matters for anyone concerned not only about the larger living world but also the state of the human family. Ecological sustainability and social justice are not separate projects. One obvious reason is that ecological crises do not affect everyone equally—as those in the environmental justice movement say, the poor and oppressed of the planet tend to be hit “first and worst, hardest and longest” by ecological degradation. These ecological realities also affect the landscape on which we organize, and progressive and radical movements on the whole have not spent enough time thinking about this.

First, let me be clear, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society, we should affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability. We take on projects that we realize may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.

Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.” There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.

Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for increasingly scarce resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.

If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.

It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice. To handle it is to be a moral agent, responsible for oneself and one’s place in a community.

Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.

Facing this doesn’t demand that we separate from mainstream society or give up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination. We do what we can, where we can, based on our best assessment of what will move us forward.

That may not be compelling to everyone. So, just in case I have dug myself in a hole with some people, I’ll deploy a strategy well known to white people talking about social justice: When you get in trouble, quote an icon from the civil-rights movement. In this case, I’ll choose James Baldwin, from a 1962 essay about the struggles of artists to help a society, such as white-supremacist America, face the depth of its pathology.

On this question of dealing honestly with hard truths, Baldwin reminds us,

Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” In that essay, titled “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” Baldwin suggested that a great writer attempts “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more. (James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” in Randall Kenan, ed., The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Pantheon, 2010), pp. 28-34.)

He was speaking about the struggle for justice within the human family, but if we extend that spirit to the state of the larger living world, the necessary formulation today would be “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then all the rest of the truth, whether we can bear it or not.”

By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe. All we do is undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability and guarantee the end of the human evolutionary experiment will be ugly beyond our imagination. We must remember, as Baldwin said, “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.”

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Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue, and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (on Kindle)

Jensen is also the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to here. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.

What does “Asian” mean?

In my research and encounters with multiracial/interracial Asian families, I have been asked this question a lot. Everyone seems to have a general idea. But shine the spotlight on “Asian”, try to get a good look at it, and we all get confused. Everything is blurry. Why is that? What and who exactly is “Asian”? Well. It depends. Like all racial concepts, “Asian” has a long history of construction informed by race/power politics. It never comes into clear view because its identity is never static. Rather always fluid. Continually defined, dismantled, reclaimed and redefined.

 

Let’s start with geography. The well respected science that studies the lands, its features, its inhabitants, and the phenomena of the Earth. Geographers tell us there are 4 major landmasses on our planet. Eurasia, North/South America, Africa and Australia. These masses are also called continents.

 

Except for Eurasia.

 

Eurasia is divided unevenly into two continents. A small fifth to the west is Europe. Everything east of that, a MASSIVE area, is Asia (including western Asia or the “Middle East”). Indeed Asia is the largest and most populous of all the continents. It compromises 30% of the planet’s land area and is home to about 60% of the world’s population. Why are there 4 landmasses, but 5 continents? Does that seem…maybe a little unscientific? That’s because it is. And now we’re getting to the heart of things. Rewind the clock. The word “Asia” was actually invented by ancient Greeks. It described the land to the east which was inhabited by people who were often their enemies. “Europe” was then coined to describe the area to the west where they were the predominant cultural influence.

This “us” versus “them” concept of Asia continued to be propagated by European geographers, politicians and encyclopedia writers. “Asian” remained a descriptor for non-Europeans on the landmass. “To talk of Asia at all,” writes Philip Bowring in the Far Eastern Economic Review, “May even be to talk in Eurocentric terms…Asia would have been no more than a geographical concept but for Europeans deciding they were something different.” Important to note too, the dividing line between Europe and Asia was drawn where the Urals join with the Caucasus and the Black Sea. If you will recall from my piece on “Mongolian Spots”, the Caucasus region was once thought by Europeans to be the birthplace of humanity. It was the location after which the archetypal, and most beautiful, “Caucasian” race was named (from which all other races theoretically diverged). And of course this delineation of races became the foundation for a global racial order that still impacts us.

Fast forward. Nowadays we can tell a lot about what “Asian” means to a people by their country’s national census. Censuses are deeply implicated in sociopolitical construction. They provide the concepts, taxonomy, and information by which a nation understands its parts as well as its whole. They create both the image and the mirror of that image for a nation’s self-reflection. Census definitions of “Asian” however are often at great odds not only with geographical definitions, but each other as well.

For example in Australia, you’re “Asian” if you’re from central, south, southeast and northeast Asia – but not western Asia (then you’re either “North African” or “Middle Eastern”). Western Asian people aren’t considered “Asian” in Canada or the U.S. either. In Canada they’re “Arabs”. Here in the U.S., they’re “White” or “Caucasian.” In New Zealand you’re “Asian” if you’re Chinese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, Cambodian and Thai – but not south Asian. Conversely in the United Kingdom “Asian” is pretty much south Asian, while “Chinese” is a different category entirely. And of course these definitions are always changing.

 

So what does “Asian” mean? Perhaps the best answer is – something different all the time.

 

~ You can read more guest blogger Sharon Chang at her blog MultiAsianFamilies