(Miss) America’s Racism Problem

America still has a problem with racism. That much was glaringly apparent in the intense, vitriolic reaction to Nina Davuluri’s victory in the Miss America pageant, the first time a woman of Indian descent has won an event as quintessentially American as baseball and pumpkin pie.

When Davuluri, 24, was crowned, instead of a flood of congratulations, a flood of abusive messages began to flow from her fellow Americans on Twitter, deriding her as ‘an Arab’, ‘a terrorist’ and ‘Miss Al Qaeda’.


(Image from IBT)

While some news outlets expressed shock at the response to the racist reaction to the new Miss America, others have trivialized it as merely a Twitter phenomenon.  The reaction to Ms. Davuluri’s coronation as Miss America was not that different than the reaction in some quarters of the American population to the election of President Obama. On the night of his first election, so many angry people logged on to a popular white supremacist site to complain that the site crashed.

The reaction that became visible online, against both Davuluri and Obama, might have been anticipated by anyone who has been paying close attention to American news, particularly those articles which dare to address the taboo of racism.

No group escapes

In many ways, the racism that Davuluri experienced is part of a larger pattern in which a variety of groups are targeted. In New York City, where I live, many more Sikhs have been attacked since 9/11 by people who believed they are Muslim, a mistake that many of those on Twitter made about Davuluri. In August, 2012 a white supremacist killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

The lives of African American men are also regularly constrained and endangered, 50 years after Martin Luther King made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.  Just this passed week in Charlotte, North Carolina, an unarmed Jonathan Ferrell was seeking help after a car crash. Ferrell, African American, was shot ten times and killed by police. A woman who lived nearby had reported a man “she didn’t recognize.”

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American, was killed by George Zimmerman because Martin seemed “suspicious.” Though Zimmerman was charged and stood trial, a jury of mostly white women found him not guilty.

A number of prominent, successful African American women in the U.S. have come under such vitriolic racist (and sexist) attacks that they have been forced from their jobs. For instance, technologist Adria Richards, government official Shirley Sherrod, and meterologist Rhonda Lee are a few who have been targeted by months long smear campaigns that combine racism and sexism.

And what of the Hispanic community? In June, 2013 in an incident reminiscent of the attacks against Ms. Davuluri, adorable little 11-year-old Sebastien De La Cruz sang the American national anthem at a basketball game, unleashing a flood of racism demanding that “an American” sing the anthem. De La Cruz is Mexican American and a U.S. citizen.  In fact, a recent Pew Center survey found that nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) say Hispanics, a group that includes Mexican Americans, face a lot of discrimination in society today. This, according to the Pew Center, gives this group the dubious distinction of being the racial or ethnic group the U.S. public sees as most often the target of discrimination.

Causes and Solutions

Each generation of Americans thinks that the “older generation” are the “real racists,” and that these dinosaurs will eventually die out and with them, racism will die too.  Would that it were so.  The fact is that racism is both handed down from one generation to the next and it is produced anew by each subsequent group of young people who think they have escaped its stain.

It is not difficult to understand why racism is still a problem in the U.S. We are a society with a great many exceptional resources, but as with the history of colonialism, these have been taken from indigenous peoples and built up with stolen labor of enslaved Africans. Those practices set the patterns, built the institutions, carved the ways of being a society in profound ways. The U.S., unlike South Africa, or Nazi Germany, has not had a truth and reconciliation process, except in small, piecemeal fashion.

Of course, some are working to address racism in the U.S.  There is, by now, a generation of scholars who are doing the deeply important work of what is often called African American studies, Latino/a and Chicano/a studies, and Asian American studies, but is in fact, simply American studies. This knowledge makes a real difference in transforming the culture.  One of the foremost scholars in this area, Professor Peniel Joseph, leads the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. He recently led a “National Dialogue on Race Day” that coordinated efforts between several university departments of African American studies.  This national dialogue is urgently needed.

Following the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and unlikely pair formed to work to end racism. Pardeep Kaleka’s father was one of the six people killed in the shooting. So when Arno Michaelis, a former member of a white power group and author of My Life After Hate, reached out to Kaleka, he was hesitant. Eventually, Kaleka and Michaelis became allies, eventually friends. A year after the temple shooting, they go to schools and community groups together to talk about overcoming racism and working together for a common cause, bridging differences.

To really address the persistent problem of racism in the U.S., we need more efforts like those of Peniel Joseph, Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis. We also need to have a serious look at the rather profound ways racism is embedded in our institutions and continues to shape daily life, not only for the Nina Davuluri’s but for everyone.


~ This posted originally appeared on International Business Times, UK Edition


  1. Tessa and Kimberley

    Thank you Jesse for your thought provoking blog. I will use it in my intro sociology and research methods courses here in Canada, as I commonly do with your important blogs. I could not help but think about the latest news surrounding the U.S. reality T.V. show “Big Brother” upon reading your blog. The winner of “Big Brother” – season 15 – was determined on Wednesday night past. Currently, news of cast members’ reactions to lost jobs etc. as a result of their racist comments and actions while inside the BB House, are being reported. “If I offended anyone” and “my comments were taken out of context” are common among reactions. White denial in over-drive. As you wisely put it: “Each generation … thinks that the ‘older generation’ are the ‘real racists’ … we need more efforts like those of Peniel Joseph, Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis.”

  2. Earl Smith

    This is an important assessment of the continuing significance of race in the US. It is also important in the way the argument is framed to show that not only is this vile racism hauled at unknown non-Whites like the new Miss America but also at the powerful non-Whites like President Obama.
    I would add here the comments by Rep Doug Lamporn who “apologized” for calling President Obama a ‘Tar Baby’ http://wapo.st/1flEf5l

    Earl Smith

  3. gnakagawa

    Thanks to all for the insightful posts and comments that powerfully and rightly highlight and elaborate the larger systemic implications of the racist backlash against the recently named Miss America, Nina Davuluri. In extending this conversation, I’d like to offer a reflection on Big Brother host Julie Chen’s recent disclosure about her cosmetic eye surgery in response to the racist judgments and exhortations by a station news director and an agent. I think that there is another register worth considering, namely, the tenor and mode of commentary by both Chen and Davuluri in their respective responses to these occurrences.

    On September 12, Julie Chen disclosed on ‘The Talk’ that two decades earlier, she had undergone eyelid surgery because she looked “too Asian” to secure a position as a full-time news anchor, according to her supervisor and a professional agent. The news director told her she would not be “relatable” to the majority white audience and that “’because of your Asian eyes, I’ve noticed that when you’re on camera, you look disinterested and bored.” Chen added, “’This one big-time agent basically told me the same thing. He said, ‘I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look bigger.'” A demonstrably painful revelation for Chen, she emphatically asserted that “No one’s more proud of being Chinese than I am.”

    Ten days earlier, Chen had appeared on ‘Late Night with David Letterman,’ where she discussed the racist talk and conduct of several Big Brother houseguests (discussed in previous posts by Tessa, Kimberley and colleagues), focusing especially on houseguest Aaryn Gries. Chen observed that she and her CBS/Big Brother colleagues shared a first impression of Gries as the houseguest who would be the “All-American girl . . . the girl-next-door.” Based on this initial perception of Gries, who was also “college-educated,” Chen expressed surprise and dismay that Gries would later express such egregiously racist invective.

    That Chen identified Gries as the prototypical “All-American- girl-next-door” speaks volumes. Apparently, it did not occur to Chen (or her BB colleagues) that Candice Stewart, the only female African American houseguest, or Helen Kim, the only Asian American, or any of the other female houseguests – or Chen herself – could or would ever be characterized as the “All-American girl” or the “girl-next-door.” In order to be the “All American girl next door,” evidently, you must fit the archetypal (if not overtly stereotypic) profile: White, blonde, blue-eyed, “big-eyed,” slender, young. In this emblematic moment we find Chen endorsing the self-same racialized representation that her previous supervisor and agent had also assumed as normative.

    Now, three weeks later, we have a new Miss America – “officially” albeit problematically, the pre-eminent, archetypal ‘All American girl’ – who happens to be the first U.S.-born desi to have occupied the role. Like Chen’s expression of pride in being Chinese American, Davuluri speaks of being proud to serve as an exemplar for “children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.” In the next breath, she emphasizes, however, that she has “always viewed [herself] as first and foremost American.”

    Rife with contradictions, these are regularized, regulated and regimented representations situated at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and nation. In contradictory and complex ways, Davuluri and Chen are both targets of racism and are themselves agents complicitous with white male hegemony. This is not meant to be an indictment of Chen or Davuluri, but an effort to foreground the heterogeneous racialized/racist formation that always already accompanies our perceptions and choices. Although both women have demonstrated and exercised agency in their opposition to the pernicious convergence of racism, they have also evinced an implicit accommodation if not overt collusion with the white male gaze. Their opposition and resistance to racist attacks should be respected and honored, while the conditions (not of their own making) that contextualized their conditional choices must nevertheless be questioned and challenged. Again, it’s not their individual motives that are suspect but the encompassing systemic and institutionalized bases for their words and actions that need to be interrogated and resisted and subverted and transformed.

    Absent an understanding of how white patriarchal hegemony implicates all of us, we default to either valorizing or vilifying problematic actions and experiences. We find it easier and more comforting to uncritically celebrate or discredit others rather than to critically examine our own accountability and complicity in sustaining systemic modes and practices of oppression.

    All of us, I believe, must ask ourselves every day: What have I said and done, what have I left unsaid and undone, that reproduces conditions of dominance and oppression? Equally, we must ask: What have I said and done, and left unsaid and undone, that opposes and moves us toward transforming the conditions of dominance and oppression that block another world of equity and justice?

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