Being a Scholar after Michael Brown

I was driving home following a late night of teaching when my best friend gave me the news from Ferguson. There would be no indictment for Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer responsible for shooting black teenager Michael Brown dead in the street. Sadness hung between words, but our conversation was hauntingly calm. No hint of shock to register. “I’m comforted to hear you reacting the way I did,” he told me. I understood, I thought: We were non-reactionary, but not without reaction.

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At a time like this I’m finding it’s a disorienting thing to be critical scholar of white supremacy. Not in a way that has anything to do with surprise or even disgust. I think I have fully shed naïve surprise I held at one time about the pathologies of white supremacy – the things white people will do and say that demonstrate such a soulless disconnect from human empathy that I told my friend, “most white people are walking dead and don’t even know it.” Shells of human beings who project their own inhumanity onto racial others, often in cruel and horrifying ways; more often by “kinder, gentler” means no less destructive of human life. All mystified to them – by them.

 

My disgust is real, but without surprise to buffer it, it’s mostly just pain – and that is real too. To watch my friends and people I love bear agonizing witness to their own living murders by proxy. To see them imagine their own children laid out like garbage on the street. To know the white world will do that and then rationalize their deaths without batting an eye and with never-ending drumbeats of support – subtle and loud, institutional and collective. To hear and read “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” – as pained, but resistant declarations, but also perhaps appeals to an imagined white audience that I know mostly doesn’t care and who are so pathologically sick they will sometimes even mystify their apathy into the sincerely held belief that they do. To listen and read people of color speak the apologies for white supremacy from their own mouths and written words. Truly, it is the most depressing when these rationalizations come from people I know and love. I feel such sadness.

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Which brings me back to the substance of my disorientation. I am involved in the work of gathering evidence on a subject for which we already have mountains of support. In most disciplines scholars participate in a scientific process where they literally make new discoveries about things no one knew before. I think to myself, “gosh, how fun and exciting that must be.” For me and for other critical scholars of white supremacy, there are very few truly and truthfully new discoveries to make. I reviewed a manuscript the other day by a social scientist who had excavated a “novel” and “unexplored” process by which anti-black stereotypes were created and maintained. So cynical, after reading the abstract I scribbled in my own personal notes: “News alert! Everyday practices reinforce anti-blackness and racial hierarchy!” I will end up writing a review that incorporates supportive, constructive, and hopefully useful feedback. Of course I will. After all, that is my job.

 

I am involved in teaching a subject for which ignorance is literally a never-ending fountain. All the lessons have already been taught a thousand times over, and yet will never fully be learned. I am the “time-to-make-the-donuts” guy – shuffling along day by day. “Time to teach about white supremacy,” except, it’s not funny. I stood in a classroom the day after the grand jury’s decisions came down, knowing that at any moment a white student might “innocently” throw a phrase that could penetrate a black student like a bullet. Voice cracking and imbalanced, I told my students, “I can’t let that happen today.” Of course, it’s an empty promise. The best I can do is promise to tend to the wounded and strategically challenge the shooter if it happens. When it happens. Of course I will. After all, that is my job.

As a critical race scholar I am a true believer in the permanence of white supremacy. When I tell people that they often ask me, “Well then, why do you bother doing what you do?” I’ve made sense of it as generations of critical scholars before me have – because if oppression is this bad with regular, everyday resistance, imagine where we would be without it. Because I believe that while we may not topple white supremacy, we can construct knowledge that can be used to reduce human misery. Because there are audiences of students and activists who are hungry for liberation, thirsting in a way that ignorance cannot and will not quench. Because speaking and seeking liberation and love in a world bent on domination is not just resistance but perhaps the most fundamental and beautiful act of human spirit – it is life.

 

Today those explanations fail me. Today I’m finding it’s a disorienting thing to be a critical scholar of white supremacy. I need to spend more time reflecting on what that means. I need to think and talk with others about what that means and how to use our shared logic strategically. And I will. After all, this is not the job, but it is the work.

 

Social Alexithymia and White Response to Police Brutality

veraNote: My dear friend and colleague, the great and beloved Hérnan Vera, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, died yesterday after a long illness. His influence and impact on his colleagues, including his many students, will last for the ages. He practiced well the empathy about which we have written, as below (from 2010). RIP

The late Hérnan Vera and I have written about the importance of the breakdown of empathy as part of the creation of racist systems, including discrimination and its racial framing. We have coined the term “social alexithymia” for the inability of a majority of whites to relate to the commonplace, past and present, police brutality and other racial oppression faced by African Americans and other Americans of color.

Discover magazine’s blog reported in 2010 on research study by the Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti, who

recruited white and black Italian volunteers and asked them to watch videos of a stranger’s hand being poked. When people watch such scenes, it’s actually possible to measure their brain’s empathic tendencies. By simulating how the prick would feel, the brain activates the neurons of the observer’s hand in roughly the same place. These neurons become less excitable in the future. By checking their sensitivity, Avenanti could measure the effect that the video had on his recruits …. most interestingly of all, he found that the recruits (both white and black) only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, the volunteers were unmoved by the pain they saw.

Interestingly, like we have argued,

Avenanti actually thinks that empathy is the default state, which only later gets disrupted by racial biases. He repeated his experiment using brightly coloured violet hands, which clearly didn’t belong to any known ethnic group. Despite the hands’ weird hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed a strong empathic response, reacting as they would to hands of their own skin tone. … strong evidence that the lack of empathy from the first experiment stems not from mere novelty, but from racial biases.

He also gave the recruits the Implicit Association Test

which looks for hidden biases by measuring how easily people make positive or negative connections between different ethnic groups. For example, white Italians are typically quicker to associate positive words with the term “Italian” and negative ones with the term “African”. And the faster they make those connections, the greater the differences in their responses to the stabbed black and white hands. … All in all, Avenanti says when we see pain befall a person from our own racial group, it immediately triggers resonant activity in our own nervous system. When we see the same event happening to someone of a different race, these simulations are weaker and take longer to form.

These anti-empathetic reactions are most serious for those who have the greatest power to oppress others, to cause great, routine, and recurring pain in racialized others, which is typically whites in Europe and the United States.

In the U.S. case, whites’ recurring discriminatory actions targeting Americans of color — including thousands of police brutality and other malpractice incidents over the last decade — require a breakdown of normal human empathy. Most social theorists have missed the importance of the fact that all human life begins in empathetic networks–the dyad of mother and child. Usually central to these first networks is basic human empathy, a desire and ability to understand the feelings of others. Without empathy on the part of mothers and other relatives, no child would survive. As it develops, racial oppression severely distorts human relationships and desensitizes the minds of those oppressing others.

Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of racialized others. Psychiatrists use the term alexithymia to describe people unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, others. Hérnan and I have suggested going beyond this individualistic interpretation to a concept of social alexithymia.

Essential to being an oppressor is a significantly reduced ability to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by oppression. Social alexithymia thus seems essential to the creation and maintenance of a racist society.

What needs to be explained most is not the reality of human empathy and solidarity—the problem often stated by western philosophers–but rather how this empathy for others gets destroyed and how human beings develop anti-empathetic inclinations essential to racial oppression.

Native Americans Mark Thanksgiving with ‘National Day of Mourning’ Protests

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Today, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Native Americans will gather to mark a “National Day of Mourning,” as they have for more than 40 years. The protests began in 1970 by Wamsutta Frank James and are carried on by his son, Moonaum James.

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In an interview with the Boston Globe, James said demonstrators are not against Thanksgiving, but rather want to “correct the history” of the holiday that suggests that the Pilgrims and Native Americans coexisted peacefully. “We’re not there to condemn, and not there to do anything other than point out some truths,” he said.

 

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It’s expected that more than 100 people will gather today at noon and then continue with rallies at Plymouth Rock and at the site of the Metacomet (King Philip) historical marker to remember the Native Americans who died after the Europeans arrived in the 1600s and to highlight the struggles some Native Americans face today.

 

Remembering Black Lives Unjustly Lost

People attend a vigil to honor Michael Brown in Brooklyn

Yesterday morning after the Ferguson Grand Jury announcement that it would not indict officer Darren Wilson I woke up in a panic thinking the world was ending. I lay in bed buried in emotions and listened for sounds of the impending apocalypse outside my window. But it was quiet. At least, quiet where I live in an urban suburb of Seattle. To me this silence sat in jarring, atrocious contradiction to events of the night before and to the ongoing protests, outrage, and violence still happening all over the nation.

And I started thinking about disconnect. About how the racist system discourages human bonds because when we can’t empathize with each other, it makes it easier to keep us divided and the dominant hierarchy intact. It also makes it much, much harder to see the big picture: the systemic, pervasive nature of white-generated racism and its deep roots. We are pushed to be ahistorical and individualistic. If you scour the Internet right now, you can easily find boatloads of “I” pieces, posts, tweets, rants, etc. But how easy is it to find something that connects the dots across time and geography, and stirs within us some sort of visceral, heartfelt understanding that builds communal resistance?

I decided to launch a ten hour Twitter campaign during which I protest-tweeted every 15 minutes the face, name and age of an unarmed Black life taken by police or security since 1998, and it got some attention.

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The method I used for this form of hashtag activism is worth mentioning for what it reveals about racism and visual narratives circulated through mainstream media and social media. I included place of death with the header ‘Unarmed. Shot. Killed’ under the hashtags #FergusonDecision #BlackLivesMatter. I used the same template for each tweet to show the continuous, connected and systemic nature of this violence. I also worked to use images of the victims that ran counter to stereotypical imaging of Black people – portrayed them as happy, educated, employed, family members, parents, human beings – to encourage not only person-to-person ties, but personal investment. What I discovered in locating these images was not very surprising. ‘Angry’ photos were used by social and new media far more frequently even though alternatives were available and if alternatives were used, signals of humanity were often cropped out rendering them more like mugshots.

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Of the 40 Black lives I profiled, 65 percent were Black men under the age of thirty. Many were parents. More than we’d like to realize, were children. These profiles have gotten hundreds of retweets on Twitter so far and not nearly as many trolls as I would have thought. I have culled them together into a Storify slideshow below that frankly, really speaks for itself (scroll over the images to see text).

I hope you will join me in connecting with and sharing these stories, reflecting upon the profound unnecessary loss of life, and considering how far we still have to go in undoing racial inequity. In solidarity.

Obama and Immigration “Reform”

On November 19, after a long delay, President Obama issued an Executive Action on Immigration Reform that contained three stipulations. First, more resources will be given to law enforcement personnel charged with stopping unauthorized border crossings. Second, the President will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay. Third, the President announced steps “to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country.”

The first provision will please opponents of unauthorized immigration and the second will be supported by business interests. They are not likely to give rise to controversy. The third provision, however, has already caused a furor among conservative Republicans. For example, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz asserted that Obama’s “actions are . . . unconstitutional and in defiance of the American people who said they did not want amnesty in the 2014 elections .” House Speaker Boehner, brimming with vitriol, stated that “President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left .”

Once again, white-oriented Republican leaders reached in their demagoguery tool kit and grabbed their standard response to all things Obama: Obama is dishonest, the problem is his fault, and the American people are on their side. Of course, they won’t do anything to fix it.

Many individuals sympathetic to the undocumented‘s difficulties are in a festive mood. But there is a factor to consider before we can truly celebrate: we need to see President Obama follow through. Angelo Falcón, President t of the National Institute for Latino Policy, puts it as follows:

We are . . . concerned that the President will not fully exercise his power of executive action to impact on all those who should be eligible for legalization, and expect that they will be shortchanged in terms of what should be basic human rights benefits such as health insurance. President Obama’s record also demonstrates that his public pronouncements do not necessarily result in effective federal action, with agencies such as Homeland Security consistently undermining the President’s rhetoric.

I share Mr. Falcón’s misgivings. I’ll wait and see how things turn out before I celebrate.

Ferguson: No Indictment in Shooting of Michael Brown

On August 9, Ferguson Missouri officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, African American teenager. Brown’s dead body was left in the street for four and a half hours, baking on that hot summer asphalt. On August 25, Michael Brown’s parents buried their son, a young man who had been college-bound at the time he was gunned down. Tonight – 108 days later – Missouri prosecutor Robert McCulloch chose not to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, citing a lack of physical evidence and “conflicting eyewitness accounts” in the case. In a long, sometime rambling public statement, McCulloch blamed “social media” and the “24-hour news cycle”  as “challenges” in coming to a verdict in the case.

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If you have not been following the case of Michael Brown, his death joins a long lineage of young, black and brown men (and women and trans people) killed by white supremacist violence. Since his death in August, many have been placing Michael Brown alongside Emmett Till, as part of a tragic legacy. And, this legacy is only getting worse through legitimation. Whereas Emmett Till, and so many other lynched, were killed by extrajudicial means – as Ida B. Wells found – the killing of Michael Brown is intrajudicial – it is within the law. Sanctioned. Blessed, even, by the prosecutor as a “tragedy” which we can learn to “profit from” in a “productive way.”

The fact is that there is no reason that the U.S. has to have so many deaths each year of its citizens at the hands of police. It’s simply not required. Other western, industrialized nations organize themselves differently, do policing differently, and have radically fewer police-induced-deaths than we do here in the US.

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These deaths at the hands of police, primarily of young black and brown men, is a choice. And, we can make a different choice.

Shortly after the press conference by McCulloch in Missouri, President Obama made a statement from the White House about the events in Ferguson. He began his remarks by emphasizing the “rule of law” and highlighting the need for “peace” and the importance of protecting “property.” As he began speaking, police in Ferguson began deploying teargas, resulting in a telling split screen of the President and the protests.

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On the same day that President Obama offered this tepid, muted and halfhearted support for the people of Ferguson, Missouri he also awarded civil rights heroes Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner the (posthumous) Medal of Freedom honor.

Even as the prosecutor refused to indict Wilson and the President of the US moved to mollify collective outrage at the shooting, protestors were in the streets.

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Such protests speak to the deep rage at the continued injustice of the routine killings of young black people on the streets of the U.S.

The events in Ferguson puts me in mind of this quote from a speech from an earlier movement for social justice:

“[There comes] a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

I want to know: where do I go to put my body upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus to make the destruction of black bodies stop?

Because I am ready.

This must end.

 

Supreme Court Moves Away from Civil Rights

In her recent dissent from the majority decision of the Supreme Court regarding a Michigan constitutional amendment banning affirmative action, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic judge to serve on the Court, described the perspective of her conservative colleagues as “out of touch with reality.”

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Recall Chief Justice John Roberts’ pronouncement in 2007 that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” in the 2007 Parents Involved vs. Seattle School District case that outlawed major avenues for voluntary school desegregation. In direct contrast to this judicial view, Justice Sotomayer wrote in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014)

Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society—inequality that cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities.” And she added, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.

We know that the promising resolution of the Brown v. Board Case in 1954 that found “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites to be unconstitutional has been eroded and successively reversed through a series of Court decisions based on what Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy refers to as principles of “constitutional colorblindness.” From a colorblind, post-racial perspective, America is viewed as having attained a state in which race, ethnicity, gender, and other ascriptive characteristics no longer play a significant role in shaping life opportunities. Consider the statement, for example, of Chief Justice John Roberts, expressing the Court’s opinion in striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that determines which states and counties must follow strict guidelines that govern changes to their voting laws: “Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” A well-documented body of empirical sociological research, however, demonstrates that contemporary racial inequality is reinforced through second-generation forms of discrimination and facially nonracial, subtle practices and behaviors that are threaded through the day-to-day experiences of non-dominant groups within American society.

How did this historical shift occur in the Supreme Court’s view of Civil Rights? Legal scholar Gary Orfield points out that that the decisions of the Earl Warren Court in the 1950s and the 1960s played an important role in stimulating the Civil Rights movement, whereas decisions of a conservative-dominated Court in the later 1980s pushed the country in the opposite direction and even reached conclusions that policies designed to address inequality are unnecessary and unfair. These later decisions, he indicates, have been seen by some scholars as replicating the efforts to undermine Reconstruction civil rights laws that resulted in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision legitimizing the concept of “separate but equal.” In Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education (1996), Orfield and Susan Eaton call attention to three little-noticed decisions in the 1990’s in which the Supreme Court articulated procedures for dismantling school desegregation plans that allowed students to return to neighborhood schools, even when segregated and inferior. These decisions reinterpreted the notion of integration as a goal, reducing it to a formalistic requirement that could be lifted after a few years. Decades afterward, as reported by Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley in a 2012 report sponsored by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, 80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of blacks attended highly segregated schools, with the percent of white students only ranging from 0 to 10 percent. In fact, eight of the 20 states with the highest levels of school segregation are in border or southern states, a significant reversal for civil rights progress.

In the area of public university admissions, the Supreme Court’s decisions related to voluntary forms of affirmative action have abandoned the original remedial purpose of race-sensitive admissions and reinterpreted the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in terms of protecting the rights of the majority and preventing what has been termed “reverse discrimination.” As Harvard law scholar Michael Klarman notes, the Equal Protection Clause says nothing about government colorblindness and does not even mention race. Instead, diversity has replaced affirmative action as a compelling state interest, ironically requiring universities to prove that white students and other students benefit from policies that were designed to address a long history of racial inequality.

And consider the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri that are linked to racial segregation, economic inequality, and differential policing practices. As Erwin Chemerinsky writes in an August 24 New York Times Op Ed, recent Supreme Court decisions such as Plumhoff v. Rickard decided on May 27 have made it difficult, if not impossible, to hold police officers accountable for civil rights violation, undermining the ability to deter illegal police behavior.

To what extent does the Court’s conservative drift in the area of civil rights reflect the mood and temper of public opinion? Santa Clara law professor Brad Joondeph reminds us that the Court has never actually played the role of “counter-majoritarian hero,” but rather has been responsive to shifting political tides. The creation of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in response to public protests, marches, and collective action undertaken by minorities in support of greater social equality. According to legal scholar Derrick Bell, social movements such as the radical protests of the 1960s are more likely to bring about change when they converge with other interests that may be differently motivated.

In The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-framing (2013), social theorist Joe Feagin identifies the strategies of both individual resistance and collective action undertaken by Americans of color that have created significant public pressure to address inequality. Feagin indicates that essential to many civil rights protests was a strong anti-racist counter-frame articulated by numerous black leaders and scholars. As he notes, Martin Luther King emphasized the need for collective action to overcome oppression:

The story of Montgomery (Alabama) is the story of fifty thousand such Negroes who were willing to …walk the streets of Montgomery until the walls of segregation were finally battered by the forces of justice (p. 177).

If indeed the Supreme Court mirrors strong tides of opinion within the United States, the admonition of Sonia Sotomayor not to “sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society” represents a call to action. In describing the Court’s “long slow drift from racial justice” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger identifies the importance of a renewed conversation about racial justice in order to address issues that will reach the high court. And the composition of the Court clearly matters in matters of racial jurisprudence. According to Klarman, since the Court is not always a defender of the interests of racial minorities, even the appointment of one more liberal judge could have meant that many key decisions could have been decided differently.

Recently, we have seen a few promising signals, such as the ruling of the three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals upholding consideration of race as one factor among many in response to the case filed by Abigail Fisher at the University of Texas. Yet reinfusing our judicial processes with the ideals represented in landmark Civil Rights decisions will require an invigorated national dialogue and sustained attention to how the ideals of justice and equality take shape in the prism of public consciousness and are reflected in judicial perspectives.

 

~ This post originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Insight into Diversity magazine, and is reposted here with permission. 

College Sports: Why Few Black Coaches Again This Season?

Have you ever wondered to yourself while watching a college football game on a Saturday afternoon why there are so many (often times a majority) black players on the field, but an overwhelming majority of fans and coaches are white? If you have not, rest assured you are not alone. The black athlete and everything else white seems to be the norm. The problem, however, is this racial standard continues to hamper blacks’ progression throughout US society, and is even more elucidated in the very institution one would expect the most progress to be made – sport.

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When considering the historical and systemic nature of racism in the US (see Feagin, 2006), much more attention has been placed on economic, political, educational, and legal institutions. The institution of sport, however, tends to be overlooked. Perhaps this is the case because of its egalitarian façade that gets displayed to the public. What is not being shown is the real racial inequality that has and continues to exist in the leadership structure of sport. Most prominent is the multi-billion dollar industry of NCAA Division I collegiate athletics. For instance, according to Lapchick, Hoff, and Kaiser’s (2011) latest Racial and Gender Report Card for college athletics, black male student-athletes are overly represented (60.9% and 45.8%) in the two most revenue generating sports (basketball and football, respectively); however, black head coaches for men’s basketball and football are represented at 21% and 5.1%, respectively, and assistant coaches at 39.5% and 17.6%, respectively. Even worse, whites dominate (81.8%) the athletic director role as well. Considering sport represents a microcosm of society, reflecting its ideals, hierarchies, and problems (see Edwards, 1973; Eitzen & Sage, 1997; Sage, 1998), it is not surprising to see whites in a position that guarantees them the most abundant financial rewards. As a result of this white hierarchy, though, blacks wishing to enter the coaching profession continue to face racial barriers.

Hawkins (2001) argues the power structure of NCAA Division I predominantly white institutions of higher education (PWIHE) “operate as colonizers who prey on the athletic prowess of young black males, recruit them from black communities, exploit their athletic talents, and discard them once they are injured or their eligibility is exhausted” (p. 1). This colonial model seems fitting, given several researchers (e.g., Eitzen, 2000; Hawkins, 2001; Lapchick, 2003) have found that black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses are entrenched in a system that exploits them politically, economically, and racially. For those black student-athletes who do survive the abuse, they continue to find their professional outlook limited.

The notion of stacking in sport, or positioning of players to central or non-central positions on the field based on race and/or ethnicity, often surfaces as an explanation as to how whites carry on their dominance in sport leadership. Whites have traditionally placed themselves in more central positions, positions associated with greater interaction, leadership, and intelligence; while blacks have been situated in more peripheral positions, which are linked to less leadership, minimal interaction, and greater athletic ability. Brooks and Althouse (2000) found there to be a correlation between those higher up in the leadership ranks (e.g., head coach, athletic director) with past playing position. In particular, prestigious sport jobs are generally acquired by those who have played more central positions (e.g., quarterback in football, pitcher in baseball); thus, because blacks more often are relegated to peripheral positions (e.g., wide-receiver in football, outfield in baseball), blacks are often framed as less qualified to enter leadership positions beyond the playing field.

Further explanations (e.g., Sagas & Cunningham, 2005; Sartore & Cunningham, 2006) demonstrate blacks’ promotional and/or hiring coaching opportunities are thwarted due to the tendency of white decision-makers choosing white candidates (qualified and unqualified) over qualified blacks. This struggle for racial equality is more troubling given those with the final hiring decision (i.e., athletic director) perceive employment opportunities to be equal for blacks (Tabron, 2004), which ultimately trickles down to those wishing to enter the coaching profession (e.g., black student-athletes), since they perceive they will have to contend with racial inequality prior to and once in the profession (e.g., Cunningham & Singer; Kamphoff & Gill, 2008). This racist sporting reality, similar to wider US society, illustrates blacks have a long way to go for racial justice.

~This still timely analysis was posted previously here by Michael R. Regan, Jr., Texas A&M University

Research Brief: Race, Perception, Reality

I attended the #FacingRace14 conference and I’m still processing that experience, but one of the most interesting breakout sessions I attended was about research on language, perceptions and “racial anxiety.” So, I’m using that as a jumping off point to share some related research in today’s research brief.  As always, I note which pieces are freely available on the web, or “open access” with (OA), and those behind a paywall with (locked).

Research in the Dictionary

  • Godsil,Rachel D., Philip Atiba Goff, Linda Tropp and john a. powell,  The Science of Equality Volume 1: Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat in Education and Health Care. (Report, Perception Institute, 2013). Abstract: Synthesizing hundreds of studies, this report details how unconscious phenomena in our minds–implicit bias, racial anxiety, and stereotype threat–impact our education and health care systems, while offering empirical, research-driven solutions to overcome their effects. (OA)
  • Hall, Erika V., Katherine W. Phillips, and Sarah SM Townsend. “A rose by any other name?: The consequences of subtyping “African-Americans” from “Blacks”.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 56 (2015): 183-190. Abstract: Racial labels often define how social groups are perceived. The current research utilized both archival and experimental methods to explore the consequences of the “Black” vs. “African-American” racial labels on Whites’ evaluations of racial minorities. We argue that the racial label Black evokes a mental representation of a person with lower socioeconomic status than the racial label African-American, and that Whites will react more negatively toward Blacks (vs. African-Americans). In Study 1, we show that the stereotype content for Blacks (vs. African-Americans) is lower in status, positivity, competence, and warmth. In Study 2, Whites view a target as lower status when he is identified as Black vs. African-American. In Study 3, we demonstrate that the use of the label Black vs. African-American in a US Newspaper crime report article is associated with a negative emotional tone in that respective article. Finally, in Study 4, we show that Whites view a criminal suspect more negatively when he is identified as Black vs. African-American. The results establish how racial labels can have material consequences for a group. (locked)
  • powell, john a. Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society. (Indiana University Press, 2012). Short description: Meditations on race, identity, and social policy provide an outline for laying claim to our shared humanity and a way toward healing ourselves and securing our future. The book challenges us to replace attitudes and institutions that promote and perpetuate social suffering with those that foster relationships and a way of being that transcends disconnection and separation. (locked)

 

Happy reading!

Want to see your research featured in one of our upcoming briefs? Drop us a note using the contact form.

 

SlutWalk, #Hashtag Activism and the Trouble with White Feminism

When Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti gave a talk on health and safety to a group of students in Toronto, he told them that “women should avoid dressing like sluts”  so as not to get raped.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sanguinetti’s remarks outraged many of the people. Instead of just getting angry, some of these young women organized the first “SlutWalk” protest in early 2011 demanding an end to what they called “slut shaming.” Thanks in large measure to the affordances of social media, the tactic of slut walks quickly crossed national boundaries to become what scholar Joetta Carr calls an “transnational feminist movement,” with historical antecedents in “Take Back the Night” marches and parallels with contemporaneous grassroots protest movements that are organized through and fueled by social media. In July 2014, Toronto feminists held the third SlutWalk with, of course, an updated hashtag #SWTO2014.

Protesters in SlutWalk Toronto

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The history of hashtag activism is still in first draft to be sure, but there is already an emergent scholarship on SlutWalks that can be illuminating for understanding this mediated form of feminist activism, race, and the trouble with white feminism – and there has been quite a lot of trouble with white feminism in SlutWalks.

SlutWalks were (and are) primarily organized by white women who “are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result.” SlutWalk aims to “reclaim” the word “slut,” through street protests organized online. Black women and other women of color have participated in the marches. The marches have spread to other countries, such as Buenos Aires,

SlutWalk_WOC

(Image source)

Through most of 2011, feminist blogs and some more mainstream media covered SlutWalks. While most of the mainstream media coverage focused on the role of social media in ‘toppling a dictator’ in Egypt at around the same time, SlutWalks got covered in a rather trivializing way that focused on the ‘scantily clad’ women and mostly ignored race in any meaningful way. This coverage in mainstream feminist blogs – Jezebel, Feministing – largely ignored the fact that for the most part, the SlutWalk marches as a cultural phenomenon are by, for and about white women of the Global North.

But women of color writers, such as Aura Bogado, noticed and called out the marches, as in Bogado’s SlutWalk: A Stroll Through White Supremacy piece from May, 2011. That’s not to say there were many outlets – either news outlets or feminist blogs – eager to publish this work. In a preface to this piece on her blog, Bogado explains her difficulty getting the piece published, and by so doing, speaks to the trouble she faces with the white feminism that shapes SlutWalks, she writes:

With so much dialogue surrounding SlutWalk lately, I wanted to insert the voice of a woman of color to add critical pressure from the margins; however, I found it difficult to find an outlet that would publish me. I first queried The Guardian, which had already printed a couple of pieces authored by white women about the event, and never heard anything back (they have, subsequently, posted more pieces about SlutWalk, all authored by white women). I then attempted to add this post on HuffPo, where I have contributed in the past – although they were nice enough to at least respond to me, they rejected my post. Rather than waste another week trying to find an outlet, I’ve taken the advice of people I love and trust and have revived my once-retired blog to post a piece that (oddly enough) explains some of the ways in which white women have constructed a conversation that women of color can’t seem to participate in.

 

SlutWalk_WhiteSupremacy

 (Screenshot from ToTheCurb by Aura Bogado)

 

Bogado calls into question the very genesis of the SlutWalk movement as rooted in a white feminist view of the world, as when she says:

I understand the need to denounce this type of speech (Sanguinetti’s remarks), particularly when uttered by a law enforcement officer. But what struck me was the fact that a group of students gathered with law enforcement to begin with. As people of color, our communities are plagued with police brutality, and inviting them into our spaces in order to somehow feel safer rarely crosses our minds. I’ve attended several workshops and panels on sexual violence and would never imagine seeing law enforcement in attendance. Groups like INCITE! have done a tremendous amount of work to address the way that systemic violence is directed against women in communities of color through “police violence, war and colonialism,” as well as to address the type of interpersonal violence between individuals within a community, such as sexual assault and domestic violence. SlutWalk “want[s] Toronto Police Services to take serious steps to regain [their] trust;” our communities, meanwhile, never trusted the police to begin with.

Bogado was among the first to call out the privileged position inherent in a political movement whose goal is focused on “regaining” a trustworthy relationship with police while immigrant women, Black and brown women, poor women, and transgender women whether born in the U.S. or not, are presumed to be sex workers, targeted as “sex offenders,” and are routinely abused by police with impunity, and their deaths ignored.  Bogado notes that,

“Despite decades of work from women of color on the margins to assert an equitable space, SlutWalk has grown into an international movement that has effectively silenced the voices of women of color and re-centered the conversation to consist of a topic by, of, and for white women only.”

In many ways, SlutWalks – like so much of white feminist activism of the digital era – is simply repeating the historical mistakes of previous generations of feminism. This repetition of previous feminist history is the focus of scholars Dow and Wood note in their article, “Repeating History and Learning From It: What Can SlutWalks Teach Us About Feminism?” (Women’s Studies in Communication 37, no. 1 (2014): 22-43).

However, Dow and Wood ultimately take a stance that effectively recuperates the SlutWalks by arguing that the “dissent” by women of color is not “an indicator of feminism’s weakness,” but rather “a symptom of its continuing vitality.” Such a turn undermines the powerful critiques of Bogado, which are rooted in the work of queer, feminist scholars of color such as  Gloria Anzaldúa.

Bogado’s assessment of SlutWalks as a “stroll through white supremacy” in May 2011 proved to be prescient given the way the rest of the movement has unfolded.

In September, 2011 the organization Black Women’s Blueprint issued An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk. The Open Letter included this passage, juxtaposing the contemporary SlutWalk movement against the history of Black women’s movements in the U.S.:

Black women have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a “SlutWalk” we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as “sluts” and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later.  Moreover, we are careful not to set a precedent for our young girls by giving them the message that we can self-identify as “sluts” when we’re still working to annihilate the word “ho”, which deriving from the word “hooker” or “whore”, as in “Jezebel whore” was meant to dehumanize.  Lastly, we do not want to encourage our young men, our Black fathers, sons and brothers to reinforce Black women’s identities as “sluts” by normalizing the term on t-shirts, buttons, flyers and pamphlets.

The Open Letter also explicitly challenged the political goal of “reclaiming” offensive terms, saying, “We are perplexed by the use of the term “slut” and by any implication that this word, much like the word “Ho” or the “N” word should be re-appropriated.” 

There were dissenting views, to be sure. For example, both Salamishah Tillet, writing at The Nation and Janell Hobson, writing at the Ms. Magazine blog, wrote responses to the Open Letter from Black Women , expressing concern about what they saw as the “politics of respectability” in the letter.

This Open Letter, and these responses, were widely circulated through social media networks and, presumably, among SlutWalk organizers, but there is little evidence that the message from the Black Women’s Blueprint got any traction with white feminists given what happened next.

Not quite a month after the Open Letter was published, there was a SlutWalkNYC march in Union Square and a young white woman held up a hand-lettered sign with a quote from  Yoko Ono. The intentionally provocative line from 1969 is meant to evoke women’s subjugation through the use of a racial slur. It was controversial when Ono first said it, and as Aishah Shahidah Simmons reminds us about that time, “Several Black feminists, including Pearl Cleage, challenged Yoko Ono’s racist (to Black women) statement. “If Woman is the “N” of the World, what does that make Black Women, the “N, N” of the World?”.

SlutwalkNYCsign

Organizers of SlutWalkNYC apologized, but other white feminists continued to defend the use of the term, saying things like “but rappers…”

Aishah Shahidah Simmons, activist and filmmaker and self-described “supporter of the goals of SlutWalk”, raised the following questions about the appearance of the sign:

How can so many White feminists be absolutely clear about the responsibility of ALL MEN TO END heterosexual violence perpetrated against women; and yet turn a blind eye to THEIR RESPONSIBILITY TO END racism? Is Sisterhood Global? This picture says NO! very loudly and very clearly.

Simmons ends her piece with a postscript of links to other women of color writing responses to the sign, including the Crunk Feminist Collective, Akiba Solomon, and LaToya Peterson.

Yet, despite all this excellent and openly available critique by feminists of color writing about SlutWalks, the emerging scholarship on the movement largely ignores this, thus effectively replaying the erasure of women of color in this act of knowledge production about the movement.

One scholar, Joetta Carr, heralds SlutWalk as a successful transnational feminist movement in The Journal of Feminist Scholarship (Issue 4, Spring 2013). While Carr quotes at length the women of color who defend SlutWalk (or, more to the point, who are critical of the Open Letter), she doesn’t mention the appearance of the sign at SlutWalkNYC.  In fact, I was wrong about this. Carr writes:

Another major criticism of SlutWalks appeared in an “Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk” (Black Women’s Blueprint 2011). This letter was signed by dozens of activists, scholars, anti-violence advocates, and organizations serving Black women, and it begins with a commendation to the SlutWalk movement:

First, we commend the organizers on their bold and vast mobilization to end the shaming and blaming of sexual assault victims for violence committed against them by other members of society. We are proud to be living in this moment in time where girls and boys have the opportunity to witness the acts of extraordinary women resisting oppression and challenging the myths that feed rape culture everywhere.

However, the letter then goes on to argue that the legacy of slavery and the dehumanization of Black women through rape make it impossible for the signers to reclaim the word “slut,” or the related term “ho,” more commonly used against Black women:

As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is. We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations. Although we understand the valid impetus behind the use of the word “slut” as language to frame and brand an anti-rape movement, we are gravely concerned. For us the trivialization of rape and the absence of justice are viciously intertwined with narratives of sexual surveillance, legal access and availability to our personhood.

While applauding the organizers of SlutWalks for their spirit and acknowledging their well-meaning intent, the authors of the letter also challenge the movement to change its name and bring Black women’s voices to the forefront. They cite the historical patterns in the feminist movement of excluding or marginalizing women of color and declare that justice for women is “intertwined with race, gender, sexuality, poverty, immigration and community” (Black Women’s Blueprint 2011).

Leaders of SlutWalk Toronto, the movement’s original group, have embraced these criticisms and shared the letter with other SlutWalk collectives, challenging them to engage in serious introspection and dialogue and to address privilege, intersectionality, and inclusivity (SlutWalk Toronto 2011).

The leaders of SlutWalk NYC have also engaged in serious reflection and self-criticism after a young white woman held a sign at their event that read, “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” quoting the title of a song written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1972 (Simmons 2011). Although Ono, a woman of color, coined this slogan, the song was banned on airwaves in many countries in the early 1970s as too inflammatory (Hilburn 1972). The image of this placard, which referred to women’s oppression by citing the most derogatory racial epithet used against African American people, went viral and caused a strong backlash in the Black feminist community and beyond. Black feminist blogs and forums criticized the white women’s position as privileged and misguided. SlutWalk NYC issued a formal apology to the Black community, and the organization held forums and discussions on strategies for greater inclusion of more Black women’s voices. They also described the rich diversity of SlutWalkers, including women of color, transgender and queer people, sex workers, and men across much of the globe. After months of discussions and analysis, the NYC SlutWalk leaders announced on Facebook that they were rebuilding their coalition and that they were currently focusing on reproductive freedom struggles. On March 4, 2012, their last post to date on Facebook was signed by “former SWNYC organizers”:

As we have been indicating over our various social media sites for several months, SWNYC has splintered. Many of us realized too late that working under the “SlutWalk” moniker was too oppressive to many communities that we should be allying with. How could we claim to be creating an intersectional and safe feminist community with such a privileged name? Many former organizers have moved on and have been working on forming new feminist organizations since the fallout…. We cannot forget our past mistakes. If we do, we’ll never be better feminists; that’s what we want more than anything. (Updated: 3/30/15, 12:38pET)

Carr ends her piece by saying that the full extent and meaning of the contributions of the SlutWalk movement to the overall struggle against gender oppression and the patriarchy may only be understood in the decades to come.” 

In fact, I think the SlutWalk movement is already over, hoisted on its own pitard of white feminism.

Writing at the blog Sustainable Mothering in mid-October 2011, J. (Jake) Kathleen Marcus calls the movement’s failure the “implosion of SlutWalk” and apologizes for her own complicity in the racism of the movement. Marcus basically taps out of the movement by the end of that piece, saying to fellow activists “I hope our paths cross again” in movement building but clearly indicating it won’t be at a SlutWalk march.

Telling the story of SlutWalk’s in the feminist scholarly literature is rarely, if ever, laid at the feet of white feminism, but rather at the “continuation of racial divides in North American feminism,” as Jo Reger puts it in “The Story of a Slut Walk Sexuality, Race, and Generational Divisions in Contemporary Feminist Activism.” (Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (2014): 0891241614526434).

The discursive use of “racial divides” is an interesting one here because within the North American context, white women are not “racialized” – are not seen to “have” race – in the way that women of color have been and continue to be. Thus, such unspecific language – “racial divides” instead of “white women” or “white feminism” – is a rhetorical move that once again places blame on women of color for the “divides” happening in feminism. This is precisely the move that Michelle Goldberg takes in her Toxic Twitter Wars piece, and it’s a move that we see again and again from white feminists, which basically says, “we were all good setting the agenda for what feminism is and should be until those unruly women of color came along and spoiled it for everyone.”

Cyberfeminists of the 1990s imagined a new technoculture in which feminist would be “hacking through the constraints of old programming and envisioning a postpatriarchal future.” Instead, we find ourselves in a 21st-century reality that is augmented by digital technologies yet continues to serve the interests of white feminists.

 

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