Did the Government Invent AIDS to Kill Black People?

The news that doctors representing the government intentionally infected Guatemalan citizens with STDs has inevitably provoked comparisons to the famed Tuskegee experiment where black men were denied treatment for syphilis so that doctors could study the course of the disease. In another post, Jessie has eloquently discussed the broader public health and racial implications of this work. But while comparisons to the Tuskegee experiment are often the first that come to mind, these are not the only cases where mostly white doctors have exploited patients of color in the name of experimentation and/or racist ideology. Journalist Amy Goodman recently interviewed medical historian Susan Reverby (who brought the Guatemalan scandal to light) and reporter Eileen Welsome to discuss other cases where people of color have been abused and mistreated by the medical community, often with governmental support. This is a transcript of the interview between Goodman and Welcome, discussing the case of Elmer Allen:

“AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Eileen Welsome, who won the Pulitzer Prize for revealing the names and doing the investigation into eighteen people who were injected with plutonium in the ’40s without their knowledge by federal government scientists. In a 2004 interview on Democracy Now!, I asked Eileen Welsome about one of those people. His name was Elmer Allen.

EILEEN WELSOME: The sad part about and the tragic part about Elmer’s story is that nobody believed him. He went to his doctor and told him, you know, “I think I’ve been injected with something.” His doctor diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic at the same time that he was conversing with the atomic energy scientists in Argonne National Lab to provide them with tissue samples and—

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait, wait. His doctor said he was a paranoid schizophrenic at the same time his doctor was providing Elmer’s tissues to the government scientists doing the experiment?

EILEEN WELSOME: That’s correct. That’s what the medical records show. So, Elmer was not only used in 1947 when he was injected with this radioactive isotope, but he continued to be used as a guinea pig for the rest of his life.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome. She revealed the names of eighteen people in this country injected with plutonium. Elmer Allen was a black conductor on a train in San Francisco. He was injected at the University of San Francisco hospital. This story of the people injected with plutonium, he’d always said—he used the term “I was guinea-pigged by the government.” His wife was a nurse. His daughter was a teacher. We spoke with Elmerine Allen, his daughter. They never understood what he was saying, and they believed what the psychiatrist was saying. Yet the psychiatrist was working with the US government, telling them he was crazy. But he wasn’t.”

And another story about medical experimentation on Puerto Rican women:

“So, what happened in Puerto Rico is that the research, you know, for birth control pills was done—the major work was done here in Massachusetts, actually, but giving out birth control pills was illegal. Contraception was illegal in Massachusetts. So the research was done in Puerto Rico. And the use of very high estrogen dosages was because at that point they really weren’t sure what would be necessary, and they wanted to absolutely make sure that they could stop the pregnancies. So, and there were connections to people. They were working with a physician who had connections in Puerto Rico. So, that’s one of the reasons they went there. There were some objections, clearly, within the Puerto Rican community to this, but women also, frankly, wanted a better way to protect themselves from endless pregnancy. At that point, in Puerto Rico, the Church actually protected sterilization and thought sterilization was acceptable after women had had enough children. But the Church actually objected to the research on the pills, when a number of women—we think a couple of women died because of the high estrogen.”

I raise these stories here to make the point that there is a long history of abuse, gross mistreatment, and exploitation of people of color by the medical establishment in this country. Such stories are documented both in the accounts of these unnamed Puerto Rican women, Elmer Allen, and in several excellent books that show the disturbingly recurrent and often government-sanctioned nature of these practices. Jennifer Nelson ‘s exceptional book, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement, explores the widespread practices of sterilization abuse wherein mostly white male doctors performed hysterectomies on women of color without their knowledge and consent for decades, with some of the most notable examples of this being the forced sterilization of Fannie Lou Hamer , a 1960s activist, and Minnie Lee Relf, a mentally disabled young woman who was underwent this process at age 13 without giving consent or understanding the effects of the procedure. Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, also explores the medical community’s exploitation of a poor black woman’s medical tissue without her or her family’s consent.

These cases abound, and there are probably additional ones of which I am unaware. The common theme among them, however, is the story of white doctors and other members of the medical establishment—often acting with the support of local, state, and federal governments—engaging in ethical and medical violations that exploit communities of color in various ways. These practices erode trust, minimize confidence in the medical establishment, and most importantly, manifest some of the worst forms of racial dehumanization and inequality. Yet they also highlight a particular irony in contemporary discourses about race relations. Often, one of the talking points used to imply that blacks are oversensitive and embellish racial issues is the citation that blacks are more likely to believe various theories about the inception and spread of the AIDS virus that point to government complicity or intent.

In 2005, a Washington Post article cited that more than 25% believed the virus was produced by the government, 12% believed the CIA was responsible for spreading it, and 15% asserted that it was a form of genocide among black people. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Dr. Jeremiah Wright was widely mocked for his endorsement of some of these statements, which were used to further the image of him as a crazy radical (and by extension, to cast doubt upon then-Senator Obama). Ultimately, the statistics about the number of blacks who believe government involvement in the creation and/or spread of the AIDS virus are often used to imply that blacks are paranoid, crazy, and grossly exaggerate racial issues to the point where they believe absurd conspiracy theories, or else that their willingness to endorse such theories hinders their treatment. This latter argument is particularly significant when it comes to the spread of HIV, since black Americans comprise only about 14% of the population but constitute the majority of new AIDS cases. Both arguments, however, suggest that the endorsement or embrace of these beliefs represents something problematic on the part of black Americans.

Rather than dismissively marginalizing African Americans’ perceptions or blaming them for allowing these beliefs to influence their health practices, I think that the recent information about yet another case of the medical community’s egregious breach of the trust of minority communities should spur a renewed attention to the continued, ongoing perils of racial stratification and inequality. Susan Reverby’s findings are undoubtedly important and critical, both on their own and because they point to a larger pattern of state-sanctioned medical abuse. But they also give broader context to ongoing public health issues like the rise of HIV/AIDS in black communities. With information available about the Tuskegee Experiment, Henrietta Lacks, Minnie Lee Relf, and now the Guatemalan women who were deliberately infected with viruses, it’s not so surprising that the theories about government involvement in the AIDS virus might take hold among certain communities who have been the target of the worst kinds of medical racism.

Let me be clear: I am not writing this to advocate the theory that the AIDS virus was government invented. However, I do believe that these blatant examples of the medical establishment’s state-sanctioned abuse of minority communities have a great deal to do with why blacks in particular are less likely to trust doctors and government.  I also think it’s a mistake to suggest that blacks who hold this belief are the problem, given that there is ample evidence that government has in the past engaged in medical experimentation, mistreatment, and negligence when it comes to people of color. Acting as if some blacks’ concerns about the origins of the AIDS virus are evidence of racial paranoia or a self-imposed inhibitor to treatment is akin to suggesting that black men who express misgivings about the criminal justice system are inventing a paranoid racial reality, rather than relying on exhaustive evidence of racial profiling and disproportionate arrest rates.

The larger issue, in my opinion, is to assess how we can create a more racially equitable society so that these sorts of egregious violations don’t exist to eradicate trust in the first place.

Rand Paul Exposes Dangers of Colorblind Thinking

Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul has drawn a great deal of recent attention for his comments that had he been in the Senate in 1964, he would have argued against key portions of the Civil Rights legislation under discussion. In his own words:

“I’m not in favor of any discrimination of any form. I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. We still do have private clubs in America that can discriminate based on race.

But I think what’s important in this debate is not getting into any specific ‘gotcha’ on this, but asking the question ‘What about freedom of speech?’ Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking? I don’t want to be associated with those people, but I also don’t want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that’s one of the things that freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn’t mean we approve of it.

Well what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says ‘Well no, we don’t want to have guns in here’ the bar says ‘We don’t want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each-other.’ Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion…”

As his statements, made first to a local newspaper, repeated on NPR, and quoted here from an interview on MSNBC, make clear, Paul’s argument is not that he is opposed to the entire Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nor does he contend that he, as an individual, personally would engage in discriminatory actions or behaviors. In fact, in his interviews (and follow up ones designed to minimize the political fallout from his statements) he has explicitly stated that he does not consider himself a racist and abhors racist behaviors (although there’s some evidence suggesting otherwise). He does, however, believe that the federal government overreaches when it attempts to place any curtails on private businesses, and has articulated this belief on several occasions and in various contexts. Thus, in keeping with libertarianism, he is ideologically opposed to any federal government legislation that purports to interfere with private enterprise, even if that private enterprise engages in racial, gender, or any type of discrimination that would be illegal in the public sector.

Rand Paul’s statements illustrate more clearly than any academic exercise ever could the dangers associated with what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes as colorblind ideology. In recent work, Bonillla-Silva argues that racialized social systems are comprised of economic, social, political, legal, and ideological structures that maintain racial hierarchies (and inequalities). He argues that in modern society, the mechanisms that maintain racial hierarchies are much less visible and overt than in previous generations. Thus, segregation is no longer codified and legally protected, but it still exists in educational and residential settings due to more covert processes like white flight and gentrification. Correspondingly, the dominant racial ideology in many public settings is a colorblind one, where whites (and some people of color) purport not to notice, observe, or think about race or racial issues. Conveniently, this reluctance to acknowledge race means there is no need to address whites’ racial privilege and/or the ensuing racial inequality that results. As Bonilla-Silva argues, those who use the colorblind ideology are able to employ a discourse where they take no notice of the processes that maintain various forms of racial inequality, and can thus comfortably state their opposition to any efforts to rectify them.

When Rand Paul takes libertarian ideology to its logical conclusions, he reveals the ways in which colorblindness works to maintain a racially unjust status quo. If the central tenet of libertarianism is no federal government oversight of the private market, then the logical conclusion of that idea is that the federal government should not involve itself in legislating constraints on private businesses, even if this leads to practices like racial discrimination.  The consequence of this ideological argument, however, is that it maintains a larger system where racial discrimination goes on unchecked.

If private enterprises are legally permitted to discriminate, history shows us quite clearly that they will. In fact, a cursory review of social science literature and recent news stories reveals that even with discrimination illegal in the present day, some private businesses still manage to practice it.  It was only a short while ago that black children were sent home from a private pool in Pennsylvania because they were “changing the complexion.”

So, when Rand Paul endorses a libertarian ideology that champions minimal or nonexistent federal oversight of the free market, he either ignores or doesn’t care about the fact that in the U.S., that “free market” he longs to protect has never been all that “free” for people of color. As Joe Feagin argues with his expansion of the legal concept of “unjust enrichment,” many white-owned businesses engaged in protected “free market” practices have built their wealth off of the appropriated, often forced labor of people of color. Strongly enforced anti-discrimination laws would have been beneficial to black Americans excluded from jobs, Chinese immigrant workers who were routinely paid less than their white counterparts, Japanese American citizens snatched from their homes and livelihoods and interned in concentration camps, Native Americans whose residential and economic isolation helps to make them disproportionately represented among the nation’s poorest, as well as a host of other groups.

But a colorblind libertarian perspective ignores the embedded racialized inequities of the private market and pretends that it is simply neutral, objective, and beneficial to all. Case in point: the libertarian counterargument—that those denied services in discriminatory private markets are free to take their business elsewhere or establish their own—also ignores the deep structural racial inequities that shape U.S. society. In other words, black patrons who are, en masse, discriminated against at white-owned businesses do not live in a society where they have equal access to banks, capital, and other resources that allow them to build competing structures. This has never been the case. By design, the United States has never been a place where black businesses have flourished by relying on both the forced labor of whites and black-dominated federal, state, and local governments that legitimize such racially unbalanced labor practices. Instead, when discrimination is legal in the U.S., blacks simply become an economically disadvantaged, socially subordinate, politically marginalized minority group in society. This isn’t academic speculation; it is a recounting of the facts of U.S. history during the era where public and private discrimination was legal.  These facts still have an impact racial disparities in health, education, income, and wealth to this day.

Finally, when Rand Paul says that “these are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion,” he shows how colorblind ideology ignores the real ramifications racism has for various groups, particularly those who are targeted by racist practices. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he meant that the conversation he was having with Rachel Maddow was “not very practical” because, as he went on to say the next day, the Civil Rights Act is settled law and (hopefully) not likely to be repealed.

However, even if Paul was simply engaging in theoretical exercise and discussing the logical ends of libertarian philosophy, he still reveals a profound ignorance of the realities and impact of racial discrimination on real human beings and his fellow citizens.  There are plenty of people still alive today who have first-hand experience of  legally enforced segregation and discrimination.   For those citizens who lived through segregation and struggled against it to see the triumph of the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, to now hear a candidate for U.S. Senate blithely suggest that on ideological grounds, he opposes the legislation that protects their legal right to be served in restaurants, hotels, gas stations, educational facilities, and any other privately owned entity must feel as though they’ve stepped back in time.

At best, Rand’s theoretical opposition is callously insensitive to the lived experiences and collective memory of his fellow Americans. It also underscores the perils of pretending that colorblindness in a racially stratified society is an ideologically equitable position.

Muting Rihanna and Commercializing Domestic Abuse

January’s GQ Magazine features singer Rihanna on the cover, with a story about her recent experiences and upcoming CD. As has been widely reported in the press, earlier this year Rihanna was badly eaten by her ex boyfriend, singer Chris Brown.   Claire Renzetti wrote about social class, race and intimate partner violence  here last March.

Since then, Chris Brown has pled guilty to charges of felony assault, is attending domestic violence classes, and is currently on probation. He has apologized for beating Rihanna and has appeared on several news outlets to discuss the events.

Rihanna’s GQ cover is one of a few cases where she’s talked publicly about the events of “that night.” (She spoke to news correspondent Diane Sawyer prior to sitting down with GQ.) In GQ, she says that she welcomes the opportunity to speak to young women and to give them insights, that she finds discussing her situation liberating, and that doing so helps her to “move on” and to avoid being defined by this one event. This is an admirable goal, but in the article, there are precious few examples of the insights that she wishes to share with young women. When asked specifically, she says that the biggest insight she learned is

“really really really that love is blind. It took a lot of strength to pull out of that relationship. To finally just officially cut it off. It was like night and day. It was two different worlds. It was the world I lived for two years, and then having the strength to say, ‘I’m gonna step into my own world. Start over.’”

She also states,

“I didn’t realize how much of an effect it had on young girls’ lives, and that’s part of the insight that I wanna give. Stop blaming yourself for that outcome. There’s nothing you can do, ever, to excuse a man’s behavior like that.”

The reporter goes on to ask Rihanna if she ever blamed herself, to which she replies that

“I never blamed myself, but I wondered, what, what did I do to provoke it?” (italics in original.)

At this point, Rihanna’s manager tells the reporter to move on to a different subject.

I found this interview rather troubling on a number of levels. For one thing, there can be no question that Rihanna’s choice to speak out now about her abuse does not just happen to coincide with the release of her new album. GQ speculates as much when they assert that “in the record business, domestic violence isn’t just a tragedy; it’s an image crisis. So now Team Rihanna had to decide how to ‘handle it.’ Their plan was this: She’d talk about it for the release of the album. She’d do Diane and Glamour and announce that she wanted to help young women who’d been in her position. Even if that meant addressing what really happened that ugly night last February” (pp. 56). This isn’t hard to believe, given that Rihanna didn’t immediately discuss her abuse at Chris Brown’s hands, and the more obvious likelihood that she’d be reluctant to offer such a painful, traumatic incident up for public consumption. However, by talking about her experiences with various media outlets around the time that her album is released, she is doing just that.

What I find problematic is that by encouraging Rihanna to do interviews based on the expectation that she’ll discuss her abuse—but then cutting off interviewers who attempt to discern her insights about it—her experience becomes trivialized and commodified in the worst way. What insights are young women supposed to gain from Rihanna if handlers only allow her to repeat platitudes about domestic violence (e.g., it’s never your fault, it’s hard to leave)? Essentially, these interviews lure people to buy the magazines or watch her interviews with the expectation that they’ll hear Rihanna share the salacious details of what was probably one of the worst nights of her life. They get a teaser that fortunately spares us the worst, but also doesn’t provide much in the way of actual insights or inspiration. What does emerge is a carefully calculated, if transparent, effort to use Rihanna’s tragedy to encourage people to buy her CD.

The tragedy of this is multifaceted. It’s horribly unfortunate that a young woman’s trauma is seen as something to be “handled” and “managed” as a way to boost record sales. What’s equally significant is that Rihanna’s abuse touched on many racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes that go unaddressed when her discussion of it becomes cynically packaged and sold as currency. Following the initial stories that Chris Brown had beaten Rihanna, many blogs, discussion circles, and conversations resonated with the predictable discussions over whether she “brought it on herself,” but also evoked comments that “island women are crazy” and that black men’s shortcomings and mistakes receive more attention and criticism than those of their white peers. All of these points warrant greater analysis and/or debunking, but using Rihanna’s experience so callously precludes her from actively being part of this. Perhaps most tragically, some of these statements about Rihanna’s culpability in her assault came from young women of color, who are disproportionately likely to experience domestic assault from boyfriends, lovers, and husbands. They are also the women who are usually overlooked if and when the media does decide to focus on issues of domestic abuse and violence. Ironically, then, some of the very women who maligned Rihanna are perhaps those who might benefit the most if she were to make the informed, autonomous decision to offer whatever insights she’s gained.

This is not to say that Rihanna should now be obligated to take on this role. I think if she wants to maintain her privacy about this, she should be entitled to do so. But it does a disservice to Rihanna and to all women to commodify abuse in an effort to climb the charts, and it obscures rather than drawing attention to the depth and extent of domestic violence and abuse among women of color.

Saving Face? Colorism, Colonialism, and Sammy Sosa

Recent pictures of baseball player Sammy Sosa show a really dramatic change in his appearance:


(Photo credit: Zalubowski/AP, Djansezian/Getty via NYDailyNews)

Sosa, a retired baseball player born in the Dominican Republic, has openly acknowledged using skin-lightening creams that account for this drastic difference in his appearance (he plans to market a skin-lightening cream). His decision to do so—and the effects of this use—highlight in a rather dramatic fashion one of the more insidious influences of white colonialism and racial hierarchies in the global arena.

Scholars have long documented that in the U.S., particularly among black Americans, a color hierarchy is one of the vestiges of institutionalized racial inequality and a slave system that rewarded white slave owners for raping black women slaves. Under the slave system, children followed the status of the mother. Thus, white slave owners could actually increase their profits by fathering children with slave women, a process which often came about through forcible rape. In some cases (but not all), the children of these unions were favored by white men.  On rare occasions, they even went so far as to free these children or treat them in a completely humane fashion. Ultimately, this established a system where lighter-skinned blacks sometimes received more favorable treatment than their darker-skinned counterparts. (It is important to put this in context, however. Favorable treatment within a slave system would still have been dehumanizing, cruel, and brutal.)

As the U.S. has remained a society profoundly shaped by racial inequality, the vestiges of colorism have remained largely intact. Interestingly, however, researchers often discuss this in the context of colorism’s impact on women. A small but significant number of research studies indicate pretty uniformly that lighter skinned black women are more educated and have higher prospects on the marriage market than their darker-skinned sisters. More generally, lighter skinned women are often considered more attractive than darker skinned women, a bias that has been noted as early as St. Clair Drake and Horace Roscoe Cayton’s 1945 study of black urban areas in Black Metropolis, and as recently as Margaret Hunter’s 2005 book Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone. In other words, lighter skinned black women receive measurable advantages that are unavailable to darker skinned women, due to the heightened emphasis on physical attractiveness for women and the ongoing nature of racism in society.

Sammy Sosa’s transformation highlights two important things. First, that this issue of colorism is not limited to women. His newly lightened face, green eyes, and straighter hair indicate pretty clearly that men are not exempt from the societal messages that lighter is better. Most of the research suggests that men are influenced by these messages vis-à-vis their preference for lighter skinned women, and in fact suggests that darker skinned men are sort of “in vogue,” because darker skin on men is viewed as a symbol of masculinity, virility, and sexiness (although this also connotes racialized, gendered stereotypes of black masculinity). Sosa’s new skin, hair, and eyes bring to light—no pun intended—that men are subjected to, and internalize, the messages of colorism in a myriad of ways, and that they should not be overlooked simply because they don’t trade in beauty currency in the same ways as women.

Secondly, Sosa’s case highlights the international influence of white supremacy (as Joe noted recently about China) and the history of colonization. Sosa is from the Dominican Republic, but is reproducing an ideal of whiteness that is probably present in virtually any country with a history of colonization where race became a central issue. In other words, these issues of colorism—where lighter skinned people of color receive more opportunities, social rewards, and resources than darker skinned people—are at least anecdotally present in Cuba, Mexico, Brazil (as Ed noted here recently), India, South Africa, and numerous other countries where there has been a history of racial conquest and colonialism. Throughout the world, this is one of the consequences of colonialism—centuries later, those who are lighter (even if it is as a result of a history of forcible rape and institutionalized oppression) benefit from living in a global society that mostly devalues darker skin.

In this context, I think Sammy Sosa’s new appearance takes on important sociological significance, as a reminder of how intersections of race and gender impact men of color, the ongoing impact of colonialism, and perhaps most importantly, the all encompassing influence of white racial framing. After all, it is within this broader context of whiteness as a signifier of virtue, goodness, and beauty, that the desire to lighten one’s skin takes on meaning and significance.  Sammy Sosa’s new “look” isn’t just a change in appearance, but one that draws attention to the broader social structure where light (and by extension, white) is right.

A Look at Latina Teen Pregnancies: Intersections of Race, Gender, and Class

Silvia Henriquez has an interesting article on today’s Huffington Post entitled “Policies to Curb Latina Teen Pregnancies Have the Reverse Effect.” In the piece, Henriquez argues that the policy efforts designed to curb Latina teen pregnancies are too narrow and shortsighted—they focus on birth control and marriage rather than on big picture issues like immigration, poverty, and inequality. What’s most important about Henriquez’s article is that she skillfully highlights the ways intersecting factors of race, gender, and class overlap to shape these high rates of teen pregnancy.  Henriquez begins by offering some important context in which to situate the debate. She writes:

“Latina teens give birth at a rate more than twice that of white teens. Latinos have a much lower high school and college graduate rate compared to white teens.”

This background information gives insight into the environment facing pregnant Latina teens. Other sociological research has shown that when women give birth at young ages they are less likely to finish school, less likely to land well paying, stable jobs, and thus more likely to be poor. When the fathers are in comparable situations (like the lower high school and college graduation rates Henriquez describes), this only compounds young women’s likelihood of raising children in poverty. And given that institutional and employer-based racial discrimination still runs rampant, Latino/as are likely to face higher jobless and underemployment rates than whites, further exacerbating the chances of remaining poor. (Deirdre Royster’s book “Race and the Invisible Hand” is one such example of insidious racial discrimination in low skilled labor markets, though there are many others.) Henriquez continues on to say that:

“Myths — rather than realities — have too often guided the public discourse about Latinas and pregnancy. Latina teens don’t have sex more often than their white counterparts and most desire a college education. In addition, despite the demonization of immigrants in recent health care debates, most Latina teen moms are not immigrants.”

These are critical points that highlight the ways Latinas are cast in what Joe Feagin insightfully describes as the white racial frame. This frame (discussed elsewhere on this blog) encompasses stereotypes, sincere fictions, and ideologies about different racial groups. However, these stereotypes, images, and beliefs are shaped by gender as well as race. Thus, women of color often are cast as hypersexual, while men of color are likely to be depicted as criminals. As such, when Henriquez writes that Latina teens do not have sex more often than white teen girls, nor are they mostly immigrants, she counters white racial framing of Latinas as hypersexual, irresponsible, and a drain on national resources. (Similar imagery and framing was present in Ronald Reagan’s depictions of “welfare queens” in the 1980s.)  Henriquez then identifies some of the factors that influence Latina teens’ high birth rates:

“Compared to white teens, Latina teens have higher pregnancy rates because they use birth control much less often and reject abortion much more often. Religion and family influence are very important factors, but for sexually active Latina teens these are not the only or even most relevant obstacles to birth control usage. For many Latinas, the top barriers to birth control usage are much more mundane: transportation, lack of health insurance or cash for health services, confusing and intimidating immigration regulation for households with a combination of citizens and non-citizens, and lack of guidance about available services. When teen pregnancy prevention programs and messages ignore these obstacles, Latinas become distanced from sex education efforts.”

Here is an incredibly important point that highlights Henriquez’s central thesis that bigger issues than simple individual choice are at play for Latina teen moms. The issues she cites—transportation, lack of health insurance—are directly linked to social class. If you’re a teenager in the suburbs with your own car, it’s relatively easy to head off to your local Planned Parenthood for condoms. If you have health insurance, you can visit your doctor, tell him or her you’re planning on becoming sexually active, and get safe, confidential counseling and birth control. Switch out the car, the suburbs, and the health insurance for an impoverished neighborhood, no access to a doctor, and no money to find one, and the picture gets much bleaker.

Note also that these aren’t just class issues. For Latinas, intersections of race and gender are also factors. Henriquez astutely points out that immigration regulation can add layers of bureaucratic confusion that can make it difficult for these teen girls to access social services. This is a point that highlights that race makes a difference, and that not all racial groups are interchangeable—these issues of immigration regulation are less likely to impact poor black teens, for instance. But they are more likely to impact teen Latinas who, by virtue of their sex, face greater potential consequences of sexual activity than do Latinos. Gender, race, and class all come together to shape this issue. Henriquez continues:

“Sex education programs often tell teens that delaying parenthood until they finish high school and college will bring them some version of the American dream: a good job, economic security, family stability. The troubling reality is that for Latinas this promise comes true for only a limited few. Recent research confirms that Latina teen mothers have roughly the same socioeconomic circumstances at age 30 as those Latina teens who delay childbirth. The unfortunate reality is that access to college and the opportunities that emerge as a result is starkly different for Latina teens and white teens.”

This reiterates Henriquez’s point that broader issues than personal choice are at play here. If Latina teen mothers are in the same socioeconomic place by age 30 as those who’ve chosen to delay childbearing, then this points to major issues in our educational and economic spheres. Most studies show that more education translates into increased economic rewards. Do Latinas have the same access as women of other racial groups to access higher education and its attendant rewards? Perhaps more importantly, do women of all racial groups have the same access as white men, who despite being a numerical minority of the population remain overrepresented in the highest paid, most prestigious positions?

I agree with Henriquez that these are the structural conditions that should be the subject of focus, rather than simplistic, “one-size-fits-all” policies that fail to take into consideration the ways that intersections of race, gender, class, and other factors shape groups’ experiences differently. Latino/as are the fastest growing segment of our population, and by the middle of this century, whites will cease to be a numerical majority as the population of other racial groups continues to grow. Given our rapidly changing national demographics, we would be wise to establish policies that eliminate institutional disadvantage for all groups of color.

Gloria Steinem, Where Are You Now?

3005744513_a264349f2bIf you’ve been following the increasingly racist, sexist, and thoroughly disgusting attacks on Sonia Sotomayor, then you’ve no doubt seen this headline: “G. Gordon Liddy on Sotomayor: ‘Let’s Hope the Key Conferences Aren’t When She’s Menstruating.’ ”

While striking, this revolting statement is not that far of a stretch from other classics of the last few days: Sotomayor as dumpy, schoolmarmish, and too “emotional.”

These statements are obviously grossly offensive and fairly reek of profoundly sexist ideals. I do not claim to be a Supreme Court expert, but I’ve been following nominations pretty closely since the Clarence Thomas debacle in the 1990s and have yet to hear any criticisms of any male justices’ appearance or emotional tenor. As far as I can tell, when it was time to consider his nomination to the Court, no one cared what Antonin Scalia looked like or bothered to describe him as dumpy, fat, or bloated. No one asked whether Clarence Thomas had the temperament for the Supreme Court, even though he looked mad enough to spit nails when he had to face accusations of sexual harassment, while Anita Hill remained calm and unflappable when Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter basically called her a liar.  The double standard here is a glaringly obvious, clear cut, basic example of sexism in American politics. How else to explain that looks and emotion suddenly became significant issues for Judge Sotomayor when they never mattered for any of her predecessors?

But I don’t need to point all this out, because fortunately we have a number of prominent feminist women who are quick to use their public platform to denounce obvious cases of sexism, and to condemn those who are instrumental in perpetuating these assaults against women…right? Why, just last year, noted feminist icon Gloria Steinem (image from here), wrote a widely discussed editorial in the New York Times defending then-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton against charges of sexism, and lamenting that “the sex barrier was not taken as seriously as the racial one.”

During this same election cycle, Geraldine Ferraro made controversial statements arguing that Obama’s race was an advantage, and contended that “if he were a woman of any color he would not be in this position,” implying, like Steinem, that male privilege was so endemic that it could elevate a black man over any woman of any color.  Martha Burk got a lot of attention a few years back for demanding that the Masters golf tournament allow women to join its hallowed ranks, and was a clear, cogent voice in drawing attention to this institutionalized sexism in the athletic world.

Funny how I haven’t heard any statements from these women castigating G. Gordon Liddy, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, or Michael Steele for their repugnant, sexist, and racist remarks about Judge Sotomayor. Funny how they haven’t jumped out in front of this issue the same way they did when Hillary Clinton was the one on the receiving end of a barrage of sexist statements. Funny how the PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass) who were so outraged at the way the Democratic Party ostensibly treated Hillary Clinton now don’t seem to see this as a worthy cause of their efforts, and aren’t outraged by Democratic politicians’ unwillingness to call these abhorrent statements the blatant misogyny that they are.

What’s not funny are the implications this has for women of all races. When white feminists look the other way when Michelle Obama is callously referred to as “Obama’s Baby Mama,” when Sonia Sotomayor is savaged by right wing conservatives who engage in the basest types of sexism, or more broadly, when women of color across the country face higher rates of abuse, incarceration, and poverty than white women, it sends a clear message about their lack of respect for and interest in the ways sexism impacts women of other racial groups and class positions. It reinforces the idea that white women feminists are interested in maintaining their white privilege while undermining sexism, a process that keeps women of color oppressed but broadens the category of whites who have access to and are able to wield power over others. It perpetuates the (erroneous) message that feminism has nothing to offer women of color, even though they too suffer from the gender wage gap, sexual violence, and all the other manifestations of gender inequality.

I do not understand why white feminists like Steinem, Ferraro, Burk, and others still don’t seem to get this message that intersections of race and gender matter and that the feminist movement cannot succeed without the influence and involvement of ALL women.

This point has been made for years, by many progressive white women (playwright Eve Ensler, sociologist Margaret Andersen) and feminists of color (sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, activist Pauli Murray, writer Alice Walker). It would be really nice if the rampant sexism being directed towards Sonia Sotomayor finally served as an overdue wake-up call about the importance of both race and gender.

Racism, Sexism and The Significance of Sotomayor

AsSCOTUS 2 expected, Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has drawn controversy, media attention, analysis and even some humorous send-ups of right-wing critics (Creative Commons License photo credit: Padraic).

Opponents have alternately claimed that Sotomayor is (a) not smart enough for the Court (despite degrees from Ivy League Universities and an apparent history of exemplary academic performance), (b) racist, and (c) perhaps most bizarrely, saddled with an unpronounceable name

While these conversations themselves warrant another post (and analysis of their racist and sexist assumptions, particularly the one that she’s not smart enough), what strikes me the most about Sotomayor’s nomination is what it suggests for the future of race relations in this country. Not in terms of the “role model” argument (the idea that young people need to see someone like them in positions of power to help them see that their options are plentiful and far-ranging), though I think there is some merit to that claim.

Sotomayor’s presence on the Court, in my opinion, reveals much about the way Obama intends to address racial inequalities in his role as president.

Of late, Obama has not said much about racial matters, particularly issues of racial inequality. Many of his statements about race that I’ve read date back to 2006 or 2007, well before he was a serious candidate for President. In several these statements, he acknowledges the existence and consequences of systemic racism:

“I don’t believe it is possible to transcend race in this country. . . Race is a factor in this society. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone away. It is not an accident that African Americans experience high crime rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history.” (Essence magazine, October 2007)

However, on the campaign trail and while President, Obama mostly remained quiet about the ongoing existence of systemic racism and his plan to put policies into place that remedy it. In fact, he has gone on record talking about the need for class-based policies, using the metaphor that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Of course, President Obama walks a very difficult line, one none of his predecessors have had to balance. If he appears racially conscious, he runs a high risk of upsetting supporters who like to see him as color blind, offering easy ammunition to opponents looking for anything to use as a source of criticism, and maybe most significantly, seeing his support and ability to get things done erode in a wave of racially-tinged suspicion. If we assume that eradicating racial inequality matters to him, how then does Obama put policies into place without sacrificing political capital and losing control of his momentum?

Enter Judge Sotomayor, the first potential Supreme Court justice who will have personally experienced the multiple, overlapping oppressions of racism, sexism, and poverty. Who has observed that dealing with these intersecting factors would likely render her more capable of reaching a wise, sound decision on cases of discrimination than her white male peers who benefit from their race, gender, and class privilege. Who at the same time acknowledged that these intersecting factors do not preclude elite white men from reaching sound, fair decisions on cases of discrimination (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education), but sees the reality that living her life as a woman of color gives her a particular insight into oppression that might escape her white male colleagues.

What makes Sotomayor’s nomination especially relevant right now is that Chief Justice Roberts has issued some of his most telling decisions and statements on cases related to racial discrimination and civil rights .  Despite his clear intelligence and stellar academic credentials, Roberts is woefully uneducated when it comes to the realities of racial oppression in this nation. Operating from the color blind racist perspective, Roberts is apparently of the opinion that any focus on race—even with the intent of diversifying, correcting ongoing racial inequalities, or addressing systemic racial imbalances—is in and of itself racist. This willful refusal to recognize that racism is built into the very core of the political, economic, and social foundations of this nation, has always worked to disadvantage people of color, and will continue to do so if left unchecked, is an egregious blind spot on the part of our Chief Justice. So too is his inability to distinguish between taking race into consideration when trying to make a school system diverse (in compliance with Brown v. Board) and focusing on race in efforts to create and maintain segregated, unequal social systems.

Right now Sonia Sotomayor is being savaged by people who refuse to respect her intelligence and hard work, and instead seem to think that her status as a Latina signifies a person who is dumb and unqualified. It’s particularly ironic that she may sit on a Court that decides whether affirmative action policies are legal or even remain necessary. It seems to me that Sotomayor’s experience having her qualifications disregarded in a way that evokes common racial/gendered stereotypes would give her a perspective on the necessity of affirmative action that might elude Judges Roberts, Alito, and Scalia.

People often mistakenly assume affirmative action just elevates unqualified minority candidates, but when used wisely and correctly its purpose is to create opportunities for racial minorities who work hard, are eminently qualified, but still face discrimination because of potential employers’ biases (like the automatic, reflexive assumption that people of color are less intelligent). It seems to me that what Sotomayor is facing right now is a prime example of said biases, and this speaks directly to her statements for the value of a diverse bench. These are the types of experiences that can help Sotomayor see aspects of the law that Chief Justice Roberts, with his color blind worldview, will likely miss.

Obama is a smart enough politician to know that a candid focus on policies openly designed to eradicate racism will impair his ability to fulfill his other priorities and will pretty much guarantee him a one-term presidency. But he can select a Supreme Court nominee with stellar credentials, extensive legal experience, and the personal history to allow her to see what her colleagues are comfortable ignoring. She can’t make policy from the bench, but she can make sure the law works for everyone. In doing so, she can be Obama’s voice for racial and gender equality.

Race and the Republican Party: The Elephant in the Room

The GOP - It's a party, alright.Recent political news has focused extensively on whether modern times are sounding a death-knell for the Republican party (Creative Commons License photo credit: makelessnoise). After bruising losses in the mid-term elections of 2006 and in the presidential election of 2008, near record-low numbers of individuals who identify as Republicans, and an extraordinarily popular Democratic president, many commentators and pundits have questioned whether the Republican party is facing a crisis of being. Even some Republican leaders have acknowledged the peril they face as a party, giving rise to debates over whether they should become more moderate and create a “bigger tent” that includes a broader coalition of supporters, or stick to their principles and align themselves even more strongly with their remaining conservative base.

In my mind, these debates reveal a major problem for the Republican party and highlight the ways in which narrow racial framing is limiting their future opportunities and success. When Republicans debate whether to “stick to their guns” (pun intended) or establish a “bigger tent,” they are thinking short term and avoiding some very real racialized realities that have an impact for their future and ultimately their continued existence. This is perhaps unsurprising for a party whose only engagement with racial issues over the last half century has been creating coded language to justify their opposition to civil rights advancements (“states’ rights,” “urban crime,” “welfare queens,”), or appealing to racialized fears (Willie Horton, fabricating links between immigrants and swine flu, blaming “unqualified minorities” for the housing crisis) as a way of maintaining and consolidating reliable votes. So it’s not especially shocking that Republicans would be oblivious of what—and who–they are ignoring when they think only in terms of going more moderate or staying conservative.

The racial issue that I refer to is this. All demographic data indicates that within a mere 30 to 40 years, this country will no longer have a clear white majority. What we are headed towards, whether Republican elites like it or not, is a nation that is mostly multiracial and where whites are irrevocably becoming a numerical minority. I don’t think many Republicans have really taken that fact in, perhaps because it is hard to imagine in a nation that has been run by a white majority for centuries. But it’s happening, and evidence of the implications of this were even present in the last election. While some commentators like to pretend that Obama’s election is indicative of the fact that we’re past “all the racial stuff”, the reality is that most whites did not vote for Obama. It took a multiracial coalition of African Americans, Latino/as, Asian Americans, and a small but important minority of whites to get Obama into the White House. Ultimately, however, he won without the support of most whites, because there are finally enough Americans of color to have a significant, determining impact on electoral outcomes. Had Obama not had the foresight to appeal to a broad variety of racial groups, we would be dealing with President McCain and Vice President “I Can See Russia From My House” right now. Republicans would do well to think about how this dynamic plays into their “more moderate or more conservative” dilemma.

What I think it means is that if they want to “stick to their roots,” that in itself needs to involve a fundamental paradigm shift. Of late, the Republican roots haven’t just been small government and tax cuts, those roots have also included appealing to white racism and demonizing groups of color. Even though he broke with his party to champion immigration reform, McCain paid the price for his party’s thinly veiled anti-Latino/a sentiment when they went decisively for Obama. If Republicans want to stay relevant in an America that looks less and less like their base, they need to consider strategies that will endear them to the voters they’ve been excluding from that base. Suggesting that these voters carry swine flu or are responsible for the housing crisis is not the way to do this.

This does mean Republicans will have to make some changes that will probably be painful for them. They can’t just do what has been comfortable in the past, like appealing to those charming folks who show up at their rallies with sock puppets that suggest Obama looks like a monkey. If Republicans want to stay a viable political party, it is time to drop the racist ideology, language, and imagery that has too often been a part of their “core values.” This alienates voters of color that they will need if they want to win at a national level. If Republicans really believe in small government, they should think about how they can make that commitment appealing to growing, important sectors of the population whose primary concerns may be to immigrate safely and easily, find work, go to good schools, and get affordable health care. If they really want low taxes, they should consider how that can win them votes from the many black women who work in low-paying jobs and struggle to find affordable child care. Instead of working themselves into a frenzy over the president’s preference for Dijon mustard (I’m talking to you, Sean Hannity!), Republicans would be better served putting serious thought into how those core principles they tout can be put to use to attract segments of the electorate that they have derided, but now need to reach, if they want to remain relevant. This may well lose them the base they have cultivated, but it might buy them a newer, more expansive base that can actually get them elected. In an America that is growing increasingly multiracial, there is no other way to win at a national level. Unless Republicans acknowledge this (other) elephant in the room, they will continue having the wrong discussion and missing the big picture.

Another Picture of the Criminal Justice System

Recently on this blog, there were a number of heated exchanges over the Oscar Grant shooting. Many of the comments reiterated some of the basest stereotypes and misinformation about blacks’ “natural” proclivities for criminal behavior, and bandied about misleading or simply inaccurate statistics as proof. Quite a few posters, and undoubtedly many Americans at large, seem to be of the general opinion that black people are criminally inclined and thus their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system represents their disproportionate predisposition to commit illegal acts.
This disturbing story offers information that should cause people to rethink these knee-jerk assumptions that incarceration = criminality. This news alert describes a case of corrupt judges in Pennsylvania who received kickbacks from for-profit prison companies after sentencing children:

“As many as 5,000 children in Pennsylvania have been found guilty, and up to 2,000 of them jailed, by two corrupt judges who received kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prison facilities that benefited. The two judges pleaded guilty in a stunning case of greed and corruption that is still unfolding. Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan received $2.6 million in kickbacks while imprisoning children who often had no access to a lawyer. The case offers an extraordinary glimpse into the shameful private prison industry that is flourishing in the United States.”

The report asserts that the two judges pleaded guilty to tax evasion and wire fraud, and that they regularly sentenced children on innocuous cases after violating their rights to due process, and ignoring prosecutors’ recommendations for leniency. One story describes a fourteen year old girl who was sentenced to nearly a year for slapping another girl after an argument escalated and the other girl hit her, and another girl discusses being sentenced to three months in a criminal facility after posting a web page that mocked an assistant principal at her school. Predictably, imprisonment has had a profoundly detrimental effect on these children. One states:

“People looked at me different when I came out, thought I was a bad person, because I was gone for so long. My family started splitting up … because I was away and got locked up. I’m still struggling in school, because the schooling system in facilities like these places [are] just horrible.”

She began cutting herself, blaming the medication that she was forced to take:

“I was never depressed, I was never put on meds before. I went there, and they just started putting meds on me, and I didn’t even know what they were. They said if I didn’t take them, I wasn’t following my program.”

She was hospitalized three times.   The experience of this child is not an isolated incident.  Children who are locked up are at risk for brutal violence at the hands of police, as in this assault of a teenaged girl by sheriff’s deputies in King County, Washington reveals:

The deputy in this case has plead not guilty. The judges who were found guilty of violating the constitutional rights of and illegally sentencing up to 5,000 children for profit, these judges will serve a mere seven years.

While the report on the illegal sentencing case doesn’t mention the racial identity of the two girls who are described above, nor any of the others affected by these judges, the video from King County, Washington reminds us that those involved in the prison system in this country are disproportionately people of color. So it might not be a stretch to question how many of the 5,000 children affected by these judges are black or Latino. This story should at least compel us to rethink naïve assumptions that our criminal justice system is fair, balanced, and impartial, and to consider the implications of this when a disproportionate number of black and brown men are imprisoned. And while we’re at it, we might also consider why this story hasn’t (to my knowledge) received major national news coverage?

I, Too, Sing America: A Different Perspective on Obama

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.
–Langston Hughes

Like Jessie, I too have been overwhelmed by Obama’s victory.  I’ve been uplifted every day this week simply by thinking to myself, “We have a black president-elect” (image from here).

My background is very different from Jessie’s. I grew up in North Carolina in the 1980s, a beneficiary of the gains made during the Civil Rights movement. However, coming of age in the post-Civil Rights south was hardly idyllic. I never had to integrate any lunch counters, buses, or schools, but even without the structural machinations of legal segregation in place, racism was still manifest and evident. Whites still found a way to make it clear that while we could now use the same facilities and attend the same schools, in no way did they consider us equal. By the time I was eight I knew that the Klan still existed and was acutely aware of my (black) family’s relative vulnerability. Around age ten I remember noticing a pattern of whites getting better treatment than people of color in restaurants and stores. By thirteen, I had developed what C. Wright Mills would call a “sociological imagination” when it came to assessing issues of race and inequality. At fifteen, I discovered sociology and decided on the career path that would help me make sense of and name many of the things I’d seen growing up.

Being aware of these things so early on meant that by the time I reached adulthood, regular issues with racism and discrimination simply became par for the course. At age twenty four, when I went to view an apartment and the potential landlord visibly blanched when she saw me and grabbed her purse with one hand and her young daughter’s hand with the other, it didn’t faze me. I just decided not to bother calling her about an application. At twenty one , when my dad and I were driving through Virginia and he got pulled over for speeding, I didn’t stop to think about how sad it was that my immediate reaction was a paralyzing fear that the traffic stop could end with some cruel  humiliation or him being hurt. I just considered us both lucky that he was released with only a ticket.  When I was nineteen and my mom showed me the anonymous letter someone left in her mailbox that described the ways “people of color” (not the term they used) were all drug addicts and welfare mothers who were taking over a white country, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t have much of a reaction.

My point here is that if you grow up in this country as a black American, too often these things become part of the fabric of everyday life. They become so commonplace and regular that it’s not hard to become desensitized to them, which in a way, is the worst part of racism. You think to yourself, well, today, I’ll get dressed and meet friends for lunch, but I’ll need to allow extra time for the subway since cabdrivers won’t stop for me, and I’ll have to make sure I tip the waitress well to do my part to offset the stereotype that black people won’t tip, and so on…just another day. To borrow a phrase from Thomas Shapiro, these are some of the other hidden costs of being African American.

This is the context in which I followed Obama’s path in the primary and the general election. Black people know well that in this country we are routinely devalued, marginalized, and subordinated in a myriad of different ways. There are the overt and horrific (think James Byrd, Jr. of Jasper, Texas) and the subtle and easily-overlooked (see the ABC Prime Time Live segment “True Colors”). But part of being black in America means confronting and coping with the consistent message that you still aren’t equal, don’t belong, and often can’t expect to be treated with basic human dignity. This is why none of the black people with whom I spoke were completely confident Obama would win, despite the poll numbers, inconsistent McCain campaign, and tanking economy. We know what it means when race pushes you to the margins of society. When black people of all ages say emphatically, “I never thought I would live to see this day,” to me, that speaks to the recognition we all have of how regular experiences with racism take a toll on us, shaping our expectations and our lives.

When I saw “Barack Obama Elected President” flash across the bottom of my TV screen, it brought up all the feelings and thoughts I’ve been describing here. It made me fully aware of how often being black means coping with daily onslaughts, being excluded from the political process, and being forced into “outsider within” status. It made me aware of these things by contrast, because—like Michelle Obama–for the first time in my life, I felt included. The glass ceiling had been broken. For the first time ever in this country, someone who looked like me, who could relate to my experiences, would be occupying the nation’s highest office. When I saw other black people on TV sobbing or even just tearing up, I knew what they felt because it was in me too. We experience so much negativity, pain, and oppression in this country that sometimes we don’t even notice it. In this context, Obama’s win meant so much to all of us because it was a welcome shift from the exclusion and hostility that characterize much of our basic experience as black people in America.

I do not want this to be misread as a statement that if only black people believed in ourselves, we could defeat racism and accomplish any goals. This is not what I’m saying, and such a statement is shortsighted and profoundly factually inaccurate.  All of the racial issues (prison industrial complex, health care inequities, educational disparities, economic and wealth inequality, and more) that we write about on this blog are still happening and won’t disappear just because we have a black president. But I predict that the success of President-elect Barack Obama will have a long-lasting and meaningful effect for many, but for Black Americans in particular. It provides a bright spot in an otherwise often bleak sea of inequity. On November 4, we too sang America.