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.

Why do Many Whites Love Racist Epithets? The R-Word Again

James Fenelon and I are quoted a good bit in a fine Native American website article on the racist “Redskins” defenses by the DC team and many of its fiercest fans. Here.

Fenelon has done the only survey of real (vetted) Native Americans that I have seen. As the article quotes him:

Fenelon collected data for a poll about what “real Natives” thought about the baseball team. He went to large pow wows in the Cleveland area, and related events, and polled people individually, making sure that “at a high level of certainty” their tribal identity was legitimate; and that all who claimed Native ancestry were actually American Indian. “American Indians are the hardest to poll,” said Fenelon, who squeezed in an interview on his way to work. “And that’s because a lot of them claim to be Native, but it’s often dubious.”

Read more at Indian Country Today.

The Legal and Moral Basis for Reparations

I recently did an op-ed piece for time.com here, on reparations. It begins thus:

Unjust enrichment, and its counterpart, unjust impoverishment, give rise to the idea of restitution. As recently as 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution belatedly apologizing for this country’s oppression of African Americans: “The Congress (A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; (B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.”

Sadly, these mostly white senators added a disclaimer explicitly barring African Americans from seeking reparations for the role of the government in this officially recognized oppression. Reparations is an issue that arises sporadically because of the three-plus centuries of slavery and Jim Crow on which this country is founded, and one that Ta-Nehisi Coates revives in this month’s Atlantic Monthly.

See the rest for time.com here”>here:

The Myths around White “Merit”

Systemic racism persists and flourishes in this country because of an extensive set of racial myths created long ago and aggressively perpetuated by whites in major institutions of this society, decade after decade.

Given this white myth-making, empirical data on what is actually the case often become “radical.”

Consider this pervasive belief. Whites publicly assert that they get most of their jobs over their lifetimes only or mainly because of their merit and abilities. They pedal this fiction to everyone they can, and indeed get many folks of color also accept it as true.

The problem is that it is mostly a grand fiction.

For example, recently conducting hundreds of white interviews, sociologist and university dean Nancy DiTomaso has demonstrated well the important social networking patterns that reproduce great racial inequalities in U.S. employment patterns. Her many white respondents reported that they have long used acquaintances, friends, and family–their personal networks–to find most of the jobs secured over lifetimes of job hunting. That is, they use exclusionary networks. DiTomaso calls this a societal system of “opportunity hoarding.” It is, more bluntly, institutionalized racial privilege and favoritism.

These empirical findings flatly contradict the colorblind view of our employment world propagated by many Americans, and especially most white Americans– that is, the view that in the U.S. economy jobs are secured mainly or only because of personal “skills, qualifications, and merit.” Yet, wherever they can, most white job seekers admit that they typically avoid real job market competition and secure most of their jobs by using their usually racially segregated social relationships and networks.

And, even more strikingly perhaps, most whites do not even care that they benefit so greatly from such an unjust non-merit system—one that exists because of the 400 years that systemic racism has created a huge array of white material, social, and psychological privileges. In her many white interviews DiTomaso did not one white respondent ever openly expressing concern about their use of this highly unjust non-merit system.

Her data also flatly refute other common notions of white virtue. Whites contend that they are now the victims of “reverse racism” and “reverse discrimination,” two white-crafted terms and notions–in more recent versions of the dominant white racial frame–that are primarily designed to deflect attention from the society’s fundamental and foundational white racism.

In her white interviews Ditomaso found that the persisting opposition by most whites to affirmative action is not so much about fear of “reverse discrimination,” but much more about the way in which effective affirmative action programs have sought to weaken these centuries-old patterns of institutionalized favoritism for whites–including institutionalized bias favoring whites in competition for society’s better-paying jobs.

She found In the nearly 1,500 job situations that her respondents talked about in detailed interviews, she found only two situations where a white person might have conceivably lost a job because of an affirmative action effort on behalf of black Americans. Empirical demonstration of yet another white fiction.

The real societal worlds, when it comes to jobs and much else in the way of white wealth, assets, and privileges, are not those fictional worlds of distinctive merit and white disadvantage propagated by many, and especially conservative, whites—including those “well-educated” whites who serve on our high courts and in our legislatures.

Empirical data on how white-generated racism operates in the real world, once again, are themselves radical.

Capitalism and Systemic Racism: Oliver Cox’s Pioneering Work



In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been rethinking Oliver C. Cox’s pioneering and excellent Caste, Class, & Race; A Study in Social Dynamics book, which was first published in the late 1940s. It is still very much worth reading and learning from. It is available for free in various pdf and ereader formats for the Monthly Review Press edition here. (I use the Kindle formatting in quotes below.)

Oliver Cox was one of the few early black sociologists in the United States, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1938. He was a student of Robert Ezra Park, yet provided some of the deepest and most insightful critiques of Park, the early Chicago school, and Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma in this book, Caste, Class & Race. I highly recommend his analysis, both for its penetrating assessments and importance in sociological history.

One of the key figures historically in the Black Radical tradition, Oliver Cox was probably the first to argue in some detail that racist framing and exploitation arose in the various stages of modern capitalism:

Racial antagonism is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits. It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492; moreover, racial feeling developed concomitantly with the development of our modem social system. Probably one of the most persistent social illusions of modem times is that we have race prejudice against other people because they are physically different—that race prejudice is instinctive. (Kindle Locations 461-487)

Modern race prejudice and framing is not instinctive but develops in the material context of early capitalism. Cox added that

The interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest— the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society. To be sure, [a white person] might say this cannot be, for one feels an almost irrepressible revulsion in the presence of colored people, especially Negroes, although one never had any need to exploit them. It is evidently the way they look, their physical difference, which is responsible for one’s attitude. . . . [However] the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.

Racist prejudice and framing are learned in the broad material context of racial exploitation, and is generally accepted by most whites without question, even those who see themselves as uninvolved in exploitation. In this negative white racial framing black Americans

must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law. On the whole, they came to America as forced labor, and our slavocracy could not persist without a consistent set of social attitudes which justified the system naturally. Negroes had to be thought of as subsocial and subhuman. To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system. (Kindle Locations 461-487).

Once put into place in the U.S. case, this racial prejudice and broader racial framing spread globally:

Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Kindle Locations 8327-8329).

Later on, he summarizes this way:

Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable. In a quite literal sense the white ruling class is the Negro’s burden; the saying that the white man will do anything for the Negro except get off his back puts the same idea graphically. It is the economic content of race prejudice which makes it a powerful and fearfully subduing force. . . . However, it is the human tendency, under capitalism, to break out of such a place, together with the determined counterpressure of exploiters, which produces essentially the lurid psychological complex called race prejudice. Thus race prejudice may be thought of as having its genesis in the propagandistic and legal contrivances of the white ruling class for securing mass support of its interest. (Kindle Locations 11973-11982).

. . . . [Whites] should not be distracted by the illusion of personal repugnance for a race. Whether, as individuals, [they] feel like or dislike for the colored person is not the crucial fact. What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose. The attitude abhors a personal or sympathetic relationship. (Kindle Locations 11990-11997).

Some 65 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are the results of concrete social and material contexts, not some psychological gremlins inherent in all human beings. And they destroy personal and empathetic relationships. These early classics are indeed well worth reading again today.

The Black Counter Frame: Critical for Much Racial Change



In my The White Racial Frame book I not only discuss this age-old white racial frame, which accents both white virtue material and anti-others material, but also the important counter frames to this dominant white frame that people of color have developed. In the U.S. case African Americans have developed an especially strong counter frame over centuries, perhaps because they have had the longest period of time situated firmly within this systemically racist society.

This counter frame has for centuries been an impetus for many important black protests, and thus in large part for the few major changes that have been made in this country’s racist system over the centuries.

One feature of U.S. systemic racism involves a rather intentional collective forgetting by whites of key African Americans who articulated and often organized around a strong counter frame. Let me remind our readers of a few of these great Americans.

One of the first to put counter frame down on paper was David Walker, a young African American abolitionist working in Boston. In 1829 he published a strong manifesto, entitled Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Demanding full equality, he wrote to his fellow African Americans with revolutionary arguments in an anti-oppression framing, so much so that slaveholding whites put a large cash bounty on his head. (He died young, probably as a result.) Walker analyzes slavery and racial segregation for free blacks quite bluntly. Most whites are “cruel oppressors and murderers” whose “oppression” will be overthrown. They are “an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings.” Whites seek for African Americans to be slaves to them

and their children forever to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!

He then quotes the words “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence and challenges whites:

Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us–men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation! . . . . I ask you candidly, was your sufferings under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?

A little later in the 19th century, an admirer of Walker, the African American abolitionist Henry Garnet, gave a radical speech, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” at a National Negro Convention. Garnet’s counter framing is very assertive and to the point, and it is also an address to those enslaved. He offers a structural analysis of “oppression,” arguing too that the white “oppressor’s power is fading.” African Americans like “all men cherish the love of liberty. . . . In every man’s mind the good seeds of liberty are planted.” He calls on those enslaved to take revolutionary action:

There is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die freemen, than live to be slaves.” He concludes with a strong call to rebellion: “Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties.

One of the most brilliant of the 19th century analysts of systemic racism was the great abolitionist, Martin Delaney, who among other actions worked in revolutionary efforts to overthrow the slavery system. (In May 1858, he and John Brown gathered black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary meeting in Chatham, Canada. Four dozen black and white Americans wrote a new constitution to govern a growing band of armed revolutionaries they hoped would come from the enslaved US population.) Directing a book at all Americans, Delaney emphasizes the

United States, untrue to her trust and unfaithful to her professed principles of republican equality, has also pursued a policy of political degradation to a large portion of her native born countrymen. . . . there is no species of degradation to which we are not subject.

His counter framing is one of resistance and extends the old liberty-and-justice frame beyond white rhetoric:

We believe in the universal equality of man, and believe in that declaration of God’s word, in which it is positively said, that ‘God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.’

Delaney attacks whites’ stereotypes of African Americans with a detailed listing of important achievements of numerous free and enslaved African Americans and emphasizes how enslaved workers brought very important skills in farming to North America that European colonists did not have. African American workers were the “bone and sinews of the country” and the very “existence of the white man, South, depends entirely on the labor of the black man.” Delaney emphasizes that African Americans are indeed very old Americans:

Our common country is the United States. . . . and from here will we not be driven by any policy that may be schemed against us. We are Americans, having a birthright citizenship.

Let us bring these and other important 19th African Americans back into our contemporary history, as they were both thinkers and activists in the long tradition of people fighting for liberty in the United States. Note too essential elements of the black counter frame in these and many other black thinkers and activists too often forgotten writings from the 19th century: a strong critique of racial oppression; an aggressive countering of white’s negative framing of African Americans; and a very strong accent on the centrality and importance of liberty, justice, and equality for all Americans. African Americans have been perhaps the most central Americans in keeping these liberty and justice ideals constantly alive and imbedded in resistance organizations over four long centuries of freedom struggles in the racist history of the United States.

Charles Darwin’s Racist Framing



For some time now, there has been new attention to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, including the controversy generated by conservative religious groups who reject his theory and the extensive scientific evidence supporting much of it. Darwin is often listed as one of the ten most influential thinkers in Western history (a parochial listing, as the list makers leave out the rest of the world), and probably deserves that designation. There is much use of the concept of evolution, too, these days–and even a type of discipline called “evolutionary psychology.”

Religion and evolution get the attention most of the time when Darwin is publicly debated, but his racial views are also getting a little attention as well. They should get much more attention. To his credit, Charles Darwin was opposed to slavery, and this got him into trouble a few times, but he shared many of the anti-equality racist views of his day. In The Independent Marek Kohn notes the shift in thinking during Darwin’s life about the monogenetic origin of humanity:

When Charles Darwin entered the world 200 years ago, there was one clear and simple answer to the slave’s question. All men were men and brothers, because all were descended from Adam. By the time Darwin had reached adulthood, however, opinions around him were growing more equivocal. During his vision-shaping voyage on the Beagle, he was able to consult an encyclopedia which arranged humankind into 15 separate species, each of a separate origin.

Reviewing a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Kohn summarizes thus:

Evolutionary thinking enabled [Darwin] to rescue the idea of human unity, taking it over from a religion that no longer provided it with adequate support, and put the idea of common descent on a rational foundation. . . . [However, as he aged and] As attitudes to race became harsher, sympathies for black people in the Americas more scant, and the fate of “savages” a matter of indifference, Darwin’s own sympathies were blunted by the prevailing fatalism.

As he got older, especially in his famous, The Descent of Man, Darwin fell in line with much of the racist thinking of his day and even developed an early version the perspective later called “social Darwinism”:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

In his view, the “civilized races” would eventually replace the “savage races throughout the world.” Darwin’s earlier and most famous book was entitled: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In such influential and momentous writings Darwin applied his evolutionary idea of natural selection not only to animal development but also to the development of human “races.” He saw natural selection at work in the killing of indigenous peoples of Australia by the British, wrote here of blacks (some of the “savage races”) being a category close to gorillas, and spoke against social programs for the poor and “weak” because such programs permitted the least desirable people to survive.

By the late 1800s a racist perspective called “social Darwinism” extensively developed these ideas of Darwin and argued aggressively that certain “inferior races” were less evolved, less human, and more apelike than the “superior races.” Prominent social scientists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner argued that social life was a life-and-death struggle in which the best individuals would win out over inferior individuals. Sumner argued that wealthy Americans, almost entirely white at the time, were products of natural selection and as the “superior race” essential to the advance of civilization. Black Americans were seen by many of these openly racist analysts as a “degenerate race” whose alleged “immorality” was a racial trait.

Though some have presented him that way, Darwin was not a bystander to this vicious scientific racism. In their earlier book, Darwin, Adrian Desmond and James Moore summarize thus:

‘Social Darwinism’ is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start–‘Darwinism’ was always intended to explain human society.

Why has his racist thinking received so little attention in the recurring celebrations of Darwin and use of his major ideas and celebrations of his impact?

Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me: A Watershed Moment for the U.S.

President Obama’s poignant comments on the white-racist discrimination that Black men regularly face were pathbreaking for this country. First, in the history of the U.S. never has such a high government official so forthrightly called out key elements of white racism and condemned persisting patterns of racial harassment and profiling of Black boys and men.

Secondly, Obama’s commentary, together with his speech during the 2008 election, mark the first time that whites and many other nonblack Americans have heard important elements of the Black counter-frame to the centuries-old white racial framing of this society—at least not from such a “bully pulpit,” as Teddy Roosevelt put it.

 

(Image from ThinkProgress)

One cannot imagine any white president saying, or being able to say, what Obama has said in his two explicit commentaries on U.S. racism. He certainly did not say enough about this racism, but his commentaries so far have been pathbreaking, especially for a white population much of which is in terminal denial of that racism.

Obama assessed the killing of Trayvon Martin from a Black perspective, one rarely taken seriously by most white Americans. Now, for a time, it has to be taken seriously and provides the basis to expand on his analysis later on.

Obama made his first comment to an African American family that has suffered much white racism over their lives, and like many such families lost a young male to unnecessary violence. Saluting the Martin family, he underscored

the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.

Then his assessment moved to an approach rare in this country’s public forum—-he accented our historical and contemporary societal context of white racism. That critical context, he made clear, includes many decades of racial profiling, harassment, and killing of Black boys and men. And it means long decades of frequent and very painful Black experience in dealing with an array of discriminatory realities:

When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me–at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

This eloquent statement about recurring Black experiences sums up what millions of Black men, women, and children have been telling this country’s whites in many ways, for generations. Obama underscores a key aspect of the Black counter-frame, the deep understanding of the great racial inequality in the operation of our “justice” system:

. . . those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.. . . The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

He accents the importance of understanding the long history of unjust impoverishment of African Americans in creating problems of violence in communities—something few whites wish to do. The Black community understands

that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

He thereby gives us a sense of how and why African Americans saw the Trayvon Martin killing early on as very much a racial matter:

And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

He ends his comments, as he often does, with a pragmatic statement about what we should do next. He calls for much better law enforcement training at state and local levels:

When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation. . . . it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize . . .. So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive.

His second suggestion is to reassess notorious “stand your ground” laws, one of which was at least implicitly involved in the Zimmerman case. He made a dramatic point that has provoked even a conservative commentator like David Brooks to rethink this problematical law and what happened to the teenager:

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

His third suggestion was, once again, very positive. He called for much action to

bolster and reinforce our African American boys. . . . is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them? . . . And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society. . . .

A bit vague, but again a rare moment of insight about Black male needs at this public level. His last suggestion was also rather vague but echoed Dr. King:

I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. . . . in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?

Not surprisingly, he concludes on an optimistic note of hope about the younger generation:

better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

Characteristically optimistic Obama comments in public, if unfortunately and substantially contradicted by much social science data on our white youth. According to numerous studies, the younger generations of whites may be better in some ways but they are still very racist in their white racial framing of society and in their racist performances and actions growing out of that framing.

On the whole, a pathbreaking speech that only an Black president could have so effectively delivered. It is sad, and often noted in Black America, that Black Americans too often end up as the major teachers of whites about how white racism operates and its devastating and painful impacts. Obama has used that “bully pulpit” to give white America some significant lessons about the reality and damage of that white racism. It will long be remembered as a watershed moment, one requiring great courage.

We do not live in a real democracy, and we have numerous institutions that do not operate democratically, including an unelected Supreme Court and very unrepresentative U.S. Senate. Not to mention a very dysfunctional House because of Tea Party and other extreme conservative elements there.

However, despite Obama’s having to face this undemocratic reality daily, and also having to face recurring critiques across the political spectrum of his accomplishments on civil rights, it has often made a difference in public policies on discrimination that we have an African American president.

Working with his Department of Justice, Obama has implemented the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, ended anti-gay policies in the military, spoken out for gay marriage rights. Obama and his cabinet officials have abandoned previous Republican attempts to end much civil rights enforcement. He appointed Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black attorney general, who has moved his department toward much more aggressive civil rights enforcement and hired many more lawyers with significant real-world experience in civil rights enforcement. He also responded much more forthrightly to international and United Nations requests for reports on the U.S. civil rights situation. Obama also made a dramatic improvement in the federal relationship with Native Americans–including, after many years of delays, billions in compensation to Native American groups for federal mismanagement of Indian land trusts.

No president, including Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, has accomplished more progressive policy goals, especially on racial issues, since the 1960s presidency of President Lyndon Johnson. This includes putting at least some aspects of white racism on the national discussion and policy agenda.

Frederick Douglass: And What, to the American Slave, is Your 4th of July?

On this Independence day it is well to remember yet again a probing and candid speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given by the formerly enslaved and probably greatest 19th century American, Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, at the peak of North America slavery (indeed, about 230 years into that era).

In this era Black Americans were usually not allowed at 4th of July celebrations in the slaveholding South, apparently because many slaveholders feared that they might get an idea of freedom from such events (as if they did not already have such an idea!). Also, Black residents were often discouraged from attending such festivities in the North.

It is in this very dangerous and hostile national racial climate that the great Douglass–increasingly, a leading intellectual of his day and the first Black American to receive a roll-call vote for US President (later on, at the 1888 Republican national convention!)–was asked by leading citizens of Rochester to give an address at their Fourth of July celebrations. He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

But later adds:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

And then concludes with this:

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

Sadly, our system of racial oppression still persists, even as most white Americans are in denial about its deep and foundational reality. Yet, there remain many people like Frederick Douglass today who still fight to remove this “yoke of tyranny” from us all. May they flourish and prosper. We should remember those now and from the past who fought racism most on this day to celebrate freedom.
Some forty-two years later, in the last speech (“Lessons of the Hour”) he gave before his death—at an AME Church in DC, on January 9th, 1894—Douglass made these comments as he watched southern and border states hurtle toward bloody Jim Crow segregation, the new neo-slavery system:

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead. I repeat, and my contention is, that this “Negro problem” formula lays the fault at the door of the Negro, and removes it from the door of the white man, shields the guilty, and blames the innocent. Makes the Negro responsible and not the nation….. Now the real problem is, and ought to be regarded by the American people, a great national problem. It involves the question, whether, after all, with our Declaration of Independence, with our glorious free constitution, whether with our sublime Christianity, there is enough of national virtue in this great nation to solve this problem, in accordance with wisdom and justice.

He concluded thus, his very last words ever spoken in public:

But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the tramp of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.

[Reposted from blog archive]

The Paula Deen Scandal: White Racial Framing in Action

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

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

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

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


(Image Source)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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