Supposedly We Now Live in a “Post-Racial” Society?

I was looking for news clips to show to my Race and Ethnicity class today and I remembered that a friend of mine had told me about some of Karl Rove’s comments during Tuesday’s election results on Fox News. Listening to them today, he does have a few positives to share about what these results mean…that is before he compares the Obama family to the Cosby show by saying “Well look, we’ve had an African American first family for many years in different forms. You know, when the Cosby show was on, it wasn’t a black family, it was an American family.” While that alone is worthy of a blog post, what was also concerning to me was a comment Rove made before that. He was asked, as a “realistic political analyst,” to talk about the degree of color-blindness in our country:

I think particularly among younger people, they are color-blind. Uh, you know, older people, people who grew up and remember the 60s and remember the 50s and the 40s and the 70s, they to varying degrees remain observant of the color of, of the color break in America. But you go on a college campus or you go be around younger people, and they are “post-racial.” You know, and just, the idea of race very rarely enters into their thinking.

While I think many of us will agree that things have changed in some positive ways since the 60s and that this election has been historic in a number of ways, I’m not sure anyone is ready to say that first of all, we live in a society where race isn’t a factor anymore and second that young people don’t think about race anymore. Rove’s comments seem to imply that once older generations pass on, everything will be fine in terms of race, because young people just aren’t thinking about it. In my research talking with Latino undergraduate students, I found instead that for many of them, race continues to be a salient issue on their campuses.

A student at Southern University talked about how some major racial incident seemed to come up on his campus a few times a month when I spoke with him in the Fall of 2006.

This is my 7th semester here. In all my semesters, I’ve never seen like racial tensions like I have right now. (Oh really? What’s going now?)…Like students in the law school had like a ghetto party. They dressed up as stereotypically hip-hop clothing, and they wore like nameplates of stereotypically black and Latino last names. Um, there was a black face incident during Halloween where a couple of students took some pictures and they posted them online on It was a couple of members from a historically white fraternity… Even I mean yesterday the Young Conservatives had an Affirmative Action bake sale…like their own way of protesting the affirmative action policies in this country…I mean…usually like every semester like one or two big things happen, like at the most, but this semester its literally been like one or two big things every month. (“Southern University” Latino Male, 22)

His statement, as well as the comments of others on this campus indicate that race in the thinking of young, white students on college campuses. And it’s not only in their thinking, but it is evident in their racist actions on this campus. Incidents like this one demonstrate that racism is still alive and well on college campuses.

Another student at Southern University talks about an encounter she had with some white students before a football game. Again, we see that the whites racialized the situation in a way that would indicate that they are not free from prejudice:

I just have heard and I got the taste of a kid, of boys came in for the “Southern Tech”- “Southern University” game and uh, we were listening to Shakira, some friends of mine. There was another Hispanic girl in the front seat with me and then a Bosnian girl in the backseat…But we were having so much fun and we needed to sell our tickets and so these guys had their windows open. And we asked “Hey, do you guys want a ticket?… And they said “Oh, we don’t speak Spanish.” And at first I was I like, “What did he mean by that? I wasn’t, did I speak Spanish?” Because I don’t normally speak Spanish. And then I was like “Oh, oh…that still happens? Like, people still are like that?” And so it was just kind of, I was taken aback. And my friend started crying actually. But I was just like, I didn’t realize that still happened nowadays. ( “Southern University” Latina Female 23)

When this woman asked in English if the men in the car next to her needed tickets, they immediately racialized the interaction by informing her that they don’t speak Spanish. The Latina students were shocked and hurt by this reaction. Perhaps initially they thought things were more positive between the races, as Rove seems to think, and then were disappointed and discouraged to find out that, in fact, these incidents still happen.
These incidents were not isolated to just Southern University, so we can’t make the claim that somehow racism only exists in the South. In fact, on each of the campuses (one in the South, one in the Southwest, and one in the Midwest), students faced discrimination when they spoke Spanish on campus. They faced assumptions that the only reason they were attending their university was because of Affirmative Action policies and not because of their own academic talents. One student talked about an experience he had a football game at Southwest University.

I was at a football game last week. . .And somebody said, one of the fraternity guys that were yelling “Immigration bus is here. It’s waiting for you. Get on it.” Even though [At the other players?] Yes, at [the other] players. “Juarez is not here. This isn’t Juarez.” They were calling them all sorts of bad things. . .And they were just being, real, real bad about it. Even though the make-up of [this] football team is hardly any Hispanics. . .And so it was kind of surprising to me that, why would you say such things? (“Southwest University” Latino Male 26)

Notably, Southwest University is almost 35% Latino and still this was the response of white students in the crowd. They heckled the other team by implying that because they were coming from a predominately Latino school. And ironically, whites were racializing a football team that was mostly white!
Even light-skinned Latinos who reveal their racial background faced discrimination:

You see the tone of their voice, how they look at you, what you’re gonna say. After they know that I’m Mexican and stuff, some are like “Oh that’s so cool,”. . .They’re like ‘Wow, you look Italian’ and I’m like ‘I’m 100 percent [Mexican]’. . .So they’re like ‘Wow’, a little bit shocked. They would not talk to me after that. And you feel it, but it’s their problem if they’re not accepting. ( “Midwest University” Latino Male 18 )

This student went on to say that sometimes whites respond that they feel like he lied to them by not revealing this information when they first met him. Somehow, he was under some obligation to reveal his racial background and by not doing so, he was being deceitful. So contrary to what Rove claims, college students are concerned about race in a variety of ways that are both overt and quite subtle. By proclaiming such things, Rove is distorting the reality of the pain that students of color face on a daily basis because of discrimination and mistreatment based on race. As these examples, and many more like them that I could have shared, demonstrate is that racism is not absent from our universities and college campuses or in the mind of white students. Our society has made history this week, but this does not mean we’re living in a “post-racial” utopia.

Continuing Significance of Institutional Racism: Latino Undergrads

The US Census Bureau just released population projections that by 2050, minorities will be the numeric majority of the population. For Latinos especially gains in the percentage of the population are expected to increase dramatically. In an article on, Dave Waddington, chief of the Census Bureau’s population projection branch, stated that “Who’s going to do the jobs that are characteristically held right now by certain types of people…All those things are subject to change.” As the white population decreases and the number of people of color increase, it is critical that we take a look at how systemic racism plays out in some of our major institutions, especially education. Change is coming and in so many cases needs to happen in order to prepare for a future that is more diverse (photo: Brewer).

Education is important to Latinos, and universities often claim to value diversity by actively recruiting students of color. This effort by universities can be interpreted either as a cynical effort to enhance the image of their school, or more benignly as a true reflection of a deeply held value of cultural difference on campus. Nevertheless, there is often concern at universities about recruiting and retaining students of color. However, through my interviews with Latino undergraduate students at three universities (“Southern University,” “Southwest University,” and “Midwest University”) across the country, I found that institutional discrimination continues to be a major impediment to student success. Universities are historically white arenas and they continue to be so today, regardless of their rhetoric about diversity.

My research showed that many aspects of the university are still white dominated. Almost universally, students reported an underrepresentation of Latino faculty on their campuses. It was difficult for students to find faculty members that looked like them or that they could relate to. When students did have Latino instructors, they were often non-tenured and/or teaching only in Latino areas (like Mexican American studies or Spanish.)

“I think that that does happen. There probably aren’t that many Latina professors or working as the dean or something like that. And there are more cooks and janitors that are Hispanics or—[Have you had any Latino professors?] No, I haven’t. [How do you feel about that?] I hadn’t really thought about it, but I would like to have a professor who has similar, I guess, cultural background as me. That could connect more I guess, but I haven’t really noticed.” – Southwest University Female 19

Increasing Latino faculty membership and tenure, as well as diversifying departments are important issues that institutions of higher education must face if they truly want to retain Latino students. Most of the adult Latino faces that students saw were those working in lower (and underappreciated) positions at the university. This included food service, landscaping, maintenance, and custodial work. Latino students saw this pattern of work as lowering their status at the university, as well as reinforcing what they see as low expectations from whites about their potential.

Latinos are also underrepresented in the curriculum and symbolically on some campuses. Though Southwest University has done a better job with symbolic representation in terms of artwork, statues, and celebrations that represent Latinos, all three campuses lacked diversity in their curriculum. Latino culture and history are not often discussed in general education classes (like American history) and instead are relegated to specialized courses. Though students are not denying the importance of those courses and departments, the result is that diversity becomes optional. If they do not take those courses, they will not learn about their people, and neither will whites. At Midwest and Southern University, symbolic representation was also a big issue. Latinos were rarely represented around campus in things like artwork and statues, though Southern University students were looking forward to the arrival of a statue of Cesar Chavez. Midwest University did a poor job of representing any students of color symbolically, but students noticed that when they did see art, it was often in the form of photographs from the university’s past—a past that did not include people of color. At Southern University, symbols of white racism are present in the statues of Confederate soldiers and buildings named after racists. These symbols (or lack of symbols) create an atmosphere that is not welcoming to Latinos. Often there are very few places on campuses that they feel they can call their own because of racialized space.

On all three campuses students could point to examples of institutional racism. Institutions of higher education, whether they are in the South, in predominantly Latino areas, or in located big cities, still organize themselves around white ideals and values. Students of color are admitted in greater numbers, but by and large the institutions remain a white place. Because of the changes that are being predicted about our population composition, the institution will have to change and adapt to a more diverse student body.

Midwestern Flooding and Katrina: More Racist Framing

Though I know am I not the first person to post something about this on a blog, I felt it was really important to start a similar discussion on this blog in particular. I’m currently teaching at a small college in Iowa after being on a 9 year hiatus and have been enduring crazy weather here in the Midwest. The flooding this summer was devastating for many (image from Dusty Allen Smith). Fortunately, the area where I live was unaffected for the most part, unlike 83 out of 99 counties in this state. While I do not want to diminish the loss that many families have suffered, I was nothing but shocked to see that there were comparisons being made to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. I’m creating a class on Katrina for our J-term in 2009 and was googling to see if I could find displaced Katrina refugees residing in Iowa. Instead of finding that, I saw many articles talking about “Iowa’s Katrina” (as apparently dubbed by Fox News) and statements from Rush Limbaugh praising Iowa victims for not being whiny like those in New Orleans were.

Limbaugh: I want to know. I look at Iowa, I look at Illinois—I want to see the murders. I want to see the looting. I want to see all the stuff that happened in New Orleans. I see devastation in Iowa and Illinois that dwarfs what happened in New Orleans. I see people working together. I see people trying to save their property…I don’t see a bunch of people running around waving guns at helicopters, I don’t see a bunch of people running shooting cops. I don’t see a bunch of people raping people on the street. I don’t see a bunch of people doing everything they can…whining and moaning—where’s FEMA, where’s BUSH. I see the heartland of America. When I look at Iowa and when I look at Illinois, I see the backbone of America.

It is likely the case, that when Limbaugh looks at Iowa, he sees a lot of white people. According to the Census, Iowa’s population was 73% white in 2000. Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are 87.33% and 91.86% white respectively. The percentage of people below the poverty line in Iowa City is 4.7%. In Cedar Rapids, 7.5%. In 2000, New Orleans was 67.25% African American and the poverty rate was more than twice the national rate at 28%. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was highly segregated and had many more African Americans living in poverty than whites (35% compared to 11%). Beyond these statistics, and trust me, I’m not meteorologists, but I’m pretty sure that flooding after a Category 5 Hurricane destroys a city is different than flooding caused by enormous amounts of rainfall combined with a wet winter. The infrastructure in Iowa was already relatively sound and definitely not completely obliterated before these flood waters started rising. Additionally, people were well informed about the risk of flooding in advance and had resources to prepare to evacuate. Roads were not damaged and closed, police were not preventing people from leaving their cities, and no one that I’m aware of had to wait for 5 days for food, water, or rescue.

There are many reasons that it is foolish for Limbaugh and others to compare these scenarios. The most obvious is difference between human life lost or relocated. Reports are showing that 35,000-40,000 people were evacuated in the Midwest compared with 1.2 million in the Gulf Coast area. In the Midwest floods, 24 people lost their lives, compared to the 1,833 that is estimated along the Gulf Coast (though there is still some question about the final number.) When comparing damages, the numbers are just as staggering. Perhaps if the devastation in Iowa had been even remotely close to what poor, African Americans faced in New Orleans, we would have seen frustration that boiled over into the acts that Limbaugh is using to characterize the victims of Katrina. (It’s interesting, though sadly not surprising, that he does not focus on the positive ways that people pulled together in order to save lives and help their neighbors, despite risking their own lives to do so, but instead exaggerates events that occurred and criminalizes victims of a tragedy.) However, there’s also a good chance, that because the flood victims in Iowa were predominantly white, that help would have happened more quickly than Katrina regardless of the scope of the disaster.

But moving beyond that, wouldn’t we expect the response to these sorts of situations to be different because of the tragedy of Katrina? Shouldn’t government be responding more effectively and efficiently? Shouldn’t people be more prepared and informed on what to do having seen the aftermath of what can happen when a response is painfully and unnecessarily slow? Even today as Texas recently prepared for Tropical Storm Dolly, the government took more precautions than were likely in place when Katrina hit.

Regardless, it is disturbing that people are referring to the floods of ’08 as “Iowa’s Katrina” as Fox news has claimed. The comparison and discourse around it serves only to diminish the impact of the what happened in 2005, to further denigrate and marginalize victims who suffered tremendous loss, while bolstering white Iowans who were in a much different scenario in every sense. It seems to me that to label a lesser event a “Katrina” is a way of manipulating the true impact of that disaster. No one would deny that the floods of 2008 were tragic, but to compare them to what happened in the Gulf Coast is just ignorant. People making these claims are wearing blinders, choosing only to see certain aspects of each situation. And at the same time, they are drawing racial lines in the sand. The message is clear. Whites in Iowa should be praised for their fortitude, while blacks in New Orleans should be seen as whiny, criminals not responsible or concerned enough to try to do something to help themselves. Though it shouldn’t, I still find myself amazed at how blatantly racist people continue to be, even in the face of tragedy.