Posts by Sean:
Recently, two articles in important sociological journals have contributed further to the white-framed sociological discourse of race. The latest edition of Sociological Theory (June 2012) published Shiao, Bode, Beyer, and Selvig’s “The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race,” an essay that argues for reinvigorating biological understandings—more specifically, the “biosocial causation”—of race. A number of problems accompany this piece, the primary being its white-framed perception of races contorted by biologism/eugenics and a pained attempt to be “scientific.” Reverting to Eurocentric scientific racism is a sign of the times, increasingly used to de-legitimate the status, societal position, and social, economic, cultural, political-legal rights and empowerment of people of color.
Possibly more alarming than the Sociological Theory (ST) piece on race is a short essay in the July 2012 issue of Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews (CS) [pdf]. The Editor’s Remarks on Booker T. Washington and Robert E. Park’s The Man Farthest Down subtly frame racial discourse from a white perspective. Indeed, this type of “under-the-radar” white framing appears to be more problematic than more obvious forms discovered in the ST article, because it 1) often goes undetected, thus unchallenged; 2) reinforces dominant white-framed beliefs subconsciously and piecemeal; and 3) often passes as “universal,” “objective” (nonbiased), and therefore “race neutral” exposition.
To grasp the white framing of race operating in the CS Editor’s Remarks, it is helpful to have some background knowledge of Washington and Park. Both were extremely important in developing mainstream ideas about race in society (Washington) and sociology (Park). Washington was the most influential African American leader of the early twentieth century, who espoused a social philosophy of a black socio-economic self-sufficiency, evading racial conflict and criticism of white racism, and pragmatic accommodation to whites in power. After acting as Washington’s secretary, Park helped establish Chicago School sociology and lead the study of race in academic sociology. Park’s framework for understanding race, with its focus on the four-stage race relations cycle and Euro-assimilation, continues to define the sociology of race.
As the Editor’s Remarks observe, “the four-stage race-relations cycle [is] still taught to undergraduates.” Park is credited with shifting the study of race away from biological to cultural explanations of races and differences among races. However, this claim of Park’s departure from social Darwinism is largely refuted by a number of race scholars, such Ralph Ellison (1964), John Stanfield (1985), and Vernon Williams, Jr. (1996), among others. They point out that Park espoused racial prejudices when discussing whites and people of color and that his explanations of the segregation of races are intellectual tools easily used to justify white supremacy. Park assumed that all “primitive” races (i.e., people of color) aspire to assimilate to the social world and behaviors of the “civilized” white race.
Ethnicity, culture and assimilation paradigms developed by Park, and then Gunnar Myrdal, Milton Gordon, the Nathan Glazer-Patrick Moynihan team, and practiced by many contemporary sociologists, outline an unrealistic depiction of race. The study of ethnicity and culture routinely avoids discussion of ideational and material realities of race/s, the white-imposed hierarchy and systemic ordering of racial groups, and societal effects of institutional, structural and systemic racism. Ethnic and cultural studies are normally framed from a white perspective that neglects crucial socio-historical differences between European migrants and migrants of color from different parts of the globe and tends to position European cultures over other worldwide cultures. In the US, white ethnic groups have largely disappeared and assumed a generic white identity (see the ethno-racial categories listed in the US Census or any job application), whereas ethnic groups of color are subject to hyper-critique, problematic categorization and division, and stigmatization that is inherently Eurocentric.
Assimilation theory bespeaks a colonialist mentality and centuries-old white supremacist attitudes. Assimilation theory assumes Euro-domination and justifies Eurocentrism, a belief in dominance of European models of society and human relations (“civilization”), and social practices that reinforce white elites’ power interests, ideologies and cultural mores. It is clear that the stages of assimilation Park outlines mirror the steps of European colonization (see Lyman 1973, Steinberg 2007). As the assimilation theorist Milton Gordon illustrated with the concept Anglo-conformity, assimilation has long had specific meaning and connotation: assimilation to the European ideals, behaviors, and culture of Anglo-Saxons. While Anglo-Saxons once sat atop the racial hierarchy, a number of other white ethnic groups have joined the ranks of Anglo-elite and formed a broader based white power elite. Today, a more general conformity to whiteness or white racial framing has replaced the outdated and now too-limited understanding and practice of Anglo-conformity. Like ethnicity and culture paradigms, the assimilation paradigm largely omits serious discussion of racial conflict, the societal effects and human costs of racism, and the well-organized racist ideologies and practices of the group that has the most power to define race, whites, and especially elite whites.
Washington and Park’s ideas about race reflect key elements of white-framed sociology and support a Eurocentric perspective of race. Despite his contributions to the black community, Washington failed to discuss the fundamentally unequalized racial structures and racism in the US. Elite whites’ funding for the Tuskegee Institute, the black educational institution Washington founded, demanded he remain silent about systemic racism and the powerful whites and white institutions that uphold racist society. Instead, in return for whites’ financial, political and media support, Washington downplayed and misrepresented struggles of African Americans, highlighting problems of black agency (individual and group) rather than societal problems associated with systemically racist social system and the racist institutional structures created by whites that prop that system (W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903).
It is surprising that the CS Editor’s Remarks reintroduced Washington and Park’s sketchy writings on race, considering the many holes in Park’s sociological theories and Washington’s social philosophy. Park explained away Eurocentrism, while Washington downplayed it. It is contemporary sociologists’ job to see through and then discredit out-dated, ethnocentric race theories of Park and the propagandist, apologist racial rhetoric of Washington.
Recently, Richard F. Cebull, chief Federal District Court Judge in the state of Montana, sent acquaintances an extremely crude racist, misogynist email that “joked” about US President Barack Obama’s mother having sex with a dog. After the email was exposed to the public, Cebull offered an apology to the President, acknowledging the joke was “racist” and that his dissemination of the joke lacked “judgment.” Of course, like most racist commentators, the judge claims it was the joke that was racist, not the joker. In a bizarre attempt at an excuse for relaying the email, Cebull justified his actions by noting he was not a “fan” of the President.
As many critics of Cebull have stated, the judge lacks sound judgment (some might say “intelligence”) and needs to resign immediately. His stunted cognitive abilities—intellect or judgment—appear on a number of levels. To begin, one must question the judge’s sense of humor. What does his racist and misogynist “humor” say about his acumen, values, and morality? It would appear that Cebull’s appreciation of de-humanizing and personally offensive sexist and racist humor poses serious questions about his ethical compass. Sending the insulting email via a government server—in the public domain—is another sign of Cebull’s contorted judgement and thus another factor disqualifying him from serving on the bench. And it goes without saying that he likely breeched the Judicial Code of Conduct as well as the boundaries of civil discourse. But enough of Cebull the racist commentator, what about the systemically racist justice system that is peopled with individuals like Cebull?
Tellingly, the commentary about ‘the Cebull Affair’ is focused solely on the performance of Cebull sending a racist email. To my knowledge, no one in the national press has addressed problems with the racist US legal (legal is more appropriate than justice) system that recruits, empowers and perpetuates rulers of the law like Cebull. No one in the mainstream media has commented about how Cebull’s actions are part of much larger problem with the US legal system, which remains inherently racist structurally, as illustrated by the numerous cases of police brutality, shoddy convictions and sentencing, and unequalized laws of a two-tier legal system: a system for whites and a system for people of color.
Not only has Cebull’s racist private backstage emerged in the public arena, the backstage of the racist US legal system has also emerged on the national stage, exposing a vivid empirical example of the dysfunctionality of the system when staffed with people like Cebull. The US legal system historically has granted racist-thinking commentators like Cebull great power and, problematically, continues to support these racist-minded legal power-brokers, even after they demonstrate poor judgment and unfair practices. In Cebull’s case, he revealed some biased and de-humanizing views of people of color and his shortage of judgment in regard to racist joking. And yet, despite his apparent disqualifications, he still holds his position of power in the legal system.
Cebull’s racism must be viewed as a reminder of the well-institutionalized systemic racism that pervades the US legal system. While certainly not everyone in the system exhibits Cebull’s racist “joking” inclinations, numerous individuals in the justice system repeatedly demonstrate racist perspectives and practices. Richard Cebull is merely one actor in a large social network of police officers, prosecutors, correctional officers, parole officers, social workers, politicians, policy makers, bounty hunters, and other judges whose ideas and actions uphold white-framed racism in the US legal system. Disconcertingly, the larger public tends to ignore or excuse the institutional, structural, and systemic racism in the US legal system, overlooking the discriminatory actions and thoughts of many actors who are employed to uphold “justice.” For example, ex-LA police officer, Mark Fuhrman, who referred to black Americans as “niggers,” now appears as a nationally syndicated pundit and legal expert commenting on high-profile criminal cases.
The many individuals working in the justice system who do not express racist views and behaviors are nonetheless—and often unknowingly—facilitators of a highly structured and complex racist legal system. This unjust legal system still looks to the US Constitution and the Bible as primary sources for laws and the foundational principals of the legal system, when the Bible and US Constitution were both documents used to justify and condone, morally and legally, the enslavement of blacks and colonization and mistreatment of other people of color. While the United States’ justice system no longer legitimates “slavery,” nor supports “colonization,” a new-day slavery and colonization operate in different guise.
Today, the ever-expanding, unchecked prison-industrial complex incarcerates disproportionate numbers of black and brown Americans. The heavy policing of communities of color, rampant racial profiling, disproportionate number of arrests, convictions, and periods of incarceration and other forms of legal supervision affecting people of color are all factors that have lead to the modern-day plantation system or prison system. Like the plantation, the prison forcefully confines people and exploits their labor. The prison industrial complex is interwoven with capitalism, with the privatization of prisons created profits for capitalists and debt for the tax paying public whose money goes to building and operating these institutions of oppression. (See Angela Davis’ “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; and, Lawrence Bobo and Victor Thompson’s “Racialized Mass Incarceration: Poverty, Prejudice and Punishment”.
Along with the “racialized” mass incarceration of people of color, new racist laws have emerged in northern US state of Michigan that disenfranchise a large portion of the state’s black population. In response to budget crises related to the recent financial meltdown, Michigan cities and towns with large black communities were stripped of their basic democratic rights of political representation and decision-making. Town and city councils representing black communities have lost power of political decision-making and civic management of community affairs to outside “managers,” who were granted vast power to determine all policy decisions, government operations, and allocation of funds for the “at-risk”-labeled communities. Alarmingly, Michigan’s disenfranchisement of blacks is being echoed across the nation with a number of states establishing voter id laws, which disproportionately affect communities of color and the poor.
Down in the southern US, in Arizona, two high profile representatives of the US justice system have become noted national figures, social celebrities and politicized heroes for some, because of their racist ideas and actions. Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona established legislation that legally sanctioned racial profiling of Latino/a Americans. Despite national public uproar and condemnation by the US Justice Department, Brewer’s legislative act has not yet been overturned. To enforce Brewer’s legislation, there are “justice” officials like Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, a person who makes no excuses for his excessive racial profiling, arrests, and de-humanizing, humiliating treatment of undocumented Latino/a workers, or “illegal aliens” according to Arpaio (all incarcerated males are de-masculinized, forced to wear pink jump suits). Now, Arpaio is making news and expanding his legal “authority” to the national stage by questioning the authenticity of US President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
Arpaio, Cebull, Fuhrman, Brewer, and countless other members of the legal world (many exposed, many not) uphold a racist US legal system. With individuals like these, the term “justice” loses meaning and US citizens are left with a legal system that is flawed and presently unable to provide grounds for fair decision making and just legal action. Truth, right and wrong, and the basic rules on how to co-exist in society become hypocritical, arbitrary and baseless and laws that favor or disfavor select groups remain a mockery in such a tainted system. As critical race theorists and sociologists of race have observed, the US legal system was corrupted by racism from the start and remains routinely unjust toward people of color. (see Derrick Bell’s Race, Racism and American Law and Silent Covenants: Brown vs. the Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform; Joe Feagin’s Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations and Systemic Racism: A Theory of Racial Oppression; and, Ian Lopez’s White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. Corrupt discriminatory laws and justice officials who abuse their position and power have created a cloud of meaninglessness and despair throughout the US legal system, a dysfunctional legal system that perpetually erodes its own legitimacy and purpose.
Considering what people of color endure in this society (namely, the long history and continuation of racial discrimination in employment, housing, education, politics, the media, and health care facing most people of color), the US legal system should serve as the one sanctified place where social justice and a fair playing field exist and are valued. However, today, as in the past, the US legal system fails to provide justice and fairness to people of color and the poor. Indeed, the system is blatantly divided along race as well as class lines. Piles of empirical evidence demonstrate year after year that people of color and the poor are not treated fairly within the US legal system; yet, obstacles to legal reform and the persistence and regeneration of racial and class injustice in the system are commonplace.
Those who attempt to revamp the legal system realize quickly that it is not neutral and objective but rather a structural mechanism of suppression created by those with power, resources, and connections. Conscious observers of the US legal system quickly discover that the system is rigged and that changing it—like attempting to change any powerful and well-embedded bureaucratic structure—appears a daunting task. The Cebull case reminds us that racism persists in the upper chambers of the legal system and, as the proceedings to remove Cebull will prove, that dysfunctionality of the system, and dysfunctional individuals managing the system, are not easily dismantled.
“White Men as the Problem” (3/8/2009) will make many whites uneasy because of the truth that lies behind the statement that white males have created many of the social problems in the world today. I would like to comment on several points related to the article.
First, Joe’s article demonstrates the powerful links between race and class, clearly focusing on the fact that elite white males have created the class and racial social systems that produced most of the greed-driven misery over the last several hundred years and led to the present economic meltdown. White wealth, power and prestige have been built upon the exploitation, oppression, and dehumanization of people of color. White men created the capitalist economic system in the United States, benefit most from the system, and continue to produce new generations of whites to maintain the system. Whereas those that possess little economic power in the system, suffer greatest in the system, and whose life chances are severely challenged by the system, tend to be people of color.
One of the great sociologists of the 20th century, WEB Du Bois, proclaimed that “white wealth and culture” relies upon “Negro poverty and exploitation” (see The Oxford WEB Du Bois Reader, 1996). In his book Color and Democracy, W.E.B. Du Bois notes that “the continued oligarchical control of civilization by the white race”— and injustices of white-run societal systems “proceed as if the majority of men can be regarded mainly as sources of profit for Europe and North America” (Preface, 1945). Today’s social thinkers (e.g., Joe Feagin, George Fredrickson, Paul Lauren, and Chancellor Williams, among others) echo Du Bois’s observations made nearly a half century ago.
Ironically, and not surprisingly, when the economy is in crisis, whites disassociate themselves from capitalism; but when economic times are good, whites cannot wait to boast about their savvy entrepreneurial skills, smarts, power and wealth. With the recent collapse of the US and global economies, the “Donald Trump types” that white American society worshipped during the years of prosperity are now viewed questionably and even seen as villains. The same CEOs that Congress used to court and cuddle are now targets of Congressional committee investigations. Even the free-market, non-government interventionist ‘pro-capitalist’ platform of President Bush was not sacred as the capitalist economy spiraled downward. He quickly changed his support of the basis tenets of capitalist philosophy, non-government intervention, at the end of his administration (ironically, a last-ditch effort to benefit white capitalist elites).
A popular white myth claims that whites have single-handedly earned their wealth and worked harder than other people (of color). This is nonsense. For years, as a white man, I was convinced that my “success” (capital accumulation, property ownership, fine cars, lavish lifestyle, even dates with women) was the result of my skills alone, without realizing the advantages of my white male privilege and position in an unjust, un-equalized social system that benefits whites (particularly white men) and targets people of color. One might ask, how many talented people of color have been overlooked—economically, socially, and intellectually—in favor of mediocre whites? This white-run capitalist-racist-patriarchal system, advancing many whites and oppressing many people of color, has been fixed in American society from the start, as most people of color have known for years and as Joe’s socio-theoretical and historical understanding of the white racial frame clearly indicates.
Despite my best intentions to default my position as an advantaged white man, I cannot begin to escape my white privilege (luxuries of prep school and higher education) and greater access to power and resources (connections with wealthy whites and spoils of capitalist exploitation of people of color and poor whites) that exist in the white-dominated capitalist social world. While morally, psychologically, and socially uncomfortable on a number of levels, I hope that other white men can begin to question their position in the social world. It is necessary that white men recognize the mechanisms—the white racial frame, the colonization of people of color—that support their positions of white privilege and power, and that they take steps to compensate and return power and privilege back to people of color who have been robbed and mistreated for centuries.
One last note, while I agree that white men are primarily the problem, the ‘white family,’ white women and white children, also benefit from capitalist, racist exploitation. For example, white women hire women of color to perform the labor-intensive choirs in the homes of white families (cleaning the house and child rearing); rarely is this relation reversed. White children, boys and girls, are trained to learn the necessary “skills” to maintain the white frame that will benefit them at the expense of people of color and poor whites. According to James Wright, a “2007 study conducted by researcher Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution showed that a typical black family had only 58 percent of the income and assets of a typical white family. Blacks lag behind whites in two wealth-producing instruments, homeownership and owning a business.”
Until serious social transformation occurs along race, class and gender lines, whites, in general, not just white men, should be viewed as ‘the problem.’ To begin to help solve this problem, all whites must quite denying their unjust, ill-gotten privileges and rigged access to power and resources and attempt a redemptive path of recourse.
What does it mean that white Americans are (apparently) willing to elect Barack Obama, a black politician, but still unwilling to engage the discourse of race and discuss continued, un-equalized race relations between people of color and whites and the long, on-going history of white racism in America? How is this socio-psychological paradox explained?
At the center of this paradox of race and politics is Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright (image from RobinDude via Flickr). I agree with Joe that Wright is “actually an American prophet, indeed a prophetic hero who is not afraid to condemn this country’s racist government actions, past and present.” But I would stress that Wright’s demonization and complete marginalization, not just by mainstream media and Republican circles, but also by Obama and the Democratic party, demonstrates a much deeper problem in American race relations and in ways that Americans understand and deal with the ‘race problem.’ Obama’s distancing himself from Wright and categorical condemnation of Wright’s social philosophies about American government was clearly stated. One hopes this was only a temporary, strategic political move to reach a powerful office (wouldn’t be the first time a politician momentarily masked their ideological position to win an election) and that, in fact, Obama will champion policies that amend the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of blacks and other nonwhite minorities.
Whatever is behind Obama’s decision to sever his relationship with Wright, the fact remains that he was forced to denunciate Wright and suppress Wright’s message about the history of white racism in order to maintain political viability in American politics, illustrating that mainstream America is not yet willing to seriously address the murky, taboo issue of race. As Obama’s society-sanctioned sacrifice of Wright demonstrates, both republicans and democrats—Fox News and MSNBC—and the American public at large call for Obama to disassociate with and denounce Wright’s unsettling message.
The exclusion of Wright’s discourse about race is the exclusion of truth about US history and social reality. This exclusion is a cowardly avoidance of moral responsibility and signals that whites wish to maintain their privilege and unfair advantages—white supremacy—in the social world. Sadly, most white Americans—mainstream America—ignorantly discount the harsh realities of race in America observed in the critical perspectives of those who are racially oppressed. Unlike blacks and other nonwhite minority groups, whites fail to acknowledge the institutional and systemic nature of white racism, possibly because white racism is a system that greatly benefits the very existence and life chances of most whites.
Does Obama’s ascendancy in American politics demonstrate that America has come a long way in matters of race, the dominant narrative portrayed in newspapers and news shows? The silencing of Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright would reveal not. Nevertheless, white Americans will now loudly pat themselves on the back and claim that Obama’s political popularity signifies that racism is dead, overlooking Wright’s description of the deeply embedded institutional racism that still grips the politics, economics, culture and social world of Americans, failing to ponder questions like: how many black US Senators are there now, how many black Fortune 500 CEOs, what is the face of the nightly news anchorman, who is average Joe the Plumber?
~ Sean Elias, PhD Candidate, Sociology, Texas A&M University
Lecturer, Sociology, Southern Methodist University