The “Moynihan Report”: 50 years of Racist Poverty-Shaming

Debates about poverty play out over a heavy sub-text of race. Competing theories assign blame either to moral and cognitive deficiencies of poor people themselves, or to greedy over-lords who unjustly exploit and suppress workers and their families. The class politics are obvious, but arguing the essential unfitness of poor people is aided immeasurably by the rhetoric and logic of racism. If made of somewhat different stuff and recognized as lesser peoples, then both exploitation and the misery they experience seem defensible, or at least unavoidable. Science defeated the hard racial argument in the middle of last century when geneticists determined that race is a biological fiction. But the concept of culture offered a workaround that retained the utility of race by substituting ethnicity. The shift to culture, instead of hard-wired traits, has appealed to liberal “third way” reform thinkers as well as those on the right, forging an odd alliance who find common ground in the hagiography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The “culture of poverty,” a concept ironically made popular by a trio of liberal leftists in the 1960s, asserts that children raised in poverty learn failure from their upbringing and pass it on to their own children, much like inherited physical traits. Shared cultures in “ghetto” communities produce dysfunctional patterns of thought and behavior that perpetuate poverty. Oscar Lewis, anthropologist; Michael Harrington, muckraking journalist; and Daniel P. Moynihan, federal policy analyst and future politician, were the three figures who helped ignite a contentious debate early in the War on Poverty, which not coincidentally over-lapped with the Civil Rights movement.

Moynihan’s influence has been most enduring. His 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (PDF), brought this idea to the mass media in the midst of an extended urban uprising in the Watts section of LA. As an assistant secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Labor, he issued an official verdict that African American poverty was mired in a “tangle of pathology” resulting from excessive numbers of female headed households. Moynihan conceded that male unemployment unsettles marital stability, but believed that racial disparities in joblessness reflected a family structure that produced uncompetitive workers, implicitly justifying employer discrimination. Growing public unease over urban violence magnified the report’s message that African American culture was pathological.

The leaked report was followed by weeks of coverage and many extreme reactions. The government was launching a campaign to end poverty; an official report defined the problem in terms of gender, race, and culture, deflecting attention from substantive obstacles and economic problems then (and still) confronting African Americans. The report was dissected by critics and supporters alike. Moynihan’s naïve statistical inferences and reliance on limited secondary sources weakened his position and tended to discredit his thesis. Anthropologists and historians published research that contradicted his assertions. Through the 70s and early 80s, the report lost its luster. Moynihan complained periodically about the criticism he had endured over his report, claiming he had been the victim of ideological enemies on the left. It could have ended there.

The 1980s was a period of revanchism against the Great Society, backlash against what were deemed excessively liberal conditions in the preceding two decades. Under Reagan, Sen. Moynihan opposed the new harsh policies, but his earlier ideas about black poverty gained renewed support, especially from right wing commentators like Charles Murray. Also included, however, was liberal sociologist William Julius Wilson who praised Moynihan’s foresight, excoriated his critics, and instated culture into his quest to understand poverty. Wilson framed inner city poverty as the home of the “underclass” where black middle class flight had left a zone bereft of upstanding two parent families, a cultural sink lacking effective norms. Faced with wrenching industrial changes, their defective culture worsened the problems — a combination of cultural and structural causes, suggesting possible partial solutions addressing bad culture rather than unfair economics. This approach resonated with many in the Republican administration, but it also drew interest from a widening circle of academics and liberal policy analysts.

In 2007, the American Academy of Social and Political Science established an annual award in Moynihan’s name for public intellectuals of note. Their journal published a special issue titled “The Moynihan Report Revisited,” with largely praiseful articles and missing some noted critics. The Urban Institute borrowed the title for their own conference and publication [[]] that was also mainly an homage to Moynihan’s allegedly prescient contributions. In 2010 Herbert Gans, a sociologist who had written an early response to the report, revisited it in light of all the new praise for its importance. He came to the same conclusion he had 45 years earlier; it was not good research or a credible argument. He praised Moynihan’s work as a senator, but not as a scholar or early policy analyst.

Nevertheless, Moynihan’s fame as a social prophet has continued to grow and his ideas arguably have helped steer scarce poverty funding into neoliberal programs aimed at teaching poor people about the virtues of middle class culture, or forcibly displacing them for their own good. And we have spent billions more incarcerating and punishing non-violent poor people of color based on faulty perceptions of crime and risk. Both critics and supporters credit the Moynihan Report for helping shape the policy environment that ended welfare and anointed the view that poverty, race, and crime are all tied together. Alice O’Connor’s book, Poverty Knowledge, offers an incisive analysis, as described in my recent book, Blaming the Poor.

In the United States poverty and race are frequently connected in the mind’s eye, in what Joe Feagin has called the white racial frame, where facts disappear in the mist of centuries long racial conditioning, like the fact that “welfare queens” in the days before welfare was ended were overwhelmingly white. Current revivals of Moynihan’s haplessly racist caricature of immoral black single mothers and their dangerous teenaged sons disregard the fact that single motherhood has soared among all ethnic groups, especially among people with low incomes, a predictable response to dire economic conditions. It is not cultural, but structural; not racial but a reflection of class inequality and material scarcity. Moynihan was fond of saying that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Moynihan’s sloppy research and undeservedly popular conclusion illustrates that caution very well.

Susan Greenbaum is Professor Emerita of Anthropology, University of South Florida

Racist Evaluations of the Merits of People of Color

US universities can be strange animals. Two recent decisions on awards for people of color were fraught with absurdity and sophistry. The first one occurred at Arizona State University in 2009. President Obama was the commencement speaker. It is customary to grant commencement speakers an honorary degree; after all, the speaker would not have been invited if he or she were not meritorious. However, Mr. Obama was not granted such a degree. Why not? ASU Media Relations Director Sharon Keeler explained the reason for the decision:

[U]nlike other universities, the processes for selecting commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients are independent. . . . [H]onorary degrees are given ‘for an achievement of eminence’ and that Obama was not considered for an honorary degree because his body of achievements, at this time, does not fit within that criteria.

Come again? Obama doesn’t have “an achievement of excellence”? What world do you live in? The Huffington Post condemned the inane decision:

If being a U.S. Senator and President of the United States . . . is not enough to be deemed as having made significant contributions to society, Obama also has a long list of contributions to education. . . He developed comprehensive plans for students to receive education benefits in exchange for public service. (H)e was the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review, taught Constitutional law at an ivy league university, and, among many other accomplishments, served as a community organizer where established an adult education program and a college preparatory program in inner-city Chicago. It is hard to see how these achievements fail to merit honor.

This slight to Obama is further highlighted by the fact that many universities often give honorary degrees to their major donors, many with little distinction besides making or inheriting money.

The second decision took place at the University of Texas last March. George P. Bush, Jeb’s son, was granted the Latino Leadership Award by the U.T. President’s office working in conjunction with the Center of Mexican American Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. Dr. Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies, explained the reasoning for University’s decision:

We went through a series of 15 nominees, and we evaluated them for leadership, public service and areas like that. With him as the first Latino land commissioner, I think in its (179-year) history of the office, we thought it was an appropriate acknowledgement of what it means to be a trailblazer in Latino leadership today.

The decision caused uproar among many Mexican-American faculty and alumni. In a group letter that demanded Dr. Guidotti-Hernández’s removal, signatories expressed “bafflement” at the decision to grant the award:

He may well be an emerging leader in some political circles, but he has no track record whatsoever compared to the innumerable Texas Latinas/os with years of service to UT and the broader Latina/o community.

The controversy over Mr. Bush’s award surfaced again a couple of days ago at the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association that took place in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Dr. Guidotti-Hernández, who was in attendance, defended once more the University’s reasoning:

“It was a forward-thinking choice and it made a lot of people angry and we understand that. We were trying to be provocative and we were trying to reach across the aisle.”

Granting a citizenship award to a neophyte politician who had been in office for just three months for being a “trailblazer”? It takes more than a few days to have a significant impact as a pioneer who traces a path for others to follow.

There are several perspectives from which to view these egregious decisions, but I’d like to mention one. Whatever were the actual reasons for reaching them, their apparent common characteristic is that the individuals in question were judged by a set of absurd standards applied to people of color. A very meritorious Obama suffered an undeserved insult, while the neophyte Bush was the beneficiary of an undeserved honor, neglecting many other Latinos much more deserving of that honor. This makes sense inside the surreal world of the White Racial Frame, where the definition of “colored merit” is elastic and can result in injustice. Major universities, which should be devoted to reasoned thinking, were participants in these inanities. How tragic.

When Interest Convergence Derails: More Challenges to Affirmative Action

Many of the facts surrounding the recent challenges to affirmative action are not well known to the general public. A “perfect storm” has brought into question the survival of even modest, race-sensitive, non-preferential admissions programs designed to enhance campus diversity in higher education. This storm has arisen from three major sources. First, the term “affirmative action” has caused a backlash in (especially white) public opinion against programs believed to unfairly disadvantage white Americans. Second, wealthy white entrepreneurs have recruited plaintiffs and actively sponsored legal challenges to both civil rights and affirmative action programs. And third, a conservative Supreme Court has decided to hear these cases, resulting in the elimination, revision, or curtailment of existing civil rights laws and race-sensitive admissions programs. Critics indicate that the determinations of Chief Justice John Roberts’ conservative high court reflect a post-racial, color-blind perspective that contradict the continuing presence of race-based inequality in the United States. Roberts’ view is summed up in the 2007 Parents Involved v. Seattle School District; Jefferson County Board of Education (127 S. Ct. 2738): “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

As Alvin Evans and I share in our new book, Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, deep ironies and contradictions characterize the Supreme Court’s determinations in the civil rights arena and in the four major affirmative action-related lawsuits over the past thirty-five years. The Court has constricted and even reversed civil rights law on the premise that social conditions of inequality in America have, for the most part, been addressed with the conclusion that policies designed to level the higher educational playing field are both unfair and unnecessary.

Reinterpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) is at the center of the high court’s determinations, moving from the original intent of the clause to protect the rights of minorities to an emphasis on the protection of all groups, including white Americans. For example, in the Fisher case, Justice Antonio Scalia voiced his incredulity over the argument that the Fourteenth Amendment protects minorities:

My goodness, I thought we’ve–we’ve held that the 14th Amendment protects all races. I mean, that was the argument in the early years, that it protected only — only the blacks. But I thought we rejected that. You–you say now that we have to proceed as though its purpose is not to protect whites, only to protect minorities?”

Legal scholar Derrick Bell’s theory of interest convergence explains how affirmative action arose during the civil rights era as a response to the radical protests and converged with other interests that were differently motivated. The creation of contemporary affirmative action programs by President John F. Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson in the midst of periods of extreme racial turbulence coincides with the development of race-conscious admissions policies by leading universities.

Ironically, the frontal attack on affirmative action in university admissions practices leading to an overall shift in public policy at the nation’s leading universities has been led by a single individual, Edward Blum. Blum’s one-person organization, the Project on Fair Representation, was founded in 2005 to challenge the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This effort paved the way for the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision nullifying the requirement for nine states and some counties to obtain preclearance from the Department of Justice prior to changing voting requirements. A conservative entrepreneur without a law degree or scholarly background, Blum has recruited a network of top lawyers who often agree to offer their services at reduced rates.

In launching a sustained, legal assault on affirmative action, Blum recruited Abigail Fisher, the daughter of an old friend, to contest her denial of admission to the University of Texas at Austin based on a claim of reverse discrimination. The Court’s ruling in the Fisher case established a much more stringent set of preconditions for consideration of race as one factor among many in a holistic admissions process. First, consideration of race and ethnicity as one factor among many in the individualized admissions review process cannot occur unless all race-neutral alternatives have been exhausted. Second, a reviewing court rather than the university becomes the arbiter of whether or not a university’s use of race is necessary to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy emphasized that in reviewing the means to attain diversity, “the university receives no deference.” Referring to the Court’s decision in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case at the University of Michigan, Kennedy added:

Grutter made it clear that it is for the Courts, not for university administrators, “to determine that the means chosen to accomplish the government’s purpose are “specifically and narrowly framed to accomplish that purpose.”

The Project on Fair Representation has continued its effort to recruit plaintiffs and filed suit against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Harvard lawsuit takes a different tack by splintering minority interests and building on the white-created “model minority” myth. It focuses on admissions policies limiting the enrollment of qualified Asian-American applicants and argues that Harvard has held Asian American students to higher standards than other applicants. The suit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill challenges that flagship institution’s own description in a friend-of-the-court brief in the Fisher case in which the university wrote of its current process to attain a higher level of black enrollment. Blum also says that he hopes to find applicants rejected from the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Tennessee for future suits.

Edward Blum’s most recent high-profile effort challenges the concept of one person one vote, that has led to the Supreme Court decision last week to hear Evenvel v. Abbott, a suit that contests the way state districts’ lines are drawn in Texas. The case calls into question the Court’s Reynolds v. Sims decision (1964) that draws district lines based on an areas’s total population. Instead, Blum advocates the drawing of district lines based only on eligible voters, thereby eliminating children, illegal immigrants, non-citizen, and inmates, among others.

Yet as colleges and universities grapple with the Supreme Court’s rigorous requirements surrounding race-sensitive admissions processes, one unforeseen benefit may be the attention that needs to be paid to clearly-articulated mission, vision and values statements. These statements now need to contextualize why diversity is a compelling interest for a given college or university campus. In sharing recommendations for practice at the conclusion of our book, we note the ongoing and unusual responsibility of educational institutions to ensure the talent of the nation’s minority students is not wasted, but realized. The rich research literature on the educational benefits of diversity that has arisen in specific response to the recent affirmative action cases will assist institutions in the ongoing and persistent effort to open the doors of educational opportunity to America’s diverse citizenry.

White Women, People of Color: Lower Salaries in Academia

A study just issued by the University of California at Berkeley identifies the fact that the compensation of female faculty lags behind their male counterparts by -4.3 percent within their respective fields or the equivalent of one to four years of career experience (excluding controls for rank). However, if demography alone is considered without respect to years of experience or field, women have a negative salary difference of -15.8 percent. When experience is considered, this difference diminishes to -11.3 percent. When rank and field are factored into the equation, under the assumption that full professors are more likely to be white and male based on hiring practices that prevailed over the last two or three decades, then the gap narrows from -1.8 percent. Similarly, the salaries of minority faculty lag behind white faculty by 1-2 years of career experience or between -1.0 and -1.8 percent.

How does Berkeley account for these differences? Possible causes include external factors including market and retention as well as social factors such as time off the tenure clock for a newly born or adopted child. In Academic Motherhood, Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel share research indicating that it would take thirty-five years for the sex composition of faculty to equalize at senior ranks to attain equal status. This equity could only happen if there were no gender discrimination and faculty abilities were presumed to be roughly similar. Ward and Wolf-Wendel note that women tend to be older than men when they attain their doctorates and enter the faculty workforce later, partly due to dual career constraints.

As a result, the authors emphasize that colleges and universities could do more to make their climates hospitable, equitable and accepting for faculty members with families. In particular, they note the importance of ensuring that family friendly policies such as stopping the tenure clock for maternity leave are not only established, but implemented so that faculty members feel free to use them.

Another variable the UC Berkeley report considers is the fact that decisions about promotion are based upon evidence presented and judgment made about that evidence. Since no mechanical process exists to translate the evidence into outcomes, judgments of merit are vulnerable to positive and negative implicit associations that can be triggered by factors such as race, ethnicity, or gender. Recall the 2013 UCLA report that identified incidents of process-based discrimination in hiring, advancement and retention based on interviews with faculty as well as written statements. Several incidents involving perceived bias when faculty members believed that they were denied advancement usually through an unfavorable letter from the department chair or dean and/or a negative departmental vote.

The discrepancies in compensation for women and minority faculty reflect underlying structural constraints that Houston A. Baker and K. Merinda Simmons refer to in their new co-edited book, The Trouble with Post-blackness, as “the intensely complicated system of economic access” that defies simplistic notions of personal agency and meritocracy”(p. 15). In one of the book’s essays, John L. Jackson Jr. writes about the stories other minority scholars shared with him in the academy:

No amount of publishing productivity exempts you from the vulnerabilities and burdens that come with underrepresentation in the academy.” Jackson adds, “Being ‘twice as good’ as most of their white colleagues (by objective and agreed-upon criteria) still wasn’t enough to spare them from the stigma of race-based stigma” (p. 204).

And mentoring is also important for women and minority faculty in navigating the internal organization, obtaining help with research and publications, understanding promotion and tenure criteria, and advancing in rank. As Rachel Shteir writes in “Taking the Men Out of Mentoring” women can be exhausted from the struggle of trying to get ahead, with little energy for mentoring others. As she explains,

I see women stuck at the associate level, living paycheck to paycheck, renting without savings…. Gender equity in salaries and rank have not been achieved.

A considerable body of research identifies the role of mentoring in opening channels for women and minorities by enhancing social capital, preventing career derailment, nurturing self-confidence, reducing isolation, and improving job satisfaction.

All in all, the Berkeley study underscores the continuing need for viable strategies that will help retain and develop diverse and talented faculty members by creating a more expansive and inclusive value proposition that promotes career progress and enhances retention.

Redefining the Vocabulary of Microaggressions

A new report by Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity Project (VoD) draws on interviews with at least 50 African-American, Latina/o, Asian-American and Native American students at each of four universities regarding their on-campus undergraduate experiences related to their racial/ethnic background, sex, or both. The co-authors, Paula Caplan and Jordan Ford, report on the students’ experiences of racist and sexist mistreatment that took shape in “microaggressions” or subtle, cumulative, and repetitive acts of marginalization and stereotyping.

The concept of “micro-inequities” has received considerable research attention and refers to small incidents of everyday discrimination that have replaced the more overt acts of discrimination characteristic of the pre-Civil Rights era. Micro-inequities can be unspoken, repeated messages that may be invisible to others but send devaluing messages to the targets that hinder these individuals’ performance and impact self-esteem. The vocabulary of micro-inequities dates back to the 1970’s when Mary Rowe, Ombudsperson at MIT, noted the ephemeral, difficult-to-prove events that she saw as the “principal scaffolding for discrimination in the United States.” A more extensive taxonomy of these day-to-day behavioral indignities was developed by Gerald Wing Sue and others that includes microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.

Yet at what point do “micro-aggressions” become “macro-aggressions”? Take the experiences of mistreatment cited by a Latina senior quoted in the VoD study: “I go nuts. I do….it hurts so much, so much, it’s indescribable the way it makes you feel” (p. 40). The Latina senior goes on to say, “My whole body becomes hot, and your eyes automatically become glassy, because you just feel so inferior….” Or the commentary of an African-American male student, “What can I do? I feel useless. I’m being hurt by this person. It’s messing with me emotionally.” The profound psychological damage caused by racism is not adequately captured in the term “micro-inequity” or “micro-aggression.” As Joe Feagin points out in Systemic Racism (2006), the pain of racism is part of lived experience and to begin to even calculate its costs “one would need to add…the other personal, family, and community costs over the centuries—the intense pain and suffering, the physical and psychological damage, the rage over injustice, and the huge loss of energy” that could have been used for other purposes (p. 20). Perhaps we need a new vocabulary to identify these high costs.

Similarly, consider the example that Alvin Evans and I cite in our new book, The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) of an African American faculty member who became the first African American department chair at his religiously-affiliated university. When he was first hired as one of the few African American faculty at that institution, a religious studies professor whose office was next to his refused to speak with him for 10 years:

He didn’t talk to me for 10 years, not a word. . . . He didn’t believe I was qualified, he didn’t believe that I was a real intellectual, I was only hired so that the university could say that we had Black professors.

In fact, the religious studies professor would talk about the African American faculty member with his door wide open so he could hear. Later, when the African American faculty member became chair, the religious studies professor had to speak with him. The chair would regularly ask him a question about diversity. The religious studies professor would inevitably answer, “I think we’re already diverse.” Needless to say, the chair was not invited to the religious studies professor’s retirement dinner.

Or in another interview study in 2012, we similarly found examples of the pain caused by exclusionary practices and behaviors in the workplace. For example, Claudia, an African-American administrator, was singled out in a staff meeting by her white male supervisor who was speaking of African-Americans in general: “Oh, I don’t mean you. You’re different, you’re an Oreo.’ Claudia responded, “You know, I’m sorry I think that most people would recognize that as being a racial slur.” The supervisor replied, “Oh I don’t mean that. You are one of them that has common sense.” The repeated actions of the supervisor caused Claudia extreme physical and psychological anguish:

When I had that very discriminatory supervisor, I had extremely high blood pressure. I was on three medications. They were at the maximum dosage and my blood pressure was still uncontrollable. My doctor kept telling me I needed to quit my job because he was said I was going to die. He said I was going to just have a stroke or heart attack because my blood pressure was so high.

These examples across the spectrum of students, faculty, and administrators illustrate the long-term psychological and physical damage resulting from what are more than microaggressions (actually, macroaggressions).

To counteract such practices, the Harvard VoD Project identifies the proactive work undertaken by Missouri State University, one of the institutional participants, to address the “silent suffering” of targets of racism and sexism and ensure that the experiences of minoritized students, faculty of color, and women are heard.

As Mark Warren indicates in Fire in the Heart (2010), building community is a process that must move us from passivity to positive action by “breaking down that separateness and achieving something that is more than the sum of the parts” (p. 229). To do so, we must first face the difficult realities that the VoD identifies and then move toward a deepened collective understanding and common vocabulary that help us activate and operationalize practices that enhance inclusion on our campuses.

If Michael Brown were Harvard Bound, And White, And Wealthy

During the Fall of 2014, I taught an Introduction to Sociology course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). We covered numerous concepts & theories, including Broken Windows Theory. This theory was developed by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling to illustrate how one broken window left unrepaired in a building is an invitation for more windows to be broken. If not repaired there can be a downward-spiral of vandalism that culminates into lawlessness. Basically, Broken Windows Theory explains how we rely upon social contexts and cues to assess and/or engage in behaviors considered deviant.

Harvard University is a campus largely absent of broken windows and other forms of esthetic disrepair. When teaching at UNL, I have used Harvard as an elite reference point and will now do so in this article. While working on my PhD at Harvard, I lived in an undergraduate Residence House (that’s Harvard speak for “dormitory”) and worked as a Resident Tutor (that’s Harvard speak for “resident assistant”). I had conversations with Harvard undergrads on numerous occasions including breakfast/lunch/dinner. I was always amazed by the privileged backgrounds of typical Harvard students. Though from a low-income background, I gained knowledge about the mannerisms, dress, and linguistic maneuvers of elitism while an undergrad at Georgetown University. I was, however, quick to correct persons at Harvard who assumed I shared their elite origins. Still, interactions with Harvard students from elite backgrounds moved me to empathize with the vulnerabilities of elite youths.

Among vulnerable students were wealthy sons emotionally neglected by their wealthy parents; sons desperate for emotional support. There were wealthy daughters deeply worried that they would fail parental expectations by wanting to play in a rock band instead of becoming doctors/lawyers/scientists/professors, and so on.

Two students that I came to know quite well shared stories of tribulation and triumph. One student, TJ, had hypothesized a fantastic science project despite inadequate support for his idea. After access to a Harvard science lab and a thoughtfully written report, TJ earned an “A”. Another student, GW, endured a confrontational encounter with a rude police officer; GW stood his ground and called for mutual respect. A third student, DJ, had shoplifted some goods before coming to Harvard. His parents used their clout to prevent DJ from serving jail/prison time. (Though vastly true, I have modified minor details of these stories to protect the students’ anonymity.)

At Harvard broken windows are constantly repaired. Transgressions are washed away or significantly minimized by a “Hahvarhd” affiliation. DJ and many elite students with histories of juvenile delinquency like him are now successful Harvard alums.

As I share stories about students I met while at Harvard, what images come to mind: Images of wealthy, White, students full of complex humanity; students who deserve to achieve their dreams; young women/men who are not easily reduced to individual mistakes or parental shortcomings? Actually, two examples above are NOT about Harvard students. What happens to the image of these students as I reveal that “TJ” was an African American teen and “GW” was an Afro-Latino-American teen; both were from low-income neighborhoods in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Are TJ and GW suddenly less deserving of the benefit of the doubt; do racial/ethnic and class details strip away their complex humanity? To learn more about TJ (aka “Malik”) and GW (aka “Robbie”), read my book Tough Fronts (2002). I came to know them while at Harvard not because they were Harvard students, but because they were middle and high school students from low-income neighborhoods in Cambridge who shared stories of mistreatment and oppression eclipsed by Harvard’s affluence. I interviewed them for my dissertation and for Tough Fronts. I arranged Malik’s access to the Harvard science lab. Doing so briefly bestowed Malik with enough Harvard clout to cause his middle-school teacher to suddenly see his potential to be an A-student in 8th-grade science. Of course, Malik’s Harvard clout was fleeting. As for Robbie, his respect for Cambridge police was not reciprocated. Malik and Robbie were (and still are) no less complexly human than the Harvard students with whom I lived; yet they were constantly treated as such by powerful social institutions like schools, police departments, and social service agencies.

What happens to your image of Harvard when I tell you that in addition to DJ there are Harvard students—and I’m talking about wealthy, White students—who shoplift and commit other crimes. This was the case well before I went to Harvard. It was the case while I attended Harvard during the 1990s. And continues well after I graduated with my PhD. For example, Harvard students who shoplift include the daughter of Rudy Giuliani.

Let’s return to DJ, who actually was one of the Harvard students from my Residence House and who was White and Male and Wealthy. Let’s update his story and try to strip DJ of his complex humanity by providing his shoplifting story with a different ending.

In August of 2014, before his freshman year at Harvard, DJ shoplifts some limited edition Gurkha Maharaja Cigars costing $2,000 per cigar, from M&M Cigar and Gift in Norwalk, Connecticut. DJ returns to his neighborhood of wealthy White professionals in Darien, Connecticut. As DJ exits his 2014 Porsche 911 Carrera, a police car pulls onto his street. DJ, known for being spoiled and obnoxious, has hubris enough to be confrontational with the police officer. At what point does this White police office fire a gun at this 18-year-old, Harvard bound, White male suspected of shoplifting? At what point does this police officer continue shooting at DJ who has now walked away from the confrontation? At what point does the officer continue to fire as DJ turns around with his hands up? At what point does the officer use deadly force and kill DJ? At what point is DJ’s body left on the street in his White professional, Darien, Connecticut neighborhood for four hours? At what point do the police prevent DJ’s parents from going to their son’s dead body? At what point is the police officer not held accountable once it is clear that he shot and killed an unarmed, college-bound, 18-year-old? At what point does the Assistant District Attorney tell the Grand Jury that the police officer had the right to shoot DJ because he had turned to flee? Few if any of these things would happen to a Wealthy, White teen like DJ, yet most if not all happened to Michael Brown, who was also a college-bound 18-year old male.

Experiences with Harvard students, especially wealthy, White male students, lead me to conclude that at no point would DJ share Michael’s fate. If DJ had been caught stealing the cigars, he would probably have been detained at the store while his parents were contacted. Or as was the case with Rudy Giuliani’s daughter, Caroline Giuliani, store managers may call the police yet decline to press charges! In elite places where broken windows are constantly repaired, people honor the complex humanity of young people, who commit or are suspected of committing criminal acts. Unlike unprivileged youths, privileged youths are not easily stripped of their complex humanity.

I can personally assure you that the absence of broken windows at Harvard does not mean an absence of deviant behavior. Despite well-manicured lawns and unbroken windows there are Harvard students who deal drugs as well as those who commit rape and other heinous acts. Studies on the youths of privilege reveal that they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other destructive behaviors than non-privileged youths. Furthermore, the presence of broken windows in urban communities of color does not mean an absence of complex humanity.

I have been to the place where Michael Brown was shot dead as if he were an aggressive monster instead of an unarmed teenager, like DJ; it is not a neighborhood full of broken windows. But even if it were, Michael and Black youths like him, whether males or females, deserve the same benefit of the doubt as privileged youths like DJ and Caroline Giuliani. And for places where windows are rarely repaired, the police should honor the humanity of youths as they would honor the humanity of spoiled and obnoxious rich kids. And at the very least, instead of destroying more windows with bullets from guns aimed to kill unarmed teens, police and other government officials should assist residents to restore shattered lives and broken windows. This is all the more necessary in Ferguson, Missouri where the police and government officials share a legacy of shattering the lives of African Americans.

L. Janelle Dance, Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Senior Researcher at Lund University in Sweden, with sociological input from Selma Hedlund, Sociology Master’s Student, Columbia University.

On Black Death and LGBTQ Politics

On Friday, December 12, I had the profound pleasure of attending the Kessler Award ceremony hosted by The Center for LGBTQ Studies: CLAGS at The Graduate Center, CUNY in honor of Professor Cathy J. Cohen (University of Chicago). Cohen has a large body of work at the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality, but is perhaps best known for a 1997 GLQ article, referenced this talk, called, “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics” (locked). The title of her talk was, “#Do Black Lives Matter? From Michael Brown to CeCe McDonald: On Black Death and LGBTQ Politics.” What follows is a brief summary of her remarks, and the video and transcript are linked below.

Cohen’s talk began with the screening of a video that included the murders of Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Kaijeme Powell, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice in one devastating 2-minute clip, she said to “re-center us and remind us what the movement is about.”

Cohen then turned to a discussion of the context surrounding the murder of Michael Brown, what she calls the ‘multicultural turn in neoliberalism.’ She uses the traditional definition of neoliberalism, as a “prioritizing of markets and a corresponding commitment to the dismantling or devolution of social welfare.” She argues that with the election of the first African American president in Barack Obama, neoliberalism has taken a “multicultural turn” that requires us to “complicate our understanding of state power and neoliberal agendas.” About this, and as part of her critique of Obama, she said:

Colorblind racial ideology, by both decrying racism and designating anti-racism as probably one of the country’s newly found core values, actually works to obscure the relationship between identity and privilege. Thus, through colorblind ideology one can claim to be in solidarity with black people while at the same time denigrating the condition of poor black people, faulting them for their behaviors or lack of a work ethic and not their race. Moreover, one could declare that ‘black lives matter’ while undermining any state-sponsored programs that would address the special needs of poor black people. One could say, in fact, that I’m heartbroken with the death of Trayvon Martin because if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon, and recognize that that means nothing in terms of justice for black people.

She began here, with neoliberalism and its multicultural turn because “it is a reminder of the sustained attack on the basic humanity of poor black people that provides the context in which we should understand the killing of young black people, in particular young black men, and the less visible assaults on black women and the murder of black trans people.”

The second section of her talk, called “Performing Solidarity: LGBT Complicity = Black Death,” was a thorough recap of the critique made by Urvashi Vaid, Lisa Duggan, Dean Spade and Michael Warner, of the way that mainstream (read: predominantly white) LGBT organizations have prioritized a neoliberal agenda with policies agendas that emphasize, marriage, access to the military and increased criminalization through hate crime legislation. Then, she argued that the kinds of letters issued by mainstream LGBT organizations in support of Michael Brown’s family

The third part of her talk, which she called “This is Not the Civil Rights Movement: The Queering of Black Liberation,” is where she addressed the possibility of transformational politics. She began this section by screening this short video:

This young brother, Tory Russell is from Hands Up United, one of the grassroots groups organizing people in Ferguson, Missouri. In response to a question from Gwen Ifill (PBS Newshour) about what he sees happening now, Russell says:

“I mean it’s younger, it’s fresher. I think we’re more connected than most people think. I don’t, this is not the civil rights movement, you can tell by how I got a hat on, I got my t-shirt, and how I rock my shoes. This is not the civil rights movement. This is an oppressed peoples’ movement. So when you see us, you gonna see some gay folk, you gonna see some queer folk, you gonna see some poor black folk, you gonna see some brown folk, you gonna see some white people and we all out here for the same reasons, we wanna be free.”

In many ways, Russell here articulates Cohen’s vision for transformational politics and what she refers to as substantive, rather than performative, solidarity.

Cohen, along with a growing chorus of voices, sees what is happening now as a movement, rather than simply a momentary response to aggressive policing.

Near the end of her talk, Cohen describes this movement, echoing Russell, as a “movement made up, as Tory Russell described, made up of some gays, some queer folk, some poor black people, some brown folks, some white folks, …all of them united in their position as oppressed people, aka politically queer, and all fighting for freedom, not marriage, not increased criminalization, not access to the military, but for freedom.”

You can view Cohen’s lecture online here (beginning about the 25:50 mark). A transcript of Cohen’s remarks is available here.

College Sports: Why Few Black Coaches Again This Season?

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

(Image source)

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

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

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

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

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

Blacks and Sports: Integration but Exploitation

How can we praise baseball for Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line without pointing out that Branch Rickey was the lone vote for integration among his peers, with quotas existing on black players for years thereafter? How can we even praise Branch Rickey, without pointing out how he consciously wrecked the Negro Leagues, the largest national black owned business in the United States, ruthlessly harvesting its talent without compensation? -Dave Zirin

Reflecting on the history of black inclusion in sport, the latter part of the above quote (about compensation) is often not discussed in great length. Well, that is until results from a recent poll were released that asked respondents if they thought student-athletes should be finically compensated: “Large majority [64%] opposes paying NCAA athletes, Washington Post-ABC News poll finds.”

Taking a deeper look at these numbers reveals that whites represent the overwhelming majority (74%) who oppose paying athletes, which contrasts with the minority (46%) of nonwhites in opposition. A similar finding was revealed when HBO Real Sports and Marist College conducted another poll. However, this latter poll found that 53% of black respondents believed student-athletes should be paid, which was almost double that of whites (29%) and Latinos (29%). Perhaps the reasoning behind this large difference is because the student-athletes in the two sports (men’s basketball, football) that generate the multi-billion dollar revenues in college athletics are majority black (see Lapchick et al. 2013).

These two polls not only showed a large racial divide in support/opposition for paying athletes, but also a racial divide among those who believe race is part of the reasoning they are not – “More than 60 percent of black respondents said top athletes are not paid because many are black; only 25 percent of white respondents (and 33 percent of Latinos) said the same.” These numbers are not too surprising given black student-athletes in revenue-generating sports have served primarily as sources of financial wealth creation for whites who run the institution of sport.

Unfortunately, while college athletics have unceasingly benefited whites, these same institutions have unduly failed black student-athletes.

Considering blacks were allowed (again, for they had before Jim Crow in the 19th century!) to participate among whites in large numbers during the mid to latter half of the 20th century because the “walls of segregation” were crumbling does not indicate that whites had some overnight change of heart on their inferior framing of blacks. However, because it was becoming “legally” acceptable to interact with blacks, white elites took advantage of this by recruiting blacks on college campuses to work for “free” to financially benefit themselves. Given the systemic racist nature of US society where whites have always found a way to unjustly enrich themselves while simultaneously unjustly impoverishing blacks (Feagin, 2006), why would it be too shocking to see today that a majority of whites, inside and outside of sport, not wanting blacks to reap some of the financial rewards from their labor on college athletic teams? After all, whites are overrepresented in every collegiate sport except men’s and women’s basketball and football, the sports where blacks are not only overrepresented but also the only sports that produce revenue.

Would whites’ perspective change on paying student-athletes if they represented the majority population of athletes who played in revenue-generating sports since they would be the ones getting paid? Regardless, because whites are benefiting in so many other ways as student-athletes, perhaps they are too blind to notice that blacks are not profiting similarly.

Given black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses are being failed by the academic institutions they represent, it seems reasonable that black respondents were overrepresented in suggesting student-athletes should get paid and believing the reason they are not is influenced by their race. For instance, not only have black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses reported more experiences of discrimination because of their race, but compared to whites, they are inadequately prepared to take on the rigors of college academics, they are not guided sufficiently through the college experience, they are not given appropriate mentorship, and their graduation rates are well below the average of both student-athletes and the student body as a whole on these campuses (e.g., Eitzen, 2000; Hawkins, 2001; Lapchick, 2003). Black student-athletes have long endured these challenges. These unfortunate circumstances, however, have finally taken a toll.

Recent events show that many collegiate student-athletes are fed up with being exploited. For instance, Northwestern’s scholarship football players voted and certified the first union in college sports. The election was ordered by a National Labor Relations Board official, who

ruled that Northwestern’s scholarship football players were employees, meaning that they, like other workers, had the right to form a union and that they could be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment insurance and some portion of the revenue generated by college sports.

One black student-athlete from another PWIHE (Shabazz Napier), a supporter of unions in college athletics, even complained that the NCAA brings in millions of dollars and he regularly goes to sleep at night “starving.” Interestingly, because of all the negative attention being targeted at the NCAA, the governing body ruled that all NCAA-sponsored universities provide their student-athletes unlimited meals.

Could these latest happenings suggest times are changing and the black student-athlete is finally getting an opportunity to benefit from the labor that has made so many whites wealthy? It is difficult to tell since the whites who run the organization that governs college athletics (NCAA) continue to deny that student-athletes in the most revenue-generating sports are workers, as well as whites on both polls (illustrated above) are overwhelmingly against paying student- athletes. However, aggressive collectiveness has shown to create a step in the right direction. The unification of Northwestern football players fighting for rights they believe to be due is precisely what Feagin (2006) argues is a necessary endeavor to end racial oppression. Feagin further suggests while blacks, and other people of color, must be the stronghold in the movement, while allies from whites may strengthen the thrust in the process for demanding social change. If this is the most appropriate means to achieve the racial justice black student-athletes have been seeking, Northwestern has shown to be a perfect model in what it means to resist systemic racism.

Why isn’t College for Learning About Mixed-Race Identities?


There are some incredible opportunities out there right now to get certificates, higher ed and even advanced degrees specializing in the experience of Americans of color. Want a degree in Asian American Studies? Sure. How about African American, Native or American Indian, Latin American, Mexican American or Chicano studies? Absolutely. Google all of these and you’ll find brilliant choices to be credentialed in these heritage experiences at very fine colleges and universities.

But what if you ID as mixed-race multicultural across any of these racial lines? Is there a degree for that?

“Not that I’m aware of,” writes Steven F. Riley of (46), “The vast majority of courses on mixed-race studies are within the disciplines of Sociology, Psychology, History and Literature, etc.” Despite the fact that the crop of students moving through college today is the largest group of self-identified mixed-race people ever to come of age in the U.S., “In traditional Ethnic Studies,” writes University of California, Berkeley: Center for Race and Gender, “Mixed race scholarship has often been marginalized, misappropriated, tokenized or simply left out.”

Indeed it has only been in recent history that an arena for multi-race discourse has even forcibly begun construction mostly due to multiracials themselves. In the US this is because we have (a) not only a history of denying mixed race which persists but (b) a habit of continuing to operate under the assumption that race can be easily identified and filed away. Anyone who can’t be instantly categorized by visual scanning either gets shoved into something that kinda sorta fits, shows up as a mere blip on the cognitive-radar screen or flies under it completely. Case in point, whether by choice or lack of choice, some of the more visible mixed-race Asian scholars/authors right now are embedded in other departments at their campuses: Laura Kina (Art, Media, & Design, DePaul University), Leilani Nishime (Dept of Communication, University of Washington), Stephen Shigematsu-Murphy (Asian American Studies, Stanford University), Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain (Sociology, University of Ireland).

I woke up one morning and had this great idea to write a post on multiracial studies, classes and programs in higher ed. The first day I sat in front of the screen I naively believed I could come up with some sort of beginner, working list through a neat Google Search. Within 15 minutes I had searched about five or six variations of “mixed race studies,” found shockingly little, threw up my hands, and was so irritated I gave up. In fact after that quarter hour I was pretty sure I didn’t want to write this post at all. I supposed stuff was out there but felt confounded to find it without launching an epic dissertation-level exhaustive research project.

“Well,” I thought to myself, “Why don’t I just leave it to college counselors, professors and academics who have the inside scoop.” But then I thought twice. What about the exploding number of young people such as mixed race high schoolers (one day my son) who are starting to think about college, have a blossoming awareness of their multiraciality and would like to be in an environment that supports them, even allows them to pursue degrees along those lines? For that matter, what about any number of mixed race folk wanting to pursue professional certificates or advanced degrees along those lines, or the millions of others increasingly vested in mixed race issues? Are any of these folks going to sit at a computer for hours on a fruitless wild-goose chase that dead-ends in needing to rely on others “more in the know”?

Now I’m not talking student interest clubs and groups here. Those seem to abound and admittedly, are deeply important. But such involvement may or may not be resume material and, let’s be honest, in our society extracurricular certainly doesn’t hold the weight of alphabet soup like B.A. M.A. Ph.D. etc. I also suspect such groups centrally revolve around offering social support, which is of course extremely critical, but may not offer the mixed young person academic space to round-out by learning deeply and reflecting critically upon the construction of race mixing in the US. No. What I’m talking about is also giving mixed race students the space/option to explore their history and identity in their studies, and to become credentialed experts of their own experience.

So what happens when the historically overlooked and unrecognized mixed-race person hops on Google to figure out if they can spend thousands of dollars (they probably don’t have) on an education that would enrich their existence in a racially policed/divided world? It’s not good, people. It’s not good. The average Google Search garners 92% of all its traffic on Page 1. Page 2 only sees about 5%, Page 3 about 1%, and by Page 4 – well, just forget it. In the interest of posterity, let’s take a look at the critical first page of my Google Searching for mixed race studies at college and university campuses across the US:

Search phrase: degree mixed race studies

Of 10 first page results**: The top 3 results turned up this hub, a seriously great and well-known hub of mixed race research. But a quick perusal does not immediately show a listing of places to pursue such research and as we saw earlier, Riley himself states very clearly that he knows of no specific mixed race degree program. Following the top third, 2 results turned up a fairly new endeavor spearheaded by Laura Kina (among others) out of De Paul Unviersity. It is an expanding multiracial academic community that currently includes a biannual conference and academic journal. The website certainly lists organizations and hubs but again, I didn’t see a list of schools to pursue studies.

Following this, 2 search results turned up San Francisco State University’s Master’s in Ethnic Studies which is “increasingly concerned with mixed race studies” but obviously not a mixed race degree. Of the remaining, 1 search result was a write-up of the first Critical Mixed Race Studies postgraduate symposium ever offered at the University of Leeds in May of this year, 1 search result was a graduate thesis, 1 search result was a graduate student bio and 1 search result was a listing for a design-you-own-Master’s at Southern Methodist University.

Of course we see the obvious inability to obtain a specific critical mixed-race studies degree. But also notice the heavy, heavy emphasis on graduate, postgraduate and doctoral level research. In my view this does not allow very accessible entry points into the field of multiracial studies at all. We see a possible end result – but how to even begin? And what if a person does not aspire to become a researcher? Can there be an option to learn without the pressure to contribute to a growing body of mixed-race scholarship that’s struggling to exist? Search phrases like degree multi-ethnic studies or degree multiracial studies and the outcome isn’t much better. Personally I love researching and am excited by finding any results at all. But as the mother of a mixed race child who may or may not follow in his mother’s footsteps, I always have an eye to his future and best interests too. If my 4 year old goes to college one day, I want to feel less nervous and way more comfortable that wherever he goes as a new “legal” adult and young person existing across racial lines, he will find a place to learn more about himself in a life-giving way. I think we’re headed there but we still have a long way to go. I hope to see before my son fills out his first college application (aside from maybe no racial checkboxes to deal with), at least one campus that boasts an entire Critical Mixed Race Department. Pipe dream? We’ll see…

**(Note: I recognize that Google Search results change rapidly and the first page I analyze here is only a snapshot. Subsequent searches by others may turn up different, even very different results.) See my blog, too.