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?

Learning

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 MixedRaceStudies.org (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.

College Readiness: Faulty Analogies or Faulty White Logic?

In “White Logic, White Methods” several essays address the false rationality of social science that is a thin veneer for whiteness.

You can rationalize away all disparate impacts of institutional racism and sexism if you shape your theories, models and measurements just so.

I have argued vehemently, albeit academically, that higher education research is one of the whitest fields of research out there these days. Somehow econometrics brought the rational choice penchant for ignoring statistical discrimination from econ and wedded it to the efficiency logics of market enthusiasm to create a perfect storm of obfuscation and rationalized oppression.

I mostly brush it off. This is the job and I don’t know of a job where this won’t be an issue.

However, I am clear about my critical position: the rational approach to re-inscribing race, gender, and class disparities in higher education policy, particularly through federal financial aid policy, is anything but. It’s all the same benign organizational racism that it has always been.

college

So, when the debate about instituting a “college readiness” test for means-tested federal Pell grants unfolded, I did what I often do: I asked about the racial implications of such a policy.

The analogy was clear to me. Even if it wasn’t clear to others, the meat of the argument remains the same. Secondary schooling is compulsory, which requires a commitment from the State to provide access to the primary qualification for Pell — a diploma or GED. A college readiness test would come with no State obligation. The ridiculous notion that excluding poor students who aren’t college ready from Pell would magically incentivize public education to get on the ball with preparing all students is the kind fairy dust that gives us trickle down economics.

Not a single higher education researcher could explain how this was anything but an act of institutional racism.

Being afraid of talking about race doesn’t excuse serious researchers from the consequences of ignoring race. I do not care if you intend for a policy to be racialized. I am here always for asking the ways in which effects are racialized, absent of intent.

So, let me be clear about my “racist” analogy of college readiness to poll taxes and literacy tests.

Wealth drives “college readiness”.

Black wealth accumulation lags white wealth accumulation because institutional racism has made it so.

From redlining that depresses the value of the greatest asset most Americans have to K-12 school districting that reinforces the salience of wealth and home ownership to curriculum and resources, many black students are unlikely to meet some arbitrary standard of college readiness.

And have no doubt that such a measure would be arbitrary. There is no single agreement on what college readiness constitutes.

There is no moral imperative behind instituting a college readiness barrier beyond “saving money”. But it is never clearly stated whose money we are saving or for what ends. Are we saving poor students’ money? Obviously not if we are denying them a grant and forcing them to rely on student loans more than they already do.

So whose money are we saving? I suspect we mean real peoples’ money. You know, not-poor real people.

As in, the not-poor people whose college readiness is possible because kids in other schools don’t get the resources to be college ready.

There is no scenario where the effects of poverty and racism won’t be expensive. The only scenarios are for whom it will be most costly.

The idea that remediating the effects of negative wealth accumulation and poverty through increasing the cost to individual poor people, who are more likely to be black, is anything but racist paternalism has yet to be effectively argued. Mostly because those who propose college readiness tests are too afraid of being called racist to seriously consider the racist effects of their proposals.

Kind of like how we refuse to acknowledge that punishing poor people doesn’t make them less likely to be poor.

It’s all very rational.

~ Guest blogger Tressie McMillan Cotton is is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. This post originally appeared at her blog, Some of Us are Brave

White Women and U.S. Slavery: Then and Now

It’s Tuesday and that means it’s Trouble with White Women and White Feminism, our ongoing series meant to offer a broader context and deeper analysis of the latest outrages by the melanin-challenged.

White women were active participants in, proponents of and key beneficiaries of the system of slavery in the U.S., both historically and now.

fox-genovese_within

While some historians, such as  C. Vann Woodward and Catherine Clinton, have argued that white women were secretly opposed to the system of slavery, scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demolished this notion with her work, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).  Fox-Genovese draws on white slaveholding women’s diaries, letters, and postbellum memoirs, along with the Works Progress Administration’s narratives of enslaved black women as her source material to make a convincing argument that even though they worked in the same households there was no “shared sense of sisterhood” among black and white women in the plantation household.  Fox-Genovese makes a distinction between white women in the North, whose urban, bourgeois culture valued individualism and the redeeming power of domestic work, and white Southern women, whose hierarchical, dependency-based culture judged women’s worth on their success in conforming to the ideal of the “lady,” rather than on their thrift, industry, and devotion to all-sacrificing motherhood. By arguing that white, Southern women’s history “does not constitute a regional variation on the main story; it constitutes another story,” Fox-Genovese joined women of color and labor historians who were offering critiques of both the white, middle-class feminist movement and the histories it produced. (See this for a much longer and more thorough summary of Fox-Genovese’s work.)

ebony_ivyIt is a mistake to believe that slaveowning was an entirely Southern U.S. phenomenon. In fact, it was the Northeast where slavery began in the U.S. and where some of its enduring legacy remains. “Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas,” writes historian Craig Steven Wilder in his, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities.  Wilder writes:

“In the decades before the American Revolution, merchants and planters became not just the benefactors of colonial society but its new masters. Slaveholders became college presidents. The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools. Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts. And the politics of the campus conformed to the presence and demands of slave-holding students as colleges aggressively cultivated a social environment attractive to …wealthy families.”

Wilder paints a compelling portrait of the ways that slavery was not merely part of the “context” present at the same time as the rise of higher education in the U.S., but in fact, was a crucial element that universities relied on to build facilities, endowments and legacies of elite social environments for cultivating subsequent generations of the nation’s leaders. While it’s true that these institutions were established for the benefit of white men, white women eventually demanded and won access.

White women in the academy, and I’m one of them, continue to benefit from the system of higher education built by enslaved human beings. According to the Almanac of Higher Education, women accounted for only 31% of all tenured faculty in US colleges and universities,but of these 78% are white women, compared to just 0.6% American Indian, 4% Latina, 6.7% Asian American, and 7% African American.  Wilder’s research is focused on Ivy League (elite) educational institutions, but it has implications for those of us outside those institutions as well. I work at CUNY (not, to my knowledge, built by enslaved people) but CUNY operates within an eco-system of other institutions of higher education from which we all benefit.

“But, my family didn’t own slaves!” also, “Slavery was a long time ago, isn’t it time to forget all that?

These refrains about a distant, non-slaveholding past are a commonplace among white people. The first is meant to suggest a lack of connection to the institution of slavery, and therefore, a lack of responsibility for understanding it; and the second is meant to suggest that historical amnesia is a salve for social ills. My family didn’t own slaves either (that I know of). This wasn’t an ethical stance, they just couldn’t afford to own any human beings.

The rush to forget, to distance from the legacy of slavery in the U.S. strikes me as peculiar.  Recently, this resistance to facing history has come out in the ways that white people talk about (and don’t talk about) the film ’12 Years a Slave.’    Most often, what I hear from white women friends, is this: “I’m not sure I can go see 12 Years a Slave. It just sounds too painful to watch, and I wonder, why would I want to pay a babysitter so I can be in agony for two hours?”

Perhaps part of this resistance is a reluctance to come to terms with the way that, as Olivia Cole writes, white women ruined lives while wearing their pretty dresses.  While scholarly works like those by Fox-Genovese or Wilder may not reach a wide public audience, this film could if people are willing to go see it. Part of what the film reveals is the cruel treatment meted out by white women situated as the plantation mistress to the enslaved women they controlled.

Plantations: Topographies of Terror or Theme Parks?

Slavery does not exist solely in the mists of some distant past, but remains with us in the here and now of the U.S.  Plantations are increasingly popular locations for weddings for white women who are convinced they can “work around the racism” of such a setting.

Nashville-Plantation-Wedding-500x333

(Image source)

People who doubt the fascination we have as a society with the “plantation” theme, should watch “Gone with the Wind” (1939), which serves as a kind of cultural template for the aesthetics of this phenomenon. While some may see this as irrelevant to the contemporary milieu, the recent micro-controversies involving Paula Deen and Ani DiFranco suggest otherwise.

paula_deenPaula Deen is a celebrity who built a small empire on her southern cooking and down-home style.  Deen recently became embroiled in controversy when in June 2013, she became the target of a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination.  In her deposition, when asked if she’d used the N-word to describe African American people, she said “Yes, of course.”   Among the other revelations about Deen that emerged were the details of her “dream southern plantation wedding.”   Deen offered a tearful apology for her use of the N-word, the lawsuit was dismissed, but it may have been too late because there was already a Twitter hashtag #PaulaDeenRecipes with some truly hilarious, creative entries (e.g., Back of the Bus Biscuits #PaulaDeenRecipes). Deen had her television show cancelled by Food Network, and endorsement contracts cancelled by Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, diabetes drug company Novo Nordisk, J.C. Penney, Sears, KMart and her then-publisher Ballantine Books. However, several companies have expressed their intent to continue their endorsement deals with Deen, and fans flocked to her restaurants in a show of support.

 

ani_difrancoAni DiFranco is a singer, songwriter and is often regarded as a feminist icon.  DiFranco faced a controversy in 2013 when after the announcement that she was hosting a three-day artists’ workshop billed as the “Righteous Retreat” at Iberville Parish‘s Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, Louisiana.  Now operated as a luxury resort, Nottoway Plantation was one of the largest plantations in the South, and features the largest antebellum mansion. Its operator and founder John Randolph owned over 155 slaves in the year 1860. DiFranco’s choice of venue for the retreat was called “a blatant display of racism” on a petition at change.org that collected more than 2,600 signatures. On December 29, 2013 DiFranco cancelled the retreat and offered what many saw as a tepid, non-apology-apology. Chastened by the criticism that followed that first statement, DiFranco issued a second apology on January 2, 2014 in which she wrote, “..i would like to say i am sincerely sorry. it is obvious to me now that you were right – all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents. i needed a wake up call and you gave it to me.” 

The public oppobrium that Deen and DiFranco faced are tied up in what Priscilla Ocen, writing at For Harriet, calls the subservience fantasy in the U.S.  The persistent cultural fascination with plantations as settings of an idyllic past positions them as locations that can be “reclaimed” as luxury resorts, wedding venues, and “righteous retreat” destinations. And, I would argue, it is not coincidental that it is white women who are fueling this fantasy.

There are other ways to approach our history. At the same time that the controversy with Ani DiFranco was roiling the interwebs, I was visiting Berlin. While I was there, I went to a museum called “Topographies of Terror,” a museum that marks the site of the former Secret State Police, the SS and the Security Main Office of the Third Reich.  The story of how the museum was created fascinated me as much as the collection itself. After the war the grounds were leveled and initially used for commercial purposes, and eventually became a vacant lot. Public interest in this site emerged gradually in the 1970s and 1980s. It was during this time that groups of citizens, historians, and activists began the work of commemorating the site and using it as a mechanism for confronting the difficult past of the Nazi regime.

In the U.S., we have very few (if any) of these kinds of monuments.  Imagine, if you will, a wedding held at a former concentration camp with a “Third Reich” theme, with the bride urging guests to “work around” the blatant anti-semitism. Offensive, right? Of course it is.  Then why is it that here in the U.S., we turn plantations – our own topographies of terror – into theme parks and luxury resorts?

As I said, I find the American rush to forget, to distance ourselves from the legacy of slavery strikes me as peculiar.  I suspect that part of this reluctance has to do with the affective, particularly for white women, who wish above all else, not to be made uncomfortable about race.  More about that in another post in this ongoing series, Trouble with White Women #tww.

 

>>>> Read next post in series

 

Prescriptive Racial Stereotypes of Asian American Leaders

In an article entitled “Why So Few Asians are College President,” Dr. Santa J. Ono, President of the University of Cincinnati, indicates that he finds himself among a very small group of Asian American leaders in higher education: only 1.5 percent of college and university presidents are Asian American and 3.4 percent are administrators in higher education. By contrast, Hispanics comprise 3.8 percent of presidents and African Americans hold 5.9 percent of these roles. This pattern also holds true for the corporate sector, such as the low representation of Asian Americans as corporate officers and members of corporate boards.

Why are Asian Americans so underrepresented in leadership roles? Ono suggests two major factors at play: cultural differences deriving from home environments that value preferences for indirect communication, emotional restraint, and an egalitarian view of power as well as contradictory perceptions about Asian Americans such as being conspicuous but self-effacing, hyperambitious but timid. Frank Wu, Chancellor of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, similarly points out that the model minority myth transforms positive qualities into negative attributes: intelligence is seen as lack of personality, family-oriented as clannish, and hard-working as unfairly competitive.

Ono, however, points to significant new research by Jennifer Berdahl and Ji-A Min at the University of Toronto that sheds light on the particular barriers Asian Americans face in leadership roles. Berdahl and Min distinguish between descriptive stereotypes or generalized beliefs about what members of different racial groups are like and prescriptive stereotypes which, when violated, are likely to provoke social disapproval and backlash. Since East Asians in North America are often descriptively stereotyped as relatively competent, cold, and nondominant, Berdahl and Min identify “nondominant” as a prescriptive stereotype that, when violated, causes negative consequences in the workplace. As a result, when East Asians remain in subordinate, nonleadership roles, and do not try to assert their own viewpoints or ideas or take charge, the competitive threat to valued resources they pose is neutralized. Through a series of four studies, the research findings reveal that not only did East Asians report more racial harassment at work than other employees, but, more importantly, those individuals that violated racial stereotypes were more likely to be the targets of such harassment. Berdahl and Min report that the negative responses to dominant East Asians did not depend on gender and appeared to be unique to this racial minority group.

This promising line of research on prescriptive stereotypes helps explain the hurdles faced by Asian Americans in their efforts to attain leadership positions and how these stereotypes can influence their ability to break through the so-called “bamboo ceiling” or what Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls “the marzipan layer” just below the upper rungs of power.

The notion of prescriptive stereotypes can also apply to the challenges faced by other racial minorities and women when they violate expected stereotypical behaviors and experience backlash. As Santa Ono notes, unconscious bias may be more difficult to address in academe where intellectual fairness and rigor are already presumed to be present. In this regard, he aptly suggests that academe focus some of its energy, acuity, and empathy toward tearing down existing social and psychological barriers to success, “particularly those all the more imposing for being invisible.” Perhaps greater understanding of the influence of prescriptive stereotypes will provide the opportunity for reexamination of the impact of subtle, unconscious bias on organizational processes and allow us to develop truly inclusive definitions of leadership capabilities.

Issues of Bias: UCLA’s Minority Faculty

[The following analysis was sent to us by an experienced academic administrator.]

A Los Angeles Times article published on October 18, 2013 notes that an independent investigative report conducted at UCLA found instances of overt and covert racism involving minority faculty members. This information was gathered by an investigative review team appointed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, Scott L. Waugh, under the direction of Chancellor Gene Block and involves findings from interviews with eighteen faculty members in individual interviews as well from ten written statements submitted after a Town Hall meeting. The external review team consisted of a panel of experts including former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, UCLA Professor emeritus Gary Nash, Bob Suzuki, former President of Cal Poly Pomona, Dr. Maga Jackson-Triche, former UC Davis Professor, and attorney Constance Rice.

 

(Image from Flickr)

 

The findings of the report include the identification of conflict involving a racial component in two UCLA departments, two reports of egregious incidents of bias experienced by UCLA faculty members, and three reports of perceived bias in hiring, advancement, and retention.

The academic department is the cultural environment that shapes how minority and women faculty are supported and welcomed, the way conflicts are resolved, and how power is distributed. The department chair sets the tone in the academic department, but the makeup of faculty in a given setting, such as the predominance of long-serving tenured faculty, also impacts the departmental dynamic.

Case in point, the study highlights allegations of systematic exclusion of minority and female faculty in what is called “Department A” that ranged from telling junior faculty of color that they would not attain tenure, to discriminatory remarks such as “I thought Asian women were supposed to be submissive.” A white faculty member who was tenured and subsequently left the department indicated that he had spoken out against such conduct, been retaliated against by the department chair through a recommendation against a merit increase in pay, and he then retired rather than continue in that atmosphere.

In “Department B” two faculty members alleged that the department was divided along racial lines, indicating that they had experienced incidents of bias or discrimination by other faculty members, including senior faculty. One faculty member indicated what he perceived to be a clique of Caucasian male professor who ran the department, and said he had personally witnessed senior faculty use racially or ethnically insensitive language.

Incidents of racism noted in the panel’s findings include the report of a Latino faculty member in the health sciences, who indicated that shortly after his hire as a fully tenured faculty member, a senior faculty member in his department, upon encountering him for the first time in the hallway, asked in a loud voice in front of a group of students “What is that fucking spic doing here?” When the Latino faculty member reported it to his assistant dean, the assistant dean, although sympathetic, advised him against going to the dean since it would cause more trouble. The Latino faculty member feels threatened by the senior faculty member, and also believes that the individual left a screwdriver in his mailbox in 2010.

The majority of incidents identified to the reviewers involved process-based discrimination in hiring, advancement, and retention. Faculty members believed that they were denied advancement due to bias and discrimination, usually through an unfavorable letter from the department chair or dean and a negative departmental vote.

Recommendations for action in the report include the need for: 1) adequate training of UCLA employees, including faculty, on what constitutes biased or discriminatory behavior; 2) review of UCLA’s policies and procedures for clarity in how to report incidents of perceived discrimination and the subsequent investigative process; and 3) a centralized Discrimination Officer to address incidents of alleged bias, discrimination, and intolerance. The Discrimination Officer would have independent authority to conduct fact-finding investigations as a core responsibility of the office, would plan education and training, and ensure appropriate followup and recordkeeping. In essence, the Discrimination Officer would create the needed infrastructure to address informal and formal complaints and implement proactive and preventative measures to address forms of covert and overt discrimination.

The UCLA report highlights the importance of a framework of structural components that support an inclusive environment within the decentralized organizational environment of university departments. Recent research on academic departments finds a high degree of variability in the climate and interactions within academic departments that can be strongly influenced by the leadership of the dean and department chair.

Given the decentralized structure of universities with varying micro-climates and cultures, the experiences of women and minorities within departments can reflect very different realities depending on how power is operationalized through leadership, demographic makeup of the department, and intradepartmental interactions. The steps UCLA is taking are important by not only calling attention to the persistence of forms of subtle and covert discrimination, but also in creating the clear and unequivocal leadership expectation for an inclusive work climate throughout the university that supports the progress and contributions of diverse faculty and staff.

Are We Really So Different? The AAA Exhibit on “Race”

Did you know there’s a national exhibit that’s been traveling the US since 2007 entitled RACE: Are We So Different by the American Anthropological Association (AAA)? When I heard about it my thinking went something like this, “Oh good. A credible entity getting behind race discourse. Oh no. Why are they asking if race really makes us that different?”

National Exhibition [Source: Exhibit at Museum of Man - discovers.com]

 

As a multiracial woman often scrutinized for being “ethnically ambiguous” my experience of race is of something absolutely differentiating at the same time I find myself constantly butting up against people who deny its salience. So I felt invalidated then worried that an exhibit choosing to lead with the question, “Are we so different?” might prove unhelpful. Studies have found that when misinformed people were exposed to corrected facts they (a) rarely changed their minds, (b) often became even more strongly set in their beliefs , and (c) did so without recognizing how their own desires influenced them. We live in an era when undoing racism means battling avoidance, denial and the inability to understand another point of view. If people see what they want to see, might a national science exhibit questioning the salience of race run the risk of reinforcing rather than challenging the colorblind ideologies that plague us today? Here’s what I mean…

Simply Human?

As I first entered the exhibit at Seattle’s Science Center, a panel entitled Race Off offered me this, “There is no biological evidence that supports racial categories…What are we? The answer is simple – human.” This is something I run into a lot in my research and has become a trigger for me as a multiracial woman and mother. Check out what trailblazing scholar Maria P. P. Root has to say about this kind of language when it comes to our children:

If a child brings up a racial incident at school and meets with an abstract response from her parents, such as, “We’re all members of the human race,” “Race doesn’t matter,” or “We all bleed the same color,” the child gets no help from these pat answers and will be unequipped to deal with hazing, name calling, racial attacks, or other bullying…most children do not want to be confronted by their parent’s lack of competence in an area in which they need a role model (Maria P. P. Root as cited in Nakazawa, Donna Jackson. Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children. Cambridge: Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2003. Print.).

134 Brazilian Alternatives

I believe to demonstrate how arbitrary our concept of race can be, a panel against the East wall pointed out that Brazilians don’t identify racially in the same way Americans do. Instead, Brazilians align with a multitude of skin-shades rather than a handful of prescribed races. To illustrate the point, the panel gives an impressive list of 134 “Brazilian Terms for Skin Color.” While I was standing there wondering if this was being presented as a solution to our problems, two white women stepped up and admiringly commented, “Wow! This is amazing. We should do this here.” Now there is certainly a point to be made about the importance of discussing skin color but this long list, while different, does not mean Brazil has transcended issues of race. In fact quite the opposite – a reality the panel only lightly alludes to. Brazil, a nation to which 4.9 million African slaves were shipped during the slave trade (versus 400,000 to the US), struggles greatly with its own form of racism/colorism. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery and did nothing to turn former slaves into citizens. According to their 2010 Census, the income of whites was slightly more than double that of black or brown Brazilians and more than half the people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) are black compared to just 7% in richer districts. Sound familiar?

Who Gets to be “Mixed”?

Wrapping up my visit I found myself in a corner dedicated specifically to Kip Fulbeck’s The Hapa Project. Fulbeck’s work has been incredibly influential in defining the multiracial experience and bringing visibility to a very underrepresented demographic. But I got the uncomfortable feeling RACE was trying to use it as a voicebox for how all mixed race peoples choose to face questions of racial identity today.

I became alarmed. Why? Because choosing to be recognized as mixed race in America is still not something all multiracial people get to do. We must always remember our insidious history of oppressing especially mixed-race Blacks and Natives for holding a few drops of said blood (e.g. shutting them out of white and its associated privileges, relegating them instead to “lesser” categories of color). And this legacy persists. Do mixed Black children want or even get to identify as multiracial now? Case in point, our very own mixed race President Obama (who is “half” white) checked “Black” as his race on the 2010 Census. Any discussion of mixed-race identity needs to include a conversation about how this idea exists differently across racial lines. I immediately hunted down the exhibit’s content expert and asked if they had a panel explicitly featuring an exploration of the “One Drop Rule” and issues of blood quantum as a juxtaposition to the Kip Fulbeck corner. Guess what the answer was.

Now before I bring the full wrath of the AAA and America’s science museums down upon me let me say there is a lot this exhibit does well. But while RACE is incredibly researched and offers important information we should all know, it ultimately struggles to reconcile its driving science-based theme that we aren’t so different with a very strong demonstration that we definitely are. And this is where the exhibit did itself a great disservice. By trying to remain neutral on a completely non-neutral issue it not only left itself vulnerable to racial messaging but also positioned itself precisely in the danger zone; a place where the race-matters camp finds plenty of fuel for their fire, but the colorblind-postracial camp does too. And everybody leaves the room possibly having discussed nothing and gotten nowhere.

 

~ You can read more of guest blogger Sharon Chang at her MultiAsian Families blog.

 

“A Long Slow Drift from Racial Justice” — The Hidden Perils of the Fisher Ruling

Last week two decisions from the Supreme Court seemed to turn the clock back on the delicate framework of Civil Rights constructed in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson eras, in what the former president of the University of Michigan and Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, called “a long slow drift from racial justice.” The high court’s decisions in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder and Fisher v. the University of Texas, while appearing to give credence to the principles of racial justice, severely eroded the means to attain voting and educational access.

The Shelby Country decision nullified Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, while maintaining Section 5. Section 4 required nine states and some counties to obtain preclearance from the Department of Justice prior to changing voting requirements. Although based on a formula last updated in 1975, most observers believe that a bipartisan Congress will not coalesce in passing an updated formula. Chief Justice John Roberts justified the decision by stating that “things have changed dramatically” in the South and this country. Within 48 hours of the law passing, Texas, one of the states formerly covered under Section 4, moved to strengthen its requirements for voter identification and indicated that redistricting maps would no longer require federal approval. Comedian Bill Maher aptly termed the Voting Rights decision as evidence of Racism 2.0, in the evolution of more subtle and carefully constructed forms of exclusion. The Fisher decision, in turn, set an almost impossibly high bar for the use of race in college and university admissions that will likely result in unparalleled levels of litigation.

In the Fisher case, Abigail Fisher, a white undergraduate denied admission to the University of Texas claimed that her race prevented her admission to the university while less qualified minority students were admitted. The Supreme Court returned the case to the Fifth Circuit, asking the district/appellate Court to re-review the case with “strict scrutiny” of the inclusion of race in holistic review at the University of Texas. Although some affirmative action advocates viewed the outcome of the ruling as positive in that the justices recognized the value of diversity in the higher education experience, the decision now makes it extremely difficult for universities and colleges to consider race even as one factor among many in a holistic review of admissions applications. Ordinary Americans, as Lee Bollinger observed, will not pick up on the decoupling of race-conscious college admissions and “the larger project of social justice” amidst the legal maneuvering and minutiae.

The Fisher decision essentially brought the courts into the university and college admissions process by requiring a reviewing court to determine if a university’s use of race is necessary to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. Further, “the reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce” these benefits (Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin et al., June 24, 2013, p. 2). Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy, declared that in this process, “the university receives no deference.” Kennedy explained further that the courts, not university administrators, must determine that the means chosen to attain diversity are “specifically and narrowly framed to accomplish that purpose.”

As noted by Peter Schmidt in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the decision has led representatives of Pacific Legal Foundation and the Southeastern Legal Foundation, public-interest law firms that have brought litigation against affirmative action programs, to indicate that they look forward to representing individuals who wish to challenge university and college admissions policies. It remains unclear is how the courts can possibly handle challenges to admissions policies that might arise in the more than 4000 institutions throughout the United States.

Commentators indicate that universities and colleges will need to ramp up their efforts at data collection to meet the requirements of the Fisher decision and to prove that race-neutral efforts could not have attained the same level of racial diversity. Given the constraints of the Fisher decision and its aggressive intrusion in the realm of university governance, it will require significant efforts on the part of colleges and universities to find the appropriate channels to continue to enhance the access and success of minority students to educational opportunity.

Striking Lack of Diversity in Ivy League’s Top Positions

The June 14 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education (“At the Ivies, It’s Still White at the Top”) presents a remarkable pictorial display of the individuals in the top levels of university administration in the Ivy League (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale). This pictorial display is more powerful and compelling than any statistical report in portraying the absence of diversity in university leadership. It reminds us of the dimensions of the administrative landscape as it exists today and emphasizes the fact that we are truly only at the beginning of the long journey toward inclusion in the top tiers of our nation’s educational institutions. This journey begins with representation as its first phase, next proceeds to the development of a representative bureaucracy that reflects the changing demography of student populations, and ultimately requires the creation of inclusive cultures at all levels.

The lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the top administrative ranks is not limited to the Ivies, but also pertains to public and private research universities as well as four-year colleges throughout the United States. A 2008 King & Gomez study found that close to 85 percent of the top-ranked positions in doctorate-granting institutions are held by whites and 66 percent held by males. Similarly, a NACUBO (2010) survey, found that Chief Financial Officers are 90% white and 68% male.

Furthermore, as Bryan Cook, former director of the American Council of Education, notes in the lead article by Stacey Patton in this Chronicle special edition, the lack of racial and ethnic diversity at 149 four-year colleges has persisted for 25 years. Cook also observes that institutions rarely replace a minority member with another when he or she leaves. As Ms. Patton perceptively notes, the frequent argument about “lack of qualified candidates” for these top roles becomes a loaded and coded divergence—a smoke screen that feeds stereotypes of minorities as less capable, intelligent, or experienced (p. A4). The few minorities that are selected for these highly visible roles experience what researchers William Tierney and Robert Rhodes call the double-edged sword of “a perverse visibility and a convenient invisibility.” For example, in her essay, “The Making of a Token,” in the edited volume Presumed Incompetent Yolanda Flores Niemann reports her “inordinate visibility” as a minority female professor in a mainly white male department. Subjected to overt racism and isolation, her negative self-perceptions and lowered sense of self-efficacy in the academy increased, until, as she reports, “I no longer recognized the person in the mirror.” Hiring one or two minorities at high levels within our institutions of higher education cannot be expected to solve the sense of exclusion, perceptions of token status, heightened visibility, or differential expectations that can accrue to the singular individual or nominal number of individuals in these top roles.

There are, however, some promising developments on the horizon. David S. Lee, professor of economics and public affairs and the director of the Industrial Relations Section at Princeton University, was just named provost last week, as the current provost (Christopher Eisgruber) ascended to the presidency. Unlike its Ivy comparators, Columbia University had the highest percentage of minority administrators (42 percent), although only 3 of its senior-level administrators are minorities. And women have certainly attained the highest levels with female presidents at all of the Ivies except Yale (Dartmouth has an interim female president).

As Alvin Evans and I share in our forthcoming book, The New Talent Acquisition Frontier: Integrating HR and Diversity Strategy, diverse talent is an accelerator of innovation, demanding a shift in the structures of top-down, command-and-control leadership that characterized the Industrial era. In this era of globalization, universities can no longer afford to ignore the need for diverse, collaborative, intergroup leadership. The leadership of diverse executive teams will create common ground in an environment of shared governance, promote inclusive campus climates, and position the university to respond to the changing educational needs of students in an interconnected, global society.

The Craziest Person in the Room: Reflections on How a Mediocre White Guy Can Try to Be Useful

[Edited version of a talk at the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education in New Orleans on June 1, 2013.]

I recognize that the title for this presentation—“The Craziest Person in the Room: Reflections on How a Mediocre White Guy Can Try to Be Useful”—is not particularly elegant or enticing, maybe not very clear or even coherent. So, let me begin by explaining what I mean by some of these terms.

First, the “white guy”: For some years now, I’ve begun talks on injustice and inequality by acknowledging my status: White, male, educated, comfortably middle class, and born in the United States—in short, a privileged citizen of a predatory imperial nation-state within a pathological capitalist economic system. Borrowing a line from a friend with the same profile, I observe that, “If I had been born good-looking, I would have had it all.” That approach communicates to people in this room who don’t occupy these categories that I recognize my unearned privilege and the unjust systems and structures of power from which that privilege flows. (It also indicates that I am not afraid to look in a mirror.)

But today I won’t offer much more of that reflexive white liberal/progressive/radical genuflecting, which while appropriate in many situations increasing feels to me like a highly choreographed dance that happens in what we might call “social-justice spaces.” In rooms such as this, such a performance feels like that—just a performance. So, yes, there are some things I don’t know and can’t know because I’m a white guy, and that demands real humility, a recognition that people on the other end of those hierarchies have different, and typically deeper, insights than mine. But after 25 years of work to understand the world in which I live, there are some things I am confident that I do know and that are more vitally important than ever.

This confidence flows from an awareness that I am mediocre. About “mediocre”: Don’t worry, I don’t have a self-esteem problem. I am a tenured full professor at a major state research university, a job that I work hard at with some success. This is not false modesty; I believe I’m an above-average teacher who is particularly good at expressing serious ideas in plain language. I describe myself as mediocre because I think that, whatever skills I have developed, I’m pretty ordinary and I think that most of us ordinary people are pretty mediocre—good enough to get by, but nothing special. If we put some effort into our work and catch a few breaks (and I’ve had more than my share of lucky breaks), we’ll do ok. Too many bad breaks, and things fall apart quickly. I think this is an honest, and healthy, way to understand ourselves.

So, for me, “coming out” as mediocre is a way of reminding myself of my limits, to help me use whatever abilities I do have as effectively as possible. I’ve spent a quarter-century in academic and political life, during which time I’ve met some really smart people, and I can tell the difference between them and me. I have never broken new theoretical ground in any field, and I never will. I probably have never had a truly original idea. I’m a competent, hard-working second-tier intellectual and organizer.

As a result, I’ve focused on trying to get clear about basic issues: Why is it so difficult for U.S. society to transcend the white-supremacist ideas of its founding, even decades after the end of the country’s formal apartheid system? Why do patriarchal ideas dominate everywhere, even in the face of the compelling arguments of feminists? Why do we continue to describe the United States as a democratic society when most ordinary people feel shut out of politics and the country operates on the world stage as a rogue state outside of international law? Why do we celebrate capitalism when it produces a world of unspeakable deprivation alongside indefensible affluence? And why, in the face of multiple cascading ecological crises, do we collectively pretend that prosperity is just around the corner when what seems more likely to be around the corner is the cliff that we are about to go over? Those are some really heavy questions, but people don’t have to pretend to be something special to deal with these challenges. We can be ordinary, average—mediocre, in the sense I mean it—and still do useful things to confront all this. Instead of trying to prove how special and smart we are, it’s fine to dig in and do the ordinary work of the world. But people like me—those of us with identities that come with all that unearned privilege—do have one opportunity to do at least one thing that can be special: We don’t have to pretend to be the smartest, but we can strive to be the craziest person in the room.

Third, and final, clarification, about “crazy”: In this context, I mean crazy not in a pejorative but in an aspirational sense. I want to be as crazy as I can, in the sense of being unafraid of the radical implications of the radical analysis necessary to understand the world. When such analysis is honest, the implications are challenging, even frightening. It is helpful to be a bit crazy, in this sense, to help us accept the responsibility of pushing as far and as hard as is possible and productive, in every space.

I take that to be my job, to leverage that unearned privilege to create as much space as possible for the most radical analysis possible, precisely because in some settings I am taken more seriously than those without that status. If it’s true that white people tend to take me more seriously than a non-white person when talking about race, then I should be pushing those white folk. If I can get away with talking not just about the need for diversity but also about the enduring reality of racism—and in the process, explain why the United States remains a white-supremacist society—then I should talk “crazy” in that way, to make sure that analysis is part of the conversation, and to make it easier for non-white people to push in whatever direction they choose. Once I’ve used the term “white supremacy,” it’s on the table for others who might be dismissed as “angry” if they had introduced it into the conversation.

If it’s true that men tend to take me more seriously than a woman when talking about gender, then I should be pushing the envelope. If I can get away with talking not just about the importance of respecting women but also about the enduring reality of sexism, then I should talk “crazy” about how rape is not deviant but normalized in a patriarchal culture, about how the buying and selling of women’s bodies for the sexual pleasure of men in prostitution, pornography, and stripping is a predictable consequence of the eroticizing of domination and subordination.

I should talk about the violent reality of imperialism, not just questioning the wisdom of a particular war but critiquing the sick structure of U.S. militarism. I should talk not just about the destructive nature of the worst corporations but also about the fundamental depravity of capitalism itself.

As someone with status and protection, I should always be thinking: What is the most radical formulation of the relevant analysis that will be effective in a particular time and place? Then I should probably take a chance and push it a half-step past that. I should do all this without resorting to jargon, either from the diversity world or the dogmatic left. I should say it as clearly as possible, even when that clarity makes people—including me—uncomfortable. This isn’t always as difficult or risky as it seems. Outside of overtly reactionary political spaces, most people’s philosophical and theological systems are rooted in basic concepts of fairness, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people. Most of us endorse values that—if we took them seriously—should lead to an ethics and politics that reject the violence, exploitation, and oppression that defines the modern world. If only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths—incapable of empathy, those who for some reason enjoy cruel and oppressive behavior—then a radical analysis should make sense to lots of people.

But it is not, of course, that easy, because of the rewards available to us when we are willing to subordinate our stated principles in service of oppressive systems. I think that process works something like this:

–The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.
–Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits, and some limited number of people in subordinated classes will be allowed access to most of those same rewards.
–People are typically hesitant to give up privileges, pleasures, and benefits that make us feel good.
–But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of the vast majority of those in the subordinated classes.
–Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.
–One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are “natural” and therefore inevitable, immutable. There’s no point getting all worked up about this—it’s just the way things are.

If this analysis is accurate, that’s actually good news. I would rather believe that people take pains to rationalize a situation they understand to be morally problematic than to celebrate injustice. When people know they have to rationalize, it means they at least understand the problems of the systems, even if they won’t confront them.

So, our task is to take seriously that claim: Is this domination/subordination dynamic natural? Yes and no. Everything humans do is “natural,” in the tautological sense that since we do it, human nature obviously includes those particular characteristics. In that sense, a pacifist intentional community based on the collective good and a slave society based on exploitation are both natural. We all know from our own experience that our individual nature includes varied capacities; we are capable of greedy, self-interested behavior, and we also can act out of solidarity and compassion. We make choices—sometimes consciously, though more often without much deliberation—within systems that encourage some aspects of our nature and suppress other parts.

Maybe there is a pecking order to these various aspects of human beings—a ranking of the relative strength of these various parts of our nature—but if that is the case, we know virtually nothing about it, and aren’t likely to know anytime soon, given the limits of our ability to understand our own psychology. What we do understand is that the aspect of our nature that emerges as primary depends on the nature of the systems in which we live. Our focus should be on collective decisions we make about social structure, which is why it’s crucial to never let out of our sights the systems that do so much damage: white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism. There are serious implications to that statement. For example, I do not think that meaningful social justice is possible within capitalism. My employer, the University of Texas at Austin, doesn’t agree. In fact, some units of the university—most notably the departments of business, advertising, and economics—are dedicated to entrenching capitalism. That means I will always be in a state of tension with my employer, if I’m true to my own stated beliefs.

Education and organizing efforts that stray too far from this focus will never be able to do more than smooth the rough edges off of systems that will continue to produce violence, exploitation, and oppression—because that’s what those systems are designed to do. If we are serious about resisting injustice, that list of systems we must challenge is daunting enough. But it is incomplete, and perhaps irrelevant, if we don’t confront what in some ways is the ultimate hierarchy, the central domination/subordination dynamic: the human belief in our right to control the planet.

Let me put this in plain terms: We live in a dead world. Not a world that is dying, but a world that is dead—beyond repair, beyond reclamation, perhaps beyond redemption. The modern industrial high-energy/high-technology world is dead. I do not know how long life-as-we-know-it in the First World can continue, but the future of our so-called “lifestyle” likely will be measured in decades not centuries. Whatever the time frame for collapse, the contraction has begun. I was born in 1958 and grew up in a world that promised endless expansion of everything—of energy and material goods, of democracy and freedom. That bounty was never equitably distributed, of course, and those promises were mostly rhetorical cover for power. The good old days were never as good as we imagined, and they are now gone for good.

If that seems crazy, let me try again: The central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy—propped up by a technological fundamentalism that is as irrational as all fundamentalisms—is that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social arrangements, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: This high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump. We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.

Does that still sound crazy? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of dead zones in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction). Instead of gently putting our foot on the brakes and powering down, we are slamming into overdrive.

And there is the undeniable trajectory of global warming/global weirding, climate change/climate disruption—the end of a stable planet.

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points (June 7, 2012, issue of Nature) and planetary boundaries (September 23, 2009, issue of Nature), about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.” (Anthony Barnosky, et al, “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” Nature, June 7, 2012).

That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson wrote that, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.

I’m not moving into rapture talk, but we do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life.

All this matters for anyone concerned not only about the larger living world but also the state of the human family. Ecological sustainability and social justice are not separate projects. One obvious reason is that ecological crises do not affect everyone equally—as those in the environmental justice movement say, the poor and oppressed of the planet tend to be hit “first and worst, hardest and longest” by ecological degradation. These ecological realities also affect the landscape on which we organize, and progressive and radical movements on the whole have not spent enough time thinking about this.

First, let me be clear, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society, we should affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability. We take on projects that we realize may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.

Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.” There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.

Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for increasingly scarce resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.

If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.

It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice. To handle it is to be a moral agent, responsible for oneself and one’s place in a community.

Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.

Facing this doesn’t demand that we separate from mainstream society or give up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination. We do what we can, where we can, based on our best assessment of what will move us forward.

That may not be compelling to everyone. So, just in case I have dug myself in a hole with some people, I’ll deploy a strategy well known to white people talking about social justice: When you get in trouble, quote an icon from the civil-rights movement. In this case, I’ll choose James Baldwin, from a 1962 essay about the struggles of artists to help a society, such as white-supremacist America, face the depth of its pathology.

On this question of dealing honestly with hard truths, Baldwin reminds us,

Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” In that essay, titled “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” Baldwin suggested that a great writer attempts “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more. (James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” in Randall Kenan, ed., The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Pantheon, 2010), pp. 28-34.)

He was speaking about the struggle for justice within the human family, but if we extend that spirit to the state of the larger living world, the necessary formulation today would be “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then all the rest of the truth, whether we can bear it or not.”

By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe. All we do is undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability and guarantee the end of the human evolutionary experiment will be ugly beyond our imagination. We must remember, as Baldwin said, “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.”

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Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue, and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (on Kindle)

Jensen is also the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to here. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.