Research Brief: New Publications on Race and Racism

Here is a recap of some of the latest research on race and racism. As always, I note which pieces are freely available on the web, or “open access” with (OA), and those behind a paywall with (locked).

Research in the Dictionary

 

  • Cunningham, Jennifer M. “Features of Digital African American Language in a Social Network Site.” Written Communication, October 2014, (Vol. 31 No. 4): 404-433. Abstract: This study examines a social network site (SNS) where specific interlocutors communicate by combining aspects of academic American English (AE), digital language (DL), and African American Language (AAL)—creating a digital form of AAL or digital AAL (DAAL). This article describes the features of DAAL in the discursive, online context of MySpace, by analyzing a corpus of DAAL comments (1,494 instances). The use of SNSs affords a space where AAL exists in written form, serving the function of approximating spoken AAL. More interesting, however, is the function that DAAL serves as a text that is visually distinct from AE, emphasizing the orthographic freedom of DAAL on SNSs. By examining how DL and AAL exist and combine in an SNS environment, this research found DAAL to be a robust form of written communication. (locked)
  • Holling, Michelle A., Dreama G. Moon, and Alexandra Jackson Nevis. “Racist Violations and Racializing Apologia in a Post-Racism Era.” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication ahead-of-print (2014): 1-27. Abstract: In theorizing the dialectic of public acts of white racial offenses and the in/sufficiency of apologia associated with white racial discourse, we examine racist violations and racializing apologia from 24 white public figures in the United States between 1996 and 2012. Analysis of racist violations reveals that each offense undermines race as a social and political marker, whereas racializing apologia makes explicit the constant force of racialization and latent nature of whiteness in apologia strategies. We view racializing apologia as potentially liberatory, capable of allowing for a defense of oneself and challenging reproduction of racial formations. (locked)
  • Reger, Jo. “The Story of a Slut Walk Sexuality, Race, and Generational Divisions in Contemporary Feminist Activism.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (2014): 0891241614526434. Drawing on a participant observation at a 2011 slut walk, I use elements of autoethnography to investigate issues and divisions in contemporary feminism. Slut walks emerged as a form of feminist protest early in 2011 when a police officer remarked that women should stop dressing like sluts if they did not want to be victimized, spurring a global mobilization promoting ideas such as “sexual profiling” and “slut shaming.” As quickly as the slut walks spread, critiques also emerged. In this essay, I explore the critiques of claiming slut as an empowering identity through my own experiences. I present five scenarios from the protest as a way of examining ideas such as “inverted” generational disidentification, the legitimization of patriarchal and feminist gazes, the articulation and silencing of women’s and girls’ sexual desire, social movement spillover, and the continuation of racial divides in North American feminism. (locked)
  • Titley, Gavin. “No apologies for cross-posting: European trans-media space and the digital circuitries of racism.” Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, March, 2014 Vol. 5, Issue 1, . doi:10.1386/cjmc.5.1.41_1. Abstract: This article proposes points of departure for researching the circulation and assemblage of racist ideas and racializing discourses in the trans-media space of interactive, hybrid digital media. It contends that racist mobilizations are increasingly invested in organized and opportunistic communicative actions that depend on the integration of interactive digital media to a wider media ecology and European political environment. Further, if social media can be understood as a constant ‘invitation to discourse’, then they also provide an invitation to discourse on the nature and scope of racism in a putatively ‘post-racial’ era. In contending that the affordances and dynamics of social media networks are politically generative in relation to the politics of racism, it proposes working with malleable resources in the sociology of racism to develop approaches that are not limited to the established focus on extremist sites, but that can account both for the circuitries of digital media exchange and the particularities of regional racial formations. (locked)
  • Von Robertson, Ray, Alma Bravo, and Cassandra Chaney. “Racism and the Experiences of Latina/o College Students at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution).”  Critical Sociology (2014): 0896920514532664. Abstract: This study explored Latina/o American college students at a predominantly white university in the South. The authors assessed how 12 Latina/o American college students understood racism and racial microaggressions, and developed counter-spaces to navigate the white college milieu. Qualitative analysis revealed instances of racism were dealt with through assimilation and working hard to excel. Additional responses involved aligning themselves with same-race groups and maintaining a high grade point average. Our findings demonstrated that Latina/o students often utilized counter-spaces and determination to excel in college. Finally, a major contribution of our research was that it provided an example of a small case study of Latinas/os, primarily consisting of males, a group that has traditionally been underrepresented in higher education, who performed very well academically at a PWI. (locked)
  • Weiner, Melissa F. “The Ideologically Colonized Metropole: Dutch Racism and Racist Denial.” Sociology Compass 8, no. 6 (2014): 731-744. Abstract: Many in The Netherlands deny the existence of race and racism even as significant research strongly suggests otherwise. This paper synthesized existing literature to illuminate The Netherlands’ unique form of racism, which is rooted in racial neoliberalism, anti-racialism (i.e. the denial of race), racial Europeanization, and the particular Dutch history of colonial exploitation. This article summarizes existing scholarship addressing racism in wide array of social institutions in The Netherlands before addressing the historical roots of Dutch racism and how Dutch aphasia and racial Europeanization deny the links between contemporary and historical oppression before, finally, offering an explanation for this disconnect. (OA)

Happy reading! Do you have some research you’d like to see in one of our upcoming Research Briefs? Let us hear from you in via the contact form. As always, bonus points for sharing open access readings.

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.

United Nations’ Universal Declaration Of Human Rights: A Personal Perspective

At the conclusion of the forthcoming third edition of Joe Feagin’s Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations, he recommends that a new constitutional convention for a true multiracial democracy begin with the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified in 1948. Feagin points out that the United States has never had a constitutional convention that represented all or even the majority of the population. As he notes, the original constitutional convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787 was comprised of 55 white men, representing only 5 percent of the population, and did not include white women, Native Americans, or African Americans.

Feagin’s identification of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights brings to mind the work of my father, Dr. Hung-Ti Chu, at the United Nations and his great personal admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt who shepherded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to its ratification by the General Assembly. My father joined the United Nations in 1946 during the time the Declaration was drafted as a member of the Human Rights Division, and remained at the U.N. in the Secretariat until he retired more than twenty years later. He recalled that Eleanor Roosevelt considered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be the Magna Carta for all humankind. She viewed her role in securing adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights as her greatest achievement. Several years earlier, as a member of the steering committee of the International Student Conference representing the five great world powers, my father had breakfasted with her in the White House and was invited to sit in on FDR’s Fireside Chats over the radio.

My father came to this country as a scholarship student in recognition of his work in the Chinese nationalist movement, receiving his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois in 1937. In 1942, he was invited to become President of Yunnan University in his home province of Yunnan, China, but due to political events and the Communist takeover, was not able to return. After joining the United Nations, he later served as the Principal Secretary of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea, and gave the opening speech of the first democratically-elected National Assembly in Korean history.

Following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt accepted a position offered by President Harry Truman on the first United States delegation to the United Nations. At the time she was the only woman on the delegation and in her words:

I knew that as the only woman, I ‘d better be better than anybody else. So I read every paper. And they were very dull sometimes, because State Department papers can be very dull. And I used to almost go to sleep over them, and– [laughs] But I did read them all. I knew that if I in any way failed, it would not be just my failure; it would be the failure of all women. There’d never be another woman on the delegation.

In a perceptive article titled “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” John Sears states that many believe that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that drafted the Declaration of Human Rights would not have succeeded without the skillful leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt in chairing the Commission. Without legal or parliamentary training, she oversaw the drafting of the Declaration through weeks of arguing over the meaning of each word and phrase.

The initial commission appointed to recommend a structure for the Human Rights Commission consisted of Eleanor Roosevelt and representatives from Norway, Belgium, China, India, Yugoslavia and the ambassador to the United States from China, Dr. C.L. Hsia. Dr. Hsia was a close personal friend and mentor of my father.

Furthermore, as Sears notes, Eleanor Roosevelt insisted upon the unequivocal anti-discrimination article in the Declaration. She believed it would support the struggle for civil rights in the United States and was aware of the shortcomings of this country in attaining these rights. She even clashed with members of the State Department who did not believe that economic and social rights belonged in a bill of human rights.

The U.N.’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 asserts that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncompromising view of universal human rights identifies the source of such rights in events close to home, such as in our everyday interactions:

Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home (…) Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

In a time when women’s leadership was not widely accepted, Eleanor Roosevelt was truly “the first lady of the United States,” a skillful and practical negotiator, able to maneuver in confidence in male-dominated diplomatic circles, able to build the consensus necessary to forge a lasting testament to the freedom, equality, and dignity of all human beings.

The Moral Issue Remains: Medgar Evers and the US Fifty Years Later

Two events that took place just hours apart 50 years ago serve as a metaphor for our nation’s struggle for racial equality.

On June 11, 1963, John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the nation demanding that the federal government aggressively put in place measures to guarantee the constitutional rights of blacks. JFK was comprehensive in his goals, insisting that the federal government be actively involved in addressing institutional racism in housing, the labor market, schooling, access to voting, and public accommodations. This call for racial equality occurred when Jim Crow laws were the norm, a majority of public schools were racially segregated, and blacks were politically disenfranchised. When JFK gave his speech, more than 80 percent of all black workers were concentrated in farming, manual labor, and service-sector jobs that guaranteed subsistence wages and intergenerational poverty.

JFK’s call was righteous, radical, and quintessentially American. It was a demand for equal rights and opportunity based on the Golden Rule. Kennedy argued

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue . . . whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.

The next morning, in Jackson, Miss., white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith sat hidden behind a bush, waiting for Medgar Evers, the local NAACP field secretary and a father of three, to return home. Beckwith shot the civil rights activist in the back, and he died within the hour. Although the evidence linking Beckwith to the murder was overwhelming, he was acquitted twice by all-male, all-white juries. Thirty years later, Beckwith was retried and convicted of murder. He died in prison in 2001.

Social scientists are fond of pointing out that when individuals, typically white individuals, discuss racism, they use the past tense. As a nation, we like to believe that the odious and racist views of people like Beckwith have died out and been replaced by the idealism of an equitable and just society embodied in the aspirations articulated in JFK’s speech on racial equality. How much has changed in 50 years? Is our democracy self-correcting, with our moral arc consistently bending toward justice, as evidenced by Beckwith’s eventual conviction? Or is this just another example of “justice delayed is justice denied,” an enduring feature of how this nation treats racial minorities and newcomers?

JFK’s own words allow us to empirically examine the progress in racial equality over the last 50 years. He observed

The Negro baby born in America today . . . has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.

Compare JFK’s statistics with today’s. In 2010-11, whites graduated from high school at a rate of 76 percent and blacks at 60 percent. In 2010, whites graduated from college at a rate of 62 percent, blacks at 40 percent. In 2013, unemployment for whites was 6.7 percent; it was 13.2 percent for blacks. In 2010, 35 percent of whites and 24 percent of blacks worked in “management, professional, and related occupations.” A salary of $10,000 in 1963 would be worth $75, 990 today; 18 percent of black families and 34 percent of white families made $75,000 or more. On average, whites live five years longer than blacks. Median household income in 2011 was $55,214 for whites, $32,229 for blacks.

At least in the categories mentioned by JFK, it is undeniable that progress has been made. A mountain of earth remains to be moved, however, to level the playing field.

We like to believe that people like Beckwith die off or are marginalized by good people of conscience, and that their exit means social progress is being made. We are invested in the narrative that growing racial tolerance necessarily means shrinking racial inequality, although this equation no longer depicts reality. A black president can be elected (twice), and we may not blink at an interracial couple walking down the street, but that doesn’t mean that racial inequality is in decline or in its death throes. The recession has hurt almost everyone, but it has disproportionately wreaked economic havoc on some racial minorities.

What we should be asking ourselves is, Where are the speeches like Kennedy’s that appeal to the citizenry’s better angels to right a social wrong? Where are the pleas to Americans on moral and ethical grounds by those who can use the bully pulpit to raise public awareness of the social inequalities that continue to plague our nation?

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Charles A. Gallagher is chair of the department of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. E-mail him at gallagher@lasalle.edu. See some of his work here.

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.