Lena Dunham and the Trouble with (White) ‘Girls’

Cast of Girls sitting on a bench

 

(Image source)

It seems almost a foregone conclusion that an exploration of the trouble with white women in contemporary American popular culture would include a discussion of Lena Dunham and her HBO series ‘Girls.’  I say it’s a foregone conclusion because there’s been a lot written about Dunham and ‘Girls’ and whiteness already, and yet I think her contribution to popular culture deserves a mention in this series.

In case you’ve missed this blip on the pop culture radar, Lena Dunham is the 27-year-old woman – often referred to as a ‘prodigy’ – who is the writer, director, star of a show on the cable network HBO. The show, ‘Girls’, is about Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham) and her three close friends, young women very much like Hannah/Lena, living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and trying to find happiness in relationships and careers in New York City.  The show premiered in April, 2012 and is now in its third season.  According to Dunham, the show is meant to ‘fill a space’ left by previous hit television shows about white women in New York City – ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘Gossip Girls’. Dunham says:

“I knew that there was a connection because it’s women in New York, but it really felt like it was tackling a different subject matter. Gossip Girl was teens duking it out on the Upper East Side and Sex and the City was women who figured out work and friends and now want to nail family life. There was this whole in between space that hadn’t really been addressed.”

Perhaps it is this claim at something like redressing a lack of representation on television shows that has gotten Ms. Dunham in such hot water among critics. From the very beginning, the show has been beset with criticism about how the show handles (and doesn’t handle) race. One piece from FoxNews the week the show premiered suggested the show was just about ‘white girls, money and whining.’ 

 

The actors in the HBO series 'Girls'(Image source)

It’s possible that this criticism of Dunham’s ‘Girls’ is unfair. As Joe Caramanica writing at the New York Times accurately observes:

“… ‘Girls’ is hardly alone in its whiteness. Far more popular shows like ‘Two and a Half Men’ or ‘How I Met Your Mother’ blithely exist in a world that rarely considers race. They’re less scrutinized, because unlike the Brooklyn-bohemian demimonde of ‘Girls,’ the worlds of those shows are ones that writers and critics — the sort who both adore and have taken offense at ‘Girls’ — have little desire to be a part of. White-dominant television has almost always been the norm. Why would ‘Girls’ be any different?”

Indeed, why would any one expect ‘Girls’ would be any different than the rest of what’s on white-dominant television? So why the intensity of response to Dunham and her show?

HBO Girls Poster

(Image source)

Part of the problem, as Francie Latour notes, is the demographically skewed setting of the show. Latour writes:

“…the problem I have with Dunham is that the vision of New York City she’s offering us in 2012 — like Sex and the Cityin 1998 and for that matter Friends in 1994 — is almost entirely devoid of the people who make up the large majority of New Yorkers, and have for some time now: Latinos, Asians and blacks. It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population. Much of Girls is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham’s character, 24-year-old unemployed writer Hannah Horvath, and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble.”

The ‘all-white bubble’ that Latour references is not just in the New York City through which the characters move but it has to do with the writing and casting of the show as well. A number of people, including Latour, have voiced strong criticism of the show for now featuring any women of color on the show.

To be sure, there are plenty of defenders of the show and Ms. Dunham.  In a rather convoluted defense titled, “Lena Dunham: Attacked for No Good Reason,” written by Hilton Als and published in The New Yorker no less, says:

“Also, isn’t Dunham doing women of color a favor by not trying to insert them into her world where ideas about child-rearing, let alone man and class aspirations, tend to be different? John Lennon once said if you want your kids to stay white, don’t have them listen to black music. And I think it’s crazy to assume Dunham hasn’t. She grew up in New York, and you can see it in her clothes and body: no white girl allows herself to look like that if she didn’t admire the rounder shapes, and more complicated stylings, that women of color tend to pursue as their idea of beauty.”

Uhm, ok. Let me see if I’ve got this. Dunham is “doing women of color a favor” by not trying to “insert them into her world”? But it’s all ok, because clearly, look at the way she dresses and how much weight she carries, she’s clearly ‘down’ with women of color and “their idea of beauty.”  Got it.

Another defense is a bit more critical but follows along the same lines. In “‘Girls’: The Unbearable Whiteness of Being,” Chez Pazienza writes:

I think that the criticism Lena Dunham’s been on the receiving end of from some in the black and Hispanic community is unfair. In case you haven’t been following — and for your own sake, I hope you actually have better things to do than concern yourself with this kind of “controversy” — a host of socially conscious journalists of color, many of them female, have complained that Dunham’s show is too “white,” that none of the titular girls on Girls are black or brown. The argument is a little dumb at face value, simply because Dunham herself is white and it’s not like that’s something she can change — and while New York City, both real and the depressing hellhole depicted on the show, is indeed a melting pot, let’s be honest and admit that it’s not exactly unlikely that people like Dunham’s character on the show and her small cadre of friends would all be the same shade of white.

Hell, the show wouldn’t be what it is — cloying and insipid — without the pervading stench of white privilege and the ability for characters to mumble complaints about the kind of shit only privileged white kids have the luxury of complaining about. It’s been a common refrain among critics of Girls, but it’s a show about white people problems — and like everyone else, I say that as derogatorily as possible — and trying to shoehorn a demographic into the equation which undoubtedly brings a different set of concerns to the table would be a ham-fisted nod to political correctness and little more.

I almost agree with Pazienza here. Almost. I mean, there is something about the cloying, insipid white privilege of the show that makes it hard to look away from the television when it’s on, but that’s what we call a “resistive reading.” (If you’re not familiar with this term, go read some John Fiske.)

This is Pazienza’s reading of the show. This critique of white privilege is not what the creators of the show intended. Watching a show because the characters are unintentionally loathsome, when the creators of the show don’t intend the characters to be loathsome, I think we call that “hate watching.”

 

And then there’s the racism.

After Jenna Wortham wrote on the Hairpin about her disappointment in the show’s overwhelming whiteness (“these girls… are beautiful, they are ballsy, they are trying to figure it out… I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen, right alongside them”) one of the shows writer’s, Lesley Arfin, responded with a Tweet,

referring to the film ‘Precious’ which featured a mostly black cast:

“What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.”

Lesley Arfin seems to enjoy being provocative about race and language. I’m not sure whether she falls into the category of “hipster racism” as some have suggested, or is merely (still) learning that there is no such thing as “ironic racism.” 

Dunham’s views are equally disturbing. Reflecting on a trip to Japan in 2011, Dunham wrote an essay, “In Which We Regularly Played Ping-Pong with the Princess Masako.”  Meant to be a travelogue written in the tone Dunham has cultivated, the essay merely comes across as offensive and racist. In a section called “Yellowish Fever,” Dunham writes:

“I know I said I could never imagine a Japanese affair, but I’ve changed my mind. Kazu, the art handler hanging my mom’s show, is gorgeous like the strong, sexy, dreadlocked Mongol in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (causing my sister to email the instruction: “Yeah, girl. crouch that tiger, hide that dragon. P.S. That’s a Chinese movie”).

Throughout the essay, the primary way she seems to be able to relate to Japanese people is as consumables, collectables or oddities, never as fully human.

This view seems evident in the show as well.

In an attempt to address the criticisms about race in the first season of the show, the second season included a new character, Sandy, a black man who is Hannah/Lena’s love interest.

 

Hannah and Sandy 'Girls'

 

The relationship lasts barely an episode, and then they are breaking up and hurling racial accusations at each other.  From Judy Berman’s review at The Atlantic:

“I also would love to know how you feel about the fact that two out of three people on death row are black men,” she says. “Wow, Hannah. I didn’t know that. Thank you for enlightening me that things are tougher for minorities,” he shoots back. Soon, he’s mocking her for exoticizing him—”‘Oh, I’m a white girl and I moved to New York and I’m having a great time and I got a fixed gear bike and I’m gonna date a black guy and we’re gonna go to a dangerous part of town,’” he scoffs. “And then they can’t deal with who I am”—and she’s feebly turning around the accusation on him. “The joke’s on you, because you know what? I never thought about the fact that you were black once,” Hannah says when it’s clear the breakup is really happening, despite the fact that she’s the one who introduced race into the conversation. “That’s insane.” Sandy tells her. “You should, because that’s what I am.” By the time he asks Hannah to leave, both have admitted they don’t feel good about what they’ve said to each other. The viewer at home, witnessing such shrewdly observed yet ultimately unresolved racial and political tension, is bound to feel just as rattled.

While that scene includes some fine writing, it’s the frame that’s perpetuates the tropes of the sexualized (and dangerous) black man and the adventurous white woman who is playing out her fantasies at his expense. Once the show has “dealt with” the race issue in this episode, the issue – and all the people of color – disappear from view.

Berman ends her essay agreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates – basically, that Dunham shouldn’t worry about these critiques and she should just be her ‘authentic self,’ to use Coates’ terms.  According to Berman, the solution is:

“…in a world where the wealthy, white, well-connected Lena Dunhams always seem to end up in the spotlight, those who aren’t part of her elite world shouldn’t have to rely on her for representation. They need the same platform to be their authentic selves that she’s been afforded. Until the divisions between races in America truly become meaningless, it’s the only way our pop culture will ever reflect our particular patchwork of people and experiences.”

What’s missing in this analysis is any consideration of the considerable set of barriers contained in the phrase “they need the same platform” that she’s been afforded.  While people of color are the stars on YouTube, it’s still white girls that get the contracts at HBO.

If ‘Girls’ were a show about four white women but it was at all thoughtful, reflexive or critical of their whiteness, I’d have a different take on the show. However, Dunham refers to the show’s whiteness a “complete accident.”    And that’s different than a show that’s critical about the whiteness it’s reproducing. In fact, that’s the opposite of being thoughtful and reflexive about whiteness.

Amy Chua’s “Triple Package”: Success Formula for Some?

Is success monolithic and limited to certain groups? Attributes of success cannot be monopolized by certain groups, cultures, ethnicities, or religious groups. Most people that are successful, in fact, appear to have characteristics in common and these characteristics are not driven by their membership in certain groups. The premise of the American democracy is based on the notion that all can succeed through hard work and access to opportunity. In Outliers, the Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell observes:

Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

Yet according to Amy Chua and Jeb Rosenfeld in their new book, The Triple Package, the combination of three cultural characteristics has led to the success of eight groups in America (Chinese, early Cuban exiles, Indians, Nigerians, Mormons, Iranians, Lebanese and Jews): 1) a superiority complex; 2) a sense of insecurity; and 3) impulse control. In fact, they assert,

all of America’s disproportionately successful groups have a superiority complex; in fact most are famous for it” (p. 72).

This superiority complex, they state, is “deeply ingrained” (p. 83). And strikingly, the authors do not support these sweeping statements with research findings or empirical sources of evidence.

Chua and Rosenfeld’s thesis has distinct Orwellian overtones by suggesting that some groups have what it takes to be more equal or successful than others. As NYU professor Suketu Mehta points out in an article titled “The ‘Tiger Mom Superiority Complex’” in Time Magazine,the book represents “a new strain of racial, ethnic, and cultural reductivism,” a sort of “ethnocentric thinking writ large” or what he terms “the new racism.” And, he adds, “I call it the new racism—and I take it rather personally.”

The Triple Package touches on some important themes, but also suffers from a number of critical flaws. Most importantly, the book does not address the nature of structural discrimination that is reflected in disparate historical, economic, and social realities for minorities through the predominance of what social theorist Joe Feagin calls the “white racial frame.” According to Feagin, this frame is comprised of racial stereotypes, racial narratives, racial images, and racialized emotions that shape how many whites behave and interact with all Americans of color. Systematic, structural forms of exclusion of minorities have pervaded access to housing, education, distribution of economic resources, and job opportunities.

Arguably, the sense of superiority of any group is affected by forces of social oppression and the internalization of these forces has an impact on the psyche of affected individuals. Chua and Rosenfeld have correctly identified the fact that blacks have been systematically denied access to a group superiority complex and bear a significant cultural burden by susceptibility to stereotype threat. However, the omission of African Americans from the chapter on impulse control seems to do a disservice to hardworking African Americans who have been highly successful.

Second, the co-authors’ emphasis is on immigrant success. Factors in immigrant success, however, are not representative of the American population as a whole. For the most part, the legal immigration system has provided upper and middle class individuals the opportunity to emigrate to the United States. Take, for example, the fact mentioned by Chua and Rosenfeld indicate that 65 percent of Iranian Americans are foreign born. They also distinguish between the success of the first wave of Cuban immigration between 1959 and 1973 which included an influx of mostly white middle and upper class professionals “at the pinnacle of a highly stratified society” (p. 37) with the later wave of Cuban immigrants who were black or of mixed race or mostly poor. As the authors observe, these individuals were not successful in business and are absent from Miami’s power elite. Yet rather than cultural factors, the racism and classicism evident in the treatment of second-generation Cuban immigrants represent powerful structural, social influences in their relative lack of mobility and success.

Third, the authors assert that the Triple Package is a cultural explanation of group success that does not include education or hard work as core components. In their view, education and hard work are dependent and not independent variables. This dismissal of education flies in the face of Horace Mann’s view that education is

a great equalizer of the conditions of men,–the balance wheel of the social machinery” that “gives each man the independence and the means by which he can resist the selfishness of other men.

Or to put it in a more contemporary framework, as Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation points out, “college-level learning is key to individual prosperity, economic security, and the strength of our American democracy.”

And, in Chua and Rosenfeld’s view, America previously had the Triple Package culture, but,

in the latter part of the twentieth century, something happened. America turned against both insecurity and impulse control (p. 208).

As a result, the authors indicate that to recover the Triple Package, Americans would have to recover from “instant gratification disorder” (p. 218).

The basis for these statements is not explained, documented, or footnoted. In essence, individuals from oppressed groups, no matter which group, have similar aspirations and wish for a better life and to be part of the American dream. These aspirations are not driven by cultural characteristics and can be advanced through education, hard work, and structural and opportunity mechanisms that facilitate individual progress. Due to the lack of evidence offered for the assertions of the Triple Package, the book essentially provides commentary on a very complex subject rather than scholarship and, as such, lacks credibility. Should certain groups accept the unsupported premises of this book, self-fulfilling prophecies could set in, and public opinion and debate could be affected by unverified statements that are not grounded in empirical data or social science research.

White Sexual Violence against Enslaved Black Women

Historians have estimated that at least 58% of all enslaved women between 15 and 30 years of age were sexually assaulted by white men during the antebellum period. In addition to the white male privilege and power evident in this extensive routine rape of black female slaves, the reactions of white women to their husbands’ sexual behavior helped perpetuate racial and gender subordination as well as white privilege.

White women reacted to sexual violence perpetrated against enslaved black women by their husbands in a variety of ways including ignoring or denying the behavior, divorcing their husbands, or punishing the enslaved black women who were sexually victimized. These reactions are repeated throughout a variety of records from slavery including Work Projects Administration slave narratives, divorce petitions, autobiographical slave narratives, and diaries.

For white women, the legal structure created some incentives to stay quiet about their husbands’ sexual violation of enslaved black women. During the 1800’s, a variety of state courts declared that a man had the right to execute “moderate chastisement” of his wife “in cases of emergency,” such as the Mississippi Supreme Court in Bradley v. State in 1824. The white male dominated structure of the legal, political, and economic system was crucial to white women’s responses to their husbands’ sexual violence against slaves. The desire to stay physically unharmed and financially secure likely encouraged many white women to remain silent about their husbands’ sexual behavior.

Mary Chesnut, an elite white woman living in the mid-1800’s described the denial of white women in her diary. She writes

every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.

An anonymous former slave who was interviewed for the Work Projects Administration slave narratives wrote similarly,

Before my old marster died, he had a pretty gal he was goin’ with and he wouldn’t let her work nowhere but in the house, and his wife nor nobody else didn’t say nothin’ ’bout it; they knowed better. She had three chillun for him. . . .

Despite the potential consequences of speaking out against their husbands, some white women did file for divorce from their husbands often in large part because of the sexual “relationships” they had with enslaved black women. Through divorce petitions white women portrayed themselves as innocent victims of their husbands’ adultery. White women repeatedly overlooked the sexual violence and victimization of the enslaved black women coerced into their husbands’ “affairs.” Meanwhile they portrayed themselves as meeting the ideal standards of white womanhood, such as Margaret Garner from Mobile, Alabama who in 1841 petitioned for divorce explaining that she “calmly remonstrated” with her husband with regard to his affair or Mary Jackson from Georgia who treated her husband “Joseph with respect and affection and rendered due obedience to all the lawful commands.”

These women depict themselves as willfully submissive and obedient. Although the obedient, passive and loyal portrayals of themselves assisted white women in gaining divorces from their husbands as well as a portion of the economic resources in many cases; they simultaneously reinforced white gender roles and the white sexism that is associated. Moreover, when white women frame themselves as the sole victims of their husbands’ “affairs” with enslaved black women, they reinforce a narrative which focuses all attention on their own needs and the role of the court in protecting white women from men who have failed to achieve white male virtue, as opposed to acknowledging the needs of the black women who were sexually victimized and requiring of legal protection against rape.

Some white women also enacted a form of secondary abuse through physical and verbal punishment against the enslaved black women who had been sexually violated by white men. Through physical and verbal abuse, white women could transfer their feelings of humiliation, jealousy, or degradation into feelings of racial superiority over female slaves. Because white women were unable to enact any behaviors which would give them power over their white husbands this physical abuse directed at the enslaved black women simultaneously reflects the gender-subordinated and racially-privileged status that white women held. Not only did white women reinforce racial oppression through their responses, and lack of responses, to their husbands’ sexual violence, but they also reinforced their own oppression as white women by failing to resist the white male behaviors and white male dominated structures which ensure their gender subordination.

Today, although interracial rape of black women by white men has decreased significantly from the antebellum period, the intersecting institutions of oppression which shaped the identities and influenced the dynamics between white women, white men, black women, and black men persist. This raises the questions, in what ways are intersecting institutions of oppression creating incentives for some groups to partake in oppressive racial and gender performances and acts of domination today, and how does each group contribute to the overarching intersectional system of oppression?

Rachel is a Phd student doing her dissertation work on this issue of the extensive sexual coercion and rape of Black women by white men during the slavery era.

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

There is an amazing series airing on PBS this fall, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The documentary series is produced and narrated by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and made possible, in part, by JustFilms of the Ford Foundation, The Hutchins Family Foundation, as well as corporate sponsors.  I mention the sponsorship at the top because you can see how the deep-pocketed funding pays off in this well-crafted, beautifully told, and thoroughly researched series.

The episodes include a wide sweep of just over 400 years of history, beginning with The Black Atlantic (1500-1800), The Age of Slavery (1800-1860), Into the Fire (1861-1896), and the most recent, Making a Way Out of No Way (1897-1940). Still to come are Rise! (1940-1968), and It’s Nation Time (1968-2013).

Each episode blends Gates’ avuncular narration and interviews with leading scholars and experts on African American culture with solid scholarship and a compelling visual style. These are also travelogues as we follow Gates re-tracing the steps of the African diaspora, across the Atlantic, to the American south, and then North and West through the great migration.

The tone of the series is on emphasizing the rather profound resilience, innovation, and resourcefulness of the African American people. Yet, it simultaneously takes an unflinching look at the centuries of white oppression that changes shape over time but remains a brutal, nefarious, and life-threatening constant. In my view, it strikes just the right balance between these two, always emphasizing how African American folks were able to “make a way out of no way,” while never pulling any punches about the unrelenting nastiness of white racism and the cruelty of institutional oppression.

 


(More Famous Quote Posters from PBS)

There are so many people in the US – the overwhelming majority, I think it’s safe to say – who do not know this history. To our great, collective shame this history is not part of the K-12 curriculum, and most adults will only learn it if they choose to take a “Black History” class in college.  My hope is that this remarkable series might be incorporated into more curricula, as it was clearly designed to do.

The series airs on PBS through November 26, check your local listings as they say. And, many clips and several full length videos are available online.

The Myths around White “Merit”

Systemic racism persists and flourishes in this country because of an extensive set of racial myths created long ago and aggressively perpetuated by whites in major institutions of this society, decade after decade.

Given this white myth-making, empirical data on what is actually the case often become “radical.”

Consider this pervasive belief. Whites publicly assert that they get most of their jobs over their lifetimes only or mainly because of their merit and abilities. They pedal this fiction to everyone they can, and indeed get many folks of color also accept it as true.

The problem is that it is mostly a grand fiction.

For example, recently conducting hundreds of white interviews, sociologist and university dean Nancy DiTomaso has demonstrated well the important social networking patterns that reproduce great racial inequalities in U.S. employment patterns. Her many white respondents reported that they have long used acquaintances, friends, and family–their personal networks–to find most of the jobs secured over lifetimes of job hunting. That is, they use exclusionary networks. DiTomaso calls this a societal system of “opportunity hoarding.” It is, more bluntly, institutionalized racial privilege and favoritism.

These empirical findings flatly contradict the colorblind view of our employment world propagated by many Americans, and especially most white Americans– that is, the view that in the U.S. economy jobs are secured mainly or only because of personal “skills, qualifications, and merit.” Yet, wherever they can, most white job seekers admit that they typically avoid real job market competition and secure most of their jobs by using their usually racially segregated social relationships and networks.

And, even more strikingly perhaps, most whites do not even care that they benefit so greatly from such an unjust non-merit system—one that exists because of the 400 years that systemic racism has created a huge array of white material, social, and psychological privileges. In her many white interviews DiTomaso did not one white respondent ever openly expressing concern about their use of this highly unjust non-merit system.

Her data also flatly refute other common notions of white virtue. Whites contend that they are now the victims of “reverse racism” and “reverse discrimination,” two white-crafted terms and notions–in more recent versions of the dominant white racial frame–that are primarily designed to deflect attention from the society’s fundamental and foundational white racism.

In her white interviews Ditomaso found that the persisting opposition by most whites to affirmative action is not so much about fear of “reverse discrimination,” but much more about the way in which effective affirmative action programs have sought to weaken these centuries-old patterns of institutionalized favoritism for whites–including institutionalized bias favoring whites in competition for society’s better-paying jobs.

She found In the nearly 1,500 job situations that her respondents talked about in detailed interviews, she found only two situations where a white person might have conceivably lost a job because of an affirmative action effort on behalf of black Americans. Empirical demonstration of yet another white fiction.

The real societal worlds, when it comes to jobs and much else in the way of white wealth, assets, and privileges, are not those fictional worlds of distinctive merit and white disadvantage propagated by many, and especially conservative, whites—including those “well-educated” whites who serve on our high courts and in our legislatures.

Empirical data on how white-generated racism operates in the real world, once again, are themselves radical.

Devil’s Night: Black Beneficiaries of White Racism

In need of a house? Affordable housing? Detroit has an abundance of housing with prices unimaginable to most Americans. You can purchase a large spacious home for as low as $100 or less in the underprivileged areas that span for many square miles throughout the city. You might lack public services ordinarily taken for granted in most places, such as police services and street lights. There has been such a surplus of vacant properties that Detroit’s been burning them down. In 2010 there was an estimate of 70,000 burned houses which does not include vacant buildings and those numbers continue to rise with each passing year. Where else in the world would homes that might be considered the picturesque of “the American Dream” be regularly set on fire despite the fact that this nation has its fair share of people who are homeless and/or in dire need of housing?

Devil’s Night in Detroit is when the most fires are set and typically begins on October 30th and runs through the 31st. People from other communities and states travel into the city to join forces with the local residents to help with their local adopt home and other property efforts against arson, as well as bolster local medical, safety, and first response services. In this light, the evening has been redefined as, “Angel’s Night.”

 

(Image from Flickr)

During the early 20th century, Detroit, “The Motor City,” was a growing industrialized city and predominately white prior to the 1920’s. In fleeing the Jim Crow of the south, Blacks began to migrate into the Detroit area during the late 1920’s on through the 70’s only to find they were equally unwelcome. Often met with violent racial hostility by the existing residents and police brutality, social exclusion from employment coupled with housing segregation, Blacks were blocked from equally participating in white society. With the deep seated feelings of entitlement, the settled whites who were already competing with each other for existing opportunities and resources in the Detroit area channeled much of their venomous fears and frustrations onto the Black communities who, like they, were seeking better lives.

The systemic racial issues bottled up coupled with rise of the Civil Rights Movements gave rise to race riots of the 60’s throughout the nation bringing down the racial apartheid. Detroit had the largest riots in the nation resulting in the enactment of Marshall Law on three different occasions. As the apartheid was being dismantled a Black middle class began to emerge where shortly after, the city fell into rapid economic decline. In direct response to desegregation, white flight took hold resulting in resegregation with the nation’s wealth and privileges being concentrated into the predominately white suburbs and higher social classes throughout the nation. In 1950 Detroit’s population peaked with 1,849,568 and declined to 713,777 in 2010. Rather than integrate, much of white society chose to abandon their business and residential property.

Nothing exemplifies white privilege more than with the abandoned properties throughout Detroit. Most of us are required to properly dispose of our unwanted belongings. Black Detroit residents are the primary beneficiaries of these major social problems and toxic environmental issues. In 2010, the population of Detroit was 82.7% Black and 10.6% white with the State of Michigan having 14.2% Black and 78.9% white populations with black inmates representing 55% of the total prison population. Detroit is the poorest city in the nation with 1 in 3 residents living in poverty and many others living near poverty. There are still some very wealthy residents in Detroit, but they live in segregation on the outskirts of the city.

Detroit has the highest murder and missing person rates. These issues may play some role in the highest arson rates as well. As noted by the Detroit fire fighters above, to some degree vandalism has been the culprit, but there are a combination of reasons ranging from desperation where residents set fires to polluted houses that have been abandoned with rotting trash or that pose other social and environmental threats (vigilante fires) to sometimes revenge. Arson is a mechanism the residents have resorted to as a means to correct their immediate problems since the city either will not, or cannot.

But further, some locals believe that the general public is deliberately misled on the level of arson carried out by the residents as some of the power holders of the city are believed to be financially vested with local demolition contractors. It is cheaper to remove burned down houses than those fully intact. This destruction is a form of social expression from abandoned and socially neglected voices. It is revolt as Feagin and Hahn (1973) outlined in their earlier work on Detroit riots, to the many forms of racism that have championed the abuse and neglect of Black communities throughout history on into current times. With the effects of deindustrialization compounded with ongoing blocked legitimate means of survival and societal abandonment, it is no wonder the thousands upon thousands of houses representing the very icon of the American Dream have been set on fire many times over. What American Dream?

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.

Epigenetics Of Being Black and Feeling Blue: Black Vulnerability To Disease

Black Americans and other Americans of color have endured many hardships ever since twenty Africans set foot in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. For 85% percent of our nation’s existence, white-imposed systems of oppression via slavery and Jim Crow “separate but equal” were the bloody and violent norm. Since that time, the persistence of racial discrimination has remained a routine part of their everyday experience. Black folk have worked very hard on a steady path of social mobility through group uplift and self-determination against overwhelming odds. In this milieu of racist deprivation, some black Americans have managed to find economic, political and other forms of success against the hegemonic countervailing forces of white institutional racism and all of its permutations that thwart black life as we know it. This systemic inequality has an impact on more than class position. It influences human biology and physiology at the cellular level, leaving the bodies of the poor, the impoverished, and the targeted more vulnerable to chronic disease.

Epigenetics is the science of how the external environment affects us at the molecular level by altering gene expression and function that can, in turn, be heritable. It refers to chemical modifications or “tags” that mark specific genes around the intricate DNA complex. These modifications can alter gene expression influencing our biology and function. Think of a tag as a volume control knob that signals the gene to turn up or down its programmed function. Our genes listen for cues from the environment such as the food we eat, the kind of milieus where we live and work, the circumstances of our birth, and the race and class-based interactions we share with one another. These factors, in part, determine how our genes respond in ways that expose more vulnerable populations to disease.

Human wars, famines, droughts, plagues, physical and emotional abuse, and other forms of social deprivation not only leave their mark on society in harmful ways, but they also reek havoc deep within the cells of our bodies. The cells react to stressors in the larger social structure at crucial developmental times in the womb that have an influence on human health later in adult life, leaving us more sensitive to our environment and susceptible to disease. The longitudinal Dutch Famine Birth Cohort study that began shortly after World War II in 1945 captures the complexity of environmental factors on our genes. The study analyzed the long-term physical and emotional effects in children who were exposed to maternal malnutrition in the fetal environment. They found that poor nutrition leads to epigenetic changes in gene regulation of the fetus and its developing biological systems, which predisposes cells to certain diseases of slow accumulation that include obesity, kidney disease, lung problems, cardiac disease, breast cancer, and a host of additional physical and mental health disorders.

In epidemiology and other closely related social science disciplines, it has been well established that social class position is inversely linked to poor health. Further, it is well known that health status follows a social gradient with class-based differences in disease frequencies that mirror society. African Americans are constantly relegated to the margins of society where there are continuously exposed to the mundane effects of white-imposed discrimination. Within this space, many African Americans endure daily hassles and sustained assaults for just being black. These micro-aggressions can have negative health-related consequences for their mental, emotional and physical well being by epigenetically-altering the expression of certain cells that control for important bodily functions. Research over the last four decades has mounted strong evidence that race-based mistreatment on the basis of physical characteristics (i.e., hair, bone, lips, skin color, eye shape, etc.) takes a heavy toll on black people not only at the social, political and economic levels of society, but also at the physiological level where cortisol, the body’s “fight or flight” hormone, is seen at elevated levels in African Americans. DNA and its sequencing is genetically programmed to perform functions of the body such as this very stress response. However, biological processes that regulate these functions can be epigenetically altered to increase the physiological stress response in the body at a rate higher and longer than what is normal. This, in turn, can influence the normal function of a cluster of differing cells that regulate blood pressure, kidney function, and cardiac function. Scientists can now investigate these epigenetic modifications on cells induced by the environment such as in the Dutch famine example.

The science of epigenetics is unlocking significant clues as to how racial discrimination can induce changes to the expression of certain genes linked to biological development and the existence of disease. These epigenetic changes can linger for a lifetime and can potentially be transmitted to offspring. Because black Americans and their forbears have endured over 20 generations of white-imposed race-related inequities in every major sector in society, including persistent race-based discrimination in housing, education, healthcare, jobs, and the prison industrial complex, they carry a higher burden of disease. Health and disease are no longer purely infectious in nature, but instead, social and environmental factors account for most chronic disease. It is a function of the dynamic interaction between our genes and the larger society, and epigenetics is providing deeper understanding as to how our genes operate in these situations.

African Americans and their descendants have paid an exorbitantly high price for living in an unequal society in a number of reprehensible ways through the practice of forced labor, high incarceration rates, frequent under/unemployment and low educational expectation. And now, significant health care challenges are among the more salient forms of white on black discrimination. In the absence of sweeping governmental reforms that place human rights over property rights, African Americans must take greater ownership in their own health care by becoming better informed on effective ways to reduce stress—to the extent possible given the maintenance of systems of domination and oppression—to have an impact upon the quality of black life. Otherwise, these persistently elevated stress levels from chronic exposure to race-based discrimination have been shown to be physiologically and mentally bad for health and well-being, both at the individual and institutional levels of society. The result is epigenetic tags with harmful gene expressions.

Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith. This was originally posted at Huffington Post.

Capitalism and Systemic Racism: Oliver Cox’s Pioneering Work



In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been rethinking Oliver C. Cox’s pioneering and excellent Caste, Class, & Race; A Study in Social Dynamics book, which was first published in the late 1940s. It is still very much worth reading and learning from. It is available for free in various pdf and ereader formats for the Monthly Review Press edition here. (I use the Kindle formatting in quotes below.)

Oliver Cox was one of the few early black sociologists in the United States, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1938. He was a student of Robert Ezra Park, yet provided some of the deepest and most insightful critiques of Park, the early Chicago school, and Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma in this book, Caste, Class & Race. I highly recommend his analysis, both for its penetrating assessments and importance in sociological history.

One of the key figures historically in the Black Radical tradition, Oliver Cox was probably the first to argue in some detail that racist framing and exploitation arose in the various stages of modern capitalism:

Racial antagonism is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits. It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492; moreover, racial feeling developed concomitantly with the development of our modem social system. Probably one of the most persistent social illusions of modem times is that we have race prejudice against other people because they are physically different—that race prejudice is instinctive. (Kindle Locations 461-487)

Modern race prejudice and framing is not instinctive but develops in the material context of early capitalism. Cox added that

The interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest— the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society. To be sure, [a white person] might say this cannot be, for one feels an almost irrepressible revulsion in the presence of colored people, especially Negroes, although one never had any need to exploit them. It is evidently the way they look, their physical difference, which is responsible for one’s attitude. . . . [However] the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.

Racist prejudice and framing are learned in the broad material context of racial exploitation, and is generally accepted by most whites without question, even those who see themselves as uninvolved in exploitation. In this negative white racial framing black Americans

must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law. On the whole, they came to America as forced labor, and our slavocracy could not persist without a consistent set of social attitudes which justified the system naturally. Negroes had to be thought of as subsocial and subhuman. To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system. (Kindle Locations 461-487).

Once put into place in the U.S. case, this racial prejudice and broader racial framing spread globally:

Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Kindle Locations 8327-8329).

Later on, he summarizes this way:

Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable. In a quite literal sense the white ruling class is the Negro’s burden; the saying that the white man will do anything for the Negro except get off his back puts the same idea graphically. It is the economic content of race prejudice which makes it a powerful and fearfully subduing force. . . . However, it is the human tendency, under capitalism, to break out of such a place, together with the determined counterpressure of exploiters, which produces essentially the lurid psychological complex called race prejudice. Thus race prejudice may be thought of as having its genesis in the propagandistic and legal contrivances of the white ruling class for securing mass support of its interest. (Kindle Locations 11973-11982).

. . . . [Whites] should not be distracted by the illusion of personal repugnance for a race. Whether, as individuals, [they] feel like or dislike for the colored person is not the crucial fact. What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose. The attitude abhors a personal or sympathetic relationship. (Kindle Locations 11990-11997).

Some 65 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are the results of concrete social and material contexts, not some psychological gremlins inherent in all human beings. And they destroy personal and empathetic relationships. These early classics are indeed well worth reading again today.

The Black Counter Frame: Critical for Much Racial Change



In my The White Racial Frame book I not only discuss this age-old white racial frame, which accents both white virtue material and anti-others material, but also the important counter frames to this dominant white frame that people of color have developed. In the U.S. case African Americans have developed an especially strong counter frame over centuries, perhaps because they have had the longest period of time situated firmly within this systemically racist society.

This counter frame has for centuries been an impetus for many important black protests, and thus in large part for the few major changes that have been made in this country’s racist system over the centuries.

One feature of U.S. systemic racism involves a rather intentional collective forgetting by whites of key African Americans who articulated and often organized around a strong counter frame. Let me remind our readers of a few of these great Americans.

One of the first to put counter frame down on paper was David Walker, a young African American abolitionist working in Boston. In 1829 he published a strong manifesto, entitled Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Demanding full equality, he wrote to his fellow African Americans with revolutionary arguments in an anti-oppression framing, so much so that slaveholding whites put a large cash bounty on his head. (He died young, probably as a result.) Walker analyzes slavery and racial segregation for free blacks quite bluntly. Most whites are “cruel oppressors and murderers” whose “oppression” will be overthrown. They are “an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings.” Whites seek for African Americans to be slaves to them

and their children forever to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!

He then quotes the words “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence and challenges whites:

Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us–men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation! . . . . I ask you candidly, was your sufferings under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?

A little later in the 19th century, an admirer of Walker, the African American abolitionist Henry Garnet, gave a radical speech, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” at a National Negro Convention. Garnet’s counter framing is very assertive and to the point, and it is also an address to those enslaved. He offers a structural analysis of “oppression,” arguing too that the white “oppressor’s power is fading.” African Americans like “all men cherish the love of liberty. . . . In every man’s mind the good seeds of liberty are planted.” He calls on those enslaved to take revolutionary action:

There is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die freemen, than live to be slaves.” He concludes with a strong call to rebellion: “Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties.

One of the most brilliant of the 19th century analysts of systemic racism was the great abolitionist, Martin Delaney, who among other actions worked in revolutionary efforts to overthrow the slavery system. (In May 1858, he and John Brown gathered black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary meeting in Chatham, Canada. Four dozen black and white Americans wrote a new constitution to govern a growing band of armed revolutionaries they hoped would come from the enslaved US population.) Directing a book at all Americans, Delaney emphasizes the

United States, untrue to her trust and unfaithful to her professed principles of republican equality, has also pursued a policy of political degradation to a large portion of her native born countrymen. . . . there is no species of degradation to which we are not subject.

His counter framing is one of resistance and extends the old liberty-and-justice frame beyond white rhetoric:

We believe in the universal equality of man, and believe in that declaration of God’s word, in which it is positively said, that ‘God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.’

Delaney attacks whites’ stereotypes of African Americans with a detailed listing of important achievements of numerous free and enslaved African Americans and emphasizes how enslaved workers brought very important skills in farming to North America that European colonists did not have. African American workers were the “bone and sinews of the country” and the very “existence of the white man, South, depends entirely on the labor of the black man.” Delaney emphasizes that African Americans are indeed very old Americans:

Our common country is the United States. . . . and from here will we not be driven by any policy that may be schemed against us. We are Americans, having a birthright citizenship.

Let us bring these and other important 19th African Americans back into our contemporary history, as they were both thinkers and activists in the long tradition of people fighting for liberty in the United States. Note too essential elements of the black counter frame in these and many other black thinkers and activists too often forgotten writings from the 19th century: a strong critique of racial oppression; an aggressive countering of white’s negative framing of African Americans; and a very strong accent on the centrality and importance of liberty, justice, and equality for all Americans. African Americans have been perhaps the most central Americans in keeping these liberty and justice ideals constantly alive and imbedded in resistance organizations over four long centuries of freedom struggles in the racist history of the United States.