The Untold Story of the Moynihan Report

The 50th anniversary of the Moynihan report has unleashed another round of contentious debates between critics and defenders of the report. For all the sound and fury over half a century, as far as I know nobody has asked the obvious question: what prompted Daniel Patrick Moynihan to undertake a study of “the Negro family” in the first place? After all, Moynihan was a political scientist with a Ph.D. in International Economics, who at the time was a young and obscure assistant secretary in the Department of Labor. What did he know about “the Negro family” and what relevance did this have for his work at the Department of Labor? And where did Moynihan find the intellectual fodder for his report on “The Negro Family”?

“Deep Throat,” the pseudonym for the informant on the Watergate break-in, famously told Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters for the Washington Post, to “follow the money.” The academic equivalent of this dictum is to “follow the endnotes.” The name that keeps popping up in the 61 endnotes to the Moynihan Report is Nathan Glazer, Moynihan’s co-author of Beyond the Melting Pot, published two years earlier. Actually, Moynihan only wrote the chapter on “The Irish.” Glazer wrote the chapters on “The Negroes,” “The Jews,” “The Italians,” and “The Puerto Ricans.” The theoretical framework for the book, reflecting Glazer’s imprint, forebode an evolving discourse around a culture of poverty that putatively prevented poor blacks from lifting themselves out of poverty. Stripped away of its obfuscating language, Beyond the Melting Pot shifted the focus of analysis and public policy away from the societal institutions that produce and perpetuate racial inequalities, and instead located the causes of poverty on the poor themselves. As Moynihan wrote in the report:

At this point, the present tangle of pathology is capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world. The cycle can be broken only if these distortions are set right.

Let us review the Glazer endnotes in sequence:

Endnote #3. At the outset of the Report, Moynihan splices the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of results, attaching the following endnote: “For a view that present Negro demands go beyond this traditional position, see Nathan Glazer, “Negroes and Jews: The Challenge to Pluralism,” Commentary (December 1964), pp. 29-34.

Endnote #5. In the body of the report, Moynihan quotes Glazer as follows: “The demand for economic equality in now not the demand for equal opportunities for the equally qualified: it is now the demand for equality of economic results . . . The demand for equality in education . . . has also become a demand for equality of results, of outcomes.” Reference is again to Glazer’s 1964 article, “Negroes and Jews: The Challenge to Pluralism.” Elsewhere in that article Glazer, says flat-out that black demands for preferential hiring and the rhetoric of equal results constitute a threat “to the kind of society in which Jews succeeded and which Jewish liberalism considers desirable.” Hence, the subtitle: “The Challenge to Pluralism.”

Endnote #7. In the report, Moynihan writes that “important differences in family patterns surviving from the age of the great European immigration to the United States” account for “notable differences in the progress and assimilation of various ethnic and racial groups.” The source? Glazer’s analysis of Jews and Blacks in Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot (Cambridge 1963), pp. 290-291.

Endnotes #12, 13 and14 refer to Glazer’s Introduction to a controversial book by Stanley Elkins, Slavery (1963), in which in which Elkins compares slavery to the concentration camps in terms of the psychic damage inflicted upon its victims. Glazer cites the prevalent depiction of the slave in the South as “childlike, irresponsible, incapable of thought or foresight, lazy, ignorant, totally dependent upon his master, happy.” However, the stereotype and the factual reality of this designation are fuzzy, and the reader is left to wonder if Glazer is implying, albeit with scholarly circumspection, that the cultural legacy of slavery and the damage it inflicted on “the black psyche” is part of the reason that black children do poorly in school today.

Endnotes 18, 19, and 20 refer to Glazer’s Foreword to a new edition of E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United States. Glazer contends that Frazier’s 1939 book “has lost nothing in immediacy and relevance.” However, he selects passages that serve his argument concerning the dysfunctional black family, and blurs the main contours of Frazier’s study. According to Anthony Platt, Frazier’s biographer, Frazier sought to correct the bias of existing studies that, in Frazier’s words, “have most often dealt with the pathological side of family life and have become the basis of unwarranted generalization, concerning the character of the whole group.” Indeed, Platt takes direct aim at Moynihan:

Although he [Frazier] regarded instabilities in family life as a tremendous impediment to social and racial equality, he found it almost impossible to separate family from other institutions, and certainly he did not subscribe to the view that disorganized family life was the chief handicap of the black community, no matter how much Burgess, Moynihan, and others attributed this view to him.

Endnote #60 references Moynihan’s claim in the text that “the present generation of Negro youth growing up in the urban ghettos has probably less personal contact with the white world than any generation in the history of the Negro American.” The source: Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot.

These ten endnotes add up to something: Nathan Glazer was the proverbial invisible hand behind the Moynihan Report. Glazer provided much of the source material, if not the inspiration, for what came to be known as “The Moynihan Report.”

Let me be clear: my point is not that Moynihan was guilty of any malfeasance in heavily relying on his coauthor and friend, Nathan Glazer. On the contrary, Moynihan and his team of researchers deserve credit for scrupulously citing their sources. Nevertheless, it is striking how much of the Moynihan Report relies on a single source. Indeed, Glazer says as much in a recent interview for a special issue of Education Next, published by the Hoover Institution, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. To quote Glazer:

Moynihan collaborated with me on the book Beyond the Melting Pot in the early 1960s, an experience that may have done a good deal to orient him to family problems and family structure, which I emphasized to him in explaining the idea of the book. I was at that time strongly influenced by the culture-personality school of anthropology, which placed great weight on early family influences.

The crucial issue is not establishing authorship of the Moynihan Report, but rather assessing its significance in the context in which it was published. With the passage of the landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, the movement had achieved its legislative objectives. In his famous speech at Howard University in June 1965, President Johnson gave his endorsement to a “next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights” and had planned a conference “To Fulfill These Rights.” Once the Moynihan Report was leaked to the press, presumably by Moynihan himself, it became the subject of a furious public controversy that postponed the conference and killed any chance of Johnson’s plan for “a next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights” of coming to fruition. Thus, the larger question is whether the Moynihan Report had derailed the civil rights revolution at this critical juncture in its history.

Note: This is based on a longer article in July-August issue of the Boston Review.

Nothing is Impossible: Black History and Black Futures as a Flag Falls

Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate Flag at the South Carolina state capitol. Photo by Adam Anderson.

At dawn on June 27, 2015, Bree Newsome (with support from local activists) scaled the flag pole in front of South Carolina’s courthouse in Charleston. She took down the Confederate flag. Her spotter, James Ian Tyson, dressed as a construction worker, supported her from the ground as she went up and remained as a handful of police officers appeared and surrounded him until she came down. Bree was immediately arrested.

In the continued aftermath of the Charleston massacre, as black communities across the country struggled to hold space for death and disaster (once again), and make sense of another terrorizing attack on their humanity (once again), Bree’s act of defiance (courageous in the extreme and accomplished with the support of local activists) lifted spirits around the country and the world. I know I was waaayyyyyy up (felt blessed). I wasn’t the only one:

By 11 am, the flag was back up–in time to wave over a Confederate flag rally—causing a Ferguson activist to remark on Twitter that Mike Brown was on the ground longer than the flag was off the pole.

By 6 pm, Bree was out of jail, thanks in part to crowdfunded bail support organized by Ferguson Action and Color of Change.

Two days later, her statement, exclusive to Blue Nation Review, included these words:

“I removed the flag not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally in 2015, including the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the Dominican Republic. I did it in solidarity with the South African students who toppled a statue of the white supremacist, colonialist Cecil Rhodes. I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free.”

Four days later, on July 1, Bree wrote:

On July 10, just shy of two weeks after Bree scaled the pole, South Carolina voted and (with fanfare) finally brought down the Confederate flag.

Actions and symbols matter. My AAIHS colleague Brian Purnell has already outlined the history of the Stars and Bars in the North, as a symbol of racialized segregation and a stubborn determination on behalf white supremacists to deny black people in the United States access to rights, resources, or acknowledge black humanity:

Nowadays, some white Southerners (and black ones too) say that the flag serves as a symbol of their heritage. It honors their ancestors. They argue that the Confederate flag does not stand for slavery; even though that flag flew over armies that marched to create a new nation built to preserve white supremacy and racial slavery.

Eric Foner, interviewed in the wake of the Charleston massacre, pointed to the flag’s history as an expression and avowal of white supremacy:

As you know, and as it has been reported many times, the Confederate flag was only put up on top of the Statehouse in South Carolina in 1962. It was put there as a rebuke to the civil rights movement. It was not a long-standing commemoration of Southern heritage. It was a purely political act to show black people in South Carolina who was in charge.

And Eugene Robinson, son of South Carolina, wrote this week:

And no amount of revisionist claptrap can change the fact that the flag was hoisted at the capitol in Columbia in 1961 and kept flying not to honor some gauzy vision of Southern valor but to resist the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation. The flag meant whites-only schools, whites-only public accommodations, whites-only voter rolls. It represented white power and privilege over subjugated African Americans. It was used by the murderous terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan — and by an ignorant young white supremacist who allegedly took nine innocent lives at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

So there is no question removing the flag from a former center of the Confederacy has meaning.

There is also no question, as my AAIHS colleague Noelle Trent has noted, taking down the flag does not solve racial inequality or prevent black violence:

The act of removing the Confederate flag from various venues and merchandise does not lessen the legacy of racism in the country, and all of the ideologies it would embody. Something must arise in its place. There must be a concerted effort to engage with the country’s history and racial legacy while also progressing forward with substantive change. The substantive change advocated by people like Medgar Evers and Thurgood Marshall.

The timeline around Bree Newsome, her action and her arrest, her organized and community funded bail support and subsequent release, her statement on her action and her reflection on the McKinney girl, suggests some of this same tension—triumph immediately followed by resurgence of white supremacist symbology, freedom followed by an acknowledgement of continued violence against black women and girls.

Meanwhile, the state legislature removed the flag with almost no mention of Bree’s magnificent feat, a tiny bit of erasure of black women’s history which we cannot let stand and which allows elected officials across the state, white and black, male and female, to claim the removal of the flag as their success as a state, their racial reconciliation. And it is and it is not.

We remember. Her action mattered. Actions matter. History matters. Black thought matters.

Bree removing the flag in an act of defiance isn’t the same as the state removing the flag. Through her action, and through the actions and organizing of insurgent #blacklivesmatter activists, in Marcia Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus, in grassroots historic commemorations and community rituals like Maafa in New Orleans, we find the seed of what “progressing forward with substantive change” looks like.

The first step is what leads to climbing a flag pole. The first step is labor, love, and, as Robin Kelley encouraged at the Stephanie Camp symposium at the University of Washington, theorizing in the communities we reside and alongside activists on the ground. It is showing up as a participant and an actor. It is holding space. It is in acts of radical love and trust, as Kristie Dotson has described. Discussing what it means to do and be a black feminist philosopher, in a text that could read the same for black feminist historians by simply replacing a word, Dotson writes:

“Doing black philosophy, in general, and black feminist philosophy, in particular, requires one to trust that our ancestors have indeed thrown their theoretical production (i.e., their practice and their principles) into this century, as we, by engaging in black theoretical production and beyond, throw ourselves into future centuries.”

Bree’s act, in an antiblack and violent context as the United States in the era of Ferguson and Dylan Roof has proven to be, was as radical an act of love and trust as those of an enslaved woman named California, who posted “amalgamation prints” or abolitionist-related drawings around her cabin. California, too, had “an idea that she is free.” California, too, pissed certain people off because she would do “as she pleases.” And, but for the radical love and daring (re: Dotson) of black female historian Stephanie Camp, in the historical narrative, California’s act of defiance would be usurped by slaveowner prerogative and written out of time as irrelevant, only an isolated case, not enough of a source. In truth, acts of constitutional emancipation have overshadowed actions like hers. But, as with Bree, California’s challenge and risk was also a seed. It both preceded and nurtured the cataclysm that would lead to the end of slavery in the United States.

The one seems so small in the shadow of the other–abolitionist print material in the hands of the enslaved and the abolition of slavery. But that is because we forget that we deal in impossible things.

As AAIHS colleague Guy Emerson Mount has already noted, black diasporic people have long dealt in impossible things:

For historians, this state of affairs is particularly stupefying to say the least. Even the most cursory study of black intellectual history will show that the thoughts of African Americans, both high and low, on everything from empire, to citizenship, to human rights and especially to scientific conceptions of race have proven themselves to be accurate and prophetic time and time again. As if by clockwork, each generation of black thinkers is dismissed as crazy, irrational, and self-interested only to be redeemed and celebrated a generation later by mainstream America as the visionary vanguards and the moral centers of the nation as a whole. To borrow from Bob Marley borrowing from the Bible: “as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end.”

For black women scholars, as educators, organizers, human beings, this has been especially true. “We specialize in the wholly impossible” was a phrase coined by 19th century black educator and activist Nannie Helen Burroughs and returned to use by black women historians Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, Linda Reed as the title of their 1995 reader, We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History. 

Watching the discussion around the Confederate flag occur from New Orleans, seeing covers of the South Carolina Post and Courier circulate on Twitter, knowing on July 9, the day before South Carolina brought their Confederate flag down, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for “a 60 day discussion period on relocating four Confederate monuments across the city,” I’ve been struck by how impossible some things have seemed. Impossible for some to imagine we could just take the flag down, much less that it would be taken down by a young black woman in full climbing gear. Impossible for the city of New Orleans to remove Robert E. Lee from his lofty height on the circle St. Charles Ave, a campaign which has gone on for years, and which seems to be coming full circle in just the last few days. Impossible, for some historians, to believe black people, as philosophers, intellectuals, and stewards of their history for centuries, won’t somehow remember to commemorate the violence against them (and their resistance to it and, where applicable, their triumph over it) if these symbols are taken down.

If these small acts are impossible, no wonder it seems impossible for police to stop killing or to not exist. Impossible for prisons to be abolished and not exist.

Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole to take down a flag that has flown continuously over the South Carolina statehouse since 1961. In 1847, California kept amalgamation prints in her cabin. It is a radical act to trust that these everyday impossibilities, made possible and necessary in black women’s hands, are more than just flashy moments. That they should not be erased from the script and should actually be central and causal to, for example, state officials’ decision to remove the flag. That they should be elevated. That what happened outside the statehouse—Bree and beyond–is crucial to what movement making, community building, and social justice is doing to make the world we want to live in, perhaps more than what happened inside the statehouse. That black women must be centered in all of these acts and actions because they are central. “A voice interrupts, says she.”

And it is an act of black intellectual history and our responsibility to see the long trajectory of actions that seem small, seem impossible, coming to fruition in black women’s hands as knit with what seems like huge and impossible change but is really only just waiting in the wings.

~ This post written by Jessica Marie Johnson, Assistant Professor of History at Michigan State University, originally appeared at the African American History Intellectual Society (AAHIS) blog and is re-posted here with permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race and the Ghost of Jim Crow

According to political conservatives, racial discrimination is no longer an institutional issue, and there is no longer any need for policies that provide socioeconomic protections for Blacks. Political conservatives also say that if any racial discrimination is happening, it is being committed by only a few bigoted individuals. These individuals, they say, have been socialized to hold such bigoted notions and believe that Blacks are lazy and inferior and that it is okay to commit racist acts against them.

The Donald Sterlings and Robert Copelands of the United States have been undoubtedly shaped by a racist culture. The U.S. government sanctioned discrimination and gave Whites permission to denigrate Blacks openly. But these sorts of people don’t hold those beliefs anymore, right? After looking at demographics information, I’m not so sure. Consider this: according to the U.S. Census taken in 2010, there were more than 23 million Whites over the age of 70 in America. By contrast, there were slightly more than 39 million Blacks in all age brackets. Why is this significant? Because the number of Whites 70 years and older equals more than half of the total Black population, who are potentially voting on or in some way influencing policies that affect all Blacks. Whites born in the early 1960s (those over age 50) would have also been socialized and participated in the practice of Jim Crow Racism. They number more than 56 million.

Let’s remind ourselves what was going on when these older Whites were young. Whites currently over the age of 50 engaged in race relations in the context of Jim Crow. Until the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Jim Crow continued legally and unrestricted. Brown v. Board of Education was aimed at the integration of public schools in the South, but it had broader implications as well, which included the end of Jim Crow laws. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Jim Crow became a federal offense. This, of course, did not end racism. Despite being “illegal,” Jim Crow discrimination continued unofficially in small towns up until the 1990s.

If this lingering Jim Crow representation does not bother you enough, remember that these 80 million plus individuals had families, friends, and children. The racism of their social milieu became ingrained in their minds, and from them it spread passively and actively to their children and families: passively by imitation, actively by subtle, deliberate instruction. The end of legal, public discrimination has not prevented private discrimination from flourishing beneath the surface and continuing to have an effect on public policy, albeit in a subtler, more insidious way.

In light of this, it is evident that racism has strong institutional support. More than 80 million people in the United States were taught early on that it is okay to discriminate. Not only was it okay, but it is normal and expected. I don’t mean that every White person born during the era of legal racial discrimination is automatically a racist bigot. There have always been Whites who recognized the injustice of discrimination from the start. But if these Whites are of the same ilk as Donald Sterling and Robert Copeland, socialized during the 1920s through the mid-1960s when it was legally permissible in the United States to commit racial discrimination, then I have to raise a point against the political conservatives: More than 80 million people is certainly not “a few bigoted individuals.”

This institutional support aside, we cannot ignore the ugly fact that people can be racist, even violently racist, without this socialization. Dylann Roof, the White who wanted to start a “race war” by shooting nine Blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, was 21 years old. Not only that, but in a document reported to be his manifesto, he writes, “I was not raised in a racist home or environment.” Instead, he writes, he got his ideas from books. Contrary to how Roof is presented by various media outlets, he was not mentally disturbed or psychologically unstable. He was just plain racist. And Roof is surely not the only racist in America. Racial discrimination is therefore not just an artifact of Jim Crow socialization; it is a persistent cultural phenomenon that can overtake people of any age and any family background.

It is certainly not legally permissible now to discriminate against Blacks without a bona fide occupational qualification as it was back then, and it is not socially acceptable now as it was then to openly disparage Blacks or otherwise discriminate against them. But this does not protect Blacks from the political power of the racist vote, and it does not shield them from a bullet fired from a racist gun. It does not ensure that children will learn in their classrooms to actively accept those who look differently from them and to judge them “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It does not ensure that Blacks will earn anything more than 64 cents on the dollar compared to Whites in similar professions. But it does ensure that privileged people will push aside racial issues as a thing of the past, what our President has called “dark chapters in our nation’s history,” embarrassing mistakes that we don’t—and shouldn’t—bring up anymore.

It should alarm us that a large group of privileged people who were socialized in a racist culture still hold significant representative power over Blacks. It should alarm us, and it should remind us that the abolition of Jim Crow is not a good enough reason to think that Black people in America can ease up on the struggle for freedom and equality. Blacks cannot passively accept the racist ideology according to which race “no longer matters.” Race does matter, and it will probably always matter, and Blacks need to lobby actively for policies that protect their socioeconomic interests against the real threat of racial discrimination.
What is lacking in numbers needs to be made up for in tenacity.

Lessie Branch is a Racial Policy Scholar whose research interests focus on race and class disparities in general and the discordance between Black racial attitudes and Black economic progress specifically. Lessie is on faculty at Monroe College in the School of Business and Accounting.

Death in South Carolina: The Denial of Truths

Viewing the narrated event of Charleston within the dark and secure confines that surrounded me under a waxing crescent moon, created a nauseating pit within the center of my chest. As the news began to sift in, the sensation proceeded to raise the minuscule fine hairs upon the back of my petered-out neck. Knowing nothing in particular about the city, beyond the fact that it was not on my bucket list of places to visit, seeing the old and famous AME church and Charleston, South Carolina police lights splashed across my high-definition screen created a sense of confounding distress and sadness my soul had issue in articulating. Before the picture was put to color and detail, I knew, I secretly knew. It was not simply a lunatic, as pundits like to describe the distant “other.” It was not ISIS. It was not gang violence. It was not a disgruntled parishioner or jealous spouse looking to settle a scorned romantic score. It was an ancient, but at the same time, an in-vogue thriving hate of another kind!

It was hard for me to watch as I rested that night, for my feelings were precipitously pointing to a racially motivated depiction of white violence. The next morning the world discovered what I assuredly suspected the night before. The following days after the shooting were filled with sights of racially mixed church audiences (normally segregated and unwilling to discuss this fact at the moment) in places of worship holding hands and singing the Lords prayers. Sights of communal prayer, shared tears, and hardened faces were captured through the lenses of still photography and video apparatuses from sources such as the New York Times and Fox News. Flowers and other symbols of sympathy are, for the time being, placed at the doorsteps of the church as well. Mourning and celebration of life were mentioned heavily by an array of people put on display by the media.

On the other hand, as the week progressed, not only were further details of the shooting available to the public, but also an assortment of rhetorical misdirections wrapped in hypocrisy began to seep throughout the landscape of America. At times, the verbal stench was hard to bear. As I watched and listened throughout the week, the rage overtook the initial distress and sadness in my heart. The muddied mix of liberal and conservative news organizations and pandering politicians brought to a boil an elixir of emotional and intellectual pain that created one overwhelming conclusion in my mind: The truth about race in America is once again seen as a narrative we choose to avert with due diligence. The all too familiar decaffeinated approach to racialized topics of importance was upon the lips of many. This included many within the media and their invited succubi whose ultimate job was to underwrite their hosts’ initial political perspectives. Oddly enough, perspectives such as Dr. Ben Carson, Republican presidential hopeful, were as rare as recent sightings of unicorns. Further, he stated:

Let’s call this sickness what it is, so we can get on with the healing. If this were a medical disease, and all the doctors recognized the symptoms but refused to make the diagnosis for fear of offending the patient, we could call it madness. But there are people who are claiming that they can lead this country who dare not call this tragedy an act of racism, a hate crime, for fear of offending a particular segment of the electorate.

His GOP political rivals decided to follow another path. In essence, they discussed the matter utilizing a more conservative-staunched narrative. Instead of observing the shooting through a racialized lens, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee both described the attack as an assault on religion’s liberties. In order to move the focus from the presence and current effect of a country built on systematic and racialized oppression, Bill O’ Riley, used the art of political and social deflection by interviewing the likes of David Clarke, Milwaukee County Sherriff. This tactic focused on illustrating that Blacks are not in danger from Whites, but from other Black elements within their own communities. Mr. Clarke states:

As a Black American, I do not live in fear in the United States…a persons fear has to be based on rationalization. I face more danger and I feel more danger putting my uniform everyday and going in the American ghetto to police.

When O’Riley asked if Clarke “had come across white supremacy in Milwaukee,” and if white supremacy, as stated by some in the media, was a legitimate rationale for the underlying cause of the shooting in South Carolina. Clarke argued:

[Clarke laughs]…that is high hyperbole and demagoguery…[those who used this argument] want to keep the animosity stoked up, this division between people. But I got over that a long time ago.

Fox “News” also used Bishop E. W. Jackson, of Virginia. He argued,

Most people jump to conclusions about race…I long for the day when we stop doing that in our country…He didn’t chose a bar. He didn’t choose a basketball court. He chose a church. And we need to be looking at that very closely.

In connection with divergent tactics to avoid in-depth conversations about white racism, many in the media and political candidates have exceptionally targeted the conveyance of forgiveness by the victims’ families and other Blacks within the community. To me, their actions are astounding and wonderful. But their actions have also served as a two-edged sword that has lead many (white) politicians to use it as a focal point while avoiding the hard questions about racism in this country.

Even though the killer at the time had yet to be captured, the clues leading one to conclude the shooting was racially motivated were quite clear. But people such as Governor Nikki Haley missed the crumbs of evidence due to their fear of alienating the right-winged conservative base of their political party. This was evident within Governor Haley’s outré tweet Wednesday night. She wrote:

While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.

While flaunting their sympathy, others such as GOP presidential candidates and heads of government expectedly and typically avoided the topic of race and gun legislation. For example, Rand Paul spoke to a group of religious conservatives and said, “It’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.” In addition, Rick Santorum stated:

All you can do is pray for those and pray for our country. This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we — you know, you talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before…It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation

Baseless fearmongers such as Donald Trump even exposed their own narcissism and need for intense psychotherapy by making the death of nine innocent individuals about themselves.

The overall bobbing and weaving performed by these and others like Governor Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio were amazingly inept. It was not until more information confounding the initial clues (such as the obvious symbolizing of the pro-apartheid flags upon the jacket of the domestic terrorists or his connection to a white supremacist groups) that these same political pawns moved chaotically to the “left” during their performance of the cowboy bump on issues such as removal of the Rebel Dixie flag from South Carolina state property. Regardless, in terms of the flag being seen as a racist symbol in a state many feel shows its white oppressive teeth quite often in order to remind Blacks exactly where they are in terms of the hierarchies pertaining to power and humanity, Governor Nikki Haley once said,

What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.

After licking a finger and thusly putting it up in order to determine which way the political winds were blowing, she at that time did not call for the removal of the Dixie flag from state property. As long as it is politically convenient and creates no harm to your base, erring on the side of right is definitely seen as in fashion. Only later did she act.

Legislative initiatives to take down the flag down are simply the absolute least possible thing that can actually occur within the state of South Carolina. Is the creation of an authentic dialogue concerning white racism and current racial segregation within the country, and specifically in the state of South Carolina on the dockets for further analysis? No? Well surely the manner in which humanity was shown to the shooter of nine Blacks versus the behavior of law officers in the heinous shooting of Walter Scott will create healthy dialogue pertaining to racialized differential treatment of law enforcement? Are we at least going to recognize and discuss the fact that the Charleston County Magistrate, James B. Gosnell, who is overseeing the initial proceedings of the killer’s trial has said “nigger” in open court? No? Maybe deal with the fact that South Carolina is one of only five states that does not have hate crimes legislation? No? Are we as a nation going to at least change some of the names of the streets that represent pro-slavery historical Charleston characters or remove monuments of the likes of that celebrate historical individuals such as Dr. J. Marion Sims who is essentially in the same league, and hopefully burning in the same hell, as Josef Mengele? No? Oh well.

It is important to recognize that this city and this state were both built and flourished due to the huge slave trade that flourished in Charleston. By 1860, there were roughly 4 million Black slaves in the U.S. Importantly, ten percent of those slaves resided in chains and racial oppression in South Carolina. With a past such as this, in combination with our country’s avoidance of confronting a brutal history that continues to have power over the minds and actions of a great many non-Blacks regarding Black Americans, the rise of white hate groups and hate crimes, and ramifications of the racialized tongue-and-cheek political satire of members of the GOP, the Dixie flag is the least of South Carolina’s current and future worries.

Of Rachel Dolezal and Other Confused White People

Like Wendy Moore, as a white antiracist scholar and mother of biracial (African American/white) children who has spent the majority of her life in intimate relations with people of color, I have been asked a lot lately to give my two cents on Rachel Dolezal. And also like Moore, I initially hesitated to speak, because it seemed so many excellent points had already been made, especially by Jessie’s insightful post: that Dolezal’s experience cannot be neatly equated to being transgender; that being black is not a costume one cannot take on and off at will without serious social and political ramifications (the majority of which the masqueraders seem to obfuscate, deny or not even consider); and that any well-intentioned antiracist efforts Dolezal may have attempted are surely cancelled out by her dishonest cooptation of resources that otherwise would have gone to people of color.

Yet we whites are often fond of playing the good white, bad white game: Bad Kramer from Seinfeld , bad Paula Deen—it would seem we may hold up the “bad white” examples to make our own selves feel better. I may put my foot in my mouth sometimes when it comes to race, but at least I don’t do it to such public and blatant proportions, so that must make me not racist—or so the confused logic goes. At least I’m not Dylann Storm Roof, who committed the brutal anti-black hate crime of shooting 9 people in a Charleston, SC church—although by confused white logic, we may not even be sure if we can put him in the good white or bad white column, since, after all, amidst all the racist propaganda he collected, he also “had black friends.”

Not unlike the white students in my Race classes who eventually reach their oversaturation point in exposure to white racism, stating exasperatedly, “why does everything have to be about race?” (um, because that’s the title of the course? Why does everything have to be about chemistry in your chemistry class?) it is clear that much of white America can only take so much of the media attention on police shootings of unarmed African Americans. It’s harder to play the good white, bad white game with such stories of institutional systemic racism, for several reasons. There’s often not a single/lone culprit. Moreover, as in the case of Baltimore, some of the officers weren’t even white—and boy, do whites get really confused then (because the concepts of internalized and institutional racism don’t typically come up in the good cop/bad cop discussions). And more to the point, we are often told that officers shot because they “felt threatened.” Now all bets are off for the good white, bad white game. The object of the game is to absolve whites of their guilty consciences by focusing on white racists who do “crazy” things that average whites convince themselves they would never do—and what white person hasn’t “felt threatened” by someone who is African American? Given what research tells us about the amount of antiblack attitudes held by a majority of white Americans, including assuming blacks are prone to crime, it’s doubtful that most whites are able to draw such a clear dividing line in their minds between themselves and a police officer who “felt threatened” by a black man.

So what better relief from this cognitive dissonance than to shift the mass media discussion away from such institutional racism and toward a white woman—Rachel Dolezal—who has nowhere near the power of the racial state that will soon likely acquit yet another (and many other) officers murdering unarmed African Americans for so-called “justified” reasons? In the game of good white, bad white, most whites can tell themselves, at least I haven’t lied about my race and pretended I was black. The Dolezal story thus presents a more palatable racism news feed for many whites who may be able to see themselves in the shoes of a “threatened” police officer but can’t ever imagine themselves masquerading as black.

It’s so much easier to put a demonizing face on a single white woman (Rachel Dolezal) who deceitfully stole an opportunity from potentially other equally or better qualified African Americans than it is to do a news story on the scores of whites who everyday take opportunities from equally or more qualified people of color through the “opportunity hoarding” that Nancy Ditomaso describes in her book about mostly all-white job referral networks. So Rachel Dolezal gets to be the scapegoat for confused whites, while the rest of us are deluded into thinking our white privilege and racism is normal and not worthy of public outrage, by comparison.

In Malcolm X’s autobiography, he argues it is no accident that the history books paint John Brown (a white man executed for his role in an 1859 slave rebellion) as a “nut case.” Malcolm X asserts it’s quite intentional that the white power structure doesn’t want the masses of whites to think it’s normal to challenge their own white privilege. Although I do not believe the heroic acts of Brown and the cowardice of Dolezal can at all be equated, I argue in my book Whites Confront Racism (2001), as others have before me, that the historical silence about white involvement in antiracist struggle can leave whites confused about where they fit in. Perhaps in Dolezal’s small town upbringing, and subsequent experience of racial politicization in the context of an HBCU campus, left her with a false dichotomy: be white and part of the problem, or be black and be part of the solution.

Newly declared antiracist whites can tend to distance themselves from their own communities and position themselves as “down with the black people” instead, as a way of assuaging their white guilt. Yet people of color will consistently tell white antiracists that the very thing they most need is for whites to go back into their own communities and talk to other white people about racism. We have a unique position from which to do this, in ways that people of color cannot, since whites so often see them as self-interested or “playing the race card” when they speak the truth about racism. In what I call privileged polemics, we are more likely to be believed by fellow whites when we say, yes, racism really happens. Sad, but true. So in choosing to cut herself off from her white family and ally herself in less-than-forthcoming ways with people of color, perhaps Dolezal was one of those confused white antiracists that did not realize there was a place for her in the movement just the way she is. Dolezal’s actions are certainly not congruent with those of principled antiracists. But fully all of the more respected antiracists will tell you that we white antiracists probably fumble around, fail, and put our foot in our mouths more than we succeed. We are constantly learning, and constantly making mistakes—sloughing off a lifetime of racist conditioning, one baby step at a time. So like Moore, although I cannot personally relate to the path Dolezal has chosen, I’ll let those without mistakes on their track record hurl their stones at her. I can only pray that she (and more importantly many more others) eventually become(s) less confused about what racism is, and why fighting widespread white privilege and mass incarceration (among many other forms of systemic racism) is so much more worth our time and attention than one white woman’s confusion.

Eileen O’Brien is a leading researcher on white anti-racists and Associate Professor of Sociology and Assistant Chair, Social Sciences at Saint Leo University (Virginia Campus)

Juneteenth and the Struggle Behind It

As with church going, sartorial display is connected to resistance and celebrations of the African American holiday Juneteenth. “By putting on their very best clothes, the black people were signaling they were free,” historian Jackie Jones relates. “It enraged white people. They hated to see black people dressed up because it turned their world upside down.”

Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900 (from Wikipedia)


Today is the 150th anniversary of the original  Juneteenth, a celebration marking the end of slavery. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration that people celebrate in a variety of ways. NPR’s Code Switch has been collecting stories of how people celebrate at the hashtag #WouldntBeJuneteenthWithout, but I there is a pall over the usual celebratory mood of this Juneteenth by recent events in Charleston.

Indeed, after a 21-year-old white gunman opened fire on a bible study group at the historic predominantly black Emanuel AME Church leaving nine dead, the celebration of Juneteenth and the struggle behind it, take on a renewed sense of urgency and poignancy.

The Struggle to Make Juneteenth a State Holiday

Juneteenth hasn’t always been recognized as a holiday, and in the family I came from it was often scoffed at (lots of derision about the name of the holiday).  So the fact that Juneteenth is now an official state holiday in Texas and many other communities across the US, is significant and is only possible because of a political struggle waged by one Houston Democratic legislator, (former) state representative Al Edwards.  It seems impossible now to mention a black, Democratic state representative and not call to mind, Rep. Clementa Pinckney, gunned down while leading that Wednesday night service in Charleston.

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Edwards was born in Houston in 1937, the sixth of sixteen children, and was first elected as a state representative in 1978 from Houston’s District 146, the area known as Alief. A year later, in 1979, Edwards authored and sponsored House Bill 1016, making June 19th (“Juneteenth”) a paid state holiday in Texas.

Everyone, it seemed, opposed the idea. In a recent interview about this bill, attorney Doug McLeod, a conservative Democratic representative from Galveston at the time said of Edwards, “He really had an uphill battle. He had opposition from the left and the right.” Mostly white conservative Democratic majority viewed the bill as a hard sell to their constituents and many of Edwards’ 14 fellow black legislators saw it as a diversion from securing a holiday for Martin Luther King.

House Bill 1016 appeared to be headed nowhere when Edwards, a Democrat who was new to the legislature, originally filed it. Eventually, he got McLeod to sign on to the bill and Bill Clayton, then speaker of the Texas legislature.

Then-Gov. Bill Clements, a Republican, declined to endorse the Juneteenth bill, but he agreed to sign it if passed. Through a series of negotiations and brokered deals over votes, Rep. Edwards eventually prevailed and got the bill through the legislature.  When the bill passed, white conservative opponents urged the governor not to sign the bill, but Clements kept his word and signed the bill on the Texas State Capitol steps. This prompted other states to follow suit. Now 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way or another.

History and Struggle Behind Juneteenth

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, but people remained enslaved within the state of Texas.

This happened for two reasons.

First, Texas slave owners refused to release the people they were holding as slaves.  They basically just wouldn’t acknowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation or Lee’s surrender had happened or had any bearing on them (cf. “States Rights,”  see also Texas is a Whole Other Country).

Second, slave owners from neighboring states in the south looked on Texas as a haven for slavery, so they poured into Texas with an estimated 125,000-150,000* enslaved people  from surrounding Confederate states (*historians debate the precise number).

In a recent interview, Jackie Jones,a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.”The idea was Texas was so vast that the federal government would never be able to conquer it all. There is this view that if they want to hold onto their slaves, the best thing to do is get out of the South and go to Texas.”

This ended on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and again declared the end of the Civil War, with General Granger reading aloud a special decree that ordered the freeing of some 200,000 people still in bondage in Texas.

Today, some 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way. This would not have been possible without the vision of Rep. Al Edwards and the struggle to make it a reality.

In times like these, what’s to celebrate?

With the official, legal end of chattel slavery — and the enforcement of that decree in Texas — there was much to celebrate in 1865. It was no longer legal for human beings to be sold on auction blocks as they had been. And, to be clear, the US didn’t just tolerate slavery as an economic system, it expanded and prospered on it.  The overturning of this dehumanizing system was a momentous victory for a multi-racial group of abolitionists who waged a decades long campaign to end slavery.

Reconstruction followed, creating new opportunities for African Americans who owned and profited from their own land and began to participate in local politics.

Most Americans remain confused about the period of Reconstruction, and many still subscribe toA false story of Reconstruction disseminated in popular culture through things like the film Birth of a Nation.  Although historians including Columbia University’s Eric Foner have shown the extraordinary political, economic, and legal gains of Reconstruction, as Gregory P. Downs notes at TPM.

One historian, C. Vann Woodward, has called the period of “the forgotten alternatives.” During the period between 1870 and 1900, there was some racial integration in housing and privately-owned facilities. Black people could travel on public transportation, vote and get elected, get jobs, including on police forces, and enjoy many public facilities.

But. the gains of Reconstruction were short-lived.

This “alternative” approach to race during Reconstruction ended when what Woodward calls the “strange career” of Jim Crow segregation, began — first by whites in the North, and expanded with a vengeance by Southern whites. Within thirty years of emancipation, laws were instituted that stripped African Americans of their rights, making celebrations like Juneteenth a distant memory. A prison-labor paradigm developed. White jail owners profited from the hard labor of their black inmates who were incarcerated for petty crimes like vagrancy, which carried long sentences. White landowners replaced chattel slavery with a deceptive practice called debt peonage, a new form of bondage continued for many blacks for decades. It wasn’t until 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 which strengthened the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867, making it a criminal offense.  Roosevelt launched a federal investigation, prosecuted guilty whites and effectively ended peonage in 1942.


So, why celebrate Juneteenth if white supremacy re-emerged with such a bloody return thirty short years later? Because celebration, commemoration and community is how we gain strength for the larger struggle.

Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name land co-executive producer of the documentary film by the same name, said this about Juneteenth:

“It’s important not to skip over the first part of true freedom. Public education as we know it today and the first property rights for women were instituted by African-American elected officials.”

Even as there is terrible news out of Charleston, South Carolina by a young white man who was, by all accounts, “enraged” by the freedom of black people, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on other times, other struggles and other victories on this 150th anniversary of Juneteenth.




Coming Home to Roost: Defending White Spaces in U.S. Society

The story of the pool party in McKinney, Texas brings to light a number of things about the society we live in: namely, that it is a white racist society that has far more lingering problems than achievements in the realm of race relations. The incident exposes the failed logic of the attempts to roll back efforts to desegregate U.S. society. It also demonstrates how the involvement of ordinary white Americans assists in the maintenance of this racist social system. Finally, the incident teaches us the important role antiracist whites must play in dismantling the racist order.


After a white officer named Eric Casebolt assaults an unarmed teenage girl and draws his weapon on unarmed teenage boys, whites in a variety of outlets defend his actions, including his lawyer. Once again, black teens are viewed with contempt for having fun and are blamed when they are victims of white violence against them. Despite what a variety of outlets have insisted (including McKinney’s own mayor), Casebold is not merely a “bad apple.” People need to understand the role of police since slavery times has been to “protect” white neighborhoods and other social spaces from “invaders.” As shown in the classic study of racism experienced by middle-class blacks (Joe Feagin and Mel Sikes, Living with Racism), suburban conflict is less likely to involve poor blacks but rather middle-class blacks and whites (and the cops who represent them).

Indeed, essentially ALL whites are complicit in the defense of white supremacy and white spaces, not just the individual officer. That is how systemic racism works. To be sure, Casebold must be held accountable for his actions (which remains to be seen), but also the white residents who called the cops in the first place, equating black faces with criminality. While this incident is strikingly similar to the incident back in 2009 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, involving Dr. Henry Louis Gates, I have yet to see any comparison made in the mainstream media. These incidents are treated as isolated, perpetrated by isolated white individuals acting alone, presumably without the approval of anyone.

Some context is helpful in understanding what happened. As of the 2010 Census, McKinney was about 75 percent white and 10 percent black, with 18 percent Hispanic of any race. The white percentage has increased slightly since the 2000 Census, while the black percentage has decreased slightly. The Dallas suburb’s population has exploded since 1990, from around 21,000 to approximately 155,000 today. While cities in the south and west tend to be less segregated than “older,” more established cities in the Northeast or Midwest (for a list of cities ranked by dissimilarity index, see here), McKinney is highly segregated by race; while one side of town is only 50 percent white, the other is 90 percent white. As evidenced by various tweets, white residents have frequently utilized the language of war, speaking of “our” neighborhood being “invaded” by young “outsiders.”

Incidents like these are, at least in part, the product of efforts to dismantle racial desegregation programs and policies, and naive views like that of SCOTUS Chief Justice John Roberts of the “post-racial” society we live in. The costs of segregation are numerous, including blacks’ often lesser ability to swim vis-à-vis whites. Desegregation is necessary to challenge whites’ view of entitlement and public spaces as their own (and thus off limits to blacks); however, the will of white Americans to support such programs and policies has abated.

Where do we go from here? Will we see a return to the “white citizens’ councils” of the 1940s in communities like McKinney? Probably not, since they have now been replaced by “color-blind” homeowner’s associations and neighborhood watch programs, often run by local police departments. Still, what if they can no longer price “them” out of their development (i.e., use income disparities as a means to maintain racial barriers)?

Finally, a few white teens who were on the scene have stood with their black peers and spoken out against the actions of Casebold. While the response from some white youth in the community is inspiring, note that (white) young people some decades back (in the civil rights era) said the same thing about their parents’ generation. Apparently something happens to whites once they get a little older.

Still Not Doing the Right Thing: Black — Asian American Relations

Spike Lee himself might be surprised — saddened, perhaps — that the Black American-Asian American dilemma of ‘90s-era Brooklyn he portrayed in “Do the Right Thing” could be a scene playing out in Baltimore over a quarter of a century later. Recall that in the movie, after mostly black and brown Brooklynites burn down an Italian-American-owned pizzeria in response to the cops killing Radio Raheem, rioters approach a Korean green grocery and its owner, Sonny. He swings a broom to hold the crowd back, shouting in broken parlance, “I no White! I Black! You. Me. Same!”—upon which the rioters decide to spare his store.

But the iconic sixty-second scene does not show what the black and Latino rioters had been taught about Asian Americans like Sonny to make them target his store in the first place. Sadly, media portrayals have not come very far. Recent news reports about West Baltimore mute the same black-Asian history, and, unlike Spike Lee, paint the protestors as mostly hostile – and worse – racist. It’s no wonder that people, from bloggers to Duke professors, recycle the same tired stereotypes of earnest Asian American innocents and “thuggish” black American rioters — the former often the victim of the latter. When the race relations stakes in our country couldn’t be any higher, should the media be so retrograde?

Take NPR’s story that black-Asian American tension was the real race story in West Baltimore. Although the report notes in passing that some Blacks stood in harm’s way to protect Asian-owned stores, the only black voices we hear are from possibly two-faced patrons, from those who heartlessly taunt the Chinese American owner Tina Chen in her hollowed-out store—prompting her tears to fall, her voice to break –and those who feel that the anti-Asian arson was justifiable “payback” (even if not “reasonable”). Besides the fact that the overlay is too convenient and lopsided, these reports say nothing of the broader context – the racial history, the workings of elite power — that dangled in front of Blacks a “foreign model minority” myth about Asian Americans; that “they” aren’t really Americans but their success all the same made a mockery of “your” black failure. That is, they owned farms and homes, had good jobs and kept them, stormed Harvard and Stanford, and could skate or play violin at a world-class level – what have you done lately? — you want to cry racism when even the foreigners can “out-American” you?

Of course, the white elites don’t mention that this divide and conquer tactic was made possible by their own machinations of power: starting in the 1960s they drained the central cities of industry’s unionized, high-paying jobs; put nothing in their place; gutted strong civil rights and anti-poverty programs that would’ve helped; then demonized the black and Latino residents for being jobless, working the “illegal” economy, or simply speaking truth to power. Hello, under-served and over-policed West Baltimore. To add insult to injury, elite institutions made sure to pit the black and brown poor against selective cohorts of college-educated Asian immigrants, many of whom began showing up in central cities as new business owners when US institutions wouldn’t recognize their Asian credentials. To the black and brown residents, here was the “nemesis” filling in the nice shoes of the Italians and Jews before.

It’s no wonder that Spike Lee’s Brooklynites first thought of destroying Sonny’s lifeline, and it’s no wonder today that some of Baltimore’s protestors actually lit the match.

To be sure, Jeff Yang’s rebuke of the NPR report convincingly dispels the existence of widespread Asian-black tensions or the insinuation that they’re central to the rioting. Alliances between black and Asian ethnics certainly exist. Korean-American grocer associations donate hundreds of thousands in college scholarships to black students; Korean church leaders organize and sponsor African American ministers’ visits to heavily Christian Seoul; black Baltimoreans link arms and stop rioters from pillaging Asian-owned stores.

Yet, Yang’s CNN piece also seems to paint too rosy a picture of black-Asian rapport. He could’ve excoriated an American economic, political, and cultural system that makes Asian model minorities the foil for the blame placed on Blacks for West Baltimore. He could’ve devoted more lines to the fact that even if black and Asian Americans did not create these racial messages, they at the same time cannot escape them. And such racial frames do prompt some Blacks to burn and loot Asian-owned establishments; they do raise Asian American merchants’ suspicion and fear, and up goes the bullet-proof partition between them and their customers.

Make no mistake. Blacks and Asian ethnics do stereotype and mistreat one another. Yes, the two don’t always do the right thing. But Blacks didn’t write the laws that excluded Asian groups from the country or denied them citizenship because of how they looked – just as Asian Americans didn’t start the housing segregation that’s connected to today’s urban black poverty, like in Sandtown.And they most certainly didn’t make themselves into the caricatures we see in the news. Rather than turning black protestors into one-dimensional racists and Asian immigrants into hard-working victims, the news could start with the racial system that made both groups its victims. As Sonny would say, “You. Me. Same!”