The “Coming White Minority”: Brazilianization or South-Africanization of U.S.?

To understand the so-called “browning of America” and “coming white minority,” we should accent the larger societal context, the big-picture context including systemic racism. “Browning of America” issues have become important in the West mainly because whites are very worried about this demographic trend. Black-British scholar, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, has noted that whites are fearful

because for such a long time the world has been their own. . . . There is an underlying assumption that says white is right. . . . There is a white panic every time one part of their world seems to be passing over to anyone else. . . . There was this extraordinary assumption that white people could go and destroy peoples and it would have no consequence.

Let us consider a few reasonable, albeit speculative, extrapolations of current social science data to social changes from now to the 2050s:

(1) Dramatic demographic changes are coming: According to US Census projections this country will become much less white, with the greatest relative growth in the Latino, Asian, and multiracial populations. By 2050 it will be about 439 million people, with a majority of people of color (53 percent), the largest group being Latino (30 percent). Long before, a majority of students and younger workers will be of color. Over coming decades immigrant workers of color and their descendants will keep more cities from economic decline. Census data for 2050 indicate the oldest population cohort will be disproportionately white and younger cohorts will be disproportionately people of color–thereby overlaying a racial divide with a generational divide, probably generating racial-generational conflicts (See William Frey, The Diversity Explosion).

(2) This growing population of color will likely mean significant increases in an array of significant US socio-racial patterns, including interracial relationships and marriages, number of multiracial Americans, more diversity in media presentations, and a major religious shift in direction of (Latin American) Catholicism and Asian religions. (In 2050 white Christians will probably be only about 30 percent of the population.)

(3) Uneven changes in still high racial (residential) segregation will occur: At the census tract level, we will likely see variable but decreasing group segregation within cities (for example, Latino replacement of whites or blacks, scattered white gentrification). At the larger metropolitan area level, we are likely to see continuing, substantial racial segregation (less-white inner suburbs or central city areas versus disproportionately white outer suburbs, exurbia, smaller cities). (On this macro-segregation, see D. Lichter et alia here) Likely thus is significant white migration favoring these segregated, white-run political entities, such as in the inner areas of the West. Likely too is significant continuing migration of immigrants and other people of color to coastal cities, but also increasingly to cities across the country. These migrations will increase regional diversity, but not necessarily at the metropolitan area level within them.

(4) The growing fear of ordinary whites about increases in Americans of color seems based substantially on concern about losing much racial privilege and related social status, and probably about more egalitarian interactions with those deemed inferior. Social science research has long shown that the relative size of black or nonwhite populations correlates not only with occupational, income, educational, health inequalities, and voter suppression efforts, but also with white racist attitudes, support for public programs, and votes for conservative candidates. With growing populations of color, many ordinary whites are likely to continue to insist on what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “public and psychological wage of whiteness” (white privilege, racial inequalities) as they accept more elite white actions harming them socioeconomically.

(5) Modest change will occur in a still oligarchical society. Elite white men will still run this country in their interest, with increased elite representation of white women. For centuries they have ruled as a minority and conceivably can do that for many more years. In the capitalistic economy there will be continuing large-scale inequality and control by a mostly white corporate elite, with token infusions of executives and professionals of color. Just below that elite, important professional and managerial spheres will remain disproportionately white. Great technological change will continue, substantially rooted in computerized automation of perhaps half of current U.S. jobs, thereby probably increasing unemployment–especially for the then majority of working and lower middle class workers of color). Income and wealth inequalities along racial/class lines will likely stay very substantial. Internationally, however, the U.S. is likely to lose some of its dominant position economically and politically as the world becomes more polycentric, with other countries becoming more powerful, most predominantly of color.

(6) Some significant changes in a firmly oligarchic government system are coming: We will have a majority of voters of color in many areas, but continuing undemocratic political institutions—nationally, an unelected Supreme Court, unrepresentative Senate, and unrepresentative Congress controlled directly or indirectly by the white elite’s political-economic power. Major political organizations will see more diversification as people of color participate more; the Democratic Party will probably become the major political party in numerous legislative bodies. (Liberal representatives of color will likely often replace white liberals, with less net change in liberal political influence.) U.S. foreign policy is likely to shift to a greater emphasis on Latin America, Asia, and Africa, because other countries are becoming more economically and militarily powerful.

At the local political level, we will likely observe significant political change, with many places having majorities of voters of color and greater representation for them and their perspectives. Some whites will try to create political coalitions with more “acceptable” middle class people of color. At local, state, and national levels, we will likely see conflict between (often younger) voters of color seeking greater political representation and necessary public services (e.g., good schools) and disproportionately older white voters (led by the white elite) who view many public services as “black/brown” services and fight as propertied taxpayers to keep government taxes and regulation low–preserving white political-economic interests. Impoverished communities of color will continue to suffer disproportionate overcrowding, poverty, and environmental racism (aggravated by major climate change). Over coming decades, white political and economic leaders will persist in a “neoliberal” emphasis on government austerity, deregulation, privatization, and lower taxes, protecting their elite interests. (See the pioneering work of Randy Hohle on racism and neoliberalism)

Additionally, the demographic trend toward a “majority minority” country will itself do little to redress the major effects of past racial oppression. Huge losses in people and resources suffered by Native Americans, the first victims of genocidal oppression, and of African Americans, the first whose labor was stolen on a large scale, top the list, but the oppression costs suffered by other groups of color, including Asian Americans and Latinos, are also massive. Few costs are likely to be dealt with by government redress in a world where whites still have disproportionate political-economic power. Generationally inherited unjust enrichments for whites from past oppressions will make major structural change very difficult.

A Panoramic View: Brazilianization or South-Africanization?

In recent years numerous scholars and media analysts have suggested the idea of significantly greater racial intermediation coming as the U.S. becomes much less white. Taking a panoramic view, they suggest a future that involves a “Brazilianization” or “Latinization’ of the United States.

Brazil’s racialization process has distinguished large mixed-race, mostly lighter-skinned groups and placed them in a middling status between Brazilians of mostly African ancestry and those of heavily European ancestry. Middle groups are relatively more affluent, politically powerful, and acceptable to dominant white Brazilians, who still mostly rule powerfully at the top of the economy and politics. About half the population, darker-skinned Afro-Brazilians and indigenous Brazilians, remains very powerless economically and politically. Possibly, in the U.S. case by 2050, a developed tripartite Brazilian pattern—with increasing and large but white-positioned intermediate racial groups, such as lighter-skinned middle class groups among Asian Americans and Latinos, moving up with greater economic and socio-political power and providing a racial buffer between powerful “whites” and powerless “blacks” and other darker-skinned people of color. Even then, it seems likely that many in U.S. middle groups will find their white-framed immigration, citizenship positions, or other inferiorized status still negatively affecting additional mobility opportunities.

An alternative future for the United States is somewhat different, at least in emphasis, what one might term “South-Africanization.” Both scenarios see whites in substantial economic control, but South-Africanization suggests, even if people of color gain large-scale political power, they will be severely handicapped by whites holding economic power. With the downfall of apartheid in South Africa two decades ago, black South Africans gained direct political control, but very modest increases in economic power. (Black South Africans are substantial majority of the population but control maybe 10 percent of the corporate economy.) From its beginning as a European colony, a large black African majority has been economically controlled by a small white minority. South Africa has an essentially two-category system, since intermediate groups of Asian and mixed-race citizens remain relatively small (if more powerful than blacks). This pattern might be an alternative U.S. future, with ever increasing Americans of color eventually gaining very substantial political power in local and national political systems, especially in areas where they are large majorities. Yet that political system will be one where the mostly white economic elite remains firmly in control of the national economy and will also directly or indirectly control most important policymaking by top officials, white or not-white, especially on major economic developments. As in South Africa, Americans of color will not gain major control at the top of the capitalistic system where much societal power lies. That has not happened in South Africa, and seems very unlikely for the U.S. over coming decades.

In my view, thus, the so-called “browning of America” and “coming white minority” will mostly mean a major demographic shift and probably modest political-economic changes, rather than a major departure from this country’s systemic white dominance in all its major, mostly undemocratic institutions.

Test-ocratic Merit vs. Democratic Merit?

What are the benefits of a college education in a diverse democracy? Research indicates that these benefits include the ability to strengthen critical thinking, to provide students with the capacity for leadership, problem-solving, and creativity, and to strengthen social agency and pluralistic orientation for careers and citizenship in a global society. Yet is the inordinate emphasis on college entrance aptitude tests really a measure of merit and of the abilities of potential college students to develop these needed competencies?

Lani Guinier’s new book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Beacon Press, 2015) describes how higher education has drifted from a mission-driven to an admission-driven system, focused almost exclusively on the predictive value of the SAT-type tests for success in the first-year of college. In fact, as she notes, the SAT only has a modest correlation with freshman-year grades, whereas grades in the four years of high school are a much stronger predictor of academic success. Guinier asserts that the SAT’s most reliable value is as a proxy for wealth in its norming to white, upper-middle class performance, as shown by the average SAT test scores based on ethnicity.

Alluding to the “Volvo effect” in Andrew Ferguson’s book, Crazy U Professor Guinier refers to the inordinate amount of funding and effort placed by wealthy parents on preparing their children for college entrance exams. As she explains, “Aptitude tests do not predict leadership, emotional intelligence, or the capacity to work with others to contribute to society” (p. 26). As a result, she calls for a culture shift in terms of how we evaluate merit in terms of “democratic values” rather than “testocratic machinery.”

An important insight from this thought-provoking book is that democratic merit within an institution of higher education is defined by context. As such, the definition of merit crystallizes the mission and purposes of the institution and necessarily involves choices about which characteristics of the applicant pool are valuable. This definition is particularly germane to discussions about affirmative action in the wake of the 2013 Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin Supreme Court case that will be reheard this fall on appeal.

In the Fisher ruling, the Supreme Court has determined that colleges and universities must exhaust race-neutral alternatives before consideration of race-conscious factors in a holistic admissions process. Guinier indicates that Fisher and other affirmative action opponents have singled out race, before any other admissions criterion such as musical ability or athletic accomplishment, as undeserving of consideration. A perhaps unintended benefit of the Court’s ruling, however, is that colleges and universities must proactively re-examine their mission statements for the ways in which these statements articulate the importance of diversity. As Alvin Evans and I point out in our new book, Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward (Jossey-Bass, 2015) the Fisher decision brings the institutional context for diversity into the foreground, since a college or university’s specific rationale for a diverse student body needs to be framed in the context of mission, vision, and values statements.

In Guinier’s view an “obsessive culture of testing” obscures the emphasis on developing student potential and results in institutions that lack meaningful race and class diversity. From this perspective, the attainment of democracy learning outcomes in the undergraduate experience cannot rely on a single, weak predictor of first-year success such as the SAT, but instead requires an educational focus consistent with institutional mission that nurtures individual talent and fosters the access and success of a diverse student body.

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!”

Fresh Off the Boat: The Asian American Race Conversation We Never Had

Phew, it got renewed. Thank goodness Fresh Off the Boat, only the second Asian American sitcom in US television history, will live on. Why am I so relieved? I’m not Taiwanese American like the main character Eddie (I’m ethnically Korean), nor did I move from a gritty Chinatown to a well-heeled suburb. But I didn’t have that much in common with Mr. Miyagi or Kumiko either, the Japanese-descent coach and paramour of Karate Kid Daniel LaRusso – but, boy, did I identify with both. The simple reason is that, despite some familiar stereotyping, I’d barely seen Asian folks, let alone human-like ones, until the Karate Kid franchise seared my preadolescent eyes. The sad truth is that I could say the same about Asian American family life almost 30 years later, that the trembling glee with which I watched and rewound Karate Kid post-homework matches the rush I feel today when I swipe my iPad for Fresh Off the Boat after a long day’s work.

I’m relieved because nearly a decade after Karate Kid, the first Asian American network sitcom, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl (1994), was swiftly panned and canceled for failing to compel viewers like myself – effectively an Asian-faced blip on America’s radar. I’m relieved because I’m with Eddie Huang, the brash chef and restaurateur whose memoir is the inspiration for Fresh Off the Boat, when he says about Asian Americans: “Culturally, we are in an ice age … We don’t even have the wheel.”

To trace the source of my anxiety and relief, we must ask, Why did it take nearly 70 years (a television ice age) to get Fresh Off the Boat, and why would a so-called successful minority agonize over its content and fate anyway? The answers aren’t obvious because, frankly, America, we’ve never even had our conversation on race. Yes, we’ve seen the tragic limits of the race conversation for Black America. Need we say more than Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray? But at least the conversation’s not a mere idea frozen in time. Moreover, a tête-à-tête requires a back and forth, but on Asian ethnics we’ve mostly had America’s monologue about a “model minority” who has done so well in life that racism’s a non-issue. A model minority therefore gets no seat at the race relations table. Nor did Asian Americans get a spotlight in our more multicultural pop culture after the Civil Rights Movement.

Where did the model minority stereotype and its silencing, disappearing properties come from?: immigration laws that favored educated Asian professionals, academic writing (“model minority” was coined by a fellow sociologist–see Chou and Feagin for this and related issues), and a 1980s’ conservative agenda to dispel the racism argument to gut civil rights enforcement, anti-poverty programs, and affirmative action. Asian American success, conservatives alleged, proved Blacks and Latinos could no longer cry foul. Still today, fact tanks like the Pew Research Center inadvertently bolster model minority myths with controversial reports declaring “The Rise of Asian Americans.”

Make no mistake, there’s a kernel of truth in the model minority stereotype, but it’s a stereotype nonetheless. Asian Americans are a diverse, internally unequal group. Second, the model minority feeds and hides a more pernicious stereotype of the threatening “foreigner;” that is, it pats Asian Americans on the head for being a good kid “like us” but spurns her for being “the foreigner” who outsmarted teacher, then denies her the right to cry racism because, hey, look at all those rich and happy Asians.

Examples include the World War Two mass incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans despite the majority holding US citizenship and no evidence of any anti-US activity among this threatening “model minority.” In 1980’s Detroit, two laid-off White US auto workers saw a threatening, model Japan in Chinese American Vincent Chin, murdered him with a baseball bat, yet a night in jail they never spent. More recently, Bill Clinton’s Chinagate scandal prompted the Democratic National Committee to wage a racial witch-hunt of sorts for “foreign” donors within its Asian American constituency. Examples of race-based nativism against other successful Americans abound: Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Mirai Nagasu, Korean merchants in the LA unrest, Judge Lance Ito, South Asians since 9/11, Jeremy Lin.

Because the model minority myth implies that race doesn’t matter for Asian Americans at the same time that it feeds stereotypes of threatening competitors, Asian Americans effectively live a paradox of being racially invisible and visible as “forever foreigners.” Chef Huang claims the show completely ignored this struggle. But other millennials and this Gen X-er say yes and no. I was grateful to feel my youthful Karate Kid rush when I saw myself in Eddie, both invisible and clearly foreign at school and reliant on Black American hip hop for an Asian American voice. Dad Louis got my sympathy when he worried that he wasn’t “American” enough for his chophouse, so hire a “White face” he did. When Jessica perceived their vandalized billboard as a “hate crime” against “sneaky Asians,” I said, “Thank you! Finally!” To be sure, I cringed, at times, at Eddie’s brothers for verging on model minority poster children and at Jessica for too much Tiger Mom foreignness and exoticism. But I’m now exhaling relief that I’ll get to see more Asian American life on a box that had rarely shown it because we were a “model minority” of foreigners. So yes, this show is finally our wheel. But we shouldn’t expect one wheel to go everywhere. Until the struggles and diversity of Asian America grab the spotlight, I take comfort in knowing that Fresh Off the Boat has helped start, and will continue, a conversation that America didn’t know it was supposed to have. Let the ice thaw.

Nadia Y. Kim is a sociology professor at Loyola Marymount University and author of Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA.

Municipal “Violations” as Racial and Class Injustice

Municipal violation you say? Such a lofty term, but to many it simply translates to a heedless financial hassle. Many of us have received parking and/or speeding tickets in our past. I myself have racked up my share as a lead-footed and non-paying-metered teen and college student.

Boring topic, right? But when one begins to peel the layers back, they encounter a metaphoric fetid smell surrounding an intricate topic of injustice, judicial misappropriation, and economic subjugation concerning the poor. For many with the monetary means and legal resources, a hit to the bank account and possibly some time with your attorney is procurable. But for a certain segment of the U.S. population that continue to be overlooked (with the exception of amusing attempts during presidential elections) due to their economic status or racial makeup, these so-called small municipal violations can lead to dire financial and criminal consequences.

Case in point, the findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ) during the week of March 5th. They revealed that the city council of Ferguson, Missouri was successful at maximized their city fiscal revenue by urging the local police department to issue more tickets for minor offenses. With very little applicability toward the ultimate goal of ensuring public safety, Ferguson police not only habitually, but competitively amongst themselves conducted traffic stops and issued citations. The DOJ report went as far to state that,

“‘Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter.”

The moral and legal corruption did not stop with the police department and city council. The DOJ described how municipal court judges are influenced by their appointed city council members to generate revenue from the bench as well. In fact, their job performance is partly based on their abilities to financial generation proceeds to the city’s coffers.

An internal report in 2011 noted that regardless of municipal judge Ronald Brockmeyer’s failure to perform justly (i.e., not listening to testimony, reviewing relevant reports/criminal records of defendants, or allowing relevant witnesses appear for testimony before issuing a verdict), a requested reappointment was denied due to his illustrated previous ability to contribute to the city revenue from the bench. Further, the report stated:

“…it goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures.”

The impact of said findings are even more pronounced when accounting for population trends. In 2013, Ferguson, a city with a population of 21,135 citizens issued approximately 32,975 arrests warrants. These warrants were issued for people mostly accused of non-violent driving violations, parking tickets, and housing code intrusions. In 2012, the city of collected 2.6 million dollars in municipal court fines and fees. Racially, statistics indicate that Blacks are disproportionately affected. Respectively, it has been shown that 86 percent and 12.7 percent of Black and White motorist were stopped. This is astounding when one recognizes that the population of Blacks and Whites are 67 and 29 percent respectively. In addition, In regard to traffic stops, Blacks citizens are stopped, searched, and arrested approximately two times more than their White counterparts.

Since there are no public defenders assigned to municipal courts, many of the 22 percent living below the poverty line who may have been on the wrong side of luck and consequentially arrested for frivolous traffic accounts, do not have access to free, and definitely not paid legal representation. Due to their inability to pay court fines, many defendants perform the “Curly Shuffle” and avoid court. Even if they did happen to appear, employees of the court have reported that hearings have a likelihood of beginning 30 minutes before their designated time. Doors are often locked at least 5 minutes before the official time began. This sort of court supervised shell game leads to additional charges mounting for those appearing before the court.

But do not worry; there is help. But this type of assistance comes with an unadorned high price. But this is not uncommon in our nation. As always, there are parasites falsely disguised as saviors who prey on the weak and suffering. Unscrupulous companies such as Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and Sentinel Offenders Services are blindly used by the judicial system to subjugate countless people living in poverty. If you are unfamiliar with the scheme, here is how it goes:

Let’s say you received a speeding ticket in Alabama for driving less than 25 miles over the posted limit. The actual fee and cost of the ticket is 20 and 162 dollars respectively. This brings you to a whopping total of 182 “American dollars (insert verbal emphasis).” But do not forget you are working two part-time jobs and attempting to provide for your family alone. It is hard enough simply keeping the lights on and some food in your baby’s belly. You try, but ultimately you cannot pay the total cost of fines and cost of the speeding violation.

The city in which you live then puts you on “pay-only” probation. The state of probation is not to ensure that you are avoiding the bad elements of street or drug life. It is merely a form of probation that is in place to make sure the state collects that cash money (ex. Any fines, fees and associated court costs). But in order for this to occur, you must first pay a fee of 10 dollars to be enrolled in the probation (set up fee). Once enrolled, your new monthly obligation is to visit (regardless of your employment obligations) your local JCS to pay 140 dollars. The problem is, a place such as JCS pockets 40 dollars. But you find yourself now falling behind on your payments. Additional fees are accrued alongside your standing debt. All of which prolongs your involvement in the court system. This is how these for-profit companies get their take. Slowly but surely, you find yourself sinking more and more into that all too familiar financial pit of misery. A bothersome, but easily dealt with obligation for the financially able, is a heavy yoke not easily removed from the neck of the poor.

In response to such practices, advocacy and social justice groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have begun to fight for the marginalized. On behalf of Roxanne Reynolds, a federal lawsuit was filed on March 12, 2015 accusing JCS of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act due to their effort to extort funds from economically poor citizens of Alabama who fell behind on their payment plan. To coerce people, JCS used the threat of jail (debtors’ prison) to force people to continue with their payments. Attorney for SPLC stated that through court manipulation, places such as JCS have created a “two-tiered system of justice.” One tier houses those who can afford to pay and quickly settle all financial obligations. The other is occupied with those without the means who get entombed for months and possibly years in their system. ” In regards to Mrs. Reynolds, SPLC stated:

Reynolds earned very little on an assembly line making automobile parts. Plus, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to miss three months of work. When she fell behind on her payments, a JCS employee threatened her with jail. She did everything she could to pay. She ignored her mounting medical and utility bills. Once, she barely ate for a week. She was terrified about what would happen to her health in jail…Last year, Reynolds was finally able to pay off her debt – after 15 months and a four-day stint in jail.

Similar lawsuits have been filed throughout Alabama and Georgia. In Georgia for example, companies such as Sentinel Offender Services were extending “pay only” probation periods when citizens were unable to pay their costs. Further, in Sentinel Offender Services, LLC., v. Glover et al, (S14A1033 and S14X1036 et al., 2012, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that municipal courts cannot “legally lengthen a person’s misdemeanor sentence beyond what was originally ordered by the sentencing court.” In fact, the Court declared that probation companies do not have the authority to “put fee collections on hold–a practice called tolling–or extend a probation sentence.” There is a maximum sentence of twelve months for a misdemeanor conviction.

Now that I am thinking, this practice seems very familiar. Oh yes, white America has a funny way of revising its racial practices of oppression to fit with the times. If we look back throughout the American history books, one would stumble upon a period from the end of the Civil War until World War II were Blacks, especially Black males were forced into a state of compulsory slavery in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. In the eyes of Pulitzer Prize recipient Douglas Blackmon, these poor Blacks were seen to be involved in the practice of human labor trafficking. They were essentially sold to White owners of labor farms, timber mills, pine tar companies, and coal and road construction operations. These men were often physically and emotionally abused. Before being imprisoned, these men were initially jailed on trumped-up charges by paid off law enforcement officials (on the take of wealthy owners and compensated for their collection of Blacks). Once appearing before court, these kidnapped men were ordered to pay overpriced court costs or fines that resulted from their false charges. If they we unable to pay in court, local law officials gave them to rich land and business owners for as low as 25 dollars. Once the men were traded, they were told that they could not leave their employer until their debt was paid in full. Of course, this almost never occurred. Not only state, but also federal bodies of government knew of this practice. This custom continued in some form or fashion until the 1960s (Counter to Blackmon’s claim that it ended after WWII).

History does truly repeat itself. Again and Again, and . . . . . .

Redefining the Vocabulary of Microaggressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty (Part 1)

Editors’ Note: Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson recently published an article in “The Chronicle Review” (Chronicle of Higher Education) in which he bemoans the fact that sociologists have not been drawn into President Obama’s special race initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” On this flimsy basis he trots out the claim that ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan got pilloried for his 1963 Report on the Black Family, sociologists have shied away from cultural work dealing with black Americans out of fear that they will be accused of “blaming the victim.” This myth, originally advanced by William Julius Wilson, was thoroughly demolished by Stephen Steinberg in a 2011 piece in The Boston Review. Two excerpts from his article, which went viral after it was listed on the “Arts & Letters Daily” of the Chronicle of Higher Education, are republished here.

Part I, “Old Wine in New Bottles” shows how sociologists have repackaged discredited cultural explanations of poverty in recent decades. Steinberg’s claim is not that culture does not matter, but rather that culture is not an independent and self-sustaining cause of poverty. Poverty must be seen within the matrix of structural and institutional factors in which that culture is embedded. Part II, “The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty,” focuses on William Julius Wilson’s descent into cultural explanations of poverty, contradicting his earlier work on structural matters. In terms of social policy, Wilson has been a champion of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Obama’s Race to the Top, which provide erudite justifications for the defunding of public education and have led to the closing of important public schools in black neighborhoods across the nation.

The claim that the furor over the Moynihan report stymied research on lower-class culture for four decades is patently false. What was the massive underclass discourse of the 1980s if not old wine in new bottles—Moynihan’s culture arguments repackaged for a new generation of scholars and pundits?

As with the culture of poverty, the conception of the underclass had liberal origins. In his 1962 book Challenge to Affluence, Gunnar Myrdal borrowed a Swedish term for the lower class, underklassen, to refer to people who languished in poverty even during periods of economic growth and prosperity. This term entered popular discourse with the 1982 publication of Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, based on a series in The New Yorker.

Then, between 1986 and 1988, there was an outpouring of articles in U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly, Fortune, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and Time, all providing graphic and frightening portrayals of pathology and disorder in the nation’s ghettos. The image was of poverty feeding on itself, with the implication that cultural pathology was not just a byproduct of poverty but was itself a cause of pathological behavior. This was the explicit claim of a 1987 Fortune article by Myron Magnet:

What primarily defines [the underclass] is not so much their poverty or race as their behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, nonwork, welfare dependency and school failure. ‘Underclass’ describes a state of mind and a way of life. It is at least as much cultural as an economic condition.

Social science lagged behind journalism, but by the late ’80s, with the backing of charitable foundations, a cottage industry of technocratic studies appeared charting the size and social constitution of the underclass. In his 1991 article “The Underclass Myth,” Adolph Reed noted the reinstatement of the culture-of-poverty theory during the Reagan-Bush era. The pendulum had swung so far to culture that Reed was pleading for a restoration of structure:

We should insist on returning the focus of the discussion of the production and reproduction of poverty to examination of its sources in the operations of the American political and economic system. Specifically, the discussion should focus on such phenomena as the logic of deindustrialization, models of urban redevelopment driven by real-estate speculation, the general intensification of polarization of wealth, income, and opportunity in American society, the ways in which race and gender figure into those dynamics, and, not least, the role of public policy in reproducing and legitimating them.

Reed ended on a note of personal exasperation:

I want the record to show that I do not want to hear another word about drugs or crime without hearing in the same breath about decent jobs, adequate housing, and egalitarian education.

Culturalists confuse cause and effect, arguing that lack of social mobility among black youth is a product of their culture rather than the other way around. Yet here we are, two decades later, with a special issue of a prestigious journal, the Annals, launched with fanfare and a congressional briefing, bombastically claiming that “culture is back on the policy agenda,” as though it had not been there all along. Even as the editors take up this “long-abandoned topic,” however, they are careful to distance themselves from culture-of-poverty theorists who were accused of “blaming the victim,” and they scoff at the idea that the poor “might cease to be poor if they changed their culture.” Indeed, readers are assured that “none of the three editors of this volume happens to fall on the right of the political spectrum.” Alas, the culture of poverty has not made a comeback after all. The new culturalists have learned from the mistakes of the past, and only want to study culture in the context of poverty—that is, in the selective and limited ways that culture matters in the lives of the poor.

True to form, the rest of the Annals issue is a compendium of studies informed by this “more sophisticated” conception of culture. One study examines “How Black and Latino Service Workers Make Decisions about Making Referrals.” Another explores how poor men define a “good job.” Still another ventures into the perilous waters of the black family, examining the “repertoire of infidelity” among low-income men.

The problem is less with the questions asked than with the ones left unexamined. The editors and authors are careful to bracket their inquiries with appropriate obeisance to the ultimate grounding of culture in social structure. But their research objectives, methodology, data collection, and analysis are all riveted on the role of culture. Is obeisance enough? If the cultural practices under examination are merely links in a chain of causation, and are ultimately rooted in poverty and joblessness, why are these not the object of inquiry? Why aren’t we talking about the calamity of another generation of black youth who, excluded from job markets, are left to languish on the margins, until they cross the line of legality and are swept up by the criminal justice system and consigned to unconscionable years in prison where, at last, they find work, for less than a dollar an hour, if paid at all? Upon release they are “marked men,” frequently unable to find employment or to assume such quotidian roles as those of husband or father.

Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one? Does it matter how they approach procreation, how they juggle “doubt, duty, and destiny” when they are denied the jobs that are the sine qua non of parenthood? Aren’t we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?

Note: Portions of the post appeared in The Boston Review in 2011.

Social Alexithymia and White Response to Police Brutality

veraNote: My dear friend and colleague, the great and beloved Hérnan Vera, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, died yesterday after a long illness. His influence and impact on his colleagues, including his many students, will last for the ages. He practiced well the empathy about which we have written, as below (from 2010). RIP

The late Hérnan Vera and I have written about the importance of the breakdown of empathy as part of the creation of racist systems, including discrimination and its racial framing. We have coined the term “social alexithymia” for the inability of a majority of whites to relate to the commonplace, past and present, police brutality and other racial oppression faced by African Americans and other Americans of color.

Discover magazine’s blog reported in 2010 on research study by the Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti, who

recruited white and black Italian volunteers and asked them to watch videos of a stranger’s hand being poked. When people watch such scenes, it’s actually possible to measure their brain’s empathic tendencies. By simulating how the prick would feel, the brain activates the neurons of the observer’s hand in roughly the same place. These neurons become less excitable in the future. By checking their sensitivity, Avenanti could measure the effect that the video had on his recruits …. most interestingly of all, he found that the recruits (both white and black) only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, the volunteers were unmoved by the pain they saw.

Interestingly, like we have argued,

Avenanti actually thinks that empathy is the default state, which only later gets disrupted by racial biases. He repeated his experiment using brightly coloured violet hands, which clearly didn’t belong to any known ethnic group. Despite the hands’ weird hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed a strong empathic response, reacting as they would to hands of their own skin tone. … strong evidence that the lack of empathy from the first experiment stems not from mere novelty, but from racial biases.

He also gave the recruits the Implicit Association Test

which looks for hidden biases by measuring how easily people make positive or negative connections between different ethnic groups. For example, white Italians are typically quicker to associate positive words with the term “Italian” and negative ones with the term “African”. And the faster they make those connections, the greater the differences in their responses to the stabbed black and white hands. … All in all, Avenanti says when we see pain befall a person from our own racial group, it immediately triggers resonant activity in our own nervous system. When we see the same event happening to someone of a different race, these simulations are weaker and take longer to form.

These anti-empathetic reactions are most serious for those who have the greatest power to oppress others, to cause great, routine, and recurring pain in racialized others, which is typically whites in Europe and the United States.

In the U.S. case, whites’ recurring discriminatory actions targeting Americans of color — including thousands of police brutality and other malpractice incidents over the last decade — require a breakdown of normal human empathy. Most social theorists have missed the importance of the fact that all human life begins in empathetic networks–the dyad of mother and child. Usually central to these first networks is basic human empathy, a desire and ability to understand the feelings of others. Without empathy on the part of mothers and other relatives, no child would survive. As it develops, racial oppression severely distorts human relationships and desensitizes the minds of those oppressing others.

Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of racialized others. Psychiatrists use the term alexithymia to describe people unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, others. Hérnan and I have suggested going beyond this individualistic interpretation to a concept of social alexithymia.

Essential to being an oppressor is a significantly reduced ability to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by oppression. Social alexithymia thus seems essential to the creation and maintenance of a racist society.

What needs to be explained most is not the reality of human empathy and solidarity—the problem often stated by western philosophers–but rather how this empathy for others gets destroyed and how human beings develop anti-empathetic inclinations essential to racial oppression.

Racist, Immoral Dehumanization of Immigrant Children

There are two main challenges in addressing the border issue of increased numbers of undocumented children traveling alone from Central America to the US.
The first is that the dehumanization of Latinos in the US has been so tremendously successful that a basic call for decency and humanity is absent from the conversations surrounding this situation. For example, I recently highlighted the issue in an op-ed to a local newspaper and the comments reveal people hiding their racism behind arguments of “legal” and “illegal.”

An absence of decency and humanity can also be seen in the protesters who turned away buses of children or who are protesting detention centers across the country where children are housed because we’re a “nation of laws” or because the children “carry diseases,” “bring crime,” will grow up to “rape women.” This is all to familiar language that uses the same fear tactics, dehumanization, and racism once used towards African Americans during slavery and Jim Crow and towards the Chinese during the late 1800s—language used to justify atrocious acts of oppression of these groups then and language used to justify monstrous cruelty to these children today. One has to wonder if these protesters would have the same response to refugee children coming from Eastern Europe. Perhaps there would still be a backlash against thousands of Eastern European refugee children arriving alone to the US; however, I doubt it would rise to the shameless levels we’ve seen recently, or that it would use the kinds of language being used–language that has roots in removing people of color outside of our human and national family throughout American history. This underscores how effective the racialization of Latinos in the U.S. currently is.

The second hindrance with addressing this issue is the problem of politicians who either do not care or if they do care are acting first and foremost in their self-interests by being in lock step with xenophobic Americans’ preferences. This response by our nations leaders underscores Schneider and Ingram’s research revealing that politicians make laws that benefit certain groups and burden others. This explains why Congress refuses to act in a bipartisan fashion and pass laws addressing this situation. This explains why traumatized children are being put on planes and sent back as a deterrence to others. This is not just, rational, or wise public policy but this is what our political leaders are engaged in.

Instead, there must be another way. There must be collaboration and civility between the nations involved to come up with short-term and long-term policy solutions. For example, Héctor Perla Jr. recently provided examples of both short term and long term solutions in a recent article. Perla gives the example of granting the children refugee status rather than seeing them as undocumented immigrants in the short term, and in the long term he argues we must address economic policies in Central America that are creating the conditions pushing children and their parents to migrate.

Other short term ideas with the goal of preventing further harm to the children immediately by keeping more children from dying or being injured on the train include finding them earlier in the process of migration. This would require creating a coalition between the US and the countries from where the children depart to check the trains and help the kids at that point. Long term of course must address the roots of the problem. This requires taking into consideration why children are fleeing their countries and finding ways to address these issues as Perla suggests. This too, must be done in collaboration with leaders from Mexico and Central America. Of course, civility, compromise, and collaboration across national leaders seems impossible to accomplish when it doesn’t happen across political leaders in this country who follow the desires of many Americans who cannot see Latinos as human beings, not even the children.