Systemic Racism in Banking: The Wells Fargo Case

There is a piece in the New York Times today is reporting on their investigation into the explicitly racist practices of Wells Fargo in their subprime mortgage business (Creative Commons License photo credit: TheTruthAbout… , h/t Schiffon Wong). According to the NYTimes,  Wells Fargo created a unit in the mid-Atlantic region to push expensive refinancing loans on black customers, particularly those living in Baltimore, southeast Washington and Prince George’s County, Md.

wells fargoAccording to a former employee of the banking giant quoted in the article, the company viewed the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania. Loan officers, she said, pushed customers who could have qualified for prime loans into subprime mortgages. Another loan officer stated in an affidavit filed last week that employees had referred to blacks as “mud people” and to subprime lending as “ghetto loans.”  The employee, a Ms. Jacobson, who is white and said she was once the bank’s top-producing subprime loan officer nationally, goes on to reveal:

“We just went right after them. Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches, because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”

The NYTimes backs this anecdotal evidence with their own more systematic investigation:

The New York Times, in a recent analysis of mortgage lending in New York City, found that black households making more than $68,000 a year were nearly five times as likely to hold high-interest subprime mortgages as whites of similar or even lower incomes. (The disparity was greater for Wells Fargo borrowers, as 2 percent of whites in that income group hold subprime loans and 16.1 percent of blacks.)

To understand the Wells Fargo case, it’s important to understand the broader context of this banking institutions’ policies as part of a larger pattern.

Sociologists Doug Massey and Nancy Denton in their ASA-award-winning book, American Apartheid, document the systematic pattern of housing discrimination in the U.S., as well as the dire consequences of such enforced segregation.   Part of Massey and Denton’s argument is that segregation in housing leads to “social dislocations” (William J. Wilson’s term) in other areas like high school drop-out rates, increased rates of drug use, delinquency and crime, in other words, “the making of an underclass” (the subtitle of their book).

Massey and Denton’s work was path-breaking for the way that it clearly and painstakingly documents the “construction of the ghetto,” but their findings were not exactly new.  The Kerner Commission Report from 1968 famously concluded:

“What white Americans have never fully understood— but what the Negro can never forget— is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The report from today’s NYTimes and the evidence of explicitly racist practices of Wells Fargo do not mean that everyone that worked there agreed with these policies or harbored explicitly racist views.   Indeed, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva as recounted in his Racism Without Racists, the continued operation of white supremacist system does not require the presence of extreme racists in that system.  In fact, I’m sure that many of the people that worked at Wells Fargo would never consider themselves racists but rather well-meaning and liberal in their views on race.

So, then it becomes necessary to understand Wells Fargo’s banking discrimination — and the housing segregation such discrimination creates — within an even broader context.  For that, it’s important to understand the white racial frame that sustains systemic racism, as Joe has described here and in his important book by the same name.  Note the loan officer mentioned in the NYTimes piece that referred to blacks as “mud people” and to the subprime lending as “ghetto loans.” These statements reflect thinking within the white racial frame and the result is the maintenance of systemic racial segregation in housing and further economic devastation of black families that might otherwise be homeowners.

That’s the real tragedy of this story, to my thinking.  Families that worked hard, tried to buy a home and provide a better life for their kids, are now facing foreclosure – and maybe worse – because of the systematic racism in Wells Fargo’s banking practices.    The question really becomes then if we, as a nation, are so “tragically bound to that starless midnight of racism,” as Dr. King said, that we can never move beyond it.    It’s time, I think, to begin holding institutions accountable for racist practices like these.

Race, Gender & Rampage

IMG_6439Understanding the two rampage shootings in the news recently requires a grasp of the way race and gender are implicated in both cases (Creative Commons License photo credit: ankarino).

On April 3, In Binghamton, NY a Vietnamese immigrant,  Jiverly Linh Phat Wong — (or Voong) — blocked the back exit of a civic community center where immigrants attended English-language classes and shot 13 people to death before killing himself.  On April 4, Richard Poplawski shot and killed three Pittsburgh, PA police officers  – and injured two others – during a standoff that lasted nearly four hours.  Understanding race and gender is crucial here given that one of these is about anti-Asian discrimination, the other is about antisemitism and white supremacy, and both are about masculinity.

Rampage & Race: Reacting to Anti-Asian Discrimination

Understanding what happened in Binghamton requires understanding the way anti-Asian discrimination operates in the U.S.  Many people don’t even realize that there is such a thing as anti-Asian discrimination, so perhaps it’s best to start with a recent example, such as the truly asinine remarks of Rep. Betty Brown (R-Texas). On Tuesday (April 7), Brown said that Asian Americans should consider changing their name to make it “easier for Americans to deal with.” Brown has resisted efforts to apologize for her remarks.   This sort of comment might be offensive enough from an ordinary citizen, but coming from an elected official with legislative power to implement her racist ideas is alarming and indicative of the kind of discrimination that Asian Americans routinely face.  This sort of discrimination takes a toll.

In the opening chapter of The Myth of the Model Minority, authors Chou and Feagin highlight the many costs of anti-Asian racism on mental health:

Few researchers have probed Asian American mental health data in any depth. One mid-2000s study of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrant youth examined acculturation to the core culture, but only briefly noted that some of these youth experienced substantial “cultural stress, such as being caught between two cultures, feeling alienated from both cultures, and having interpersonal conflicts with whites.”47 Another study examined only Korean male immigrants and found some negative impact on mental health from early years of adjustment and some mental “stagnation” a decade so after immigration. Yet the researchers offered little explanation for the findings. One recent study of U.S. teenagers found that among various racial groups Asian American youth had by far the highest incidence of teenage depression, yet the report on this research did not even assess the importance of this striking finding.48

In the modest statistical analysis that exists, Asian American statistics on suicide and alcoholism stand out. Elderly Chinese American women have a suicide rate ten times that of their elderly white counterparts. While Asian American students are only 17 percent of the Cornell University student body, they make up fully half of all completed suicides there.

Despite the high-profile cases of Asians and Asian-Americans involved in violent crimes, such as the Binghamton and Virginia Tech cases, the majority of Asian-Americans tend to hold in their rage over discrimination, part of what is responsible for the highest suicide rates of all racial groups in the U.S.

Andrew Lam, author of  Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, writes at New American Media, that:

Whenever a minority commits a heinous crime, it seems to beckon us in the media to search beyond an individual motive for a cultural one.

Yet, there is a certain level of hypocrisy in this, as Lam points out, because there is very little analysis of American culture when these crimes make news.

If the Asian shame-based culture is still prominent, keeping its citizens in line and well behaved, it is the gun culture in America that is most conspicuous. It is there on TV and video games and the Internet and the silver screen, and it is the most accessible language for the tongue-tied. For them the gun –- be it in video games or at the practicing range — speaks volumes.

So, for instance, when a white man commits one of these rampage killings, there’s very little analysis of the dominant white culture in most of the mainstream news reports about the event. The incident in Pittsburgh is a case in point.

Rampage & Race: Acting on Antisemitism & White Supremacy

Several press reports have noted that Richard Poplawski, the shooter in the Pittsburgh case, held virulently antisemitic views and frequented conspiracy-theory websites such as Alex Jones’ Infowars. CNN refers to him as a white supremacist who believes that Jews control American media, financial institutions and government and that federal authorities plan to confiscate guns owned lawfully by American citizens, based on ADL reports about Poplawki’s postings at Don Black’s Stormfront.

Mainstream press accounts like the one from CNN tend to represent Poplawski as a “nutcase,” without offering any sort of analysis of how his views might be shared by other whites.  David Weigel, of The Washington Independent, does make this connection between mainstream white culture and incidents like the Pittsburgh shooting.   He writes that after spending the weekend attending the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky where all manner of Third Reich memorabilia was available for sale, that he is not surprised by Poplawski’s beliefs. Weigel also calls out conservative talk show host Glenn Beck for fanning the flames of conspiracy theorists with rants like this one.

Gender & Rampage: Enacting Violent Masculinity

Unfortunately, what almost no one in the mainstream press or the blogosphere has pointed out about the recent shootings is the connection to gender, and specifically, to a particulalry violent form of masculinity.   Harvard sociologist Katherine Newman and colleagues in their 2004 book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, observe the following about the relationship of rampage shooters in their study to violent masculinity:

“The shooters appear to be working from widely available cultural scripts that glorify violent masculinity.    …. The shooting solves two problems at once:  it provides them the ‘exit’ they are seeking and it overturns the social hiearchy, establishing once and for all that they are…’gutsy and daring,’ not ‘weak and slow-witted.’  The problem is they didn’t just fail at popularity — they failed at the very specific task of ‘manhood,’ or at least they felt that way.  The solutions to this failure are popularized in the media in violent song lyrics, movies, and video games.  But the overall script of violent masculinity is omnipresent.  ‘Men’ handle their own problems.   They don’t talk; they act.  They fight back.  And above all, ‘men’ must never let others push them around.” (Newman, et al., 2004: 269).

While the Binghamton and Pittsburgh incidents did not take place within the context of schools, as did the incidents that Newman and colleagues studied, there are some real similarities between them with regard to violent masculinity.   The stance that Wong adopted for his pose with the guns he later used for murder and suicide evokes the cool pose of violent masculinity that is glorified in any number of mainstream American movies, music and television.    Poplawski’s former girlfriend filed for a domestic abuse protection order against him because he dragged her by the hair across the floor and threatened to kill her.   Both Wong and Poplawski seem to have internalized, and eventually acted on, a violent version of masculinity in which they “handled” their problems in a way that reaffirmed their manhood – at least in their own minds.   And, given the ways that becoming a “real man” in U.S. society is tied to the economic success and the role of “breadwinner” for the family, the continued economic decline suggests even more of these kinds of violent rampages by men who are unable to earn a living.

* * *

Shooting rampages like the ones in Binghamton and Pittsburgh are becoming more common here in the U.S.   As Nickie Wild writing at Sociology Lens explains, this may be part of a “super anomie,” in which the gap between what one wants to achieve and what seems possible widens (or seems insurmountable) and then violence increases.  Others have pointed to the shooting incidents as indications that U.S. gun laws need re-thinking, and this is truly the case.   Yet, to really understand what’s behind these sorts of rampage shootings, we must have a more complex understanding of the ways race and gender are intricately woven into the fabric of these violent incidents.

Racism’s Effects: The Urban League’s State of Black America 2009

The National Urban League’s 2009 State of Black America report is just out and shows, yet again, the longterm consequences of systemic racism as it impacts African Americans. The Urban League has developed what they term an Equality Index, a statistical measure of white-black inequalities in the economy, education, health, community engagement, and the “justice” system.

According to their press release, the 2009 summary index shows a little decline in the overall position of African Americans relative to whites, in their terms from 71.5 percent in the 2008 report to 71.1 percent in that 2009 report. The trend line over the five years between 2003 and 2007 shows greater inequality:

Even as both groups made progress in educational attainment, the progress was slower for blacks. During the same period while white children saw increases in “preprimary” enrollment of about 3 percent, black children saw a decline of about 1 percent, causing the education gap to grow, not shrink.

The executive summary of the report adds the inequality measures for subareas:

Economics remains the area with the greatest degree of inequality (from 57.6% in 2008 to 57.4% in 2009), followed by social justice (from 62.1% to 60.4%), health (from 73.3% to 74.4%), education (from 78.6% to 78.5%) and civic engagement (from 100.3% to 96.3%).

The State of Black America report ends with important suggestions for job/economic policy such as these:

1. Increase funding for proven and successful models of workforce training and job placement for under-skilled workers between the ages of 16 and 30 such as the Department of Labor’s “Responsible Reintegration of Youthful Offenders.”
2. Direct a percentage of all infrastructure monies to job training, job placement and job preparation for disadvantaged workers;
3. Target workforce investment dollars to the construction industry jobs that an infrastructure program will create and, where reigniting the construction industry is a goal, pre-apprenticeship programs must be funded in that sector;
4. Fund infrastructure development for public building construction and renovations of schools, community centers, libraries, recreation centers, parks, etc., that will rebuild and revitalize urban communities;
5. Re-establish a temporary Public Service Employment (PSE) program aimed at creating 150,000 – 200,000 jobs in urban areas to forestall a reduction in public services and an increase in job losses.

The report has not yet gotten much attention, but Leonard Pitts Jr., the black Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist and author of Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood, wrote a recent article arguing that these data will not be welcome to

Americans who convinced themselves in November the country had entered a “post-racial” era. Those Americans will be overwhelmingly white and will resist with mighty determination the report’s implicit argument: that we have not yet overcome, not yet reached the Promised Land, not yet come to a point where race is irrelevant, Barack Obama notwithstanding.

He then chides African Americans for not dealing with their own problems:

African-Americans do not, after all, need its policy suggestions to fix many of their most intractable problems. We do not need a government program to turn off the TV, realizing it’s hardly coincidental that people who watch more television per capita have poorer academic performance.

But then adds these savvy words:

Once you’ve turned off the television and encouraged black children toward academic excellence, you still must contend with the fact that their schools are too often crumbling, underfunded and staffed with inexperienced teachers. Once you’ve gotten black women and men to raise their children in the context of families, you still have to deal with the fact that those families need places to live, jobs to support them and doctors to keep them healthy….

Overall, Pitts accents some findings of psychological researcher, Richard Eibach, that

in judging racial progress, white people and black ones tend to use different yardsticks. Whites use the yardstick of how far we have come from the nation we used to be. Blacks use the yardstick of how far we have yet to go to be the nation we ought to be. . . . There is value in the yardstick white Americans use. . . . But there is value in the yardstick black Americans use, too, the measure the National Urban League provides in its annual studies. . . . We have not yet reached the Promised Land and we all have a moral responsibility toward that goal. But before we can fulfill that responsibility, we must learn to speak the same language where race is concerned, and to mean the same things when we do.

Even good critical analysts like Pitts seem to feel a great obligation to “balance” the views (yardstick) of most black Americans about their oppression and its redress—people who have been the targets of racial oppression at the hands of whites for four centuries and whose current unjust impoverishment is the cumulative result of that extensive oppression—with the typical blame-the-victim, moralistic views (yardstick) of many white Americans. Indeed, there seems to be an unwritten rule in the mainstream media, and in too much academic scholarship, that one should not name and critique whites for systemic and institutional racism too openly and honestly–and another unwritten rule that if one does critique white Americans for some racism, one must then “balance” that critique by clearly mentioning something negative about people of color or something else positive that whites have done in the racial arena. The frequent obsession with “Balance” here signals once again how whites really run this country and even control how we can publicly think and write about matters of systemic racism.

One can certainly counsel African Americans to do this or that to improve communities and conditions, but the greater moral responsibility obviously lies on those who created the 400-years of racial oppression, not those who have had to endure it now for four hundred years.

Racism (and other issues) among Gay Marriage Supporters

My joy at the news of last week’s presidential election was quickly deflated as I learned about the passage of Proposition 8 in California and a number of other anti-gay measures around the nation.   What’s particularly heartbreaking to me personally  (as a member of the LGBTQ community) is that alongside the legitimate anger this defeat has prompted (image of some of that anger from here), it’s also generated some racist name-calling in street protests as well as some much more measured and supposedly reasonable race-baiting by prominent white gay writers, like Dan Savage.

What writers like Savage and Andrew Sullivan and other relatively privileged white gay men fail to understand is that supposedly single-issue propositions, like Prop 8, are still embedded in larger systems of inequality that have to be at least partially addressed with voters in what we’re calling “the ground game” now.  Worse still, they are actively scapegoating black people for this defeat.   The defeat of Prop 8 and the other ballot measures last Tuesday at the same time that our first African American president succeeded, is clear evidence to me that gay marriage organizers failed at the ground game.    Let me break it down.

White LGBT folk need to learn about race and racism, especially their own. There’s just no excuse for rally-goers at a No on 8 rally dropping the N-bomb on black people, and the fact that these particular black people happened to also be gay and carrying “No on 8″ signs makes the whole thing even more absurd and inexcusable.   In addition to that kind of overt racism (which, I thought we were over and was a myth anyway, but I digress) is just part of what LGBT white folks need to educate themselves about.  While some prominent white queer people have denounced overt racism, they could also stand to learn a little about inclusion.   According to Daily Voice blogger Rod McCollum, there was not one black LGBT couple in any of the “no on 8″ ads.  Not one.

Beyond stopping overt racism, and learning about inclusion, white LGBT folk need to get much, much smarter about race.   For those just beginning to think about race in the marriage equality movement, let me recommend this Open Letter to White Activists by laura.fo is a good starting point (hat tip: Lizhenry via Twitter).  Included in her list are the following:

1) Think about the way you use civil rights imagery; 2) Think about you talk about “sex” and “freedom” ; 3) Think about how you talk about Black churches…

And, further down her list, “Stop assuming Black support.” To anyone that’s thought critically about race, there’s often a cringe-worthy quality to the rhetoric of the gay-marriage movement in the thoughtless appropriation of civil rights rhetoric while simultaneously assuming Black support and disparaging church folk (more about which, in a moment).  This is not a winning strategy.

The scapegoating of black people for the failure of Prop 8 assumes that black people are more homophobic than white people.   Terence, writing at Pam’s House Blend, has a long and incredibly insightful piece in which he argues that, in fact, blacks are more homophobic than whites because of a long history of having their own sexuality “queered” by the racial oppression of our society.    This is similar to an argument that Michael Eric Dyson makes (who is cited in the post) and an argument that Patricia Hill Collins makes in Black Sexual Politics.

Yet, such claims are flawed to the extent that they erase the lives of black and brown LGBT folk.    In a statement by Dean Spade and Craig Willse titled, “I Still Think Marriage is the Wrong Goal,” (hat tip Julie Netherland) the authors write about the move to blame black folks for the failure of Prop 8:

“Beneath this claim is an uninterrogated idea that people of color are “more homophobic” than white people. Such an idea equates gayness with whiteness and erases the lives of LGBT people of color. It also erases and marginalizes the enduring radical work of LGBT people of color organizing that has prioritized the most vulnerable members of our communities.

Current conversations about Prop 8 hide how the same-sex marriage battle has been part of a conservative gay politics that de-prioritizes people of color, poor people, trans people, women, immigrants, prisoners and people with disabilities. Why isn’t Prop 8’s passage framed as evidence of the mainstream gay agenda’s failure to ally with people of color on issues that are central to racial and economic justice in the US?”

I heartily agree with the authors’ re-frame of the failure of Prop 8.  The mainstream gay political movement has failed to do the hardwork of coalition building with people of color, whether straight or LGBT.  While I’m not prepared to argue that gay marriage is inherently racist as some do (download pdf), I do think the fight for marriage equality has got to re-think it’s white-led agenda and connect to broader social justice goals in order to be successful.

Class and gay marriage. When people in the marriage equality movement frame their struggle exclusively in terms of “rights and benefits,” they unconsciously adopt a class-based rhetoric that excludes many potential allies, including straight people across races and LGBT people across classes.   It’s hard to know how marriage equality “benefits” should resonate as an issue with poor and working-class straight or queer people who often work in jobs that have no benefits.  While it’s tragic and wrong when, for example, a terminally-ill lesbian cop in NJ is not able to give her partner the death benefits that she would receive if her partner had been a man, these are not the working-class images we typically see in the struggle for marriage equality. (Although, given NJ’s recent history with racial profiling by state police, one wonders about the wisdom of a cop as an example that’s supposed to a resonate for people of color who are the target of polic brutality.)   A more radical – and racially diverse – approach advocated by the organization Queers for Economic Justice includes an effort to expand the dialogue on marriage equality to make benefits available whether or not one is married.  

Gender, race and “normal” families. Advocates for gay marriage need to check their gender politics.  For women who came to feminist consciousness in a certain era, marriage is and remains a repressive patriarchal institution based on the transfer of women-as-property. Hence, the battle to be “allowed in” to marriage is similar to the battle to be “allowed to” serve in the military, in which the ultimate prize of acceptance is a dubious goal.  Thus, it’s not surprising to see this movement as a largely (white)male-led movement.   Still, I’m enough of a sociologist to recognize that marriage is the primary way that our society recognizes people as adults, as citizens, and as human beings.  So, by denying an entire group of people the right to marry it really is denying them (us) a basic, fundamental human right.  

But the movement for gay marriage, and indeed much of the scholarship on this issue, is framed in terms of assimilation and acceptance as “normal families” rather than in terms of human rights.  The “normal family” is a central feature of the white racial frame as in the “virtuous white Ozzie and Harriet family.”  This is an unfortunate strategy as it excludes the large number of the population that do not live in such an arrangement and the possibly larger number that have no desire to do so.

Still, this is a powerful narrative in our culture and it is has taken on a noticeably racial inflection at this moment.    The idealized image of the “normal” Obama family is part of what got Barack Obama elected.  And, indeed, the image of Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha counters age-old racist stereotypes about negligent black fathers and irresponsible black mothers.   A recent article in The New York Times explicitly connects the success of the real-life Obama to the fictional “Huxtables” created by Bill Cosby (and indeed, The NYTimes article credits the show, at least in part, with Obama’s success).   This idealized family image of the Obama/Huxtable family is one that requires a particular heteronormative gender performance from all the participants.  After all, the Huxtables are variations on the “virtuous white Ozzie and Harriet family” of the white racial frame which was front and center in this election.  Any deviation from the Ozzie-and-Harriet model by the Obamas was severly punished (yet, the McCain’s numerous steps outside this went largely unremarked upon).   For example, Michelle Obama/Mom got in trouble for being too assertive,  Barack Obama/Dad was lauded when he attacked black men as irresponsible, and their daughters must dress and act appropriately “girl-like”  (hat tip to Joe for this insight).   What white gay marriage advocates seem to encourage looks and sounds a lot like assimilation into that heteronormative model of the family.  A movement that emphasized social justice and human rights would allow for and celebrate a range of expressions of gender and sexuality rather than conformity to a particularly narrow conceptualization of what constitutes a family.

Religion, race and gay marriage. Advocates for gay marriage need to work on their religious intolerance (image from here.)  The Mormon church and others on the religious right funded the political campaign to take away marriage rights in California, following on a long history of religious-sponsored vicious hatred toward LGBT people.  Understandably, many LGBT people have no patience with religious arguments intended to undermine our rights.  Yet, for many people, including black people and LGBT folk, the church is the central social institution.  As Joe pointed out recently, most churches are still among the most racially segregated institutions we participate in.  Given the fact that marriage is both a religious rite (as well as a human right) that is being defended by religious people in racially-segregated congregations means that those interested in marriage equality need a ground game that engages, rather than alienates, church folk and does so with a real awareness of racial issues.  The “No on 8″ graffiti that appeared on several churches (as pictured above) following the defeat last week is not the way to win supporters.   The rhetoric of gay marriage supporters that polarizes “black churches” and all religious folks as diamterically opposed to “gay supporters of No on 8″ keeps both sides locked in a symbiotic relationship in which each side significantly affects the evolution of its counterpart, as Tina Fetner explains in her new book.   Such dichotomous, either/or, views of marriage equality ignore the fact that it’s religious LGBT folk who have been pioneers in the movement.

I agree with Jasmyne Cannick who writes that: 

“Black gays are depending on their white counterparts to finally ‘get it.’  Until then, don’t expect to make any inroads any time soon in the black community on this issue — including with this black lesbian.”

And, for this anti-racist white lesbian, I’m not so interested in a marriage equality movement that fails to “get it” about race.  What gay marriage supporters must do if they hope to win on this issue is to address the deeply intertwined politics of race, class, gender and religion in ways that frame marriage equality as an important human rights issue that other people should care about rather than a luxury denied already privileged white gay men.

American Racism

American racism is getting more coverage on the mainstream news than it has since the Civil Rights era.   And, that’s not surprising given antics like this image included in a mailing from the Chaffey Community Republican Women, a regional arm of the GOP in California (more on the story and image source here).  For her part, the group’s president, Diane Fedele, draws on the rhetoric of “race-blindness” to defend her actions.  She reportedly said that she received the illustration in a number of chain e-mails and decided to reprint it for her members in the group’s newsletter because she was offended that Obama would draw attention to his own race. She said she doesn’t think in racist terms, pointing out she once supported Republican Alan Keyes, an African-American who previously ran for president. She continues this “race-blind” rhetorical strategy when she says:

“I didn’t see it the way that it’s being taken. I never connected,” she said. “It was just food to me. It didn’t mean anything else.”

Now, the somewhat encouraging news is that lots of people are pointing out this overt racism and calling it what it is, including those on rather mainstream (albeit left-leaning) blogs and cable news networks.

However, the way stories like the one about the circulation of this image of “Obama bucks” are overly focused on individual racism, rooted in psychological explanations.  For example, Fedele made the top of Olbermann’s “Worst Person” list on his nightly broadcast, as have others in this political season who’ve been guilty of engaging in the most overt racist tactics.  And, in a perfectly fine piece at the Huffington Post, Peter Wolson has a thorough discussion of the psychology of “othering.”   I don’t disagree with either of these. Indeed, I welcome more discussion of American racism in as many venues as possible.  The problem with these is that the focus on the individual and psychological aspects of racism within a larger political discourse of “race-blindness” elides the way in which racism is systemic, built in, institutionalized, and structural.

The focus on the individual expressions of overt racism and the psychological roots of such expressions also forestall any sort of discussions about responses to racism by society as a whole. To illustrate this, note the contrasting response to individual racism in Denmark recently.  A 33-year-old woman was convicted under Danish laws against racism after posting racist remarks on her personal web page (she was given a fine).   Unfortunately, in the U.S. we seem reluctant to adopt such a societal-level response to overt expressions of racism, even in this political season and even when many, many people see such expressions as wrong and immoral.   Instead, there is a knee-jerk, libertarian response to any call for accountability under the law for such expressions in the United States.  In point of fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has made a number of decisions that restrict certain types of racist speech that don’t make a contribution to the public sphere.    Yet, prominent figures such as Rush Limbaugh, get away with what amounts to enciting racist hatred with their speech, such as this recent tirade against black children allegedly “raised as militants.”

Identifying individuals who engage in overt racism is important, and understanding the psychology of such expressions is valuable, but coming to terms with American racism takes much more than that.  And, dealing with it will require a broad-based political will and systemic social change.   We’re not there yet.

Neoliberalism, White (Male) Privilege & the Current Financial Crisis

Make no mistake, all the available evidence suggests that the American political economy is headed for a major crash.  Some are even speculating that this is the end of American economic dominance in the world’s financial market.  But don’t be deceived by the blame-the-victim rationalizing that’s being floated now.   Let’s be clear about what policies and which people are behind the current financial crisis: neoliberal policies and the overwhelmingly majority of economically privileged white men (photo from same link) who created, implemented and benefited from those policies.

Neoliberalism refers to a set of policies that encourage “less government” and unfettered (and unregulated) capitalism.   The key elements of neoliberalism include: 1) the rule of the market, 2) reducing government expenditures on social services, 3) deregulation, 4) privatization, and 5) gutting the notion of “the public good.”    While this may strike some readers as sounding astonishingly similar to any recent Republican stump speech, neoliberalism has infected Democratic politics as well, and either Clinton’s policies (and way too many of Obama’s, for my tastes), fit neatly within the framework of neoliberalism.  Remember, “welfare reform” was a large part of what got Bill Clinton elected, and that’s a quintessential neoliberal policy.   Now, it seems self-evident to me what the connection is between neoliberalism and the current financial crisis, but allow me to connect a few of the dots here.   As those in the White House and Congress, including John McCain, touted the benefits of deregulation (link opens video of interview with McCain) of the financial markets and passed legislation “freeing” up those industries from any sort of government oversight, whole new markets developed and a few people got very, very rich.   Many of those who got very, very rich did so in financial services that are obtuse at best and an elaborate shell game at worse.   Others got very, very rich by targeting minority communities for subprime mortgages, the new version of “redlining.”  Now, those who conceived of, established and profited from these businesses have either cashed out or, if they’re still in the game, are looking to the U.S. tax-payers (some of the same people who’ve been fleeced by these schemes) for a $700 billion bailout, making the U.S. government the insurer-of-last-resort for these highly risky capitalist ventures.    The end result of neoliberal policies is that while a handful of people get very, very rich, these policies simultaneously exacerbate the suffering of just about everyone else and increase domestic and international instability.    So, what we’re seeing now is just the logical, perhaps inevitable, result of these policies.

Economically privileged white men have had a disproportionate level of involvement in the development, administration and profit from neoliberalism.  If you look at the roster of those in power on Wall Street and in the financial services sector more broadly in the U.S., what you will see is overwhelmingly white men who have gone to elite schools and, for the most part, come from upper-middle class and upper-class backgrounds.   Granted, there are token women (usually white) and people of color (some African American men), but these exceptions highlight the prevailing demographic fact about the industry.   While the “secret societies” of the wealthy occasionally make the news, the fact is, the power elite has been a feature of American life since before C. Wright Mills wrote about it in the 1950s, yet it rarely gets discussed in any meaningful way in the mainstream news. Instead, we get a lot of reporting about how the bailout failure was the result of partisanship – certainly part of the story, but doesn’t explain why conservative republicans and democrats rejected the plan.  Instead, what we need is more reporting, more information about how the state is working to protect the interests of the power elite.

Fortunately, critics on the left have pointed out the elite interests behind this crisis and the proposed bailout.   The reality is that bailout or not, the worsening economic landscape is not going to affect everyone in the U.S. – and the world – evenly.   Instead, people of color, women, and particularly women of color, are going to get laid off, not have health care, lose their homes and be forced into bankruptcy, while privileged white men may have to sell one of their vacation homes.  It’s time to shift this burden back onto the shoulders of the people who created it.

Sarah Palin and White Women’s Racism

There’s a lot of talk about how McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, is energizing conservative voters, but the real “base” that she energizes is white women Go, Sarah!(
Creative Commons License photo credit: GrodsCorp ). And, it’s very likely that white women will be the ones to decide this election.   While many news analysts continue to adhere to the facile equation of race versus gender (rather than race and gender), and interpret white women’s embrace of Palin as a symbol of “true womanhood,” even feminism, what such analyses leave out is the racism of white women.  The racism of white women like Sarah Palin herself.   Writing at the LA Progressive, Charley James reports that Alaskan citizens who know Palin well say she is “racist, sexist, vindictive, and mean.” According to a James’ interview with a local resident who served Palin breakfast shortly after an Obama victory over Hilary Rodham Clinton, Palin said:

“So Sambo beat the bitch!”

Charming.   Yet, as Adia so deftly pointed out here, because Palin and the McCain campaign are hiding behind protestations of “sexism in the media” Palin isn’t subjected to any hard-hitting questions about this statement, or any of her views on race, racism, or racial inequality (or anything else, for that matter).   That’s a wise move from the campaign’s perspective, because I don’t think it would be long before this sort of invective would escape Palin’s lips.   Even setting aside Palin’s overt racism (as some will inevitably call it an “aberration” and/or deny that she ever said it), her rhetoric of being a “hockey mom” and a “pitbull with lipstick,” is a rhetorical – and political – strategy that excludes women of color from the conversation.  As  Maegan la Mala eloquently writes as Vivir Latino (hat tip to Maria Niles):

Palin positions herself as continuing Clinton’s struggle, as continuing the struggle set forth by Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run as a vice-presidential candidate. Let’s not forget that Ferraro called Obama “lucky” for being black. Is Palin then lucky for having five children, like my abuela did before being forcibly sterilized? You wanna talk about Palin’s uterus or the uterus of her daughter? I want to talk about my abuela’s uterus, how it’s power was deemed dangerous because of it’s power to bear brown Spanish speaking babies, my uterus and it’s abortions, miscarriages, and pregnancies, violations upon it, the uterus of an immigrant woman being viewed as a weapon in a culture war and the need to put those immigrant women in chains as they push babies from them and the need the U.S. government has to separate mamis and babies and deport and dispose.

My uterus and my head is tired.

Unfortunately, this is a lesson that white liberal feminists fail to get over centuries of opportunities to learn this lesson: there is nothing incompatible about racism and white feminism.   In fact, they go together quite seamlessly.   Will racism pick the next president? You betcha.  And it’ll be the racism of white women leading the way.

“Racism is the Only Reason McCain Might Beat Him”

Over at Slate, Jacob Weisberg, raises some important points about the racial implications of Senator Obama’s campaign, especially why he might lose and what the impact might be. The latter question is one rarely discussed in the mass media so far.

Weisberg reiterates a point we have made with social science data on whites’ racist thinking on this site before:

To some white voters (14 percent in the CBS/New York Times poll), Obama is someone who, as president, would favor blacks over whites. Or he is an “elitist” who cannot understand ordinary (read: white) people because he isn’t one of them.

Then he discusses overt white-racist stuff that gets very little critical attention in the media or from politicians:

In May, Pat Buchanan, who writes books about the European-Americans losing control of their country, ranted on MSNBC in defense of white West Virginians voting on the basis of racial solidarity. The No. 1 best-seller in America, Obama Nation by Jerome R. Corsi, Ph.D., leeringly notes that Obama’s white mother always preferred that her “mate” be “a man of color.” John McCain has yet to get around to denouncing this vile book.

Why don’t these pundits get the critical attention they deserve. Clearly, the media’s own racism seems to handicap them in an honest and critical examination of the racist ideas of such pundits.

In my view, in this country now we need to end this sweeping racism under the rug. We need a huge and candid public discussion of white racism, its great and continuing toxic reality, and of our need for anti-racist action on a large scale. And we need that large scale organizing for that anti-racist action now if we are to see a Black man as president.

Weisberg closes with some rather insightful discussion of the positive effects of an Obama victory, but then asks out loud about the impacts of his losing:

If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world’s judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn’t put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race.

I am inclined to agree with all but the “crazy irrationality” part. Systemic racism is about material inequality, white power and privilege, and a strong white racial framing to protect white interests, now over nearly four centuries, and not about some wild-racist irrationality.

What do you think of Weisberg’s comments?

Playing the Caucasian Card

In her “The Last Word” column at Newsweek this week Anna Quindlen gave us a new and useful concept to describe what many whites do—the “Caucasian card” (H/T Jose Cobas). When African Americans object to racist framing, antiblack commentary, or antiblack practices, whites accuse them of “playing the race card.” This is a white-framed, whitewashed phrase designed to deflect objections to everyday racism. It was doubtless invented by whites for that purpose. (Can anyone tell me its first use?) (photo: kevinthoule)

Quindlen cites the way that African Americans carry a heavy load of racial hostility and discrimination on their shoulders:

When one of the white guys blows an account, the office line is that he’s a loser. But when a black guy does it, it means that they—that’s the all-purpose “they,” sometimes used interchangeably with “those people”—don’t seem to be able to close the deal.

This burden of everyday racism makes a black person’s life quite different from that of a white person. Somehow most whites assume their lives are the same. They assert that blacks have equal opportunities compared to whites–in education, employment, housing or health care.

She later notes that Senator McCain justifiably likes to cite his long trials in a Viet Cong prison with it torture of a physical and psychological kind for five years. That, he and his supporters plausibly assert, “builds character.” But they forget or intentionally ignore the huge burden of contending with white hostility and discrimination that black men and women face (as well as other Americans of color). They face it for lifetimes, for far more than five years. This heavy burden often involves physical and psychological torture of its own kind. This should be fully recognized by the white media and voters, but is not.

Quindlen then comments on the McCain campaign’s reaction to Senator Obama’s recent and reasonable commentary on being viewed by many (whites) as not looking like other presidents on U.S. money and as being portrayed by McCain supporters and others as somehow foreign and “other.”

The man is black. His candidacy is indivisible from that fact, given the history and pathology of this country.… The suggestion of [his doing] something untoward was pandering to stereotypes and fear. Senator McCain was playing the Caucasian card.

She nails it this time. Whites invented the racist system of this country and have maintained that system, with great white privileges, since the 1600s. They have “played the white card” in every era. They played it in the abolitionist era of the 1850s-1860s, and they played it in the civil rights era of the 1950s-1960s. With no sense of irony, privileged whites (coming from what one blogger bobbosphere calls the “deal”) still play that white card today when they regularly accuse African Americans who critique the racist system and try to bring it down as “playing the race card” and being unfair to our “really democratic” system.

This is Not Helping

Occasionally, someone will suggest that that the best way to address the persistence of racism is to begin adopting a “race-blind” analysis that abandons the use of racial categories. As it turns out, this doesn’t help eliminate racism and racial inequality, it merely obscures the reality of it. Here’s a case in point.

The NYPD recently collected and released a quite extensive dataset on police shootings over the past 11 years (image from Flickr Creative Commons). The data included such details as the number of shots fired, the reason for each shooting, and how many bullets hit their target. Yet, after 1997 there was no data on the race of people shot by police. Today, the New York Times published a partial explanation for this curious omission of data, which emerged as a result of a lawsuit filed against the NYPD by the New York Civil Liberties Union. Here’s the relevant bit:

“Testimony by a former police chief now offers an explanation. The former chief, Louis R. Anemone, said that while the data on people killed by officers were being compiled in 1998, the police commissioner, Howard Safir, ordered the department not to include the race of those killed by officers.

The testimony by Mr. Anemone, a former chief of department, did not say why Mr. Safir made his decision, but the shift appeared to have occurred during a public furor over race and the police’s use of deadly force in the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, in February 1999. Mr. Diallo was killed in a barrage of 41 police bullets in the Bronx.”

Here, the former police commissioner intuitively understands what many social commentators on race fail to grasp. Namely, that if you bury knowledge about racism and racist practices (such as the NYPD’s abysmal record), then you effectively subvert efforts to combat racism.