The numerous contacts that Greeks, Romans and other Europeans had with people of African origin have been portrayed in art for thousands of years. The objective of “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University and editor-in-chief of The Root, is to capture and catalog that interaction for all of us to enjoy. Four of 10 projected volumes . . . are now available.
It is not just the U.S. that is seeing a significant increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in the middle of this worldwide capitalistic recession. Agence France Presse has a story about the German chancellor’s moving to more of an aggressive anti-Islamic-immigrant stance:
Germany’s attempt to create a multi-cultural society has failed completely, Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the weekend, calling on the country’s immigrants to learn German and adopt Christian values. Merkel weighed in for the first time in a blistering debate sparked by a central bank board member saying the country was being made “more stupid” by poorly educated and unproductive Muslim migrants.
This right-winger resigned his bank position but his anti-Turkish, anti-Muslim views and book are popular in Germany, which is the country that helped accelerate modern racism under Hitler and his crew -– and where German Jewish scholar Magnus Hirschfeld actually coined the modern term “racism” for the anti-Semitic oppression of his day (the 1930s).
According to the French press story,
“Multikulti”, the concept that “we are now living side by side and are happy about it,” does not work, Merkel told a meeting of younger members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party at Potsdam near Berlin.
So the concept of multicultural pluralism is under even more open pressure from those who want more aggressive one-way assimilation to white-Christian-centrism in Germany. The contradictions in Merkel’s view are also clear in this article:
While warning against “immigration that weighs down on our social system”, Merkel said Germany needed specialists from overseas to keep the pace of its economic development.
Apparently, many German leaders are not aware that the mostly hardworking immigrants from Muslim countries are among the workers who can help bail out Germany from its falling and aging population problems over the next few decades.
Roma people, an ethnic minority group in Europe, suffer from widespread violence, poverty and widespread discrimination in employment, education and housing. Compared to other groups in Europe, Roma people have poorer health, lower life expectancy, less education, lower income and live in worse housing. Roma women are subject to forced sterilization. Although there are no longer anti-Roma laws on the statutes in Europe, the mountain of reports from the Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Commission Against Racism And Intolerance (ECRI), show that virulent anti-Gypsyism not only survives but is growing in many countries.
For decades, the Council of Europe (COE) in particular has worked to fight anti-Gypsyism, through its Dosta! (Enough) Campaign. Increasingly, scholars and activists in Europe are turning to media to help combat this form of racism. This video (28:25) produced by the COE, features a panel of experts, including a number of sociologists, explores the problem and efforts to address it:
This pervasive discrimination have led some to make the case that the Roma people share much with African Americans in the U.S. Among those who draw this parallel is Robert Rustem, from the European Roma and Travellers Forum. He writes:
Rather than recognise the plight of Roma as an urgent social and political issue, too many European governments ignore the application of their own laws, see Roma as primarily the concern of local councillors or the criminal justice system or simply do nothing at all. A similar intransigence served as a call to action for the African-American leadership in the 1950’s. It responded by mobilising support among black and white people and set out to pour shame on America’s political elite. Bus boycotts, sit-ins, marches, demonstrations and the emergence of more militant political forces such as Malcolm X, focussed the international spotlight on the injustice of Jim Crow apartheid and created the political pressure needed for lasting change. There are those in the Roma community who believe that similar non-violent tactics may now be needed in Europe to end the cycle of good intentions, warm words and neglect that has marked the post-war discussion of the ‘Roma Question.’
Rustem concedes that the Roma issue remains “on the fringes of political activism” in Europe. Still, Rustem and others in Europe who are committed to equality for Roma people say they will be looking to the anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington August 28th for inspiration.
Hernan Vera and I have written about the importance of the break down of empathy as part of the creation of racist systems, including discrimination and its racial framing. Discover magazine’s blog has reported recently 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 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 people unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, others. Hernan Vera 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 most to be explained 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.
The Associated Press has a story about 1000s of Romanians booing Madonna at a Bucharest music concert, where she criticized discrimination targeting the Roma (Romani or “Gypsies”). The story reports that at first Romanian fans applauded Roma musicians who performed with her, but the crowd of 60,000 changed dramatically when she
condemned widespread discrimination against Roma, or Gypsies — and the cheers gave way to jeers.
There are at least half a million Roma in Romania. The AP report noted the large scale of this racialized discrimination, which human rights agencies report is probably greater than for any other racial-ethnic group in Europe:
Sometimes, it can be deadly: In neighboring Hungary, six Roma have been killed and several wounded in a recent series of apparently racially motivated attacks targeting small countryside villages predominantly settled by Gypsies.
The scale of the everyday discrimination is indeed huge and extensive:
Nearly one in two of Europe’s estimated 12 million Roma claimed to have suffered an act of discrimination over the past 12 months, according to a recent report by the Vienna-based EU Fundamental Rights Agency. The group says Roma face “overt discrimination” in housing, health care and education.
And this anti-Roma framing and discrimination is reinforced at the top:
In May 2007, Romanian President Traian Basescu was heard to call a Romanian journalist a “stinky Gypsy” during a conversation with his wife.
The violent discrimination extends to Hungary, Bulgaria and other European countries as well:
Human rights activists say the attacks in Hungary, which began in July 2008, may be tied to that country’s economic crisis and the rising popularity of far-right vigilantes angered by a rash of petty thefts and other so-called “Gypsy crime.”
According to wikipedia
The Roma suffer the worst health conditions in the industrialized world together with some of the worst health problems associated with the third world. Rates of both infectious and non-communicable diseases are high. The proportion of Roma living in poverty exceeds 75% in countries throughout the region.
Wikipedia also describes widespread racialized discrimination across Europe, including today in western and southern Europe:
Amnesty International reports continued instances of Antizigan discrimination during the 2000s, particularly in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Kosovo. Romanies are often confined to low-class ghettos, are subject to discrimination in jobs and schools, and are often subject to police brutality. In Italy, the government recently declared that Italy’s Romani population represented a national security risk and that swift action was required to address the emergenza nomadi (gypsy emergency).
Interestingly, researchers have found that the Roma’s ancestors likely immigrated out of south Asia (India) about the 11th century, and they have been racialized in Europe and the United States since at least the explosion of racist science in the 19th century:
Later in the 19th century, Romani immigration was forbidden on a racial basis in areas outside Europe, mostly in the English speaking world (in 1885 the United States outlawed the entry of the Roma) and also in some South American countries (in 1880 Argentina adopted a similar policy) . . . . The persecution of the Romanies reached a peak during World War II in the Porajmos, the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. In 1935, the Nuremberg laws stripped the Romani people living in Nazi Germany of their citizenship, after which they were subjected to violence, imprisonment in concentration camps and later genocide in extermination camps. The policy was extended in areas occupied by the Nazis during the war, and it was also applied by their allies, notably the Independent State of Croatia, Romania and Hungary.
Somewhere between a half million and 1.5 million were killed by the German Nazis and their allies in eastern Europe during the World War II era.
Even after fifty generations in Europe there is still this widespread racialized oppression. In addition, the AP report also noted contradictory responses in Europe today to the Roma, with very negative and discriminatory responses in most cases but more positive responses to some of their culture, especially to “Gypsy” dance and music cultural styles. This reminds me of the way that many/most white Americans “enjoy” certain kinds of African American and Latino music and dance, even as they persist in widespread racial discrimination against these U.S. groups. In racially framed worlds, here white-European, people considered to be “of color” are often OK “in their place.”
Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. For some time now, this birthday has brought much commentary on his theory of evolution, especially about the controversy generated by conservative religious groups who reject his theory and the extensive scientific evidence supporting much of it. Darwin is often listed as one of the ten most influential thinkers in Western history (a parochial listing, as the list makers leave out the rest of the world), and probably deserves that designation.
Religion and evolution get the attention most of the time when Darwin is publicly debated, but his racial views are also getting a little attention as well. They should get much more attention. To his credit, Charles Darwin was opposed to slavery, and this got him into trouble a few times, but he shared many of the anti-equality racist views of his day. In The Independent Marek Kohn notes the shift in thinking during Darwin’s life about the monogenetic origin of humanity:
When Charles Darwin entered the world 200 years ago, there was one clear and simple answer to the slave’s question. All men were men and brothers, because all were descended from Adam. By the time Darwin had reached adulthood, however, opinions around him were growing more equivocal. During his vision-shaping voyage on the Beagle, he was able to consult an encyclopedia which arranged humankind into 15 separate species, each of a separate origin.
Reviewing a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Kohn summarizes thus:
Evolutionary thinking enabled [Darwin] to rescue the idea of human unity, taking it over from a religion that no longer provided it with adequate support, and put the idea of common descent on a rational foundation. . . . [However, as he aged and] As attitudes to race became harsher, sympathies for black people in the Americas more scant, and the fate of “savages” a matter of indifference, Darwin’s own sympathies were blunted by the prevailing fatalism.
As he got older, especially in his famous, The Descent of Man, Darwin fell in line with much of the racist thinking of his day and even developed an early version the perspective later called “social Darwinism”:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
In his view, the “civilized races” would eventually replace the “savage races throughout the world.” Darwin’s earlier and most famous book was entitled: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In such influential and momentous writings Darwin applied his evolutionary idea of natural selection not only to animal development but also to the development of human “races.” He saw natural selection at work in the killing of indigenous peoples of Australia by the British, wrote here of blacks (some of the “savage races”) being a category close to gorillas, and spoke against social programs for the poor and “weak” because such programs permitted the least desirable people to survive.
By the late 1800s a racist perspective called “social Darwinism” extensively developed these ideas of Darwin and argued aggressively that certain “inferior races” were less evolved, less human, and more apelike than the “superior races.” Prominent social scientists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner argued that social life was a life-and-death struggle in which the best individuals would win out over inferior individuals. Sumner argued that wealthy Americans, almost entirely white at the time, were products of natural selection and as the “superior race” essential to the advance of civilization. Black Americans were seen by many of these openly racist analysts as a “degenerate race” whose alleged “immorality” was a racial trait.
Though some have presented him that way, Darwin was not a bystander to this vicious scientific racism. In their earlier book, Darwin, Adrian Desmond and James Moore summarize thus:
‘Social Darwinism’ is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start–‘Darwinism’ was always intended to explain human society.
Why has his racist thinking received so little attention in the celebration of his ideas and impact?
W. Hassan Marsh has an interesting article on theRoot.com about Chloe Mortaud, the new Miss France, who self-defines as Black, something unusual in France for people of biracial heritage (her father is white French, her mother is African American). I think “beauty queens” and “beauty pageants” are sexist phenomena whose time should be long gone, but Marsh accents some interesting points about the global impact of Obama’s election and some changes in symbolism across the globe that are well worth thinking about (photo credit).
The French media have started calling Ms. Mortaud, interestingly, “Miss Obama,” which also suggests the global impact of the Obama election. Marsh makes the following contentions about “blackness is in vogue”:
Blackness is fast moving to the center of the world’s psyche. For proof, look no further than last month’s crowning of a binational and biracial Miss France 2009. Chloe Mortaud’s selection as the face of French beauty and elegance has so few precedents that the French media have named her, perhaps cheaply, “Miss Obama.”
The first sentence is a huge exaggeration. (More accurate would be that there is a negative view of blackness at the center of too much of the “world’s psyche.”) Indeed, not everybody in France is happy with a black face representing classical “French beauty” (traditionally pasty white?):
Around the Web, some French commentators have complained that Mortaud is not pretty.
But Marsh sees the debate on her race and her calling herself Black as healthy and an advance for France:
The very discussion of Mortaud’s worthiness represents an advance in the way the French deal with race. The enduring myth of a colorblind France has obscured the relative invisibility of non-white French people in France’s public life. The French government does not keep statistics on race. The official position is that there are no differences among the races—therefore, there is no reason to keep an account of it. That means disparities among racial groups cannot be quantified. However, a trip to an impoverished banlieue (suburb) of Paris or Marseille, where “race riots” in neighborhoods inhabited by large numbers of African and Arab immigrants have made world headlines, shows a qualitative difference.
It is interesting that he means an advance for WHITE France in thinking Mortaud worthy, a point he seems to miss here. Note too that the white oppressors and discriminators substantially responsible for the impoverished suburbs remain implicit here, and are not explicitly mentioned. It is interesting how the sensitivities of whites gets privileged even it what is otherwise a good critical analysis.
He then argues that Obama has helped to make Blacks in France feel a certain new unity, and shared experience:
Thanks in part to the Obama effect, French blacks who have traditionally been divided by designations like Caribbean, African or mixed ancestry, have started to make claims on transnational “blackness,” a feeling of a mutual experience if not shared origin.
Marsh does seem to be right about the great international impact of Obama’s election, an impact very much worth watching. In Brazil, the largest African-origin population outside of Africa, there has been much public and private celebration. One Brazilian official, Edson Santos, the black minister of racial equality, accented the impact on many youth there:
I think it is important for young black Brazilians to know how the civil rights movement progressed in the U.S. and how it produced not just Obama, but blacks at the highest levels of American businesses. It is important that they have contact with this reality.
A young Brazilian agreed with him about the significance and possible impact of this new U.S. reality: “Obama has arrived and taken us to the next level, We black Brazilians need him as much as the Americans do.” The main reason for this is that black Brazilians, who make up at least half the Brazilian population, suffer widespread racial discrimination; they make up only 3 percent of college graduates and only eight percent of the 28 top government ministers. And the black Brazilian civil rights movement has only recently come of age. A black organizer who works with Brazil’s poor agreed that Obama symbolized the hopes of all people of African descent:
Obama represents what every black person in the world has been hoping for: that the fight of the dream for racial equality in North America can spread to the entire world.”
“If you look at folks of color, even women, they’re more successful in the Democratic party than they are in the white, uh, excuse me, in, uh, Republican party.”
The McCain folks of course pounced on this, and called it “insulting,” while a DNC spokesperson just said that Dean “misspoke and corrected himself immediately.”
Claiborne, however, accents how important this issue really is. It is literally, the Elephant in the Room. This issue is
rarely discussed in public and almost never by politicians: the marked racial division by party in American politics. Members of the country’s largest minority groups — blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans — are predominantly Democratic.
He is right, but of course there is a lot more to it than that: The Republican Party has been the white party since African Americans left it in large numbers for the New Deal Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. It was then no longer the “party of Lincoln” civil rights issues, and economic issues were hitting African Americans very hard.
With the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Republican Party intentionally abandoned black voters for a strategy openly targeting what are seen as the primary interests of a majority of white voters. This explicitly pro white political strategy has put emphasis on the interests of whites in suburbia and the southern states. Codewords such as “quotas,” “states’ rights,” “busing,” and “crime in the streets” have been substituted for the more explicitly racist terms of the days of legal segregation. The southern strategy was effectively used by Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 to win the first two Republican elections with that racialized strategy.
The neo-segregationist strategy targeting southern and suburban whites was also used effectively in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush campaigns of the 1980s and early 1990s. Reagan began his presidential campaign asserting strongly a states’ rights doctrine, and he intentionally picked Philadelphia, Mississippi–where civil rights workers had been lynched in the 1960s—to make this symbolic appeal to southern white voters. Reagan and his associates sought to dismantle further federal civil rights enforcement efforts, including weakening the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and attacking affirmative action programs, to please white constituents.
When George H. W. Bush undertook a run for president, he ran a racist campaign. In 1988 Bush and his advisors conducted an infamous advertising campaign that used visual images of a disheveled black rapist, from his opponent’s home state, to intentionally scare and recruit white voters to the Republican Party. Most recently, after losing elections in the 1990s to moderate Democrat William Clinton, the Republican Party succeeded in electing George W. Bush. Bush gained the presidency in two consecutive elections, 2000 and 2004. In both, the Republican Party focused heavily on securing white voters in the South and suburbs, and some Republican officials sought to restrict black voting in key states.
At one time centered in the states of the East and upper Midwest, today the Republican Party is, as a result of its recent political remaking, now centered in the South, parts of the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountain states. In recent political campaigns, the Republican Party has continued to be the “white party,” the one aggressively representing white interests, albeit often in disguised language. Thus, in elections between 1992 and 2004 the Republican Party got a remarkably small percentage (8-12 percent) of black voters, and a minority of most other voters of color as well.
Not only has there been only a handful of black delegates at recent Republican party conventions, but the Republican National Committee has had few black members. Service at the highest decision-making levels of the Republican Party has in the last few decades been almost exclusively white. Thus, in late 2004 there was only one African American from the fifty U.S. states (plus a black member from U.S. Virgin Islands) among the 165 members of the Republican National Committee. This compared to the 97 black members on the Democratic National Committee, more than one fifth of the total membership about the same time. This pattern still pretty much holds today. Today, all black members of the U.S. Congress, and something like 98 percent of the 9,000 black officeholders at all government levels across the United States are members of the Democratic Party.
This highly segregated pattern of political party interests and participation has characterized U.S. politics now since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the southern and border states, the Rocky Mountain states, and numerous states of the lower Midwest, white voters now tend to vote overwhelmingly for the Republican Party in presidential elections, and for that reason some people now explicitly refer to the Party as “white party.” The Republican party has brought about its political resurgence since the major losses in presidential elections of the early and mid-1960s by explicitly using a politics of “race” that works mainly because of the racist legacies of slavery and legal segregation have persisted aggressively into contemporary U.S. society. It continues to do this today, and will even more in coming months.
How can we claim to have a democratic country and have a democratic media when these strong data on the racial differences in the two major parties are almost never seriously discussed? It seems to me, that this is the real issue in this election: democracy.
European and US news outlets, including BBC News are reporting that famous French film star, Brigitte Bardot (now 73, but a legend in the 1960s-1970s), has been fined yet again by a French court for violating laws against writing and speaking in ways that attack racial groups. The BBC reports that she was fined for
inciting racial hatred. She was prosecuted over a letter published on her website that complained Muslims were “destroying our country by imposing their ways.” It is the fifth time Ms Bardot been convicted over her controversial remarks about Islam and its followers. The fine – equivalent to $23,000 – related to a letter she wrote in December 2006 to the then Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, which was published on her website, in which she deplored the slaughter of animals for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.
As a prominent animal rights activist, she has also allied herself with those who vigorously oppose the Muslim immigrants to France:
She said she was “tired of being led by the nose by this population that is destroying us, destroying our country by imposing its acts.”
In 2004, again according to BBC News, she was fined substantially for what was terms a “race hate” book, her book A Cry in Silence:
The charges against Bardot, 69, related to her best-seller, A Cry In The Silence, in which she said she “opposed the Islamisation of France.” Last month the former actress apologised in court, and said: “I never knowingly wanted to hurt anybody.” In her book she wrote about issues such as racial mixing, immigration, the role of women in politics and Islam. The book also contained a section attacking what she called the mixing of genes and praised previous generations who, she said, had given their lives to push out invaders.
For her anti-immigrant and anti-gene-mixing writings, she angered French anti-racism groups, and they started legal proceedings against her. She lost and the court ruled that:
“Madame Bardot presents Muslims as barbaric and cruel invaders, responsible for terrorist acts and eager to dominate the French to the extent of wanting to exterminate them.” It awarded a symbolic one euro in damages to France’s anti-racism movement MRAP and to the League for Human Rights who brought the case to court. The court also ordered a 5,000 euro fine against the head of Bardot’s publishing house, Le Rocher, and ordered both to pay for advertisements in two newspapers announcing their convictions.
Reports note too that her husband is Bernard d’Ormal, who has been an adviser to the French racist-extremist group, the “Front National” party.
Anti-Muslim racist framing by this political party and by prominent whites like Bardot has spread rapidly across European countries and is also quite strong on the racist right in the United States, as a quick look at numerous arch-conservative US websites will reveal. With some types of racism being forced, at least to some modest degree, backstage among whites, it seems that those who wish to can more openly attack Muslims and Africans in Europe and Latin Americans in the US, especially the impoverished immigrants. In the United States Bardot could continue such racist commentaries with no fear of punishment, since we allow very harmful racist stuff perpetrated by those at the top of the racial hierarchy to hide behind extreme absolutist interpretations of the First Amendment in the United States. We have criticized this absolutist defense of racist speech by powerful whites here before, and Bardot’s case shows what some countries with more advanced human rights laws than our relatively backward country can do to at least reduce overt hate speech by those with power who are targeting those who are relatively powerless.