Racism and Family: Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Book

As the nation—and even the world—approaches yet another Rev./Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, some will be reflecting on how far we’ve come since King’s time. Others will be calling for renewed vigor toward activism and social justice, noting how far we still have to go toward King’s “dream.” Last year I was one of those voices. This year, however, I am instead overwhelmed by tremendous grief. The racism King deplored and gave his very life to combat simply will not leave us. It seems no sooner can I experience the joy of connecting to another person than it is cut short by the cold hard truth of what racism does to relationships, and to our inner beings. And just as I am grieving personal loss, I too am grieving the loss for all of humanity. That too many of the human species are condemned to lives far dimmer than what the bright light of their spirit could hold, if it weren’t for the invention of race and its rules of division.

Between the world and me book cover

One analyst who shares my grief is Ta-nehisi Coates. I was deeply moved this summer after reading his new book Between the World and Me. After noticing some reviewers accuse Coates of overgeneralizing about whites and/or police officers (see here for example) I knew I had to get a copy to read for myself. I’m all too familiar with my students and others reading things that aren’t there when it comes to racism. Not surprisingly, I found Coates was not the mythical creature he was purported to be. (You know, the one that hates all white people and won’t give even them a chance–e.g., like the black person “who took your job,” or the “close” black friend you have). However, we still have yet to have a documented/verified sighting of such a black person!

No, far from being exclusionary or categorically dismissive, Coates places the blame exactly where it should be:

‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. . . . without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for a want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all of history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been ‘black,’ and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us. . .(p. 42)

These very fences are directly responsible for many of the losses I am grieving. I connected so deeply to Coates’ writing because he wrote as a parent torn between the beauty of a child who believes he can dwell above the veil, beyond the veil (see W.E.B. Du Bois), and the harsh reality that one’s job as a parent is to protect one’s children of color from being slaughtered by these fences—-all the while knowing in the end we will have little to no control when the unfairness of it all crashes down onto them. I am the one they look to, to tell them they can be anything they want to be when no one else will, but as a person who values honesty, I cannot lie to them. And as a parent who wants them to succeed, thrive, and prosper, I cannot ill-equip them by shielding them from these truths.

Comedians make jokes sometimes about the different parenting styles of whites and blacks—-as if they are simply differences in regional dialect or those color/hue palette variations like eye color that make the world go round and keep it interesting. But Coates so astutely implicates the very white power structure above for the perceived harshness of some black parenting styles. Just underneath that gruffness is nothing but racism-instilled fear:

This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies. So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you to contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. . . .This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile. . . It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.(pp. 90-1).

These many costs of racism that take grave tolls on black bodies and minds have been documented empirically in Joe Feagin and Karyn McKinney’s book, The Many Costs of Racism — high rates of hypertension, workplace-induced carcinogens (i.e., much environmental racism), and other factors all ultimately resulting in lower life expectancies. Thus, one piece of my grief, for example, is that my children will never know their African American grandmother, who died at only 52, and was one of the most hardworking, loving, giving, caring, and musically talented members of the family. Yet many African Americans might only dream that their children had been able to see the age of 52—instead, their children, such as (most recently) Prince Jones, Michael Brown, Trayvon Brown, Tamir Rice, and far too many others must be mourned before they can even be parents themselves, much less barely finish their childhood.

Coates wrote Between the World and Me in the form of a letter to his son, who cried in his room inconsolably after learning of the Michael Brown verdict. Coates knew that telling his son everything’s going to be all right was not an option. After the book’s printing, no doubt Coates would not be surprised there would be no justice for Tamir Rice either. Racism literally takes away life, which is bad enough. But for those of us who remain, while we remain, racism does damage to our lives as well.

So I am grieving today that I had to have “the talk” with my 8-year old black son. Much as I wanted to put it off longer–the child still believes in Santa Claus–a well-meaning white family member forced my hand, by giving him the toy gun he asked for for Christmas. I had to tell him that a police officer might shoot and kill him with the justification that he thought he was holding a real gun. Lest his naïve white mother be talking about something she was clueless about, he turned to his older sister for some sort of confirmation or denial. When his sister–with hair like his and skin like his–told him, “yes, it’s true,” at that moment he knew that all the nice refrains in school about the police officer being his friend were but one version of the real story.

I am grieving that “the talk”–that was once associated with getting one’s driver’s license and becoming a young man–is now a talk for little ones who still take their steps down a staircase two feet at a time.

And while I shoulder this, I am also grieving a three-year relationship with the beautiful African American man I thought was my soul mate. Though each of us was raising children of our own, it was mentioned that my parenting was perhaps too optimistic. “We did not choose our fences” (Coates 2015:42), but those fences inevitably mean we only could connect but so much, and but for so long. Imagine how much more energy one could devote to strengthening one’s relationships if one’s body were not constantly drafted into the war of fighting racism. Perhaps fortuitously, a skilled and talented DJ chose “Footprints” as part of the soundtrack to our first date. It begins with a mother saying a routine “hurry back” goodbye to her son, only to lose him forever in a shooting—-much akin to the grief Coates chronicles in his interview with the mother of Prince Jones.

Some have told me Coates’ book was so painful, they had to put it down. While decontextualized excerpts from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech have been used at times as some kind of “Kumbaya, why can’t we all just get along anthem,” Coates instead uses the concept of the “dream” to refer to the deluded whites who think the world is a meritocracy, the world is their oyster, and when and if problems arise, justice wins out in orderly fashion. Those whites and others who buy uncritically into the “dream” still understand racism as an aberration to an otherwise ethically grounded society, much as the occasional natural disaster. Coates notes that

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’. . .But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. . . [whiteness] has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power” (pp. 7-8)

Those who subscribe to the “dream” are usually ignorant of the fact that racism in the form of slavery and Jim Crow forms fully 83 percent of our nation’s history so it’s foundational and ongoing, as opposed to a temporary hiccup. When Michelle Alexander reviewed Coates’ book for The New York Times review of books, she read it twice–the first time she was so disheartened that he offered no optimistic, visionary, inspirational vision for the future, that she had to read it again a second time with new adjusted expectations. Coates does not provide a way out of the mess. And although I do not share Coates’ atheism/agnosticism, what lover of justice among us has not questioned why a benevolent God would allow the ugliness of racism to continue to rage with no end in sight?

I led two community discussions on Coates’ book in Fall 2015, and I asked my fellow readers whether they thought Coates was a pessimist. Though we did not find him to be offering optimism, we agreed that what Coates prescribes is instead consciousness. He calls us to be fully aware, cast off the denial, and pay attention. Indeed, to his son he wrote:

My wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world” (pp. 107-8).

If one listens closely, there are moments of beauty of this world Coates celebrates throughout these pages. Those are the moments when one dwells outside the veil, when the fences have been temporarily lifted, when the softness dares to emerge despite the inevitable risk of pain that looms just behind. Coates eloquently shares with the reader the moments when he is bowled over by the bold no-holds-barred confidence of his son or his wife, or the way his fellow students groove to the music at a party. They exude a soulfulness and a zeal for life that he cherishes in those moments. Those snapshots in time become all the more beautiful when you are fully conscious of how rare they are, and how inevitably they will be interrupted.

In a bereavement workshop after the passing of my father, I was reminded that grief is an indicator of once having loved and being loved in return. Toward the end of his life, this man sent me a card every year on MLK day to acknowledge and honor my work. He would also remind me of the Buddhist teaching on impermanence–everything, whether wondrous or painful, too shall pass. Coates brings us face to face with the kind of pain that is like fire or looking into the son-—at some point, many readers feel compelled to put the book down and look away, it is too heavy to bear. Yet, even though he is a skeptic, he is fully conscious. His eyes are wide open, and he does not want to miss a moment.

So on this Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, while the national focus on race and racism only calls to mind the sadness and pain it inflicts upon my relationships with those I love most, I am also challenged to follow Coates’ lead: as I grieve, I will keep conscious. I will cherish the moments my love and I got lost in the music and there were no fences between us. I will cherish the moments my children played with abandon without a care to how boisterous they were, and no one was there to invoke our fear of sanctions that might befall them when their “race” trumped their youthful innocence in someone’s eyes. Most of all I will keep telling the truth, and I will not keep silent, about the racism that keeps us all from being able to enjoy so many more of those moments with each other.

~ Eileen O’Brien is Associate Professor of Sociology and Assistant Chair of Social Sciences at Saint Leo University (Virginia campus). She is currently researching race and hip hop (with Nosh McTaggart) and race/gender in military families (with Stephanie Byrd). Her books include The Racial Middle, and Race Ethnicity Gender and Class (with Joseph Healey).

The Moynihan Report is Still Wrong

Declining US marriages, coupled with growing numbers of “nonmarital” births, are the subject of considerable anxiety in the social policy literature. Such arrangements, it is argued, are ripping apart the social fabric and are a major cause of bad outcomes for boys (see this for example). This line of thinking is heavily racialized, and typically invokes the allegedly prophetic Moynihan Report of 1965. At the height of civil rights legislation, and escalating urban unrest, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a policy analyst for the Dept. of Labor. He wrote a research report on black poverty that concluded female-headed households were a major source of the problem. His controversial explanation shifted attention away from white racism and onto black “culture.” He expressed concern about black male unemployment, but his report suggested that African American parenting produced undesirable workers.

In 1965, 24% of black children lived in female headed households; by 2015 it had increased to 72%. Clearly, it seemed, Moynihan had been right that this was a dangerous and growing problem. In the 50th anniversary of the report, celebratory books, special journal issues, panels, conferences, and editorials have assigned much credibility to this belief. Paul Ryan and Barack Obama both pay homage to the report, illustrating its wide ideological appeal. Exemplary of this trend is a set of articles from the spring 2015 issue of Education Next, a conservative online journal. Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks’ article is titled “Was Moynihan Right?” They present a dizzying array of facts and statistics that appear to answer the question affirmatively. I challenge that verdict.

Moynihan’s “prescience” is monotonously intoned and rarely questioned, even though single-parenthood has increased in all ethnic categories and is heavily concentrated among families in poverty. Trend lines are similar, although rates have remained elevated for African Americans who have suffered consistently higher rates of poverty and unemployment. Moynihan made it a black thing, but it was more accurately a class thing. His black-white comparisons failed to control for income, yielding misleading results both within and between groups. He considered black female-headed households to be inherently deviant and conducive to all kinds of pathological results. Based on one highly flawed statistic, he argued that it was a problem “feeding upon itself.” Critics in the 1960s and 70s targeted these problems with his research, and the overly confident and florid tenor of the narrative he constructed. In the 1980s and since, these legitimate criticisms have been described instead as a vicious “smear campaign” by forces of “political correctness.” McLanahan and Jencks cheerfully repeat this canard in their effort to lionize Moynihan and his report.

Correlations between single parenthood and negative outcomes in school, prison, the workplace, and parenting in the next generation are examined by McLanahan and Jencks, but most of their exposition is not about race, but education and poverty. One graph shows currently that black single mothers with college degrees have substantially higher poverty rates than white single mothers who are high school drop-outs (28% v 18%). This anomalous fact draws no comment. They include a variety of graphs that indicate tandem changes across time related to economic and policy conditions, barely discussed in their analysis.

The 1980s brought a sharp uptick in problem indicators for all groups, especially African Americans and Latinos, and another spike in the early 90s, with brief improvement in the late 90s that ended after 2000, when it worsened again. Apparently straightforward responses to changing opportunities are instead twisted into complex speculations that bad choices by poor women and irresponsible behavior by poor men are the main problem. Inequitable return on higher education for single black mothers contradicts this assertion. Rising rates of single-motherhood alongside falling rates of crime and teen pregnancy are also contradictory. Nonetheless, the image of pathological parents raising pathological children forms a major strut of contemporary racism, a convenient shuffle from biology to culture – a politically acceptable way to blame victims and shift attention away from the real pathological (mainly white) elements in our society who stole houses and pensions and depressed job opportunities in ways that may never recover.

Globally and across time, marriage suffers when work is scarce and men are forced to leave. These conditions explain much of what has happened to US marriages over several decades. Underemployment, declining wages, and mass incarceration have eroded the security of committed relationships. Improved rights offered greater independence for women seeking to avoid or escape bad marriages, but persistently lower female wages intensified disadvantages of their one-income households. These are structural causes begging for structural solutions. Job creation, worker protection, criminal justice reform, and redistribution of wealth would let these marital problems solve themselves.

Susan Greenbaum is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of South Florida

The Untold Story of the Moynihan Report

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

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

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

Let us review the Glazer endnotes in sequence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Sexual Violence against Enslaved Black Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Livestreaming Now: Whiteness & Health Roundtable Today at CUNY Graduate Center (Updated)

The archived video(s) of An Exploration of Whiteness and Health A Roundtable Discussion

is available beginning here (updated 12/16/12):

The examination of whiteness in the scholarly literature is well established (Fine et al., 1997; Frankenberg, 1993; Hughey, 2010; Twine and Gallagher, 2008). Whiteness, like other racial categories, is socially constructed and actively maintained through the social boundaries by, for example, defining who is white and is not white (Allen, 1994; Daniels, 1997; Roediger, 2007; Wray, 2006). The seeming invisibility of whiteness is one of its’ central mechanisms because it allows those within the category white to think of themselves as simply human, individual and without race, while Others are racialized (Dyer, 1998). We know that whiteness shapes housing (Low, 2009), education (Leonardo, 2009), politics (Feagin, 2012), law (Lopez, 2006), research methods (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva, 2008) and indeed, frames much of our misapprehension of society (Feagin, 2010; Lipsitz, 1998). Still, we understand little of how whiteness and health are connected. Being socially assigned as white is associated with large and statistically significant advantages in health status (Jones et al., 2008). Anderson’s ground breaking book The Cultivation of Whiteness (2006) offers an exhaustive examination of the way whiteness was deployed as a scientific and medical category in Australia though to the second world war. Yet, there is relatively little beyond this that explores the myriad connections between whiteness and health (Daniels and Schulz, 2006; Daniels, 2012; Katz Rothman, 2001). References listed here.

The Whiteness & Health Roundtable is an afternoon conversation with scholars and activists doing work on this area.

Follow the livetweeting on Twitter at @jgieseking (Jen Jack Gieseking) and @SOSnowy (Collette Sosnowy), and via the #DigitalGC. You can also view the compilation of those Tweets on Storify here.

The roundtable is sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) and the Critical Social & Environmental Psychology program at the Graduate Center CUNY. The event is hosted by Michelle Fine (Distinguished Professor, Social Psychology, Women’s Studies and Urban Education), Jessie Daniels (Professor, Urban Public Health and Sociology) and Rachel Liebert, (PhD Student, Critical Social/Personality Psychology).

Asian Americans: An Uncritical Pew Center Report

Some 18 million Asian Americans make up today nearly 6 percent of the population, a figure than has grown from one percent before the 1965 Immigration Act replaced an openly racist immigration system set up in the 1920s. This reform law of the 1960s allowed into the U.S. a much greater diversity of immigrants.

A recent report titled “The Rise of Asian Americans” has been published on the Pew Research Center website, with much interesting – if somewhat poorly assessed – statistical data on Asian Americans, much of it from a 2012 survey Pew did.

Much of the tone of the report is a “model minority” one, as in this opening statement:

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success. . . .

The report accents the “milestones of economic success and social assimilation.” There are no qualifiers in this opening Pollyanna-ism that signal the racial and other societal problems Asian Americans face, including discrimination from whites with power over them and extremely heavy outside pressures on them as “forever foreign” to “assimilate.” Some discussion of barriers appears much later in the Pew analysis, and it is insufficient. Oddly, too, there is little citation of the relevant social science literature on the reality of everyday racism for Asian Americans, such as this recent book that Rosalind Chou and I did.

Still, there is much interesting data in the report. It cites data indicating that three quarters of Asian Americans are foreign-born immigrants, and that half say they cannot speak English very well. Being immigrants means a reality that some social science literature indicates makes publicly noting and organizing against discrimination they face much more difficult. Just getting situated in jobs and housing, and getting adjusted to a new country takes precedence in many cases—as the data on half not knowing English well indicates–and thus conformity to white folkways, to a white-dominated society, can become a passive anti-discrimination strategy. If you talk, dress, and act as “white” as you can, perhaps you will suffer fewer racial barriers.

The report notes that Asian American immigrants are the fastest growing group of immigrants, now surpassing Latinos in that regard. Especially interesting is the large proportion that come from the middle and upper middle class of their home countries:

More than six-in-ten (61%) adults ages 25 to 64 who have come from Asia in recent years have at least a bachelor’s degree. This is double the share among recent non-Asian arrivals….

They average more educational attainment than the populations of their home countries as well. While there are significant numbers of legal immigrants who are not from these relatively affluent backgrounds, a great many do come from such backgrounds–and that is one reason they tend to do better than the average American in terms of upward socioeconomic mobility:

. . . especially when compared with all U.S. adults, whom they exceed not just in the share with a college degree (49% vs. 28%), but also in median annual household income ($66,000 versus $49,800) and median household wealth ($83,500 vs. $68,529).

The report fails to note, like many other commentators, that a great many come with very significant socioeconomic resources. In some sense, our legal immigration system often “creams off” from the world’s middle and upper middle classes. That is also one reason that Asian American immigrants do better on average that Latino immigrants, many of whom are relatively poor and undocumented. One does not need racialized notions of “Asian culture” and “Hispanic culture” to explain this differential socioeconomic mobility.

The report uses the 2012 survey of Asian Americans to play up certain common images of Asian Americans, such as their “strong emphasis on family”:

More than half (54%) say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life; just 34% of all American adults agree. Two-thirds of Asian-American adults (67%) say that being a good parent is one of the most important things in life; just 50% of all adults agree.

The survey also used some rather simplistic questions about “hard work,” and found that “Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard, a view shared by a somewhat smaller share of the American public as a whole (58%).” More than 90 percent thought their country-mates were very hardworking.

Down in the report they finally note significant socioeconomic differentials and problems faced within the “model minority”:

Americans with Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and “other U.S. Asian” origins have a higher poverty rate than does the U.S. general public, while those with Indian, Japanese and Filipino origins have lower rates.

Not much discussion is devoted to this important finding, nor to the reality that large percentages of these Asian Americans do not yet know English very well (and thus do not seem to easily fit the “high assimilation” tone of the article).

The report offers some important summaries of variations in geographic patterns of residence, and religious identifications. There is also significant variability in how the immigrants came to the United States. The Vietnamese mostly came as political refugees, while

half of all Korean and Indian immigrants who received green cards in 2011 got them on the basis of employer sponsorship, compared with about a third of Japanese, a fifth of Chinese, one-in-eight Filipinos and just 1% of Vietnamese.

Educational and family reasons account for most of the others.

After noting in a cursory way that much Asian immigrants faced large-scale racial discrimination and being “othered,” the report concludes that the (problematical) Pew survey data questions show that Asian Americans do not face much racial discrimination. Only one in five said they faced “discrimination” because they were Asian, and only 13 percent said that “discrimination” against their group was a major problem.

One would have thought that these researchers might have looked at the research literature and realized that “discrimination” is often an intimidating word for (especially newer) Americans of color, and that there are much better ways to ask about the specific racial barriers they face—including often using softer language and, most importantly, asking about a significant list of possible racial mistreatments that have been reported in previous studies. The report also operates from a white racial frame in talking about the “perception of discrimination” on the part of their Asian American respondents–a common white-generated way to downplay the importance of discrimination as somehow just “in the minds” of those people of color who are targeted by it. And the white perpetrators of racial discrimination targeting Asian Americans , past and present, are never mentioned.

The report also discusses, as many other commentaries to, the relatively high level of outmarriage for Asian American newlyweds, a figure about 29 percent for those married from 2008 to 2010, more than for any other racial group. Women are much more likely to out-marry than men, a reality linked partially to the negative images of Asian American men in this society ( and ignored in this report) and fully explained in a new book by Rosalind Chou.

A very interesting report that deserves much more critical analysis and assessment in regard to immigrants and the U.S. future than the Pew researchers provide.

Parents Know: It’s Time We All Listen

Parents know what their children need, especially when it comes to their education. And it’s about time that we start listening to them. In the nation’s rush to blame everyone, including the parents, for children’s, especially minority children’s, educational failure, we have stopped listening to the people who know the most about their own, and their community’s children. The parents. And instead of listening to these parents, these mothers, we listen to everyone else. Everyone else gets a say in what is right or wrong, but mostly wrong, with the schools – movie directors, politicians, educational policy experts, and academics (myself included). And most of these people do not have children in the public schools (again, myself included), particularly the low income public schools that bear the brunt of most criticism.

And it’s not as if these parents are not demanding to be heard. It’s just that the United States is used to ignoring them. Historically, low income minority women have been the most marginalized, oppressed, and disenfranchised, suffering from what Patricia Hill Collins calls a triple threat of disadvantage. For those parents who might not speak English fluently or speak it as their first language, this is only all the more true. However, it’s not as if these groups do not advocate on behalf of their children. They do. It’s just these groups are often intentionally ignored, or silenced, because to listen to them would call attention to the tremendous injustices that not only they, but their children, the most vulnerable of our American citizens, suffer.

Stigmatized as being on welfare, sexually promiscuous, or involved with illegal drugs, low income minority mothers are often seen as social pariahs. But the stores of knowledge they hold, both with regard to their own cultures and histories, as well as the oppositional consciousnesses documenting the explicit injustices to which their children are subject are profound. And they must be heard. We, as the American public, must listen as they rally nationally – in Bridgeport, Connecticut, New York City, Paterson, N.J., Baltimore, Dallas, Texas, Sacramento, Chicago, and St. Augustine, Florida. In these cities, and so many others, they rally.

Demanding that school boards address the existence of toxic substances in their schools, increased parental involvement, that schools in their neighborhoods not be closed, overcrowding , privatization of school employees, cuts to education funding, physically abusive teachers, and fewer tests, these parents clearly know what the specific problems in the schools are.

They do not need educational experts, politicians, or others who have never stepped inside their neighborhood (unless to campaign), much less their schools, to tell them what is keeping minority test scores low. They know. And it’s time the rest of the country listen. This July, parents, as well as teachers and other supporters, from around the nation will convene in Washington, D.C., to reclaim their rightful control over their children’s futures. I hope we listen.

Millions of Parents as Felons?: But Only Blacks Go to Jail

Ms. Kelley Williams-Bolar, is an Akron, Ohio resident, poor, law abiding, single mother of two daughters (14 and 16 years of age), student in education at Akron University, and now a convicted felon for deciding to break “the rules” and falsify proof of residential documentation in order to bypass the school designated by the local school district. Instead of going to schools that are unsafe, violent, provide below standard academics, and consisting of a population approximated between 92-93% Black, she took it upon herself to send them to a school in the Copley-Fairlawn district where her father resided.

Within this district, the schools her children attended for two years were meeting state adequate academic progress benchmarks and had a population of White students between 73-82%. How do we know this sort of colossal atrocity that impairs the moral compass that guides our society occurred? It so happens that the rich White suburban school district hired a private investigator to unravel the dastardly deed. What do you expect though? The district has even gone as far in the past to pay $100 to anyone giving information on students who were attending the schools illegally. It was evident to all on-lookers that the school district was doing everything possible to keep outsiders out. Well, Ms. Williams-Bolar was sought, arrested, and convicted of tampering with records. She was sentenced to five years in prison. The judge in the case reduced the time down to 10 days, 80 hours of community service, and three years probation.

(Numerous other blogs and websites have discussed these issues and one has a place you can sign up in protest (see here).

Brian Poe, the Copley-Fairlawn Superintendent reported that the case cost the district $30,000 of lost tuition and $6,000 for investigative purposes. He denied that the mother was singled out due to her race. In the words of Representative Wilson of South Carolina, “You lie!”

Today, a persistent ideology is looming where Whites and an increasing number of middle to upper class Blacks blindly believe that racism no longer exists in the 21st century. However, evidence otherwise dictates that racism, oppression, and control, does exist and is persistent to survive the tides of time. Moreover, Joe Feagin scholarly noted that since slaves were first stolen from Africa, White’s intent was to not only physically enslave them through force, but by creating a system that transcended through generations to advantage Whites through the social and psychological control mechanisms that targeted people of color, subsequently holding them to their placement on the second class tier upon the White constructed racial ladder of hierarchy. This transcends still throughout all major institutions within the U.S., such as education.

Research has noted that the increasing residential segregation of Whites is closely related to their schools of choice. Simply put, heavily White suburban areas are mostly chosen by white parents due to the low number of Black and Latino populations within the area and within the schools. By blocking and alienating the abilities of Blacks, and Latinos from attending these schools, Whites are able to continue to benefit from the existence of the sites and strangleholds of White power. As in the past, within the 21st century, these “normal” actions that enable the power and privilege of Whites in part are fueled by the old White racial frame. Therefore, Ms. William Bolar is simply a casualty of “The Machine.” This racist machine constantly reminds us that there exist two unequal worlds today. Little Rock Nine
Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Snodgrass

Perilous Family: Amy Chua, Sino-Anxiety, and US Politics

News and social media, bloggers, and readers have flocked upon Amy Chua’s controversial article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Since appearing in The Wall Street Journal last week, the article has generated over 7,000 comments, countless blog posts, rebuttals from Chua and her daughter, and even death threats.

Scholars have widely criticized the model minority myth, and Chua deserves no passes. But I want to examine the media’s interest in pursuing this dialogue in the first place. Notice that Chua’s article falls under the “Life & Culture” category. Lifestyle news isn’t simply a space wherein readers escape from depressing and laborious facts of hard journalism. It’s a soft arm to more overt U.S. geopolitics set forth by hard news, guiding readers toward a cultural view supportive of these politics. From this angle, we see Chua’s article playing to Sino-anxiety and tensions around the family as a unit of politics.

China’s economic ascension is an obsession of Western news media; so is the family. Consider, how often issues buttressing the conservative and liberal divide in American politics contend over defining the family—reproductive rights, gay marriage, the military. No wonder readers were riled up. Chua’s claim that Chinese parenting is “superior” to American families provokes both conflicts, hedging forth the fear that America’s apparent economic decline is also cultural, and accelerated by Chinese families “abroad” and within U.S. borders. Bourgeois trends might feel tacky for American readers struggling with their wallets; unacceptable are insinuations that “foreign parenting” would overpower the Western family.

Chua embodies “yellow peril,” a classic xenophobia scripting East Asians as willfully destructive toward Western civilization. (Interestingly, Chua has written on violence toward Chinese and other “market-dominant minorities” in the Global South.) But is this peril not contradictory, when it’s brought to the verge through affluence and dominance—values of a distinctly Western, neo-liberal lifestyle? The tensions are messy, but as they’re framed, not coincidental.

Intermarriage among Blacks in America

The newly released report Marrying Out tracks the boundary crossings in terms of interracial marriages that are happening among the races in the United States. The timing of the report is propitious; for the past year or so, we have been investigating another aspect of this boundary crossing in America – that is, intermarriages among blacks. Using Census data from 2000, we identify, for the first time, the proportion and the dominant forms of interethnic marriage between black Americans, who are native to America, and blacks who come from the Caribbean and Africa.

The report Marrying Out reveals the historical significance of interracial marriage as an indication of race relations in this great land of ours. But equally significant, we think, is the extent to which immigrant blacks are marrying native black Americans. In general, researchers presume that cultural differences among blacks are so profound and conflict so pervasive that black immigrants (mainly Caribbean and African) are more likely to distance themselves than identify with African Americans. Even as the American black population becomes more diverse through immigration, especially in large metropolitan areas, it is taken for granted that, as immigrants, Caribbean and African blacks wish to increase their chances of social mobility by avoiding marriage with African Americans (Jackson 2007, Beyond social distancing: Intermarriage and ethnic boundaries among black Americans in Boston pp. 217 – 254).

We focused our attention on black ethnic intermarriages: marriages among blacks with different ethnic ancestry (also described as black intraracial marriages) because we realized, after reviewing the literature, that there was no information on black interethnic marriages. Despite much recent scholarly attention, we did not find definitive answers to (basic) questions such as: What proportion of black marriages is interethnic? What are the dominant types of interethnic marriage among blacks? Who marries whom among blacks? How educated are these intermarried couples? What do they earn? How long has America been home to the immigrant spouses? Where in America do these couples live? We used data from the 5% Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) of the 2000 U.S. Census that link the attributes of individuals in a given household to the attributes of the head of household. (The designation “head of household” is usually the person, or one of the people, in whose name the home is owned, bought, or rented. The head of household is usually the one who provides primary support for the household.) Our goal was to capture black interethnic married couple households.


Based on Census 2000 data, we obtained a sub-population of 102,887 black intraracial non-Hispanic married couples from America, the Caribbean and Africa. This number represents about 3% of all marriages involving non-Hispanic blacks (as shown in table 1).

Undoubtedly, the estimate we report here has grown over the past 10 years given current migration and mobility patterns. Although we cannot be certain about the extent of growth, our baseline 2000 data gives a threshold for measuring the boundary crossing that is occurring among blacks. But, compared to interracial marriages (see Marrying Out report), should the rate of black interethnic (black intraracial) marriages be higher, at least about the same as the rate of black interracial marriages?

Among black interethnic marriages, there are more unions involving Caribbean husbands and American wives (41%) followed by American husbands with Caribbean wives (34%). This represents three-quarters of all black interethnic marriages. The higher rate of interethnic marriage with Caribbean partners is consistent with their population size and their history of migration to the United States. Caribbean blacks have been migrating to the United States since the early 1900s; and American and Caribbean blacks share a long period of interaction when compared to recent African immigrants. And the probability of intermarriage with native-born counterparts increases the longer the migrant resides in the host country. The rarest form of intraracial coupling is the one involving Caribbean husbands and African wives.

We also found that: (1) By proportion, more Caribbean husbands are older (≥ 55 years) when compared to American husbands and African husbands in interethnic married households (shown in table 2). (2) By proportion, more intermarried Africans have college degrees (tables 2 and 3). (3) Proportionately more American husbands and African husbands earn high incomes (≥ $75,000) than Caribbean husbands (table 2). (4) More Caribbean spouses have been in the United States longer when compared to African spouses (tables 2 & 3). (5) The households of African husbands and Caribbean wives seem to be prosperous – more of these couples have college degrees and more of them earn high incomes. Their profile suggests that among black interethnic married couples, this type may be the proverbial ‘power couple.’ Black interethnic married couple households are mainly in New York/New Jersey, Florida, Georgia, Maryland/Virginia/DC, Texas, and California. They are, to a lesser extent, also in Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota/Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Our results and the results of the Marrying Out report contradict the conclusions of two studies; one study by Model and Fisher (2002: Unions between blacks and whites: England and the US compared. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 25, pp 728–754) contended that: “when blacks out-marry, they are far less likely to choose white partners than black partners of a different ethnicity”. Another study by Batson, Qian, & Lichter (2006, Interracial and intraracial patterns of mate selection among America’s diverse black population. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68, 658 – 672) reported that “a disproportionate share of Blacks, regardless of national origin, are likely to cohabit with other groups than to out-marry.”

Regine O. Jackson (Assistant Professor, Emory University) and
Yoku Shaw-Taylor (Research Scientist)