Archive for harassment
The New York Times has an interesting overview of the many African Americans moving back to the South:
The economic downturn has propelled a striking demographic shift: black New Yorkers, including many who are young and college educated, are heading south. About 17 percent of the African-Americans who moved to the South from other states in the past decade came from New York, far more than from any other state… Of the 44,474 who left New York State in 2009, more than half, or 22,508, went to the South….
The article strongly accents economic reasons, but is there more here? One professor quoted in the article cites many African Americans’ spiritual and emotional (family) ties to the South as reasons for the reverse migration.
Recounting police abuse of her in New York, one black resident who has left suggests that the white racism now in New York is often as bad the old South:
“My grandmother’s generation left the South and came to the North to escape segregation and racism,” she said. “Now, I am going back because New York has become like the old South in its racial attitudes.”
She is likely right. Social science research shows that whites’ everyday racism does not really know geographical boundaries. Is it the case that the white majority in the South did not so much as catch up with the rest of the “liberal” country on racial matters, but rather that much of the rest of white America seems to be acting more like the racial ways that too many in the white South have long been famous for?
What do you make of the reasons given for the large African American migration back to the South?
(Note: Isabel Wilkerson, pulitzer prize winning NY Times journalist and now professor, has a major and fairly new book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration that I have just started looking at, and it may be of interest on the migrations north and south.)
[This by Tim Wise piece was originally published, June 22, 2007 at Lip Magazine.]
Sometimes you just have to ask, “What is wrong with you?”
I’ve been asking this question a lot lately, given the almost monthly reports that white college students at one or another campus have yet again displayed a form of racist ignorance so stupefying as to boggle the imagination.
For some, it means dressing up in blackface. For others, a good time means throwing a “ghetto party,” in which they don gold chains, afro wigs, and strut around with 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor, mocking low-income black folks. For still others, hoping to spread around the insults a bit, fun is spelled, “Tacos and Tequila,” during which bashes students dress up as maids, landscapers, or pregnant teenagers so as to make fun of Latino/as.
The 2006-2007 school year saw at least fifteen such events transpire, bringing to well over thirty the number of such incidents in recent years. Among the institutions where white kids apparently think this kind of thing is funny, we have the University of Texas School of Law, Trinity College, Whitman College, Washington University, the University of Virginia, Clemson, Willamette College, Texas A&M, The University of Connecticut School of Law, Stetson University, the University of Chicago, Cornell, Swarthmore, Emory, MIT, Macalester, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, the University of Louisville, the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, William Jewell College, Oklahoma State, Auburn, the University of California at Irvine, Syracuse, Tarleton State, Union College and the Universities of Colorado, Tennessee, Arizona, Alabama, Illinois, Delaware, and Mississippi.
Whether racist parties like this are growing more common, or whether they’re just gaining more attention thanks to websites like Facebook, MySpace, and others that allow the sharing of photo files is unclear. But in either case, the question remains: Why do so many whites engage in these kinds of activities, without giving their appropriateness a second thought?
There are generally two theories postulated to answer this question. The first holds that these students are ignorant about the history of blackface, and the racist implications of mocking the so-called ghetto. The second suggests that the whites involved are anything but ignorant. According to the latter theory, the students know exactly what they’re doing, and are deliberately trying to make a statement, as a form of backlash against students of color on their campuses.
While it may be tempting to accept one or another of these explanations, both might contain a partial truth. For some–like those who have thrown these parties on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (as happened a half-dozen times this past year)–it is hard to believe that they were unaware of the racial message they were sending. On the other hand, persons dressing in blackface as part of a Halloween costume, while offensive, may well be acting from sheer stupidity, absent malicious intent.*
The truth is probably somewhere between the two theories. It’s certainly true that most whites are unaware of the way that blackface has been used historically to denigrate the intellect and humanity of blacks. And most probably know little about the history of how ghetto communities were created by government and economic elites, to the detriment of those who live there. Yet, at some level, most of those engaged in these activities had to know they were treading on offensive ground. After all, never did the sponsors of these parties make the mistake of inviting real black people to the ghetto celebration. They knew better, apparently, than to approach their campus’s Black Student Associations and ask them to co-sponsor the events. They didn’t ask Latino students to come to “Tacos and Tequila,” so as to lend authenticity to the fun. Had they been acting out of pure ignorance, they wouldn’t have hesitated to try and make the events into multicultural funfests. But they never made this mistake, suggesting that even if only subconsciously, they had to know something was wrong.
There are several potential causes of racist theme parties. Among the more obvious would be the insular nature of the Greek system, from which a disproportionate number of these events have emanated. After all, fraternities and sororities mostly choose members based on how much alike they are to those already in the club. They are not, in other words, natural incubators for diversity. Nor are they the kinds of places where dissent typically flourishes. So if one’s brothers or sisters were planning a racist party, even those who were bothered by it might not speak up, for fear of being ostracized. But as easy as it might be to beat up on the Greeks, there are much larger institutional issues involved. Not to mention, there has also been a massive failure of white students, including those not involved in fraternities or sororities, to take a stand against these kinds of events.
Watered-Down Multiculturalism as a Cause of White Racist Behavior
For the past two decades, most colleges have engaged in various types of diversity efforts, from affirmative action policies, to the creation of multicultural affairs offices, to diversity-related programming. Yet the way in which diversity and multiculturalism have typically been approached on campus, leads one to wonder whether or not the messages being sent might actually contribute to the kinds of racism on display in events like ghetto parties or blackface incidents. Sadly, diversity on campus is still most often approached as it was at my college, Tulane University, in the 1980s, with little having changed since then. Namely, in most instances, schools push the “celebrate differences” paradigm of diversity, in which everyone is encouraged to be tolerant and to appreciate the cultural contributions of all the different racial and ethnic groups. While this may sound good, in practice it creates problems.
First, “tolerance” can be used as a weapon to insist that we should be tolerant of racist humor too. As such, emphasizing toleration rather than equity of treatment may contribute to a climate where students feel comfortable throwing these kinds of parties, because after all, “it’s just a joke.” Secondly, by implying that race issues are about culture (and not power differences between whites and folks of color), most diversity efforts allow whites to think of blackness as little more than style, which can be appropriated, copied or mimicked, without making fun of black people per se, or furthering inequity. In this kind of multiculturalism, the power dynamic that makes racially insensitive humor hurtful isn’t discussed. Students are encouraged to see how “We’re all different” (and gee, isn’t that interesting?), but are not asked to reflect on the biggest difference of all: in this case, the one regarding who’s on top and who’s not in the larger society.
Even worse, to copy what they see as black culture and style, is just as likely to be seen by such persons as celebratory and positive, as negative and demeaning. In other words, it’s as if they were saying, “Hey, we’re just celebrating difference! Look at me, I’m a rapper!” Now sure, they may have a horribly stunted view of what constitutes both celebration and true cultural difference (seeing as how they clearly equate blackness with the gangsta image), but their assumptions in this regard make sense, stemming from a context-absent analysis, in which issues of power are largely missing.
Additionally, by avoiding issues of power, mainstream multiculturalism makes it possible for whites who see no harm in blackface or ghetto parties, to respond to their critics by saying things like, “Well, what about that movie ‘White Chicks,’ where the Wayans brothers put on white face makeup and made fun of people like us?” In other words, whites see all groups as equally capable of objectifying each other, so what’s the big deal? Indeed, if you’re being taught to view issues of race as the mere pluralistic existence of different groups, perhaps competing for resources and attention, but without a discussion of power, this kind of argument has a certain kind of logic to it. Of course, once the social context is brought in, it makes no sense at all. There has been no history of whiteface as a mechanism for denigrating the intelligence of whites, whereas blackface served precisely that purpose. “White Chicks” conjures up no painful memories, and is so devoid of the historical ‘umph’ of blackface, that to consider it in the same category as minstrelsy is to call into question one’s ability to think rationally at all.
What’s more, because mainstream multiculturalism rarely explores the historical or sociological roots of what some now think of as cultural phenomena, it is also possible for whites to view “the ghetto” as an authentic expression of black culture, rather than understanding it as a geopolitical space occupied by persons whose opportunities have been constricted. To most whites, ghettos are culturally-specific spaces, either to be feared, turned into style, or even romanticized as more “real” than the places from which most of them come. If they had an understanding of how the ghetto became the ghetto–a history of residential segregation, urban “renewal,” which destroyed black homes and neighborhoods, and deindustrialization, beginning in the ’60s–many of the whites who have participated in these kinds of activities might have thought twice about it. If they understood that the ghetto is something that has been done to millions of black people–that indeed it is more an expression of white supremacist culture than anything authentically black–many might recognize that throwing parties celebrating or mocking ghetto life would be hardly different from throwing concentration camp or internment camp parties. But if whites think of the ghetto as an authentic expression of blackness, they’ll be less likely to feel shame while making fun of such a place. Indeed, they may not even view a ghetto party as making fun at all, so much as being a romanticization of a place that both fascinates and terrifies them.
So long as diversity talk avoids issues of power and privilege, opting instead for cultural tourism, whereby we’re encouraged to sample one another’s stuff, from food, to clothing, to hairstyles–note the phenomena of white boys wearing dreadlocks, and white girls with tight braids–we can expect this kind of thing to continue. After all, what could be more “touristy” than dressing like the people whose culture you’re sampling? To many whites, blackface, or putting on an Afro and fake bling, is just a more up-to-date and hipper version of the Hawaiian shirt their dad wears every time the family goes to Honolulu.
Until colleges include discussions of power, inequality and privilege (and how these can misshape the campus climate) during first-year orientation programs, and with all students, they really can’t feign shock or outrage when some proceed to act out their ignorance on a public stage. Until schools clearly define what a racially hostile environment is, and what is to be viewed as contributing to such a climate–and what kinds of acts will therefore not be tolerated, just as they would not be in the workplace–they can’t be surprised when students feel they can get away with virtually anything, no matter how offensive. Finally, so long as colleges turn a blind eye to the overwhelmingly white student pathology of epidemic binge drinking that has served as the backdrop for most if not all of these racist parties–indeed, white students are 130 percent more likely to binge drink than blacks, and 300 percent more likely to do so on a regular basis–not much is going to change. This means attacking problem drinking as an abuse of privilege, and not just alcohol.
White Protectionism and the Need for Ally Behavior
In addition to the need for school officials to take action, students must also take responsibility for addressing these occurrences head-on. In particular, whites who are not involved in these acts need to stand up against those who are. Although some whites have joined with students of color to condemn these events when they’ve happened, quite telling has been the speed with which others have sought to downplay the racism evinced in such instances.
At Oklahoma State, one young man minimized the seriousness of the incident in his fraternity–in which one of his “brothers,” wearing a Klan hood, posed for a picture while holding a rope around the neck of another member who was dressed in blackface–by noting that the perpetrators were just “young men, having fun, no one was hurt, and above all nothing was meant by their actions.” At Stetson, a group of young women who dressed in blackface, claimed that their event had the blessing of the mostly black basketball team; and at Illinois, white sorority girls defended their “Tacos and Tequila” event by noting that their two Latina members were “cool with it” (as if a handful of black and brown folks can speak for their entire groups). The attorney for a group of white frat boys at Auburn even suggested that his clients had actually been trying to be “inclusive” by dressing in blackface, since the party theme was to come dressed as something you might see in the Auburn community.
Or consider the internet posting of a University of Texas law student, who didn’t participate in last year’s “ghetto fabulous” party, but who found more fault with those critiquing it, than those who threw it in the first place:
“Get over it. You were offended. You complained…Prolonging the drama only makes you look like attention whores — you aren’t trying to educate people, and you aren’t trying to create an atmosphere of inclusion, where people can understand your point of view. You want to continue to spank the naughty 1Ls. The Dean gave you recognition. Everyone in the law school received that email. Do you honestly think that prolonging the drama is going to do anything productive? And for the record, equating ghetto fabulous with blackface is really fucking stupid.”
In other words, the students who engaged in the racist objectification of blacks are “naughty,” but the students of color who complained are “attention whores,” and “f–ing stupid.”
Other whites at the law school voiced their displeasure at the possibility that the school may now alter its curricula, thereby forcing them to learn about racism–imagine having to learn about such an irrelevant subject while studying law. Still others criticized the black students for going public about the event (instead of handling things internally), since it might harm the careers of whites who didn’t participate, but who would now be tainted by the actions of a few. Instead of being upset at their white peers for throwing the racist party, and thereby tainting them as whites, their anger was focused on the black students for discussing it openly!
And in keeping with the tendency for white folks to seek out black scapegoats whenever one of ours engages in racism (as happened with Don Imus), many students have sought to shift the blame for things like ghetto parties onto hip-hop and rap music. In other words, white kids are just copying what they see on MTV, and if black folks can glamorize the ghetto, why can’t they? That rappers, for good or ill, are often telling stories about their own lives and communities from which they come (or at least with which they have some familiarity), while white co-eds are engaging in vulgar voyeurism devoid of authenticity escapes them. Not to mention, rap can hardly be blamed for the ignorance here: after all, black students, who last time I checked often liked hip-hop too, don’t throw these parties. Not ever.
Then there’s the tendency to redefine racist incidents as something else, like simple bad taste, or even political satire. The latter of these was offered as the excuse last year, after one Willamette student came to a party in blackface to mock the school’s President, and another (albeit a student of South Asian descent, but by most accounts highly white-identified) dressed as an indigenous woman who had been raped. Funny stuff.
Until white students become less concerned about hurting the feelings of a bunch of racists, or drunks (or both) by calling them out, and more committed to the creation of a respectful and equitable environment on campus, those whites who engage in acts of racism will feel no need to change their behaviors. Unless whites ostracize such students, those who find racism humorous will continue to push the envelope. Only by making clear that these kinds of things are unacceptable to us, will other whites apparently get the message that their actions are inexcusable. It’s obvious by now that they won’t respond to black and brown protests alone.
Perhaps we should think of it as an updated version of the white man’s (and woman’s) burden: not, as with the original and racist version, to “civilize” others, but instead to civilize ourselves, to grow up, and to enter into the world of adults as more functional human beings, rather than as the walking, talking stereotypes into which we too often turn ourselves.
* Putting aside whether or not blackface incidents or ghetto parties are intentionally racist (as opposed to being mostly the result of ignorance), there is little question but that overt racism poses a serious problem on college campuses. Data going back to the 80s suggests that there are thousands of instances of ethnoviolence (ranging from assaults, to graffiti, to racial slurs) directed towards students of color each year. A study at the University of California-San Diego in the 90s found that over eighty percent of white students admitted to having seen or heard racial slurs or acts of race-based discrimination aimed at students of color. And a 2004 survey at the University of Virginia found that forty percent of all black students at the school had been the target of a direct racial slur, while ninety-one percent had either experienced or witnessed an act of racial discrimination or intolerance since coming to the college. Additional research by Joe Feagin and Leslie Picca, published in their recent book, Two-Faced Racism, finds that white students often use racial slurs and express blatantly racist beliefs around their white friends and colleagues, even though they would rarely if ever do so publicly, or in front of the persons to whom the slurs are directed.
It seems we can’t go a day without a report of racial terrorism in the shape of a noose. The news here in NYC is reporting on the appearance of another noose, this one sent to a high school principal in Canarsie, Brooklyn, along with a note advocating “white power.” At the same time, the NY State Senate unanimously passed legislation that would make it a felony involving harsher punishment for people “who etch, paint, draw or otherwise place or display nooses on public or private property,” (quoted from the Newsday article linked above). And, even though that legislation passed unanimously, I fully expect that it will run into trouble in the House and in the public sphere as people defend it as a form of “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. The sort of knee-jerk defense of nearly any form of racism as “protected speech” is characteristic of what is by now a decades-long backlash against very modest gains by women and people of color, particularly in the academy. (I find it not at all surprising that so many of these incidents are happening in educational institutions, where these modest gains toward equality seem most evident.) Legal scholars Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado and Crenshaw writing from a critical race perspective in their introduction to Words that Wound, merit quoting at length on this point:
“Contemporaneous with the recent outbreak of gutter hate speech and racial harassment, there is an emerging and increasingly virulent backlash against the extremely modest successes achieved by communities of color, women, and other subordinated groups in our efforts to integrate academic institutions run by and for white male elites. The chief spokespersons for this more refined sentiment against persons and voices that are new an unfamiliar to the campus and intellectual discourse are not purveyors of gutter hate speech. They are polite and polished colleagues. The code words of this backlash are words like merit, rigor, standards, qualifications and excellence. Increasingly we hear those who are resisting change appropriating the language of freedom struggles. Words like intolerant, silencing, McCarthyism, censors, and orthodoxy are used to portray women and people of color as oppressors and to pretend that the powerful have become powerless. …Stripped of its context this is a seductive argument. The privilege and power of white male elites is wrapped in the rhetoric of politically unpopular speech. …The first amendment arms conscious and unconscious racists — Nazis and liberals alike — with a constitutional right to be racist. Racism is just another idea deserving of constitutional protection like all ideas. ” [emphasis added] (Matsuda et al., 1993:14-15).
What’s at stake here is, as these scholars point out, “our vision for this society,” not merely how to balance one individuals’ freedom of speech against another individual’s freedom from injury but what the substantive content of that freedom and equality looks like. What they’re calling for – have been calling for, for some time now – is a radical shift in perspective so that it is the victim’s story that’s at the center of our response.
So, to take the current example, the laws should be written from the perspective of those who are on the receiving end of the noose. And, while the NY State Senate has taken a step in the right direction here, it ultimately falls short because this is not a problem that’s isolated to New York state or to a particular region of the U.S. Racism, and the racist terror that the nooses represent, is a national problem that requires a collective response; and, yet the federal government remains predictably silent on the issue.
The New York Times has a piece in today’s Regional section about the recent rash of noose-related incidents, and amazingly for the paper of record, offers some fairly critical analysis that suggests the return of Jim Crow. Here’s a snippet from the article by Paul Vitello:
At least seven times in the past few weeks, nooses have been anonymously tossed over pipes or hung on doorknobs in the New York metropolitan area — four times here on Long Island, twice in New York City, once at a Home Depot store in Passaic, N.J. The settings are disparate. One noose was hung in a police station locker room in Hempstead, where the apparent target was a black police officer recently promoted to deputy chief. Another was draped over the doorknob of the office of a black professor at Columbia University.
Vitello goes on to particularize the incidents, locating them within the context of Long Island, a suburban area just outside New York City, and writes:
Like many other parts of the country, Long Island is not without a history of racial bigotry. Black people were barred from buying homes in Levittown until well into the 1960s. Some Long Island school districts are still among the most segregated in the country. The black population is about 12 percent of the total, but is highly concentrated in a half-dozen communities that are 95 percent minority. In 2004, in Suffolk County, it was still possible for an interracial couple to wake up in the night to find a cross burning on their lawn — it happened in a hamlet called Lake Grove. Lynching was not part of that history. But to some of those sifting the evidence, the nooses of 2007 represent much the same impulse as lynchings did in the Jim Crow South.
What Vitello misses, of course, is the related, and well-documented, history of Nazism on Long Island, through institutions such as the Yaphank-based Camp Siegfried. And, these expressions of white supremacy have continued on Long Island through teen subcultures, as Lorraine Kenny describes in her Daughters of Suburbia (Rutgers, 2000).
The collective amnesia of many whites about racism in this country is not new, but it seems particularly glaring here. As one white guy in the story is quoted as saying,
“What’s the big deal, it’s only a noose?”
Assistant Professor Rachel Sullivan responds to this and gets it right when she says that most (white) people don’t understand what lynchings were:
“They think it was a few guys coming in the night, in their hooded sheets, taking you away. But in reality these were whole, big community events. Children and families would come to watch. Hundreds of people attended. They would watch a man being burned and mutilated before he was hung. They would pose for pictures with the body.”
While Vitello may have to explain the significance of the noose for readers of The New York Times, the symbol’s significance is not lost on the folks it’s directed at, as Willie Warren a target of a noose on the job, says:
“It’s hard to explain, but it made me upset the whole day.”
The fact is that the research demonstrates hate crimes hurt more than assaults or harassment absent the racial terror. This is why Williams has referred to these as “spirit murder.” Thus, these types of crimes require a greater collective response from all of us. No arrests yet in any of these noose-related incidents.
I’m still involved in a marathon of faculty meetings, classes, and student conferences that promises to continue for several more hours, but am taking a short break to post a link to this link to Mike Nizza’s post on The Lede, his New York Times-sponsored blog. Nizza does a nice job of bringing in two of my favorite sources on hate crimes-related stories, the Southern Poverty Law Center (where I did my dissertation research) and Brian Levin at UC-San Bernardino, whom I met a couple of years ago at a conference here in New York sponsored by the ADL. Here’s a selection from Nizza, after referring to the nooses hung in the Jena 6 case, he writes:
“In addition to other racially charged incidents, an article in USA Today noticed nooses in almost a dozen recent news reports. The Lede tracked down a bunch of them: At a Home Depot store in South Elgin, Ill.; on the campus of the University of Maryland; in a police-station locker room in Hempstead, N.Y.; at two Coast Guard facilities; at high schools in North Carolina and South Carolina; and at least two cases of nooses with black dolls in Pittsburgh.
Initial reports on yet another noose incident may be linked to an academic dispute. A noose was found hanging on the door of a black professor at Teachers College, part of Columbia University, our colleagues at The City Room report.”
He then goes on to reference Mark Potok’s (of SPLC) assessment that there are typically around five (5) “noose incidents” a year, then quotes Levin as saying:
“Copycat offenses are most often committed by men under 22 who are bored or drunk and looking for attention…”
And, I’m guessing that’s the case at Teacher’s College. Nizza concludes with this:
Whatever their motives, this much is clear: in the wake of the Jena Six case, when nooses ignited a town and then a nation, officials are not suffering noose incidents gladly.
And, while it’s true that “officials are not suffering noose incidents gladly,” the real story here is that the students and other faculty at Teacher’s College are not standing for this. Indeed, as Seattle in Texas suggested here awhile back, students staged a walk out today from classes in protest. That should be the lede.
I’m dashing off to a long day of teaching and faculty meetings, so really only have time to alert readers to this story from here in New York City. It seems that the “noose,” as a symbol of racial terror is making a comeback beyond Jena. Reports are, it’s been used at the Ivy League Columbia University Teacher’s College. Here’s the story as local news channel NY1 is reporting it this morning:
Columbia University Officials, NYPD Investigate Noose Incident
School officials and the NYPD are investigating a possible bias crime at Columbia University after a noose was found hanging from the door of an African American professor at the Teacher’s College Tuesday afternoon.
University officials say they are outraged.
“All we learn in class is how to be multicultural, how to be understanding, how not to do things like this,” said one Columbia student.
“I can’t believe it. Especially in light of the whole Jena 6 thing going on, I wouldn’t expect it to go down here,” added another.
“I think it is just a reflection of what’s happening today in America. There is a race problem in the 21st century,” added a third.
“I think it is very tragic that it happened, but I think it is a very good launching point to start discussing some very serious issues that occur in the university,” added a fourth.
Students learned about the incident through a school-wide email from Teachers School President Susan Fuhrman, in which she says: “The Teacher’s College community and I deplore this hateful act, which violates every Teacher’s College and societal norm.”
Police have no suspects in the case.
I will have more to say about this later, but for now, let me just say that all those people who were talking about how racial politics haven’t changed “down South” need to re-examine the Northern flavor of white racism. Looks pretty similar from where I sit.
*The following pamphlet was written by Thomas Volscho and handed out at the Jena 6 protest held at the University of Connecticut. The rally in support of the Jena 6 was organized by the Graduate Students of Color Association at the university and held on Thursday September 20th, 2007 following a teach-in held the previous day.
Unable to attend the rally, I drafted this short essay putting the event into a sociological context with my training in racism studies. I sent it to fellow UConn Sociology graduate student Ayanna Bledsoe and she circulated it at the event.
White Supremacy, White Terrorism, and White Racism: The Case of the Jena 6
The case of the Jena 6 in Louisiana can be understood by using the sociological concept of Racist Rituals outlined in the book White Racism: The Basics (Feagin, Vera, and Batur 2001). This model provides a “criminal profile” of such rituals and what functions they serve for organized racial oppression in America.
In racist rituals, “whites” often play the following three roles: officiants, acolytes, and passive observers. Such actions may target African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, Latino/as, and other ethnic groups in America who are not considered “white”. The range of actions in a racist ritual may include gestures, words, avoidance, and physical attacks. Instruments and props may include job evaluation forms, burning crosses, nooses, police batons, etc. Myths and Controlling Images refer to stereotypes and propaganda images of people of color.
Officiants are the direct and main participants in racist rituals. In the case of the Jena 6 the first officiants are the “whites” who hung three nooses (instruments and props) from the “white tree”. The nooses symbolize the terrorism of lynching campaigns. The probability that one or more of the African American students at Jena High School has an ancestor who was lynched during the Jim Crow era is almost certain. The school superintendent dismissed the nooses as “a prank” instead of connecting the act to an obvious and long history of oppression. Studies show that such a response is commonplace.
In Feagin and McKinney’s (2003, p. 47) study The Many Costs of Racism for instance, one African American employee reported how when a “white” co-worker referred to her as “Buckwheat” and she reported the incident to her supervisor, her supervisor claimed she had no idea what “Buckwheat” meant, said that the employee did not look like a “Buckwheat” to her, and never sanctioned the officiant. By not sanctioning the officiant, the supervisor is acting as a passive participant, one who may feign ignorance and deny that racism is a problem. In Jena, Louisiana, the superintendent of the school system dismissed a racist ritual as a mere prank (acting as a passive participant).
The African American students, since the end of legalized segregation (along with the fact of their very existence in a school with “whites”) cannot be legally barred from sitting under a tree. However, an informal system of reproducing Jim Crow segregation remains in effect in the United States (though it times it appears more explicit in the southeastern states). When the African American students in Jena protested the inaction of punishing the racist act on the part of the school district, the District Attorney acted as an acolyte who knowingly or unknowingly carries out the prerogatives of white supremacy by using his position of power to enforce white supremacy.
“I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Walters allegedly said. “I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.”
In a later racist ritual, a “white” student called an African American student “nigger”. This term carries much more historical weight and significance than many “whites” understand. For instance, one elderly African American psychologist said that whenever he hears that term, it sets off the image in his mind of a “black” man hanging from a tree (Feagin and McKinney 2003, p. 48). This particular racial epithet was often chanted during the thousands of lynchings across the southeastern United States (3,500 of which are known where the targets where people of African descent). To get a visual sense of the horrors of lynching, James Allen has published early photographs of “whites” posing (often smiling) with the bodies of men (and to a lesser extent women) who had been lynched (available online at: www.withoutsanctuary.org). Many times the photos would be turned into postcards. Far from being the work of a few psychologically troubled bigots, entire communities (including young “white” children) would turn out for these particular racist rituals and pose by the human remains. In modern times, the District Attorney, in a predominately “white” community has the power to excessively punish the “black” students, in what amounts to a school yard fight, by charging them with “second-degree attempted murder”. In doing so, the D.A. is symbolically defending white supremacy and enforcing the structural violence of an inherently racist social system.
A large element of trying to “put the brakes” on how this particular case connects to systemic racism in America is to get the case to “go away”. The threat of a case like this is that it can galvanize a modern Civil Rights movement. The murder of Emmett Till had such an effect and the Jena 6 could potentially have such an effect. We can expect the white power structure to try and “squelch” the case and claim that it is simply an “unfortunate, isolated incident.”
Sometimes people have the impression that New York City, because it is a global city and there is such amazing diversity here, is somehow more ‘tolerant’ or less racist than say, Texas, where I grew up. In fact, it used to really annoy me when, back in the day after I finished my dissertation about white supremacy at UT-Austin, people from New York and other points north of the Mason-Dixon line, would say things like, “oh, Texas…that must be a really good place to study white supremacy.” As if racism, white supremacy, and overt discrimination, for example in housing, don’t exist outside the South.
A couple of stories from the New York Daily News, one of tabloids here in the city, make this point for me. First up, all the ‘race-blind’ talk about the financial crisis in subprime mortgages disguises the fact that this is an issue steeped in racism. The news story from yesterday about eight Brooklyn homeowners, all working-class Blacks, who won a huge legal victory yesterday when a federal judge green-lighted their suits against a real estate company accused of targeting African Americans and other minority-group members with predatory lending practices.
The homeowners assert that they were victims of fast-talking salesmen for United Homes LLC, who pressed to close deals on dilapidated homes appraised at grossly inflated values without concern for the buyers’ ability to pay.
Sylvia Gibbons, who contends United Mortgage pressured her and her husband to take out two mortgages to buy a house in Bushwick, is quoted in the story saying, “It’s a nightmare we’re still trying to cope with.”
The second story from the Daily News, this one from this morning, highlights the kind of overt racism in housing that most people associate with the South. And, indeed, an unidentified “police source” in the story is quoted as saying: “It’s something out of the Deep South, or the backwoods, circa 1950,” a police source said.
But this is happening right here in New York City right now. According to the story in the News, Kris Gouden, who is of Guyanese descent, and his family are being harassed by white neighbors have launched a racist campaign to run him out of the neighborhood. Now, there is a constant police presence outside his home in Hamilton Beach and a neighbor has been busted on felony hate-crime charges.
Gouden says that his family was threatened while they were sitting on the deck in their own backyard. A white neighbor attacked Gouden and his family, “He comes back with a baseball bat,” Gounden said. “He said, ‘F–k you, n—-r. You don’t belong in here. I will burn this house. I’ll kill all of you.’”
This happened in a section of Queens known as Howard Beach, where several other racist attacks have occurred. But, rather than look at the way these attacks are connected to larger systems of racism, what I predict will happen here in New York is that people will dismiss it as an “isolated” incident precisely because it happened in Howard Beach.