Capitalism and Racism: Remembering the Great Oliver C. Cox



In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been re-reading Oliver Cromwell Cox’s pioneering and excellent Caste, Class, & Race; A Study in Social Dynamics book, which was first published in the late 1940s. It is still very much worth reading and learning from. It is available for free in various pdf and ereader formats for the Monthly Review Press edition here. (I use the Kindle formatting in quotes below.)

Oliver Cox was one of the few early black sociologists in the United States, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1938. He was a student of Robert Ezra Park, yet provided some of the deepest and most insightful critiques of Park, the early Chicago school, and Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma in this book, Caste, Class & Race.

One of the key figures historically in what has come to be called the “Black Radical tradition,” Oliver Cox was probably the first to argue in some detail that racist framing and exploitation arose in the various stages of modern capitalism:

Racial antagonism is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits. It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492; moreover, racial feeling developed concomitantly with the development of our modem social system. Probably one of the most persistent social illusions of modem times is that we have race prejudice against other people because they are physically different—that race prejudice is instinctive. (Kindle Locations 461-487)

Modern race prejudice and framing is not instinctive but develops in the material context of early capitalism. Cox added that

The interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest— the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society. To be sure, [a white person] might say this cannot be, for one feels an almost irrepressible revulsion in the presence of colored people, especially Negroes, although one never had any need to exploit them. It is evidently the way they look, their physical difference, which is responsible for one’s attitude. . . . [However] the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.

Racist prejudice and framing are learned in the broad material context of racial exploitation, and is generally accepted by most whites without question, even those who see themselves as uninvolved in exploitation. In this negative white racial framing black Americans

must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law. On the whole, they came to America as forced labor, and our slavocracy could not persist without a consistent set of social attitudes which justified the system naturally. Negroes had to be thought of as subsocial and subhuman. To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system. (Kindle Locations 461-487).

Once put into place in the U.S. case, this racial prejudice and broader racial framing spread globally:

Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Kindle Locations 8327-8329).

Later on, he summarizes this way:

Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable. In a quite literal sense the white ruling class is the Negro’s burden; the saying that the white man will do anything for the Negro except get off his back puts the same idea graphically. It is the economic content of race prejudice which makes it a powerful and fearfully subduing force. . . . However, it is the human tendency, under capitalism, to break out of such a place, together with the determined counterpressure of exploiters, which produces essentially the lurid psychological complex called race prejudice. Thus race prejudice may be thought of as having its genesis in the propagandistic and legal contrivances of the white ruling class for securing mass support of its interest. (Kindle Locations 11973-11982).

. . . . [Whites] should not be distracted by the illusion of personal repugnance for a race. Whether, as individuals, [they] feel like or dislike for the colored person is not the crucial fact. What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose. The attitude abhors a personal or sympathetic relationship. (Kindle Locations 11990-11997).

More than 60 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are results of concrete social and material contexts, not some psychological gremlins inherent in all human beings. And they destroy personal and empathetic relationships. These early classics are indeed well worth reading again today.

Fixing Immigration Requires Historical Understandings & A Sense of Humanity



Americans need to be intellectually honest (rather than want to laugh) when empirical and historical evidence concerning immigration realities are provided.

Immigration is intertwined and implicated with our history of excluding citizenship to immigrants of color and with our global economic trade agreements such as NAFTA. Thus, it should surprise no one that The Pew Hispanic Center finds that nearly two-thirds of the over 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have been here for over a decade.

Historical and economic policies are not separate from current immigration realities.

As Americans we must use empirical and historical evidence to form a complicated and nuanced understanding of immigration rather than resort to the disrespectful treatment of prominent scholars, simply because one does not agree with their analysis. If one feels the personal need to be mean-spirited it would be better directed towards Congress, as it is their lack of political will that has created the de facto system of immigration we have today. Congress needs to make immigration policy reforms committed to the political process via deliberation, compromise, political courage and leadership—regardless of whether the outcome pleases everyone. However, for some it is easier to attack academics that have devoted their careers towards critical thinking, developing ideas, and fostering learning and understanding in an effort to make the world a more knowledgeable and with that, better place.

Or one could educate themselves on the historical and empirical realities of immigration in America. For example, In Major Problems in American Immigration History, Professor Mae M. Ngai demonstrates that the study of immigration has evolved from the European model of assimilation to examining where we are today—discussing the major issues surrounding groups who have never had the same opportunity to assimilate because of racist laws and a xenophobic citizenry.

However, for many people it is much easier to fear America’s changing demographics, ignore our white racial frame, and use an ahistorical argument about American exceptionalism by attacking academics with statements such as we would not want “the USA to look just like the third world these people left.” These types of views lacking in substance or empirical evidence are everywhere and do not further efforts at reform or get us closer to a civil dialogue of understanding. One prominent example is evidenced in Patrick Buchanan latest book, Suicide of a Superpower, where he even has a chapter called “The End of White America.” Rather than an honest account of how in every Naturalization Act from 1790 to 1952, Congress included “white person” as a prerequisite for naturalization and that basic laws of citizenship did not apply to racial minorities until 1940 (look it up), Buchanan instead espouses an intellectually dishonest argument intended to instill and deepen distain in whites towards non-whites as they become the minority (oh no!). In short, Buchanan argues that Latinos with greater allegiances to Mexico and their own culture will ruin America’s future. This nativist argument is about economics, xenophobia, and racism. This argument is nothing new and unfortunately, it has many followers.

While European immigrants have also historically confronted hostility, particularly Southern and Eastern Europeans, they never faced the kind of legal racial restrictions on naturalization experienced by people of color. For example, Ngai states,

“…the Immigration Act of 1924 comprised a constellation of reconstructed racial categories….At one level, the new immigration law differentiated Europeans according to nationality and ranked them in a hierarchy of desirability. At another level, the law constructed a white American race, in which persons of European descent shared a common whiteness that made them distinct from those deemed to be not white.”

Ngai goes on to state,

“This distinction gave all Euro-Americans a stake in what Matthew Jacobson has called a ‘consanguine white race” and facilitated their Americanization…[while the] racialization of the latter groups’ [Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, etc.] national origins rendered them unalterably foreign and unassimilable to the nation.” (p. 387-388).

Unfortunately, the consequences of these laws remain with us today.

The lack of critical analysis around the historic and current racial considerations of immigration and racial exclusion, however, comes at a great cost to us as a nation. Where is our sense of humanity? Who would choose to leave their young children for years to work for next to nothing in a country that does not accept them? Who would chose to watch their children cry of hunger at night because their stomach’s ached from lack of food? Who would chose to leave their elderly parents knowing they may never see them again? Whatever solutions Congress eventually comes up with we ought to be a better nation than to lose the humanity of the situation.

The Huge Racial Wealth Gap: A Systemic Analysis



On Tuesday, July 26, Pew Research Center published a report entitled “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics.” In the study, calculating wealth as the accumulated sum of assets minus the sum of debt, the authors report

The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. . . . These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago.

Pew attributes their finding to the fact that “Minority households largely depend on home equity as a source of wealth” and “the housing market has yet to recover” from the housing bust which began in 2007. However, this explanation fails to explain the magnitude of racial wealth disparities. To adequately analyze the racial wealth gap, one must explore America’s history of unjustly enriching whites.

America’s history has been one of unjustly enriching whites and impoverishing people of color. Sociologist Joe Feagin (2006; 2010) defines unjust enrichment and impoverishment as “the unjust theft of labor or resources by one group, such as white Americans, from another group, such as black Americans.” According to Feagin (2010):

For over fourteen generations the exploitation of African Americans has redistributed income and wealth earned by them to generations of white Americans, leaving the former relatively impoverished as a group and the latter relatively privileged and affluent as a group.

This story of exploitation by whites has long been the story of American economics. In his discussion of black exploitation and the American centuries old “racial classes,” Oliver Cox (1948) argues, whites decided “to proletarianize a whole people.” In doing so, whites established a socioeconomic system centered on syphoning the labor and resources from melaninated bodies and placing it into white America. Supporting this claim, in his analysis of the development of the American economic system, Feagin argues (2010):

It is unlikely that the American colonies and, later, the United States would have seen dramatic agricultural and industrial development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries without the blood and sweat of those enslaved…Without slave labor it seems likely there would have been no successful textile industry, and without the cotton textile industry–the first major U.S. industry–it is unclear how or when the United States would have become a major industrial power.

Here one sees just how integral the theft of labor was for American economics. Whites needed to prey on minorities to create a nation in which amassing great wealth was possible. Without stealing the labor and resources of people of color, it is very unlikely America would have ever prospered. However, continuously reinvesting the wealth accumulated on the backs of the enslaved in new economic and industrial ventures created the prosperity enjoyed in the modern United States–particularly by white Americans. The wealth that was not reinvested, was often passed down familial lines in the form of inheritance which many white Americans benefit from today. Using the concepts of unjust enrichment and impoverishment, one gains more insight into Pew’s data on the racial wealth gap.

Reviewing the new data on the racial wealth gap, one sees just how unequal wealth is distributed across races in America. While the housing bust of the last 4 years is a clear factor in the amount of wealth accumulated by Americas, it is not that minorities have most of their wealth in home equity that causes the racial wealth gap. The key is that whites do not and why. As Pew reports, “A higher share of whites than blacks or Hispanics own stocks–as well as mutual funds and 401(k) or individuals retirement accounts (IRAs).”

The ability to acquire such means of wealth dates back to the founding of America. From first contact with people of color, whites have established a system of stealing resources and labor from the racialized “other” and placing it in white America. Due to centuries of this practice, whites have been able to accumulate great sources of wealth outside of home equity. Furthermore, whites have often monopolized certain sources of wealth and more importantly sentenced minorities to generations of impoverishment. The neglect of America’s history of unjust enrichment and impoverishment is a major hole in Pew’s report. Without contextualizing wealth in America, Pew is only telling half of the story. The practice of stealing resources and labor from people of color and placing into white America is central to why whites have been able to amass such wealth and must be considered if one is to honestly discuss the racial wealth gap.

References:
Cox, Oliver C. 1948. Caste, class, & race; a study in social dynamics. Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday.
Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic racism: a theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.
Feagin, Joe R. 2010. Racist America: roots, current realities, and future reparations. New York: Routledge.

Guilty of Being Indian: Anti-Indian Discrimination in the Extreme



Let me begin this blog with a disclaimer. I have recently returned from over a month on reservations in South Dakota, Oklahoma and Arizona. In the 30 years I have been making these trips, the situation has not improved. The Pineridge reservation continues to be the poorest county in America. According to the CDC suicides have increased, untreated health conditions such as diabetes continue to rise in numbers, infant mortality remains high. As a paralegal, one of the things I do while there is help people understand and move forward with legal issues and problems. Criminal justice is more criminal than justice as NPR discovered when investigating rape reports and convictions. In 2007, Native women had the highest rate of rape of any ethnic group, 2.5 times higher than the national average. This prompted Amnesty International to investigate and report on justice in Indian country. Their report firmly lays the blame on the justice system and the courts for this problem.

This situation was very present for me as I read the article in The Atlantic about the virtual nonexistence of Native American judges in the United States. The author takes issue with the Senate patting itself on the back for finally confirming an openly gay judge while having confirmed only one openly Indian judge in the history of this country. In 224 years, only one.

As it happens, a Native American judicial nominee is currently waiting on confirmation. Arvo Mikkanen was nominated 6 months ago. He received unanimously qualified ratings from the American Bar Association. His nomination was pronounced “dead” by the white Senator from Oklahoma. Apparently, the White House did not consult them before nominating him. This breach of professional etiquette is the theoretical reason for his nomination being stalled without hearings or consideration. Mikkanen makes his own case persuasively. He questions the reasoning of the senators and also of the White House which placed him in this position and has failed to speak on his behalf.

As a lawyer and a nominee, he is circumspect in his questioning. As a Native American and a race scholar, I intend to be more critical. Oklahoma is the end of the Trail of Tears. It has the second largest native population (after Alaska) of any state in the country. White Oklahoma elected officials have a long history of expressing that being Indian is reason enough to conclude incompetence. Not one of the elected officials in Oklahoma has spoken in defense of Mikkanen or elaborated on what makes him unfit.

Additionally, the White House has remained silent. I would suggest as Cohen hints that Mikkanen is a symbolic gesture and a pawn in the White House game to pretend to support Native justice while using Republicans as the foil to keep from actually delivering on that justice. To wit, the Cobell settlement for pennies on the dollar languished for almost 2 years before being approved after having spent 15 years in the federal courts. The Department of the Interior, which oversees Indian lands and resources has yet to promulgate new standards for leases, trust management or native protections. While signing the Native American Law Enforcement Act, Obama said,

government’s relationship with tribal governments, its obligations under treaty and law, and our values as a nation require that we do more to improve public safety in tribal communities.

The act itself only increases a possible sentence, for any crime in Indian Country including murder, from 1 year to 3 years. However, it does, finally, allow Indian courts to question and investigate crimes by white people on reservations. Not necessarily prosecute them or charge them or sentence them commensurately, but at least investigate them.

This is justice in Indian Country. This is the improvement the President touts. Meanwhile, there are no Indian judges off the reservation. This should not surprise us particularly, there have only been two Indian U.S. Senator in our history and 3 congressmen. No states have ever elected a Native American as governor.

An Indian, from India, in Louisiana, but no Native American. Arvo Mikkanek joins a long list of Native Americans whose qualifications for public service could not overcome their inherent disqualification of being Indian. Members of both parties will continue to make great public statements and act as if justice, health and representation for Native Americans are a priority. They will also continue to fail to enact any policy of inclusion or solution to the problems in Indian Country. Until one Senator or one White House official rises to defend the defamation of Mikkanen’s character, we can assume it is business as usual. White people take what they want, offer trinkets and solemn never kept promises while pursuing an uninterrupted program of annihilation of Native Americans through any means necessary.

Racism, Whites and Neoliberalism

RR welcomes new contributing blogger, Randy Hohle, Assistant Professor, D’Youville College, Buffalo, NY

Neoliberalism is the political and economic framework based on privatizing public works, removing rules and regulations over businesses that protect citizens, and tax cuts for the wealthy.  You might wonder why anyone outside of the wealthiest 1% would support such policies. Here’s my theory: neoliberalism was made possible by a racialized language of privatization that defined all things private as “white” and all things public as “black.” This language was first articulated in the post-war South as whites were responding to the black civil rights movement and the modernization of the southern economy.  I’ll use post-war Alabama to make my case.

In Alabama, the white response to the Brown v. Board of Ed ruling was to privatize the public school system in favor of letting private and non-profit entities run the schools on a racially segregated basis.

The predominantly white Alabama business community felt that subsidizing businesses to relocate to the South was a bad idea because businesses didn’t stay and states were losing revenue. They pushed for tax breaks on businesses and opposed additional taxes based on the idea that taxes are bad for business, thus, bad for the economy.

In contrast to the ardent segregationists, the white business community negotiated with the civil rights movement to offer blacks employment in the low-pay, low-skill service sector. Yet, this was no act of racial sympathy. The white southern business community sought to integrate blacks in this limited way in order to enhance the idea that the ‘new south’ was more racially tolerant and, thus, a safe place for northern and federal investment.

Whites in Alabama used both privatization and tax cuts to direct all public resources to the most privileged segments of the white community. The language of ‘privatization and tax cuts’ became synonymous with ‘white, superior and preferred’ while ‘public’ implied ‘black, inferior, and inefficient.’ By the mid-1960s, this racial coding of a political ideology formed the pretext of what it meant to be white in America, and thus, made the larger neoliberal turn that started in 1979 possible.

The realities of the white/private, black/public code continue to be found in all major policy debates. And for the most part, the neoliberal crowd has been winning. The rationale for charter schools and educational credits are the grandchildren of the original school privatization bills. The movement against national health care used terminology like ‘the public option’ and ‘Medicaid for all’ to explicitly link national health care with black/public.

The reality is that white resentment towards blacks has made neoliberalism possible despite 30 years of failed policy and to the detriment of whites and blacks.

Suggested further reading:

Cobb, James C. 1999. Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South. Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press.

Feagin, Joe R. 2010. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. NY & London: Routledge.

Hohle, Randolph. Forthcoming 2012, “The Color of Neoliberalism: The ‘Modern Southern Businessman’ and Post-War” Alabama’s Challenge to Racial Desegregation Sociological Forum.

Hohle, Randolph. 2009. “The Rise of the New South Governmentality: Competing Southern Revitalization Projects and Police Responses to the Black Civil Rights Movement 1961-1965”. Journal of Historical Sociology 22(4): 497-527.

Kruse, Kevin Michael. 2005. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1975. Powershift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenges to the Eastern Establishment. New York: Random House.

St. Patrick’s Day and the Changing Boundaries of Whiteness

Today in New York City and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.'” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.

From the archive (originally posted 03-17-2009)

Is the Republican Party Racist?



Has the Republican Party become a party of hegemonic practices, one that threatens if they do not get what they want? Have members of the Republican Party become sycophants and puns of their own Party that majority of them have lost their freedom of speech for fear of being punished and ostracized by their own party should they speak the truth.
When President Obama was first elected president of the United States, there was a wave of enthusiasm that swept across the world. Through the lens of the media, the people said Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!

Now the president is being attacked every day not only by the media such as the extreme right-wing Fox News that calls him the anti-Christ, a Muslim, and a socialist, but also he is attacked by the Republican Party that’s wasting the taxpayers’ questioning the legitimacy of his presidency and the legitimacy of his citizenship, putting doubt in the minds of their gullible base. So now we hear Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! It would appear to the average uninformed American citizen that this is good ole fashion politics, but is it really good ole fashion Jim Crowism and racism at its best performance. Well, if we want to stick our heads in the sand and say the election of Barack Obama has transformed us into a post-racial society, we are deluding ourselves. White racism is very much alive. One does not have to call Americans of color “niggers,” “jiggaboos,” “house niggers” (educated African Americans), “Hymie” (Jews), “Spic” (Hispanics), “swamp nigger” (Native Americans), or “wetback” (Mexicans), because it is politically incorrect to do so, especially if one is a politician. But the use of political cartoons illustrating watermelons on the front lawn of the White House, manipulating a photograph to make the first lady look like an ape, calling her a typical street whore are more racist than calling the first family a nigger.

The Republican Party seems to embrace the racist tendencies from their predecessors. More recently, Republican Governor Haley Barbour wanted to revive the ways of the old South by honoring a confederate general who slaughtered a black regiment during the Civil War that tried to surrender.

Some might say that the Republican Party has African Americans and other Americans of color as members. This is true, but they do not speak against the barrage of hate speech against President Obama and are afraid to speak against the biases and unjust behavior against African Americans and other Americans of color. Other Americans of color like Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have spoken harshly against President Obama, but he fails to consider his own native country, India, that was under the colonial rule of the British–and many of them respond to the English like black slaves responded to their masters. Those of oppressed groups would call African-American and other-Americans-of-color Republicans the servants of the Party, the most loyal servants to their master.

The question before us is “why would any person of color associate themselves with a party that engages in practices that border the practices similar to the days of slavery and the Jim Crow era”?

A Heritage of Freedom–For Canadian Whites Only

When we recently learned that 30 percent of immigrants are failing the Canadian citizenship test, we wondered how many Canadian-born citizens know enough about this country to qualify for citizenship.

All five of us were born in Canada. How would we rate as potential citizens?

We effortlessly figured out that “the right to ski anywhere in Canada” is not covered by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We were absolutely confident that “mow your lawn” is not one of the six principal responsibilities of citizenship. For the record, the six principal responsibilities of Canadian citizenship are: Obeying the law; taking responsibility for oneself and one’s family; serving on a jury; voting in elections; helping others in the community; and protecting our heritage and environment. The bit concerning the protection of Canadian heritage especially caught our attention, not to mention “helping others in the community.”

In the spirit of “protecting” Canada’s heritage and “helping others,” here are a few snippets from our country’s legacy we think all citizens should know:

The first federal anti-Chinese bill was passed in 1885. It took the form of a Head tax of $50 imposed, with few exceptions, upon every person of Chinese origin entering the country. No other group was targeted in this way.

In 1928, a government official envisaged Canada would end its “Indian problem” within two generations. Church-run, government-funded residential schools for Native children were supposed to prepare them for life in white society. The aims of assimilation actually meant destruction and desolation for those who were subjected to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Decades later, Aboriginal people began to share their stories and demand acknowledgement of — and compensation for — their stolen childhoods.

Twelve weeks after 7 December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and later Hong Kong, the federal government, at the instigation of racist British Columbia politicians, used the War Measures Actto order the removal of all Japanese Canadians residing within 160 kilometres of the Pacific coast. The Canadian government claimed that Japanese Canadians were being removed for reasons of “national security,” despite the fact that the removal order was opposed by Canada’s senior military and despite the fact that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officially stated that Japanese Canadians posed no threat to Canada’s security.

Canada likes to think of itself as a sanctuary for the oppressed. However, the Canadian government did everything in its power to bar the door to European Jews trying to flee Nazi persecution.

In 1996, the last federally-operated residential school in Canada closed (Akaitcho Hall in Yellowknife). It is estimated that more than 100,000 Native children aged six and up attended the national network of residential schools from 1930 until 1990.

In Canada, we have “starlight tours,” an euphemism for the “non-sanctioned” police practice of taking Aboriginals to the edge of a town and abandoning them in freezing weather. In 2001, Amnesty International included freezing deaths resulting from these notorious tours in their report of international human rights abuses, marking the first time Canada joined the list. In fact, this list could probably go on forever. If we let it.

Welcome to Canada, the “great” white North (and we don’t mean “white” as in snow).

Tessa M. Blaikie, Kyla E. Doll, Crystal S. Van Den Bussche, and Natalia T. Ilyniak are undergraduates at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. Kimberley A. Ducey is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.

Dis-Commemorating the Greensboro Sit-Ins: Whites’ Continued Rejection of the Movement

Greensboro, North Carolina, is considered the birthplace of the student lunch counter sit-ins of the early-1960s. This Tuesday marked the 51st anniversary of the proactive step planned and enacted by four African American male freshmen students at historically black North Carolina A&T State University on February 1, 1960, to sit resolutely in protest at the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s, one of the city’s prominent five-and-dime stores. The “Greensboro Four” were Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (later, Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond, and a statue of them walking resolutely, shoulder-to-shoulder, has for 10 years now been displayed on NC A&T’s campus.

woolworth sit-ins

(Creative Commons License photo credit: charlie_combine)

Greensboro was not the first site of African American’s sit-in protests against whites-only public facilities; accounts of similar actions reach back decades prior. Nevertheless, the action by McNeil, McCain, Blair, Richmond, and the hundreds of other students who joined them in subsequent days, inspired a rapid implementation of sit-in protests throughout the segregated South within a matter of weeks. After nearly five months of strong resistance to let go of “local custom,” the white management of the Greensboro Woolworth’s finally caved and served its first seated black lunch counter customers (ironically, its own employees) on July 25, 1960.

February 1, 1960 was a historic moment in the American – and global – human rights story. And it is the sit-ins alone that make Greensboro a memorable city in the American consciousness. Many Greensboro citizens, especially African Americans, have embraced this identity of their city as the birthplace of the sit-ins, and this recognition led to the renovation of the original downtown Woolworth’s store into the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which opened in 2010 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebration.

But what I have found in my interviews with older white residents of Greensboro, on the racial past including their memories of segregation and the civil rights era, is that the identity as an important site of civil rights struggles has been largely ignored or rejected by white Greensboro. It clashes with white Greensboro’s long-held notion of itself as epitomizing progressiveness, especially regarding race. In his excellent book on the civil rights era in the city, Civilities and Civil Rights, historian Bill Chafe calls white Greensboro’s delusion about its racial enlightenment the “progressive mystique.”

For my dissertation, I wanted to investigate how ordinary white people recall the racial past, so I came to a city known for its racial history. I’ve been living in Greensboro for a few years and have conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of lifetime white residents of the city, people old enough to have lived through Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights era.

When people described the actions of sit-in protestors, their portrayals were cursory and often dismissive. One woman in her 70s said:

They didn’t make any fuss or anything. They just got together and they just ambled in to Woolworth’s and asked to be served.

Saying that protestors “just got together” and “just ambled in” portrays their organizing as spontaneous, the implementation lackadaisical, and the backlash as insignificant. Virtually no one indicated that many white business owners fought hard, for months in many cases, to maintain segregation policies.

A few people credited the sit-in demonstrators for bravery, but there was very little willingness to promote the organizers to heroes, or people worth celebrating. A woman in her 80s said she would have been a superior protestor:

Had I been born black, I would’ve protested before they did. I would have. I have never understood how they had the patience as long as they did.

While acknowledging the inherent unfairness of segregation practices, this woman belittled those who she thinks waited much longer to act than her fictitious black self would have.

In these ways and more, the older white lifetime residents of Greensboro I interviewed demonstrated that they had not accepted their city as an important site of Civil Rights Movement activism. To fully embrace that identity, they would have to redefine themselves and loose their grasp on this belief that (white) Greensboro had for centuries been “good to the blacks,” a diamond in the rough city that the rest of the region and nation could hold up as a model of racial progressiveness.

This exchange with a married couple illustrates well just how adamantly some white Greensboro residents reject the notion that their city should be known for the sit-ins:

Wife: That museum should be on the campus of A&T, where the students came from, not in downtown Greensboro. . . . And I’m not against the museum . . . but it should be down on the campus where the A&T students were, and have it as a commemoration to them.

Husband: Isn’t that statue of the four down on campus? Me: Mm-hm. Wife: You see, put the museum down there with that.

Me: Do you have any pride that the sit-ins happened here. Wife: No. Me: and that they started sit-ins all over the South?

Wife: I thought it really started out in Omaha, Nebraska, is what I heard and that they did not get the publicity Greensboro got. That’s what I’ve heard. Now I don’t know how true that is. I’ve tried to look it up on the computer, and I hadn’t been able to trace . . . No, I’m not proud of that, no. No, we have other things to be proud of. O’Henry was born here, Dolley Madison was born here. Okay? Yes, Edward R. Murrow was born here. We are very proud of those citizens, absolutely. I admire these four young men that took the initiative for the sit-in. I admire their courage for it.

Husband: Took a lot of guts.

Wife: but these other people are to be admired more for what they did and the legacy that they have left for us.

Me: Why is that?

Wife: Well, Dolley Madison was the wife of our fourth President! And she was born out here near Guilford College. So Dolley was quite a lady. O’Henry is known for his short stories. They’ve been translated into many, many, many foreign languages, and he was born here outside of Greensboro. Edward R. Murrow, who was the leading commentator and correspondent during the Second World War, he was born here in Greensboro. These are the people that really accomplished an awful lot. We had other people that accomplished things. We had another black man who did an awful lot for the city of Greensboro, Charles Henry Moore, who is not very well known, but he was a teacher and professor at the colleges here. He was instrumental in getting Bennett College established in Greensboro. He was instrumental in raising money for the black hospital, L. Richardson Hospital. He opened the door for a lot of the blacks and unfortunately he is not remembered like these other people, but he contributed a lot to improve their way of life.

This woman argued that Greensboro’s sit-ins should not be commemorated because she “heard” they began elsewhere first, and, if commemorations are designed, they should be sequestered on the campus of NC A&T. She refused to view civil rights actions as a movement that significantly improved African Americans’ “way of life” or left a “legacy” for the city and beyond.

In my research I have found that a great many whites today are unable or unwilling to extend genuine respect and admiration for African Americans, especially activists from civil rights and post-civil rights eras. They refuse to acknowledge that black Americans have contributed, perhaps more than anyone else, to the expansion of our most dearly-held American values of “liberty and justice” and that these gains have benefited all citizens, including whites. In rejecting the reality that the Jim Crow society whites had formed was inherently unjust, they can continue to deem whites as virtuous and African Americans as second-class citizens.

It continues to be a radical act to challenge white racism openly in the U.S.A. And, unfortunately, it is also a radical act to commemorate those moments in our history that exposed and weakened the contradictions between our American pride and our American racism. Let us continue, in the spirit of February One, to be radical by remembering well and taking collective action.

Henry, Accomplished Young Arizonan BUT….


Sunday’s edition of the Arizona Republic features an article about Henry Cejudo, a gifted athlete from Phoenix.

Henry, the son of parents who at one point in time were “illegals” from Mexico, won a wrestling gold medal in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Henry was interviewed recently to ascertain his views about current efforts to deny children of undocumented immigrants what the Constitution grants unambiguously to every individual born in this country: U.S. citizenship. Although not “an anchor” baby himself (his mother became a documented immigrant before Henry’s birth), Henry identifies with them. He is quoted as saying, “That’s [denial of citizenship to illegals’ children] ridiculous. Are they going to take my gold medal back?”

After Henry won his gold medal in 2008, the Republic’s article reports, Senator McCain told Katie Couric, CBS new anchor, that Henry was someone “he would like to have dinner with.” I wonder how McCain, paladin of the anti-immigrant movement, reconciles his current views with his past invitation to Henry.

Henry is a true patriot. After his victory in Peking, Henry ran around the gymnasium floor wrapped in an American flag. He has stated that he would die for this country. But after his 2008 victory, right-wing talk radio asked for his mother’s deportation, in spite her being a legal U.S. resident since 1986.

As an immigrant myself, I empathize with Henry’s gratitude toward this country. But I have to regularly remind myself that assimilation has an oppressive side. The unsavory experiences provoked by the dominant racial frame become more evident as our knowledge of this society deepens.