Infant Mortality & The Stresses of Everyday Racism

I think that the national discussion about racism and health care reform gets so abstract sometimes that we forget that when we’re talking about health, we’re talking about people’s lives. And, as this short clip (about 4 minutes) demonstrates very powerfully, leading researchers contend that racism plays an important role in infant mortality among African American women, even when controlling for income and education. This clip, from Episode 2, “When the Bough Breaks,” in the video series “Unnatural Causes,” (2007), features UCLA obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Michael Lu. Lu believes that for many women of color, racism over a life time, not just during the nine months of pregnancy, increases the risk of preterm delivery, one of the leading risk factors for early infant death:

And, in an interesting piece of research by one of the experts featured in the full episode, Dr. Camara Jones, concludes that: “being classified by others as White is associated with large and statistically significant advantages in health status, no matter how one self-identifies.” So, there’s a very real, somatic level at which racism both takes a toll on some and provides an advantage to others.

I think we should keep this in mind as the health care debate rages on. What kind of society do we want to create?

Hate Crimes: At the Intersection of Racism, Homophobia and Misogyny

A series of recent hate crimes in the news make the case for the importance of understanding the intersections of racism with other forms of hatred based on identity.

  • A gay African American sailor is killed at Camp Pendelton. The murder of August Provost, the gay African American sailor killed at Camp Pendelton, is being heralded by the gay blogosphere as an anti-gay hate crime.  As such, Provost’s murder is taken as political fodder in the battle to repeal the unjust “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy implemented by Bill Clinton.  Unfortunately, few in the gay blogosphere seem to be deploying an analysis which also takes Provost’s racial identity into account in this account.  This is a missed opportunity, in my view, to build coalition across communities.
  • A white San Diego man arrested in a series of attacks on Asian women.  Thomas Parker, was arrested after a woman — who happened to be a marathon runner — fought off an attack in her garage and chased him down the street. She flagged down others driving nearby and an off-duty Border Patrol agent stopped at a traffic light joined in the chase and arrested Parker. According to police, Parker was linked through DNA and other evidence to a series six of similar home-invasion robberies and sexual assaults targeting Asian-American women over the past year.   AngryAsianMan reports that Parker committed suicide before he could be brought to trial.  Despite what appears to be a clear pattern of targeting Asian-American women, there’s little outcry from the public – and no action from police – to suggest that this was considered a ‘hate crime.’
  • On July 13, the trial will begin in the murder of LaTeisha Green, a transgendered African American woman.  LaTeisha Green was killed in November, 2008, and the trial of her alleged assailant, Dwight DeLee, was originally set to begin in June of this year.  Yet, there’s been virtually no mainstream media attention on this hate crime.  As TransGriot notes: “I guess if the victim is a Black transwoman, nobody gives a shit, especially if the trial is falling just before the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion that peeps who share Lateisha’s ethnic heritage helped jump off.”  There’s still speculation about whether or not the prosecution will use a “trans panic” defense in the trial, but it’s clear that LaTeisha was killed for who she was.


As research has shown, hate crimes are worse crimes by definition because of that focus on identity.  Each one of these crimes is a horrible tragedy in which a family somewhere has to plan a funeral for a loved one that was killed simply for who they were.   And, to better understand them, we have to comprehend the ways that racism intersects with other forms of oppression.

Gloria Steinem, Where Are You Now?

3005744513_a264349f2bIf you’ve been following the increasingly racist, sexist, and thoroughly disgusting attacks on Sonia Sotomayor, then you’ve no doubt seen this headline: “G. Gordon Liddy on Sotomayor: ‘Let’s Hope the Key Conferences Aren’t When She’s Menstruating.’ ”

While striking, this revolting statement is not that far of a stretch from other classics of the last few days: Sotomayor as dumpy, schoolmarmish, and too “emotional.”

These statements are obviously grossly offensive and fairly reek of profoundly sexist ideals. I do not claim to be a Supreme Court expert, but I’ve been following nominations pretty closely since the Clarence Thomas debacle in the 1990s and have yet to hear any criticisms of any male justices’ appearance or emotional tenor. As far as I can tell, when it was time to consider his nomination to the Court, no one cared what Antonin Scalia looked like or bothered to describe him as dumpy, fat, or bloated. No one asked whether Clarence Thomas had the temperament for the Supreme Court, even though he looked mad enough to spit nails when he had to face accusations of sexual harassment, while Anita Hill remained calm and unflappable when Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter basically called her a liar.  The double standard here is a glaringly obvious, clear cut, basic example of sexism in American politics. How else to explain that looks and emotion suddenly became significant issues for Judge Sotomayor when they never mattered for any of her predecessors?

But I don’t need to point all this out, because fortunately we have a number of prominent feminist women who are quick to use their public platform to denounce obvious cases of sexism, and to condemn those who are instrumental in perpetuating these assaults against women…right? Why, just last year, noted feminist icon Gloria Steinem (image from here), wrote a widely discussed editorial in the New York Times defending then-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton against charges of sexism, and lamenting that “the sex barrier was not taken as seriously as the racial one.”

During this same election cycle, Geraldine Ferraro made controversial statements arguing that Obama’s race was an advantage, and contended that “if he were a woman of any color he would not be in this position,” implying, like Steinem, that male privilege was so endemic that it could elevate a black man over any woman of any color.  Martha Burk got a lot of attention a few years back for demanding that the Masters golf tournament allow women to join its hallowed ranks, and was a clear, cogent voice in drawing attention to this institutionalized sexism in the athletic world.

Funny how I haven’t heard any statements from these women castigating G. Gordon Liddy, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, or Michael Steele for their repugnant, sexist, and racist remarks about Judge Sotomayor. Funny how they haven’t jumped out in front of this issue the same way they did when Hillary Clinton was the one on the receiving end of a barrage of sexist statements. Funny how the PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass) who were so outraged at the way the Democratic Party ostensibly treated Hillary Clinton now don’t seem to see this as a worthy cause of their efforts, and aren’t outraged by Democratic politicians’ unwillingness to call these abhorrent statements the blatant misogyny that they are.

What’s not funny are the implications this has for women of all races. When white feminists look the other way when Michelle Obama is callously referred to as “Obama’s Baby Mama,” when Sonia Sotomayor is savaged by right wing conservatives who engage in the basest types of sexism, or more broadly, when women of color across the country face higher rates of abuse, incarceration, and poverty than white women, it sends a clear message about their lack of respect for and interest in the ways sexism impacts women of other racial groups and class positions. It reinforces the idea that white women feminists are interested in maintaining their white privilege while undermining sexism, a process that keeps women of color oppressed but broadens the category of whites who have access to and are able to wield power over others. It perpetuates the (erroneous) message that feminism has nothing to offer women of color, even though they too suffer from the gender wage gap, sexual violence, and all the other manifestations of gender inequality.

I do not understand why white feminists like Steinem, Ferraro, Burk, and others still don’t seem to get this message that intersections of race and gender matter and that the feminist movement cannot succeed without the influence and involvement of ALL women.

This point has been made for years, by many progressive white women (playwright Eve Ensler, sociologist Margaret Andersen) and feminists of color (sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, activist Pauli Murray, writer Alice Walker). It would be really nice if the rampant sexism being directed towards Sonia Sotomayor finally served as an overdue wake-up call about the importance of both race and gender.

Race, Gender & Rampage

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

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

Rampage & Race: Reacting to Anti-Asian Discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rampage & Race: Acting on Antisemitism & White Supremacy

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

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

Gender & Rampage: Enacting Violent Masculinity

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

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

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

* * *

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

Racism, Sexism and Homophobia Fuel Hate Crime in Brooklyn

Two men, Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay, brothers and Ecuadorian immigrants were brutally attacked in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn by three men that shouted anti-Latino and anti-gay slurs at them Detail of Infinity Mural at Factory Fresh(
Creative Commons License photo credit, street art, Bushwick, Brooklyn: hragvartanian).   Today, Jose Sucuzhanay was declared brain dead and he is being kept on life support while his family decides whether to donate his organs.  Sucuzhanay’s death, and the assault of his brother, has everything to do with the intersection of racism, sexism, homophobia and class.  Here’s the account of what happened from the New York Times:

The two brothers from Ecuador had attended a church party and had stopped at a bar afterward. They may have been a bit tipsy as they walked home in the dead of night, arm-in-arm, leaning close to each other, a common tableau of men in Latino cultures, but one easily misinterpreted by the biased mind. (emphasis added)

Suddenly a car drew up. It was 3:30 a.m. Sunday, and the intersection of Bushwick Avenue and Kossuth Place in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a half-block from the brothers’ apartment, was nearly deserted — but not quite. Witnesses, the police said, heard some of what happened next.

Three men came out of the car shouting at the brothers, Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay — something ugly, anti-gay and anti-Latino. Vulgarisms against Hispanics and gay men were heard by witnesses, the police said. One man approached Jose Sucuzhanay, 31, the owner of a real estate agency who has been in New York a decade, and broke a beer bottle over the back of his head. He went down hard.

Romel Sucuzhanay, 38, who is visiting from Ecuador on a two-month visa, bounded over a parked car and ran as the man with the broken bottle came at him. A distance away, he looked back and saw a second assailant beating his prone brother with an aluminum baseball bat, striking him repeatedly on the head and body. The man with the broken bottle turned back and joined the beating and kicking.

“They used a baseball bat,” said Diego Sucuzhanay, another brother. “I guess the goal was to kill him.”

The fact that the suspects in the case are described only as “three black men” by police (they have not been apprehended), does not mean that racism isn’t a factor here, it just means that it’s more complicated than the archetypal white-on-non-white hate crime.

Racism. The leaders of a number of civil rights organization met recently to decry the recent spike in hate crimes, and the vast majority of these kinds of attacks are white-on-non-white.   But not all of them are.  In some hate crimes, like the attack on the Sucuzhanay brothers, the victims of the attacks are immigrants and the attackers are, allegedly, black men.   Although white people are the originators, developers and most frequent perpetrators of hate crimes, they don’t hold exclusive rights to these acts of violence.  As Joe has written about here before, the white racial frame is available to people beyond those who happen to have white skin.  So, if it does turn out that the perpetrators in this case were black, it means that they too have adopted the white racial frame that sees immigrants as interlopers.  The attackers also yelled “anti-Hispanic” slurs and this sort of racism directed toward Latino/as is also characteristic of the white racial frame.  And this white racial frame gets deployed within a particular racialized context, such as Bushwick.  Today the neighborhood is 65% Latino/a and approximately 20% blacks, a demographic profile that emerged after a mass exodus of whites, or “white flight,” in the 1960s and 1970s.

Class. Bushwick is one of the more economically impoverished neighborhoods in the city of New York, and while it’s unlikely that the hate crime against the Sucuzhanay brothers was prompted by class antagonism it occured within a specific class context that it’s important to recognize.   At the same time as the white flight of the 1960s and 1970s occurred, manufacturing jobs left Brooklyn and racially discriminatory red-lining by banks ended virtually all investment in the neighborhood.  The quite predictable result of these practices (white flight) and policies (red-lining) by whites, was that in a five-year period a livable community changed into a desolate, dangerous neighborhood filled with abandoned buildings, empty lots, drugs and arson.    The lingering effects of  Bushwick has a poverty rate around 40%, and close to 75% of the children in Bushwick grow up in poverty, and the high school drop out rate is close to 70%.  More recently,  hipster-whites have begun returning to Bushwick and beginning to drive up property values.   Jose Sucuzhanay may have indirectly benefited from this recent turn in Bushwick’s economy through his small real estate business that he started after several years of working in construction.   According to press reports, he used the small business to help his neighbors and family find housing, as so many immigrant entrepreneurs do.   It’s unlikely that the Sucuzhanays’ attackers knew anything about Jose’s upwardly mobile class trajectory, but may have read them as gay and thus assumed that they were part of the changing hipster demographic in the neighborhood.

Homophobia and Sexism. What most likely sparked the ire of the brothers’ attackers, was a small, tender gesture between the two men.   Following the press accounts of this story, the fact that the men were walking home arm-in-arm, leaning close to each other seems to have been interpreted by their attackers as ‘evidence’ of the men’s (homo)sexuality.    The fact that two men cannot walk arm-in-arm without being assumed to be gay is a testimony not just to cultural norms, but also to sexism.   Suzanne Pharr wrote a book called Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, and in it she argues that gay men are perceived as a threat to male dominance and control, by “breaking ranks” with male heterosexual solidarity.  Furthermore, homophobia directed toward men is often about punishing any deviation from rigid gender norms, especially ones that contain a hint of the “feminine,” such as two men walking arm-in-arm.   Pharr argues that fierce homophobia expressed toward men is ultimately a mechanism for reinforcing narrow and dehumanizing notions of gender.   The brutality of the attack on the Sucuzhanay brothers suggests just how deeply some people feel about these inelastic gender norms in which a moment of tenderness is punished by a bat to the skull.

The fact that we have another hate crime in the New York area just a month after the murder of Marcelo Lucero suggests that we in the U.S., in the Northeast as well as in the Deep South, have a long way to go before we are living in a “post-racial” society.  The complexities in this case of black-on-Latino racism, of class inequality, and of sexism and homophobia suggests that our thinking about racism has to continually be informed by an understanding of intersectionality.

UPDATE 12/14/08: Jose Sucuzhanay died early this morning, before his mother arrived from Ecuador to say goodbye.

Racism (and other issues) among Gay Marriage Supporters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agree with Jasmyne Cannick who writes that: 

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

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

A Review of CNN’s “Black in America”

On July 23 and 24, CNN aired their much-hyped series entitled “Black in America,” which sought to examine the varied and wide-ranging experiences of African Americans in the contemporary U.S. The series sought to explore and document “what it really means to be black in America,” by focusing on the experiences of a wide range of everyday black Americans and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that they face (image from CNN). The segment on July 23 focused on Black women; the segment on July 24 addressed Black men. Together, the two segments addressed topics including the high numbers of female-headed households, the challenges of public education, inner-city isolation, hip hop culture, and the staggering rates of imprisoned Black men.

While many people I know emailed reminders and made it a point to watch the show (my mother even marked it on her calendar!), I wasn’t overly excited about it. I figured that if CNN did an accurate job reporting what it means to be black in America, then they wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. If they did a poor job and misrepresented things (which they have done in the past), then I would just get irritated. But I was pleased to see that in many ways, CNN made some important points and addressed some key things that urgently need to be addressed.

One thing I appreciated most about “Black in America,” was the focus on the things that everyday Black people do to improve their communities and to try to make the world a better place. In the July 23 segment on Black women, the show followed a Black male high school principal who, troubled by the high numbers of Black students who do not complete high school, actually tracks down truants to encourage them to come back to school. Reporter Soledad O’Brien later profiled a Black woman cardiologist who does outreach to encourage Black people to get routine preventative health screenings and to overcome distrust of the medical establishment. (This distrust is well founded. The Tuskegee experiment, in which Black men were injected with syphilis and/or denied medical treatment in order to study the progression of the disease, is the most infamous example of Blacks being used for medical experiments in ways that violate ethical standards and human rights.)   The show also featured a Black male economics professor who, in an effort to address racial disparities in educational attainment, is trying a controversial experiment where he pays children for good grades in an effort to build strong study habits and an appreciation for the value of education.

 
Examples like these are an important counter to many of the commonplace myths about Black Americans that abound in popular culture, policy decisions and in everyday interactions. Many believe that Black Americans in general are lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. To this way of thinking, the main challenge facing Black Americans is their refusal to exert any agency to change their circumstances. This perception does not characterize most African Americans. One of the most valuable contributions of “Black in America” is that it documented many everyday, ordinary African Americans who work hard for themselves and to make life better for others. This is a picture we rarely see in mainstream media, which disproportionately depict Blacks as perpetrators of crime rather than everyday Americans trying to make changes. (See Joe Feagin’s Systemic Racism for more discussion of this.)

 
I also appreciated the program’s emphasis on Black fathers, and their acknowledgment that contrary to popular opinion, many Black men are actively involved in their children’s lives and parent under unbelievably difficult circumstances. The show also made connections between the fact that while some Black men are absent parents, often this is a consequence of many complicated factors—cycles of parental abandonment, incarceration as a result of a racially biased criminal justice system—structural issues that are often overlooked.

 
Now for the problems: one glaring omission in “Black in America” is the absence of any Black (openly) lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered individuals. While I applaud “Black in America” for its attention to how gender and class are important factors in creating a myriad of experiences in Black America, I think the segment should have acknowledged that not all of Black America is heterosexual. Black LGBT individuals face issues and challenges in the Black community that stem from intersections of race, sexuality, and gender. Too often they are alternately overlooked or demonized, and CNN missed a valuable opportunity to speak to their experiences. How might the story on Black women have been changed had Soledad O’Brien spoken with the family of Sakia Gunn, the 15 year old Newark, New Jersey lesbian who was murdered in 2003 after refusing the sexual advances of men by identifying herself as a lesbian?  Gunn’s story shows not only the ways that homophobia impacts Black Americans, but the threat of violence that Black women face every day. This is another very important part of being Black in America that should have been included.

 
On a related note, the July 23 segment on Black women did not seem to focus very heavily on issues facing Black women. The stories in this segment included an incredibly poignant account of a single Black father in Brooklyn trying to maintain steady employment to keep his children in school, and his young son’s involvement in the experimental class where children were paid to earn good grades. Another story detailed a young woman who, abandoned by her father and searching for a father figure, ended up raising several children alone, and the impact that male abandonment can have on young women. A third story focused on black professional women’s struggles to find comparably educated Black professional mates, and the challenges of doing this given the high numbers of Black men who are incarcerated, uneducated, and unavailable.

 
While these stories definitely include Black women, I did not feel that there was a heavy emphasis on the ways intersections of race and gender create specific experiences for them.  In some ways, these stories still seemed to be more about Black men than Black women. In a profile of a Black woman who had no health insurance, Soledad O’Brien emphasized the difficulty this woman experienced maintaining her health when no stores in her neighborhood provided fresh fruits or vegetables, and the fact that without a car, she had to travel over an hour to get nutritious food. And, in a compelling quote that captures the essence of urban health disparities, the woman said that in her neighborhood, “it’s easier to buy a gun than a tomato.”   While this is definitely an important story,  it reflects intersections of race and class much more so than race and gender. I’m surprised that a segment on Black women did not discuss the fact that Black women are much more likely than white women develop and die from breast cancer, to develop uterine fibroids, and to give birth to low-birth weight babies (as Jessie posted about recently), and the studies that connect these issues to surviving daily onslaughts of racism and sexism. It’s also interesting that in this discussion of health, there was no mention of the fact that Black women are the fastest-rising group of new HIV/AIDS cases, are 26 times more likely to contract AIDS than white women, and that this occurs most frequently through heterosexual intercourse.   Finally, Black women experience sexual assaults at higher rates than women of other racial groups, yet are less likely to see their assailants prosecuted. From slavery on, Black women have enjoyed little ownership over their bodies and have had to combat issues including rape, forced sterilization, and limited access to birth control, so the current issues Black women face in this vein have clear historical precedent. Yet for some reason, these were overlooked in the segment that purported to focus on Black women.

 
Lastly, I felt that the July 24 story about race and education overstated, as mainstream media outlets frequently do, the “acting white” phenomenon among Black Americans. The show reported that for many Black Americans, school success is perceived as “acting white,” which leads African Americans to shun it in favor of pursuing other routes to popularity. The “acting white” argument, first introduced in academic circles by Signathia Fordham and John Ogbu “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the Burden of ‘Acting White,’” has been retested and analyzed among many other researchers who find little empirical support for this theory. In short, Fordham and Ogbu state that Black students don’t perform well academically in part because they see it as “acting white,” and because they recognize that in a racially unequal society, there will be little reward for their educational efforts. Yet numerous other scholars have performed more empirically sophisticated tests of this theory and have gleaned different results. In several articles, Jim Ainsworth and Douglas Downey have argued that Black students who earn high grades are very popular among their peers and believe that their educational gains will earn them occupational rewards down the line. Sociologist Karolyn Tyson has also argued that Black students with high grades are popular among peers, and that their academic achievement is met with positive regard rather than negative sanction. This is not to say that Black children never taunt others with “acting white,” but that a well-documented body of research suggests that this label may be given for reasons other than academic success, and that it is likely not the deterrent to academic achievement that Fordham and Ogbu initially suggested. It is rather unfortunate that CNN ignored a body of social science literature that challenges this theory in order to perpetuate what cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson has referred to as “the academic equivalent of an urban legend.”

 
Overall, I felt that the CNN special told me little I didn’t know about being Black in America—which, to me, means that for the most part they accurately reported many of the varied, diverse experiences of African Americans in contemporary society. For other educators, this series could be a useful tool for initiating discussion about race, class, and social structure in America. The series definitely challenged some—not all—of the preconceptions and stereotypes that persist about Black Americans. It is worth watching, but definitely warrants watching with a critical eye.

Two-Faced Racism at the Secret Service

Slate.com has posted scanned copies of the racist emails the Secret Service has finally turned over to a judge in the long-running lawsuit filed by African American employees. This batch of emails sent in recent years (several date from 2003) by at least 20 high-ranking supervisors in the Secret Serviceare excellent examples of two-faced racism. As blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, many of the emails seem fixated on Jesse Jackson and the jokes in the emails focus obsessively on sexual innuendos about black men’s bodies. The majority of the racist emails posted at Slate.com take the form of jokes of the sort that many whites use to bond with each other in whites-only private, backstage spaces. One of the emails is noteworthy because it departs from this pattern. Instead, it’s more of a general rant that encapsulates much of the white racial frame. What’s especially interesting about this rant is that the middle-class, college educated, well-employed, white, male, heterosexual, author of the email characterizes himself as such a victim of the current cultural milieu of “reverse racism.” Here’s part of what the (very long) email says:

“Reverse racism and political correctness are destroying virtually every aspect of American life. We’re completely surrounded by illegal aliens (who even illegally vote in our elections…) suck up our welfare dollars, steal public educations, commit massive amounts of crimes to include rape and murder, and refuse to learn English (why the @#^* should I have to choose which language I want to use at the ATM? It wastes my time and disgusts me.) …”

Interestingly, part of what the author of this racist email is complaining about is the technology of ATM’s – many of which offer built-in options for selecting different languages.   These kinds of options that build racial or ethnic identity into the machine is what Lisa Nakamura has referred to as “menu driven” racial identity in the digital era.  While some writers have suggested that cyberspace offers there are new, liberating possibilities for moving away from old forms oppression tied to modernity, the actual picture is more complex.    What used to be an ‘old media’ form of racism, shared either face-to-face, written on the back of lynching postcards, or via telephone, today takes on a slightly new twist when some of these old forms of backstage communication make the transition to digital media and such messages are now sent between whites via email. In this instance, the emergence of cyber racism opens up the possibility of disrupting old patterns through the mechanism of forwarding email. What was once only said in private can now, through forwarded email, move beyond the private whites-only space for which such communication was intended. However, such a possibility was not sufficient to lead to an actual interruption in the transmission of white supremacy.  Note that in this instance, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a single white ally within the Secret Service who would ‘break rank’ and forward these racist emails outside the white-only intended audience.  Instead, what it took to wrest these emails from the backstage and bring them into the frontstage for all to scrutinize was it always takes to change entrenched forms of oppression:  political action.   In this instance, that took the form of a lawsuit by African American employees of the Secret Service.


The rest of the email quoted above goes on to make the case for the importance of intersectionality in discussions of racism.  He goes on to include elements of gender and sexuality in the latter part of his rant:

“I’m not even going to start on partial birth abortions and selling baby parts to heal old people (Are the Nazis back in power doing experiments?).  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the two lesbians down the street from me…with their adopted Korean SON, menorahs in the front window….are a typical American family.   And I’m the sicko nut because I think they’re about as far from what God intended a normal family to look like as giant grasshoppers playing croquet on my front lawn.  But I’m the one with the screwed up view of reality.”

Screwed up, that’s one interpretation.   With this last, broad rhetorical swipe, the author pulls together themes of reproductive and sexual politics, homophobia, antisemitism, and combines it with yet more racism – this time against the adopted child of his lesbian neighbors.   The views he expresses here are indistinguishable from the overt white supremacist websites that I examine in my work.   Yet, people in power and the vast majority of whites in this country, continue to maintain that we have moved”beyond” racism.   Emails like the one discussed here suggest a far different reality.

Political Dirty Tricks behind Press Tour?

It seems clear to me, given the pervasive illiteracy about both race and gender or the ways these intersect in our society, that the recent press tour by Rev. Wright is a disaster for the Obama campaign.   While I certainly agree with Joe’s point about the data supporting much of what the Rev. says, the fact is, mainstream [read: predominantly white] audiences in the U.S. are simply not equipped with the vocabulary to be able to discuss these issues in any way that captures the nuances.  Multiply that by the reverberation-chamber and dumbing-down effects of the 24-hour news cycle, and I am less optimistic than ever about Sen. Obama’s prospects for getting the nomination.   And, now this.


Errol Louis is reporting in the NY Daily News that the person who arranged Rev. Wright’s National Press Club appearance is an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter (hat tip: thanks to my friend Paul at BS for bringing my attention to this story).   Here’s the top of the story, describing who Barbara Reynolds (picture here, photo credit) is:

A former editorial board member at USA Today, she runs something called Reynolds News Services and teaches ministry at the Howard University School of Divinity. (She is an ordained minister).  It also turns out that Reynolds – introduced Monday as a member of the National Press Club “who organized” the event – is an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter.

Louis also includes some bits in his story about Reynolds’ trashing Obama’s “audacity of hope” theme.   Fair enough to criticize, but why orchestrate this event which is going to have the obvious result of throwing Obama under the proverbial bus?   If we were able to have a more nuanced discussion of racial and gender politics in this country, we might be able to talk about what it means that a black woman played a role in this and why black women (except for Michelle Obama) have been noticeably absent from the ‘race versus gender’  trope for talking about this election.  And, if were able to have a more nuanced discussion, we might talk about how Clinton is responsible, as a white woman, for a nasty little set of identity politics.


Yet, we won’t be having those conversations.


Instead, we’ll be listening to pundit after pundit talk about the personal jealousy between the “kooky” (how else to make sense of Black Liberation Theology?) Rev. Wright and the “political dirty tricks” of Rev. Reynolds.     Thus, leaving the collective debate stalled at the inadequately personal level and obfuscating real understanding than race or gender meme, rather than talking and thinking about the ways that race and gender intersect at the same time, in the same individuals within a broader social context of inequality.

Homeless Youth in NYC: Disproportionately Black, LGBT

The Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services has just released a new report most comprehensive study of youth homelessness in New York City in decades was released recently, providing what some say is the first realistic account of one of the city’s most vulnerable and misunderstood populations. This is a subject near to my heart since I do a lot of volunteer work (and, in true sociological fashion, a research project) with these folks. The reason I mention this report here is that it’s both fascinating from a sociological standpoint, and deeply disturbing from a racial justice perspective. From a sociological research perspective, it’s a huge methodological challenge to even count homeless youth because they aren’t easily identifiable (on purpose) and they don’t conform to the prevailing cultural image of what a homeless person looks like. Here’s a relevant excerpt pulled from City Limits:

“One of the things young people are very good at is fitting in. It’s much harder to identify youth homeless on the street,” said Hirsch. She recalled one young homeless person who used to get dressed up to sleep on the subway, so as not to let on that he was homeless.

And, from a racial justice perspective, it’s telling that homeless kids are from “marginalized populations,” again from City Limits:

“One of the report’s most striking findings, say youth service professionals, is the significant overrepresentation of certain marginalized populations among the ranks of homeless youth in the city—particularly those who identify themselves either as black, or as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), or those who have experience in the foster care and criminal justice systems. Almost half of respondents identified as black and close to a third identified as homosexual or bisexual. More than a quarter reported time spent in foster care, jail or prison. ….Additionally, half of the young people interviewed for the report did not have a high school diploma or GED.”

There are a number of things to note here. Perhaps the first and most obvious is the total, systemic failure here of multiple institutions (economic, religious, familial, political, educational, criminal justice). To continue stating the obvious, these institutional failures have the strongest impact on those in society who are the weakest and most vulnerable – young people. In addition, there are lots of ways overlapping systems of oppression are at work here, including racism and homophobia. Unfortunately, the way this report is written it makes it sound like “black” and “LGBT” are separate categories – as if these kids are either black or LGBT – and as I and Adia have written about here before – this kind of “either/or” thinking doesn’t help clarify but rather clouds our understanding of the way oppression works. For my experience working with homeless kids who identify as LGBT here in New York City, they are overwhelming Black and Latino. Often times what this means is that these are kids who are not only pushed to the margins of society because of race and poverty, but they’ve also quite literally been pushed out of their families’ homes and onto the streets because of gender/sexuality, that is, because they identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual or they are gender-non-conforming in one way or another.


In my view, religious institutions have a special burden to bear in perpetuating these overlapping and interlocking systems of oppression. It’s frequently the case that parents who have pushed their children out of the home and onto the streets refer to religious edicts or “God’s will” when doing so, citing highly-regarded religious leaders (even those formerly in the Hitler youth).  Government institutions add to this burden as they refuse to fund places that house homeless LGBT-identified youth, citing the “lack of gender segregated facilities” as a reason. In a facility that houses Black and Latino youth, pushed out of their homes, pushed out of the traditional shelter system (where they often encounter violence based on gender-identity and/or homophobia), and frequently pushed out of foster care for not conforming to gender norms, it’s hard to know what meaningful purpose is served by offering a ‘gender segregated’ facility. (And, indeed, it would be hard to know how to enforce such segregation for people who embody a more complex gender identity than a simply binary of “either/or,” male/female.) So, it’s organizations like MCCNY, part of the world’s largest queer-organization (yes, a religious organization) and one of the rare racially-integrated social institutions in the U.S., that take up the slack here by opening their basement to allow a few kids each night to get off the streets and sleep inside, have a hot shower, and a meal. (Pictured here: an illustration of the disparity between the number of homeless LGBT kids each night in NYC and the number of available beds, photo credit: Jessie Daniels).


The further irony is that the racism, class-based elitism and well-founded anti-religious sentiment among most affluent and white gays and lesbians, makes private fund-raising for homeless LGBT kids that’s housed in a church a decidedly uphill struggle. Thus, kids of color who identify as LGBT face multiple vulnerabilities that are rooted in interlocking systems of oppression. The combination of racism and homophobia pushes many of these kids into further vulnerability for health risks and violent attacks, as this article explains:

“A nationwide study of homophobia in schools found that the majority of GLBTQ youth of color had experienced victimization in school because of either race or sexual identity in the last year, while half reported being victimized because of both race and sexual identity. More than a third of GLBTQ youth of color had experienced physical violence because of their orientation.”

The fact is that racism, poverty and homophobia are damaging. And, these damaging consequences are all the more telling in the lives of homeless youth in New York City.