Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie: A Critical View

To be frank, the magazine Charlie Hebdo deserves criticism, not praise—despite the horrific events that have unfolded. While I am certainly not condoning the murder of its staff members, I do find them guilty of Islam-bashing and inconsiderately expressing religious intolerance, cultural ethnocentrism, and extremely poor human judgment, issues that should be important to antiracists and those who “review” racism. Additionally, being aware of the angst caused by their racist and tasteless cartoons, I find those associated with the magazines’ campaign against Islam to be instigators and un-thoughtful–not creatively satirical–people directly involved in promoting ethno-racial and religious tensions. See NPR’s 2012 story on the social problems caused by publishing the incendiary cartoons. Again, these individuals ought to be condemned as race baiters, not martyred.

The ridiculous display of support for ‘Charlie,’ particularly in the news media, is disconcerting and demonstrates that many people are equally as uninformed and culturally insensitive as those who promoted the anti-Islamist cartoons. Since the attack, most news outlets have ignored the racism and Islam-tarnishing of Charlie Hebdo and are in a rush to glorify the magazine and deify their racist cartoonists. Ignoring the potential of further inflaming ethno-racial tensions and promoting further anti-Muslim bigotry, a number of media giants, such as the Washington Post, have even decided to reprint the blasphemous cartoons of Muhammad in defiance of what they feel is a threat to free speech.

To state that what occurred is “an attack on free speech” is misguided and plainly ignorant. This is a destructive myth espoused by most Western media outlets in their discussion of this event. See, for example, John Avlon’s The Daily Beast article, “Why We Stand with Charlie Hebdo-And You Should Too,” which naively presents the free speech argument. What Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Islamist cartoons represent is hate images and speech, a defamation of a major world religion and culture, and an obvious attack on Muslims. To cloud this reality is intellectual dishonesty in the wake of reactionary politics.

Stoking the flames of racial hatred through dehumanizing others and their beliefs is nothing new; yet, today it is claimed that those who de-humanize certain groups are expressing their free speech or righteousness in their actions. One might ask why KKK pamphlets that demean black Americans, white nationalists’ periodicals that vilify Jews, and past campaigns of dehumanization by national groups, like the US’s racist cartoons of Japanese, are viewed as intolerable and unacceptable, yet the demonization of Muslims and Arabs is granted a pass.

Islam bashing, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab sentiments are on the rise in Europe, and particularly in France, in large part do to the de-humanizing tactics of people like those associated with Charlie Hebdo. The dehumanization and discriminatory practices of Charlie cartoons provide ammunition for the anti-Muslim intolerance endorsed by rising far right groups in Europe, like the British Freedom Party, National Front, English Defense League, Alternative for Germany, Freedom Party in Netherlands, and PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West), to name a few. Problematically, with the aid of people who incite discrimination against Muslims, like the cartoonists and editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo, Islamophobia is now moving from the fringes to the mainstream of European societies. (See Joshua Keating’s Slate article, “Xenophobia is Going Mainstream in Germany.”)

As Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari notes, “the shockwave of the far right National Front polling nearly one-fifth of French voters is still reverberating. Both the socialist candidate and the incumbent president are wooing the support of Marine le Pen” (see Dr. Bari’s Aljazeera article, “Islamophobia: Europe’s’ New Political Disease.”).Indeed, after the attack, as expected, the National Front is attracting more members and support.

Of course, racist and anti-Muslim dehumanizing cartoons are but a symptom of a larger problem that is not addressed, is misdiagnosed or is inverted: European colonialism and the European-sponsored terrorism or Euroterrorism used to support this centuries-old practice. The Iraq war, Afghanistan war, and other Western-sponsored military campaigns against Muslim countries are colonialist wars in which Western powers are attempting to steal natural resources from Muslim countries and rearrange their political structure so that Western business interests might more easily exploit these countries’ people and land. The deaths of innocent Muslims at the hands of Westerners in their colonialist pursuit of profit and power is pure unadulterated terrorism of the worst kind.

Western colonialism that exploded in the late nineteenth century and has been maintained up to this day relied upon and relies upon unimpeded Westerner violence or terrorism, as a number of analysts have documented. In African Perspectives of Colonialism (1987:26-27), A. Adu Boahen explains that Europe’s late nineteenth century technological advances led by the “maxim-gun” promoted Europeans’ “sudden and forceful occupation” of African lands and set in place the “imposition of the colonial system.” Edward Said’s analysis of colonialism, Europeans’ conquest of non-Western lands, in Orientalism (1979) demonstrates that violence and terrorism associated with European colonialism, particularly the British and French versions, are physical as well as cultural and psychological, in certain cases resembling the discriminatory practices and negative imagery of “the Other” discovered in the pages of Charlie Hebdo. In The Wretched of the Earth (1963:36), Franz Fanon observes that colonialism is “marked by violence” and is characterized by “the exploitation of the native by the settler…carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons.” Undoubtedly, modern day terrorism originated and persists in the practices of Western colonialism and this fact deserves deliberation in any attempt at understanding the various non-Western terrorist acts in reaction to European terrorism.

France’s colonialist exploitation and terrorism of Muslim African nations is one of the primary reasons for the growth of “radical” Islamist groups. Rather than simply dismissing these militarized Islamist groups as anti-Western, Westerners ought to be a little smarter and ask why wouldn’t Muslims attempt to protect their people, land and culture and, in turn, oppose those who terrorize them. Who are the real terrorists? If we consider the numbers of Muslims killed or brutalized at the hands of Westerners in relation to the number of Westerners killed or brutalized by Muslims, the answer is quite clear: terrorists of the West. Ironically, a Western terrorist, Anders Breivik, slaughtered large numbers of Westerners in his anti-Islamist hatred. His mass killing spree slayed far more Westerners on European soil than any attacks by “radicalized” Muslims. Significantly, Breivik’s terrorism was conflated with Islamist terrorism (see the Guardian).

As long as radicalized Westerners accept the killing of innocent Muslims in drone and missile attacks, discount the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the CIA “black sites,” and other torture facilities, and fail to see how Western colonialism violently maintains operation across the globe, particularly in Muslim countries, the “battle against terrorism” will continue. Along with Europe, the United States has its own zealots and war hawks who promote terrorism directed at Muslim countries. On virtually any day, one can turn to major US news media outlets and witness a host of extremist US politicians, like Peter King, John McCain, Diane Feinstein, Alan West, Michele Bachmann and Chuck Schumer, calling for war or negative actions against one Muslim or Arab country or another. The rhetoric is careless and, at its roots, are the sparks of Western-styled terrorism.

To support US terrorism, French terrorism and other forms of Western terrorism is unconscionable. Similarly, supporting Charlie Hebdo’s discriminatory practices that naturalize and sanctify Euroterrorism against Muslims is abhorrent. Terrorism begets terrorism in a vicious cycle. Neither form can be justified, but the former is where we should direct our focus. For these reasons, Jen ne suis pas Charlie. For those who identify with Charlie, you might re-consider your senseless ties to the racism that Charlie breeds and the racial conflicts that will result from ignorant acceptance of that religious and ethno-racial intolerance and racist ridicule of Others.

White Journalists Write 93% of Front Pages in U.S.

The Maynard Institute has created this powerful infographic that illustrates the fact that white journalists wrote more than 93% of front page articles about the 2012 presidential election, according to a recent study by The 4th Estate.

 (Click for Larger Image)

About the Data

The data, from The 4th Estate, is collected from a sampling of news stories from US national print outlets, TV broadcast and radio transcripts covering the 2012 election. These stories are contextually analyzed and broken down by topic, sentiment and newsmaker. We have counted and analyzed the quotes and article level meta-data from all front page articles collected from a sample of 38 of the most influential print media in the U.S. market. We have researched and gathered the ethnic backgrounds of the journalists from publicly available information (Google, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Twitter, Web bios). We have compared this data against an American Society of News Editors survey of the 2012 minority representation at various print organizations. The 4th Estate’s parent company, Global News Intelligence, provides similar proprietary services for government and Fortune 500 companies.



Assessing Black Progress: Has Ellis Cose Bought into the White Framing of Post-Racism?

Ellis Cose’s latest book, The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race & Rage (2011)investigates why Blacks today feel so optimistic about their place within the United States.

Optimistic? I myself did not get that memo. I was unaware of my generation and those younger than me were a part of what Cose’s calls the “rising generations” of Blacks who see no barriers to their economic and social progress within the U.S.

Now before I begin, I must note that I have always been a fan of Cose’s work. From his articles in Newsweek to The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America (2003), I have followed his writings. I enjoyed his critical and controversial exploration into the domains of race, class, and gender.

But it is apparent from simply reading the introduction that Cose’s ideologies in regards to race have a bit shifted. While reading the book I began to reflect on said generation—my generation. Usually within any writings, songs, or films that claim to depict or expose me (ex. race, class, gender, generation) or my struggles, I find myself looking for that “Ah-Ha” moment where I identify with the sentiment or messages being sent.

Reading The End of Anger, that moment escaped me. Specifically, in terms of his elaborations of interviews with academically acclaimed Black males and their positive feelings that the power of racism was withering and dying—I could not identify. When he talked of the power of education as a silver bullet to killing the monster that for generations has guarded the walls of endless possibilities—I could not identify. In fact, I could not identify with any major themes within his book.

As I am writing my second book on the perspective of Black males on race and social control in public and higher education, I have completed a number of interviews and roundtable discussion with Black males within my generation. Within the narratives and sentiments of not only educated, but also high school dropouts, the power of their words indicate that race is as powerful today as it was for their parents. In fact, they have indicated the increasing struggle that is particular for Black males. Regardless of their socioeconomic status, education background, and sexual orientation, the one thing that they share is not optimism, but pessimism.

Reading this book caused my little red pen to go dry from underlining and asking “why” after Cose’s sections that made me crazy. He begins by discussing the social and psychological ramifications of President Barrack Obama being elected as the first Black president of the United States. He asserts that the election symbolized a changing of the guard. Simply put, color has become “less and less of a burden” and that America is a generation away from true racial equality. I am not sure as to why the achievement gap within public education, the low graduation rates of Latino and Black males, and the ever-increasing population of inmates at correctional facilities across the country were not taken into account when devising his overall thesis. Regardless, he specifically plots the change within the overall Black perspective on racial barriers through dividing generations and discussing their significance to this change.

First, “Generation I,” know as the Fighters were born between 1925 and 1945. Those individuals shared a sense of “lost possibilities and unfulfilled potential” due to the barriers of Jim Crow. “Generation II,” The Dreamers, were born between 1945 and 1969. They in turn were the children of the riots and first generation allowed into places normally only occupied by Whites (universities, companies, and etc.). Finally, “Generation III,” The Believers were born between 1970 and 1995. They have faith in the power to overcome any obstacle prejudice might set. Further, the average Black today sees individual traits as the cause of social issues facing people of color instead of looking to systems like education, government, and the criminal justice system as points of obstruction. An interviewee noted

the biggest challenge is to adapt yourself to the norm. If you’re willing to talk like a white guy, if you’re willing to completely assimilate, you will be successful (p. 131).

I ask, at what cost? Also, wasn’t this strategy used by many in the past only in the end to be facing the door of discrimination or racism?

Throughout the book he refers heavily to the words of the supposed “believers.” He touts the interviews of famous middle class, wealthy, and politically powerful Blacks as evidence of the coming of racial utopia. The discrimination, bigotry, and systems of oppression that affected my parents, and their parents before them are simply a smudge placed upon the pages of history. Through his interviews and surveys with high-powered and well-educated Blacks, he states that educational attainments have become the great equalizer in the area of employment and future employment attainment. My generation and those that are coming will encounter no racial barriers as long as they are educated and “work hard enough.” The lack of scientific investigation used to decipher the 500 surveys and countless discussions is evident. In fact, he discusses that he is no social scientist.

But regardless, Cose’s strongly stands his ground while declaring that his examination gives credit to the notion that race within the 21st century has almost become completely translucent and irrelevant. Interestingly, he did not critically investigate the sense of optimism among those less educated or among those who have had encounters with the criminal justice system to the degree he performed with well off Blacks. Overall, those he did give reference to noted the same sense of euphoria that was seen among educated Blacks. Through this section, Cose shoddily attempted to make the argument that regardless of class and education the positive optimism was universal.

Overall, I feel that Cose missed an opportunity to discuss a major point that is very disturbing—the growing Black divide. Throughout his book he illustrated very well that there exists a different perspective on the effects of race and class between middle to upper class Blacks and lower socioeconomic Blacks. Instead of stressing that there is an overall end of anger, Cose should have focused on a true investigation to see if this was prevalent among those not so rich or educated. But it is apparent that the race-neutral Kool-Aid many drank after the inauguration of President Obama was also given to Cose. And during his loss with reality in terms of the power of race and class, he produced The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race & Rage.

As a Black man looking to one day help bring children into this world, I am more on the cautious side in regards to the status of race. While working in the academy or public education, I bear witness to the power and fortitude of racism and oppression. I wish I could identify with the vision of the country that Cose feels is coming. I truly do. But the evidence that engulfs me everyday tells me otherwise.

Critics of Cornel West: Roasted by Chris Hedges

The usually hard-hitting Chris Hedges has a column at that sharply critiques the critics of Cornel West. Ignoring the big debate over West’s personalizing and supposed ego-tripping in his critique of President Obama, Hedges nails the main point West made:

The liberal class, which attempted last week to discredit the words … West spoke about Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, prefers comfort and privilege to justice, truth and confrontation. . . . It refuses to challenge . . . the decaying structures of democracy or the ascendancy of the corporate state. It glosses over the relentless assault on working men and women. . . . The pillars of the liberal establishment—the press, the church, culture, the university, labor and the Democratic Party—all honor an unwritten quid pro quo with corporations and the power elite . . . on whom they depend for money, access and positions of influence.

Hedges then cites the troubling role of President Obama in this continuing U.S. political drama, much like Dr. West did:

The liberal class . . . functions like a commercial brand, giving a different flavor, face or spin to the ruthless mechanisms of corporate power. This, indeed, is the primary function of Barack Obama. The liberal class . . . will decry the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or call for universal health care, but continue to defend and support a Democratic Party that has no intention of disrupting the corporate machine.

He ends up with a kind of social realism that reminds me greatly of Derrick Bell’s racial realism:

To accept that Obama is, as West said, a mascot for Wall Street means having to challenge some frightening monoliths of power and give up the comfortable illusion that the Democratic Party or liberal institutions can be instruments for genuine reform. . . . It means a new radicalism.

Interestingly, even Hedges does not note just who the leaders of this corporate state and political-economic machine are, that is, elite white men. It is highly significant that even the most radical critiques of this society almost never call out and analyze in some detail exactly who are the elite white men who run almost all our major institutions—and how they view the world, make decisions, and oppress most of the rest of us one way or another. Elite white men make up at least 95 percent of the ruling elite in this country, even though white men are just a third now of the U.S. population. Why and how do they still rule this country so easily and without much sustained attention? What is your take on all this?

Race, Racism and Online News & Sports: What the Research Tells Us

Reading newspapers is, as Benedict Anderson (1991) observed, one of the primary ways that people imagine themselves part of a community, whether that’s a nation, small town or a high school.  This has not changed as the news has moved to increasingly online forms of distribution (Riley, et al., 1998, “Community or Colony: The Case of Online Newspapers and the Web,”  JCMC 4(1), page 0).   There were certainly racialized (and racist) messages in the discourse of news in traditional print (and broadcast) media.  For evidence of this, see Teun Van Dijk’s classic, Racism and the Press, Routledge 1991, and Peter Teo’s more recent “Racism in the News,” Discourse & Society January 2000 11(1): 7-49).  Alongside these old forms, the Internet has helped foster some new manifestations of race and racism in online news and sports. front page election coverage
(Creative Commons License photo credit: Scorpions and Centaurs)

Post Your [expletive] Comment Here. As online news has opened up the range of sources available, there’s a growing body of research that looks at online news consumption.   See, for example, this review article by Mitchelstein and Boczkowski (New Media & Society, November 2010 12(7):1085-1102).    This has had unintended consequences in terms of racism.  Around 2004, the online arms of many U.S. newspapers opened their websites for comments.  Today, some seven years into this experiment, many news sites have abandoned the practice of allowing comments because of the proliferation of offensive comments, many of them racist.  In an interview in September, 2010, Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star responded to questions about racist comments online this way:

“We’ve seen comments that people would not make in the public square or any type of civic discussion, maybe even within their own families. There is no question in my mind that the process, because it’s largely anonymous, enables people who would never speak up on Main Street to communicate their thoughts.”

The online arm of The Indianapolis Star employs moderators, people whose job it is to read all the comments posted online and then delete individual racist comments.  On some stories that editors expect will generate racist comments, the entire comments section is disabled beforehand, a practice shared by a growing number of newspapers.

The Tragedy of the Commons. The presence, indeed the preponderance, of racist comments in the public sphere highlight a problem that Howard Rheingold has referred to as a “classic tragedy of the commons dilemma.” The tragedy of the commons dilemma (first described by Garrett Hardin in 1968) is a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.  The problem with comments online is, as Rheingold describes it, one in which “flamers, bullies, bigots, charlatans, know-nothings and nuts in online discourse take advantage of open access to other people’s attention” (Rheingold, Smart Mobs, 2002, p.121).   In other words, those who are posting the offensive, expletive-filled comments are spoiling the comments section for everyone else.

Documenting Backstage Racism Online: The “Fighting Sioux” Study. So far, few researchers have taken on the task of analyzing racist comments.   One study that has systematically looked at the way comments in online forums of news sites foster and reproduce racism (Steinfeldt, J., et al. (2010) ‘Racism in the Electronic Age: Role of Online Forums in Expressing Racial Attitudes about American Indians’, Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 16(3):362-371).  In their study of over 1,000 posts related to University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo used for their athletic team, Steinfeldt and colleagues found that a critical mass of online forum comments represented disdain toward American Indians by providing misinformation, perpetuating stereotypes, and expressing overtly racist attitudes toward Native Americans.

The researchers explained their findings through the framework of two-faced racism (Picca & Feagin, 2007).   Drawing on Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of the presentation of “front stage” and “back stage” performances of the self, Picca and Feagin developed the concept of two-faced racism to explain the hundreds of thousands of diary entries from white college students in which they document the ways that whites perform tolerance in public, mixed-race settings and explicit racism in private, white-only spaces.

The concept of two-faced racism seems especially useful for explaining the tragedy of the commons dilemma created by racist comments online.  Those who post these comments may be used to thinking of the “back stage” as a fairly welcoming space for such remarks.  The apparent anonymity of online commenting tends to blur the public and private, giving those who post comments the allure of “back stage” comfort and familiarity when, in fact, they are presenting their self in the “front stage” by posting online.

Online Reputation: Tainted by Racism? One of the hot button topics among people writing and thinking about the Internet is “online reputation.”   Online reputation systems, like those used on eBay where users rate each other on basic trustworthiness within the terms of the site, are a central feature of how online business is able to operate efficiently.   It’s a way of countering the corrosive effects of online anonymity.   In reality, we know that online anonymity is an illusion in many ways, as increasingly sophisticated software keeps track of our identity and our preferences as we move between websites.

There’s a fairly new site that offers a clever twist on online reputation.  The site is called “PWSNT” which is an acronym for “People Who Said [the N-word] Today,” with the tag line, “every morning, the hottest, freshest screenshots of white people using the n-word.”    Just as the name of the site promises, it posts the photo and full name of people who have used the n-word in their social networking site profile.

The site is problematic in various ways (e.g. it routinely uses language like “retard” and engages in fat-shaming) but it’s an interesting strategy for interrupting the unchecked flow of “back stage” racism flowing onto the “front stage” of public profiles.    It’s still too early for any sort of systematic research on what sort of effect this might have on one’s reputation online, but I suspect that research is just around the next corner.

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords

If the recent post about white journalists grappling with their own racism made you wonder about black journalists, California Newsreel may have some answers.

For a brief time, the folks at California Newsreel are making one of their films available for free viewing online.   The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (86 minutes, 1998) is a documentary by Stanley Nelson that is the first to chronicle the history of the Black press, including its central role in the construction of modern African American identity. It recounts the largely forgotten stories of generations of Black journalists who risked life and livelihood so African Americans could represent themselves in their own words and images.

It’s an excellent resource for teaching about news media, race and ethnicity, or popular culture.  It also comes with a facilitator guide with ideas for discussion questions.

New Research: Journalists “Grappling With Our Own Racism”

There is interesting new research just published about journalists and racism in the production of news. The research is reported in an article, “Coming to Terms with Our Own Racism: Journalists Grapple with the Racialization of their News,” by Emily Drew, Assistant Professor at Willamette University, and appears in the October issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication (behind a paywall).

It came as something of a surprise to me to learn that from 1990 to 2005, 28 major metropolitan newspapers in the United States sought to grapple with race relations and racism by devoting significant time, staff, and financial resources to launching systematic examinations of the ‘‘state of race.’’ (p.2)

All the news that's fit to print | 088/365
Creative Commons License photo credit: mfhiatt

Drew’s research was well-designed.  She interviewed 31 of the editors and writers who brought their newspaper’s race series into being.  In this research, she argues that explicit and intentional ‘‘racial projects’’ can foster antiracist consciousness in their producers and promote changes in news production. (p.3)

Specifically, she examines how a journalistic project that was seemingly about ‘‘them’’ (society), ultimately became about ‘‘us’’ (news media). Drew found that as journalists sought to ‘‘discover the facts’’ about how racism manifested in their communities, they began recognizing its manifestations in their own profession. As one editor put it, her paper’s race series, ‘‘challenged us to go beyond the rhetoric and hold up a mirror, an honest mirror . . . one that was not tainted by our own thinking that we were too sophisticated to be part of that.’’ (pp.2-3).  Here is one of her respondents, explaining the change:

“We thought we were reporting on ‘them’ . . . those people, and organizations, and institutions that were still disenfranchising racial minorities. As it turned out, racism was about ‘us’ in the media, our news production, our editorial decisions and our own lack of diversity. (Editor of a ‘‘Race Series’’ at a major U.S. newspaper)” (p.1)

Returning to Drew’s analysis of this process, she writes:

“In the process of investigating how ‘‘new racism’’ operated in their local communities, journalists began engaging in a reflexivity, one that illuminated the need to probe their own institution’s relationship to race and racism. Most interviewees indicated that analyzing the media — let alone their own newspaper — was not a part of their agenda or design when they first began. But once the series began publication, community responses and discussions in the newsroom meant they could not avoid examining the racialization of their newsroom. As one interviewee noted, newspapers across the country, for 20 years, had been ‘‘guilty of their own sort of ‘benign neglect’ towards race as a newsworthy issue’ ” (p.8).

She concludes by talking about the dismay that some of the white participants in her research expressed about the lack of opportunity to address race:

Having undergone significant learning through the race series, one white journalist expressed tremendous frustration at the lack of opportunity wite people have to learn and grow. ‘‘There is not a forum in which we can discuss race, genuinely, with people listening. How can we have such a risky and honest [conversation] without a reason?’’ he asked. When white people have reason, and people of color have safe opportunities to address race and racism with openness and intentionality, they interrupt the mechanisms of racism that socialize people into blindness and silence about the structures of privilege and oppression” (p.16).

There are a number of things to note about this study, perhaps foremost is the focus on the process of news production which is often lamented for its role in the production of racist images, but too little studied. I also appreciate the nuance here in examining people who are “well-meaning” and filled with “good intentions” not to replicate racism, yet find themselves in an occupation and industry which does this in many unexamined ways.

If you’d like to read more about racism in the production of news, I recommend Pamela Newkirk’s Within the veil: Black journalists, white media. (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2000) and Darnell M. Hunt’s Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America (NY: Oxford UP, 2004).(H/T to @dr_grzanka for that second ref.)

Glenn Beck Attempts to Co-Opt Dr. King’s Civil Rights Legacy

On his June 18 radio talk show, Glenn Beck discussed his upcoming “Restoring Honor” rally, which is scheduled to take place this coming August 28th at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  If Beck’s earlier “Rally for America” (2003), the finale of his book promotion tour through “real America” is any indication, there will be lots of flag waving, honoring the troops, and some relatively small crowds.  But he has something else in mind for this rally.

(Beck at ‘Rally for America’ 2003)

As Beck noted, August 28 marks the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. What critical, progressive commentators can only recognize as an absurd, disgusting irony befitting life in the 21st century “bizarro world” of contemporary racial relations, Beck regards himself and the event as ordained by no less than God:

“what an appropriate day – at first we picked that date and we didn’t know and I thought ‘oh geez,’ but now I think it was almost Divine providence… I do.”

In his characteristically melodramatic style (and despite the fact that his initial hesitation suggests he, himself, questioned the appropriateness of doing so) Beck ran with the symbolism, sentimentally opining on June 15:

“As we create history together, your children will be able to say ‘I remember. I was there,’ as we… as we pick up Martin Luther King’s dream that has been distorted and lost. It’s time to restore it, and to finish it.”

There are perhaps no better words to capture the perfectly incongruous nature of this association than those provided by the master of satire, Stephen Colbert: “Finally, someone is bringing Martin Luther King’s movement back to its conservative white roots” (The Colbert Report, June 23).

Indeed, the idea that Glenn Beck or his scheduled guests (which include Sarah Palin and the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and Ted Nugent) should assume the mantel of restoring King’s dream is beyond perverse. Recent articles by Dennis Henigan and Paul Helmke expose the track records of the individuals involved in planning this event, and with those, demonstrate what an offense this event is to the civil rights legacy of Dr. King. Among many gems from NRA Board Member, Ted Nugent, is his public declaration that South Africa’s apartheid wasn’t that “cut and dry,” because “all men are not created equal. The preponderance of South Africa is a different breed of man.” Is the wicked irony of the NRA’s celebrated presence at an event shrouded in the legacy of the assassinated leader, whose entire platform was built on peaceful, nonviolent protest, lost on everyone organizing this event?

Beck, for his part, has been at the conservative right forefront of what anti-racist writer/educator Tim Wise has cleverly labeled the “Cult of White Victimhood,” and their calls of “faux-pression”. In fact, Beck has not only argued that President Obama’s policy agenda is driven by “reparations” and the desire to “settle old racial scores,” (an absurd claim, the legitimacy of some form of restorative justice notwithstanding); he boldly claimed on Fox News that Obama was a “racist” with a clear “deep-seated hatred for white people.”

Stepping back from the obvious problems of Beck’s rally, however, we should contextualize white conservatives’ embrace of Dr. King’s legacy and civil rights rhetoric in a larger
framework. This latest example is part and parcel of an increasingly commonplace exercise in colorblind racism. Whites frequently invoke memories of the civil rights movement and the beloved Dr. King as a maneuver of positive self-presentation, evidence of the progress we have made in society. While the intentions of such whites may be “good,” the rhetoric remains problematic nonetheless, as it is often employed to invalidate the persistence of ongoing interpersonal, institutionalized and structural racism.

More malevolent and concerning, however, is the way in which white conservatives are increasingly invoking the civil rights legacy to support the actual dismantling of civil rights victories. Tragically, the paradoxical invocation of civil rights rhetoric has become a contemporary means by which the racial status quo of white supremacy is restabilized and even strengthened against further attack. Consider the way in which “civil rights” have been rearticulated in the battle over affirmative action. In the past several years “Civil Rights Initiatives” groups have emerged in numerous states, including Michigan, Washington, California, Nebraska, Colorado and Arizona. While the name might suggest otherwise, these groups have successfully introduced “civil rights” proposals in the past 2006 and 2008 November election ballots that would ban affirmative action in government hiring and university admissions.  (In at least one case, the U.S. District Court found that the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative had engaged in systematic voter fraud, as individuals recruited to sign the anti-affirmative action petition were led to believe the ballot initiative was actually in support of affirmative action.   This suggests just how distorted “civil rights” rhetoric has become in recent years.)  Indeed, affirmative action has been rendered largely impotent in wake of these types of legal battles, including several key Supreme Court decisions.

Similar rearticulations of “civil rights” abound. Affirmative action re-coded as “reverse discrimination”; health care and economic reform reframed as “reparations,” with the implicit understanding that something is being taken from innocent whites and redistributed to undeserving blacks; fellowship and scholarship programs originally designed to increase the representation students of color in various programs literally struck down under the Civil Rights Act of 1964!

In this upside-down climate, conservatives like Beck and other “Cult of White Victimhood” members unflinchingly argue that they are the true defenders of civil rights, as they work to erode the hard fought gains of people of color and protect normative white dominance. With no-end in sight, the need for critical scholars, activists, and citizens to publicly deconstruct the political rhetoric of so-called “civil rights” in the 21st century, and reappropriate and protect the civil rights symbols of our past is nothing short of urgent.

~ Jennifer Mueller, Doctoral Candidate & Graduate Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Texas A&M University

Shirley Sherrod: On the Vilification of Black Women (Updated)

The intense political firestorm around Shirley Sherrod, the former USDA worker, has once again put racism at the center of many of the mainstream news shows.  Few have done a better job in talking about this than political commentator and Princeton University professor of political science, Melissa Harris Lacewell.  Appearing on MSNBC’s Countdown, she notes that the Sherrod case highlights the way that black women have been vilified in American politics (5:00):

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In this short clip, Harris Lacewell points out that the vilification of black women has been a feature of both the left and the right, both Republicans and Democrats (Bill Clinton, Sister Soulja, anyone?) in this country.   My favorite part of her comments come toward the end when she likens the attacks on Sherrod to that film of a few years ago, “Crash.”  Here’s the transcript of this part of her interview:

It reminds me very much of the Academy-award-winning of 2004, “Crash.”  I heard this story breaking, and I thought, this sounds like that film to me. If you remember that film, the first act of really horrifying racism occurs when the white police officer puts his hand up an African American woman’s dress, a sexual assault on her.  But – in a scene right after that – we see a black woman bureaucrat refusing government services to this police officer’s aging father.  The idea in that film, that the movie made …and we embraced it as a country and felt good about awarding the Oscar … is that the police officer and the low-level bureaucrat are the same, all prejudice is equal, this is the thing the NAACP is moved to do, it’s to explain that it is structural racism matters, not just momentary lapses of prejudice.  Even if that tape had been true, it would not have been the equivalency of Jim Crow, to slavery, to institutional racism.

While many of the mainstream news outlets will blame this on Fox News, or a conservative blogger, or the White House’s “race to judgment,”  the fact is that the vilification of Shirley Sherrod is indicative of a larger pattern of systemic racism in the U.S., and the particular way that black women get vilified in this culture.

UPDATED: For further context on the real racism happening at the USDA, check this link about the systematic pattern of racism at the agency, whose own Commission on Small Farms admitted in 1998 that “the history of discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture … is well-documented” — not against white farmers, but African-American, Native American and other minorities who were pushed off their land by decades of racially-biased laws and practices.

Race and the U.S. Census: Hey NPR, Your Hipster Hate Hides Diversity

NPR recently ran a story called “New York’s Hipsters Too Cool For The Census.” This story has made the media-rounds with outlet after outlet (yes, even Stephan Colbert ) unable to resist grabbing the low-hanging fruit that is hipster-hate by arguing that hipsters in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn are too “cool” and busy Twittering to mail back their census forms.

(Creative Commons Image Source)

What is clear is that the very sizable non-hipster and non-affluent populations in Williamsburg are largely invisible to NPR and the others. We know that both non-whites and the poor are historically undercounted in the census (something the Bureau, to its credit, has been trying to solve). However, most in the media refer to Williamsburg simply as a hipster enclave and overlook the other populations in that diverse neighborhood.

You hear it all the time – that “Williamsburg is full of hipsters” (here, I’m trying to avoid the trap of defining this group that so often rejects definition). Yes, Williamsburg does have many “hipsters”, but the other populations seem to be mysteriously missing from discussions about the neighborhood. There exists sizable Hasidic, Hispanic (primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican), African American and non-affluent White populations as well.

Amazingly, NPR did mention that the true lower response rates come from the heavily Hasidic areas. Other bloggers have also pointed this out. However, faced with this obvious evidence for the low response rates, the title of NPR’s report, as well as most of its content and final conclusion (that the census needs to be “cool” for hipsters to respond), focuses on the largely affluent, white hipster.

Instead of using this as an opportunity to discuss the structural reasons why disadvantaged populations are undercounted in the census, NPR instead fuels (1) the invisibility of non-hipsters (primarily the Hasids, Hispanics, African Americans) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and (2) the knee-jerk reaction against self-presentations outside the norm that has taken the form of hipster-hate. Hipsters develop a self-presentation that is different than the norm, which causes confusion and, expectedly, leads to hate –hence the ridiculous knee-jerk conclusion that Williamsburg has low response rates because hipsters must be too cool or technologically connected to participate in the census.

~ Nathan Jurgenson, PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland