NYC Racism: “Drunken Negro” Cookies for Sale at Greenwich Village Bakery

Racism is alive and for sale in pastry-form in New York’s Greenwich Village.  I’m working on a longer, more thoughtful post, but just had to quickly put this up because, well, the mind-boggles sometimes. Here’s the story (h/t: dumilewis via Twitter):  a New York City baker,  Ted Kefalinos, proprietor of Lafayette French Pastry, is selling a cookie he calls the “drunken negro cookie” (photo and details of the story from Gothamist).  A  customer told a local news outlet that Kefalinos, asked her:

“Would you like some drunken negro heads to go with your coffee? They’re in honor of our new president. He’s following in the same path of Abraham Lincoln; he will get his.”

A bit later, another customer reportedly came into Kefalinos’ shop, asked about the name of the cookies and said Kefalinos corrected her about the name of the cookies, saying they’re actually drunken “N-word” cookies. The second customer says that the baker then repeated the suggestion that, like Lincoln, President Obama “will get what’s coming to him.”

Despite several attempts by various reporters to let Kefalinos come up with a resonable explanation for his actions, he remains apparently clueless.

I have a few of thoughts about this, some of which I’ll explore in the longer post I’m working on, but briefly: 1) let’s retire those silly notions about racism residing exclusively below the Mason-Dixon line;  2) the mere presence of President Obama is, as a friend of my said the other day, “goes down hard” for some people; and, so, 3) let’s not kid ourselves that just because we’ve got a African American head of state that everyone’s ready to embrace racial harmony and sing kum-ba-ya.

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.

Built-In Racism: Persistent Urban Inequality in NYC

As excited as many of us are about the reality of the first Black presidential nominee (and, dare we hope, the possibility of the first ever Black president), as I mentioned in a previous post, this doesn’t mean the “end of racism” as some have suggested. And, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why this is. In part, I think it has to do with how “built-in” racism operates in a variety of domains in society. I’ve spent the last twelve years or so living in New York City (having grown up in Texas), so I’m particularly interested in how this works here in the city. In some ways, what I’m suggesting is an analysis that’s similar to the task that Paul Street tackles in his recent book, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis, which takes Chicago as the index case. (Note: If anyone knows of a similar title on NYC, please leave a comment or drop me an email.)

The way I see racism function here reminds me of that famous quote from British statesman Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil in America is for good men [sic] to do nothing.” To rephrase Burke, all that’s necessary for the perpetuation of racism is for well-intentioned people to do nothing. Contemporary, urban racism is embedded in the normal routines of everyday, private lives and public institutions. Here are just a few initial thoughts on something I intend to develop further. I welcome comments about where to take this next.

Real Estate & Transportation. New Yorkers love to talk about real estate and transportation. While in other places in the U.S., it’s considered impolite to ask how much you pay for housing, in NYC it’s perfectly acceptable dinner conversation to ask someone how much they pay for their apartment. Following that, the second most popular topic of conversation is “what’s your commute?” (Photo credit: Jason Gibbs) Real estate and transportation in the city are deeply rooted in racial politics and is a key factor in the reproduction of racial inequality in other areas. New York City, despite its reputation for “diversity” has some of the highest segregation levels between whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians (according to People and Politics in America’s Big Cities: The Challenges to Urban Democracy, a 2001 report John Mellenkopf and John Logan). While the levels of racial residential segregation typically get discussed in terms of “demographic changes” (as in the press release for the Mellenkopf and Logan). But demography is largely a field written in the passive voice with very little, if any, discussion of the actors responsible for making the decisions that, at least in part, set the mechanisms of racial residential segregation in motion. In another example of this mechanism, New York City Department of Housing (NYCDOH) officials acknowledge routinely steering black and Hispanic applicants away from largely white public housing projects. While the NYCDOH settled a housing discrimination suit in 1992 and agreed to change this practice, there is little evidence that this practice has changed. For most New Yorkers, the home ownership – the primary way that Americans build wealth – is a distant dream. And, yet many black, Latino and Asian New Yorkers were able to achieve this dream, only to find themselves holding the short end of the mortgage crisis stick. According to the Brownstoner, subprime loans made up 27% of refinances last year here in New York, and people of color are more than three times as likely to hold subprime loans as non-minorities, and one in four homeowners with subprime mortgages in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, predominantly black neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Yet, at the same time that people in the rest of the country and in the outer boroughs suffer through the mortgage crisis, Manhattan home prices remain “crazy,” easily the highest in the nation (both to buy and rent). While the middle-class and wealthy whites in most cities in the U.S. flee the center and use their automobiles to “seceed” from urban areas to predominantly white suburbs and exurbs, the transportation math here is the reverse. Here, Manhattan is increasingly an urban center where only wealthy whites are able to live while middle-class and poor (whites and people of color) are pushed to the outer boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. This sets up a daily migration pattern where working-poor black and brown people commute – sometimes for hours – by public transportation (as on the J train pictured here) into Manhattan to work at menial, low-paying jobs as deli counter staff, bus boys, nannies, door men and day laborers. This pattern of racial segregation in housing lays the groundwork for other forms of discrimination and inequality.

Education. New York City has some of the worst high school graduate rates in the nation, with less than half earning a high school diploma. And of course, it’s not the white kids attending the best schools who are not graduating. The low graduation rates reflect the disparities in spending on schools which is based on the funding mechanism of property taxes and real estate values. This table, “School Funding in Selected School Districts in the New York City Area,” (from the Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report), illustrates the correlation between the percentage of white students and the spending per pupil. The indisputable trend in this data is that as the percentage of white students increases, so does the spending. So, for example, in affluent, suburban (Long Island) Manhasset, where 80% of the students are white, the spending is over $20,000 per pupil, in contrast to New York City where the proportion of white students is 15% and the spending is around half that, $10,000 per pupil. While money does not guarantee a quality education, it can and does influence a variety of educational outcomes, like graduation rates and likelihood of going on to college. Within this context, teachers act as powerful gatekeepers in deciding – often at very early ages – which students are “college bound” and which are “bound for jail.” Not surprisingly, it is black and brown students, and predominantly young boys, who at 10, 11 and 12 years old, are described by white (predominantly female) teachers as “bound for jail,” (see Ann Ferguson, Bad Boys, University of Michigan Press, 2000).

Employment. In 2006, the unemployment rate in New York City was 4.9% — the lowest rate in years. Yet, despite this relative prosperity, blacks (7.4%) and Latinos (6.1%), still experience recession-level unemployment rates (from the Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report). Just taking a look at the City of New York as an employer reveals a strikingly disparate pattern of employment, as nearly 80% of the City’s highest paying administrative and managerial job positions are held by whites. In contrast, while Blacks, Latinos and Asians make up 37%, 16% and 4%, respectively, of the city’s workforce, they only account collectively for 19% of the total senior and executive staff of city agencies (from the Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report). Yet, no one seems to be held accountable for this persistent racial inequality. When the New York City Parks Department agreed to pay more than $21 million to settle a federal class-action discrimination lawsuit filed by the NAACP for a history of racially discriminatory practices, the department announced that it would make “major changes in certain of its personnel practices” as part of the settlement. Still, at the press conference announcing the settlement of the lawsuit – which City attorneys fought against since 1999 – Mayor Bloomberg once again denied any responsibility, saying:

“It was something that took place a long time ago and I think we are satisfied that our procedures today in that department, and I think in all departments, do not discriminate against anybody.” (New York Times, February 26, 2008.)

Of course, the Mayor’s not going to say that the City or any one working for the City discriminates. But then, who’s responsible for the “discriminatory practices” at the Parks Department? It seems that no one is.

Criminal Justice & Political Disenfranchisement. Perhaps the most dramatic and pernicious mechanism for perpetuating racism and racial inequality in New York City is the criminal justice system. As just one example, I wrote in an earlier post about the way that drug policy in New York City is effectively “weeding out” blacks and Latinos from the city. In a 2008 study by Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levin and Deborah Peterson Small, an attorney and advocate for drug policy reform, called “Marijuana Arrest Crusade” (opens .pdf), finds that between 1997 and 2007, 52 percent of the suspects were black, 31 percent Hispanic and only 15 percent white. This sort of systemic racism in arrest and incarceration rates is rooted in policy-level racism in legislation such as the Rockfeller Drug Laws. These laws require harsh prison terms for possession or sale of small amounts of drugs, and are named for Governor Nelson Rockfeller of New York, from the wealthy robber-baron family, who passed these racist laws in 1973. As a direct result of these laws, New York State has opened 38 prisons since 1982, all in mainly white, rural areas “upstate,” all represented by Republican State Senators (photo credit: Lush.i.ous). And, this represents a significant shift in political disenfranchisement in the city for people of color. Nearly 65% of New York State prisoners are from New York City- almost all from poorer neighborhoods of black and brown people. What happens then is a two-fold mechanism of built-in racism that simultaneously disenfranchises people of color while giving political power to white Republicans upstate. First, because the U.S. Census Bureau records inmates as residents of the district where they are in prison, not as residents of the community they come from and where their families still reside, those districts appear to be more populous than they are, thus increasing the number of representatives in those districts. Second, because of felony disenfranchisement laws, those overwhelmingly black and Latino people with the felony convictions are no longer able to vote. And, of course, quite predictably, money follows political power. The state prison system employs almost 30,000 people in Republican senate districts and those prisons in Republican senate districts receive more than $1.1 billion dollars annually to cover their operating expenses.

Media Representations & the Marketing of NYC. Finally, while racist practices in real estate, education, employment and criminal justice make life more difficult for black and Latino New Yorkers, the city’s tourism board and film commission aggressively market NYC to those who live outside the five boroughs, whether they visit the city in person or experience it through mass media (photo credit: Sherene). In 2007, film crews made 245 movies in New York City, a 36% increase from 2002, and a peak in film-making in the city since 9/11. This is no accident. The city’s Film Commission offers huge tax breaks and other incentives to film crews that choose to shoot here. Tourism is also up dramatically; in 2006 (the latest year for which there are figures), an estimated 43.8 million people visited the city. And, this is no accident either, as the city’s leading policy-makers have taken dramatic steps to make the city more “tourist-friendly,” most notably the Disney-fication of the Times Square area. While this transformation involved a complex interplay between urban planning, politicians and venture capitalists, the result urban space is one that is noticeably whiter than it was even ten years ago, and is often the primary tourist destination for those visiting. Similarly, the film and television products filmed here create a mythical New York that is an additional character. The television shows created elsewhere (usually Los Angeles) that are supposedly about New York, or set in the city, such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” feature privileged whites who live in enormous apartments, work only occasionally, and reside in a fictional Manhattan that is as white as any suburban gated-community. Such visual media texts function as ideological reinforcement of a white racial identity without overtly speaking race or racism. As New York City gets mass-marketed as a desirable global destination, these different domains converge in interesting ways.

Built-in Racism in NYC.  At a recent forum about police brutality I attended organized by some of my students, several Hunter College students who are also young, African American men, shared their experiences of routine harassment by New York Police.  Another young man attending the forum observed:  “these police practices don’t happen by accident – they happen because rich white people feel safer when young, black and brown people are regularly harassed and locked up.”  I think there is something to this in the way that different facets of built-in racism converge in the city.  Wealthy, mostly white, real estate developers buy up  scarce land in Manhattan and build luxury condos that, mainly, only wealthy whites can afford to live in, and poorer whites, blacks and Latinos are pushed out of Manhattan to the outer boroughs, thus increasing commute times.    White elites pull their children from under-funded city schools and send them to private schools, while the predominantly minority children left in the public schools are early in life tracked as bound for the criminal justice system.  White employers, such as Mayor Bloomberg, deny they engage in racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, yet the evidence suggests otherwise (e.g., the City Parks Department).   White “upstate” politicians (mostly Republican) make laws that enact racist practices in arrest and incarceration in the city (e.g., Rockefeller drug laws); and then, white “upstate” politicians (mostly Republicans) benefit from that system (e.g., increase in prisons and the political power and money tied to those institutions).  Meanwhile, these same white politicians make laws that disenfranchise felons, further ensuring that those negatively affected by the Rockfeller Drug Laws might mobilize politically against those in power. Wealthy, mostly white, policy-makers implement changes in the urban environment (e.g., Times Square, increased policing) that make other whites feel comfortable enough to come and spend their money.  Then, (mostly) white producers of mass media create ideological justifications for those practices by authoring films and television shows that portray a whites-only chimera of New York City.   Within this system, it’s not necessary for any individual person involved in implementing these policies to express (or even hold) overtly racist views, although many (if not most) do.  All that’s necessary for the perpetuation of this type of built-in racism to continue to operate is that people of good will do nothing.

Racism Northeastern Style

Interesting post by Dave Winer (who basically invented all this blogging, RSS software we’re using these days) about “northeast-style” racism.   I think he’s spot on with this bit:

I grew up in the northeast, not far from where Geraldine Ferraro lives, and I recognize the racism of the northeast, where people nod knowingly that blacks who are competing with whites have been given some kind of advantage that makes it possible for an inferior person to compete with a superior one.

It’s easy to trigger this kind of logic in a northeastern white supremicist, just say that a black guy wouldn’t be there if he weren’t black.

You can say “It’s True,” in a tone that says that disagreement is naive. “Of course,” you are supposed to say.

I’ve seen Jews and Catholics do this, two types of people who have themselves been victimized by stereotypes.

I grew up with Southern-style racism, which is the most popular and recognizable kind of racism in the U.S.  (Indeed, some could make the argument that it’s been fetishized through cultural products such as this, but that’s a subject for another post.)   So, I appreciate it when someone who grew up with the Northern version of racism names it in the way that Winer does here.    He goes on to repudiate that sort of racism as  “lunacy” and references the Ferraro comments.

Winer concludes his otherwise insightful post with an unfortunate, and unfounded, prediction:

Someday America will grow out of this lunacy, and will stop judging people based on their race. That Obama is a very serious candidate for President says a lot about him, but it says even more about us, that the racism of Ferraro and the northeasterners who reason as she does, is falling into the background.

This just sounds like more of the Tony-Snow-type rhetoric about racism not being that big a deal anymore.   It’s wishful thinking though, not supported by sociological research.  We have to do more than simply wish it away.

Racism & Resistance Urban Style

A couple of interesting items in the New York Daily News today reflect what racism and resistance to racism look like urban-style. First up, there’s extensive coverage in a series about the racism in the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices on the subway.   For example:

Blacks and Hispanics make up 49% of subway riders, yet account for nearly 90% of the citizens stopped and questioned in the subways in the last two years.  Whites make up 35.5% of subway ridership, yet they account for a mere 7.9% of the subway riders stopped in the last two years, records show.

This happens across the city, but the racial disparity is particularly evident in Manhattan which is predominantly white.  In one of the related stories, the News staff writer Tina Moore reports on the experience of Victor Streety, a 42-year-old single father, who works with an early childhood literacy program and volunteers tutoring children in Harlem, who has no prior criminal history.  When Streety was stopped at the 125th subway station, he responded by asking: “Why?”  This is how Moore reports the story:

“A question was not what the black cop and his white partner wanted to hear. ‘He said, “If you’re going to give us a hard time, we can make this worse,” Streety recalled. ‘I said, “I’m sitting here waiting for my girlfriend and you want to see my ID? I want to know why.”   ‘I started to get a little upset,’  he said.  Streety says one cop swung him around to face a pillar, clasped his hands behind his back and asked if he had any weapons. “I said, ‘Weapons? Why would I have any weapons?’  Streety recalled.  The cop patted him down. Discovering no weapons, Streety says the cop then fished his driver’s license out of his back pocket.   For 20 minutes, the single father was captive just blocks from his home.  “I was embarrassed because it was my home station,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone to think I had been doing something against the law or anything like that. I don’t think anyone saw me, but who knows?”  Finally the cop handed the license back and apologized, saying he was just doing his job. Since that day nearly a year ago, Streety’s feelings about police have soured. ‘The police can do anything they want,’ he said. ‘It’s not like a black versus a white thing. It’s the police versus the public.’ “

The kind of indignity that Mr. Streety faced is the kind of harassment and humiliation that is a daily reality for Black and Latino/a citizens of New York.

In a second item from today’s Daily News, columnist Albor Ruiz writes about the important work that some NYC-residents are doing to combat this sort of racism.  Ruiz highlights the work of three New York women:   Ejim Dike, director of the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, Diana Salas of the Women of Color Policy Network and Aishia Glasford of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.  All three are traveling to Geneva to address the UN convention about racial discrimination and its consequences in New York.  They will be delivering a report called, “Race Realities in New York City.”   The report details the many racial disparities in the city, including and beyond the subway stop-and-frisks, to include education and employment, like the fact that almost 80% of the city’s higher-paying administrative and managerial job positions are held by whites.  And, African-Americans are more than five times as likely, and Latino borrowers almost four times as likely, as white borrowers to receive high-cost home purchase loans.  Black and Latino New Yorkers are less likely to graduate from high school or to have health insurance. At the same time, they are more likely to live in poverty, lack voting rights or get arrested.   Ruiz quotes Ms. Dike, saying:

“Our goal,” said Dike, “is to share with advocates from around the world what they and their governments can do to combat racial discrimination even at the most local level.”

When they return their plan is to aggressively monitor and fix policies that create and further racial disparities.  I suspect that the stop-and-frisk practices are going to be on their list to monitor and fix.

Protesting Television Images

I’m not attributing causality here, but there was a pile of midterm exams and then I got sick with a horrible head cold. Coincidence or causation? Perhaps just a spurious correlation. Onward, then…despite the head cold.

The New York Times today is reporting about a protest against the demeaning images on BET that critics of the network’s practices organized outside the Washington and NYC homes of Viacom executives (Viacom owns BET). The protests are organized by community group Enough is Enough which is calling for companies to:

develop standards that include prohibitions on: racial and sexual slurs; the promotion of illegal activity like drug use; as well as content that “objectifies, degrades, or promotes violence against women” or shows black and Latino men as pimps or gangsters.

Launched by Baptist minister Rev. Delman L. Coates of Maryland, Enough is Enough is not without its critics. Some argue that the call for “standards” is little more than a call for censorship, and for not articulating an ‘end-game’ for what victory looks like in this struggle. Still, the Times piece does go on to mention another critic of the network, who is explicitly addressing the gendered racism of much of BET’s programming, Gina McCauley, a lawyer who used her site to help force a name change for the BET program “Hot Ghetto Mess” (to “We Got to Do Better”). Perhaps most remarkable in all this is not that the protests are happening, but that the New York Times deemed this struggle over race, gender and demeaning images “fit to print.”

I say that it is not so very remarkable that these protests are happening because Black folks have been protesting demeaning images in U.S. television since it began. For example, the NAACP protests against the Amos ‘n’ Andy show eventually contributed to the popular show’s cancellation (though, ultimately, not its disappearance from the popular culture landscape).

Last week, I mentioned the work of Sasha Torres, and her book, Black, White and In Color: Television and Black Civil Rights(Princeton UP, 2003), and promised to return to it, and, today seems like an excellent day on which to do so. Torres’ goal in this book is to add complexity and nuance to the traditional way of seeing racism and media, in particular U.S. television, and move beyond the “protesting demeaning images” sort of paradigm. One way she does this is by re-visiting some of the writing by African American scholars, such as bell hooks and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who have included fond memories of watching Amos ‘n’ Andy with their families while growing up (see pp.1-12). Torres is up to much more in this book, however, and what I found most compelling is her treatment of the Civil Rights movement and the complicated relationship between movement leaders and creators of television news, and the “simultaneous emergence of the civil rights movement and television” (quoting J. Fred MacDonald, p.15). Torres writes:

“This convergence resulted also from a quite specific, if also quite fortuitous, coalition of needs and resources. Telejournalism, obviously needed vivid pictures an clear-cut stories; less obviously it also sought political and cultural gravitas. For its part, the civil rights movement staked the moral authority of Christian nonviolence and the rhetoric of American democracy to make a new national culture; to succeed, it needed to have its picture taken and its stories told.” (p.15)

She goes on to make the point that “pictures are the point” of television news. And that the visibility of “race” and “race trouble” fed the new medium, and the “mere fact of television’s coverage served paradoxically to render racism visible in new ways, and to new audiences.” (p.17) Of course, this particular moment in our cultural history has passed and we are now living in a new, and quite different, historical moment.    Still I cannot help but wonder if there are possibilities in the current convergence of technologies and civil rights, — between the Internet, and video sharing sites like YouTube, on the one hand, and grassroots movements on the other hand, such as EnoughisEnough and WhatAboutOurDaughters, along with projects like Witness and CopWatch, to render racism visible in new ways and to new audiences.

A New Noose and a Critique of ‘Free Speech’

It seems we can’t go a day without a report of racial terrorism in the shape of a noose. The news here in NYC is reporting on the appearance of another noose, this one sent to a high school principal in Canarsie, Brooklyn, along with a note advocating “white power.” At the same time, the NY State Senate unanimously passed legislation that would make it a felony involving harsher punishment for people “who etch, paint, draw or otherwise place or display nooses on public or private property,” (quoted from the Newsday article linked above). And, even though that legislation passed unanimously, I fully expect that it will run into trouble in the House and in the public sphere as people defend it as a form of “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. The sort of knee-jerk defense of nearly any form of racism as “protected speech” is characteristic of what is by now a decades-long backlash against very modest gains by women and people of color, particularly in the academy. (I find it not at all surprising that so many of these incidents are happening in educational institutions, where these modest gains toward equality seem most evident.) Legal scholars Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado and Crenshaw writing from a critical race perspective in their introduction to Words that Wound, merit quoting at length on this point:

“Contemporaneous with the recent outbreak of gutter hate speech and racial harassment, there is an emerging and increasingly virulent backlash against the extremely modest successes achieved by communities of color, women, and other subordinated groups in our efforts to integrate academic institutions run by and for white male elites. The chief spokespersons for this more refined sentiment against persons and voices that are new an unfamiliar to the campus and intellectual discourse are not purveyors of gutter hate speech. They are polite and polished colleagues. The code words of this backlash are words like merit, rigor, standards, qualifications and excellence. Increasingly we hear those who are resisting change appropriating the language of freedom struggles. Words like intolerant, silencing, McCarthyism, censors, and orthodoxy are used to portray women and people of color as oppressors and to pretend that the powerful have become powerless. …Stripped of its context this is a seductive argument. The privilege and power of white male elites is wrapped in the rhetoric of politically unpopular speech. …The first amendment arms conscious and unconscious racists — Nazis and liberals alike — with a constitutional right to be racist. Racism is just another idea deserving of constitutional protection like all ideas. ” [emphasis added] (Matsuda et al., 1993:14-15).

What’s at stake here is, as these scholars point out, “our vision for this society,” not merely how to balance one individuals’ freedom of speech against another individual’s freedom from injury but what the substantive content of that freedom and equality looks like. What they’re calling for – have been calling for, for some time now – is a radical shift in perspective so that it is the victim’s story that’s at the center of our response.

So, to take the current example, the laws should be written from the perspective of those who are on the receiving end of the noose. And, while the NY State Senate has taken a step in the right direction here, it ultimately falls short because this is not a problem that’s isolated to New York state or to a particular region of the U.S.  Racism, and the racist terror that the nooses represent, is a national problem that requires a collective response; and, yet the federal government remains predictably silent on the issue.

Hate Crime on Staten Island

Four white men have been are being questioned in an attack on Black man that is being investigated as a hate crime, The New York Times is reporting. The attack occurred Tuesday night on Staten Island, a borough of New York City.

For those interested in reading more about hate crimes in the scholarly literature, I’d point you in the direction of Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt’s work. Their 1993 book, Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed, and their 2002 follow-up, Hate Crimes Revisited: America’s War Against Those who are Different, really set the standard in this field.

In my reading of this literature, a few of things are worthy of note. First, the perpetrators of hate crimes are most often not members of organized hate groups. Second, the perpetrators are most often individual or small groups of young, white males. And, third, there’s very little in the literature about how to effectively “rehabilitate” perpetrators, not to mention “intervene and prevent” (to use the language of public health) hate crimes. For example, in a 2003 article by Steinberg, Brooks and Remtulla, they found that:

Although limited information is available about the causative factors of hatred, a variety of prevention and intervention strategies have been employed. Yet, little has been done to evaluate these various initiatives. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of literature available to guide mental health professionals in the identification, evaluation, and treatment of offenders, despite increasing concerns and awareness regarding the profound consequences of acts of hatred and extremism.

In other words, there’s very little evidence that the kinds of sentences that hate crime offenders are frequently given – such as talking with Holocaust survivors – are at all effective in preventing future offenses. While there’s certainly a critique to be made about a “mental health” approach to hate crimes, I find it striking that there’s so little research in this area. Sounds like a great dissertation idea for someone.

UPDATE: Prosecutor fails to indict on ‘hate crime,’ charges simple assault instead.  Protest planned.  More here.

Bill O’Reilly and the “Contact Hypothesis”

New Yorkers know that if you want good soul food, the direction you head is uptown, to Harlem, and the destination-of-choice is Sylvia’s. Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News commentator (and former “Hard Copy” anchor and easy target for all sorts of critics), dined at Sylvia’s recently with Al Sharpton, and afterward opened his mouth to share this fatuous remark (quoting her from NY Daily News):

“I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. It was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks [and has a] primarily black patronship,” O’Reilly said. “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea!'”

“It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people [who] were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all,” he said.

The racism in this statement seems fairly obvious, but the objectionable bit of course is that he was surprised by “sameness” between Black and white restaurant-goers (as if,…well, you get the idea).

O’Reilly is such an objectionable figure on any number of levels (and there are lots of others lining up to take shots at him), and there’s no point in my piling on to the ad hominem attacks against this guy. The reason I raise this issue here is to draw attention to this notion of the “contact hypothesis” which has a long tradition in social science research. First posed by Gordon Allport in the 1950s, the notion is that ” the more one gets to know personally individual members of a minority group, the less likely one is to be prejudiced against that minority group” (Ray, 1983).

This hypothesis suggests that “not knowing” or “lack of contact” is at the root of intolerance, prejudice, and racism (all slightly different concepts). The idea that “contact” will increase tolerance is what is at the root of all those corporate diversity trainings. I sat through one of those once in which the Black people sat on one side of the room, the white people on the other side of the room, and we — in our racially segregated groups — were to come up with a list of “things I like about being my race.” Perhaps I’ve been studying white supremacists too long, but when someone says,”let’s all the white people put our chairs together and talk about what’s good about being white,” I tend to get a tad suspicious. Such an exercise is predicated on a belief in a kind of pluralism in which all other things are equal and we can all come to a table situated within a racially just society, which is as yet, an unrealized dream.

The fact is, the social science research on “the contact hypothesis” is voluminous and mixed. Some studies show limited support for “more positive racial attitudes” among whites following interracial contact. For example, in a 1993 Social Forces article, Sigelman and Welch report on results of a nationwide telephone survey of 231 African Americans and 1,315 whites that demonstrated some support for the “contact hypothesis”: in certain instances, interracial friendship or neighborhood contacts were associated with more positive racial attitudes, particularly among whites. In a different study, published in a 2001 Social Science Quarterly article, Hanssen finds no support for the “contact hypothesis” in an examination of a natural experiment among white baseball players who have more contact with African Americans as teammates.

There are a number of problems with this line of research, summarized best I think by Dana Bramel in her in-depth discussion of the field in “The Strange Career of the Contact Hypothesis.” She writes that such studies are “plagued by hidden and untested assumptions about a homogeneous American culture” ( 2004, p.63).

What the Bill O’Reilly’s of the world continue to illustrate for us is that we need much more than “contact” to undo systemic racism.