Race, Abortion and Reproductive Justice (Updated)

March 1 marks “National Women of Color Day,” situated at the end of Black History Month and at the beginning of Women’s History Month.   Over the weekend, I attended the SexTech conference in San Francisco and heard a discussion by feminist sexual health educators that was interesting and flawed because it largely left out black women’s experience of sexual and reproductive health.  This confluence of events seemed like an opportune moment to address the controversy churning around race and abortion. The current discussion, which is highly politicized in the U.S. in ways that it’s not elsewhere, has been touched off by a new multimedia activist campaign, called “The Endangered Species Project.”

The campaign was launched in early February at a press conference by Georgia Right to Life and The Renaissance Foundation announcing a provocative billboard which proclaims “Black Children are an Endangered Species” and urges people to go to the site TooManyAborted.com (more about which below).  Here’s one of the billboards in the campaign (which reportedly costs $20,000 for approximately 65 signs around Georgia):


The main group behind the billboard campaign is the predominantly white organization, Georgia Right to Life (GRTL).  Prior to this campaign, the GRTL was probably best known in the region for its “Miss Right to Life” pageant.   With the new ‘endangered species project’ campaign, GRTL is partnering with a Ryan and Bethany Bomberger.   The very slick website for the campaign, says the effort is a “collaborative effort between The Radiance Foundation and Georgia’s Operation Outrage.” The three layers of identification here — “Too Many Aborted.com,” then The Radiance Foundation, and then Operation Outrage — work as a kind of Internet slight-of-hand.  The illusion of a multi-layered organizational structure disguises the fact there’s no staff here beyond the Bombergers.  Ryan Bomberger is a former ad exec, and wife Bethany is a former school teacher, and they live in Georgia with their three children.   Ryan Bomberger, who is biracial, has a compelling story about being the product of rape and the beneficiary of adoption, and this narrative frames much of the discussion in this multimedia campaign.  Bomberger wants more mothers of black and biracial children to consider adoption rather than abortion.

Perhaps more disturbing even than the slickly deceptive multimedia campaign is the corporate involvement of CBS.  According to RHRealityCheck, the billboards are the property of CBS Outdoors, a subsidiary of the multi-media CBS corporation.  This pro-life campaign comes very quickly on the heels of the CBS decision to air a Super Bowl ad earlier this month from Focus on the Family, the ultra-right conservative organization that seeks to limit the rights of women, LGBT folks, and people of color generally.  CBS simultaneously denied ad space to advertisers for condoms and organizations representing gay advertisers.  At this point, it’s not clear whether CBS is endorsing or underwriting the ads in any way, but it’s certainly a telling coincidence.

At the launch of the ‘endangered species project’ GRTL also announced that they would seek to pass House Bill 1155, legislation that would:

make it a crime to ‘solicit a woman to have an abortion based on the race or sex of the unborn child.’

GRTL’s “endangered species” ad campaign is an incredibly sophisticated strategy for reaching out to black women about issues of reproduction because it trades on a rhetoric that evokes the long history of racist practices directed specifically at black women.   For example, forced sterilization of black women was so commonplace in parts of the deep south during the Jim Crow era that it was referred to as a “Mississippi Appendectomy.” It was routine for white doctors who perform these sterilizations on black women without their knowledge or consent, presumably “for their own good” and the “good of the larger society.”

It’s also true that black women, like women of other races, want to control their reproductive lives.  Usually what this means is deciding on when and how many children to have. For many African American women in Georgia (and around the U.S.), a lack of access to birth control, lack of education, and even a high rate of sexual violence make this kind of control difficult to achieve.   The fact is that a disproportionately high percentage of black women seek abortions, from the New York Times:

Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women.

As the state’s largest anti-abortion group, GRTL has been trying to find ways to address the issue of abortion in the black community, but without much success until they began to reframe the issue as one of genocide.   GRTL also did a very savvy thing and hired an African American woman, Catherine Davis, to be its minority outreach coordinator.  Ms. Davis travels to black churches and colleges around the state, delivering the message that abortion is the primary tool in a decades-old conspiracy to kill off blacks.   Not surprisingly, given the genocidal practices in the U.S. against black and brown people over centuries, this is a message that has resonated with African American audiences.

SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective in Atlanta works for reproductive justice for women of color.  Executive Director Loretta Ross refers to the controversy this way:

“It’s a perfect storm. There’s an assumption that every time a girl is pregnant it’s because of voluntary activity, and it’s so not the case.”

SisterSong also notes that “the association between the born and unborn with endangered animals provides a disempowering and dehumanizing message to the Black community, which is completely unacceptable.” Other people, such as this blogger, have noted that the “endangered species” ad campaign sends an insidious message about African American women’s sexuality that:

African Americans are more promiscuous, practice unsafe sex, and because they obtain more abortions, are less responsible. This has many lasting effect across the country that further enables historical constructs and stereotypes surrounding race to flourish. (Such as the construct in which the African American Women are portrayed to be an out-of-control sexual being that always wants sex).

The billboards also imply that “black women somehow are perpetrators of a coordinated and intentional effort to ‘execute’ black babies is harmful, deplorable and counterproductive.” This assessment comes from SPARK, another reproductive justice organization that, along with SisterSong, is pushing back against the “endangered species” ad campaign and the proposed House Bill 1155.  SPARK released this statement in support of black women’s self-determination over their own reproductive lives:

“Black women know what is best for our lives, our families, and our communities and are capable of making these decisions without a coordinated assault by organizations that are not genuinely committed to addressing the host of social issues confronted by the black community. We strongly reject and denounce these billboards and the sponsoring organizations, Georgia Right to Life, the Radiance Foundation, and Operation Outrage for speaking about us, demonizing our decisions, and assuming they know what is best for our lives.”

While the Bombergers and other pro-life advocates like the GRTL say they want to encourage adoption because they care about black children, the reality is that adoption placements are heavily influenced by race and the racial preferences (if not outright racism) of adoptive parents.  According to one recent study,  both straight and gay adoptive parents in the U.S. exhibit racial biases when applying to adopt a child, consistently preferring non-African-American babies (pdf).  So the reality is that if more African American babies are given up for adoption, they will very likely languish in the foster care system rather than being adopted due to the racism of prospective adoptive parents.
The “Endangered Species Project” is yet another villification of black women (there are so many available), and a rather cynical effort to play upon some well-founded suspicions of black people.  If groups like GRTL really cared about black children they might better spend their time working to reduce or eliminate the racism which negatively affects birth outcomes for black mothers (pdf). Rather than the narrowly focused agenda of preventing black women from getting abortions, we need think differently about abortion, not as a “right to life” versus a choice, but as part of a broader reproductive justice agenda that places black women’s experience at the center.

Updated 3/1/10 @ 12:10pmET: A reader responded saying she was confused by the stance toward abortion in the original post.  The point here is not to re-hash “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” arguments which are framed by a white feminist movement and the mainstream media, but rather, to put reproductive justice at the center of the analysis.  One way to do that is to begin my looking at women of color’s experience with reproduction, such as African American women’s lives.  For an excellent analysis from this perspective, I encourage readers to read Renee at Womanist Musings (also linked in the original post).  Miriam writing at Feministing has a good analysis of the bias in the NYTimes piece (which I linked to above) that also offers some insight into reproductive justice and women of color.

And, I was remiss in leaving out a call to action from the organization SPARK Reproductive Justice Now, mentioned in the original post, which has a campaign to urge CBS Outdoor to bring the billboards down. Click here to take action.

Societal Equality Means Better Health and Wellbeing

I just got this notice about a CDC presentation on how inequality/equality shapes major aspects of every society:

The Division of Violence Prevention and the CDC/ATSDR Social Determinants of Health Equity Work Group invite you to attend a presentation: “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger” by Richard Wilkinson Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology, University of Nottingham and Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology, University of York (Tuesday, January 5th – 9:30-10:30AM, Chamblee 106, 1A-B).

The summary of their presentation is suggestive of deep structural issues:

Among high income countries, comparisons of life expectancy, mental health, levels of violence, teen birth rates, child wellbeing, obesity rates, the educational performance of school children, or the strength of community life tend to be fairly consistent: countries which tend to do well on one of these measures tend to do well on all of them and countries which do badly on one, tend to do badly on all. What accounts for the difference? The key is the amount of inequality in each society. The picture is consistent whether we compare rich countries or the 50 states of the USA. The more unequal a society, the more ill health and social problems it has. This presentation will provide an overview of the theory and evidence for how income inequality affects well-being and examples of strategies that are being adopted based on these research findings.

Richard Wilkinson has a recent book, written with Kate Pickett, called The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009). He is also a founder of The Equality Trust “to increase public understanding of the damaging effects on societies of large inequalities in income and wealth (www.equalitytrust.org.uk).”

One review of The Spirit Level on Amazon notes that in the book:

Wilkinson and Pickett lay bare the contradiction between material success and social failure in today’s world, but they do not simply provide a diagnosis of our woes. They offer readers a way toward a new political outlook, shifting from self-interested consumerism to a friendlier, more sustainable society. The Spirit Level is pioneering in its research, powerful in its revelations, and inspiring in its conclusion: Armed with this new understanding of why communities prosper, we have the tools to revitalize our politics and help all our fellow citizens, from the bottom of the ladder to the top.

Moving to class, racial, and gender equality means moving to healthier societies.

Social Class, Race, and Intimate Partner Violence

Chris BrownChris Brown’s February 8th assault of his girlfriend, Rihanna, has put the problem of intimate partner violence in the media spotlight (Chris Brown Creative Commons License photo credit: O.M.Gee!). From Oprah Winfrey to Larry King to numerous entertainment and news websites, talk show hosts, commentators, bloggers and others have examined the incident from multiple angles, spinning off questions about abusive relationships more generally. One of the most frequently raised issues is the social class of the couple. As a writer for CNN recently noted:

Both singers are young, apple-cheeked, immensely talented and squeaky clean – the last couple you’d imagine as domestic violence headliners. Perhaps the only good that will come from the Rihanna/Brown publicity is destruction of our culture’s misconception that abusers and their victims can only be universally poor, uneducated and powerless.

Certainly this is an important lesson to be learned and one that domestic violence advocates have been emphasizing for more than 30 years: Intimate partner violence affects individuals in all social classes and racial/ethnic groups; no one is protected by virtue of their class or race privilege. Rihanna_2That said, one of the most consistent findings from research is a strong inverse relationship between social class and intimate partner violence: As social class goes up, rates of intimate partner violence go down. Analyses of large, national surveys, for example, show that women living in households with the lowest annual incomes were five times more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence than women in households in the highest income category, and three times more likely than women in the middle income category (Rihanna Creative Commons License photo credit: Trangdepp).

Poor women, of course, are not a homogeneous group.  For instance, some poor women are homeless or living in temporary shelters, while others are housed. Some are employed, even if only in low-paying jobs without benefits, while others are unemployed or receive public assistance. Although poor women overall are at greater risk of intimate partner violence victimization, studies show that the poorest of the poor have the highest rates. Consider, for example, that nationally representative surveys of the general U.S. population estimate that about 25% of women are victimized by an intimate partner at some time during their lives. That is an unacceptably high number, but appears slight when comparing it to studies of women on welfare, which report a range of 28% to 63% lifetime victimization rates; the majority of estimates from these studies are 40% to 60% (Richard Tolman, “Guest Editor’s Introduction,” Violence Against Women, 5[1999]:355-369).

Research also indicates that poor women have higher lifetime rates of all forms of violent victimization. In a Massachusetts study, for instance, researchers found that among their sample of 216 housed, low-income, single mothers and 220 homeless single mothers in which the average age was 27, only 16% had not been physically or sexually abused in their relatively short lifetimes. Nearly 33% reported severe physical violence by a current or former boyfriend, 60% reported physical violence perpetrated by a male partner during adulthood, 63% reported severe physical violence by a parent or caregiver during childhood, and over 40% reported that they had been sexually molested during childhood. As the authors of this research point out, the majority of the women in this study had experienced only brief periods of safety during their lives (Angela Browne, Amy Salomon, & Shari S. Bassuk, “The Impact of Recent Partner Violence on Poor Women’s Capacity to Maintain Work,” Violence Against Women, 5[1999]:393-426).

One issue that has not been mentioned in the Rihanna/Brown case is the fact that the couple is black. Since the early 1980s, large national surveys have shown that black women are at greater risk of being violently victimized by their intimate partners than white women are. Some researchers have argued that the higher rate of intimate violence among black couples is the result of culturally specific factors that include beliefs about marriage and fidelity along with negative stereotypes of black women. But in studies that have examined both race and social class, differences in rates of intimate partner violence between black and white couples are significantly reduced or disappear completely when social class is controlled. The higher rate of intimate partner violence victimization – and, indeed, all types of violent victimization – among black women, then, is another outcome of racism: the result of the disproportionate number of black people who live in poverty. In her recent research on gendered violence in the lives of urban black girls, the vast majority of which is perpetrated by peers and acquaintances, criminologist Jody Miller informs readers:

This book should not be read as an indictment of young Black men and their treatment of their female peers. . . . [W]e, as a society, have created the circumstances that lead to cultural adaptations to situational contexts that shape urban African American young women’s risks. The indictment is of all of us. (Getting Played, New York: New York University Press, 2008, p. xvii)

Thus, while the attention given to intimate partner violence because of the Rihanna/Brown case is important and welcome, the emphasis being placed on the couple’s social status and how intimate partner violence happens even among wealthy couples should not allow us to overlook the fact that the greatest burden of this violence falls on poor women. And, as a direct result of racism, women of color are disproportionately poor and have the fewest resources available to them to cope with this problem.

Race, Genomics & Health

The October issue of the journal Social Studies of Science has an excellent special issue on race, genomics and health that’s well worth checking out if you have any interest in race or in science and technology studies (hat tip: Julie Netherland).  The introductory piece is by Joan H. Fujimura (UW-Madison), Troy Duster (NYU), and Ramya Rajagopalan (UW-Madison).  The authors frames the volume around contemporary genetics research on race, ancestry, population, and disease.  A key theme that weaves the articles together is the tension between those scientists who argue that their research does not biologize race, and those who argue that their findings do demonstrate racial differences.  Fujimura and colleagues explore what this tension might mean for our understanding of race and for science and technology studies.

All the articles in this volume are really exceptional, and I’d like to highlight a couple that I found particularly interesting.   In “Bare Bones of Race,” Anne Fausto-Sterling examines what she refers to as “claims of racial difference” in bone density studies to explore what she calls the “architecture of racial difference in bone health and disease” (p.658).   While most of Fausto-Sterling’s previous writing about the social and the biological has dealt with sex and gender, here she applies a similar analysis to race.   She contends, rather provocatively, that:

“Rather than relying solely on efforts to understand the body from the inside out, I argue that medical and social scientists should reverse course, and investigate the body from the outside in, thus bringing the social components of disease formation back into the discussion” (p.658, emphasis in the original).

As with the devastating critique of the way that medical and social scientists have used scientific knowledge to sex the body by reading social categories that presume a gender binary onto biological categories that do not exist as a binary, Fausto-Sterling makes an equally persuasive case here about race.   An expert in molecular biology, and with a finely honed analysis of the social world, Fausto-Sterling’s analysis of the bone density literature is both compelling and surprisingly approachable.

Still, social constructionists such as Fausto-Sterling face an uphill, even Sysiphean, struggle if their goal is to persuade a wide audience that “race” is a social construction that does not exist as a meaningful, genetic category.  And, perhaps the place that many people become familiar with genetics as a window on race and ancestry, is through efforts like the PBS-sponsored Skip Gates project, “African American Lives,” which engaged a number of celebrities (most notably Oprah), to participate in genetic genealogical testing (Oprah learned that her assumptions about her African origins residing in the Zulu nation were wrong).

Although she doesn’t address the PBS television series specifically, Alondra Nelson (Yale),  in “Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry,situates such racial projects as originating with Alex Haley’s (1976) best-selling book and subsequent television series, Roots: The Saga of an American Family.   Nelson writes that Haley’s work “established an expectation among a generation of readers and viewers, in the U.S. and abroad, that recovering ancestral roots was not only desirable, but also possible” (p.763).   And, she goes on to note that many genealogists of African descent often site Roots as the prompt for beginning an ancestral quest.

Nelson’s analysis draws on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with African-American and black British consumers of genetic genealogy testing, and she uses this qualitative data to make a nuanced argument about the way that race is, and is not, deployed.   For American and British black folks that Nelson interviewed and observed, there is some acquiescence to genetic notions of  ancestry and ‘race,’ yet at the same, those of African descent who took genetic tests also resist purely biological interepretations of these results and construct their anecestral narratives in such a way that they are in line with what Nelson refers to as “genealogical aspirations,” that is, what people hope to learn about their ancestry.  It’s a fascinating, if dense, article with an well-crafted argument.

I’m struck, as ever, by what an asymmetrical quest genetic geneaology is, which Nelson signals in her subtitle, “the pursuit of African ancestry.” The asymmetry I’m referring to is that there are very few white people who are trying to trace their ancestral lineage in this sort of race-conscious way, often specifically and purposively through slavery.  Instead, when white people trace their ancestry it’s often in the language of a “race-blind” narrative that traces “family” without acknowledging race or slavery.  There are a handful of exceptions to this.    Ed Ball, traced his family’s slave-owning heritage, as did the white DeWolf family who traced their lineage back to their New England slave-trading ancestors.   But this sort of racial project carries with it much different “genealogical aspirations,” to use Nelson’s phrase, than those of the people in her study.   I would argue that for people of African descent to trace their lineage is one that holds with it the promise of a kind of redemption of a history of oppression and reclaiming it within a context of racial and ethnic pride; whereas for white people of European descent, tracing their lineage requires either ignoring race altogether or examining a painful legacy of racial oppression with our ancestors playing the role of the oppressors.

Taken as a whole, the special issue of this journal often implicates whiteness yet  “whiteness” as a racial category remains largely unexamined.  My points about this asymmetry and the unexamined quality is evident in the PBS series I mentioned,  “African American Lives.” Included in that series, is Bliss Broyard.   Broyard learned after her father’s death that he was “part black” and has written about this in a number of places, including a book called One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — A Story of Race & Family Secrets (2007).   In the interview with Gates following the results of her genetic test, Gates reveals to Broyard she has “17.8% African ancestry,” and then asks, “Does this make you black?”    Broyard answers thoughtfully and says that she feels like a “cousin to blackness,” and that this is a lived experience rather than something rooted in DNA.  She ends up by saying, “I’m a person of mixed-race ancestry, but I don’t think I’ve earned the right to call myself ‘black.'” Broyard couldn’t have answered better, but the problem really, in my view, is the question that Gates poses.  What’s of interest about Broyard and her story is the “one drop” of African ancestry, not the 78% of her European ancestry.  By setting up this genetic, geneaological quest (and a television series around it), this racial project continues to locate “race” at the genetic level and leaves whiteness unexamined.

Whites Reveal Obama Reactions

[This reflective post was written by three college student researchers, Amanda, Dave, and Hannah]

Much like Jessie and Adia, this election has been a momentous event for young people, many voting for the first time. The three of us (Amanda, Dave, and Hannah) grew up in white, middle class neighborhoods and were taught a white-washed version of history. Since entering college and realizing the gaping holes in our education, we have taken deliberate steps to learn the complete history of America. This compounds the significance of Obama’s run for President for us.

At the daycare where Hannah works, one of the few black students said to her on the day after the election, “Barack Obama has a haircut like me.” This sentiment coming from a five-year-old boy marks the significance of the election for us. Obama and his family are constant reminders to all Americans that “Joe the Plumber” is not and never was the true face of America. We hope this is the beginning of a time in our country where whites never ignore the true faces of America. We are proud of this America, the one that has elected Barack Obama, and not the white-washed one of our past, that teachers taught to us by glazing over reality. We agree with Michelle Obama, this is the first time we have felt proud of our country.

We decided to talk with white students and community members to see how they viewed this historic election. We found many people were unsure of Obama’s religion and expressed fear at the possibility of electing a Muslim president. Some respondents wanted Obama to openly declare his religion and others were explicitly hostile towards Muslims. The prevailing excuse for this overt prejudice was the 9/11 attack and President Bush’s “War on Terror.” We found that both conservatives and liberals shared this sentiment.

People often hid their racist comments to distance themselves from appearing prejudiced. This is a front stage technique and is not surprising since we interviewed people in coffee houses and other public settings.

We also found people held contradictory views about Obama as both a radical Christian and a potential Islamic terrorist. When confronted with this inconsistency, they were unable to express both views clearly. Some were confused and ended their statement in uncertainty.

As Joe has stated, many felt that Obama’s victory spelled the end of racism in America. But we found the open prejudice towards Muslims contradicts this. In addition, Obama and his family were seen by many as “white” and therefore “an exception to the race.” This statement reveals the prevalence of racism because it implies that African Americans need an exception, and it also plays into the idea that whiteness equals goodness. It attempts to minimize the significance of electing a man of color as president.

As we move forward, we must not overlook the importance of Obama’s presidency. He is our first black president and a symbol of racial progress. The election of Obama is a strong foundation for addressing our racist history but this event does not signal the end of racism or the beginning of a “color-blind” American society.

Voters of Color: Unsung Heroes of the 2008 Election

According to the CNN and ABC exit polls, white Americans overwhelmingly wanted John McCain to be the next US president. The white vote was lopsided for McCain at 55-43 percent. If the 2008 electorate had the same demographic character as any before about 1980 (that is being nearly 90 percent white), Senator John McCain would currently be the president-elect.

But as we know that did not happen, because the electorate this time was only 74 percent white, and those voters who were not white voted very heavily for Senator Obama. ABC News’ exit polls are reported this way, in terms of percentages for Obama/McCain:

White Americans: 43/55
Black Americans: 95/4
Latino Americans: 67/31
Asian Americans: 62/35
Other Americans: 66/31

Some high-density Asian American counties on the West Coast voted at even higher rates of 70 percent, and Shari’s (H/T) check of local sources on Native Americans reveals that their vote was lopsided too:

The Native American numbers I got from looking at the election returns in counties that have reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado [show] the range of the Obama spread was from 62 to 87 percent.

The role of voters of color in electing Senator Obama the next president is in my view one of the most important stories of this historic election, yet I have not seen serious mainstream media analysis of this and of what it means about the rise of a multiracial democracy and the decline of white political dominance in the United States. Why is this story not getting major attention? Perhaps it is because the white-controlled, intensively white-framed mass media are all caught up in declaring this to be a “post-racial” or “post-racist America.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Another obvious fact about this election, which has also gotten little play in the media, is the continuing reality of the Republican Party being mainly the “white party” of the United States. This party gets very few African American voters and does not get even 40 percent of any other group of color.

I have seen a little media commentary on whether the Republican “southern strategy” is still viable, but no discussion of the fact that such a term is only another racism-denying euphemism for what is in fact the “white southern strategy” or “white racist strategy” of the Republican Party. (It is correctly called these latter terms because some 20-40 percent of “southerners” are not white, depending on the area of the South.) Since the 1960s this Republican strategy has been a “white southern” strategy but almost no analysts in or outside the mainstream media are willing to call it by its correct name–just as they are unwilling to call the so-called “Bradley effect” by its correct name (either the “white racism effect” or the “whites-lying effect”). The Republican Party currently has no Black members in Congress or in other high elected offices, and none in high party leadership. It has only a very few (token) appointed officials in high office and has indeed shown no significant leadership on or commitment to civil rights enforcement issues since the 1960s. (For more, see here. ) It is indeed still the “white party,” as this election dramatically reveals and as even Howard Dean let slip in August this year.

The Campaign: Not Issues, But Symbolism

George Lakoff did a very interesting commentary on the way the political issues are framed by Democratic Party and Republican Party candidates and advisors, using the case of Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate. First he makes the point that the Republicans understand much better that the U.S. political game is more about “conservative family values” and general feel-good symbolism than about “realities” and rational arguments about public policy issues. The initial Democratic Party response is to assume the rational voter and accent the “issues.” But

the Palin nomination is not basically about external realities and what Democrats call “issues,” but about the symbolic mechanisms of the political mind-the worldviews, frames, metaphors, cultural narratives, and stereotypes.

Lakoff then adds the crucial point that accenting critical symbols is the Republican strength in political campaigns:

Reagan and W won-running on character: values, communication, (apparent) authenticity, trust, and identity – not issues and policies…. Conservative family values are strict and apply via metaphorical thought to the nation: good vs. evil, authority, the use of force, toughness and discipline, individual (versus social) responsibility, and tough love. Hence, social programs are immoral because they violate discipline and individual responsibility. Guns and the military show force and discipline. Man is above nature; hence no serious environmentalism. The market is the ultimate financial authority, requiring market discipline. In foreign policy, strength is use of the force.

Palin may have some political problems but she fits the symbolism framing extremely well:

Palin is the mom in the strict father family, upholding conservative values. Palin is tough: she shoots, skins, and eats caribou. She is disciplined: raising five kids with a major career. She lives her values: she has a Downs-syndrome baby that she refused to abort. She has the image of the ideal conservative mom: pretty, perky, feminine, Bible-toting, and fitting into the ideal conservative family. And she fits the stereotype of America as small-town America.

This is a very important and interesting analysis, but Lakoff leaves out what is perhaps the most important symbolism of all for the Republicans—the racial symbolism. John McCain and Sarah Palin symbolize the highly prized whiteness, the virtuous republicans (small R.) imagery, that has been at the heart of the white racial frame since the 17th century. That is why they are so attractive to white, and some other, Americans.

That is probably the most important symbolism that is heavily shaping this election. Not only do Republicans stand for “conservative family values,” but those values in this society are distinctively white in accent and interpretation. Indeed, even the word “American” for most whites, and many others across the globe, signals “white American” even without the adjective.

And these candidates McCain and Palin are candidates, of course, of the “white party” in the U.S. Something like 93 percent of the Republican delegates in Minnesota this week are white, with 7 percent Americans of color. In contrast the Democratic Party convention had some 67 percent white delegates and 33 percent Americans of color. What a contrast! So the central symbolism here is racial, and the “conservative family values” so strongly advertised are in effect “white.”

Race and Medicine

We seem to be pursuing a theme here today, albeit an unintentional one, with race and medicine. In the medical field, there’s something that’s referred to as “personalized medicine.” This is the idea that doctors will (some day) be able to individually tailor medical care to the patient’s needs based on an individual-level analysis of the individual’s genome. Now, some are suggesting that this “personalized medicine” should replace racial classification. Sharon Begley writing in “LabNotes” for Newsweek, says:

…a new paper published online this week by the journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, .. concludes that classifying people by the crude category of race—as in, of African, Asian or European ancestry—for medical purposes, as some people want to do, is really, really stupid.

The article Begley refers to, “Individual Genomes Instead of Race for Personalized Medicine,” reports on the results of the sequencing of the genes of two white guys – Craig Venter and James Watson (yes, the same Watson) – to see how they metabolize six different drugs. The results were revealing.

What they found is that these two men, ostensibly of the “same race,” in fact have very different genetic make-ups when it comes to how their bodies process certain drugs. What these geneticists conclude is consistent with what social scientists have been saying for some time: “race” is social category, not a meaningful biological category. In the words of the authors of the study:

…race/ethnicity should be considered only a makeshift solution for personalized genomics because it is too approximate; known differences may occur within a defined category. …The label “African” or “African-American” is therefore insufficient to determine whether an individual comes from a population with a high frequency of the *17 allele. Even if an individual is known to be, for example, Ethiopian rather than Zimbabwean, the ancestry is less relevant than the true genotype, which could be easily resolved with today’s technology. Even the term “Caucasian” can be deceptive. If a self-identified Caucasian originates from a founder population in which certain disease-specific alleles occur at higher frequencies (e.g., Quebec French Canadians or Ashkenazi Jews), his or her doctor may miss an important aspect of the patient’s medical history. One’s ethnicity/race is, at best, a probabilistic guess at one’s true genetic makeup.

I have to say, I feel quite vindicated, given the little dust-up back in November 2007 (see the comments) with guys who wanted to argue that the “reality of race is genetic.” Still, it’s deeply ironic that this news should come from Venter and Watson, not known for their forward thinking on race (see my earlier posts about both of them here and here). But hey, I’ll take it.

Teaching “Race & Ethnicity” : The First Day (Open Thread for Comments)

What’s the best way to begin a class on “Race & Ethnicity”? This question is inspired in part by the terrific discussion in yesterday’s comments about the common trainer’s question, “what about being (fill-in-your-racial-ethnic-background) makes you proud?” and by a recent question on the Teaching Sociology listserv.

For the readers here who are professors and classroom teachers, what’s the best exercise or introduction to this class that you’ve used?

For readers who have taken such a class, what sort of exercises have you enjoyed on the first day? What sorts of exercises do you absolutely loathe?

Let us hear from you in the comment box.

And, as a reminder, we have a (beginning) stash of films and syllabi here at RacismReview available for download. I know lots of folks are working on their syllabus for the upcoming semester right now. Please email me (jessiedanielsnyc _at_ gmail _dot_ com) if you’d like to see your syllabus added to the mix.

Dr. Wright is Still Right on Racism: Check the Research Data

        There is an excellent interview of Dr. Jeremiah Wright, who is now speaking out about the stereotyped and hostile, and mostly white, attacks on him, including the many distortions of his ideas and sermons on racial matters. The interview was done last Friday, April 25, 2008, and I highly recommend it (and the full texts of Dr. Wright’s sermons too), if you want to understand just how white-racist most of the attacks on Dr. Wright have been.

        In his interview Moyers asks this question (photo credit):

One of the most controversial sermons that you preach is the sermon you preach that ended up being that sound bite about Goddamn America.

And then provides the listerners with a significant segment from the end of Wright’s sermon:

Where governments lie, God does not lie. Where governments change, God does not change. And I’m through now. But let me leave you with one more thing. Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from East to West. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonized Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British government failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God bless America? No, no, no. Not God bless America; God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!

Moyers asks: “What did you mean when you said that?” Dr. Wright responds with this rather obvious comment, that is obvious to any open-minded person who listens to the whole prophetic sermon itself (which very few critics have, it seems):

When you start confusing God and government, your allegiances to government -a particular government and not to God, that you’re in serious trouble because governments fail people. And governments change. And governments lie. And those three points of the sermon. And that is the context in which I was illustrating how the governments biblically and the governments since biblical times, up to our time, changed, how they failed, and how they lie. And when we start talking about my government right or wrong, I don’t think that goes. That is consistent with what the will of God says or the word of God says that governments don’t say right or wrong. That governments that wanna kill innocents are not consistent with the will of God. And that you are made in the image of God, you’re not made in the image of any particular government. We have the freedom here in this country to talk about that publicly, whereas some other places, you’re dead if say the wrong thing about your government.

Then they discuss some of these issues further:

BILL MOYERS: Well, you can be almost crucified for saying what you’ve said here in this country.

REVEREND WRIGHT: That’s true. That’s true. But you can be crucified, you can be crucified publicly, you can be crucified by corporate-owned media. But I mean, what I just meant was, you can be killed in other countries by the government for saying that. Dr. King, of course, was vilified. And most of us forget that after he was assassinated, but the year before he was assassinated, April 4th, 1967 at the Riverside Church, he talked about racism, militarism and capitalism. He became vilified. He got ostracized not only by the majority of Americans in the press; he got vilified by his own community. They thought he had overstepped his bounds. He was no longer talking about civil rights and being able to sit down at lunch counters that he should not talk about things like the war in Vietnam.

BILL MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson was furious at that. As you know-

REVEREND WRIGHT: I’m sure he was.

Wright then adds how angry people, many white and some black, got at King for telling the truth about racism and militarism in the Vietnam era (just like today):

And that’s where a lot of the African-American community broke with him, too. He was vilified by Roger Wilkins’ daddy, Roy Wilkins. Jackie Robinson. He was vilified by all of the Negro leaders who felt he’d overstepped his bounds talking about an unjust war. And that part of King is not lifted up every year on January 15th. 1963, “I have a dream,” was lifted up, and passages from that – sound bites if you will – from that march on Washington speech. But the King who preached the end of- “I’ve been to the mountaintop, I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land, I might not get there with you,”- that part of the speech is talked about, not the fact that he was in Memphis siding with garbage collectors. Nothing about Resurrection City, nothing about the poor.

          Wright continues by making the point that prophetic critiques of government wrongdoing are morally necessary, and common especially in the Black church. It is time for this country to listen, especially its nonblack citizens (Black Americans seem mostly in agreement with him), for the social science data show that Dr. Wright is right about racism in the United States and about government collusion in that systemic racism to the present day.