Fresh Off the Boat: The Asian American Race Conversation We Never Had

Phew, it got renewed. Thank goodness Fresh Off the Boat, only the second Asian American sitcom in US television history, will live on. Why am I so relieved? I’m not Taiwanese American like the main character Eddie (I’m ethnically Korean), nor did I move from a gritty Chinatown to a well-heeled suburb. But I didn’t have that much in common with Mr. Miyagi or Kumiko either, the Japanese-descent coach and paramour of Karate Kid Daniel LaRusso – but, boy, did I identify with both. The simple reason is that, despite some familiar stereotyping, I’d barely seen Asian folks, let alone human-like ones, until the Karate Kid franchise seared my preadolescent eyes. The sad truth is that I could say the same about Asian American family life almost 30 years later, that the trembling glee with which I watched and rewound Karate Kid post-homework matches the rush I feel today when I swipe my iPad for Fresh Off the Boat after a long day’s work.

I’m relieved because nearly a decade after Karate Kid, the first Asian American network sitcom, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl (1994), was swiftly panned and canceled for failing to compel viewers like myself – effectively an Asian-faced blip on America’s radar. I’m relieved because I’m with Eddie Huang, the brash chef and restaurateur whose memoir is the inspiration for Fresh Off the Boat, when he says about Asian Americans: “Culturally, we are in an ice age … We don’t even have the wheel.”

To trace the source of my anxiety and relief, we must ask, Why did it take nearly 70 years (a television ice age) to get Fresh Off the Boat, and why would a so-called successful minority agonize over its content and fate anyway? The answers aren’t obvious because, frankly, America, we’ve never even had our conversation on race. Yes, we’ve seen the tragic limits of the race conversation for Black America. Need we say more than Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray? But at least the conversation’s not a mere idea frozen in time. Moreover, a tête-à-tête requires a back and forth, but on Asian ethnics we’ve mostly had America’s monologue about a “model minority” who has done so well in life that racism’s a non-issue. A model minority therefore gets no seat at the race relations table. Nor did Asian Americans get a spotlight in our more multicultural pop culture after the Civil Rights Movement.

Where did the model minority stereotype and its silencing, disappearing properties come from?: immigration laws that favored educated Asian professionals, academic writing (“model minority” was coined by a fellow sociologist–see Chou and Feagin for this and related issues), and a 1980s’ conservative agenda to dispel the racism argument to gut civil rights enforcement, anti-poverty programs, and affirmative action. Asian American success, conservatives alleged, proved Blacks and Latinos could no longer cry foul. Still today, fact tanks like the Pew Research Center inadvertently bolster model minority myths with controversial reports declaring “The Rise of Asian Americans.”

Make no mistake, there’s a kernel of truth in the model minority stereotype, but it’s a stereotype nonetheless. Asian Americans are a diverse, internally unequal group. Second, the model minority feeds and hides a more pernicious stereotype of the threatening “foreigner;” that is, it pats Asian Americans on the head for being a good kid “like us” but spurns her for being “the foreigner” who outsmarted teacher, then denies her the right to cry racism because, hey, look at all those rich and happy Asians.

Examples include the World War Two mass incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans despite the majority holding US citizenship and no evidence of any anti-US activity among this threatening “model minority.” In 1980’s Detroit, two laid-off White US auto workers saw a threatening, model Japan in Chinese American Vincent Chin, murdered him with a baseball bat, yet a night in jail they never spent. More recently, Bill Clinton’s Chinagate scandal prompted the Democratic National Committee to wage a racial witch-hunt of sorts for “foreign” donors within its Asian American constituency. Examples of race-based nativism against other successful Americans abound: Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Mirai Nagasu, Korean merchants in the LA unrest, Judge Lance Ito, South Asians since 9/11, Jeremy Lin.

Because the model minority myth implies that race doesn’t matter for Asian Americans at the same time that it feeds stereotypes of threatening competitors, Asian Americans effectively live a paradox of being racially invisible and visible as “forever foreigners.” Chef Huang claims the show completely ignored this struggle. But other millennials and this Gen X-er say yes and no. I was grateful to feel my youthful Karate Kid rush when I saw myself in Eddie, both invisible and clearly foreign at school and reliant on Black American hip hop for an Asian American voice. Dad Louis got my sympathy when he worried that he wasn’t “American” enough for his chophouse, so hire a “White face” he did. When Jessica perceived their vandalized billboard as a “hate crime” against “sneaky Asians,” I said, “Thank you! Finally!” To be sure, I cringed, at times, at Eddie’s brothers for verging on model minority poster children and at Jessica for too much Tiger Mom foreignness and exoticism. But I’m now exhaling relief that I’ll get to see more Asian American life on a box that had rarely shown it because we were a “model minority” of foreigners. So yes, this show is finally our wheel. But we shouldn’t expect one wheel to go everywhere. Until the struggles and diversity of Asian America grab the spotlight, I take comfort in knowing that Fresh Off the Boat has helped start, and will continue, a conversation that America didn’t know it was supposed to have. Let the ice thaw.

Nadia Y. Kim is a sociology professor at Loyola Marymount University and author of Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA.

Pedro Albizu Campos: The Apostle of Puerto Rican Nationalism (1891-1965)

April 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Pedro Albizu Campos, the notable leader of the struggle to free Puerto Rico from US colonial rule. Albizu was born in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce in 1891. His father was a Spanish Basque merchant and his mother a domestic worker of mixed African and indigenous Taino background. Albuzu grew up in humble circumstances. His parents never married and Albizu’s father did not officially recognize him as his son (filed legal documents) until Albizu was at Harvard.

He was a brilliant student. Although he did not start his schooling until he was 12, he finished his elementary education and high school in seven and a half years. He received a scholarship from the University of Vermont to study engineering and his performance was so outstanding that a professor recommended him for admission to Harvard.

During his stay at Harvard, Albizu completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Letters, the requirements of a Chemical Engineer, and a Law Degree. He learned Portuguese, French, Italian, and German as well as Latin and Greek.

Albizu was a victim of crass racism at “august” Harvard, where he was robbed of an academic honor. He had the highest grade-point average in his Law class and as a result it fell upon him to deliver the valedictory speech. He never got the chance. One of his professors delayed Albizu’s third-year final exams so that Albizu could not graduate on time. The professor wanted to avoid the “embarrassment” of a Puerto Rican law valedictorian. Sensitive to US racism, Albizu published in 1932 a letter accusing a US physician, Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads, of killing Puerto Ricans as part of his research. Someone gave Albizu a letter that Dr. Rhoads wrote to a friend where he made savagely racist comments about Puerto Ricans and advocated their genocide. He also admits that he killed Puerto Rican patients and transplanted cancerous tumors into others:

They [Puerto Ricans] are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. It makes you sick to inhabit the same island with them. They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more. [My emphasis]

In light of these experiences with US racism, it is not surprising that Albizu joined the movement that pursued Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States. In 1930 he became president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. His nationalist militancy resulted in three separate prison sentences and died in prison. Again: A brilliant man and a Harvard graduate who still came face-to-face with racism in the US.

Gay Marriage and the Illusion of Equality

 

This week the U.S. Supreme Court will consider making marriage equality a reality for several same sex couples across the country. Despite this possibility, LGBT people of all backgrounds will still be fired from their jobs for being who they are, LGBT youth will continue to experience incredibly high rates of homelessness, and many LGBT people (and trans women of color in particular) will continue to face extremely high rates of violence and death. And to top things off, even if marriage equality does in fact become a reality, issues of racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and body shaming continue to further marginalize different groups of people in gay communities across the nation.

But none of this should come as a surprise to people who study race and racism in the U.S. Many groups have adopted the strategies and political maneuvering from the Civil Rights movement of the 60s as a means to gain political power in the U.S. while simultaneously engaging in anti-black activities. Gay communities are no different. For example, it is quite common for white gay establishments to deny entrance to Black gay men by asking for multiple ID’s, and to deny Black men access to leadership positions in gay organizations. Gay media such as magazines, films, and television often does not include men of color unless to discuss HIV/AIDS, and Black and Asian men are usually considered the least desirable as sexual and relationship partners. These realities alone should show us that LGBT communities are just as susceptible to racism as any other group.

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What is important to notice about this discussion though is not only who is preferred in sexual relationships among gay men, but why. Why is it that the research is showing time and time again that White men are more desired across all racial groups than any other? And why are we allowing gay White men to guide the direction of the gay civil rights movement when they are unwilling to even have this discussion about the isms and bigotry’s in our LGBT communities? It is time for us to do better, because once gay marriage passes, many gay Whites (especially many gay White men) will be happily married to each other, enjoying the privileges their Whiteness and maleness afford them while ignoring the plight the rest of us experience. Luckily some groups are fighting back and countering gay racism. If pages such  as sexualracismsex.com and the well-known Douchebags of Grindr are any indication, queer people of color are not going to drink the cool-aid much longer.

 

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Often times the most common manifestation of racism in gay communities is online through dating sites and apps such as Grindr, Jack’d and Scruff. On these sites it is quite common too see such signs as “no fats, fems, or Asians/Blacks” sprawled across profiles. This new form of gay racism has been difficult for people in LGBT communities to grapple with and understand. It is not uncommon for White gay men to claim that desiring only White lovers is no different than desiring only men, thus conflating biological arguments of sexual orientation with racist arguments of individual preference. Yet, if we contextualize these debates within the larger social structure of a systemic racist society, we can understand why Whiteness is most preferred in gay spaces, and Blackness least.

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As the above profiles from Grindr demonstrate, Blackness is associated with many other forms of social undesirability such as fatness, thinness, femininity, and oldness (to name a few). We can see that all these different things represent qualities gay men have come to despise such as being out of shape, being too old so as not to be the fresh new meat on the market as well as anything feminine, much of which is tied to internalized homophobia.

 

"No Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans" - Sign from Texas, ca 1940s

“No Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans” – “1942 DALLAS, TX”

They are also the antithesis of the young, fit, masculine, WHITE man, which can be understood as desirable when viewed through a lens of European White Patriarchy. It was not that long ago when Whites were using other signs to keep people of color out from social spaces and arguing that this was the “natural” order to things.

So, even if the Supreme Court overturns the state-level prohibitions on gay marriage and marriage equality does in fact become a reality across the U.S., many in the gay community will be celebrating but not everyone will be welcome at the party.

 

~ Guest blogger, Jesús Gregorio Smith, M.A., is a  Ph.D Candidate in Sociology and a Diversity Fellow at Texas A&M University. He is also President of the Hispanic/Latino Graduate Student Association.

Police Kill Black People, Get Rewarded

Rekia Boyd, Eric Harris, Natasha McKenna, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. Just some of the recent names in the scourge of black people who are killed every 28 hours by police in the U.S. And, each time police kill black people, it seems they are rewarded. The policeman who shot Michael Brown became a millionaire because of the crowdfunded support he received.  The prosecutor, Daniel Donovan, who failed to indict any of the officers who killed Eric Garner has recently been tapped by the Staten Island GOP to run for a plum senate seat.

Rekia Boyd

  • Rekia Boyd.After midnight, on March 21, 2012, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was hanging out with friends in a Chicago park. Dante Servin, an off-duty cop who lived nearby, called to report a loud party in a park near his home. He left his home to get food, armed with an unregistered semiautomatic handgun, and got into an altercation with the group of people hanging out. He fired several shots, one struck a young man in the arm, another shot struck Boyd, who was unarmed, in the head. She was taken to the hospital where she later died. On April 20, 2015 a Cook County judge acquitted Servin (who is white/Hispanic) of several homicide-related charges. It was the first time in 15 years that a police officer had been charged in Chicago for a fatal shooting.

 

Eric Harris and his brother Andre

Eric Harris (right) with his brother Andre.

 

(Image source: © Courtesy of Andre Harris/Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, PLLC via BCN)

  • Eric Harris. Harris is the 44-year-old man in Tulsa, Oklahoma who was shot and killed April 2. Video footage from the scene, captures Harris saying, “I’m losing my breath…” and an officer can be plainly heard telling him “Fuck your breath.” The 73-year-old volunteer sheriff’s deputy who shot Harris – saying he mistook his gun for his taser – is taking a vacation in the Bahamas ahead of his court date for manslaughter.

Natasha McKenna

 

  • Natasha McKenna. McKenna, 37, of Fairfax, Virginia, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.She had been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment and was subsequently charged with felony assault for allegedly punching an officer in January, 2015. On February 3, 2015, McKenna was scheduled to be transferred to another location for a hearing. Then, according to published reports, this is what happened next:  McKenna initially cooperated with deputies, placed her hands through her cell door food slot and agreed to be handcuffed, the reports show. But McKenna, whose deteriorating mental state had caused Fairfax to seek help for her, then began trying to fight her way out of the cuffs, repeatedly screaming, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me!” the reports show.Then, six members of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, dressed in white full-body biohazard suits and gas masks, arrived and placed a wildly struggling 130-pound McKenna into full restraints, their reports state. But when McKenna wouldn’t bend her knees so she could be placed into a wheeled restraint chair, a lieutenant delivered four 50,000-volt shocks from the Taser, enabling the other deputies to strap her into the chair….

The multiple, high-voltage shocks killed Natasha McKenna, who was shackled and masked and weighed all of 130-pounds. No actions have been taken against any of the six people in Virginia who were involved in her death, nor against the manufacturer of the Taser. In another case in which an officer tasered a woman to death, the officer was cleared of all charges.

Walter Scott, Coast Guard veteran

Walter Scott, Coast Guard veteran

  • Walter Scott. Walter Scott, 50-years-old, father of four children, studying massage therapy while working as a forklift operator, and a Coast Guard veteran had recently become engaged to his longtime girlfriend, when he was stopped for a broken tail light on his car.  The routine traffic stop on April 5 in No. Charleston, South Carolina turned into a deadly shooting when officer Michael Slaeger opened fire on Scott who fled the scene because of a bench warrant for failure to pay child support (see this for more on this vicious cycle of failure-to-pay and job-loss). After a citizen-video emerged of the shooting, Slaeger was fired and charged with murder. The reward here was more immediate and visceral for Slaeger, who in an audio recording describes the “adrenaline pumping” from the shooting. This is similar to the research that Scully & Marolla did with convicted rapists, asking them why they raped; for some, it was simply for the “thrill” or the adrenaline rush.
Freddie Gray

Freddie Gray

  • Freddie Gray. We don’t know much yet about Freddie Gray, except that he was 25-years-old, African American, lived in Baltimore, and now he is dead after an encounter with Baltimore PD. He died Sunday, April 19, after being taken into police custody. It’s still not clear what he was charged with or what happened after his arrest, but a picture is beginning to emerge. Again, citizen-capture cellphone video is helping to build a record of what happened at the scene. Initial video shows Gray shouting and moving his head as he was carried into a police van. Later, he had three broken vertebrae. Gray lapsed into a coma, was resuscitated, underwent extensive surgery and eventually died. Protests surrounding Gray’s death have begun in Baltimore and six officers involved in this case have been suspended, with pay. So, that’s like early retirement, I guess.

This litany of names-become-hashtags is a recitation of black bodies sacrificed at the altar of white supremacy. As Steven Thrasher points out, while it is hard for black people to breathe these days, yet for those who do the policing, they are breathing quite easily.

"I Can Breathe" T-shirts at Pro-Police Rally -  by Steven Thrasher

“I Can Breathe” T-shirts at Pro-Police Rally – by Steven Thrasher

This is what white supremacy looks like in practice: the routine, systematic killing of black people and a reward system for those who do the killing. More diversity in police forces will not fix this. More cameras-on-cops will not fix this. More black elected officials, as in Baltimore, will not fix this.

The only thing that will fix this is to work on dismantling a system of white supremacy that rewards the killing of black people with freedom from consequences, keeping your job, getting promoted to senator, million-dollar crowd-funded jackpots, paid suspensions, vacations to the Bahamas, and adrenaline rushes. As Toni Morrison observes, “the hostility, the racism — is the money-maker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.”

Until we can disrupt that connection between the hostility and the reward, we will continue to recite this litany of names-become-hashtags.

Timeline: Terror from the Right Since Oklahoma City Bombing

Today marks the twentieth year since the April 19 bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City by white supremacists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nicholas, in which 168 people were killed and dozens more were injured.

Since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, there have been many more terrorist plots, seditious conspiracies, individual killings and murder sprees. This timeline, compiled from SPLC data, offers an overview.

Yet, despite this record of right-wing violence, there is still a tendency to dismiss and ignore the threat of right-wing extremism in the US.

Racial Justice After Obama

In response to my post about Hillary Rodham Clinton the other day, several people — including Rebecca Spiff, in comments here — wrote to remind me that President Obama has been pretty terrible on a number of racial justice issues. Fair enough. I thought it was worth taking a look at some of what Obama’s done and what the landscape of racial justice looks like as he leaves office.

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From my perspective, I’d chalk up these in the category of “accomplishments” toward racial justice for Obama:

  • Symbolic Barrier Busted. Until Barack Obama was elected president, it was merely a theoretical idea that a black person could be president of the United States. It’s hard to know how to measure the impact of this on the world, it could be that it has an aspirational effect (also difficult to measure).
  • Aspirational. For young people born after 2007 or so, a black president is all they have ever known of the U.S. Perhaps this will aspire one young African American, like Marquis Govan – the inspiring 11 year old from Ferguson, Missouri –  to run for the highest office in the land.
  • Speeches. President Obama has given some amazing speeches, a few of them about race, and one in speech in particular that stands out.

And, now for his policies, which have not done much to advance racial justice:

And then there is the attitudinal research.

In a poll from January, 2015 by Al Jazeera America and Monmouth University, researchers asked respondents about about “race relations” found just 15% say they’ve improved since Obama was elected, while nearly half say they believe that race relations in the United States have gotten worse since 2008.

Race Relations Bar Graph

 

 

And, a 2012 poll by the Associated Press found an increase in racist attitudes — or, I should say, an increased willingness to express racist attitudes — among people in the U.S. that they surveyed. This short video (3:40) from Al Jazeera discusses the findings:

Perhaps the point that Rebecca made is the relevant one here: that HRC and Obama are cut from the same cloth and we can expect about the same progress on racial justice under her that we’ve had under him, which is to say, not much. The larger point is that politicians will follow where the people lead and it’s up to us to lead with our activism and holding them accountable.

Municipal “Violations” as Racial and Class Injustice

Municipal violation you say? Such a lofty term, but to many it simply translates to a heedless financial hassle. Many of us have received parking and/or speeding tickets in our past. I myself have racked up my share as a lead-footed and non-paying-metered teen and college student.

Boring topic, right? But when one begins to peel the layers back, they encounter a metaphoric fetid smell surrounding an intricate topic of injustice, judicial misappropriation, and economic subjugation concerning the poor. For many with the monetary means and legal resources, a hit to the bank account and possibly some time with your attorney is procurable. But for a certain segment of the U.S. population that continue to be overlooked (with the exception of amusing attempts during presidential elections) due to their economic status or racial makeup, these so-called small municipal violations can lead to dire financial and criminal consequences.

Case in point, the findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ) during the week of March 5th. They revealed that the city council of Ferguson, Missouri was successful at maximized their city fiscal revenue by urging the local police department to issue more tickets for minor offenses. With very little applicability toward the ultimate goal of ensuring public safety, Ferguson police not only habitually, but competitively amongst themselves conducted traffic stops and issued citations. The DOJ report went as far to state that,

“‘Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter.”

The moral and legal corruption did not stop with the police department and city council. The DOJ described how municipal court judges are influenced by their appointed city council members to generate revenue from the bench as well. In fact, their job performance is partly based on their abilities to financial generation proceeds to the city’s coffers.

An internal report in 2011 noted that regardless of municipal judge Ronald Brockmeyer’s failure to perform justly (i.e., not listening to testimony, reviewing relevant reports/criminal records of defendants, or allowing relevant witnesses appear for testimony before issuing a verdict), a requested reappointment was denied due to his illustrated previous ability to contribute to the city revenue from the bench. Further, the report stated:

“…it goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures.”

The impact of said findings are even more pronounced when accounting for population trends. In 2013, Ferguson, a city with a population of 21,135 citizens issued approximately 32,975 arrests warrants. These warrants were issued for people mostly accused of non-violent driving violations, parking tickets, and housing code intrusions. In 2012, the city of collected 2.6 million dollars in municipal court fines and fees. Racially, statistics indicate that Blacks are disproportionately affected. Respectively, it has been shown that 86 percent and 12.7 percent of Black and White motorist were stopped. This is astounding when one recognizes that the population of Blacks and Whites are 67 and 29 percent respectively. In addition, In regard to traffic stops, Blacks citizens are stopped, searched, and arrested approximately two times more than their White counterparts.

Since there are no public defenders assigned to municipal courts, many of the 22 percent living below the poverty line who may have been on the wrong side of luck and consequentially arrested for frivolous traffic accounts, do not have access to free, and definitely not paid legal representation. Due to their inability to pay court fines, many defendants perform the “Curly Shuffle” and avoid court. Even if they did happen to appear, employees of the court have reported that hearings have a likelihood of beginning 30 minutes before their designated time. Doors are often locked at least 5 minutes before the official time began. This sort of court supervised shell game leads to additional charges mounting for those appearing before the court.

But do not worry; there is help. But this type of assistance comes with an unadorned high price. But this is not uncommon in our nation. As always, there are parasites falsely disguised as saviors who prey on the weak and suffering. Unscrupulous companies such as Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and Sentinel Offenders Services are blindly used by the judicial system to subjugate countless people living in poverty. If you are unfamiliar with the scheme, here is how it goes:

Let’s say you received a speeding ticket in Alabama for driving less than 25 miles over the posted limit. The actual fee and cost of the ticket is 20 and 162 dollars respectively. This brings you to a whopping total of 182 “American dollars (insert verbal emphasis).” But do not forget you are working two part-time jobs and attempting to provide for your family alone. It is hard enough simply keeping the lights on and some food in your baby’s belly. You try, but ultimately you cannot pay the total cost of fines and cost of the speeding violation.

The city in which you live then puts you on “pay-only” probation. The state of probation is not to ensure that you are avoiding the bad elements of street or drug life. It is merely a form of probation that is in place to make sure the state collects that cash money (ex. Any fines, fees and associated court costs). But in order for this to occur, you must first pay a fee of 10 dollars to be enrolled in the probation (set up fee). Once enrolled, your new monthly obligation is to visit (regardless of your employment obligations) your local JCS to pay 140 dollars. The problem is, a place such as JCS pockets 40 dollars. But you find yourself now falling behind on your payments. Additional fees are accrued alongside your standing debt. All of which prolongs your involvement in the court system. This is how these for-profit companies get their take. Slowly but surely, you find yourself sinking more and more into that all too familiar financial pit of misery. A bothersome, but easily dealt with obligation for the financially able, is a heavy yoke not easily removed from the neck of the poor.

In response to such practices, advocacy and social justice groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have begun to fight for the marginalized. On behalf of Roxanne Reynolds, a federal lawsuit was filed on March 12, 2015 accusing JCS of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act due to their effort to extort funds from economically poor citizens of Alabama who fell behind on their payment plan. To coerce people, JCS used the threat of jail (debtors’ prison) to force people to continue with their payments. Attorney for SPLC stated that through court manipulation, places such as JCS have created a “two-tiered system of justice.” One tier houses those who can afford to pay and quickly settle all financial obligations. The other is occupied with those without the means who get entombed for months and possibly years in their system. ” In regards to Mrs. Reynolds, SPLC stated:

Reynolds earned very little on an assembly line making automobile parts. Plus, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to miss three months of work. When she fell behind on her payments, a JCS employee threatened her with jail. She did everything she could to pay. She ignored her mounting medical and utility bills. Once, she barely ate for a week. She was terrified about what would happen to her health in jail…Last year, Reynolds was finally able to pay off her debt – after 15 months and a four-day stint in jail.

Similar lawsuits have been filed throughout Alabama and Georgia. In Georgia for example, companies such as Sentinel Offender Services were extending “pay only” probation periods when citizens were unable to pay their costs. Further, in Sentinel Offender Services, LLC., v. Glover et al, (S14A1033 and S14X1036 et al., 2012, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that municipal courts cannot “legally lengthen a person’s misdemeanor sentence beyond what was originally ordered by the sentencing court.” In fact, the Court declared that probation companies do not have the authority to “put fee collections on hold–a practice called tolling–or extend a probation sentence.” There is a maximum sentence of twelve months for a misdemeanor conviction.

Now that I am thinking, this practice seems very familiar. Oh yes, white America has a funny way of revising its racial practices of oppression to fit with the times. If we look back throughout the American history books, one would stumble upon a period from the end of the Civil War until World War II were Blacks, especially Black males were forced into a state of compulsory slavery in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. In the eyes of Pulitzer Prize recipient Douglas Blackmon, these poor Blacks were seen to be involved in the practice of human labor trafficking. They were essentially sold to White owners of labor farms, timber mills, pine tar companies, and coal and road construction operations. These men were often physically and emotionally abused. Before being imprisoned, these men were initially jailed on trumped-up charges by paid off law enforcement officials (on the take of wealthy owners and compensated for their collection of Blacks). Once appearing before court, these kidnapped men were ordered to pay overpriced court costs or fines that resulted from their false charges. If they we unable to pay in court, local law officials gave them to rich land and business owners for as low as 25 dollars. Once the men were traded, they were told that they could not leave their employer until their debt was paid in full. Of course, this almost never occurred. Not only state, but also federal bodies of government knew of this practice. This custom continued in some form or fashion until the 1960s (Counter to Blackmon’s claim that it ended after WWII).

History does truly repeat itself. Again and Again, and . . . . . .

Digital Movements: Panel Discusses Racial Justice and Social Media

I attended a panel and performance tonight called “Digital Movements: Black Publics, Black Discourse,” that featured Jasiri X, Jamilah Lemieux, and Alondra Nelson. Hosted by Charlton McIlwain. The panel took up the issue of racial justice and social media in considering questions like: do moments like #BlackLivesMatter constitute a new civil rights movement? This is a storify of some of the live Tweets from the event.

I’m still thinking about the complicated relationship between technology and racial justice that this event surfaced and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it at some point soon, but for now I wanted to collect these initial notes and reactions for pondering further.

St. Patrick’s Day: A History of Racism, A Celebration of Whiteness

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

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(photo credit: ktylerconk)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research Brief: An Interview with Robin DiAngelo about ‘White Fragility’

For this week’s research brief, we’re highlighting the work of Robin DiAngelo. She was recently interviewed by Sam Adler-Bell, a journalist and policy associate at the Century Foundation, a NY-based think tank.

Research in the Dictionary

Last year, a white male Princeton undergraduate was asked by a classmate to “check his privilege.” Offended by this suggestion, he shot off a 1,300-word essay to the Tory, a right-wing campus newspaper.In it, he wrote about his grandfather who fled the Nazis to Siberia, his grandmother who survived a concentration camp in Germany, about the humble wicker basket business they started in America. He railed against his classmates for “diminishing everything [he’d] accomplished, all the hard work [he’d] done.”

His missive was reprinted by Time. He was interviewed by the New York Times and appeared on Fox News. He became a darling of white conservatives across the country.

What he did not do, at any point, was consider whether being white and male might have given him—if not his ancestors—some advantage in achieving incredible success in America. He did not, in other words, check his privilege.

To Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicutural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, Tal Fortgang’s essay —indignant, defensive, beside-the-point, somehow both self-pitying and self-aggrandizing—followed a familiar script. As an anti-racist educator for more than two decades, DiAngelo has heard versions of it recited hundreds of times by white men and women in her workshops.

She’s heard it so many times, in fact, that she came up with a term for it: “white fragility,” which she defined in a 2011 journal article as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”

When the Black Lives Matter movement marched in the streets, holding up traffic, disrupting commerce, and refusing to allow “normal life” to resume—insofar as normalcy means a system that permits police and vigilantes to murder black men and women with impunity—white people found themselves in tense conversations online, with friends and in the media about privilege, white supremacy and racism. You could say white fragility was at an all-time high.

I spoke with DiAngelo about how to deal with all the fragile white people, and why it’s worth doing so.

Sam Adler-Bell: How did you come to write about “white fragility”?

Robin DiAngelo: To be honest, I wanted to take it on because it’s a frustrating dynamic that I encounter a lot. I don’t have a lot of patience for it. And I wanted to put a mirror to it.

I do atypical work for a white person, which is that I lead primarily white audiences in discussions on race every day, in workshops all over the country. That has allowed me to observe very predictable patterns. And one of those patterns is this inability to tolerate any kind of challenge to our racial reality. We shut down or lash out or in whatever way possible block any reflection from taking place.

Of course, it functions as means of resistance, but I think it’s also useful to think about it as fragility, as inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism

Sometimes it’s strategic, a very intentional push back and rebuttal. But a lot of the time, the person simply cannot function. They regress into an emotional state that prevents anybody from moving forward.

SAB: Carla Murphy recently referenced “white fragility” in an article for Colorlines, and I’ve seen it referenced on Twitter and Facebook a lot lately. It seems like it’s having a moment. Why do you think that is?

RD: I think we get tired of certain terms. What I do used to be called “diversity training,” then “cultural competency” and now, “anti-racism.” These terms are really useful for periods of time, but then they get coopted, and people build all this baggage around them, and you have to come up with new terms or else people won’t engage.

And I think “white privilege” has reached that point. It rocked my world when I first really got it, when I came across Peggy McIntosh. It’s a really powerful start for people. But unfortunately it’s been played so much now that it turns people off.

SAB: What causes white fragility to set in?

RD: For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”

In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.

The good/bad binary is also what leads to the very unhelpful phenomenon of un-friending on Facebook.

SAB: Right, because the instinct is to un-friend, to dissociate from those bad white people, so that I’m not implicated in their badness.

RD: When I’m doing a workshop with white people, I’ll often say, “If we don’t work with each other, if we give in to that pull to separate, who have we left to deal with the white person that we’ve given up on and won’t address?

SAB: A person of color.

RD: Exactly. And white fragility also comes from a deep sense of entitlement. Think about it like this: from the time I opened my eyes, I have been told that as a white person, I am superior to people of color. There’s never been a space in which I have not been receiving that message. From what hospital I was allowed to be born in, to how my mother was treated by the staff, to who owned the hospital, to who cleaned the rooms and took out the garbage. We are born into a racial hierarchy, and every interaction with media and culture confirms it—our sense that, at a fundamental level, we are superior.

And, the thing is, it feels good. Even though it contradicts our most basic principles and values. So we know it, but we can never admit it. It creates this kind of dangerous internal stew that gets enacted externally in our interactions with people of color, and is crazy-making for people of color. We have set the world up to preserve that internal sense of superiority and also resist challenges to it. All while denying that anything is going on and insisting that race is meaningless to us.

SAB: Something that amazes me is the sophistication of some white people’s defensive maneuvers. I have a black friend who was accused of “online harassment” by a white friend after he called her out in a harsh way. What do you see going on there?

RD: First of all, whites often confuse comfort with safety. We say we don’t feel safe, when what we mean is that we don’t feel comfortable. Secondly, no white person looks at a person of color through objective eyes. There’s been a lot of research in this area. Cross-racially, we do not see with objective eyes. Now you add that he’s a black man. It’s not a fluke that she picked the word “harassed.” In doing that, she’s reinforcing a really classic, racist paradigm: White women and black men. White women’s frailty and black men’s aggressiveness and danger.

But even if she is feeling that, which she very well may be, we should be suspicious of our feelings in these interactions. There’s no such thing as pure feeling. You have a feeling because you’ve filtered the experience through a particular lens. The feeling is the outcome. It probably feels natural, but of course it’s shaped by what you believe.

SAB: There’s also the issue of “tone-policing” here, right?

RD: Yes. One of the things I try to work with white people on is letting go of our criteria about how people of color give us feedback. We have to build our stamina to just be humble and bear witness to the pain we’ve caused.

In my workshops, one of the things I like to ask white people is, “What are the rules for how people of color should give us feedback about our racism? What are the rules, where did you get them, and whom do they serve?” Usually those questions alone make the point.

It’s like if you’re standing on my head and I say, “Get off my head,” and you respond, “Well, you need to tell me nicely.” I’d be like, “No. Fuck you. Get off my fucking head.”

In the course of my work, I’ve had many people of color give me feedback in ways that might be perceived as intense or emotional or angry. And on one level, it’s personal—I did do that thing that triggered the response, but at the same time it isn’t onlypersonal. I represent a lifetime of people that have hurt them in the same way that I just did.

And, honestly, the fact that they are willing to show me demonstrates, on some level, that they trust me.

SAB: What do you mean?

RD: If people of color went around showing the pain they feel in every moment that they feel it, they could be killed. It is dangerous. They cannot always share their outrage about the injustice of racism. White people can’t tolerate it. And we punish it severely—from job loss, to violence, to murder.

For them to take that risk and show us, that is a moment of trust. I say, bring it on, thank you.

When I’m doing a workshop, I’ll often ask the people of color in the room, somewhat facetiously, “How often have you given white people feedback about our inevitable and often unconscious racist patterns and had that go well for you?” And they laugh.

Because it just doesn’t go well. And so one time I asked, “What would your daily life be like if you could just simply give us feedback, have us receive it graciously, reflect on it and work to change the behavior? What would your life be like?”

And this one man of color looked at me and said, “It would be revolutionary.”

SAB: I notice as we’ve been talking that you almost always use the word “we” when describing white people’s tendencies. Can you tell me why you do that?

RD: Well, for one, I’m white (and you’re white). And even as committed as I am, I’m not outside of anything that I’m talking about here. If I went around saying white people this and white people that, it would be a distancing move. I don’t want to reinforce the idea that there are some whites who are done, and others that still need work. There’s no being finished.

Plus, in my work, I’m usually addressing white audiences, and the “we” diminishes defensiveness somewhat. It makes them more comfortable. They see that I’m not just pointing fingers outward.

SAB: Do you ever worry about re-centering whiteness?

RD: Well, yes. I continually struggle with that reality. By standing up there as an authority on whiteness, I’m necessarily reinforcing my authority as a white person. It goes with the territory. For example, you’re interviewing me now, on whiteness, and people of color have been saying these things for a very long time.

On the one hand, I know that in many ways, white people can hear me in a way that they can’t hear people of color. They listen. So by god, I’m going to use my voice to challenge racism. The only alternative I can see is to not speak up and challenge racism. And that is not acceptable to me.

It’s sort of a master’s tools dilemma.

SAB: Yes, and racism is something that everyone thinks they’re an authority on.

RD: That drives me crazy. I’ll run into someone I haven’t seen in 20 years in the grocery store, and they’ll say, “Hi! What’ve you been doing?”

And I say, “I got my Ph.D.”

And they say, “Oh wow, what in?”

“Race relations and white racial identity.”

And they’ll go “Oh, well you know. People just need to—”

As if they’re going to give me the one-sentence answer to arguably the most challenging social dynamic of our time. Like, hey, why did I knock myself out for 20 years studying, researching, and challenging this within myself and others? I should have just come to you! And the answer is so simple! I’ve never heard that one before!

Imagine if I was an astronomer. Everybody has a basic understanding of the sky, but they would not debate an astronomer on astronomy. The arrogance of white people faced with questions of race is unbelievable.

~ Sam Adler-Bell is a journalist and policy associate at the Century Foundation, a NY-based think tank. Follow him on Twitter: @SamAdlerBell. This interview was originally published March 12, 2015 on Alternet.