Geraldine Ferraro’s White Racial Frame—Again

In a Boston Globe article (HT, Mordy), “Healing … Democrats’ sexism,” Geraldine Ferraro, former vice-presidential candidate (I worked for her) and strong Senator Clinton supporter, has decided again that she should accent a white-framed perspective without much self-reflection. She begins with a view that many of us can agree with:

Here we are at the end of the primary season, and the effects of racism and sexism on the campaign have resulted in a split within the Democratic Party that will not be easy to heal before election day.

Then she moves into more troubling territory, trying to accent sexism and at the same time pander to racist white Democrats:

Perhaps it’s because neither the Barack Obama campaign nor the media seem to understand what is at the heart of the anger on the part of women who feel that Hillary Clinton was treated unfairly because she is a woman or what is fueling the concern of Reagan Democrats for whom sexism isn’t an issue, but reverse racism is.

She is right that the media and some in Senator Obama’s campaign do not see the importance and impact of the extensive, often vicious, sexism directed at Senator Clinton mainly by the same media and by lesser figures in Obama’s campaign. If she had pursued this very important theme, she would have been right on target. The research on everyday sexism is too limited, and US sexism certainly does not get enough public attention. (see here)

But Ferraro quickly moves into white-framed comments on “Reagan Democrats” concerns about “reverse racism.” “Reagan Democrats” is a codeword for “white Democrats” disproportionately from the South/rural areas, and working or lower middle class. And “reverse racism” is a racist-right term created by conservative whites to attack remedial programs after the 1960s that attempted to change the racially discriminatory barriers of this society. Is she saying it is OK for white Reagan Democrats to push the mythological racist frame of “reverse racism”? (To exist, so-called “reverse racism” would mean centuries of black-on-white oppression and disproportionate black power over whites in all major institutions today. A white fairy tale.)

Then Ferraro moves back to some good points about the sexism against Senator Clinton and what it means:

The truth is that tens of thousands of women have watched how Clinton has been treated and are not happy. We feel that if society can allow sexism to impact a woman’s candidacy to deny her the presidency, it sends a direct signal that sexism is OK in all of society. In response, a group of women – from corporate executives to academics to members of the media – have requested that the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University and others conduct a study . . . to determine . . . whether either the Clinton or Obama campaign engaged in sexism and racism; [and] second, whether the media treated Clinton fairly or unfairly.

Here is a major research strategy that makes sense. It is well past time for this society’s powerful white male elite—which, oddly, she does not name–to be pressured to pay attention to and eradicate sexism and racism in media and politics.

Ferraro also does not call out that white male elite for its racism and gendered racism (for example, against Michelle Obama) during this campaign. She never names whites as discriminators or racist actors once. “Whites” disappear by name except in two places as racial victims! And the unhappy “women” she seems to have in mind are white women. Reading her piece, one wants to ask about that overwhelming majority of black women (and other women of color) who are missinghere. They face racism and sexism every day, yet most probably do not share her views about “Reagan Democrats” or the Obama campaign.

Then Ferraro returns to “Reagan Democrats,” who in her view:

are more concerned with how they have been treated. Since March, when I was accused of being racist for a statement I made about the influence of blacks on Obama’s historic campaign, people have been stopping me to express a common sentiment: If you’re white you can’t open your mouth without being accused of being racist. They see Obama’s playing the race card throughout the campaign and no one calling him for it as frightening. They’re not upset with Obama because he’s black; they’re upset because they don’t expect to be treated fairly because they’re white. It’s not racism that is driving them, it’s racial resentment. And that is enforced because they don’t believe he understands them and their problems.

Well, here are some white-framed clichés straight out of white racist frame. That phrase, “If you’re white you can’t open your mouth without being accused of being racist” is a classic extreme white exaggeration whites often use to take the focus off widespread racial discrimination and, often, to defend their openly racist comments. This racist framing tries to hide the empirical fact that a majority of whites still think and act in racist ways. The data are clear, and Ferraro needs to become better educated, perhaps in Racism 101 course, and learn that racial discrimination is a very serious problem.

Then Ferraro uses another racist-right code phrase, “playing the race card,” which racist whites invented to put down African Americans fighting the oppression whites created. Who does she think created the racial oppression on which this country was founded, and which has lasted now for four centuries? That line about they are not upset “because he’s black” is naïve. There is much evidence that many whites will not vote for a black person for state or national offices. She takes many whites off the hook for their racism and blames black Americans for creating “racial resentment.” This paragraph is so obviously white-framed that I can use it to illustrate in my classes the way in which many educated whites cannot think straight about racial matters in this still-racist country. It is a clear example of how normalized the white racial frame is.

And then Ferraro has an odd concluding critique of Obama for elitism and being a graduate of elite universities:

They [Reagan Democrats] don’t identify with someone who has gone to Columbia and Harvard Law School and is married to a Princeton-Harvard Law graduate.

One can put “Yale University” in key places in this sentence and she could be talking about Senator Clinton! I guess the elite position of the Clintons did not cross her mind when she wrote that “Reagan Democrats” are having trouble feeling a connection to such a presidential candidate. It is time for those in the white political elite, like Ferraro, to become better educated on matters of systemic racism and to try to move away from that old racist frame–and toward creating a society where there really is liberty and justice for all.

Foundations of Modern Racism

As I have been reading a lot about “race” matters and U.S. elections, including the views and discussions of Dr. Wright and Senator Obama, I have also been working on a book on the white racial frame and its long history. This makes me think a lot about the roots and foundations underlying today’s issues of racism. For this project, I have been doing a lot of research on the history of slavery and legal segregation. Clearly, these are the foundation of this country, with huge continuing significance.

One reason that the bloody realities of slavery, and later the near slavery of legal segregation, have shaped this society so fundamentally is because from their first decades they were legitimated by a dominant racial framing, firmly imbedded in private and state bureaucracies, and firmly legalized under North American laws. The development of the systemic oppression of Africans and indigenous peoples was made possible by the increasing organizational power of bureaucratized European and colonial companies and states. The norms of such military and other state and private bureaucracies accented stability, discipline, calculability of results, and impersonality. Mass killings and attacks were possible without bureaucracy, but recurring wars on Indians and a large-scale system of African American enslavement were not. Then, as in more recent times, extensive oppression requires complex organization and organizational agents and actors. Central to this bureaucratization and legitimation of slavery was the English and North American legal system. The legal system was, and still is, much more than just laws for by means of judges and other government actors, it enshrines and protects the elite-controlled hierarchical structure of society. In the North American case the legal system enshrined the views and values of the governing elite and, thus, a highly inegalitarian social structure for the new society.

The foundation of this legal and government-bureaucratic system is the U.S. Constitution. In 1787, in Philadelphia, fifty-five white men met and created a constitution for what has been called the “first democratic nation.” They were of European origin, mostly well-off for their day, and or had been slaveowners. Many others profited as merchants, shippers, lawyers, bankers from the trade in slaves, commerce in slave-produced agricultural products, or supplying provisions to slaveholders and slave-traders. In the preamble the founders cite “We the People,” but this did encompass those enslaved–one fifth of the population. As I show in Racist America, slavery was central to the making of this U.S. Constitution. At least seven sections of the Constitution protected the 140-year-old system of slavery: (1) Article 1, Section 2 counts slaves as three fifths of a person; (2) Article 1, Sections 2 and 9 apportion taxes using the three-fifths formula; (3) Article 1, Section 8 gives Congress authority to suppress slave insurrections; (4) Article 1, Section 9 prevents abolishing the slave trade before 1808; (5) Article 1, Sections 9 and 10 exempt slave-made goods from export duties; (6) Article 4, Section 2 requires the return of fugitive slaves; and (7) Article 4, Section 4 stipulates that the federal government must help states put down domestic violence, including slave uprisings. This is the same Constitution (and the same founders like GW) that so many people today say we should treasure and look back to as our model for equality, liberty, and justice as we deal with racism and other troubling issues today (?).

The bureaucratization and legalization of the oppression of Indians and African Americans made it easier for the European colonists and their descendants to rationalize that oppression. Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (The Way We Think) have noted how in the human mind the bloody killing of groups of people–such as Native Americans, or later, European Jews—sometimes gets blended with “ordinary bureaucratic frames to produce a blended concept of genocide as an everyday organizational operation. Because the projection to the blend is only partial, certain people who could not bring themselves to operate in the frame of genocide may find themselves operating comfortably in the blend.” For the most part, systems of oppression like Native American genocide and African American slavery are not carried out by human “monsters” with extreme psychological disorders. Most European Americans, including the majority who did not hold people in slavery, supported the “normal” slavery system with their indifference or various forms of collaboration, such as buying and selling slave-produced products in markets. As Zygmunt Bauman (Modernity and the Holocaust, 1989) has argued in analyzing the recent oppression of European Jews, “Evil can do its dirty work, hoping that most people most of the time will refrain from doing rash, reckless things – and resisting evil is rash and reckless. Evil needs neither enthusiastic followers nor an applauding audience – the instinct of self-preservation will do.

These ideas of Fauconnier, Turner, and Bauman do help make sense out of how “normal,” bureaucratic, and everyday the foundational system of racism has become. Evils, like the highly racist attacks (the white racial framing, again) on Senator Obama and Dr. Wright, now in the several millions on the Internet, or the highly sexist attacks on Senator Clinton, only require most people to stand by passively on the sidelines. And these attacks and the racial/gender framing behind them will help account for the likely loss of either of them to McCain in November. Our centuries- long racist and sexist history makes this quite clear.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on this train of thought.

Racism, Sexism and Intersectionality

Recently I was involved with putting together a special issue of the journal Gender & Society that focused on what we now call “intersectionality” and what, in sociology, we started out calling “the intersection of race, class and gender” back in the late-1980s.  I mention that less out of shameless self-promotion, and more as just an indication that I’m someone who’s been in the field and thinking about the connections between these dimensions of oppression for some time.  And, like anyone in a particular field for awhile, the domain assumptions of that field begin appear self-evident.    It’s sometimes easy to think,“well, obviously, race, class and gender are inseparable and must be considered in relation to each other.”  And, even, after awhile, “everyone knows this by now, there’s nothing new to say here….” and then something like this Op-Ed appears.   Apparently, this 25 year old meme in academia hasn’t quite reached Nicholas Kristof (NB: thanks to careful readers Greg & JJ for catching my mistake!) at the New York Times, who  writes:

At first glance, it may seem that Barack Obama would face a stronger impediment than Hillary Clinton. Experiments have shown that the brain categorizes people by race in less than 100 milliseconds (one-tenth of a second), about 50 milliseconds before determining sex. And evolutionary psychologists believe we’re hard-wired to be suspicious of people outside our own group, to save our ancestors from blithely greeting enemy tribes of cave men. In contrast, there’s no hard-wired hostility toward women, though men may have a hard-wired desire to control and impregnate them.

Yet racism may also be easier to override than sexism. For example, one experiment found it easy for whites to admire African-American doctors; they just mentally categorized them as “doctors” rather than as “blacks.” Meanwhile, whites categorize black doctors whom they dislike as “blacks.”

It’s hard to know where to begin to unpack Kristof’s assumptions.  For today, I’m going to leave aside the drivel about what is, and is not,  “hard-wired” into human behavior and address the larger point Kristof is making here that “racism may be easier to override than sexism.”   To support this claim, he goes on to refer to (but not cite) an experiment involving “African American doctors,” to conclude something about the persistence of racism.  However, he doesn’t mention the gender of the doctors in this experiment.  My guess is that Kristol (and perhaps the experimenters?) presume that the doctors are men and thus, “only race” is relevant.   Kristof here is engaging in a common fallacy of “separate silos,” or parallel systems, of thinking about race, gender (and by extension, class, although he does not explicitly address this in his op-ed).   In this paradigm, race runs along one track, gender along another and class along a third, and they never coincide or overlap.  So, in this way of thinking, it’s possible to talk about “race” as if, “all the Blacks are men,” and to talk about gender as if “all the women are White” (with deep gratitude to this brave volume).     As if.     This is not only a facile, and flawed, way of thinking about race and gender, it actually obfuscates rather than illuminates the way these systems of domination work.  Let me offer a few examples to illustrate what I mean. Continue reading…

Politics as Usual: Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia

While this presidential campaign promises to be the most interesting in a number of years because of the hope of a “first” (first woman, first black) victory, and the end to the Bush regime, the news about politics-as-usual strategies of the campaigns offers somewhat disappointing evidence to dampen that hope.   Bob Johnson, writing at Daily Kos, has an excellent post dissecting the Clinton campaign’s rather Machiavellian strategy to make race “THE issue” in the campaign.  And, Pam lays bare the racism in NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s comment about “shuckin’ and jivin’,” in reference to Barack Obama’s performance at a press conference.

Of course, Clinton’s campaign gets accused of “playing the gender card”  for showing emotion in a public appearance.  Yet, there’s very little of her campaign rhetoric that seriously tries to draw attention to the overwhelming maleness of the power structure in this country, and God forbid anyone should use the word “patriarchy”  to describe how the system works.  I mean, that’s so 1983, right?

Yet, what enthusiasm I had for Obama’s candidacy suffered pretty serious damage with the whole McClurkin debacle back in November.    So, you want to be a “uniter” Sen. Obama?  How about calling up someone like Billy Porter, an out, proud, black gospel and Broadway performer to tour evangelical churches rather than someone who panders to homophobia?

What’s really so very retro- about both Hillary’s and Barack’s campaign’s are the old-school way of thinking about race / gender / sexuality as existing in separate containers, separate silos, if you will.   And that kind of thinking doesn’t work in the real world of lived experience and it doesn’t work in terms of thinking sociologically about the world.

In terms of lived experience, Jen over at Feministing, points out how thinking of “Obama = race” and “Clinton = gender” effectively excludes her experience as a black woman.     And, just to do the extended race/gender math here, Obama is still a (straight) man and Clinton is still heterosexual and white.   No one lives their lives as the embodiment of just one of these identity categories, as convenient as that might be for the mass media production of story lines.

And, in terms of thinking about these categories sociologically, the discipline of sociology has, until very recently, been part of the problem.   Traditionally, sociology as a discipline has been interested in class, race, gender and sexuality within separate and sequential silos of knowledge. The study of class and political economy can be traced to the origins of the discipline with Marx, Durkheim and Weber.  Almost as early, but rarely acknowledged, is the sociological research on race by pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois.   Much later to the sociological table was research about gender, such as Arlene Daniels (1975) and sexuality, such as Laud Humphreys (1975). The Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s for racial equality and women’s rights (and to some extent gay and lesbian rights movements) provided scholar-activists with the prerequisites for transforming the academy, and sociologists involved in these social movements worked to create new academic institutions, journals, courses and entire bodies of knowledge. Similarly, social movements of the early 1990s organized in response to the AIDS crisis, such as ACT UP and Queer Nation, galvanized the gay and lesbian social movement to recognize and be more inclusive of bisexual, transgender and queer people. Once again, scholar-activists involved in these social movements challenged the dominant discourses of sociology, in particular, feminist sociology. 

It has only been in the last twenty years that pioneers in sociology like Patricia Hill Collins, Bonnie Thornton Dill, Margaret Andersen and others have started asking difficult questions about precisely how race, class, gender and sexuality are interwoven.  Of course, some may argue that it’s necessary to pull out one dimension of oppression and domination to analyze, and that may well be necessary at strategic points in time.   However, I don’t see that kind of strategic necessity being deployed in the current political campaign.  Instead, what I see is a devolution into decades-old discredited debates about hierarchies of oppression, about “who has it worse” the blacks, or the women, or the gays?   None of this is useful or edifying, and informed citizenry should demand better from their so-called leaders.

Racism vs. Sexism in 2008 Presidential Politics

It’s been 25 years since Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith published their groundbreaking But Some of Us are Brave, and yet it looks like the women are (still) all white and all the blacks are (still) men. Gloria Steinem wrote an Op-Ed that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times in which she argues that “the sex barrier” is “not taken as seriously as the racial one.” Then ponders this in the following passage:

Why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together. That’s why Senators Clinton and Obama have to be careful not to let a healthy debate turn into the kind of hostility that the news media love. Both will need a coalition of outsiders to win a general election. The abolition and suffrage movements progressed when united and were damaged by division; we should remember that.

…. what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.”

Curious, what do you think? Is Steinem correct here?

Of course, the underlying problem in Steinem’s logic here is the false-dichotomy of “racism” versus “sexism” which precludes thinking about the complicated ways these are interwoven, not just in the lives of women of color but in all our lives. The way the presidential politics are playing out in the media around a black (male) candidate and a white (woman) candidate fits rather seamlessly within the flawed logic that Hull, Bell-Scott and Smith pointed out years ago.