A Salute to John Conyers

On January 6, 2015, distinguished guests and US politicians gathered to celebrate the unveiling of Representative (now Dean of the US House of Representatives) John Conyers’ portrait that will now hang rightfully on the walls of the Capitol Building. That this is the first portrait of an African American congressional representative to grace the walls of the House Judiciary committee meeting room in the Capitol is telling. Like all honors earned by African Americans, Conyers’ portrait symbolizes a long, obstacle-laden struggle for recognition of service to the nation and a deserved place in the memory of US politics.

As Vice President Biden remarked, future generations of US lawmakers will respectfully point to this portrait and note the vast achievements Conyers accomplished during his service to and uplift of the American people. Representative James Clyburn correctly observed that Conyers was the catalyst for establishing a new paradigm in American political thought and action. Reflecting on the political capital, leadership skills, mentoring successes, and role model qualities of Conyers, US Attorney General, Eric Holder, stated that he, Barack Obama and other African American government leaders stood on the shoulders of Conyers. Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi made clear that Conyers has battled for the rights of all the disenfranchised and oppressed in the US, championing the Violence Against Women Act (1994) and House Resolution 288, a bill to dissuade religious intolerance, particularly intolerance directing at the US Muslim population.

As the longest serving member in the House of Representatives, John Conyers has advanced a progressive and positively “disruptive” (the term used by Nancy Pelosi) political agenda for fifty years now. During this period, Conyers was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of representatives who have addressed the unique sets of issues affecting the African American community and served as a critical moral consciousness for US government policies and US politicians, including Barack Obama (possibly why Obama was a no show at the unveiling?). One of Conyers’ great achievements was introducing a bill to create a national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Another profound political effort led by Conyers has been his call for a commission to study reparations for African Americans, to research how slavery has affected the lives of African Americans and the zeitgeist of US society up until this day.

Conyers has fought against the destructive culture and business of online gambling, cuts in Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare, discriminatory electoral practices, hate crimes, and racial profiling. He has introduced legislation and supported projects such as the Alcohol Warning Label Act, Help America Vote Act, Firearm Reduction Initiative, Workforce Investment Act, State Public Funds Protection Act, Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, and the Former Prisoners Project. In his distinct of Southeast Michigan, Conyers has generated a number of programs for economic development and social justice.

Assessing his long list of achievements, it is clear that Conyers fights for the marginalized, dispossessed, oppressed and exploited in US society. This ongoing battle distinguishes the work of Conyers from so many career politicians on the Hill. As just about every speaker at Conyers’ portrait unveiling acknowledged, John Conyers is a rare person of “integrity,” high principles and intellect, human qualities absent among many members of Congress. Indeed, few people work for improving the lives of others, not themselves, and even those who devote their energies toward advancing the human condition rarely possess the devotion and cogency of a person like John Conyers.

Conyers is an unsullied role model for those fighting for racial justice and human justice in general, and should be recognized as one of the true protagonists of US society. While many US citizens will never respect his achievements and a certain element will attempt to vilify his pro-justice actions (he was one of the key figures on Nixon’s “enemy list”), it is up to those who strive for justice and human community to follow, as best they can, in the footsteps of this Giant.

Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty (Part 1)

Editors’ Note: Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson recently published an article in “The Chronicle Review” (Chronicle of Higher Education) in which he bemoans the fact that sociologists have not been drawn into President Obama’s special race initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” On this flimsy basis he trots out the claim that ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan got pilloried for his 1963 Report on the Black Family, sociologists have shied away from cultural work dealing with black Americans out of fear that they will be accused of “blaming the victim.” This myth, originally advanced by William Julius Wilson, was thoroughly demolished by Stephen Steinberg in a 2011 piece in The Boston Review. Two excerpts from his article, which went viral after it was listed on the “Arts & Letters Daily” of the Chronicle of Higher Education, are republished here.

Part I, “Old Wine in New Bottles” shows how sociologists have repackaged discredited cultural explanations of poverty in recent decades. Steinberg’s claim is not that culture does not matter, but rather that culture is not an independent and self-sustaining cause of poverty. Poverty must be seen within the matrix of structural and institutional factors in which that culture is embedded. Part II, “The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty,” focuses on William Julius Wilson’s descent into cultural explanations of poverty, contradicting his earlier work on structural matters. In terms of social policy, Wilson has been a champion of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Obama’s Race to the Top, which provide erudite justifications for the defunding of public education and have led to the closing of important public schools in black neighborhoods across the nation.

PART I: VERY OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES
The claim that the furor over the Moynihan report stymied research on lower-class culture for four decades is patently false. What was the massive underclass discourse of the 1980s if not old wine in new bottles—Moynihan’s culture arguments repackaged for a new generation of scholars and pundits?

As with the culture of poverty, the conception of the underclass had liberal origins. In his 1962 book Challenge to Affluence, Gunnar Myrdal borrowed a Swedish term for the lower class, underklassen, to refer to people who languished in poverty even during periods of economic growth and prosperity. This term entered popular discourse with the 1982 publication of Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, based on a series in The New Yorker.

Then, between 1986 and 1988, there was an outpouring of articles in U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly, Fortune, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and Time, all providing graphic and frightening portrayals of pathology and disorder in the nation’s ghettos. The image was of poverty feeding on itself, with the implication that cultural pathology was not just a byproduct of poverty but was itself a cause of pathological behavior. This was the explicit claim of a 1987 Fortune article by Myron Magnet:

What primarily defines [the underclass] is not so much their poverty or race as their behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, nonwork, welfare dependency and school failure. ‘Underclass’ describes a state of mind and a way of life. It is at least as much cultural as an economic condition.

Social science lagged behind journalism, but by the late ’80s, with the backing of charitable foundations, a cottage industry of technocratic studies appeared charting the size and social constitution of the underclass. In his 1991 article “The Underclass Myth,” Adolph Reed noted the reinstatement of the culture-of-poverty theory during the Reagan-Bush era. The pendulum had swung so far to culture that Reed was pleading for a restoration of structure:

We should insist on returning the focus of the discussion of the production and reproduction of poverty to examination of its sources in the operations of the American political and economic system. Specifically, the discussion should focus on such phenomena as the logic of deindustrialization, models of urban redevelopment driven by real-estate speculation, the general intensification of polarization of wealth, income, and opportunity in American society, the ways in which race and gender figure into those dynamics, and, not least, the role of public policy in reproducing and legitimating them.

Reed ended on a note of personal exasperation:

I want the record to show that I do not want to hear another word about drugs or crime without hearing in the same breath about decent jobs, adequate housing, and egalitarian education.

Culturalists confuse cause and effect, arguing that lack of social mobility among black youth is a product of their culture rather than the other way around. Yet here we are, two decades later, with a special issue of a prestigious journal, the Annals, launched with fanfare and a congressional briefing, bombastically claiming that “culture is back on the policy agenda,” as though it had not been there all along. Even as the editors take up this “long-abandoned topic,” however, they are careful to distance themselves from culture-of-poverty theorists who were accused of “blaming the victim,” and they scoff at the idea that the poor “might cease to be poor if they changed their culture.” Indeed, readers are assured that “none of the three editors of this volume happens to fall on the right of the political spectrum.” Alas, the culture of poverty has not made a comeback after all. The new culturalists have learned from the mistakes of the past, and only want to study culture in the context of poverty—that is, in the selective and limited ways that culture matters in the lives of the poor.

True to form, the rest of the Annals issue is a compendium of studies informed by this “more sophisticated” conception of culture. One study examines “How Black and Latino Service Workers Make Decisions about Making Referrals.” Another explores how poor men define a “good job.” Still another ventures into the perilous waters of the black family, examining the “repertoire of infidelity” among low-income men.

The problem is less with the questions asked than with the ones left unexamined. The editors and authors are careful to bracket their inquiries with appropriate obeisance to the ultimate grounding of culture in social structure. But their research objectives, methodology, data collection, and analysis are all riveted on the role of culture. Is obeisance enough? If the cultural practices under examination are merely links in a chain of causation, and are ultimately rooted in poverty and joblessness, why are these not the object of inquiry? Why aren’t we talking about the calamity of another generation of black youth who, excluded from job markets, are left to languish on the margins, until they cross the line of legality and are swept up by the criminal justice system and consigned to unconscionable years in prison where, at last, they find work, for less than a dollar an hour, if paid at all? Upon release they are “marked men,” frequently unable to find employment or to assume such quotidian roles as those of husband or father.

Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one? Does it matter how they approach procreation, how they juggle “doubt, duty, and destiny” when they are denied the jobs that are the sine qua non of parenthood? Aren’t we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?

Note: Portions of the post appeared in The Boston Review in 2011.

Why do Many Whites Love Racist Epithets? The R-Word Again

James Fenelon and I are quoted a good bit in a fine Native American website article on the racist “Redskins” defenses by the DC team and many of its fiercest fans. Here.

Fenelon has done the only survey of real (vetted) Native Americans that I have seen. As the article quotes him:

Fenelon collected data for a poll about what “real Natives” thought about the baseball team. He went to large pow wows in the Cleveland area, and related events, and polled people individually, making sure that “at a high level of certainty” their tribal identity was legitimate; and that all who claimed Native ancestry were actually American Indian. “American Indians are the hardest to poll,” said Fenelon, who squeezed in an interview on his way to work. “And that’s because a lot of them claim to be Native, but it’s often dubious.”

Read more at Indian Country Today.

The Legal and Moral Basis for Reparations

I recently did an op-ed piece for time.com here, on reparations. It begins thus:

Unjust enrichment, and its counterpart, unjust impoverishment, give rise to the idea of restitution. As recently as 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution belatedly apologizing for this country’s oppression of African Americans: “The Congress (A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; (B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.”

Sadly, these mostly white senators added a disclaimer explicitly barring African Americans from seeking reparations for the role of the government in this officially recognized oppression. Reparations is an issue that arises sporadically because of the three-plus centuries of slavery and Jim Crow on which this country is founded, and one that Ta-Nehisi Coates revives in this month’s Atlantic Monthly.

See the rest for time.com here”>here:

#ENDITMOVEMENT: Social Media Activism, without Action

My current sociological research looks at the way millennials and digital natives (the subsequent generational cohort) use social media to construct identity in their everyday lives. One of the questions that I asked over the course of my ethnography was “Have you ever participated in a social issue campaign beyond reposting or retweeting about it on social media? If so, in what ways?” Overwhelmingly, the response was “No, I usually just retweet or repost it.”

I believe whole-heartedly in the power of awareness but as Mark Warren, the author of Fire in the Heart How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice puts it, “If we stop at moral impulse, we are left with altruism.”

The leaders of the End It movement seem to understand this on a rudimentary level but the same cannot be said about all of their followers and supporters. When I saw the red x’s on several of my students’ hands, I asked them about it. I said, “What type of slavery?” “Where is this slavery taking place?” “What can I do personally?” No one could reasonably answer any of those questions. When I asked, “Did you, or are you going to, donate money?” one person responded, “The hope is that people will eventually donate money.” “Where will the money go? What will they do with it?” My questions remained unanswered. They could only tell me that the red x’s were supposed to cause people to ask questions so that they could spread the word about world-wide slavery. When I asked questions, the message of freedom was not explained very thoroughly at all. Uninformed awareness is just as bad as unawareness itself.

This is a trend that I see in many social issue campaigns that take place on and through the aid of social media. While the so-called freedom fighters are undoubtedly well-intentioned, I see several issues with the way the message is constructed as well as with the proposed solutions. Beyond the social construction of the movement being somewhat lofty and ungrounded, I fear that the initiators of these types movements are merely banking on the other-directed vulnerability of millennials and digital natives. Social psychologists Wang, Tchernev, and Solloway cite users’ need to mitigate their self- image and the need to be affirmed by their peers, amongst two of the four main reasons why users engage with social media. Social media allows users to fulfill these needs as often as they want. Additionally, Quinn and Oldmeadow found that social media use by younger users helps ease the tensions that can be present during major transitional periods in life. Anyone with the right formula could amass a large following not because the people truly believed in the cause, but due to the nature of social media.

Beyond the primary issue with social media movements, I was underwhelmed with the lack of information I was presented with on the home page. The white savior narrative is prevalent and problematic and is reified throughout the page. Let me be clear, there is significant value in people of every race and nationality participating in a cause that is valid however there is a problem with the way the people are depicted on the site and on the Twitter feed. In the promotional video, the camera quickly pans over the people who are portrayed as either currently trapped in some sort of slavery or are survivors of it. The message is unclear. Again it is not the whiteness that I see as problematic, it is the underrepresentation of the people that the movement is trying to help. Where are these people? Why aren’t their voices heard most loudly and clearly? Visitors must go to the very last tab in the list – the “learn” tab, to watch the longer video which allows the audience to hear from persons who were formerly enslaved.

Enditmovement.com presents a dominant narrative instead of taking on a supporting role in the goal of liberation. Further, it does not do an adequate job of informing visitors about the roots of slavery and perhaps unintentionally hides the real issues at hand. The United States is one of the greatest catalysts of sex-slavery. The United States accounts for a large portion of the 32 billion dollars generated by sex slavery. The United Nations states that the U.S. is amongst the most common destinations for sex trafficking. We are producers of the enslavement that this movement is trying to fight. Though users can find this information on the site if they search for it, this information is vital to our understanding of this type of slavery and it is completely missing from the home page.

What is not missing, however, is the blatant consumerism. The tabs that allow you to learn more about the organizations who are being supported are neatly nested at the bottom of the page. Instead, upon a first encounter with the page, visitors are encouraged to visit the store to buy the gear and “be the billboard”. A lot of digging must be done to find the “slavery facts”. The average user is not very likely to go to the “learn” tab. Once found, the research is valid and points to a substantial problem in our global society. It also includes a list of sources and suggested readings however my students seemed to have missed the mark and settled for being aware but uneducated. I fear that this is the case for a majority of the red x bearers.

Perhaps the End It movement could be as powerful as it aims to be if it were to take on Gideon Sjoberg’s countersystem approach. “A countersystem analyst consciously tries to step outside of her or his own society in order to better view and critically asses it. … These critical social thinkers support the action of human beings in their own liberation” (Quoted in Feagin and Vera 2008:2).

As a Christian sociologist, I often find myself at an impasse. I strive to love people in my daily life and I recognize the desire to be a part of something that is bigger than one’s self. I do see validity in the core purpose of the #enditmovement. However my grounding in sociology makes it easy for me to see through the inauthenticity that can exist in “viral” movements on social media. I want to call everyone who believes themselves to be passionate about the liberation of all enslaved or marginalized peoples – religious or not – to inform yourself and others about the facts. Then use your knowledge to act beyond the confines of the screen.

Guest blogger Apryl Williams is a sociology graduate student at Texas A&M University.

The Black Counter Frame: Critical for Much Racial Change



In my The White Racial Frame book I not only discuss this age-old white racial frame, which accents both white virtue material and anti-others material, but also the important counter frames to this dominant white frame that people of color have developed. In the U.S. case African Americans have developed an especially strong counter frame over centuries, perhaps because they have had the longest period of time situated firmly within this systemically racist society.

This counter frame has for centuries been an impetus for many important black protests, and thus in large part for the few major changes that have been made in this country’s racist system over the centuries.

One feature of U.S. systemic racism involves a rather intentional collective forgetting by whites of key African Americans who articulated and often organized around a strong counter frame. Let me remind our readers of a few of these great Americans.

One of the first to put counter frame down on paper was David Walker, a young African American abolitionist working in Boston. In 1829 he published a strong manifesto, entitled Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Demanding full equality, he wrote to his fellow African Americans with revolutionary arguments in an anti-oppression framing, so much so that slaveholding whites put a large cash bounty on his head. (He died young, probably as a result.) Walker analyzes slavery and racial segregation for free blacks quite bluntly. Most whites are “cruel oppressors and murderers” whose “oppression” will be overthrown. They are “an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings.” Whites seek for African Americans to be slaves to them

and their children forever to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!

He then quotes the words “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence and challenges whites:

Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us–men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation! . . . . I ask you candidly, was your sufferings under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?

A little later in the 19th century, an admirer of Walker, the African American abolitionist Henry Garnet, gave a radical speech, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” at a National Negro Convention. Garnet’s counter framing is very assertive and to the point, and it is also an address to those enslaved. He offers a structural analysis of “oppression,” arguing too that the white “oppressor’s power is fading.” African Americans like “all men cherish the love of liberty. . . . In every man’s mind the good seeds of liberty are planted.” He calls on those enslaved to take revolutionary action:

There is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die freemen, than live to be slaves.” He concludes with a strong call to rebellion: “Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties.

One of the most brilliant of the 19th century analysts of systemic racism was the great abolitionist, Martin Delaney, who among other actions worked in revolutionary efforts to overthrow the slavery system. (In May 1858, he and John Brown gathered black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary meeting in Chatham, Canada. Four dozen black and white Americans wrote a new constitution to govern a growing band of armed revolutionaries they hoped would come from the enslaved US population.) Directing a book at all Americans, Delaney emphasizes the

United States, untrue to her trust and unfaithful to her professed principles of republican equality, has also pursued a policy of political degradation to a large portion of her native born countrymen. . . . there is no species of degradation to which we are not subject.

His counter framing is one of resistance and extends the old liberty-and-justice frame beyond white rhetoric:

We believe in the universal equality of man, and believe in that declaration of God’s word, in which it is positively said, that ‘God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.’

Delaney attacks whites’ stereotypes of African Americans with a detailed listing of important achievements of numerous free and enslaved African Americans and emphasizes how enslaved workers brought very important skills in farming to North America that European colonists did not have. African American workers were the “bone and sinews of the country” and the very “existence of the white man, South, depends entirely on the labor of the black man.” Delaney emphasizes that African Americans are indeed very old Americans:

Our common country is the United States. . . . and from here will we not be driven by any policy that may be schemed against us. We are Americans, having a birthright citizenship.

Let us bring these and other important 19th African Americans back into our contemporary history, as they were both thinkers and activists in the long tradition of people fighting for liberty in the United States. Note too essential elements of the black counter frame in these and many other black thinkers and activists too often forgotten writings from the 19th century: a strong critique of racial oppression; an aggressive countering of white’s negative framing of African Americans; and a very strong accent on the centrality and importance of liberty, justice, and equality for all Americans. African Americans have been perhaps the most central Americans in keeping these liberty and justice ideals constantly alive and imbedded in resistance organizations over four long centuries of freedom struggles in the racist history of the United States.

2013: Still Dreaming of Justice

Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace
And criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”

This Dylan song memorialized the unjust death of Hattie Carroll at the hands of William Zantzinger. As the song closes, Dylan chides Lady Justice for the injustice committed. The details of the incident and the song have been elaborated upon by several journalists, principally Ian Frazier who wrote “Legacy of a Lonesome Death” and Paul Slade who wrote “True Lies: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

On February 8, 1963, Maryland’s most prominent citizens attended the Spinsters’ Ball held at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. The guests included William Zantzinger, a rich white 24-year old tobacco farmer, and his wife, Jane. Among the staff working the event was Hattie Carroll, a black 51-year old grandmother and mother of 11 children who worked as a barmaid at that evening’s affair. Throughout the evening and deep into the night Zantzinger drank heavily and hit women guests and servants with his cane.

At approximately 1:30 a.m., while Hattie Carroll was tending to another guest, Zantzinger loudly demanded a drink from her and assailed her with a barrage of vulgarities and racial epithets. He also struck Carroll’s shoulder when she did not serve him immediately. After handing the drink to Zantzinger, Carroll complained to a co-worker that she was feeling deathly ill and shortly after collapsed. Carroll was taken to the hospital where she died, eight hours after Zantzinger had struck her. While the hospital ruled Carroll died from a brain hemorrhage, things were a bit more complicated given that an autopsy revealed that she suffered from hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, and an enlarged heart.

Zantzinger would be tried on manslaughter charges in Hagerstown, Maryland, after he requested to have his trial moved from Baltimore. The trial began on June 19, 1963 and eight days later on June 27, a panel of three judges found Zantzinger guilty of manslaughter in the death of Hattie Carroll. The sentencing was postponed two months. On August 28, 1963, the same panel of judges sentenced Zantzinger—six months in jail along with fines totaling $625, a relative slap on the wrist. He was allowed to postpone his jail sentence until after he harvested his tobacco crop.

On the same day, about 70 miles southeast of Hagerstown, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. In the shadow of the historic march, the injustice associated with Carroll’s death would have been lost from our collective memory but for Dylan’s song.

Much has changed since August 28, 1963. And much hasn’t. On July 13, a jury in Sanford, Florida found George Zimmerman, a 29-year old white-Peruvian and self-appointed neighborhood watchman, not guilty of second-degree murder charges in the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African American teenager.

It had all the appearances of a straightforward case. An armed 28-year-old man shoots to death an unarmed 17-year-old who was returning from the store after buying snacks. Even a half century after the Zantzinger case, however, such cases are anything but straightforward. Not if race is involved.

Trayvon Martin, the victim, was on trial. Zimmerman said and media repeated claims that he was a black youth “up to no-good,” as he walked in a neighborhood in which—the message was clear—he didn’t belong. He was, after all, a black youth in a hoodie—code that we all understand. There was talk of marijuana and school problems. All to buttress the claim that this armed man had to fear for his life.

The defense closed its case with a snowy video showing Martin at a convenience store making his purchase. It resembled the countless other videos we regularly see, capturing criminals in the act. Trayvon Martin was racially profiled and criminalized in Zimmerman’s trial. While Zantzinger was sentenced to six months in a county jail for the death of Hattie Carroll in 1963, Zimmerman will serve no time in the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013.

On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, let’s remember the senseless and unpunished deaths of Hattie Carroll and Trayvon Martin, though they occurred five decades apart. And let us recognize: Dr. King’s dream is not yet realized.

Rogelio Sáenz is a sociologist and demographer. He is Dean of the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. This was originally published by the Rio Grande Guardian.

Reading for National Dialogue on Race Day

The  National Dialogue on Race Day happening later today at Tufts University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy hosted by Prof. Peniel Joseph will focus on three broad themes and questions. In anticipation of the event, we’ve selected a few previous posts from the six years of blogging here that touch on these topics.

50 Years after the March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom: How Far Have we Progressed as a Nation in Achieving Dr. King’s Dream of Multicultural and Multiracial Democracy?

 Trayvon Martin, Mass Incarceration, and the public school to prison crisis

Race and Democracy in the 21st Century: What does racial integration, justice, and equality mean in contemporary America and how can we shape and impact this dialogue in our respective communities, nationally and globally?

Read up and join the conversation! You can participate lots of ways, by commenting here, by watching the livestream from Tufts (beginning at 7pm ET) or through Twitter at the hashtag #NDRD.

What Riley Cooper Should Have Said About the N-Word?

The power of sport in the American psyche and the lengths to which competitive play entertains and thrills fans is one reason why we watch sports. Americans are equally captivated by the personal lives of athletes off the field—from their charity and romances to their antics and meltdowns. The viewing world often venerates athletes, particularly in the high revenue sports of football and basketball, placing them on a public pedestal for their talents and assuming their personal character should be infallible because of their athletic prowess.

To the chagrin of many fans, players, coaches and owners, Philadelphia Eagles wide-receiver Riley Cooper just had to go there at a recent public concert and put the “er” in the N-word. Whether folks believe this act to be shameful and appalling or believe the recourse of his actions in the media to be blown out of proportion, the majority of white Americans don’t understand that it’s not about the word. It’s about a 400-year-old history contained in this word. Let’s call it what it really is—the nigger word. This word is symbolic. It was originally borrowed from the Spanish word “Negro” and used extensively in early European history beginning with the Portuguese, Spanish and English. Then landing a home in colonial America during the transatlantic slave trade, the nigger word rose in prominence as an offensive epithet. Wide spread in usage during the emerging slave economy with the intent to gain a psychological advantage over people of African descent, the nigger word has a long and curious life within US society.

It is deemed the “worst of the worst” of words, representing a reprehensible time in our country—a time when folks were dehumanized, enslaved, tortured, and even killed for the color of their skin. It’s not simply that Riley Cooper uttered this word. It’s that this word is a part of his vocabulary, which must mean that it was acceptable language somewhere along the course of his life, whether at home or school with family or friends. It is doubtful this is first time that Cooper has used the word, despite his pleas to the contrary. Yet, even if he cognitively refrains from speaking such language nowadays, countless other Whites do engage in racially charged discourse—of course, most only do so behind closed doors. This is called backstage racism. Research reveals that white Americans often engage in backstage racism using offensive racist language behind the scenes and out of earshot of the public. And when it is said at those dinner tables and backyard discussions free of any Blacks, it is NOT in an attitude of deep respect and equality toward one’s fellow man. What Cooper did was bring that backstage racism to the front stage—something that millions of white Americans are terrified of doing for fear of being called a racist. But when this word is spoken as a means to show power or privilege over another, that’s a form of racism, regardless in what company you are among.

The Florida native’s recent usage of the highly offensive language and his sincere, though uncritical apology is deeply unsettling for many sports fans. The fact that Cooper felt comfortable uttering the nigger word in public speaks volumes to its continued usage in popular culture. In fact, one common though oblivious argument by Whites is that “Blacks use this word as well.” But black Americans use the “niggah” word from an entirely different context. This is termed counter-framing. Counter-framing is a strategy that opposes an original objectionable frame. This can be done in a multitude of ways. Here, Blacks have attempted to take back a word that was used for centuries to abuse and denigrate them. Just listen to any popular Hip Hop star and the use of the word is evident. This same type of counter-framing was seen several years ago when a few black rappers such as Outkast and Lil John were seen wearing the confederate flag. In the white imagination, this is confusing. And when the public chastises a fellow white person caught in public spewing anti-black hate, many white people come forward crying foul. But they don’t grasp the concept of counter-framing. Hence, thinking this gives oneself a free pass to say racist terms is ignorant of history, if not senseless and unabashedly racist. Right or wrong, some Blacks are taking the nigger word back and using it in attempts to empower themselves. By doing this, it deflects a painful history, thus taking some of the sting out of it. Sadly, the reality is that this form of counter-framing can never fully undo the original white racial frame(s). The word “nigger” will no longer hold Blacks down under the yoke of white supremacy as it once did, but it still insults their personhood when spoken by a white person.

It should be no surprise that athletes bring with them to the competitive world of sport a broader racial framing of society they inherited from their forbearers. Race lessons are passed on within social networks and kinship circles of family, peers, and significant friends. Lurking just beneath the surface of our reality, racial biases are formed through a process of historical relations of unequal power and distribution of resources for more advantaged groups at the expense of people of color in what analysts call “systemic racism.” At the heart of American racial inequality is a system grounded in an ordered ranking of men over women, white over black, and Christian over non-Christian; a hierarchy where early Europeans and their North American contemporaries conveniently placed themselves at the top and Blacks at the bottom of the social ladder. White folks continue to experience this (often unknowingly) through white racial priming. That is to say, how white Americans systematically internalize racist attitudes, stereotypes, assumptions, fears and fictitious racial scripts, which fit into a Eurocentric framing of the world, is expressly negative.

Riley could have set a new precedent among white people by going on record and admitting that like most white Americans, he is recovering racist, having grown up engrossed in the word as it was freely used in his extended white social networks. At some point, he began befriending and competing alongside African Americans. It was then, likely, that he began to demystify his received racial biases that many Whites struggle to overcome. But ingrained deep within one’s consciousness, it will inevitably bubble to the surface at some point(s) in life, despite the cognitive awareness of its despicable nature.

Instead, Riley planted doubt in the minds of his fellow black NFL teammates, as they know full well America’s deplorable past. Until then, his words are empty for all of his black teammates are still left wondering if and when he says this behind closed doors. This was evident when Michael Vick was asked if he knew that Cooper was capable of saying such terminology. “No,” Vick said. “That’s the thing. That’s not the guy we know. We know Riley.” But then Vick paused for a beat and followed with, “Or maybe we don’t.”

Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.

Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me: A Watershed Moment for the U.S.

President Obama’s poignant comments on the white-racist discrimination that Black men regularly face were pathbreaking for this country. First, in the history of the U.S. never has such a high government official so forthrightly called out key elements of white racism and condemned persisting patterns of racial harassment and profiling of Black boys and men.

Secondly, Obama’s commentary, together with his speech during the 2008 election, mark the first time that whites and many other nonblack Americans have heard important elements of the Black counter-frame to the centuries-old white racial framing of this society—at least not from such a “bully pulpit,” as Teddy Roosevelt put it.

 

(Image from ThinkProgress)

One cannot imagine any white president saying, or being able to say, what Obama has said in his two explicit commentaries on U.S. racism. He certainly did not say enough about this racism, but his commentaries so far have been pathbreaking, especially for a white population much of which is in terminal denial of that racism.

Obama assessed the killing of Trayvon Martin from a Black perspective, one rarely taken seriously by most white Americans. Now, for a time, it has to be taken seriously and provides the basis to expand on his analysis later on.

Obama made his first comment to an African American family that has suffered much white racism over their lives, and like many such families lost a young male to unnecessary violence. Saluting the Martin family, he underscored

the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.

Then his assessment moved to an approach rare in this country’s public forum—-he accented our historical and contemporary societal context of white racism. That critical context, he made clear, includes many decades of racial profiling, harassment, and killing of Black boys and men. And it means long decades of frequent and very painful Black experience in dealing with an array of discriminatory realities:

When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me–at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

This eloquent statement about recurring Black experiences sums up what millions of Black men, women, and children have been telling this country’s whites in many ways, for generations. Obama underscores a key aspect of the Black counter-frame, the deep understanding of the great racial inequality in the operation of our “justice” system:

. . . those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.. . . The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

He accents the importance of understanding the long history of unjust impoverishment of African Americans in creating problems of violence in communities—something few whites wish to do. The Black community understands

that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

He thereby gives us a sense of how and why African Americans saw the Trayvon Martin killing early on as very much a racial matter:

And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

He ends his comments, as he often does, with a pragmatic statement about what we should do next. He calls for much better law enforcement training at state and local levels:

When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation. . . . it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize . . .. So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive.

His second suggestion is to reassess notorious “stand your ground” laws, one of which was at least implicitly involved in the Zimmerman case. He made a dramatic point that has provoked even a conservative commentator like David Brooks to rethink this problematical law and what happened to the teenager:

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

His third suggestion was, once again, very positive. He called for much action to

bolster and reinforce our African American boys. . . . is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them? . . . And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society. . . .

A bit vague, but again a rare moment of insight about Black male needs at this public level. His last suggestion was also rather vague but echoed Dr. King:

I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. . . . in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?

Not surprisingly, he concludes on an optimistic note of hope about the younger generation:

better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

Characteristically optimistic Obama comments in public, if unfortunately and substantially contradicted by much social science data on our white youth. According to numerous studies, the younger generations of whites may be better in some ways but they are still very racist in their white racial framing of society and in their racist performances and actions growing out of that framing.

On the whole, a pathbreaking speech that only an Black president could have so effectively delivered. It is sad, and often noted in Black America, that Black Americans too often end up as the major teachers of whites about how white racism operates and its devastating and painful impacts. Obama has used that “bully pulpit” to give white America some significant lessons about the reality and damage of that white racism. It will long be remembered as a watershed moment, one requiring great courage.

We do not live in a real democracy, and we have numerous institutions that do not operate democratically, including an unelected Supreme Court and very unrepresentative U.S. Senate. Not to mention a very dysfunctional House because of Tea Party and other extreme conservative elements there.

However, despite Obama’s having to face this undemocratic reality daily, and also having to face recurring critiques across the political spectrum of his accomplishments on civil rights, it has often made a difference in public policies on discrimination that we have an African American president.

Working with his Department of Justice, Obama has implemented the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, ended anti-gay policies in the military, spoken out for gay marriage rights. Obama and his cabinet officials have abandoned previous Republican attempts to end much civil rights enforcement. He appointed Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black attorney general, who has moved his department toward much more aggressive civil rights enforcement and hired many more lawyers with significant real-world experience in civil rights enforcement. He also responded much more forthrightly to international and United Nations requests for reports on the U.S. civil rights situation. Obama also made a dramatic improvement in the federal relationship with Native Americans–including, after many years of delays, billions in compensation to Native American groups for federal mismanagement of Indian land trusts.

No president, including Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, has accomplished more progressive policy goals, especially on racial issues, since the 1960s presidency of President Lyndon Johnson. This includes putting at least some aspects of white racism on the national discussion and policy agenda.