The Fisher decision misses the point: Separate and unequal

A new Georgetown University report titled “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Privilege” by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl reinforces why the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas misses the point. Recall that in Fisher v. the University of Texas, while the justices recognized the value of diversity in the higher education experience, universities and colleges must prove that no workable race-neutral alternatives could have produced the same diversity benefit. And strikingly, Justice Kennedy stated that in this process “the university receives no deference.” A reviewing court will be the arbiter of this determination.

The report by Carnevale and Strohl debunks the assumption that the United States has attained a level educational playing field in which consideration of race is no longer relevant. The study demonstrates that American higher education has two separate and unequal tracks: the 468 selective colleges and the 3250 open-access institutions. The divergence between these two tracks is increasing rather than diminishing. The authors identify two prominent themes that characterize these tracks: 1) racial stratification in the 4400 two- and four- year colleges analyzed for the study; and 2) polarization between the most selective schools and open-access schools. And from a student perspective, they conclude that “disadvantage is worst of all when race and class collide.”

Between 1995 and 2009, despite increases in the enrollment of African American and Hispanic students attending postsecondary institutions, more than 8 in 10 of new white students enrolled in the 468 most selective institutions, whereas more than 7 in 10 new Hispanic and African-American students have gone to open-access two and four-year colleges. White students account for 78 percent of the growth in the more selective institutions, while 92 percent of the growth in open-access institutions went to Hispanic and African-American students.

In addition, stratification by income is marked in more selective colleges, with high-income students overrepresented relative to population share by 45 percentage points and African-American and Hispanic students underrepresented relative to population share by 9 percentage points. This disadvantage is magnified by pre-existing geographic (spatial) isolation in the location of high schools as well as economic and educational deprivation in the pre-college years.

Why does this matter? The 468 most selective schools spend two to nearly five times more per student, have higher ratios of full- to part-time faculty, higher completion rates, and greater access to graduate schools, even when considering equally qualified students. Also, the college completion rate for the most selective schools is 82 percent, compared with 49 percent for open-access, two- and four-year institutions.

The report responds to two important questions. First, it provides substantive evidence that contradicts the “mismatch” theory which posits that minority students fare better in universities where the median test scores are nearer their own. In contrast, it reveals that Hispanic and African-American students benefit from attending selective institutions even when their test scores fall substantially below the averages at these schools, with a graduation rate of 73 percent from top colleges when compared to a graduation rate of 40 percent at open-access institutions.

Second, the report sheds light on the difficulty of substituting race-neutral alternatives such as class or to produce the same educational diversity benefit. The authors find that it would take more than five or six times the current level of class-based admissions to maintain the current racial mix in the most selective colleges. In fact, the pool of low-income white students far exceeds the pool of Hispanic and African-American students eligible for selective college admissions. The flood of low-income students that could result from using class as a proxy for disadvantage would create intense resource challenges for all but the most wealthy of selective institutions in the financial aid process. More selective institutions would also have difficulty to maintain current standards in the competition for students with higher test scores.

The report does not include an identical analysis for Asians and Native Americans due to data limitations. It does note that while 50 percent of new Asian enrollments have gone to the most selective schools, 30 percent have also gone to the open-access schools. In this regard, a 2005 College Board study reveals that Asian American/Pacific Islander students are evenly concentrated in two- and four-year institutions, with over half of the students in California and Nevada enrolled in community colleges. And a study produced by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute concludes that, like other minority students, AAPI students often struggle with poverty, with 47.4 of Asian American families classified as low income compared with 39.5 percent of the general population.

The challenge ahead for universities is to develop the statistical models that will satisfy the Supreme Court’s requirement to prove that alternative race-neutral alternatives are not sufficient for producing the educational benefits of diversity. In the evolution of the new criteria required to satisfy Fisher’s requirements, the Georgetown University report takes an important step in laying the groundwork for the evidentiary data and metrics needed.

Summing up the complexity of the court’s newly imposed requirements for justifying the consideration of race as one factor among others in college admissions, Thomas Kane and James Ryan point out in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that:

The court sometimes seems to labor under the belief that there is some magical combination of race-neutral proxies that will produce exactly the same group of students as in a class admitted under a race-conscious plan. Admissions officers know differently….

New Education Report: High Levels of Racial Inequality, Again

The National Center for Education Statistics has just released a very interesting and revealing 2010 statistical report– Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups–on children and parents, with a main emphasis on educational issues. Here are just a few of their findings:
Little Rock Nine
Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Snodgrass

The percentages of children who were living in poverty were higher for Blacks (34 percent), American Indians/Alaska Natives (33 percent), Hispanics (27 percent), and Native Hawaiians or Other Pacific Islanders (26 percent), than for children of two or more races (18 percent), Asians (11 percent) and Whites (10 percent).

Forty-eight percent of public school 4th-graders were eligible for free or reduced- price lunches in 2009, including 77 percent of Hispanic, 74 percent of Black, 68 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native, 34 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, and 29 percent of White 4th-graders.

These revealing data show extreme poverty levels for major groups of color, with very high levels qualifying for reduced-price or free lunches. Among other things the data demonstrate huge problems of structural inequality and racism that seem to be off the white-controlled policy agenda for the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

In 2008, some 44 percent of White 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in colleges and universities, while in 1980 some 28 percent were enrolled. In addition, approximately 32 percent of Black 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in colleges or universities (an increase of 12 percentage points from 1980) and 26 percent of Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled (an increase of 10 percentage points from 1980).

Inequality and structural racism at lower grades contribute substantially to inequalities up the line at college. Here, again, very substantial differentials. Some other data also tell us something significant about current immigration and demographic patterns:

In 2008, a higher percentage of Asian children (51 percent) had a mother with at least a bachelor’s degree than did White children (36 percent), children of two or more races (31 percent), Black children (17 percent), American Indian/Alaska Native children (16 percent), and Hispanic children (11 percent).

The Asian children are more likely to be the children of documented immigrants, who have come in under a biased U.S. immigration system that increasingly tends to “cream off” the world’s middle and upper middle classes. Thus, many documented immigrants come in with college degrees and some social or economic capital that facilitates socioeconomic their and their children’s mobility in the U.S. Other children of color are no so fortunate, including those who are the children of undocumented Latino immigrants. Other data are also revealing:

In 2007, a higher percentage of White (18 percent) children ages 12 to 17 reported drinking alcohol in the past month than did their Hispanic (15 percent) peers, peers of two or more races (13 percent), and Black (10 percent) and Asian (8 percent) peers.

I wonder why we do not have white leaders and politicians talking a lot about the “white problem” of drug (alcohol) use among white youth in the U.S.

And like other studies they also show the trend toward an more diverse society where whites are gradually becoming a statistical minority, especially among children:

Between 1980 and 2008, the racial/ethnic composition of the United States shifted— the White population declined from 80 percent of the total population to 66 percent; the Hispanic population increased from 6 percent of the total to 15 percent; the Black population remained at about 12 percent; and the Asian/Pacific Islander population increased from less than 2 percent of the total population to 4 percent. In 2008, American Indians/Alaska Natives made up about 1 percent and people of two or more races made up about 1 percent of the population.

And these demographic changes continue at a fast pace today.

Open Thread: Thoughts on a Post-Racial America?

According to a new CNN poll around two-thirds of blacks asked indicated that they believed Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had been fulfilled (h/t RaceWire). This is a marked increase (up from 34% ) who indicated similar feelings in a poll taken in March, 2008. Now compare that to whites who only had a small increase from 35% to 46%.

I shared the graph I created from these findings with students in my Ethnic & Race Relations course (hello students who are reading this!).

Prior to sharing these results, I talked about the media discussion of America as post-racial. They listened to the statement by NPR’s Daniel Schorr. I showed this clip from CNN’s coverage (opens YouTube video) of the election (h/t Sociological Images). I also passed around The New York Times from the day after the election which announced: “OBAMA Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.” I then asked students: are we in a post-racial society?

There were a lot of really thoughtful answers. One student asked if it was post-racial (race no longer matters) or post-racist (no longer racist) – indicating we were not the first but moving towards the second. Another pointed out the generational differences, younger whites voted for Obama in large numbers. Still others noted that it seems with his victory that we are judging now on character and not based on race. Largely, the white students in the class gave voice to the opinion that we were NOT post-racial, while the minority students argued that we were (although one young lady had not made up her mind – fair enough, in my opinion). (Of course, students reading this, feel free to comment below about what you think if I misrepresented you).

The remaining class time was spent discussing and showing examples of personal levels of racism (such as Obama bucks, sock monkeys, statements that B.H.O. is a terrorist and the assumptions about Muslims and Arabs these stereotypes reveal). We also discussed Nas’ Black President. At the end, I returned to structural racism and historical causes as the main reasons we are not, and will not soon be, “post-racial” – reasons we will explore in the coming weeks.

Here is the question: Why the difference in perceptions between blacks and whites on the question of fulfilling MLK’s dream? We weren’t sure. We explored the idea of the front stage and back stage as discussed so well by Picca and Feagin. I similarly mentioned Tim Wise’s discussion of white bonding that he brings up in White Like Me (a book we’ll be reading later in the semester). What do you think?

~ Bridget
Sociology Instructor
Midwest U.S.

Whitewashing the Election Results?

As you’ve probably heard or read about by now, many commentators and analysts (see here) have announced that there was no evidence of a “Bradley Effect” (or more accurately called the “white racism” effect). Obama’s victory was indeed monumental, and more whites supported him than John Kerry in 2004. Pollsters like Blumenthal at have declared the results “unambiguous” in the rejection of any Bradley Effect. Still, there were 22% of U.S. counties that increased their vote for Republican John McCain, and they are concentrated in places like my home state, Arkansas (see here). Obama actually did ten points worse among white women than John Kerry did in 2004. Some I’ve talked to here think that was due to a “Hillary Effect,” but I don’t buy that, given her endorsement and campaigning for him, as well as their policy similarities. See the following table, which breaks down the white votes for states in the southern/southeastern U.S. (McCain’s percent is listed first in each category):


AL —– 88-9—– 88-12—– 88-10

AR —– 68-30—– 67-31—– 68-30

FL—– 55-42—– 57-42—– 56-42

GA—– 78-21—– 74-26—– 76-23

KY—– 64-34—– 63-36—– 63-36

LA—– 83-16—– 85-13—– 84-14

MS—– 90-9—– 87-13—– 88-11

SC—– 76-23—– 70-29—– 73-26

TN—– 64-31—– 63-36—– 63-34

As Blumenthal has noted, it’s difficult to tell if the Bradley Effect was a factor in these states, since so few polls were taken in these states—being considered safe states for McCain quite early during the cycle. However, the few polls I have reviewed do suggest that white support was higher in the polls than what occurred on Election Day. But regardless whether the Bradley Effect was involved or not, what explains such overwhelming support of McCain over Obama in these states? I think that there is a whitewash in effect for yet another slice (certainly an important one) of U.S. history, in which powerful whites interpret an event that credits whites for its successes (while often marginalizing nonwhites for the successes or even demonizing nonwhites for the failures; see the Prop 8 coverage, as Jessie discussed or atfor example ).

Obama’s victory in Florida, for example, was essentially due to his support from Latino/a voters. Second, I think there is yet another attempted denial of white racism, still alive and well in our society. This election certainly presented us evidence of regional—as well as generational, educational, community type, etc.—differences among whites and how it affects their voting patterns. White denials of racism require selective consciousness and attention to events. Now we have to listen to commentators discuss the “end of racism,” despite the evidence in the data that it indeed persists.

(Note from Joe: also see the correlational analysis by Charles Franklin of the black vote versus the total white vote. He concludes thus:

There is considerable variation in the percentage of whites who voted for Obama. Where African Americans made up less than 20% of the vote (according to exit polls), whites varied from 30% to 60% in their support for Obama but with no relationship to the size of the African American vote. As the African American electorate rose above 20%, white support for Obama fell sharply to barely 10%.


“Race” Will Affect Senator Obama’s Chances. A Gallup Survey

Over at the Gallup website, Frank Newport reports that “Most [Americans] Say Race Will Not Be a Factor in Their Presidential Vote.” In a recent Gallup phone survey of 1,102 “adult” respondents nationally (plus an extra sample of Black Americans), Gallup reported this chart on how people feel about the impact of Senator Obama being Black on votes for him:



The largest percentages of both groups are guessing there will be little effect, with about a fifth estimating some gain. It seems likely that Blacks and whites have different groups in mind too when they are thinking about “gains” here. The “cost him votes” position is chosen by 28 percent of Blacks and 26 percent of whites. It is my educated guess that this 26 percent of whites is likely the minimum percentage of whites who will actually vote against Senator Obama in November just because he is Black. The percentage is much lower when whites are asked directly about whether his being Black might affect their vote (just 6 percent in this survey), but social desirability likely kicks in when whites are responding about personal racial views to a stranger over the phone. New research on backstage racism (see also here) certainly suggests there is a very high level of antiblack thinking in much of the white population today, and this is certainly going to affect voting patterns in November 2008.


Gallup also presents another chart from this national survey that indicates respondents’ choices on a question about whether the Republican Party is likely to use “race as an issue” this November. That pattern is thus:

Some 70 percent of black respondents think the Republican Party is very or somewhat likely to make use of “race” in the campaign, compared to a still sizeable but smaller 49 percent of whites.Well, actually, this has already happened, just to take one major example, in the widely discussed case of Dr. Jeremiah Wright, whose story has been widely circulated by various Republican groups and sympathizers in the mass media. These attacks are usually straight out of a white racist framing of African Americans and their leaders.We have also seen recently overtly racist attacks on Michelle Obama from Republican Party activists and their right-wing sympathizers in the media (like Michelle Malkin who defended Fox in the “baby mama” slur).

(Note: These Gallup respondents are not registered voters, so that makes interpretations of their possible voting behavior somewhat less clear. Gallup also asks quite weak questions on these racial issues and voting, apparently with no follow-up questions asking about why people give such answers. Given how central racism is to the election this year, it seems yet another sign of the white racial framing, that many relevant questions are not asked and answered. Also, why do they not do some focus groups to get at how whites and others articulate these views in their own words?)

Did Whites in N.H. Overstate Support for Obama?

While conservatives are quick to point to support for Obama among white voters as evidence that there is no racism in the U.S., but there’s little evidence for this position.   Instead, the recent results in New Hampshire – in which pollsters widely predicted a victory for Obama but Clinton won by a wide margin – suggests that perhaps whites are overstating their support for Obama.   In an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times by Andrew Kohut, current president of the Pew Research Center and a former Gallup pollster, writes:

“gender and age patterns tend not to be as confounding to pollsters as race, which to my mind was a key reason the polls got New Hampshire so wrong.”

Kohut goes on to suggest that the problem in the polling in New Hampshire is the:

“longstanding pattern of pre-election polls overstating support for black candidates among white voters.”

And, he gives an example of how this can result in a miscall of an election from his own experience as a pollster:

“In 1989, as a Gallup pollster, I overestimated the support for David Dinkins in his first race for New York City mayor against Rudolph Giuliani; Mr. Dinkins was elected, but with a two percentage point margin of victory, not the 15 I had predicted.”

Kohut contends that the error is not because whites as a whole “lied” or overstated their support for the black candidate.  Instead, Kohut says the problem has to do with  “poorer and less well-educated” whites who are more likely to refuse surveys and less likely to view black candidates favorably.    He says that the polling today is better at gauging support for black candidates, however…:

“… the difficulties in interviewing the poor and the less well-educated persist.”

What’s interesting to me here is that Kohut doesn’t pursue the original premise that he started out with, that whites are overstating their support for Obama, but instead ends up placing the blame for the miscall on the “poor and less well-educated.”  The analysis of why the polling in New Hampshire missed so badly is still under review, but I think an important part of that analysis needs to be examining the classic methodological flaw of “social desirability.”  In this instance, it may be that whites understand that the “socially desirable” response is to say that they support a black candidate when in fact they can’t bring themselves to actually cast their ballot across racial lines.

Pew Report on Racial Views Deeply Flawed

On November 13, 2007, the Pew Research Center released a report on racial views of white and black Americans that captured much media attention and some response from bloggers. Much of the report’s analysis is odd, misguided, or weakly interpreted. The report, done in association with National Public Radio, is based on a telephone survey of more than 3,000 Americans, including an over-sample of 1007 African Americans, with only a 24 percent response rate.

The summary of the report on the Pew Research Center website is itself odd, misleading, and/or white-framed in much of it analysis of the state of racial matters in the United States. For example, the lead heading for this summary is in a large font size and virtually screams “Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class.” The first pie chart is headed with “Are Blacks Still a Single Race?” And, the first paragraph of textual analysis reads:

“African Americans see a widening gulf between the values of middle class and poor blacks, and nearly four-in-ten say that because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race.”

In the first place, these are not the most significant findings in the survey from the point of view of a country with nearly four centuries of racial oppression as its foundation and continuing reality. The most important findings of the Pew survey are those that are not emphasized in the heading of the summary of the report on the website: that more than 80 percent of the African American respondents reported widespread racial discrimination in at least on major area of the society. Two thirds reported that African Americans always or often face discrimination in jobs or In seeking housing. Fifty percent said the same for shopping and restaurants. Also significant is that the survey found a majority of whites denying these realities reported by African Americans. (Is it odd to ask the discriminating group if they see the discrimination they or their peers do, and parallel that finding to what are called the “perceptions” of the targets of that discrimination?) The summary’s comments on these questions are well down in the report and only generally characterized.

The summary writers also report on a vague question about the state of black progress higher up in the second paragraph of the summary of the report, one that indicates that only a fifth of the respondents think things are better today for blacks than five years ago and that less than half (44 percent) think life will be better for blacks in the future. Then they report that whites (why, again?) are twice as likely to see black gains in recent years, and that a majority of whites think the future will be better for blacks.

The analysis is clearly framed from a white perspective, with no lead-in emphasis on the widespread racial discrimination cited by these African American respondents. Pleasing whites by not featuring the continuing racial discrimination seems to be the desire. Considering that whites created centuries of slavery and legal segregation, and ended all that less than four decades ago, this approach is suggestive of an establishment bias.

The opening story about a “divided race” is also problematic. The conclusions about a divided racial group mainly come from two questions in the survey, one asking “In the last ten years . . . have the values held by middle class black people and the values held by poor black people become more similar or more different” and another rather odd question asking, “Which of these statements comes closer to your view, even if it is not exactly right: Blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race because the black community is so diverse; OR Blacks can still be thought of as a single race because they have so much in common.” On the first question 61 percent of the black respondents replied “more different,” while on the second question 53 percent said “single race” (37 percent chose “no longer . single race . so diverse”).

These questions are themselves so superficial as to be hard to interpret if not useless. The first question actually leaves out half of Black America, the working class half that is neither “poor” nor “middle class.” One cannot draw strong conclusions about the supposedly divided state of Black America and leave out half the population. In addition, the largely white-controlled (and often conservative) mass media hammer so hard on the “pathologies” of poor black Americans that it is not surprising that some black as well as many white respondents have stereotyped notions about the supposed (negative?) “values” of these poor Americans, most of whom in fact have many of the same positive values as the rest of the U.S. population with regard to issues of family, education, and the American dream. Significant here too is that the word “values” is left vague and undefined. What did the question (white) writers have in mind?

The question about “single race” is also so vague and ill-defined that its results are hard to interpret. First, a majority of these black respondents do not see a divided race, a finding that is not emphasized in the Pew report. Secondly, the word “diverse” in the question can mean several things, since it is not specified for the respondents. What kind of diversity do the respondents have in mind who chose the first presented option? The resulting data indicate more about poor question-writing by the survey researchers than a finding one can feel confident about interpreting. One also has to wonder again about the role of the mostly white-controlled mass media in generating inaccurate notions of a splintered African Americans group even in some African American minds.

Several conservative talk show hosts and mainstream media commentators, including Juan Williams for NPR, picked up on another vaguely worded, and loaded, question asked in the survey: “Which of these statements comes closer to your views: Racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead OR Blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Fifty-three percent chose the latter option, with 30 percent choosing the discrimination option. Again, this is written from a white racial frame, as it poses a false dichotomy. One can easily choose both options of individual responsibility and racial discrimination in assessing the problems for “many black people.”

Racial discrimination and oppression, as other questions in the survey mentioned above indicate, are well recognized by a majority of these African American respondents as creating very serious limitations on black lives–a view that is unsurprising given that this country has only had freedom from slavery and legal segregation now for about 38 of its 400 years (less than 10 percent of its history!). Given the intense accent on individualism, it is not surprising that African Americans, like other Americans, typically accent individual responsibility for what goes on in individual lives. That does not lessen the reality of racial oppression, nor their knowledge of that oppression from everyday experience.

Racism & Education: 50 Years After Little Rock

Most of the major news outlets today are running stories about the fiftieth anniversary of the date when Minnijean Brown Trickey and eight other black teenagers, escorted by 1,200 soldiers through spitting and jeering white crowds, desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The integration of Central High School stands in stark contrast to the recent events at the high school in Jena, and to the racial pattern of school discipline throughout the nation. Howard Witt writing in an article in the Chicago Tribune (and republished at Common Dreams), notes that nationwide:

“African-American students are almost 60 times as likely as white students to be expelled for serious disciplinary infractions. “

Yet, it’s not that black students are no more likely to misbehave than other students. The social science data suggest that’s not what is happening. Quoting Russell Skiba, a professor of educational psychology at Indiana University whose research focuses on race and discipline issues in public schools, Witt’s article continues:

“There simply isn’t any support for the notion that, given the same set of circumstances, African-American kids act out to a greater degree than other kids. In fact, the data indicate that African-American students are punished more severely for the same offense, so clearly something else is going on. We can call it structural inequity or we can call it institutional racism.”

Of course, it’s not just about sitting in detention either. As Witt notes, tudies show that a history of school suspensions or expulsions is a strong predictor of future trouble with the law-and the first step on what civil rights leaders have described as a “school-to-prison pipeline” for black youths, who represent 16 percent of U.S. adolescents but 38 percent of those incarcerated in youth prisons.

Sterilization and Women of Color

In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, activists and academics noticed a widespread trend among women of color: sterilization. The particular type of sterilization is medically referred to as “tubal ligation” and commonly known as getting one’s tubes tied. It permanently terminates a woman’s ability to have children. Concern over widespread abuse emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s when it was found that disproportionate numbers of African American, American Indian, Puerto Rican, and Mexican origin women were undergoing the surgery compared to European American women. One of the cases that brought racially-targeted sterilization abuse to national attention was the 1973 case of the Relf sisters—two African American early adolescent-aged sisters who were sterilized at an Alabama family planning clinic that received federal funds.

The sterilizations of Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf were performed by the Family Planning Clinic of the Montgomery Community Action Committee which was funded and controlled, at the federal level, by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). This case is often cited as an exemplar of sterilization abuse in the form of surgical sterilization, but the case involved other dimensions of reproductive abuse such as the use of the Relf sisters (including Minnie Lee and Mary Alice’s older sister Katie, aged 17) as guinea pigs for “investigational drugs” (i.e., Depo-Provera injections twenty years prior to their approval by the Food and Drug Administration).

Parental permission for the administration of these shots was never sought nor obtained. In early March 1973, Katie Relf was taken to the Family Planning Clinic for insertion of a dangerous IUD (intra-uterine device) without permission sought from parents. Katie, as a minor, acquiesced at the urging of clinic staff to accept insertion of the device. Several months later, a clinic Nurse picked up Mrs. Relf and her two youngest daughters and drove them to a physician’s office. Mrs. Relf thought the girls were being taken for the shots that they had been receiving. From the doctor’s office, and having not spoken with anyone, Mrs. Relf and her daughters were then transported to the local hospital where the girls were assigned a room. Hospital staff asked Mrs. Relf, unable to read or write, to put an ‘X’ on a consent form authorizing tubal sterilization for her youngest daughters. No informed consent was sought nor were details on the nature of the surgical procedure provided. After signing, Mrs. Relf was driven home.
Minnie Lee and Mary Alice were left alone in the hospital ward where a nurse came in and had Minnie Lee sign a false document indicating that she was over age twenty-one (she was in fact fourteen years old). Minnie Lee did not understand what the document meant or authorized. At this point, neither the parents nor the daughters met the physician who was going to perform the operation nor were the two young adolescents or parents aware of what was going to happen to them. Before the operation, Minnie Lee borrowed change from another patient in the ward, called her mother, and asked her mother to take her and her sister home. However, Mrs. Relf did not have any means of getting to the hospital. The next morning, both sisters were placed under an anesthetic and surgically sterilized. A little known fact is that on the same day the nurse picked up Minnie Lee and Mary Alice, and brought them to the clinic, she returned to the Relf home and attempted to pick up Katie, the eldest sister, to go to the hospital for sterilization. Katie locked herself in her room, refusing to go.

The complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) indicated that this was abusive and coercive because 1) neither the mother nor her daughters ever sought to for the two young women to be surgically sterilized, 2) prior to the operation neither the mother nor daughters met the physician who would perform the operation, and 3) before the operation no physician or other healthcare provider discussed the consequences of tubal sterilization with either the mother or the daughters (Relf vs. Weinberger 1974). During the trial one of the sisters was asked if she planned to have children and she answered “yes”, which indicates she was never made aware of the consequences of the surgery. Furthermore, as noted in the legal complaint filed by the SPLC:

When Community Action moved the Relfs to a public housing project in 1971, the Family Planning Service began the unsolicited administration of experimental birth control injections to Katie. No parental permission was sought or given. Indeed, the agency sought out the Relf children as good experimental subjects for their family planning program. The F.D.A. approved this experimental drug for use by the Family Planning Service of the Montgomery Community Action Committee (p. 9).

In addition to the use of the daughters as unwilling test subjects for Depo-Provera, the clinic used federal funds to pay for the surgery. The main reason the clinic stopped injecting the girls with Depo-Provera shots is because it was found to cause cancer in lab animals and thus it was decided that sterilization would be an appropriate substitute for the shots. Not long after the Relf case, many other African American, Native American, and Latina women came forth with similar stories. This case is illustrative of a larger pattern of reproductive abuse targeted at women of color. While many cite it as a case of sterilization abuse, the case has greater significance because the it touches upon all elements of racially targeted reproductive abuse: coercive surgical sterilization, assumptions about the sexual behavior of two young women of color, use of a dangerous unapproved sub-permanent sterilizing drug (Depo-Provera), coercing “consent” to have an IUD inserted (Katie), and manipulating parents through the welfare system to allow their children to be used as a ‘test case’ for the state to see if it could limit the reproductive abilities of women of color. In the end, two young women, at the age of 12 and 14 were robbed of their ability to have children thereby stripping them of their human right to procreate.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri, an American Indian physician, began looking into the sterilization of American Indian women after a twenty-six year old patient walked into her Los Angeles clinic and asked for a “womb transplant”. The patient was told by the doctor, who had performed a complete hysterectomy on her, that the surgery was reversible. The woman left the clinic in tears. Dr. Pinkerton-Uri then performed her own investigation and found that nearly 1 in 4 (or 25 percent) of American Indian women had been sterilized. Her research indicated that Indian Health Services (IHS) facilities “…singled out full-blooded Indian women for sterilization procedures.” The Government Accounting Office performed a study to refute Dr. Pinkerton-Uri’s allegations that only studied four of the twelve IHS facilities. However, their findings were consistent with Pinkerton-Uri’s conclusions.

The extremely high rate of sterilization, many scholars contend, fits within the parameters of the United Nations’ definition of genocide which includes acts that specifically limit the number of births within a group.

Recent data show widespread racialized variation in sterilization. For example, my tabulation of the 2002 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey data indicate that African American, American Indian, and Latin American women (age 18-44) have a very high rate of tubal sterilization compared to European American women. In 2002, 32.9 percent of American Indian women, 26.2 percent of African American women, and 25.5 percent of Latinas reported having a tubal ligation compared to 18.9 percent of European American women. Given the past history of sterilization abuse in the United States directed at women of color, the current extremely high disparities suggest that similar such practices may have continued into the twenty-first century.

Women of color have actively fought against abuses against reproductive rights since slavery. Two contemporary organizations fighting for the reproductive rights of all women include: SisterSong, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence

Context for Jena: Criminal (In)Justice in America

Several of the white commentators on the corporate-broadcast media outlets last night wondered aloud what I’m sure many whites in America were wondering: why was there such an outcry about the events in Jena?

In his lead-in to the NBC Nightly news report “Why are protestors coming to Jena?” (video available here) Brian Williams says:

“There have been many racially-tinged cases in this country over the years, so why has this one prompted all these people — thousands of them as we said — to make their way to what is, after all, a six stoplight town in the middle of Louisiana?”

The report that follows, filed by Mike Tiabbi, is not completely uncritical, but missteps by ignoring the key, critical point about the underlying issues beneath the Jena-protests: the criminal (in)justice system in America. According to data published in a report by Marc Mauer’s non-profit The Sentencing Project:

“African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six (5.6) times the rate of whites and Hispanics nearly double (1.8) the rate.

Three states – Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania – have a Hispanic-to-white ratio of incarceration more than three times the national average.

Prior research from the Department of Justice has demonstrated that if current trends continue, one in three black males and one in six Hispanic males born today can expect to go to prison. Rates for women are lower overall, but exhibit similar racial and ethnic disparities.”

For the last several years, I’ve worked on a research project focused on the incarceration of adolescents at Rikers Island here in New York City, and I can tell you that the jails here in the city, like those in the Jena, Louisiana, are filled with Black and Latino people, not whites. There are lots of sociological factors at play in these kinds of racial disparities — a political economy built on racial inequality, an on-going lack of job opportunities, especially for those who have been incarcerated, and an inherently unequal educational system — but one of the key factors in is the institutional racism built into every aspect of the criminal (in)justice system, from policing, to the courts, to the massive prison-industrial complex. What most white Americans don’t understand — and the mainstream media certainly doesn’t help clarify — is that the protests in Jena are not a response to an isolated incident but rather, a response to the criminal (in)justice system in America.