I just did a detailed interview on my decades of research on systemic white racism with the leading philosopher of racial issues, George Yancy, at the New York Times Opinionator blog, the Stone. See this link.
There is an epidemic in our country. Other epidemics like obesity and AIDS create injustice in the body, but this one creates injustice in our society and the ways in which we relate to one another. We have a name for this disease: colorblindness.
What are the symptoms of colorblindness? The most notable is the refusal to admit that the color of a person’s skin affects that person’s opportunities in America. Other symptoms include a callous rationalization of racial violence, a denial of one’s own racial prejudices, a minimization of ubiquitous bigotry, and, in extreme cases, a belief that race is a personal choice.
Let’s take a look at some recent cases of this rampant disease. Several weeks ago, Tahera Ahmad ordered a can of soda on a United Airlines flight. For sanitary reasons, she requested an unopened can, but she was denied. “Big deal,” you might think. “It’s probably just some obscure airline regulation about canned drinks, right?” Unfortunately, no. This was a symptom of America’s insidious disease.
This isn’t about me and a soda can. It’s about systemic injustice that is perpetuated throughout our community.
That systemic injustice is influenced in part by color-blindness, which allows the privileged to overlook or even to justify their most horrific prejudices. On this United Airlines flight, nobody stood up for Ahmad when another passenger told her to “f… off” and said that Ahmad “would use [the unopened can] as a weapon.” How can anyone claim that racist institutions can be relegated to a “dark chapter in America’s history” when blatant discrimination like this occurs on a major American airline? The answer is simple: the narrative of colorblindness states that color doesn’t matter anymore, that minorities have won the battle for equal treatment, and that they no longer have any reason to think they are oppressed.
It appears that United Airlines has a bad case of colorblindness. It is an institution and its top priority is not social progress; it is self-preservation. In their apology to Tahera Ahmad, representatives of United did not mention anything about discrimination. They did not mention racism or Islamophobia. For them, it was a matter of rudeness and bad customer service. They simply did not see that being non-White and Muslim has a painful effect on American citizens.
Another incident of colorblindness was highlighted in some of the responses to the recent shooting in South Carolina. The culprit, a young White man named Dylann Roof, shot and killed nine Black worshippers during Bible study. To give you some background, by Roof’s own account, he was not raised in a racist home or educated in a racist school; he was a racist by choice. After reading racist texts about the “Jewish problem” in 1940s Europe, Roof accepted a racist ideology and wrote his own racist manifesto, in which he systematically described the unique failings of everyone who was not White. This racism and nothing else motivated his murder of nine Blacks in a historically Black church.
The reality is clear, but America’s severe case of colorblindness produced an incomplete and distorted response from its politicians. Lindsey Graham (SC-R) claimed that Roof was just “one of these whacked out kids” and “obviously twisted.” Jeb Bush called it “tragic,” and Rick Perry called it “unspeakable.” Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee sent their heartfelt prayers via tweet, and Rick Santorum called the event “an attack on religious liberty.” Ben Carson called it an act of “hate” and “intolerance.” To Donald Trump, it was “incomprehensible.” To Hillary Clinton, just “heartbreaking.”
But what is truly tragic, unspeakable, whacked out, twisted, incomprehensible, and heartbreaking is the fact that only one presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), responded to this undeniably racial attack by bringing up race. He had the sense to describe the incident as a “reminder of the ugly stain of racism on our country” and of the fact that we are “far from eradicating racism.” Thank you, Bernie.
As for the other future leaders of our country, it appears that they, too, have been infected and debilitated by a resistant strain of color-blindness. They refuse to admit that the color of a person’s skin still affects that person’s opportunities in America. They rationalize racial violence as religious intolerance, mental disturbance, or unexplainable hatred. They deny the terrifying strength of racial prejudices. They minimize the role of bigotry. It seems they are blind to the racial realities of our times, and they are of no help to the non-Whites who still struggle, on a daily basis, for equality, freedom, and justice.
In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the commencement address at Oberlin College. He said:
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through…tireless efforts and persistent work… [and] without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.
The more the Civil Rights movement sinks into the background of our minds as an event in “history,” the more the epidemic of colorblindness incapacitates us. So long as our government and corporations deny their daily institutional complicity in the racial violence we see nearly every day in America, we will remain trapped in a cycle of oppression and denial.
I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. King. Colorblindness is like any other epidemic. It will not eradicate itself over time. It needs treatment, and it needs it now. Every day that we spend waiting for a cure is another day that the disease of color-blindness has triumphed. What should you do? A better question might be, What can you do? Because you should do everything you can.
First, it is essential to write your representatives and demand that they publicly admit the persistent problem of racism in America. Demand that they serve the diverse body of voters who elected them—not just the interests of Whites or otherwise privileged people. Demand that they open the political discussion to include race and that they address the shambles in which America’s current racial understanding lies.
Second, talk about race. Have earnest discussions, and follow them up with action. Remember that a thousand mile march begins with a single step. Let’s take a step today.
Many of the facts surrounding the recent challenges to affirmative action are not well known to the general public. A “perfect storm” has brought into question the survival of even modest, race-sensitive, non-preferential admissions programs designed to enhance campus diversity in higher education. This storm has arisen from three major sources. First, the term “affirmative action” has caused a backlash in (especially white) public opinion against programs believed to unfairly disadvantage white Americans. Second, wealthy white entrepreneurs have recruited plaintiffs and actively sponsored legal challenges to both civil rights and affirmative action programs. And third, a conservative Supreme Court has decided to hear these cases, resulting in the elimination, revision, or curtailment of existing civil rights laws and race-sensitive admissions programs. Critics indicate that the determinations of Chief Justice John Roberts’ conservative high court reflect a post-racial, color-blind perspective that contradict the continuing presence of race-based inequality in the United States. Roberts’ view is summed up in the 2007 Parents Involved v. Seattle School District; Jefferson County Board of Education (127 S. Ct. 2738): “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
As Alvin Evans and I share in our new book, Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, deep ironies and contradictions characterize the Supreme Court’s determinations in the civil rights arena and in the four major affirmative action-related lawsuits over the past thirty-five years. The Court has constricted and even reversed civil rights law on the premise that social conditions of inequality in America have, for the most part, been addressed with the conclusion that policies designed to level the higher educational playing field are both unfair and unnecessary.
Reinterpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) is at the center of the high court’s determinations, moving from the original intent of the clause to protect the rights of minorities to an emphasis on the protection of all groups, including white Americans. For example, in the Fisher case, Justice Antonio Scalia voiced his incredulity over the argument that the Fourteenth Amendment protects minorities:
My goodness, I thought we’ve–we’ve held that the 14th Amendment protects all races. I mean, that was the argument in the early years, that it protected only — only the blacks. But I thought we rejected that. You–you say now that we have to proceed as though its purpose is not to protect whites, only to protect minorities?”
Legal scholar Derrick Bell’s theory of interest convergence explains how affirmative action arose during the civil rights era as a response to the radical protests and converged with other interests that were differently motivated. The creation of contemporary affirmative action programs by President John F. Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson in the midst of periods of extreme racial turbulence coincides with the development of race-conscious admissions policies by leading universities.
Ironically, the frontal attack on affirmative action in university admissions practices leading to an overall shift in public policy at the nation’s leading universities has been led by a single individual, Edward Blum. Blum’s one-person organization, the Project on Fair Representation, was founded in 2005 to challenge the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This effort paved the way for the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision nullifying the requirement for nine states and some counties to obtain preclearance from the Department of Justice prior to changing voting requirements. A conservative entrepreneur without a law degree or scholarly background, Blum has recruited a network of top lawyers who often agree to offer their services at reduced rates.
In launching a sustained, legal assault on affirmative action, Blum recruited Abigail Fisher, the daughter of an old friend, to contest her denial of admission to the University of Texas at Austin based on a claim of reverse discrimination. The Court’s ruling in the Fisher case established a much more stringent set of preconditions for consideration of race as one factor among many in a holistic admissions process. First, consideration of race and ethnicity as one factor among many in the individualized admissions review process cannot occur unless all race-neutral alternatives have been exhausted. Second, a reviewing court rather than the university becomes the arbiter of whether or not a university’s use of race is necessary to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy emphasized that in reviewing the means to attain diversity, “the university receives no deference.” Referring to the Court’s decision in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case at the University of Michigan, Kennedy added:
Grutter made it clear that it is for the Courts, not for university administrators, “to determine that the means chosen to accomplish the government’s purpose are “specifically and narrowly framed to accomplish that purpose.”
The Project on Fair Representation has continued its effort to recruit plaintiffs and filed suit against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Harvard lawsuit takes a different tack by splintering minority interests and building on the white-created “model minority” myth. It focuses on admissions policies limiting the enrollment of qualified Asian-American applicants and argues that Harvard has held Asian American students to higher standards than other applicants. The suit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill challenges that flagship institution’s own description in a friend-of-the-court brief in the Fisher case in which the university wrote of its current process to attain a higher level of black enrollment. Blum also says that he hopes to find applicants rejected from the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Tennessee for future suits.
Edward Blum’s most recent high-profile effort challenges the concept of one person one vote, that has led to the Supreme Court decision last week to hear Evenvel v. Abbott, a suit that contests the way state districts’ lines are drawn in Texas. The case calls into question the Court’s Reynolds v. Sims decision (1964) that draws district lines based on an areas’s total population. Instead, Blum advocates the drawing of district lines based only on eligible voters, thereby eliminating children, illegal immigrants, non-citizen, and inmates, among others.
Yet as colleges and universities grapple with the Supreme Court’s rigorous requirements surrounding race-sensitive admissions processes, one unforeseen benefit may be the attention that needs to be paid to clearly-articulated mission, vision and values statements. These statements now need to contextualize why diversity is a compelling interest for a given college or university campus. In sharing recommendations for practice at the conclusion of our book, we note the ongoing and unusual responsibility of educational institutions to ensure the talent of the nation’s minority students is not wasted, but realized. The rich research literature on the educational benefits of diversity that has arisen in specific response to the recent affirmative action cases will assist institutions in the ongoing and persistent effort to open the doors of educational opportunity to America’s diverse citizenry.
Spike Lee himself might be surprised — saddened, perhaps — that the Black American-Asian American dilemma of ‘90s-era Brooklyn he portrayed in “Do the Right Thing” could be a scene playing out in Baltimore over a quarter of a century later. Recall that in the movie, after mostly black and brown Brooklynites burn down an Italian-American-owned pizzeria in response to the cops killing Radio Raheem, rioters approach a Korean green grocery and its owner, Sonny. He swings a broom to hold the crowd back, shouting in broken parlance, “I no White! I Black! You. Me. Same!”—upon which the rioters decide to spare his store.
But the iconic sixty-second scene does not show what the black and Latino rioters had been taught about Asian Americans like Sonny to make them target his store in the first place. Sadly, media portrayals have not come very far. Recent news reports about West Baltimore mute the same black-Asian history, and, unlike Spike Lee, paint the protestors as mostly hostile – and worse – racist. It’s no wonder that people, from bloggers to Duke professors, recycle the same tired stereotypes of earnest Asian American innocents and “thuggish” black American rioters — the former often the victim of the latter. When the race relations stakes in our country couldn’t be any higher, should the media be so retrograde?
Take NPR’s story that black-Asian American tension was the real race story in West Baltimore. Although the report notes in passing that some Blacks stood in harm’s way to protect Asian-owned stores, the only black voices we hear are from possibly two-faced patrons, from those who heartlessly taunt the Chinese American owner Tina Chen in her hollowed-out store—prompting her tears to fall, her voice to break –and those who feel that the anti-Asian arson was justifiable “payback” (even if not “reasonable”). Besides the fact that the overlay is too convenient and lopsided, these reports say nothing of the broader context – the racial history, the workings of elite power — that dangled in front of Blacks a “foreign model minority” myth about Asian Americans; that “they” aren’t really Americans but their success all the same made a mockery of “your” black failure. That is, they owned farms and homes, had good jobs and kept them, stormed Harvard and Stanford, and could skate or play violin at a world-class level – what have you done lately? — you want to cry racism when even the foreigners can “out-American” you?
Of course, the white elites don’t mention that this divide and conquer tactic was made possible by their own machinations of power: starting in the 1960s they drained the central cities of industry’s unionized, high-paying jobs; put nothing in their place; gutted strong civil rights and anti-poverty programs that would’ve helped; then demonized the black and Latino residents for being jobless, working the “illegal” economy, or simply speaking truth to power. Hello, under-served and over-policed West Baltimore. To add insult to injury, elite institutions made sure to pit the black and brown poor against selective cohorts of college-educated Asian immigrants, many of whom began showing up in central cities as new business owners when US institutions wouldn’t recognize their Asian credentials. To the black and brown residents, here was the “nemesis” filling in the nice shoes of the Italians and Jews before.
It’s no wonder that Spike Lee’s Brooklynites first thought of destroying Sonny’s lifeline, and it’s no wonder today that some of Baltimore’s protestors actually lit the match.
To be sure, Jeff Yang’s rebuke of the NPR report convincingly dispels the existence of widespread Asian-black tensions or the insinuation that they’re central to the rioting. Alliances between black and Asian ethnics certainly exist. Korean-American grocer associations donate hundreds of thousands in college scholarships to black students; Korean church leaders organize and sponsor African American ministers’ visits to heavily Christian Seoul; black Baltimoreans link arms and stop rioters from pillaging Asian-owned stores.
Yet, Yang’s CNN piece also seems to paint too rosy a picture of black-Asian rapport. He could’ve excoriated an American economic, political, and cultural system that makes Asian model minorities the foil for the blame placed on Blacks for West Baltimore. He could’ve devoted more lines to the fact that even if black and Asian Americans did not create these racial messages, they at the same time cannot escape them. And such racial frames do prompt some Blacks to burn and loot Asian-owned establishments; they do raise Asian American merchants’ suspicion and fear, and up goes the bullet-proof partition between them and their customers.
Make no mistake. Blacks and Asian ethnics do stereotype and mistreat one another. Yes, the two don’t always do the right thing. But Blacks didn’t write the laws that excluded Asian groups from the country or denied them citizenship because of how they looked – just as Asian Americans didn’t start the housing segregation that’s connected to today’s urban black poverty, like in Sandtown.And they most certainly didn’t make themselves into the caricatures we see in the news. Rather than turning black protestors into one-dimensional racists and Asian immigrants into hard-working victims, the news could start with the racial system that made both groups its victims. As Sonny would say, “You. Me. Same!”
April 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Pedro Albizu Campos, the notable leader of the struggle to free Puerto Rico from US colonial rule. Albizu was born in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce in 1891. His father was a Spanish Basque merchant and his mother a domestic worker of mixed African and indigenous Taino background. Albuzu grew up in humble circumstances. His parents never married and Albizu’s father did not officially recognize him as his son (filed legal documents) until Albizu was at Harvard.
He was a brilliant student. Although he did not start his schooling until he was 12, he finished his elementary education and high school in seven and a half years. He received a scholarship from the University of Vermont to study engineering and his performance was so outstanding that a professor recommended him for admission to Harvard.
During his stay at Harvard, Albizu completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Letters, the requirements of a Chemical Engineer, and a Law Degree. He learned Portuguese, French, Italian, and German as well as Latin and Greek.
Albizu was a victim of crass racism at “august” Harvard, where he was robbed of an academic honor. He had the highest grade-point average in his Law class and as a result it fell upon him to deliver the valedictory speech. He never got the chance. One of his professors delayed Albizu’s third-year final exams so that Albizu could not graduate on time. The professor wanted to avoid the “embarrassment” of a Puerto Rican law valedictorian. Sensitive to US racism, Albizu published in 1932 a letter accusing a US physician, Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads, of killing Puerto Ricans as part of his research. Someone gave Albizu a letter that Dr. Rhoads wrote to a friend where he made savagely racist comments about Puerto Ricans and advocated their genocide. He also admits that he killed Puerto Rican patients and transplanted cancerous tumors into others:
They [Puerto Ricans] are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. It makes you sick to inhabit the same island with them. They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more. [My emphasis]
In light of these experiences with US racism, it is not surprising that Albizu joined the movement that pursued Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States. In 1930 he became president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. His nationalist militancy resulted in three separate prison sentences and died in prison. Again: A brilliant man and a Harvard graduate who still came face-to-face with racism in the US.
Municipal violation you say? Such a lofty term, but to many it simply translates to a heedless financial hassle. Many of us have received parking and/or speeding tickets in our past. I myself have racked up my share as a lead-footed and non-paying-metered teen and college student.
Boring topic, right? But when one begins to peel the layers back, they encounter a metaphoric fetid smell surrounding an intricate topic of injustice, judicial misappropriation, and economic subjugation concerning the poor. For many with the monetary means and legal resources, a hit to the bank account and possibly some time with your attorney is procurable. But for a certain segment of the U.S. population that continue to be overlooked (with the exception of amusing attempts during presidential elections) due to their economic status or racial makeup, these so-called small municipal violations can lead to dire financial and criminal consequences.
Case in point, the findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ) during the week of March 5th. They revealed that the city council of Ferguson, Missouri was successful at maximized their city fiscal revenue by urging the local police department to issue more tickets for minor offenses. With very little applicability toward the ultimate goal of ensuring public safety, Ferguson police not only habitually, but competitively amongst themselves conducted traffic stops and issued citations. The DOJ report went as far to state that,
“‘Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter.”
The moral and legal corruption did not stop with the police department and city council. The DOJ described how municipal court judges are influenced by their appointed city council members to generate revenue from the bench as well. In fact, their job performance is partly based on their abilities to financial generation proceeds to the city’s coffers.
An internal report in 2011 noted that regardless of municipal judge Ronald Brockmeyer’s failure to perform justly (i.e., not listening to testimony, reviewing relevant reports/criminal records of defendants, or allowing relevant witnesses appear for testimony before issuing a verdict), a requested reappointment was denied due to his illustrated previous ability to contribute to the city revenue from the bench. Further, the report stated:
“…it goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures.”
The impact of said findings are even more pronounced when accounting for population trends. In 2013, Ferguson, a city with a population of 21,135 citizens issued approximately 32,975 arrests warrants. These warrants were issued for people mostly accused of non-violent driving violations, parking tickets, and housing code intrusions. In 2012, the city of collected 2.6 million dollars in municipal court fines and fees. Racially, statistics indicate that Blacks are disproportionately affected. Respectively, it has been shown that 86 percent and 12.7 percent of Black and White motorist were stopped. This is astounding when one recognizes that the population of Blacks and Whites are 67 and 29 percent respectively. In addition, In regard to traffic stops, Blacks citizens are stopped, searched, and arrested approximately two times more than their White counterparts.
Since there are no public defenders assigned to municipal courts, many of the 22 percent living below the poverty line who may have been on the wrong side of luck and consequentially arrested for frivolous traffic accounts, do not have access to free, and definitely not paid legal representation. Due to their inability to pay court fines, many defendants perform the “Curly Shuffle” and avoid court. Even if they did happen to appear, employees of the court have reported that hearings have a likelihood of beginning 30 minutes before their designated time. Doors are often locked at least 5 minutes before the official time began. This sort of court supervised shell game leads to additional charges mounting for those appearing before the court.
But do not worry; there is help. But this type of assistance comes with an unadorned high price. But this is not uncommon in our nation. As always, there are parasites falsely disguised as saviors who prey on the weak and suffering. Unscrupulous companies such as Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and Sentinel Offenders Services are blindly used by the judicial system to subjugate countless people living in poverty. If you are unfamiliar with the scheme, here is how it goes:
Let’s say you received a speeding ticket in Alabama for driving less than 25 miles over the posted limit. The actual fee and cost of the ticket is 20 and 162 dollars respectively. This brings you to a whopping total of 182 “American dollars (insert verbal emphasis).” But do not forget you are working two part-time jobs and attempting to provide for your family alone. It is hard enough simply keeping the lights on and some food in your baby’s belly. You try, but ultimately you cannot pay the total cost of fines and cost of the speeding violation.
The city in which you live then puts you on “pay-only” probation. The state of probation is not to ensure that you are avoiding the bad elements of street or drug life. It is merely a form of probation that is in place to make sure the state collects that cash money (ex. Any fines, fees and associated court costs). But in order for this to occur, you must first pay a fee of 10 dollars to be enrolled in the probation (set up fee). Once enrolled, your new monthly obligation is to visit (regardless of your employment obligations) your local JCS to pay 140 dollars. The problem is, a place such as JCS pockets 40 dollars. But you find yourself now falling behind on your payments. Additional fees are accrued alongside your standing debt. All of which prolongs your involvement in the court system. This is how these for-profit companies get their take. Slowly but surely, you find yourself sinking more and more into that all too familiar financial pit of misery. A bothersome, but easily dealt with obligation for the financially able, is a heavy yoke not easily removed from the neck of the poor.
In response to such practices, advocacy and social justice groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have begun to fight for the marginalized. On behalf of Roxanne Reynolds, a federal lawsuit was filed on March 12, 2015 accusing JCS of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act due to their effort to extort funds from economically poor citizens of Alabama who fell behind on their payment plan. To coerce people, JCS used the threat of jail (debtors’ prison) to force people to continue with their payments. Attorney for SPLC stated that through court manipulation, places such as JCS have created a “two-tiered system of justice.” One tier houses those who can afford to pay and quickly settle all financial obligations. The other is occupied with those without the means who get entombed for months and possibly years in their system. ” In regards to Mrs. Reynolds, SPLC stated:
Reynolds earned very little on an assembly line making automobile parts. Plus, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to miss three months of work. When she fell behind on her payments, a JCS employee threatened her with jail. She did everything she could to pay. She ignored her mounting medical and utility bills. Once, she barely ate for a week. She was terrified about what would happen to her health in jail…Last year, Reynolds was finally able to pay off her debt – after 15 months and a four-day stint in jail.
Similar lawsuits have been filed throughout Alabama and Georgia. In Georgia for example, companies such as Sentinel Offender Services were extending “pay only” probation periods when citizens were unable to pay their costs. Further, in Sentinel Offender Services, LLC., v. Glover et al, (S14A1033 and S14X1036 et al., 2012, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that municipal courts cannot “legally lengthen a person’s misdemeanor sentence beyond what was originally ordered by the sentencing court.” In fact, the Court declared that probation companies do not have the authority to “put fee collections on hold–a practice called tolling–or extend a probation sentence.” There is a maximum sentence of twelve months for a misdemeanor conviction.
Now that I am thinking, this practice seems very familiar. Oh yes, white America has a funny way of revising its racial practices of oppression to fit with the times. If we look back throughout the American history books, one would stumble upon a period from the end of the Civil War until World War II were Blacks, especially Black males were forced into a state of compulsory slavery in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. In the eyes of Pulitzer Prize recipient Douglas Blackmon, these poor Blacks were seen to be involved in the practice of human labor trafficking. They were essentially sold to White owners of labor farms, timber mills, pine tar companies, and coal and road construction operations. These men were often physically and emotionally abused. Before being imprisoned, these men were initially jailed on trumped-up charges by paid off law enforcement officials (on the take of wealthy owners and compensated for their collection of Blacks). Once appearing before court, these kidnapped men were ordered to pay overpriced court costs or fines that resulted from their false charges. If they we unable to pay in court, local law officials gave them to rich land and business owners for as low as 25 dollars. Once the men were traded, they were told that they could not leave their employer until their debt was paid in full. Of course, this almost never occurred. Not only state, but also federal bodies of government knew of this practice. This custom continued in some form or fashion until the 1960s (Counter to Blackmon’s claim that it ended after WWII).
History does truly repeat itself. Again and Again, and . . . . . .
A new report by Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity Project (VoD) draws on interviews with at least 50 African-American, Latina/o, Asian-American and Native American students at each of four universities regarding their on-campus undergraduate experiences related to their racial/ethnic background, sex, or both. The co-authors, Paula Caplan and Jordan Ford, report on the students’ experiences of racist and sexist mistreatment that took shape in “microaggressions” or subtle, cumulative, and repetitive acts of marginalization and stereotyping.
The concept of “micro-inequities” has received considerable research attention and refers to small incidents of everyday discrimination that have replaced the more overt acts of discrimination characteristic of the pre-Civil Rights era. Micro-inequities can be unspoken, repeated messages that may be invisible to others but send devaluing messages to the targets that hinder these individuals’ performance and impact self-esteem. The vocabulary of micro-inequities dates back to the 1970’s when Mary Rowe, Ombudsperson at MIT, noted the ephemeral, difficult-to-prove events that she saw as the “principal scaffolding for discrimination in the United States.” A more extensive taxonomy of these day-to-day behavioral indignities was developed by Gerald Wing Sue and others that includes microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.
Yet at what point do “micro-aggressions” become “macro-aggressions”? Take the experiences of mistreatment cited by a Latina senior quoted in the VoD study: “I go nuts. I do….it hurts so much, so much, it’s indescribable the way it makes you feel” (p. 40). The Latina senior goes on to say, “My whole body becomes hot, and your eyes automatically become glassy, because you just feel so inferior….” Or the commentary of an African-American male student, “What can I do? I feel useless. I’m being hurt by this person. It’s messing with me emotionally.” The profound psychological damage caused by racism is not adequately captured in the term “micro-inequity” or “micro-aggression.” As Joe Feagin points out in Systemic Racism (2006), the pain of racism is part of lived experience and to begin to even calculate its costs “one would need to add…the other personal, family, and community costs over the centuries—the intense pain and suffering, the physical and psychological damage, the rage over injustice, and the huge loss of energy” that could have been used for other purposes (p. 20). Perhaps we need a new vocabulary to identify these high costs.
Similarly, consider the example that Alvin Evans and I cite in our new book, The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) of an African American faculty member who became the first African American department chair at his religiously-affiliated university. When he was first hired as one of the few African American faculty at that institution, a religious studies professor whose office was next to his refused to speak with him for 10 years:
He didn’t talk to me for 10 years, not a word. . . . He didn’t believe I was qualified, he didn’t believe that I was a real intellectual, I was only hired so that the university could say that we had Black professors.
In fact, the religious studies professor would talk about the African American faculty member with his door wide open so he could hear. Later, when the African American faculty member became chair, the religious studies professor had to speak with him. The chair would regularly ask him a question about diversity. The religious studies professor would inevitably answer, “I think we’re already diverse.” Needless to say, the chair was not invited to the religious studies professor’s retirement dinner.
Or in another interview study in 2012, we similarly found examples of the pain caused by exclusionary practices and behaviors in the workplace. For example, Claudia, an African-American administrator, was singled out in a staff meeting by her white male supervisor who was speaking of African-Americans in general: “Oh, I don’t mean you. You’re different, you’re an Oreo.’ Claudia responded, “You know, I’m sorry I think that most people would recognize that as being a racial slur.” The supervisor replied, “Oh I don’t mean that. You are one of them that has common sense.” The repeated actions of the supervisor caused Claudia extreme physical and psychological anguish:
When I had that very discriminatory supervisor, I had extremely high blood pressure. I was on three medications. They were at the maximum dosage and my blood pressure was still uncontrollable. My doctor kept telling me I needed to quit my job because he was said I was going to die. He said I was going to just have a stroke or heart attack because my blood pressure was so high.
These examples across the spectrum of students, faculty, and administrators illustrate the long-term psychological and physical damage resulting from what are more than microaggressions (actually, macroaggressions).
To counteract such practices, the Harvard VoD Project identifies the proactive work undertaken by Missouri State University, one of the institutional participants, to address the “silent suffering” of targets of racism and sexism and ensure that the experiences of minoritized students, faculty of color, and women are heard.
As Mark Warren indicates in Fire in the Heart (2010), building community is a process that must move us from passivity to positive action by “breaking down that separateness and achieving something that is more than the sum of the parts” (p. 229). To do so, we must first face the difficult realities that the VoD identifies and then move toward a deepened collective understanding and common vocabulary that help us activate and operationalize practices that enhance inclusion on our campuses.
Note: My dear friend and colleague, the great and beloved Hérnan Vera, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, died yesterday after a long illness. His influence and impact on his colleagues, including his many students, will last for the ages. He practiced well the empathy about which we have written, as below (from 2010). RIP
The late Hérnan Vera and I have written about the importance of the breakdown of empathy as part of the creation of racist systems, including discrimination and its racial framing. We have coined the term “social alexithymia” for the inability of a majority of whites to relate to the commonplace, past and present, police brutality and other racial oppression faced by African Americans and other Americans of color.
Discover magazine’s blog reported in 2010 on research study by the Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti, who
recruited white and black Italian volunteers and asked them to watch videos of a stranger’s hand being poked. When people watch such scenes, it’s actually possible to measure their brain’s empathic tendencies. By simulating how the prick would feel, the brain activates the neurons of the observer’s hand in roughly the same place. These neurons become less excitable in the future. By checking their sensitivity, Avenanti could measure the effect that the video had on his recruits …. most interestingly of all, he found that the recruits (both white and black) only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, the volunteers were unmoved by the pain they saw.
Interestingly, like we have argued,
Avenanti actually thinks that empathy is the default state, which only later gets disrupted by racial biases. He repeated his experiment using brightly coloured violet hands, which clearly didn’t belong to any known ethnic group. Despite the hands’ weird hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed a strong empathic response, reacting as they would to hands of their own skin tone. … strong evidence that the lack of empathy from the first experiment stems not from mere novelty, but from racial biases.
He also gave the recruits the Implicit Association Test
which looks for hidden biases by measuring how easily people make positive or negative connections between different ethnic groups. For example, white Italians are typically quicker to associate positive words with the term “Italian” and negative ones with the term “African”. And the faster they make those connections, the greater the differences in their responses to the stabbed black and white hands. … All in all, Avenanti says when we see pain befall a person from our own racial group, it immediately triggers resonant activity in our own nervous system. When we see the same event happening to someone of a different race, these simulations are weaker and take longer to form.
These anti-empathetic reactions are most serious for those who have the greatest power to oppress others, to cause great, routine, and recurring pain in racialized others, which is typically whites in Europe and the United States.
In the U.S. case, whites’ recurring discriminatory actions targeting Americans of color — including thousands of police brutality and other malpractice incidents over the last decade — require a breakdown of normal human empathy. Most social theorists have missed the importance of the fact that all human life begins in empathetic networks–the dyad of mother and child. Usually central to these first networks is basic human empathy, a desire and ability to understand the feelings of others. Without empathy on the part of mothers and other relatives, no child would survive. As it develops, racial oppression severely distorts human relationships and desensitizes the minds of those oppressing others.
Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of racialized others. Psychiatrists use the term alexithymia to describe people unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, others. Hérnan and I have suggested going beyond this individualistic interpretation to a concept of social alexithymia.
Essential to being an oppressor is a significantly reduced ability to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by oppression. Social alexithymia thus seems essential to the creation and maintenance of a racist society.
What needs to be explained most is not the reality of human empathy and solidarity—the problem often stated by western philosophers–but rather how this empathy for others gets destroyed and how human beings develop anti-empathetic inclinations essential to racial oppression.
Yesterday morning after the Ferguson Grand Jury announcement that it would not indict officer Darren Wilson I woke up in a panic thinking the world was ending. I lay in bed buried in emotions and listened for sounds of the impending apocalypse outside my window. But it was quiet. At least, quiet where I live in an urban suburb of Seattle. To me this silence sat in jarring, atrocious contradiction to events of the night before and to the ongoing protests, outrage, and violence still happening all over the nation.
And I started thinking about disconnect. About how the racist system discourages human bonds because when we can’t empathize with each other, it makes it easier to keep us divided and the dominant hierarchy intact. It also makes it much, much harder to see the big picture: the systemic, pervasive nature of white-generated racism and its deep roots. We are pushed to be ahistorical and individualistic. If you scour the Internet right now, you can easily find boatloads of “I” pieces, posts, tweets, rants, etc. But how easy is it to find something that connects the dots across time and geography, and stirs within us some sort of visceral, heartfelt understanding that builds communal resistance?
I decided to launch a ten hour Twitter campaign during which I protest-tweeted every 15 minutes the face, name and age of an unarmed Black life taken by police or security since 1998, and it got some attention.
The method I used for this form of hashtag activism is worth mentioning for what it reveals about racism and visual narratives circulated through mainstream media and social media. I included place of death with the header ‘Unarmed. Shot. Killed’ under the hashtags #FergusonDecision #BlackLivesMatter. I used the same template for each tweet to show the continuous, connected and systemic nature of this violence. I also worked to use images of the victims that ran counter to stereotypical imaging of Black people – portrayed them as happy, educated, employed, family members, parents, human beings – to encourage not only person-to-person ties, but personal investment. What I discovered in locating these images was not very surprising. ‘Angry’ photos were used by social and new media far more frequently even though alternatives were available and if alternatives were used, signals of humanity were often cropped out rendering them more like mugshots.
Of the 40 Black lives I profiled, 65 percent were Black men under the age of thirty. Many were parents. More than we’d like to realize, were children. These profiles have gotten hundreds of retweets on Twitter so far and not nearly as many trolls as I would have thought. I have culled them together into a Storify slideshow below that frankly, really speaks for itself (scroll over the images to see text).
I hope you will join me in connecting with and sharing these stories, reflecting upon the profound unnecessary loss of life, and considering how far we still have to go in undoing racial inequity. In solidarity.
Karl Marx is quoted as saying, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Well the sounds of chains rattling were indeed heard last week on September 4th across the nation within over one hundred cities across the U.S. Sponsored in part by the Service Employees International Union, partakers within the cities of San Diego, Chicago, Las Vegas, Little Rock, New York, and Detroit raged “against the machine,” marched, and created civil disobedience while performing sit-ins outside your favorite fast-food restaurants. If you were lucky enough last week to be in line at McDonalds or Burger King waiting for your “McFlurry,” or one of those new “Big King Chicken” sandwiches, you might have had the chance to feast your eyes upon hundreds of fast-food workers and their supports proclaiming in unisons that the current living wages of most fast-food workers, which is approximately 7.25 an hour, would no longer suffice. If you were in a McDonald’s in Los Angeles’ Southland area, you may have had trouble listening for your food order, because 100 workers conveyed inside and chanted, “Get up! Get down! Fast-food workers run this town!” You might have even seen some of them, like others protesters across the country screaming for a 15 dollar an hour increase as local police forcibly escorted many of them to “The Pokie.”
The case of income inequality is back upon the stage of interests. Within the U.S., between 1979 and 2012,
the median wage earner became 74.5 percent more productive but saw just a 5 percent increase in pay, and since 2000, compensation has declined or stagnated for the bottom 70 percent.
Unlike when I was a teen in the late 1980s while working and goofing off at Burger King with my high school friends, today’s employees are disproportionately adults with families. In fact, the largest share of those working within these positions is between 25 and 54 years of age. This makes the findings by the Economic Policy Institute even more haunting. They reported that out of those fast food workers, 16.7 percent live below the poverty line. This number is double the percentage of those that do not work within the industry. On the other hand, CEO’s of these companies, on average earned 26.7 million in 2012.
If you heard of the events described above last week while watching CNN or Fox, you did not hear them broach the topic of race and gender. Importantly, fifty-six percent of those workers who were 20 years or older adults between 2010-2012, as reported by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, were women. In terms of race, 56.2 percent and 17.5 percent were respectively White and Black. One must remember Blacks only account for 13.2 percent of the country, while Whites account for 77.7 percent. The Urban Institute found that for every dollar Blacks earned in 2010, Whites earned two dollars.
Not so long ago, we as a country Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told us that we must challenge the issue of income inequality. He stated,
Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.
In 1956 Rev. Martin Luther King publicly argued for a world in which “privilege and property [are] widely distributed, a world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” It seems nothing has changed.
Regardless, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was an outspoken advocate of unions and workers rights. This is marked within his action to march with the United Workers Association (UAW) in 1963 in Detroit. His position is evident within the speech to sanitation workers in Memphis the night before he was assassinated in 1968. Also, one cannot forget the Poor People’s Campaign that addressed issues of economic injustice and poor housing opportunities, for not only Blacks, but also “all” people. Overall, the campaign stressed to the federal government to take actions that illustrated a strong stance to aid the poor. Sadly, his energies even garnished criticism inside and outside the civil rights movement.
Today, his work is echoed within the current movement to gain rights for food and other service workers. But the question remains, will the gauntlet of King be picked up or are the events last week fleeting and follow the characteristic lazy stance U.S. citizens have taken regarding domestic social justice? I am hopeful, but as Gil Scott-Heron noted in a live performance in France, “Lately there has been on spring, no summer, and no fall, politically and philosophically, and psychologically. There has only been the season of ice.” It truly is “Winter in America.”