Redefining the Vocabulary of Microaggressions

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.

Social Alexithymia and White Response to Police Brutality

veraNote: 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.

Remembering Black Lives Unjustly Lost

People attend a vigil to honor Michael Brown in Brooklyn

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.

tweet_drscott

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.

tweet_melanie

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.

Norma Rae, Get out of the Way! Income Inequality in the 21st Century

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.”

Equality for None: Public School Education Finance

I challenge you all today to venture toward new discoveries as you ride, walk, cycle, or brazenly skateboard to a few public schools within your community. Beyond the overwhelmingly barren architecture most buildings display to the public, most would assume there is nothing visually odd about the settings. But the figurative blood that runs through the bodies differs. Some are on the verge of going into shock, while others possess platelet-rich plasma and function quite well.

Few of you would imagine that their lies a level of social and economic inequality that has garnished little outcry from the media, governmental entities, and public. Indeed, this pursuit of true social and economic justice has gained few attendants. The inequality that I speak of is disguised within complicated fiscal formulas and legislation few could comprehend without finding themselves in need of an anti-depressive. Through these means, existing public school education finance apportionment systems have allowed for the existence of legal systems of oppression that target racially marginalized populations. This is explicitly clear when observing the effects of public school apportionment systems on Black students.

During the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education Tokepa (1954), Chief Justice Earl Warren once argued that:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education in our democratic society. It is required for the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today, it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

What his statement forgets to mention, notwithstanding the final decision of the courts, principles for educational rights are in fact limited. Many are actually unaware that the decision of Brown has never been interpreted as embracing protections regarding educational funding inequalities. This overlooked detail has historically had an adverse effect upon Black students since the 20th century. Currently, the effects have become direr.

But what else would one expect within a country that is founded on racial injustice and isolation. I am not alone, for the works of prominent legal and race scholars, such as Derrick Bell, Joe Feagin, and Albert Memmi mirror my argument. All mentioned would maintain that the overall stance of the Brown, “equality for all,” is impossible to achieve. Why? One must realize that all U.S. institutions are profoundly designed to only benefit the White majority. Consequently, they majority simultaneously deny opportunities and economic power to racially marginalized populations occupying “so-called” inferior positions upon the White fashioned racial hierarchy. “What did you say? What about all of the legislation that history has shown that was created by Whites for the benefit of Blacks?” People such as Derrick Bell would argue that a majority of White initiatives that seek to address racial justice are only brought forward if said action serves the economic and social interests of Whites. In regard to the argument, it is important to remember that in order to protect White interests, the barring of groups such as Blacks through the means of systemic oppression is compulsory. Within this country, oppression is preserved through U.S. constitutional protections and laws. This is indeed mirrored within the public school financial apportionment structures.

In order to understand this injustice, it is important to know that all U.S. states’ legislatures authorize and control public education. Under state funding formulas (which vary), states deliver predetermined funds to schools. Through state formulas and schemes, they determine the level of financial need regarding the maintenance of individual elementary and secondary schools. In addition to the menial contribution from the federal government, schools rely heavily on state and local revenues. All states have provided 17% and 50% to public schools since the 1930s. Therefore, the majority of funds are derived from local contributions. These local contributions are determined by local property taxes formulas. Further, the establishment of utilizing local property taxation by the state voters is as old as the common school movement.

This reliance upon property taxes has historically handicapped Black communities. But with the occurrence of white flight in the 1960s (due to school busing initiatives and the push for integration), Black students began to feel upon their proverbial little chins the snapping of a one-two punch combination. Racial isolation and the economic hardship of the poor within urban settings consequently lowered property value. As urban settings became less populated with Whites and middle class Blacks, community urban education settings began to house predominately Black and Brown students. These schools began to show a heavy reliance upon federal and state allocations in order to fill the missing property tax gap. Today, the country has shown a decline in spending dedicated to public education. This has also trickled down and affected special education students as well. Some states (Iowa and Kansas) have even gone as far to seek federal and state permission (waivers) to cut special education funding from their state budgets. These cuts drastically affect Black students disproportionately. Specifically, in comparisons to White students, Blacks are the overwhelming population in segregated special education classrooms.

Today within the 21st century, Whites strive to rid themselves of sharing school monies with people of color. This is illustrated by the actions of wealthy Whites in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. They currently seek to succeed from attending schools with their poor Black neighbors (four out of five live in poverty). They have stated that they seek to create a separate school district that will be funded by their own, unshared wealthy property taxes. This is also seen within states such as Texas, Alabama, and Georgia. Once again, this is nothing new for America. After the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, White upper class southerners abandoned their public schools and established private white schools. In the north, racially like-minded parents followed suit and did the same. This is an illustration of an old game upon a new playing field.

Specific examples of inequality can be collected though the National Center for Education Statistics. Through these means, one can find countless examples of blatant financial and racial inequality. For example, in Illinois, wealthier school districts on average receive as much as three times the revenue for per-pupil expenses than poor school districts. In 2013, school districts such as Rondout Elementary District 72 and East Aurora Unit District 131 have a property tax collection level of $30,381 and $2,816 per student respectively. Mostly White school districts such as Glencoe, Skokie, Glencoe and La Grange gain more local funds that that which is observed within the almost all Black districts of W. Harvey-Dixmoor, Park Forest, and CCSD 168. This trend is observed with Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Further, the Texas Civil Rights Project in 2012 reported that inequitable funding was actually endorsed by the Austin Independent School District (AISD). The report stated, “AISD allows and supports the private subsidization of higher-income (or “higher-equity”) schools, sometimes by as much as $1,000/student more than the amount of funds that support students in lower-income (or “lower-equity”) schools.”

If one believes in Derrick Bell’s argument, in order for change to occur, a proposed change to the manner schools are financed must be arranged in a way that illustrates a threat of some sort to White interests due to the increasing international complex and competing world economy. Maybe. Maybe we all should just stand up and challenge the machine and seek justice for all our children.

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

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

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

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

Read more at Indian Country Today.

Blacks and Sports: Integration but Exploitation

How can we praise baseball for Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line without pointing out that Branch Rickey was the lone vote for integration among his peers, with quotas existing on black players for years thereafter? How can we even praise Branch Rickey, without pointing out how he consciously wrecked the Negro Leagues, the largest national black owned business in the United States, ruthlessly harvesting its talent without compensation? -Dave Zirin

Reflecting on the history of black inclusion in sport, the latter part of the above quote (about compensation) is often not discussed in great length. Well, that is until results from a recent poll were released that asked respondents if they thought student-athletes should be finically compensated: “Large majority [64%] opposes paying NCAA athletes, Washington Post-ABC News poll finds.”

Taking a deeper look at these numbers reveals that whites represent the overwhelming majority (74%) who oppose paying athletes, which contrasts with the minority (46%) of nonwhites in opposition. A similar finding was revealed when HBO Real Sports and Marist College conducted another poll. However, this latter poll found that 53% of black respondents believed student-athletes should be paid, which was almost double that of whites (29%) and Latinos (29%). Perhaps the reasoning behind this large difference is because the student-athletes in the two sports (men’s basketball, football) that generate the multi-billion dollar revenues in college athletics are majority black (see Lapchick et al. 2013).

These two polls not only showed a large racial divide in support/opposition for paying athletes, but also a racial divide among those who believe race is part of the reasoning they are not – “More than 60 percent of black respondents said top athletes are not paid because many are black; only 25 percent of white respondents (and 33 percent of Latinos) said the same.” These numbers are not too surprising given black student-athletes in revenue-generating sports have served primarily as sources of financial wealth creation for whites who run the institution of sport.

Unfortunately, while college athletics have unceasingly benefited whites, these same institutions have unduly failed black student-athletes.

Considering blacks were allowed (again, for they had before Jim Crow in the 19th century!) to participate among whites in large numbers during the mid to latter half of the 20th century because the “walls of segregation” were crumbling does not indicate that whites had some overnight change of heart on their inferior framing of blacks. However, because it was becoming “legally” acceptable to interact with blacks, white elites took advantage of this by recruiting blacks on college campuses to work for “free” to financially benefit themselves. Given the systemic racist nature of US society where whites have always found a way to unjustly enrich themselves while simultaneously unjustly impoverishing blacks (Feagin, 2006), why would it be too shocking to see today that a majority of whites, inside and outside of sport, not wanting blacks to reap some of the financial rewards from their labor on college athletic teams? After all, whites are overrepresented in every collegiate sport except men’s and women’s basketball and football, the sports where blacks are not only overrepresented but also the only sports that produce revenue.

Would whites’ perspective change on paying student-athletes if they represented the majority population of athletes who played in revenue-generating sports since they would be the ones getting paid? Regardless, because whites are benefiting in so many other ways as student-athletes, perhaps they are too blind to notice that blacks are not profiting similarly.

Given black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses are being failed by the academic institutions they represent, it seems reasonable that black respondents were overrepresented in suggesting student-athletes should get paid and believing the reason they are not is influenced by their race. For instance, not only have black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses reported more experiences of discrimination because of their race, but compared to whites, they are inadequately prepared to take on the rigors of college academics, they are not guided sufficiently through the college experience, they are not given appropriate mentorship, and their graduation rates are well below the average of both student-athletes and the student body as a whole on these campuses (e.g., Eitzen, 2000; Hawkins, 2001; Lapchick, 2003). Black student-athletes have long endured these challenges. These unfortunate circumstances, however, have finally taken a toll.

Recent events show that many collegiate student-athletes are fed up with being exploited. For instance, Northwestern’s scholarship football players voted and certified the first union in college sports. The election was ordered by a National Labor Relations Board official, who

ruled that Northwestern’s scholarship football players were employees, meaning that they, like other workers, had the right to form a union and that they could be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment insurance and some portion of the revenue generated by college sports.

One black student-athlete from another PWIHE (Shabazz Napier), a supporter of unions in college athletics, even complained that the NCAA brings in millions of dollars and he regularly goes to sleep at night “starving.” Interestingly, because of all the negative attention being targeted at the NCAA, the governing body ruled that all NCAA-sponsored universities provide their student-athletes unlimited meals.

Could these latest happenings suggest times are changing and the black student-athlete is finally getting an opportunity to benefit from the labor that has made so many whites wealthy? It is difficult to tell since the whites who run the organization that governs college athletics (NCAA) continue to deny that student-athletes in the most revenue-generating sports are workers, as well as whites on both polls (illustrated above) are overwhelmingly against paying student- athletes. However, aggressive collectiveness has shown to create a step in the right direction. The unification of Northwestern football players fighting for rights they believe to be due is precisely what Feagin (2006) argues is a necessary endeavor to end racial oppression. Feagin further suggests while blacks, and other people of color, must be the stronghold in the movement, while allies from whites may strengthen the thrust in the process for demanding social change. If this is the most appropriate means to achieve the racial justice black student-athletes have been seeking, Northwestern has shown to be a perfect model in what it means to resist systemic racism.

Façade of Tolerance: Donald Sterling, the NBA, and Systemic Racism

Over the weekend, much media buzz centered on the release by TMZ of a recorded conversation between Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano, his girlfriend. In the conversation, Sterling expresses his objection to her posting pictures on Instagram with Black people, including one with Magic Johnson.

Response to the story has varied. Other owners of NBA teams have expressed “disbelief” at the remarks made in the recording. Some have criticized Stiviano for “baiting” Sterling (as Donald Trump called it), as well as choosing to be with him in the first place. Meanwhile, others have placed the onus on Clippers players and coach Doc Rivers to take a stand against Sterling’s comments, even calling them “cowards” for their protest (or lack thereof) prior to Sunday’s game by wearing their practice shirts inside out.

While the debate over how to counter oppression is nothing new and is a worthy endeavor, the onus belongs squarely on the shoulders of white Americans. White folks should take responsibility for the Donald Sterlings of the world: it is our fault that he has been allowed to own an NBA team for all these years.

It is incredulous to hear how shocked people are to learn of Sterling’s racial prejudice, including fellow NBA owners. In fact, racial discrimination helped make his wealth in the first place as a slum lord, an amount now estimated to be $1.9 billion. In 2009, he settled out of court for racial discrimination of Black and Latino tenants in his apartment complex. Elgin Baylor, former player and executive, sued Sterling for age and race discrimination. Former played Baron Davis has made public how Sterling’s heckling would cause him “anxiety” before games. Such facts have been available, and in many cases, for many years now, and yet much of this is news for most people. Why?

The failure to stop Sterling has been systemic. It starts with the good ole (nearly exclusively white) boy network of NBA owners and officials, including former commissioner David Stern (who seemed more interested in maintaining the “plantation” by paternalistically establishing and enforcing dress codes for players). They have peddled the façade of racial tolerance and cosmopolitanism for years, only to have it stripped away in an instant with this recording. The fact that it took this recorded conversation to end Sterling’s reign as Clippers owner shows the failure of the media for failing to pay more attention to Sterling’s transgressions . A double standard exists for elite white men when being held accountable for one’s behavior. Not only have media been negligent in its lack of coverage but complicit in Sterling’s ability to remain owner. And then there are the fans who continue to support an organization that continues to have an owner like Sterling. The white racial frame allows us white folks to allow this man to own an NBA team for this long.

Commissioner Adam Silver announced today that Sterling is banned for life from attending games, practices, and board meetings. He was fined the maximum ($2.5 million) and will pressure the owners to force Sterling to sell the team. Perhaps the NBA survives this and retains the cloak of color-blindness. But is this a victory for racial equality? Hardly…if Sterling did sell he would make good on his investment, having bought the team for $12 million that is today estimated to be worth more than half a billion. But this problem goes well beyond Sterling and the NBA. Maybe we should be wondering just how many more Donald Sterlings exist in this society?

Donald Sterling is “a Racist”: Feel Better Now?

[This post was written by Joyce M. Bell & Wendy Leo Moore]

On April 25th, 2014, TMZ released an audio recording of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers chiding his girlfriend for posting photos of herself with Magic Johnson on “The Instagram.” Pleading with her that she can spend her whole life with black people as long as it’s in private and she doesn’t bring them to his game, his tirade sounds like something from another, earlier, less enlightened period of U.S. history. The Internet lit up with calls for Sterling’s head: Clippers players should go on strike and we should boycott the NBA. Prominent musicians and artists spoke out against him and the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP pulled the Lifetime Achievement Award he was slated to receive. Even President Obama, who has been conspicuously silent on issues of race commented on the issue.

Almost all of the commentary has treated Donald Sterling as an anomaly, as an aberration—a throwback to Jim Crow racism. Even President Obama, who, in his response said, “The United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race and slavery and segregation, that’s still there, the vestiges of discrimination,” falls into this trap. Assuming that Sterling’s comments represent the normally silent and marginal remains of a bygone era that will “percolate up every so often,” is either a misunderstanding of contemporary race relations, or a disingenuous attempt to mischaracterize them.

In reality, we live in a society that is fundamentally structured by race and characterized by persistent racial inequality. Many social scientists have argued that contemporary racism is more subtle, institutionally embedded, and behind the scenes, than the in-your-face, “Negroes need not apply”, racism of the Jim Crow era. Therefore, when “old-fashioned” racism rears its ugly head, scholars and pundits alike seem shocked, or at least disgusted. Incidents like the release of Sterling’s openly racially hostile comments to his girlfriend, Paula Deen’s admission that she uses the n-word and the discrimination suit against her, and the racist comments of Nevada rancher Clive Bundy who suggests African Americans were better off a slaves than they are today, all become the stuff of headlines, media and scholars alike rush to comment and denounce the remaining racist expressions of a bygone era.

We would like to first of all suggest that attitudes like Sterling’s are not rare. Rather, they offered a glimpse into a backstage that many whites witness but rarely speak of. This is the backstage where white daughters are forbidden to date black boys, black jokes are still funny, and private dinner table conversations include the casual use of racial epithets. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the media spectacle around incidents like this create a racist boogey man that average white people can point the finger at, a tactic that serves to tacitly define “racism,” provides white people with a deviant racist other from which they can disassociate, and simultaneously obscures the multiple ways in which whites participate in color-blind and institutionalized racism.

The self-righteous indignation that the media has shown and that is filling up many Facebook and Twitter feeds in the last couple days about Donald Sterling says, “look, he’s the real racist.” Sterling offers well-meaning liberal white people an opportunity to feel good about themselves for actively denouncing the racist, and gives them an example of “real racism” that they can point to and distance themselves from. As a result, the Sterling incident diverts the attention away from the more pernicious aspects of structural racism; the racism that is embedded in the institutions we all interact in, and shapes the life chances and lived daily lives of people of color.

So while Donald Sterling will face the consequences of his speech, as we all must, we cannot let this occasion pass without pointing out that, for one, he is not a lone aberration. He does not represent a “vestige” or a left over “legacy” of slavery and segregation. On the contrary, Donald Sterling is much more representative than we might like to think. But more than this, Donald Sterling does not let the rest of us off the hook. Racism is not simply a set of attitudes to which one can subscribe or not. Rather, racism works in and through all social institutions. So while we point the finger at Sterling, let us also bring the same critical interrogation to all of the social, political, and economic forces that perpetuate racial inequality. Let this also be an opportunity to take responsibility for the less obvious ways that even well-meaning white people engage in colorblind racism and benefit from the status quo subjugation of people of color through inaction.

White Women, White Motherhood

The broad sweep of American popular culture is dedicated to valorizing white motherhood, despite the recent the claims by ‘tiger mom’ author Amy Chua that white women are the worst mothers,  As I continue the series on the trouble with white women, today I want to look at the notion of ‘white motherhood’ in American popular culture.

In the 19th century, white women had very few legal rights, but society put them on a pedestal, and popular culture was filled with paeans to their self-sacrifice and virtue. Even into the twentieth century, it was common in American popular culture to hear people proclaim an unbridled, seemingly uncomplicated “Mother Love.” Stephanie Coontz (author of A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.) writes in the New York Times about this era:

The wife of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia, told her mother that she did not share her concerns about improving the rights of women, because wives already exerted “a power which no king or conqueror can cope with.” Americans of the era believed in “the empire of the mother,” and grown sons were not embarrassed about rhapsodizing over their “darling mama,” carrying her picture with them to work or war.

But by the 1940s, the idealization of motherhood had waned, and the nation’s mothers found themselves blamed for a host of societal and psychological ills.  It was due to the influence of Freudianism on popular understanding of human social development, that Americans began to view public avowals of “Mother Love.”  As respected scholars such as Stephanie Coontz and Rebecca Jo Plant (Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America) point out, it’s this point at which we can trace the rise of “mother blame” to the 1940s in American culture. As valuable as this work is, it often leaves aside the question of race almost entirely.

By the middle of the twentieth century, educators, psychiatrists and popular opinion-makers were assailing the idealization of (white) mothers, as pathological. Yet ironically, mid-century is also when we see the ascendance of a particularly narrow representation of white motherhood on television.

Donna Reed Show Cast (Image Source)

Popular situation comedies of the 1950s and ’60s like The Donna Reed Show (pictured above), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave It to Beaver, all featured white women in heterosexual marriages tending their nuclear, biological families.

As a white girl growing up in Texas watching these shows (mostly in re-runs), I didn’t notice the whiteness of the TV-mothers. I noticed their attentive mothering, their coifed femininity, their stable, middle-class lives all of which seemed so far removed from my experience of my own mother.  This is part of the key to how whiteness can operate by not noticing it. To be sure, such an idealized place in the popular imagination was not available to women of other hues or backgrounds. And, I feel certain that the kids I went to school with in South Texas who were Mexican American and African American, noticed the whiteness of Donna Reed and her ilk.

The one exception to this mid-century sitcom trend was the I Love Lucy Show, which featured an interracial couple, Lucille Ball (Lucy) and Desi Arnaz (Ricky), who were married in real life as well as on the show.  There is a fascinating podcast about I Love Lucy at Studio 360, which talks about what a groundbreaking show it was in many ways, chief among them for the then-scandalous relationship between the two leads that it portrayed. But again, I – like most white people watching the show – didn’t notice Lucy’s whiteness so much as Ricky’s Otherness as Cuban American.

The idealization of white motherhood continues throughout the 20th century and through to today with a few notable exceptions, such as Julia – the short-lived series starring Diahann Carroll, and of course, The Cosby Show, with Phylicia Rashad.  My point in this brief (and impartial) recounting of sitcom history here is not simply one about a lack of diversity in programming – though that would be an easy argument to make – but it’s about whiteness, which is not just about white bodies and skin color.

Whiteness is more about the discursive practices that, because of colonialism and neocolonialism, privilege and sustain a global dominance of white subjects. In other words, whiteness does stuff – it allows certain policies and practices to be enacted, and those policies and practices keep reaping benefits to white people.  And, to the extent that people don’t recognize these policies and practices as part of system that’s reproducing whiteness, then it makes it even easier to let that skate past.

Let me give another set of examples from some work I’ve done on a genre of contemporary popular culture, “reality TV,” or the term many scholar prefer “reality-based TV.”  I did a systematic analysis of the show Intervention, including nine (9) seasons of one hundred forty-seven (147) episodes featuring one hundred fifty-seven individual main characters or “addicts” (157).  The show, in case you’re not familiar, stages an “intervention” – a highly orchestrated group counseling session – with someone who has been identified by their family as having a problem, typically, though not always, a substance abuse problem.  What I found was that the show mostly features white people, indeed 87% of the subjects on the show are white, which is remarkable given the kind of narratives we have in this culture about addiction and race (i.e., that “drugs” are a problem in “communities of color” more so than among whites – the data suggests just the opposite). So, why feature mostly whites on the show?

Intervention TV Show

In part, what the producers of  Intervention said they wanted to do with the show was to “tell a different story” about addition, i.e., not one about people of color. The way that the show is constructed, each episode crafts the stories of individuals in such a way that audiences care about them, usually by tying their ‘addiction’ to an individual tragedy.

Take, for example, the episode that features Kristen (Season 2), a twenty-four year old white woman from Wisconsin who identifies as “an alcoholic and a heroin addict.” The title cards at the beginning of the episode speak to the contrast of squandered potential referring to Kristen as “The Mother,” (she has a 6 year old daughter) and then, “The Heroin Addict.” Kristen’s mother, Janet, faces the camera and asks: “What happened to the little girl I knew? She was in the gifted and talented program. She always wanted to do something with art, something creative.”

This idealized memory of Kristen as a child described by her mother is intercut with images of a smiling, blonde girl, seemingly carefree, riding her bicycle. This happy childhood was “shattered” when, at age 13, Kristen parent’s divorced. Every episode of Intervention features an idyllic childhood, shattered by some personal tragedy, often divorce, as central to the eventual addiction; and, in the narrative of Intervention, the arrow between personal tragedy and addiction is drawn as if it were direct, unambiguous and causal. Kristen’s sister, Erin, offers a stark contrast to this lost past with her assessment of Kristen’s present reality: “I don’t know how you can get any worse than an alcoholic, heroin addicted prostitute.”

The construction of Kristen’s story from a happy childhood to an adulthood that could not “get any worse” speaks to lost potential. The fact that this is viewed as a tragedy that could not be “any worse” suggests a whiteness in crisis.

Both the crisis for Kristen’s family and the tragedy within the televisual framework of Intervention are predicated upon the high expectations that go along with being young, gifted, female and white in this society. Kristen is not only wasting her potential, she is wasting her whiteness.

While the show is framed around the issue of substance use, episodes like this one in which female drug users are also involved in sex work seem equally concerned with intervening on this activity. While Kristen clearly frames her involvement in sex work as one rooted in the political economy of low wage labor (“I worked one shift and paid my rent, I couldn’t go back to a job where I make six dollars an hour”), the producers of the show frame it differently. Toward the end of the episode as Kristen is seen checking into a residential treatment facility, they include an interview with her doctor at the recovery center who says:

“I think the biggest challenge with Kristen is that she’s gone down to such a low level, morally.”

This reference to Kristen’s “low level, morally” is a rather striking statement that reinforces Kristen’s moral failure –  as a woman, as a ‘healthy’ citizen, and as a mother.  The coupling of Kristen’s “low level, morally” with her mothering speaks to the regimes of gendered dominance and neoliberal notions of self-sufficient citizenship that shape her life chances. These regimes are also racialized and presume whiteness. The way that Kristen will rise above her current “low level, morally” is by adhering to codes of conduct proscribed for white, young, heterosexual women who are the mothers of young children. If Kristen relapses, within the narrative of Intervention this will be a tragedy due primarily to a failure of her individual will, and a “waste” of her potential as an individual. It will also be a tragedy of wasted whiteness.

The trope of white motherhood gets replayed in beyond the television to the big screen as well.  There is the  “The Blind Side” which is, as lots of people havealready pointed out, yet another addition to that long list of white savior movies (for an introduction see, Hernan and Gordon’s Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness).

The Blind Side movie poster

 

And, from almost 20 years ago, the film “Losing Isaiah“, with Halle Berry and Jessica Lange, in which Berry plays the troubled, and economically impoverished, biological mother and Lange the middle-class adoptive mother. I’ll let you guess how that turns out.

Losing Isaiah Movie poster

 

These films share a common thread with the reality-based show I studied and the mid-century sitcoms, and it is this: white motherhood is held up as the embodied ideal of what motherhood should be.  Many can fail at this ideal, including white women like Kristen, but mostly it is black women who fail this ideal, in the popular culture narrative.  In both “The Blind Side” and “Losing Isaiah” it is the black mother who has failed to uphold the ideals of white motherhood, which are to ‘health’ and self-sufficiency – set in contrast to their excess and self-destruction.

Again, it’s not merely a matter of representation in popular culture. This reproduction of whiteness is much deeper than that, and more destructive.

Recently, single mother Shanesha Taylor was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse after she left her two small children in a locked car while she went on a job interview.  While it is heartening that people have raised money on her behalf, the local law enforcement agency is still pressing charges against her.

mothertears

 (Shanesha Taylor)

Shortly after Taylor’s ordeal, Catalina Clouser was arrested for leaving her child in a carseat on the roof of her car while she drove under the influence of some substance.  Clouser has much lighter charges pending and has been released.

mothercropped

 

(Catalina Clouser)

The notion of white motherhood, drawn on centuries old cultural messages about the “ideal” mother and stepped in dominant white culture, and a gendered regime of what is acceptable behavior, is already having an impact on how these women will be treated, both in the court of popular opinion and under the law. Whiteness assures that certain kinds of policies and practices about who is an “ideal mother” get enacted and upheld.

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