Patrolling the Image of the Educated: Reflections from a Bronx Classroom

Part Three. Recall that along with a few other Middlebury College students, I spent my January winter term working in a public school in the Bronx. Our Education Studies Program coordinated this valuable learning experience outside of Middlebury’s “bubble.” However, I found this “bubble” not easily escapable; at each turn I found the racist pumps that keep it inflated and witnessed rapid “repairs” to any momentary puncture of its surface, those longing for the fresh air of a counter-frame silenced by the same dominant ideologies that plague the halls of my campus. The following is part of a reflection on my experience.

One day I helped out in a classroom so loud the principal made multiple visits, but to no avail. As the substitute teacher yelled at the students, they responded by making fun of him. “McLovin” they taunted, something to which he did not take kindly. A vicious cycle of verbal attacks escalated between them as I sat down with a small group of students and worked to make the assignment accessible to them. As the pocket of students were producing amazing work, it was clear that if we simply divided up the room amongst us we could reach the students more individually and help them better to engage in the material. When I offered that suggestion to the sub he shut it down without the least bit of hesitation: “That would work in an ideal world, but this happens to be a world of criminals and rapists, and that is who these kids are going to become.”

When I informed the assistant principal of his remarks she halted in disbelief; the administration had just praised him with the offering of an extended position at the school. She thanked me for telling her and ensured he would never be welcome in the school again. “I never would have known,” she admitted. “He looks just like an educated guy.”

It was obvious that white, clean shaven, tie, and a dress shirt equaled educated. Just as obvious was the fact that if any of those elements were lacking it did not hold through. In defining the educated through the white racial frame, the assistant principal defined who her students will never be.

Attacks and Expulsions: French Governments against the Roma, Again

The BBC has a news reports on organized French human rights protests against French government expulsions and other negative treatment of French Roma people (so-called “gypsies’):

Thousands of people have been attending rallies in Paris and 130 other French towns to protest at the government’s policy of deporting Roma people.

A majority of French respondents in polls support the government expulsions and other apparent “cleansing” of these mostly working class residents of France:

About 1,000 Roma (Gypsies) returned to Romania and Bulgaria from France last month, while official figures record that 11,000 Roma were expelled from France last year. The League of Human Rights, which called for the demonstrations, said it wanted to counteract government “xenophobia” and what it described as the systematic abuse of Roma in France.

French President Sarkozy has apparently expanded these high-profile campaigns for political reasons, even against opposition in his presidential cabinet:

Prime Minister Francois Fillon hinted that he disliked the crude links being made between foreigners and crime, while Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he considered resigning over the issue.

There have been violent encounters between the Roma and non-Roma police in some cities:

In mid-July, riots erupted in Grenoble after police shot an alleged armed robber during a shootout. The next day, dozens of French Roma attacked a police station in the small Loire Valley town of Saint Aignan, after police shot dead a French Roma man who had allegedly not stopped at a police checkpoint.

French politicians’ expulsion and other policing actions have seen dissent and criticism from international sources like the Vatican and the United Nations, even the European Commission.

The article largely ignores the large scale racialized discrimination that targets the Roma, something Jessie detailed here. I am not very familiar with these recent French events, or the background. Perhaps some of our viewers can add some savvy comments on the situation in France.

NYC Cabbie Attacked: Hate Speech into Action

Ahmed Sharif, a New York City cab driver stabbed by a passenger, says he was definitely attacked because of his religion.  Sharif was stabbed repeatedly while driving his taxi on the East Side Tuesday.  The suspect, a white man named Michael Enright, attacked him after first asking whether he was Muslim.   Many are saying that this attack is part of a growing anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S.

(Image from CSM)

The apparent hate crime attack on Mr. Sharif and the alarming wave of hate crimes against Latinos that Joe wrote about yesterday are connected in a number of ways.   One of the major links is the way that these acts of violence are part of a larger social context that includes rising tide of hate speech targeting Muslims and Latinos.

The research connecting hate speech to hate crimes is mixed.   When it comes to individuals explaining their motivation for hate crimes, there’s actually relatively little research that investigates motivations for hate crimes.  One study that does this finds a range of motivations:  thrill, defensive, mission, and retaliatory motivation (J. McDevitt, J. Levin, and S. Bennett, “Hate Crime Offenders: An Expanded Typology,” Journal of Social Issues, 58 (2):303-318).   In the case of Enright’s attack on Sharif, this appears to be a “mission” hate crime, in which Enright was on a “mission” to attack anyone who was Muslim.   Other research, such as Alexander Tsesis’ book Destructive Messages (NYU Press, 2002), demonstrate how hate speech gives rise to dangerous social movements.

The question really is where did Enright, a film student who was working on a project to promote cross-cultural understanding, get the idea that he should attack someone who was Muslim?  No one knows for sure.   The fact is that after traveling to Afghanistan to work on a film project, Enright returned to New York where there is an ugly display of hate speech downtown about the so-called mosque controversy. Could this have played even a small role in Enright’s violent actions last Tuesday?  It seems more than plausible.

The fact is that the U.S., and even the country’s most diverse city, New York, are becoming more treacherous for people of color.   And yet, this violence gets repaid with loyalty.  Despite the brutal attack on him, the cab driver Mr. Sharif told supporters outside City Hall that he still loves New York.

“This is a city of all colors, races, all religion, everyone. We live here, side by side, peacefully.”

Are We Becoming More of a Police State, For Americans of Color?

Bob Herbert at the Times has some very revealing statistics on police harassment and malpractice in New York City:

Statistics will be out shortly about the total number of people who were stopped and frisked by the police in 2009. We already have the data for the first three-quarters of the year, and they are staggering. During that period, more than 450,000 people were stopped by the cops, an increase of 13 percent over the same period in 2008.

Likely more than half a million in one year. He adds:

An overwhelming 84 percent of the stops in the first three-quarters of 2009 were of black or Hispanic New Yorkers. It is incredible how few of the stops yielded any law enforcement benefit. Contraband, which usually means drugs, was found in only 1.6 percent of the stops of black New Yorkers. For Hispanics, it was just 1.5 percent. For whites, who are stopped far less frequently, contraband was found 2.2 percent of the time.

Racial discrimination and little open protest or concern with extreme police malpractice. Welcome to lockdown America? And much of this is also a waste of police time:

The percentages of stops that yielded weapons were even smaller. Weapons were found on just 1.1 percent of the blacks stopped, 1.4 percent of the Hispanics, and 1.7 percent of the whites. Only about 6 percent of stops result in an arrest for any reason.

Notice too that whites were the more likely to carry weapons and have drugs. I wonder why that does not get news headlines? Why don’t they stop more whites, as there would be more payoff?

As I have mentioned here before police brutality and other malpractice is a severe problem nationally:

Lest some think that we are ignoring lots of white victims of police brutality here, we might note that one social science study back in the 1990s analyzed 130 police-brutality accounts in several cities across the country. In that reviews of cases, criminologist Kim Lersch discovered that the targets of this type of police malpractice are almost always black or Latino. The latter made up 97 percent of the victims of police brutality, while the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of officers involved were white. Police brutality overwhelmingly involves white-on-black or other white-on-minority violence. (See full discussion in Chapter 5 here.)

Throwaway Cities: Systemic Racism and Capitalism

October 2009
Creative Commons License photo credit: lessismoreorless
The British Guardian/Observer just did one of the better stories I have seen on US cities suffering greatly in this Bush depression–showing that in Detroit things are worse than in the great Depression of the 1930s. Much of Motor City is now “a ghost town.” The 1930s saw official unemployment reach about 25 percent. Today it is 29 percent in Detroit. This predominantly black city has lost more than half its population in recent years as U.S. capitalists have made many poor decisions, usually in the name of profit, including disinvestment in U.S. industry. Among other things they have sought cheap labor overseas, often at near-slave wages, and weak government regulation. Once the fourth largest city, Detroit has dropped to 11th in the country.

One summary of 2000 and 2005-2007 census data describes racial percentages in the city:

The racial makeup of the city was 81.6% Black, 12.3% White, 1.0% Asian, 0.3% Native American, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 2.5% other races, 2.3% two or more races, and 5.0 percent Hispanic. The city’s foreign-born population is at 4.8%. Estimates from the 2005-2007 American Community Survey showed little variance.

A city once overwhelmingly white, Detroit is now one of the least white cities, the probable reason mainstream national media have paid little attention to the economic depression firmly entrenched here. Journalist Paul Harris at The Observer describes severe conditions in Detroit thus:

Try telling Brother Jerry Smith [at a Capuchin brothers’ soup kitchen] that the recession in America has ended. . . . Outside his office the hungry, the homeless and the poor crowded around tables. Many were by themselves, but some were families with young children. None had jobs.

He adds:

There is little doubt that Detroit is ground zero for the parts of America that are still suffering. The city that was once one of the wealthiest in America is a decrepit, often surreal landscape of urban decline. . . . The birthplace of the American car industry, it boasted factories that at one time produced cars shipped over the globe. Its downtown was studded with architectural gems, and by the 1950s it boasted the highest median income and highest rate of home ownership of any major American city.

Then U.S. capitalists started aggressively disinvesting in U.S. cities’ industries, and whites had already begun to flee cities like Detroit for the suburbs. With the help of white real estate decisionmakers, White flight created the famous “doughnut” pattern of black residents at the center surrounded by mostly white suburbs. Manufacturing decentralized in the metro area, then started fleeing to the South and other countries — for cheaper labor and no regulation. The city dropped half its nearly two million population to about 900,000 now. And today even the suburbs are also in trouble:

Its once proud suburbs now contain row after row of burnt-out houses. . . . Now almost a third of Detroit – covering a swath of land the size of San Francisco – has been abandoned. Tall grasses, shrubs and urban farms have sprung up in what were once stalwart working-class suburbs. . . .
The city has a shocking jobless rate of 29%. . . . Recently a semi-riot broke out when the city government offered help in paying utility bills. Need was so great that thousands of people turned up for a few application forms. In the end police had to control the crowd, which included the sick and the elderly, some in wheelchairs.

To make matters worse the city has a huge government debt and is cutting major services like street lights and public transportation.

(For a boosterish story on Detroit, that barely touches on these issues see Wikipedia here)
We have summarized the significance of much of this capital flight from US cities here:

Capital flight—the movement of companies to locations with lower labor costs and favorable profit-making conditions—is now a threat to many U.S. workers. And it is distinctively racialized, with workers of color in recent decades often suffering disproportionately from it. Especially African American and Latino workers in blue-collar jobs in major US industries like the auto industry.

Many US corporations now routinely operate around the world. The global capitalistic market has made low-wage labor and unregulated working situations available to most big corporations which shift investments out of moderate-profit industries to higher-profit international ventures, abandoning U.S. industries. From the (usually white) corporate executives’ view, plant closings and capital flight “discipline” U.S. workers to accept lower wages—and to be docile in the face of corporate decisions. A variety of U.S. firms are using relatively low-wage, nonunion labor pools in poor countries to cut production costs. Computer and electronics industries, which many have counted on to provide jobs to replace the decent-paying ones lost in declining “smokestack” industries, have joined the corporate flight overseas. Many blue-collar jobs and, increasingly, many white-collar jobs are being exported overseas; they are often the jobs important for many new entrants into the U.S. work force, such as non–college-bound high school graduates. The U.S. government has aggressively facilitated the export of many decent-paying jobs to low-wage areas in other countries. Without some countervailing power, corporations with accountability to no country will go wherever labor is cheapest and most repressed, a process that has steadily eroded the standard of living for many U.S. workers and their families–of various racial backgrounds.

What Would You Do? Multiple Perspectives on an Urban Encounter

[This post is a re-blog from here. It’s a conversation among several scholars and activists about an urban encounter, each person was invited to respond. My contribution, along with several others, are included here. More after the jump. ~ Jessie]

We look to our children as promises for the future, to progress beyond previous generations’ limitations, failures and injustices. We recognize and dream about “their world” — the one we’ll live in when we are seniors, the one that embodies some of our wishes and the fruits of our labor and energy. But we also know that for these goals to be reached, there must be a context within which our young people can learn, grow and thrive. We agonize over how we can improve conditions for young Americans whose future is so instrumental to ours, and we worry about kids who seem to be heading in a direction that can undermine those aspirations. THIS WEEK, we have assembled a small panel of thoughtful folks who are thinkers, writers and social justice advocates to discuss a confrontation that Stephen had with three young men who were vandalizing a subway station on Tuesday evening. We offer these perspectives in the spirit (and with the hope) of instigating positive, thoughtful discussion. Stephen’s story is below, followed immediately by Charlton’s response and then the responses of our guests.

Stephen My wife and I were climbing down into the Harrison Red Line subway station in our neighborhood in Chicago when we happened upon three young Black boys — maybe 13 years old — tagging the station walls with spray paint. It was particularly surprising because there are security cameras down there, yet the kids were dancing around and acting as if they didn’t care if anyone saw what they were doing. I thought about it for a second or two and decided to let them know that I saw what they did. Rather than express disappointment or anger (I figured at that age, irrespective of race, they wouldn’t care — I wouldn’t have!), I simply wanted them to know that they were not as quick or careful as they though they were. Even now, I’m not sure if I was trying to scare them or warn them that they could easily be caught, or if I was trying to discourage them from doing it again. In any case, they all denied having done anything wrong, and as we boarded the train, one of the boys stuck his head in the door before it closed, called me some names, and flipped me his middle finger while another boy spray painted on the window of the train as it pulled out of the station. I spent the rest of the night thinking about whether there was anything I could have done to meaningfully intervene in those boys’ lives. Since I am a White ally, I am very conscious about not wanting to be act like, feel like or be perceived as though I need to “save” (Dangerous Minds-style) persons of color. On the other hand, as an adult who wants to see all children succeed and who knows that sometimes getting in trouble is the best thing that can happen to turn someone’s life around, I wonder if I should have tried to call a CTA employee or otherwise “bust” the kids. Further complicating the issue is the fact that with all the youth violence and gang activity in the area, saying anything to kids that age at all — particularly while they are engaging in an illegal act — probably isn’t a particularly smart thing to do. Would I have felt the same or acted in the same way if I were Black (a man or a woman — and would that matter) or if the kids were White? Would the kids have reacted to me differently? Did I act appropriately (do enough, do too much)?

Charlton There’s no easy answer to this question. I suppose like many people my response to what the kids were doing would fluctuate depending on the day, my mood, and my immediate attitude about the actions these youths were engaged in. On one day, no doubt, I’d be apt to say that I would approach them and say something like, “No wonder why some people see kids like you as nothing more than ignorant thugs.” It’s the kind of thing that comes to mind when you are looking at someone from your own racial group reinforcing the dark shadow of prejudice on those of us who have tried so hard to overcome those perceptions. But I’ve also noticed recently that I seem to be getting older. As I do, I find myself distanced from young Black teens not so much because they are Black, but because they are adolescents — adolescents who seem to attempt more today than I would have ever thought possible to get away with when I was their age. And I admit part of me would have stood silently with my wife, not uttering a word to the kids — in fear of their potential volatility and need to remain and keep my loved ones safe from potential harm. If I were wearing my charitable, racially and socially conscious hat that day, I may have spent a moment not only contemplating acting — confronting the young men — but thinking through the implications of my actions. If I report them to the authorities (“authorities” — I feel like I’m in a 1970s Japanese monster film) then these youth will probably be swept into a criminal justice system likely to impact them more negatively than the subway wall they were tagging. So no, don’t report them; they probably deserve a chance that they probably won’t get if the cops get a hold of them.

If I were to say anything — not wanting to incur the wrath of some pent up anger, or send them on a one-way trip through the American criminal and judicial process — I may have just asked them why. “Hey — why are you guys doing this?” I’ve always found that if you ask someone a question he or she will do one of two things. Some will ignore you, and others will answer the question. If they answer the question, you’ve taken the first step to engaging in some form of meaningful dialogue. This, I think, would be the best possible outcome — and opportunity — I could imagine in this situation.

Jessie Daniels The encounter that Stephen describes is a vexing situation for those of us who count ourselves as white allies for racial equality. As he describes the exchange, it is one bound up with white racial privilege (and, one suspects, class privilege). The image of the white professor chastising the young, black grafitti artists (or merely vandals) and their understandably angry response, seems like a reenactment of larger scripts about race and class in the culture. I think it’s also important to bring up the issue of gender and sexuality in the dissecting of this story. If I had been in that situation, and I had seen those young men while I (also a white professor, and a woman) had been with my partner (also a woman), I would not have said anything to a group of adolescent boys – whatever their race – for fear of retaliation that was more aggressive than a raised middle-finger. As a lesbian-identified woman, groups of adolescent boys raise the possibility of a different kind of threat for me. So, for me, the fact that Stephen feels he can call out these young men is completely bound up in his own position of privilege at the intersection of race and class, as well as gender and (hetero)sexuality. If the underlying issue here is about how to intervene in the lives of young, black youth who may have gone astray on the path toward adulthood, full citizenship and participation in the broader society, I would echo what others have said here about community engagement. I wonder if Stephen knew the names of these young men? He doesn’t say, but my guess is that he did not. Did he ever have a conversation with them prior to the exchange around the graffiti? Without a personal connection in which you at least know the young men’s names or have had a conversation once before, an encounter such as this one is doomed to replay hierarchies of race and class. And, just so you know that this not all theoretical for me, I’ll close with a story from my own life. I attend a multi-racial, queer church called Metropolitan Community Church of New York (MCCNY). MCCNY has for 8 or so years run a shelter for LGBTQ homeless teens. The shelter is open 365 nights a year, and operates in the basement of the church building. The kids who reside there come from all over, are predominantly black and latino, and are mostly homeless because they have ‘come out’ to their families and been rejected by them. These young people are struggling – often heroically – to survive in difficult circumstances. They are also teenagers. As such, they not infrequently act out in ways that are just not acceptable. If I see unacceptable behavior by one of the teens and act in ways to correct it, I am in a similar position to the one that Stephen was in. I am white and a professor, and thus have racial and class privilege in relation to these young people. All of our interactions are always going to be inflected by those differences. However, that does not mean that I look the other way when I see a young person putting themselves in harm’s way. I intercede when I can.  I’m mostly likely to take action – and to be effective – when I know a young person’s name, I’ve talked with them before in some non-confrontational exchange, and they have a sense that I care about them beyond the interaction in which I’m telling them that they’ve messed up.
Dr. Jessie Daniels is an Associate Professor at Hunter College. She is cofounder and frequent blogger at RacismReview and you can follow her on Twitter.

Tami Winfrey Harris It is easy to see the implications of race and class all over an interaction between a white, male, college professor and three, young, black, inner-city males in the city of Chicago. We are trained to think that way, especially those of us who are committed to anti-racism and the exploration of privilege and power. But in this case, I wonder if those things–race and class–are distractions. Let me explain. Race and class play a tremendous role in the marginalization of young, black males. And there may be no better illustration of that fact than Chicago, where 36 young men of color have died violently this year, and the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in the highly-segregated city grows ever wider. So, it is safe to say that race and class likely played a significant role in these youths’ seeming disaffection. But I am not convinced that it colored their interaction with you, Stephen. I witnessed similar scenarios play out during my years in the Windy City with similar results. Adults, old enough to remember the time not so long ago when grown ups were expected to chasten ill-behaved young people and the young people generally obliged out of a sense of respect for age and authority, attempting to correct a raucous or anti-social group of teens only to be met with verbal or physical aggression. The races of the adults who embraced the notion of “it takes a village” varied, the infractions did also–loud cursing on the No. 6 bus, jimmying locks to make a short cut through private property–the outcome of their actions usually did not. What is happening to our children? Well, in the case of black males (and there are certainly many troubled youth of other races, but young black men are particularly at risk), Anti-Racist Parent columnist Liz Dwyer said, in a post about the murder of Derrion Albert, that we are faced with “chickens coming home to roost.”

As a society, we have chosen to not uphold desegregation laws. We have chosen to allow low income children of color to receive a substandard education, simply because they live in a different zip code. We have chosen to not pay a living wage so that people can actually have the means to pursue life, liberty and happiness, so they can move out of dangerous neighborhoods if they see fit. And we have chosen to allow gangs and narcotic trafficking to run rampant, as long as it stays controlled on the “bad” side of town. As for having some sort of moral or spiritual “center” where today’s teens know not to beat one of their peers to death, that sort of center doesn’t just fall out of the sky and infect kids like Swine Flu. Yes, children and teens should know better, but we live in a do-whatever-you-wanna-do culture. Self-control is in no way a part of our world these days.

I’m not saying this to excuse what these teenagers did. But hello, didn’t you read Lord of the Flies as part of your education?

THIS is where race and class come in. Society has surely created an environment where anti-social behavior will fester in disenfranchised youth, including children of color and the poor. And because we broke it, it is our job to fix it. It is good that you intervened, Stephen–not as a white savior, but as a concerned adult. What most of us, including me, are far more likely to do is look away and say nothing, to tsk tsk about the kids and the mamas and daddies who are raising them, to give the children in question up for lost. We look away from the loud and aggressive behavior. We look away from the loitering. We look away from the vandalism. We look away…until a teenaged boy is beaten to death on camera…and then it seems people cannot look away. And we wonder how we got here.

Tami Winfrey Harris blogs at What Tami Said and is the editor of Anti-Racist Parent. Follow her on Twitter. Continue reading…

Television Racism

Television plays a central role in perpetuating the four-centuries-old white racist framing of African Americans. I was reading today a 2008 article by Travis Dixon (Travis Dixon, “Crime News and Racialized Beliefs,” Journal of Communication March 2008).
Creative Commons License photo credit: Orin Optiglot

Dixon did a Los Angeles county survey of 506 respondents in 2002-2003 and found that a person’s time spent viewing local television news programs’ overrepresentation of black criminals, as well as his or her attention to crime news and trust of local news, predicted well stereotypes of blacks as criminals. This was true after controls were applied for local neighborhood diversity and local crime rate. Those who paid most attention to television crime news were the most likely to be obsessed with local crime and to give harsher culpability ratings of hypothetical black criminal suspects as compared to white criminal suspects. Television exposure was also found to be directly related to racially stereotyped images of blacks as violent. Dixon has concluded that “News viewing may be part of a process that makes the construct or cognitive linkage between Blacks and criminality frequently activated and therefore chronically accessible.”

Numerous other studies by Dixon and various researchers show similar patterns. (See chapters 7-8 here) Today, one major source of many negative images of black Americans (and other Americans of color) is television. Eight in ten Americans watch local television news at least four nights a week. These local news programs, now the major source of information for a majority, often accent violent crime. One study of fifty-six cities found that crime was the subject of one-third of such local programming. Studies also show that local violent crimes get extensive coverage, while local nonviolent crimes such as fraud and embezzlement usually get little. Black suspects are commonly over-represented relative to actual arrest rates, while the opposite is true for whites.

In an earlier 2002 study Dixon and D. Linz suggested that this media criminality imagery likely influences the way many whites view their chances of being victims, as well as the way they might decide guilt or innocence on juries in cases involving black defendants. The media theory called “cultivation theory” argues that heavy exposure to television content about the social world tends to influence how people see the outside society, even if that outside world is not at all like that in the television programming.

Television thus constantly reinforces four-centuries-old stereotypes from the white racist framing of African Americans and other Americans of color like the Latino whose death we blogged on recently –which is one major reason that there cannot be a “post-racial America” any time soon. At a minimum, the white racial frame’s constant perpetuation and reinforcement in the media will have to come to an end before whites’ racist views of African Americans can come to an end.

More on the Grant Case: More Police Racism or Brutality?

The San Francisco Chronicle has a revealing update involving a newly discovered video of the beating and killing of Mr. Grant by BART officers: (Photo: facebook)

The cell phone video…shows a male BART police officer walking over to three men lined up against a wall near a female officer, and then striking one in the face…. It appears that the officer who punches the man is the same person who later is seen kneeling on Grant’s head when he was shot. … He and the other officers present at the time of Grant’s shooting all remain on paid administrative leave. . . . Police investigators have said Grant put up a brief struggle with officers but was restrained and had both arms behind his back when he was shot.

A local law school professor and researcher on the police, Peter Keane, has suggested that

the video shows a “vicious, unprovoked and inexcusable assault” by the other police officer that should be prosecuted and that seems to have set off events that led to the shooting. “With that powerful punch, he slams Mr. Grant in the side of his head and knocks him down even though it doesn’t appear Grant is doing anything but talking – maybe he is mouthing off but there was no physical provocation.”

This case is being investigated, and hopefully this is a serious investigation (many are not nationally) and it certainly appears like the classic case of police brutality, and as Jessie and I noted before the data show that almost all cases of serious police brutality involve men of color as targets and white officers are overwhelmingly the perpetrators.

White Fear and White Voters: A Florida Example

Well, substantial white fear can be seen in many places this week. As Jessie noted yesterday in passing, FoxNews was reporting and now TampaBayOnline (Tampa Bay Tribune newspaper) has this email from a volunteer in the Florida Republicans’ Temple Terrace office that was passed along by David Storck, chair of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, who tells his team to pass it along and thereby signals he agrees with it helping “us to win this election”:


The email was sent around in these very assertive ALL CAPS, indicating a high level of emotion, including fear. Some of it signals the old white racial frame: Scary black folks “coming from the inner city” voting “in carloads,” in what is apparently a whiter area. One can feel the palpable fear here. The email continues:


Notice again the level of racialized emotion in this message. Today, some conservative Republicans are back to fighting a Cold War against “Marxism,” a theme that is part of the national McCain-Palen attack line. When in difficulty, the U.S. right-wing likes smear tactics that place a political candidate who is obviously a centrist Democrat as “socialist” or “Marxist.” These themes seem to be just some cover for viewing Senator Obama in old antiblack terms, as the harping here on blackness suggests. The email continues in capitals:


Again, the racialized-right types like to brand college students and their professors not only as not really working, but as radical-socialists and anti-American too. Notice too the accent on the sinister social sciences, apparently the most dangerous disciplines, yet likely an assertion for which the writer has no evidence in this particular case.

As someone who taught at the University of Florida for many years, I can say he/she has that notion of radicalism wrong. Most students and many faculty there are middle-of-the-road to conservative. In my 14 years there, I met one truly socialist faculty member, and no students of that persuasion. The writer continues:


So, once again the writer accents an emotional we/them language of “dangers” and threats from Senator Obama and his (mostly black?) supporters. The dangers include terrorists, unions, and cuts in the defense budget, as well as more “welfare.” More conventional racial framing this. Odd too, here, is the failure of this writer to note that the (almost all white male) finance capitalists on Wall Street are already driving us into a major economic crisis–and possible depression.
And then the call to arms:


The circulated email continues in this vote/vote vein. Get out the (presumably white) vote immediately. The comments after the report at the online site are worth reading, revealing the powerful character and significance of the great racial divide that remains in Florida, and in this country.

Built-In Racism: Persistent Urban Inequality in NYC

As excited as many of us are about the reality of the first Black presidential nominee (and, dare we hope, the possibility of the first ever Black president), as I mentioned in a previous post, this doesn’t mean the “end of racism” as some have suggested. And, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why this is. In part, I think it has to do with how “built-in” racism operates in a variety of domains in society. I’ve spent the last twelve years or so living in New York City (having grown up in Texas), so I’m particularly interested in how this works here in the city. In some ways, what I’m suggesting is an analysis that’s similar to the task that Paul Street tackles in his recent book, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis, which takes Chicago as the index case. (Note: If anyone knows of a similar title on NYC, please leave a comment or drop me an email.)

The way I see racism function here reminds me of that famous quote from British statesman Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil in America is for good men [sic] to do nothing.” To rephrase Burke, all that’s necessary for the perpetuation of racism is for well-intentioned people to do nothing. Contemporary, urban racism is embedded in the normal routines of everyday, private lives and public institutions. Here are just a few initial thoughts on something I intend to develop further. I welcome comments about where to take this next.

Real Estate & Transportation. New Yorkers love to talk about real estate and transportation. While in other places in the U.S., it’s considered impolite to ask how much you pay for housing, in NYC it’s perfectly acceptable dinner conversation to ask someone how much they pay for their apartment. Following that, the second most popular topic of conversation is “what’s your commute?” (Photo credit: Jason Gibbs) Real estate and transportation in the city are deeply rooted in racial politics and is a key factor in the reproduction of racial inequality in other areas. New York City, despite its reputation for “diversity” has some of the highest segregation levels between whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians (according to People and Politics in America’s Big Cities: The Challenges to Urban Democracy, a 2001 report John Mellenkopf and John Logan). While the levels of racial residential segregation typically get discussed in terms of “demographic changes” (as in the press release for the Mellenkopf and Logan). But demography is largely a field written in the passive voice with very little, if any, discussion of the actors responsible for making the decisions that, at least in part, set the mechanisms of racial residential segregation in motion. In another example of this mechanism, New York City Department of Housing (NYCDOH) officials acknowledge routinely steering black and Hispanic applicants away from largely white public housing projects. While the NYCDOH settled a housing discrimination suit in 1992 and agreed to change this practice, there is little evidence that this practice has changed. For most New Yorkers, the home ownership – the primary way that Americans build wealth – is a distant dream. And, yet many black, Latino and Asian New Yorkers were able to achieve this dream, only to find themselves holding the short end of the mortgage crisis stick. According to the Brownstoner, subprime loans made up 27% of refinances last year here in New York, and people of color are more than three times as likely to hold subprime loans as non-minorities, and one in four homeowners with subprime mortgages in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, predominantly black neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Yet, at the same time that people in the rest of the country and in the outer boroughs suffer through the mortgage crisis, Manhattan home prices remain “crazy,” easily the highest in the nation (both to buy and rent). While the middle-class and wealthy whites in most cities in the U.S. flee the center and use their automobiles to “seceed” from urban areas to predominantly white suburbs and exurbs, the transportation math here is the reverse. Here, Manhattan is increasingly an urban center where only wealthy whites are able to live while middle-class and poor (whites and people of color) are pushed to the outer boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. This sets up a daily migration pattern where working-poor black and brown people commute – sometimes for hours – by public transportation (as on the J train pictured here) into Manhattan to work at menial, low-paying jobs as deli counter staff, bus boys, nannies, door men and day laborers. This pattern of racial segregation in housing lays the groundwork for other forms of discrimination and inequality.

Education. New York City has some of the worst high school graduate rates in the nation, with less than half earning a high school diploma. And of course, it’s not the white kids attending the best schools who are not graduating. The low graduation rates reflect the disparities in spending on schools which is based on the funding mechanism of property taxes and real estate values. This table, “School Funding in Selected School Districts in the New York City Area,” (from the Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report), illustrates the correlation between the percentage of white students and the spending per pupil. The indisputable trend in this data is that as the percentage of white students increases, so does the spending. So, for example, in affluent, suburban (Long Island) Manhasset, where 80% of the students are white, the spending is over $20,000 per pupil, in contrast to New York City where the proportion of white students is 15% and the spending is around half that, $10,000 per pupil. While money does not guarantee a quality education, it can and does influence a variety of educational outcomes, like graduation rates and likelihood of going on to college. Within this context, teachers act as powerful gatekeepers in deciding – often at very early ages – which students are “college bound” and which are “bound for jail.” Not surprisingly, it is black and brown students, and predominantly young boys, who at 10, 11 and 12 years old, are described by white (predominantly female) teachers as “bound for jail,” (see Ann Ferguson, Bad Boys, University of Michigan Press, 2000).

Employment. In 2006, the unemployment rate in New York City was 4.9% — the lowest rate in years. Yet, despite this relative prosperity, blacks (7.4%) and Latinos (6.1%), still experience recession-level unemployment rates (from the Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report). Just taking a look at the City of New York as an employer reveals a strikingly disparate pattern of employment, as nearly 80% of the City’s highest paying administrative and managerial job positions are held by whites. In contrast, while Blacks, Latinos and Asians make up 37%, 16% and 4%, respectively, of the city’s workforce, they only account collectively for 19% of the total senior and executive staff of city agencies (from the Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report). Yet, no one seems to be held accountable for this persistent racial inequality. When the New York City Parks Department agreed to pay more than $21 million to settle a federal class-action discrimination lawsuit filed by the NAACP for a history of racially discriminatory practices, the department announced that it would make “major changes in certain of its personnel practices” as part of the settlement. Still, at the press conference announcing the settlement of the lawsuit – which City attorneys fought against since 1999 – Mayor Bloomberg once again denied any responsibility, saying:

“It was something that took place a long time ago and I think we are satisfied that our procedures today in that department, and I think in all departments, do not discriminate against anybody.” (New York Times, February 26, 2008.)

Of course, the Mayor’s not going to say that the City or any one working for the City discriminates. But then, who’s responsible for the “discriminatory practices” at the Parks Department? It seems that no one is.

Criminal Justice & Political Disenfranchisement. Perhaps the most dramatic and pernicious mechanism for perpetuating racism and racial inequality in New York City is the criminal justice system. As just one example, I wrote in an earlier post about the way that drug policy in New York City is effectively “weeding out” blacks and Latinos from the city. In a 2008 study by Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levin and Deborah Peterson Small, an attorney and advocate for drug policy reform, called “Marijuana Arrest Crusade” (opens .pdf), finds that between 1997 and 2007, 52 percent of the suspects were black, 31 percent Hispanic and only 15 percent white. This sort of systemic racism in arrest and incarceration rates is rooted in policy-level racism in legislation such as the Rockfeller Drug Laws. These laws require harsh prison terms for possession or sale of small amounts of drugs, and are named for Governor Nelson Rockfeller of New York, from the wealthy robber-baron family, who passed these racist laws in 1973. As a direct result of these laws, New York State has opened 38 prisons since 1982, all in mainly white, rural areas “upstate,” all represented by Republican State Senators (photo credit: Lush.i.ous). And, this represents a significant shift in political disenfranchisement in the city for people of color. Nearly 65% of New York State prisoners are from New York City- almost all from poorer neighborhoods of black and brown people. What happens then is a two-fold mechanism of built-in racism that simultaneously disenfranchises people of color while giving political power to white Republicans upstate. First, because the U.S. Census Bureau records inmates as residents of the district where they are in prison, not as residents of the community they come from and where their families still reside, those districts appear to be more populous than they are, thus increasing the number of representatives in those districts. Second, because of felony disenfranchisement laws, those overwhelmingly black and Latino people with the felony convictions are no longer able to vote. And, of course, quite predictably, money follows political power. The state prison system employs almost 30,000 people in Republican senate districts and those prisons in Republican senate districts receive more than $1.1 billion dollars annually to cover their operating expenses.

Media Representations & the Marketing of NYC. Finally, while racist practices in real estate, education, employment and criminal justice make life more difficult for black and Latino New Yorkers, the city’s tourism board and film commission aggressively market NYC to those who live outside the five boroughs, whether they visit the city in person or experience it through mass media (photo credit: Sherene). In 2007, film crews made 245 movies in New York City, a 36% increase from 2002, and a peak in film-making in the city since 9/11. This is no accident. The city’s Film Commission offers huge tax breaks and other incentives to film crews that choose to shoot here. Tourism is also up dramatically; in 2006 (the latest year for which there are figures), an estimated 43.8 million people visited the city. And, this is no accident either, as the city’s leading policy-makers have taken dramatic steps to make the city more “tourist-friendly,” most notably the Disney-fication of the Times Square area. While this transformation involved a complex interplay between urban planning, politicians and venture capitalists, the result urban space is one that is noticeably whiter than it was even ten years ago, and is often the primary tourist destination for those visiting. Similarly, the film and television products filmed here create a mythical New York that is an additional character. The television shows created elsewhere (usually Los Angeles) that are supposedly about New York, or set in the city, such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” feature privileged whites who live in enormous apartments, work only occasionally, and reside in a fictional Manhattan that is as white as any suburban gated-community. Such visual media texts function as ideological reinforcement of a white racial identity without overtly speaking race or racism. As New York City gets mass-marketed as a desirable global destination, these different domains converge in interesting ways.

Built-in Racism in NYC.  At a recent forum about police brutality I attended organized by some of my students, several Hunter College students who are also young, African American men, shared their experiences of routine harassment by New York Police.  Another young man attending the forum observed:  “these police practices don’t happen by accident – they happen because rich white people feel safer when young, black and brown people are regularly harassed and locked up.”  I think there is something to this in the way that different facets of built-in racism converge in the city.  Wealthy, mostly white, real estate developers buy up  scarce land in Manhattan and build luxury condos that, mainly, only wealthy whites can afford to live in, and poorer whites, blacks and Latinos are pushed out of Manhattan to the outer boroughs, thus increasing commute times.    White elites pull their children from under-funded city schools and send them to private schools, while the predominantly minority children left in the public schools are early in life tracked as bound for the criminal justice system.  White employers, such as Mayor Bloomberg, deny they engage in racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, yet the evidence suggests otherwise (e.g., the City Parks Department).   White “upstate” politicians (mostly Republican) make laws that enact racist practices in arrest and incarceration in the city (e.g., Rockefeller drug laws); and then, white “upstate” politicians (mostly Republicans) benefit from that system (e.g., increase in prisons and the political power and money tied to those institutions).  Meanwhile, these same white politicians make laws that disenfranchise felons, further ensuring that those negatively affected by the Rockfeller Drug Laws might mobilize politically against those in power. Wealthy, mostly white, policy-makers implement changes in the urban environment (e.g., Times Square, increased policing) that make other whites feel comfortable enough to come and spend their money.  Then, (mostly) white producers of mass media create ideological justifications for those practices by authoring films and television shows that portray a whites-only chimera of New York City.   Within this system, it’s not necessary for any individual person involved in implementing these policies to express (or even hold) overtly racist views, although many (if not most) do.  All that’s necessary for the perpetuation of this type of built-in racism to continue to operate is that people of good will do nothing.