The “Moynihan Report”: 50 years of Racist Poverty-Shaming

Debates about poverty play out over a heavy sub-text of race. Competing theories assign blame either to moral and cognitive deficiencies of poor people themselves, or to greedy over-lords who unjustly exploit and suppress workers and their families. The class politics are obvious, but arguing the essential unfitness of poor people is aided immeasurably by the rhetoric and logic of racism. If made of somewhat different stuff and recognized as lesser peoples, then both exploitation and the misery they experience seem defensible, or at least unavoidable. Science defeated the hard racial argument in the middle of last century when geneticists determined that race is a biological fiction. But the concept of culture offered a workaround that retained the utility of race by substituting ethnicity. The shift to culture, instead of hard-wired traits, has appealed to liberal “third way” reform thinkers as well as those on the right, forging an odd alliance who find common ground in the hagiography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The “culture of poverty,” a concept ironically made popular by a trio of liberal leftists in the 1960s, asserts that children raised in poverty learn failure from their upbringing and pass it on to their own children, much like inherited physical traits. Shared cultures in “ghetto” communities produce dysfunctional patterns of thought and behavior that perpetuate poverty. Oscar Lewis, anthropologist; Michael Harrington, muckraking journalist; and Daniel P. Moynihan, federal policy analyst and future politician, were the three figures who helped ignite a contentious debate early in the War on Poverty, which not coincidentally over-lapped with the Civil Rights movement.

Moynihan’s influence has been most enduring. His 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (PDF), brought this idea to the mass media in the midst of an extended urban uprising in the Watts section of LA. As an assistant secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Labor, he issued an official verdict that African American poverty was mired in a “tangle of pathology” resulting from excessive numbers of female headed households. Moynihan conceded that male unemployment unsettles marital stability, but believed that racial disparities in joblessness reflected a family structure that produced uncompetitive workers, implicitly justifying employer discrimination. Growing public unease over urban violence magnified the report’s message that African American culture was pathological.

The leaked report was followed by weeks of coverage and many extreme reactions. The government was launching a campaign to end poverty; an official report defined the problem in terms of gender, race, and culture, deflecting attention from substantive obstacles and economic problems then (and still) confronting African Americans. The report was dissected by critics and supporters alike. Moynihan’s naïve statistical inferences and reliance on limited secondary sources weakened his position and tended to discredit his thesis. Anthropologists and historians published research that contradicted his assertions. Through the 70s and early 80s, the report lost its luster. Moynihan complained periodically about the criticism he had endured over his report, claiming he had been the victim of ideological enemies on the left. It could have ended there.

The 1980s was a period of revanchism against the Great Society, backlash against what were deemed excessively liberal conditions in the preceding two decades. Under Reagan, Sen. Moynihan opposed the new harsh policies, but his earlier ideas about black poverty gained renewed support, especially from right wing commentators like Charles Murray. Also included, however, was liberal sociologist William Julius Wilson who praised Moynihan’s foresight, excoriated his critics, and instated culture into his quest to understand poverty. Wilson framed inner city poverty as the home of the “underclass” where black middle class flight had left a zone bereft of upstanding two parent families, a cultural sink lacking effective norms. Faced with wrenching industrial changes, their defective culture worsened the problems — a combination of cultural and structural causes, suggesting possible partial solutions addressing bad culture rather than unfair economics. This approach resonated with many in the Republican administration, but it also drew interest from a widening circle of academics and liberal policy analysts.

In 2007, the American Academy of Social and Political Science established an annual award in Moynihan’s name for public intellectuals of note. Their journal published a special issue titled “The Moynihan Report Revisited,” with largely praiseful articles and missing some noted critics. The Urban Institute borrowed the title for their own conference and publication [[]] that was also mainly an homage to Moynihan’s allegedly prescient contributions. In 2010 Herbert Gans, a sociologist who had written an early response to the report, revisited it in light of all the new praise for its importance. He came to the same conclusion he had 45 years earlier; it was not good research or a credible argument. He praised Moynihan’s work as a senator, but not as a scholar or early policy analyst.

Nevertheless, Moynihan’s fame as a social prophet has continued to grow and his ideas arguably have helped steer scarce poverty funding into neoliberal programs aimed at teaching poor people about the virtues of middle class culture, or forcibly displacing them for their own good. And we have spent billions more incarcerating and punishing non-violent poor people of color based on faulty perceptions of crime and risk. Both critics and supporters credit the Moynihan Report for helping shape the policy environment that ended welfare and anointed the view that poverty, race, and crime are all tied together. Alice O’Connor’s book, Poverty Knowledge, offers an incisive analysis, as described in my recent book, Blaming the Poor.

In the United States poverty and race are frequently connected in the mind’s eye, in what Joe Feagin has called the white racial frame, where facts disappear in the mist of centuries long racial conditioning, like the fact that “welfare queens” in the days before welfare was ended were overwhelmingly white. Current revivals of Moynihan’s haplessly racist caricature of immoral black single mothers and their dangerous teenaged sons disregard the fact that single motherhood has soared among all ethnic groups, especially among people with low incomes, a predictable response to dire economic conditions. It is not cultural, but structural; not racial but a reflection of class inequality and material scarcity. Moynihan was fond of saying that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Moynihan’s sloppy research and undeservedly popular conclusion illustrates that caution very well.

Susan Greenbaum is Professor Emerita of Anthropology, University of South Florida

When Interest Convergence Derails: More Challenges to Affirmative Action

Many of the facts surrounding the recent challenges to affirmative action are not well known to the general public. A “perfect storm” has brought into question the survival of even modest, race-sensitive, non-preferential admissions programs designed to enhance campus diversity in higher education. This storm has arisen from three major sources. First, the term “affirmative action” has caused a backlash in (especially white) public opinion against programs believed to unfairly disadvantage white Americans. Second, wealthy white entrepreneurs have recruited plaintiffs and actively sponsored legal challenges to both civil rights and affirmative action programs. And third, a conservative Supreme Court has decided to hear these cases, resulting in the elimination, revision, or curtailment of existing civil rights laws and race-sensitive admissions programs. Critics indicate that the determinations of Chief Justice John Roberts’ conservative high court reflect a post-racial, color-blind perspective that contradict the continuing presence of race-based inequality in the United States. Roberts’ view is summed up in the 2007 Parents Involved v. Seattle School District; Jefferson County Board of Education (127 S. Ct. 2738): “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

As Alvin Evans and I share in our new book, Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, deep ironies and contradictions characterize the Supreme Court’s determinations in the civil rights arena and in the four major affirmative action-related lawsuits over the past thirty-five years. The Court has constricted and even reversed civil rights law on the premise that social conditions of inequality in America have, for the most part, been addressed with the conclusion that policies designed to level the higher educational playing field are both unfair and unnecessary.

Reinterpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) is at the center of the high court’s determinations, moving from the original intent of the clause to protect the rights of minorities to an emphasis on the protection of all groups, including white Americans. For example, in the Fisher case, Justice Antonio Scalia voiced his incredulity over the argument that the Fourteenth Amendment protects minorities:

My goodness, I thought we’ve–we’ve held that the 14th Amendment protects all races. I mean, that was the argument in the early years, that it protected only — only the blacks. But I thought we rejected that. You–you say now that we have to proceed as though its purpose is not to protect whites, only to protect minorities?”

Legal scholar Derrick Bell’s theory of interest convergence explains how affirmative action arose during the civil rights era as a response to the radical protests and converged with other interests that were differently motivated. The creation of contemporary affirmative action programs by President John F. Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson in the midst of periods of extreme racial turbulence coincides with the development of race-conscious admissions policies by leading universities.

Ironically, the frontal attack on affirmative action in university admissions practices leading to an overall shift in public policy at the nation’s leading universities has been led by a single individual, Edward Blum. Blum’s one-person organization, the Project on Fair Representation, was founded in 2005 to challenge the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This effort paved the way for the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision nullifying the requirement for nine states and some counties to obtain preclearance from the Department of Justice prior to changing voting requirements. A conservative entrepreneur without a law degree or scholarly background, Blum has recruited a network of top lawyers who often agree to offer their services at reduced rates.

In launching a sustained, legal assault on affirmative action, Blum recruited Abigail Fisher, the daughter of an old friend, to contest her denial of admission to the University of Texas at Austin based on a claim of reverse discrimination. The Court’s ruling in the Fisher case established a much more stringent set of preconditions for consideration of race as one factor among many in a holistic admissions process. First, consideration of race and ethnicity as one factor among many in the individualized admissions review process cannot occur unless all race-neutral alternatives have been exhausted. Second, a reviewing court rather than the university becomes the arbiter of whether or not a university’s use of race is necessary to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy emphasized that in reviewing the means to attain diversity, “the university receives no deference.” Referring to the Court’s decision in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case at the University of Michigan, Kennedy added:

Grutter made it clear that it is for the Courts, not for university administrators, “to determine that the means chosen to accomplish the government’s purpose are “specifically and narrowly framed to accomplish that purpose.”

The Project on Fair Representation has continued its effort to recruit plaintiffs and filed suit against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Harvard lawsuit takes a different tack by splintering minority interests and building on the white-created “model minority” myth. It focuses on admissions policies limiting the enrollment of qualified Asian-American applicants and argues that Harvard has held Asian American students to higher standards than other applicants. The suit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill challenges that flagship institution’s own description in a friend-of-the-court brief in the Fisher case in which the university wrote of its current process to attain a higher level of black enrollment. Blum also says that he hopes to find applicants rejected from the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Tennessee for future suits.

Edward Blum’s most recent high-profile effort challenges the concept of one person one vote, that has led to the Supreme Court decision last week to hear Evenvel v. Abbott, a suit that contests the way state districts’ lines are drawn in Texas. The case calls into question the Court’s Reynolds v. Sims decision (1964) that draws district lines based on an areas’s total population. Instead, Blum advocates the drawing of district lines based only on eligible voters, thereby eliminating children, illegal immigrants, non-citizen, and inmates, among others.

Yet as colleges and universities grapple with the Supreme Court’s rigorous requirements surrounding race-sensitive admissions processes, one unforeseen benefit may be the attention that needs to be paid to clearly-articulated mission, vision and values statements. These statements now need to contextualize why diversity is a compelling interest for a given college or university campus. In sharing recommendations for practice at the conclusion of our book, we note the ongoing and unusual responsibility of educational institutions to ensure the talent of the nation’s minority students is not wasted, but realized. The rich research literature on the educational benefits of diversity that has arisen in specific response to the recent affirmative action cases will assist institutions in the ongoing and persistent effort to open the doors of educational opportunity to America’s diverse citizenry.

Former Adviser Axelrod Warns White Racist Hostility to Obama Infects Politics

Ed Pilkington, chief reporter for the Guardian (US), reports:

In an interview with the Guardian before the release of his new autobiography, [David] Axelrod spoke in frank terms about what he perceives as the corrosive influence of race in the Obama era. The former White House senior adviser said that no other president in US history had had a member of Congress shout at him in the middle of a major address – as Joe Wilson of South Carolina did in 2009 with his notorious “You lie!” rebuke – or face persistent questions about his American citizenship, as Obama did from the so-called “birther” movement . … [Axelrod] warned that racial “fear” and hostility toward the first black US president has infected American politics and is partly to blame for Republican intransigence in confronting the president’s agenda. “The fact is, there are some people who are uncomfortable with the changing demographics of our country,” Axelrod said. “To those people, Obama is a living symbol of something they fear, they don’t like, and some of that has spilled into our politics.”


In the book titled, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics (2015) Axelrod writes that

some folks simply refuse to accept the legitimacy of the first black president and are seriously discomforted by the growing diversity of our country. And some craven politicians and rightwing provocateurs have been more than willing to exploit that fear, confusion, and anger.

That is, an entrenched white anger exists on the subject of a black man – with a Muslim name – in the White House.

The white racial frame sheds much light on Axelrod’s discussion of race-involved “fear.” As Joe Feagin explains, the racial hierarchy, material oppression, and the rationalizing white racial frame are key dimensions of the systemic racism created at the top decision-making level by elite white men. Emotions play a vital part in sanctioning white privilege so that whites can discount or disregard the unpleasant truths of racism. Such perverse obliviousness rests firmly on the safeguarding of whites’ racial selves (The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Framing and Counter-Framing).

Beyond US politics, projections on the shifting demographics of race have led to clear expressions of white racial victimization, aggrieved entitlement, and aggressive white racial framing. White elite male controlled news outlets report on anticipated trends with memorable headlines like “Whites losing majority in U.S. in under-5 group,” “White kids will no longer make up a majority in just a few years,” and “Minorities now surpass whites in U.S. births, census shows.” Undoubtedly to perpetuate racist notions of the welfare state, the latter story mentions a seemingly troublesome aside: “[T]he numbers also serve as a guide to where taxpayer dollars could be going in the coming decades.” It fails to mention where taxpayer dollars will be coming from (workers of color, increasingly).

Studies also point to discomfort among whites with regard to the changing demographics of the US, as does the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to nullify strategic parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“Our country has changed,” explained John G. Roberts Jr. –- Chief Justice and elite white male appointed by George W. Bush in 2005. A well-known critic of the 1965 Act for nearly 30 years, and writing for the majority, Roberts explained, “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” Roberts held that “things have changed dramatically” in the South in the nearly 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed. This was in spite of the fact that almost all US civil rights leaders disagreed.

Conflicting Worlds of the Racialized US “Justice” System

Inside me a little chuckle comes to life, while simultaneously my lips curl to form a devious smile when people discuss subjects and infuse the word “irony.” It simply is one of those words I despise when it is used incorrectly due to my hard-hitting 5th grade teacher who wheeled the English dictionary as a master swordsman. Rarely do I see true examples of irony within my life. But a few weeks ago one was pitched out of the mouth of Anderson Cooper. Due to its little national attention, many will not remember the fascinating story of Marissa Alexander, who is African American. Her story began two years before George Zimmerman claimed self-defense in the killing of Trayvon Martin. It was only two years before he desperately hinged his defense upon Florida’s heated Stand Your Ground statue to avoid prosecution that Alexander had claimed the same defense. But unlike Zimmerman, she ultimately and physically harmed no one.

On August 1, 2010, she claimed to law enforcement authorities that her then-husband attempted to strangle her after reading a text conversation between Marissa and her ex-husband. She says she attempted to flee his grasps and ran into another area of the house where she retrieved her handgun. When her husband threatened to kill her, she decided to fire a warning shot into the wall. In a deposition, her husband noted:

If my kids weren’t there, I knew I probably would have tried to take the gun from her,” Gray said. “If my kids wouldn’t have been there, I probably would have put my hand on her.

When the defense attorney inquired to what he meant by putting his hands upon her, Gray replied,

Probably hit her. I got five baby mammas and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one.

This previous law abiding mother of three refused a three-year plea deal and opted for a trial. Why not? She truly believed that she was lawfully right to do what she did. Her entire defense profoundly relied upon the Stand Your Ground statue. But unlike Zimmerman, she was found guilty in only 12 minutes. Subsequently she was sentenced to a 20-year term for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. She spent 1,030 days in jail before an appellate court ordered a new trial due to troubling issues with jury instructions. The Florida state prosecutor has been criticized for her over-zealous effort that overcharged Alexander. She and the state’s attorney office have been previously demonized by the National Organization for Women, Jesse Jackson, the advocacy group Color of Change. Regardless of the outcry, the prosecutor reported to the public that she would be re-prosecuting. This time, she aimed for three consecutive 20-year sentences. Luckily for Alexander, in January of 2015, a Circuit Judge failed to sentence her to the years requested by the state prosecutor. Instead Alexander will be considered a convicted felon where she will spend the next two years on house arrest. She will continue to wear a GPS monitor that will cost her approximately a total of $11,000 for the remaining of her two year sentence.

John Hope Franklin argues,

… the history of the United States is indeed brief. But during the brief span of three and on-half centuries of colonial and national history Americans developed traditions and prejudices which created the two worlds of race in modern America.”

Undeniably, the legal justice system is such a place where the two racial worlds are on display. For example, even though Blacks make up 12-13 percent of this country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2008) “1 in 3 Black men and 1 in 18 Black females occupy our U.S. prison system.”

Is this justice? No, it is simply as the dictionary explains. The situation described above is simply an “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” You know, irony.

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.

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.

Law Partner Tracks & Asian Americans: Struggles to Affirm Positive Self-Identity

Helen Wan’s The Partner Track is a newly published novel that paints a vivid picture of life inside a corporate law firm and the internal struggles and challenges of a female, Asian-American lawyer seeking to become partner. The book illuminates the ways in which minorities and women are still viewed within hierarchical, white male-dominated organizational structures and highlights the particular embarrassment that can result from being singled out to personify the firm’s diversity initiatives. In situations of high competition, minority and female status can even be seen as a threat, since some may mistakenly presume that such status confers advantage.

Ingrid Yung, the protagonist in the novel, is a descendant of immigrant parents from Taiwan, who knows how to speak Mandarin, but prefers to separate herself from identification with her ethnic roots in the presence of a competing, yet socially awkward attorney from mainland China. The nuances of her relationship with her parents are delicately portrayed. Ingrid’s mother addresses her on the phone as “Ingrid-ah”—perhaps reflecting the difficulty in enunciating the syllables in American names. Ingrid’s parents sacrificed much for her success, and are justifiably proud of her groundbreaking accomplishments. As her mother declares, “Nobody bosses my Ingrid around.” It is this unmistakable sense of pride and independence that accompanies Ingrid as she confronts repeated incidents that question her identity, her right to be at the firm, and her competence.

Without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, the most telling revelation comes when Ingrid realizes that it was not hard work that would land her a partnership and that her mistakes would count more heavily than for others. As Ingrid reflects (p. 238):

I had completely bought into the myth of a meritocracy. Somehow I’d actually been foolish enough to believe that if I simply kept my head down and worked hard, and did everything, everything that was asked of me, I would be rewarded. What an idiot.

The novel also chronicles with subtle humor Ingrid’s interactions with the firm’s diversity consultant who has been hired after a tasteless, racialized skit at the firm’s corporate outing. Later when Ingrid is singled out at the firm’s diversity event designed to repair the damage from the skit at the outing, she is unwittingly made the poster child for the diversity initiative and later suffers consequences for her required participation.

Ingrid describes her valiant efforts to stay at the corporate law firm for eight years, hoping that “all of these little humiliations and exclusions amount to something.” As she reflects,

More than anything, I wanted, once and for all, to shake that haunting suspicious that, while my record impressed and my work made the grade, I was ultimately not valued (p, 164).

The themes of the book underscore the research perspectives shared by Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin in Two-faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage.

This study identifies the spatial nature of modern-day discrimination based on the review of the diary accounts of 1000 college students. Based on this extensive research data, Picca and Feagin conclude that performances or comments made by white actors in the frontstage when diverse individuals are present significantly diverge from closed-door backstage performances that occurred when only whites are present. Similarly, Ingrid struggles with her own identity as she gains glimpses of the backstage while she is simultaneously paraded as a model of diversity in the frontstage.

Yet at the same time, there are hopeful notes sounded in Helen Wan’s beautifully narrated story. The novel has much to offer in terms of charting the progressive pathway toward a self-affirming identity for women and minority professionals and leaders. And as Alvin Evans and I highlight in The New Talent Acquisition Frontier, from an organizational perspective, talent is the most important strategic asset necessary for success and survival in a globally interconnected world. As a result, empowering diverse and talented employees and eliminating the spatial separation between frontstage and backstage performances are essential steps in the attainment of social integration and genuinely inclusive workplaces.

Racial/Gender Homogeneity in Corporate Board Leadership

In response to criticism from two major shareholders about the lack of diversity in its board of directors, Apple Inc. recently added language to its governance charter committing to seek women and minorities for consideration. The board currently consists of seven white males under the age of 50 and one Asian American woman. In an industry known to be built on the need for innovation, the singular homogeneity of Apple’s board is surprising, although far from unusual.

Other Silicon Valley companies have faced similar questions about their male-dominated leadership including Facebook and Twitter who were criticized for not having female directors prior to their initial public offerings.

The biannual report of the Alliance for Board Diversity reveals that both women and minorities are underrepresented in Fortune 500 boardrooms. Only about 17 percent of the 5,488 board seats are held by women. And minority women comprise 3.2 percent of these positions, while minority men hold 10.1 percent. The report also notes that African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, and Asian/Pacific Islanders have experienced losses or only small gains in corporate board representation in the past year.

In our new book, The New Talent Frontier: Integrating HR and Diversity Strategy in the Private and Public Sectors and Higher Education , Alvin Evans and I argue that talent is the primary strategic asset needed for organizational survival in a globally interconnected world. As a result, organizations need to optimize their talent resources by building synergy between HR and diversity programs. Maximizing organizational capability requires that organizations respect, nurture, and mobilize the contributions of a diverse and talented workforce.

In an article entitled, “Does a Lack of Diversity among Business Leaders Hinder Innovation?” Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin share the results of a survey conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation of 1800 men and women in white-collar professions that also included Fortune 500 executives. The authors found that due to homogeneity in the leadership ranks, the majority of companies fail to realize their full innovative potential. Fifty-six percent of the respondents indicated that leaders at their firms failed to find value in ideas that they have difficulty relating to or don’t see a need for. As a result, senior leaders lose revenue-generating opportunities when they do not create a “speak-up culture” in which employees can contribute innovative or out-of-the-box ideas. The findings appear to support a strong correlation between inclusive behaviors and acquired diversity.

As Joe Feagin eloquently observes in Racist America:

When Americans of color are oppressed in this country’s institutions, not only do they suffer greatly, but the white-controlled institutions and whites within them often suffer significantly if unknowingly. Excluding Americans of color has meant excluding much knowledge, creativity, and understanding from society generally. A society that ignores great stores of human knowledge and ability irresponsibly risks its future.

In this sense, the exclusion of minorities and women from the board rooms of American corporations indeed irresponsibly risks the future of American entrepreneurialism by overlooking the innovative contributions of diverse leadership.

Prescriptive Racial Stereotypes of Asian American Leaders

In an article entitled “Why So Few Asians are College President,” Dr. Santa J. Ono, President of the University of Cincinnati, indicates that he finds himself among a very small group of Asian American leaders in higher education: only 1.5 percent of college and university presidents are Asian American and 3.4 percent are administrators in higher education. By contrast, Hispanics comprise 3.8 percent of presidents and African Americans hold 5.9 percent of these roles. This pattern also holds true for the corporate sector, such as the low representation of Asian Americans as corporate officers and members of corporate boards.

Why are Asian Americans so underrepresented in leadership roles? Ono suggests two major factors at play: cultural differences deriving from home environments that value preferences for indirect communication, emotional restraint, and an egalitarian view of power as well as contradictory perceptions about Asian Americans such as being conspicuous but self-effacing, hyperambitious but timid. Frank Wu, Chancellor of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, similarly points out that the model minority myth transforms positive qualities into negative attributes: intelligence is seen as lack of personality, family-oriented as clannish, and hard-working as unfairly competitive.

Ono, however, points to significant new research by Jennifer Berdahl and Ji-A Min at the University of Toronto that sheds light on the particular barriers Asian Americans face in leadership roles. Berdahl and Min distinguish between descriptive stereotypes or generalized beliefs about what members of different racial groups are like and prescriptive stereotypes which, when violated, are likely to provoke social disapproval and backlash. Since East Asians in North America are often descriptively stereotyped as relatively competent, cold, and nondominant, Berdahl and Min identify “nondominant” as a prescriptive stereotype that, when violated, causes negative consequences in the workplace. As a result, when East Asians remain in subordinate, nonleadership roles, and do not try to assert their own viewpoints or ideas or take charge, the competitive threat to valued resources they pose is neutralized. Through a series of four studies, the research findings reveal that not only did East Asians report more racial harassment at work than other employees, but, more importantly, those individuals that violated racial stereotypes were more likely to be the targets of such harassment. Berdahl and Min report that the negative responses to dominant East Asians did not depend on gender and appeared to be unique to this racial minority group.

This promising line of research on prescriptive stereotypes helps explain the hurdles faced by Asian Americans in their efforts to attain leadership positions and how these stereotypes can influence their ability to break through the so-called “bamboo ceiling” or what Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls “the marzipan layer” just below the upper rungs of power.

The notion of prescriptive stereotypes can also apply to the challenges faced by other racial minorities and women when they violate expected stereotypical behaviors and experience backlash. As Santa Ono notes, unconscious bias may be more difficult to address in academe where intellectual fairness and rigor are already presumed to be present. In this regard, he aptly suggests that academe focus some of its energy, acuity, and empathy toward tearing down existing social and psychological barriers to success, “particularly those all the more imposing for being invisible.” Perhaps greater understanding of the influence of prescriptive stereotypes will provide the opportunity for reexamination of the impact of subtle, unconscious bias on organizational processes and allow us to develop truly inclusive definitions of leadership capabilities.