Today’s Friday feature on resistance this week is Elon James White’s riff on white privilege.
I think you’ll agree, it’s 4 minutes and 59 seconds of awesome:
Today’s Friday feature on resistance this week is Elon James White’s riff on white privilege.
I think you’ll agree, it’s 4 minutes and 59 seconds of awesome:
Is success monolithic and limited to certain groups? Attributes of success cannot be monopolized by certain groups, cultures, ethnicities, or religious groups. Most people that are successful, in fact, appear to have characteristics in common and these characteristics are not driven by their membership in certain groups. The premise of the American democracy is based on the notion that all can succeed through hard work and access to opportunity. In Outliers, the Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell observes:
Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.
Yet according to Amy Chua and Jeb Rosenfeld in their new book, The Triple Package, the combination of three cultural characteristics has led to the success of eight groups in America (Chinese, early Cuban exiles, Indians, Nigerians, Mormons, Iranians, Lebanese and Jews): 1) a superiority complex; 2) a sense of insecurity; and 3) impulse control. In fact, they assert,
all of America’s disproportionately successful groups have a superiority complex; in fact most are famous for it” (p. 72).
This superiority complex, they state, is “deeply ingrained” (p. 83). And strikingly, the authors do not support these sweeping statements with research findings or empirical sources of evidence.
Chua and Rosenfeld’s thesis has distinct Orwellian overtones by suggesting that some groups have what it takes to be more equal or successful than others. As NYU professor Suketu Mehta points out in an article titled “The ‘Tiger Mom Superiority Complex’” in Time Magazine,the book represents “a new strain of racial, ethnic, and cultural reductivism,” a sort of “ethnocentric thinking writ large” or what he terms “the new racism.” And, he adds, “I call it the new racism—and I take it rather personally.”
The Triple Package touches on some important themes, but also suffers from a number of critical flaws. Most importantly, the book does not address the nature of structural discrimination that is reflected in disparate historical, economic, and social realities for minorities through the predominance of what social theorist Joe Feagin calls the “white racial frame.” According to Feagin, this frame is comprised of racial stereotypes, racial narratives, racial images, and racialized emotions that shape how many whites behave and interact with all Americans of color. Systematic, structural forms of exclusion of minorities have pervaded access to housing, education, distribution of economic resources, and job opportunities.
Arguably, the sense of superiority of any group is affected by forces of social oppression and the internalization of these forces has an impact on the psyche of affected individuals. Chua and Rosenfeld have correctly identified the fact that blacks have been systematically denied access to a group superiority complex and bear a significant cultural burden by susceptibility to stereotype threat. However, the omission of African Americans from the chapter on impulse control seems to do a disservice to hardworking African Americans who have been highly successful.
Second, the co-authors’ emphasis is on immigrant success. Factors in immigrant success, however, are not representative of the American population as a whole. For the most part, the legal immigration system has provided upper and middle class individuals the opportunity to emigrate to the United States. Take, for example, the fact mentioned by Chua and Rosenfeld indicate that 65 percent of Iranian Americans are foreign born. They also distinguish between the success of the first wave of Cuban immigration between 1959 and 1973 which included an influx of mostly white middle and upper class professionals “at the pinnacle of a highly stratified society” (p. 37) with the later wave of Cuban immigrants who were black or of mixed race or mostly poor. As the authors observe, these individuals were not successful in business and are absent from Miami’s power elite. Yet rather than cultural factors, the racism and classicism evident in the treatment of second-generation Cuban immigrants represent powerful structural, social influences in their relative lack of mobility and success.
Third, the authors assert that the Triple Package is a cultural explanation of group success that does not include education or hard work as core components. In their view, education and hard work are dependent and not independent variables. This dismissal of education flies in the face of Horace Mann’s view that education is
a great equalizer of the conditions of men,–the balance wheel of the social machinery” that “gives each man the independence and the means by which he can resist the selfishness of other men.
Or to put it in a more contemporary framework, as Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation points out, “college-level learning is key to individual prosperity, economic security, and the strength of our American democracy.”
And, in Chua and Rosenfeld’s view, America previously had the Triple Package culture, but,
in the latter part of the twentieth century, something happened. America turned against both insecurity and impulse control (p. 208).
As a result, the authors indicate that to recover the Triple Package, Americans would have to recover from “instant gratification disorder” (p. 218).
The basis for these statements is not explained, documented, or footnoted. In essence, individuals from oppressed groups, no matter which group, have similar aspirations and wish for a better life and to be part of the American dream. These aspirations are not driven by cultural characteristics and can be advanced through education, hard work, and structural and opportunity mechanisms that facilitate individual progress. Due to the lack of evidence offered for the assertions of the Triple Package, the book essentially provides commentary on a very complex subject rather than scholarship and, as such, lacks credibility. Should certain groups accept the unsupported premises of this book, self-fulfilling prophecies could set in, and public opinion and debate could be affected by unverified statements that are not grounded in empirical data or social science research.
It’s Tuesday and that means it’s Trouble with White Women and White Feminism, our ongoing series meant to offer a broader context and deeper analysis of the latest outrages by the melanin-challenged.
White women were active participants in, proponents of and key beneficiaries of the system of slavery in the U.S., both historically and now.
While some historians, such as C. Vann Woodward and Catherine Clinton, have argued that white women were secretly opposed to the system of slavery, scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demolished this notion with her work, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 1988). Fox-Genovese draws on white slaveholding women’s diaries, letters, and postbellum memoirs, along with the Works Progress Administration’s narratives of enslaved black women as her source material to make a convincing argument that even though they worked in the same households there was no “shared sense of sisterhood” among black and white women in the plantation household. Fox-Genovese makes a distinction between white women in the North, whose urban, bourgeois culture valued individualism and the redeeming power of domestic work, and white Southern women, whose hierarchical, dependency-based culture judged women’s worth on their success in conforming to the ideal of the “lady,” rather than on their thrift, industry, and devotion to all-sacrificing motherhood. By arguing that white, Southern women’s history “does not constitute a regional variation on the main story; it constitutes another story,” Fox-Genovese joined women of color and labor historians who were offering critiques of both the white, middle-class feminist movement and the histories it produced. (See this for a much longer and more thorough summary of Fox-Genovese’s work.)
It is a mistake to believe that slaveowning was an entirely Southern U.S. phenomenon. In fact, it was the Northeast where slavery began in the U.S. and where some of its enduring legacy remains. “Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas,” writes historian Craig Steven Wilder in his, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities. Wilder writes:
“In the decades before the American Revolution, merchants and planters became not just the benefactors of colonial society but its new masters. Slaveholders became college presidents. The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools. Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts. And the politics of the campus conformed to the presence and demands of slave-holding students as colleges aggressively cultivated a social environment attractive to …wealthy families.”
Wilder paints a compelling portrait of the ways that slavery was not merely part of the “context” present at the same time as the rise of higher education in the U.S., but in fact, was a crucial element that universities relied on to build facilities, endowments and legacies of elite social environments for cultivating subsequent generations of the nation’s leaders. While it’s true that these institutions were established for the benefit of white men, white women eventually demanded and won access.
White women in the academy, and I’m one of them, continue to benefit from the system of higher education built by enslaved human beings. According to the Almanac of Higher Education, women accounted for only 31% of all tenured faculty in US colleges and universities,but of these 78% are white women, compared to just 0.6% American Indian, 4% Latina, 6.7% Asian American, and 7% African American. Wilder’s research is focused on Ivy League (elite) educational institutions, but it has implications for those of us outside those institutions as well. I work at CUNY (not, to my knowledge, built by enslaved people) but CUNY operates within an eco-system of other institutions of higher education from which we all benefit.
“But, my family didn’t own slaves!” also, “Slavery was a long time ago, isn’t it time to forget all that?
These refrains about a distant, non-slaveholding past are a commonplace among white people. The first is meant to suggest a lack of connection to the institution of slavery, and therefore, a lack of responsibility for understanding it; and the second is meant to suggest that historical amnesia is a salve for social ills. My family didn’t own slaves either (that I know of). This wasn’t an ethical stance, they just couldn’t afford to own any human beings.
The rush to forget, to distance from the legacy of slavery in the U.S. strikes me as peculiar. Recently, this resistance to facing history has come out in the ways that white people talk about (and don’t talk about) the film ’12 Years a Slave.’ Most often, what I hear from white women friends, is this: ”I’m not sure I can go see 12 Years a Slave. It just sounds too painful to watch, and I wonder, why would I want to pay a babysitter so I can be in agony for two hours?”
Perhaps part of this resistance is a reluctance to come to terms with the way that, as Olivia Cole writes, white women ruined lives while wearing their pretty dresses. While scholarly works like those by Fox-Genovese or Wilder may not reach a wide public audience, this film could if people are willing to go see it. Part of what the film reveals is the cruel treatment meted out by white women situated as the plantation mistress to the enslaved women they controlled.
Plantations: Topographies of Terror or Theme Parks?
Slavery does not exist solely in the mists of some distant past, but remains with us in the here and now of the U.S. Plantations are increasingly popular locations for weddings for white women who are convinced they can “work around the racism” of such a setting.
People who doubt the fascination we have as a society with the “plantation” theme, should watch “Gone with the Wind” (1939), which serves as a kind of cultural template for the aesthetics of this phenomenon. While some may see this as irrelevant to the contemporary milieu, the recent micro-controversies involving Paula Deen and Ani DiFranco suggest otherwise.
Paula Deen is a celebrity who built a small empire on her southern cooking and down-home style. Deen recently became embroiled in controversy when in June 2013, she became the target of a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination. In her deposition, when asked if she’d used the N-word to describe African American people, she said “Yes, of course.” Among the other revelations about Deen that emerged were the details of her “dream southern plantation wedding.” Deen offered a tearful apology for her use of the N-word, the lawsuit was dismissed, but it may have been too late because there was already a Twitter hashtag #PaulaDeenRecipes with some truly hilarious, creative entries (e.g., Back of the Bus Biscuits #PaulaDeenRecipes). Deen had her television show cancelled by Food Network, and endorsement contracts cancelled by Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, diabetes drug company Novo Nordisk, J.C. Penney, Sears, KMart and her then-publisher Ballantine Books. However, several companies have expressed their intent to continue their endorsement deals with Deen, and fans flocked to her restaurants in a show of support.
Ani DiFranco is a singer, songwriter and is often regarded as a feminist icon. DiFranco faced a controversy in 2013 when after the announcement that she was hosting a three-day artists’ workshop billed as the “Righteous Retreat” at Iberville Parish‘s Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, Louisiana. Now operated as a luxury resort, Nottoway Plantation was one of the largest plantations in the South, and features the largest antebellum mansion. Its operator and founder John Randolph owned over 155 slaves in the year 1860. DiFranco’s choice of venue for the retreat was called “a blatant display of racism” on a petition at change.org that collected more than 2,600 signatures. On December 29, 2013 DiFranco cancelled the retreat and offered what many saw as a tepid, non-apology-apology. Chastened by the criticism that followed that first statement, DiFranco issued a second apology on January 2, 2014 in which she wrote, “..i would like to say i am sincerely sorry. it is obvious to me now that you were right – all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents. i needed a wake up call and you gave it to me.”
The public oppobrium that Deen and DiFranco faced are tied up in what Priscilla Ocen, writing at For Harriet, calls the subservience fantasy in the U.S. The persistent cultural fascination with plantations as settings of an idyllic past positions them as locations that can be “reclaimed” as luxury resorts, wedding venues, and “righteous retreat” destinations. And, I would argue, it is not coincidental that it is white women who are fueling this fantasy.
There are other ways to approach our history. At the same time that the controversy with Ani DiFranco was roiling the interwebs, I was visiting Berlin. While I was there, I went to a museum called “Topographies of Terror,” a museum that marks the site of the former Secret State Police, the SS and the Security Main Office of the Third Reich. The story of how the museum was created fascinated me as much as the collection itself. After the war the grounds were leveled and initially used for commercial purposes, and eventually became a vacant lot. Public interest in this site emerged gradually in the 1970s and 1980s. It was during this time that groups of citizens, historians, and activists began the work of commemorating the site and using it as a mechanism for confronting the difficult past of the Nazi regime.
In the U.S., we have very few (if any) of these kinds of monuments. Imagine, if you will, a wedding held at a former concentration camp with a “Third Reich” theme, with the bride urging guests to “work around” the blatant anti-semitism. Offensive, right? Of course it is. Then why is it that here in the U.S., we turn plantations – our own topographies of terror – into theme parks and luxury resorts?
As I said, I find the American rush to forget, to distance ourselves from the legacy of slavery strikes me as peculiar. I suspect that part of this reluctance has to do with the affective, particularly for white women, who wish above all else, not to be made uncomfortable about race. More about that in another post in this ongoing series, Trouble with White Women #tww.
Systemic racism persists and flourishes in this country because of an extensive set of racial myths created long ago and aggressively perpetuated by whites in major institutions of this society, decade after decade.
Given this white myth-making, empirical data on what is actually the case often become “radical.”
Consider this pervasive belief. Whites publicly assert that they get most of their jobs over their lifetimes only or mainly because of their merit and abilities. They pedal this fiction to everyone they can, and indeed get many folks of color also accept it as true.
The problem is that it is mostly a grand fiction.
For example, recently conducting hundreds of white interviews, sociologist and university dean Nancy DiTomaso has demonstrated well the important social networking patterns that reproduce great racial inequalities in U.S. employment patterns. Her many white respondents reported that they have long used acquaintances, friends, and family–their personal networks–to find most of the jobs secured over lifetimes of job hunting. That is, they use exclusionary networks. DiTomaso calls this a societal system of “opportunity hoarding.” It is, more bluntly, institutionalized racial privilege and favoritism.
These empirical findings flatly contradict the colorblind view of our employment world propagated by many Americans, and especially most white Americans– that is, the view that in the U.S. economy jobs are secured mainly or only because of personal “skills, qualifications, and merit.” Yet, wherever they can, most white job seekers admit that they typically avoid real job market competition and secure most of their jobs by using their usually racially segregated social relationships and networks.
And, even more strikingly perhaps, most whites do not even care that they benefit so greatly from such an unjust non-merit system—one that exists because of the 400 years that systemic racism has created a huge array of white material, social, and psychological privileges. In her many white interviews DiTomaso did not one white respondent ever openly expressing concern about their use of this highly unjust non-merit system.
Her data also flatly refute other common notions of white virtue. Whites contend that they are now the victims of “reverse racism” and “reverse discrimination,” two white-crafted terms and notions–in more recent versions of the dominant white racial frame–that are primarily designed to deflect attention from the society’s fundamental and foundational white racism.
In her white interviews Ditomaso found that the persisting opposition by most whites to affirmative action is not so much about fear of “reverse discrimination,” but much more about the way in which effective affirmative action programs have sought to weaken these centuries-old patterns of institutionalized favoritism for whites–including institutionalized bias favoring whites in competition for society’s better-paying jobs.
She found In the nearly 1,500 job situations that her respondents talked about in detailed interviews, she found only two situations where a white person might have conceivably lost a job because of an affirmative action effort on behalf of black Americans. Empirical demonstration of yet another white fiction.
The real societal worlds, when it comes to jobs and much else in the way of white wealth, assets, and privileges, are not those fictional worlds of distinctive merit and white disadvantage propagated by many, and especially conservative, whites—including those “well-educated” whites who serve on our high courts and in our legislatures.
Empirical data on how white-generated racism operates in the real world, once again, are themselves radical.
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace
And criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
This Dylan song memorialized the unjust death of Hattie Carroll at the hands of William Zantzinger. As the song closes, Dylan chides Lady Justice for the injustice committed. The details of the incident and the song have been elaborated upon by several journalists, principally Ian Frazier who wrote “Legacy of a Lonesome Death” and Paul Slade who wrote “True Lies: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
On February 8, 1963, Maryland’s most prominent citizens attended the Spinsters’ Ball held at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. The guests included William Zantzinger, a rich white 24-year old tobacco farmer, and his wife, Jane. Among the staff working the event was Hattie Carroll, a black 51-year old grandmother and mother of 11 children who worked as a barmaid at that evening’s affair. Throughout the evening and deep into the night Zantzinger drank heavily and hit women guests and servants with his cane.
At approximately 1:30 a.m., while Hattie Carroll was tending to another guest, Zantzinger loudly demanded a drink from her and assailed her with a barrage of vulgarities and racial epithets. He also struck Carroll’s shoulder when she did not serve him immediately. After handing the drink to Zantzinger, Carroll complained to a co-worker that she was feeling deathly ill and shortly after collapsed. Carroll was taken to the hospital where she died, eight hours after Zantzinger had struck her. While the hospital ruled Carroll died from a brain hemorrhage, things were a bit more complicated given that an autopsy revealed that she suffered from hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, and an enlarged heart.
Zantzinger would be tried on manslaughter charges in Hagerstown, Maryland, after he requested to have his trial moved from Baltimore. The trial began on June 19, 1963 and eight days later on June 27, a panel of three judges found Zantzinger guilty of manslaughter in the death of Hattie Carroll. The sentencing was postponed two months. On August 28, 1963, the same panel of judges sentenced Zantzinger—six months in jail along with fines totaling $625, a relative slap on the wrist. He was allowed to postpone his jail sentence until after he harvested his tobacco crop.
On the same day, about 70 miles southeast of Hagerstown, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. In the shadow of the historic march, the injustice associated with Carroll’s death would have been lost from our collective memory but for Dylan’s song.
Much has changed since August 28, 1963. And much hasn’t. On July 13, a jury in Sanford, Florida found George Zimmerman, a 29-year old white-Peruvian and self-appointed neighborhood watchman, not guilty of second-degree murder charges in the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African American teenager.
It had all the appearances of a straightforward case. An armed 28-year-old man shoots to death an unarmed 17-year-old who was returning from the store after buying snacks. Even a half century after the Zantzinger case, however, such cases are anything but straightforward. Not if race is involved.
Trayvon Martin, the victim, was on trial. Zimmerman said and media repeated claims that he was a black youth “up to no-good,” as he walked in a neighborhood in which—the message was clear—he didn’t belong. He was, after all, a black youth in a hoodie—code that we all understand. There was talk of marijuana and school problems. All to buttress the claim that this armed man had to fear for his life.
The defense closed its case with a snowy video showing Martin at a convenience store making his purchase. It resembled the countless other videos we regularly see, capturing criminals in the act. Trayvon Martin was racially profiled and criminalized in Zimmerman’s trial. While Zantzinger was sentenced to six months in a county jail for the death of Hattie Carroll in 1963, Zimmerman will serve no time in the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013.
On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, let’s remember the senseless and unpunished deaths of Hattie Carroll and Trayvon Martin, though they occurred five decades apart. And let us recognize: Dr. King’s dream is not yet realized.
Rogelio Sáenz is a sociologist and demographer. He is Dean of the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. This was originally published by the Rio Grande Guardian.
The power of sport in the American psyche and the lengths to which competitive play entertains and thrills fans is one reason why we watch sports. Americans are equally captivated by the personal lives of athletes off the field—from their charity and romances to their antics and meltdowns. The viewing world often venerates athletes, particularly in the high revenue sports of football and basketball, placing them on a public pedestal for their talents and assuming their personal character should be infallible because of their athletic prowess.
To the chagrin of many fans, players, coaches and owners, Philadelphia Eagles wide-receiver Riley Cooper just had to go there at a recent public concert and put the “er” in the N-word. Whether folks believe this act to be shameful and appalling or believe the recourse of his actions in the media to be blown out of proportion, the majority of white Americans don’t understand that it’s not about the word. It’s about a 400-year-old history contained in this word. Let’s call it what it really is—the nigger word. This word is symbolic. It was originally borrowed from the Spanish word “Negro” and used extensively in early European history beginning with the Portuguese, Spanish and English. Then landing a home in colonial America during the transatlantic slave trade, the nigger word rose in prominence as an offensive epithet. Wide spread in usage during the emerging slave economy with the intent to gain a psychological advantage over people of African descent, the nigger word has a long and curious life within US society.
It is deemed the “worst of the worst” of words, representing a reprehensible time in our country—a time when folks were dehumanized, enslaved, tortured, and even killed for the color of their skin. It’s not simply that Riley Cooper uttered this word. It’s that this word is a part of his vocabulary, which must mean that it was acceptable language somewhere along the course of his life, whether at home or school with family or friends. It is doubtful this is first time that Cooper has used the word, despite his pleas to the contrary. Yet, even if he cognitively refrains from speaking such language nowadays, countless other Whites do engage in racially charged discourse—of course, most only do so behind closed doors. This is called backstage racism. Research reveals that white Americans often engage in backstage racism using offensive racist language behind the scenes and out of earshot of the public. And when it is said at those dinner tables and backyard discussions free of any Blacks, it is NOT in an attitude of deep respect and equality toward one’s fellow man. What Cooper did was bring that backstage racism to the front stage—something that millions of white Americans are terrified of doing for fear of being called a racist. But when this word is spoken as a means to show power or privilege over another, that’s a form of racism, regardless in what company you are among.
The Florida native’s recent usage of the highly offensive language and his sincere, though uncritical apology is deeply unsettling for many sports fans. The fact that Cooper felt comfortable uttering the nigger word in public speaks volumes to its continued usage in popular culture. In fact, one common though oblivious argument by Whites is that “Blacks use this word as well.” But black Americans use the “niggah” word from an entirely different context. This is termed counter-framing. Counter-framing is a strategy that opposes an original objectionable frame. This can be done in a multitude of ways. Here, Blacks have attempted to take back a word that was used for centuries to abuse and denigrate them. Just listen to any popular Hip Hop star and the use of the word is evident. This same type of counter-framing was seen several years ago when a few black rappers such as Outkast and Lil John were seen wearing the confederate flag. In the white imagination, this is confusing. And when the public chastises a fellow white person caught in public spewing anti-black hate, many white people come forward crying foul. But they don’t grasp the concept of counter-framing. Hence, thinking this gives oneself a free pass to say racist terms is ignorant of history, if not senseless and unabashedly racist. Right or wrong, some Blacks are taking the nigger word back and using it in attempts to empower themselves. By doing this, it deflects a painful history, thus taking some of the sting out of it. Sadly, the reality is that this form of counter-framing can never fully undo the original white racial frame(s). The word “nigger” will no longer hold Blacks down under the yoke of white supremacy as it once did, but it still insults their personhood when spoken by a white person.
It should be no surprise that athletes bring with them to the competitive world of sport a broader racial framing of society they inherited from their forbearers. Race lessons are passed on within social networks and kinship circles of family, peers, and significant friends. Lurking just beneath the surface of our reality, racial biases are formed through a process of historical relations of unequal power and distribution of resources for more advantaged groups at the expense of people of color in what analysts call “systemic racism.” At the heart of American racial inequality is a system grounded in an ordered ranking of men over women, white over black, and Christian over non-Christian; a hierarchy where early Europeans and their North American contemporaries conveniently placed themselves at the top and Blacks at the bottom of the social ladder. White folks continue to experience this (often unknowingly) through white racial priming. That is to say, how white Americans systematically internalize racist attitudes, stereotypes, assumptions, fears and fictitious racial scripts, which fit into a Eurocentric framing of the world, is expressly negative.
Riley could have set a new precedent among white people by going on record and admitting that like most white Americans, he is recovering racist, having grown up engrossed in the word as it was freely used in his extended white social networks. At some point, he began befriending and competing alongside African Americans. It was then, likely, that he began to demystify his received racial biases that many Whites struggle to overcome. But ingrained deep within one’s consciousness, it will inevitably bubble to the surface at some point(s) in life, despite the cognitive awareness of its despicable nature.
Instead, Riley planted doubt in the minds of his fellow black NFL teammates, as they know full well America’s deplorable past. Until then, his words are empty for all of his black teammates are still left wondering if and when he says this behind closed doors. This was evident when Michael Vick was asked if he knew that Cooper was capable of saying such terminology. “No,” Vick said. “That’s the thing. That’s not the guy we know. We know Riley.” But then Vick paused for a beat and followed with, “Or maybe we don’t.”
Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.
President Obama’s poignant comments on the white-racist discrimination that Black men regularly face were pathbreaking for this country. First, in the history of the U.S. never has such a high government official so forthrightly called out key elements of white racism and condemned persisting patterns of racial harassment and profiling of Black boys and men.
Secondly, Obama’s commentary, together with his speech during the 2008 election, mark the first time that whites and many other nonblack Americans have heard important elements of the Black counter-frame to the centuries-old white racial framing of this society—at least not from such a “bully pulpit,” as Teddy Roosevelt put it.
(Image from ThinkProgress)
One cannot imagine any white president saying, or being able to say, what Obama has said in his two explicit commentaries on U.S. racism. He certainly did not say enough about this racism, but his commentaries so far have been pathbreaking, especially for a white population much of which is in terminal denial of that racism.
Obama assessed the killing of Trayvon Martin from a Black perspective, one rarely taken seriously by most white Americans. Now, for a time, it has to be taken seriously and provides the basis to expand on his analysis later on.
Obama made his first comment to an African American family that has suffered much white racism over their lives, and like many such families lost a young male to unnecessary violence. Saluting the Martin family, he underscored
the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.
Then his assessment moved to an approach rare in this country’s public forum—-he accented our historical and contemporary societal context of white racism. That critical context, he made clear, includes many decades of racial profiling, harassment, and killing of Black boys and men. And it means long decades of frequent and very painful Black experience in dealing with an array of discriminatory realities:
When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me–at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
This eloquent statement about recurring Black experiences sums up what millions of Black men, women, and children have been telling this country’s whites in many ways, for generations. Obama underscores a key aspect of the Black counter-frame, the deep understanding of the great racial inequality in the operation of our “justice” system:
. . . those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.. . . The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
He accents the importance of understanding the long history of unjust impoverishment of African Americans in creating problems of violence in communities—something few whites wish to do. The Black community understands
that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
He thereby gives us a sense of how and why African Americans saw the Trayvon Martin killing early on as very much a racial matter:
And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.
He ends his comments, as he often does, with a pragmatic statement about what we should do next. He calls for much better law enforcement training at state and local levels:
When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation. . . . it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize . . .. So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive.
His second suggestion is to reassess notorious “stand your ground” laws, one of which was at least implicitly involved in the Zimmerman case. He made a dramatic point that has provoked even a conservative commentator like David Brooks to rethink this problematical law and what happened to the teenager:
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
His third suggestion was, once again, very positive. He called for much action to
bolster and reinforce our African American boys. . . . is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them? . . . And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society. . . .
A bit vague, but again a rare moment of insight about Black male needs at this public level. His last suggestion was also rather vague but echoed Dr. King:
I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. . . . in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?
Not surprisingly, he concludes on an optimistic note of hope about the younger generation:
better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
Characteristically optimistic Obama comments in public, if unfortunately and substantially contradicted by much social science data on our white youth. According to numerous studies, the younger generations of whites may be better in some ways but they are still very racist in their white racial framing of society and in their racist performances and actions growing out of that framing.
On the whole, a pathbreaking speech that only an Black president could have so effectively delivered. It is sad, and often noted in Black America, that Black Americans too often end up as the major teachers of whites about how white racism operates and its devastating and painful impacts. Obama has used that “bully pulpit” to give white America some significant lessons about the reality and damage of that white racism. It will long be remembered as a watershed moment, one requiring great courage.
We do not live in a real democracy, and we have numerous institutions that do not operate democratically, including an unelected Supreme Court and very unrepresentative U.S. Senate. Not to mention a very dysfunctional House because of Tea Party and other extreme conservative elements there.
However, despite Obama’s having to face this undemocratic reality daily, and also having to face recurring critiques across the political spectrum of his accomplishments on civil rights, it has often made a difference in public policies on discrimination that we have an African American president.
Working with his Department of Justice, Obama has implemented the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, ended anti-gay policies in the military, spoken out for gay marriage rights. Obama and his cabinet officials have abandoned previous Republican attempts to end much civil rights enforcement. He appointed Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black attorney general, who has moved his department toward much more aggressive civil rights enforcement and hired many more lawyers with significant real-world experience in civil rights enforcement. He also responded much more forthrightly to international and United Nations requests for reports on the U.S. civil rights situation. Obama also made a dramatic improvement in the federal relationship with Native Americans–including, after many years of delays, billions in compensation to Native American groups for federal mismanagement of Indian land trusts.
No president, including Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, has accomplished more progressive policy goals, especially on racial issues, since the 1960s presidency of President Lyndon Johnson. This includes putting at least some aspects of white racism on the national discussion and policy agenda.
After Trayvon Martin was killed, in February of 2012, protestors gathered across the nation asking for justice for Trayvon Martin. The protestors rallied around the slogan “I am Trayvon Martin,” with people wearing hoodies and carrying bags of skittles. The rallying cry called attention to the fact that young black men are overly-surveilled and viewed with suspicion, considered criminal on sight, and thus frequently in the position of being the target of police or vigilante violence. The “I am Trayvon Martin” protests called attention to the terrifying reality that all of us with black sons could be in the position of Martin’s parents: awaiting a decision concerning the culpability of a man who shot and killed our babies because he assumed he was a criminal—but knowing that regardless of that decision, his life was over. In July of 2013, while the jury was deliberating, I saw a meme posted on facebook that flipped the frame of the “I am Trayvon Martin” slogan. It was a picture of a middle aged white man in a black hoodie, and the caption read:
I am not Trayvon Martin. When I was 14 I was caught in the middle of the night by a neighborhood watch setting fire to a stack of newspapers. Trayvon Martin was walking home with a bag of skittles. I was taken home to my parents. Trayvon was shot and killed.
The message resonated with me, because although there are many young black boys who I love, and often fear for, I am not Trayvon Martin: as a white woman, I have a lifetime of experiences that illustrate what a difference race makes.
Just to share one particularly relevant example, one night when I was 17 years old I was spending the night with a friend, another 17 year old white woman. She lived in a white middle to upper-middle class neighborhood. That night, after her parents went to bed, she and I snuck out of her house on a mission to creep through the neighborhood and find ourselves some fun, and probably some trouble. We were up to no good. At about two o’clock in the morning, after running the streets for hours, we were walking down a street which was lined with boutique shops and small businesses. One of the businesses on that street was a local investment company, The Johnson Company. My friend and I had a mutual friend—a boy who we were excited to impress—named Calvin Johnson, and in our mischievous mood we decided that we should steal the company’s sign so we could give it to Calvin–the was made of wood, it was about two feet long by four feet wide, and “The Johnson Company” was printed across it in huge red letters.
After prying the sign loose from the hooks that held it, we began the walk back to my friend’s house – with me carrying a two foot by four foot sign in my arms. As we were walking we were approached by a police car, which stopped beside us. At that moment, I knew for certain that we were going to jail. Of course we were. I was holding a huge sign that said “The Johnson Company,” and we were less than two blocks away from said company. My only hope was to attempt to concoct some story, some lie that explained my having the sign for a reason other than sheer criminal mischief, and my brain was working furiously as the officer driving rolled down his window. But I was surprised. Stopping me in my tracks, the officer simply asked “where are you young ladies headed?” My friend said “we’re on our way home right now.” I said nothing. I concentrated on keeping the surprise (and even indignation) off my face. The officer said, “where do you live?” She told him her address, which was approximately four blocks away, and, astounding me further, the police officer said, “well hurry and get home, and be careful, its late for you girls to be out.” Then he rolled up his window and drove away.
I was not Trayvon Martin that night. I was a young white woman, walking through a white upper-middle class neighborhood at 2 a.m., so even though I was holding a stolen sign, my presence was entirely unproblematic, except to the extent that I might be in danger. The officer assumed that we were not engaged in wrongdoing – even though we were, in fact engaged in wrongdoing. He had clearly seen the sign I was carrying, since it was more than half as tall as I was, but he also clearly assumed I had that sign for a legitimate reason. So on that night, a police officer showed us, two young white women, human kindness and empathy. He advised us to hurry home, letting us know that it was too late for us to be out, he was worried about our safety, not for the threat we may pose to others or the neighborhood.
On that night my life could have been changed forever. The sign we stole may have been worth enough money to make me eligible for a charge of felony theft. I may have gone to jail or prison instead of college; I may never have gotten the opportunity for an undergraduate education, much less graduate school. I certainly would have had trouble becoming a lawyer since the American Bar Association engages in strict background checks and resists admitting people with felony convictions to the bar. None of that happened because my whiteness never produced a moment of suspicion in that police officer; because I am not Trayvon Martin. I did not lose any aspect of my life as a result of my desire to go creeping that night; Trayvon Martin lost his entire life because he walked to the convenience store in a white gated neighborhood.
Throughout my youth I found that I was often viewed by that police officer as someone to take care of, to show concern for. By contrst, African Americans, especially African American men are viewed as potential criminals. African American men, of all ages, from young teens to elderly gentlemen, from every background, from high school students, to college professors to judges, experience the humiliation of being systematically surveilled and considered suspect—so much so that even a self-appointed vigilante neighborhood watch person, with no legitimate authority, feels entitled to follow a young black man who is merely walking home from the store. But more than that, it is this air of suspicion that leads people to the conclusion that it was reasonable for George Zimmerman to follow Trayvon Martin. The tacit, never fully considered or admitted, assumption that an African American young man in a hooded sweatshirt (as opposed to a white young woman holding a stolen sign) is a potential criminal. And through this nearly axiomatic presumption of black male criminality people can come to the outrageous conclusion that Zimmerman chasing after Martin and confronting him with a gun could lead to a scenario in which Trayvon Martin was viewed as an aggressor.
Several days ago a jury acquitted George Zimmerman (failed, even, to find him guilty of manslaughter, which would have only required recklessness in the shooting). The legal basis for the acquittal was the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to defend themselves with force from an attack without having to attempt to retreat or escape the situation. Evidently the jury decided that after Zimmerman chased Martin down, Martin’s defensive physical response meant that Zimmerman was justified in shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. Metrotrends analysts John Roman and Mithcell Downy have discovered that in the 29 states that have Stand Your Ground laws, shootings are more likely to be legally considered justified. More insidiously, Roman and Downy found that the shooting scenarios that have the highest likelihood of a ruling of justifiable homicide in Stand Your Ground states result when white civilians shoot black civilians. This racial disparity is not surprising to social scientists who study race, the pattern of racial disparity exists in every segment of the criminal justice system in the United States. Moreover, legal scholar Michael Tonry, in his 2011 book Punishing Race, notes that research indicates that when white people are made aware of the racial disparities that affect African Americans in the criminal justice system, their support for punitive criminal justice policies actually increases. (See pp. 91-97).
At this moment the Justice Department is in the process of considering charges against George Zimmerman for civil rights violations (civil rights violations!), and the Stand Your Ground law will not save Zimmerman from a civil suit. But whatever the outcome of that case, Trayvon Martin’s killing must become the motivation a critical systematic interrogation of the criminalization of African Americans in all its insidious forms. We must acknowledge that we are living in a police state in which the lives of young African Americans (especially boys and men) are threatened by extreme surveillance and suspicion, police and civilian harassment, mass incarceration, and even execution. The time has come to stop casually using the words democracy and freedom, and start interrogating what those words should substantively mean.
Dr. Wendy Leo Moore is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University. She is a sociologist and a lawyer and is the author of the award-winning book Reproducing Racism, White Space, Elite Law Schools, and Racial Inequality.
The intersection of race, space, and history in local government policies and politics illustrates the profound impact of spatial arrangements on the reproduction of systemic inequalities. As Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin point out in Two-faced Racism: Whites in the Front Stage and the Backstage (2007) significant research supports the argument that much of the social space in the United States is highly racialized.
Two articles provide significant insight into how such racialization occurs within the context of the efforts of cities in California to reconfigure historical neigborhoods and nullify and erase the presence of dominant ethnic identities from the landscape. Wendy Cheng’s perceptive article entitled “’Diversity’ on Main Street? Branding Race and Place in the New ‘Majority-Minority’ Suburbs” (2010), describes two redevelopment campaigns in the Los Angeles West San Gabriel Valley cities of Alhambra and San Gabriel that epitomized the struggle for white economic, social and political dominance over Asian American and Latino pasts.
In an area in which Asian immigrants and Asian Americans constitute half the population and Latinos represent more than a third of the population, the polarization of the city of Alhambra is reflected in residential patterns, with the largely white northern area reporting a median household income 50 percent higher in 2000 than the southern area comprised of a heterogeneous mix of working-class to middle-income Mexican-Americans and Asian Americans.
Cheng documents how the redevelopment of Alhambra’s Main Street involved high-pressure tactics by the city to excise small Chinese businesses and replace them with new “mainstream” businesses. For example, the city gave Starbucks a “tenant improvement allowance” using $136,000 of HUD money and bought an 8,000 square-foot building for over $1 million with an additional $350,000 in upgrades to lure Tony Roma’s to open a restaurant on Main Street, after the chain restaurant had refused several overtures. And the redevelopment agency literally gave Edwards Theatres a 43,000-square-foot parcel of land and $1.2 million form a HUD loan to construct a movie theater. To cap these efforts, the merchants in the Downtown Alhambra Business Association invested in a diversity branding effort with banners that included an older blond white woman, a young Latina woman with freckles and dark hair, a middle-aged Asian man, and a young blue-eyed, blond white woman.
Similarly, in his article entitled, “From ‘Blighted’ to ‘Historic’: Race, Economic Development, and Historic Preservation in San Diego, California” (2008), Leland T. Saito chronicles how the determination of historic designation in the city “favored Whites and overlooked the history of racial minorities” (p. 183). The city commissioned studies on the Chinese Mission, Douglas Hotel, and Clermont/Coast Hotels, three properties associated with Asian American and African American history, and concluded they were not historically or architecturally significant. The Chinese Mission, established in 1927, was a major social center for the Chinese American Community. The Douglas Hotel was the most important entertainment venue for African Americans when it was established in 1924 and the only hotel that would accept African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. The Clermont/Coast Hotel also had significance for the history of the African American Community.
It was only through the lobbying efforts of the Chinese American community and the African American community that the Chinese Mission and Clermont/Coast Hotel were preserved and received historic designation. Due to the lack of a major lobbying effort, the Douglas Hotel was demolished. Saito concludes from these examples that
“public policy is an important site of struggle over the meaning of race” (p. 168) and that “race remains significant in the formation and implementation of development and historic preservation policies” (p. 182).
Community groups, however, can play a key role in counteracting the racial consequences of public policy.
Both these articles present evidence of how space is intertwined with race and history in the identity of place and underscore the importance of community activism and minority participation on city councils. Such activism and solidarity are critical in overcoming divided racial, economic, and geographic interests, ensuring the voice and representation of minority populations, and changing the dynamics of power relationships within municipal governments.
The June 14 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education (“At the Ivies, It’s Still White at the Top”) presents a remarkable pictorial display of the individuals in the top levels of university administration in the Ivy League (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale). This pictorial display is more powerful and compelling than any statistical report in portraying the absence of diversity in university leadership. It reminds us of the dimensions of the administrative landscape as it exists today and emphasizes the fact that we are truly only at the beginning of the long journey toward inclusion in the top tiers of our nation’s educational institutions. This journey begins with representation as its first phase, next proceeds to the development of a representative bureaucracy that reflects the changing demography of student populations, and ultimately requires the creation of inclusive cultures at all levels.
The lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the top administrative ranks is not limited to the Ivies, but also pertains to public and private research universities as well as four-year colleges throughout the United States. A 2008 King & Gomez study found that close to 85 percent of the top-ranked positions in doctorate-granting institutions are held by whites and 66 percent held by males. Similarly, a NACUBO (2010) survey, found that Chief Financial Officers are 90% white and 68% male.
Furthermore, as Bryan Cook, former director of the American Council of Education, notes in the lead article by Stacey Patton in this Chronicle special edition, the lack of racial and ethnic diversity at 149 four-year colleges has persisted for 25 years. Cook also observes that institutions rarely replace a minority member with another when he or she leaves. As Ms. Patton perceptively notes, the frequent argument about “lack of qualified candidates” for these top roles becomes a loaded and coded divergence—a smoke screen that feeds stereotypes of minorities as less capable, intelligent, or experienced (p. A4). The few minorities that are selected for these highly visible roles experience what researchers William Tierney and Robert Rhodes call the double-edged sword of “a perverse visibility and a convenient invisibility.” For example, in her essay, “The Making of a Token,” in the edited volume Presumed Incompetent Yolanda Flores Niemann reports her “inordinate visibility” as a minority female professor in a mainly white male department. Subjected to overt racism and isolation, her negative self-perceptions and lowered sense of self-efficacy in the academy increased, until, as she reports, “I no longer recognized the person in the mirror.” Hiring one or two minorities at high levels within our institutions of higher education cannot be expected to solve the sense of exclusion, perceptions of token status, heightened visibility, or differential expectations that can accrue to the singular individual or nominal number of individuals in these top roles.
There are, however, some promising developments on the horizon. David S. Lee, professor of economics and public affairs and the director of the Industrial Relations Section at Princeton University, was just named provost last week, as the current provost (Christopher Eisgruber) ascended to the presidency. Unlike its Ivy comparators, Columbia University had the highest percentage of minority administrators (42 percent), although only 3 of its senior-level administrators are minorities. And women have certainly attained the highest levels with female presidents at all of the Ivies except Yale (Dartmouth has an interim female president).
As Alvin Evans and I share in our forthcoming book, The New Talent Acquisition Frontier: Integrating HR and Diversity Strategy, diverse talent is an accelerator of innovation, demanding a shift in the structures of top-down, command-and-control leadership that characterized the Industrial era. In this era of globalization, universities can no longer afford to ignore the need for diverse, collaborative, intergroup leadership. The leadership of diverse executive teams will create common ground in an environment of shared governance, promote inclusive campus climates, and position the university to respond to the changing educational needs of students in an interconnected, global society.