I just did a detailed interview on my decades of research on systemic white racism with the leading philosopher of racial issues, George Yancy, at the New York Times Opinionator blog, the Stone. See this link.
In the recent announcement of his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination, Donald Trump took the opportunity to hurl an ignorant, Hitleresque tirade against immigrants from Mexico. Trump reached deeply into the White Racial Frame bag and came up with the worst:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Reaction against Trump’s statement was swift and widespread. Much originated in the business community which likes to avoid controversy. Some of the participants were major corporations:
On Monday, NBCUniversal cut all ties with Mr. Trump, saying it would no longer air the pageants or ‘The Apprentice. Televisa, the world’s largest Spanish-language media company, also cut ties. Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire, scrapped a television project . . . On Wednesday, Macy’s said it would drop his fashion line, which had been sold in the store since 2004.
An additional loss happened when Mexico decided not to send a contestant to Trump’s Miss Universe pageant. Finally, another setback occurred when two renowned chefs pulled out of Trump’s upcoming luxury hotel in the historic Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C:
Geoffrey Zakarian, the chef and a partner at the Lambs Club and other Manhattan restaurants, was to open a branch of the National, his brasserie-style restaurant in Midtown, in the new hotel. But on Thursday, he said in a written statement that ‘the recent statements surrounding Mexican immigrants by Donald Trump do not in any way align with my personal core values.’ Mr. Zakarian’s decision to abandon the project, scheduled to open in 2016, follows that of the chef José Andrés. Mr. Andrés has said that Mr. Trump’s statements made ‘it impossible for my company and I to move forward.’
Trump, the billionaire businessman, paid a very high price for his tirade. I am at a loss to understand his machinations. Trump did not make any friends in the Republican Party. John McCain stated: “I disagree with his comments.” Mitt Romney objected to Trump’s comments because of the damage they caused the Republican Party.
The objections of two Florida Republican figures were particularly strong. Marco Rubio labeled Trump’s comments as “extraordinarily ugly, offensive and inaccurate.” Jeb Bush questioned Trump’s motives and added a personal note to his disapproval:
[H]e’s not a stupid guy, so I don’t assume he thinks that every Mexican crossing the border is a rapist. He’s doing this to inflame and incite and to draw attention, which seems to be the organizing principle of his campaign.
Bush went on to say that he took Trump’s comments “personally” (his wife is from Mexico).
Hector V. Barreto, an advisor in all Republican presidential campaigns since 2000, went a step further beyond other Republican figures by exhorting the Republican Party to reject Trump:
The Republican Party is going to have to be much more aggressive in dealing with him . . . And I would expect my party to do that, to call him out. . . Maybe this is our Sister Souljah moment when we say, “He is not a Republican, he does not represent us, he needs to get off the stage.”
Trump encountered severe disapproval in Arizona, a staunch Republican State, to a planned speech in Phoenix. Among the critics were Republican leaders who were not attending the event, John McCain among them. But it was worse than that. The business community, as represented by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, declared Trump persona non grata:
“The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry is proud to have played host earlier this year to events featuring three of the leading Republican presidential contenders: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush,” said Glen Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “I expect we will welcome additional candidates from both parties in the fall. Donald Trump will never make the cut. His recent comments on Mexico are not only despicable, but they reflect an individual who, despite his billions, is astonishingly ignorant about Mexico, trade and immigration.”
Although few and far between, some Republican politicians supported Trump. Not surprisingly, Ted Cruz embraced Trump warmly: “I’m proud to stand with Donald Trump.” A second fan was Jan Brewer, former Governor of Arizona who gained infamy by signing one of the most vicious anti-immigrant laws in the United States which among other things legitimated the racial profiling of Latinos. Brewer averred:
I believe that Mr. Trump is kind of telling it like it really, truly is. . . You know, being the governor of (Arizona), the gateway of illegal immigration for six years, we had to deal with a lot of things.
Although apparently many Republican leaders wish that he would disappear, Trump is popular with voters. In two recent polls he placed first, followed by Jeb Bush.
Trump brought down the house when he delivered his standard racist speech in Phoenix on July 12. Although there were some dissenters in the audience, the vast majority of the crowd of over 5000 received him warmly. Donald Trump has made it big recently because his oratory evokes a widespread anti-Mexican hatred, an old part of the White Racial Frame. It is not clear where this will take him, but one thing is sure: he has given racist passion a shot in the arm.
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 [[http://www.issuelab.org/resource/moynihan_report_revisited_the]] 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
Viewing the narrated event of Charleston within the dark and secure confines that surrounded me under a waxing crescent moon, created a nauseating pit within the center of my chest. As the news began to sift in, the sensation proceeded to raise the minuscule fine hairs upon the back of my petered-out neck. Knowing nothing in particular about the city, beyond the fact that it was not on my bucket list of places to visit, seeing the old and famous AME church and Charleston, South Carolina police lights splashed across my high-definition screen created a sense of confounding distress and sadness my soul had issue in articulating. Before the picture was put to color and detail, I knew, I secretly knew. It was not simply a lunatic, as pundits like to describe the distant “other.” It was not ISIS. It was not gang violence. It was not a disgruntled parishioner or jealous spouse looking to settle a scorned romantic score. It was an ancient, but at the same time, an in-vogue thriving hate of another kind!
It was hard for me to watch as I rested that night, for my feelings were precipitously pointing to a racially motivated depiction of white violence. The next morning the world discovered what I assuredly suspected the night before. The following days after the shooting were filled with sights of racially mixed church audiences (normally segregated and unwilling to discuss this fact at the moment) in places of worship holding hands and singing the Lords prayers. Sights of communal prayer, shared tears, and hardened faces were captured through the lenses of still photography and video apparatuses from sources such as the New York Times and Fox News. Flowers and other symbols of sympathy are, for the time being, placed at the doorsteps of the church as well. Mourning and celebration of life were mentioned heavily by an array of people put on display by the media.
On the other hand, as the week progressed, not only were further details of the shooting available to the public, but also an assortment of rhetorical misdirections wrapped in hypocrisy began to seep throughout the landscape of America. At times, the verbal stench was hard to bear. As I watched and listened throughout the week, the rage overtook the initial distress and sadness in my heart. The muddied mix of liberal and conservative news organizations and pandering politicians brought to a boil an elixir of emotional and intellectual pain that created one overwhelming conclusion in my mind: The truth about race in America is once again seen as a narrative we choose to avert with due diligence. The all too familiar decaffeinated approach to racialized topics of importance was upon the lips of many. This included many within the media and their invited succubi whose ultimate job was to underwrite their hosts’ initial political perspectives. Oddly enough, perspectives such as Dr. Ben Carson, Republican presidential hopeful, were as rare as recent sightings of unicorns. Further, he stated:
Let’s call this sickness what it is, so we can get on with the healing. If this were a medical disease, and all the doctors recognized the symptoms but refused to make the diagnosis for fear of offending the patient, we could call it madness. But there are people who are claiming that they can lead this country who dare not call this tragedy an act of racism, a hate crime, for fear of offending a particular segment of the electorate.
His GOP political rivals decided to follow another path. In essence, they discussed the matter utilizing a more conservative-staunched narrative. Instead of observing the shooting through a racialized lens, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee both described the attack as an assault on religion’s liberties. In order to move the focus from the presence and current effect of a country built on systematic and racialized oppression, Bill O’ Riley, used the art of political and social deflection by interviewing the likes of David Clarke, Milwaukee County Sherriff. This tactic focused on illustrating that Blacks are not in danger from Whites, but from other Black elements within their own communities. Mr. Clarke states:
As a Black American, I do not live in fear in the United States…a persons fear has to be based on rationalization. I face more danger and I feel more danger putting my uniform everyday and going in the American ghetto to police.
When O’Riley asked if Clarke “had come across white supremacy in Milwaukee,” and if white supremacy, as stated by some in the media, was a legitimate rationale for the underlying cause of the shooting in South Carolina. Clarke argued:
[Clarke laughs]…that is high hyperbole and demagoguery…[those who used this argument] want to keep the animosity stoked up, this division between people. But I got over that a long time ago.
Fox “News” also used Bishop E. W. Jackson, of Virginia. He argued,
Most people jump to conclusions about race…I long for the day when we stop doing that in our country…He didn’t chose a bar. He didn’t choose a basketball court. He chose a church. And we need to be looking at that very closely.
In connection with divergent tactics to avoid in-depth conversations about white racism, many in the media and political candidates have exceptionally targeted the conveyance of forgiveness by the victims’ families and other Blacks within the community. To me, their actions are astounding and wonderful. But their actions have also served as a two-edged sword that has lead many (white) politicians to use it as a focal point while avoiding the hard questions about racism in this country.
Even though the killer at the time had yet to be captured, the clues leading one to conclude the shooting was racially motivated were quite clear. But people such as Governor Nikki Haley missed the crumbs of evidence due to their fear of alienating the right-winged conservative base of their political party. This was evident within Governor Haley’s outré tweet Wednesday night. She wrote:
While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.
While flaunting their sympathy, others such as GOP presidential candidates and heads of government expectedly and typically avoided the topic of race and gun legislation. For example, Rand Paul spoke to a group of religious conservatives and said, “It’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.” In addition, Rick Santorum stated:
All you can do is pray for those and pray for our country. This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we — you know, you talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before…It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation
Baseless fearmongers such as Donald Trump even exposed their own narcissism and need for intense psychotherapy by making the death of nine innocent individuals about themselves.
The overall bobbing and weaving performed by these and others like Governor Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio were amazingly inept. It was not until more information confounding the initial clues (such as the obvious symbolizing of the pro-apartheid flags upon the jacket of the domestic terrorists or his connection to a white supremacist groups) that these same political pawns moved chaotically to the “left” during their performance of the cowboy bump on issues such as removal of the Rebel Dixie flag from South Carolina state property. Regardless, in terms of the flag being seen as a racist symbol in a state many feel shows its white oppressive teeth quite often in order to remind Blacks exactly where they are in terms of the hierarchies pertaining to power and humanity, Governor Nikki Haley once said,
What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.
After licking a finger and thusly putting it up in order to determine which way the political winds were blowing, she at that time did not call for the removal of the Dixie flag from state property. As long as it is politically convenient and creates no harm to your base, erring on the side of right is definitely seen as in fashion. Only later did she act.
Legislative initiatives to take down the flag down are simply the absolute least possible thing that can actually occur within the state of South Carolina. Is the creation of an authentic dialogue concerning white racism and current racial segregation within the country, and specifically in the state of South Carolina on the dockets for further analysis? No? Well surely the manner in which humanity was shown to the shooter of nine Blacks versus the behavior of law officers in the heinous shooting of Walter Scott will create healthy dialogue pertaining to racialized differential treatment of law enforcement? Are we at least going to recognize and discuss the fact that the Charleston County Magistrate, James B. Gosnell, who is overseeing the initial proceedings of the killer’s trial has said “nigger” in open court? No? Maybe deal with the fact that South Carolina is one of only five states that does not have hate crimes legislation? No? Are we as a nation going to at least change some of the names of the streets that represent pro-slavery historical Charleston characters or remove monuments of the likes of that celebrate historical individuals such as Dr. J. Marion Sims who is essentially in the same league, and hopefully burning in the same hell, as Josef Mengele? No? Oh well.
It is important to recognize that this city and this state were both built and flourished due to the huge slave trade that flourished in Charleston. By 1860, there were roughly 4 million Black slaves in the U.S. Importantly, ten percent of those slaves resided in chains and racial oppression in South Carolina. With a past such as this, in combination with our country’s avoidance of confronting a brutal history that continues to have power over the minds and actions of a great many non-Blacks regarding Black Americans, the rise of white hate groups and hate crimes, and ramifications of the racialized tongue-and-cheek political satire of members of the GOP, the Dixie flag is the least of South Carolina’s current and future worries.
The story of the pool party in McKinney, Texas brings to light a number of things about the society we live in: namely, that it is a white racist society that has far more lingering problems than achievements in the realm of race relations. The incident exposes the failed logic of the attempts to roll back efforts to desegregate U.S. society. It also demonstrates how the involvement of ordinary white Americans assists in the maintenance of this racist social system. Finally, the incident teaches us the important role antiracist whites must play in dismantling the racist order.
After a white officer named Eric Casebolt assaults an unarmed teenage girl and draws his weapon on unarmed teenage boys, whites in a variety of outlets defend his actions, including his lawyer. Once again, black teens are viewed with contempt for having fun and are blamed when they are victims of white violence against them. Despite what a variety of outlets have insisted (including McKinney’s own mayor), Casebold is not merely a “bad apple.” People need to understand the role of police since slavery times has been to “protect” white neighborhoods and other social spaces from “invaders.” As shown in the classic study of racism experienced by middle-class blacks (Joe Feagin and Mel Sikes, Living with Racism), suburban conflict is less likely to involve poor blacks but rather middle-class blacks and whites (and the cops who represent them).
Indeed, essentially ALL whites are complicit in the defense of white supremacy and white spaces, not just the individual officer. That is how systemic racism works. To be sure, Casebold must be held accountable for his actions (which remains to be seen), but also the white residents who called the cops in the first place, equating black faces with criminality. While this incident is strikingly similar to the incident back in 2009 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, involving Dr. Henry Louis Gates, I have yet to see any comparison made in the mainstream media. These incidents are treated as isolated, perpetrated by isolated white individuals acting alone, presumably without the approval of anyone.
Some context is helpful in understanding what happened. As of the 2010 Census, McKinney was about 75 percent white and 10 percent black, with 18 percent Hispanic of any race. The white percentage has increased slightly since the 2000 Census, while the black percentage has decreased slightly. The Dallas suburb’s population has exploded since 1990, from around 21,000 to approximately 155,000 today. While cities in the south and west tend to be less segregated than “older,” more established cities in the Northeast or Midwest (for a list of cities ranked by dissimilarity index, see here), McKinney is highly segregated by race; while one side of town is only 50 percent white, the other is 90 percent white. As evidenced by various tweets, white residents have frequently utilized the language of war, speaking of “our” neighborhood being “invaded” by young “outsiders.”
Incidents like these are, at least in part, the product of efforts to dismantle racial desegregation programs and policies, and naive views like that of SCOTUS Chief Justice John Roberts of the “post-racial” society we live in. The costs of segregation are numerous, including blacks’ often lesser ability to swim vis-à-vis whites. Desegregation is necessary to challenge whites’ view of entitlement and public spaces as their own (and thus off limits to blacks); however, the will of white Americans to support such programs and policies has abated.
Where do we go from here? Will we see a return to the “white citizens’ councils” of the 1940s in communities like McKinney? Probably not, since they have now been replaced by “color-blind” homeowner’s associations and neighborhood watch programs, often run by local police departments. Still, what if they can no longer price “them” out of their development (i.e., use income disparities as a means to maintain racial barriers)?
Finally, a few white teens who were on the scene have stood with their black peers and spoken out against the actions of Casebold. While the response from some white youth in the community is inspiring, note that (white) young people some decades back (in the civil rights era) said the same thing about their parents’ generation. Apparently something happens to whites once they get a little older.
US universities can be strange animals. Two recent decisions on awards for people of color were fraught with absurdity and sophistry. The first one occurred at Arizona State University in 2009. President Obama was the commencement speaker. It is customary to grant commencement speakers an honorary degree; after all, the speaker would not have been invited if he or she were not meritorious. However, Mr. Obama was not granted such a degree. Why not? ASU Media Relations Director Sharon Keeler explained the reason for the decision:
[U]nlike other universities, the processes for selecting commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients are independent. . . . [H]onorary degrees are given ‘for an achievement of eminence’ and that Obama was not considered for an honorary degree because his body of achievements, at this time, does not fit within that criteria.
Come again? Obama doesn’t have “an achievement of excellence”? What world do you live in? The Huffington Post condemned the inane decision:
If being a U.S. Senator and President of the United States . . . is not enough to be deemed as having made significant contributions to society, Obama also has a long list of contributions to education. . . He developed comprehensive plans for students to receive education benefits in exchange for public service. (H)e was the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review, taught Constitutional law at an ivy league university, and, among many other accomplishments, served as a community organizer where established an adult education program and a college preparatory program in inner-city Chicago. It is hard to see how these achievements fail to merit honor.
This slight to Obama is further highlighted by the fact that many universities often give honorary degrees to their major donors, many with little distinction besides making or inheriting money.
The second decision took place at the University of Texas last March. George P. Bush, Jeb’s son, was granted the Latino Leadership Award by the U.T. President’s office working in conjunction with the Center of Mexican American Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. Dr. Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies, explained the reasoning for University’s decision:
We went through a series of 15 nominees, and we evaluated them for leadership, public service and areas like that. With him as the first Latino land commissioner, I think in its (179-year) history of the office, we thought it was an appropriate acknowledgement of what it means to be a trailblazer in Latino leadership today.
The decision caused uproar among many Mexican-American faculty and alumni. In a group letter that demanded Dr. Guidotti-Hernández’s removal, signatories expressed “bafflement” at the decision to grant the award:
He may well be an emerging leader in some political circles, but he has no track record whatsoever compared to the innumerable Texas Latinas/os with years of service to UT and the broader Latina/o community.
The controversy over Mr. Bush’s award surfaced again a couple of days ago at the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association that took place in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Dr. Guidotti-Hernández, who was in attendance, defended once more the University’s reasoning:
“It was a forward-thinking choice and it made a lot of people angry and we understand that. We were trying to be provocative and we were trying to reach across the aisle.”
Granting a citizenship award to a neophyte politician who had been in office for just three months for being a “trailblazer”? It takes more than a few days to have a significant impact as a pioneer who traces a path for others to follow.
There are several perspectives from which to view these egregious decisions, but I’d like to mention one. Whatever were the actual reasons for reaching them, their apparent common characteristic is that the individuals in question were judged by a set of absurd standards applied to people of color. A very meritorious Obama suffered an undeserved insult, while the neophyte Bush was the beneficiary of an undeserved honor, neglecting many other Latinos much more deserving of that honor. This makes sense inside the surreal world of the White Racial Frame, where the definition of “colored merit” is elastic and can result in injustice. Major universities, which should be devoted to reasoned thinking, were participants in these inanities. How tragic.
Haitian communities have fallen victim of racist mob attacks in different localities of the Dominican Republic the last few years. Just this last April, in a small town named La Ortega, located in the Spaillat province a mob attacked households inhabited by Haitians, forcibly evicted household members, and destroyed and burned their personal belongings. The assault resulted in the violent expulsion of more than 300 Haitians from the area. In another incident, this past February, the police found the body of a young man named Claude Jean Henry hanging from a tree in a public Park in Santiago de los Caballeros. Claude Jean was beaten to death, and his hands and foot tied before being hanged in one of the park’s trees. Another hate crime victim was Coito Pierre who was lynched by a mob in November of 2013 in the province of Bahoruco. Spectacular violence accompanied the lynching of 76 years old Vitelio Charles and Olani Pie of 42 in Hatillo Palma, Montecristi in June 2005. Charles and Pie were hacked to death while other four were seriously injured. These violent events only represent a few of the most publicized cases. News of mob violence perpetrated against a Haitian in circumstance X or Y is not an uncommon subject in Dominican media anymore.
These episodes of violence share certain traits. One is the sense of justice that perpetrators seem to find in the acts of violence they carry out against Haitians. In fact, in almost all these cases the victimized Haitians were targeted because the persecuting individuals and/or mobs assumed the victims’ culpability in connection to a known crime committed against a Dominican, be it robbery, rape, homicide or other crime. The explicit justifications/ rationalizations given for committing these atrocious acts reflect the assumption by perpetrators that the targeted Haitians had committed a crime [against a Dominican] and that therefore, they needed to be publicly punished. Perpetrators seem to see mob justice as necessary in the light of perceived incompetency by local authorities. They see authorities as being unable and unwilling to administer justice against the assumedly guilty and protected Haitians. Another noticeable commonality is the context of poverty and marginalization that surrounds the victims and the perpetrators. In fact, all the reported cases involve individuals from poor backgrounds and poor geographical and social spaces. This characteristic is not to be overlooked or downplayed in this context. This is specially the case because it has been assumed among many observers and also documented in specific research that there are less antagonistic interactions between Haitians and Dominicans in lower class contexts. The question that follows is, whether the less antagonistic nature of these interactions and relationships are changing in specific spaces and contexts and how and why?
It is noteworthy that just like in the case of lynching in U.S. history, the violent acts follow the logic of arbitrariness, and in several occasions it has been found that the victims actually had little to do with the crimes they are suspected of committing. Dark skin Dominicans have also paid a price as some have been confused for a Haitian in the middle of the chaos and consequently treated with deadly violence. It is also worth mentioning one incident that occurred on the other side of the border at the end of 2014. On December 1st Dominican diplomats were forced to leave Haiti when rallying Haitian crowds attacked the Dominican consulate with thrown stones and glass bottles. According to reports, the crowds wanted to make a statement and sought justice for a six year old Haitian girl who was killed in an accident by a Dominican truck driver. The rallying mobs seem to have tried to administer justice in the light of the perceived imminent impunity awaiting the case of the killed Haitian child. Moreover, on Haitian soil, in organized rallies, Haitian citizens have urged foreign nationals not to travel to the Dominican Republic in an attempt to boycott the Dominican tourist industry. Organized protests by Haitian and Haitian-Dominican organizations and their allies have denounced lynching locally and transnationally, pointing the finger at the racist character of Dominican society. The Dominican media also have reported on instances of Dominican flag burning protests carried out by Haitian crowds. In contrast, different organizations have organized and carried out a number of events that emphasize cooperation and solidarity between the two nations.
The violence seems to have renewed tensions in the historically complex relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Several Dominican public figures and intellectuals have called for a sensible approach to the situation and for putting a stop to the hate speech promoted by ardent Dominican nationalists. Many fear that politicians on both sides of the border will exploit these tensions politically in the context of the municipal, legislative and presidential elections taking place in Haiti in late 2015 as well as the Dominican presidential elections scheduled for May 2016. One feared outcome among cautious Dominican observers is that the current climate of heightened intolerant and racist discourse directed at Haitian immigrants and their descendants may lead to unspeakable and widespread anti-Haitian violence of unpredictable consequences for the Dominican nation.
A careful look at the discourses being deployed by Dominican nationalists reveals an identifiable anti-Haitian discursive frame filled with hatred and intolerance. First and foremost, the nationalist discourse frames Haitian immigration as a perpetual social problem in need of immediate fixing while representing the Haitian presence in the country as an unacceptable and menacing fact. It denounces the perceived Haitian penetration of Dominican society or the so-called “haitianization,” representing Haitian citizens as entitled and ungrateful, and at the same time more taken care of than Dominicans in their own soil. The narrative also emphasizes the dangers of the project of unification of the island, which accordingly is a project historically sought out by Haitian authorities and strongly sponsored by the allegedly pro-Haitian US, Canada and the European Union. In addition, the narrative demonizes those who publicly criticize the nationalist discourse; the narrative represents critics as unpatriotic and traitors, and often suggest in humorous/sarcastic way that critics should move to Haiti and bring with them all Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. The nationalist narrative also denounces a perceived impartiality by local and Haitian critics and by international NGOs. Accordingly, these social agents accuse “patriotic” Dominicans of racism in their anti-Haitian migration and anti-Haitian naturalization stance while allegedly ignoring the hatred that Haitians feel towards Dominicans and the exploitation of Haitians by their own government and compatriots in their own country. This discourse, however, is said to be patriotic, not racist since it purportedly is being deployed 1) to defend Dominican territoriality, institutionalism, and sovereignty and 2) to defend the Dominican economy and the country’s future from Haiti, Haitians and the biased international community.
Joe Feagin’s concept of the dominant racial frame helps us think about the functioning of such a racist discourse. The concept of racial frame refers to dominant cognitive, cultural and epistemological framing that endow racialized systems of oppression with basic legitimizing meaning systems which then facilitate system’s consolidation and reproduction. According to Feagin, this commonplace racial frame consists of a combination of mechanisms and resources such as racial stereotypes, metaphors and interpretive concepts, emotions/feelings, images and proclivities to discriminatory actions. Putting everything together, the operating racial frames along with the established racial hierarchies and material domination associated with them constitute a system of racial oppression that Feagin (2006) and his colleagues call systemic racism. The anti-Haitian discourse is thus a constitutive aspect of the systemic racism around which different Dominican social fields operate. Bonilla Silva’s concept of racialized social system direct us to connect the anti-Haitian racial frame to the stabilization of the category “Haitian” and the significance of this category for the arrangement of political, social and economic stratification and the attached material interests that accompany them. Bonilla Silva’s insights also direct us to interpret the nationalist discourse as a form of socially acquired “racial grammar” or racial signpost that orient how Dominicans think and feel about Haiti and Haitians and about themselves. That racial framing of Haitians as inferior is extensive, as we see in Table 1.
Table 1. Anatomy of the Anti-Haitian Racial Frame (And Anti-Haitian Racial Grammar)
Note: Paralleling the dimensions suggested by Feagin, these include racial stereotypes of Haitians (cognitive aspect); Metaphors and interpretative concepts regarding Haitians and Haitian migration and settlement in the Dominican Republic (deeper cognitive aspect); Images of Haitians (the visual aspect); Emotions (feelings); and Inclinations to discriminate.
Haitians are stereotyoped as:
Powerful through the mastery of diabolic voodoo
Narratives, metaphors, interpretations of Haitians
Penetrating the Dominican nation
Steeling Dominican jobs
Taking up Dominican spaces
Using up the limited amount of economic resources that the Dominican Republic has
Striving for the unification of the island
Gaining undeserved rights and privileges
Feeling hatred towards Dominicans
Protected by local authorities
Enjoying the support and empathy of the international community
Images of Haitians
Haitian women giving birth at public hospitals, signifying population growth and exploitation of resources
Haitian women and their children selling products on the streets, signifying population explosion and backwardness
Haitians practicing voodoo
Haitians crossing the border
Haitian students sitting in university classrooms
The dark Haitian body (ies) , especially the bodies of pregnant and/or birthing Haitian woman
The sounds of Haitian Creole language
The colors and styles of Haitian clothing
The smell and texture of Haitian food
Emotions of framing of Haitians
Need to distance oneself from Haitians
Inclinations to Discriminate Against Haitians
Criminal Justice system
A favorable climate for the nationalist discourse emerged when in September 2013 the Dominican Constitutional Court promulgated La Sentencia (168-13), which retroactively stripped away the citizenship of foreigners, most of whom are Haitian-Dominicans born in the Dominican Republic from Haitian immigrant parents. Under international and internal pressures, on May 23, 2014, the Court adopted the corrective naturalization law 169-14 (Ley de Régimen Especial y Naturalización 169-14) which among other things sets in motion El Plan de Regularización (Regularization Plan) that will allow undocumented immigrants to regularize (and clarify) their status. Applicants have until June 17th, 2015 to apply for legal residency. Those who are not able to do so will be sent back to Haiti. About 170,000 had applied for regularization as of February of 2015, just a few months before the deadline. Dozens of organizations representing Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans are urging for a deadline extension as many of the undocumented lack the personal documents required to be able to initiate the process. Some of these groups have criticized the Haitian Embassy for being too slow in assisting their Haitian citizens in this process. This weak response by the Haitian embassy complicates the process inasmuch as many potential applicants cannot provide the necessary evidence of their personal identity to even begin the application process. Within this context, defenders of La Sentencia have denounced a perceived foreign influence on Dominican affairs and have identified this influence as the real cause behind the promulgation of corrective naturalization law 169-14. For La Sentencia defenders, the law 169-14 is a foreign imposition and provides evidence of a lacerated Dominican sovereignty and of Haitian intrusion.
Why have the anti-Haitian mob attacks apparently become more common /visible the last few years? Why La Sentencia (168-13)? Are these events related and how? And how can anti-Haitian and anti-black ideology and practice be so systematically consequential in an Afro-Caribbean nation such as the Dominican Republic? The answers to these questions are complex and require a lot of contextualization as well as much more attention than the one that can be given in this short piece. Many of the issues raised so far are actually very familiar to those with knowledge of the Dominican and Haitian contexts. It is important to note, however, that the latter question puzzles many and often gets resolved with claims of exceptionalism, including the notion that Dominican racism is a sort of incomparable hyper-racism; an extreme form of racism accompanied by an ideology of national identity that’s based on delusional anti-blackness and even unhinged (quasi comical) Hispanophilia. As if the real issue was that Dominicans wore the whitest possible masks or represented the most sui generis example of wretched post-colonial peoples (Frantz Fanon references, intended). The works of scholars in the Dominican Republic, the United States and elsewhere have helped expand our understanding of this complex subject and have opened new avenues of inquiry and empirical research through nuanced theoretical and methodological approaches. This research has established the significance of history in understanding the past and present status of the relationship between the two counties and the origins of the systemic racism that Haitians and their descendants face in the Dominican Republic. This research has also established the significant role played by racist Dominican elites in specific historical, political and economic contexts, the legacy of Trujillo-era Hispanophile historiography, the ideological and cultural significance of the Haitian-Dominican border, the social and symbolic boundaries drawn around Haitians in all social fields, the past and present role of exploited Haitian labor in the Dominican economy, the role of race in the processes of nation building, and the legacies of key historical events, such as the Haitian occupation (1822-1844), the War of Restoration (1963-1865), the 1937 Massacre, and the first American Occupation (1916-1924). Most recent works force us to see the consolidation of antiblack and anti-Haitianism as a process with simultaneous connections to space, population movement, gender, social policy, and politics.
Furthermore, the promising and controversial features of globalization have manifested themselves in contemporary Dominican life and have likely added new complexities to these issues. Some of these features have included both periods of economic growth and decline, higher median income, higher purchasing power, and growing global identity and consciousness as well as growing urban poverty and inequality, transnational crime, dependence on tourism and weaken institutions. A report by UN-Habitat showed that only Colombia, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Bolivia exhibit higher rates of unequal income distribution in the region. Problems with the rule of law and accountability continued to create difficulties for the economy and national development. The Fund for Peace named the Dominican Republic in the list of countries under “Alert” in their 2012 Failed States Index report. The country has not fared well in these reports the last few years. The country looks even worse in the 2012 report on corruption by Transparency International. The country falls into the category of nations plagued by “rampant corruption” as judged by international organizations, business agents, and academics.68 The Dominican Republic got a score of 32 and was listed 118 among hundreds of countries. These reports have been discussed with concern on radio and television by public intellectuals and news commentators. Criminality has gone up and public safety has deteriorated the last years. The homicide rate was 13 in 100,000 in 1994–1995 (Cabral Ramírez and Brea De Cabral 2012; see Note 1) and reached 25 in 2005. It has remained in the low- to mid-twenties since 2008 (Artiles 2009; See Note 2). In 2005, Dominicans chose violent crime as the second most important national problem after unemployment. Forty-six percent of homicide victims are between eleven and thirty years of age. The youth are overrepresented among perpetrators as well. Dominicans’ fear of being the victim of a violent crime is among the highest in the Americans (Artiles 2009). Concerns over police brutality and violation of human rights have also increased within this context. In 2011 and 2012 pronouncements, Amnesty International denounced the use of torture, arbitrary imprisonment, disappearances, killing, and lack of investigation and due process on part of the police in their treatment of suspects. A study by the National Commission of Human Rights indicates that 4,060 Dominican citizens have died in shootouts with the police from 1997 through August 2012. About 1,300 of them died between 2008 and 2010. There is also public concern regarding the increased national presence of international drug trafficking networks which occurs in the context a weak judiciary and growing police and government corruption. According to LAPOP 2012, about 45 percent of Dominicans justify a government takeover by the military in order to confront crime delinquency. The number is 46 percent when corruption is the problem to be confronted. In sum, social vulnerabilities, crime, corruption, public insecurity have grown in the Dominican Republic. In this context, politicians and regular people blame Haitians for a wide range of problems facing the county, similar to the way that Mexicans get blamed for lower wages and other problems in the United States. The Dominican elites are anti-Haitian, including the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and the nationalist anti-Haitian discourse is increasingly visible in the media. Poor Haitians can be targeted for abuse (including lynching) with little or no sure repercussion for the perpetrators (which happens to poor Dominicans who are the victims of crime as well).
This piece argues that although the complex history of the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic should be known more attention needs to be given to the ongoing structures and dynamics that keep the negative historical legacies alive, and that intersect with contemporary discriminatory processes and events such as lynching. There are aspects of the theory of systemic racism that provide a fitting framework for understanding anti-Haitianism in the current Dominican context. This framework directs us to address not only the historical but also the institutional, interactional and ideological dimensions that are integral to the long-term domination of poor Haitians in the Dominican Republic. As suggested earlier, anti-Haitianism should be analyzed as a form of systemic racism, that is to say that it is about much more than anti-Haitian prejudice. Yes, it encompasses a existing set of prejudices, stereotypes, implicit biases, discourses, dispositions, and racialized emotions, but it also involves isolate, small group, direct and indirect, intentional or unintentional discriminatory practices, and political practices implemented by the Dominican state and government that help perpetuate the low status of Haitians and their descendants in all fields of Dominican society.
The creation of social and symbolic boundaries between Haitians and Dominicans has been an important mechanism for maintaining this systemic racism, especially because of the connected history of the two nations and peoples. Thus, it is important to understand not only the social construction of economic and cultural boundaries around Haitians in time and space, but also to understand the legacies of those boundaries, how they are maintained how they change, and how new and/or transformed configurations of boundaries may be emerging. One thing to pay attention is how the nationalist discourse draws boundaries around Haitian labor as to diminish its contributions and legitimacy. The presence of Haitian labor, now spread throughout the economy, is not part of the official story of the highly celebrated modernization and transnationalization of the country. The nationalist discourse represents Haitian labor as a problem even when the Haitian workforce is critical in construction and the growth of banana, rice, sugar cane and coffee. Data from 2010 show 13% of the Dominican workforce (or 352,974 workers) was Haitian or Dominican of Haitian descent.
The Denial of citizenship and making Haitian labor cheap and exploitable first in the sugar cane sector and now throughout the economy are important discriminatory mechanisms and need to continue to be addressed by social movements. The same could be said about the barriers that are being raised to limit the residence status of Haitian workers, the systematic negation of birth certificates and personal identification, restriction of entry to the school system, and denial of labor rights and civil liberties. This is important because unlike other racialized societies there are little to no attempts of incorporating or even assimilating poor Haitians into Dominican society. Instead, the racist system relies on the normative and overt logic of perpetual Haitian non-personhood.
Pressures should be also directed to denounce and challenge the Haitian state and Haitian elite as they also play a role in facilitating the exploitation of poor Haitians and their descendants in the eastern side. In fact, it almost seems as if the systematic exploitation and marginalization of poor Haitians and their descendants in the Dominican Republic could not exist without the oppression they first face in their own country. Poor and marginalized Haitians face a duality of oppressions that we hope they someday should overcome. The current nationalist climate exacerbates the vulnerabilities that permeate Haitian life in the Dominican Republic, and this piece echoes the concerns being expressed by many conscious voices in the Dominican Republic at this time. Let’s hope that the power of tolerance and solidarity and the sense of leadership responsibility can prevail in the midst of the serious challenges facing the two historically, geographically linked nations and peoples.
1. Cabral Ramírez, Edylberto and Mayra Brea De Cabral. 20003. “Violencia en la
República Dominicana: Tendencias Recientes.” Perspect P sicol (3–4): 146–154.
2. Artiles, Leopoldo. 2009. Seguridad Ciudadana en la República Dominicana: Desafíos y Propuestas
de Política. Santo Domingo. Secretaría de Estado, Planificación y Desarrollo.
Ana S.Q. Liberato
Department of Sociology
University of Kentucky
April 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Pedro Albizu Campos, the notable leader of the struggle to free Puerto Rico from US colonial rule. Albizu was born in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce in 1891. His father was a Spanish Basque merchant and his mother a domestic worker of mixed African and indigenous Taino background. Albuzu grew up in humble circumstances. His parents never married and Albizu’s father did not officially recognize him as his son (filed legal documents) until Albizu was at Harvard.
He was a brilliant student. Although he did not start his schooling until he was 12, he finished his elementary education and high school in seven and a half years. He received a scholarship from the University of Vermont to study engineering and his performance was so outstanding that a professor recommended him for admission to Harvard.
During his stay at Harvard, Albizu completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Letters, the requirements of a Chemical Engineer, and a Law Degree. He learned Portuguese, French, Italian, and German as well as Latin and Greek.
Albizu was a victim of crass racism at “august” Harvard, where he was robbed of an academic honor. He had the highest grade-point average in his Law class and as a result it fell upon him to deliver the valedictory speech. He never got the chance. One of his professors delayed Albizu’s third-year final exams so that Albizu could not graduate on time. The professor wanted to avoid the “embarrassment” of a Puerto Rican law valedictorian. Sensitive to US racism, Albizu published in 1932 a letter accusing a US physician, Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads, of killing Puerto Ricans as part of his research. Someone gave Albizu a letter that Dr. Rhoads wrote to a friend where he made savagely racist comments about Puerto Ricans and advocated their genocide. He also admits that he killed Puerto Rican patients and transplanted cancerous tumors into others:
They [Puerto Ricans] are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. It makes you sick to inhabit the same island with them. They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more. [My emphasis]
In light of these experiences with US racism, it is not surprising that Albizu joined the movement that pursued Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States. In 1930 he became president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. His nationalist militancy resulted in three separate prison sentences and died in prison. Again: A brilliant man and a Harvard graduate who still came face-to-face with racism in the US.
Loanwords from French and German are common in English. For example, French is the donor language of “Je ne sais quoi” (“An intangible quality that makes something distinctive or attractive,”) a non-English expression one may use to describe the ineffable beauty of work of art. Another one is “Raison d’etre” (“The most important reason or purpose for someone or something’s existence”). The purpose for someone or something’s existence is an intricate subject pondered by some eminent philosophers.
German has provided Angst (“A feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general”) as well as Weltanschauung (“A concept fundamental to German philosophy and epistemology and refers to a wide world perception.”) These are deep concepts that approach aspects of human perception from two different vantage points.
Profound terms are abundant in Spanish, but a racist filter in the US excludes them from becoming loan words. Loan words from Spanish lack sophistication and refinement. Two of the most popular are cojones and macho. They are earthy, vulgar and glorify male chauvinism.
Cojones means “testicles” in Spanish and is used in idiomatic expressions (“¡Cojones!”) frequently to indicate strong emotions, such as disgust or anger. It also can be used to mean “Courage,” as in a man “having cojones.” It is only in this sense that it is used in the US.
The word cojones has made it to the white elite politician vocabulary. President Kennedy used it in a critique of recruits to the foreign service for not having the cojones to face dictators.
Although cojones is unabashedly chauvinistic, some women have been praised for “having” them. In a pointed attack Sarah Palin made during the 2010 Presidential campaign against President Obama’s handling of the “border situation,” she praised then Arizona Governor Jan Brewer for having “the cojones that our president does not have to look out for all Americans, not just Arizonans, in this desire of ours to secure our borders.”
Cojones has been a favorite term of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who has done much to introduce it into mainstream. After Cuban air force planes shot down two small civilian aircraft flown by members of a Cuban-American anti-Castro group over international waters, she protested, “This is not cojones. This is cowardice.” She was attacking the Cuban regime with a term that has particular “Latino meaning.” She could have simply used “cowardice” in her statement and let it go at that, but like other white politicians chose instead to interject a term that in her racist mind Latino men “really understand.”
It is ironic that Palin and Albright, both women, chose such a male-centered term as a tribute.
Macho is an adjective that technically means “The male member of the species” in Spanish, but it is virtually always employed in Spanish-speaking countries in the sense of “Man with traits traditionally considered masculine traits such as strength and virility.” Being Macho can be a compliment in the general public. It is a sobriquet that noted “fight” athletes have proudly embraced. For example, the late Puerto Rican boxer Héctor Camacho, fought under the name “Macho Camacho,” and the late US wrestler Randy Mario Poffo’s ring name was Macho Man.
Macho has become far more popular in US books than cojones, as is evident in an Ngram I just ran. A search I also conducted recently in Amazon Books resulted in 2,102 hits for macho as opposed to 129 for cojones. Its more frequent use may be due to the fact that macho encompasses more “male” traits than just courage.
Having cojones and being macho have been used with some admiration in this country by the general public that has overlooked or disregarded its glorification of raw maleness and implicit degradation of women, who are born without testicles, and suffer social excoriation if they are firm and courageous. It is important to note that the attractiveness of cojones and macho represent racist and male chauvinist choices that square with popular US stereotypes of Latinos being oversexed brutes. Don’t do us any favors by incorporating coarse Spanish words into English that reflect a racist, white-created “punto de vista” about Latinos.(See endnote)
Endnote: The racist filter in some Spanish loanwords is more subtle. “Quixotic” is an example. Its meaning in English is “Exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical.” A “quijote” (small Q) in Spanish it is defined as a “Man who places his defense of just causes ahead of his own interests.” A fool (in English) versus a highly idealistic, principled individual (in Spanish): two definitions that reflect opposite “visiones de la realidad.”
Color-blind ideology, which developed as part of the backlash to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement promoted the idea that skin color should not matter. In contemporary society, this often translates into the belief that racism no longer matters and that those who continually point racism out are trouble-makers “playing the race card.” In this context, even those organizations that repudiate racism are pressured to use racism-evasive strategies. Ironically, M. Hughey finds that white nationalist organizations are also using this post-racial rhetoric to their advantage by arguing that everyone, regardless of color, should have equal rights, including “whites.” For the white nationalist, organizing in a color-blind society means coming up with new ways to be taken seriously, since it is no longer appropriate to argue that people are inherently unequal. For progressive organizations, it means fighting an ambiguous form of racism that many refuse to see or discuss.
My study draws on three years of field work and interviews with twenty-five members of an interracial organization and coalition, analyzing the ways in which they address racism in private and public settings. I find that European American, Latino/a, and African American activists equally downplay the role of racism internally, and while they recognize the significance of racism externally, they do not make it a central part of their campaign. One African American woman summed it up this way,
There’s a way that you can bring that [racism] out without actually saying…Everything will speak for itself. It will eventually come to the forefront. (Personal Interview).
She felt that using the word racism against their opponents or addressing it explicitly in public settings would appear “unprofessional.” People of color who noticed racism within the organization also felt it better not to address it. A Latino organizer stated,
Anglos have a way of doing things, being so conniving…They are not in the fight, in the trenches. But if the publicity is there and the newspapers are there…they’ll show up…We do deal with that. We don’t talk about it, because if you talk about it and you say racism and all that, then you can jeopardize the whole movement (Personal Interview).
Activists justify these racism-evasive strategies by emphasizing action over talk. In their view, because they “walk the walk” they do not need to “talk the talk” on racism. Activists see themselves as “walking the walk” literally through marches and rallies and working within communities of color. As a European American organizer stated:
You know I think that the [the organization] does address that [racism]…we live in a city here that’s 60% African American and Latino…disproportionately members of those communities are poor…I think [the organization] makes the point without…using the labels (Personal Interview).
These findings have both theoretical and practical implications for studies of racial ideology and progressive movements. The term color-blind racism is problematic, because it combines a number of different components—racism, colorblind ideology, and racism evasiveness—which should be analyzed as separate but interrelated concepts. I suggest that colorblindness, as an ideology, promotes a certain racial worldview and political climate that leads to racism evasiveness. This racism evasiveness is what scholars are finding when their respondents argue that “the past is the past” or explain protests as “black unruliness.” These responses have typically been referred to as color-blind racism, color evasion, or power evasion. However, what is really being evaded is a specific form of racial power and racism.
While activists view racism evasiveness as necessary to solidarity, these strategies also limit their ability to challenge racism both within and outside of their organization. In fact, an African American man who left the organization stated:
They do too much over strategizing, over thinking [in the organization]. You know, it’s almost like, ‘We want to ruffle the feathers, but we only want to ruffle them to a certain point.’ No! Let’s ruffle the feathers until that chicken is bald, naked (Personal Interview).
For the most part, activists believe that there is a dichotomy between organizations, which talk about racism and those that act on it. Their pragmatic avoidance of talk is understandable, given the failure of many organizations to translate talk into action and the problems that may arise from calling out racist situations. However, the solution to the problems with talk is to throw it out entirely and instead focus on showing up to meetings, rallies, and marches. Avoiding discussions on racism internally may prevent the organization from dealing with complaints of racism when they arise. Also, if members are only communicating problems through a class analysis, how are they to justify their demands for greater representation of people of color on the job, in access to health care, and education, all racialized issues? Some antiracist training programs stress common language and analysis of structural racism for successful community organizing. Having that common language in the organization is important, because members noted different understandings of racism. Given these varied understandings, the organization could benefit from discussing how racism figures into their work. Progressive organizations must achieve a balance between talk and action, without relying on racism evasiveness.
~ Angie Beeman is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Department of Anthropology & Sociology, Baruch College-CUNY.