The Trouble with ‘Leaning In’ to (White) Corporate Feminism

I have to confess that the first time I ever heard of Sheryl Sandberg was when she was interviewed on 60 Minutes about her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.  I had missed her, apparently, wildly popular TED Talk that introduced her to some 2 million viewers sharing essentially the same message of upbeat, non-confrontational, message about women’s equality.  Now, I can’t seem to get away from hearing about Sandberg, the powerful Chief Operating Officer for Facebook.

Sandberg Magazine Cover

Given that my 2nd grade report card from Mrs. Battle at Meadowbrook Elementary School noted that I was a “good student, but wants to run the class,” I was taken in a little by Sandberg’s desire that “every little girl who gets called bossy” should be viewed as having “leadership potential.”  But, as I’ve learned more I’ve come to realize that Sandberg’s notion of “leaning in” highlights the trouble with white women and white feminism that I’ve been detailing in this series.

Sandberg’s basic message is that women are limiting themselves and if we can just get out of our own way, and “lean in” – by which she means assert ourselves in male-dominated offices and board rooms, then the entire “power structure of the world” will be changed and this will “expand opportunities for all.”

Sandberg quote

(Image source)

For those of you following along with a bingo card of feminist theory, you can fill in all the squares marked “liberal feminism.” For Sandberg, the root cause of inequality rests at the individual level of the choices women make, and to a lesser extent, society’s beliefs about women (which they then internalize). Within Sandberg’s conceptualization, there’s nothing wrong with the way society is set up, women just need to shake off those bad messages about being “bossy,” sharpen their elbows and claim their space at the corporate table.  Liberal feminism is an individualistic version of feminism, the same kind of feminism articulated by Susan B. Anthony and by Betty Friedan.

The goal of liberal feminism is for women to attain the same levels of representation, compensation and power in the public sphere as men. In order for change to happen, liberal feminists rely primarily on women’s ability to achieve equality through their own individual actions and choices.  The praxis – the actual work involved – becomes the “motivational work” women must do on themselves to fit into the male-dominated corporate structure.

So, what’s the trouble with this and how does race matter here?

There’s no better source on this than the feminist cultural critic bell hooks who writes in Dig Deep, Beyond Lean In:

To women of color young and old, along with anti-racist white women, it is more than obvious that without a call to challenge and change racism as an integral part of class mobility she is really investing in top level success for highly educated women from privileged classes. The call for gender equality in corporate America is undermined by the practice of exclusivity, and usurped by the heteronormative white supremacist bonding of marriage between white women and men. Founded on the principles of white supremacy and structured to maintain it, the rites of passage in the corporate world mirror this aspect of our nation. Let it be stated again and again that race, and more importantly white supremacy, is a taboo subject in the world according to Sandberg.

This is precisely the problem with Sandberg and with liberal feminism more generally.  As long as “race” is a taboo subject for liberal feminists, then liberal feminism will continue to be consistent with white supremacy.  I found evidence of this in my research on white supremacists at Stormfront, the global portal for “white pride.” At Stormfront, there is a “Ladies Only” discussion board where you’ll find women who are openly, explicitly dedicated to the cause of white supremacy, and who are also espousing liberal feminist views. The “ladies” at Stormfront are in favor of the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to have an abortion (although they’re conflicted about terminating pregnancies that would result in the birth of a white child), and even in favor of some gay rights (as long as they’re still white supremacists). In my analysis of the “Ladies Only” discussion board I wrote in Cyber Racism that:

The women at Stormfront incorporate key elements of white liberal feminism into their rhetoric, thereby expanding white supremacist ideology and making the movement potentially more inclusive to those who hold a range of other political views along with a shared valued in white identity.  In this way, the women at Stormfront illustrate that white feminism is not incompatible with key features of white supremacy.  By resisting more male-dominated version of white supremacy and articulating that form of white supremacy that is more inclusive and egalitarian along lines of gender, and even allowing for the possibility of a version of “equal rights” within white supremacy for gays and lesbians, the women of Stormfront illustrate another way in which white supremacy is inherent in white identity.   This suggests something troubling about liberal feminism. To the extent that liberal feminism articulates a limited vision of gender equality without challenging racial inequality, then white feminism is not inconsistent with white supremacy. Without an explicit challenge to racism, white feminism is easily grafted onto white supremacy and useful for arguing for equality for white women, and possibly for white gays and lesbians, within a white supremacist context.”

Whenever I mention this appearance of liberal feminist views to a room full of feminist scholars, as I did recently, the usual reaction I get is “well, now that’s weird.” As if, it’s odd that liberal feminism and white supremacy could co-exist in this way. But, it’s not odd at all. This is not a case of politics makes strange bedfellows. It is, in fact, perfectly logical that liberal feminism and white supremacy should be intertwined in this way if white supremacy allows for some gender equality while liberal feminism still has no critique of race or racism.  It’s part of why my father, an avowed white supremacist in many ways (he moved our family 4 hours north to avoid a school desegregation order), could raise me with a fairly gender-egalitarian set of expectations.  His hold on white supremacist beliefs was not inconsistent with his mostly progressive ideas about raising a girlchild without limitations.

So, what is holding girls’ back? According to Sandberg, it’s being called “bossy” and internalizing that message. She has now launched a spin-off campaign, in partnership with the Girl Scouts, called “Ban Bossy”.

 

Bossy Holds Girls Back - Illustration

(Image source)

In the illustration above it cites one of the cornerstone facts that the campaign is based on, that is, “girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles will make them ‘bossy’” – a factoid drawn from a small subsample of a 2008 report by the Girl Scout Research Institute, “Change It Up!”  The subsample of 360 children who said they weren’t interested in being leaders, and who were asked about the reasons for this disinterest. “I do not want to seem bossy” was mentioned by 29% of the girls but only 13% of the boys, so that does back up the fact in the illustration.  There’s more to the story, however.  In the larger survey pool, girls were just as likely as boys to say that they wanted to be leaders and to agree that “I think of myself as a leader.” They were also equally likely to describe themselves as “confident,” “talented,” and “strong.” Moreover, the girls in the survey were more likely than boys to report actual leadership experience. Thus, 31% of girls compared to 26% of boys said they had been the leader of a team for a school project; 13% of girls but 10% of boys had run for a class or school office. This is consistent with a vast amount of recent data showing that girls are outpacing boys on all sorts of academic and social measures.

Sandberg (and her organization) are also doing something very clever with the marketing campaign for “Ban Bossy” that disguises the way liberal feminism is consistent with white supremacy.

3 women of Ban Bossy campaign(Image source)

The promotional campaign features Sheryl Sandberg (center), flanked by Condoleeza Rice (left) and Anna Maria Chávez (right). Sandberg has also gained the support of Queen Bey herself, Beyonce, to back her campaign. This, I believe, is what we call window dressing. The fact that Sandberg has gotten some prominent women of color to sign on to her campaign doesn’t change the fact that liberal feminism is consistent with white supremacy. Today, (some) very powerful women of color are useful for this brand of liberal feminism. And, tomorrow, it’s just as likely, that they will be the target of it, as in Michelle Cottle’s hatchet piece, “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare.” 

Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign seems to be catching on in some quarters, but I’m also hearing lots of people (often women of color) say they are conflicted about this latest move. For her part, bell hooks suggests reclaiming bossy and proposes a counter move: #proudandbossy.  From my point of view, the conflict is about the fact that for so many of us the “bossy” label resonates with something of s sting, yet, many of us also know, at least at some level, that the solution being offered us here is inadequate, even suspect.

Simply put, in Sandberg’s corporate-themed, liberal feminism there is no apparatus – either theoretically or in praxis – for dealing with race or racism.

And that is the trouble with white women for this week. I’ll be back next Tuesday and take a look at white women in popular culture.

>>>> Read next post in series

The Moral Issue Remains: Medgar Evers and the US Fifty Years Later

Two events that took place just hours apart 50 years ago serve as a metaphor for our nation’s struggle for racial equality.

On June 11, 1963, John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the nation demanding that the federal government aggressively put in place measures to guarantee the constitutional rights of blacks. JFK was comprehensive in his goals, insisting that the federal government be actively involved in addressing institutional racism in housing, the labor market, schooling, access to voting, and public accommodations. This call for racial equality occurred when Jim Crow laws were the norm, a majority of public schools were racially segregated, and blacks were politically disenfranchised. When JFK gave his speech, more than 80 percent of all black workers were concentrated in farming, manual labor, and service-sector jobs that guaranteed subsistence wages and intergenerational poverty.

JFK’s call was righteous, radical, and quintessentially American. It was a demand for equal rights and opportunity based on the Golden Rule. Kennedy argued

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue . . . whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.

The next morning, in Jackson, Miss., white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith sat hidden behind a bush, waiting for Medgar Evers, the local NAACP field secretary and a father of three, to return home. Beckwith shot the civil rights activist in the back, and he died within the hour. Although the evidence linking Beckwith to the murder was overwhelming, he was acquitted twice by all-male, all-white juries. Thirty years later, Beckwith was retried and convicted of murder. He died in prison in 2001.

Social scientists are fond of pointing out that when individuals, typically white individuals, discuss racism, they use the past tense. As a nation, we like to believe that the odious and racist views of people like Beckwith have died out and been replaced by the idealism of an equitable and just society embodied in the aspirations articulated in JFK’s speech on racial equality. How much has changed in 50 years? Is our democracy self-correcting, with our moral arc consistently bending toward justice, as evidenced by Beckwith’s eventual conviction? Or is this just another example of “justice delayed is justice denied,” an enduring feature of how this nation treats racial minorities and newcomers?

JFK’s own words allow us to empirically examine the progress in racial equality over the last 50 years. He observed

The Negro baby born in America today . . . has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.

Compare JFK’s statistics with today’s. In 2010-11, whites graduated from high school at a rate of 76 percent and blacks at 60 percent. In 2010, whites graduated from college at a rate of 62 percent, blacks at 40 percent. In 2013, unemployment for whites was 6.7 percent; it was 13.2 percent for blacks. In 2010, 35 percent of whites and 24 percent of blacks worked in “management, professional, and related occupations.” A salary of $10,000 in 1963 would be worth $75, 990 today; 18 percent of black families and 34 percent of white families made $75,000 or more. On average, whites live five years longer than blacks. Median household income in 2011 was $55,214 for whites, $32,229 for blacks.

At least in the categories mentioned by JFK, it is undeniable that progress has been made. A mountain of earth remains to be moved, however, to level the playing field.

We like to believe that people like Beckwith die off or are marginalized by good people of conscience, and that their exit means social progress is being made. We are invested in the narrative that growing racial tolerance necessarily means shrinking racial inequality, although this equation no longer depicts reality. A black president can be elected (twice), and we may not blink at an interracial couple walking down the street, but that doesn’t mean that racial inequality is in decline or in its death throes. The recession has hurt almost everyone, but it has disproportionately wreaked economic havoc on some racial minorities.

What we should be asking ourselves is, Where are the speeches like Kennedy’s that appeal to the citizenry’s better angels to right a social wrong? Where are the pleas to Americans on moral and ethical grounds by those who can use the bully pulpit to raise public awareness of the social inequalities that continue to plague our nation?

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Charles A. Gallagher is chair of the department of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. E-mail him at gallagher@lasalle.edu. See some of his work here.

Dark Arts: Stormfront, Lacan and White Supremacy

One of the most-viewed topics on the white supremacist forum Stormfront—second only to a collection of the tenets of National Socialism—is a catalogue of “ethnic crime.” To anyone who has spent enough time reading online comments, the popularity of the subject will not come as a surprise. Any time that a member of a minority group appears in the media as the perpetrator of a crime, a vocal core of commenters emerges to point out the offender’s ethnicity, using the observation as a springboard for introducing a slew of canned statistics regarding minority crime rates. These talking points have become a fixation, an expression of what racists consider to be a profound truth: that non-white individuals commit a disproportionate amount of crime.

 

(God Speed! by Edmund Leighton)

 

Of course, the demagogues will gleefully rebuff any accusations of racism, insisting that they are, in fact, scientists, courageously presenting facts to illuminate the social world. This is nonsense, but to see why requires shifting attention from what was mentioned to that which was omitted. While there is undeniably a correlation between ethnicity and crime, there are many such correlations that go miraculously overlooked in these discussions. Males, for example, commit an overwhelming proportion of all crime, but you will never see one of these ersatz sociologists taking the time to point out just how overrepresented men are in the criminal justice system. In other words, the move from observing criminality to discussing the perpetrator’s ethnicity is not an inevitable one, but, rather, a careful emphasis of one particular property among many. As such, the mention of race should not be mistaken for authentic sociological curiosity, as it is, in fact, a conscious ontological choice motivated by underlying racist ideology.

The comments display a relationship between evidence and mindset analogous to psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan’s case of the jealous husband. Lacan argues that the husband who, through persistent investigation, uncovers proof that his wife is cheating on him, exhibits pathological behavior despite being vindicated by the facts. His jealousy is a pathology because the suspicion predates the evidence: the husband would be driven to hunt for evidence of infidelity regardless of whether there was any reason for him to think that his wife was having an affair. Given this disconnect from the facts, the important question for Lacan becomes investigating what it is that motivates the husband’s jealousy. What underlying psychological features give rise to an ungrounded suspicion that seeks confirmation?

The commenters who sort crime statistics by race are akin to the jealous husband in that they are not driven to a theory by the evidence, but in search of evidence to support their theory. Crime stories act as Rorschach tests, revealing latent ideology through what is perceived and emphasized. In theft, liberals will see the consequences of poverty while anarchists see its rectification; in violent crime, gender theorists will notice the masculinity while racists will emphasize the ethnicity, an ontological choice reflecting both their pre-held conviction of racial superiority and their desire to spread that belief to others.

One must then ask the same question of the white supremacist that Lacan does of the jealous husband: since the racism of the former is not derived from evidence and, instead, pathologically seeks corroboration, then what is its origin? What draws a person to racial superiority if not the facts? To answer these questions, it is necessary to turn away from the empirical to face the cultural, shifting focus from the news-based Stormfront threads to one in which members post pictures of their favorite pieces of visual art. It is a popular discussion that, while dominated by a few contributors, contains a set of clear patterns with the potential to reveal the inner workings of the racist mind. In the aesthetic preferences of the white supremacists, the attraction of their ethos becomes understandable, the posted images reflecting the psychological rewards that lead people to adopt the ideology in the first place.

The first sort of recurrent image is the depiction of white culture. Included within this category are paintings of attractive Aryan women with blonde, braided hair; Germanic parents telling stories to children or teaching them how to garden; depictions of Roman and Greek architecture; and Rockwellian images of segregation-era civic life. These paintings and photographs capture a sense of cultural value, an aesthetic of existence historically associated with white skin and, in the racist mind, necessarily so. The images have been chosen because they depict what white supremacists are proud of: an intuitively noble way of living that they wish to claim for themselves via their phenotype.

Interspersed among these images are the landscapes. While it is easy to discount these paintings as unimaginative filler, they, too, shed light on the allure of racism. Notably they depict not merely nature, but its intersection with civilization, juxtaposing the untamed dangers of the wild with the safe havens of human habitation. Repeatedly featured are small hamlets nestled among imposing mountains, wagon trains voyaging across the desolate plains, and ships battered by raging seas. In The Art Instinct, philosopher Denis Dutton proposes that an aesthetic preference for safe environments would confer a distinct evolutionary advantage on those early humans who possessed it. While their philistine counterparts wandered off into dangerous territory, the aesthetes would be lured out of harm’s way, their survival allowing them to produce offspring who shared their disposition. In the landscapes favored by white supremacists, we see this evolutionary preference manifested. They are the scenes that Dutton argued humans are predisposed to find attractive, where the evidence of human presence implies safety in the face of inhospitable wilderness.

From such an evolutionary perspective, we can see how the landscapes introduce an element of aesthetic danger into the thread, a sense of peril that can’t help but inject itself into the depictions of “white culture.” The connection between the domestic scene of a white family and the little cottage in the valley is quite literal: it is hard to not imagine the former inhabiting the latter—and from there, a more metaphorical reading follows. It is not merely that white people are aboard the ship being battered by the ocean, but that “white culture” is this ship, a small safe haven in an otherwise dangerous and barbaric world. Taken together, the landscapes and cultural images convey the unmistakable impression that “white culture” is something to be protected, a bastion of civilization in an otherwise-savage environment.

This narrative finds its completion in the images of mythic heroism that permeate the thread. It is a category comprised of paintings featuring subjects risking personal annihilation in order to defend their way of life against foreign invaders: knights wish maidens farewell before riding off into battle, American colonists bravely fire shots at the British, and, most significantly, one army after the next charges into battle to slay the conspicuously dark hordes who threaten them. Here the danger facing those little ships and villages is made tangible, the destructive power of the ocean embodied in these evil armies who would raze every remnant of civilization if given the chance. The brave soldiers depicted are all that stands between the mindless violence of these savages and the safety and virtuosity of “white culture.”

That these images appeal to white supremacists does much to explain their radical politics. Here we see a group of people who have a strong attraction to the motif of the hero, the protector who defends a community from the forces of darkness and evil. For those seeking a sense of purpose and meaning, these white knights offers a particular vision of what it means to be a protagonist, one that easily overlays onto the contours of contemporary political life. One must merely identify a culture that seems besieged and position oneself in opposition to whatever is perceived as threatening. The only question is which group to affiliate with—a lacuna that, for the unimaginative, is most easily filled by the white supremacist narrative. It is the facile choice, one obvious in both its historical prominence and its childishly literal reading of metaphorical struggles between light and darkness. Rather than develop novel or sophisticated views of group conflict, white supremacy allows would-be heroes to follow the path of least mental resistance to the clash of civilizations already formulated in the pages of Mein Kampf or The Lord of the Rings.

This proposition—that hero envy underlies a significant portion of racist thought—is supported not merely by the far Right’s obsession with  “ethnic crime,” but also its general preoccupation with victimhood. That a dominant and heavily privileged group would take so seriously the minor incursions of “reverse racism” seems bizarre until it becomes clear that such “threats” are essential to sustaining the perception that white people are in danger and, thus, in need of heroes to boldly protect them. Absent such encroaching peril, white supremacists are at risk of being revealed for what they truly are: self-important shills who oppress others to advance the interests of an arbitrary phenotype.

To confront racism, then, we must pass over the endless empirical debates and, instead, lay siege to the mythos. We should contest that race is a significant category—why fight for one’s race rather than one’s socioeconomic class?—or even a stable one: who exactly counts as “white?” Watching white supremacists debate these questions gives the distinct impression of adversaries tugging at the threads that threaten to unravel an uneasy truce. More challenging, however, is creating alternative conceptions of heroism that are not built upon zero-sum conflict between different groups. At their best, antifa movements act as just such an outlet, allowing young people to channel their heroic aggression towards universalist causes. Unfortunately, for those vulnerable to the temptation of racism, the far Left probably holds little appeal. If we are to divert these individuals, we must develop something new, an alternative aesthetic that provides a sense of purpose without necessitating the subjugation of others. While this is a daunting challenge, it is perhaps the best chance we have to undermine ideologies of hate. As tempting as it is to try to dissuade racists by presenting them with statistics and evidence, to do so is to merely grapple with the fringes of their racist paranoia. Only through art can we eliminate the pathology at its source.

 

~ Jesse Elias Spafford, BA, is a recent graduate of Pomona College, and currently works as a Research Assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.

Idolizing Thomas Jefferson, Brutal Slaveholder and Racist Thinker

Law professor Paul Finkelman has an important commentary piece in the New York Times on two recent books on the “democratic” icon and famous founder Thomas Jefferson. Much of what most Americans believe about Jefferson’s everyday life in regard to racial matters is fictional or distorted in the direction of our “good” founders are “great liberty and equality advocates” in both thought and everyday practice.

A leading scholar of slavery and our “founding fathers,” Finkelman has much to say about this matter, especially in regard to the very interesting new book by Henry Wiencek that presents much data on Jefferson’s lifelong commitment to slavery and abuse of those he enslaved, including his sexual coercion of the young Black teenager Sally Hemings (see here). Finkelman argues that even Wiencek–who argues the younger and more egalitarian Jefferson becomes more of a hypocritical and money-oriented slaveholder as he ages — is too kind to Jefferson, especially in his early decades:

Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views . . . he tried to justify through pseudoscience. . . . when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves.

Finkelman adds that Jefferson was not the supposedly “good slaveholder,” the oxymoronic phrase often used for numerous slaveholding founders and other white slaveholders:

He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks.

And Wiencek’s book provides much more evidence of Jefferson’s brutality toward those he enslaved.

Thomas Jefferson is still a top democratic icon for a great many Americans, especially white Americans — with little critical recurring or public attention being given by whites to his everyday practice of extensive and often brutal slaveholding. Jefferson is also a founder (with intellectuals like Immanuel Kant) of early Western “race” framing that aggressively celebrates the white “race’s” superiority in most areas and puts down “inferior races” such as (enslaved) black Americans. You can see this most dramatically in his famous and only major book, Notes on the State of Virgina (see my analysis of Query 14 in that aggressively white-racist-framed chapter of his book here).

Well into the 21st century few Americans, especially few white Americans, know this bloody founding history, and remarkably few seem willing to learn it and examine its implications for our contemporary and still systemically racist society. Why is the historical truth on systemic racism so hard for most whites to accept and publicly discuss in this society?

Note: Paul Finkelman has a very good book, Slavery and the Founders, that I can recommend to you if you want to know more of the hard truths of our founding, slaveholding era and about the slavery-protecting US Constitution crafted by famous founders.

Dramatic Resurrgence in Hate Groups

There is a new study from our friends at the SPLC, reported in The New York Times, that indicates a dramatic resurgence in the number of racist, neo-Nazi, and far-right extremist groups operating across our country. The SPLC, which has kept track of such groups for 30 years, recorded 1,018 hate groups operating last year.  And, lest you think this is a southern U.S. phenomenon, the states with the most active hate groups were California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and New York.

 

The far-right patriot movement began its current resurgence in 2008, after the election of Mr. Obama and the beginning of the recession.  Chapters of the traditional white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan fell from 221 to 152.

As reported in the NYTimes piece, the federal government does not focus on groups that engage in racist hate-based speech, but does monitor paramilitary groups and others that it determines have some inclination toward violence, said Daryl Johnson, a former senior domestic terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The SPLC also has a fascinating interview with Daryl Johnson (from summer 2011) about how the DHS has bowed to political pressure around not focusing on domestic, right-wing terrorism.  It will be interesting to see if this latest report changes the policy of the DHS.

Ron Paul Gains Supporters at Stormfront, according to Don Black

Don Black, the founder of Stormfront, the largest (currently over 236,000 registered users) and longest-running white supremacist site on the web, appeared on the show “Young Turks” yesterday and said that he and many of his followers agree with Ron Paul on the issues, currently a Republican hopeful in the U.S. presidential race.

Ron Paul’s newsletters have recently been in the spotlight of the mainstream press in a bit of a johnny-come-lately attack on Paul’s long standing racism and homophobia. In 2007, Daily Kos ran a story “Ron Paul: In His Own Words,” which exposed much of this (and so have many others prior to the current dust up), but this round of attention seems to have been sparked by Paul’s surge in the polls and support among some white liberals and libertarians.

There is a tendency, especially among white liberals, to dismiss white supremacist rhetoric – like that of Don Black and those who agree with him at Stormfront – because it exists outside the ‘mainstream.’  I argued in my first book that the extremist rhetoric of white supremacists and the mainstream rhetoric of politicians elected to public office overlap in significant ways.   While the standard way of viewing these groups is that they are “fringe,” I contend that much of what they are saying is very similar to what mainstream politicians are saying.  Here, Don Black and Ron Paul are simply the most recent example in a centuries-long tradition of this sort of overlap in American politics.

Thinking Black: Derrick Bell and the Living of a Racial Realist Life.

The Negro, in the universities and colleges of Europe and America, has to do his thinking and his reading in…the white man’s language…Our environment makes us think white, and some of us think white so persistently that we haven’t the time to think Black. I urge upon you…to help, with voice and pen, to hasten the coming of the morning when Negroes all over this broad land will wake up to the importance of thinking Black. (John Edward Bruce—“The Importance of Thinking Black”—1917}

The academic production of “race theory” is itself fraught with a dishonesty that few care to admit. To speak about race without attending to the very real social, economic, and political consequences of racism, says Barbara J. Fields in “[w]hiteness, Racism and Identity,” is to afford whites a symmetrical parity in our academic discourse that not only contradicts reality, but exposes the very content of our academically approved “race theory” to be little more than the careful arrangement of euphemisms taught to us by our white oppressors to obscure the deliberate machinations of racism. The life of Derrick Bell stands in sharp contrast to this practice, as only a life lived with Black people in mind can. His body of work is not only a testament to John E. Bruce’s call, but a literature that shames, even today, our irreconcilable attempts to rationalize our cowardice and maintain détente with white racists, despite their tyrannical reign throughout the university and in American society.

It is standard practice of scholars to honor their intellectual fore-parents who have been caste into the shadows of history, we eulogize their memories and praise their life’s work as a goal to which we should all aspire, but Derrick Bell’s life is the stuff “Black thought” is made of and resists such “fluffy-ization.” Derrick’s courage rang with the testament of Black thinkers from beginning to end. When I dared to suggest back in October of 2007 that philosophers were trying to make sense of his work next to Marx and Nietzsche, he told me that he considered himself

the academic counterpart of Errol Garner, the late jazz pianist from my hometown, Pittsburgh, who never learned to read music fearing, as I understand it, that it would ruin his style. I think there must be value in Marxist and other writings, but I did not really read them in college and have had little time since. I am writing this in Pittsburgh where I have been celebrating my 50th law school reunion from Pitt Law School. I do care more about the thought and writings and actions of Du Bois, Robeson, Douglass, et al. I think during my talk at UCLA, I read from the 1935 essay by Ralph Bunche about the futility of using law to overcome racism. It made more sense than so much of the theoretical writings on law, past and present, that I can barely understand and have great difficulty connecting with my experience. And you are right. At almost 77, I do not care to write in ways that whites can vindicate.

Throughout our many exchanges concerning his thought, Derrick remained convinced that attacking racism, the deliberate system of social, political, and legal subjugation of Black people, was the task of the Black Intellectual. He believed whole-heartedly that equality, even under Obama, was little more than illusion. In a speech he sent me entitled “On Celebrating an Election as Racial Progress,” he said that

every aspect of Barack Obama’s election and Inauguration has been covered like a heavy rain on a parched landscape. His taking office as the first black president is deemed a racial breakthrough….[but], in our celebrations, we should not confuse progress with fortuity, as we have while celebrating so many earlier unique moments that appeared to signal significant racial advances.

As early as 1976, Derrick Bell had already formulated the basis of his now famous racial realist thesis—the idea that

Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than ‘temporary peaks of progress,’ short lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance”—in the realization that “white self-interest will prevail over [B]lack rights.

Following the teachings of his mentor Robert L. Carter, Bell understood well that integration offered Blacks nothing but proclamations of equality without daring to question the white supremacist organization of society. While the Black bourgeois continue to market  the suffering of poor, disenfranchised, brutalized and terrorized Black people as a means to gain visibility and compassion from white gatekeepers, Bell lived a life that demonstrated struggle amidst the permanence of white supremacy, not because he believed in a “mythical hope” in whites’ moral character, but because he saw Afrolantica and knew just as his hero Paul Robeson that Blacks could create a world here in America unseen by the tyrannical gaze of whites and unrecognizable to those who simply cannot “THINK BLACK.”

I will always remain grateful for his friendship; his time, and his patience in helping me understand the totality of his thought while writing my dissertation on his work. He has certainly earned his place at the table of our ancestors. To his remembrance.

Professor Curry teaches and researches philosophy at Texas A&M University

Whites Arming against Black Males: Overt Racist Talk to Modern-Day Lynching



The conservative right-wing has remained unabashed about its racist talk. We have heard vitriolic metaphors such as “Don’t retreat, reload,” “armed and dangerous,” and talk evoking the second amendment to encourage (white) Americans to protect themselves against a “tyrannical government,” and I might add, African Americans and other Americans of color. This kind of discourse does not contribute to the development of the great debates on which this country was found and how it solved its problems. Even though we live in the 21st century, our conservative right has returned to the so-called “glorious” days of the Jim Crow era, where the lynching of African Americans was the way of southern life.

For Neal Boortz, an Atlanta-based right-wing radio host, the subtle practice of racism against African Americans and other Americans of color is not enough. Boortz is advocating that whites should take up arms to defend themselves against “urban thugs.” He literally has generalized the criminal activity of some urban black males to the entire black community as well as Hispanic communities. One danger of Boortz’s statement is that some hate-mongering neo-Nazi will use this as an excuse to target at random innocent Americans of color as an excuse to eliminate them, becoming judge, jury, and executioner. Boortz also fails to understand that crimes in urban areas are usually “black-on-black” crime.

Therefore, is Boortz using the phrase “urban thugs” as racist imaging of urban Black men generally — and maybe thereby justifying some whites’ attacking them? The late Marable Manning once said:

Black-on-black crime usually victimizes the working and poor, but it can paralyze virtually all Black people of whatever social class or neighborhood. It produces for capitalism and the state a deep despair, a destructive suspicion [blacks] hold against each other. It thwarts Blacks’ ability to achieve collective class consciousness, to build political agencies which advance [Black’s] material and cultural interests, and develop [themselves] economically. It forces Black inner-city merchants to strap revolvers on their calves or shoulders, while serving poor patrons behind plexiglass shields. It stops Black doctors from making emergency calls to their patients who live in the midst of a tenement slum or ghetto high rise complex. It instills a subconscious apathy toward the political and economic hierarchy, and fosters the nihilistic conviction that nothing can ever be changed in the interests of the Black masses.(p. 66)

Manning does not mention whites in this passage. His statements are limited to black neighborhoods regardless of social class. Any sensible law-abiding American citizen would never approve of criminal activity by any individual, regardless of race. But urban black males and their families live in poverty because systemic racism has incarcerated more black males at a greater exponential rate than poor white tattooed males, because of the outsourcing of jobs from urban and rural communities to overseas, because of the lack of educational opportunities, and because of the lack of a strong support system.

Moreover, systemic racism has economically underdeveloped the urban Black community (see Marable Manning’s book above). Because of the black male’s frequent inability to head his household because of the above mentioned reasons, many black women and children have remained in generational poverty. But the most devastating effect systemic racism has had on blacks was reducing them to animals in the minds of whites to justify the ill-treatment of them, then blaming them for their subsequent poor conditions.

White Nationalism and the Tea Party

The NAACP recently released a Special Report on Tea Party Nationalism, which addresses the overlap and interconnectedness between white nationalist hate groups and the various Tea Party groups that are sprouting like bad weeds across the U.S. As if to highlight this connection, David Duke, former KKK leader, early Internet adopter for the cause of white supremacy, and one-time candidate for Louisiana governor, has released a video addressing the Tea Party.

The report, written by Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, is just 80 pages, 9 chapters and includes 17 figures and maps. It’s in Chapter 8, “Racism, Anti-Semitism, and the Militia Impulse,” that the authors address the link to overt racists such as Duke, a connection that many Tea Partiers vigorously deny. In this chapter, the authors write:

“In preparation for Tea Party protests held on July 4, 2009, national socialists and other white supremacists created a discussion thread on Stormfront.org, the largest and most widely accessed of the many white nationalist websites.216 While highlighting the distinction between themselves and the majority of Tea Partiers who were not self-conscious about their own racism, one person argued, ‘We need a relevant transitional envelop-pushing flyer for the masses. Take these Tea Party Americans by the hand and help them go from crawling to standing independently and then walking towards racialism.’ “(p.60)

This quote highlights the use of the Internet by white nationalists who see the Tea Party as an opportunity for “walking Tea Party Americans…towards racialism.” And, this seems to be the general take in the report, that the Tea Party includes some white nationalists, but is mainly seen as an opportunity for those in the white nationalist movement. The authors take this stance with regard to Duke, as well. The video linked to above appears to have been around awhile, as the authors refer to it in the NAACP report.

David Duke’s embrace of the Tea Parties reveals less about the Tea Parties than it serves as a reminder of the former Klansmen’s never-ending opportunism. He used the Internet to broadcast a ten minute video speech, “Message to the Tea Party.” Duke began the “message” by paying homage to the Tea Parties and the “Founding Fathers,” and ended with his usual roundhouse attack on “the Zionists” (meaning Jews). Over the decades Duke has switched organizational allegiances as new openings emerged for him, but he never abandoned his core national socialist ideology.
“Most recently, Duke had spent time flitting across the globe: In France, Duke had his picture taken with Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant Front National. In Russia, he turned a 1995 meeting with Zhirinovsky into a spot at a 2002 “anti-Zionist” conference in Moscow. In November of that year, he spoke at a meeting in Bahrain. He reappeared in Iran in 2006 for a Holocaust denial conference where he thanked President Ahmadinejad for his “courage” and “foresight.” And in 2009, the once and future Republican, David Duke, was unceremoniously expelled from the Czech Republic (although the charges were later dropped.)
Duke’s announcement that he will use a year-long speaking tour to gauge potential support for another campaign in the Republican presidential primaries (in 2012) should not be understood as anything more than a declaration of his perennial search for contributions from new followers. He is quite unlikely to repeat anything near the successes he has had in the past, when he won a majority of white voters in two statewide Louisiana elections. It is, however, one more sign that hardcore white nationalists regard the Tea Party movement as a reservoir of racists, and as potential supporters of a more ideologically defined white nationalism.
The actions of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the Stormfront.org posters and other white nationalists need be understood, in aggregate, as one measure, among many, of the Tea Party movement’s political characteristics. Together they point to a truth many Tea Party leaders will not want to acknowledge.” (p.62)

This is the cautious tone of analysis taken throughout the report. The Tea Party is dangerous for the way that it appeals to white nationalists and for what it could become, but less so for what it is now. Here’s is another passage from the report which illustrates this point:

“Despite the fact that Tea Partiers sometimes dress in the costumes of 18th century Americans, wave the Gadsden flag and claim that the United States Constitution should be the divining rod of all legislative policies, theirs is an American nationalism that does not always include all Americans. It is a nationalism that excludes those deemed not to be “real Americans;” including the native-born children of undocumented immigrants (often despised as “anchor babies”), socialists, Moslems, and those not deemed to fit within a “Christian nation.” The “common welfare” of the constitution’s preamble does not complicate their ideas about individual liberty. This form of nationalism harkens back to the America first ideology of Father Coughlin. As the Confederate battle flags, witch doctor caricatures and demeaning discourse suggest, a bright white line of racism threads through this nationalism. Yet, it is not a full-fledged variety of white nationalism. It is as inchoate as it is super-patriotic. It is possibly an embryo of what it might yet become.” (p.11)

The rise of the Tea Party, with its embryonic white nationalism and the racism, antisemitism and xenophobia of videos like David Duke’s, are political trends that people committed to racial justice should watch closely.

~ This is re-posted from the archive. It was originally posted on October 24, 2010.

The MLK Day Cover-Up: Terrorism is Defined by the Race of the Victim


On March 9, American newspapers such as the Seattle Times began to report once again on the terrorist attack on an MLK day parade that was thwarted less than two months ago in Spokane, Washington. The bomb has been consistently described as “‘chilling’ in its sophistication,” and according to an official speaking anonymously, it “contained anti-coagulant chemical agents intended to make anyone wounded by the blast ‘bleed out.’” Additionally, the expertly-placed bomb had a remote-control detonator and was packed with shrapnel. According to CNN’s website, “officials called the situation an instance ‘of domestic terrorism’ that could have caused ‘mass casualties.’”

While FOX and other major news sources will make a national story out of police probes into possible letter bombs (which later turn out to be nothing), only a miniscule ripple was caused by this attempted terrorist attack which would have caused national upheaval had it been planted by a Muslim. We have heard countless conservatives argue about the ways in which international and public policy should be constructed around the prevention of terrorist threats, yet hardly anyone—Republican or Democrat—said a word about this attack that was meant to kill and intimidate people of color.

White supremacists do not fit the racial stereotype of the Muslim terrorist.

Yet, this doesn’t adequately explain the belligerency of this cover-up. Behind this incident lurks what A.J. Williams-Myers calls “the secret of American race relations: white violence.” That this secret is still so easy to keep demonstrates the persistence of white supremacy in America. While most complacent white Americans would rebuff any accusations of having something in common with the white supremacist(s) reportedly responsible for this attempted mass murder, the systematic disregard for these kinds of incidents demonstrates whites’ still-prevalent attitude that Black life has little value.