Tiger Couple Gets It Wrong On Immigrant Success

[Shortened version of a review in The Boston Review (March 11, 2014)

Review of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

The tiger couple is chasing its own tail, which is to say, they are stuck in circular reasoning. In their new book, The Triple Package, Amy Chua, author of the best-selling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and Jed Rubenfeld tackle the question of why certain groups are overrepresented in the pantheon of success. They postulate the reason for their success is that these groups are endowed with “the triple package”: a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity, and impulse control. The skeptic asks, “How do we know that?” To which they respond: “They’re successful, aren’t they?”

But Chua and Rubenfeld proffer no facts to show that their exemplars of ethnic success—Jewish Nobel Prize winners, Mormon business magnates, Cuban exiles, Indian and Chinese super-achievers—actually possess this triple package. Or that possessing these traits is what explains their disproportionate success. For that matter, they do not demonstrate that possessing the triple package is connected, through the mystical cord of history, to Jewish sages, Confucian precepts, or Mormon dogma. Perhaps, as critics of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism have contended, success came first and only later was wrapped in the cloth of religion. In other words, like elites throughout history, Chua and Rubenfeld’s exemplars enshroud their success in whatever system of cultural tropes was available, whether in the Talmud, Confucianism, Mormonism, or the idolatry of White Supremacy. The common thread that runs through these myths of success is that they provide indispensable legitimacy for social class hierarchy. . . .

Chua and Rubenfeld give us old wine in new bottles: they invoke the idea used the world over to justify entrenched systems of social stratification—that success comes to the culturally deserving. This was precisely the argument put forward by Thomas Sowell in his 1981 book Ethnic America. For Sowell, “Jews are the classic American success story—from rags to riches against all opposition.” For Chua and Rubenfeld,

the two million Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America in the early 1990s brought with them habits of heightened discipline, religious prohibition, and hard work that they not only practiced themselves but passed down to their children.

Furthermore, both books contrast Jewish success in overcoming persecution and poverty with a deeply ingrained “defeatism” among blacks who bear the scars of centuries of slavery and denigration. As Sowell writes:

Groups today plagued by absenteeism, tardiness, and a need for constant supervision at work or in school are typically descendants of people with the same habits a century or more ago. The cultural inheritance can be more important than biological inheritance, although the latter stirs more controversy.

There you have it: the problem is to be found, not in the genes, but rather in the cultural DNA, which is even “more important than biological inheritance.” Since 1981, however, anthropologists and sociologists have developed a large canon of work that dissects and discredits theories that reduce inequality to culture. This scholarship was reflected during their book tour when Chua and Rubenfeld were challenged with questions about the racist implications of their theory. Is their point that African Americans are culturally deficient? Are they using “culture” to blame the victim, and to deflect attention away from persistent racist barriers that limit opportunity? For that matter, what about the 99 percent of people in “successful groups” who do not reach the top 1 percent? Are they less Jewish, Asian, Cuban, Mormon than Jews, Asians, Cubans, and Mormons who have “made it”? Do they suffer from a paucity of the traits that make up the triple package? Chua and Rubenfeld invoke an idea that justifies entrenched systems of social stratification: that success comes to the culturally deserving.

If not culture, what does explain Jewish “success against all opposition?” As I argue in The Ethnic Myth (1981), Jewish success is chiefly the result of factors that go back to the condition of Jews in their countries of origin. The shtetls romanticized in Fiddler on the Roof were small towns, proximate to cities, where Jews carved out niches between rural and urban economies. Many were traders who purchased agricultural products, animal hides, and raw materials from peasants and sold them to factories in cities, eking out a small profit. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were large concentrations of Jews in cities, and they played a key role in the critical early phases of industrialization. A 1945 survey of “Jews in the Russian Economy,” assembled by a group of Russian-Jewish immigrants, reported the following:

By 1832 Jews owned 149 [textile] factories and plants out of the total 528 existing at the time in eight provinces. . . . From the 1870s until the First World War, the Jews played a major part in the development of the sugar industry. . . . Flour milling was quite widespread among Jews within the Pale of Settlement. . . . By the early years of the twentieth century Jews owned or leased 365 mills with an annual business of 20 million rubles. . . . The same can be said of tobacco production, which had long been concentrated in Jewish hands. . . . In the Russian leather industry Jews also played a substantial role. . . . In the woodworking industry, Jews were prominent chiefly in the sawmill business. . . . In the grain and timber trade, Jews . . . may be said to have brought Russia into the world market.

In short, Jews were on the forefront of commerce and industrialization in Eastern Europe, and Jewish immigrants to the United States arrived with previous industrial experience and a higher rate of literacy that gave them a decisive head start over other immigrants, most of whom came from peasant origins.

Jewish immigrants also had skills in a wide array of crafts. A study conducted by the U.S. Immigration Commission in 1911 found that Jews ranked first in thirty-six of forty-seven trades:

They constituted 80 percent of the hat and cap makers, 75 percent of the furriers, 68 percent of the tailors and bookbinders, 60 percent of the watchmakers and milliners, and 55 percent of the cigarmakers and tinsmiths. They totaled 30 to 50 percent of the immigrant classified as tanners, turners, undergarment makers, jewelers, painters, glaziers, dressmakers, photographers, saddlemakers, locksmiths, and metal workers in other than iron and steel. They ranked first among immigrant printers, bakers, carpenters, cigar-packer, blacksmiths, and building trades workmen.

These skills were in demand in the burgeoning economies of the cities where they settled. Many Jewish immigrants used their craft skills to establish small family businesses that allowed them to secure an occupational and economic foothold that served as a springboard of mobility for their children. Typically their sons went into the family business, and at the point that their grandchildren began streaming into college, there was a fortuitous expansion of American higher education, especially during the period after World War II. Jews were the right people in the right place and the right time, and this is why they were able to escape the poverty of the immigrant generation more rapidly than others.
None of this is to say that culture does not matter. The whole point is that culture does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is one factor within a large matrix of social and material factors.

As I write in The Ethnic Myth:

If Jews set high goals, it is because they had a realistic chance of achieving them. If they worked hard, it is because they could see the fruits of their labor. If they were willing to forgo the pleasures of the moment, it is because they could realistically plan for the future, for their children if not for themselves. In short there was much in the everyday experience of Jewish immigrants to activate and sustain their highest aspirations. Without this reinforcement, their values would have been scaled down accordingly, and more successful outsiders would today be speculating about how much further Jews might have gone if only they had aimed higher.

The fatal flaw of The Triple Package is that its authors treat their magic trifecta as disembodied values, putatively rooted in ancient cultures. But they provide no evidence that their exemplars are actually immersed in these cultural systems. Rather, there are more mundane reasons why they might exhibit the magic trifecta, connected with their social class and circumstances. Chua’s parents were not just struggling immigrants—they were educated professionals with the social and material resources that allowed them to sustain their aspirations for their children. Rubenfeld was raised in upper-middle class affluence, which put him on a fast track to success. Their circumstances positioned the tiger parents to raise two achieving daughters, one bound for the Harvard (their parents’ alma mater), the other for Yale (their parents’ workshop). In other words mobility is not an individual achievement so much as it is a family project that occurs incrementally across generations. . . .

The demystification of the Jewish success story has implications for rendering a more truthful account of the success stories at the center of Chua and Rubenfeld’s book. In each case, pre-migration factors and selective migration go a long way to explaining group success:

• Nigerian immigrants at Harvard Business School are no success story whatsoever. They come from Nigeria’s educated and affluent elite. If anything, this is a case of a transfer of human capital from one nation to another. Or, to put it bluntly, a brain drain. The same can be seen in Iranian and Lebanese immigrants.
• A socialist revolution made refugees of Cuba’s political oligarchs and economic elites and sent them in flight to Miami. Recovery was not easy, but neither were they the “huddled masses” of yore. From the Small Business Administration and other government agencies, Cuban refugees received credit and loans whose purpose was to showcase the superiority of American capitalism over Cuban socialism. In contrast the Cubans who arrived in the 1980 “Mariel Boatlift” came from the poorest segments of the Cuban population. Unlike in 1966, there were no articles in Fortune Magazine entitled “Those Amazing Cuban Émigrés.”
• The first wave of Asian immigrants after the 1965 Immigration Act consisted mostly of professionals who sought more lucrative employment in the United States. Later these immigrants were able to send for their poorer relatives under the family reunification provision in immigration law. Like Jews, many Asians found a niche in the enclave economy and used their success as entrepreneurs as a springboard of mobility for their children.
• Chua and Rubenfeld have a field day with the statistic that Asians comprise nearly three quarters of the students at Stuyvesant, New York City’s elite high school. They claim that many of these students come from parents who are restaurant or factory workers, but they have no evidence on the actual class background of students who make the cut for Stuyvesant. Their source is a single local news story about a school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where children, at great expense to their working-class parents, are enrolled for years in a test-prep program called “Horizons.” Nor is there mention of the cottage industry of test-prep programs in Chinatown, which are now cashing in by attracting non-Asians as well.
• The droves of foreign students in the nation’s colleges and universities who overstay their visas are another source of immigrant achievers. These students come mostly from middle-class or affluent families who can afford to enroll their children in American universities. Again, a case of selective migration, not a success story.
• As for the Caribbean students who succeed, whether in college admissions or in business, they rarely come from affluent families, but they still have class advantages that place them a rung higher on the ladder than African Americans, and they encounter less racism as a result. On the other hand, the Jamaican seasonal farm workers who harvest apples in upstate New York are no success story.
• Why Mormons, regarded fifty years ago as a fringe group, have made recent strides in the business world is mysterious, but one thing is certain: Mormon religion did not change. On the contrary, as was true of immigrant Jews, the Mormons who were catapulted to success probably had to break away from the strictures and doctrines of pre-modern religions in order to achieve the success they sought in the material world. Sure, like Mitt Romney and like the protagonist in Abraham Cahan’s 1917 novel, The Rise of David Levinsky—they look back nostalgically on their youthful allegiances, but the discontinuities are far more important than the continuities.

When the tiger couple appeared on Fareed Zakaria’s weekly show on CNN, Zakaria observed that the nations that supposedly embody the magic trifecta have, until recently, been “basket cases.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Rubenfeld averred that in their home countries, they had only two of the three requisite traits—an ingrained sense of superiority and impulse control. Only when they arrived on American shores did they develop the sense of vulnerability that allowed the trifecta to have its magical result. These are the absurd lengths that Rubenfeld must go to in order to save his pet theory from its glaring overstatements and fatal omissions. . . .

In their whirlwind interviews, Chua and Rubenfeld were often asked whether their theory has a racist flipside, and their prompt riposte was that blacks, too, could achieve success if only they cultivated the magic trifecta. It is worth pointing out, though, that most of the groups that Chua and Rubenfeld tout as exemplars of success would not be on American soil but for the 1965 Immigration Act that was passed on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. Not only that, but thanks to the black protest movement, immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America entered a nation with a far more favorable climate of tolerance than existed in times past. Finally, it is safe to assume that some of Chua and Rubenfeld’s exemplars reaped the advantage of affirmative action programs, which were developed in the cauldron of black protest and gutted by the Supreme Court.

There is bitter irony when the paragons in Chua and Rubenfeld’s narrative are used to make invidious comparisons to African Americans who, throughout American history, have been pushed further back from doors of opportunity by successive waves of immigrants. As Toni Morrison wrote years ago, their success comes “on the back of blacks,” whose struggles are similarly eclipsed in this facile and fallacious book.

Race, Nationality, & Fertility: The Transnational Value of Whiteness

Surrogacy (the act of a woman carrying a fetus to term for another person) has been a controversial topic for many years now. From a critical race perspective, Dorothy Roberts and others have pointed out how surrogacy and other fertility techniques have been used by mostly wealthy whites to produce blond, blue-eyed white babies while employing black, brown, or yellow women to take the time and effort to have them.

Indeed, surrogacy has gotten so expensive in the U.S. (and elsewhere) that many Americans have sought out surrogates in India, creating “baby factories” and “surrogacy tourists.” Roberts notes how nonwhite surrogates can be used by single, wealthy white men to retain their wealth (as well as genetic) inheritance. Further, affluent women (regardless of race) can avoid the health dangers and inconveniences associated with pregnancy and childbirth, yet still have their own biological children.

In more recent years, however, the use of surrogacy to increase the “lily white” has expanded to affluent nonwhites employing white women. In China, for example, surrogacy is growing in popularity for the upper-class, due to a variety of factors including infertility, China’s one-child policy, and desire to obtain U.S. citizenship for both themselves and their children.

While many couples use their own eggs and sperm, a growing number are accepting egg donations for their surrogates. In fact, some seek tall, blond (i.e., white) donors to produce a Eurasian looking child, whom many clients claim to look smarter and more attractive. Meanwhile, a recent expose of a clinic in Ghana claims to produce “half-caste” babies in order to create a “half-caste world.” The founder of the clinic claims that Africa needs more biracial individuals, while claiming to provide his clients children with “mental and physical beauty.” Additionally, he purports that such biracial individuals would help to improve Africa’s future. Gametes from countries including the U.K. and U.S. are reportedly proffered for $3,000 USD.

While most people think helping people have children is a good thing, there are a number of tricky issues related to this phenomenon. While many of us may wish to ignore this issue and hope it goes away, surrogacy is on the rise in the world. Furthermore, the exploitation of poor women of color is on full display, using them as little more than incubators to produce offspring for mostly affluent white people. Why do some Chinese (as well as other Asians) prefer individuals who have fairer skin and “white” looking features? Why would Africans come to view the continent as too Black? The cases of wealthy Chinese, Ghanaian, or other nonwhites who seek “half-caste” children presents another issue: the effects of white supremacy exported abroad, producing symbolic violence.

White Supremacism as Meme: How Reddit is Breeding a New Generation of Violent Racism

“4chan is leaking.” This is what users of the link sharing website Reddit say when they see a certain sort of comment, typically a personal anecdote that begins plausibly but rapidly escalates into the outlandish and the perverse. It is a style characteristic of some of the message boards of 4chan, a more insular online forum whose community is drawn towards entertainment of the more shocking and/or titillating variety. To say that 4chan is leaking is to identify a Redditor as being a member of both communities, a dual citizen who carries to Reddit the distinctive discourse of 4chan.

If 4chan leaks then Reddit floods. In Facebook statuses, comment sections, and twitter streams the signifiers of Reddit abound, proliferated by its users. Sometimes it is the signature constellation of interests and topics that reveal a Redditor. She might be relaying some pithy slogan about the importance of digital freedom, the cultural significance of bacon, or the deeply flawed nature of Internet Explorer. Or she might be saying “For science!” or “tl;dr…” or “So brave!” or “I see what you did there!” or “I, for one, welcome our new _____ overlords,” or “Shut up and take my money!” or “An’ Frankly, I did Nazi that coming!” or “Faith in humanity restored!” or any of the other phrases peculiar to Reddit.

It is a strange feature of human sociality that a person’s online activity is revealed in her speech. We conceive of ourselves as free agents, yet channel the expressions and ideas of our associates to the point where our words serve as recognizable signs of group membership. In such communal expressions we see that culture is not merely an explanation for the strangeness of distant others, but, rather, is something universal, manifested in all of us.

But how does the community come to modify and inflect our behavior in this way? The answer lies in the iconography of Reddit, the pictures and bold white capital letters of the Internet meme. In the context of the Internet, a meme is an image or type of image accompanied by a caption that follows a formula particular to the meme. The classic example is the lolcat, a meme wherein text is superimposed over a picture of a cat to describe its present state from its own, half-witted perspective: “I can has prom date?” asks the kitten wearing the bow tie.

(Image source)

On Reddit, visitors will see more contemporary memes, ones particular to the site. Inarticulate cats have been replaced by a set of characters that pass on bits of Reddit conventional wisdom via macro text. Some relay explicit advice while others pick out everyday moments that are common but not often discussed, the airing of which lets viewers feel a shared sense of experience. It’s a new package on an old tradition, the latest not-so-funny reincarnation of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Have you ever noticed…” monologues. More importantly, these images embody Reddit’s close association with “memes” as understood in a more technical sense: ideas (or behavior) that replicates through non-genetic transmission.

Reddit is an ideal platform for meme transmission. According to a recent Pew Poll, six percent of all American adults who use the Internet are Reddit users. This sizable audience represents an army of potential hosts for memes—a potential that is readily converted into actualized adoption and propagation via the participatory nature of Reddit. By having the audience contribute all of its content, Reddit encourages people to not merely consume its devices and truisms but to adopt them as their own, to internalize and redisseminate them like an animal regurgitating a recent meal so as to eat it again.

 

(Image source)

 

This recursive process is powered by a democratic points system wherein Redditors are awarded “karma” for each “upvote” that their submitted content receives. Content that draws a high number of upvotes will then float to the top of the site, giving it greater visibility. Through this system, Redditors are incentivized to post the content that they believe will garner upvotes—and the surest method for achieving this end is to mimic what has been successful in the past.

 

(Image source)

The most brazen form of content mimesis is the “repost,” where a Redditor resubmits someone else’s highly-upvoted content in the hope that it will be highly-upvoted once again. Beyond this blatant duplication, however, there are countless shades of karma-seeking imitation, ranging from the repackaging of a popular idea to the use of a popular package for a new idea. Thus, while only a few users resort to exact imitation, Reddit nonetheless ends up filled with the repeated catchphrases and concepts of the meme.

The spread of such concepts beyond the parameters of Reddit reflects the platform’s unparalleled ability to incubate memes. With its millions of users, the site has a huge pool of contributing talent to generate the content from which a meme might emerge. At the same time, the voting system provides users with near-instant feedback, allowing them to refine their submissions and perfect their intuitive sense of what will go viral. And, since the most popular content also becomes the most visible, users are provided with a gold standard to mimic and draw upon for inspiration. This combination results in a site capable of churning out highly-seductive and transmissible catchphrases—ones so powerful that they have spread far beyond the boundaries of Reddit to the anglophonic culture at large.

Indeed, the memes of Reddit are bred so strong that they easily displace locally-grown culture, filling up individuals’ cultural vocabularies at the expense of their own unique or subcultural expressions and ideas. The result is a striking homogenization of culture wherein New York Times columnists parrot the idioms of webcomics made by pre-teens, categories like the fedora-wearing “neckbeard” are widely-shared, and Reddit observations like the trite “deliciousness of bacon” meme are near-impossible to avoid. Although there are few quantitative measures that might confirm the observation, Redditisms seem ubiquitous in the broader cultural discourse to the point where they have begun to drown out localized cultural variation and diversity.

Whether this growing homogeneity seems worthy of lament will vary according to one’s taste. For those who thrive on novelty and originality, the Redditization of culture is a disaster, with cultural content devolving into an endless repetition of the same set of tired banalities. By contrast, those who enjoy familiarity and the sense of community that comes with shared expression will find comfort in a cultural world bound together by interlacing memes.

Such evenhandedness is harder to muster when it comes to Reddit’s mimetic influence on politics. Just as pictures of cats and affirmation of bacon circulate as memes, so, too, do ideology and political argument. Bits of reasoning are picked up and redeployed in debates by those who find them clarifying or whose presuppositions the arguments support. This circulation of ideas is particularly visible on Reddit where the same debates are had over and over again, each successive iteration providing participants with the opportunity to refine their arguments and try out whatever new ones they have picked up in the intervening period. The most appealing of these get then get upvoted, and the same meme-generating process that spews catch-phrases across the Internet manifests itself again, now with arguments as its object.

Were Reddit an ideologically-diverse site, the mimetic process might be understood as making dialectical progress, with different schools of thought co-evolving to the point where perhaps some reconciliation might be reached. In point of fact, however, the overwhelming majority of Redditors share a narrow set of ideological presuppositions—the result being a site that more closely resembles a crowd-sourced think tank generating ever more infectious arguments for dissemination to the masses.

Most of the ideologies promoted by Reddit are fairly benign—e.g., anti-interventionism, science-based skepticism, support for marijuana legalization, a distaste for intellectual property, and others. Reddit is not, as some have so glibly misdescribed it, a collection of “Ayn Rand Spark Notes,” but, rather, leans strongly towards economic populism, with large quantities of scorn regularly heaped on those who espouse even the slightest hint of Randianism or principled libertarianism. In more general terms, the Reddit Consensus lies somewhere on the leftward side of the Democratic Party with the average Redditor concerned about inequality, in favor of LGBT rights, and supportive of government spending and moderate redistribution.

What is troubling, though, is that such innocuous politics now coexist with a rising tide of racism that is slowly engulfing the site. Reddit has long been reactionary when it comes to the politics of race and gender, but typically that has taken the more-moderate form of the privileged person who petulantly drags his feet in resistance to the implication that he has done something wrong or is the beneficiary of injustice. Thus, while the average Redditor might have habitually bashed the /r/ShitRedditSays subreddit—a subforum whose subscribers call out problematic attitudes and speech—his attacks often seemed motivated more by a fear of one day being an ShitRedditSays target than an affirmation of sexist or racist tenets. Thus, while Redditors have disappointingly exhibited a greater ability to empathize with those who might be publicly embarrassed for holding oppressive opinions than those actually oppressed by such opinions, popular regard for the opinions themselves has always seemed limited to a few extremist subreddits.

Recently, however—and particularly on the subject of race—Reddit seems to be increasingly dominated by argument-memes that are explicitly anti-egalitarian with respect to identity. Whether it is the frequent discussions of “black crime,” KKK apologism (related: holocaust apologism), or just explicit bigotry, the comments on Reddit when race is brought up have come to resemble those found on explicitly white supremacist forums. Though difficult to quantify, it is a trend that many Redditors have noted—a proliferation of racism that appears to be less of an outside invasion than an internal mutation which, by means of mimesis, has spread like cancer throughout the body. Meanwhile, antiracists appear to have largely retreated from the most popular subreddits, abandoning the bulk of Reddit territory to their antagonists.

This process has been fueled by an active core of racist ideologues who devote significant time and attention to proselytizing on Reddit. These demagogues—who inhabit subreddits with charming names like /r/whiterights, /r/whitepride, and /r/niggers—seek to piggyback on Reddit’s anti-PC sentiment by passing off pernicious stereotypes as “I’m going to hell for this”-type jokes. And, of course, any time the white supremacist trope of “black crime” can be worked into a discussion, these extremists will be on hand to insert their propaganda.

These tactics are further augmented by “brigading”—a Reddit term for when an organized group of ideological Redditors swarm a given thread and vote up the comments they agree with and downvote those that contradict their views. Though the practice is officially outlawed on Reddit, it is difficult to prevent, and is proven in its effectiveness when it comes to swaying popular opinion. One recent study has shown that that people are more likely to upvote something that has already received an upvote—particularly when the subject pertains to politics, culture, and society. The implication is that brigading influences how people perceive a comment’s quality; by upvoting arguments en masse, ideological Redditors can make their views seem popular, reasonable, and moderate. At the same time, downvoting comments makes them less visible, effectively burying opposing views under ideologically-favorable material.

 

(A variant of this meme was once highly-upvoted on Reddit. Image Source)

 

While certain subreddits brigade spontaneously in knee-jerk outrage, the racists of Reddit have explicitly embraced the tactic as a means of popularizing their message. Indeed, the Reddit administrators recently banned /r/niggers for repeatedly and unapologetically engaging in the practice, while blocking some of the more vitriolic users from the site entirely. Whether the bans have been effective in curbing the racist brigades is unclear. However, even if effective, they seem too little, too late, with racist vote manipulation having apparently already established a grassroots racism that renders the practice superfluous.

Even more concerning is the possibility that the racist ideology on Reddit will be translated into violent practice. Reddit’s tendency to spawn outrage and malicious mobs is already well-documented. The medium is conducive to such behavior, spawning outrage through decontextualization. On Reddit, interested parties can present their side of the story as though it were the whole truth—a limited framing that obscures the complexity and mitigating factors that might exonerate the accused. In this way, complex human conflicts arising from legitimate differences are too often reduced to the sort of morality plays capable of inciting self-righteous mobs to seek vengeance. Combine this tendency with engrained racism and one cannot help but worry that IRL lynch mobs might emerge once again.

 

(Image source)

If this seems alarmist, consider the recent Reddit thread with the Stormfront-worthy title “Racist black kids bully white toddler” that had to shutter the comments section due to witch-hunting and the revelation of personal information. Or, the fact that when a video circulated of a (black) security guard tossing out a belligerent (black) woman and tasering her, Redditors heavily upvoted a post stating “If someone tells me this is black culture…. it needs to be eradicated,” before donating over $23,000 to better arm and equip him. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder, a white supremacist member of neighboring 4chan’s fringe-right /pol/ board hacked into Martin’s email in an effort to discredit the slain teen and exonerate his killer. These examples are just some of the more visible incidents and, while some are more clear-cut instances of violent white supremacism than others, they all lend substantial credence to the idea that an increasingly-racist Reddit might give rise to more organized racial harassment.

Beyond this terror, there is no small disappointment in witnessing the co-optation of what is otherwise a striking technological platform. On Reddit, millions of people with wildly different backgrounds come together to exchange ideas and debate politics as equals (insofar as one’s identity is protected). In this respect, it is an impressive realization of democratic communicative potential, the logical conclusion of the process that was first sparked by the invention of the printing press or even the written word. The fact that white supremacists have managed to subvert this emerging communicative space to further racial hatred is mortifying.

Yet the struggle for the future of Reddit—and, by extension, the public sphere—is not over. The political left has devoted much time and attention to critiquing Reddit, but it now needs to embrace the forum—to upvote early and often so as to sway the undecided away from the fringe right. At the same time, the comments section on Reddit provides the unique opportunity of reaching millions of people who would never think to pick up a copy of Dissent from a newsstand. The white supremacists are already capitalizing on this captive audience. It’s time the left pushed back.

 

~ Guest blogger Jesse Elias Spafford (@jessespafford) is a research assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at The George Washington University. He enjoys writing about power, politics, and culture.

 

¿Qué es la belleza? The Infiltration of Systemic Racism into “Beauty”

Twentieth century poet and writer, Dorothy Parker said, “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.” Well, last week during the 2013 Miss Chiquita Delaware beauty and talent show, enough ugly was heavily blooming from the refined soil of provincialism for all to gander. The crowd’s reaction to seven-year-old Jakiyah McKoy being named the winner caused the contest sponsor, Nuestras Raices Delaware, to strip the child of her newly acquired “bling.”

She was described, which is only obvious to a nitwit, as not being “the best representative of Latin beauty.” Simply put, Jakiyah, who has Dominican roots, was too Black for the competition. But do not worry, justice will prevail. All will be put to rest, and the crown will be returned to the rightful owner. That is . . . . once the parents provide proof that their daughter is 25 percent Hispanic.

Too bad that she will have some trouble with this task since her undocumented Dominican grandmother is deceased. Interestingly enough, participants are normally taken at their word relating to their heritage. But why was this same courtesy not afforded to Jakiyah?

Let’s start by being honest with one another.

Beauty has truly and overwhelmingly throughout the history of the world been defined by White. In fact, within disproportionate segments of the world, whiteness is the definition of beauty. This may be why more Latinos than in previous years, self-identified themselves as White within a 2011 Pew National Survey. With the help of commercials coaxing you to purchase over-processed foods, to the high falutin’ and over-priced designs placed upon the emaciated bodies of those walking the runways of New York to Malian, the image is crystallized. No matter the social class or ethnic lineage, we as a society sway back and forth due to the white snake charming effect.

For some, the effects are heartbreaking. The 2013 documentary, Dark Girls, highlights the prejudices experienced by dark-complected women throughout the world.

This is clearly another example that proves the existence of a white racial frame within the 21st century. I am confident the spirit of the Brown Bag test (used by a number of Black sororities and fraternities to stop darker skinned Blacks from admission), segregation within businesses, churches, Black colleges, preparatory schools, or the previous Charles Chestnutt’s Blue Veins Society are still alive today within our society.

In fact, the lyrics of the classic blues singer, Big Bill Broonzy, “They said, if you was white, you’d be alright, If you was brown, stick around, But as you is black, oh brother, Get back, get back, get back” are still prevalent and relevant to the discussion relating to little Jakiyah.

Latinos are not exempt from being poisoned by the prevalence of white racism. Patricia Hill Collins, discusses domains of oppression (e.g., gender, class, race, sexual orientation, religion), and how they are all interconnected.

Even though each domain differs regarding social categorization, they still remain connected through the same confrontation of oppressive challenges. At times, they may even overlap. Importantly, due to a particular social location, one who is oppressed may instead become the oppressor. In the case of the Miss Chiquita Delaware competition, it is clear who is oppressing and who is oppressed.

Whiteness, Structure, and the Royal Baby Obsession

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now (how could you possibly miss it?), a baby was born in Great Britain, considered to be the third in line to the monarchy.

 

A story that came to receive almost as much attention as the birth itself was the media coverage of the royal birth, much of it by comics and, thus, not meant to be taken all that seriously (e.g., John Oliver’s criticism). Despite complaints of the coverage, the general attitude was to shrug your shoulders and accept it, like it or not.

There are any number of reasons discussed for the obsession with the royal birth. Some suggest that the death of Princess Diana sparked interest in the royal family in recent years, while others point to the “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S.  Still others point to the appeal of the vivacious young Duke and Duchess (i.e., not as stuffy as Prince Charles). Ultimately, it may be that the royals’ lives speak to some of our deepest cultural mythologies about “fairytales.”

 

(image from This Charming Mum)

 

One particular factor that received little if any attention was the role of whiteness in the media coverage.

While Dutch immigrants to the U.S. are among the earliest white settler-colonialists in this country, the standard-bearer of whiteness has always been white Protestants of Anglo-Saxon heritage (or WASPs). The churches that many Americans attend have fairly direct links to the monarchy in Britain, such as Episcopalians, or are denominations with origins in the British Isles, such as Presbyterians.

Of course, this fascination with the royals here in the U.S. is not new. Prince Williams’ birth in 1982 was another royal birth that received much attention. And, Prince Williams’ entire life has been chronicled by the tabloid press, including the U.S.-based People magazine which features his “biography.”

One thing that seems clear with the media surrounding the birth of Prince George Alexander-something or other is how at least some of those covering the story seem to be at least partially critical their own complicity in the spectacle hype.  For instance, many news casters were assigned to watch a door of the hospital awaiting the official announcement of the birth and more than one that I saw seemed chagrined at such a “news” assignment. Of course, plenty of the backlash has as much to do with anti-royal sentiment as with the ridiculous media stunts, but I wonder if there’s something else at play here.

In my new book, White Race Discourse, I discuss how the sample of whites I interviewed seem trapped by a structure that limits their ability to talk rationally and reasonably about race matters and even their own racial experiences.

 

I see this same concept at play here with the coverage of the royal birth. In other words, for both producers of the story’s coverage as well as its consumers, people are locked into a given structure that limits their possibilities to think and act in rational and reasonable always. It was clearly irrational to be sitting around and waiting for a hospital door to open, but they did it anyway, and for what reasons exactly? This isn’t our monarch (at least not anymore), is it? Or, is there something else afoot here?

As Joe Feagin points out in his book, Racist America, there is a growing sense of insecurity among at least some white Americans over the increasingly majority-minority nation of ours. Whites like Pat Buchanan warn of the coming white minority due to declining birthrates for white women and the ongoing “invasion” of mostly brown people into this country.

Perhaps what the image of the royal baby conjures is white power and wealth, as well as the fertility of white women necessary to maintain white supremacy and dominance. These signifiers of white supremacy continue to proliferate in the U.S. mass media and throughout society. We watch in part because we want to, but we also watch in part because we are compelled to do so by the way white dominance is built into media events, such as the royal birth.

Minority Student Identity Development: Complex Questions

A new monograph, Latinos in Higher Education and Hispanic-serving Institutions by Anne-Marie Nunez and others includes a chapter on the question of Latino student identity development. The monograph indicates that “a well-developed ethnic identity has been linked to higher levels of self-esteem and overall quality of life….” (p. 29). Yet clearly the journey toward identity development for minority students is a continuous and complex one, without a single clear answer, and defined by individual circumstances. Researchers have noted the clear link between physical identifiability and discrimination. When racial/ethnic identity is linked to visible characteristics, it then becomes a question for the individual how to internalize, reconcile, embrace, and even transcend this identity.

The monograph cites Vasti Torres’ bicultural orientation model (BOM) that presents a nuanced understanding of differences in identity formation based upon an original study of 372 Latino students (1999). This model identifies four alternatives or modalities for how Latino students navigate between two cultures: 1) bicultural (comfort with both cultures); 2) Latino/Hispanic (orientation toward culture of family origin; 3) Anglo (strong connection with majority culture; and 4) marginal (discomfort with both cultures. Torres later conducted a longitudinal study of 10 Latino undergraduates and found distinct differences depending upon environment where they grew up, family influence and generational status, and self-perception of status in society.

Students from diverse environments had a stronger sense of ethnicity, and students from areas where Latinos constitute a critical mass did not view themselves as minorities until they arrived on a predominantly white campus. First-generation college students struggled to balance the demands of schooling with parental expectations. Self-perceptions of ethnic identity relate to whether this identity is viewed as a source of privilege or nonprivilege and whether or not negative stereotypes are seen to pertain to the individual.

Beverly Tatum sheds further light on the complex interrelationship of racial/ethnic identity development and physical identifiability in her landmark book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. She describes identify development as circular, rather than linear, like moving up a spiral staircase. In some sense, we are never finished with this process. Tatum draws upon William Cross’ five-stage theory of identity that begins with pre-encounters with the beliefs and values of the dominant white culture; then moves to a stage of encounter when racist acts draw attention to the significance of race and one’s own devalued position; 3)immersion in the multiplicity of one’s identity; 4) internalization of a positive identity that embraces one’s own difference; and 5) internalized commitment to support the concerns of diverse others.

The pain of racist encounters can cause individuals to reenter the cycle and re-examine their own progress. Perceptions of incompetence associated with minority women in academe are a case in point. As documented in a new book, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia edited by four female professors, racist encounters can cause individuals to doubt themselves and begin the dangerous process of self-fulfilling prophecy and internalization of stereotypes. For example,Yolanda Niemann, in her essay entitled “The Making of a Token,”writes of the disparaging remarks made about her during her third year pre-tenure review, including the mischaracterization of her highly rated teaching evaluations as “poor” by an antagonistic reviewing committee and the stigmatization of negative expectations.

What remains clear is that in the formative college years, the role of college professors is critical in helping minority students in the process of identity exploration as they encounter stereotypes, misperceptions, and even devaluing experiences on our college campuses. The ability to provide a framework for understanding can allow minority students to progress on the continuous, circular staircase leading to the internalization of a positive identity.

IQ and the Nativist Movement: Richwine’s Report

The academic and policy worlds have been roiled by last week’s announcement that a Heritage Foundation study on the cost of immigration reform was co-authored by Jason Richwine, who wrote a dissertation on the purported low IQ of immigrants. It beyond belief that, in the year 2013, there are still some that want to posit that there is a genetic basis for race. Even more surprisingly, these arguments come endorsed with a seal of approval by some of the nation’s top universities, like Harvard in this case. As an alumnus of the Kennedy School and a scholar of race and Hispanic identity, I feel obliged to provide a response.

Having spent last week with some of the world’s premier scholars of race at a workshop on “Reconsidering Race” at Texas A&M University, in which we examined the interface of social science and genetics/genomics and health, I am stunned by the lack of rigor and intellectual depth evinced by Richwine’s dissertation. The work makes extremely simplistic assumptions about “race,” immigration, and the link between IQ and genetics. Even a neophyte in matters of genetics/genomics can see the gaping holes in Richwine’s logic. One would have expected his advisors, Professors George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher Jencks to have been more cognizant of the complex nature of terms such as “race”, “Hispanic,” and “white,” as well as their tenuous links to genetics (assuming they actually read the dissertation). Richwine claimed in his Harvard dissertation that “the material environment and genes probably make the greatest contributions to IQ differences” (p. 4) and that “today’s immigrants are not as intelligent on average as white natives” (p. 134).

There are three basic points that have to be made to remind these scholars that such shoddy work should not easily pass at the doctoral level– or any level for that matter. One is the basic idea that “Hispanics” can be of any race (a concept that Richwine references in passing in his dissertation), so that it is not possible to simply oppose “Hispanic” and “white” as if they were mutually exclusive categories (a dichotomy that is crucial to his argument). In fact, Pope Francis is Hispanic; so is Rigoberta Menchu. The term is a politically- and socially-constructed category that has been shaped through historical ties between the US, Latin America, and the Iberian peninsula. There is nothing inherent, natural, or ‘genetic’ in the category of “Hispanic.” There are many people of European ancestry in Latin America, but there are also many of Amerindian origins, African descent, and a vast majority whose origins are a mix of ethnicities, including East Asian, Jewish, Arab, and practically every other group in the world (I myself, for example, am of Aymara, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese origin).

The primitive binary taxonomy of “black vs. white” (emanating from the US one-drop rule) that has somehow become transformed into a spurious “white vs. non-white” Manichean logic is untenable. Not only has racial admixture always been the case (since, as work by Nell Irvin Painter reminds us, there were many ‘white races’ — not just one– at previous historical times), but ‘racial’ mixing has become even more prevalent even in the US in the last five decades as a result of the rapid rise of non-European migration. Even for those who consider “Hispanic” a race, the understanding of this term is cultural and historical, not genetic (for example, in the ideas of the eminent Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos). Race is not a dichotomous variable. The Latin American experience shows us this, and the US would do well to heed that lesson to break down its dualistic racial paradigm.

The second point to be made is that the genetics and genomics revolution of the last two decades or so does have implications for what we understand as ‘race,’ but not in the way that people like Richwine want to argue. Our workshop examined the idea of ‘race’ in light of recent genetics and genomic research in order to see whether it has consequences for our conceptualization of ‘racial’ identities and categories, and also for policies related to health disparities. These are complex and as of yet unresolved questions, but they certainly do not buttress the idea that there are such things as natural entities called ‘’races’’ and that they are rooted in genetic grounds. Recent research shows that humans share about 97% of the same genetic material with orangutans (an animal beloved by visitors to this blog). It also tells us that orangutans are more genetically diverse among themselves than are humans. In other words, people are more alike, across regional populations, than we are different.

And even within the small areas of difference, no evidence exists that such differences make for strictly separate human categories that are essentially discrete. It may be true that some populations share some genetic markers among themselves more than with others, but these differences are minimal. As epidemiologist Jay Kaufman of McGill has argued, the more we learn about the human genome, the closer we are to individuated genetic understanding, not to the construction of broad, essentially-unchangeable human groups. Richwine’s error is to think that IQ is a stable phenotype that reflects universal intelligence. Yes, we should take the genomics revolution as a challenge to simple social-constructivist views of race, but we cannot make the error of thinking that it validates a reification of the complex sociopolitical categories that we call ‘races.’

The last point is that the rudimentary statistical analysis of the kind that Richwine carried out ignores the important interface between social realities and genetics. Besides the problems noted above, we can underscore that even IQ test results are culturally-shaped, and not some measure of a primordial, biological mental ability. Rather, they reflect the intertwining of some aspects of mental capacity with education, life experiences, socioeconomic status, and other contingent contexts. They are not measures of pure intelligence (a dubious concept as well). What we ought to be advocating is not some sort of eugenics-based retrograde Nativist policy that reminds us of the 19th century, but improved educational access for all, and a fair, uniform immigration policy that minimizes discrimination, not enhances it.

It is both morally and intellectually disingenuous to propose what Borjas et al. have been advocating for years now. To claim to favor more immigration of those with “higher IQ’s” or more human capital flies in the face of the fact that low-human capital immigrants contribute profoundly to US economic growth due to their low wages in key industries such as construction, agriculture, and also the service sector. In manufacturing, Hispanics are underpaid relative to their economic value, as sociologist Arthur Sakamoto has shown. Ethically, it is unacceptable for a modern liberal-democratic state to promote high-IQ selectivity in immigration, for this policy advocates unequal treatment rather than uniform standards for all (in this light, Canadian immigration policy, which makes distinctions based on human capital, may be suspect as well, owing to the brain drain that it induces in poorer nations).

As educators, we have a special responsibility to provide non-superficial answers to complex questions. The idea of race is a fraught one. As the Kennedy School is my alma mater, I must say that it is time that policy questions not be treated as merely quantitative or mechanical issues. Public policy schools must also provide coursework that deepens analyses, no thins them down. “Race” is a concept that involves normative, political, historical, cultural, economic, and social forces in a complex interplay. It cannot be bandied about willy-nilly with no sensitivity to them. This idea applies to all racial categories, but it is perhaps most salient for the term “Hispanic,” owing to the rich diversity of ethnic origins that have gone into its making over a long historical period. It is befuddling that no one on Richwine’s committee seems to have been aware of this (in particular Jencks, who has written on these issues in the past).

It is time for antediluvian academics to step aside and give more space to the new generations of scholars that are able to engage in a critique of the all-too-dominant idea that race is merely a social construct but without falling into an antiquated racial essentialism. It is time for a real national dialogue on race that will start new conversations. Our classrooms are a good place to begin these discussions.
___________________________

Diego A. von Vacano is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University and author of The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Hispanic/Latin American Political Thought (Oxford UP) and is writing a new book on immigrant identities.

When Whites Attack: The Deadly Consequences of Anti-Latina/o Violence

The U.S. has a long and intense history of institutionalized racial violence against Latinas/os in the form of physical assaults, beatings, and murders. The violent racialized framing of Latinas/os has been a constant narrative throughout U.S. history including, but not limited to, the U.S. – Mexican War (1846-1848), the lynching of Mexicans (1848-1928), and the Zoot Suit Riots (1943). The use of deadly force has played a central role in reproducing racial oppression, resulting in the dehumanization, marginalization, subjugation, and ultimately the countless killings of people of color. Anti-immigrant and anti-Latina/o sentiment continues to negatively shape the perceptions of Latinas/os as both the perpetual foreigner and as a permanent threat to the white status quo. This white racial framing (Feagin, 2013) is used to justify white’s often brutal and savage mistreatment of Latinas/os.

The following cases highlight not only white-on-Brown violence, but the lived realities for Latinas/os in the purported land of the free and home of the brave. The proceeding examples represent a small sample of white racial violence. The first case took place April 2006 in Houston, Texas. This hate crime involved the brutal torture and sodomy of a young Latino male and his subsequent suicide. After knocking 16 year old David Ritcheson unconscious, the two white teens, David Tuck, 18, and Keith Turner, 17, continued to punish the defenseless victim:

For the next five hours, they tortured him: They stripped him naked, kicked him with steel-toed boots, burned him with cigarettes and choked him with a garden hose. Tuck shouted racial epithets and carved a swastika in the boy’s chest with a knife. Turner grabbed a plastic patio umbrella pole and placed it near the victim’s rectum. Tuck kicked the pole several inches in.

The following hate crime occurred on July 12, 2008 in the city of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Two white teens identified as Brandon Piekarsky, 16, and Derrick Donchak, 18, beat Luis Ramirez, 25, to death while yelling racial epithets and told him:

This is Shenandoah. This is America. Go back to Mexico.” According to testimony, Donchak beat Ramirez while holding a thick piece of metal identified at trial as a “fist pack.” After another of their friends punched Ramirez in the face, causing him to fall back and hit his head on the ground, Piekarsky kicked Ramirez in the head as he lay unconscious and prone on the ground. After Piekarsky kicked Ramirez, he told a bystander who was married to a Latino man to “tell your Mexican friends to get out of Shenandoah or you will be lying next to him.

A few months later on November 8, 2008 another Latino male was assaulted by seven teenagers and eventually killed by Jeffrey Convoy, 17, in a Patchogue, Long Island train station. The victim identified as 37 year old Marcelo Lucero was an:

Ecuadorian immigrant who worked at a local dry cleaning store, was stabbed in the chest and left to die. The teens were convicted of gang assault; prosecutors said the attack was part of targeted hate crimes against Latinos in the area, which the perpetrators purportedly called “Mexican hopping” or “beaner hopping.

Unlike whites, Latinas/os are forced to regularly navigate, resist, and deal with white racist xenophobia. For example, on May 6, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona, Juan Varela, 44 was gunned down in front of his brother and mother by his white neighbor Gary Kelley, 51, who screamed at Varela, in a drunken rage, “You fucking Mexican, go back to Mexico!”

The white racist structure identifies Latina/o bodies as non-white, creating entitlement and privilege; consequently whites are empowered to commit acts of violence against people deemed subhuman and inferior. One of the most recent examples of white violence transpired on January 26, 2013 in Liburn, Georgia; proving that even pulling into the wrong driveway can get you killed. According to news reports Rodrigo Diaz, 22 was driving to one of his passengers friend’s house and mistakenly pulled into the driveway of Philip Sailors, 69. Sailors’ lawyer contends that his client shot Diaz because he was under the impression that Diaz was trying to rob his home:

When officers arrived, Angie Rebolledo, Diaz’s girlfriend, had blood on her jeans, both arms and both hands as she was attempting to get a response from him and screamed frantically that her boyfriend had been shot, according to police.

These murders are best understood within the historical trend of white nativism and discrimination, and illustrate the systemic nature of white-on-Brown racial killings. Anti-Latina/o violence has not stopped. In the past seven years there has been numerous Latinas/os murdered by whites. Although each case is separate and carried out by individual whites, collectively over time, these acts of aggression represent a systematic pattern of white antagonism and violence against Latinas/os (Feagin, 2013). White supremacy is not only defined but relies on violence to replicate the existing social system; white-on-Brown violence is foundational to the U.S. both historically and contemporary (Feagin, 2013); Delgado, 2009.

Latinas/os can be victims of physical assaults and murder at any given place or moment. Whites do not deal with this same fear, hostility, and threat of violence. Ultimately Latinas/os and their families are left to deal with death and devastation.

R.I.P.
David Ritcheson (1989-2007)
Luis Ramirez (1983-2008)
Marcelo Lucero (1971-2008)
Juan Varela (1966-2010)
Rodrigo Diaz (1991-2013)

Ethnicity is a Social Construction Too

Those of us who study racial and ethnic relations in the United States recognize that race is a social construction. What race means, the characteristics and features that we attach to it and the classifications within it (whether Black, White, Asian, and the like), is not static or primordial, but dynamic and changeable. The meaning of race, then, is conditioned on and by an always shifting, societal context. For example, at the turn of the previous century, race was constructed as biological. Distinct racial classifications were understood as reflecting genetic and morphological differences, observable by phenotype. Racial disparities and inequities were explained in biological terms linked to ideas of racial inferiority and superiority.

The notion of race as rooted in biology, with consequent outcomes linked to ascribed deficiencies, or racism, is understood today as an attempt by the dominant (white) group to protect their material interests, like Southern plantation owners who relied on slave labor to maximize their profits during the pre-industrial era. In this way, the social construction of race as “biological” — in the absence of any hard proof or genetic evidence — emerged as a social fact to reproduce racial inequality.

Today we are much less likely to associate racial group membership with genetic endowments.[1] At the same time, the concept and category of race as a distinct social group persists in the contemporary period. An individual’s racial group membership or identity is still conditioned in part, on phenotype. What this means is that racial classification is both self-defined and externally-imposed. How an individual racially identifies and how he or she is racially identified by others, both matter. Moreover, an individual’s own, personal racial identity “choice” is often but not always, consistent with that which is assigned to him or her by the outside world. For example, although Tiger Woods identifies racially as Cablinasian (Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian), most Americans racially identify him as Black only.

Why race as a social construction matters for ethnicity

The dialectical fluidity of race — between self-definition and other-definition, between an individual’s chosen racial identity versus society’s imposed racial identity — facilitates an understanding of race as a social construction. After all, if Tiger Wood’s racial identity does not match that ascribed by the vast majority of American society, then racial identity (although a social fact), is crap beyond the meaning that is attached to it by an individual on the one hand and society on the other. The racial identity mismatch observed in the case of Tiger Woods encourages us to understand race as a less salient, “made up” category of identity, especially when compared against ethnicity, which is self-defined only.

For example, if I was walking down a public street, most Americans would identify me racially as “Latina” but would be less likely to identify me as Mexican-origin. My ethnicity, whether of Mexican, Salvadoran, Puerto Rican, or other Latin American-origin, is indeterminate; they’d have to ask. Additionally, because ethnicity is self-defined, it presumably has meaning for the person identifying with a particular ethnic group. From this perspective, ethnic self-identity matters for individuals and society in a way that racial self-identity doesn’t.

Ironically, this idea is related to a counterintuitive conception of ethnicity that characterizes it as more fluid than race, because one’s ethnicity is always “optional” (Waters 1990). Here the idea is simply that ethnicity is dynamic, fluid and self-defined; as such, anyone can assert any ethnic identity they choose to. And yet, the ethnic identity that they choose, because they choose it, must matter.

The salience of ethnicity when compared to race is also highlighted in the work of some racial and ethnic scholars who refer to race as a “secondary” category of identity, whereas ethnicity is referred to as an “anchoring” or “primary identity” (Itzigsohn and Dore-Cabral 2000; McDermott and Samson 2005). Moreover, the “maintenance” of ethnicity is thought to foster immigrant group cohesion, which may offer some material protection against a negative societal reception context. In contrast, racial identity formation may take place during a process of assimilation, as immigrants and their descendants “lose” their ethnicity, and with it, close-knit ties and sociocultural support. The characterization of ethnicity as a primary, anchoring identity, the maintenance of which offers protection to group members (whereas racial identity does not), underscores the greater importance and salience that American scholars of race relations place on ethnicity.[2]

The perception of ethnicity as a more salient feature of identity is related to its conception as a socially constructed, self-defined identity. Because there is no other option but the option that is chosen by the individual, whether the option makes (common)sense or not, the option selected is accepted without comment. On the other hand, racial identity may be self-defined but is also other-defined. The person who racially identifies one way may or may not be racially identified that way by everyone else.

The problem with this construction of ethnicity is that it tends to reinforce the idea that ethnicity is somehow more “real” (if more fluid) than race. And if ethnicity is more real than race, then for some scholars, it becomes inherent, primordial. This is the slippery slope of ethnic identity formation and why at times, we may forget that ethnicity is as socially constructed as race.

Remember, ethnicity is a social construction too

I started thinking of the relationship between ethnic self-identification and the tendency to interpret ethnicity as more “real” than race when, as part of a new research project, I read a transcribed interview of a self-identified Mexican-origin entrepreneur. This entrepreneur was born in Mexico by immigrant Lebanese parents, she went to boarding school in France, eventually moved back to Mexico for a short time, then moved to the United States where she has been ever since, and where she married a White American man. Her self-defined ethnicity is Mexican, although she speaks Arabic, Spanish and French. Her racial identity is White, and claims that she doesn’t “feel Hispanic,” even though she has applied for and won awards for being a successful “Hispanic” entrepreneur.

In other words, her racial identity is White (she mentions that “No one considers [me] Hispanic”), although she has on occasion identified as Hispanic for instrumental reasons. Either way, the social construction of race is apparent here. Her ethnicity, on the other hand, was confusing to me. Although she self-identifies as Mexican, her parents are Lebanese, she maintains cultural features that are Mexican and Lebanese, she spent a lot of time outside of Mexico when she was growing up, and she racially identifies as non-Hispanic White.

When I finished reading the interview, I wondered about my easy acceptance of her White or Hispanic racial identity, depending, and my confusion and even discomfort about her ethnic self-identity. Why didn’t I readily accept her as ethnically Mexican, when she said she was? At that point I reached out to some colleague-friends and asked them to weigh in on her ethnic identity. Every one of them said she was Mexican; basically, because she said so. Yet, couldn’t we argue that she is also Lebanese? Why didn’t we stop to consider whether she was “more Lebanese” than Mexican, or both? Then again, since ethnicity is socially constructed as self-identified, why shouldn’t she be classified as Mexican if she says so? The point here is that ethnicity as a category of identity is arguably as messy as the category of race is, and yet, we often take ethnic identity at face value. Regarding this entrepreneur, my colleagues were willing to accept her as Mexican because she said so. This belies a salience not to ethnicity, per se, but rather, to the salience of self-identification.

The acceptance of self-identification as real deserves explicit acknowledgement, because it is the reason why we accept ethnic self-identity choices or options without question. Ethnicity could be just as messy as racial identity, if we constructed it as such. But we didn’t, so it isn’t. In fact, we don’t really care about racial self-identity at all, because whether it converges with society’s externally-imposed identity or not doesn’t really matter. A racial mismatch between an individual’s self-identity and society’s is acceptable, while an ethnic mismatch is not. In the end, the only ethnic identity that matters is the one the individual ascribes to. And yet, this doesn’t mean it is more important or anchoring or inherent than racial identity, just that it is socially constructed as self-identified, so it is perceived as such.
***

[1] Although this conception also continues to persist. For example, the neoconservative argument that affirmative action is “reverse racism” highlights the undeserved, merit-less, advantages of “less-qualified” racial minorities who benefit from “unfair government” “set-asides” in education and the labor market. More recently, however, observed racial inequality is commonly explained using a “color blind” framework, which is an attempt to explain racial inequality through non-racial means. In other words, to blame “anything but racism” for persistent racial inequality (see Bonilla Silva 2009).

[2] With the exception of critical race scholars, who, in contrast to traditional or mainstream approaches (i.e., the research on assimilation or immigrant incorporation), tend to emphasize race as a systemic or structural force (see the works of Feagin 2006, Moore 2007, and Bonilla-Silva 1997).

Zulema Valdez is associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University. She is author of the book, The New Entrepreneurs: Race, Class, and Gender in American Enterprise.

White Men as the Major “Social Problem”

Journalist and commentator David Sirota has an interesting piece about the reaction to some statements about the role of white men as the typical killers in the mass murders like the ones in Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown which he made in an MSNBC commentary and interview with Chris Hayes:

I said that because most of the mass shootings in America come at the hands of white men, there would likely be political opposition to initiatives that propose to use those facts to profile the demographic group to which these killers belong. I suggested that’s the case because as opposed to people of color or, say, Muslims, white men as a subgroup are in such a privileged position in our society that they are the one group that our political system avoids demographically profiling or analytically aggregating in any real way. Indeed, unlike other demographic, white guys as a group are never thought to be an acceptable topic for any kind of critical discussion whatsoever, even when there is ample reason to open up such a discussion.

Calling out white men, and most especially elite white men, as a/the social or political problem is something I have written and lectured on for many years now, but it is still very rare for anyone, commentator or researcher, to even go as far as Sirota does in this important Salon article.

Toward the end of the article even he starts backing off on some of the logical implications of calling out white men and insisting that he is not calling for racial profiling of white men as potential killers. He notes that the current tempered and nuanced conversation of these mass killings is only occurring because “white guys” are the (usually unremarked upon) demographic so dramatically involved:

But the point here is that those tempered and nuanced conversations are only able to happen because the demographic at the center of it all is white guys. That is the one group in America that gets to avoid being referred to in aggregate negative terms (and gets to avoid being unduly profiled by this nation’s security apparatus), which means we are defaulting to a much more dispassionate and sane conversation — one that treats the perpetrators as deranged individuals, rather than typical and thus stereotype-justifying representatives of an entire demographic.

In my White Men on Race (With E. O’Brien) and The White Racial Frame book (soon out in a second edition in February) I have argued that these discussions such as Sirota raises barely begin to raise the issue of the role and significance of white men, particularly elite white men, in creating and maintaining our system of racial oppression, and the supporting social, political, and economic institutions that operate to protect that systemic racism and its white male regulators.

Here is a very brief overview of some historical points I make in that white frame book about that political background and current political reality:

The “founding fathers” created a U.S. origins narrative that was (and still is) substantially mythological, a story in which a mostly anti-democratic, often slaveholding, group of elite white men were said to be heroes championing ideals of equality and democracy for a new United States. These elite leaders created an imagined community, that is, a heralded “democratic” society in which all Americans supposedly shared comradeship. However, contrary to this mythology, the U.S. Constitution did not create a democracy where most adult Americans had the right to participate substantially and freely in political institutions. Native Americans and African Americans, constituting at least a fifth of the population, were excluded. (So were all women) As Vincent Harding has put it, the U.S. constitutional convention was “more like a poorly attended dress rehearsal, with most of the rightful and necessary performers and creators barred from the stage.”

From the beginning, the democratic rhetoric was usually more about public relations and the interests of the white elite than about creating actual democratic institutions. The new U.S. society was highly inegalitarian, with extreme inequality across the color line. The new United States was mostly led by white men who were overt white supremacists. It was a society that had no sense of shared comradeship among its white, black, and Native American residents. In 1843 no less a figure than former president and then member of Congress, John Quincy Adams, asserted in a congressional speech that the United States had never been a democracy because it had long been effectively controlled by a few thousand slaveholders. In this founding era U.S. political institutions were often openly proslavery, and an overtly white supremacist framing and dominance were asserted by many white leaders through these institutions until the ending of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s.

Things mostly did not get better over time, as (especially elite) white men stayed completely in control of major institutions:

During the slavery and Jim Crow eras, the Supreme Court was a clear manifestation of white dominance, for only elite white men served on it. Examining the justices’ decisions on racial matters during most of the legal segregation era, one finds that they regularly reflect the dominant white-racist framing and routinely ignore or dismiss the civil rights counter-frames of Americans of color. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, Supreme Court decisions regularly eroded the civil rights that African Americans had theoretically gained under the 14th and 15th amendments that were added to the U.S. Constitution in the Reconstruction era. In the influential 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, a nearly unanimous court (one dissenter) upheld a Louisiana law requiring white-black segregation in public accommodations.

Things changed only because of centuries of protest by Americans of color, and then only as allowed by elite white men once again:

To the present day, the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court decisions interpreting it—almost all made over centuries by elite white men—have greatly shaped the basic contours of the legal and political systems, as well as other societal institutions. Important changes in the system of oppression, such as the official ending of Jim Crow in the 1960s, have come only when many whites have believed those changes to be in their group interest—that is, when there is what Derrick Bell has called “interest convergence” between the interests of the racially oppressed and the interests of whites, especially some in the white male elite.

When will any of the mainstream media call out and discuss various (elite) white male “social problems,” including problems of mass violence like at Newtown, as often and openly as they now do for non-white-male groups?