Dismantling White Supremacy at Vassar

A message appeared in my inbox last Thursday from Vassar College President Catharine Hill, addressed to parents and alumnae/i of Vassar like myself. It serves as Hill’s official response to the national attention the college has received in recent days and what she names “a very challenging time for our community.”

While she does not name them, she references “several online articles” regarding race, class, and sexual assault, which “reflect the frustration and pain of individuals in our community.” These include pieces like Kiese Laymon’s “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK” and Eve Dunbar’s “Who Really Burns: Quitting a Dean’s Job in the Age of Mike Brown,” which have garnered national attention from venues like Inside Higher Ed in “Black and Not Feeling Welcome.”

The letter is peppered with two words – we and our. It is filled with phrases like “our campus” and “our community.” But who is this we that Hill addresses? Who is this our that lays claim to the campus, that is entitled to be in and the right to be of Vassar?

The forceful rhetorical assertion of our community has multifarious consequences. It counts individuals in the “our community” whose everyday experiences in that institution are not characterized by such a warm and fuzzy inclusion. As Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America powerfully asserts, this purported inclusion is tenuous at best. He and others are consistently reminded of the transgression their inclusion in this historical and still white institution entails. Such assertions of our community incorporate people who do not experience inclusion in their daily lives – and do so without their consent and without their voices.

Writing that this is a troubling and “challenging time for our community” also suggests that it is the institution itself that is suffering. As Sara Ahmed notes in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, such rhetorical work is not uncommon when academic institutions of higher education come under such fire. It dilutes the critiques by applying them to the whole community, rather than recognizing the unequal distribution of suffering which is leveled at particular groups by that very community.

But what I found most unnerving about the College’s response were the following phrases:

“…these issues are extremely troubling for me and for all of us at Vassar who are working to build a community that supports every student, faculty member, and staff member.”

 

“…our priorities are to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone on campus.”

 

“We must do all we can to ensure that all our community members feel safe and supported – and we will.”

 

The dream is a community that supports everyone. Where everyone feels safe and supported. Where everyone’s well-being is ensured. A true academic utopia.

That goal is unachievable. It is impossible to make all those who live, study and work at Vassar feel safe and supported. How can you make both people of color and those who maintain a possessive investment in whiteness comfortable?

You can’t.

Kiese Laymon, a black male English professor at Vassar, prolific and published author, writes that a white senior professor said he could speak in Ebonics to him if he liked. Eve Dunbar writes of a senior black female colleague who told her others in her department would not support her receiving tenure because, as a black woman, she had nothing to offer white people.

The rhetoric of our community and of universal support ignores the obvious impossibility of creating a supportive atmosphere for both the black professor and the colleague who denies that said qualified black professor deserves tenure.

During my time as an undergraduate at Vassar, a black female professor found a piece of wire fashioned into a noose attached to her office door. If I remember correctly, it was constructed of paperclips. What that professor experienced was much more than a single unnerving threat of racial violence. I cannot even imagine what that was like for her. It would be a disservice to her experience, and to the discrimination other people of color have faced at Vassar, to think that I could. But I do know that after that threat, there were no official campus-wide messages like the ones I am now receiving in my inbox. If that professor hadn’t had the courage to share it with us, a group of students, I never would have known. The internet suggests she no longer works there.

How can you make students, staff and faculty of color feel safe while you also offer support to those who institutionally maintain white supremacy and enact it interpersonally?

You can’t.

How can you support the well-being of those who find imitations of nooses at their office doors and those who make them?

You can’t.

President Hill, it is impossible to make everyone supported and everyone comfortable while dismantling white supremacy and racial discrimination at our institution. And I say our institution here purposefully.

Without downplaying the important issue of sexual assault on college campuses throughout the US, I, as a white woman, am not sure I ever felt truly unsafe during my time at Vassar. Indeed, I am in many ways what Nirmal Puwar calls the somatic norm of that institution. Vassar, a liberal arts college founded for women in 1861, is an institution made for people like me. I am a white Vassar legacy.

I love Vassar. It is the only college to which I applied for my undergraduate degree, because it is the only place I wanted to go. But it is easy for someone like me to love Vassar. I never had to struggle to love an institution that also shunned me, that pulled me close while pricking and prodding me. I was never figuratively burned and I never suffered the indignities of which Dunbar writes.

It was in this safe and supportive, and exclusive, atmosphere, in what we all called the “Vassar bubble,” that white supremacy and racism could continue. It was in feeling so secure in our self-congratulatory progressive politics that we could continue to make racist jokes—because we knew we knew better. Or at least that’s what we told ourselves. That is the We I knew. That is the our community in which I earned my undergraduate degree.

President Hill, if we truly seek the same change, rather than coddling ourselves in the warm and fuzzy blanketing rhetoric of community and support, we need to make a lot of people uncomfortable. And I mean a lot of white people. I mean a lot of people like me. An equitable and compassionate community will not come from “working across differences” or “ongoing campus discussion, where we can listen and speak with one another frankly”. In such an institution, that continues to be predominantly and overwhelmingly white on all fronts, such a conversation cannot but drown out dissenting voices. That is not “the only way to assure that we can make progress.”

These issues go beyond Vassar. Comments to Laymon’s and Dunbar’s pieces from institutions around the country make that abundantly clear. And I wish I could say I had not seen or heard of analogous instances of racial threats, white ignorance and institutional silence since the noose or my years at Vassar. I cannot say that.

We need to make a lot more people nestled in white privilege uncomfortable and take institutional steps to dismantle that privilege, not give them equal opportunities to speak. I think we’ve spoken enough. And talking is not enough.

The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty (Part 2)

Note: This is the second part of a two-part series. See the first part here.

The Annals issue mentioned in previous post caps off with an article by William Julius Wilson on “Why Both Social Structure and Culture Matter in a Holistic Analysis of Inner-City Poverty.” Wilson wants to show “not only the independent contributions of social structure and culture, but also how they interact to shape different group outcomes that embody racial inequality.” At first blush this appears to be a sensible, even unassailable stance. But what is Wilson getting at with his prosaic language about the interaction of structure and culture? The answer is found several pages later:

One of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural traits that may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility.

This is tantamount to blaming blacks for the racism of employers and other gatekeepers. Like Moynihan before him, Wilson has committed the sin of inverting cause and effect. He thinks that black youth are not socially mobile because of their cultural proclivities—“sexual conquests, hanging out on the street after school, party drugs, and hip-hop music.” But a far more convincing explanation is that these youth are encircled by structural barriers and consequently resort to these cultural defenses, as Douglas Glasgow argued in his neglected 1981 book, The Black Underclass. Liebow had it right when he stripped away surface appearances and put culture in its proper social and existential context:

If, in the course of concealing his failure, or of concealing his fear of even trying, [the street-corner man] pretends—through the device of public fictions—that he does not want these things in the first place and claims he has all along been responding to a different set of rules and prizes, we do not do him or ourselves any good by accepting this claim at face value.

It makes little sense to compare—as Wilson does—the culture of a pariah class with that of mainstream youth, putting aside the fact that white suburban youth also strut around in saggy pants, listen to hip-hop music, and are far more prone to drug use than are their ghetto counterparts. Wilson’s theoretical postulates about “deconcentrating poverty” have also led him to support the demolition of public housing across the nation. Is this how cultural change takes place, with dynamite, the destruction of poor communities, and the dispersal of its residents? Or do we have to transform the ghetto itself, not by reconstructing the identities of its people, but through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty and joblessness?

While he routinely violates his own axiom about the integral relationship between culture and social structure, Wilson injects what might be called the “culturalist caveat.” In a section on “the relative importance of structure and culture,” he concedes,

Structural factors are likely to play a far greater role than cultural factors in bringing about rapid neighborhood change.

But what structural changes does he have in mind? Despite the fact that Wilson’s signature issue for many years was jobs, jobs, jobs, since his cultural turn there has been nigh any mention of jobs. Affirmative action is apparently off the table, and there is no policy redress for the nation’s four million “disconnected youth” who are out of school and out of work.

Instead, Wilson places all his bets on education—specifically, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a schooling and social services organization predicated on the idea that the challenge is to “take the ghetto out of the child,” much as earlier missionaries and educators sought to “take the Indian out of the child.” Wilson trumpets HCZ’s “spectacular” results, citing a study by Harvard economists Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer that purports to show that HCZ students are closing the achievement gap with students in public schools. However, these findings are based on a single class on a single test in a single year. Also, the measure of progress was scoring at “grade level” in math and reading, and as critics have pointed out, grade-level work is a weak predictor of future academic success. Furthermore, thanks to score inflation—not only prepping students for the test but also lowering the score required for achieving grade level—marks were up throughout New York on the 2007 exam, the one that Dobbie and Fryer analyzed

Never mind; the die is cast. With Wilson’s backing, the Obama administration has made HCZ the model for twenty “Promise Neighborhoods” across the nation. At best, however, HCZ is a showcase project that, even multiplied twenty times, is no remedy for the deep and widening income gap between blacks and others. At worst, the Obama administration is using it to camouflage its utter failure to address issues of racism and poverty.

The new culturalists can bemoan the supposed erasure of culture from poverty research in the wake of the Moynihan Report, but far more troubling is that these four decades have witnessed the erasure of racism and poverty from political discourse, both inside and outside the academy. The Annals issue makes virtually no mention of institutionalized racism. To be sure, there is much discussion of poverty, but not as a historical or structural phenomenon. Instead we are presented with reductionist manifestations of poverty that obscure its larger configuration.

Thus there is no thought of restoring the safety net. Or resurrecting affirmative action. Or once again constructing public housing as the housing of last resort. Or decriminalizing drugs and rescinding mandatory sentencing. Or enforcing anti-discrimination laws with the same vigor that police exercise in targeting black and Latino youth for marijuana possession. Or creating jobs programs for disconnected youth and for the chronically unemployed. Against this background, the ballyhooed “restoration” of culture to poverty discourse can only be one thing: an evasion of the persistent racial and economic inequalities that are a blot on American democracy.

The methodological reductionism that is the hallmark of the new culturalists is a betrayal of the sociological imagination: what C. Wright Mills described as exploring the intersection between history and biography. Instead, the new culturalists give us biography shorn of history, and culture ripped from its moorings in social structure. Against their intentions, they end up providing erudite justification for retrograde public policy, less through acts of commission than through their silences and opacities.

Note: Portions of this post appeared in a 2011 The Boston Review article.

Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty (Part 1)

Editors’ Note: Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson recently published an article in “The Chronicle Review” (Chronicle of Higher Education) in which he bemoans the fact that sociologists have not been drawn into President Obama’s special race initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” On this flimsy basis he trots out the claim that ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan got pilloried for his 1963 Report on the Black Family, sociologists have shied away from cultural work dealing with black Americans out of fear that they will be accused of “blaming the victim.” This myth, originally advanced by William Julius Wilson, was thoroughly demolished by Stephen Steinberg in a 2011 piece in The Boston Review. Two excerpts from his article, which went viral after it was listed on the “Arts & Letters Daily” of the Chronicle of Higher Education, are republished here.

Part I, “Old Wine in New Bottles” shows how sociologists have repackaged discredited cultural explanations of poverty in recent decades. Steinberg’s claim is not that culture does not matter, but rather that culture is not an independent and self-sustaining cause of poverty. Poverty must be seen within the matrix of structural and institutional factors in which that culture is embedded. Part II, “The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty,” focuses on William Julius Wilson’s descent into cultural explanations of poverty, contradicting his earlier work on structural matters. In terms of social policy, Wilson has been a champion of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Obama’s Race to the Top, which provide erudite justifications for the defunding of public education and have led to the closing of important public schools in black neighborhoods across the nation.

PART I: VERY OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES
The claim that the furor over the Moynihan report stymied research on lower-class culture for four decades is patently false. What was the massive underclass discourse of the 1980s if not old wine in new bottles—Moynihan’s culture arguments repackaged for a new generation of scholars and pundits?

As with the culture of poverty, the conception of the underclass had liberal origins. In his 1962 book Challenge to Affluence, Gunnar Myrdal borrowed a Swedish term for the lower class, underklassen, to refer to people who languished in poverty even during periods of economic growth and prosperity. This term entered popular discourse with the 1982 publication of Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, based on a series in The New Yorker.

Then, between 1986 and 1988, there was an outpouring of articles in U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly, Fortune, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and Time, all providing graphic and frightening portrayals of pathology and disorder in the nation’s ghettos. The image was of poverty feeding on itself, with the implication that cultural pathology was not just a byproduct of poverty but was itself a cause of pathological behavior. This was the explicit claim of a 1987 Fortune article by Myron Magnet:

What primarily defines [the underclass] is not so much their poverty or race as their behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, nonwork, welfare dependency and school failure. ‘Underclass’ describes a state of mind and a way of life. It is at least as much cultural as an economic condition.

Social science lagged behind journalism, but by the late ’80s, with the backing of charitable foundations, a cottage industry of technocratic studies appeared charting the size and social constitution of the underclass. In his 1991 article “The Underclass Myth,” Adolph Reed noted the reinstatement of the culture-of-poverty theory during the Reagan-Bush era. The pendulum had swung so far to culture that Reed was pleading for a restoration of structure:

We should insist on returning the focus of the discussion of the production and reproduction of poverty to examination of its sources in the operations of the American political and economic system. Specifically, the discussion should focus on such phenomena as the logic of deindustrialization, models of urban redevelopment driven by real-estate speculation, the general intensification of polarization of wealth, income, and opportunity in American society, the ways in which race and gender figure into those dynamics, and, not least, the role of public policy in reproducing and legitimating them.

Reed ended on a note of personal exasperation:

I want the record to show that I do not want to hear another word about drugs or crime without hearing in the same breath about decent jobs, adequate housing, and egalitarian education.

Culturalists confuse cause and effect, arguing that lack of social mobility among black youth is a product of their culture rather than the other way around. Yet here we are, two decades later, with a special issue of a prestigious journal, the Annals, launched with fanfare and a congressional briefing, bombastically claiming that “culture is back on the policy agenda,” as though it had not been there all along. Even as the editors take up this “long-abandoned topic,” however, they are careful to distance themselves from culture-of-poverty theorists who were accused of “blaming the victim,” and they scoff at the idea that the poor “might cease to be poor if they changed their culture.” Indeed, readers are assured that “none of the three editors of this volume happens to fall on the right of the political spectrum.” Alas, the culture of poverty has not made a comeback after all. The new culturalists have learned from the mistakes of the past, and only want to study culture in the context of poverty—that is, in the selective and limited ways that culture matters in the lives of the poor.

True to form, the rest of the Annals issue is a compendium of studies informed by this “more sophisticated” conception of culture. One study examines “How Black and Latino Service Workers Make Decisions about Making Referrals.” Another explores how poor men define a “good job.” Still another ventures into the perilous waters of the black family, examining the “repertoire of infidelity” among low-income men.

The problem is less with the questions asked than with the ones left unexamined. The editors and authors are careful to bracket their inquiries with appropriate obeisance to the ultimate grounding of culture in social structure. But their research objectives, methodology, data collection, and analysis are all riveted on the role of culture. Is obeisance enough? If the cultural practices under examination are merely links in a chain of causation, and are ultimately rooted in poverty and joblessness, why are these not the object of inquiry? Why aren’t we talking about the calamity of another generation of black youth who, excluded from job markets, are left to languish on the margins, until they cross the line of legality and are swept up by the criminal justice system and consigned to unconscionable years in prison where, at last, they find work, for less than a dollar an hour, if paid at all? Upon release they are “marked men,” frequently unable to find employment or to assume such quotidian roles as those of husband or father.

Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one? Does it matter how they approach procreation, how they juggle “doubt, duty, and destiny” when they are denied the jobs that are the sine qua non of parenthood? Aren’t we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?

Note: Portions of the post appeared in The Boston Review in 2011.

Obama and Immigration Reform

On November 19, after a long delay, President Obama issued an Executive Action on Immigration Reform that contained three stipulations. First, more resources will be given to law enforcement personnel charged with stopping unauthorized border crossings. Second, the President will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay. Third, the President announced steps “to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country.”

The first provision will please opponents of unauthorized immigration and the second will be supported by business interests. They are not likely to give rise to controversy. The third provision, however, has already caused a furor among conservative Republicans.

For example, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz asserted that Obama’s

actions are . . . unconstitutional and in defiance of the American people who said they did not want amnesty in the 2014 elections.

House Speaker Boehner, brimming with vitriol, stated that “President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left.”

Once again, Republican leaders reached in their demagoguery tool kit and grabbed their standard response to all things Obama: Obama is dishonest, the problem is his fault, and the American people are on their side. Of course, they won’t do anything to fix it.

Many individuals sympathetic to the undocumenteds’ difficulties are in a festive mood. But there is a factor to consider before we can truly celebrate: we need to see President Obama follow through. Angelo Falcón, President of the National Institute for Latino Policy, puts it as follows:

We are . . . concerned that the President will not fully exercise his power of executive action to impact on all those who should be eligible for legalization, and expect that they will be shortchanged in terms of what should be basic human rights benefits such as health insurance. President Obama’s record also demonstrates that his public pronouncements do not necessarily result in effective federal action, with agencies such as Homeland Security consistently undermining the President’s rhetoric.

I share Mr. Falcón’s misgivings. I’ll wait and see how things turn out before I celebrate.

Ferguson, Missouri: “Our” Contribution to the Survival of the White Racist Frame

Ferguson, Missouri. What can I abundantly say? As the name guilelessly emerges from the mouth, a macabre power elicits resounding physical and emotional responses within individuals. These divisive responses have caused many keen, and the not so intellectually in tuned to disgorge upon our airways and our favorite politically one-sided cable network news television shows to speak simply in terms of faults, blames, and inculpabilities. In response to the somber situation at hand, I cannot think of what I can say that has not already been thrust upon the public regarding the police shooting death of 19 year-old Michael Brown.

But just when I thought it has all been incessantly said, someone has come along and presented a new controversial perspective. The “super producer,” singer, and rap artist, Pharrell Williams, has presented us with an interesting observation. If you do not know who he is, just think of him as the Black guy you have seen on television recently who has a proclivity for inane hats. Regardless, in regard to the Michael Brown shooting, in a recent interview with Ebony Magazine, he stated,

I don’t talk about race since it takes a very open mind to hear my view, because my view is the sky view. But I’m very troubled by what happened in Ferguson, Mo.

With his so-called “sky view” (it takes a millionaire to understand the term), he began to further discussion of the televised store surveillance video that depicts Michael Brown stealing and intimidating the store operator. Mr. Williams went on to say,

It looked very bully-ish; that in itself I had a problem with…. Not with the kid, but with whatever happened in his life for him to arrive at a place where that behavior is OK. Why aren’t we talking about that?

Entertaining. For a man who calls himself apart of the “New Black,” he may actually have a substantially important issue that calls for further discussion. This little nugget cannot be compared to his other recent failure of intellectual accession when he told Oprah Winfrey,

The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues…The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on.”

Can I digress for a moment; I really would like to ask him if Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and others were simply blaming other races for their issues?

Nevertheless, his initial observation of what drove Michael Brown’s “bully-ish” behavior got the old noggin clicking. Then within a thought provoking moment, I began to recall an old rap song I use to play over and over again as a teenager. In my youth, it caused me to really question Black America. Within “Us,” written by Ice Cube, stated:

Could you tell me who released our animal instinct?
Got the white man sittin’ there tickled pink… That’s what ya doin’ with the money that ya raisin’ Exploitin’ us like the Caucasians did

I would like to ask, who among my people continues to exploit “us” and feed the animal of systemic oppression and its consequential actions? Unlike the past, current public rationalization is subtler than the past, but still equally damaging to Blacks. With careful critique, one can hear the current depressing messages of Black males in popular songs. Case in point, I bring you Mr. Pharrell Williams. He has made a living from producing others as well as himself on wax.. Such songs as “When the Last Time,” “Feds Watching” “Power,” “Light your Ass on Fire,” and “Mr. Me Too” just to name a few. All of which illustrate an all too familiar contemporary formula of opulence living, drug usage, violence, and misogynistic overtones. This is not to mention the videos that are plagued with issues of colorism and white aesthetic favoritism.

In American Paradox: Young Black Men, Renford Reese discussed research that involved surveying 756 Black males (13-19 years-of-age) in places such as Los Angeles and Atlanta. He determined that the “tough guy” persona distinguished in the music of Mr. Williams and other acts that glamorize violence, sexist behavior, and the glamorous life have negatively effected generations of Black men’s identity. Was Michael Brown’s identity affected by Mr. Pharrell and others? Can his bully-ish behavior be traced back to he and his musical keen?

We are currently living within an era resembling Blaxploitation filming trends. Within the 1970s, Whites movie production companies comprehended the financial benefit associated with the genre and mass-produced movies that propelled negative stereotypes and images. For the most part, the culturally empty music today that gains most of the public attention resembles this past era. The production of this music is filled with the same gratuitous violence, drug usage, luxurious champagne, and misogyny that are simply on display for the sake of exhibitionism. On the other hand, people such as the co-founder of Def Jam Records, Russell Simmons, defends these artists and their work by arguing that

The hip-hop community is a mirror, a reflection of the dirt we overlook—the violence, the misogyny, the sexism. They need to be discussed.

While he and his proponents refuse to look up from the massive “bling” on their wrists and red velvet underneath their feet, a fact looms over their inflated heads that point to their involvement in driving and maintaining the historical white racist oppressive frame.

You are right Pharrell. But you just forgot to include yourself and your musical keen who have contributed the current state of affairs. But I am understand. Especially when everything is so “Happy.”

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The Stacked Deck

So this happened:

After driving around that corner and through this yellow light, up the one-way street and around again through the morning work traffic in an unfamiliar neighborhood of Brooklyn, I found a parking spot in front of a row of brownstones. I grabbed my gym bag from the back seat, double-checked the locks on the doors, and kicked down the cracked sidewalk toward the YMCA. I had never been here before. This particular neighborhood had fences. Not the decorative ones skirting the trees and patches of grass pervasive to NYC in general to keep unaware pedestrians and wandering animals at bay. Here the fences were prohibitive rather than suggestive. The fences here climbed high over the first story windows and barred the second.

Here they laced even the doorways. As I approached the intersection, I noticed a middle-aged woman with a drag-behind, travel carryon walking my direction from across the street. She hoisted her bag against her side with one arm, not utilizing the wheels. Even this early in the morning, her shoulder length hair fell in smooth brown curls to frame her warm complexion, her make-up flawless. There was little movement on this street. A few people lingered by the YMCA entrance. One man sat on his steps watching the morning pass. I noticed them as I did the approaching woman and, adhering to New York social code, did not avert my eyes from my destination. No salutary smile or nod as my Southern manners dictated. I was far from home and the only person of my race in sight; my only objective here was to exercise and get cleaned up for the day ahead listening to the presentations at The New School. As the woman and I crossed paths she paused to yell, “Why don’t you jump off the bridge, you white bitch.” I kept my eyes forward and laughed a little to myself not having expected any acknowledgment—let alone one of such caliber. Seconds later she continued. “If you are white, stay on the other side of the river.” I smiled to myself and went inside, not giving the matter much more thought.

OK, that last sentence was a lie. This interaction turned and turned inside my mind—as I ran, as I showered, as I rode the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, even as I listened to bell hooks’ discussion on transgression and the presentation of black bodies in media.

Here’s the rub: this is not racism. The woman who yelled at me was not being racist.

Granted, she was not being polite, but the equivocation of affronted political correctness with racism has too long overshadowed the underlying issue. This was outside of politesse but not racist even though the comment referred to my race. And here is why: I laughed. Perhaps I laughed at the tale as a possible narrative for, as a writer, I constantly look for novel anecdotes about what “happened on the way to the forum.” Or it could have been the oddity and surprise of the situation which amused me. Or it could have been the realization of completely misreading her that morning and possessing zero understanding of what experiences occupied her mind or the possible slights she was diffusing. But the point is still there: I laughed. Her invective was not a threat. My safety, ability to comport myself, or my socio-economic progression was in no way hampered by her anger. Hell, my day wasn’t even ruined.

Racism is not about the feelings of one person toward another. Let us not confuse it with prejudice where a personal predilection dictates action based upon stereotyped assumptions or fears about a perceived racial, sexual, or class orientation. It is much, much bigger than that.

Much, much bigger than you or me or the aforementioned woman. It is a systematic discrimination and withholding of privilege, safety, ability, and comfort because of color and/or nationality. It exists as an institution above us, behind our language, and within our social code.

Even as an outsider dissimilar with the majority of the inhabitants of an unfamiliar neighborhood, I felt perfectly at ease to conduct my business and to move freely without inhibition or concern for my safety or any fear of oppression. I was not going to be stopped by the police for looking suspicious or for not fitting in. My earning potential was not hampered by her displeasure. No possibility was barred me for looking as I do. Nor did I feel the threat of danger or assault on my person because of my racial positionality. The system, even when a physical minority, has been established to give me a chance. And that chance affords a place, an ability to determine my own definition, and even the ability to laugh at situations that could have been risky or frightful had the mechanisms of privilege been switched.

Racism is not only within an inappropriate joke, a look askance at someone as they pass by, a burning cross, or discrimination of housing and/or employment. Each one of those acts are complicit participation within a system which is established and reinforced by the hetero-normative, imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.

Now don’t get me wrong here.

This is not to vilify or cast blame upon any particular person who participates or identifies with the dominant socio-class. No offense, but this system is bigger than that. We are past the days when we can point at any particular white, straight, business man as the enforcer of the system.

But unless you are actively working to dissemble the mechanisms of privilege and empower diversity in all forms, you are simultaneously upholding the system which benefits one while restricting others.

An aspect of privilege most of us privileged don’t want to admit is that we don’t have to think about privilege. Peggy McIntosh called facing white privilege “elusive and fugitive,” over twenty-five years ago, and as a whole, we have not encroached upon any robust apprehension of it since. White (and male) privilege is rarely considered until threatened. When I walk into the room, no one wonders why I am where I am, if I am alone, if I am leaving alone, or going home with them. Their thought is not one of belonging or whether or not I have upset delicate social relationships in being where I am. And since I have not upset persona particular expectations, the perceivers are not confronted with their own self-definition. They continue on without ever wondering where they stand within the social spectrum. It is frighteningly easy to ignore. And unless confronted, acknowledged, and challenged, it will refuse to reconstruct within a paradigm of greater equality. Life is most profoundly felt at its perimeters. Society has given me a berth where the perimeters lie upon who I know, what kind of girls I date, and what car I drive. Those are the requisites and possible impediments to perceived success within the “myth of meritocracy” wherein most people benefited by privilege believe privilege itself is hinged upon personal drive and acumen.

Because that is the locus of struggle for most who have the same socio-economic identity as I do, that is also the limits of perceived persona. Still, worlds exist outside of that monolithic worldview which are as valid and beautiful as any sphere imaginable. Unfortunately, by most, these worlds are not seen.

This works to the depth that most of you reading this probably assumed my white male-ness as a given in the short episode above because it was not mentioned (and props to those of you who didn’t). It is that pervasive. Think about that. What does that then mean when the perception shifts? What are the other assumptions which are inferred? Do any of those assumptions restrict or endanger someone’s freedom and ability to express themselves? If it is easy for you to pass a police officer without worry of being frisked or arrested for looking how you do, remember that.

If you can walk home alone without worry of being assaulted, taken, violated or worse, remember that. If you are able to declare the love of your beloved without fear of being beaten, fired, or ostracized, remember that. Now think about all those who can’t—think of all those who are struggling under a system which demands of their identity explanation, justification, or apology. And what are you doing to champion difference?

~ This post was written by Steele Peterson Campbell, a graduate of Auburn University, with a Master’s Degree in Literature. He is a writer who is currently completing his first novel and currently resides in Nashville, TN. You can follow Steele on Twitter @TheSteeleC.

This is the New Civil Rights Movement and It Will be Digital

I’ve been going to racial justice marches in New York City for nearly 20 years (for Abner Louima, for Amadou Diallo, for Sean Bell, for Ramarley Graham) and I’ve never seen anything like the mass protests in response to Eric Garner. This gives me hope.

This is one view of what the movement looked like last night in New York City:

Protests like this one happened all over the U.S. With respect to Gil Scott Heron (who told us that The Revolution Will Not be Televised), this movement is and will be digital. More precisely, this new civil rights movement is spreading quickly because it is digitally augmented through Twitter, Vine, Instagram and other social media platforms. The movement is also, simultaneously, in the streets. It is both/and – both digital and material – at the same time. And this, too, gives me hope.

The both/and, digital/material feature of the new civil rights movement means several hopeful things.

It means that it’s both youth-led movement, and it is intergenerational. It means that it’s both youth-led and leaderless, in the traditional sense. It also means that it both circumvents and subverts legacy civil rights organizations that are now mostly corporate-funded or corporate-affiliated. It means that it is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic movement.

The both/and quality of the new civil rights movement means that while much of the organizing is happening online – through websites like Ferguson Action, and email newsletters like thisisthemovement published by DeRay McKesson (@deray) and through Twitter hashtags #EricGarner #BlackLivesMatter #ShutItDown – people have been showing up in the streets for 118 days now.

The demands of the new civil rights movement are, of course, both posted online and demand real, concrete action in the material world.

Today is a day for hope.

No Indictment in Eric Garner Case

On July 17, 2014 Eric Garner was approached by NYPD officers on a street in Staten Island. The NYPD suspected Garner of selling untaxed cigarettes, not in packs or cartons, known as “loosies”, a violation of the law usually handled by a ticket. This interaction quickly escalated and ended with the death of Mr. Garner at the hands of NYPD officers.

GarnerProtests_Lynchings

  (Image by Jessie Daniels – CC – attribution, non-commercial)

Almost all of the interaction between the NYPD and Mr. Garner was recorded on a cell phone video camera. One officer, Daniel Pantaleon, can clearly be seen pressing down on Mr. Garner’s body while several other officers gather around his body. On the recording, you can plainly – and painfully – hear Mr. Garner yelling,“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” The person who recorded that video, Ramsey Orta, was indicted on a previous and unrelated charge.

Garner’s death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. And, in August, several thousand of us from around NYC marched on Staten Island to protest this death at the hands of police.

GarnerProtest_Justice

(Image by Jessie Daniels – CC – attribution, non-commercial)

Yet, today, a grand jury on Staten Island decided to not to indict Pantaleon. The reporting by most mainstream news outlets here in New York is focused on the scurrilous “will there be ‘rioting’ in the wake of this decision?” angle. But make no mistake, the no-bill decision by the grand jury in New York is not a local issue. As Nick Mirzoeff argued in a post earlier today about the Mike Brown case in Ferguson:

This is a systemic failure, not a local issue in St. Louis. For the election of Barack Obama has not changed the underlying structures of what Joe Feagin and Sean Elias call “systemic racism,” which “refers to the foundational, large-scale and inescapable hierarchical system of US racial oppression devised and maintained by whites and directed at people of color” (Feagin and Ellis 2013: 936). As Angela Davis has argued, the penitentiary system was a vital pillar for the white supremacy created after the abolition of slavery (2007). Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has called her analysis of the New Jim Crow at work in today’s prison-industrial complex, a “racial caste system” which is “creating and perpetuating a racial hierarchy in the United States” (New Jim Crow: 16).

In short, white supremacy and racial hierarchy are not incidental parts of the justice system as we now have it but are constitutive of it. What Ferguson has made visible cannot be simply “fixed” by a review of the grand jury system or other tinkering. White supremacy is the system. Many (white) people are not ready to go there yet. We have to help them.

Just as the decision in Ferguson to not indict Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown is not an aberration, so too is the decision to not indict Daniel Panteleon in the death of Eric Garner. This is the system of white supremacy at work, and it works with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Justice isn’t merely indicting one officer or locking up one cop, it’s changing the whole system. Justice means dismantling the machine of white supremacy so that it no longer churns up black bodies with regularity.

Rodney King speaks with fans before pres (Rodney King)

Right now, there are many people that I respect who are calling for body cameras on police as a way forward to racial justice, but a video didn’t make a difference for Eric Garner. And, a video helped ACQUIT the officers who beat Rodney King nearly to death. So, even as President Obama goes ahead with a request for $263 million of dollars for body cameras for 50,000 police, I’m not persuaded this is a solution. While I get the desire to “do something” in the face of the ongoing injustice, body cameras seem like a techno-solution to systemic racism that needs to be addressed by other means. The fact is, the system of white supremacy keeps churning in a way that protects (white) cops and keeps damaging black bodies.

Police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes extrajudicially killed at least 313 African-Americans in 2012. A recent report by grassroots activists estimates that every 28 hours a black man is killed by police. While the report can and should be faulted for not paying enough (or, indeed any) attention to the extrajudicial killings of cisgender and transgender women of color, the report is valuable to the extent that documents killings that the federal government is not.

As the Wall Street Journal reported today, hundreds of police killings are not counted in federal statistics (paywall).  The report looked at data from 105 of America’s largest police agencies and found that it is “nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year.” They also found that the FBI numbers about police killings vary greatly from those provided by the Centers for Disease Control and by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. According to the report:

“more than 550 police killings between 2007 and 2012 weren’t included in the FBI’s national tally.  The Journal looked at internal FBI records and found that while the 105 departments had 1,825 police killings, only 1,242 were reported as “justifiable homicides” by the FBI. The Journal “identified several holes in the FBI data” — of the 105 agencies contacted, justifiable police homicides from 35 agencies weren’t in the FBI records at all. Police in Washington, D.C., for example, didn’t report police killings to the FBI from 1998 to 2008, when the city “had one of the highest rates of officer-involved killings in the country.” In 28 of the 70 agencies that did report homicide data, the FBI report was missing records of police killings. And “missing from the FBI data are killings involving federal officers.” (from Meghan DeMaria, The Week)

Instead of body cameras on police, I’m more inclined to want to see federal action to collect data on police involved killings. Yet, the research tells me that gathering statistics is not likely to change the system of white supremacy either.

As Jamelle Bouie noted in his piece about the research of Jennifer Eberhardt, we know that—among white Americans—there’s a strong cognitive connection between “blackness” and criminality. “The mere presence of a black man can trigger thoughts that he is violent and criminal,” observes Eberhardt and colleagues in a 2004 paper. Basically, the twisty-racial dynamic plays out like this: tell people that blacks are over-represented in prison, and it triggers thoughts of crime, which leads to fear, which causes people to follow their fear and embrace the status quo of unfair, overly punitive punishments, like not indicting NYPD cops for homicide.

So, what is to be done to dismantle this system of white supremacy? To paraphrase Ella Baker, until the killing of black people is as important to the whole nation as the killing of a white person, we cannot rest.

GarnerProtest_EveryMothersSon (Image by Jessie Daniels – CC – attribution, non-commercial)

Angela Davis on Stuart Hall’s Policing the Crisis Today

Last week, scholars at Goldsmiths, University of London, convened to remember the work, life and legacy of Stuart Hall. Professor Emerita Angela Davis offered the key note (35:00):

Professor Angela Davis: Policing the Crisis Today from Goldsmiths, University of London on Vimeo.

In this talk she ties the events of Ferguson, Missouri to Stuart Hall’s classic text Policing the Crisis. (H/t to @WailQ)

There are more videos from the conference here.

Research Brief: Race, Racism, Policing and Cameras

Here is your weekly research brief with some of the latest research in the field of race and racism. Given the recent attention on police brutality as a form of racism, and the call among many activists for body cameras (or, OOVCs -“on officer video cameras”), I thought I would take use today’s research brief to share some of the relevant research. One special note about this research brief: below I include a report from “The Police Foundation” that strongly supports the use of OOVCs. This report has been reported on by the Guardian and the New York Times, but beyond that, I cannot vouch for it since I do not know who or what is beyond the foundation publishing it and it hasn’t been subjected to the usual peer review. That said, I thought people might be interested in reading the actual report since it is getting a good deal of attention.

As always, I note which pieces are freely available on the web, or “open access” with (OA), and those behind a paywall with (locked).

Research in the Dictionary

Race, racism and policing:

  • Bhattacharyya, Gargi S. Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting Sex, Violence and Feminism in the ‘War on Terror’. Zed Books, 2008. Abstract: Why is the public presentation of the war on terror suffused with sexualised racism? What does this tell us about ideas of gender, sexuality, religious and political identity and the role of the state in the Western powers? Can we diffuse inter-ethnic conflicts and change the way the West pursues its security agenda by understanding the role of sexualised racism in the war on terror? In asking such questions, Gargi Bhattacharyya considers how the concepts of imperialism, feminism, terror and security can be applied, in order to build on the influential debates about the sexualised character of colonialism. She examines the way in which western imperial violence has been associated with the rhetoric of rights and democracy – a project of bombing for freedom that has called into question the validity of western conceptions of democracy, rights and feminism. Such rhetoric has given rise to actions that go beyond simply protecting western interests or securing access to scarce resources and appear to be beyond instrumental reason. The articulations of racism that appear with the war on terror are animated by fears and sexual fantasies inexplicable by rational interest alone. There can be no resolution to this seemingly endless conflict without understanding the highly sexualised racism that animates it. Such an understanding threatens to pierce the heart of imperial relations, revealing their intense contradictions and uncovering attempts to normalise violent expropriation.
  • Brunson, Rod K., and Jody Miller. “Young Black Men and Urban Policing in the United States.” British journal of criminology 46, no. 4 (2006): 613-640. Abstract: People of colour living in disadvantaged urban communities have been shown to be the disproportionate recipients of both proactive policing strategies and various forms of police misconduct. As a consequence, a growing body of research has begun to examine the relationship between blacks’ experiences with the police and their perceptions of police legitimacy. While urban minority young men are primary recipients of proactive policing efforts, few studies have examined in depth their particular experiences with the police. Drawing from a broader qualitative study of violence in the lives of African-American youths from a distressed urban community, this paper examines 40 young men’s experiences with and perceptions of police harassment and misconduct. Our findings highlight young men’s sense of themselves as symbolic assailants in the eyes of the police, suggest the importance of measuring the impact of accumulated negative experiences to better understand minority/police relations, and add additional currency to recent findings on the significance of procedural justice. (locked)
  • Cashmore, Ernest, and Eugene McLaughlin, eds. Out of Order?: Policing Black People. Routledge, 2013. Abstract: First published in 1991, this book evaluates and compares the problematic relationships that have sometimes existed between police and Afro-Caribbean people in Britain and in the United States of America. Contributors from both sides of the Atlantic assess conflicting claims from police and black communities, as to whether some police are racist or too brutal in their operations. Although this book was written in the early 90s, many of the issues discussed remain interesting and relevant to our society today. (locked)
  • Rowe, Michael. Policing, Race and Racism. Taylor & Francis, 2004. Abstract: Over recent years race has become one of the most important issues faced by the police. This book seeks to analyse the context and background to these changes, to assess the impact of the Lawrence Inquiry and the MacPherson Report, and to trace the growing emphasis on policing as an ‘antiracist’ activity, proactively confronting racism in both crime and non-crime situations. Whilst this change has not been wholly or consistently applied, it does represent an important change in the discourse that surrounds police relations with the public since it changes the traditional role of the police as ‘neutral arbiters of the law’. This book shows why race has become the most significant issue facing the British police, and argues that the police response to race has led to a consideration of fundamental issues about the relation of the police to society as a whole and not just minority groups who might be most directly affected. (locked)
  • Shalhoub‐Kevorkian, Nadera. “Racism, Militarisation and Policing: Police Reactions to Violence against Palestinian Women in Israel.” Social Identities 10, no. 2 (2004): 171-193. Abstract: This article moves beyond the discussion of police racism to a broader account of the militaristic racism of policing in Israel. The highly permeable boundaries between the military, society and the political conflict all affect how violence against women is policed. Focusing on case studies of police officers’ perceptions of abused Palestinian Israeli women — members of an ethnic and indigenous minority — this paper considers key features of the policing of violence against women in a militaristic context and during a continuous political conflict. Police officers’ philosophies and actions in law enforcement concerning violence against women are critically scrutinised. The findings indicate that while some aspects of cultural difference between the indigenous ethnic group and the majority are relevant to policing, focusing predominantly on the ‘cultural characteristics’ or ‘ethnic traditions or rituals’ of the policed population and denying the effect of the political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as a factor in the militarisation of policing can reinforce rather than ameliorate ethnic prejudice, racism and discrimination. (locked)

 

Cameras and policing:

  • Ariel, Barak and Tony Farrar. “Self-Awareness to Being Watched and Socially Desirable Behavior: A Field Experiment on the Effect of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Use-of-Force.”  (Report of The Police Foundation, 2014) This randomized controlled trail represents the first experimental evaluation of body-worn video cameras used in police patrol practices. Cameras were deployed to all patrol officers in the Rialto (CA) Police Department. Every police patrol shift during the 12-month period was assigned to experimental or control conditions. Wearing cameras was associated with dramatic reductions in use-of-force and complaints against officers. The authors conclude: “The findings suggest more than a 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment.” (OA)
  • Goold, Benjamin J. “Public area surveillance and police work: the impact of CCTV on police behaviour and autonomy.” Surveillance & Society 1, no. 2 (2002): 191-203. Abstract: Drawing on a recent study of the impact of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras on policing practices in a large English police force, this paper considers whether the presence of surveillance cameras affects the working attitudes and behaviour of individual police officers. In particular, this paper asks whether CCTV makes the police more accountable or more cautious in the exercise of their discretion in public spaces. Although noting that in certain circumstances CCTV may inadvertently help to reduce incidences of police misconduct, this paper concludes by arguing that more needs to be done to prevent the police from interfering with the operation of CCTV and gaining unauthorised access to potentially incriminating video evidence. (OA)
  • Harris, David A. “Picture This: Body Worn Video Devices (‘Head Cams’) as Tools for Ensuring Fourth Amendment Compliance by Police.” Texas Tech Law Review, Forthcoming (2010). Abstract: A new technology has emerged with the potential to increase police compliance with the law and to increase officers’ accountability for their conduct. Called “body worn video” (BWV) or “head cams,” these devices are smaller, lighter versions of the video and audio recording systems mounted on the dash boards of police cars. These systems are small enough that they consist of something the size and shape of a cellular telephone earpiece, and are worn by police officers the same way. Recordings are downloaded directly from the device into a central computer system for storage and indexing, which protects them from tampering and assures a defensible chain of custody. This article explores the good that BWV can do for both the police and members of the public, particularly how these recordings might play a role in assuring that officers comply with Fourth Amendment search and seizure rules. Field tests of BWV in Britain have shown that police used the devices to keep records and record evidence, and that the devices were a uniquely effective bulwark against false complaints. Coupled with a requirement that every citizen encounter involving a search or seizure be recorded, and a presumption that without a recording the factfinder must draw inferences in favor of the defendant, BWV can help resolve disputes over search and seizure activities, and give the public a heretofore unattainable degree of assurance that police officers enforcing the law obey it as they do so. While BWV is certainly no panacea, and presents significant issues of tampering and reliability, it can help bring accountability and rule following to an aspect of police behavior that has largely proven resistant to it. (OA)
  • Young, Jacob TN, and Justin T. Ready. “Diffusion of Ideas and Technology: The Role of Networks in Influencing the Endorsement and Use of On-Officer Video Cameras.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice (2014): 1043986214553380. Abstract: On-officer videos, or body cameras, can provide objective accounts of interactions among police officers and the public. Police leadership tends to view this emerging technology as an avenue for resolving citizen complaints and prosecuting offenses where victims and witnesses are reluctant to testify. However, getting endorsement from patrol officers is difficult. These incongruent cognitive frames are a cultural barrier to the utilization of innovative technologies. Understanding the mechanisms that lead to the deconstruction of these barriers is essential for the integration of technology into organizations. Using affiliation data collected from a large police department in Southwestern United States over a 4-month period, we find that interactions with other officers provide a conduit for facilitating cognitive frames that increase camera legitimacy. (locked)

 

Happy reading! Let me know if you’d like your publication to appear in an upcoming Research Brief by using the ‘contact’ form.