Melissa Harris-Perry: Public Intellectual

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I’m more than a little heartbroken at the news today about Melissa Harris-Perry’s departure from MSNBC. Her show is set to record on my DVR each weekend. Mostly on weekends, I’m running errands or sometimes at church or just somewhere else when her show airs but I always – always – watch it later (skipping the commercials, thank you DVR). Harris-Perry’s has become for me a kind of touchstone for Where We Are Now in the nation in terms of race, gender and a range of social justice issues. Melissa Harris-Perry is also a the North Star for what it means to  a scholar-activist-journalist in the digital era.

“Probably my biggest angst about being an academic is that question of whether or not it makes a difference beyond just your students in the classroom,” Harris-Perry said during a 2012 interview.

Melissa Harris-Perry is, in many ways, a 21st century scholar-activist. She is a respected scholar, a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, an activist, and until this weekend, her eponymous talk show on the MSNBC news network gave her a wide reach beyond the traditional classroom.

Calling Harris-Perry the “foremost public intellectual today,” Ta-Nehisi Coates described her show this way:

“[it] brings a broad audience into a classroom without using dead academic language and tortured abstractions”.

Her weekend morning show routinely featured two hours of scholars, activists, journalists, and documentary filmmakers from diverse range of backgrounds discussing the social issues of the day. To augment the conversation further, the show’s producers also curated a conversation on the Twitter hashtag #nerdland, evoking her – and her audience’s – identification as ‘nerds.’

Twenty years ago, leading academic thinker Ernest Boyer, in his famous remarks on the ‘scholarship of engagement’, conjured a show very much Harris-Perry’s when he sought to reimagine the weekend news show of that day, Washington Week in Reviewwhen he wrote:

I find it fascinating, for example, that the provocative Public Broadcasting Service program Washington Week in Review invites us to consider current events from the perspective of four or five distinguished journalists who, during the rest of the week, tend to talk only to themselves. I’ve wondered occasionally what Washington Week in Review would sound like if a historian, an astronomer, an economist, an artist, a theologian, and perhaps a physician, for example, were asked to comment (Boyer, 1996, p. 25).

What Boyer instinctively knew, and what Melissa Harris-Perry has demonstrated, is that there are productive, vibrant and interesting conversations to be had across traditional lines of journalism or academia and that at least some segment of the public is interested in listening to these. Harris-Perry extended this a step further by regularly inviting grassroots activists on to her show for conversation with journalists, scholars of all kinds, artists and filmmakers.

The fact that many of her guests were people of color, including many African American women, meant that Harris-Perry created a unique and much-needed space within the mostly white and male set of guests on mainstream and cable news shows. Each of her carefully curated and produced shows made liars out of those who only schedule white men (and some white women) as guests, experts and pundits because they “can’t find” people of color to book.

It may have been her critical stance on race and gender that MSNBC executives objected to. There are some reports suggesting that it was a proposed segment on the recent Beyoncé video that prompted MSNBC executives to cancel her show. Of course, Melissa Harris-Perry has not been with out her missteps on the race, such as the cringe-worthy interview with Rachel Dolezal.

Still, Melissa Harris-Perry’s critical and mostly spot-on takes about racism for four years at MSNBC have marked an important shift in the culture. For the four years her show was on the air, an African American woman and a public intellectual led a conversation that elevated the public sphere by bringing in new voices to the conversation that most cable news viewers rarely get to hear. Her show also did the kind of thing that Ernest Boyer imagined twenty years ago, by bringing together people from a range of backgrounds, scholars, activist, journalists and filmmakers.

The decision by MSNBC to effectively disappear Melissa Harris-Perry and her show is a loss for us all and diminishes the public sphere. It also serves as a reminder that being a public intellectual on a corporate-controlled platform is always a Faustian bargain.

 

Dating in the Time of #BlackLivesMatter

When I started my dissertation research a year ago, I had not considered what impact the widespread media coverage of #BlackLivesMatter as a movement and rallying cry might have on my respondents. With my research, I intended to explore the online dating experiences of women who identify as multiracial here in Texas; what I have found has been a complex mobilization of Black Lives Matter as a metric of racial progressiveness. In 2016, it has become clear that the increased media attention being paid to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is shaping a particular orientation toward, and conversation around, race and racism in the United States. As scholar Khury Petersen-Smith notes, the movement has “shattered what remained of the notion of a ‘post-racial’ America.” More specifically, my work has found that BLM has impacted individual-level relationships, creating a framework within which people are able to evaluate and “vet” their dating partners, especially amidst claims that society is more “progressive” and that the atrocities we have witnessed are “not about race.”

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As every good social scientist knows, words mean things. The language around, and produced by, movements like BLM – particularly in regards to discourses of race, racial inequality, state-sanctioned violence, and racism – has influenced the ways in which the multiracial women in my study discuss race, racism, and inequality in the context of their intimate relationships. Several women have described using their own stances on the issues BLM addresses as a means of selecting potential dating partners. This finding suggests that BLM and other widespread social justice movements are having significant impacts on how people are navigating racial politics on an interpersonal level. This is particularly pertinent during a time where U.S. media and popular culture is especially focused on issues of racism and state-sanctioned violence.

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Thus, Black Lives Matter provides multiracial women with a means of framing their commentary on racism, racial inequality, and violence. Often, these women describe trying to find a “middle ground” in which to exist politically, so as to not fall within the so-called “extremes.” This middle ground calls to mind the notion of mixed-race people being a “bridge” between communities. The “middle ground” also suggests that to be on the extremes is to identify too closely with blackness or to not be “beyond” race. Thus, many women expressed contradictions over the course of their interviews; for several women the tensions around race and racism are issues of “diversity” and something that these women perceive black people to be “ethnocentric” about. It is telling that the multiracial women who believe that the concerns of BLM are solely concerns for black people are women who are not of black descent. However, women of myriad mixed racial backgrounds – including those who are not part black – noted that the issues the movement highlights are concerns for us all.

 

Alternatively, the women concerned with the so-called “appropriate” behavior of those interacting with the police rather than the inequality inherent in police violence rely on counter-Black Lives Matter narratives. They suggest that if someone is “acting stupid,” then an officer can only assume they are “dangerous and on drugs.” As social scientists have demonstrated for decades, overwhelmingly, the people who are assumed to be dangerous and on drugs are people of color. Virtually every woman who indicated that those killed by police are somehow responsible also relied on some “liberal” talking points, suggesting that officers “not go for the kill shot right away” or that “we need better training.” However, these women also used anti-black logic, which suggests that those killed by police are the deserving aggressors. Virtually all the women I interviewed who opposed BLM utilized the “some bad apples” discourse to suggest that these instances of police brutality are isolated incidents. This logic enabled several women to suggest that the movement is being overly sensitive and that the wrongdoing is on “both sides.”

 

In terms of dating, women who consider potential dating partners’ views on issues of race and racism were invested in finding someone capable of making informed commentary. White masculinity in particular has a specific meaning in this political climate. Some multiracial women expect white men they date to have a certain racial literacy – the racial socialization and antiracist training that defends against and counters racism – and would not consider dating (white) men who are not at least marginally versed in anti-racist discourse and logics. This, however, is not necessarily a requirement for all potential partners, as several women indicated that they assume that men of color will just “get” that racism exists. So, white men are expected to provide proof that they “get it,” much of which is proven through how they engage with discourses around race and racism. Several women described pulling up videos of police assaults – such as the now infamous pool party in McKinney, TX – or referencing other news stories during dates in order to see how men would react.

 

While it may not be surprising that women are excluding partners that they do not view as compatible, it is notable that several women indicated that “what’s going on” in the U.S. did not seem to matter much until about two years ago, correlating with the rise in Black Lives Matter demonstrations and news coverage. Public discourses impact our everyday lives, particularly the highly racialized, classed, and sexualized process of dating. We should be concerned for not only how people are responding to BLM and other related social movements, but also how people are implementing racial rhetoric in their everyday lives. As the mixed-race women in my research illustrate, the dating practices of Americans have the unfortunate potential to continue to reproduce much of the polarizing and unequal racial politics, as well as inherently unequal social structures, that have made Black Lives Matter and its like necessary in the first place.

~ Shantel Buggs is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on dating patterns and race. 

 

 

Debunking White Supremacy

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The United States has always been a white supremacy that masquerades as a democracy. For white racists those are fighting words. How dare anyone cast aspersions on the motives of America’s founding fathers? For shame.

Describing the US as a white supremacy isn’t an ad hominem attack. It is simply a statement of fact. The only people in the room when the founders mapped out the contours of American democracy were greedy white guys. Is it any wonder that the only people who have enjoyed unrestricted access to American democracy throughout its history are greedy white guys?

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Women and people of color have always been on the outside looking in. The costs of being an outsider have been astronomical. America’s greedy white guys paved the way for continent-wide genocide and property theft — and every other person of color as persona non grata. Should anyone dispute America’s favoritism for white guys, I refer you to the Naturalization Act of 1790.

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Passed into law less than one year after the Constitution came into effect, the Naturalization Act of 1790 stipulated that only “free whites” could become citizens of the United States. This law had the perverse effect of installing greedy white guys as the USA’s one and only “true natives.” The Naturalization Act of 1790 also de-naturalized peoples of color which summarily transformed Native Americans and other well-established occupant of North America into undocumented aliens in their own homeland.
The notion that the US is a white supremacy is contentious, but it shouldn’t be. White supremacy is an indisputable fact of the US Constitution specifies that the US will value people of color at a mere fraction of the value of its white male citizens:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the US Constitution)

According to the Three-Fifths Compromise, the US views free white men as being equal in value to one whole human being. By contrast, the US views people of color as being worth somewhere between 0-⅗ the value of a whole human being. In sum, people of color are quantifiably inferior to their superior white counterparts. As long as such language remains an integral component of the US Constitution, the US will unequivocally remain a white supremacy. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the US Constitution is just a scrap of paper. If the US Constitution champions white supremacy, then it’s up to the champions of democracy to change the US Constitution. We can have democracy in the US, but first we have to debunk white supremacy. Science tells us that all humans are equal. White racists don’t like it, but the scientific truth is inescapable. All humans are equal. Not identical, but equal.

 

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White supremacy is a mean-spirited fiction that greedy white guys concocted to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. Democracy demands that we knock greedy white guys off of their pedestal. Although greedy white guys have often been unsparing with the violence that they inflict on “others,” I think it’s possible and preferable to knock greedy white guys off of their pedestal without violence.

Greedy white guys have warped American democracy into a white supremacy by dehumanizing women and people of color. So, if we’re going to knock greedy white guys down a peg, we need to remove their pedestal. Innocuous as it may seem, the Three-Fifths Compromise is the pedestal that greedy white guys have used to warp American democracy.

It won’t be easy, but I am convinced that if we can find some way to remove the Three-Fifths Compromise from the US Constitution we can we can bring an end to white supremacy in America. If we terminate white supremacy we can also, by extension, terminate the racism and other inequalities that emanate from white supremacy.

I think it’s worth a try. At the very least, it’s a way of knocking greedy white guys off of their pedestals.  That’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

 

~ Professor Tim McGettigan teaches sociology at Colorado State University-Pueblo and he writes books about social change. Most recently, he is the co-author, with Earl Smith, of A Formula for Eradicating Racism: Debunking White Supremacy. 

Next Step for Beyoncé

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Watching the Super Bowl Half Time Show, I was excited to see Beyoncé use her international platform to send a decisively pro-Black political message. As a sociologist, though, I took note of the typical over sexualization of black women and concur with others that sexy dancing is far from taking a revolutionary stance. Nevertheless, I was pleased to see Queen B adding public advocacy for black empowerment to her behind the scenes support. I was not pleased, however, at the blatant colorism embodied by the performance. Oversimplified for brevity, colorism is the racist higher valuation of lighter skin over darker skin and results in lighter skinned non-white people being privileged over their darker skinned brothers and sisters in everything from health to the criminal justice system (pdf). In spite of her donations and other shows of support in the black community, Beyoncé has and continues to uncritically capitalize on society’s biased preference for lighter skinned blacks. At the start of her career, for example, the other members of Destiny’s Child were encouraged to tan to facilitate Beyoncé standing out as the lightest. Her latest video, “Formation,” passes this on to the next generation by featuring her daughter, Blue Ivy, as the lightest in a group of little girls.

 

And when she performed with all-black female dancers at the Super Bowl, Beyoncé was, as usual, the lightest (and the only one with light hair) in the group. The fact that all of the Super Bowl dancers were darker than Beyoncé suggests they were selected not just for their dancing skills but for their appearance as well.

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To be fair, prominently featuring brown skinned, black-haired black women in one of the biggest events of the year is important to celebrate given the pervasiveness of colorism in the media. Nevertheless, when browner skinned black women are used as the backdrop against which the lighter skinned, long blondish-brown haired star can stand out and seemingly shine even brighter, then blackness is subordinated to whiteness despite any lyrical affirmations to the contrary.

Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance sent viewers two messages. It verbally asserted that black lives, culture and politics are valuable while simultaneously visually affirming white aesthetic supremacy. The performance literally conveyed that even in 2016 when black women “get in formation” it is lightest skinned first and then, as the old adage goes, “if you’re black, get back.” Obviously Beyoncé cannot change her skin tone, and since light hair looks very nice on her I am not suggesting she dispense with her chosen hair color either. I am suggesting however that the next step in her growth, maturation and development as a black celebrity/political figure should be to take a long hard look at why she feels the need to so often position herself (and now her daughter) as lighter than others. Beyoncé has already shown that she has embraced #blacklivesmatter.

I look forward to the songs and shows to come were she someday to embrace #blackisbeautiful, too.

 

~ Jennifer Patrice Sims, PhD, is an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Her work examines racial perception, mixed race identity and the sociology of fictional societies, in particular Harry Potter.

An Update on the Rooney Rule: The NFL, Facebook, and Universities

It’s been a busy week for the Rooney rule—the rule adopted by the National Football League (NFL) to help increase diversity at the senior level by requiring at least one minority candidate be interviewed for each senior position. Last week we published Warren Waren’s call to higher education to institute such a rule in America’s colleges and universities in order to address the consistent racial disproportions among faculty.

That same week, Facebook announced it would include a similar rule in an effort to increase its diversity. And this week, the NFL itself updated the rule to include consideration of female candidates.

However, the biggest news in the Rooney rule comes from the University of Texas. Last Thursday, the new chancellor of University of Texas system announced a broad application of the Rooney rule to all administrative positions at the dean level and above.

In a presentation accompanying the formal announcement, Chancellor McCraven said,

This slide [referring to the racial gap between students and administrators] makes it very clear that we are not doing the job we ought to be doing in driving equal opportunity and fairness in our hiring and promotion processes. This is particularly disappointing because education is all about opportunity. Making sure our faculty and staff reflect the changing look of Texas is not just about fairness. It’s also about effectiveness. We need faculty, administrators and campus leaders who understand the people they’re serving, who come from the same kinds of places.

Which other college or university would be ready to implement such a program? Some other large public university? Perhaps one of the Ivy League? An elite research institution? One of our many small private colleges or universities? One of our community college systems? I hope my university (Texas A&M University) is next.

Institutional Racism: Comparing Oscar Nominations with Higher Education Faculty

Punxsutawney Phil must have seen his shadow last year at the Oscars and decided institutional racism was going to be around for another year. For the second year in a row no people of color were nominated for the top honors in America’s entertainment industry. In a country that is 37% people of color, we have no nominees. In an industry where 46% of moviegoers are people of color, we have no nominees. In an industry where we have recognized superstars giving top notch performances, we have no nominees. We hate to have expected it. But like Phil, we probably could have seen it coming.

The problem in this instance is not who is starring or who is watching. The problem is who is voting. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the voting body of the Oscars, is 94% white. This glaring example of institutional racism is the legacy of an antiquated system that is not yet ready for the 21st century. The voting body is not representative of the audience nor the performers. The decisions of that institution reproduce the biased racial composition of the leadership itself. What did we expect? That entrenched institutional racism would go away unchallenged?

As much as we love movies, and as much as they are a part of our culture and identity, there is another more important institution that is facing a similar problem of leadership: higher education. African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population and 15% of the enrolled student population at America’s colleges, but only 5.5% of all full-time faculty are black. Back in 2007, when the black faculty rate was 5.4%, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education predicted black faculty rates would reach parity with the percentage of blacks in the U.S. in about 140 years. Long time coming. Unfortunately, between 2009 and 2011, black faculty rates actually slipped back a little. So, that original prediction might be off by a generation or two.

An educated reader might guess that black faculty are not evenly distributed across America’s university system. Black faculty are concentrated within the small (and shrinking) portion of higher education called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The Washington Post reported in November 2015,

Remarkably, 96 percent of black tenured faculty are at HBCUs (even though HBCUs comprise only 3 percent of the nation’s 3000 colleges and universities). If HBCUs disappeared, so would most of the nation’s black academics.

Yet most college students and most African American college students do not attend HBCUs, they attend what we’ll call traditionally white institutions (TWIs). And those institutions need black faculty now. Badly. As mentioned above, at the student level, integration has reached parity nationally. The percent of students of color is close to their percent in the general population. This is indeed a cause for celebration. But now we face a new challenge of integrating the faculty.

Why do we have this problem? Why have we had in increase in black students and not an increase in black faculty? Compare fifteen percent of students to 5.5% of faculty. Why are we expecting faculty to catch up in 140 years? Do we not have great scholars ready to step into the classroom? We had a 43% increase in the number of black PhDs between 2000 and 2010, but during that time black faculty appointments at TWIs increased only 1.3%. This is not a crisis of supply.

Like with the Oscars, the problem is not with who is starring (professors of color) or who is watching (students of color)—the problem is who is voting. Leadership at universities look a lot like leadership at the Oscars. Both institutions are 90% to 95% white. Both are largely invitation-only affairs (make no mistake, social networks matter for every faculty appointment). Both bask in the glory of their own conceit. Both are prone to recreating their own biases. Both are self-regulating and quite insulated from external challenges. Do we expect either of these institutions to change without a challenge?

That challenge is not lost on students of color at traditionally white institutions. In 2015, students held anti-racism protests at scores of universities and colleges across the country. At over 50 campuses, students issued formal demands of their school’s leadership. Coupled with increased intensity of activism off-campus, the student movements began to get traction for their demands. Multiple university presidents have resigned, chancellors and deans have been removed. This is a student movement with power. But what is the main thing these student protesters want?

The website fivethirtyeight.com quantified the demands of 51 campus protest movements (those demands can be found here). There were, of course, many demands—requiring diversity training, renaming mascots, expanding mental health resources—but the modal response was some version of “we need more professors of color.” However, the most common demand was to increase the diversity of professors at TWIs.

We still face a graduation gap—in 2012, African Americans were 14% of students but only 9% of graduates. Also, the number of black students at top-tier, research one universities has apparently dropped. And we have a Supreme Court Justice who is openly considering a two-tiered racial system of higher education. So we face multiple issues. But correcting the proportion of black faculty in higher education might help solve these other problems. More faculty of color could reasonably help with the graduation gap in a number of ways. More faculty of color might help open pathways for our students of color into elite universities. And more faculty of color would help blunt the tired theory that African Americans should only attend “slower-track” schools.

Ultimately, I feel that both the Oscars and the academy will have to look a lot more like the people they serve or they will be replaced by institutions that do. But that is a long view. How do we get there from here? What if higher education used the Rooney Rule? This is the rule adopted by the National Football League (NFL) in 2003 to ensure that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for every senior position. In 2002, before the rule went into effect, minority players made up 70% of the players in the NFL, but only 6% of the coaches. In 2015, minority coaches made up almost 19% of the total (six out of thirty-two) down from a full 25% in 2011.

At my own institution, a public university serving over 55,000 students in Texas, one department had the opportunity to hire six new positions last year. This is very rare, even at large institutions. For each position, the faculty in the department selected three candidates to come for a campus interview. Out of 18 candidates, how many were people of color? None. That was a missed opportunity, completely lost on faculty whose percent black resembles the police department in Ferguson, Missouri. If we had a policy that resembled the Rooney Rule, we would have had at least six people of color visit our campus in hopes of impressing the mostly white faculty who make the decision to hire.

Surely, there is delicious irony in asking higher education to learn from football. But the principle of ensuring interviews for candidates of color is so direct and efficient that Facebook just announced it would be adopting the Rooney Rule to increase its diversity. In light of the reasonable success of integration at the top level in the NFL, and the serious effort to integrate at Facebook, and the clear demands of students of color across the country, it is time for us to finally integrate the faculty in higher education. And the Oscars might look into it, too.

Dr. Warren Waren is an Instructional Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University. His research focuses on racial residential segregation, gender differences in higher education, labor discrimination against Latino day laborers, and labor issues affecting same-sex couples. See his research work here.

White Supremacy and Property Rights: Tamir Rice and the Oregon Standoff

 

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In a span of just four days, news headlines in the US illustrated different aspects of white supremacy.  In one headline, we learned that the police officers who shot and killed Tamir Rice, a twelve year old, black child, as he played with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland, would face no charges in the young boy’s death. In another series of headlines a short time later, we watched a lenient, even nonchalant governmental response to a group of white, armed, anti-government protesters as they stormed the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Taken together, both highlight the importance of white property rights as a cornerstone in how white supremacy operates.

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The juxtaposition of the events in Ohio and Oregon illustrate white supremacy in the United States. .

On one hand, the killing of a child playing in a public space, the lack of aid rendered as he lay dying, and the assumption that he was much older than his young twelve years was justified through deeply established tropes that criminalized Tamir Rice’s black skin and that made him always already a suspect, even as a child.

On the other hand, Ammon Bundy and members of his white, anti-government militia, calling themselves “concerned citizens” while actively threatening to raise their arms against the federal government, are entitled to supply demands, press conferences, and a “wait and see” response by officials.

But the significance of recent events in Oregon extends beyond this obvious example of the differential treatment of racial groups by the state. We argue the events at the Oregon wildlife refuge are representative of what Arlo Kempf describes as a “colonial moment,” one that bolsters white supremacy and violence against people of color, as well as the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. settler state.

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The concept of settler colonialism emphasizes the ongoing occupation and privatization of Indigenous territories and the systems of race necessary to sustain the displacement and marginalization of Indigenous peoples. From this perspective, colonization is not an event of the past, but rather an enduring process that continuously unfolds across the landscape. Colonial moments normalize white domination and the racial status quo by obscuring histories of racial violence and exploitation and by reinforcing largely unquestioned assumptions about white settler property ownership and entitlement to stolen lands.

For some, the Bundys – both Ammon and his father Cliven – have become folk heroes for their efforts to reclaim federally owned and regulated land and for resisting the overbearing, ‘tyrannical’ federal government. However, as the chairperson of the Burns Paiute Tribe, Charlotte Rodrique, has explicitly stated, the Paiute peoples had been living on these lands for thousands of years prior to the arrival of white settlers. Deep ironies abound as the militia members demand that the federal government return the land to ranchers, loggers, and miners after claiming the federal government had usurped their rights.

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Though it’s quite easy to dismiss the Bundys, their followers, and other white militias in the American West as a “radical fringe” group with a poor understanding of U.S. history, we believe that to do so would be ill informed. Not only is the Oregon standoff part of a much broader political, economic, and social movement rooted in individual private property rights and undergirded by white supremacy, the event – and popular reactions to it – sustain particular understandings of whiteness and land ownership that render invisible the displacement and exploitation of people of color that enabled white settlement and the acquisition of federal lands in this area in the first place.

 

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Though Oregon is popularly known as one of the whitest states in the nation and parodied for its left leaning politics and liberal views, less widely known is how the state’s contemporary racial geography was forged through racist policies at a variety of scales (municipal, state, federal) that facilitated indigenous land appropriation, racial exclusion and marginalization, and labor exploitation. Through federal homestead policy and land acts that transferred lands appropriated from Indigenous peoples to individual white settlers, and aided by Indigenous dispossession and genocide, Whites assumed ownership of the area’s most productive land and built their local infrastructure and economy with Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican immigrant labor.

The Oregon Donation Land At (1850), for example, allowed free land only to whites. In Oregon, 10,513,945 acres (17 percent of total lands) were homesteaded following the 1862 Homesteading Act and its subsequent iterations. Racial exclusion laws passed in 1849 and 1854 prevented blacks from living in Oregon Territory. These exclusions were written into the state’s first constitution in 1859, which made Oregon the only free state in the Union with a black exclusion clause Furthermore, when Oregon statehood was declared, Chinese and Japanese immigrants were prevented from owning land or holding mining claims. Oregon’s 1901 anti-miscegenation statute nullified and criminalized marriage between whites and people of color, making the offense punishable by imprisonment.

As is clear, discourses about land rights in the American West continue to obscure and naturalize the ongoing displacements of Native Peoples and policies of racial subjugation and exclusion that produced the racial and class makeup and patterns of land ownership in contemporary Oregon. As a colonial moment, the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge shores up this racial framework. Bundy’s sense of history and his “right” to claim land on behalf of “the people” demonstrates the continued centrality of settler colonialism and white supremacy in the United States.

Thinking about the killing of Tamir Rice together with the Oregon standoff reveals the contours of white supremacy and the ways in which social condition of whiteness – what it means to be white in America – is so deeply entwined histories of violence, marginalization, and dispossession that have rendered some lives more valuable than others.

White men making claim to their “private property” rights are “patriots”, while black children playing in public spaces are reasonable threats to life and property.

 

~ This post was written by Anne Bonds and Joshua Inwood.  Bonds is and Assistant Professor of Geography and Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research focuses on gendered, raced, and classed inequality and the politics of economic development. Inwood is an Associate Professor of Geography and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee. His research focuses on race, racism and the continuing significance of white supremacy for understanding the US.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not — and the White Sanitization of Racial History

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, Ripley’s Believe It or Not comic strip published the sketch of a smiling Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King as newlyweds The caption of the sketch reads “Martin Luther King Junior and Coretta Scott King spent their wedding night in a funeral parlor instead of a hotel.” The sentence is consistent with the strip’s teaser approach. Nonetheless, the reader is left to wonder why the just-married couple opted for a funeral parlor rather than a hotel room. Were they too cheap to get a room? Did they have a fetish for the macabre? Did someone in their immediate families die that day?

Of course, the reason that the newlyweds spent the night at the funeral parlor on the night of their wedding day on June 18, 1953, was that the local hotels in Marion, Alabama, denied them a room. It was through the help of friends including his father, Martin King Sr. who presided over the wedding ceremony in the Scott family’s backyard in nearby Heiberger, that they were allowed to stay in the funeral parlor.

The Ripley entry represents yet another example of the way history is sanitized when it comes to race. For example, we routinely hear about plantation tours that never mention the words “slavery” and “slave” because it is “not part of the official tour.” On the day honoring Dr. King, the Ripley comic strip writer missed an excellent teachable-moment opportunity by failing to tell, as the legendary conservative commentator Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.”

Rogelio Sáenz is Dean of the College of Public Policy and Peter Flawn Professor of Demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is co-author of Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change and co-editor of The International Handbook of the Demography of Race and Ethnicity.

Black Twitter, White Tears

Something is happening everyday on Black Twitter, the social media platform that amplifies African American culture.

When Twitter began in 2006, it is doubtful that the founders had any idea that it would become a platform for race dialogue. Yet from Nicki Minaj’s critique of structural racism to Donald Trump spreading fabricated statistics about the relationship between race and crime to the recent discussion and debate over the #BlackGirlMagic and #OscarsSoWhite hashtags, here we are, almost ten years later, watching racial debates play out in 140 characters or less.

For those of us in academia, Twitter provides ample “teaching moments” for our students. The combination of relatability and timeliness makes Twitter something that millennial students can understand, often better than they can understand traditional academic material.

For example, in Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel elaborates the concept of aggrieved entitlement. Kimmel explains that because straight white men are used to race, gender, and sexual orientation privilege, recent societal changes towards equalizing the playing field– such as equal rights and the increasing social and economic parity for racial minorities, women, and LGBT Americans– feel like mysandry and oppression. Many of the people Kimmel interviewed felt as if the things they deserved were unfairly being taken away from or denied to them.

This feeling of entitlement to be the sole possessor of social goods is often evidenced on Twitter whenever black users create a culturally-relevant hashtag. For example, in August of 2015 the hashtag #IfHogwartsWasAnHBCU resulted in days of comical tweets from the amorphous, ever-present “Black Twitter”.  As Buzzfeed reported at the time, Black Twitter used this hashtag to poke fun at life at an historically black colleges, while also imagining a Harry Potter world of Hogwarts infused with Black culture.

Some of the more hilarious examples of this collective Black imagination included the band being better than the football team (and thus being the only real reason anyone attends football games), as well as speculation about which black celebrities would play which Harry Potter characters:

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Yet the Black imagination– conjured solely for the Black gaze– was too much for some Twitter users to handle. Feelings of entitlement to white dominance, both on social media and in society’s collective imagination, was no doubt the logic behind one user who tweeted that a hypothetical, magical HBCU was ruining Hogwarts for her:

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For Blacks to create a form of entertainment that neither featured nor benefitted the White majority was seen as, for lack of a better word, perverse.

Then, a few months later, right before Thanksgiving, the hashtag #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies found Blacks again sharing intra-cultural jokes and social commentary on our culture. Black users’ application of the hashtag revealed a collective insight into a social zeitgeist, one created and perpetuated by the fact that many black Americans share similar culture and experiences.

Still, before we had finished laughing so hard that we choked on our “diabetes-sweetened Sweet Tea”, some white Twitter users fired back, calling us “racists”.

In the words of the illustrious prophet, Yo Gotti, “We woke up to some Twitter beef.”

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Notice here that there is no attempt to gain awareness of a historically-suppressed perspective, no urge to debunk the narrative of power and privilege that has pervaded our country for centuries. No desire to understand or deconstruct the cultural implications of the hashtag. There is just one sentiment: rage. Rage at the perceived unfairness of asymmetrical license to stereotype Blacks.

This rather insidious envy, born of the desire to engage in uncritical mudslinging with impunity, obscured the more socially-significant questions that White Twitter users should have raised. Instead of asking, “I wonder where these cultural jokes are coming from?”, these Twitter users ask: “Why can’t we be ‘racist’ too?”

The disappointment shown towards a missed opportunity to subvert and demonize a celebration of Blackness is a clear sign of the terminal illness that mass majority racism has inflicted upon our society.

And that’s just half the problem.

Twitter users not only lamented this missed opportunity, but seemed incensed that their perspective on this intra-cultural issue wasn’t even acknowledged.

To expand, Black people are notorious for what is called “playing the dozens”, for our resilience, wit, and ability to laugh in order to get through tough times. After a long, harrowing year of watching the extrajudicial oppression and execution of countless innocent Black men and women, the #TWBF hashtag emerged as an attempt to gather around the cultural fire, to enjoy a holiday, to laugh off stereotypes, and to live in our resilience. This one social media phenomenon was a true and necessary manifestation of the cultural love, joy, and resilience shared within our culture, not only in spite of, but because of the race-specific and global challenges Blacks face in the world today.

This feeling of Black togetherness and camaraderie is ever-present, and the use of culturally-specific hashtags on Twitter only serve as contemporary mediums for expressing this inner beauty and strength. That the #TWBF hashtag was seen as a racist affront to Whites is as random as an outsider trying to get in on a family joke.

Dude. No one was even talking to (or about) you.

More so than classic white privilege or Kimmel’s concept of aggrieved entitlement, the white Twitter users who angrily object to the existence of black hashtags epitomize mass majority narcissism, wherein not only do Whites believe that they should be the sole possessors of social goods, but of the social gaze as well. For these White social media users to be offended by a minority group’s celebration, discussion, and acknowledgement of its own culture only further illuminates how deeply this mass majority narcissism sits in the bosom of our country.

In spite of the strange and self-centered opprobrium launched at Blacks having a good Turkey Day, Black Twitter users will continue to create and enjoy our hashtags. Because they’re fun. Because they’re funny. And because despite the narcissistic expectations of the mass majority,not everything on Twitter has to be about, for, or even intelligible to white users.

So stop being mad, son.

 

~ This post was written by Jennifer Patrice Sims, PhD, and Vanisha Renée Pierce, MS. Sims is an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Her work examines racial perception, mixed race identity and the sociology of fictional societies, in particular Harry Potter.  

Pierce is an urban fantasy, dystopian sci-fi, and sci-fi thriller novelist and creative entrepreneur. Her fiction work explores the collisions between socio-political hegemony and the Afro-futuristic imagination. Her entrepreneurial mission is to educate, inspire, and empower women to connect with their innate creativity.

Racism and Family: Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Book

As the nation—and even the world—approaches yet another Rev./Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, some will be reflecting on how far we’ve come since King’s time. Others will be calling for renewed vigor toward activism and social justice, noting how far we still have to go toward King’s “dream.” Last year I was one of those voices. This year, however, I am instead overwhelmed by tremendous grief. The racism King deplored and gave his very life to combat simply will not leave us. It seems no sooner can I experience the joy of connecting to another person than it is cut short by the cold hard truth of what racism does to relationships, and to our inner beings. And just as I am grieving personal loss, I too am grieving the loss for all of humanity. That too many of the human species are condemned to lives far dimmer than what the bright light of their spirit could hold, if it weren’t for the invention of race and its rules of division.

Between the world and me book cover

One analyst who shares my grief is Ta-nehisi Coates. I was deeply moved this summer after reading his new book Between the World and Me. After noticing some reviewers accuse Coates of overgeneralizing about whites and/or police officers (see here for example) I knew I had to get a copy to read for myself. I’m all too familiar with my students and others reading things that aren’t there when it comes to racism. Not surprisingly, I found Coates was not the mythical creature he was purported to be. (You know, the one that hates all white people and won’t give even them a chance–e.g., like the black person “who took your job,” or the “close” black friend you have). However, we still have yet to have a documented/verified sighting of such a black person!

No, far from being exclusionary or categorically dismissive, Coates places the blame exactly where it should be:

‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. . . . without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for a want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all of history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been ‘black,’ and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us. . .(p. 42)

These very fences are directly responsible for many of the losses I am grieving. I connected so deeply to Coates’ writing because he wrote as a parent torn between the beauty of a child who believes he can dwell above the veil, beyond the veil (see W.E.B. Du Bois), and the harsh reality that one’s job as a parent is to protect one’s children of color from being slaughtered by these fences—-all the while knowing in the end we will have little to no control when the unfairness of it all crashes down onto them. I am the one they look to, to tell them they can be anything they want to be when no one else will, but as a person who values honesty, I cannot lie to them. And as a parent who wants them to succeed, thrive, and prosper, I cannot ill-equip them by shielding them from these truths.

Comedians make jokes sometimes about the different parenting styles of whites and blacks—-as if they are simply differences in regional dialect or those color/hue palette variations like eye color that make the world go round and keep it interesting. But Coates so astutely implicates the very white power structure above for the perceived harshness of some black parenting styles. Just underneath that gruffness is nothing but racism-instilled fear:

This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies. So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you to contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. . . .This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile. . . It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.(pp. 90-1).

These many costs of racism that take grave tolls on black bodies and minds have been documented empirically in Joe Feagin and Karyn McKinney’s book, The Many Costs of Racism — high rates of hypertension, workplace-induced carcinogens (i.e., much environmental racism), and other factors all ultimately resulting in lower life expectancies. Thus, one piece of my grief, for example, is that my children will never know their African American grandmother, who died at only 52, and was one of the most hardworking, loving, giving, caring, and musically talented members of the family. Yet many African Americans might only dream that their children had been able to see the age of 52—instead, their children, such as (most recently) Prince Jones, Michael Brown, Trayvon Brown, Tamir Rice, and far too many others must be mourned before they can even be parents themselves, much less barely finish their childhood.

Coates wrote Between the World and Me in the form of a letter to his son, who cried in his room inconsolably after learning of the Michael Brown verdict. Coates knew that telling his son everything’s going to be all right was not an option. After the book’s printing, no doubt Coates would not be surprised there would be no justice for Tamir Rice either. Racism literally takes away life, which is bad enough. But for those of us who remain, while we remain, racism does damage to our lives as well.

So I am grieving today that I had to have “the talk” with my 8-year old black son. Much as I wanted to put it off longer–the child still believes in Santa Claus–a well-meaning white family member forced my hand, by giving him the toy gun he asked for for Christmas. I had to tell him that a police officer might shoot and kill him with the justification that he thought he was holding a real gun. Lest his naïve white mother be talking about something she was clueless about, he turned to his older sister for some sort of confirmation or denial. When his sister–with hair like his and skin like his–told him, “yes, it’s true,” at that moment he knew that all the nice refrains in school about the police officer being his friend were but one version of the real story.

I am grieving that “the talk”–that was once associated with getting one’s driver’s license and becoming a young man–is now a talk for little ones who still take their steps down a staircase two feet at a time.

And while I shoulder this, I am also grieving a three-year relationship with the beautiful African American man I thought was my soul mate. Though each of us was raising children of our own, it was mentioned that my parenting was perhaps too optimistic. “We did not choose our fences” (Coates 2015:42), but those fences inevitably mean we only could connect but so much, and but for so long. Imagine how much more energy one could devote to strengthening one’s relationships if one’s body were not constantly drafted into the war of fighting racism. Perhaps fortuitously, a skilled and talented DJ chose “Footprints” as part of the soundtrack to our first date. It begins with a mother saying a routine “hurry back” goodbye to her son, only to lose him forever in a shooting—-much akin to the grief Coates chronicles in his interview with the mother of Prince Jones.

Some have told me Coates’ book was so painful, they had to put it down. While decontextualized excerpts from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech have been used at times as some kind of “Kumbaya, why can’t we all just get along anthem,” Coates instead uses the concept of the “dream” to refer to the deluded whites who think the world is a meritocracy, the world is their oyster, and when and if problems arise, justice wins out in orderly fashion. Those whites and others who buy uncritically into the “dream” still understand racism as an aberration to an otherwise ethically grounded society, much as the occasional natural disaster. Coates notes that

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’. . .But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. . . [whiteness] has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power” (pp. 7-8)

Those who subscribe to the “dream” are usually ignorant of the fact that racism in the form of slavery and Jim Crow forms fully 83 percent of our nation’s history so it’s foundational and ongoing, as opposed to a temporary hiccup. When Michelle Alexander reviewed Coates’ book for The New York Times review of books, she read it twice–the first time she was so disheartened that he offered no optimistic, visionary, inspirational vision for the future, that she had to read it again a second time with new adjusted expectations. Coates does not provide a way out of the mess. And although I do not share Coates’ atheism/agnosticism, what lover of justice among us has not questioned why a benevolent God would allow the ugliness of racism to continue to rage with no end in sight?

I led two community discussions on Coates’ book in Fall 2015, and I asked my fellow readers whether they thought Coates was a pessimist. Though we did not find him to be offering optimism, we agreed that what Coates prescribes is instead consciousness. He calls us to be fully aware, cast off the denial, and pay attention. Indeed, to his son he wrote:

My wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world” (pp. 107-8).

If one listens closely, there are moments of beauty of this world Coates celebrates throughout these pages. Those are the moments when one dwells outside the veil, when the fences have been temporarily lifted, when the softness dares to emerge despite the inevitable risk of pain that looms just behind. Coates eloquently shares with the reader the moments when he is bowled over by the bold no-holds-barred confidence of his son or his wife, or the way his fellow students groove to the music at a party. They exude a soulfulness and a zeal for life that he cherishes in those moments. Those snapshots in time become all the more beautiful when you are fully conscious of how rare they are, and how inevitably they will be interrupted.

In a bereavement workshop after the passing of my father, I was reminded that grief is an indicator of once having loved and being loved in return. Toward the end of his life, this man sent me a card every year on MLK day to acknowledge and honor my work. He would also remind me of the Buddhist teaching on impermanence–everything, whether wondrous or painful, too shall pass. Coates brings us face to face with the kind of pain that is like fire or looking into the son-—at some point, many readers feel compelled to put the book down and look away, it is too heavy to bear. Yet, even though he is a skeptic, he is fully conscious. His eyes are wide open, and he does not want to miss a moment.

So on this Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, while the national focus on race and racism only calls to mind the sadness and pain it inflicts upon my relationships with those I love most, I am also challenged to follow Coates’ lead: as I grieve, I will keep conscious. I will cherish the moments my love and I got lost in the music and there were no fences between us. I will cherish the moments my children played with abandon without a care to how boisterous they were, and no one was there to invoke our fear of sanctions that might befall them when their “race” trumped their youthful innocence in someone’s eyes. Most of all I will keep telling the truth, and I will not keep silent, about the racism that keeps us all from being able to enjoy so many more of those moments with each other.

~ Eileen O’Brien is Associate Professor of Sociology and Assistant Chair of Social Sciences at Saint Leo University (Virginia campus). She is currently researching race and hip hop (with Nosh McTaggart) and race/gender in military families (with Stephanie Byrd). Her books include The Racial Middle, and Race Ethnicity Gender and Class (with Joseph Healey).