Celebrating Juneteenth

(Originally posted in 2017)

“By putting on their very best clothes, the black people were signaling they were free,” historian Jackie Jones relates. “It enraged white people. They hated to see black people dressed up because it turned their world upside down.” Sartorial display is woven into resistance and celebrations of the African American holiday Juneteenth.

Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900 (from Wikipedia)

 

Today marks the anniversary of the original Juneteenth, a celebration marking the end of slavery. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration that people celebrate in a variety of ways. NPR’s Code Switch has been collecting stories of how people celebrate at the hashtag #WouldntBeJuneteenthWithout, but I there is a pall over the usual celebratory mood of this Juneteenth by recent events in Seattle, where Charleena Lyles was killed by police after she called them to report a burglary, and in Minnesota, where the police officer on trial for killing Philando Castile, was acquitted on all charges.

Indeed, after the ongoing police-murder of Black people, the celebration of Juneteenth and the struggle behind it, take on a renewed sense of urgency and poignancy. Why celebrate it at all? It wasn’t always a widely recognized holiday, and it was a struggle to get it recognized.

The Struggle to Make Juneteenth a State Holiday

Juneteenth hasn’t always been recognized as a holiday, and in the family I came from it was often scoffed at (lots of derision about the name of the holiday). So the fact that Juneteenth is now an official state holiday in Texas and many other communities across the US, is significant and is only possible because of a political struggle waged by one Houston Democratic legislator, (former) state representative Al Edwards. It seems impossible now to mention a black, Democratic state representative and not call to mind, Rep. Clementa Pinckney, gunned down while leading that Wednesday night service in Charleston.

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Edwards was born in Houston in 1937, the sixth of sixteen children, and was first elected as a state representative in 1978 from Houston’s District 146, the area known as Alief. A year later, in 1979, Edwards authored and sponsored House Bill 1016, making June 19th (“Juneteenth”) a paid state holiday in Texas.

Everyone, it seemed, opposed the idea. In a recent interview about this bill, attorney Doug McLeod, a conservative Democratic representative from Galveston at the time said of Edwards, “He really had an uphill battle. He had opposition from the left and the right.” Mostly white conservative Democratic majority viewed the bill as a hard sell to their constituents and many of Edwards’ 14 fellow black legislators saw it as a diversion from securing a holiday for Martin Luther King.

House Bill 1016 appeared to be headed nowhere when Edwards, a Democrat who was new to the legislature, originally filed it. Eventually, he got McLeod to sign on to the bill and Bill Clayton, then speaker of the Texas legislature.

Then-Gov. Bill Clements, a Republican, declined to endorse the Juneteenth bill, but he agreed to sign it if passed. Through a series of negotiations and brokered deals over votes, Rep. Edwards eventually prevailed and got the bill through the legislature. When the bill passed, white conservative opponents urged the governor not to sign the bill, but Clements kept his word and signed the bill on the Texas State Capitol steps. This prompted other states to follow suit. Now 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way or another.

History and Struggle Behind Juneteenth

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, but people remained enslaved within the state of Texas.

This happened for two reasons.

First, Texas slave owners refused to release the people they were holding as slaves. They basically just wouldn’t acknowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation or Lee’s surrender had happened or had any bearing on them (cf. “States Rights,” see also Texas is a Whole Other Country).

Second, slave owners from neighboring states in the south looked on Texas as a haven for slavery, so they poured into Texas with an estimated 125,000-150,000* enslaved people from surrounding Confederate states (*historians debate the precise number).

In a recent interview, Jackie Jones,a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.”The idea was Texas was so vast that the federal government would never be able to conquer it all. There is this view that if they want to hold onto their slaves, the best thing to do is get out of the South and go to Texas.”

This ended on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and again declared the end of the Civil War, with General Granger reading aloud a special decree that ordered the freeing of some 200,000 people still in bondage in Texas.

Today, some 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way. This would not have been possible without the vision of Rep. Al Edwards and the struggle to make it a reality.

In times like these, what’s to celebrate?

With the official, legal end of chattel slavery — and the enforcement of that decree in Texas — there was much to celebrate in 1865. It was no longer legal for human beings to be sold on auction blocks as they had been. And, to be clear, the US didn’t just tolerate slavery as an economic system, it expanded and prospered on it. The overturning of this dehumanizing system was a momentous victory for a multi-racial group of abolitionists who waged a decades long campaign to end slavery.

Reconstruction followed, creating new opportunities for African Americans who owned and profited from their own land and began to participate in local politics.

Most Americans remain confused about the period of Reconstruction, and many still subscribe toA false story of Reconstruction disseminated in popular culture through things like the film Birth of a Nation. Although historians including Columbia University’s Eric Foner have shown the extraordinary political, economic, and legal gains of Reconstruction, as Gregory P. Downs notes at TPM.

One historian, C. Vann Woodward, has called the period of “the forgotten alternatives.” During the period between 1870 and 1900, there was some racial integration in housing and privately-owned facilities. Black people could travel on public transportation, vote and get elected, get jobs, including on police forces, and enjoy many public facilities.

But. the gains of Reconstruction were short-lived.

This “alternative” approach to race during Reconstruction ended when what Woodward calls the “strange career” of Jim Crow segregation, began — first by whites in the North, and expanded with a vengeance by Southern whites. Within thirty years of emancipation, laws were instituted that stripped African Americans of their rights, making celebrations like Juneteenth a distant memory. A prison-labor paradigm developed. White jail owners profited from the hard labor of their black inmates who were incarcerated for petty crimes like vagrancy, which carried long sentences. White landowners replaced chattel slavery with a deceptive practice called debt peonage, a new form of bondage continued for many blacks for decades. It wasn’t until 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 which strengthened the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867, making it a criminal offense. Roosevelt launched a federal investigation, prosecuted guilty whites and effectively ended peonage in 1942.

So, why celebrate Juneteenth if white supremacy re-emerged with such a bloody return thirty short years later? Because celebration, commemoration and community are how we gain strength for the larger struggle.

Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name land co-executive producer of the documentary film by the same name, said this about Juneteenth:

“It’s important not to skip over the first part of true freedom. Public education as we know it today and the first property rights for women were instituted by African-American elected officials.”

Even as there is terrible news of continued police killing of Black people, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on other times, other struggles and other victories on this anniversary of Juneteenth.

 

 

 

Royal Wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry: Black Counter-Framing

Royal Wedding

[Part 2 of 2]
Afua Hirsch—quoted in Part 1—contends that Meghan “Markle used her wedding to introduce her new peers to blackness.” I think more was at work than simply presenting blackness to the British elite. Counter-framing was at the heart of the Royal Wedding. Indeed, Hirsch’s fantastic article gives example after example of counter-framing by Markle, though she does not name it as such.

As sociologist and social theorist Joe Feagin explains:

Counter-frames are grounded in counter-system thinking and have been very important for Black Americans in surviving and resisting oppression over many generations. In these anti-racism counter-frames whites are defined as highly problematical, and strategies on how to deal with whites and white institutions are expressed and foregrounded.

As observed by anti-racist leaders and media pundits in the immediate aftermath of the Royal Wedding, thanks to Markle, counter-framing was distinctly conspicuous during the ceremony. “A beautiful service and a beautiful couple. Making my beautiful mixed heritage family’s shoulders stand a little taller,” tweeted the British Labour Party politician, David Lammy. But equally important was Lammy’s caveat about giving too much importance to the ceremony’s counter-framing. He said to a British newspaper:

Clearly one wedding isn’t going to fundamentally alter the lives of Britain’s ethnic minorities, many of whom are still subject to different forms of discrimination. … These are paradoxical times, with a post-Brexit environment with rising hate crime, with the Windrush story [which exposed an immigration system developed by the British government elite that basically harassed tens of thousands of legal Caribbean residents] that brings us international shame. The multi-cultural future of Britain is contested. The ceremony was hopeful. It spoke both of our Commonwealth past, our history, but also of a future. But we shouldn’t read too much into it.

What symbols did Meghan Markle draw on in her counter-framing? What was her approach to the expression and foregrounding of whites and white institutions?

In the direct aftermath of the wedding, Lindsay Peoples—fashion editor for New York Magazine’s The Cut—put it memorably, referring to the wedding as incredibly unapologetic with its “black moments,” and adding that Markle “did not come to play—the melanin came all the way through.” Here is a summary of what Peoples dubbed the “Best Black Joy Moments”:

1. Doria Ragland: “Single black mother … showing up in her locs in a twist out and her nose ring.”
2. Bishop Michael Curry’s wedding address, with two references to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
3. Rose Hudson-Wilkin: The first black female chaplain to a British monarch.
4. The All-Black Choir: “I had already lost my cool at this point,” writes Peoples, “Every single person’s hair in this choir was laid. I got hair inspiration for days from these three minutes. And the song “Stand By Me” was the perfect choice, just enough soul to rock side-to-side to.”
5. Sheku Kanneh-Mason: At only 19, he is the first black cellist to win the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year award.
6. The wedding dress and flowers on Markle’s veil, which represented the 53 nations of the British Commonwealth. As Peoples put it, “The duchess literally had black nations on her back, using one of the biggest days for the royal family to subtly note to their history of colonization and showing the world that all British people of color should be represented.”
7. The Gospel songs: “As if the choir wasn’t enough,” writes Peoples, “on [Meghan’s and Harry’s] way out of the chapel [the gospel choir] sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Amen,” gospel songs that are sung in practically every black church because of their significance in the Civil Rights Movement.”
We might add to this list, the presence of Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, Idris Elba, and other (albeit influential and affluent) people of color, such as actress Priyanka Chopra and Lebanese-British barrister Amal Clooney.

Another anti-establishment symbol on the wedding day came compliments of Queen Elizabeth II herself, who bestowed the titles Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Harry and Meghan. In so doing, the newest member of the Royal Family became the first legal Duchess of Sussex. That she is the first is not even what is most significant. Like Markle, the earlier Duke of Sussex, sixth son of King George III, defied white Anglo-Saxon royal tradition. He refused to obey the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 and married who he wanted (hence, there was no legal Duchess of Sussex before Markle). He advocated for the emancipation of Roman Catholics. He fought for the elimination of civil restrictions on Jews and dissenters. He supported parliamentary reform. And he was an anti-slavery advocate. It remains uncertain whether the Queen considered his anti-slavery advocacy when selecting the title for the newlyweds. Regardless, it is a fitting designation because not only has Markle long been an advocate for democratic causes; like the first Duke of Sussex, she is a counter-framer of white Anglo-Saxon tradition. We can only hope she will continue to buck (white) royal traditions and the centuries old and still dominant white racial frame in the process.

As we reflect on “Black Joy Moments,” we would be wise to remember the astuteness of Black Britons like David Lammy. Or Herman Ouseley, a former executive chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, who like Lammy noted that the ceremony will not, of course, rid Britain of racial and class oppression.

There is also Stafford Scott, a consultant on racial equality and community engagement, who did not watch the wedding. Even less enthusiastic about the significance of the wedding than Lammy and Ouseley, Scott remarked:

I heard there was a black choir and some people felt that was very symbolic. I just think it was that we have got some really good black choirs. … I have nothing negative to say about what took place yesterday, though online some people did. … I don’t think people should be getting carried away because of somebody’s personal choices. [Harry choosing a “mixed-race” bride was “personal choice” rather than statement, Scott said.] I do hope that it does, somehow, become something going forward. But, in terms of the black community’s standing in this country, the difficulties we face are structural. White and black people have been mixing for generations and it hasn’t, necessarily, led to any improvements, or deepening of understanding.

The history of white racism in Britain is extensive and deep-seated; an understanding of this fact is largely lost on most whites (and some others). Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, examines systemic racism in Britain and her efforts to persuade white folks that racism is their problem too, and adds, for example, that Black British history—especially white slavery—is mostly framed as a North American issue. Yet over the course of 200 years, white British traders forced three million Africans onto ships and into slavery in the British colonies.

Systemic racism, as Feagin explains, is a highly developed, well-institutionalized, structurally embedded, historically deep, white-defined racial oppression that significantly shapes virtually every facet of society. It will take far more than a Royal Wedding or a biracial Duchess to change a systematically racist society like Britain. It will take, among other things, the following:

1. Eradicating exploitative and discriminatory practices that target Britons of color.
2. Eliminating the dominant British white racial hierarchy and its defence of white privilege and white power.
3. Eliminating the British white racial frame (WRF) that rationalizes and implements racial oppression, including racial prejudices, stereotypes, images, ideologies, emotions, interpretations, and narratives.
4. Ending racial inequalities long-ago established in Britain by social reproduction apparatuses.

Like in the U.S., dedication to ending white racism in Britain will require a focus on systemic racism as opposed to individual racism. Perhaps then, but certainly not because of a Royal Wedding, we will be able to genuinely rejoice in progress on race relations in Britain.

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.

Supreme Court Moves Away from Civil Rights

In her recent dissent from the majority decision of the Supreme Court regarding a Michigan constitutional amendment banning affirmative action, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic judge to serve on the Court, described the perspective of her conservative colleagues as “out of touch with reality.”

525px-Supreme_Court_US_2010

 

(Image source)

Recall Chief Justice John Roberts’ pronouncement in 2007 that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” in the 2007 Parents Involved vs. Seattle School District case that outlawed major avenues for voluntary school desegregation. In direct contrast to this judicial view, Justice Sotomayer wrote in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014)

Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society—inequality that cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities.” And she added, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.

We know that the promising resolution of the Brown v. Board Case in 1954 that found “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites to be unconstitutional has been eroded and successively reversed through a series of Court decisions based on what Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy refers to as principles of “constitutional colorblindness.” From a colorblind, post-racial perspective, America is viewed as having attained a state in which race, ethnicity, gender, and other ascriptive characteristics no longer play a significant role in shaping life opportunities. Consider the statement, for example, of Chief Justice John Roberts, expressing the Court’s opinion in striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that determines which states and counties must follow strict guidelines that govern changes to their voting laws: “Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” A well-documented body of empirical sociological research, however, demonstrates that contemporary racial inequality is reinforced through second-generation forms of discrimination and facially nonracial, subtle practices and behaviors that are threaded through the day-to-day experiences of non-dominant groups within American society.

How did this historical shift occur in the Supreme Court’s view of Civil Rights? Legal scholar Gary Orfield points out that that the decisions of the Earl Warren Court in the 1950s and the 1960s played an important role in stimulating the Civil Rights movement, whereas decisions of a conservative-dominated Court in the later 1980s pushed the country in the opposite direction and even reached conclusions that policies designed to address inequality are unnecessary and unfair. These later decisions, he indicates, have been seen by some scholars as replicating the efforts to undermine Reconstruction civil rights laws that resulted in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision legitimizing the concept of “separate but equal.” In Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education (1996), Orfield and Susan Eaton call attention to three little-noticed decisions in the 1990’s in which the Supreme Court articulated procedures for dismantling school desegregation plans that allowed students to return to neighborhood schools, even when segregated and inferior. These decisions reinterpreted the notion of integration as a goal, reducing it to a formalistic requirement that could be lifted after a few years. Decades afterward, as reported by Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley in a 2012 report sponsored by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, 80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of blacks attended highly segregated schools, with the percent of white students only ranging from 0 to 10 percent. In fact, eight of the 20 states with the highest levels of school segregation are in border or southern states, a significant reversal for civil rights progress.

In the area of public university admissions, the Supreme Court’s decisions related to voluntary forms of affirmative action have abandoned the original remedial purpose of race-sensitive admissions and reinterpreted the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in terms of protecting the rights of the majority and preventing what has been termed “reverse discrimination.” As Harvard law scholar Michael Klarman notes, the Equal Protection Clause says nothing about government colorblindness and does not even mention race. Instead, diversity has replaced affirmative action as a compelling state interest, ironically requiring universities to prove that white students and other students benefit from policies that were designed to address a long history of racial inequality.

And consider the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri that are linked to racial segregation, economic inequality, and differential policing practices. As Erwin Chemerinsky writes in an August 24 New York Times Op Ed, recent Supreme Court decisions such as Plumhoff v. Rickard decided on May 27 have made it difficult, if not impossible, to hold police officers accountable for civil rights violation, undermining the ability to deter illegal police behavior.

To what extent does the Court’s conservative drift in the area of civil rights reflect the mood and temper of public opinion? Santa Clara law professor Brad Joondeph reminds us that the Court has never actually played the role of “counter-majoritarian hero,” but rather has been responsive to shifting political tides. The creation of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in response to public protests, marches, and collective action undertaken by minorities in support of greater social equality. According to legal scholar Derrick Bell, social movements such as the radical protests of the 1960s are more likely to bring about change when they converge with other interests that may be differently motivated.

In The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-framing (2013), social theorist Joe Feagin identifies the strategies of both individual resistance and collective action undertaken by Americans of color that have created significant public pressure to address inequality. Feagin indicates that essential to many civil rights protests was a strong anti-racist counter-frame articulated by numerous black leaders and scholars. As he notes, Martin Luther King emphasized the need for collective action to overcome oppression:

The story of Montgomery (Alabama) is the story of fifty thousand such Negroes who were willing to …walk the streets of Montgomery until the walls of segregation were finally battered by the forces of justice (p. 177).

If indeed the Supreme Court mirrors strong tides of opinion within the United States, the admonition of Sonia Sotomayor not to “sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society” represents a call to action. In describing the Court’s “long slow drift from racial justice” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger identifies the importance of a renewed conversation about racial justice in order to address issues that will reach the high court. And the composition of the Court clearly matters in matters of racial jurisprudence. According to Klarman, since the Court is not always a defender of the interests of racial minorities, even the appointment of one more liberal judge could have meant that many key decisions could have been decided differently.

Recently, we have seen a few promising signals, such as the ruling of the three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals upholding consideration of race as one factor among many in response to the case filed by Abigail Fisher at the University of Texas. Yet reinfusing our judicial processes with the ideals represented in landmark Civil Rights decisions will require an invigorated national dialogue and sustained attention to how the ideals of justice and equality take shape in the prism of public consciousness and are reflected in judicial perspectives.

 

~ This post originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Insight into Diversity magazine, and is reposted here with permission. 

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords

If the recent post about white journalists grappling with their own racism made you wonder about black journalists, California Newsreel may have some answers.

For a brief time, the folks at California Newsreel are making one of their films available for free viewing online.   The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (86 minutes, 1998) is a documentary by Stanley Nelson that is the first to chronicle the history of the Black press, including its central role in the construction of modern African American identity. It recounts the largely forgotten stories of generations of Black journalists who risked life and livelihood so African Americans could represent themselves in their own words and images.

It’s an excellent resource for teaching about news media, race and ethnicity, or popular culture.  It also comes with a facilitator guide with ideas for discussion questions.

Happy Juneteenth!

[from the archive – originally posted June 19, 2009]

This is an African American holiday started in Texas, for obvious reasons. Wikipedia has a nice summary of key info:

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. State of Texas in 1865. Celebrated on June 19, the term is a portmanteau of June and nineteenth, and is recognized as a state holiday in 31 of the United States.

That is, word of President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of January 1863 reached Texas only in June 1865:

The holiday originated in Galveston, Texas; for more than a century, the state of Texas was the primary home of Juneteenth celebrations. Since 1980, Juneteenth has been an official state holiday in Texas. It is considered a “partial staffing holiday” meaning that state offices do not close but some employees will be using a floating holiday to take the day off. Twelve other states list it as an official holiday, including Arkansas, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Alaska and California, where Governor Schwarzenegger proclaimed the day “Juneteenth” on June 19, 2005. Connecticut, however, does not consider it a legal holiday or close government offices in observance of the occasion. Its informal observance has spread to some other states, with a few celebrations even taking place in other countries.

As of May 2009, 31 states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or state holiday observance; these include Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

This is also a day to remember the 500,000 African Americans, who as soldiers and support troops, many of them formerly enslaved, volunteered for the Union Army at its low point, and who thus played a (the?) key role in winning the Civil War. This is an ironic day, too, given the very weak apology for slavery voted on this week in the mostly white US Senate. A bit late.

Senate Apologizes for Slavery: 219 Years Late

On June 18, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and segregation. A day later, on Juneteenth, commemorated annually to commemorate the date in 1865 when African Americans learned of their emancipation, President Barak Obama praised the Senate’s action. And, the U.S. House, which voted in support of a similar resolution previously, is expected to endorse the Senate resolution, perhaps as early as the coming week.

In offering an apology on behalf of the American people, lawmakers joined peers in other settler states, namely Australia and Canada, to express regret for and in some way resolve historic injustices associated with nation-building and capitalist expansion. They took a step, even if small, to come to terms with race, but importantly, did so on terms acceptable to White America and shaped by the very racist history they so wanted to escape.

Undoubtedly, the resolution says something important about how far the U.S has come since 1865, while diverting attention away from how little has changed. Indeed, while the overt racism and legally sanctioned discrimination that flourished under slavery and were reborn under Jim Crow have receded, racial stratification, black disadvantage, and white privilege are as pronounced today, if not worse than, they were in 1965 when the civil rights movement crested in the U.S. Worse, the apology avoids accountability as it bars reparations. Words stand in for action and once more structural remedies to the legacies of slavery seem unimaginable to most white Americans and unworkable to their elected representatives.

In the apology, one can glimpse a pattern that has emerged around race relations as well. Over the past ten to fifteen years, it has become common for white celebrities and politicians who make a racist statement to issue an apology in which they express regret, claim lack of intention or forethought, and point to their true character which is not racist. As I suggested in a larger discussion of such apologies, they have emerged as important ways of disavowing racism, deflecting attention from the ubiquity of racism and deferring individual and collective responsibility for racism. In many ways, this is what I see in the apology, an effort to deny the persist of racism, locating its ills and the past as we craft images of our better selves today.

Another sort of denial has accompanied the resolution: the palpable resentment of white Americans. Although the precise phrasing varies, the themes are familiar: “my family did not own or benefit from slavery as we immigrated after 1900 and lived in the North” or “race is only an issue because Blacks keep talking about it” or “I am unemployed, the economy is a wreck, and all they can do in Washington is pass meaningless, feel good legislation,” and so on. The material rewards and social privileges of being white discounted, trumped by a rhetoric of injury and angry identity politics.

In contrast with Ben Buchwalter, who reads the action as a sign of strength, for me, sadly, this historic resolution reminds me more of the persistence and power of white racism today.

Black & Poor: Bill Wilson’s Theoretical Muddle

As with his previous books, trouble with William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race begins with its title: Is there anybody on the planet, in academic or popular discourses, who believes that black disadvantage is “just race”? Is Wilson merely shadow boxing? Has he set up a straw argument, making a caricature of his opponent, all the better to demonstrate the rectitude of his position? Is the book an answer to critics who assailed him for undercutting the black protest movement by proclaiming that race was of “declining significance”?

The fierce debate that followed the 1978 publication of  The Declining Significance of Race was a reiteration of a longstanding debate on the Left. On the one hand, there are those in the Marxist tradition who subsume race to class and contend that the problem of race is primarily one of economic inequality. On the other hand, there are those in the black radical tradition who insist that it is not “just class,” not only because we are left with the legacy of slavery, but also because racial discrimination, especially in the world of work, is still systemic and widespread. On this view, the problems of African Americans are fundamentally different from those of other exploited workers, requiring different policy remedies. But neither side of the race/class debate is so simplistic or obtuse as to assert that either race or class operates to the exclusion of the other. Indeed, over the past twenty years a consensus has emerged concerning the “intersectionality” of race and class (a problematic that W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with throughout his long life). Hence, Wilson’s epiphany, that race and class are “entwined,” has long been accepted as axiomatic by both sides of the race/class debate, and one wonders whether his book, with its dubious title, was even necessary.

Another problem with Wilson’s title is that it doesn’t quite match the thrust of his book, which is preoccupied with another academic squabble: the structure/culture debate. On the one hand, there are those who emphasize the role that major societal institutions play in throwing blacks into poverty and limiting their avenues of escape. Others, however, locate the sources of black disadvantage in an aberrant ghetto culture that, or so they claim, perpetuates poverty from one generation to the next. Wilson steps into this breach, methodically reviews the knowledge claims of both sides, and alas concludes that structure and culture are “entwined.” Had he been faithful to his argument, Wilson would have titled his book, More Than Just Structure.

morethanjustraceIn his laudatory review of More Than Just Race in the New York Times Book Review, Richard Thompson Ford echoes Wilson’s claim that “the vitriolic condemnation of the Moynihan Report effectively closed off a serious academic focus on the culture of poverty for decades, robbing policy makers of a complete and nuanced account of the causes of ghetto poverty.” Now, it is undeniable that Moynihan was pummeled, but not for bringing to light compromising details concerning black families. Rather Moynihan came under fire for inverting cause and effect. Instead of blaming joblessness and poverty for the fracture of black families, Moynihan blamed the “weak black family,” going back to slavery, for the litany of problems that beset the black poor.

Moreover, it is preposterous for Wilson and Ford to suggest that reaction to the Moynihan Report short-circuited a full vetting of the culture of poverty thesis since this has been the reigning precept behind public policy over several decades, culminating in the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that abolished entitlements for poor people that had been in place since the Depression. Indeed, Wilson should reflect on what the obsession with ghetto culture has wrought. Continue reading…

Poverty, Stress, and Achievement: What Role Does Racism Play?

Day 58 _ a reveiling day
Two weeks ago, the results of an important study –
“Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, and Adult Working Memory” – were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers, Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg, examined the relationship between poverty and poor academic achievement, which they note has been studied extensively for many years (Creative Commons License photo credit: frerieke). What makes their research unique is that they measured the mediating effects that chronic stress, resulting from living in poverty during childhood, have on later achievement. They found that the chronic and intensive stressors caused by poverty leads to “working memory deficits” in young adulthood.

Because working memory is critical for language comprehension, reading, problem solving, and long-term retention of information learned, weakened working memory from poverty-induced stress may be central to explaining why young adults who lived in poverty as children have poorer educational outcomes than young adults who lived above the poverty line as children. The longer the child was poor, from birth to age 13, the weaker her or his working memory was as a young adult.

I read Evans and Schamberg’s study with great interest because of its important implications. Poor parents have long been exhorted to spend more time reading to their children and taking them to museums and other educational venues where admission may be free on certain days of the week, with the expectation that these activities, routinely provided by more affluent parents to their children, would improve poor children’s academic achievement.

However, while undoubtedly enriching, the Evans and Schamberg study indicates that these activities are not sufficient to compensate for the negative impact of the daily stressors inflicted by a life of economic deprivation.

Those stressors must be alleviated as well. As important as the findings are, though, the Evans and Schamberg study may not be generalizable to children of color. That’s because their sample was composed of 195 white male and female young adults. This surprises me given that, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, while 12.1% of white families live below the poverty line, 29.1% of black families and 24.3% of Hispanic families live in poverty. And the further impoverished a family is, the more likely they are to be black or Hispanic.

Certainly, poor black and Hispanic families experience the same kinds of stressors that poor white families experience: e.g., housing problems, the dangers posed by living in high-crime neighborhoods, stretching the limited income available to buy food and pay for other necessities. But poor families of color experience a stressor that poor white families do not experience: racism.

There is a substantial body of research that shows that racism is a chronic stressor throughout the life course for people of color, and that the stress caused by racism has serious negative effects on both psychological and physical health. For instance, Nancy Krieger and Stephen Sidney found that stress induced by racial discrimination has as much or more of an impact on blood pressure as smoking, lack of exercise, and a high-fat, high-sodium diet (“Racial Discrimination and Blood Pressure: The CARDIA Study of Young Black and White Adults,” American Journal of Public Health, 86(1996):1370-1378). Ruth Thompson-Miller and Joe Feagin found in their interviews with elderly blacks that memories of racist interactions with whites produced a number of negative physical and psychological reactions indicative of what they call “race-based traumatic stress,” the impact of which lasts a lifetime (“Continuing Injuries of Racism: Counseling in a Racist Context,” The Counseling Psychologist, 35(2007):106-115).

Importantly, Thompson-Miller and Feagin show that men and women of color experience race-based traumatic stress regardless of their social class. But when we consider the additional stressors of poverty and the fact that people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, the need to examine racism as a stressor in research such as Evans and Schamberg’s seems essential.

Although they do not mention examining racial differences or the potential role of racism on working memory or other indicators of academic achievement in future studies, I hope Evans and Schamberg, as well as other scientists, will undertake this challenging but important research.

For an extensive review of research on the physical and especially psychological impacts of racism on people of color, see a special issue of The Counseling Psychologist. I’m grateful to Ruth Thompson-Miller at Texas A&M University for bringing this special issue to my attention.

AP Posts Tale of Segregationist, Now a “Reformed” Racist

08KKKfamilyPortraitThe U.S. press has always been fond of redemption tales, especially those involving whites seeking exoneration for earlier crimes against black communities (Creative Commons License photo credit: Image Editor). This recent news story from the Associated Press about an older, now apologetic segregationist and Klan supporter, Elwin Wilson, is no different. This extensive piece written by Helen O’Neill and posted on the Yahoo.com homepage adheres to all the confines and revealing silences of traditional white discourse on racism.

Wilson has apologized publicly and often to this history:

The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to atone for the cross burnings on Hollis Lake Road. He wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for hurling a jack handle at the black kid jiggling the soda machine in his father’s service station, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961

Once wonders where the attempt at serious reparations is. Apologizing seems rather too weak, indeed.

For another thing, the journalist’s piece reeks of the prevailing white folk theory of racism. As outlined by Jane Hill, the conventional white folk theory of racism treats white racism as a mere pathology held by individuals, something which can be rooted out with education and socio-economic uplift. The author of the AP tale seeks to present Elwin Wilson, a “former Ku Kluxer,” as a redeemed white man who has been enlightened to the error of his old segregationist ways. His apologetic actions play into the white racial frame by pushing white racism, past or present, to the margins of society, rather than being seen as inherent in the dominant white perspective and perpetuated, allowed, or beheld as actions by many, if not all, whites.

According to Otto Santa Ana, the prevailing metaphor for U.S. racism is Racism as Disease. The AP journalist plays into this old white metaphor by describing Wilson as “a sad, sickly man haunted by time.” By characterizing him in this individualistic manner, the (assumed to be white) reader can dissociate him/herself from the aging Wilson, a former Ku-Kluxer suffering from the individual pathology of racism. This tactic of pegging Mr. Wilson as someone suffering from a “peculiar” disease only reinforces the dominant white view that U.S. racism is an individual-level problem, something to be confronted by individuals and not something foundational to the operating of U.S. society. The author reveals her naiveté when she fails to acknowledge the institutionalized, structural nature of racism or its very long, continuing, and unjust history. Wilson did not act alone or as an innovator.

Wilson himself fails to grasp this systemic racism, when he states that “his parents treated everyone equally.” This denying attitude about the segregation era resonates with the findings of Houts-Picca and Feagin, who show from college student diaries just how much whites seek to deny racism even as they do it, and how often they describe as “good” and “fun” or “nice” the white friends or relatives who do blatant racism. By defining recurring racism as a pathological trait beheld by otherwise “good” individuals, it becomes impossible to locate responsibility for white racism.

Also, the journalist unquestionably accepts an Us vs. Them dichotomy when discussing Wilson’s segregationist past and other racial matters with Wilson, who himself seems more concerned with gaining entrance to heaven (his words) than actually righting the wrongs of his past. Wilson refers to African Americans as “[those] people I had trouble with,” and his wife nonchalantly states “they’re going to be [in heaven] with you.” Later he even states, “By the time I went to college I had dropped all that jumping on them, [but] I still didn’t want to marry one or anything like that.” (By jumping, he means violence.) We can see just how unchanged Wilson’s othering attitudes are. Though he may be touted as a repenting celebrity by many whites and some others, especially those who have internalized the myth of the U.S. now entering a “postracial” era (see the article itself for quotes from some of his elated admirers), one can easily sense ambivalence and continuing white racial framing in the man’s contemporary words and actions.

The AP article is but another example of white writers stroking the egos of the white public, who see whites as rather easily “overcoming” the openly-racist rhetoric and action of the past. Instead of confronting the latent, deep, and commonplace remainders of white-on-black oppression today, this breezy article reinforces the prevailing disease metaphor for white racism and pushes understanding that systemic racism again to the margins of society.