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.

Racism’s Effects: The Urban League’s State of Black America 2009

The National Urban League’s 2009 State of Black America report is just out and shows, yet again, the longterm consequences of systemic racism as it impacts African Americans. The Urban League has developed what they term an Equality Index, a statistical measure of white-black inequalities in the economy, education, health, community engagement, and the “justice” system.

According to their press release, the 2009 summary index shows a little decline in the overall position of African Americans relative to whites, in their terms from 71.5 percent in the 2008 report to 71.1 percent in that 2009 report. The trend line over the five years between 2003 and 2007 shows greater inequality:

Even as both groups made progress in educational attainment, the progress was slower for blacks. During the same period while white children saw increases in “preprimary” enrollment of about 3 percent, black children saw a decline of about 1 percent, causing the education gap to grow, not shrink.

The executive summary of the report adds the inequality measures for subareas:

Economics remains the area with the greatest degree of inequality (from 57.6% in 2008 to 57.4% in 2009), followed by social justice (from 62.1% to 60.4%), health (from 73.3% to 74.4%), education (from 78.6% to 78.5%) and civic engagement (from 100.3% to 96.3%).

The State of Black America report ends with important suggestions for job/economic policy such as these:

1. Increase funding for proven and successful models of workforce training and job placement for under-skilled workers between the ages of 16 and 30 such as the Department of Labor’s “Responsible Reintegration of Youthful Offenders.”
2. Direct a percentage of all infrastructure monies to job training, job placement and job preparation for disadvantaged workers;
3. Target workforce investment dollars to the construction industry jobs that an infrastructure program will create and, where reigniting the construction industry is a goal, pre-apprenticeship programs must be funded in that sector;
4. Fund infrastructure development for public building construction and renovations of schools, community centers, libraries, recreation centers, parks, etc., that will rebuild and revitalize urban communities;
5. Re-establish a temporary Public Service Employment (PSE) program aimed at creating 150,000 – 200,000 jobs in urban areas to forestall a reduction in public services and an increase in job losses.

The report has not yet gotten much attention, but Leonard Pitts Jr., the black Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist and author of Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood, wrote a recent article arguing that these data will not be welcome to

Americans who convinced themselves in November the country had entered a “post-racial” era. Those Americans will be overwhelmingly white and will resist with mighty determination the report’s implicit argument: that we have not yet overcome, not yet reached the Promised Land, not yet come to a point where race is irrelevant, Barack Obama notwithstanding.

He then chides African Americans for not dealing with their own problems:

African-Americans do not, after all, need its policy suggestions to fix many of their most intractable problems. We do not need a government program to turn off the TV, realizing it’s hardly coincidental that people who watch more television per capita have poorer academic performance.

But then adds these savvy words:

Once you’ve turned off the television and encouraged black children toward academic excellence, you still must contend with the fact that their schools are too often crumbling, underfunded and staffed with inexperienced teachers. Once you’ve gotten black women and men to raise their children in the context of families, you still have to deal with the fact that those families need places to live, jobs to support them and doctors to keep them healthy….

Overall, Pitts accents some findings of psychological researcher, Richard Eibach, that

in judging racial progress, white people and black ones tend to use different yardsticks. Whites use the yardstick of how far we have come from the nation we used to be. Blacks use the yardstick of how far we have yet to go to be the nation we ought to be. . . . There is value in the yardstick white Americans use. . . . But there is value in the yardstick black Americans use, too, the measure the National Urban League provides in its annual studies. . . . We have not yet reached the Promised Land and we all have a moral responsibility toward that goal. But before we can fulfill that responsibility, we must learn to speak the same language where race is concerned, and to mean the same things when we do.

Even good critical analysts like Pitts seem to feel a great obligation to “balance” the views (yardstick) of most black Americans about their oppression and its redress—people who have been the targets of racial oppression at the hands of whites for four centuries and whose current unjust impoverishment is the cumulative result of that extensive oppression—with the typical blame-the-victim, moralistic views (yardstick) of many white Americans. Indeed, there seems to be an unwritten rule in the mainstream media, and in too much academic scholarship, that one should not name and critique whites for systemic and institutional racism too openly and honestly–and another unwritten rule that if one does critique white Americans for some racism, one must then “balance” that critique by clearly mentioning something negative about people of color or something else positive that whites have done in the racial arena. The frequent obsession with “Balance” here signals once again how whites really run this country and even control how we can publicly think and write about matters of systemic racism.

One can certainly counsel African Americans to do this or that to improve communities and conditions, but the greater moral responsibility obviously lies on those who created the 400-years of racial oppression, not those who have had to endure it now for four hundred years.

In Memoriam: John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)

The great U.S. historian, John Hope Franklin, died yesterday at a Duke University hospital. He was a pioneering scholar and civil rights leader. He did pathbreaking work as one of the leading scholars working on this history of African Americans and U.S. racial oppression, scholarship building on the earlier work of scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois. His most famous and widely influential book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, was an essential text for many of us who have become researchers in this area and is still widely read and used in its numerous editions. Franklin was professor emeritus at Duke, which put out an obituary summarizing his great contributions to this country, to all Americans of all backgrounds.
This summary of his life is candid about the discrimination Duke inflicted on him, indeed as southern libraries and universities often did:

At the time From Slavery to Freedom was published, there were few scholars working in African-American history and the books that had been published were not highly regarded by academics. To write it, he first had to give himself a course in African-American history, then spend months struggling to complete the research in segregated libraries and archives – including Duke’s, where he could not use the bathroom.

Yet Franklin persevered:

Franklin worked on the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case, joined protestors in a 1965 march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. and headed President Clinton’s 1997 national advisory board on race.

My only personal contact with Dr. Franklin was when he asked me to testify before President Clinton’s 1997 task force on race, at its stormy Denver, Colorado session. He was chair of the advisory board for this effort, called One America: The President’s Initiative on Race. As chair of that board, he was still strong as a civil rights leader, though somewhat frail in body. The Duke obituary adds this further recollection:

In January 2005, he spoke at Duke at the celebration of his 90th birthday, displaying the fire that motivated him throughout his long life. While others at the event talked about the past and reminisced about his accomplishments, Franklin focused squarely on the future. He described the event, held the same day as President George W. Bush’s second inauguration, as a “counter-inaugural” … He recounted some of the historical inequalities in the United States and recalled some of his own experiences with racism. He said, for example, that the evening before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, a woman at his club in Washington, D.C., asked him to get her coat. Around the same time, a man at a hotel handed Franklin his car keys and told him to get his car. “I patiently explained to him that I was a guest in the hotel, as I presumed he was, and I had no idea where his automobile was.

Even as a leading scholar and civil rights leader, well into his 80s, Franklin still faced the ugly reality of U.S. racism in his everyday life.

The grandson of a slave, Franklin’s work was informed by his first-hand experience with injustices of racism — not just in Rentiesville, Okla., the small black community where he was born on Jan. 2, 1915, but throughout his life. . . . The realities of racism hit Franklin at an early age. He has said he vividly remembers the humiliating experience of being put off the train with his mother because she refused to move to a segregated compartment for a six-mile trip to the next town. He was 6.

He survived the Tulsa race riot (actually a white pogrom in which at least 300 black citizens were killed by whites) of 1921. Unable to attend the Jim Crowed University of Oklahoma, he went to Fisk University, to study law but was convinced to study history by a white history professor there. That professor loaned him the money to begin study at Harvard, where he got his Ph.D. degree in 1941.

He began his career as an instructor at Fisk in 1936 and taught at St. Augustine’s and North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), both historically black colleges. . . . Then in 1947, he took a post as professor at Howard University, where, in the early 1950s, he traveled from Washington to Thurgood Marshall’s law office to help prepare the brief that led to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1956 he became chairman of the all-white history department at Brooklyn College. Despite his position, he had to visit 35 real estate agents before he was able to buy a house for his young family and no New York bank would loan him the money. . . . He spent 16 years at the University of Chicago, coming to Duke in 1982. He retired from the history department in 1985, then spent seven years as professor of legal history at the Duke Law School.

The Duke obituary adds this summary of his extraordinary research work:

Franklin was a prolific writer, with books including The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, George Washington Williams: A Biography and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North. He also has edited many works, including a book about his father called My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, with his son, John Whittington Franklin. … He received more than 130 honorary degrees, and served as president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the American Studies Association, the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.

Recently Franklin wrote his Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (2005) and you can hear an interview with him about it at this Duke site.

We will miss him greatly.