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.

Social Class, Race, and Intimate Partner Violence

Chris BrownChris Brown’s February 8th assault of his girlfriend, Rihanna, has put the problem of intimate partner violence in the media spotlight (Chris Brown Creative Commons License photo credit: O.M.Gee!). From Oprah Winfrey to Larry King to numerous entertainment and news websites, talk show hosts, commentators, bloggers and others have examined the incident from multiple angles, spinning off questions about abusive relationships more generally. One of the most frequently raised issues is the social class of the couple. As a writer for CNN recently noted:

Both singers are young, apple-cheeked, immensely talented and squeaky clean – the last couple you’d imagine as domestic violence headliners. Perhaps the only good that will come from the Rihanna/Brown publicity is destruction of our culture’s misconception that abusers and their victims can only be universally poor, uneducated and powerless.

Certainly this is an important lesson to be learned and one that domestic violence advocates have been emphasizing for more than 30 years: Intimate partner violence affects individuals in all social classes and racial/ethnic groups; no one is protected by virtue of their class or race privilege. Rihanna_2That said, one of the most consistent findings from research is a strong inverse relationship between social class and intimate partner violence: As social class goes up, rates of intimate partner violence go down. Analyses of large, national surveys, for example, show that women living in households with the lowest annual incomes were five times more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence than women in households in the highest income category, and three times more likely than women in the middle income category (Rihanna Creative Commons License photo credit: Trangdepp).

Poor women, of course, are not a homogeneous group.  For instance, some poor women are homeless or living in temporary shelters, while others are housed. Some are employed, even if only in low-paying jobs without benefits, while others are unemployed or receive public assistance. Although poor women overall are at greater risk of intimate partner violence victimization, studies show that the poorest of the poor have the highest rates. Consider, for example, that nationally representative surveys of the general U.S. population estimate that about 25% of women are victimized by an intimate partner at some time during their lives. That is an unacceptably high number, but appears slight when comparing it to studies of women on welfare, which report a range of 28% to 63% lifetime victimization rates; the majority of estimates from these studies are 40% to 60% (Richard Tolman, “Guest Editor’s Introduction,” Violence Against Women, 5[1999]:355-369).

Research also indicates that poor women have higher lifetime rates of all forms of violent victimization. In a Massachusetts study, for instance, researchers found that among their sample of 216 housed, low-income, single mothers and 220 homeless single mothers in which the average age was 27, only 16% had not been physically or sexually abused in their relatively short lifetimes. Nearly 33% reported severe physical violence by a current or former boyfriend, 60% reported physical violence perpetrated by a male partner during adulthood, 63% reported severe physical violence by a parent or caregiver during childhood, and over 40% reported that they had been sexually molested during childhood. As the authors of this research point out, the majority of the women in this study had experienced only brief periods of safety during their lives (Angela Browne, Amy Salomon, & Shari S. Bassuk, “The Impact of Recent Partner Violence on Poor Women’s Capacity to Maintain Work,” Violence Against Women, 5[1999]:393-426).

One issue that has not been mentioned in the Rihanna/Brown case is the fact that the couple is black. Since the early 1980s, large national surveys have shown that black women are at greater risk of being violently victimized by their intimate partners than white women are. Some researchers have argued that the higher rate of intimate violence among black couples is the result of culturally specific factors that include beliefs about marriage and fidelity along with negative stereotypes of black women. But in studies that have examined both race and social class, differences in rates of intimate partner violence between black and white couples are significantly reduced or disappear completely when social class is controlled. The higher rate of intimate partner violence victimization – and, indeed, all types of violent victimization – among black women, then, is another outcome of racism: the result of the disproportionate number of black people who live in poverty. In her recent research on gendered violence in the lives of urban black girls, the vast majority of which is perpetrated by peers and acquaintances, criminologist Jody Miller informs readers:

This book should not be read as an indictment of young Black men and their treatment of their female peers. . . . [W]e, as a society, have created the circumstances that lead to cultural adaptations to situational contexts that shape urban African American young women’s risks. The indictment is of all of us. (Getting Played, New York: New York University Press, 2008, p. xvii)

Thus, while the attention given to intimate partner violence because of the Rihanna/Brown case is important and welcome, the emphasis being placed on the couple’s social status and how intimate partner violence happens even among wealthy couples should not allow us to overlook the fact that the greatest burden of this violence falls on poor women. And, as a direct result of racism, women of color are disproportionately poor and have the fewest resources available to them to cope with this problem.

More Olympic Racism

As the Olympics continue in Beijing, I wanted to follow up on Terence’s excellent post about Blacks being banned from certain venues around the games, to make note of a couple of examples of both racism and the sort of white-framing that characterizes the majority of mainstream writing about race. First, I’m not the first to remark on the rather astonishing racism displayed by Spain’s basketball team (pictured here, photo from ABC). The Spanish national basketball team posed for a photo in uniform pulling back the skin on their eyelids, with smiles on their faces. As C.N. at The Color Line explains:

As any Asian American will tell you, this “chink eye” gesture is deeply hurtful and offensive to us. Many of us have experienced the pain and humiliation associated with this racist gesture throughout our entire lives, whether it’s in the playground of our elementary school, or as we walk down the street even as adults. For Asian Americans, it is the visual equivalent of being called a “nigger.”

C.N. goes on to note that the “racial insensitvity” meme used by most writers in the mainstream media to explain the Spanish team’s actions is obfuscate the underlying white privilege in such a gesture:

Of course, many Whites will respond by basically saying that even if the Spanish basketball team meant it as a joke, Asians should just shrug it off, that it was harmless and that we Asians should just lighten up and not take things so seriously.

The problem with that argument is that it ignores the larger historical and cultural context. What we need to recognize is that there are fundamental institutional power differences inherent in situations in which Whites denigrate minorities.

Each time an incident like that happens, it reinforces the notion of White supremacy — that Whites can say and do whatever they want toward anybody at any time without facing any negative repercussions.

Indeed, this sort of racial obliviousness is part of the underlying problem that Joe has written about here (and elsewhere) so persuasively, and it’s a key element in the white racial frame. Take for example, this reporting on Olympic gold medalist and African American Cullen Jones, this time from the New York Daily News (tip of the hat to Mordy for sending this along). This is the lede on the story about Jones’ achievement:

Bronx-born swimmer Cullen Jones didn’t just help power the U.S. relay swim team to Olympic gold – he just may have shattered the stereotype that blacks can’t swim.

This opening paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the article, which is entirely framed around this moronic stereotype. The article also notes that Jones’ started swimming after he nearly drowned as a child and the fact that his mother took him to his first swimming lessons, and as he progressed in skill-level, drove him to lessons at 5 a.m. in the morning. So, the article could have started out with the dramatic near-drowning story, or with highlighting the dedication and sacrifice of parents of Olympic athletes. Instead, the reporters in this instance chose to start within a white racial frame by reiterating the stereotype that “blacks can’t swim.” No matter how solid the reporting and writing is in the rest of the article, that’s the part that most readers are going to take away from the piece.

While the ideals of the Olympic games are “tolerance, equality, fair play and, most of all, peace,” the incidents described here and elsewhere suggest that the hosts, participants, and observers have fallen far short of these ideals.

Blacks Banned in China During the Olympics? Say What?

The South China Morning Post reported that that the Chinese government had ordered Beijing bar owners to ban Blacks and Mongolians (“undesirables”) from entering during their establishments during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The article stated: (photo credit:kk)

Bar owners near the Workers’ Stadium in central Beijing say they have been forced by Public Security Bureau officials to sign pledges agreeing not to let black people enter their premises… Security officials are targeting Sanlitun (district), which Olympic organizers expect to be a key destination for foreign tourists looking for a party during the Games. The pledges that Sanlitun bar owners had been instructed to sign agreed to stop a variety of activities in their establishments, including dancing and serving customers with black skin, they said.

When pondering this news, it is easy to recall the quote, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Non-Whites and some Blacks become engrossed with the historical White articulation that negatively stereotypes Black males as unintelligent, lazy, hypersexual, etc. Therefore, it is easy to see how Asians, Latinos, and other non-Blacks have embraced the fear of Black males. (See here).

The White social reproduction of racism utilizes stereotypes that creates fear of Black males affects other groups that are non-Black within the U.S. and abroad as well. Feagin argues that the images of Blacks, and stereotypes and fear created from these images are a central component to the operation of systemic racism:

What most Americans and those internationally who have never met a person of a darker hue know about racial and ethnic matters beyond their own experience is what they’re taught by those who control major avenues of socialization, such as the movies, music videos, television, radio, and print media that circulate racist images not only in the United States, but across the globe.

Thus, the attitudes and actions adopted by others across the globe in regards to the reproduction of racism are not independent, but contingent upon the White racial machine targeting people of color for the goal of ultimate White supremacy. Feagin quotes a survey in the 1990s that targeted Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese Americans who had been in the U.S. for one generation. The results indicated that this sampled group had adopted and accepted the fourteen generations of anti-Black attitudes that has existed within the U.S. Many groups such as these mentioned, Irish, and Italian U.S. citizens have positioned themselves to Whiteness and all social, economic, and psychological benefits it encompasses.

If anything, due to the crimes against Asians historically within the world, the bars near the Olympic gatherings should be first closed to Whites instead of a group of people for whom they have shared holding the links to their oppression.

House Resolution Apologizing for Slavery and Segregation

Rep. Steve Cohen from Memphis, Tennessee, has introduced a non-binding resolution (H.Res.194) next week “apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans,” according to John Breshanan at The Crypt. Cohen represents a majority African-American district in Memphis. The resolution, which was introduced at the beginning of the 110th Congress (image from wallyg), makes no mention of reparations, but it does state that black Americans “continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow — long after both systems were formally abolished…” The resolution also acknowledges that an apology “cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs committed can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help Americans confront the ghosts of their past.” The resolution has 120 co-sponsors.

What do you think about the resolution? Drop a comment.

Midwestern Flooding and Katrina: More Racist Framing

Though I know am I not the first person to post something about this on a blog, I felt it was really important to start a similar discussion on this blog in particular. I’m currently teaching at a small college in Iowa after being on a 9 year hiatus and have been enduring crazy weather here in the Midwest. The flooding this summer was devastating for many (image from Dusty Allen Smith). Fortunately, the area where I live was unaffected for the most part, unlike 83 out of 99 counties in this state. While I do not want to diminish the loss that many families have suffered, I was nothing but shocked to see that there were comparisons being made to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. I’m creating a class on Katrina for our J-term in 2009 and was googling to see if I could find displaced Katrina refugees residing in Iowa. Instead of finding that, I saw many articles talking about “Iowa’s Katrina” (as apparently dubbed by Fox News) and statements from Rush Limbaugh praising Iowa victims for not being whiny like those in New Orleans were.

Limbaugh: I want to know. I look at Iowa, I look at Illinois—I want to see the murders. I want to see the looting. I want to see all the stuff that happened in New Orleans. I see devastation in Iowa and Illinois that dwarfs what happened in New Orleans. I see people working together. I see people trying to save their property…I don’t see a bunch of people running around waving guns at helicopters, I don’t see a bunch of people running shooting cops. I don’t see a bunch of people raping people on the street. I don’t see a bunch of people doing everything they can…whining and moaning—where’s FEMA, where’s BUSH. I see the heartland of America. When I look at Iowa and when I look at Illinois, I see the backbone of America.

It is likely the case, that when Limbaugh looks at Iowa, he sees a lot of white people. According to the Census, Iowa’s population was 73% white in 2000. Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are 87.33% and 91.86% white respectively. The percentage of people below the poverty line in Iowa City is 4.7%. In Cedar Rapids, 7.5%. In 2000, New Orleans was 67.25% African American and the poverty rate was more than twice the national rate at 28%. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was highly segregated and had many more African Americans living in poverty than whites (35% compared to 11%). Beyond these statistics, and trust me, I’m not meteorologists, but I’m pretty sure that flooding after a Category 5 Hurricane destroys a city is different than flooding caused by enormous amounts of rainfall combined with a wet winter. The infrastructure in Iowa was already relatively sound and definitely not completely obliterated before these flood waters started rising. Additionally, people were well informed about the risk of flooding in advance and had resources to prepare to evacuate. Roads were not damaged and closed, police were not preventing people from leaving their cities, and no one that I’m aware of had to wait for 5 days for food, water, or rescue.

There are many reasons that it is foolish for Limbaugh and others to compare these scenarios. The most obvious is difference between human life lost or relocated. Reports are showing that 35,000-40,000 people were evacuated in the Midwest compared with 1.2 million in the Gulf Coast area. In the Midwest floods, 24 people lost their lives, compared to the 1,833 that is estimated along the Gulf Coast (though there is still some question about the final number.) When comparing damages, the numbers are just as staggering. Perhaps if the devastation in Iowa had been even remotely close to what poor, African Americans faced in New Orleans, we would have seen frustration that boiled over into the acts that Limbaugh is using to characterize the victims of Katrina. (It’s interesting, though sadly not surprising, that he does not focus on the positive ways that people pulled together in order to save lives and help their neighbors, despite risking their own lives to do so, but instead exaggerates events that occurred and criminalizes victims of a tragedy.) However, there’s also a good chance, that because the flood victims in Iowa were predominantly white, that help would have happened more quickly than Katrina regardless of the scope of the disaster.

But moving beyond that, wouldn’t we expect the response to these sorts of situations to be different because of the tragedy of Katrina? Shouldn’t government be responding more effectively and efficiently? Shouldn’t people be more prepared and informed on what to do having seen the aftermath of what can happen when a response is painfully and unnecessarily slow? Even today as Texas recently prepared for Tropical Storm Dolly, the government took more precautions than were likely in place when Katrina hit.

Regardless, it is disturbing that people are referring to the floods of ’08 as “Iowa’s Katrina” as Fox news has claimed. The comparison and discourse around it serves only to diminish the impact of the what happened in 2005, to further denigrate and marginalize victims who suffered tremendous loss, while bolstering white Iowans who were in a much different scenario in every sense. It seems to me that to label a lesser event a “Katrina” is a way of manipulating the true impact of that disaster. No one would deny that the floods of 2008 were tragic, but to compare them to what happened in the Gulf Coast is just ignorant. People making these claims are wearing blinders, choosing only to see certain aspects of each situation. And at the same time, they are drawing racial lines in the sand. The message is clear. Whites in Iowa should be praised for their fortitude, while blacks in New Orleans should be seen as whiny, criminals not responsible or concerned enough to try to do something to help themselves. Though it shouldn’t, I still find myself amazed at how blatantly racist people continue to be, even in the face of tragedy.

A Review of CNN’s “Black in America”

On July 23 and 24, CNN aired their much-hyped series entitled “Black in America,” which sought to examine the varied and wide-ranging experiences of African Americans in the contemporary U.S. The series sought to explore and document “what it really means to be black in America,” by focusing on the experiences of a wide range of everyday black Americans and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that they face (image from CNN). The segment on July 23 focused on Black women; the segment on July 24 addressed Black men. Together, the two segments addressed topics including the high numbers of female-headed households, the challenges of public education, inner-city isolation, hip hop culture, and the staggering rates of imprisoned Black men.

While many people I know emailed reminders and made it a point to watch the show (my mother even marked it on her calendar!), I wasn’t overly excited about it. I figured that if CNN did an accurate job reporting what it means to be black in America, then they wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. If they did a poor job and misrepresented things (which they have done in the past), then I would just get irritated. But I was pleased to see that in many ways, CNN made some important points and addressed some key things that urgently need to be addressed.

One thing I appreciated most about “Black in America,” was the focus on the things that everyday Black people do to improve their communities and to try to make the world a better place. In the July 23 segment on Black women, the show followed a Black male high school principal who, troubled by the high numbers of Black students who do not complete high school, actually tracks down truants to encourage them to come back to school. Reporter Soledad O’Brien later profiled a Black woman cardiologist who does outreach to encourage Black people to get routine preventative health screenings and to overcome distrust of the medical establishment. (This distrust is well founded. The Tuskegee experiment, in which Black men were injected with syphilis and/or denied medical treatment in order to study the progression of the disease, is the most infamous example of Blacks being used for medical experiments in ways that violate ethical standards and human rights.)   The show also featured a Black male economics professor who, in an effort to address racial disparities in educational attainment, is trying a controversial experiment where he pays children for good grades in an effort to build strong study habits and an appreciation for the value of education.

 
Examples like these are an important counter to many of the commonplace myths about Black Americans that abound in popular culture, policy decisions and in everyday interactions. Many believe that Black Americans in general are lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. To this way of thinking, the main challenge facing Black Americans is their refusal to exert any agency to change their circumstances. This perception does not characterize most African Americans. One of the most valuable contributions of “Black in America” is that it documented many everyday, ordinary African Americans who work hard for themselves and to make life better for others. This is a picture we rarely see in mainstream media, which disproportionately depict Blacks as perpetrators of crime rather than everyday Americans trying to make changes. (See Joe Feagin’s Systemic Racism for more discussion of this.)

 
I also appreciated the program’s emphasis on Black fathers, and their acknowledgment that contrary to popular opinion, many Black men are actively involved in their children’s lives and parent under unbelievably difficult circumstances. The show also made connections between the fact that while some Black men are absent parents, often this is a consequence of many complicated factors—cycles of parental abandonment, incarceration as a result of a racially biased criminal justice system—structural issues that are often overlooked.

 
Now for the problems: one glaring omission in “Black in America” is the absence of any Black (openly) lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered individuals. While I applaud “Black in America” for its attention to how gender and class are important factors in creating a myriad of experiences in Black America, I think the segment should have acknowledged that not all of Black America is heterosexual. Black LGBT individuals face issues and challenges in the Black community that stem from intersections of race, sexuality, and gender. Too often they are alternately overlooked or demonized, and CNN missed a valuable opportunity to speak to their experiences. How might the story on Black women have been changed had Soledad O’Brien spoken with the family of Sakia Gunn, the 15 year old Newark, New Jersey lesbian who was murdered in 2003 after refusing the sexual advances of men by identifying herself as a lesbian?  Gunn’s story shows not only the ways that homophobia impacts Black Americans, but the threat of violence that Black women face every day. This is another very important part of being Black in America that should have been included.

 
On a related note, the July 23 segment on Black women did not seem to focus very heavily on issues facing Black women. The stories in this segment included an incredibly poignant account of a single Black father in Brooklyn trying to maintain steady employment to keep his children in school, and his young son’s involvement in the experimental class where children were paid to earn good grades. Another story detailed a young woman who, abandoned by her father and searching for a father figure, ended up raising several children alone, and the impact that male abandonment can have on young women. A third story focused on black professional women’s struggles to find comparably educated Black professional mates, and the challenges of doing this given the high numbers of Black men who are incarcerated, uneducated, and unavailable.

 
While these stories definitely include Black women, I did not feel that there was a heavy emphasis on the ways intersections of race and gender create specific experiences for them.  In some ways, these stories still seemed to be more about Black men than Black women. In a profile of a Black woman who had no health insurance, Soledad O’Brien emphasized the difficulty this woman experienced maintaining her health when no stores in her neighborhood provided fresh fruits or vegetables, and the fact that without a car, she had to travel over an hour to get nutritious food. And, in a compelling quote that captures the essence of urban health disparities, the woman said that in her neighborhood, “it’s easier to buy a gun than a tomato.”   While this is definitely an important story,  it reflects intersections of race and class much more so than race and gender. I’m surprised that a segment on Black women did not discuss the fact that Black women are much more likely than white women develop and die from breast cancer, to develop uterine fibroids, and to give birth to low-birth weight babies (as Jessie posted about recently), and the studies that connect these issues to surviving daily onslaughts of racism and sexism. It’s also interesting that in this discussion of health, there was no mention of the fact that Black women are the fastest-rising group of new HIV/AIDS cases, are 26 times more likely to contract AIDS than white women, and that this occurs most frequently through heterosexual intercourse.   Finally, Black women experience sexual assaults at higher rates than women of other racial groups, yet are less likely to see their assailants prosecuted. From slavery on, Black women have enjoyed little ownership over their bodies and have had to combat issues including rape, forced sterilization, and limited access to birth control, so the current issues Black women face in this vein have clear historical precedent. Yet for some reason, these were overlooked in the segment that purported to focus on Black women.

 
Lastly, I felt that the July 24 story about race and education overstated, as mainstream media outlets frequently do, the “acting white” phenomenon among Black Americans. The show reported that for many Black Americans, school success is perceived as “acting white,” which leads African Americans to shun it in favor of pursuing other routes to popularity. The “acting white” argument, first introduced in academic circles by Signathia Fordham and John Ogbu “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the Burden of ‘Acting White,’” has been retested and analyzed among many other researchers who find little empirical support for this theory. In short, Fordham and Ogbu state that Black students don’t perform well academically in part because they see it as “acting white,” and because they recognize that in a racially unequal society, there will be little reward for their educational efforts. Yet numerous other scholars have performed more empirically sophisticated tests of this theory and have gleaned different results. In several articles, Jim Ainsworth and Douglas Downey have argued that Black students who earn high grades are very popular among their peers and believe that their educational gains will earn them occupational rewards down the line. Sociologist Karolyn Tyson has also argued that Black students with high grades are popular among peers, and that their academic achievement is met with positive regard rather than negative sanction. This is not to say that Black children never taunt others with “acting white,” but that a well-documented body of research suggests that this label may be given for reasons other than academic success, and that it is likely not the deterrent to academic achievement that Fordham and Ogbu initially suggested. It is rather unfortunate that CNN ignored a body of social science literature that challenges this theory in order to perpetuate what cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson has referred to as “the academic equivalent of an urban legend.”

 
Overall, I felt that the CNN special told me little I didn’t know about being Black in America—which, to me, means that for the most part they accurately reported many of the varied, diverse experiences of African Americans in contemporary society. For other educators, this series could be a useful tool for initiating discussion about race, class, and social structure in America. The series definitely challenged some—not all—of the preconceptions and stereotypes that persist about Black Americans. It is worth watching, but definitely warrants watching with a critical eye.

DNA and Our Slavery History

Pearl Duncan, who is descended from both enslaved black Americans and white slaveholders, has written an interesting piece on “How DNA is rewriting history”:

 

She points up the use of DNA testing to track some of one’s ancestors, in this case African Americans:

 

Thousands of African-Americans have discovered ancestors through DNA, genealogy and family stories, and in the process reconnected with a wide range of ancestral cousins around the world. I digested details about the Founding Fathers in my ancestry, emotional as it was. In 1787, President John Adams purchased a mansion as a summer house from Leonard Vassal, a wealthy New England slave owner. Leonard Vassal owned seven sugar plantations in Jamaica, including Content, where a few of my ancestors were enslaved. With the proceeds and wealth from his slaves and plantations, he built a historic house in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1734. The mansion is the historic Adams Mansion beautifully displayed on page 68 of Peter Mallary’s Houses of New England.

 

She found she has now cousins in both Ghana and Scotland. But she also found that some of her enslaved ancestors had helped John Adams with his housing. Adams is one of the few U.S. presidents from Washington to Lincoln who did not himself enslave African Americans, and he is often celebrated for that. But we can see even he benefited greatly from the slavery system. His famous mansion house was built with money made off the backs of a great many enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, and probably in North America as well.

Duncan then adds a comment on

 

Another plantation owner, one of my Scottish ancestors, used the proceeds from his six Jamaican plantations and the inheritance from his cousins’ “Founding Brother’s” tobacco plantations in Virginia to purchase an estate in Scotland where shale oil was discovered. Shale oil gave rise to the independent oil companies, which was organized into the multinational oil company, BP, British Petroleum.

 

Notice in both these accounts several things. First the North American and Caribbean slavery system was not just a bloody and rapacious system that benefited white plantation owners in the South and the Caribbean. It was something foundational to the country that became the United States, in its colonies/states, and it played a central role in making European countries politically powerful. Secondly, notice the great wealth that this slavery system created, not only for southern and Caribbean whites, both slaveholders and whites who worked for them, but also by means of reinvestments it created much economic development outside the slavery arenas—even the development of oil companies that became such as British Petroleum.

 

As John Donne said, “No man is an island,” and indeed the United States and the Caribbean region were not isolated from the great Atlantic economy, which was founded in and grounded in the enslavement of Africans. They are “founders” of the United States as much as any other group, but where are their great monuments in Washington, D.C.?