On MLK Holiday, Much Work to be Done as Structural Racism Persists

Today is the annual Martin Luther King Day celebration.  In the U.S., this is a federal holiday and means that government offices and many schools (including my own) are closed in honor of Dr. King.  Even this modest commemoration was a hard won victory over a racist resistance to the holiday by those who oppose civil rights.  As we reflect on Dr.King’s legacy, it’s important to recognize there is much unfinished business in achieving racial justice.  This infographic from the  Economic Policy Institute illustrates the work still to be done.

Structural Racism Infographic-final

(Source: Economic Policy Institute)

Ruby Bridges Reflects on Her Experience with Racism: Education Series

You’ve probably seen the Norman Rockwell painting, “The Problem We Live With,” which shows a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her first day of school as she walks through the doors to desegregate a New Orleans elementary school. Today, Ruby Bridges is all grown up and the painting is on loan to the Obama White House. Recently, Ms. Bridges had a chance to reflect on her experience as she visited the painting, and President Obama, at the White House:


Really powerful!

Microaggressions & Stereotype Threat: Education Series

Our prevailing mythology of meritocracy in the U.S. tells us that education is a path to achievement. To do provide that, we expect schools to be free from racism and provide an equal education to all.  Yet, there’s a significant amount of research that tells a different story.  The story the research tells is that students of color at all levels of education face “micro,” or individual level, racism on a regular basis.  Here, I’m going to take up just two of the myriad forms of individual-level racism documented in the literature: 1) microaggressions and 2) stereotype threat.

Audial
(Creative Commons License photo credit: y2bd )

Microaggressions. The term “microaggression” was originally coined by Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s to describe a form of individual-level racism.  Microaggressions are “…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”  In Feagin and Sikes’ book, Living with Racism (1995) middle-class black respondents describe “the racial stare” they experience from whites when entering white-dominated areas.  I think of this as the quintessential microaggression.  It’s so small, it’s hard to call out, yet the message is clear: “you’re not welcome here.”

Microaggressions are not a thing of the past, unfortunately, but are oh so current.  There’s an interesting social media (Twitter/Tumblr) effort to document and recognize the pervasiveness of microaggressions across multiple forms of oppression.

What does microaggression in education look like? Here’s a very recent submission to microaggressions that gives you a sense of what this looks like in education:

On Friday morning, as I walked to the cafe between classes at my predominantly white university, the school appointed photographer offered me a free coffee if I agreed to play the role of the cheerful token black woman in a group of strangers, as though the university is not festering with racial tension.  May 2011, at a “liberal” university. Made me feel devalued and furious.

Historically white institutions (HWIs) such as the one described above can be especially difficult, hostile places for students of color.  Morgane Richardson, a 2008 graduate of Middlebury College, has launched an effort to Refuse the Silence about what elite liberal arts colleges are like for women of color.  In an interview with Ileana Jiménez, Richardson explains some of what she experienced in college that led her to become an activist:

“there were a series of events that led me to become a campus activist and a mentor to other women of color at Middlebury. During my first few weeks there, a few students from the Ultimate Frisbee team decided to throw a “Cowboys and Injuns” party. They sent out invitations over the phone to individuals saying, “if you come as an Injun, be prepared to drink fire water and sit in a corner, etc.” I was appalled. I couldn’t believe that my fellow classmates would put this event together, or that the campus allowed it. In the organizers’ defense, they did recognize their mistake and agreed to sit down with us and talk about the significance of their theme party.

About a month later, I came home to a swastika drawn on my door. My only friend on the floor, a man of color, had the word ‘Nigger’ written on his. When I brought it up, the college organized a discussion for students of color, but it was never addressed in a large forum.”

Young men of color also endure microaggressions in educational institutions.  In a recent study (2011) researchers at the University of Utah analyzed data from 661 black men about their experiences in college. Smith, Hung and Franklin found that experiences of racial microaggressions interact with increasing levels of education to heighten stress (Smith, Hung and Franklin, “Racial Battle Fatigue and the MisEducation of Black Men: Racial Microaggressions, Societal Problems, and Environmental Stress,” Journal of Negro Education (80)1, 63-82). Another and related form of individual-level racism in education is stereotype threat.

Graphing Calculator
(Creative Commons License photo credit: Scintt )

Stereotype Threat. The term “stereotype threat” was developed by Steele and Aronson (1995) .  Their research, mostly through a series of experiments with college students, found that when race was emphasized in pre-test instructions, black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than white students when their race was emphasized. However, when race was not emphasized, black students performed better and equivalently with white students. Steele and Aronson’s research provide powerful evidence that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. They speculate that the mechanisms behind stereotype threat for students include distraction, narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, or even over effort might all be dynamics at play. Still, there remain some critiques of the research on stereotype threat (e.g., over reliance on college student samples, the distinction between “threat” and real discrimination) as well as some unresolved issues (e.g., mostly to do with measurement and operatlonalization of the term).


What’s interesting here is that researchers Steele and Aronson have launched a new site devoted to helping educators reduce stereotype threat. Just as performance on tasks can be hindered by stereotype, there are ways to reduce the threat.
Stereotype threat based on gender, for example, can be reduced either by ensuring women students that a test is gender-fair (e.g., Quinn & Spencer, 2001; Spencer, Steele, and Quinn, 1999).  It’s also been suggested that explicitly “nullifying the assumed diagnosticity of the test,” in other words, telling students that a given test “doesn’t show test innate ability” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Overall, the evidence seems to suggest that simply addressing the racial fairness of a test can alleviate stereotype threat in any testing situation.

Meritocracy Myth. We want to believe that education is a mechanism for leveling the playing field for all children. The whole idea of the U.S. as an “open” society relies on an educational system that prepares all students to succeed with adequate skills.  Yet, while education is marred by racism – whether institutional or individual level – the notion of meritocracy is a myth.

Documentary “Brick by Brick” : Education Series

The documentary “Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story,” (2008), directed by Bill Kavanagh, highlights a struggle around race and education in Yonkers, New York. The film tells the story of federal US v. Yonkers, a less widely known story of integration than the storied Brown v. Board of Education case. The case challenged neighborhood and educational discrimination in important ways. This short clip (2:17) give you a sense of the film:

You can find more information about the film here.

Racism in K-12 Public Schools: Education Series

Racism starts early in education and it pervades K-12 public schools in the U.S.  Not surprisingly, this has a negative impact on children’s educational success. While some people think that racism in U.S. schools ended nearly 60 years ago with Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which held that “separate” schools for black and white children were inherently unequal, there’s a large body of research that demonstrates that racism persists in K-12 schools.  The primary mechanisms of racism in public grade schools are institutional and interpersonal.  Below, I’m taking up the issue of institutional racism in K-12 education.

Project365/Day 180
(Creative Commons License photo credit: sergis blog

Institutional Racism. The clever, sinister thing about institutional racism in education is that it operates relentlessly on its own, like a machine, even when people of good will want it to operate differently. Today, it has morphed from the old forms we’re used to seeing in civil rights documentaries and taken on many new forms that are no less pernicious. These are just a few of those new forms.

“No Child Left Behind” (NCLB): The Racism Built into High-Stakes Testing. When President Geo. W. Bush signed the legislation known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) into law, supporter said that  would improve the educational system by building in “accountability” through mandatory testing, especially for low-income students and students of color. The research suggests otherwise.

Walter Haney and his colleagues have demonstrated that high-stakes testing increases the number of dropouts. Since the early 1990s, when high-stakes testing started to become commonplace, graduation rates have steadily fallen (Haney, W., Madaus, G., Abrams, L., Wheelock, A., Miao, J., & Gruia, I., “The education pipeline in the United States, 1970-2000.” Chestnut Hill, MA: Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, Boston College, 2004).

In 1990-91, graduation rates were 77%; ten years later, in 2000-01, they had fallen to 67%.  Needless to say, in our increasingly credentialed society those without the basic credential of a high school diploma are at a severe disadvantage in the job market.  For some, not finishing high school the first step along a pathway to the carceral system, what some have called the “school to prison pipeline.”

Haney and his colleagues also found that three times as many students “disappear” between grades nine and ten as they did 30 years ago, due to retention policies. A study by Sharon Nichols and colleagues takes this a step further. She demonstrates that the more pressure a state exerts on accountability, the less likely it is that students will progress to 12th grade (Nichols, S.L., Glass, G.V., & Berliner, D.C.  “High-stakes testing and student achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act”. Tempe, AZ: Education Policy Research Unit, 2005).

A disproportionate number of students leaving school are African-American, Latina/o and Native American. Gary Orfield and colleagues’ analysis finds that only around 50% of the nation’s black, Native American, and Latina students graduate, and for males the numbers are even lower (Orfield, et al., 2004, “Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis” Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. Contributors: Advocates for Children of New York, The Civil Society Institute).

Orfield makes a convincing case that NCLB give states an incentive to push out disproportionately African American, Latina/o and Native American students in order to increase average test scores for schools. For example, Steve Orel in Birmingham, Alabama, was fired for reporting that the Birmingham schools had “administratively withdrawn” 522 students in an effort to boost overall test scores.  The students were overwhelmingly African-American. None of them dropped out of school voluntarily.

Tracking. One result of high-stakes testing is to “track” (or, group) students into “ability groups.” In other words, once a student does poorly on a high-stakes, standardized test, those test scores are then used to determine which groups they’ll be placed in for future classes.  Tracking students into lower-level classes inevitably influences teacher expectations about those students, which in turn, affects how students perform.  Many researchers have documented the over-representation of African-Americans and Latinas/os in lower-level classes, such as special education, and their under-representation in the higher-level classes, such as those which are college prep courses.

A growing number of scholars are pointing to the relevance of white privilege and racism for understanding, and dismantling, the tracking system.  (Blanchett, Wanda J. “Disproportionate Representation of African American Students in Special Education:Acknowledging the Role of White Privilege and Racism,” Educational Researcher, Vol. 35, No. 6, pp. 24–28, 2006; Solomon, R. P., et al., “The discourse of denial: how white teacher candidates construct race, racism and ‘white privilege,'” [pdf] Race, Ethnicity and Education, Vol.8, No. 2, July 2005, 147-169).

Underfunding Majority Black and Brown Schools. One of the key forms of racism in K-12 schools has to do with the funding scheme for education in the U.S.  In most areas of the country, public schools are funded through property taxes. What that means is that in richer neighborhoods, where property values – and taxes – are higher, the schools in that area get more resources. It sets up a self-perpetuating cycle where those with means move into wealthier areas to escape the bad schools in the poorer neighborhoods. In cities like New York and Chicago, it means that when people have children, lots and lots of them move out of the cities – and the poorly funded public school system – to wealthier suburban neighborhoods so that they can send their kids to better public schools in the suburbs. This sort of pattern doesn’t map precisely onto race – some whites stay behind and send their kids to underfunded, urban schools; and, an increasing number of African American and Latino families find a way out to the suburbs.  But the overall pattern of educational funding in the U.S. is driven by white flight to predominantly whiter-and-whiter suburbs, so that those parents can send their kids to better (and whiter) schools.

The net result of this pattern is that we have a de facto racially segregated K-12 school system that is more segregated today than it was forty years ago. And, this racial segregation is a strongly implicated in the low educational outcomes for African American, Latina/o and Native American students.

What That Looks Like. So, what does it look like when a school is “under resourced” ?  Here’s a glimpse from one school in California:

  • Students cannot take textbooks home for homework in any core subject because their teachers have enough textbooks for use in class only. For example, a social studies teacher who teaches five separate social studies classes during one day has only one class set of social studies textbooks, so all five classes must share the same set of books. 
  • The school is infested with vermin and roaches and students routinely see mice in their classrooms. One dead rodent has remained, decomposing, in a corner in the gymnasium since the beginning of the school year.
  • The school library is rarely open, has no librarian, and has not recently been updated. The latest version of the encyclopedia in the library was published in approximately 1988.
  • Classrooms do not have computers. Computer instruction and research skills are not, therefore, part of Luther Burbank students’ regular instruction in their core courses.
  • The school no longer offers any art classes for budgetary reasons. Without the art instruction, children have limited opportunities to learn space, volume, and linear logic concepts.
  • Two of the three bathrooms at the school are locked all day, every day. The third bathroom is locked during lunch and other periods during the school day, so there are times during school when no bathroom at all is available for students to use. Students have urinated or defecated on themselves at school because they could not get into an unlocked bathroom. Other students have left school altogether to go home to use the restroom. When the bathrooms are not locked, they often lack toilet paper, soap, and paper towels, and the toilets frequently are clogged and overflowing.
  • Paint peels off walls in many classrooms and there is graffiti on classroom and other school walls. Ceiling tiles are missing and cracked in the school gym, and school children are afraid to play basketball and other games in the gym because they worry that more ceiling tiles will fall on them during their games.
  • The school has no air conditioning. On hot days classroom temperatures climb into the 90s. The school heating system does not work well. In winter, children often wear coats, hats, and gloves during class to keep warm.
  • Eleven of the 35 teachers at the school have not yet obtained full, non-emergency teaching credentials, and 17 of the 35 teachers only began teaching in the last year.


Legal Remedies. Just as in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, today lawyers committed to civil rights and social justice are doing good work to stop this kind of institutional racism. One of the most noteworthy cases in recent years is The Williams Case in California (the examples listed above are based on this case). In 2000, nearly 100 plaintiffs filed as a class action lawsuit in  Eliezer Williams, et al., vs. State of California, et al. (Williams) in San Francisco County Superior Court. The plaintiffs were San Francisco County students, who sued the State of California and state education agencies, including the California Department of Education (CDE), claiming that the agencies failed to provide then – and all K-12 public school students –  with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers.  The case was settled in 2004.  The result was that the state of California allocated $138 million in additional funding in order to bring these schools up to the standards of their wealthier (and whiter) counter parts.

There is good news and bad news here.  The good news is that solutions are possible.  The bad news is that these are hard to achieve and can take years to realize.   Further good news is that there’s plenty of work to be done on this issue for enterprising social activists that want to make real change happen.  For aspiring young scholars and activists, I can’t think of a more important area than tackling the persistent institutional racism that plagues our K-12 educational system.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue the series with more about the interpersonal (micro-level” as we sociologists like to say) racism in K-12 education.

Race, Racism & Education: A Week-Long Series

This week, we begin a series of posts about race, racism and education. We’ll be taking a look at some of the latest research and news about these issues at all levels of education, primarily focused on the U.S.

Access to a good quality educational can make a real, material difference between success and just barely surviving, that’s why education has long been at the forefront of civil rights struggles in this country. Jumping off the discussion is Prof. Anita Tijerina Rivella, from 2009, deftly weaving her own experience into the broader issues of Latinas/os and the educational pipeline (9:30):

Rivella does a terrific job here of unpacking some of the myths and stereotypes that black and brown people are somehow less interested in, or motivated in, education than white (or Asian) people.

In fact, research by Behnke, Piercy, and Diversi (“Educational and Occupational Aspirations of Latino Youth and their Parents,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences[pdf], (February, 2004), Vol. 26, No.4, 16-35) suggests that Latino families do have high educational aspirations. Yet, youth are often pushed out of the pipeline to achieving those goals by barriers including language barriers, a lack of understanding about how pathways through educational systems work and racism.

* * *
~ Through the rest of the week, we’ll explore other aspects of race, racism and education. Do send me any references, citations or video clips of your own work or someone else’s and I’ll do my best to include it.

Mississippi Governor’s Remarks Reveal Much about White Racism

Haley Barbour, Mississippi’s governor, is interviewed in the conservative Weekly Standard and his remarks there reveal much about how white racism operates.  The profile and interview with Barbour is long, and there’s a lot to take objection to in there.

Perhaps the one thing that people are pulling out as most offensive is Barbour’s defense of the segregationist era Conservative Citizens’ Council (the CCC instead of the KKK, get it?) and his description of how it operated in his hometown of Yazoo City, MS.  Here’s the passage that’s lighting up the blogosophere and the mainstream news outlets:

…Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so.

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “You heard of the Citizens’ Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”

Most of the reactions from bloggers calls out Barbour for defending white supremacists (e.g., the CCC) and they’re right.  But, this analysis of Barbour’s remarks misses part of how white racism works.  In fact, the Citizens’ Council did see themselves as ‘better than’ the KKK.  While Barbour’s absolutely wrong that the Citizens’ Council was just “an organization of town leaders,” in fact, they were as committed to racial inequality as any robe-wearing Klansman.   What’s true is that there were divisions among whites during the civil rights struggle.   Barbour reveals more here about his class standing that perhaps he intends to, but it the Citizens’ Council was the refuge of upper-middle class racists while the KKK drew more from the working class.   This move – distinguishing the ‘good (supposedly) non-racist whites’ from the ‘bad (obviously) racist ones’ is always the way that upper-middle class whites let themselves off the hook when it comes to racism.  It was true in 1954, and it’s true today.    (This good whites vs. bad whites game is something sociologist Matthew Hughey has documented in his research and written about here.)

The fact that upper-middle class whites like Barbour thought the KKK was unseemly in their overt displays of racism doesn’t mean that the Citizens’ Council embraced the end of segregation.  This is clear in another part of the Weekly Standard profile.   When recalling a visit to Yazoo City by Dr. Martin Luther King, Barbour offers this account:

“I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white.” [...]  I don’t really remember. The truth is, we couldn’t hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery. “We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do.  We paid more attention to the girls than to King,” he added.

Barbour gives us another textbook example of how white racism works.  First, it’s clear from this anecdote that Barbour didn’t see the speech by King as any that was interesting or relevant to his life.  And, second, there’s the positive view of himself in the rear view mirror.  Barbour’s patting himself on the back here for even attending this speech, while at the same time minimizing the importance of King, his words, and the civil rights movement as a whole.  And, you know, throwing in a little gratuitous sexism just for fun.  This sort of positive, retrospective labeling of white involvement in the civil rights movement is a key feature of the white racial frame in the post-civil rights era.  For a glimpse of this in popular culture, take a look at the Gene Hackman and Wilem Dafoe roles of white FBI agents in the Hollywood film, “Mississippi Burning.”   Uhm, it didn’t happen like that (e.g., SL Brinson, “The Myth of White Superiority in Mississippi Burning,” Southern Communication Journal, 1995).  When whites – especially upper middle class whites – look back on the civil rights era (or, slavery, or the Holocaust) they like to imagine themselves as the hero in that story.  I’m sorry white people, but you just do not look good in the story of the civil rights movement, or lynching, or slavery, no matter how much you try to re-imagine history.  That goes for you, too, Haley Barbour.

Barbour offers us yet another lesson on how white racism works.  When recalling the atrocities of white people do all you can to minimize.   Here’s Barbour on how he recalls the civil rights struggle in Yazoo City:

“I just don’t remember it as being that bad.”

Yeah, well, you wouldn’t.  This is classic white racism.   Horrible years of grueling oppression?  Ah, get over it. One of the white supremacist sites I looked at in Cyber Racism makes a similar argument about slavery – a supposedly ‘humane institution’ that slaves ‘loved and wanted to return to’ after emancipation.

This would be comical (on a par with Privilege Denying Dude) if it weren’t for the fact that Barbour is a governor with aspirations for high office.  We don’t need someone like this leading the country, but he does offer a good object lesson in white racism, upper-middle class flavored.

Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Visual images are crucial to the struggle for justice.  This was the central theme in the exhibit For All the World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights at the International Center of Photography, which I saw the weekend it closed here in New York City.  The exhibit, guest curated by Maurice Berger, included still photographs, magazine covers, advertisements, newsreels, films, and artifacts with images (such as church fans with Dr. King’s picture).

(Image by Ernest Withers from ICP)

Much of the civil rights struggle for public opinion was fought through the creation of images that captured the struggle in graphic terms.  Montgomery, Alabama-based photographer, Charles Moore, famously said, “I fight with my camera.” His photos of Dr. and Mrs. King being arrested in Montgomery, and the release of the photos over the AP wire helped galvanize support for the nascent civil rights movement.  His photo of dogs and fire hoses turned on civil rights demonstrators, many of them children, ran on the front pages of many newspapers worldwide.   For his part, Dr. King was not simply a passive photographic subject, but was acutely aware of how images of him and the movement were used in the cause of civil rights.  To read more about this, I strongly recommend Sasha Torres’ Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights (Princeton UP, 2003)

I was especially delighted to see some early versions of sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’ magazine, Crisis, the publication of the NAACP, which averaged monthly circulation of 30,000 in 1915.   DuBois was also committed to the use of visual culture as a way to promote civil rights for African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century.  For example, at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, DuBois organized “The American Negro Exhibit” in which he displayed photographs of middle-class blacks dressed in their finest clothes, which was an explicit attempt on his part to represent African American achievement for an international audience.  DuBois was also the target of criticism for the particular way he deployed visual culture on the cover of the Crisis, often using light-skinned black women to draw readers (not unlike the recent controversy over the Elle cover that Joe mentioned). For an excellent analysis of DuBois’ approach to visual culture, see Shawn Michelle Smith’s Photography on the Color Line: W.E.B. DuBois, Race and Visual Culture (Duke UP, 2004).

Unfortunately, there was little of this in the exhibit. While DuBois was an ardent supporter of women’s rights (he said  “every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for women’s suffrage”), there was little mention of the struggle for gender equality in the exhibit.   Even in the curation for the photo above, there was little discussion of the gendered quality of this protest.  In many ways, I found this exhibit much less compelling than the one I saw last summer at PS1 featuring the work of Hank Willis Thomas about the commodification of black bodies.

The other unavoidable shortcoming of the exhibit was that it didn’t deal with the controversy surrounding Ernest Withers, the creator of the image featured above.  Withers was an important photographer in the struggle for civil rights (he took the photo of lynching victim Emmett Till in his open casket.)  And, it’s just been revealed, Withers also worked as an FBI informant.   So while his photographs worked to advance the cause of civil rights and social justice, he simultaneously helped the FBI gain a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis.  Withers deeply mixed legacy troubles our understanding the civil rights photographer who “fights with his camera.”

Overall, I’m glad I caught this exhibit, perhaps most especially for the short news clip of Malcolm X being interviewed.  I’m mostly glad because it reminded me of some of the excellent scholarship, such as Torres’ and Smith’s work, on race, civil rights and visual culture.

Civil Rights Review: Do you know these courageous women?

I continue to be impressed and inspired by Shirley Sherrod who, in the face of adversity, is taking us all to school, and doing it with tremendous grace.  Today, she appeared at the National Association of Black Journalists convention and said that we all need to know more about civil rights history.   (You can see the plenary with Sherrod here.)

There’s a good bit of scholarship on the civil rights movement which documents the ways that women have been written out of civil rights history.   So, in honor of Ms. Sherrod and to remind people about women’s influence in civil rights history and the struggle for racial justice, I’ve assembled a short list of women who might be called civil rights heroes.  Do you know these courageous women?

  • Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a journalist and anti-lynching activist and suffragist who led the way in the struggle for racial justice at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.  Many people believe that the foundations of the civil rights struggle were laid down in the fight against lynching.  (Factoid for sociology geeks: Troy Duster is a descendant of Wells-Barnett.)  You can read more about Wells-Barnett here.
  • Claudette Colvin is a African American woman from Alabama sometimes referred to as “The First Rosa Parks.”  In 1955, at the age of 15, she refused to give up her seat on a  Montgomery bus to a white person, in violation of local  law.  Her   arrest preceded Parks’ (on   December 1, 1955) by nine months. You can read more about Colvin here.

  • Ella Baker was perhaps the consummate organizer within the civil rights movement.  She began her organizing career in the 1940s with the NAACP.  In the 1950s, she helped Dr. King organize his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  And, in the early 1980s, when she wanted to assist the new student activists she organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins.  From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born.  In many ways, SNCC was the forerunner of the Black Power and Black Panther movements. You may have heard SNCC mentioned in recent days as Ms. Sherrod’s husband was a member of this organization.  You can read more about Ella Baker here.
  • Mamie Till-Mobley was the mother of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who looked at a white woman (some say whistled at her) and for that was lynched in 1955.  Mrs. Till-Mobley made the heroic decision to have an open-casket funeral.  At the time of her death, Jesse Jackson remarked about this decision: “She was a very articulate teacher who saw the pain of her son and did a profound, strategic thing.When they pulled his water-soaked body from the river, most people would have kept the casket closed. She kept it open.” The press took pictures of Till with a bullet in the skull, an eye gouged out and his head partially crushed. His body had been found floating in the Tallahatchie River, identifiable only by the ring Till wore that belonged to his late father.  These photos were widely published and attributed with helping to galvanize the civil rights movement.  You can read more about Mamie Till-Mobley here.

  • Fannie Lou Hamer was the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, who became one of the most dynamic speakers of the civil rights movement. She is widely known for the phrase “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Hamer became active in the movement when members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Mississippi. She worked on voter registration drives in the South. She was among several workers stopped by officials in Winona, Miss., on June 9, 1963. She and other workers were jailed and beaten. SNCC lawyers bailed her and the others out and filed suit against the Winona police. All the whites who were charged were found not guilty. She continued to work on grass-roots anti-poverty, civil rights, and women’s rights projects into the 1970s.
  • Daisy Bates was a mentor to the Little Rock Nine, the African-American school children who integrated Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. She and the Little Rock Nine gained national and international recognition for their courage and persistence during the desegregation of Central High when Governor Orval Faubus ordered members of the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the entry of black students. She and her husband, Lucious Christopher (L. C.) Bates, published the Arkansas State Press, a newspaper dealing primarily with civil rights and other issues in the black community. You can read more about Daisy Bates here.
  • Violet Liuzzo was a civil rights activist from Michigan and mother of five who left her home to become involved in the civil rights movement.  She was inspired to act after seeing protesters assaulted by police in Selma, Alabama and reportedly told her husband, “this is everyone’s struggle.”   While driving protesters in Alabama, was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members.  You can read more about Violet Liuzzo here.
  • Angela Y. Davis was an early pioneer in seeing the connections between the struggle for racial justice, gender equality and the prison-industrial complex.  Her book, Women, Race & Class in many ways launched what we think of today as “intersectionality” studies.   Davis is probably most widely known for the fact that in 1970, she became the third woman to appear on the FBI’s Most Wanted List when she was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide.   She evaded police for two months and was eventually arrested.   She was tried and acquitted of all charges eighteen months after her capture. Her trial became a focus of the Black Power movement as people wore buttons with her iconic afro with the words “Free Angela” around it.   Years later, she would write “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion and Nostalgia,” (Critical Inquiry, 21(1):37-45), in which she would bemoan the fact that people remember her as simply “the afro” and critique the fact that  “a politics of liberation could be reduced to a politics of fashion.”   You can read more about Angela Y. Davis here.

  • Beulah Mae Donald‘s son, Michael, was lynched by two members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1981 in Mobile, Alabama.  Upset about the verdict in a trial of an African American man for the murder of a white cop, KKK members Henry Hays and James Knowles spotted Michael Donald walking home from getting his sister a pack of cigarettes. They kidnapped him, drove out to a secluded area in the woods, attacked him and beat him with a tree limb. They wrapped a rope around his neck, and pulled on it to strangle him, before slitting his throat and hanging him from a tree across the street from Hays’ house.  Local police first stated that Donald had been killed as part of a drug deal gone wrong, despite his mother’s insistence that he had not been involved in drugs. Beulah Mae Donald then contacted civil rights leaders and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Eventually, the SPLC won a civil victory against the KKK.  In 1987, Ms. Donald won a judgment in the amount of $7 million dollars against the KKK and as a result, the group was forced to turn over its headquarters to her.  The verdict marked the end of the United Klans, the same group that had beaten the Freedom Riders in 1961, murdered civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in 1965, and bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.   You can read more about Beulah Mae Donald’s successful case against the KKK here.

These are just a few of the people who’ve struggled to bring about racial justice.  Did you know all the names?

Hank Willis Thomas: Artist Exploring Commodification of Black Bodies

Today, I visited PS1-Contemporary Arts Center and discovered the fabulous work of Hank Willis Thomas, an artist exploring the commodification of black bodies by corporate advertisers.  The exhibit I saw was called “Unbranded” is a series of images taken from magazine advertisements from 1968 to the present, such as this one from 1978 of an advertisement for pancakes.  The artist removes all text and logos to “reveal what is being sold,” and alters nothing else of the image.

(“Smokin Joe Ain’t Je’mama” 1978/2006)

In statement about this work, Thomas writes:

“I believe that in part, advertising’s success rests on its ability to reinforce generalizations about race, gender, and ethnicity which can be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying, but which at a core level are a reflection of the way a culture views itself or its aspirations.  By ‘unbranding’ advertisements I can literally expose what Roland Barthes refers to as ‘what-goes-without-saying’ in ads, and hopefully encourage viewers to look harder and think deeper about the empire of signs that have become second nature to our experience of life in the modern world.”

Although Thomas’ work includes images of black men and women, he says that he is most interested in exploring the “link between the commodification of African men in the slave trade and the use of black bodies to hawk goods from credit cards to Nikes today.” Thomas’ earlier work, Branded, deals explicitly with branding, from the product logos plastered on athletes and rap stars to the markings that identified slaves.  In an interview Thomas says:

“I think that the irony of the ideal of the black male body is interesting…it is fetishized and adored in advertising but in reality black men are in many ways the most feared and hated bodies of the 21st Century. The majority of this work comes out of the experience of losing my cousin Songha Thomas Willis – he was killed because he was with someone who was wearing a gold chain. It is this idea – that someone could be killed over a tiny commodity. In NYC in the 1980s, people were killed over sneakers and backpacks. Songha was someone who survived DC when it was the murder capital of the country and then came home to Philly and was killed over a commodity. I want to question what makes these commodities so precious that they are worth defining and more importantly taking another person’s life?”

The work is beautiful, thought-provoking, compelling, disturbing – like art should be, in my view.  If you can get to PS1, make sure you see “Unbranded.” If not, you may want to check out Thomas’ online portfolio or his monograph, Pitch Blackness.