Disappointing, Incomplete ‘Primer’ on Racism

Richard Thompson Ford, has a recent piece at Slate that purports to be a ‘primer’ on racism yet it is disappointing and incomplete at best.   Let me start with the good news: he does mention the reality of unconscious bias (the research of Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University psychologist) and he recognizes that institutional racism is a reality.   In Ford’s words:

“institutional racism suggests moral fault and culpability when often the racial inequity is unintentional. But, intended or not, practices that create “built-in headwinds” for minority groups are a serious injustice.”

The link that he uses there to illustrate the “built-in headwinds” of institutional racism is to a 1971 case law citation, suggestion that this is the most recent and relevant example of such racism, in the relatively distant past of the early 1970s.

Ford is no intellectual slouch.  He’s on the Stanford University law faculty and has written a number of books and articles.  But, he didn’t come to national prominence until his most recent – and most politically retrograde – book, The Race Card: How Bluffing about Bias Makes Race Relations Worse (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) was published and got a rather glowing review in the New York Times.  Ford seems to be climbing aboard the same sort of political conveyer belt that’s assured the ascendancy of conservatives such as Michelle Malkin, John McWhorter, and Dinesh D’Souza.

Following on the conservative ideology he promoted in The Race Card, in his ‘primer’ on race for Slate Ford ignores the research on systemic racism altogether.    In case you missed any of the previous posts that Joe (or I) have done about this form of racism, here’s a reminder from Joe’s post on July 20, 2009:

The North American system of racial oppression grew out of extensive European and European American exploitation of indigenous peoples and African Americans. It has long encompassed these dimensions: (1) a white racial framing of society with its racist ideology and other key elements; (2) whites’ discriminatory actions and an enduring racial hierarchy grounded in material exploitation; and (3) pervasively racist institutions maintained by discriminatory whites over centuries. White-generated oppression is far more than individual bigotry, for it has from the beginning been a material, social, and ideological reality. For four centuries North American racism has been systemic–that is, it has been manifested in all major societal institutions.

In the books Systemic Racism and The White Racial Frame I develop the concept of a white racial frame holistically and comprehensively. Since its development in the 17th century, this racial frame has been a “master frame,” a dominant framing that provides a generic meaning system for the racialized society that became the United States.The white racial frame provides the vantage point from which European American oppressors have long viewed North American society. In this racial framing, whites have combined racial stereotypes (the verbal-cognitive aspect), metaphors and interpretive concepts (the deeper cognitive aspect), images (the strong visual aspect), emotions (feelings), and narratives (historical myths like “manifest destiny of whites to spread across the country”), and routine inclinations to discriminatory action. This frame buttresses, and grows out of the material reality of racial oppression. The complex of racial hierarchy, material oppression, and the rationalizing white racial frame constitute what I term systemic racism. This white racial frame includes much more than the usual somewhat weak concepts most scholars and popular analysts use in the study of US racial matters, such as stereotyping, prejudice, and bigoted discrimination.

The white racial frame has long been propagated and held by most white Americans–and even, in part, accepted by many people of color.

It seems clear, to me at least, that Richard Thompson Ford is another of those who has accepted the white racial frame in his misguided, disappointing and incomplete ‘primer’ on racism.

By situating racism and ‘bias’ as primarily a thing of the past (institutional racism happened in the 1970s), and at the unconscious level (implicit bias), while dismissing ‘cultural racism’ with this his superficial discussion of Bill Cosby’s comments from a few years ago, Ford also misses the important ways in which racism is being reinscribed into new institutions and new cultures of the present era.   Here, I’m referring to what i’ve called cyber racism.   The fact is, avowed white supremacists were among the earliest adopters of Internet technologies and have adapted the technologies in sophisticated ways – by using cloaked sites – to their own, racist ends.     In addition to these covert, often very well-disguised cloaked sites, white supremacists at overtly racist portals such as Stormfront, have drawn supporters in record numbers – in the hundreds of thousands – since the election of Barack Obama.   In addition, the emerging phenomena of Facebook racism – using existing social networking sites to foment racism has to be taken into consideration in any ‘primer’ discussion of racism.    Unfortunately, Ford misses these important new dimensions of racism as well in his cursory analysis.

Racism and Implicit Bias in Cambridge

If you wish to gaze upon the depth and breadth of America’s racial divide–particularly the canyon-like gulf between white folks and black folks–you need look no further than the recent incident involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cambridge police officer James Crowley, and now, President Obama who weighed in on the matter a few nights ago, when asked for his reaction to Gates’s arrest on charges (since dismissed) of disorderly conduct. In this case, as with so many other news stories that have touched on race–the O.J. Simpson trial and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as just two of the more obvious examples–whites and blacks, generally speaking, and with obvious exceptions on both sides, see the story and the racial component of the story in fundamentally different (often diametrically opposed) ways.

To hear most white folks tell it, Gates was to blame. Yes, he was only trying to enter his own home when a white woman saw him (as well as his driver), assumed they were burglars and then convinced another woman to call the cops on her behalf. And yes, he produced identification for the officer when asked, indicating that he was indeed the resident of the house to which the officer had come to investigate the initial call. But because he became belligerent to Sgt. Crowley, and because he unfairly called Crowley a racist, he is guilty of escalating the situation, and thus, is the bad guy in the scenario. Meanwhile Crowley, according to the dominant white narrative, spread by media far and wide, is a wonderful and thoughtful cop, who is hardly a racist–after all he teaches a diversity training class and once gave mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation to a dying black athlete–and who was inappropriately smeared: first by Gates who accused the officer of asking him for proof of residency only because he was black, and then by Obama, who said the police had acted “stupidly” in arresting the esteemed professor in his own home.

Such a perception on the part of whites makes sense, given the white racial frame, as sociologist Joe Feagin calls it, through which most whites view these matters. That frame says, among other things, that as long as you are respectful to police, nothing bad will happen to you (thus, if something bad does happen to you it was likely your own fault), and secondly, that there can be no racism involved in an incident unless the person being accused of such a thing clearly acted with bigoted and prejudicial intent. In this case, since Gates mouthed off and Crowley is, from all accounts, hardly a bigot, the case is closed so far as the dominant white narrative is concerned. Continue reading…