Racist Images: In (and Out of) Racist Context, Pt.1

The NAACP protest against The New York Post and Murdoch’s News Corp for the loathsome Sean Delonas cartoon they published of a couple of weeks ago continues to spread as does the disagreement about whether or not the cartoon was racist or not, including this fascinating discussion by some of our sociological brethren over at Scatterplot. While the Scatterplot blogger Shaka called the cartoon “deeply racist to my eye,” lots of others vehemently disagreed with his take on the cartoon, and thus a lengthy debate ensued about whether or not the image is/is not racist.  While the sociology grad student who blogs at Skinny Malinky tried to infuse some scholarly literature into the discussion that recognizes the perspective of those who are the targets of such racist images (a la critical race theory), this attempt got pretty thoroughly dumped on here.   Beyond these few instances, The New York Post cartoon controversy (like the discussion of racism as a whole) goes unmentioned on most of the sociology blogs.

I still agree with Shaka (and lots of other folks) that the image is racist and part of why I think that has to do with the social context in which the image was published.

Cultural sociologist Wendy Griswold has a conceptual framework she calls the “cultural diamond” that is useful for understanding any cultural product (e.g., novel, film,  political cartoon).  I use Griswold’s work in my research and in my teaching and I think it could illuminate the discussion of racist images.    In her framework (first published here), Griswold argues that to understand a cultural product, we should always take into account four perspectives: 1) the author’s/director’s intent, 2) the audience/reader’s interpretation, 3) the text itself and 4) the social context (imagine these as four points on a baseball-diamond-like shape).   Much of the analysis of this cartoon has focused heavily on the author’s intent (e.g., “well, the cartoonist said he didn’t intend it to be racist”) and the reader’s interpretation of the cartoon (e.g., “well, I don’t read it as racist so therefore, the problem is all you people reading it as racist”).   The social context of the cartoon is the crucial, and underexamined, point here.  This cartoon did not emerge in a vacuum but rather within a very specific social milieu and context.  The cartoon was published by The New York Post (a publication with a history of white racism) after the election of the first African American president following centuries of institutionalized white supremacy, often enforced through violence, and frequently legitimated through the use of dehumanizing images of blacks, often depicting them as apes.   Without a knowledge of and appreciation for this social context, a cartoon like the one in The Post published is unfathomable.

To the impossibly young, like some of my college students born in 1990, it’s understandable that they might not know this history given that the basic facts about this country’s history of racism are still not included in the K-12 curriculum.   To the full grown adults with advanced degrees in sociology, it’s a little surprising to me that they don’t this history, but then maybe it shouldn’t be.  Still,  there’s the more immediate social context of Obama’s presidential campaign, during which he was specifically targeted with racist images by those on the right. These images were intended to demean him based on his race, and suggest something suspect about his character, rather than simply criticize him as a politician for his views.   Add to all that the further context of the racist death threats against Obama and the systematic police brutality in New York City and across the U.S. directed at black and brown folks, and the cartoon comes into focus as a piece of propaganda that legitimizes violence against non-white people (if not calling for the assassination of a sitting president).

Making sense of the images like the Delonas cartoon requires an understanding of that image within the context in which it appeared and sociology can help us understand that context.  The wider debate surrounding The Post cartoon strikes me as a little facile, as in this disappointing piece by Nat Hentoff who tries the libertarian ploy of recasting this as a first amendment issue, which only serves to deflect attention away from a discussion of racism.  There’s a much more difficult and complicated discussion to be had about racist images in and out of context, and for that, I’ll be back with Part 2.

American Racism

American racism is getting more coverage on the mainstream news than it has since the Civil Rights era.   And, that’s not surprising given antics like this image included in a mailing from the Chaffey Community Republican Women, a regional arm of the GOP in California (more on the story and image source here).  For her part, the group’s president, Diane Fedele, draws on the rhetoric of “race-blindness” to defend her actions.  She reportedly said that she received the illustration in a number of chain e-mails and decided to reprint it for her members in the group’s newsletter because she was offended that Obama would draw attention to his own race. She said she doesn’t think in racist terms, pointing out she once supported Republican Alan Keyes, an African-American who previously ran for president. She continues this “race-blind” rhetorical strategy when she says:

“I didn’t see it the way that it’s being taken. I never connected,” she said. “It was just food to me. It didn’t mean anything else.”

Now, the somewhat encouraging news is that lots of people are pointing out this overt racism and calling it what it is, including those on rather mainstream (albeit left-leaning) blogs and cable news networks.

However, the way stories like the one about the circulation of this image of “Obama bucks” are overly focused on individual racism, rooted in psychological explanations.  For example, Fedele made the top of Olbermann’s “Worst Person” list on his nightly broadcast, as have others in this political season who’ve been guilty of engaging in the most overt racist tactics.  And, in a perfectly fine piece at the Huffington Post, Peter Wolson has a thorough discussion of the psychology of “othering.”   I don’t disagree with either of these. Indeed, I welcome more discussion of American racism in as many venues as possible.  The problem with these is that the focus on the individual and psychological aspects of racism within a larger political discourse of “race-blindness” elides the way in which racism is systemic, built in, institutionalized, and structural.

The focus on the individual expressions of overt racism and the psychological roots of such expressions also forestall any sort of discussions about responses to racism by society as a whole. To illustrate this, note the contrasting response to individual racism in Denmark recently.  A 33-year-old woman was convicted under Danish laws against racism after posting racist remarks on her personal web page (she was given a fine).   Unfortunately, in the U.S. we seem reluctant to adopt such a societal-level response to overt expressions of racism, even in this political season and even when many, many people see such expressions as wrong and immoral.   Instead, there is a knee-jerk, libertarian response to any call for accountability under the law for such expressions in the United States.  In point of fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has made a number of decisions that restrict certain types of racist speech that don’t make a contribution to the public sphere.    Yet, prominent figures such as Rush Limbaugh, get away with what amounts to enciting racist hatred with their speech, such as this recent tirade against black children allegedly “raised as militants.”

Identifying individuals who engage in overt racism is important, and understanding the psychology of such expressions is valuable, but coming to terms with American racism takes much more than that.  And, dealing with it will require a broad-based political will and systemic social change.   We’re not there yet.

John Stossel Deploys the White Racial Frame

In a recent column called “White Privilege and Barack Obama,” John Stossel, the co-anchor of ABC’s show 20/20, deploys the white racial frame – and hides behind the writing of African American neo-con Shelby Steele to disguise his own ignorance about racial matters in the U.S.

Stossel begins his piece by sharing his “assumption” about the significance of Obama’s success, then picking up on the widely circulated Tim Wise piece on Obama and white privilege, (which Adia Harvey wrote about here first), and then attacks Wise for his message. Here’s Stossel:

I assumed that the success of Barack Obama, as well as thousands of other black Americans and dark-skinned immigrants — many of whom thrive despite language problems — demonstrates that America today is largely a colorblind meritocracy. But a white campus lecturer, Tim Wise, gets tremendous applause from students by saying things like, “[W]hite supremacy and privilege continue to skew opportunities hundreds of years after they were set in place” and in America, “meritocracy is as close to a lie as you can come.” His message is in demand — he is invited to more than 80 speaking engagements a year.”

Stossel never refutes the charges that Wise and Harvey (and lots of others) make about white privilege and the way it operates in U.S. society and particularly in this campaign. Instead, he engages in a rhetorical strategy that’s best described as “nuh-uh, Shelby Steele says…” The line that immediately follows the paragraph quoted above starts like this:

But black writer Shelby Steele argues that whites do blacks no favors wringing their hands about white privilege.”

The rest of Stossel’s column consists mainly of lots of re-tread quotes from Steele’s book White Guilt. The bottom line: “nuh-uh, Shelby Steele says all that stuff is minor and he should know, ‘cuz he’s black.” So there. The only ground that Stossel ever concedes to racism is this bit:

Of course, there is still racism in America. At ABC News we’ve aired hidden-camera video showing sales clerks spying on black customers, cab drivers passing blacks to pick up whites and employers favoring white-sounding names.

Steele says those are minor problems.

Here, Stossel is referring to one 19-minute segment called “True Colors” that 20/20 did back in the early 1990s when Diane Sawyer was still on the show. It’s an excellent piece. I’ve used in classes and I include here on our list of recommended videos to use in teaching about racism. That’s one segment – in the twenty-plus years the show has been on. What Stossel fails to grasp here, and what Steele minimizes in his analysis, is that this discrimination is daily, ongoing, and life-threatening. In fact, in the very segment that Stossel references here African American economist and social commentator Julianne Malveaux points out how damaging and pervasive this sort of discrimination, when she says “it grinds exceedingly small.” Yet, this is not the African American Stossel chooses as his spokesperson to address racial inequality; instead, it’s Shelby Steele because his message is much more consistent with the white racial frame that Stossel deploys here. Once again, he quotes Steele to make his point:

“The fact is,” he adds, “we got a raw deal in America. We got a much better deal now. But we can’t access it unless we take … responsibility for getting there ourselves.”

He makes good points. White privilege does still exist, but Barack Obama’s success is more evidence that it’s not the whole story. There are plenty of people in America who want to vote for someone because he is black. Or female.

Next, Stossel trots out that tired old trope in discussions of racism: “political correctness.” And, he slips easily between race and gender here, deftly protecting white, male privilege as he goes:

It’s not politically correct to say that. Hillary Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro said she wouldn’t have been nominated for vice president in 1984 were she not a woman and that Obama would not have been doing so well were he not black. “Could I have said … his experience is what puts him there? No. Could I say because his stand on issues have distinguished him? No … If Obama were a white man, he would not be in this position. … He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

For saying that, she was repeatedly called racist.

Yes, yes she did. (Including this excellent piece, again by Adia Harvey.)

In the closing line, Stossel makes the non-sensical claim that there is “black privilege” that is somehow the equivalent of white privilege. And, predictably, calls for a stop to “complaining” and for race-blindness:

There is black privilege — and white privilege. It’s time to stop complaining about past discrimination and to treat people as individuals, not as members of a certain race.”

Yesterday, I wrote about Kristof’s call to fellow journalists for more critical analysis of racism in the presidential campaign. And, as the election grows closer and the polling data continues to show that racism is costing Obama the votes of whites, such an analysis is sorely needed. Unfortunately, most journalists – like Stossel – are blind to the reality of racism and ill-equipped for such an analysis due to the white racial frame.

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.

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.

Obama as Politician

The article in the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker magazine that accompanies the tasteless satire on the cover (which we discussed here) does not mention the cover picture and its “satirical” portrayal of Obama and his wife. The subtitle of the article is “How Chicago Shaped Obama,” but the subtext and tone of the article suggests that the purpose of the article is to characterize Obama as an opportunistic, ambitious, calculating politician, ready to oil the political machine that has dominated Chicago for decades. The article mentions Obama’s political moves throughout his career in order to characterize him as a calculating cog in the political system. The author of the piece, Ryan Lizza, writes:

“Obama seems to have been meticulous about constructing a political identity for himself.”

From Lizza’s perspective, it seems that each move by Obama contained another motive, always with an eye toward moving up to higher political office. Lizza’s point seems to be that this is the work of a typical, if extraordinarily gifted, politician. This is not particularly shocking news, afterall he is running for office within the established political system. Why would anyone be surprised to find that he fits the job description? Lizza also seems to be making the point that Obama has had less than impeccable personal integrity in his relationships with other politicians in Chicago, as in this passage about a former mentor and ally, Toni Preckwinkle, a city Alderman:

“… in 2004 Preckwinkle supported Obama during his improbable, successful run for the United States Senate. So it was startling to learn that Toni Preckwinkle had become disenchanted with Barack Obama.”

Preckwinkle feels Obama has been disloyal to his base of devoted supporters in Chicago, and she is particularly disaffected with Obama because he failed to endorse a local candidate that she supported. Seems like politics as usual. Yet, Lizza treats it as if he’s uncovering a scandal. Lizza continues in this “uncovering” style in his writing as he sets up the rest of the piece this way:

“Obama likes to discuss his unusual childhood—his abandonment by his father and his upbringing by a sometimes single mother and his grandparents in Indonesia and Hawaii—and the three years in the nineteen-eighties when he worked as a community organizer in Chicago, periods of his life chronicled at length in his first memoir, “Dreams from My Father.” He occasionally refers to his time in the United States Senate, which he wrote about in his second memoir, “The Audacity of Hope.” But his life in Chicago from 1991 until his victorious Senate campaign is a lacuna in his autobiography. It is also the period that formed him as a politician.

The fact that Obama has left this period unexamined in his books or campaign literature, Lizza seems to suggest, makes this all the more important. The big take away from all this reporting is summarized by Lizza like this:

“Like many politicians, Obama is paradoxical. He is by nature an incrementalist, yet he has laid out an ambitious first-term agenda (energy independence, universal health care, withdrawal from Iraq). He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.”

And, despite the teaser in the introduction to the piece about Preckwinkle’s disillusionment with Obama, most of the other people quoted in the article have good things to say about the candidate. For example, political consultant David Axelrod, recognized Obama’s potential to bring opposing sides together in bipartisan agreement and his natural charisma. He’s quoted in the article saying:

“He met people not just in the African-American community but in the progressive white community.”

Lizza interviews another close friend, Bettylu Saltzman, who recalls:

“I honestly don’t remember what it was about him, but I was absolutely blown away, I said to several people that this guy, who is now thirty years old, is someday going to be President. He will be our first black President.”

While some in the blogosphere call this article “great,” we see it differently. The combined effect of the cover image, the investigative tone of the article, and the association of Obama with the seamy world of Chicago politics, converge to create an overall negative impression of Obama as both a person and a politician. The article is, overall, emphasizing Obama’s readiness to embrace the political system that every other politician makes use of; yet, it does little to explore his policies and practices that more accurately speak to what kind of president he will become.

~ Amanda & Hannah

Amanda and Hannah are advanced undergraduate students at Texas A&M University doing a major research project on the numerous racial aspects of the current U.S. presidential campaign–with a special focus on the unique reality and impacts of having the first Black candidate for a major political party in the campaign. They will be guest blogging with us on their research findings over the next few months. ~ Joe