Threats Against President Obama up 400 Percent, Yet No Discussion of Racism

This video from Rick Sanchez at CNN is on the long side (8:15) but it’s worth watching (via DailyKos):

Here’s a key excerpt from the transcript:

“A CNN source with very close ties to the U.S. Secret Service confirmed to me today that threats on the life of the president of the United States have now risen by as much as 400 percent since his inauguration, 400 percent death threats against Barack Obama  — quote — “in this environment” go far beyond anything the Secret Service has seen with any other president. Now, I need to have you keep in mind today as we add details to this story of what we’re going to share with you here. I want to take you back 11 days ago, when Mr. Obama visited Phoenix, Arizona. Do you remember this man? He’s one of a dozen or so people who carried guns to that presidential event that we have been checking on. You may remember that we heard him say on camera that he is prepared to resort to forceful resistance against the Obama administration.”

By referring to “this environment” going “far beyond anything” with “any other president,” Sanchez seems to imply there’s racism going on, but he never comes out and says that, and certainly never offers an analysis of the racism inherent in “this environment.” So, given that this dramatic rise in the number of threats to President Obama clearly has racist undertones, why is there virtually no analysis of this by mainstream news readers like Sanchez?

Visual Racism in “Historical” Photo

image0012-300x246A couple of weeks ago, an administrative assistant working for a Republican elected official  in the Tennessee state legislature sent around an email with this image (from here) and the caption,  “Historical Keepsake Photo.”

As you may or may not be able to tell from the image, it depicts all the presidents of the U.S. through to the current one, and in place of a portrait of President Obama, there is only a dark square with two eyes peering out.    The image evokes the racist blackface iconography characteristic of the Jim Crow era.

Just as we witnessed during the campaign, racist imagery has been a consistent feature of the white response to Obama’s emergence on the national political scene.

The fact that this came from a state government office suggests that this sort of white supremacy is not relegated to some marginal, fringe element of the population, but rather resonates within the mainstream of elected politicians.

If there’s a bright spot here, it’s that someone – an unnamed administrative assistant – thought that the image was wrong and forwarded it to someone outside her office.      It’s these kind of ‘race traitors’ that can work to disrupt the persistent repetition of the drum beat of white supremacy.

Racism, Sexism and The Significance of Sotomayor

AsSCOTUS 2 expected, Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has drawn controversy, media attention, analysis and even some humorous send-ups of right-wing critics (Creative Commons License photo credit: Padraic).

Opponents have alternately claimed that Sotomayor is (a) not smart enough for the Court (despite degrees from Ivy League Universities and an apparent history of exemplary academic performance), (b) racist, and (c) perhaps most bizarrely, saddled with an unpronounceable name

While these conversations themselves warrant another post (and analysis of their racist and sexist assumptions, particularly the one that she’s not smart enough), what strikes me the most about Sotomayor’s nomination is what it suggests for the future of race relations in this country. Not in terms of the “role model” argument (the idea that young people need to see someone like them in positions of power to help them see that their options are plentiful and far-ranging), though I think there is some merit to that claim.

Sotomayor’s presence on the Court, in my opinion, reveals much about the way Obama intends to address racial inequalities in his role as president.

Of late, Obama has not said much about racial matters, particularly issues of racial inequality. Many of his statements about race that I’ve read date back to 2006 or 2007, well before he was a serious candidate for President. In several these statements, he acknowledges the existence and consequences of systemic racism:

“I don’t believe it is possible to transcend race in this country. . . Race is a factor in this society. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone away. It is not an accident that African Americans experience high crime rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history.” (Essence magazine, October 2007)

However, on the campaign trail and while President, Obama mostly remained quiet about the ongoing existence of systemic racism and his plan to put policies into place that remedy it. In fact, he has gone on record talking about the need for class-based policies, using the metaphor that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Of course, President Obama walks a very difficult line, one none of his predecessors have had to balance. If he appears racially conscious, he runs a high risk of upsetting supporters who like to see him as color blind, offering easy ammunition to opponents looking for anything to use as a source of criticism, and maybe most significantly, seeing his support and ability to get things done erode in a wave of racially-tinged suspicion. If we assume that eradicating racial inequality matters to him, how then does Obama put policies into place without sacrificing political capital and losing control of his momentum?

Enter Judge Sotomayor, the first potential Supreme Court justice who will have personally experienced the multiple, overlapping oppressions of racism, sexism, and poverty. Who has observed that dealing with these intersecting factors would likely render her more capable of reaching a wise, sound decision on cases of discrimination than her white male peers who benefit from their race, gender, and class privilege. Who at the same time acknowledged that these intersecting factors do not preclude elite white men from reaching sound, fair decisions on cases of discrimination (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education), but sees the reality that living her life as a woman of color gives her a particular insight into oppression that might escape her white male colleagues.

What makes Sotomayor’s nomination especially relevant right now is that Chief Justice Roberts has issued some of his most telling decisions and statements on cases related to racial discrimination and civil rights .  Despite his clear intelligence and stellar academic credentials, Roberts is woefully uneducated when it comes to the realities of racial oppression in this nation. Operating from the color blind racist perspective, Roberts is apparently of the opinion that any focus on race—even with the intent of diversifying, correcting ongoing racial inequalities, or addressing systemic racial imbalances—is in and of itself racist. This willful refusal to recognize that racism is built into the very core of the political, economic, and social foundations of this nation, has always worked to disadvantage people of color, and will continue to do so if left unchecked, is an egregious blind spot on the part of our Chief Justice. So too is his inability to distinguish between taking race into consideration when trying to make a school system diverse (in compliance with Brown v. Board) and focusing on race in efforts to create and maintain segregated, unequal social systems.

Right now Sonia Sotomayor is being savaged by people who refuse to respect her intelligence and hard work, and instead seem to think that her status as a Latina signifies a person who is dumb and unqualified. It’s particularly ironic that she may sit on a Court that decides whether affirmative action policies are legal or even remain necessary. It seems to me that Sotomayor’s experience having her qualifications disregarded in a way that evokes common racial/gendered stereotypes would give her a perspective on the necessity of affirmative action that might elude Judges Roberts, Alito, and Scalia.

People often mistakenly assume affirmative action just elevates unqualified minority candidates, but when used wisely and correctly its purpose is to create opportunities for racial minorities who work hard, are eminently qualified, but still face discrimination because of potential employers’ biases (like the automatic, reflexive assumption that people of color are less intelligent). It seems to me that what Sotomayor is facing right now is a prime example of said biases, and this speaks directly to her statements for the value of a diverse bench. These are the types of experiences that can help Sotomayor see aspects of the law that Chief Justice Roberts, with his color blind worldview, will likely miss.

Obama is a smart enough politician to know that a candid focus on policies openly designed to eradicate racism will impair his ability to fulfill his other priorities and will pretty much guarantee him a one-term presidency. But he can select a Supreme Court nominee with stellar credentials, extensive legal experience, and the personal history to allow her to see what her colleagues are comfortable ignoring. She can’t make policy from the bench, but she can make sure the law works for everyone. In doing so, she can be Obama’s voice for racial and gender equality.

White Supremacy, Racism, and the Obama Administration, Pt.2

These are the final two provocative theses from Clarence J. Munford. He is Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. Among his books are Race and Civilization: Rebirth of Black Centrality (Africa World Press 2001) and American Crucible: Black Enslavement, White Capitalism and Imperial Globalization (Africa World Press forthcoming, June 2009).

THESIS THREE

At this moment antiracists and other progressives need be circumspect in our criticism of the agenda and policies of the Obama administration (Creative Commons License photo credit: couturiere7 ). First, because it is figuratively the only game in play. Second, because bad-tempered faultfinding would alienate nearly the entire African American community, still enthralled as it is in the historic symbolism and adulation of a black presidency in the “world’s most powerful country.” Third, because the only likely alternative to Barack Obama to emerge from the 2012 election will be the neo-Nazi, closet-KKK types and religious fundamentalists nesting under the Republican Party “tent.”

Yet we would be remiss in our duty if we failed to offer constructive critique that fosters progressive social reform. For instance, was the decision to boycott the United Nations antiracism conference in April 2009 indicative of the administration’s true stripes? Was the shunning – to paraphrase Shakespeare – a whiff of something rotten in Washington, DC’s Denmark? Must U.S. foreign policy remain forever hostage to Israeli hawks? America’s absence from the Geneva conference had even the Congressional Black Caucus – Obama’s most rock-solid legislative ally – wondering. The concept of modernization of the oppression of African Americans aids comprehension. It suggests that second class citizenship resists cosmetic changes regardless of the personnel in the White House.

During his “First Hundred Days” Obama’s “crisis management” aimed to reduce unemployment through job creation. His stimulus program included funds and measures to lessen mortgage foreclosures. Threatened homeowners were promised mortgage renegotiation along more favorable terms. At least as talking points, the government put environmental improvement, alternative energy and strategic raw materials savings on the table. Cooperation between the federal government, organized labor and the private sector is seen as a kind of magic wand. Sought is equilibrium between the national economy and the basic components of civil society.

Meanwhile corporate capital continues to manipulate the organs of state to distribute the national income in ways favorable to itself. Obama has set sights on reviving the stock market and talks in populist terms of affordable health care (but only in the dubious insurance scheme, not in the universal, single-payer form) in order to maintain political capital. The challenge is to speed the capitalist periodical cycle into a recovery phase while juggling big bonuses at firms that have swallowed billions of bailout dollars, auto industry meltdown, the AIG fiasco and growing demands for nationalization of the country’s most dysfunctional banks.

The depression has exposed widespread immiseration that can no longer be “spin”-glossed away by the mouthpieces of U.S.-dominated raciated global supremacy. More than merely turning the country around economically, progressives want Obama to face up to the system’s all-round failure to meet human needs. Job opportunities are unfilled due to unskilled or untrained applicants, while growing millions are being laid off. And what spooks the powers-that-be is the fact that now the jobless are not just blacks and Hispanics, but so-called mainstream whites as well. Grappling with neglected human needs, progressive forces demand from Obama more than just swift, but temporary, stimuli. They call for staunch and permanent government intervention. Only the state can harmonize mass employment, the need for trained workers and social needs. Barack Obama’s program looks to quicken the job market through health insurance spending, home mortgage assistance and infrastructure repairs and initiatives.

Yet it is a matter of debate whether the reformers in Obama’s corner realize that in contemporary racist capitalism mass unemployment (twice as heavy among blacks than among whites) is at once conjunctural and structural. It is a product of the periodical cycle and of deindustrialization in favor of service industries, of “off-shoring,” and of swelling social emphasis on communications-electronics. At issue are fundamental processes of capital accumulation. The Obama administration has grounds to expect jobs to be created through new investments, thus justifying all the talks of a “New New Deal.” But large-scale devalorization of much black male labor power has been long underway before the present economic bubble burst. That devalorization demonstrates that capital accumulation never has as its goal the protection or creation of jobs.

Capitalists accumulate, expand, rationalize and modernize enterprises in order to garner high profits. This generates schizophrenia for the Obama stimulus. On one hand, to mollify his electorate and pay political IOUs, the president must save homes and put people to work through health, energy, regulatory and infrastructure measures. On the other hand, as the administrator of state capitalism, he must protect and revivify the existing system of white supremacist capitalism. Once troubled enterprises are “stress-tested,” trimmed, modernized and regulated, once they are ready to yield stable high profits, they must be returned to the private sector free of federal government sway. On behalf of private capitalists the administration is mandated to manage, invest taxpayer dollars, partially nationalize and break UAW labor contracts. Such is the real meaning of rationalization, efficiency and higher productivity under racist capitalism. Success for this agenda would be long-term elimination of work places, not more jobs. As currently projected, the Obama stimulus and regulation of financial institutions down the road will shrink the demand for living labor power.

To keep this from happening, progressives and antiracists must inject radical elixir in the Obama White House. That is the only way to expand well-paid, secure employment, particularly for the sorely-tried African American community. Programming, projections, French-style dirigiste planning for express rail links, energy independence and other “leftist” concepts not heard in Washington, DC since the 1930s and the New Deal, have now become common currency inside the Beltway. These are manifestations of capitalist reformist jitters. Short of an impact by a strong radical public, they most definitely are not the “transformative” harbingers of an equitable, antiracist society designed to meet the needs of all of its citizens that many first-time voters thought they heard in the Obama campaign rhetoric. The president wants to intensify the role of the federal government merely enough to enliven the economy. But why must the affair stop there? What if a broad neo-Abolitionist coalition of blacks, browns and antiracist whites can be forged in time to intervene? Its pressure could induce Americans to realize that it is not necessary to bribe the corporate and financial moguls with bailouts, bonuses, interest and profits to obtain the necessities of life.

THESIS FOUR

Global white supremacy would lose what remains of its integral character without the seemingly limitless malleability of second class citizenship in the USA coupled with ongoing modernization of oppression of the black world as a whole. Though nearly five hundred years old, the African Diaspora in the Americas has yet to experience true liberation. What has been endured in the last two hundred years is a series of refurbishments of bondage, disguised as “emancipations.” Each modernization has occurred at a critical turning point in history when the system of black servitude was in crisis and seemed threatened with collapse. The Obama administration appears to be one such turning point.

Hitherto each revamp has involved some great confrontation like the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Each regeneration has saved the day for white supremacy by discarding the unnecessary frills of white domination (i.e., the “petty apartheids”), while rescuing the essentials of black subjugation. Each update has revealed the bitter truth that social equality and racially proportionate economic parity can never be accomplished without breaking the back of white supremacy. The staged incremental progress African Americans are alleged to have benefited from in the course of the twentieth century, culminating in the election of Barack Obama, is, in fact, contingency-rooted, episodic streamlining of the forms of second-class citizenship. The kernel of black oppression has remained stable, regardless of the election of black officials, and regardless of leeway for civil rights, intermarriage, integrated housing, voting rights and limited job opportunities. The notion of modernization of second-class citizenship for African Americans is an elaboration and articulation of the fundamental thesis of a series of modernizations of enslavement experienced in all parts of the black world during the last half-millennium.

Nonetheless, there is a serious alternative to white supremacist capitalist society. That vision postulates an end to global white supremacy, the heart of global capitalism. It requires a concerted political effort by progressive forces to build an economy that binds government control of the commanding heights of the economy with small private enterprises and community firms in an organic fashion. In order to qualify as truly post-racist, America would have to install a human and constitutional rights system in place of the travesty we now endure. It would have to impose social equality, evenhanded justice and socioeconomic parity. Black political empowerment proportionate to population percentage would have to be enshrined in the Constitution. Policy would have to ensure “equality of results” for the black community and other racialized minorities.

White Supremacy, Racism and the Obama Administration, Pt.1

These are the first two theses of four from the distinguished international scholar of racial matters, Clarence J. Munford. The next two will be posted tomorrow.

THESIS ONE

The original (so-called primitive) capital accumulation – the wealth that enabled Western civilization to erect its global domination – was actually an accumulation of enslaved African human beings. Having decimated the indigenous Amerindians in the Caribbean, Brazil and other parts of Central and South America, the white conquerors turned to Africa for the means to establish sway over the Western Hemisphere.

Nowadays the “free world’s” lighthouse sits in Washington, DC, an acknowledged fact internationally. Less avowed is the brute fact that the chief agency by which European civilization appropriated and incorporated the vast territory north of the Rio Grande, and established the United States of America, was the forced labor of enslaved Africans. Modern capitalism in the Western Hemisphere is the child of racialized black enslavement. Centuries of chattel bondage conditioned the formation of the African American race, reinforced by post-slavery discrimination, segregation and second-class citizenship. These are social relations, rules dictated to persons and communities. Social relations, mediated in history, outweighed biological reproduction in creating America’s black “minority race.”

Despite a rather common heritage of material culture, black folks’ enslaved ancestors came from many different ethnic groups and spoke many different tongues. The boundaries of the plantations ignored these ethnic divisions. When the time came for procreation, the will of the slaveholder and the limits of the plantation regulated sexual intercourse. Plantation endogamy smashed pristine ethnicity. Most couplings were within the same plantation or neighboring ones – no matter that Mbundu had to mate with Ewe, Wolof with Ibo, Yoruba with Fon… Meanwhile the sexual rampages of slaveholders and overseers injected a Caucasian strain in all but a fifth of African Americans. For a long time slaveholders were not minded to balance the gender ratio among slaves. Enslaved Africans first arrived in Virginia in 1619. Not until the 1840s were there as many black women as there were black men in the United States. America’s truest “melting pot” was stirred of transplanted Africans, a unique new people smelted in slavery’s crucible.

The social composition and profile of black America changed radically in the first half of the twentieth century. From the Great Migration (ca. 1915-1919) to the deindustrializing 1970s, the prominent new stratum was urban industrial workers. Black folk became predominately city folk. Nevertheless, the black community remained subservient to the white citizenry. The autoworker as much as the sleeping car porter, the preacher as much as the entertainer, each one of the now ghettoized African Americans was slotted somehow or other in the social hierarchy in a way compatible with the white man’s interests. Transformed by waves of migration and metropolitan overcrowding, black America was prescribed a role to play that was really the same old role in new costume. Its function in the social division of labor was unambiguous. There is nothing equivocal about that black “underclass” which serves as an elastic pool of cheap reserve labor, portions of which are destined for lifelong joblessness.

Over the last thirty years or so, large numbers of African Americans have moved to the suburbs. Decaying city cores have been abandoned to growing concentrations of black and Latino paupers, the “underclass” and the homeless. Many city cores are being gentrified, exiling even these desperate unfortunates. Ironically, even latter-day suburbanization is compelled to fit the national mold of black-white residential apartheid. Black suburbanization proceeds on the basis of black resegregation. Chunks of the inner city ghetto are dispersed as all-black pockets around the wider area. The ghetto does not evaporate; it multiplies with smaller offshoots hiving off. Residential apartheid is alive and well, now also living in the suburbs.

Even more insidious is the bond between the prison industrial system and economic revalorization. In so far as black “underclass” job seekers find no employers, they are excluded from the national market for commodity labor power. This particular phenomenon long predates the current employment crash precipitated by the capitalist recession of 2007-2009, and will long post-date it. Economically, anything that for whatever reason has no purchaser, has no price. Price is the money form of value. Without a price, an object, or in this case a human capacity, becomes in effect valueless. During the last forty years, thousands of black males’ ability to work has been stripped of a price, unsellable on the labor market and thus value-less in a strict economic sense. In the eyes of white supremacist capital, these men, and increasingly some black women too, become revalored (value restored) only when they are put to work in jail. This is revalorization through mass incarceration and the prison economy. What takes place in the prison industrial complex has been termed mystifyingly “intra-systemal commoditization of unfree labor.” The terms mean merely that in our prisons today labor power, which in the outside world appears on the market as a commodity and is sold for a price (wages), is being extracted from inmates – often involuntarily – at or well below the minimum wage standard. From shore to shore America’s cellblock inmates are disproportionately black. This practice is a giant step towards reviving the convict lease-labor system of Jim Crow vintage. The United States sports the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Continue reading…

Racism, Reporting and 100 Days

obama
This week marked President Obama’s first 100 days in office (Creative Commons License photo credit: Alexander van Dijk).  Lots of reporters took the opportunity of this somewhat artificial marker to evaluate Obama’s achievements and popularity.  The reporting on his first 100 days was also the occasion for some racism in journalism that it’s important to call out.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing at The Atlantic, is right when he says that he finds Byron York’s (Washington Examiner) “incredibly racist.”  Here’s the relevant passage:

On his 100th day in office, Barack Obama enjoys high job approval ratings, no matter what poll you consult. But if a new survey by the New York Times is accurate, the president and some of his policies are significantly less popular with white Americans than with black Americans, and his sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.

Coates writes about his hesitancy to call out York for the racism in this passage because of what he calls “political correctness run amok” in which identifying racism is seen as more egregious than the racism itself.     Coates is more eloquent:

We live in a country that may well be offended by racism, but it’s equally offended that anyone might actually charge as much.

For evidence, he cites some of the recent examples of overt racist expressions by James Watson, Geraldine Ferraro, Michael Richards, “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, which were then all followed by plaintive wails of racial innocence and crys of “offense” by these white folks at being labeled racist.

And, in a support show of support for Coates’ assessment, Matthew Yglesias at Think Progress, says:

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an important post here that I think could probably use an “amen” from a white person. It’s absurd how totally disproportionate the volume of public concern is about black people “playing the race card” or about “political correctness” stifling someone or other to the volume of public concern about actual racism.

I can add another hardy “amen” to the white people that agree with Coates.   Of course, I agree with Yglesias that actual racism is a much bigger problem than the putative threat of “playing the race card,” and I commend him for saying so publicly.

Clearly, this is not a widely held opinion among the (supposedly liberal) readers at Think Progress.   Have a look at the comments (120 and growing rapidly last I checked) over there; most are from white people who do not agree with Yglesias.

Update @ 12:05pmET: Coates punches out another post about this ongoing controversy, “Byron York is Not a Racist.”

E-race-ing Racism in Post-Racial America: Is a Transformative Moment Enough?

The willingness to believe in the possibilities of America is the social ideology underlying the inauguration of America’s first non-white President, but is it enough to usher in a post-racial America?

We stand at the brink of a new history — one whose name is more contested, whose identity is more ambiguous and whose future has hardly been conceived. The symbolic implications of race are transforming now, just as the symbolic implications of race were transformed with the Civil Rights Movement. Then, black was beautiful; black styles were cool and profitable; and black upward mobility was possible. Now, the congregation of an estimated one plus million people spanning every sector of the race-gender-age continuum on the National Mall in 20 degree weather on Inauguration Day is more than testament to the capacity of America to evolve beyond the lines which divide us. This transformative moment Obama
Creative Commons License photo credit: neil cummingsseems to be the embodiment of the much-heralded and often-scolded American Dream.

Yet, a closer examination of the contradictions underlying American realities show evidence of both progress and stagnation in e-race-ing the vestiges of racism. Post-racial ideologies by pundits of all colors and political persuasions imply that:

  • voting for a non-white man as President (or a political party that has associated itself with issues concerning non-whites as a collective) proves that America has moved beyond race.
  • the accomplishment of figures such as Oprah and Colin Powell is evidence that race no longer differentiates success for Americans.
  • an increase in levels of support for the extension of civil rights to previously-disenfranchised racial groups and in optimistic attitudes towards racial dynamics is a sign that America is fundamentally a land of opportunity.

If those who endorse post-racial ideologies are right, then even by their measures, post-racial America has not arrived.

First, the dominant racial group in our society as a collective still has not moved beyond race: 43% whites voted for Obama. (Still, in 33 states whites displayed a higher willingness to vote for Obama the Democrat than for Kerry the Democrat; in most of the Deep South, they were actually less willing to vote for Obama than for Kerry.) In only 13 states were whites more likely to vote for Obama than McCain. In fact voting patterns in Election 2008 show that if it were not for the growing political presence of non-whites (and the increasing racial polarization of political interests), there would be no transformative moment. While most whites did not vote for Obama, most non-whites did: 62% of Asians, 66% of self-identified others, 67% of Latin@s, and 95% of blacks voted for Obama.

Second, even now at the height of our hope, the statistics do not lie. Blacks and Latin@s, while visible in elite institutions, still make up less than 12% of all doctoral degrees conferred. Blacks have higher levels of mortality, send their children to less endowed schoolsand confront lower re-employment rates at the end of recessions than other racial/ethnic groups. Black men are fuel for the prison industrial complex as they trade paying income taxes for sitting behind the walls of jails on petty drug charges; black women bear the brunt of the spread of HIV/AIDS to previously uninfected populations. Black children face segregated spaces, neighborhood decline, and foreclosure at higher rates than other children.

Last, the philosophy of hope, while noble, still is not hand-in-hand with support for affirmative action and government interventionist policies that will redress inequalities. Instead of outright violence, the subtle subtexts of inferiority are etched into racial attitudes regarding the disloyalty of blacks, the motivational roots of inequality and the hypersensitivity of those who perceive discrimination.

Possibly, 40 or so years from now, a new generation of hopefuls will usher in the post-racial America many claim is here. However, today, we are still heirs to a society where civil liberties, opportunity structures, and social distresses are racialized.

As a land of immigrants, the “browning” of America has always been deeply American; thus, this “new” America is indeed the authentic perfect union. As much as President Obama is a sign of change, he is the living and breathing embodiment of tokenism. He represents the good blackone whose looks, speech, and pedigree do not threaten those in power. If nothing else, we must remember that this transformative moment was facilitated not by the erosion of the foundations of American racism, but by a deepening economic crisis, a wholesale disdain for anything Bush-related and a near-perfectly organized political campaign.

The idea currently circulating that we as a society could, with a series of elections, move beyond a system of domination that was built into our foundation before the Constitution was even written and by policies and public tolerances that debase the humanity of a whole portion of its members is naïve. Instead, we must embrace the multiracial society that has always been America. Neither a vote for nor the inauguration of the first non-white President of America can or did erase the racial divides that make fellow citizens strangers to each other.

Instead, I challenge this new generation of hopefuls to find ways to organize for racial equality — not just by one act at one transformative moment, but by acknowledging the very complexity of race in our everyday lives.

Note: Excerpts of this piece were taken from Despite transformative moment, racism still common in America” (Abigail A. Sewell) published in The Herald Times December 10, 2009: A9.

~ Abigail Sewell
PhD Candidate, Sociology
Indiana University

Obama’s Inauguration & A New Era of Learning about Racism

A glorious moment after 8 years of dumbing downEveryone, it seems, has high hopes for the new Obama administration.  My hope is that this marks the beginning of a new era of learning about racism. If the news coverage of President Obama’s inauguration is any indication, then there is a steep learning curve ahead for the predominantly white media.

President Obama’s inaugural address (Creative Commons License photo credit: Wolf Gang) never referred to the martyrs of abolition and the civil rights movement that made his ascent possible, and made only the slightest, passing reference to the racist discrimination in the U.S. when he said:

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

Fortunately, both Rev. Lowery’s benediction and the inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, referenced this legacy. In Alexander’s inaugural poem she said:

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

If there were a press that was well-versed in American history, we might have had journalists who were filling in some of details of that legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and present-day institutional discrimination.  Yet, very few news outlets made any reference to the fact that enslaved Africans and African Americans, who counted as only 3/5′s of a person in the U.S. Constitution, built both the White House and the US Capitol.

However, a number of the predominantly white, mainstream news outlets have begun to note an ever-so-slight shift in the cultural zeitgeist for talking about issues of race.   For example, The New York Times in a recent piece in the “style” section, declared that it’s now “OK to talk about race,” because President Obama offers a comfortable way for whites to approach a topic that they generally regard as taboo.    And, the Washington Post noted the shifting social scene in D.C.,  observing that whites and blacks will now mingle socially because:

“With a black first family in the White House and a diverse group of appointees and Cabinet nominees, the all-white dinner party feels all wrong.”

Fascinating.  So, day before yesterday, an all-white dinner party felt so right?   In another example, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow acknowledged on her show the night before the inauguration (h/t to Michelle Rediker for the exact quote),

“The good news is that the first African American is being sworn in as president that that means the media will talk about race. The bad news is that the first African American is being sworn in as president and that means the media will talk about race. We really are not that good at that good at this. Notice I said ‘we’? Ok a little humility here is in order. Why do we so often fail at talking well about this most important of topics? Well, Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell will be here to talk about….”

In the rest of the cringe-worthy interview, Maddow asks Harris-Lacewell if the Obama inauguration ushers in a ‘grace period’ for whites in talking about race.   Harris-Lacwell deftly handles the Maddow’s quesiton, acknowledging that black people always have a ‘grace period’ in place for talking to white people about race, “we get asked about our hair, that sort of thing” she said.  As refreshing as it is to see any African American woman consulted as an expert on one of the major networks (and Harris-Lacewell is extremely smart and telegenic), Maddow’s clumsy forays into discussions of race are telling.   Like her counterparts, the other white journalists at The New York Times and the Washington Post, Maddow still approaches the subject of race from within the white racial frame.  Within this frame it is only blacks who “have race” and thus, whites need blacks to come on the show to educate the uncomfortable and unenlightened white host.  I have to confess that I’m a huge fan of Maddow’s (she’s wicked smart, the first out-lesbian Rhodes Scholar and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Oxford), so it pains me to see her struggle so publicly with this blind spot.  In my view, Maddow has a tremendous opportunity to lead the way for white liberals and show them how to get smart about issues of race and racism.

Maddow asks the rhetorical question:  Why do we so often fail at talking well about this most important of topics? Yet, she seems unable to answer this question.

The answer to that question is “we” fail because “we” don’t know the history of racism in this country.   Of course, the “we” in both the quesiton and answer here refers to white people.  And, “we” white people need a new era of learning about racism.  The Obama Presidency is an opportunity for white people, especially white people in the mainstream press, to educate themselves about both the history of racism and the present-day reality of racism in the U.S. and around the world.

Some are suggesting that the end of the Bush regime with the inauguration of a president who is the author of two books and a former law professor, signals the end of America’s love affair with stupidity.   I hope this is true.  I also hope that this love of ignorance about America’s pervasive problem with race and racism is over, too.   In one of the many lists that are making the round of the Internet these days, one caught my attention, called the “7 Things You Can Do To Help Obama Restore America. (h/t Jakrose via Twitter).  Number 4 on this list is “Learn American History.”  I like that as an action step, but it needs to be amended to be “African American History,” as this is where all the stuff about race and racism usually gets stashed.  As Joe writes in the opening to his book, Systemic Racism:

“Do you Know who Ann Dandridge, Wilism Costin, West Ford, and John Custis were? Very few Americans can answer this question in the affirmative.  Yet these Americans should be well known, for they were all close relatives of George and Martha Washington.”

As he goes on to recount, these were also enslaved people whose names are largely unknown.  Until we understand the intricate ways that race and racism are woven into every aspect of the U.S., from George Washington through to Barack Obama, from those who “picked the cotton and the lettuce,” from those who built the White House and who clean and serve in it today, to those who now live in it, we’ll remain struck dumb, literally rendered mute by our inability to talk about race and racism.  It’s new day for learning about racism.

The Dream and the Election

Art Gallery window, GeorgetownToday, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the first black president of the United States (Creative Commons License photo credit: runneralan2004 ). The inauguration ceremony will take place the day after the nation commemorates the birth of our greatest civil rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As Jessie noted in her post yesterday, many of us are contemplating this confluence of events.   What would Dr. King say about the nation now that it has elected a black man as its forty-fourth president?  Would he say that “the Dream” has been fulfilled, that America has finally become a post-racial society? Would he advise little black boys and girls that they no longer have to deal with the unspoken or spoken belief that opportunities are limited by race?

If Dr. King were alive today, he certainly would have a front row seat at the inauguration ceremony. His mind would probably race through the defining moments in African American history.  He would see generations after generations of blacks in the prime of their lives being hunted down like animals, separated from their families and villages, and loaded onto ships anchored off the coast of West African. We would feel the pain of his ancestors who were packed like sardines into the belly of these ships for the long voyage to America and then forced to work from dawn to dusk for over two centuries just to provide economic and social comfort for white Americans. Going through the mind of the very old Dr. King would be the words of the nation’s highest court written with such unabashed racism in the Dred Scott decision (1856):

“the negro had  for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and so the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Dr. King might remind himself that Chief Justice Taney’s words were merely reflective of the attitudes of the vast majority of white Americans toward blacks at the time. He might quiver as he thought about the magnitude of the hatred whites had for blacks and the incredible amount of social disadvantage that racism placed in the lives of blacks both enslaved and free blacks alike.

Sitting in the January cold, the elderly Dr. King would also reflect upon post-slavery America.  Especially now, it is difficult to fathom that, but for a brief period of reconstruction, slavery was not replaced by a system of equal rights. The system of racial savery folded into a regime of racially repressive laws in the South and racially repressive social norms in the North. These Jim Crow laws and customs were constitutionalized by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  Jim Crow forced blacks into the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst educational systems, and the worst social position.

Dr. King must feel a warm sensation as he thinks about mid-twentieth century America. After the Second World War (the war to save free societies), most intelligent Americans knew that Jim Crow’s days were numbered. Dr. King played a central role in the eventual death of Jim Crow. But the Supreme Court struck the first significant blow against this regime of racial oppression when in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Court overturned school segregation laws in every state of the Union. With the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and early 1970s, Congress struck the final blow, killing de jure segregation and outlawing racial discrimination in most segments of American life.

The death of Jim Crow has brought unprecedented racial opportunities for blacks. There are many wealthy and influential black Americans (such as the oft-cited Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and the black captains of industry) as well as many political successes, including black congresspersons, governors, presidential appointees, and now, of course, the presidency itself with the election of Barack Obama.

Dr. King would certainly acknowledge African-American racial progress. But he would probably be more concerned about the great racial challenges still facing the nation. He would be troubled by the fact that, even as the first black president of the United States is being sworn in: about 21% of black families (compared to only 6% of white families) live below the poverty line, the median annual family income for whites is $26,000 higher than that for blacks; white males with bachelor or advanced degrees earn about $20,000 a year more than their black male counterparts; young black men are seven times more likely to go to prison than young white men, and less than half as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than young white men; and the median net worth (bank accounts, stocks, bonds,  real estate, and other assets) of white families is ten time more than that of black families.

As the very old and very wise Dr. King takes in the events of this historic day, he can only conclude that America is far from being a post-racial society.  The election does not complete “the Dream,” it only keeps it alive.

~ Roy L. Brooks
Warren Distinguished Professor of Law
University of San Diego – School of Law

The Social Significance of Barack Obama

Last night at the Democratic Convention, Barack Obama was officially selected as the nominee by acclamation of the party’s delegates (photo from the Demconvention Flickrstream).

Tonight, Obama will give his speech to the party and the nation on the forty-fifth anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington.   Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement who stood with King that day, characterizes the nomination of Obama as a continuation of a long struggle that may lift us all as a nation.   Obama is the first African American to achieve the nomination for president in the more than 400 years the U.S. has been a nation.   These are remarkable times.  But, what is the sociological significance of Barack Obama’s candidacy?

Recently, a group of sociologists discussed the social significance of Barack Obama’s candidacy.  At an online roundtable hosted by the ASA’s magazine Contexts our own Joe Feagin joined Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Josh Pacewicz, Enid Logan, Jeff Manza, and Gianpaolo Baiocchi.  The editors at Contexts solicited short statements from these six sociologists on the significance of Obama’s candidacy and potential Presidency, then published them online & then held a group discussion about the statements in the comments.  You can read the entire discussion here.