Archive for race
With the fast approaching 2012 elections on the horizon, there is one question left unanswered. As a widely circulated Associated Press article asked, “Will Obama’s Blackness Prevail Over Romney’s Mormonism in 2012?,” it went on to point out the unique and historical pairing of President Barack Obama, an African American, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, who represent two oppressed groups in American society on opposite ends of the political divide as the two run for the highest office in the land. The article, however, went one step further and posed a second, equally challenging supposition—how much progress has been made against race-based discrimination? With two weeks to go before the presidential election, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney have used much personal fodder to attack the other, which is astounding given our inclination in American politics to severely trash the other candidate’s more exploitable areas. In this case, one would have guessed that the Obama camp would have by now unleashed on Mitt’s Mormonism and its racist past just as Reverend O’Neal Dozier told the Palm Beach Post, “If Romney is the nominee, President Obama’s surrogates will bring out [the] racist views in the Mormon Church.” In fact, to his credit, President Obama has steered clear of the topic all together, leaving it to others to examine. And yet, the American press has been hushed on the topic.
Interestingly, despite the constitution stating that there shall be no religious test to hold public office (United States Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3), President Obama was subjected to months of religious attacks prior to the 2008 election; accusations that still go on presently. But the national media has neglected to discuss Mitt Romney’s Mormon ties coupled with LDS racial folklore. Although I respect the regard given to our First Amendment and the separation of church and state, it leaves me wondering—is this a form of white privilege manifesting through our national elections or are republicans simply cherry-picking topics, peculiarly when this issue was addressed in republican primaries and has since been quietly shelved? (I would argue that they are one in the same.) But the American people have a right to know the totality of the character of the American president.
The Church’s racial past and present is a prime target for political attacks. On the verge of potentially winning the election, negative attention around the contentious subject of American racism would likely bring unwanted scrutiny to Romney’s political ambitions, particularly when, if successful, he will become the first white man to unseat the nation’s first black president. In January 2012, African-American analyst, Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. wrote an online paper titled “Mitt Romney and the Curse of Blackness” in which he gave his own interpretations to the Book of Mormon. Pointing to the candidate’s LDS beliefs, he found it “deeply troubling” that the Book of Mormon “says…explicitly and in numerous passages [that] black people are cursed by God and our dark skin is the evidence of our accursedness” (pointing in particular to 2 Nephi 5:21; 1 Nephi 12:23; Jacob 3:8; and Alma 3:6). Hendricks is pointing out historical racial metaphors of white=good and black=evil, which symbolism is evidenced in the visceral hatred that many white Americans have at the presence of a black man in White House. Is this perhaps the reason why the history of Mormonism’s experience with Blacks has been convincingly ignored by mainstream American media? Hendricks further remarked, “What makes this all the more problematic …is that at no time has Mitt Romney ever publically indicated that he seriously questioned the divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon’s teachings about race, much less that he has repudiated them.”
Despite LDS claims as the “one true” church with a universalizing message, these are serious charges in which Romney has remained remarkably silent—not breaking free from his religious convictions, yet not offering any consolation with regards to the teachings of his faith that could provide a glimpse into his own racial beliefs, expressly his thoughts about black people. Virtually nothing has been said about his record on civil and social justice, including during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts. Instead, what we often hear from the mouth of Mitt Romney on matters of race is a reference to what his father accomplished as the great social liberal that he appeared to be. Former Governor George Romney was something special—a white Mormon man with an outward public passion for social justice; something you don’t see everyday, particularly in the 1960’s. George Romney was a social liberal that fought for civil rights, often at odds with racist church leaders determined to alter his course . In 1967, as the elder Romney prepared for his own presidential bid, Jet Magazine picked up on a story where Romney stated, “he would leave the church if it ever tried to prevent him from working for the elimination of social injustices and racial discrimination.” Whether he would ever really have left the Church or not since, by all accounts, he was deeply devoted to the Church and its leadership, Romney took the time to seek the council of high-ranking church leaders on matters of race prior to his run for Governor of Michigan.
Mitt Romney’s efforts at instituting something similar to “Obamacare” in his state is, likewise, commendable; however, he cannot continue to avoid the difficult question that many Americans have a right to know, especially if Romney holds similar views as past Mormon leaders who believe Blacks are a cursed race. Mitt Romney and other Mormons today, just like his father did in the 60’s, continue to hear and receive negative messages about the character and disposition of people of African descent, despite the Church changing its official stance on race in 1978. Yet, I do not believe that Mitt Romney is a closet racist. I do believe, however, that he has deep-seated ideas in his head about black folk like most white Americans, particularly those who attend racially segregated churches like the Mormon Church. How could this not be? For most of our history—246 years of slavery followed by 90 years of Jim Crow, about 85 percent of our existence as a nation—we have struggled to truly come to grips with the meaning of freedom and equality, although we use these terms loosely and romantically. Racist images, ideas, notions and inclinations to discriminate (white racial frames) have spanned 20 generations of American life, and white Christianity has been a central fulcrum to justify unjust white enrichment remaining an anathema for black folks. In order to unlearn racism, one has to do serious work, taking a hard look at oneself and the benefits received from unjust enrichment. It has only been 34 years since church headquarters lifted the Mormon priesthood ban that barred black men from holding the priesthood and denied black women temple marriages, hardly enough time to unlearn an entire generation of white racist thinking and understanding about black people, especially given church headquarters has yet to offer up any rational explanation why such a ban existed in the first place. Instead, what is typically articulated from white Mormons and “bright” Mormons (socially-white people of color) for that matter when questions of race arise in the public domain is, “only the Lord knows why Blacks could not hold the priesthood.” Thus, we have an idea where the Church stands today. And further, we know where George Romney stood. But what we all want to know is, what is your position, Mitt?
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.
In the early days of the Internet, there was a lot of talk about “access” to technology. Alongside that was a lot of concern that only people who are white and rich had access to technology, while people who were poor and/or black or brown (and sometimes women) didn’t have access to technology. This concern about who had technology and who didn’t got called “the digital divide” and lots of research got done on it.
Digital Divide(s)? In an initial study conducted by the Census Bureau under the direction of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, African-Americans were found to have lower rates than whites in both computer equipment ownership and telephone service (“Falling Through the Net,” NTIA, 1995). Even though the original report was subtitled, “A Survey of ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America,” the findings about race are what made headlines. The finding about differences in computer ownership between whites and blacks was widely reported and quickly became known as ‘the digital divide.’ It also sparked an entire subfield of research within Internet studies relating to race. The initial focus on computer ownership shifted in subsequent versions of the study to Internet access and the second report included “digital divide” in the title (“Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide,” NTIA, 1998). These initial “divides” in ownership and access have largely vanished now (for example: Leggon, 2006, ““Gender, Race/Ethnicity and the Digital Divide,” in edited by Mary Frank Fox, Deborah G. Johnson, and Sue V. Rosser, (eds.) Women, Gender and Technology, University of Illinois Press, 2006). Still some researchers subsequently identified “second level divides” that focused on the relationship between skills, “Internet literacy” and Internet usage (Hargittai, “Second-Level Digital Divide: Differences in People’s Online Skills,” First Monday 7(4), 2002).
he rhetoric of “digital divides” has also been heavily critiqued by some scholars as a “disabling rhetoric” that marginalizes people of color as technological innovators (e.g., Anna Everett, (2004) ‘On Cyberfeminism and Cyberwomanism: High-Tech Mediations of Feminism’s Discontents’, Signs 30(1):1278-86; Michelle Wright, (2005) ‘Finding a Place in Cyberspace: Black Women, Technology and Identity,’ Frontiers 26(1):48-59).
Selwyn (“Apart from technology: Understanding people’s non-use of information and communication technologies in everyday life,” Technology in Society, 25 (1), 99-116.) contends that digital divide formulations rely on the assumption that Internet access and usage is desirable for everyone, when in fact, people might not be using the Internet because they don’t see a social beneﬁt in doing so. Brock (2006) extends this argument to race and explains that slower Internet adoption rates among Blacks may have more to do with the lack of culturally relevant content online for Blacks rather than any lack of “Internet literacy.”
Then came Mobile Technology. Much has changed since the mid-1990s when ‘digital divide’ research began and computer ownership and Internet access meant sitting before a desktop machine with a wire plugged into a wall. Today, being connected to the Internet often means having a “smart phone” (e.g., a phone that enables users to access the Internet).
Ten years ago, Howard Rheingold (2002) accurately predicted the ‘next social revolution’ in computing would be the advent of mobile technologies, and this development has had important implications for race, racism and Internet studies.
Mobile phones enabled with Internet access are approaching ubiquity and with that, bridging some of the divides noted in an earlier era. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (a rich resource of data), cell phone and wireless laptop Internet use have each grown more prevalent between 2009-2010. African-Americans and English-speaking Latinos continue to be among the most active users of the mobile web, for example:
- Mobile phone ownership is higher among African-Americans and Latinos (87%) than among whites (80%)
- African-American and Latino mobile phone owners take advantage of a much greater range of their phones’ features compared with white mobile phone users
- Among Latinos, 29% of mobile-phone users surf the Internet on their device, compared to 12% of mobile-phone-owning whites.
So what does all this research tell us about race and technology? It’s still way too early to know how these patterns might shift again, but it seems clear that early predictions about “digital divides” between technological “haves” and “have nots” – especially along stark racial lines – were overstating what the evidence suggested. It also seems very likely that many of those dire early reports about “minorities left behind” were engaging in the disabling rhetoric of racism’s low expectations. As African Americans and Latinos lead the adoption of mobile technology here in the U.S. is among the more fascinating developments as it over turns those expectations.
The Internet is changing us. It’s changing how we acquire knowledge, how we communicate, how we connect with one another. Today, some 15 years into the scholarship of the Internet, researchers are just beginning to look at how race and racism are (and are not) changing by and through the way we use the Internet. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be writing a series of posts about what the research tells us about race and racism online. I’ll also point out spots along the way that, in my view, are understudied and need someone to turn a critical eye toward.
RACE & STRUCTURE OF THE INTERNET. While we may not think of the Internet as having been invented, but in fact it was, at a particular place and time. The combination of technologies that has come to be known as the popular Internet was developed in a number of specific geographic places, institutional contexts and historical moments. For more about this history, see Berners-Lee, T. and M. Fischetti Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2008). This narrative is compelling, but to date, no one has offered a thorough examination of the ways that race was, and continues to be, implicated in the structure of the invention of the Internet.
INFRASTRUCTURE & DESIGN. Scholar Tyrone Taborn notes that the role of black and brown technology innovators has largely been obscured (Taborn, 2007). As Sinclair observes, “The history of race in America has been written as if technologies scarcely existed, and the history of technology as if it were utterly innocent of racial signiﬁcance” (Sinclair, B. (ed.) (2004) Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunities for Study. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p.1).
Yet, race is implicated in the very structure of the “graphic user interface” (GUI). For example, Anna Everett observes that she is perpetually taken aback by DOS-commands designating a “Master Disk” and “Slave Disk,” a programming language predicated upon a digitally conﬁgured “master/slave” relationship with all the racial meanings coded into the hierarchy of command lines (Everett, 2002, ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Afrocentricity and the Digital Public Sphere’, Social Text 20(2):125-146., p.125).
Nakamura writes that the drop-down menus and clickable boxes that are all too often used to categorically define `race’ online are traced back to the fact that race is a key marketing category (Nakamura, 2002). Beyond the selection and targeted-marketing via race, elements of the interface are racialized. The nearly ubiquitous white hand-pointer acts as a kind of avatar that in turn becomes ‘attached’ to depictions of white people in advertisements, graphical communication settings, and web greeting cards (White, M., The body and the screen: theories of Internet spectatorship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006). The images of racial or ethnic minorities and their relationship to IT infrastructure and design is either to the role of consumers or of operators of the technological wizardry created by whites.
Assumptions about the whiteness embedded in the infrastructure and design gets spoken when there are ruptures in that sameness, such as the introduction of an African-American-themed web browser, Blackbird which I wrote about here in 2008. While Blackbird caused quite a stir among those who had operated on the assumption of a race-blind Internet, the development of a racially-themed browser is not qualitatively different from, but rather an extension of, the racially targeted marketing facilitated by drop-down menus and clickable boxes.
Tomorrow, I’ll be back tomorrow to discuss some of what the research tells us about race and mobile technology.
I get all kinds of email about this blog, a good portion of it is what you might call “hate” mail. Basically, some people who come across this blog (I assume they don’t stay around as regular readers), find it objectionable that we write about race at all. We are, according to them, making the world a whole lot worse through our little bit of bandwidth focused on racism, because “race doesn’t exist.” I’ve been meaning to address this old argument here for awhile. Just recently, I was reminded of a scholarly article* that does just that and takes on this flawed logic. So, this post is for those haters in my inbox.
Race as Biology. When I first started teaching “race and ethnicity” at a large state university in the early 1990s, many of the textbooks in sociology defined “ethnicity” as cultural (e.g., language, religion, clothing, food, rituals) and “race” as, at least partially, “biological” (e.g., skin color, hair texture, “phenotype” – roughly face shape). Most scholars and textbooks within sociology have moved away from this crude definitional distinction, but the notion that race is a biological one has deep historical roots.
The idea that race is a biological, discrete and meaningful scientific category emerged beginning in the 17th century (1600s) and solidified in the 19th century (1800s), often based on armchair-speculation about different cultures encountered through colonialism. These baseless claims were used as ideological justification for enslaving people to steal their labor so that white colonists could extract (illegal) profit from that labor. This is the part that people miss when they argue “there’s always been racism, and there always will be.” Racist ideology has a specific history, it started a a moment in time (for a discussion of what the world was like before that, see this book). This is important because if racist ideology was created it can also be dismantled.
The rise in the idea that race is a biological category very closely tied to the development of science, but that’s different than saying race is biological. The vast majority of those doing research in this area that race is a social construction. Certainly, biology matters. And, there are physical differences between people. But what’s significant about these when it comes to race is not the biology of those differences, but the social weight we attach to them. The fact is that race still matters because racism is a real social problem.
Racism as Social Problem. So, if race isn’t a meaningful biological category, shouldn’t we just stop talking about it? No, because the fact is that race as a social category remains a significant predictor of which groups get access to goods and resource and which groups face barriers. While the Civil Rights Act outlawed de jure forms of discrimination in public accommodations, housing, employment and education, the fact is that de facto discrimination persists. While overt individual discrimination is often easier to identify, it’s also part of that de jure discrimination that was outlawed. More pervasive today in many ways is institutional discrimination—the uneven access by group membership to resources, status, and power that stems from seemingly neutral policies and practices of organizations and institutions.
There are lots of examples of this form of racism today. The educational system is failing, and its failing black and brown kids more than any other. This failure is what one scholar has called “the educational debt.” Unemployment among blacks in the U.S. is expected to reach a 25-year high this year, hovering between 17.2% and 20%, double the unemployment rate for whites, which is around 9.8% nationally. The criminal justice system is perhaps the leading example of institutional racism. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now has more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and many of these are African American. One in every fifteen African American men lives in a prison or jail cell, while powerful corporations like CCA profit from this system.
These systems work together, as well. There’s an excellent – if chilling – example of this in the recent documentary, “The Lottery,” (a better film about educational inequality than the Gates-promoted “Waiting for Superman”). In the film, Susan Taylor former editor of Essence magazine and now a philanthropist, tells of a story of having a rich, white woman (unnamed) in her living room for a fund-raiser for her charity. The woman tells Taylor, “I want you to put my husband’s corporation out of business. They build prisons. To estimate the number of cells they’ll need they find the number of black boys failing fourth grade and project from the number of prison cells they’ll need based on that number.” Taylor says she’d heard that before but didn’t believe it until then. There’s also powerful research that explores the way the school-to-prison pipeline words for young, black boys. Ann Arnett Ferguson’s Bad Boys (University of Michigan Press, 1991) and Pedro Noguero’s The Trouble with Black Boys (John Wiley & Sons, 2008) are just two examples of this growing research field.
One final aspect of this racism as a social problem is that within each of these areas – education, employment, and criminal justice – is that race as biology is often used as a justification by haters to explain the inequality caused by systemic discrimination.
So, once more, for all those haters in my inbox… race and racism are not the same thing, but I know that haters are gonna hate.
*This post draws on an article [pdf] by scholars Audrey Smedley (Virginia Commonwealth University) and Brian Smedley (Institute of Medicine) with the same title as this blog post (subtitle: “Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race”) in the January 2005 issue of American Psychologist.
This is the second part of a four-part series on the most common death penalty cases: those involving black defendants and white victims. In this post, *we explore some of the research about the racial dynamics in this type of death penalty case.
Most crime is intra-racial, that is it happens among the same racial group. The majority of homicides of whites are perpetrated by other whites, the majority of homicides involving black victims are perpetrated by other blacks.
Yet, despite this statistical fact, the black defendant/white victim has the highest chance of being selected for a death sentence. One study in the midwest found that prosecutors are 2.5 times more likely to seek the death penalty when a black defendant kills a white victim.
One factor that may be influencing the death penalty decision is the race of the prosecutor. According to a study conducted by Professor Jeffrey Pokorak of St. Mary’s University School of Law, the racial breakdown of District Attorneys in death penalty states is as follows: 97.5% whites, 1.2% black, and 1.2% Hispanic. There is no absolute way to show that because the majority of District Attorneys in America are white, they are racist against blacks. However, prosecutorial discretion studies illustrate racial patterns in cases where death sentences are sought.
Another factor that researchers have examined is the race of the jury pool. In cases involving a black defendant and white victim, having five white males on the jury doubles the chance that the death penalty will be imposed [opens PDF]. Having just one black man on a capital jury cuts the chance of a death sentence in half [opens PDF]. In addition to the composition of the jury pool, the prejudice of jurors’ may also play a role in who gets the death penalty.
One study found that defendants who were perceived as looking more “stereotypically black” (i.e., having darker features) more than doubles the chances of being sentenced to death in capital cases involving white victims.
Our question for readers here: Do we – as a society – value the lives of black and white victims differently?
~ *We are a group of four sociology students studying the death penalty in Danielle Dirks’ “Capital Punishment in America” undergraduate course at University of Texas-Austin. This is the first post of our four-part blog series on race and the death penalty. Please read and feel free to comment or ask questions. Thank you for your time!
There is a push among some southern whites in the U.S. for a separate category on the census. The Southern Legal Resource Center is calling on self-proclaimed “Confederates” to declare their heritage when they are counted in the 2010 Census. According to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the organization is urging white Southerners to declare their “heritage and culture” by classifying themselves as “Confederate Southern Americans” on the line on the form, question No. 9, that asks for race. Check “other” and write “Confed Southern Am” on the line beside it.
In a move that appropriates the language of multiculturalism, the director this organization says:
“In this age of honoring diversity, Southern/Confederate people are the last group in America that can be maligned, ridiculed and defamed with impunity. Using the Census to unite the Southern/Confederate community can be a significant first step to our obtaining rights and recognition that all American ethnic groups are entitled to.”
Scholar Tara McPherson, USC, has written about neo-confederate groups such as this in a chapter called “I’ll take my stand in Dixie-Net: White guys, the South, and cyberspace,” in Kolko, B. E., L. Nakamura, and G. B. Rodman’s edited volume, Race in Cyberspace, New York:Routledge (2000), and in her book, Reconstructing Dixie, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, (2003). McPherson’s take on these groups is complex, nuanced and theoretically informed by cultural studies.
A key point from her work are important to note here about this move to racialize the census in a new way by “Confed Southern Am’s.” Although it would be easy to place these neo-Confederates in a group with other white supremacist groups, McPherson cautions that this is too simplistic and facile. In contrast to other white southern groups may affiliate themselves with a “Lost Cause” ideology that characterize blacks as racial Others who are either loyal ex-slaves who benefited from plantation life or a dangerous ‘cancer,’ the neo-confederates focus almost exclusively on whiteness, albeit a whiteness that is naturalized and taken-for-granted (McPherson, 2003, p.110).
Thus, rather than engaging in overt expressions of racism, the neo-Confederates that McPherson studies adopt the language of multiculturalism in an attempt to place regional, Southern, whiteness as equivalent to African American or any of the other identities now represented in Questions 8 and 9 on the 2010 census. Why do this? It’s a rhetorical and political strategy that seeks to undermine moves toward racial equality by de-emphasizing the power and social resources associated with ‘whiteness.’ Once again, the census proves to be useful a lens through which we can view the current landscape of racial politics in the U.S.
March 1 marks “National Women of Color Day,” situated at the end of Black History Month and at the beginning of Women’s History Month. Over the weekend, I attended the SexTech conference in San Francisco and heard a discussion by feminist sexual health educators that was interesting and flawed because it largely left out black women’s experience of sexual and reproductive health. This confluence of events seemed like an opportune moment to address the controversy churning around race and abortion. The current discussion, which is highly politicized in the U.S. in ways that it’s not elsewhere, has been touched off by a new multimedia activist campaign, called “The Endangered Species Project.”
The campaign was launched in early February at a press conference by Georgia Right to Life and The Renaissance Foundation announcing a provocative billboard which proclaims “Black Children are an Endangered Species” and urges people to go to the site TooManyAborted.com (more about which below). Here’s one of the billboards in the campaign (which reportedly costs $20,000 for approximately 65 signs around Georgia):
The main group behind the billboard campaign is the predominantly white organization, Georgia Right to Life (GRTL). Prior to this campaign, the GRTL was probably best known in the region for its “Miss Right to Life” pageant. With the new ‘endangered species project’ campaign, GRTL is partnering with a Ryan and Bethany Bomberger. The very slick website for the campaign, says the effort is a “collaborative effort between The Radiance Foundation and Georgia’s Operation Outrage.” The three layers of identification here — “Too Many Aborted.com,” then The Radiance Foundation, and then Operation Outrage — work as a kind of Internet slight-of-hand. The illusion of a multi-layered organizational structure disguises the fact there’s no staff here beyond the Bombergers. Ryan Bomberger is a former ad exec, and wife Bethany is a former school teacher, and they live in Georgia with their three children. Ryan Bomberger, who is biracial, has a compelling story about being the product of rape and the beneficiary of adoption, and this narrative frames much of the discussion in this multimedia campaign. Bomberger wants more mothers of black and biracial children to consider adoption rather than abortion.
Perhaps more disturbing even than the slickly deceptive multimedia campaign is the corporate involvement of CBS. According to RHRealityCheck, the billboards are the property of CBS Outdoors, a subsidiary of the multi-media CBS corporation. This pro-life campaign comes very quickly on the heels of the CBS decision to air a Super Bowl ad earlier this month from Focus on the Family, the ultra-right conservative organization that seeks to limit the rights of women, LGBT folks, and people of color generally. CBS simultaneously denied ad space to advertisers for condoms and organizations representing gay advertisers. At this point, it’s not clear whether CBS is endorsing or underwriting the ads in any way, but it’s certainly a telling coincidence.
At the launch of the ‘endangered species project’ GRTL also announced that they would seek to pass House Bill 1155, legislation that would:
“make it a crime to ‘solicit a woman to have an abortion based on the race or sex of the unborn child.’ “
GRTL’s “endangered species” ad campaign is an incredibly sophisticated strategy for reaching out to black women about issues of reproduction because it trades on a rhetoric that evokes the long history of racist practices directed specifically at black women. For example, forced sterilization of black women was so commonplace in parts of the deep south during the Jim Crow era that it was referred to as a “Mississippi Appendectomy.” It was routine for white doctors who perform these sterilizations on black women without their knowledge or consent, presumably “for their own good” and the “good of the larger society.”
It’s also true that black women, like women of other races, want to control their reproductive lives. Usually what this means is deciding on when and how many children to have. For many African American women in Georgia (and around the U.S.), a lack of access to birth control, lack of education, and even a high rate of sexual violence make this kind of control difficult to achieve. The fact is that a disproportionately high percentage of black women seek abortions, from the New York Times:
Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women.
As the state’s largest anti-abortion group, GRTL has been trying to find ways to address the issue of abortion in the black community, but without much success until they began to reframe the issue as one of genocide. GRTL also did a very savvy thing and hired an African American woman, Catherine Davis, to be its minority outreach coordinator. Ms. Davis travels to black churches and colleges around the state, delivering the message that abortion is the primary tool in a decades-old conspiracy to kill off blacks. Not surprisingly, given the genocidal practices in the U.S. against black and brown people over centuries, this is a message that has resonated with African American audiences.
SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective in Atlanta works for reproductive justice for women of color. Executive Director Loretta Ross refers to the controversy this way:
“It’s a perfect storm. There’s an assumption that every time a girl is pregnant it’s because of voluntary activity, and it’s so not the case.”
SisterSong also notes that “the association between the born and unborn with endangered animals provides a disempowering and dehumanizing message to the Black community, which is completely unacceptable.” Other people, such as this blogger, have noted that the “endangered species” ad campaign sends an insidious message about African American women’s sexuality that:
African Americans are more promiscuous, practice unsafe sex, and because they obtain more abortions, are less responsible. This has many lasting effect across the country that further enables historical constructs and stereotypes surrounding race to flourish. (Such as the construct in which the African American Women are portrayed to be an out-of-control sexual being that always wants sex).
The billboards also imply that “black women somehow are perpetrators of a coordinated and intentional effort to ‘execute’ black babies is harmful, deplorable and counterproductive.” This assessment comes from SPARK, another reproductive justice organization that, along with SisterSong, is pushing back against the “endangered species” ad campaign and the proposed House Bill 1155. SPARK released this statement in support of black women’s self-determination over their own reproductive lives:
“Black women know what is best for our lives, our families, and our communities and are capable of making these decisions without a coordinated assault by organizations that are not genuinely committed to addressing the host of social issues confronted by the black community. We strongly reject and denounce these billboards and the sponsoring organizations, Georgia Right to Life, the Radiance Foundation, and Operation Outrage for speaking about us, demonizing our decisions, and assuming they know what is best for our lives.”
While the Bombergers and other pro-life advocates like the GRTL say they want to encourage adoption because they care about black children, the reality is that adoption placements are heavily influenced by race and the racial preferences (if not outright racism) of adoptive parents. According to one recent study, both straight and gay adoptive parents in the U.S. exhibit racial biases when applying to adopt a child, consistently preferring non-African-American babies (pdf). So the reality is that if more African American babies are given up for adoption, they will very likely languish in the foster care system rather than being adopted due to the racism of prospective adoptive parents.
The “Endangered Species Project” is yet another villification of black women (there are so many available), and a rather cynical effort to play upon some well-founded suspicions of black people. If groups like GRTL really cared about black children they might better spend their time working to reduce or eliminate the racism which negatively affects birth outcomes for black mothers (pdf). Rather than the narrowly focused agenda of preventing black women from getting abortions, we need think differently about abortion, not as a “right to life” versus a choice, but as part of a broader reproductive justice agenda that places black women’s experience at the center.
Updated 3/1/10 @ 12:10pmET: A reader responded saying she was confused by the stance toward abortion in the original post. The point here is not to re-hash “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” arguments which are framed by a white feminist movement and the mainstream media, but rather, to put reproductive justice at the center of the analysis. One way to do that is to begin my looking at women of color’s experience with reproduction, such as African American women’s lives. For an excellent analysis from this perspective, I encourage readers to read Renee at Womanist Musings (also linked in the original post). Miriam writing at Feministing has a good analysis of the bias in the NYTimes piece (which I linked to above) that also offers some insight into reproductive justice and women of color.
And, I was remiss in leaving out a call to action from the organization SPARK Reproductive Justice Now, mentioned in the original post, which has a campaign to urge CBS Outdoor to bring the billboards down. Click here to take action.