Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real

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.

I ♥ Haters
Creative Commons License photo credit: The Infatuated

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 discriminationthe 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.

Race, Racism & the Internet: 10 Things Sociologists Should Be Researching

There was exactly one session on “Race and New Media” among the hundreds of panels at the recent American Sociological Association meetings last week in Atlanta.  The panel was interesting, thought-provoking and presented by a diverse group of sociologists, and I’m not just saying that because I organized it.   I think there should be lots more research like this.

H J K
Creative Commons License photo credit: atxryan

One of the main points I make in my book Cyber Racism is that white supremacy has entered the digital era, and that means it’s changing, morphing into new forms.  Some of those centuries-old components continue to exist, but now they exist alongside new forms of racism, such as cloaked websites.   This is true not only of the extremist groups I’ve studied, it’s also true of lots of other dimensions of race and racism.   This seems like an arena ripe for sociological investigation, yet I continue to be puzzled by the fact that there’s not more research in this area.

Within sociology there’s a gap between researchers who critically study race and those who study the Internet.  I talked with several prominent sociologists who study Internet and society at the meetings, and they concurred with my assessment of the field.  As one scholar told me when I mentioned the few submissions I received for the “Race and New Media” panel: “That’s because no one studies that.”    Another prominent scholar suggested that the problem is that the critical race folks just don’t know the Internet research and vice versa.  I tend to agree. I talk to people who know the Internet and the research about it, and they generally don’t know much about critical race scholarship.  And, the people I talk to who are critical race scholars, generally don’t know much about the Internet.

In many ways, the study of race and the Internet has been ceded by sociologists to scholars working in other fields such as history, psychology, communications, cultural studies, and political science.   There’s good work going on in those fields, most notably Lisa Nakamura’s work, which I admire and have mentioned here before.     One of the things I enjoy about the growing field of Internet-related research is that it’s interdisciplinary, so maybe it’s not worth raising these intra-sociology disciplinary issues, but it strikes me as a missed opportunity for the field.   Part of the problem here is that the Internet changes quickly, and sociology is just slow. One of my graduate professors used to refer to sociology as “slow journalism”.  If journalism is the first draft of history, sociology is the re-draft of history in many ways. I think that sociologists have something valuable to offer in terms of our understanding of how the Internet is transforming patterns of human social behavior.   While lots of sociologists who study race are using the Internet as a tool for their research (everything from Google Scholar to analyzing messages on email listservs), only a very few are considering the Internet as an object of study, and exploring the ways it’s changing the production of and resistance to race and racism.

So, in an attempt to suggest ways to bridge this gap, I’ve sketched out 10 areas I think sociologists should be researching:

  1. infrastructure / design – How computers and the “graphic user interface” (GUI) – like web browsers are designed affects how people use the Internet.  In 2008, I wrote about the development of a custom browser, Blackbird, designed for use by African Americans, that cause some uproar.  How does the way that interfaces are designed affect the way people use the Internet and how is race implicated in this?  There’s terrific research on user-centered design being done by sociologist Nalini Kotamraju and some on open source software by Jon Smajda which highlight the useful bridge between a deep knowledge of infrastructure and software design.  Michelle White (cultural studies) has done some interesting work on this (why is that little hand always white?), and of course, Nakamura’s relevant here again.   I don’t know of any one in sociology doing research like this on race and interface design.
  2. industry –   The leading tech firms in Silicon Valley are dominated by white men and a few white women, yet the manual labor of putting together circuit boards that run computers is largely done by immigrant and global south women.  How does the predominantly white tech industry located in the global north and the immigrant / global south labor that powers the Internet say about race and technology?  (See, J. Shih, Circumventing Discrimination: Gender and Ethnic Strategies in Silicon Valley, Gender & Society, 2006, 20; (2): 177-206).
  3. gaming – Literally millions of people are playing online games, and meeting in person at gaming conferences, yet this social phenomenon is going largely unremarked upon by sociologists.    Lori Kendall’s Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub (UCPress, 2002) looks at the reproduction of race and gender in one of these game spaces, but I see little other work on this important topic by sociologists.
  4. popular culture / fandom – There are huge – again in the millions – of online groups for everything from tennis to celebrities to popular fiction.   How is being a “fan” shaped by race, and how is online “fandom” in popular culture shaped by race and racism?   Sociologist Sarah Gatson has explored some of this in her work and is seeking papers [pdf] for a special issue of a journal about this.
  5. mobile technology – It’s been a few years since Howard Rheingold (whom I think of as an honorary sociologist) wrote his groundbreaking book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, and I’ve yet to see anyone extend that work to look at mobile technology and race.   There’s research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project documenting that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to access the Internet through mobile devices.  What does this suggest for all that talk of the “digital divide” among sociologists a few years ago?
  6. identity +  community –  In the early days of the Internet, lots of people thought that we would go online to “experiment” with identity, to engage in “identity tourism” to use Nakamura’s phrase.   Yet, that’s not turned out to be the case.  In fact, the way people use the Internet most often is to reaffirm their offline identities.  Sociologist Emily Ignacio’s excellent book Building Diaspora: Filipino Community Formation on the Internet (Rutgers UP, 2005) is an example of this type of work and there should be more.
  7. social movements :  I mentioned my book on racist social movements, and I’d like to see more done on progressive social movements around race, such as the march organized around the Jena6, which was mobilized primarily through young, African American bloggers. One of the strategies I used in my research was to examine movement discourse pre-Internet and post-Internet, and this is another angle that could be pursued by those interested in race and the offline mobilization of social movements around race.
  8. racist framing in Facebook, MySpace, Twitter – Social media is framed by racist language, and within a larger white racial frame, yet there’s very little sociology that looks at this.  Stephanie Laudone (graduate student at Fordham) is at work on a dissertation that takes up some of these issues in Facebook.
  9. health/science – Internet users increasingly look for health and scientific knowledge online.    Victoria Pitts (a CUNY colleague) has written about these issues as they relate to gender, (see Illness and Internet empowerment: writing and reading breast cancer in cyberspace, Health, 2004, Vol 8 (1):33-60), but I don’t know of any similar research that looks critically at race and health.
  10. surveillance culture – We live in what some have called a ‘surveillance culture.’   Sociologist Simone Brown is writing about some of these surveillance technologies as they relate to border crossings (fascinating work), and there are implications of this surveillance culture for understanding race and the Internet.    As just one example, given the millions of Black and Latino men locked up in the U.S., what are the implications of the “inmate locator” websites run by state and federal governments?  How do systems of incarceration work together with online registries and databases of Black/Latino men to shape racial inequality in the digital era?

Of course, this is just a back-of-the-envelope sketch of what I think are the promising areas of investigation for sociologists.    Where I know about people’s work in these areas, I’ve included it (let me know if I left your work out and i’ll add it).  So, what did I miss?  What are some other areas of research?

Race and the Death Penalty, II: Black Defendants, White Victims

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!

Race and the U.S. Census: ‘Confederate Southern’ Whites Want Separate Category

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.

Race, Abortion and Reproductive Justice (Updated)

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):

blackchildrenendangeredspecies

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.

“It’s a Wonderful Life”: Honoring Lillian Randolph

During this holiday season, lots of people go to the movies and watch classic holiday-themed films like, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The film can be read as a critique of capitalism through its indictment of the Potter character, and an affirmation of hope and the beauty friends as “true riches.”   There is one African American character in an otherwise entirely white cast, perhaps not surprising for a Hollywood film released in 1946.    That character is “Annie,” the Bailey family’s maid, and she is played by Lillian Randolph.    Yet, she maybe best known for is her brief role and memorable quote near the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which she offers some comic relief in the climactic last scene.  Offering George Bailey, her employer, all of her savings, she says:

I been savin’ this money for a divorce, if ever I got a husband!

The line is funny, but not.  It speaks to the fictive notion in the white imagination that black women have no families of their own, but live to serve their white masters.   Scholar Jacqueline Jones in her powerful book, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, dissects the many facets of this erroneous belief as she details the historical record of black women’s struggles to raise their own families while often laboring under the most oppressive conditions of white employers.    There are few accurate portrayals in mainstream Hollywood films that speak to this reality, but perhaps Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal of the character “Sofia” in “The Color Purple,” (1985) comes closest.  In this film, Sofia goes to jail for talking back to and striking her white employer.  The contrast between Sofia’s resistance to her white employer and Annie’s acquiescence is striking and, in many ways, speaks to the social changes brought by the civil rights movement in the years between 1946 and 1985.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that Lillian Randolph (the actress who portrayed “Annie,” in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” )  shared the same acquiescence to the white power structure as her character.  Lillian Randolph (died 1980) enjoyed a long career in radio, film and television.  Many of those roles, including ones in “Roots,” offered a very different view of black women’s struggle.  And, in fact, Lillian Randolph’s own daughter Barbara Sanders briefly followed her mother into acting (pictured here).  This holiday season, I’d like to honor Lillian Randolph, and all the black women who’ve played the maids, servants and walk-on roles in white-dominated Hollywood films.

randolph_lillian

Over the next few days, I’ll be doing a series of movie-themed posts about the way race and racism are addressed or perpetuated in Hollywood films.

David Mamet Addresses “Race” in New Play

Just a brief note that David Mamet has a new play on Broadway that deals with race and racism, called cleverly enough, “Race.”  Here’s a brief bit from Ben Brantley’s review in the NYTimes this morning:

“[Lead characters] Jack and Henry’s initial interview of their prospective client allows them to deliver knowing epigrams about the amorality of the legal profession and the parasitic nature of the news media. More important, the encounter lets Mr. Mamet dissect the layers of perception that come into play any time white versus black (and man versus woman, and have versus have-not) is the center of a sensational trial. The race of each character informs these perceptions as well, though not always how you would expect.   “You want to tell me about black folks?” says Henry, baiting the distressed but indignant Charles as the play begins. There follows a list of the stereotypes that dare not speak their name when it comes to the contemplation of African-Americans by their Caucasian counterparts, and Mr. Mamet runs with increasingly elaborate riffs on that theme.”

Why a play about race from arguably one of America’s most notable playwrights at a time when we are living through a supposedly post-racial era?  Mamet answers this question in his piece, “We Can’t Stop Talking about Race in Amerca,” for the NYTimes back in September, saying:

“President Obama, like his predecessor President Bill Clinton, has suggested that this country engage in a dialogue about race.  But what has our 230-year national experience been but a dialogue about race? … My current play, “Race,” is intended to be an addition to that dialogue. As a Jew, I will relate that there is nothing a non-Jew can say to a Jew on the subject of Jewishness that is not patronizing, upsetting or simply wrong. I assume that the same holds true among African-Americans. In my play a firm made up of three lawyers, two black and one white, is offered the chance to defend a white man charged with a crime against a black young woman. It is a play about lies.  All drama is about lies. When the lie is exposed, the play is over.

Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth. In each, desire, self-interest and self-image make the truth inconvenient to share not only with strangers (who may, legitimately or not, be viewed as opponents) but also with members of one’s own group, and, indeed, with oneself.

For just as personal advantage was derived by whites from the defense of slavery and its continuation as Jim Crow and segregation, so too personal advantage, political advantage and indeed expression of deeply held belief may lead nonwhites to defense of positions that, though they may be momentarily acceptable, will eventually be revealed as untenable.”

I haven’t seen the play yet, but I’m intrigued that this one barometer suggests that race is as salient a topic of discussion in the U.S. as it ever has been.

What Would You Do? Multiple Perspectives on an Urban Encounter

[This post is a re-blog from here. It’s a conversation among several scholars and activists about an urban encounter, each person was invited to respond. My contribution, along with several others, are included here. More after the jump. ~ Jessie]

We look to our children as promises for the future, to progress beyond previous generations’ limitations, failures and injustices. We recognize and dream about “their world” — the one we’ll live in when we are seniors, the one that embodies some of our wishes and the fruits of our labor and energy. But we also know that for these goals to be reached, there must be a context within which our young people can learn, grow and thrive. We agonize over how we can improve conditions for young Americans whose future is so instrumental to ours, and we worry about kids who seem to be heading in a direction that can undermine those aspirations. THIS WEEK, we have assembled a small panel of thoughtful folks who are thinkers, writers and social justice advocates to discuss a confrontation that Stephen had with three young men who were vandalizing a subway station on Tuesday evening. We offer these perspectives in the spirit (and with the hope) of instigating positive, thoughtful discussion. Stephen’s story is below, followed immediately by Charlton’s response and then the responses of our guests.


Stephen My wife and I were climbing down into the Harrison Red Line subway station in our neighborhood in Chicago when we happened upon three young Black boys — maybe 13 years old — tagging the station walls with spray paint. It was particularly surprising because there are security cameras down there, yet the kids were dancing around and acting as if they didn’t care if anyone saw what they were doing. I thought about it for a second or two and decided to let them know that I saw what they did. Rather than express disappointment or anger (I figured at that age, irrespective of race, they wouldn’t care — I wouldn’t have!), I simply wanted them to know that they were not as quick or careful as they though they were. Even now, I’m not sure if I was trying to scare them or warn them that they could easily be caught, or if I was trying to discourage them from doing it again. In any case, they all denied having done anything wrong, and as we boarded the train, one of the boys stuck his head in the door before it closed, called me some names, and flipped me his middle finger while another boy spray painted on the window of the train as it pulled out of the station. I spent the rest of the night thinking about whether there was anything I could have done to meaningfully intervene in those boys’ lives. Since I am a White ally, I am very conscious about not wanting to be act like, feel like or be perceived as though I need to “save” (Dangerous Minds-style) persons of color. On the other hand, as an adult who wants to see all children succeed and who knows that sometimes getting in trouble is the best thing that can happen to turn someone’s life around, I wonder if I should have tried to call a CTA employee or otherwise “bust” the kids. Further complicating the issue is the fact that with all the youth violence and gang activity in the area, saying anything to kids that age at all — particularly while they are engaging in an illegal act — probably isn’t a particularly smart thing to do. Would I have felt the same or acted in the same way if I were Black (a man or a woman — and would that matter) or if the kids were White? Would the kids have reacted to me differently? Did I act appropriately (do enough, do too much)?


Charlton There’s no easy answer to this question. I suppose like many people my response to what the kids were doing would fluctuate depending on the day, my mood, and my immediate attitude about the actions these youths were engaged in. On one day, no doubt, I’d be apt to say that I would approach them and say something like, “No wonder why some people see kids like you as nothing more than ignorant thugs.” It’s the kind of thing that comes to mind when you are looking at someone from your own racial group reinforcing the dark shadow of prejudice on those of us who have tried so hard to overcome those perceptions. But I’ve also noticed recently that I seem to be getting older. As I do, I find myself distanced from young Black teens not so much because they are Black, but because they are adolescents — adolescents who seem to attempt more today than I would have ever thought possible to get away with when I was their age. And I admit part of me would have stood silently with my wife, not uttering a word to the kids — in fear of their potential volatility and need to remain and keep my loved ones safe from potential harm. If I were wearing my charitable, racially and socially conscious hat that day, I may have spent a moment not only contemplating acting — confronting the young men — but thinking through the implications of my actions. If I report them to the authorities (“authorities” — I feel like I’m in a 1970s Japanese monster film) then these youth will probably be swept into a criminal justice system likely to impact them more negatively than the subway wall they were tagging. So no, don’t report them; they probably deserve a chance that they probably won’t get if the cops get a hold of them.

If I were to say anything — not wanting to incur the wrath of some pent up anger, or send them on a one-way trip through the American criminal and judicial process — I may have just asked them why. “Hey — why are you guys doing this?” I’ve always found that if you ask someone a question he or she will do one of two things. Some will ignore you, and others will answer the question. If they answer the question, you’ve taken the first step to engaging in some form of meaningful dialogue. This, I think, would be the best possible outcome — and opportunity — I could imagine in this situation.


Jessie Daniels The encounter that Stephen describes is a vexing situation for those of us who count ourselves as white allies for racial equality. As he describes the exchange, it is one bound up with white racial privilege (and, one suspects, class privilege). The image of the white professor chastising the young, black grafitti artists (or merely vandals) and their understandably angry response, seems like a reenactment of larger scripts about race and class in the culture. I think it’s also important to bring up the issue of gender and sexuality in the dissecting of this story. If I had been in that situation, and I had seen those young men while I (also a white professor, and a woman) had been with my partner (also a woman), I would not have said anything to a group of adolescent boys – whatever their race – for fear of retaliation that was more aggressive than a raised middle-finger. As a lesbian-identified woman, groups of adolescent boys raise the possibility of a different kind of threat for me. So, for me, the fact that Stephen feels he can call out these young men is completely bound up in his own position of privilege at the intersection of race and class, as well as gender and (hetero)sexuality. If the underlying issue here is about how to intervene in the lives of young, black youth who may have gone astray on the path toward adulthood, full citizenship and participation in the broader society, I would echo what others have said here about community engagement. I wonder if Stephen knew the names of these young men? He doesn’t say, but my guess is that he did not. Did he ever have a conversation with them prior to the exchange around the graffiti? Without a personal connection in which you at least know the young men’s names or have had a conversation once before, an encounter such as this one is doomed to replay hierarchies of race and class. And, just so you know that this not all theoretical for me, I’ll close with a story from my own life. I attend a multi-racial, queer church called Metropolitan Community Church of New York (MCCNY). MCCNY has for 8 or so years run a shelter for LGBTQ homeless teens. The shelter is open 365 nights a year, and operates in the basement of the church building. The kids who reside there come from all over, are predominantly black and latino, and are mostly homeless because they have ‘come out’ to their families and been rejected by them. These young people are struggling – often heroically – to survive in difficult circumstances. They are also teenagers. As such, they not infrequently act out in ways that are just not acceptable. If I see unacceptable behavior by one of the teens and act in ways to correct it, I am in a similar position to the one that Stephen was in. I am white and a professor, and thus have racial and class privilege in relation to these young people. All of our interactions are always going to be inflected by those differences. However, that does not mean that I look the other way when I see a young person putting themselves in harm’s way. I intercede when I can.  I’m mostly likely to take action – and to be effective – when I know a young person’s name, I’ve talked with them before in some non-confrontational exchange, and they have a sense that I care about them beyond the interaction in which I’m telling them that they’ve messed up.
Dr. Jessie Daniels is an Associate Professor at Hunter College. She is cofounder and frequent blogger at RacismReview and you can follow her on Twitter.

Tami Winfrey Harris It is easy to see the implications of race and class all over an interaction between a white, male, college professor and three, young, black, inner-city males in the city of Chicago. We are trained to think that way, especially those of us who are committed to anti-racism and the exploration of privilege and power. But in this case, I wonder if those things–race and class–are distractions. Let me explain. Race and class play a tremendous role in the marginalization of young, black males. And there may be no better illustration of that fact than Chicago, where 36 young men of color have died violently this year, and the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in the highly-segregated city grows ever wider. So, it is safe to say that race and class likely played a significant role in these youths’ seeming disaffection. But I am not convinced that it colored their interaction with you, Stephen. I witnessed similar scenarios play out during my years in the Windy City with similar results. Adults, old enough to remember the time not so long ago when grown ups were expected to chasten ill-behaved young people and the young people generally obliged out of a sense of respect for age and authority, attempting to correct a raucous or anti-social group of teens only to be met with verbal or physical aggression. The races of the adults who embraced the notion of “it takes a village” varied, the infractions did also–loud cursing on the No. 6 bus, jimmying locks to make a short cut through private property–the outcome of their actions usually did not. What is happening to our children? Well, in the case of black males (and there are certainly many troubled youth of other races, but young black men are particularly at risk), Anti-Racist Parent columnist Liz Dwyer said, in a post about the murder of Derrion Albert, that we are faced with “chickens coming home to roost.”

As a society, we have chosen to not uphold desegregation laws. We have chosen to allow low income children of color to receive a substandard education, simply because they live in a different zip code. We have chosen to not pay a living wage so that people can actually have the means to pursue life, liberty and happiness, so they can move out of dangerous neighborhoods if they see fit. And we have chosen to allow gangs and narcotic trafficking to run rampant, as long as it stays controlled on the “bad” side of town. As for having some sort of moral or spiritual “center” where today’s teens know not to beat one of their peers to death, that sort of center doesn’t just fall out of the sky and infect kids like Swine Flu. Yes, children and teens should know better, but we live in a do-whatever-you-wanna-do culture. Self-control is in no way a part of our world these days.

I’m not saying this to excuse what these teenagers did. But hello, didn’t you read Lord of the Flies as part of your education?

THIS is where race and class come in. Society has surely created an environment where anti-social behavior will fester in disenfranchised youth, including children of color and the poor. And because we broke it, it is our job to fix it. It is good that you intervened, Stephen–not as a white savior, but as a concerned adult. What most of us, including me, are far more likely to do is look away and say nothing, to tsk tsk about the kids and the mamas and daddies who are raising them, to give the children in question up for lost. We look away from the loud and aggressive behavior. We look away from the loitering. We look away from the vandalism. We look away…until a teenaged boy is beaten to death on camera…and then it seems people cannot look away. And we wonder how we got here.

Tami Winfrey Harris blogs at What Tami Said and is the editor of Anti-Racist Parent. Follow her on Twitter. Continue reading…

Book Event Quarterly

We’re beginning a new quarterly feature here, “Book Event Quarterly.”  The idea is that once each quarter (about every three months), we’ll spend some time in a post to highlight new, important and promising books that deal with the topics of race and racism.   The emphasis in this series will be on scholarly books that are based on empirical evidence.   Of course, there are often books written by journalists (Jonathan Kozol’s work comes to mind) that may get included as well.   For now, here are a few titles to consider for your summer reading list (in more or less random order):

  • Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton, by Duchess Harris,(PhD, Associate Professor of American Studies at Macalester College). New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 208 pages. Harris offers an analysis of Black women’s involvement in American political life, focusing on what they did to gain political power between 1961 and 2001, and why, in many cases, they did not succeed. Harris demonstrates that Black women have tried to gain centrality through their participation in Presidential Commissions, Black feminist organizations, theatrical productions, film adaptations of literature, beauty pageants, electoral politics, and Presidential appointments. Harris contends that ‘success’ in this area means that the feminist-identified Black women in the Congressional Black Caucus who voted against Clarence Thomas’s appointment would have spoken on behalf of Anita Hill; Senator Carol Moseley Braun would have won re-election; Lani Gunier would have had a hearing; Dr. Joycelyn Elders would have maintained her post; and Congresswoman Barbara Lee wouldn’t have stood alone in her opposition to the Iraq war resolution.  Her book was just released yesterday, and Prof. Harris has a post about it at her blog, SisterScholar.
  • Between Barack and a Hard Place: White Denial and Racism in the Age of Obama, by Tim Wise (antiracist writer and educator).  San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2009.  120 pages.  According to Wise, for many white people, Obama’s rise signifies the end of racism as a pervasive social force; they point to Obama not only as a validation of the American ideology that anyone can make it if they work hard, but also as an example of how institutional barriers against people of color have all but vanished. But is this true? And does a reinforced white belief in color-blind meritocracy potentially make it harder to address ongoing institutional racism? After all, in housing, employment, the justice system, and education, the evidence is clear: white privilege and discrimination against people of color are still operative and actively thwarting opportunities, despite the success of individuals like Obama.
  • The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial-Framing and Counter-Framing by Joe R. Feagin. New York: Routledge, 2009. 264 pages.  Here, Feagin explores the ‘white racial frame, now four centuries-old, which encompasses not only the stereotyping, bigotry, and racist ideology accented in other theories of “race,” but also the visual images, array of emotions, sounds of language, interlinking interpretations, and inclinations to discriminate that are still central to the frame’s everyday operation and remain deeply imbedded in American minds and institutions.
  • Doing Business with Beauty: Black Women, Hair Salons, and the Racial Enclave Economy ‎by Adia Harvey Wingfield, 2008.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 155 pages.      Using in-depth interviews with hair salon owners, Doing Business with Beauty explores several facets of the business of owning a hair salon, including the process of becoming an owner, the dynamics of the owner-employee relationship, and the factors that steer black women to work in the hair industry. Harvey Wingfield examines the black female business owner’s struggle for autonomy and success in entrepreneurship.
  • Fade to Black and White: Interracial Images in Popular Culture by Erica Chito Childs, 2009.   232 pages.  Childs considers the context of social messages, conveyed by the media, that inform how we think about love across the color line. Examining a range of media–from movies to music to the web–this book offers an informative and provocative account of how the perception of interracial sexuality as deviant has been transformed in the course of the 20th century and how race relations are understood today.
  • Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race, by George Yancy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlfield, 2008. 265 pages.  Explores Black embodiment within white hegemony and the context of a racist, anti-Black world. Yancy demonstrates that the Black body is a historically lived text on which whites have inscribed their projections which speak equally forcefully to whites’ own self-conceptualizations.
  • Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, by Lisa Nakamura.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 248 pages.  I’ve made mention of my new book, Cyber Racism here before, so I won’t belabor the point.  I did want to mention Lisa Nakamura’s book as sort of the “other side” of the race and Internet question for those who might be interested in the ways that people of color are using web technologies.  In this book, Nakamura uses case studies of popular yet rarely examined uses of the Internet such as pregnancy Web sites, instant messaging, and online petitions and quizzes to look at the emergence of race-, ethnic-, and gender-identified visual cultures.  This leading scholar of race and the Internet is at her best when discussing the experiences of Asian Americans.  This is a must-read for anyone interested in both ‘race’ and new media.

Happy reading! :-)

Sotomayor and Race in America

sotomayor_poster
(Cross-posted from http://www.newracialstudies.ucsb.edu/blog; Image from Presente.org)

The point is simple – clichéd, even.  But this simple point is so often denied in the United States of 2009.  The point is that race matters.  More specifically, race matters in how we interpret the Constitution of the United States. Debates over the constitution, especially at the Supreme Court, often willfully ignore or obscure the living and continued significance of race and racism.  The racial category you belong to plays a significant part in your life, if you’re an American, but American legal doctrine over the last several decades has refused to accept this fact.

Much as they did during the 1800s, today’s American courts allow entrenched racial discrimination to continue.  Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, the courts used openly racist thinking to enforce policies like slavery, segregation, and whites-only citizenship.  Today, the courts use colorblindness to brush aside the reality of race and racism aside.  They overturn and restrict race-conscious policies designed to help alleviate racism faced exclusively by people who are identified as racial and ethnic minorities.  The courts can and should consider the impact of race when it deals with cases like voting rights, sentencing for drug use, law enforcement strategies that roundup random Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans, and the legality of practices and policies that drove nonwhite families into needlessly expensive “subprime” mortgages.  But instead, legal scholars (including a majority of the Supreme Court Justices) regularly disagree with the need even to recognize the mere existence of socially constructed race.

It’s not a coincidence that Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has already become contentious on the issue of race.  Sotomayor’s views on race and racism are becoming an object of public debate, thanks to coverage by national media (and thanks to well-publicized and ridiculous accusations that Sotomayor is herself “racist”).  Her rulings during her illustrious career show that while she’s hardly a radical, Sotomayor does favor a reality-based judiciary that understands and considers the impact of race and racism.  Because of this (and in part because she is Latina), she has already faced more questions about race than any other nominee to sit on the Supreme Court than anyone else in quite a long time.  And she hasn’t even sat for confirmation hearings yet.

Before Judge Sotomayor arrives on Capitol Hill for confirmation hearings, I’d like to take a moment to consider why legal scholars argue against recognizing the existence of race in America.  And then let’s consider how the next decade in legal thought might be influenced, thanks to Sotomayor’s presence on the Court.

The legal argument for denying reality – for denying the existence of race – is rooted in the colorblindness doctrine.  My understanding is that the basic idea behind colorblindness is: only by ignoring race can we truly transcend it.  You see, if we keep talking about race, if we acknowledge it, then we allow the race concept to persist.  So, what we should do is pretend that race isn’t there.  If we adjust our thinking to a colorblind world, then in time, reality will catch up with our thinking.  This kind of thinking has been proven wrong again and again, most thoroughly by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.

The colorblindness perspective didn’t come out of nowhere.  Continue reading…