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…

Black & Poor: Bill Wilson’s Theoretical Muddle

As with his previous books, trouble with William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race begins with its title: Is there anybody on the planet, in academic or popular discourses, who believes that black disadvantage is “just race”? Is Wilson merely shadow boxing? Has he set up a straw argument, making a caricature of his opponent, all the better to demonstrate the rectitude of his position? Is the book an answer to critics who assailed him for undercutting the black protest movement by proclaiming that race was of “declining significance”?

The fierce debate that followed the 1978 publication of  The Declining Significance of Race was a reiteration of a longstanding debate on the Left. On the one hand, there are those in the Marxist tradition who subsume race to class and contend that the problem of race is primarily one of economic inequality. On the other hand, there are those in the black radical tradition who insist that it is not “just class,” not only because we are left with the legacy of slavery, but also because racial discrimination, especially in the world of work, is still systemic and widespread. On this view, the problems of African Americans are fundamentally different from those of other exploited workers, requiring different policy remedies. But neither side of the race/class debate is so simplistic or obtuse as to assert that either race or class operates to the exclusion of the other. Indeed, over the past twenty years a consensus has emerged concerning the “intersectionality” of race and class (a problematic that W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with throughout his long life). Hence, Wilson’s epiphany, that race and class are “entwined,” has long been accepted as axiomatic by both sides of the race/class debate, and one wonders whether his book, with its dubious title, was even necessary.

Another problem with Wilson’s title is that it doesn’t quite match the thrust of his book, which is preoccupied with another academic squabble: the structure/culture debate. On the one hand, there are those who emphasize the role that major societal institutions play in throwing blacks into poverty and limiting their avenues of escape. Others, however, locate the sources of black disadvantage in an aberrant ghetto culture that, or so they claim, perpetuates poverty from one generation to the next. Wilson steps into this breach, methodically reviews the knowledge claims of both sides, and alas concludes that structure and culture are “entwined.” Had he been faithful to his argument, Wilson would have titled his book, More Than Just Structure.

morethanjustraceIn his laudatory review of More Than Just Race in the New York Times Book Review, Richard Thompson Ford echoes Wilson’s claim that “the vitriolic condemnation of the Moynihan Report effectively closed off a serious academic focus on the culture of poverty for decades, robbing policy makers of a complete and nuanced account of the causes of ghetto poverty.” Now, it is undeniable that Moynihan was pummeled, but not for bringing to light compromising details concerning black families. Rather Moynihan came under fire for inverting cause and effect. Instead of blaming joblessness and poverty for the fracture of black families, Moynihan blamed the “weak black family,” going back to slavery, for the litany of problems that beset the black poor.

Moreover, it is preposterous for Wilson and Ford to suggest that reaction to the Moynihan Report short-circuited a full vetting of the culture of poverty thesis since this has been the reigning precept behind public policy over several decades, culminating in the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that abolished entitlements for poor people that had been in place since the Depression. Indeed, Wilson should reflect on what the obsession with ghetto culture has wrought. Continue reading…

Race, Gender & Rampage

IMG_6439Understanding the two rampage shootings in the news recently requires a grasp of the way race and gender are implicated in both cases (Creative Commons License photo credit: ankarino).

On April 3, In Binghamton, NY a Vietnamese immigrant,  Jiverly Linh Phat Wong — (or Voong) — blocked the back exit of a civic community center where immigrants attended English-language classes and shot 13 people to death before killing himself.  On April 4, Richard Poplawski shot and killed three Pittsburgh, PA police officers  – and injured two others – during a standoff that lasted nearly four hours.  Understanding race and gender is crucial here given that one of these is about anti-Asian discrimination, the other is about antisemitism and white supremacy, and both are about masculinity.

Rampage & Race: Reacting to Anti-Asian Discrimination

Understanding what happened in Binghamton requires understanding the way anti-Asian discrimination operates in the U.S.  Many people don’t even realize that there is such a thing as anti-Asian discrimination, so perhaps it’s best to start with a recent example, such as the truly asinine remarks of Rep. Betty Brown (R-Texas). On Tuesday (April 7), Brown said that Asian Americans should consider changing their name to make it “easier for Americans to deal with.” Brown has resisted efforts to apologize for her remarks.   This sort of comment might be offensive enough from an ordinary citizen, but coming from an elected official with legislative power to implement her racist ideas is alarming and indicative of the kind of discrimination that Asian Americans routinely face.  This sort of discrimination takes a toll.

In the opening chapter of The Myth of the Model Minority, authors Chou and Feagin highlight the many costs of anti-Asian racism on mental health:

Few researchers have probed Asian American mental health data in any depth. One mid-2000s study of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrant youth examined acculturation to the core culture, but only briefly noted that some of these youth experienced substantial “cultural stress, such as being caught between two cultures, feeling alienated from both cultures, and having interpersonal conflicts with whites.”47 Another study examined only Korean male immigrants and found some negative impact on mental health from early years of adjustment and some mental “stagnation” a decade so after immigration. Yet the researchers offered little explanation for the findings. One recent study of U.S. teenagers found that among various racial groups Asian American youth had by far the highest incidence of teenage depression, yet the report on this research did not even assess the importance of this striking finding.48

In the modest statistical analysis that exists, Asian American statistics on suicide and alcoholism stand out. Elderly Chinese American women have a suicide rate ten times that of their elderly white counterparts. While Asian American students are only 17 percent of the Cornell University student body, they make up fully half of all completed suicides there.

Despite the high-profile cases of Asians and Asian-Americans involved in violent crimes, such as the Binghamton and Virginia Tech cases, the majority of Asian-Americans tend to hold in their rage over discrimination, part of what is responsible for the highest suicide rates of all racial groups in the U.S.

Andrew Lam, author of  Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, writes at New American Media, that:

Whenever a minority commits a heinous crime, it seems to beckon us in the media to search beyond an individual motive for a cultural one.

Yet, there is a certain level of hypocrisy in this, as Lam points out, because there is very little analysis of American culture when these crimes make news.

If the Asian shame-based culture is still prominent, keeping its citizens in line and well behaved, it is the gun culture in America that is most conspicuous. It is there on TV and video games and the Internet and the silver screen, and it is the most accessible language for the tongue-tied. For them the gun –- be it in video games or at the practicing range — speaks volumes.

So, for instance, when a white man commits one of these rampage killings, there’s very little analysis of the dominant white culture in most of the mainstream news reports about the event. The incident in Pittsburgh is a case in point.

Rampage & Race: Acting on Antisemitism & White Supremacy

Several press reports have noted that Richard Poplawski, the shooter in the Pittsburgh case, held virulently antisemitic views and frequented conspiracy-theory websites such as Alex Jones’ Infowars. CNN refers to him as a white supremacist who believes that Jews control American media, financial institutions and government and that federal authorities plan to confiscate guns owned lawfully by American citizens, based on ADL reports about Poplawki’s postings at Don Black’s Stormfront.

Mainstream press accounts like the one from CNN tend to represent Poplawski as a “nutcase,” without offering any sort of analysis of how his views might be shared by other whites.  David Weigel, of The Washington Independent, does make this connection between mainstream white culture and incidents like the Pittsburgh shooting.   He writes that after spending the weekend attending the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky where all manner of Third Reich memorabilia was available for sale, that he is not surprised by Poplawski’s beliefs. Weigel also calls out conservative talk show host Glenn Beck for fanning the flames of conspiracy theorists with rants like this one.

Gender & Rampage: Enacting Violent Masculinity

Unfortunately, what almost no one in the mainstream press or the blogosphere has pointed out about the recent shootings is the connection to gender, and specifically, to a particulalry violent form of masculinity.   Harvard sociologist Katherine Newman and colleagues in their 2004 book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, observe the following about the relationship of rampage shooters in their study to violent masculinity:

“The shooters appear to be working from widely available cultural scripts that glorify violent masculinity.    …. The shooting solves two problems at once:  it provides them the ‘exit’ they are seeking and it overturns the social hiearchy, establishing once and for all that they are…’gutsy and daring,’ not ‘weak and slow-witted.’  The problem is they didn’t just fail at popularity — they failed at the very specific task of ‘manhood,’ or at least they felt that way.  The solutions to this failure are popularized in the media in violent song lyrics, movies, and video games.  But the overall script of violent masculinity is omnipresent.  ‘Men’ handle their own problems.   They don’t talk; they act.  They fight back.  And above all, ‘men’ must never let others push them around.” (Newman, et al., 2004: 269).

While the Binghamton and Pittsburgh incidents did not take place within the context of schools, as did the incidents that Newman and colleagues studied, there are some real similarities between them with regard to violent masculinity.   The stance that Wong adopted for his pose with the guns he later used for murder and suicide evokes the cool pose of violent masculinity that is glorified in any number of mainstream American movies, music and television.    Poplawski’s former girlfriend filed for a domestic abuse protection order against him because he dragged her by the hair across the floor and threatened to kill her.   Both Wong and Poplawski seem to have internalized, and eventually acted on, a violent version of masculinity in which they “handled” their problems in a way that reaffirmed their manhood – at least in their own minds.   And, given the ways that becoming a “real man” in U.S. society is tied to the economic success and the role of “breadwinner” for the family, the continued economic decline suggests even more of these kinds of violent rampages by men who are unable to earn a living.

* * *

Shooting rampages like the ones in Binghamton and Pittsburgh are becoming more common here in the U.S.   As Nickie Wild writing at Sociology Lens explains, this may be part of a “super anomie,” in which the gap between what one wants to achieve and what seems possible widens (or seems insurmountable) and then violence increases.  Others have pointed to the shooting incidents as indications that U.S. gun laws need re-thinking, and this is truly the case.   Yet, to really understand what’s behind these sorts of rampage shootings, we must have a more complex understanding of the ways race and gender are intricately woven into the fabric of these violent incidents.

Racial Wealth Gap Widens

Recently in the Washington Post,  Meizhu Lui, director of the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap incense and moneyInitiative,  notes the widening racial wealth gap in the U.S. (Creative Commons License photo credit: Kevin Cortopassi ).   Citing the Federal Reserve’s new report Survey of Consumer Finances,  Lui writes:

The gap between the wealth of white Americans and African Americans has grown. According to the Fed, for every dollar of wealth held by the typical white family, the African American family has only one dime. In 2004, it had 12 cents.This is not just a gap. It’s a deepening canyon. The overhyped political term “post-racial society” becomes patently absurd when looking at these economic numbers.

In her thoughtful and well-researched piece, Lui mentions a couple of pieces of social science research about this racial wealth gap.   Given that owning a house is the surest path to wealth for most Americans, she notes the racial disparity in the kinds of home loans whites and blacks have access to, citing a Harvard University study showed that in Massachusetts, a high-income African American was more likely than a low-income white borrower to get a subprime loan.

The other research Lui points to is one that highlights the structural advantages that whites have historically been given in housing: in Ira Katznelson’s “When Affirmative Action Was White.” In his research, Katznelson examines the white advantage built into the GI Bill after World War II in which white GIs received government-subsidized home mortgages, but soldiers of color were excluded. Of the 67,000 mortgages issued under the GI Bill in New York and northern New Jersey, 66,900 went to white veterans.

That’s how structural inequality in home ownership – and then, in turn wealth – gets put in place and reinforced.  Through policies that systematically benefit whites and harm people of color excluded from those policies.   Undoing those structural advantages is going to both a clear understanding of racial inequality and a concentrated effort to dismantle it.

Social Class, Race, and Intimate Partner Violence

Chris BrownChris Brown’s February 8th assault of his girlfriend, Rihanna, has put the problem of intimate partner violence in the media spotlight (Chris Brown Creative Commons License photo credit: O.M.Gee!). From Oprah Winfrey to Larry King to numerous entertainment and news websites, talk show hosts, commentators, bloggers and others have examined the incident from multiple angles, spinning off questions about abusive relationships more generally. One of the most frequently raised issues is the social class of the couple. As a writer for CNN recently noted:

Both singers are young, apple-cheeked, immensely talented and squeaky clean – the last couple you’d imagine as domestic violence headliners. Perhaps the only good that will come from the Rihanna/Brown publicity is destruction of our culture’s misconception that abusers and their victims can only be universally poor, uneducated and powerless.

Certainly this is an important lesson to be learned and one that domestic violence advocates have been emphasizing for more than 30 years: Intimate partner violence affects individuals in all social classes and racial/ethnic groups; no one is protected by virtue of their class or race privilege. Rihanna_2That said, one of the most consistent findings from research is a strong inverse relationship between social class and intimate partner violence: As social class goes up, rates of intimate partner violence go down. Analyses of large, national surveys, for example, show that women living in households with the lowest annual incomes were five times more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence than women in households in the highest income category, and three times more likely than women in the middle income category (Rihanna Creative Commons License photo credit: Trangdepp).

Poor women, of course, are not a homogeneous group.  For instance, some poor women are homeless or living in temporary shelters, while others are housed. Some are employed, even if only in low-paying jobs without benefits, while others are unemployed or receive public assistance. Although poor women overall are at greater risk of intimate partner violence victimization, studies show that the poorest of the poor have the highest rates. Consider, for example, that nationally representative surveys of the general U.S. population estimate that about 25% of women are victimized by an intimate partner at some time during their lives. That is an unacceptably high number, but appears slight when comparing it to studies of women on welfare, which report a range of 28% to 63% lifetime victimization rates; the majority of estimates from these studies are 40% to 60% (Richard Tolman, “Guest Editor’s Introduction,” Violence Against Women, 5[1999]:355-369).

Research also indicates that poor women have higher lifetime rates of all forms of violent victimization. In a Massachusetts study, for instance, researchers found that among their sample of 216 housed, low-income, single mothers and 220 homeless single mothers in which the average age was 27, only 16% had not been physically or sexually abused in their relatively short lifetimes. Nearly 33% reported severe physical violence by a current or former boyfriend, 60% reported physical violence perpetrated by a male partner during adulthood, 63% reported severe physical violence by a parent or caregiver during childhood, and over 40% reported that they had been sexually molested during childhood. As the authors of this research point out, the majority of the women in this study had experienced only brief periods of safety during their lives (Angela Browne, Amy Salomon, & Shari S. Bassuk, “The Impact of Recent Partner Violence on Poor Women’s Capacity to Maintain Work,” Violence Against Women, 5[1999]:393-426).

One issue that has not been mentioned in the Rihanna/Brown case is the fact that the couple is black. Since the early 1980s, large national surveys have shown that black women are at greater risk of being violently victimized by their intimate partners than white women are. Some researchers have argued that the higher rate of intimate violence among black couples is the result of culturally specific factors that include beliefs about marriage and fidelity along with negative stereotypes of black women. But in studies that have examined both race and social class, differences in rates of intimate partner violence between black and white couples are significantly reduced or disappear completely when social class is controlled. The higher rate of intimate partner violence victimization – and, indeed, all types of violent victimization – among black women, then, is another outcome of racism: the result of the disproportionate number of black people who live in poverty. In her recent research on gendered violence in the lives of urban black girls, the vast majority of which is perpetrated by peers and acquaintances, criminologist Jody Miller informs readers:

This book should not be read as an indictment of young Black men and their treatment of their female peers. . . . [W]e, as a society, have created the circumstances that lead to cultural adaptations to situational contexts that shape urban African American young women’s risks. The indictment is of all of us. (Getting Played, New York: New York University Press, 2008, p. xvii)

Thus, while the attention given to intimate partner violence because of the Rihanna/Brown case is important and welcome, the emphasis being placed on the couple’s social status and how intimate partner violence happens even among wealthy couples should not allow us to overlook the fact that the greatest burden of this violence falls on poor women. And, as a direct result of racism, women of color are disproportionately poor and have the fewest resources available to them to cope with this problem.