Ruby Bridges Reflects on Her Experience with Racism: Education Series

You’ve probably seen the Norman Rockwell painting, “The Problem We Live With,” which shows a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her first day of school as she walks through the doors to desegregate a New Orleans elementary school. Today, Ruby Bridges is all grown up and the painting is on loan to the Obama White House. Recently, Ms. Bridges had a chance to reflect on her experience as she visited the painting, and President Obama, at the White House:


Really powerful!

Racism, Whites and Neoliberalism

RR welcomes new contributing blogger, Randy Hohle, Assistant Professor, D’Youville College, Buffalo, NY

Neoliberalism is the political and economic framework based on privatizing public works, removing rules and regulations over businesses that protect citizens, and tax cuts for the wealthy.  You might wonder why anyone outside of the wealthiest 1% would support such policies. Here’s my theory: neoliberalism was made possible by a racialized language of privatization that defined all things private as “white” and all things public as “black.” This language was first articulated in the post-war South as whites were responding to the black civil rights movement and the modernization of the southern economy.  I’ll use post-war Alabama to make my case.

In Alabama, the white response to the Brown v. Board of Ed ruling was to privatize the public school system in favor of letting private and non-profit entities run the schools on a racially segregated basis.

The predominantly white Alabama business community felt that subsidizing businesses to relocate to the South was a bad idea because businesses didn’t stay and states were losing revenue. They pushed for tax breaks on businesses and opposed additional taxes based on the idea that taxes are bad for business, thus, bad for the economy.

In contrast to the ardent segregationists, the white business community negotiated with the civil rights movement to offer blacks employment in the low-pay, low-skill service sector. Yet, this was no act of racial sympathy. The white southern business community sought to integrate blacks in this limited way in order to enhance the idea that the ‘new south’ was more racially tolerant and, thus, a safe place for northern and federal investment.

Whites in Alabama used both privatization and tax cuts to direct all public resources to the most privileged segments of the white community. The language of ‘privatization and tax cuts’ became synonymous with ‘white, superior and preferred’ while ‘public’ implied ‘black, inferior, and inefficient.’ By the mid-1960s, this racial coding of a political ideology formed the pretext of what it meant to be white in America, and thus, made the larger neoliberal turn that started in 1979 possible.

The realities of the white/private, black/public code continue to be found in all major policy debates. And for the most part, the neoliberal crowd has been winning. The rationale for charter schools and educational credits are the grandchildren of the original school privatization bills. The movement against national health care used terminology like ‘the public option’ and ‘Medicaid for all’ to explicitly link national health care with black/public.

The reality is that white resentment towards blacks has made neoliberalism possible despite 30 years of failed policy and to the detriment of whites and blacks.

Suggested further reading:

Cobb, James C. 1999. Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South. Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press.

Feagin, Joe R. 2010. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. NY & London: Routledge.

Hohle, Randolph. Forthcoming 2012, “The Color of Neoliberalism: The ‘Modern Southern Businessman’ and Post-War” Alabama’s Challenge to Racial Desegregation Sociological Forum.

Hohle, Randolph. 2009. “The Rise of the New South Governmentality: Competing Southern Revitalization Projects and Police Responses to the Black Civil Rights Movement 1961-1965”. Journal of Historical Sociology 22(4): 497-527.

Kruse, Kevin Michael. 2005. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1975. Powershift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenges to the Eastern Establishment. New York: Random House.

Microaggressions & Stereotype Threat: Education Series

Our prevailing mythology of meritocracy in the U.S. tells us that education is a path to achievement. To do provide that, we expect schools to be free from racism and provide an equal education to all.  Yet, there’s a significant amount of research that tells a different story.  The story the research tells is that students of color at all levels of education face “micro,” or individual level, racism on a regular basis.  Here, I’m going to take up just two of the myriad forms of individual-level racism documented in the literature: 1) microaggressions and 2) stereotype threat.

Audial
(Creative Commons License photo credit: y2bd )

Microaggressions. The term “microaggression” was originally coined by Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s to describe a form of individual-level racism.  Microaggressions are “…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”  In Feagin and Sikes’ book, Living with Racism (1995) middle-class black respondents describe “the racial stare” they experience from whites when entering white-dominated areas.  I think of this as the quintessential microaggression.  It’s so small, it’s hard to call out, yet the message is clear: “you’re not welcome here.”

Microaggressions are not a thing of the past, unfortunately, but are oh so current.  There’s an interesting social media (Twitter/Tumblr) effort to document and recognize the pervasiveness of microaggressions across multiple forms of oppression.

What does microaggression in education look like? Here’s a very recent submission to microaggressions that gives you a sense of what this looks like in education:

On Friday morning, as I walked to the cafe between classes at my predominantly white university, the school appointed photographer offered me a free coffee if I agreed to play the role of the cheerful token black woman in a group of strangers, as though the university is not festering with racial tension.  May 2011, at a “liberal” university. Made me feel devalued and furious.

Historically white institutions (HWIs) such as the one described above can be especially difficult, hostile places for students of color.  Morgane Richardson, a 2008 graduate of Middlebury College, has launched an effort to Refuse the Silence about what elite liberal arts colleges are like for women of color.  In an interview with Ileana Jiménez, Richardson explains some of what she experienced in college that led her to become an activist:

“there were a series of events that led me to become a campus activist and a mentor to other women of color at Middlebury. During my first few weeks there, a few students from the Ultimate Frisbee team decided to throw a “Cowboys and Injuns” party. They sent out invitations over the phone to individuals saying, “if you come as an Injun, be prepared to drink fire water and sit in a corner, etc.” I was appalled. I couldn’t believe that my fellow classmates would put this event together, or that the campus allowed it. In the organizers’ defense, they did recognize their mistake and agreed to sit down with us and talk about the significance of their theme party.

About a month later, I came home to a swastika drawn on my door. My only friend on the floor, a man of color, had the word ‘Nigger’ written on his. When I brought it up, the college organized a discussion for students of color, but it was never addressed in a large forum.”

Young men of color also endure microaggressions in educational institutions.  In a recent study (2011) researchers at the University of Utah analyzed data from 661 black men about their experiences in college. Smith, Hung and Franklin found that experiences of racial microaggressions interact with increasing levels of education to heighten stress (Smith, Hung and Franklin, “Racial Battle Fatigue and the MisEducation of Black Men: Racial Microaggressions, Societal Problems, and Environmental Stress,” Journal of Negro Education (80)1, 63-82). Another and related form of individual-level racism in education is stereotype threat.

Graphing Calculator
(Creative Commons License photo credit: Scintt )

Stereotype Threat. The term “stereotype threat” was developed by Steele and Aronson (1995) .  Their research, mostly through a series of experiments with college students, found that when race was emphasized in pre-test instructions, black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than white students when their race was emphasized. However, when race was not emphasized, black students performed better and equivalently with white students. Steele and Aronson’s research provide powerful evidence that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. They speculate that the mechanisms behind stereotype threat for students include distraction, narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, or even over effort might all be dynamics at play. Still, there remain some critiques of the research on stereotype threat (e.g., over reliance on college student samples, the distinction between “threat” and real discrimination) as well as some unresolved issues (e.g., mostly to do with measurement and operatlonalization of the term).


What’s interesting here is that researchers Steele and Aronson have launched a new site devoted to helping educators reduce stereotype threat. Just as performance on tasks can be hindered by stereotype, there are ways to reduce the threat.
Stereotype threat based on gender, for example, can be reduced either by ensuring women students that a test is gender-fair (e.g., Quinn & Spencer, 2001; Spencer, Steele, and Quinn, 1999).  It’s also been suggested that explicitly “nullifying the assumed diagnosticity of the test,” in other words, telling students that a given test “doesn’t show test innate ability” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Overall, the evidence seems to suggest that simply addressing the racial fairness of a test can alleviate stereotype threat in any testing situation.

Meritocracy Myth. We want to believe that education is a mechanism for leveling the playing field for all children. The whole idea of the U.S. as an “open” society relies on an educational system that prepares all students to succeed with adequate skills.  Yet, while education is marred by racism – whether institutional or individual level – the notion of meritocracy is a myth.

White Nationalism and the Tea Party

The NAACP recently released a Special Report on Tea Party Nationalism, which addresses the overlap and interconnectedness between white nationalist hate groups and the various Tea Party groups that are sprouting like bad weeds across the U.S. As if to highlight this connection, David Duke, former KKK leader, early Internet adopter for the cause of white supremacy, and one-time candidate for Louisiana governor, has released a video addressing the Tea Party.

The report, written by Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, is just 80 pages, 9 chapters and includes 17 figures and maps. It’s in Chapter 8, “Racism, Anti-Semitism, and the Militia Impulse,” that the authors address the link to overt racists such as Duke, a connection that many Tea Partiers vigorously deny. In this chapter, the authors write:

“In preparation for Tea Party protests held on July 4, 2009, national socialists and other white supremacists created a discussion thread on Stormfront.org, the largest and most widely accessed of the many white nationalist websites.216 While highlighting the distinction between themselves and the majority of Tea Partiers who were not self-conscious about their own racism, one person argued, ‘We need a relevant transitional envelop-pushing flyer for the masses. Take these Tea Party Americans by the hand and help them go from crawling to standing independently and then walking towards racialism.’ “(p.60)

This quote highlights the use of the Internet by white nationalists who see the Tea Party as an opportunity for “walking Tea Party Americans…towards racialism.” And, this seems to be the general take in the report, that the Tea Party includes some white nationalists, but is mainly seen as an opportunity for those in the white nationalist movement. The authors take this stance with regard to Duke, as well. The video linked to above appears to have been around awhile, as the authors refer to it in the NAACP report.

David Duke’s embrace of the Tea Parties reveals less about the Tea Parties than it serves as a reminder of the former Klansmen’s never-ending opportunism. He used the Internet to broadcast a ten minute video speech, “Message to the Tea Party.” Duke began the “message” by paying homage to the Tea Parties and the “Founding Fathers,” and ended with his usual roundhouse attack on “the Zionists” (meaning Jews). Over the decades Duke has switched organizational allegiances as new openings emerged for him, but he never abandoned his core national socialist ideology.
“Most recently, Duke had spent time flitting across the globe: In France, Duke had his picture taken with Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant Front National. In Russia, he turned a 1995 meeting with Zhirinovsky into a spot at a 2002 “anti-Zionist” conference in Moscow. In November of that year, he spoke at a meeting in Bahrain. He reappeared in Iran in 2006 for a Holocaust denial conference where he thanked President Ahmadinejad for his “courage” and “foresight.” And in 2009, the once and future Republican, David Duke, was unceremoniously expelled from the Czech Republic (although the charges were later dropped.)
Duke’s announcement that he will use a year-long speaking tour to gauge potential support for another campaign in the Republican presidential primaries (in 2012) should not be understood as anything more than a declaration of his perennial search for contributions from new followers. He is quite unlikely to repeat anything near the successes he has had in the past, when he won a majority of white voters in two statewide Louisiana elections. It is, however, one more sign that hardcore white nationalists regard the Tea Party movement as a reservoir of racists, and as potential supporters of a more ideologically defined white nationalism.
The actions of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the Stormfront.org posters and other white nationalists need be understood, in aggregate, as one measure, among many, of the Tea Party movement’s political characteristics. Together they point to a truth many Tea Party leaders will not want to acknowledge.” (p.62)

This is the cautious tone of analysis taken throughout the report. The Tea Party is dangerous for the way that it appeals to white nationalists and for what it could become, but less so for what it is now. Here’s is another passage from the report which illustrates this point:

“Despite the fact that Tea Partiers sometimes dress in the costumes of 18th century Americans, wave the Gadsden flag and claim that the United States Constitution should be the divining rod of all legislative policies, theirs is an American nationalism that does not always include all Americans. It is a nationalism that excludes those deemed not to be “real Americans;” including the native-born children of undocumented immigrants (often despised as “anchor babies”), socialists, Moslems, and those not deemed to fit within a “Christian nation.” The “common welfare” of the constitution’s preamble does not complicate their ideas about individual liberty. This form of nationalism harkens back to the America first ideology of Father Coughlin. As the Confederate battle flags, witch doctor caricatures and demeaning discourse suggest, a bright white line of racism threads through this nationalism. Yet, it is not a full-fledged variety of white nationalism. It is as inchoate as it is super-patriotic. It is possibly an embryo of what it might yet become.” (p.11)

The rise of the Tea Party, with its embryonic white nationalism and the racism, antisemitism and xenophobia of videos like David Duke’s, are political trends that people committed to racial justice should watch closely.

~ This is re-posted from the archive. It was originally posted on October 24, 2010.

St. Patrick’s Day and the Changing Boundaries of Whiteness

Today in New York City and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.'” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.

From the archive (originally posted 03-17-2009)

No Dogs or Illegals Allowed: Racial Exclusion in a Colorblind Era

Until the 1960s, it was common to see signs in Texas that read: “No Dogs, Negros or Mexicans.” Civil rights legislation put an end to such signs. In the current post-civil rights era, it is no longer legally or morally permissible to express overt discrimination towards Mexicans or any other racial or ethnic group.

(Image Source: Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia)

In today’s political context, however, it is acceptable to insist that undocumented migrants – and even their U.S. born children – should not be allowed in this country.   In July 2010, Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) proposed a bill that would end the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship for everyone born in the United States. As of today, 130 Senators have indicated they support this bill.

Since the inception of the United States, jus soli – the idea that citizenship is determined by birthplace – has prevailed as the law of the land. The only exceptions to birthright citizenship have been racial. The first piece of U.S. legislation regarding who could be a citizen was passed in 1790, granting citizenship to all whites born in the United States. It was not until the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868 that blacks were granted citizenship. The 14th Amendment reads:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States, and of the state wherein they reside.”

The 14th Amendment granted birthright citizenship to blacks and whites born in the United States. However, the Supreme Court had to clarify in United States v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898 that all native-born children of aliens – including the Chinese – were indeed citizens of the United States.

Today’s demands to repeal birthright citizenship do not have the clear racial bias like those of the 19th century, when it was acceptable to make outright claims to exclude Native Americans, blacks, and the Chinese from citizenship. Instead, today’s demands are under the guise of “Let’s not give citizenship to illegals.” Or, “Let’s protect our nation by preventing anchor babies.” The language has changed so that it’s no longer explicitly racial. However, the sentiment is the same.

In 1790, when our founders imagined who would be citizens of the United States, they had propertied white men in mind. Those proponents of ending birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented migrants share this ideal as to who belongs to the nation.

This vitriol can be seen in the comments of Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican state representative from Pennsylvania, who argued:

“We want to bring an end to the illegal alien invasion that is having such a negative impact on our states.”

When Metcalfe and other pundits call for an end to a so-called “illegal alien invasion,” they have a very specific group in mind: Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants. In fact, 95 percent of people who are deported from this country for immigration-related violations are Latinos or Caribbean immigrants.

It is no longer permissible to hang signs that say “No Dogs, Negros, Mexicans.”  Birthright citizenship and naturalization are available to all people in the United States, regardless of race. However, the idea that the United States is fundamentally a white nation has not gone away, and seeps into discourses about who is American and who belongs and who doesn’t. Instead of excluding Mexican and Chinese citizens from citizenship, we now hear claims to exclude “illegals” and their children.

The idea of race itself is based on the notion that moral and cultural characteristics are passed on from one generation to the next. Thus, the idea that we should exclude not only undocumented migrants, but also their children, is clearly a racialized argument. It is true that undocumented migrants do not have permission from the government to be here. But, their undocumented status does not define them. Current laws allow many undocumented migrants to eventually become citizens of this country. Calls to eliminate birthright citizenship work to essentialize illegality by making it a permanent feature of undocumented migrants, and something they pass along to their children. In effect, these calls racialize illegality.

Demonizing undocumented migrants for their transgression of immigration laws allows anti-immigrant activists to make racialized claims about who belongs and who does not belong to the nation. It is incumbent upon anti-racist activists to point out this racism and to promote the idea of a multi-ethnic nation – the sort of nation we actually always have been, despite white supremacist claims to the contrary.

Racism, Whiteness and the Health Disparities Industry

There’s a growing body of evidence that implicates racism in a variety of negative health consequences.  Yet, the research on ‘health disparities and race’ neither focuses on whiteness nor on the ways that racism plays a role in health.

racism
( Creative Commons License photo credit: rwdownes )

The Health Disparities Industry. Much of public health is driven by a concern with, and research on, ‘health disparities.’   If you’re not familiar with this field (or, subfield), it works like this:

“The literature on racial disparities in health by definition involves comparisons across groups defined by some racial classification system.  Perhaps the most common of these comparisons take the form of the following general proposition: [Black/Hispanic/Native American] [children or adults] have higher rates of [the condition, disease, or ‘disability’ under investigation] than whites, primarily because of [explanatory variable]” (Daniels and Schultz, 2006, p.97).

There is a vast amount of scientific literature, and a number of federal agencies, built on this formulation.  The equation is always the same: measure some health outcome (rates of heart disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS) in “minority” populations and compare it to the rates in the white population.   Don’t misunderstand me.  I think it’s a good thing, indeed an important thing, to focus on the health of folks who are black and brown because they carry a disproportionate burden when it comes to health.  And, black and brown folks endure less than equal care when they encounter the health care system.  Both these – health and health care – deserve attention from scholars, activists and those in public policy.

In a recent article critical of the health disparities industry, Shaw-Ridley and Ridley chart the scope of this industry and question the ethics of it.  The problem is that there’s a lot that remains unexamined in the ‘health disparities’ framework.

Whiteness & The White Racial Frame in Health Disparities. Defining whiteness has been a central project of the construction of what it means to be American.   What it means to be “white” is built into the U.S. Census. This history is the subject of a recent book by Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People.  She observes that:

“Until the 1960′s, there were two racial dialogues going on the United States. One was more or less Southern, and that was black-white. The other had to do with various kinds of white people.”

The fact that white people have dominated the U.S. since its founding has also meant that they (we) have shaped the very way that we view reality (e.g., everything from laws, relationships, media, discourse,) in the U.S.  This shaping of how we ‘frame’ things is referred to by Joe Feagin as ‘the white racial frame.’ The basic idea of the white racial frame is as follows:

The North American system of racial oppression grew out of extensive European exploitation of indigenous peoples and African Americans. It has long encompassed these dimensions: (1) a white racial framing of society with its racist ideology, stereotypes, and emotions; (2) whites’ discriminatory actions and an enduring racial hierarchy; and (3) pervasively racist institutions maintained by discriminatory whites over centuries. White-generated oppression is far more than individual bigotry, for it has from the beginning been a material, social, and ideological reality. For four centuries North American racism has been systemic–that is, it has been manifested in all major societal institutions.

Even though as Painter and Feagin note that whiteness and the white racial frame are central to the the American social and political context, these are little remarked upon within the literature on racial disparities in health outcomes.   Indeed, the white racial frame permeates the research on race and health, and in particular, the research on ‘health disparities.’

The usual construction of ‘health disparities’ research constructs whiteness in two ways:

“First, it establishes a comparison between whites as a referent group and some ‘other’ group whose health is evaluated in comparison to that of whites.  In an Ideal world, such comparisons may demonstrate arenas in which health outcomes do not differ by race, challenging ideas of racial group difference.  If, however, funders are less likely to support research in which susbstantial racial differences are not apparent, or if publishers are less likely to publish articles that find no statistically significant differences….the literature will reinforce racial health differences while minimizing similarities…  (Daniels and Schultz, 2006, p.97).

The comparison group in this research is always whites, which puts those who are not white in a “one down” position.  The question as it’s framed in this research is always “What’s wrong with this [non-white] group? What’s happening that their health outcomes are ‘disparate from’ [not as good as] the health outcomes of whites?”   The second way that that health disparities research constructs whiteness is through:

“….the use of racial categories and comparisons with no consistent foundation fo rthe theorizing, understanding, or interpreting observed racial differences (or their absence) in health outcomes provides space for a wide range of potential explanations.  Each of these ‘explanations’ implicity or explicitly constructs both race and whiteness.  ”  (Daniels and Schultz, 2006, pp.97-8)

The overwhelming majority of research on ‘health disparities’ never examines whiteness nor implicates the actions of white people in this equation.   This may be changing, however.  Very recent research by Blodorn and O’Brien (of Tulane University, “Perceptions of Racism in Hurricane Katrina-Related Events: Implications for Collective Guilt and Mental Health Among White Americans) examines the implications of health disparities on whites.   This is a rare focus in this research.

Racism. Contrary to the passive voice construction of most ‘health disparities’ literature, there are indications in the literature that there are actors responsible for at least some of the racial inequality contributing to the racial inequality in health outcomes.   As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there’s an increasing amount of evidence in the scientific literature that supports the claim that racism is a contributing factor to ill health.  The pernicious sleight-of-hand in the ‘health disparities’ literature is that most of this research focuses on “perceptions” of racism among black and brown folks, but none of this research (at least none that I’ve found) acknowledges the reality of racism nor does it address those who are the perpetrators of racism in contemporary American society.

What Needs to Change. Clearly, there are unequal health outcomes that need to be addressed (see for example, Glady Budrys, Unequal Health: How Inequality Contributes to Health or Illness).  On almost every measure, those in our society who are Black, Latino or Native American will die sooner than those who are white.   For almost every disease, such as cancer and diabetes, those who are Black, Latino or Native American are more likely to contract the disease than whites, and once the disease is contracted, more likely to die from it.

This is one of the many costs of racism in our society and it must change.

However, looking only at those who must pay these costs as the source for changing these mechanisms of inequality is misguided.   We need to begin to critically examine those who hold the most power and resources in society, that is at white people, for the ways that they contribute to and benefit from the inequality in health outcomes.

Race, Racism & Social Networking Sites: What the Research Tells Us

I’ve been doing a series about what academic research on race and racism on the Internet.    The series continues today with a look at what researchers are finding about one the most talked about aspects of the popular Internet: Social Networking Sites.

(Creative Commons License Image source)

Social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook and MySpace, are phenomenally popular and important to the field of Internet studies, (Boyd and Ellison, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” JCMC, 2007, Vol.13(1):210-230).    According to a recent report, the top SNS is currently Facebook, with over 65 million unique visitors per month.  Facebook has displaced the former leader in the field, MySpace, which still currently gets about 58 million unique visitors per month.  These are staggeringly high numbers of people participating in these sites.    But what does this phenomenon have to do with race and racism?

(Source: Complete Pulse, 02/09/09)

White Flight? Perhaps the most talked about finding about race and SNS has to do with the move of whites from MySpace to Facebook.  Researcher danah boyd’s  ethnographic research indicates that it may be “white flight” that led to Facebook’s success over MySpace.  There are also class politics at play here, which boyd has also noted in her research.    This complex interplay of race and class surrounding Facebook and MySpace is also something that Craig Watkins examines in his book, The Young and the Digital (Beacon Press, 2010).   From 2005 to 2009, Watkins explored the movement of young people, aged 15 to 24 from MySpace to Facebook (97).  Watkins found that the same racialized language used to differentiate between safe and unsafe people and communities was used to describe Facebook and MySpace. The participants in his study described MySpace as “uneducated, trashy, ghetto, crowded, and [filled with] predators,” while they described Facebook as “selective, clean, educated, and trustworthy” (80, 83).  Watkins (2010) suggests that the young people in his study associate MySpace with the uneducated and unemployed while Facebook’s uniformity conveys upward mobility and professionalism. Watkins observes that “the young people surveyed and spoke with are attracted to online communities that connect them to people who are like them in some notable way,” most notably race (97).

There’s been some additional research recently which suggests that “friend” selection on Facebook is not solely attributable to race, but that selection is complicated by other variables such as ethnicity, region, and membership in elite institutions (Wimmer and Lewis, 2010).

Race, Identity & Community.  The fact is that people go online to affirm their identity and to find community, often along racial lines.  In the chart of popular sites above, note #13 is BlackPlanet.com.   Scholar Dara Byrne notes that offline social networking traditions among young black professionals, such as First Fridays events, have in many ways shifted to include online engagement at Blackplanet.com (Bryne, (2007). “Public discourse, community concerns, and civic engagement: Exploring black social networking traditions on BlackPlanet.com.” JCMC, 13(1), article 16).

African Americans who are searching for genealogical roots, also use social networking sites to affirm identity and find community.  For example, research by Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang’s research explores the proliferation of YouTube videos by genetic genealogists (in Nakamura and Chow’s, Race After the Internet, forthcoming from Routledge) . African American genealogists in the Internet era are enabled by developments such as Google’s personal genomics company 23andMe, which sells consumers genetic inferences about their “health, disease and ancestry,” with a social networking component.  In the videos people make of themselves, they reveal and react to the results of their DNA testing in “roots revelations” and viewers respond to the videos.   Nelson and Hwang theorize that these roots revelations, and the call-and-response that follows in the YouTube comments, are premised on a type of racial sincerity in which identities are drawn not only from genetic ancestry results, but also from the networked interaction between broadcasters and their audiences.

Here again, like with BlackPlanet.com, people are going online specifically to affirm racial identity and to seek community around that identity.   In many ways, SNS function in ways that newspapers used to function, creating “imagined communities” among those who engage with them (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1991).   Following on Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, André Brock looks at online news sites as an important venue for creating racial meanings through a discussion of the series “The Wire” staged by a sociologist and blogger at the New York Times (Brock, “Life on the Wire: Deconstructing Race on the Internet,” Information, Communication and Society, 12 (3):344-363).

Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao (2009) take a different approach to race and SNS and explore the racial themes associated with injustice frequently included by the African American, Latino, and Indian students on their Facebook wall.  They theorize that these wall postings convey a sense of group belonging, color consciousness, and identification with groups historically stigmatized by dominant society. In contrast, the profiles of white students and Vietnamese students rarely signaled group identification or racial themes, reflecting ‘‘strategies of racelessness.’’

Racism & Social Networking Sites. Social networking sites are not only a place where people affirm identity and seek community.  These sites are also a venue where racism regularly appears.   Research by Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Suzanne L. Markoe of the University of California, Los Angeles, is published in the March issue of Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, explores how young people negotiate racism in SNS.

The study, which examined the relationship between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology,  found that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties.  In other words, the more “color-blind” someone was, the less likely they would be to find parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes (e.g., photos of students dressed in blackface make-up attending a “gangsta party” to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day) offensive.

They look at associations between responses to online expressions of racism and color blind racial attitudes.  Tynes and Markoe operationalize racism by using photos of racially themed parties (e.g., blackface or “ghetto” themes) and asking study participants to respond.  They showed 217 African American and white college students images and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook or MySpace. The researchers also measured self-reported racial color blindness.  Their findings indicate that those who scored lower in color blindness were more vocal in their opposition to the images and were more likely to say that they would “defriend” someone who engaged in the practice.   White participants and those who scored high in racial color blindness were more likely to be in the not bothered reaction group. Further, these students were more likely to condone and even encourage the racial theme party practice by laughing at the photos and affirming the party goers.  Although both studies use small samples, Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao’s work along with Tynes and Markoe’s research moves the field of race and Internet studies a step beyond which social networks people join and why to how race (and racism) shapes what they do once in those networks. (I wrote more about this important research back in April, 2010).

Future Research. There’s still a lot missing from our understanding of race, racism and SNS.   One area that I expect will yield a lot of interesting research has to do with race, racism and Twitter.  Current estimates that approximately 8% of all people in the U.S. are using Twitter, a combination microblogging and social networking site where users post 140-character updates.   Twitter also appears to be more popular with blacks than with whites, There are interesting racial ‘eruptions’ here, such as the #browntwitterbird hashtag and with user handles like @whitegirlproblems.   To date, there is nothing in the peer-reviewed literature about race, racism and Twitter and this will no doubt change soon.

For the next installment of this series, I’ll be back with a discussion about race and online dating.

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.

World AIDS Day: Black Women, HIV/AIDS, and Racism

Today is World AIDS Day, when people around the globe stop to reflect on those lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is almost in its third decade. While many people may associate the disease with white, gay men because they were one of the groups initially infected and affected by HIV and among the most political vocal about it, the fact is the epidemic has changed.   Within the U.S., if you examine the epidemic across racial and ethnic groups, you will see that HIV/AIDS is not a disease that exclusively, or even primarily, affects whites.   Blacks and Latinos are increasingly affected by the disease, as this graph based on 2007 CDC statistics illustrates:

The changing nature of the epidemic is even more striking when you include gender.Today, black women are the group with the highest rates of new HIV/AIDS infections.  According to CDC:

  • African American women account for a majority of new AIDS cases (66% in 2006); white women and Latina women account for 17% and 16% of new AIDS cases, respectively.
  • African American women account for the largest share of new HIV infections among women (61% in 2006), an incidence rate nearly 15 times the rate among white women.   (For more detailed look at statistics about the epidemic’s impact on African Americans, see: “Black Americans and HIV/AIDS” compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, opens PDF.)

During the first decade of the epidemic, most social science research focused on changing individual behavior (e.g., wearing condoms, using clean needles) as the primary intervention strategy to prevent HIV infection, these efforts often failed in the face of complex settings of social inequality.  For example, telling a woman that her partner should wear a condom becomes a risky proposition if she is economically dependent on that man for survival and he sees the request to wear a condom as an affront of some kind.   Thus, researchers and community activists interested in stopping the spread of the disease began to look at the dynamics of sexuality within a broader social and cultural factors.

Just as an increasing amount of research demonstrates that mothers who experience racism are more likely to have low-birth-weight babies, the experience of racism and sexism are part of the social and cultural factors affecting HIV/AIDS rates among African American women. One way to measure this combined racism and sexism, is to look at what national leaders have to say about the HIV/AIDS epidemic among black women.  In 2004, when journalist and vice-presidential debate moderator Gwen Ifill raised this important issue in the form of a question to then-candidates John Edwards and Dick Cheney, neither one could stammer out a coherent answer.  It was clear that the alarming rates of HIV/AIDS among black women were simply not a concern for powerful political leaders (who also happened to be white men).

Some of the most exciting research that attempts to address this inequality is the pioneering intervention studies conducted by Gina Wingood and Ralph DiClemente of Emory University who, drawing on Connell’s gender and power theory, began to think differently about HIV prevention for young, black women.  Wingood and DiClemente developed an intervention study for African American adolescent girls that used workshops that emphasized ethnic and gender pride along with the usual HIV-prevention information.  Basically, the researchers included a consciousness-raising group about race and gender along with the usual health education information.  These positive messages about racial and gender pride are important for enabling and empowering young, black women who encounter a layered burden of racism, sexism and often, poverty.

However, not all black women who are HIV-infected are poor, as several activists remind us. Marvelyn Brown, for example, diagnosed at age 19 with HIV/AIDS has become an outspoken proponent and visible spokesperson for HIV-prevention among young, black women.  The author of Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive, Brown has won several awards for her activism. Rae Lewis-Thornton, diagnosed at age 23, was featured on the cover of Essence magazine in 1994 and described as, “I’m young, I’m educated, I’m drug-free, and I’m dying of AIDS.” It’s been fifteen years and, fortunately, Lewis-Thornton is still very much alive and an tireless activist.  Yet, she struggles with the legacy of her diagnosis (powerful video interview with Lewis-Thornton here).   And, young black women who are allies, are harnessing the power of new media to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, such as Karyn and Luvvie of the Red Pump Project.

The growing epidemic among black women in the U.S. reflects a global trend.  The World Health Organization’s estimate (via AIDS.org) is that there are over three million women with HIV in the world, most of them in Africa. In fact, one in 50 women in sub-Saharan Africa is infected with HIV.  AIDS is the leading cause of death for women ages 20-40 in major cities in the Americas, Western Europe, and Africa.   The fact that this disease is shape-shifting into one what disproportionately affects black women both here in the U.S. and globally raises important questions about whether or not we will, collectively, be able to put aside our racism (and sexism) to address this epidemic.

Today, as you go to a service, attend a vigil, or just hold a good thought or observe a moment of silence on this World AIDS Day, reflect also on the ways that racism shapes the epidemic and who we lose because of it.  If you care about racial and gender equality, you need to start paying attention to HIV/AIDS.  IF you’re concerned about HIV/AIDS, you need to start learning about racism and sexism.

For more on the public health crisis affecting black women, you can watch this video (approximately 27 minutes) which features a discussion with C. Virginia Fields, President of National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Monica Sweeney, MD, Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Marvelyn Brown.

[This post is from the archive: 12/01/09.]