NFL Protests and Racial Politics of Patriotism

This blog post is coauthored by Anthony Weems, Kristi Oshiro, and John Singer

(Image: The Seattle Times)

Friday night’s rally in Huntsville, Alabama sparked the beginning of what proved to be a hectic weekend for President Donald Trump. Only, the chaos was not related to the upcoming Senate health care vote or post-hurricane relief in Puerto Rico as some might expect but rather the president felt the need to address athlete activism, specifically targeting the National Football League (NFL). In a weak attempt to redefine black athletes’ protests of systemic racism, oppression, and police brutality as a disrespect to the US flag and the US military, Trump criticized NFL players who have openly protested by kneeling or sitting in peaceful protest during the national anthem. Moreover, Trump arrogantly and disrespectfully referred to these athletes as “sons of a bitches”, and suggested owners should exercise their power and have them fired. He would later take to Twitter and argue that the NFL should make their players stand during the national anthem. In the days that followed, NFL players, coaches, owners, and other personnel met to discuss how to strategically respond before taking the field for the highly-anticipated game day on Sunday.

As for the NFL, September 24th, 2017 will forever go down in history as “choose-your-side Sunday.” Coming on the heels of the Alabama rally, the comments made about NFL athletes protesting served as a catalyst for a protest unprecedented in the NFL (or any other league for that matter). Whether kneeling, sitting, locking arms, raising fists in solidarity, or remaining in the locker room altogether during the national anthem, as a collective unit the NFL made a statement that transcended national boundaries, as hundreds of athletes, coaches, owners, executives, and other staff across the league responded in unity to criticisms made by Trump. However, in all of the chaos springing from the weekend of September 22nd, 2017, it is important that we refocus our attention on what it means to #TakeAKnee.

Colin Kaepernick and Taking the Knee

When Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand during the national anthem in 2016, he was pretty much alone. Though many black athletes and athletes of color had been using their platforms to bring racial injustice to the forefront for years, Kaepernick’s silent and peaceful protest during the national anthem brought the politics of racism and police brutality into the homes of many Americans – particularly, white Americans:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained shortly after kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Working with Dr. Harry Edwards while still a member of the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick engaged in peaceful protest that sparked what Dr. Edwards has referred to as the fourth wave of black athlete activism. Originally, this silent protest only involved a handful of other NFL players such as Kaepernick’s former teammates, Eric Reid and Eli Harold, or Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks. Kneeling as a form of silent protest, however, would continue to spread across sports.

Throughout various sports and across different levels of sport participation, black athletes (both male and female) began to take a knee to bring awareness to the unjustified treatment of Americans of color, particularly black Americans that were murdered while the police officers responsible often received paid administrative leave. Players in the WNBA have consistently been at the forefront of protests for racial justice in recent years. Bruce Maxwell has become the first Major League Baseball (MLB) player to kneel during the national anthem. Raianna Brown, a dancer/cheerleader at the Georgia Tech, recently knelt during the national anthem. High school athletes across sports have knelt during the national anthem. Even youth teams across sport have taken to the protest of taking a knee.

Creating what many are referring to as “the Kaepernick effect,” the gesture of kneeling in sports has become a movement in itself. And for those who have boldly taken the knee, the message has remained clear. Even as entire NFL franchises have come forward in support of player protests during the national anthem, the message has not changed. Take this statement from the players of the Seattle Seahawks before their game on Sunday for example:

The current protests by players in the NFL have been about and continue to be about “the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country.” In fact, contrary to many claims of these protests disrespecting the US flag or the military, the Seahawks players’ statement emphasizes honoring the country and the sacrifices that have been made in the name of equality and justice for all.

Following his firsthand experience with excessive force used by the Las Vegas Police Department on the night of the Mayweather/McGregor boxing match, Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett clearly stated that this kind of conduct by police is precisely why he kneels during the national anthem before every game. Note how Bennett says nothing in his statement about the US flag, the US military, or any other nationalistic form of politics in his statement. The protest has always been about how communities of color are policed and the devaluing of black and brown lives in the criminal (in)justice system. When Trump lashed out at NFL players who were protesting, he wasn’t defending the flag, military veterans, or patriotism – he was racially targeting US citizens who have bravely spoken up and out against a racist system.

Protesting Today

In recent years, athletes across sport leagues have consistently protested the systemic devaluing of black and brown lives by the judicial system. But following Trump’s comments about protesting (black) athletes needing to be fired and required to stand for the national anthem, NFL players responded. In a league-wide statement of unity amongst each other, NFL players sent a message. Across the league, players (and some coaches, staff, and administrators) either kneeled during the national anthem, locked arms with one another, raised their fist in solidarity, or refused to come out onto the field altogether during the anthem. And players such as Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas made it clear what message they were trying to send. In an interview on CNN, Thomas stated the following:

“[The protest] is about race,” he said adding that the players are fighting for “inequalities in our communities… It’s not about just us. It wasn’t about Kaepernick himself. It wasn’t about, you know, the athletes who chose to take a knee themselves,” Thomas said. “We’re speaking for everybody that’s come from the communities we’ve lived in and my family and friends still live in.”

This is in stark contrast to Trump claiming on Sunday that he

never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.

But race and racism is what taking a knee is all about. The policing of communities of color, the mistreatment of black and brown people by police, and the criminal lack of justice for these communities is what taking a knee is all about. Attempts to repackage the politics of white racism under the umbrella of “patriotism” serves to mask these issues while maintaining systemic racism.

The mainstream media have played a significant role in perpetuating this a-critical discourse that dilutes the very core of the message courageous individuals like Colin Kaepernick and others are trying to send. This has potentially created confusion amongst viewers that can be detrimental to the purpose of kneeling. In turn, current players like Eric Reid who was the first to kneel alongside Kaepernick are speaking out to reclaim their narratives and clarify the essence of their protest. In a recent New York Times opinion piece Reid shares his personal insight reflecting on the time dedicated to making the very informed and educated decision to stand up for his and others’ rights and to kneel during the national anthem in what he felt was the utmost respectable way.

What’s Patriotism Got to Do with It?

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick stated the following: “There’s a lot of racism disguised as patriotism in this country… but it needs to be addressed.” Over the course of the protests undertaken by predominantly black athletes and with the help from mainstream media outlets, many whites have sought to paint or label the protests as some sort of unpatriotic display that disrespects the US and its military. For whites, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. White Americans have long used “patriotism” as a proxy for white nationalism dating back to the Founding Fathers’ invocation of the “common cause” of white patriotism. Contemporarily, white nationalist groups such as the Christian Patriots Defense League have risen to prominence under this same banner of the patriot cause.

But for Americans of color, and particularly black Americans, the patriotic ideals of liberty and justice for all have historically been taken seriously. For instance, as W. E. B. Du Bois discussed in The Gift of Black Folk, the ideological challenge to the white-defined ideals of freedom and justice through the political struggles for equality by black Americans has helped significantly to push the US towards being a more democratic nation for all. This is true throughout US history as well as in today’s context. The Seattle Seahawks players’ statement referred to above embodies this challenge to the notions of equality and justice for all while simultaneously honoring those that have fought for these freedoms.

The language of white racism today is often masked by claims to patriotism. But when US President Trump referred to neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia as “very fine people” and black NFL athletes as unpatriotic “sons of a bitches,” NFL players were explicitly put in a position where they had to decide between standing for justice and supporting white supremacy. A US president – or anyone for that matter – that espouses this kind of rhetoric has no claim to patriotism; they are a white supremacist. The real patriots in this scenario are those that have (and continue to) courageously use their social platforms to bring critical issues to the forefront in the quest to make liberty, justice, and democracy a reality for all. Real patriots stand alongside one another and against systemic forms of oppression such as police brutality. Real patriots #TakeTheKnee.

 

 

Anthony J. Weems is a doctoral student in Sport Management at Texas A&M University working under Dr. John N. Singer. His research focuses on issues of race, power, and politics in and through the sport organizational setting.

Kristi F. Oshiro is a Sport Management Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University working with Advisor Dr. John N. Singer. Her research interests include diversity and inclusion in sport with a focus on the intersection of race and gender, culture, and the lived experiences of ethnic minority groups and marginalized populations from a critical perspective.

Dr. John N. Singer (Ph.D., The Ohio State University) is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests primarily focus on a) intersections between race, sport, and education, with a keen focus on complex and contextual realities Black males face as primary stakeholders in organized school sport; and b) diversity and social justice matters in sporting institutions and organizations, with an emphasis on the experiences and plight of historically underrepresented and marginalized groups.

 

White Supremacy & Antisemitism After Charlottesville

Although I’ve always known my grandmother, Sara Atzmon, was a survivor of the Holocaust, it took me over 18 years to work up the courage to ask her about her experiences as a Jew in Nazi occupied Europe. As a child, I was terrified of knowing what my grandmother had gone through. On the other hand, as a student of Jewish history, I knew that these stories must be told to prevent their future reoccurrence. When we would discuss her experiences, I would ask about “the war”—always being careful not to ask about a specific incident, but allowing her to share what she was ready and willing to. One of her most vivid and often reflected upon memories was her recounting of the day the Nazi occupation force came to her rural farm to seize her and her family. She was always careful to note that the family who disclosed their Jewish identity was the same local farming family who had come by to sing them Christmas carols for many years. She made sure I understood that when antisemitism becomes promoted by the powerful (Nazis in occupied Europe) that the antisemitism of everyday “good” white Christians will surface for all to see clearly.

On August 15, 2017, the lessons my grandmother taught me began ringing in my ears so loudly I could barely hear myself think. With the election of Donald Trump, open and overt white supremacist demonstrations have once again become common place in the United States. I can see my Jewish friends across the nation begin to uneasily question our place as Jews in white America as I scroll through my Facebook feed. They have good reason to, as well. Despite a recent Pew Research study showing that 90% of Jewish Americans self-identify as white, white supremacists have clearly separated Jews from their socially constructed white racial category. For example, at the recent white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville Virginia, Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke told the crowd

the American media, and the American political system, and the American Federal Reserve, is dominated by a tiny minority: the Jewish Zionist cause

while supremacist Richard Spencer taunted Charlottesville’s Jewish Mayor, Mike Singer, and asked the crowd how to pronounce his name. They answered by chanting “Jew, Jew, Jew.” Furthermore, a crowd of hundreds of white supremacists marched with lit torches, many of the participants proudly displayed swastikas and images of Hitler while they chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” (and English translation of the old German Nazi “blut und boden”). This recent uptick in overt and public displays of white supremacy begs the following questions: 1) Why are Jews targeted by white supremacists? 2) Where is the resurgence in white supremacy and racialized antisemitism coming from? 3) What can we do, as self-identified white Jews, to combat white supremacy?

To answer the first question, I turn to the work of linguist and cognitive scientist, George Lakoff, and sociologist, Joe Feagin. For the sake of simplicity, frames are worldviews that people operate out of in everyday life, and the white racial frame is the racial worldview that the vast majority of white actors in the U.S. and Western societies operate out of.

Central to the white racial frame is the view, or subframe, that most whites are virtuous actors. In addition, anti-“other” views are incorporated into this larger racial worldview—-taking the form of anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Latino, and others including anti-Jewish. In fact, almost immediately after terms like “race” and “black and white race” were developed by Europeans in the 17th century, elite white American men used these socially constructed categories to impose a non-white identity on Jews. For example, in 1654, Peter Stuyvesant, who governed the New Amsterdam colony described the first Jewish immigrants to the American colonies as “a deceitful race”—clearly separating them from the “virtuous” white Protestants whom were welcomed in New Amsterdam.

While racialized antisemitism has become less acceptable (yet still present and accepted in white backstage settings) after the 1940s fall of Nazi Germany—-leading most white Americans to impose an off-white identity on Jews-—white supremacists have held fast to this idea that Jews are non-white.

Now that we understand the links between white racial framing, white supremacy, and racialized antisemitism, we can move to a discussion of where this resurgence is coming from. Joe Feagin and Kimberley Ducey note the central role of elite white men in the production and reproduction of systemic white racism, systemic sexism, and systemic capitalism. This also holds true for racialized antisemitism—-a subframe in the larger white racial worldview that justifies and upholds systemic white racism. Today, elite white men, such as financier William H. Regnery II, continue to be at the center of the promotion of this white racial framing, much the way Peter Stuyvesant was in 1654—-complete with narratives of white virtuosity, and overt racialized antisemitism that work in tandem with various anti-“other” frames to reproduce systemic white racism. For example, Regnery has described his greatest political achievement as his discovery of white supremacist Richard Spencer! In addition, Spencer himself has noted that Regnery has played a “vitally important and indispensable” part in the formation of the so-called alt-right movement. Sadly, not much has changed in terms of the central actors who maintain and promote racism and racialized forms of antisemitism in the U.S. over the past four hundred years—they remain elite white men.

How can we combat white supremacy? My answer here is twofold.

1) As scholars of U.S. antisemitism, we must begin to focus on white, and particularly elite white, antisemitism—-a topic that is rarely discussed in studies of contemporary U.S. antisemitism in favor continued discussions of antisemitism in Muslim and black communities.
2) We must begin to work toward building coalitions with communities of color to combat white supremacy. This second goal will require self-reflection regarding the way we, self-identified white Jewish Americans, actively participate in, and passively support through our silence, white supremacy.

What do I mean by actively promoting white supremacy? I refer to the racist language and actions that some Jewish Americans engage in. For example, look to the AEPi chapter of the University of Chicago—a historically Jewish fraternity—and their leaked listserv emails in 2016. In these emails, that span from 2011 through 2015, these Jewish students sound much like white supremacists who do not target Jews. For example, these students planned to celebrate MLK Day at a fried chicken restaurant and regularly used the “N-word” as well as associated other slurs to refer to African Americans. They also regularly used labels like “terrorist” when talking about Muslim students. Yet, perhaps the most telling example of how their emails resemble old white supremacist rhetoric can be found in an email from July 2011. In this email, a member asks other members not to publicly use his newly given nickname because it has the N-word embedded in it. While he is careful to point out to them that he finds it “very, very, funny,” he also notes that it is “very, very, racist” and should be kept to private spaces (their backstage) unless “you need to satisfy your inner klansman.”

What do I mean by silence? I refer to the fact that there is often no outcry or action by leaders of the Jewish community when people of color are murdered by state officials, when Indigenous people’s lands and water are stolen by elite-white-male-owned corporations, and when the myriad of other everyday events occur which promote white supremacy and other aspects of systemic white racism in the United States. We must not be silent any longer and we must teach the next generation of white Jewish Americans to actively and openly engage anti-racist viewpoints and actions. Some groups, such as Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, have begun this work but need more active support from more Jewish Americans.

This is how we, as self-identified white Jews, begin to move toward dismantling white supremacy in America. This must happen now. By participating in, and being silent about, white supremacy, we are breathing life into it and spreading it. If we do not work against white supremacy, it is just a matter of time before our own white neighbors point us out as the local Jews.

Thaddeus Atzmon is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Texas A&M University. His current research focuses on the co-reproduction of systemic white racism and antisemitism in the United States. He can be contacted at tadd1145@tamu.edu

Elite White Men Ruling and Reducing Democracy

Bank of AmericaUnusual numbers of photos of elite white men are still in the news lately, since the our popular-vote-losing President Donald Trump has filled his cabinet and coteries of advisors with them. Most are from the right wing of the ruling white male elite, and that elite clearly remains in full power, as it has for att least four centuries in this country.

Indeed, in a recently published book Kimberley Ducey and I lay out the many ways in which the elite-white-male dominance system is central to the United States. It is, in effect, a triple societal helix linking together three major systems of social oppression: systemic white racism, systemic sexism (heterosexism), and systemic classism (capitalism). It is odd that no one yet, to my knowledge, has featured the whiteness or white-maleness of these capitalistic malefactors of wealth as a central feature of the often life-devastating economic, social, and political problems we still face globally. One can be sure that if these agents of mass social destruction were women or men of color that the reality of their gender and racial characteristics would be a constant topic of conversation by pundits and politicians, especially in the mainstream media. (To my knowledge there is only one serious academic research study that has ever interviewed a large sample of elite white men on their racial or gender views, one I did with two sociology colleagues. It appeared a few years back in a major Beacon Press book, White Men on Race.)

Come to think of it, elite white men (they named themselves “white” in the 17th century) created the modern Western (now much of the world) economic system. They created the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Or should we say, the Predatory Ethic and the Spirit of Exploitation. Arrogant greed and desire for European male dominance seem to be major motivations (and emotions!) behind the labor and land expropriation and exploitation euphemized by historians as “overseas exploration” and “settlement.” Certainly, powerful white men created, expanded, and maintained the often genocidal taking of millions of indigenous peoples’ lands in the Americas and the Holocaust-like Atlantic slave trade. Mostly white men created the oppressive realities of modern capitalism and North American slavery, and have made huge profits and wealth off of it, now passed along to their descendants, to the present day.

In recent centuries, elite white men have caused much death and destruction, probably more than any other elite group on the planet. White men are certainly not the only major sources of “democide” and related despotism, but they do seem to lead the list. (Consider not only the many indigenous genocides and Atlantic slave trade, but the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, Hiroshima atomic bombing [Its anniversary was yesterday]and Nagasaki atomic bombing, two massive world wars). While elite white men are not alone in such actions, the consequences of their actions have usually been more far-reaching, especially for the planet in general (for example, ongoing and soon massively destructive climate change) than have those of despotic not-white actors.

White men set up the Western legal systems reinforcing modern capitalism and North American genocide targeting millions of indigenous Americans and enslavement of millions of African Americans. They created the dominant white racial frame to explain and rationalize these often savage operations. That white racial frame is a dominant worldview that most white men, especially elite white male leaders, are still operating out of as they today exploit and oppress the world’s majority, the more than 80 percent of the planet that is not white.

And it was these elite white men, together with their white male acolytes, who reinvigorated a strong white-patriarchal frame, with its “great chain of being” notions (God at top, then angels, then European men, then European women, then “other races,” then animals, etc.). In the North American case, they easily extended this great-chain conceptual system to the racial oppression they had devised for Native Americans and African Americans.

These elite white men, centuries ago and now, generally see themselves as heroic and virtuous, even as they have created great destruction and misery for many people. Ronald Takaki speaks of this view of white men as centered on “virtuous republicans.” Note that in this centuries-old process most white men have had little sense of their own weakness and venality, but generally accented their virtues. Today, as in earlier centuries, most white men generally do not see their group’s major weaknesses, major errors, and frequent unvirtuousness. They certainly do not like to admit error. Indeed, elite and other white men now often blame the victims of their actions, as in the case of this white male commodity trader who blamed homeowners and moaned about “losers” with troubled mortgages, and not the banks now being bailed out with billions for playing the central role in creating the housing crisis.

So we seem to be moving today to what may well be a second “Great Depression” in this country’s history, yet this time one that is more than just economic, but is social, political, and political-economic in its downward anti-egalitarian spiral. We see omens of this in the array of reactionary elite white men tapped by our vote-minority president Donald Trump (he did not come close to winning a majority of voters) for his cabinet. The arrogant racial, class, and gender framing and related actions, current and future, of these and a few thousand other elite white men have yet to be problematized and examined thoroughly as the major “social problem” of our era. Indeed, to my knowledge, no such thorough racial, class, and gender examination has ever occurred in our mainstream media and other mainstream public discussions in this society. It simply is not possible to problematize the white male ruling group, as they have too much control to allow for significant problematization.

The still dominant white racial frame is more than a negative framing of the racial “others” in order to legitimate white racial oppression. At its very center, it positively and strongly accents white virtuousness, especially white male virtuousness. It has a dramatic arrogance about what is virtuous and what is not, about who is virtuous and who is not, and about where and when there virtue is exhibited. It assumes that an arrogant greed, a predatory spirit, an overarching patriarchism means white men should be at the head of society–that is, should be masters of the social universe.

Yet, it is the lack of virtue of a great many elite white men that has gotten much of planet Earth into this downward anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian spiral. This lack of virtuousness can be observed in their egocentric racial, class, gender framing — and in their greed, their lack of social intelligence, their lack of foresight, and thus their lack of public-regardingness. For example, a careful report on the “financial crisis and the systemic failure of academic economics” (by mostly European economists) makes quite clear the failure of the (substantially white male) economics profession to research and interpret the last global financial crisis called the “Great Recession.”

Why blame elite white men? Well, the men who have given us global economic crisis after global economic crisis have been overwhelmingly white and “educated,” often from leading universities, but not very good at egalitarian and justice thinking or in regard to the ethics of the “commons.” Then, there is the white collar crime, or at least corruption, that many have engaged in—which is for most rarely discussed in mainstream media. White collar crime and other corruption, economic and political, is usually pushed to margins of public discussion because this is the kind of behavior dominated by white men, especially elite white men. Such actions are often seen as not criminal, as normal, in part because white men wrote the laws about what is “abnormal” and “serious” crime. They decided what is to be punished, and how much. Thus, in recent economic “recessions,” millions of people have lost their homes, jobs, incomes, and pensions, yet we rarely see elite white male capitalists called-out, targeted, photographed, or treated as criminals whose greed or corruption has stolen or otherwise savaged lives–unlike hundreds of people of color who get such treatment by the mainstream media weekly.

Why blame elite white men? A reason, again, is that elite white men mostly control the major mass media corporations, and thus control how white men and their corruption get portrayed in society. They are the ones who force media portrayals of economic, political, and other social crises as situations for which “we are all responsible,” a crisis “no particular group” created. Yet, there are real people, real white male actors, who did in fact create many horrific inegalitarian realities that much of the world now faces.

In one of the most brilliant commentaries in the literature on racial matters, Chapter one of the Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois foregrounded the ways in which African Americans had come to be defined as a societal “problem”:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? … I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience. . . .

So let us now instead define elite white men as the problem when it comes to many matters of contemporary societal oppression, societal inequality, human rights, and human survival.

Then, obviously but quite daunting, the next difficult step is figuring out how to organize and change all this, and thereby create a real democracy in this country and elsewhere, one where people of all backgrounds do have major input into and control of their economic and political institutions, and thereby of their lives.

Kids Being Kids—More than a White Privilege

Robin Bernstein, the author of the book Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood From Slavery to Civil Rights recently published an Op-Ed in the New York Times, “Let Black Kids Just Be Kids” that really tugged at my heartstrings. It opens with the example of George Zimmerman thinking Trayvon Martin was “a little bit younger” than him, meanwhile the boy was 17 while the man was nearly 30. Bernstein reviews numerous examples besides Trayvon Martin—and unfortunately there are too many to count—Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, the list goes on—where this faulty assumption of African American children being guilty of adult-like crimes, that they likely could not even fathom for themselves– has cost them their lives. Yet we must remember that these tragic cases are only the tip of the iceberg of what one of Joe Feagin’s interviewees has identified as the “daily murders” of racism and white privilege happening to children of color across our society, every minute the clock ticks.

Even when they are not shot to death mistakenly by police, people of color are routinely assumed to be untrustworthy and up to no good. Not just by police, but by everyday stakeholders making decisions that could affect the rest of their lives. Medical doctors, social workers, and teachers, just to name a few, make decisions on a daily basis that negatively impact people of color as compared to their white peers. These decisions are often made by people who see themselves as “colorblind” and unbiased. The Sadkers’ research, and other more recent studies looking at the intersection of gender and racial bias, are poignant in that, when teachers are presented with video/observation evidence of themselves doing these things, they can tend to even shock themselves. There is a boatload of denial surrounding the everyday racism and sexism that permeates our society.

When I read Bernstein’s piece, I immediately thought of my own son’s struggles in school. Both my son and my daughter have, unfortunately, come to expect now that when a group of kids in school are caught talking too loudly or doing something needing reprimanding, it is their names that will be called and singled out when a mostly white group is doing all that and more. They both are striking in appearance, taller and bigger than most of the kids their age, and also not white. My daughter’s coping strategy has been, when she is counted out, she works even harder to prove folks wrong, and very often does. Her grades are stellar (all A’s) and her confidence is too. But while my son is smart as a whip, with a memory like a steel trap—he’s still in elementary school with one teacher all day, so how his teacher perceives him—-I am learning—-will make or break how he ends up performing academically all year long. And this past year, his teacher perceived him as up to no good, not working up to his potential.

Determined not to be a hovercraft parent, or one of those annoying parents who believes their kid’s “stuff don’t ever stink,” I tried to hang back and not over-interfere—even as I watched his confidence tank and told myself the “tough love” approach would be good for him later. All year I heard story after story of him being reprimanded for things other kids were doing too. It touched me so much when a guidance counselor asked my son to go into the bathroom and intervene in a situation with some younger boys, and he came home saying proudly, “I know Mrs. XXX trusts me”—and he was beaming from ear to ear. Because this is the kind of “trust” he did not get from his classroom teacher—that benefit of the doubt, that confidence in him to be a good citizen and do the right thing. While none of the almost exclusively white middle class female staff of this school would ever see themselves as making any decisions that have anything to do with race, when I read Bernstein’s essay, and when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I am reminded of how much our (white) society writ large expects grown-up maturity out of our children of color, and reserves the space to “let kids be kids” almost exclusively for whites. This daily injustice is what spawns all the coping strategies of being “twice as good,” and the unfairness of mediocre, average whites making it to the top and beyond each and every day—because they were allowed to mess up, fail, and come back from it.

The students in my college classrooms are heavily military, so in discussing racism in the military, we recently came across this new study, showing that black service members face more disciplinary actions than their white counterparts, in every branch of service. This criminalization of nonwhite mistakes is a pattern that those studying the school-to-prison pipeline know well. As with criminal justice system racial disparities, we know that some of these African Americans may have indeed committed these crimes, and some may not have done anything at all. But in either case, the whites who make the same mistakes are not being punished with the same gusto. I am here to tell you my kids mess up sometimes, as do I. But my son’s mistakes cost him a whole year of not being on the honor roll when he should have been, a whole year of assaults to his confidence that did not have to go down that way. He is just a child that wants to goof off and be silly sometimes. And I wish he could be able to do that just as often, and with just as much gusto, as his white counterparts. I want to live in that kind of society.

We must remember that the local decision makers and stakeholders carrying out white privilege in everyday Americans’ lives usually are not the ones who created this notion of white “virtue” to begin with. The lower-middle class female entry-level teacher or social worker or police officer just feeding her family, carrying out someone else’s policies that she did not created, and hoping she doesn’t get fired due to budget cuts, is not ultimately to blame for the fate our children face. As Joe Feagin and Kimberley Ducey argue in their new book Elite Men Ruling:

From the distant past to the present, much of the effort to create and maintain this dominant white racial frame has come from powerful white men. This is not surprising, for they are central to the frame—especially its accent on virtue. . . [T]he word virtue is derived from the Latin vir, which means man or hero. Early on, in the development of the North American colonies, white men were supposed to exhibit the supposed manly virtues of courage, strength, and piety. Most white men, then as now, have implicitly or explicitly accented certain masculine virtues. They have often exuded an arrogance about what is human virtue and what is not, about who is virtuous and who is not, and about where and when there is virtue. Not surprisingly, the dominant white frame has been replete with anti-black and other anti-others subframes—that is, subframes targeting “those people” as generally unvirtuous.

To reshape our society, we cannot settle for pointing fingers at “implicit bias” in only the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. If it were only individual biases among certain (white) officers and teachers to blame, and our highest courts of law and lawmakers were truly practicing justice, then such biases would be fairly punished and ferreted out, unable to systematically take root in institutional practice at large. Media, cultural, political practices all work to reinforce the white-virtue subframe such that a time rarely comes for us to be challenged about it. It becomes the air we breathe, whether we are white, Latino, black, male, female, or anywhere in between.

Bernstein rightly points out that, in trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools (Audre Lorde) by striving to prove that nonwhite kids are “just as innocent,” we reify this white racially framed dichotomy of (white) innocence/virtue versus (nonwhite) evil, which is a bit out of touch with reality. After all, whites’ mistakes are routinely overlooked, dismissed, forgiven, pardoned—-their conflicts with police are somehow “deescalated” without killing anyone. Whites, and white children, are hardly ever 100% “innocent”—our mostly white-controlled society just permits them to learn and grow and be full human beings more readily than it permits the rest.

I’m dreaming for the day when all those with the power to shape our kids’ future remember what it was like to be a kid—having fun, being loud, messing up, and getting back up again– and see that common humanity in all kids, not just those who “look like them.”

College Racial Climates: Speaking Out

A 2017 survey of 706 college presidents conducted by the Gallup organization for Inside Higher Education offers some surprising and even troubling findings. Despite the fact that racial incidents are still occurring on college campuses, most college presidents view race relations positively on their own campuses. Sixty-three percent rated race relations as good and 20 percent as excellent, with only one percent rating race relations as poor. The presidents’ responses were similar in the survey conducted last year. Yet both the 2016 and 2017 surveys reveal a persistent view among presidents that race relations are less positive on other campuses. In 2017 only 21 percent of presidents saw race relations on other campuses as positive, with 61 percent viewing race relations as fair. And 66 percent of the president disagreed or strongly disagreed that racial incidents on campus have increased since the election.

In addition, roughly only a third of the presidents reported that they have spoken out more than they typically do on political issues either during or since the election. Nonetheless, a majority of the presidents believe that the election revealed the growth of anti-intellectual sentiment and a growing divide between higher education and American society.

What accounts for the disconnection between the view from the top and day-to-day racial realities campuses? Take, for example, a report by the Anti-Defamation League released this month indicating that 107 incidents of white supremacist activity on college campuses have occurred during the current academic year. The report indicates the election of Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists to step up activism on college campus and distribute racist and anti-Semitic flyers.

In Alvin Evans and my forthcoming book, Leading a Diversity Cultural Shift in Higher Education (Routledge), our study reveals that the implementation of diversity strategic plans is uneven at best. Such plans may persist as high-level statements without the resources, accountability, and delegation of authority needed to build inclusive campus cultures and ensure equity in processes and outcomes. The continuing isolation of minoritized students on predominantly white campuses has given rise to student demonstrations demanding specific improvements including diversity training, resources, curricular change, and a more inclusive climate. At the same time, the leadership of doctoral universities remains predominantly white and male with a noticeable lack of minority representation among top administration with the sole exception of the chief diversity officer.

It is unclear what objective ways of measuring campus climate led so many presidents to view race relations on their own campuses so positively. An extensive body of social science research demonstrates that in the post-Civil Rights era, subtle forms of “everyday” discrimination such as micro-inequities and micro-aggressions can shape behaviors and send devaluing messages to faculty, staff, and students from nondominant groups. For example, in Diverse Administrators in Peril, our survey of university administrators revealed that African American/black administrators believe to a greater degree that minority employees experience covert discrimination on a frequent basis compared to white participants.

The absence of protests or racial incidents is not a measure of whether institutional climate is inclusive. As we have shown in Are the Walls Really Down? Behavioral and Organizational Barriers to Faculty and Staff Diversity, subtle barriers that impact the success of individuals from nondominant groups include stereotyping, application of differential standards, myths of incompetence, lack of support, and failure to empower and include in decision-making. Acts of process-based discrimination frequently do not rise to the level of institutional attention. Without concrete programs that address institutional micro-inequities and how these subtle forms of discrimination are manifested both in everyday experiences and in consequential institutional processes, the likelihood of organizational change will remain illusory.

The second major concern arising from the Inside Higher Ed survey is the indication that many college presidents have not spoken out about the divisive political climate driven by Donald Trump, an individual who, as Nicholas Kristoff points out, has been associated for more than four decades with racism and bigoted comments. Trump’s devaluing of the truth and unveiled attacks on minorities, Muslims, disabled persons, immigrants, and other marginalized groups in American society threatens to destroy our sense of decency and morality. This loss of morality strips the veil of pretense that has shrouded our vision of inclusion.

While many courageous college and university presidents have spoken out forcefully against Trump’s travel ban, this issue is only part of the persistent dilemma affecting race relations on campus. Much work still remains to be done to build inclusive campus climates. In his ground-breaking book, Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression, sociologist Joe Feagin indicates the necessity of moving beyond individual approaches to social justice to a group conception that addresses how racial injustice privileges one group over others within the fabric of our institutions.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us:

…the call to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.

In this light, consider how Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber frames the problem of race relations on college campuses, leading him to call for self-reflective institutional reports, action-oriented programs, and solutions:

I have heard compelling testimony from students of color about the distress, pain, and frustration that is caused by a campus climate that they too often find unwelcoming or uncaring. …these problems are not unique to Princeton—on the contrary, similar stories are unfolding at many peer institutions—but that does not make them any more acceptable. Our students deserve better, and Princeton must do better. We must commit ourselves to make this University a place where students from all backgrounds feel respected and valued.

Systemic Racism in Mexico

“Mexico is a racist country,” Federico Navarrete proclaims at the beginning of his recently published Spanish-language book, México Racista: Una Denuncia (Racist Mexico: A Denunciation).

Navarrete, a prominent historian at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, known as UNAM, cites some of Mexico’s most cherished ideals as the source of the nation’s racism. Navarrete’s provocative book has generated much discussion in Mexico.

For more than a century, Mexico has prided itself on being a mestizo nation, one where the mixing of Spanish men and indigenous women during the Spanish Conquest produced a blended offspring. This is the story that all Mexican children learn in school.

Navarrete argues that this declaration is not accurate — it is a fable that has been recited for generations.

Navarrete argues that the myth was created as Mexico sought to whiten its population away from its indigenous countenance. There was great pressure on indigenous people to shed their language, culture, dress and lifestyles — to become mestizo. Many, of course, did not do so. Mexicans of African descent were also omitted from the mestizo club as Mexico, like many other Latin American countries, denies its African roots.

Navarrete identifies the numerous venues — family and home, adages, jokes, commercials and the mass media — where racism is propagated on a daily basis. For example, there is a preference for lighter skin within the bosom of the family, and indigenous and dark-skinned people are often the butt of jokes. He argues that when people are accused of being racist, they tend to deny or minimize their racism. People frequently downplay their racist statements or thoughts because they occur in private or are done in jest — no one is hurt.

Particularly noteworthy, according to Navarrete, is that Mexicans claim they cannot be racist because everyone in the country belongs to the same mestizo race. People criticized for their racism also tend to draw attention away from themselves by accusing others of being racist because they are the ones calling attention to race.

Navarrete argues forcefully that racism in Mexico is not merely idle talk. Rather, it is pernicious and noxious. The result of racist talk, actions and behavior among Mexicans is the social exclusion and devaluation of indigenous people and persons of African origin who are seen as not really part of Mexican society — they are the “other,” people who do not count.

Navarrete advances the concept of “necropolitics of inequality,” reflecting great disparity in the probability of death with impunity:

The ease and impunity in which so many Mexicans are murdered, disappeared, tortured and kidnapped signify that the right to life and other fundamental human rights are not distributed in an equal manner among Mexican citizens.

Put simply, the lives of some people are more valuable than those of others. Navarrete lists sectors of Mexican society that are most vulnerable to such death and violence:

marginalized youth, women, persons with nontraditional sexual identities, journalists, peasants whose territories contain valuable natural resources.

A recent study of the 35 countries forming the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, found that Mexico had the second highest level of inequality in 2014. Racism and inequality intersect to marginalize the lives of many Mexicans.

Navarrete asserts that some of the most heinous murders over the last couple of decades in Mexico show the minimization of the lives of Mexicans who live on the margins of society. He draws attention to the impunity and the Mexican government’s lack of concern for the disappearance and murder of the 43 student teachers in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in September 2014; the killings of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s and 2000s; the mass murder of 200 Central and South American migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010 and 2011; and the mass murder of 22 individuals assumed to be narcotraffickers at the hands of Mexican soldiers in Tlatlaya on June 30, 2014. Navarrete asserts that the indigenous roots, the darker skin and the low socioeconomic standing of these victims made their lives invisible and expendable. He avers that there would be an uproar in the government and mass media, and among the elite if the victims were “beautiful” people from privileged classes.

In the case of the 22 people killed by soldiers in Tlatlaya, Navarrete points out that the Spanish newspaper El País aptly described how much the Mexican government valued the lives of the victims in its headline “Only 12 Words for Each Dead Person,” referring to the government’s terse 273-word announcement of the incident.

This book is a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship calling attention to racism in Mexico. The book aims to provoke dialogue in the country to make the invisible visible, and to ultimately better the social, economic and political position of the marginalized.

We can also draw on Navarrete’s book to understand the similarities of racism in Mexico and the United States. They are numerous. In both countries we see the link between the value of one’s life, and the color of one’s skin and one’s socioeconomic standing. In Mexico, people of indigenous and African origins are the poorest, least educated, most marginalized and most invisible in the country; in the U.S., Native Americans, African-Americans and Latinos hold this unfortunate distinction. Over the last several years in the U.S., there has been a surge in the killing with impunity of unarmed African-Americans by police officers. Activists have needed to remind us that “Black lives matter.”

In addition, the racial inequalities found in both countries are long-standing, going back for centuries. In both countries the mainstream vehemently denies the existence of racism. Mexico denies it along the lines of its own brand of colorblindness — “We are all mestizos,” therefore we cannot be racists. The U.S. disavows the existence of racism through its own form of colorblindness — “We do not see color differences in people” — and proclamation of reaching postracial status, where race is no longer important in the lives of people; after all, “we have elected a black president.”

In the end, it is this denial of the role that race plays in long-standing racial inequality that helps perpetuate racial inequality. Society is inculcated with the fables of race and racism that Mexico and the United States exalt. The “normal” and “what we all see” set the stage for people to wear blinders concerning racial matters and racism — namely, that race has nothing to do with one’s societal position. Naysayers who insist that racism exists are discounted as the real racists, with the dialogue coming to a halt. It is important to recognize that racism is not just about individuals but a system — in our institutions, laws, customs and attitudes — that perpetuates racial inequality.

In the U.S. legal system, even with statistical evidence, racial disparities — associated, say, with voting rights, redistricting and the death penalty — are substantiated only when there is a visible smoking gun bearing actual intent to commit racial discrimination. Such conditions regenerate racial inequality.
________________________
Rogelio Sáenz is Dean of the College of Public Policy and the Mark G. Yudof Endowed Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the co-author of the book Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change.
This essay was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News (November 19, 2016).

The “Birther” Movement: Whites Defining Black

Hallelujah I say, Hallelujah! Did you hear the news? Did ya? After sending a team of investigators to Hawaii, drawing the attention of the national and international media, and leading an almost six year charge of infesting the mind of those already under the influence of the white racial frame into a catnip type psychological and emotional frenzy; the “benevolent one,” Donald J. Trump, has publically and emphatically acknowledged that our President of the United States of America is—get this, “an American!” Yes it is true. Republican presidential nominee and town jester, Trump on Friday, September 16, 2016 recognized in a public forum for the first time in eight years that President Obama was indeed born in the U.S. After not only leading, but becoming synonymous with what many have described as the “birther movement,” Trump has conceded and given up on furthering the conspiracy theory that our President is not an American citizen.

Listening today in regard to the news coverage of the spectacle orchestrated by Trump, while at the same time attempting to foil my biological reaction to orally evacuate my stomach, I witnessed the all too common deflecting and reflecting of liberal and conservative political pundits on my big screen at home, and upon the satellite radio broadcasting platform. I also heard the babbling and flippant shrilling response by the mostly nearsighted list of news celebrity commentary analysts (i.e., any nut job with an opinion barbarously willing to spin emotions and misdirection to the masses absent of critical thinking). In my analysis, I argue that the heart of the issue was not discussed or investigated with a third eye, so to speak. Beyond the attempts to brush Trump’s statement off by conservatives, liberals spoke of Black anger. Specifically, the anger that they discussed was in relations to the manner in which most Blacks feel in regard to the delegitimizing of President Obama. I have come to the conclusion that their examination of the core regarding the discussion was flawed. Further, what was missed from discussion related to the initial start of the birther movement to Trump’s recent declaration is simple, but at the same time extremely complicated. Donald Trump is simply a contemporary example of a wealthy elite White male, within a long line of wealthy elite White males, exercising their self given authority to define us, determining our place in this society. The ability to hamper our ability to construct our narrative is as old to this country as the U.S. flag. This is what I feel unconsciously angers most Blacks—well, at least me.

Historically and legislatively, beginning with the transaction of Dutch traders selling twenty Africans in Virginia in 1619, Whites have controlled our definition. For example, Whites struggled between categorizing Black slaves as both indentured and lifetime slaves. Before slavery as we know it developed fully into an institution, slaves existed in a state of uncertainty. For example, a number of legislative pieces between 1639 and 1659-60, depicted black servants not as merely property, but instead as members of a shared community alongside Whites of diverse classes, including wealthy Burgesses and indentured servants. In 1659–1660, Virginia colony law fully institutionalized Black slavery for the first time. The law shaped the perspective of categorizing African slaves as commodities. Just like other items imported into the colony from abroad, African slaves were considered “other” or property. The idea of personhood like that of whites was completely absent. This perspective was galvanized in 1776 under the Articles of Confederation enacted by Continental Congress–which officially and explicitly used the term “white” in its statement about counting the population. Moreover, the defining of the slave identity once again appeared within the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Provisions created during the convention thusly gave allowance to whites running southern states to count slaves as 3/5 persons (Three-Fifths Clause) so whites there could have more representation in the new Congress.

One cannot forget the history behind the 1662 Virginia law that in particular focused on the behavior directed toward mixed-race people. The notion of the ‘one drop rule’ was consequently constructed. This legal means for identifying who was Black was judicially upheld as recent as 1985 “when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as ‘white’ on her passport.”

Science has also had a historical significant part in defining Black as well. In essence, Blacks were not only seen as property, but subhuman. The work of individuals such as George Mason, Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus), Louis Agassiz, and Immanuel Kant, to the ghastly experiments performed on unwilling female slaves performed by Dr. J. Marion Sims underscored Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments:

Whether the black of the negro reside [sic] in the reticular membrane between the skin and the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the color of the blood, the color of the bile or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature.

White elites have also defined Blacks through name. In 1960, the U.S. Census Bureau used the term Negro for the first time to define Black Americans. Even though Blacks began to construct their identity by replacing Negro with more empowering categories such as Colored, Black, and African American, the U.S. census continued to use Negro and refused to change the identifiable marker for participants. The decision to drop Negro as an option was not decided until 2013. This is an illustration of the power to not only control the nomenclature, but also one’s identity. All of which is within the hands of Whites.

Finally, there are countless, and too many to state here, historical and contemporary examples within the White controlled media, news industry, literature publications, and even pornography to define what is Black. Together they have identified us as the boogeyman. We are the rapist, foreigner, oversexed, stupid, and violent underbelly of U.S. citizenry. Being Black in America, one is born with an imposed identity as “Other.”

All Donald Trump has been doing for the past eight years with his investigations, statements challenging our President’s allegiance, intelligence, academic credentials, religion, and birthright, is continuing said trend. A trend that is truly “American.”

The Fourth of July: Different Meaning for Frederick Douglass

On this Independence day it is well to remember yet again a probing and candid speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given by the formerly enslaved and probably greatest 19th century American, Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, at the peak of North America slavery (indeed, about 230 years into that era). His insightful words are never more appropriate than today, when we as a country are in several ways moving backwards on the rhetorical promise of “all men are created equal.”

 

Frederick_Douglass_c1860s

In this era Black Americans were usually not allowed at 4th of July celebrations in the slaveholding South, apparently because many slaveholders feared that they might get an idea of freedom from such events (as if they did not already have such an idea!). Also, Black residents were often discouraged from attending such festivities in the North.

It is in this very dangerous and hostile national racial climate that the great Douglass–increasingly, a leading intellectual of his day and the first Black American to receive a roll-call vote for US President (later on, at the 1888 Republican national convention!)–was asked by leading citizens of Rochester to give an address at their Fourth of July celebrations. He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

But later adds:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

And then concludes with this:

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

Sadly, our system of racial oppression still persists, even as most white Americans are in denial about its deep and foundational reality. Yet, there remain many people like Frederick Douglass today who still fight to remove this “yoke of tyranny” from us all. May they flourish and prosper. We should remember those now and from the past who fought racism most on this day to celebrate freedom.
Some forty-two years later, in the last speech (“Lessons of the Hour”) he gave before his death—at an AME Church in DC, on January 9th, 1894—Douglass made these comments as he watched southern and border states hurtle toward bloody Jim Crow segregation, the new neo-slavery system:

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead. I repeat, and my contention is, that this “Negro problem” formula lays the fault at the door of the Negro, and removes it from the door of the white man, shields the guilty, and blames the innocent. Makes the Negro responsible and not the nation….. Now the real problem is, and ought to be regarded by the American people, a great national problem. It involves the question, whether, after all, with our Declaration of Independence, with our glorious free constitution, whether with our sublime Christianity, there is enough of national virtue in this great nation to solve this problem, in accordance with wisdom and justice.

He concluded thus, his very last words ever spoken in public:

But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the tramp of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.

 

Marching Backward: Tenn. Politicians Vote to Cut UT Diversity Funding

The historic march of 600 civil rights activists on March 7, 1965 attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama toward Montgomery on “Bloody Sunday” marked the culmination of efforts to bring changes to voter registration procedures that prevented blacks from registering to vote. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, whose skull was fractured by a police nightstick as he led protesters across the bridge, has reminded us of an African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.” On August 6, 1965, following two subsequent marches, the Federal Voting Rights Act was passed. Congressman Lewis recalls that what propelled him forward was “the spirit of history”:

We didn’t have a choice. I think we had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history and we couldn’t turn back. We had to move forward. We had become like trees planted by the rivers of water. We were anchored. I thought we would die. …I thought it was the last protest for me, but somehow, some way you have to keep going.

It is now up to us now to move our feet or else the march backwards will erode more than half a century of progress on diversity and inclusion. The effort to cut funding for the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UT Knoxville) by the state legislature is symptomatic of this regressive tide.

In April 2016, the House of Representatives and the Senate in Tennessee voted to remove the $436,000 state appropriation for the Diversity and Inclusion office at UT Knoxville for one year. An earlier version of the bill would have used $100,000 of the funds to place decals on law enforcement vehicles that read “In God We Trust.” The bill is now before Republican Governor Bill Haslam for final decision.

At the same time, 10 GOP representatives and state senators led by state representative Eddie Smith wrote to Tennessee’s Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor requesting a joint committee be formed to investigate the diversity offices at the state’s public universities and colleges. According to Smith, “the university needs to reflect the values of Tennessee.”

Specific objections were raised in late 2015 regarding the efforts of UT Knoxville’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion to educate the campus community about gender-neutral pronouns as well a memo that recommended avoiding religious symbols at holiday work parties. In a Fox news interview, Representative John J. Duncan, Sr., warned against the “political correctness” involved in these two actions and stated that the liberals in the United States are the most intolerant in the country. And Representative Micah Van Huss who drafted the original legislation stated that the “so-called Office of Diversity” was “not celebrating diversity, they are wiping it out. It is the office of Political Correctness.”

Calls for the resignation of Chancellor Jimmy Cheek by members of the legislature followed. The website posts were amended or deleted and oversight of the Diversity Office’s website was moved to the Communications Department. Some lawmakers called for Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall, UT’s inaugural Chief Diversity Officer, to resign as well. Petitions to support Cheek and Hall gathered more than 3,000 faculty, staff, and student signatures. A student coalition, UT Diversity Matters, was subsequently formed on the Knoxville campus and presented a list of demands to the administration including the need for inclusivity training for all incoming students, faculty, and staff.

In response to the legislature’s efforts to defund the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, hundreds of University of Tennessee students marched in protest on April 29, 2016, with some demonstrators lying down in a walkway and later forming a circle in front of a student residential building. As the protest continued, Confederate flags were hung outside two dorm windows. George Habeib, a 19-year old printmaking student described the hanging of the Confederate flags as “trying to instill fear in us” and added, “it further proves out point of why this [sort of protest] is needed.

The legislature’s efforts have been answered by students, faculty, and staff “moving their feet” in the forward-looking spirit of history that John Lewis spoke of. Yet the bill to defund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is but one example of the deepening divisiveness over the issue of diversity in this nation and its educational institutions. The move forward toward the creation of more inclusive institutional environments will require the sustained commitment and courage that anchors “trees planted by the rivers of water.”

“Illiberal”: The White Backlash Word

It did not take more than a day or two for there to emerge a white backlash against the spate of protests by African-American students on predominantly “white” college campuses like the University of Missouri and Yale University; including a rant by an apparent liberal on National Public Radio against what he saw as their “illiberal” behavior.

My google search found the adjective illiberal defined as “opposed to liberal principles, restricting freedom of thought or behavior” and “uncultured or unrefined.” White” conservatives and their allies condemn such protests as being indicative of a victim’s mentality. “White” moderates and those who think like them dismiss them as coming from people who are overly sensitive. And now the latest buzzword that initially appears to come from “white” liberals and those who accept their ways of thinking about racial conflict as a means toward progressive social change is that such actions are “illiberal.” What they all have in common is that they are all essentially “white” racial backlash frame responses to the expression of the pain born of the oppression of African-Americans.

Such white backlash is consistent with the “All Lives Matter” slogan dismissal of the “Black Lives Matter” movement; a movement which is now a driving force behind the campus protests.

In my Conceptualizing Racism book I discuss such racially-charged language battles between what I call linguistic racial accommodation and linguistic racial confrontation as well as what I refer to as the IPA Syndrome of groups that benefit from oppression. The letters IPA refer to the ignorance of not knowing; the privilege of not needing to know, and the arrogance of not wanting to know.

We see all of that in the attempt of some “white”–assumed to be–liberals to now use the word “illiberal” to silence African-American outrage at oppression just as their more conservative cousins have used the term “political correctness;” which more and more “white” moderates and liberals have come to accept. This emotionally-charged and paternalistic finger wagging behind the charge of illiberalism evokes the racist image of “black” savages who have invaded the hallowed “white,” and above all “civilized,” halls of academia; devoid of any real appreciation of and respect for its core values like freedom of speech and academic freedom.

But alas appearances are often deceiving. As it turns out the main driving force behind the concept of liberalism is not liberals, but their occasional racial allies; the extreme right wing. The “illiberal” concept is being pushed by political extremists who abhor the very words liberals and liberalism but now seem to want to seduce those who see themselves as liberals into a liberal/right-wing coalition against militant African-American social protest. At this coalition’s center is the extreme right-wing intellectual Dinesh D’Sousa who in 1998 published a book titled Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. You may recall D’Sousa for his The End of Racism book which in the mid-1990s provided a racist cultural argument to justify white supremacy which complemented the biological argument made a year earlier by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve that was published by the same publisher.

This means that self-identified liberals who might find themselves attracted to the concept of illiberalism should be aware of this part of the concept’s history and how it is being used by the right-wing who ordinarily detest the very word liberal to form an unholy racial alliance against the legitimate aspirations of African Americans and other racially oppressed peoples. But there is still more ignorance, privilege, and arrogance to the use of the word “illiberal” as an ideology to beat back African-American protest than even that.

The term illiberal arrogantly assumes that all progressive African Americans are–indeed all left-leaning African Americans can aspire to be politically–is liberals. It assumes that like “white” liberals we are conflict-aversive and ultimately committed to sustaining the status quo by simply making minor tweaks to the system for it to function more smoothly.

It also arrogantly disallows the possibility that there is an African-American Left politics that dares to venture beyond whiteness and an intellectually, ethically, and politically shallow, multi-cultural/diversity framed liberalism. Now here is the racial bottom line, if you will. For progressive African Americans the best response to being labelled “illiberal” is to reject the label and framing of liberalism altogether by beginning a new conversation with the simple question that shatters the presumptuousness of white racial arrogance by simply asking. “And what makes you believe I am a liberal?”

Noel A. Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. His forthcoming book, Conceptualizing Racism: Breaking the Chains of Racially Accommodative Language, is to be released this month. His current book project is tentatively titled, Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism and he plans to teach a course on the same topic at UConn next fall.