William Kunstler and the Active Voice to Discuss Racism

I saw a new documentary called “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” about the civil rights lawyer.  the film was made by his two daughters from his second marriage, Sarah and Emily Kunstler.  it was interesting and much of the film was about racism, although none of the promotional materials hint at this.  In this way, it’s much like the documentary “The Weather Underground,” which also focuses a good deal on racism.

One of the things that struck me most profoundly about the Kunstler film was the way that the language about institutional racism in the late 1960s early 1970s is so strikingly different from the way we talk about race and racism today.    What I mean about the language around institutional racism is that Kunstler would say things like, “the white power structure” or “the racist court system” and “all whites are racist” and “we (whites) are responsible for letting this racist power structure continue.”

This language and way of talking about racism is all in the category of “stuff you just don’t hear anymore.”

The power of calling out the white power structure and the way that individual whites participate in this racism was clearest for me in the film when they were exploring the issue of the uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York.  Kunstler got called in as a negotiator for the prisoners.  This attempt failed and dozens of people – both inmates and guards – were killed by the state who went in and shot them.   after the uprising was put down, there’s this amazing archival footage of one of the white soldiers (national guard?) who went in to the prison,  and he’s got his fist in the air, pumping it victoriously and he says, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about…. white power!”   it’s just a chilling moment that also perfectly illustrates what Kunstler’s been saying throughout the film.

Following soon after that, Kunstler went to the seige at Wounded Knee to serve as a negotiator for Native Americans in AIM who were staging a protest there, demanding that the U.S. Government honor centuries of broken treaties.   Kunstler was able to help avoid a massacre there and successfully defended Russell Banks and Dennis Banks, two of the leaders of the protest, at their subsequent trial in federal court.
Kunstler’s daughters (the filmmakers) were thoughtful about racism and their father’s struggle against it.   I especially liked when they went back and tried to find out how their dad began to be conscious about racism.  They included a brief section in the film that addressed this issue, noting that Kunstler’s race consciousness certainly didn’t come from his parents, who had black servants that used separate toilets and ate apart from the family in the kitchen.   This is illustrated by home-movie footage of one of the nameless-black-servants in the family serving the grandmother and one of the filmmakers when she was a child.

The filmmakers were less thoughtful, in my view, in exploring their own racism around their objection to their father’s defending Yusef Salaam, one of the alleged “Central Park jogger rapists.”   Years later, of course, Salaam’s conviction was overturned, and thus Kunstler’s defense of him was vindicated, but I wish the filmmakers had done more with this.

Returning to my point about the language around racism, the way the film is advertised and promoted and discussed (i heard a long interview with the filmmakers in which they never mentioned racism even once) is more typical of the way racism gets addressed today, which is in this oblique, passive-voice kind of way.

Today, to the extent that experts and non-experts even acknowledge racism, they may refer to “structural racism” or (in the world of public health where I work) “racial disparites.”   But these all happen in the passive voice.  Racial disparities just “happen.”   There are no actors in today’s language of racial inequality.     In Kunstler’s heydey (the civil rights era), there were clearly people who were responsible for the oppression of people of color, and it was white people acting in the interest of a white power structure.   Losing that language, we’ve lost some clarity about what is at the root of racial inequality.  Today, it seems, no one’s responsible as we live in this ‘racism without racists’ post-civil rights era.

Systemic Racism in Banking: The Wells Fargo Case

There is a piece in the New York Times today is reporting on their investigation into the explicitly racist practices of Wells Fargo in their subprime mortgage business (Creative Commons License photo credit: TheTruthAbout… , h/t Schiffon Wong). According to the NYTimes,  Wells Fargo created a unit in the mid-Atlantic region to push expensive refinancing loans on black customers, particularly those living in Baltimore, southeast Washington and Prince George’s County, Md.

wells fargoAccording to a former employee of the banking giant quoted in the article, the company viewed the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania. Loan officers, she said, pushed customers who could have qualified for prime loans into subprime mortgages. Another loan officer stated in an affidavit filed last week that employees had referred to blacks as “mud people” and to subprime lending as “ghetto loans.”  The employee, a Ms. Jacobson, who is white and said she was once the bank’s top-producing subprime loan officer nationally, goes on to reveal:

“We just went right after them. Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches, because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”

The NYTimes backs this anecdotal evidence with their own more systematic investigation:

The New York Times, in a recent analysis of mortgage lending in New York City, found that black households making more than $68,000 a year were nearly five times as likely to hold high-interest subprime mortgages as whites of similar or even lower incomes. (The disparity was greater for Wells Fargo borrowers, as 2 percent of whites in that income group hold subprime loans and 16.1 percent of blacks.)

To understand the Wells Fargo case, it’s important to understand the broader context of this banking institutions’ policies as part of a larger pattern.

Sociologists Doug Massey and Nancy Denton in their ASA-award-winning book, American Apartheid, document the systematic pattern of housing discrimination in the U.S., as well as the dire consequences of such enforced segregation.   Part of Massey and Denton’s argument is that segregation in housing leads to “social dislocations” (William J. Wilson’s term) in other areas like high school drop-out rates, increased rates of drug use, delinquency and crime, in other words, “the making of an underclass” (the subtitle of their book).

Massey and Denton’s work was path-breaking for the way that it clearly and painstakingly documents the “construction of the ghetto,” but their findings were not exactly new.  The Kerner Commission Report from 1968 famously concluded:

“What white Americans have never fully understood— but what the Negro can never forget— is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The report from today’s NYTimes and the evidence of explicitly racist practices of Wells Fargo do not mean that everyone that worked there agreed with these policies or harbored explicitly racist views.   Indeed, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva as recounted in his Racism Without Racists, the continued operation of white supremacist system does not require the presence of extreme racists in that system.  In fact, I’m sure that many of the people that worked at Wells Fargo would never consider themselves racists but rather well-meaning and liberal in their views on race.

So, then it becomes necessary to understand Wells Fargo’s banking discrimination — and the housing segregation such discrimination creates — within an even broader context.  For that, it’s important to understand the white racial frame that sustains systemic racism, as Joe has described here and in his important book by the same name.  Note the loan officer mentioned in the NYTimes piece that referred to blacks as “mud people” and to the subprime lending as “ghetto loans.” These statements reflect thinking within the white racial frame and the result is the maintenance of systemic racial segregation in housing and further economic devastation of black families that might otherwise be homeowners.

That’s the real tragedy of this story, to my thinking.  Families that worked hard, tried to buy a home and provide a better life for their kids, are now facing foreclosure – and maybe worse – because of the systematic racism in Wells Fargo’s banking practices.    The question really becomes then if we, as a nation, are so “tragically bound to that starless midnight of racism,” as Dr. King said, that we can never move beyond it.    It’s time, I think, to begin holding institutions accountable for racist practices like these.

Stealing the Language of Empathy and Anti-Racism

Justice with a swaggerOne striking thing of late is how the words “racist” and “ racism” often appear in the media without reference to the white racism underlying this society. The language of anti-racist analysis and action is now taken to serve conservative political ends (Creative Commons License photo credit: quinn.anya).

In a recent column, Leonard Pitts, a leading media commentator, argues the naming of Judge Sotomayor “racist” by conservatives like Gingrich, Tancredo, and Limbaugh is about much more than political mudslinging:

This is part and parcel of a campaign by conservatives to arrogate unto themselves and/or neutralize the language of social grievance. . . . They made “liberal” such a vulgarity you’d never know liberals fought to ban child labor, end Jim Crow or win women the right to vote. Having no record of their own of responding compassionately to social grievance . . . conservatives have chosen instead to co-opt the language of that grievance.

A very good point. They are not only co-opting and weakening the language of social grievance, but also intentionally taking the focus off the central reality of whites’ continuing racial oppression.

Over at the Dailykos blog, George Lakoff, influential linguistics professor, accents related points about conservatives appropriating the language and idea of “empathy”:

The conservatives are reframing empathy to make it attackable. Their “empathy” is idiosyncratic, personal feeling for an individual, presumably the defendant in a legal case. With “empathy” reframed in this way, Charles Krauthammer can say, echoing Karl Rove, “Justice is not about empathy.”

Lakoff ties the conservative attack on empathy as personal feelings to the attack by Gingrich and others on Sotomayor as “racist”:

[In their view} because of her personal feelings for her own kind — Latinos and women — she will discriminate against white men. It is to support that view that the New Haven firemen case keeps being brought up. The real target here goes beyond Sotomayor. In the last election, conservative populists moved toward Obama. Conservative populists are working people, mostly white men, who have conservative views of the family, of masculinity, and of the military, and who have bought into the idea of the “liberal elite” as looking down on them. Right now, they are hurting economically, losing their jobs and their homes. Empathy is something they need. The racist card is an attempt to revive their fears of affirmative action, fears of their jobs — and their pride — being taken by minorities and women. The racist attack has a political purpose, holding onto conservative populists.

He also makes a very important point that by constantly repeating the comments on her as “racist,” liberal Democrats and other liberals are reinforcing this theme in the public mind. That should be replaced with a reframing that positions Gingrich and company as extraordinarily racist and anti-democratic, using that type of language. In addition, Lakoff suggests liberals, both Democrats and others, must speak about real empathy that links to social justice:

They need to point out that empathy leads one to notice real social and systemic causes of our troubles and to notice when and how judicial decisions and legislation can harm the most vulnerable of our countrymen. And finally that empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness — which are necessary components of justice.

Pitts and Lakoff are on target in tying these white-racist attacks on empathy and the language of anti-racism to a much larger reactionary political agenda. The attacks are not only on real multiracial democracy, but on organizational and individual efforts to break down systemic racism–that is, to probe deeply the systemic realities of racial oppression and to increase organizational efforts to overturn that system.

Recurring racial discrimination targeting Americans of color requires a breakdown of normal human empathy among whites. Racial oppression not only severely distorts human relationships but desensitizes the minds of racial oppressors. Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of the exploited others. The psychiatric term “alexithymia” describes individuals unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, other people. Hernan Vera and I have suggested going way beyond this individualistic concept to a concept of “social alexithymia.” Essential to being an oppressor in a racist society is a significantly reduced ability, or an inability, to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by racial oppression. And this involves many white individuals acting collectively both today and historically.

Since the days of slavery and Jim Crow, most whites have revealed a rather high level of social alexithymia, the sustained inability to relate to suffering of those oppressed. For centuries, systemic racism has both required and constantly bred a lack of empathy and recognition of the full humanity of Americans of color. Today, most whites still do not “see,” or do not wish to see, the impact of institutionalized racism or to recognize its determinative role in everyday life. A substantial majority persist in denying that white racism is systemic, commonplace, and devastating for its targets.

Today the challenge for those seeking to expand antiracist strategies includes the creation of widespread conditions where a great many whites will have to confront the catastrophic reality of the pain that the white-imposed system of racial oppression has caused Americans of color, especially including those with whom they come into daily contact.

It is this aggressive move in the direction of increasing real collective empathy and new invigorated organizations to expand that collective empathy that white conservatives and reactionaries seem most worried about.

Racism, Sexism and The Significance of Sotomayor

AsSCOTUS 2 expected, Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has drawn controversy, media attention, analysis and even some humorous send-ups of right-wing critics (Creative Commons License photo credit: Padraic).

Opponents have alternately claimed that Sotomayor is (a) not smart enough for the Court (despite degrees from Ivy League Universities and an apparent history of exemplary academic performance), (b) racist, and (c) perhaps most bizarrely, saddled with an unpronounceable name

While these conversations themselves warrant another post (and analysis of their racist and sexist assumptions, particularly the one that she’s not smart enough), what strikes me the most about Sotomayor’s nomination is what it suggests for the future of race relations in this country. Not in terms of the “role model” argument (the idea that young people need to see someone like them in positions of power to help them see that their options are plentiful and far-ranging), though I think there is some merit to that claim.

Sotomayor’s presence on the Court, in my opinion, reveals much about the way Obama intends to address racial inequalities in his role as president.

Of late, Obama has not said much about racial matters, particularly issues of racial inequality. Many of his statements about race that I’ve read date back to 2006 or 2007, well before he was a serious candidate for President. In several these statements, he acknowledges the existence and consequences of systemic racism:

“I don’t believe it is possible to transcend race in this country. . . Race is a factor in this society. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone away. It is not an accident that African Americans experience high crime rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history.” (Essence magazine, October 2007)

However, on the campaign trail and while President, Obama mostly remained quiet about the ongoing existence of systemic racism and his plan to put policies into place that remedy it. In fact, he has gone on record talking about the need for class-based policies, using the metaphor that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Of course, President Obama walks a very difficult line, one none of his predecessors have had to balance. If he appears racially conscious, he runs a high risk of upsetting supporters who like to see him as color blind, offering easy ammunition to opponents looking for anything to use as a source of criticism, and maybe most significantly, seeing his support and ability to get things done erode in a wave of racially-tinged suspicion. If we assume that eradicating racial inequality matters to him, how then does Obama put policies into place without sacrificing political capital and losing control of his momentum?

Enter Judge Sotomayor, the first potential Supreme Court justice who will have personally experienced the multiple, overlapping oppressions of racism, sexism, and poverty. Who has observed that dealing with these intersecting factors would likely render her more capable of reaching a wise, sound decision on cases of discrimination than her white male peers who benefit from their race, gender, and class privilege. Who at the same time acknowledged that these intersecting factors do not preclude elite white men from reaching sound, fair decisions on cases of discrimination (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education), but sees the reality that living her life as a woman of color gives her a particular insight into oppression that might escape her white male colleagues.

What makes Sotomayor’s nomination especially relevant right now is that Chief Justice Roberts has issued some of his most telling decisions and statements on cases related to racial discrimination and civil rights .  Despite his clear intelligence and stellar academic credentials, Roberts is woefully uneducated when it comes to the realities of racial oppression in this nation. Operating from the color blind racist perspective, Roberts is apparently of the opinion that any focus on race—even with the intent of diversifying, correcting ongoing racial inequalities, or addressing systemic racial imbalances—is in and of itself racist. This willful refusal to recognize that racism is built into the very core of the political, economic, and social foundations of this nation, has always worked to disadvantage people of color, and will continue to do so if left unchecked, is an egregious blind spot on the part of our Chief Justice. So too is his inability to distinguish between taking race into consideration when trying to make a school system diverse (in compliance with Brown v. Board) and focusing on race in efforts to create and maintain segregated, unequal social systems.

Right now Sonia Sotomayor is being savaged by people who refuse to respect her intelligence and hard work, and instead seem to think that her status as a Latina signifies a person who is dumb and unqualified. It’s particularly ironic that she may sit on a Court that decides whether affirmative action policies are legal or even remain necessary. It seems to me that Sotomayor’s experience having her qualifications disregarded in a way that evokes common racial/gendered stereotypes would give her a perspective on the necessity of affirmative action that might elude Judges Roberts, Alito, and Scalia.

People often mistakenly assume affirmative action just elevates unqualified minority candidates, but when used wisely and correctly its purpose is to create opportunities for racial minorities who work hard, are eminently qualified, but still face discrimination because of potential employers’ biases (like the automatic, reflexive assumption that people of color are less intelligent). It seems to me that what Sotomayor is facing right now is a prime example of said biases, and this speaks directly to her statements for the value of a diverse bench. These are the types of experiences that can help Sotomayor see aspects of the law that Chief Justice Roberts, with his color blind worldview, will likely miss.

Obama is a smart enough politician to know that a candid focus on policies openly designed to eradicate racism will impair his ability to fulfill his other priorities and will pretty much guarantee him a one-term presidency. But he can select a Supreme Court nominee with stellar credentials, extensive legal experience, and the personal history to allow her to see what her colleagues are comfortable ignoring. She can’t make policy from the bench, but she can make sure the law works for everyone. In doing so, she can be Obama’s voice for racial and gender equality.

Black & Poor: Bill Wilson’s Theoretical Muddle

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

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

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

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

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

Police Brutality and the National Political Agenda

The Root ( a Scales Of Justicevery good source on racial issues) has a recent post by Sherrilyn Ifill, University of Maryland law professor and civil rights lawyer, on the continuing reality of police malpractice and brutality, most of it directed against men of color—most especially, black men (Creative Commons License photo credit: srqpix). She begins with the sad “talk”:

It’s one of the depressing ironies of black life that in the Obama era, black mothers and fathers must continue giving their teenage sons “the talk.” I’m not talking about the birds and the bees. I’m talking about the “how to act when the police stop you” talk. Rule 1. Don’t talk back to the officer. Rule 2. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t doing anything wrong. Rule 3. And this is critical, don’t reach for your wallet without asking the officer first. Supplemental rule. Carry a pink cell phone if you can. A black cell phone may look like a gun to a nervous cop.

She lists some of the many police killings in the last couple of years, such as brutal taser death of Baron Pikes in Winnfield in 2008:

Tasered nine times within 14 minutes by a 21-year-old white officer, Pikes may well have been dead – handcuffed and unresponsive in a police cruiser—when the last two 50,000-volt charges were delivered directly to his chest. The officer reportedly admitted that he began using his Taser on Pikes when the handcuffed black man responded too slowly to the officer’s demand that Pikes get up and walk to the police car.

Then mentions others like this one:

In Dallas, 23-year-old Robbie Tolan, a minor league baseball player and the son of former Major League Baseball player Bobbie Tolan, was shot in his own driveway in an affluent white suburb on New Year’s Eve. White police officers, purportedly believing that the SUV driven by Tolan and his cousin was stolen, approached the young black men and ordered them to lie down on the ground. The car belonged to Tolan’s parents, and the officers reportedly did not identify themselves. When Tolan’s parents came outside to find out what was happening, one of the officers allegedly shoved Mrs. Tolan against the garage. Robbie Tolan yelled to the officer to stop pushing his mother, and that, witnesses say, is when he was shot by one of the officers.

She notes a Youtube video of

The recent case involving the cell phone video of a drunk, white, off-duty police officer in Erie, Pa., making crude jokes about a black murder victim and ridiculing the victim’s grieving mother, illustrates part of the problem.

We have discussed some of these major instances of police brutality on this blog numerous times.

In conclusion, Ifill makes this on-target comment:

The results of these incidents are depressingly predictable. Outrage. Marches. Most often no indictment. Sometimes an indictment. Always an acquittal. More marches. Next incident. The stunning lack of change suggests that our protest-oriented approach to police brutality must focus less on punishment for individual officers, and more on systemic institutional changes within our police academies and departments.

Just how systemic the police harassment and brutality is can be seen in polls and in social science research. For example, one 2001 Gallup poll found 83 percent of black respondents had experienced racial profiling in the last year. In addition, in a 2007 Gallup poll a fifth of the black respondents reported that had suffered discrimination at the hands of police officers, a proportion that has increased in recent years.

Lest some think that we are ignoring lots of white victims of police brutality here, we might note that one social science study back in the 1990s analyzed 130 police-brutality accounts in several cities across the country. In that reviews of cases, criminologist Kim Lersch discovered that the targets of this type of police malpractice are almost always black or Latino. The latter made up 97 percent of the victims of police brutality, while the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of officers involved were white. Police brutality overwhelmingly involves white-on-black or other white-on-minority violence. (See discussion in Chapter 5 here.)

AP Posts Tale of Segregationist, Now a “Reformed” Racist

08KKKfamilyPortraitThe U.S. press has always been fond of redemption tales, especially those involving whites seeking exoneration for earlier crimes against black communities (Creative Commons License photo credit: Image Editor). This recent news story from the Associated Press about an older, now apologetic segregationist and Klan supporter, Elwin Wilson, is no different. This extensive piece written by Helen O’Neill and posted on the Yahoo.com homepage adheres to all the confines and revealing silences of traditional white discourse on racism.

Wilson has apologized publicly and often to this history:

The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to atone for the cross burnings on Hollis Lake Road. He wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for hurling a jack handle at the black kid jiggling the soda machine in his father’s service station, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961

Once wonders where the attempt at serious reparations is. Apologizing seems rather too weak, indeed.

For another thing, the journalist’s piece reeks of the prevailing white folk theory of racism. As outlined by Jane Hill, the conventional white folk theory of racism treats white racism as a mere pathology held by individuals, something which can be rooted out with education and socio-economic uplift. The author of the AP tale seeks to present Elwin Wilson, a “former Ku Kluxer,” as a redeemed white man who has been enlightened to the error of his old segregationist ways. His apologetic actions play into the white racial frame by pushing white racism, past or present, to the margins of society, rather than being seen as inherent in the dominant white perspective and perpetuated, allowed, or beheld as actions by many, if not all, whites.

According to Otto Santa Ana, the prevailing metaphor for U.S. racism is Racism as Disease. The AP journalist plays into this old white metaphor by describing Wilson as “a sad, sickly man haunted by time.” By characterizing him in this individualistic manner, the (assumed to be white) reader can dissociate him/herself from the aging Wilson, a former Ku-Kluxer suffering from the individual pathology of racism. This tactic of pegging Mr. Wilson as someone suffering from a “peculiar” disease only reinforces the dominant white view that U.S. racism is an individual-level problem, something to be confronted by individuals and not something foundational to the operating of U.S. society. The author reveals her naiveté when she fails to acknowledge the institutionalized, structural nature of racism or its very long, continuing, and unjust history. Wilson did not act alone or as an innovator.

Wilson himself fails to grasp this systemic racism, when he states that “his parents treated everyone equally.” This denying attitude about the segregation era resonates with the findings of Houts-Picca and Feagin, who show from college student diaries just how much whites seek to deny racism even as they do it, and how often they describe as “good” and “fun” or “nice” the white friends or relatives who do blatant racism. By defining recurring racism as a pathological trait beheld by otherwise “good” individuals, it becomes impossible to locate responsibility for white racism.

Also, the journalist unquestionably accepts an Us vs. Them dichotomy when discussing Wilson’s segregationist past and other racial matters with Wilson, who himself seems more concerned with gaining entrance to heaven (his words) than actually righting the wrongs of his past. Wilson refers to African Americans as “[those] people I had trouble with,” and his wife nonchalantly states “they’re going to be [in heaven] with you.” Later he even states, “By the time I went to college I had dropped all that jumping on them, [but] I still didn’t want to marry one or anything like that.” (By jumping, he means violence.) We can see just how unchanged Wilson’s othering attitudes are. Though he may be touted as a repenting celebrity by many whites and some others, especially those who have internalized the myth of the U.S. now entering a “postracial” era (see the article itself for quotes from some of his elated admirers), one can easily sense ambivalence and continuing white racial framing in the man’s contemporary words and actions.

The AP article is but another example of white writers stroking the egos of the white public, who see whites as rather easily “overcoming” the openly-racist rhetoric and action of the past. Instead of confronting the latent, deep, and commonplace remainders of white-on-black oppression today, this breezy article reinforces the prevailing disease metaphor for white racism and pushes understanding that systemic racism again to the margins of society.

Racism’s Effects: The Urban League’s State of Black America 2009

The National Urban League’s 2009 State of Black America report is just out and shows, yet again, the longterm consequences of systemic racism as it impacts African Americans. The Urban League has developed what they term an Equality Index, a statistical measure of white-black inequalities in the economy, education, health, community engagement, and the “justice” system.

According to their press release, the 2009 summary index shows a little decline in the overall position of African Americans relative to whites, in their terms from 71.5 percent in the 2008 report to 71.1 percent in that 2009 report. The trend line over the five years between 2003 and 2007 shows greater inequality:

Even as both groups made progress in educational attainment, the progress was slower for blacks. During the same period while white children saw increases in “preprimary” enrollment of about 3 percent, black children saw a decline of about 1 percent, causing the education gap to grow, not shrink.

The executive summary of the report adds the inequality measures for subareas:

Economics remains the area with the greatest degree of inequality (from 57.6% in 2008 to 57.4% in 2009), followed by social justice (from 62.1% to 60.4%), health (from 73.3% to 74.4%), education (from 78.6% to 78.5%) and civic engagement (from 100.3% to 96.3%).

The State of Black America report ends with important suggestions for job/economic policy such as these:

1. Increase funding for proven and successful models of workforce training and job placement for under-skilled workers between the ages of 16 and 30 such as the Department of Labor’s “Responsible Reintegration of Youthful Offenders.”
2. Direct a percentage of all infrastructure monies to job training, job placement and job preparation for disadvantaged workers;
3. Target workforce investment dollars to the construction industry jobs that an infrastructure program will create and, where reigniting the construction industry is a goal, pre-apprenticeship programs must be funded in that sector;
4. Fund infrastructure development for public building construction and renovations of schools, community centers, libraries, recreation centers, parks, etc., that will rebuild and revitalize urban communities;
5. Re-establish a temporary Public Service Employment (PSE) program aimed at creating 150,000 – 200,000 jobs in urban areas to forestall a reduction in public services and an increase in job losses.

The report has not yet gotten much attention, but Leonard Pitts Jr., the black Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist and author of Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood, wrote a recent article arguing that these data will not be welcome to

Americans who convinced themselves in November the country had entered a “post-racial” era. Those Americans will be overwhelmingly white and will resist with mighty determination the report’s implicit argument: that we have not yet overcome, not yet reached the Promised Land, not yet come to a point where race is irrelevant, Barack Obama notwithstanding.

He then chides African Americans for not dealing with their own problems:

African-Americans do not, after all, need its policy suggestions to fix many of their most intractable problems. We do not need a government program to turn off the TV, realizing it’s hardly coincidental that people who watch more television per capita have poorer academic performance.

But then adds these savvy words:

Once you’ve turned off the television and encouraged black children toward academic excellence, you still must contend with the fact that their schools are too often crumbling, underfunded and staffed with inexperienced teachers. Once you’ve gotten black women and men to raise their children in the context of families, you still have to deal with the fact that those families need places to live, jobs to support them and doctors to keep them healthy….

Overall, Pitts accents some findings of psychological researcher, Richard Eibach, that

in judging racial progress, white people and black ones tend to use different yardsticks. Whites use the yardstick of how far we have come from the nation we used to be. Blacks use the yardstick of how far we have yet to go to be the nation we ought to be. . . . There is value in the yardstick white Americans use. . . . But there is value in the yardstick black Americans use, too, the measure the National Urban League provides in its annual studies. . . . We have not yet reached the Promised Land and we all have a moral responsibility toward that goal. But before we can fulfill that responsibility, we must learn to speak the same language where race is concerned, and to mean the same things when we do.

Even good critical analysts like Pitts seem to feel a great obligation to “balance” the views (yardstick) of most black Americans about their oppression and its redress—people who have been the targets of racial oppression at the hands of whites for four centuries and whose current unjust impoverishment is the cumulative result of that extensive oppression—with the typical blame-the-victim, moralistic views (yardstick) of many white Americans. Indeed, there seems to be an unwritten rule in the mainstream media, and in too much academic scholarship, that one should not name and critique whites for systemic and institutional racism too openly and honestly–and another unwritten rule that if one does critique white Americans for some racism, one must then “balance” that critique by clearly mentioning something negative about people of color or something else positive that whites have done in the racial arena. The frequent obsession with “Balance” here signals once again how whites really run this country and even control how we can publicly think and write about matters of systemic racism.

One can certainly counsel African Americans to do this or that to improve communities and conditions, but the greater moral responsibility obviously lies on those who created the 400-years of racial oppression, not those who have had to endure it now for four hundred years.

White Men as The Problem

Bank of AmericaUnusual numbers of photos of elite white men are in the news lately, since the financial crisis hit. Almost all perpetrators of our “second great depression,” as with the first, have been white men (Creative Commons License photo credit: Shannon Clark). White male business “geniuses,” often with top-college educations. It is odd that no one yet, to my knowledge, has featured the whiteness or white-maleness of these malefactors of great wealth as a central feature of the life-devastating economic “problem” we face globally. One can be sure that if these agents of 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 media. (Remember that Hillary Clinton is still blamed for failures in health care reform quite a while back.)

Come to think of it, white men (they named themselves “white” in the 17th century) created the modern Western (now 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 seems to be a major motivation behind the labor/land expropriation and exploitation euphemized by historians as “overseas exploration” and “settlement.” Certainly, 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.

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 and Nagasaki, two world wars). While white men are not alone in such actions, the consequences of their actions have been more far-reaching, especially for the planet in general 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 white racial frame to explain and rationalize these savage operations. The white frame is a dominant worldview that a great many white men, including elite political-economic leaders, still seem to be operating out of as they today exploit the world’s majority, the 80 percent of the planet that is not white.

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

These men, centuries ago and now, 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 “virtuous republicans.” Note that in this centuries-old process most white men have had little sense of their own weakness and venality, but have almost always accented their virtues. Today, as in earlier centuries, most white men generally do not see their group’s lack of virtues, their major weaknesses, and their major errors. They certainly do not like to admit error. Indeed, white men now often blame the victims, as in the case of this white male commodity trader who recently 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 are rapidly moving today to the second of their “great depressions” in this country’s history, yet the arrogant framing and actions of a few hundred, or perhaps thousand, of elite white men have yet to be problematized. Indeed, one cannot do so in the public media and discussions of this society. It simply is not possible to problematize the ruling group, as they have too much control to allow for significant problematization.

The white racial frame, which I have written about here before, is more than a framing of racial matters to legitimate oppressions. It is accents white virtues, especially white male virtues. It has a dramatic arrogance about what is virtue and what is not, about who is virtuous and who is not, and about where and when there is virtue. It assumes that an arrogant greed, a predatory spirit, an overarching patriarchism that means white men should be at the head of society, should be masters of the social universe.

Yet, it is the lack of virtue of a great many white men that has gotten the world’s economy into this second depression. It is their stupidity, their lack of “IQ,” their lack of foresight, their lack of political regulation and planning, and thus their lack of public-regardingness. A recent 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 global financial crisis.

Why blame white men? Well, the men who gave us this global crisis are overwhelmingly white and “educated,” often from top universities, but not very good in regard to critical thinking or the ethics of the “commons.” Then, there is the white collar crime, or at least corruption, that many have apparently engaged in–so far rarely discussed. White collar crime and other corruption, economic and political, is pushed to margins of public discussion because this is the kind of behavior dominated by white men. Such actions are often seen as not criminal, as “normal,” in part because white men wrote the laws about what is “serious” crime. They decided what is to be punished, and how much. Millions have lost their homes, jobs, incomes, and pensions, yet we rarely see elite white men targeted, photographed, or treated as criminals who stole or otherwise savaged lives–unlike hundreds of people of color who get such treatment by the media weekly.

Why blame white men? A reason, again, is that white men control the mass media corporations, and thus control how white men and their corruption get portrayed in society. They are the ones who force portrayals of this second depression as an economic reality 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 this horrific reality the world now faces.

In one of the most brilliant in the literature on racial matters, chapter one of the Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois foregrounded the ways in which black Americans had come to be defined as a “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? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, 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 define white men as the problem when it comes to many matters of human rights and human survival, including the world’s current political-economic situation.

In a famous book, Michael Moore did target Bush administration actors as “stupid white men” some time back. We should extend this now to yet more actions of white men, who are indeed a much broader societal problem today.

Then, the next step is figuring out how to change all this, and create a real democracy in this country and elsewhere, where people do have control of their economic and political situations. What is your solution?

(Note: I am indebted to helpful comments from other bloggers in writing this post.)

Continuing Significance of Institutional Racism: Latino Undergrads

The US Census Bureau just released population projections that by 2050, minorities will be the numeric majority of the population. For Latinos especially gains in the percentage of the population are expected to increase dramatically. In an article on cnn.com, Dave Waddington, chief of the Census Bureau’s population projection branch, stated that “Who’s going to do the jobs that are characteristically held right now by certain types of people…All those things are subject to change.” As the white population decreases and the number of people of color increase, it is critical that we take a look at how systemic racism plays out in some of our major institutions, especially education. Change is coming and in so many cases needs to happen in order to prepare for a future that is more diverse (photo: Brewer).

Education is important to Latinos, and universities often claim to value diversity by actively recruiting students of color. This effort by universities can be interpreted either as a cynical effort to enhance the image of their school, or more benignly as a true reflection of a deeply held value of cultural difference on campus. Nevertheless, there is often concern at universities about recruiting and retaining students of color. However, through my interviews with Latino undergraduate students at three universities (“Southern University,” “Southwest University,” and “Midwest University”) across the country, I found that institutional discrimination continues to be a major impediment to student success. Universities are historically white arenas and they continue to be so today, regardless of their rhetoric about diversity.

My research showed that many aspects of the university are still white dominated. Almost universally, students reported an underrepresentation of Latino faculty on their campuses. It was difficult for students to find faculty members that looked like them or that they could relate to. When students did have Latino instructors, they were often non-tenured and/or teaching only in Latino areas (like Mexican American studies or Spanish.)

“I think that that does happen. There probably aren’t that many Latina professors or working as the dean or something like that. And there are more cooks and janitors that are Hispanics or—[Have you had any Latino professors?] No, I haven’t. [How do you feel about that?] I hadn’t really thought about it, but I would like to have a professor who has similar, I guess, cultural background as me. That could connect more I guess, but I haven’t really noticed.” – Southwest University Female 19

Increasing Latino faculty membership and tenure, as well as diversifying departments are important issues that institutions of higher education must face if they truly want to retain Latino students. Most of the adult Latino faces that students saw were those working in lower (and underappreciated) positions at the university. This included food service, landscaping, maintenance, and custodial work. Latino students saw this pattern of work as lowering their status at the university, as well as reinforcing what they see as low expectations from whites about their potential.

Latinos are also underrepresented in the curriculum and symbolically on some campuses. Though Southwest University has done a better job with symbolic representation in terms of artwork, statues, and celebrations that represent Latinos, all three campuses lacked diversity in their curriculum. Latino culture and history are not often discussed in general education classes (like American history) and instead are relegated to specialized courses. Though students are not denying the importance of those courses and departments, the result is that diversity becomes optional. If they do not take those courses, they will not learn about their people, and neither will whites. At Midwest and Southern University, symbolic representation was also a big issue. Latinos were rarely represented around campus in things like artwork and statues, though Southern University students were looking forward to the arrival of a statue of Cesar Chavez. Midwest University did a poor job of representing any students of color symbolically, but students noticed that when they did see art, it was often in the form of photographs from the university’s past—a past that did not include people of color. At Southern University, symbols of white racism are present in the statues of Confederate soldiers and buildings named after racists. These symbols (or lack of symbols) create an atmosphere that is not welcoming to Latinos. Often there are very few places on campuses that they feel they can call their own because of racialized space.

On all three campuses students could point to examples of institutional racism. Institutions of higher education, whether they are in the South, in predominantly Latino areas, or in located big cities, still organize themselves around white ideals and values. Students of color are admitted in greater numbers, but by and large the institutions remain a white place. Because of the changes that are being predicted about our population composition, the institution will have to change and adapt to a more diverse student body.