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.”

Post-Truth Culture and the White Racial Frame: Presidential Politics

To understand the 2016 presidential election and its potential consequences it helps to look at it through the lens of what Jeremy Gordon referred to in a recent NYT’s article as our “post-truth culture.” Gordon made the point that the popularity and addiction of professional wrestling, “reality tv,” and other forms of inauthentic entertainment—where “the blurry line between truth and untruth” only increases the appeal to audiences—have seeped into presidential politics as well. Gordon states,

For a while, it became trendy to insist that the 2016 presidential election, with all its puffed chests and talk of penis size, seemed more like a wrestling pay-per-view event than a dignified clash of political minds. In politics, as in wrestling, the ultimate goal is simply to get the crowd on your side.

Getting the crowd on “your side” leads to electoral victory. And Trump is a master at getting the crowd on his side. Despite switching political parties at least five times and being married three times, voters on the far right are most definitely on Trump’s side viewing him as a family man of conservative values. For example, in a National Public Radio report by Kirk Siegler, conservative Mormon Janalee Tobias said of Trump,

Donald Trump wants to make America great again. Think about what made America great in the beginning: There were laws and people came here legally and didn’t have their hand out.

Siegler wraps up the story by stating that Tobias believes Trump is a good family man who abstains from alcohol, two important pillars in the Mormon religion. Never mind that Trump marketed a brand of Vodka in 2006 under the slogan “Success Distilled.”

“Post-truth” may be the modus operandī of the Trump campaign, but it is nothing new when it comes to US politics and policy as one of Stephen Colbert’s best skits on Comedy Central on “truthiness” demonstrated a decade ago when he told us he would dismiss the facts and instead go with his guts when delivering the “news” for the nation. Colbert included the war in Iraq and how it just felt right that Saddam Hussein was gone as example of truthiness. However, scholars of Latin America have known that the “blurry line between truth and untruth” and truthiness have been a dominant part of U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War. The CIA’s overthrowing of the democratically elected President Árbenz in Guatemala is just one example.

Post-truth politics have domestic policy consequences as well, especially when it comes to lies about our racial past and current racial inequality. As Joe Feagin argues in his book White Party, White Government,

In these myth-filled narratives, the Protestant “settlers” came to North American with modest resources and dreams of liberty, and drew on religious faith, virtuousness, and hard work to create prosperity in a land allegedly populated by some thinly scattered “savage” Indians.

Most of us have also heard the narrative that the U.S. is a land of opportunity where can achieve the American Dream if they just work hard enough; however, empirical measures of racial inequality including a racial wealth gap, disparate levels of educational attainment, segregation, and the most prominent example, law enforcement abuses should dispel this belief. Yet it doesn’t. Why? Because we also live with what Feagin calls the white racial frame, which consists of a broad racial framing of society that includes racial stereotypes, narratives, images, emotions, and discriminatory actions. Feagin states,

The dominant frame has persisted now over centuries only because it is constantly validating, and thus validated by, the inegalitarian accumulation of social, economic, and political resources.

This theory helps to explains why there are still vast differences today among whites and people of color while at the same time a strong-held belief that the U.S. is a land of opportunity, freedom, and equality for all. Therefore, this presidential election is showing us the product of the intersection of a culture steeped in “truthiness” and the white racial frame. We should not be surprised to simultaneously have the most diverse electorate in the history of this nation—with people of color comprising 31% of the electorate—and also to have the Republican presidential campaign entrenched in white supremacy narratives and traditions.

This explains how Mormons such as Tobias can believe Trump doesn’t drink, or why the middle class voters believe that Trump understands them. A white respondent in the Atlantic who was asked why he supports Trump thus stated:

Speaking from the right, I believe that Trump embodies the frustration and rage of the white middle class. This is his main support base and is an evershrinking group that no longer feels they have a voice. Politicians pay lip service to the middle class but spend no time helping them. Black lives matter more and illegal immigrants who break the law get a free pass. Evangelical Christians in this country no longer feel that they have the right to religious freedom and have watched what they perceive as a sacred institution in marriage gutted. All the while, politicians they voted for to represent them just plain don’t. Now enter Trump.

People of color have a different view of things. Our reality is that America is a society where, as a mother of an eleven year-old bi-racial son, I will not allow him to wear a hoodie out in public. He is too tall and strong looking, his hair is too long, and his features are too dark to be safe if he does. And when he turns sixteen I will not only teach him the rules of the road, but also the rules of engagement with the police before I let him drive.

The truth is the U.S.’s racial demographics are changing, and this scares the “evershrinking group” of whites because self-serving political candidates like Trump are telling them they should be scared with nativist policy proposals such as banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. As Jacobson points out, these types of fear tactics led to the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II, and are now being recalled as the correct thing to do by many. The consequence of our post-truth politics and the white racial frame may be a disruption to normal political cycles the likes of which we have not seen before. And this should scare us all.

NBC Executive Screws Up in Meeting With Latino Leaders

Despite his unending fascistoid comments, NBC invited Donald Trump to host a Saturday Night Live show on November 7. When Latino personages protested against this astonishing decision, NBC stuck to its guns. Recently a group of Latino legislators, hoping to iron out any animus resulting from Trump’s appearance, met with NBC executives to discuss the issue.

(Image source: Wikipedia)

The meeting began on a bad note. NBC News President Deborah Turness’s comments about a young Latina girl were intended to show compassion. Instead, they were racially insensitive and a California legislator reacted negatively and made his views known:

Near the start of the meeting, Turness was describing a story her network had covered about Pope Francis’ interaction with a young girl who said she feared her parents would be deported. Turness referred to the girl’s parents as “illegals.” This statement did not sit well with the attendees. California Democrat Rep. Juan Vargas protested: “I’m going to stop you right there. We use the term undocumented immigrants.”

Turness apologized and attempted to mollify members of the audience by stating that “We love the Hispanic community…Yo hablo español.”

Ms. Turness’s statements were patronizing and reminded me of the old racist saying “Some of my best friends are . . .” The Latino legislators came to the meeting to discuss issues that concerned them, including Trump’s Saturday Night Live performance, and Ms. Turness’ response says “I like you and your language.” This interaction makes perfect sense when we view it in light of the dominant white racial frame, with its white arrogance and stereotyping of Latinos. It’s not necessary to reason with Latinos about grievances as long they know you like them. The belief is that Latinos’ minds are like children’s minds.

One would expect major NBC executives to address Trump’s appearance, which had created such a furor in the Latino community. But this would not be the case. Incredibly, these top executives stated that Trump’s appearance just “was a matter for NBC Entertainment, whereas only representatives from the news division were present” at the meeting with Latino legislators.

As Rep Tony Cárdenas (D-Cal) put it:

You know that [Trump is] an issue on all of our minds and as soon as you start talking about it, you say none of the executives for the entertainment (division) are here. It was a cop out. It was disingenuous.

In all likelihood NBC’s decision was based on their expectation that a program featuring Trump would receive high ratings, and they were right, for that SNL had a whopping 6.6 household rating on Saturday night. It was a question of priorities: the folks that support Trump (mostly white) count more than Latinos who don’t deserve to receive even the most basic respect and courtesy.

~ José A. Cobas, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Arizona State University

Trump’s Bête Noire: Citizenship of Us-Born Children of the Undocumented

Undocumented immigrants’ children born in the US have become Trump’s latest foe. He does not believe that these US children hold valid citizenship despite the fact that since they were born in the US they receive citizenship automatically, a right granted by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Donald Trump

He put it as follows:

I don’t think they have American citizenship and if you speak to some very, very good lawyers — and I know some will disagree — but many of them agree with me and you’re going to find they do not have American citizenship.

In his usual rambling manner, he does not name any of the “very, very good lawyers” nor does he elaborate his reasons for saying that these children are not US citizens by birth. Trump is not one to quibble over “details”: The children are not citizens because he says so, because the “incompetent idiots in Washington are wrong” as always.

An article in the Washington Post outlines the flaws in Trump’s proposal:

He leaves out what is perhaps the most important detail: Such change would be very difficult as it would require the repeal of the 14th Amendment, which would take require the approval of 75 percent (or 38) of the state legislatures, an unlikely event. There have been 11,000 attempts to amend the Constitution in the entire history of the United States, and only 27 succeeded.

Even Trump sycophant Ted Cruz admits the difficulty of changing Constitutional amendments. According to birthright supporters, ending it would have catastrophic consequences:

Supporters of birthright citizenship say there are a number of reasons it should be maintained. It’s part of the Constitution. Attempts to restrict it have historically been motivated by racist fears of immigrants and their children. Ending it would be a bureaucratic nightmare. The most extreme consequence would be a massive group of stateless people — neither citizens in the U.S. nor in foreign countries.

These warnings do not seem to have much on an impact on other Republicans, particularly the candidates for the Presidential nomination:

This week, several of Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals, including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, echoed his call to end automatic citizenship for the American-born children of undocumented immigrants, repealing a constitutional right dating from the Civil War era.

Public opinion about birthright citizenship is mixed. A Wall Street Journal /NBC poll found that 43% of Republicans in the sample said that the U.S. should work to find and deport people who have come to the U.S. illegally. However, a survey of a sample of 2,002 adults conducted by the Pew Research Center in May, 2015, found that 72 percent of respondents believed that

Undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in the country legally, if certain requirements are met.

Public opinion may be divided, but the effects of the anti-birthright campaign have been dire. Some children in Texas are unable to secure the birth certificates they need to enroll in school:

At issue is the health service agency’s Vital Statics Unit, which is responsible for issuing birth certificates, and its refusal to honor various foreign identifications from immigrant parents. Many Mexican immigrants receive identification cards commonly known as matriculas, which are issued by Mexican consulates to citizens living and working in the United States. But officials [in Texas] have increasingly come to refuse these, making it harder for parents living in the U.S. illegally to obtain birth certificates for their children.

To sum up: Trump is stirring up more anti-undocumented immigrant rhetoric through an attack against a Constitutionally-given right, birthright US citizenship. Trump, always the sophist, contends that children of undocumented immigrant born in the US were never citizens, an idea he claims is supported by “very good lawyers,” whom he fails to identify.

In fact, the only way to eliminate birthright citizenship is to repeal the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, something practically impossible because bringing about such repeals are very difficult, as shown by thousands of attempts have failed in the past. The “bottom line” is that Trump is stirring up a controversy that has no practical purpose. The only result is that undocumented parents find it very difficult to obtain the birth certificates their children need to enroll in school. How Trumplike: Being a loose cannon and disregarding its consequences.

Supreme Court Will Not Review Racist Epithet Case

NYC Supreme Court Building

One of our most undemocratic political institutions, the Supreme Court, just decided not to review an appellate court case allowing extreme racist terminology and epithets to be widely used by US sports teams. According to a Washington Post story, this unwise Court decided to operate out of the white racist frame without reflection. In the 1990s a coalition of petitioners sued to force the Washington “Redskins” football team to change its racist name. In 1999 a federal agency voided the trademark rights of the team because its logo was ruled to be racially derogatory and thus violated the law. However, in 2005 a U.S. appellate court reversed the agency’s decision, again allowing the racist trademark to be widely used (Creative Commons License photo credit: PilotGirl).

But Native Americans continued with court appeals. According to a wikipedia summary:

On May 15, 2009 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed an earlier ruling that the Native Americans had waited too long to challenge the trademark. The trademark was registered in 1967. Native Americans successfully got the court to reconsider based on the fact the one of the plaintiffs, Mateo Romero, was only one in 1967 and turned 18 in 1984. The court decision affirmed that even accepting the 1984 date, that the Native Americans had still waited too long for the 1992 challenge. In November, 2009, in Harjo v. Pro-Football, Inc., Case No. 09-326, the U.S. Supreme Court declined certiorari and refused hear the Native American group’s appeal.

According to one research analysis, the use of this highly racist epithet, “redskins,” and images of Indian mascots for logos and sports teams, literally 100s of times, emerged in the era when whites had killed off or imprisoned most Native Americans on reservations, but then started engaging in “playing Indian,” which became widespread to the present day:

Still today, children don “Indian” costumes at Halloween, “act like Indians” during “Cowboy and Indian” games, “become Indian Princesses” at the YMCA, and perform “Indian rituals” at summer camps. Adults belong to organizations that involve learning “Indian ways” and performing “Indian rituals”. . . . Non-Native Americans have created an imaginary version of Indianess that they sometimes enact, and they expect real Native Americans to either ignore, affirm, or validate such myths and practices. . . . Although non-Native Americans learn about a mythical “Native American culture,” or occasionally about real Native American cultural practices, they often ignore most of the realities of contemporary Native American lives.

Naming sports teams is part of this playing Indian. There is some debate over the earliest etymology of “redskins.” Yet, by the 1870s at the latest the word had developed into the extremely vicious meaning it has had ever since, much like the words “nigger,” “kike,” or “dago.” Try to imagine a major sports team using those terms for their teams, especially in the capital city of the “world’s most important democracy.” Another Post story recounts that:

An 1871 novel spoke of “redskinned devils.” The Rocky Mountain News in 1890 described a war on the whites by “every greasy redskin.” The Denver Daily News the same year reported a rebellion by “the most treacherous red skins.” [Yet] Daniel Snyder, who owns the Washington NFL franchise, has said the team name will never be changed because “what it means is tradition, what it means is competitiveness, what it means is honor.” He said, “It is not meant to be derogatory.”

Interestingly, in 1965 the team’s owner quit allowing Dixie to be played so as not to alienate black fans. But Native Americans have not been so fortunate with the owner. Fortunately, over the last two decades several colleges and universities have given up Indian logos, and numerous local governments, especially school boards, have also had to face the issue. Many public and private schools have changed team names and dropped offensive mascots. The Minnesota Board of Education and the Los Angeles and Dallas school districts have forced some local schools to give up stereotyped Indian mascots.

Many whites claim Indians support these racist mascots. One major survey found that only nine percent of Native American respondents found it offensive for the Washington team to be called “Redskins.” However, another survey of Indian leaders came out in a very different way:

“In a survey by Indian Country Today, 81 percent of respondents indicated use of American Indian names, symbols and mascots are predominantly offensive and deeply disparaging to Native Americans. Indian mascots, by today’s standards, would be offensive to any other race if portrayed in a similar manner,” wrote Fred Blue Fox, Sicangu Lakota. “Indian peoples are no different in regarding the depiction of eagle feathers, face paints and war objects such as tomahawks. These are all sacred to the people and therefore have no place in any sort of public display, let alone mascots.” Only 10 percent of respondents indicated use of American Indian mascots is a respectful gesture and predominantly honors Natives. Nine percent of respondents did not know if American Indian mascots either honored or offended Natives.

A long list of Native American organizations also endorsed getting rid of all Native American mascots. So, whom should whites listen to when making decisions about celebrating racist epithets? Their own racist framing or Native American leaders?

Whites who defend the racist or caricatured mascots also ignore its impact and research supporting it. The distorted and racist caricatures and other images of Native Americans have been shown to have a serious impact on both Native Americans and on whites, as this summary of research shows:

Studies 2 and 3 – American Indian high school and college students were primed with a prevalent social representation of their group (i.e., Pocahontas, Chief Wahoo, or Negative Stereotypes) and then completed self-esteem or collective self-efficacy measures. In both studies, American Indian students primed with these social representations showed depressed self-esteem and collective self-efficacy when compared to American Indian students in the control (no social representation) condition….. Study 5 – European American students were explicitly primed with social representations of American Indians (i.e., Pocahontas, Chief Wahoo or Negative Stereotypes). They reported heightened self-esteem when compared to European Americans in the no-prime control condition. This boost in self-esteem for European Americans suggests that the dominant social representations of minority groups have significant implications for the psychological functioning of both minority and majority group members.

In 2001 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued this normative statement:

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights calls for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools. . . . the Commission believes that the use of Native American images and nicknames in school is insensitive and should be avoided. In addition, some Native American and civil rights advocates maintain that these mascots may violate anti-discrimination laws. These references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping. They are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.

Importing White Racism into China?



At the Washington Post’s Foreign Service desk, Keith Richburg has written an important piece on antiblack and anti-African views and actions in China–which have a similarity to racist views and actions in the U.S. and other parts of the West. How much of this Chinese antiblack racism is indigenous, and how much has been imported from the U.S. and the rest of the West?

Richburg begins with the story of Lou Jing, a young mixed-race (Chinese/African American) woman who won a talent competition in a U.S.-imitating, television “idol” show called, stereotypically and ironically enough, “Go! Oriental Angel.” The response by some Chinese posting on the Internet was stereotyped and hostile:

Angry Internet posters called her a “black chimpanzee” and worse. One called for all blacks in China to be deported. . . . “It’s sad,” Lou said. . . . “If I had a face that was half-Chinese and half-white, I wouldn’t have gotten that criticism.”

Richburg notes many Africans have come to China as trade between China and African countries has grown dramatically. Many have gone to Westernized southern cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai (China’s largest city), engaged in businesses, and sometimes married Chinese partners (usually men marrying women):

In the process, they are making tiny pockets of urban China more racially diverse — and forcing the Chinese to deal with issues of racial discrimination. In the southern city of Guangzhou, where residents refer to one downtown neighborhood as Chocolate City, local newspapers have been filled in recent months with stories detailing discrimination and alleging police harassment against the African community.

The article quotes Africans who have seen beatings by the police, as well as protests by African communities against discrimination and police harassment. One Chinese influential talk show host, Hung Huang, blamed the racial hostility and discrimination on economic growth and added that

“The Chinese worshiped the West, and for Chinese people, ‘the West’ is white people.” . . . her generation was “taught world history in a way that black people were oppressed, they were slaves, and we haven’t seen any sign of success since.”

The article does not probe into how/why these views of the West, whites, and white culture as superior are taught to the Chinese, but instead accents a traditional prejudice for light skin that goes back deeply into the Chinese past:

Darker skin meant you worked the fields; lighter skin put you among the elite. The country is rapidly industrializing and urbanizing, but that historical prejudice remains. High-end skin-whitening products are a $100 million-a-year business in China, according to industry statistics.

Clearly, this is an important point. The ancient Chinese preference for lighter skin fits well with current antiblack stereotyping and other racist framing, much of which is likely borrowed from the Western media, Western officials in China (now for centuries, including earlier missionaries), and other influential Western inputs into Chinese thinking about Africans and African Americans. But a weakness in the U.S. media’s analysis of the Lou Jing incident, and similar racist events, is its failure to track the impact of the U.S. (and other Western) media on Chinese thinking and action. In the second edition of my Racist America book (due out in January), I summarize a couple of research studies of Chinese respondents thus:

A study [by Hsiao-Chuan Hsia] of fifteen rural Taiwanese [Chinese] found that the respondents sometimes realized that U.S. media engaged in racist stereotyping, yet most still held negative views of black Americans. They generally thought black Americans were self-destructive, dirty, lazy, unintelligent, criminal, violent, or ugly. Negative images were usually gleaned from U.S. television shows, movies, and music videos the respondents had seen in Taiwan. . . . . [and] a survey of 345 mainland Chinese high school students [reported by Alexis Tan, Lingling Zhang, Yungying Zhang, and Francis Dalisay] found that, the greater their use of U.S. print media, television, and movies, the more negative were their stereotypes of African Americans, such as stereotypes of black violence and hedonism.

Significantly, the Chinese wife of one African businessperson notes in the article that in Guangzhou the Cantonese term for black people translates into “black ghosts.” I wonder where they got that idea. That Chinese phrase sounds remarkably like the old white-racist term for black Americans, “spooks,” doesn’t it?

ObamaChinaIt will also be interesting to watch the reaction of the Chinese, especially below the level of officially controlled etiquette, to President Obama’s current visit there. Please add comments on this visit as you see evidence on this matter.

Of Race, Racism and “Flattering” Whites

In order to move forward in the push for national health care reform, what we need is less pointing out racism and more flattering whites.  At least, that’s what some are arguing.

The racial politics around President Obama and the health care debate continue to rage on without an end in sight.  Political conservatives remain stalwart in their assertion that the vitriol directed at President Obama would be hurled at any president who advocated such reform, regardless of race; while many liberals continue to assert that the sharp rise (400% by at least one report) in death threats against President Obama have less to do with health care reform and much more to do with the color of his skin.    There does seem to be a growing consensus – or perhaps, weary defeat –  among white liberals that efforts to call out the racism among health-care-reform-naysayers is futile.

Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.   Lincoln Mitchell, writing at the Huffington Post, calls the whole thing “pointless” :

My point here is not that the attacks on Obama are not racist; it is pretty clear that some are racist. However, it is far less clear what supporters of the president gain from making this argument. It is extremely difficult to convince somebody that racism exists when they don’t want to see it. Moreover, nothing would change if this effort were successful. The right wing and much of the Republican Party have made it clear these last few months that they will stop at almost nothing to cripple the Obama presidency, which indicates that even if they were persuaded that they were racist, they probably wouldn’t stop.

In another instance, Hastings Wyman, in a piece at the Southern Political Report (via @BlackInformant), writes that President Obama declines to point out racism because he is politically savvy enough to know that “white voters like to be flattered, not accused.” Wyman goes on to say:

Whether it’s making a heart-felt address to the nation on race as he distanced himself from his long-time preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or backtracking on black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gate’s dispute with a white Cambridge police officer, Obama has consistently taken the high road where charges of white racism are involved. Who knows what his opinion is about such issues in the deepest recesses of his soul, but his political skills are very much in tact. He knows that getting the left — including African-Americans — highly and publicly incensed about white racism is a losing strategy, at least in terms of current political battles.

What both Mitchell and Wyman seem to be saying here is that whites – who obviously hold the power in this society – are put off by being called out on their racism, so better not do that if you want to win their votes or persuade them to support health care reform.  A better strategy is to soft-pedal the mention of racism, even flatter whites for their magnanimous support of an African-American president, and then we can get on with other business.

It’s important to point out that this sort of strategy from Mitchell and Wyman (and others) is rooted in the white racial frame that Joe has detailed in his recent book, and that Joe and Adia discuss in their new book, “Yes We Can? White Racial Framing and the 2008 Presidential Campaign.” When Mitchell talks about “Americans” he’s referring to “white Americans.”   When Wyman refers to Obama has having “taken the high road where charges of white racism are involved,” he is subscribing to a white point-of-view.  The high road, within this frame, means not calling out white racism when it exists, but instead deflecting, ignoring, minimizing.  The key to all this is, as Wyman notes earlier in this piece, flattering whites.  That need for flattery, that desire to always be right when it comes to matters of race and never be responsible for wrong-doing, that too is a kind of white racism – classic white liberal racism.

Jeremy Levine, writing at Social Science Lite, makes the sociological point that:

To discuss and analyze race is not to revert to an either/or, racist/not racist false dichotomy. Race matters as an everyday reality of inequality, yes, but it’s not as simple as the White Racist Meme suggests. Race matters because it’s always mattered. But racism matters in increasingly complex ways.

Indeed, racism matters in increasingly complex ways in the current era.  But, I would argue, that it does not make whites any less culpable for perpetuating – and benefitting from – systems of racial inequality.  And, if that makes some whites uncomfortable, well so be it.

Critics like Mitchell and Wyman seem to be making an old point:  “sure, there’s racism, but what can you do about it?” As if racism were like gravity – a law of physics that cannot be altered by human behavior.

This is simply false.

Racism was created by human beings (relatively recently in human history), and it can be dismantled, done away with, abolished.   But not if we keep ignoring it and flattering those who perpetuate it.

Racism and Implicit Bias in Cambridge

If you wish to gaze upon the depth and breadth of America’s racial divide–particularly the canyon-like gulf between white folks and black folks–you need look no further than the recent incident involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cambridge police officer James Crowley, and now, President Obama who weighed in on the matter a few nights ago, when asked for his reaction to Gates’s arrest on charges (since dismissed) of disorderly conduct. In this case, as with so many other news stories that have touched on race–the O.J. Simpson trial and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as just two of the more obvious examples–whites and blacks, generally speaking, and with obvious exceptions on both sides, see the story and the racial component of the story in fundamentally different (often diametrically opposed) ways.

To hear most white folks tell it, Gates was to blame. Yes, he was only trying to enter his own home when a white woman saw him (as well as his driver), assumed they were burglars and then convinced another woman to call the cops on her behalf. And yes, he produced identification for the officer when asked, indicating that he was indeed the resident of the house to which the officer had come to investigate the initial call. But because he became belligerent to Sgt. Crowley, and because he unfairly called Crowley a racist, he is guilty of escalating the situation, and thus, is the bad guy in the scenario. Meanwhile Crowley, according to the dominant white narrative, spread by media far and wide, is a wonderful and thoughtful cop, who is hardly a racist–after all he teaches a diversity training class and once gave mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation to a dying black athlete–and who was inappropriately smeared: first by Gates who accused the officer of asking him for proof of residency only because he was black, and then by Obama, who said the police had acted “stupidly” in arresting the esteemed professor in his own home.

Such a perception on the part of whites makes sense, given the white racial frame, as sociologist Joe Feagin calls it, through which most whites view these matters. That frame says, among other things, that as long as you are respectful to police, nothing bad will happen to you (thus, if something bad does happen to you it was likely your own fault), and secondly, that there can be no racism involved in an incident unless the person being accused of such a thing clearly acted with bigoted and prejudicial intent. In this case, since Gates mouthed off and Crowley is, from all accounts, hardly a bigot, the case is closed so far as the dominant white narrative is concerned. Continue reading…

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.

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.)