A Reflection on Being a White Anti-Racist and a Call to Do It Anyway

The Trayvon Martin tragedy is a “racial barometer” moment. The kind that erupts every now and again and acts as a lightening rod all around. As Dr. Joyce Bell recently wrote here, moments like these often inspire scholar-activists to speak from a voice that is utterly personal. Compelled, that is what I’m also here to do.

As a white anti-racist I’m very consciously reminded in moments like this that I, too, am a problem. I am not who DuBois had in mind when he posed the agonizing question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Yet I ache under a weight of suspicion as I reflect on what the barometer reveals about the path I’ve chosen for my life.

(The author, left, at a Trayvon Martin protest in Houston. Photo from Houston Chronicle.)

When I speak publicly about systemic racism and analyze incidents like the Martin killing from that lens, I know that meanings and beliefs about who I am and what compels my actions will be mapped onto me – with or without my approval. To be sure, sometimes they are positive. I’m keenly aware that I’m often privileged to speak critically about race and have my voice and perspectives valued in ways that my friends and colleagues of color can rarely assume. To many, I’m a curiosity – a white person speaking frankly and passionately about race – how about that? And, I’ve been rewarded to be embraced as a sister, friend and ally in the struggle for racial and social justice, freedom and self-determination.

Nonetheless, I know too, there’s a flipside.

I mark myself when I speak critically about Racism. White Supremacy. Whiteness. And yes, White People.

And, I will pay costs for doing so. Certainly, I will pay less of the direct, material costs that people of color pay for their activism; let alone their simply “being non-white” in the world – costs they don’t choose but which have been chosen for them. But at a bare minimum I can count on paying psychic and personal ones.

I often feel deeply misunderstood: curiosity-turned-grotesque; ally-turned-enemy. My academic and experiential knowledge – that which I’ve dedicated my life’s work to – is dismissed by many people, particularly many (most?) white people. I know that the racialized socialization most white people experience both ensures this will happen (often with near-automation) and provides many tools for my invalidation. Rationalizations, justifications, retorts that explain away racial causes for racial outcomes and solidify our collective white privilege – all plentifully available. To these folks I am at best, unrealistic idealist working from the “unreality” of the ivory tower – at worst, I am crazy, misinformed, brainwashed, hateful, evil. Fill in the blank. I know these are costs that have long been born by people of color; choosing to be a white anti-racist means they are my costs now too.

Unlike people of color, I’m much less likely to have a “natural” community of support around me, to encourage me in my efforts – and indeed, love me for them. Choosing to be a white anti-racist scholar-activist has meant that I often feel alienated, particularly from fellow whites who I wish to call “brother” and “sister.” Always difficult, this alienation is most painful when it distances me from the people in my life I deeply love, including family. Even when it doesn’t include direct animosity (which it often doesn’t), please know, feeling at all outside of the circle of family I call “home” hurts.

If I need advice on financial matters I call my brother. He’s an analyst. If I need to know something about home or car repair, I call one of my other brothers. Between them they know how to fix just about anything. I call my sister for any number of the hundreds of things about which she has knowledge. And what of my expertise? I have long been regarded by my family as someone who has a good head on my shoulders, who possesses both intelligence and common sense. I know white worlds well and have been privy to the worlds of people of color in ways that most white people I know have not. I have 20 years of an awareness forged by scholarship and deeply intimate relationships – things learned in and outside of classrooms, in the real worlds of workplaces and homes and countless public spaces. Nonetheless, I sense my knowledge as something to be tolerated, but rarely sought, rarely praised; at times, resented. Perhaps they feel I don’t understand them. Perhaps they feel they don’t understand me. I’m not sure. And then again, they’ve never asked, what in the world did make you choose this unusual path? People of color ask me that all the time.

Usually the white people in my social circles can ignore my racially politicized self as we play out a sort of implicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of our own. I imagine they may think “You know, that’s just Jenni – she studies race, she hangs out with black people, she listens to hip hop – she’s just like that.” And then we all agree to pretend that doesn’t matter. But racial barometer moments make the work of ignoring personal racial politics harder to do, for me and therefore, for them.

There was a time I listened to a voice of fear in my head and managed the expression of my politics (little ‘p’) with some of the white people in my life, including my family. If I wanted to post a race critical article or idea on Facebook, for example, I sometimes excluded certain people in my white networks from the posting. Even though I knew this was a direct violation of my personal politics, I did it. Not with a lot of people, but with some. Not all of the time, but on occasion.

And then Trayvon Martin was killed. Parents mourned. African American families anguished, outraged, protested. Precious life and potential wasted; signs of an all-too-familiar and well-documented miscarriage of justice afoot.

(Photo by the author)

I’m not new to the game. I can offer a sharp, race critical analysis of probably any social issue, including the structural patterns that both define and create a tragic outcome like this. Nonetheless, this societal racial barometer was a personal one too. It forced me to call my failed integrity – however “minor” and “reasonable” – into question. I decided then that I had to be, as Audre Lorde encouraged, “deliberate and afraid of nothing.”

I knew I must crush any remaining shred of fear that might ever silence me. Because mothers and fathers panicked for the lives of their sons and daughters. Because the many people of color I love, too, struggle to raise their children healthy and happy and productive and in love with themselves in a world that devalues them and “encodes crime and drugs and lust and danger on their bodies,” (as  Joyce captured so perfectly and tragically). Because there are those in this world that will desperately and unflinchingly and dispassionately explain away their murders as the result of anything other than racism. Because these are, quite literally, matters of life and death. Who was I to be called sister/friend/ally if I was complicit in any way with shielding anyone from these truths? And so many, many more.

I don’t hate white people – or myself. I do not operate out of a sense of guilt. I don’t have some blind or romanticized or misappropriated love for people of color. And though as a sociologist I am trained to examine the social forces that impact people’s lives, I am never blinded from recognizing the power of personal responsibility, of using personal agency to direct the course of our lives positively, to the best of our abilities as people. As I recently told my sister, I am only doing what I believe is just and right, and I’m never going to stop. In that way, I’m certainly a product of the background I share with my siblings, who are giving, kind, wonderful, beautifully-intentioned people. We are each the product of our parents, who taught us to live out our integrity by their example.

In riding the wake of these personal reflections I came to a sad conclusion: that many of the white people I care about in my life will love me (hopefully) in spite of what I do, but maybe never for it. I know the more fearless I become, the more of a problem I am. Even if there is no direct confrontation, the very way I life my life may be experienced as an implicit challenge. But, as I’ve learned through personal experience in the past, the challenges of our lives often create potentialities.

I think of what DuBois wrote about the famous abolitionist John Brown, written into history as a crazy, fanatical murderer, put to death for his criminal actions in working toward the cause of justice. DuBois wrote that as people at the time watched his trial unfold “wider and wider circles were beginning dimly and more clearly to recognize that his lawlessness was in obedience to the highest call of self-sacrifice for the welfare of his fellow men. They began to ask themselves, What is this cause that can inspire such devotion?” I often meditate on this thought. I try to hold onto the hope that in continuing to seek and speak truth and work toward justice, even as I pay different costs for doing so, some might ask “What is this cause that can inspire such devotion?”

I’m no John Brown. No. But I will stand forever, side-by-side, with all my brothers and sisters in the struggle, whoever they may be.

 
~ Jennifer Mueller is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Texas A&M University.

Racism, Whites and Neoliberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Nationalism and the Tea Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Luther King: Speech about South Africa

Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, I wanted to share one of King’s lesser known speeches, about South Africa.   In the speech, delivered at my institution Hunter College in 1965 (h/t colleague Larry Shore), King addresses media portrayals of Africa as ‘barbaric,’  the institution of white supremacy in South Africa, the connection between black Americans and Africa, and the hope of progressive political action between blacks and whites.

mlk

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Dakota Blue Harper)

In the opening of his 1965 speech, given on Human Rights Day (December 10), King addresses the common stereotype about Africa and calls out the system of white supremacy:

“Africa has been depicted for more than a century as the home of black cannibals and ignorant primitives. Despite volumes of facts contraverting this picture, the stereotype persists in books, motion pictures, and other media of communication. Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious and civilized, but whose conduct and philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians. We are in an era in which the issue of human rights is the central question confronting all nations. In this complex struggle an obvious but little appreciated fact has gained attention-the large majority of the human race is non-white-yet it is that large majority which lives in hideous poverty. While millions enjoy an unexampled opulence in developed nations, ten thousand people die of hunger each and every day of the year in the undeveloped world. To assert white supremacy, to invoke white economic and military power, to maintain the status quo is to foster the danger of international race war . . . What does the South African Government contribute to this tense situation? These are the incendiary words of the South African philosophy spoken by its Prime Minister, Dr. Verwoerd: “We want to keep South Africa white. Keeping it white can only mean one thing, namely, white domination, not ‘leadership’, not ‘guidance’, but control, supremacy.”

The South African Government to make the white supreme has had to reach into the past and revive the nightmarish ideology and practices of nazism. We are witnessing a recrudescence of the barbarism which murdered more humans than any war in history. In South Africa today, all opposition to white supremacy is condemned as communism, and in its name, due process is destroyed; a medieval segregation is organized with twentieth century efficiency and drive; a sophisticated form of slavery is imposed by a minority upon a majority which is kept in grinding poverty; the dignity of human personality is defiled; and world opinion is arrogantly defied.”

Few people celebrating King’s legacy today realize that in addition to being a civil right leader in the U.S., King also saw that struggle as connected to other struggles for human rights around the globe.  King was also presciently aware of the connection between white supremacy in the U.S. and the system in South Africa, several decades before anti-apartheid became a popular political movement here.     King goes on the speech to highlight a Pan-African sensibility, explicitly drawing connections between the continent of Africa and, in the language of his day, “the American Negro.”  He goes on to extend the struggle to include whites as well:

“For the American Negro there is a special relationship with Africa. It is the land of his origin. It was despoiled by invaders; its culture was arrested and concealed to justify white supremacy. The American Negro’s ancestors were not only driven into slavery, but their links with their past were severed so that their servitude might be psychological as well as physical. In this period when the American Negro is giving moral leadership and inspiration to his own nation, he must find the resources to aid his suffering brothers in his ancestral homeland. Nor is this aid a one-way street. The civil rights movement in the United States has derived immense inspiration from the successful struggles of those Africans who have attained freedom in their own nation’s. The fact that black men govern States, are building democratic institutions, sit in world tribunals, and participate in global decision-making gives every Negro a needed sense of dignity.

In this effort, the American Negro will not be alone. As this meeting testifies, there are many white people who know that liberty is indivisible. Even more inspiring is the fact that in South Africa itself incredibly brave white people are risking their careers, their homes and their lives in the cause of human justice. Nor is this a plea to Negroes to fight on two fronts. The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains. The brotherhood of man is not confined within a narrow, limited circle of select people. It is felt everywhere in the world; it is an international sentiment of surpassing strength. Because this is true, when men of good will finally unite, they will be invincible.”

On this day, on what would have been Dr. King’s 82nd birthday, we still need those of good will to finally unite in the cause of human justice.

If you’d like to know more about the connection between white supremacy in the U.S. and in South Africa, I recommend any of the books by George Frederickson on this subject, including the classic White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History (Oxford University Press, 1982).    And, if you’d like to learn more about the connections between U.S. and South Africa, I encourage you to check out Larry Shore and Tami Gold’s documentary, RFK in the Land of Apartheid: Ripple of Hope.

The DREAM Act and the Failure of White Gay/Lesbian Progressives

This week the U.S. Senate voted on two landmark pieces of legislation: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) and the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for young people who came to this country as children.  The repeal of DADT succeeded, while the DREAM Act failed to pass. Gay and lesbian activists and their allies who fought for the repeal of DADT are understandably elated with the overturning of the 17-year-old ban.  But, so far at least, white gay and lesbian progressives have failed to see the DREAM Act as part of the same struggle for human rights.

May Day Immigration Marches, Los Angeles
Creative Commons License photo credit: Salina Canizales

Don’t get me wrong, leading gay and lesbian organizations, such as NGLTF have mentioned both the DREAM Act and DADT – but as separate, single issues.   In separate press releases this week, Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) came out in favor of the repeal of DADT and the DREAM Act.    In contrast, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest (and predominantly white) gay rights organization, has had a lot to say on DADT, but has had very little to say about the DREAM Act.  White gay bloggers like Dan Savage and Joe.My.God. have mentioned the DREAM Act along with DADT, as they have been updating their readers about the lame-duck session of Congress.    The Advocate, a magazine popular with white gays and lesbians, has tons of coverage about the repeal of DADT, but has had only one piece about the immigration (in November) but nothing to date in the archive about the DREAM Act, except as the scheduling of that vote threatened to affect repeal of DADT.  And, perhaps most disappointing for me to see personally as a church-going lesbian, the moderator for my denomination issued a press release that heralded the triumph of this single issue.

What’s the matter with single issue politics?  Isn’t this simply a pragmatic strategy for getting things done in the current political climate?  I don’t think so.  And, neither does Urvashi Vaid.  In a recent speech at the CUNY Graduate Center, Vaid, a longtime activist working at the intersections of LGBT rights and racial justice articulated the dilemma of single-issue gay politics this way:

The key structural reason why neither branch of the LGBT movements has operationalized its stated intersectional politics, is quite simple: the default definition for what “Gay” means has been set by, and remains dominated by, the ideas and experiences of those in our communities who are white and this really has not changed in more than fifty years. Issues, identities, problems that are not “purely” gay – read as affecting white gay men and women – are always defined as not the concern of “our” LGBT movement – they are dismissed as “non-gay” issues, as divisive, as the issues that some ‘other movement’ is more suited to champion. We have our hands full we are told. We need to single-mindedly focus on one thing.

This is an argument that many LGBT liberationists and gay-equality focused activists have made to each other and bought wholesale for decade– without malice, without prejudice – just because there has been an unquestioned assumption that this narrow focus works, that we are getting results because we are making a “gay rights” argument, that this is smart and successful political strategy.

My contention is that it is exactly this narrow and limited focus that is not only causing us to stall in our progress towards formal equality, it is leading us to abandon or ignore large parts of our own communities, with the consequence of making us a weaker movement. The gay-rights focus was historically needed but is a vestigial burden we need to shed. It leads to an unsuccessful political strategy where we try to win on one issue at a time, it narrows our imagination and vision, it does not serve large numbers of our own people, and it feeds the perception that we are generally privileged and powerful, and not in need of civil equality.

What this means right now, at this critical juncture when the repeal of DADT has passed and the DREAM Act hasn’t, is that gay and lesbian activists should be calling for the passage of the DREAM Act and other (even broader) immigration reforms.   I’ve yet to hear one white gay or lesbian activist stand up and say, “Let’s use this momentum from the DADT victory to see the passage of the DREAM Act.”  Not one.   As Vaid said, by focusing on one, single issue at a time, we’re narrowing our imagination and our vision.

Instead of this broadening of vision and building toward a common goal, among white gays and lesbians  there’s a kind of collective “oh, well, the Brown people didn’t get their bill, quelle sad, but we got ours – so let’s celebrate!”  What white gay and lesbian progressives fail to understand is that among those young people hoping to achieve citizenship through the (very restrictive) DREAM Act are gay and lesbian teens.  It’s not that DADT and the DREAM Act are separate issues, they’re part of the same struggle.     It’s just that white gays and lesbians don’t see that.  I hope that changes.


Structural Racism and a Tale of Two Islands: Manhattan and Rikers

Yesterday, The New York Times’ City Room Blog published a piece about the changing demographics of Manhattan which is obvious to anyone who lives here:  Manhattan is getting whiter.   In fact, Manhattan is whiter now than it’s been since the 1970s.   According to the report,

For the first time since the 1970s, a majority of Manhattan’s population is non-Hispanic white, according to an analysis of census estimates. The white share of the population, which had dipped to about 40 percent as recently as the 1990s, climbed to nearly 51 percent last year. The rest of the borough’s residents were 24 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black and 11 percent Asian.

Part of this demographic trend is not about urban-living per se, but about the cost-of-living in Manhattan.  As Scott Stringer, Manhattan borough president, notes “The entrance fee to live here is a million-dollar condo.”  That’s not exactly true, but it feels true.  I live in Manhattan and I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will always be a renter and never own a home or apartment.   Stringer is more accurate when he says, in the rest of that quote, “It’s magnificent and a great place to live, but its becoming more challenging for two teachers, or a nurse.”   Perhaps not surprisingly, Manhattan lost residents in the past year after a decade-long trend of population gains.

(Image from PlanetWare)

The bigger picture here is that there’s another island which is also part of the New York City:  Rikers Island.    Rikers Island is the city’s largest jail facility, and it’s actually a complex of some 14 different jails.  (Jails, different than prisons, hold people who are being held before sentencing and those with sentences of less than one year.)   The island is a small land mass in the East River just between Queens and the Bronx.    On a given day, there are approximately 14,000 people incarcerated there, and another 11,500 or so who work there as correctional officers or civilian staff.

Rikers Island is, in many ways, experiencing the mirror opposite trend of Manhattan.    Ninety-five percent of the inmates in New York City jails are African-American or Latino, while these two groups make up only about half the city’s population.  This, too, is obvious to anyone that’s ever been to Rikers Island.  I spent about five years doing health-related research there and know this fact well.

What does this tale of two islands tell us about structural racism?   In very broad terms, it illustrates the ways that racism and racial inequality can operate quite effectively without the kind of overt racism of the “Yup, I’m a racist” t-shirt-wearers.   One tale, of Manhattan, is a tale of real estate.  The other tale, of Rikers, is a tale of the New Jim Crow, New York-style.

Like so much in Manhattan, the driving story around the rise in white people here is about real estate.    The real estate trend that most often gets mentioned in this context is the gentrification in Harlem, East Harlem and Washington Heights, neighborhoods that have traditionally been home to large African-American and Latino populations. Gentrification is the process of newer, more expensive housing being built in neighborhoods; the newer, more expensive housing displaces current residents who can’t afford to live there.  There’s nothing inherently racial about gentrification, but when those who are displaced are Black and Latino and those who are gentrifying are white, it works out that way.

What drives the gentrification of these once predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods is a dramatic rise in the construction of tens of thousands of “luxury apartments” all over the city.  Once apartments are designated “luxury,” they are not subject to the otherwise fairly strict rent-regulation laws in New York City, and they are priced well above what’s affordable for working and middle-class New Yorkers, and are completely out of the range of poor families.   The majority of new housing being built in Manhattan in the past 10 years has been “luxury,” while the number of “rent-regulated” (or, even the more expensive “rent stabilized”) apartments has dramatically decreased.

What the City Room Blog refers to, rather benignly, as the  “dispersal of black and Hispanic Manhattanites,” is more than simply gentrification and being priced out of the housing market.  This is also the story of policies that are part of what Michelle Alexander has termed, The New Jim Crow.
Take a look at the policies which have created Rikers Island and you will see what the New Jim Crow looks like in New York City.   In contrast to “million-dollar condos,” for white, wealthy New Yorkers, those who are economically disadvantaged and Black or Latino live in what are referred to as “million dollar blocks.” That is, those who are incarcerated at Rikers come from the same few blocks within New York City.  These blocks are dubbed “million dollar blocks” because the criminal justice system has become the predominant institution in these neighborhoods and funnels, literally, millions of dollars into them to control these predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.   In these neighborhoods, simply standing on a street corner will put you at risk for being arrested, regardless of what you’re doing.  The NYPD’s “sweeps” in these neighborhoods – where the police literally “sweep” everyone off of particular corners and detain them – is standard policy in New York and has been since the Guiliani era (Bloomberg has continued and stepped up these policies).

You don’t have to be committing a crime to be targeted by NYPD for “stop and frisk.”   Since 2004, the NYPD has stopped and interrogated people nearly 3 million times, more than 80 percent were Black or Latino. The names and addresses of those stopped have been entered into the department’s database, regardless of whether the person had done anything wrong. Last year, NYPD officers stopped and questioned or frisked more than 575,000 people, the most ever. Nearly nine out of 10 of those stopped and questioned by police last year were neither arrested nor issued a summons.

Once in the system, either with a record – even for a minor offense – or, just because you were once “stopped and frisked,” means that the NYPD regards you as a potential suspect, and, you are even more likely to end up spending at least some time at Rikers Island, particularly if you are young Black or Latino man.    Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Her work shows that by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness.

That process works here in New York City, where the rhetoric of color blindness prevails while the island of Manhattan gets whiter, and Rikers Island remains Black and Latino.

Beyond Good and Evil Whites

If you’ve been reading the news lately, I’m sure you’ve run across at least some coverage of a rather raucous Neo-Nazi rally that took place around noon on 17 April on the south lawn of Los Angeles City Hall.  Approximately 50 members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) attempted to stage a permitted rally, where they evinced their white nationalist call for all people of color to be forcibly removed from the Southwestern United States.

However, according to officials and media reports, about 500 predominantly white counter-protesters shouted down the NSM with cries of “racists go home” and “stop the Nazis” before things turned a little ugly—both police and the white supremacists were pelted with rocks, bottles, eggs and other items by the counter-protesters.  Los Angeles Police Detective Gus Villanueva reported that several people received minor injuries and some were arrested (all those arrested were counter-protestors).  In the wake of Saturday’s clash, an anonymous policeman was quoted in one report as saying, “It’s just one group of racists protesting another group of racists.”

53364280

(Photo Source: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times / April 17, 2010)

That quotation caught the blogosphere ablaze, with left-leaning sites such as the Daily Kos proclaiming:

“… this is disturbing, beyond the obvious false equivalency being made as if Neo-Nazi’s are the same as those people who are offended by Nazi’s, and those people who are organizing for immigration reform,”

and respective comments on right-leaning blogs like Free Republic and American Power that the police officer’s remark was the “best line ever” and that the counter-protesters “are more dangerous, despite what the MSM keeps feeding us about ‘right-wing terrorists’ and ‘tea party violence’.”

What this kind of media framing accomplishes is the dichotmatizing of racial conflict qua whiteness into a war between the quintessentially “good” versus “evil” whites.  Once the comparison is made, it begs us to answer the question: who is worse?  Such discussive and ideological missteps then threaten to trap us in a public discourse in which talking heads battle back and forth over who is the “real” racist, a point that writer Ta-Nahesi Coates makes frequently at his blog for The Atlantic.  Sociologists have long noted this phenomenon, Alastair Bonnett (2000: 10) writes the story of racism and antiracism is:

“…staged with melodrama, the characters presented as heroes and villains: pure anti-racists versus pure racists, good against evil.”

So also, Jack Niemonen (2007: 166-166) remarks that we often:

“… paint a picture of social reality in which battle lines are drawn, the enemy identified, and the victims sympathetically portrayed.  … [distinguishing] between ‘good’ whites and ‘bad’ whites.”

Of course, there is hardly any question that racism exists, only over where it is, and who wields it—and that finding it is a matter of utmost importance.  In “Beyond Good and Evil”  (1886), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

“It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of those good and respected things, consists precisely in their being insidiously related, knotted, and crocheted to these evil; and apparently opposed things—perhaps even in being essentially identical with them.”

Accordingly, my own sociological research (Hughey forthcoming – opens pdf) bears out an eerie resemblance between White Nationalist and White Antiracist understandings of white racial identity.  In previous posts here,  I’ve shared research based on fourteen months of ethnographic study amidst a white nationalist and a white antiracist group.  From this research, I found that both groups often relied on similar “scripts,” if you will, to construct a robust and strikingly similar understanding of white and nonwhite identity on a personal, interactive, micro-level.

Now don’t get me wrong.

Both pose different kinds of threats and there remain deep differences between White Nationalists (not to mention within that “movement”—it’s a heterogeneous bunch) and White Antiracists (so too, they are diffuse and varied) (for more on these points see: Zeskind 2009; O’Brien 2001).  Yet, members of both engaged in what I call an “Identity Politics of Hegemonic Whiteness.” That is, they both possess analogous common-sensed “ideals” of white identity that function to guide their interactions in everyday life.  These “scripts” serve as seemingly neutral yardsticks against which cultural behavior, norms, values, and expectations are measured.  Hence, white identity is revealed as an ongoing process of formation in which (1) racist and reactionary scripts are used to demarcate white/non-white boundaries, and (2) performances of white racial identity that fail to adhere to those scripts are often marginalized and stigmatized, thereby creating intra-racial distinctions among whites.

We seem to resist this understanding because of the seductive reach of pop-psychology explanations about racism.  For example, in The Nature of Prejudice (1954: 9) Gordon Allport remarked that prejudice is an individual “antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization.” A facile reading of Allport’s work has, unfortunately, saturated our culture and has turned many a layperson into self-professed experts of “hate.”  In this model, “racism” is assumed to belong to the realm of ideas and prejudices and is little more than the collection of a few nasty thoughts that a particular “bad apple” individual has about another person or group. With this understanding in play, we can too easily come to think of racism as a bad thought or moral failing, and then proceed to divide the world into those that are “sick” with the “disease of prejudice” and those that are “healthy” anti- or non-racists.  As Desmond and Emirbayer (2009: 342-343) recently penned in the Du Bois Review:

“This conception of racism simply will not do, for it fails to account for the racism that is woven into the very fabric of our schools, political institutions, labor markets, and neighborhoods. Conflating racism with prejudice … ignores the more systematic and structural forms of racism; it looks for racism within individuals and not institutions. Labeling someone a “racist” shifts our attention from the social surroundings that enforce racial inequalities and miseries to the individual with biases. It also lets the accuser off the hook—“He is a racist; I am not”—and treats racism as aberrant and strange, whereas American racism is rather normal.”

Simply put, white supremacy is the ether which we all consume.

Beliefs that racism is perpetuated by “stereotypes” and “prejudice”—that we all carry along in the black-box of our minds—absolves our social structures and culture of any blame.  Concentrating either on neo-Nazi’s or counter-protestors or trying to weigh and balance which one is more or less racist, misses the point completely.  And while the anonymous officer’s comment that “It’s just one group of racists protesting another group of racists” remains a violent oversimplification and slander ignorant of the nuances and difference, perhaps such a remark might invite us to consider the habitual, unintentional, commonplace, polite, implicit, and supposedly well-meaning dimensions of racist ideologies and practices that collude with the dominant expectations of white racial identity.

~ Matthew W. Hughey, PhD is Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate faculty member of African American Studies and Gender Studies at Mississippi State University.  His research centers on racial identity formation, racialized organizations, and mass media representations of race.  He can be reached at MHughey [at] soc.msstate.edu.  His website is http://mwh163.sociology.msstate.edu/

>>>PS: If anyone is attending the Southern Sociological Society Meetings in Atlanta this week, I invite you to my panel where I will present some of my research on this topic.  The title of my talk is “Beyond Good and Bad Whites: Ugly Couplings of Racism and White Identity.”

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.

Race and the Republican Party: The Elephant in the Room

The GOP - It's a party, alright.Recent political news has focused extensively on whether modern times are sounding a death-knell for the Republican party (Creative Commons License photo credit: makelessnoise). After bruising losses in the mid-term elections of 2006 and in the presidential election of 2008, near record-low numbers of individuals who identify as Republicans, and an extraordinarily popular Democratic president, many commentators and pundits have questioned whether the Republican party is facing a crisis of being. Even some Republican leaders have acknowledged the peril they face as a party, giving rise to debates over whether they should become more moderate and create a “bigger tent” that includes a broader coalition of supporters, or stick to their principles and align themselves even more strongly with their remaining conservative base.

In my mind, these debates reveal a major problem for the Republican party and highlight the ways in which narrow racial framing is limiting their future opportunities and success. When Republicans debate whether to “stick to their guns” (pun intended) or establish a “bigger tent,” they are thinking short term and avoiding some very real racialized realities that have an impact for their future and ultimately their continued existence. This is perhaps unsurprising for a party whose only engagement with racial issues over the last half century has been creating coded language to justify their opposition to civil rights advancements (“states’ rights,” “urban crime,” “welfare queens,”), or appealing to racialized fears (Willie Horton, fabricating links between immigrants and swine flu, blaming “unqualified minorities” for the housing crisis) as a way of maintaining and consolidating reliable votes. So it’s not especially shocking that Republicans would be oblivious of what—and who–they are ignoring when they think only in terms of going more moderate or staying conservative.

The racial issue that I refer to is this. All demographic data indicates that within a mere 30 to 40 years, this country will no longer have a clear white majority. What we are headed towards, whether Republican elites like it or not, is a nation that is mostly multiracial and where whites are irrevocably becoming a numerical minority. I don’t think many Republicans have really taken that fact in, perhaps because it is hard to imagine in a nation that has been run by a white majority for centuries. But it’s happening, and evidence of the implications of this were even present in the last election. While some commentators like to pretend that Obama’s election is indicative of the fact that we’re past “all the racial stuff”, the reality is that most whites did not vote for Obama. It took a multiracial coalition of African Americans, Latino/as, Asian Americans, and a small but important minority of whites to get Obama into the White House. Ultimately, however, he won without the support of most whites, because there are finally enough Americans of color to have a significant, determining impact on electoral outcomes. Had Obama not had the foresight to appeal to a broad variety of racial groups, we would be dealing with President McCain and Vice President “I Can See Russia From My House” right now. Republicans would do well to think about how this dynamic plays into their “more moderate or more conservative” dilemma.

What I think it means is that if they want to “stick to their roots,” that in itself needs to involve a fundamental paradigm shift. Of late, the Republican roots haven’t just been small government and tax cuts, those roots have also included appealing to white racism and demonizing groups of color. Even though he broke with his party to champion immigration reform, McCain paid the price for his party’s thinly veiled anti-Latino/a sentiment when they went decisively for Obama. If Republicans want to stay relevant in an America that looks less and less like their base, they need to consider strategies that will endear them to the voters they’ve been excluding from that base. Suggesting that these voters carry swine flu or are responsible for the housing crisis is not the way to do this.

This does mean Republicans will have to make some changes that will probably be painful for them. They can’t just do what has been comfortable in the past, like appealing to those charming folks who show up at their rallies with sock puppets that suggest Obama looks like a monkey. If Republicans want to stay a viable political party, it is time to drop the racist ideology, language, and imagery that has too often been a part of their “core values.” This alienates voters of color that they will need if they want to win at a national level. If Republicans really believe in small government, they should think about how they can make that commitment appealing to growing, important sectors of the population whose primary concerns may be to immigrate safely and easily, find work, go to good schools, and get affordable health care. If they really want low taxes, they should consider how that can win them votes from the many black women who work in low-paying jobs and struggle to find affordable child care. Instead of working themselves into a frenzy over the president’s preference for Dijon mustard (I’m talking to you, Sean Hannity!), Republicans would be better served putting serious thought into how those core principles they tout can be put to use to attract segments of the electorate that they have derided, but now need to reach, if they want to remain relevant. This may well lose them the base they have cultivated, but it might buy them a newer, more expansive base that can actually get them elected. In an America that is growing increasingly multiracial, there is no other way to win at a national level. Unless Republicans acknowledge this (other) elephant in the room, they will continue having the wrong discussion and missing the big picture.

Predicting Rise in Hate Groups, Ignoring Racism

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has uncharacteristically shifted its focus away from terrorism overseas and toward right-wing terrorism here at home. Yet remarkably, the recently released report points to the failing economy rather than racism as the culprit.

The new report, called Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, points to the economic recession, the election of America’s first black president and the return of a few disgruntled war veterans as key factors in the predicted rise in white power groups.

Unfortunately, the major thrust of the report is on the current economic decline as a driving factor in the rise of racist groups.  Not surprisingly, there is virtually no discussion of the pervasiveness of racism as a root cause for this phenomenon.   About the closest the report gets is in the discussion of immigration:

“Over the past five years, various rightwing extremists, including militias and white supremacists, have adopted the immigration issue as a call to action, rallying point, and recruiting tool.”

According to one news report, this new emphasis on domestic terrorism could signify a shift for Homeland Security under former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. A German magazine quoted Ms. Napolitano as rebranding “terrorism” as “man-made disasters.” Since it was founded (in 2003), the department has focused primarily on radicalization of Muslims and the prospect of homegrown Islamist terrorism.