New Book Critical of “Racial Relations” Paradigm

Stephen Steinberg, a sociologist at Queens College – CUNY, has a new book called Race Relations: A Critique that the Chronicle of Higher Education calls “short” and “contentious” (subscription required to the Chronicle). Here’s the blurb from Stanford University Press:

“In a penetrating critique of the famed race relations paradigm, he asks why a paradigm invented four decades before the Civil Rights Revolution still dominates both academic and popular discourses four decades after that revolution.

On race, Steinberg argues that even the language of “race relations” obscures the structural basis of racial hierarchy and inequality. Generations of sociologists have unwittingly practiced a “white sociology” that reflects white interests and viewpoints. What happens, he asks, when we foreground the interests and viewpoints of the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of racial oppression?

On ethnicity, Steinberg turns the tables and shows that the early sociologists who predicted ultimate assimilation have been vindicated by history. The evidence is overwhelming that the new immigrants, including Asians and most Latinos, are following in the footsteps of past immigrants—footsteps leading into the melting pot. But even today, there is the black exception. The end result is a dual melting pot—one for peoples of African descent and the other for everybody else.

Race Relations: A Critique
cuts through layers of academic jargon to reveal unsettling truths that call into question the nature and future of American nationality.”

I haven’t read it yet, but it’s going on the top of the list for reading over the break between semesters.

Digital Video and Racism

On Sunday, I caught one of the featured panels at the Margaret Mead Film Festival, which I wrote a little about here. The panel featured several people involved creating “user-generated content” including the engaging cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch (from Kansas State University), who created the mesmerizing and wildly popular Web 2.0 video; Sara Pollack, YouTube’s film manager; Sameer Padania from Witness, introducing the new participatory online video site for human rights organizations The Hub; and Michael Smolens, founder and CEO of dotSUB, a sort of wikipedia-like translation site for films; and, Jenny Douglas, introducing her new site called KarmaTube. While the panelists tended to focus on the democratizing and emancipatory potential of digital video and video sharing sites, in the Q&A afterward there seemed to be some desire to talk about the negative potential of the medium. For example, Sameer Padania screened a horrific video of police brutality from Egypt that is intended to highlight human rights abuses and prompt action by people opposed to such abuses. I wondered about the people who click on such horrific videos to enjoy them or laugh at them; and, I wondered about the ways that seemingly straightforward “video evidence” like the Rodney King video, get discredited by oppressive political regimes, like the Egyptian police or LAPD. This view was certainly not well-represented on the panel, but to be fair, that wasn’t the intention.

Despite the up-with-people quality of a lot of discussion about digital video, the reality is that there’s no shortage of people using these sorts of digital video sharing sites for nefarious ends, among them neo-Nazis, skinheads and white supremacists who want to use digital video to spread racist propaganda. For example, CurrentTV (Al Gore’s venture and my current default cable channel) is running a video “pod” (their term for a short digital video segment) called “From Russia With Hate,” about neo-Nazis in Russia who are filming racist attacks on immigrants, then posting these digital videos online. (I’m posting the link but not the video because it contains violent scenes that I don’t want to reproduce here.) This is a well-done bit of investigative journalism by the reporter Christof Putzel, and while these are quite disturbing to watch, the intention of the filmmaker is clearly to be critical of the neo-Nazis. The CurrentTV site shows that approximately a month after posting, the video has received 3,844 views and there are 32 comments. All the comments are supportive of the filmmaker’s point of view, and several even remarking on their “unease” with voting “for” the video on the website as they fear this implicates them somehow in the neo-Nazi violence.

I raise this example here to address some of the nuances of online video for addressing racism in the digital era and offer some complexity to the panel presentation from Sunday. On the one hand, Putzel’s investigative journalism and digital video distributed through cable networks and online via CurrentTV offer support for the argument about the democratizing and emancipatory potential of online digital video. This approach both highlights the problem of racist violence and offers people an opportunity to take some, albeit limited, action by posting comments in support of the critique of neo-Nazism. And, as Putzel mentions near the end of the report, one of the central figures he interviews is later arrested for “inciting ethnic hatred,” so there is some material result of his reporting in the effort to stop neo-Nazi violence.

On the other hand, there is a way in which the very possibility of digital video and the presence of digital video cameras gives rise to racist violence. Several of the scenes that are shown in Putzel’s piece have clearly been staged for the (neo-Nazi’s) digital camera. In one scene of racist violence on a train, the digital camera operator is already in place near the (eventual) victim of the violence, and stands waiting, filming both the unsuspecting victim and the approaching gang of neo-Nazis. While it is possible that this violence might have happened without the presence of the camera (or the potential to upload it), the fact that the violence happens in such a seemingly staged manner implicates the digital video in the violence. And, in the gravest negative consequence, after the arrest of one of the figures in Putzel’s piece, another neo-Nazi video is released in which two immigrants are killed on camera and this is uploaded to the web. No one has been arrested for these murders; and, to date, no one knows who made the digital video of these racist murders.

Several of the panelists on Sunday mentioned that we are still in the early days, indeed “way before the beginning,” of the convergence of digital video, Internet and television. I couldn’t agree more. And, what this means in terms of racism, and resisting racism, is still unfolding.

DNA and Scientific Racism

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a piece by Amy Harmon called “In DNA Era, New Worries about Prejudice,” that requires more discussion and analysis. To start, there is a factual error in the New York Times piece that I think it’s import to draw attention to, and that is, Harmon writes:

“The DNA of any two people, they emphasized, is at least 99 percent identical.”

When, in fact, Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the National Institutes of Health, has stated that the Human Genome Project:

“helped to inform us about how remarkably similar all human beings are—99.9% at the DNA level.Those who wish to draw precise racial boundaries around certain groups will not be able to use science as a legitimate justification” (Collins and Mansoura, 2001:221).

So, that the quest to “map the difference,” the mission of the misguided HapMap Project is actually the pursuit of variation of 0.1% not 1% as stated in the article.

In the “multimedia graphic” that accompanies that Times article, the headline reads “Minute Genetic Differences Can Mean A Lot,” and then the three examples Harmon charts are 1) pale skin among “Europeans” 2) tendency to sweat “less” (which begs the question, sweat less than whom?) among “Asians” and 3) “Africans” resistance to certain diseases. This kind of pseudo-science from the Times raises more questions than it answers. What do these differences “mean”? And, what is “a lot” in this context? While the focus of the article is on the “concern” (again, one wonders among whom?) about prejudice such research will inevitably promote (such as the post by the blogger Half Sigma mentioned in the article) what both the New York Times and the blogger Half Sigma miss here is a very common fallacy. As geneticists Collins and Mansoura point out in their article, quoted above, that those who wish to draw “precise boundaries” around certain racial groups will not be able to use science as a legitimate justification. Take for example, the category “Asian” which supposedl “sweats less” in the Times piece. Who exactly does this include? Chinese? Korean (North and South?) Japanese? Indian? Pakistani? These groups have long traditions and cultures that are quite distinct from one another. It is only from the armchair vantage point of the U.S. or Europe that “Asian” has any sort of coherent meaning, and even then it is contested. In the UK for example, “Asian” is category that includes those from India and Pakistan, though that is not the typical usage here in the U.S. And, if you read the genetic literature, those conducting researchers continues to use self-identification – how people identify themselves in terms of racial/ethnic identity – as the means to identify populations for genetic study, arguing that it is more economical to categorize people based on phenotypically based notions of “race” rather than to look exclusively at individual genetic composition for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease (e.g., Risch and others, 2002). Geneticists such as Risch and colleagues argue that:

“population genetic studies have recapitulated the classical definition of races based on continental ancestry—namely African, Caucasian (Europe and Middle East), Asian, Pacific Islander (for example, Australian, New Guinean, and Melanesian), and Native American” (Risch, N., Burchard, E., Ziv, E., and Tang, H. (2002). “Categorization of Humans in Biomedical Research: Genes, Race, and Disease.” Genome Biology, 2002, 3(7):3).

And, Risch and colleagues also include a figure, a line drawing, to illustrate their conceptualization of racial difference (Figure 1 from Risch et al.). This illustration, a long line with discrete, pronged lines off to one side indicating unified, distinct, and mutually exclusive racial categories, is not only incorrect in terms of the available genetic research that we are 99.9% alike, but it also flies in the face of decades of anthropological and sociological and biological research attesting to the fact that there is more variation within one of these categories than between the categories. Basically, these geneticists are using race as a heuristic device, as a “convenient short hand” for lots of other social, cultural and ancestral factors.

In a recent co-authored chapter I wrote with my colleague  Amy Jo Schulz (Daniels, J., & Schulz, A.J. (2006). Constructing whiteness in health disparities research. In A. J. Schulz & L. Mullings (Eds.), Gender, Race, Class, and Health (pp. 89-127). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishing), we examined the way that whiteness and white racial privilege are being re-written into the DNA era. Here’s what we had to say about this in our chapter:

The continued use of “race” as a heuristic device for investigation at the genomic level is paradoxical, when on its face individualized genetic therapy would mean testing and categorization on the individual level. This return to the use of classical racial categories in population genetics studies despite empirical evidence documenting the clear limits of these categories as indicative of ancestry or heritage (such as the U.S. census and birth record examples described earlier in this chapter) highlights the power of these socially constructed categories within science, as well as the role of scientific research in continuing to reproduce these categories. …attributing racial variations in patterns of disease to the genetic composition of racial or ethnic groups is based on a series of imperfect assumptions. Specifically, “self-identified race is a surrogate for ancestral geographic origin, which is a surrogate for variation across the genome, which is a surrogate for variation in disease-relevant alleles, which is a surrogate for individual disease risk” (Bonham, Warshauer-Baker, and Collins, 2005:13, citing Collins, 2004). With each imperfect assumption, the link between socially constructed racial categories and genetic sources of disease gets less clear, like a copy of a copy of a copy that continues to blur with each reproduction; yet the genetic frame, and the supposedly biological basis for Whiteness, remains unchallenged. This reliance on race as a sorting mechanism of convenience in the face of genomic research that demonstrates this is a less than completely reliable proxy simultaneously naturalizes racial disparities while it holds out the promise of eliminating racial disparities in health. And it leaves the Whiteness within those disparities unexamined. (Daniels and Schulz, 2006).

The key is here is that “race” is used as a sorting mechanism of convenience. I know this from the literature, and I know this from first-hand experience. I sat on a grant review committee recently for a national-level competition for multi-million dollar grants of an agency I won’t name. The review committee was quite large, probably 25 or more scholars from around the U.S. One of the grant applications that the other reviewers (mostly from the biological sciences) rated the highest was one that proposed to look at the “genetic racial differences among Blacks and whites” to different kinds of treatment for HIV/AIDS. I rated this grant proposal among the lowest I had reviewed because of the methodology: all of the participants in the study would be sorted into the supposedly self-evident categories “Black” and “white” based on self-identification. When I raised this objection among my colleagues in the biological and health sciences, they all blinked hard, and looked at me as if I’d committed some sort of unpleasant faux pas. The chair of the committee finally acquiesced that this was a methodological flaw in the proposal, but the grant was nevertheless awarded millions of dollars. This research, like so much else being done in this field, takes an unclear category and reifies it as “scientifically real,” and then the general public (like the blogger mentioned above) picks it up and uses it to justify the already-in-place white racial frame.

Despite the fact that whiteness is often implicated in this type of genetic research, “whiteness” as a racial category remains largely unexamined and white privilege is propped up once again. Here’s more from our chapter:

Furthermore, scholars have also pointed out the impulse to attach genetic conditions to labeled racial or ethnic groups, while those attached to “Whites” remain invisible. For example, genetically linked conditions such as Tay-Sachs or sickle cell anemia have become labeled as “Jewish” and “Black” diseases respectively because they are associated with people who are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans. However, a disease such as cystic fibrosis, which is genetically linked to subgroups of the White population, does not get labeled as difference (Katz Rothman, 1998). The link, then, between genetic condition and Whiteness is ephemeral, while the connection between genetic condition and members of (already) labeled racial and ethnic groups is intractable (Daniels and Schulz, 2006).

The last three paragraphs of the NYTimes piece come the closest to getting at this intractable quality that we point out in our chapter, and here the Times turns to Samuel Richards, at Penn State:

Race, many sociologists and anthropologists have argued for decades, is a social invention historically used to justify prejudice and persecution. But when Samuel M. Richards gave his students at Pennsylvania State University genetic ancestry tests to establish the imprecision of socially constructed racial categories, he found the exercise reinforced them instead.

One white-skinned student, told she was 9 percent West African, went to a Kwanzaa celebration, for instance, but would not dream of going to an Asian cultural event because her DNA did not match, Dr. Richards said. Preconceived notions of race seemed all the more authentic when quantified by DNA.

“Before, it was, ‘I’m white because I have white skin and grew up in white culture,’ ” Dr. Richards said. “Now it’s, ‘I really know I’m white, so white is this big neon sign hanging over my head.’ It’s like, oh, no, come on. That wasn’t the point.”

I think what Prof. Sam Richards has been doing around the issue of DNA and race is admirable, but it seems clear from his own evaluation above that students (and the broader public) miss the point about no one being of any “one race” genetically – and indeed, that this is impossible. Instead, they use that information to shore up the white racial frame already in place. We need to do more to get people thinking more critically about the race and racism “in the DNA era” and offer frameworks that counter notions of biologically-grounded racial superiority and inferiority.

Mexican Americans & The White Racist Frame

I have recently been reading an important new book, Manifest Destinies, (New York University Press, 2007) by University of New Mexico law professor, Laura E. Gómez , who shows that in the early period after the U.S. conquest of northern Mexico, from about the late 1840s to the 1880s or so, the New Mexico territory had political control substantially shared by the Anglo intruders and established Mexican elite. Because they wanted statehood, which was delayed for decades because the territory was not predominantly white, the local Anglo elite developed a “progressive” racist view that saw the Mexican elite as somewhat inferior to Anglo Americans but still as European and “Spanish” (when in fact they were mixed-race, and substantially Indian in ancestry) and thus as “white enough” to be citizens and to play a political role. (Whites outside the territory, including in Congress, still saw the Mexican elite as not white and as fully inferior in the usual white racist framing of Americans of color .)

Serving in the territorial legislature, the Mexican elites thus came to play an interstitial, coordinating-political, and thus oppressive role between the Anglo whites and the very oppressed Indian populations (and, later, enslaved and free African Americans brought by new Anglo colonists). The Mexican elite defined themselves as white rights-holders and tried to accent their whiteness to relate to the more powerful Anglo whites, even to the point of shifting from an antislavery view to a proslavery view after the U.S. invasion of the area. (Some in the Mexican elite also held Indian slaves.)

Her analysis shows the important impacts (then, as now) of the dominant white racist frame coming in from outside what was once northern Mexico. It may also help in understanding the fluctuating accents on whiteness and non-whiteness in some parts of the Mexican American population since that time, especially in the middle and upper classes, to the present day. Gómez concludes her book by assessing this contemporary relevance:

“At least a small slice of that relevance concerns the twenty-first-century legacy of Mexican Americans’ history as off-white—sometimes defined as legally white, almost always defined as socially non-white.” (p. 149)

And, to that I would add, defined as socially non-white by whites who held the social power to create and enforce such definitions. Gómez has given us an important new insight into the white racist frame.

Kara Walker Exhibit: Preview

I’m composing a longer post (maybe up this weekend) on the Kara Walker exhibit I saw yesterday at the Whitney Museum here in New York. If you’re in the general vicinity, or plan to be before February, I strongly encourage you to see this exhibit.

In the meantime, here’s a link to a videoblog interview with the curator, Jasmil Raymond, with a preview to the same show when it was in Minnesota.  Compelling, provocative, interesting use of visual images to challenge our thinking about racism.  More later.

New Research Links Racism and High Blood Pressure

Laura Smart Richman, an assistant research professor in Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, is the lead investigator on a new study that finds that people who previously experienced discrimination –- especially optimistic and trusting people — suffer larger jumps in blood pressure when performing a stressful task such as talking about a situation that made them angry. Richman, interviewed by Science Daily, says:

“These results are consistent with discrimination being a chronic stressor that is related to acute stress responses, particularly for blacks. It also may help to explain why people who experience more discrimination in their lives tend to have worse health outcomes. It’s being understood more and more that discrimination may be an important contributor to racial health disparities.”

The health consequences of racial inequality is a theme I’ve talked about here before, and it’s interesting to see more research – this from neuroscience – piling up to suggest that racism and discrimination, perhaps as much as structural inequality, is responsible for the negative health consequences. I do wonder where the research is on the people who are doing the discriminating. Is there a health benefit, say a lowering of blood pressure, when people act to discriminate? Things to ponder on a Friday morning.

Increased Violent Racism Threatens Human Rights: U.N. Expert

There is an increase in violent racism globally according to UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance Doudou Diene, the JURIST is reporting. In the article, Deirdre Jurand writes:

Diene warned the UN in early 2006 about a worldwide increase in racism and xenophobia, which were no longer confined to extremist groups but had become integral to mainstream democratic systems. Diene said that the fight against terrorism and other government initiatives had led to discriminatory immigration and asylum policies and a retreat from diversity and tolerance. Diene noted that racism was “commonplace” and ethnically and racially biased stances had become increasingly legitimized in intellectual discourse by respected scholars.

[emphasis added]

What struck me here is bit I emphasized in bold, that racism is not contained in extremist groups by “integral to mainstream democratic systems.” Indeed, as Joe detailed in his post from the other day on reparations, racism is foundational to the American system. You can download the full UN report, here.

Bringing Back the Idea of Reparations

In an 1860s Boston speech the white abolitionist Wendell Phillips made the case for major reparations, saying “There is not wealth enough in all the North to compensate this [African American] generation–much less the claim it has as heir to those who have gone before.” He added, “Agriculture, cities, roads, factories, funded capital–all were made by and belong to the Negro.” The great black leader Frederick Douglass made a similar case.

At an 1865 Republican convention, Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Pennsylvania) called for taking hundreds of millions of acres from former slaveholders to provide compensation to those enslaved. Senator Charles Sumner (Massachusetts) called for land grants to those enslaved because legal equality did not eradicate disparities in wealth-generating assets.
Anti-slavery leaders, white and black, knew that much of the wealth that made the new United States was created by enslaved labor. They knew the misery and death that slavery had brought to African Americans.

It is yet again time to accent this old Republican party idea of reparations, not only reparations for slavery and segregation but also for current discrimination. Many Americans are now thinking and acting on reparations issues. In the last year or two several religious organizations with links to the 230 years of North American slavery, including the U.S. Episcopal Church and the U.S. Moravian Church, have managed to apologize to African Americans for the harsh reality of slavery. A 2006 Associated Press story summed up some of the recent events on reparations:

“Also in June, a North Carolina commission urged the state government to repay the descendants of victims of a violent 1898 campaign by white supremacists to strip blacks of power in Wilmington, N.C. As many as 60 blacks died, and thousands were driven from the city. The commission also recommended state-funded programs to support local black businesses and home ownership. The report came weeks after the Organization of American States requested information from the U.S. government about a 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Okla., in which 1,200 homes were burned and as many as 300 blacks killed. An OAS official said the group might pursue the issue as a violation of international human rights.

The modern reparations movement revived an idea that’s been around since emancipation, when black leaders argued that newly freed slaves deserved compensation. . . . Reparations became a central issue at the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa; and California legislators passed the nation’s first law forcing insurance companies that do business with the state to disclose their slavery ties. Illinois passed a similar insurance law in 2003, and the next year Iowa legislators began requesting — but not forcing — the same disclosures. Several cities — including Chicago, Detroit and Oakland — have laws requiring that all businesses make such disclosures.”

In recent protests against conservative attacks on reparations and affirmative action, some college students and faculty across the country have articulated the racial-justice ideals of Phillips, Stevens, and Douglass. Assisted by non-black Americans, in recent years African American students and faculty have spoken out against anti-reparations ads because they view the ads as hate speech and oppose the solicitation of money for antiblack ads. They argue that they do not have the same monied access for their ideas on reparations.

White supremacists do seem emboldened by the anti-reparations ads and similar racial debates. At Brown, where an ad was published, a black freshman just got a hate letter with a picture of a mutilated black child. A leading black professor there got so many hate letters and phone calls that he has taken precautions to protect his family’s safety.

Notions of liberal control of the media notwithstanding, details about the price African Americans have paid for nearly four hundred years of oppression have rarely been published. That price remains high. Today, on the average, black Americans live some 6-7 years less than white Americans, and black families average about ten percent of the wealth of white families.

Such inequalities are substantially the result of centuries of racism. In a major book, The Wealth of Races (1990), economic experts estimate the current value of labor stolen from African Americans. Two scholars estimate the current worth of the slave labor expropriated from 1620 onward as, at least, one trillion dollars. For part of the segregation period, 1929-1969, another scholar estimates the cost of labor discrimination against black Americans at $1.6 trillion. Another researcher estimates the loss from post-segregation discrimination in employment as at least $94 billion for just one year in the 1970s. The accumulated economic loss for African Americans since the 1600s is likely in the trillions of current dollars. And such calculation does not include the nonmonetary costs.

The federal government is heavily implicated in giveaways to whites. From the 1860s to the 1930s, under the Homestead Act, the U.S. government gave away about 246 million acres for some 1.5 million homesteads. Researcher Trina Williams-Shanks estimates that today some 46 million Americans are current beneficiaries of this wealth-generating giveaway, from which black families were largely excluded.

Until desegregation in the 1960s, whites had exclusive access to most critical resources for wealth building. For example, after World War I the Air Commerce Act gave the new air routes to white-run companies. Access to wealth-generating mineral deposits and radio and television airwaves was reserved for whites. Access to home ownership was limited by antiblack discrimination.

Today, many whites still discriminate against African Americans in major areas such as housing, public accommodations, and the workplace.

Given the long history of economic theft from African Americans by white Americans, and the trillions of dollars in losses, the idea of reparations is not radical, but rather flows directly from the social justice ideal of redressing fairly the longterm results of unjust impoverishment and enrichment.

Implicit Awareness Tests

In one 2006 study (From American City to Japanese Village) conducted at Harvard University, researchers Yarrow Durham, Andrew Scott Baron, and Mahzarin R. Banaji conducted research on the implicit and explicit nature of racial attitudes of children between the ages of 6 and 10 and adults.  In this particular study, the researchers examined the changes in the implicit and explicit race-based attitudes of White middle-class children and adults.  The groups focused on in this study were children of either Japanese or Black descent.  A second aspect of this study was conducted in rural Japan and continued to understand both the implicit and explicit racial attitudes of Japanese children and their racial awareness and preferences for members of their in-group versus out-group preferences (black children). 

        One of the main findings of this research is that implicit racial awareness emerges early, but begins to decease as the individual ages.   Implicitly, there is an age related decrease in White over Japanese implicit racial attitudes; however, this is not the case of White over Black implicit preferences.  White over both Japanese and Black preferences showed age related explicit in-group preferences, but both decrease with age, showing that in explicit group preferences notable differences emerge between children and adults.   In short, test-type matters; White-Black and White-Japanese tests showed differences in in-group preferences particularly when the out-group being tested is Blacks.

        In another aspect of this study, similar implicit and explicit tests were given to children and adults in rural Japan.  In the case of children, implicit and explicit racial attitudes and preferences showed similar results as the children and adults in the United States.  In-group preferences were stronger in younger children and decreases some with age, but the trend remains that shows stronger in-group preferences when the out-group being compared is Black. 

        While the Implicit Awareness Tests are useful in their explanations of racial awareness in children, there are several things that the researchers should consider.  In the aforementioned study, the authors made no mention of the historical aspect of race awareness and attitudes as it pertains to the United States.  Most of the attitudes found in their analysis have in fact been instrumental in the foundation of American society; a society that was founded on racial oppression and principles.  Indeed, the consequences of the historical aspect of U.S. racial relations are still apparent in most major institutions of American society; racist attitudes and in-group preferences are often used in the process to reproduce the existing racial structure.

        Another avenue the researchers may want to consider is the use of existing sociological research and terminology to gain a more structural and encompassing approach to understanding implicit (and explicit) racial attitudes instead of their existing individualistic approach.  Some past research by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin in particular as well as other sociologists have touched significantly on this topic; children are aware of racial/ethnic concepts and ideologies.  In the work of Van Ausdale and Feagin, the researchers observed an implicit and explicit racial and ethnic awareness at even younger ages; some children were four-year olds.  Some major conceptual ideas can be gained through sociological research; institutional racism and systemic racism are two suggestions that can enhance their existing research in this case.      �

Protesting Television Images

I’m not attributing causality here, but there was a pile of midterm exams and then I got sick with a horrible head cold. Coincidence or causation? Perhaps just a spurious correlation. Onward, then…despite the head cold.

The New York Times today is reporting about a protest against the demeaning images on BET that critics of the network’s practices organized outside the Washington and NYC homes of Viacom executives (Viacom owns BET). The protests are organized by community group Enough is Enough which is calling for companies to:

develop standards that include prohibitions on: racial and sexual slurs; the promotion of illegal activity like drug use; as well as content that “objectifies, degrades, or promotes violence against women” or shows black and Latino men as pimps or gangsters.

Launched by Baptist minister Rev. Delman L. Coates of Maryland, Enough is Enough is not without its critics. Some argue that the call for “standards” is little more than a call for censorship, and for not articulating an ‘end-game’ for what victory looks like in this struggle. Still, the Times piece does go on to mention another critic of the network, who is explicitly addressing the gendered racism of much of BET’s programming, Gina McCauley, a lawyer who used her site to help force a name change for the BET program “Hot Ghetto Mess” (to “We Got to Do Better”). Perhaps most remarkable in all this is not that the protests are happening, but that the New York Times deemed this struggle over race, gender and demeaning images “fit to print.”

I say that it is not so very remarkable that these protests are happening because Black folks have been protesting demeaning images in U.S. television since it began. For example, the NAACP protests against the Amos ‘n’ Andy show eventually contributed to the popular show’s cancellation (though, ultimately, not its disappearance from the popular culture landscape).

Last week, I mentioned the work of Sasha Torres, and her book, Black, White and In Color: Television and Black Civil Rights(Princeton UP, 2003), and promised to return to it, and, today seems like an excellent day on which to do so. Torres’ goal in this book is to add complexity and nuance to the traditional way of seeing racism and media, in particular U.S. television, and move beyond the “protesting demeaning images” sort of paradigm. One way she does this is by re-visiting some of the writing by African American scholars, such as bell hooks and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who have included fond memories of watching Amos ‘n’ Andy with their families while growing up (see pp.1-12). Torres is up to much more in this book, however, and what I found most compelling is her treatment of the Civil Rights movement and the complicated relationship between movement leaders and creators of television news, and the “simultaneous emergence of the civil rights movement and television” (quoting J. Fred MacDonald, p.15). Torres writes:

“This convergence resulted also from a quite specific, if also quite fortuitous, coalition of needs and resources. Telejournalism, obviously needed vivid pictures an clear-cut stories; less obviously it also sought political and cultural gravitas. For its part, the civil rights movement staked the moral authority of Christian nonviolence and the rhetoric of American democracy to make a new national culture; to succeed, it needed to have its picture taken and its stories told.” (p.15)

She goes on to make the point that “pictures are the point” of television news. And that the visibility of “race” and “race trouble” fed the new medium, and the “mere fact of television’s coverage served paradoxically to render racism visible in new ways, and to new audiences.” (p.17) Of course, this particular moment in our cultural history has passed and we are now living in a new, and quite different, historical moment.    Still I cannot help but wonder if there are possibilities in the current convergence of technologies and civil rights, — between the Internet, and video sharing sites like YouTube, on the one hand, and grassroots movements on the other hand, such as EnoughisEnough and WhatAboutOurDaughters, along with projects like Witness and CopWatch, to render racism visible in new ways and to new audiences.