“Leave or Die”

Elliott Jaspin’s reporting on the “leave or die” imperatives issued by whites to blacks throughout the U.S. and continuing for 60 years is part of the systemic racism we talk about so often here. Sherilyn Ifill of Blackprof.com has a good post on Marcos Williams’ new documentary about this, “Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings.” Ifill is one of the featured experts in the film and her post is no case of shameless self-promotion on her part. This is an important documentary that addresses the some of the most reprehensible acts of white racism and the way these acts continue to reverberate in very material ways in people’s everyday lives. Here’s the trailer via YouTube:

Williams’ film charts the history, and contemporary descendants of, whites who violently expelled blacks from dozens of towns and counties throughout the U.S. For the classroom, the film would make an excellent companion to Loewen’s Sundown Towns. “Banished” is currently airing on PBS, you can check local listings here.

New York City Pays for Employment Discrimination

New York City has agreed to pay more than $20 million to settle a federal class-action lawsuit charging that the Department of Parks and Recreation systematically discriminated against black and Hispanic employees in awarding jobs and setting salaries, according to the New York Times.   The details should sound familiar to anyone’s who knows about racial discrimination.  Reports are that under Henry J. Stern,  the long-serving commissioner of the Parks Department, routinely rewarded a “coterie of inexperienced white workers with plum assignments at the expense of experienced black and Hispanic employees.” In addition, white employees earned more than black and Hispanic workers performing the same jobs, and those who complained faced punishments like being reassigned to dusty basement desks or to an office far from home.

Mayor Bloomberg is, according to the Times article, “eager to move beyond the accusations of discrimination.”   The mayor also used the sort of distancing rhetoric so frequently used by white liberals when he says:

“It was something that took place a long time ago, and I think we are satisfied that our procedures today in that department and I think in all departments do not discriminate against anybody.”

In this instance, a “long time ago” is 1999.   I doubt seriously that it seems like ancient history to the 3,500 employees involved in the class action suit.

International Racism Roundup

I’ve collected a few snippets about racism beyond the U.S. through the Google news aggregator. Here’s a brief international racism roundup:

  • Johannesburg.  White students at University of Free State made a  video, widely condemned as racist, of black workers made to perform degrading acts by white students. The home-made film, described as “shocking and disgusting”,  shows five laughing black workers taking part in a number of activities, including eating meat that had been urinated on.  The workers appeared to have been duped into participating in the video.  The white students involved in making the video were reportedly ‘protesting’ a new university policy that would integrate black and white students in more campus residences.  Protests against the video have followed.   More here.
  • Manchester. Sangram Singh Bhacker, a Sikh man, won a racial discrimination suit against the Manchester police department.  Bhacker, who lives in Manchester, had been trying to join his local police department but was turned down over a dozen times in the span of 18 years, despite his experience serving on five other police forces in the UK.  In refusing his application, the head of personnel wrote, “I am not prepared to consider you as a potential transferee with the GMP now or in the future.”  In the decision by the governing tribual, they said “Our conclusion is the respondent discriminated against the claimant on the basis of his ethnic origin.”   More here. 
  • Toronto.  Once a great multicultural city, Toronto is now being threatened by a prevailing white supremacist racist establishment, according to Joe T. Darden, Professor of Geography at Michigan State University.  Darden contends that Toronto faces a growing culture of violence, primarily manifested in Toronto black communities, because a racist white establishment seeks to prevent equal access to educational and employment opportunities.  Terrific, and notably different-than-the-U.S., write up here by a progressive news outlet in Canada.

Sociologists Critique “The Wire”

Curiously absent from the recent ESS Meetings here in New York, which included “mini-conference” on the 40th Anniversary of Elliot Lebow’s Tally’s Corner, was any discussion of popular culture representations of urban street corners aside from the occasional glancing blow at “hip hop” as unidimensionally negative. Fortunately, Brian Cook, an associate editor at In These Times, has provided a nicely sociological analysis of “The Wire,” the critically-acclaimed HBO series about street corners and the broader urban context in which they exist.  If you haven’t seen this series, do yourself a favor and add it to your Netflix queue and get caught up.  The series comes to an end with this season.)

Cook’s article pulls together quotes from several of the leading sociologists working in this field, starting with Elijah Anderson (originally interviewed by The Atlantic).  Anderson says:

“I get frustrated watching it because it gives such a powerful appearance of reality, but it always seems to leave something important out. What they have left out are the decent people. Even in the worst drug-infested projects, there are many, many God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism.”

(UPDATED TO ADD: Amelia posted more of Anderson’s comments a few days ago over at Contexts Crawler.) Cook counters that this critique is “remarkably off-base,” and he goes into some depth to taking Anderson to task, arguing that he has a “desire for a Manichean fairytale” in which “God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people set themselves against the gangs and the addicts.”   But, this is just the sort of comforting fiction that The Wire aims to subvert, Cook says. While there are heroic acts, no individual or category of individuals (e.g., cops) has any monopoly on unambiguously good character traits.

The show is quite grim. And this stark grimness about the ‘war on drugs’ and the devastating effects specifically on black, urban citizens is as David Simon, the show’s creator, intended.   To evaluate whether or not this grimness is warranted or not, Cook once again turns to a sociologist, this time Bruce Western, and his Punishment and Inequality in America (2006).     The Wire foregrounds the kinds of stats that Western explores in his book, like the fact that blacks are incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than whites, and that 60 percent of black high school dropouts are either imprisoned or ex-convicts.   Cook argues, and I tend to agree, that crafting a compelling narrative that humanizes these stats is an important, if insufficient, step toward redressing these disparities.

Of course, some people do escape urban poverty, and Cook goes on to cite yet another sociologist, this time Katherine Newman, to make this case.  In her book Chutes and Ladders (2006), Newman tracks 40 working-poor minorities across 10 years and finds that nine had been able to break into the middle class, suggesting that even at the bottom rungs of the economy, upward mobility is still possible.  Some critics of The Wire have argued that these kinds of stories are missing from this narrative, and thus it portrays the urban poor as victims incapable of rejecting the powerful forces that conspire to keep them at the bottom of the social ladder.  Yet, as Cook notes,

Newman also found that one-third of her subjects were either still unemployed or working for minimum wage, and that the decisive factor for the success stories was whether they belonged to families who could support them (or whether they didn’t need to support a family themselves). In other words, personal agency had little to do with it.

In the world created by Simon for The Wire there are very few, if any, of these sorts of supportive family networks.    For all this talk of grim reality, it may be difficult to understand why you’d choose to watch The Wire as a form of entertainment, but it is, as Cook notes, “an absolute joy to watch.”  The writing is several leagues above anything else on television, or in the theaters for that matter; the acting is superb; and the visual imagery is compelling without straining to be overly “artistic.”    Cook ends with a nod toward the dignity, even nobility, inherent in the struggle featured in the show, and again, I agree with his analysis here.  There is something ennobling about the kinds of valiant struggles these characters engage in.

Yet, for me, the piece that’s missing both from The Wire and from Cook’s analysis is the complicity, and sometimes quite overt racism, of whites (and a handful of elite blacks, like the character of Senator Clive Davis) who have created and benefit from the policies that have decimated urban centers.   For example, while there are passing references to state-level politics and even a passing reference to an ill-willed (supposedly white) Republican governor, there’s never any exploration of the connection between the racism inherent in much of the “war on drugs” and the kind of devastation of inner-city Baltimore.  Where is the white counterpart to the Senator Clive Davis character? Where, for instance, is the Grover Norquist or the Karl Rove or even, the Nelson Rockefeller? Within the context of The Wire, the “war on drugs” simply exists a priori and the show explores the consequences of such a policy on many of the residents of Baltimore.     That said, it’s a mighty fine exploration and certainly worth watching.

Gender, Race & Privilege

The flipside of the gendered racism that is focusing attention on Michelle Obama is the gendered racial privilege that Hillary Clinton enjoys. Increasingly, this is getting some attention in the blogoshere, as in this eloquent post over at TheRoot, by Princeton University Professor of Politics Melissa Harris-Lacewell is worth quoting at length. (Hat tip to my pal Bryan Alexander over at Infocult for giving me the heads up on this one.) Harris-Lacewell writes:

Sister voters have a beef with white women like Clinton that is both racial and gendered. It is not about choosing race; it is about rejecting Hillary’s Scarlett O’Hara act.

Black women voters are rejecting Hillary Clinton because her ascendance is not a liberating symbol. Her tears are not moving. Her voice does not resonate. Throughout history, privileged white women, attached at the hip to their husband’s power and influence, have been complicit in black women’s oppression. Many African American women are simply refusing to play Mammy to Hillary.

The loyal Mammy figure, who toiled in the homes of white people, nursing their babies and cleaning and cooking their food, is the most enduring and dishonest representation of black women. She is a uniquely American icon who first emerged as our young country was trying to put itself back together after the Civil War. The romanticism about this period is a bizarre historical anomaly that underscores America’s deep racism: The defeated traitors of the Confederacy have been allowed to reinterpret the war’s battles, fly the flag of secession over state houses, and raise monuments to those who fought to tear down the country. Southern white secessionists were given the power to rewrite history even as America’s newest citizens were relegated to forced agricultural peonage, grinding urban poverty and new forms segregation and racial terror.

And, there’s growing evidence that the Clinton campaign will pander to the basest instincts among us, as in the reported circulation of a photo of Barack Obama in traditional Muslim-wear by Clinton operatives.

Michelle Obama: Sociologist

White denial of racism is central to this serious, yet often fatuous, political season, as we see in the many web and media debates over a senior thesis written by the young Princeton sociology student Michelle Obama some 23 years ago. Whites are attacking her for writing honestly and candidly, from data she gathered in 90 questionnaires returned by Princeton’s Black alumni about their views, especially about their ideological focus, commitments to the Black community, and contacts with other Blacks during and after their Princeton experience.  Princeton University’s librarians have so far restricted access to Obama’s senior thesis, but you can find it here.

In searching the web today I found there are already some 26,000 references to this story of a 1985 senior thesis entitled, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” and recorded under her maiden name, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. One would think that honest writing about U.S. racial matters from someone who has both lived it and studied it would get serious public attention and turn the focus on the often isolating and negative impact that predominantly white campus climates have on African American students, but the opposite has, for the most part, happened.

We also see this in the vulture-like media attention to her painful life-reflecting comments that:

“for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction.”

Reactions to this by various, including well-educated white commentators are clueless about the deep structures of racism still undergirding U.S. society.   A great many African Americans, probably an overwhelming majority, would know exactly what she means.

One of the interesting stories on her senior sociology thesis can be found on politico.com, by Jeffrey Ressner.   Like a majority of Black students at other historically white institutions in numerous more recent studies (see the summaries here and here, Obama and other Princeton University students have faced problematical, isolating, and often negative racial experiences on historically white college campuses. In her sociology thesis Obama comments on her own experience:

“I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.”

Sadly, this is commonly reported by Black students on historically white institutions today, as both Jessie and Lou have reported in recent posts, and as can be seen in the books linked above.

Obama notes that in 1985 Princeton University had only five tenure-track Black faculty and modest numbers of Black students, a white world indeed! From her 90 questionnaires she found that for many Black alumni/ae going to Princeton meant, as she feared for herself:

“further integration and/or assimilation into a white cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant.”

One politico.com commentator at the end of the Ressner column, which accents Princeton’s refusal to release the thesis, makes a comment I suspect many whites would make:

“It was 1985 and a very very very very different United States.”

Sadly, the empirical data on historically white institutions, including our colleges and universities, strongly suggest that 2008 is all too like 1985, for a great many college students of color, and most especially African Americans.  In our field research, The Agony of Education: Black Students in White Colleges and Universities, we see many Black students at historically white institutions giving accounts like this one with a white professor outside a university classroom:

“This is one time in a social science department. I had a professor. . . . One day we were talking about Black stereotypes, and you know how they say like, ‘They’re criminals and always wanting to rob people.’ So after class I wanted to talk to her. And a girlfriend and I were standing waiting for her, so she’s coming out of the class, and she’s all like ‘Oh, what?’ And I say, ‘Can I talk to you, whatever?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, I thought you wanted to rob me or something.’ ” Being framed like this in negative ways, even in naïve joking fashion, often has the kind of isolating or negative impact today that Michelle Obama discusses in her senior thesis.

As the famous educator John Henry Newman once put it, the university should be “a seat of wisdom” and “a light of the world.”  Yet, as Obama’s thesis and much social science research later show, wisdom and light are typically not everyday realities when it comes to racial isolation and other barriers on predominantly white college campuses (see, for example, our new book on white college students’ racist performances). Denials notwithstanding, the empirical data show that serious racial barriers remain widespread on historically white campuses. 

Doing Business with Beauty: Black Women, Hair Salons and the Racial Enclave Economy

Entrepreneurship has long been touted as one of the important aspects of America that allows everyone to have a chance to achieve the “American Dream”—upward mobility, independence, and the freedom to be one’s own boss. But who are these entrepreneurs who attempt to achieve this, and what are their experiences as business owners?

Most of the academic research on entrepreneurship focuses on the experiences of ethnic immigrants—typically Cuban, Chinese, and Korean men. In my new book Doing Business with Beauty: Black Women, Hair Salons, and the Racial Enclave Economy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), I shift the focus to consider the experiences of Black women entrepreneurs. In the book, I argue that the focus on ethnic men conflates ethnicity with race, ignores gender, and thus does not offer a way to understand the entrepreneurial experiences of racial minority women. In order to address this, I contend that we have to take processes of race and gender into consideration.

To this end, Doing Business with Beauty argues that systemic gendered racism is a significant and important factor shaping the business experiences of Black women. Focusing on Black women hair salon owners, I argue that systemic gendered racism shapes these women’s business decisions, interactions with customers and stylists, motivations for engaging in entrepreneurship, and other factors. I argue that systemic gendered racism produces business patterns among Black women that can be better described as “racial enclave economies.”  These racial enclave economies reflect the realities of race and gender as systemic, intersecting factors, and create unique entrepreneurial experiences that are often overlooked by existing research and current discussions on entrepreneurship.

~ Adia Harvey Wingfield
Assistant Professor, Sociology
Georgia State University

Prejudice Does Not Pay – At Least Some of the Time

Even a quick study of U.S. demography reveals that the United States is daily becoming less white and more diverse. One significant fact this demography raises is how people now deal with increasing diversity and how will they deal with it in the future. Especially those white Americans with the power and privilege. One recent social psychological study of 50 white college students by psychologists Jennifer A. Richeson and J. Nicole Shelton found that interracial interactions are especially difficult for whites who hold very prejudiced views of racial outgroups (Jennifer A. Richeson and J. Nicole Shelton, “When Prejudice Does Not Pay: Effects of Interracial Contact on Executive Function,” Psychological Science 14 (MAY 2003): 287-290). As the researchers note:

“…the results of the current study suggest that after leaving intergroup interactions, prejudiced individuals may be more likely than others to underperform on tasks that require executive control. Specifically, we found that high-prejudice White participants who engaged in an interracial interaction had impaired performance on the Stroop [color/word matching] task—a task requiring executive control—compared with both high-prejudice participants who interacted with a White person and low-prejudice participants.”

Their measure of racial bias was a relatively unconscious one. They used an Implicit Association Test (IAT) in which they assessed whether subjects associated stereotypically white and black names with either pleasant or unpleasant words by pressing marked response keys. Differences in response times were used to measure implicit favoring of one racial category over another.

Such research has significant implications for everyday life. These researchers interpret their data using an energy model, one termed a “resource model of executive function.” This suggests that engaging in an exercise involving energetic self-control, such as interacting with racial others viewed negatively, can have a temporary negative impact on one’s ability to do a second important task.

Thus, highly prejudiced people often pay a significant price for their strong racist stereotyping and framing, and can likely increase their ability to function in a diverse society by significantly reducing the strength of their prejudiced views. The researchers prefer a narrow interpretation of their findings:

“The negative effect of intergroup contact on cognitive functioning may dissipate after repeated interactions with the same stigmatized persons. Furthermore, in many cases, the motives and roles of participants during an interaction will shape their contact experiences . . . and, therefore, the effect (if any) on subsequent executive capacity.”

Nonetheless, the results do add yet another piece of evidence about how high the price of systemic racism is for whites. While the price is certainly not nearly as high as for those targeted by this such oppression, there is a very significant price to be paid by racism’s primary maintainers.

Hate Mail at Elite Prep School

I’m blogging this story from the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown (NYC) where the Eastern Sociological Society meetings are about to begin. In addition to presenting at the conference today (for someone else) and Saturday (on some of my own stuff), my home-based DSL modem died, so logging in at $14.95-per-24hours via the hotel wifi is about the best I can do for Internet connection this morning. Annoying.

Back to blogging a news story. The New York Times this morning is reporting that there is an investigation underway into threatening hate mail sent to African American students at St. Paul’s, a predominantly white, elite prep school in New Hampshire. According to the article, approximately 525 students attend the school in grades in 9th through 12th. Of the 525 students, about 40 students (8%) are black. Here’s a snippet from the article about the hate mail:

According to several people associated with St. Paul’s, each student received a copy of his own photo from the school’s internal face book with the words “bang bang get out of here” written below. They said the letters, sent through the Postal Service, were postmarked from nearby Manchester, N.H.

Since I’m dashing off to present in a few minutes, I’ll just make a couple of the more obvious points about this incident. Clearly, this kind of harassment negatively affects students ability to learn and therefore has serious implications for the notion of “equality” in education. The elite classes in the U.S. are fond of the comforting fiction that while racism may exist in the lower classes, it certainly does not exist in the upper classes; this suggest otherwise (although as defenders of the elite classes will no doubt be quick to point out, it is possible the sender of the hate mail was from the middle or lower classes). And, while we’d like to believe that this is an isolated incident, there is ample empirical evidence about racism in our educational system to suggest that this a typical, rather than atypical, example of what students of color experience in school.

Blog updates from ESS as time and wifi allow.

Brothers and Sisters Outsiders… Once More

There’s a wonderful documentary about civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, called “Brother, Outsider.” Rustin, of course, was one of the main organizers of the famous March on Washington where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” What’s mysteriously less well-known is that Rustin was also gay and this was widely known and mostly accepted by those in the civil rights movement, including Dr. King.

The invisibility of Rustin’s life is relevant, even crucial, for young black and brown gay men today, as Kai Wright poignantly demonstrates in his new book Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York (Beacon Press 2008). The young men in Wright’s book are coming up on the streets and are struggling to find “space” – both literal and metaphorical – to survive with little or no awareness that they are trodding a path similar to Rustin’s. There are plenty of adults who think in that terms like “Black” or “Brown” do not overlap with LGBTQ identity, and that has profound consequences for young peoples’ lives. On the streets of New York each night, there are thousands of homeless teens, and according to one recent report, approximately 40% of those kids identify as queer. What’s less widely reported is that fully two-thirds of the estimated 3,500 to 7,000 LGBTQ homeless youth in New York are African American or Latino. The combination of racism, homophobia, and street life leaves these kids vulnerable to a host of abuse, including being subjected to harassment, threats, and violence in homeless shelters that are geared toward a general homeless population. And, despite clear evidence that these kids is not adequately or safely served by general homeless programs, only 25 emergency shelter beds are dedicated specifically for LGBTQ youth in New York City. As Audre Lorde, Black feminist lesbian poet, and essayist (Sister Outsider), wrote: “Without community, there is no liberation.” With only a few days left in this Black History Month, we would do well to recall Audre Lorde’s and Bayard Rustin’s legacies and find a way to include these young people in our ‘beloved community. ‘