The Asymmetry of Racism

Many whites, even white anti-racists, want to place themselves at the heroic center of any narrative about racism or equate their experiences with those of people of color, and thus misunderstand the asymmetry of racism.

Last year, the news carried a number of reports that genealogical researchers uncovered a connection between the families of Al Sharpton, African American civil rights leader, and Strom Thurmond, former U.S. Senator and ardent supporter of segregation. While Sharpton was open to and intrigued by this revelation, Thurmond’s descendants’ response has been denial and, then ultimately, silence. In the wake of his discovery that his family had once been owned by Strom Thurmond’s family, Al Sharpton said:

“I wrote my name and … had to come to terms with the fact that this was a name given to me by slaveholders.”

The Thurmond family issued no similar statement reflecting on their slaveholding past. The different responses from Sharpton and Thurmond’s family reflect the asymmetry in excavating the racial past.

Part of how white supremacy works is that whites must configure themselves as the center of a heroic narrative. In the Sharpton-Thurmond history, there’s simply no way for the Thurmond family to configure themselves as heroic, so they deny the story’s veracity and refuse comment. It’s very similar to the stories of the Holocaust, like Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” where everyone in the audience is meant to identify with the heroic Schindler, rather than with the Nazis. (And of course, Spielberg’s version of this history is an altered and sanitized version that ignores Schindler’s collaboration with the Third Reich.)  White Americans want to be the Spielberg-version of “Schindler” in the narrative of racism in the U.S., innocent of any culpability and also heroic in their defense of racial equality.  Yet, the evidence doesn’t support this.

Instead, the evidence suggests that a significant proportion of whites today continue to engage in two-faced racism and actively discriminate. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of whites alive today who are descendants of slave-owners, organizers of lynch mobs, crafters of racially discriminatory deed restrictions, and millions who followed along with and benefited from these architects of inequality. Yet, it’s incredibly rare to see a white person who looks this history in the face and tells the story. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Mab Segrest has a wonderful book, Memoir of a Race Traitor, and Ed Ball traces his family lineage to their slave-owning past, in his Slaves in the Family, and I did a little of this in the preface to my first book.

Still, it is African Americans and other people of color who do the bulk of the hard work of excavating the racial past, even when it is painful. The Museum of Modern Art recently included an exhibition of work by photographer Carrie Ann Weems, called “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” in which the artist reproduces nineteenth- and twentieth- century photographs of black men and women, from the time they were forced into slavery in the United States to the present. The artist has rephotographed the images, toned them in red, and across the glass frames, added text. As described by the MoMA catalog, the rephotographed images and text “evoke the layers of prejudice imposed on the depicted men and women.” The artist, in her audio supplement to this piece, says:

“When we’re looking at these images, we’re looking at the ways in which Anglo America, white America saw itself in relationship to the black subject. I wanted to intervene in that by giving voice to a subject that, historically, has had no voice. … a strategy that I hope gives the subject another level of humanity and another level of dignity that was originally missing in the photograph. ‘From Here I Saw…’ is perhaps one of the more painful pieces I’ve made. When I look at it, when I study it, I cry. It is a very sad piece. And, at the same time, of course, there is always hope that’s located within sadness as well, the hope that in the end, our mutual humanity will be understood and embraced.”

Uncovering the history of racial oppression and privilege is an asymmetrical process that has an asymmetrical effect in the present depending upon one’s standpoint. For those who were victims of oppressive systems, revisiting history as Weems does in her work, reclaims those lives and resituates them in a different context. While for those who have been architects and benefactors of oppressive systems, such as the Thurmonds, revisiting a history of unearned privilege based on racial inequality may result in shame at what their ancestors perpetrated as white slaveowners.

The asymmetry of racism reflects the unequal power relationships in our society. The challenge for those of us interested in creating change is finding a way to get whites to acknowledge systemic racism without configuring themselves as heroic, central figures or equating their experience with that of people of color. What this requires is for white people to work in coalition with people of color and to listen to the experiences of racial discrimination that people who bear the unequal burden of systemic racism without trying to take center stage.

White Voters and Racial Framing: How Many Will Vote for Senator Obama?

The Gallup polling organization recently released its analysis of 19,076 registered voters’ views, from a survey conducted over several weeks in March. ChartThe data are sorted by party identification, political strength, and racial group. The overall percent in this large sample is 45 percent for Senator Obama and 46 percent for Senator McCain. (The percentage for McCain is yet higher in the ongoing Rasmussen tracking poll.)

A racial factor seems clear in these data. Black voters give Senator Obama a huge 90 percentage of their votes, and moderate and liberal white Democrats also give him a large majority (66-82 percent) of their votes–with conservative white Democrats giving a lower 50 percent of their votes. Hispanic voters give him a bit more at 54 percent. However, the white independents give him only 25 percent and the white conservative and moderate Republicans give small percentages (5-17 percent), the latter as expected.

Troubling in such voter data for Senator Obama’s campaign is that non-Hispanic whites give Senator Obama only 37 percent of their votes, significantly less than they have given successful Democratic (and, of course, white) presidential candidates in the past. That McCain, who has been channeling some unpopular Bush-type views and who has been visible little of late in the mass media largely because of the Democratic primary campaign, is doing this well among white registered voters – who, ironically, say they want change in a country doing badly now  – strongly suggests that the centuries-old white racial framing of African Americans is again rearing its ugly head in U.S. politics. The negative racial framing of African Americans in the society, especially in the mass media, may be affecting some proportion of other non-black voters as well.

These data also may exaggerate the white voters’ percentage for Senator Obama. There is a problem in all opinion surveys like this one; the problem is that some whites are probably not telling the truth about their being likely to vote for Senator Obama (or even their uncertainty), what the media pundits often quaintly call the “Bradley effect” (in reality, the “racism effect”). We know from substantial social science research (here and here) that whites often do hide their actual views in surveys that touch directly on their racial views.

If Senator Obama is the Democratic nominee, as now seems likely, there will almost certainly be several more major racialized media attacks on him*, and these will also play into that white racist frame and scare off yet more white voters. Some time back, I predicted the viciously racist attack by the white-controlled media — that used Dr. Jeremiah Wright’s learned views that were critical of this society’s racism — pretty much as it occurred, and these will come up again if Senator Obama is the Democratic candidate. One negative image the Wright-type attacks suggest in many white voters’ minds is one central to the centuries-old white racist frame: the “dangerous black man.”

What we need in this society now is an open, overt, and assertive countering in all our institutions, including the often racially biased mass media, of these recurring white-racist views, images, and other white-framed perspectives. We need a great many people to speak against the kind of racist attacks used on Dr. Wright and on Senator Obama and to constantly disrupt conventional racist joking, commentaries, and performances across our everyday settings. Anti-racist whites can help lead the way on this.  Whites who hear or see racist performances by white friends and relatives, which happen millions of times a week in the all-white backstage regions of this country (as well as in multiracial frontstage areas), need to speak out often and assertively.  As I see it, such assertive anti-racist action is absolutely essential if we are to counter the continuing racist constructions of this country’s first major Black presidential candidate and to help him have a real chance to win. We do indeed need aggressive anti-racist actions and organization across the nation.

(*Note: I can see on certain websites what the new racialized attacks will likely be, but will not discuss them publicly here, so as not to put new ideas in the heads of possible attackers.)