The US House Apology for Slavery & Jim Crow: Open Thread for Comments

On a voice vote, late in the day on July 29, 2008, the U.S. House passed the historic resolution apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow, one sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen, a Jewish American representing a majority-black Memphis congressional district. Some 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus signed on as cosponsors, plus another 78 members of Congress (but only two Republicans). Cohen made this comment: “I hope that this is part of the beginning of a dialogue that this country needs to engage in, concerning what the effects of slavery and Jim Crow have been, I think we started it and we’re going to continue.”

Here is the apology resolution. What do you make of all this? Please add your comments below.

“Apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans.

Whereas millions of Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and the 13 American colonies from 1619 through 1865;

Whereas slavery in America resembled no other form of involuntary servitude known in history, as Africans were captured and sold at auction like inanimate objects or animals;

Whereas Africans forced into slavery were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage;

Whereas enslaved families were torn apart after having been sold separately from one another;

Whereas the system of slavery and the visceral racism against persons of African descent upon which it depended became entrenched in the Nation’s social fabric;

Whereas slavery was not officially abolished until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865 after the end of the Civil War, which was fought over the slavery issue;

Whereas after emancipation from 246 years of slavery, African-Americans soon saw the fleeting political, social, and economic gains they made during Reconstruction eviscerated by virulent racism, lynchings, disenfranchisement, Black Codes, and racial segregation laws that imposed a rigid system of officially sanctioned racial segregation in virtually all areas of life;

Whereas the system of de jure racial segregation known as `Jim Crow,’ which arose in certain parts of the Nation following the Civil War to create separate and unequal societies for whites and African-Americans, was a direct result of the racism against persons of African descent engendered by slavery;

Whereas the system of Jim Crow laws officially existed into the 1960’s–a century after the official end of slavery in America–until Congress took action to end it, but the vestiges of Jim Crow continue to this day;

Whereas African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow–long after both systems were formally abolished–through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty, the frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term loss of income and opportunity;

Whereas the story of the enslavement and de jure segregation of African-Americans and the dehumanizing atrocities committed against them should not be purged from or minimized in the telling of American history;

Whereas on July 8, 2003, during a trip to Goree Island, Senegal, a former slave port, President George W. Bush acknowledged slavery’s continuing legacy in American life and the need to confront that legacy when he stated that slavery `was . . . one of the greatest crimes of history . . . The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destiny is set: liberty and justice for all.’;

Whereas President Bill Clinton also acknowledged the deep-seated problems caused by the continuing legacy of racism against African-Americans that began with slavery when he initiated a national dialogue about race;

Whereas a genuine apology is an important and necessary first step in the process of racial reconciliation;

Whereas an apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs committed can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help Americans confront the ghosts of their past;

Whereas the legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia has recently taken the lead in adopting a resolution officially expressing appropriate remorse for slavery and other State legislatures are considering similar resolutions; and

Whereas it is important for this country, which legally recognized slavery through its Constitution and its laws, to make a formal apology for slavery and for its successor, Jim Crow, so that it can move forward and seek reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all of its citizens: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives–

(1) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow;

(2) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow; and

(3) expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.”

Racist Attacks on Mexican Immigrants: Another Sign of White Racism

Democracy Now reports on a story of anti-Mexican violence that is part of the growing violence we are seeing in this “liberty and justice” country against immigrants of color. This is likely one more predictable result of the increasingly xenophobic and racist verbal attacks on Latino immigrants we have seen over the last few years–much of it coming from extremist members of Congress and the media, as well as private vigilante-type groups.

The headline on the story runs as this:

“Friend of Mexican Immigrant Beaten to Death in Pennsylvania Gives Eyewitness Account of Attack”

And the account of the white attack on an immigrant is thus:

Luis Ramirez, a twenty-five-year-old Mexican immigrant, was beaten to death last week by a group of teenagers in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. He was walking home last Saturday night when six white high school students brutally beat him while yelling racial slurs. Despite eyewitness testimony, no charges have been filed. . . . Ramirez came to the United States six years ago. He was the father of two children.

A Mexican American friend of the man attacked was interviewed on the phone by Democracy Now and reported that this anti-Mexican attack stuff was not new:

But there are times when there are racial slurs. I mean, with my husband, I’ve been with him four years, and like, I’m telling you, there are many times that I’ve heard people scream racial slurs to him. You know, like I was pregnant with my son, and they told me, “What’s that in your belly? Another person I’m going to have to pay for? Another Mexican on welfare?” Like stuff like that. It’s disgusting.

Once again, we see the ways in which the old white racial frame negatively views Americans of color, and indeed accents negative images, emotions, and epithets for groups such as new Mexican immigrants. Right out of old anti-Mexican parts of that conventional racial frame, the racist slurs being yelled in these several cases become motivation for the violence.

Racism and Sexism: Bias in Fox, MSNBC, CNN News

MediaMatters did an important recent report on the rather extreme racial and gender bias in the distribution of experts/guests who appeared on three major cable news networks (Fox, CNN, MSNBC) during the prime-time hours for one whole month (May 2008). Examining nearly 1700 guest appearances, they found that

67 percent of the guests on these cable programs were men, while 84 percent were white. MSNBC showed the greatest gender imbalance, with 70 percent of its guests being male. CNN and Fox News were not far behind; each of those networks featured 65 percent male guests

It comes as no surprise as to who had the worst record, the most monolithic guest roster:

Fox News was the whitest network, with 88 percent white guests. CNN and MSNBC were close behind, with both featuring 83 percent white guests.

The representation of Latinos, who now makeup 14-15 percent of the U.S. population, was very poor. They

made up only 2.7 percent of cable news guests. The worst of the three networks on this score was MSNBC, which featured only six Latino guests out of 460 prime-time appearances during the entire month.

Asian Americans and Middle Eastern Americans were all but invisible on the networks:

During the month of May, Fox News and MSNBC each featured a single Asian-American guest. Across the three cable networks, there were only four appearances by guests of Middle Eastern descent, two on Fox and two on CNN.

And not one Native American was a guest on any of the networks during that whole month. However, the affirmative action “quota” for white men on the programs was quite high, as it has been for centuries:

Though white men make up only 32 percent of the population, they made up 57 percent of the guests on prime-time cable during this period.

And Americans of color as a group were only represented at about half their proportion in the U.S. population. Again, not surprisingly:

Every prime-time cable news host is white, and all but two . . . are men.

It is interesting how just how “diverse” the U.S. cable new media really are not. In effect, the communications networks called the “mass media” are part of a larger white-dominated societal networking system.

In recent decades white elites—especially white male elites—have continued to dominate the construction and transmission of new or refurbished racial ideas and images designed to buttress the system of racial inequality, and they have used ever more powerful means to accomplish their ends. The mass media now include not only the radio, movies, and print media used in the past, but television, music videos, satellite transmissions, and the Internet. Given that most whites have little recurring, sustained, or equal-status contact with African Americans and other darker-skinned Americans, their views of such groups are significantly reinforced and created by those of their informal networks and those racial stereotypes in the white-generated media images of the still white-controlled mass media. (See here)

White and Black Views: A USA Today Balancing Act

USA Today reports on a summer Gallup/USA Today poll on “race relations,” the conventional media term that dances around without naming the actual reality of systemic racism. They surveyed 702 whites, 608 blacks, and 502 Hispanics. The reporters make these opening claims:

The survey paints a mixed picture of race relations. The racial divide over whether African Americans are treated fairly hasn’t abated, and blacks and whites are deeply divided on how much of a role bias plays in problems faced by the African American community. On the other hand, a record 58% of Americans say race relations “eventually will be worked out,” while 38% say they will “always be a problem.”

The reporters use this weak opening that tries to put a pretty face on racism. After doing the usual balancing of “bad” racial news with “good” racial news–that is after framing the story from a version of the white racial frame that wants to play down racism–the reporter then notes some troubling and revealing data:

Two-thirds of non-Hispanic whites say they are satisfied with the way blacks are treated in the USA; two-thirds of blacks say they are dissatisfied. Most blacks identify racial discrimination as a major factor in a list of problems the African American community faces, including shorter life expectancies than whites and a higher likelihood of going to prison. Most whites call racism a minor factor or not a factor in those situations.

This “analysis” too is firmly framed from a version of the white racial frame. Why should we treat whites as valid sources on the extent of racial discrimination faced by black Americans? Why are there not many more questions on this discrimination faced by African Americans and reporting on how, when, and where they experience it? Why is there no comment on how out of touch many whites are on this discrimination faced by African Americans? Again, we have another form of white-framed balancing, which considers white answers to superficial survey questions on antiblack discrimination to be as important as black answers!

The reporters then, again, try to put a pretty face on U.S. racism:

The gap between blacks and whites in assessing race relations seems to be narrowing. Last year, 75% of whites and 55% of blacks said black-white relations were good, a 20-point gap. This year, that difference of opinion drops to 9 points. . . . Eight in 10 whites and seven in 10 blacks say civil rights for blacks have improved in the past decade.

Clearly, survey researchers often have a limited understanding of racial matters in this country, as is revealed in such superficial questioning. Why not ask more sophisticated and probing questions that get at the major differences in the way that black and white Americans see these issues of “race relations” (systemic racism) and civil rights progress? Why not do some interviewing on these matters? I am pretty sure they would find major differences if they did in-depth interviewing or focus groups.

And how about some more insightful analysis? For example, an African American can of course see improvement if the recent racial past was one of the lynchings and other extreme brutality and oppression of the legal segregation era that lasted into the 1970s—indeed, which ended a rather short time ago when many of us were already adults. It can still, of course, be a very bad situation today as other answers indicate.

This tepid “racial divide” language suggests just how white-framed, and thus out of touch with reality, the maintain mass media are. The so-called “racial divide” is the result of systemic racism created and perpetrated by whites — a system that has now operated over some 400 years in this country, yet it is very rare for this systemic racism, its racial hierarchy, or it rationalizing white racial frame to be critically analyzed in our whitewashed media. Is it a type of “collective psychosis” when large groups of people, like many whites inside and outside of the media, are way out of touch with our still highly racialized reality?

(Note: There is also no significant analysis of the Latino responses in this article. Also, the racist comments posted on the USA Today website by readers after their article contradict the “good race relations” approach in the article.)

Continue reading…

The Right to Bear Arms

In June, the Supreme Court of the United States completed its 2007 term with several significant decisions, one of which, District of Columbia et al. v. Heller (5-4), provided a landmark ruling with regard to the right of American citizens to bear arms.  Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia rejected a narrow interpretation of the Second Amendment as the right of citizens to keep and bear arms only in connection with a “well regulated militia,” as stated in the preface of the Amendment.  Instead, Justice Scalia maintained that the phrase “to keep and bear arms” means that every citizen, whether in the militia or not, could possess in their homes weapons for their personal defense, and further, that the Amendment applies to weapons, such as handguns, that did not exist when the Constitution was written.  In rendering this decision, the Court struck down as unconstitutional a law banning handguns in the District of Columbia. 

 Legal analysts and commentators were quick to point out that the decision was not likely to bring about dramatic changes in gun laws in most jurisdictions, particularly since the Court explicitly stated that certain restrictions were unaffected.  For example, the Court said that the Amendment only pertains to weapons in “common use” and not “unusual weapons,” such as machine guns.  Moreover, Justice Scalia qualified the majority opinion by saying that it protected only “the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home,” so that prohibitions on firearms possession by felons and the mentally ill were not deemed unconstitutional by this ruling, nor are laws prohibiting possession of firearms in certain places, such as schools and government buildings.  And, because the case originated in the District of Columbia, the decision affected only federal law; the Court did not explicitly address the question of if or how their interpretation of the Second Amendment applies to state and local jurisdictions (image from allamericanpatriots).

 This latter question may get answered soon, since immediately following the Court’s decision in Heller a lawsuit was filed in Chicago challenging that city’s similarly restrictive gun law.  Another suit, filed in San Francisco the day after the Heller decision was handed down, challenges a law there banning handguns in public housing developments. So while legal analysts were claiming that the Heller decision is important though largely symbolic, I couldn’t help but question who gains and who is most likely to lose as a result of this decision, given the new legal challenges filed already in its wake.

 I was struck, for example, by comments that the Heller ruling will most likely affect gun control laws only in major urban areas.  It is mostly municipal governments, after all, that have enacted laws like the one in DC because of the high incidence of gun violence in many urban neighborhoods. And some commentators remarked that the gun restrictions were not enforced in these neighborhoods anyway, so the Heller ruling would probably have no impact, one way or another, on gun violence there.  I came away with the sense that what was really being said is that these areas – and by extension, their residents, who happen to be disproportionately poor and people of color – are expendable: Just let them all have guns and they can shoot it out.  To me, there are strong undertones of abandoning neighborhoods perceived as “not worth saving,” areas where “law-abiding, responsible citizens” don’t live or wouldn’t go to anyway. 

 Perhaps I am reading too much into these comments, but I think it is worth remembering that all such decisions, by the Supreme Court and by policy makers, almost always have differential effects on different groups of people – with some benefiting and others losing – even though they are promulgated as affecting everyone equally.  There is considerable debate, for instance, as to whether gun control laws really do reduce violent crime. In fact, there are researchers who argue that potential crime victims who have guns may deter criminals.  Yet, I cannot help but think of a recent case in Houston, Texas, in which a white man, Joe Horn, shot and killed two Hispanic men, whom he saw breaking into his neighbor’s home. Horn mistakenly identified the men as “black” when he phoned a 911 dispatcher about the break-in, telling the operator he was going to shoot the men, that he was going to kill them, that he was not going to let them “get away with it.” Texas law permits the use of deadly force to protect property, and a grand jury refused to indict Horn.  But some observers questioned whether the grand jury – described as a “sea of white faces” – would have come to the same decision if Mr. Horn were black. The Supreme Court has now given citizens the right to bear arms to protect themselves and their “hearth and home,” but how will that right be implemented in practice? There has historically been a wide disparity between the written law and the law “in action,” with  the poor and people of color usually being on the losing side when it comes to how laws are applied.            

Supporters of the DC handgun ban argued that it was correlated with a reduction of homicides in that city. Although some researchers dispute this finding, one may legitimately ask, who is most likely to die from a firearm homicide?  According to the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), the answer is young black males.  Statistics compiled by the CDF show that the chance of a black male being killed by a firearm before his 30th birthday are 1 in 72; a white male had a 1 in 344 chance.  The CDF reports that black children and teens are more likely than white children and teens to be victims of firearm homicide, and the firearm death rate for black males, 15-19 years old, is more than four times greater than the firearm death rate for white males, 15-19 years old (image from cinematical).

 It is still too early to determine what impact the Heller decision will have, particularly in terms of challenges to other municipal gun control laws and death rates.  But taking legal history into account, I am not optimistic that residents of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are going to benefit this time around either.



House Resolution Apologizing for Slavery and Segregation

Rep. Steve Cohen from Memphis, Tennessee, has introduced a non-binding resolution (H.Res.194) next week “apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans,” according to John Breshanan at The Crypt. Cohen represents a majority African-American district in Memphis. The resolution, which was introduced at the beginning of the 110th Congress (image from wallyg), makes no mention of reparations, but it does state that black Americans “continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow — long after both systems were formally abolished…” The resolution also acknowledges that an apology “cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs committed can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help Americans confront the ghosts of their past.” The resolution has 120 co-sponsors.

What do you think about the resolution? Drop a comment.

Midwestern Flooding and Katrina: More Racist Framing

Though I know am I not the first person to post something about this on a blog, I felt it was really important to start a similar discussion on this blog in particular. I’m currently teaching at a small college in Iowa after being on a 9 year hiatus and have been enduring crazy weather here in the Midwest. The flooding this summer was devastating for many (image from Dusty Allen Smith). Fortunately, the area where I live was unaffected for the most part, unlike 83 out of 99 counties in this state. While I do not want to diminish the loss that many families have suffered, I was nothing but shocked to see that there were comparisons being made to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. I’m creating a class on Katrina for our J-term in 2009 and was googling to see if I could find displaced Katrina refugees residing in Iowa. Instead of finding that, I saw many articles talking about “Iowa’s Katrina” (as apparently dubbed by Fox News) and statements from Rush Limbaugh praising Iowa victims for not being whiny like those in New Orleans were.

Limbaugh: I want to know. I look at Iowa, I look at Illinois—I want to see the murders. I want to see the looting. I want to see all the stuff that happened in New Orleans. I see devastation in Iowa and Illinois that dwarfs what happened in New Orleans. I see people working together. I see people trying to save their property…I don’t see a bunch of people running around waving guns at helicopters, I don’t see a bunch of people running shooting cops. I don’t see a bunch of people raping people on the street. I don’t see a bunch of people doing everything they can…whining and moaning—where’s FEMA, where’s BUSH. I see the heartland of America. When I look at Iowa and when I look at Illinois, I see the backbone of America.

It is likely the case, that when Limbaugh looks at Iowa, he sees a lot of white people. According to the Census, Iowa’s population was 73% white in 2000. Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are 87.33% and 91.86% white respectively. The percentage of people below the poverty line in Iowa City is 4.7%. In Cedar Rapids, 7.5%. In 2000, New Orleans was 67.25% African American and the poverty rate was more than twice the national rate at 28%. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was highly segregated and had many more African Americans living in poverty than whites (35% compared to 11%). Beyond these statistics, and trust me, I’m not meteorologists, but I’m pretty sure that flooding after a Category 5 Hurricane destroys a city is different than flooding caused by enormous amounts of rainfall combined with a wet winter. The infrastructure in Iowa was already relatively sound and definitely not completely obliterated before these flood waters started rising. Additionally, people were well informed about the risk of flooding in advance and had resources to prepare to evacuate. Roads were not damaged and closed, police were not preventing people from leaving their cities, and no one that I’m aware of had to wait for 5 days for food, water, or rescue.

There are many reasons that it is foolish for Limbaugh and others to compare these scenarios. The most obvious is difference between human life lost or relocated. Reports are showing that 35,000-40,000 people were evacuated in the Midwest compared with 1.2 million in the Gulf Coast area. In the Midwest floods, 24 people lost their lives, compared to the 1,833 that is estimated along the Gulf Coast (though there is still some question about the final number.) When comparing damages, the numbers are just as staggering. Perhaps if the devastation in Iowa had been even remotely close to what poor, African Americans faced in New Orleans, we would have seen frustration that boiled over into the acts that Limbaugh is using to characterize the victims of Katrina. (It’s interesting, though sadly not surprising, that he does not focus on the positive ways that people pulled together in order to save lives and help their neighbors, despite risking their own lives to do so, but instead exaggerates events that occurred and criminalizes victims of a tragedy.) However, there’s also a good chance, that because the flood victims in Iowa were predominantly white, that help would have happened more quickly than Katrina regardless of the scope of the disaster.

But moving beyond that, wouldn’t we expect the response to these sorts of situations to be different because of the tragedy of Katrina? Shouldn’t government be responding more effectively and efficiently? Shouldn’t people be more prepared and informed on what to do having seen the aftermath of what can happen when a response is painfully and unnecessarily slow? Even today as Texas recently prepared for Tropical Storm Dolly, the government took more precautions than were likely in place when Katrina hit.

Regardless, it is disturbing that people are referring to the floods of ’08 as “Iowa’s Katrina” as Fox news has claimed. The comparison and discourse around it serves only to diminish the impact of the what happened in 2005, to further denigrate and marginalize victims who suffered tremendous loss, while bolstering white Iowans who were in a much different scenario in every sense. It seems to me that to label a lesser event a “Katrina” is a way of manipulating the true impact of that disaster. No one would deny that the floods of 2008 were tragic, but to compare them to what happened in the Gulf Coast is just ignorant. People making these claims are wearing blinders, choosing only to see certain aspects of each situation. And at the same time, they are drawing racial lines in the sand. The message is clear. Whites in Iowa should be praised for their fortitude, while blacks in New Orleans should be seen as whiny, criminals not responsible or concerned enough to try to do something to help themselves. Though it shouldn’t, I still find myself amazed at how blatantly racist people continue to be, even in the face of tragedy.

Essay Collection is Now Out – “Speaking Treason Fluently”

Just wanted to let folks know that my essay collection, Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections from an Angry White Male, has just been released by Soft Skull/Counterpoint. In it, you can find a little more than 40 of my essays on race, institutional racism and white privilege, from 2000 to 2008. Ranging from pieces on white denial to the costs and consequences of white privilege and inequality on folks of color and whites as well, the collection covers most every conceivable racial flashpoint and subject of the past decade. For those on racismreview who are familiar with my writing, and who have perhaps used it before (in classes, or with recalcitrant family members for that matter!), getting a copy of the book will allow you to have all the “best” pieces in one place. Much easier than tracking everything down on my ridiculously non-user-friendly website! Anyway, you can grab a copy at your local bookstore (they may have to order it), or easily get it by going to my home page, and clicking on the book cover, which will take you to the Amazon link.

Thanks in advance for your ongoing support of my work, and to many of you, for your example and mentorship as well over the years.

A Review of CNN’s “Black in America”

On July 23 and 24, CNN aired their much-hyped series entitled “Black in America,” which sought to examine the varied and wide-ranging experiences of African Americans in the contemporary U.S. The series sought to explore and document “what it really means to be black in America,” by focusing on the experiences of a wide range of everyday black Americans and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that they face (image from CNN). The segment on July 23 focused on Black women; the segment on July 24 addressed Black men. Together, the two segments addressed topics including the high numbers of female-headed households, the challenges of public education, inner-city isolation, hip hop culture, and the staggering rates of imprisoned Black men.

While many people I know emailed reminders and made it a point to watch the show (my mother even marked it on her calendar!), I wasn’t overly excited about it. I figured that if CNN did an accurate job reporting what it means to be black in America, then they wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. If they did a poor job and misrepresented things (which they have done in the past), then I would just get irritated. But I was pleased to see that in many ways, CNN made some important points and addressed some key things that urgently need to be addressed.

One thing I appreciated most about “Black in America,” was the focus on the things that everyday Black people do to improve their communities and to try to make the world a better place. In the July 23 segment on Black women, the show followed a Black male high school principal who, troubled by the high numbers of Black students who do not complete high school, actually tracks down truants to encourage them to come back to school. Reporter Soledad O’Brien later profiled a Black woman cardiologist who does outreach to encourage Black people to get routine preventative health screenings and to overcome distrust of the medical establishment. (This distrust is well founded. The Tuskegee experiment, in which Black men were injected with syphilis and/or denied medical treatment in order to study the progression of the disease, is the most infamous example of Blacks being used for medical experiments in ways that violate ethical standards and human rights.)   The show also featured a Black male economics professor who, in an effort to address racial disparities in educational attainment, is trying a controversial experiment where he pays children for good grades in an effort to build strong study habits and an appreciation for the value of education.

Examples like these are an important counter to many of the commonplace myths about Black Americans that abound in popular culture, policy decisions and in everyday interactions. Many believe that Black Americans in general are lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. To this way of thinking, the main challenge facing Black Americans is their refusal to exert any agency to change their circumstances. This perception does not characterize most African Americans. One of the most valuable contributions of “Black in America” is that it documented many everyday, ordinary African Americans who work hard for themselves and to make life better for others. This is a picture we rarely see in mainstream media, which disproportionately depict Blacks as perpetrators of crime rather than everyday Americans trying to make changes. (See Joe Feagin’s Systemic Racism for more discussion of this.)

I also appreciated the program’s emphasis on Black fathers, and their acknowledgment that contrary to popular opinion, many Black men are actively involved in their children’s lives and parent under unbelievably difficult circumstances. The show also made connections between the fact that while some Black men are absent parents, often this is a consequence of many complicated factors—cycles of parental abandonment, incarceration as a result of a racially biased criminal justice system—structural issues that are often overlooked.

Now for the problems: one glaring omission in “Black in America” is the absence of any Black (openly) lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered individuals. While I applaud “Black in America” for its attention to how gender and class are important factors in creating a myriad of experiences in Black America, I think the segment should have acknowledged that not all of Black America is heterosexual. Black LGBT individuals face issues and challenges in the Black community that stem from intersections of race, sexuality, and gender. Too often they are alternately overlooked or demonized, and CNN missed a valuable opportunity to speak to their experiences. How might the story on Black women have been changed had Soledad O’Brien spoken with the family of Sakia Gunn, the 15 year old Newark, New Jersey lesbian who was murdered in 2003 after refusing the sexual advances of men by identifying herself as a lesbian?  Gunn’s story shows not only the ways that homophobia impacts Black Americans, but the threat of violence that Black women face every day. This is another very important part of being Black in America that should have been included.

On a related note, the July 23 segment on Black women did not seem to focus very heavily on issues facing Black women. The stories in this segment included an incredibly poignant account of a single Black father in Brooklyn trying to maintain steady employment to keep his children in school, and his young son’s involvement in the experimental class where children were paid to earn good grades. Another story detailed a young woman who, abandoned by her father and searching for a father figure, ended up raising several children alone, and the impact that male abandonment can have on young women. A third story focused on black professional women’s struggles to find comparably educated Black professional mates, and the challenges of doing this given the high numbers of Black men who are incarcerated, uneducated, and unavailable.

While these stories definitely include Black women, I did not feel that there was a heavy emphasis on the ways intersections of race and gender create specific experiences for them.  In some ways, these stories still seemed to be more about Black men than Black women. In a profile of a Black woman who had no health insurance, Soledad O’Brien emphasized the difficulty this woman experienced maintaining her health when no stores in her neighborhood provided fresh fruits or vegetables, and the fact that without a car, she had to travel over an hour to get nutritious food. And, in a compelling quote that captures the essence of urban health disparities, the woman said that in her neighborhood, “it’s easier to buy a gun than a tomato.”   While this is definitely an important story,  it reflects intersections of race and class much more so than race and gender. I’m surprised that a segment on Black women did not discuss the fact that Black women are much more likely than white women develop and die from breast cancer, to develop uterine fibroids, and to give birth to low-birth weight babies (as Jessie posted about recently), and the studies that connect these issues to surviving daily onslaughts of racism and sexism. It’s also interesting that in this discussion of health, there was no mention of the fact that Black women are the fastest-rising group of new HIV/AIDS cases, are 26 times more likely to contract AIDS than white women, and that this occurs most frequently through heterosexual intercourse.   Finally, Black women experience sexual assaults at higher rates than women of other racial groups, yet are less likely to see their assailants prosecuted. From slavery on, Black women have enjoyed little ownership over their bodies and have had to combat issues including rape, forced sterilization, and limited access to birth control, so the current issues Black women face in this vein have clear historical precedent. Yet for some reason, these were overlooked in the segment that purported to focus on Black women.

Lastly, I felt that the July 24 story about race and education overstated, as mainstream media outlets frequently do, the “acting white” phenomenon among Black Americans. The show reported that for many Black Americans, school success is perceived as “acting white,” which leads African Americans to shun it in favor of pursuing other routes to popularity. The “acting white” argument, first introduced in academic circles by Signathia Fordham and John Ogbu “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the Burden of ‘Acting White,’” has been retested and analyzed among many other researchers who find little empirical support for this theory. In short, Fordham and Ogbu state that Black students don’t perform well academically in part because they see it as “acting white,” and because they recognize that in a racially unequal society, there will be little reward for their educational efforts. Yet numerous other scholars have performed more empirically sophisticated tests of this theory and have gleaned different results. In several articles, Jim Ainsworth and Douglas Downey have argued that Black students who earn high grades are very popular among their peers and believe that their educational gains will earn them occupational rewards down the line. Sociologist Karolyn Tyson has also argued that Black students with high grades are popular among peers, and that their academic achievement is met with positive regard rather than negative sanction. This is not to say that Black children never taunt others with “acting white,” but that a well-documented body of research suggests that this label may be given for reasons other than academic success, and that it is likely not the deterrent to academic achievement that Fordham and Ogbu initially suggested. It is rather unfortunate that CNN ignored a body of social science literature that challenges this theory in order to perpetuate what cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson has referred to as “the academic equivalent of an urban legend.”

Overall, I felt that the CNN special told me little I didn’t know about being Black in America—which, to me, means that for the most part they accurately reported many of the varied, diverse experiences of African Americans in contemporary society. For other educators, this series could be a useful tool for initiating discussion about race, class, and social structure in America. The series definitely challenged some—not all—of the preconceptions and stereotypes that persist about Black Americans. It is worth watching, but definitely warrants watching with a critical eye.

Obama as Politician

The article in the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker magazine that accompanies the tasteless satire on the cover (which we discussed here) does not mention the cover picture and its “satirical” portrayal of Obama and his wife. The subtitle of the article is “How Chicago Shaped Obama,” but the subtext and tone of the article suggests that the purpose of the article is to characterize Obama as an opportunistic, ambitious, calculating politician, ready to oil the political machine that has dominated Chicago for decades. The article mentions Obama’s political moves throughout his career in order to characterize him as a calculating cog in the political system. The author of the piece, Ryan Lizza, writes:

“Obama seems to have been meticulous about constructing a political identity for himself.”

From Lizza’s perspective, it seems that each move by Obama contained another motive, always with an eye toward moving up to higher political office. Lizza’s point seems to be that this is the work of a typical, if extraordinarily gifted, politician. This is not particularly shocking news, afterall he is running for office within the established political system. Why would anyone be surprised to find that he fits the job description? Lizza also seems to be making the point that Obama has had less than impeccable personal integrity in his relationships with other politicians in Chicago, as in this passage about a former mentor and ally, Toni Preckwinkle, a city Alderman:

“… in 2004 Preckwinkle supported Obama during his improbable, successful run for the United States Senate. So it was startling to learn that Toni Preckwinkle had become disenchanted with Barack Obama.”

Preckwinkle feels Obama has been disloyal to his base of devoted supporters in Chicago, and she is particularly disaffected with Obama because he failed to endorse a local candidate that she supported. Seems like politics as usual. Yet, Lizza treats it as if he’s uncovering a scandal. Lizza continues in this “uncovering” style in his writing as he sets up the rest of the piece this way:

“Obama likes to discuss his unusual childhood—his abandonment by his father and his upbringing by a sometimes single mother and his grandparents in Indonesia and Hawaii—and the three years in the nineteen-eighties when he worked as a community organizer in Chicago, periods of his life chronicled at length in his first memoir, “Dreams from My Father.” He occasionally refers to his time in the United States Senate, which he wrote about in his second memoir, “The Audacity of Hope.” But his life in Chicago from 1991 until his victorious Senate campaign is a lacuna in his autobiography. It is also the period that formed him as a politician.

The fact that Obama has left this period unexamined in his books or campaign literature, Lizza seems to suggest, makes this all the more important. The big take away from all this reporting is summarized by Lizza like this:

“Like many politicians, Obama is paradoxical. He is by nature an incrementalist, yet he has laid out an ambitious first-term agenda (energy independence, universal health care, withdrawal from Iraq). He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.”

And, despite the teaser in the introduction to the piece about Preckwinkle’s disillusionment with Obama, most of the other people quoted in the article have good things to say about the candidate. For example, political consultant David Axelrod, recognized Obama’s potential to bring opposing sides together in bipartisan agreement and his natural charisma. He’s quoted in the article saying:

“He met people not just in the African-American community but in the progressive white community.”

Lizza interviews another close friend, Bettylu Saltzman, who recalls:

“I honestly don’t remember what it was about him, but I was absolutely blown away, I said to several people that this guy, who is now thirty years old, is someday going to be President. He will be our first black President.”

While some in the blogosphere call this article “great,” we see it differently. The combined effect of the cover image, the investigative tone of the article, and the association of Obama with the seamy world of Chicago politics, converge to create an overall negative impression of Obama as both a person and a politician. The article is, overall, emphasizing Obama’s readiness to embrace the political system that every other politician makes use of; yet, it does little to explore his policies and practices that more accurately speak to what kind of president he will become.

~ Amanda & Hannah

Amanda and Hannah are advanced undergraduate students at Texas A&M University doing a major research project on the numerous racial aspects of the current U.S. presidential campaign–with a special focus on the unique reality and impacts of having the first Black candidate for a major political party in the campaign. They will be guest blogging with us on their research findings over the next few months. ~ Joe