On “Racial Amnesia,” Gender and Persistent U.S. Racism

Anita Hill has an op-ed piece in The Boston Globe in which she suggests that “racial amnesia may be the cure” for getting Obama elected (image source).  Her essay includes this paragraph:

Regardless of one’s political leaning, most would acknowledge that the country is aware of its racial and ethnic diversity, and that for most Americans the stark contrast between the “black experience” and the “white experience” no longer exists. Systemic, state-enforced discrimination has disappeared and the prominence of civil rights law enforcement is greatly diminished.

And then after acknowledging some lingering inequality, she closes with this:

Figuring out the significance of race will be a challenge, but relying on racial memories based on a divided reality is not a good option.

Hill locates racism in the past, as a phenomenon residing primarily in the “memories” of a divided reality.   No doubt this is a comforting notion to many.  Unfortunately, Hill’s call for willful amnesia contributes to the problem rather than helps alleviate it.   As I posted a couple of days ago, we live in a culture that discourages critical thinking, particularly around issues of race and racism, and this makes understanding the world more difficult rather than easier.

Racism does not exist exclusively in the realm of the past.  Just recently, a life-sized effigy of Obama was found hanging from a tree with a noose around its neck at the University of Kentucky, and this is just the latest in a series of overtly racist incidents, including a foiled assassination plot by neo-nazis. (Updated @10:44am to add: And now this racist email from a GOP party volunteer that even FoxNews is reporting.)   The persistence of this sort of overt racism alongside the trend toward support for Obama among many whites (including David Duke, as Joe noted) suggests that racism continues to be a complicated issue in the U.S.   Such a reality calls for engaging in more complex and nuanced thinking about race, not amnesia.    Hill is a smart woman and it’s disappointing to see her advocate such a naïve and facile position on race.    Charles Ogletree, law professor at Harvard, argues that “racial amnesia” and “racial fatigue” are the real problems.  We have forgotten how significant race is and we think we don’t have to talk about it anymore, Ogletree said at a recent gathering about racial disparties in the judicial system.  The school-to-prison pipeline is still about race and about gender.  At Rikers Island (where I’ve done some research), the population is 95% black and brown.  Blacks are 10 times more likely to be arrested than whites, and young men are 17 times more likely to be arrested than young women. In Connecticut, for example, the state has sent hundreds of adolescent girls (opens .pdf) — most of them black and brown —  to the state’s maximum security women’s prison (h/t Rick Green).

Given Hill’s background as a strong example, heroine even, for women who have endured sexual harassment in the work place, it’s doubly disappointing to read her recommendation advocating for racial amnesia rather than pointing it out as a problem.    It seems unlikely that she would recommend a similar strategy for dealing with gender.    Instead of “Speaking Truth to Power” (the name of her book about her testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings) about racism, Hill adopts the white racial frame by embracing intentional forgetfulness.  If Hill’s goal was to support the Obama campaign (crossing over from her life long allegiance to the GOP), she might have drawn on the example of Shirley Chisholm (image source).

Talk about amnesia.  Chisholm, a representative in Congress from Queens, NY ran for U.S. President in 1972.   Her name has rarely, if ever, been mentioned in the current election cycle.  Chisholm talked openly about facing racism and sexism, and courageously spoke truth to power at a time when it was incredibly unpopular to do so.   Chisholm’s bid for high office made possible both presidential campaigns of Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.     Do yourself a favor, watch “Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed,” this election season and rid yourself of a little amnesia.

White Supremacists Favor Obama over McCain? A Weird Election?

The world of U.S. racism and U.S. politics has its very weird aspects. Esquire magazine reports on their recent interviews with several leaders of white supremacist groups.
Here is the infamous Tom Metzger, director of the White Aryan Resistance:

The corporations are running things now, so it’s not going to make much difference who’s in there, but McCain would be much worse. He’s a warmonger. He’s a scary, scary person–more dangerous than Bush. Obama, according to his book, Dreams Of My Father, is a racist and I have no problem with black racists. I’ve got the quote right here: ‘I found a solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and animosity against my mother’s white race.’ The problem with Obama is he’s being dishonest about his racial views. I’d respect him if he’d just come out and say, ‘Yeah, I’m a black racist.’ I don’t hate black people. I just think it’s in the best interest of the races to be separated as much as possible. See, I’m a leftist. I’m not a rightist. I hate the transnational corporations far more than any black person.

So, a leading white-racist thinker hates transnational firms more than an African American Senator or President, but must portray him as a “black racist” in order to come to his view. This seems pretty schizophrenic thinking if typical of much white supremacist thinking. Then the Esquire story quotes the head of the Imperial Klans and a few other white supremacist leaders who offer mixed reviews of the campaign. A couple seem glad that Obama is about to be elected, as in their view that will fuel the white supremacist movement and move whites into their organizations.

I was interviewed by a Canadian reporter this morning, who had talked with David Duke, former Klan leader and Louisiana state representative, and Duke told him he thought half of all whites would be upset that Obama is elected and thus move toward the white supremacist camp.

Then there is Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, evaluated by SPLC.ORG and its recent SPLC report as a white supremacist thinker, who argues thus about “Why Obama Will Win,” in which he assesses many white voters:

First, some support his policies. They want to end the war in Iraq, and they want the standard liberal program of socialized medicine, higher taxes, more handouts, and more government. . . . Second, as many people have pointed out, an enormous number of whites think it is deeply virtuous to vote for a black—not for an out-and-out race man such as Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, but for an unthreatening, well-scrubbed black who speaks standard English and promises to “bring us together.” Even if they live sharply segregated lives, whites thrill to the language of “coming together,” and they adore blacks who don’t act or sound black. … Obama will be an act of high patriotism. Electing him will prove America is not “racist,” and many whites believe that rising above “racism” is America’s sacred calling.

SPLC describes Taylor as seeing Senator Obama as a “post-racial president.” This does sound like what one hears from more centrist commentators in the media as well.

A very unusual confluence of opinion across white America? And the media are doing stories about the “end of racism” and on “no racial effects” in this campaign? Really?

What do you think?

Hoping for a Bradley Effect?

Like so many others at this point, I’m suffering from election fatigue. Despite promising poll numbers, many argue that McCain shouldn’t be counted out .

After wondering why the heck McCain was continuing to campaign in places like Iowa and Pennsylvania, states in which Obama leads on average by double-digits (see this), there seems to be only one explanation: that the McCain campaign is hoping for the Bradley Effect, along with the Wilder Effect.

The former refers to whites lying to pollsters about supporting the black candidate while actually voting for someone else (i.e., the white candidate), while the latter refers to the remaining undecideds to break overwhelmingly for the white candidate. (Thus, it is more accurately called the “white racism effect.”)

In both RCP averages in those states, Obama’s raw score is above 52 percent, meaning that the Wilder Effect alone would be insufficient for McCain to win in those states. So why spend time campaigning there with such little time left before Election Day? Part of the explanation could be that they have nothing left at this point, but why ignore Colorado at this juncture? Turns out that they may be banking on the older white populations of Iowa and Pennsylvania (along with others like Florida and Ohio), while giving up on Colorado (the youngest state in the union). Apparently the recent charges ranging from “palling around with terrorists” to “socialist” to “Marxist” are attempts to gain favor with these voters. What do you think: could the McCain camp be onto something (say, based on their own polling), or is this just another poor decision of an utterly miserable campaign?

Seeing Racial Bias: Barry Dunham vs. Barack Obama

A new study suggests that names significantly change our perception of a person’s face and their racial identity.

Indeed, if Barack Obama had taken his mother’s last name, Dunham, and used the first name common in his earlier in life, Barry, people today might have a very different perception of him.   The study, called “Barack Obama or Barry Dunham?” and conducted by researchers at the University of New South Wales, set out to test the hypothesis that the presence of racially-suggestive names would influence participants’ perception of identical multiracial faces (image from here) .

Participants were shown a face and name for 3 seconds, then asked to rate the appearance of the face on a 9-point scale, where 1=”very Asian-looking” and 9=”very European-looking.”   The researchers found that the study participants rated multi-racial faces with European names as looking significantly “more European” than exactly the same faces when given Asian names.  In an interview, one of the researchers, Kirin Hilliar a UNSW PhD student, summarizes the study’s significance this way:

“The study reveals how socially derived expectations and stereotypes can influence face perception.  The result is consistent with other research findings suggesting that once people categorize a face into a racial group, they look for features consistent with that categorization.”

This sort of research seems to lend credibility to the importance of cognitive frames for shaping our thinking about race.    And indeed, this study seems to go beyond this to suggest that these cognitive frames are so powerful they even shape the way we see people.   We tend to see physical characteristics through a frame that selectively highlights certain attributes and codes those as racial signifiers.  This is important for sociologists and other scholars because many of our basic research relies on old notions of “race” as defined by a “group of people who share similar physical characteristics” (as the intro text I’m currently using defines it).   This leads to all sorts of logical fallacies about “shared characteristics” rooted in biology that simply don’t hold up to rigorous investigation or when examined in light of historical context (e.g., recall that the Irish and the Italians were once regarded as “biologically distinct” from white Americans).   “Race” is a social construct that we learn to see through a number of cultural cues including names.

Thinking Change in an Anti-Thinking Culture

The U.S. needs to think differently and more complexly than it does about race, unfortunately, we are steeped in a culture that is deeply resistant to thinking at all.   This is a conclusion I’ve reached in my own research about cyber racism and this seemed to crystallize in the juxtaposition of a new report from the Center for Social Inclusion and an article at Slate by Christopher Hitchens (thanks to jayrosen_nyu and joegerstandt via Twitter).

The article by Hitchens (not usually a favorite) is a scathing piece about what he calls the “GOP ticket’s appalling contempt for knowledge and learning.”    Hitchens is right to call out Palin for her speech in Pittsburgh last week in which she lamented the:

…wasteful expenditure on fruit-fly research, adding for good xenophobic and anti-elitist measure that some of this research took place “in Paris, France” and winding up with a folksy “I kid you not.”

Hitchens goes on to point out the that it’s “especially ridiculous and unfortunate” that Palin chose to make these remarks in Pittsburgh, “a great city that remade itself after the decline of coal and steel into a center of high-tech medical research.”  Clearly, the McCain/Palin have set themselves in opposition to any sort of funded research as these are invariably the butt of the “earmark” joke that structures many of their speeches.    I’ve been disturbed about the celebration of stupidity and anti-thinking that seems to scaffold the Palin nomination and Hitchens does a decent job of articulating this problem.

So, what does all this have to do with race, you may ask?   As the last couple of posts here illustrate (one by Adia about the unprecedented support by whites for Obama, followed by one by me about a neo-nazi plot to assassinate Obama) racism in the post-Civil Rights, pro-Obama era is complicated.

In the face of this complexity, what we need is more critical thinking about race, not more race-and-color-blindness.   And, a new 28-page report called, “Thinking Change,” (opens .pdf) funded by the Ford Foundation and prepared by the Center for Social Inclusion for the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, makes this point very powerfully.    The whole report is worth reading and I may write more about it another time, but for now I want to highlight a few key findings.   The authors of the report reviewed a wide swath of social science research about race and concluded:

• The concept of framing, or the ways ideas are shaped and presented to the public, is very powerful. Framing affects our response to data and research.  Studies show that if the data and research do not fit the frame, people tend to reject the data and research, not the frame.
• Group identity shapes racial attitudes and behavior.  Facts and self-interest are not as important as values and identity in influencing behavior.
• Context and environmental factors shape and shift our identity, attitudes and behaviors.
• How we construct the discussion around race can influence our behaviors and attitudes.

Throughout the report, the authors emphasize the importance of “framing,” that is the way that ideas around race are shaped and discussed in public, and largely their findings support what Joe and other writers here have been saying about the “white racial frame.” The authors note that the current dominant frames don’t support race-consciousness and that this, along with structural unfairness, blinds whites to the reality of social inequality:

“Many Whites are blind to structural unfairness precisely because of their structural advantages. Access to social, cultural and economic capital protect[s] whites from having to face…the market forces that they so readily see as the solution to the disadvantage of blacks and other nonwhites.”

In many ways, this is an example of the sort of epistemology detached from an acknowledged awareness of race is to what philosopher Charles W. Mills calls “an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, … producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world that they themselves have made.” The report is less interested in epistemology and more focused on what is necessary for change.  It’s the lack of critical thinking about race on the part of whites is a key element the authors identify that needs to change.  They go on to conclude that “race-neutral strategies” are doomed to fail.   So much for color-blindness.

The reality is that if we want to address racial inequality in the U.S., we need to think differently and more complexly about race.  Of course, the additional struggle is to build a culture that values knowledge and thinking at all.   Perhaps having an intelligent, African American president who not only reads books but has written a couple of books, will begin to counter both the dominant frame of anti-intellectualism and the frame of color-blindness.

Neo-Nazis Arrested in Plot to Kill Obama

The ATF has disrupted the plot of two neo-nazis to kill 88 black people, decaptitating 14 of them, and ending their killing spree with the assassination of Barack Obama. The numbers 88 and 14 hold significance within white supremacist movement rhetoric, “88” stands for “Heil Hitler,” (H is the eigth letter of the alphabet) and “14” represents the “14 word” slogan of white supremacists (“we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”).

The two men, Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tennessee (picture here in an undated MySpace photo picked by the AP), and Paul Schlesselman 18, of West Helena, Arkansas, are being held without bond.

This news story, like the one of the failed hoax by Ashley Todd who claimed she was assaulted by a black man, will no doubt get filed away and dismissed for most Americans as the behavior of a “few nutcases.” But, I want to suggest that interpreting this sort of behavior through a mental health lens is another way of using the white racial frame to interpret events that obfuscates a larger pattern. While it’s true, as Adia points out, that whites are supporting Obama in record numbers, it’s also the case that there is a centuries-long history of this sort of racist activity in the U.S. For example, at one time another white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, included 4 million members nationally. Of course, their numbers are nowhere near that level today (the SPLC estimates there are probably 800 groups nationally). But that doesn’t mean white supremacists are not a threat. It simply means they are a different kind of threat. They are not likely to draw large numbers to their ranks, but those that are in the groups are potentially very dangerous, as is evident in the arrest of Cowan and Schlesselman.

The problem with interpreting the actions (or planned actions) of individuals like Cowart and Schlesselman merely as “nutcases” is that such an interpretation blinds us to the fact that white supremacist groups have been a consistent presence in this country since 1866. And, each time their numbers fall, whites who are not members of these groups, claim that these groups “are dead.” Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking more than accurate observation.

Dynamic News: Whites Supporting Obama in Record Breaking Numbers

A recent story on Politico.com finds that Barack Obama is “poised to win the largest share of white voters of any Democrat in more than three decades.” The article reports that 44% of whites are supporting Obama. This means that Obama is poised to get more white voters than Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry—every white Democratic candidate except for Jimmy Carter, who had support from 47% of whites (image from Mr. Jincks).

Of course, we still have a little over a week to go before the election, and things could still change. But many pollsters, oddsmakers, commentators, and analysts are calling this race for Obama. A recent New York Times story even argues that some within the McCain camp (speaking on the condition of anonymity, of course) expect Obama to win.  Politico’s report comes at a time when there are hopeful implications to be drawn from many otherwise negative stories. Racialized attacks on Obama seem to be falling flat with voters. A McCain volunteer’s fabricated story of being attacked by a large black man did not follow the same path as the Susan Smith story of 1994 or the Charles Stuart case of 1989  (Both Smith and Stuart falsely claimed they had been attacked by large black men. In both cases, police engaged in widespread racial profiling before it became clear that the “victims” were actually the perpetrators of the crimes.) Increasingly, it is looking more and more like Obama could get a broad coalition of support not just from voters of color, but from the white voters he will need in order to win the presidency.

When Obama won the nomination, I wrote on this post about how his election would potentially change the ways in which we think about and understand race in this country. If Obama generates the level of support Politico is predicting, it will be a major, transformative event in American history.  It will mean that not only will we have the first black president, but that a sizable number of whites supported his candidacy, even more than those who supported Bill Clinton, one of the most popular white Democratic candidates in recent history. Another thing to consider is that Obama would be taking office during an economic crisis of nearly unmatched proportions. So not only would Obama generate more white support than any of his white male Democratic predecessors, these type of numbers would suggest that a record-breaking number of white voters trust a Black man to provide better leadership, solutions, and guidance out of this financial meltdown than his white male counterpart. This is a phenomenal, unprecedented moment. As the political analysts are (somewhat repeatedly) fond of saying, it might just be a “game changer.”

But first, for what this doesn’t mean. An Obama win, even with more white support than any candidate preceding him since Jimmy Carter, doesn’t mean that racism is over. It doesn’t mean that some of the same whites who will vote for Obama see him in ways that challenge racial inequality. Specifically, some will continue to see him as different from “most” black people, who they view as lazy, unintelligent, and immoral. It doesn’t mean that institutional, systemic racism that results in neighborhood segregation, wealth disparities, educational inequities, and racialized processes in the criminal justice system no longer exists. It doesn’t mean that Black men will stop getting beaten and harassed by police, or that Black women will no longer be disproportionately represented in low-wage, low-prestige jobs. It doesn’t mean that white privilege has disappeared or that the nation has suddenly become colorblind.

What this does mean, though, is that we may just be entering a new stage in American society. Blogger Andrew Sullivan stated recently on “Real Time with Bill Maher” that Obama represents the future of this nation, and this election simply poses the question of whether we accept this future now or later. I think Sullivan is correct. Census data suggests that by the middle of this century, whites will no longer be a numerical majority in this country. We are clearly moving into a truly multiracial era in terms of the numbers alone. I think Obama’s presidency—if it comes with the type of white support Politico predicts—has the potential to be the beginning of social change in the direction of a multiracial nation in terms of political, social, and economic representation as well. This would take America closer to being the kind of nation that it could be—the one that really offers liberty and justice for all, and really provides everyone with equal opportunity.

It’s important to point out, though, that Obama’s presidency (again, attained under the conditions laid out by Politico) isn’t sufficient to get us there. One thing his candidacy has shown in stark and often hurtful detail are the manifestations of racism that are still present and widespread—monkey dolls brought to GOP campaign events, Obama hung in effigy at a college campus, suggestions on Republican and conservative websites and at rallies that he be killed/waterboarded/tortured. But widespread white support for Obama could signify the beginning of major steps towards finally achieving racial equality, if we as a nation don’t follow this up by getting lazy and complacent.

I am profoundly encouraged by the number of whites who have been able to move far enough past white racial framing that says that Blacks are lazy, inferior, unqualified, etc. to vote for a black candidate, and would be enormously pleased if these numbers reflect Politico’s expectations on Nov. 4. If we keep going and continue rejecting white racist framing and begin dismantling the institutionalized racism that perpetuates unequal opportunity, think of what kind of country we could have. Whether it will happen or not is still to be determined, and America has an unfortunate history of following progress with regression. But for the time being, I’m hopeful that broad white support for a black man might be the kind of change we can believe in.

More Examples of White Privilege in Election ‘08

With this election season (finally!) drawing to a close, people are starting to speculate that Obama will win. Every time I start getting hopeful, though, I remind myself not to get too comfortable. After all, this is still America, a country grounded in slavery, genocide, and freedom of opportunity, speech, and religion only for a few, not for the masses. Centuries after America’s beginning, we are still a nation profoundly shaped by racial inequality. To paraphrase comedian Chris Rock’s metaphor for this: “if you’re playing a game with a white guy, and you have six and the white guy has five, the white guy wins.” Right now, Obama has six. But the white guy with five could still win.

Despite Obama’s superior ground game, campaign management, advantage as the challenger after eight years of Republican rule, record levels of dissatisfaction with the current president and direction of the country, and even the dramatic financial collapse that precipitated his lead in the polls, white privilege continues to shape this campaign and could determine the final outcome of this election. The last examples I gave of this considered whether Malia Obama could be an unmarried, pregnant teen and get the same response that Bristol Palin has, or whether Barack Obama could have left his wife (after she was critically injured in a near-fatal car accident) for a younger, wealthy heiress without facing constant criticism of his morals and ethics.

Here are some other examples:

  • Imagine that in the presidential debates, Obama initially refused to look at or even acknowledge John McCain’s presence. Imagine that Obama seemed almost visibly angry at even having to debate McCain. Would this election still be relatively close?
  • Imagine that Obama had graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at a military academy. Better yet, imagine that he had attended five schools over the course of six years before graduating. Would anyone at all still consider these acceptable qualifications for seeking office?
  • Imagine John McCain getting an endorsement from a major, credible Democratic figure who was well known for his expertise in economic policy (one of McCain’s weak spots). Would anyone have attributed this to race and argued that this figure only endorsed McCain because they were both white?
  • Imagine that Obama, instead of Rep. John Murtha, argued that certain parts of Western Pennsylvania were racist. Would it be considered a simple admonition of truth, or would it be a blasphemy akin to Michelle Obama’s statement that “for the first time in my adult life, I am really, really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is making a comeback?” Or, as this statement was generally edited to read, “for the first time in my life I’m proud of my country.”
  • Finally, imagine that Barack Obama was trailing in some polls by a 5-10 point lead (depending on which poll you look at), when a story surfaced in the New York Times that long ago, Michelle Obama had become so addicted to painkillers that she began stealing them from her charity foundation. Would Obama still be behind by only 5-10 points?

Race has shaped this campaign since its onset, and it seems clear that it will play a role in its outcome. I hope that on Nov. 4, white privilege doesn’t determine the outcome of this election. I will be discussing this issue and more on the show Meet the Bloggers, which airs Friday, Oct. 24 at 1pm.

Humor as a Subversive Political Act

Humor can be a subversive political act.   There are a couple of examples I’ve stumbled across about race and the election that I thought I’d share.   Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing at The Atlantic, has a very funny and scathing piece called “In Defense of White Racism,” that’s worth reading.   And, Keef who draws the KChronicles has a rather devastating political cartoon up (I’d reproduce it here, but I’m pretty sure it’s protected, so I’ll just link to it).  There’s a long tradition of using humor to skewer whites. And as I’ve written here before, Chris Rock is just the most recent in a long line of comedians to use their craft in subversive ways (image from here).   As just about every late night comedian has noted, and even the New York Times has picked up on, it’s going to be a difficult time for comedy writers if Obama gets elected.   Not that that’s a bad thing, as they would say on Seinfeld.   But it is worth noting, I think.

And, here’s both the challenge and strength of humor: it’s best when it’s skewering those in power. So, take the example I mentioned above. Chris Rock does some amazing political commentary on race and racism in his stand-up routines.    In his current routine, he does a great bit about the neighborhood he lives in in New Jersey where his neighbors include some of the black elite entertainers (Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z).  The punch line is something like, “and you know what the white guy does that lives there?  He’s a dentist.”   Much funnier when Chris Rock delivers it, of course, than with me re-typing it into text-only here, but it’s a very funny, and very pointed, routine that really lays bare one little corner (albeit a very privileged corner) of racial inequality.    Still, Rock’s current routine is also a little disappointing for his reliance on the old, decidedly unfunny tropes of sexism and homophobia.   Humor that sets out to hurt people or groups that are already pummeled by life or social position is not funny, in my opinion, so much as a form of bullying.

Yet, trying to find this particular brand of humor is vexing, to say the least.  For example, I do wish Google would quit suggesting “racist jokes” as a search term.   If I use Google in a browser, and type in “racis”  (yes – the beginning of a vanity search for my own blog), Google suggests several search terms for me: “racing games” “racing post” and third on the list, “racist jokes” (425,000 results).   The Google-app on my iPhone suggests “racist jokes” first, as a tab.  And, apparently this is a fairly popular search term.  As Macon D points out over here, lots of people end up at his blog who initially started out searching for racist jokes.    If, instead, you Google “anti-racist jokes” you get many fewer results (39,100) and no prompts from the search engine at any point that might lead you in that direction or suggest that as an option.   And, there’s really no tag or Google alert that I can set for “subversive humor, non-sexist, non-homophobic, please.”  Or, maybe there is but I’m just not tech-savvy enough.     It seems to me that the search engine is undermining even the possibility of finding subversive humor.

So how to find, create and support subversive humor?   I’m not sure, but I’d love to hear any ideas.  I could use a good laugh.