The Wounded Knee Massacre: 118th Anniversary of US Genocide

This week Winter Rabbit at Native American Netroots has a good overview of several genocidal actions by the US army and white militias in a post, “The Wounded Knee Massacre: 118th Anniversary.”

The massacre allegedly began after an Indian, who was being disarmed, shot a U.S. officer. … Hotchkiss guns shredded the camp on Wounded Knee Creek, killing, according to one estimate, 300 of 350 men, women, and children

(photos: Thomasson, William B)
A wikipedia article adds these details:

The Wounded Knee Massacre was the last major armed conflict between the Oglala Lakota and the United States. It was described as a massacre by General Nelson A. Miles in a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. On December 29, 1890, 500 troops of the U.S. 7th Cavalry, supported by four Hotchkiss guns (a lightweight artillery piece designed for travel with cavalry and used as a replacement for the aging twelve-pound mountain howitzer), surrounded an encampment of Miniconjou Sioux (Lakota) and Hunkpapa Sioux (Lakota). The Army had orders to escort the Sioux to the railroad for transport to Omaha, Nebraska. One day prior, the Sioux had given up their protracted flight from the troops and willingly agreed to turn themselves in at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota…. They were met by the 7th Cavalry, who intended to use a display of force coupled with firm negotiations to gain compliance from them. The commander of the 7th had been ordered to disarm the Lakota before proceeding. During the process of disarmament, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote refused the order to give up his rifle because he didn’t understand. . . . By the time it was over, more than 200 men, women and children of the Lakota Sioux lay dead.

(For more photos and details see here)
Unlike in Germany, the U.S. genocide against indigenous Americans has yet to be recognized and faced. No appropriate reparations or real national apology yet. Don’t we still live a fundamentally immoral existence as a nation?

(Note: Native American Netroots is an important site to know about: It is

a forum for the discussion of political, social and economic issues affecting the indigenous peoples of the United States, including their lack of political representation, economic deprivation, health care issues, and the on-going struggle for preservation of identity and cultural history.

)

Racism, Sexism and Homophobia Fuel Hate Crime in Brooklyn

Two men, Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay, brothers and Ecuadorian immigrants were brutally attacked in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn by three men that shouted anti-Latino and anti-gay slurs at them Detail of Infinity Mural at Factory Fresh(
Creative Commons License photo credit, street art, Bushwick, Brooklyn: hragvartanian).   Today, Jose Sucuzhanay was declared brain dead and he is being kept on life support while his family decides whether to donate his organs.  Sucuzhanay’s death, and the assault of his brother, has everything to do with the intersection of racism, sexism, homophobia and class.  Here’s the account of what happened from the New York Times:

The two brothers from Ecuador had attended a church party and had stopped at a bar afterward. They may have been a bit tipsy as they walked home in the dead of night, arm-in-arm, leaning close to each other, a common tableau of men in Latino cultures, but one easily misinterpreted by the biased mind. (emphasis added)

Suddenly a car drew up. It was 3:30 a.m. Sunday, and the intersection of Bushwick Avenue and Kossuth Place in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a half-block from the brothers’ apartment, was nearly deserted — but not quite. Witnesses, the police said, heard some of what happened next.

Three men came out of the car shouting at the brothers, Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay — something ugly, anti-gay and anti-Latino. Vulgarisms against Hispanics and gay men were heard by witnesses, the police said. One man approached Jose Sucuzhanay, 31, the owner of a real estate agency who has been in New York a decade, and broke a beer bottle over the back of his head. He went down hard.

Romel Sucuzhanay, 38, who is visiting from Ecuador on a two-month visa, bounded over a parked car and ran as the man with the broken bottle came at him. A distance away, he looked back and saw a second assailant beating his prone brother with an aluminum baseball bat, striking him repeatedly on the head and body. The man with the broken bottle turned back and joined the beating and kicking.

“They used a baseball bat,” said Diego Sucuzhanay, another brother. “I guess the goal was to kill him.”

The fact that the suspects in the case are described only as “three black men” by police (they have not been apprehended), does not mean that racism isn’t a factor here, it just means that it’s more complicated than the archetypal white-on-non-white hate crime.

Racism. The leaders of a number of civil rights organization met recently to decry the recent spike in hate crimes, and the vast majority of these kinds of attacks are white-on-non-white.   But not all of them are.  In some hate crimes, like the attack on the Sucuzhanay brothers, the victims of the attacks are immigrants and the attackers are, allegedly, black men.   Although white people are the originators, developers and most frequent perpetrators of hate crimes, they don’t hold exclusive rights to these acts of violence.  As Joe has written about here before, the white racial frame is available to people beyond those who happen to have white skin.  So, if it does turn out that the perpetrators in this case were black, it means that they too have adopted the white racial frame that sees immigrants as interlopers.  The attackers also yelled “anti-Hispanic” slurs and this sort of racism directed toward Latino/as is also characteristic of the white racial frame.  And this white racial frame gets deployed within a particular racialized context, such as Bushwick.  Today the neighborhood is 65% Latino/a and approximately 20% blacks, a demographic profile that emerged after a mass exodus of whites, or “white flight,” in the 1960s and 1970s.

Class. Bushwick is one of the more economically impoverished neighborhoods in the city of New York, and while it’s unlikely that the hate crime against the Sucuzhanay brothers was prompted by class antagonism it occured within a specific class context that it’s important to recognize.   At the same time as the white flight of the 1960s and 1970s occurred, manufacturing jobs left Brooklyn and racially discriminatory red-lining by banks ended virtually all investment in the neighborhood.  The quite predictable result of these practices (white flight) and policies (red-lining) by whites, was that in a five-year period a livable community changed into a desolate, dangerous neighborhood filled with abandoned buildings, empty lots, drugs and arson.    The lingering effects of  Bushwick has a poverty rate around 40%, and close to 75% of the children in Bushwick grow up in poverty, and the high school drop out rate is close to 70%.  More recently,  hipster-whites have begun returning to Bushwick and beginning to drive up property values.   Jose Sucuzhanay may have indirectly benefited from this recent turn in Bushwick’s economy through his small real estate business that he started after several years of working in construction.   According to press reports, he used the small business to help his neighbors and family find housing, as so many immigrant entrepreneurs do.   It’s unlikely that the Sucuzhanays’ attackers knew anything about Jose’s upwardly mobile class trajectory, but may have read them as gay and thus assumed that they were part of the changing hipster demographic in the neighborhood.

Homophobia and Sexism. What most likely sparked the ire of the brothers’ attackers, was a small, tender gesture between the two men.   Following the press accounts of this story, the fact that the men were walking home arm-in-arm, leaning close to each other seems to have been interpreted by their attackers as ‘evidence’ of the men’s (homo)sexuality.    The fact that two men cannot walk arm-in-arm without being assumed to be gay is a testimony not just to cultural norms, but also to sexism.   Suzanne Pharr wrote a book called Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, and in it she argues that gay men are perceived as a threat to male dominance and control, by “breaking ranks” with male heterosexual solidarity.  Furthermore, homophobia directed toward men is often about punishing any deviation from rigid gender norms, especially ones that contain a hint of the “feminine,” such as two men walking arm-in-arm.   Pharr argues that fierce homophobia expressed toward men is ultimately a mechanism for reinforcing narrow and dehumanizing notions of gender.   The brutality of the attack on the Sucuzhanay brothers suggests just how deeply some people feel about these inelastic gender norms in which a moment of tenderness is punished by a bat to the skull.

The fact that we have another hate crime in the New York area just a month after the murder of Marcelo Lucero suggests that we in the U.S., in the Northeast as well as in the Deep South, have a long way to go before we are living in a “post-racial” society.  The complexities in this case of black-on-Latino racism, of class inequality, and of sexism and homophobia suggests that our thinking about racism has to continually be informed by an understanding of intersectionality.

UPDATE 12/14/08: Jose Sucuzhanay died early this morning, before his mother arrived from Ecuador to say goodbye.

Racism Revealed in Comments about Custom Browser

Mozilla, the folks that created the browser Firefox, have released a new browser called Blackbird, that offers customized search engine results thought to be of particular interest to  African Americans, or in the short hand of one blogger, it’s a browser for black people. Blackbird is operated by 40A, Inc., a company founded by three African American entrepreneurs, Arnold Brown II, Frank Washington, and H. Edward Young, Jr.     Personally, I wish someone would develop a similar upgrade for Flickr so that when I search for images I could only search for images that include people of varied ethnic backgrounds, but I digress (I use Flickr/Creative Commons to find images for this blog, for my classroom lectures and for invited talks and I work hard to include images of racial/ethnic diversity, but it’s tough going because people don’t tend to tag their photos by their racial designation, I digress even further).

Blackbird Logo

What’s interesting to note for my analysis here is the kind of white-liberal-racism that’s erupted in the comments section at TechCrunch, a popular technology blog, following the announcement of this custom browser (hat tip to: FunkDigital via Twitter).   Not surprisingly, there are a lot of white people that read TechCrunch and the introduction of a ‘browser for black people’ represents a kind of eruption of race in a medium that most whites think of “color-blind.”   And a good number of the white people commenting at TechCrunch are outraged by Blackbird, “sam,” is typical of this view, when he writes:

The President elect of the United States is Black. There is no racism against blacks, only against white heterosexual males.

Imagine that it is more difficult for a white or asian male to get into a top university.

Imagine that a black medical student, who scores much lower on his exams, will become a doctor but not a white student with slightly better results.

This is the truth – at least in the United States.

Further down, the comments by “Steve” sum up what most whites posting there say:

I’m sorry, but it’s things like this that perpetuate racism. How can the black community demand equality then turn around and build a web browser just for themselves? This is ridiculous…

“Steve” is making that mistake that a lot of white people make when first beginning to think about race, and that’s thinking that it will fit into neatly symmetrical categories where “white” is the equivalent of “black.”  What’s wrong with this sort of thinking and the fake symmetry it invokes is that it leaves out power.   (I’ve written about this here before.) The reality is that racism, and white privilege, get built into technology in a variety of ways.   Search engines are no exception.   Yet, this point can get little traction in the comments section over at TechCrunch.   The first comment in a hundreds-of-comments-long-thread is from “Daniel,” who asks:

So when is the white version coming?

Several others pile on and agree with “Daniel,” then “Jake” inserts a bit of a reality check when he writes:

You guys are missing the point.

The “white” version is the standard default version in America.

Mozilla is white. Regular TV is white. Most of government is white. Mayonnaise is really white.

There’s no need for a white version because the original version is designed for the average white person.

And thus begins the long, long thrash at TechCrunch about race.     Reading through all those comments, I came away with the sense that the white people commenting there seem to be crying “foul,” as in, “hey no fair, we thought we were in the color-blind web!”

What those white folks at TechCrunch fail to grasp is that the notion of a “color-blind web” is just as fictional as the notion of a “color-blind” society.  Indeed, as noted scholar Henry Jenkins wrote way back in 2002 (light years in Internet time), the notion of a color-blind web is little more than a fantasy to assuage liberal guilt.   White people need to stop denying race and racism, then crying “foul!” anytime race unexpectedly (for white people) comes up.   I think it’s really long overdue for white folks to get smarter about race and racism.

Debating Obama’s Actions: Right, Left, or Centrist?

One refreshing thing about Obama’s election, regardless of how his term turns out, is that it has already generated progressive debates about the state of U.S. politics and policy, including in regard to racism and anti-racism. Instead of analysis of the latest neo-fascist actions of the Bush regime, we have roaring debates on whether the U.S. will now move in a progressive direction, or will only move modestly to a centrist position on critical policy issues.

For example, at a recent 2008 Association for Humanist Sociology meeting, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva gave a provocative Plenary Address titled, “The 2008 Elections and the Future of Anti-Racism in 21st Century Amerika or How We Got Drunk With Obama’s Hope Liquor and Failed to See Reality.” He raises questions that most progressives have been unwilling to face about Obama’s actions, so far:

So what do I think will happen in Obamerica? I believe the voices of those who contend that race fractures America profoundly may be silenced. In a deep sense, Obamerica may bring us closer to an argument I have been articulating for a while–the idea that the racial structure of the United States is becoming Latin America-like.

He is right about this, as we constantly see in the “end of racism” dialogues by white media commentators. Bonilla-Silva dissects numerous other problems with Obama’s approach to various policy issues:

Based on promises and remarks made by President Elect Obama during the campaign, he may increase the size of the military, wait longer than planned for withdrawing from Iraq, increase the scope of our military intervention in Afghanistan. . . . albeit many of you voted for Obama critically-as I did myself-you thought, “Well…at least he is likely to appoint progressives in various posts.” But this will not happen without pressure. If we want this to happen, we must begin making noise from NOW as he has surrounded himself with center-to-right people in economic matters such as Warren Buffet, Larry Summers, Bob Rubin, and his Chicago and Harvard economists.

This is indeed a disturbing part of Obama’s actions so far. Virtually no progressives have been appointed to top cabinet and other policy positions. Center-right folks, mostly white, have gotten top positions. “Real change?” is the question Bonilla-Silva is asking. He further asks

What will President Elect Obama do about race matters in America? What will he do about affirmative action, for example? During the campaign, he did not engage in a dialogue about the significance of race in America and discussed Affirmative Action only ONCE with George Stephanopoulos. As some of you recall, he took an accomodationist post-racial stance on the matter. And because he took such a post-racial posture during his campaign, I do not believe he can take a STRONG stance on race matters NOW. Neither Obama nor his mostly white advisers and post-civil right neo-mulatto associates will push hard on this fundamental issue. For that, he needs what he does not have: a real social movement behind!

So far, Obama has played into the white racial frame by not talking about racism, except for his one famous speech. Certainly he would not have been elected if he had not done this. The big question is whether he can now fight the white racist frame and systemic racism of the country, and thus turn on his white advisers. This will be very extraordinarily difficult. Throughout his address, Bonilla-Silva accents the need for grass-roots organization and efforts–“to radicalize the spaces we inhabit and the people we contact, engage in political discourse (we have become too passive and do not say much), criticize the new President no matter what (he is the representative of capital and of the racial order)…”

In a debate on the views of Bonilla-Silva and others making similar arguments critical of Obama, the ever savvy African American sociologist, Bob Newby, has replied by accenting the dramatic character of the change Obama represents, over against what we have had. On the Association of Black Sociologists listserv, Newby has also laid out a similar and more optimistic, pragmatic take on Obama’s actions:

When the question was asked about his appointments and that they did not look like much change, his response was “The change comes from me!” While it would be great to have Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky as the Secretary of State, or for Secretary of Human Services Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, such appointments would marginalize him from the get. He would be run out of office even BEFORE Jan 20th. . . . He is/was a mainstream candidate whose roots are progressive. Barack as an African American is controversial by definition, when it comes to white America. His first mission is to assure the American people that he is on their side. To do that he has surrounded himself with people who are hard to criticize, whose credentials are stellar in the eyes of everyday Americans.

Newby argues that Obama’s actions represent a longterm political strategy, one that has already had dramatic effects:

The great thing is that he has not and will not appoint fascists like we have had over the past 30 years!! 30 years of fascism and that includes the Clinton administration in which Newt Gingrich was House Speaker. The top law enforcement officer in the nation will be a black man…. Electoral politics and revolutionary, or movement politics, are a different breed of cat. A revolutionary (or someone the American people thought was a revolutionary) could not get elected President. . . . Surely, we are not expecting the revolution from electoral politics? If not the revolution, it is time struggle for decency. A decency as free as we can make it from the maintenance of racism, sexism, homophobia and most of all class inequality. . . . It is time to celebrate the historic victory!!! What were our options: 30 years of Reaganism.

Interestingly, Newby’s arguments are taken further by the white progressive activist (in his youth, a 1960s radical) Mark Rudd, who argues that Obama’s approach is what the right-wing is now apoplectic about, the “stealth strategy”:

He’ll be progressive on the environment because that has broad popular support; health care will be extended to children, then made universal, but the medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance corporations will stay in place, perhaps yielding some power; the economic agenda will stress stimulation from the bottom sometimes and handouts to the top at other times. . . . And never, never threaten the military budget. That will unite a huge majority of congress against him. And I agree with this strategy. Anything else will court sure defeat. Move on the stuff you can to a small but significant extent, gain support and confidence.

Rudd says to look beyond the first tier appointments to the progressives who will be just below them and actually running many of the government programs: “There’s a whole govt. in waiting that Podesta has at the Center for American Progress. They’re mostly progressives, I’m told (except in military and foreign policy).” And he adds too some insights into Obama’s understandings of racism, classism, and colonialism:

No other president has ever had such intimate experience with class and race. The final section is about his trip to Kenya. No other president has ever had an understanding of not only race, but colonialism and neo-colonialism, even using the terms. It’s the whole story he tells of his African family and especially his father, a victim of neo-colonialism. As was his step-father in Indonesia.

Like Bonilla-Silva and Newby, Rudd calls for grass-roots movements and organization to pressure Obama and the Democratic Congress to move in progressive directions on many policy matters, including racial and class issues. Interestingly, one of the signs that significantly progressive efforts may come in the next four years is that the U.S. and international right-wing is very worried about the things that Newby and Rudd are noting (see here, for example).

Considering Reconciliation

I had the great pleasure of hosting an Australian house guest this past week, and enjoyed many interesting conversations about the comparative U.S.-Australian approaches to race, discrimination and reconciliation. I learned a great deal and these conversations really made me want to learn more about the Australian context. One area of discussion that came up frequently this past week was the treatment of indigenous peoples by the Australian and U.S. governments, and the recent apology (Februrary, 2008) by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the indigenous peoples of Australia. The short video (3:56) is quite compelling and an exemplar of what a proper apology for government oppression might look like:

While there have been a handful of limited, case-by-case apologies by U.S. government officials for various misdeeds mostly related to slavery (there’s a nice run down of this history here and more here), there has never been any sort of an apology to our indigenous peoples, Native Americans, on the scale of Prime Minister Rudd’s recent actions. However, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan) has proposed legislation that would officially apologize to Native Americans for centuries of brutal mistreatment and oppression, but that legislation has so far failed to pass.

In comparing notes between the U.S. and Australian approaches, I quizzed our guest about what made reconciliation possible in her home country and she interrogated me on why there’s been so little attempt to redress the abysmal treatment of Native Americans here. In Australia, there’s been a sustained effort over several decades among indigenous people (who make up about 4% of the total population) and non-indigenous people working on their own and in coalition across groups, to bring about reconciliation. Here, the sustained efforts by the U.S. government to annihilate indigenous people through slavery, brutal military force, disease, confinement on reservations, forced cultural assimilation, outlawing of native languages and culture, termination policies, and now crushing poverty and disease rates on reservations, have worked together in an orchestrated genocide of Native Americans, so that they now make up only 1.5% of the total population. And, attempts at resistance by Native Americans such as the American Indian Movement (AIM), have once again been met with brutal military force and lifelong imprisonment for activists, such as Leonard Peltier. Today, there’s little or no acknowledgment of the oppression, indeed annihilation, of Native Americans in the U.S. and no movement (beyond AIM) working on justice for these indigenous peoples. In fact, there’s still an ongoing struggle around just getting rid of Native American mascots for sports teams, let alone addressing the trail of broken treaties with Native peoples.

So, in reflecting on reconciliation in Australia and considering what might be required for real, meaningful reconciliation in the U.S., there are some necessary, but not sufficient, requirements before we can get to reconciliation. The first, and to my mind, most important requirements are that there’s an acknowledgment that these injustices occurred in the past, that the discrimination and inequality persists into the present, and that the U.S. government has been – by design – a primary agent in the atrocities. Right now, many of us in the States are swept up in the giddy anticipation of the Obama presidency, and some people want to suggest that this is the dawning of a new age of “post-racial” society. Yet, this seems like an approach that runs away from acknowledging the stark realities of racial and ethnic annihilation that has formed the basis of the U.S. While that may be comforting fiction to some, it’s not the path to reconciliation.

Racism for Faculty in Higher Ed

There is new evidence that African American, Asian and Native American junior faculty are less satisfied than white junior faculty with the climate, culture and collegiality of their institutions (image of Harvard Faculty Club Staircase via Flickr/CreativeCommons).

These findings are based on a new report based by COACHE that included a sample of 8,500 pre-tenure faculty members at 96 four-year colleges and universities — public and private, liberal arts oriented colleges and research universities.  According to Inside Higher Ed, this is the first time that COACHE has released data about differences among minority faculty from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, and some of these results are interesting:

Of the 10 climate measures in the survey, Asians were less satisfied on 6; Native Americans on 5; and African Americans on 4, all by statistically significant margins.

The piece at Inside Higher Ed does, eventually, address racism.   About half way into the piece, here’s the relevant bit:

African American faculty members are also less likely than their white counterparts to believe that tenure decisions are made primarily on job performance. Cathy Trower, research director of COACHE, said in a statement that these gaps suggest that ”African American faculty may be experiencing some lingering aspects of racism — real or perceived — as evidenced by their concern with fair treatment and lower satisfaction with the amount of interaction and collaboration with others.”

This is an old familiar strategy embedded in the white racial frame. Here, the research director adopts the white racial frame as she minimizes the experience of racism with her “real or perceived” comment.  As I mentioned a couple of days ago, racism on campuses is a persistent problem that affects students.  The persistence of racism on campuses, not surprisingly, also affects faculty.  While I think it’s important that those in power at predominantly white institutions talk about diversity and minority recruitment of faculty and students to change the complexion of those institutions, I think it’s equally important to simultaneously engage in conversations about the persistent racism in those institutions and what the cost might be for faculty and students of color.

Racism and Anti-Racism in Suburban New York

Yesterday, two white teenagers were arrested and charged with a hate-crime after assaulting a black man as they all waited in line to register for classes at Westchester Community College, just north and west of New York City.  The persistence of this sort of racism within educational institutions is consistent with the research evidence on this topic, such as Feagin and colleagues’ The Agony of Education (Routledge, 1996)  and this newly released research by Sarah Stitzlein, Breaking Bad Habits of Race and Gender (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).  That this sort of thing happened in suburban New York, once again underscores that the northeast is not immune from racism because the states in this region of the country happen to be above the Mason-Dixon line or because these white teenagers’ ancestors never owned slaves.  I wonder how the story of the young black man’s educational experience might read if he were to write it down for us?  The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education must sound like a hollow promise to him as he is getting called racial slurs and then pummeled as he tries to register for classes at a community college.

In another suburban community, this one to the east on Long Island, in Suffolk County, is seeing some anti-racism organizing on the part of some residents.   This is a welcome change of tone from Suffolk County, as this is the same county where Ecuadorian immigrant Marcello Lucero was killed by a group of (mostly) white teenagers recently.    (The fact that both these recent attacks were the actions of white male teenagers also speaks to the gendred, and specifically masculine nature of this violent form of white supremacy.)   The Town of Southhampton’s Anti-Bias Task Force met on the steps of Town Hall (photo by Kelly Carroll, Hamptons.com) to voice concern over the issue of hate-crimes against immigrants and against native-born racial/ethnic minorities.   Referring to the murder of Lucero, Lucius Ware, president of the Eastern Long Island NAACP said, “That was a lynching, which is injury by mob violence.  There are still hoods and gowns in some of the closets around here,” a reference to Long Island’s history of KKK activity.

It seems to me that suburban New York in these two events serves as a sort of microcosm for some of the choices we have facing us with regard to racism.   We may engage in overt racist attacks, we may be victims of such attacks, and we all have the option to stand together, across differences, against the legacy of racism.  At the moment, there is no large, anti-racist social movement in the U.S., but there are small groups of concerned people, like these folks in Suffolk County.  Perhaps if more of these small groups can sustain the collective interest in seeing an end to racism, then we could for the first time see a viable anti-racist movement in this country, and really begin to change systemic and entrenched racial inequality.

Race, Genomics & Health

The October issue of the journal Social Studies of Science has an excellent special issue on race, genomics and health that’s well worth checking out if you have any interest in race or in science and technology studies (hat tip: Julie Netherland).  The introductory piece is by Joan H. Fujimura (UW-Madison), Troy Duster (NYU), and Ramya Rajagopalan (UW-Madison).  The authors frames the volume around contemporary genetics research on race, ancestry, population, and disease.  A key theme that weaves the articles together is the tension between those scientists who argue that their research does not biologize race, and those who argue that their findings do demonstrate racial differences.  Fujimura and colleagues explore what this tension might mean for our understanding of race and for science and technology studies.

All the articles in this volume are really exceptional, and I’d like to highlight a couple that I found particularly interesting.   In “Bare Bones of Race,” Anne Fausto-Sterling examines what she refers to as “claims of racial difference” in bone density studies to explore what she calls the “architecture of racial difference in bone health and disease” (p.658).   While most of Fausto-Sterling’s previous writing about the social and the biological has dealt with sex and gender, here she applies a similar analysis to race.   She contends, rather provocatively, that:

“Rather than relying solely on efforts to understand the body from the inside out, I argue that medical and social scientists should reverse course, and investigate the body from the outside in, thus bringing the social components of disease formation back into the discussion” (p.658, emphasis in the original).

As with the devastating critique of the way that medical and social scientists have used scientific knowledge to sex the body by reading social categories that presume a gender binary onto biological categories that do not exist as a binary, Fausto-Sterling makes an equally persuasive case here about race.   An expert in molecular biology, and with a finely honed analysis of the social world, Fausto-Sterling’s analysis of the bone density literature is both compelling and surprisingly approachable.

Still, social constructionists such as Fausto-Sterling face an uphill, even Sysiphean, struggle if their goal is to persuade a wide audience that “race” is a social construction that does not exist as a meaningful, genetic category.  And, perhaps the place that many people become familiar with genetics as a window on race and ancestry, is through efforts like the PBS-sponsored Skip Gates project, “African American Lives,” which engaged a number of celebrities (most notably Oprah), to participate in genetic genealogical testing (Oprah learned that her assumptions about her African origins residing in the Zulu nation were wrong).

Although she doesn’t address the PBS television series specifically, Alondra Nelson (Yale),  in “Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry,situates such racial projects as originating with Alex Haley’s (1976) best-selling book and subsequent television series, Roots: The Saga of an American Family.   Nelson writes that Haley’s work “established an expectation among a generation of readers and viewers, in the U.S. and abroad, that recovering ancestral roots was not only desirable, but also possible” (p.763).   And, she goes on to note that many genealogists of African descent often site Roots as the prompt for beginning an ancestral quest.

Nelson’s analysis draws on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with African-American and black British consumers of genetic genealogy testing, and she uses this qualitative data to make a nuanced argument about the way that race is, and is not, deployed.   For American and British black folks that Nelson interviewed and observed, there is some acquiescence to genetic notions of  ancestry and ‘race,’ yet at the same, those of African descent who took genetic tests also resist purely biological interepretations of these results and construct their anecestral narratives in such a way that they are in line with what Nelson refers to as “genealogical aspirations,” that is, what people hope to learn about their ancestry.  It’s a fascinating, if dense, article with an well-crafted argument.

I’m struck, as ever, by what an asymmetrical quest genetic geneaology is, which Nelson signals in her subtitle, “the pursuit of African ancestry.” The asymmetry I’m referring to is that there are very few white people who are trying to trace their ancestral lineage in this sort of race-conscious way, often specifically and purposively through slavery.  Instead, when white people trace their ancestry it’s often in the language of a “race-blind” narrative that traces “family” without acknowledging race or slavery.  There are a handful of exceptions to this.    Ed Ball, traced his family’s slave-owning heritage, as did the white DeWolf family who traced their lineage back to their New England slave-trading ancestors.   But this sort of racial project carries with it much different “genealogical aspirations,” to use Nelson’s phrase, than those of the people in her study.   I would argue that for people of African descent to trace their lineage is one that holds with it the promise of a kind of redemption of a history of oppression and reclaiming it within a context of racial and ethnic pride; whereas for white people of European descent, tracing their lineage requires either ignoring race altogether or examining a painful legacy of racial oppression with our ancestors playing the role of the oppressors.

Taken as a whole, the special issue of this journal often implicates whiteness yet  “whiteness” as a racial category remains largely unexamined.  My points about this asymmetry and the unexamined quality is evident in the PBS series I mentioned,  “African American Lives.” Included in that series, is Bliss Broyard.   Broyard learned after her father’s death that he was “part black” and has written about this in a number of places, including a book called One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — A Story of Race & Family Secrets (2007).   In the interview with Gates following the results of her genetic test, Gates reveals to Broyard she has “17.8% African ancestry,” and then asks, “Does this make you black?”    Broyard answers thoughtfully and says that she feels like a “cousin to blackness,” and that this is a lived experience rather than something rooted in DNA.  She ends up by saying, “I’m a person of mixed-race ancestry, but I don’t think I’ve earned the right to call myself ‘black.'” Broyard couldn’t have answered better, but the problem really, in my view, is the question that Gates poses.  What’s of interest about Broyard and her story is the “one drop” of African ancestry, not the 78% of her European ancestry.  By setting up this genetic, geneaological quest (and a television series around it), this racial project continues to locate “race” at the genetic level and leaves whiteness unexamined.

An Obama Legacy Already?: Cecilia Muñoz


Univision, as reported by NewAmericaMedia, has an important November 29 2008 story that has not yet made the networks or major Internet sites:

President-elect Barack Obama announced that Cecilia Muñoz will serve as director of intergovernmental affairs, coordinating the White House’s relations with local and state governments, reports Univision. Muñoz, 46, has been at the forefront of the movement for immigrant rights. Born in Detroit to Bolivian immigrants, she currently serves as senior vice president for the Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). In 2000, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in recognition of her work on immigration and civil rights.

¡Viva Obama! This is one sign of the difference that President-Elect Obama is already beginning to make in this society. He has appointed too many centrist and conventional white political types, which many progressives have trouble accepting, but gradually he is also appointing some progressive leaders whose views have been marginalized and attacked in the power centers of Washington for a long time. Muñoz is an example of how some influential Americans of color may now be listened to at the highest levels of this society, for the first time in a long time. Not only is she an immigrants rights’ advocate, but she works as a leader in one of the key Latino civil rights organizations in the United States, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), an organization whose anti-discrimination and other efforts and even name have angered many whites and some others. Here is the website listing some of their important research publications. Note the political courage that this took on Obama’s part. Here is the open letter that their president, Janet Murguía, recently wrote about the activism and goals of this organization in response to critics:

Those familiar with the work of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) know that we are the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S., and that we are an American institution committed to strengthening this great nation by promoting the advancement of Latino families. Our mission is to create opportunities and open the door to the American Dream for Latino and other families.

We proudly represent nearly 300 Affiliates—community-based organizations providing a range of essential services to millions of Latinos and others in need. Since 1997, NCLR and its Affiliates have helped more than 22,000 low-income Hispanic families purchase their first homes. In addition, NCLR’s network of 115 charter schools provides quality education to more than 25,000 Latino children every year. The health clinics we helped build and the lay health educators we trained provided care and information about prevention and detection of serious illnesses to nearly 100,000 people in 2006. Our Affiliates are working every day to help Hispanic immigrants integrate fully into American society by providing English-language classes, civics courses, and naturalization assistance. . . . We recognize that some people might be confused about our organization’s name, our mission, and our work. Much of this is understandable. Compared to some of our venerable counterparts in the civil rights and advocacy community, we are a relatively young institution representing Latinos, a historically disadvantaged and often misunderstood ethnic minority. We have a Spanish term in our name, “La Raza” (meaning “the people” or “community”), which is often mistranslated. Furthermore, we are engaged in some of the most controversial issues of our time, which we believe is essential if we are to stay true to our mission.

Obama’s legacy on racial and ethnic matters may dramatic, or so it already appears.