Bashing Black Men in the Age of Obama

We are living in an amazing era. Just a few years ago, the chance of Americans electing a non-white-male President seemed slim. Now suddenly we have a man of color in the highest office, and children of color across the USA can dream bigger dreams a bit less naively. It’s a milestone worth celebrating. But, it is disturbing that President Obama is also now being invoked in the cultural assault on black males.

From the blithering of Bill Cosby to the measured reprimand in Barack Obama’s Father’s Day ’08 speech – not to mention the various talking heads I can’t stomach and therefore can’t quote – black men are getting it from all sides. As a society, we believe that young black men prefer the fast glamour of basketball and kickin’ it to the inherent value in education, parenthood, and gainful employment. We wonder what’s wrong with them and how we may help them to see the error of their ways. Maybe if we remind them that basically no one makes it to the NBA and high school graduates earn more than dropouts. Maybe if we criticize the music they love and their wardrobe, everything will start to get better for them. Employment opportunities will materialize, and the police will put away their batons, voila.

This unmotivational image comes from the website of M-PowerHouse, a North Carolina non-profit organization, “conceived by Medical Professional’s to unite communities and to address the educational, economic and health factors that impact youth violence.” The way in which this picture uses President Obama against black men is foul.

The caring medical professionals at M-PowerHouse would like to send black men shopping. Who knew all it took was a trip to JCPenney for equal opportunity. There are a hundred problematic assumptions in the image, including the idiotic notion that black men are regularly showing their boxers butts in job interviews, and this misjudgment contributes to their higher unemployment, incarceration, dropout rates, etc.

Ultimately our society believes young black men are irrational thinkers who make bad decisions that result in them getting less of the good life. But social audit studies show the gold goes time and again to white testers wearing identical (white-normed) clothing and speaking identical (white-normed) diction as black testers. And let us not deny that anti-black racism required that Obama be shirt-and-tied and newscaster-speaking to even be considered a viable candidate (insert here your choice of contrast with George W. Bush). The irrationality we should be talking about in reference to racial inequalities lies in racist thinking and institutional practices, not in black men’s leisure attire.

Personally I don’t understand the allure of the clothing trend shown in the above image, but I have no interest in changing it and definitely not in using it to berate black men for their social outcomes. Progress in racial equality will come through challenging racism and the institutional practices that solidify racial inequality, not through subjecting the targets of racism to further surveillance and judgment.

Racist Thinking at the Supreme Court—Again

Well, our least democratic major political institution, the Supreme Court, ruled today in a 5-4 RICCI ET AL. v. DESTEFANO ET AL decision that white men had been the victims of racial discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Written by conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, and joined in by the court’s far-right justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito (damaging gifts of the Ford, Reagan, and Bush administrations), the overview summary starts thus:HONKING HORN OF JUSTICE FOR NEW JERSEY FIREFIGHTERS--BEEP BEEP
Creative Commons License photo credit: roberthuffstutter

New Haven, Conn. (City), uses objective examinations to identify those firefighters best qualified for promotion. When the results of such an exam to fill vacant lieutenant and captain positions showed that white candidates had outperformed minority candidates, a rancorous public debate ensued. Confronted with arguments both for and against certifying the test results—and threats of a lawsuit either way—the City threw out the results based on the statistical racial disparity. Petitioners, white and Hispanic firefighters who passed the exams but were denied a chance at promotions by the City’s refusal to certify the test results, sued the City and respondent officials, alleging that discarding the test results discriminated against them based on their race in violation of, inter alia, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. . . The City’s action in discarding the tests violated Title VII.

That is, they discriminated against the white men who took the test, and would under the city’s decision have to take a new, presumably less discriminatory test. Actually, no one was discriminated against in actual promotions, as the city did not promote anyone, white, black or Latino. The city decided that because no African Americans scored high enough to be in the top promotion pool the tests needed to be replaced by better more-ability-based testing. However, the five racial conservatives on the court argue that in the record there is no “equally valid, less discriminatory alternative that served the City’s needs but that the City refused to adopt.” They, of course, are wrong on the social science evidence.

In her dissent, however, Justice R. B. Ginsburg (joined by Souter, Breyer, and Stevens) not only took the unusual step of giving her dissent orally in court but argued effectively (perhaps because she knows how discrimination actually works?) against the majority decision, running rings around them. She gives a rather sociological dissent starting with this opening line:

In assessing claims of race discrimination, “context matters.” [Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U. S. 306, 327 (2003).] In 1972, Congress extended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to cover public employment. At that time, municipal fire departments across the country, including New Haven’s, pervasively discriminated against minorities. The extension of Title VII to cover jobs in firefighting effected no overnight change. It took decades of persistent effort, advanced by Title VII litigation, to open firefighting posts to members of racial minorities.

That is, there is this little matter of systemic racism. The majority justices completely ignore the 346-year history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, which has been followed by much successful foot-dragging for four decades now in regard to undoing deep structures of white privilege, but the majority want to ignore that systemic-racism reality and its continuing impact.

One powerful argument that Ginsburg makes is that New Haven’s population is now a majority of people of color, yet the city has disproportionately few fire department officers who are black and Latino. She notes other (some nearby) cities that do not depend on New Haven’s discriminatory testing and thus get a more diverse workforce:

The Court similarly fails to acknowledge the better tests used in other cities, which have yielded less racially skewed outcomes. By order of this Court, New Haven, a city in which African-Americans and Hispanics account for nearly 60 percent of the population, must today be served—as it was in the days of undisguised discrimination—by a fire department in which members of racial and ethnic minorities are rarely seen in command positions.

The right-wing majority leaves out other important systemic and historical facts, as she notes:

Firefighting is a profession in which the legacy of racial discrimination casts an especially long shadow. In extending Title VII to state and local government employers in 1972, Congress took note of a U. S. As of 2003, African-Americans and Hispanics constituted 30 percent and 16 percent of the City’s firefighters, respectively. In supervisory positions, however, significant disparities remain. Overall, the senior officer ranks (captain and higher) are nine percent African-American and nine percent Hispanic. Only one of the Department’s 21 fire captains is African-American.

That is, a profession that was aggressively white-controlled until well past the 1970s, and in New Haven now has great underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in ranks like fire captain. One problem that the media has not assessed is the makeup of the exams, with 60 percent of the testing score based on the written exam, and only 40 percent on the oral exam, which got directly at leadership and ability issues. The testing showed huge disparities:

On the lieutenant exam, the pass rate for African-American candidates was about one-half the rate for Caucasian candidates; the pass rate for Hispanic candidates was even lower. … More striking still, although nearly half of the 77 lieutenant candidates were African-American or Hispanic, none would have been eligible for promotion to the eight positions then vacant. … As for the seven then-vacant captain positions, two Hispanic candidates would have been eligible, but no African-Americans.

She notes that numerous white firefighters had important social networks that helped them with the exams, including getting books and other materials quicker and cheaper than the first-generation African American and Latino firefighters. She then cites fairly extensively the testimony in the case of Dr. Christopher Hornick, an industrial psychologist with 25 years’ experience in firefighter testing. He testified that New Havens’ testing had a “relatively high adverse impact” and questioned the heavy emphasis on written over oral and related leadership exams:

We know that it’s not as valid as other procedures that exist. . . I think a person’s leadership skills, their command presence, their interpersonal skills, their management skills, their tactical skills could have been identified and evaluated in a much more appropriate way.

Ginsburg points out that the right-wing majority ignores Congress’s intent to accent both “disparate treatment” and “disparate impact” in its various civil rights laws:

Title VII’s original text, it was plain to the [1971 Griggs] Court, “proscribe[d] not only overt discrimination but also practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation.” …Only by ignoring Griggs could one maintain that intentionally disparate treatment alone was Title VII’s “original, foundational prohibition,” and disparate impact a mere afterthought. …Yet the Court today sets at odds the statute’s core directives. When an employer changes an employment practice in an effort to comply with Title VII’s disparate-impact provision, the Court reasons, it acts “because of race”— something Title VII’s disparate-treatment provision, .. generally forbids. ..This characterization of an employer’s compliance-directed action shows little attention to Congress’ design or to the Griggs line of cases Congress recognized as pathmarking. In keeping with Congress’ design, employers who reject such criteria due to reasonable doubts about their reliability can hardly be held to have engaged in discrimination “because of” race. …. Title VII, in contrast, aims to eliminate all forms of employment discrimination, unintentional as well as deliberate. Until today [Scalia’s concurring opinion] . . this Court has never questioned the constitutionality of the disparate-impact component of Title VII, and for good reason. By instructing employers to avoid needlessly exclusionary selection processes, Title VII’s disparate-impact provision calls for a “race-neutral means to increase minority . . . participation”—something this Court’s equal protection precedents also encourage.

This is the heart of the case. She is siding with the 1971 Griggs case that argued that practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation (that is, have a serious disparate impact) are in fact banned by the civil rights laws–especially if alternative procedures can be found, as is easily the case in this firefighters’ case. Bridgeport, Connecticut, is mentioned as having solved the problem with fairer testing for firefighters and getting the needed social-racial diversity–a 20-miles-nearby example. Why not New Haven?

The Supreme Court is an undemocratic institution provided to us in 1787 by some white male slaveholders and their merchant friends, and today it is heavily skewed in a right-wing direction and populated by a quite unrepresentative group of folks–not unlike the skew in the fire captain’s class in New Haven. These justices have here provided another good example of how contemporary racism works. The right-wing majority is operating out of the old white racial frame and pretending that we live in a country with little institutional discrimination, and no centuries-old history of slavery and Jim Crow. We have been an officially “free” country only since 1969, and all the justices on the court grew up under a very undemocratic country with official racial apartheid. Yet cases like this one operate to deny that recent apartheid reality and its continuing consequences in public and private employment settings.

On Pride Sunday: Reflections on Racism and Homophobia

Today is gay pride in New York City and it marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.   What comes to mind when you think of gay pride?  If you’re like most people, it’s an image of white, gay men.   Just as in the dominant straight culture, image-making in the gay subculture has been dominated by white men who have constructed their own images.   The reality is that there were Black and Latina women at the Stonewall on June 28, 1969, although you rarely hear about them.   One of those people was Sylvia Rivera, a transgendered Latina (image of Sylvia Rivera, Fall, 1970 from NYPL Digital Gallery).  Rivera, who identified as a “street transvestite” in the days before the neologism “transgendered,” was always clear about the connection between homophobia from straight society and the racism and class privilege within the gay community.  See her, for example, this video interview.


When Sylvia Rivera passed away in 2002, her dying wish was that her community of faith, Metropolitan Community Church of New York (MCCNY), reach out to homeless LGBTQ youth.  Today, MCCNY Charities maintains an overnight shelter, 365 days a year, for homeless queer youth in New York City.  The shelter is called Sylvia’s Place and is part of Homeless Youth Services at MCCNY.

Since January of this year, photographer Josh Lehrer as been chronicling the lives of some of the transgendered teenagers that call Sylvia’s Place home. In a project he calls “Becoming Visible,” a series of 80 16-by-20-inch cyanotype portraits of these young people. Some of the photos are featured on The New York Times’ photography blog, Lens, and it’s worth your time to click through and look at the slide show.  Are these the people you think of when you think of gay pride?  Perhaps not until now.

Up is a Racist Downer

[Note: This was written with Carmen Lugo-Lugo, and Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo]

Pixar's Up in 3D at the Castro May 29 - June 17Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Rhodes

In May 2009, Pixar released Up, its tenth animated feature. It premiered as the top grossing film the week of its release, and has netted more than $226 million in its first four weeks alone. Beyond the box office, popular reception has been far from critical, as high profile film critics have offered reviews that might be described as positive, glowing, and celebratory.

Even in the blogosphere where we might anticipate a bit more reflection, acritical responses and ringing endorsements have ruled the day, raining praise upon Up for everything from its uplifting message of enlightenment and the scientific puzzles it posesto the kindness of the studio that produced it. Moreover, At first blush, it might appear that Up also confirms that the United States, as discernible in its popular cultural forms, has indeed entered an era after or beyond the difficulties of race, gender, and sexuality. After all, it features no princess in need of rescue or prince charming to slay the dragon; it contains none of the uncomfortable images of racial and ethnic difference so prominent (in retrospect) in some of the classics-such as the crows in Dumbo, King Louie in the Jungle Book, or the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp. However, such an analysis of Up would be a misreading of the film itself and of animated cinema over the past two decades-an argument we briefly rehearse here and elaborate in our forthcoming book Animating Difference. Moreover, as discuss in our forthcoming book, we advocate multiplying the white racial frame, which helps illuminate popular culture, as in the recent consideration of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but which we believe should more fully foreground the centrality of race, gender, and sexuality-what we dub white racial (hetero)sexist frames.

Up focuses on the life of Carl Fredericksen (voiced by Ed Asner). Although set in the present, the past weighs on the narrative, particularly Carl’s love for his childhood sweetheart and wife Ellie, whose death leaves him alone and isolated in a quickly changing world, truncating their shared dreams of traveling to Paradise Falls in South America (modeled after Angel Falls in Venezuela) to shed the burdens of modern life. The turning of the movie is Carl’s struggle to retain his autonomy, property, and memory of Ellie from the forces of development encroaching upon him. Resisting a court order compelling him to be institutionalized, he engineers his escape by attaching thousands of balloons to his house, which literally lift him, and inadvertently a young scout, named Russell, who has stowed-away, up. After crash landing near Paradise Falls, the odd couple set out to the explore the environs, encountering a legendary tropical bird that Russell names Kevin, who with the assistance of a talking dog they also encounter in the new land, the pair struggle to save from an unscrupulous explorer, idolized by Carl as a youth. In the end the adventure, driven by the force of heterosexual love, rejuvenates Carl who changes from crotchety shut-in to community volunteer, becoming Russell’s surrogate father in the process.

Up can be seen as a touching story and artistic triumph to be sure. But more importantly, the film underscores the ways in which animated films use difference without appealing to stereotypes to express prevailing understandings about human possibilities, social relationships, and cultural categories.

Nearly a half-century after the civil rights movement and the second wave of feminism, it centers on the adventures of two males (a boy and a man) transformed through the raceless, homosocial bond forged in the wild making the “right choices” as individuals, thus “doing the right thing,” in this case, defending the defenseless. This is extremely important, given that Russell (the child) is Asian, yet his race is rendered invisible during the adventure. Russell’s values, imparted to him by US society, his family, and the Boy Scouts are similar to those of Carl. Russell tells us he is basically fatherless, and seems to have a void his (Asian) mother cannot fill. The child is looking for a father and finds one in Carl’s individualistic white masculinity. This story of white masculinity burdened with special obligations and tested in a hostile environment beset by evil reiterates the facts of whiteness and the race of masculinity.

The setting of Up further underscores this racialized and gendered morality play: the threats of urban development and technology and the changes associated with them (integration, big government) provide an allegory and grounding for white male resentment, expressed daily on talk radio, cable news, and internet chat rooms, while encouraging a kind of nostalgia for simpler times in which individual action mattered and entities like the Boy Scouts groomed young white men for their duties in life. Thus, Russell may not be white, but the institutions he belongs to (like the Boy Scout), and his interactions with White men (like Carl, and the unscrupulous explorer) are teaching him how to become an honorary straight white man. Moreover, Paradise Falls anchors not only Carl’s and Ellie’s dreams, but a geography of difference in which exoticism, escape, and opportunity are projected onto a place in the South, surprisingly absent of indigenous people and surprisingly easy to get to and claim for yourself.

Hence, the ideal space of imperial fantasy is open to the discovery of and in need of protection by (white) adventurers of the North. Finally, heterosexual romance and a failed quest for family propel Up, for it is desire for difference as much as attraction and commitment that bind Carl and Ellie to one another and compel Carl to repulse the force impinging on him as a white man by casting off the constraints of modernity and the chaos of change.

Michael Jackson RIP


Michael Jackson, who died unexpectedly at 50 years old yesterday, will be remembered as a musical and choreographical genius, as well as a troubled and lonely soul (image here from Resist Racism).  What many people will not remember is that Jackson also spoke out against racism (opens long video clip, 9:10, of MJ’s anti-racism speech in Harlem, at Sharpton’s National Action Network, 2002).  At about the 5 minute mark on that video, Jackson says:

“You’ve got to remember something, as soon as I started breaking the all-time record sales — I broke Elvis’ records, I broke the Beatles’ records — the minute I became the best-selling record in the history of all albums in the Guinness Book of World Records, overnight they called me a freak…”

In 2004, Jackson also called out the white performer Eminem for his racism and attacks on the black community.    Others have argued that the real culprit behind Jackson’s career struggles following the phenomenal success of the “Thriller” album was racism.

Jackson’s cultural signficance is being variously interpreted, and much of it through a racial lens.  Rev. Al Sharpton, in this short (4:19) video clip, talks about Jackson’s legacy as a pathbreaking crossover artist.  Sharpton is standing in front of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, an important cultural icon in black culture.  The local news here (NY1) is picking up on Jackson’s significance to black culture by stationing an “on the scene” reporter in front of the Apollo where people are constructing makeshift memorials to Jackson.   In addition, the British press notes the weight of Jackson’s influence in black culture, reminding us that “twenty years ago, in America every black girl wanted to marry Michael Jackson.” This appears to be a much less prominent theme in the white-dominanted mainstream press coverage of Jackson, which seems intent on trivializing his influence to the level of a lunch box or worse.

Indeed, Jackson was not an uncomplicated genius.  His relationship with young boys was troubling – to say the very least – and led to a trial in 2005 on child molestation charges.   Although Jackson was eventually acquitted of all charges, his career – and perhaps, he – never quite recovered from this.  He left the U.S. for awhile and lived in Bahrain, then returned recently and was planning a comeback tour when he collapsed and died.

Part of what was so compelling about Michael Jackson was the complex way that he embodied both race and masculinity.  In piece written for the LA Times in 2005 at the time of Jackson’s trial, scholar Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, and author of New Black Man, wrote this:

There is, of course, little tolerance for child molestation regardless of the race of the offender. Race, though, complicates such offenses when they occur across the color line, particularly given the history of black masculinity in American society — a history rife with outright fear and frenzy about black male sexuality.

Against this history, Jackson’s initial rise to fame is extraordinary. Jackson came to public consciousness as a member of the Jackson Five in the late 1960s, a time when blacks were demanding racial justice. That a group of five black males with woolly Afros could become teen heartthrobs for millions of American girls (and boys) of all races said a great deal about the changing dynamics of race relations in the United States.

When Jackson reemerged as a major pop star in the early 1980s with recordings like “Off the Wall” (1979) and “Thriller” (1982), he was so confident in his universal appeal that he could arrogantly claim that he was the “King of Pop.”

Jackson clearly understood that part of his global appeal lay in his ability to mute the stereotypes associated with black male sexuality throughout American history. Michael Jackson was Peter Pan in the eyes of white America. This image of the asexual black male is possibly the reason why some parents were willing to let Jackson spend time with their children; he was the antithesis of the black male brute that lies submerged in the subconsciousness of white America.

Indeed, throughout much of his career, Jackson was an exemplar of the “good black” — those such as Colin Powell, Michael Jordan and Condoleezza Rice who are set apart from “regular” black folk. This is not to say that Jackson was in denial about his “blackness.” The kinds of violence that he has enacted upon his face — the nose jobs and the apparent skin treatments — suggest that not only was he aware that he was black, but that he probably possessed a hatred of his once racially specific physical features.

Neal gets it right in his analysis here.  Part of what made Jackson such an incredibly successful pop icon was his ability to subvert the stereotypes of black male sexuality as brutal and thuggish which was appealing to a white audience. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that this came at a high price for Jackson, through “the kinds of violence he has enacted upon his face.”  The failure of white people to understand this as a form of self-loathing rooted in racism perpetrated by whites only compounds the tragic sadness of this talented, and deeply flawed, man’s life.


Summer Blockbusters Traffic in Racist Caricatures. Sky Blue

ADDITION Film Transformers-Jar Jar AgainSource: AP Photo/Paramount Pictures Film publicity image taken from (here) The twin robots from “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” (see also here)
I thought I had seen and heard it all after seeing The Hangover film this past week. Effeminate Asian man (check). Big, scary Black men (check). Dangerous, cunning Asian men (check). Grossly portrayed and sexualized Black women’s bodies (check). Not to mention the litany of sexist and homophobic stereotypes, labels, and images littered throughout the film. Interestingly, it is not this film that has garnered criticism for its racist caricatures, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that was released this week.

At issue are two “jive-talking robots”that play good guys and are meant to provide “comic relief” (sound familiar?):

Skids and Mudflap, twin robots disguised as compact hatchbacks, constantly brawl and bicker in rap-inspired street slang. They’re forced to acknowledge that they can’t read. One has a gold tooth.

Illiterate buffoons, not necessarily imaginative characters given the long history of such portrayals of so-called “Blackness.” We’re not the only ones who have picked up on these historical links (even recent history) as one Transformers fan renamed the twins “Jar Jar Bots”in reference to the Star Wars (1999) contentious minstrel character Jar Jar Binks.

Of course, director Michael Bay defends the characters first by reminding us that they’re robots played by “voice actors”:

“It’s done in fun,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s stereotypes… they are robots, by the way. These are the voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were taking the characters and we went with it.”

In effect, Bay is saying it is the actors—Reno Wilson, who is Black and Tom Kenny, who is White—who decided to racialize these characters, not him. This perhaps would not be so suspect had I not run across a GQ feature of comedian Aziz Ansari who shared:

“I turned down an audition for Transformers because the producers wanted a Kwik-E-Mart accent… That’s not my thing. I don’t do jokes about my uncle’s thick Indian accent and how funny it is when he orders at McDonald’s.”

Clearly, these actors are chosen for their ability (and willingness) to play such characters. We are also reminded that these characters are just robots, as if that somehow places them out of the realm of racial criticism. As Allyson Nadia Field, assistant professor at UCLA points out:

“There’s a persistent dehumanization of African-Americans throughout Hollywood that displaces issues of race onto non-human entities. It’s not about skin color or robot color. It’s about how their actions and language are coded racially.”

Tasha Robinson, associate entertainment editor at The Onion, adds

“If these characters weren’t animated and instead played by real black actors, “then you might have to admit that it’s racist. . . . But stick it into a robot’s mouth, and it’s just a robot, it’s OK.”

Popular culture is constantly reinventing itself under the guise of creativity and innovation. There is very little creative about even non-human characters whose only purpose serves to maintain the racial hierarchy. These images have a long past and dehumanize Black Americans in merely updated forms. Jennifer Mueller and I have written a bit about this in saying that their continued existence today are simply reformations of “such deeply rooted ideologies, rather than truly novel inventions.”

While all of this is equally disturbing, I feel it is Director Bay’s statement about the purpose and inclusion of these racist caricatures that makes my stomach turn:

“I purely did it for kids,” the director said. “Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them.”

Get them started young, right?

Racism: The Impact on Health

A recent article in the American Journal of Public Health presents findings on experiences of everyday racism and HIV testing which are consistent with those from two other studies examining experiences of everyday racism’s relationship to preventive behaviors (condom use behaviors & mammography screening).  The greater the level of everyday racism, the less likely people are to engage in health prevention behaviors.   (Full citation for the article, which is behind a paywall: Ford CL, Daniel M, Earp JL, Kaufman JS, Golin CE, Miller WC. Perceived Everyday Racism, Residential Segregation and HIV Testing in an STD Clinic Sample. American Journal of Public Health Apr 2009 99;(Supp 1):S137-S143.)

The fact that racism takes a toll on the lives of people of color, and in particular on African Americans, is not especially new information.   There’s a literature on this that’s been growing for some years.  For example, Joe’s book with Karyn McKinney, The Many Costs of Racism, details the physical and psychological toll of racism on African American’s health.

What seems to be new here is that scholars in public health are increasingly documenting racism as an important underlying factor, if not a causal variable, in creating a number of specific health hazards and pathways to disease and mortality.   In the past, public health – like many other fields – had attributed racial inequality to the vagueness of social determinants phrased in the passive voice.   A research agenda that now explicitly includes racism is a step forward.

However, researchers are still overly cautious in their use of the term “perceived” as an ubiquitous qualifier to “everyday racism.”   Calling the experiences of everyday racism “perceived” leaves open the possibility that these experiences were not, in fact, racism but instead, a misundertanding of the actual situation.  If there is a “perception” of racism, then perhaps there is room for “misperception.”

Why does this matter?  It leaves unsettled then what the root cause is:  is it white racism that’s inflicting real harm on real people?  Or, is it the “perceptions” of black folks and other people of color that need to be adjusted?

Make no mistake, this burgeoning field of studying the impact on health of racism is important.  Yet, still largely missing here is a robust analysis of the cost of racism to whites.  A colleague of mine, Amy J. Schultz and I wrote a book chapter on this “Whiteness and the Construction of Health Disparities,” (Jessie Daniels and  Amy J. Schulz, pp. 89-127,  in Gender, Race, Class, and Health, (Jossey-Bass, 2006), Leith Mullings and Amy J. Schulz, Eds.).  Also missing here is what might be effective interventions, to use the public health language, to reduce the level of racism so that black and brown people might live longer, healthier lives.

Updated 6/26 to add: There’s an important piece on Racism’ Health Toll at Miller-McCune (from 6/15) that I should have referenced here.   Highly recommended.


It’s with more than a little sadness that I report on what appears to be the demise of  Started in 2005 by Spencer Overton, a George Washington University law professor, along with eight or nine other black law professors, consistently provided a sharp analysis on race, law and culture.  For me, was a model for what was possible when Joe and I started this blog in 2007.

I visited the site a few days ago and noticed that it was fallow, something others had noticed as well, and thought nothing of it.  People stop updating blogs for a lot of reasons and then eventually come back to them.  And, that’s what I had hoped for at

Until today, when I went back there to check something in their archive and I got one of those nasty, this-site-may-harm-your-computer messages.  It seems that the pharma-hackers have attacked the site so that now you can’t even see the content of the site.

It’s seems an ignoble end to a long-running and quite noble effort, and a collective of voices that will be missed.  RIP

Racism in the USA – and in the other USA: Views of Professor Jonathan Jansen

Over at Inside Higher Education, Ben Eisen has an interesting interviewwith Professor Jonathan D. Jansen, a South African who after the end of apartheid became the first black dean of education at South Africa’s very racially conservative University of Pretoria.

In his interview with Eisen, Professor Jansen talks about living between two racial cultures and compares the USA to the USA:

Universities in South Africa and the USA were formed in very similar circumstances where racial formation played crucial roles in knowledge production as well as in patterns of racial socialization and racial segregation. The book produced by Spelman’s president, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? … resonates with the South African experience; and I believe Knowledge in the Blood reflects some of the same tensions and struggles in the USA. The big difference, of course, is that blacks hold power in the Republic of South Africa while blacks remain a minority in the USA, and this has implications for the transformation of these patterns of racial division.

The product description of Jansen’s new book, Knowledge in the Blood, is very interesting and suggests other direct parallels between whites, including white youth, in both countries:

This book tells the story of white South African students—how they remember and enact an Apartheid past they were never part of. How is it that young Afrikaners, born at the time of Mandela’s release from prison, hold firm views about a past they never lived, rigid ideas about black people, and fatalistic thoughts about the future? … Jansen offers an intimate look at the effects of social and political change after Apartheid as white students first experience learning and living alongside black students. He reveals the novel role pedagogical interventions played in confronting the past, as well as critical theory’s limits in dealing with conflict in a world where formerly clear-cut notions of victims and perpetrators are blurred.

So, many white youth “hold firm views about a past they never lived, rigid ideas about black people.” Sounds like the other USA?

Customers Choosing White Men

An article in the June 23, 2009 issue of the New York Times’ Science section discusses the results of a study to be published in a future issue of The Academy of Management Journal.

The researchers divided 86 college students into three groups and showed each group one of three video clips about sales clerks. The sales setting details in the clips were identical, with one important exception: the demographic characteristics of the sales clerks varied. In one clip the sales clerk was a white woman, in the next a black man, and in the last a white man.

There were substantial numbers of women and nonwhites in each group, but the students rated the white man’s performance highest.

The study’s lead author stated in an interview that

Everyone –white, black, men, women—think the white man is more valuable. Someone needs to call customers out on their biases.

It’s a noble suggestion, but in all likelihood the outcome will not be the one hoped for: Customers will be more cautious about expressing in public their true beliefs on sex and race.