Racism and Personal Worth

If you’re one of those people who are wondering why our so-called economic recovery is passing you by here’s why: Thanks to the devastating economic collapse that has plagued our nation for the last several years we know:

1. Wealth has, with the assistance of federal policies and tax breaks, flowed into the hands of the few to an unprecedented extent. The top decile of pre-tax income earning Americans accounts for 50 percent of the total income of U.S. families—the highest level since 1917, with the top 1 percent of wage earners controlling nearly a quarter of the nation’s total income.
2. Wealth disparities are falling disproportionately on people of color, especially their children. More than a third (34%) of African American and 29% of Latino children live below the poverty level in the U.S.
3. Nearly half of African Americans born into middle-class families have spiraled down into the bottom 20% of income distribution compared to 16% of white children.
4. Between 1984 and 2007 the wealth gap between blacks and whites increased four- fold. (Some sources here and here)

These facts not only reveal the increasing immiseration of people of color, but of working class and middle class whites. They are realizing the fallacy of the American Dream as they struggle to survive in the face of increasing costs for food and fuel and devaluation in personal property and assets.

People of color have long been on the short end, receiving far less compensation for wages and, as I have shown in my book, injuries awarded by judges and juries. The color of one’s skin not only affects employment, housing, educational, and health opportunities and outcomes, it follows some people to the grave. The question is “If you were queen or king for a day, which one of our social institutions would you try to reform and how would you do it?”

(Dr. H. Roy Kaplan is in the Department of Africana Studies, University of South Florida, and is author of The Myth of Post-Racial America: Searching for Equality in the Age of Materialism.

Two Classes of Racism in New Keys

There are two general classes of racism that continue to confound most thinkers on the subject because of their subtlety. I have called them racism that praises and racism that blurs, both are equally common and dangerous in modern heterogeneous industrial societies such as the United States.

Racism that praises is a special variety often seen in arenas where white incompetence meets black incompetence. It is particularly true in the cases where the white incompetent holds a position of power or authority and can therefore confer upon the black incompetent a mark of recognition of some type. It is one incompetent praising another as if this is an indication that the praiser is not racist. This is usually done when the praisee is not only incompetent but malevolent against black people. It is the phenomenon that we often see when whites, that are racist, praise right wing or reactionary blacks for opposing equal rights, human dignity, or African resistance to discrimination. They are out front showing that they are as tough on black folks as the most rabid racist. The common parlance used to be “uncle toms” but I believe that the term has limited resonance with contemporary thinking about how racism works. In effect, these black people are victims of an insidious form of racism promoted and prosecuted by white Uncle Sams and Aunt Teresas who believe that they are showing that they are not racist by showering the malevolent and incompetent black with praise. This is the foulest example of racism that praises.

Racism that blurs is making a comeback after it was thoroughly thrashed forty years ago during the turbulent Sixties but I have lived long enough to see variants of it among current racists. My friend, Charles Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize Winning dramatist, is quite richly dark, but he tells the story of a white person who tells him, “Charles, I do not think of you as black.” Stunned by the assertion Charles does the same thing that I would do, he points out that this is not a compliment; in fact, it is evidence that racism is still playing a major role in how whites see black people.

To say that you do not see me as black is to deny a big part of my identity; it is in fact to claim that if I were black in your imagination certain “other” ideas would haunt our relationship. You know, black is this and black is that, and black can be that, but alas, I do not see you as black. To say that you do not see someone’s color or biology is not a compliment, though it might have been posed as such because of the latent racism, much like the racism by praise where a white person thinks that by supporting black incompetence she is in fact supporting black people, freedom, equality or something, when in fact she is demonstrating a high degree of racism. Thus, to say that you do not see me as black has to be one of the least compliments you could give to a person who has a healthy concept of himself or herself. I do not take “not seeing me as black” as a compliment because there is nothing invalid about you seeing me as black and still liking me as a person.

African Americans Still Victims of Colorism

Color has always been the dividing line to make African Americans feel less worthy of a legitimate social identity than Euro-Americans and less favored over those with lighter skin within their own race. Consequently, this color line between light and dark complexioned African Americans has caused division, schism, and contention among themselves that still exists today. Many African Africans have accepted the ideology of the white racial frame that lighter skin tones and straight hair makes one more acceptable to dominant group members. Mainstream advertising sustains subtle self-differentiation based on color preferences for African Americans. A case in point, L’Oreal was recently denounced for making Beyonce’s skin lighter than what it really is in their new series of L’Oreal product ads, according to this article. Although the company refuted the accusation, the fact that it raised a racial issue is evidence of the on-going contention that the color of one’s skin constructs different realities for African Americans and other social groups. There is a general consensus that the color line division among African Americans has caused self-hatred between those with lighter skin and those with a darker hue.

Beyond this, the CNN documentary, Black in America, alludes to this fact too. In the second airing of Black in America: The Black Man, some of the participants indicated that the color line division between lighter and darker skinned blacks has been evident in their lives. Other Black participants believe this negative social identity stems from slavery and has made its way into the new century. You will have to watch the entire video to fully appreciate this documentary.

Historically, African Americans with lighter skin have contributed to colorism because they have benefited from the privilege of having a skin color closer to that of Whites and have embraced the notion that privilege comes with having light skin in America. For example, during slavery, the house slave received more privileges than the field slave. In modern times, lighter complexioned or biracial African Americans appear to gain more access to the social, political, and economic institutions of America than darker skinned blacks, generally speaking. Even though W.E.B. DuBois was an advocate for the Black cause, his skin tone was of a lighter hue, and he was a graduate of one of the most elitist and prestigious universities in America, Harvard University. However, he experienced problems when he took on the Black cause.

Look, for instance, at President Barack Obama. Although he embraces the African heritage and his wife is African American, he nonetheless is biracial. He, too, is a Harvard graduate. I believe if he addressed the racial issue in America, he would be crucified. He would be told to focus on job creation rather than racial issues because white America, as a whole, is not interested in black problems. Anthony Williams, a participant in the CNN documentary said, “You have to almost change yourself, dilute yourself, to live in a white society.” Another African American male, Vince Priester describes reaction to the CNN documentary on race here. ( Report.com: Vince Priester describes being black in America) I, by no means, discount the positive experiences of darker hued African Americans because some are doing quite well for themselves but at what price. Despite this notion, America remains a racialized society where skin color and race still matters.

As Angela P. Harris states,

. . . Colorism operates sometimes to confound and sometimes to restructure racial hierarchy. Meanwhile, the circulating meanings attached to color shape the meaning of race. . . . Colorism as a series of symbolic economies is embedded in material economies of production, exchange, and consumption. (Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters, Stanford University Press, p. 2)

Broken on All Sides: New Documentary about Race and Criminal Justice

Matthew Pillischer has just completed a new documentary about race and criminal justice in that is worth checking out. Here’s a trailer for the film (6:58):

The film includes an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, which we’ve written about here before. While most third year law students are busy studying for the bar exam, Matthew Pillischer found time to produce and direct a documentary film about this important social justice issue. I don’t know how he did that, but I’m glad he did as his film promises to bring this important issue to a much wider audience.

President Obama Avoids Discussion of Race, Again

The New York Times has a very revealing story on President Obama’s trip to Brazil, and even calls out his colorblind racial framing.

The Brazilian officials frequently pointed to the similarities in the racial history and realities of the two countries, including the new Brazilian president, the first woman to hold that position, Dilma Rousseff:

The people in the United States and in Brazil, Ms. Rousseff said, had “dared to take at the highest level someone of African descent and a woman, demonstrating that the basis of democracy allows to overcome the largest barriers to build societies that will be more generous and live more in harmony.”

A former radical guerrilla fighting oppression in Brazil (and imprisoned and tortured), Rousseff later at a luncheon further spoke about how both countries

have the largest black populations outside Africa and “a long track record of the struggle of the minorities.” Lifting her glass, she said, “I propose that we should raise a toast to you and to the dream of Martin Luther King, the same dream of Brazilians and Americans, the dream of freedom, the dream of hope.”

Yet President Obama did not even once note such similarities or discuss racial breakthroughs or the persisting high levels of racial oppression in both countries, something even the usually colorblind Times reporting noted:

Mr. Obama, characteristically, did not overtly address his race, or race in general, in several joint appearances with Ms. Rousseff on Saturday.

Apparently, once again this pathbreaking US president fears talking about US racism, as he did in the Dr. Wright case, out of fear of alienating potential white voters. The power of the colorblind variant of the old white racial frame, again in 2011.

Is Redemption Possible for Alexandra Wallace?

Alexandra Wallace, the student who posted the racist YouTube video about Asian students, is withdrawing from UCLA.   University administrators at UCLA opted not to discipline her.  Wallace apologized, called the video a mistake and is leaving the university amid what she says are death threats.   The national conversation sparked by this video has focused on whether the video was racist or not (uhm, yes)  and whether the students’ speech constitutes “free speech” and what right universities and colleges have to regulate such speech.  Predictably, there’s a raft of response videos, including this one with over 2.5 million hits.  The latest twist is the focus on death threats against Wallace as the real harm here, not the supposedly “trivial” racism of her video (this is the popular take over at Stormfront and in a few comments on this blog).  Of course death threats are wrong, and should be condemned (even when they’re described by local police as “more annoying than threatening”).

The question I want to pose for readers this morning is this: is redemption possible for Alexandra Wallace?  And if so, what would it look like?

I agree with @AngryAsianMan when he writes:

I’m actually a little bummed that she’s leaving UCLA. I would have loved to see her continue her education — in more than just political science — and learn a thing or two about co-existing with fellow “Americans” — yes, Asians — in the UCLA community, having to make those walks of shame across campus while forever known as the “ching chong ling long ting tong” girl.

I’m a little bummed, too.   By leaving UCLA and citing “death threats,” this young white woman has re-cast herself as a victim of racism rather than a perpetrator, which is a pretty amazing slight-of-hand given that video.   Given her abrupt withdrawal from UCLA, the re-frame as a white “victim” in this story, I’m not optimistic that she’ll learn from this experience, which she called a “mistake.”

In fact, if I had to predict an outcome, I’d say that Wallace will probably go on to a reality show of some kind and become a darling of the far-right and white nationalists (as she already appears to be).   I think it’s too bad that one of the unintended consequences of the digital era is that mistakes of a 20-year-old can reverberate so widely and so quickly, and that they can live on forever.   For any of us who have lived well passed our twentieth birthday (a couple of times), it’s truly cringe-worthy to think about our younger, often mistake-filled selves being endlessly available online.

I think there’s another scenario possible for Alexandra Wallace.

She could enroll in another school, maybe to study sociology at UC-Santa Barbara or UC-San Diego,  and learn about the legacy of racism that’s been handed down to her.   Maybe she’d even decide to change her name to distance herself from that legacy and this controversy.

I imagine that she would spend a few years reading her way through this list of books and articles, and spend her other time watching these documentaries.  Then, she’d go on to start a series of workshops for college students called “Unlearning Racism” and “Using YouTube for Good and Not Evil.” Or, maybe she’ll start a speaking tour with other whites busted for their own racism online, talking about what they’ve learned from their mistakes.  Or, maybe she’d make her own documentary about white college students working on their own racism.

Or, perhaps inspired by reading Ruth Frankenberg and bell hooks, she’d decide to follow in their footsteps and go on to graduate study at UC-Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness program, where she’d take a seminar with Angela Davis.   When she finished at UC-SC, she’d go on to write books and articles about white racism.

I believe that redemption is possible for Alexandra Wallace, but it’s going to take more – much more – than an apology and calling this video a “mistake” and withdrawing from school as a victim.   What she’s got to do is somehow bring herself to see this as an opportunity to learn some of the deep lessons about racism that she’s clearly missed in her 20 years.  This series of events could turn into purposeful work and a contribution to society if Alexandra Wallace decided to use her energy working against the corrosive legacy of racism.

It could happen.

Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues

The documentary “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” tells the story of the blues, a uniquely American music form. Born out of the economic and social transformation of African American life early in the 20th century, the blues eloquently capture both suffering and resilience.  The film features many of the often overlooked women who were pioneers of the blues, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters.  This short clip (7:04) gives you a preview:

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the good folks at California Newsreel are offering by a free preview of the entire film through the end of March.  Great for classes on race, gender, culture, American studies and women’s studies.

St. Patrick’s Day and the Changing Boundaries of Whiteness

Today in New York City and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.'” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.

From the archive (originally posted 03-17-2009)

Don’t Call Republicans Neanderthals: It’s Unfair … To Neanderthals

Once upon a time, vicious racist statements were pretty much limited to white racist good ole boys having a beer or two. These days such statements they may be found in mainstream media, authored by Republican candidates or elected officials.

Jack Davis, a Buffalo N.Y. businessman running in the Republican primary for a congressional seat, stated recently that Latino farm workers should be deported and replaced by inner city Blacks. In other words, take the pestiferous illegals out of the country and replace them with stereotypically (in his mind) lazy Blacks.

Kansas Representative Virgil Peck outdid Davis. The problem caused by the growth of the wild hog population was being discussed at a meeting of the House Appropriation Committee. A possible solution, gunmen in helicopters, was being debated. Peck asserted:

If shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a (solution) to our illegal immigration problem.

Peck voiced a brief apology that many found unconvincing. As Peck sees it, illegal immigrants and wild hogs are at the same level.

Republican Party officials expressed dismay at these politicians’ abhorrent pronouncements and tried to distance themselves from this vitriol. These party officials, however, should ask themselves the following question: Why do politicians of this ilk align themselves with the GOP and not another party?

Racist Video Goes Viral at UCLA

Racism online takes new forms, as I’ve written here before, and it gets joined with centuries-old forms of racism. The latest example of cyber racism on a college campus is playing out right now at UCLA. Alexandra Wallace, a white female student, posted a video online that made fun of her Asian classmates, and the video has gone viral. Here’s a short video (1:38) from MSNBC / The Grio explaining the story:

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Clearly, this is the kind of thing that Ms. Wallace felt comfortable saying in the “backstage” to an audience that she imagined to be filled with like-minded, white friends. Remarkably, what she failed to consider is that other people in the “frontstage” would hear, see and be appalled at her clueless display of racism.

Now, the many students are calling for Ms. Wallace’s expulsion from UCLA and administrators at that institution will have to decide what kinds of repercussions, if any, she should have to deal with. What do you think? Should Ms. Wallace be expelled? Punished in some other way? Or, is this just a function of living in the U.S. and she should be able to say what she thinks?