Racism in 2011: A Year End Review

As the year 2011 ends, there are several good year-end reviews about racial justice, this video from Colorlines and this post from a David J. Leonard writing at New Black Man, are both excellent.  We here at Racism Review offer this as our own brief, and necessarily incomplete, recap of some of the notable events in the struggle for racial justice. Be sure to scroll all the way to the end, there are some victories there, too ~ and a challenge for you at the end.

We lost some fierce champions and scholar-activists:

  • Manning Marable, aged 60, died in April, just days before his epic biography of Malcolm X was published.
  • Derrick Bell, aged 80, a founder of critical race theory who famously resigned his tenured position at Harvard Law School in protest over their failure to hire any women of color, died in October.

Lots of things happened in 2011 which illustrate just how entrenched racial inequality (still) is, including:

  • the execution of Troy Davis and the ongoing racism of the New Jim Crow. I argued here at the time of Davis’ execution that the U.S. death penalty is akin to the American practice of lynching in which black and brown people, especially men, are executed in disproportionately high numbers as a means of social control.
  • the Occupy Wall Street movement, initiated and led predominantly by white people, missed the racial significance of the “occupy” terminology, and thereby missed an opportunity to galvanize a movement across racial boundaries.  Dick Gregory said in October that the Occupy movement had a ‘whiff’ of the civil rights movement, with a key difference: “The difference between this movement and our movement is that white people — rich, poor, educated — are born with 300 years of white privilege. So there are certain things that you don’t do to me when you’re born with privileges. When it was us, the cops could do anything they wanted to. You can’t do these children like this.”
  • the racism in presidential politics has been off the hook this year, with the Republicans on center stage as they search for a viable opponent to defeat President Obama.  This is not to say that Democrats are not capable of practicing racism in the service of a political goal, it’s just that the Republicans have been taking up all the air time. From the buffoonery of Herman Cain and the strategic racism of his Koch brothers’ supporters, to the ‘food stamp president’ racism of Newt Gingrich, to the white-supremacist-supported campaign of Ron Paul, it’s been an epic year for racism in presidential politics.
  • immigration reform has stalled and deportations have increased under President Obama. In 2010, the U.S. government deported some 400,000 people, more than in the entire decade of the 1980s. However, it’s not all immigrants who are being targeted; research indicates that Asian and European immigrants are almost never deported, yet blacks and Latinos are deported in large numbers.
  • Facebook (and YouTube) racism continue. In a move that continues to baffle me (you know we can see what you’re saying, right?), white people continue to post racist crap to Facebook, YouTube and any other form of social media.  One of the more infamous examples from 2011 was Alexandra Wallace, former UCLA college student, who posted a racist video of herself mocking her Asian American classmates. She later left UCLA amid reported death threats. More recently, the racist postings on Facebook by NYPD cops was exposed.
  • Islamophobia on the rise, and mass murder in Norway. In July, Anders Breivik opened fire on a Norwegian camp killing about 90 people, many of them children. He was said to be upset about “immigrants” especially Muslim immigrants that were supposedly “destroying Europe.”  In the U.S., Rep. Peter King (R-NY), led the way in fomenting Islamophobia through a series of congressional hearings that targeted Muslims living in the U.S. as potential terrorists. King refused to focus any of his congressional hearing on predominantly white militia groups or white supremacist organizations.

A few things that happened in 2011 which might be helping create a more just world (and which you could do in 2012):

  • Changing the language we use. The Drop the I-Word campaign, to get people to stop using the word “illegal” and terms like “anchor baby” has been extremely successful and even got the New York Times to remove the word “illegal” from its official style guide.
  • Documentaries and digital videos that tell different stories. Independent non-fiction visual media, such as documentaries and DIY digital video, have become increasingly accessible to everyday users and that means that there has been a proliferation of the kinds of stories people can tell. These stories often run counter to the dominant narratives and have the power to change things.  Stories like those told in “The Interrupters,” about young people working to end gang violence, can open up new dialogues and create new opportunities for change. The easy access to digital video allows people to reframe media stories in which they are subjects, re-positioning themselves as narrators of their own stories.
  • Research that exposes racism and chips away at the liberal ideology that we live in a ‘post-racial’ society.  All the many contributors here at the RR blog try to do this, along with lots of other scholar-activists.
  • Celebrating differences. Audre Lorde wrote “It is not our differences that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.” Some women who are putting that philosophy into practice are these Latina Moms who have been active in publicly supporting their LGBT kids. Embracing this kind of practical intersectionality undermines those political strategies that try to divide and conquer us.  It’s this kind of effort that is the heart of coalition building, and we need lots more of it.
  • Social media campaigns that push back against racism.  There have been some clever social media campaigns to push back against racism, including a (now defunct site) called “PWSNT” which is an acronym for “People Who Said [the N-word] Today,” with the tag line, “every morning, the hottest, freshest screenshots of white people using the n-word.”  Just as the name of the site promises, it posts the photo and full name of people who have used the n-word in their social networking site profile. Although no longer active, there are other sites like this which have sprung up in its place, like this Tumblr site, “I’m not a racist, but…”
  • The international human rights campaign to end the death penalty. Amnesty International mobilized people to save Troy Davis’ life, and when that failed, continued to mobilize concerned people to make abolishing the death penalty an international human rights issue.  In my view, making the criminal justice system in the U.S., and especially the blatantly racist death penalty, a human rights issue will be an important wedge in ending this injustice.
  • The nascent Occupy the Prison Industrial Complex movement. In the final hours of 2011 as I was finishing this post, some protesters from the Occupy movement were headed to a Manhattan correctional facility to begin an ‘occupation’ there. Occupy DC has already started mobilizing against Wells Fargo and their funding of private prisons. The massive prison industrial complex, which is premised on the elite privilege of a few white people, is funded my large banks, ‘profiteers of misery,’ who make money from the incarceration of millions of people, almost all black or brown. If the Occupy movement is really concerned with addressing the stark inequality between the 1% and the 99%, and wants to do that important work of coalition building, I can think of no better place to start than with those who seek to make a profit from the New Jim Crow.

What will you do in 2012 contribute to the struggle for racial justice?

Ron Paul Gains Supporters at Stormfront, according to Don Black

Don Black, the founder of Stormfront, the largest (currently over 236,000 registered users) and longest-running white supremacist site on the web, appeared on the show “Young Turks” yesterday and said that he and many of his followers agree with Ron Paul on the issues, currently a Republican hopeful in the U.S. presidential race.

Ron Paul’s newsletters have recently been in the spotlight of the mainstream press in a bit of a johnny-come-lately attack on Paul’s long standing racism and homophobia. In 2007, Daily Kos ran a story “Ron Paul: In His Own Words,” which exposed much of this (and so have many others prior to the current dust up), but this round of attention seems to have been sparked by Paul’s surge in the polls and support among some white liberals and libertarians.

There is a tendency, especially among white liberals, to dismiss white supremacist rhetoric – like that of Don Black and those who agree with him at Stormfront – because it exists outside the ‘mainstream.’  I argued in my first book that the extremist rhetoric of white supremacists and the mainstream rhetoric of politicians elected to public office overlap in significant ways.   While the standard way of viewing these groups is that they are “fringe,” I contend that much of what they are saying is very similar to what mainstream politicians are saying.  Here, Don Black and Ron Paul are simply the most recent example in a centuries-long tradition of this sort of overlap in American politics.

Capitalism and Racism: Remembering the Great Oliver C. Cox

In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been re-reading Oliver Cromwell Cox’s pioneering and excellent Caste, Class, & Race; A Study in Social Dynamics book, which was first published in the late 1940s. It is still very much worth reading and learning from. It is available for free in various pdf and ereader formats for the Monthly Review Press edition here. (I use the Kindle formatting in quotes below.)

Oliver Cox was one of the few early black sociologists in the United States, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1938. He was a student of Robert Ezra Park, yet provided some of the deepest and most insightful critiques of Park, the early Chicago school, and Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma in this book, Caste, Class & Race.

One of the key figures historically in what has come to be called the “Black Radical tradition,” Oliver Cox was probably the first to argue in some detail that racist framing and exploitation arose in the various stages of modern capitalism:

Racial antagonism is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits. It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492; moreover, racial feeling developed concomitantly with the development of our modem social system. Probably one of the most persistent social illusions of modem times is that we have race prejudice against other people because they are physically different—that race prejudice is instinctive. (Kindle Locations 461-487)

Modern race prejudice and framing is not instinctive but develops in the material context of early capitalism. Cox added that

The interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest— the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society. To be sure, [a white person] might say this cannot be, for one feels an almost irrepressible revulsion in the presence of colored people, especially Negroes, although one never had any need to exploit them. It is evidently the way they look, their physical difference, which is responsible for one’s attitude. . . . [However] the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.

Racist prejudice and framing are learned in the broad material context of racial exploitation, and is generally accepted by most whites without question, even those who see themselves as uninvolved in exploitation. In this negative white racial framing black Americans

must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law. On the whole, they came to America as forced labor, and our slavocracy could not persist without a consistent set of social attitudes which justified the system naturally. Negroes had to be thought of as subsocial and subhuman. To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system. (Kindle Locations 461-487).

Once put into place in the U.S. case, this racial prejudice and broader racial framing spread globally:

Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Kindle Locations 8327-8329).

Later on, he summarizes this way:

Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable. In a quite literal sense the white ruling class is the Negro’s burden; the saying that the white man will do anything for the Negro except get off his back puts the same idea graphically. It is the economic content of race prejudice which makes it a powerful and fearfully subduing force. . . . However, it is the human tendency, under capitalism, to break out of such a place, together with the determined counterpressure of exploiters, which produces essentially the lurid psychological complex called race prejudice. Thus race prejudice may be thought of as having its genesis in the propagandistic and legal contrivances of the white ruling class for securing mass support of its interest. (Kindle Locations 11973-11982).

. . . . [Whites] should not be distracted by the illusion of personal repugnance for a race. Whether, as individuals, [they] feel like or dislike for the colored person is not the crucial fact. What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose. The attitude abhors a personal or sympathetic relationship. (Kindle Locations 11990-11997).

More than 60 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are results of concrete social and material contexts, not some psychological gremlins inherent in all human beings. And they destroy personal and empathetic relationships. These early classics are indeed well worth reading again today.

Documented Discrimination in Arpaio’s Arizona

Self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio has made the news again for his treatment of undocumented immigrants in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. On December 15, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report that details unlawful and inhumane abuses carried out by Arpaio and his underlings against “illegals” between 2008 and the present. It details violations in community policing and in the County detention facilities. Below are some excerpts:

• Latino drivers are four to nine times more likely to be stopped than similarly situated non-Latino drivers.

• Our investigation uncovered a number of instances in which immigration-related crime suppression activities were initiated in the community after MCSO [Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office] received complaints that described no criminal activity, put rather referred, for instance, to individuals with “dark skin” congregating in one area, or individuals speaking Spanish at a local business.

• Individual accounts regarding MCSO deputies stopping Latinos on the basis of their appearance corroborate the use of discriminatory policing practices.

• MCSO detention officers discriminatorily punish Latino LEP [Limited English Proficient] inmates who fail to understand commands given in English by, for example, locking down their pods (which increases the risk of inmate-on-inmate violence), or imposing disciplinary segregation (solitary confinement).

• MCSO detention officers refuse to accept forms completed by Latino LEP inmates in Spanish. Such forms include tank orders, which enable inmates to request basic daily services, and grievance forms, which enable inmates to identify and address alleged mistreatment. Even in instances when Spanish language requests are accepted, Latino LEP inmates face delays in services for not submitting requests and grievance forms in English.

Arpaio is popular among (mostly white) voters not only in Arizona but also in the rest of the nation, to such extent that several GOP presidential candidates sought his endorsement, which he eventually gave to Rick Perry.

At first blush, it is hard to believe that these injustices were perpetrated so unabashedly, but when one remembers how “illegals” are so very negatively viewed in the dominant White Racial Frame, it makes perfect sense.

Fixing Immigration Requires Historical Understandings & A Sense of Humanity

Americans need to be intellectually honest (rather than want to laugh) when empirical and historical evidence concerning immigration realities are provided.

Immigration is intertwined and implicated with our history of excluding citizenship to immigrants of color and with our global economic trade agreements such as NAFTA. Thus, it should surprise no one that The Pew Hispanic Center finds that nearly two-thirds of the over 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have been here for over a decade.

Historical and economic policies are not separate from current immigration realities.

As Americans we must use empirical and historical evidence to form a complicated and nuanced understanding of immigration rather than resort to the disrespectful treatment of prominent scholars, simply because one does not agree with their analysis. If one feels the personal need to be mean-spirited it would be better directed towards Congress, as it is their lack of political will that has created the de facto system of immigration we have today. Congress needs to make immigration policy reforms committed to the political process via deliberation, compromise, political courage and leadership—regardless of whether the outcome pleases everyone. However, for some it is easier to attack academics that have devoted their careers towards critical thinking, developing ideas, and fostering learning and understanding in an effort to make the world a more knowledgeable and with that, better place.

Or one could educate themselves on the historical and empirical realities of immigration in America. For example, In Major Problems in American Immigration History, Professor Mae M. Ngai demonstrates that the study of immigration has evolved from the European model of assimilation to examining where we are today—discussing the major issues surrounding groups who have never had the same opportunity to assimilate because of racist laws and a xenophobic citizenry.

However, for many people it is much easier to fear America’s changing demographics, ignore our white racial frame, and use an ahistorical argument about American exceptionalism by attacking academics with statements such as we would not want “the USA to look just like the third world these people left.” These types of views lacking in substance or empirical evidence are everywhere and do not further efforts at reform or get us closer to a civil dialogue of understanding. One prominent example is evidenced in Patrick Buchanan latest book, Suicide of a Superpower, where he even has a chapter called “The End of White America.” Rather than an honest account of how in every Naturalization Act from 1790 to 1952, Congress included “white person” as a prerequisite for naturalization and that basic laws of citizenship did not apply to racial minorities until 1940 (look it up), Buchanan instead espouses an intellectually dishonest argument intended to instill and deepen distain in whites towards non-whites as they become the minority (oh no!). In short, Buchanan argues that Latinos with greater allegiances to Mexico and their own culture will ruin America’s future. This nativist argument is about economics, xenophobia, and racism. This argument is nothing new and unfortunately, it has many followers.

While European immigrants have also historically confronted hostility, particularly Southern and Eastern Europeans, they never faced the kind of legal racial restrictions on naturalization experienced by people of color. For example, Ngai states,

“…the Immigration Act of 1924 comprised a constellation of reconstructed racial categories….At one level, the new immigration law differentiated Europeans according to nationality and ranked them in a hierarchy of desirability. At another level, the law constructed a white American race, in which persons of European descent shared a common whiteness that made them distinct from those deemed to be not white.”

Ngai goes on to state,

“This distinction gave all Euro-Americans a stake in what Matthew Jacobson has called a ‘consanguine white race” and facilitated their Americanization…[while the] racialization of the latter groups’ [Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, etc.] national origins rendered them unalterably foreign and unassimilable to the nation.” (p. 387-388).

Unfortunately, the consequences of these laws remain with us today.

The lack of critical analysis around the historic and current racial considerations of immigration and racial exclusion, however, comes at a great cost to us as a nation. Where is our sense of humanity? Who would choose to leave their young children for years to work for next to nothing in a country that does not accept them? Who would chose to watch their children cry of hunger at night because their stomach’s ached from lack of food? Who would chose to leave their elderly parents knowing they may never see them again? Whatever solutions Congress eventually comes up with we ought to be a better nation than to lose the humanity of the situation.

Undocumented Immigrants are Mostly Longterm Residents

The Pew Hispanic Center has an important new report on undocumented immigrants, which leads with this summary:

Nearly two-thirds of the 10.2 million unauthorized adult immigrants in the United States have lived in this country for at least 10 years and nearly half—4.7 million—are parents of minor children, according to new estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Such data should put a different spin on much of the political debate about these immigrants. Nearly two thirds are longterm residents of 10 years or more. And add in those who have been here 5-10 years and you have an overwhelming majority of these mostly hard working immigrants being fairly longterm residents. And many others among the undocumented are minor children who have only known the United States as their country. Many of these youth mostly know just US ways, customs, the English language, and such.

Moreover, without these mostly Latino and Asian Americans, immigrants and their children, this country would likely be dying demographically, like many European countries.

Thus, it is amazing just how backward, ignorant, and extreme much of the political discussion of this probably necessary immigration is in this very troubled and increasingly xenophobic country. Generating such ignorance seems to be a major (necessary?) product of our capitalistic media and often arch-conservative political and public discussions.

Is the Bush Depression Killing the Black Middle Class?

Over at the Organizations, Occupations and Work blog, a fellow sociologist blogger, Matt Vidal, has an important analysis of some recent data on unemployment and employment indicating severe racial inequalities. And he raises the issue of the dicey future of the black middle class. He begins with this statement about this New York Times article:

A recent New York Times article reports on how the long downturn of the US economy has hit the public sector hard, which, in turn, has been devastating for the black middle class. The article notes that black workers are about one third more likely than whites to be employed in the public sector. Blacks have historically been more able to find work in the public sector, as they faced more discrimination in the private sector. Overall, unemployment rates for blacks have consistently been about twice that for whites, with the black unemployment rate peaking at 16.7% last summer.

I call your attention to his good summary of some of the key issues, with some good links. His conclusion will not come as a surprise to readers of this sociological blog:

The upshot is that any way to address the problem most be organizational or structural, not individual.

Robbing Percy to Pay Paul: How Lottery and Education Policy Reproduces Racial Inequality

Malcolm X would often tell his followers, “Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.” Although newer models look much different than older ones, the fact of the matter is a Cadillac is still a Cadillac. Likewise, racism is still racism, regardless of how it has changed throughout the years. The works of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Joe Feagin, among others, have shown that racism is about how racial categories are central organizing principles of social circumstances and opportunities. Racial groups atop the hierarchy are enumerated numerous advantages, both symbolic and material, while other groups are disadvantaged. In the modern era, the racial rule persists in ways that are institutional, covert, and seemingly nonracial, but no less effective. I argue that the utilization of lotteries to finance public services, like education, exemplifies a new model of this racism.

In a neo-liberal age characterized by disinvestment of the welfare state, lotteries have become a viable alternative for governments to generate hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. Politicians are generally receptive to them, particularly when confronted with budgetary shortfalls, because they raise huge tax revenues for social services like education with little resistance from the public. Lotteries rely upon voluntary participation, but as Charles Clotfelter and Phillip Cook argue, they are nonetheless forms of taxation because these revenues carry the same value regardless of how the state collects and spends them. Often times, however, lottery revenues are not generated equally across social groups. Some groups contribute more to social services than do others though the lottery tax. When these revenues are redistributed in a way that transfers money from one community to another, one community’s fiscal gain comes at another’s expense. So the question stands: Who plays and who pays?
Recently, I completed a study that takes up this very question. Using Chicago as a case study, I simultaneously compared the generation and allocation of lottery revenues. My findings show that this money-exchange process is organized along lines of race (and class). The lottery is a racially regressive source of revenue (it collects much more money from blacks than whites), but the state spends these revenues on education without considering from whom they originated. When this occurs, resources are transferred from communities of color and spread across all communities.

After auditing financial records from the Illinois Department of Revenue, I found that lottery sales vary considerably by a community’s racial and class background. (See Figure 1 for an overview of bivariate statistics showing this pattern.) Consider, for example, one illustrative comparison of a few communities of relatively equal population size. During the early 2000s, communities of color and working class communities such as Avalon Park, Calumet Heights, Roseland, and South Shore generated well over $20 million of lottery sales annually, whereas white communities and middle- to upper-class communities like North Center and Lakeview generated only $4 to $5 million. Such trends remained consistent after performing regression analysis, in which I was able to test for independent and simultaneous effects of race and class while controlling other influential variables.

Once lottery sales are generated, nearly a third of every dollar is earmarked for public education in Illinois (see Figure 2). During the 2000s, the lottery’s contribution to state education amounted to nearly $600 million or more per year or roughly 10 percent of the state’s annual education budget (see Figure 3). It is placed in a general fund along with other sources of revenue and allotted to school districts based on three criteria: property tax levels, average daily attendance, and poverty levels within a district (see Figure 4). Illinois lawmakers intentionally designed the formula this way to ensure poorer districts receive more assistance than wealthier counterparts. Progressive intentions do not translate into progressive outcomes though, especially when lottery revenues are redistributed without considering from whom they originated.

In Chicago, money exchange between the lottery and education represents public policy that circulates money from those who need it most and spreads it around to everyone. This is especially true when lottery tax contributions outweigh other sources of money for education (e.g., property taxes). Under the worst circumstances communities of color are burdened with subsidizing public education, a service everyone is entitled. Public policy that circulates money in this way captures one mechanism for reproducing racially inequitable distributions of capital. Therefore, let us call this new Cadillac for what it is: Racism.

~ Kasey Henricks is a Ph.D. Student of Sociology at Loyola University Chicago and current Student Representative of the American Sociological Association’s Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities. Contact can be directed to him at khenricks@luc.edu.