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?