College Readiness: Faulty Analogies or Faulty White Logic?

In “White Logic, White Methods” several essays address the false rationality of social science that is a thin veneer for whiteness.

You can rationalize away all disparate impacts of institutional racism and sexism if you shape your theories, models and measurements just so.

I have argued vehemently, albeit academically, that higher education research is one of the whitest fields of research out there these days. Somehow econometrics brought the rational choice penchant for ignoring statistical discrimination from econ and wedded it to the efficiency logics of market enthusiasm to create a perfect storm of obfuscation and rationalized oppression.

I mostly brush it off. This is the job and I don’t know of a job where this won’t be an issue.

However, I am clear about my critical position: the rational approach to re-inscribing race, gender, and class disparities in higher education policy, particularly through federal financial aid policy, is anything but. It’s all the same benign organizational racism that it has always been.


So, when the debate about instituting a “college readiness” test for means-tested federal Pell grants unfolded, I did what I often do: I asked about the racial implications of such a policy.

The analogy was clear to me. Even if it wasn’t clear to others, the meat of the argument remains the same. Secondary schooling is compulsory, which requires a commitment from the State to provide access to the primary qualification for Pell — a diploma or GED. A college readiness test would come with no State obligation. The ridiculous notion that excluding poor students who aren’t college ready from Pell would magically incentivize public education to get on the ball with preparing all students is the kind fairy dust that gives us trickle down economics.

Not a single higher education researcher could explain how this was anything but an act of institutional racism.

Being afraid of talking about race doesn’t excuse serious researchers from the consequences of ignoring race. I do not care if you intend for a policy to be racialized. I am here always for asking the ways in which effects are racialized, absent of intent.

So, let me be clear about my “racist” analogy of college readiness to poll taxes and literacy tests.

Wealth drives “college readiness”.

Black wealth accumulation lags white wealth accumulation because institutional racism has made it so.

From redlining that depresses the value of the greatest asset most Americans have to K-12 school districting that reinforces the salience of wealth and home ownership to curriculum and resources, many black students are unlikely to meet some arbitrary standard of college readiness.

And have no doubt that such a measure would be arbitrary. There is no single agreement on what college readiness constitutes.

There is no moral imperative behind instituting a college readiness barrier beyond “saving money”. But it is never clearly stated whose money we are saving or for what ends. Are we saving poor students’ money? Obviously not if we are denying them a grant and forcing them to rely on student loans more than they already do.

So whose money are we saving? I suspect we mean real peoples’ money. You know, not-poor real people.

As in, the not-poor people whose college readiness is possible because kids in other schools don’t get the resources to be college ready.

There is no scenario where the effects of poverty and racism won’t be expensive. The only scenarios are for whom it will be most costly.

The idea that remediating the effects of negative wealth accumulation and poverty through increasing the cost to individual poor people, who are more likely to be black, is anything but racist paternalism has yet to be effectively argued. Mostly because those who propose college readiness tests are too afraid of being called racist to seriously consider the racist effects of their proposals.

Kind of like how we refuse to acknowledge that punishing poor people doesn’t make them less likely to be poor.

It’s all very rational.

~ Guest blogger Tressie McMillan Cotton is is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. This post originally appeared at her blog, Some of Us are Brave

Learning to be a White Woman

“She can do what she wants, she’s free, white and 21.” This was an expression I grew up hearing in Texas from lots of people, my Granny was particularly fond of saying this. “Free, white and 21,” was a way of conveying that a person occupied a position of freedom and citizenship, of racial privilege, and of adulthood. While this phrase was not gender-specific, there was something gendered about growing up white and (cisgendered) female. Today, in the ongoing series Trouble with White Women, I explore some of the research on learning to be a white woman.

Whiteness is a Made Up Category

Sociologists and other academics say things like “whiteness is a social construction.” Another way of saying that is “whiteness is a made up category.”  The notion of being “white” is a relatively new one, historically, one rooted in colonialism. Precisely who counts as “white” in the U.S. is something that has changed over time, and changed rather dramatically.

In hearings before the U.S. Congress prior to the Immigration Act of 1924, social science experts of the day testified that southern Italians were a different “race,” decidedly not “white,” and ontologically incapable of assimilating into mainstream U.S. culture. Therefore, the argument went, they should be barred from entering. The law was intended to restrict immigration by Southern and Eastern Europeans, including many Jewish people who had migrated in large numbers since the 1890s to escape persecution in Poland and Russia, as well as prohibiting the immigration of people from Middle Eastern nations, people from India, and people from Japan and China. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”



(Image source)

Over the next several decades of the 20th century, people from those groups categorized as “non-white” and incapable of assimilation – and barred from the U.S. on that basis –  became white. How did that happen?

A number of scholars have written about this phenomenon of racial transformation (e.g., Ignatiev on the Irish) but few have taken up gender in this discussion. However, Karen Brodkin, in her book, How the Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America,  does include gender in her analysis. Brodkin makes a convincing, systematic argument that post-war policies like the GI bill and those of the Federal Housing Administration effectively translated into de facto “affirmative action” for the male children and grandchildren of immigrants, thus promoting the whiteness of southern and eastern Europeans while purposefully excluding African Americans from those crucial mechanisms of race and class privilege. For Jewish men, accepting whiteness and its privileges also meant incorporating the patriarchal domesticity of dominant American culture.  In other words, because some (immigrant) men were able to get good educations, jobs and buy houses through government subsidies, they had the opportunity to access the affordances of whiteness, and specifically, white masculinity. Brodkin also suggests that “becoming white” also meant leaving aside more radical politics and adopting mainstream American political views.

But what about the women? In Brodkin’s analysis, to become white, Jewish women give up the power they once held in the family in exchange for the lifestyle of bourgeois white women.  She argues that Jews had to conform to the gender norms of the dominant culture that was different from the culture they had brought from Eastern Europe. In the wake of that shift in gender norms, Jews were left with anxiety and ambivalence which manifest in, among other things, Jewish American Princess (JAP) jokes and misogyny toward the “Jewish mother.” This anxiety is a brief rupture which, according to Brodkin, masks the larger trend of becoming white, of blending into the dominant white culture.In the bid to assimilate into the category “white,” part of the deal is accepting the gender norms and relationships of the dominant, white culture.

So, when my Granny would say to me, “you’re free white and 21,” she had no idea that at another time or place who was considered “white” would have been an entirely different collection of people.  What are those lessons we learn about becoming a white woman?

Growing Up White, Female, Suburban 

When I was growing up in suburban South Texas, there were particular moments when whiteness – though no one called it that – entered the narrative about what I could and could not do. There was, of course, a particular kind of taboo about who I could date: black men or boys were off limits, Latino men or boys were to be considered on a case-by-case basis. The Greek boys down the street were fine, cosmopolitan even, but all these potential suitors were marked by “difference” from my whiteness. (Neither my parents nor I considered that I might date a girl of whatever race. I didn’t discover that possibility until much later.)

A particular form of white womanhood was what my mother was trying to impart to me when she insisted that I should take tennis lessons in hot summers in Corpus Christi, so that one day I might join a Country Club (after I had married well, and heterosexually).

And, my whiteness was part of what my father was trying to preserve when he moved our family four hours north to the (then) all-white Houston suburb of Spring, Texas rather comply with the Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD court order mandating school desegregation.

These lessons about whiteness are not bound by Texas, or the South, nor restricted to a distant past. In her book, Daughters of Suburbia: Growing up white, female and middle class, Lorraine Kenny offers a glimpse at what growing up on suburban Long Island is like, and what some of the lessons of whiteness are there. In many ways, I think of Kenny’s book as a sequel to Brodkin’s, as she traces the consequences the architecture of whiteness that Brodkin describes.

Suburbs Aerial View

(Image source) 

Kenny argues that what gets defined as “normal” about gender reinforces the cultural practices of whiteness. She highlights both the experiences of the middle-school students and the stories of three notoriously “bad” white middle-class teenage girls: Amy Fisher, the “Pistol-Packing Long Island Lolita,” Cheryl Pierson, who hired a classmate to murder her father, and Emily Heinrichs, a former white supremacist and a teen mom. According to Kenny, middle-class whiteness thrives on its invisibility–on not being recognized as a cultural phenomenon. For these women, the lessons of being a white woman were were central to what they learned growing up on Long Island. All of the women who learned the same lessons and followed those norms, did not make the evening news. When Fisher, Pierson and Heinrichs violated these norms in different ways, they did make the evening news. When we examine what mainstream media identifies as aberrant, Kenny suggests, we can begin to identify the unspoken assumptions that constitute middle-class whiteness as a cultural norm.

This is where trying to talk about or study whiteness becomes so difficult. If it’s invisible, how do you see it? If it’s the cultural norm, doesn’t that mean whiteness is everywhere?  This is especially challenging when it comes to white women who, by and large, continue to exist in an unmarked racial zone.

Social Geographies of Race

The scholar Ruth Frankenberg offers a way through this conundrum.  Frankenberg interviewed white women and set out a conceptual framework for thinking about these issues, what she called a social geography of race. For her, social geography of race means, “a complex mix of material and conceptual ingredients for I saw increasingly that, as much as white women are located in racially marked physical environments, we also inhabit ‘conceptual environments’ or environments of ideas, which frame and limit what we see, what we remember and how we interpret the physical world.” She uses this framework to analyze the narratives of white women’s lives that are the focus of her study. In her piece, “Growing up white: feminism, racism and the social geography of childhood.” Feminist Review 45, no. 1 (1993): 51-84. she writes:

These narratives… clarify some of the forms, obvious and subtle, that racism and race privilege may take in the lives of white women: including educational and economic privilege, verbally expressed assertions of white superiority, the maintenance of all-white neighbourhoods, the ‘invisibility’ of Black and Latina domestic workers, white people’s fear of people of colour and the ‘colonial’ notion that the cultures of peoples of colour were great only in the past. Racism thus
appears not only as an ideology or political orientation chosen or rejected at will; it is also a system and set of ideas embedded in social relations.

My analysis underscores the idea that there is no place for us to stand ‘outside’ racism, any more than we can stand ‘outside’ sexism. In this context, it seems foolish to imagine that as individuals we can escape complicity with racism as a social system. We cannot, for example, simply ‘give up’ race privilege. I suggest that as white feminists we need to take cognizance both of the embeddedness of racism in all aspects of society and the ways this has shaped our own lives, theories and actions. Concretely, this means work in at least three linked areas: work on re-examining personal history and changing consciousness; thorough-going theoretical transformation within feminism; and participation in practical political work towards structural change. (p.78)

There’s much (still) to be gained from Frankenberg’s work, particularly her analysis that “there is no place for us to stand ‘outside’ racism.”  In her book (from which this article is drawn), Frankenberg poses the question: “What are the social processes through which white women are created as social actors primed to reproduce racism within the feminist movement?”  I’ll take this up in the next installment of our #troublewithwhitewomen series.


 >>>> Read next post in series

Research Brief: New Research in the Field

It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for a research brief, our roundup of some of the latest publications about race, ethnicity and racism.  Whenever possible, I’ll include an abstract or brief description about each piece of research.  I’ll also note which citations are Open Access (OA) or locked behind a paywall or otherwise not available on the open web (locked).


Here’s today’s round up:

This essay contends that the digital debates over Islamophobia show a curious resemblance to pre-existing American folk theories of racism. The outcry surrounding the reality show All-American Muslim is the case study, but the argument applies to a broader development of cultural racism and Islamophobia in American society. Starting from a discussion of the politics of racialization and ‘post-civil rights’ racism in the USA, the article outlines the mediation of racial politics through reality television and online commenting in relation to Islamophobia. Finally, appropriating the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Jane Hill on the underlying theories of American racism, I examine two seemingly opposing discourses entailed in the AAM controversy, and demonstrate that the entire online outcry has closely followed the old paradigms through which Americans talk about racism.

There’s a new edited volume out that has several pieces about race, racism and the intersection with queer politics that looks interesting:

  • Bassichis, Morgan, and Dean Spade. “Queer politics and anti-blackness.” in Queer Necropolitics (2014): 191. (locked)
    • About Queer Necropolitics, edited by Jin Haritaworn, Adi Kuntsman, Silvia Posocco (Routledge, 2014).  The book will appeal to activist scholars and students from various social sciences and humanities, particularly those across the fields of law, cultural and media studies, gender, sexuality and intersectionality studies, race, and conflict studies, as well as those studying nationalism, colonialism, prisons and war. It should be read by all those trying to make sense of the contradictions inherent in regimes of rights, citizenship and diversity.

There is a special issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine that focuses on structural racism, here are a few key articles:

Although New Zealanders have historically prided ourselves on being a country where everyone has a ‘fair go’, the systemic and longstanding existence of health inequities between Māori and non-Māori suggests something isn’t working. This paper informed by critical race theory, asks the reader to consider the counter narrative viewpoints of Māori health leaders; that suggest institutional racism has permeated public health policy making in New Zealand and is a contributor to health inequities alongside colonisation and uneven access to the determinants of health. Using a mixed methods approach and critical anti-racism scholarship this paper identifies five specific sites of institutional racism. These sites are: majoritarian decision making, the misuse of evidence, deficiencies in both cultural competencies and consultation processes and the impact of Crown filters. These findings suggest the failure of quality assurance systems, existing anti-racism initiatives and health sector leadership to detect and eliminate racism. The author calls for institutional racism to be urgently addressed within New Zealand and this paper serves as a reminder to policy makers operating within other colonial contexts to be vigilant for such racism.

This article draws upon a major social science theoretical approach–systemic racism theory–to assess decades of empirical research on racial dimensions of U.S. health care and public health institutions. From the 1600s, the oppression of Americans of color has been systemic and rationalized using a white racial framing–with its constituent racist stereotypes, ideologies, images, narratives, and emotions. We review historical literature on racially exploitative medical and public health practices that helped generate and sustain this racial framing and related structural discrimination targeting Americans of color. We examine contemporary research on racial differentials in medical practices, white clinicians’ racial framing, and views of patients and physicians of color to demonstrate the continuing reality of systemic racism throughout health care and public health institutions. We conclude from research that institutionalized white socioeconomic resources, discrimination, and racialized framing from centuries of slavery, segregation, and contemporary white oppression severely limit and restrict access of many Americans of color to adequate socioeconomic resources–and to adequate health care and health outcomes. Dealing justly with continuing racial “disparities” in health and health care requires a conceptual paradigm that realistically assesses U.S. society’s white-racist roots and contemporary racist realities. We conclude briefly with examples of successful public policies that have brought structural changes in racial and class differentials in health care and public health in the U.S. and other countries.

There is a growing research literature suggesting that racism is an important risk factor undermining the health of Blacks in the United States. Racism can take many forms, ranging from interpersonal interactions to institutional/structural conditions and practices. Existing research, however, tends to focus on individual forms of racial discrimination using self-report measures. Far less attention has been paid to whether structural racism may disadvantage the health of Blacks in the United States. The current study addresses gaps in the existing research by using novel measures of structural racism and by explicitly testing the hypothesis that structural racism is a risk factor for myocardial infarction among Blacks in the United States. State-level indicators of structural racism included four domains: (1) political participation; (2) employment and job status; (3) educational attainment; and (4) judicial treatment. State-level racial disparities across these domains were proposed to represent the systematic exclusion of Blacks from resources and mobility in society. Data on past-year myocardial infarction were obtained from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (non-Hispanic Black: N = 8245; non-Hispanic White: N = 24,507), a nationally representative survey of the U.S. civilian, non-institutionalized population aged 18 and older. Models were adjusted for individual-level confounders (age, sex, education, household income, medical insurance) as well as for state-level disparities in poverty. Results indicated that Blacks living in states with high levels of structural racism were generally more likely to report past-year myocardial infarction than Blacks living in low-structural racism states. Conversely, Whites living in high structural racism states experienced null or lower odds of myocardial infarction compared to Whites living in low-structural racism states. These results raise the provocative possibility that structural racism may not only harm the targets of stigma but also benefit those who wield the power to enact stigma and discrimination.


This paper merges critical White studies with the sociological field of criminology as a means to progress understanding of criminal behavior, justice, and social control. Up to this point, criminology has largely neglected the significance of whiteness within its boundaries of study. Thankfully, a strong foundation of research and theoretical statements has been completed in the interdisciplinary field of critical White studies. The formation of criminal law can be more clearly understood through the inclusion of frameworks offered by critical White studies. Additionally, nuanced explanations of criminal behavior and hate crime among Whites can be attained through this perspective.

Academy Nominations for ’12 Years a Slave’ but not ‘Fruitvale Station’


Social media and the op-ed circuit are abuzz about this year’s Academy Award nominations. Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” received a remarkable nine nominations –- including nods for awards in three of the four acting categories, along with writing, directing, and the holy grail of the Academy, “Best Picture.” The film has already earned best picture credits at this year’s Golden Globes, Producer’s Guild and British Academy Film Awards ceremonies. If the awards trajectory and buzz hold, it would appear McQueen’s film will walk away a big winner next Sunday night.

(Note: This piece contains *spoilers* for both films.)

Based on his memoir, 12 Years a Slave, the film of the same name details the incredible story of Solomon Northup, a black man born free in New York, but drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum Louisiana south. Critical analyses aside, I think “12 Years a Slave” is an extraordinary film. Here, I want instead to read the reception of “12 Years” against the backdrop of another movie made during what has been proclaimed the “Year of the Black Film.”

FruitvaleDirected by Ryan Coogler, and also based on a true story of an ostensibly free black man, “Fruitvale Station” chronicles the life of Oscar Grant. The film’s climax arrives at Grant’s fatal shooting in 2009, at the hands of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer. Tragic real-life videos taken at the scene suggest what happened that morning was (as Jessie commented in 2009) nothing short of “an execution.” Unarmed and handcuffed, Grant was shot dead by the white officer in the wee hours of the morning, taking his last breath on what should have been the first day of a new year.

I saw both “12 Years a Slave”  and “Fruitvale Station”  in movie theaters with predominantly white audiences.  I was struck by what I witnessed in those movie theaters in the wake of the Oscar nominations -– nominations that marked the “worth” of 12 Years with the Academy’s stamp of acknowledgement, companion to an apparently failed love for Fruitvale Station. Until that moment I had not considered these separate movie-going experiences in relationship to one another.

I literally cannot recall an audience reaction anything like the one I observed after viewing “Fruitvale Station” . There was absolute, deafening silence. I remember being completely chilled by just how “loud” the silence seemed to me. Even after the lights came up and the credits finished rolling many moviegoers sat motionless in their seats for many moments. So striking, I talked about this audience reaction – and the movie – for days.

Reflecting back I put those memories in conversation with the also unusual experience I had at the conclusion of “12 Years a Slave” . The climax of this movie occurs when Solomon Northup is finally reunited with his wife, children and family at the end of his extended nightmare living in slavery for twelve long misery-inducing years. This moment was met by thunderous applause in the theater I attended. This white audience sat there, clapping their hands, many with tear-streaked faces. When the lights came up, there were audible conversations around how powerful and amazing the film was – and though not without concerns at some of the film’s interpretations, in many respects I could hardly argue against the point.

Months ago I discussed these, what seemed to me, bipolar audience reactions with a black female friend. She recalled how difficult the experience of watching “12 Years a Slave”  had been for her – not simply because of the painful personal substance of the movie, but because she sat next to a white woman who was sobbing profusely during the movie. As my friend shared, “It took everything I had to restrain myself from asking her, ‘where are your tears for contemporary racism?’”

As white people we might ask ourselves that question, too. Do we have tears for not just the horrors of the past, but those playing out in our midst? It is quite literally a profound coincidence that Fruitvale Station was released not even a month before George Zimmerman would be acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Where are tears for Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin? For Renisha McBride and Jordan Davis, much less the everyday costs and burdens of systemic racism that may be less immediately fatal but no less destructive of human life? If the tears fail us, perhaps we should ask why.

Following Fruitvale’s arguably shocking Oscar shutout, Willie Osterweil astutely observes:

The real problem for Fruitvale Station is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending. It’s about a tragedy that cannot be redeemed. Not that it’s even a particularly radical film — it just can’t pretend that time has solved the problems it portrays, as 12 Years a Slave does. . . . [I]t connects into a current struggle, evoking the trauma and horror that racist violence and overpolicing produce in minority communities across the country.

In some ways this is an ironic conclusion. I remember thinking at the end of 12 Years how bizarre it was that the audience should cheer Northup’s release (which occurred in 1853) knowing that most enslaved blacks left behind on plantations across the south would not see their own freedom for another twelve long years. The audience elation felt so premature following a movie that painstakingly captured the horrors suffered not just by Northup, but by those with whom he shared physical and psychic indignities so severe that one character literally begs Northup to kill her and release her to a freedom she could only imagine death might bring.

These paradoxes aside, “Fruitvale Station”  leaves us no fantasies – real or imagined –to cheer. Judging by the reaction of my fellow viewers, what it does leave us with is the horror of a tragedy and injustice so immense, so immediate, so unresolved and, perhaps for most white viewers, so unimaginable that we are rendered speechless, quite literally.

I imagine the tears (and cheers) of my white brothers and sisters are “sincere performances” in the terms made famous by Erving Goffman in 1959. Perhaps the reaction to “12 Years” can be read as evidence that we’re finally ready to do collective “public penance” for slavery – while it feels at such safe distance. Tears for the horrors of a long-ago time and place; cheers for the symbolic reconciliation contained in Northup’s return to freedom, justice restored. And maybe, just maybe “Oscar Gold” a century and a half later.

Yet this, too, is a premature reaction I’m afraid. Because, there is the other Oscar. The one living in a society still contoured in every way by the marks of systemic racism everywhere all around – evidenced in infant mortality rates, and wealth gaps, and educational disparities, and unemployment figures, and mass incarceration. The one living in a society where, so deep is the white fear projected onto blackness, a young man lying vulnerable, incapacitated, handcuffed, and begging for reason can be gunned down on his back in the early hours of a brand new year in a time and place we all share, right here and now. No tears. No tidy resolutions to cheer. Just silence.

~ Guest blogger Jennifer Mueller is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Skidmore College.

Let Them Eat Cake: Racism and Public School Finance

As if public schools throughout the country do not have it bad enough, the economically upper crust have shed their demands to the masses in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, home of Louisiana State University. They effectively want out ! Specifically, the citizens of the upper middle and wealthy neighborhoods within the area are demanding not only their own town, but also a separation from the 42,000-pupil public education school system. This happens to be a system where “4 out of 10 families live in poverty.” If approved, the well to do will form their own public school district that is funded by property taxes collected from their sky-scraping valued homes. This shift would remove money from those economically poor children left to their own isolated devices within schools with already economic challenges. For those remaining, it has been estimated the move would decrease their total per-pupil spending from $9,635 to $ 8,870. The new and mostly all white school system would instead spend approximately $11,686 per-pupil.

Following the end of recent court-ordered desegregation judgments, citizens in states such as Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia have made similar efforts. These efforts were quoted as possibly having demoralizing effects on those occupying space on the outside of the golden circle of privilege. All of which is a result of a current public school apportionment system that relies heavy on local taxes to fund public education efforts.

The initiative to break away from school systems can be explained with oodles of meaningful terms within a contextual and complex landscape. And on the surface, they seem quite innocent and valid. For time sake, their argument can be summed up as, “We have failing schools blah, blah, we want to provide something better for our kids, blah, blah, and it’s not a racial matter, blah, blah.” But with the use of a critical white racial lens, one is able to see a rationale more depressing than that which is openly presented.

William Dean Howells, the great 19th century American social observer argued, “Inequality is as dear to the American heart as liberty itself.” I feel that nowhere is this more evident than in one of the country’s oldest institutions—public education. Albert Memmi stated that all systems in the U.S. had been designed to only benefit the ruling elite, while simultaneously denying those occupying the lower levels of the economic stratus and White constructed racial hierarchy.

In terms of education, many forget, or pretend to forget, our countries founding forefather, as well as those of education, not only viewed it as an intricate component needed to drive the succession and advancement of the U.S., but also a social tool to help maintain a dominant White Protestant culture. In its infancy, education was used to halt the possibilities of the influx of immigrants and newly freed Blacks from acquiring bona fide access to power and privilege. Therefore, the racial and cultural superiority over newly introduced racial groups such as Irish, Blacks, and Native Americans was reinforced within public education. This conscious need to ignore the needs of those seen as nonwhite was evident within their following historic treatment. Within U.S. history, many tactics have been utilized to deny Blacks from an adequate education. They consist of denying slaves opportunities, controlling curriculum and intent of post-antebellum schools (ex. Black colleges), to the means of legal segregation. School finance is simply an issue that many are unaware of as it relates to systemic oppression.

Legislative measures resulting from cases such as Brown v. Board of Education Topeka (1954) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have attempted to eliminate many of the past overt oppressive and discriminatory measures witnessed historically in education. Today in public education, there still exists a divided two raced “world” that is maintained by an inequitable school funding system. The monetary disparity between wealthy and poor school (i.e., Have v. Have Nots) consist racially of mainly people of color and upper middle to wealthy Whites. The Texas Civil Rights Project in 2012 reported that within Austin Independent School District (AISD), inequitable funding was allowed. Further, “AISD was shown to allow and support the private subsidization of higher-income (or “higher-equity”) schools, sometimes by as much as $1,000/student more than the amount of funds that support students in lower-income (or “lower-equity”) schools.”

Thus, funds that should be provided to low SES schools are not happening. In California’s Orange County, Laguna Beach Unified in 2002 spent $7,411 per student in comparisons to Orange Unified, which spent $5, 632 per pupil. In addition to wealthy property and local taxes, many wealthy areas are able to provide private donations that play a significant role in district funding. This difference in available funding can allow for richer districts to pay for specialists, more teachers, and services for students, specifically special education students in need. Many of the schools funded by property and local taxes in poor areas are unable to keep pace.

This mode of financial targeting is nothing new to America. For instance, during post antebellum, many of the Black schools did not receive equal resources and funding. Through the use of historical data, it has been proven that race definitely influenced public school funding. In fact, funds were actually diverted from Black school to their counterparts.

The dynamics of race in conjunction with the current state of school financing will continue to hinder the academic and progress of Black students in public education if allowed uninterrupted. But this hindrance is nothing new to America. Hence, its foundation of governance and citizenship operate in a fashion that empowers Whites while maintaining a social hierarchy that targets people of color. The current financial disparity in school funding will continue until a new approach to the issue is taken within the judicial system. Or until we decide to no longer eat cake.

Challenging White Supremacy Workshops

Fridays here at the RR blog we’re highlighting different forms of resistance. Today, the spotlight is on the Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) workshops which began in 1993, working in the broad-based radical, multi-racial community of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Sharon Martinas and Mickey Ellinger co-founded the Challenging White Supremacy workshop in 1993, after participating in an Undoing Racism Workshop created by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a national anti-racist training organization.

Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) workshops organizers Martinas and Ellinger believe that the most effective way to create fundamental social change in the U.S. is by building mass-based, multi-racial grassroots movements led by radical activists of color. They also believe that the major barrier to creating these movements is racism or white supremacy.

CWS workshops were designed by a group of white anti-racist organizers and rooted in a commitment to help white social justice activists become principled and effective anti-racist organizers — both to challenge our white privilege and to work for racial justice in all our social justice work.

Martinas and Ellinger think that anti-racist training and organizing with white social justice activists complements and supports grassroots organizing and leadership development in communities of color, and that both kinds of work are necessary to help build mass-based, multi-racial social justice movements.

This booklet, “Passing It On” (pdf), explains the CWS workshops in more detail, and many more resources at their website.

Both Sharon and Mickey were deeply influenced by Third World national liberation movements, inside the U.S. and internationally, in the 1960’s and 1970’s and became committed to organizing white social justice activists in solidarity with these movements. While the CWS workshops ended in 2005, their commitment to anti-racist solidarity practice continues to this day through ongoing activism, particularly focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.


The Untold Story of the Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists

For 20 years I had immersed myself in the writings of early United States women’s rights activists — Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) — yet I could not fathom how they dared to dream their revolutionary dream. Living under the ideological hegemony of nineteenth-century United States, they had no say in government, religion, economics, or social life (“the four-fold oppression” of their lives, Gage and Stanton called it.) Whatever made them think that human harmony — based on the perfect equality of all people, with women absolute sovereigns of their lives — was an achievable goal?

Surely these white women, living under conditions of virtual slavery, did not get their vision in a vacuum. Somehow they were able to see from point A, where they stood — corseted, ornamental, legally nonpersons — to point C, the “regenerated” world Gage predicted, in which all repressive institutions would be destroyed. What was point B in their lives, the earthly alternative that drove their feminist spirit — not a utopian pipe dream but a sensible, do-able paradigm?

Then I realized I had been skimming over the source of their inspiration without noticing it. My own unconscious white supremacy had kept me from recognizing what these prototypical feminists kept insisting in their writings: They caught a glimpse of the possibility of freedom because they knew women who lived liberated lives, women who had always possessed rights beyond their wildest imagination — Iroquois women.

The more evidence I uncovered of this indelible Native American influence on the vision of early United States feminists, the more certain I became that this story must be told.


A Vision of Everyday Decency

It is difficult for white Americans today to picture the extended period in history when — before the United States government’s Indian-reservation system, like apartheid, concretized a separation of the races in the last half of the nineteenth century — regular trade, cultural sharing, even friendship between Native Americans and Euro-Americans was common. Perhaps nowhere was this now-lost social ease more evident than in the towns and villages in upstate New York where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage lived, and Lucretia Mott visited. All three suffragists personally knew Iroquois women, citizens of the six-nation confederacy (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and later Tuscarora) that had established peace among themselves before Columbus came to this “old” world.

Stanton, for instance, sat across the dinner table from Oneida women during her frequent visits to her cousin, the radical social activist Gerrit Smith, in Peterboro. Smith’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, was first to shed the 20 pounds of clothing that, fashion dictated, should hang from a white woman’s waist, dangerously deformed from corseting. The reform costume Elizabeth Smith adopted (named the “Bloomer” after the newspaper editor who popularized it) bore an uncanny resemblance to the loose-fitting tunic and leggings worn by the two Elizabeth’s’ Native American friends.

Gage, appointed by a women’s rights convention in the 1850’s, worked on a committee with New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley to document the woefully few jobs open to white women. Meanwhile she knew hardy, nearby Onondaga women who farmed corn, beans, and squash — nutritionally balanced and ecologically near-perfect crops called the Three Sisters by the Haudenosaunee (traditional Iroquois).

Lucretia Mott and her husband, James, were members of the Indian committee of the Philadelphia yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends. For years this committee of Quakers befriended the Seneca, setting up a school and model farm at Cattaraugus and helping them save some of their territory from unscrupulous land speculators. In the summer of 1848 Mott spent a month a Cattaraugus witnessing women share in discussion and decision-making as the Seneca nation reorganized their governmental structure. Her feminist vision fired by that experience, Mott traveled that July from the Seneca nation to nearby Seneca Falls, where she and Stanton held the world’s first women’s rights convention.

Stanton, Gage, and Mott regularly read newspaper accounts of everyday Iroquois activities — a recent condolence ceremony (to mourn a chief’s death and to set in place a new one); the latest sports scores (a lacrosse match between the Mohawk and the Onondaga); a Quaker council called to ask Seneca women to leave their fields and work in the home (as the Friends said God commanded but as Mott opposed). Stanton, Gage, and Mott could also read that according to interviews with white teachers at various Indian nations, Indian men did not rape women. Front page stories admonished big-city dandies to learn a thing or two from Indian men’s example, so that white women too could walk around any time of the day or night without fear.

In the United States, until women’s rights advocates began the painstaking task of changing state laws, a husband had the legal right to batter his wife (to interfere would “upset the domestic tranquility of the home,” one state supreme court held). but suffragists lived as neighbors to men of other nations whose religious, legal, social, and economic concept of women mad such behavior unthinkable. Haudenosaunee spiritual practices were spelled out in an oral tradition called the Code of Handsome Lake, which told this cautionary tale (as reported by a white woman who was a contemporary of Stanton and Gage) of what would befall batterers in the after life:

[A man] who was in the habit of beating his wife, was led to the red-hot statue of a female, and requested to treat it as he had done his wife. He commenced beating it, and the sparks flew out and were continually burning him. Thus would it be done to all who beat their wives.

To Stanton, Gage, Mott, and their feminist contemporaries, the Native American conception of everyday decency, nonviolence, and gender justice must have seemed the promised land.

A Vision of Power and Security

As a feminist historian, I did not at first pay attention to such references to American Indian life because I believed what I had been taught: that Native American women were poor, downtrodden “beasts of burden” (as they were often called in the nineteenth century). I did not know what I was looking for, so of course I could not see it.

I remembered that in the early 1970’s some feminist historians flirted with the idea of prehistoric matriarchies on which to pin women’s egalitarian hopes. Anthropologists soon set us straight about such nonsense. the evidence just wasn’t there, they said. But Paula Gunn Allen, a Laguna Pueblo/Sioux author and scholar, believed otherwise. “Before we decide,” she wrote in 1981,

that belief in ancient matriarchal civilization is an irrational concept born of conjecture and wish, let us adjust our perspective to match that of our foresisters. Then, when we search the memories and lore of tribal peoples, we might be able to see what eons and all kinds of institutions have conspired to hide from our eyes… The evidence is all around us. It remains for us to discover what it means.

Allen’s words opened by eyes, threw into question everything I thought I knew about the nineteenth-century women’s movement, and sent me on a wholly new course of historical discovery. The results shook the foundation of the feminist theory I had been teaching for almost 20 years.

About eight years ago, early in my new phase of research, I sat in the kitchen of Alice Papineau-Dewasenta, an Onondaga clan mother. Over iced tea, Alice described to me the unbroken custom by which traditional Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) clan mothers nominate the male chiefs who go on to represent their clans in the Grand Council. She listed the qualifications: “First, they cannot have committed a theft. Second, they cannot have committed a murder. Third, they cannot have sexually assaulted a woman.”

There goes Congress! I thought to myself. Then a wishful fantasy occurred: What if only women in the United States chose governmental representatives and, like Haudenosaunee women, alone had the right “to knock the horns off the head,” as Stanton marveled — to oust officials if they failed to represent the needs of the people unto the seventh generation?

If I am so inspired by Alice’s words to dream today, imagine how the founding feminists felt as they beheld the Iroquois world. For instance, shortly after Matilda Joslyn Gage was arrested in 1893 at her home in New York for the “crime” of trying to vote in a school board election, she was adopted into the Wolf clan of the Mohawk nation and given the name Karonienhawi (Sky Carrier). In the Mohawk nation, women alone had the authority to nominate the chief, after counseling with all the people of the clan. What must it have meant to Gage to know of such real-life political power?

And Elizabeth Cady Stanton — called a heretic and worse for advocating divorce laws that would allow women to leave loveless and dangerous marriages — admired the model of divorce Iroquois style: “No matter how many children or whatever goods he might have in the house,” Stanton informed the National council of women convention in 1891, the “luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing” in an Iroquois marriage “might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such an order it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey.” What must it have meant to Stanton to know of such real-life domestic security?

A Vision of Radical Respect

While early women’s rights activists began to be successful in changing some repressive laws, an ensuing backlash in the 1870’s resulted in the criminalization of birth control and family planning; and child custody remained the right of fathers. How then, did Stanton and her daughter Harriot envision “voluntary motherhood” — a revolutionary alternative to the patriarchal family, with women controlling their own bodies and having rights to the children they bore? Well, a short distance from the Stanton home in Seneca Falls, the Seneca women practiced it.

Among the Haudenosaunee, family lineage was reckoned through mothers; no child was born a “bastard” (the concept didn’t exist); every child found a loving and welcome place in a mother’s world, surrounded by a mother’s sisters, her mother, and the men whom they married. Unmarried sons and brothers lived in this large extended family, too, until they left home to marry into another matrilocal clan. Stanton envied how American Indian women “ruled the house” and how “descent of property and children were in the female line.” Gage, while serving as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1875, penned a series of admiring articles about the Iroquois for the New York Evening Post in which she wrote that the “division of power between the sexes in its Indian republic was nearly equal” while the Iroquois family structure “demonstrated woman’s superiority in power.” For these white women living in a world where marital rape was commonplace and forbidden by neither church nor state (although the Comstock Laws of the 1870’s outlawed discussion of it), Indian women’s violence-free and empowered home life must have looked like heaven.

It wasn’t simply that Euro-American women had no rights; once they married they had no legal existence. “The two shall become one and the one is the man,” preached Christianity. This canon (church) law had been turned into common law, according to which married women were legally dead; therefore married women could not have custody of their children or rights to their own property or earnings, sign contracts, sue or be sued, or vote.

Until women’s rights advocates began to change divorce laws in the last half of the nineteenth century, divorce was not allowed by church or state. Women fleeing from a violent husband could be returned to him by the police, as runaway slaves were returned to their master. Husbands could will away an unborn child, and the baby would be taken from its mother and given to its “rightful owner.” and until the Married Women’s Property Acts were slowly enacted state by state throughout the nineteen century, any money a wife earned or inherited belonged outright to her husband.

A married woman was “nameless, purseless and childless,” Stanton summed up, though she be “a woman, heiress and mother.” Calling for an end to this injustice, the early suffragists were labeled hopeless dreamers for imaging a world so clearly against nature, and worse, heretics for daring to question God’s divine plan.

From her firsthand knowledge of the Iroquois, Stanton knew that the patriarchal “women’s sphere” was not universal. When called a “savage,” for instance, for practicing natural childbirth, Stanton rebutted her critics by mocking their use of the word, pointing out that Indian women “do not suffer” giving birth — thus it was absurd to suppose “that only enlightened Christian women are cursed” by painful, difficult childbirth. Stanton, whose major work, The Woman’s Bible, was published in 1895, became convinced that the oppression of women was not divinely inspired at all. “The Bible,” she wrote,

makes woman a mere after thought in creation; the author of evil; cursed in her maternity; a subject in marriage; and claims divine authority for this fourfold bondage, this wholesale desecration of the mothers of the race. I do not believe God ever wrote or inspired such sentiments.

Gage agreed, naming the church the “bulwark” of women’s oppression. “In the name of religion,” Gage wrote in Woman, Church and State, published in 1893, “the worst crimes against humanity have ever been perpetrated.”

In the 1890’s, when the religious right tried to destroy religious freedom by placing God in the Constitution and prayer in public schools, and by pushing a conservative political agenda, Stanton and Gage (Mott had died) determined to challenge the church. Their theory held that women in indigenous cultures had respect and authority in egalitarian and woman-centered societies that worshipped a female deity. This matriarchal system was overthrown, Stanton contended, when “Christianity putting the religious weapon into man’s hand made his conquest complete.”

A common mythology held that Christianity and civilization meant progress for women, but Stanton and Gage saw through it. At the 1888 International Council of Women, they listened as Alice Fletcher, a noted white ethnographer, spoke about the greater rights of American Indian women. Fletcher made clear that these Indian women were well aware that when they became United States citizens, they would lose their rights. Fletcher quoted one woman who told her:

As an Indian woman I was free. I owned by home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children should never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.

Fletcher also quoted an Indian man who reproached white men: “Your laws show how little your men care for their women. The wife is nothing of herself.” He was not alone in chastising white men for their domination of women. A Tuscarora chief, Elia Johnson, wiring about the absence of rape among Iroquois men in his popular 1881 book, Legends, Traditions and Laws, of the Iroquois, or Six Nations…, commented wryly that European men had held the same respect for women “until they became civilized”. A Cayuga chief, Dr. Peter Wilson, addressing the New York Historical Society in 1866, encouraged white men to use the occasion of Southern reconstruction to establish universal suffrage, “even of the women, as in his nation.” Today, try as I might, I cannot begin to imagine how such Iroquois men’s radical respect for women’s lives must have sounded to early feminists’ ears.

A Vision of Responsibilities

A few years ago I was invited to lecture at the annual Elizabeth Cady Stanton birthday tea in Seneca Falls with Audrey Shenandoah, the Onondaga nation Deer clan mother. A crowd of my feminist contemporaries packed the elegant, century-old hotel, and I spoke of my deep gratitude for the profound influence of the Iroquois on early feminists’ vision of women’s rights.

Than Audrey talked matter-of-factly about the responsibilities of Haudenosaunee women in their system of gender balance. Iroquois women continue to have the responsibility of nominating, counseling, and keeping in office the male chief who represents the clan in the grand council. In the six nations of the Iroquois confederacy, she explained, Haudenosaunee women have worked with the men to successfully guard their sovereign political status against persistent attempts to turn them into United Stated citizens. In Audrey’s direct and simple telling, the social power of the Haudenosaunee women seemed almost unremarkable — “We have always had these responsibilities,” she said. I caught my breath again, remembering that radical suffragists also knew such women who lived their vision.

My feminist terminology, I realized, had revealed my cultural bias. Out of habit I had referred to women’s empowerment as women’s “rights.” But for Iroquois women who have maintained many of their traditional ways despite two centuries of white America’s attempts to “civilize and Christianize” them, the concept of women’s “rights” actually has little meaning. to the Haudenosaunee, it is simply their way of life. Their egalitarian relationships and their political authority are a reality that — like my foresisters — I still but dream.

Mother Earth Does Not Revolve Around the Son: An Afterward

I arrive, hurried, at the home of Ethel, a friend with whom I work. We have exactly an hour to meet, squeezed into a tight travel schedule. After pleasantries we get down to business, moving along at a smooth clip, and it looks as if we will finish on time when suddenly her son enters. A strapping 17-year-old, he fills the room with his presence. Ethel beams at him and hangs on his every word as he describes his teachers’ deadlines, clean uniform needs, other mundane details of his day. Virginia Woolf got it right: His mother’s admiring gaze reflects him twice life size. He never acknowledges my presence, she doesn’t introduce us, and our work is forgotten. When finally he walks out, Ethel and I scramble to tie up loose ends, some of which still dangle as I dash out the door.

Ethel is Euro-American; her son stands poised to inherit the world.

A week later I sit in my friend Jeanne’s living room, enjoyably chatting. I hear her 17-year-old son in the kitchen rattling pans, perhaps cooking or washing dishes. Minutes later he appears and places cups of tea in front of us, his gift offered unobtrusively, his demeanor without display. I look up to thank him but he is gone, his back already turned as he repairs to the kitchen. Jeanne seems not even to notice, and our conversation continues.

Jeanne is Onondaga, a Haudenosaunee, descended from the traditional, “pagan” Iroquois –those who refused to be “Christianized” and “civilized.” Her son recognized his mother, and all women, as the center of the culture.

Such sons of such mothers belonged to our foresisters’ vision, too. They are sons who learned from their fathers to respect the sovereignty of women. They are sons of a tradition in which rape and battering of women was virtually unknown until white contact.

~ This post was re-blogged from and brought to our attention by Jennifer Reft (@refpt). The post was written by Sally Roesch Wagner and was originally published in the On the Issues, Winter 1996.

U.S. Fictions: Sports “Greatly Improve Race Relations”

In 2013, a Rasmussen Reports survey indicated “Most Americans (53%) believe professional sports have helped improve race relations in the United States…just 20% of American adults disagree. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure.” It is difficult for me to agree with this majority stance that professional sport has had a positive societal impact on race relations in the US when I see the lack of strides college sport and other major institutions (e.g., economic, political, educational) have made, and the mistreatment people of color continue to endure at the hands of the criminal justice system. Race relations may have improved within some major professional sport organizations, but to say race relations have improved in the US is stretching a bit far.

It is true that some of the most popular professional sport organizations have tackled their diversity issues recently. For instance, in the NFL, while the number of head coaches has diminished from an all-time high of eight people of color in 2011 to four in 2013, there have been other racial and ethnic advances. There has been progress in the hiring and promotion of racial and ethnic minorities above the VP level, general managers, senior administrators, professional positions, and even the first majority team owner. Additionally, although the number of African American players continues to decrease in MLB, the overall racial and ethnic minority landscape continues to rise with an increase in people of color as coaches, professional administrators, senior administrators, and VPs. Moreover, as the most progressive of the professional organizations, the NBA has made the most headway. This has been most vivid with over 80% of players being people of color, the second highest number of African American head coaches in history, a new record number of racial and ethnic minority assistant coaches, and an increase in people of color as senior administrators, team physicians, and NBA officials.

While these numbers seem promising for professional sport, college sport continues to lag behind in race relation improvements. The multi-billion dollar institution of college sport reveals that while black student-athletes are overrepresented in the most revenue generating sports (men’s basketball and football) their numbers beyond the playing fields and courts are trailing behind. When black male students-athletes in NCAA Division I athletics make up 57.2% and 43.2% of the athletes in basketball and football, respectively, but their numbers as head coaches (18.6% and 11.3%) and assistant coaches (39.0% and 25.7%) are marginally represented, then it is clear there is a race relations problem. This problem is even more pronounced considering that whites control the athletic director roles (89.0%), the highest level of athletic power on college campuses. If these numbers are not disturbing enough, they get even worse when the discussion moves outside of sport.

If professional sports have helped improve race relations, then why are there only 13% people of color serving as college presidents, or 16.8% racial and ethnic minorities in Congress , or 4.6% running Fortune 500 companies? Do we even have to go to the criminal justice system? If professional sports are improving race relations in the US, then why are unarmed black youths (e.g., Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis) continuing to be gunned down and the perpetrators do not have to answer for these crimes?

I think it is appalling to know that in the thirty-one states where the “Stand your Ground” law exists, whites who kill blacks are 354% more likely to be cleared of murder. If race relation improvements in professional sport have somehow trickled out to the rest of the US, I would sure like to know exactly where.

It seems that when such questions are being asked of participants on the impact they perceive professional sports to have on society’s race relations, they are either in a state of denial, blind to the realities of their surroundings, or perhaps the colorful façade of the playing fields and courts have mislead them. As Feagin (2014) argues, it is difficult to deny the existence of racial oppression when we still have housing segregation, discrimination in employment, obstacles in education, disparities in healthcare, barriers in business, and the many environmental health concerns that disproportionately affect people of color. While professional sports may have historically set the tone in breaking down racial barriers, and more recently with their progressiveness on creating more diverse organizations, it seems the rest of US society is still looking from the outside in unwilling to move in the same direction or at the same pace.

Trouble with White Feminism: Racial Origins of U.S. Feminism

“The history of American feminism has been primarily a narrative about the heroic deeds of white women.” Beverly Guy-Sheftall writes in the opening of her book, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. In this oft-repeated narrative, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are invoked, predictably, as the quintessential feminists.” Although there is plenty of evidence to suggest a different narrative, such as Guy-Sheftall’s edited volume and the many, many volumes of black, Latina, and indigenous feminists’ writing, Stanton and Anthony have been canonized as “quintessential feminists” in the popular imagination. For evidence of this, one need look no further than the Ken Burns/Paul Barnes documentary for PBS, “Not for Ourselves Alone.” 


(Screenshot from PBS, “Not for Ourselves Alone”)

In the Burns/Barnes version of the early “women’s movement” in the U.S., race is barely mentioned and racism not at all. Instead, there is a comforting fiction that the women’s movement grew, untroubled, out of the struggle for the abolition of slavery. The historical reality departs quite dramatically from this narrative and is the subject of today’s installment of the #troublewithwhitewomen series.

During the mid-nineteenth century there were alliances between those in the abolitionist movement and those beginning to advocate for women’s rights, sometimes called Suffragists or “Suffragettes.”  Most notably, Frederick Douglass described himself as a “woman’s rights man,” largely based on the influence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.


(Image source)

 The abolitionist movement and the women’s movement split over the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed the right to vote based on a citizens’ “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Despite the early support of African American men such as Douglass, suffragists like Stanton could not abide the idea that black men might get the franchise to vote ahead of white women.

Stanton didn’t hesitate to voice her opinion that white women were superior to black men, and thus more deserving of the vote. Lori Ginzberg, in her biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Hill and Wang, 2009), recounts some of the racial politics here:

“Asked straight out whether she were ‘willing to have the colored man enfranchised before the woman,’ she answered ‘no; I would not trust him with all my rights; degraded, oppressed himself, he would be more despotic with the governing power than even our Saxon rulers are.’ “

“These were not merely figures of speech, thoughtless slips of the tongue and the pen. Rather, when she evoked these images, Stanton was drawing upon a powerful sense of her own class and cultural superiority.”

Yet, many feminist accounts of this history dismiss and distance racism from the core values of feminism or feminist leaders.  For instance, Nancy F. Cott, in The Grounding of Modern Feminism (Yale University Press, 1987), locates this racism outside the movement for women’s rights and shifts it to ‘the surrounding society,’ as in this passage:

“Despite links between early woman’s rights and anti-slavery reformers, the suffrage movement since the late nineteenth century had caved in to the racism of the surrounding society, sacrificing democratic principle and the dignity of black people if it seemed advantageous to white women’s obtaining the vote.”

Here, Cott paints the women of the suffrage movement as passive victims who “caved in to” the racism “of the surrounding society,” rather than the active, political agents they, in fact, were.

Stanton was no passive victim “caving in to” racism of the society around her. Returning to Ginzberg (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 2009), the political landscape of the late nineteenth century was one in which fault lines of race and gender were especially sharp, and Stanton played an active role in sustaining them and using them to her political advantage. In this passage, Ginzberg recounts some of the ways Stanton’s racism was an effective mobilizing tool for the women’s movement:

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s positions on the relative worthiness of black men and white women as citizens …. her choice of all-too-familiar racist language had broad and lasting consequences, both theoretical and strategic, for the movement she helped lead. By claiming that some American citizens were more worthy of rights than others, Stanton helped lay the groundwork for a defense of woman’s rights based on race, respectability, religion and class that would be hard to shake. Surely Stanton and Anthony understood this when they reported on the formation of a ‘White Woman’s Suffrage Association’ in Washington, D.C., or admitted that the proposed Fifteenth Amendment ‘rouses woman’s prejudices against the negro’ while increasing ‘his contempt and hostility toward her as an equal.’ Furthermore, this appeal to prejudice, whether it was an intentional strategy or not, worked. One woman wrote Stanton and Anthony’s newspaper, The Revolution, to declare that she had ‘never thought, or cared, about voting till the negroes began to vote,’ but now ‘felt my self-respect rise.’ She went on: ‘If educated women are not as fit to decide who shall be the rulers of this country, as ‘field hands,’ then where’s the use of culture, or any brain at all? One might as well have been ‘born on the plantation.’”

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been arguing for years that it was women’s lack of self-respect that caused them to defer their demands….[now] white women’s self-respect, as this letter writer suggested, could be heightened by comparison with people of ‘lesser’ races. Pleased by evidence that women were developing their self-esteem and so would demand their rights, Stanton seems not to have worried that advocating woman’s rights on this basis, and severing the movement’s ties to its abolitionist and antiracist roots, might damage the cause’s claims to universal justice. Nor did she express any concern that her use of racist language to denigrate black men, along with her implicit embrace of a politics of white racial pride, might diminish the movement’s appeal to African American women themselves. Whether or not she meant to endorse an explicitly racist tactic to draw new groups of white women into the cause is impossible to know; that she published the letter, entitling it, ‘A Washington Convert,’ suggests that she was willing to take the risk.”

I’m struck here by the affective, that is the way emotion plays into the political strategy. Stanton had identified white women’s “lack of self-respect” (today, we’d say “self-esteem”) as a barrier to her efforts at organizing. The woman writing in to their newspaper confirms this, saying “I never had an interest in voting.” What sparks the sudden boost in this woman’s “self-respect”? The prospect of that “the negroes began to vote” and then she “felt my self-respect rise.”


(Image source)

There is additional evidence that the racism of the early women’s movement was central rather than peripheral to the movement. In Barbara Andolsen, in her book about racism and the woman suffrage movement, “Daughters of Jefferson, daughters of bootblacks”: racism and American feminism (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986), she observes:

“… the white women who led this movement came to trade upon their privilege as the daughters (sisters, wives, and mothers) of powerful white men in order to gain for themselves some share of the political power those men possessed. They did not adequately identify ways in which that political power would not be accessible to poor women, immigrant women, and black women.” Yet despite the blatant racism and class bias of the women’s suffrage movement, black women, discouraged and betrayed, continued to work for their right to vote, both as blacks and as women, through their own suffrage organizations.”

The Guy-Sheftall anthology  Words of Fire, mentioned at the top of this piece, offers an account of continuous feminist intellectual tradition in nonfictional prose of African American women going back to the early nineteenth century when abolition and suffrage were urgent political issues. Works like this one provide a useful correction to the familiar narrative of American feminism, but this history is largely unknown to most white feminists today. More than simply the absence of knowledge about black feminist intellectual tradition in the U.S., there is a real lack of awareness about the role of whiteness in shaping early feminism.

An important corrective to this lack of awareness is Louise Newman’s excellent book, White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the U.S. (Oxford University Press, 1999). Newman makes a convincing case that eveloped an explicit racial ideology to promote their cause, defending patriarchy for “primitives” while calling for its elimination among the “civilized.” She writes:

“Feminism developed in conjunction with—and constituted a response to—the United States’ extension of its authority over so-called “primitive” peoples, and feminism was part and parcel of the nation’s attempt to assimilate those peoples whom white elites designated as their racial inferiors.” (p.181)

Newman’s argument is that in the time period from 1848 to 1920, the “white woman movement” – as she rightly refers to it – affirmed (white) women’s racial similarity to (white) men while at the same time asserting (white) women’s sexual difference from (white) men because they believed sexual differences formed the bedrock of whites’ civilization. This “functional ambiguity,” (as Nancy F. Cott describes it) was not so ambiguous at the time. Social evolutionary theories of the time specified quite plainly that white women were both fundamentally similar to white men (because of “race”) and fundamentally different from white men (because of “sex”).



(Image source)

These evolutionist theories that white women were both the same as and different than white men opened up new social and political roles for white women as “civilizers” of the race, strengthening longstanding beliefs in (white) women’s moral superiority. Moreover, the effort to establish the United States as an empire, and the extension of missions, both domestically and abroad, fundamentally influenced the direction and content of white feminist thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The reality is that white supremacy and feminism were completely intertwined at the root. This is not simply an old problem of a previous century, or of individual white women who “caved in to” the racism of the surrounding society. Rather, white supremacy is baked into white feminism. White feminism – if it’s only focused on a kind of crude parity with (white) men – is not incompatible racism.  In fact, many of the avowed white supremacist women I studied in my study of Cyber Racism view themselves as feminists. And, there’s nothing inconsistent between white supremacy and white feminism.  That’s why it’s so important for a critically engaged feminism include a commitment to racial justice.

The white feminist thought shaped by evolutionist theories, imperialism, and missionary zeal continue to shape the feminist movement today. You can see this in any number of examples, such as the critique of Eve Ensler’s brand of white feminism I mentioned last week, in the corporate feminism we’re presented with today, and in popular culture  portrayals of white women.

I’ll have more to say about all this in another installment of the #troublewithwhitewomen series.



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