Surprising Words from Mike Huckabee

In a recent interview with conservative media commentator Joe Scarborough, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee defended Barack Obama’s historic speech and the way Obama has handled the furor over his former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s recent statements. Even more surprisingly, Huckabee defended Wright himself (though, to borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton, Huckabee made sure to “reject and denounce” Wright’s statements).

Huckabee stated that pastors frequently speak extemporaneously, and that this can often result in words said in the heat of the moment that the speaker may later wish he’d said differently:

Sermons, after all, are rarely written word-for-word by pastors like Rev. Wright, who are delivering them extemporaneously, and caught up in the emotion of the moment. There are things that sometimes get said, that if you put them on paper and looked at them in print, you’d say, ‘Well, I didn’t mean to say it quite like that.’

Huckabee also provides a rather thoughtful critique of those who would rush to rebuke Reverend Wright and minimize the impact that historic, systemic racism and discrimination have on present day experiences:

“And one other thing I think we’ve got to remember: As easy as it is for those of us who are white to look back and say, “That’s a terrible statement,” I grew up in a very segregated South, and I think that you have to cut some slack. And I’m going to be probably the only conservative in America who’s going to say something like this, but I’m just telling you: We’ve got to cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told, “You have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can’t sit out there with everyone else. There’s a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office. Here’s where you sit on the bus.” And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had a more, more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.”

Though I don’t remember Huckabee ever discussing the ongoing impact of racism during his time on the campaign trail, here he seems to demonstrate an understanding of how the history of racism and discrimination in the US has an ongoing impact on contemporary race relations. He also appears to show some understanding of what cultural critic bell hooks has described as “black rage” that is “non-pathological” and an “important response to injustice”. These are points that many of his conservative colleagues seem to want to ignore or downplay, and insights that have yet to be understood by those in the mainstream media who jumped to castigate Wright and refused to put his comments in context.

Geraldine Ferraro’s Racism (unabridged version)

Geraldine Ferraro’s recent comments about Barack Obama underscore just how far we haven’t come in America in understanding issues of race and gender. Ferraro said:

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

Ferraro’s inference is quite clear: that sexism is a bigger problem in America than racism, and that as a Black man Obama “has it easier” than Hillary Clinton because racism is not quite as oppressive, fundamental, and entrenched in society as sexism. Ferraro is not alone in making this claim. These sorts of statements have been made recently by other white feminists such as Gloria Steinem, generally arguing that media coverage is biased in favor of Barack Obama and against Hillary Clinton, and that this is evidence of the primacy of sexism over other “isms.”

Feminists who are making these statements are rehashing the same tired, clichéd arguments that alienated working-class and racial minority women from the feminist movement back in the 1970s and 1980s. The debates over whether gender is more of an oppressive factor than race are self-defeating and miss the point. Privileged white women can be, and are, disadvantaged by virtue of being women in a patriarchal society. Simultaneously, they are also advantaged by virtue of being white in a racist society and because they are wealthy in a capitalist society. Attempting to pit gender against race sets up a false dichotomy between the two, and it draws attention away from the interlocking systems of inequality that exist in this country. Simplistically declaring that “sexism is worse than racism” obscures the way the two systems exist together in an interlocking, complementary fashion. And since both sexism and racism utilize the same basic tools—domination of others, oppression, stereotypes to legitimize unequal opportunity—feminists and other activists would all be better served by eradicating all forms of structural inequality rather than futilely attempting to rank them.

You would think Ferraro would know this. She’s no stranger to feminism and ought to be well aware of the numerous critiques that mainstream, liberal feminism undermines its cause when the attempt is made to address sexism without simultaneously denouncing—and working to end–racism, capitalism and heterosexism.

[edited at 1:42pmEST to add:] Making the case that sexism is worse than racism or even that it is the primary source of women’s oppression ignores the experiences of minority and working-class women (who simultaneously contend with racism and capitalist exploitation) and ultimately alienates these women from feminism and feminist causes. Ferraro’s statement that if “he were a woman of any color he wouldn’t be in this position” does not demonstrate an awareness of the particular challenges faced by minority women; in fact, it smacks of tokenistic attempts made by privileged white women to invite minority women to join “their” movement. Were Ferraro truly attentive to the ways racism and sexism doubly disadvantage minority women, she would recognize that suggesting that they can be hierarchically ranked marginalizes minority women’s experiences and continues to distance them from feminism by reinforcing the (erroneous) idea that feminism isn’t for them.

Further, Ferraro’s ludicrous response that “she is being attacked because she’s white,” demonstrates how completely out of touch she is with the racial realities of America as well as her unwillingness to come to grips with white privilege. She is quoted by a local reporter in Torrance, California (and later reported by CNN) saying:

“Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this campaign down and says, ‘Let’s address reality and the problems we’re facing in this world,’ you’re accused of being racist, so you have to shut up. Racism works in two different directions. I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?”

Contrary to Ferraro’s ridiculous claims, racism does not work in two different directions. Whites, as a group, are advantaged by virtue of racial privilege that affords them unjust enrichment in terms of housing, health, education, political power and representation, legal treatment, and many other areas that have been documented by a plethora of sociologists and other researchers. For racism to work both ways, racial minorities, at minimum, would have to be in the position of enjoying the accumulation of centuries of advantage in these areas, and they would enjoy these advantages as a consequence of centuries-old, institutionalized policies that deny the same opportunity to whites. Racism does not work both ways because Geraldine Ferraro gets criticized for minimizing its existence.

Geraldine Ferraro and many other women who make claims similar to hers have been involved with the feminist movement for longer than I’ve been alive. But it’s really sobering to realize that despite their lengthy commitment to the movement, they still haven’t learned that it can’t succeed when they deny their own racial privilege and narcissistically attempt to tailor feminist messages, rhetoric, and ideals only to their own experiences.

Where Have All the Racists Gone?

Over the last year, several celebrities have gone on media rants where they let slip (or unleashed) racial slurs and tirades that are typically relegated to backstage social spaces. Among the most notable: Michael Richards’ tirade at the Laugh Factory where he used the “n-word” repeatedly, Duane “Dog” Chapman’s use of the same racial slur in a telephone call to his son, and Mel Gibson’s verbal barrage of anti-Jewish stereotypes when pulled over for a DUI.

What I find ironic and interesting about these issues is that no matter how offensive and inflammatory the statements are, somehow the speakers themselves are rarely, if ever, labeled racist. The statements they make may be labeled racist, but the speakers vehemently deny that they are. The idea seems to be that racists are only those who self-identify as such: Klansmen, neo-Nazis, or members of other hate groups who openly claim “racist” as a self-identity that they embrace and accept. Even among everyday Americans, people who openly and regularly engage in racist acts, statements, and behaviors stubbornly insist that despite these actions they really are not racist people.

Is being racist now simply subject to the individual’s choice? Are you only racist if you self-identify as such? At what point do your actions define who you are? If stereotyping racial minorities, passively or actively supporting institutions or policies that uphold inequality, and engaging in behaviors that endorse or perpetuate the basest, most negative images of minorities doesn’t make you a racist, what does? Or to paraphrase comedian Chris Rock, what do you have to do to be a racist? Shoot Medgar Evers? I can’t think of too many other areas where self-definition overrides action in the same ways that it does when we think about who is and isn’t racist. For instance, if I register to vote as a Republican, donate money to John McCain, agree with his policies, and vote for him in the primary and general election, would anyone believe me if I then insisted that I was a Democrat?

I understand why individuals don’t want to self-identify as racist. If only those who identify as racists are “really” racists, then “good people” can perpetuate racism without losing any sense of themselves as decent, stand-up individuals. (Bonilla-Silva makes this point in more detail in Racism without Racists). As part of this process, individuals can maintain racist structures with their conscience intact. So my questions are directed more to those of us who are loath to consider people we know racist. If your coworker/friend/partner/family member stereotypes minorities, are they racist? What if they support policies or politicians that would perpetuate minorities’ continued disadvantage? Where and how do we draw the line? Where do we find the real racists?

Banning Bagging Pants

Atlanta Public Schools recently decided to impose a ban on students who wear baggy pants. APS joins several other school systems and cities that have sought to prohibit this fashion.  In Atlanta, proponents of the ban argued that it applies only to openly “disrespectful attire that inhibits learning,” and that the ban will encourage students to learn the appropriate ways of dressing that will be beneficial to them on the job market. Opponents of the ban have argued that it seeks to target African American youth, who when dressing to conform to “hip hop culture” often wear low, saggy pants.

Much of this is generational–in the 1980s it was ripped jeans that caused consternation among parents and teachers, though not lawmakers. However, I wonder about the wisdom of criminalizing fashion, particularly when the accompanying image of the “baggy-pants wearer” is often a young Black man.  Given the overwhelming and disproportionate numbers of Black and brown men ensnared in the criminal justice system, it is cause for concern that the images linked to these stories are young Black men and not young white women wearing low-rise pants that expose thong underwear. (According to the wording of the ban, this type of fashion would also be prohibited.)

I think it’s also somewhat ironic that in a time when the economy is rapidly declining, public schools are woefully underfunded, and Black men in particular are continually underrepresented among college educated and professional workers, proponents of this ban seem to suggest that penalizing those who let their pants sag will prepare them for the workforce and help facilitate learning. It seems somewhat disingenuous to suggest that if you attend a public school with out of date textbooks, overcrowded classrooms, and underpaid teachers, wearing your pants at the waist will somehow magically address the obstacles that make learning difficult. While it is important for young people to know how to engage in self-presentation, it is also misleading and inaccurate to contend that self-presentation alone can or will overcome the structural barriers that marginalize (or in this case, criminalize) minority youth.

Yet perhaps this misrepresentation is exactly the goal. Implicit in this issue seems to be a modern-day effort to criminalize hip-hop culture. A “culture of poverty” argument has long been advanced as a way to explain why some groups remain poor over time.   This thesis claims that certain groups hold destructive values—anti-intellectualism, unwillingness to work–that mire them in poverty. Predictably, this claim is then applied to specific minority groups, usually African Americans and Latinos, as a way of theoretically sidestepping the well-documented structural issues that channel minority groups into poverty. With recent attacks on hip-hop culture like the attempt to ban baggy and saggy pants, the attention to certain aspects of hip hop in the wake of the Don Imus debacle, and attempts to posit the legal troubles of certain Black men celebrities as a consequence of their involvement with hip hop culture, it certainly seems that hip hop culture is the new culture of poverty. In this context, the effort to ban baggy pants takes on new resonance: it becomes part of a larger effort to emphasize the cultural traditions that are supposedly preventing racial minorities’ advancement. This implies that if only minorities can work hard enough and change those negative cultural values that keep them disadvantaged in the first place, they can achieve equality. It’s a misleading, erroneous message that obscures the reality that systemic, structural discrimination has more of an impact on inequality than anyone’s baggy or saggy pants.

Doing Business with Beauty: Black Women, Hair Salons and the Racial Enclave Economy

Entrepreneurship has long been touted as one of the important aspects of America that allows everyone to have a chance to achieve the “American Dream”—upward mobility, independence, and the freedom to be one’s own boss. But who are these entrepreneurs who attempt to achieve this, and what are their experiences as business owners?

Most of the academic research on entrepreneurship focuses on the experiences of ethnic immigrants—typically Cuban, Chinese, and Korean men. In my new book Doing Business with Beauty: Black Women, Hair Salons, and the Racial Enclave Economy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), I shift the focus to consider the experiences of Black women entrepreneurs. In the book, I argue that the focus on ethnic men conflates ethnicity with race, ignores gender, and thus does not offer a way to understand the entrepreneurial experiences of racial minority women. In order to address this, I contend that we have to take processes of race and gender into consideration.

To this end, Doing Business with Beauty argues that systemic gendered racism is a significant and important factor shaping the business experiences of Black women. Focusing on Black women hair salon owners, I argue that systemic gendered racism shapes these women’s business decisions, interactions with customers and stylists, motivations for engaging in entrepreneurship, and other factors. I argue that systemic gendered racism produces business patterns among Black women that can be better described as “racial enclave economies.”  These racial enclave economies reflect the realities of race and gender as systemic, intersecting factors, and create unique entrepreneurial experiences that are often overlooked by existing research and current discussions on entrepreneurship.

~ Adia Harvey Wingfield
Assistant Professor, Sociology
Georgia State University