Comey’s (and Capehart’s) Uncritical Analysis of Racism

On February 12, 2015, James B. Comey delivered a speech at Georgetown University that has garnered much media attention for delivering “hard truths” about racism in the United States.

Comey’s recent remarks, and those by Jonathon Capehart, Washington Post and MSNBC pundit about the Comey speech, reveal the weak, uninformed analyses of race and the evasion of the institutional, structural and systemic racism in the U.S.

FBI Director Comey (Image by Sophie Faaborg-Anderson)

What would appear to be a welcoming speech that partially recognizes law enforcement agencies’ biased approach to policing is, however, offset by disappointing “half truths,” misperceptions and rhetorical reversals that work to deflate focus on police hyper-aggression toward people of color and ignore the systemically racist structures of the US justice system.

While acknowledging that “there is a disconnect between police agencies and many citizens—predominately in communities of color” and that relations between police and people of color is “not pretty,” Comey then proceeds to regurgitate the problematic discourse about race in the US and the weak racial analysis that focuses exclusively on racial attitudes, as with much of social science (see Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva, 2008).

Extremely troubling is Comey’s understanding that racial problems in the US exist primarily because of racial biases of individuals, a view that completely ignores institutional structural and systemic racism.

Equally troubling is Comey’s insinuation that all Americans are “racist,” a term he inappropriately uses interchangeably with racially “biased.” Comey notes that he is “reminded of the song from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.’ Part of it goes like this: 

Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.

After establishing that all Americans are “racist”—that is, harbor racial biases —  Comey continues to reflect uncritically on US racial matters and elude discussion of the institutional racism that runs deep in law enforcement agencies.  He points out the “real and perceived biases, both within and outside law enforcement,” de-escalating accountability of the real biases of police by aligning it with much less consequential perceived police biases, and equating the highly consequential biases of law enforcement with everyday racial biases outside law enforcement.

Ferguson protestor, hands up

(Image by Scott Olson)

While, indeed, perceived biases exist outside (and about) law enforcement, these perceived biases often have substance and validity due to the much larger, more far-reaching realities of law enforcement biases that shape police practice. Biases of those “outside law enforcement” are much less significant in police-community relations, because citizens who interact with police do not have the power and “legitimate,” ubiquitous force (backed by clubs, guns, tasers/CEWs, and assorted military arsenal) possessed by those who enforce the law. Here we have Comey disingenuously comparing disparate forms of biases and unequalized power relations between US citizens and law enforcement, whose biases have much more weight and effect.

Comey also trips up and presents a confusing analysis when he attempts to compare the prejudice faced by early Irish immigrants with that faced by African Americans. Predictably, he presents a portrait of his white Irish grandfather as “hero” of law enforcement and exemplar of righteousness. After claiming that Irish faced discrimination by law enforcement (referencing the “paddy wagon”), he then, very confusingly, backs off this point, noting that “little compares to the experience of racial (discrimination) …of black Americans” and that “[m]any people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face.” While at one point Comey mentions problems inherent in policing “communities of color,” he never addresses the large-scale police bias against Latinos, the largest community of color in the US, a point raised by Juan Cartagena at Huffington Post.

There are a number of other serious missteps with Comey’s speech. After half acknowledging problems with law enforcement’s racial biases, Comey then reverses his position and raises concerns that the “difficult conversation about race and policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers.” At this point, Comey quickly retreats from focus on police misbehavior to the “dangerous” environment of those victimized by police. Instead of maintaining focus of the history of police misconduct and discrimination toward people of color, he then begins to argue that “we all carry biases around with us” and “racial bias isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts.” Here he diverts attention away from law enforcement racial biases and underestimates racial biases existing in academia and arts. Do racial biases substantially exist or not? Should we focus on law enforcement biases or not? It is hard to discern Comey’s position with this back and forth, imprecise rhetoric. At one moment in his speech, we are all biased, and at the next moment, racial biases appear to be a superficial or ancillary issue; at first, police are deemed biased, and shortly thereafter, he feels there is over-focus on police biases.

This double-talk is followed up by glorification, no longer a critique, of police who “risk their lives” and “don’t sign up to…help white people or black people or Hispanic people or Asian people. They sign up because they want to help all people.” Well, if Comey’s initial points about police racial biases toward people of color are to be taken seriously, how do we all of a sudden move to a colorblind police force? This flip-flop appears to be one of the most disingenuous moments of his speech, because in the next couple paragraphs Comey returns to a discussion of police “cynicism” toward blacks, noting that “two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two white men on the other side of the street…do not.” In this scenario, it does not seem that police are being equally helpful to both groups, but instead favoring one over the other.

Of serious concern is the next set arguments made by Comey when addressing the “fourth hard truth.” Comey moves even farther away from his critique of law enforcement’s historical mistreatment of blacks and issues of racism in US society by arguing that the reason “so many black men (are) in jail” has nothing to do with “racism” of “cops, prosecutors, judges and juries,” but rather blacks’ pathological criminal behavior and dysfunctional community life. This is another disingenuous, mind-numbing move that completely ignores issues of racial profiling, hyper-policing in black neighborhoods and the long history of a rigged justice system that targets black Americans (from all white juries in the Deep South to the stop-and-frisk programs and excessive prosecution of blacks for petty offenses in the Northern US).

Comey goes on to present a “culture of poverty” argument about blacks’ poor interaction with police and trouble with the law, in essence, blaming the victims of police aggression toward the black community. Next, Comey disparages black neighborhoods, black families and black individuals whose “legacy of crime and prison,” he states, represent the main problem, fully ignoring how blacks have been subject to the whims and abuses of the US justice system for centuries up until the present day. In an effort to portray criminals as blacks and crime as a black problem, nowhere in his speech does Comey address white crime (crimes that adversely affect US society on much greater scale than crimes by people of color—see John Hagan’s Who Are the Criminals?), even claiming that police do not overlook the criminal behavior of whites. However, as Chauncey DeVega’s insightful analysis of the Comey speech notes:

Police and law enforcement do in fact “turn a blind eye” to white criminals. White criminals destroyed the American economy through fraud and other illegal acts have not been punished. White people have a higher rate of drug use in the United States than African Americans and other people of color. However, the country’s prisons are full of black and brown people.

The white racial frame has even robbed American public discourse of the language to discuss the fact that there are a myriad of crimes (mass shootings, treason, domestic terrorism, etc.) that are overwhelmingly committed by white people. We have the language of “black crime;” there is no equivalent speech for “white crime.”

Toward the end of his speech, Comey acknowledges his “affection for cops” and returns to uncritical praise of law enforcement, arguing rather ignorantly that when dialing 911, “cops…come quickly whether you are white or black.” This is patently false with regard to 911 responses to problems in black neighborhoods. As Flavor Flav perceptively notes, “I dialed 911 a long time ago, don’t you see how late they’re reactin’…911 is a joke.”

Having moved away from addressing the very real systemic problems of race and law enforcement, Comey ends his speech with a one-way concern for police who have been killed in the line of duty. He completely evades acknowledging the multitudes of people of color killed and physically abused by police on a daily basis—indeed, to focus on deaths of police officers at the hands of people of color pales in comparison to the vast number of black deaths by police. Ultimately, the speech is an empty, meaningless, vexing one that deserves none of the commendations it has received by numerous mainstream media sources.

Yet, echoing many other news media pundits, Jonathon Capehart of the Washington Post offers one of many stunted, uncritical analyses of the speech, presenting undue admiration of Comey’s analytically inept discussion of race and law enforcement.

Capehart on TV

(Image source)

Capehart claims Comey is “no coward on race” and believes the “searing and true speech” delivers a “critical assessment” of the problems inherent in the relationship between law enforcement and race, arguing that Comey’s speech “is as important as Obama’s and Holder’s speeches on race.”

Capehart incorrectly perceives Comey’s speech as a “challenge” to US citizens “to face our nation’s flawed racial past…” If Comey even came close to meeting such a challenge, one might be able sympathize with Capehart’s ill-considered plea. Yet, Comey never addresses the racial past in any meaningful way, never addresses the structural, institutional and systemic racism that defines that past and largely places blame on the victims of racial injustices of law enforcement. Clearly, Capehart seems not to have closely read or watched the speech or, like Comey, has little understanding of the ever-present systemically racist realities of the United States.

Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie: A Critical View

To be frank, the magazine Charlie Hebdo deserves criticism, not praise—despite the horrific events that have unfolded. While I am certainly not condoning the murder of its staff members, I do find them guilty of Islam-bashing and inconsiderately expressing religious intolerance, cultural ethnocentrism, and extremely poor human judgment, issues that should be important to antiracists and those who “review” racism. Additionally, being aware of the angst caused by their racist and tasteless cartoons, I find those associated with the magazines’ campaign against Islam to be instigators and un-thoughtful–not creatively satirical–people directly involved in promoting ethno-racial and religious tensions. See NPR’s 2012 story on the social problems caused by publishing the incendiary cartoons. Again, these individuals ought to be condemned as race baiters, not martyred.

The ridiculous display of support for ‘Charlie,’ particularly in the news media, is disconcerting and demonstrates that many people are equally as uninformed and culturally insensitive as those who promoted the anti-Islamist cartoons. Since the attack, most news outlets have ignored the racism and Islam-tarnishing of Charlie Hebdo and are in a rush to glorify the magazine and deify their racist cartoonists. Ignoring the potential of further inflaming ethno-racial tensions and promoting further anti-Muslim bigotry, a number of media giants, such as the Washington Post, have even decided to reprint the blasphemous cartoons of Muhammad in defiance of what they feel is a threat to free speech.

To state that what occurred is “an attack on free speech” is misguided and plainly ignorant. This is a destructive myth espoused by most Western media outlets in their discussion of this event. See, for example, John Avlon’s The Daily Beast article, “Why We Stand with Charlie Hebdo-And You Should Too,” which naively presents the free speech argument. What Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Islamist cartoons represent is hate images and speech, a defamation of a major world religion and culture, and an obvious attack on Muslims. To cloud this reality is intellectual dishonesty in the wake of reactionary politics.

Stoking the flames of racial hatred through dehumanizing others and their beliefs is nothing new; yet, today it is claimed that those who de-humanize certain groups are expressing their free speech or righteousness in their actions. One might ask why KKK pamphlets that demean black Americans, white nationalists’ periodicals that vilify Jews, and past campaigns of dehumanization by national groups, like the US’s racist cartoons of Japanese, are viewed as intolerable and unacceptable, yet the demonization of Muslims and Arabs is granted a pass.

Islam bashing, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab sentiments are on the rise in Europe, and particularly in France, in large part do to the de-humanizing tactics of people like those associated with Charlie Hebdo. The dehumanization and discriminatory practices of Charlie cartoons provide ammunition for the anti-Muslim intolerance endorsed by rising far right groups in Europe, like the British Freedom Party, National Front, English Defense League, Alternative for Germany, Freedom Party in Netherlands, and PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West), to name a few. Problematically, with the aid of people who incite discrimination against Muslims, like the cartoonists and editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo, Islamophobia is now moving from the fringes to the mainstream of European societies. (See Joshua Keating’s Slate article, “Xenophobia is Going Mainstream in Germany.”)

As Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari notes, “the shockwave of the far right National Front polling nearly one-fifth of French voters is still reverberating. Both the socialist candidate and the incumbent president are wooing the support of Marine le Pen” (see Dr. Bari’s Aljazeera article, “Islamophobia: Europe’s’ New Political Disease.”).Indeed, after the attack, as expected, the National Front is attracting more members and support.

Of course, racist and anti-Muslim dehumanizing cartoons are but a symptom of a larger problem that is not addressed, is misdiagnosed or is inverted: European colonialism and the European-sponsored terrorism or Euroterrorism used to support this centuries-old practice. The Iraq war, Afghanistan war, and other Western-sponsored military campaigns against Muslim countries are colonialist wars in which Western powers are attempting to steal natural resources from Muslim countries and rearrange their political structure so that Western business interests might more easily exploit these countries’ people and land. The deaths of innocent Muslims at the hands of Westerners in their colonialist pursuit of profit and power is pure unadulterated terrorism of the worst kind.

Western colonialism that exploded in the late nineteenth century and has been maintained up to this day relied upon and relies upon unimpeded Westerner violence or terrorism, as a number of analysts have documented. In African Perspectives of Colonialism (1987:26-27), A. Adu Boahen explains that Europe’s late nineteenth century technological advances led by the “maxim-gun” promoted Europeans’ “sudden and forceful occupation” of African lands and set in place the “imposition of the colonial system.” Edward Said’s analysis of colonialism, Europeans’ conquest of non-Western lands, in Orientalism (1979) demonstrates that violence and terrorism associated with European colonialism, particularly the British and French versions, are physical as well as cultural and psychological, in certain cases resembling the discriminatory practices and negative imagery of “the Other” discovered in the pages of Charlie Hebdo. In The Wretched of the Earth (1963:36), Franz Fanon observes that colonialism is “marked by violence” and is characterized by “the exploitation of the native by the settler…carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons.” Undoubtedly, modern day terrorism originated and persists in the practices of Western colonialism and this fact deserves deliberation in any attempt at understanding the various non-Western terrorist acts in reaction to European terrorism.

France’s colonialist exploitation and terrorism of Muslim African nations is one of the primary reasons for the growth of “radical” Islamist groups. Rather than simply dismissing these militarized Islamist groups as anti-Western, Westerners ought to be a little smarter and ask why wouldn’t Muslims attempt to protect their people, land and culture and, in turn, oppose those who terrorize them. Who are the real terrorists? If we consider the numbers of Muslims killed or brutalized at the hands of Westerners in relation to the number of Westerners killed or brutalized by Muslims, the answer is quite clear: terrorists of the West. Ironically, a Western terrorist, Anders Breivik, slaughtered large numbers of Westerners in his anti-Islamist hatred. His mass killing spree slayed far more Westerners on European soil than any attacks by “radicalized” Muslims. Significantly, Breivik’s terrorism was conflated with Islamist terrorism (see the Guardian).

As long as radicalized Westerners accept the killing of innocent Muslims in drone and missile attacks, discount the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the CIA “black sites,” and other torture facilities, and fail to see how Western colonialism violently maintains operation across the globe, particularly in Muslim countries, the “battle against terrorism” will continue. Along with Europe, the United States has its own zealots and war hawks who promote terrorism directed at Muslim countries. On virtually any day, one can turn to major US news media outlets and witness a host of extremist US politicians, like Peter King, John McCain, Diane Feinstein, Alan West, Michele Bachmann and Chuck Schumer, calling for war or negative actions against one Muslim or Arab country or another. The rhetoric is careless and, at its roots, are the sparks of Western-styled terrorism.

To support US terrorism, French terrorism and other forms of Western terrorism is unconscionable. Similarly, supporting Charlie Hebdo’s discriminatory practices that naturalize and sanctify Euroterrorism against Muslims is abhorrent. Terrorism begets terrorism in a vicious cycle. Neither form can be justified, but the former is where we should direct our focus. For these reasons, Jen ne suis pas Charlie. For those who identify with Charlie, you might re-consider your senseless ties to the racism that Charlie breeds and the racial conflicts that will result from ignorant acceptance of that religious and ethno-racial intolerance and racist ridicule of Others.

A Salute to John Conyers

On January 6, 2015, distinguished guests and US politicians gathered to celebrate the unveiling of Representative (now Dean of the US House of Representatives) John Conyers’ portrait that will now hang rightfully on the walls of the Capitol Building. That this is the first portrait of an African American congressional representative to grace the walls of the House Judiciary committee meeting room in the Capitol is telling. Like all honors earned by African Americans, Conyers’ portrait symbolizes a long, obstacle-laden struggle for recognition of service to the nation and a deserved place in the memory of US politics.

As Vice President Biden remarked, future generations of US lawmakers will respectfully point to this portrait and note the vast achievements Conyers accomplished during his service to and uplift of the American people. Representative James Clyburn correctly observed that Conyers was the catalyst for establishing a new paradigm in American political thought and action. Reflecting on the political capital, leadership skills, mentoring successes, and role model qualities of Conyers, US Attorney General, Eric Holder, stated that he, Barack Obama and other African American government leaders stood on the shoulders of Conyers. Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi made clear that Conyers has battled for the rights of all the disenfranchised and oppressed in the US, championing the Violence Against Women Act (1994) and House Resolution 288, a bill to dissuade religious intolerance, particularly intolerance directing at the US Muslim population.

As the longest serving member in the House of Representatives, John Conyers has advanced a progressive and positively “disruptive” (the term used by Nancy Pelosi) political agenda for fifty years now. During this period, Conyers was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of representatives who have addressed the unique sets of issues affecting the African American community and served as a critical moral consciousness for US government policies and US politicians, including Barack Obama (possibly why Obama was a no show at the unveiling?). One of Conyers’ great achievements was introducing a bill to create a national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Another profound political effort led by Conyers has been his call for a commission to study reparations for African Americans, to research how slavery has affected the lives of African Americans and the zeitgeist of US society up until this day.

Conyers has fought against the destructive culture and business of online gambling, cuts in Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare, discriminatory electoral practices, hate crimes, and racial profiling. He has introduced legislation and supported projects such as the Alcohol Warning Label Act, Help America Vote Act, Firearm Reduction Initiative, Workforce Investment Act, State Public Funds Protection Act, Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, and the Former Prisoners Project. In his distinct of Southeast Michigan, Conyers has generated a number of programs for economic development and social justice.

Assessing his long list of achievements, it is clear that Conyers fights for the marginalized, dispossessed, oppressed and exploited in US society. This ongoing battle distinguishes the work of Conyers from so many career politicians on the Hill. As just about every speaker at Conyers’ portrait unveiling acknowledged, John Conyers is a rare person of “integrity,” high principles and intellect, human qualities absent among many members of Congress. Indeed, few people work for improving the lives of others, not themselves, and even those who devote their energies toward advancing the human condition rarely possess the devotion and cogency of a person like John Conyers.

Conyers is an unsullied role model for those fighting for racial justice and human justice in general, and should be recognized as one of the true protagonists of US society. While many US citizens will never respect his achievements and a certain element will attempt to vilify his pro-justice actions (he was one of the key figures on Nixon’s “enemy list”), it is up to those who strive for justice and human community to follow, as best they can, in the footsteps of this Giant.

Racially Framed Social Science Increasing

Recently, two articles in important sociological journals have contributed further to the white-framed sociological discourse of race. The latest edition of Sociological Theory (June 2012) published Shiao, Bode, Beyer, and Selvig’s “The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race,” an essay that argues for reinvigorating biological understandings—more specifically, the “biosocial causation”—of race. A number of problems accompany this piece, the primary being its white-framed perception of races contorted by biologism/eugenics and a pained attempt to be “scientific.” Reverting to Eurocentric scientific racism is a sign of the times, increasingly used to de-legitimate the status, societal position, and social, economic, cultural, political-legal rights and empowerment of people of color.


Possibly more alarming than the Sociological Theory (ST) piece on race is a short essay in the July 2012 issue of Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews (CS) [pdf]. The Editor’s Remarks on Booker T. Washington and Robert E. Park’s The Man Farthest Down subtly frame racial discourse from a white perspective. Indeed, this type of “under-the-radar” white framing appears to be more problematic than more obvious forms discovered in the ST article, because it 1) often goes undetected, thus unchallenged; 2) reinforces dominant white-framed beliefs subconsciously and piecemeal; and 3) often passes as “universal,” “objective” (nonbiased), and therefore “race neutral” exposition.

To grasp the white framing of race operating in the CS Editor’s Remarks, it is helpful to have some background knowledge of Washington and Park. Both were extremely important in developing mainstream ideas about race in society (Washington) and sociology (Park). Washington was the most influential African American leader of the early twentieth century, who espoused a social philosophy of a black socio-economic self-sufficiency, evading racial conflict and criticism of white racism, and pragmatic accommodation to whites in power. After acting as Washington’s secretary, Park helped establish Chicago School sociology and lead the study of race in academic sociology. Park’s framework for understanding race, with its focus on the four-stage race relations cycle and Euro-assimilation, continues to define the sociology of race.

As the Editor’s Remarks observe, “the four-stage race-relations cycle [is] still taught to undergraduates.” Park is credited with shifting the study of race away from biological to cultural explanations of races and differences among races. However, this claim of Park’s departure from social Darwinism is largely refuted by a number of race scholars, such Ralph Ellison (1964), John Stanfield (1985), and Vernon Williams, Jr. (1996), among others. They point out that Park espoused racial prejudices when discussing whites and people of color and that his explanations of the segregation of races are intellectual tools easily used to justify white supremacy. Park assumed that all “primitive” races (i.e., people of color) aspire to assimilate to the social world and behaviors of the “civilized” white race.

Ethnicity, culture and assimilation paradigms developed by Park, and then Gunnar Myrdal, Milton Gordon, the Nathan Glazer-Patrick Moynihan team, and practiced by many contemporary sociologists, outline an unrealistic depiction of race. The study of ethnicity and culture routinely avoids discussion of ideational and material realities of race/s, the white-imposed hierarchy and systemic ordering of racial groups, and societal effects of institutional, structural and systemic racism. Ethnic and cultural studies are normally framed from a white perspective that neglects crucial socio-historical differences between European migrants and migrants of color from different parts of the globe and tends to position European cultures over other worldwide cultures. In the US, white ethnic groups have largely disappeared and assumed a generic white identity (see the ethno-racial categories listed in the US Census or any job application), whereas ethnic groups of color are subject to hyper-critique, problematic categorization and division, and stigmatization that is inherently Eurocentric.

Assimilation theory bespeaks a colonialist mentality and centuries-old white supremacist attitudes. Assimilation theory assumes Euro-domination and justifies Eurocentrism, a belief in dominance of European models of society and human relations (“civilization”), and social practices that reinforce white elites’ power interests, ideologies and cultural mores. It is clear that the stages of assimilation Park outlines mirror the steps of European colonization (see Lyman 1973, Steinberg 2007). As the assimilation theorist Milton Gordon illustrated with the concept Anglo-conformity, assimilation has long had specific meaning and connotation: assimilation to the European ideals, behaviors, and culture of Anglo-Saxons. While Anglo-Saxons once sat atop the racial hierarchy, a number of other white ethnic groups have joined the ranks of Anglo-elite and formed a broader based white power elite. Today, a more general conformity to whiteness or white racial framing has replaced the outdated and now too-limited understanding and practice of Anglo-conformity. Like ethnicity and culture paradigms, the assimilation paradigm largely omits serious discussion of racial conflict, the societal effects and human costs of racism, and the well-organized racist ideologies and practices of the group that has the most power to define race, whites, and especially elite whites.

Washington and Park’s ideas about race reflect key elements of white-framed sociology and support a Eurocentric perspective of race. Despite his contributions to the black community, Washington failed to discuss the fundamentally unequalized racial structures and racism in the US. Elite whites’ funding for the Tuskegee Institute, the black educational institution Washington founded, demanded he remain silent about systemic racism and the powerful whites and white institutions that uphold racist society. Instead, in return for whites’ financial, political and media support, Washington downplayed and misrepresented struggles of African Americans, highlighting problems of black agency (individual and group) rather than societal problems associated with systemically racist social system and the racist institutional structures created by whites that prop that system (W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903).

It is surprising that the CS Editor’s Remarks reintroduced Washington and Park’s sketchy writings on race, considering the many holes in Park’s sociological theories and Washington’s social philosophy. Park explained away Eurocentrism, while Washington downplayed it. It is contemporary sociologists’ job to see through and then discredit out-dated, ethnocentric race theories of Park and the propagandist, apologist racial rhetoric of Washington.

Racism in Session: Richard Cebull Presiding

Recently, Richard F. Cebull, chief Federal District Court Judge in the state of Montana, sent acquaintances an extremely crude racist, misogynist email that “joked” about US President Barack Obama’s mother having sex with a dog. After the email was exposed to the public, Cebull offered an apology to the President, acknowledging the joke was “racist” and that his dissemination of the joke lacked “judgment.” Of course, like most racist commentators, the judge claims it was the joke that was racist, not the joker. In a bizarre attempt at an excuse for relaying the email, Cebull justified his actions by noting he was not a “fan” of the President.

As many critics of Cebull have stated, the judge lacks sound judgment (some might say “intelligence”) and needs to resign immediately. His stunted cognitive abilities—intellect or judgment—appear on a number of levels. To begin, one must question the judge’s sense of humor. What does his racist and misogynist “humor” say about his acumen, values, and morality? It would appear that Cebull’s appreciation of de-humanizing and personally offensive sexist and racist humor poses serious questions about his ethical compass. Sending the insulting email via a government server—in the public domain—is another sign of Cebull’s contorted judgement and thus another factor disqualifying him from serving on the bench. And it goes without saying that he likely breeched the Judicial Code of Conduct as well as the boundaries of civil discourse. But enough of Cebull the racist commentator, what about the systemically racist justice system that is peopled with individuals like Cebull?

Tellingly, the commentary about ‘the Cebull Affair’ is focused solely on the performance of Cebull sending a racist email. To my knowledge, no one in the national press has addressed problems with the racist US legal (legal is more appropriate than justice) system that recruits, empowers and perpetuates rulers of the law like Cebull. No one in the mainstream media has commented about how Cebull’s actions are part of much larger problem with the US legal system, which remains inherently racist structurally, as illustrated by the numerous cases of police brutality, shoddy convictions and sentencing, and unequalized laws of a two-tier legal system: a system for whites and a system for people of color.

Not only has Cebull’s racist private backstage emerged in the public arena, the backstage of the racist US legal system has also emerged on the national stage, exposing a vivid empirical example of the dysfunctionality of the system when staffed with people like Cebull. The US legal system historically has granted racist-thinking commentators like Cebull great power and, problematically, continues to support these racist-minded legal power-brokers, even after they demonstrate poor judgment and unfair practices. In Cebull’s case, he revealed some biased and de-humanizing views of people of color and his shortage of judgment in regard to racist joking. And yet, despite his apparent disqualifications, he still holds his position of power in the legal system.

Cebull’s racism must be viewed as a reminder of the well-institutionalized systemic racism that pervades the US legal system. While certainly not everyone in the system exhibits Cebull’s racist “joking” inclinations, numerous individuals in the justice system repeatedly demonstrate racist perspectives and practices. Richard Cebull is merely one actor in a large social network of police officers, prosecutors, correctional officers, parole officers, social workers, politicians, policy makers, bounty hunters, and other judges whose ideas and actions uphold white-framed racism in the US legal system. Disconcertingly, the larger public tends to ignore or excuse the institutional, structural, and systemic racism in the US legal system, overlooking the discriminatory actions and thoughts of many actors who are employed to uphold “justice.” For example, ex-LA police officer, Mark Fuhrman, who referred to black Americans as “niggers,” now appears as a nationally syndicated pundit and legal expert commenting on high-profile criminal cases.

The many individuals working in the justice system who do not express racist views and behaviors are nonetheless—and often unknowingly—facilitators of a highly structured and complex racist legal system. This unjust legal system still looks to the US Constitution and the Bible as primary sources for laws and the foundational principals of the legal system, when the Bible and US Constitution were both documents used to justify and condone, morally and legally, the enslavement of blacks and colonization and mistreatment of other people of color. While the United States’ justice system no longer legitimates “slavery,” nor supports “colonization,” a new-day slavery and colonization operate in different guise.

Today, the ever-expanding, unchecked prison-industrial complex incarcerates disproportionate numbers of black and brown Americans. The heavy policing of communities of color, rampant racial profiling, disproportionate number of arrests, convictions, and periods of incarceration and other forms of legal supervision affecting people of color are all factors that have lead to the modern-day plantation system or prison system. Like the plantation, the prison forcefully confines people and exploits their labor. The prison industrial complex is interwoven with capitalism, with the privatization of prisons created profits for capitalists and debt for the tax paying public whose money goes to building and operating these institutions of oppression. (See Angela Davis’ “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; and, Lawrence Bobo and Victor Thompson’s “Racialized Mass Incarceration: Poverty, Prejudice and Punishment”.

Along with the “racialized” mass incarceration of people of color, new racist laws have emerged in northern US state of Michigan that disenfranchise a large portion of the state’s black population. In response to budget crises related to the recent financial meltdown, Michigan cities and towns with large black communities were stripped of their basic democratic rights of political representation and decision-making. Town and city councils representing black communities have lost power of political decision-making and civic management of community affairs to outside “managers,” who were granted vast power to determine all policy decisions, government operations, and allocation of funds for the “at-risk”-labeled communities. Alarmingly, Michigan’s disenfranchisement of blacks is being echoed across the nation with a number of states establishing voter id laws, which disproportionately affect communities of color and the poor.

Down in the southern US, in Arizona, two high profile representatives of the US justice system have become noted national figures, social celebrities and politicized heroes for some, because of their racist ideas and actions. Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona established legislation that legally sanctioned racial profiling of Latino/a Americans. Despite national public uproar and condemnation by the US Justice Department, Brewer’s legislative act has not yet been overturned. To enforce Brewer’s legislation, there are “justice” officials like Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, a person who makes no excuses for his excessive racial profiling, arrests, and de-humanizing, humiliating treatment of undocumented Latino/a workers, or “illegal aliens” according to Arpaio (all incarcerated males are de-masculinized, forced to wear pink jump suits). Now, Arpaio is making news and expanding his legal “authority” to the national stage by questioning the authenticity of US President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

Arpaio, Cebull, Fuhrman, Brewer, and countless other members of the legal world (many exposed, many not) uphold a racist US legal system. With individuals like these, the term “justice” loses meaning and US citizens are left with a legal system that is flawed and presently unable to provide grounds for fair decision making and just legal action. Truth, right and wrong, and the basic rules on how to co-exist in society become hypocritical, arbitrary and baseless and laws that favor or disfavor select groups remain a mockery in such a tainted system. As critical race theorists and sociologists of race have observed, the US legal system was corrupted by racism from the start and remains routinely unjust toward people of color. (see Derrick Bell’s Race, Racism and American Law and Silent Covenants: Brown vs. the Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform; Joe Feagin’s Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations and Systemic Racism: A Theory of Racial Oppression; and, Ian Lopez’s White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. Corrupt discriminatory laws and justice officials who abuse their position and power have created a cloud of meaninglessness and despair throughout the US legal system, a dysfunctional legal system that perpetually erodes its own legitimacy and purpose.

Considering what people of color endure in this society (namely, the long history and continuation of racial discrimination in employment, housing, education, politics, the media, and health care facing most people of color), the US legal system should serve as the one sanctified place where social justice and a fair playing field exist and are valued. However, today, as in the past, the US legal system fails to provide justice and fairness to people of color and the poor. Indeed, the system is blatantly divided along race as well as class lines. Piles of empirical evidence demonstrate year after year that people of color and the poor are not treated fairly within the US legal system; yet, obstacles to legal reform and the persistence and regeneration of racial and class injustice in the system are commonplace.

Those who attempt to revamp the legal system realize quickly that it is not neutral and objective but rather a structural mechanism of suppression created by those with power, resources, and connections. Conscious observers of the US legal system quickly discover that the system is rigged and that changing it—like attempting to change any powerful and well-embedded bureaucratic structure—appears a daunting task. The Cebull case reminds us that racism persists in the upper chambers of the legal system and, as the proceedings to remove Cebull will prove, that dysfunctionality of the system, and dysfunctional individuals managing the system, are not easily dismantled.

Realizations and Confessions of a White Man

“White Men as the Problem” (3/8/2009) will make many whites uneasy because of the truth that lies behind the statement that white males have created many of the social problems in the world today. I would like to comment on several points related to the article.

First, Joe’s article demonstrates the powerful links between race and class, clearly focusing on the fact that elite white males have created the class and racial social systems that produced most of the greed-driven misery over the last several hundred years and led to the present economic meltdown. White wealth, power and prestige have been built upon the exploitation, oppression, and dehumanization of people of color. White men created the capitalist economic system in the United States, benefit most from the system, and continue to produce new generations of whites to maintain the system. Whereas those that possess little economic power in the system, suffer greatest in the system, and whose life chances are severely challenged by the system, tend to be people of color.

One of the great sociologists of the 20th century, WEB Du Bois, proclaimed that “white wealth and culture” relies upon “Negro poverty and exploitation” (see The Oxford WEB Du Bois Reader, 1996[1962]). In his book Color and Democracy, W.E.B. Du Bois notes that “the continued oligarchical control of civilization by the white race”— and injustices of white-run societal systems “proceed as if the majority of men can be regarded mainly as sources of profit for Europe and North America” (Preface, 1945[1990]). Today’s social thinkers (e.g., Joe Feagin, George Fredrickson, Paul Lauren, and Chancellor Williams, among others) echo Du Bois’s observations made nearly a half century ago.

Ironically, and not surprisingly, when the economy is in crisis, whites disassociate themselves from capitalism; but when economic times are good, whites cannot wait to boast about their savvy entrepreneurial skills, smarts, power and wealth. With the recent collapse of the US and global economies, the “Donald Trump types” that white American society worshipped during the years of prosperity are now viewed questionably and even seen as villains. The same CEOs that Congress used to court and cuddle are now targets of Congressional committee investigations. Even the free-market, non-government interventionist ‘pro-capitalist’ platform of President Bush was not sacred as the capitalist economy spiraled downward. He quickly changed his support of the basis tenets of capitalist philosophy, non-government intervention, at the end of his administration (ironically, a last-ditch effort to benefit white capitalist elites).
A popular white myth claims that whites have single-handedly earned their wealth and worked harder than other people (of color). This is nonsense. For years, as a white man, I was convinced that my “success” (capital accumulation, property ownership, fine cars, lavish lifestyle, even dates with women) was the result of my skills alone, without realizing the advantages of my white male privilege and position in an unjust, un-equalized social system that benefits whites (particularly white men) and targets people of color. One might ask, how many talented people of color have been overlooked—economically, socially, and intellectually—in favor of mediocre whites? This white-run capitalist-racist-patriarchal system, advancing many whites and oppressing many people of color, has been fixed in American society from the start, as most people of color have known for years and as Joe’s socio-theoretical and historical understanding of the white racial frame clearly indicates.

Despite my best intentions to default my position as an advantaged white man, I cannot begin to escape my white privilege (luxuries of prep school and higher education) and greater access to power and resources (connections with wealthy whites and spoils of capitalist exploitation of people of color and poor whites) that exist in the white-dominated capitalist social world. While morally, psychologically, and socially uncomfortable on a number of levels, I hope that other white men can begin to question their position in the social world. It is necessary that white men recognize the mechanisms—the white racial frame, the colonization of people of color—that support their positions of white privilege and power, and that they take steps to compensate and return power and privilege back to people of color who have been robbed and mistreated for centuries.

One last note, while I agree that white men are primarily the problem, the ‘white family,’ white women and white children, also benefit from capitalist, racist exploitation. For example, white women hire women of color to perform the labor-intensive choirs in the homes of white families (cleaning the house and child rearing); rarely is this relation reversed. White children, boys and girls, are trained to learn the necessary “skills” to maintain the white frame that will benefit them at the expense of people of color and poor whites. According to James Wright, a “2007 study conducted by researcher Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution showed that a typical black family had only 58 percent of the income and assets of a typical white family. Blacks lag behind whites in two wealth-producing instruments, homeownership and owning a business.”

Until serious social transformation occurs along race, class and gender lines, whites, in general, not just white men, should be viewed as ‘the problem.’ To begin to help solve this problem, all whites must quite denying their unjust, ill-gotten privileges and rigged access to power and resources and attempt a redemptive path of recourse.

The Meaning of Wright in the Obama Campaign

What does it mean that white Americans are (apparently) willing to elect Barack Obama, a black politician, but still unwilling to engage the discourse of race and discuss continued, un-equalized race relations between people of color and whites and the long, on-going history of white racism in America? How is this socio-psychological paradox explained?

At the center of this paradox of race and politics is Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright (image from RobinDude via Flickr). I agree with Joe that Wright is “actually an American prophet, indeed a prophetic hero who is not afraid to condemn this country’s racist government actions, past and present.” But I would stress that Wright’s demonization and complete marginalization, not just by mainstream media and Republican circles, but also by Obama and the Democratic party, demonstrates a much deeper problem in American race relations and in ways that Americans understand and deal with the ‘race problem.’ Obama’s distancing himself from Wright and categorical condemnation of Wright’s social philosophies about American government was clearly stated. One hopes this was only a temporary, strategic political move to reach a powerful office (wouldn’t be the first time a politician momentarily masked their ideological position to win an election) and that, in fact, Obama will champion policies that amend the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of blacks and other nonwhite minorities.

Whatever is behind Obama’s decision to sever his relationship with Wright, the fact remains that he was forced to denunciate Wright and suppress Wright’s message about the history of white racism in order to maintain political viability in American politics, illustrating that mainstream America is not yet willing to seriously address the murky, taboo issue of race. As Obama’s society-sanctioned sacrifice of Wright demonstrates, both republicans and democrats—Fox News and MSNBC—and the American public at large call for Obama to disassociate with and denounce Wright’s unsettling message.

The exclusion of Wright’s discourse about race is the exclusion of truth about US history and social reality. This exclusion is a cowardly avoidance of moral responsibility and signals that whites wish to maintain their privilege and unfair advantages—white supremacy—in the social world. Sadly, most white Americans—mainstream America—ignorantly discount the harsh realities of race in America observed in the critical perspectives of those who are racially oppressed. Unlike blacks and other nonwhite minority groups, whites fail to acknowledge the institutional and systemic nature of white racism, possibly because white racism is a system that greatly benefits the very existence and life chances of most whites.

Does Obama’s ascendancy in American politics demonstrate that America has come a long way in matters of race, the dominant narrative portrayed in newspapers and news shows? The silencing of Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright would reveal not. Nevertheless, white Americans will now loudly pat themselves on the back and claim that Obama’s political popularity signifies that racism is dead, overlooking Wright’s description of the deeply embedded institutional racism that still grips the politics, economics, culture and social world of Americans, failing to ponder questions like: how many black US Senators are there now, how many black Fortune 500 CEOs, what is the face of the nightly news anchorman, who is average Joe the Plumber?

~ Sean Elias, PhD Candidate, Sociology, Texas A&M University
Lecturer, Sociology, Southern Methodist University