Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Land of Non-Surprise: Mitt Romney, Candidate for a Nativist Party, Channels KKK Slogan, to Win Over Nativist Voters

Once more, we have proof that there is no liberal media in the United States. There is only a corporate media, one that is vulnerable to hostage taking by the Right.

Mitt Romney channels a slogan from the Ku Klux Klan that "we" ought to "keep America American"  (or its more "polite" cousin, "Keep America, America"). MSNBC reports Romney's repeated use of this phrase. The Right-wing blogosphere cries "foul" and "unfair." Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton issue apologies to Mitt Romney for unfairly attacking his character.

There are two elements to this story that demand exploration.

First, the suggestion that a Republican candidate, one who is trying to sure up his conservative bonafides to a white populist base, would mine the rhetoric of the Klan (or deploy racially bigoted, xenophobic, and resentful sentiment and slogans more generally) is not at all a surprise. In fact, the politics of white racial resentment and white victimology have been central elements in Republican political strategy for five decades.

While folks are centered on the silly and distracting question--is Mitt Romney a racist or in the KKK--they should in fact be focused on the Republican Party's masterful use of a politics of white racial resentment, nativism, and disdain for the Other. Context matters. Consider the circus that is the Republican Party's presidential primary field for the election year 2012, and the policies they have endorsed.

1. Electric fences and moats to kill illegal immigrants;
2. Suggesting that black people are lazy, and their children should serve as janitors in order to develop a work ethic;
3. Wallowed in the filth of Birtherism, and indulged in rank, open bigotry against the country's first black President;
4. Suggested that Muslim Americans should be profiled (perhaps they should carry special cards? or wear a mark on their clothing?) because of their religion and a propensity to commit "terrorism";
5. Include a candidate who leisured at a family retreat named "Niggerhead" and grew up in sundown town;
6. Are beholded to the Tea Party, a faction and AstroTurf group which can trace its origins back to the white supremacist, white nationalist, John Birch Society (the former is also a group whose racist tendencies have been well-documented).

The Republican Party's rhetoric of "real America," "our America," "take our America back," and Romney's Klan-inspired slogan of "Keep America American" is based on a simple premise of "us and them." Patriotism and nationalism have almost always been infused with appeals to white racism. Given that America's history is one where to be American, meant that one had to be "white" in the eyes of the law, this ought not to be a surprise. Black folks have long been the anti-citizen, the group against which immigrants and others triangulate their belonging and group membership.

The symbolic racism indulged in by the Republican Party, especially as seen in their race baiting against Barack Obama, are dependent on a basic understanding that to be "American" one must first and most importantly be "White" (and to a lesser degree Christian). In the post-Civil Rights era, those appeals have to be hidden behind dog-whistles and coded speech.

The second teachable moment in Mitt Romney's channeling of the KKK's slogan is that historically, America is a profoundly racist country. In fact, there was no language with which to stigmatize such sentiments; "racism" was just "the law," or "commonsense," what was a "natural" way of doing things. For example, the Constitution of the United States is an explicitly pro-slavery, pro-white, herrenvolk, Apartheid document. With approximately 3 million members, the KKK was one of the most important civil society organizations in American history throughout the early part of the 20th century. Their "march on Washington" was one of the largest gatherings in the country to date.

The Civil Rights Movement, only four decades or so in the past, is a recent development. For most of the United States' history, to become a naturalized citizen a person had to be of demonstrable, and certifiable, "white ancestry" and "good stock." People of color, and "questionable" whites (Southern and Eastern Europeans), were not "fit" for American citizenship. In all, pluralist, Multicultural America, the one that elected Barack Obama, is a hiccup, a curiosity, and a very recent development in American history.

The nativism, xenophobia, and "polite" bigotry of the Republican Party, with its most recent appeals to white populism, are part of a larger pattern. In much the same way that the Tea Party brigands displayed posters of Barack Obama as a monkey or a gorilla, Mitt Romney may not even know the origins of "keep America American." But, it resonates with his audience.

More generally, Republican candidates who talk about "the pro-America parts of the country," and "real Americans," may not know about the deep relationship between nationalism, white racism, and the murder and exclusion of non-whites from the polity and public sphere. But, the words are warm and welcoming. The slogan excites them. It makes populist conservatives feel good about something; they belong to a community of "special" people, with privileged insight, and an elect commandment from on high; they are the sacred keepers of American exceptionalism and the Founding Father's prescient wisdom.

Ultimately, Mitt Romney's use of the Klan's slogan is not about responsibility: I could care less if he is a dyed in the wool racist or bigot; in fact, I suspect that he likely is not one.

And of course, how can one overlook the irony of a Mormon, a group none too popular with the KKK, channeling one of their most famous slogans.

However, the use of such language is important because of the questions surrounding causality, consequences, appeal, and sentiment. As we work through Romney's KKK turn of phrase, we cannot forget that White supremacy is part of the ether and air that all Americans, across the color line, inhale and breathe. It is part of the country's collective subconscious. An American can no more escape it, than a fish can water.

Consequently, the bigger and more important element here is the type of political work that such historically racist--but in the present--"race neutral" appeals do for Tea Party GOP candidates who are focused on destroying the United States' first Black President by any means necessary. As the late, oft-quoted, Republican political strategist Lee Atwater alluded to, Republicans most certainly cannot call black people "niggers" anymore and expect to win elections. However, Republicans can do everything to remind their white voting public, the conservative heart and soul of their party, that a President who happens to be black, most certainly, is not one of "them."

This is the truth, that MSNBC, in walking back the obvious connection between Mitt Romney, the KKK's racism and nativism, and the political gamesmanship of the Tea Party GOP, is afraid to make clear and transparent.

The Fourth Estate fails again.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lest We Pile On Too Much: What are Black Academics Doing to Help Poor Black Kids?



I try to engage in a bit of critical self-reflection whenever possible.

Gene Marks' exercise in white privilege and Internet trolling has been thoroughly demolished for its lazy thinking, arrogance, and deficit of empathy. But, in reading all of the rebuttals to the essay, I have been forced to ask myself a hard question: while it is easy to throw rocks at the town jester for his foibles, are those who are taking Gene Marks to the woodshed any better than he?

For example, I always try to reach out to first generation, low income students once they are in my classes. I have also devoted considerable professional time to grant funded programs which are tasked with improving the post-secondary and graduate school enrollment rates for first generation, low income, and under-represented students. But, is that enough?

The documentary Ebony Towers is a helpful entry point for this conversation. It deftly highlights the struggles to racially integrate colleges and universities in both the U.K. and the United States. While Ebony Towers does not sufficiently play up the role of organizations like the Ford Foundation in establishing Black Studies (a move that was part of a broader plan to deradicalize the remnants of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s and 1970s), it is however quite sharp in highlighting how access to education has historically been a political act for black Americans.



While "Blackademics" and others are hating on Gene Marks for his piss poor article, what are they/we doing to improve the educational and professional opportunities for poor people of color in this country?

Yes, looking in the mirror can be hard; but, it ought not to be avoided for that reason.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

If I Were a Short, Balding, Mediocre White Man I Would Write an Advice Column For Poor Black Kids in Forbes Magazine

The President’s speech got me thinking. My kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city. My kids have it much easier than their counterparts from West Philadelphia. The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder. This is a fact. In 2011.
Forbes magazine has posted a column by Gene Marks, a middle aged white guy, who wants to give advice to poor black kids about how to be successful in America. Of course, these young black kids read Forbes everyday and will internalize his wisdom. There is no poverty porn, noblesse oblige, white paternalism, compassionate conservative masturbation, navel gazing at work here. No. None at all.

Folks are all over his butt already. In fact, Gene Marks is about to become more popular than he has any right to be, both with the conservative, "blacks have bad culture crowd" (who will hold him up as a brave truth teller), and the anti-racist lecture circuit crowd (who is going to use his essay in Forbes as an object lesson in white privilege for years and years to come).

And like flies on shit, black conservative apologists will soon start hovering over Marks' essay as they instinctively rise to defend any assault on either people of color, or the black poor, by the white conservative establishment. Black conservatives are on retainer and are obligated to shuck, buck dance, and jive to earn their keep. Their appearance is imminent.
I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia. 

It takes brains. It takes hard work. It takes a little luck. And a little help from others. It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology. As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this.

If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities...
It is difficult to imagine oneself in the shoes of another person. Empathy and sympathy are difficult traits to practice even under the best of circumstances. I also do not know what Gene Marks' intentions were in writing his Forbes' essay. However, I am mighty curious about the intentions of Forbes' editors in publishing such a problematic piece of work.

Marks is likely a "nice" guy who is so awash in white privilege, class entitlement, and sexism (remember, discourses on poverty are almost always about both race and gender) that it is impossible for him to really imagine himself as the Other; yet, he is so arrogant that he imagines himself capable of understanding all people's experiences, at all times, and in all places. This is the crux of White privilege--a sense of gross universality and normativity, a racial heliocentrism that allows a white person to generalize outward with authority on all things.
If I was a poor black kid I would get technical. I would learn software. I would learn how to write code. I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online. I would study on my own. I would make sure my writing and communication skills stay polished.

Because a poor black kid who gets good grades, has a part time job and becomes proficient with a technical skill will go to college. There is financial aid available. There are programs available. And no matter what he or she majors in that person will have opportunities. They will find jobs in a country of business owners like me who are starved for smart, skilled people. They will succeed.
Predictably, Whiteness will also make Gene Marks into a victim, as "he is just trying to be helpful" and "how dare those liberals and race pimps tell him that he is wrong!"

Two truisms apply here. One, you should write what you know. As revealed by his Forbes' essay, Gene Marks does not know anything of the experiences of poor black and brown kids in inner city America. He has no access to their internal lives, his article also suggests a blinding ignorance of the realities of structural inequality in this country. Two, a fish does not know that it is wet. Despite his lip service to the concept, Marks does not really imagine himself as privileged (as he would have not written such a piece, in the manner that he so chose), or that the life experiences of a self-described mediocre technocrat, one who somehow found himself a columnist for Forbes and the NY Times, are in any way exceptional or unique.

As we saw with Newt Gingrich's ugly suggestions that poor kids should become janitors in order to teach those lazy blacks about the value of hard work, and Rush Limbaugh's observation that poor kids on school lunch programs are greedy street urchins, Marks is a singer in a conservative chorus whose message is simple: you are poor because you are lazy; moreover, poor people want to be poor; poor black kids born to crappy circumstances can do better if they just tried harder...and are smart enough to show some initiative.
President Obama was right in his speech last week. The division between rich and poor is a national problem. But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance.
I do wonder what Gene Mark's advice would be to lazy, dim, anti-intellectual, and entitled white kids (and those of the upper classes more generally) who were born on the 3rd base of life and think they hit a home run? Would his advice be the same for the white rural poor? What would Gene Marks tell the "new poor," those formerly middle class suburban types who are couch surfing, living in cars, tents, or hotels? What wisdom does he have to preach from on high?
Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids. Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.
Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.
I will let Gene Mark's closing comments stand on their own: they are ugly poetry in motion.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Where Silence Has Lease: "Massa" Rush Limbaugh Wants Black Politicians to Be Sure to Have Their Slave Passes



Rush Limbaugh earned his racist bonafides a long time ago. He is also an existentially and unrepentantly ugly person. Therefore, his suggestion that the head of the Congressional Black Caucus needs to get a slave pass in order to "get off" the Democratic plantation is not at all a surprise. Moreover, that there are millions of petit authoritarians who pray at his sick and twisted mantle of Angry White Male Conservatism, is also not a surprise. Their love is just a symptom of America's cultural rot, and a dysfunctional political discourse, one identified decades ago by the noted political scientist and historian Richard Hofstadter.

Ultimately, in the 1920s through to the 1960s, there was Father Coughlin; the last few decades brought us Rush Limbaugh. There is really nothing new in the game in regards to ugly talk that plays to Whiteness's greater devils, as opposed to its lesser angels.

Of course, I will never understand why any self-respecting black person (or person of color more generally) would get in bed with the racially resentful, and bigoted strain of populism, that is the Tea Party GOP. And that black Conservatives reproduce the language of white supremacy, with the idea that principled, reflective, and politically sophisticated, utility maximizing black people--who have decided that the Democratic Party is more aligned with their interests--are on a "plantation," is one part racial Stockholm syndrome, and two parts selling out for the sake of a dollar...as well as the psychic wages of a pat or two on the metaphorical head from their overlords.

Abstractions are easy to use in a game where the scoring of cheap political points is the goal. The low brow rhetoric that passes for reasoned political discourse in the Right-wing echo chamber is masterful for its ability to provoke, use symbolically rich speech, repetition, moral clarity, as well as certitude. In all, the Eliminationists of the Right-wing are expert propagandists.

However, it is easy to invoke a thing, when one does not have to face the reality of it head on. A skilled rhetorician can paint a picture with words that move the crowd; but, their power can also be subverted when the gimmick is exposed--when the audience sees the literal thing that is being used as an allusion and metaphorical prop. The illusion is broken. The magic is gone.

Rush Limbaugh loves to talk about black people and slavery. It is a fetish of his. While we may not cure him of this obsession, nor break the Svengali-like hold that Limbaugh has on his cult members, we can examine an actual example of the "slave passes" he so casually evoked last week:

Transcription: My Boy Mack has my Permission to sleep in a house in Bedon’s Alley, hired by his Mother this ticket is good for two months from this date Sarah H. Savage Sep ber 19th, 1843

I wonder if the Right-wing populists who fawn over Rush Limbaugh would find such references so funny if they could actually see a slave pass with their own eyes, or read some of the actual handwriting that attempted to reduce grown adults into children, human property who were limited in the most basic exercise of their rights?

White populist conservatives would probably sneer and reverse this truth-seeking into some twisted claim of "white victimology," and "angry black people," who are "unfair" and "emotional." In fact, there are likely many conservatives, who in another decade would fancy themselves owners of human property, kings of the plantation, where the darkies knew their place, and everything was a Neo-Confederate, Southern GOP, Tea Party wet dream.

Their love of such abuses of history aside does not mean that we ought not to confront conservatives about their fictions at every opportunity, to hold them accountable.

Please indulge me some private-public talk for a moment. My black folks, we need to do a better job of protecting our history, the narratives that are generated about it, and how our struggle is made the fodder for political games by conservatives and liberals alike. No other group's freedom struggle and suffering (our Jewish brothers and sisters especially, are to be held up as exemplars for how to protect one's master narrative) is mocked with such ease, frequency, or with so few consequences.

These slave passes are not impersonal abstractions, curiosities of history, without meaning or weight. Slave passes were the naked and obvious demonstration of power by Whites, and the ability (or so they believed) to control black people--your kin and family--as human property from the cradle to the grave:


This is a slave pass and marriage acknowledgement from A. Greer to John Neely allowing the marriage of one of his male slaves to one of Neely’s female slaves, permitting that they do not let the marriage interfere with their work.

Where is the outrage? My people, my black folks, or are you so tired, the calluses so deep, that you have forgotten how to be upset?

History stares you in the eyes: Rush Limbaugh and his brethren slap you in the face every time they channel the glorious and proud history of black and brown folks, our sheroes and heroes, for their nefarious and dishonest ends. And you do nothing.

And some wonder, why in America, conservatism and racism are one in the same.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Of Black Pride and White Prejudice: James Earl Jones Discusses His "Racist" Black Grandmother



Your shuttle is ready Lord Vader.

We have not had a salon on black prejudice and white racism in a while; I save those occasions for special moments; it would seem that we have one now.

In this interview on the BBC, Brother James Earl Jones describes his grandmother as the most racist person he has ever met. She was part Native American and black. As Jones describes it, his grandmother was a "defensive racist."

Racism is the particular crime, of a particular group of people, who happen to have power. Racism is not existential. Racism has nothing to do with skin color. Racism has everything to do with skin color.

To maintain, continue with, circulate, and support racist practices is an active choice, and also one of tacit consent. Thus, while James Earl Jones' First World, indigenous, black grandmother, may have been bigoted or prejudiced, she was in no way racist--for racism is a particular and unique sin of white people, whatever their class or social location, in modernity and beyond. Her pain and anger, were also totally understandable, reasonable, and just.

Brother Jones' reflection on his own upbringing is also a bit of powerful sharing. His grandmother was "racist" against blacks who to her eyes "enabled" slavery, and "let themselves be taken." She is also upset at her own Native American kin for their own Holocaust. These feelings are examples of the deep pain, angst, and sadness, as well as loss, that racism perpetrates as a crime on its victims.

How powerful a social force it is, when a people internalize and reproduce the terms of their own oppression, like some type of Stockholm Syndrome...

James Earl Jones' sharing of his grandma's upsetness at her own people is also an example of pulling aside the veil, and making public, our own private talk as first world, black and brown people, about our racialized predicament in the Americas (and throughout European empire, more broadly).

By implication, what follows is an uncomfortable question for some.

As you know, I always take it to the limit: If "we" were so "great," how could "they" conquer the world? Put us in chains? Steal our lands? Kill us by the tens and hundreds of millions? How did Europe, a resource and population poor part of the world, a group of people who were quite literally "cave dwellers," conquer the great empires of Latin and South America, as well as sub-Saharan Africa?

We brought knowledge to the world, and preserved its greatest mysteries when white Europeans were living like animals during the Dark Ages, so how could black folks be put under the chain and lash in the bowels of the hellish slavers during the Middle Passage? How is this even imaginable, or within the boundaries of the conceivable?

And please, do not run to the claim that Europeans were "evil." Such arguments are lazy thinking, difficult to operationalize, and do us no service in the long run. They also keep us safe from hard answers, for such existential and ontological defenses are difficult, if not impossible, to rebuff or model in practice. Such claims are comforting; yet, they teach us very little.

As frequents readers of WARN know, I have shared more than a few beers with Neo-Nazis and Klan members over the years and debated these matters. I have an answer to the riddle. In the interest of sharing and learning, I ask what is yours?

That weapon is a powerful and necessary derringer, to keep up your sleeve or in your shirt pocket. Show it off a little. Consider this your Friday riddle of steel.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Kick in the Door: Republicans Should "Ask Osama bin Laden" if Obama's Foreign Policy is Based on "Appeasement"




These are the moments when I wish that there was a thought bubble above President Obama's head so that we can read his mind. God knows, there must be quite a bit of self-censoring going on...

A little bit of swaggering, phallocentric militarism, is okay every once in a while.

[Especially on a day when the Iranians pull your punk card, and display one of the bloated war machine's favorite toys before selling it to the Chinese. The irony here is that the loss of the Sentinel drone will just be used as an excuse to develop a new generation of weapons to counter the reverse engineered stealth armaments which the Chinese are going to deploy against the U.S. Navy when it cuts off their access to oil.]

And as I have not said as of late, this is the President I voted for. He is cool, calculating, a lethal opponent, and has just enough of a cool pose to let you know precisely from where his cultural roots flow.

Forgive me the indulgence in stereotypes of black masculinity, but sometimes you need a soundtrack for such a flat statement of killing prowess:



Wednesday, December 7, 2011

With Dignity Former Slaves Speak Across Time and the NY Times Recycles the Myth of the Black Confederate Soldier

“My name is Fountain Hughes … My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson.” Hughes then begins a wily standoff with his white interviewer, Hermond Norwood, digressing into his opinions about babies wearing shoes (-22:00) and buying things “on time [credit],” decrying the Yankees throwing flour into the river (-11:10) and, finally, declaring he would shoot himself rather than go back to slavery, where “you are nothing but a dog.” (-10:00)
As part of its series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Opinionator section of the NY Times is featuring a piece by Karenna Gore Schiff. Out of Time explores the politics surrounding the WPA's efforts to record the oral histories of former slaves during the 1930s and 1940s. 


There are some great nuggets here: the fights over memory and representation; the Dixiecrats hold over the WPA and its various artistic and historical projects; the fears of now freed people of suffering retaliation from whites in the Jim Crow South if their stories about the evil ways of white folks were too honest; and how the very idea of "documentary" projects were part of a broader populist turn towards everyday people--as opposed to "great" men and women--and the importance of their life stories and experiences to understanding the grand American narrative.

While it is fashionable in Republican circles to bemoan the federal government as a source of all evil, a bogeyman to be drowned in the bathtub, the WPA projects in particular, and the New Deal more generally, are powerful examples of how the State can do so much good.

It is chilling and inspiring to hear the ancestors speak across time. History is real. It ain't even past. Some would urge us to forget the past, to embrace Whiteness' necessary forgetting, and hold close an American political culture that is both amazingly nostalgic and also being grossly amnesiac. However, many of us are "political" by birth and identity in this country; we do not have the luxury of willful naivete or denial about the realities of power. What many white folks were surprised to see at OWS--where the protesters received an iota, a small dose of what people of color have been getting for centuries at the hands of the police--black kids learn as a life survival skill at 3 years old.

Caught Out of Time is not without its problems. As a teachable moment, it reaches back to the past and meditates on how the voiced experiences of former slaves are almost "Homeric" in the power. And lest we forget, it has not even been 50 years since Jim and Jane Crow white supremacy was formally undone in the United States. But in reaching back decades, Schiff recycles a near-lie about the Confederacy and the role of black Americans in the Civil War, one that is popular even into the present:
However, some slaves’ disapproval of the Northern army was genuine. Ward writes of “astonishing empathy” for masters and mistresses and documents touching and deeply humane instances of slaves acting beyond the constraints of bondage, like carrying their masters’ bodies over long distances to be buried at home. Furthermore, in the immediate human context of war, slaves’ interests overlapped with those of slaveholders; they wanted to protect food and livestock from incoming troops not only because they had been ordered to, but because their own sustenance was at stake. 
Not to mention the fact that, however cruel and twisted, intimate family bonds existed between black and white throughout the South. Adam Goodheart points out that at the dawn of the war, mixed-race slaves were more likely to join the Confederate effort (technically, the Confederacy never accepted them as enlisted troops but gladly put them to work): ”Human nature is a complicated thing.”
While an appeal to "human nature," and a desire to go beyond "good guys" and "bad guys" in our historiography is laudable, this yearning for Black Confederates is a broken record that plays to the white, racist, neo-confederate crowd, a group which is desperate to rehabilitate the image of the South as something noble, their war of Secession a great struggle for "State's Rights." In reality, blacks who "served" in the Confederate Army were the human property of their white owners, virtual mules and horses, and in few cases worked exclusively in non-combat roles as "free" laborers. As has been well documented, the Confederacy was a white supremacist, terrorist, military State, where the very idea of black men bearing arms was anathema to its foundational beliefs. The South would rather cease to be, than to offer up guns to black people, of any racial admixture, to fight in its defense.

Caught Out of Time continues with its near-lie here:
Harriet Smith’s soft, melodic voice conjures up the image of her as a girl, sitting atop a white fence watching the troops go by, surprised by the sight of “colored soldiers in droves,” and filled with wonder when a black orphan girl neighbor (who had had her arm cut off while operating a molasses mill) ran off with one of them. (-:55) (Part 2 of 4, -4:00) Approximately 300,000 black men would serve in the Union army (and thousands would also join the Confederate effort, including Fountain Hughes’s father, who was killed at Gettysburg) but the sight was particularly shocking to all Southerners in the early days of the war.
Again, "the thousands" who joined the Confederate Army did so not as free men, soldiers, fighting to "protect" the "Southern way of life." This yearning to find the Black Confederate in the attic is also a sign of a bigger cultural, political, and intellectual malaise in America. We live in a moment where all opinions are framed as being equal; this culture of narcissism is advanced by a news media, one that on a daily basis, feels obligated to offer up both sides of a story in a twisted game of false equivalence.

The 21st century, opinion journalism driven 4th Estate, elevates stupid-talk and foolishness to the level of reasoned and principled discourse. For example, Birthers are given opportunities to peddle their smut, those "experts" who believe that tax cuts create economic growth are presented as legitimate authorities when the consensus is that trickle down and the Laffer curve are fictions, propagandists from the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute are presented as "value neutral." And when the Palins, Perrys, Bachmanns, Cains, of the world offer up some specious claim about the environment, the economy, or science, their "I believe it to be true, that is my opinion, and how dare you tell me otherwise you elitist!" is treated as fact.

In all, Caught Out of Time is an exercise in the power of outliers. 


How much weight do we give to inconvenient facts that stand outside and apart from the consensus on a topic, of the narrative generated by the other data points? Ideal typical cases are handy; there is also much to be learned by those which do not neatly fit into our existing models. Yes, there were a few African Americans who held other black folks as slaves in the South. But, what does this tell us about the institution as a whole? Sure, there may have been a few Blacks, who for their own reasons, tried to find a way to join the Confederate Army. But what does that tell us about the totality of the Civil War, a struggle to defend white supremacy and human bondage as a way of life?

Imagine this helpful counter-factual or alternative scenario: should a journalist covering the Civil Rights Movement present the defenders of white supremacy as being "equal" to those little black boys and girls who simply wanted to attend an integrated school? Should a journalist elevate those who would blow up abortion clinics and kill doctors as being equivalent to those advocates who believe that a woman should have the right to control access to her own body?

Caught Out of Time, and the cult of false equivalence, is a cousin to these puzzles. A yearning for black Confederates, and folksy Gone with the Wind Song of the South stories about loyal slaves who carried their masters home on their backs, are outliers which tell us nothing about the story as a whole. These details are chaff for racism deniers, and those invested in the Lost Cause and "nobility" of the white supremacist, Secessionist struggle called the Confederate States of America.

The editors of the NY Times--a journal of record, containing "all of the news fit to print"--would have better served such a great piece on the voices of the ancestors, and the WPA's efforts to preserve them, by deleting such distracting and unnecessary fodder.

[The editorial choices made relative to the Times' piece also begs the following question.

Where are those many more common examples of slaves who poisoned their masters and his/her family, burned down barns, destroyed property, killed their overseers, served as Union spies, kicked their owners off of the plantations, or whipped whites in the street when the Union Army finally liberated an area?

I guess those stories are not a neat fit for the "human complexity" presented by Caught Out of Time.]

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Final Herman Cain Round-Up: the Race Minstrel Meme; Cain as Affirmative Action Baby; Ishmael and Crouch Go Hard

Folks are using up all of their surplus ammo as Herman Cain exits stage left. Yesterday, the price was 2 for 1 on Herman Cain news; today he is well past the expiration date, so all Herman Cain related stories have to go at bargain prices.

Here is a list of some of my favorites from the past few days. If you have any more to contribute, please do send them along.

1. Herman Cain is an affirmative action baby whose whole career was made possible by the Civil Rights Movement, and "trouble makers" such as Jesse Jackson. It was widely known that Cain was the beneficiary of a successful lawsuit against Pillsbury (and its subsidiary Burger King) for racism and sexism in hiring and promotions, and as such, he was placed in a "fast track" executive management program.

In fact, I pitched such a story to a few different outlets and they wanted to sit on it. Thankfully, Wayne Barrett at the Daily Beast has done a great and thorough job of documenting how Herman Cain was aided by affirmative action, the very policy he repeatedly demeaned as a "self-made" black conservative.

2. Stanley Crouch serves some ownage to Herman Cain as he works through how Cornbread played a role as a dark-skinned, "authentic" negro, one who gleefully ran away from the Civil Rights Movement (and its pesky negro agitators) in order to please his white masters. Ishmael Reed, the great contrarian, provocateur, and critical thinker that he is, offers up a great essay where he highlights Cain's role as a "black bogeyman"who embodies age old fears about race and sex.

3. Race minstrelsy is everywhere. If I had a dime for every time someone picked up my meme, I would have about a $1.50. Here are some more links from these Internets on Herman Cain, race minstrel, carnival barker and charlatan.

4. Oh yeah, there is going to be a documentary, "The Curious Case of Herman Cain" on BET this Thursday.

5. Ginger White, Cain's lover, is giving up the details on their "private time." I thought that Herman Cain would have been a pipe laying, wear a woman out, take her to space mountain all night long, and have her doing the donkey walk the next day sort of brother. Alas, Ginger White would lay under Cain, thinking about what she had to buy at the supermarket, while he did his business. I thought dude was a big long sliding man putting in work, stirring the sugar in the bowl. Maybe Herman Cain in so narcissistic that he is a selfish lover? Apparently, boom, (doesn't) go the dynamite.

More Race Science: They Lock Up Those "Crazy" Negro Agitators and Call Them "Schizophrenic"

Cecil Peterson had no history with the police. Even on the day the white stranger insulted his mother, Peterson simply wanted to eat lunch. He sat in his usual seat at the counter of the diner on Woodward Street and ordered his usual BLT and coffee. Somehow he caught the stranger’s eye in the squinted way that begets immediate conflict between men. The stranger glared. Peterson was not one to walk away from confrontation, but he knew the implications of glaring back. One should not glare back at a white man. So he looked down. But the two men crossed paths again after Peterson paid his tab and walked outside. And then came the remark. And then came the fight.
Two white Detroit police officers happened to be passing by the diner that September day in 1966. They ran to the altercation and tried to separate the combatants. At that point, according to their formal report, Peterson turned on the officers and struck them “without provocation.” According to the report, Peterson knocked one officer down and “kicked him in the side.” A second police team arrived and assisted in apprehending the “agitated” Mr. Peterson. Medics took the first officers on the scene to the Wayne County Hospital emergency room. The ER physician’s report noted that both officers had “bruises,” though neither required treatment. The white stranger was not charged.
Peterson was twenty-nine, African American, and an unmarried father of four who worked the line at Cadillac Motor Company. He had not previously come to the attention of the state. He had not been diagnosed or treated for any physical or mental illness. Nor had he been held for crimes or misdemeanors. He had limited interactions with white people and preferred to stay close to home. But on that September day in 1966 his life changed along with his identity. He became a prisoner. And then he became a patient.
I enjoyed the Bell Curve redux fracas. It brought out some race science polite racist types, and allowed us to see those dinosaurs for what they really are: white supremacists and new age phrenologists.

Light does indeed work as a sanitizing agent and anti-septic.

The conversation between Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates about the relationship between I.Q., race, and genetics, once again highlighted how "science" is a political enterprise. It is not "neutral," nor is it purely beholden to positivism. People do science. People conduct research. People are embedded in social relationships. People reproduce certain understandings of truth and power. People have a stake in the game, an investment in a certain outcome.

In all, race and racial ideologies are central to the social work done by science as part of an over-arching regime of truth and knowledge.

To point, there are many reasons why black folks--and people of color more generally--are distrustful of the medical establishment, and view the proposition that science is "neutral," with great suspicion. We know about medical apartheid, using radiation to put holes in people's heads, Mississippi appendectomies, the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, and of course, Tuskegee.

There are many other hidden histories. One of these is how black folks were marginalized by the mental health field and branded by State authorities as "insane," "schizophrenic," or "mentally ill, because they dared to defy white racism.

Jonathan Metzl's, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease, fleshes out this troubling history.

Histories do intersect, here we have echoes of how suffragists were treated by the United States government during their struggle for the vote and a more full citizenship. And of course, the genius work of Michel Foucault in his magisterial History of Madness.

This one is for the douche bags eugenicist race science clowns. Hopefully, they will have more entertaining darts to throw at what should be an open and shut case about how white supremacy works through science to reinforce the status quo.

Either way, Metzl's work is great, and his interview is well worth the listen.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bye Bye Herman Cain: True to Form, His Race Minstrel Show Ended the Only Way That It Could

Goodbye Herman Cain. You will be missed.

Unable to weather repeated charges of sexual harassment and infidelity, the Herman Cain train has finally gone off the tracks. Yet, even by the unique and unconventional standards of the 2012 Republican presidential primary field, Herman Cain was a spectacle—and one with a unique advantage.

I signaled to Herman Cain’s potential in February 2011 in a controversial essay on the online magazine Alternet, where after his break-out speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, I described it as a race minstrel-like performance. There, with everything but blackface cork, Cain channeled his dead black grand pappy with a semi-literate Southern drawl, told white folks that racism is a fiction (and that they are in fact the real victims of bigotry in the Age of Obama), and validated a belief that black people like Herman Cain—those who don’t complain, make trouble, or participate in the Civil Rights Movement—are the way forward.

In total, Herman Cain was a fantasy projection and type of racism shield, an Anti-Obama, who could soothe the anxieties of racially resentful white conservatives. While Cain’s shtick did not rise to the level of comedian David Chappelle’s character Clayton Bigsby, black white supremacist; it was, in many ways, a genius performance. He was Sarah Palin mated with the Boondocks’ Uncle Ruckus.

At the time, I was widely criticized for daring to suggest that Herman Cain was channeling such an offensive stereotype. My analysis proved prescient. In time, other observers either borrowed the meme, or were clearly inspired by it.

Unfortunately, many of those who ran with my suggestion that Herman Cain was performing as a race minstrel for the pleasures of his white conservative public, did not understand the depth of the claim. I was not trying to engage in name calling, or to get a snicker from the public, by calling attention to Herman Cain’s racially infused Tomfoolery. Rather, my deeper point was that Herman Cain’s race minstrel performance was a carefully crafted means towards an end.

Herman Cain was the mouthpiece for the unrepentant id of the New Right. He could advocate for the most extreme aspects of their ideology behind a mask of black incompetence, and “down home” mannerisms, that could potentially protect him from criticism. In addition, conservatives could deploy the race card at will to defend their chosen son: Herman Cain was a black cheerleader who could advance some of their most onerous and extreme policy positions.

The Herman Cain New Age Race Minstrel Show ended in the only way that it could. In keeping with the routine, Cain was brought down by his own arrogance and narcissism. He had grand plans and schemes that he could not fulfill. Because the race minstrel was a white supremacist fantasy that embodied fears about African Americans’ citizenship and freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War, he was a bumbling fool, and an incompetent who was not fit for democracy. And of course, the race minstrel lacked impulse control. His libido and craven pursuit of white women—what was an unattainable prize—would be his ultimate undoing.

From his willful embrace of ignorance on matters of foreign policy, a “9-9-9” tax policy cobbled together by secret advisers (and likely borrowed from a videogame), dreams of electrified fences and moats to kill “illegal” immigrants, rampant and almost cartoon-like levels of Islamophobia and Christian nationalism, “whistling Dixie” demagoguing of blacks who are not Republicans as being “on a plantation,” and of course his purported propensity for sexual harassment and adulterous behavior, Herman Cain played the role of race minstrel for the Tea Party GOP with aplomb and zest.

In all, the Herman Cain candidacy was a thing of ugly beauty. Cain began his presidential primary run with the priceless and under-used phrase “awww...shucky ducky,” seasoned it with a spiritual sung at the National Press Club, and offered a funereal oratory for his campaign that concluded with a quote from the Pokemon cartoon series.

Herman Cain caught lightning in a bottle. He combined the worst aspects of Tyler Perry’s various TV and film exercises in black buffoonery, the denigrating humor of Amos ‘N Andy, and the tropes of 19th century race minstrelsy into one show. While some observers will try to divine some deep and symbolic meaning about race in the Age of Obama from Herman Cain’s brief and shining moment in the 2012 Republican primaries, the lesson here, is in fact, more basic. Give people what they want. In this case, the white populists in the Republican Party wanted a black man who told them that they are not racists, Jim Crow wasn’t that bad, and “our” blacks are better than “those other” blacks who happen to be Democrats.

Herman Cain, master of the racial authenticity game, fashioned himself as “a real black man” as compared to President Barack Obama. He reminded his audience of this “fact” at every opportunity. They lapped it up. Sadly for Herman Cain, just as Michael Steele and other black conservatives learned long ago, the love and affection of the White Right is instrumental, and the devotion to their mascots is temporary, with a limited shelf-life.

As of Saturday, Herman Cain was barely the flavor of the month. Black Walnut has melted; Cornbread is now stale; it is time to go home…or perhaps begin a second career as a traveling bluesman and motivational speaker, for Herman Cain’s unlikely saga as a 2012 Republican presidential primary candidate has yielded more than enough material to last a lifetime.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Let's Play the "Race Science" Mythbusters Game: Which of These Theories is Most Compelling and Why?


[There is a poll up on the sidebar. Do cast your vote, if so inclined.]

I would love to watch Adam and Jamie work through some of these scenarios on Mythbusters. Me thinks the ratings would be through the roof.

The Andrew Sullivan vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates race-science-intelligence debate has found its truce. The fight over the Bell Curve was good sport because an effort to resuscitate the Bell Curve's corpse by Sullivan (and others), brought all of the eugenics, polite white supremacists, race scientists out of the woodwork. As witnessed here and elsewhere, we are no closer to ending the debate over the relationship between such a spurious concept as "race," and an even more nebulous one known as "intelligence."

To boot: all parties involved seem even farther apart on the assumption that I.Q. tests measure human brain capacity, and are at all predictive of outcomes that cannot be captured by class, income, wealth, or SES, more broadly defined. Yet, and in all, the fracas was good fun.

In the interest of transparency, I will confess a love of stereotypes. They are great heuristics. To borrow Walter Lippman's genius insight, stereotypes are neat and convenient ways of making sense of a world through the narrow lens of mediated experiences. I also revel in how researchers try to make empirical claims in support of stereotypes, that either 1) overreach in an effort to support "commonsense" understandings of the world or that 2) use the language of "rigor" and "positivism" to advance piss poor b.s. that hides behind math, overly dense language, and questionable modeling.

In the 21st century, the con of the race scientist hustlers has remained the same; the game ain't changed much over the centuries. The race science hustle remains great fun for those who see the slight of hand at work, and are confident enough to call it out.

"Bell Curve (Redux)" (what I am calling this most recent turn back to eugenics and phrenology-lite), is a chance to work through some other stereotypes about race and science.

And I can never resist a teachable moment.

The race science hustle's dirtiest secret is that different groups of people, many of who are either otherwise marginalized, or suffer under power, are invested in these true lies. For example, there are East and South Asians who embrace the model minority myth, as it does political work in racially triangulating between them and African Americans, and in turn bringing them closer to the status of a buffer race which earns the near-privileges of whiteness. Undoubtedly, there are stereotypes about African Americans, that many members of the tribe are deeply invested in perpetuating and reproducing.

To point: what follows are some commonly held beliefs about the relationship(s) between race and biology that are "supported" by "scientific findings." Which of these claims do you think are most compelling? Notice, I did not say "accurate" or "correct." Some lies have a momentum all of their own; we often have our own personal reasons for believing them.

You can share here: it is a safe space where no judgement will be passed.

1. The Middle Passage was a hellish process that was Darwinian in its killing. The strong survived. The weak died. Those millions of Africans who made it out of the bowels of the slavers were more likely to have a predisposition for retaining salt. In turn, surviving the Middle Passage naturally selected for this population, as they were less likely to die of dehydration in route. As a result, centuries later, New World blacks, and their descendants, are predisposed to high blood pressure.

2. They have a higher ratio of fast twitch muscles than whites. Their belly buttons are higher than whites. They were bred for large legs and powerful buttocks. They gain muscle mass faster than whites. In total, blacks have all of the physical traits necessary to dominate sprinting and other sports (but apparently not swimming, who would have figured?). Apparently, life is anything but fair.

3. Where was human subjects review for these experiments?

According to researchers, red headed Caucasians have the highest pain tolerance of all racial groups. Blacks are somewhere in the middle--but are particularly prone to back pain and injury from heat. Asians are the most vulnerable and responsive to pain. But, doctors have to be careful with prescribing pain killers to Negroes and Hispanics because we all know they may get addicted to them. And why do the blacks complain so much about being in pain? I thought they were made of stronger stuff than that!

Who would have thought that redheads would be natural warriors? And one must wonder, what would Bartolome De Las Casas, defender of the Indians, had done if he had access to such research in the 16th century?

4. My ding a ling. Black men are supposed to have large penises. Many brothers embrace this bestial reduction of their own personhood to the level of sperm delivery system and Sycamore tree: the myth of the black rapist recast as the legend of the penile liberator.

Perhaps, this is the negro version of the Model Minority Myth? Or a type of intervention against power, an inversion of hierarchical relationships, a subaltern infrapolitics of the pipe laying, wombshifter, Long Dong Silver, Sean Michaels, Mandingo, sex as a weapon, radical autonomy?

Doctors have done the research. The BBC offers stories which reinforce a belief that some racial groups are less endowed than others. Size queens of both genders are on the hunt for the biggest penis they can find. Rasputin smiles from the grave. Size matters: those brothers (and others) who are hung, at times describe their gift as one that is a blessing and a curse.

Is there no more pitiable a black man than he who does not measure up? Could it be that here, in some ways, and a few measures, that the soft-bigotry of low expectations may actually be an advantage?

Master Yoda tells us that size matters not. Brothers know that he is lying.

Told You So: Ginger White "Comes Out" as a Black Woman


Told you so. Check out the 4:16 mark in the video.

Never doubt the experts on this race science business. So many dilettantes and frauds in this game who are trying to say that Ginger White is white. They sicken me.

Now we know, as though there was any doubt, Ginger White is a black woman. Even more funny, is that people were calling the TV station with the very same question, and that the reporters felt the need to issue a clarification.

America's national obsession continues onward...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Their Eyes Are Watching You: The UK's Guardian Discovers Sexism and Racism in the OWS Movement


Their eyes are watching from across the pond. Der Spiegel comments on the embarrassing clown car freak show that is the 2012 Tea Party GOP presidential field. Now the Brits are calling out Americans over racism and sexism in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.

What ever happened to American exceptionalism? Dang it. At the nadir of empire, life can be so unfair!

We have discussed the role of race in the OWS movement on a few occasions. This latest piece from The Guardian fits neatly with the pattern established to date: like most "movements" OWS is at first greeted with fascination; then it gains momentum; criticism and push-back follow; the group is then revealed to have the same challenges of negotiating identity, race, and gender as society at large; defensiveness and denial by different stakeholders predictably follows; the show continues to a triumph, collapse, or incorporation by the powers that be.

Without using the language of "intersectionality," Karen McVeigh's essay does a good job of incorporating women's voices as being both gendered and racialized by OWS. Black women's experiences are emphasized in this piece of reporting, without being either ham-fisted, caricature-like, or essentialized. And of course, we have the obligatory picture of a nicely dressed, and if I do say so myself, quite attractive sister, being arrested by the NYPD. OWS is political theater after all, so I won't begrudge The Guardian for its obligatory black and brown person doing the perp walk photograph.

While the whole piece in The Guardian is worth reading, there are two passages that merit particular attention:
At a gathering of Occupy Wall Street activists at a public space in New York on Monday, one young woman spoke of a bruising experience she had suffered the previous day. Angry and upset, she said she had been shouted down while attempting to facilitate a general assembly. There were nods of recognition and murmurs of sympathy from those seated in a circle around her. 
But her battle was not with police officers or security guards. Instead, those who had treated her with disdain were fellow activists, every one of which was white and male.
"It was a really distressing experience having people policing and patronising me" she told the group.
In the aftermath of the eviction from their camp in lower Manhattan, the organisers of Occupy Wall Street are struggling to maintain order at the general assembly, the backbone of its decision-making.
At its heart was an "ongoing crisis for people of colour, women and the marginalised", according to Kanene Holder, a part-time teaching artist from Brooklyn who is active on several working groups. 
"White males are used to speaking and running things," said Holder. "You can't expect them to abdicate the power they have just because they are in this movement." 
One of the defining features of the leaderless Occupy movement – aside from the occupation itself – has been its horizontal decision-making in the form of its Arab spring-inspired general assembly. The simple idea behind it: that everyone has a voice. 
But a quick glance through the paper, television and web coverage spawned since Occupy's first march on Wall Street in September reveals that some voices are louder than others. While images of women as victims have endured, those who speak about the ideas and actions have been predominantly male.
To be a member of the racial in-group, and to have power by virtue of that fact, is so very comforting. As ultimately, what is privilege if not the ability to determine how, and under what circumstances, that a person will be made to feel outside of their comfort zone? Some of us are perpetual foreigners and outsiders in the country that we helped to build, others are default members, never outside of the tribe, their belonging and group membership--and entitlement--without suspicion, never suspect, always reinforced and validated. 
Why would the former ever trade places with the latter, when our moral superiority only goes so far, and it demands so very much sacrifice for gains enjoyed by all, free riders that most are?
[While a truism at this point, I remain surprised that anybody would be taken aback by this dynamic--that white men who happen to be "liberals" and/or "progressives" have internalized an assumption about the universality of their experiences, and natural authority, on most, if not all things. 
This is not an excuse for said behavior; it is simply an acknowledgement of the facts on the ground...one that is a given.]
Apparently, there is also no small amount of white male victimology on display in those moments when white male authority is challenged:
This week marked an important step. On Monday, after a number of women complained of "overly aggressive" men dominating events, OWS has, for the first time, instigated a series of female-led meetings where only women can speak. It was an opportunity for "males to listen and for female marginalised voices to be heard," Holder said. 
The meeting at Wall Street, attended by around 20 women and 15 unusually silent men, was the first such gathering. 
"There is a high level of awareness to include female voices" said Holder, who said the women-led meeting was voted on and agreed to by men. 
At that point, as if to underline the issue, a commotion broke out as a white man burst into the centre of the female-led circle, demanding to speak, and angrily accusing all around him of sexism and racism. 
"I'm allowed to speak," he shouted, as another man tried to usher him out of the circle. "You're allowed to be sexist? To get away with this crap?" 
Holder insisted: "There is a learning curve. It exists because privilege is learned over a lifetime and cannot be erased overnight."
She is much more patient than me. Why must Holder default to caregiver and teacher, engaging in excuse-making for someone else's bad behavior and imperiousness? In all, this is a common dynamic. Black and brown folks are expected to "teach" White people about white privilege, and to lovingly work with them as they process their issues. Where race and gender intersect, these dynamics are doubly enhanced, as the dominant cultural script demands that the needs and demands of women of color are almost always made secondary and peripheral to those of men (of any race).
An honest question from a working class black guy who was taught to know the merits of silence, and of listening, and not always speaking: Is it really that hard for white men, those fully invested in their "whiteness" and "maleness," to shut up and take a knee? 
[Why do those with all of the toys continue to throw temper tantrums when someone else gets a little attention? 
Are the pathologies of race and gender privilege that deep, and subsequently so very difficult to overcome?]
And the final piece, the proverbial money-shot:
Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" about the 2008 election, said: "This idea that, by its nature, left-wing activism is inclusive is a myth. The left is continually plagued by gender problems.
And class, sexuality, race, and other problems too. 

Occupy Wall Street's Women Struggle to Make Their Voices Heard can be read here in its entirety.

Verbal Diarrhea? Toure and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Talk to Each Other for Twenty or So Minutes About Black Authenticity



I will leave this interview between Toure and Dr. Gates open for your comments.

My thought? Sometimes 23 minutes and 33 seconds is 20 minutes far too long.

As an alternative, I would rather listen to Ol' Dirty Bastard reflect about the ladies and their stinky, sexy, feet:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Andrew Sullivan and the Bell Curve Follies: "The Average Mental Age of the Negro Soldier is 10 Years Old"

Internet celebrities and the pundit classes are tussling with one another about the apparent rediscovery of the (rightfully) much maligned book the Bell Curve, and its broader claims about the relationship between race and I.Q.

The story so far: Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast offered some comments on a piece from Alternet regarding the need for pure research, and how one should not avoid uncomfortable scientific findings for reasons of political correctness. Ta-Nehisi Coates chimed in, there he offered a series of great posts on how for some folks these matters are indeed personal, and exist outside of some faux commitment to methodological and scientific positivism. All parties involved have been kind to WARN. Consequently, I decided to do like George Clinton with Parliament, and to just sit back, nod my head, and vibe with the exchange.

A few folks emailed me regarding my opinion on the race-science-I.Q. fracas. I always try to respond when readers have a query--it makes me feel important; and what is blogging if not an exercise in gross narcissism? My thoughts on this matter are as follows.

****

As a member of the hip hop generation who came of age in the 1990s, I thought these matters of race and I.Q. were settled. In the year 2011, I remain surprised that anyone would take such quackery with any measure of seriousness.

Let's take a trip down memory lane for a moment. We should not forget that the Bell Curve was a shocking book at the time of its release, as this explains much of the current upset over Andrew Sullivan's observations about race and I.Q. testing.

In the United States, the period of the early to mid 1990s was highly charged political. Black nationalism was being rediscovered through hip hop, Farrakhan and others were frequently featured on the evening news and the Donahue Show, New York and Los Angeles were sweltering with inter-racial tensions, Buchanan and Duke were flying their racist bonafides as mainstream figures in the Republican Party, and Angry White Men like Rush Limbaugh were blowing up the public discourse.

The Bell Curve hit hard because it was "scientific" (i.e. it had numbers and figures). Moreover, the "finding" that African Americans were biologically defective, supported claims by the Conservatives and New Democrats about social disorganization, the ghetto underclass, black "pathologies," and the undeserving poor. On a macro-level, the Bell Curve was a "scientific" complement to the onward march of neoliberalism, the continuance of the Reagan regime's assault on the State, and Bill Clinton's promise to end welfare as "we know it."

The Bell Curve was also a slap in the face of the black professional classes--as well as politically active and engaged college students--who saw themselves at the vanguard of a new black politics, had helped to bring down Apartheid, and were now rediscovering Brother Malcolm and his claims on racial justice and black respectability.

Ultimately, the race science hustle of the Bell Curve flamed out. The book's methods and data were eviscerated, and its authors shamed by most mainstream social scientists and other researchers. However, the pain caused by that book still remains, as it is part of a long history of pseudoscience which has advanced white supremacy both in the United States and abroad.

As this often comes up in my classes, I shake my head at any claims about the relationship between I.Q. and race. The variables and measures in these types of arguments are specious and poorly constructed. Race itself is a social category with no fixed attributes. Intelligence is contextual. The history of I.Q. tests are so burdened by a foundation of eugenics and phrenology (which included such absurd practices as the weighing of human brains), that the legacy and context of "intelligence testing" should raise an immediate, Mr. Spock-like eyebrow, for all critical thinkers.

There is a slippery slope here. If we are going to entertain some link between I.Q. and race, we might as well keep searching for the Jewish gene for intelligence, or taking posture photos of the entering freshman class at universities such as Yale and Harvard.

As my colleagues who study educational psychology tell me, while extreme outliers on I.Q. tests do in fact "tell us something," the gross aggregate of I.Q. data is a function of education, wealth, access to resources, and cultural/social capital. I.Q. tests measure these variables; they do not capture some universal type of absolute intelligence.

In all, these debates about I.Q. and race are fascinating, in so far as they reveal how so many folks still believe that science is "neutral." To borrow from Foucault, science is part of a regime of truth and knowledge; it serves certain interests, goals, social arrangements, and power. Science as a field, practice, and pursuit, legitimates certain relationships between categories of people, and types of personhood. Science has not been, and likely never will be, a process that is not value-laden.

Or as the legendary W.E.B. DuBois put so well, why should there be any surprise that white scientists would come up with a test that repeated and inevitably showed black people to be intellectually deficient? I call such work "piss poor." DuBois was more kind. He labeled it "utter rot."

As always, history is the greatest teacher on these matters. And these Internets are indeed a treasure trove of information:

1. The U.S. military was deeply involved in I.Q. testing during World War One. Their result was a predictable one: black Americans were ill-suited for combat, cowardly, and not fit to be officers. According to these tests, while white enlistees had an average mental age of 13, blacks were only 10 years old. Reality causes upset here: World War One, the exploits of such units as the Harlem Hellfighters, and non-white colonials in the service of France, muddied up the race-science-I.Q. triad. So how did the white, race science hustlers, get around these findings...

2. Working through the logic of the I.Q. race game is great sport. When black northerners outscored white southerners on these test, the outcome is either conveniently ignored, or an explanation is offered that the I.Q. test is still valid, but the sample is skewed because all of the smart negroes went North while the mass of the negro population is still sub-standard intellectually. In these moments, the white supremacist agenda of the I.Q. race practitioners is made naked and clear: they reasoned backwards from their findings to justify their own in-group superiority. Funny, if the consequences were not so sad.

3. The actual tests from the early to mid 20th century are rich textual examples of how intelligence is local, socially constructed, and a function of other variables--as opposed to something inherent, innate, and fixed. Here is an example of one of the intelligence tests used by the U.S. Army that justified a Jim Crow military (as well as restrictive immigration policies against those Southern and Eastern Europeans judged to be of "undesirable" stock):

Imagine you are in a large examination room. An examiner and demonstrator stand at the front of the room, and orderlies around the room in various places to check that nobody is cheating. Here are the instructions, following which the printed test page is presented to the men being examined.
‘This is test 6 here. Look. A Lot of Pictures … Now watch.’ Examiner points to hand [picture with one finger missing] and says to demonstrator, ‘Fix it’. Demonstrator then draws a finger. Demonstrator does nothing, but looks puzzled. Examiner points to the picture of the hand, and then the place where the finger is missing and says to the demonstrator, ‘Fix it; fix it’. Demonstrator then draws in a figure. Examiner says, ‘That’s right’ … During the course of this test the orderlies walk around the room and locate individuals who are doing nothing, point to their pages and say, ‘Fix them, fix them’, trying to set everyone working. At the end of 3 minutes, the examiner says, ‘Stop! But don’t turn over the page.’
Stephen Jay Gould sums up the results of the test, administered to over one million people:

[T]hree ‘facts’ rose to the top and continued to influence social policy in America long after their source in the tests had been forgotten.
    1. The average mental age of white American adults stood just above the edge of moronity at a shocking and meager thirteen … The … figure became a rallying point for eugenicists who predicted doom and lamented our declining intelligence, caused by the unconstrained breeding of the poor and feeble-minded, the spread of Negro blood through miscegenation, and the swamping of an intelligent native stock by the immigrating dregs of southern and eastern Europe.
    2. European immigrants can be graded by their country of origin. The average man of many nations is a moron. The darker peoples of southern Europe and the Slavs of eastern Europe are less intelligent than the fair peoples of western and northern Europe. Nordic supremacy is not a jingoistic prejudice. The average Russian has a mental age of 11.34; the Italian, 11.01; the Pole, 10.74 …
    3. The Negro lies at the bottom of the scale with an average mental age 10.41. Some camps tried to carry the analysis a bit further, and in obvious racist directions. At Camp Lee, blacks were divided into three groups based upon intensity of color; the lighter groups scored higher …
4. Pushing back is fun. In the 1970s, Professor Robert Williams, a magisterial and accomplished man, turned the tables on the academics and scientists who advocated for the use of I.Q. tests to rank and place children in schools. Featured in a great episode of the sitcom Good Times, the BITCH test (or Black Intelligence Test for Cultural Homogeneity) made clear how these questions of innate ability and smarts are anything but.

Take the BITCH test and see how well you do. Are you a high achiever? Or are you on the lower end of the BITCH distribution?