Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Chauncey DeVega on the BBC; Of Trayvon Martin and Black People's Magical Power to Transform Harmless Objects Into Guns




I just had the good fortune of doing an interview with the BBC about the Trayvon Martin shooting. I was asked to appear on the show World Have Your Say. It is an informal
round-table conversation between various guests about the issues of the day.

The BBC does two segments of about 30 minutes each. The format is a rough and tumble conversation with little moderation. Once I figured this out for the second show, I was a bit stronger and throwing more elbows in order to get my points across. But in all, I think I gave a decent accounting of myself and WARN. You can listen to the interview here; my segment starts at about 26:45.

On both segments, I alluded to the idea of black people's unique ability to convince armed white people that harmless objects when held in our hands are in fact lethal weapons. The research in social psychology on this phenomenon (as well as the "shoot-no shoot test") is damning. American society is so steeped in white supremacy and anti-black sentiment that white cops can convince themselves that black folks are imminent dangers, when in fact we are innocent and minding our business. Talk about a darkly ironic superpower.

On the BBC, I also mentioned the idea of slave patrols and Sundown towns in order to provide some historical context for why Zimmerman thought that he could kill a black person with impunity, and that the cops would aid and abet this act of premeditated murder. Do you have any links or stories on the Trayvon Martin case that have been under the radar and deserve more shine?

In the interest of sharing, here is a particularly rich segment from the documentary Slave Catchers and Slave Resisters:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

George Zimmerman, the Murder of Trayvon Martin, and the Twenty-First Century Slave Patrol



If there is a version of Godwin's law for discussing African American slavery and the Black Holocaust I always try to step delicately around it. Far too often words such as "lynching," "racism," "field negro," "house negro," "plantation," and "slave catcher" are thrown around with casual disregard for the historical weight which they carry.

In following the most recent developments regarding the murder of Trayvon Martin, I keep returning to one thought.

So much of the existential, psychic, and emotional violence afflicted on people of color in this society is prefaced on a basic idea: there are those who "naturally" belong to a political community and others who are perpetual "guests," "outsiders," or "anti-citizens."

The Black Freedom Struggle was many things: primarily, it was about a fight for civic inclusion, equality, and dignity. The Black Freedom Struggle was also centered on a politics of respectability which keenly understood that white supremacy was dependent on a basic premise: the lowest white person is automatically elevated in social stature, respect, and accomplishment over the most accomplished, brilliant, intelligent, and graceful black person.

Of course, these norms have been massaged and "evolved" to fit the "colorblind" post Civil Rights era. They still exist however, and are as ugly, pernicious (and at times) violent as ever.

"Stop and frisk," "driving while black," housing segregation, being harassed and racially profiled while shopping, and the conservative Right wing vitriol which suggests that President Obama is "uppity" or "arrogant," are all examples of how racism is a cognitive map. The white gaze orders bodies and peoples. Racism puts individuals in the "right" place and reacts with hostility to those who dare to step outside of it.

Trayvon Martin is dead because as a black person he did not follow the approved script. Historically, racism and racial violence have done work through the control of public space. Consider how this works literally in the case of Trayvon Martin. He was killed in a gated community, one located in a town that has a history of racial violence and where black people suffered under Sundown town-like conditions.

Knowing one's rightful place also works in terms of social expectations about power--who has it, how it is exercised, and which types of bodies it can be exercised on with impunity. The idea of blackness being ascribed certain traits and standards of comportment, bearing, behavior, and submission relative to "white" authority is naked and transparent in the phone transcript of George Zimmerman's call to the local police.
7:09 p.m. ET
Dispatcher: "Do you need police, fire or medical?"
Zimmerman: "We had some break-ins in our neighborhood ... and there is a real suspicious guy. ... This guy looks like he's up to no good, he's on drugs or something. It's raining, and he's walking around looking about. "
Dispatcher: "Is this guy white, black, Hispanic?"
Zimmerman: "He looks black."
Dispatcher: "Did you see what he's wearing?"
Zimmerman: "A dark hoodie, grey hoodie, jeans or sweatpants or white shoes. He's walking around staring at the houses.
Dispatcher: "Location?"
Zimmerman: "He's near the clubhouse right now. Now he's coming towards me. He has his hands in his waistband. He is a black male. Something's wrong with him. Yep. He's coming to check me out. He's got something in his hands. I don't know what his deal is. Send officers over here."
Dispatcher: "Let me know if he does anything else."
Zimmerman: "These a**holes, they always get away. When you come in go straight to the left ... when you pass the clubhouse ..."
Dispatcher: "Clubhouse? "Now he's just staring at me."
During part of this time, Martin is on the phone with a 16-year-old girl. Below is an account of the phone call as relayed to In Session's Sunny Hostin by a lawyer for the Martin family:
Martin told the girl someone was following him, and she advised him to run. Martin said he isn't going to run but will walk quickly. Zimmerman caught up with him, and Martin asked Zimmerman why he was following him. Zimmerman then asked Martin his name and why he was there. The girl on the phone says she heard Zimmerman push Martin, and then the call drops. She tried to call Martin back, but he didn't respond.
What does it mean to be deemed inexorably and permanently "suspicious?" What does it mean to be forever "suspect?" What does it mean to be marked as a "threat" from "the womb to the tomb?" It means to be "black." This is the new/old Curse of Ham as seen in the social and racial imagination of people like George Zimmerman and his enablers in the local police department.

History echoes. Ultimately, George Zimmerman reminds me of those white men riding on the slave patrols, eager, petty tyrants who are looking for any excuse to put their boots on the throat of a black person in order to raise themselves up a bit higher. They live to control public space, and how different bodies exercise their freedoms and liberties in it.

Maybe I just broke a rule about evoking slavery in discussions of twenty-first century American social and political life. But sometimes a little line-stepping is healthy, necessary, cathartic, and appropriate.

When White Supremacists Deconstruct The Walking Dead TV Show...

The only thing that sucked about The Walking Dead this season was the Asian nerd Glenn hooking up with Hershel’s daughter Maggie. That’s reportedly in the comic book though. Otherwise, it was interesting to watch the liberal world collapse and give way to the zero sum world of the zombie apocalypse. 
I think the liberal world will collapse one day, not from a zombie apocalypse, but because it is financially unsustainable due to global aging and changing racial demographics. There will be people like Dale who won’t survive The Day The EBT Card Stops Working. Their humanist principles will end up getting them killed. 
It is people like Merle and Daryl Dixon who will thrive in the zero sum world of the future. There will have to be leaders like Rick Grimes who are capable of making the tough decisions. It won’t be a liberal democracy. I think that is why The Walking Dead has proven to be so popular...We’re tired of the Dales of America. Men are tired of this world. Women are tired of it too.The Walking Dead captures the zeitgeist perfectly.
When I was in high school, a Visiting Fellow at Yale University who was a graphic artist and author came to talk to my English class. We asked him questions such as, "how do you get a job that sounds so cool and fun?" "What do you read? What is a typical day like?"

Our speaker offered answers that I have long since forgotten. But, he did say one thing that I still remember. The Fellow subscribed to various KKK newsletters and white supremacist publications. I was shocked. Why would a black man be reading this stuff? He answered that you have to know what your enemies are up to and how they see the world. You need to understand their twisted minds so that you can anticipate their next move. In all, people of color and other marginalized groups must understand the political imaginations of those who hate us.  To a 12 year old's ears and psyche, that was shocking advice. I value its wisdom to this day.

The season finale of The Walking Dead gave fans of the TV show (and comic) much of what they had been yearning for. There were zombies galore. The Governor is coming. The prison in on the horizon. And Michonne, iconic character that she is, has finally made her first appearance, katana in hand, with two zombies chained and in tow. Of course, T-Dog was still "T-Dog": a cowardly chauffeur for white women who wants to abandon the group, and that never gets to do anything of substance.

For most viewers, there was much to be pleased with in the The Walking Dead's second season finale. However, White Nationalists are decidedly mixed in their appraisal of the show.

The act of interpretation is everything for those of us who are critical students of popular culture. These types of analyses are inherently creative and inventive. The best involve theory building, a deep reading of a text, and a survey of genre (as well as the related literature). The worst types of cultural studies and semiotic work do none of these things: they are no more than intellectual scatology, "informed" opinions that abandon rigor in favor of high-minded intellectual navel gazing and mental masturbation.

Students often ask me, "if this is all an 'interpretation,' how do you separate the 'good' readings from the 'bad' ones? Why is your 'interpretation' more accurate or valid than ours?" My flippant answer is that I have been doing this longer, have read much more than you, and thought more deeply about these topics. My fair and more pedagogically sound answer is that you learn to separate the good from the bad through a survey of examples.

One of the strengths of interpretive/semiotic/textual analysis/discursive approaches to qualitative research in the social sciences and humanities is the breadth of possibility. This is a strength and a weakness. The former is embodied by folks like Hall, Butler, Lacan, Bakhtin, Laclau, Dyer, Lipsitz, Frith, Fiske, hooks, Foucault and others. The latter is exemplified by the fan boy rantings on websites and much of what counts as "cultural criticism" in the popular media.

Moreover, these epic failures in interpretation can also be productive teachable moments. When populist approaches run amok, and meaning is imposed on a text--as opposed to excised, pulled from, or intervened against--we can still learn a great deal about politics, and the ways that various publics and audiences understand popular culture as speaking both "through" and "to" them.

In our discussions of how race does a particular type of "work" in The Walking Dead TV series, many fans, and especially those of color, were troubled by the white-washing of the cast. Michonne had not yet made an appearance. T-Dog is a neutered, subservient, and quite literally muted, black male. Glenn is a model minority. As I wrote here, The Walking Dead television show is very much a drama which focuses on a crisis in white masculine authority. Consequently, black and brown folks are peripheral to its universe.

The White Nationalist and White Supremacist crowd have a different gaze. Our concerns about a lack of diversity and inclusion are their reasons for loving the show. We are happy to see an archetypical badass like Michonne finally introduced; they see this as unfortunate. The White Nationalists see "Jews" and "Zionists" everywhere in The Walking Dead; I am still struggling to make this discovery.

In much the same way that White racists are obsessed with the classic movie Planet of the Apes (what they suggest is a cautionary tale about white oppression), The Walking Dead television show has provided much fodder for their conspiranoid imaginations. It would appear that sometimes oppositional readings of a cultural text can go too far. What follows are some examples of the bastard stepchildren of the postmodern turn as seen on the website Occidental Dissent:


John says:
The civil rights of the zombies are being trampled on. One of them was an aspiring pilot. He wuz gunna lern him how t’ fly, Lordie.

“You should download the comic series. Much better than a Wiki. The Black stud (a staple of the Jewish imagination) was Mr. Articulate, Competent, Brave, Honorable, Eligible Bachelor; he’s just been left out and is nothing at all like T-Dog. Yes, Sophia’s mom is the one who threw herself at the him within five minutes of meeting him (really, it was a very Jewy moment).”

Ewww! I like Carol. One of you fellows, up the thread, wrote something along the lines of Carol being hot, even though her short greying hair creates a “You don’t know how old I am” vibe. The actress that plays Carol has lovely features, and a very youthful face, and she’s petite and cute. She’s all over Darryl – and the glorious, stunning, smoldering, functional, uber-fit, dead-on-target never misses, shoot your arrows at ME baby Natural Man Darryl, he of the sexy eyes, sexy, sexy irresistable eyes (I need to stop, here…) vs the fat boring useless Negro? “

I’m somewhat fascinated by the descriptions Svigor is providing, of the events and characterizations in the orignal comic book. Rather – I am fascinated by the revisions the changes the producers are making. Something’s afoot.
They change a “Handsome, Idealized” Negro male – which would have been so easy to re-create, into a boring, non-essential dullard Negro. Really -the Show Negro is Scarlet O’Hara’s Big re-born.
That’s interesting. He’s NOT getting any White meat ,thus far, either.
They CREATE 2 “redneck” male characters – one of whom sports SS lightening bolts, on his hog, and who is SO wildly popular (the LAST caller on the Talking Dead show last night was a youngish female, pleading for info on the Return of Merle) that they are bringing him back from the presumed Dead, even though he called a Nigger “Nigger” on air.
Hhhmmm………..
Denise says:
....FYI – Glenn’s a Korean cause the actor wot plays Glenn is a Korean. I do like the character. He’s the eager little Good Guy. I don’t hate him cause he’s a YellowMan. He’s OK. I think the glenn Maggie pairing is a screech, because they are so physically incongruous. Jack Ryan sez the actress wot plays Maggie is a Hebess – so I don’t care if it’s Hebe Yellow miscegenation.
I’m certain my TV husband Merle will back me up, on this one.
Svigor says:
They didn’t “change” the character. If anything, they replaced him, with a different character. T-Dog (played by IronE Singleton – empasis in original, can’t make this stuff up) is Theodore Douglas. The Black Stud in the comic is named Tyreese. He’s your typical boring, two-dimensional Black Hero (former NFL player, stud, and all-around great guy whose only “flaw” is not knowing how great he is). T-Dog is boring too, but as in plain-old boring, not OMG we’re afraid to do anything other than lionize Blacks boring.
If anything, Shane incorporated a lot of the elements of Tyreese’s character, what with being a rival for leadership, the guy Rick looked to first, etc. They got into a knock-down drag out fight, shortly before TSHTF and Tyreese bought the farm.
It’s not hard to understand. TV is quite conservative. Just as producers don’t want to offend SWPL sensibilities by ever (ever, ever) portraying Blacks negatively, or realistically, they don’t want to chase away White eyeballs with the monumentally offensive (to everyone but Jews and Black men) Blacks on Blondes thing. White people don’t admit it’s offensive to them, but it is, to all but a small minority.
Hell, even Jews know it’s offensive – ever seen a cute brunette coed riding a buck with a star of David around her neck? Didn’t think so.
And T-Dog isn’t going to get any White meat, either. If they wanted to throw him White meat, they would’ve chosen a different actor. One look at “IronE” and it’s obvious he’s not there for any romantic parts. One shot of him kissing anyone, much less a White woman, and ratings would drop like a stone...Doesn’t really count if she’s not sporting a star of David, or playing a Jewess. Especially not if she doesn’t look Jewish – and she doesn’t. Jews get a kick out of playing White roles and dragging them through the mud. But I agree, it isn’t offensive because the mass media hasn’t been waging a psyops campaign to put negroes in bed with White women for the last 50 years, and Yellow men are not credible threats to White men in the Testosterone/masculinity department; TV can make Black men seem intelligent by feeding them lines – they can’t make Yellow men seem more masculine.
Mosin Nagant says:
I predict it will decline as a fully multicultural soap opera.
RobRoySimmons says:
I think you theorizers should just drop a note to the producers asking them to include your version of what a real white man is. Or you could ask them if they are going to go PC with some race mixing BS.
Like Denise said in another thread these DWLs at least find our freedom exciting. How could they not, since its official doctrine that negroes are the equal of whites without a single scintilla of proof, but you better believe or else. Think of the hell that must be a DWLs soul.
Freedom Cobra says:
Does anyone know what make of motorcycle Daryl rides? It’s a mean machine.
Anywho, couple of random thoughts. “Mr.Yo” is one of the few cable drama fights where the White beats the black. As the show gets better the cast gets Whiter. Morales and his tribe take off. Gangsta’s with hearts of gold rot in the city with the old. Weren’t these the “people” we needed to import to pay for Grandma? An old negress immolates at CDC.
Shane was nice Union man. Shane would never let Rick and his family secede from him. Rick did anyway. A child of the South slew the Union’s ghost (er, zombie).

jack says:
Not to rain spoilers but I think a super negro is coming in the third season. Michonne is supposedly some Angry Sistah with a sword.

Svigor says:
SUPER POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT (from the comics): Michonne is a boring cardboard cutout character. She’s just your typical two-fer: invincible negress, and invincible butt-kicking-babe for the T-deficient nerd masses. She does very little of interest: (1) sucks off the negro who was shacked up with the blonde so the blonde could catch them in the act and dump the negro and then attempt suicide because once you’ve gone Black there is no substitute (2) throws herself at the negro, just as the blonde shiksa did, thus proving no woman can resist a negro (3) talks to herself, which leads to a bit of bonding with Ranger Rick, who carries a phone through which he talks to his dead wife (Lori gets eaten) (4) finally kills the governer, who raped and tortured her, after bungling the attempt the first go round. I can’t think of anything else interesting about her. I do know Kirkman keeps her around for a loooooong time.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Of Matters Very Much Related: Trayvon Martin, "Multiracial" Identity, and the Perils of Being Black, Breathing, and Nearby

Scholars have long maintained that race is merely a social construct, not something fixed into our nature, yet this insight hasn’t made it any less of a factor in our lives. If we no longer participate in a society in which the presence of black blood renders a person black, then racial self-identification becomes a matter of individual will.

And where the will is involved, the question of ethics arises. At a moment when prominent, upwardly mobile African-Americans are experimenting with terms like “post-black,” and outwardly mobile ones peel off at the margins and disappear into the multiracial ether, what happens to that core of black people who cannot or do not want to do either?
Trayvon Martin was killed for the crime of being black, young, and "suspicious." Like many other young black boys and grown men throughout United States history, he was shot dead for the crime of possessing an innocuous object (and likely daring to be insufficiently compliant to someone who imagined that they had the State's permission to kill people of color without consequence or condemnation).

The facts are still playing themselves out. From all appearances, the police have failed to investigate the incident properly. Trayvon Martin's family has been denied the reasonable care, respect, and response due to them by the local authorities. Observers and activists have gravitated towards racism as the prime motive for the shooting and murder of a young black boy by a grown man and self-styled mall cop, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry wannabe vigilante.

Common sense renders a clear judgement here: if a black man shot and killed a white kid for holding a bag of Skittles he would already be under the jail; in this instance, the police are operating from a position where a young African American is presumed "guilty," and his murderer is assumed innocent.

Yes, race matters in the killing of Trayvon Martin. However, and I will explore this in a later post, it is significant in a manner that is much more pernicious than the simple calculus of whether to shoot a young black boy for some imagined grievance or offense--as opposed to being asked a question, or perhaps sternly talked to. The latter is also problematic: it assumes that black people's citizenship and humanity are forever questionable, and subject to evaluation, by any person who happens to not be African American.

Cornel West famously suggested that all black children are "niggerized" at some point in their upbringing. Moreover, black children learn to live in a state of existential dread because they are always subject to wanton and unjust violence. Trayvon Martin's murder reminds me of a parallel and complementary observation. Black people live a paradox. We are simultaneously both children and adults in the white racial imagination regardless of our age.

Black people are treated as adults even when they are minors. In the courts, black young people are disproportionately subjected to punishments which are typically meted out to adults. As research has repeatedly demonstrated, to be young and black is to be an adult for purposes of arrest, the gas chamber, or imprisonment.

Historically, black people have been treated by whites as though they are children in regards to political matters. Thus, the contemporary rhetoric from conservatives that African Americans are childlike, zombies, on a plantation, or somehow hoodwinked or tricked into supporting the Democratic Party. Despite all of the available evidence, grown folks who were either heirs to, or participants in, a Black Freedom Struggle that salvaged and saved American democracy from its own weaknesses, lies, and hypocrisies, are depicted as naive infants, unable to be full and equal political actors.

The sociological imagination draws many connections. To point, Trayvon Martin's murder is also a surprising (and for many, counter-intuitive) complement to The New York Times' excellent series of essays on race, interracial marriage, and identity.

As someone who has loved across the colorline, and also believes that there are many ways to create a family, I have always held fast to a simple rule.

In this society, in this moment, and given what we know about how race impacts life chances, if a white person is going to have a child with a person of color (especially one who is African American or "black"), a parent is committing malpractice if they do not give their progeny the spiritual, emotional, philosophical, and personal armor to deal with the realities of white supremacy.

By implication, young black and brown children must be made to understand that they are not "special," "biracial," or part of a racial buffer group that is going to be given "special" privileges because one of their parents is white. These "multiracial" children are some of the most vulnerable and tragic when they are finally forced to confront the particular challenges which come with being a young black boy or girl in American society. In post civil rights America, this notion is politically incorrect. Nonetheless, it remains true.

Here, Thomas Chatterton Williams offers a great comment on blackness and the dilemma of "post-black" identity:
Still, as I envision rearing my own kids with my blond-haired, blue-eyed wife, I’m afraid that when my future children — who may very well look white — contemplate themselves in the mirror, this same society, for the first time in its history, will encourage them not to recognize their grandfather’s face. For this fear and many others, science and sociology are powerless to console me — nor can they delineate a clear line in the sand beyond which identifying as black becomes absurd.
Question: what happens for those young people who do not see themselves as "black" or "brown," yet run into the deadly fists of white racism? Do they have the skill sets necessary to survive such encounters whole of life and limb?

Because we are both part of a diaspora, the wisdom of our Jewish brothers and sisters is also instructive here. Continuing from The New York Times piece:
For Judt, it was his debt to the past alone that established his identity.Or as Ralph Ellison explained — and I hope my children will read him carefully because they will have to make up their own minds: “Being a Negro American involves a willed (who wills to be a Negro? I do!) affirmation of self as against all outside pressures.” And even “those white Negroes,” as he called them, “are Negroes too — if they wish to be.”And so I will teach my children that they, too, are black — regardless of what anyone else may say — so long as they remember and wish to be.
Trayvon Martin was likely taught the life lessons necessary to survive an encounter with the police (or their posse cousins) by his parents and other elders. Because black life is cheap, a young person of color can do everything "right" and still end up dead. What does this mean for blackness, when a century or more after the end of slavery, and decades after the end of lynch law, that your guilt is still assumed?

Whiteness and White privilege involve the luxury of being able to decide how, in what ways, and under what conditions, you will be allow yourself to be uncomfortable. White privilege also involves the luxury of not having to have a conversation with your kids about how to avoid being murdered by the cops because of your skin color. In many matters of life and death, white supremacy remains, in many ways, unchallenged. Black and brown folks, if they are responsible parents, cannot avoid such conversations with their children. The foot-dragging by the police in regards to the murder of Trayvon Martin reveals this ugly truth.

Dr. King is gone. A black man is President. Yet, life remains unfair...does it not?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

(Race)ing Popular Culture: Is "The Walking Dead" TV Show Racist?



The season finale of The Walking Dead airs on AMC this evening. There have been some great discussions online about how race and identity are operative in the series. The dominant question about the show is a simple one: is The Walking Dead TV series "racist?"

As someone who thinks a great deal about questions of race and popular culture in my professional life, and also because I am a ghetto nerd who loves The Walking Dead graphic novel, I have followed this conversation with great interest. The zombie genre is one of the most compelling and powerful ways through which to meditate on the relationship(s) between politics and identity in society. If politics is about popular culture, and if popular culture is indeed "political," there are few narrative devices more potent and ideologically rich than the big "what if?" that is life after the rising of the dead.

George Romero taught us that zombies are stand-ins and mirrors for human society. In keeping with this premise, The Walking Dead comic and televsion show highlights how the zombies are a manageable threat--the real "walking dead" are the living; the big question then becomes, how does humanity choose to adapt (or not) to living in a new world, one that is a veritable state of nature.

I am not particularly interested in if The Walking Dead TV series is "racist." Such a question is flat and uninteresting to me. Instead, I would offer the following intervention: how do we begin to think about The Walking Dead and its relationship to race and the reproduction of racial ideologies? How do we go about asking these types of questions? What is the process? This framing pushes us beyond simple "yes" or "no" answers, and by doing so, leads us to a terrain which is much more productive and rich.

To that end, let's work through some questions.

Friday, March 16, 2012

More Culture War Nostalgia: Khalid Muhammad Says "They Didn't Die Hard Enough!"



Kill them all!

Khalid Muhammad possessed amazing oratory skills, skills that still resonate across the years. Performance is not power. In following up on our conversation about Farrakhan and the Culture Wars, I had to return to Khalid Muhammad's legendary promo where he suggested "killing them all!" Here, "all," is white people.

It is easy to dispense with, ignore, and mock 1980s Black Nationalists such as Khalid Muhammad. For me, the more interesting question remains, what is the social context which made such voices resonate, what are the demographics of race and power that would compel some black and brown folks to support such rhetoric?

At the time, Khalid had "juice." With the wisdom gained by time, he is revealed as a clown. What does this mean? Were young folks like me who were captivated by him just desperate and weak? Caught up in the performance? Or was their something to his particular vein of Black Nationalist agitprop that was compelling across the generational divide?

As I have come to understand years later, bluster and words and rage and witty word play are not power. For that reason, I laugh at white conservatives' fears of human props such as the New Black Panther Party. The latter and their kin bark and snarl. They do not kill anyone. They do not have real power. As a group, and trust, many white Americans who are ignorant of their own history do not understand this most basic of facts, it is they who comprise the largest group of terrorists in United States history.

For example, "riot" is a word that was originally and almost exclusively used to describe anti-black violence by white people. The KKK is the largest terrorist organization the United States has ever known, with approximately 10,000 black people were killed by White Americans under the regime of lynch law.

Ultimately, a black man or woman pleading for the murder of white people is an "entertaining" curiousity; in reality, the history of black humanity in the United States has been one of peace and acceptance. Black people have never killed white people in mass...even when such retaliation and struggle could have been easily justified. African Americans have only wanted to be accepted as full and equal citizens. This was done through protest, pressure, resistance, the politics of respectability, service, and civic virtue as a means of advancing a claim on American expectionalism (and ownership of that creed).

In all, I still wonder why any white American would ever be afraid of jesters such as Khalid Muhammad or the New Black Panther Party. Is power that insular, narrow and precarious?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Featured Reader Comment: Just What Do We Know About Young People's Attitudes About Race and Politics?




I do think middle school, high school, college kids think about race (to the extent they think about it at all) differently than someone my age, your age, or generations before did, but if you engage them I just can’t believe that they’d say race doesn’t matter. I also can’t buy that kids are tapped into any idea of the “market” and its “invisible hand.” I might be willing to concede that market speak is so pervasive that maybe they’re taking it in from the ether, but I would expect that more from young white kids with “conservative” parents (yes I’m stereotyping a bit) than young POC.
In an earlier post on nostalgia, the Culture Wars, and Minister Farrakhan, "ellemarie" offered a great comment that deserved to be bumped up for more discussion. There is a temptation to generalize from anecdotes, personal experience, and our own memories, about how other people feel regarding the state of race and politics during the Age of Obama. As ellemarie reminds us, my/your/our local opinions about young people's political attitudes, in general, and those of young people of color, specifically, vary greatly depending depending on our own social locations.

I am an empiricist: through rigorous, disciplined, methodologically sound, and nuanced means, I believe that there are answers to be found for most sociological questions (if we choose to ask the right ones). There is a practical aspect to this as well. We can actually go out and talk to people about what they think about politics. Unfortunately, researchers often do not take the attitudes of young folks on these matters seriously.

There is also a resource and social capital issue here as well--those who are older are in the position to impose their attitudes and beliefs onto young people. However problematically, "young" people are not viewed as "real" political actors; as the logic goes, their political attitudes are unsettled, so why pay attention to them?

There are interventions (and answers) to consider on these matters. As seen in the above video, Professor Cathy Cohen (founder of the Black Youth Project) has done some great research on young people's political attitudes. Her newest book, Democracy (Remixed): Black Youth and the Future of American Politics, is full of surprises about how race, class, and other identities are reflected in the opinions held by high school aged students.

The Applied Research Center also completed a report called, "Don't Call them 'Post-Racial'" on young people's political attitudes in the post racial, post civil rights, colorblind era. Their nationwide focus groups compiled a wealth of information. Most notably, young people of color know that race remains an obstacle to their life chances. However, white respondents tend to talk in vague generalities about racism and do not see it as a huge problem. This is not at all surprising. Decades of research have repeatedly found that white respondents of all ages tend to minimize the day to day realities of how racism impacts people of color.

White folks also tend to raise the bar very high for what constitutes racism, and are relatively detached from the lives and experiences of brown and black Americans. Both groups may "get" to varying degrees that racism exists. Yet, the litmus test(s) for if "racism" exists are extremely personal. Ultimately, racism is about mean people and hurt feelings, as opposed to trans-historical forces that are operative in the present.

Interestingly, young people across the colorline share an inability to think institutionally and structurally about power and social inequality in American society.

Knowledge gained through systematic and rigorous research is valuable and necessary. Personal stories still matter. Anecdotes can be a first step in theory building as we try to reconcile what the literature suggests about a thing, and what our instincts signal as real and true to us. The "I" can be a beginning. It should not be an end for good social science. In total, stories still matter.

For example, I have encountered students who are in the midst of a crisis in democratic vision: overwhelmed and exhausted, they simply do not care about politics. How do we take this anecdote and generalize a claim about the public at large? Can we?

I have also met students who proudly proclaim that the government should serve the rich, the elite, and "the 1%." When I challenge them on the basic idea that "one person, one vote" should be foundational to a healthy democracy the majority of students are silent. It appears that they cannot think outside of the framing and conceptual framework offered by neoliberalism, with its market logic of "efficiency" and "profit maximization" at all costs--the human consequences be damned.

Citizens are merely consumers. Tragically, it would seem that many young people cannot think outside of that box.

Do share an anecdote. Perhaps, we can build a theory around it? Are the young people--those in their high school and college years--in your life more (or less) politically engaged than you remember yourself being at that age?

There is an old theory that divergences and intensity in public opinion reflect the political issues of a given moment. To my eyes, the stakes are pretty high as we try to find our way during the time of the Great Recession and a declining American Empire. Occupy Wall Street is a response to this feeling. Ironically, the language of Red State/Blue State, and a narrative of polarized politics is so commonplace, I do wonder if young people who are coming of age in this moment are just numb to it all.

Share a story if you feel so inclined. Should we be hopeful or terrified about the political attitudes of young people regarding race (and other matters) in the Age of Obama?