Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Ethnic" Myths and Agitprop Foolishness: Confronting the Historical Fiction that is the Willie Lynch Letter

This speech was said to have been delivered by Willie Lynch on the bank of the James River in the colony of Virginia in 1712. Lynch was a British slave owner in the West Indies. He was invited to the colony of Virginia in 1712 to teach his methods to slave owners there. 
[beginning of the Willie Lynch Letter] 
Greetings, 
Gentlemen. I greet you here on the bank of the James River in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and twelve. First, I shall thank you, the gentlemen of the Colony of Virginia, for bringing me here. I am here to help you solve some of your problems with slaves. 
Your invitation reached me on my modest plantation in the West Indies, where I have experimented with some of the newest, and still the oldest, methods for control of slaves. 
Ancient Rome would envy us if my program is implemented. As our boat sailed south on the James River, named for our illustrious King, whose version of the Bible we cherish, I saw enough to know that your problem is not unique.  
While Rome used cords of wood as crosses for standing human bodies along its highways in great numbers, you are here using the tree and the rope on occasions. I caught the whiff of a dead slave hanging from a tree, a couple miles back.  
You are not only losing valuable stock by hangings, you are having uprisings, slaves are running away, your crops are sometimes left in the fields too long for maximum profit, you suffer occasional fires, your animals are killed. Gentlemen, you know what your problems are; I do not need to elaborate. I am not here to enumerate your problems, I am here to introduce you to a method of solving them.
"Ethnic" myths cut both ways across the color line.

Behind Dr. King, Brother Malcolm X, and Barack Obama, Willie Lynch is probably one of the most discussed and recognizable figures among the African American public. While the first two are lions of the Black Freedom Struggle, and Obama is President of the United States, good ol' Mr. Lynch was a white slave owner who insidiously mapped out a master plan that continues to divide, conquer, and oppress black America into the 21st century.

His reach is long. In fact, I cannot go one year without a black student bringing up Willie Lynch. I rarely go one month without hearing his name mentioned at the barbershop or on the bus by someone earnestly trying to make sense of the day-to-day challenges facing black Americans.

However, there is a problem here: Willie Lynch and his infamous speech are fictions, smart examples of political propaganda that came into being during the latter part of the 20th century. 

As I alluded to regarding the myth of "No Irish Need Apply," for those black folks seeking an explanation for their own particular historical and political predicament does it matter if the Willie Lynch Letter is a fraud?

I used to believe that the Willie Lynch Letter was true. While I was going through my "conscious black man" phase in college, an upperclassmen friend sat down and dropped the secret wisdom contained in the Willie Lynch Letter on all of the younger brothers who were hanging out in his campus apartment playing Spades. It was really illuminating. All of the structural, political, economic, and social ills facing black people in America could be traced to this one devious white man who outlined a plan centuries ago to make black people disorganized, servile, and weak. Profound. This was the racial version of Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology cult. 

Thankfully, I had some great professors who did not accept nonsense thinking and easy solutions. One of these saints was an older Afro-Caribbean scholar who was known for being a tyrant--he threw whole groups of students out of class for wasting his precious time; would humiliate fools with ease; and if you came to him seeking knowledge he would do his best to train you up like Pa Mei did The Bride in Kill Bill.


I shared the Willie Lynch Letter with him during our independent study course Slavery in the New World. He looked at the document curiously and then suddenly became disturbed. I asked him what he thought. His reaction was akin to that of a robot being confronted with bad data. He stood up and walked out. We would get to talk next week when he had an answer.

Seven days later my professor calmly and seriously told me that this document is utter garbage. I asked "how?" and "why?" He explained that part of the joy of being a historian and a social scientist is that you can actually use your brain to answer questions. 

He proceeded to take out a pile of documents and a map. He told me to read the letter aloud. I did. Thus the obvious problem, the language is not written in 18th century English. My teacher then produced a map. He had underlined the passage in the Willie Lynch Letter that gave a hint as to geography and the location of the author's plantation. Again, the narrative did not match the facts. As an example of archival research, he produced records of the plantation owners in that area, a census, and other materials in order to determine if Willie Lynch actually existed as a person in the West Indies. None could be produced. Finally, how could Willie Lynch who supposedly gave this speech in 1712, know about Frederick Douglas, a figure in the 19th century? Was Willie Lynch a time traveler?

In all, my mentor explained that people want simple answers. As such, they seek out conspiracy theories in order to make sense of their lives. It is easier to believe in white trickster slave owners who have genius intellects than to accept a basic principle: people are rotten, they are barbaric, and will exploit each other whenever they get a chance.

Chattel slavery was just a global example of white European barbarism. Willie Lynch was not necessary. White slave owners did not need him to refine the industrial scale production of the plantation because they had agricultural journals and conferences where all aspects of the chattel system could be discussed.

Nevertheless, the Willie Lynch Letter remains both powerful and influential because it resonates with the target audience. What do we do with such true lies? Does the seductive power of the Willie Lynch Letter rest in its ability to describe the social challenges facing many in Black America, and to provide some clarity and meaning for those who feel overwhelmed and lost?

If so, should our empirical standards interfere with the explanatory power and psychic validation offered by a cultural myth? 

Just as many white folks would feel a personal affront at any critical engagement with the hard times white ethnic myth, there are many African Americans who would become personally upset and hurt if the Willie Lynch Letter was exposed for the "true lie" it is.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The "Hard Times" Mythologies of White Ethnics: Exploring the Fiction that was "No Irish Need Apply"



Memories don't live like people do.

Communal memories are transmitted through stories. These stories in turn take on a veneer of reality; they are our personal ways of making sense of our identities as a member of a family, kinship group, community, or neighborhood. Because some identities are more socially salient than others--race for example--we hold onto these stories tightly. They are often not held up to critical rigor or inquiry. At times, we willfully lie to ourselves. Sometimes the bigger truth being appealed to by a narrative, one that is couched in the language of historical memory, is used to explain away its factual inaccuracies.

In our conversation about Michelle Obama's ancestor Melvinia, and the white washing of rape and racial violence in Rachel Swarns' essay in the NY Times, I alluded to the hard times mythologies that are common to white ethnic immigrants in the United States. My intention was not to suggest that "white" immigrants--many of whom had not yet "earned" their whiteness--did not experience difficulties upon arrival in this country. Rather, my observation was that the Horatio Alger, "pulled up ourselves by the bootstraps" without any government assistance story is both 1) ahistorical and 2) is part of a larger narrative, one that is mostly a great fiction, and which does the work of conservative racial politics in the post Civil Right era.

[In many ways, the "assimilable" striving European white ethnic is the forefather and foremother of the model minority myth that is currently assigned to Americans of East and South Asian decent. In all, if "we" worked hard and succeeded despite all of the obstacles in front of us, why can't "the blacks" just do the same?]

The white ethnic hard times myth is also a wonderful example of white privilege, as well as the myopia of the white racial frame, because while the Ellis Island set's various difficulties can be recited by rout, there is never any mention of the obvious: these immigrants could be grandfathered into whiteness. This is a unique and singular advantage in American society.

One of the most common white ethnic myths is that signs and job advertisements which read "No Irish, Need Apply" were common in 19th and early 20th century America. This trope signals to the idea of white Irish oppression in America, that they somehow were excluded from the labor market and polity, and then through hard work and diligence made it into the middle class despite all of the hatred and obstacles they faced as a people. While the memory may be true, crystal clear, for those who swear these signs and listings were commonplace, the historical record would suggest otherwise.

Richard Jensen has a great article on this very issue. His work is an object lesson in rigorous, empirically grounded, social history. Jensen concluded that for all intents and purposes these signs and postings were either extremely rare or simply did not exist in the United States.
The Irish American community harbors a deeply held belief that it was the victim of systematic job discrimination in America, and that the discrimination was done publicly in highly humiliating fashion through signs that announced "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply." This "NINA" slogan could have been a metaphor for their troubles—akin to tales that America was a "golden mountain" or had "streets paved with gold." But the Irish insist that the signs really existed and prove the existence of widespread discrimination and prejudice.

The fact that Irish vividly "remember" NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle. There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists. No other ethnic group complained about being singled out by comparable signs. Only Irish Catholics have reported seeing the sign in America—no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic has reported seeing one. This is especially strange since signs were primarily directed toward these others: the signs said that employment was available here and invited Yankees, French-Canadians, Italians and any other non-Irish to come inside and apply.

The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it. The newspapers and magazines are silent. The courts are silent. There is no record of an angry youth tossing a brick through the window that held such a sign.
In addition, there is scant evidence for discrimination against the Irish in the labor market of the 19th century. 

If anything, the opposite was true:
Regardless of their growing status, something intensely real was stimulating the Irish Catholics and only them. The NINA myth fostered among the Irish a misperception or gross exaggeration that other Americans were prejudiced against them, and were deliberately holding back their economic progress. Hence the "chip on the shoulder" mentality that many observers and historians have noted. As for the question of anti-Irish prejudice: it existed but it was basically anti-Catholic or anti-anti-republican. There have been no documented instances of job discrimination against Irish men.
Was there any systematic job discrimination against the Catholic Irish in the US: possibly, but direct evidence is very hard to come by. On the other hand Protestant businessmen vigorously raised money for mills, factories and construction projects they knew would mostly employ Irishmen, while the great majority of middle class Protestant households in the major cities employed Irish maids.

We know from the experience of African Americans and Chinese that the most powerful form of job discrimination came from workers who vowed to boycott or shut down any employer who hired the excluded class. Employers who were personally willing to hire Chinese or blacks were forced to submit to the threats.

There were no reports of mobs attacking Irish employment, even during sporadic episodes of attacks on Catholic church facilities in 1830s and 1840s. No one has reported claims that co-workers refused to work alongside Irish; this powerful form of discrimination probably did not affect the Irish in significant ways. On the other hand the Irish repeatedly attacked employers who hired African Americans or Chinese.
As someone interested in political culture, and how racial ideologies are created, reproduced, and circulated in the United States, Jensen's following observation is especially insightful: 
Historians need to be critical. Because a group truly believes it was a victim, does not make it so...Historians engaging in cultural studies must beware the trap that privileges evidence derived from the protests of self-proclaimed victims. Practically every ethnoreligious group in America cherishes its martyrs and warns its members that outsiders "discriminate" against them, or would if they had the opportunity. 
Talk about a powerful intervention...

The hard times white ethnic myth was matured and grown in a moment of white backlash towards the Civil Rights Movement during the 1970s. As I mentioned here, the same political moment that produced neoliberal-neoconservative "small government" dogma, post-Bakke white grievance politics, the Southern Strategy, and Reagan's mobilization of white racial resentment with his "welfare queens," gave birth to a fictionalized narrative of white ethnic suffering.

The embrace of a shared history of oppression across the color line (the Left multicultural approach) was coopated by a conservative, right-wing colorblind racial politics that sought to eliminate the unique grounds and historical circumstances upon which African-American justice claims in this country were/are based. In a perverse twist on the empty, politically correct, and intellectually dishonest mantra that "we cannot rank oppressions," a generalized fiction and mythic history of white ethnic hard times became a way to neuter discussions about white supremacy.

Roots Too by Mathew Frye Jacobson provides some very helpful context for the politics of white ethnic revival and its relationship to the Right's racial agenda:
Here Glazer spelled out what he later called the "ethnic pattern" of American social development, a presumed group-by-group succession of "newcomers" for whom the voluntary European immigrant stood as a prototype. Like Kennedy's rendition a few years earlier, this America was "a nation of immigrants," with all of the celebrations and erasures the image entailed. The historical weight of incorporation by slavery or conquest was of little account in this model, as all groups could expect to proceed along roughly the same lines of acceptance, mobility, and success as had the great waves of immigrants from Europe beginning in the 1840s.
Jacobson continues:
On the contrary, though the ethnic lens has repaid progressivism by making visible many historical truth and themes, the way in which the ethnic history of various European groups is typically narrated has ultimately contributed to the nation's steady movement toward the right in the decades since the Nixon presidency.

...the narrative of European immigration--whether striking Slavic miners, ghetto-bound Polish meatpackers, or Yiddish-speaking ladies' garment workers-has largely been a narrative of down-troddedness, sometimes of pluck, often of revolt, but never, ever, of privilege...this bootstrap mythology, complete with its striking patters of self-congratulation and erasure, has become standard fare as white Americans seek "to define themselves out of the oppressor class," in Micaela di Leonardo's phrase, to "construct a blameless white identity."
Historical memory does political work here because it privileges certain political goals and ideologies over others.

The recycling of the NINA myth is an effort to salvage an ethnic identity for a contemporary parasitic Whiteness which for its owners is explicitly marked by the absence of either "race" or "culture." Whiteness is privilege, property, and invisibility. Whiteness is also a vessel that can harness white ethnicity to do its bidding in the service of maintaining white dominance over the racial order. In sum, myths of white ethnic suffering become counterweights to justice claims in the polity by people of color.

As Chris Rock and other comedians have bitingly alluded to, everyone wants to be black, but no one wants to really be black. Likewise, those who are racially privileged in the "post-racial" present love to play with the idea of historic oppression and exclusion, but they do not want to confront the realities which stand behind those experiences.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Slavery, Race, and Reunion: The NY Times White Washes the Rape of Michelle Obama's Ancestors (Again)



Why would any person honor rapist's blood?

In an effort to write the Obamas, who are de facto American royalty, back into a larger post-racial narrative that ostensibly makes some white folks feel more comfortable about having a black President, such a move seems par for the course.

In 2009, the NY Times featured a very problematic story about how genealogical researchers had reconstructed Michelle Obama's family tree. There, the NY Times detailed how one of the First Lady's ancestors was a child slave--and in all likelihood repeatedly raped by her white master. Just as was done in Saturday's Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden by Rachel Swarns, the realities of power and exploitation under the chattel regime were conveniently overlooked and (quite literally) white washed away.

Family tree DNA research is in vogue: networks such as PBS and ABC have found it a compelling means to craft a narrative about a shared "American experience." Given the country's demographic shifts, and the election of its first black President, there is a coincidence of interests who are deeply invested in furthering a narrative of multicultural America, one where it is imagined that we are all in one way or another related.

In this racial project, the color line is broken in some deeply dishonest ways which do nothing to challenge power, illuminate deeper truths about racial inequality in the United States, overturn white privilege, or challenge the Racial State.

For example, Henry Louis Gates Jr. can discover his Irish roots. Tina Turner can find out she is not significantly related to the Cherokee. Latino stars and starlets can find out about their "exciting" Anglo-African-Indigenous roots. Asian Americans can find out about their long history of respect for education, family, and the arts.

And white ethnics can have their "hard times," "we suffered too just like the blacks so why do they complain?" family mythologies validated too.

Because the President and First Lady are the symbolic leaders of a country in which black people were the very definition of the "anti-citizen," less than human, property, and not fit for inclusion in the polity, the DNA citizenship project's goals are robust. The discovery of Michelle Obama's white ancestors--while no surprise to her family--is a way for white folks to find kinship with her...to "own" her. Ironically, this will do nothing to soothe the anxieties of reactionary white conservatives--to them she is a black woman who has no business being in the White House except as a chambermaid.

Likewise, President Obama may be "half-white." Nevertheless, he is the blackest man alive (despite all efforts to distance himself from policies that would assist the specific and particular challenges faced by African-Americans in the Great Recession) for the Tea Party GOP and the racially resentful, reactionary white public. Race is a double bind for the President. Obama's whiteness is a means to excuse-make for their racism; Obama's blackness is a means for white bigots to overtly disrespect and diminish him.

Swarns' essay on Michelle Obama's family (and white relatives) is an exercise in violence through the use of contemporary, politically correct language. When she massages away stories of rape, trauma, and human exploitation in order to further a master frame and narrative that wants to amplify the juxtaposition of the Obama's success in the present, and Michelle's white ancestors' "humble" origins, something is horribly amiss. These are racial micro-aggressions of the textbook variety.

Whiteness is built upon lies. As such, there are many white deflections in Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden . The most obvious one is the act of discovery, this shock by the Tribble family that their ancestors owned slaves.

[Laughably, while there were many millions of African slaves in the United States, apparently no white people who are alive today had ancestors who owned slaves. Riddle you that one?]

In response to the NY Times' first foray into these ugly, ahistorical waters, I offered a commentary and rewrite. I would like to pivot off of that intervention again.

Let's work through a few particularly rich passages in Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden and offer some correctives.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Black Youth Mob Violence (continued): Existential Dilemmas of Blackness and "Niggerization"



We are having a spirited conversation about the media's framing of black youth mob violence, and the challenges surrounding the politics of black respectability.Worried at first, I am glad that we broached the subject.

One of our commentors argued that many concerns about black youth mob violence are misplaced, and that to engage in a project of critical self-reflection on these matters is somehow unfair to the African American community, generally, and to young black people, in particular.

In what is a common rhetorical move, it was suggested that a critical discourse about black youth mob violence is 1) somehow elitist and 2) only those black and brown folks who have "street credentials" are legitimate voices on these matters.

My response was a simple one. How is it elitist (or its more common cousin "boogie") to believe that black people have a right, like any other members of American society, to be safe, secure, and free in our homes, communities, and persons? In reflecting on this exchange, I would like to develop my thesis just a bit more.

One of the existential dilemmas faced by black people (and other marginalized communities) in America is that white supremacy as law, social custom, practice, and culture was predicated on denying us safety and security. Man or woman, child or adult, black people have historically been subject to arbitrary, capricious, organized, personal, as well as state sponsored, white violence.

Tragically, some black folks have taken this existential condition of "niggerization" and internalized it. This state of insecurity has been made synonymous with black authenticity. In all, the quite literal material, cultural, and social work done by white supremacy to enforce a racial hierarchy, is now taken by some blacks as being foundational for our culture and humanity.

Niggerization should be transcended. It should not be surrendered to. Niggerization should not be wallowed in. It should avoided. There is nothing authentically black about niggerization.

As Americans we have basic rights that must be protected. As citizens we have basic freedoms and responsibilities. That some have taken these rights and liberties as contingent, and proceed from a negative view where our existence is a condition in which these rights are a priori denied to black Americans, is problematic in more ways than I can illuminate here. Moreover, that the voices demanding accountability, and who dare to call attention to both the responsibilities and burdens of good citizenship are framed as "elitist" speaks to a deadly type of  internalized white racism.

Consider an example. What if white people were subject to the same disadvantageous structures of power and resources in America, and some of these citizens dared to call attention to it? Furthermore, what if one of their chief complaints was that a small subset of the white population were operating as brigands, highwaymen, and thugs, and that something must be done about it? Would the rebuttal be that white people should get over such things and just learn to deal with it? That these same white folks should not take it for granted that their personal right to safety and security is non-negotiable?

I think we know the answer.

Why then are there some black and brown folks who are willing to accept just that state of being for their own communities? That African-American citizenship involves a necessary deficit of rights and liberties...and that we should just get used to it?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

How Should African-American Writers Discuss the Mob Violence Being Committed by Black Youth?



As WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports, around 10:30 p.m. Saturday, a 23-year-old man was beaten up on the CTA Red Line near the State-Lake stop Saturday by a group of about six teenagers. 
The teens had just stolen the man’s 27-year-old female friend’s iPhone 4S. She had dropped the phone, and a teen had picked it up and taken it for himself. 
The man told the teen to give his wife her iPhone back. But they instead began punching him in the face. 
The group then fled the train at State and Lake streets, near the Chicago Theatre. 
Another woman with the group, from West Chicago, tells the Aurora Beacon-News it was the scariest night of her life  
She tells the paper she and her two friends got on the Red Line at the Addison stop after attending the Brad Paisley concert at Wrigley Field. Near downtown, the group of teens got on, and by the time it was over, the man with the group had a broken bone near his eye and broken teeth, and he was bloodied.
Some real talk...

I never apologize. I rarely if ever offer mea culpas. But, I do believe in critical self-reflection. Thus, how to make sense of the above news item?

I love my black people. I truly do. When I read stories such as these about black youth, I shake my head. I am frustrated and saddened.

I am also committed to practicing critical self-reflection as a life rule, and to always doing my best to tell the truth.

A week or so ago, I offered an essay on flash mobs, black youth, mob violence, and the Right-wing race war meme. I have read it several times. It is some of my best work. I stand by everything that I wrote in When Blacks Attack: The Right-Wing Media's Race War Fantasies.

My claims about conservatives' dishonesty regarding black criminality, the political uses of such stories to fuel white racial resentment, and the historical context for black on white crime dramas in the white racial imagination remains true.

When I started We Are Respectable Negroes one of the promises I made to myself was to never misrepresent the facts to those who take the time to read what I offer here or elsewhere. I try to be transparent in my assumptions, theories, frameworks, and arguments because intellectual work is political work. I will never make claims that do not hold up to my own high standards of critical thinking.

 I have been offered money to do the opposite and have refused. That will never change. I want folks to come to WARN not knowing who I am, and then those who know me in the "real world" to be able to say, "yes, that sounds just like you, it was never a surprise." That means something to me which is hard to articulate.

Fate also teaches lessons randomly. Crom is indeed a trickster. One of the challenges of being a person of color who writes about race and politics, and is invested in the uplift of their people, is that you are cast as a "race man" or "race woman." This can be burdensome. If you have a commitment to truth-telling, these are moments where there is great pressure from all sides.

The dishonest colorblind racist Right is waiting for any moment to call attention to the social ills--real or imagined--of black and brown people. These conservatives are tainted by bigotry and resentment. The worst of them are so sick (that to borrow from Brother Akbar) they will call black genius stupidity, and black greatness, failure. As race men, we do not want to give this low class of white conservatives (and their white supremacist cousins) any additional ammo to use against us when they already have a loaded gun at our heads, and a hanging judge on the payroll.

The liberal racists on the Left hold black people in low regard. They are willing to offer a narrative that personal responsibility, common sense, and good behavior are somehow made anathema to the black and brown poor because of institutions and structures. Yes, macro-level arrangements of power are significant. But, we are not children.

Agency may be truncated; nevertheless it exists. Therefore, it is easy to excuse-make and hide behind sociological theory when you do not have to live next to the brigand classes, and when their fists are not in your face, their boots not on your neck.

So exhausting these matters are:
Just before 10 p.m. Saturday, another teen mob attacked two men – one from Chicago, the other in town from Michigan – in the 500 block of North State Street. One victim was left with a broken jaw, the other suffered a cut lip. 
In that case, the suspected muggers were apprehended quickly. They fled, but officers caught up with them on Kinzie Street between State Street and Wabash Avenue. Ten people were arrested. 
One adult – 18-year-old Mitchell Coradarrowe, of the 5900 block of South Indiana Avenue – was charged with felony mob action and aggravated battery. Seven others, ages 13 to 16, were charged as juveniles with felony mob action. 
In a third incident, a 36-year-old man was attacked by a teen mob as he walked home from work along Dewitt Place near Pearson Street in Streeterville. 
Police say the man was robbed and attacked by anywhere from 10 to 20 people. The man was taken to the hospital with a head injury, but he was able to walk on his own after the attack. 
Since the attack, the man, a doctor at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, has granted an interview to the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass for a column that ran Wednesday. The doctor told Kass that even though his home is four blocks from the hospital where he works, he will now be taking a cab home. 
The doctor is Asian and the assailants African-American, but the victim told Kass he did not believe race was the motivation for the attack. He told Kass, rather, that the group seemed just to be beating people for fun.
Unacceptable.

Members of racialized and marginalized communities often see themselves through the eyes of others. This is one of the challenges that comes with the politics of (black) respectability. How do we remain intellectually, philosophically, morally, and ethically true to ourselves when such principles are often not rewarded or reinforced by the broader society?

I get, and can practice with no small amount of skill, the rhetoric and logic that marshals concepts like community disorganization, limited opportunity structures, the ghetto underclass, social capital, the prison industrial complex, divergences in life worlds, agency, mobility, and opportunity structures, as well as the perils of an urban youthocracy with its local morals.

Consequently, when surveying the media's coverage of crime by black youth in their own communities, and random violence that is being visited by a small subset of urban highway men and highway women upon the public, I understand the macro-level sociological story.

Young people are not risk averse; violent crime is their purview. They do stupid things. There is a lack of proper role-models in many underclass communities. These black and brown youth--like all  young people--are impulse driven because their brains are still developing. Unemployment rates are high; there is boredom, American society devalues black youth; they just want validation and attention by any means available.

In total flash mob black youth mob violence culture is one born of a decision rule which suggests that if you leave your pocketbook or wallet out on the kitchen table then you are asking to be robbed. There is no moral culpability because the victim should always protect him or herself. Funny thing, the gangster capitalists who destroyed this country practice the same ethic...but I digress.

A second observation: when an innocent member of Joe Q. Public puts one of these knuckleheads in the ground, grandma always manages to cry and paint the portrait of a saint when she damn well knew they were social parasites.The wages of sin are death. Must we still circle the wagons in order to protect the lowest of our communities? Are we Booker T or Du Bois wondering about the prospects for black life under Jim and Jane Crow, in a world where slavery still existed, but just by another name?

Help me understand. Teach me a thing or two. Is my moment of critical self-reflection misplaced? For those of you who teach, write, and share their thoughts with the public, how do you balance these concerns?

I hold myself accountable. As I have passed 1,000 or so posts here on WARN, and I continue to share with a larger audience what we have created here, I will only continue to raise the bar. When someone asks me about mob violence by black youth and When Blacks Attack: The Right-Wing Medias Race War Fantasies, I need a satisfying answer.

Please, do help a brother out. I am afraid that a good interlocutor could slip under my guard and score a knockout punch on this issue. Practice is the only way to prevent that from happening. Spar with me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Echoes of Gatling and Maxim: Barack Obama's Drones Are Perfect For Killing Those Brown "Savages"

The oldest and strongest form of propaganda in this country is the belief that white America has the right to dominate everyone else on the earth, and as president Obama functions as the whitest man in the country. The siren song of Manifest Destiny outlived the 19th century and is still alive now in the 21st. It has been called many things, anti-communism during the Cold War, and the war against terror now, but it all amounts to the same thing. 
We are told to fear the communist, or militant Islam, or whatever the enemy du jour happens to be. The end result is the same from a people who are convinced of their own goodness and paradoxically their right to have their violent way in the world. It is never very difficult to get support for killing and maiming among people who think themselves morally superior.
As a ghetto nerd member of the hip hop generation, I came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. In that moment, there were a few movies that were fixed in the rotation. Star Wars, Star Trek, Conan, The Final Countdown, and Flash Gordon were all canon. Star Trek fans will argue that Roddenberry's franchise invented the future. They are partly correct. However, Terminator is the movie most eerily prescient of the post 9/11 endless War on Terror world.

The original Terminator is a wonderfully efficient action movie. Its mix of sci-fi elements, action, and warnings about "the future" was the topic of many a ghetto nerd salon. How many of us argued about the Terminator time travel paradox? Debated if T2 was better than the first film? Endlessly quoted Arnold's gun shop dialogue?

Other 1980s movies like The Day After and Threads were terrifying. Damnation Alley was memorable for the giant cockroaches that ate Paul Winfield. War Games was provocative. Red Dawn was teenage circle jerk war porn that made no sense at all...except in the minds of Reagan era jingoists like Oliver North, the white militia crowd, and teenagers who had never heard of the stopping power of water.

Terminator was the source of nightmares: I know I am not the only person of a certain age who had disturbing dreams where they hid from Hunter Killers and tried to fight T-800 series cyborgs who were impervious to our weapons. Funny though, we always found a way to win in the end. Perhaps I am the eternal optimist?

We are officially adults when our future fantasies become the real, the mundane, and the stuff of the day-to-day. There is a black man in the White House. Barack Obama, my favorite "space coon," is quite literally the stuff of science fiction. Because the genre has traditionally solved the "race problem" by writing people of color out of the story, there is a tension when we are present--one that the white racial frame must resolve if it is to remain coherent.

For example, in many recent films and TV series a black man is cast as President of the United States. But, the world is in turn faced with calamity and disaster. This motif is not a coincidence; rather, it represents a deep insecurity about what occurs when the racial order is upended.

To point, in the Terminator franchise it is a black man who is most directly responsible for Skynet and the apocalypse it visits upon humanity. President Obama is not Miles Dyson; however, Barack's willingness to unleash his UAV-Terminator army on the "enemies" of the United States is worthy of the best pulp fiction of the 1930s and 1940s.

I am not suggesting that the Predator and Reaper drones of today are at all comparable to the monstrosities of the Terminator films. The former are simply more fully evolved remote controlled airplanes that the military has been experimenting with since at least World War 2. The 3rd or 4th generation UAV's (depending on how far back you count) are not independent, could not survive in a reasonably defended airspace, are prone to mechanical failure, can be easily hacked, and their capabilities are exaggerated by those who are on the payroll of the military-industrial complex.

While the next generation(s) of these machines will incorporate "ethical governors" that help dictate semi-autonomous operation, i.e. the robots will decide who to kill according to a set of rules (terrifyingly, these machines will even be used to torture "enemy prisoners"), at present they are just in their relative infancy.

Obama's drones are an extension of a belief that war can be done on the cheap. Coupled with the large disconnect between the small percentage of the American people who serve in the military, and the general public (as well as policy making elites), this makes conflict more (as opposed to less) likely.

There has been much information released as of late detailing the industrial scale killing apparatus of the Obama administration. There are secret kill lists. Decks of playing cards are used as visual aids in order to decide who should live and who should die. American citizens and their families are immolated by remotely piloted vehicles. Bureaucrats control multiple UAV's at one time, killing people overseas who are just image enhanced pixels on a targeting screen.

Imperial America is based on a premise of cheap life. Ultimately, some people are considered less than, and more worthy of extermination by virtue of national identity, location, color, or imagined affiliation with some political cause that is at present "hostile" to American elites' geopolitical interests.

Who can argue against sending robots to kill foreigners? No skin off of our proverbial backs, right?

There are technologies of racism and dominance. The UAV is one of these devices.

It is important to note that the Racial State was also an imperial and colonial project. As such, rationalizations for how technology could be used to kill and oppress were a necessary part of the Racial State's bureaucracy. Consequently, there were certain weapons which were only deemed fit for killing "savages." No white man should be subject to such "dishonorable," impersonal, or "cruel" devices.

This logic is a cousin to that of American Exceptionalism. By implication, the lives of people in this country are worth more than those of human beings elsewhere.

In this way, the UAV of the 21st century is like the machine gun of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Consider the following passage from John Ellis' book The Social History of the Machine Gun:
By now then the picture should be clear. The machine gun was a vitally useful tool in the colonization of Africa. Time and time again automatic fire enabled small groups of settlers or soldiers to stamp out any indigenous resistance to their activities or to extend their writ over large parts of the African continent...The reasons for this complacency are not hard to find. 
They are to be found in the ideology of British imperialism, whose very essence was an unquestioning belief in the innate superiority of the white race, and the British in particular. 
Without such beliefs it would have been impossible for the original colonisers to set such a low price on African lives. For only by holding them so cheap could the slaughter of natives seem to be morally acceptable. The belief in white supremacy was the very bedrock of Imperialist attitudes, and is evident in all their manifestations. At best the Europeans regarded those they slaughtered with little more than amused contempt... 
Thus, when it becomes necessary to kill those who stand in one's way, the problem is seen in technical rather than human terms. It is simply a matter of "bagging" as many natives as possible with the minimum effort. The machine gun filled these requirements admirably... 
Thus, because the machine gun had become so much a part of the imperialist sideshows, it came to be regarded, by definition, as a weapon that had no place upon the conventional battlefield. The European was so obviously superior to the African, so why would he be so stupid as to be baulked by a weapon that was really only good for bowling over 'niggers' and 'Kaffirs'? 
Of all the chickens that came home to roost and cackle over the battlefields of the First World War, none was more raucous than the racialism that had somehow assumed that the white man would be invulnerable to those same weapons that had slaughtered natives in their thousands. 
So the machine gun became came to be regarded as a weapon suitable only for use against native Africans and the like. Of the Ashanti campaign of 1873, the Army and Navy Journal said, 'We are not surprised that the Ashantees were awestruck by the power of the Gatling gun. It is a weapon which is specially adapted to terrify a barbarous or semi-civilized foe.'
Sound familiar?

What happens when UAV technology proliferates and America's enemies use the very same logic that the leadership class in the Pentagon, CIA, and White House does today? Is it okay if China or some other country decides that killing 10 or 20 or 50 Americans to get one "terrorist" is a reasonable return on investment?

How will the American people respond when it it is their kin who are killed by robots? Will the gloating cease? Will there be a moment of inward looking critical self-reflection, or will the mouth-breathing classes ask (as they did on 9-11) "why do they hate us?"

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Rampart Dilemma: Social Scientists in Search of Parsimonious Racism on Google and in The New York Times


Once more, we have empirical evidence which suggests that racism is a social fact, as opposed to an illusory and/or imagined opinion.

The last few weeks have offered a nice bounty of data in this regard. Brown University's Michael Tesler demonstrated that white racial animus is a powerful indicator of how respondents view policy in regards to President Obama: in seemingly neutral and benign examples, white folks who possess high levels of anti-black animus "flip" their opinions on matters of policy when the President is mentioned. This week, The New York Times has doubled down by highlighting the promising research by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz which supports the claim that (now) President Obama's "blackness" cost him support among white voters during the 2008 campaign.

Apparently, the much discussed Bradley effect is not a poltergeist. The core thesis, that white racism hurts black candidates, and that white people lie about their vote choice when queried, remains largely intact.

I would suggest that Seth's methodology is more powerful than the finding. There are several studies which already support the argument that race was no friend to President Obama. As I have stated many times, if one grants that white privilege and white supremacy are governing superstructures for the Racial State, how can being a black or brown person provide a substantive, long-term advantage in any area of public (or private) life in such a society? The math and logic do not add up:
Barack Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote in 2008 and 365 electoral votes, 95 more than he needed. Many naturally concluded that prejudice was not a major factor against a black presidential candidate in modern America. My research, a comparison of Americans’ Google searches and their voting patterns, found otherwise. If my results are correct, racial animus cost Mr. Obama many more votes than we may have realized... 
Add up the totals throughout the country, and racial animus cost Mr. Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote. In other words, racial prejudice gave John McCain the equivalent of a home-state advantage nationally. 
Yes, Mr. Obama also gained some votes because of his race. But in the general election this effect was comparatively minor. The vast majority of voters for whom Mr. Obama’s race was a positive were liberal, habitual voters who would have voted for any Democratic presidential candidate. Increased support and turnout from African-Americans added only about one percentage point to Mr. Obama’s totals. 
If my findings are correct, race could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012. Most modern presidential elections are close. Losing even two percentage points lowers the probability of a candidate’s winning the popular vote by a third. And prejudice could cost Mr. Obama crucial states like Ohio, Florida and even Pennsylvania.
In all, Davidowitz's article is one more brick in the wall of common sense that slayed the "post-racial" lie which many young Obamabots, naive multiculturals, and neoconservative colorblind racists were drunk on during the 2008 campaign.

[If you want a glimpse inside of the white racial frame look at some of the comments at The NY Times, and how some folks excuse-make, claiming that it is common to google "nigger." Thus, the model is incorrect because Davidowitz's conclusions proceed from a false premise of assumed white racism. Maybe I am an outlier? But, I do not routinely search online for racial slurs. Call me crazy...or naive. To this tired set of eyes, the construct validity seems pretty damn high.]

Students of public opinion have long understood that people lie, misrepresent, and mislead pollsters.

Evidence that white racism operates in the backstage, in private, and outside of "public" eyes, is validation of what most intelligent people already know. This is also a site of one of the main disconnects between social scientists and the general public--many of the former are excited when their research validates social reality. The latter simply answer "Duh!" "Of course we knew that!"

There is real power when data neatly mates with theory generation and pushes us past conjecture and mere hyperbole. Those in academia need to do a much better job of explaining the broader social value of such rare moments.

As social scientists, we/us/they look for parsimonious answers, the neat hypothesis and solution to the puzzle that tells us something we otherwise would not have known. The puzzle is the thing. How you resolve it, and your ability (as well as opportunity) to communicate the "so what?" to a larger audience, is what separates superstars like Davidowitz and Tesler from the rest of us.

I have not indulged in a politics of popular culture moment in a while. The great movie Rampart, starring Woodie Harrelson (playing a corrupt LA cop), is a perfect fit for problematizing what I like to call "neat" racism. The real world is messy. People hold conflicting and contradictory views on any number of issues. While there is a common disciplinary vocabulary among social scientists--our Esperanto or Lengua Franca--how do we confront the inconveniences of the "real world?" 

Or stated differently: what do we do about the "asshole problem?" 

In Rampart, Harrelson is a garden variety jerk, a broken and corrupted man, and a piece of human debris. He is also other things too. Borrowing from the film Nurse Betty, Harrelson's character in Rampart is a garbage man of the human condition. Given his existential condition, a career as a cop is a perfect union of form and function.



Harrelson and Ice Cube's exchange is also a beautiful example of racism denying and deflection--the former's character has sex with black women, provocatively offers up an "apology" for slavery, and makes it clear that he has no use for brigands of any color. Ice Cube rebuts, bobs, and weaves. He is pissed; but does not score any blows. Revenge will apparently come later...though not too satisfying in the moment.

For an astute viewer, the joke is readily transparent: both characters are playing Los Angeles police officers; police blue trumps black or brown. If structural racism is real, then the "blackness" or "whiteness" of any given cop is superseded by his or her allegiance to a racist set of social institutions and practices.

Are are all racists assholes? Or do some assholes just happen to be racist, and the first personality trait trumps the second? Is there no room for a neat model of racism, one that actually tells us something about flawed, confused, complicated people living in the "real" world, one where such independent variables are not so cleanly separated?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

When Blacks Attack! The Right-Wing Media's Race War Fantasies

George Romero’s classic 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead begins with the famous warning that “they are coming to get you Barbra!” In the movie, the “they” were hordes of zombies, hungry for the flesh of the living and intent on destroying human society like a plague, an inexorable natural disaster, a tsunami of the undead.

Decades later, and perhaps inspired by Romero’s master work, the conservative media has conjured up a new terror: black young people are the “new” monsters, causing chaos and sowing destruction across the United States. Who is their prey? Innocent white folks that are being waylaid, murdered, and assaulted in an imagined race war by roving bands of black “zombies” whose barbarism is inspired by the election of Barack Obama.

Several weeks ago Bill O’Reilly, the most watched TV personality on Fox News, ran a series of stories on what he suggests is a “racially motivated” attack on two white journalists in Norfolk, Virginia that he claimed was covered up by the local press. 

As Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins details, the facts reveal a different reality: a rock was thrown at a car, the occupants had an argument with a group of men and a fight ensued. The reporters were not severely injured. Although an unfortunate incident in a city that is struggling with violent crime, it was neither particularly noteworthy or an anomaly. In fact, the newspaper for which the journalists worked thought the event was a non-story. This did not deter Bill O’Reilly. He could frame the story as part of a national race war by introducing one fact--the victims of the assault were white and the perpetrators were black.

The National Review’s Thomas Sowell legitimated this narrative of a race war against whites in a column which circulated widely throughout the Right-wing media and blogosphere. There he listed a series of such assaults in major cities such as Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, which involved groups of young black people committing random assaults on pedestrians, robbing people of their cell phones and Ipods, and fighting on beaches and in malls.

These narratives of white victimhood at the hands of blacks have even gained traction internationally: the London based Daily Mail recently featured a story about a white man who was attacked by a black gang of “twenty hooded youths” outside of a pub.

Once more, instead of a story about random street crime in major cities (something all too frequent), white racial anxiety is used as the connective tissue tying these disparate and unrelated events together. As Sowell observes, "What the authorities and the media seem determined to suppress is that the hoodlum elements in many ghettos launch coordinated attacks on whites in public places.” Apparently, in the conservative imagination there is a nationwide plot and a scheme to silence white pain and anger as they are made the targets of systematic, brutal, anti-white racism.

The Conservative media’s race war narrative falls apart when one encounters the facts. In an effort to stir up white anxiety, these stories ignore that violent crime in the United States has been declining for decades. Oftentimes, these mob attacks are either random street crimes or actually a byproduct of long standing feuds between the participants and victims. And looking to context, most crime in the United States is intra-racial and committed by family members, friends, and associates. And one cannot generalize from aggregate crime statistics down to the probability that a given person will commit a criminal act.

Nevertheless, the conservative media keeps up the drumbeat of alleged black on white crime.

History matters. The conservative media’s suggestion that the country is in the midst of an anti-white race war does not come out of the ether.

While these fears were born in slavery and Emancipation as a means to justify white terrorism against people of color, there are many noteworthy examples in the near past as well.

Up through the first half of the 20th century, The New York Times featured many news items about “giant negroes” who would attack police, any innocent white people nearby, and have to be brought down by overwhelming police violence. In an eerie foreshadowing of the conservative media at present, The New York Times archive also contains stories with headlines such as the following: “Mobs of Blacks Retaliate for Riots”; “Negro Mob Terrorizing the Citizens of Jacksonville”; “Negro Mob in South Shouts for Lynching”; and “Negro Mob Killed Sheriff.”

Stories about black mob behavior were also common during the 1960s. And of course, American popular culture during the Reagan era featured a recurring motif of white vigilantes such as Charles Bronson and Dirty Harry who protected “normal” white society from black gang violence and “wilding” teens.

The conservative media’s pandering to fears of black violence is a sophisticated effort. The race war must be brought home to predominantly white areas. Places like Iowa and Wisconsin do not have large populations of black people; but in the conservative media, this is no protection from the race war apparently being waged against white Americans. The Daily Caller and other conservative websites repeatedly featured coverage of what was labeled as “beat whitey night” a state fair in Iowa. The conservative media doubled down on their “white folks imperiled even in Red State rural America” meme by giving extensive coverage to how white people were ambushed and beaten at a similar event in Wisconsin.

All of these news items are part of an effort to craft a dramatic, exaggerated story that plays on racial fears, and channels many of the themes common to Right-wing identity politics in the aftermath of the Civil Rights era. Crime; black violence; a fear of black young people; and an emphasis on cities and urban areas (and the people who live there) as embodying everything wrong with America, have mobilized Republican voters and right leaning Independents since (at least) Richard Nixon’s appeals to “the silent majority.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Poor Bo, Research Reveals That Racially Resentful White Folks Even Hate Barack Obama's Dog



Tesler’s body of research suggests that instead of delivering what many suggested would be a post-racial presidency, Obama will have polarized corners of American politics previously untouched by race. 
Not only have racial considerations affected whether voters will support Obama, but they are beginning to renovate the entire architecture of public opinion... 
A respondent’s views on discrimination (on a spectrum of “very common” to “very rare”) was three times more influential on his support for Sotomayor among those who heard Obama’s name compared to those who didn’t. 
Tesler started looking for “issues that people don’t have strong feelings about, and issues that weren’t already folded into the current partisan alignment,” as he put it. Obama started feeding plenty of them—the stimulus, health care reform, cap-and-trade, all relatively new issues without firmly established loyalties. Tesler began working with the polling outfit YouGov to match how voters’ changing views on them matched up to their answers to the racial-resentment questions.  
He found a “spillover of racialization” into health care reform: Voters who heard descriptions of the contrasting components of the 1993 Clinton and 2009 Obama proposals were more likely to grow disapproving of Obama’s when they heard the presidents’ names—as long as they demonstrated racial resentment elsewhere in the survey.
During Barack Obama's first presidential campaign my mother and I would talk about his future prospects. Like many black folks of a certain generation she went from disbelief that he even had a chance of winning, to worry about his safety from assassination, to tears on election night, and disappointment at his tenure to date. These conversations are undoubtedly quite common among many Americans who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. She, like me, still supports the President. In 2012, he is the best of a horrible set of alternatives. Ultimately, while he is not a "Black" President, Obama is still a President who happens to be black...for what that is worth.

And there lies the sad truth of his predicament, does it not?

Those progressives who dreamed that Obama would combine the cool pose of Shaft, and the anger of the Incredible Hulk, in the form of a black Lyndon B Johnson, are predictably quite disappointed. Obama is a Right leaning centrist. Despite his efforts to compromise with the Republican Party at any cost, Barack is tarred as a Socialist-Communist-Authoritarian-Anti-American by the conservative mouth breathing troglodyte classes and their masters at Fox News. In total, President Obama is a bound man incapable of pleasing anyone.

Some of the opposition to the President is rooted in "principled" partisanship--the common good be damned. Other opponents cannot stand Obama because he is not "progressive" enough, having to their eyes abandoned the "radical" potential of his candidacy. In these examples, hostility to Barack Obama is conscious and intentional. By comparison, there are others whose opposition to Obama is rooted in the deep subconscious.

For these people, President Obama is damned both because of his policy orientations and his race. Serious political observers immediately identified the notion of a "post-racial" America as a lie and chimera. White supremacy is one of America's greatest inventions: it was refined and perfected here. One election cycle will not vanquish such a powerful social force. As my mother keenly observed, there are white people who hate Obama because he is black, breathing, and in the White House.

Recent research on race and political psychology reinforces this point. As demonstrated by Brown University's Michael Tesler, white respondents who score high on measures of  "racial resentment" are much more likely to change their basic opinions about political matters when Barack Obama is mentioned.

I am not surprised by these findings. White supremacy is a type of mental sickness. That many white folks would reflexively reverse their support of a given issue based on a frame that introduces Obama into the equation is expected. Why? Because white privilege, white racism, and the white racial frame are social pathologies that orient and ground people in a given reality. Race trumps reason and becomes a decision rule in a racially perverse cognitive schema.

Nevertheless, I remain fascinated by one aspect of Tesler's research:
Even presidential pets were viewed through the same lens. Tesler showed 1,000 YouGov respondents a picture of a Portuguese water dog and asked how favorably they felt toward it. Half saw the dog introduced as Bo Obama, and half as Ted Kennedy’s dog, Splash. (Both political dogs are the same breed, but the picture was of Obama’s.) Those with negative feelings toward blacks thought less of Obama’s dog.
I love dogs. Tesler's finding that white racial resentment extends to Bo, a canine, is a sign of how damaging white racism is to those afflicted with it. The social science suggests that the activation of white racial animus and hostility is a halo effect which extends to anyone associated with President Obama.

I understand the methodology and argument: But yet, I am still left asking how can you dislike a dog based only on his owner?

Redd Foxx, the legendary African American comedian, had a running joke about "black habits." This was his way of deconstructing the ugliness of racism and its arbitrary rules. He goofed on the idea that there are stereotypes about black folks, where if you don't fit those tropes one had best catch up in order to validate the white gaze.

By implication, are there "black ways" of acting, seeing, knowing, behaving, and thinking? Does this extend to our pets?

I have two dogs. In my mind both are still with us. Luke and Leia were part of the same litter. She passed away from cancer last November. He is still here, being difficult, charming, loyal, and funny. After 16 years--alive both in the flesh and spirit--they are indulged their eccentricities.

Dogs are humankind's original Frankenstein monsters: we made them. They also take on our attributes and traits over the years. And yes, our animal friends do begin to look and act like their human parents as the years advance (any pet owner will support that observation).

Are there "black" dogs? Do they have "black" ways?

Let's work through some anecdotes as we try to arrive at an answer.

Monday, June 4, 2012

War Made Easy via a Featured Reader Comment: They've Got Us in a Foggy-State in Which They Can Even "Admit" to Owning Key Points in a Connect-the-Dots Portrait of Total Evil...



I have not bumped up a reader's comment in a while. Steven Augustine's observation during our earlier conversation about white working class voters and the resilience of the false consciousness meme deserves some more attention. There he wrote:
USS Liberty? Check. October Surprise? Check. The Maine? Check. The Mossadegh/ Lumumba / "interventions", et al? Check and double-check)... shit confirmed in the frickin NYT, ferchrissakes... and rather than see these "limited hangouts" as confirmations of an entirely predictable and much larger pattern, we shrug them off as aberrations of a supposedly dark age the Gubmint has long-since outgrown!
(sfx: phlegm-rich Satanic chuckle) 
Don't feel bad, though. Our minds have been terraformed (and our material realities constricted and metered) by some of the finest amoral minds recruited from Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT. In fact, if the Evil Ones haven't recruited your ass by now, you can't be very good at what you do, Negro!
Damn.
One of the foundational concepts in the study of American public opinion is that attitudes are remarkably unstable. As such, they can be influenced by how questions are presented and framed. The American people are also relatively non-ideological. Here, they do not hold what students and observers of politics would understand to be a consistent worldview. There is an exception: on matters of race the American people do know how they feel, are willing to express their feelings, and their opinions are well-structured.

In total, the American people do have "values" which they ostensibly advance through the political process. But, the American people meander and muddle through the specifics of these issues, groping and feeling, trying to find their way with a relative lack of sophistication.

As I have shared here many times, I am resolute in my belief that the masses are asses. The question then becomes is the public's lack of sophistication, limited knowledge about public policy, and attraction to spectacle and empty political rhetoric cultivated or natural? Is the Culture War/Real America White right wing populism organic? Alternatively, is such zeal handed down from on high by elites? Likewise, are the symbolic politics of the Left substantive? Are the people really speaking back to Power? Does Power even care?

There is one area of public concern where this question is a settled matter. The American people are manipulated by political elites into supporting unnecessary wars and conflicts abroad. When I discuss this question with my students, and offer up the obvious--at least to my/your eyes that the political leadership class in a democracy is dependent on propaganda for legitimacy--they look shocked and upset. As I turn the knife a bit and include how their consumerist impulses are manufactured and manipulated by the dream merchants, and not an expression of an authentic self, the hurt is tangible.

I learn a good deal from my students as well. When we talk about the War on Terror, 9/11, and America's imperial exploits, they more often than not confess their ignorance about such matters. These college age students feel powerless. They have a world of information, quite literally at their fingertips, but choose not to engage it substantively.

In response to Steve's observations about the truth hiding in plain sight, and the public's complicity on these matters, I have a standard list of explanations which I offer. Our politics are sick, and this sickness can be explained by a few things:

1. There are approximately 30 million illiterate people in the United States. The politics of spectacle, culture war, and faux populism are a response to this fact.

2. Americans have been socialized into being citizen consumers in a market democracy. Consequently, they are not active, responsible, forward thinking, or virtuous.

3. There is no liberal media. There is only a corporate media. Consent is manufactured; the terrain for "approved" discourse is narrow. For example, see the howls in response to Chris Hayes' very reasonable intervention regarding the overuse of the word "hero" in regards to members of the military that he made over the Memorial Day weekend.

4. Hard news is dead. Long live soft news.

5. Information is not knowledge. All of us in the Internet age have witnessed a revolution in how information is shared and circulated. The Facebook Millennial generation have come of age in this moment and know no alternative. Unfortunately, as a society we have not developed the critical skills necessary to synthesize citizenship, information, and knowledge. Moreover, as I wrote about here, for many young people "politics" and "activism" consists of clicking "like" on Facebook or wearing plastic wristbands or hoodies. This can be parallel or even pre-political behavior. It is no substitute for substantive political engagement that involves personal commitment, risk, and material resources.

6. The public schools have utterly failed. They are producing passive citizens who are drones for the neoliberal order. The universities are complicit: they fashion an experience which is prefaced on a logic where "the customer is always right," and critical pedagogy and learning are secondary to high course enrollments, sports stadiums, and trends such as "smart classrooms," iclickers, and the empty rhetoric of "student centered" approaches to learning.

7. The dreams of digital democracy and a vibrant Internet that brought together people of different views and beliefs has not come to pass. The blogosphere and online news media are balkanized. Epistemic closure is real. This is especially true on the Right. We are (more often than not) quite literally talking to ourselves and those other folks who already agree with us.

8. The life worlds, communities, and realities of conservatives and progressives, Red State and Blue State, are increasingly divergent, separate, and apart. How can we even come together to solve common problems when basic empirical facts cannot be agreed upon? Add in the bastard marriage of radical religion in the form of Christian Dominionism to Ayn Randian libertarianism and matters are made even worse.

The sum effect of these elements is crystallized in the following ideal typical example. The public actually believes that the enemies of the American government hate the American people--notice I separate the two--because of our "freedoms."

This con is no accident. What would you add to the above list? And can this "mental terraforming" be undone?



Friday, June 1, 2012

The Masses Are Asses: Financially Struggling White People Support Mitt Romney?



During every presidential election campaign in recent memory the pundit classes have tried to figure out the riddle of the white working class (male) voter. Why do they support Republicans? Is the support by white people who are not "middle class" for a political party whose economic policies grossly favor the rich a sign of false consciousness? Is this dynamic a function of how white race prejudice is manipulated in the service of white identity politics?

We have discussed this dynamic many times. In fact, given the perennial nature of the white working class who vote against their economic self-interest meme, many people who write about American politics could simply go to their archives, update essays written several years ago, and they would likely still read as current.

The topic is worthy of recurring discussion because it hits on the intimate relationship between race and class in the West, specifically, and in the United States, in particular. Race and class evolved together from the 17th century onward; in all, the latter is the crucible in which the former was made. We cannot escape this shadow even in the Age of Obama.

To my eyes, this puzzle, while fascinating, is not particularly difficult to unpack. The "white working class" as understood by Thomas Frank and others is often vaguely (if not incorrectly) specified. When the white working class is defined as those white men without a college degree, then yes they do tend to support Republicans much more than Democrats.

When this same cohort is defined by income, then the white poor, as poor folk generally do, tend to overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party.

The fear by Democratic strategists that the Republicans are making huge inroads with the white working class can be largely explained by 1) how the South was flipped to the GOP over the last few decades; and 2) that the Republicans have been pealing away support from the Democrats with voters at almost all income levels.

The other key element for deciphering white working class support for Mitt Romney is that white people are the single largest, and most protected racial group in this country's history. They have uniquely benefited from the Racial State and its focused efforts to create wealth, generate income for, and transfer assets (almost) exclusively to white people from the Homestead Act, through to the invention of the white middle class in the post World War 2 era, and into the present.

White privilege is deeply attune to any threat at its status. Consequently, as recent public opinion data details, whites see racism as a "zero sum" game where racial equality means that there are clear winners and losers. Here, a (perceived) end to discrimination against people of color is interpreted as a threat to white people's group position and the inauguration of  "reverse racism" as the status quo ante.

White Americans, and white men in particular, are also more likely to be less hopeful about the future during the time of the Great Recession. Interestingly, while black and brown folks are suffering much more, it is white men who are feeling the most aggrieved. Finally, despite Barack Obama's careful avoidance of any type of serious policy advocacy on behalf of people of color, the symbolism of a black President, and America's demographic shifts, have primed a deep reservoir of unconscious and implicit racial bias that plays off of white racial resentment, and makes the white working class less likely to support the Democratic Party.

Last week, The Washington Post offered up another chapter in this long running conversation. Cohen and Tumulty's article had a gem of writing that neatly captured the diametrically opposed life-worlds, as well as the differing political calculi of (a particular cohort) of white voters as compared to people of color.

Are the masses asses?
Fifty percent of all voters say Obama would do more to advance the interests of the middle class more generally, and 44 percent say so of Romney. 
On that question, Obama has an advantage of 53 percent to 41 percent among those who think their foothold in the middle class is relatively secure, while the two candidates divide about equally among those struggling to stay there. 
That overall parity, as has been the case in the past, disguises a vast racial divide. Among white voters trying to stay in the middle class, Romney is considered the better candidate for that group by a 20-point margin; Obama is preferred by better than 3 to 1 among middle-class nonwhite voters, regardless of their sense of security. 
Whites and nonwhites — as well as voters across party lines — agree that Romney would do more than Obama to advocate for the economic interests of wealthy Americans. 
By a 23-point margin, voters say it’s Romney, not Obama, who would do more to advance the interests of Wall Street.
Mitt Romney would actually continue many of the Bush era policies that created the Great Recession. His austerity politics, Ayn Rand dreams, and naked desire to further starve demand by forcing income and resources further up to the plutocrats would make the economy worst and not better. I grant that the American voting public is not sophisticated. Nor, do they have a deep grasp of public policy. But as revealed by this survey, even they know that Obama is more likely to help the middle class, and Romney is an exclusive agent of the rich.

Yet, it seems that white racial group affinity trumps economic self-interest for many white voters.

Reversing the gaze. What of minority voters? They have suffered the most under the Obama administration, but are among his most ardent supporters. There is much evidence that people of color, both as a life necessity in a country where politics was/is very personal, and because we are keen students of power, are quite sophisticated in our political assessments. Obama may have had his finger in a bursting damn, and most certainly has done little as a "race man," but could it be that people of color understand that he is the better candidate when faced with the hellish alternative of a Tea Party GOP President?

In all, the model of a "rational" voters may be misspecified. Those white voters who support culture war issues and will do anything to get the black guy out of the White House, even at their own financial expense, may simply have a different set of values upon which they base their political behavior. Likewise, those black and brown folks who support Obama despite the economy may be moved by racial symbolism (never forgetting that white voters are deeply motivated by White identity politics too) and a sense of realpolitik that sees Barack as the best of two less than ideal options.

Who are we to judge?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Racial Aikido: The Genius of Mitt Romney's "Barack Obama is a Lazy Negro Who Ain't Working" Ad Campaign



Well played Mr. Romney. Very well played indeed.

Mitt Romney's "Barack Obama Isn't Working" campaign is a genius political move. Less clumsy than the infamous Willie Horton ad, it is a more elegant and refined racial appeal for a slightly more civilized "colorblind" age.

As such, Mitt Romney's suggestion that Barack Obama is "not working" deftly draws on a set of stereotypes from the American popular imagination where black people, and black men in particular, are depicted as lazy and not self-sufficient. This is one of the core attributes of what social scientists have termed "symbolic racism."

This stereotype is central to contemporary right-wing political discourse, and can trace its lineage back to the Southern Strategy under Richard Nixon, and through to Ronald Reagan's mobilization of anti-black sentiment with his allusions to "welfare queens" and "strapping young black bucks" who buy steaks with food stamps. As part of this pattern, the 2012 Republican campaign has featured such onerous moments as Rick Santorum's suggesting that black Americans are parasites who live off of white people, as well as Newt Gingrich advising young people of color (because they are especially lazy and pathological) that they should be janitors in order to learn a "work ethic."

The polite and more refined bigotry that drives Romney's "Barack Obama Isn't Working" campaign is more careful than that of his Tea Party GOP brethren. However, it still plays off of the same sentiments and crude racial stereotypes about African Americans. Moreover, Romney's more "polite" racism resonates because it exists in a right-wing imaginary that considers Obama a "Socialist," wallows in birtherism, and has marshaled faux populist zeal in order to mark out clear boundaries of civic belonging where to be a "real" American requires that a person be White. In all, the right-wing echo chamber is unapologetic in its use of racial stereotypes, mobilization of white racial resentment, and outright race prejudice. Romney can fly above the racist fray, but still benefit from how such attitudes have helped to prep the political battlefield for his success.

Romney's devious narrative about President Obama's lack of success, incompetence, and implied laziness is masterful on a number of levels.

1. The claim that Barack Obama isn't working has a veneer of plausible deniability. Romney claims that the slogan is "historical" in nature, borrowing from Thatcher's anti-Labour campaign in the United Kingdom during the late 1970s. Through this logic, there is no racial animus at work; racism cannot possibly be present in the suggestion that Barack Obama isn't working because the slogan is inspired from events both decades ago, and in another country.

In the United States, and given how the color line has structured American life, operates in the country's collective subconscious, and provides a set of scripts which impact our perceptions of one another, the wellsprings of Romney's slogan are of little importance.

Question: would there be an equivalent silence if a politician campaigning for high office suggested that his Jewish rival was cheap? Or that his Asian-American competitor for the same office was devious, sneaky, or untrustworthy?

I would suggest that the precarious position of blacks in American society makes them uniquely vulnerable to the use of racial appeals in political discourse.

It is also important to note how language involves both the transmission, reception, and circulation of ideas between a speaker and the audience.The repeated suggestion that a black man "isn't working" signals to deeply held biases that link together the black body, black personhood, and stereotypes about poverty, work ethic, and respectability. A listener, or in this case a voter, does not have to be conscious of how these concepts motivate his or her behavior. As research on racial attitudes and political behavior has repeatedly demonstrated, white voters "get" these racial cues and are quite responsive to them--conservatives and right-leaning independents especially so.  

2.  Any effort to call out Romney's use of racial stereotypes would play into the politics of white racial resentment and white backlash that came in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. The associated and invented language of "the race card" and "reverse racism" are based on a premise that white supremacy is a thing of the past. Since the election of Barack Obama, the right-wing media and other elites have been able to push this narrative even further--white people are now oppressed, and despite all available sociological data that suggests otherwise, anti-white racism is now a plague upon the land. To attack Romney's campaign slogan is to fuel the howls of white victimology.

3. In the age of conservative "colorblindness," racism is defined by intent. This is a function of the personalization of race prejudice wherein racist social structures and institutional arrangements of power are conveniently ignored. Racism is universal. It is no longer a sin unique to white people. Consequently, the intent behind a person's words and deeds trump both the context and consequences of their actions. If Romney were to deny that his ad was "racist"--which Romney would most certainly do--one of the evasions would be that "he did not intend it that way." The same deflection would be flipped around on the critic who pointed out the problematic nature of Romney's appeal to Obama's imagined laziness in order to win over white voters. In keeping with the colorblind/reverse racism script, Mitt Romney would now become a victim, as the act of calling someone a "racist" in post-Civil Rights America is a bigger sin than racism itself.

4. Accidents and coincidence. Mitt Romney's choice of a slogan that leverages one of the most pernicious and deeply rooted stereotypes about black men in American society (next to the myth of the black rapist) is no accident. Romney did not personally select the language "Obama Isn't Working." His consultants (a cadre of psychologists, marketing experts, political advisers, and focus groups) perfected the language, visuals, and narrative of Romney's campaign ad. The way that the campaign mines white animus and stereotypes towards the country's first black president, while skillfully playing along the edge of being an overt racial appeal, is a delicately choreographed balancing act: this grace does not come without much practice and reflection.

Mitt Romney's "Obama Isn't Working" campaign is a racial smart bomb aimed at white Independents (and other right-leaning fence-sitters). Ultimately, Mitt Romney is vulnerable on many issues such as his gangster capitalist roots, insincerity, aloofness, religion, the Tea Party GOP's failed economic policies and obstructionist behavior. Romney's flank is also exposed because he is the nominee for a political party that is possessed by Culture Warriors whose views are outside of the American mainstream. These are weaknesses to be exploited.

However, I would suggest that folks not sally forth and engage Romney regarding the racial invective present in his "Obama Isn't Working" campaign theme. To do so, would be to fight on Romney's chosen terrain. Nor would such an engagement offer up many political gains. The cause would be noble; the battle would still be lost.

Once more Mr. Romney, well played, very well played indeed. You are a worthy foe.