We’re in the part of the summer when “race” in the news is typically associated predominantly with the “pennant” or NASCAR and occasionally early handicapping of November elections. Not this year. Quick on the heels of a midsummer featuring the protracted, perplexing story of Shirley Sherrod, the NAACP, and the Tea Party, we have a frightening, loose collection of tales of racial killings (see previous entry below). Two emerged in tandem as largely “regional” news items but each took on added significance because of the racial element. Omar Thornton attributed his killing spree to racism in the workplace; the “Flint serial killer” is a young white man who appears to be targeting blacks and Latinos. Thornton’s story awaits a fuller accounting that may yet turn it into a story with larger significance; and when it does, its larger meaning will likely remain disputed. But the “Flint killer” story has gone national, not due to heightened media coverage as much as the movement of the killer, who seems to have attacked victims in Virgina and Ohio. The police in Leesburg, VA were quick to identify his motives as racial, though police in Michigan, where two of the victims are white, were more reticent. Now that there’s been an arrest in the case, the kind or type of race story this is only becomes more complicated.
Elias Abuelazam was apparently not what people expected the suspect to be. The suspicion was of some white supremacist targeting blacks. But now, it seems people aren’t even sure if he’s white, given his Middle Eastern background. As Matt Helms reports in today’s Detroit Free Press, which has led on coverage of this story. Abuelazam’s neighbors were surprised at his arrest, “because they thought the suspect would be white.” Also in today DFP, Zlati Meyer offers the following commentary:
“The vast majority of serial killers are white men, experts say.
Most serial killers choose victims of their same race.
Practically every serial killer focuses on the opposite gender, therefore usually women.
Almost all serial killers plan their attacks.
But Flint serial killer suspect Elias Abuelazam contradicts those patterns.”
This is yet another suggestion that he’s not white. Apparently Arab Israelis are not considered so, even though the U.S. census lists people of North African and Middle Eastern origins as “white.” But the confusion here is two-fold. He also doesn’t fit the pattern because he apparently didn’t select “victims of their same race.” And all of this is muddled further by the way serial killers are racialized as white, probably due to the associations of superior intelligence (think “criminal mastermind”) with such killers. But as this summer’s earlier story about the “Grim Sleeper” suggested, the way we think about these kinds of criminals is about due to be revised.
There’s so much more to write, but time does not permit. More soon!
An intriguing dynamic of our conversation about race is how we settle upon examples from a wash of news stories to stand for how and why race matters today or to answer a more abstract question, which a radio interview recently put to me: what’s the state of race relations today? The “conversation” designation references both that a particular incident is worth talking about in terms of its wider relevance to the nation and that it’s part of a series of examples that follow from one another. These stories are hardly random, yet their representative status is neither certain or given. What makes one story either merely an anecdote or reliable data? That’s part of what the conversation is about—we argue over how representative any particular incident is to a range of open questions about the importance of race. But such determinations are not easily made and are bound up with a dense tangle of questions of etiquette and convention, political dynamics between liberal/conservatives, and often unstated but perhaps newly unsettled assumptions about racial identities. That’s why it will be interesting to see whether or how the two most recent disturbing examples of racial violence get talked about: Omar Thornton and a white serial killer in Michigan.
Thornton killed eight coworkers at the Hartford Distributors warehouse in Manchester, Connecticut, explaining to a state trooper that he did it because “this place here is a racist place.” The killer still on the loose in the Flint area is a muscular white man who has killed 5 people and wounded 8 in knife attacks. All but one of his victims was black raising the suggestion that these are racially motivated killings.
Mostly, in the conversation, we focus maniacally on what’s been said; but with these two stories it will “speak volumes” if they continue to generate little or no commentary. That’s because these are enormously volatile incidents, but to make a case for their larger relevance is risky and potentially irresponsible. Especially given the intensity of national arguments involving race that have surged this summer, along with a host of other partisan conflicts and arguments. As Peggy Noonan observes, “America is at a risk of boiling over.” Our public discourse could easily become far more riotous if either of these stories, now teetering on the brink between “regional” and “national” news (The Root is asking why the Flint story is not national), are taken up in the broader discussions about the relevance of race today.
My good friend and colleague, John Hoberman, talks about the “threshold of civilized discourse” as the limit-point to which a commentator will go in race-baiting; perhaps implying certain racist ideas or narratives, but not actually making such statements explicitly. Whether or how these two stories get spun as representative in the media will perhaps give us some negative evidence of the enduring strength of the decorum that informs and constrains our public discourse on race. In that regard, the veritable silence around Omar Thornton is deafening. This won’t necessarily be a celebratory matter, if the stories don’t get mobilized in racial polemics, since they do raise important issues, first about enduring forms of racism and secondly about the terrifying history of violence by whites to maintain racial dominance or inspired by racial anxiety. But these topics are difficult to talk about at the best of times. At the moment, though, Thornton’s story is not gaining any traction. I only came across one Fox report, denying the possibility that racism was a root of his crimes, rather that demonizing blacks as seeking racial vengeance; as a counter point, I found one blog reading the story Thornton as evidence that “racism is here to stay.”
In late July, Senator James Webb published a bold call to end affirmative action that seemed certain to generate attention and controversy. But his op-ed, “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege,” was lost in the day’s dramatic events as the Shirley Sherrod story unfolded. Several commentators have since lamented this apparent missed opportunity to talk about how we might restructure what Webb labeled “diversity programs,” ruing the sensational distraction generated by Sherrod’s forced resignation over a deceptively edited video clip that seemed to depict her practicing reverse racism. But, ironically, the two stories have much in common, and their shared feature gives us an interesting angle on Webb’s ideas.
Poor whites lurk at the core of Webb’s proposal and are at heart of Sherrod’s drama. Webb holds up the plight of marginal whites as victims of affirmative action, whites much like Roger and Eloise Spooner, whose looming farm foreclosure 24 years ago provoked a profound realization for Sherrod that “it’s about the poor versus those who have,” rather than a struggle between “black and white.” Sherrod’s reflections on the Spooners’ predicament were cynically edited to sound as though she was depriving disadvantaged whites of her power to help them, directing them, instead to “their own kind” for help. But she shifted in her thinking about race when she realized how badly the Spooners were mistreated by the white lawyer to whom she referred them. Even after taking their money, the lawyer refused to file a motion on their behalf to prevent a foreclosure, telling the Spooners, “y’all are getting old. Why don’t you just let the farm go.” This dismissive disregard both shocked and angered Sherrod, who characterized the Spooners mistreatment as something “that I have not seen yet to any other farmer, black or white.”
The class contempt evident in the Spooners treatment is a fact of life in the United States, where the poor fair badly against “those who have.” Along with the material disadvantages that poverty presents in a country where we like to imagine any child can grow up to be president, the poor must also deal with a visceral loathing against them that parallels racism in its intensity. Can we imagine a type of Federal policy that would mitigate such sentiments in a way that would bring marginal whites more broadly into the public sphere in American life? I think it would be difficult, but I suspect that this is not actually the primary purpose of Webb’s proposal.
More than a concern with affirmative action, Webb is targeting how we talk about whiteness, particularly how it is associated with privilege in this country—an association that Webb thinks is a “myth.” Webb challenges the notion of “White Anglo-Saxon dominance,” arguing, via an unfortunate metaphor, that is has “served as the whipping post for almost every debate about power and status in America.” Webb asserts that white dominance and privilege have ended and now we need to recognize the ways affirmative action led to discrimination against whites. We need only look historically at the plight of white sharecroppers in the South to see their disadvantage in relation to the privileges of wealth and educations associated with WASPs.
But the notion that whiteness is no longer a privileged status in this country is laughable. The wealth gap between white and black families quadrupled over the last twenty-five years and now stands at $95,000, according to sociologist Thomas Shapiro, at Brandeis University. This constitutes a huge advantage for those who are born into white families. And whatever impacts the current recession is having on how wealth works in this country, they are disproportionately affecting African Americans, particularly in the precarious black middle class. This is hardly happenstance, as Harvard sociologist Orland Patterson argues, because these impacts are a reflection of hypersegregation in metropolitan areas that steers economic and social capital away from predominantly black neighborhoods. But such obvious evidence of continued white privilege in this country should not lead us away from considering the issue raised by Webb of the diversity of whiteness.
Webb is right: policy makers have long ignored “disparities within America’s white cultures.” But if we are talking about marginality and disadvantage within whiteness we have to do more than point to white diversity. We have to ask specifically which whites are we talking about and whether this is really about making policy changes in a way that would truly help the most deprived? Or is it, rather, a way of using marginal whites in a strictly symbolic role to divert attention away from continuing forms of white privilege? This question takes on added significance when we think about the host of commemorations underway this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a book that did much to amplify the idea that poor whites, like the Ewells, are the ones really responsible for racism. As I wrote in Odd Tribes, this image of poor whites “allows an insidious belief to stand: that it is only those people who are racist, only those women who are so licentious that they would engage in miscegenation, only those men are so cruel and desperately violent in maintaining the color line.” Given this fraught history of symbolic uses of poor whites to manipulate and maintain color lines in this country, I think this new found concern for them now warrants closer scrutiny.
The Shirley Sherrod story continues to generate excellent commentaries on why we have so much trouble talking about race. Interestingly, what emerges from these reflections is that some of the key dynamics shaping the story have little to do with race directly. Obama himself, perhaps not surprisingly, emphasizes this in blaming our “media culture” for the hysteria. John Harris and Jim VandeHei, writing for Politic.com, see the story as representing “the new normal” in the most recent phase of “nonstop ideological war,” one fueled by “the emergence of an industry—a political-media complex—for which ideological conflict is central to the business model.” Rem Riedder, editor of American Journalism Review, claims the “lessons of the Shirley Sherrod fiasco” are for journalists “to slow down, to check things out, to get the full story before posting or publishing or acting.” In this light, we can see a thread here that links back to other sensational stories like the nooses in Jena, LA, and the Duke rape case. In this view, the racial component of the story is almost a subplot. Even Eugene Robinson’s scathing assessment of race-baiting in this story—“these allegations of anti-white racism are being deliberately hyped and exaggerated because they are designed to make whites fearful”—acknowledges the partisan dynamic at work here: “this is really about tearing down Barack Obama.” So is it about left and right, rather than black and white?
Recognizing the ostensibly non-racial component of race stories is important to understanding how our “national conversation” on race does and does not work. Certainly, we have to acknowledge a primary characteristic of public discussions of race: it is manipulated to score political points. But race only carries this potential because it remains a taboo topic. I use “taboo” here in the technical sense of the term in anthropology, to characterize the belief that contact with a prohibited object means something bad will happen. This is well-illustrated with anxious references to “the n-word,” and it is certainly on display with the rapid firing and subsequent frantic effort to rehire Sherrod. Matt Bai, in putting this story in a larger context of U.S. political discourse, asks: “Why haven’t we moved beyond the old, stultifying debate in the age of Obama?” Part of the answer is that we’ve yet to recognize that this requires a double process, simultaneously grappling with our culture-bound anxieties about race while also understanding how they fuel partisan jousting. Additionally, we have to understand another larger dynamic at work here lies in the shifting line between private and public in American life, and how this, in turn, draws on fraught concerns over the changing contours of the “mainstream” of public discourse. More on that soon.
In Philadelphia in March of 2008, Barack Obama’s superb speech on race impressively seemed to create an opportunity for Americans to talk differently about racial matters. The speech and the intense national coverage it generated suggested that a fundamental change was occurring—instead of being a furtive, almost illicit subject, referenced largely by innuendo and manipulated via “code words,” race became a direct object of discussion. Specifically, Obama sought to engage whites by offering them a respite, of sorts, from blanket charges of racism by refusing to label the lingering “resentments of white Americans” as “misguided or even racist without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns.” That he eventually was elected, too, even more strongly indicated we were entering a new stage in our “national conversation on race.” Perhaps we were at last becoming “post-racial.” But the story of Shirley Sherrod suggests very little has changed after all.
Obama’s Philadelphia speech offered more than just a new position on ongoing efforts to understand the role of racism in U.S. society; it modeled a way to talk about race—calmly, in measured and considered fashion. But that model was nowhere to be seen in the administration’s reaction to drama around Shirley Sherrod. The knee-jerk reaction to fire her—unconscionably supported initially by the NAACP—demonstrated, rather, everything that was wrong about the ways Americans were used to talking about race. That is, do whatever it takes to keep race from coming up at all; and, if it does, respond with severity to this breach of public decorum by casting out the transgressor. The administration’s response aimed strictly to restore racial etiquette, rather than regarding race as something we have to calmly consider and think about.
Just in: another example of how dangerous it is to talk about race today? On Monday, Shirley Sherrod was compelled to resign from her position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the Georgia State Director of Rural Development because a video clip of her words was whipsawing around the web. Initially posted by Andrew Breitbart (who also circulated the videos that led to the downfall of Acorn), the clip seemed to reveal Sherrod practicing reverse racism by denying a white farmer “the full force of what I could do” in helping him stave off foreclosure on the family farm. Sherrod noted that the white farmer “was talking all the time trying to show me he was superior to me,” so she did only “enough so that when he” went back to USDA officials he would “report that I did try to help him.” But all the while she “was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farm land, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land.” She resolved the matter, initially, by delivering the farmer to a white lawyer, so “that his own kind would take care of him.”
It wasn’t simply the remarks, but the media context in which they appeared that made the story compelling. The recording itself, after all, was almost four months old; and she was telling a story about an event that happened 24 years ago while she was working with a nonprofit organization—not when she was in her current role with the USDA. But the clip was targeted towards a heated public exchange between the NAACP and the Tea Party, one informed by earlier conservative complaints over a Justice Department decision not to pursue a voter intimidation case against some members of the New Black Panthers in Philadelphia. As we know, context is everything, but that’s what is so difficult to grasp in this case: both with the initial remarks, because of the cynical way in which the clip was edited, and also with the anxious-making spotlight in which this discussion about race was unfolding.
Many of the problems that plague and complicate our “national conversation on race” are on display in this story. Obviously, there’s the interested, distorting circulation of the remarks, in the first place. But just as troubling is the anxiety that lead both the Department of Agriculture and the NAACP initially to condemn Sherrod. Yet the deepest problem here is a cultural one—whether conservative or liberal, we are intensely conditioned to look for race primarily in remarks. This is generally how we discuss race in public, typically as the words of some celebrity make the rounds of the blogs and news shows. We purvey remarks as the embodiment of an individual’s racial sensibilities, often asking if they also reflect the breadth and depth of racism in the nation at large. In doing so, we are generally oblivious, first, to the context in which remarks were made and, secondly, to the larger ambit of what the person was saying at the time. This cultural conditioning is justified in many ways—we’re all short on time and little nuggets of speech often can be revealing. But because of this conditioning, in Sherrod’s case, we missed what is so important for people to hear today.
Sherrod, after all, was telling a story of how her thinking about race changed. As her narrative unfolded, Sherrod related how she came to examine her own prejudices and recognized that class mattered more than race, realizing that poverty crosscuts racial differences. These kinds of stories matter a great deal for Americans now as we grapple with the changing meanings and relevance of race. But how are we going to share these if we have to be so on guard against the distortions of selective edits and over-anxious responses? Sherrod’s stories—both the one she was telling back in March and the one that’s unfolding in the media now—are an opportunity for us all to adopt a different stance towards listening for race. The key here is to move beyond parsing particular remarks with the expectations that they will reveal some deep-seated racist sensibility. Instead, we need to be alive to the possibility that people actively think about race, and that, in doing so, their thinking sometimes changes and evolves. That’s what we need to learn from this story.
The race stories are cropping up so fast and furious I can barely keep up. The DNA-family searches, renewed attention to the “white vote,” and the California Conference of the NAACP’s support for decriminalizing marijuana are just a few of the “to get to” developments. But before I do, I’ll take one last, belated look at how the World Cup played into (and perhaps broadened) our “national conversation on race,” especially in relation to Mexico and France.
First, it’s a bit surprising that there wasn’t more discussion of race during the cup, given its South African setting. As Roger Cohen noted in the NY Times, “South Africa is a country where race is not the subtext of existence. It’s the text.” In that sense, it provides a plethora of opportunities for taking stock of when, how, and why race still matters. Almost 80% black and grappling still with the challenges of post-apartheid politics and economics (they don’t seem to use “post-racial” the way we do, A[fter] O[bama]), the country is a huge proving ground for the future of race. But there seems to have been little discussion of race in South Africa, and when the subject was addressed at all it was largely in terms of the slew of racist taunts and attitudes among European fans. I only noticed Nancy Armor’s account (for AP) of white reactions to black/immigrant players in Europe. Despite watching maybe a dozen games, I never managed to catch a glimpse of the “Football Against Racism” logo that covered each field’s center circle until just before kickoff, nor did I hear any readings of the “declaration against racism” over the public-address system before the matches. When I searched “race and the world cup,” most of the hits referenced the race for ratings.
Anthropologist Matthew Durington maintained a steady attention to the dynamics around ethnicity on the blog, Savage Minds. Drawing on John and Jean Comaroff’s book, Ethnicity, Inc., as well as his own ethnographic work in South Africa, Durington analyzed the work of cultural commodification via forms of ethnic federation related to the games—in terms of marketing and advertizing, but also various types of ethno-tourism in South Africa. He sounds these out for their anxious-making mix of enrichment and entrapment, inclusion and exclusion. In particular, he spotlighted the “Bud House” as a spectacle blending “nationalism and ethnicity in a quasi-competition linked to individual teams that reflects the annihilate side for this visual anthropologist and it is this side of Ethnicity, Inc. that scares me.” Durington also discussed how “ethnotainment” plays in complex ways into an “entrepreneurial spirit in a very neoliberal South Africa.”
The most “global” discussion about race almost certainly was linked to the vitriol and angst over the French team, which keyed explicitly on race. It was hard to mix the racial subtext in French politicians’ slur-filled diatribes against black and immigrant players on the national team. The team’s poor showing provided a screen by which whites animatedly read the failure as reflecting the hopelessness of racial integration in France. But just as interesting was the effort to analyze this public discourse. The LA Times covered this angle in a story in late June, featuring assessments from analysts there, which offer interesting parallels to how “national conversations” are evaluated in other countries.
“”Nobody has said anything openly racist, yet,” said sociologist Jacques Tarnero, who studies racism. However, the risk of tipping into xenophobia comes up when the French team is associated with the problems of the French ghettoes. It could confuse the public, he said.”
As in the U.S., at work here is an effort to gauge when/how remarks become more than just racially “revealing” or “tinged” to be judged certifiably “racist.” I find the idea that these comments could somehow “confuse the public” to be amusing, as if “the public” hasn’t already generated a huge volume of blatantly racist remarks at the soccer matches. Tarnero’s assessment tries to maintain an intriguing line between culture and race: “The debate is a trap,” said Tarnero. “You should be able to say that there are cultural problems” in the suburb “without being accused of racism.”
A far more scathing assessment is offered by my dear colleague John Hoberman, who concludes that media coverage and the political turmoil linked to the team “is best explained as post-colonial drama, as indispensible black talent confronted the white authority figure whose job it was to keep them under control.” Hoberman tracks how the debate reflects a stark shift in public discourse on race in France: “But after the mostly black French soccer team’s defiance of its white leaders in South Africa, Le Pen’s racist critique of multiracial sport has entered the French political mainstream with a vengeance.” As well, Hoberman argues that what we witness here is the way developments in one cultural arena affect larger social discourses and debates. That is, the arena of sports becomes a screen for evaluating the politics of integration: “Consequently, the failure of France’s ‘black’ team has made the success of multiracial integration seem superficial.” Most importantly, Hoberman develops a comparative national perspective and points to the role of contingency in such discussions. Case in point: Germany, where there has been “a lot of public interest in the ethnicity of their World Cup representatives, but this curiosity is still under control. Germany’s postwar inhibitions about racial chauvinism rule out official abuse, à la française.” Common in both countries, and throughout Europe, is the immense symbolic importance that sports teams hold and the underlying post-colonial, racial dynamics that make them variously, uneasily representative of national as well as transnational collective identities. The important contingency: the Germans were largely victorious while the French were ingloriously defeated, and that makes a huge difference to how people regard the prospects of integration.
This comparative view on national discourses on race was most developed, though, in a late-breaking discussion between the U.S. and Mexico. This was generated by a July 5th story by Tracy Wilkinson in the LA Times about an incredibly popular morning TV show in Mexico that featured in their World Cup coverage (behind the official hosts) “actors in blackface makeup, dressed in fake animal skins and wild ‘Afro’ wigs, gyrate, wave spears and pretend to represent a cartoonish version of South Africa.” While to American eyes this display seems manifestly racist, Mexicans had their doubts; as Wilkinson reports, “Many Mexicans will say they are not racist and that very little racism exists in Mexico, a nation, after all, of mestizos, who are of European and indigenous blood.” Wilkinson argued the counter point, “that racism is alive and well in Mexico,” though noting that “it is primarily directed at indigenous communities.” And the debate was sparked. Her story drew over 250 comments, many in Spanish and many arguing that Americans were missing the real story. How can people in the U.S. be hurling accusations at Mexico when the state of Arizona just passed a law that appears to encourage racial profiling by police concerning illegal immigrants? But there were also plenty of testimony as to the breadth and extent of racism in Mexico, as well as in the U.S.
This is a debate that will likely find more opportunities to percolate over the years ahead. What’s interesting is to consider journalists roles in extending their evaluations of the “national conversation on race” in the U.S. to public discourse in Mexico. Much as they do with racial comments in the U.S., journalists contextualized this incident with ones in the not too distant past. In particular, they pointed to Vicente Fox’s comments in 2005 about Mexican immigrants “doing work that even blacks won’t do,” and the dust-up over the Memin Pinguin stamp with its buffoonishly caricatured blackface features. I am curious to see whether this role for journalists will develop in a transnational framework, extending the boundaries of the “national conversation.” Judging from the array of comments this story generated we’re going to need an additional anthropological perspective on the role of culture in such comparative discussions.