Race Talk

keeping up with the "national conversation on race"

Archive for August 2010

Racial Killings Pt 2

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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!


Written by jhartiganj

August 13, 2010 at 4:17 pm

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Racial Killings

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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.”

Written by jhartiganj

August 8, 2010 at 9:00 pm

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Poor whites and Jim Webb’s proposal to redirect affirmative action policies

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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.

Written by jhartiganj

August 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized