The school year is about to begin. The summer has disappeared and I have three weeks left to work like a madman to get some long overdue work submitted. I did have some good successes and will count them as positives.
Like many of you, I am updating syllabi and rethinking a few of my classes. One of the courses I teach each year is a required section of "Race and Diversity" in the United States. Many of my colleagues do not like teaching the course because the students are not always engaged, the evaluations tend to be low, and the issues discussed can lead to intense and stressful moments for "snowflakes" who are not prepared to think about power and inequality. For that cohort, they are individuals raised by helicopter parents, and believe that institutional and society power has little impact on their ability to succeed in our society. Unfortunately, there are also many adults who have also not grown out of believing in such foolishness.
For those reasons, I enjoy leading the seminar. It is so broadly defined that I can do just about anything in terms of the assignments and themes discussed, and yet still remain "pedagogically sound." Given my research interests, the course is typically a mix of the Sociology of Race 101, cultural studies, labor history, comparative race studies, and critical race theory.
However, teaching this course is not easy. One of the challenges of teaching about race and racial ideologies in the post racial moment is that many "millennials" (and others) born after the Civil Rights Movement actually believe that racism is a thing of the past. Consequently, racism and white supremacy are minor inconveniences in the present.
Undergraduates tend to not believe a thing is real unless they can see it with their own eyes. Many undergraduates, and I would suggest the general public as well, are not yet at a point where they are able to mate sociological theories with empirical reality. The sociological imagination is not yet real for them.
In order to overcome that challenge, I use video clips, examples from popular culture, the news, and other resources which demonstrate that racism and other inequalities are real--and that they have human consequences.
For example, I will be using the much discussed Hurricane Katrina photos where black people looking for food are framed as "looters" whereas whites are "finding" supplies, pictures of Obama and his wife as monkeys, signs and interviews from Tea Party rallies, the new age black face of the white female rapper Kreayshawn, racially coded and dog whistle laced speeches by Republican candidates from the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, and the "hoody politics" of the menacing black body and Trayvon Martin, to demonstrate how age old racial ideologies are both reproduced, as well as reinforced, in American society.
Given my interest in cyber racism and digital democracy, I have also been compiling helpful examples from online news media and social networking.sites. As I have written about repeatedly, websites' comments sections offer a great window into the collective political subconscious, and are rich measures of informal public opinion.
To point, at my site We Are Respectable Negroes, there is a recurring commenter by the name of "OTB" who is an ideal typical case of conservative, colorblind racism in practice. On this thread for example, his comments are a pitch perfect demonstration of the logic of white racism(s) in the post Civil Rights era.
As such, I will be using his posts as a "living" example of the theories offered by social scientists such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Joe Feagin, Charles Gallagher, George Yancy, as well as the indispensible Omi and Winant. It is always invigorating and exciting to see the nuts and bolts of colorblind racism--what has been described as "racism without racists"--displayed so perfectly.
In total, OTB's understanding of the relationships between race, American politics, privilege, power, and history is an echo of the theories, empirical research, and historiographies that has been developed to explain how racial dynamics and the color line shifted (or not) in the decades following the Civil Rights Movement to the Age of Obama.
The simple and short story goes something like this.
The Civil Rights Movement was successful to the degree that the Black Freedom Struggle leveraged white guilt and the realpolitik concerns of white elites during the the Cold War (and who represented the interests of Wall Street and the Consumers Republic) to end Jim and Jane Crow. This shift was revolutionary and transformative in many ways. However, it was not radical in the sense of a deep reorganization of resources, power, or opportunity structures along the color line. Yes, de jure racism was largely eliminated; however, social and political institutions would continue to reinforce norms of white privilege and white institutional power.
America would become a "multicultural democracy" and marginally integrate among its elites and middle classes. But, day-to-day life would remain highly ordered along lines of race and racial inequality. Racism was forced to evolve in order fit a set of global political realities. Consequently, racism had to become more sophisticated and impersonal. American society would remain oriented around protecting the power, wealth, and resources of white people. However, this would be done through seemingly "race neutral" policies and practices.
One of the bargains made in the consensus deal that produced the Voting and Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, was that racism would become a sin of all people. It was not something exclusive to whites in America, a special sin that needed to be accounted for by robust and radical distributions of power or resources. Universities and corporate America would institute very marginal and limited "affirmative action" and "diversity recruitment" programs.
With the white ethnic backlash against the Civil Rights Movement in the 1970s, the rise of neoconservatism/neoliberalism, and Ronald Reagan, these modest programs would be all but eliminated. Because racism is now a thing of the past, and the radical nature of Dr. King's vision was reduced to a few soundbites of race neutral huggy feely hokum about kids and mountaintops, another shift could take place.
For the white racial frame, racism no longer exists as a force that significantly impacts a given person's life chances or life outcomes. As framed by symbolic racism, or what is alternatively term as "the new racism," blacks can succeed if they just work hard like all of the other immigrants. Blacks are also beset by bad culture, lazy, and complain too much. African Americans are also a threat within the American body politic, and are not really part of the American political tradition. The language used to describe race and racism also "evolved" and newspeak such as "reverse racism" was introduced into our common vocabulary.
These semantic shifts in the public discourse are based on a number of common sense understandings held by (racially conservative) whites as individuals, and Whiteness as a construct of identity and power.
1. Racism does not really exist;The most powerful move, the endgame, is that in the post racial, conservative colorblind era, those with power, privilege, and who constitute the "in-group," can then be the arbiters of what constitutes racism, classism, sexism, or homophobia.
2. If racism does exist it is very rare;
3. Racism is an opinion;
4. The burden of proof when discussing race (or other social inequalities) is on the speaker to demonstrate that such an offense has actually taken place, or alternatively that race and power somehow intersect in a given moment or outcome;
5. Racism is mean words and overt violence such as that visited upon people by the KKK or Neo-Nazis;
6. Conservatives do not believe in either the power or existence of social institutions which impact life chances unfairly, therefore the language of "personal initiative" and "personal responsibility" eliminate and make impossible any discussion of institutional racism or inequality.
Evidence must be produced to convince those with power--and who possess a personal investment in denying their own relative privilege--that widely documented, empirically demonstrable social facts, are in fact true. As such, when a person of color confronts a white person (or white institution) about racism, it is the latter who get to decide if said offense has in fact occurred. Conversely, said person can then cry foul, because in their view they have been unfairly marked or maligned as a "racist," and are now a "victim" of angry, hostile, "overly sensitive" black and brown people who leverage fictions such as "the race card" to intimidate and bully good white people.
In total, these dynamics have created an absurd and bizarre set of outcomes where according to recent public opinion polls, a significant percentage of white respondents believe that anti-white racism is at bigger social problem than discrimination against people of color, and where white men feel the most aggrieved and least hopeful about their futures in the Age of Obama, when in fact white men are the most powerful and wealthy group in the United States
Colorblind racism also nurtures a perverse type of white political dementia, that in the Age of Obama white people are somehow oppressed and under siege by black and brown people--a lie that is willfully manipulated and played upon for electoral gains by Right-wing bloviators such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, agents who are working in the service of the Tea Party GOP and its political candidates.
Expert students and academics often lose sight of how theory should be sustained by practice, and made relevant to the "real world." My analogy here is one of catching an STD or getting a woman pregnant. A person knows that if they have unprotected sex either outcome is possible, however the math suggests it probably will not happen. But, these outcomes remain abstractions until said consequence is actually visited upon you.
I find white racism and other systems of power inequalities fascinating on an intellectual level. I find it invigorating when I see the theories I read about and study played out in practice. Imminently so. The challenge of being a good educator is how best to communicate those moments of praxis to our students.