19 April 2007

Race and Racism - by Dr. Faye Harrison

February 26, 2007 - “A Series of Unfortunate Events? A Look at Race”

Faye V. HarrisonProfessor of African American Studies & Anthropology
University of Floridafayeharr@ufl.edu
Questions posed by organizers:
What is the state of our national conversation on race? Are we moving forward or moving backward in race relations? Do we need to correct our current course? How?

In my view, there is a great deal of denial about race and racism in this country. The denial is not just occurring at the level of ignorant individuals who lack knowledge, sensitivity, and live lives sustained by class and/or racial privilege. The denial is also evident in the language, practices, and policies—both domestic and foreign—of our democratically-elected government. That government and the increasingly neoconservative interests that drive its current administration, promotes colorblindness and a post-Civil Rights notion of diversity management that in many respects denies the severity of present-day racial inequalities and the extent to which they are still being perpetuated by institutional and structural means. Both the legacy and cumulative burdens of past discrimination and the insidious, often subtle, forms of racism that are being reconfigured, restructured and deeply implanted in today’s late modern world operate to the patterned and systemic disadvantage of people of color, from those experiencing racial scapegoating since 9/11 to those who have long been relegated to the bottom of the nation’s social and economic hierarchy. The language of our public conversation on race and our political discourse in general has taken a rightward shift away from many issues that truly need to be engaged from angles that consider explanatory frames and justice-seeking possibilities that go well beyond the established boundaries of Republican Party politics and even beyond those of the Democratic Party’s Liberalism as it’s come to be constituted today. We must remember that Liberals have been among those who’ve advocated the dismantling of welfare as we once knew it and affirmative action, ideologically reduced to quotas, playing the race card, and “reverse racism.” Both of these domains of ideological, legal, and legislative struggle have been racialized in ways detrimental to the interests and well-being of their overlapping and, unfortunately, disunited constituencies—poor folks, the racially subordinated, and women and those who depend upon their contracting resources and hard work, both waged or unwaged.
Black people have long represented the most radical form of difference here in the U.S. Although we know that race relations is more complicated than the bipolarities of black and white, we also know, or should, that the inequalities and racial assaults, both symbolic and physical, that black people experience are often severe. Some of the indicators of the “savage inequalities” and injustices that adversely affect black communities include: the drastically lower net worth (or wealth) of black families compared to white families, the labor force experience of black workers who are among the last hired and first fired in recessions and who suffer the highest rates of unemployment, the inequalities in health and life expectancy, and in the arena of criminal justice the mass incarceration of black males and the soaring rates among black women, whose convictions have dire consequences for families and communities “on the outside” and deprive the convicted of the rights of citizenship for which the black freedom movement has long fought. These regressive changes are occurring right under our noses, yet they remain largely unspoken and silenced as salient matters for serious political debate.
The U.S. has also played a role in attempting to discredit and inhibit the conversations about race and racism that have been gaining momentum in international and transnational arenas, such as those facilitated the pre- and post-conference activities associated with the UN’s World Conference against Racism (2001) as well as other world conferences on related issues. In the language and legalities of international human rights—a regime that is not without its contradictions and flaws—structural racism in its various faces and modalities is a violation of human rights, a violation warranting redress, compensation, and reconciliation. While the U.S. is signatory to the anti-racist treaty, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which took effect way back in 1969, it has presented a major obstacle to the work of monitoring and promoting compliance to this treaty.
Despite the many obstacles, including national and transnational or imperial political agendas, international conversations have led more activists to understand that racism is more than a problem in the U.S. and South Africa. It is a problem of increasingly global scope that is being heightened in contexts reshaped by the contemporary mobilities of both immigrants and capital along with the often problematic impacts of (U.S.) foreign policy. Contrary to the “norm against noticing race” that prevails in international relations, foreign policy is no more color blind than domestic policy is. We need to face the power racism exerts at home and abroad before we can figure out how to dismantle it.

rants on race & gender

so it's been a while - spring blues haven't gotten the best of me - I'm still here in the struggle. The past few months have re-confirmed how much conversations about race, racism, gender, sexism, sex, sexuality, and class (among others) are needed in public discourse. Since the aftermath of Katrina, along with other incidents like the Kramer racial tirade, the Duke lacrosse case (which still has yet to be discussed and dealt with in a decent way & the larger issues of race and class are largely ignored), and the Imus madness - race has emerged in many a public debate and news headlines, but rarely engaged in complex ways. What has been made evident rather is the fear of talking about race, the denial of racism, and the belief in colorblindness as the dominant view of race in this country. This not only helps white people to feel justified in doing whatever they want and casting blame on people of color for our problems, and it also intensifies self-hate and internalized racism for people of color - and/or we just don't want to talk about it either - easier to deny and pretend that everything is equal... We are living in dangerous times - an' still no reparations (and when I say reparations - let's be clear - I don't mean cash, I mean supporting Affirmative Action and structural adjustments that will create social and economic equality for those who have been systematically and institutionally denied equal access).

I have been fortunate to attend a few excellent forums on race recently [Feb 26th - Panel Discussion - "A Series of Unfortunate Events? A Look at Race" & April 3rd - Lecture - "A Nation of Minorities: Race, Ethnicity, and Reactionary Colorblindness" - both at the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at UF's Law School]. These events have helped me to develop my thoughts, theories, and teaching about race and racism (especially Dr. Faye Harrison's statement on A Look at Race - which I will post in its entirety; and Dr. Ian Haney Lopez's lecture which I talk about below). And they have sparked many debates about race and gender with my friends. These have all created the following rants. I am including them here to keep track of my thoughts and in hopes of sparking more conversations and debates:

colorblind madness & Fox Attacks on Black America
So someone put a montage of Fox News clips that show Fox attacking "Black America" - meaning black issues, Barack Obama, affirmative action, and so on. What struck me was that they had a number of black folks agreeing with accusations of black people and communities being racist. One news reporter asked a conservative black politician if he thought Barack Obama's church was racist because they had in their mission statement a focus on the black community and black people and he said yes. This drove home to me how distorted discussions about race and racism are - especially in the public arena and media - and that we need explain what racism is and what affirmative action is and why it is still needed over and over again. Professor Ian Haney Lopez from UC Berkeley, who writes about race relations and law, does this in his work and talked about this in his lecture - and he gave an exceptional talk on reactionary colorblindness and why/how affirmative action is being attacked through a history of colorblindness and ethnicity in law and public discourse. He drove the point home that - We are now in this colorblind moment (that supports white dominance) where anyone can be racist - because the public sphere does not talk about structural racism - and discussions about race and racism are absent unless it is about an individual or it is based on culture and ethnicity - which are used instead of race. Professor Lopez said we have to de-legitimize colorblindness, support affirmative action, explain what it is - and describe it as "social repair" not preference or privilege - and talk about racial hierarchy and explain racism as a structural issue. If you don't know his work, you should check it out - I think his talk was one of the best discussions of race and law I have ever heard.

racialized gendered language and why imus' apology don't matter
While I am surprised and happy that Imus got fired, I am disturbed at how the media continues to spin this scandal - the discussions about race and gender are seriously problematic, rarely engaging in the history of this language or structural & internalized racism (NPR did have some better coverage) and these women have had to prove that they are "good, professional women," meanwhile discussions about Imus revolved around his "goodness." We live in a moment where people are so focused on the individual character and debates about whether or not Imus is racist and if he is a good person (same shit that happened with Kramer) - as opposed to talking about the fact that WHAT he said is racist and the language he used is racialized and gendered - the fact that an apology from him will never deal with why he was so comfortable saying what he said in the first place - his race and class privilege - on the flippin radio/internet/public sphere/public airwaves. And that he can bust out the tired excuse that - well "they say it to each other" routine - is taking us back to all the debates over the n-word - and reveals the extent to which we can't talk about race and racism in a serious way that addresses structural racism or even racialized & gendered language that's very different than "making fun of people." And the fact that these women feel like they have to (or more than likely advised to) defend themselves against this language and explain that they are not what he said shows us how powerful and loaded these racialized/gendered stereotypes are - because in the media/film/music/popular culture/etc. black women are seen as hos (thinking about the legacy of slavery and the perception that black women can't be raped and automatically thought of as prostitutes - ex. duke lacrose case). These women have been paraded around on shows, press conferences, and so on, to prove they are respectable black women - in other words, not like the "real hos" out there. And I am tired of these accusations that "the black community" has to deal with the language of hip hop and rap - as if various black communities haven't been doing this work for DECADES... as if the largest consumers of hip hop aren't white... as if the producers of the music and the videos aren't mostly white... as if we're the only ones who sustain this language... as if it doesn't come out of the history of slavery and segregation... as if we aren't talking about these issues... BUT I do agree we need to deal with our own issues - we have to talk about this ideal of black respectability and deal with the difficulty of talking about sex and sexuality - especially black female sexuality. Perhaps having these conversations will help us to deal with the aftermath of the duke case - like asking the question, what happened because something happened to this woman - who has now been rendered liar, invisible, and unimportant. So das why I think Imus' apology don't matter - cause it does nothing to deal with these deep-seeded issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class - it just helps to brush them back under the carpet - making this scandal an individual thing that doesn't reflect larger issues.

we are livin in a scary moment - It is regressive, conservative, reactionary, individualistic, capitalist, white-dominated patriarchy, fundamentalist christian... and in it - we are dealin with new kinds of racism and sexism that exist through denial and claims of equality...

stayin in the struggle,