However, the powerful effect of white people’s touchiness on this subject should not to be underestimated. In fact, I think it goes hand in hand with the threat of violence in perpetuating racism.
For instance, racial inequality nowadays relies more heavily on the intimidation and violence of the war on drugs and immigration enforcement than on the terrorism of vigilante groups. But, racist immigration and drug enforcement policies are founded on the widespread popularity of racial stereotypes that falsely criminalize black men as the source of the illegal drug problem in the U.S., and immigrants of color as drains on our economy. In other words, ordinary prejudice is as much a part of the oppressive equation for communities of color as violence and intimidation, and the fact that these ordinary forms of prejudice are expressed through major public institutions is possible because we deny that these stereotypes are grounded in prejudice at all.
We need to marginalize ordinary racist stereotypes and behavior, and this starts with calling racism out, even when those guilty of it get touchy because they are unable to recognize their acts as racist.
But, why so touchy?
At the risk of sparking a sh*t storm, here are a couple of proposals.
First, I think white people get bent out of shape by the label racist because being able to wield it means that, at least culturally speaking, people of color have power we haven’t traditionally had, specifically because of racism.
For generations even looking at a white person in the wrong way could get a person of color fired, harassed, terrorized or even lynched. Going as far as lodging an accusation of any kind against a white person could spark a race riot.
But socially conscious people of all races fought and even died in order to end the white cultural, economic, and political supremacy that led to this kind of intimidation and violence. Today, the degree to which we are empowered to speak out against racism is a measure of the erosion of unjust white power and privilege that was achieved through these historic efforts. When white people react defensively to people of color involved in the audacious act of calling them out for racism, they are, albeit usually unconsciously, struggling to reconcile themselves with lost white privilege.
That’s my first theory.
Murphy justifies keeping students from grappling with this history in the name of “[making] sure every kid in the county is protected.” In this reckoning, 17 and 18 year olds need protection from a few lost nights of sleep, from realizing that people are capable of doing truly awful things, from the knowledge that some people live with horrific, daily, inescapable violence.
Here’s another question: which 17 and 18 year olds need protection from this? Many teenagers know these things already. Some because it’s an unavoidable part of their history. So many others know these things from direct experience. To be able to assume a blanket right to protection that can be exercised simply by keeping scary books out of kids’ hands is the product of an amazing level of privilege and disconnectedness from reality.
As Prof. David Leonard says, the argument from a white parent living in an affluent suburb that “children” as an undifferentiated class need to be protected from merely reading about such things “speaks to sense of entitlement and notion of whose innocence, security, and personal joy deserves attention [and] protection.”
This is a roundabout sort of white supremacy that coopts the language of keeping kids safe to say that the experiences people of color actually lived are too volatile even read about. And let’s be clear, it’s not simply the fact that these are stories about people of color that is at issue. It’s the fact that these are also histories of white people, and histories that are fundamentally incompatible with mythologies of whiteness, particularly the myth of whiteness as innocence.
A history where people of color are the innocent victims of white violence is an offense to white supremacy. So demands are made for preserving the “innocence” of white kids, something that requires denying the innocence of communities of color subjected to white violence and colonialism. White students must be shielded from the trauma of confronting the violent acts and legacy of people who looked like them – perhaps even people they are descended from.
Historically African American women did not have the luxury to be freethinkers because they were constructed as the racialized sexual other. Their bodies were the backdrop to European American notions of individual liberty, humanity, and natural rights. Their labor was the raw material for European American intellectualism. European American freethought traditions were predicated on the enslavement of the racialized sexual other. Within the context of slavery and, later, Jim Crow, women like Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and other first- and second-wave white feminist freethinkers would not have had the license to be secular were it not for the dialectic between the civilized white Western subject and the degraded amoral racialized sexual other. Alice Walker powerfully evokes this theme in her essay, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, which contemplates the contradictions of black female creativity and “genius” within the holocaust-like conditions of slavery.
Black working women were not supposed to be geniuses. In the West, genius and godliness are intimately bound to each other. Black women’s lives were too “cluttered” with the debris of the everyday—the cooking, cleaning, minding, managing, and tending that comes with the earthly terrain of caregiving—to soar to the heavens with geniuses. Small wonder then that the spaces they did find themselves in, that were available to them, became wellsprings for expressions of godliness, both subversive and conforming. That the vast majority of black women were only afforded access to the worlds of work, the family, and church meant that their “genius” would by necessity be a reflection of those worlds. In the turbulence of antebellum America “God” became ordinary black women’s medium for expressing genius, creativity, artistry, mastery, and invention.
Hence, secularism was a dangerous and untenable position because of the way black dehumanization was institutionalized. Where would black women go to be affirmed as persons? The courts, where their rights were not recognized? The Constitution, where their bodies were vessels? The education system, where their culture was demeaned as savage, primitive, and un-Christian? Government, where their bodies were deep profit for some of the nation’s most esteemed legislators and moral philosophers? White churches, where they were debased as Jezebels and amoral children of Ham?
For Latinas coming from Catholic traditions, the ubiquitous image of the pure-as-the-driven-snow, self-sacrificing Virgin Mary is the traditional model for femininity. But the Virgin’s white purity is only validated by the fallen dark whore; the black, Asian, Native American woman or Latina whose body, in the words of bell hooks, is “the sign of sexual experience.” As writer Yasmin Davidds Garrido notes, “It often seemed to me that unless I behaved just like the Virgin Mary I wouldn’t be good enough to win God’s approval. In order to be considered a good girl, I had to be quiet, submissive, and obedient…This is one way Catholicism coerces young girls to mute their voices.”
This is the backdrop against which women of color struggle with religious and secular belief systems. Even as the moral weight of their communities—reinforced by the dominant culture—is placed on them, many continue to seek refuge in faith and faith traditions because they provide a sense of purpose, direction, and meaning. Responding to a survey I conducted on high school aged young women and faith, twelfth grader Vanessa Linares* agreed that African American women and Latinas are packing the pews because many of them “believe that women of color need faith/religion to be moral.” Thus, popular reality shows like the Bad Girls Club and platinum-selling pop artists like wannabe Barbie-doll rapper Nicki Minaj show young women of color that hypersexuality is a quick and dirty form of “validation” for a select few. These women may appear to be flouting conventional sexual mores with “fuck you” alpha-female sexuality, but they are still rigidly bound by them. And, by the same token, the goddess cult that so many women of color flock to is also a cul-de-sac. Goddesses, queens, princesses, and other icons of so-called spiritual authority are by definition floating above the “sorry” muck of mere mortals.
Nonetheless, over the past few years more women of color have stepped up to assume leadership roles in secular, atheist, and humanist organizations. They have done so in a movement that is blithely ignorant of, if not explicitly hostile to, the lived experiences, cultural capital, community context, and social history of people of color in the U.S. In 2011, Kim Veal, president of the Black Non-Believers of Chicago, founded her group after being exasperated with participating in predominantly white groups where she was treated like an “enigma.” Echoing the sentiments of other non-believers of color who have been turned off by the vibe of all-white groups, she says, “this was disenchanting; you don’t know if they are truly interested in getting to know you or are trying to pick the brain of their new token.” Mandisa Thomas started the Black Non-Believers of Atlanta as a safe space for non-believers in the heavily evangelical South. BNOA of Chicago, Atlanta, and my group Black Skeptics Los Angeles have prioritized social justice issues like homophobia in the Black Church, HIV/AIDS prevention, reproductive justice, and homelessness. Veal and Thomas, along with Ayanna Watson of Black Atheists of America, Debbie Goddard and Jamila Bey of African Americans for Humanism, and Bridgette Gaudette of Secular Woman, are part of a new wave of women of color who head atheist organizations.
Whites are about 78% of the American public. According to Gallup, about 19% of whites were opposed to interracial marriage in 2007. That’s a pretty small minority of whites, but in total number, that’s something like 49 million people. There are only 69 million or so non-white people living in the U.S. That means that the number of whites who oppose interracial marriage is greater than all of any one U.S. racial minority group. Why are they so afraid?
I believe what whites have to fear is white people.
When white supremacy was challenged by the racial justice movements of the 1950s and ’60s, white elites pivoted from overt racism and co-opted the language and symbols, but not the substance, of racial justice. By doing so, they were able to position themselves as champions of a new colorblind code of civility that reduces structural racial injustice to an attitudinal problem. This enabled them to block attempts to reorganize unjust power relations while deflecting responsibility for continuing injustice on overt racists who were cast as ignorant, immoral, and backward.
This move caused whiteness to fracture. The dominant faction of elites adopted a strategy of coded messaging and avoidance of obvious racial conflict, while using overt racists as a foil against which to position themselves as racial egalitarians. When whites are exposed as racists, their anger is in part a reaction to the fear that they will be cast out of the dominant faction of whites and marginalized along with old fashioned racists like the KKK.
If you buy that, what we are up against, at least in part, is a factional fight among whites over how best to maintain supremacy. And for people of color to concede to that by avoiding direct attacks on racism is like cutting off our noses to spite our faces.
Sadly it’s a recurring theme in our four centuries of being Africans in America. We African-Americans make any minor, major or groundbreaking progress and it’s ‘too much ’ for whites and whiteness to handle.
After it occurs, you have the inevitable panicked rush of white supremacists to roll back that progress or work to create barriers to prevent further advancement for my people while stirring up resentment in the huddled masses of low and middle income white people. When we overcome that latest created barrier or painfully get back to the previous point we were at evolutionary wise in terms of our development as African-Americans, the rush by whiteness to create a new way to roll our progress back begins anew.
The fact you have people of color routinely doing things ‘they’ don’t think we should be doing such as running Fortune 500 corporations, winning Nobel Prizes, walking fashion runways, winning major golf or tennis tournaments, being the governor of a state or living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue along with the news that whites will be a minority population in the United States by 2040 has made whiteness uneasy.
The election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 has sent the bigots into a frothing at the mouth frenzy and doubled down on pimping the dog whistle message of GOP=white leadership. When the GOP gained control of several state legislatures in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections one of the first things those Republican legislatures did was pass voter suppression laws designed to depress the turnout of African-American voters in the runup to this 2012 presidential election..
And the irrationality of the Massive Resistance 2.0 strategy the Republican party has deployed in order to deny him a second term speaks volumes to the level of racism in the GOP. They are willing to bankrupt and destroy this country just to oust one Black man and his family out of the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave my people built with their unpaid labor.
The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.
No amount of rhetorical moderation could change this. It did not matter that the president addressed himself to “every parent in America.” His insistence that “everybody [pull] together” was irrelevant. It meant nothing that he declined to cast aspersions on the investigating authorities, or to speculate on events. Even the fact that Obama expressed his own connection to Martin in the quietest way imaginable—“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”—would not mollify his opposition. It is, after all, one thing to hear “I am Trayvon Martin” from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.
By virtue of his background—the son of a black man and a white woman, someone who grew up in multiethnic communities around the world—Obama has enjoyed a distinctive vantage point on race relations in America. Beyond that, he has displayed enviable dexterity at navigating between black and white America, and at finding a language that speaks to a critical mass in both communities. He emerged into national view at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, with a speech heralding a nation uncolored by old prejudices and shameful history. There was no talk of the effects of racism. Instead Obama stressed the power of parenting, and condemned those who would say that a black child carrying a book was “acting white.” He cast himself as the child of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas and asserted, “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” When, as a senator, he was asked if the response to Hurricane Katrina evidenced racism, Obama responded by calling the “ineptitude” of the response “color-blind.”
Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police. And hence Barack Obama’s insisting that there was no racial component to Katrina’s effects; that name-calling among children somehow has the same import as one of the oldest guiding principles of American policy—white supremacy. The election of an African American to our highest political office was alleged to demonstrate a triumph of integration. But when President Obama addressed the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, he demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld. The larger effects of this withholding constrict Obama’s presidential potential in areas affected tangentially—or seemingly not at all—by race. Meanwhile, across the country, the community in which Obama is rooted sees this fraudulent equality, and quietly seethes.
Obama’s first term has coincided with a strategy of massive resistance on the part of his Republican opposition in the House, and a record number of filibuster threats in the Senate. It would be nice if this were merely a reaction to Obama’s politics or his policies—if this resistance truly were, as it is generally described, merely one more sign of our growing “polarization” as a nation. But the greatest abiding challenge to Obama’s national political standing has always rested on the existential fact that if he had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin. As a candidate, Barack Obama understood this.
“The thing is, a black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there,” Cornell Belcher, a pollster for Obama, told the journalist Gwen Ifill after the 2008 election. “However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”
Belcher’s formulation grants the power of anti-black racism, and proposes to defeat it by not acknowledging it. His is the perfect statement of the Obama era, a time marked by a revolution that must never announce itself, by a democracy that must never acknowledge the weight of race, even while being shaped by it. Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.
The local Sikh community in Milwaukee had been raising concerns about racial harassment, targeting, and violence for at least the past year. The Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 incidents of anti-Sikh hate crimes in the U.S. since 9/11. One of those was 49-year-old Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first post 9/11 hate-crime fatality. He was shot five times on September 15, 2001 in Mesa, AZ and his murderer Frank Silva Roque admitted that he killed Sodhi because he was dark, bearded, and wore a turban. White supremacy is fostered, cultivated, condoned, and supported–in the education system and mainstream corporate media, from military missions to the prison industrial complex.
The crimes of white supremacists are not exceptions and do not and cannot exist in isolation from more systemic forms of racism. People of colour face legislated racism from immigration laws to policies governing Indigenous reserves; are discriminated and excluded from equitable access to healthcare, housing, childcare, and education; are disproportionately victims of police killings and child apprehensions; fill the floors of sweatshops and factories; are over-represented in heads counts on poverty rates, incarceration rates, unemployment rates, and high school dropout rates. Colonialism has and continues to be shaped by the counters of white men’s civilizing missions. The occupation of Turtle Island is based on the white supremacist crime of colonization, where Indigenous lands were believed to be barren and Indigenous people believed to be inferior. The occupation of Afghanistan has been justified on the racist idea of liberating Muslim women from Muslim men. Racialized violence has also always targeted places of worship–the spiritual heart of a community. In Iraq, for example, the US Army accelerated bombings of mosques from 2003-2007 with targeted attacks on the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque, Abu Hanifa shrine, Khulafah Al Rashid mosque and many others. And so I repeat: the patterns of hate crimes have a sense, have a logic, have a structure – they are part of a broader system of white supremacy.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, notes that the 40-year Army veteran and gunman Wade Michael Page was the leader of a racist white-power band End Apathy. Potok further details Page’s involvement in a number of other white power bands and his attempts to purchase good from neo-Nazi websites. Media reports also note that Page was a psychological operations specialist in the Army, responsible for developing and analyzing intelligence that would have a “psychological impact on foreign populations.” While racialized cultures and religions are consistently held to task, the culture and system of white supremacy is never scrutinized by the state or media. What breeds white power movements? Who funds white power groups? How are people recruited into neo-Nazi groups? What is the connection between white supremacist groups and state institutions like the Army? These are the questions that will never be interrogated because whiteness is too central, too foundational to the state and to this society to unsettle.
White supremacy, as a dominant and dominating structuring, actually necessitates and relies on a discourse that suggests that hate crimes are random. Otherwise, whites might just have to start racially profiling all other young and middle-aged white men at airports or who are walking while white. Whites might have to analyze what young white children are being taught about in schools and in their homes about privilege and entitlement. Whites might have to own up to and seek to repair the legacy of racialized empire, imperialism, and settler-colonialism that has devastated and continues to destroy the lives and lands of millions of people across the globe.
Whites might actually have to start distancing themselves from white supremacy.
Since blackness is reviled in the United States, why would an immigrant, of whatever skin color, want to associate with those who are racially oppressed, particularly when the transit into the United States promises the dream of gold and glory? The immigrant seeks a form of vertical assimilation, to climb from the lowest, darkest echelon in the stepladder of tyranny into the bright whiteness. In U.S. history the Irish, Italians, Jews, and–in small steps with some hesitations on the part of white America–Asians and Latinos have all tried to barter their varied cultural worlds for the privileges of whiteness.
Yet all people who enter the United States do not strive to be accepted by the terms set by white supremacy. Some actively disregard them, finding them impossible to meet. Instead, they seek recognition, solidarity, and safety in embracing others also oppressed by white supremacy in something of a horizontal assimilation. Consider the rebel Africans, who fled the slave plantations and took refuge among the Amerindians to create communities such as the Seminoles’; the South Asian workers who jumped ship in eighteenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, to enter the black community; Frederick Douglass’s defense of Chinese “coolie” laborers in the nineteenth century; the interactions of the Black Panther Party with the Red Guard and the Brown Berets in the mid-twentieth century; and finally the multiethnic working-class gathering in the new century.
When people actively or tacitly refuse the terms of vertical integration they are derisively dismissed as either unassimilable or exclusionary. We hear “Why do the black kids sit together in the cafeteria,” instead of “Why do our institutions routinely uphold the privileges of whiteness?” There is little space in popular discourse for an examination of what goes on outside the realm of white America and people of color.
–Excerpted from Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections And The Myth Of Cultural Purity (2002)
This quote is partly why Dr. Vijay Prashad is the Racialicious Crush Of The Week. Read the rest of our reasons why on the R today.