Racism Review | Scholarship and Activism towards racial justice
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More than 60 percent of America’s middle and high school students rely on alt-right internet sites as credible sources for their research papers. The students are using alt-right sites to write papers on topics that range from free speech and the Second Amendment to citizenship, immigration and the Holocaust.
Middle and high school students turn to alt-right websites for their research papers.
(Photo by Dan Counsell on Unsplash)
These were among the key findings of a preliminary survey of 200 teachers I conducted recently to develop a snapshot of how common it was for middle and high school students to turn to alt-right websites.
As a researcher who specializes in teaching what is known as “hard histories,” including slavery, the Holocaust and other genocides, this finding is of concern, particularly as the nation approaches the one-year anniversary of the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Despite the link between the alt-right and the Charlottesville tragedy, students are still using alt-right websites for their research papers in school, according to teachers I surveyed in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. The teachers reported that the students cite these websites in their bibliographies but often struggle to make sense of the information they obtained from the sites.
These sites are increasingly prominent. In fact, it is interesting to note that the alt-right websites teachers list as being used most often by their students have all been started since 2005, with the exception of one, and many have come into existence in just the past five years.
Examining alt-right websites
The question becomes, then, what should teachers do regarding these sites? Is it the responsibility of teachers to actually do anything?
Instead of ignoring these sites, I’d suggest teachers might do best to teach students how to critically examine the sites. In order to do that, however, teachers must know what is out there. While this is not an exhaustive list, the following six alt-right websites were most commonly cited by teachers as those that students use for their papers.
They are: National Policy Institute, Radix Journal, American Renaissance, Taki’s Magazine and Voat.
In open-ended follow-up questions, teachers added that students find the information on these sites appealing but are unable to differentiate between fact and fiction.
In classroom spaces, teachers will inevitably teach students who come from a variety of backgrounds and who hold different beliefs, ideas and opinions. Still, it is a teacher’s job to encourage objective, fact-based thinking to the students in their care. Awareness of pseudo-scientific “White identity” sites like Radix and American Renaissance allows teachers to deconstruct those sites with students, encourage critical reading, and debate the validity and value of the content.
Uncomfortable subject matter
Teachers responding to my survey report that they are uncomfortable teaching about these websites because they are certain they have “at least some” students who agree with the alt-right sites in question. The teachers also believe that teaching about these websites in class would lead to uncomfortable conversations.
As teachers, it is not our job to indoctrinate students to think as we do. However, it is our job to teach facts. Creating a safe classroom climate will allow for these uncomfortable conversations where close examinations of the opinions presented on these websites can be examined in a dispassionate way. For example, Radix Journal recently featured an article that “Martin Luther King Jr., a fraud and degenerate in his life, has become the symbol and cynosure of White Dispossession and the deconstruction of European civilization.” It is reasonable to expect heated student disagreement around an article like this one. This, then, opens up space to teach students how to engage in respectful and difficult conversations with one another.
Lessons of this sort would certainly involve countering misinformation that is put forward on these sites. For example, after looking at the Radix Journal article that attacks Martin Luther King Jr., it would be appropriate to have students consider “Three Visions for Achieving Equal Rights,” a lesson with primary sources from the organization Facing History and Ourselves. Beyond this point-counterpoint, students need to be given tools to evaluate the validity of the information they encounter while doing research. One excellent tool to do this, “Evaluating Online Resources,” comes from the project Teaching Tolerance, and helps students evaluate online sources. Regardless of the resource used, students need to be pushed to consider who the author is, his or her bias, and the purpose of the article.
What I am suggesting here might engender pushback but so did other proposals to introduce controversial subjects to students. Consider sex education in the 1960s or the DARE program in the 1980s. Today, both are commonplace in schools, despite the idea that they expose students to controversial information they might not know, including information about safe sex and different drugs.
Why it’s necessary
Fewer than 10 percent of teachers report doing any whole class teaching about, or discussion of, these alt-right websites, despite the fact that more than half of their students utilize these sites, according to responses to my survey. Instead, they speak to students individually and request that they find other sources, according to my survey.
Teachers need to help students learn to recognize credible sources and not fall victim to alt-right sites that put forth propaganda. In order to combat the darkness in the world and on the web, teachers must have the knowledge and courage to teach about it directly.
[Note: This post is coauthored by Thaddeus Atzmon and Anthony Weems.]
In a recent press release via their web page, the National Football League (NFL) issued a policy statement that was clearly designed to stop future players from participating in on-field anti-Racist protests that draw attention to the systemic and foundational racism of the U.S. This embedded white racism is evident in The Star Spangled Banner–particularly at the end of the third verse, which celebrates slavery in the U.S. In creating this new policy, the NFL has, in effect, chosen to actively engage in the promotion and sanctification of white nationalist displays while simultaneously banning any form of protest against them.
What do we mean by this? We mean that not allowing players who are on the field to show their protest for the US anthem, which celebrates the enslavement of people of color by whites and was composed by a major white slaveholder, is a means of protecting an openly white nationalist display that takes place before every NFL game. This coerced censorship is accomplished through the rules laid out in sections one, four, five and six of the NFL policy statement which require “personnel” on the field to “show respect for the flag and the Anthem” and outline possible ways to discipline those who do not. Coerced censorship is also accomplished by hiding players who choose to protest the anthem off the field where they can not be seen during the televised white nationalist display of the anthem. This is accomplished through sections two and three of the new NFL policy, which remove a previous requirement for all players to be on the field and state that players who choose not to stand for the anthem in protest “may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the Anthem has been performed.” Herein, we delve into the way that coercive patriotism is used in the NFL, how the dominant white racial frame and white nationalism are reproduced through NFL games, and how past white nationalists have also used coercive patriotic displays of white nationalism in US sport activities. We end by noting the ways that athletes are pushing back against this form of coercive nationalism through discussions about denying their labor to the NFL.
Interestingly enough, NFL players even being on-field for the national anthem is a relatively new phenomenon. For example, sports analyst Stephen A. Smith has noted the following on how and why NFL players came to be on the field for the playing of the anthem:
Until 2009, no NFL player stood for the national anthem because players actually stayed in the locker room as the anthem played. The players were moved to the field during the national anthem because it was seen as a marketing strategy to make the athletes look more patriotic. The United States Department of Defense paid the National Football League $5.4 million between 2011 and 2014, and the National Guard $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015 to stage onfield patriotic ceremonies as part of military-recruitment budget line items.
The NFL’s new policy that requires players to “stand and show respect” to the US flag and during the national anthem builds upon and goes well beyond this “marketing strategy” to a much more coercive form of patriotism. According to Tricia Jenkins (2013), coercive patriotism in the sport context is problematic for athletes and fans alike, as nationalist politics are packaged and sold “through the pageantry of sport, rather than through more thoughtful explorations of a conflict” (p. 247). In other words, coercive patriotism serves as a sort of nationalist sedative that further advances the politics of white nationalism through the emotion-laden arena of sport. Critical outcomes of this coercive form of patriotism by the NFL are both the reproduction and the dissemination of the white racial frame and its central role in mainstreaming white nationalism.
Reproducing the White Racial Frame
Sport provides a cultural skeleton for communicating the politics of nationalism to the American public. In the context of a globalized sport/media complex, protests led by predominantly African American players against policing and other racism have effectively challenged many Americans to take seriously the claims of liberty and justice for all. In reality, this challenging of espoused American ideals extends back well beyond Colin Kaepernick’s first protest in 2016. As the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois opined nearly a century ago, African Americans’ challenging of the legitimacy of (white) “American values” since the foundation of this country has significantly pushed the nation in a more just direction. Today, the taking serious of these values remains a central element in many counter-frames developed by various communities of color resisting systemic racism.
However, in the aftermath of the NFL’s new policy the spectacle of coercive patriotism and the production of resistance-less nationalism serves not only to silence anti-Racist player-activists but also to reproduce the dominant white racial frame and stimulate a nationalist base. Through coercive tactics and mediated agenda-setting therein, the NFL is able to frame what is and is not “patriotic” for millions of NFL viewers across the nation. What this has accomplished so far is it has emboldened white nationalist groups and “patriotic” Americans in general to support nationalistic practices and to act in accordance with the nationalist elements of the white racial frame. Indeed, when the President of the US frames protesting athletes as being disrespectful “sons of bitches” while legitimizing neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” and the NFL adopts a policy that seeks to hide and/or punish players for protesting, a reflection on the gravity of this new policy is warranted.
For example,while there are clear differences between the German Nazi system of oppression during the second world war and systemic white racism in the U.S. today, we also see disturbing parallels in the ways elite white men protect white nationalist displays and promote dominant white racial framing through coercive patriotism in public sporting events within these two contexts. Take this newspaper article dated January 7th 1934, which details the Nazi punishment of German soccer players for refusing to give the Nazi salute during a game. In this instance, the Nazi white nationalist salute is help up as sacred and those who dare not respect and honor it were subject to serious punishment. Today, the white nationalist display of the US anthem is held up as sacred and the anti-Racist athletes who choose to openly protest the history of white racism it represents are subject to punishment or forced off-field by the elite white men who own NFL teams and set the league’s policy in an attempt to silence them.
African Americans in particular had changed American life at every one of its critical junctures since the advent of New World slavery. Ideological thinkers on the white-ist side of politics remain completely blind to this aspect of the twenty-first century. And from this failure, vanguardist and Aryan killers will continue to pop up, at odds with the direction of American life. (Zeskind, p. 542).
Recent information that has come to light as a result of Kaepernick’s collusion legal case against the NFL owners points to the central political role of President Donald Trump in the development of the NFL’s new nationalistic policy. As if the President’s publicly white-nationalist comments in response to protesting athletes weren’t enough, NFL team owner Jerry Jones’ sworn disposition claimed that Trump told him the following:
This is a very winning, strong issue for me… Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.
In light of the NFL taking on a major role in white nationalist politics, its new policy aims to censor the voices of those actively fighting against racist sport systems. However, athletes and activists alike will not be quelled so easily, as many look to continue resisting systemic forms of oppression hidden behind the veil of white patriotism. Several NFL players have already discussed the possibility of sitting out this upcoming NFL season until both Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid are signed to NFL rosters. In addition, several players have told journalist Shaun King that they intend to stop paying their NFL Players Association dues following the Association’s failure to adequately represent the players and their interests. If anything, it seems as though the new coercive NFL policy has provided more justification for athletes protesting or withholding their labor altogether. At this critical juncture in time it is imperative that we, as social science scholars and social justice activists, seek to contextualize and understand the NFL’s sanctifying of white nationalist politics, the active resistances to the NFL’s new policy from players, and how we might be able to work with and support social justice athlete-activists moving forward.
How many of us have had our names anglicized for the convenience of whites? José had his name changed to “Joe,” Maria had her name changed to “Mary,” Roberto was renamed “Robert,” and Elena was renamed “Ellen.”
Who are we? A simple question. Yet, it is not so rare that persons and groups of color experience a change in their identification at the will of whites. Throughout the history of the United States, white individuals and institutions have given themselves the right to rename others according to their predilection. The tendency to change the most intimate possession of another person—the name that their own parents gave them—or the identity of a racial or ethnic group reflects the white supremacy that continues to exist in our country and the dominance of whites over people of color.
David Bradley, a white man on the Texas State Board of Education, led the opposition to the name “Mexican American,” arguing that this is a divisive term. Never mind that Bradley is not a person of Mexican origin. Bradley, along with eight other white persons on the State Board of Education, renamed our community as “Americans of Mexican Descent,” the only manner in which they would support the elective course. A Latina member of the board also voted in favor of the name change, but later changed her vote. Marisa Pérez-Díaz, a member of the board who opposed the name change, aptly described the significance of the board’s decision for Mexican Americans: “a slap on the face.”
Ironically, the names of other ethnic studies courses–including African Americans, Indigenous Americans, and Asian Americans including Pacific Islanders–were accepted without change.
The fight, put simply, is against Mexican Americans. It is Mexican Americans, the locomotive of the state’s demography, which the Republican Party considers a threat and seeks to keep in their place.
Even though research findings clearly document the value of Mexican American Studies courses for Latino students, the last thing that Republicans want is critical thinkers who are civically engaged, exactly what is needed for conditions of Latinos and African Americans to improve in our state.
However, what the State Board of Education did is not new. The lack of respect toward our language, culture, names, and identity is part of the social practice of many segments of white Texans. How many of us have the painful memory of being scolded publically with the demand that we speak English? How many of us were punished in school for speaking Spanish? And what about the experience of many of us who have had our names changed for the convenience of whites? With me, personally, the white doctor who assisted my mother give birth to me, asserted “don’t name him Rogelio, but Roy, like Roy Rogers!” In my hometown of Mercedes, where I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, the three others boys named Rogelio also had their names changed to “Roy.” I personally had to exert force and fight to reclaim the name that my own parents had given me.
The message was clear: our language, culture, and names—-our identity—-did not have any value.
Unfortunately, the action of the Texas State Board of Education, composed largely of Republican white individuals, reminds us that we continue to be oppressed and demonstrates that we continue to lack respect concerning our being and identity.
The solution? We need to fight proudly and vigorously for our identity. We need to ensure that our children continue with their studies and that they question the system that continues to treat us as second-class citizens. And, if you are U.S. citizens, register to vote and vote.
[Part 2 of 2]
Afua Hirsch—quoted in Part 1—contends that Meghan “Markle used her wedding to introduce her new peers to blackness.” I think more was at work than simply presenting blackness to the British elite. Counter-framing was at the heart of the Royal Wedding. Indeed, Hirsch’s fantastic article gives example after example of counter-framing by Markle, though she does not name it as such.
Counter-frames are grounded in counter-system thinking and have been very important for Black Americans in surviving and resisting oppression over many generations. In these anti-racism counter-frames whites are defined as highly problematical, and strategies on how to deal with whites and white institutions are expressed and foregrounded.
As observed by anti-racist leaders and media pundits in the immediate aftermath of the Royal Wedding, thanks to Markle, counter-framing was distinctly conspicuous during the ceremony. “A beautiful service and a beautiful couple. Making my beautiful mixed heritage family’s shoulders stand a little taller,” tweeted the British Labour Party politician, David Lammy. But equally important was Lammy’s caveat about giving too much importance to the ceremony’s counter-framing. He said to a British newspaper:
Clearly one wedding isn’t going to fundamentally alter the lives of Britain’s ethnic minorities, many of whom are still subject to different forms of discrimination. … These are paradoxical times, with a post-Brexit environment with rising hate crime, with the Windrush story [which exposed an immigration system developed by the British government elite that basically harassed tens of thousands of legal Caribbean residents] that brings us international shame. The multi-cultural future of Britain is contested. The ceremony was hopeful. It spoke both of our Commonwealth past, our history, but also of a future. But we shouldn’t read too much into it.
What symbols did Meghan Markle draw on in her counter-framing? What was her approach to the expression and foregrounding of whites and white institutions? In the direct aftermath of the wedding,
Lindsay Peoples—fashion editor for New York Magazine’s The Cut—put it memorably, referring to the wedding as incredibly unapologetic with its “black moments,” and adding that Markle “did not come to play—the melanin came all the way through.” Here is a summary of what Peoples dubbed the “Best Black Joy Moments”:
1. Doria Ragland: “Single black mother … showing up in her locs in a twist out and her nose ring.”
2. Bishop Michael Curry’s wedding address, with two references to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
3. Rose Hudson-Wilkin: The first black female chaplain to a British monarch.
4. The All-Black Choir: “I had already lost my cool at this point,” writes Peoples, “Every single person’s hair in this choir was laid. I got hair inspiration for days from these three minutes. And the song “Stand By Me” was the perfect choice, just enough soul to rock side-to-side to.”
5. Sheku Kanneh-Mason: At only 19, he is the first black cellist to win the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year award.
6. The wedding dress and flowers on Markle’s veil, which represented the 53 nations of the British Commonwealth. As Peoples put it, “The duchess literally had black nations on her back, using one of the biggest days for the royal family to subtly note to their history of colonization and showing the world that all British people of color should be represented.”
7. The Gospel songs: “As if the choir wasn’t enough,” writes Peoples, “on [Meghan’s and Harry’s] way out of the chapel [the gospel choir] sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Amen,” gospel songs that are sung in practically every black church because of their significance in the Civil Rights Movement.”
We might add to this list, the presence of Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, Idris Elba, and other (albeit influential and affluent) people of color, such as actress Priyanka Chopra and Lebanese-British barrister Amal Clooney.
Another anti-establishment symbol on the wedding day came compliments of Queen Elizabeth II herself, who bestowed the titles Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Harry and Meghan. In so doing, the newest member of the Royal Family became the first legal Duchess of Sussex. That she is the first is not even what is most significant. Like Markle, the earlier Duke of Sussex, sixth son of King George III, defied white Anglo-Saxon royal tradition. He refused to obey the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 and married who he wanted (hence, there was no legal Duchess of Sussex before Markle). He advocated for the emancipation of Roman Catholics. He fought for the elimination of civil restrictions on Jews and dissenters. He supported parliamentary reform. And he was an anti-slavery advocate. It remains uncertain whether the Queen considered his anti-slavery advocacy when selecting the title for the newlyweds. Regardless, it is a fitting designation because not only has Markle long been an advocate for democratic causes; like the first Duke of Sussex, she is a counter-framer of white Anglo-Saxon tradition. We can only hope she will continue to buck (white) royal traditions and the centuries old and still dominant white racial frame in the process.
As we reflect on “Black Joy Moments,” we would be wise to remember the astuteness of Black Britons like David Lammy. Or Herman Ouseley, a former executive chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, who like Lammy noted that the ceremony will not, of course, rid Britain of racial and class oppression.
There is also Stafford Scott, a consultant on racial equality and community engagement, who did not watch the wedding. Even less enthusiastic about the significance of the wedding than Lammy and Ouseley, Scott remarked:
I heard there was a black choir and some people felt that was very symbolic. I just think it was that we have got some really good black choirs. … I have nothing negative to say about what took place yesterday, though online some people did. … I don’t think people should be getting carried away because of somebody’s personal choices. [Harry choosing a “mixed-race” bride was “personal choice” rather than statement, Scott said.] I do hope that it does, somehow, become something going forward. But, in terms of the black community’s standing in this country, the difficulties we face are structural. White and black people have been mixing for generations and it hasn’t, necessarily, led to any improvements, or deepening of understanding.
The history of white racism in Britain is extensive and deep-seated; an understanding of this fact is largely lost on most whites (and some others). Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. She examines systemic racism in Britain and her efforts to persuade white folks that racism is their problem too, and adds, for example, that Black British history—especially white slavery—is mostly framed as a North American issue. Yet over the course of 200 years, white British traders forced three million Africans onto ships and into slavery in the British colonies.
Systemic racism, as Feagin explains, is a highly developed, well-institutionalized, structurally embedded, historically deep, white-defined racial oppression that significantly shapes virtually every facet of society. It will take far more than a Royal Wedding or a biracial Duchess to change a systematically racist society like Britain. It will take, among other things, the following:
1. Eradicating exploitative and discriminatory practices that target Britons of color.
2. Eliminating the dominant British white racial hierarchy and its defence of white privilege and white power.
3. Eliminating the British white racial frame (WRF) that rationalizes and implements racial oppression, including racial prejudices, stereotypes, images, ideologies, emotions, interpretations, and narratives.
4. Ending racial inequalities long-ago established in Britain by social reproduction apparatuses.
Like in the U.S., dedication to ending white racism in Britain will require a focus on systemic racism as opposed to individual racism. Perhaps then, but certainly not because of a Royal Wedding, we will be able to genuinely rejoice in progress on race relations in Britain.
[Part 1 of 2]
During and in the direct aftermath of the May 19, 2018 wedding ceremony of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the media generally framed the giggles, smirks, eye-rolls, and jaw-drops by some members of the British Royal Family during Bishop Michael Curry’s wedding address, as apolitical, descriptive, and/or as inoffensive, and even understandable due to the “quintessentially American address.” White British journalist and CNN international anchor, Richard Quest, defended the royals:
Look, there’s nothing wrong [with the negative reactions]. He went on for 30 minutes. [Note: Bishop Curry spoke for 14 minutes, not 30 minutes.] He could have taken a minute or two out and not done any damage to it. . . . This is a high church of England service in St. George’s Chapel. . . . You did not necessarily, normally expect to have an American-style preacher. … And I assure you, nobody was thinking oh, this is dreadful, this is awful. … don’t forget, multi-cultural Britain, there are large populations, Asian, Indian, African populations right across the country. So they will have welcomed. And the Prince of Wales, by the way, interesting, the Prince of Wales . . . has said he does not want to be defender of the faith. . . . He has said he wants to be defender of faiths. So multicultural Britain is really where it’s at in the future.
Live on the air, white British CNN contributor and author of Harry, Conversations with the Prince, Angela Levin, said that the Bishop and the gospel choir made her “uncomfortable.” Later in the day, she told CNN’s Don Lemon she changed her mind and liked both.
In the immediate aftermath of the wedding, an uncommon article by Afua Hirsch, who like Meghan Markle has white European and African heritage, counter-framed the wedding ceremony as “a rousing celebration of blackness.” Hirsch wrote about the wedding this way:
. . . talented black people were more than adornment. The sermon, delivered by the Episcopalian church leader the Rev Michael Curry, began with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr before enlightening the congregation on the wisdom of spirituals . . . and casting Jesus as a revolutionary. … Zara Phillips [grandchild of Queen] was visibly in a state of shock. … The teenage cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason . . . revealed the depth of talent that made him the first black person to win BBC Young Musician . . .. The Kingdom gospel choir sang soul classic Stand By Me: a love song, yes, but one that first rose to fame in the midst of the civil rights movement ….”
As Bishop Curry—a US champion of civil rights—spoke, Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughters, including Zara Phillips, with mouth wide open, and Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie, who donned matching smirks, were excruciatingly visible. As the Bishop addressed the mostly white congregation, the future Queen consort and sister-in-law to Prince Harry, Kate Middleton, side-rolled her eyes to another future consort and Prince Harry’s step-mother (Camilla Parker-Bowles). Clearly the eye roll was not meant to convey appreciation for the Bishop’s address. Future King William V also had a fit of giggles.
I argue that the white racial frame (WRF) is the core reason white adult royals, with assumedly every opportunity to learn proper manners and who should be exposed to the multi-racial nation in which they live (not to mention the world), would think it appropriate to giggle, smirk, open mouths wide in disbelief, and/or eye-roll during the Bishop’s address. The WRF also helps explain why so many whites (and others) are inclined to swiftly dismiss as harmless, or find amusing, or not even notice, such behavior. In the facial expressions of these white royals, the pro-white subframe, firmly reinforcing white superiority, civilization, virtue, and moral goodness, was on full display.
In his ground-breaking books Systemic Racism and The White Racial Frame, sociologist and social theorist Joe Feagin proposed the analytical concept of the WRF. According to Feagin, since at least the seventeenth century, this frame has provided the broad white-generated perspective from which whites (and others) in western countries commonly view society. Like a typical frame, with its customary edging meant to enhance, display, and protect a photograph or painting, the WRF includes five elements which heightens and preserves white superiority, civilization, virtue, and moral goodness. The elements are: the verbal-cognitive aspect (racial stereotypes and prejudices); the integrating cognitive aspects (racial narratives and interpretations); visual imagery and auditory aspects; racialized emotions; and tendencies towards discriminatory action. Within the wider WRF is the pro-white subframe and the anti-others subframe. “Others” are regularly framed as lesser than whites and all things deemed white are framed as superior in the minds of most whites (and some others).
Imagine if African American wedding guests Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, or Gina Torres had giggled, smirked, or dropped their jaws when the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke. Imagine Williams’ eye-rolling to Torres as the white male Archbishop spoke. Would their conduct be framed as a harmless response to a “quintessentially British address”? Would it go unnoticed or be deemed endearing? I doubt that even Queen Oprah could get away with such bad behavior because the difference is this. Bishop Curry’s “quintessentially American address” is code for “quintessentially African American address.” As Afua Hirsch put it, “For people used to being part of the majority, these may be symbols they don’t easily see.” I will put it less gently. Mocking the Bishop is in keeping with the WRF; whereas, mocking the Archbishop of Canterbury, a white male Briton with a history of whiteness behind him and who in many ways signifies white Britain, is in direct opposition to the WRF and its pro-white subframe. Mocking one is acceptable, if not tolerable; mocking the other is not. Incidentally, the Archbishop of Canterbury “gushed” very positively over Bishop Curry’s address.
This is not the first time that bemused royals captured the media’s attention for their (white racist) giggling and were excused for it. In 2017 Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, visiting the Canadian Arctic, laughed so hard when Inuits were throat-singing, that one reporter remarked, “The royal couple did everything but stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths.” Nevertheless, the same journalist admitted to finding “royals who get the giggles quite endearing.”
In contrast, in his address,* Bishop Curry honored Markle’s African American heritage. This was no laughing matter. The address may not have been relatable to the mostly elite white guests at the wedding. However, to the majority of people who occupy the Commonwealth, not to mention planet earth, Bishop Curry surely was more relevant than the elite (mostly white and male) British establishment. That’s too bad as he clearly has much to teach the giggling, smirking, jaw-dropping, eye-rolling royals. Dr. King’s daughter certainly approved. She understood what some of the royals could not. According to CNN’s Don Lemon, “Bernice King tweeted out after the MLK quote at the royal wedding, ‘Your life, teachings, and words still matter so much, daddy. Congrats Harry and Meghan.’ ”
*The full text of Bishop Michael Curry’s wedding address is here.
As readers, and as humans, we crave knowing what the world is like for another person. When done well, this is what memoir offers: the chance to experience the world through another person. Literary memoir is a genre dominated by white authors confessing, starting with St. Augustine. Writers of color elevate the form by telling personal stories that chronicle the real trauma from systemic racism and the very real courage to heal from and survive it.
At this time of year, I’ve just wrapped up teaching a graduate seminar on “Race and Racism of Interior Worlds”. Each week we read a memoir written by an African American author, a dozen in all.
Black Boy || Zami || The Beautiful Struggle || When They Call You a Terrorist
It may seem unlikely that someone like me, trained as a sociologist, would teach a course on memoir, but there is a turn within sociology now toward exploring interior emotional worlds. For example, the theme of this year’s American Sociological Annual Meeting is “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Emotions.” This turn is, in part, a response to the 2016 election and the hunch that emotions, fueled by racism and sexism, influenced the outcome. I think that this turn in sociology is also an indicator of our very human desire for storytelling. And, as Lily Dancyger as observed, personal narratives are a balm for our perilous times.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl || Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave
And, precisely because they were political, these narratives were frequently dismissed as “biased,” “inflammatory” and “improbable.” The authors had take care – “not to offend the reader by being too angry, or by showing too much outrage, or by calling the reader names,” writes Morrison.
People fling that accusation of narcissism at memoir today, but the stories that Jacobs and Douglass are not guilty of this. In these historical narratives, the self stands in for the larger society with a political goal in mind, of testimony against the horrors of slavery. As Toni Morrison writes:
“Whatever the style and circumstances of these narratives, they were written to say principally two things. One: ‘This is my historical life – my singular, special example that is personal, but that also represents race.’ Two: ‘I write this text to persuade other people – you, the reader, who is probably not black – that we are human beings worthy of God’s grace and the immediate abandonment of slavery.’ With these two missions in mind, the narratives were clearly pointed.“
There is a clear through line from the narratives of formerly enslaved people, such as Jacobs and Douglass, to contemporary memoirs such as Jesmyn Ward’s beautiful Men We Reaped, another title we read in my seminar. In her memoir, Ward chronicles the agonizing story of five men in her life who all died far too young and within a short time of each other. Through exquisite prose, she weaves her grief over these deaths into a larger story about systemic racism and structural violence.
Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped
In an interview in 2016, Ward speaks about the different kind of struggle that she confronts when writing the truth in her memoir:
“With memoir, you have to tell the truth, right? I knew that the truth might be problematic for some people, because in this country, unfortunately, the dialogue about black people seems to revolve around racist ideas. It’s all about blaming African-Americans. It’s all about the individual being at fault — for our own ineptitude, our own defects. There’s no awareness of the larger systematic pressures that bear down on us that make it easier for the sort of reality I write about to exist.”
The truth is, indeed, problematic for some people. In her memoir, Ward writes about drug use, poverty, depression, sexuality – elements of her life that academics tend to call “social dislocations” or label as pathologies — as in this passage:
“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”
Ward wonders what it means to write about the truth of these conditions within a racist context in which black people are blamed for the consequences of their own oppression. In the interview, she explains:
“So my main concern with the memoir was giving that context to the reader, making those connections for the reader, bringing the larger picture back to the reader, giving the reader a rubric for understanding the individual stories. In the end I hoped that if I told the truth as I understood it about those systematic pressures, and how they affect individual actions and reactions, that would counteract any racist or narrow ideas people had about African-American people acting badly.”
The twin burdens of representation and respectability politics are as present in memoir as they are in other areas of cultural production, like novels, films or photography. Ward’s refrain about ‘the reader’ – making connections, drawing a larger picture, providing a rubric – all point to the question of audience.
“Sometimes, they read the book and they do see us as human beings.”
Every writer should think about audience. For an African American author of an emancipatory text, conjuring the ideal reader is complicated by double-consciousness, the ‘two-ness’ of seeing yourself as you are and through the lens of white-dominant society. And, there is a great deal at stake. As Toni Morrison observes:
“As determined as these black writers were to persuade the reader of the evil of slavery, they also complimented him by assuming his nobility of heart and his high-mindedness. They tried to summon up his finer nature in order to encourage him to employ it. They knew that readers were the people who could make a difference in terminating slavery.”
Consider what this means: writing narratives to persuade the people who held you captive to end that system of captivity by convincing them of your innate humanity.
One key strategy of these historical narratives was to use the power of literacy to assert their claim to fully emancipated humanity. See, I am writing this to you now, therefore I am human, like you. The goal was to use their fluency in writing, and their intended audience’s ability to read, to expose the prohibition against reading and writing among the enslaved as the cruel exclusion from human exchange that it was.
While this may seem like an extraordinary effort to have go through just to demonstrate one’s humanity, this remains endemic to contemporary African American memoir.
Asked about the intended audience for her memoir, Jesmyn Ward says:
“I hoped this book might entice white people who wouldn’t have read my book before I won the National Book Award. I wanted to make those connections for them, to help them see us in a way they’d never seen us before, and understand us the way they hadn’t before. I think it’s working. On book tour I meet a lot of people from totally different backgrounds who find something in the memoir that resonates with them. Sometimes that means they read the book, and they do see us as human beings.”
I mean, anyone who is writing a book that they hope to sell is going to have to try to “entice white people” to buy a copy since white people still both run the publishing industry and make up a majority of book-purchasers in the U.S. But it is a searing indictment of our society that in the year of our lord 2016, Jesmyn Ward is hoping that once white people read her memoir they will “see us as human beings.”
If this plea for humanity is a point of connection between historical narratives and contemporary memoir, the level of interiority is where they diverge.
Interiority makes a memoir readable
“Interiority makes a book readable. By readable, translate: great,” writes Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir. In contemporary memoir, readers expect to learn about the inner life of the author. “Interiority,” is one of those academic words that just means “inner life.”
Not so, with historical narratives. Toni Morrison writes that for her, “there was no mention of their interior life,” in the stories of the formerly enslaved because they would often draw a curtain around “proceedings too terrible to relate.” For Morrison, the task is a very different one:
“For me – a writer in the last quarter of the twentieth century, not much more than a hundred years after Emancipation, a writer who is black and a woman – the exercise is very different. My job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate.’ The exercise is also critical for any person who is black or who belongs to any marginalized category, for historically, we were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its topic.”
This shift toward interiority in contemporary African American memoir begins with Richard Wright’s Black Boy, first published in 1945. His memoir of enduring a childhood in the Jim Crow South, and fleeing to a different kind of racism in the north that is no less brutal, is wrenching precisely because he invites the reader into his interior world. He spends much of his childhood literally hungering for food, beaten by his mother nearly to death, and under the stern, unloving watch of his grandmother. Hunger of all kinds becomes the guiding metaphor in the book. (The original title was “American Hunger.”) Once in school regularly, he writes: “The impulse to dream was slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing.”
The authors of all the memoirs we read in my seminar are in a external struggle against systemic racism. But the real action is with the internal struggle, the psychic struggle of the author against herself. As Mary Karr, the doyenne of contemporary memoir, writes:
“Mainly, the better memoirist organizes a life story around…an inner enemy – a psychic struggle against herself that works like a thread or plot engine. …Even a writer with gargantuan external enemies must face off with himself over a book’s course. Otherwise, why write in first person at all?”
The inner struggle in the books we read this semester were about the debris that racism leaves behind: the feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness. In Men We Reaped, Ward writes:
“We are never free from the feeling that that something is wrong with us, not the world that made this mess.”
Then she pushes through this ongoing, psychic damage caused by systemic racism, and there is a turn toward healing and resolution through connection, community, and actual kin and chosen. Ward, again, a few paragraphs later:
“And my mother’s example teaches me other things: This is how a transplanted people survived a holocaust and slavery. This is how Black people in the South organized to vote under the shadow of terrorism and the noose. This is how human beings sleep and wake and fight and survive.”
As we all figure out how to “sleep and wake and fight and survive” through the terrible present, it seems to me that personal narratives are the part of the way we do this.
The problem with so many memoirs and personal essays is that you often find “harangue passing off as art,” as Ms. Morrison writes. The challenge, she says, is to be able to create writing that is both “unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”
~ Jessie Daniels, PhD is a professor of Sociology, Critical Social Psychology and Africana Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY).
On Christmas eve in 2015 the leading Black philosopher and New York Times opinion writer, George Yancy, penned a poignant “Dear White America” article in the Times. Yancy bravely sought to encourage each white reader to, as he summarizes in his disturbing new book Backlash
risk yourself, to undergo a process of moral and existential perplexity” and to assess very deeply what being white in America means. He also sought action from white readers, calling for “a refusal to lie, a refusal to live another day within a white supremacist system where Black people and people of color continue to be oppressed. . . . I wanted you to tell the truth to yourselves and tell it to others.
Yancy is writing from what I have termed in the The White Racial Frame book as strong resistance counter-framing. Counter-frames are grounded in counter-system thinking and have been very important for Black Americans in surviving and resisting oppression over many generations. In these anti-racism counter-frames whites are defined as highly problematical, and strategies on how to deal with whites and white institutions are expressed and foregrounded. As Backlash illustrates, a well-developed Black counter-frame includes deep understandings of how white racial hostility and discrimination operate and how to deal in everyday practice with white discrimination, including teachings about safety for Black youth and passive and active strategies of anti-racism resistance.
Resistance counter-framing like that demonstrated by Yancy is necessary in this highly racist society. The “Dear White America” letter was not long out before white America roared back angrily in reply. Hundreds of whites replied to Yancy’s honest pleas and counter-framing with vicious replies developing most of the major racist themes long common in this country’s omnipresent white racial frame (defined below). These came as online comments, emails, phone messages, and letters, and have continued to the present. Many missives were filled with intense emotions and extensive and venomous “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger” language (no exaggeration). This is indeed, as Yancy puts it, “21st century white terror.”
The impact on Yancy and others around him has been severe. He has feared for himself and family and colleagues, to the present day. Campus police have monitored his Emory University office, patrolling his office floor; his department has had to quit providing his office hours to callers; his department chair, higher administrators, and other colleagues have been attacked as well, some called “nigger lovers.” At other universities, his talks have required the presence of police officers to protect him from possible white violence. His colleagues across the country have circulated large-scale supportive petitions on his behalf.
Yet Yancy did not submit to this extreme, often violence-oriented white onslaught quietly. A major countering effort can be seen in his Backlash book, in which he critically recounts and counter-frames many white-racist responses. This book clearly took great personal strength to write and has much that Americans, whites in particular, must read and heed if this country is to survive even remotely as just and democratic. Here he emphasizes the personal impact of everyday racism most African Americans face–some more than others, but virtually all too often, and ranging from subtle, to covert, to blatant discrimination. Yancy’s book makes clear what it means today to be Black, to live in an often threatened Black body, and to be a recurring target of chronic racist framing. As he insists, this is a “window into the life of a Black philosopher who believes that the practice of philosophy, the love of wisdom, must speak to those who formally reside outside of” academic settings.
What is this horrifying white racial frame to which Yancy has had to respond? It is far more than just prejudice (bigotry, animus, etc.) Some years back, in the books Systemic Racism and The White Racial Frame I suggested the analytical concept of the white racial frame. Since its development in the 17th century, this white racial frame has been dominant, a framing that provides a generic meaning system for a highly racialized U.S. society. For centuries this powerful racial frame has provided the broad white-generated worldview from which whites (and many others) regularly view society. It includes (1) racial stereotypes/prejudices (the verbal-cognitive aspect); (2) racial narratives & interpretations (the integrating cognitive aspects); (3) racial images (the visual aspects) and preferred language accents (the auditory aspect); (4) racialized emotions; (5) and inclinations to discriminatory action. This broad framing has a very positive orientation to whites as generally virtuous (pro-white subframe) and a negative orientation to racial “others” frequently viewed as unvirtuous (anti-others subframes). The pro-white subframe aggressively accentuates white superiority, civilization, virtue, and moral goodness.
There are numerous major themes from this old white racial frame’s anti-black subframe in the messages Yancy received. As he underscores in his book, these commentaries are far more than signs of “white fragility,” for they signal old white racial “world-making” that is usually imbedded in white character structure. Some of these white racist messengers, often angry white men, use racialized sexual references (e.g., speaking of the supposed threat of Black men to white women) or references to Blacks being excrement (“shit,” this and that). There is a recurring animalizing of Yancy and other Black Americans, including President Barack Obama, something whites have been doing at least since the founding era. White messages regularly describe African Americans as apes or ape-like. White images of Africans and African Americans as ape-like or ape-linked date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and are another way of portraying Black Americans as racially inferior. For example, our third president Thomas Jefferson, a theorist of supposed “liberty and equality,” wrote in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, that Black Americans are racially inferior to whites in many ways, including reasoning, imagination, intelligence, and beauty. He further asserted that even black Americans prefer white Americans’ beauty, “as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan [Orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species.” That is, as a prominent white-racist thinker, Jefferson believed the imperialist myth that in Africa nonhuman primates actually had intercourse with oversexed African women.
Sadly, such ape imagery remains commonplace not just in the attack messages Yancy has received but also all over the Internet. One recent online study of 447 self-proclaimed white nationalists found that, using a scale from zero (as ape-like) to 100 (as human), they rated blacks and other people of color as much more apelike and much less human than whites. Numerous other studies (see here) of ordinary whites, the latter mostly not openly connected with white nationalist organizations, reveal this regular linking in white minds of apelike imagery to Black people, such as in the commonplace form of everyday “nigger” joking.
Perhaps most disturbing in these white commentaries to Professor Yancy is the constant threatening of violence against him and other Blacks. Most of these violent verbal attacks appear to come from white men of various ages and classes. There is much anger in their messaging, like this one: “Somebody needs to . . . knock your fucking head off your shoulders.” As Yancy underscores,
there was very little love shown toward me. There were white threats of physical violence, talk of putting a meat hook in parts of my body, threats of knocking my “fucking head off” (their words), of beating me and leaving me dead, and vile demands that I kill myself immediately.
This viciousness came in response to Yancy’s honest pleas seeking to move whites to understand who they are racially and the scale of the racial oppression they have created.
Striking too in these hundreds of attack messages is the high level of white emotion. Many whites, especially white men, pride themselves on not being emotional; they reserve emotionality for those who are not white or male. Yet white men are probably the most emotional Americans when it comes to racial issues, especially when their racial status, enrichments, and privileges seem endangered, Coming through the many white verbal attacks on Yancy is stunning white emotionality, including anger, fear, outrage, bitterness, and, almost always, arrogance. Hundreds of the comments have a tone like this: “Dear nigger . . . fuck you. I am a racist. I’m ok with that now thanks to your nigger community and their actions over the last few years.” These hundreds of comments clearly demonstrate how most elements in the dominant white racial frame are very emotionally loaded.
Yancy’s belligerent responders also demonstrate great ignorance about many racial matters. For example, their white comments often reflect a serious illiteracy in regard to what the word “racism” means, especially in its origin. They periodically call Yancy a “racist” for calling out the white-racist ideas and discriminatory patterns of whites. The term “racism” is widely used by whites and many others for an individual’s ideas and actions, yet the modern term “racism” was originally constructed to refer to collective ideological and systemic racism. The first modern use of term “racism” was by German researcher Magnus Hirschfeld (in his 1933 book) for what German Nazis were systematically doing to European Jews, Roma, and Africans —that is, extreme ideological and institutional racism. This was far more than a matter of Nazi prejudices. Today, white racism also involves the deep structures and surface structures of racial oppression. It includes a complex array of white anti-other (e.g., anti-black) discriminatory practices, the unjustly gained economic/political power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines (unjust enrichment/unjust impoverishment), and the white racial framing created by whites to rationalize white privilege and power. This racism is a material, social, racially framed reality—that is, manifested in all societal sectors, institutionally enabled, and socially reproduced for about 20 generations. White attempts to apply the term racism to yet other groups demonstrates not only ignorance of its history and reality but also, and quite remarkably, that most of these whites actually do understand at some level that racism is undesirable and immoral.
The many racially hostile messages recorded in Backlash further suggest that our contemporary era of overt and politicized white racism has liberated many whites from the necessity of suppressing their extensive white racist framing of society in public settings. For example, there is recurring positive reference in these attack missives sent to Yancy, and in similar hostile communiqués on white nationalist websites, to the white nationalism of our current president, Donald Trump, including recurring phrasing similar to Trump’s main slogan (e.g., “make America white again”). Such racially framed sentiments are not just limited to more extreme white supremacist missives and websites, for much recent social science research shows that central to the thinking of many of Trump’s many white voters has been great worry about their losing their “superior” racial status in US society.
Perhaps the most poignant and deeply insightful aspect of Backlash is Yancy’s reflections on being Black and the matter of death resulting from white terrorism’s many forms. Yancy describes an incident when he was growing up in an impoverished urban area. Having gotten a telescope as a present, a white officer saw him with it, and framing him as a poor Black youngster, almost shot him because he thought it was a weapon. Reflecting in the book on this incident, Yancy concludes that he cannot be a complete pessimist because he is alive today, yet “being alive feels like borrowed time.” Being Black, that is, means the constant and well-institutionalized possibility of racially marked death at any time of life. This is the critical difference between blackness and whiteness, for no institutionally grounded practices have marked “whiteness as a target for death” at any time. So, given the entrenched reality of persisting white racism, Yancy also concludes he cannot be truly optimistic in regard to the possibility of substantial racial change in this society.
April 4, 1968, about 6:01pm. We should always remember that time. It has now been a half century years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was moving conceptually and in his actions in a more radical direction combining antiracist, broader anticlass, and antiwar efforts—which efforts likely had much to do with his assassination. (Photo: Wiki-images)
I remember the day vividly, like it was yesterday, and can still remember the time of day when one of my students at the University of California called me to tell of the terrible event, and I can still remember well my and his very distressed emotional labor and our cognitive labor (who did it? why did it happen? etc) as we talked about the shooting. (We did not know Dr. King had died at that time.) He was one of the few African American students then at that university and as one would expect was completely devastated by the event, as I was too.
In some ways, King’s assassination marked the apparent end of much of the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, not necessarily a coincidence. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about this historical timing — or to wonder where this country would be if thinker/leaders like Dr. King and Malcolm X had lived to lead an ever renewed rights and racism-change movement.
The events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination need to be taught everywhere. In late March 1968 Dr. King and other civil rights leaders participated in and supported the local Memphis sanitary works employees, black and white, who were striking for better wages and working condition.
Conditions in Memphis, as elsewhere, were very oppressive for workers, in both racial and class terms, as this brief summary makes clear:
In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.
This is the famous section near the end of his prophetic speech, where he reflects on death threats he had often received:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.
Let us remember him well, and especially his prophetic antiracist, anti-capitalistic, and antiwar messages, and his commitment to long-term efforts against white racism, on this day, April 4, 2018.
How can we make sense of the pervasiveness, disproportionality, and persistence of such killings in a way that can help us make black lives matter? In my soon to be released Killing African Americans book I argue that to do so we must place them within the context of the long history of the use of violence in the United States to control African Americans — especially during those historical moments when we are perceived as getting out of our proper racial “place” such as after the abolition of slavery, the more recent white backlash to the successes of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, and the still more recent racial backlash to the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president which a couple years ago fueled the election of an overtly racist president, Donald J. Trump. Such killings function as a violence-centered racial control mechanism, which along with other violence-centered racial control mechanisms like the racially-targeted death penalty and mass incarceration, sustains today’s systemic racism; just as in the past the fatal violence associated with lynchings, the death penalty, and mass incarceration were deployed to preserve the racial control systems of slavery, peonage, and Jim Crow.
By examining those killings through such a political lens, it becomes clear why piecemeal criminal justice reforms do not, and cannot, work. Because they serve important economic, social status, and political functions for members of this nation’s dominant racial group they can only be seriously addressed through fundamental racial and economic changes. Such change can come only through African Americans and other people of goodwill mustering sufficient political pressure through social protests, economic boycotts, and other means to make it clear that those killings will no longer be allowed to happen with impunity. Viewing such violence through the lens of racial politics reveals that the ultimate–bottom line–reason the police and vigilantes kill so many African Americans is because they can; and the only way to stop them from doing so is by changing oppressive power-relationships. This means that both ameliorative and radical solutions to the problem, should focus on political and economic solutions; solutions that either stop the targeting of African Americans or ensure that there is sufficient accountability to prevent such killings from happening with impunity when they do. A good place to begin, of course, is by joining social movement organizations like the Black Lives Matter Global Network.
In Killing African Americans, I start by suggesting some ameliorative solutions. I present a list of some things I believe can be done to help reduce the number of police and vigilante killings of African Americans by making those responsible more accountable. That list includes: establishing local, state, and national data centers and archives for all police and vigilante killings; creating a legal defense hotline of pro-bono lawyers to advise people of their rights; monitoring the policies and pay-outs of companies that provide local governments with insurance that covers police misconduct; monitoring, and when possible, becoming involved in the negotiation of police union contracts to ensure that they don’t provide unreasonable protection for officers who use lethal force; monitoring and making public the records of the handling of local police and vigilante killings by mayors, police chiefs, prosecutors, and judges; and developing police and vigilante accountability political platforms to be endorsed by candidates for elected office at every branch and level of government.
Other possible actions are: distributing smart phone apps to advise those confronted by the police and vigilantes and to record those encounters on cloud-based servers; pressuring local police departments to establish civilian review boards; forcing state and local governments to appoint special prosecutors to handle all police killings; bringing lawsuits that challenge existing laws and court rulings regarding when the police may use lethal force; organizing neighborhood “Copwatch” groups to monitor police and vigilante activity, and petitioning the United Nations to investigate and monitor the persistence of the disproportionate police and vigilante killings of African Americans as a violation of our human rights and its anti-genocide pact.
Ultimately significant changes can come only through major transformations in U.S. racial and economic relations. To make that happen we can begin with: massive and sustained protests that disrupt every aspect of American life (e.g., work, politics, transportation, religious services, and sporting events); economic boycotts that target all economic activity in communities that tolerate the lack of police and vigilante accountability; and programs of non-cooperation including jury nullification, refusal to pay taxes, and the refusal to serve in the military. Such actions can also include general strikes and slowdowns in which African Americans and our supporters refrain from making our normal contributions to society (e.g., work and school); and when necessary, the establishment of armed militias for self-defense.
Academy Award-winning actress, comedian, and talk show host Mo’Nique has called for a boycott of Netflix for what she referred to as “gender bias and color bias.” According to her Instagram post, Netflix offered Mo’Nique $500,000 to do a comedy special, while other acts like Amy Schumer commanded $13 million and Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle each received $20 million for their shows.
I don’t have any idea what cash prize Mo’Nique should be able to command for a comedy special—-and frankly, these numbers can be dizzying for those of us who can only hope to earn those sums after years of 40-plus hour work weeks. In the “real world,” we expect experience and qualifications to be closely matched with earning power.
In Hollywood, celebrities who can draw the largest audiences, reap the largest payouts. That seems fair. For comedians, ticket sales for their comedy shows and box office receipts are apparently relevant to this assessment. Mo’Nique continues to perform at improv clubs and other arenas. Her BET talk show was canceled years ago, and she has not had the splashy film career one might have imagined after her Oscar-winning performance in “Precious” in 2009. Of course, the fact that Mo’Nique has not managed to translate her Academy Award into a bigger film career may be illustrative of her major point that there is gender and racial bias.
On the other hand, Schumer starred in the 2015 hit “Trainwreck,” which earned $140 million. Schumer drew lots of heat in her Broadway debut in “Meteor Showers,” had a widely popular Emmy-winning TV show “Inside Amy Schumer,” which aired from 2013 to 2016, and according to Mo’Nique’s video Schumer sold out Madison Square Garden twice. This cursory comparison puts Schumer well ahead of Mo’Nique today—-in an industry that emphasizes what is currently hot.
Critics believe that her call for a Netflix boycott is just sour grapes. To some extent, they may be right, but more importantly her comments highlight an area of American life that is mostly ignored, except for among those who experience its reality.
Consider US employment today. The truth is that other than Asian men, the median hourly earnings of white men are higher than all other racial and ethnic groups, and women. And among women, black and Hispanic women earn $13 and $12 per hour respectively, while their Asian and white counterparts earn $18 and $17 per hour, respectively. White and Asian women earn an average of 82 cents and 87 cents respectively, for every dollar a white man earns. However, while these numbers show an enduring gender wage gap, black and brown women would enjoy substantial pay increases if they joined white and Asian women, given that they earn 65 cents (black women) and 58 cents (Hispanic women) for each dollar earned by a white man.
And lest you think that these gaps can be explained away by education, they persist even for those with college degrees. We see similar disparities in the median hourly earnings for those with at least a bachelor’s degree who are 25 and older: Asian women earn $27, white women $25, black women $23, and Hispanic women $22.
Sure, differences in education and experience are all factors in pay discrepancies—-and, as the payouts of these celebrities highlight, the type of industry is another important one. Many other issues impact wages, some heavily gendered. Regarding salary negotiation, women are less likely to question offered salaries, and tend to be less aggressive negotiators. Yet, in study after study, varying amounts of the wage gap are understood by social scientists to be the result of discrimination.
Mo’Nique probably doesn’t endear herself to people with her “honest” talk about having an open marriage, public feuds with other celebrities, and her profanity-laced rant about being “white-balled” by moguls Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, and Lee Daniels. And by many objective standards, she may not be able to command from Netflix the pay of any of the comedians she referenced in her boycott bid.
Even if Mo’Nique is not the best example herself, however, it’s time that several voices chime in as messengers surrounding the enduring race and gender pay gap.
Janis Prince, Ph.D., is Chair of the Department of Social Sciences and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Saint Leo University in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.