Racism Review | Scholarship and Activism towards racial justice
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CNN reports an act of silencing Spanish that took place at a Burger King restaurant in Eustis, Florida on July 6.
Two white customers became upset because a manager had a brief conversation in Spanish with one of his employees. After the employee left, the customers told the manager they wanted to complain. Thinking they were dissatisfied with their meal, he offered to give them credit or a free desert. One of the customers explained that their complaint was about the manager’s speaking Spanish. They said that he shouldn’t be speaking Spanish but “American English” instead because “we’re in America.” The manager said, “No ma’am, I don’t,” and one the protagonists told the manager to go back to Mexico. The manager responded “”Guess what ma’am, I’m not Mexican [he is of Puerto Rican descent] but you’re being very prejudiced and I want you out of my restaurant, right now.” The customers responded that what they meant was that the manager should speak Spanish at home, not in public places like the restaurant and added they would leave after they finished their meals but left soon thereafter left after the manager threatened to call the police.
This was an episode in silencing. Joe Feagin and I discussed silencing in our book, where we point out that silencing is related to beliefs in the White Racial Frame that define vernacular Spanish as not having legitimacy in the United States and others have the authority to interfere in conversations in Spanish and demand that the speakers stop and switch to English.
As we said in the book and have repeated elsewhere, silencing is on the surface absurd since it demands that people abandon their language, the one they feel comfortable speaking, and switch to English, a foreign language. It is in fact an extreme act of denigration against Latinos, a rooted people in the US, and their language, which is equally rooted. On the surface it is white elite racism in its purest form: claiming white supremacy over vernacular Spanish on utterly racist, xenophobic, and irrational grounds.
The Spanish language has followed two paths in the history of the United States: early on as a respected language and more recently as the derided vernacular of a racialized people. The majority of the sociological literature has focused on the racialization of Spanish and skipped over the “acceptable” roots of the language in this country. But both coexist today and the former’s status cannot be properly understood without consideration of the status of the latter.
The respectability of Spanish can be traced to early colonial days. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson stated that the study of Spanish would be beneficial to young men interested in commerce and Jefferson included Spanish in the curriculum that he designed for the College of William and Mary. By the nineteenth century Spanish-language instruction was adopted by many institutions of higher education, including Harvard University and other Ivy League schools and Spanish-language newspapers were published in New Mexico, Louisiana, and other areas of the United States.
Spanish remains “respectable” in academic and artistic areas, but since the end of the war between the US and Mexico in the 1840s there has been a significant white racialization of Spanish as the language of conquered Latino peoples. Even as millions of former Mexican citizens, most of whom spoke Spanish as their native tongue, were incorporated into the United States, the dominant White Racial Frame declared vernacular Spanish as foreign and not belonging in the United States.
Such assertions are simplistic and inaccurate. They represent justifications of the subjugation of Latino peoples and lack a factual basis. Historian Rosina Lozano explains the complex history of Spanish in the US and its legitimacy (pp. 4-5):
After the passage of centuries, Spanish became the native language of Spanish settlements in Louisiana, parts of the future U.S. Midwest, and the future Southwest, and the lingua franca for many American Indians who lived among these Spanish-speaking settlements. Over the course of the twentieth century, migration to the United States from Latin American countries has replenished Spanish’s place in the country and bolstered perceptions of Spanish as an immigrant language, distracting most from its earlier manifestations. This long exposure to the Spanish language makes it part of the nation’s fabric.
Although I have not conducted a systematic study, it seems to me that recently the racialization of Spanish has been fused with the xenophobia that has made “Latino” and vernacular Spanish coterminous with “illegal” and the rejection of immigrants entails the rejection of their everyday language.
Research that Joe Feagin and I have conducted shows that Spanish speakers “caught” conversing in their own language are admonished to “speak English, this is America.” In other words, Spanish does not belong in the United States as a vernacular and neither do you as a Latino. This situation approaches lunacy. The deep rootedness of vernacular Spanish in North and South America is undeniable and its rejection as a legitimate everyday language in the US defies its importance in areas such as politics, business, and the media in North and South America. These are positions incongruent with the facts but consonant with a White Racial Frame that provides an ideology that supports the exploitation of a vulnerable proletariat.
I would venture a guess that, in the eyes of the white elite, the Spanish language as an academic and literate language that does not challenge their interests, will remain respectable while vernacular Spanish, the language of the oppressed, will continue to be a handy tool to deride Latinos/”illegals” for a long time. That is, the treatment of Spanish in the US by whites is about a log more than language. Try white racism.
As I plan a beautiful summer filled with fun with my family, my heart is heavy knowing that there are hundreds of immigrant children from Latin America who are locked up in modern day concentration camps–U.S. detention centers. These children are waking up on concrete floors, do not have access to toothbrushes, or soap, and most importantly, do not know when or if, they will ever see their families again. They are suffering both physical harm leading to deaths under our government’s watch and great psychological abuse that will create long-lasting trauma for them.
On June 21, 2019 the PBS News Hour reported on the horrible conditions in one of these detention centers in Clint, Texas where some of these immigrant Latino children from toddlers to teenagers were being held until yesterday when they were quickly relocated to another detention center. They lacked basic needs such as food, water, or proper sanitation. Willamette University law professor Warren Binford was interviewed by the News Hour after visiting the facility. She states:
Basically, what we saw are dirty children who are malnourished, who are being severely neglected. They are being kept in inhumane conditions. They are essentially being warehoused, as many as 300 children in a cell, with almost no adult supervision….We’re seeing a flu outbreak, and we’re also seeing a lice infestation. It is — we have children sleeping on the floor. It’s the worst conditions I have ever witnessed in several years of doing these inspections.
Under these horrific and inhumane conditions, it should come as no surprise that children are dying under our government’s care.
President Trump’s racialized immigration policy is killing immigrant Latino children. Six migrant children have died in U.S. custody between September 2018 to May 2019 for the first time in a decade. The recent origins of this situation began last April when more than 2600 undocumented children were separated from their parents at the U.S. border and locked up in detention centers that were not designed to house children under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. Child separations and detention is an example of the kind of tragic policy Bill Hong Hing argues brings shame to us as a nation and violates our constitutional rights. Hing states:
The age of hysteria over immigration in which we live leads to tragic policies that challenge us as a moral society. Policies that are unnecessarily harsh—that show a dehumanizing side of our character—are senseless. They bring shame to us as a civil society.” (2006: p. 7).
The Trump administration argued in court this week that detained migrant children do not require basic hygiene products (like soap and toothbrushes) to be held in “safe and sanitary” conditions. Lawyers who recently interviewed detained children report that kids are living in “traumatic and dangerous” conditions – insufficient food and water, going weeks without bathing, kids as young as 7 years old being told to care for the babies and toddlers.
While most of the children from the Clint, Texas facility have now been moved to another detention center since the story broke, the larger problem is the underlying policy that allows for children to continue to be locked up and separated from their families. Taking them to another detention center doesn’t solve this larger policy issue, or remove the suffering these policy create.
This Administration’s cruel policy is exactly the kind of policy the President likes. Why? Because it serves his ends and displays his bully power over the most powerless. President Trump targets the vulnerable in order to please his white base, and immigrant children from Latin America are among the most vulnerable. It is a politically calculated strategy designed to gain emotional support from an anti-immigrant, and often, racist base.
Many of the greatest problems facing the Latinos stem from the consequences of the racism we have experienced in this country because of the still dominant white racial frame. Caging and abusing innocent Latino toddlers and children could only happen after centuries of the dehumanization of Latinos, who are situated within a systematic racialization of people of color in the United States. As Feagin and Cobas argue, Latinos have been and continue to exist within a particular racial frame, as part of a white-imposed “hierarchy of racialized groups in this country” (2014: p. 48). Their analysis traces the subordination of Latinos through the white racial frame, which has resulted in discriminatory actions towards them by racist whites and in continued race-based exclusion at all levels of society. They state:
For more than a century and a half, Latino groups’ positioning on this society’s racial ladder has been a powerful determinant of their members’ racialized treatment, socioeconomic opportunities, and access to various types of social capital (2014: p. 15).
It is in this context that this appalling abuse of immigrant Latino children can take place without massive large scale civil unrest by Americans throughout the nation. While there have been and are some protests developing across the globe such as the upcoming one on July 12, 2019 by the Lights for Liberty, can we imagine the continued national uproar that would occur if these children were Swedish immigrants being locked up in cages, denied beds, adequate food, water, and sanitation resulting in some of them dying? If it were Swedish immigrant children being treated the way Latino immigrant children are then more people would be protesting in the streets. This abuse will go down in history among the worst atrocities committed by the U.S. government towards people of color along with the taking of Native American children from their families, the terror of Jim Crow, or the Japanese Internment.
Donald Trump’s framing of immigrants from Latin America immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists ” proved so successful to his election to the presidency in 2016, that we should be prepared for more of what political scientist Peter Andreas calls “performative art” as the 2020 election season intensifies. And the paint is going to continue to be the blood of immigrant children.
How can we continue to dehumanize children to the point where separating them from their families and holding them in these conditions becomes our public policy? Why aren’t the Democrats calling out how this Administration’s policies are killing children? Why aren’t we insisting Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform? Why is there not greater large scale civil unrest to this situation? Why aren’t we all calling out how President Trump’s policies are killing immigrant Latino children?
As we plan for our children’s summer of fun, we should all remember there are Latino immigrant children who are interned in modern day concentration camps–alone, scared, in metal cages, and without adequate nutrition, hygiene, or medical care. They are children, just like our children. Our government and our president are treating them WORSE than animals. There are animal cruelty laws that exist that prohibit people from leaving dogs unattended in inhumane conditions. These immigrant Latino children are receiving no such protections. The contrast between our healthy kids’ lives and the lives of these Latino immigrant children is truly heartbreaking.
“By putting on their very best clothes, the black people were signaling they were free,” historian Jackie Jones relates. “It enraged white people. They hated to see black people dressed up because it turned their world upside down.” Sartorial display is woven into resistance and celebrations of the African American holiday Juneteenth.
Today marks the anniversary of the original Juneteenth, a celebration marking the end of slavery. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration that people celebrate in a variety of ways. NPR’s Code Switch has been collecting stories of how people celebrate at the hashtag #WouldntBeJuneteenthWithout, but I there is a pall over the usual celebratory mood of this Juneteenth by recent events in Seattle, where Charleena Lyles was killed by police after she called them to report a burglary, and in Minnesota, where the police officer on trial for killing Philando Castile, was acquitted on all charges.
Indeed, after the ongoing police-murder of Black people, the celebration of Juneteenth and the struggle behind it, take on a renewed sense of urgency and poignancy. Why celebrate it at all? It wasn’t always a widely recognized holiday, and it was a struggle to get it recognized.
The Struggle to Make Juneteenth a State Holiday
Juneteenth hasn’t always been recognized as a holiday, and in the family I came from it was often scoffed at (lots of derision about the name of the holiday). So the fact that Juneteenth is now an official state holiday in Texas and many other communities across the US, is significant and is only possible because of a political struggle waged by one Houston Democratic legislator, (former) state representative Al Edwards. It seems impossible now to mention a black, Democratic state representative and not call to mind, Rep. Clementa Pinckney, gunned down while leading that Wednesday night service in Charleston.
Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards
Edwards was born in Houston in 1937, the sixth of sixteen children, and was first elected as a state representative in 1978 from Houston’s District 146, the area known as Alief. A year later, in 1979, Edwards authored and sponsored House Bill 1016, making June 19th (“Juneteenth”) a paid state holiday in Texas.
Everyone, it seemed, opposed the idea. In a recent interview about this bill, attorney Doug McLeod, a conservative Democratic representative from Galveston at the time said of Edwards, “He really had an uphill battle. He had opposition from the left and the right.” Mostly white conservative Democratic majority viewed the bill as a hard sell to their constituents and many of Edwards’ 14 fellow black legislators saw it as a diversion from securing a holiday for Martin Luther King.
House Bill 1016 appeared to be headed nowhere when Edwards, a Democrat who was new to the legislature, originally filed it. Eventually, he got McLeod to sign on to the bill and Bill Clayton, then speaker of the Texas legislature.
Then-Gov. Bill Clements, a Republican, declined to endorse the Juneteenth bill, but he agreed to sign it if passed. Through a series of negotiations and brokered deals over votes, Rep. Edwards eventually prevailed and got the bill through the legislature. When the bill passed, white conservative opponents urged the governor not to sign the bill, but Clements kept his word and signed the bill on the Texas State Capitol steps. This prompted other states to follow suit. Now 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way or another.
History and Struggle Behind Juneteenth
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, but people remained enslaved within the state of Texas.
This happened for two reasons.
First, Texas slave owners refused to release the people they were holding as slaves. They basically just wouldn’t acknowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation or Lee’s surrender had happened or had any bearing on them (cf. “States Rights,” see also Texas is a Whole Other Country).
Second, slave owners from neighboring states in the south looked on Texas as a haven for slavery, so they poured into Texas with an estimated 125,000-150,000* enslaved people from surrounding Confederate states (*historians debate the precise number).
In a recent interview, Jackie Jones,a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.”The idea was Texas was so vast that the federal government would never be able to conquer it all. There is this view that if they want to hold onto their slaves, the best thing to do is get out of the South and go to Texas.”
This ended on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and again declared the end of the Civil War, with General Granger reading aloud a special decree that ordered the freeing of some 200,000 people still in bondage in Texas.
Today, some 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way. This would not have been possible without the vision of Rep. Al Edwards and the struggle to make it a reality.
In times like these, what’s to celebrate?
With the official, legal end of chattel slavery — and the enforcement of that decree in Texas — there was much to celebrate in 1865. It was no longer legal for human beings to be sold on auction blocks as they had been. And, to be clear, the US didn’t just tolerate slavery as an economic system, it expanded and prospered on it. The overturning of this dehumanizing system was a momentous victory for a multi-racial group of abolitionists who waged a decades long campaign to end slavery.
Reconstruction followed, creating new opportunities for African Americans who owned and profited from their own land and began to participate in local politics.
One historian, C. Vann Woodward, has called the period of “the forgotten alternatives.” During the period between 1870 and 1900, there was some racial integration in housing and privately-owned facilities. Black people could travel on public transportation, vote and get elected, get jobs, including on police forces, and enjoy many public facilities.
But. the gains of Reconstruction were short-lived.
This “alternative” approach to race during Reconstruction ended when what Woodward calls the “strange career” of Jim Crow segregation, began — first by whites in the North, and expanded with a vengeance by Southern whites. Within thirty years of emancipation, laws were instituted that stripped African Americans of their rights, making celebrations like Juneteenth a distant memory. A prison-labor paradigm developed. White jail owners profited from the hard labor of their black inmates who were incarcerated for petty crimes like vagrancy, which carried long sentences. White landowners replaced chattel slavery with a deceptive practice called debt peonage, a new form of bondage continued for many blacks for decades. It wasn’t until 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 which strengthened the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867, making it a criminal offense. Roosevelt launched a federal investigation, prosecuted guilty whites and effectively ended peonage in 1942.
So, why celebrate Juneteenth if white supremacy re-emerged with such a bloody return thirty short years later? Because celebration, commemoration and community are how we gain strength for the larger struggle.
“It’s important not to skip over the first part of true freedom. Public education as we know it today and the first property rights for women were instituted by African-American elected officials.”
Even as there is terrible news of continued police killing of Black people, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on other times, other struggles and other victories on this anniversary of Juneteenth.
One of the problems with academic social science research is the idea that good political analysis requires an emphasis on the “facts” and a de-emphasis on values or recommendations. This notion argues that social scientists should remain neutral observers who are limited to reporting empirical findings offering no policy recommendations.
However, this is simply not true. Rigorous auto-ethnographic research can give voice to marginalized communities and can lead to insights with meaningful societal implications. Auto-ethnography is defined as both:
the personal story of the author as well as the larger cultural meaning for the individual’s story” (2013 : 73).
Through my own personal story and well-selected personal interviews, I engage in what Ron Schmidt, Sr. calls interpretive social science. According to Schmidt, interpretive political analysis
centers on approaches to political understanding that aim to clarify or illuminate the meaning and/or significance of political phenomena. (Schmidt 2016: 367).
This method is especially useful in doing research on racial and ethnic politics because it addresses barriers people of color face. With a growing racial gap along so many measures such as employment, earnings, poverty, housing, education, health, incarceration, and wealth, according to Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Pathways magazine, it is unethical to ignore policy solutions that address the real obstacles to making the U.S. a multiracial democracy.
My book is about my personal journey and that of 31 other Latinos who are the first in their families to graduate from college and enter the professions. As a first-generation Latina professional, I could have never earned my PhD and eventually become a university professor without the guidance and support of mentors, combined with concrete supportive public policies. Why? Because by the time I was sixteen years old I was a pregnant, high school dropout who was kicked out of my home. I had my first child at the age of seventeen and married the father, who was an undocumented immigrant.
In this book, I document the paths of Latinos from across the nation — in a variety of professions—and explore their experiences as professionals amid family struggles and the country’s enduring racism, and include a discussion of the public policies and programs that would help increase the presence of Latinos in the professional world. Latinos and other people of color are the demographic (near) future of the United States, predicted to be 56% of the population by 2060, yet we continue to be underrepresented in key professions and in political institutions. This underrepresentation has implications for the health of our democratic institutions and society.
There are great risks in revealing our personal stories. We expose ourselves to criticism from our families, culture, colleagues, and friends. And we fully expect this. However, the potential benefits will be worth it. In this unique scholarly book, we have turned our negative experiences and disappointments into fuel in the hopes that they will help, inspire, and empower others. Our experiences hold the potential to become empowering for first-generation and students of color, especially, and to provide meaningful, concrete policy solutions for increasing the number of Latino professionals, which remains extremely low in America today. As Schmidt argues,
interpretive methods can articulate and address important dimensions of the question of the breadth of racialization in the contemporary polity that cannot be addressed from within a scientistic research paradigm (p. 372).
After sharing our revealing and important stories, I conclude the book on Latino professionals with the following statement:
Will enough people do what is required to open opportunities for Latinos and expand the number of Latino professionals by strongly advocating for equity-enhancing public policies and participating in mentoring programs that empower and support Latinos, and challenging the white racial frame that provides them so many advantages, so that Latinos and other oppressed people of color in the United States can pursue their dreams? Only time will tell if we will be finally welcomed as equals in America (p. 187).
In the spirit of interpretive methods, our numerous detailed accounts illustrate how supportive equity-enhancing public policies like affirmative action opened up opportunities for us, and how dedicated teachers and mentors helped us guided us towards successful and rewarding lives.
I wrote in my first essay how Sweden has tried to hide the structural and institutional racism behind its famous image of solidarity and equality. Although the Swedish welfare state has never been free from racism, indeed quite the contrary, there have been individuals in the leadership of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, such as Olof Palme, who tried to combat racism both nationally and internationally. I wrote that twenty years after the assassination of Olof Palme, it became crystal clear to me that members of the democracy that I once believed in would invest far more energy and resources into denying harsh inequities than becoming the democracy that Palme stood and died for. Swedish political and academic institutions, which bear the responsibility for the reproduction of racism in the country, “shoot the messenger”, as Swedes say. In other words, instead of enacting policies and practices that combat racism, there has been a systematic response to discredit me and numerous others who took action against Swedish racism.
Political mobilization against and demonizing of Kamali
Just a few months before the parliamentary election of 2006, I was contacted by one of my friends from the Christian Democratic Party who informed me about a hidden political mobilization against me. The goal of this mobilization was to demonize me and invalidate the governmental investigation of racism that I was leading. An email was circulated among the four right-wing political parties called “the Alliance” concerning “how to confront Kamali’s investigation” before the election. After internal discussions, they agreed on a strategy that consisted of (1) demonizing and disqualifying me by questioning my academic merits, (2) mentioning my immigrant/Iranian/Muslim background in the editorials of unaccountable right-wing and conservative newspapers, and, (3) publishing a document designed to question the scientific grounds of my recommendations for changing institutional and structural racism as well as structural discrimination in Sweden. A right-wing think-tank named Timbro was one of the organizations that implemented this strategy. Timbro, which defines itself as a think-tank for the market economy, paid Henrik Borg, who was described as “A 25-years-old lawyer and Eastern European specialist from Uppsala.” Borg published a report called “Your questions provide you the desired answers: Masoud Kamali, Mona Sahlin and politicization of Swedish governmental investigations,” within a framework they called “Mission Sweden 2006.”
The ensuing debates in the editorials of right-wing and conservative journals sought to redirect the discourse and the public focus from institutional and structural racism as obstacles for group integration (a change and emphasis created by my investigation) to earlier deliberations, which presented immigrants and their cultures as the major problem of integration. Attacks upon the investigation coupled with ad-hominem attacks upon me occurred on a daily basis. Such attacks intensified the closer to the election of 2006 we came. The alliance of political parties appointed Nyamko Sabuni, who is a woman with immigrant, African, and Muslim origins, as the candidate for Minister of Integration. Sabuni claimed that the problem of immigrant integration had nothing to do with racism and discrimination, but with immigrants’ unwillingness to adapt themselves to Swedish values.
Using individuals with an immigrant background in general and with Muslim background in particular, is an established strategy for xenophobic and racist governments in order to protect themselves from being accused of racism and legitimize their anti-Muslim and xenophobic policies. I conducted several national and international research projects on this common strategy and published the results among other publications in my book Racial Discrimination: Institutional Patterns and Politics. Sabuni was not only backed by openly racist parties (e.g., Sweden Democrats) and groups, but also by xenophobic groups and individuals within mainstream political parties. Increasing racism in Sweden has recently encouraged her to make a comeback in Swedish whitewashed politics as a nominee for the leadership of the Liberal Party. Even more, Sabuni has criticized her party for not cooperating with a racist party in Sweden.
I was shocked by mainstream parties’ rapid move to the right and their successive adjustment to “the spirit of the time,” namely increasing racism, xenophobia and populism in a country with a long history of “adjustment” to powerful political trends during its modern history. The establishment of the “State institute for Racial Biology” in early twentieth century, close cooperation and relationship with Nazi Germany from 1939 to the mid-40s, and maintaining good relations with both great powers of the Cold War are just a few illustrations of historical “adjustments”.
Social Democratic Party and increasing racism
When the election of 2006 approached and my team of governmental investigators and I were about to present the investigation’s final report on racism, I felt the hardening of the political climate. I understood that the cold racist winds sent shivers through politicians, including leading Social Democrats. Politicians started talking to me about the importance and necessity of “real politics” and about the difficulties and “burden” of being a politician in “such a difficult political period.” One illustration of this was when the Minister of Integration, Jens Orback, in a TV interview criticized my investigation for not providing “evidence” for the existence of institutional and structural discrimination in the country. The day after the interview I met him and criticized him for “lying.” I did so because in previous discussions with me he had indicated that the investigation was very important and had given the government “necessary instruments for changing the discriminatory systems in Sweden.” He said: “This is real politics Masoud, we are depending on people’s votes and not on researchers’ truths.” I told him about my belief in and imagination about the “Palme legacy” in Social Democratic Party. He answered: “It was another time, my friend, you should realize that.” On my way home I thought if Palme was still alive, what would he say about such political lies during a time of increasing injustices and racism that harm hundreds of thousands of people in such a small country.
Even the Social Democratic Party’s leadership and ideologues understood the usefulness of individuals with immigrant backgrounds, who would legitimate the Party’s growing xenophobic and restrictive immigration policies. One such person used by politicians was Nalin Pekgul, a woman with Kurdish background, who frequently participated in the public debate and warned of the “growing Islamism” in marginalized areas. She and her fellow party members, who have had political power in Sweden for almost 80 years, ignored their own role in creating disenfranchised areas and marginalization for many people in the country. Again, the responsibility for the marginalization and segregation of people with immigrant backgrounds was blamed on marginalized persons themselves as well as their religion and culture. A few politicians with immigrant backgrounds contacted me and felt very uncomfortable with the increasing racism within the party.
Whitewashing the political power
Already during the early days of my appointment as the lead governmental investigator, the Minister of Integration, Mona Sahlin, told me that she had received many letters and emails accusing her of allowing Muslims to influence the politics of the country. They saw me as a representative of a world conspiracy of Muslims calling for the Islamization of Sweden. Despite the critical storm against me, the Minister of Integration, Mona Sahlin, gave her sincere support to me and the investigation. She also openly declared that as “one of the best qualified researchers in the country,” my criticism was correct regarding the government’s integration policy and the government’s ignorance of discrimination and racism. Sahlin also added that she had changed her understanding of the question of integration and believed that racism and discrimination hinders the integration of minorities.
Unfortunately, quickly after her declarations and open support of me and the investigation, Sahlin was replaced by a new Minister of Integration, Jens Orback, a politician with no experience and knowledge regarding integration and racism. I asked several people with insider knowledge about the reasons why Sahlin was replaced by Orback. The reason I heard was that the Prime Minister, Göran Persson, believed that the Social Democratic Party’s immigrant integration policy should not significantly differ from the right-wing Alliance parties, because the Social Democratic Party could lose the election. This was of course due to adaptation of “Third Way” politics developed in the United Kingdom (UK) in cooperation with social scientists such as Anthony Giddens and politicians such as the Prime Minister of the UK Tony Blair and the US president Bill Clinton. The Third Way sociologist, Anthony Giddens, provided a “scientific ground” for social democratic parties’ transformation to right in many western countries including Sweden. He claimed that “The Third Way can beat far right by modernizing, liberalizing and being tough on immigration.” Social Democrats lost the election of 2006 and a new right-wing government called the Alliance government seized state power. The new government appointed Nyamko Sabuni as the Minister of Integration. Given that she was one of Sweden’s most anti-immigrant and xenophobic political figures, Sabuni did not miss any opportunity to attack my investigation and put “the blame” of increasing racial segregation on immigrants. Sabuni claimed that she would solve the problem of integration during her term as minister. Mainstream dailies presented the new integration policy as the way of counteracting and correcting “the Social Democratic Kamali investigation, and Mona Sahlin’s understanding of integration.
Many right wing and conservative dailies supported Sabuni and claimed that the new government is going to solve the problem of integration in near future.
Symbolic violence, torture and whites’ interpretive prerogative
Denial of racism has deep roots in Sweden. A common tactic in denying the existence of racism in the country is to say “it has nothing to do with racism,” but with “non-nuanced” researchers, such as Kamali, who do not understand the “Swedish mentality,” Sweden’s “tradition of equality,” “solidary history,” and “values.” With this tactic and discourse, it is uninformed Swedes who are given interpretive prerogative over antiracist researchers, politicians, journalists and activists. I was subjected to the same demonization as some other antiracist politicians and journalist of color, such as Juan Fonseca and Alexandra Pascalidou. Fonseca as one of the first politicians of color in Sweden to publicly attack racism and discrimination against people of color in Sweden was stamped as “terrorist” in late 1990s. The demonization of Fonseca has led to his exclusion from Swedish parliament and the Social Democratic Party. He declared that “Racists in the party will stop me.” He left the Social Democrats and joined the Christian Democratic Party. However, after four years, he was forced to leave the new party and declared that there was no room for antiracist politics in that party. Many journals attacked him for being “anti-Swede” and “terrorist”.
The famous antiracist journalist of color, Alexandra Pascalidou, has also been under attack for many decades. She has been openly attacked and even threatened to death. She lost her leading position at the Swedish TV-program Mosaik because she introduced “too much antiracism” in the program. The cases of Fonseca, Pascalidou and me are just three examples of many people do not accept “their place in society” provided by white nationalists and the white power structure in Sweden. Such racist actions against people of color who are fighting against racism are done mainly by soft means of violence (“symbolic violence”) in order to eliminate any “threat” to the reproduction of the white structures of domination. This is discussed more in my book War, Violence and Social Justice.
In an interview with the daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, I said that “the hatred and physical and symbolic violence against me in Sweden, are worse than the torture I was subjected to as a political prisoner in Iran.” This evoked further hate and attacks against me and the former Minister of Integration in the Social Democratic government, Jan O. Karlsson, wrote an article in Sweden’s major tabloid, Expressen, titled “Stupid Kamali,” and said that “Masoud Kamali reduces, trivializes the suffering of all the people who have languished in the world’s torture chambers.”
Karlsson, who as the Minister of Integration showed his racist attitudes when he was forced to report about how he improved the integration of immigrants by saying that “We can’t walk around [governmental agencies] asking what have we done for the negroes today.” He presents himself here as the champion of those immigrants who have been subjected to torture. He did not even follow the politically correct Swedish tradition of being racist and later apologizing for his racist utterance about “negroes,” and said that “it was just a warning.”
I could provide names of many people who share my experiences and who will provide many examples of the symbolic (and in some cases physical) violence that they are subjected to on a daily basis as a member of minority groups. Did Karlsson ever ask those who he called “negroes” how they felt about their situation? Did Karlsson ever ask a child with an immigrant background who attends Swedish kindergartens and schools about their feelings of being othered and subjected to racist insults? Did Karlsson ever ask people with immigrant backgrounds about the daily symbolic violence they are subjected to in their workplaces, on buses, in their contacts with authoritie, and even when they are looking at Swedish TV? Did Karlsson ever ask women with headscarves about the public insults they are subjected to? Did Karlsson ever listen to young individuals who are depressed, silenced, and exhausted because of the everyday and systemic racism they are subjected to?
As Joe Feagin (2006) analyzes in detail, systemic racism creates much everyday racial oppression, most of which is fundamentally materialistic. It also regularly involves an aggressively hierarchical ordering of racial groups legitimated and rationalized by a dominant “white racial frame” affecting individuals, groups and societal institutions over a very long period during so-called “modern times” in Europe and North America.
Karlsson’s attack on me should be seen in light of the existence of a dominant “white racial frame,” which according to Feagin and O’Brien (2003) positions powerful white agents, especially elite white men, explicitly at the forefront of the discussion (and perpetuation) of racial oppression. Karlsson and certain other white men and women in Sweden’s public sphere knew that their attacks on me and others would fall in the fertile soil of white racial framing that functions as a shield, an often invisible white support system irrespective of the facts.
Karlsson and many other politicians and journalists who criticized me had no interest in asking me how I felt about my children and my family being subjected to death threats; or in asking me about my daily reflections regarding whether it was not better to stay and suffer execution in Iran because of my protest deeds there, which I was proud of–and not suffer because of my skin color and background, which influenced even my self-image as a human who wants to be treated equally. They had no interest in asking me about my daily anxieties about if it was not better for the future and the well-being of my children if I had stayed in Iran regardless of the outcome, instead of subjecting my children to life-long Swedish racism, which can destroy their sense of human dignity because of their skin color and immigrant background.
In 2009 the U.S. Senate belatedly passed a resolution officially apologizing for racial oppression that targeted African Americans: “The Congress (A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; (B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.” These mostly white senators next explicitly barred African Americans from seeking material reparations for the role the U.S. government played in this admittedly brutal racial oppression. A decade later this disclaimer seems increasingly untenable.
Consider the often-forgotten timeline of this very long history of whites’ anti-black oppression:
Black enslavement, circa 60 percent of US history (1619-1865)
Reconstruction Era (circa 1866-1877)
Jim Crow segregation, circa 22 percent of U.S. history (1877-1969)
Since 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were bought off a Dutch-flagged pirate ship in Jamestown, white-on-black oppression has been imbedded in our economic, political, educational, and other institutions. Few Americans ever consider how long slavery lasted–for about 246 of our 400 years and 60 percent of our history. That fact helps explain why slavery was foundational and aggressively protected in the 1787 Constitution. The U.S. is the only advanced industrialized country that still lives under a Constitution made by and substantially for white slaveholders. Next, add in nearly a century of Jim Crow segregation of African Americans, and you have accounted for most (about 82 percent) of this country’s history.
The new discussion by Democratic Party candidates of significant reparations for African Americans has emerged because of the reinvigorated political power of Black (and Brown) voters, now the Democratic Party base. While this Democratic discussion of the what and how of reparations is still fuzzy, the presence of several presidential candidates of color and a racially diverse political base likely insures it will be substantive. It remains to be seen if the inevitable push-back of many whites will force these candidates to back off of reparations ideas as the presidential campaign intensifies.
For five decades as a research sociologist, I have examined in detail this country’s systemic racism and issues of redress and reparations, yet this is the first time I have seen this level of public political interest in major compensation to African Americans for centuries of life-shortening discrimination and exploitation they and their ancestors have endured at white hands.
A major justification for such reparations lies in the harsh reality of the stolen labor and lives of millions enslaved from 1619 to 1865, of many more millions legally Jim-Crowed from the 1870s to the 1960s, and of those millions who face much racial discrimination today.
As I have detailed in a new 4th edition of Racist America, trillions of dollars in wealth were stolen from Black Americans during the centuries-long history of slavery and Jim Crow. This economic theft continues today, in direct white discrimination and in socially inherited unjust enrichments from whites’ earlier generations. Most whites have been able to pass some accumulated wealth over five to twenty generations, while most African Americans have had that opportunity for about two of those generations. For centuries, this theft of labor and lives was carried out by whites as individuals and by white-run government institutions backed by a white-biased legal system.
From the 17th century to the mid-19th century much white family and community enrichment came directly, or by means of economic multiplier effects, from slave plantations or the many related economic enterprises. Thomas Craemer calculated the hours worked by enslaved Black workers from 1776 (Declaration of Independence) to 1865 (official end to slavery) and estimated the uncompensated labor to be $5.9-14.2 trillion in current dollars. If one expands his enslavement period a century before 1776, the total figure would likely be even higher.
One common argument against making reparations for this stolen Black labor is that “slavery happened hundreds of years ago” and that those debts are owed by and to people now deceased. This argument ignores contemporary whites’ inheritance of massive unjust enrichments from their ancestors involved in the slavery system. It also ignores their unjust enrichment from the large-scale discrimination suffered by African Americans whose labor was stolen during the long Jim Crow era. Millions–many still alive today–endured major violence and economic discrimination under legal segregation. Many can name the still-extant whites and organizations who did this discrimination and its unjust impoverishing.
Drawing on research studies of this stolen wealth, I have estimated the total of the current worth of that stolen black labor in the 400-year era of slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary discrimination to be in the $10-20 trillion range. This figure is necessarily high, about the size of the gross domestic product (GDP) generated in the U.S. in a recent year.
Much more than labor was lost. Housing equities are the main repositories of U.S. family wealth. Jonathan Kaplan and Andrew Valls have provided a strong case for reparations based on blatant housing discrimination keeping African Americans from building significant equities over the Jim Crow era. White-implemented government homeownership programs after World War II, such as the Veterans’ Administration programs, incorporated large-scale anti-black discrimination. These government programs enabled a great many white families to move into the middle class, and the resulting buildup of white housing equities became a major source of wealth passed along to white children and grandchildren. In contrast, Black families usually faced housing and job discrimination from whites and were unable to pass similar wealth to descendants. Currently, the wealth gap between White and Black Americans is substantially the result of such government-supported housing (and job) discrimination.
Today most whites are opposed to significant reparations for these damages suffered by African Americans, yet white politicians, judges, and ordinary citizens have accepted the principle of reparations for other past damages. For example, the U.S. government has successfully pressured postwar German governments to make major reparations to Nazi Holocaust victims. These many billions of dollars in reparations are currently supported in opinion polls by a majority of Americans, including a majority of whites. So, why not for African Americans for centuries of US racial oppression?
Real white anti-racism has a forgotten history. It is not taught in our schools. David Reynolds, the author of an important biography of the white antislavery activist and abolitionist John Brown, did a NYT op-ed piece noting that 2009 marked the 150th anniversary of his hanging for organizing an insurrection against slavery. Today is now the 160th anniversary.
Reyonolds gives much historical background and calls for an official pardon for Brown. In October 1859,
With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured.
Brown’s group of antislavery band of attackers included whites, including relatives and three Jewish immigrants, and a number of blacks. (Photo: Wikipedia) Radical abolitionists constituted one of the first multiracial groups to struggle aggressively against systemic racism in US history.
A state court in Virginia convicted him of treason and insurrection, and the state hanged him on December 2, 1859. Reynolds argues we should revere Brown’s raid and this date as a key milestone in the history of anti-oppression movements. Brown was not the “wild and crazy” man of much historical and textbook writing:
Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.
We forget today just how extensively revered John Brown was in his day:
Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” . . . . By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor.
And then there were the Union troops singing his praises for years in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown’s comments to reporters at his trial and hanging suggest how sharp his antiracist commitment was. For example, Brown’s lucid comment on his sentence of death indicates his commitment to racial justice: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments,—I submit, so let it be done!”
Reynolds notes that Brown was not a perfect hero, but one with “blotches on his record,” yet none of the heroes of this era is without major blotches. Indeed,
Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide.
Given his brave strike against slavery, Reynolds argues, he should be officially pardoned, first of course by the current governor of Virginia (Kaine). But
A presidential pardon, however, would be more meaningful. Posthumous pardons are by definition symbolic. They’re intended to remove stigma or correct injustice. While the president cannot grant pardons for state crimes, a strong argument can be made for a symbolic exception in Brown’s case. . . . Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery.
Brown did more than lead a raid against slavery. We should remember too that in May 1858, Brown and the great black abolitionist and intellectual Martin R. Delany had already gathered together a group of black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary anti-slavery meeting just outside the United States, in the safer area of Chatham, Canada. Nearly four dozen black and white Americans met and formulated a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution (the first truly freedom-oriented one in North America) to govern what they hoped would be a growing band of armed revolutionaries drawn from the enslaved population; these revolutionaries would fight aggressively as guerillas for an end to the U.S. slavery system and to create a new constitutional system where justice and freedom were truly central. (For more, see Racist America (3rd. ed.)
Today, one badly needed step in the antiracist cause is for all levels of U.S. education to offer courses that discuss the brave actions of antiracist activists like John Brown and Martin Delany, and those many other, now nameless heroes who marched with them. And how about a major monument in Washington, DC to celebrate them and all the other abolitionist heroes? We have major monuments there to elite white male slaveholders, why not to those men and women of all backgrounds who died in trying to overthrow (246 years of) US slavery? That slavery was more then half of this country’s history and its legacy still plays out in much of today’s local and national politics of white nationalism and white supremacy.
Last year’s wedding of Ms. Meghan Markle and His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle was spectacular. Given that this ‘show’ was the most watched television event in the UK, with another 22 million viewers in the US , and drew hundreds of thousands to stand around for hours hoping to catch a glimpse of the couple in person, this wedding had global appeal. The recent announcement of the birth of the couple’s first child keeps the spotlight focused on them. The wedding was an enormous opportunity to (re)shape narratives about racial groups and gender and was filled with symbols of enormous significance—apart from the usual ones—it will be interesting to note how the birth and rearing of their child does the same.
Ms. Markle and her groom seem to be doing their part to address racism and sexism and to using their spotlight to highlight aspects of the black side of her roots in ways that help redefine blackness. Her writing three years ago indicates that the Royals have not yet managed to take away concerns that she addressed speaking of some of the negative responses to the addition of a dark-skinned African American actor to play her TV show father:
The reaction was unexpected, but speaks of the undercurrent of racism that is so prevalent, especially within America. On the heels of the racial unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, the tensions that have long been percolating under the surface in the US have boiled over in the most deeply saddening way. And as a biracial woman, I watch in horror as both sides of a culture I define as my own become victims of spin in the media, perpetuating stereotypes and reminding us that the States has perhaps only placed bandages over the problems that have never healed at the root.
Markle who describes herself—and has been described by the press—as biracial, is the product of an African American mother and white American father. Typically, such a person is seen as black in the U.S. Racial self-identity, and societal identification may not always align—just ask Tiger Woods about the verbal smackdowns he faced for describing himself as Cablinasian when his society sees him as black. And although he chose to self-identify as African American after much soul-searching, there was no way that President Barack Obama was ever going to be viewed as anything other than a black man in America. Therefore, the fact that Markle is not described as a black woman is notable. I haven’t seen Markle’s self-description challenged in any major way —actually, it has been repeated with apparent acceptance. Does this suggest a loosening of the grip of the often imposed identity of non-White to multiracial people of any race of color plus white? Perhaps this change only occurs in polite conversation as Markle has been subject to relentless racism in online commentaries, forcing the royal family to issue Social Media Community Guidelines. To some onlookers she could probably pass for white; Markle acknowledges that she has attempted to trade on her racial ambiguity to audition for roles calling for a variety of races including black and Latina. Maybe it is her light-skinned, straightened hair appearance that allows for her biracial label to be used so consistently, but that is hugely significant when society has focused on binary racial definitions of black or white.
I scoffed at the notion that Ms. Markle would walk down the aisle unescorted when her father dropped out. Too far from tradition for a royal wedding, I said. Boy, was I wrong! Although it was not the original plan, I read it as a feminist score that Meghan Markle entered St. George’s Chapel unaccompanied. Even the groom walked the entire length of the church with another man— his brother, Prince William. But not Ms. Markle! The self-described feminist entered the chapel on her own (having ridden in a car with her mother), and walked quite capably down the Nave, before she was met by Prince Charles for the journey down the Quire to the altar and her Prince. Perhaps this aspect of the tale has foreshadowing in the fact that 11-year-old Meghan Markle bristled that an advertisement for Ivory dishwashing detergent stated that “women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.” The young activist wrote to first lady Hillary Clinton, attorney Gloria Allred, and news-reporter Linda Ellerbee about the ad which was changed to say “people all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.” Today, Markle’s official Royal webpage highlights her activism and feminism describing her as committed to “women’s empowerment” and includes a quote from her 2015 address on International Women’s Day for UN Women: “I am proud to be a woman and a feminist.”
For many, the wedding dress is the essence of a wedding. And in this case, there had been endless speculation about who the dress designer would be and the style Markle would favor. In the end, another feminist choice: the first female artist-designer of the fabled house of Givenchy–
In my The White Racial Frame book I not only discuss this age-old white racial frame, which accents both white virtue material and anti-others material, but also the important counter frames to this dominant white frame that people of color have developed. In the U.S. case African Americans have developed an especially strong counter frame over centuries, perhaps because they have had the longest period of time situated firmly within this systemically racist society.
This counter frame has for centuries been an impetus for many important black protests, and thus in large part for the few major changes that have been made in this country’s racist system over the centuries.
It also helps us to understand the reasons for reparations of many kinds that are necessary for what whites have done over twenty generations. I recently did a post on theconversation.com that explains why reparations are morally and demonstratively necessary. See here.
One feature of U.S. systemic racism involves a rather intentional collective forgetting by whites of key African Americans who articulated and often organized around a strong counter frame. Let me remind our readers of a few of these great Americans and their clear moral and empirical understanding of the basis for reparative changes.
One of the first to put counter frame down on paper was David Walker, a young African American abolitionist working in Boston. In 1829 he published a strong manifesto, entitled Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Demanding full equality, he wrote to his fellow African Americans with revolutionary arguments in an anti-oppression framing, so much so that slaveholding whites put a large cash bounty on his head. (He died young, probably as a result.) Walker analyzes slavery and racial segregation for free blacks quite bluntly. Most whites are “cruel oppressors and murderers” whose “oppression” will be overthrown. They are “an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings.” Whites seek for African Americans to be slaves to them
and their children forever to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!
He then quotes the words “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence and challenges whites:
Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us–men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation! . . . . I ask you candidly, was your sufferings under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?
A little later in the 19th century, an admirer of Walker, the African American abolitionist Henry Garnet, gave a radical speech, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” at a National Negro Convention. Garnet’s counter framing is very assertive and to the point, and it is also an address to those enslaved. He offers a structural analysis of “oppression,” arguing too that the white “oppressor’s power is fading.” African Americans like “all men cherish the love of liberty. . . . In every man’s mind the good seeds of liberty are planted.” He calls on those enslaved to take revolutionary action:
There is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die freemen, than live to be slaves.” He concludes with a strong call to rebellion: “Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties.
One of the most brilliant of the 19th century analysts of systemic racism was the great abolitionist, Martin Delaney, who among other actions worked in revolutionary efforts to overthrow the slavery system. (In May 1858, he and John Brown gathered black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary meeting in Chatham, Canada. Four dozen black and white Americans wrote a new constitution to govern a growing band of armed revolutionaries they hoped would come from the enslaved US population.) Directing a book at all Americans, Delaney emphasizes the
United States, untrue to her trust and unfaithful to her professed principles of republican equality, has also pursued a policy of political degradation to a large portion of her native born countrymen. . . . there is no species of degradation to which we are not subject.
His counter framing is one of resistance and extends the old liberty-and-justice frame beyond white rhetoric:
We believe in the universal equality of man, and believe in that declaration of God’s word, in which it is positively said, that ‘God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.’
Delaney attacks whites’ stereotypes of African Americans with a detailed listing of important achievements of numerous free and enslaved African Americans and emphasizes how enslaved workers brought very important skills in farming to North America that European colonists did not have. African American workers were the “bone and sinews of the country” and the very “existence of the white man, South, depends entirely on the labor of the black man.” Delaney emphasizes that African Americans are indeed very old Americans:
Our common country is the United States. . . . and from here will we not be driven by any policy that may be schemed against us. We are Americans, having a birthright citizenship.
Let us bring these and other important 19th African Americans back into our contemporary history, as they were both thinkers and activists in the long tradition of people fighting for liberty, equality, and justice in the United States. Note too essential elements of the black counter frame in these and many other black thinkers and activists too often forgotten writings from the 19th century: a strong critique of racial oppression; an aggressive countering of white’s negative framing of African Americans; and a very strong moral accent on the centrality and importance of liberty, justice, and equality for all Americans. African Americans have been perhaps the most central Americans in keeping these liberty and justice ideals constantly alive and imbedded in resistance organizations over four long centuries of freedom struggles in the racist history of the United States.