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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

November 14, 2011

Written by C.N.

New Books: Whiteness and Racial/Ethnic Change in the U.S.

The following new books highlight how demographic, political, economic, and cultural changes taking place in U.S. society are transforming racial/ethnic dynamics as well. In the process, the traditional relationship of being White and being American — and the larger dynamics of Whiteness — are also evolving. As always, a book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its contents.

The Myth of Post-Racial America: Searching for Equality in the Age of Materialism, by Roy H. Kaplan (R&L Education)

'The Myth of Post-Racial America' by Roy Kaplan

The Myth of Post-Racial America provides a history of race and racism in the United States. These concepts became integral parts of American society through social, psychological, and political decisions, which are documented so readers can learn about the origin of myths and stereotypes that have created schisms in our society from its founding to the present day. This information is essential reading for students and teachers so they can become more effective in their work and value cultural differences, modes of expression, and learning styles.

White Male Privilege: A Study of Racism in America 50 Years After Voting Rights Act, by Mark Rosenkranz (Law Dog Books)

'White Male Privilege' by Mark Rosenkranz

Discrimination and racism has existed in America since the very early days of colonization. In the Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers declared “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” and yet, it would be another 189 years before Americans would be equal by law. It has been suggested that with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America had finally overcame its ugly past of racism and discrimination. As we entered into the new millennium, the author wondered if America had really set aside its biases and discriminatory practices.

The author interviewed eight people as he developed the foundations for this book. One of the people he was honored to interview was Brian Swann, the brother of famous footballer Lynn Swann. Brian shared his story of a racially motivated encounter that he and his brother’s had experienced in the 1970′s in San Francisco, California, at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department. Each of the eight people interviewed for this book brought with them a different experience and viewpoint as it relates to discrimination and racism in America, and more specifically, white male privilege in America. The author brought these eight individual viewpoints together, and told their story as they relate to American history, from the early days of colonization through the present day.

Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race, by Jean Halley, Amy Eshleman, and Ramya Mahadevan Vijaya (Rowman & Littlefield)

'Seeing White' by Halley, Eshleman, and Vijaya

This interdisciplinary textbook challenges students to see race as everyone’s issue. Drawing on sociology, psychology, history, and economics, Seeing White introduces students to the concepts of white privilege and social power. Seeing White is designed to help break down some of the resistance students feel in discussing race. Each chapter opens with compelling concrete examples to help students approach issues from a range of perspectives.

The early chapters build a solid understanding of privilege and power, leading to a critical exploration of discrimination. Key theoretical perspectives include cultural materialism, critical race theory, and the social construction of race. Each chapter includes discussion questions to help students evaluate institutions and policies that perpetuate or counter forces of privilege and discrimination.

Everyday Forms of Whiteness: Understanding Race in a ‘Post-Racial’ World, by Melanie E. L. Bush (Rowman & Littlefield)

'Everyday Forms of Whiteness' by Melanie Bush

The second edition of Melanie Bush’s acclaimed Everyday Forms of Whiteness looks at the often-unseen ways racism impacts our lives. The author has interviewed and surveyed hundreds of college students and reveals that even though we talk as though we live in a ‘post-racial’ world after the election of Barack Obama, racism is still very much a factor in everyday life. The second edition incorporates new data and interviews to show how the everyday thinking of ordinary people contributes to the perpetuation of systemic racialized inequality. The book introduces key terms for the study for race and ethnicity, reveals the mechanisms that support the racial hierarchy in U.S. society, then outlines ways we can challenge long-standing patterns of racial inequality.

The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, by Randall Kennedy (Pantheon)

'The Persistence of the Color Line' by Randall Kennedy

Timely—as the 2012 presidential election nears—and controversial, here is the first book by a major African-American public intellectual on racial politics and the Obama presidency. Renowned for his cool reason vis-à-vis the pitfalls and clichés of racial discourse, Randall Kennedy—Harvard professor of law and author of the New York Times best seller Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word—gives us a keen and shrewd analysis of the complex relationship between the first black president and his African-American constituency.

Kennedy tackles such hot-button issues as the nature of racial opposition to Obama, whether Obama has a singular responsibility to African Americans, electoral politics and cultural chauvinism, black patriotism, the differences in Obama’s presentation of himself to blacks and to whites, the challenges posed by the dream of a postracial society, and the far-from-simple symbolism of Obama as a leader of the Joshua generation in a country that has elected only three black senators and two black governors in its entire history. Eschewing the critical excesses of both the left and the right, Kennedy offers a gimlet-eyed view of Obama’s triumphs and travails, his strengths and weaknesses, as they pertain to the troubled history of race in America.

State of White Supremacy: Racism, Governance, and the United States, edited by Moon-Kie Jung, Joao Costa Vargas, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (Stanford University Press)

'State of White Supremacy' edited by Jung, Vargas, and Bonilla-Silva

The deeply entrenched patterns of racial inequality in the United States simply do not square with the liberal notion of a nation-state of equal citizens. Uncovering the false promise of liberalism, State of White Supremacy reveals race to be a fundamental, if flexible, ruling logic that perpetually generates and legitimates racial hierarchy and privilege.

Racial domination and violence in the United States are indelibly marked by its origin and ongoing development as an empire-state. The widespread misrecognition of the United States as a liberal nation-state hinges on the twin conditions of its approximation for the white majority and its impossibility for their racial others. The essays in this book incisively probe and critique the U.S. racial state through a broad range of topics, including citizenship, education, empire, gender, genocide, geography, incarceration, Islamophobia, migration and border enforcement, violence, and welfare.

Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority, by Tim Wise (City Lights Publishers)

'Dear White America' by Tim Wise

White Americans have long been comfortable in the assumption that they are the cultural norm. Now that notion is being challenged, as white people wrestle with what it means to be part of a fast-changing, truly multicultural nation. Facing chronic economic insecurity, a popular culture that reflects the nation’s diverse cultural reality, a future in which they will no longer constitute the majority of the population, and with a black president in the White House, whites are growing anxious.

This anxiety has helped to create the Tea Party movement, with its call to “take our country back.” By means of a racialized nostalgia for a mythological past, the Right is enlisting fearful whites into its campaign for reactionary social and economic policies. In urgent response, Tim Wise has penned his most pointed and provocative work to date. Employing the form of direct personal address, he points a finger at whites’ race-based self-delusion, explaining how such an agenda will only do harm to the nation’s people, including most whites. In no uncertain terms, he argues that the hope for survival of American democracy lies in the embrace of our multicultural past, present and future.


July 14, 2011

Written by C.N.

Posts from Years Past: July

If you’re the nostalgic type, you might be interested to read the following posts from July of years past:


June 8, 2011

Written by C.N.

Posts for Years Past: June

If you’re the nostalgic type, you might be interested to read the following posts from June of years past:


May 2, 2011

Written by C.N.

The Racial Undertones of the Birther Movement

I’m sure you have all heard by now that last week, after dealing with increased media publicity about questions regarding his U.S. citizenship, President Obama felt compelled to petition the state of Hawai’i to publicly release his long form Certificate of Live Birth that verifies that he was in fact born in the U.S. and is therefore eligible to be President. Below is a news clip of the story from NBC News:

As many observers point out, this release of the long form Certificate of Live Birth should appease many Americans who may have had a slight doubt about President Obama’s birthplace. However, it is not likely to convince “hardcore” birthers who will undoubtedly continue to question Obama’s status as an American, no matter what the evidence.

So let’s just cut to the chase: this “birther” movement is not really about Obama’s eligibility to be President. Rather, it just another example of the White Backlash that I have been describing for a while now and illustrates the resistance and difficulty that a number of White Americans still have about having a person of color as President and the larger context of demographic and cultural changes taking place in U.S. society. To summarize some of my earlier posts, several institutional trends are fundamentally changing U.S. society:

© James Noble/Corbis
  • The changing demographics of the U.S. in which non-Whites increasingly make up a larger proportion of the population and the projection that in about 35 years, Whites will no longer be a majority in the U.S.
  • The political emergence of non-Whites, best represented by the election of President Obama, and also illustrated by the growing Latino population.
  • The continuing evolution and consequences of globalization, the growing interconnections between the economies of the U.S. with other countries, and the economic rise of China and India.
  • The “normalization” of economic instability and how, even after this current recession ends, Americans will likely still be vulnerable to economic fluctuations that affect the housing market, stock market, and overall unemployment.
  • The unease about the U.S.’s eroding influence and military vitality around the world.

In basic terms, these institutional trends have led many (as always, meaning a large number but not all) White Americans to feel destabilized as their implicit and taken-for-granted position at the top of the U.S. racial hierarchy is increasingly being threatened — politically, economically, and socially. They are also afraid that, as the U.S. is starting to lose its position of being the dominant political, economic, and military superpower in the world, their standard of living — and hence, their identity — are being threatened in the process.

As social scientists document, whenever anybody or any group feels threatened, they tend to get defensive, reactive, and attempt to cling on to their privileges as much as possible. One mechanism by which they do so is to assert a more rigid cultural boundary between them and “others” — insiders vs. outsiders, us vs. them. In the case of the birther movement, this attempt revolves around differentiating between “real” Americans (in the traditional image of U.S. society — White, middle class, and Protestant) and those perceived as “fake” Americans — immigrants, people of color, and specifically, President Obama.

The birthers usually counter with accusations that critics like me are just “playing the race card” and that their questions about Obama’s status as an American have nothing to do with his race. Unfortunately the evidence is not in their favor. As observers and critics like Tim Wise have argued elsewhere, the racial overtones of the birther movement and the larger White backlash movement are overwhelming.

At this point, it is almost exasperating to list and recount every single example of the racist aspects of the birther and White backlash movement. So for now, perhaps the best way to illustrate this further is to use humor and satire. For that, I will turn to Stephen Colbert and his recent observations about this issue below — make sure you view the video through to the end — punchline is well worth it:


March 23, 2011

Written by C.N.

White Privilege, Colorblindness, & the Model Minority Image: Asians in the Library Video

I presume that by now, you have heard about the furor surrounding UCLA student Alexandra Wallace and her ill-advised video that she posted to YouTube in which she “complains” about Asian Americans talking in the library by mocking them with such offensive phrases such as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and makes light of the natural disasters and human suffering in Japan (the video in its entirety is below).

For various reasons, there quickly followed a big backlash and firestorm against her — UCLA’s Chancellor, Dean G. Block, issued a statement condemning the video (but later and separately adding that she would not be expelled because she did not commit a violation of the school’s code of ethnics):

I am appalled by the thoughtless and hurtful comments of a UCLA student posted on YouTube. Like many of you, I recoil when someone invokes the right of free expression to demean other individuals or groups. . . . I believe that speech that expresses intolerance toward any group of people on the basis of race or gender, or sexual, religious or cultural identity is indefensible and has no place at UCLA.

UCLA’s well-respected Asian American Studies Center summed up the sentiments of many in the academic community very well:

[T]his rant — beyond the action of an individual — is clear evidence that we still have much work to do before we can claim to live in a “post-racial” society. . . . “Asians in the Library” is a travesty on many levels, representing an attack on Asian and Asian American students and their families and undermining UCLA as a global university with deep ties to communities and institutions in Asia and other parts of the world.

It entails a “new racism” by foregrounding students who speak Asian languages and have different family traditions, as it insidiously groups and attacks UCLA’s American-born as well as our international students of Asian ancestry. As the only University of California campus without a diversity requirement, UCLA surely needs to implement a diversity requirement that will expose every student to the task of living civilly with people of different origins, backgrounds, orientations, and beliefs, whether they are born here or come from abroad.

I would like to highlight and expand on some of the points raised in UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center statement. Specifically, I see this video rant as another unfortunate and dangerous example of what happens (and is likely to continue happening) when institutional factors intersect with each other, as they are doing right now: White privilege, colorblindness, Asian Americans seen as the quiet ‘model minority,’ and ‘yellow peril’ fears of the rise of Asian countries.

Lesson 1: White Privilege

Let’s start with White privilege. However difficult it is for many White Americans to hear, examples like this video clearly show that many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Whites implicitly think there’s nothing wrong with invoking cultural stereotypes to portray an entire group of color. I have written about this dynamic many times before, but needless to say, this is certainly not the first time that Whites have tried to “make fun” of Asian Americans or other groups of color on college campuses and elsewhere in society.

© Pascal Campion, Ikon Images/Corbis

In her video, Alexandra Wallace unconsciously invokes White privilege by assuming that she can say whatever she wants about Asian Americans. For the sake of argument, I might accept that she is not aware that such phrases as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and calling them “hordes” are deeply offensive and conjure up historical examples of Asians as faceless, sub-human invaders and villains.

But unfortunately, this “lack of awareness” is at the heart of the problem and in fact, forms the basis for much of the racism that Asians and Asian Americans encounter on an everyday basis. In other words, most non-Asians (most of whom are admittedly White) don’t purposely intend to be racist when make jokes or casual comments about Asians.

But when they do so, based on their ignorance of Asians and Asian Americans, they only reinforce and perpetuate their racial privileges as Whites. That privilege also gives them the ability to not have to worry about saying or doing offensive things about other racial groups.

That is, their racial privilege gives them a larger “comfort zone” to say and do things that they think are funny or harmless but ultimately, minorities find very offensive. Even if most Whites don’t have this consciously or even unconsciously in their minds when it comes to Asians, this climate of racial ignorance is a reality and functions to “protect” and “insulate” Whites — whether or not they’re even aware of it — at the expense of people of color.

Of course, many Whites will respond by basically saying that it was just a joke, Asians should just shrug it off, that it was harmless and that we Asians should just lighten up and not take things so seriously. The problem with that argument is that it ignores the larger historical and cultural context and that there are fundamental institutional power differences inherent in situations in which Whites denigrate minorities.

Each time an incident like that happens, it reinforces the notion of White supremacy — that Whites can say and do whatever they want toward anybody at any time without facing any negative repercussions. Ultimately, suggesting to us that we should just “get over it” only serves as another clear illustration of White privilege — of those with in an institutionally superior position telling those below them what to do and what they should think.

Lesson 2: Colorblindness

A contributing factor that functions to reinforce and perpetuate White privilege is the ideology of colorblindness. Again, I have written about the fallacies and failures of trying to be colorblind in U.S. society many times.

In this case, the institutional backdrop to Alexandra Wallace’s rant is the misguided belief that we now live in a colorblind society in which everyone and every racial group is now politically, economically, and socially equal, and that racial/ethnic discrimination, inequality, and racism no longer exist. Further, being colorblind also means that it’s impolite to discuss race or the U.S.’s history of racial oppression and domination — let’s just forget about them since they’re not important anymore, right?

Suffice it to say, and as this video shows, race and racial differences are clearly still very important today. They are still relevant because inequalities still exist and discrimination still takes place, and because colorblindness still provides a crucial foundation upon which White privilege can exist. In other words, if everybody is the same and on an equal playing field, it’s perfectly fine to joke about them however we want, right?

Lesson 3: The Model Minority Image

Another factor that comes into play is the image of Asian Americans as the model minority: smart and high achieving, but also quiet, passive, and obedient. While it is true that on the aggregate level, Asian Americans as a collective group outperform Whites on many measures of socioeconomic achievement, when we look beneath the surface, we see that there are notable differences between ethnic groups (some Asian immigrant groups are more self-selective in terms of their human capital while others are more likely to be involuntary refugees). Further, generalizing the seemingly positive belief that Asian Americans are successful puts extraordinary pressure on all Asian Americans to live up to those standards.

In this particular case, I will hypothesize that Alexandra Wallace (and many others like her) presume that almost all Asian Americans are smart ans successful but also passive and therefore, won’t care if she complains and mocks them. Also, I cannot rule out some degree of resentment about the success of Asian Americans as well, particularly at a university where 40% of the student population is Asian American.

This resentment leads me to my final lesson . . .

Lesson 4: Yellow Peril and Fears About Rising Asia

At the risk of being redundant, again I have already highlighted numerous examples in which U.S. society and U.S. citizens are increasingly feeling destabilized by demographic changes in the U.S. population, the negative effects of globalization, and increased competition with the rising economies of Asian countries such as China and India.

The latter is often referred to as the new “yellow peril” image of Asians “invading” the U.S. and taking over or destroying its institutions and society. It is an image that frequently gets conjured up in times of economic recession and especially when Americans perceive others to be benefiting and prospering at their expense. With the economic and political emergence of Asian countries such as Japan, China, and India in recent decades and the concurrent decline of U.S. superiority, this yellow peril image has gained new life and indeed, seems to be a growing fear, consciously and unconsciously, for many Americans these days.

When people feel that their standard of living or “way of life” is being threatened, they are likely to get defensive, consciously and unconsciously. In that situation, one way to react is to draw a more rigid cultural boundary between “us” and “them.” In this case, Alexandra Wallace invoked this nativist sentiment clearly when she said, “In America, we don’t talk in the library.” Inside Higher Education has a very well-written analysis of this entire episode and journalist Allie Grasgreen quotes Professor Joe Feagin, former President of the American Sociological Association and well-respect expert on White privilege research, on this emerging distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders”:

For Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, Wallace made a blatant statement that Asian students are separate from — and less important than — white students. “A key part of the stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is their foreignness,” Feagin said. “She makes the point that not only are Asians and Asian-Americans stereotyped and evaluated from the old, white vs. others — you know, racial framing — but they also face this dimension of not being American. That is, foreign vs. American.”

Taken together, all of these factors form the sociological context within which Alexandra Wallace publicly expressed her anti-Asian sentiments. The sad part of this episode is that she is certainly not the first person to engage in racism against Asian Americans and alas, she will not be the last.


December 27, 2010

Written by C.N.

New Books: Examples of Racial-Ethnic Integration

As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its contents.

The start of a new year represents a renewal of hope for many people. In this case, one of my hopes is that, as a nation and society, we as Americans can continue to strive toward racial/ethnic justice and equality and to overcome the individual-, group-, and institutional challenges that get in the way of recognizing and internalizing the many benefits that a diverse and multicultural society provides us. To help in this process, these new books give us some examples of how we as Americans can become more united across racial, ethnic, and cultural divides.

A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church, by Gerardo Marti (Indiana University Press)

'A Mosiac of Believers' by Gerardo Marti

Mosaic in southern California is one of the largest and most innovative multiethnic congregations in America. Gerardo Marti shows us how this unusual church has achieved multiethnicity, not by targeting specific groups, but by providing multiple havens of inclusion that play down ethnic differences. He reveals a congregation aiming to reconstruct evangelical theology, personal identity, member involvement, and church governance to create an institution with greater relevance to the social reality of a new generation.

Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story as Told to Jody M. Roy, Ph.D., by Frank Meeink and Jody M. Roy (Hawthorne Books)

'Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead' by Meeink and Roy

Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead is Frank Meeink’s raw telling of his descent into America’s Nazi underground and his ultimate triumph over drugs and hatred. Frank’s violent childhood in South Philadelphia primed him to hate, while addiction made him easy prey for a small group of skinhead gang recruiters. By 16 he had become one of the most notorious skinhead gang leaders on the East Coast and by 18 he was doing hard time.

Teamed up with African-American players in a prison football league, Frank learned to question his hatred, and after being paroled he defected from the white supremacy movement and began speaking on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League. A story of fighting the demons of hatred and addiction, Frank’s downfall and ultimate redemption has the power to open hearts and change lives.

Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice, by Mark R. Warren (Oxford University Press)

'Fire in the Heart' by Mark R. Warren

Fire in the Heart uncovers the dynamic processes through which some white Americans become activists for racial justice. The book reports powerful accounts of the development of racial awareness drawn from in-depth interviews with fifty white activists in the fields of community organizing, education, and criminal justice reform.

Drawing extensively on the rich interview material, Mark Warren shows how white Americans can develop a commitment to racial justice, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because they embrace the cause as their own. Contrary to much contemporary thinking on racial issues focused on altruism or interests, Warren finds that cognitive and rational processes alone do little to move whites to action.

Rather, the motivation to take and sustain action for racial justice is profoundly moral and relational. Warren shows how white activists come to find common cause with people of color when their core values are engaged, as they build relationships with people of color that lead to caring, and when they develop a vision of a racially just future that they understand to benefit everyone — themselves, other whites, and people of color. Warren also considers the complex dynamics and dilemmas white people face in working in multiracial organizations committed to systemic change in America’s racial order, and provides a deeper understanding and appreciation of the role that white people can play in efforts to promote racial justice.

The first study of its kind, Fire in the Heart brings to light the perspectives of white people who are working day-to-day to build not a post-racial America but the foundations for a truly multiracial America rooted in a caring, human community with equity and justice at its core.

Transcending Racial Barriers: Toward a Mutual Obligations Approach, by Michael O. Emerson and George Yancey (Oxford University Press)

'Transcending Racial Barriers' by Emerson and Yancey

Despite recent progress against racial inequalities, American society continues to produce attitudes and outcomes that reinforce the racial divide. In Transcending Racial Barriers, Michael Emerson and George Yancey offer a fresh perspective on how to combat racial division. They document the historical move from white supremacy to institutional racism, then look at modern efforts to overcome the racialized nature of our society. The authors argue that both conservative and progressive approaches have failed, as they continually fall victim to forces of ethnocentrism and group interest.

They then explore group interest and possible ways to account for the perspectives of both majority and minority group members. They look to multiracial congregations, multiracial families, the military, and sports teams-all situations in which group interests have been overcome before. In each context they find the development of a core set of values that binds together different racial groups, along with the flexibility to express racially-based cultural uniqueness that does not conflict with this critical core.

Transcending Racial Barriers offers what is at once a balanced approach towards dealing with racial alienation and a bold step forward in the debate about the steps necessary to overcome present-day racism.


July 5, 2010

Written by C.N.

Posts from Years Past: July

You might be interested to read the following posts from July of years past:

  • 2009: Reflections on a Multiracial Buddhist Retreat
    One of my most controversial posts — In an otherwise refreshing and renewing multiracial Buddhist family retreat, two incidents with racial overtones highlight unconscious racial dynamics still present in American society.
  • 2008: The New Yorker’s Obama Cover
    The New Yorker’s controversial cartoon cover of Barack and Michelle Obama as terrorists brings up a range of reactions from conservatives and liberals.
  • 2007: Allowing Non-Citizens to Vote
    Should immigrants who haven’t become citizens yet be allowed to vote in elections?
  • 2006: “Cute Culture” in Japan
    Looking at the rising popularity of “cute culture’s” effect on Japan’s mentality toward outsiders.
  • 2005: Native Hawaiian Sovereignty
    Looking at the contentious debate about whether to grant Native Hawaiians sovereignty rights.
  • 2004: Jumping the Gun
    Racial paranoia fed by terrorist fears leads to a sad case of racial profiling.

March 30, 2010

Written by C.N.

White Backlash: Yes, It’s Real

For frequent readers of this blog, you’ve probably read several posts in which I discuss the anti-minority, anti-immigrant White backlash phenomenon. For those who aren’t familiar with such arguments, the White backlash is basically the idea that many (as in a large number, perhaps even most, but not all) White Americans increasingly feel destabilized and even threatened by many of the following developments in American society:

  • The changing demographics of the U.S. in which non-Whites increasingly make up a larger proportion of the population and the projection that in about 35 years, Whites will no longer be a majority in the U.S.
  • The political emergence of non-Whites, best represented by the election of President Obama, and also illustrated by the growing Latino population.
  • The continuing evolution and consequences of globalization, the growing interconnections between the economies of the U.S. with other countries, and the economic rise of China and India.
  • The “normalization” of economic instability and how, even after this current recession ends, Americans will likely still be vulnerable to economic fluctuations that affect the housing market, stock market, and overall unemployment.
  • The unease about the U.S.’s eroding influence and military vitality around the world.
Tea Party protester © Jeff Malet/maletphoto.com

Taken together, these institutional developments and their negative consequences have been increasingly been felt on the individual level by many Americans. But in the case of White Americans, they have had a particularly significant impact because, as a group, their position at the top of the American racial hierarchy is increasingly being threatened — politically, economically, and socially.

That is, even though many Whites will deny their position at the top and the privileges that they directly and indirectly enjoy, ultimately very few would be willing to trade places with a person of color if given the choice. So as many Whites see these shifts and changes taking place around them, they increasingly feel confused, defensive, and angry about what is happening to “their country.”

For those who say I’m overreacting, take a look at Gregory Rodriguez’s recent article in Time magazine where he basically points out the same thing:

As much as Americans pride themselves on the notion that their national identity is premised on a set of ideals rather than a single race, ethnicity or religion, we all know that for most of our history, white supremacy was the law of the land.

In every naturalization act from 1790 to 1952, Congress included language stating that the aspiring citizen should be a “white person.” And not surprisingly, despite the extraordinary progress of the past 50 years, the sense of white proprietorship — “this is our country and our culture” — still has not been completely eradicated. . .

This [White backlash] won’t take the form of a chest-thumping brand of white supremacy. Instead, we are likely to see the rise of a more defensive, aggrieved sense of white victimhood. . . . one can hear evidence of white grievance in many corners of the country. And it’s not coming just from fringe bloggers.

In the spring of 2008, candidate Hillary Clinton appealed to “hardworking white Americans” to help her campaign against an ascendant Barack Obama. Last March, conservative commentator Glenn Beck suggested that the white man responsible for the worst workplace massacre in Alabama history was “pushed to the wall” because he felt “silenced” and “disenfranchised” by “political correctness.” . . .

[E]ven though they are still the majority and collectively maintain more access to wealth and political influence than other groups, whites are acting more and more like an aggrieved minority.

Columnist Frank Rich at the New York Times makes similar points:

The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver [African American members of Congress] — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse.

When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from. They can’t. Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress.

The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded.

As others, including many of my fellow sociologists, have already written about, we can see examples of this White backlash throughout American society, such as the growing militancy of Tea Party members, the Texas school board elections, and the recent racial incidents and tensions at the University of California campuses, to name just a few of the most recent examples.

I anticipate that there will be plenty to say and write about in terms of this growing White backlash movement for the foreseeable future, so for now, I will leave it at that and just say that whether White Americans like it or not, and whether they want to recognize it or not, this backlash among many White Americans is real and it is absolutely centered on racial issues, conscious and unconscious.


December 18, 2009

Written by C.N.

New Books: Barack Obama & American Race Relations

As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its complete contents.

A year after Barack Obama’s historic election as President of the United States of America, the following books examine the larger sociological context of his campaign and election, with a particular focus on the question of to what extent does his election signify any important change or improvement in race relations in the U.S.

Yes We Can?: White Racial Framing and the 2008 Presidential Campaign, by Adia Harvey Wingfield and Joe Feagin (Routledge)

Yes We Can, by Wingfield and Feagin

This book offers one of the first sociological analyses of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign for the presidency of the United States. Elaborating on the concept of the white racial frame, Harvey Wingfield and Feagin assess the ways racial framing was deployed by principal characters in the 2008 election. This book counters many commonsense assumptions about race, politics, and society, particularly the idea that Obama’s election ushered in a post-racial era. Readers will find this book uniquely valuable because it relies on sound sociological analysis to assess numerous events and aspects of this historic campaign.

Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America’s New Leadership, edited by Manning Marable and Kristen Clarke (Palgrave Macmillan)

Barack Obama and African American Empowerment, edited by Marable and Clarke

Barack Obama and the African-American Empowerment examines the evolution of black leadership and politics since the Civil Rights Movement. It looks at the phenomenon of Barack Obama, from his striking emergence as a successful candidate for the Illinois State Senate to President of the United States, as part of the continuum of African American political leaders. The reader also examines the evolving ideals about the roles of government and the economy in addressing the historic disadvantages experienced by many African Americans. Here, some of the nation’s most influential intellectuals bring together original scholarship to look at the future of national politics and American race relations.

The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, by Gwen Ifill (Anchor Publishing)

The Breakthrough, by Gwen Ifill

In The Breakthrough, veteran journalist Gwen Ifill surveys the American political landscape, shedding new light on the impact of Barack Obama’s stunning presidential victory and introducing the emerging young African American politicians forging a bold new path to political power.

Ifill argues that the Black political structure formed during the Civil Rights movement is giving way to a generation of men and women who are the direct beneficiaries of the struggles of the 1960s. She offers incisive, detailed profiles of such prominent leaders as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and U.S. Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama (all interviewed for this book), and also covers numerous up-and-coming figures from across the nation.

Drawing on exclusive interviews with power brokers such as President Obama, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vernon Jordan, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, his son Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., and many others, as well as her own razor-sharp observations and analysis of such issues as generational conflict, the race/ gender clash, and the “black enough” conundrum, Ifill shows why this is a pivotal moment in American history.


October 14, 2009

Written by C.N.

Harry Connick Jr., Blackface, and Recognizing White Privilege

Earlier this week, musician, actor, and community activist Harry Connick Jr. was a guest judge on the Australian talent show Hey Hey It’s Saturday. One of the acts was a skit featuring a group of White men wearing blackface (using dark-colored makeup to appear racially Black), doing an impression of the Jackson Five. As ABC News reports and this video segment shows, Connick’s reaction to their performance was swift and sharp:

[Connick] was visibly shocked by the skit, in which [five] men with afro wigs and blackface sang and danced behind a Michael Jackson impersonator wearing white makeup. Connick, 42, gave the performance a zero score and told them that if it had been done in the United States it would have been pulled off the air.

Blackface was a traditional trope of minstrel shows in the U.S. that dates to the 19th century. Whites playing stock black characters — usually offensive stereotypes meant to demean — rubbed coal, grease or shoe polish on their faces. . . .

Public reaction to the “Hey Hey” performance in online forums was mixed. Some Australians said they were embarrassed such a racist sketch had been broadcast, while others said detractors were too politically correct and that the skit was funny. . . . Anand Deva, the frontman of the “Jackson Jive” act, said it was not meant to cause offense but added he would not have performed it in the United States.

White teenagers in blackface

There are two interesting sociological points to note here. The first is the apparent differences in racial attitudes between the U.S. and Australia. That is, even though many Americans still are rather ignorant of the racial significance and racist legacy of blackface and still wear it from time to time (especially around this time of year, Halloween, as seen in the photo on the right), for the most part, I will presume that most Americans understand that blackface is offensive (or at least the reactions and criticisms to it are much more intense).

With that in mind, it is notable to see that in Australia, this sensitivity and recognition of blackface do not exist to the same level. In fact, despite the Australian government’s recent official apology to the aborigine population for centuries of racism, in general the racial attitudes of the Australian public seem to be a few decades behind that of the U.S. in terms of racial understanding.

This diminished level of cultural knowledge comes through in the responses by Anand Deva in defending his group’s skit with the usual refrain, “It wasn’t meant to be offensive, it was just a joke.” What he and other Australians do defend the skit don’t understand is that whatever the intent, the result was that it definitely came across as racist and offensive.

Secondly, the reason why they don’t understand why it was offensive is because as Whites in a White majority society, they have the position of being able to make fun of non-Whites while claiming that they did not intend it to be offensive. That, my friends, is the quintessential definition of White privilege.

As it relates back to Harry Connick Jr., as the video segment notes, he has been accused of being hypocritical because he participated in a previous comedy skit (apparently from MadTV) in which he played some kind of witch or voodoo doctor that some argue also makes fun of Blacks, although Connick counters that his character in the skit was actually White.

Despite this criticism of Connick, I give him credit for speaking up in the moment and denouncing the skit as racist and offensive. It takes courage to recognize such racial ignorance first of all, and second, to speak up and stand in opposition to it, rather than just keeping quiet, as many Americans from any racial background but particularly Whites, are more likely to do.

I know that as a native of New Orleans, Connick was affected by how his city and particularly the Black community were both devastated after Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the disaster, he organized several benefits and other activities to begin rebuilding the city and its inhabitants.

At this point, I can only speculate, but I suspect that as a result of Hurricane Katrina and perhaps after understanding the cultural consequences of such media portrayals as his MadTV skit, he “got it” — that as an affluent entertainer and as a White person, he is very privileged person and has a lot of power and influence that can be used to make fun of people, or to help uplift them.

In other words, Connick’s actions — in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and in regard to this blackface skit — are a great illustration of what I tell me students all the time: for racism to continue, individual Whites like you (referring to my students) do not have to commit racist acts yourself. Instead, for it to continue year after year, generation after generation, all you have to do is to sit by and accept the consequences of discrimination committed against others.

In other words, silence equals acceptance.


August 12, 2009

Written by C.N.

New Books: White Privilege

As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them.

This time, I mention three books that focus on the issue of White privilege, an emotional but often misunderstood issue, particularly as it relates to White Americans, many (i.e., a large number but not all) of whom feel that when the topic is mentioned, they are being personally accused of being racist. As the following books describe in detail, it’s much more complicated than that and in fact, White privilege is rooted at the institutional level.

The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing, by Joe Feagin (Routledge)

The White Racial Frame by Joe Feagin

In this book Joe R. Feagin extends the systemic racism framework in previous Routledge books by developing an innovative new concept, the white racial frame. Now four centuries-old, this white racial frame encompasses not only the stereotyping, bigotry, and racist ideology accented in other theories of “race,” but also the visual images, array of emotions, sounds of language, interlinking interpretations, and inclinations to discriminate that are still central to the frame’s everyday operation.

Deeply embedded in American minds and institutions, this white racial frame has for centuries functioned as a broad worldview, one essential to the routine legitimation, scripting, and maintenance of systemic racism in the United States. Here Feagin examines how and why this white racial frame emerged in North America, how and why it has evolved socially over time, which racial groups are framed within it, how it has operated in the past and in the present for both white Americans and Americans of color, and how the latter have long responded with strategies of resistance that include enduring counter-frames.

Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, by Tim Wise (City Lights Publishers)

Between Barack and a Hard Place by Tim Wise

Wise, a white anti-racism activist and scholar (and author of White Like Me), pushes plenty of buttons in this methodical breakdown of racism’s place in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory. In the first of two essays, the author obliterates the canard of the US as a post-racial society; bigotry and institutionalized discrimination, he contends, have simply morphed into “Racism 2.0,” in which successful minorities are celebrated “as having ‘transcended’ their blackness in some way.”

While racial disparities in employment and income, housing, education and other areas persist, Obama has become an amiable sitcom dad like Bill Cosby, putting whites at ease by speaking, looking and acting “a certain way”-not to mention avoiding discussion of race. In his second, more incendiary essay, Wise concludes that whites must take responsibility for racism.

What the majority of whites fail to grasp, he says, is that they continue to benefit from a system of “entrenched privileges” centuries in the making, and that racism remains a serious obstacle for millions of African Americans. There’s no sugar coating here for whites, nor are there any news flashes for Americans of color, but Wise bravely enumerates the unpalatable truths of a nation still struggling to understand its legacy of racist oppression.

Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide, by Barbara Trepagnier (Paradigm Publishers)

Silent Racism by Barbara Trepagnier

Vivid and engaging, Silent Racism persuasively demonstrates that silent racism – racism by people who classify themselves as not racist – is instrumental in the production of institutional racism. Trepagnier argues that heightened race awareness is more important in changing racial inequality than judging whether individuals are racist. The collective voices and confessions of non-racist; white women heard in this book help reveal that all individuals harbor some racist thoughts and feelings.

Trepagnier uses vivid focus group interviews to argue that the oppositional categories of racist/not racist are outdated. The oppositional categories should be replaced in contemporary thought with a continuum model that more accurately portrays today’s racial reality in the United States. A shift to a continuum model can raise the race awareness of well-meaning white people and improve race relations. Offering a fresh approach, Silent Racism is an essential resource for teaching and thinking about racism in the twenty-first century.

White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, by Paula S. Rothenberg (Worth Publishers)

White Privilege by Paula Rothenberg

Studies of racism often focus on its devastating effects on the victims of prejudice. But no discussion of race is complete without exploring the other side—the ways in which some people or groups actually benefit, deliberately or inadvertently, from racial bias. This is the subject of Paula Rothenberg’s groundbreaking anthology, White Privilege.

The new edition of White Privilege once again challenges readers to explore ideas for using the power and the concept of white privilege to help combat racism in their own lives, and includes key essays and articles by Peggy McIntosh, Richard Dyer, bell hooks, Robert Jensen, Allan G. Johnson, and others. Three additional essays add new levels of complexity to our understanding of the paradoxical nature of white privilege and the politics and economics that lie behind the social construction of whiteness, making this edition an even better choice for educators.

Brief, inexpensive, and easily integrated with other texts, this interdisciplinary collection of commonsense, non-rhetorical readings lets educators incorporate discussions of whiteness and white privilege into a variety of disciplines, including sociology, English composition, psychology, social work, women’s studies, political science, and American studies.


September 18, 2008

Written by C.N.

The Presidential Campaign and White Privilege

The presidential campaign is in full swing, but as I’ve written about before, the question of race has been bubbling slightly beneath the public surface for about a year and a half now, ever since Barack Obama first announced his candidacy to be our next President.

For example, there have been blatant examples of the influence of race — several incidents in which racism has reared its ugly head in regards to his campaign, but also more subtle ones — a recent CBS News article notes that “Obama’s support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice.”

But one particular aspect of this issue that hasn’t really gotten much attention is the topic of White Privilege. For those who aren’t familiar, White privilege is basically the idea that Whites have an invisible and taken-for-granted set of advantages and rights that no other racial/ethnic group has. It’s also a touchy subject because for someone who’s White, it’s very hard to recognize but easy to deny.

To try to illustrate this concept as it applies to the presidential campaign, writer and activist Tim Wise has written an absolutely brilliant post at the Red Room blog that must be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated. Nonetheless, here are some excerpts:

For those who still can’t grasp the concept of white privilege, or who are constantly looking for some easy-to-understand examples of it, perhaps this list will help.

White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because “every family has challenges,” even as black and Latino families with similar “challenges” are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay.

White privilege is when you can call yourself a “fuckin’ redneck,” like Bristol Palin’s boyfriend does, and talk about how if anyone messes with you, you’ll “kick their fuckin’ ass,” and talk about how you like to “shoot shit” for fun, and still be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great son-in-law to be) rather than a thug.

White privilege is when you can attend four different colleges in six years like Sarah Palin did (one of which you basically failed out of, then returned to after making up some coursework at a community college), and no one questions your intelligence or commitment to achievement, whereas a person of color who did this would be viewed as unfit for college, and probably someone who only got in in the first place because of affirmative action.

White privilege is when you can claim that being mayor of a town smaller than most medium-sized colleges, and then Governor of a state with about the same number of people as the lower fifth of the island of Manhattan, makes you ready to potentially be president, and people don’t all piss on themselves with laughter, while being a black U.S. Senator, two-term state Senator, and constitutional law scholar, means you’re “untested.” . . .

White privilege is being able to have a husband who was a member of an extremist political party that wants your state to secede from the Union, and whose motto was “Alaska first,” and no one questions your patriotism or that of your family, while if you’re black and your spouse merely fails to come to a 9/11 memorial so she can be home with her kids on the first day of school, people immediately think she’s being disrespectful.

White privilege is being able to make fun of community organizers and the work they do–like, among other things, fight for the right of women to vote, or for civil rights, or the 8-hour workday, or an end to child labor–and people think you’re being pithy and tough, but if you merely question the experience of a small town mayor and 18-month governor with no foreign policy expertise beyond a class she took in college–you’re somehow being mean, or even sexist. . . .

White privilege is being able to attend churches over the years whose pastors say that people who voted for John Kerry or merely criticize George W. Bush are going to hell, and that the U.S. is an explicitly Christian nation and the job of Christians is to bring Christian theological principles into government . . . and everyone can still think you’re just a good church-going Christian, but if you’re Black and friends with a Black pastor who has noted (as have Colin Powell and the U.S. Department of Defense) that terrorist attacks are often the result of U.S. foreign policy and who talks about the history of racism and its effect on black people, you’re an extremist who probably hates America.

Yes, Tim’s post is very liberal and very partisan. But in my humble opinion, also absolutely right on the money.

It finally exposes this uneasy social undercurrent that people of color have known about for a while, but that most Whites will not acknowledge even exists — why some acts, when committed by high-profile Whites, get excused and even praised, but when similar acts are committed by people of color, get criticized and ridiculed.

In other words, Tim Wise’s piece lays out the fundamental reality of the American racial landscape — much of the U.S., its people, and its social institutions, are still in deep denial about how insidious racism still is today and how it continues to be firmly but quietly embedded in how we as Americans live our lives on an everyday basis.

And in November, it will play a subtle but significant role in influencing who many of us will choose to be our next President.