I had been planning all along to write something about race this weekend, if only to play some catch-up. But then the circus came to town. In one ring, we have the NY Post's ("Let's pretend it's really not"-) racist cartoon ("Let's pretend it's really not"-) threatening the life of the President. In the second ring, we have Attorney General Eric Holder daring to speak the truth about race relations (always dangerous when a black man does that in mixed company)-that we're a nation of cowards when it comes to dealing honestly about race, and it's time to get over it-and the ensuing hissy-fits. In the third ring, we have Congressman James Clyburn, pushing back hard against the hypocritical grandstanding Southern governors who were trumpeting their toothless intentions to refuse money from the economic stimulus.
What all these events had in common was the age-old welter of confusion that surrounds all matters racial in our unfortunately-still-white supremacist society. And so before I address any one of them in any depth, I want to write about something I intended to deal with before any of them blew up into high-profile cable news fodder. And that would be the ongoing economic realities of race and class as reviewed, analyzed and discussed in the "State of the Dream 2009" Report, discussed by co-author Dedrick Muhammad on Democracy Now! this week.
But since all these other stories popped up this week, it seemed to me, for clarity's sake, that I should first take a step back and talk about the larger framework of race and white supremacism in America. My perspective is informed by two related theoretical perspectives. ("Theoretical" in the scientific sense: an organizing framework of causal mechanisms that explains a significant realm of empirical data.) One is a general theory of group dominance across societies and across time. The other is a specific theory of how white supremacy has reconfigured itself in America following the Civil Rights revolution. Together with the underlying empirical data surveyed in the "State of the Dream" report, these theories allow us to gain a clear-eyed perspective on racial matters in America and the world today.
|Two Theories-Social Dominance and Color-Blind Racism
As indicated above, my approach is informed by two theories-the first general, the second specific. The first is Social Dominance Theory (SDT), a general theory of group dominance in human societies. SDT explains the maintenance of group dominance by men over women, elders over youth and arbitrarily defined socially dominant groups over arbitrarily defined socially subordinate groups. Such groups are commonly defined in terms of race, ethnicity, religion and cultural identity more generally. SDT explains the general mechanisms of how institutions, individual attitudes and legitimating social mythology interact with one another to perpetuate and reproduce group dominance. By highlighting general mechanisms, it enables us to see beyond the specifics in any one example.
This chart displays the general structure of the theory:
In the center is the realm of "legitimating myths" (LMs) which include both "hierarchy enhancing legitimating myths" (HE-LMs), which serve to legitimize, promote and intensify the dominance of one group over all others, and "hierarchy attenuating legitimating myths" (HA-LMs), which serve to challenge group dominance and promote equality. It is the persistence of HE-LMs in general, even when new HA-LMs are introduced, and old HE-LMs fall out of favor, that largely account for the persistence of group dominance over time, even when major shifts in attitudes and relative social and power relations. The persistence of HE-LMs in turn justifies and mystifies the persistence of practices--institutional and individual--on the right-hand side of the chart, which perpetuate group-based hierarchy. Although not shown on this chart, this in turn influences socialization and group status on the left-hand side of the chart, feeding into attitudes in the form of SDO (social dominance orientation).
The second theory is colorblind racism, a theory which illuminates those specifics of how white supremacy has reconfigured itself in the post-Civil Rights Era. While it touches on all three realms addressed by SDT-attitudes, practices and legitimating myths, it is the third realm that is central to its explanatory power. In his book, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva identifies four central frames at the core of colorblind racism: "The central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or set paths for interpreting information," Bonilla-Silva writes. These four are:
(1) Abstract liberalism.
The frame of abstract liberalism involves using ideas associated with political liberalism (e.g. "equal opportunity," the idea that force should not be used to achieve social policy) and economic liberalism (e.g., choice, individualism) in an abstract manner to explain racial matters.
Naturalization os a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences.
(3) Cultural Racism.
Cultural racism is a frame that relies on culturally based arguments such as "Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education" or "blacks have too many babies" to explain the standing of minorities in society.
(4) Minimization of Racism
Minimization of racism is a frame that suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities' life chances ("It's better now than in the past" or "There is discrimination, but there are plenty of jobs out there).
It's important to understand that color-blind racism encompasses much more than these four central frames, which lie at its conceptual core. It sheds light on a wide range of phenomena, and has generated a variety of different empirical studies, and even new methodologies that get at the particular forms that colorblind racism takes. For example, during the presidential campaign, NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed, "Racism Without Racists", which began thus:
One of the fallacies this election season is that if Barack Obama is paying an electoral price for his skin tone, it must be because of racists.
On the contrary, the evidence is that Senator Obama is facing what scholars have dubbed "racism without racists."
The racism is difficult to measure, but a careful survey completed last month by Stanford University, with The Associated Press and Yahoo, suggested that Mr. Obama's support would be about six percentage points higher if he were white. That's significant but surmountable.
Most of the lost votes aren't those of dyed-in-the-wool racists. Such racists account for perhaps 10 percent of the electorate and, polling suggests, are mostly conservatives who would not vote for any Democratic presidential candidate.
Rather, most of the votes that Mr. Obama actually loses belong to well-meaning whites who believe in racial equality and have no objection to electing a black person as president - yet who discriminate unconsciously.
"When we fixate on the racist individual, we're focused on the least interesting way that race works," said Phillip Goff, a social psychologist at U.C.L.A. who focuses his research on "racism without racists." "Most of the way race functions is without the need for racial animus."
In an upcoming diary, I'll deal with another set of experiments Goff has done, dealing with another facet of unconscious race-based reasoning which has no necessary relationship to racial animus, but that nonetheless produces real harm to blacks.
Of the above four frames, abstract liberalism deserves special attention, because it is particularly distinctive of this kind of racism. In discussing it, Bonilla-Silva describes liberalism in historical terms, as the ideology of a rising bourgeoisie, which only got around to extending its "universal" principles to the general populace within European-based liberal democracies rather late in the game, and never even considered that it applied to people living in the countries it turned to for raw materials and slave (or very low-wage) labor.
The idea of treating individuals "equally" when they are born into communities that have been subject to centuries of wildly disparate treatment derives a great deal of plausibility from the fact that liberal ideals have a great deal of appeal for those who benefit from them-as is always the case with HE-LMs. But the myth of meritocracy is particularly appealing because it tells us that we are the masters of our own destiny, as well as telling us that those who don't succeed are just "losers" who deserve their fate.
And yet, history tells us this is clearly not the case. People's life-chances are largely determined by cultural and historical events over which they have no control. Those born in a war-ravaged country do not have the same life-chances as those born into peace and prosperity. Those raised in a rich cultural environment, with a top-flight educational system, and social networks going back three, four, five generations are much better prepared to succeed than those deprived of such advantages.
One can readily embrace the ideal of moving toward a world in which abstract liberal ideals are realized, a world in which equal opportunity is a reality for all, and yet fully recognize that that world can never be self-sustaining in and of itself. It will always be dependent on the past that it has emerged from, and it must take honest account of that past, settling its centuries-old debts to the best of its ability-an ongoing process that will never be done, because the present is inherently always indebted to the past.
In the posts to come I will first look at the "State of the Dream 2009" Report, and what it tells us about how far we are from settling those debts that can be paid in our generation. Above all, I particularly want to stress the interaction between race, class and conservative ideology as it has played out over the past 30 years. I will then turn to the three ring circus itself, as these dramas play out against a background many generations in the making.