A Three-Ring Circus On Race This Week

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Feb 21, 2009 at 12:30

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.

Paul Rosenberg :: A Three-Ring Circus On Race This Week
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.

(2) Naturalization.

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.

What's Ahead

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.

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So much for post-racial America (0.00 / 0)
Crying wolf on racism was old a year ago.

Didn't They Say That In 1867? (4.00 / 6)
Crying wolf on racism was old a year ago.

You're Supposed To Read The DIARY.  Not just the title.

I know that actually thinking about what you read may be asking a bit much.  So, one thing at a time.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
I think I will check out that book. (4.00 / 1)
Racism without racists.  

Thanks, Paul.  I often learn a lot from your writings.  I recall a couple years ago I read in your diaries about the borderlanders, puritans, quakers, etc.  

[ Parent ]
It's A Great Book. (4.00 / 3)
That and his other book, "White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era". Also check out Stephen Steinberg's "The Ethnic Myth" (which was a clear challenge to Thomas Sowell's "Ethnic America") and Steinberg's other books, "Turning Back" and "Race Relations".

I have to agree with you about Paul's writings here on this site. It's one of the many reasons why I enjoy coming here because he's so insightful on an array of subjects, particularly on race. Keep up the good work, my brother!

[ Parent ]
Why, Yes! (4.00 / 4)
Electing a black man as president means that all institutionalized racism in this country has been dismantled! What a victory! (snark)

This was another reason why I was iffy about Obama. Not only would disingenuous conservatives make this argument about a "colorblind America," but also clueless, I-don't-want-to-hear-about-racism liberals like the one above. Symbolism is a very powerful drug, I see.

[ Parent ]
Very interesting stuff. (4.00 / 2)
Maybe Social Dominance Theory provides a framework for seeing Barack Obama's election as actual, rather than merely symbolic or emblematic of, racial progress. Because the story of racial relations over the past - well, the past several hundred years, I guess - is the story of the gradual waning of HE-LMs as social organizing principles, and the gradual waxing of HA-LMs. But every step of the way, there's resistance to this shift in the balance between HELMs and HALMs, and an affirmative, assertive action has been needed to add every extra pound to the scales. The election was such an action, and it was a particularly significant one in that the ultimate societal alpha, now, is for the first time not a white man. That is a significant deprivation to the (HELM-informed) intuition that whites ought naturally to be in power, and I really believe that it will make thousands of smaller actions - more local efforts to shift the HELM/HALM balance (hiring decisions, etc.) - more likely to succeed.

This Is Why This Week's Events Are So Significant (4.00 / 3)
It was obvious that Obama's election would be used to try tell everyone--blacks especially--to STFU about racism once and for all.

But it was equally obvious (to those with functioning brains) that is would also open up all sorts of opportunities to make very significant further advances, particularly since there are already so many significant black political actors and institutions, as well as professionals in academia, media, the law and elsewhere whose personal and professional experience, political consciousness and agendas are in no way dependent on Obama.  The fact that racial issues exploded on three fronts simultaneously this week was therefore a very healthy indication that Obama's presidency is not going to stifle the diversity of black political expression, but will much more serve as a tonic.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
NIH's Acting Director, Raynard S Kington, MD, MBA, Phd (0.00 / 0)
A story in TheScientist.com reports on plans by the National Institute of Health to distribute the $10 billion bonanza they will receive thanks to the Recovery bill. A link to Dr Kington's article explains that the new funding will be applied to projects already approved. It pleased me to see that he's black; with an amazing academic record starting with BA and MD degrees from the University of Michigan, board certification as an internist at Michael Reese in Chicago, and while a clinical scholar at U Penn, he earned the business degree and public health doctorate. His interest is in the role of social factors in health care services. Quite a biography: it seems the Senate knew what it was doing when it bumped up that award amount!

[ Parent ]
I've Got A Half-Finished Diary About Social Factors in Health Care Services (0.00 / 0)
There was a report done about that here in Los Angeles that I started work on writing about.  I'm still determined to get back to it.  It's a very good sign to have someone like him positioned where he is.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
PBS (4.00 / 5)
Friday's "All things considered" had a "discussion' between an academic, Michael Eric Dyson and a conservative flack, Joe Klein.

Here's a link to the audio and associated material:

Klein trotted out the standard misdirection that blacks (and presumably liberals in general) should be grateful that we no longer have lynchings and overt Jim Crow and so we no longer have to worry about race.

"I actually thought it was a cowardly speech," Klein says, comparing it with the speech on race Obama gave in April when he was running for president. Klein says Obama talked to the nation as if they are adults, while Holder failed to give specifics. "What is upsetting to me is there seems to be absolutely no acknowledgement of the incredible progress that has been made over the last 40 or 50 years. ...We have to talk about the history of terror, but also have to talk about where we are now and how to move forward."

I don't know how we are going to make progress when those who are discriminated against (minorities, immigrants, women, the poor in general) allow the smug wealthy to frame the issues.

It is irrelevant that slavery has ended when schools are more segregated now they have ever been in the past 40 years and where the funding between the richest and poorest remains a national disgrace.

We lack class consciousness in this country (except for the wealthy who know exactly which class they are defending) and we lack the feeling the Europeans call "solidarity" - we are all in this together.

How to turn this around is beyond me, schools don't teach labor history, for example and there are no labor beat reporters left on any major newspaper anymore. I don't think there are any civil rights beat reporters outside of, perhaps, a few Hispanic ones on the coasts and some in NYC who follow black issues such as the the NY Post cartoon.

Where are the young supposed to develop a sense of class affiliation when the standard line is that discrimination is over and the oppressed should be happy with their new found equality?

Policies not Politics

I Find It Hilarious That The Media Still Turns To Joe Klein (4.00 / 3)
More so when it comes to discussing race. I guess because Klein is one of those "liberals" who can tell-it-like-it-is about race. Meaning he uses mostly conservative framing on the issue, making him heroic among the elites who only champions and embraces a liberal commentator when such liberal emulates conservatives.

That's why I enjoy it when Eric Alterman and Glenn Greenwald uses Klein as their punching bag, he deserves it for being such a sellout.

[ Parent ]
Why? (4.00 / 2)
The question is why places like NPR keep going to people like this for commentary.

The rightward shift of NPR has been apparent for many years now. Tomlinson is no longer there, but the browbeating of NPR and PBS by claiming they were liberal, and the tightening of their purse strings by conservative congressmen, has made them lose any sense of impartiality.

People like Mara Liasson subtly slant every story they work on. When did it become ethically acceptable to work for Fox or ABC and NPR at the same time?

This is why I now listen to the BBC and CBC for the bulk of my daily radio news. There aren't even any technological issues, one can get their feeds over the internet so local access is no longer important.

As I said with a school system and media environment that refuses to deal with some of the fundamental social issues of the day I wonder how the young are going to learn about the real world.

Policies not Politics

[ Parent ]
Joke Line Makes A Stopped Clock Look Good (4.00 / 1)
"Right twice a day?"

In his dreams!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Klein got his butt firmly kicked. (4.00 / 1)
Dyson blew his points out of the water, so that, at least, was satisfying

[ Parent ]
The Only Way Dyson Doesn't Kick Butt (4.00 / 1)
is when they screw up his feed so badly you can't even hear him make his case, as happened with him vs. Pat Buchanan this week.

He still did okay, but okay is definitely sub-par for him.  It was like having one--no, both hands tied behind his back.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
our "still-white-supremacist society"? (0.00 / 0)
What are we, a society run by the KKK?

I know what you're trying to say, but casually tossing out such a slur against the entire United States, four months after the election of our first black president, seems a bit tone-deaf.

You explain the issue of lingering white supremacism later in the diary, but I just don't see any justification for calling us a "still-white-supremacist society". This isn't 1850 or 1950 anymore, and I wouldn't want you to alienate those who would otherwise enjoy the points you make.

Thanks, Rush! (0.00 / 0)
Instead of reflecting on color-blind racism, you act it out.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
All right, Paul (0.00 / 0)
You're going to write this shit and insult anyone who questions it, and being the coward Eric Holder says I must be, I'll sit your series out. Maybe we need a dialog on race, but I don't think you're the one to do it. Regards.

[ Parent ]
Oh yeah (0.00 / 0)
Clyburne says it, it must be true: Clyburne calls the Clintons scurrilous Is this the same Clyburne that piled on misinterpretating Bill's "fairy tale" comment and implied Hillary was denigrating MLK by pointing out LBJ's role, and then said she was staying in to destroy Obama's chances and prepare for 2012?

Eric Holder? I voted for his boss, a Southerner who did a good job of bringing down black poverty and unemployment, while helping blacks obtain senior level positions in his administration. Now we're going to get lectured on cowardice and being supremacist? Has Holder's career been one of heroism? Sorry, hadn't noticed.

In any case, I can blame the whole mistake on Alec Baldwin, who famously said, "If Obama is elected, ...the last, great obstacle to meaningful racial equality in America will vanish, and with it, the yoke, real and perceived, of the limitations of the black experience in our country." (Baldwin has said much smarter things in his career, hate for him to be remembered too much for this ditzy quote, but...).

In any case, you have to be pretty brave to wander into a public discussion of race. It's pretty much a no-win situation to offer anything but platitudes.

WTF? (4.00 / 1)
Clyburne says it, it must be true

No. Clyburne says it, and it happens to be true.

But it's not just an idle comment.  Clyburne has been deeply involved in this issue.

Still not sure exactly how you worked Alec Baldwin into this comment.  Should I name drop back at you and go on about how he and I co-wrote an op-ed back in 1994?  That doesn't relate to anything here, either.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
No, it's not "true" (0.00 / 0)
You can argue that Clyburn has a point, but his "turning down the stimulus is an insult to blacks" [paraphrased] is not true in the sense of "it's raining outside", and is rather disputable based on the complexities involved (even Clyburn came back and rephrased). It's a rather contentious way of expressing things [kind of like "she didn't cry for Katrina", which may or may not have been true, but it sure did have its political effect], and is probably as much posturing as the Republicans are doing. Nothing wrong with pushing for your constituency - actually I'm happy to see a Democrat who still remembers how to do that.

Regarding Alec Baldwin, you said in a comment, "This Is Why This Week's Events Are So Significant  (4.00 / 2)
It was obvious that Obama's election would be used to try tell everyone--blacks especially--to STFU about racism once and for all."  

[ Parent ]
What is funny (0.00 / 0)
(and off-tangent, just came up when I was Googling those halcyon South Carolina days) is that I'd forgotten all about Axelrod blaming Hillary for Bhutto's death. Memory's not what it used to be I guess, but those politicians, they're a bunch of cards, ain't they?

[ Parent ]
Class (4.00 / 1)
Class and connections seem more important than race.  By far.

Take Geithner.  His father just happened to be the boss of Obama's mother while she was in Indonesia (Ford Goundation).  Mr. so-qualified has a Master's in International Relations.  Not a degree in economics or finance or business. But his family tree is loaded with high execs in the Ford Foundation and Ford Motor.  A BA from Dartmouth didn't hurt but the connections did the trick.

Meanwhile, Broder is attacking Bill Clinton and lauding the stimulus bill as a model of bipartisanship.  Afyer all it got 3 votes (at great price). Clinton might have graduated from Yale Law and been a Rhodes scholar but there was no prep school polish or family connections there.

If I had to guess, I'd say that the history of black America in the last 30 years was similar to the history of America.  Those with the connections and upper crust background benefited but 95% or more did not and the lower 60% got slammed except furing the Clinton years when it held its own (but no more).  If anything, I would guess class played an even bigger role in black America than in white America.  That sucks.

Read My Two Following Diaries (Second One Just Posted) (4.00 / 1)
for a much more specific look at how race and class relate to one another.

I believe Geithner's degree is in international economics as well as international relations, which doesn't do that much to undermine your case--though it does hint that he could have been a whole lot better (I once knew a very sensible economist with that sort of background--in Indonesia, no less--in contrast to the model-obsessed crowd that tends to dominate the field).  But your main point here is well taken.  The Education Secretary is even more lacking in specific training--dramatically so.  It's all in the elite connections.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Paul, I have to plump for Arne! (0.00 / 0)
From Wikipedia:
Duncan was raised in Hyde Park, Chicago, where his father Starkey Duncan was a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, and mother Susan Morton runs the Sue Duncan Children's Center, an after school program serving African American youth on Chicago's South Side. Duncan spent a great deal of his free time at his mother's center tutoring children and sharpening his basketball skills with the neighborhood children.

Note the basketball; Arne is tall and played pro bball in Australia, where he met his wife.

[ Parent ]
I Was A TA and A Tutor In College (4.00 / 1)
but my father, mother, brother and sister were all professional teachers.

I know enough of teaching to know the difference.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]

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