Monday, December 8, 2014

White’s Racial Attitudes Matter!

I often hear Black people say, “I don’t care how White people feel about me as long as they can’t discriminate against me.” This attitude suggests that the way to combat racial discrimination is not to confront White people about their racism; rather, the solution is to pass and vigorously enforce anti-discrimination laws. I think these people are wrong. White's racial attitudes, not those held by people of color, play the dominant role in shaping public policy in American society.

During the 1960s, Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law some of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the history of the country: the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Voting Rights Act of 1965; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Nearly 50 years later, with the support of many White Americans who believe that racial discrimination against people of color is a thing of the past and that White people are now the real victims of discrimination, many of these basic rights are under attack.

The older I get, the more things become clearer to me about America: racism is permanent, and the racial attitudes of White Americans matter.

Racism is not dead; it simply disguises itself in the race-neutral language of color-blindness.

Sociologist, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, argues that “Whites have developed powerful explanations – which have ultimately become justifications – for contemporary racial inequality that exculpates them from any responsibility for the status of people of color.” He calls this ideology “color-blind racism.” According to Bonilla-Silva, color-blindness is an important political and ideological tool used by Whites to explain racial inequality and maintain the racial status quo without sounding like a racist. “Shielded by color-blindness, Whites can express resentment toward minorities; criticize their morality, values, and work ethic; and even claim to be the victims of “reverse racism.”

According to Bonilla-Silva, color-blind racism has four key frames: minimization of racism; abstract liberalism; naturalization; and cultural racism. The minimization of racism frame is used to portray discrimination as a thing of the past. (“Blacks can move to any community they can afford” or “I don’t think this is about race; rather, I think it’s about class.”) Abstract liberalism is a frame that allows Whites to use ideas associated with political liberalism (e.g., meritocracy, equal opportunity), and economic liberalism (e.g., privatization, market choices) in an abstract manner to deal with race related issues. The naturalization frame allows Whites to explain away racial problems as being the product of the way things “naturally occur.” For example, “neighborhoods are segregated because it’s natural to gravitate toward people like you.” The frame of cultural racism utilizes culturally-based explanations, such as “Blacks and Latinos do not work as hard as Whites” to explain lingering racial inequality.

Bonilla-Silva’s work shows us that White’s racial attitudes play a significant role in shaping contemporary racial inequality. Social scientist need to pay much more attention to individual racial attitudes. I say this because, I believe there is a strong congruence between white’s racial attitudes and public policy in our country. Especially troubling to me is the view held by many Whites that Black pathology, not systemic racism, is at the root of racial and economic inequality in American society. The view that Black people are not normal, that they are a defective race of people, informs the average White person’s opposition to social welfare laws, influences their opposition to housing and school desegregation policies, shapes their support for public policies that have led to the over-policing of Black communities, the militarization of local police and produced the unprecedented levels of mass incarceration we see today, and affects their decision to vote for reactionary right-wing White politicians.

White’s racial attitudes matter!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

To Many Whites, Blacks Are Just Not “Normal.”

I don't want it [drugs] near schools! I don't want it sold to children! That's an infamia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They're animals anyway, so let them lose their souls
     - Don Zaluchi from the movie, The Godfather -

One of the things I really enjoy doing is going to a bookstore to grade my students work, and to read and write while drinking the nectar of the gods, coffee.

I guess because I have a friendly face and look like an easy guy to talk to, from time-to-time I end up having conversations with total strangers, which can be both a curse and a blessing. It’s a curse when I have a lot of work to do. It can be a blessing, because I often end up having some really interesting conversations over a cup of Joe.

At some point, I often get asked, “So, what do you do for a living?” Although that is a common question in a status conscious society like America where people’s worth tends to be measured by the kind of job they hold or by how much money they make, I imagine the curiosity radar is high for another reason. I am participating in something that many white people rarely ever do, which is talk about politics and a wide range of social and economic issues with a Black person, especially a college-educated Black man.

When I tell them that I teach at the University of Hartford, many people look shocked, thinking perhaps that I’m pulling their leg. Given the levels of residential segregation that exists in this society, the odds are that outside of the workplace, they don’t often interact with many Black people and the ones they interact with at work they barely know and rarely talk about much beyond what isn’t related to work. After more than 12 years in my current job, I can count on my one hand outside of a few people, the number of times I’ve socialized outside of work with any of my White colleagues. We chat for a moment in the hallways about the job and then retreat to our offices. I’ve been invited out to eat or drink with only a few people. Outside of the Dean of my college, the chair of my department, and a couple of colleagues I share an interest in jazz with, I’ve never been invited to anyone’s home, for example, for dinner. They really don’t know much about me, and I know a whole lot less about them – for the vast majority of the people that I have spent more than a decade working with, I don’t know where they are from, the names of their spouses, the names of their kids, their interests outside of work, or even where they live.

To be fair, most Americans do not interact with people outside of their own race. On the one hand, research shows that White people have fewer friends outside of their race than do Blacks. A recent study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that for the vast majority of Whites (91 percent) their closest friends and family members are White, with only 1 percent of them Black. It may come as no surprise then that when asked to name their closest friends and family members, 75 percent of Whites couldn’t name even one person who was not from their own racial group. On the other hand, although Black people have a slightly more diverse social network, for the average Black person, 83 percent of their closest friends are also Black, with only 8 percent of them White.

We are a country of strangers.

The few Black people that the average White person knows anything about (and often admire) tend to be celebrities and athletes they see on television or the musicians they hear on the radio and who music they listen to. For the average White person, their most basic understanding of Black people comes primarily from the media (such as, articles and television reports that feature Black criminals or Blacks living in public housing and dependent on welfare) or discussions they have with other Whites about Black people (such as, the worries they share about being a victim of a crime committed by a Black criminal or the high taxes they pay to support programs for undeserving welfare recipients that they believe are overwhelmingly Black).

Many people at the coffee shop want to know how I became so successful. After I finish talking about myself, I imagine it blows their mind that I am a Black man from Detroit who grew up in poverty, defied the odds by earning a Ph.D., and now is a professor at a historically White university in the Northeast.

Once they hear my story, I often hear the following statements: “You must have had parents who really cared about you and your education;” or “Your parents must really be proud of you.”

They then offer pronouncements about what is wrong with America today: “I think that the biggest problem today is a lack of respect;” “What’s missing today is character;” “People just don’t have good values anymore;” “When I was a kid in school, discipline was not a problem because the nonsense we see today was not tolerated;” or “If I acted up the way these kids do today, I would have received a beating at school and then when I got home, my father would have pulled off his belt and beat me again.”

The conversation tends to drift next toward the evils of welfare, and the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions: “The problem with people today is that nobody wants to work because everybody feels like they are entitled to something;” “I don’t think people care about where they live anymore;” or “There are too many single-parent homes and too many irresponsible fathers.”

Most Whites who say these things would never admit to the racial undertones of their declarations about what is wrong with America. The reality though is that these statements are rarely ever associated with White people unless they are guests on the Jerry Springer show.

For the average White person, Blacks lag behind them on nearly every indicator of social and economic well-being in American society because they are caught up in a tangle of pathologies, a culture of poverty. Racism and discrimination are a thing of the past; Black pathology is the root cause of poverty and inequality in America.

For many White Americans, “Black” is not simply a word to describe a race of people, it is a pejorative. By comparison, “White” is not simply a word to describe a race of people, it is a laudative. Whites work hard rather than look for handouts. Whites have good values. Whites respect each other. Whites value an education. White fathers are there for their children. White parents care about their children’s education. Whites take care of their communities.

To be a Black person in America is to be the antithesis of a White person. To many White Americans, Black people are just not “normal,” they operate in ways that are far outside of the norms that are expected of people living in a civilized society.

And, because they really don’t know Black people, far too many Whites routinely seize upon some of the worst racial stereotypes to describe Blacks, and in the process, end up questioning the very humanity of Black people.

When you question the very humanity of a people, it's not that hard to believe that the shooting an unarmed black teen or a 12 year-old with a toy gun is justifiable. They're animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Sobering Truth About White's Racial Attitudes

"A people which oppresses another people cannot itself be free."
                  - Karl Marx to the English working class on the Irish question -

Let me begin with a very simple premise: most white people know little or nothing about the history of racism or the root causes of racial inequality in American society, have little or no interaction with nonwhites, and believe that people of color, especially black people, have no one to blame but themselves for why they linger behind whites on practically every indicator of social and economic well-being in American society.

Part of the reason for this is rooted in the failures of our nation’s educational system. Most white students I encounter in the classroom – the future leaders of this country – have either no understanding or have just a cursory understanding of the history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, or the civil rights struggles of the past or those that continue today. And, most do not entertain any notion of the possibility of the lingering effects of the institutionalization of white supremacy that took place for most of the country’s history.

But, the most important reason white Americans know so little about the racial history of our nation is willful ignorance. Countless books, articles, and reports that detail this nation’s sordid history of racial oppression and its lingering consequences sit on bookshelves in libraries and bookstores in every state of the nation. If someone doesn’t know this history, it’s because they haven’t taken the time to try to learn because they, perhaps, aren’t interested in encountering anything that may challenge what they think they already know.

Rather than learn information that may clash with some of their core dogmas about race, most whites cling to beliefs that are based on self-serving myths and fantasies that portray the behavior of their ancestors and themselves in the most heroic of terms and paint a picture of black pathology not white racism or structural inequality, as the key reason for racial disparities in American society.

A mountain of social science research shows that a majority of white people believe that any privileges they experience are justified because they, unlike most nonwhite Americans, have worked hard and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. They talk often about how their ancestors came over to this country penniless and uncultured in the ways of American society, but through hard work, character, a deep faith in God, rugged individualism, and sacrifice, pulled themselves up from poverty, built a future for them and their children, and in the process transformed America into the greatest nation in the history of the world. Racial privileges, of course, played no part in this wonderful journey.

In contrast, people of color have relied primarily on racial preferences emanating from white guilt, and other illegitimate means to advance, and are today, mostly a drain on the nation’s resources and undermine its future prosperity. The opposition many whites have to affirmative action programs and many social programs designed to redistribute wealth such as Obamacare, reflect a deeply rooted concern that they pay for but do not benefit directly from efforts to address racial and economic inequality.

The support over the years most white people have given for the militarization of the nation’s police forces, the over-policing of black communities, and the explosion of the prison-industrial complex and the unprecedented levels of mass incarceration that result from it, along with the knee-jerk support of law-enforcement even in the most egregious cases of police brutality or excessive uses of force that result in the death of unarmed black teens stems from a pathological fear of the black criminal predator that populates their imagination.

In spite of the partisan divide that grips our nation today, when it comes to race, most whites believe that the key institutions that govern our society are for the most part, objective, neutral, and rational. Even the most abominable decisions white political leaders have made during the nation’s history, such as the acceptance of the institutionalization of chattel slavery, is viewed by most whites as a necessary evil and was done for the greater good. However, when government does harm, the belief is that it is usually directed at white people. It should come as no surprise then that large numbers of whites believe that they, not people of color, are the true victims of discrimination today.

These are sobering truths we must face and work hard to change because, otherwise, the future is very bleak. Until there is a recognition of the poisonous influence of white racial attitudes, particularly among working-class whites, the kind of racial unity needed for a class struggle to fight economic exploitation and political oppression orchestrated by the plutocrats will not occur.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Letter To My White Progressive Friends The Day After The 2014 Midterm Elections

Dear Progressive White Allies,

Your family and friends let America down once more. It wasn't low turnout by black and brown voters in urban communities. It wasn't bad messaging. It wasn't gerrymandered districts. It wasn't the hundreds of millions in dark money spent. It wasn't the manipulation of voting rules and procedures. It wasn't the negative ads turning off voters. It was the voting behavior of your friends and relatives. You know these people. You talk to them daily. You spend holidays with them. You work alongside them. You are next door neighbors to them. You work out at the gym with them. You cringe but mostly look the other way after one of their racist, sexist, and homophobic comments. It's time you talk seriously to them about the future of our country.

I remember after the 2000 presidential election being a part of a conversation with mostly white activists and organizers from around the region in January 2001. Leading the discussion was a respected black labor leader, George Springer, from the American Federation of Teachers. George sat patiently as progressive people from around the northeast complained about the outcome of the election. They could not believe that so many people could vote for George W. Bush. They could not believe that the Supreme Court got it so wrong. They could not believe that more people didn't turn out for the election. They were mad at Ralph Nader and blamed him for losing Florida. George raised his hand, and said "black people got it right" - the overwhelming majority of black people voted for Al Gore. The room went silent because no one was sure how to respond to that basic truth.

I don't know many poor and working-class blacks who vote against their basic economic interest the way many poor and working-class white people do. I don't know many middle-class black people who complain about big government, want tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and cuts to the social safety net, but want to benefit from any government handout that helps them like tax breaks for middle-class homeowners the way many white people do. I don't know many black people who believe that they have more in common with the super-rich than they do with working class and poor people the way many white people do. I don't know many black people who want to impose their conservative religious views and social values on the rest of the country the way many evangelical and fundamentalist white Christians do. I don’t know many black senior citizens who oppose spending on education while demanding more money for Social Security and Medicare the way many white senior citizens do.

I do not have to look to know that every exit poll from every state that every candidate progressive's favored, whether they won or lost - governor or Senator - an overwhelming majority of black people voted for that candidate. I know my people.

Bilal Dabir Sekou, Ph.D.


And by the way my friend, I am pleading with you. No, I am begging you to open a dialogue with your sons, your daughters, your brothers, your sisters, your mother, your father, your uncles, your aunts, your nieces, your nephews, and your cousins. People of color are not the problem! Don't blame us for being insufficiently motivated to turn out and save America from itself.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Black Community and the Police: Do the Police Serve and Protect or Are they Simply Agents of Social Control?

What is the original purpose of the police? The key historical role of the police was to regulate class conflict, that is, to preserve the access of elites to basic resources, protect private property, and control the labor force that's needed to provide the surplus the nation’s wealthy and well-to-do live on. Since the LAPD coined the phrase back in the 1950's, in the popular imagination, it is now to “Serve and Protect.”

However, in the case of Black people, the police have always been the coercive arm of the government charged with the responsibility of social control, not with the responsibility of serving and protecting black people.

This role played by the police became more conspicuous and deadly as Blacks began moving out of the rural South and into urban cities of the South and industrial cities of the North during World War I.

Attracted by the possibility of securing good paying jobs and the opportunity to escape a harsh slavery-like farming plantation system, Jim Crow segregation, the lynch rope, and other forms of government-sanctioned violence carried out by white mobs and white police officers, many Blacks fled the South and headed to the North during what historians describe as the Great Black Migration.

When Blacks settled in Northern cities, they met intense resistance, as white increasingly worried about Blacks moving into their neighborhoods and white laborers worried about competition from Black workers for their jobs. The police transformed into a “white wall” of defense, a coercive instrument of the government, intent on enforcing the color line and maintaining white supremacy in urban communities.

Although it was not the sole reason, during the rebellious 1960s, incidents of police brutality was often a catalyst for racial insurrections, from Watts to Detroit and from Newark to Hartford.

Ferguson should not surprise any of us, then.

The role of the police has not change much since the 1960s even as many of America's once thriving urban centers have fallen into decay after decades of white flight (fueled in part by what was viewed by many whites as an invasion by black and brown people) to the suburbs and the erosion of the nation’s industrial base. Blacks and other people of color in urban America, considered economically and socially obsolete in the new economy and inherently deviant, form the majority population in what can only be described as post-industrial wastelands surrounded by more economically, socially, and politically prosperous, mostly white suburbs.

I’m haunted by the belief that no amount of training in the proper use of lethal force or racial and ethnic sensitivity training will fix a problem as endemic as police brutality.

The reason from my pessimism is that history and the present tells us that when it comes to the Black community, the police are, first and foremost, agents of social control. They do what they do because that is what they are supposed to do.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Nothing About the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling in Riley v. California Stops The Police From Searching Your Smart Phone If They Want To

Should the police be able to search a suspect’s cell phone without a search warrant?

On June 25 of this year, in Riley v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court in 9-0 decision held that searches of smart phones and other electronic devices are not subject to limited searches without warrants in the same manner as people’s wallets and vehicles.

Chief Justice, John Roberts, writing for the High Court, contended:

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life,” … The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.

The High Court’s ruling has significance for a majority of Americans.

According to a Gallup Poll survey conducted last December, the must-have devices that Americans own have changed over the last decade. “Portable Internet-connected devices such as laptops and smartphones are generally more favored, while older forms of technology such as desktop computers, VCRs, and basic cellphones are falling out of fashion.”

Gallup finds that compared to 2005, far fewer Americans own basic cellphones or use landlines to communicate with each other. Ownership of smartphones has shot up dramatically over the last decade – 56 percent of us own smartphones that we store a “digital record of nearly every aspect of our lives,” ranging from photos and emails to contact lists and text messages.

The High Court’s ruling comes, however, with one small, but important, caveat. The Court makes clear in their syllabus:

“It is true that this decision will have some impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. But the Court’s holding is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is that a warrant is generally required before a search. The warrant requirement is an important component of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, and warrants may be obtained with increasing efficiency. In addition, although the search incident to arrest exception does not apply to cell phones, the continued availability of the exigent circumstances exception may give law enforcement a justification for a warrantless search in particular cases.”

Should we still be worried about the possibility of the police examining the “digital record of nearly every aspect of our lives,” we keep on our cell phone?

Although many on the left have praised the Court’s decision, I think we should continue to be worried about our right to privacy even with this ruling.

I operate from a fairly basic premise, as an arm of the State, the main goal of the judicial branch is not to restrain power – whether its own power or the power of the various appendages of the State (which includes the police) – but to preserve or advance it.

I don't want to under-appreciate the importance of what seems like a clear-cut victory for those of us on the left, particularly given the current political climate and given how bad the Robert’s Court has been on so many other decisions.

But, I’m not drinking the Kool-aide either.

Many of us drink the Kool-aide because we – including many on the left – believe what we’ve been taught most of our lives about how our government works.

As a part of our political socialization, we learn during our earliest exposure to civics that the “Founding Fathers,” fearing the concentration of power in the hands of one person or a small group of people designed a system government with three branches – the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branch.

The Framers of the Constitution sought to check government power through the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. Hence, as a result of the separation of powers, the legislative branch is charged with the responsibility of passing laws, the executive branch is supposed to carry them out, and the judicial branch is expected to interpret the law, punish offenders, and resolve disputes between the other two branches.

As a further check on power, the Constitution requires each arm of the State to share key parts of the others’ powers, making it easier for each branch to check the other two.

The most common metaphor used to describe the power of the Court is that it operates like a referee. One arm of government passes laws, the other enforces the law. As the referee of the system, the Court objectively decides when something done by any of the players violate the rules of the game (that is, the U.S. Constitution). It can tell the President when his actions exceed those given to him by the Constitution. It can tell Congress if a law it has passed is in conflict with the Constitution, therefore, no longer a law. It can tell a state when its law is trumped by federal law. It can check the behavior of local law enforcement when its tactics violate a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitutional.

In short, the Court makes decisions on just about everything under the sun that may have a profound impact on the lives of every single citizen or noncitizen in America. It is a testament to the effectiveness of our public school education that most Americans blindly accept the legitimacy of their rulings and believe that the decisions, first and foremost, are designed to protect our “God-given” rights.

Given how deeply ingrained is our belief that the primary role played by the Courts in our constitutional system is to check the power of the State – the Congress, the President, the state police, and other government officials – it’s hard for most of us to imagine that many of the Court’s decisions may do little more than preserve and protect the power of the State.

My point is that the textbook description of how power is exercised or the purpose it is used for by the three branches of government, especially the Judicial Branch, is far too simplistic?

Just how hampered does law enforcement really feel because of the High Court’s ruling?

One of the things that struck me about this ruling is that it does not change the status quo. It remains very easy for the police to get a warrant. Many people in the law enforcement community do not see the Court’s pronouncement as an impediment to them quickly getting a warrant and perusing through someone’s phone fishing for evidence of some crime.

Once the police have your phone, there is not much you can do about it. On the one hand, there are phone apps that allow people to erase their phones, maybe giving people a chance to prevent the police from gaining access to their most sensitive information. On the other hand, someone sitting in an interrogation room or holding cell with no access to technology cannot remotely wipe their phone to hide information. In the meantime, the police will be working diligently to get their warrant, which they’ll likely receive rather effortlessly.

In short, it would be very naïve to assume that the nation's police departments have been told that cell phones are not fair game. The fishing expeditions will continue, just with a warrant issued under minimal rather than really high standards.

The bar was not raised by the ruling. The license to go fishing for evidence has not gotten more expensive to obtain. This ruling does not stop the police from invading our privacy.

I also have my suspicions about why Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, and Alito are on the side of Civil Libertarians. They must have something up the sleeves of those robes they wear.

Admittedly, maybe I'm paranoid or perhaps I've been reading the Art of War too much.

I think the conservative jurists sided with the liberal jurists because nothing about this decision places meaningful limits on the power of local law enforcement.

As a black man, I feel even more, not less, vulnerable after this Court's ruling.

If I'm pulled over walking down Albany Avenue in Hartford, Connecticut, in the black community talking on my cellphone at 2:00AM, nothing will stop the police from arresting me and obtaining a search warrant to go on a fishing expedition later that morning. This case says nothing about the type of scrutiny that should occur before law enforcement starts digging around in one of the most personal areas of our lives, what we store on our cell phones.

In actuality, that search appears to have been given legitimacy by this Court, which is perhaps why the four most conservative jurists on the High Court can agree with the decision, not because they are sensitive to, say, populist rumblings about the power of the State, but because they know at the end of the day it protects and, perhaps, expands judicial power in a way that they are quite comfortable with.

Conservatives value order over chaos. Surreptitiously expanding (and offering legitimacy) police power in the area of law enforcement is not anathema particularly when the expansion of that power is more likely to occur probably on Albany Avenue in the heart of the black community in Hartford rather than downtown Hartford in the business district populated mostly by whites commuting from the suburbs to the city for work.

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about some of the emerging surveillance technologies being used by law enforcement with and without warrants that make the Court’s ruling in Riley v. California seem even less relevant than it probably is.