Posts Tagged ‘race’

At this writing, the future of the national movement in response to police shootings of unarmed black men is unclear. It could fizzle much like the Occupy movement did (see earlier posts here and here), or it could be more lasting.

Protests here in Berkeley and the greater Bay Area have gotten a lot of attention, not because shootings are common– although Oscar Grant was killed about six years ago – but because a strong cadre of largely non-black anarchists (ironically, one set is called the Black Bloc) repeatedly hijack all sorts of protests and climax them by smashing stores, lighting fires, and blocking highways. Needless to say, terrifying store clerks and keeping people from getting to work on time are not likely to engender sympathy for a cause. Indeed, any left movement that alienates Berkeley citizens is not going to find many allies.

Recently, black community efforts have changed the dynamic some. In Berkeley, for example, a black church and its allies held a brief, peaceful “die-in” on a major street. They succeeded by alerting the police but keeping the planning secret from the anarchists. We are also seeing a few, modest concessions by police departments here and there. Still, the tactical struggle over who represents this protest and who will lead it continues. More broadly, its strategic goals and strategies remain to be defined.


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Reporting from America’s “Slums”

Alice Goffman’s recent book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, her firsthand account of young black men in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia, has garnered rave reviews in high places and by high authorities, from Cornel West to Malcolm Gladwell. Goffman portrays urban fugitives effectively excluded from the job market, who hustle and deal drugs for money, move from apartment to apartment and relationship to relationship, do their best to evade jail, and are picked up by the police even when they try to live clean. Goffman’s depth of research, the vividness of her writing, and the drama and brutal tragedy of the stories she tells—“enough street-level detail to fill a season of The Wire,” the New York Times reviewer writes—have compelled widespread attention.

But alongside the praise has also come significant criticism……  (Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review here.)

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Back – it seems long ago but really fewer than six years – when Barack Obama was elected president, much of the nation hoped that we were in for a new, “post-racial” age. Defeated GOP candidate John McCain himself spoke in those terms in his concession speech: “ This is an historic election . . . we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation . . . . America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of [an earlier] time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States.” Some whites feared that Obama would try to benefit his race, but (to the chagrin of many in the black community) he steered in almost the opposite direction, a post-racial one.

Yet the new color-blind age was not to be. For one, the financial disaster Obama inherited disproportionately damaged African Americans, widening economic gaps that had been narrowing. For another, the politics of racial resentment was too tempting a tool not to be used. Ironically, Obama’s elections themselves were only tilted a bit by racial attitudes; those who voted by race, pro or con, were already voting Democrat and Republican accordingly (see here).

But we remain far from the post-racial dream. This post is another look-see at the status of race relations, presenting a few recent studies that show how, though the progress Senator McCain noted has certainly been made, race still matters — a lot. And then I return to the politics.


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In the debates over social policies, one often hears historical claims roughly along these lines: “Minorities these days want it easy. When my ancestors came they got no help and just did it on their own.” Arguments like this have been raised against programs designed to help African Americans. In his classic 1981 study, A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880, Stanley Lieberson showed that, however hard many of the European immigrants had it a century or so ago, they faced nothing like the discrimination and repression American blacks did; the comparison is a false one.

Bread Line, Bowery, NY, c. 1910 (source)

Bread Line, Bowery, NY City, c. 1910 (source)

Today’s debates over immigrant policy evoke similar sorts of historical assertions: that unlike immigrants today, immigrants of the past were legal, learned English, and took no handouts on their route to the American Dream. In fact, however, many immigrants in earlier periods were allowed across the border with little regulation and many others were indeed illegal. (Arthur Miller’s classic play, A View from the Bridge, is about “undocumented” Italian immigrants to the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the 1950s.) In an earlier post, I discussed how immigrants a century ago actually learned English more slowly than immigrants do today. As to “handouts,” Cybelle Fox in a recent article and in her well-received 2012 book, Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal, shows that we’ve misunderstood the welfare history, too. The Europeans got many a hand up.


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Guest Blog by Aliya Saperstein*

 A person’s race is as fixed as the color of his or her skin or the shape of his or her eyes – or so it seems. In fact, across American history, from the era of “octoroons” and “quadroons” and the days when the courts debated whether “Hindus” were white to recent arguments over what race or races Barack Obama should have checked on his census form, racial categories have not been so fixed. New research by our guest blogger (here, here, and hereshows that even a particular person’s race can shift from one time to another. What race we think someone is in part reflects the popular stereotypes we have about race and social difference.

Americans tend to think of race as a fixed characteristic defined by descent. During the early 20th century the “one-drop rule” crystallized legal segregation. Anyone with any known African ancestry was to be classified and treated simply as black. The rule applied even to people who appeared to be white, such as Walter White, a prominent early member of the NAACP.

The very fact that the United States tried so hard to impose such sharp distinctions suggests that race was not so much a biological or genetic characteristic but a socially constructed one. If racial differences were “natural,” how could the same person be considered blanca (white) in Brazil, or perhaps mestiza in Mexico, but black in the United States? How could the same person be described by the Census as “White” in 1910, “Hindu” in 1930, “Other” in 1960, and “Asian Indian” from 1980 on?

Nevertheless, most Americans still think a person’s race is fairly obvious and unchanging; we know it the minute we meet him or her. Similarly, most academic research also treats race as fixed and foreordained. A person’s race comes first and then his or her experiences, education, job, neighborhood, income, and well-being follow. My research with Andrew Penner on how survey respondents were classified by race over the course of their lives, calls into question this seemingly obvious “fact.”


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Obama’s Racial Penalty

Barack Obama has run his presidential races with an extra weight on his shoulders: being black. Sure, there are some pundits who claim that he benefits from his race – black loyalty, white guilt, and such – but serious scholars understand that his race has been, in net, a notable disadvantage. My rough sense from looking at some of the political science analyses of the 2008 campaign is that he may have gained about 1 percent in the final vote by garnering more black support than a white Democrat would have gotten, but that he lost about 5 percent of the vote by getting less white support than a white Democrat would have gotten – for a net minus of about four. Four points in a presidential race is a lot.

As an historical matter, it is striking that Obama’s racial penalty has not been higher. As a political matter, the question of whether the penalty will still be that high in 2012 may make all the difference in who wins the White House. Or maybe, one study suggests, the penalty might be even higher.

(The picture here, by the way, is from a 2009 study showing that the less favorable on-line respondents were to Obama, the more likely they were to pick the darkened picture of him as the accurate one.)


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Execution Songs

For millennia, executions were a major public event in the western world. Hanging or shooting or stoning or burning or disemboweling someone in the public square served to warn people against transgressing the law, denying the faith, or just ticking off the ruler. Public executions were also opportunities for moral instruction as presiding ministers extracted death-pyre confessions from the soon-to-be-deceased and chastised onlookers about their immoralities. But public executions also provided great entertainment. Crowds of spectators thrilled to the horror, gore, and ghoulishness, while they drank, partied, and cheered – and perhaps reflected on the World to Come.

By the mid-20th century most western nations had abolished the death penalty. Growing sensibility and sentimentality among the middle classes had led them to abhor the public spectacle and then the very idea of killing even killers. The United States has not, of course, abolished capital punishment, but by mid-century executions here had moved behind closed doors and become solemn ceremonies in front of small and select audiences.

In a recent Journal of Social History paper, Ithaca College historian Michael Trotti adds an important racial dimension to this story of the western “civilizing process.” In the U.S. South, moving executions indoors seemed to spur an increase in lynchings, as authorities tried to make executions less inspirational and more intimidating to blacks.


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