What is an Earnest Discussion of Racism?

The recent racist shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has sparked discussion. This is good, right? This is progress, right? We can rest assured that in a few months we will have finally arrived: we will be a nation of unprecedented racial equality complete with counter-racist institutions and leaders who openly acknowledge the enduring, pernicious effect of race in America. Right? Surely we have taken a significant step forward…

Not exactly. It takes more than a few “race talks” to make lasting changes in our infrastructure. We need more than a discussion; we need an earnest discussion. Here is what I mean.

An earnest discussion of racism acknowledges privilege.

People who talk about race must first acknowledge where they stand. They have to understand the difference in altitude between their lookout points and those of everyone else. Let’s use a silly example to illustrate. Suppose a giraffe and a rabbit are looking for food in the savannah. Suppose all the grass in this region was recently burned in a wildfire. As a result, the rabbit is starving. However, the giraffe happily eats leaves from a tree that the fire did not touch. The rabbit asks the giraffe for some leaves, but the giraffe coldly replies, “Just stretch out your neck and get them yourself.”

When people who talk about race fail to acknowledge their own unearned advantages, they make the same mistake as the giraffe. They suggest, for instance, that minorities in America are responsible for their own disadvantage. But they ignore the real effects of racist institutions, which create an environment that either deliberately or incidentally favors the prosperity of one group to a disproportionate degree. Therefore, anyone who talks about race earnestly must acknowledge privilege.

An earnest discussion of racism acknowledges ignorance.

Even with full knowledge of one’s privilege, it is impossible to know the experiences of people in a group to which one does not belong. White people, for instance, cannot suddenly become black and understand what it is like to face the daily discrimination and institutional barriers that come along with being black. (This of course does not stop some from trying.) It is an unalienable feature of our human experience not to understand what it is like to be anyone but ourselves. Therefore, anyone who talks about race earnestly must understand that people in other groups have had different experiences.

An earnest discussion of racism leads to political action.

Discussions have many purposes. They can create understanding between estranged groups, enrich our understanding by bringing together a variety of perspectives, and even provide a peaceful means to conflict resolution. But words are empty without action. Millions of people are talking, but most of the discussion groups fail to make lasting change because they end without a practical plan of action.

By all means, talk. And talk earnestly. Acknowledge the unearned advantages that you have over others. Acknowledge the fact that there are limits to your understanding of the struggles of other groups. Do talk! But end every discussion of race by committing to lead a peaceful protest with the rest of your life. Speak up for the oppressed. Pull out the “race card” when our politicians lack the courage to do so. Vow never to grow complacent and coast along with a status quo that (often violently) destroys freedom. Write your representatives in the name of racial equality and racial justice and lobby for legislation that truly counters the effects of racism.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—not with a discussion group.

Color-Blindness Hurts

Color-Blindness Hurts

What exactly happened to Tahera Ahmad on that United Airlines flight?

According to news reports, a flight atteimagesK8O95V7Jndant denied Ahmad an unopened can of diet soda.  “Big deal,” you might think. “It’s probably just some obscure airline regulation about canned drinks, right?”

Unfortunately, no.  This is about race.

In Ahmad’s words, “This isn’t about me and a soda can.  It’s about systemic injustice that is perpetuated throughout our community.”

Specifically, it’s about the way that our system can overlook or even justify the most horrific prejudices.  It’s about how nobody stood up for Ahmad when another passenger told her to “f… off” because she “knew that [she] would use [the unopened can] as a weapon.”  And most importantly, it’s about the myth of color-blindness, a doctrine that is still actively being spread today.  This doctrine states that color doesn’t matter anymore, that minorities have won the battle for equal treatment, and that they no longer have any reason to think they are oppressed.

But what happened on this airline reminds us that color does matter.

And more than that, Ahmad reminds us that it’s not just non-white color that sends the system into defensive-oppressive mode.  It’s the colors of minority religions and cultures, too.  It’s about islamophobia propagated by irresponsible and unreflective media run by the privileged.  Not only do people’s visible differences still affect them.  They affect them every day—and it hurts.

Tahera Ahmad was in tears.

She wrote on her Facebook that she was “in tears of humiliation.”  She had hope that some fellow passenger would stand up and defend her, but all she received were profanities and the shaking of heads.

United Airlines is an institution like any other corporation.  Its top priority is self-preservation.  After this blunder by one of its flight attendants, the airline swiftly “redeemed” itself by terminating her employment.  While this is surely a gesture of its disapproval of religious prejudice, it still serves to sweep the issue under the rug.

The more the Civil Rights movement sinks into the background of our minds as an event in “history,” the more the doctrine of color-blindness sinks into our minds like a poison.  The ideology of color-blindness doesn’t make us immune to racism.

Ironically, color-blindness makes us blind to the real importance of color in our everyday lives.

In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the commencement address at Oberlin College.  He said to them, “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work…without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation” (King, 1968).

I agree with Dr. King.  Every day that we spend waiting for justice is another day that injustice has triumphed.  What should you do?

Follow the example of Dr. King.  Lead peaceful collective protest of United.

And tell everyone you know.





What do they think of me?

slaves picking cotton

According to political conservatives, racial discrimination is said to no longer be institutional and there is no longer any need for policies that provide socioeconomic protections for blacks. Further, according to political conservatives, if any racial discrimination is happening, it is being committed by a few bigoted individuals, socialized to hold bigoted notions, believe that blacks are lazy, and inferior and that it is okay to commit racism against them.

With the press concerning the reported negative racial attitudes that some whites exhibit concerning blacks, I wonder what do they think of me.  I am a black woman.

The Donald Sterling’s and Robert Copeland’s of the United States have been undoubtedly shaped by a culture that supported racism sanctioned by U.S. government, that gave them the privilege and permission to openly denigrate blacks. Whites in the age range of 70 or older are 57% of the black population. Put another way, whites 70 years or older in the United States, total 25,417,300 as compared to ALL blacks in the United States who total 44,456,009, based on U.S. Census data as of July 1, 2012.

Whites age 70 and above engaged in race relations through the phenomenon of Jim Crow.  Jim Crow continued legally and unrestricted in this country until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Ed decision. Aimed at integrating schools in the south, Brown v. Board of Ed had broader implications in overturning Jim Crow laws in the U.S. Jim Crow officially became illegal with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Given this statistic, more than 25 million people in the United States were taught it is okay to engage in racial discrimination during the 1920s through the mid 1960’s. I am not suggesting that whites born during America’s support and sanction of racial discrimination or even those who migrated here during that time are automatic racists. If they are, however, of the same ilk as Donald Sterling and Robert Copeland, socialized during the 1920s through the mid 1960’s, when it was legally permissible in the United States to commit racial discrimination, 25+ million is certainly not a few bigoted individuals! It is certainly not legally permissible now to discriminate against blacks absent a bona fide occupational qualification as it was then, and it is not socially acceptable now as it was then to disparage blacks.

The larger implication here then is that it is very possible that racial discrimination is not committed by just a few bigoted individuals, racial discrimination is still very much institutional, and as such, blacks need to lobby for policies that protect their socioeconomic interests against racial discrimination.

So to those of you who may be reading this and are also black, does this make you wonder what they think of you?


reparations_2First, for the sake of argument, let it be said that it is possible to find a way to decrease the disparity that exists between different races and economic strata. What is the “best” way to reach this goal? “Best” here is defined as 1) finding a way that will not lead to greater animosity between individuals for the sake of making them more equal; 2) finding a way that will encourage further decreases in disparity in the future, and not just a bandage to put on a wound that keeps on festering and 3) finding a way that makes those who gain by a decision not feel demeaned or patronized, but rather better about themselves and their culture.

One possible way of decreasing disparity, as discussed in Robert Allen’s Past Due: The African American Quest for Reparations and The Economics of Reparations by William Darity Jr. and Dania Frank, where Blacks feel that “justice must be served” (Allen 325) and there is a social movement for Blacks to gain “compensation for the enslavement of their ancestors” (Darity and Frank 334).  However, would such a mandated reparation payment resolve the actual disparity that exists? Would it reduce the animosity between individuals? Would it encourage further decreases in disparity in the future and not just cover up a deep societal cut? And, lastly, would reparation make people feel proud rather than demeaned or patronized?

In Robert Allen’s classic Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Allen, himself, answers these questions by stating that one of the pitfalls of such a reparation movement could actually be the ongoing empowerment and economic advancement of the new black elite at the expense of the masses of working class and poor peoples. This can be called “embourgeoisment” or the “bourgeoisification” of reparations.

Darity and Frank note that there are different ways that this money could be distributed, and it is necessary to determine the ramifications prior to distribution.  It is true that a significant reduction in economic inequality may be a necessity for equal opportunity. However, are just these reparations enough to further Black economic independence, especially with such poor populations still existing in this country—as well as worldwide? Further, going back to the same three questions above, do such reparations actually end racism or just heal it for a the short term?

In the chapter “Interracial Goals,” Arthur Lewis looks at the three approaches of a homogeneous state, the raceless state and the plural society in terms of helping the different races live together in peace. He analyzes how each of these three approaches has worked in society to date and notes that the first two the homogeneous state and the raceless state are not feasible. The first will not work, because partition cannot be effected equitably and without leaving too many people on the wrong side of the border; the second similarly will not be feasible unless both majority and minority parties wish to live together on such terms. Thus, one is left with the third approach of the plural society. Lewis notes that as a long-run goal it is inferior to the other two alternatives, because it keeps group differences alive and away from rather than toward economic equality. It also does not answer the three questions above in a positive fashion. The only thing that can be said is that for the short-run “it is a refuge from cleavage and strife” or the “best that we can do for the time being” (25). That is not saying very much, surely.

It appears, then, that of the different ways to meet these three questions noted above, that it may be best to find ways to reduce disparity by changing public policy in areas such as housing and home ownership. The changing determinants of Inter-racial home ownership disparities: New York City in the 1990s and “A dream deferred or realized: the impact of public policy on fostering black homeowners in New York City throughout the 1990s by Lance Freeman and Darrick Hamilton, both show how the “prescription for change” is taking not one action, but several: 1) Combating racial discrimination in housing through vigorous enforcement of anti-bias laws; 2) Continuing and strengthening policy reforms such as the Community Reinvestment Act and  Home Mortgage Disclosure Act; and 3) Improving financial literacy and education and information on access to credit.

The authors admit in The changing determinants of Inter-racial home ownership disparities: New York City in the 1990s that “For both blacks and Hispanics, their characteristics account for the majority of their home ownership deficits” (320) Thus, “even if” all of the disparate treatment were eradicated, there would still remain huge gaps in home ownership. Yet, they conclude “it may be possible” as seen with the positive results in the 1990s, “to take steps to avoid compounding racial and ethnic inequality through housing policy, which in turn could lead to a positive cycle of wealth accumulation for these groups” (320)

Once again, such conclusions by Freeman and Hamilton are not anything to cheer about. Policy changes in housing may bring some changes, but the disparity still remains. Unfortunately, that is the conclusion of all these approaches. Regardless of what approach is taken, the racial and economic disparities remain. As with anything else, one has to look at the best case scenario. It appears that policy change is this best case. First, it does not appear to increase animosity between the races; second, it seems to be more than just putting a bandage on a festering sore—people actually have a home to call their own for the first time; and third, it does not demean or patronize people. These homeowners are proud of their new housing and the improvements in their lives. They do not believe they are being handed something for nothing. In the United States, racial inequality continues to exist, even 50 years after the Brown decision. Incidents of police brutality and racial profiling show that civil rights enforcement remains a necessity.

Although there is a sizeable black middle class, the number of poor blacks is just as prominent. Controversies among both whites and blacks on the way to resolve this situation continue. Unfortunately, it is clear that the goal of racial equality remains an ongoing struggle within the United States and around the world. As Richard America notes, Americans are accountable for their own sins.


Allen, Robert. Black Awakening In Capitalist America: An Analytic History. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1993

Allen, Robert. “Past Due: The African American Quest for Reparations.” Black Scholar, 28.2 (1998): 2-17

America, Richard. “The Theory of Restitution.” A Different Vision: Race and Public Policy. Ed. T.D. Boston. London: Routledge, 1997. 154-162

Darity, Jr. William and Dania Frank. “Economics of Reparations.” American Economic Review, 93.2. (2003)  334-337

Freeman, Lance and Darrick Hamilton. “The changing determinants of inter-racial home ownership disparities: New York City in the 1990s.” Housing Studies 19.2: (2004).  301-323.

Freeman, Lance and Darrick Hamilton. A dream deferred or realized: the impact of public policy on fostering black homeownership in New York City throughout the 1990s. American Economic Review. (2002) 92.2: 320-321.

Lewis, W. Arthur. Racial Conflict and Economic Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Homo Sacer: The State of Exception in Violation of Trayvon Martin’s Civil Rights

State of exceptionIn the wake of the Zimmerman verdict everyone is being reminded that America is a nation of laws, the jury has spoken and that we should respect the verdict. Is it lawful to take the life of another when they were not doing anything unlawful? I think we all know the answer to that, no!  George Zimmerman, the jury, a Florida law called stand your ground and countless Americans think that it is lawful.  Here’s how.

Under Carl Schmitt’s state of exception concept, the “sovereign” has the ability to rise above or step outside of the rule of law all in the interest of the public good. In this instance, the “sovereign” is the state of Florida’s through its stand your ground law, courtesy of George Zimmerman. How is this possible? In short, by creating laws that allow exceptions. Normally, it is against the law to kill someone. The exception in the instant case is if you feel that your life is in imminent danger.  According to Juror B37, it was concluded that George Zimmerman felt his life was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, despite being told essentially to not put himself in harm’s way.  At that moment, the law against taking another life was suspended and George Zimmerman was allowed to kill Trayvon Martin with impunity.

Based on stand your ground, Trayvon Martin, too, should have had the right to defend himself against the imminent danger of death or great bodily harm he experienced. But, Martin did not have the right to stand his ground because in this new realm created by state of exception, Trayvon Martin became Homo Sacer.

Homo Sacer, Latin for “the sacred man” or “the accursed man” is a concept in ancient Roman law.  The individual imbued as Homo Sacer is devoid of the rights of citizenship and may be killed by anyone. The status of Homo Sacer is that of a criminal or fugitive. As such, Homo Sacer does not have the protection of the law and can be killed by anyone with no fear of legal retribution.  It is clear that Trayvon, from the moment he was observed by Zimmerman was considered stripped of his citizenship in the gated community to which he was legally and rightfully returning.  He was labeled by George Zimmerman as “a real suspicious guy”, “up to no good” and “on drugs or something.”

Citizenship is a status reserved for those who are deemed full members of a community or group.  All who are endowed with the status of citizenship are equal as it relates to the rights and privileges connected with that status.  Citizenship has at its core equality and enjoyment of civil rights.  Civil rights confer legal capacity to participate and to be full members in civic society.  The notion of a people of law is a prevailing requirement for civic membership.  Citizens are worthy of the protections of the law.  Sadly, Trayvon was not deemed worthy of the law’s protections.

How are individuals worthy of citizenship; how is worth determined and why was Trayvon stereotyped by George Zimmerman as Homo Sacer?  Worthiness of citizenship is determined by the consistency of ones values with those of the group.  Without even knowing anything about Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman determined that Trayvon’s values were questionable, lacking and infringed upon Trayvon’s Civil rights.  Civil rights include the right to be free from unprovoked intrusion, judgment and subjugation by the sovereign and private organizations, (i.e. Florida’s stand your ground law, George Zimmerman and the Neighborhood Watch Association).

Certainly, Trayvon should have been free to eat Skittles, drink Arizona Iced Tea and talk on his cell phone on his way home from the store.  He never made it home; he was not free to do so.  George Zimmerman and the State of Florida, through its stand your ground law violated Trayvon Martin’s Civil Rights.

To Blacks: Keep off the sidewalk!

sidewalkIn the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of the unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, Robert Zimmerman Jr. in a post-verdict interview said Trayvon Martin was “… armed with a sidewalk.”  Really?

Sidewalks according to Robert Zimmerman Jr. are weapons.  I thought they were paved walkways along streets for walking on.  I imagine Trayvon was walking on a sidewalk before George Zimmerman got out of his car and began to follow him.  By that logic then, anytime a black person is on a sidewalk, they are to be considered armed and by extension dangerous.

It is a sad day in America when blacks are not able to walk on sidewalks without being profiled, criminalized and killed!

If not death then what will inspire blacks to abandon belief in post racial ideology? The Case of Trayvon Martin

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin jury verdict that declared George Zimmerman, not guilty for taking the life of the unarmed black teen, it is my hope that blacks are rethinking whether America is post-racial, coming to the conclusion that she is not and abandoning their embrace of this false ideology. The election of Barack Obama to the U.S. Presidency in 2008 for many blacks, young and old alike signaled a break from America’s founding blemish. If a black man could make it to the White House, surely America must have transcended race; America must be post-racial.

If so, this meant blacks had no more excuses for not succeeding. No more excuses has become the black post-racial mantra the implications of which have been detrimental for blacks in general and deadly in the case of Trayvon Martin, specifically.

Post-racialism dismisses the net effect of more than 250 years of black slavery, 100 years of state sanctioned and Jim Crow racism and the persistent, insidious current day structural racism as reasons for the status of blacks. Instead, post-racialism speculates, racism has just been a pretext blacks use to explain their group’s socioeconomic status relative to whites and other minorities. After post-racialism convinces blacks to believe that racism is not the reason for their deficits, it encourages them to believe that their resulting situation is really their own fault, the result of their irresponsibility.

Confession of post-racialism is widespread among blacks, reaching fever pitch with the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008 about which Will Smith exuded:

“The history of African Americans is such that you want to be a part of America, but we’ve been rejected so much it’s hard to take the ownership and take responsibility for ourselves and this country. It was like, at that second, at that moment, all of our excuses were gone.”

In response to a January 2009 Black Enterprise article No More Excuses, an online comment by an individual named Mary Alice read:

“Praise the Lord!!!

Now we know anything is possible (we knew all along—that is why we kept pushing day after decade after century). No more excuses. It is time for all of us to up our game. Because we can. No more excuses.”

Even President Obama embraces this narrative and frequently uses it when he addresses blacks in general and black males specifically. Using it in his commencement address at Morehouse this past May, he told these black men:

“We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. …We’ve got no time for excuses … nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured….”

And if blacks believe and openly profess these patently false things about themselves then why shouldn’t and why wouldn’t the “Zimmerman’s” of America believe and profess them too?

After all, when asked about whose fault it was that Trayvon was dead, Robert Zimmerman Jr. in his post-verdict interview with Piers Morgan proffered “…I would find… that unfortunately uh he [Trayvon] had the greater hand in his own demise which was causing by his own hand his death. That’s unfortunate but that’s the reality.” When pressed further by Morgan as to whether Robert Zimmerman Jr. believed Trayvon was responsible for his own death, he responded “Absolutely, I believe that.”

It was a bullet in the heart that killed Trayvon Martin, discharged from a gun in the hand of George Zimmerman, yet, post-racialism blames Trayvon Martin for his own death. America is not post-racial and this lie is robbing blacks of their lives and their liberty. Without these, there can be no happiness. That’s the reality.

Affirmative Action

affirmative actionM. Kelly Carr, an Assistant Professor at University of Baltimore’s School of Communication Design recently wrote a piece for the Baltimore Sun entitled Supreme Court signals the end for affirmative action as we know it.  The actions by the high court continue a disturbing trend in the erosion of policies that sustain socioeconomic justice for blacks and other minorities.

Affirmative action is defined as the taking of proactive steps to ensure that minorities and women are adequately (and therefore, from a historical perspective, increasingly) represented in today’s economy.  In an alleged post-racial America, this is a controversial topic; because, the presumption is things are not as bad and they used to be.  Additionally, if a sub-section of society is given preferential treatment then certainly it introduces biases into that system.

Affirmative action is premised on aiding a section of society to ensure an artifice—representation or to redress loss.  The Emancipation Proclamation was the original affirmative action—freedom of African Americans from slavery—following the Civil War.  The next major move for affirmative action was the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties, where Black leaders with support from White Americans, won equal rights and representations for African Americans—or so they thought.

African Americans were given a start in this country. But this did not guarantee them any freedoms as written in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Thus began the establishment of a caste system that stratified America into those that enjoyed rights (whites) and those that did not (slaves).  Even after slavery officially ended in the United States, this caste system persisted—indeed, slaves were asked to make do with a mule and an acre of land, but nothing in terms of equal rights which might serve to blur the lines of this caste system.  This is not different from the religion based caste system that still persists in some communities in India.  Caste system, whether handed down through religious text or by one race’s fiat, seeks to enforce a dictum that one group of people did not deserve to have equal rights.  This is how blacks found themselves inhabiting shanties on the outskirts of most towns.  They were also forced to flee to areas that would accommodate them for fear of backlash from their former owners.

Despite the issues of commitment to diversity and promises of inclusiveness, institutional racism is pervasive in every walk of American life—from schools to factories.  Affirmative action is the only way to restructure this caste-system that continues to be imposed on the social order in this country.  In a putative post-racial society, however, the only acceptable social remedies are those that are on their face, race neutral.

Writing in The Review of Black Political Economy, Darity and Hamilton (2012)[1] espouse the view that to redress racial economic inequalities “Bold Policies for Economic Justice” must be instituted.  These authors offer two race neutral programs that could work toward eliminating racial inequality, while simultaneously benefiting all Americans.  The first is a federal jobs guarantee and the second, child development accounts.

Sadly, the notion that the correction engendered by affirmative action specifically, or race neutral policies, generally in society that overwhelmingly appear to benefit blacks is often represented as reverse discrimination.  Racism that precipitated affirmative action served to undermine blacks based on false criteria.  Affirmative action and facially race neutral policies that seek to facilitate racial and economic justice for blacks do not wish to do that.

[1] Darity, W. and Hamilton, D. 2012. Bold Policies for Economic Justice Review of Black Political Economy, 39(1):79-85. DOI: 10.1007/s12114-011-9129-8