While partly a snarky reaction to a book that invariably will deliver all-too familiar themes, it was equally a comment on the continuity of American racial ideologies across multiple generations, and multiple centuries.
Amy Chua and her antiquated ideologies are back.
The author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which celebrated the superiority of Chinese American parenting styles, is set to publish a follow-up book in February. Co-authored with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America appears to be more of the same, expanding her cultural determinist argument, which imagined Chinese parenting as both superior and a pathway to inevitable success, to now include seven more groups (Jewish, Indian, Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese-Americans, Nigerian, Cuban exiles, and Mormons), whose success is attributable to their possessing the requisite values and cultural attributes. The selected groups, all of whom are immigrant groups, the selective grouping (only Cuban exiles; Lebanese-American but Nigerians), the lack of intersectional analysis, not too mention the dehistoricizing, reveals a flawed premise at its face.
As reported in the Post, Chua and Rubenfeld argue that “success” is attributable to three distinct cultural traits: superiority complex, inferiority complex, and impulse control. Simply put, Chua and Rubenfeld seem to argue that a sense of superiority — confidence, purpose, and a belief in excellence — alongside a sense of inferiority — humility, modesty, and determination — are two essential ingredients to success. For the sake of brevity, and my focus on historic continuity between Chua and a larger history of scientific racism, it is important to reflect on their understanding of “impulse control” and how it fits within a larger history of white supremacy, notions of civilization, and arguments about fitness, self-control, and self-governance. “As we’ll use the term,” write Chua and Rubenfeld, “impulse control refers to the ability to resist temptation, especially the temptation to give up in the face of hardship or quit instead of persevering at a difficult task.”
This argument is not new. Central to white supremacist discourses and practices, from the representations of minstrelsy and Jim Crow, to Native American bordering schools and contemporary mascots, is the idea that “racial others have impulses that demand a civilizing force in order to rein them in.” The inability to exert control over the “impulses” of racial others has also been cited throughout history as evidence of inferiority, reason for inequality, and the justification of state violence. For example, Anglos rationalized the conquest of California by citing the “lack of self-discipline” and “cultural backwardness” of the Californios. In their minds, Mexicans were “indolent people, whose backwardness reflected their having poor personal habits and collective deficiencies such as laziness or a penchant for extravagances.”
Irrespective of intent, The Triple Package builds on a long history of American racism, faux science, and racial discourses that have sought to normalize and naturalize inequalities. It’s a remix of Herbert Spencer, Charles Davenport, The Bell Curve, and countless other theories that have normalized white supremacy and socially produced injustices. Whereas past theories focused on biological differences that located the physical, psychological, and cultural differences within inheritable traits, Chua and Rubenfeld explain away differences and inequalities, arguing that individual values and cultural traits push certain groups to the top of “success mountain” and others into the pits of failure.
The book’s argument recycles longstanding arguments that governed systems of slavery, imperialism, and colonization. On the eve of the Spanish-American War, Alfred Mahan described Asia as “rich in possibilities,” but seemingly in waste because of “negligence and incompetence of its inhabitants.” The irony of Chua and Rubenfeld identifying Chinese or Indians as having the requisite cultural values, given this history, should give us pause. The cultural deficiencies and the lack of “political fitness” meant that the land and resources were underdeveloped and therefore no one had “natural right to land.” As with the indigenous communities, the lack of development within in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippines, and throughout Asia necessitated action and intervention. “Will anyone seriously content that the North American continent should have been left forever in the hands of tribes,” Mahan asked, in justifying U.S. expansion overseas as part of a history of the civilized, anointed by God, conquering “savages who waste land and resources.” Success and failure, civilization and the lack thereof, were tied to culture.
My Life in the Classroom, Where Race Always Matters
By David J. Leonard
May 20, 2014
When you walk into a classroom, what’s your demeanor? Are you approachable, even casual? Or do you favor authority and formality?
Ever since Katrina Gulliver, a professor at University of New South Wales, lamented a “culture of familiarity” in the lecture hall, I’ve been reading professors’ reflections on these questions. Reflections from professors like Will Miller, who pushed back against Gulliver: “I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in,” he wrote, “and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. That’s not my goal, however.”
I’m a casual dresser, too, but that’s not what struck me about Miller’s essay. What stood out was this line: I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom.
There’s a lot to digest here. But let me start with this: I am a white male, and that has everything to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom, why I am respected, and how I’m read by students and others. That is my story, and the story of my career within academe.
Berkeley: Summer 1998
I still remember the excitement I felt when I taught my first class solo. No discussion sections, no grading demands from other professors: This was my syllabus, my approach, my opportunity to develop relationships with students. The course covered the civil-rights movement, and I was thrilled by the opportunity to share my passion for the untold stories of the movement.
As a white, male graduate student, I worried: Would my knowledge and academic background be enough to make students respect me as an authority on civil-rights history? But back then, I figured that my extensive reading list and my preparation were enough. Beyond that initial burst of anxiety, I gave little thought to what my whiteness meant inside the classroom.
About halfway through the class, we prepared to watch Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls, a powerful documentary that chronicles the trauma and terror of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. Wanting the students to sit with the film, to reflect, and to emotionally connect with it, I encouraged them to bypass the standard practice of detached, academic note-taking. “Sit back,” I said, “and enjoy the film.”
Looking back, I cannot believe I said these words. But I’m not entirely surprised: My privilege needed to be checked. In my mind, I was simply reminding them to watch, listen, learn, and feel. Yet that’s not what came out of my mouth. What I said seemed like an attempt to turn a film about terror into a moment of pleasure and enjoyment.
A few weeks later, two African-American students approached me separately. They each challenged me to think about what I had said, why it was significant, and how my whiteness mattered. They were right. I was blinded by privilege and the belief that “it’s all about the material,” not even questioning how I presented that material. My distance from the history shaped how I talked about the civil-rights movements and white-supremacist violence. When I reached into my pedagogical toolbox, steeped in whiteness and my middle-class Los Angeles upbringing, I grabbed hold of “enjoy the film” with little forethought about how such an insensitive phrase might trigger emotions and anger. It was the first of many lessons on how race always matters in the classroom.
Berkeley: Spring 2002
As I approached the completion of my Ph.D., I was afforded the opportunity to teach an upper-level undergraduate ethnic-studies class with over 200 students. It was daunting. Between wrangling eight teaching assistants (many of whom were my friends), and lecturing to all those undergrads, I was apprehensive—if not scared—for much of the semester.
Over the years, I have been asked over and over again: Did the students—either the legendarily political Berkeley crew or the less-progressive students who just were taking the course for a general-education requirement—ever challenge me, question why I was teaching the class, or simply resist my pedagogical approach? Never. Happened. Even though I lectured about genocide, enslavement, mass incarceration, and persistent white supremacy, students offered little resistance.
This all changed, though, when a fellow graduate student—an African-American man—delivered a couple of guest lectures about the prison-industrial complex. After two mind-blowing and brilliant talks, I was excited to continue the conversation with the class. My students? Not so much. They lamented the guest lecturer’s “attitude.” They described him as “angry,” as “biased” and “sarcastic,” and as “different from me.” Several students seemed more interested in litigating his pedagogical choices than discussing the injustices of the American judicial system.
We (I’m indebted to one of my TA’s for her work here) refused to hold this conversation in his absence, so we brought him back into the classroom. And we pushed the class to reflect on why I was seen as an objective, fair-minded, truth-telling, and lovable “teddy bear,” whereas he was angry, biased, and more interested in a political agenda than the truths of history. The conversations that resulted from these interventions were powerful, spotlighting that race, racism, and privilege didn’t just operate outside the classroom, in history and in culture. They played a role within our learning space as well.
The wages of whiteness were paid inside and outside the classroom. I was seen as an objective authority, I realized, in part because I was a white male.
Food matters – it mattes because it is the sustenance of life; it matters because it a source of pleasure, and nostalgia, a building block of identity, family, and community; it matters because of obesity and starvation, food insecurity, because it is central to global economies – it is a source of profits and profits for some, and despair and anguish for others; it matters because it is local and global. It also matters because it represents a window into broader themes and social realities, to systemic inequalities and persistent violence. With Black, White, and Green Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy, Alison Hope Alkon makes this clear, illustrating the material and symbolic importance of food. Examining two farmer’s markets in the Bay Area (North Berkeley and West Oakland), Dr. Alkon demonstrates the many ways that race, class, and inequality operate in these spaces, demonstrating how each embodies an distinct intervention against the environmental status quo; they are overlapping poles of a broader food movement.
According to book’s description, “Farmers markets are much more than places to buy produce. According to advocates for sustainable food systems, they are also places to “vote with your fork” for environmental protection, vibrant communities, and strong local economies. Farmers markets have become essential to the movement for food-system reform and are a shining example of a growing green economy where consumers can shop their way to social change.” Situating farmer’s markets in a broader history of the “slow food movement,” Berkeley People’s Park, the Black Panther Party, and countless others challenges to our corporate food hegemony, Dr. Alkon pushes the conversation beyond food as nourishment, and markets as places of commerce to emphasize the ways that these public spaces function in terms of identity, resistance, community, and struggles for change.
Focusing on farmer’s markets as a “cornerstone of food activism,” Dr. Alkon brings to life two spaces that work to challenge everything from food deserts and constrained food choices, to GMOs and the corporate takeover of contemporary foodways. Like other movements, social location and identity impact the goals, methods, and framing mechanism used to galvanize support for the markets and the broader movement of food activism. Racism and differential levels of privilege are visible in these spaces.
The power of the book rests with its ethnographic intervention, with its documentation and how food matters, and its elucidation of food activism; it equally emanates for its willingness to explore and expose the endless contradictions within the food movement. “This contradiction – between farmers markets’ broad, radical aims and individually oriented economic strategies” is at the core of the book. Yet, in focusing on race and class, in examining inequities, Dr. Alkon further reveals the contradictions evidence in those who privilege sustainability and the environment over justice and people.
There is so much richness within this book, as it reveals the ways that “hipster racism” operates alongside of systemic racism; it spotlights the entrenched yet invisible (to some) privileges even among the most progressive people. Dr. Alkon summarizes the markets and the people who inhabit in a profound way:
Many participants envision the North Berkeley Farmer’s Market as a way to improve both environmental and social conditions through green economic exchange. However, environmental themes are prioritized and are thickly interwoven with the farmer’s markets institutional policies…. In West Oakland, the reverse is true. Issues of social and more specifically racial are most prominent, as the West Oakland represents an environmental justice approach to the politics of food. Environmental sustainability underlies the market’s work – the creation of a local organic alternative food system – but is discussed only occasionally (75-76).
Food matters . . . it masks and reveals the persistent inequalities, the contradictions, and the different levels of power and privilege; Dr. Alkon makes this clear over and over again, providing a language for thinking about how foodways and food activism offers spaces of change yet also has workers to maintain the very systems that are supposedly being challenged in a myriad of ways. An important work!
A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Bryant Terry (this was before the publication of his most recentbook Afro-Vegan). The interview was never published. As I read Black, White and Green, I thought it was important to return to this interview, to digest the important analysis and profound insights that Terry delivered in the interview. Each spotlights the importance of not only talking about and understanding food, but food as change, as power, privilege, identity, and both a window into a shade concealing persistent inequalities in American
A couple years ago, my friend and colleague Lisa Guerrero bought me Bryant Terry’s cookbook, Vegan Soul Kitchen. Living in a SMALL town, Lisa searched high and low to secure a copy for my birthday, a fact that not only illustrates the kind of a person Lisa is and what a great friend I have, but the power of Bryant Terry’s work. Having now had the opportunity to engage with Bryant on Twitter/Facebook, to learn from him by way of his web show, to read about his newest book, and understand his work as part of longer tradition of activism and social justice work, it is clear that he offers not only food the feeds the body but knowledge that feeds the mind. Terry, a chef, an author, and an activist, teaches the world not only how to cook and do so in a healthy way, but to do so in a way that reflects and reaffirms important values. Like his food, this interview is simply delicious
David Leonard (DJL): Talk to us about your new book
Bryant Terry (BT): The new book – The Inspired Vegan – is a snap shot of where I was at as I was writing it. I thought a lot about my daughter, what type of book I wanted to write, that 40 years from now she would get a sense of the person that I am, what my values are, who my heroes and sheroes are; it is a snap shot of the food justice movement that I am so active in.
I realized that people have a low food IQ. People are so disconnected from growing and cooking wholesome fresh food. So giving people basic skills to prepare a home cooked meal is important. I wanted to give them basic tips and tools so they can make fresh meals for themselves and their families. I also wanted to empower people to put together entire meals devoid of animal of products. One of the critiques of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks is that it is often a bunch of side dishes. People don’t know how to move from a diet where meat is at the center of the plate to a plant-based diet. I wanted to show people that you can have meals that are vegan and also sumptuous and complex, and most importantly delicious.
DJL: You also have a new web show; is the show an extension of your book?
BT: My books are an extension of my politics. I started this work as an activist in New York City. I founded this project called Be Healthy, politicizing young people, understanding that if this food justice movement is going to be successful young people must be at the forefront. The last thing these kids wanted to do was come in for a lecture on structural inequality and food insecurity, especially because in additional to lacking access to wholesome food, they also came from neighborhoods with horrible schools and race issues. One of the creative ways to engage young people was to teach them how to select fresh foods, how to prepare it, which is so important because if they help prepare it they are more likely to try and become accustomed to other types of food. My cookbooks are an extension of this work. I wanted to use the same approach on a national scale. The show is a similar concept, using popular culture to shift people’s hearts and minds.
DJL: What are your goals beyond your work?
BT: My goal is not to convert people to be vegans. While I don’t consume any animal products, I don’t even describe myself as a vegan. I do that very intentionally because I know that for many of the communities I am trying to reach, the term vegan brings up certain images, ideas, and triggers. I want to avoid that.
I also want to avoid the latest fads to seek out remedies. There is no one-size-fits all diets. I really encourage people rather than choosing the label, to think about what your body needs. Rather than just choosing a diet, think about cultural food ways; think about ethics, values, politics, what kind of world do I want to see, what sort of environment do I want leave for my children, how do I want to see animals treated – these are the questions that should guide our food choices rather than a label
DJL: What advice would you give parents about teaching food lessons to their kids?
BT: While I only have 9 months of experiences as a parent, one of the most important lessons I would convey is modeling. You can talk about eating well, but need to model healthy eating habits. Simple things: eating mindfully, not overeating, and taking your time while eating. The basic fundamentals of living are so important. We have to model that for our children. We want to lay down a foundation for her so that when she gets out into the world she can make empowered choices to think about advertisements and peer pressures. At that point, it is about letting them to make decisions based on that knowledge.
Even before our daughter was born, my wife was very conscious of exposing her to a range of taste and flavors while in utero. Now as a child, we are constantly introducing to her to married foods. One of the foundations for our diet crafting an Afro-Asian diet that builds upon African and Asian foodways, so that she appreciates and understands her own foodways. She eats everything from mung beans, to blacked eyed peas, from bok choy to collared greens already.
DJL: How does your work challenge the ways in which healthy eating, organic, and vegan is often imagined in connection to white middle-class identities?
BT: So much of work is response to narrative that concludes that African American cuisine contributes to poor African American health. It is a simplistic way of looking at the public health crisis. It is important to understand that most of the communities with high rates of obesity, diet related illness – cancer, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension – are saturated with processed and fast foods. Focusing on soul food completely erases the issue of people over consuming fast foods, processed foods, package foods, and those high sugar, salt and fat, and low in the nutrients we need. It complete ignores the ranges of oppression and environmental stressors people are enduring that leads to stress, that might lead to overeating. People need to understand the complex reasons why African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans are dealing with these health crises. When we revisit the traditional foodways of African Americans, it is extremely healthy. Sweet potatoes, squashes, dandelion greens, collared greens. These are the types of foods my grandpa was growing and these are the foods that most of people in our communities were eating. These foods are as authentic and traditional as the comfort foods and survival foods so often associated with African American cuisine.
DJL: In recent years there has been an increased awareness and public consciousness about food deserts; what are your thoughts about this trend?
BT: I think so often the focus on food deserts leads to a focus on corporate food interventions. Every community should have a full-service market, but that is not the solution. Food security and increasing food health will come from producing economically empowered communities. We need to have solutions owned and driven by those living with these communities. Lack of access to food is one indicator of poverty. It has to be about more than food. I also think talking about food deserts erases the ways that people are already combating the lack of choices. We need to recognize there is a lot of knowledge and movements taking place and not imagining these places as deserts that need help.
DJL: We also don’t think about how the term deserts naturalizes inequality; we don’t talk about the production of deserts.
DJL: Where do you come down on the term of Soul Food?
BT: When people think about soul food, people are thinking about red velvet cake, fried chicken, and chitterlings. They are not thinking about sautéed butter beans or dandelion greens or even baked chicken; they are thinking about the heaviest, most indulgent foods. Soul food doesn’t evoke the diversity of the cuisine. I prefer to talk about African American cuisine and to think about how colonization, industrialization, and modernization have impacted our cuisine. Lets talk about that rather than pathologizing our food ways as part of this bigger racist game.
DJL: How does your work recognize the constraints on choice while giving voice, power, and agency in determining diet?
BT: It’s tricky. When we talk about these issues and only focus on personal responsibility, we don’t understand the larger picture of what’s wrong with our food system. That being said, I will be first to admit it is about personal choice; we all are responsible for how we live our lives, what we chose to consume. But when we think about the reality that people are limited by their choices. People are limited by their understanding of those choices; this complicates our discussion. Don’t tell me it is all about choice when there isn’t safe green spaces, when there isn’t food co-ops, farmer markets, or full-service supermarkets within their communities. There are corner stones that only have processed foods, cigarettes, alcohol, and if they have fresh foods they are 50% more expensive. Understanding the options that are providing in working poor neighborhoods are not there even though people want healthy food options.
In our post-Reagan, and post-Iranian Revolution moment, black and Muslim bodies have become increasingly entangled as sources of fear, nationalist narratives, and racial scapegoating. Amid the ongoing war on drugs and the war on terror, blackness and Muslimness is consistently used to mobilize consent for and support for increased state power, systemic policing, and a culture of violence. According to Vijay Prashad, “the international Muslim terrorist and the domestic black criminal stand as alibis for revanchism. Race free criminals (read white) are free from extra detection or from pious fulminations of the political class” (Prashad 2003, p. 75). Sohail Daulatzai similarly elucidates the dialectics and shared experiences in “Are we all Muslim now? Assata Shakur and the Terrordome,”
As scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Khalil Gibran Muhammad have noted, once the US state defined particular activities as “crime”, it then sought to crack down and control it. As the fears of the “black criminal” were stoked, the political will was generated in mainstream America to pass repressive laws that normalised “crime” and linked it almost exclusively to blackness, making all black people suspicious, and leading to state-sanctioned racial profiling, the creation of an urban police state, and the explosion of a massive prison archipelago that Michelle Alexander has called “the new Jim Crow”.
The “war on terror” has used the face of the “Muslim terrorist” to narrow the scope of dissent, expand state control, and prevent the creation of alternatives to exploitation and war.
Similarly in the “war on terror”, the US has named particular acts as “terrorism”, delegitimising them and generating the political will through fear to normalise the figure of the “terrorist”, making Muslim-looking people, and even Muslim countries themselves, suspects under deep suspicion in their struggles for self-determination.
As a result, the need for state security created broad “anti-terrorism” measures that expanded state power, making Muslim countries subject to invasions, sanctions, bombs, and drones, and making Muslim bodies subject to indefinite detention, torture, surveillance and targeted murder, as Muslims got marked as people who don’t have the right to have rights.
While the system of mass incarceration used the face of the “black criminal” to legitimise itself and disproportionately target black men and women, the tentacles of incarceration soon expanded to include Latinos and other poor people in its orbit.
Similarly, the “war on terror” has used the face of the “Muslim terrorist” to narrow the scope of dissent, expand state control, and prevent the creation of alternatives to exploitation and war. But while the Muslim has been the face of this, the logic of “terror” is now being used to target other countries and also black and brown communities domestically, as the fluid category of the “terrorist” continues to morph.
These entrenched narratives, racializing stereotypes, and white racial framing not only impact policy, but cultural representations, public discourse, and everyday interactions. It results in stop and frisk, and racial profiling on the streets and in airports; it contributes to daily microaggressions and flattened cultural representations. Black or brown bodies and criminal are imagined as interchangeable, Muslim and terrorist are positioned as inseparable, reflecting the entrenched nature of “post-racial” hyper racial American discourse and practice.
The connection between black and Muslim subject is not limited to white supremacist discourse, state violence, and shared racialization, but is equally evident in the “political and cultural history of Black Islam, Black radicalism, and the Muslim Third World.” Herein lies the focus of Sohail Daulatzai’s Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America (University of Minnesota Press 2012), a very important work that pushes readers to look at resistance, to look at a history of radicalism, and examine Diasporic challenges to white supremacy.
Black Star, Crescent Mood decenters whiteness and antiblack racism, spotlighting the shared histories and interconnections beyond policing and state violence in the everyday resistance and the ongoing struggle for justice. Challenging the conventional narratives surrounding the black freedom struggle, that centers nonviolence, the South, Christianity, and civil rights, Dr. Daulatzai centers everyday resistance, the black radical imagination, the Muslim International in an exploration of artists, activists, intellectualist, and change agents.
Black Star, Crescent Moon begins its discussion of the Muslim International subject, black internationalism, and the “Afro-Diasporic imagination” (xxxiii) with Malcolm X. Given Malcolm’s position within the Nation of Islam, given his internationalist politics, and given his symbolic meaning into present-day discourses, it is no surprise that Malcolm anchors this work. “In mapping Third World solidarity against white supremacy onto the racial terrain of the United States and arguing that the man who colonized Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Congo, and Kenya is the ‘same man’ who is in Georgia, Michigan, California, and New York, Malcolm radically challenged the sacred narrative of American exceptionalism” (29). Reflecting on the dialectics between Malcolm’s faith, his transnationalist politics, and Black Islam Dr. Daulatzai narrates a history whereupon Malcolm expanded the political imagination, foregrounding alternative freedom dreams and new methods and approaches to turning those dreams into reality.
Black Star, Crescent Moon builds upon its discussion of Malcolm to highlight the ways the Muslim International and transnational black politics are equally visible with respect to the Battle of Algiers (which would be highly influential to the activists and black cinematic imagination), Sam Greenlee’s The Spook who Sat by the Door and Baghdad Blues, and Frantz’s Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Mask all of which furthered the message of a black radical politics anchored in internationalism, decolonization, and an imagined (and real) community based in Afro-Asian (Afro-Muslim) solidarity. “Black cultural activists in the Civil Rights and Black Power era positioned themselves, their art, and their politics in relation to the anticolonial and anti-imperialist movements taking place in Asia, Africa and Latin America, writes Dr. Daulatzai. “The Cold War inaugurated a new phase in American power that simultaneously sought to contain both the anticolonial impulses emanating from the Third World and a burgeoning Civil Rights and Black Power movement domestically” (69). The power of this work rests not just with its detailed textual analysis, its examination of aesthetics, and the Diasporic context, buts its emphasis on geo-politics and the responsive utterances from black radicalism.
Black Star, Crescent Moon ends with discussions of both Muhammad Ali and hip-hop, making clear how each has used, deployed, and been influenced by the intersections of blackness, Islam, and transnational radical politics. “In reinvigorating and reshaping the already vibrant space of the Muslim International, these artists and activists force and compel the Muslim international to be a broad and inclusive space that understand the overlapping histories and interconnected struggles that not only have shaped the modern world” Their work “also shape the conscience of the Muslim International as a site for radical justice and equality” (196). Like Malcolm and the Battle of Algiers, Ali and Greenlee, Immortal Technique and Jasiri X, Black Star, Crescent Moon and Sohail Daulatzai expands our radical imagination, indexing transnational dreams and pathways to freedom, justice, and social transformation. Powerful and inspiring, this work reshapes our understanding of social movements and the ongoing struggle for black freedom.
In what ways is black internationalism not inherently radical? What sorts of examples demonstrate the liberal or conservative use of black internationalism?
How and why is Black Islam seen as a threat to post-civil rights state formation?
What are the connections between culture wars, “Islamic terrorist” and “black criminal”? How do they exist at a crossroads?
What is the significance of the connection between Killer of Sheep (and the LA Rebellion) and Battle of Algiers?
How did technological shifts impact the black radical imagination and the Muslim International?
How do we account for antiblack racism within Asia and the Middle East given these histories?
Why is the Caribbean and Latin America (or is it) not as prominent within these Diasporic and transnationalist black radical formations
How does India.Arie “ghetto” fit within this discussion?
Contemporary racial discourses are defuse and far-reaching; yet, within the fast-pace news media cycle, and a mainstream media more invested in the sensational and the spectacle, rarely do these conversations move beyond talking points, buzz words, and bumper stickers. This aptly describes the nature of racial discourse emanating from mainstream media and political discourses. While evidence in a myriad of issues, mainstream coverage of social movements, marriage equality, gentrification, and crime is most certainly emblematic of a flattening and flattened discussions of these crucial issues facing the nation.
Dr. Christina Hanhardt, associate professor of American Studies at University Maryland, steps into this historical vacuum, offering readers an important book on “how LGBT calls for ‘safe space’ have been shaped by broader public safety initiatives that have sought solutions in policing and privatization and have had devastating effects along race and class line.” Offering insight into the histories of urban development and neoliberalism, into social movements and GLBT civil rights activism, into race relations – conflicts and alliances –, and into discourses and policies around crime, Dr. Hanhardt not only chronicles several important chapters in urban history but also offers a framework for dialectical and intersectional discussions. To talk about and understand gentrification requires understanding the racial history of redevelopment, which requires understanding the white supremacist imagination with respect to crime; all of this helps us understand discourses around policing and state violence, from anti-sodomy laws to stop-and-frisk; in the end (or the beginning), this complicates our discussions of the history of anti-GLBTQ state violence and the experiences of communities of color. Amassing “extensive archival and ethnographic research in New York City and San Francisco,” Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence is a powerful text on so many levels.
In recent years, there have been many discussions of relations between (white) GLBTQ communities and the black community. Much of contemporary media discourse and reporting continues to focus on black homophobia, seemingly arguing that black homophobia is an obstacle to not only political power and equality (cue various reports about Proposition 8 and the limited coverage of black activists working for marriage equality in New York or Maryland) but to progress (p. 13). Dr. Hanhardt offers some historic perspective, making me wonder why the conversation always focuses on “blacks turning their back on fight for marriage equality” and not on how the focus on crime and safety from GLBT activist groups was a far more deleterious betrayal. Dr. Hanhardt pushes the discussion beyond the claims of heightened black homophobia to reflect on how blackness is imagined in connection to GLBT communities. Framed as an obstacle, and a source of pathology, mainstream discourse frames blackness as a pollutant compared to the integration of GLBTQ communities into neighborhoods as a source of maturation and growth. Whether through narratives of homophobia, opposition to redevelopment, or crime, Dr. Hanhardt highlights the many ways that blackness is imagined as an impediment to progress and urban renewal in a cultural, economic, and political sense.
The issue of visibility is also a prominent theme within Safe Space. Here, Dr. Hanhardt argues that visibility has been central to LGBTQ activism, especially in a post civil rights context. Movements have consistently argued that visibility of GLBTQ communities, or the legibility of queerness, correlates with levels of violence. In other words, visibility leads to increased danger. At another level, Dr. Hanhardt argues that mainstream GLBTQ civil rights groups have also seen visibility is also a source of power, security, and safety – that visibility and awareness of hate crimes results in attention, political mobilization, and police attention. “Decades of activism produced innumerable organizations and agencies to deal with ‘homophobia – whether expressed by police misconduct, antigay violence, or even unneighborly hostility,” writes Hanhardt. “Laws against private, consensual sodomy were eliminated as a general criminal category, and LGBT activists largely succeeded in dissociating the generic terms of homosexuality – and to a lesser degree, transexuality – from the broad category of criminal” (p. 5).
Safe Space brilliantly and importantly illustrates the ways that these narratives and frames privilege whiteness and middle-class identities (as well as those experiences of gay men). The presumption of safety resulting from invisibility works from particular assumptions about safety and the possibility of invisibility – Dr. Hanhardt persuasively documents how this focus on visibility erases transgender communities, communities of color, and lesbian and bisexual communities that neither benefit from the associated respectability nor the gender/race/sexuality/class privileges. Likewise, the argument that visibility of violence will compel action presumes that all members of the GLBTQ communities and all neighborhoods are afforded equal levels of humanity and care. The illegibility of pain and innocence for certain communities highlights the limitations of this approach.
Dr. Hanhardt not only documents these discursive articulations but how these racial, class, and gender lenses shape the “understandings of the roots of, and remedy for, misogynist, racist and anti-LGBT violence” (158). The racialized and gendered understandings contribute to certain remedies and activists agenda that ultimately replicate inequality and state violence engendered throughout contemporary America.
The focus on ideology and activist framing extends beyond a discussed of the deployed rhetoric embraced by mainstream GLBT civil rights groups but is evident in the embrace of hegemonic understandings of safety, neighborhood, community, quality of life, and crime. In this context, Dr. Hanhardt highlights the consequences of the focus on violence (indexed through black bodies, through the conflation of street crime and antigay violence – the “bashers and the criminals” ) in terms of policy and activist initiatives that have privileged protected “gay neighborhoods” (p. 225) and heightened police activity. These choices, and political maneuvers not only shape the activities initiated by these groups (which issues; where) but also elicit consent for state and neoliberal activities that run counter to the needs of communities of color, the poor, and youth (and this includes GLBTQ communities of color). “The establishment of protected gay territories and the identification of anti-LGBT violence as a designated criminal category – must be paired with two of global capital’s own ‘spatial fixes’: gentrification and mass imprisonment” (14).
While much of the book reflects on the ways that GLBT civil rights activism colludes with the projects of transnational capitalism and its racial/gender/class logics, Safe Space is equally invested in spotlighting spaces and movements of contestations. Offering ample examples of GLBT organizations that sought to challenge the mainstream rhetoric and policy initiatives, Dr. Hanhardt speaks to the contested spaces. Here, Dr. Hanhardt’s powerful discussion and her analysis FIERCE reminds me of the work of Critical Resistance and how demands for complicated and intersectional discussions of safety and security have been central to activists movements in recent years:
Just as Critical Resistance advanced an abolitionist agenda, one that sought to connect poverty to ubiquity of environmental toxics to criminalization to mass incarceration to housing and educational inequalities, groups like FIERCE linked gentrification to mass incarceration to police brutality to stop and frisk to antigay violence.
Safe Space advances these important conversations in powerful ways, offering theoretical frameworks, historic context, critical interventions, and the language for not only reflecting on these movements and the deployed rhetoric but also enacting research in the name of freedom dreams. Dr. Hanhardt “asserts that mainstream and LGBT discourse has substantially transformed the category of anti-LGBT from the social to the criminological, and that this shift was grounded in privatized claims in neighborhood, the process was neither foretold nor total” (9) – this history continues to be written and the future continues to be contested. With Safe Space, Dr. Christina Hanhardt reveals the level of debate and struggle, providing readers with the necessary historic insight, theoretical templates, and tools to best understand these dynamic movements of change all while empowering in the persistent march toward equity and empowerment – safety – across communities and boundaries, from Islan Nettles to Matthew Sheppard.
With back-to-back nights of national championship games, with Mark Emmert and others denouncing player unionization, and with the NCAA propaganda wing – ESPN – continuing to paint a rosy picture of college sports, thought it would be instructive to return to this piece. This is part of a piece that was published after the conclusion of Bowl season at Mark Anthony Neal’s site, New Black Man. That piece also includes more discussion of football. Read here and then read there
Although a longstanding concept, one that ultimately constrains agency and power resulting in a system of exploitation and abuse, the history of the student-athlete parallels the increased financial power of collegiate sports. With each television contract, with 7-figure coaching salaries, and a corporate partners ranging from CBS to the U.S. military, the NCAA needs the “student-athlete” mythology more than ever.
The mythology surrounding student athletes creates a system where student-athletes have no power regarding their future. From the fact that scholarships are renewable each year to the inability of students to take their talents to another university, the lack of protections resulting from the amateur myth creates a system devoid of freedom.
For example, shortly after the hall-of-fame coach Larry Brown arrived on campus at SMU, he told several players that their services were no longer needed; in other words, he kicked them off the team. Can you imagine if a university hired a new department chair, and the first order of business was to tell several teaching assistants their services were no longer needed? That is what Brown told several student-athletes, although each would be allowed to remain at the school on scholarship. Despite the public pronouncements regarding the importance of academics, about student-athletes, the dismissal of these players is yet another reminder of what counts: athletics performance and wins/losses.
Jeremiah Samarrippas, the Mustangs starting point guard was one of those dismissed from the team, telling the “school’s student newspaper that Brown basically told him that he “wasn’t good enough to play for him.’” The callousness of a system that has turned student-athletes into athletic commodities is nothing new, in part resulting from a NCAA rule change in the 1970s that made scholarships renewal each year. Regarded as little more than property, these players were tossed away with little regard for their future.
Such disregard has become commonplace, and is evident in the recent case involving a student-athlete at Florida International University. Dominique Ferguson decided that FIU was not the place for him. Like other students, athletes and otherwise, he realized that FIU was not the best fit for him academically and personally. “I wanted to go to a school close to my family in the Midwest. I went to Hargrave [Military Academy in Virginia] my senior year in high school and came straight here and had seen my family only a handful of times. It was hard on me and affected how I played,” Fergusson told ESPN.com.
Unfortunately, his request was denied first by the athletic department and then by a “3-person academic board,” who paternalistically and arrogantly sent the following email: “After considering your email appealing the decision of the Athletic Department to refuse to grant you permission to speak to and transfer to another institution, and after listening to you during the appeal hearing, the appeal panel affirms the Athletic Department and denies your appeal. We believe it is in your best interest to continue your studies here at FIU. We would particularly encourage you to apply yourself to your courses for the rest of the semester.”
According to Fergusson, his experiences at FIU was a stark reminder of what Dave Zirin describes as collegiate sports’ “sham-amateurism:” “It was like I was held hostage,” Ferguson said. “They made me feel like I could never leave here.” While coaches, fans, and administrators often balk at any invoking of the phrase slavery to describe collegiate sports, situations like Fergusson’s make it hard not to make connections with the history of servitude. As noted by Taylor Branch, in The Shame of Sports, “Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”
The experiences of Fergusson are emblematic of the cartel model embraced within collegiate athletics. The power of the NCAA and their respective members is able to restrict the movement and opportunities available to student-athletes. Isn’t this by definition a cartel? Unable to transfer to a school that met his academic needs and his desires to be close to home, Fergusson has decided to enter the NBA draft, one of the few paths available to him in his search for freedom.
The myth of amateurism fuels the exploitative relationship and the lack of compensation. Student athletes are required to spend their wages at the “company store.” Akin to sharecroppers who not only worked the land for virtually no compensation, but what little compensation they received had to be spent at the company store (usually owned by the land owner). From food to tools, sharecroppers were forced to use their wages at these stores, often leading to debt and additional subservience.
Collegiate athletics is similar to sharecropping in that student-athletes must use their wage to pay for tuition, books, and room and board within the campus community. According to McCormick and McCormick, “By this last arrangement, then, these athletes, unlike any other working people, are not free to spend their limited wages where they choose, but must spend them on college tuition, books, and other institutionally related expenses, regardless of their real needs or those of their families.” The tuition provided to student-athletes in compensation of blood, sweat, and tears, is losing its value each and every year. Beyond abysmal graduate rates and the funneling of student-athletes into “jock majors,” student-athletes are paid in a wage that is losing its value.
Sports, particularly basketball and football, and its athletes generate millions for the NCAA, its representative schools, coaches, and a number of corporate partners. It is a billion dollar industry. Yet, the wages paid are dubious at best and the value of that compensation is in steady decline. This becomes even more striking as we focus our attention on the disproportionate number of African American student-athletes within revenue sports.
The level of exploitation is certainly aggravated by the amounts of money generated by these athletes within these sports. Worse, yet given the continued significance of race, the level of compensation provided to black “student-athletes” is that much worse. The unemployment rate for black college graduates over 25 is almost twice the national average for blacks compared to whites (8.4 versus 4.4). Studies have also shown that blacks are 50% less likely to receive a call-back from a potential employer; that whiteness is worth 8-years of job experience; that a white job candidate with a felony conviction is more likely to secure a job than black men without any criminal record, and we can see the fools gold that is collegiate athletics.
Imagined as amateurs, denied the rights as workers, and constructed through America’s racial fabric, today’s student-athletes, especially those with America’s revenue sports, are not only denied rights as laborers but also are denied the basic social contract. A lawsuit brought by former athletes, most notably Ed O’Bannon of UCLA, offers a case and point. The athletes filed suit against the NCAA, arguing rightly that they did not consent to having their likenesses used in popular and profitable video games, nor did they share in profits generated by them.
We noted above some of the ways the slavery analogy applies to college athletics, it might be good to remind ourselves of the two complimentary systems consuming black bodies that satisfies the drives and desires of white America today, a nation in which those with power and privilege deny of the ongoing and systematic significance of race and power. On the one hand, the criminal justice system secures inequality and injustice through race-based policing and incarceration assuages the manufactured fears of white America; on the other hand, the sport-entertainment complex feeds its dreams of “one shining moment” and momentary intoxications during bowl season and March madness by capturing and controlling those supposedly free blacks, hiding their bondage under cover of academics and amateurism.
The most prestigious and profitable college sports programs in the country are all historically white institutions, some which resisted for decades efforts to integrate them, and which continue to remain overwhelmingly white with limited outreach to or interaction with historically under-represented groups . In addition many boast embarrassing rates of minority recruitment and retention. Now, ironically, even as these ivory towers remain disproportionately white, they happily exploit those too long excluded and marginalized. Moreover, these white dominated institutions of higher learning still refuse to properly educate African Americans.