Colorlines recently published a 90 second video summarizing the year in race, an amazing feet given what has happened over the year. Statistical measurement define 2011, in many ways:
- 45 percent of the 131,000 homeless veterans in America are African-American
- 26 percent of African American families earn less than $15,000
- 1 in 9 African Americans live in neighborhoods where 40%+ of its residents live in poverty
- Black women earn 68 cents for every dollar earned by men; for Latinas this number is 59 centers
- 16.2 percent of African Americans are unemployed
- 17.5 percent of black males are unemployed; 41 percent of black teenagers are without a job
- 11.4 percent of Latinos are unemployed; 21.3% of Alaska Natives and 19.3% of members of Midwest indigenous communities are unemployed
- In 2011, blacks and Latino were twice as likely to face home foreclosures
- “Between January and June of 2011, the United States carried out more than 46,000 deportations of the parents of U.S.-citizen children”
Yet, meaning of this year transcends these numbers. We have seen ample intrusions of blatant racism into the public square. I recently wrote about this, arguing:
In Two-Faced Racism, Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin explore the ways in which racial performances are carried in both the frontstage (integrated and multiracial public spaces) and the backstage (those private/semi-private all-white spaces where race talk and racist ideas reveal themselves in profound ways). Their research found that the backstage offers whites a place to “perform, practice, learn, reinforce, and maintain racist views of and inclinations toward people of color. These views and inclinations play a central role in generating and maintaining the overt and covert racial discrimination that is still commonplace in major institutions of this society” (27-28).
Increasingly, however, the frontstage is replacing the backstage whereupon whites are publicly performing, learning, reinforcing and maintaining their racist views toward people of color. Evident in college students donning blackface and then putting pictures online, evident in Gene Marks, Newt Ginrich, Donald Trump and their reactionary pals lamenting the laziness of black youth, evident in the usage of the N-word, evident in white-only movie screenings and white-only swimming pools, the lines between the frontstage and the backstage are blurring before our eyes. In other words, the frontstage is now the backstage, leaving me to wonder what sorts of ideologies, stereotypes and racial talk is transpiring in backstage. Or maybe, in a “post-racial America,” widespread racism has returned (did it ever leave?) to the frontstage thereby illustrating the importance of challenging and resisting in each and every location.
From Rep. Doug Lamborn referring to President Obama as a “tar baby” and Brent Bonzell describing President Obama as “a skinny, ghetto crackhead” to Fox’s headline for President Obama’s birthday party –“Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs” and Eric Bolling “criticizing” President Obama for “chugging 40’s in IRE while tornadoes ravage MO,” there have been ample examples of the ways in which public expressions of racism have defined the 2011 political sphere. The racism and sexism directed at Michelle Obama (just one example) and the astounding types of political commercials (just one example) are also evident of the ways in which violent rhetoric has dominated the public square.
Not surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh (calling President Obama a “oreo cookie” and Michelle Obama as “uppity”), Ann Coulter (“our blacks are better than theirs”), Pat Buchannan (“Blacks bought a lot of propaganda of the liberal plantation”), amongst others, all illustrate the ways in which racist language and ideologies define the nature of political discourse during 2011. Beyond the ample instances of racism, it is important to see beyond the starling ease that racism operates within the public square to look at the ways race plays out within the deployed narratives and ideologies. Take Pat Buchannan, who reminisced for Jim Crow during 2011: “Back then, black and white lived apart, went to different schools and churches, played on different playgrounds, and went to different restaurants, bars, theaters, and soda fountains. But we shared a country and a culture. We were one nation. We were Americans.” In language and the vision for America, race defined the past year (and the years before).
The last year has also seen quite a bit of recycling. From the Moynihan Report and culture of poverty, to bootstraps ideology and efforts to blame the poor, 2011 has seen a comeback (not that these racist narratives ever went away) of these troubling ideas. Two of the most illustrative examples were Newt Gingrich and Gene Marks. Gingrich, who has made a career of race baiting (calling President Obama a “food stamp president” and one defined by a “‘Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview’”), recently offered policy prescriptions to deal with black unemployment: teach black youth the value of work. He stated:
Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working. And have nobody around them who works. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’-unless it’s illegal. What if you paid them part time in the afternoon, to sit at the clerical office and greet people when they came in? What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian. What if they were the assistant janitor, and carried a mop?
Deploying longstanding stereotypes about black laziness and criminality, all while crafting economic policy based on bootstrapism, Ginrich shows how 2011 has been so much about sampling and redeploying the racist ideologies of yesteryear. Gene Marks, whose article prompted widespread condemnation because of its paternalistic tone and acceptance of widespread stereotypes, is equally reflective of this trend.
I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.
The racism of 2011 has not been limited to the political sphere, amongst punditry and politicians, but has been visible throughout society. Evident in a teacher calling black and Latino first graders “future criminals,” Alexandra Wallace’s racist diatribe against Asians, Psychology Today’s racist article about black women, billboards charging “abortion-as-black- genocide,” and a high school coach referring to a black player as “a future welfare recipient,” racist talk and imagery has been visible throughout the year. We have seen Lowes’ refusal to run advertisements during All-American Muslim and the Right’s demonization of Nightrunner, “DC Muslim Batman of Paris.” Amid the denials and the claims that whites face ample discrimination, the level of racial animus and the level of rhetorical violence during 2011 have been revealing. The lack reflexivity and the hegemony of white privilege, with the use of the N-Word during Slut Walk, is telling about this year (see here for an apology). In fact, 2011 has seen ample instances of the N-Word within the public square, from high school girls chanting it before their game to the recent slur directed at Rihanna.
Of course, 2011 has seen the violence and the injustices of racism in policy. In the execution of Troy Davis, in the systemic deportations of undocumented mothers and fathers, in the judicial assault on ethnic studies, in the anti-immigrant policies of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Indiana, in the many instances of police brutality, the persistence of racial profiling, and the number of hate groups surpassing 1,000, this year has seen ample evidence of the fallacy of a post-racial America.
The prosecution and sentencing of, and the struggle for justice for, Kelly Williams-Bolar is emblematic of many issues surrounding race in 2011. From the criminalization of people of color and the demonization of women of color, to educational inequalities and the generation of kids behind left behind, her case teaches us much about the continued struggle for civil rights in 2nd decade of the twenty-first century. Jamilah King described the case in the following way:
Just in case you haven’t seen this story blow up on your social network this week: Kelley Williams-Bolar is headed to an Ohio jail. The mother of two was sentenced this week to 10 days in jail, three years of probation, and 80 hours of community service. Her crime? Sending her two daughters to an out-of-district school. . . .It’s an infuriating case, especially for anyone who’s even remotely familiar with educational inequity in this country. America still hasn’t made good on its half-century promise to desegregate its public schools, and academic achievement can almost always be measured by zip code.
The demonization of women of color extended into the realm of popular culture as well.
2011 was also the year of The Help, a film that recycled the hegemonic Hollywood trope of “white love” (h/t Elon James White) and racial redemption all while sanitizing the black freedom struggle. Yet, it was also a year defined by the many powerful responses to this film; these effort resisted and challenged the film’s (mis)representation of black women’s work, segregation, social justice, and countless other issues. From the Association of Black Woman Historians’ powerful statement to the many articles from black scholars – Dutchess Harris, Rebecca Wanzo, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Martha Southgate, Mark Anthony Neal, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers – many voices have challenged the narrative and representations offered by The Help, refusing to accept the cultural politics of the mainstream. Yet, 2011 has also seen the release of Pariah, a film that explores the experience of a young black lesbian struggling for acceptance within her family and society at large. Whereas The Help represents blackness as accessory, as the help, Pariah reminds audiences of the power and beauty of black identity, highlighting heterogeneity, diversity, and humanity.
2011 has seen ample moments of resistance, a refusal to accept and tolerate racism, sexism, and homophobia. It has been a year of “speaking truth to power” and refusing the dominant narrative. Following the airing of ABC’s 20/20 special entitled “Children of the Plains,” a group of Native American students from South Dakota produced their own video that refused the images and messages offered in the show: “I know what you probably think of us…we saw the special too. Maybe you saw a picture, or read an article. But we want you to know, we’re more than that…we have so much more than poverty.” Then there were the students from Ohio University, who launched the “We are a culture not a costume” campaign to protest the racist stereotypes and racist images so prominent during Halloween. Youth in California and Alabama fought vigorously to change the tide against anti-immigrant racism. Hotel workers in New York protested Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the victimization of Nafissatou Diallo. And so much more.
The power of new media as a space of resistance has been on full-display, whether the consciousness raising happening on twitter and Facebook, or the ways in which Jay Smooth, Jasiri X, Issa Rae, Amie Breeze Harper, Ariana Proehl. Scholars like Alondra Nelson, Koritha Mitchell, Nicole Fleetwood, Danielle McGwire, Kellie Jones, Evie Shockey, and Manning Marable (who we lost this year) have also published important works that advance the study of race, gender, and sexuality in both history and our current moment. In the face of erasure, dehumanization, and persistent inequalities, scholars and artists (see Lisa Thompson’s discussion of black women in theater), activists and organizers, and people from community big and small have met the racism and injustice with force. There has been so much to challenge in 2011 yet the many instances of injustice have not killed our “freedom dreams.” While these dreams will be deferred until 2012, the struggle will continue.