public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy

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(Shorter extract from this post if this is too long for you)

It is important to place this discussion in the context of the whole conference, so it you are new to this series, please check out the previous post. For a quick recap, I’m writing about a two-day conference on racial disparities in incarceration and education at a university in a rural area I call Farmtown. The previous post focused the first half of the first day and the ways information was brought into the group. This post focuses on the second part of the first day, which ran from 3:15 – 9pm.

Two Farmtown professors do the short version of a workshop they’ve done often before for white faculty at their institution on the ideology of white supremacy. The black social science professor goes first, and it is relevant to note that he is older, in his sixties. His title is “isms and schisms.” The point is about how demographic differences become structures of inequality. He talks about how people respond to experiences of discrimination and then asks people what they see when the imagine pictures of powerful groups (i.e. Congress, Supreme Court). We are supposed to say “white male.” I hear one of the officers next to me say something like “mostly white males with some women and a few blacks and latinos” to Congress, and for the Supreme Court says “mostly white men and a woman and a black man.” At the end of this exercise, he requires the white man to answer his “what do you see?” question, and the answer is “mostly white men.” I’m glad I’m not put on the spot like that. I learn later that the speaker always forces a white person to answer this question. I don’t know whether I got a pass because I’m female or because I’m an invited speaker or because I called disparities racism, but I’m grateful because I was thinking the same thing as the white guy was thinking – mostly but not entirely white men, I was remembering the exceptions.

The speaker then gives an example using the two white officers sitting next to me that is an extended tale about what if you (white man) were always knocked down by her (white woman) every time she saw you, what would you do? The white man says “lash out” (most don’t hear him say it) but the speaker says that you’d just lie down to avoid being knocked down, and then goes on to say that you’d teach your children to just lie down and avoid the woman and her children, and the children would do it even if they did not know why. And, he says, the woman’s children would expect the other people to lie down, but not know why they are doing it. I find these different perceptions of how people respond to oppression to be important and telling. This is not dissing the white guy, by the way, who I talked to a lot more later. But I think it is what most whites do think the most common response to oppression is, not having actually experienced it. And even as much as I teach this stuff, I am struck by the speaker’s emphasis that you lie down to avoid being knocked down, and that you can teach that to the next generation.

As I reflect in the process of writing this blog, I realize that this is the organizing principle of the conference. I had been wondering why we took time for a racism workshop in a conference with predominantly-minority attendees who presumably were already aware of racial issues or they would not have signed up for the conference. I think the answer, from the organizers’ perspective, is that they see themselves and others as having acquiesced to oppression and as needing to think about the context of oppression in viewing the problems they confront. You lie down before they knock you down.

The next speaker is a professor with a southern accent and an Anglo name whom I’d coded as white from across the room, but he makes a big point of telling us that he was adopted by whites and is an indigenous Mexican who identifies as Chicano/Latino/indigenous. (I talk to him more later about this.) He gives a very militant speech about white supremacist ideology. He says that one of the major acts of white supremacy is to take away people’s names, both their personal names and their group names and sense of identity. I remember that earlier, a Native American audience member had called out “Christian names” as an example of white supremacy in response to a question from the black professor (I can’t remember the context), a point I had enough background to understand when it was said, but is now being made a major point instead of a throw-away line. The Chicano professor speaks a lot about the mis-interpretation of Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that he said “my dream has become a nightmare” after the Watts Riot, and the thing he would probably most regret about his career was the March on Washington speech, with its colorblind rhetoric that has been used by opponents of the things King stood for, as it was the only speech in his career that criticized only blacks (telling them to be nonviolent) and not whites. He reminds us about all the stuff King said after 1963. He also quotes the statistic that 77% of whites believe that blacks are less intelligent, and asks if it is any wonder that too many white teachers have low expectations for black children and blame them for not learning.

In his talk, the Chicano professor refers to the earlier speaker, and tells of a workshop in which the Black professor had told some details of growing up in segregated Mississippi along with his knocking-down example, and having a white professor in his 30s say “Professor X, we know how racism works.” The speaker says, “The arrogance of that man. To sit there as a white man in his thirties and tell a Black man in his sixties that there is nothing he needs to learn about racial discrimination, that is white supremacist ideology.” I can only agree. As I think later about the story, I am even more amazed. Don’t get me wrong. I know a lot of white folks (even, being honest, sometimes including me) will listen to lectures on discrimination and feel like you do know it. I mean, after all, I do lecture about this stuff. BUT for a young man in his 30s to be so publicly dismissive of a speaker in his 60s is to reveal to all that he is so comfortable in his white supremacy that it does not even occur to him that he is revealing his supremacist assumptions in his very speech act. Chatting about this later, the Chicano professor tells me that “X wouldn’t let him get away with it. He just stopped, turned, glared at him and said [here his voice gets loud and stern in imitating the intonation], ‘NO YOU DON’T’.” He talks in a kind of chortling way about what the guy must have felt like, having to sit there for the rest of the day in the workshop with everyone knowing that he had been put down. I’m wondering whether the guy actually learned anything at all, or just dismissed the incident and privately reworked his sense of superiority and grievance.

During break, I chat more with the Chicano professor. He complains a bit about too little recognition of Hispanic disparities, and I talk about the data problems, and the disparities in criminal justice are generally a lot lower than for Blacks, and use the phrase “White Hispanic.” He sort of challenges me on that and asks me to define it, which I do (it is a census category), and talk about students I’ve known that have Hispanic names but not identity, then he starts on his point, and I realize it is my turn to listen. His point is that there are a lot of forces suppressing identity and forcing people into racial categories that are meaningless to them. He then tells me that, even though he has light skin and features that I would never code as Mexican, he is always recognized immediately as Chicano/Hispanic/Mexican by Hispanics/Mexicans in the US Southwest and in Mexico. And that the immigrant Chinese running the Chinese restaurant in FarmTown said to him, “You’re not white like these others, are you?” He wears a long braid with ribbons and a lot of Mexican/Indian jewelry so if I’d gotten a good look at his self-presentation, and not just his face, I might not have coded him as white, but then I might have just thought he was a white guy who likes to dress that way. I remember that the dean of my college is an American Indian who, to me, does not “look” American Indian and keeps a pretty low ethnic profile as far as haircut and dress and public statements go (except for a tribal ring that looks like a fraternity ring), although I know because I know him that his tribal membership is an important part of his identity and he is very involved with and supportive of ethnic/racial minority students and faculty generally and American Indians specifically. The assumptions I’m making as I ask myself whether the Chicano professor is “really” all that ethnic (with his white adoptive parents) are exactly the kind of suppression of other people’s culture and identity that he is challenging. Then we talk about teaching race, standpoints in teaching and we do a little bonding around that. I cover Chicano movements a bit in my course, and he kind of quizzes me about how much I know about the group it turns out he is an expert on – I know a little but it turns out not enough, and he tells me his view about reinterpreting the Mexican American generation in light of a reworked understanding of Chicano. I’m going to look up his book.

This flows into a conversation with the Chicano professor and others from U-Farmtown (including a white male dean). I say they seem to have a lot of positive stuff going on and ask whether they feel they’ve have influence and respect. They say influence but not respect. After working and agitating, they got the chancellor to agree to require an all-day racial awareness training workshop for all faculty. They feel they are doing a good job mentoring the minority students. But they think there are a lot of problems to deal with. They feel beleaguered.

Next we have an exercise in which we are assigned to groups to talk about what solutions we would advocate. The facilitators in my group are caucusing outside, so we started without them. My table is me, the male white police officer, a black woman who grew up in Birmingham and says one of her friends was killed in the church bombing (she talks at very great length about her experiences in Birmingham and her philosophy of social change activism as a consequence), a black retired state employee from SegTown whose son is a teacher who has lots of long stories about how bad the schools are, a young guy who is light enough that I thought he was white but clearly identifies as black and is a community organizer in UniTown whose suggestion is “less cops” in black neighborhoods and spend the money instead on education, two facilitators (one white, one black) who don’t talk, and one who does, the black head of diversity programs at U-Farmtown. Late in the conversation, a black ADA I know from UniTown joins us. While the facilitators are out, we got into talk about the drug war, the big money being made by non-black kingpins and money launderers, the CIA dealing drugs in VietNam, how some kids are paying electric bills and feeding their families with drug dealing because the parents are unemployed after all the factories closed.

After the facilitators get back, we talk about suggestions about improving schools, legalizing drugs (the white police office is making this suggestion). When we talk about possible solutions to disparities in incarceration, the first three speakers, all older black people, involve suggestions for improving education and families. Then the black people get into an argument about whether it is more important for black people to work on strengthening black families and communities or to challenge discriminatory systems and practices. The ADA – who I have heard be very aware and critical of discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system – argues that young people have to be taught to behave and not challenge police because assaulting an officer is a felony and will ruin their lives. A younger black man says that young people are facing discrimination and that’s why they resist. She says, “I know that. The first time I encountered the police I was 11, I was walking with my brothers who were two years older and two years younger than me. A police officer came up to us, grabbed them, and threw them on the sidewalk and handcuffed them because there had been a report of a theft in the area. We had not been doing anything, we had nothing to do with the theft. We were just walking on the sidewalk. I understand why they did not like the police. But their lives were ruined.” I’ve heard her talk on other occasions about young people who just seem to lack any moral or behavioral boundaries. She is working on the problems of discrimination in the system, but she also works on the problem of healing the kids and getting them to behave and succeed.

I reflect to myself that over and over when I do these gigs, I hear the black people talking about what they can and should do to improve black communities from within. I think to myself that this is the kind of conversation that a lot of white folks don’t think black people have. It’s not that they are unaware of or uncritical of racism. Rather, racism is the box they are living in, the “reality” they are arguing about how to cope with. I think the outrage in many black circles about Cosby and Obama’s calls for black responsibility isn’t what they said – I don’t think they said anything that isn’t said all the time in Black churches and Black gatherings – but that they said it in a “white” forum and left out reference to the structures of oppression that create the problem.

I ask about the ideology of white supremacy business which, I say, I’m on board with, I teach it, but should folks consider the political strategic question of whether to use a rhetoric that invites in white allies and acknowledges differences among whites rather than a rhetoric that tends of polarize. I ask this question because we had several big debates about tone and language when we wrote the Governor’s Commission report. The black diversity director says that first people have to be educated about racism and then they can be allies. Then the black people talk and argue some more about how to deal with white people, you know you don’t have enough numbers, you need whites, but what is the way to change things. I’m aware that a lot of white folks would not appreciate a dialog that does not overtly acknowledge differences among whites or that discursively equates whites with racists, even though they know and I know they know that whites vary. I don’t push any more on the rhetoric issue. There are other things to discuss. If we were discussing it, I would say that my concern is not my feelings or other white people’s feelings, but I have thought a lot about how you persuade people, and the importance of understanding where people are coming from and speaking to their concerns if you want to persuade them. The strategic question is whether to “force” people to change from challenge and pressure or to “persuade” them to change through a rhetoric that pulls them into the struggle. This is, of course, an ongoing tension in any social movement. But the problem of white supremacy is that it is whites who have to be persuaded or forced and this privileges white perspectives in any discussion of social policies.

Later, at dinner, the white male police officer asks me about white supremacist ideology, why did I say I was on board with that idea? I give him the 2 minute version of my “construction of the racial state” lecture, that the US government was founded as the nation of whites that was displacing the Native Americans, and quote the Immigration and Naturalization act of 1793 that restricted naturalized citizenship to “free white” persons, and tell him that my own view is that racial ideology is more a consequence of structures of inequality than a cause of it, that we are all influenced by these structures and can’t help it. That seemed reasonable to him. (There’s another older white guy at the table, too, who is paying attention to some of this.) I talk about how these structures create all these problems, that I’ve talked to African Americans about weird incidents where you don’t know if race was an issue, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but you don’t know, and the same thing as a white person, race is always looming there contaminating interactions because of the structures of inequality. I say that there are times when there is something that a person of color thinks is racial and that I’m pretty sure isn’t, and my friend the black ADA who is sitting next to me jumps in and says, “Well, but often you just get a feeling, you know,” and I say, “Well, yeah, but I’m still white and I see it the white way.” I was trying to model for the white folks at the table how I think you can operate with integrity in a multi-cultural space. I think she understood what I was saying, but maybe she did not feel heard. I don’t know. I will say here that I’ve caught myself operating from an implicit standpoint of white supremacy with her and with other people of color on multiple occasions, and I think this stuff goes really deep.

I’ll gloss over the presentation by the black school administrator from Texas. It was mostly about how they organize their majority-minority school to help kids achieve and meet state and national standards. I was thinking about his talk and the earlier one about drop outs and audience discussion and the way the No Child Left Behind standards gives schools an incentive to get rid of the kids who will score low on tests and how selection bias impacts achievement statistics.

After dinner our “working group” reconvenes and we talk about cultural differences (including the problem of blacks being perceived by whites as angry or threatening when they are not) and the problem of educating children whose parents are not able to help them at home, for whatever reason. These are issues I bring up because I’m interested in them. I also tell the diversity coordinator that it seems like they have a good program, and we talk about what they are doing. We are all worn out by the time they tell us we can go. (We are not allowed into the dorm until 9 pm.)

Next: Another overwhelming day of experiences, I’m not sure how I’m going to organize them into a blog (there will be a delay for at least a few days as I also have to get ready for ASA). Details about problems people confront, talk about solutions, an inspiring political/religious “sermon,” some reflections about interactional styles and cultural differences in how you have a conversation.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

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