Scandal in the Age of The New Jim Crow

Here’s a link to an article I wrote analyzing the TV show Scandal through the lens of Critical Race Theory and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; it was published on PopMatters. It’s based on a paper I gave at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in Seattle in March 2016: “Scandal in the Age of The New Jim Crow

Educators Lead the Way to Interdisciplinary Critical Race Theory

I just attended the 10th Annual Critical Race Studies in Education Conference (CRSEA): #ResistanceMatters: Disrupting State-Sanctioned Racialized Violence Through Education Research, Theory, and Practice. It was only a few months ago that I found out there was an organization and conference devoted to applying Critical Race Theory to an educational setting (with an emphasis on K-12). I’m so grateful to have discovered this amazing conference and organization. I’ve been studying CRT for more than 15 years; I completed an English PhD dissertation on CRT and contemporary literature and have been exploring interdisciplinary CRT work ever since. Having just presented my work at Yale’s CRT conference in April, it was great to see another CRT conference doing exciting work, this time outside of CRT’s original legal origin. (If you missed my blog on the importance of CRT, please check it out here.)

More disciplines need to follow CRSEA and apply CRT to their respective fields. This conference has clearly grown over the last ten years, and it needs to keep growing. Educators (K-12 and higher ed alike) need to become more familiar with CRT and engage with its call to identify the systemic nature of racism and take action. If everyone in a given school system did that, it would be much harder for that school to participate in the school-to-prison pipeline. I hope the introductory manual I’m currently writing, which focuses on race and systemic racism, with tools for action, could be helpful in Teacher Ed programs as well as serve as professional development for current educators who want to develop their approach to understanding racism.

Here, I would like to share some highlights from this conference and reflect on how this work continues to push me as a white educator.

One of the primary questions that kept coming up in presentations was: Who is meant to be in college and grad school and who isn’t? As a white person raised in middle-class suburban NJ by white parents who went to college and grad school, I was meant to attend college and grad school. Not only was I meant to be in the classroom, but I was also meant to be in front of the classroom. The school is a site of state-sanctioned racialized violence (physical and symbolic). If my presence at the front of the classroom affirms white supremacy, what can I do in that space to challenge white supremacy? How can I make the space liberating for my students not meant to be there? These are the kinds of questions I need to think about every day in order to be less complicit in white supremacy.

This conference organized three plenaries to center the importance of activism: Student Activism, Faculty and Scholar Activism, and Engaged Community Activism. The students were an absolute inspiration. As a faculty member, I kept thinking that we need to figure out how to support student activists more effectively, across the country. These students spoke of faculty who challenged their activism, didn’t provide support, and otherwise served as obstacles to justice. We need to address that. Then, faculty who are scholar activists (which include many if not all of the faculty at this conference) spoke passionately about the challenges they face in balancing their scholarship and activism and the very difficult challenges of the tenure and promotion process. Again, more obstacles to justice that senior faculty have at least some control and power over, so that’s another area we need to work on. And finally, grad students and faculty spoke about community activism. Throughout all of these plenaries, the people doing the most activism were still questioning whether that was enough.

During the conference, there were some recurring questions that we need to spend more time considering:

  • How can we end the school-to-prison pipeline?
  • What does resistance look like?
  • How can we create a “brave” classroom space?
  • How can we bend the arc of history toward justice?

Finally, from the plenaries and concurrent sessions, I thought these specific aspects of systemic racism were especially noteworthy since they don’t often get attention:

  • “White innocence” perpetuating white supremacy (Richard Orozco)
  • White savior complex manifesting itself in volunteer tourism (Molly Gallegos)
  • Pressure on women of color faculty to produce “affective labor” (Bianca Williams)
  • Historical amnesia of claiming white fragility as civil rights issue (Cheryl Matias)
  • “System working to correct itself” (Cristina Mislan)
  • “We protest and are complicit at the same time” (Zeus Leonardo)

I also want to call attention to the following organizers and presenters for their valuable contributions: Daniella Cook, Frank Tuitt, Tom Romero, Katherine Rainey, Erica Van Steenis, Julia Daniel, Esther Ohito, Jamie Utt, Keffrelyn Brown, Michael Barnes, Romana Beltran, Lisa Calderon, Jasmine Haywood, Ruth López, Subini Annamma, Meredith McCoy, Justin Coles, Monica Ridgeway, Theodora Regina Berry, Marvin Lynn, David Stovall, Christine Zuni Cruz, and Gerardo López. Finally, as a panelist remarked at the end of the conference, if you haven’t read the “red book,” otherwise known as Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, then start there. I’m honored that I had the opportunity to see Derrick Bell speak at the University of Delaware about 15 years ago, and he is one of those key founders. His counter-narratives of science fiction and legal analysis helped me understand the interdisciplinary potential of CRT, and I will always be thankful for that.

The White Privilege Conference and Reflections on How Well-Meaning White People Reinforce White Supremacy

For the first time, I attended the 17th annual White Privilege Conference in Philadelphia; it’s an important and impressive conference that has grown to 2700 participants. More than half of the participants were white, maybe even 60% or 70%, and so that’s a lot of white people recognizing the need to examine and dismantle white privilege and white supremacy. There is no doubt this is a step in the right direction, but it is only a start – we need to work on action. The beginners at this conference (and maybe others as well) are exactly the audience I have in mind for my book project, an introductory manual on systemic racism and racial justice with tools for action aimed at white readers.

As I think about my work, I would like to reflect on the conference by beginning with some meaningful experiences and a few brief highlights and then conclude with a longer reflection about #WPCsowhite that emerged during the conference.

I was honored to present a workshop with The Meta Theatre Company called “‘When the Curtain Falls, Community Action Begins’: Dismantling White Supremacy through Theatre and Community Action in the Age of The New Jim Crow.” Caroline Hann, Barbara Cannell, Cyndie Wiggins, and I performed two sketches and shared our collaborative experience working with the Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition (of NJ) that led to book discussions of The New Jim Crow in three very different locations last year: 1) the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, NJ 2) my class “Race in American Literature and Popular Culture” at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ and 3) in the community at the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County, NJ. We explained how the women of Edna Mahan helped develop curriculum materials for these discussions and wrote short pieces about their personal experience in relation to Alexander’s book, we read a few examples of the women’s writing that we read last year to my class and the community group and a few of their responses, and we explained how we facilitated dialogue between all three groups even though the three groups never met. The audience participation in both workshops was impressive, and the discussion was motivating.

I participated in the Leadership Institute organized by Joe-Joe McManus of Rootstrong and Eddie Moore, Jr., the founder of the White Privilege Conference and the President of The Privilege Institute. The Leadership Institute brought together about 25 people who spent one full day together before the conference began and then reconvened during every lunch break for conversation with the keynote speakers. Since the conference was so big, it was great to be able to return to this small group for discussion and reflection. Joe-Joe did an excellent job of organizing this institute and its speakers, which included Kecia Brown McManus, a wonderful presenter.

I also want to acknowledge the work of presenters at some fantastic breakout sessions:

  • Debby Irving, author of Waking up White, shared her personal struggle in learning about and interrogating her own whiteness
  • Jacqueline Battalora, author of Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today, gave an exceptional presentation about the invention of whiteness as a divide and conquer strategy, an approach I find very effective
  • June Christian of Teaching Tolerance demonstrated the “Let’s Talk” strategies for conversations about race and racism, which were great to experience rather than just read about
  • Robin DiAngelo, whose work on the concept of “white fragility” I’d been following for a while, helped run a highly interactive workshop about changing the “rules of engagement”

There were also excellent keynote speakers and performers:

  • Jasiri X and Aisha Fukushima shared their beautiful and powerful art, what Aisha calls “RAPtivism”
  • Young people from the Youth Action Project and 1Hood Media shared their inspiring stories, showing real leadership
  • Yusef Salaam described his heart-wrenching experience as one of the Central Park Five, the teenagers wrongfully locked up for more than 10 years; he now works to end mass incarceration
  • Vernā Myers addressed the fear white people have of saying the wrong thing and the importance of “interrupting bias”
  • Howard Stevenson talked about racial micro-aggressions and systemic racism using both exceptional research and personal examples; he even shared an audio recording of a conversation he had with his young son about the murder of Trayvon Martin to show how hard it is, even for experts in this field, to have such difficult conversations

Finally, I want to reflect on the larger issue of the complicity of well-meaning white people in white supremacy (myself included). I was especially interested to hear keynote speaker James Loewen, who wrote about whitewashing history in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. He did a great job of explaining the significance of the period 1890-1940 when white supremacy escalated and when the Civil War was rewritten as a conflict over states’ rights; he described how sundown towns forbid people of color after dark. I was nodding along, diligently taking notes, when he showed an image of a sign for a sundown town and read it out loud, including the n-word. I was surprised to hear him speak this word, but I also thought, he’s a famous and well-regarded scholar with a lot of experience: he must know best. I moved on. Soon, however, I saw that the official conference hashtag in Twitter #PHLWPC17 included criticism of his choice to speak the word out loud. I then saw #WPCsowhite emerge with additional criticism. That made me question why I initially gave Loewen the benefit of the doubt. I deferred to his experience and status as a well-published scholar, as we are taught to do in graduate school and in the profession. I realized I was reaffirming a hierarchy based in white supremacy rather than thinking about the trauma people of color can experience when hearing this word, especially from a white man at a podium in front of more than 2000 people. At our lunch discussion with the speakers, I wanted to know what he thought of the criticism, and though I felt awkward and uncomfortable, I asked him what he thought. He wasn’t aware of the criticism in Twitter but indicated that he provided context and was reading a historical sign. He’s since affirmed that perspective in Twitter. I was disappointed that he didn’t really seem to hear the concerns expressed. Even though he’s an experienced scholar, I don’t expect him to be perfect, but I do expect him to want to continue to learn and grow. I wished he had taken the concerns to heart and reconsidered his position. I believe white educators can still show students the history of white supremacy in this country without saying the n-word out loud. Refusing to say the word out loud doesn’t mean denying a history of racism. For me, as a white educator, not saying the word out loud means recognizing that me saying that word as an authority in the classroom can echo the decades of white educators before me who used that word not to reveal white supremacy but to enforce it. I believe that to help break that cycle, I should never say the word, in any context, whether in the classroom or outside of it. I don’t believe other white educators should either. However, if people of color had not spoken up about the pain they experienced when Loewen spoke the n-word, I probably would have left his keynote still thinking, well he knows best. And that’s my complicity in white supremacy.

Critical Race Theory is Needed Now More Than Ever

I just participated in a fantastic Critical Race Theory conference held at Yale Law School. First, the conference is run entirely by the law students. How impressive is that? Second, I was pleased to see that unlike the conference they held two years ago, the participants this time came from a variety of disciplines outside of the legal profession. Last time, as an English professor, I was one of the only outsiders to the legal field, but this time it was great to see the impact that Critical Race Theory is making in a variety of disciplines and professions. However, there were probably not more than a hundred or so people there (not too different from last time) and not too different from the Critical Race Theory conference I attended at UCLA Law School a year and a half ago. That’s something that needs to change. We need Critical Race Theory now more than ever. If you’re not too familiar with the area, here are a few things you should know:

  • It emerged in the 1980s as a way for legal scholars of color to analyze racism as systemic rather than as individual or aberrant.
  • Founding Critical Race Theorists like Derrick Bell wrote “counter-narratives” to experiment with the form of traditional legal scholarship following the idea that radical ideas demand radical form. He wrote science fiction in order to illustrate what he called the “permanence of racism.”
  • For decades, Critical Race Theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Mari MatsudaIan Haney López, and Cheryl Harris have been advocating action to address ways in which systems (especially those related to the law and criminal justice) reinforce racism.

This weekend’s “Race (In)Action: The 2016 Critical Race Theory Conference” built on this foundation in meaningful ways. Here are a few highlights:

  • Harvard Law students Ke’Andra Levingston and Titilayo Rasaki shared their inspiring work on the Reclaim Harvard Law School movement.
  • Margaret Montoya, a founding member of Critical Race Theory, shared a brilliant overview of the field and offered her insight into the problem of “teaching racial silence to law students.”
  • In a breakout session, Meera Deo, Vinay Harpalani, and Khiara Bridges explored how race and class intersect with higher ed, focusing on affirmative action, the Fisher case, recruitment and retention of faculty of color, and what “diversity” means.
  • In the breakout session on the “Changing Dynamics of Race in America,” Faiza Patel, Steven Bender, Francisco Valdes, and Meejin Richart explored, respectively, Islamophobia and what we mean by “national security,” Latinos and changing demographics, “social impact advocacy” and “critical outsider jurisprudence,” and the work of CAAAV.
  • In the breakout session on Race and Policing, Devon Carbado mapped out several factors that put people on a “path to police violence,” including “repeated police interaction,” “police culture and training,” and perceptions of “justifiable force.” Tracey Meares described her work on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and explained how the answer to “what are police for” has changed over the past few decades. Justin Hansford raised the question of how to connect the discussion of policing to Michelle Alexander’s critique of mass incarceration in her book The New Jim Crow.
  • Angela Onwuachi-Willig gave an excellent keynote lecture: “On Revolts and Revolutions: Critical Race Theory in Action.” She connected the work of Critical Race Theory over the past few decades to the #blacklivesmatter movement, including student activism at Yale, University of Missouri, and other campuses around the country, and the use of social media.

And these are just the highlights! You might be wondering how did I, an English professor, become interested in this field? After all, I’m not a legal scholar. As a grad student in English in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had the honor of hearing Derrick Bell speak when he gave a lecture at my school, the University of Delaware. I was already studying race in the context of contemporary American novels by women, and I thought there was an important connection between the narratives of a Critical Race Theorist like Derrick Bell and a creative writer like Toni Morrison. In fact, they had both published books in the same year, no less (1987), that introduced a supernatural female character that transcended space and time in order to show us the persistence of systemic racism. Bell created Geneva Crenshaw and Toni Morrison created Beloved. I also saw a connection between the work of Cheryl Harris in “Whiteness as Property” and the novel Bellefleur by creative writer Joyce Carol Oates. (I shared this latter work at the UCLA Critical Race Theory conference in 2014 and published it here.) My dissertation analyzed five pairs of Critical Race Theorists and female novelists in order to examine the way our society and its institutions construct race and perpetuate racism. That was more than ten years ago, and now I continue to find Critical Race Theory to be not only inspiring but also incredibly helpful as a framework in which to understand the persistence of racism. I was honored to share my current work at this weekend’s conference: “Critical Race Theory in Action: Talking to White People About ‘the Permanence of Racism’.” The questions and comments afterward will be valuable as I continue to develop this work into the introductory manual I’m writing on systemic racism and racial justice with tools for action.

-Karen Gaffney originally shared this post on 4/11/16 and has since published her book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge), an accessible introduction to systemic racism in the US, which references the work of many Critical Race Theorists. 

Citizen University

Citizen University is one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended, and I’m a conference nerd who’s attended dozens of conferences over the past twenty years. Never before have I attended such an interdisciplinary, multiracial, multigenerational conference that brought together educators, organizers, and activists. Other conferences tend to reinforce the silo effect, either by discipline or by profession. This conference, based in Seattle, gave me the opportunity to hear from people I’ve long admired and to gain new sources of inspiration. Here are a few highlights:

  • Eric Liu, the founder of Citizen University, told us to work for and fight for the “republic we were promised.” He asked what is the “future of whiteness”?
  • Keynote speaker Alicia Garza was absolutely brilliant and inspiring in talking about her work with #blacklivesmatter: black citizenship is conditional, we are all impacted by white supremacy, and access does not equal power.
  • High School students stepped onto an actual soap box for the “Mikva Challenge,” where they each shared a deeply personal story about gang violence, poverty, transphobia, fear of deportation, or another oppressive experience and then made a statement about action steps that can be taken. These were very brave young activists who give me confidence about our future.
  • Maria Hinojosa of NPR’s Latino USA (one of my favorite podcasts) explained how important it is for people to see themselves in the stories they hear in the media.
  • Melvin Mar, Executive Producer of Fresh Off the Boat, explained how he uses humor to resist stereotypes of Asian Americans.
  • Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of, discussed how important it is to represent more and varied stories of people of color through roles that are fully human.
  • Heather McGhee, President of Demos, said that we’re told we’re all in this country to compete against each other, but we need to question that narrative and focus instead on a destiny that can bring everyone together in resistance to a racial hierarchy.
  • Rinku Sen, President of Race Forward, ran a workshop showing how diversity is not the answer. It is not enough to just have a variety of people. We need to focus on equity, justice, and power.
  • Lunch was the most amazing meal experience I’ve ever had at a conference. Yes, the food was fantastic, but that’s not even my point. They simulated a community program called On the Table that brings together a diverse group of people to a table for a meal and provides them with guiding questions so everyone can share a bit about their experiences and their ideas. I met nine wonderful people from around the country, and it made me want to figure out how to do this at my college and in my community.
  • Then there was an impressive panel moderated by Tracey Meares from Yale Law School on Restorative Justice, a concept that I don’t know enough about but am eager to understand better. Nikkita Oliver, who had already performed spoken word, described her work in Creative Justice to provide artistic alternatives to discipline for youth. We need a restorative justice position in every school, rather than the police.
  • Brittany Packnett described her work on the Ferguson Commission and Campaign Zero, and she recommended we: 1. Start small 2. Listen to those most affected by injustice 3. Examine your power and take responsibility 4. Support urgent systemic changes.
  • Jose Antonio Vargas, who created the film Documented, said that we have never fully told our own history to each other, and we must. He asked how are blacks and indigenous people supposed to fit into the idea that “we are a nation of immigrants”?

This conference has given me much-needed direction and inspiration for my current sabbatical book project, a manual on systemic racism and racial justice aimed at white readers. My goal is to help readers move beyond white guilt, understand structural racism and its history and current impact, recognize that race is a social construct so that they can help un-construct it, and embrace an increasingly multiracial US without fear.


Check Out Updated Recommended Resources

Please take a look at the Recommended Resources tab at the top of my blog for an updated and more comprehensive list of resources with new topics that include online articles and websites as well as scholarly books. As always, I’m still adding to the sidebar list of suggested Blogs/Magazines and Social Justice Organizations. Note that there’s a separate tab specific to resources related to the “new Jim Crow” and mass incarceration. Please let me know about any other sources you would like to see here.

Lecture for Saratoga Springs on “The Unfinished Business of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Below are the comments I’ve prepared for my lecture on Monday, January 18.

I’d like to focus on a few questions today:

  1. What does it mean to say that race is a social construct?
  2. If race was created (or invented), why? When? By whom?
  3. How can understanding that help us today?

Let’s break that down.

Race is a social construct. What exactly does this mean? We are bombarded with messages from the media, our educational system, our legal system, our criminal justice system, and much more that tell us in one way or another that race is biological, that it’s innate, natural, and inherent. But that’s just simply not true. Most scholars (from all disciplines) who study race now recognize that there is no biological basis to race.

The idea that race is not biological but is in fact something that humans created usually comes as a surprise to my college students in my introductory course on race. They are shocked that they didn’t learn this before and upset that they’ve been deceived. And they should be upset; the idea that race is biological is one of the most powerful ideologies in this country, and it has been built into our culture for most of American history. Furthermore, I find it helpful to harness students’ feelings of being upset into an examination of the question why. If race was socially constructed, then that means it was invented. If it was invented, then when? Why? By whom? I believe that if the majority of Americans understood the answers to these questions then we would be much closer to developing tools to effectively dismantle systemic racism. This is part of King’s “unfinished business.”

Most of us just assume that the idea that humans are divided into races is a concept that has been with humans since the beginning of humanity. However, that’s actually not the case. As the textbook I use for my class states, race is a “recent human invention.” And by “recent,” we mean during colonial times.

One important site of the invention of race is colonial Virginia in the late 1600s. I’d like to spend a few minutes looking at this moment to see what was going on.

Before this time, race didn’t really exist as a way of categorizing people. People were identified by country of origin, religion, and class status (not as “white” or “black”). Furthermore, the line between “servant” and “slave” was not clearly defined. European and African laborers often worked together, lived together, married each other, had children together, and ran away together. Throughout the mid-1600s, there were several attempts to stop European and African laborers from running away together through legal penalties like fines and added time to servitude, but they still ran away together.

Another way to say this is to recognize that there was not the idea that European and African laborers were inherently, meaningfully different from each other. Instead, there was the idea that they had more in common with each other than either had with the wealthy landowners.

Then, several things changed. Throughout the 1600s, most laborers in colonial Virginia were European, but by the late 1600s, this population increasingly began to outlive their period of servitude and became free, a potential threat to wealthy landowners. In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion occurred. African and European laborers united against wealthy landowners, an alliance that while it didn’t win, it did scare the wealthy landowners, who determined that indentured servitude was not a long-term solution to their labor needs.

The alliance, the coalition, that had been growing between European and African laborers became too dangerous, too threatening, and it had to be stopped. The only way to stop it was to divide and conquer, take two groups of people, of human beings, with a lot in common, separate them, and create a hierarchy where one was treated better than the other, where one was considered fully human and the other was not. That hierarchy became race, an ideology that people are inherently, biologically different, that skin color defines that difference, and that these racial groups are positioned on a hierarchy, with white at the top and black at the bottom.

Statutes in colonial Virginia start to limit rights of Africans as they become cheaper to import and European servants become more expensive to import. For example, in Virginia, in 1680 there was a new limitation on meetings of “Negro slaves,” a ban on them carrying weapons and travelling without permission. Also, it became legal to kill “negroe or slave” but illegal to “lift hand in opposition against Christian.” In 1691, freed slaves could not remain in Virginia after six months, interracial married couples could not remain in Virginia for more than three months after marriage, and white women who gave birth to biracial babies were punished.

All of this reveals the process of race being invented. Plantation owners shifted from European servitude to African slavery. Slavery became a permanent and inheritable condition, limiting rights Africans had previously. Africans became “black,” and “black” became associated with slavery. Poor Europeans gained limited rights and became “white,” and “white” became associated with freedom.

In other words, European and African laborers were divided and conquered.

Virginia’s 1705 Slave Codes solidified the invention of race. For example, the Slave Codes mandated “Negro, mulatto, Indian slaves . . . to be real estate.” Also, the Slave Codes stated that “All servants . . . not Christians in their native country (except Turks and Moors) shall be slaves.” The Codes banned interracial marriage. And, the Codes mandated that “Christian white servants” receive benefits, especially when their period of indenture is over.

Furthermore, another important part of the ideology of race is the shift in perception of Native Americans. In early European exploration of what became the colonies, Europeans tended to recognize different Native American tribes as distinct groups, with their own language, customs, etc. However, as time went on and European and later American demand for land grew, Native Americans were much less likely to be seen as distinct nations and much more likely to be categorized under the homogenous umbrella of “Indians.” Moreover, this ideology included a refusal to acknowledge indigenous land rights. If Native Americans were not fully human, then they didn’t “deserve” land ownership; meanwhile, land ownership was seen as much more appropriate for those in the racial category white.

This early moment of the invention of race, of the creation of an ideology of race and a racial hierarchy, became more and more powerful as time went on. It became adapted and readapted to suit each particular moment. Several decades later, when the Founding Father were defining the principles and structure of our new government, they built this new nation on the foundation of the ideology of race. After all, it’s much easier to reconcile democracy and slavery if there is an ideology that shows how those who are enslaved are less than human, and that’s the ideology that race is biological and that racial groups can be mapped along a hierarchy.

An ideology works because people take it for granted as the truth, as the only way of seeing the world. And the more it becomes built into a society, the stronger it becomes because it’s not seen as an ideology, just as the way things are.

This is why I strongly believe that if people recognize race as an ideology, as a social construct, rather than take it for granted as something real, then we can start to understand how and why race was created. If we can understand that race was created by humans, then we can also recognize that it didn’t always exist, that it’s not evitable, and we can work together to un-create it.

There’s a quote from the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion that I find powerful:

“Race is a human invention. We created it, we have used it in ways that have been in many, many respects quite negative and quite harmful. And we can think ourselves out of it. We made it, we can unmake it.”

I have found that while students and community members I work with take some time to understand what that means, they do find it both hopeful and empowering.

In the documentary this quote is from, there’s a follow up question that I also find critical: “How can we unmake race unless we first confront its enormity as a historical and social reality, and its emptiness as biology?”

If we are to “confront its enormity as a historical and social reality,” then we need to examine the systems that perpetuate that reality. Again, this work is part of King’s “unfinished business.” Here are just a few examples of these systems:

  • Housing and wealth
    • Recently the Pew Research Center announced that the racial wealth gap had reached a 24-year high, with white households on average having 13 times as much wealth as black households. There is ample evidence that rampant and sustained discrimination has occurred against people of color in housing. Ta-Nehisi Coates did a great job of explaining redlining and related racist housing policies in his Atlantic article “The Case for Repartions.”
  • The Criminal justice system
  • Media
    • People of color are not represented enough in popular culture, are not acknowledged with the work they do (as illustrated by the recent announcement of Oscar nominees), are often limited to roles of two-dimensional stereotypes, and are often demonized in the news media.

These myriad systems also include healthcare, voting, and many more that form a vicious cycle to maintain systemic racism and oppression. Understanding how these systems operate and how they perpetuate racism is an important first step in tackling race’s “enormity as a historical and social reality.”

Once we recognize that race is a social construct and understand how it perpetuates systemic racism, we can start to examine several key ideas:

  1. People were manipulated to believe race is real and that a racial hierarchy is somehow natural and biological, and that manipulation continues today.
  2. The vast majority of us are disempowered by a racial hierarchy.
  3. A racial ideology perpetuates stereotypes of blacks as criminals, of Latinos as “not real Americans,” of Muslims as terrorists, and of Asian Americans as the “good” or “model” minority, which is also a damaging stereotype because it further divides people and pits them against each other.
  4. White workers, whose wages have been stagnant for decades, are told to blame immigrants or refugees and not systems that perpetuate these inequities while rewarding executives at multi-billion dollar corporations.
  5. The rhetoric of colorblindness, the idea that we’re in a post-racial society, is just a distraction, a way of masking the perpetuation of systemic racism. Using such language perpetuates the manipulation and allows the racial ideology to continue, though conveniently, without being named.

Recognizing that race is a social construct allows us to examine its invention and if we pull the curtain back to see all of the moving parts of this invention, then we can see how it operates. And if we can see how it operates, we can develop tools to take it apart.

We have an opportunity now: every day we see examples of how the ideology of race is operating, starting with Donald Trump’s popularity, which should come as no surprise. He is following the divide and conquer playbook very effectively. It’s worked for over 300 years. Why wouldn’t it work today? We should be more surprised if he were unpopular. But this gives us an opportunity. Because there is a spotlight on his manipulative rhetoric, because there is a spotlight on police brutality, because there is a spotlight on mass incarceration, we have an opportunity to end it.

We have an opportunity to identify and resist the divide and conquer strategy that has pitted people against each other for more than 300 years. Humans created race and racism, and the time has come for us to dismantle them. That is King’s “unfinished business.”


(please also see the sources on this site, the tab at the top on “Recommended Resources” and “Resources on the New Jim Crow”)

The New Year

The Fall semester kept me very busy with teaching and other work, so I wasn’t able to post as actively here as I would have liked. However, thanks to my first sabbatical from Raritan Valley Community College, I will be able to devote the next several months to reading and writing about racial justice. I am excited to be able to focus my energy on my book project, and I think this work is needed now more than ever. My book will be an introductory handbook about racial justice aimed at K-12 educators, social service workers, students, and organizers. I appreciate the feedback I’ve already received, and I look forward to more.

Participating in RVCC’s Social Action Collective, RVCC’s Research Writing Group, and the Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition have all been tremendously important to my work. I’ve also attended several community trainings run by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and the Center for the Study of White American Culture, which have taught me so much.

Teaching “Race in American Literature and Popular Culture” last fall, a course I designed more than ten years ago, helped me shape this project, and I am grateful to the students for keeping me focused. I also organized a staged reading of the original play Hello My Name Is at RVCC and built it into my course curriculum, in connection to The New Jim Crow. Meta Theatre Company performed the play and co-wrote it with the women inmates of Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton, NJ. I had the honor of teaching an American Literature course there last spring and look forward to teaching my Race course there and at Mountainview, the nearby men’s prison. (RVCC offers a college degree at both prisons through NJ-STEP.) Last June, I joined Meta Theatre Company’s weekly meetings at Edna Mahan and helped lead discussion of The New Jim Crow, which we read not only in my class but also in a community book discussion via the Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition.

I am honored to join MTC this weekend in Saratoga Springs, NY to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. On Sunday, MTC will perform scenes from Hello My Name Is, and I’ll be on a follow-up panel discussion about mass incarceration, and then on Monday, MTC will perform scenes from RISE (their original show that they have performed at RVCC several times, including for my Race class in Fall 2014), and I will open that performance with a short lecture about race and racism. I will post my comments here, so stay tuned!

Thoughts on ASA’s call for Racial Justice and Solidarity

I’m grateful for the inspiration I found at the American Studies Association conference this weekend in Toronto, but I can’t help but think about how much more we should be doing, especially given ASA’s recent call for racial justice and solidarity. I’ve attended ASA periodically for the past 15 years, and this one had a unique sense of urgency, with multiple sessions not just making passing reference to #blacklivesmatter but actually focusing on it. I was especially impressed by David Roediger’s presidential keynote address and panels with scholars I admire, including Lisa Lowe and Edwin Mayorga. I’m eager to start following the work of Saidiya Hartman, Ujju Aggarwal, Connie Wun, Jesse Goldberg, Kashif Powell, Dennis Childs, Dylan Rodriguez, Anoop Mirpuri, Toussaint Losier, and Kinohi Nishikawa.

For the first time, I felt that this conference lived up to the interdisciplinary mission it espouses so strongly. Intersectionality was a primary focal point of several presentations, and I heard the name critical race theory (a legal studies field) many times. As someone who finished a dissertation back in 2003 on critical race theory and contemporary literature by US women writers, it’s taken a long time for me to see the disciplinary wall separating critical race theory and the humanities be permeated, but I think that’s finally happening. It seems like Ethnic Studies is a space that invites some of the most cutting edge work, whereas more traditional disciplines (like English and history) are still reluctant, though that is getting better.

However, I didn’t see any fellow community college faculty, and I think that’s something that needs work on both sides. The ASA would benefit from more strategic outreach to us, and we would certainly benefit from greater participation in this conference. I suspect it’s hindered on both sides because few (if any) community colleges have formal American Studies programs; however, that doesn’t mean we’re not doing American Studies. It just might be within an English or history course.

With that in mind, I was disappointed to see the stress level of graduate students and untenured faculty, and that seems to be getter worse not better. At least ASA is providing sessions and spaces for explicit conversations about networking and job hunting to occur, but in some ways, such conversations fuel the stress. It doesn’t seem like graduate students are being encouraged to apply for jobs at community colleges, and that is a shame. Even in the most progressive American Studies and Ethnic Studies departments, graduate students are still taught to believe that getting a “real” job means getting a job at a research university. While I’m not diminishing the rewards of such a position, there are a lot of exciting opportunities at community colleges for graduate students who are committed to teaching at an institution with a social justice mission.

Finally, ASA’s recent statement calling for “Racial Justice, Strengthened Solidarity among Activists and Scholars” is very important, but when the vast majority of presenters and participants are graduate students and faculty from competitive colleges and universities, the conversation will never include all of the voices it needs to. Where are the community college faculty? Where are the activists who are committed to justice but who have never attended or finished college? Conferences like Facing Race and Netroots Nation tend to attract a lot of activists but not too many college faculty, and that’s a problem too. We still need to figure out ways to bring together a more genuinely diverse group of people who care about justice if we really are going to talk about building solidarity.