Keynote Address on Equality: Myths, Inequality, and Action

Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society Induction Ceremony, April 12, 2015, Raritan Valley Community College, NJ

Thank you so much for the invitation to speak here on the topic of “equality.”

I would like to begin by acknowledging my American Literature students at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility who have taught me new ways to understand and appreciate equality and inequality.

I would also like to thank the students in my two sections of English Composition II; they gave me input on my comments, and some are being honored today. The thematic focus of our course is “Inequality, the American Dream, and the 99%.”

One of these English II students recommended that I “speak from the heart” and “just say what needs to be said.” So here goes…

Our society has many beliefs about equality and inequality, and some of these beliefs are myths. They are simply not true, but they get repeated and celebrated. They mask the truth. Such myths have consequences, serious, often deadly, consequences.

Let’s start with a myth that everyone here is likely aware of, a myth that is familiar and uncomfortable at the same time. That’s the myth about community colleges. We’ve all heard it, that it’s not a “real” college, that it’s 13th grade, that it’s for losers. We have all—faculty, students, and parents alike—felt the burn of the anti-community college stigma. Our students describe how in high school they were ashamed to tell anyone where they were going to college. Why wouldn’t they feel ashamed, when we live in a culture that treats higher education as another commodity, another acquisition? It doesn’t help that local high schools set aside a day for seniors to wear the sweatshirt of the college they will attend. It’s an accessory, like a fancy label or brand, and a shirt from RVCC just doesn’t cut it. Students feel embarrassed. Who wants to be called a loser? Even more so, who wants to go to the place that is used as a derogatory chant, a taunt, at seniors by younger high school students during local high school pep rallies in the supposed spirit of friendly class competition? What kind of a culture exists so that such behavior is considered acceptable?

The myth that the community college is inferior has devastating consequences. Myths usually do. Myths serve to cover up a truth, and the truth is that community college is a real college. Our students are real college students. They are getting real college degrees and transferring to other real colleges for further study. Our students are smart and capable. Our PTK students here are living proof that the myth is wrong. Our college offers top-notch academic courses that many of our students say are more challenging than the courses they take elsewhere as juniors and seniors. The secret of our high quality is kept, just that, as a secret, masked by a powerful stigma.

The problem is that systems support myths like this one, and these systems are powerful and wide-reaching.

Let’s consider some examples of the way systems support the anti-community college stigma, systems like the government and the economy.

RVCC President McDonough recently told us that six of our students participated in the first-ever Community College Day at the New Jersey State House. Our students reminded our representatives in the Assembly and the Senate that the state formula for funding higher education is grossly unfair to community colleges, with: New Jersey Public 4 Year Colleges receiving $10,276 per Full Time student, New Jersey Private Colleges receiving $1,972 per Full Time student, and New Jersey Community Colleges receiving only $1,780 per Full Time student.

Really? Community Colleges in NJ receive less money from the state per student than private colleges and less than one fifth of what public colleges receive? Where is the equality there?

When the community college system was first created in NJ in the 1960s, the NJ legislature created a funding system where the state, the county, and student tuition would each provide for one third of the college’s funding. Students, instead of paying the originally envisioned 33% of our funding, are now paying more than 60% of our funding because the state and the counties are not following through on their obligation.

Again, myths have consequences. The stigma against community colleges reaches all the way to the state house. Without the state’s promised funding and without the counties’ promised funding, two things happen: 1) our students unfairly bear the weight of funding our college when we’re supposed to serve the community and 2) we don’t have the funding we need to support the work we do.

For students, this means taking on debt, working extra hours, attending part-time instead of full-time, and even leaving school. They give up sleep, they can’t take as much time to study, and they can’t spend as much time with their kids if they are parents. The impact is not only financial, but it is also physical and psychological. Social justice is at the heart of our mission, yet we are not serving the students who most need our help.

Research shows that the single greatest factor in whether or not a college student will graduate is the income of that student’s parents. The higher the parental income, the better the chance the student will graduate. While financial resources certainly play a role, one of the biggest resources that students from wealthier families have is academic confidence. Knowing your parents finished college provides a confidence that being the first in your family to go to college doesn’t provide. This confidence is the difference between failing a test and deciding to drop out of school vs. failing a test and deciding to go for extra tutoring. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds need access to a strong support system in order to build this confidence that other students already bring with them to college. It’s our obligation to provide such a support system.

In addition to students suffering the burden of broken promises by the state and counties, for the college, this means hiring part-time faculty (adjunct faculty) instead of full-time faculty. RVCC is certainly not alone in going down this path, but it is an unsustainable one. Adjunct faculty are the majority of our faculty, and they are paid per course. When you break down the amount of time it requires to teach a course, they are paid less than minimum wage. They have no job security from semester to semester and no benefits. They all have Masters degrees, and some have PhDs.

The myth that community colleges are inferior has serious consequences.

Knowing the power of this myth, it is all the more impressive that we have the opportunity today to honor these students here, who have fought against so much to excel academically.

Part of the reason the anti-community college myth is so powerful is it supports a larger myth in our society against public service, a myth that says the key to success is individual hard work. The corollary, of course, is that those who are not successful do not work hard. These interlocking myths are very dangerous because they deny the impact of the privileges, benefits, and resources available to those who have succeeded. Those very privileges, benefits, and resources are then not available to those who didn’t inherit them, buy them, or get lucky. Even though we believe we live in a meritocracy, that anyone who works hard can achieve the American dream, that is a dangerous myth that ignores the impact of race, socioeconomic status, citizenship status, sexual orientation, and gender.

Let’s consider a few examples:

  • According to a 2013 ACLU report, drug use in NJ by blacks and whites is similar, yet blacks are arrested at a much higher rate. In fact, Hunterdon County, out of all the counties in NJ, has the highest racial disparity when it comes to marijuana possession arrest rates. Blacks are 5.1 times more likely than whites to be arrested in Hunterdon despite comparable drug use.
  • According to the Sentencing Project, the “lifetime likelihood of imprisonment” for white men in the US is 1 in 17, for black men is 1 in 3, for white women, it’s 1 in 111, and for black women, it’s 1 in 18.
  • Amnesty International reports that “Over 30,000 immigrants are in detention on any given day in the U.S. . . . triple the average number detained just ten years ago.”
  • The American Association of University Women reported that in 2012, Latinas earned 53 cents for every dollar a white male earned, African American women earned 64 cents for every dollar a white male earned, and white women earned 78 cents for every dollar a white male earned.
  • According to the PEW Research Center, in 2013 median net worth of households for whites was $141,900, but for blacks it was only $11,000, and for Hispanics $13,700.
  • Finally, according to the African American Policy Forum, “The median wealth for single Black women is $5.00.”

This is the richest country on earth – how is any of this acceptable?

Somerset and Hunterdon Counties are two of the wealthiest counties in the country, but you wouldn’t know it from hearing our students’ or our adjuncts’ experiences. Given that wealth, don’t these counties have an even greater obligation to give back to the community, specifically the community college, the only college in either county? What would amount to just another yacht to one of our wealthier residents would mean the world to this college, yet wealthy donors tend to donate instead to the Ivy League university they attended, even if those universities don’t really need the money, while they ignore the community college in their very own backyard where that money could change lives.

Myths have serious consequences, and you, as strong academic students have the power to make a difference. The odds may seem set against you, but that is all the more reason to do something. If the odds seem against you, then they most certainly are against your peers who are not able to be here. Do it for them. What powerful myth governs our society that you want to change? Myths are stories, and stories can change. If you tell enough stories to counter the myths, if you speak up enough about the value of community colleges, people will listen. But telling new stories to counter damaging myths is not enough. You’ve got to take further action. Learn about the problem, and advocate for a solution. Meet with someone of influence and explain your view. Start a petition. Vote in every local and national election. Hold government leaders accountable. Hold corporate leaders accountable. Organize a boycott. Advocate for a new policy or law. Run for office. Raise awareness among your network. Raise your voice. Share your knowledge. Teach.

Keep saying that black lives matter, that transgendered people are people too, that undocumented Americans are real Americans, that bullying against LGBT kids must stop, that students in poverty need support.

Raise your voice, and people will listen.

“Why Didn’t I Learn that Before?”: Confronting Systemic Racism

I recently had the honor of being the invited speaker at the first meeting of the new Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition. Hunterdon is a predominantly white county located in central NJ and is often referred to as one of the wealthiest counties in the country. I was asked to speak about the issue of colorblindness, so I decided to step back, look at the big picture, and frame my presentation around 3 central questions: What is race? Why was it invented? How is colorblindness a problem today?

To begin, much of the way I approached this workshop was based on my experience teaching “Race in American Literature and Popular Culture” (at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ), my research (especially in critical race theory), and on my participation in various conferences (Facing Race) and trainings (Undoing Racism). At the end of my fall course, many students identified the idea that race is not biological but rather a social construct as the most profound thing they learned that semester. Even though most scholars take this idea for granted and there is ample evidence to support it (see my “Recommended Resources”), we are still bombarded daily with messages indicating that race is innate. These messages come from a variety of systems (education, media, criminal justice, etc.) and spin into a vicious circle.

If we can recognize that race is not biological but rather a social construct, then we can have a conversation about why it was created. If we can understand this, we can create the tools to take apart this creation. While scholars don’t agree about every detail regarding why race was created, one important common understanding is that race was invented in the 1600s to divide and conquer laborers and maintain the status quo of white, wealthy landowners.

If race was invented more than three centuries ago, why is it still so powerful today, and what do we do about that power? Ever since I saw the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion, I’ve found this statement really powerful: “We made it; we can unmake it.” In other words, if humans had the power to create race, then humans have the power to un-create it. However, in order for this to happen, as the film later says, we must “first confront its enormity as a historical and social reality.” Furthermore, I would say race is still so powerful today precisely because we have not confronted this “enormity.”

That’s where I think we can see that colorblindness is not the solution. We can’t simultaneously be colorblind and also “confront” the “enormity” of race “as a historical and social reality.” I think well-intentioned, often white, people have been misled to believe that colorblindness is a path to justice when in fact colorblindness is a major obstacle to justice. While colorblindness has an appeal and was originally used in early civil rights work, it has been co-opted over the past several decades by those who do not see racial justice as the goal. Ian Haney López, legal scholar and author of Dog Whistle Politics, does an excellent job of providing this exact history. For example, see his Jan. 20, 2014 article “How conservatives hijacked ‘colorblindness’ and set civil rights back decades” in Salon.

Racism is not just about individual beliefs and perceptions; it operates through systems that perpetuate discrimination, systems like the media, the criminal justice system, education, politics, housing, banking, and more. Again, if we are to “unmake” race, we need to tackle systemic racism. So, what exactly would that look like? That’s where I’d like to turn to the Hunterdon meeting’s Q&A.

The questions and comments echoed those of my students: Why don’t more people know this? How come I wasn’t taught this? How can we make more people aware of this?

Those are extremely important questions, and interestingly, I think those are questions that are especially important for white people to think about. If whites learn about this history and focus just on feeling guilty, that’s not necessarily very helpful. However, if they channel that response into these kinds of questions, that can actually take us somewhere.

For example, if we really start to think about the creation of race and the history of the idea of race, we can see that there’s a lot of history we are not often taught. Once we recognize that, then it’s important to think about power. Who does it benefit when most people don’t know that race is a social construct and that race was invented? Doesn’t it still benefit the same elite class that invented it in the first place? I think we need to connect some dots here. Consider the following:

  • Students in K-12 education generally do not learn civics; they don’t learn much about how local government works and how it relates to state and federal government. They don’t learn about the range of elected political positions (like county government, for example). By the time teenagers turn 18, shouldn’t they be empowered to not only want to vote in order to have a voice and participate in democracy but also understand how the political system works so they can make an informed decision?
  • You might be familiar with Paulo Freire’s critique of the “banking model of education” (in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed) where students are treated like depositories of information. He instead advocates a “problem-posing” form of education where students are empowered to ask questions and think critically. This relates to the need to both empower students inside the classroom to learn what’s really going on and to help them develop the confidence to become empowered outside of the classroom.
  • It’s not just 18 year olds who hesitate to vote due to feeling disempowered. Adults of all ages question whether we actually have a democracy. That brings us back to power. Does the average citizen really have a voice in elected government given the current relationship between money and politics?
  • I’ve already talked about young people not learning the history they need to learn, but what about when people are out of school? If control of the media is so consolidated and there is very little opportunity for public control of the media, is it any surprise that adults often remain ignorant of the history I’ve been describing? If they remain ignorant of this history because they have limited access to alternative media, then they are vulnerable to the kind of divide and conquer messages and stereotypes that allowed race to be created in the first place.
  • Also, if people don’t have access to good local news media coverage, they are not well-informed about local politics, and that feeds the lack of attendance at local government meetings and persistent low voter turnout.
  • Even when people are more informed, they often don’t speak up when they witness an injustice either in local government, the media, or in another system; they feel powerless and don’t feel like they have a way to express that voice.

There are so many systems working to maintain the power structure, whether it’s the media, government, advertising, housing, education, or criminal justice. When people realize the systemic nature of racism, it can be overwhelming. A common response can be, “I’m just one person. What can I do?” If everyone became paralyzed with that attitude, then we can’t accomplish much, but I would like to think that, as they say, knowledge is power. If we’re going to move toward justice, then people must learn to see how these powerful systems operate. We also need to help people become empowered to take action based on the knowledge they’re gaining about systemic racism.

While the following examples will not solve everything, they are a step in the right direction, and they are tangible ways of helping people connect the dots between systems of power. When you see something offensive in the media, you have the power as a consumer to contact the FCC to file a complaint. (Thanks to an audience member at the Hunterdon meeting for recommending this.) If you think a particular TV show is reinforcing negative racial stereotypes, contact the Diversity Officer in charge of that media company. (This advice comes from the organization Color of Change.) Also, check out the research reports created by Race Forward that analyze the representation of race in the news media to learn what to look for. Support efforts to get money out of politics; consider these specific recommendations from Bill Moyers. Start attending local town council meetings to find out what’s going on. If your interests aren’t being represented, speak up during the public comment session. Attend Board of Education meetings.

In a nutshell: 1. Get educated 2. Keep getting educated 3. Share what you learn with others 4. Take action.

Reflections on an Inspiring Facing Race 2014

The Facing Race 2014 conference (organized by Race Forward, publisher of Colorlines) highlighted social justice activists from across the country. Their inspiring words began immediately. At 8am Friday morning, activists from Ferguson reminded us that Sunday, today, will be the 100th day since the police killed an unarmed black man, yet again. While we hold our breath waiting for the indictment results from the Grand Jury hearing, these activists also reminded us we should not be stopped by a likely return of no indictment. They said, “Young people have awakened a collective consciousness of a community, and it will not be put to sleep.” The youth are leading this movement, and we need to be prepared to have an open mind about the vision they bring at the same time as elders need to help them understand history. History and vision must be brought together.

And that was just the first hour of the conference.

We heard from a panel of youth activists doing amazing work around the country, including Jaime-Jin Lewis from the NY organization Border Crossers. Their website states: “By the time they enter kindergarten, children express an explicit white bias. Despite the fact that research consistently shows that taking a ‘colorblind’ or ‘colormute’ approach does not yield race-neutral opinions in children, teachers do not receive adequate training or support in how to address these issues with young children.” I believe more and more that an anti-racist pedagogy needs to begin as early as possible. I don’t teach students until they get to college, and they say, “Why didn’t we know about this history of race before? It would have made all the difference if we had known when we were younger.” I hope my work can help contribute to this mission.

I was very excited to meet scholar john a. powell, who, along with activists from the Demos organization, spoke to us about the relationship between money in politics and racial justice. Professor powell shared a metaphor about the car of neo-liberalism being fueled by racial and other anxieties. Wow! I can’t wait to read his new book, Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.

I went to two amazing media literacy workshops that taught practical tools to help us develop a stronger critical media lens. This can especially help me in my class right now, where students are working on a Media Social Action Assignment (where they identify a specific piece of current popular culture and contact its producer to share whether they think it’s moving us forward or backwards due its representation of race). One workshop focused on reality TV and identified the ways in which stock characters are used repeatedly to dehumanize all women, but especially women of color. Jennifer Pozner (author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV) and Sofia Quinero focused on tools for viewing reality TV (and TV in general) more critically, while the other panel gave us an insider perspective into the ways the media industry operates and how it perpetuates white supremacy.

Both panels reminded us about the power of advertising in TV (especially product placement in reality TV). If we keep buying the products that support the shows that perpetuate racist stereotypes, then this system will continue; we need to be more mindful about our power as consumers and use that to put an end to degrading portrayals of people of color. Furthermore, we also need to work on disrupting a system where very few people of color are hired to work behind the scenes, whether as writers, costume designers, or executive producers. The organization Color of Change is doing fabulous work raising awareness about these issues. We also need to support alternative media like Color Creative; its founder Issa Rae talked to us about her experiences developing the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

I was especially excited to attend a panel focused explicitly on the work I’m trying to do here with this blog; it was titled “Multiply and Mobilize: Resisting Divide and Conquer Tactics in Multiracial Work.” It was an interactive session run by the organization AORTA that gave us the opportunity to hear from activists who described situations where the divide and conquer mentality could have ended a specific fight for justice, but activists forged on, built bridges, and successfully created coalitions. I was personally so thrilled to be able to hear a panel of experienced activists, including the leader of Race Forward, Rinku Sen, speak about the need to disrupt divide and conquer ways of thinking. As the title of my blog makes clear, this is exactly what I’m trying to do.

In the keynote presentation, three generations of the Reagon family, Bernice Johnson Reagon (founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock), her daughter Toshi Reagon, and her daughter Tashawn Reagon, shared the power of music in the fight for social justice and the importance of inter-generational coalition-building. Tashawn is a college student, so I was especially interested in her advice that we “dig deep” and “lean into discomfort.” She also described her work at Skidmore College in Intergroup Relations, a program that more colleges should explore to foster dialog about social justice.

The closing plenary was as inspiring and intellectually rigorous as the rest of the conference, where three speakers provided insight into where we’ve been and where we need to go over the next 50 years in order to achieve racial justice. Ian Haney-Lopez (author of Dog Whistle Politics), Van Jones (former Obama advisor and author of Rebuild the Dream) and Rinku Sen left us with both insight and tools to help us move forward.

I’d like to wrap up here with a few take-away points that kept coming up throughout the conference, concepts that are very important as we fight for justice:

  • make sure your social justice goals are not at the expense of someone else
  • diversity (ie variety) is not enough; it needs to be about equity (power)
  • we need inter-generational coalition-building
  • we must have difficult conversations about race; avoiding it doesn’t make racism go away
  • the false stories that the media tells us about people of color (whether in the news or in prime time drama) fuel the inhumane way people of color are treated in their daily lives
  • we need to understand how different systems (media, Wall St., technology, corporations, electoral politics) connect together to perpetuate systemic racism
  • whiteness was created centuries ago to benefit the white wealthy elite, and it is still being used to support primarily a very small ultra-wealthy white minority that exerts substantial power over everyone else
  • the divide and conquer mentality must be examined and disrupted so we can build coalitions and fight for our common interests

Thank you, Race Forward for organizing such an inspiring conference!


We Are Living in a Racial Vacuum

After recently attending two thought-provoking events related to racial justice, I am left with the disturbing feeling that we are living in a racial vacuum. One event was a conference at UCLA Law School, a Symposium on the 20th anniversary of Cheryl Harris’s law review article “Whiteness as Property.” The other event was a three-day workshop on community organizing called “Undoing Racism” in Newark, NJ sponsored by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. If these events could be considered, as I do, barometers for measuring the level of systemic racism permeating our country now, then we are clearly in serious trouble. Both events illustrated the massive disconnect between the seriousness of past and present systemic racism and the utter lack of awareness about this crisis on the part of many Americans, which leads me to believe we are in a racial vacuum.

First and foremost, one of the most valuable ways of understanding systemic racism is through the field of Critical Race Theory, a legal studies specialty created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, and Cheryl Harris (the latter three of whom presented their work at this UCLA conference). This field creatively and accessibly explores how the law is not neutral or colorblind; it was created to uphold white supremacy. Scholars in this field help us understand who is presumed guilty, who is presumed innocent, who has a right to land, who is an American, and much more. Critical race theory has now been around for a few decades and the audience of two hundred at UCLA clearly shows how much passion exists for this field by law students, alumni, and scholars alike. The entire conference focused on the influence of Harris’s article about whiteness, one of the first pieces of scholarship to analyze the way whiteness was created in the law and how the law adjusted, decade by decade, century by century, to maintain and uphold that white supremacy.

I only wish that more people from disciplines outside of the law recognized the potential of this field. While Michelle Alexander’s 2010 brilliant best-seller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has broken through and reached readers outside of academia, it’s hard to say the same of many other books from the field of critical race theory. My own presentation at UCLA focused on the interdisciplinary possibilities that can come when we break down the boundary between critical race theory and literature. I received only positive comments and support from people at my session as well as from other people I spoke with at the conference, including Harris, Crenshaw, and Matsuda. They all seem quite eager for such interdisciplinary interventions, but why isn’t it happening? Why aren’t other fields picking up on the richness that critical race theory has to offer? Are they unwilling to recognize that we are living in a racial vacuum, and if we don’t do something soon, it will be too late?

The forty to fifty participants at the Undoing Racism workshop would have, I suspect, gotten a lot out of the UCLA conference, and some of them have likely read critical race theory. This workshop focused on teaching several fundamental concepts that can be used as a way to organize around racial justice. The participants tended to either be social workers, other social service workers, high school and college educators, faith-based organizers, and college students. The workshop facilitators ran sessions on key concepts like systemic racism, poverty, the history of race as a social construct, and specific systems like the criminal justice system, education, and religion. There was a lot of discussion about Ferguson and how black parents must have conversations with their kids about the police that white parents don’t need to have. Interestingly, I found a lot of overlap between the key concepts they taught and the way I approach the college class I developed called “Race in American Literature and Popular Culture.” However, just like I asked why scholars from fields outside of the law were generally absent from the UCLA conference, I ask, where were the colleagues of the workshop participants?

Both the UCLA conference (and critical race theory more generally) and the Undoing Racism workshop point to the need for a critical consciousness, and that’s what I keep coming back to in my teaching as well as in this blog and my research. That’s the thing that’s missing. The vast majority of Americans are not aware of the history of racism in the US, and when they see a reference to a current example of racism in the news, they don’t bring historical and cultural context to it. And the mainstream media certainly does not provide that context. This is how we got to a point when some whites believe they are the ones being racially discriminated against, as if a hierarchy based on white supremacy had never been built into our law and our institutions. That history evaporates when we’re in a racial vacuum.

The only way that people learn this unacknowledged history is if they go out of their way to attend a workshop or a conference, take a class about it, and/or read on their own. If you’re already living in a vacuum, what will prompt you to take that step?

I’d like to end with a few questions I have about Audre Lorde’s famous statement, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” a quote that kept going through my mind at UCLA and in Newark. What would she say about where we are now? And what should we do? How do we work on helping as many people as possible develop a critical consciousness about racial justice? If we follow Lorde’s advice, is there a role for public school K-12 education? Would it ever be possible to enact Paulo Freire’s theory of “problem-posing education”? While his book and the Mexican American Studies Program was banned by the state of Arizona, doesn’t that mean it was actually working? My community college students keep asking why they didn’t learn that race was a social construct when they were younger and how much of a difference that could make.

Is there a role for the media to play in helping the public build a critical consciousness? If critical consciousness is developed only one at a time on a grassroots level, is that a pace at which we can afford to move? Don’t we need something bigger? But if we use something bigger, are we in danger of using the Master’s Tools? How do we reconcile these issues?

My Own Silo Saga (Or, Why We Need to Break Down Disciplinary Divisions)

You would think after all the years of interdisciplinary academic programs being developed that we would have reached a time when we weren’t still so divided. But we are. We are stuck in our silos at the expense of social justice. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about, and then I’ll talk about why I think it’s such a problem. Oh, and by the way, if you’ve read the “Silo” series by Hugh Howey (starting with the novel Wool), then you’ll be able to visualize the problem I’m talking about.

I attended Netroots Nation in Detroit in July 2014; this conference is considered the biggest progressive conference of the year. It was amazing, and I learned about various progressive issues, activist strategies, and more. However, I didn’t meet one other college professor, of any discipline. And I only met a few K-12 teachers. Almost everyone there was either a blogger, journalist, activist, and/or political candidate, and they all seemed quite invested in social justice. Where were the scholars, the college professors, and the K-12 teachers?

In April 2014, I attended a conference at Yale Law School called “Re-Envisioning Race in a ‘Post-Racial’ Era: New Approaches in Critical Race Theory.” All of the panels and presentations were inspiring and informative. The audience was almost primarily law faculty, law students, and practicing lawyers, even though anyone who follows current events who doesn’t have a law degree would have gotten so much out of the conference. Where were faculty, grad students, and undergrad students from other academic disciplines? Where were the high school teachers? Where were the activists unaffiliated with an academic institution?

We are doing such a disservice to the cause of social justice by cutting ourselves off from conversations and interactions with like-minded people who could teach us something valuable. We seem to congregate in conferences with people who have similar graduate degrees or similar positions. I’m certainly not discounting the value of that. For example, many of the classes I teach are composition, and it’s very helpful for me to spend some of my professional development interacting with other composition instructors at community colleges in order to share best practices for achieving our common goals. However, that can only be a piece of my professional and personal growth, only a small piece of the larger project of social justice. We have to think less about what discipline we’re in or what our job is and think more about what larger social problems we want to come together to discuss, analyze, and at least begin to resolve. How can we possibly know if the solution we come up with will work if we are only sharing it with people who have the same graduate degree as we do, who have the same type of job we do? I need to be able to talk to people outside of the discipline of English and even outside of academia altogether to know if my solutions even make sense.

Much of my blog (and my book project) is devoted to stereotypes that divide us, that keep us separated, that prevent us from coming together to form coalitions. I’m trying to raise awareness about those stereotypes so that we can dismantle them and build coalitions around common interests. I think something similar is going on here when it comes to divisions between academic disciplines and divisions between scholars and activists. We’re divided, for various reasons, some of which are not ill-intended, but the result is the same. We don’t come together across disciplines, across careers, to discuss the concerns that we share.

However, I did notice that as soon as the news from Ferguson spread across the country in August, it seemed that there were connections being forged across disciplines, across all types of communities. We can’t lose that momentum, and we can’t wait until a tragedy of that scale to make it happen. We have extremely serious problems that we need to tackle, from systemic racism to economic inequality to homophobia to climate change. We need to think about developing more issue-oriented conferences, open to anyone who is interested, that can foster dialogue and prompt change. I’m looking forward to attending Facing Race in November, where I hope to experience just that.

Until then, I’ll be sharing my ideas at UCLA Law School’s Critical Race Studies conference later this week on the 20th anniversary of Cheryl Harris’ law review article “Whiteness as Property,” which has had a tremendous influence on my thinking. It prompted me to envision a conversation between Harris and Joyce Carol Oates, particularly through Oates’ 1980 novel Bellefleur. While I don’t think that literary scholars are engaging enough with critical race theory, and I’ve been trying to change that, I’m hoping that I can inspire critical race theorists to see the interdisciplinary connections with literature, so we can begin to emerge out of our silos and work together for justice.

“Asian Privilege”? No. Model Minority Myth? Yes.

In my last blog, I explored white resistance to the idea of “white privilege” in discussions about racism, post-Ferguson. I wrote that in late August, Bill O’Reilly questioned the existence of “white privilege,” and that I wanted to examine that but that I also wanted to look, this time, at how he introduces a question about “Asian privilege” to discredit the idea of “white privilege.” O’Reilly rattles off a bunch of statistics about unemployment, high school graduation, single-parent homes, and household income to show that every time, blacks were the least successful, whites in the middle, and Asians the most successful. O’Reilly then asks sarcastically, “So do we have Asian privilege in America?” He goes on to argue that Asian Americans are the most successful people in the US because they take personal responsibility, they overcome obstacles, they work hard, and their families stay together.

First, I want to be clear that various writers have already responded to O’Reilly’s reference to “Asian privilege”; there have been several excellent critiques, including “Bill O’Reilly’s ‘Asian Privilege’ Disgrace” by Marie Myung-Ok Lee of Salon, “What Bill O’Reilly Gets Wrong about Asian Americans” by Kevin Wong, also of Salon, and “Bill O’Reilly and White Privilege” by Charles Blow of the New York Times.

Second, I would like to add to this conversation by connecting O’Reilly’s comment to a larger pattern in our culture. O’Reilly is hardly the only person perpetuating this stereotype. We often hear comments about Asian American students being better at math than anyone else, and that’s just another manifestation of the same damaging stereotype.

So, what exactly is the problem here? What’s wrong with celebrating Asian American success? In fact, that’s not really what is going on here. O’Reilly was using Asian Americans as a weapon against blacks, and that is the fundamental divide and conquer phenomenon that I am trying to examine, raise awareness about, and ultimately dismantle with this blog.

To begin, O’Reilly’s words reinforce the stereotype of Asian Americans as the “model minority.” While a “positive” stereotype might not seem like a big deal because it’s positive, that very mindset just makes it all the more damaging because it goes under the radar. This stereotype was created in the late 1960s and clearly continues to be perpetuated to the present day. Many scholars have demonstrated this phenomenon, including Frank Wu, Neil Gotanda, Mari Matsuda, Sumi Cho, Robert Chang, Angelo Ancheta, Helen Zia, and Robert Lee. The media latched on to the notion of the “model minority” starting in 1966 (not coincidentally, the height of the black power movement), when two prominent news articles established the success of two groups within the Asian American community, Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans respectively, at the expense of other racial minorities. On January 9, 1966, the New York Times Magazine published an article titled “Success Story, Japanese Style.” Consider the words used to describe Japanese Americans here: “better than any other group in our society,” “exceptionally law-abiding,” acting with “perseverance” and “unaided effort,” with a “family life both strong and flexible.”

On December 26, 1966, U.S. News & World Report published an article titled “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” Again, consider how the very beginning of the article establishes the notion of the model minority: “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own—with no help from anyone else.” The article reinforces this idea throughout with words to describe Chinese Americans like: “obedient,” “model of self-respect and achievement,” who “depend on their own efforts—not a welfare check” with “traditional virtues of hard work, thrift and morality.”

These articles unabashedly established Asian Americans as the “good” minority. And, if there is a “good” minority, there must be a “bad” minority. Both of these articles identify the “bad” minority and so does O’Reilly, but many other references to Asian Americans as the model minority are silent on the flip side of this stereotype, leaving unspoken the identification of the not-so-model minority that Asian Americans are being compared to. However, just because it’s invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t there. That’s the particularly insidious dynamic of this stereotype.

The stereotype of the model minority is shockingly powerful. In one move, it can perpetuate these powerful ideologies about race and class: anyone who works hard can be successful, our society runs on a meritocracy, racism is pretty much over, the federal government does not need to get involved in addressing racism (because it’s pretty much over), Asian Americans are a homogenous group who don’t experience any serious problems, anyone who continues to complain about racism is simply not working hard enough and spending too much time complaining, and we all just need to move on.

Such a stereotype denies the existence of racism against Asian Americans. And if there’s any doubt that such racism continues, just take a look at Deepa Iyer’s piece from the other day on “13 Years After 9/11: A Reflection on Resilience,” which discusses the serious challenges that Asian Americans continue to face.

I’ve written about the model minority myth, its origins and its continued persistence in our media and popular culture, in much more detail in my book project (still in need of a publisher). This stereotype does not get enough attention, and it is often still taken for granted as the truth rather than as a divide and conquer strategy that perpetuates systemic racism and the status quo. We need to raise awareness about this divisive stereotype, dismantle it, and build coalitions around common interests.

Unpacking the Resistance to “White Privilege”

It’s not often that the concept of “white privilege” is the focus of the mainstream media. It took the shooting of unarmed black male teenager Michael Brown and the devastated community of Ferguson to show the world the brutality of systemic racism and economic inequality. Over the past few weeks, as the news media has highlighted incontrovertible data about the unequal treatment of African Americans, there have been several valuable articles and blogs about the way white privilege operates in our society today. To mention just a few, the New York Times, AlterNet, The Root, Salon, and Slate have published insightful commentary and analysis on the basic idea of whiteness and white privilege.

However, not surprisingly, we’ve also seen a considerable backlash to this discussion of white privilege. As Bill O’Reilly said recently during his editorial, “Talking Points does not believe in white privilege.”

This type of resistance to the idea of white privilege is what I’d like to focus on here.

There is a knee-jerk reaction by many whites to the notion of white privilege, and they think, “But I don’t feel privileged…” That’s where the resistance starts to develop because I’m not sure that anyone actually feels privilege as a sensation; therefore, it’s easy and convenient to deny. The resistance can build further when whites compare themselves to other racial groups. Even if they do recognize that they are treated better than members of other racial groups, they can chalk it up to deserving that benefit because of working hard, being smart, somehow earning this privilege. Anything else would fly in the face of the basic notion of the American Dream, that one has control over one’s destiny through hard work.

Bill O’Reilly proclaimed that “African Americans have a much harder time succeeding in our society than whites do” not because of white privilege but because they lack “stable homes and an emphasis on education.” He argued that if African Americans “overcome obstacles” and take “personal responsibility,” they would be successful. The problem, he maintains, is with them, not with white privilege or anything systemic. (I will save his reference to “Asian Privilege” for a future blog post because it will take some time to critically examine the model minority stereotype he upholds.)

So, where does that leave us? I don’t anticipate ever changing Bill O’Reilly’s mind, but I do think for many other whites, we can get past this resistance. What makes the difference? I think history helps. I think if more whites understood the history of whiteness, and the way that whiteness has been used as a weapon, that would help. No white person alive today created whiteness or white privilege; it’s not about holding white people today responsible for inventing whiteness. Acknowledging that white privilege exists and that you benefit from it is not the same as saying you created it. In addition, acknowledging that white privilege exists does not minimize a recognition of how whites can also be marginalized, via socio-economic class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  However, denying that white privilege exists is a problem.

If we take the time to look at the history of whiteness, we will see that whiteness is not a stable, monolithic category; it’s crucial to understand that the question of who is allowed to be white varied from one historical period to the next, from one law or court case to the next. That history shows us that whiteness is not something natural or innate but something that society created, more specifically that those in power created to hang onto their power. White skin is not inherently meaningful, just like the shape of one’s ear is not inherently meaningful. Meaning had to be created and attached to whiteness, and that meaning evolved. For many years, the Irish, for example, were not considered white, and then that changed for a variety of social, political, and economic reasons. The same goes for Italians and many other groups. The definition of white evolved, and it’s still evolving. That means we can have some say in what it signifies; that means we can resist it, separate “white” from “privilege” and build a more just society.

(A few excellent resources on this history include: The History of White People, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, How the Irish Became White, and Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror.)

3 Things Every American Should Know About Race

The history of race is the history of an idea, and we must learn this history if we are to see justice.

  1. Race is not real. Racism is real. Race is an invention, but we take it for granted and fail to understand that what is real is racism, the beliefs and actions that develop based on the invention of race. (Resources include: The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America; Race: The Power of an Illusion; Race: Are We So Different?)
  2. Race was invented at a particular time in our history for a particular purpose. More specifically, race was invented in the late 1600s in colonial America as a divide and conquer strategy to perpetuate the power and status quo of a small group of elite white wealthy landowners. The invention of race as a method of identifying and categorizing people on a hierarchy divided poor whites, blacks, and Native Americans from each other to avoid their alliance against those in power. The vast majority of people living in the colonies were not well served by the invention of race. (Resources include: The History of White People; Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century; The Invention of the White Race)
  3. More than 300 years after race was invented, we are still breathing the toxic fallout of its invention; this fallout is called racism. We breathe it, absorb it, become contaminated by it. We witness its fatal impact in Ferguson. Only when we recognize racism’s power can we start to resist it. (Resources include: Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class; The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement; Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge; “The Case for Reparations”)

Just like the Occupy movement highlighted how the vast majority of Americans do not benefit from our country’s economic policies that protect the ultra-wealthy, we need a parallel movement to highlight how the vast majority of Americans do not benefit from the invention of race. In discussing the invention of race, the documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion says the following: “We made it. We can unmake it.” Please read my future blogs as I continue to explore these ideas.

Let’s do this! “Constructing a Conversation on Race”

Please read this exceptional column by Charles M. Blow in the NY Times. He does a phenomenal job of outlining how race has been socially constructed to divide and conquer us, which is exactly what I’m trying to get at in my work. At the end, he says:

We can talk this through. We can have this conversation. We must. Hopefully this provides a little nudge and a few parameters.

Yes! Please join me.

Empower the people of Ferguson

The climate that prevents or discourages people from voting must change, including the structures of institutional racism. The right to vote must be real, not just on paper but in practice too, meaning no voter ID laws, no intimidation. It’s a crucial part (though only a part) of addressing systemic racism.

In response to:

Voter Registration in Ferguson Called ‘Disgusting’

Read the full NY Times article here