Tuesday, May 26, 2009

think of race in america in terms of black and white

The big news today was Barack Obama's announcement of his selection of Sonia Sotomayor as a nominee for the Supreme Court. I'm not enthusiastic about picking people for any position solely because of their minority status, in terms of race, gender, sexuality, or any other categories. Fortunately (and no surprise to me), from the looks of Sonia Sotomayor's educational and professional background, she's eminently qualified to advance to the Supreme Court.

Less fortunately, the leading indicators of Sotomayor's professional background are less promising, at least for me. It appears that another Democratic president has nominated another moderate centrist, a judge who's unlikely to do as much as I'd like in terms of countering the far-right justices appointed by Republican presidents. (Why is it that Republicans consistently manage to appoint justices who are relatively extreme, compared to those appointed by Democrats?)

Nevertheless, appearances do matter, and I appreciate how Sotomayor's likely presence on the court will help to break up a glacier of sorts in the white American imagination--the conception of race in America in largely black-and-white terms, and the accompanying conception of Hispanic/Latino Americans, and others, as outsiders.

Latinos have always been a part of America, and many were here before the United States even existed (before, that is, the U.S. basically stole a huge chunk of Mexico in the Mexican-American War). Nevertheless, white Americans in general still think of Latin Americans, like the members of other groups, as somehow un-American.

It may be obvious to point out that America has more than two racial groups, and that huge numbers of Latin Americans have been American citizens for many generations. But then, many white Americans have yet to realize that Hispanic/Latino Americans have surpassed African Americans in demographic terms to become the largest minority.

When white Americans hear such terms as "race," racism," "race relations" and so on, they still usually think "black people," and then, sometimes, "white people." When they do think of people in Sotomayor's racial/ethnic group, exclusionary terms come to mind instead of racial ones -- "Mexican," "migrant worker," "illegal alien," and so on.

A similarly exclusionary effect is imposed on other groups as well. As many Asian Americans point out time and time again, people have been coming to America from Asia since at least the 1700s, and yet, white Americans still tend to think of them as "perpetual foreigners." For instance, when they ask an Asian American the common conversation-starter, "Where are you from?" what they actually mean is, "Where are you or your ancestors from?" Which really means, "When I look at you, I don't fully see you as an American."

As many Arab Americans have pointed out, the white American imagination is slow to think of them as Americans as well. When most whites in the U.S. do think of race beyond the black/white binary, they still think in terms of what historian David Hollinger long ago labeled the "ethno-racial pentagon": Asian American; white/Euro-American; black/African American; "Indian"/Native American; and Hispanic/Latin American. There's no place in this conception of race among American citizens for Arab Americans, a gap which has made it all that much easier to demonize them as irrational, America-hating terrorists.

"Indigenous people," as that term implies, were this continent's first people, but many white Americans don't immediately think of them either when they hear the words "race" or "race relations." When white people do think beyond black and white about indigenous people, they tend to think of them in romanticized, archaic terms, which are brought to mind primarily by media-generated images of shaman, buffalo-hunters, medicine men, Indian princesses and sports mascots.

Again, it may seem to go without saying that in addition to white and black people, these other people are Americans too. And to most white Americans, that statement actually would be obvious.

But there's also a way, a sort of subconscious way, in which that statement is not obvious to the collective white imagination. No matter how much white Americans like to think of themselves as free-floating, independently minded individuals, they are a part of, and deeply influenced by, that larger collective consciousness. And that collective consciousness still leads many of them to think of race in America in simplistic, dichotomous, and damaging terms.

As Nicole Shaffer points out, "The trouble with the Black/White binary paradigm of 'race relations' in the United States is that it works to obscure the racialization of other groups and the resulting experiences of discrimination." Seeing groups outside of this binary as somehow "un-American" makes it all that much easier to condone or commit racist abuse against them.

The occupation of highly visible positions of power by people like Sonia Sotomayor, people who are not black or white, may seem like a mere surface matter. In some ways, it is merely that, and again, I personally wish that Obama had chosen someone with apparent sympathies, understandings and judgments that lie further to the left than Sotomayor's apparently do.

But, in terms of moving the white American imagination beyond the black-and-white binary, so that white Americans become more accepting, sympathetic, and respectful towards all American citizens, the highly public consignment of power to people like Sonia Sotomayor could help to bring about a seismic shift in white conceptions about who does and does not count as "American." Surface appearances can be a superficial thing, but I also think they matter, and that they do so in profound, fundamental ways.

For another take on common white reactions to Obama's nominee, I recommend Chauncey DeVega's post at We Are Respectable Negroes.


  1. the comments on CNN regarding the nomination are incredible sexist and racist

  2. oh yes sir! thank you! when I respond to a question (mostly retorical types) on whether I am black or white, I say neither. omg... confusion enters the atmosphere... you are NOT black OR white??? er yeah.

  3. FYI Sotomayor is Puerto Rican, not Mexican. You didn't describe her as Mexican, but since you mentioned the land-grab that was the Spanish-American war, and the subsequent longstanding latino population in the SW US without pointing out that she is from elsewhere... well people are likely to assume. Since we're talking about the black-white binary I thought I'd point it out... since a shocking number of people can't seem to realize that Latin America spans two whole continents, and that Mexico is only one of more then a dozen countries within it.

    I wonder if her nomination will spark any discussion on a grander scale about the status of Puerto Rico and US colonialism/neocolonialism in the caribbean.

    As for the your ideological ballance question... the republicans are extremist conservatives, who appoint conservative-to-radical conservative justices, the democrats (since Reagan at least) are "center-right" or "moderate" conservatives and to appoint moderately centerist-to-conservative justices. In the "post-roe" world dem. presidents don't appoint justices who are seen as "more liberal" then they are because its too easy to get trounced by the (as polls are showing) increasingly out of touch republican smear machine.

  4. Yes, thanks for pointing that out Jules, there is of course a very wide variety of groups within that sector of the ethno-racial pentagon.

    But, is Sotomayor really Puerto Rican, or an American of Puerto Rican descent? (She was born in the Bronx, to parents who came from Puerto Rico.)

  5. The term I've seen used by people who know more then I do is "Newyoriqueña".

    And the "Puerto Rican" or "American of Puerto Rican descent" answer depends on a couple of things, because Puerto Rico is a US colony, and for the last 90-odd years Puerto Ricans (born on, and living in Puerto Rico) have technically been considered US Citizens, though they have less rights then citizens who are from States, rather then Territories.

  6. Hey Macon D, I think this video might be on topic with your new topic on America being black nd white: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QJ13a_MXJA&feature=channel_page

  7. I think most of the "where are you from" questions are innocent, and sometimes I feel like asking a similar question when I hear an interesting accent.

    Sometimes I can sense a hostility in that question, and in that case I always answer with a US location. I am from San Francisco. The hostility in the follow up question is never disguised. "Cut the bullshit. You are not from here. Where are you REALLY from!?"

  8. Macon it would have been nice to see you include this blog in the black and white list. This blog is about white people's attitude towards mostly the black race. Go back and count the percentage of postings if you doubt me.

    This black and white view of race gives president Obama a free pass on genocidal race wars in the Arab Islamic world. It allows him to get away with race baiting Palestinians by asking them to recognize Israel as a Jewish nation. Imagine him asking blacks to recognize US as a white nation.

  9. The Hispanic/Latino population is part of an ethnicity, not a race. As you should know, you can be of any race and still be Hispanic/Latino.

    You have some terminology homework to do, lol.

  10. Pakistan Affairs Desk reminded me: its sometimes frustrating when people assume that "where are you from" means, "what ethnicity are you". When I ask (and I usually do when in a long convo with a new person) it always means "where did you grow up/go to high school". I want a city and a state, or a city and a neighborhood (if its an area I know well), so that I can get a regional context. Which doesn't seem inappropriate. That aside: to expose some bias on my part, I am always momentarily jolted to hear an Asian or Middle Eastern person with a strong Southern Accent. One summer I worked with an Indian (India Indian) woman from Texas, and that took some getting used to. Heck, the Texas twang alone took some getting used to.

    Also, while Hispanics and Latinos are recognized as being a seperate category for census/demographic purposes, middle easterners are not. Some interesting stuff has been written recently about their "silent oppression" since their demographic numbers aren't tracked well. Was reminded by Pakistan Help Desk's SN, because I believe its that people from East of Pakistan are instructed to list themselves as "Asian...." and people from West of Pakistan are instructed to list themselves as "White/Caucasian".

  11. Thanks, Macon D, for making the point that race and ethnicity go beyond black and white.

    Pakistan Affairs Desk follows up by saying that the "black and white view of race gives president Obama a free pass on genocidal race wars in the Arab Islamic world."

    I am deeply outraged by Obama's escalation and continuation of violence against the people of Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

    I wonder about the ways that power, race, etc, are at play in any U.S. president's foreign policy decisions -- particularly Bush's and now Obama's.

    For me, prejudice often has to do with who we define as "us" and who we define as "them." As Obama has become the leader of "us," he seems all too willing to continue casting the Arab Muslim World as "the other."

    I don’t know how else he could justify the bombing of innocent people. I can’t justify it at all.

  12. I think as we do are American duty of being critical of President Obama and now Judge Sotamayor, it is important that we consider the ways in which their own backgrounds constrict their actions.

    For example, for any Democratic president to appoint a liberal to the bench would be a risk, but especially for President Obama as an African American. He already is taking flack for appointing Sotamayor, with people calling it nothing more than identity politics. To Karen's point above, I think the race and ethnicity of people in "Middle Eastern" nations plays a role in policy, but I think it would be especially dangerous for President Obama, both politically and practically, to appear to be too concerned about such issues. It could potentially make it too easy for well intentioned policy to be defeated. Even though he's the leader of the free world, he still has to put on the same act that all non-whites must if they want to be accepted by white America.

    For Judge Sotamayor, any decisions she makes or words she says will be viewed through the prism of her ethnicity. We can already see this in the criticism of her decision in the New Haven fire-fighters' case. My guess would be that Sotamayor is more liberal than she is given credit for. If racism impacts her anything like it impacts me, she is very cautious and introspective on such issues as so not to appear biased.

    While Macon D makes an excellent point in pointing out that race in America is not not binary, there are commonalities for non-whites, and one of them is that we actually have to deal with the consequences of our race.

  13. This is an excellent point. A couple points about the whole black/white binary paradigm. One is, depending on where you lives the black white binary is either more or less pronounced, and one reason that macon may seem to focus on black white issues 'Pakistan Affairs Desk' is because perhaps that is more pronounced where is he or where he's from.
    Also, I think I have such a pronounced antipathy for the term 'people of color' because it almost seems like an attempt to bundle together all races in contrast to whites (who definately have a color) and therefore extend the moribund black/white binary that has for far too long, dominated the conversation. I this unforunate name de jour ignores the incredible complexity of human diversity and it places entirely too much emphasis on white people (as no matter how you define 'white' we're one of many human minorities and we're fast approaching a point where we will simply be the largest minority in the US).
    Instead of the binary we should have a trillion circles of a human identity venn diagram.

  14. J.M. Perkins, I think it's important that we recognize and address the diversity of racial and ethnic identity in this country. However, I also think that it's important to remember that the system of racism that we're so dedicated to combating is constructed in terms of "white" and "non-white." Now, sometimes there are gradations of "non-white," but the fact of the matter is whether all 8 of your great-grandparents were slaves, or your 1/8 black, or your a Latino with white features but the name Juan Riviera, or you're Egyptian or Cambodian - you're still not white, and in the American construct of race, this is the most important identity distinction.

    So, I think at times it's important not to lump people into one "persons of color" group (and maybe we can find a better term that acknowledges whites as a color) - I wouldn't want to pretend to know what it's like to be El Salvadorian or Vietnamese. But, we also need to talk about non-whiteness and how it contrasts with whiteness.

    Also, why am I so long-winded?

  15. (My comment is not directed to any one in particular, just to the lot of comments and the post. And because it is long, I'm posting it in two parts.)

    Puerto Rico is a nation, a country. Puerto Rico is a culture, too. Most of the PRs whom I know (and I know quite a few) on the mainland refer to themselves as Puerto Rican. I have never heard anyone say, "I'm of Puerto Rican descent." Although, to prove that she is a true-blue American gal (with no lefty agenda, because you know how radical those Puerto Ricans are!), Sotomayor might refer to herself that way.

    Puerto Ricans run the full colour spectrum from black to white (or white to black--depending upon your point of reference). One of my closest friends, when I was a teenager, was a Puerto Rican with white skin, blonde hair, and blue-green eyes--she, from a mother with black hair and an olive complexion! (On a few occasions, whites would say something racist about PRs to her, after telling them where they can go, she would tell them that she is Puerto Rican and their jaws would drop.) I have been to a few holiday parties given by Puerto Rican friends of mine, and you can see, in that room, all of the browns and black and white skin colours of people calling each other family.

    The indigenous people of the island are the Tainos. The Tainos were pretty much killed off by Columbus and the Spaniards in a few decades (if that long?) after their arrival on the island: They spread diseases that the Tainos were not immune to; the Spaniards murdered them; and the Tainos committed infanticide and suicide, for many of them preferred to die rather than continue living under Spanish brutality/rule. Consequently, there are very few Puerto Ricans who have Taino blood coursing through their veins.

    Puerto Ricans and Mexicans (Chicanos, Mexican Americans) are muy, muy diferente. They speak Spanish differently. To my ears, PRs (Cubans, too) speak rhythmically; Mexicans pronounce their consonants stronger (I find that PRs tend to drop their Ses). The music is different--night and day, different! Puerto Ricans have instruments (because of the blacks from west Africa who were brought there to be slaves) that Mexicans know nothing about. And the dances are different. The food is different (some Mexican dishes are wrapped in corn husks; Puerto Ricans wrap theirs in banana leaves). Puerto Rican culture is a mixture of the white Spanish and the black mid-Atlantic region west African; whereas Mexican culture is of the indigenous people and the white Spanish (I think there is German too?). And both nationalities/cultures have a different historical relationship with the United States.

  16. ...continued...

    My pet peeve: If you are going to use Latino, then you better include Haitians in that group, for they speak a Latin language, have a Latin culture, which is French.

    I will direct this to a specific commenter here:

    Kevin Lockett said: "Even though he's the leader of the free world, he still has to put on the same act that all non-whites must if they want to be accepted by white America."

    The President of the United States is the elected representative for the United States only. The rest of the "free world" (wherever the hell that is) would beg to differ with you, with this American arrogance, that "our" presidents are their presidents/leaders, too. Last I checked the Germans chose Angela Merkel for their country's representative. Venezuela chose Chavez. England chose Brown. It is that type of thinking, those types of statements, which is one of the reasons the rest of the people in the world dislike us. Also, it reveals how ignorant we are. We are not the leaders of the free world. We cannot bring freedom and democracy to other [nations] at the tip of the gun, with bombs. Besides, as this economic collapse continues its free-fall of the United States into second world status, we are less and less seen for being all that powerful any longer. If you don't believe me, then check in with China, the OPEC countries and some South American countries, which are moving/pushing to have the US dollar no longer be the world's reserve currency. Remember: All empires die.

  17. Woah! I didn't mean that "leader of the free world" thing literally.

    It was only to emphasize the point that Obama is not as all-powerful as some make him out to be.

    I don't think he's the leader of the free world, but some do, and thing that as a result racism doesn't impact him personally. I'm not some idiot overly-patriotic loon who thinks he runs the entire free world.

  18. Boricua is another name for Puerto Rico. Here is a website you might find of interest:

    Virtual Boricua is a website about Puerto Ricans and their culture

  19. What gets to me the most about the part where you wrote about Mexicans=illegals to most Americans not just white Americans. Is that people don't know that most of the mexican population is mostly indigneous or native american. They have been here for centuries starting from 1,000 B.C. They also native americans along with the ones from the States and Canada.

  20. http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/05/28/ifill.sotomayor/index.html?eref=rss_topstories

  21. Thank you for the information, redcatbiker, and especially for that site--a LOT to explore there. I'm not comfortable with any of these terms so far; I try to follow the leads of others who use them, but I'm not dancing well yet.

    Thank you for the link, thelady, Sherrilyn Ifill's analysis in that piece devastates wingnut talking points against Sotomayor. From my perspective, these parts are especially good:

    "Unlike so many judges who by virtue of being white and male simply assume their impartiality, Judge Sotomayor recognizes that all judges are affected by their background and their life experiences. . . .

    "Justice Thomas is the perfect example of how hard it can be for a judge to lay aside the personal experiences that shape his worldview. His views about the affirmative action cases that come before him are shaped quite clearly by what he regards as the self-sufficient dignity of his hard-working grandfather and the humiliation he says he felt when others believed his scholarly accomplishments were the result of affirmative action.

    "White judges are also shaped by their background and experiences. They needn't ever speak of it, simply because their whiteness and gender insulates them from the presumption of partiality and bias that is regularly attached to women judges and judges of color when it comes to matters of race and gender. . . .

    "Judge Sotomayor is not a racist.

    "It is an insult of unimaginable proportion to unleash this charge on her, based on one sentence from her Berkeley, California, speech. It is not just irresponsible to make this charge against a sitting federal appeals court judge based on this flimsy record; it is -- and here I'll break the taboo -- racist to do so."

  22. The mention that the collective white mindset has no room for "Native Americans" as Americans is no surprise...even though Europeans did not "discover" a new continent, like our elementary school teachers are required to perpetuate, they did invent "America"...and they lumped many diverse nations/tribes of people into one "race"...first "Indians" then "Native Americans." Sure, Europeans...English, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek...etc are grouped together as "European", but they are also of the tradition that does the grouping. "Native Americans" don't even get to do their own grouping. "They" exist as what "we" call them. like with these quotes. so much categorizing goes on in our language and thoughts that practically every word could be put in quotes due to the way that no labels can ever be completely accurate.


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