The Debate On Race Was Extended; Or, “Be Careful What You Wish For!”

In a recent post, I called for extending the New York Times Room For Debate, “Do Black Intellectuals Need to Talk About Race?“  My key concern was that due to various institutional constraints, the question is moot for some; the potential professional (and personal) consequences are so high, that silence may be necessary for one’s survival.

But, now feeling a little braver because I am close to the end of my status as a lifetime student, I did talk about race in the academy.  In fact, I felt comfortable enough to call attention to a blog post on race by Fabio Rojas, a professor in my department at Indiana University.  But, I have only started the long process of rebuilding my confidence, particularly in my perspective (i.e., my voice),  after years of being torn down and remade in graduate school.  So, I still braced for the sky to fall after I clicked “publish,” releasing the blog post to the worldwide web.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Late Wednesday night, I saw an email notification that I had a comment on my recent blog post — a pingback from Fabio’s blog, orgtheory.net.  It was a new blog post by him: “Response To Eric Grollman On Race.”  Oh My Goddess,” I thought.  “I am going to get kicked out of graduate school!”  I read Fabio’s response, feeling a wave of different emotions.  Obviously, panic.  Then, a sense of worry that I had been too harsh, or even unfair by referencing his ethnic identity and prior scholarship.  Finally, excitement, pride, relief, and hope.  In January, I expressed my anger and disappointment to my friends, but felt powerless to do or say anything.  Now, in mid-February, a professor in my department, on his popular blog, was responding directly to me.  By August, MSNBC will be moving my social and political commentary show, Tell The Truths, to Wednesday evenings.  (It is okay to dream, isn’t it?)

I watched to see what sort of comments Fabio’s response would receive, fearing others would chime in to disagree with or criticize my perspective.  To my surprise, a third scholar-bloggerTressie McMillan Cottom, joined the debate with a second response to Fabio (see her first here).  Though I did not start the conversation, I am proud to be part of the very debate I called to extend.  Indeed, this is not the first debate about racism after the re-election of President Barack Obama, nor the first distinguishing “post-racial” from “post-racist.”

Tell The Truths

My PhD in sociology, or at least being months from officially receiving it, is not the sole source of my new (renewed, actually) sense of confidence to speak up and speak out.  I devoted some of the little free time I have these days to reading the works of Frederick Douglas, Audre Lorde, Keith Boykin, and Patricia Hill Collins.  These are scholars and advocates who used their voices to make visible the lives of and conditions faced by oppressed people.  They did not wait for permission to speak, and, in many ways, had to fight to do so.  And, rather than seeking large samples and fancy methodological approaches to appeal to the fickle standards of “objective” science, they used their own lives as “proof” of the everyday realities of oppression.

I see in my rigorous academic training both an opportunity and an obligation to speak out.  Collins speaks about “telling the truth” in both her book, Intellectual Activism and a short article in Contexts magazine.  She proposes this, for scholars with social justice motivations, in two ways.  First, by “speaking truth to power”:

This form of truth telling uses the power of ideas to confront existing power relations.  On a metaphorical level, speaking the truth to power invokes images of changing the very foundations of social hierarchy where the less powerful take on the ideas and practices of the powerful, often armed solely with their ideas. One can imagine this process through the David and Goliath story of the weak standing up to the strong, armed only with a slingshot (as relying solely on the power of one’s ideas seems to be) (p. 37).

For many scholars, including myself, this primarily entails devoting our scholarship to changing how and on what other scholars do their research.  For Collins, this has been done phenomenally through advancing intersectionality, a theoretical framework that calls for attending to the intersections among systems of oppression (racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism).  I have attempted to advance this framework in my own research on the health consequences of discrimination.

This is important work that ultimately transforms science and, hopefully, the potential social change that can result from research.  But, those conversations remain among scholars.  And, there is a very long time between project conception to publication, publication to use by other researchers (i.e., citations), and then to any impact that work will have beyond the academy.  Still, much published research remains unavailable outside of academia and, even if it was freely accessible, I am doubtful that non-academics care to read the latest issue of an academic journal.

As such, Collins proposes a second form of truth-telling – “speak[ing] the truth directly to the people”:

In contrast to directing energy to those in power, a focus that inadvertently bolsters the belief that elites are the only social actors who count, those who speak the truth to the people talk directly to the masses (p. 38).

This means more than teaching large classes of undergraduate students.  It means making accessible the resources (including ideas, perspectives, and data) to “ordinary, everyday people” to “assist them in their everyday lives” (p. 38).  I have attempted this by providing my perspective and findings from prior research to community groups with which I have worked.  I have offered advice to family and friends who have sought to challenge workplace discrimination and unfair labor practices.  And, as often as I can, I blog here and for the Kinsey Institute (KinseyConfidential.org).  But, also as Collins notes, I feel obligated to let family, friends, and the broader public speak to me, as well:

I believe that our analyses of important social issues are strengthened when we engage in dialogues, and speak with people and not at them (p. 41).

As such, rather than viewing my “expert” knowledge and perspective as Truth, I allow others’ experiences and perspectives to inform, challenge, and validate my work as a scholar.  (As an aside, I am often frustrated that my work as a social scientist demands that I spend hours looking at numbers — that represent individuals — in isolation.)

Fabio has written some on this sort of work in sociology, often called “public sociology,” and the challenges and constraints posed against such efforts.

A Response To Fabio’s Response To My Response

Fabio noted my outrage about his suggestion that we live in a “post-racist” society, and offered the following thoughts in response:

  • Recognizing progress is not logically equivalent to saying that racism is absent in our society.
  • It is important to recognize the drastic reduction in racist practices in American society for political and scientific reasons. Politically, we should reward good behavior. We should praise people when they stop engaging in overtly racist actions or passing race based law and policy. If we say “nothing has changed,” then people may say  “why should I change? Nothing will make people happy.” Sociologically, it is simply erroneous to equate the era of Jim Crow with the era of Obama. African Americans and other minorities have changed in many remarkable ways. People of color make more money, get better jobs, get more education, are healthier, and have benefited enormously because of the Civil Rights movement. To deny that is folly.
  • Before you get outraged again, I do not deny relative differences remain, which are often substantial. But once again, we must still recognize progress in absolute terms. And I’ll take large absolute improvements over changes in relative differences any day.
  • Eric raises the issue of racial privilege and subtle forms of discrimination. I completely agree! Nowhere did I deny that these remain. But that comment itself shows how much things have changes. The cost of outright racism is now so high that it must go “underground.” That’s an improvement!
  • On one point, I would agree with the skeptics who believe that racism is just as bad, possibly worse, than it was at the end of the Civil Rights era. People of color are subject to mass incarceration (again). In many ways, being stuck under the thumbs of an oppressive White majority in the South in 1920 isn’t so much different than being put in jail for non-violent drug charges. I’d also add that we should consider immigration law as one massive attempt to keep out ethnic outsiders as well. And of course, I haven’t mentioned the harassment that many people of Arabic descent have experienced post 9/11.
  • Finally, I stand by my comment that it is good that we can talk about race. This is a *massive* cultural change. Remember, if you can name it, you can own it.

There are a few things I wish to say in response to Fabio:

  • First, I wish to clarify that, in disagreeing with the existence of “post-racism,” I do not disagree with the very real changes that have occurred in the US.  That three sociologists of color, one a tenured professor at a top university and two PhD students, are having this public discussion about racial and ethnic relations is evidence itself of the massive changes even in the past 50 years and beyond.  But, the major changes we have seen do not suggest the complete erasure of racism in America.
  • Second, I share some of the concern that a few others have made in comments to his response and original blog post that the shift form overt, Jim Crow-era racism to subtle, “color-blind” racism is change, but not necessarily progress.  If anything, it is now harder to talk about racism because, for example, racist discrimination is thinly veiled as something non-racial.  Racial and ethnic minorities’ real experiences of racist discrimination are viewed skeptically, or even dismissed as paranoia, hypervigilance, or playing “the race card.”  Even in academic research, despite the real evidence of differential treatment (e.g., Devah Pager’s work), so many scholars do work on “perceived” discrimination.
  • Third, I point to the underlying motivations to declare the US “post-racial” as evidence of a lingering problem in racial and ethnic relations.  Why is (white) America so anxious to declare racism dead?  Though these desires existed before 2007, they seemed to solidify with the election of President Obama.  Now that one (half) Black man has been elected twice into the nation’s most powerful position, many whites see crystal clear evidence that racial discrimination no longer exists.  Thus, we lack a collective understanding of racism that looks beyond the individual level.  I am pessimistic about the prospects of seeing another Black president any time soon.
  • Fourth, I stress (again) that racism operates through institutional practices.  Tressie wrote more about this in her first post, as well: “Central to my theorizing and empirical work is that organizations reproduce racial, gender, and class inequality”; and, she wrote a more extensive response (with great examples) in her second post.  This, of course, is only one aspect of the understanding of racism as a social institution in its own right.
  • Related to my third point, I am ambivalent about Fabio’s call to “reward good behavior,” specifically that we should “praise [white] people when they stop engaging in overtly racist actions or passing race based law and policy.”  White America did not willingly give people of color anything: not freedom from enslavement; not full citizenship and humanity; not equal protection under the law; not the right to participate in elections and politics; not equal opportunities and access to important institutions; not freedom from violence and discrimination; and, not programs to redress the persistent economic, psychological, and spiritual damage caused by the legacy of racism in America.  We have had the noble help and support of white anti-racist activists, liberals, allies, and friends throughout history.  However, whites, as a group, have not given us our free, equal status.  Many, many, many people of color have fought tirelessly for equality.  Few whites have actively fought racism.  The supposed absence of whites’ racism is not equivalent to white anti-racism.  I do agree that it is important to note progress, where progress has been made — something to which people of all races and ethnicities have contributed.  But, I do not feel compelled to assuage white guilt, nor to feed into whites’ savor complex.  The act of thanking or congratulating a white person for not discriminating against me or being open-minded enough to treat me as an equal (without claiming to be blind to my brown skin) would be completely degrading.
  • Finally, thank you, Fabio, for the response, and for continuing this debate on race and racism.  I have seen a spike in site visitors, likely many of your own who are curious about this “outraged” Eric Anthony Grollman.

I look forward to continued dialogue around race, ethnicity, racism, and xenophobia!