Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and the Campaign Saga of Racism

I was supposed to travel for work this week, right into the wrath of Sandy, but, fortunately, I was authorized to cancel my trip. I live to work and play another day.

Canceling the ugliness, vitriol, and racism in this campaign is a little more difficult. It’s impossible.  There is more and more evidence, despite loud protestation, that many citizens in our proud country are voting on just one issue: the race of the candidates.

Among Republicans and Democrats alike, an AP Poll showed that 51% of Americans express explicit racist attitudes, and when asked implicit questions, the number jumps to 56% of Americans who have racist attitudes.

That means 1 out of 2 people in America harbors racist beliefs and attitudes. That’s hard to deny, even though I’ve heard lots of people saying defensively, “It’s the President and his policies I don’t like, not his race.” Oftentimes statements like, “He’s not American,” or “He needs to go back to Kenya,” follow.

I’m including just a few of the photos that I found out on the Internet. These images are more than just policy attacks. They are blatantly racist. Why aren't people more outraged? Why aren't we calling to end this kind of racist attack on President Obama?

Colbert I. King wrote an op ed piece on how racism might impact the outcome of this election. He gives several examples of the kind of freewheeling racism that has been making its way around the Internet (including the above photos). See his article Racism Could Sway the Election.

Racism still exists. It is so pervasive and ingrained in our language, mainstream culture, and institutions that most people don't recognize it. It exists in the veiled language of the GOP, which is openly courting racists to get more votes.

One of the most prevalent stereotypes is the perception that most black people are on Welfare and most Welfare recipients are black. This stereotype is reinforced in the media and by many conservative politicians. It's the idea that underserving people of color who are too lazy to take personal responsibility for their lives are using our hard-earned tax dollars to support extravagant lifestyles. In fact, according to this stereotype, they feel entitled to receive this free money while the rest of us (read that as white people) work for a living only to pay exorbitant taxes to support these freeloaders.

The statistics show that most people on Welfare are not black. Over 65% are white or other races. A large percentage live in rural areas and not urban centers. Yet the image of a single, urban, black mother is what most people call to mind when asked to picture someone on Welfare.

The image of the Welfare Queen, originally introduced by President Reagan, is a stereotype that grew from one case of Welfare fraud that was exaggerated and distorted so much so that it is unrecognizable from the real case. The original woman charged with Welfare fraud embezzled $8,000 and had four assumed names to collect the extra money. Reagan said the Welfare Queen, “Has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000."

Though Welfare fraud is rare and no one can stay on Welfare indefinitely because of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act passed by President Clinton, the image of the Welfare abusing, single black mother continues strongly today. You can hear it in Romney’s closed-door speech given to his wealthy financial backers when he talked about the 47% who refuse to take personal responsibility and who want government handouts.

In response to Reagan's use of the term Welfare Queen, Susan Douglas, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, writes:
"He specialized in the exaggerated, outrageous tale that was almost always unsubstantiated, usually false, yet so sensational that it merited repeated recounting… And because his ‘examples’ of welfare queens drew on existing stereotypes of welfare cheats and resonated with news stories about welfare fraud, they did indeed gain real traction."

Read more about the stereotype of the Welfare Queen on Wiki.

Then we have the stereotype of what young black men are like. Just this past week I was speaking to a friend about the Trayvon Martin case, and she interrupted me and said, "But he was a thug. He was looking in windows, and he had no right to be there."

"No," I said. "You've been watching too much Fox News. He had every right to be there. He was just a high school boy who happened to be tall and who wore a hoodie. That should not have been reason enough for him to die."

Besides, Ronald and I agreed later when I told him of my conversation, even if he were a thug (and we truly don't believe he was anything but an average high school kid), did he deserve to be killed for it?

According to the stereotype, if you are a young, black male, you should avoid wearing what 90% of teenage boys wear on a daily basis -- hoodies and baggy pants, and you should not go out at night or be seen in the street even in daylight, because you are obviously planning a criminal or violent act. And if someone approaches you brandishing a gun, you should not defend yourself because, obviously, the white man with the gun (who since being charged is now identified as Hispanic) has a right to trail you against the advice of the police and shoot you if he deems you need to be shot. Of course, he had already decided you needed to be shot when he saw you crossing the community grounds with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. He probably spotted your evil eyes from 50 yards away (see my post on evil eyes Profiling Fatality 3: The Demonization of George Zimmerman) and intuited your next move of ill intent.

Read The Thugification of Trayvon Martinan op ed by Zerlina Maxwell, about the stereotypes that came out after Trayvon Martin died from gunshot.

Does America really believe that Trayvon Martin should have been shot and killed for walking back to his father's gated community home, because he was tall, black, and wearing a hoodie? If you believe the answer is 'yes' you may be part of the 51% who explicitly express racist beliefs. If you can't say it out loud but have your doubts, you may be part of the 56% who have implicit racist beliefs.

I stated in this blog in past posts (Can't We All Get Along? and Checking the Other Box) that if you are white in America (I include myself in this definition), you are a racist simply because your skin color affords you privilege and entitlement at the expense of other races and ethnicities. That idea always seems to raise people's ire and defensiveness, but it is true, and we have to acknowledge this fact before we can move on to a post-racial world.

When I was in graduate school for my first master's degree, I studied to become a counselor. The students studying with me were diverse in age (I was one of the oldest at forty-five), but predominately white and middle class. While multiculturalism was mentioned in every course, I constantly wondered why recruiting efforts warranted such dismally monocultural results in the student population. Several professors agreed that recruiting efforts had not warranted the diversity they envisioned but they couldn't really articulate a plan for drawing more students of color into the program.

There was one core course that specifically addressed multiculturalism. That's where I was introduced to the writing of one of my favorite researchers in the counseling field, Monica McGoldrick. She is, in my opinion, the foremost expert in multicultural counseling practice that acknowledges the ways in which culture and ethnicity inform an individual's worldview and the context in which that individual develops.

I was stoked about this course. I couldn't put the books down. Suddenly, many of the things I experienced and witnessed about race (and gender and class) were documented in research. I couldn't wait for the class each week where I hoped for some honest discussion. 

I quickly learned that the course was merely an awareness course, not an in-depth study. One week the professor emailed me just hours before class started and asked if I could hold some of my comments. She said she didn't want the other students intimidated by my level of knowledge. The email upset me. Why would she not encourage such discussion?

The shiny star I thought I had discovered in the program began to look tarnished. I realized that not even the faculty wanted to reach the level of understanding that my life experience had brought me to.

In the counseling practice course, I was told by the professors that my counseling skills were the most advanced they had ever observed for someone who had never worked in the counseling field prior to matriculating into the program, yet several of my student observers critiqued my counseling method of including questions about my client's ethnicity and culture harshly, saying I made too much of culture and ethnicity. My practice patients rated my sessions as very helpful and felt my skills aided in making them feel comfortable in the sessions. I felt sad that many of the students who would obtain their counseling credentials would venture out feeling multiculturalism was a theoretical concept but not something they would consider as part of their practice.

In another class we used a textbook that included a chapter on multiculturalism that I felt crossed the line into stereotyping, but the professor I took my complaint to only said that the author was a good friend and well-respected colleague who had been teaching for many, many years.

When I realized that the conversation about race and ethnicity was not going to take place in this program, and that there were literally thousands of white, middle-class people graduating from this and other counseling programs across the country, all of whom would be responsible for the well-being of their multicultural client base, I transferred out of the program and finished out my master's in Professional Education Studies at another university.

Sad but true. I gave up out of frustration. I felt the weight of obligation to talk about what I experienced, to be a voice for multicultural understanding, but I have often seen that one voice is hardly effective. At the end of obtaining my first master's degree, I realized my personal ethics are of much greater value to me than a sheepskin saying I have the credentials to practice counseling on other people, especially when I think that some counselors' approaches would actually be harmful to their multicultural clients.

We have to have that conversation about race and racism. We have to talk about the details, go into depth, and move way beyond awareness. We have to address how racism is both pervasive and accepted in mainstream culture, and that not all Americans are treated equally depending on the color of their skin. We have to remember that even if one thinks s/he is not racist, if you are white in America you are racist by virtue of the privilege you enjoy by being white, and that 56% of Americans implicitly express negative racial attitudes and beliefs.

So may I ask you to take a simple quiz? It's the How Racist Are You? quiz, and is just one of many out on the Internet. The results are for your eyes only. The quiz is simply a way to be completely truthful with yourself about how you feel about race. Don't answer what you think should be the answer; just be honest. If you can't be honest with yourself, who can you be honest with?

Then, after you have taken the quiz, please pass it on to your friends and family so they can take it. Again, the results are for their eyes only, unless you and they are moved to have that conversation about race. I approve of that kind of sharing.

I took the quiz just to see if it was a good tool and to see how my beliefs rated. Just because I am interracially married with children doesn't mean I don't harbor racial attitudes, and, as I stated earlier, my white skin affords me privileges my husband and grown daughters are denied. I'm open to exploring that concept, else why would I ask others to do so.

The quiz rated me as “Optimistically Openminded.”

It went on to say:
You are about as open-minded as they come. It's a rarity, but you actually see people as being the same but having different circumstances and cultures. You think stereotypes only serve to dehumanize groups. If more people were like you the world would be a little less hateful. 
Suggestion: Register with Altruists R Us. 
Similar Personalities: MLK, Mother Theresa, Jesus of Nazareth.

As Hurricane Sandy reaches eastern US shores, I hope, in my optimistically openminded way, that we can start talking about how outraged we all are by the racism directed at our President. Then maybe when someone says they don't like Obama's policies, I'll believe that person instead of wondering if s/he is picturing him in a hoodie with evil eyes.  And just maybe, at the close of our conversation on race, the world will be a little less hateful.

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