Academic Racism

As I’ve been working towards my PhD, one thing that’s often struck me is the way in which white researchers, white academics, write about issues that affect Black people. Even some of the authors that I think have a decent racial analysis, who discuss the ways in which structural racism operates to create systems of disadvantage, who discuss how those systems sabotage attempts of oppressed people to improve their situation, there will inevitably be some statement or paragraph that undermines everything they just said.  Ten pages describing structural racism as the problem, only to propose as a solution some variation on the theme of individual’s taking more personal responsibility.

It’s disingenuous, it’s irresponsible, and it’s infuriating. First and foremost, white male voices dominate academic discourse, to the point of drowning out any other perspective. Then, what they write heavily influences how policies are devised and what gets passed, ultimately influencing how society views an issue.

Racism embedded in all of our social and educational institutions shapes the opinions and thought processes of students reared in these institutions, who then grow up to present theories about societal problems viewed through the racist framework they were raised in. Those theories, in turn, are used to influence the structure of policies aimed at so-called “fixing” the problem, as they’ve perceived it, which often rests the blame on individuals or entire cultures, or cultural deficits, with little to no identification of who’s responsible for creating and maintaining the constraints that creates the negative living conditions in the first place.

Not only is their context lacking, but there’s little understanding of how their ideas/words/theories further marginalize and stereotype entire cultures, enshrining those ideas into academia, policy, and societal ideological norms. And the cycle goes on.

The idea that the pathway to freedom is found in better choices is bullshit. Take, for instance, the latest research on the racial wealth gap…It turns out that the entire respectability formula for raising Black socioeconomic status is a fail. Going to college, raising children in a two-parent home, working full-time, and spending less do not make it possible for Black people to close the wealth gap that they have with white people. White people have more money because their ancestors made money from owning our ancestors. When white people die, other white people gain wealth. When black folks die, they often leave debt behind. (Eloquent Rage, p. 265)

In researching police violence, which is usually situated within Criminology and Sociology, the literature is produced almost entirely by men, white men. For whatever reason, we hardly ever question their motivations or their biases. They’re just presumed to be objective. But when I read their work, their implicit biases are glaring. It can take me all day to read a 20 page article, because I have to keep putting it down, lest I rip it up and scream in fury.

What did I really expect? Did I really think that a bunch of old white dudes, whose entire educational and social grooming came from the systems I described above, would even have the awareness that considering their worldview–ideas, values, experiences, perspectives–as the norm, is in and of itself biased at best, racist in reality. Many of the founders of these fields of academia were overt, virulent racists, who started out seeking methods in sociology/criminology/anthropology to prove Black inferiority, not just ethnographically, but statistically. Today’s academics literally stand on the shoulders of white supremacists, who may have had some interesting ideas about analyzing data, but used sources with known flaws in their collection and characterization in order to prove the point they want.

I’m not saying all white academics are racists, but all white academics are racists, because they’re perpetuating racism. I don’t buy this idea of racism without racists. Implicit or explicit, intentional or incidental, it’s all harmful.

I’d say there are two categories of academic racists: 1) the dog-whistler–the one who intentionally, explicitly, sometimes malevolently, draws on deep seated racial resentment in order to meet an end, much like some of the founders of academic disciplines, you’ll often find them allied with conservative politicians or they may be politicians themselves creating “research” to justify policy changes that either only benefit them financially or do nothing but create a distraction…

In 1965, when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that Black communities were caught in a tangle of pathology because our communities had a disproportionate number of female-led households, his conclusions had both affective and social dimensions. His 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” offered social and political recommendations focused on ways to help Black men become breadwinners again so they could assume their “rightful” place at the head of Black families. But the affective goal of his infamous Moynihan Report was to shame Black women for the very mundane magic of making a way out of no way

In 1976, Ronald Reagan began telling stories about a completely fabricated group of system abusers that he called “welfare queens,” He named a nonexistent social phenomenon based on a singular incident of abuse of welfare benefits by one woman in Chicago in the 1970s. But white people who resented the racial and class progress of the 1960s found a convenient target in hating allegedly undeserving Black women, who all got subsumed under the category of welfare queens. (Eloquent Rage, p. 197)

…and then there’s 2) the well-meaning–the one who took a critical race theory class one time, voted for Obama, slept with a Black woman in college, and has hot sauce in their bag (swag), you’ll often find them broadcasting how liberal they are as they share radical feminist articles on FB and post pictures of themselves at rallies with pithy signs, really it’s about their feelings of importance and fulfillment as self-proclaimed do-gooders.

Well-meaning research is often reckless and irresponsible (as I said above), emanating from deep-seated arrogance, arrogance of their expertise on something that is not well-researched or well-understood, on something that is not an objective skill that can be learned in a classroom, on something that involves another people’s lived experience, a people they’ve had little to no contact with. They get a tiny piece of the puzzle and thinking they can predict the whole picture.

The presidential election of 2016 became a referendum on Hillary Clinton’s support of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which her husband signed into law during his first term as president. At the time, Hillary championed her husband’s tough-on-crime legislation, parroting an upsurge in rhetoric about the rise of a class of teenage “superpredators.” Criminologist John DiIulio, who, at that time, taught at Princeton, began arguing that skyrocketing rates of violent crimes committed by teens between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, the country had a problem on its hands. The number of young Blacks and Latinos would continue to grow, and with them a crime problem the likes of which the country had never seen. Lawmakers concluded that the solution was to lock them up…

In the many years since, none of DiIulio’s predictions have come true. He and other white male criminologists stoked the most base fears of white America, and his erroneous conclusions devastated the social, economic, and intimate prospects of a whole generation of Black folks–my generation of Black folks. (Eloquent Rage, pp. 226-228)

In my field, public health, we have an abundance of the latter type. Folks who love to reference the socio-ecological model for all health issues, to make emphatic statements and pass resolutions at conferences about how we need to pay particular attention to the structural level, and then turn around and focus their research and programs at the individual and relational level. Policy focused public health may look at more systems-level changes, but as a rule, we just strongly mention structural-level of influence and then ignore it in practice because it’s “too hard.”

Is it any wonder then why our endless programs and interventions really have no sustained impact and can’t be scaled up outside of the very specific contexts they were tested in? To make things worse, public health falls into the trap of latching on to buzzwords and running marathons with them. We like to make these statements about how we shouldn’t talk about disadvantaged communities from a “deficit model” and instead focus on their assets and strengths that we can work with. Resilience is definitely one of those buzzword concepts that we congratulate ourselves for considering as a community strength, and empowerment is another buzzword we push as a positive way to build up those communities from where they’re at.

“Our programs should aim to empower community members with self-efficacy (another buzzword), building on their laudable resilience in the face of adverse experiences.”

One time, in a meeting on my campus, in a discussion about hardships children of color face, a white woman remarked dismissively, “Oh, but children are resilient!” Celebrating the resilience of poor folks is a perverse way of acknowledging the unreasonable demands placed upon people who already are struggling to make it. In fact, in this moment, when a broad-scale conservative backlash threatens to absolutely gut the social safety net, “resilience” is a dangerous word. The logic of relying on people’s resilience goes something like, “Let’s see just how much we can take away from you before you break.” That shit is evil. (Eloquent Rage, pp. 266-267)

But “empowerment” is a tricky word. It’s also a decidedly neoliberal word that places the responsibility for combating systems on individuals. Neoliberalism is endlessly concerned with “personal responsibility” and individual self-regulation. It tells us that in a free market, devoid of any regulation or accountability at the top, what happens to those on the bottom is entirely our fault. Did we have enough drive? Enough vision? Enough hustle to change our condition? The politics of personal empowerment suggests to us that if we simply “free our minds, then our asses will follow.” I’m not convinced that this is true. Why? Have you ever noticed that people who have real “power”–wealth, job security, influence–don’t attend “empowerment” seminars? Power is not attained from books and seminars. Not alone, anyway. Power ins conferred by social systems. Empowerment and power are not the same thing. We must quit mistaking the two. Better yet, we must quit settling for one when what we really need is the other. (Eloquent Rage, pp. 122-123)

I’d argue the liberal racist is the more pernicious of the two; a snake is a snake, but there are a bunch of wolves in sheeps clothing running around here. They’re the ones running around with these “gotcha” analyses: articles that start out presenting a surprisingly critical analysis of societal racism and then clothes-line you with the caveat, the BUT statement, trashing everything they just presented.

White liberal racism looks like the great white ally who goes to all the rallies and community meetings so they can shine a spotlight on what they think, silencing the people who actually experience the issues. And you can’t actually criticize white liberal racists, because they’re not like their racist uncle, theirs is the subtle, implicit kind, and if they’re called to task, they’ll quickly either dissolve into white woman tears, or tell you how their being alienated and that as allies we should be working with them otherwise suffer the consequences of their not showing up for us anymore because hurt egos.

When the prevailing societal norm is based on centuries of racist ideology, even if you have pages of great analysis to that effect, that one backpedal, that one caveat, that one “but” sentence, allows folks who truly do not understand the privileging of whiteness within our society’s framework, to ignore everything that you just said and to remain in their comfort zone of years of conditioning. It gives them an out, an opportunity to doubt that they have any complicity in maintaining the system, and an opportunity to relinquish any responsibility they have in dismantling structural racism. The well-meaning academic racist probably gives readers that out, because they want the out too! It justifies their not having to do better, more meaningful (not just well-meaning), more difficult, and more time-consuming research. It keeps them from having to ask hard questions of themselves, their own biases, their own racism.

This is why my recent read of Eloquent Rage, by Brittney Cooper, was such a sigh of relief. Finally, someone with a macro-structural analysis of racism and its impact in folks’ daily lives without a “but” statement, without the personal responsibility cop out. The few academic articles I read on my thesis topic that are written by people of color differ significantly in this exact way, from articles written by white men. There is no caveat. The solutions are systems-level and social norms changing, not personal responsibility and “bootstraps.”

It substantiates the importance of having diversity among academics and researchers and among policymakers. Entire perspectives are lost, and questions that need to be answered don’t even get asked in the first place. The bias in policy-level, community-level, and individual-level solutions continues to be perpetuated and the problems never get solved, because the primary proposals for solutions come from people who benefit from the problems’ existence, and the voices of those who are impacted by those problems get silenced in the development of solutions. Every time I feel sucker-punched by yet another article or book full of dog-whistles and liberal racism, I have to remind myself that it’s the reason to continue and not shut down. The corpus of literature is written the way it is because there’s not enough women to express their eloquent rage.