Thursday, May 14, 2015

Then and Now: the Oklahoma City Bombing and Stereotype Threat, 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago, I was a college junior and a recently appointed columnist for the Duke University Chronicle.  Around that same time - April 19, 1995 to be exact - Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols  bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building and killed 168 people.  

My first column for the Chronicle, "Oklahoma Scapegoat:  Fear Led to the 'Obvious' Conclusion" sought to weigh in on the knee-jerk reaction the media had in the immediate wake of the bombing:  it focused on the stereotype of Arab Americans as terrorists rather than report the facts (including the fact of not knowing the facts).    

In 1995, I wrote:

[T]he media sent the American community on the first step towards our greatest national trap--racism. How? By pointing unrelentingly (and with bias) to Arab terrorists as the perpetrators of this terrorist act, the media catalyzed and reinforced stereotypes running against Arab Americans in general. This focus caused us to unfairly direct our anger about the bombing towards not only the possible terrorist groups, but to Arab Americans in general.

[. . .]

[Given this,] it is not surprising that a wave of hate and racism arises whenever Islamic fundamentalists are blamed for a terrorist act--a wave of hate directed toward all Arab-Americans.

Looking back, I see at least three lessons about how negative racial stereotypes filter our understanding that are worth repeating today.  First, over the scope of these twenty years, we seem to continually repeat this exact mistake of perpetuating Islamophobia.  (Professor Beydoun's recent discussion on Islamophobia in the classroom offers a helpful definitions and perspective on this.) And by we, I mean we as a society continually replicate versions of the "Arab as terrorist" and "Islam as threat" tropes.  Indeed, the trope as been repeated again and again in punditry, law, and policy in the wake of September 11, 2001 terror attacks.  

Second, to make plain the obvious, these stereotypes serve as a means to reflexively blame people we find threatening for what we cannot explain.  It is easer to demean a person or a community with thoughts that amount to "Arabs are terrorists," or  "African Americans are thugs," rather than to inquire into circumstances and structures as they present themselves.  The ability to view through stereotype gives us short-term feelings of security and comfort and the expense of replicating traditions of subordination.

What might not be so obvious is my third point:  our blaming of the stereotyped group allows the people actually at blame (and the privilege(s) associated with them) to escape accountability.  Put more pointedly, white privilege has the effect of not only blaming others but of insulating itself from blame.  

In the Oklahoma City bombing context, pundits did not consider that white supremacists terrorists could have committed this crime.  For two days, the kind of terrorists McVeigh and Nichols represented remained invisible precisely because their terror groups weren't on the list.  Though I can't read the minds of the pundits of 20 years ago, what is suggested here is that homegrown white terrorists don't fit the stereotype of who ought to be considered a terrorist, and thus they don't make the list of speculative suspects.  This suggests that in this case, whiteness (as a category of privilege) eschews blaming and culpability.

We as a society have internalized these filters and they express themselves in a variety of contexts.  One only need look at the commentary concerning Baltimore to see how some pundits fell victim (again!) to the varieties of stereotype blindness.  Moreover, our stereotype filters manifest on a personal level depending on our life experiences, our identities, the ways that our identities intersect with the myriad forms of privilege and subordination, and our level of fear at any given time.  They manifest on a policy level when we create rules to impose or maintain a social order, and we create rules that allow us to ignore the effects of policies like mass incarceration, police brutality, and the effects of de facto segregation.

Thus, whether one is unaware of the stereotypes one espouses, one is avowedly anti-racist, or something in between, or whether one looks from an individual or structural perspective, 

the internalized racism remains. . . . Racism raises its ugly head when we want the easy explanation which fits the categories and explains all the problems. Racism comes in our thoughts when we want someone--or some group--to blame for what we cannot understand. 

When I wrote these words as a college junior, I had not (yet) had opportunity to read the seminal paper, "The Ego, the Id and Equal Protection" by Charles Lawrence III or to think about how unconscious bias informs critical race theorizing.  Fortunately, the literature in law, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines concerned with analyzing racism has grown immensely.  That literature makes the point in far more detail than this blogpost can allow.  

But the point remains:  our stereotypes serve as filters for us all, and many of them are informed by long traditions of white supremacy and the subordination of people of color.  No matter who we are, we should proceed with awareness of that fact, especially when our fears trigger our reflexes. 

May 14, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Missing Black Men, the Baltimore Uprising, and the Language of the Oppressed

The New York Times recently published a story entitled, “1.5 Million Missing Black Men.” The graphic portrayed how the war on drugs, American policies of mass incarceration and other structural forces, have left these African American men and their communities oppressed in the United States because these men are incarcerated, disabled from full citizenry or deceased. 

A purely academic discussion of this data and its meaning was what this blog post was supposed to be about.  But over the past weekend, we saw the city of Baltimore, Md. react to the fact that Freddie Gray is now missing forever.  Gray’s fatal injuries, inflicted during his custody of the Baltimore Police Department, provide us a specific case of an African American man going missing. Mr. Gray’s death puts into relief how one person loses his life due to the policies and structures of inequality, and the Baltimore police officers involved have now been charged in Mr. Gray’s death.

Yet it isn’t simply Gray’s death that teaches us something about structural racism.  The uprising that occurred in reaction to Gray’s funeral, and the reaction to opinion leaders and the Internet opinion-sphere all teach us, teach us something about how our language regarding racism falls prey to a gap of misunderstanding and misperception.  This is a multilayered problem reflective of the complicated tableau of race in America.

On one level, Gray’s death is one more tragedy that we can add to the long list of tragedies that seem to target African American men. Gray is forever missing, along with Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and many more. And, as Professor Elwood Watson points out, black women like Dr. Ersula Ore or Kathryn Johnston similarly suffer violence, abuse and death due to this same system of oppression.

Though the factual circumstances vary, it appears that all these people I’ve named are the casualties of either the war on drugs, or the effects of declaring poor minority neighborhoods “high crime neighborhoods,” police bias against people of color or all of the above.  This results in their individual and communal struggles against siege policing and its short and long-term effects.  Because of these factors, these men and women lose their lives or their livelihoods in a manner not subject to due process. 

And for every Freddie Gray, Eric Gardner or Kathryn Johnston, there are thousands of men and women who are targeted by aggressive war-on-drugs policies and the resulting effects of mass incarceration. These structures target the men who survive police custody and receive due process.  Even with due process, these 1.5 million voices are lost to us, and our democratic discourse is poorer as a result. And their loss also impacts the communities in which they would have otherwise served as parents, spouses, providers and citizens. 

On another level the Baltimore uprising narrative makes clear to us how respectability politics have been deployed to unduly over-criticize the African American community. It is enough to look at the destruction of property, assault and battery, to name it illegal, and to punish those who broke the law. But the Baltimore commentary all too often invoked the image of the “thug” – an image that invokes the white supremacist legacy of presuming that all black people are criminals solely because they are black – as a blanket criticism of not only the bad actors but also the communities from which they come. For too long in the Baltimore narrative, one side of the story attempted to portray the released pent-up anger as pathology of lawlessness that marks an entire group.  Or as my colleague and co-blogger, Khaled Beydoun said, “It is far easier to criminalize an entire people than to cure the structures designed to fail them.”

In the course of the week that has passed, the narrative switched from one of pathological lawlessness to a community that has worked to promote uplift and resilience in the face of the immediate tragedy.  Indeed, a fuller picture has developed via social media and ardent protest of not only the lawlessness of the unrest but of the protest against siege policing and sanction abuse of African Americans and the poor.  But the fact that the narrative evolved in and of itself shows a real failure to understand and instead trade on stereotypes.

This forces us to return to confronting the “Missing Men” data The Times article in a different way. These numbers force us to confront the deaths and incarcerations that make these men (and women) missing (and with it goes missing the educational, economic and social support that those people could provide their communities). These numbers also force us to confront the lack of voice that otherwise deserves to be heard concerning the governance and ownership of American society.  These people are removed from having a say in the status in their communities, and disenfranchised in relation to our collective governance of the United States.  It appears that their voices are only heard in their absence by the mass media and the American populace when (and maybe only when) our consciousness’s are shock to anger, protest or “riot,” which Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the language of the unheard.” 

It isn’t just language of the unheard; it is the language of the oppressed at the extreme.  But even when life it not at the extremes, this language is nonetheless poorly understood by American society as a whole.  Its meaning is lost in the chasm of how we understand ourselves in relation to the long history and present effects of white supremacy.  As I’ve pointed out before on this blog, there is a gap between how blacks perceive the effects of racism and how whites perceive racism.  This gap affects how we see events like the Baltimore uprising and how we perceive (or fail to perceive) the effects of structural racism.  The previous discussion of the narrative of the events in Baltimore only serves to underscore this point.

If we are truly reflective, we can see how this violence and oppression affect all of our communities, no matter what our racial position.  The Times article reminds us that there are over 1.5 million voices who are unavailable, disenfranchised or simply ignored, and therefore there is insufficient diversity in decision-making in American society.  Thus, discussions among the American collective go ill informed due to their absence, and our stereotypes go unchallenged.  This continues to perpetuate our misunderstanding of the voices of the oppressed and allows the explicit and implicit racism that exists in our society to go unchallenged.  And even though there are those who argue that the post-racial aims of American equality have been achieved, our lack of understanding of the language of the subordinated only serves to aid this larger misunderstanding.

The challenge then is to find a language to discuss this effect in a way that is realistic and authentic and can lead to true social change.  As a law professor, I devote my professional energies to finding this language based on constitutional law and civil rights doctrine.  And yet, as I discussed in a recently published article, our current doctrine fails to create revised discourse.

As I argue there, one only needs to compare the trajectory of race-conscious remedies under modern Supreme Court precedent with the (hopefully and finally just) trajectory for same-sex couples to see that this disfavor of discussing race generally. Moreover, one can notice the utter absence of a dialogue regarding the constitutional vulnerability of those who live in poverty.  These facts about constitutional law reveal the failures in the long struggles for civil rights, whether measured from 2015, 1968, 1954, 1896 or even 1868.  The irony is that as other civil rights projects come to fruition, the classic civil rights project—racial equity in both a formal and a substantive sense—has been dealt reverse after reverse and, frankly, teeters on the brink of failure.  As my colleague Ruthann Robson put it in describing the Court’s approach to race-conscious remedies:

The Supreme Court has created a culture that ignores racism unless it is the product of a particular individual with a bad motive. It then equated erosions of white privilege with racial injustice. Its rhetoric proclaimed that affirmative action is un-American and relegated racism to "an unfortunate past."

Ultimately, the Court’s mistake – and America’s continuing mistake – is in failing to recognize that this unfortunate past is actually our troubled present. The only way to overcome this reality is to recognize how we, as individuals and as a collective, replicate that past in the present. It is the only way to make the missing visible and to make real the promise that we presume American democracy is about.

Originally Posted at 

May 1, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0)