Should affirmative action be based on income?

Following last week’s Supreme Court decision to uphold a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities, the New York Times’ Room for Debate posed the question: “Should affirmative action be based on income?”

F. Michael Higginbotham, author of Ghosts of Jim Crow, was invited to weigh in on the discussion. Read his response below, and be sure to check out insight from all of the debaters over at the NYT’s Room for Debate.

It’s not time for income-based affirmative action; race-based preference is still vital in the United States given the country’s history of slavery and its continuing, pervasive racial discrimination. To think otherwise is selective memory loss.

The Schuette decision upheld the right of Michigan voters to prohibit affirmative action in admissions to state colleges and universities. But that reasoning is flawed in two ways. First, affirmative action is characterized as an unfair preference rather than a justified remedy. And second, the decision whether to ban affirmative action is left to the electoral process.

To understand this flawed reasoning, one must go back to the beginning of the affirmative action debate during Reconstruction. In the civil rights cases of 1883, the Supreme Court held that the 14th Amendment did not empower Congress to prohibit owners of public accommodations from discriminating against black patrons. The owners were free to decide themselves. In his opinion for the court, Justice Joseph Bradley wondered when black Americans would stop being given special treatment under the law and become mere citizens.

Unfortunately, Schuette seems to embrace this same characterization of affirmative action as preferential treatment that may be prohibited by majority vote. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a plurality, said that voters in Michigan chose to eliminate racial preferences because nothing in the Constitution gives judges the authority to undermine the election results.

Yet, erroneously characterizing affirmative action as an unfair preference allows the court to defer to the electoral process just as it deferred to property owners in the 1880s. Justice Harold Blackmun recognized this error before he retired in 1994. Speaking about a seemingly consistent majority of five Supreme Court Justices on the key civil rights and race relations cases of the 1980s, Blackmun said: “One wonders whether the majority still believes that race discrimination—or, more accurately, race discrimination against non-whites—is a problem in our society, or even remembers that it ever was.”

While 20 years have passed and several new justices have been appointed, racial disparities remain alarmingly wide. Black unemployment, poverty and homelessness are twice that of whites. Wealth accumulation for blacks is one twentieth of what it is for whites. Similar disparities exist for Hispanics. Racial profiling in the criminal justice system is rampant.

Affirmative action raises difficult questions of access and fairness. This country’s continuing failure to significantly reduce de facto discrimination prevents many from receiving equal protection today. Affirmative action helps off set this imbalance.

F. Michael Higginbotham is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, former interim dean and the author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism In Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).

An excerpt from The Counter-Revolution of 1776

To celebrate this week’s release of Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, today we are featuring an exclusive excerpt from the book, in which Horne sets the stage for his trailblazing revisionist account of the creation of the United States. Read the introduction below.

Gerald Horne is the Moores Professor of History & African American Studies at the University of Houston. He has published over 30 books, including Negro Comrades of the Crown (NYU Press, 2012).

Introduction – The Counter-Revolution of 1776


Advance praise for the book:

“Horne returns with insights about the American Revolution that fracture even more some comforting myths about the Founding Fathers. The author does not tiptoe through history’s grassy fields; he swings a scythe…Clear and sometimes-passionate prose shows us the persistent nastiness underlying our founding narrative.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Horne confidently and convincingly reconstructs the origin myth of the United States grounded in the context of slavery…Though dense, Horne’s study is rich, not dry; his research is meticulous, thorough, fascinating, and thought-provoking. Horne emphasizes the importance of considering this alternate telling of our American origin myth and how such a founding still affects our nation today.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review 

A “more Irish” St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition?

—Jennifer Nugent Duffy

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio added another layer of controversy to this year’s St. Patrick’s Day season when he announced his decision to boycott the city’s parade because of its policy that prohibits homosexuals from marching under a separate banner. Undoubtedly many Irish Americans will dismiss de Blasio’s stance and possibly attribute it to his Italian heritage, but it will be more difficult, however, to overlook Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has threatened to boycott his city’s parade if gay groups are excluded. As the son of Irish immigrants, perhaps Walsh’s choice is shaped by St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in Ireland, which are far more tolerant than the ones on this side of the Atlantic. Of course, the parades emerged in dramatically different contexts.

St. Patrick’s Day parades emerged in the mid-nineteenth century United States in a profoundly nativist and hostile climate.  The Irish—who began to arrive in the 1830s— witnessed church attacks and efforts by fraternal organizations like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, or the Know Nothings, to bar the foreign-born from holding office. Anti-Irish sentiment only intensified as 1.5 million Irish people sought refuge in the United States from Ireland’s Great Famine. Here Irish immigrants faced resentment for their Catholicism, but also questions regarding their loyalty to the United States, as many remained committed to nationalist groups that sought to free Ireland of British rule.

As the United States became increasingly urbanized and industrialized, meager wages and industrial accidents made it difficult for Irish men to support their families.  As a result, the Irish had the second highest number of female-headed households in the United States. Yet Irish households were condemned as disorderly because they did not have the economic security to meet America’s middle-class domestic ideal of a wage-earning husband and a family-rearing wife. Furthermore, Irish immigrants transgressed America’s racial order by engaging in intimate relationships with Chinese immigrants and free Blacks in New York neighborhoods like the notorious Five Points in lower Manhattan. In political cartoons, Irish immigrants and African Americans were depicted as similarly repulsive to the American public.

The Irish response to this hostility was a mixed bag. They refused to yield in regards to their Catholicism, but demonstrated their loyalty to the United States by fighting in the Civil War. Unlike Chinese immigrants, the Irish could naturalize and vote, and they leveraged their political power to secure better-paying municipal jobs, which soon allowed Irish immigrants to form more traditional households. But they also learned to adhere to America’s racial order. Within a generation, Irish immigrants went from being attacked to participating in the 1863 Draft Riots, lynching free Blacks on the streets of New York City, and attacking interracial couples.  With these actions they made it clear that Irishness in the United States, meant white.

We see the legacy of this history in St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in cities like New York. Parade leaders fiercely resist any displays that may challenge their religion or traditional definitions of marriage and family.  Adherence to conventional gender roles is also on display, as grand marshals are almost always male but also white. The Irish are so removed from liaisons with nineteenth-century free Blacks that African Americans with Irish surnames, like “Eddie Murphy,” are not considered Irish.  President Obama, who traces some of his ancestry to Moneygall, County Offaly, will probably never be asked to lead the parade in Manhattan (although I am sure that he would be welcomed at the St. Pat’s for All parade in Queens).

In marked contrast, displays of Irishness in the Republic of Ireland are not as firmly anchored in sexuality, gender, race or even ethnicity for that matter. Christine Quinn, New York’s first female and openly gay City Council Speaker, led the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, as did Samantha Mumba, an Afro-Irish singer and actress. Drag queens are a popular presence in the Dublin parade and in local celebrations; it is not unusual for new groups, like Polish immigrants to participate under their own banners. Though St. Patrick’s Day initially was a religious holiday in Ireland, current parade practices indicate how traditions can and do change, often dramatically. Political independence and economic growth has shaped a parade tradition that is confident and encompassing, rather than defensive or exclusionary.

Though St. Patrick’s Day parades in the United States initially were formed by an unreceptive environment in which the Irish defended themselves from hostile nativists, parade leaders are still defensive—even though that hostility and fears about an Irish social, economic and political presence have dissipated.

Do we still need a parade defined by that experience? Though leaders speak as if the parade is under attack, the real threat stems not from the participation of Irish homosexuals but from the leaders themselves. Graying parade leadership suggests that their narrow definition of Irishness, so inflexibly grounded in the nineteenth century, is unappealing not only to Mayor de Blasio and other progressives, but also to young Irish Americans, who are conspicuously absent from the parade committee. Parade leaders take notice: if the St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition does not change, it may be doomed to extinction.

Jennifer Nugent Duffy is Associate Professor of History, Western Connecticut State University. She is the author of Who’s Your Paddy? Racial Expectations and the Struggle for Irish American Identity (NYU Press 2013).

Happy Mardi Gras from NYU Press!

It’s Mardi Gras, y’all! 

In honor of Fat Tuesday, we’re featuring an excerpt from our award-winning book, Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy (NYU Press, 2007). Written by Tulane sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham, the book illuminates how New Orleans became a tourist town known as much for its excesses as for its eccentric Southern charm. The excerpt below is from the book’s second chapter, “Processions and Parades: Carnival Krewes and the Development of Modern Mardi Gras.”

Authentic New Orleans – Chapter 2

Black History—or Histories—Month?

—Andrea C. Abrams

A few months ago, a student penned an article for my college’s newspaper on the proper appellation for people of African descent in the United States. He pointed out that there are persons born in the U.S., those recently immigrated from other countries, as well as those who identify strongly with their African, Caribbean, or Latin American heritages—consequently, it was inaccurate to call all of these people African American as Americanness may not be especially significant to their identities. In any case, he found it far too confusing as a young white man to keep track of whether someone was an African recently immigrated to the United States, or a second generation Haitian American, or a person whose African ancestors arrived in the 16th century. He therefore concluded that the proper thing was to just call all of us Black. A straightforward, one-size-fits-all label.

During a recent speech at a diversity event, I referred to myself as both African American and Black. This time, a different young white male student approached me and asked why I had used both terms. “Did they mean different things to me,” he wondered, “or were they simply interchangeable?” I responded that for me, African American spoke to my cultural heritage or ethnicity, and Black referenced my skin color as well as my sociopolitical status within U.S. society. I admitted that while I tried to employ this distinction between the terms, at times, I did use them interchangeably.

The first student’s perspective elicited mixed reactions from me. On one hand, I appreciated his attempt to privilege the ways in which national origin and heritage make a difference to the construction of identity for people of African descent. In his own way, he was arguing that all Black people are not alike. On the other hand, I was somewhat peeved by his sense of entitlement to declare what another racial and ethnic group should call themselves.

The other student delighted me with his thoughtful follow-up questions. He asked me to describe situations in which I felt particularly Black or especially African American. These were similar questions that I put to the people interviewed in my forthcoming ethnography, God and Blackness: Race, Gender and Identity in a Middle Class Afrocentric Church. In the book, I examine the multiplicity of blackness in the United States. What is the significance of those moments when cultural heritage rather than sociopolitical status make a difference in how one understands the self? How do middle class African Americans navigate the tensions between Africanness and Americanness as well as between blackness and middle classness? How do individuals themselves label these varied experiences of racial and ethnic identity? Is Black a sufficiently potent signifier that it can encompass each of these constructions and intersections of identity as the first student suggests? Or should we follow the lead of the second student by unpacking the nuances and related experiences of the different categories employed by people of African descent?

In this month of Black History, people celebrate both the culture of African Americans and the triumphs of Black people despite the disadvantages of our sociopolitical status. The assertions and questions of the two students cause me to wonder if the proper label for this month should be Black Histories Month. Are we telling one history or a multiplicity of narratives? How does my southern Black history compare to a third generation Ghanaian American’s Black history? Should we pay more attention to the ways in which national origin, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and religion make a difference to how history is interpreted and given meaning by an individual?

Or despite our diversity, are all those of African descent in this together—bound tightly and irrevocably by our shared African heritage and sociopolitical status as Black? Does the symbolic power of blackness within American culture mean that we all drink from the same well of Black history and culture albeit in various ways and with different consequences? Do our similarities as people of African descent, as Black people, trump our differences? Was the first student correct that we can use a one-size-fits-all label and just celebrate Black History month? I wonder.

Andrea C. Abrams is Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Gender Studies, and African American Studies at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. She is the author of God and Blackness: Race, Gender and Identity in a Middle Class Afrocentric Church (NYU Press, 2014).

Abortion: Race, rape, and the Right

—Gregory S. Parks

I want to tell you a story. I’m going to ask you all to close your eyes while I tell you the story. . . This is a story about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. . . Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood, left to die. Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she’s white.

The above quote reflects powerful imagery employed by defense attorney Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill (1996)—the words spoken in his summation before an all-white, southern jury during the criminal trial of a black father who was being prosecuted for killing the white men who raped, hung, and left his young daughter for dead.

The use of racial imagery like this is nothing new in American culture. Take politics, for example: racial imagery has frequently been used to sway public opinion and win elections. In 1990, when Jesse Helms, a white United States Senator from North Carolina, faced Harvey Gantt, a black challenger, race played a role in Helms’ campaign. Specifically, in an effort to allege that Gantt supported racial quotas that would benefit blacks, Helms ran an advertisement that showed the hands of a white person crumbling an employment rejection letter. “You needed that job,” the announcer said, “and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” The ad was broadcast a few days before the election, and arguably boosted Helms to victory. This should be of no surprise; social scientists have demonstrated for years that emotion is highly predictive of voters’ judgment and decision-making. Let’s have a little thought experiment that contemplates the extent to which racial imagery might effectuate a change in constituent attitudes in other political spheres today.

Ever since the United States Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which expanded women’s access to abortion, Republicans have sought to reverse those gains. More recently, Republican politicians, including Richard Mourdock (state of Indiana Treasurer), have asserted that life is a gift from God, and abortions should only be allowed when the mother’s life is at risk.

As a justification for the all-out ban on abortion, Todd Akin (former U.S. Representative for Missouri) has touted that in cases of “legitimate rape,” pregnancy is rare because a woman’s body is able to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Some Republicans, such as Joe Walsh (former U.S. Representative for Illinois), believe that there should not even be an exception for cases where the mother’s life may be at risk because, according to Walsh, “’with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance’ in which a woman would actually die.”

The challenge for such politicians, and those who subscribe to their mode of thinking, is to not to imagine some amorphous victim. Rather, they should, in the words of Jake Brigance, “[n]ow imagine she’s white” and her rapist is black. Would they then feel the same way about abortion in instances of rape? I believe they would not, given the history of race, anti-miscegenation attitudes, and political ideology in America.

In the early 1900s, the mandatory separation of blacks and whites in social settings, referred to as Jim Crow, applied to all aspects of life in the South, including public schools and marriage statutes. The idea of “white womanhood” was a major part of white supremacy and was an essential part of the Jim Crow system in the South. White womanhood was premised on a belief that a “lady” must be white. While it was feared that interracial marriages would lead to the creation of “a mongrel breed of citizens” that would destroy white identity and threaten white supremacy, this was a fear only evident in cases involving white women who married non-white men. White women who brought race-based annulment cases against their husbands were protected from both colored men, as well any accusation from the woman’s husband that attacked her whiteness. When white men had children with black women, it was simply seen as a remnant of the practices observed during slavery.

In most states, the fear of a mongrel race as a result of interracial marriage was only a concern when it involved blacks. However, in Virginia, it was illegal for whites to marry anyone other than another white person. Southerners were alarmed by the increasing number of light skinned blacks, as it blurred the line between black and white and threatened both with supremacy and racial purity. Laws prohibiting miscegenation continued until 1967 when they were declared unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia. In Loving, the Virginia Supreme Court had relied primarily upon its earlier holding in Naim v. Naim. That case held that the policy behind Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute was to prevent interracial procreation and the creation of a “mongrel breed of citizens.”

Racial segregation of public schools was a tool for reinforcing both white supremacy, as well as in preserving the purity of the white race, because of the vital, socialization role that schools play. Because public schools have the effect of shaping the beliefs and perspectives of young impressionable children, they were seen as “key social institutions for inculcating racial consciousness in whites and blacks.” By preventing socialization among black and white children, segregation of public schools was able to address the issue of the development of romantic feelings among people of different races, and consequently, the chances that interracial marriage would occur was decreased. In fact, the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared segregation of public schools unconstitutional, led to fears that the socializing of black and white children would lead to interracial marriages, and thus, miscegenation. As a result, the ruling in Brown strengthened the fight against interracial marriage.

In the case of rape, the rape of black women was not even recognized in some states as a criminal offense. However, the rape of a white woman by a black man resulted in sentences for rape that were five times that given for convictions of other rapes and sometimes led to a sentence of death. Even the idea of a black man soliciting a white prostitute was viewed as objectionable.

This anxiety surrounding white women being the victim of black men’s libidinal pangs, concupiscent urges, and exertion of power and violence has not only been a historical and cultural-legal fact, it is contemporary and political. In 1991, a Michigan probate judge, discussing the Michigan law under which minors seeking abortions may request a waiver of the parental consent requirement, stated that he was hesitant to grant waivers but would consider doing so “in some cases, such as incest or when a white girl is raped by a black man.” In 2006, a white Maine couple allegedly kidnapped their pregnant nineteen year-old daughter to take her out of the state to have an abortion, because the father of her child was black.

And while many politicians have viewed abortion as breaking up the American family, President Richard Nixon thought that in the case of a pregnancy involving a black man and a white woman,  abortion was a necessary procedure. This is not surprising, given empirical research demonstrating that whites’ political orientation predicts their own romantic partner preferences. White conservatives, more so than white liberals, are less likely to desire black romantic partners and more so prefer white romantic partners. This preference, and its implications, may not even be conscious; researchers have found that political conservativism is predictive of automatic favoring high status over low status groups as well as whites over blacks.

With all this said, the recent tweet from an anonymous writer on MSNBC’s official Twitter account suggesting that conservatives hate interracial marriages may have been more accurate than inflammatory. (“Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family,” the tweet read.) It is this anxiety, or hostility, by some on the political Right against black male/white female interracial love, sex, marriage, and in the worst of scenarios, rape, that should help inform their judgments about abortion.

Gregory S. Parks is Assistant Professor of Law, Wake Forest University School of Law. He is co-author (with Matthew W. Hughey) of The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (NYU Press, 2014).

Black History Month: Remembering the sacrifices of everyday activists

—Sekou M. Franklin

In the upcoming months, there will be countless celebrations marking the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights of 1965. Without a doubt, these laws were crowning achievements in American political history. Congress did in fact adopt two civil rights measures in 1957 and 1960. Yet, they were watered down and did little to contain racial hostilities in the Jim Crow South. Thus by the 1960s, many lawmakers and contenders for the White House were pessimistic about the prospects of passing transformative civil rights policies, especially over the objections of pro-segregationist lawmakers.

Reminding Americans of this history is important as we embark on a series of fiftieth anniversary celebrations. American political institutions (and the leaders that shaped them) had little hope that the long arm of the federal government could be used to bring down de jure segregation. Civil rights and grassroots activists, on the other hand, pushed forward and brought pressure to bear at great risk to their families, communities, and civic institutions. Most of these activists were part of an invisible segment of American political discourse—activists who are unfamiliar to mainstream media and the American public, but through the use of diverse strategies and tactics, helped to usher in major civil rights and social reforms.

In my forthcoming book After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation, I highlight the important contributions of these unfamiliar activists and groups. I focus on youth-based movements and intergenerational collaborations of the post-civil rights era such as the Free South Africa Movement, the Black Student Leadership Network, the New Haven Youth Movement, the Juvenile Justice Reform Movement, and the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer initiative. The book also highlights the work of movement formations of the 1930s/1940s and 1960s/1970s. These include the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Student Organization for Black Unity, and the African Liberation Support Committee.

By focusing on youth-based movements, I wanted to shed light on how an invisible segment of American politics helped to remedy longstanding and seemingly insurmountable inequities. At the same time, the book looks at how these movement formations wrestled with the internal challenges of movement building such as raising resources, sustaining intergenerational collaborations, surviving political repression, and embedding young activists into grassroots networks.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to remember that the civil rights victories of the 1960s were won because of the sacrifices of ordinary Americans, activists, and organizations. Though most are largely ignored in contemporary political discourse, they were central to the advancement of an emancipatory vision of racial democracy and internationalism.

Sekou M. Franklin is Associate Professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and the author of After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (NYU Press, 2014).

Black History Month, post-racial style

—Catherine R. Squires

I was pleased to be invited by NYU Press to blog about Black History Month, a celebration that some who believe we’re “post-racial” would say is unnecessary. When I was a kid, making my way in a “voluntarily” desegregated school district, I looked forward to February with a mix of anticipation and dread. Anticipation because I would be one of the few in my class to get 100% on the Black History Month quiz; dread because I was one of the few Black kids in the class, and would feel all eyes on us during the lessons geared toward the month of “special” history projects, reading assignments, and so on.

But I persevered, and one year—perhaps third grade?—I did my Black History Month poster on Benjamin Banneker: scientist, urban planner, clockmaker. I had designs on design: would I be an architect? A fashion designer? An illustrator? Banneker was a perfect fit for me, and I poured my grade school heart into doing his memory justice.

Fast forward to today: from what I can tell, my children are doing the same sort of assignments, learning the same litanies of Firsts, Festivals, and Foods that we learned in my day. While for third graders this might be on point, I have also found that the Millenial, ostensibly “post-racial” students in my university courses regularly report they got little else through middle and high school, and barely scratched the surface on more in their introductory history courses at college.

So I’d like to make a suggestion to jettison the Firsts, Festivals, and Foods trio of Black History Month for a different style of learning about Black and American history. Kids learn who the First Black astronaut was, the First Black senator, and so forth. But what happens after the First? I suggest we do away with how we teach about “Firsts,” and I’ll leave the Festivals and Foods to other, more creative minds.

Part of the power of the First is the person is supposed to disprove theories of racial inferiority. But if we do not follow through after the first to support other engineers, astronauts, and opera singers, then what? If no efforts are made to make the break in the pattern more than an accident of destiny and talent, then we leave a void into which theories of racial superiority creep back in, cloaked in the language of statistics or cultural deficiencies.

When we focus on the Firsts, and not What Followed, we allow ourselves to be seduced by the silence in between milestones of Black History. If we do not look into the gaps between the Firsts, then we fail to see the ways that other individuals, institutions, and social practices worked—often quite deliberately—to crush the spirit of those Firsts, and to make it plain that Black people who wanted to follow in their footsteps would be met with massive resistance.

So I ask that we pair the question “What Followed and Why?” with each First, to ensure that our students can understand the reasons why we still celebrate Firsts, why they remain rarities decades after slavery and Jim Crow.

What happened after Benjamin Banneker made plans for our nation’s capitol, the First Black engineer to be recognized as such by white folks? Why the gap in Black urban planners between Banneker and… well, I must admit I cannot bring to mind a famous Black urban planner. What stymied efforts to bring up generations of Bannekers to design welcoming, sustainable urban spaces to be shared by people of all colors? Why are so many urban areas still segregated, decades after the First Black mayors were elected?

Until we look closely at What Followed, and try to learn lessons from that part of our American history, our celebrations of Firsts will feel less festive and more frustrating as time goes by.

Catherine R. Squires is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century (NYU Press, 2014).

Black History Month: “Toxic Communities” are still prevalent

—Dorceta E. Taylor

It is Black History Month and I am reflecting on the significant strides we have made on issues of racial justice, social equity, and human rights. However, I have also been thinking of the long and difficult road ahead before we can say everyone has true equality in this country. Nowhere is this more evident than in the environmental arena. While some are content to see environment as untarnished hills and glens and others work hard to protect it, what is often missing from such discourses are the social class and racial inequities that arise in environmental practices and decision making.

In The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change (Duke University Press, 2009), I chronicled the rise of American cities and the environmental problems they confronted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of the narrative, I documented how environmental racism resulted in the placement of African American communities in the most hazard-prone areas of cities. I also chronicled industrial incursion into and the pollution of Black neighborhoods, the destruction of Black communities and displacement of African Americans to make way for the construction of parks, water systems, and other public works.

Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014) examines similar themes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These same patterns are evident—some to a greater extent than existed in earlier times. In Toxic Communities, I examine African American and other communities of color that are inundated with pollutants emanating from hulking industrial facilities. The air, ground, and water are tainted and residents live in fear of explosions or toxic releases from these facilities.

The challenges do not stop there. Black communities have been systematically been destroyed in the name of urban renewal and that highways could be built to connect the cities and suburbs.  While segregated White communities were built in the suburbs and financed by federal funds, Black communities were redlined and denied such funding. Rampant housing discrimination continues today in the form of discriminatory financing methods, racial steering, and other obstacles Blacks face when they seek housing. Consequently, African Americans still live in some of the most toxic and hazard prone communities in the country.

The book challenges us to develop a better understanding how these inequalities arise. We have to make connections with seemingly unrelated events, policies, and processes. We need more effective research as well as community organizing to hold responsible parties accountable.

Dorceta E. Taylor is the Field of Studies Coordinator for Environmental Justice at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. She is the author of Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014).

GOP’s slick Black History ads fall short, miss the point

—Andra Gillespie

[Note: This op-ed originally appeared on CNN.com on February 5, 2014.]

It’s February and Black History Month, and networks and major consumer brands are reprising their annual ad campaigns honoring the contributions of African-Americans to the arts, politics, technology and commerce.

This year, a new player is sponsoring Black History Month ads: the Republican National Committee.

In spots airing on black radio and television stations in select media markets, the RNC praises the contributions of black Republicans such as Louis Sullivan, a former secretary of health and human services under President George H.W. Bush.

This ad campaign is part of a larger Republican strategy to reach out to minority voters. After President Barack Obama won more than 70% of the vote among blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans (93% among blacks alone) in 2012, the Republican National Committee redoubled its efforts to court minority voters. This ad campaign is a part of that effort.

A well-produced, uplifting ad campaign will not be enough to convince black Democrats to switch their party identification, though.

For every ad praising Sen. Tim Scott, the Republican Party has had to put out fires created by state and local officials who make insensitive racial comments. For instance, in the past two weeks, the Iowa Republican Party had to fire the mastermind behind the “Is Someone a Racist?” flow chart on its Facebook page. The flow chart flippantly charged that racists are white people you don’t like.

By this point, some Republicans are probably wondering why blacks don’t seem to punish liberals and Democrats for their racial missteps. Democrat-friendly MSNBC has faced strong and valid criticism for its recent taunts of the Romney family’s transracial adoption and its assumptions that conservative Republicans don’t marry interracially. For his part, Fox host Bill O’Reilly raised eyebrows when he asked Obama why he had not done more to lower the out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks.

The answer is rooted in a long, complicated history of race and partisanship and in psychological frames that the GOP ignores at its peril.

Some Republicans rightfully point out that during the civil rights movement, Southern Democrats tried to block passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. They forget, however, that in the past 50 years, white Southern Democrats (both racists and non-racists) have gradually shifted their party identification to the Republican Party. They don’t account for the fact that GOP has admitted to (and apologized for) purposely using racially coded language to win over racially resentful whites in the wake of the civil rights movement.

And they ignore data that confirm that while black political views have moderated in the past generation, blacks still tend to prefer a stronger federal state and greater governmental intervention, in large part because they perceive the federal government to have done a better job than state and local officials at protecting civil rights.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to the GOP’s outreach efforts among blacks, though, is its misunderstanding of the importance of group dynamics to individual political decision-making.

Republicans value limited government and personal liberty, traits that celebrate rugged individualism and a view of politics that assumes that self-interest informs most policy preferences. Numerous studies have shown that many blacks and Latinos believe that what happens to other blacks and Latinos affects them. This belief that their fates are linked to the fates of their co-ethnics informs liberal policy and political preferences.

It means that an affluent black person might be willing to pay higher taxes if it helps maintain the food stamp program, which helps poor, disproportionately minority people. Or that a Latina born in the United States might wince when Republican congressional candidates voice their opposition to immigration reform because she perceives that tone of the opposition evinces a general antipathy toward Latinos regardless of their nativity.

Don’t get me wrong, Republican outreach to blacks is a good thing, and I hope to see more of it.

Republican candidates who win office need to engage their black and minority constituents, and Democrats should not assume that blacks (or any other group) will always vote Democratic.

However, a polished ad campaign alone is not enough to win over black voters. If the GOP hopes to become significantly more competitive among blacks, it will have to acknowledge the importance of group identity to blacks and other minorities and learn how to frame their principles in terms of group interests.

Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).

The racism that still plagues America

Excerpted from The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America by David Dante Troutt (NYU Press, 2014).

The impatience that characterizes discussions of race and racism in our so-called color-blind society has its roots in the momentous  legislative changes of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968 reached into nearly every aspect of daily life—from segregated facilities to voting to housing—and represented a long overdue re-installation of the equality principle in our social compact. The question was what it would take—and from whom—to get to equality.

Was racial equality something that could be had without sacrifice? If not, then who would be forced to participate and who would be exempt? As implementation of the laws engendered a far-reaching bureaucracy of agencies, rules, and programs for everything from affirmative action hiring goals to federal contracting formula, the commitment was quickly tested. For a great many who already opposed the changes, patience was quickly exhausted. As welfare rolls rapidly increased, crime surged, and the real and perceived burdens of busing took their toll, many voters pointed to the apparent failure of a growing federal government to fix the problems it was essentially paid to cure. Among Democratic voters this made for unsteady alliances and vulnerable anxieties. People don’t live in policy and statistics as much as they do through anecdote and personal burdens. A riot here, a horrific crime there, a job loss or perhaps the fiery oratory of a public personality could tip a liberal-leaning person’s thinking toward more conservative conclusions—or at least fuel her impatience. Impatience would ossify into anger, turning everything into monetary costs, and making these costs the basis for political opposition to a liberal state. As it happened, this process moves the date of our supposed final triumph over racism from the mid-1960s to at least the mid-1980s. In the end, impatience won.

What I call impatience, others have characterized as a simmering voter ambivalence—even antagonism, in the case of working-class whites—to civil rights remedies, one that was susceptible to the peculiar backlash politics that elected both Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush president. Language was central to this strategy, and the language that stuck was colorblindness. As Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall wrote in “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics,” “In facing an electorate with sharply divided commitments on race—theoretically in favor of egalitarian principle but hostile to many forms of implementation—the use of a race-free political language proved crucial to building a broad-based, center-right coalition.” Ronald Reagan managed to communicate a message that embodied all the racial resentments around poverty programs, affirmative action, minority set-asides, busing, crime, and the Supreme Court without mentioning race, something his conservative forebears—Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon—could not quite do. The linchpin was “costs” and “values.” Whenever “racism” was raised, it became an issue of “reverse racism” against whites. The effect was the conversion of millions of once fiscally liberal, middle-class suburban Democrats to the Republican Party. Issues identified with race—the “costs of liberalism”—fractured the very base of the Democratic Party. In the 1980 presidential election, for example, 22 percent of Democrats voted Republican.

By 1984, when Ronald Reagan and George Bush beat Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in the presidential election, many white Democratic voters had come to read their own party’s messages through what Edsall calls a “racial filter.” In their minds, higher taxes were directly attributable to policies of a growing federal government; they were footing the bill for minority preference programs. If the public argument was cast as wasteful spending on people of weak values, the private discussions were explicitly racial. For instance, Edsall quotes polling studies of “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County—the union friendly Detroit suburbs that won the battle to prevent cross-district school desegregation plans in 1973—that presents poignant evidence of voter anger: “These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their [white defectors’] vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live. These sentiments have important implications for Democrats, as virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms.”

By 1988, these same voters had endorsed tax revolts across the country and had become steadfast suburbanites, drawing clearer lines between a suburban good life and the crime and crack-infested city. Still they were angry, as magazine articles chronicled the rising political significance of what would be known as the “Angry White Male” voter. George Bush, down seventeen points in the presidential election polls during midsummer, overcame that deficit with TV ads about murderous black convicts raping white women while on furlough. That and a pledge never to raise taxes seemed to be enough to vanquish Bush’s liberal challenger, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. What’s important to recognize in this transition is how as recently as twenty years ago, Americans’ social lives were very much embroiled in racial controversy—despite the obfuscatory veneer of colorblind language to the contrary. Our politics followed. The election of Bill Clinton represented a distinct centrist turn among Democrats toward Republican language and themes and away from rights, the “liberal” label, and the federal safety net. The question we might ask about our current race relations is, only a couple of decades removed from this political history, what would compel us to assume that we are beyond the legacy of our racial conflicts?

 * * *

The racial polarization that connected these political outcomes was deliberately fed by national Republican candidates in order to do more than roll back civil rights. It also served to install “supply-side economics,” a system of regressive tax-based reforms that contributed mightily to the costs of income inequality we currently face. That era—which arguably ended with the election of President Barack Obama—illustrates two points central to my examination of civic connectivity. The first is that the economic underside of racial polarization proved no more than the old okey doke. The second is that localism contains its own contradictions, which have come due in our time. Let me explain.

Only racism could achieve the ideological union of the Republican rich with the working man (and woman). Nothing else could fuse their naturally opposed interests. The essence of supply-side economics was its belief in the importance of liberating the affluent from tax and regulatory burdens, a faith not typically shared by lower-income households who might at best see benefits “trickle down” to them. In fact, they often paid more under tax-reform schemes of the 1980s.  Edsall provides data on the combined federal tax rate that include all taxes—income, Social Security, and so forth. Between 1980 and 1990, families in the bottom fifth of all earners saw their rates increase by 16.1 percent; it increased by 6 percent for those in the second-lowest fifth (the lower middle class); and it increased by 1.2 percent for those in the middle fifth (the middle middle class). But those in the second-highest fifth of all income earners saw a cut in their tax rate by 2.2 percent during that decade; and those in the top fifth got a 5.5 percent decrease in their rate. Overall, the richest 10 percent of American earners received a 7.3 percent decrease in their combined federal tax rate. The top 1 percent? A 14.4 percent cut during the 1980s. Clearly this hurt the middle class, as the vaunted trickle down never arrived. But it was working-class whites who bought the message that this model of fiscal conservatism, married to social conservatism in the form of a rollback of redistributive programs they perceived to favor blacks, would benefit them. It did not. Yet it established a popular political rhetoric by which lower-income whites can be counted on to take up against “liberal” policies that may actually serve their interests as long as opposition can be wrapped in the trappings of “traditional values,” “law and order,” “special interests,” “reverse racism,” and “smaller government.” This was pure okey doke based on an erroneous notion of zero-sum mutuality—that is, that whatever “the blacks” get hurts me.

Which also demonstrates the contradictions of localism. Remember my earlier argument that localism—or local control expressed formally through home rule grants, as it’s sometimes known—became the spatial successor to Jim Crow segregation. Through racially “neutral” land use and housing policy, it kept white communities white after the fall of legal segregation in the late 1950s and mid-1960s. Yet here’s the contradiction. While voters opposed to civil rights remedies and Great Society programs followed Republican leadership toward fiscal conservatism at the national level, they maintained their fiscal liberalism at the local level. The tax base they created for themselves through property taxes in suburbia could be contained and spent locally. Edsall describes the irony this way: “Suburbanization has permitted whites to satisfy liberal ideals revolving around activist government, while keeping to a minimum the number of blacks and the poor who share in government largess.” Of course, all of this worked best when “suburbs” meant middle-class white people and “cities” (or today’s “urban” areas) always signaled black and brown people. There was no mutuality of interests between the two kinds of places. It also worked when low property taxes—together with generous state aid—could reliably pay for great local public services like schools, libraries, and fire protection. It was a terrific deal. But that was then. Now, neither is true. The line between cities and suburbs has blurred into regions, and minorities and whites are busy crossing back and forth to work, live, and shop. Most of the fragmented municipalities that sprawled across suburbia are no longer able to sustain their own budgets, threatening the quality of their services, despite unimaginably high property taxes. The assumptions have not held.

Perhaps now we should consider the racially polarizing policies that became the norm under Reagan’s failed experiment. We tried them. Some believed fervently in them. But it is clear that they didn’t work and are not in our long-term national or local interest. There remains a legacy of racism, however, that continues to harm some of us disproportionately and all of us eventually. It’s to those three examples that I now turn.

Read the rest of this excerpt at Salon.com.

“I felt safer among the alligators than among the white men”

—Sylviane A. Diouf

For all its apparent fidelity to the narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave falls quite short when it comes to integrating the various dimensions of community solidarity and resistance Northup witnessed and described. Making them part of the film, even tangentially, would not only have given a more faithful account of the book but, more importantly, of the historical reality.

During his years in Louisiana, Northup heard, discussed, and saw them all: from talks of rebellion to wishes of American defeat in the Mexican War, from planned mass migration to Mexico to escapes to the woods.  Especially escapes to the woods. Northup even planned for his own by mistreating the dogs so that they would not attack if sent after him; and he secretly fed Celeste, a runaway who hid in the swamps for months to avoid the whippings of her overseer.

Indeed, like her, tens of thousands of men, women, and children left for the woods, the swamps and the mountains, carving into the wilds what I call “the maroon landscape” that extended from the borderland of plantations to the hinterland and cut paths to the slave quarters, the Big House and even the cities. Some were newly-arrived Africans, like Arrow from Benin, who escaped two days after landing in Charleston and managed to stay hidden for years. Others built large communities, as did St. Malo in Louisiana, and even a fortified camp, as did Captain Cudjoe in the Lowcountry.

Counting on their own resources—the tacit solidarity of the enslaved community (a community completely absent from McQueen’s film), night raids on plantation warehouses and, sometimes, remunerated work for white and black men—the maroons created a unique alternative existence. Rejecting passing for free in the slavery South or the semi-free North, they wanted out of white-controlled areas, even if living in the wilds was hard and hazardous.

Many felt safe only when they disappeared from the face of the earth.  When her owner hit her, a young woman hit back and ran away to a cave, an underground home that her husband equipped with a stove and furniture. Three children were born there, a stone’s throw away from the plantation. While the husband remained enslaved, bringing them the food he gathered from neighbors, mother and children lived under the Georgia ground for seven years and got out only after slavery was abolished. Hundred of miles away, a Virginia family lived in its own large cave and brought to life fifteen children who never had to endure slavery.

Maroons developed new forms of life as they retreated from, but still measured themselves against, a terrorist system and took advantage of a challenging environment. Their removal to the wilderness was not only a denunciation of the social order of the land but more profoundly, a radical rupture. Like the runaways, they wanted freedom but, distinctively, they wanted freedom on their own terms, not those of the larger society.

It was a difficult enterprise and, to be sure, they made mistakes. Some cost them their freedom or their lives. But over all, their neglected narrative, is one of courage and resourcefulness; hardships endured and freedoms won that adds a crucial chapter to the multi-faceted chronicle of slave resistance. One that 12 Years a Slave, the movie, unfortunately chose to ignore.

Northup knew from experience that, “Notwithstanding the certainty of being captured, the woods and swamps are, nevertheless, continually filled with runaways.” Former maroon Tom Wilson from Texas explained why: “I felt safer among the alligators than among the white men.”

Sylviane A. Diouf is an award-winning historian of the African Diaspora. She is the author, notably, of Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons and Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, both with NYU Press.