Thursday, August 30, 2007

Structural Racism: Killing Black Youth

by Charles Patton, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Baltimore, MD: Anna Ditkoff of reported, “Taavon Mitchell, a 27-year-old African-American man, [was found] lying on the sidewalk … He had been shot several times in the head and chest.” He died at 11:36 p.m. “Two hours later and just two blocks away, Joseph Bryant, a 29-year-old African-American man, was shot in the chest. He died half an hour later.” Around the same time the following night, “Troy Richardson, a 30-year-old African-American man, was shot repeatedly with a high-powered weapon in the middle of the street. He died 30 minutes after police found him. The weekend brought another killing. Police found Davon McCargo, a 20-year-old African-American man, lying on the ground … shot in the head and chest.” He would die later that night. This was just a normal week in Baltimore. The week prior brought twice as many murders, all African American men, and 9 months into 2007 there have been nearly 200 murders. That’s approximately 5 murders per week.

This phenomenon is not unique to Baltimore. According Department of Justice, in 2005 blacks comprised of nearly half of America’s murder victims. However, they only comprise of 13 percent of the nation’s population.

Limiting the statistical break down to males between the ages of 17 and 29, the African American percentage increases to slightly more than half of the murder victims in this country. Ninety-three percent of blacks were killed by someone of their own race and half of them were killed in urban metropolises.

Black youth are being killed on the inner city streets of America. But who is at fault? We cannot discount the fault of the blacks that actually pull the trigger but this begs the question why are they pulling the trigger so often. Is it simply a pathological culture? If so, how did this culture become pathological?

This phenomenon has been occurring for decades. A task force in Illinois will finally be developed to address this issue, along with many others for black males, and construct strategies to improve their lives. It is the first of its kind. However, it is unclear where they will target their energy and resources. One dynamic of this epidemic that must be addressed is segregation. As stated earlier, half of these African American males are being murdered in urban metropolises.

There are 23 hypersegregated cities in the United States. Twenty-one of these cities are predominantly black and serve as homes to a large percentage of the African American community. Many of these cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, etc. have a similar story. For the sake of space constraints, simply stated the Great Migration funneled blacks from the South into the most dilapidated areas of northern metropolises. This was followed by white flight and restrictive covenants that prevented black entry into white neighborhoods. The G.I. bill simultaneously led to mass white suburbanization and inner city disinvestment. The removal of these jobs submerged black urbanites even further into poverty. The impoverished state of black America has been sustained through redlining, racial steering, local zoning laws, and a lack of black wealth that was established and perpetuated through slavery, Jim Crow, institutional employment discrimination, etc. William Julius Wilson argued that those who are “truly disadvantaged” are increasingly left behind when work disappears. Furthermore, Robert Merton stated that those whose access to upward mobility is hindered are more likely to choose deviant paths to achieve mobility. Thus, disinvesting from the urban core not only decreased job opportunities but it increased the motivation to commit crime in these neighborhoods. Some may view this as a pathological culture. While to others it is simply the result of structural racism: a group with limited resources trying to survive and killing each other in the process.

Strategies to reinvest in these communities and give blacks opportunities to relocate to locations with more occupational opportunities should be explored to halt the killing of black youth. An increased tax base would accompany the rejuvenation of black communities, which would improve local schools and give black students the skills necessary to compete for these jobs as well as others, alleviating the need to turn to a life of crime. Relocation programs would accomplish this same goal for black youth, which has been proven with the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program in Chicago. While this is not a cure-all, it would be a step in the right direction.

Discriminating between two Definitions of Discrimination

by Craig Ratchford, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

As the summer internship program comes to an end this week, I find it fitting to use my blog entry to discuss my experience this summer as a relative outsider to the Kirwan Institute’s mission. As my educational experience is limited to a degree in geography (though much of my studies focused on socioeconomic/political inequality and the racialization of space), I’ve had significantly less exposure to the plethora of racial academics/philosophy than some of my fellow interns, let alone the permanent staff. Therefore, I think I have a perspective unique in the office as a relative newcomer to the arena. I’d like to use this as an opportunity to discuss my personally surprising reaction to the word ‘discrimination.’

I, as everyone else, have grown up with the word. Its meaning was obvious to me since early youth: discrimination was the differential treatment of someone due to a certain characteristic; racial discrimination was racism. This understanding persisted through a fairly critical college curriculum. However, as I was exposed to different materials throughout this summer, I quickly realized something that had never occurred to me, which was excruciatingly obvious: racial discrimination was different from prejudice. I felt a little silly—in addition to offended—when I came across Justice Roberts’ statement that “the way to end racial discrimination is to stop discriminating by race.”

The contradiction in this statement represented my own inability to discriminate between two meanings given to the word discrimination. To be specific:

Discrimination—the power of making fine distinctions; discriminating judgment
Discrimination—treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit.

It seems to me that the latter is an extrapolation of the former, moving beyond a mere recognition of difference to a value judgment thereof. Justice Roberts (as I’m sure my audience understands) had advised that we stop making fine distinctions of race as the way to end unfair treatment of different races—a wonderful solution in a vacuum. But this snide (and sly) use of rhetoric not only ignores the grounding factors and the reality of structural/unconscious racism, he actually manages to switch the root of the problem away from structural racism and history toward those fighting to acknowledge the racially unequal consequences of these factors.

I think it pertinent to expand upon Justice Roberts, taking advantage of this dual definition of discrimination. To explain, I draw upon the blog entry posted by Samir Gambhir earlier this summer:

"(My friend) had represented the African American population in the map with the color black and the white population with the color white. He was concerned that he might be perceived as a racist...My friend was addressing this issue superficially. I know him well enough to say that he has no racist agenda, overt or covert, but it brings out the sensitivity of the issue. It seems that people are scared of being perceived as a racist, thus portraying oneself as being race-neutral is an absolute must. It makes me wonder if people are only trying to deal with the issue superficially or if the heightened awareness around this issue is transforming their beliefs and attitudes deep within?”

I’m not sure that a majority of people understand and realize the difference between the definitions of discrimination. For many people, it has become almost taboo to mention race for fear of appearing to be a racist—after all, they’d be ‘discriminating,’ right? Ignoring the existence of racial distinction seems like a much safer alternative. If you don’t see a difference, how can you be ‘making preferential treatment based on group status’?

Of course, failing to ‘recognize distinction’ automatically impedes every action taken to remedy the causes and reality of the concrete racial material gap of contemporary times. I believe that reconciling these two definitions (between making distinctions and bringing judgment) will make it easier for us to understand, accept, and discuss these issues with openness rather than self-consciousness.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Understanding the Racial Impacts of the Foreclosure Crisis

by Jason Reece, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

The news has been saturated with coverage of the recent crisis in foreclosures and the housing “slump” that is impacting the nation. Unfortunately little of this coverage has looked at the racial and spatial dimensions of the foreclosure problem. Housing has long been a critical plank of the civil rights platform and will continue to be crucial in promoting equality. Housing is important in many ways outside of merely providing shelter; housing acts as a gateway to opportunity, while homeownership facilitates wealth building and provides financial stability. Many people of color have been denied access to the benefits of fair housing. Although progress has been made in recent decades in improving homeownership for people of color, the foreclosure phenomenon gripping the nation today may work to offset and undermine these gains.

Much of the foreclosure issues are fueled by predatory lending practices and non-traditional mortgages offered to families, with little thought of their ability to maintain the financial burden of the mortgages if the housing market changes. Teaser mortgages, sub prime loans and other adjustable rate mortgages have placed many homeowners on the edge of an economic precipice, with even the slightest change in the market or their financial standing pushing them into foreclosure. An estimated 2 million foreclosures are expected in the next two years due to these factors. If current trends continue a disproportionate share of these foreclosures will occur in urban communities of color. The foreclosure challenge impacts everyone, even those not immediately at risk for foreclosure, bringing additional hardship to all homeowners with lending institutions tightening lending guidelines, interest rates rising and homeowners in neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates experiencing a decline in their property values due to nearby vacant properties.

How can we address this new housing challenge? The answer to this question remains unclear at this stage, but certain steps can help offset this trend. Aggressive land banking and community development policies are needed to help inner city neighborhoods burdened with high foreclosure rates. Some type of direct assistance and counseling must be provided for families on the brink of foreclosure, and policies must be enacted to stem future predatory lending practices in urban communities of color. The housing market is always evolving and housing advocates must adapt to meet new challenges; a rapid and comprehensive response is needed.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Victims of Circumstance

by Keya C. Crenshaw, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

“They were just victims of circumstance.” That seems to be the general opinion of the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team that was called a bunch of ‘Nappy headed tattooed ho’s’ by morning radio-host Don Imus in April of this year. The circumstance here is of course being a Black woman in America. And not only that—being a Black woman in America that plays sports. I remember when Venus and Serena Williams faced similar racist attitudes when they were called ‘animals’ by radio broadcaster Sid Rosenberg (who, oddly enough worked on Imus’ show). Rosenberg also said ‘…they have a better chance of appearing nude in National Geographic as opposed to Playboy.” Rosenberg was promptly fired, but soon rehired by Imus and WFAN-AM radio in New York City because, as Imus stated, “… [Rosenberg] wasn't expressing any deep-held racist views about Black people being an inferior species." So, apparently, those of us in academia and the social justice sector (and otherwise) have been wrong for years; using blatantly offensive racial and gender remarks does not make one sexist OR racist…you’re merely expressing an opinion…

I’m sure some of you are reading this and wondering why I’m still talking about “yesterday’s news”. But, it’s not just yesterday’s news. It’s yesterday, today, and tomorrow if people don’t stand up and take a stance against these kinds of discriminatory remarks and practices; once we stop fighting for change and equal justice, there will be no hope for the co-existence of future generations.

I bring up these most unfortunate tragedies for many reasons, but mostly because it has just been announced that WABC radio is in talks with Mr. Imus about a possible comeback, and Kia Vaughn, one of the Rutgers team members recently filed a lawsuit against Don Imus citing defamation of character and slander. Honestly, I was a bit shocked when I read she had filed a suit, especially this late in the game. It saddened me at first because I was worried about her image; that others would think she was just another “angry Black woman” in search of revenge. The images of Black women have been distorted throughout history. For example, Black women are usually cast as the loving mammies, “welfare queens”, drug addicts, or hypersexual eroticized beings in cultural imagery. This has been shown in films such as Imitation of Life, Losing Isaiah and Monster’s Ball. Black women have not had much help from their Black male counterparts. For example, many rappers call Black women derogatory names in their music lyrics like in Ludacris’s song “Move B*tch” or “Area Codes” in which he refers to the numerous “ho’s” he has around the world. Another example would be the Black men that openly admit that they will not date Black women because they are too feisty, indignant, and angry. Black women have had to fight long and hard against these stereotypes to be treated with respect.

This gives Kia Vaughn all the more reason to file suit against Don Imus; by disrespecting the women, he illustrated some of the ignorance and bigotry still prevalent in today’s society. Not only Kia, but her teammates as well (if they personally deem it necessary) should sue Imus for his comments.

The timing of Kia’s lawsuit is considered unfortunate by some because they feel it is too late for her to claim any damages (for lack of a better phrase). Timing should not be on trial here; the fact that someone could get away with such derogatory comments in the year 2007 is what should be further discussed. If lawsuits as Kia’s are not filed, comments like Imus’s will only continue to happen and people like Imus will still be in control of our media. So, the question is, how do we prevent [her] story from repeating itself.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Racial Underpinnings of the War on Drugs

By Mark Verhoff, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

There is a tendency in America’s public discourse to avoid a detailed treatment of the complications of the War on Drugs. In making a handful of known drugs illegal (cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, in particular), the nation has undergone a whitewashing of history and seen its law enforcement divisions undergo an intense process of militarization. Despite this, the hyper-racialized outcomes of the Drug War (a disproportionate representation of minorities as victims of neighborhood crime and severe drug-crime sentencing) and its effects on the urban complex are plain to see. The consistent historical themes of racism and the militarization of oppression are clearly visible in relation to illegalization of the coca plant, and similar drugs.

The process of demonizing the drug and marginalizing its users was not instantaneous or accidental, but rather gradual, intentional, and intensely racist. The process of racial discrimination through drug prohibition can be divided into roughly two time periods. In the earlier period, both cocaine and marijuana use had been historically associated with Mexicans and the greater Latino community. While the coca plant has a long history of social and utilitarian use for life high in the Andes Mountains, the 19th century isolation of the Cocaine alkaloid created a highly recreational concentrated preparation. Cocaine and marijuana’s risks to society were, due to the demographics of their use, therefore phrased in terms of risks to white society, and the “lazy” and “loco” Mexican was the frightening mascot of uncontrollable drug use. Similarly, cocaine and marijuana were said to be used by black men shortly before reaching an uncontrollable state and victimizing white women.

In the later period, the final quarter of the 20th century, the racial effects of demonizing and marginalizing some drugs and their users had matured. With the War on Drugs officially declared, America’s urban cores have become veritable war zones where drug profits help determine gang territories, and adjacent police departments are locked in a never ending process of using drug arrests to secure state and federal grants for increasing militarization (increased weaponry, defense, intelligence capabilities, etc.) of their departments. In a vicious cycle, increasingly segregated black “ghettos” and impoverished areas see increasing rates of drug use and increasing rates of poverty and drug related crime. In response, law enforcement vies for ever more oppressive means to fight the drug war. The increasing globalization of the drug trade (itself an international and racial issue, with nearly all cocaine coming from Colombia and nearly all heroin coming from Afghanistan, and both nations under siege by white America) drives the price of drugs down, and organized cartels and their urban counterparts assure a steady supply, and conversely, assures a steady intensification of law enforcement activities.

In a nation where the racial divide is becoming more geographically pronounced, especially in the urban-suburban complex, the unbelievably racist effects of the drug war can no longer be ignored. This is a nation where baking soda, the only difference between powder cocaine and crack (freebase) cocaine, increases punitive measures in some cases by over double. Powder cocaine is a predominately white and suburban drug, while crack cocaine (the exact same chemical, but in an oily, rocky form) is a predominately “black” and “ghetto” drug. The introduction of this type of disparate sentencing and the rapid militarization of urban police forces in the second age of racism and drugs, beginning in and through the 1980s and 1990s, has rapidly accelerated the destruction and oppression of minority urban enclaves and must be reversed and rectified immediately. Please visit to help.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Confronting U.S. Racial Categories: Somalis in Columbus, OH

by Nahla al-Huraibi, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

I am conducting in-depth interviews with Somali immigrants in Columbus, Ohio to examine gender impacts on the Somali Muslim family integration patterns into the Anglo-Judeo-Christian American mainstream. In regard to the Somalis' perception of racism in American society, one of the main themes that reoccur in the participants' narratives is the cultural shock they experience when confronting the new classification systems in the host society. These systems are loaded with hegemonic meanings that situate non-whites and immigrants in a subordinate identity. Being both non-white and immigrants, Somalis are struggling to respond to negative stigmas associated with both identities in the U.S.

Many Somali immigrants have expressed their confusion at finding that on a daily basis their skin color may determine how many white Americans treat them. Back home, Somalis’ system of differentiation is totally different than how race is defined in the U.S. In their homeland, the system of differentiation is a cultural and social one that is based on tribalism, in which some tribes or clans are seen as higher than others due to their occupations or social behavior, as opposed to physical features like skin-color. As one of my female participants stated:

We were brought up in cultures where we are not used to racism; we have never been exposed to racism before we came here, and even now unless it is blatant and vulgar, you don't recognize it, because you have never been exposed to it, you don't know the symptoms of racism; you don't know how to interpret it; you don't know what it has to do with you as a person, or with your color, or with what you are wearing (referring to the hijab; Muslim women's headscarf). Also, because we came from a culture, where Somalis no matter how poor they are…they don't think anybody can look down at them. Somalis are very proud, but it is not false pride; it is you recognize my humanity, I recognize yours. So, now they are shocked when they come to the American shores and they are filling the entrance forms and people are classified along racial lines. They say, what is this? This is the first time in our lives we are asked what race you are. That confuses them, because you know Somalis are a mixture; they are Asians, they are Africans. There are so many intermarriages in the Somali society between Africans, Yemenis, Omanis, and Indians. Race has never been relevant to them.

In light of the notion that identity is "context-dependent", two points need to be discussed:

• Can the Somalis' positive self-definition survive in the American racialized context where the color-based system of classification is a primary source of social stratification?
• Can the Somali immigrants participate in redefining the meaning of racial categories in the U.S. away from the normative black-white dichotomy to a situation of multiple and hybrid identity categories? Will they also contribute in transforming the meaning of blackness from skin-color categories to culturally and nationality-based ones? (Kusow, 2006)

Thanks for your input, your comments will help me in my data analysis!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

‘Barack Obama for President!’ The Representation of Hope and Tragedy in the United States

By Vincent Willis, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

It is November 5, 2008 and news stations, such as Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, report that Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United Sates. Never before in American history has the President been anything but a white male. Most blacks are ecstatic while other ethnic groups are concerned. The truth is nobody can say what this means.

There has been a resounding question of whether Obama is “Black enough.” The real question is assessing with whom a young African American senator is allied with and how he plans to cut across different ethnic and economic groups in order to create an agenda that will be embraced by all Americans. Moreover, what would his victory symbolize? Most importantly, how would his victory impact race relations in the United States?

While Barack Obama’s candidacy may represent hope for a new America, it also has the potential to have a profound impact on race relations. Each racial group has its own agenda and struggles and no group wants to be left out of the political process. It is nearly impossible to improve race relations in America without deconstructing and/or creating a new system. The potential impacts on race relations come about when we consider the available options. Option 1 involves a massive redistribution of access to the national governing system. Traditionally excluded groups will have the opportunity to be included in the decision making process, while the traditional gatekeepers of the decision-making process will incur a loss of power and influence. Option 2 involves an attempt to centralize power and influence by majority decision makers and resistance by minority groups. Here majority whites will attempt to hoard power since they are faced with the possibility that their position of privilege might end. In either a proactive strategy or as a response to the actions of the majority, minority groups will engage in conflict with the majority in an attempt to secure their own power and create a new system of American order. Option 3 would involve a temporary truce where all parties would retain their positions and the status quo of the American governing system remains unscathed.

Time has moved forward. President Obama has occupied the Oval Office. He has put together his Cabinet and begun to work on his agenda for a better America. When he entered office the divide between the haves and have-nots was steadily rising. Poor children, black and brown, were suffering from the failed promises of No Child Left Behind. Blacks and Latinos were steadily being incarcerated at record numbers. Nevertheless, on Obama’s website, these issues are not at the top of his list, but in the middle. How can anyone, Obama, Clinton, or Richardson, symbolize a new America using the same old American system? Politics is no different than anything else meaning if you always do what you have always done, you always get what you have always got. Therefore, brand new ideas are needed to improve race relations in America. The next president must be able to lead the citizens of America into a different pathway of thinking. He or she must illustrate that “leveling the playing field” can only benefit America, as opposed to running the “political rat race” of which we are all victims. Thus the so-called “tragedy” arises when we consider that a sure destruction of racialized American traditions is the only way to assure the emergence of American values.

Friday, August 3, 2007


By Samir Gambhir, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

A friend of mine who is white, works in the field of the social sciences and is a GIS professional, confided in me about a big ‘mistake’ he made while displaying race data in a map. He had represented the African American population in the map with the color black and the white population with the color white. He was concerned that he might be perceived as a racist.

This led me to think of the many ways racism plays out in this country. How hypocritical is it to refer to African Americans as ‘Blacks’, but have reservations on representing data likewise? What is the bigger question here – being a racist or being perceived as one?

For decades, issues of race and racism have dominated the social, judicial, and executive arena in this country. The general public, advocates, scholars, researchers and lawmakers have engaged themselves in these discussions, but serious issues still remain to be resolved; there are simmering prejudices still lingering in the subconscious minds of people. Though overt racism has subsided with increased awareness and legal controls, covert racism exists and manifests itself in different forms.

My friend was addressing this issue superficially. I know him well enough to say that he has no racist agenda, overt or covert, but it brings out the sensitivity of the issue. It seems that people are scared of being perceived as a racist, thus portraying oneself as being race-neutral is an absolute must. It makes me wonder if people are only trying to deal with the issue superficially or if the heightened awareness around this issue is transforming their beliefs and attitudes deep within?

No Negroes or Dogs Allowed

By Jason Perkins, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

“We don’t have many problems with our blacks.” This quote is taken from a white resident of Jena, Louisiana following the widespread media coverage of the Jena Six. This quote may seem innocuous to some but for others, me included, it stirs up deep feelings of indignation. This quote in part implies white ownership or control of blacks while simultaneously making clear that large segments of white America view any attempt African Americans make to resist white hegemony as a problem. In other words, even in the twentieth-first century, there is a pervasive attitude within a significant portion of the white community that whites are entitled to control every facet of African American life. Perhaps most shameful is that this quote is reminiscent of earlier historical atrocities including chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Over the past year significant media attention has swept through the small, rural, and still mostly segregated central Louisiana city of Jena. The spotlight stems from a fight which occurred on Monday, December 4, 2006 at Jena High School between a group of African American males and a white male schoolmate who allegedly hurled racial taunts including chants of “nigger” at the youths. Following the brawl, the white student believed to have made the racial remarks was taken to a local hospital treated, released, and reportedly attended a party that same night. Conversely, the Jena Police Department arrested and charged the six young black men who range in age from fifteen to eighteen with second degree attempted murder. Shortly thereafter, the LaSalle Parish School Board expelled them. As we speak, the youths await trial with the above listed charge carrying up to twenty years. Last month, an all-white jury convicted Robert Bailey, 17, who has been incarcerated since December, of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. He could face up to twenty-two years in prison. This fight was not an isolated incident, but rather the culmination of a series of racial incidents which began several months earlier in September.

Although this case has garnered local, underground, and international attention, mainstream media coverage pales in comparison to previous cases in which whites are considered the protagonists (e.g., Men’s Duke Lacrosse team). Lest we think no black news story is worthy of national media coverage, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick recently made headlines for his alleged involvement in illegal dog fighting this past summer. Interestingly, many of the same champions of animal rights who are currently protesting Vick are not in protest of the Louisiana (in)justice system’s inhumanely despicable treatment of African Americans. It is a sad commentary on a country in which a significant segment of its populace holds the treatment of animals in higher regards than its citizens. This does not suggest that I condone animal cruelty, but rather I see irony in the outrage over the mistreatment of animals when six young men with promise are not deemed worthy of similar entitlement.