Monday, February 23, 2009

White Supremacy and the Chimp: A Renewed Anthropology

By Marguerite Spencer, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

By the time this blog is posted, much will have already been written about the N.Y. Post editorial cartoon, which many thought depicted President Obama as a chimpanzee, slain by two white officers. I would like to approach this cartoon from a useful theological posture, interrogating not white racism but white supremacy. Central to the anthropology of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the belief that God created humankind in God’s image. This God, at least in Western culture, is consistently portrayed as white. Two implications flow from this – that God is not a God of color and that the creatures that are created in God’s image are white. In the context of the editorial cartoon, the two white cops are made in the image of God; like God they are powerful and effect “justice.” Obama, however, is not made in the image God; he is a lesser creature like the lower animals in the Judeo-Christian creation story – dark, dirty, dust stuff, without God’s spirit or life force blown into him. It is easy to shoot a chimp (yes, it is black blood that flows from him), but not if the chimp is made in the image of God. Protestant black theologian James Cone argues that white Christians can never overcome their sense of superiority unless they see God as black, as the wholly Other, embracing all who are oppressed. Some see Cone’s black God as a true metaphor; it juxtaposes two realties that are thought to be unrelated: divinity and black experience, or if read in a more expansive way, Americanism and the experience of all who are marginalized. Is America white? Are all non-whites less than American? At this moment in our nation’s history, this savage editorial cartoon urgently offers us the opportunity to challenge the social location of whites and to reshape our understanding of what it means to be both an American and a human being.

Dialogue Isn’t Enough

By Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director at the Kirwan Institute

The media coverage of Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent race speech invariably led with his suggestion that “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

And so we have a major hullabaloo about the wisdom and accuracy of that reference, and almost nothing on the rest of the 2400-word speech.

Mr. Holder gets a lot right. Our race talk tends to be neither frank nor constructive. We have yet to seriously engage with our racial past or with its implications for present and future dynamics. The sequestration of an often thinly-articulated “black history” in the shortest month of the year is troubling in principle and practice. Most importantly, as Mr. Holder says, “We still speak too often of ‘them’ and not ‘us,’” thereby ignoring the ways in which we ultimately rise or fall together.

Those aren’t slim pickin’s, and there’s even more there that warrants our attention.

The major problem with Mr. Holder’s remarks, in my view, was his inattention to the programmatic changes we’ll need to achieve the kind of racial vision to which he aspires. His characterization of America as “voluntarily” segregated makes my point.

To be sure, biases and aversions, both blatant and hidden, loom large in our racial culture and there’s a real element of choice to how we compose our social networks. But even a casual analysis of racial interaction that doesn’t note how things like exclusionary zoning, racial steering in housing, school funding inequities, and school tracking practices constrain our choices misses the boat.

Those who read the whole piece could be forgiven for concluding that we’re just one great, sustained national conversation away from racial nirvana. We’re not. What’s most needed are hardcore changes in practice and policy that lead to and emerge from institutional transformation: changing where federally subsidized housing is sited; making school funding equitable, rather than aiming for a grossly inadequate “equality”; meaningful criminal justice reform; attention to the racialized distributions of burdens and benefits that typically attach to “universal” measures like the current stimulus package.

A constructive national dialogue may be a necessary precursor or complement to these kinds of changes, but it cannot stand alone. The attorney general is right: institutionally speaking, the America of today isn’t the America of the 1950’s and 1960’s. However, nor is it the America it must yet become.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Intergroup Contact, Prejudice, and Integration

By Yusuf Sarfati, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Last Monday I attended a public lecture delivered by Miles Hewstone, who is a professor of social psychology at the Oxford University. The lecture discussed many aspects of intergroup relations based on data on Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.

One of the interesting aspects of the talk was Hewstone’s engagement with Robert Putnam’s “diversity-distrust” hypothesis evaluated in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. According to Putnam’s hypothesis, increasing contact between diverse racial or ethnic groups diminishes the trust between the group members.

Hewstone argues – based on his empirical analysis of his cross-sectional and longitudinal data of Northern Ireland neighborhoods – that Putnam’s argument needs to be refined. He distinguishes between different types of contact. One type of contact that he refers to as “positive contact” involves meaningful interaction between the members of different groups, for example working toward common goals. According to Hewstone, this type of contact is different than superficial contact that group members have in a supermarket or bus station. His empirical data show that “positive contact” leads to reduced prejudice. This means that the more people engage in deeper relations with members of the out-group, the more likely they will form positive opinions about the other group.

I think Hewstone’s argument is important for those who work on racial relations in the U.S. Whether we work on the integration of immigrant communities into the larger U.S. society, do school integration work, or think about ways to racially integrate neighborhoods, we need to keep in mind that contact between groups does not directly translate to diminishing prejudice. However, meaningful contact does. Therefore it is important to take into consideration the context in which the contact occurs and the quality of contact between group members. In order to enhance the quality of contact between groups it is necessary to work on policies and institutions that will create an environment in which members of different racial, ethnic, or cultural groups can forge meaningful ties, learn about each other, and work for common goals. Only through this approach we can talk about healthy integration.