Tag Archives: whiteness

Iron Fist, or white wish fulfillment from its beginnings

Ah Iron Fist. I read the Essentials Volume 1 because by the end of it he partners up with Luke Cage, and I love Luke Cage. I wanted to know just exactly who Luke Cage was getting mixed up with.

It ain’t pretty.

Too bad it’s way too late for Luke Cage to stay away.

Iron Fist wasn’t really enough to write about, but Netflix is making a series about the dude inspiring some controversy. Undoubtedly to cross over with Luke Cage (yay) and Jessica Jones (yay). I enjoyed a recent article by Noah Berlatsky with the subheading ‘iron flop’ and the title ‘“Iron Fist” proves Marvel is obsessed with rich white men—and it’s ruining their superheroes’.

Which is funny, partly because it’s true given there’s Iron Bat and Bat Fist and Dr Strangebatiron and more. Only one of them is an arms dealer at least. Iron Fist could have been, should have been Asian. He gets his powers from a fabled village in China’s K’un Lun mountains — where his DAD is from. Marvel argued they needed an ‘outsider’, which makes no sense as justification for casting a white guy. My favourite part apart from the title was actually the quote from Shaun Lau, an Asian-American activist and co-creator of the “No, Totally!” podcast (which I will have to listen to except I’m not much of a podcast girl and haven’t even finished my beloved Welcome to Nightvale since I quite farming):

“I don’t think people understand the extent to which ‘outsider’ describes the life of an Asian-American,” Lau said. “When I walk down the street, I’m not perceived as an American because of the way I look. But I did a family trip to China, Japan, and Hong Kong, when I was 19, and I didn’t fit in at all in any of those places. I don’t speak the language, just looking at me the people who live there knew that I was American.”

Unlike Rand, Asian Americans are perceived as aliens both in the US and abroad. “Asian-Americans really are this level of outsider that would work really, really well with the character of Danny Rand,” Lau said.

Ultimately, Lau argued that casting a white actor to play Danny was a “missed opportunity” for creating a new narrative.

It really was. It should have been done. Even in these early comics you feel how awkward and weird it is that Iron Fist is white, especially as all his family drama and their connections to China unfold. It never makes much sense. 1974 feels pretty late for that kind of shit, but there it is. Anyway, that shit keeps happening.

But reading the comics you realise this is something that often ‘ruined’ their superheroes. It is hardly surprising Marvel felt they had to cast Iron Fist as white — not that anyone in their production department necessarily read these early comics. But they are entirely white male wish fulfillment (and what else are many of these comics and films really about?) They are written as if *you*, the imagined (white, male) reader were iron Fist:

I know I’m still learning my way around comics, but I haven’t come across this before. I mean, look at that last panel, you, the imagined (white, male) reader *are* Iron Fist with crazy muscles about to kick some ass. It just keeps going.

I liked that it was ‘kung-fu’ heavy, but it so reminded me of the multiple films in which dudes from the US become martial arts saviours — they still get made even when the only explanation for white prowess is down to fate and watching kung-fu films. I never understood what was up with any of them, but clearly they belong in a long tradition of white guys longing to appropriate the awesomeness of another culture and pretend it really belonged to them all along. At least some of them train a few years for it, but still. I long for the film where Michelle Yeoh reduces each and every one of them into a quivering pile of humiliated jelly.

In fact the only good thing about Iron Fist is how awesome the ladies in it are, like Colleen Wing and Misty Knight.

Anyway, the various writers on the team keep up this writing style of making *you* , the imagined (white, male) reader the hero for a long time. You, the ‘master’ of chi.  At least, occasionally, there is a crazy cool monster.

Anyway, that’s me done ranting about Iron Fist, we definitely don’t need more billionaire heroes. Though I confess I did enjoy his visit to London. Look! It’s the Post Office Tower!

And ah, the London slums (?) between Maida Vale and Paddington. The good old days.

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Drawing the Global Colour Line — Connecting White Supremacy

2551707Drawing the Global Colour Line by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds — such a good book. It charts how whiteness as an identity was constructed across the British Empire rather than just within individual colonies — it’s a brilliant examination of global formations of racism and its rhetoric, especially given the usual focus on a national context. I might quote with exaggerated enthusiasm here because much of this was new to me when I read it, though I realise it is much more familiar to those working in postcolonial theory. I’m catching up slowly.

This book argues, following Du Bois,  that the assertion of whiteness was born  in the  apprehension of imminent loss…and it charts the spread of whiteness as a transnational form of racial identification, that was, as Du Bois noticed, at once global in its power and personal in its meaning, the basis of geo-political alliances and a subjective sense of self. (loc 73, 84)

This combination of the global and the personal, the connection between privilege and great fear of its loss, are shown to be key to understanding many of white racism’s dynamics, and it was eye-opening to read the constructions of racist beliefs growing in concert and conversation.

In recent scholarship, ‘whiteness studies’ have emerged as a productive new field of historical enquiry, but most investigations have conceptualised their subject within a national frame of analysis, identifying local dynamics at work within histories deemed distinctive or even exceptional.15 Studies that now acknowledge the necessity for a global context still confine their own analyses within a national interpretative frame and that has been especially the case with United States scholarship.16 But, as DuBois and contemporaries on the other side of the colour line saw clearly, the emergence of the ‘new religion’ of whiteness was a transnational
phenomenon and all the more powerful for that, inspiring in turn the formation of international movements of resistance, such as the pan-African and pan-Asian alliances… (loc 99)

A little more on the purpose of the book itself, its focus on racial technologies, and the nature of the global colour line. I find the authors most eloquent so these are long quotations:

In Drawing the Global Colour Line, We trace the transnational circulation of emotions and ideas, people and publications, racial knowledge and technologies that animated white men’s countries and their strategies of exclusion, deportation and segregation, in particular, the deployment of those state-based instruments of surveillance, the census, the passport and the literacy test. The project of whiteness was thus a paradoxical politics, at once transnational in its inspiration and identifications but nationalist in its methods and goals. The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach, nationalist in its outcomes, bolstering regimes of border protection and national sovereignty. (loc 103)

Again, the importance of understanding what is happening at different scales, differences around particular implementations and histories but also to a great degree unified, particularly around a shared glorious racial past and the sharing of ‘best practices’.

Though recently established, white men’s countries sought legitimacy through locating themselves in the long tradition of Anglo-Saxon race history that dated back to the mythic glories of Hengist and Horsa. They shared an English-speaking culture and newly ascendant democratic politics, priding themselves, as Anglo-Saxons, on a distinctive capacity, indeed a genius, for self-government. It was their commitment to democratic equality that made racial homogeneity seem imperative. In the tradition of J. S. Mill, they argued that democracy could only survive in the absence of distinctions of caste and colour.

White men’s countries rested on the premise that multiracial democracy was an impossibility. (loc 139)

They used specific wordings to promote such ideas, which underline the geographies of race and democracy:

Colonial leaders preferred, however, to speak not of ‘local’, but of ‘self-government’, which they would later invoke to argue their sovereign right to racial homogeneity. (loc 614)

This connection between ideas of democracy and the need for racial homogeneity is a particularly important one to my own research, and seen over and over again. It is also one that continues to emerge in these days of ours, though often divorced from such openly racist rhetoric. Yet at the same time it is a connection glossed over or completely left out of most work on democracy and its workings.

They continue:

Previous studies have charted racial discourse across the British Empire or drawn attention to the links between the anti- Chinese policies of California and the Australian colonies, but few have analysed the inter-relationship of British and American racial regimes in the same analytical frame.29 Yet, crucially, the idea of the ‘white man’s country’ crossed and collapsed the imperial/republican divide, drawing on the discursive resources of both traditions to enshrine the dichotomy of white and not-white. The British Empire drew a distinction between ruling and ruled races; republican ideology drew a distinction between races fit and not fit for self-government. United States naturalisation law rested on the dichotomy of white and not-white.

In the figure of the white man, the imperialist became a democrat and the democrat an imperialist.
(loc 170)

Mills’ The Racial Contract is brilliant on exploring the underpinnings of this in terms of ideas of democracy, ‘social contract’ and race, but more on that later.

This worldview worked to simplify, to make binary a complex reality:

One indicator of the global ascendancy of the politics of whiteness was its ability to recast the previous multiplicity of nations, races and religions – Aryan, Caucasian, Chinese, Hindus, Kanakas, Islanders, Malays, Blacks, Lascars, Moslems, Japanese – in binary terms as ‘white’ or ‘not-white’. English-speaking countries were pace-setters in this regard. (loc 180)

We still suffer from this binary, still don’t quite have the words to deal with its falsity imposed over reality given it has wielded and continues to wield such force.

The Racialisation of Labour: Workers and Masculinity

There is clearly an important connection to be made here with masculinity as well as with democracy:

…when ‘glorious manhood asserts its elevation’, in the words of New South Wales republican poet, Daniel Deniehy, when pride of manhood found expression in pride of race to enshrine the white man as the model democrat. In the New World encounters of diverse peoples, the masculine democracies of North America and Australasia defined their identity and rights in racial terms: the right of Anglo-Saxons to self-government and the commitment of white workers to high wages and conditions, against those they saw as undermining their new-found status, whether they be aristocrats of ‘coolies’.

When glorious manhood asserted its elevation, white men monopolised the status of manhood itself. Coolies, Islanders, Asiatics and Blacks were cast as not simply deficient as workers, colonists and citizens, but also as men. They were docile, servile, dependent, unfree. Hence, the struggles of coloured and colonised men to achieve recognition, or restitution, of their manhood as well as national independence.
(loc 148)

So many remarkable interchanges occurred between countries despite the thousands of miles between them, as interesting as the differences.

Anti-Chinese agitation began to centre on complaints of cheap labour, low wages and unfair competition. Industrial employment as well as gold were claimed as the exclusive preserve of white men.

Agitation against the Chinese in Australia was frequently inspired by the example of California.14 A significant proportion of the miners on the Victorian fields had come directly from the lawless districts of the Pacific Slope and they often carried their preference for direct action with them. (loc 271)

Ah, the old spectre of grassroots violence. Makes it a bit harder to talk about the ‘grassroots’ as positively as we so often do.

Workers were in movement, and so were ideas, organising strategies and racism — here from California to Melbourne but drawing on anything useful, with labour pressuring the government to stop immigration (a familiar sort of current, I wish I could say differently today):

The Commission recommended a Californian-type tax to ‘check and diminish this influx’, but the Victorian government also introduced the first form of ‘immigration restriction’, utilising, at the suggestion of the Colonial Office, the British Passengers Act, that limited the number of passengers for health and safety reasons to one passenger for every two tons of ship’s burthen. (loc 300)

A goldfield in Australia called Jim Crow…Jesus:

Agitation against the Chinese continued. In 1857, for example, a public meeting at Geelong ‘numbering not less than one thousand persons’ sent a petition demanding the parliament ‘check any further increase of the Chinese race in Victoria’; the Local Court at Castlemaine presented a Memorial against the ‘Chinese influx’ while miners at a goldfield named ‘Jim Crow’ near Ballarat collected 345 signatures in favour of Chinese exclusion.23 (loc 315)

A transnational identity as a man and as a worker is being crafted here, but a racialised one:

When anti-Chinese activists thus campaigned against the Chinese as colonists, citizens and workers, they also impugned their manhood. ‘Rice-eating men’, declared Australians and Californians in chorus, had neither the rights nor responsibilities of masculine ‘beef-eating’ men. (loc 412)

I remember reading very similar phraseology at this same point in time from authors like Henry Mayhew writing about the Irish in London, and the ways they can live on a single potato or on nothing at all. Hardly surprising, I suppose, that it should be used independently or displaced against others, often by the Irish themselves.

The results:

International doctrines of freedom of movement thus collided with the ascendant democratic power of white manhood. In an age when “glorious manhood asserts its elevation”, in the words of republican Australian poet Daniel Deniehy, Chinese labour, represented as docile and servile, was cast as a profound threat to the new-found status of the independent, upright working man, a figure increasingly coded as ‘white’.47 (loc 415)

Workers were white men, and they were white men ‘under siege’:

In demanding the exclusion of Chinese workers, the labour movement increasingly defined the by his “civilized” standard of living. The difference between the Chinese worker and the white worker, said one supporter in the Victorian parliament, sounding an international theme, was the difference between ‘a rice-eating man and a beef-eating man”. “People who can subsist on a handful of rice and content themselves with the barest shelter are formidable opponents of European labor”, said a colleague.64 Moreover, the “unfairness of the competition is added to by the intense industry of these Asiatics. They stand in as little need of rest and recreation, apparently, as they do of a generous diet or wholesome housing…” (loc 473)

These constructions of masculinity were emerging both from workers and politicians, intertwining with more upper-class justifications and discourses of Empire:

Just as British statesmen looked to the United States as a future ally, so Americans looked to British imperialism as a model for a re-invigorated United States manhood. On a visit to Britain in 1895, the previously sceptical Lodge was impressed by the role of imperial government in building English manhood. ‘I am more than ever impressed with the vast difference between the Englishman who has travelled and governed abroad and those who have not’, he wrote on his return. ‘The latter are insular and self-absorbed and stiff as a rule and the former are almost always agreeable and worth meeting’.65 Imperialism was character-building, for man, nation and race. ‘I believe in the expansion of great nations’, Roosevelt affirmed to his friend, Spring Rice, in December 1899. India had done a great deal for ‘the English character. If we do our work well in the Philippines and the West Indies, it will do a great deal for our character’.66(loc 1569)

Women could only suffer in this equation, being pushed further into roles of pure motherhood to uphold the race. One example:

The Royal Commission placed the blame for the decline of the birth rate on the selfishness of women.64 A copy of the report was sent to the United States at the request of the Department of Commerce and Labor.65 White men’s countries shared the preoccupation with race suicide. (loc 2226)

The other tragic result? The focus in so many liberation movements on ‘recovering’ the masculinity of men of colour. We watched Marlon Riggs’ awesome documentary Black I is, Black I ain’t last night, which is eloquent in showing the cost of this to women of colour and to those finding themselves outside of definitions of masculinity through their sexuality or expressions. To those facing demands to conform or ostracisation.

Motherland v Colony: the complexities of Empire:

One of the most enlightening things for me were the differences, at least initially, in the attitudes and discourses (though not in levels of racism itself) of Britain as the coloniser of a far-flung empire, and its subjects who established settler colonies. I had never quite grasped the strength of the idea of a multi-racial commonwealth, all subject to the Queen. This created complex allegiances amongst the empire’s members, even in its highly imperfect state.

I remember a strange loyalty to this idea puzzling me to some extent in Gandhi’s biography when I read it very long ago, and I am fascinated by quite what that meant, and how it shifted along with power, technologies of exploitation and discourse:

But the imperial status in which Gandhi invested so much – the status of British subject – was fast being eclipsed in the self-governing colonies by the ascendant dichotomy of white
and not-white. In making an argument that Natal should follow New South Wales rather than the United States and declare explicitly against the immigration of Asiatics, one member of parliament was moved to observe that colonists should forget about Colonial Office objections on behalf of coloured British subjects, for ‘the idea of the British subject was fading more and more every year’. (loc 1905)

This kind of attitude was made possible by the nature of empire, by governing from a  country that remained white, an illuminating quote:

The shoe doesn’t pinch us; for in the first place each Asiatic in Natal must be multiplied by eight hundred to produce a proportionate effect on the population at home; and secondly this country being already fully populated, a relatively large influx of a foreign element could only be brought about by a corresponding displacement of the native element.36

Racial hierarchies existed within these limited categories of colonial subject, though all as a rule were seen as unfit for the duties and responsibilities of white men:

But there was a further problem in Natal: the presence of several hundred thousand ‘natives’. Even if a few Indians were to be granted self-government, they could not be trusted to govern blacks. The Colonial Office noted the impossibility of one subject race being governed by another:

In the contingency which this Bill deals with – that of Asiatics becoming the majority in a tiny electorate – a result would appear, which no-one ever contemplated, and which would be most anomalous and perhaps hazardous in itself viz the Government of a subject Race, which itself does not understand and is permanently unfit for representative Government, by another Race which does not understand it either which has no experience of it, and whose capacity to work it must be doubtful representative government is the monopoly of the European Races.37 (loc 1754)

Yet they remained subjects — a limited status yet one that settler colonies demanded be stripped. Thus it was the colonies that drove this process, and remarkably late in a sense — the end of the 1800s, which also saw the end of reconstruction in the US and the rise of Jim Crow:

The Australian legislation of 1896, in dividing the world’s peoples between white and not-white, regardless of their standing as powers or status as British subjects, marked a radical new departure in international relations. But the move was a logical development of the binary thinking that governed British imperial rule – the division between Crown colonies and self-governing Dominions or between ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ races – and United States naturalisation law, that divided the world’s peoples into white and not-white. White Australia was produced in a convergence of these binary classification systems with the result that a vast range of diverse nationalities, ethnicities and religious groups Afghans, Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, Moslems, Negroes, Indians, Malays and Pacific Islanders – were lumped together (loc 2036)

Again, this underlines how this growing understanding of whiteness as identity, the creation of whiteness came from both bottom up and top down as it were, to return to the workers:

The project of White Australia was thus a contest over the meaning of civilisation itself. Much Labor vitriol was directed at the Japanese demand to be recognised as a civilised power. The Australian Worker reported the story of a confrontation between a local Labor man determined to ‘take down’ ‘a Jap standing outside a laundry’, who dressed above his station:

There you are looking like a crow decked out with peacock’s feathers thinking, I suppose, that you represent an up-to-date and enlightened nation. A great Power you call yourself, with your navy and your army, that you haven’t paid for yet, and your factories and other such western civilised innovations wherein you don’t earn enough in a week to keep a white man in beer and tobacco for the same period. (loc 2148)

But it’s all happening a bit later than I usually think of it, though the roots go very deep. We see Labour taking up the rhetoric of justice and democracy only when both are restricted racially:

In the new Commonwealth of Australia, Liberal and Labor parties agreed on the necessity of the state protecting the wages and conditions of white working men, an approach given expression in the policy of New Protection, so named because tariff protection would depend on employers paying workers a fair and reasonable wage. Deakin explicitly theorised White Australia as an exercise in social justice: ‘it means the maintenance of conditions of life fit for white men and white women – it means equal laws and opportunities for all; it means protection against the underpaid labour of other lands; it means social justice so far as we can establish it, including just trading and the payment of fair wages’.55 (loc 2171)

I hate seeing words social justice appearing in sentences like the one above. This was not, of course, only happening in Australia, and it became part of a political toolbox, part of the increasingly hegemonic mix of ideas through strong-held faith alongside canny manipulation and political operating within and between nations:

Above all, metropolitan governments realised that here was an issue capable of mobilising whole communities and creating new transnational ones, of changing voting behaviour and political allegiances . The British Ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, noted ‘an identity of feeling and of interests (real or supposed)’ between the Canadian inhabitants of the Pacific Coast and their neighbours in the United States.86 Washington and Ottawa talked about the possible secession of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California – “where the same question is agitating the public mind, and threatens to combine all classes, irrespective of boundaries, in one common cause” – leading to their amalgamation into a new republic.87 The British government feared that the United States would stand forth as the leader and protector of white men’s interests… (loc 2606)

I had to pause a moment to imagine the ‘what if’ of a west coast nation, especially given the onset of Trump. But really what is important is that it should be international rivalry in leadership pushing the British Empire to move away from earlier ideas that bestowed some rights and some degree of humanity within the term ‘subject’:

The British, too, worried about the Empire disintegrating, Britain being marginalised and the United States assuming leadership of a new white men’s alliance. In his paper ‘Suggestions as to Coloured Immigration into the Self-Governing Dominions’, prepared for the Colonial Office, Charles Lucas observed that this was ‘a question second to none in difficulty and importance’ for the Empire. The British government should endeavour therefore to show some leadership on the question:

There is also to my mind a constant and serious danger that, if we do not take the initiative, the United States may stand out on and through this question as the leaders of the English-speaking peoples in the Pacific as against the coloured races. This is not my own view alone.92 (loc 2621)

Roosevelt’s world tour with his ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1907 helped to establish US naval power while also consolidating  ideas and a solidarity amongst the white settler nations, working to push England to a similar position.

Provocatively, he told a correspondent of the New York Times that the visits (New Zealand was added to the itinerary) were intended to ‘show England – I cannot say a “renegade” mother-country – that those colonies are white man’s country’.33

The drive towards this conception in the colonies was, of course, a lot about the white ownership of land…

Whites in California had been critical of Japanese arrivals, even while they appeared as birds of passage, but their concern turned to alarm when the new settlers established themselves as successful farmers in settled communities. As Yamato Ichihasi observed, agitation in parliament and the press continued unabated. By 1913, it concentrated on the question of ownership and control of land. The claim to be a white man’s country was fundamentally a proprietorial assertion. Senator J. D. Phelan, who had become the most powerful figure in the state Democratic Party machine, set out his case for forcing the Japanese from the farming districts in an article published in the New York journal, the Independent, the same journal, ironically, that had published W. E. B. DuBois’ ‘Souls of White Folk’ on the claims of whiteness to the ownership of the earth forever and ever.

The second post looks more at the intellectual architects and popularisers of ideologies to support conquest, settlement, white democracy and genocide. I’ll end this terribly long one with some timely thoughts on some of the results on whites themselves:

According to a Frenchman, Baron d’Estournelles de Constant, who had been to the fore in summoning the second Hague conference in 1907, the brutality of imperial rule was not only destructive to the colonised, but rebounded on white men themselves and their ‘mother-states’:

Where is the white man, however excellent, who can be perfectly certain that in the great wide spaces of our various European colonies he will be able to resist the terribly demoralising effect of unlimited power, conjoined with the influences of solitude and climate? Where is the white man who has not in Africa and Asia felt himself to be more or less master, with power to act as he will, with power to oppress? There is . . . a regrettable and retrograde tendency among white men once left to their own devices to cultivate and foster deliberately a brutality whose evil traditions they then bring back with them to their mother-state.45 (loc 3338)

 

 

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The Watts Uprising: Sears & McConahay’s Politics of Violence

In The Politics of Violence, Sears & McConahay offer a detailed and academic study of the Watts uprising, sometimes known as the riots. Their goal in their own words:

This is a book about the political and social psychology of the Los Angeles Watts Riot of August 1965, an event that changed the course of American race relations. We shall attempt here to formulate, and to subject to rigorous empirical test, a comprehensive social psychological theory of urban mass violence. Two basic questions will be addressed: (1) Can riot participation rightfully be interpreted as a political act? (2) What were the major political effects of the riot? (vii)

The framing of this isn’t quite the way I’d go about it, but what it comes up with is very interesting. They follow these two main goals up with additional questions they believe are important, and that in themselves are insightful into the ways that the Watts uprising has been understand and the questions that it has raised for the wider society:

(1) Why did the riot happen in 1965, of all times, in the midst of what was apparently an unprecedented national civil rights effort, with the most sympathetic white public, President, Congress, and judiciary in history, and in the midst of great prosperity? (2) Why did it happen in Los Angeles, of all places, generally thought to be among the most pleasant, open, and egalitarian of American cities? (3) Was the riot politically meaningful in origin; that is, did it grow out of no longer tolerable social conditions that had to be reformed if further riots and miseries were to be avoided? Or was it a politically meaningless explosion, generated mainly by criminals, malcontents, or a few agitators, who managed to dupe hapless innocents? (4) What were the political consequences of the rioting? Did it lead whites to further sympathy for black people, and at long last spur them out of lethargy into remedial social action, or did it create a massive backlash that abruptly terminated the sympathetic consensus and thrust for civil rights progress? Did it horrify and terrify decent black citizens into a renunciation of all forms of confrontation, or provide for a general uplift in black pride and black solidarity, or fuel the advocacy of militant action and racial violence? Did race relations move into a more mature and realistic era, or regress into greater suspiciousness, hostility, and distance? (viii)

I liked this especially:

For simplicity’s sake, though, we have decided to use the term “riot” because it was used overwhelmingly in the media and by most of our respondents. Our data indicate, as will be seen, that it was more of a “rebellion” than a “riot,” but we will let our data speak for themselves and not try to prejudge the case by selecting a less commonly used word (ix).

Also this:

Blacks in Los Angeles had been angry for a long time, perhaps since first Negro arrived and the Los Angeles Times began printing a column (c. 1880)entitled “News From Nigger Alley. Nevertheless, most whites were unaware of the extent and depth of black grievances until after the rioting of 1965 (55).

But their findings on whites are more interesting really. They write:

One consequence of these mild peculiarities of the early settlers, and of the life style they created for themselves, was a profound degree of black invisibility–both before and after the mass immigration of blacks to Los Angeles. By “invisibility” we mean an absence of blacks in the perceptual world of white Southern Californians. Whites were (and are) physically isolated from blacks (134).

In analysing the reasons for this, Sears & McConahay come up with a list of explanatory factors: ‘The Naive In-Migrant’, often from the Mid-West and unused to Black folks and believing the West was free of such problems; ‘Racial Isolation’, a disperse urban pattern and segregation kept them apart and interestingly this: ‘the uniquely retreatist or privatistic life style of today’s new American suburbs has flourished in Los Angeles for many years, further diminishing the opportunities for interracial contact (135); ‘De Facto Segregation’ both in residence, but also shopping patterns and lack of public transportation causes greater isolation; ‘Invisibility in the Media’ (there is an amazing graph on this).

I’m not sure I buy their analysis that L.A.’s version of racism was primarily symbolic–having researched and read enough horribly vile leaflets and letters against integration, and given the Klan’s popularity. This sort of nastiness most associated with the deep South (from whence many whites moved to L.A.) was alive and well alongside more puritanical judgements, fear of the unknown and etc. I don’t believe much tension arose from whites attempting to impose traditional puritanical mores onto different cultures, alternative values and lifestyles — Douglas Flamming’s work, for example, on African Americans in L.A. seems to show at least a large portion of the community were just as believing in hard work and striving for middle-classness as anyone else. Where it does make sense is this world view demanding belief that each individual is what they make of themselves with no allowance for racism’s structural features.

So it’s a interesting line they take, mostly using ‘Black invisibility’ to argue that whites just didn’t know what was happening. I’d say more that they didn’t want to know, but this is really interesting:

Finally, it is this combination of invisibility, indifference, and ignorance, on the one hand, and the moralism of symbolic racism, on the other, that evoked, we believe, one of the oddest and least expected aspects of the riot; namely, the widespread feeling among blacks that the riot was a demand for attention more than an effort to redress specific and concrete deficiencies in their lives (144).

And again, they refer to this spatial aspect in which L.A. is a prototype rather than exception for sprawling development:

In the near future, at least, it appears that the dominant suburban pattern will be traditional values and privatize life styles in an ethnically homogeneous retreat from blacks who are isolated in the central city (even when the retreat is homogeneously populated with Roman Catholics espousing Protestant virtues). In this sense, then, Los Angeles differs from the rest of America only in that it is the most American of all (146).

So responses:

The racial polarization of local black and white leaders was duplicated almost immediately in the responses of the black and white publics, These descriptions of and feelings about the riot were as different as night and day and they formed the basis for a broad initial polarization over the issue of the riot, with blacks joined by a few liberal whites on one side, against most whites on the other….Most blacks perceived the riot as (1) a purposeful symbolic protest (2) against legitimate grievances, (3) designed to call attention to Blacks’ problems…When asked directly, a majority felt the riot did have a purpose or a goal, felt that the targets deserved attack, and agreed that the riot constituted a black protest. Also, when given a free choice of descriptive terms, a surprisingly large minority [38%] chose to talk about it in revolutionary or insurrectional terms… (159).

It continues: ‘Most though Whites had become more “aware of Negroes’ problems” and more sympathetic to them as a consequence of the riot’ (161). Also that ‘The blacks’ sympathies generally were with the rioters, not with the authorities. Disapproval of the rioters was not as common as it was of the riot itself’ (163).

It breaks my heart to read the contrast:

The story told by whites and Mexican Americans was quite different. Many (especially those close to the Curfew Zone) felt fear for their own safety or for their families’ safety during the disturbance. The Mexican American respondents in our sample (all of whom actually lived in the Curfew Zone) were particularly frightened: 52 per cent reported feeling a “great deal” of fear. Fear among whites was greatest in Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park, two integrated communities on the edge of the Curfew Zone (35 per cent reported a “great deal”) but, even in affluent Pacific Palisades 20 miles from the riot, 12 per cent reported “a great deal” of fear.
Accompanying the fear was much serious thought about obtaining guns for armed counterviolence. Forty-two per cent of the Mexican Americans and 29 per cent of the whites said “yes” to the question, “Did you at any time consider using firearms to protect yourself or your family?” Also, 5 per cent of the whites and 7 per cent of the Mexican Americans reported that they actually had bought firearms or ammunition as a consequence of the riot (164).

Almost all Whites and Mexican-Americans supported the tough, uncompromising stand toward the rioters that chief Parker and the other California law enforcement authorities established. Both groups almost invariably praised the authorities or criticized them for not being even tougher…Whites and Mexican Americans did agree, in general, that it had been a black protest but they were extremely unlikely to describe the riot in revolutionary terms…Finally, then, it should come as no surprise to learn that whites and Mexican Americans thought the riot would have quite unfavorable effects for blacks (165).

The impact this had on perceptions and strategies for struggle in teh Black community are also revealing:

Thus, our hypothesis was that the junction of the New Urban Blacks and “Watts” would leave the younger generation (irrespective of background) more drawn to imaginative and unconventional strategies, particularly those emphasizing protest and violence.

Participation in the Watts Riot itself was one key indicator of this effect. We have seen in Chapter 2 that youth was a critical factor in riot participation and in Chapters 6 and 7 that it was not merely “animal spirits” that led the young into the fray. Rather, they engaged in the riot from the same sense of grievance as older rioters.
Willingness to engage in future protest demonstrations and preference for the use of violence in the future both showed the same effect. The young were much more drawn to both protest and violence than their elders.

Malcolm X, the continuing rise of the Nation of Islam, U.S. and the Black Panthers…hardly a surprise. The authors tie the riots into a rise in Black Pride:

‘a new and more positive conception of what it meant to be black emerged in the aftermath of the violence. The riot ideology was intimately involved with this post-riot increase in positive black identity. Specifically, it seems to have occurred as part of the interpretation of the riot as a collective symbolic protest.

And this is beautiful really, in spite of painfully moralistic language and class expectations:

We have seen repeatedly that local grievances, riot participation, and the riot ideology were not to be found merely in a few deviants, isolates, political “kooks,” or half-socialized idiots. They were to be found at least as often (and frequently to an even greater degree) in the best educated, most sophisticated, most completely socialized, most modern blacks in Los Angeles. And the same is true of positive black identity: it was, in the aftermath of “Watts,” truly a mainstream value in the black community (189).

The conclusion actually does recap in detail the entire argument, and contains this nice summary of the various theories also put forward to explain the Watts uprising–and demolished quite convincingly by this book:

We constructed and then rejected empirically one formal nonpolitical alternative to our politics of violence theory, “the random outburst theory”…We also presented the far less formalized “theories” offered by authorities and by the general public. We described the conspiracy, contagion, riffraff, underclass, family life breakdown, and southern newcomer “theories” and indicated that, with the exception of unemployed males, who were quite active, they did not fit the data…The most systematic alternative formulation we considered was Banfield’s (1970) “fun and profit” theory. We described and refuted empirically his three main propositions: that the rioting simply reflected greater propensity to violence among lower classes, southerners, and the young; that it was merely a rampage or foray for pillage, rather than being motivated by identifiable and genuine discontents; and that the riot ideology merely represented post hoc rationalizations. (201).

And then in a fairly damning indictment, they list all of the recommendations made by numerous commissions on violence and rioting beginning in 1919, that are almost word for word the same:

The recommendations invariably called for a reduction of unemployment, opening of the job structure to blacks, reform of education and of programs to improve the scholastic attainments of blacks, reform of the welfare system (to cut costs) and to give the recipients “who wanted to work” assistance in getting a job, improvement of housing quality and availability, and, finally, suggestions for future police strategies. With the exception of this last [Kerner Commission], none of the recommendations made since 1919 has been pursued with any vigor and most have remained entombed in the bound official reports to be resurrected after the next series of riots (292).

The authors go further than these ‘liberal’ formulations. Ones I think the course of histor since 1973 has challenged (along with their theorization of ‘symbolic racism’) but here they are:

Jobs, housing, education, anti-discrimination laws–all of these are necessary, but insufficient answers to mounting black disaffection. In addition, symbolic gestures are called for, to deal with symbolic discontents. That a presidential candidate or a mayor would walk through the streets of Harlem or Watts or that a President would use the phrase “we shall overcome” in a message on civil rights has a profound positive effect….
With these cautions we conclude our “recommendations.” It is obvious that America does not lack for recommendations. What she lacks is equally obvious and very simple: the will to implement them. Since we doubt that white America is on the verge of suddenly acquiring this will, we feel little compulsion to add further to the list of recommendations (205).

Roediger on How Race Survived US History

7986411This was quite a brilliant look at how and why the idea of race has developed in the United States. I haven’t read Roediger before so I can’t really compare it to his previous work, but given it’s written for a more popular audience, which I think is important, I did not mind the lack of footnotes. While it was reasonably short, I confess it took me a long time to get through and I’m not sure if that was because of the language or the weight of the ideas, but I didn’t regret a second.

It begins with a definition of race. For Roediger race is not a natural category, it is something new. It has been laboriously constructed to divide and sort people and thereby define how they relate to property, management, punishment and citizenship. The first of the two clearest examples of how this works is of course slavery, which took many different people of many different languages and cultures and defined them as black, as uncivilised and less than Europeans if not less than human, and only worthy of being slaves. The second is in the conquest and genocide of the Native Americans. Initially seen in the period of British rule as tribes with whom to ally with or fight against in the wars against other European powers, as a new nation began to create itself and push its boundaries they quickly became defined as red, as savages, as shiftless and lazy, and therefore worthy of being dispossessed of their lands. When they fought back? Jefferson himself argued shortly before his death that they be exterminated.

Through these stories we begin to come to grips with the two other key ideas about race contained in the book. The first is that of ‘whiteness as property’. Skin colour comes to define almost everything about an individual: where they live and work, what they can aspire to, the texture of their everyday life. When all else fails you can still cling to whiteness to put yourself above other people. You are a citizen. You cannot be enslaved. You are better than others. Your skin colour has a value, whiteness comes to be worth something in itself, something that distinguishes you and puts you above others. There was a time before this was true, when indentured servants and slaves escaped together, when the mixing of races was voluntary rather than from the rape of slaves. Laws made of whiteness something to be defended: banning interracial marriage, penalizing indentured servants who run in the company of a non-white, ruling that children share the freedom or the servitude of their mother, ruling people of color less than human and non-citizens. It was a combination of enticement and terror, whites either acted to their own benefit by buying into it or were punished severely for its transgression.

On the opposite side you found a law in Barbados from 1668: “An Act declaring the Negro-Slaves of this Island to be Real Estates.”

The second point is based on Stuart Hall (who I love). As Roediger says of him, he “acutely points out that racism emerges and is recreated from the imperatives of new sets of realities, not just from the bad habits of the past” [xiii]. The first key is that there are imperatives that drive this social construction of race, such as the desire for free labor to develop open land, the greed for land and expansion both in terms of speculation and profit, and to vent the building anger of the working white classes who are not finding in America their promised prosperity and demanding free land while threatening revolution. The second: that these imperatives do not just happen in some past time and continue on through inertia or habit (though the weight of the past cannot be treated lightly). The key is that racism still exists because new imperatives exist to ensure that it does. Until we understand them, we cannot end racism.

In a nutshell: “White supremacy persisted not only by working against the forces of freedom, of openness, and of economic rationality in US history, but also by working through them. Such complexities complicate the verb ‘survive’ in this book’s title, in that many of the forces pushing against the logic of racism at the same time validated, created, and recreated white supremacy.” [xv]

He goes on to explore and draw out these ideas through American history, looking at 4 key points where racism could have ceased, but didn’t. In very simplified terms:

How did it survive a revolution? Because honestly, it’s a bit ingenuous to revolt in the name of ideals of liberty and self-determination against British oppression while you yourself hold slaves. This is the classic ‘American dilemma’, which Roediger argues to be false. The revolution was funded by slavery, and Du Bois noted that the Constitution was in fact a huge blow to the slave liberation movement, Roediger sums it up succinctly: “[the constitution] made even indentured whites (their race unnamed) into “free persons”, it read Indians (who were named) out of citizenship, and it counted enslaved “other persons” (named neither racially nor in their servile position, by what one delegate called an “ashamed” constitutional convention) not as holders of political power, but as sources of such power for their own enslavers.” [51] Thus America becomes a white man’s country, welding together large and fractious class divisions through the imperative of expanding into Indian territory and maintaining race status.

How did it survive capitalism? Because even the Marxists argued that race would dissolve in the crucible of the working class. But in fact capital thrives on having different groups of workers in a hierarchy and in competition with each other, and it became policy to play these groups off one another. And slavery was not some pre-capitalist formation, it grew up with capitalism.

How did it survive jubilee and the abolition of slavery? That was the moment there was the most hope…but “Jubilee did not collapse under the weight of internal contradictions, but under extended assault.” The rise of the KKK, in one small town in Louisiana 60 republican party members were murdered during reconstruction. And then the fateful election where the Republicans gave up reconstruction all together and abandoned blacks to their fate for an uncontested election. Hayes almost certainly lost the popular vote, but he became president anyway.

How did it survive the immigration of those white Europeans most discriminated against? Through a process of coercion and aspiration and immense exploitation they slowly became accepted as white. In a sense they thus agreed to accept the rules of privilege rather than struggle against them.

And so it is still with us, Obama notwithstanding. The main point is “how unlikely it is that a force so longstanding, formative, and persistently recreated as white supremacy has been in United States history will be abolished by accident, as a result of the momentum of forces like capitalism or immigration that themselves have no anti-racist agenda.” [xv] We have to actively fight it, and to do so we have to understand it. This book takes us a great deal of the way I think. It is very US specific, while the drama of race has played out globally (as has the US role) and yet none of that is connected here which I found an absence. But this is an important book.