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Is there racism in the 21st Century?

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Since the election of President Barak Obama, we have started asking the question whether we live in a Post-Racial society.  At this point, the question is now met with collective groans, by some who argue that only having a Black identified president could not remove the blight of racial discrimination from a society, and others who find it offensive to continue to highlight the notion of race as barrier in the face of so much progress.  But what few can seem to articulate is whether there is a consensus that racism is still a part of our lives. If it’s a word that still has meaning, and if so, what does it constitute?  Every morning I receive a series of “Google Alerts” giving me links to stories that include the word, “racism.”  And every morning, I look through the list of stories.  If someone didn’t know what racism was, my impression would be clear by the stories covered in the press.  Racism is an individual act, it characteristizes the use of racial slurs targeting racial minorities, like the English soccer team captain John Terry who used a racial slur when shouting at a Black opponent or a similar incident involving football.  The republican party’s nominees for president have been noted for using “racism” like Ron Paul’s use of racial slurs targeting Black Americans decades ago is what are now called the “racist newsletter” scandal, or more recent discussion of Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that Spanish was the “language of the ghetto.” The exceptions are articles on practices that can be construed or interpreted as racist, such as lending practices by mortgage Giants, as is detailed in this editorial on Country wide appearing in the Atlantic.   Charges of racism are mostly attacks of character, using bad words in ways we that we collectively understand as inappropriate to characterize people.

But these aren’t the only stories that cover issues of race, they are just the ones that reference racism.  For example, an article in Nature appeared detailing how Blacks are less likely to get NIH grants than their white counterparts, or reports by the Pew Center for research on the growing wealth gaps between Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics  Or even the analysis back in December of presidential pardons that found that while 30 percent of white applicants were pardoned, none of the over sixty Black applicants received a presidential pardon.  The list goes on, reports of police harassment, growing segregation in public schools, and many other trends, all deeply stratified by race.  While all acknowledge an inexplicable racial difference, none or very few mention the word “racism.”

Is this what racism looks like in a post-racial era?   Racism as a term refers to an ideology, drawing on the same general foundation that is captured by racial prejudice, and racial discrimination where races are understood as inherently less worthy of equal access to rights and opportunities supposedly available to everyone.  But attributing the fact that Blacks and Latinos continue to live shorter lives than Whites, are more likely to be incarcerated, are more likely to be poor to “racism” or “discrimination” is a tall order on today’s social and political landscape.  On one hand, there’s the issue of volition.  Do these dynamics emerge from some explicit ill intent directly by whites towards people of color?  This question emerged in a recent meeting of Dialogue Partners, the Race Scholars book club, where we discussed the new book The New Jim Crow  by Michelle Trent Alexander. The text asserts that the state of incarceration of Black males mimics an alarming number of the features of formalized segregation in terms of reduction of rights and access to political voice.

On the other hand, how does the public understand the nature of race itself?  Last fall Race Scholars hosted Professor Ann morning who lectured about her new book Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference.  This book examined the reach of an understanding of race as an in-born unchanging biological trait through high school and college classrooms that is more successfully transmitted to the public compared to a “constructed” understanding of race that highlights how race reflects cultural, political and social realities.  The very definition of race goes to the heart of what we do about racism – if differences in education, for example, are linked to a sense that race is a biological reality, so Morning argues, we are less likely to see it as a function of unequal and unfair treatment, nor do we see any reason apply policies to intervene.

Perhaps the issue is that race itself has become so complex because of how it overlaps with gender, sexual identity, and class.  Recently, Race Schoalrs hosted a lecture by Professor Mignon Moore who discussed her new book, Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships and Motherhood among Black Women.  Professor Moore demonstrates how race is so thoroughly intertwined with issues of same-sex desire, gender, and class.  Its clear that when we talk about race what race means, how it operates, and whether it matters, we have to consider how it operaterates side-by-side with many other dimensions of self.

The challenge and the call to Race scholars is documenting, examining, and tracing out the pernicious effects of divide that is as old as the republic, not only in the form it takes but how its understood.  Two resident race scholars provide powerful essays that announce their contribution to this huge question: Uzma Qurashi and Chris Driscoll. Their work and perspectives are insightful and provide the needed complexity to answer this deceptively simple question – what is racism in the 21st Century?

With the Graciousness that We Pledged

Monday, February 6th, 2012

On Wednesday afternoon, February 1st, I watched Mignon R. Moore walk toward me in the hotel lobby where I waited to escort her to her first activity at Rice University for Race Scholars Program. From that moment forward until the moment I watched her leave by car service to return to Los Angeles, I was persistently grabbed and moved by her constant “graciousness.” Prof. Moore is a sociologist at UCLA. She was brought to Rice University by Race Scholars, a program of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and directed by Prof. Jenifer Bratter of the Sociology Department. Her newly published 2011 book, Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood among Black Women, was also a pivotal vehicle that generated interest across many faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, Rice staff, and the black lesbian community in Houston. Indeed Prof. Moore’s book was a catalyst to creating dialogue wherever she went, but her gracious presence and ambitious attitude toward her work grabbed hold in a stronger way of anyone listening to her. This I witnessed and appreciated.

The Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies was more than a co-sponsor. The CWGS faculty and staff were our “co-partners” in arranging her visit. Among all the interventions that Dr. Brian Riedel, Assistant Director of CWGS, poured into the planning of this event, his arrangement of Prof. Moore’s interview by Houston’s popular LGBT magazine,OutSmart, is worth mentioning. Not only did OutSmart make her center stage through a dynamic interview for the Houston community to read, but the published interview also served as the deciding factor for some of the local audience to attend the Wednesday public lecture. All of these special welcoming approaches and interventions were much appreciated by Prof. Moore. She kept reminding us, “You all are treating me so nice!” It was certainly evident that she appreciated our appreciation of her work.

My experience in assisting Prof. Bratter in bringing Prof. Moore to Rice to discuss her work was layered and enriched with every activity and interaction. Knowing first hand that there are no academic books in the social sciences that focus upon black gay women to draw upon for my research as a graduate student in anthropology, it was important to witness the affirmation and legitimacy that Prof. Moore and her work received by Rice and by the black gay community in Houston. Prof. Moore began her activities by visiting Prof. Cymene Howe’s anthropology class, “Cultures of Sexuality,” where many students engaged her with enough questions to carry us for 45 minutes! Then, the public lecture at 6pm in Herring Hall 100, received over 70 attendees. However, this number of 70, was special because of the diversity represented including faculty and students (Rice and University of Houston), black gay women and men from Houston, academics and non-academics, and even a black mother with her young son. The very last question from a black gay women in the audience, who’s social networks I am familiar with, asked the most important question of the night, “how can we use your work to encourage more development of resources in Houston to help black gay women to even feel entitled to have a family?” Indeed, Prof. Moore handled, with much grace and enthusiasm, questions that ranged from academic to praxis issues.

The night moved on with dinner at Benjy’s in Rice Village, where a table of nine sparked non-stop conversations and giggles with faculty from English (Prof. Colleen Lamos), Sociology (Prof. Sergio Chavez, Prof. Jenifer Bratter, and Prof. Holly Heard), CWGS post-doc, Jennifer Tyburczy, and Anthropologist Janis Hutchinson from the University of Houston. However, her visit could not had ended sweeter the next day where I might have fallen short in only buying two pizza pies for Race Scholar’s Professionalization Luncheon with Prof. Moore. A whopping 15 or more students and post-docs/residents showed up to engage Prof. Moore discussion on how to turn your dissertation into a book. There was even one student who had a list of questions on her laptop from which she asked several. There were students in their third year and even seventh with lot of interests in this topic. Their questions were addressed with charm and focus from Prof. Moore’s own perspective and publishing experience. For sure I experienced no moment in which Prof. Moore did not make heads nod with enlightenment as well as spark giggles to her humor.

I learned a lot as a result of this experience. I learned a lot about programming, arranging public talks for visiting scholars, working with co-sponsors both on campus and off campus, and outreach. I continue to develop an amazing relationship professionally and personally with Prof. Jenifer Bratter to develop and forge Race Scholars’ mission on campus. It is important to us to have programming at Rice that center’s race as a research topic of discussion and highlights the scholars and students who promote race in their work. It is equally important that dialogue about race is brought in conversation with other themes such as gender, sexuality, class, globalization, and more. Rice should keep their eyes upon this new program because it promised to become instrumental in enriching intellectual community on our campus and beyond. For example, Prof. Moore’s book will be discussed within a public reading group at the Houston Public Library on Saturday, February 11th. I am very proud of these multiple efforts on issues of race.

Lastly, I must admit that it was an honor to escort Prof. Moore during her visit. We share some special college days by pledging the same chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.. I pledged Lambda chapter during the Fall of 1989 in New York and Mignon followed on Lambda’s next line Spring 1991. Though our paths have crossed minimally since, I was pleased to honor her with the sisterly love that my line is still webbed by. I wish her all the best as her career continues to make contributions to black gay women’s lives and more. Then again, I expect nothing less since AKA’s are the gracious ladies.

If you are interested, especially graduate students, in working with Prof. Jenifer Bratter on Race Scholars’ programming, please contact her at Jenifer.L.Bratter@rice.edu.

Nessette Falu
Ph.D. Student
Anthropology Department
Race Scholars Graduate Student Fellow

Creating Spaces of Belonging and Distance

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Unlike at other points in American history, racism in the post-racial twenty-first century is marked by subtlety. Racism is a multi-sited system of legal, economic, and social practices that promotes inequalities and that is built on a history of institutional and individual actions. At the individual level, racism is a discriminatory attitude based on racial and cultural assumptions and employed to place as much social and psychological distance between one’s own group and perceived inferior groups. Although overt racism has decreased since the 1960s, it has been supplemented (some say, supplanted) by “colorblind racism,” which refers to “contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics” (Bonilla-Silva, 2010, p. 2). Racism is difficult or even impossible to track since the ways in which people articulate racial ideologies are indirect and somewhat obscure (Essed, 1990). The lower socioeconomic status of racialized minority groups is explained not through biological racial difference but by way of cultural inferiority (e.g. “they just don’t like to work hard,” or “they don’t have the same family values as us”).

Far more destructive and fundamental, however, is the structural framework of racism which serves to distribute wealth and advantage to some but not to others. Unequal access to education, housing, employment, and health care are among the many manifestations of structural racism. A 2005 article in the Washington Post cites three separate studies detailing persistent health care disparities between whites and blacks.[1] Advantaged groups hold that we should collectively move beyond race by disallowing preferential treatment to minority groups (e.g. “opportunity is available to all who work hard enough”) rather than recognizing the prevalence of structural discrimination such as targeted arrests in African American neighborhoods (Alexander, 2010), unbalanced political representation for minority neighborhoods (Bonilla-Silva, 2010), and the redlining of African American businesses and home mortgages (Oliver and Shapiro, 1995).

As an historian, I examine immigrants’ perceptions of racialized groups in the southernUnited States in the post-Civil Rights era. My work investigates the ways in which immigrants migrating fromSouth Asia (in particular,India andPakistan) toHouston,Texasbetween 1965 and 1980 positioned themselves in increasingly obscured racial hierarchies. As a result of passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, large numbers of immigrants from all overAsiaandLatin Americabegan to settle in theUS. A relatively select group of Indians and Pakistanis applied for admission to theUSeither as university students or under the 1965 act’s third or sixth preference—that of professionals or skilled labor currently in short supply. Many of these students remained in the country to fill the demands of the labor market. Unlike recent South Asian immigrants, this group was highly professional and highly educated or seeking advanced degrees, allowing these “elite” communities to achieve socioeconomic success with unanticipated speed.

My research uncovers how immigrants became racialized citizens and how this experience evolved over time. It is important to note that for the immigrants I examine, race entailed more than just attitude or ideology; it was the strategic choices made as a result of those attitudes. In particular, race informed major life decisions including location of residence, marital partners, and schooling for children. Upwardly mobile immigrants eventually settled in affluent, largely white suburbs and enrolled their children in majority white schools. In accordance with the theory of segmented assimilation, the “sector of American society [into which] a particular immigrant group assimilates,” determines an ethnic group’s adaptation (Portes and Zhou, 1993, p. 82). Newcomers to American society construct a racial system predicated on their socio-economic status. Several other immigrant groups during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Irish and Koreans, have similarly used racial hierarchies to advance their own group interests.

Although South Asian immigrants were perceived as racial Others, foreigners, and immigrants, their class standing enabled them to imagine themselves as part of the dominant group, those with power, those who accrued the most benefits from an economic system. In fact, immigrants used their own success to demonstrate that anyone could overcome the strictures of race but that African Americans did not share the same values of education and hard work that South Asian immigrants espoused. This construction of dichotomous value systems bolstered immigrant social status by placing greater social distance between themselves and those historically held at the bottom of the American racial hierarchies.

Seemingly neutral decisions such schooling and housing for immigrants were mitigated by race, whether or not they intended to promote segregation and inequality. South Asian immigrants aimed to enhance their children’s life chances, economically and socially through the accumulation of forms of capital such as status based on education and professionalization or power derived from wealth. Yet, acceptance as full, unhyphenated Americans was not possible for South Asian immigrants—or their children, for that matter—due to a process that racialized them as foreigners while it obliged them to racialize others. Through residential self-segregation and school choice, materially privileged Americans strategized to ensure optimal positioning in class and race hierarchies. Thus, the dismantling of legal racist structures through Brown v Board in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act in 1964 among other legislation necessitated not the wholesale reconceptualization of racial ideology but the reframing of its articulation.


  • Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
  • Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and Racial Inequality in Contemporary America.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Essed, Philomena. 1990.  Everyday Racism: Reports from Women of Two Cultures. Translation by Cynthia Jaffe.Alameda, CA: Hunter House.
  • Oliver, Melvin L.and Thomas M. Shapiro. 1995. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality.New York: Routledge.
  • Portes, Alejandro and Min Zhou. 1993. “The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and its Variants.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 530: 74-96.
  • Sullivan, Shannon. 2006. Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Privilege. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Bio: Uzma Quraishi is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Rice University. She studies the construction of race by South Asian immigrants migrating to the US between 1965 and 1980.