Culture and Racism
culture is thriving if it keeps providing ways of communicating and
understanding that are relevant to the group and its situation.
A group with such a culture is very difficult to suppress: it
is innovative, easy to organize, confident, difficult to lie to.
In order to suppress a group, it is crucial to suppress its
culture. This is part of
the tension of racism: on the one hand it splits people into groups
and maintains their separation. On
the other, it must continually interfere in the lives of the members
of oppressed races to disrupt their cultures and prevent their
development. This is done
in two ways. First, by
the denying cultural resources needed for an autonomous cultural life
to people of colour, and second, by using the relative monopoly over
cultural resources to spread myths about whites and people of colour,
their abilities, their relationships, and their roles.
These myths reinforce the racist beliefs that underpin the
are a lot of different ways of looking at education:
individually, to develop the capacities of each individual child to
socially, to give a child skills to contribute to society
culturally, to teach children how to communicate in various cultures
and produce cultural items
in terms of kinship, to raise and socialize children
economically, to prepare a child for the role she will play in the
economy—or to keep her from taking an adult’s job
politically, to make someone a loyal and obedient citizen or subject
if 1-4 dominated. You
would expect schools with lots of independent learning, where students
had access to ‘experts’ of all kinds, artists from different
cultures, scientists, artisans, technicians, helping them with
projects they believed in. (5)
is actually neutral—but in our economy most roles require obedience
and endurance of boredom: so that’s what’s taught in schools.
(6) gets closer to race: history classes for example must teach
justifications for the inequalities and injustices students see
everywhere and might otherwise rebel against, and the daily actions of
the school systems must teach people of colour certain myths about
themselves and about whites: that the cultures they have learned from
their parents and communities are inferior, that they are not
intelligent or educable, that they are ugly, and that they are suited
for a very few cultural, economic, and political roles.
All this is accomplished by denying people of colour education
resources on the one hand, and by using the educational system to
spread racism-enforcing ideas and images on the other.
Are people of colour denied the resources they need for
autonomous cultural life? This
comes from a web report on educational funding by Daphne Whitington
funding disparity is a racial issue as well as an economic one.
African American and Latino students are consistently over-represented
in those districts that lack adequate funding for education, as is the
case in Illinois. Although African Americans represent 14.8% of
Illinois’ total population, they make up only 2.1% of the population
in the state’s wealthiest county, while Illinois’ poorest county
is 34.7% African American. (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education)
Of the nine states that have attained school funding equity, only two
(Mississippi and Texas) have significant African American populations.
This racial bias in educational resources can help to explain, amongst
other things, lower SAT scores, grade point averages, and college
achievement, as well as higher rates of remedial education amongst
African American and other students of color. (The Journal of Blacks
in Higher Education)'.
mechanism for this difference is in part the spatial concentration of
blacks and the concentration of poverty among them, which combined
with a school funding formula based on local taxes rather than
national taxes does the job perfectly.
The absence of public funding for universities means that
poverty helps keep blacks and Latinos out of higher education as well.
12% of black women and 11% of black men have completed 4 years
of college, compared to 9% of Latino women and 10% of Latino men, and
19% of white women and 25% of white men.
(1992 figure, from Bureau of the Census, "School
Enrollments and Expenditures," The Statistical Abstract of the
United States: 1993, table 232:152, cited in Farai Chideya's
'Don't Believe the Hype')
isn’t the only weapon racism has.
Here is an entire arsenal of educational weapons for (1)
ensuring people of colour cannot develop their own cultures and (2)
controlling their presence and role in the dominant culture.
is based on the premise that you can tell how intelligent a child
is (whatever intelligence is) based on spending a few hours a day with
her and 30 other children. Based
on this assessment, children are sorted into classes, with the higher
classes getting more resources and more attention, and the lowers
getting less. This too is
odd, because you might think that more resources should be dedicated
to children who are assessed as less intelligent, since they would
need more attention and resources to thrive.
There is a correlation of tracking with race.
Two explanations are available: children of colour are less
intelligent (as defined by their teachers) or the teachers believe
children of colour are less intelligent.
Unless exceptionally trained, there is no reason to think
teachers are immune to racism and racist assumptions.
The track you end up in determines your life chances, along
with the grades you’re given in class, and on standardized tests.
could be useful, perhaps for giving feedback to students about
their work—even though in the real world, real work isn’t graded.
In schools though, it’s another way of sorting people
according to supposed ‘intelligence’ and thereby class position.
It’s also a means for controlling children and students: do
what you’re told, get good grades, have a chance at class
mobility—don’t, and don’t.
But since schools’ reputations matter as much as individual
student grades, and schools with many students of colour have lower
reputations, even high grades from these schools mean less.
Knowing that school performance can’t even help one’s life
chances makes students of colour much less keen to go through the
degrading experience of trying to please adults who already think
they’re inferior. Schools
thus become strictly places of punishment, in some cases.
No wonder dropout rates were 13% for blacks, compared to 9% for
whites, in 1990 (these are down sharply from 22% for blacks and 13%
for whites in 1973. US
Department of Education, Dropout Rates in the United States: 1990,
cited in Chideya, 'Don't Believe the Hype').
Testing is a big and growing business which is of tremendous value
in marginalizing people of colour and making it seem like it’s their
fault. Tests can test
what you know: they can test what you’ve learned in school and
picked up from family and media and cultural background.
If a standardized test in Quantum Physics were administered to
high school students, they would all fail.
If a test that referred constantly to musical scales,
harmonies, instruments, rhythms and beats were administered, students
with a musical background would do better than students without one.
Likewise if a test referring to white, middle class life,
culture, and experiences were administered, working class and people
of colour would be expected to do worse.
Farai Chideya (in 'Don't Believe the Hype', 1995)cites two
examples of analogy questions from the SAT: 'dividend is to
stockholder' and 'oarsman is to regatta'.
The 'oarsman is to regatta' question was answered correctly by
53% of whites and 22% of blacks.
(Chideya 1995). The
best indicator of how well a student will score on the SAT is family
income. In 1992, test
takers from families with incomes over $70 000 scored an average
1000/1600 maximum; students from families with incomes under $10 000
scored an average of 767/1600. (The
College Board, College Bound Seniors: 1993 Profile of SAT and
Achievement Test Takers. Princeton,
NJ: 1993, cited in Chideya 1995).
Likewise, a student’s performance on standardized tests
determines her class position and life chances.
are two kinds of tests. One
is to determine whether a person is qualified to do a thing.
You might be tested to determine whether you could safely do
surgery, or fly a plane, as part of a course of study.
The other kind of test is to distinguish test-takers from each
other. This could still
make sense, in some limited context, for example in trying to decide
who needed more attention
in what areas (exactly how tests do not
operate today). But what
is the ultimate goal of this testing program?
Uniform scores of 100% by every student in every school?
If this occurred, they’d change the test!
No, the purpose isn’t to improve education, but to sort
people. And sort people
it does. In fact, test
scores correlate most strongly with class, as mentioned above.
Also, while race seems to trump income on the SATs, with middle
class blacks often doing worse than poor whites, the black-white gap
disappears when you correct for wealth, rather than for income.
(Richard D. Kahlenberg, The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative
Action, New York: Basic Books, 1996, pp. 168-70, 301n93. See also
Dalton Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and
Social Policy in America, Berkeley: University of California Press,
Bias isn’t confined to tests.
Learning to be at home in a second culture is faster and easier
if you have a translator—someone to explain things to you in your
language. This was how
teachers using Ebonics (or Black English) were able to teach Standard
English to their black students so much more effectively than those
who didn’t use it (Delpit, ‘The Real Ebonics Debate’).
Being taught through their own language, students learned that
their language, their culture, they themselves, weren’t a
substandard version of the real thing, but instead an equally
legitimate mode of expression, neither inferior nor superior.
And it worked—until the powers that be learned about it.
Several hysterical media articles followed, in which it was
alleged that black students were being robbed of their chances and
condemned to speak an inferior dialect of English.
That Ebonics was being used as a vehicle to teach Standard
English wasn’t mentioned, nor was the fact that it was promising.
The program was discontinued—and students were back to
learning that they were substandard after all.
is compulsory, and racist society wouldn’t waste such an opportunity
for a captive audience in order to teach myths
about history and culture that reinforce racism.
Students are not taught about the importance of class struggle
in US history (Zinn), or about the racism of leaders like Woodrow
Wilson, or the socialism of heroes like Hellen Keller (Loewen).
They learn about Martin Luther King but aren’t given access
to his most radical words, nor to the words of Malcolm X or the Black
Panthers, nor to the truth about the dispossession and genocide
against Native people (Churchill, Zinn).
They are taught that slavery was ended by a white president’s
heroic action and not the long struggles of abolitionists.
They aren’t taught how much of the country’s wealth was
built by immigrants. Students
of colour see nothing that speaks to them, and learn that they are
extras in the drama of history. Even
white students have trouble believing the hype.
Rather than consume the junk that passes for history, students
prefer to not bother. They
end up doing far worse in history than in any other subject. (Loewen)
together, these mechanisms ensure that people of colour don't have the
resources either to educate themselves on their own terms or to get
equality in the mainstream. Instead,
they are forcibly included as inferiors in the dominant culture, and
reminded of it every day in school.
the story that people of colour are different and worse doesn’t stop
in school. The same two
problems: (1) concentration of cultural resources in white hands and
(2) the use of these resources to spread stereotypes and reinforce
racist ideas, occur in the media.
concentration in the media is immense.
In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman set out a model of
media which explains how news which could be dangerous to elite
interests is filtered out. They
are discussing elite economic and political interests, but the same
applies for race. Their
first filter is ownership and concentration.
For a media outlet to have any substantial outreach, a large
investment is needed. This
excludes people and groups without large amounts of money from being
able to set them up. They
talked of 24 'media giants' making up the top tier of media companies
in the US, massively wealthy and powerful, linked personally and
professionally to other massive corporations and to the government,
setting the agenda for other media.
Their data comes from the 1980s, and things have only become
more concentrated since then.
The second filter is advertising revenues.
Media that attract ads can sell well below production costs,
putting newspapers (or TV or radio) that do not attract advertising at
a huge disadvantage-- they would have higher prices, lower sales, less
surplus to invest in improving the salability of the paper.
Mainstream media cannot survive without ads.
This means that advertiser's influence their survival, and
therefore their product. The
third filter is sources. The
media need sources of news, and they have to concentrate on where news
often occurs. This means
they stick close to the government, and thus start inevitably from
'the official line'. Official
sources like the government, in turn, use massive amounts of resources
to get their line and their story out to the media.
So do right-wing 'think tanks'.
The fourth filter is flak, or negative responses to a media
statement or program in the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls,
lawsuits, or petitions to the government.
Obviously the ability to produce flak is related to power.
Between these four filters, messages that do not serve the
powerful are 'filtered out'. Chomsky
and Herman offer as case studies the treatment of human rights
violations by official enemies and official allies in the news.
(Herman and Chomsky, 1988.
Manufacturing Consent) But
the same things apply for domestic racism.
example there’s welfare. In
1991, 39% of welfare recipients were black, 38% non-hispanic white,
17% Hispanic, and 3% asian. The
average payment for a family of three was $4,656 per year.
Welfare spending accounted for less than one percent of US
federal outlays in 1991. Welfare
and food stamps combined were less than 2.5%.
The typical woman on welfare is someone who has worked and will
work most of her life, has only one or two children, and uses welfare
as a fallback when she's unemployed.
Farai Chideya cited one indicative 'This Week with David
Brinkley' in 1992, that made special effort to explain that most
welfare recipients were white, lived in the suburbs, and did not live
the high life-- then illustrated welfare with repeated images of
inner-city blacks. The
portrayal of welfare in the media as being (1) a program for blacks,
(2) a program for undeserving poor, has the effect of making 'welfare'
a dirty word. A New York
Times/CBS News poll asked people about assistance to the poor, and 2/3
said there was too little. When
people were asked whether there was too little welfare, 23% said yes.
(All cited in Chideya's 'Don't Believe the Hype'.
Another good book is 'Why Americans Hate Welfare').
example is crime. Mihal
Muharrar from FAIR cites in an online article:
'Done by UCLA professors
Franklin Gilliam and Shanto Iyengar, "Crime in Black and White:
The Violent, Scary World of Local News" [Press/Politics, Spring
1996] found through a content analysis of local television station KABC
in Los Angeles that coverage of crime featured two important cues:
"crime is violent and criminals are nonwhite." The real
revelation, however, was that television viewers were so accustomed to
seeing African-American crime suspects on the local news that even
when the race of a suspect was not specified, viewers tended to
remember seeing a black suspect. Moreover, when researchers used
digital technology to change the race of certain suspects as they
appeared on the screen, a little over a half of those who saw the
"white" perpetrator recalled his race, but two-thirds did
when the criminal was depicted as black. "Ninety percent of the
false recognitions involved African-Americans and Hispanics,"
Muharrar from FAIR has great articles about this, Jerome Miller's
'Search and Destroy' is an excellent book as well).
Part of this is because police police blacks more heavily than
whites, but it’s a cycle: part of why police police them so heavily
is because of the idea that they’re criminal, spread by the media.
Politicians use and proclaim racist stereotypes about crime to
win white votes. In the
US, Bush Sr. used Willie Horton, portraying him as a big, dangerous
black monster (see Feagin's book 'White Racism') to show how he’d be
tougher on such people than his Democratic rival in the presidential
election. In Toronto in
1999, the police union endorsed a Conservative candidate, running ads
in the subway portraying a Latino gang (there are no Latino gangs in
Toronto) saying: ‘there’s just one thing these guys fear: your
The filters of the
‘Propaganda Model’ do even more filtering for TV News.
There are 3 networks; advertising supplies all the revenue; the
news sources are the same elite experts on the party line; and flak
isn’t even necessary because TV hardly ever gets out of line.
In addition to the usual filters, TV News has sharp time
constraints, which means you never get anything but superficial
coverage of anything, which in turn means the only things people can
say are conventional thoughts (Chomsky and Barsamian, 'Chronicles of
Dissent') stereotypes, or things people are used to seeing.
Images of people of color recur and recur in the same way in
the TV media. How many
times have you seen each of these: a black man in handcuffs being
escorted to a car or courtroom; an Arab throwing rocks; an Asian or
South American huddled in a blanket after a natural disaster.
These are pretty much the only contexts in which you’ll see
these people in the media, except in film (next).
Danny Schecter tried to organize a TV show about human rights
when he worked for a major network and his supervisors told him that
it was an insufficient organizing principle for a TV show—unlike,
say, cooking. He noted
that it’s easier to learn about African lions on TV than Africans.
Whatever the media, the news
shapes the way whites and people of colour view themselves, the
country, their relationship, each other, the world.
The concentration of media resources gives elites the chance to
tell the stories they want, and deny people of colour the chance to
speak for themselves, even to themselves, by simply shutting them
out—or drowning them out.
Drowning out people of colour
is as important in the artistic media as it is in the news.
These areas of culture are where myths, emotions, and deep
beliefs about people and groups are built and disseminated.
These areas are so important to a group’s cultural survival
and self-image that it’s no wonder how much the US invests in its
film and TV industries. The
technologies to produce these media are expensive, and wealth, as we
know, is concentrated. This
means these media lack adequate involvement of or control by people of
What kinds of images and myths
do the film and TV industries produce about people of colour?
In Dances With Wolves, or Pocahontas, you have
white heroes saving Native people from each other or themselves, and
at the end you see that the Native ‘way of life’ is coming to an
end, its time simply passed, not because of any deliberate program of
extermination and dispossession.
In American History X you
have an interesting exploration of hate and racism—and yet every
young black man in it is a criminal, and the white racist is won over
by a friendly black clown. This
movie is far better than 187, which portrays an inner-city
school populated by very dangerous black students who eventually get
into a shootout with their principal.
The Cheech and Chong movies bring you debauched, weed-addicted
True Lies give you
comically incompetent Muslim fanatical Arab terrorists, while Lethal
Weapon 4 gives you inscrutable Chinese kung fu villains (who,
despite their skill, are bested by the white hero in the end).
Star Wars episode 1 manages to combine a subordinate
black buffoon, tight-fisted physically cowardly Chinese villains, and
a stingy Jewish merchant in a 2 hour movie with time left over for
light-sabering with the only truly menacing villain, the only villain
equal to the heroes, who happens to have an English accent.
(For some really excellent reviews of racial stereotypes in
movies, art, and literature, read Ward Churchill’s ‘Fantasies of
the Master Race’, bell hooks’ ‘Outlaw Culture’, and Toni
Morrison’s ‘Playing in the dark’.)
Literature is less expensive
to produce—all it takes is a single writer—but still difficult to
get from a writer to as many readers as possible.
There are a lot of great writers of colour, and I don’t dare
to try to list even a fraction of them.
But apart from the concentration of resources, there’s
another phenomenon that leads to the marginalization of many
interesting voices in art: market production and distribution.
The biggest, wealthiest market is white.
Companies who produce entertainment aim at this market, and
this means not saying things this market doesn’t want to hear,
producing palatable messages from palatable artists.
A white man can write ‘the Memoirs of a Geisha’ and have it
become a bestseller: would it have done so well if it were written by
a Geisha? White artists
produce music derivative of black artists and sell extremely well,
while those black artists struggle.
Art which would be of tremendous value to smaller markets and
communities of colour doesn’t get produced or distributed.
This dynamic is more obvious
in the music industry, particularly hip hop, than anywhere else.
Hip hop is irrepressible.
It’s an art form and language that speaks so clearly that I
doubt any movement that isn’t fluent in it will be appealing to the
black community at all. You
can hear it on any street corner.
It’s a language, and can be used to talk about anything.
And like in other media, if artists are using it to talk
clearly and honestly about things of real relevance to large groups of
people of colour, racism will make sure those artists don’t get a
hearing. This is done by
drowning out, and happens through the market.
Rappers who rap about sex, money, or violence against other
rappers or women have a chance at a record deal that will win them
millions, courtesy of a record company that has the resources to
promote them, ensure them radio play, and sell them to white markets.
Those who rap about prisons, police violence, economic
violence, racism, or other issues of burning concern to the black
community aren’t palatable to white audiences (or, at least, to
white executives). These
rarely get to the megaphone at all.
Which means that if you want to hear black music, and you
don’t have access to an underground scene of people who produce
music and don’t get paid for it, you’re stuck listening to the
materials packaged and prepared by white-controlled corporations.
If you look at the way right-wing (racist) white elites react
to the music, outraged by the violence and misogyny (as if they were
against violence and misogyny), you can see the value of sponsoring
this side of hip hop for white racism—presenting caricatures of the
black community, of black men and women, and the relationships between
So: concentration of cultural
resources and market considerations ensure that the loudest voices in
the cultural arena are serviceable to racism.
These voices and the things they say guide the way we think,
understand the world, treat each other.
They affect executives who make hiring decisions, police who
make profiling decisions, teachers who decide on their students’
futures. And in some ways
more painfully, they affect the way people of colour see themselves,
their prospects and options, their capacities and limitations.
The presence of racist stories everywhere helps make them come
The scientific enterprise
takes place in universities. Here
academics are given tremendous resources to try to understand the
world. Working people
make huge sacrifices to make universities possible.
In return, academics—natural and social scientists—are
supposed to create knowledge about the world which is the best and
truest available, teach students to do the same, and share this
knowledge with society.
In order to ensure that what
they produce is true, scientists follow rules: they are to be guided
by logically consistent theories, they are to be explicit about their
assumptions, they are to pay attention to evidence and make sure their
theories are consistent with it.
These rules, and the language
that has evolved, with the media of scientific journals which the
community uses to exchange ideas, constitute a culture (according to
the definition above). Science
has a culture all on its own, a very productive and unique one at
that, and because it’s been so productive and successful it has
prestige. Racists try to
use this prestige by presenting racist ideologies and myths of white
supremacy and adopting the cultural trappings of science, and
sometimes by making it out that science itself is properly an
exclusively white or European enterprise.
How can they succeed?
Surely the truth is on the side of the anti-racists, and if
science is about truth, then there shouldn’t be any racism in places
of science. Well, the
truth is on our side, and
science is about
truth—but scientists aren’t, always.
83% of tenured faculty in the US are white. (1995 Glass Ceiling
Commission Report). The
decision to end affirmative action at the University of California is
beginning to have an effect. Latino
residents are 30% of the population but in 1997 39 Latinos, down from
80 the year before, were offered admission into the Boalt Hall School
of Law. Black admissions
dropped to 14 (down 80%). One
African American entered Boalt in 1997.
(cited in Lydia Chavez, 'The Color Bind').
There is no reason to think a physicist or specialist in
literature would have made any special study of racism.
They would be as reliant on mainstream media sources and
prejudice as everyone else. As
for those academics who study racial issues, they are products of this
society as well, with axes to grind and agendas of their own—to say
nothing of careers to make. A
physicist’s racism is unlikely to affect the calculations he or she
makes for the trajectory of an electron in a cloud chamber.
But a psychologist’s racism could well affect his or her
results about the intelligence of different races.
Especially since ‘intelligence’ and ‘race’ are
ideologically loaded concepts, unlike ‘electron’ or ‘cloud
The flexibility of concepts
like intelligence is what gives racist scholars the ability to
manipulate definitions of concepts until they find what they wanted in
the first place. The
latest round of academic nonsense is cultural racism: people of colour
aren’t biologically different and inferior, they’re culturally
different and inferior (D’Souza).
As I said before, this boils down to ‘blacks are bad because
black society is bad’, or ‘blacks are bad because blacks are
bad’. If you
heard that kind of reasoning on the street, you’d laugh.
But hearing it from a professor at a university, with a serious
expression and a big vocabulary, people find it harder to dismiss.
So: there’s a lot of
academic racist rubbish, produced and maintained because academia is
mostly white and privileged-class.
Because academic studies are expensive, people of colour
don’t have the resources to fight all this rubbish on its own
domain. But even sadder
than that is all the perspectives and knowledge that are lost, the
potential that is wasted, by denying these resources to people of
colour. Think of how much
the community has gained from academics like Ward Churchill, bell
hooks, and Derrick Bell. Imagine
having two or three of those on every campus.
Why don’t we?
Racism splits people into
groups, based on physical characteristics having to do with historical
patterns of oppression and rationalization of that oppression.
Groups create cultures, and groups with thriving cultures are
difficult to repress. Racial
society suppresses the cultures of people of colour by concentrating
cultural resources in the hands of white-controlled institutions, by
subjecting cultural production and distribution to a market logic, and
then by using this relative cultural monopoly to spread myths about
the races, their abilities, and their roles, which provide the bases
for racist belief and action in the other social institutions.
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