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Transgender People And The Criminal Justice System

Source: GayRVA.com

Source: GayRVA.com

Last week, I participated on a panel, Transgender People in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Settings: Recent Research, hosted by the Virginia Anti-Violence Project (VAVP) at University of Richmond’s downtown campus.  Dr. Eugene F. Simopoulos, a forensic psychiatrist, presented a thorough review of gender identity and expression, and the treatment of trans people in the criminal justice system and medical institution.  Responses were offered by Edward Strickler (secretary of the Board of Directors of VAVP), Rebecca Glenberg (Legal Director, ACLU of VA), and me (in my capacity as a sociologist).  Our collective goal was to educate local law enforcement about trans people, particularly their treatment within the criminal justice system, and hopefully offer recommendations for improvements.  Below, I offer the notes from my response to Dr. Simopoulos.  You can see media coverage of the event at GayRVA.

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As a sociologist, I study discrimination, and its consequences for marginalized groups’ health and well-being. There are two features of my scholarship that I believe will be useful for today’s conversation about trans people generally and in the criminal justice system specifically.  The first is to offer a critical sociological perspective for understanding discrimination.  The way that most people understand discrimination in an everyday sense is fairly narrow.  In particular, discrimination is thought to include specific, rare, and identifiable events of unfair treatment that are committed by specific, identifiable perpetrators who harbor prejudice toward a particular disadvantaged social group.  Thus, the intent of one’s actions are crucial here, regardless of the impact on the victim.

However, as a sociologist, I recognize that discriminatory treatment is much more complex than this, and often occurs in the absence of explicit, conscious bias.  The discriminatory acts perpetrated by a member of a dominant group against a member of a stigmatized group are merely the behavioral component of a system of oppression.  And, these acts are justified by the ideological component of this system of oppression, or what we typically call prejudice.  I suggest, then, that we think about transphobia as a system of oppression.  The discrimination and harassment that transgender people face is neither rare nor random; rather, trans people repeatedly face discrimination, harassment, and violence across multiple contexts, and throughout their lives.

Transphobia Is A System Of Oppression

Transphobia, as a social system, includes the discriminatory acts perpetrated by cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) people against transgender people.  It also operates through important institutions in society – the medical institution, the criminal justice system, education, the military, and so forth.  It shapes the policies and practices of these institutions in ways that disadvantage, harm, and/or exclude transgender people.  Finally, transphobia manifests as laws and policies, particularly at the federal and state levels, that disadvantage, harm, and/or exclude transgender people.  This includes seemingly-neutral laws and policies that are harmful, nonetheless.  One example would be the push for voter identification laws, which places additional burdens on trans people, particularly those whose legal documents do not reflect their current gender identity.

I offer this perspective of transphobia as a system for two reasons.  First, I wish to highlight that the challenges to improve the treatment of transgender people are by no means unique to the criminal justice system.  Second, I want to push our conversation about trans people’s interaction with and experiences in the criminal justice system into the broader context of transphobia.  The challenges that transgender people face in the criminal justice system are both cause and consequence of the challenges they face in other domains of society.  The National Transgender Discrimination Survey notes that trans people are more likely to interact with law enforcement and/or enter the criminal justice system because: 1) they are more likely than cisgender people to be a victim of a crime, particularly anti-trans hate crimes; 2) they are more likely to be homeless, kicked out of their homes by family or due to extreme poverty; and, 3) because of employment discrimination, many transgender people turn to sex work, selling as well as using drugs, or other parts of the underground economy.

Intersections With Racism And Classism

The second feature of my scholarship that I wish to share today is a framework that considers how other systems of oppression intersect with transphobia. Black feminist scholars have developed a concept called intersectionality to understand the interlocking and mutually reinforcing relationships among racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism. We can add to this list transphobia. Relatedly, they argue that you cannot attend to one of an individual’s multiple social identities to fully capture that individual’s experiences, well-being, and status in society.

In today’s conversation, by thinking of trans people solely in terms of their gender identity and expression, we miss important ways in which transgender people’s experiences are shaped by their race and ethnicity, immigrant status, social class, and other identities. More specifically, we miss that certain segments of transgender communities – namely poor trans people, trans women, trans people of color, and especially trans women of color – are particularly vulnerable to violence, discrimination, harassment, sexual violence, poverty, homelessness, and poor health.

Findings from a few recent reports, including the NTDS Survey, and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report for 2013, suggest that these groups bear the greatest burden of the challenges that trans people face in the criminal justice system. And, these disparities exist in every context in the system, from interactions with police, to arrest, to treatment in prisons.

  • While 60% of the transgender people in the NTDS survey report any interaction with law enforcement, the number jumps to 80% for Black and Latina trans women.
  • Trans women of color are more likely to report being targeted, disrespected, and harassed, and assaulted by police than other trans people, and LGBT people in general. For example, under New York City’s practice of “stop-and-frisk,” wherein 90% of individuals who were stopped were Black or Latina/o, LGBT people, especially trans women, were disproportionately represented.
  • Trans women, particularly trans women of color, are often stopped by police because they are assumed to be sex workers – a pattern that the ACLU and other groups has now referred to as “walking while trans,” akin to racial profiling or “driving while Black.”
  • While only 3% of the general population has ever been incarcerated, 16% of trans people have ever been sent to jail or prison. And, that figure is 41% for Black and Latina trans women; almost all report that they were incarcerated due to transphobic bias.
  • Among trans people who have been incarcerated, trans women of color serve longer sentences, and are more likely to be harassed, and physically and sexually assaulted by both fellow inmates and prison staff than other trans people.
  • And, a greater percentage of trans women of color report that either other inmates or prison staff block their access to hormones or regular medical care.

To conclude, I want to reiterate the importance of recognizing the roles that race, ethnicity, immigrant status, and social class play – or, more specifically, how racism and classism intersect with transphobia. We must avoid thinking of and treating trans communities as a monolithic group, as there is a great deal of diversity within these communities.

References And Additional Information

  • Simopoulos, Eugene F. and Khin Khin.  2014.  “Fundamental principles inherent in the comprehensive care of transgender inmates.”  Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 42: 26-36.
  • Summary of findings [pdf] and full report [pdf] of National Transgender Discrimination Survey.  (And, see my summary here.)
  • Supplementary report [pdf] of Black respondents in the NTDS survey.  (And, see my summary here.)
  • Supplementary report Hispanic and Latina/o respondents [pdf] and Asian and Asian American respondents [pdf] in the NTDS survey.
  • Summary of findings [pdf] and full report [pdf] of the 2013 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report.
  • It’s A War In Here: A Report on Transgender People in Men’s Prisons [pdf] by Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
  • The Williams Institute report on Latina trans women’s experiences with law enforcement [pdf].
  • The Unfair Criminalization of Gay and Transgender Youth,” Center for American Progress, June 29, 2012.
  • A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People with HIV [pdf].
  • Queer (In)Justice book
  • Dealing with Transgender Subjects,Police Magazine, January 4, 2013.
  • Resources from the Transgender Law Center

“Bigger Than A Nigger’s Heart”

I promised myself a little time to vent about the nigger “joke” I heard on Christmas, and then I would forgive and move on.  At the close of the sentence, “bigger than a nigger’s lips,” my mind went spiraling.  I was shocked that I heard what I heard.  Five feet away from me?  In mixed company on many accounts?  How was the joke even relevant to the conversation?  How, in 2013, do whites still make nigger “jokes”?  I felt eyes dart in my direction.  Oh, Eric — the Black guy — the professor — the one who does research on racism — the one who speaks openly about racism — oh, gosh.

I tried to play it cool.  But, that all dissolved in a matter of minutes.  Sitting in the car for the remainder of our time at the party was the only thing keeping me from vomiting.  Or at least it felt as though I would, as nausea built from feeling trapped between politeness and my burning, screaming mind.  I promised I would get over it by the next day, continuing to focus on racism as a system of oppression — not individual acts and attitudes.

But, in just seeing @StandForOurFlag, a defender of the Confederate flag, notify me that many in the US South continue to feel nostalgia for the confederacy (which lasted for four years) 150 years later because of something about liberty (give me a break), I cannot quickly get over the Christmas event.  Two days later, I saw a Confederate flag waving proudly on my way to the mall.  I tweeted about it, which is why I received the aforementioned response about liberty for (whites in) the South.  Liberty?

Source: Kevin WongIn the spirit of one of my my 2013 resolutions (now one for 2014 because it is still a work in progress) — forgiveness — I had hoped to move on from the nigger “joke.”  Black people, from capture, forced removal, enslavement, to Jim Crow, lynching, rape, to a continuing, yet subtler practice of racism today have been forgiving whites for a lot.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights movement leaders advocated for forgiveness even in the face of vehement racist hatred.  It takes a huge, committed, faith-filled heart to forgive that.  But, I have been trying.  Something akin to “forgive the sinner, but not the sin” because racist individuals are simply a product of their racist society.  It takes an evolved mind and spirit to be better than your upbringing, in my opinion.  People can change — I have, and I have seen others become better, more compassionate, more open-minded, more understanding, and more critical of inequality and injustice.

I can think of something bigger than a nigger’s lips: a nigger’s heart.  Still today, Black people and other people of color fight to make the US a better, more equal place — even with a continued willingness to work with white people where they are.  Despite accusations of “playing the race card” and being hypersensitive, there is a great deal of patience afforded to whites without laying blame for this country’s racist past.  We ask only to address today’s racism, which is a product of past racism.  You cannot eradicate racial inequalities today without addressing the impact of centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement, violence, and barriers to advancing and succeeding in life.  You cannot tell a group of people who have never experienced full, equal citizenship in this nation to “get over” the very events and treatment that continues to constrain their lives.

So, I admit that alongside my forgiveness is a twinge of resentment.  I have been asked again and again to forgive, even to forget, even to forgo recognizing bigotry when it occurs.  But, I am sometimes automatically damned, accused, found guilty, punished simply because of my racial identity.  I am asked to forgive those who refuse to forgive me for not being like them.  How small is your heart (and your mind) if you automatically punish someone for being something you have decided is inferior or undesirable?  So, we’ve got you beat there, racist white people!  In this vein, we have the more open minds, we have the bigger, more forgiving hearts.  We are able to simultaneously love this country and hate its ugliness in order to make it a better place.

I will keep forging ahead in my work to fight racism as a system, including racist treatment and attitudes.  But, I think I have reached my capacity for forgiveness.  Now approaching 30 years, I am beginning to feel heartache.  I cannot forgive the murder of Trayvon Martin, nor that the State, which unfairly punishes those it should be protecting, that let his murderer free.  I cannot forgive “oh, I didn’t know anyone would be offended,” and then be told celebrating the racist legacy of the South is a matter of liberty.  I do not know that I can forgive the political sabotage driven by racism that has severely hindered President Obama’s important legacy in this nation.

My heart is big, but it would burst if I forgave any more without forgiveness in return.

Earning My Stripes As An Intellectual Activist

via The Retriever Weekly (UMBC)

via The Retriever Weekly (UMBC)

Last night, I received an email from the Tennessee Anti-Racist Network thanking me for allowing the organization to use my blog post on a bystander intervention approach to anti-racism for their April 2013 conference theme.  This served as a counter-protest to a white supremacists rally:

American Renaissance (AmRen), a white supremacy group, plans to hold their annual racist conference at Montgomery Bell State Park Conference Center, near Dickson, Tennessee, April 5-7, 2013. 

[Download the post-conference recap here.]

This sounded like an important event, so of course I agreed to lend the idea as my way of supporting it.  Bystander intervention was developed as a community response (i.e., it is the community’s responsibility) to eliminate sexual violence.  At some point, other advocates have picked it up to fight other forms of bigotry and violence, including racism.  So, it certainly is not my original idea; but, I do take credit for my own perspective on it as laid out in my blog post, “A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism.”  At the time, I was finishing up my dissertation; so, the idea of having a blog post serve as an anti-racist conference’s theme was a welcome break from sitting alone in my apartment day in and day out (in the name of social science, of course!).

The email I received last night also included a request to continue using the theme of anti-racist bystander intervention for their upcoming counter-protest on October 12 in Murfreesboro, TN:

On October 12, League of the South, an extremist hate group will invade middle Tennessee and try to infect our home with false Southern Pride (aka white power).  They intend to demonstrate in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville.  We intend to get in their way.  They are already bullying and trying to intimidate Tennessee residents who are taking a stand against their racist group.  Don’t let these people invade OUR home and get away with this.

But, the organizer also gave me the heads up that they have faced some backlash — and, my name has come up:

From the Tennessee Anti Racist Network page:
“Be proactive. Do not be a bystander. Go to the Murfreesboro, TN, Anti Racist counter rally on October 12, and tell League of the South To Stop The Hate.  Information on this page adapted and taken from Eric Grollman at http://egrollman.com/?s=bystander+intervention

Eric Grollman is a professional Black homosexual feminist (his articles on those interests are on his website). He says he is a scholar whose “research centers on medical sociology and social psychology to investigate race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and sexualities, and the intersections among them.” He “examines the social factors that produce and maintain disparities in mental, physical, and sexual health” and “investigate(s) the effects prejudice and discrimination on marginalized groups’ health and well-being.” With meager credentials, these special interests must have been what got him a spot as Asst. Professor at the University of Richmond.

So, I suppose I am now on the white supremacists’ shit list.  I tweeted about this, and shared it on Facebook, receiving mostly praise (“you’ve arrived!” as indicated by making enemies, especially of the bigot variety).  A few folks expressed some concern: notify my university just to err on the side of caution for my safety (done); make sure I am taking care of myself internally to weather any more that may come of this (a work in progress).

The funny thing is, I just wrote a post yesterday on “playing it safe,” and that I am still doing other things that appear anything but safe and traditional.  I have been calling for greater intellectual activism — in my case, blogging — and, I suppose pissing off racist bigots counts for something.  This is at least a reminder to be careful what you wish for!

Now, back to being a good first-year professor with “meager credentials.”  I should know being a “professional Black homosexual feminist” will not guarantee job security.

Parenting And Racial Discrimination

Trayvon-Martin-George-Zimmerman-620x457

I feel heartbroken by the news that George Zimmerman walks a free, “innocent” man after murdering Trayvon Martin.  It is difficult to digest that the state of Florida, among other states, has granted license (which mostly benefits whites who kill Blacks) to “stand your ground” (i.e., murder).  So, while there is no doubt Zimmerman killed Martin, he was found not guilty within the content of these broad self-defense laws.  Indirectly, Florida and these other states have legalized the practice of hunting and killing of Black Americans.

Post-racism my ass!

Parents And Racial Socialization

In addition to the collective outrage and sadness that followed the not-guilty verdict, I noticed other, unexpected responses.  One, in particular, caught me by surprise, but probably should have been expected.  Because Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when George Zimmerman killed him, many Black parents (especially mothers) have expressed great concern for protecting their children.  Some have asked specifically how they can effectively prepare their children to navigate a world where they could be murdered for carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea — that is, if they are Black.

Throughout US history, Black parents, like all parents of color, have socialized their children in a way that is explicitly racialized.  This aspect of Black parenting, sometimes referred to as racial socialization, entails practices of preparing one’s children for the current realities of racism and race relations and, for some, instilling a strong sense of racial pride.  So, the concerns raised by Black parents following the murder of Trayvon Martin and, again, following the conclusion of George Zimmerman’s trial, are not new.

But, the messages transmitted by Black parents to their children does change over time, reflecting the current racial climate.  In their 2006 Social Psychology Quarterly article, “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time,” sociologists Tony Brown and Chase L. Lesane-Brown assessed the content of Black parents’ racialized socialization practices over time: specifically pre-Brown v. Board of Education (before 1957; Blacks born between 1879-1940), Civil Rights protest (1957-1968; those born in 1941-1955), and post-protest (1969-1980; those born 1956-1963).  The earliest cohort — those coming of age before Brown — were more likely to hear messages about deference to or fear of whites, or about color-blindness.  Those coming of age after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement were more likely to hear messages of racial group pride, individual pride, or no race-specific messages at all.

Racial Socialization, 1980 To Today

What about the racial socialization of those born from 1964 to today (Blacks under the age of 50)?  Black Americans who came of age in the 1980s were socialized during the time of conservative President Ronald Reagan, The Cosby Show, and heightened poverty.  Those who came of age in the ’90s witnessed the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court (following the hearings of his sexual harassment against Anita Hill), the brutal beating of Rodney King by LA police, and the Million Man March.  My cohort — those coming of age between 2000-2010 — has seen the election of Barack Obama (and other “Firsts” like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice), the ugly (mis)handling of evacuation before and relief after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the end of busing and subsequent resegregation of schools, and the beginnings of successful attempts to undermine and dismantle Affirmative Action policies.

What about the current racial climate — Black youth who are coming of age during the present decade (2010-)?  It appears to be an intensification of the racial/racist schizophrenia of the prior decade.  While President Barack Obama was reelected, there were heightened efforts to suppress Blacks’ vote.  Recently, declaring racism dead or nearly dead, the Supreme Court gutted much of the Voting Rights Act.  Affirmative Action programs continue to be challenged and scaled back.  Blacks are disproportionately represented in prison and throughout the criminal justice system.  While hearing claims that America has reached a post-racial era, the vast majority of Black Americans report facing interpersonal discrimination (Kessler et al. 1999); this is complemented by legal law enforcement practices that unfairly target people of color (including Stand Your Ground laws) and other forms of institutional racism.

a64ac-emmett-trayvon560x300

Racial Socialization, Discrimination, and Crime

But, is instilling a strong sense of racial pride and preparing one’s children for racial bias effective?  Yep.  Prior research has suggested that the damaging effects of racial discrimination, particularly to one’s health and well-being, are buffered by a strong, positive racial identity (Paradies 2006; Pascoe and Richman 2009).  This is true for racial socialization broadly, but also supportive parenting in general (Simmons et al. 2006).

Interestingly, racial socialization also partially mediates (or explains) the relationship between racial discrimination and criminal or delinquent behavior (Burt et al. 2012; Caldwell et al. 2004; Martin et al. 2010).  Unfortunately, as a result of the anger, depression, hostile view of interpersonal relationships, and disengagement from conventional norms that can follow exposure to discrimination, victims of racial discrimination may be more likely to engage in these kinds of violent or illegal activities.  But, Black parents’ successful efforts to instill a strong sense of racial pride and prepare their kids for racial bias can interrupt this chain of events.

For, what unfolds is much worse.  With racial disparities in (hostile) interaction with the police, in arrest, in the courts, and in sentencing, the risk of imprisonment is multiplied.  And, once release from prisons (at least for felonies), one’s livelihood and well-being are further jeopardized by the simultaneous stigmatized statuses of “ex-con” and Black.  In certain states, that comes with the loss of key aspects of citizenship, namely the right to vote (another right that is already threatened by racial discrimination).

The sheer vastness of racism’s reach are difficult to comprehend.  From birth to death, one’s life is persistently shaped and constrained by racism; even the racist treatment one faces within one institution (e.g., education) can influence such treatment in one’s navigation through other institutions (e.g., criminal justice, politics).

Concluding Thoughts

And effective racialized socialization can minimize some of this?  That is an unfair, heavy burden to place on the shoulders of parents of color.  And the era of supposed post-racism has made the job of Black parents even more complicated.  How do you explain to your 12 year old that he could be President, a doctor, a teacher, or an engineer by age 40… or living in poverty, HIV-positive, in jail, or dead by age 25?  How do prepare your child for racist violence, like the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, alongside the “progress” that has transpired in the past 60 years?

And, what could Trayvon Martin’s parents — Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton — have done to prevent the tragic end of their son’s life at the young age of 17?  Told him to lay off of junk food?  Don’t walk alone at night?  Dress like characters on the uber white show, Friends?  Or, stop being Black?  Any of these suggestions are victim-blaming; and, unfortunately, parts of Zimmerman’s trial seem to put Martin on trial (for his own murder).

TRAYVON_MARTIN_NEW_PHOTO_1When racial socialization is not enough, and the law actually gives bigots a license to hunt innocent Black teenagers, what protection remains for people of color in America?

It is hard to hope for any answer other than, “nothing.”

References

Bowleg, Lisa, Gary J. Burkholder, Jenne S. Massie, Rahab Wahome, Michelle Teti, David J. Malebranche, and Jeanne M. Tschann. Forthcoming. “Racial Discrimination, Social Support, and Sexual HIV Risk among Black Heterosexual Men.” AIDS Behavior.

Brown, Tony N., and Chase L. Lesane-Brown.  2006.  “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time.”  Social Psychology Quarterly 69: 201-13.

Burt, Callie Harbin, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederic X. Gibbons. 2012. “Racial Discrimination, Ethnic-Racial Socialization, and Crime: A Micro-Sociological Model of Risk and Resilience.” American Sociological Review 77: 648-77.

Caldwell, Cleopatra Howard, Laura P. Kohn-Wood, Karen H. Schmeelk-Cone, Tabbye M. Chavous, and Marc A. Zimmerman.  (2004).  “Racial Discrimination and Racial Identity as Risk or Protective Factors for Violence Behaviors in African American Young Adults.”  American Journal of Community Psychology 33: 91-105.

Kessler, Ronald C., Kristin D. Mickelson, and David R. Williams. 1999. “The Prevalence, Distribution, and Mental Health Correlates of Perceived Discrimination in the United States.”  Journal of Health and Social Behavior 40: 208-30.

Martin, Monica J., Bill McCarthy, Rand D. Conger, Frederick X. Gibbons, Ronald L. Simons, Carolyn E. Cutrona, and Gene H. Brody.  2010.  “The Enduring Significance of Racism: Discrimination and Delinquency Among Black American Youth.”  Journal of Research on Adolescence 21: 662-76.

Paradies, Yin. 2006. “A Systematic Review of Empirical Research on Self-Reported Racism and Health.”  International Journal of Epidemiology 35: 888-901.

Pascoe, Elizabeth A., and Laura Smart Richman. 2009. “Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review.”  Psychological Bulletin 135: 531-54.

Roberts, Megan E., Frederick X. Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, Chin-Yuan Weng, Velma M. Murry, Leslie G. Simons, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederick O. Lorenz. 2012. “From Racial Discrimination to Risky Sex: Prospective Relations Involving Peers and Parents.” Developmental Psychology 48: 89-102.

Simons, Ronald L., Leslie Gordon Simons, Callie Harbin Burt, Holli Drummund, Eric Stewart, Gene H. Brody, Frederick X. Gibbons, and Carolyn Cutrona. 2006. “Supportive Parenting Moderates the Effect of Discrimination upon Anger, Hostile View of Relationships, and Violence among African American Boys.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 47: 373-89.

Actually, Racism Is Probably Worse Than We Realize

In 2008, the argument that race has declined in importance became the crystallized “post-racial” thesis upon the election of President Barack Obama.  By his re-election in 2012, some had offered clarification that race still exists, but it is racism that has disappeared – the “post-racism” thesis.  There it sits, almost as a sense of relief — “whew, now we can stop tip-toeing around people of color, and supporting these race-related causes like Affirmative Action.”

On day 2 of George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the supposed reality of post-racism contrasts with that of the hyperrelevance of race and racism.  A young Black man was killed because his race made him a suspect.

Today, Blackness is still a crime, and whites are charged with the task of policing Black people.  The harshness of law enforcement and the criminal justice system is magnified for Blacks, from the use of excessive force to longer sentences to denial of justice all together.  Even those who are not police officers, judges, and lawyers serve to police Blacks; the days of lynching Black women and men has merely evolved into a calmer form of extralegal vigilance.

For example:

My blood boiled as I watched this video.  I posted it in various places on Facebook, expecting similar outrage.  The video was widely shared, but often introduced with concerned, but surprisingly calm notes: “watch this”; “wow”; “this is messed up.”  Those were comments mostly comments from white people.

But, even some Black folks articulated concern, but little surprise.  In fact, a few people seemed to think that it was problematic that I was surprised, and that they are superior in some way for being unmoved.  The unsympathetic response of “why are you surprised?” stung, playing on my fear that I am “not Black enough” or “too white” to fully comprehend the severity of contemporary racism.  I suppose the anonymity of the internet is a dual-edged sword, where hostility is widely expressed and, absent of an in-person connection, there is little expression of empathy and solidarity.

Racism Is Worse Than We Realize

As I further processed my reactions to this video, I realized that my surprise and anger are warranted.  Yes, in the self-confident sense where I do not need to justify my feelings, or shape or suppress them according to others’ opinions.  But, also because the sheer pervasiveness and severity of racism cannot be fully comprehended by one person.  Even as a researcher, I am unable to see every instance, manifestation, and consequence of racism in every corner of the world.

Like this video, racism that hides behind seemingly race-neutral interactions, laws, and practices is harder to see, and near impossible to prove exists.  Today, we are dealing with consciously suppressed and unconscious racial prejudice — both which shape behaviors.  Few racists openly, proudly identify themselves as racists, and most racists do not even know that they are racist.

Racial discrimination, too, is harder to identify, particularly absent of outwardly expressed racial bias.  It is no longer limited to exclusion at the entry point or first contact.  The “whites only” sign has to be implied since it cannot be hung from the front door.  We may be hired, but then harassed on the job or denied opportunities to advance.  We may receive a loan, but are offered one that is economically risky.

On the ground, we cannot see other interactions to “accurately” assess whether we have been discriminated against.  (This speaks to the importance of research to look at the broader patterns!)  Like the racial profiling video above, Black people may suspect unfair or differential treatment driven by racial prejudice, but rarely can we compare the same situation experienced by a white person.  Even in some of the recent audit studies that demonstrate racial discrimination in the labor force, some of the participants were unaware of the discriminatory treatment they faced until they compared notes with others and the researchers.

In reality, racism and the pervasiveness of racial discrimination are likely far worse than we can imagine.  So, I stand by my surprise because it is a reasonable reaction to such harsh reminders of the everyday consequences of racism.  But, also because I much prefer to hope for something better than resign myself to accept the world as it is.

Racism vs. Homophobia: Why No One Wins the Oppression Olympics

I suppose I should not be surprised that even in 2013 we are still hearing debates that compare racism, the lives of people of color, and the Civil Rights Movement with homophobia, the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT), and the modern LGBT movement.

It is somewhat ironic that the efforts of President Barack Obama – our first (half) Black president and the first sitting-President to support same-gender marriage – have sparked such debate about race versus sexuality.  Back in 2007, he won my support over my initial favorite candidate, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, because he addressed anti-racist advocacy, anti-homophobia advocacy, and the need to heal the wounds between Black and LGBT communities.  Wow!

Since the historical 2008 election, we have seen variations on the debate that compares racism and homophobia, civil rights and LGBT rights, and people of color and LGBT people.  As recent as January, we still see the strange question, “is gay the new black?”  And, on a recent CNN panel, various commentators and political leaders were asked, “are gay rights the same thing as civil rights?”  Fortunately, the first two panelists to respond, LZ Granderson and Roland Martin, noted that, of course, the LGBT rights movement is not the same as the Civil Rights movement; but, “civil rights” refer to the equal rights and status of all people, not just people of color.

No One Wins The Oppression Olympics

Comparing these two communities and their past and contemporary movements for equal rights do many a disservice for a at least three reasons.  First, no one wins the “Oppression Olympics.”  Taking the time to decide whether people of color have it “worse” than LGBT people is futile.  With both groups facing prejudice, discrimination, and violence throughout history and today, what difference does it make whether one group faces “more,” or faced it for a longer period of time?  It would be impossible to measure oppression in the first place.

Second, participating in the “black vs. gay” and similar debates gives more weight to the efforts of groups that are both racist and homophobic (and sexist, and classist, and transphobic, etc.) who intentionally attempt to “divide and conquer” various marginalized groups.  The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an organization at the forefront of efforts to prevent marriage equality, has actively fanned the flames of resentment within Black and Latina/o communities toward LGBT people.  Then, a double standard for homophobia, such that “black homophobia” is used as evidence that Black people are behind-the-times or even un-evolved, while persistent homophobia in white communities goes unnoticed.  In fact, conservatives have been (successfully) pitting minority communities against one another for decades.

Third, “black vs. gay” continues to mask that there are a significant number of people who are Black and gay, Latina and lesbian, Asian American and bisexual, and American Indiana and two-spirit.  Whereas some members of communities of color are LGBT, efforts to secure the civil rights of Blacks, Latina/os, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and American Indians necessarily implicate LGBT rights.  All people of color are not treated equally if our LGBT relatives and friends are prevented from marrying their same-gender partner, are vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace and housing, and so on.  Similarly, the efforts of LGBT activists cannot stop at legalizing same-gender marriage, for too many LGBT people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, ongoing racial discrimination, and the resultant mental health problems.

And, a quick history lesson: the earliest efforts for LGBT rights in the US date back to the 1950s.  While Civil Rights activists were beginning their efforts that evolved into a national movement, so too were Homophile activists.  When the more radical efforts of the Black Panthers emerged in the late 1960s, so too did those of gay liberation activists leading up to and then taking off with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (which were led by Black and Latina/o transpeople and drag queens).  Gay cannot be the “new Black” because LGBT activism is far from new; and, neither being Black nor the racist oppression that Black people still face has become old or a thing of the past.

But, the supposed black-versus-gay divide is old, and frankly a little tired.

A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism

In the recent sociological blog debate on racism versus the supposed dawn of “post-racism” in America, we often touched on problems that make talking about racism difficult, if not entirely impossible.  In addition to institutional constraints, there are interpersonal factors that can derail meaningful conversations about race and racism.  In addition to calling attention to these barriers, it is important to make explicit that too few people take on this difficult task.

Responsibility For (Anti-)Racism

In general, too few people consistently assume responsibility for talking about race and racism, and fighting racism more broadly.  That kind of work is presumed to be taken on by activists and leaders of social movements.  But, in particular, the responsibility generally falls in the laps of those victimized by it — in this case, people of color.  As Jason noted in his contribution to the “post-racism” blog debate, racial and ethnic minorities generally face this burden alone.

But, people of color are neither alone in this racist society nor the creators of this system of oppression.  Whites are implicated by virtue of the benefits they receive (i.e., white privilege) from the historical legacy of racism, as well as today.  Eliminating racism, then, is just as much their responsibility, if not more, as it is for people of color.

As I re-watched a few of ABC’s “What Would You Do” social experiments regarding race and racism, I was reminded just how problematic America’s sense of responsibility for racism and anti-racism are.  While too few whites intervene when they witness racist discrimination in stores against (innocent) people of color, many seem quick to intervene to sanction Black people’s criminal behavior but not that of whites (see part 1 and part 2).  (Three young Black men sleeping in their own car got more calls to 911 than did three young white men vandalizing and breaking into someone else’s car.)

A Personal Anecdote

Racist events are plentiful, from small slights to extreme forms of violence.  So, there are too many missed opportunities to confront racism, or at least learn from these events to do things differently in the future.  One such event stands out in my own life.

At the start of my second semester of graduate school, my cohort and I sat through the beginning of our training and preparation to carry out a telephone survey on social attitudes that summer.  In talking through concerns for the project, whether we as  interviewers “talk black” was posed as a potential bias in our interviews.  It felt as though as though a grenade had gone off right in the middle of class, but we continued on ignoring it.  I thought, “was I the only one who heard that?”

This event only became an issue when my colleagues of color and I were overheard joking about the racist comment the following week.  That was brought to the attention of the professor who, out of concern, asked us whether and how to “handle” this.  Three weeks later, we finally devoted an entire two-hour class to discussing the comment about “talking black” — a phrase the professor wrote explicitly on the board to facilitate our conversation.

Of course, five minutes that felt like an eternity passed before anyone broke the thick silence that suffocated the room — it was me, naturally, in which I called attention to that deafening silence.  As the tense conversation carried on, my cohort was divided, with the students of color and anti-racist white students taking issue with the concern about “talking black,” and the rest remaining silent, or speaking up to say they did not see a problem or even recast the comment in their head so that it was not problematic.

The conversation boiled down to whether the commenter said “talking black” or talking black, where the quotation marks became the symbolic boundary between belief that there is a(n inferior) style of English unique to Black Americans and the knowledge that others believe that (but not believing it oneself).  Only a racist person would forgo the quotation marks, for this would reflect their own beliefs.

With the conversation ending with a half-ass apology from the commenter, that one’s upbringing in the Midwest should suffice as an excuse for one’s racist prejudice, we left the room more divided than ever before.  The rest of our department remained curious bystanders, but nothing more came of these events outside of the efforts of students of color to challenge racism in the department and university.

To add insult to injury, later in the semester, my colleagues of color and I overheard some of our classmates complain about the ongoing divisiveness, placing blame on us for not having gotten “over it” yet.  Their simultaneous lack of understanding and lack of sympathy only further fueled the division.  I am happy to say that a great deal has been forgiven, but one can never forget such events.  But, sadly, because little came of it, we saw yet another racist event occur years later.

A Call For Bystander Intervention

I, as others before me, call for a bystander intervention approach to ending racism.  Too often, individuals not directly involved in a dangerous or difficult scenario — or bystanders — simply stand-by and watch without intervening to provide help.  As such, in the case of the prevention of sexual violence (since this “bystander effect” was coined after no one intervened in the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese), advocates have strongly emphasized the need to turn bystanders into potential interveners – “bystander intervention.”  Applied to racism, this means that individuals are called to action to intervene if they witness racist discrimination, bullying, or violence.

However, I push this anti-racist bystander intervention one step further beyond intervening in difficult situations.  Similar to my calls for bystander intervention to prevent sexual violence (i.e., rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment), I stress that our anti-racist work must include a sense that racism is a community issue and, as such, anti-racism is a community responsibility.

Ways To Intervene

A related aspect is noting that racism exists at multiple levels and, as such, there are an infinite number of ways in which we can fight it:

  1. One can intervene when they witness racist discrimination or harassment.  Of course, this depends upon a number of factors that make this easier said than done.  And, no one should intervene in ways that place them at risk for getting hurt.  If it is a scenario of extreme violence, like a racially-motivated hate crime, a safe means of intervening may be to call the police.  If it is an instance of the unfair firing of a Latina coworker, you could approach your supervisor to note that you feel your coworker deserves a second chance.
  2. Challenge racist prejudice.  This can entail calling people out who appear to harbor prejudice toward people of color, or hold misguided stereotypes.  It also means calling out offensive comments that others’ may make about racial and ethnic minorities.
  3. Challenge yourself.  No matter one’s racial or ethnic background, and one’s racial ideology, no one is immune to the pervasive poison of racism.  It is important to also check your own biases and actions.  Do you seek out friends of the same race?  Do you avoid “that part of town”?  Do you do certain things, at least in part, to avoid appearing racist?
  4. Educate yourself.  Unfortunately, most Americans leave formal education knowing little about racism and the history and experiences of people of color beyond obligatory coverage during Black History Month.  To push beyond this, one can take the time to learn more (even from March to January).  Read books about and by people of color.  Go see films on historical and contemporary accounts of the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  Visit museums that feature exhibits on race and ethnicity.  Become comfortable talking about race and racism with the people around you, no matter their race and ethnicity.
  5. Support victims of racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence.  As I wrote the first suggestion, I realized that there are so many concerns that one may have in directly challenging racist actions.  But, there are fewer concerns regarding harm in supporting victims of these actions.  Though your supervisor who unfairly fired your Latina coworker very well could threaten you, as well, you are freer to reach out to your coworker.  See if she wants to talk, needs help finding a new job, or even filing a discrimination or EEO complaint.  Even outside of severe instances of racist acts, you can be a supportive ally by really hearing people out when they reveal their experiences to you (rather than blaming them or encouraging them to think of alternative reasons for those acts).
  6. Challenge racist practices of organizations and institutions.  Though the days of overt racist laws and policies are mostly gone, there are still many — albeit neutral in intention and language — that disproportionately harm people of color.  It is important to challenge these, just as it is to challenge racism at the individual-level.  Maybe you can speak up if your workplace implements a dress-code policy that unfairly targets racial and ethnic minorities.  Take action to prevent the efforts to repeal Affirmative Action and other policies that aim to redress racial inequality.  Educate yourself and others about how new policies or policy change can contribute to racial equality, even if they are not targeted solely toward people of color (e.g., Affordable Care Act).

Concluding Thoughts

Obviously, everyone cannot become leaders of social movements like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or lead deadly anti-racist efforts like abolitionist John Brown or the slain Mississippi civil rights workers.  Most of us are not lifelong activists.

But, there are many opportunities throughout a given day to make a difference, no matter how small.  For, even small acts add up to a big contribution to challenge prejudice and stereotypes, educate oneself and others, end racist discrimination and violence, and promote racial diversity and equality.  Just as we are all implicated in racism, it will take all of us to end it.