Forum edited by Cynthia Young and Min Hyoung Song
In our forum, we asked several scholars representing a wide range of interests to reflect on changes to the way whiteness is inhabited and practiced in the US during the Obama years. Since we're getting close to the final years of his two-term presidency, it seemed a fitting time for us to convene such a discussion about the ways in which the mainstream US thinking about race had recently been articulated, and is now being rearticulated.
In particular, as we note in the introduction, the election of President Obama was surrounded by claims that the US was entering a "postracial" era. One example we provide of a sophisticated and thoughtful example of such claim-making was an essay by Hua Hsu that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1, 2009. Entitled "The End of White America," it made many optimistic claims that we felt the intervening years did not support.
Of all the examples we picked out to show why we could justifiably feel, so deep into Obama's presidency, that such optimism was misplaced, none stood out more to us than the recent controversy surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown by police office Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Neither of us could have predicted that this would happen when we completed this forum, but in many ways this event helped to spotlight for us the ways in which recent definitions of whiteness in many quarters of American society have embraced the presumption of white victimhood and nonwhite predators. It is certainly remarkable to us how many whites identify with Darren Wilson and view Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year old black male, as the most likely aggressor. This is a pattern that we also witnessed in the 2013 shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and the 2014 trial of Michael Dunn for the murder of Jordan Davis.
Such sensational cases surely must contribute to what we call a more "sober" attitude toward race. One instance of this sober attitude that we highlighted in our introduction is the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. A memoirists, political writer, and popular blogger, he has made waves in recent years by publishing an essay entitled "The Case for Reparations" in, again, the Atlantic Monthly. We think it is incredibly informative to read Hsu's and Coates's argument side-by-side, to consider how tonally as well as content-wise two very astute writers whose appeal to a broad audience cannot be denied have, in different but closely related historical moments, written about race. If whiteness is now more prone to an injury-based discourse, more assertive of its right to express grievance and compensatory pride, and less likely to resort to a guise of universalism, it may also be fair to say that we now have many nonwhite commentators who are willing to critique such thinking and in doing so to claim a moral, and perhaps even a more universalistic, high ground.
Recommended Readings and Other Relevant Material
Hua Hsu, "The End of White America," Atlantic, January 1, 2009.
Ta-Nehisi Coats, "The Case for Reparations," Atlantic, May 21, 2014.
Mychal Denzel Smith, “How Trayvon Martin’s Death Launched a New Generation of Black Activism,” The Nation, 14 August 2014.
Jelani Cobb, “George Zimmerman: Blood on the Leaves,” 13 July 2013.
On Point with Tom Ashbrook: Legacy and Lessons from Ferguson, 28 August 2014
The following links provide useful information regarding the ongoing conflicts over the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, as well as organizing on behalf of Native youth more broadly:
- National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA)“works to address the issues of child abuse and neglect through training, research, public policy, and grassroots community development. NICWA also works to support compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), which seeks to keep American Indian children with American Indian families.” NICWA works in collaboration with “tribes and other service providers implement services that are culturally competent, community-based, and focused on the strengths and assets of families. This work includes collaborating with tribal and urban Indian child welfare programs to increase their service capacity, enhancing tribal-state relationships, and providing training, technical assistance, information services and alliance building.”
- Lakota People’s Law Project initiated the Lakota Child Rescue Projectin 2005 as means of advocating for the return of more than 2,200 Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota children illegally taken from their families. The initiative combines three major components: 1) The Lakota Children Legal Action Fund, which supports the project’s research, investigative, and legal work—such as compiling court-admissible evidence and the preparation of federal civil lawsuits on behalf of tribes and families whose legal and human rights have been violated by the state; 2) the ICWA Amendment Initiative, a grassroots organizing and lobbying effort to revise and make more effective the Indian Child Welfare Act for enforcing the rights of Native American families; 3) organizer and tribal liaison Madonna Thunder Hawk’s “Grandmothers Su Ta Najin Pe (Standing Strong),” an outreach, education, and lobbying endeavor in South Dakota.
- Native American Rights Fund is the largest nonprofit law firm dedicated to the rights of Indian tribes, organizations, and individuals nationwide. “NARF’s legal practice is concentrated in five key areas: the preservation of tribal existence; the protection of tribal natural resources; the promotion of Native American human rights; the accountability of governments to Native Americans; and the development of Indian law and educating the public about Indian rights, laws, and issues. NARF works to through judicial means and extent treaties to guarantee that national and state governments are held to their legal obligations.” Among the many crucial resources developed and provided by NARF is “A Practical Guide to the Indian Child Welfare Act”
- Native Youth Sexual Health Network is “an organization by and for Indigenous youth that works across issues of sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice throughout the United States and Canada. The reclamation and revitalization of traditional knowledge about people's fundamental human rights over their bodies and spaces, intersected with present-day realities is fundamental to our work.”
- Turtle Talk is the blog of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at the Michigan State University College of Law. This is an invaluable resource and clearing-house for information on, documents from, and commentary about legal cases concerning Indigenous peoples updated everyday by Matthew L. M. Fletcher, Wenona T. Singel, Kathryn E. Fort, and other legal scholars and contributors. A compilation of posts on the Indian Child Welfare Act and Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl are available.
The Distributions of Whiteness
Roderick A. Ferguson
My essay argues that the new mode of whiteness is “sensitive” to diversity while remaining committed to anti-redistribution. Hence, this version of whiteness has learned to affirm forms of minority difference while devising ways to ensure its own continued dominance. The essay also explores how the university helped to produce this “kinder and gentler” mode of whiteness that manages to reconsolidate racial orders rather than disrupt them. As a result, my piece considers how contemporary structural inequalities are produced within the context of whiteness’s new guise. To this end, let me turn my attention to four organizations that are working on behalf of redistribution and thereby challenging whiteness’s structural legacies and outcomes:
- Project South: Founded in 1986, Project South uses popular education techniques to produce community activists who engage such issues as globalization, poverty, racism, and educational inequality. In the organization’s words, Project South builds “relationships with organizations and networks across the US and global South to inform our local work and to engage in bottom-up movement building for social and economic justice.”
- Tobago Center for the Study and Practice of Indigenous Spirituality: The center’s mission is to preserve the spiritual practices of indigenous communities and to tie that effort to the promotion of environmental justice as well as racial and gender liberation. It’s inaugural project “The Spirit and the Garden,” for instance, attempts to “protect the biodiversity of the Main Ridge Forest Preserve by promoting sustainable medicinal plant agriculture that is anchored in the knowledge and wisdom of indigenous healers, elders and farmers.”
- The University of Illinois Chicago’s Social Justice Initiative: SJI’s mission is to direct the resources of UIC to meet the needs of the diverse communities that make up Chicago. In addition to the various projects that SJI conducts, the Pipeline to Justice Program is of considerable note. Begun in 2014, the Pipeline to Justice Program brought in a cohort of seven community activists as undergraduates to UIC and will mentor them through graduation so that they can continue their work as activists and organizers with the resources that SJI has provided to them. While at UIC, the activists bring their own training and expertise to SJI and to UIC classrooms.
- The Black Youth Project: Founded in 2004, The Black Youth Project provides research (survey data, articles, reports on rap music and videos, health, gender roles and discrimination, etc.) relevant to the lives of young blacks in the U.S. BYP also uses the Internet as one tool to train black youth as activists, organizers, and researchers.
These organizations show that we do not need kinder and gentler forms of whiteness that are not interested in redistribution. We need redistributive visions that can create institutional spaces in which minoritized subjects can become the producers and disseminators of new forms of politics and knowledge.