In this segment, the Comedy Central satirist pulled a quote from Liebler’s research:
“2.5 million Americans who said they were Hispanic and “some other race” in 2000…a decade later, told the census they were Hispanic and white.”
Of course, Colbert went on to explain his version of these findings, that Hispanics were voluntarily becoming white. Colbert points out that white people live in the best neighborhoods and get the best jobs, among other things. With that logic, the pundit suggests, why not “choose” to be white?
From a sociological perspective, he might have something there. Issues of identity are fluid and ever-changing in society. Looking at such a large change in the census data provokes questions as to why this variation in identity exists. In an interview with NPR, Liebler drew a parallel to her work studying Native American identity.
“Between 1960 and 1970, nearly a half-million more Americans identified themselves as Native American — a number that was too large to be explained by mere population growth, she said. Something else had to explain it.”
Liebler says there’s more work to be done to understand these changing numbers. In the meantime, though, sociologist-in-training Stephen Colbert wants everyone to know that anyone is welcome…to identify as white.
The latest controversy in criminal justice revolves around the defense of 16-year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people when he hit them with his car, driving at double the speed limit and double the legal blood alcohol level (as an underage drinker, actually, there is no acceptable limit, but let’s stick with the charges). Couch’s defense argued that he suffered from “affluenza”—a condition under which he had lived such a privileged and entitled life, with so few consequences for bad behavior, that he could not now be held suddenly responsible for his actions. Bizarrely, the judge accepted this defense and sentenced Couch to ten years of probation and a stay in a rehab facility known for its hippotherapy (affectionately, if a bit dismissively, known as “having a therapy pony”). Had affluenza not been accepted as a defense, the usual sentence for Couch’s crimes would have been 10-20 years of prison time.
In an article for Forbes, Dr. Dale Archer reminds us that the lack of consequences that accompanies privilege isn’t anything new:
Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen introduced the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the 19th century to explain the behavior of […] families who spent their accumulated wealth in ostentatious ways to show off their newfound prestige and power.
Archer goes on to stress that the real worry is how common the modern trend of affluenza seems to be. He worries that the Keeping Up With the Kardashians era may be breeding a generation of narcissists, if not sociopaths who not only don’t understand punishment but also balk at the idea that they have anything to be punished for. He cites social psychologist Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan:
Her study of 13,737 college students found that there was a 40% decrease in empathy currently, when compared with 20 or 30 years ago.
In the end, it may be the application of the cute name “affluenza” that proves most offensive: personal responsibility is all the rage when it comes to the poor and people of color, but wealthy whites’ privilege appears to have found yet another way to keep them above the fray.
From Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his controversial raids on and detentions of immigrants to Rush Limbaugh and his rhetoric about “feminazis,” some white men, those sociologist Michael Kimmel terms “angry white men,” are resisting perceived challenges against their masculinity and historical experiences of privilege.
In his new book Angry White Men, Kimmel has interviewed white men across the country to gauge their feelings about their socioeconomic status in a sluggish and globalizing economy as well as the legal and social advances made by women, people of color, GLBT individuals, and others. Kimmel has coined the term “aggrieved entitlement” to describe these men’s defensiveness and aggravation that both “their” country and sense of self are being taken away from them. Kimmel writes in the Huffington Post,
Raised to believe that this was ‘their’ country, simply by being born white and male, they were entitled to a good job by which they could support a family as sole breadwinners, and to deference at home from adoring wives and obedient children…Theirs is a fight to restore, to reclaim more than just what they feel entitled to socially or economically – it’s also to restore their sense of manhood, to reclaim that sense of dominance and power to which they also feel entitled.
In explaining the purpose of a “whiteness studies” course—the kind offered at dozens of colleges and universities in the United States—Alex P. Kellogg of CNN.com writes:
The field argues that white privilege still exists, thanks largely to structural and institutional racism, and that the playing field isn’t level… educators teach how people of different races and ethnicities often live very different lives… The field has its roots in the writing of black intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and author James Baldwin.
Still, “In the past, detractors have said the field itself demonizes people who identify as white.” So, then, how did the courses manage to continue, and why are they seemingly on the way out now?
Having Obama is, in a curious way, putting us behind… You have a growing racial apathy. People are telling you, I don’t want to hear about race, because we’re beyond that… But we still have a white America and a Black America.
Another sociologist, Charles Gallagher of Philadelphia’s La Salle University, said that he still has to convince his students that inequality exists. “Gallagher, whose latest book Retheorizing Race and Whiteness in the 21st Century was published last year,” writes Kellogg, ” is teaching intro to sociology and urban sociology classes this semester, and while neither is strictly about race, he says he will make a point to talk about modern day racism and white privilege.” Still, “he expects his students—and increasingly, some who are black—will be there ready to push back, particularly on the notion that race still determines your lot in life.” Gallagher asks:
How do we talk about race or racism in the United States if people think racism is gone?
The article moves on to discussing whether, rather than being privileged, whites, as some suggest, are actually racially oppressed. Charles Mills, a philosopher at Northwestern, argues, Kellogg says, “that whites in particular have a self-interest in seeing the world as post-racial. In that world, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed… your success in life [is] not determined by race, but by how hard you work.”
Even as classes on whiteness studies instead seem to be dissolving into interdisciplinary race courses which take the time out to discuss persistent white privilege, academics tell CNN.com that “in the past, conservatives derided whiteness studies as anti-white, but the sharp vitriol against the discipline has largely subsided,” and the field “continues to evolve.” As Kellogg concludes, “While the filed is still little known in some corners, and criticized as being obsolete in others, proponents of… whiteness studies say that’s all part of progress.”