Many critics are praising 12 Years a Slave for its uncompromising honesty about slavery. It offers not one breath of romanticism about the ante-bellum South. No Southern gentlemen getting all noble about honor and no Southern belles and their mammies affectionately reminiscing or any of that other Gone With the Wind crap, just an inhuman system. 12 Years depicts the sadism not only as personal (though the film does have its individual sadists) but as inherent in the system – essential, inescapable, and constant.
Now, Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic points out something else about 12 Years as a movie, something most critics missed – its refusal to follow the usual feel-good cliche plot convention of American film:
If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat.
Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy. In the typical version, our peaceful hero is just minding his own business when the bad guy or guys deliberately commit some terrible insult or offense, which then justifies the hero unleashing violence – often at cataclysmic levels – upon the baddies. One glance at the poster for Django, and you can pretty much guess most of the story.
It’s the comic-book adolescent fantasy – the nebbish that the other kids insult when they’re not just ignoring him but who then ducks into a phone booth or says his magic word and transforms himself into the avenging superhero to put the bad guys in their place.
This scenario sometimes seems to be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. An insult or slight, real or imaginary, becomes the justification for “retaliation” in the form of destroying a government or an entire country along with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of its people. It seems pretty easy to sell that idea to us Americans – maybe because the revenge-fantasy scenario is woven deeply into American culture – and it’s only in retrospect that we wonder how Iraq or Vietnam ever happened.
Django Unchained and the rest are a special example of a more general story line much cherished in American movies: the notion that all problems – psychological, interpersonal, political, moral – can be resolved by a final competition, whether it’s a quick-draw shootout or a dance contest. (I’ve sung this song before in this blog, most recently here after I saw Silver Linings Playbook.)
Berlatsky’s piece on 12 Years points out something else I hadn’t noticed but that the Charles Atlas ad makes obvious: it’s all about masculinity. Revenge is a dish served almost exclusively at the Y-chromosome table. The women in the story play a peripheral role as observers of the main event – an audience the hero is aware of – or as prizes to be won or, infrequently, as the hero’s chief source of encouragement, though that role usually goes to a male buddy or coach.
But when a story jettisons the manly revenge theme, women can enter more freely and fully.
12 Years a Slave though, doesn’t present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it’s able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins.
Scrapping the revenge theme can also broaden the story’s perspective from the personal to the political (i.e., the sociological):
12 Years a Slave doesn’t see slavery as a trial that men must overcome on their way to being men, but as a systemic evil that leaves those in its grasp with no good choices.
From that perspective, the solution lies not merely in avenging evil acts and people but in changing the system and the assumptions underlying it, a much lengthier and more difficult task. After all, revenge is just as much an aspect of that system as are the insults and injustices it is meant to punish. When men start talking about their manhood or their honor, there’s going to be blood, death, and destruction – sometimes a little, more likely lots of it.
One other difference between the revenge fantasy and political reality: in real life results of revenge are often short-lived. Killing off an evildoer or two doesn’t do much to end the evil. In the movies, we don’t have to worry about that. After the climactic revenge scene and peaceful coda, the credits roll, and the house lights come up. The End. In real life though, we rarely see a such clear endings, and we should know better than to believe a sign that declares “Mission Accomplished.”
In the midst of the recession a new occupation emerged: the sign spinner. These individuals stood on sidewalks outside of businesses, dancing with signs or arrows that they threw and twisted in the air and around their bodies. Some of them were pretty cool, actually.
Yesterday NPR discussed the replacement of some of these spinners with mannequins. Robots that are programmed to spin the sign. Of course, they aren’t nearly as good as a halfway decent human sign spinner. But, it was argued, they’re getting the job done.
From human to machine, then. But no one commented on the bizarre race- and sex-change that accompanied this shift. In my part of the country, most human sign spinners are black or Latino men. I suspect that’s true wherever there’s a substantial non-white, non-Asian population. But the mannequins appear to be overwhelming white women.
The Google image search for each somewhat supports this narrative. The mannequins are overly white women and the humans are almost all men and, arguably, disproportionately men of color.
When the business owner or manager can make choices about what race and gender they prefer, they choose white females. Presumably because “sex sells,” the female body (in a bikini) is the universal symbol for sex, and white women are the most valuable commodity in that market.
When we’re hiring low wage human workers, however, business owners and managers have less control over the race and gender composition of their workforce. It appears most would prefer to hire white women in bikinis for everything but, because of institutionalized racism and the sex segregation of occupations, they get men and, perhaps, men of color.
How amazing that something so simple — the evolution of the sign spinner — can tell us so much about who we value and why.
Here’s a commercial for the new robotic sign spinners, to drive the point home:
In this five minutes, Jay Smooth attacks the “politics of respectability” and attacks it hard. What exactly will happen, he asks, if Black men pull their pants up? Affordable housing? Well-funded schools? Job opportunities? What is this politics really about? Our shame, internalized racism, and sense of helplessness, he says.
It’s one of those stories that can leave even the most jaded and cynical critic of racist thinking scratching their head; the kind that manages to shock even those of us for whom acts of bigotry and intolerance seem all-too-typical, and who have, sadly, come to expect them in a culture such as this.
And so it was that in Flint, Michigan recently, a new father — and this is a term he has earned in only the most narrow, biological sense — demanded that when his recently arrived child was sent to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of the hospital where she had been born, no African American nurses were to attend to her needs, to care for her, to do what neonatal ICU nurses do, which is to say keep sick babies alive. White hands only for this white, fresh as snow child, whose father, sporting a shiny new swastika tattoo (a Christmas present no doubt from his pathetic skinhead bride) prioritized his own hatreds above and beyond the needs of his precious little girl. That the future does not bode well for her seems hardly worth saying. To be delivered from an ICU into the arms of one as unhinged as this can only, by reasonable people, be seen as a turn for the worse. Incubators and breathing machines might be preferable to having parents such as she has, through no fault of her own, inherited.
But what is worse, perhaps, than the bigotry of this one neo-Nazi — which is at least to be expected and so, can, despite its irrationality in a case such as this, remain somewhat within the realm of the banal — is that the hospital in question, Hurley Medical Center, actually capitulated to his psychotically racist demands, posting a sign on the little girl’s chart instructing the unit to disallow any black nurses from as much as touching this baby.
Presumably, were Tonya Battle, a black Hurley neonatal nurse since 1988 the only nurse within arms reach of the girl as she entered cardiac arrest or as her kidneys began to shut down — both of which have been known to happen to those in a NIC-U — Battle was to scream loudly for a white nurse to come and save the child’s life. Because God forbid a black woman with 25 years experience do the job. And if she dies, well, at least her precious white skin wouldn’t have been sullied by black hands.
Hurley’s acquiescence to this insanity, in contravention of all ethical responsibility, not to mention legal obligations to treat their employees in a non-discriminatory fashion, is going to cost them no doubt, as they are apt to discover once the lawsuit currently brought against their witless administrators plays out. They are going to pay, and pay big, as they should, for their enabling of overt white supremacy. But that is hardly the most important part of this story. Just as it was not the most important part of the story back in 2000 when a heart specialist at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville did a similar thing, agreeing to the lunatic ravings of another racist white man, who demanded that his wife, who needed open heart surgery to save her life, not be attended to by any black doctor, because he didn’t want a black man to see his wife naked.
More interesting, I think, is what this story (and the earlier one from Nashville) says about racism in America, and not just of the sort evinced by one bottom-feeder, troglodytic fan of Adolf Hitler. For while we are too quick to presume racism to be merely an individual pathology manifested by individually bad people, much like the father in the story from Flint, the fact is, an incident like this illustrates as well as anything can, the way that racism continues to operate as a systemic force in the United States, civil rights laws and all our vaunted post-raciality notwithstanding.
To understand what I mean by this, consider something I am often asked as I travel the country, speaking about racism, or in reply to one or another column or book that I’ve written: namely, it is queried, why don’t I ever talk about black racism, or, just generally, racism against white people? Why, it is wondered, do I focus on racism only when it’s deployed by whites?
There are many things I could say, and do, when asked something like this. But for now, let it suffice to say that this story, from Michigan, involving a white institution as respected as a hospital bending to the whims of a fucking Nazi, is more than enough of a reason for my selective attention. And this is true for multiple reasons.
First, what the story demonstrates is how much more potent white racism is than any potentially parallel version practiced by peoples of color. Simply put, there is no way that any bigoted black person, or Latino, or Asian American, or indigenous person, could possibly have made a similar demand in the reverse direction — that no white nurses attend to their newborn — and expect to have that insistence met with approval and acquiescence. Anyone who thinks a hospital would have agreed to such a thing — to actually deny opportunity to white nurses or doctors, and to limit the care of such a child to same-race caregivers because of the expressed bigotry of a patient — is either so overly medicated or mentally damaged as to make further discussion impossible. In other words, even when a white racist who is likely not of substantial economic means makes a racist demand, his desires can get ratified, and in ways that not even the wealthiest person of color could expect to have happen.*
And this is because — and this is what is especially pertinent to the matter of institutional racism — even if a hospital was willing to go along with the ridiculous and bigoted demands of a hateful person of color, that no whites be allowed to touch their black or brown baby, it would be virtually impossible to fulfill such a request. And why? Simple. Because given the history of unequal opportunity in medical professions, from doctoring to nursing — and also just given the demographic and power dynamics within pretty much any institution you can name — to work around white professionals, even if one wanted to, is almost impossible.
Bottom line: the hospital in this case went along with the demand to exclude blacks from attending to this child because they could. Given the history of discrimination in access to the medical profession, including nursing, and the barriers to professional practice faced by too many people of color, there exists today a more limited number of such professionals from which to draw. As such, excluding them from a particular hospital unit or assignment is hardly a huge burden for the institution in question.
But imagine what would happen if the situation were reversed, and a racist black man had demanded the exclusion of whites from caring for his child. Even if there were a doctor willing to agree to such conditions, it would be virtually impossible for him or her to follow through, because whites — having received the opportunities needed to enter the nursing profession in larger numbers — are hard to work around. “No whites” policies would result in a lot of empty NIC-Us, whereas “No blacks” policies require only a small administrative headache at best, so fewer are such professionals in the first place. And so, given the history of racial inequity, the consequences of which we still experience, white bigotry of the individual type is operationalized and activated if you will, by the institutional injustices that have resulted in the over-represantaion of whites and under-representation of black and brown folks in certain jobs to begin with.
In other words, institutional racism is akin to the gasoline, allowing the otherwise stationary combustion engine of individual racism to function: the former gives the latter life, and the ability to impact others in a meaningful and detrimental way. Without the power to enforce one’s racism, or expect it to be enforced or enforceable by others, that racism is largely sterile. Which is why white racism is simply more worthy of our attention and concern than any other form.
Much the same would be true in other realms of life, beyond medical and hospital settings. Blacks who wish to avoid whites in their neighborhoods will typically find themselves limited to the poorest, most crowded areas of town — places whites long ago abandoned — since finding Caucasian-free zones in more prosperous suburbs can be a tough task. Whites can more or less live wherever we wish. If we are not to be found in a particular census tract you can bet it’s because we’ve chosen to be absent. Such cannot be said for why blacks are often absent from more affluent areas, however. Money or no money, good credit or bad, millions face discriminatory barriers in residential opportunity every year.
Once again, even if people of color despise whites and seek to avoid us, their ability to do so will be directly constrained by the larger opportunity structure that has skewed power and resources in our direction. Whites seeking to avoid blacks and Latinos on the other hand, can do so readily, with the help of mortgage discrimination, redlining, zoning laws and so-called “market forces” pricing many blacks out of the better housing markets (even though we only got into those markets because of government subsidies and preferences, both private and public).
So for those seeking to understand what racism is — and the difference between the merely individual as opposed to institutional forms of it — and why white racism is more potent and problematic than any other potential form, you need look no further than the recent headlines. When institutions can and will collaborate with and directly empower the racism of even the most deranged of bigots, you know that we have yet to arrive at that place of racial ecumenism claimed for us by those who would rather gloss over the ongoing injustices we face, and pretend to have attained, as a people, a perch to which we have no ethical right to lay claim.
*Please note, I wish to differentiate here between those patients whose desire for same-race/ethnic nurses or doctors is motivated by apparent bigotry, on the one hand, and those whose desire for such a thing might be motivated by such things as linguistic familiarity, on the other. So, for instance, a Spanish-speaking, or for that matter, German or Russian-speaking mother-to-be might request a nurse, or anesthesiologist who speaks their language, for reasons of comfort and communication. Additionally, it is possible that given the history of difficulties in cross-cultural communication between authority figures who are white and patients/clients who are persons of color (which has been studied and documented for years), a black patient might prefer, if possible, to have a black nurse or anesthesiologist to wait on them. Although even these cases are likely rare, they would not be remotely comparable to a blatant bigot demanding same-race care for reasons comparable to the facts in this story, or the 2000 story from Nashville.
Tim Wise is among the most prominent anti-racist writers and educators in the United States. The author of six books on race in America, he has spoken on over 800 college and high school campuses and to community groups across the nation. His new book, The Culture of Cruelty, will be released in the Fall of 2013.
W.W. Norton has released a fun little animation answering this thorny question. It has to do with abundance and hoarding, and the technological innovations that underlie these things, as well as government’s willingness to redistribute wealth.
In the 3-minute video below we see 100 people, filmed by Jeroen Wolf, from ages one to one hundred. The one-year-old mostly just stares, the remainder look into the camera and state their age.
What I find interesting is the uneven way that people age. As you watch the clip, people’s ages become increasingly difficult to pin down. You know that each person is about one year older than the last, but their appearance betrays this knowledge. One might look significantly older than the one before, or quite a bit younger. How old we look doesn’t ascend nicely in a linear fashion, but varies tremendously. No doubt this is based, in part, on genetics and life choices, but it is also dependent on opportunities and expectations related to ascribed identities and social structures.
Last week a secretly-taped video of Romney made headlines. In it, he said that 47% of America believes that they are “victims,” is “dependent” on the government, and likes it that way. SocImages, like many places around the web, did some talking about who the 47% of people who pay no income taxes really are.
In this post, however, I’d like to make a different kind of point about framing and the sociological imagination, inspired by Ill Doctrine‘s Jay Smooth and Slate’s William Saletan.
Reacting to the release of the video, the media returned to a similarly clandestine video of Obama that had made the rounds during his first run for the presidency. In it, Obama refers to Americans who are “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment…” So, six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other right? Both statements are equally tone deaf and biased right?
No. In fact, one is embedded in a deep empathy and an understanding that circumstance (i.e., that thing that sociologists study) can shape one’s outlook, sometimes in negative ways. The other is a straightforward criticism of a group’s character, with a lack of empathy and understanding.
Let’s take a closer look at how Obama introduced his (fairly criticized) comment about the bitter clinging to guns (transcript). He begins by saying that people have a good reason to be unhappy with politicians:
In a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, they feel so betrayed by government, that when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, there’s a part of them that just doesn’t buy it…
Then, instead of writing off these people as bad people who will never vote for the right guy, Obama argues that he wants to reach them (calling it a “challenge”), further validating how they might feel given the circumstances of their lives:
…our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s no evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio — like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration. And each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate. And they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or, you know, anti-trade sentiment [as] a way to explain their frustrations.
In contrast, Romney’s comments are dismissive and accusing (transcript). His targets — the 47% of people who are exempt from paying income taxes — aren’t embattled, fighting for a decent life despite political neglect, they’re “entitled” to something they haven’t earned. They’re happy to be dependent on the government and don’t want it any other way. They’re leeches, parasites, freeloaders, bums.
And, instead of saying that its his job to help those people see life a different way, Romney dismisses them entirely:
[They'll] vote for the [current] president no matter what… my job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives…
So, while some are arguing that Romney’s comments are just a politically-right version of Obama’s — equally biased and cynical — nothing could be farther from the truth. Obama looks at Americans who will not likely vote for him and sees social structural reasons that their negative emotions are valid (even when they’re aimed at him), he expresses empathy for their plight, and seeks to connect with them. Romney does nothing of the sort. Instead, he condemns them as individuals and blows them off as potential constituents; and he encourages others to do the same.
In short, Obama has a sociological imagination that enables, even presses him to see the bigger picture. He sees both individuals and the circumstances they live in. Romney, for whatever reason, does not exercise a similar imagination.
In the Sociology of Gender textbook I am (very slowly) writing, I spend a chapter discussing the idea of institutions. I define the term as “persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.” These needs include educating the next generation, providing health care, ensuring safety, and enabling efficient transportation. These things are done better and more efficiently if we all chip in and put together a system.
What is interesting about institutions from a sociological perspective is that, once they’re in place, it is essentially impossible to opt out. You can choose not to buy a car, for example, but the government is still going to spend your tax dollars on highway infrastructure. You can amass as much medical knowledge and experience as you like, but you’ll still be a criminal if you practice medicine without a licence. You can believe the government is corrupt and stay home on voting day, but Congress is still going to pass legislation to which you will be held accountable.
You get the picture.
In any case, I thought of this when I came across the striking photography of Eric Valli. Valli seems to specialize in capturing the lives of people living very close to the earth. In one series, he follows a group of individuals who have decided to live “off the grid.” That is, they’ve “unplugged” from the social institutions that sustain us. The first image I came across was this one:
Clearly this is no joke. And, yet, as I scrolled through additional photographs, I couldn’t help to notice how many trappings of the rest of the world were part and parcel of their lives (canoes, coats, oil lamps, cooking and eating utensils, halters, firearms, hot sauce, etc).
As I write in the book:
You can go “off the grid” to avoid capitalism, find an isolated spot in some wilderness, cut down some trees, build a hut, and live off of roots and berries. Then again, where did you get the axe? Will you bring a book on poisonous mushrooms? Even the bare-handed, bunny-catching woodsman hermit will buy a few things to get along and, in any case, he can’t help but draw on knowledge that he acquired through institutions like schools, families, publishing, and the mass media. After all, how did he know where to find the forest?
I’m not questioning, at all, whether or not these people are off the grid. They certainly appear to be. But it is interesting to notice how much of the grid is still a part of their lives.