My fellow sociologist blogger Joe Feagin at Racism Review mentions that David Segal over at Slate has a very interesting and informative slideshow of racist commercial caricatures over the years. For those who are too young to remember, blatantly derogatory and stereotypical images of Blacks, Latinos, Native American Indians, and Asians were routinely used to sell products not too long ago. Below is just one example:

Racist caricature of Chinese as rat eaters (image courtesy of Chinese Historical Society

Nasty stereotypes have helped move the merchandise for more than a century, and the history of their use and abuse offers a weird and telling glimpse of race relations in this country. Not surprisingly, the earliest instances were the most egregious.

This circa-1900 ad for a rodent-control product called “Rough on Rats” doesn’t just exploit the then-popular urban legend that Chinese people eat rats. It also underscores the intensity of American xenophobia of the day. There were anti-Chinese riots at the time, as well as legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal ban on immigration passed in 1882. (It was on the books until 1943.) In the ad, “They must go” refers both to the rodents and the Chinese.

For those interested in the sociology of media and cultural images, my colleagues at Contexts magazine host a very interesting blog titled “Sociological Images” that you should definitely check out.

Unfortunately, as the Slate slideshow and captions point out, there are a few racist caricatures that are still with us today and you may be surprised at what they are.

My fellow sociologist blogger Joe Feagin at Racism Review mentions that David Segal over at Slate has a very interesting and informative slideshow of racist commercial caricatures over the years. For those who are too young to remember, blatantly derogatory and stereotypical images of Blacks, Latinos, Native American Indians, and Asians were routinely used to sell products not too long ago. Below is just one example:

Racist caricature of Chinese as rat eaters (image courtesy of Chinese Historical Society

Nasty stereotypes have helped move the merchandise for more than a century, and the history of their use and abuse offers a weird and telling glimpse of race relations in this country. Not surprisingly, the earliest instances were the most egregious.

This circa-1900 ad for a rodent-control product called “Rough on Rats” doesn’t just exploit the then-popular urban legend that Chinese people eat rats. It also underscores the intensity of American xenophobia of the day. There were anti-Chinese riots at the time, as well as legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal ban on immigration passed in 1882. (It was on the books until 1943.) In the ad, “They must go” refers both to the rodents and the Chinese.

For those interested in the sociology of media and cultural images, my colleagues at Contexts magazine host a very interesting blog titled “Sociological Images” that you should definitely check out.

Unfortunately, as the Slate slideshow and captions point out, there are a few racist caricatures that are still with us today and you may be surprised at what they are.

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the incident in which Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates alleges that he was racially profiled by the Cambridge Police Department after he tried to open the front door of his house that was stuck only to have a neighbor mistakenly think he was a burglar trying to break into the house and call the police, who subsequently arrested him after a confrontation at his house. The following CBS News video summarizes the incident:

For those who are regular readers of this site and blog, it will not surprise you to hear that I am squarely behind Professor Gates on this one for many reasons — being an academic as well, being a person of color, and being a sociologist who studies racial dynamics in this country.

As Professor Gates and his supporters argue, this entire incident is a stark example of the persistence of racial profiling in American society, where many Whites are quick to assume that any Black man in a well-to-do neighborhood is suspicious, where police are much less likely to believe a Black man’s word than a White man’s, and where police are much more likely to arrest a Black man while letting a White man go for the same behavior.

I don’t want to go into a long and detailed analysis about this particular incident nor the legal issue of racial profiling specifically. Some of the better commentaries that I’ve read about the Gates incident can be found at Racism Review, All About Race, and the New York Times.

For those who are interested in delving into the background issues that frame racial profiling (and the related topic of White privilege), I highly recommend starting with some of the books written by Professor Joe Feagin, such as White Racism: The Basics, Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage, and The Many Costs of Racism.

Certainly, this is not the first incident of racial profiling in American history. Neither is it the first incident in which an African American professor was arrested trying to do a seemingly routine and mundane task in public. I refer to a 2005 incident involving Antwi Akom, an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University and personal friend of mine, who was stopped from entering his office and subsequently arrested by campus police while his two young daughters were sleeping in his car.

Sadly, these two incidents illustrate many unfortunate points about the state of race relations in American society today. The first is that even Blacks such as Professors Gates and Akom with high-status occupations or professional characteristics are not immune from racism and racial profiling. In fact, incidents like this remind me of a “joke” that an African American mentor told me years ago (please excuse the language, I’m just repeating it as it was told to me): “What does White America call a Black man with a Ph.D.? A nigger.”

More generally, these kinds of incidents remind us that, contrary to what many and perhaps most Whites think, race is still a deeply-entrenched issue in American society, just waiting to boil over. As evidence, a second CBS News video summarizes how this incident has touched off a national debate about race relations and racial profiling:

What strikes me the most about not just this particular incident involving Professor Gates, but the reaction of Americans from different racial backgrounds around the country is this: I find it ironic that in general, many (as in a large number but certainly not all) Whites feel unaccustomed and therefore uncomfortable talking about racial issues (this recent article published by the American Psychological Association summarizes this tendency among Whites to avoid talking about race very well). Instead, consciously or unconsciously, they try to be “colorblind” and act like they don’t notice racial differences around them.

In theory, that’s a great idea but in practice and within the realities of American society, it is just not practical and ultimately, naive. The result of this dynamic is that when incidents like this (or when a group of Black and Latino children are turned away by a predominantly White swimming club, or when I notice that virtually all of the people who volunteered to stay and clean up after a Buddhist retreat are people of color) become publicized, many Whites are surprised and taken aback when the “R-word” (racism) is used.

In fact, many Whites become quite defensive when the R-word (or the idea of White privilege) comes up, as though they are being personally accused of acting in a racist way against a person of color, or that they are being told that they are personally more privileged than every single other person of color in the country.

But here’s the problem: what many Whites don’t realize is that one of the reasons why people of color invoke racism as the cause of such incidents is that on a collective and institutional level, we as a society have yet to honestly and fully reconcile our racial history and how it continues to form the basis for the conflicts such as this.

In other words, the fact that many Whites don’t want to or can’t talk about racism (as well-meaning and well-intentioned as they are) is part of the reason why racism still exists. In fact, this inability or unwillingness to discuss racism is a big reason why many Whites get defensive when the topic of racial discrimination or White privilege comes up — they are not able to depersonalize the issue, place it outside of their own personal experiences, and examine it from it from an institutional point of view.

Ultimately, this is also why relationships, opinions, experiences, and conversations between Whites and non-Whites on the individual and institutional levels remain emotionally fraught beneath the superficial veneer of colorblindness and in fact, will continue to boil over for the foreseeable future.

Yes, denial that race is a problem is part of the problem. And the more most Americans deny it, the more it festers and the more it erodes our sense of national identity and unity. The fact that this incident has become a national controversy should be plenty of proof that race is still a unresolved issue in this country. For those who think that I’m being “extremist,” or even “racist,” then take a look at the following NBC News video from this past weekend that basically says the exact same thing:

Earlier this month, my family and I attended the annual Family Retreat at the Deer Park Monastery. The monastery was founded by the well-known but sometimes controversial Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and is set in the hills and desert just outside of Escondido, California. Some of our friends in the Los Angeles have attended this retreat for yours and this was the second year that we attended.

Overall, we really enjoyed the retreat and its nature-centered activities and sessions of relaxed meditation and discussions on being mindful in our daily lives, geared towards adults, children, and both together. We also enjoy being able to camp with other families (dorms are also available) and socializing with like-minded friends and newly-made friends. It’s a nice and much more relaxed change of pace from the more traditional and strict Vipassana Meditation Center that we also participate in.

Modern Buddhism seems to be an increasingly popular and multicultural practice among many Americans and around the world, particularly forms related to the less formal Mahayana version (as opposed to the stricter monastic Theravada version). As a reflection of such, this retreat was truly a multicultural and multiracial event — of the 120-150 or so people in attendance (from babies to grandparents), about 40% were Asian/Asian American, 40% were White, and the rest were African American, Latino, and other races/ethnicities.

With this in mind, it was truly gratifying to see everyone interacting with each other in a very mindful, mutually-respectful, and genuinely peaceful way throughout the event, in contrast to some of the sad examples of racial hostility that still exists in other parts of American society. Within this environment, I and my family felt very comfortable and refreshed and certainly, this is one of the main reasons why we plan on attending in future years.

At the same time, there were a couple of incidents that again highlighted for me the nature of racial differences that still pervade American society, even within the confines of a insulated and “conscious” environment like this. Both of these incidents are not significant or upsetting enough for me to stop attending — it’s only because I am a sociologist that I focus on them.

The first involved a group of families visiting from Viet Nam (as distinguished from Vietnamese American), about 20 individuals in all. For the most part, they were indistinguishable from the rest of the attendees and in fact, as a Vietnamese American, I was very pleased to see them participating in the retreat (although I regret that because of my lack of fluency in Vietnamese that I couldn’t really personally communicate with them).

Unfortunately, their “foreignness” became apparent at the end of each day’s events.

Each day’s activities generally concluded around 9pm, after which attendees would prepare to go to sleep, either in their tents in the campground area or in the dorm area. At 9:30pm, the guidelines called for “noble silence” when everyone is expected to stay quiet for the night.

For whatever reason, this group of Vietnamese families did not understand these guidelines or chose to ignore them because each night, almost everyone could hear them staying up and being quite loud in both the dorm and tent areas. This involved not just talking, but often included shouting, yelling, and arguing very loudly and disruptively well into the night.

Needless to say, this made getting a good night’s sleep rather difficult for many of us. The other part of these incidents were that even though many of us talked to the monks about this situation, for whatever reasons, it continued every night until the end of the retreat.

This leads me to wonder whether the monks (who were about 80% Vietnamese American and the rest were White) felt shy in confronting the Vietnamese group, perhaps fearful that they (and perhaps by implication, the rest of us as attendees) were being too harsh or authoritarian towards them as foreigners visiting the U.S. Symbolized by Barack Obama as our President, these days many Americans are more mindful not to come across as judgmental and “superior” towards others around the world.

But on the other hand, the Vietnamese group’s behavior may have reinforced the notion of them as loud and crude foreigners and “outsiders” to the rest of the attendees. As such, failing to confront their behavior could have caused more harm than good in terms of helping to bridge social divisions and dispel lingering cultural stereotypes toward non-Whites and/or foreigners.

For me personally, this is a complicated issue that highlights some of the ironies and contradictions involved in being Asian American, as I wrote about earlier in regards to a similar incident in an airport security line — standing up for and defending Asians in racial solidarity, but also being embarrassed and even annoyed by their “foreignness” as an American myself.

In contrast, the second “racial” incident at the retreat does not involve much ambiguity at all.

Specifically, during the retreat, families were assigned to different “service meditation” work groups, helping the monks with different tasks involved with running the retreat, such as cleaning bathrooms, setting up the meditation hall, etc. Our family was assigned to one of three teams who helped to clean up, wash, and dry plates, pots, and utensils after one meal each day.

My family and I actually enjoyed this work as it allowed us to give something back to, or at least directly help in the mundane, behind-the-scenes operation of the retreat — a sense of ownership perhaps. We also felt a sense of community in working as a team within not just our family, but with the other families in our group, each of us doing our part to contribute to the larger purpose and becoming closer to each other in the process.

However, after the last meal (lunch) on the last day of the retreat, there were no teams assigned to clean up afterward and instead, the monks asked for volunteers to stay a little bit to wash dishes, etc. Our family was not in a rush to leave so we joined in the effort.

As it turned out, of the 15 or so people who stayed to help clean up, all but one was a person of color — there was just one White person who helped in the cleanup.

In particular, I took notice of one young White couple who came to the morning activities (apparently on the last day of the retreat, the monastery invites those from the surrounding community to come in and participate in a group walk and lunch). During lunch, this couple actually raised their hands when the monks asked for volunteers to stay and clean up, but for whatever reasons, just walked away and left once they finished their lunch.

I hate to say it, but the actions of this particular couple and the White attendees present at this last lunch seem to be a microcosm of the White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor.

These two incidents go to show that even at an event that shows us the peace, harmony, and mindfulness that exists in American society and among people from all kinds of backgrounds, in many ways, American society is still quite racialized, even if most of us may be completely oblivious to such dynamics.

So much for the Obama effect.

Many Americans seemed to think that Barack Obama’s victory to become our nation’s first non-White President represented the end of racism in America and that our society had finally moved past skin color as a marker of social hierarchy. Sadly, they were and continue to be wrong.

As many media organizations and blogs have reported and summarized in the MSNBC video below, a private club in suburban Philadelphia reneged on an arrangement to allow a group of Black and Latino children to use their swimming pool, with many White club member parents allegedly uttering racial slurs to the children:

Alethea Wright, director of Creative Steps, a summer camp for minority children, said the organization paid for weekly swim time at the pool. But during a trip there June 29 some of the children said they heard people asking what “black kids” were doing at the club, Wright said. . . .

Creative Steps, located in northeast Philadelphia, had contracted for the 65 children at the day camp to go each Monday afternoon, Wright said. But shortly after they arrived June 29, she said, some black and Hispanic children reported hearing racial comments. . . .

“Some of the members began pulling their children out of the pool and were standing around with their arms folded,” Wright said. “Only three members left their children in the pool with us.” Several days later, the club refunded the camp’s payment without explanation, said Wright. . .

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will immediately open an investigation into the actions of The Valley Club in the leafy suburb of Huntingdon Valley, chairman Stephen A. Glassman said. . . . “Allegedly, this group was denied the use of a pool based on their race,” Glassman said. “If the allegations prove to be true, this is illegal discrimination in Pennsylvania.” . . .

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., issued a statement calling the allegations “extremely disturbing” and said he was looking into the matter.

My fellow blogger sociologist Jessie at RacismReview.com elaborates on some of the details of the incident and sums up the sociological context of this incident quite well:

It’s a good thing that there are laws in place that prohibit racial discrimination of this sort, and that people were outraged this happened, and that a U.S. Senator is stepping up to investigate and, at least potentially, take some action against these perpetrators of swimming pool racism.

Yet, it’s an appalling fact to realize that nearly fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, we are still grappling with the continuing significance of racism in public places. We are, apparently, still at a point where we’re having to investigate people for violating the prohibition against racial discrimination in public accommodations.

Think about these kids in Northeast Philly next time you hear someone use the phrase “post-racial.”

Seriously, this is 2009, not 1909, right?

Without doubt, the actual incident is pretty shocking and appalling — White parents pulling their children out of the pool once Black and Latino children began using it, allegedly using racial slurs against the non-White children, and then the club abruptly canceling their earlier arrangement without any apology or explanation.

These events by themselves are pretty clear violations of federal and state laws which prohibit racial and ethnic discrimination in public and private facilities and I hope the club is prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent possible. Incidents like this are completely unacceptable in American society.

But as a sociologist, I also find it interesting to observe the club’s subsequent explanation and “apology,” offered several days after the incident and only after it was bombarded with media coverage and the threat of criminal prosecution. Specifically, as the MSNBC article quoted above notes, the club’s officials denied that race was a factor in the club’s actions and rather, it was safety concerns and a lack of space.

Most recently, the club has offered to have the summer camp kids back, but only “as long as safety issues, times and terms can be agreed upon.” Nice try, but that just basically means that as long as club members have enough advance notice, they can stay away from the club on the day the summer camp kids use it. How magnanimous of them.

These club officials need to wake up and smell what they’re shoveling.

This line of thinking is an example of colorblind ignorance at its best (or would that be, at its worst?) — taking pains to deny that race was ever a factor in one’s actions and trying to pretend or convince oneself that you, your members, and your organization has any hint of racial prejudice at all. After all, that would be so 20th century and we’re living in a “post racial” society now, aren’t we?

The sad truth is, we are living in American society, one that is still highly racialized and one in which the misguided allure of colorblindness has instead blinded us to the fundamental racist sentiments that many individual Americans consciously or unconsciously still have, the social segregation that still divides us along color lines, and the institutional racial inequalities that allow such sentiments to exist.

The calendar may say it’s 2009 but apparently, the racial consciousness of many Americans is about a 100 years behind.