Friday, February 27, 2015

White Supremacy Can Make You Poor

Although I decided to skip watching this year's Oscars, I couldn't avoid following the event vicariously through Twitter. At some point in the evening, the narrative unfolding on my timeline became a show in its own right, color commentary of a train wreck happening in slow-motion. Twitter's responses to Sean Penn and Patricia Arquette were so satisfying that I decided not to blog about the Oscars. But one story from that evening did not die and took on a life of its own. This is the story of how feminists should talk about feminism. Even before the Oscars concluded, interested parties tweeted graphs of the wage gap disaggregated by race and gender. These folks insisted upon the need for an intersectional feminism, one that acknowledged how race, gender identity, and sexual orientation complicate monolithic (usually white heterosexual) critiques of power. Other parties, while acknowledging Arquette's poor choice of words, tended to support Arquette and worried that her argument about the sexist origins of the gender wage gap was lost amid the intersectional criticism. Sexism and patriarchy absolutely sustain the gender wage gap. In this blog, I argue that the origin of the gender wage gap also owes to racism and white supremacy, a story that makes ignoring or deferring the relevance of intersectionality that much more perilous.

Not all wages are material. In Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Derrick Bell reminds us of the psychological wage paid to every poor white person in America, the social assurance that despite the hardships of poverty, poor white people will never be at the bottom of the well, that there will always be black faces looking back up at them. Bell's short story "The Space Traders" imagines a scenario where space aliens visit the US and offer Americans untold wealth, limitless energy, and an end to pollution in exchange for every black person in the country. (A video dramatization of the story offers a quick introduction.) In the story, the President decides to hold a national referendum on the offer, and various pro/con factions organize to state their cases. Business leaders ally against the trade because of how institutional racism lines their pockets, also realizing what else enables their hegemony.
Though seldom acknowledging the fact, most business leaders understood that blacks were crucial in stabilizing the economy with its ever-increasing disparity between the incomes of rich and poor. They recognized that potentially turbulent unrest among those on the bottom was deflected by the continuing efforts of poorer whites to ensure that they, at least, remained ahead of blacks. If blacks were removed from the society, working- and middle-class whites--deprived of their racial distraction--might look upward toward the top of the societal well and realize that they as well as the blacks below them suffered because of the gross disparities in opportunities and income.
Simply, the belief in white supremacy among enough poor white people is what keeps the class status quo in place in America.

As many readers of my blog already know, using race to ameliorate the tensions of class division is an idea as old as, well, the idea of race itself. Our modern-day conception of "race," a heritable identity associated with our skin color that defines our social value, was invented in colonial Virginia. This conjuring did not happen overnight, but between the arrival of the first Africans at Jamestown in 1619 and the early 18th century, the dominant meanings of "white" skin (free labor) and "black" skin (slave) had become established. In The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America, Theodore Allen traces this process through the development of public policy in Virginia. For example, in 1660, servants "of what christian nation soever" had their bond servitude
limited to a period of five years. By 1705, the colony provided "Freedom Dues" for released "christian white" limited-term bond laborers. These included "to every male servant, ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings of money (or the equivalent in goods), a gun worth at least twenty shillings; and to every woman servant, fifteen bushels of corn, forty shillings in money (or the equivalent in goods)." However humble, these dues helped to establish a class of white settler whose social potential was superior to that of enslaved and free black people but also would never threaten the interests of landowning elites. It would be white people, after all, who coined the pejorative term "cracker," a term whose usage in America depended on the hierarchy of rich white people, poor white people, and all black people.

In "White Poverty," bell hooks describes her experiences as a southern black girl living among other black people, poor white people, and the class of people who her community called "white trash." hooks argues that public debates over poverty fail to drive home the important point that most poor people in the US are white. "It serves white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ruling class interests to mask this reality," hooks explains. "Hence, the almost invisibility of the white poor in mass media." Media coverage of poor Americans paints the color of poverty as black or brown (partly because rates of poverty are higher among black people and Latinos), obscuring the visibility of millions of poor white people. (Former Congressperson Ron Paul recently suggested that the Congressional Black Caucus was anti-war because its members wanted the funds for food stamps. In fact, 40% of food stamps recipients are white.) hooks makes this point not to recenter the needs of white people--Arquette's controversial rhetorical move--but to show how ignoring white people in this way furthers white supremacy. The class divide among white people is not seen as a social issue because of the low public awareness of white poverty, and even when poor whites are profiled, their poverty is not seen as a problem having to do with white supremacy. White supremacy escapes notice as a concern having to do with white poverty.

When we don't consider how racism and white supremacy have kept wages low for white people, then when we do question the gender wage gap, sexism and patriarchy are the only structural factors in play. My argument is different from that which faults Arquette for not mentioning that racism and white supremacy have kept women of color at the bottom of the gender wage scale. I wholeheartedly agree with this criticism. But I am adding that the persistence of white supremacy participates in robbing all women, including white women, of a higher wage. If intersectionality doesn't register for any other reason, it should do so because of material self-interest. (Granted, material gain is only one form of self-interest for white people; the psychological wage of racial superiority may in fact be the Pearl of Great Price for many.) When poor white people do not ally with poor people of color because of white supremacy, then racism artificially suppresses wages for all poor people.

The truth of the matter is that such an alliance can help all workers who are women--and did. Following the Oscars, Patricia Arquette turned to Twitter to defend herself from her detractors and to recommit to her original position. At this point, many feminists withdrew the benefit of the doubt and went after Arquette. One of my favorites belongs to Brittany Cooper, a professor at Rutgers who is "going on strike" because of the burden of explaining intersectionality that falls upon black women. But the best response rang out 140 characters at a time. Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, took to Twitter to rebut Arquette's claims. Her lesson is so important that I represent it here in its entirety.










Here is an example of black people helping a white woman fight for gender wage equity by challenging a core construct of a patriarchal society: the professional penalty a woman pays for being a mother. One reason the gender wage gap persists is because women must work part-time or even cut short their careers because they are expected to be the primary caregivers for their children. Black people and white people fought together against structural sexism here. And won.

As a Chinese American man, cis and straight, I know that I don't have as much skin in this game as women of any race or sexual orientation. When we're talking about wage equity, Chinese American men as a group are doing just fine for themselves. But what concerned me about talk of the gender wage gap was that the reach of white supremacy was either denied or seen as targeting only people of color. For example, this article smugly mocks transgender discourse in order to chide those critical of Arquette. And this one falsely claims that intersectionality puts feminists in a double bind. In the end, it was Arquette herself causing the most confusion. In her tweets following the Oscars, Arquette mentioned growing up in poverty and becoming a single mother at a young age. One tweet even tried to flip the script.


If any readers are still unsure why some are so angered by Arquette's words, the first reason was her demand for the labor of LGBTQ people and people of color (sometimes one and the same!) in a fight for wage equity that did not seem to include them. But the tweet above, made after those statements, demonstrated no growing self-awareness. By asking why one does not fight for "ALL" women, Arquette seems to accuse LGBTQ people of some kind of minority tribalism that threatens wage equity for all. Let's be clear here. LGBTQ people and people of color are not why we have the problem of a gender wage gap. The bond that people of color have with one another is not the problem. A major problem is the bond that white people have with one another on the basis of their whiteness, whether they ask for it or not. Let's not mystify the origins of that bond of white supremacy even further, especially not with an issue as important as gender wage equity.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Six Myths about Affirmative Action

I think it's me. I have a BA from the University of Texas and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Both universities just happen to be involved with the landmark affirmative action cases of our generation, Hopwood v. Texas (1996), Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), and Fisher v. University of Texas (2013). Coincidence? After Hopwood, Michigan and Texas put up staunch, largely-successful defenses of their affirmative action admissions policies. But the issue remains fraught, last week bringing a couple of noteworthy developments. Abigail Fisher filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, keeping alive her lawsuit against the University of Texas. And the actor Vince Vaughn decided to weigh in on the issue. In an interview appearing in Playboy, Vaughn explains why he is not a "fan" of affirmative action:
But then you’re evaluating someone based on race, which is racism. Rights don’t come to you because you’re a man or a woman or African American or European or Jewish. And I certainly don’t think the federal government should be in the business of deciding things or handing out money based on factors like these.
I wouldn't be an English professor today were it not for affirmative action. This blog entry won't convince Vaughn or anyone else against affirmative action to change their minds--affirmative action is that kind of issue--but even those in favor of it may not know everything they need to about its history and nature.

In 1987, the summer before I started college at the University of Texas, I was awarded the Virginia and Ernest Cockrell, Jr. Scholarship in Engineering. I didn't apply for this scholarship, so it must have been one of the many merit-based scholarships I was eligible for by checking a box on my application. I was a strong high school student and did well on my SAT, factors that probably contributed more than anything to my earning the scholarship. Months before taking the SAT, I convinced my dad to spring for a computerized study course for our IBM PC. It cost $200. For weeks, I parked myself in front of the PC and took dozens of sample tests based on actual SATs. When it was time to take the real deal, I was more than ready. The UT scholarship awarded $2,000 a year, and it was renewable provided I kept my grades up. (I didn't.) As far as I know, my receiving it had nothing to do with affirmative action and everything to do with high school GPA and SAT score.

The reason I chose Michigan for my doctoral institution was because of an affirmative-action based opportunity called the Rackham Merit Fellowship for Historically-Underrepresented Minorities (it's not called that anymore, but maybe it should be). There just weren't that many Asian Americans wanting to study English language and literature. I'm much prouder of the Michigan fellowship than I am of the Texas scholarship, largely because of what I had to do to get it. I had to demonstrate to the admissions committee that Asian American literature belonged within English studies. My fellowship money had everything to do with my racial identity because someone believed that the consciousness and experiences of an Asian American mattered in the research and teaching of Asian American literature. I'm sure that some would say that the "special treatment" is not only unfair to white people but also unfair to me. But they're wrong about this and more, and I'll tell you why.

Myth #1: Affirmative Action Beneficiaries Are Unqualified

Considering the race of students among other qualities doesn't mean that unqualified students are admitted. The lack of qualification is one of the biggest myths of affirmative action. Nobody should get a job or place in college that they aren't qualified for; you are either qualified or not. (UT's president is under fire at the moment for some off-the-books affirmative action for unqualified students.) Yet people of color bear the burden of suspicion when it comes to qualification. Abigail Fisher, who sued my alma mater for discriminating against her because she is white, is a good example of this mentality. A ProPublica story reported that in the year of her application, 47 students were provisionally admitted to the University of Texas with GPAs and SAT scores lower than Fisher's; 42 of the students are white. As well, 168 black and Latino students with higher GPAs and SAT scores than Fisher were denied admission. Why didn't Fisher target the white students? Were all of their qualities accessible to her as a young, middle-class white woman? Why didn't she target the low-income students, or those raised in single-parent households, also experiences that you cannot "earn"? Why ignore white men whose gendered experiences may have compensated for lower scores? The failure here is the inability to imagine qualifications beyond AP credits and test-taking proficiency.

Myth #2: Affirmative Action Leads to a Poorer Learning Experience

In allowing the University of Michigan to continue using race as a factor in admissions (until a 2006 referendum ended all affirmative action in the state), the Supreme Court admitted that diversity is a "compelling interest" for student learning. You'd be surprised how many students and colleagues don't give this reason when asked why we should have affirmative action in college admissions. Instead, they sometimes say that "it is the right thing to do" given the history of institutional racism in the US and in higher education. Certainly, this is a consideration. But an equally valid response is that affirmative action makes everyone in the classroom smarter. As a student wrangling with social issues in your English, sociology, nursing, marketing, and journalism classes, wouldn't you want as many different perspectives as possible on those issues? Wouldn't everyone benefit from hearing a black man's perspective on the death penalty or a Hmong woman's perspective on gerontology? Colleges and universities do not implement affirmative action policies out of regard for social justice only; they have them because they are ethically-committed to providing the richest educational experience for all of their students.


Myth #3: White Students Lose Out to Minorities for Scholarships

Even then, institutions don't necessarily make it easier for students of color to attend even after they are admitted. Another enduring myth of affirmative action is that students of color get more than their share of scholarship and grant monies. However, the opposite is true. Mark Kantrowitz of Edvisiors.com released an influential report in 2011, "The Distribution of Grants and Scholarships by Race," which found that while white students made up 62% of all college undergraduates, they received 69% of all institutional grant funding (and 65% of all private scholarship monies). I recently contacted Kantrowitz, and he told me that the figures are basically the same now. When it comes to merit-based institutional grants like my engineering scholarship from Texas, white students claim almost 76% of the funding. In almost all of the metrics in Kantrowitz's study, save need-based grants, white students garnered more than their share of the available funding.

Myth #4: Affirmative Action Benefits Only People of Color

I ask my students what kind of person comes to mind when they hear the words "affirmative action." That image should be of a white woman, if we're talking about the group that has been the primary beneficiary of affirmative action since the 1960s. The title of Sally Kohn's 2013 article for Time doesn't leave much room for equivocation: "Affirmative Action Has Helped White Women More Than Anyone." Using examples from the public and private sector, Kohn shows that affirmative action has advanced the careers of white women more than those of people of color. From 1985 to 2000, the median wage gain of white women outpaced that of white men and black men and women. Ironically, the plaintiffs in all of the suits against Texas and Michigan have been white women. Not only do white women benefit from affirmative action, but so do their white husbands and white children. The 2010 Census revealed that 97% of the people who checked "White" as their race did not check another box. This means that 97% of those who believe that they have white ancestors believe that they have only white ancestors. In 2010, Pew found that white women marry outside of their race at a 9% rate, the lowest of any racial group. For generations, then, most affirmative action resources have been returned to white people, many living in predominantly white communities. Because of these relationships, the Atlanta Blackstar went as far as to say that the group that benefits the most from affirmative action after white women is white men.

Myth #5: Affirmative Action Hurts People of Color in the Long Run

Those spouting this myth purport to advocate for people of color and to know what is best for them. Granted, people of all races do this. But I've heard it most often from white people who say that affirmative action places people of color into circumstances beyond their abilities or that it fosters a culture of dependency. What's amusing here is that the group with more power presumes to know what is best for the group with less power. (I ask those who think that ending affirmative action will help people of color what else they are doing to interrupt racism and live antiracist lives.) A recent survey asked 1,000 participants to respond to this statement: "Affirmative action programs are still needed to counteract the effects of discrimination against minorities, and are a good idea as long as there are no rigid quotas." 71% of black Americans strongly agreed with this statement, while only 20% of white Americans did. I will go out on a limb here and say that these black people know what is best for them. I wonder if the other 80% of white Americans acknowledge that white people tend to get the jobs they have because of their associations with other white people--friends, friends of friends, family members, frat brothers, et al. However, this kind of advantage is not seen as special treatment deleterious to the recipient. It is, simply, smart networking. A recent study showed that white people have social networks that are 91% white, with 75% of white people reporting zero minority presence in their social networks.

Myth #6: Affirmative Action Is Just Reverse Racism

This argument against affirmative action never fails to irk me with its facile use of the word "racism." All it takes is a little critical thinking to reveal it as a false analogy. When James Meredith was trying to attend the University of Mississippi, what was the rationale of the school for denying him admission and of the Governor going through the courts to keep him out? We might fairly call the rationale white supremacy. When the University of Texas takes the race of a student into consideration for admission, what is the rationale? Is it black supremacy? Latino supremacy? American Indian supremacy? Or is it a more ethical rationale, one aware of the historical impacts of institutional racism and sexism? Moreover, except in the most egregious example of discrimination, modern-day affirmative action in the workplace does not take the form of "preferential treatment" for white women or people of color. Rather, the goal of most workplace affirmative action efforts is to diversify applicant pools with expanded outreach and recruitment strategies. Even with greater diversity within applicant pools, "aversive racism" can intervene so that white applicants still come away with the job. Far from being racist, the rationale for affirmative action is, in fact, antiracist. According to law professor Cheryl Harris, affirmative action has been the only institutional intervention against the entitlements historically derived from white identity.

I could go on, but the reality is that none of these points will sway those like Vaughn who agree with Chief Justice John Roberts, who said that "The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." Such a colorblind approach operates out of the belief that affirmative action has outlived its necessity, this despite the fact that black unemployment rates have been double that of white people for decades now. It refuses to read the impacts of centuries of institutionalized genocide, slavery, exclusion, and segregation into present-day circumstances and relationships. It misses how, since the 17th century, the allocation of state resources on the basis of race is affirmative action for white people: "freedom dues" for indentured servants, the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, the GI Bill of Rights, FHA-recommended interest rates, and more. The reach of policies such as the GI Bill extends even into the lives of my traditional-aged college students. "A family's net worth is not simply the finish line," says sociologist Dalton Conley. "It's also the starting point for the next generation."

Growing up in affluent Lake Forest, Illinois, Vince Vaughn benefited from the accomplishments of his parents, his mother an elite, Bloomberg-recognized money manager. Perhaps affirmative action was a guiding hand in her career, who knows? Vaughn's example reminds me of a famous quotation from University of Texas arch-enemy Barry Switzer (one so good that others adopted it for political purposes): "Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple."

On second thought, it's not me. It's Vince Vaughn and people like him. You're so money, and you don't even know it, Vince.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fresh Off the Boat Is Not Science Fiction

I have always known that moment of disappearance and the even uglier truth is that I have long treasured it. That always honorable-seeming absence. It appears I can go anywhere I wish. Is this my assimilation, so many years in the making? Is this the long-sought sweetness?     Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker
Lost amid the well-deserved fanfare accompanying the premiere of ABC's new prime-time comedy Fresh Off the Boat was the launch of another major-studio show featuring an Asian American family. Like Eddie Huang's brainchild, it is a big-budget vehicle as well, with stars such as Olivia Munn, George Takei, Bill Nye, Mark Hamill, and Adrian Grenier lending their talents to its production. However, unless you are like me, a parent or caregiver to a preschool-aged child, you may not know what I'm talking about. Miles from Tomorrowland is an animated series for Disney Junior that made its debut only a few days after that of Fresh Off the Boat. (Disney-ABC owns both titles.) In this blog entry I will discuss these new shows, particularly how they represent extant and potential relationships between Asian Americans and other racial groups, particularly white people. What does it mean that traditional and social media have christened Fresh Off the Boat as the "Asian American" show, while the publicity for Miles from Tomorrowland makes no mention of race? The latter is a "postracial" narrative while the former is decidedly "racial" in its intent and reception.

Miles from Tomorrowland chronicles the planet-hopping adventures of a family of four, members of an institution familiar to anyone who has visited the Magic Kingdom--the "Tomorrowland Transit Authority." The star of the show is Miles Callisto, an intrepid young boy who learns about science while solving problems with his creative use of technology. His mother, Phoebe, is the captain of their spaceship. Father Leo and sister Loretta round out the foursome. With the exception of Leo, who is white, the other Callistos are of Asian descent. To be clear, nothing from the official publicity for Miles from Tomorrowland overtly states that Phoebe is an Asian American. The voice actor for Phoebe is the well-regarded Olivia Munn, whose mother is Chinese. Just to be sure, I contacted the creator of the show, Sascha Paladino. Paladino told me that Miles is Chinese American. Moreover, Paladino revealed, later episodes of the show will explore Miles' Chinese heritage. Targeted at preschoolers, the show is a developmentally-appropriate multicultural narrative: the star is a mixed-race boy who maintains a connection to his ethnic identity, and the Asian American characters do not exhibit any stereotypical behaviors. It promises to honor cultural diversity while understanding it as no barrier to social potential. My mixed-race son loves it, and I'm glad that there is once again an animated protagonist who shares his heritage.


This blog entry compares Miles from Tomorrowland with Fresh Off the Boat to illustrate a core concept of antiracist education that still generates much confusion, the difference between ethnicity and race. These terms are often used interchangeably, without much precision, at almost every level of discourse. Like most modern children's programming, Miles from Tomorrowland is not interested in exploring the meaning of the Callistos' racial identity, as doing so would entail representing how their social station--where they live, what the parents do for a living, where the children go to school, etc.--is related to the value assigned to the color of their skin. Rather, to the extent that the show finds meaning in Miles' diversity, that meaning will be located in his ethnicity--the language that he speaks, the holidays he celebrates, the food that he eats. However different Miles is from other people in his life, those differences will say nothing about the relative power each of them has in society; this is because young children don't need to know about the world in that way yet. (Sadly, this innocence dissipates more quickly for some than others.) This isn't to say that Miles from Tomorrowland doesn't signify in unintended ways--impacts I will address later--only that its handling of racial alterity is age-appropriate. When you are four or five years old and see and honor differences in others as non-hierarchical cultural differences, you are right where you need to be.

Fresh Off the Boat also features young Asian American siblings, the oldest of whom is the ostensible star of the show, Eddie. Like the childhood of the show's creator, Fresh Off the Boat is set in a mid-1990s, predominantly-white community, the domain of gangster rap and Lunchables, we discover. As the eldest child, eleven-year old Eddie is just now beginning to gain awareness of his racial identity as an Asian American. Racialized diversity in the world of Fresh Off the Boat is different from the cultural diversity of Miles from Tomorrowland in how it becomes a source of tension after it runs headlong into white supremacy culture. Eddie's teacher is relieved when she doesn't have to say a Chinese name; Cattleman's Ranch restaurant needs a white host to attract white customers; Eddie's homemade Chinese noodles humiliate him among the cafeteria crowd. The Huangs are racialized in Fresh Off the Boat, as they should be in any production whose primary audience is, well, adults. Their social power has everything to do with the dominant meanings of "Asian," which include the stereotypes of the "perpetual foreigner" and the "model minority." Additionally, the show reveals how even Chinese culture is unstable. Early observers have focused on Eddie's adoption of hip-hop culture as an oppositional stance, but less-overt practices, such as his flaunting of his pizza Lunchables, reveal how Chinese culture transitions into Chinese American culture--culture that is aware of and responsive to white supremacy.

Fresh Off the Boat's decision to foreground the Huangs' racial identity over their ethnic identity explains the generally-positive responses from Asian American viewers. On the whole, Asian Americans' collective sigh of relief after viewing the first few minutes of the show turned into a deep cheer after it became apparent that it was not interested in pandering to racist audience expectations. White viewers tended to be supportive as well, although a Facebook group was created to log unfavorable responses to the show from white people. Some of these posts objected to the portrayal of white people, but others seemed to want to advocate for Asian Americans by calling out the show's stereotypes of them. There are a few familiar stereotypes in the narrative, but it's worth remembering what Chimamanda Adichie said about stereotypes in her TED Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story." "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue," Chimamanda says, "but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." Fresh Off the Boat can sweat a stereotype here or there because it offers so many other stories of what it means to be an Asian American family, many of them encounters with racism and white supremacy. Like Miles from Tomorrowland, it is developmentally-appropriate for its age group, regardless of race.

The danger of popular multicultural texts such as Fresh Off the Boat eschewing racism as a part of life is the perpetuation of ethnicity as the only story of what is "diverse" about non-white people. When I teach Asian American literature to my students, I explain that each text says what it "means" to be Asian or Asian American, whether its author intended it to or not. How does a TV show signify what it "means" to be a Chinese American kid then? It can mean that you call your grandmother Nai Nai or that you get little red envelopes full of cash on Chinese New Year's. Or it can mean that your black classmate calls you "Chink" (a powerful moment in the pilot) or your middle school teacher doesn't think you're any good at the language arts. Being the target of racism is also part of what it means to be "diverse." I suspect that those viewers who are offended by portrayals of white people have a problem with talking about racism in general. Their desire is for a show to represent the possible relationships between white people and Asian Americans without the mediating tension of white supremacy. For them, I can recommend a fine work of science-fiction, Miles from Tomorrowland.

Miles from Tomorrowland avoids potential controversy because the Callistos live in the future, off Earth, a setting that obviates any role for racial identity. As imagined by the show, the future is as notable for the absence of race as for the ubiquity of whiz-bang technology. Venerable is the hope that racism will eventually burn itself out, unable to sustain itself amid unstable phenotypes brought about by mixed-race marriage and its issue. In 1909, the writer Sui Sin Far, born Edith Eaton to a Chinese mother and English father, published "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian," an autobiographical essay questioning the social meanings of her ancestry:
Fundamentally, I muse, people are all the same. My mother's race is as prejudiced as my father's. Only when the whole world becomes as one family will human beings be able to see clearly and hear distinctly. I believe that some day a great part of the world will be Eurasian. I cheer myself with the thought that I am but a pioneer. A pioneer should glory in suffering.
Sui Sin Far, recognized by scholars as the first Asian American fiction writer, understood the problem of racism as a problem of perception. Sui Sin Far may not have envisioned the future as otherworldly, but a terrestrial society dominated by mixed-race people would have struck her as no less remarkable. For Sui Sin Far, if perceptions of Chinese and mixed-race people were ever going to improve, the transformation would have to begin with the body--because institutional change was a lost cause. But attempting to procreate or adopt racism out of existence won't necessarily transform any of the structures that maintain white supremacy and may even support them, especially in the case of Asian Americans.

In the Fresh Off the Boat pilot, Eddie's mother, Jessica, somehow allows herself to be conscripted by a neighborhood gang of rollerblading mothers. The joke is that all of these white women look alike to Jessica. "Are you all sisters?" she asks them. (Jessica's posse still one-ups Disney-ABC's Fresh Off the Boat blogger party that failed to invite any Asian American bloggers.) It's true that the white characters don't have much more than a single story so far. But they are in no danger of being negatively stereotyped, stereotypes existing only to justify the place of a group within society. Plus, it's nice to see the Huangs have so many stories that speak of their status as non-white people, including Jessica's "tiger mom" approach to learning, sure, but also her threat to sue Eddie's school for its lack of a proper response to hate speech. Unlike the Callistos, the Huangs are racialized because they are a part of our world, albeit twenty years ago. For Jessica and Louis, who are immigrants, whiteness is cowboy suits and dog waste bags, necessary masquerades that may help get you a "nut" but never threaten who you know yourself to be. For the kids, who grow up in America, the negotiation is trickier. They are apt to believe the story of whiteness and so hope to merge into it. Groups like Edward Blum's The Project on Fair Representation want to write Asian Americans into that story by conscripting them to join white people in its fight against affirmative action. In ignoring the impacts of institutional racism, The Project on Fair Representation already believes that we live in Tomorrowland. I'm just thankful that Jessica and Louis Huang know that a school needs to get its ass sued off for an entirely different reason.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Whiteness and the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Last week, Larry Wilmore addressed the anti-vaccination controversy on his new and well-regarded Comedy Central vehicle, The Nightly Show. Predictably, he lampooned famous "anti-vaxxers" such as Jenny McCarthy and her now-discredited guru Andrew Wakefield. Perhaps the most effective part of the segment was Melinda Gates talking about how attitudes toward vaccines are a cultural and economic phenomenon. "We take vaccines so for granted in the United States," Gates began. "Women in the developing world know the power of these. They will walk ten kilometers in the heat with their child and line up to get a vaccine because they have seen death." Wilmore, who is black, followed by implying that the fear of vaccines is a "first world problem." I was expecting Wilmore, whose race the entertainment media have made an emblem of The Nightly Show, to drill down a bit further and at least crack a joke about the color of this first world problem. But he didn't and, at least for now, the criticism of the anti-vaccination movement remains squarely within the discourse of social class. In this blog entry I would like to suggest that there is a strong racial element to the anti-vaccination movement. With each new story on the measles, I am left to wonder, "Why aren't people talking about the outbreak as having something, maybe a lot, to do with race?"

People of color have been long associated with disease and public health pandemics. In the United States alone, the history of racialization cannot be separated from the discourse of non-white bodily or mental illness. Although the experiences of immigrants from Asia and Eastern and Southern Europe are vital to this story, I would like to focus on one group in particular, black Americans, and the influential story told about them by a single man, Frederick L. Hoffman. Hoffman was an actuary for the Prudential Life Insurance Company when he published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896). The 330-page document argued that black people should not be insured because they were a greater risk for mortality compared to other racial groups. Their lower life expectancies were directly related, Hoffman explained, to inferior, inherited racial traits which promised their eventual extinction as a people. Flawed as it was and critiqued by no less than W.E.B. DuBois in its day, Hoffman's diagnosis was widely adopted by the insurance industry and went on to shape public debate over the "Negro question," according to Megan Wolff. It indicted blackness itself as the pathology, uncompromisingly predicting that no course of social uplift could alter the ultimate fate of the race. Race Traits stoked white fears of a black infirmity that threatened with contagion and miscegenation, social ills that were one and the same. By 1915, influenced by the burgeoning eugenics movement, twenty-eight states had passed anti-miscegenation laws; published a year later, Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race (1916) marked the age indelibly enough to find mention in The Great Gatsby. Blackness was, quite simply, a public health problem.

In the years following, the dominant notion of racial identity transitioned from one determined by genetics to one determined by culture. As eugenics lost its scientific authority, new discourses picked up its mantle to explain why black people were still at the bottom of the social ladder. Conservative voices increasingly portrayed black culture as pathological, focusing on high rates of public assistance, illegal drug use, out-of-wedlock births, and more. As readers of this blog might expect, my method to answer the question of racial disparities in these metrics would be to investigate the impacts of institutionalized white supremacy rather than those of a mythical monolithic black culture. But what about another kind of drug use, vaccinations? To what extent are attitudes toward vaccinations racialized, and what is their relationship to institutionalized white supremacy? The controversy over vaccinations can teach us a lot about the nature of whiteness.

Researching this entry, I contacted Dr. Jason Glanz, an epidemiologist at Kaiser Permanente Colorado's Institute for Health Research. Glanz has been researching vaccine usage for years, and he provided me with a number of studies breaking down the demographics of vaccine usage across multiple characteristics, including race. Glanz's own 2013 study, "A Mixed Methods Study of Parental Vaccine Decision Making and Parent-Provider Trust," for which he is the principal investigator, arrived at these findings, relevant to our question:
Parents who had either refused or delayed vaccines for their children were more likely to be white than parents who accepted vaccines for their children (P = .0003). Parents who delayed vaccines had the highest proportion of households earning $70,000 or more per year (71%), followed by parents who accepted vaccines (61%) and parents who refused vaccines (51%) (P = .002). (484)
A 2011 study, published in Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, reported that "In bivariate analyses, levels of use of any type of alternative vaccination schedule were significantly lower among black parents than among nonblack parents and were significantly higher among children who did not have a regular health care provider" (851). I have not been able to locate a vaccination study whose research question plumbs the significance of race. However, these recent findings provoked me to ask why whiteness and high social status are significant factors in underimmunization or delayed immunization.

One of the reasons why we are not talking about the anti-vaccination movement as white is because we talk about geography and social class instead. These demographic characteristics often stand in as proxies for race, which is more controverisal. A 2015 study of vaccine usage, also published in Pediatrics, surveyed Northern California communities and came to the conclusion that "Underimmunization and vaccine refusal cluster geographically," and that "individual-level underimmunization was higher in neighborhoods with more families in poverty, as well as those with more graduate degrees" (285, 287). Geographic space in this country has always been racialized, the legacy of the FHA and redlining, urban renewal and white flight, sundown towns, and more. Words and terms such as "suburbia," "inner-city," and "gentrified neighborhood" tend to signify the skin color of the imagined inhabitants of those areas more than the areas themselves. The demographics of geographic space cannot be solely a function of social class, even and especially today when de facto practices of racial segregation may be even more effective than the de jure discrimination allowed before the 1968 Fair Housing Act. However, racialized space by itself does not fully explain what, exactly, whiteness has to do with refusing to vaccinate your children.

The anti-vaccination movement is a good model to illustrate an important critical race theory concept known as "whiteness as property." In her 1993 Harvard Law Review article "Whiteness as Property," Cheryl Harris explains that beyond a skin color, beyond even a race, whiteness in the United States is a form of property whose "use" is protected under the law. Property need not be tangible, explains Harris.
"Property is nothing but the basis of expectation," according to Bentham, "consist[ing] in an established expectation, in the persuasion of being able to draw such and such advantage from the thing possessed." [. . .] In a society structured on racial subordination, white privilege became an expectation and, to apply Margaret Radin's concept, whiteness became the quintessential property for personhood. [. . .] When the law recognizes, either implicitly or explicitly, the settled expectations of whites built on the privileges and benefits produced by white supremacy, it acknowledges and reinforces a property interest in whiteness that reproduces Black subordination. (1729-1731)
An analogy may help here. A medical or law degree is not tangible property, but it is property (just ask anyone who has one and has been part of a nasty divorce settlement). It is property because it is the basis for expectations in life that the law recognizes (e.g., the kinds of jobs you can have). Harris argues that whiteness, like one of these degrees, is a property interest, and its acknowledgement as such by the law--explicitly until 1968--is what makes whiteness so powerful. Whiteness, too, has a lot to do with the kind of job you can expect to have and claim. A long, racist history attends these "settled expectations," whose present nature cannot escape the influence of centuries of legal, institutionalized white supremacy. Following Harris, I argue that the expectations of white people with regard to immunizations are upheld by the law and by those who administer enforcement policy. What, then, are these expectations and these laws?

Even in just the past half-century, we can find ample evidence of the law honoring the preferences of middle-class white parents when it comes to the interests of their children vis-à-vis education policy. Take the example of Milliken v. Bradley, a 1974 Supreme Court case that ruled that desegregation busing could apply only to those school districts whose segregation practices could be proven as deliberate. Like busing policy, immunization policy also regulates which students can go to school and where. The ease with which parents receive immunization exemptions, particularly in certain states, represents the satisfaction of their settled expectations of how state and local authorities should treat their children. Historically, parents of color--black parents in particular--have had far less success advocating for their interests when it comes to the treatment of their school-aged children. Their battles for an integrated learning experience, teasingly promised by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, were thwarted by Milliken v. Bradley, which facilitated "white flight" to suburban districts exempted from integrating inner-city schools. Parents of color have had minimal success eliminating bias from the informal and formal curricular tracking of their children, which begins as early as kindergarten. And what is the relationship between racism and Louisiana's policy that those on public assistance may not claim a philosophic exemption? Or between racism and the fact that the state with the highest child vaccination rate--because it allows almost no exemptions for immunization, not even those of a religious nature--is Mississippi?

Some communities in California have exemption rates 700-800 times that of Mississippi. Gary Baum, the writer of this 2014 article for The Hollywood Reporter, claims that in this regard, affluent communities around L.A. are "on par with South Sudan." Westside L.A. parents, many of them employed in the entertainment industry, file "personal belief exemptions" (PBEs) at levels wildly disproportionate to that of L.A. County as a whole. According to Baum,
The number of PBEs being filed is scary. The region stretching from Malibu south to Marina del Rey and inland as far as La Cienega Boulevard (and including Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills) averaged a 9.1 percent PBE level among preschoolers for the 2013-14 school year--a 26 percent jump from two years earlier. By comparison, L.A. County at large measured 2.2 percent in that period.
Lax California state requirements for PBEs and accommodating school administrators, Baum suggests, have combined to create extremely dangerous levels of underimmunization at some schools. Baum quotes a director of a school with a 30 percent PBE level who explains that "It's about respecting the parents. [. . .] I am personally concerned--my grandchildren are immunized--but that is not the issue. The issue is honoring the parents' belief." By respecting alternate immunization schedules, even some doctors accede to parents' "entitled" consumer mentality because they are paid in cash, says Dr. Nina Shapiro, director of pediatric otolaryngology at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine.

There is a distinct Libertarian strain in the anti-vaccination movement. (Measles should be a regular topic for primary-season debates.) More than its uncooked link to autism, the CDC-recommended immunization schedule is unpopular with some parents because its prescriptive nature runs counter to a way of life that they see as different from and even superior to that of the vast majority of Americans. We can understand this position by examining attitudes toward "herd immunity." Herd immunity is a widely-accepted public health theory that holds that the innoculation of a critical mass of the members of a community can protect those who have not developed an immunity to the disease. Anti-vaccination parents depend on herd immunity to protect their children but see themselves apart from the herd mentality. Baum interviewed Dr. Mark Largent, a historian of science, technology, and medicine at Michigan State University, on the relationship between privilege and herd immunity.
Largent observes that herd immunity isn't a convincing argument in modern societies like the Westside. "For [these people], what you’re saying is that the public good is more important than their child's well-being," he says. "I don't think parents give a shit. It doesn't work for them. It's such a big, amorphous claim."
Given how the decision to vaccinate has entered the discourse of rights, developing signs of becoming a partisan political issue, it's conceivable that vaccinations may soon be criticized as a kind of unjust tax.

I admit that I am neither a scientist nor a public health professional. Like my other blog entries, this one merely proposes that institutional racism shapes our relationships with one another in crucial but often unseen ways. To what extent is the anti-authoritarian and Whole Foods way of life within these mostly-white L.A. enclaves enabled and normalized by residential and educational segregation, access to employment in the lucrative film industry, and the very real option of full-timing it as an engaged and well-read parent? It is important to note that the most visible opponents of the anti-vaccination movement are also white. Outraged by the ignorant irresponsibility of "anti-vaxxers," these "anti-anti-vaxxers" are also responding to their settled expectations of freedom from disease not being upheld by the state (surely a racialized expectation given the state of our health care system), leading them to demand new laws, stricter regulations for PBEs, and official censure for non-complying physicians.


Blackness has long been perceived as a public health threat, as the recent hysteria over Ebola has demonstrated. I believe that whiteness--not white people in and of themselves, to be clear--as defined by Harris, the settled expectations of white privilege as protected by law, is contributing to a new public health threat. A productive way to understand whiteness as property is to try to think of ways that black Americans' settled expectations for life, liberty, and happiness are not codified in the law. Whose expectations are served by policies such as "broken windows" and "stop-and-frisk"? Or by the Bloomington city attorney bringing charges against Mall of America protesters? If the measles and whooping cough outbreaks get massive media attention partly because of their potential impact on white communities (compared to the Ebola virus before it crossed the Atlantic), then we might also investigate whiteness as part of the cause, a call to research that I hope this blog will sound. Whiteness as property is only one way to imagine the intersection of race with class when considering how power animates public health emergencies such as the measles outbreak.

Back to the subject of taxes, whiteness as property can also help with the analysis of other social crises, including the fiscal fallout of California's Proposition 13, a landmark 1978 referendum that, among other things, froze personal and commercial property taxes at 1975 levels until the property is sold or rebuilt. Critics of the law have claimed that it is "responsible for causing a fiscal and social disaster" in California since its passage. Others have called out the institutional racism of the law, which allows long-time, established owners of valuable homes and businesses, most of them white, to pay less than their fair share in taxes. These Californians of an older era, residents before recent immigration changed the complexion of the state, might be considered part of another herd. While the owner of a new Santa Monica home is taxed between five and ten dollars per square foot, one venerable California institution that hasn't ever changed hands pays about a nickel per square foot. The institution? Disneyland.