I recently came across a short video from the talk show Lopez Tonight featuring Jessica Alba, and in it, George Lopez reveals the results of her ancestry DNA test. According to Lopez and the language used by the testing company, Alba is 87 percent European and 13 percent Native American. But to the astute observer, the show is actually claiming to reveal more than the details of Alba's genetic composition. It is also claiming to reveal information about her "true" race, and therein lies the problem.
As I have noted elsewhere on The Sociological Cinema, racial categories do not consistently correspond to biological observations (see here and here). To put it another way, race is not based on biology; it merely claims to be. This point often confuses people, for they reason that in some sense race must be biological. After all, skin color is largely a genetically determined characteristic, and so the thinking goes, race must be too. But while genetic instructions largely determine the amount of melanin a body produces, it is through socialization that people become predisposed to notice skin color as one of the most salient features a body can have. The thickness of one's eyebrows, the shape of their ears, or the color of their of eyes—these are also genetically determined characteristcs, but people mostly discount these features as the bearers of useful information. To socially construct race, then, is to teach people which physical characteristics are the salient markers of a racial group, and racism becomes possible once people begin assigning meanings to those salient racial markers.
At about the 45-second mark, Lopez explains that the DNA analysis distinguishes between four ancestral groups, and perhaps sensing that it would resonate with his audience, he incorrectly equates each ancestral group with a race. The Europeans, according to Lopez, are white, Sub-Saharan Africans are black, East Asians are Asian, and the Indigenous American group refers to Native Americans. The results confuse Alba, who racially identifies as Latina and knows her last name comes from Spain. But it is instructive to dwell a bit on the basis of her confusion, for it highlights the incompatibility between ancestral DNA and race. In the United States people with Spanish heritage tend to be racially categorized as Hispanic or Latino, which is a category believed to be distinct from white. However, DNA analyses show that the original inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula (i.e. Spain, Portugal, the small UK overseas territory of Gibraltar and the Principality of Andorra) are a part of the same general migratory group of homo sapiens that settled the rest of Europe. As with all racial categories, contemporary distinctions between whites and Hispanics in the United States are socially created and not based on some deeper biological truth.
There is something curious about the bewilderment and outrage many people have expressed regarding the recently publicized episodes of police and vigilante violence against Blacks. To be clear, I am not referring to the inconsolable sadness and outrage expressed by those in Black communities, who have lost loved ones and cherished members of their communities. There is nothing curious or puzzling about their expressions of grief. Rather, what strikes me most are the outraged bloggers and YouTubers of the liberal left, particularly those who are white. They seem to take account of all the racial violence they have observed over the last decade and exclaim, “What happened to America!?” They are surprised to learn of videos emerging which show law enforcement abusing their power, especially when confronting Black men and women. They express exasperation upon seeing video of an entire bus full of college students chanting, “There will never be a ni**** SAE!” Unlike their more conservative counterparts, these white liberals are less inclined to blame the victim and insist that members of Black communities must pull themselves up by their bootstraps; yet they share the sentiment that open racial conflict is somehow antithetical to the America of their childhood.
What is puzzling is that these bewildered whites appear to have no memory. It is like the movie Groundhog Day, but not even the protagonist is aware he has been witnessing the same murder over and over again. Each time is like the first, and he struggles to comprehend what is happening. What is this nonsense with the Ferguson police? How could police so easily default to the use of deadly force against 12-year-old Tamir Rice? How could they kill Eric Garner over suspicion of such a minor offense, and continue squeezing his neck despite repeated pleas for air? What about Freddie Gray (2015)?, Walter L. Scott (2015)? Akai Gurley (2014)? Ezell Ford (2014)? John Crawford III (2014)? Trayvon Martin (2012)? Ramarley Graham (2012)? Oscar Grant III (2009)? Tarika Wilson (2008)? Sean Bell (2006)? Amadou Diallo (1999)? Tyisha Miller (1998)? The Rodney King beating (1991)? The murder of Eleanor Bumpurs (1984)? Clifford Glover (1973)? Fred Hampton (1969)? Delano Herman Middleton (1968)? Samuel Ephesians Hammond, Jr. (1968)? Henry Ezekial Smith (1968)? Benjamin Brown (1967)? Jimmie Lee Jackson (1965)? James Earl Chaney (1964)? Medgar_Evers (1963)? Addie Mae (1963)? Denise McNair (1963)? Cynthia Wesley (1963)? Carole Robertson (1963)? Roman Ducksworth Jr. (1962)? Herbert Lee (1961)? Emmett Till (1955)? Jesse Thornton (1940)? Raymond Gunn (1931)? George Smith (1931)? Mary Turner (1918)? Frank Embree (1899)?
The above names barely amount to a single snowflake atop the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and the racist violence these names recall happened in communities all over the United States (see a map here). The Equal Justice Initiative counted that between 1877 to 1950, there are 3,959 known instances of white "terror lynchings" of Black men and women. But one does not need to go back a full century to see the pattern of violence directed against Black Americans. The average number of annual arrest-related deaths between 2003 and 2009 was about four times higher for Blacks than whites, Looking at teens aged 15 to 19, who were shot and killed by police, the racial gap appears to be even greater. Between 2010 and 2012, police shot and killed about 21 times more Black youth than white youth.
Understanding why racist violence continues to be surprising to so many liberal-leaning whites involves trying to make sense of the glaring contradiction between the racial equality many whites profess to want for the United States and the racial inequality they sometimes uphold through their behavior and allow to persist through their inaction. The popular explanation now propagated by academics and anti-racist educators is that following the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, racist practices of various types went underground (see Bonilla-Silva 2013). Overt and blatantly racist signifiers began a hasty retreat from public view, making racist prejudice and discrimination more difficult to see, harder to prove, and easier to deny. What this means—and this is crucial—is that bigots of all varieties may very well have continued their racist discrimination, but increasingly, they did so without racialized hate speech, or at least without witnesses to hear it. Euphemisms and other new rhetorical strategies have flourished in this environment, so that racialized nouns like “thug” and “you people” have come to replace the n-word.
Newer, more covert racist practices spread through the labor market. Employers who once openly expressed their preferences for white job candidates became rare, but while some employers implemented policies to curb racial discrimination, many more just became less open about their racial preferences. Prosecutors who sought to bring charges of employment discrimination began relying more on the work of statisticians rather than the eavesdropping of fellow employees. If one hoped to expose a particular employer’s racist hiring practices—to make those practices stop—one now needed access to reams of data from the employer about the presumed race of applicants, their qualifications, and whether they were hired. Here again, employment discrimination simply became harder to prove. It did not end.
There is a similar pattern with respect to racist violence, or what are now routinely referred to as hate crimes. Openly racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, to take one example, became less and less palatable to the white majority, and memberships of local chapters began a slow decline. It was no longer acceptable to terrorize and murder Black men and women in such an openly racist manner. But violence against Black men and women in the United States did not necessarily decline. It only became harder to detect and prove.
The data, incomplete though they may be, supports the conclusion that if one includes the violence administered by police officers, a Black person's chances of being harmed or killed by white terrorism is not markedly different than a century ago. The exasperation and bewilderment expressed by many white liberals over the racial turmoil in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and other American cities suggests that these whites have never even contemplated the notion that in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Era racist violence may have never declined. In terms of violence as a means of social control, white supremacy has surrendered nothing. The dirty work of white supremacy may have simply changed hands from vigilante groups to law enforcement agencies. By handing over the reins to those agents of the state who are normatively regarded as the legitimate enactors of lethal force, the disproportionate killing of Black men and women in the United States simply appeared to be "legitimate" outcomes. For liberal whites, who have been living very different experiences from Black Americans, the violence was difficult to detect. For Blacks, it became more difficult to prove.
The fact that racism has become more covert is not a viable excuse for whites who claim to desire equality of opportunity and justice because it is primarily white Americans who are keeping the workings and effects of racism hidden. The manner in which the unrest in Baltimore was framed by the media is but one example. But while whites—particularly those who work in the media—have been centrally involved in the work of making racism more difficult to see, whites are also guilty of their refusal to notice racism, even when it is plainly visible. As alluded to above, the calls to investigate, prosecute, and bring about an end to systematic patterns of violence against Black Americans certainly did not begin with the death of Freddie Gray, nor did such calls begin after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. Black communities were loudly calling for an end to racist police violence well before 1973 when 10-year-old Clifford Glover was shot “T-square in the back, with his body leaning forward” as he ran away from a police officer in Queens, New York. Brave and outspoken members of Black communities were speaking the truth about white terror since well before the late Nineteenth Century when Ida B. Wells-Barnett persuasively decried lynching as a barbarous vice of white men (see Bederman 1995). The bewilderment of white liberals no longer makes any sense. However good their intentions might be, the exasperated cries of sympathy from liberal whites rings hollow.
Given that white supremacy has depended so crucially on whites hiding racialized violence, and refusing to notice the racialized violence that has occurred over generations, is it not fitting that the development of a portable, visually-oriented technology capable of producing digital video at the touch of a button is proving to be the trigger for a public discussion about racism and racist violence? A critical mass of smartphones in racially segregated America has unexpectedly created an opening, a means of forcing a broad swathe of the white public to see again what has been generally hidden. Social movements under the banner of Black Lives Matter and the Black Spring are now attempting to gain a foothold within the fissures upon which rests the foundation of white supremacy. But social change is neither linear, nor inevitalble, and it remains to be seen whether progress will be made in curbing the systemic violence directed against Black lives.
To paraphrase Kwame Touré, in order to be truly helpful, white liberals must be careful they are not simply trying to “help” Blacks adjust to an abject status. Instead, whites must use the power and privilege of whiteness to act by dismantling or reforming white supremacist institutions.