The brutal enslavement of Black people lasted for a full 60 percent of this country’s colonialist history.
It is this deadly longevity of anti-Black racism that we must grasp in order to understand the currently palpable and deeply painful anti-Black racist experiences that African Americans continue to endure in the 21st-century U.S., and the massive multiracial protests that have ensued.
U.S. anti-Black racism was founded upon the brutal enslavement of Black people. In the decades since the abolition of slavery, systemic white racism and what has been called the “white racial frame” continue to valorize white people and degrade Black people and the rich historical magnitude of Black people who have, for centuries, struggled against white supremacy.
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In this crucial Truthout interview, nationally and internationally prominent sociologist and social theorist Joe Feagin explores these key concepts and historical phenomena. Feagin, who is the Ella C. McFadden Distinguished Professor in sociology at Texas A & M University, has done much internationally recognized research on U.S. racism, sexism and political economy issues. He has written over 200 scholarly articles and 74 scholarly books in his social science areas, including Systemic Racism, White Party, White Government, The White Racial Frame and How Blacks Built America.
George Yancy: African Americans have just celebrated Juneteenth in the midst of Black-led protests that are, to my knowledge, unprecedented. Speak to the possible connection between Juneteenth and these 21st-century protests that embody long sought-after freedoms for Black people.
Joe Feagin: Recent Juneteenth celebrations remind all Americans that this country is founded on the human-torture system called slavery. No one should be surprised that those targeted by that system of slavery — which involved millions of African Americans and their descendants — have actively protested against racial oppression and fought for human liberty and justice for centuries. From 1619 to 1865 — for 60 percent of this country’s colonialist history — whites maintained a brutal enslavement system unjustly enriching whites and unjustly impoverishing African Americans.
After a brief Reconstruction period, slavery was followed by the near-slavery of Jim Crow segregation, which also unjustly enriched the white majority while unjustly impoverishing African Americans. Generation after generation, African Americans have rebelled, individually and collectively, against this white racial oppression. During the long slavery era, African Americans engaged collectively in an estimated 250 planned or implemented slave uprisings. There were also hundreds of thousands of individual protests and rebellions. During the 90-year Jim Crow era, there were also many dozens of attempted and successful collective demonstrations and uprisings, as well as many thousands of individual protests.
Today we see yet more Black-led and Black-generated demonstrations and uprisings very much in this long freedom tradition. I have rigorously argued in How Blacks Built America that in their individual and collective protests and revolts against racial oppression African Americans have long pressed for — indeed, arguably invented — the authentic liberty-and-justice-for-all values that have gradually become more central to this country. The white male “founders” version of “liberty and justice” values were inauthentic, as they actually had in mind freedom for (propertied) white men, a small portion of the population, from British oppression.
Since 1970, your scholarship has deepened our understanding of the dynamics of Black social protests within the United States. Speak to some of the underlying conditions that you see operating today that were operating within the 1960s or even the 1990s.
I have researched Black antiracist movements, demonstrations and revolts since the late 1960s. With Harlan Hahn, I did the major social science book on the hundreds of violent Black revolts against systemic racism in the 1960s-1970s (Ghetto Revolts: The Politics of American Violence, 1973). In addition, in numerous other books, such as Racist America, I have examined, for the 1940s-1960s era, Black nonviolent civil rights demonstrations, as well as the early 1990s Black uprisings over the Rodney King beating.
Black demonstrations and uprisings today are similar in several ways to previous demonstrations and uprisings. Central to all, past and present, are what many researchers call “underlying conditions” and “precipitating events.” The well-institutionalized, inhumane conditions that underlie Black demonstrations and uprisings include not only white discrimination in policing but also in employment, housing, education, health care and political rights. In survey and interview studies, most African Americans report regularly facing racial discrimination, and much research demonstrates huge racial inequalities rooted in generations of unjust Black impoverishment at the hands of unjustly enriched whites. Graphically illustrating 20 generations of white enrichment and Black impoverishment, to take just one major example, is the fact that today the median net worth of white households is about 13 times that of Black households.
A second concept often used by researchers examining specific demonstrations and uprisings accents “precipitating events” that trigger them. A majority of such precipitating events involve discriminatory incidents where a Black person or group is publicly targeted by whites. In many cases, these involve police brutality or other malpractice incidents — especially those perpetrated by white officers.
One difference in these events today is that the general public is much more likely to see the police malpractice or other white discrimination because of phone cameras carried by many [people]. Unlike in the case of the 1960s and the 1990s demonstrations and uprisings, we often have a video of the triggering event that makes it much harder to deny, especially for whites. Images of the events typically become viral and appear across millions of television sets and other devices.
You have articulated what you call the “white racial frame.” Define what you mean by such a frame and relate it to forms of white policing of Black bodies, which often leads to horrific deaths as in the cases of Breanna Taylor, George Floyd, and, more recently, Rayshard Brooks.
Today, mainstream analysis of issues involving white racism makes heavy use of concepts like prejudice, bias and bigotry. These terms are skewed toward an individualistic, nonsystemic interpretation of racial matters. My young colleagues and I have done much research demonstrating that the concept of systemic racism, including the important concept of its white racial frame, are necessary to fully understand U.S. racial matters. For centuries, that white racial frame has provided a dominant worldview from which most whites (and many others) regularly view this society. While it includes racist prejudices, even more important are its racist narratives about society, its strong racist images, its powerful racist emotions and its inclinations to racist actions. Especially important is that this broad white framing has a very positive orientation to whites as generally superior and virtuous (a pro-white subframe) and a negative orientation to various racial “others” substantially viewed as inferior and unvirtuous (anti-others subframes).
This frame motivates and rationalizes white racist discrimination targeting African Americans, including police brutality and violence such as that involved in the cases of African American men and women that you mention, and hundreds of others. The likely motivation for such police malpractice is more than racial bias. These events typically involve a white racial framing that not only stereotypes and interprets Black people and their actions in negative terms as unvirtuous — e.g., dangerous, criminal, violent, druggies — but also portrays whites, including police officers, as virtuous, manly, superior and dominant. Also central in many such incidents appear to be white emotions of anger, fear, resentment or arrogance. The way in which whites view themselves in these settings is at least as important as their negative views of those they target with discrimination.
Given that the white racial frame is that which is learned by whites within quotidian contexts, perhaps even at a white parent’s knee, how might this form of framing be challenged and undone? I ask this because while there have been many demands for police reform, I have not heard much at all about the more fundamental problem of eradicating the white racial frame.
From decades of experience researching and teaching about white racism, I have concluded it takes much long-term education and re-education for any white person, including myself, to significantly dismantle that white racial frame and replace it with an authentic liberty-and-justice-for-all framing that motivates meaningful anti-racist actions. This is especially true for whites who are enmeshed in family and friendship networks that vigorously enforce conformity to that frame. An example is the “blue line” — the strong police officer networks. You not only have to move white individuals into long-term deframing of their own white racial frame, but also into challenging the white racist framing of their important social groups.
Dismantling and replacing even modest amounts of that white racial frame are extraordinarily difficult because it is fundamental to the social, material and ideological construction and operation of this country. This frame shapes what most whites believe, feel and do in regard to racial matters. For the most part, we don’t teach white youth to be deeply critical thinkers when it comes to our society’s racial matters. Most home and institutional schooling encourages them to follow the lead of white economic, political or religious leaders. Lack of critical thinking about our racist history and institutions reflects and perpetuates that dominant white racial frame.
Solid information about our racist history and institutions is a good place to start in changing that dominant racial frame. Decades of teaching thousands of college students and older Americans has led me to see that, until most whites have that accurate instruction, they do not have the essential understandings to be strongly supportive of major changes in systemic racism. Working with anti-racist organizations has revealed to me that it typically takes long hours of instruction and dialogue over many months to get whites to even begin to think critically about the racially stereotyped images, beliefs, emotions and interpretations of the dominant white racial frame they fervently cling to.
A key problem, especially for most white Americans, is just how segregated we are from people of color — especially from regular equal-status contacts with people of color beyond the workplace. We know from social psychological studies that even getting white subjects with a strong racist framing of racial others to seriously observe or read about the latter in positive un-stereotyped settings can often begin to weaken some racist framing. This seems especially true for young children. A substantial breaking down of the socially segregated spaces of whites, including with much more positive framing and information about people of color might, at least for children, begin the slow process of deframing their white racial framing.
If you examine most of contemporary schools’ curricula, you will see that we are a long way from even these first steps in breaking down and replacing the worst elements of this society’s still dominant white racial frame. There is no way around the hard and necessary goal of much aggressively honest education, especially for whites, about our racist history and contemporary institutions.
Along with eradicating the white racial frame is eradicating white privilege, white power, white hegemony. How might white people come to understand that eliminating white racism is in their own interest?
Again, aggressive re-education for whites is one essential step. For one thing, they need to be taught about the very high price many ordinary whites have paid for systemic racism at certain points in our history. For example, many whites, especially Southerners, are bamboozled by mythical notions of the slavery era and the Civil War in numerous U.S. movies, so that they do not even know that ordinary whites in the 1860s paid an extremely heavy price for what we misname as the “Civil War.” This was really a treasonous uprising against an established United States led by elite white male slaveholders, a minority of Southern whites, who effectively conned ordinary whites — most not slaveholders — into supporting, often with their lives, the elite effort to preserve a slavery system that brought them great wealth. That bloody conflict took 620,000 lives on both sides. Most of those confederates were ordinary white farmers and workers who died for that elite cause.
Then as now, ordinary whites have often been conned by the ruling white elite into taking racist actions that, to varying degrees, are against their own individual or group interests. As the brilliant Black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois underscored in his writings, in the past and present, ordinary whites have accepted the “public and psychological wage of whiteness,” the sense and privileges of being racially superior, that has long been offered to them by the white male elite. Accepting this psychological wage of whiteness has made ordinary whites much less likely over the centuries to organize effectively with African American workers and farmers to improve their societal conditions. This successful elite strategy of racial divide-and-conquer has cost large numbers of ordinary white families dearly. That is, a centuries-old lack of united worker organizations — e.g., massive, effective and enduring unions across the color line — has meant much less desirable working and living conditions, not only for African Americans, but also for many ordinary white Americans. One can observe this negative result today in the substantial differences in the quality of the modern social welfare states (e.g., the health care systems) serving ordinary citizens in the U.S. and European countries with strong unions.
A majority of whites also pay for continuing systemic racism in elevated levels of racial fear, resentment and ignorance. Research has shown that whites who are raised in segregated conditions and still live segregated lives are often fearful of Black people and other people of color with whom they have few or no equal-status contacts. Growing up in segregated areas, most white parents and children are unprepared to deal with the soon-to-be demographic reality of being a “white minority” in the U.S. Their fear of that significant racial change, undergirded by their racist framing of white superiority and virtuousness compared to people of color, leaves them with a limited ability to deal wisely and democratically with a racially changing country and world, in the present and future.
Going forward, I tend to be pessimistic about the eradication of white supremacy and white privilege. The history of this country supports my pessimism. For those who share my view, do you see anything on the horizon for which we ought to be optimistic regarding white racism?
I tend to be an optimistic pessimist. Those decades of research on our systemic white racism have made me pessimistic about the eradication of white supremacy and privilege. However, my work with effective anti-racist activist groups like the Midwestern group called Antiracism Study Dialogue Circles Metamorphosis gives me some hope for the future, as their multiracial organization has reached more than 2,000 people using long-term anti-racist dialogue groups. Also, the presence of millions of white Americans in recent demonstrations against police brutality and malpractice seems to offer a glimmer of hope that many (especially younger) whites can be educated or re-educated about our systemic racism and about anti-racist action.
Still, given the widespread white fears of the large-scale demographic and voter changes going on now and in the near future, I see a societal future likely to have much more sociopolitical tumult, some of which may well be violent given the growth in well-armed white supremacist groups.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.