As a young kid growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, I was always conscious of what it meant to be a white male. Whiteness was a defining principle shaping how I both named and negotiated the class and racial boundaries that my friends and I traveled when we went to school, played basketball in gyms throughout the city and crossed into “alien” neighborhoods. Whiteness and maleness were crucial markers of our individual and collective identities; yet, we were also working class and it was largely the interface of race and class that governed how we experienced and perceived the world around us. Of course, we hadn’t thought deeply about race and class in a critical way; we simply bore the burdens, terrors and advantages such terms provided as they simultaneously named the world and produced it. We were immersed in a culture infused with the markings of a racially and class marked society, but had no language to either name it or reflect on it in a serious way. We simply accepted the notion that such divisions were part of human nature, something we had to both live with and negotiate in the limited terms given to us by the dominant society.
In my working-class neighborhood, race and class were performative categories defined in terms of the events, actions and outcomes of our struggles as we engaged with kids whose histories, languages and racial identities appeared foreign and hostile to us. Race and class were not merely nouns we used to narrate ourselves; they were verbs that governed how we interacted and performed in the midst of “others,” whether they were white middle class or black youths. Most of the interactions we had with others were violent, fraught with anger and hatred. We viewed kids who were black or privileged from within the spaces and enclaves of a neighborhood ethos that was nourished by a legacy of racism, a dominant culture that condoned class and racial hatred, and a popular culture that rarely allowed blacks and whites to view each other as equals, except of course, in athletics. Everywhere we looked segregation was the order of the day. Community was defined within racial and class differences and functioned largely as spaces of exclusion – spaces that more often than not pitted racial and ethnic groups against one another. Solidarity was mostly based on the principles of exclusion, and race and class identities closed down the promise of difference as central to any notion of democratic community.
When college students walked through my Smith Hill neighborhood from Providence College to reach the downtown section of the city, we taunted them, fought with them on occasion, but always made it clear to them that their presence violated our territorial and class boundaries. We viewed these kids as rich, spoiled, privileged and different from us – a reminder of how little we counted in a society which seemed more concerned about punishing us than providing us with the resources that spoke to a more humane future. We hated their alleged arrogance and despised their Pat Boone-type music. Generally, we had no contact with middle-class and ruling-class kids until we went to high school. Hope High School (ironically named) in the 1960s was a mix of mostly poor black and white kids, on the one hand, and a small group of wealthy kids on the other. School authorities and administrators did everything they could to make sure that the only space we shared was the cafeteria during lunch hour. Generally black and working-class white kids were warehoused and segregated in that school. Because we were tracked into dead-end courses, school became a form of dead time for most of us – a place in which our bodies, thoughts and emotions were regulated and subjected to either ridicule or swift disciplinary action if we broke any of the rules. We moved within these spaces of hierarchy and segregation deeply resentful of how we were treated, but with little understanding and no vocabulary to connect our personal rage to either larger social structures or viable forms of political resistance. We were trapped in a legacy of commonsensical and privatized understandings that made us complicitous with our own oppression. In the face of injustice, we learned to be aggressive and destructive, but we learned little about what it might mean to unlearn our prejudices and join in alliances with those diverse others who were oppressed in different and sometimes similar ways.
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Rather, the everyday practices that shaped our lives were often organized around rituals of harsh discipline, rigid regulation and ongoing acts of humiliation. For instance, the working-class black and white kids from my section of town entered Hope though the back door of the building, while the rich white kids entered through the main door in the front of the school. We didn’t miss the point and we did everything we could to let the teachers know how we felt about it. We were loud and unruly in classes, we shook the rich kids down and took their money after school, we cheated whenever possible, but more than anything, we stayed away from school until we were threatened with being expelled. While race was a more problematic register of difference, class registered its difference through a range of segregated spaces. Along with the black kids in the school, our bodies rather than our minds were taken up as a privileged form of cultural capital. With few exceptions, the teachers and school administrators let us know that we were not bright enough to be in college credit courses, but were talented enough to be star athletes or do well in classes that stressed manual labor. Both working-class whites and blacks resented those students who studied, used elaborate, middle-class language and appeared to live outside of their physicality. We fought, desired, moved and pushed our bodies to extremes, especially in those few public spheres open to us. For me, as a white youth, that meant the race track, the basketball court and the baseball diamond.
As a working-class white kid, I found myself in classes with black kids, played basketball with them and loved black music. But we rarely socialized outside of school. Whiteness in my neighborhood was a signifier of pride, a marker of racial identity experienced through a dislike of blacks. Identities were viewed as fixed, unchanging and defined within complex notions of privilege. Unlike the current generation of many working-class kids, we defined ourselves in opposition to blacks and, while we listened to their music, we did not appropriate their styles. Racism ran deep in that neighborhood and no one was left untouched by it. But identities are always in transit: they mutate, change and often become more complicated as a result of chance encounters, traumatic events or unexpected collisions. The foundation of my white racist identity was shaken while I was in the ninth grade in the last year of junior high school.
I was on the junior high basketball team along with a number of other white and black kids. The coach had received some tickets to a Providence College game. Providence College’s basketball team had begun to receive extensive public attention because it had won a National Invitation Basketball tournament; moreover, the team roster included a number of famous players such as Lenny Wilkens and Johnny Egan. We loved the way in which these guys played and we tried to incorporate their every move into our own playing styles. Getting tickets to see them play was like a dream come true for us. Having only two tickets to give away, the coach held a contest after school in the gym to decide who would go to the game. He decided to give the tickets to the two players who made the most consecutive foul shots. The air was tense as we started to compete for the tickets. I ended up with two other players in a three-way tie and we had one chance to break it. As I approached the foul line, Brother Hardy, a large black kid, started taunting me as I began to shoot. We exchanged some insults and suddenly we were on each other, fists flying. Suddenly I was on the floor, blood gushing out of my nose; the fight was over as quickly as it started. The coach made us continue the contest and ironically, Brother Hardy and I won the tickets, shook hands and went to the game together. The fight bridged us together in a kind of mutual esteem we didn’t quite understand, but respected. Soon afterward, we started hanging out together and became friends. After graduating from junior high school, we parted and I didn’t see him again until the following September when I discovered that he to also was attending Hope High School.
I made the varsity team my sophomore year; I never knew why, but Brother Hardy never bothered to try out. We talked once in a while in the school halls, but the racial boundaries in the school did not allow us to socialize much with each other. But that soon changed. The second month into the school year, I noticed that every day during lunch hour a number of black kids would cut in front of white kids in the food line, shake them down and take their lunch money. I was waiting for it to happen to me, but it never did. In fact, the same black kids who did the shaking down would often greet me with a nod or “Hey, man, how you doin?” as they walked by me in the corridors as well as the cafeteria. I later learned that Brother Hardy was considered the toughest black kid in the school and he had put out the word to his friends to leave me alone.
During the week, I played basketball at night at the Benefit Street Club, situated in the black section of the city. I was one of the few whites allowed to play in the gym. The games were fast and furious and you had to be good to continue. I started hanging out with Brother Hardy and on the weekends went to the blues clubs with him and his friends. We drank, played basketball and rarely talked to each other about race. Soon, some of my friends and myself were crossing a racial boundary by attending parties with some of our black teammates. Few people in our old neighborhood knew that we had broken a racial taboo and we refrained from telling them.
I couldn’t articulate it in those formative years, but as I moved within and across a number of racially defined spheres it slowly became clear to me that I had to redefine my understanding of my own whiteness and the racism that largely informed it. I had no intention of becoming a black wannabe, even if such an option had existed in the neighborhood in which I grew up and, of course, it didn’t. But at the same time, I began to hate the racism that shaped the identities of my white friends. My crossing of the racial divide was met at best with disdain and at worst with ridicule. Crossing this border was never an option for Brother Hardy and his friends; if they had crossed the racial border to come into my neighborhood they would have been met with racial epithets and violence. Even in the early sixties, it became clear to me that such border crossings were restricted and only took place with a passport stamped with the legacy of racial privilege. My body was relearning the lessons of race and identity because I was beginning to unlearn the racist ideologies that I took for granted for so long. But I had no language to question critically how I felt nor did I understand how to reject the notion that to be a working-class white kid meant one had to be a racist by default.
The language I inherited as a kid came from my family, friends, school and the larger popular culture. Rarely did I encounter a vocabulary in any of these spheres that ruptured or challenged the material relations of racism or the stereotypes and prejudices that reinforced race and class divisions. It was only later, as the sixties unfolded, that I discovered in the midst of the civil rights and antiwar movement, the languages of dissent and possibility that helped me to rethink my own memories of youth, masculinity, racism and class discrimination.
In many ways, much of my work has been an attempt to engage in a form of memory work – exploring how I was positioned and how I located myself within a range of discourse and institutional practices – in which it has become clear that racial and class differences fueled by bigotry, intolerance and systemic inequality were the disruptive forces in my life. My own sense of what it meant to be a white male emerged performatively through my interactions with peers, the media and the broader culture. The identifications I developed, the emotional investments I made and the ideologies I used to negotiate my youth were the outcome of educational practices that appeared to either ignore or denigrate working-class people, women and minority groups. Popular culture provided the medium through which we learned how to negotiate our everyday lives, especially when it brought together elements of resistance found in Hollywood youth films such as “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) or the rock n’ roll music of Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Etta James, and other artists. Moreover, working-class street culture provided its own set of unique events and tensions in which our bodies, identities and desires were both mobilized and constrained. We were the first generation of working-class kids for whom popular media such as television played a central role in legitimating not only our social roles, but also the limited range of possibilities through which we could imagine something beyond the world in which we lived. The trauma I associated with negotiating between the solidarity I felt with Brother Hardy and my white working-class friends suggested that education works best when those experiences that shape and penetrate one’s lived reality are jolted, unsettled and made the object of critical analysis.
In looking back on my experience of moving through the contested terrains of race, gender and class, it is clear to me that power is never exerted only through economic control, but also through what might be called a form of cultural pedagogy, what C. Wright Mills called the cultural apparatus and Pierre Bourdieu called the privileging of certain forms of cultural capital as forms of symbolic power and privilege. Racism and class hatred are learned activities, and, as a kid, I found myself in a society that was all too ready to teach them. Biography only takes us so far, but when connected to history, it offers an important narrative for linking the personal to the political while at the same time enabling one to translate private issues into public considerations. And it is these personal memories of my own experience with the indignities and power structures of race and class that bear so heavily on how I now mediate those forces at a much different period in my life.
Today, I find the racism that shaped my youth has resurfaced with a vengeance and, yet, seems to be abstracted from any sense of the past, the civil rights struggles that fought for racial justice and the emergence of a new racist cultural pedagogy that became visible, if note celebrated, with the infamous Willie Horton political ad run by George H. W. Bush during the 1988 presidential campaign. Racism today has been both reconfigured and made invisible with regard to its real victims. In the first instance, racism now represents an attack on white people who see themselves as on the receiving end of black power structures and black politicians. This is most obvious in the remarks of a number of infamous politicians and media celebrities. For example, Glenn Beck recently claimed that President Obama was “a racist” who has “a deep-seated hatred for white people” and compared his administration to the “Planet of the Apes.” Rush Limbaugh has called Obama a “halfrican American” and repeatedly played a song on his radio show unapologetically titled “Barack the Magic Negro.” All the while the dominant media says little about how these comments are symptomatic of a vile racism that has gained increasing respectability since the 1980s. When the notable talk-radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger went out of her way to use the N-word 11 times in 15 minutes in order to largely humiliate a black female caller, the press largely focused on the event as an expression of unfortunate and erratic behavior for which Dr. Laura later apologized. In the face of Dr. Laura’s decision to retire from her radio program, Sara Palin used Twitter to fire off some advice to her: “don’t retreat … reload.” This up front support for a racial slur coupled with a metaphor for violence does more than mimic the worse elements of the Jim Crow South, it also points to how the legacy of racism is both forgotten and simultaneously updated.
It appears that much can be forgiven in a society where it is increasingly believed that white men are now under attack by black people, largely embodied in the image of a black president who allegedly is a Muslim in disguise. The all too obvious and troubling claim being made daily by right-wing politicians and others that the public sphere is primarily the preserve of white Christians is too easily equated with a defense of nation, citizenship and patriotism; unfortunately, this monstrous claim is rarely challenged in the dominant media. Instead, racism becomes exclusively the preserve of language and utterly privatized as a result. Hence, foul racist remarks are treated as jokes, indiscreet humor, bad taste or a harmless species of opinion and largely removed from even a hint of the structural racism and accompanying power relations that have become increasingly visible in the United States. One obvious example of this strategy can be found in the way in which the current intense racism directed against Muslims, exemplified in numerous remarks made by conservative politicians and talk-radio hosts, is viewed as simply an expression of anger rather than a species of virulent racism.
Echoes of racism now present themselves in multiple forms and are spreading across the country like a highly contagious virus. This is obvious in terms of a racist cultural pedagogy spread largely through a right-wing cultural apparatus. But its traces and effects can also be found in acts of real violence that now run like a highly charged electric current through the mainstream media, which both reproduces representations of racist violence while failing to comment on it critically. Hence, when right-wing journalists, bloggers and politicians make comments about Obama instituting death panels, concentration camps, mass round ups and a socialist government, such comments are either dealt with as simply individual opinions or individual prejudices. Individual free speech now trumps any claim to social and racial justice. At the same time, state and structural racism are no longer viewed as significant forces in shaping contemporary American society and is now safely ensconced in a market-driven discourse that imagines itself free of racism, legitimated by the election of the first African-American president. Not surprisingly in this alleged era of a post-civil rights society, as politics becomes more racialized, the discourse about race becomes more privatized, reduced to the realm of psychology, emotive disorders, individual responsibility and that old line of defense, free speech.
Any talk about the political and material transformation of a deeply racial social order is largely off the radar for the mainstream media, if not for most of the American public. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the dominant media has largely refused to connect the racism characteristic of the current debate and resistance to building a Mosque near ground zero to a more comprehensive political and cultural agenda or even the escalating and brutal burning of Mosques and violence being waged against Muslims in other parts of the country. The barely disguised racism at work in this controversy is simply treated as another opinion, an expression of post-9/11 anger, legitimated by the principle of free speech. What is disturbing about this controversy is that it registers both an alarming growth of racism in the United States and it indicates how the escalating of racist name calling and proliferation of racist representations easily moves into a nightmarish siege mentality brimming with the threat, if not actual practice, of violence. As insecurities and anxieties grow among the American public in the midst of an economic recession and the failure of state and federal governments to offer substantive reforms, race, religious, cultural and class hatred become convenient scapegoats for allowing right-wing corporate and religious drones to promote their ideological and political agendas while enhancing their celebrity status and raking in large profits.
Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I witnessed how egregious acts of racism such as the killing and torture of Emmett Till, the beatings of civil rights demonstrators and the humiliation suffered by Rosa Parks sparked major demonstrations, mobilizations and social movements dedicated to fighting racism. Racism was brutally exercised, but did not escape the public shame the country rightly felt about it. There is no shame over racism today because it is no longer viewed as a social problem, but merely an individual issue, and when its poisonous rhetoric and policies emerge, we seem to lack any vocabulary for addressing it, except through the discourse of those fanning the flames of racial injustice.
How else to explain the willingness of many Americans to accept Beck’s claim that he is appropriating the civil rights movement while at the same time spewing out daily the most offensive racial commentaries? What are we to make of NBC’s Brian Williams revisiting Katrina on a heavily promoted Dateline special, “Hurricane Katrina: the First Five Days,” and focusing largely in a self-congratulatory manner on how well the media then covered the event? Lost in his analysis was any commentary on the racist policies that defined the Bush administration’s response to Katrina or the racist brutality exercised in the aftermath of the storm by elements of the New Orleans Police Department. Instead, he reinforced the myth Katrina was a natural tragedy rather than a political one and that violence was out of control in the days following the tragedy – a myth that has been exposed by none other than the new Orleans Times-Picayune. But, of course, the media in this instance did not merely fail to adequately report on the events and response leading up to Katrina, but, instead, became complicit in once again suggesting that African-American culture is largely a culture of violence. We need to pay attention to how race is being spoken in our dominant media and everyday language just as we need to examine the cultural and social formations that benefit from class and racial injustices. We need to remind ourselves about how race and class injustices undermine the fabric of democracy.
As a child growing up in the midst of severe racial segregation, there were spaces of resistance where the gap between America’s democratic ideals and the realities of class inequality and racial injustice were made visible. There were oppositional spaces, movements and a trace of democratic idealism running through the sixties and President Lyndon Johnson’s image of the “Great Society.” While such idealism often covered over a host of injustice, it did provide a political and ethical referent for thinking about the gap between the existing democracy and the promise of a substantive democratic polity. I think that idealism has turned to cynicism in America. The gap between the rich and poor and the powerless and powerful is larger than ever and the deepening inequalities and misery and human suffering these gaps produce are growing out of control. Moreover, everywhere we turn, the shadow of Jim Crow is engulfing the policies, practices and discourses about race in America. The racial segregation of public schooling is greater today than in the sixties; racism is on full display in the increasing collective anger waged against Muslims; the prison has become the pre-eminent public space for black youth; poor minorities of class and color are now viewed by politicians, the dominant media and the general public as largely disposable, a drain on the public coffers and unworthy of social protections. Similarly, the racially specific burdens of poverty, unemployment and despair and the emergence of a neoliberal market driven order suggests a new era in racial violence and a dangerous moment in the proliferation of multiple forms of racism. America has lost its capacity to bear witness as the avatars of racism are now treated in the dominant media as just another ideological position or, even worse, just one opinion among many. The pathology of racism and the growing inequality impacting those marginalized by class and age suggest the emergence of a society in which we no longer believe in the humanity of the other; instead, too many Americans increasingly believe and support the notion that humanity has lost its claim on democracy and is no longer worth fighting for. The deeper causes of class inequality and racial injustice have been drowned out by the shouting and demagoguery of a group of radical authoritarians who control the cultural apparatuses in America and make any form of legitimate politics dysfunctional. They speak of a new American dream and civil rights movement, but they lack either the imagination or the ethics to be taken seriously, especially given how much they despise democracy, thrive on racist and class-based social relations and disdain any vestige of the social state.
If we are going to take democracy seriously, it is time for social movements, parents, unions, intellectuals and elements of the new media to address rigorously the need to contest individually and collectively this new form of racism and class inequality head on as part of a new post-civil rights struggle. This means fighting for public services, emboldening the social state, waging a cultural war in which progressive opinions and democratic values can be heard, connecting various independent struggles as part of one larger movement for a radical democracy. Central to such a struggle is the fight for ideas and power. Structures of power, whether they be in the realm of economics, politics or the cultural realm, will not change by themselves. The struggle for ideas, subjectivities, desires, minds and different modes of agency signify that pedagogy and education and the public spheres that make them possible have to become primary to any form of politics that believes in the merging of reason and freedom. We are at a watershed in American history and dark clouds are forming on the horizon. The price to be paid for living in this increasingly privatized, consumer-oriented and corporate-dominated culture is almost too bleak to imagine. But we have to both imagine it and then organize in every way possible to prevent it.