Monday, April 30, 2007

White Researcher Tells Tales Out of School at Cleveland State University*

Noted Scholar Presents Evidence on “Backstage Racism”


Joe Feagin is a traitor to his race.

One would almost have to conclude that is how he would be considered in the Matrix world he describes.

In a career that has seen an unrelenting output of distinguished scholarship that has produced 48 books (six more are in the pipeline) and more than 175 articles, the 69 year old sociologist has thoroughly analyzed the living, thriving organism of racism that others have pronounced dead or dying.

Feagin was at Cleveland State University April 19 to talk about "backstage racism". In Feagin’s lexicon, “backstages” are places where whites are comfortable in vetted or presumed social situations where, knowingly or otherwise, their prejudices are more likely to surface.

In a 2002-2003 experiment, Feagin and a colleague collected journals from nearly 1000 college students – two-thirds of them white – enrolled at 28 colleges across the country. Students were instructed to record in personal journals their “observations of everyday events and conversations that deal with racial issues, images and understandings.”


The result was a depressing treasure trove: out of 15,000 accounts, nearly 12,000 depicted clearly racist commentary and actions by white acquaintances, relatives, and strangers. For the most part, the journals covered only five or six weeks.


By my rough calculations, this means that every week, on average, each student experienced 2 or 3 instances where racist commentary or actions were displayed.


As Feagin noted in his talk, the 12th annual Butler A. Jones Lecture, this is a remarkably different picture presented by repeated polls that show racist attitudes are fading from American life. When asked to explain the disparity, Feagin had a simple answer: in the polls, “whites lie.”


For Feagin, the notion that virulent racism is dead in America is “preposterous”. It has basically just taken up residence underground, or backstage, a fact he says is “ignored by the media and those in policy-making circles.”


A professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Feagin provided handouts to an audience of 125 or so that included CSU faculty and students, and numerous community leaders. The handouts illustrated several distinct situations where backstage racism was on display, including scenes taking place in the presence of African Americans and other nonwhite Americans. He said that about 75% of all incidents focused on blacks as the objects of prejudice, but that Jews and Hispanics, especially Mexicans, were also popular targets.


Feagin said he was particularly disturbed because his subjects were often moving among and were themselves, the best and the brightest, America’s future leaders. He noted how easily bias was assumed among groups of whites, even when the groups included strangers.


Feagin attributed this social illness to a variety of factors: the ahistorical nature of the Americans that declines to understand what 15 generations of white privilege has created in our society; the relatively weak enforcement of civil rights laws [“hardly enforced at all in housing”]; the wholesale absence of antiracism education; and a desire to preserve ill-gotten privileges. For Feagin, reparations are not a question of if but how much and why is it taking so long?


In response to a question about what black people can do amidst these circumstances, Feagin suggested amending the old maxim of eternal vigilance. He talked about leadership roles played by blacks in the multi-racial Abolitionist and Civil Rights Movements (“Frederick Douglass, not Abraham Lincoln, was the greatest American of the 19th century”) and said that, “Eternal Organization is the Price of Liberty.”


Feagin’s appearance was in honor of former CSU professor Butler A. Jones, a member of the team that provided essential research for Gunnar Myrdal’s seminal work, An American Dilemma. The work of Jones and other black scholars on the team, said Feagin, led to a complete re-framing of Myrdal’s work. Myrdal had begun investigating the Negro problem in America but concluded that there is a white problem.

Feagin’s lifelong and continuing research demonstrates the continuing scourge.

Feagin has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is a past president of the American Sociologist Association.
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* originally published at Cleveland OH in The Eastside News, April 2007.