Monday, July 27, 2020

On Structural Racism

Structural racism, also known as systemic or societal racism, is more deeply entrenched in our working culture than you think.

A quick google search on the definition of structural racism gives us the following:

"A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with 'whiteness' and disadvantages associated with 'color' to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist." [1]

This brings us to the point of this article: we need a revised definition for structural racism—one that hones in on what it is and how it affects people of color. While the above definition is effective in broadly describing structural racism, it suffers from lack of specificity. What "public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms" are most damaging in terms of perpetuating whiteness in working spaces?

In my experience, structural racism is often spawned from people's lack of empathy and understanding. We must therefore rethink structural racism to highlight the role that empathy plays in fostering workplace equity. This will allow us to call attention to normalized institutional practices that have profoundly negative effects on people of color.

For the purpose of this article, then, I will be discussing structural racism both with the above definition in mind, and with the understanding that it often functions as an institutional bias wrought from lack of empathy towards members of that institution, being especially characterized by people in power, often white, negatively impacting the lives of people of color via a willful inability to understand the problems they face.

Because predatory lack of empathy runs rampant and is often waved away as a form of "institutional tradition" or as a "rite of passage" enacted upon junior members of the institution, it stubbornly survives efforts to purge structural racism via "diversity and inclusion" initiatives. Ironically, such initiatives are often enacted by people who are enablers of predatory lack of empathy, and held up as excuses for not making real institutional change.

What does this kind of structural racism look like? Let's examine a series of fictional scenarios reconstructed from real situations experienced by people I know.

Scenario #1 - A superior offers you the opportunity to travel abroad to work at a sister company for three months. The goal is for you to acquire new skills that might lead to a possible promotion later down the line. Unfortunately, this trip would only be partially subsidized by your company, meaning you would have to pay for travel and living expenses. Further, your salary would be cut in half while abroad. When you decline this opportunity, citing a lack of ability to fund the trip and the need to pay rent and other expenses, your superior responds angrily, imploring you to take the opportunity lest you risk never ascending further in your company. Unable to show empathy towards your situation, your superior sees your declination as an insult, as from their perspective they were offering you an opportunity. 
Scenario #2 - You're a graduate student struggling to make ends meet. In a meeting with your adviser you admit to being unable to progress with your research because you've been forced to take on extra work to supplement your income. Your adviser rages at you, saying things like "we pay you enough to pay for rent and essentials, you shouldn't be doing all of this extra work." Rather than put themselves in your shoes and try to understand your perspective, your adviser is unable to view things from outside the bubble of their graduate school experience, which was much better funded than your own. Your relationship with your adviser grows increasingly worse until you are forced to leave the program.
Scenario #3 - You are part of a company that is making a concerted effort to be more "diverse and inclusive." Unfortunately, little progress has been made. The problem, you suspect, is the fact that the diversity and inclusion initiative is run by people who are unable to understand the plight faced by people of color. Worse than that, these people have been known to be some of the worst perpetrators of microaggressions in your company, making disparaging remarks about various minorities and waving away criticisms with comments like "people of color love me, I'm big in their communities." Ironically, your company's effort to become diverse and inclusive makes things more divisive than they were before. 
Scenario #4 - You are a junior employee at a longstanding institution with a history of structural racism. Recently you had a company-wide meeting to discuss these systemic issues, but was dismayed to find that your superiors reacted defensively to people's critiques. Rather than try to modify how they act, they complained that "their jobs are difficult too," and that you cannot expect them to be able to fix all institutional disparities on their own. In the end, nothing is done and structural racism persists.
Scenario #5 -  You're a teacher at a suburban elementary school. One of your administrators proposes incorporating an ethnic studies curriculum that would be taught across all grade levels. You strongly support this, but face resistance from colleagues who argue that, because their classes consist mainly of white students, it is pointless to teach them ethnic studies. Because they outnumber you severely, no progress is made in revising the curriculum and your students continue to learn nothing about America's history of slavery, colonialism, and racism. 
Scenario #6 - Your company has mandated that everyone take virtual courses on fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Unfortunately, such courses are vague and tend to shy away from directly discussing the issue of race, focusing more on how to have "a diversity of ideas." They are also constructed in a way that assumes the viewer is white, with most of its examples and scenarios built around the question "what should a white employee do in this situation?" These problematic online courses take the place of actively attacking the problem of racism in the workplace, meaning that, functionally, nothing changes.
Scenario #7 - You work at a retail store and write to your manager arguing that the workplace lacks diversity. Specifically, you cite how all of the employees involved with directly interacting with customers—including cashiers, supervisors, and managers—are white, while the floor workers and warehouse crew are people of color. In your mind, it isn't enough for the supervisors and managers to take training courses on racism, there needs to be equality with regard to the demographics of leading roles in the company. Your manager takes your letter as an insult to his ability to understand the issues of people of color, and responds by cutting your hours and playing favorites with those who commend him for the solutions you critiqued. You are soon forced to quit as word spreads and you become further ostracized by your manager and the supervisors under his command.          
In all of these scenarios, lack of empathy mixed with an inability to understand other people's problems allowed for the persistence of regressive institutional practices. Some might ask "well, what is racist about these scenarios, as these could affect anyone who is not in a position of power?" And this is a valid question. The reason why these scenarios constitute structural racism is because the institutions that practice these kinds of abusive power-relationships are usually ones that have historically been majority-white.

That is to say, the lack of empathy demonstrated in these scenarios often negatively impacts people of color more than other demographics, in effect making it a racist mentality. Further, because white people more frequently come from families with more entrenched wealth, or with more connections and institutional knowledge, they are less impeded by these structural problems. 

In effect, lack of empathy perpetuates structural racism, allowing the current system to reproduce itself ad-infinitum. Until we accept this, we won't be able to make much progress towards building a more diverse and inclusive workplace.


[1] Definition taken from the first Google result for "define structural racism":

Monday, May 18, 2020

Fragile Rights: The History of Voting in the United States

This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on May 1st, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason. 

In 2013, the Shelby v. Holder U.S. Supreme Court decision gave states permission to change their election laws without needing advance clearance from the Department of Justice. This decision invalidated a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required preclearance with the DoJ to protect voters of color. Most people might ask: How did we get to this point?

But Professor of History Greg Downs is not interested in asking “how did we get here?” In fact, he sees this as the wrong question. The United States, he argues, has never been a country where the government guaranteed the right to vote. Indeed, the United States is a country with a tradition of disenfranchisement, rather than enfranchisement.

In his talk titled “Voting Rights Under Fire,” Downs argued that U.S. history could be defined by the struggle to expand and retract the vote. Far from being a recent development, “challenging registration laws and low voter turnout” are American traditions dating back to the 1830s. As such, Downs suggests that Americans need to be prepared to fight for the right to vote, rather than settle for less based on the notion that such a right is a given.

Much of the misconception that the United States is a democracy that champions the right to vote comes from post-revolutionary war rhetoric. In a time where white men controlled the vote, those in power were more than happy to claim their love for democracy. But as immigrants began flooding into the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, their tune changed. Suddenly, it was more important to restrict the vote than expand it.

Such evidence has led some political scientists to suggest that, had the Irish immigrated 20 years earlier, it is likely that the US would not have evolved into a democracy. But efforts to retract the vote based on fears over immigration were met by simultaneous attempts to expand the vote, most notably by the women’s suffrage movement started in 1848. Thus, not only is retraction of the vote a US legacy, but so is protest in favor of its expansion.

While the Civil War and the subsequent passage of the 15th amendment represented a blow to those in favor of retraction, Americans soon after experienced another backlash against voting rights. This came mainly in the south, where blacks increasingly lost the ability to vote as a result of various restrictive laws. But as in the case of immigrants, backlash against black voters was met by simultaneous victory on another front: the passage of the 19th amendment.

That said, the 19th amendment did not represent the perfect solution either. Some scholars have argued that the enfranchisement of white women was predicated on the disenfranchisement of black men. Additionally, like the 15th amendment, the 19th amendment was a negative right. That is, it did not grant women the right to vote outright. It listed the reasons for why women could not be denied the right to vote.

Downs notes that one possible reason why Shelby County v. Holder won by a 5-4 majority is because of a lack of awareness regarding U.S. history. Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that he removed the need for preclearance because “the country had changed,” and thus it was no longer necessary for the federal government to restrain state governments.

And yet as soon the Supreme Court removed preclearance, several states began passing restrictive voting laws. According to Downs, had Roberts been aware of the United States’ long history of backlashes against the right to vote, he may have been more suspicious of his idea that “the country had changed.” 
Shelby County v. Holder has already had a lasting impact. Downs notes how strict voter ID and registration laws passed in Wisconsin and North Carolina may have contributed to the slight republican victories in the 2016 presidential election. The only solution, much as has been done in the past, is to continue to fight for easier access to the vote. Whereas many may believe their rights to be inalienable, the truth, as the fight over enfranchisement reveals, is that “rights don’t protect themselves.”

The White Woman's Slave Market: Black Wet Nurses and Reproductive Violence

This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on November 13th, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. Additionally, the original article was unfortunately plagiarized (albeit in a way that mangled its content) by a website I won't repeat here. Therefore I am re-publishing it here as it was meant to be. 

On Wednesday, November 8th, Assistant Professor of History Stephanie Jones-Rogers of UC Berkeley brought to light the market for enslaved wet nurses in nineteenth-century America in a talk hosted by the DHI Research Cluster Women and Gender in the World.

In a talk entitled “‘She could spare one ample breast for the profit of her owner’: White Mothers and Enslaved Wet Nurses’ Invisible Labor in American Slave Markets,” Jones-Rogers argued that studying enslaved wet nurses reveals white women’s complicity in expanding slavery in the south and demonstrates how white mothers were at the forefront of these market transactions. White southern women had created a “niche sector of the slave market” dedicated to providing them with the specific maternal labor that they sought from bondswomen.

Jones-Rogers emphasized that we cannot forget about the reproductive and maternal violence white women perpetrated against black bondswomen. Indeed, the commodification of slave mothers provides an important example of the disturbing “quotidian” horrors of slavery.

Jones-Rogers’ research has much significance in the field of nineteenth-century U.S. history, particularly because so little attention has been paid to non-masculinized enslaved labor. The few nineteenth-century historians who have discussed enslaved wet nurses, like Walter Johnson in River of Dark Dreams, downplay the extent to which white women capitalized on black breast milk.

The reason for this, Jones-Rogers’ contends, is because historians have focused their research on elite southern white women, while ignoring the ways in which non-elite white women used black wet nurses. By studying wet nurse advertisements in southern newspapers, Jones-Rogers’ uncovered a disturbing story of white women’s reliance on and exploitation of black women.

These advertisements, along with other primary source documentation, reveal much about the reproductive violence inflicted upon black women by their white counterparts. They show, among other things, how white women timed their pregnancies with that of their black wet nurses, and how they forced black mothers to dedicate the majority of their milk to white children, rather than their own children.

When black wet nurses became “unproductive,” that is, could no longer produce milk, they were replaced by white mothers who deemed them to be defective. White women did this rather than improve nutritional conditions for black wet nurses.

Because white women managed black wet nurses’ labor, they were the ones who determined the market for black wet nurses. Using a lexicon derived from the greater slave market, white women graded black wet nurses based on whether they were “likely” (meaning “likely to work out”), their skill level, whether the white children they nursed in the past ended up healthy, and whether or not their milk was “fresh.”

Freshness was determined by the age of the enslaved wet nurses’ infant. The older their infant, the less valuable her milk. Enslaved wet nurses whose infant died soon after childbirth were extremely valuable. White women appreciated the lack of the extra “encumbrance,” knowing full well that more time and resources would be spent on their own children.

Becoming a wet nurse had a number of detrimental emotional effects on black women, beyond those created by more traditional forms of slave labor. For one, it separated them from established kinship networks. It also made it more difficult for them to bond with their children, who were often separated from them for prolonged periods so that they could focus on servicing white children instead.

The extent to which white women had commodified black wet nurses’ labor can be seen in how they reacted to this emotional distress. Instead of trying to improve conditions for enslaved wet nurses, white women typically used their wet nurses’ despair as an excuse to sell them, noting in advertisements to other prospective buyers that this particular wet nurse was prone to “the sulks” or “madness,” lessening her value.

Black mothers were used daily for their bodily resources, with no regard for their personal well-being, often leading to their mental and physical decline. It is only with research like Jones-Rogers’ that we can truly begin to understand the depraved nature of the south’s “peculiar institution.”

This talk was organized by UC Davis Associate Professors of History Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor and Lisa Materson, directors of the Women and Gender in the World DHI Research Cluster, and also supported by the History Department Colloquium. Jones-Rogers’ upcoming book, Mistresses of the Market, will more thoroughly explore the topic discussed in this presentation.

Defining Capitalism: Commodification, Fungibility, and Plantation Slavery

The new history of slavery and capitalism | Aeon Ideas

This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on May 8th, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason.

For UC Berkeley Assistant Professor of History Caitlin Rosenthal, the history of capitalism will remain impenetrable as long as we continue to provide weak definitions for “capitalism.” Though countless scholars have tried to define capitalism, no definition has been settled on. In her new book Accounting for Slavery, Rosenthal hopes to change that.

Described as one of the premier historians of capitalism, Rosenthal visited UC Davis on April 25th to field questions about the arguments at the center of her forthcoming book. Put simply, she contends that nineteenth century southern plantations need to be studied as businesses, much as northern factories are, in order to better understand capitalism.

For Rosenthal, capitalism is commodification. As such, she argues that the commodification of slaves allows us to better understand how capitalism and slavery were related. But beyond commodification, she believes that “at the center of capitalism is capital,” and that systems of managing capital were “advanced” in the South by the late antebellum period.

It is important to note that Rosenthal does not claim that capitalism is better understood through an investigation of the South rather than the North. She simply believes that southern plantation slavery cannot be “written off as an aspect of capitalism,” as some scholars have argued.

Two UC Davis commentators provided Rosenthal with constructive criticism. The first was Nick Perrone, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history. Perrone asked Rosenthal, “if slaves were commodities, why didn’t newspapers list prices for slaves like it did for other commodities?” Rosenthal replied that that it was often too difficult for newspapers to assess the value of slaves.

The second commentator was Justin LeRoy, assistant professor in the Department of History. He noted how Rosenthal’s findings show us how “slavery could be capitalist and allow us to see factors of capitalism unable to be seen in the North,” and that this could be true without the South necessarily being crucial to the industrial revolution.

LeRoy’s question to Rosenthal centered on her sources. He asked, “why do we go to planters records rather than the black abolitionist press” when searching for answers regarding the business practices of plantations? Rosenthal noted that she would consult abolitionist sources in the future.

Afterwards, both LeRoy and Louis Warren, the W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of U.S. Western History, asked Rosenthal about how we might understand her findings in light of the fact that Spanish slavers had been using many of the same business practices as antebellum planters centuries earlier. Warren was also skeptical about the relationship between commodification and capitalism, noting how capitalism more often than not “thrives on the absence of fungibility.”

Though Rosenthal’s forthcoming book may not provide us with the concrete definition for slavery that economic historians and historians of capitalism have been searching for, it will definitely further our collective understanding about the inner workings of capitalism.

From Slavery to Servitude: Making Free Labor Unfree in Nineteenth-Century Brazil

This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on January 29th, 2018, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason.

In 1888, Brazil became the last country to abolish slavery. But the seeds contributing to its demise had been planted decades earlier. As Assistant Professor of History José Juan Pérez Meléndez revealed in a talk on Tuesday, Jan. 23rd, Brazil implemented laws regulating free immigrant labor as early as 1837, marking a period of transition from the use of black slaves. But perhaps because slavery was so entrenched in Brazil, its free laborers were, in practice, far from being truly free.

The demand for migrant labor in Brazil came about as a result of the Brazilian government seeking to build up the nation’s canals, roads, bridges, and aqueducts. Because of their close cultural ties and their location essentially between Brazil and Portugal, Portuguese living in the Azores were targeted by Brazilian officials as representing the optimal labor force.

Most migrant laborers, or colonos, in Brazil ended up becoming craftsmen, domestic servants, or transport workers. In many cases, the work available to them mirrored what was available to black slaves. This connection did not go unnoticed to Brazilians, who deemed colonos to be the “filth/excrement” of Portugal. This was compounded by the fact that most colonos lived close to each other in Rio de Janeiro, in a hostel known as the deposito.

It was in this light that the Brazilian Work Contract Law of 1837 was passed. In structure, it harkened back to British colonies’ regulations regarding indentured servitude. Less concerned with smoothing the transition from slave to free labor, the Work Contract Law instead focused on taking advantage of Portuguese migrants. For instance, the Law allowed colonos to be impressed into the Brazilian army, and gave the Brazilian empire jurisdiction over Portuguese minors.

Additionally, the Law made it more difficult for colonos to free themselves of their servitude. Indeed, it stated that debts left unpaid by colonos, particularly that relating to the cost of their transport to Brazil, could be doubled, and that there would be jail time along with that. Thus the Work Contract Law helped to promote the portrayal of Portuguese immigrants, specifically Azoreans, as criminals.

Between 1837 and 1839, the colono trade began to fall apart, primarily because the companies paying for colonos’ transport to Brazil became financially unstable. Though the flow of Azorean workers to Brazil was relatively short-lived, Pérez Meléndez notes that the culture of regressive labor management tactics employed in their management set a precedent that would be replicated in other countries later in the century.

And it should also be said, when Brazil finally turned away from slavery in 1888, it was in large part because it had a new source of labor to turn to: European immigrants. Perhaps Brazil felt especially comfortable in making this transition because it had previous experience with Azorean colonos in the 1830s.

Pursuing Fundamental Questions: James Oakes on the Relationship Between Capitalism and Slavery

The Plantation System | National Geographic Society

This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on April 17th, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason.

Is the debate over the relationship between capitalism and slavery over? Many historians argue that it is. But for James Oakes, much work remains to be done. And indeed, his talk focused on complicating one of the arguments made by several scholars: namely, that slavery and rapid economic growth are inherently connected. He did this by demonstrating how slavery only ever constituted a small percentage of economic growth in developing industrial societies. For instance, he says that 10 percent of the Northern United States’ manufacturing economy relied on slave cotton. Significant, but not responsible for the majority of the North’s economic growth.

A key tenant of the relationship between capitalism and slavery is the idea that slavery (as an external factor) can be used to explain economic transformation in England and the Northern United States. But Oakes suggests that this might not be the case. Instead, there may have been internal factors (something akin to Weber’s Protestant Ethic), or other external factors that had a greater influence on the economic dynamism that came to define these regions. Scholars have yet to come to a consensus as to what these other factors may be.

Perhaps slavery only promoted the growth of some industries, while having little to no effect on others. Which is to say, maybe slavery was connected to the rise of capitalism in some ways, but not to the extent that historians have previously argued. Or as Oakes puts it, “was slavery capitalist and not crucial to the North’s development, or was it not capitalist and indispensable to the North’s development?” Answering that question would go a long way in discovering the extent to which slavery and capitalism are related.

Lastly, Oakes discussed the need for a gendered analysis of capitalism and slavery. He says that a study investigating the relationship between “laws of marriage and the family” in the North and South, and how they intertwined with their respective economic systems, might shed further light on the capitalism/slavery debate. One of his more controversial theories is that paternalism may have had more of a role in shaping the North’s economy rather than the South’s, which is the opposite of what historians have traditionally argued.

In the questioning that followed the talk, one professor asked about the political implications of scholars arguing that a system as repugnant as slavery was responsible for creating the modern world. That is, how might such an argument influence politicians whose core beliefs are inextricably tied to the fostering of economic growth? It is difficult to say, but such hypotheticals can be avoided if scholars work to complicate the discourse on capitalism and slavery in the manner that Oakes suggests.

Who Really Led the Haitian Revolution?

This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on May 22nd, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason.

Jane Landers, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, recently gave a lecture on the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). In the process, she noted how historians have mischaracterized it by using mostly French and English sources in their analysis. Landers demonstrated how it is possible to reframe the narrative of the Haitian Revolution by analyzing it through the lens of oft-neglected Spanish sources.

Indeed, one of the central questions of Landers’ talk dealt with geography. Given that Spanish Santo Domingo (the present-day Dominican Republic) bordered Haiti, why have historians of the Haitian Revolution neglected to use Spanish sources?

Typically, Toussaint Louverture is regarded as the leader of the Haitian Revolution. But who really led it? Using Spanish sources, Landers reveals how Toussaint Louverture served under Jorge Biassou before 1796. Biassou envisioned himself as a servant of the Spanish King, and thus had a friendly relationship with Spaniards living in Santo Domingo. As a result, the Haitians allied with Spain against the French from 1791 to 1796.

Because only mountains separated Haiti from Santo Domingo, the border between the two regions was fluid at best. Spaniards sent weapons and supplies to the Haitians, who in turn fought against the French in the name of the Spanish King.

However, this symbiotic relationship did not last. Once King Louis XVI was dethroned and executed (a result of the French Revolution), the Haitians aligned themselves with the new French Republic. After which, they began attacking their former allies, Spanish Santo Domingo.

Landers’ Spanish sources do much to explain why the Haitians began targeting Santo Domingo. According to correspondences she uncovered, the Spanish recognized Jorge Biassou as the Haitian Revolution’s leader, primarily because he showed such deep respect for the Spanish King.

This created tensions between Biassou and his subordinates over whether he was fit to lead the Haitian Revolution. Viewing this political power struggle as an opportunity, Toussaint Louverture rallied Haiti’s troops and reorganized them under his command, dedicating the Haitian Revolution not to the Spanish King, as Biassou had, but to the autonomy of Haiti.

Landers closed her talk by contending that the primary value of these Spanish sources is that they prove Jorge Biassou was more powerful than Toussaint Louverture before 1796. By focusing on French sources, Toussaint Louverture is unfairly highlighted as the Haitian Revolution’s only significant leader. Without investigating the Spanish sources closely, Jorge Biassou’s role in the Haitian Revolution is unfairly minimized.

Thus, to truly understand history, we cannot ignore certain sources in our analysis. As Landers reveals, doing so may leave us blind to the true stories of even well-researched events like the Haitian Revolution.