Systemic Racism in the U.S. 1898-2018 – A Twitter Thread

In this thread, Lecturer in Social Inequalities Dr Ali Meghji (@alim1213) provides “twitter abstracts” on sociology readings that can help us to understand systemic racism in the US. His notes cover over a century’s worth of critical thought from Ida B Wells and WEB Du Bois in 1898 to Louise Seamster and Victor Ray in 2018. (View this thread on Twitter).

We can begin the journey with Ida B Wells and WEB Du Bois, both writing at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, both also being central in the creation of the NAACP. In his 1898 The Study of Negro Problems, Du Bois argued that sociologists of his time were reproducing, rather than contesting, racism and ideas of Black inferiority. This led him to a systematic critique of sociology Du Bois argued that we need a sociology which does not give the pretence of being ‘value neutral’ , but instead puts the values into sociology. i.e. a value-neutral sociology serves no value. As he claims himself:

One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved; and secondly, there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort that I was doing.

(Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, 67)

Part of Du Bois’ response to this racist sociology was the creation of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory in 1895. This centre dedicated was dedicated to the critical sociological study of racial inequality faced by Black Americans, with the agenda of creating social policy If you want to read more about the Atlanta School, I recommend that you read the brilliant work by @EarlWrightII , including his piece on the ‘lesser known’ members of the Atlanta School here:

While Du Bois was pioneering this emancipatory sociology, Ida B Wells was also doing sociological work, although it wasn’t recognised as such. in particular, her Southern Horrors documented Lynching in the US South Central to Wells’ work was that lynching and racial violence was not just the outcome of individual-level hostility, but was an integral part of the social structure. e.g. many Black people who were killed were targeted because they had successful businesses Violence was thus connected to attempts to exclude Black Americans from economic progress, as well as being a tool for regulating the ‘mixing’ of the supposedly superior and inferior races. Du Bois reflects upon this period of the late 19th century is his seminal Black Reconstruction:

The pioneering work in the study of the role of Black Americans during Reconstruction by the most influential Black intellectual of his time.This pioneering work was the first full-length study of the…

In this book is the argument that Black US-Americans are central to the making of the United States and to the world order, and yet they were (and are) pushed to the ontological peripheries of Western humanism and modernity. As Du Bois puts it himself:

Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a worldwide scale.

(Du Bois, 2014[1935], 56-7)

This speaks to Du Bois’ wider interest in imperialism, colonialism, and Neo colonialism. If you are interested in these links, check out recent works such as:

The Sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois

The first comprehensive understanding of Du Bois for social scientistsThe Sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois provides a comprehensive introduction to the founding…

Decolonization revolutionized the international order during the twentieth century. Yet standard histories that present the end of colonialism as an inevitable transition from a world of empires to …

  • And Manan Desai’s The United States of India (Gandhi may have been anti-Black, but Du Bois was central in the anti imperial movement in India).

Inside both of Du Bois and Ida B Wells’ sociological viewpoints was the desire to not just look at the racially subdominant, but at white folks, whiteness, and white supremacy. This ethos is summarised by Richard Wright when he commented after WW2 that “there isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem” Around the same time as Wright, Oliver Cox was developing a structural theory of white supremacy. Cox is often dismissed as a ‘class more than race’ theorist, but I think this is misguided. Let’s have a look at his ‘Caste, Class and Race‘:

In this book, Cox argues that racism in the US is characterised by whites’ racial monopoly over the use of violence: ‘It is this assurance of the continuing availability of the armed violence of the nation which gives confidence and authority to the anti-democratic class […] Organized violence is practically all on one side of the table’ (xxxviii) Of course, this racial monopoly over violence took many forms. We’ve talked about the horrors of lynching already, but it is also worth considering the forced sterilisation of Black women as covered in @DorothyERoberts‘s Killing the Black Body:

In 1997, this groundbreaking book made a powerful entrance into the national conversation on race. In a media landscape dominated by racially biased images of welfare queens and crack babies, Killing…

Central to Cox’s work is thus that racial monopoly over violence means racism is far more than individual prejudice: ‘one should miss the point entirely if one were to think of racial antagonism as having its genesis in some “social instinct” of antipathy between peoples’ (322) So racism is theorised as systemic rather than individual based, and, indeed, a system that allowed for Frazier – as an individual – to become president of the ASA, but a system that did not allow him to use the hotel elevator when he was due to give his presidential keynote.

Inside Cox’s work, though, was a global idea of white supremacy where ‘white man’s colour’ was ‘a social gift’ (346). Central to this world order is not just the ‘the belief in white superiority ‘, but also anti-Blackness. ‘Negroes […] must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law […] To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system’ (xxvii) Such analysis from Cox bears great similarity to Fanon and his notion of zone of non-being, which has been key to Black existentialism in more recent works by Lewis Gordon, and Denise Ferreira da Silva in her Toward a Global Idea of Race.

So we’ve mentioned Du Bois, Cox, and Frazier. All of these thinkers were later labelled by Joyce Ladner as being classical members of the Black sociological tradition. If you want to read specifically about this tradition, again, look at @EarlWrightII‘s work e.g. the co-authored piece with Thomas Calhoun:

Ladner builds this understanding of Black sociology in her edited book: The Death of White Sociology

So many decades after Du Bois’ critique of sociology, Ladner makes the same point in her 1973 book. Namely, sociology was continuing to reproduce myths of Black pathology and inferiority. ‘Hang on’, I head the post-racialists attest, ‘this book was published in 1973! Surely everything is ok now, because we had the civil rights movement with all of the equal op’s legislation in the 60s?’ …

Wrong! Shortly after Ladner’s 1973 book, we see the rise of critical race theory (CRT) in legal studies in the 1980s. In this ‘first wave’ of CRT, the movement was spearheaded by figures such as Crenshaw and Bell. Crenshaw and Bell both analysed how, two decades after civil rights legislation was introduced in the 60s, Black Americans were worse off on many economic, social, and educational measures, as seen in Crenshaw’s Race, Reform, Retrenchment paper.

Central to CRT was a critique of neoliberal reason. Racial inequalities were not the result of individual or group faults – as neoliberalism argued – but the result of a system predicated on these inequalities to begin with. With this critique, we turn to Angela Davis. Let’s look specifically at Davis’ Women, culture, & politics:

A collection of speeches and writings by political activist Angela Davis which address the political and social changes of the past decade as they are concerned with the struggle for racial, sexual, …

and Women, Race & Class:

Women, Race & Class

Ranging from the age of slavery to contemporary injustices, this groundbreaking history of race, gender and class inequality by the radical political activist Angela Davis offers an alternative view ….

In these texts, Davis points out that through the ’80s, the US radically increased its military spending, while systematically withdrawing from social welfare. The US had committed to spending $41 million AN HOUR (!) ($1billion a day) on the military in 1986

At this very same time, Black Americans were facing conditions of poverty and encountering diseases that Davis describes being typically only found in famine areas

Of course, during this period of the 80s into the 90s, we also see the acceleration of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ (we’re looking at you, Joe Biden 👀).

As Davis writes about how the inequalities faced by Black Americans in the 1980s were explained away as Black people being work-shy, and Black women being ‘welfare queens’ looking for handouts from the state, the war on drugs too was gendered. Dorothy Roberts, in her Killing the Black Body (see previous link) looks at the focus on so-called ‘crack babies’, and how it led to increased stigmatisation, pathologisation, and incarceration of Black women who were said to be behind this crisis.

Of course, such penal measures overlooked the data that white women, more so than Black women, were using higher rates of marijuana, opiates and barbiturates while pregnant These ideas of the Black welfare queen, or here with the Black woman behind the ‘crack baby’ epidemic, all became part of what Patricia Hill Collins labelled as ‘controlling images’ , e.g. in her Black Sexual Politics

In Black Sexual Politics, one of America’s most influential writers on race and gender explores how images of Black sexuality have been used to maintain the color line and how they threaten to spread…

This controlling images were ideological representations of Black men and women that – through a sexualised, racialised, and gendered prism – reproduced the social structure Collins’ analysis of the pathologised perception of Black masculinity is particularly apt when we think about the tragic events with George Floyd:

The war on drugs, with its racialised and gendered connotations, accelerated through the 90s into the 21st century. Michelle Alexander describes this period in her ‘The New Jim Crow

Once in a great while a book comes along that changes the way we see the world and helps to fuel a nationwide social movement. The New Jim Crow is such a book…

Here, Alexander points out that in the 90s-00s, Black people were making around 90% of drug related imprisonments in many US states. In many cases, Black people were 600 times more likely than whites to be imprisoned for drug related offences. Alexander’s book thus takes us back BOTH to Du Bois’ comment about the centrality of Black labour to the world order, AND Fanon’s point about the ontological nature of anti Blackness On the one hand – and Alexander cites Wacquant’s Prisons of Poverty here – Black people were deemed to be useless, and thus hidden away in prisons.

However, we also have the rise of a prison-industrial complex. Private prisons themselves now have over $5 billion revenue; AND companies like Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret and Target all profiting from the near-free labour of incarcerated people Alexander’s point is that Black people became not only exploited – in an economic sense – but also ontologically marginalised, pushed to the boundaries of neoliberal humanism and national self worth.

While being located in the imperial centre of Western hegemony, Black people thus still were tormented to what Gordon describes as hell on earth. 1. What do we mean by hell on earth? Well, it comes back to Fanon’s point that ‘The white man slaves to reach a human level’. i.e. violent exercise of anti Blackness is a means of reproducing white supremacy. What does this look like in the US? Elijah Anderson (@ElijaAnderson) approaches this through his notion of ‘the white space’

“The White Space” – Elijah Anderson, 2015

Since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, large numbers of black people have made their way into settings previously occupied only by whites, though their…

Here, Anderson shows (among many things) how within public space, whites are able – at any moment – to reply the color line and remind Black people of their place at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. this helps explain BBQ Becky, and the more recent e.g. of Amy Cooper The white space thus becomes a central mechanism for keeping Black Americans ‘in their place’.

It comes back to Cox’s point that whites have a monopoly over violence; the possibility of violence itself becomes a tool for social control. This helps us to understand why, e.g., Black people may not exercise in white neighbourhoods – from fear of being seen as a criminal, as shown by @SociologistRay. It also helps us to understand why Black people in the US have to internalise rules of interaction for their own safety, as Garrett elaborates here:

So why do the police keep getting away with their routine brutality towards Black men and women? The answer lies in the fact that the police in the US – since the early 20th century – are institution whose primary function is to reproduce the racial order In his recent paper, Julian Go @jgo34 looks to the Origins of American Policing.

Central to his argument is the idea of imperial feedback. The militarisation of the police – which is so apparent in these recent protests – stemmed from the US’ own missions of imperialism and colonialism abroad Particularly the military innovations, professionalisation, technology, and organisation which were fine-tuned during the US-Philippines war came to directly shape the US’ policing ‘at home’ Underlying this use of the military through colonialism, and racist policing ‘at home’, was a binding logic that these ‘lesser races’ were in need of control, regulation, and surveillance.

In a sense, therefore, we come back to where we began – with Du Bois and the connections between white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Are they two sides of the same coin, or completely disparate processes? Maybe this paper from @victorerikray@BaldwinVidal@Soc_Seeker and @DrDavidJLuke is helpful for you?

Critical Race Theory, Afro-Pessimism, and Racial Progress Narratives – Victor Erik Ray, Antonia Randolph, Megan Underhill, David Luke, 2017

Much work in the sociology of race and ethnicity centers on an underlying narrative of racial progress. Progress narratives are typically conceptualized as a …

But we are back to the beginning in another sense. Recall Du Bois’ quote that one ‘could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved’. This is precisely what we are continuing to see, more than 100 years after Du Bois’ claim Why then, are we so dedicated towards discussions of racial progress? As @victorerikray and @louise_seamster argue, is it not better to think of racism as shifting rather than necessarily getting better/worse?

Against Teleology in the Study of Race: Toward the Abolition of the Progress Paradigm – Louise Seamster, Victor Ray, 2018

We argue that claims of racial progress rest upon untenable teleological assumptions founded in Enlightenment discourse. We examine the theoretical and …

As Malcolm X put it: ‘Racism is like a Cadillac; they make a new model every year’.

And so here we have it. Over 100 year’s worth of sociological thought dedicated to showing that racism is structural and fundamental. The reason why we continue to do this work is because the structure remains. Social change requires for us to not just ‘educate ourselves’, ‘call out’ the bad apples, or to put various hashtags on our social media. We are talking about the need for structural change.

I’ll leave you with this reflection from Bonilla-Silva: ‘The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the Birthers, the Tea Party […] the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process’.

Bye for now, and please add suggestions to this thread! 👋

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