Thank you for visiting my blog! Please visit my new website version of Bandung 1955 at http://tamaranopper.com/ and check out my new article: 20 Years in the Making: George Zimmerman’s “Minority Defense” and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
“Be the Help” Campaign & Black Disappearance among the Multiracial Left
Tamara K. Nopper
February 28, 2012
One day a friend and I were talking about “Black disappearance” as a phenomenon. She spoke of it in regards to the new film about Joyce Carol Vincent, a Black woman whose dead body was “discovered” decomposing on the couch in her London apartment nearly three years after she went missing. We also discussed the numerous cases of missing Black women and how, despite being one of the most policed and surveillance groups—by the state and the public—Black people can disappear quite easily from public view, with the same state apparatus putting little effort into finding missing or dead Black people.
I want to speak here of another form of Black disappearance, that which operates in multiracial progressive politics. This may seem an odd topic, since African Americans clearly care about and participate in progressive politics, with some becoming famous activists or pundits in the process. But there are particular ways Black disappearance happens in progressive politics, and the “Be the Help” campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its supporters, built around the widely debated film The Help exemplifies this well.
The NDWA is an organization of domestic workers comprised primarily of immigrant women of color. Following the historic victory of Domestic Workers United (DWU) in getting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in its home state of New York, NDWA co-founder and director Ai-Jen Poo (who had worked with DWU and other domestic workers organizations in New York City that morphed into DWU) and her constituency set their sights on getting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in California and putting a national spotlight on domestic work.
In the process, NDWA initiated the “Be the Help” campaign, which played on the popularity—as well as controversy—of The Help as well as Kathryn Stockett’s novel upon which it is based to bring attention to the 2.5 million women who currently work as domestics. Marketing the immigrant women of color workers as the “modern day help,” the “Be the Help” campaign brought together a motley crew of supporters, including one of the film studios that produced The Help, Hollywood actors and actresses (including Oscar nominee and winner Octavia Spencer), and domestic employers. Unusual in that a labor campaign collaborated with the employer—in this case Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association—the “Be the Help” campaign also relied on supportive writers, publishers, and commentators in progressive media. For example, during Oscar weekend, the “Be the Help” campaign was spotlighted on Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show on MSNBC. It was also the subject of an article by Applied Research Center president and executive director and Colorlines magazine publisher Rinku Sen, posted on the publications’ website and widely circulated on social media. An article championing the campaign, written by Ilyse Hogue, a columnist for the Nation, appeared on that publication’s website the Monday immediately following the Oscars.
That the film depicted the story of African American women domestic workers in the legalized Jim Crow era in the south and had been roundly critiqued by numerous African Americans, including historians, Civil Rights activists, cultural critics, actors, filmmakers, and many Black people whose concerns might not reach a public stage seemed to go unnoticed by the NDWA and its allies.
Or did it? Was it a case of not noticing Black people’s concerns about The Help’s homage to the racist and sexist archetypal Mammy figure—which as one writer points out, is not, in racial politics, to be confused with the domestic worker—or was it a case of Black disappearance?
There is a lot to suggest it was the latter.
The Wages of Non-Blackness: Contemporary Immigrant Rights and Discourses of Character, Productivity, and Value
I have an article in the latest issue of InTensions, “(De) Fatalizing the Present and Creating Radical Alternatives,” guest edited by Anna M. Agathangelou and Kyle D. Killian. The special issue also features new articles by Jared Sexton and Frank B. Wilderson, III, as well as others. The full article can be accessed for free here.
Drawing from W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the psychological wage of whiteness, this article explores how contemporary rhetoric promoted by immigrant rights advocates in the United States valorizes non-white immigrant workers in relationship to African Americans. Specifically, I examine moralized claims regarding immigrants’ character, productivity, and value as well as their contributions to the U.S. and global economy. I emphasize how this discourse echoes and draws upon managerial and capitalist perspectives of labor as well as anti-Black rhetoric regarding African Americans as lacking a work ethic, militant, xenophobic, and costly to society. Finally, I briefly consider whether the wage of non-Blackness differs from the wage of whiteness as well as the possibility of an ethical immigrant rights discourse.
In October I presented on a panel that examined how race and notions of illegality intersected at the conference “Imprisoned, Forgotten, and Deported: Immigration Detention, Advocacy, and the Faith Community.” Below are my remarks.
“Race, Illegality, and Detention”
October 13, 2011
The questions that we have been asked to explore are ones that I have thought about a great deal in the last decade, as a former activist in Asian American and immigration politics and as a scholar and educator who researches, writes about, and teaches about these issues. These questions are:
- How does race and racism operate in U.S. immigration and detention policy?
- How is whiteness implicitly or explicitly operative in U.S. detention policy?
- What are the similarities and differences between the criminalization of African Americans and newly arrived immigrants? Why are some groups of immigrants welcomed and others criminalized?
- How might the criminalization of particular racial others in U.S. detention policy be changed legally, politically, and culturally?
- Given the social and political polarization of U.S. society, what are the limits and possibilities of changing the role of race in U.S. detention policy?
I want to explore how race and racism are conceptualized and the implications for how we consider criminalization, legality, and the similarities and differences between African Americans and immigrants of color. While I and many of us here can discuss how white supremacy informs immigration policy, I think our point of departure for thinking about race cannot be whiteness or white supremacy. And I say this as an Asian American who is all too well aware, from research, from observation, from shared stories, and from the lived experience that I take on my body every single day, that white supremacy is ubiquitous and banal. White supremacy is the stench of dog shit left all over gentrified neighborhoods and the smiles of white children who, as babies, already have more power than the majority of grown people of color will ever possess. But despite the mundane nature of white supremacy, I think a Black/non-Black divide framework is much more useful for analyzing racial realities as well as for pragmatically addressing the issues of criminalization, surveillance, policing, incarceration, and deportation.
The Black/non-Black divide framework posits that being Black in the world is much more significant in terms of shaping life chances and ontological realities than being non-white. Sociologists, notably George Yancey, author of the book Who is White: Who is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide, have studied the social rejection and isolation of African Americans and the implications for how we understand assimilation. As Yancey notes in his book, “A black/nonblack dichotomy produces more understanding about contemporary race relations. It suggests that the informal rejection of African Americans, rather than a tendency by the majority to oppress all minority groups in a roughly equal manner, is the linchpin to the American contemporary racial hierarchy.”
Most social scientists of assimilation don’t generally address the issue of surveillance and incarceration and have focused on indicators such as interracial marriage rates, residential segregation, educational obtainment, and income, and increasingly wealth. Instead, they tend to focus on how African Americans do not tend to empirically demonstrate the assimilation patterns of not only whites but also non-Black people of color, including the “new immigrants.” But anti-Black racism cannot be simply identified at the level of individual cases of suffering, of which, a significant number becomes a social problem, according to the celebrated sociologist C. Wright Mills. Rather, anti-Black racism is a political project, a generative force, and a logic of social organization. As Jared Sexton puts it, there is a “fundamental social truth” and it is “not simply that antiblackness is longstanding and ongoing but also that it is unlike other forms of racial oppression in qualitative ways— differences of kind, rather than degree, a structural singularity rather than an empirical anomaly.”
Considering anti-Blackness as a logic of social organization gives greater clarity to the nature of the state, of which immigrant rights activists constantly engage and confront. While scholars such as Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that the state is a racial state, some have made it clear that the state is not only racial but racist and not only racist but specifically anti-Black. For example, Anthony Monteiro describes the U.S. state as “the principal organizer of racialized power. As an instrument of racialized power, i.e. the power of white people over non-whites, especially black people, it functions to mediate class conflict and fissures among whites and to exert primarily command-and-control functions with respect to blacks.”
This is not to suggest that African Americans are the only ones affected, targeted, or criminalized by the state. One of the common strategies for not dealing with anti-Black racism is to claim that African Americans are not the only ones who experience racism or state violence, a sentiment that some could say animates this very gathering. But the scholarship that has informed my thinking never contends as much and only a willful misreading could lead to that conclusion. Instead, an emphasis on anti-Blackness brings into clearer view what Sexton describes as “the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system”: that Blacks serve as “the prototypical targets of the panoply of police practices and the juridical infrastructure built up around them”—what Monteiro termed the “command-and-control functions” of the state.
Explained by Sexton:
Every analysis that attempts to understand the complexities of racial rule and the machinations of the racial state without accounting for black existence within its framework—which does not mean simply listing it among a chain of equivalents or returning to it as an afterthought—is doomed to miss what is essential about the situation. Black existence does not represent the total reality of the racial formation—it is not the beginning and the end of the story—but it does relate to the totality; it indicates the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system.
What relevance does the anti-Black nature of the state have for immigrant detention, deportation, illegality, and criminalization? Whereas I could give numerous examples, there is one major point I want to address here: immigrant rights advocates need to re-examine their beliefs about Black citizenship.
Under the racial state, there is no such thing as Black citizenship. The myth of Black citizenship scaffolds immigrant rights activism as well as the academic scholarship that supports it. Regarding the latter, in Asian American Studies, numerous scholars are quick to emphasize that African Americans gained citizenship before Asian Americans and their comparisons of Blacks and Asians tends to argue that the racial formation of which the latter is subject is civic ostracism and exclusion—as if the racial subjugation of African Americans is somehow unrelated to the practices and logic of civil society. In Latino Studies, there is an evident animus to African Americans, expressed as concerns about Black xenophobia and Black insensitivity to illegality. The thread that binds Asian American Studies and Latino Studies scholarship is a belief in Black American citizenship, a hostility to which actually demonstrates that the legal document, in the case of Blacks, does not actually matter. What both Asian American Studies and Latino Studies, as well as immigrant rights activism and non-Black liberals and progressives in general presume, is that Black people have citizenship but that spectacles of anti-Black racism—such as the recent Troy Davis execution, the Oscar Grant murder by a white police officer at the Bart station in the Bay, or hurricane Katrina—demonstrate the contingent and flexible nature of citizenship. Such gestures attempt to re-imagine African Americans as akin to immigrants of color, whose status is tenuous, contingent, and flexible to the demands of the nation-state, capital, and whites.
But for Blacks, there is no such thing as circumstance, pretext, or even, to use the words of immigrant rights activists, legality or illegality. To assume as much means that we can identify historical moments in which Blacks are not guilty. Of course, Blacks are not always guilty of committing the criminal acts they are accused of and in some cases, the courts have affirmed as much. But Black people are never not guilty of being Black and thus their experience of being criminalized—which is ontological and not behavioral—cannot be conflated with or subsumed under frameworks common among immigrant rights advocates. Or, as Kenyon Farrow, in his remarks at the recently held New York City Troy Davis Memorial succinctly put it: “we must come to accept that to be Black and ‘innocent’ is an oxymoron in the world we live in.”
I have two entries in the new encyclopedia Anti-Immigration in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Kathleen R. Arnold.
My entry on the Chinese Exclusion Act is an effort to challenge the dominant accounts of the act, promoted by those who subscribe to the Commons School of History approach or to progressive colorblind approaches, both of which defend or apologize for white racism against Asians by arguing it was economically and morally justified. Since I had first learned of the act over a decade and a half ago, I have been bothered by this defense of white anti-Asian racism, too often found in history books and promoted by too many white lefties and liberals. Books written by Asian Americans and a few others have tended to take a more critical view of the economic argument and showed how much more was at play; increasingly more scholars are looking at the racial politics of immigration policies. In addition, we can always consider, even when economics are involved, as they always are, why does white suffering (real or imagined) get to be used as a justification for white on non-white violence, a violence that has never been mutually inflicted to the same degree and with the same level of sympathy? For my entry on eugenics I wanted to address how anti-Black racism and anxieties about the importation of “Black blood” among race scientists was a feature of eugenic approaches to immigration.
The entries “Chinese Exclusion Act” and “Eugenics” start on pages 105 and 189, respectively, and can be read in full in the Google Books edition.
My new article “Barack Obama’s Community Organizing as New Black Politics” has recently been published in a special issue of Political Power and Social Theory titled “Rethinking Obama,” edited by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Louise Seamster.
Why Obama’s ‘Black Job Plan’ Won’t Resolve Black Unemployment
Tamara K. Nopper
September 25, 2011
Recently, President Barack Obama addressed the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and concerns that he was ignoring the disproportionately high unemployment rate among African Americans. Defending his American Jobs Act, Obama emphasized the measure that would provide tax cuts to businesses–and specifically mentioned 100,000 Black-owned firms–if they hired a new worker or gave workers a raise. One CBC member was quoted as saying that Obama’s speech “showed he’s going to fight.”
Obama’s jobs act will not make a dent in Black unemployment, which is now at a staggering 16.7%. And despite emphasizing in his CBC speech Black unemployment and Black-owned firms, his proposal demonstrates more his capitulation to white supremacy than a willingness to challenge it.
Tax cuts will not address the financial disparities that already exist among firms by race. Indeed, Obama’s proposed measures for helping all (and not just Black) business owners in his jobs act privilege those firms with more money, that are more likely to be considered “innovative,” (hence the plan’s emphasis on patents and going global), who have a significant number of employees, and who are in the overall financial position to take advantage of a tax plan. Black-owned firms already trail behind most other firms in most indicators. Shown in the most recent (2007) Survey of Business Owners, which is administered by the United States Census Bureau every five years, Black-owned firms make up only 7% of all U.S.-located firms. Whites are over-represented as business owners with 83% of all firms. The amount of receipts differs among racial groups, with Blacks only having $135 billion, which comprises less than 1% (.005% to be exact) of the $30 trillion in receipts for all firms. The disparity in receipts does not necessarily reflect the number of business owned among racial groups. For example, at an estimated 1.9 million, Black-owned firms outnumber Asian-owned firms by about 400,000, but the latter have over three times the receipts at $506 billion. And while Blacks have about 300,000 less firms than Hispanics–the majority (91%) of business owners who identify as white, by the way–Black firms have only 40% of the former’s receipts. As a racial group, Blacks even lag behind some ethnic groups. Mexican American-owned firms, for instance, total about 1 million–a little under half of the firms for all Hispanics, regardless of race–a figure that is about 900,000 less than the number of Black firms, yet their receipts are higher at $154 billion.
These disparities are underscored when considering businesses that have employees, with the ability to have employees often related to the finances of a firm. Black-owned employer firms make up 2% of all firms with employees, and whites own 81%. Numbering only a little over 100,000, Black employer firms have receipts of $97 billion, which, like their receipts for all firms, make up 0% of all employer firms. Asian American-owned employer firms have almost four times the total number and almost five times the receipts than Black employer firms, despite Asians comprising only one third of the population size of African Americans. Controlling for the race of the business owner, Black employer firms, employing a total of about 900,000 people, pay the smallest average pay per employee among all employer firms. Given this data, it is highly unlikely that tax cuts will alleviate Black unemployment as Black employer firms are already lagging financially behind those among most other racial groups. Even if Black employer firms, again totaling around 100,000, were all to hire one Black person, it is unlikely to decrease Black unemployment. Given that an overwhelming majority of Black businesses are non-employer firms, it is highly unlikely that they will be in the financial position to grow their businesses by hiring workers–or to get the capital to do so–and thus “take advantage” of the proposed tax cuts.
One of the reasons why these statistics are so alarming is that a plethora of research, both from social scientists as well as just day to day observation and experience on the job market, demonstrates that African Americans are the least likely to be hired by non-Black firms. And Black firms are already more likely to hire African Americans than non-Black firms. Given the small number of Black employer firms, it is not surprising that unemployment rates for Black have generally surpassed all other racial groups, even when the economy was not in a financial crisis. Non-Black firms, then, are not likely to hire a significant number of Blacks just to take advantage of tax measures (especially when there are growing numbers of non-Black unemployed to choose from) and Black firms, already lagging behind other racial groups by most indicators, cannot possibly be expected to resolve Black unemployment. Nor could they if they wanted to as they don’t have the resources.
Some will say Obama did specifically deal with discrimination and Black unemployment in both his jobs act and his speech to the CBC. For example, the proposal calls for challenging hiring discrimination against the unemployed. However, how will he measure the unemployed in this policy? Will it include the many Black people who are not even included in the Department of Labor statistic for unemployment? Whatever the case, Obama’s jobs plan does not talk about racial discrimination. Some may think it unnecessary for an act to do so given affirmative action policies. Yet affirmative action policies have often been more commonly applied to corporate jobs and even then, corporate powers have largely determined what politically gets defined as affirmative action these days. As the major source of new jobs, the overwhelming majority of small businesses are not subject to affirmative action policies due to the small number of people each firm employs. And even if they were, the federal government has tended to be purposefully lax in enforcement and firms have also found ways to use what law professor Tanya K. Hernandez calls “the diversity defense” to hire non-whites but avoid having to account for discriminatory racial hiring practices. In terms of talking about Black unemployment in his jobs act, the fact sheet–as well as his CBC speech–does cite the aforementioned Black unemployment rate. More, the act mentions how Black youth are particularly affected so as propose a summer youth job program. One purpose of the initiative, according to the jobs plan, is to help young people develop employment skills. But many of these Black youth likely won’t be hired by non-Black businesses so as to use and be paid for these skills, and again, Black firms do not have the capacity to hire all of them. Further, youth should not be in the position of financially supporting their communities and cannot be used to measure the financial health of their racial groups. We would not expect whites dismayed about the financial crisis and their unemployment rate to focus simply on the employment prospects or summer job programs for white youth–indeed white youth are not even expected to work in the way Black youth are (nor is employment promoted as an anti-incarceration initiative for white youth in the way it is for Black youth, but that’s another article). And summer programs are of course seasonal. Finally, summer youth programs do not resolve the fact that way too many Black adults cannot get jobs during any season.
Similar to some of his political predecessors, including Richard M. Nixon, Obama’s explicitly refers to Black unemployment and Black business in his CBC speech while promoting a Jim Crow economy–where Black people are largely left to their own devices to resolve a structural economic crisis with a little government support–in this case with the aid of a proposed tax plan for all firms that will purportedly help 100,00 Black firms resolve Black unemployment or a summer jobs program in which Black youth can participate. And similar to Nixon, who championed “Black capitalism” as a containment strategy to repress Black protest or criticism, Obama’s speech to a CBC increasingly and publicly frustrated with Obama’s response to Black unemployment, champions, albeit in a subtle way, Black business owners as important social actors who he suggests will be “supported” (but not in a targeted way) through his proposed tax plan. Like Nixon, Obama doesn’t challenge or address the larger political economy and anti-Black racism that is largely responsible for Black unemployment nor does he purpose that non-Blacks have any responsibility in the economic life of African Americans, either in causing or resolving it. Overall, an unwillingness to challenge racist hiring practices towards Blacks among firms owned by non-Blacks–again 98% of all employer firms–can co-exist with Obama’s championing of Black firms in the name of addressing Black unemployment.
Overall, Obama’s jobs act and his speech to the CBC are examples of what sociologist Charles Gallagher terms “new colorblind racism,” meaning, unlike traditional colorblind racism, the approach minimally acknowledges racial inequality, and in this case, Black unemployment, without addressing racial hierarchies. Although openly discussing the issue of Black unemployment and proposing a tax measure that will “benefit” all firms–and presumably 100,000 Black businesses as noted in his CBC speech–Obama does not challenge the existing financial disparities among businesses–or the role of government programs and the financial institutions he perversely protects in shaping these disparities. Rather, Obama’s CBC speech, in a Nixonian gesture that “recognizes”–some could even say celebrates–Black-owned firms, speaks simultaneously to both Black middle-class (pro-)capitalists and working-class Black nationalists who value Black business as a sign of community health. And despite his acknowledgment of the high Black unemployment rate and Black businesses, he also, like Nixon, simultaneously reassures non-Blacks that we will not be affected by his jobs act or by his directed overtures, at least in speech, to the Black community. In the end, Obama expects African Americans, in this case Black business owners and Black youth, to largely shoulder the burden of resolving the Black unemployment crisis.
What Obama’s speech to the CBC demonstrates is not only his neoliberal tendencies but also his clever strategy of appearing race-specific in his policies. Obama is an expert at racial double-speak and has found a way to promote a white supremacist agenda while still acknowledging race at certain moments. And he has also found a way to appear as if he is championing African Americans, in the case of his CBC speech, Black business owners, while still permitting business as usual, which includes an unwillingness of non-Black firms to hire African Americans, a lack of government intervention into these hiring practices, an over-emphasis on developing Black human capital, and a capitulation to the white supremacist claim that the state cannot legislate hearts and minds and thus cannot force (job) integration. While Obama may not win hearts and minds, he doesn’t have to let Blacks suffer just because non-Blacks are racist and are unlikely to stop being so anytime soon. Instead, he can work towards another version of truly race-specific policies or adopt those that have already been proposed by African American advocates. Such initiatives are more likely to address Blacks’ economic status by creating economic programs that specifically target African Americans as a whole instead of simply shifting the burden of resolving Black unemployment on to the Black community.