Living Race: Reflections on Shirley Sherrod, a Supreme Court Nomination, and LeBron James

Friday, July 23, 2010 - 03:04 PM

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack listens as members of the Congressional Black Caucus speak to the press after a meeting on Capitol Hill to discus the forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack listens as members of the Congressional Black Caucus speak to the press after a meeting on Capitol Hill to discus the forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod. (Getty Images)

White people used to own black people in the United States. And it was profitable to own black people because they performed labor that white people couldn’t or didn’t want to perform. And it was legal to own black people in the same way that it is now legal to own a cow, or a horse, or a dog.

In 1865, after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, owning black people – chattel slavery – became illegal. However, Black Codes and Jim Crow laws made certain that white people didn’t have to be around black folk. This legal hyper segregation lasted until 1954 when the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and it was determined that segregation was unconstitutional.

And then there was integration, the Civil Rights Movement, and then I moved from Central Los Angeles to Arlington, Texas in 1983 and they called me n---er nearly every day at Key Elementary School. Then at Gunn Junior High they made certain that I knew that people like me were owned and that I was less of a person than they were with insults and teachers having our History classes watch the mini-series Roots on VHS during Black History Month. At Martin High, my response was to earn low grades and to become a discipline problem, fighting white racists on the regular – some of whom I know to be Tea Party die-hards.

This narrative forms an arc of my development as a black man in this country. It certainly is not my singular developmental arc, or my singular identity, but it is interwoven into my whole self. It is a context by which I patch together my understanding of the complexity of race in the United States and how it impacts people who have wide noses, thick lips, dark skin and my shared cultural historical reality.

So I’m not surprised when the Senate Judiciary Committee questions a Supreme Court nominee who clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall by questioning Marshall’s unparalleled judicial chops. And I’m not shocked when the Tea Party Express organizer writes some crazy, racist satirical rant to Abe Lincoln from the “coloreds.” The Owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers going nuts because his money-maker – LeBron James – dips to Miami seems about right in my eyes.  And USDA official Shirley Sherrod being forced to resign, because the government buckles to the whims of a super-conservative blogger and mistakenly casts her as a racist, is par for course from a government and a governmental department with such a deep-rooted orientation toward racial discrimination. 

Again, black people were owned, and defined by the United States government as less than human. The hard core of this reality is not easily digestible and is often glossed over or pushed to the side by white and black people who want desperately not to recognize this horror. Accordingly, we intellectualize these experiences or relegate them to feelings rather than unpack them to figure the dynamic, enduring psychology associated with these lived experiences in an effort toward establishing more healthy relationships.

The interesting thing here and now is that the 2008 election of a black president has recast the social context in America such that race is salient for white people in a way that it has never been before. Seeing a black man run the country on the news every night, and in the newspapers everyday and on the web 24/7 conjures some interesting constructs with which white and black people to have to deal. We are now forced to move beyond the ideals of fairness and justice and have to live race in a way that forces us to realize a psychological cost for the racism on which this country has been founded. We are forced to engage a lived racial reality – and this is a good thing.

David Wall Rice is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Morehouse College and is presenting a paper next month at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention entitled: "Identity Stasis: Orchestrating Identity in the Age of Obama."

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Comments [24]

Ryan Boles from Houston

Can one presidential election counteract over four centuries of indoctrinated oppression? Probably not (especially not with those with decades worth of a certain way of life ingrained in them). But it would be interesting to see if our youngest Americans now see things differently, specifically those of African decent. Dr. Rice speaks of the newfound salience of race in response to the 2008 election for whites. I think that it would be interesting to investigate the racial perceptions of Blacks, specifically those young enough to have hopefully not yet been significantly influenced by the ways of the world of the past. Thus, a repeat of Dr. Kenneth and Mammie Clark’s Doll study should be conducted (1939).

This study would call for a quantitative research strategy and survey research methods. I would use items similar to the original Clark study such as “Show me the doll that is the nice doll” and “Give me the doll that looks like you.” Unlike the 2009 Good Morning America recreation of the test however, I wouldn’t allow “neither” or “both” as answer choices. And unlike the 2005 Kiri Davis recreation, I would have a sample closer to that of the Clarks (300 children). This way the results of a modern test can truly be compared to those of the original. Once completed, I would compare the results of this present-day study to only the results that the Clarks gathered from integrated schools some eighty years ago. I think we may be surprised at how much things have or have not changed. In my opinion, this research may help us determine if the phrase “post-racial society” is something to laugh at or slowly but seriously begin to consider.

Sep. 01 2010 01:52 PM
Lemario Bland from ATL

In the article Dr. Rice mentions how he was forced to endure harsh racism all throughout elementary school continuing to high school. In high school Dr. Rice rebelled by becoming a “discipline problem” and fighting a lot. However despite his racism-filled and troubled youth, he went on to receive his bachelors degree, then masters, and eventually doctorate. Today he is a very distinguished and accomplished individual. Did his racist childhood push him to be stronger and accomplish the things he did? Does he attribute some, all or none of his accomplishments to what he had to endure growing up as a black male in the United States? I think it would be interesting to research some of these aspects on black men who were raised in the United States in general. How did their racial encounters help shape their identity and how has it affected their success or lack there of in life.
A qualitative approach could be taken in this study. We would be looking at how different racial encounters effected how they identify as black males in America. Did it help them to take more pride in their race or denounce it? Did it help them to become stronger, more confident and successful black men or did it have the opposite effect. Much of the research could be done through open-ended interviews, although it could take a while to interview each individual. It may prove to be well worth it seeing as though there are many to different aspects and avenues that can be explored through the question. You can also take a quantitative approach and find/create scales that define success and racial encounters and run a test to discover if there is a relationship between the two.

Sep. 01 2010 12:25 PM
K. Ray Chrishon from New Orleans, La

With the election of a black man to the highest office in the land race is indeed front and center in this country like never before. I, like Dr. Rice, was not terribly surprised by the knee jerk response of the Obama administration to the doctored tape of Sharrod's speech. After President Obama was elected there was a great deal of press suggesting that we had entered a "post racial era". The term made me cringe as the implication was that race was no longer a salient social construct in the American experience. The term further implied that with the election of a Black President, America had finally laid to rest it’s shameful history of slavery and racism. It is my belief that President Obama, as a thoughtful scholar, and certainly as a black man would be the first to disagree with this characterization. Despite this, I think the posture of the administration on issues of race are more align with this characterization than not. As the first Black president he is keenly aware that there must be every effort to project a sense of equality and balance when it comes to issues of race. The unfortunate consequence of this position is many missed opportunities to really dissect and understand how race and racism remain powerful social constructs that impact the lives of people of color. Thus, despite his historic election, I doubt that we will see any meaningful dialogue on race initiated by the Obama administration.

Aug. 05 2010 10:06 AM
Raymond Reynolds

Race today is as relevant in society as it has ever been from its immoral conception to its prolonged function to disenfranchise people of "minority" status. Their are those among us who tend to embrace the concept of race becoming seemingly desensitized to the fact that it exists', while others willingly face it as to combat its existence by any means necessary. Furthermore, the race dynamic is neatly packaged and disguised to make iniquities subtler, and this is the complex role race plays in the twenty-first century. Notwithstanding, the many overt racial accounts that take place throughout the united states of America, take for instance Amadou Diallo an irrefutable account that speaks volumes to the real "problem" at hand the hostile climate of race.

Aug. 01 2010 08:40 AM
Brenton Hopkins

I am beginning to notice that the issue of race is becoming a more frequent topic of conversation in America. The phenomenon of a Black president has changed the way in which not only blacks see themselves but also in the ways in which we have begun to define ourselves in relation to the context of society. I believe that this recast in social climate in America has also forced many white Americans to look at themselves and redefine who they are as well. Race for too long, has been like a triceratops balancing on a basketball and roaring, while everyone pretends not to notice the "main attraction."

I feel that addressing the issue of race and how it affects society at large will ultimately lead to more healthy relationships between groups in the U.S., not just white and black, as the picture is so commonly illustrated, but also "yellow" and "red" peoples as well.

Jul. 30 2010 03:07 PM
Brenton Hopkins

I am beginning to notice that the issue of race is becoming a more frequent topic of conversation in America. The phenomenon of a Black president has changed the way in which not only blacks see themselves but also in the ways in which we have begun to define ourselves in relation to the context of society. I believe that this recast in social climate in America has also forced many white Americans to look at themselves and redefine who they are as well. Race for too long, has been like a triceratops balancing on a basketball and roaring, while everyone pretends not to notice the "main attraction."

I feel that addressing the issue of race and how it affects society at large will ultimately lead to more healthy relationships between groups in the U.S., not just white and black, as the picture is so commonly illustrated, but also "yellow" and "red" peoples as well.

Jul. 30 2010 03:06 PM
Jacque-Corey from Decatur

Today's conscious attempts for a political correct environment and forgive-and-forget attitude are reflective of the times; having a Black president as a public global figure representing America can make overt and subtle racism seem tactless and boorish to even the most devout supremacists. Will history judge the treatment of persons of African descent in this country as just another incident of oppression in a forming nation just as the Roman Republic on the Celts and Germans, the Vikings on the Anglo-Saxons and Franks, or the Barbary pirates on the Spanish and Portuguese. Hopefully the future will not be inundated with this contemporary color-blind ideology that can tint the saliency and severity of past transgressions such as grandfather clauses and the faux pas of “white only”/”colored only” entrances.

Jul. 29 2010 02:40 PM
Luke in ATL from Atlanta, GA

Indeed, this is a good thing. It is unfortunate that many people of color, based on our lived experiences, actually have a buffer than blunts the impact of what should be shocking and egregious trespasses based on race. We do, in fact, expect these things to happen and are often nonplussed by insensitivity and poor judgment that we often witness with respect to race, class and gender. Truth is, our country is only in the nascent stages of having the needed gut check that would have us recalibrate our views and actions surrounding color. Nonetheless, baby steps are steps all the same.

Jul. 29 2010 01:10 PM
Dr. Ericka

Thanks, Dr. Rice. That was so eloquently put. There's not much for me to add. In the end, all of these scenarios continue to demonstrate how racism and psychological oppression continue to grow and cause damage while Americans, not just white ones, choose to ignore the issues. This country is built on the backs of a bunch of racist acts and inequalities. This does not mean that the entire country continues to be racist, but racial issues and identity are still prevalent. There's no way to make it better if you ignore it. It's like an infection will eventually kill you with sepsis if you act like it simply is not there. We have to find a way to find a healthy balance with individual identity, national identity, and ethnocentricity. Thanks again, Dr. Rice!

Jul. 27 2010 10:20 PM
G.Streat

Dr. Rice,

Excellent piece! I was moved by several parts of your narrative, but what was particularly drawn to your introduction. It clearly stated a fact that the overwhelming majority of the country has not (and probably will not) sufficiently acknowledge – white people profited significantly from slavery. But the effects of slavery extend well beyond economics. It is feasible to argue that the psychological impact (on blacks and whites) has been as great as the physical destruction that ensued. For the many people that inherently believe that black people are incapable of making sound executive decisions (in politics, judicial departments, and even in free agency), the media provides countless sources of frustration. Rather than accepting the flaw in their ideology, they prefer to continue to express their dissatisfaction through baseless allegations (the Sherrod case, the Kagan hearings, and the Lebron slandering) and defamatory words and images (disparaging depictions of our president, letter to Abe Lincoln, etc.). I agree with you wholeheartedly in that seeing a black man as the president on a daily basis has pushed the issue of race back into the forefront. But in order to eradicate the problem, we cannot continue to talk around the issue. It needs to be addressed constructively.

Jul. 27 2010 10:55 AM
DWR from The 'A'

Thanks for the feedback folks. I think the extended conversation is a healthy one. And Jennifer, I didn't weigh-in on Oscar Grant here. It's a bit too heavy a for me to be measured about, like the King beating. Kudos to all and thanks for teaching, this is some good stuff.

Jul. 26 2010 10:47 PM
Rodrigus Graham from Atlanta

Well said Dr. Rice this whole debate about Sherrod sudden resignation opens up a discussion that shall be discussed for sometime. As a young African-American man, I am constantly reminded of how I am judged by the way that I walk, talk and conduct myself. And it is with these constraints that forces me to onr conceptualize it in a context that tarnishes my identity. Having our first African-American president has open my eyes to understanding that "I too Can Sing America," to give me hope that I can reach any height that I want, but it unfortunate that right before my eyes, that since we have elected the first Black president that all these racist tendencies have shed some new light that I had come familar with in the history books. It is unfortunate but one thing I understand is as humans we must learn to accept the next person for the individual characteristics that make them who they are.

Jul. 26 2010 09:23 AM
Jennifer

David, i felt like this could have been broken into 3 separate stories! I want to hear more from you ab LeBron, Tea Party and Sherrod ...I need more! Also, did I miss your take on Oscar Grant?

Jul. 26 2010 12:24 AM
Tia Jenni from los angeles

'And then there was integration, the Civil Rights Movement, and then I moved from Central Los Angeles to Arlington, Texas in 1983 and they called me n---er nearly every day at Key Elementary School.'

well said!

Jul. 26 2010 12:21 AM
Dr. M from Long Island, NY

Dr. Rice, well said! I like the opening of your piece, you have captured the Black-White interpersonal dynamic of the lived racial reality of the United States. I would add that White people continue to own Black people in the United States, whether at an individual or institutional level. This piece makes me think about how most Black people residing in the United States would answer the following questions: what name do you respond to (is it the name of the White people that owned your family), what language do you speak (is it an African or European language), what food do you eat, what image is on your money and how do you get your money, and if you believe in God, what God do you pray to? It seems that if you do not understand what White supremacy is and how it works, everything else that you think you understand will confuse you...Keep spreading the word on the psychological-emotional impact of racism on the oppressed and the oppressor!

Jul. 25 2010 09:34 PM
Kathleen

I agree - I'm not surprised.

Jul. 25 2010 03:47 PM
S.T. Livingston from East Point, GA

Thanks for the reflection, David. This statement-- "White people used to own black people in the United States” must frame our understanding of late capitalism and the culture of patriarchy and white supremacy that supports it. This inconvenient truth and its historical extensions: neoslavery, the failure to award reparations, second class citizenship, and today's structural underemployment of Black people are too often ignored in order to ameliorate conservative voices Black and White. But can we engage in honest dialogue in this media-driven, intellectually dishonest climate? The usual suspects on this week’s Sunday Talk shows: Dyson, Brazile, West, McWhorter, and even Edley, each avoid this continued lived experience that Rice has laid bare for our consideration. I appreciate the honesty as it is essential to building the necessary bulwark of conscious and committed people to change this shared historical narrative.

Jul. 25 2010 03:37 PM
Cynthia Winston from The District

Brilliant Rice! The idea that race is salient in a new way is compelling. A person's internalized and evolving narrative of self draws on selected life experiences. In the United States, President Obama---his blackness---his brilliance, his family---creates a new type of experience for those who have very little substantive contact in their lives with Black people or who have stereotyped understanding of who Black people are and what we are like. Psychologists and other research scientists have a significant role to play in analyzing the stories of living race that come across our computer screens, televisions and other formalized outlets for "news". We must challenge ourselves, as well as the general public to adopt a much deeper and complex analysis of the meaning of race in American society and culture, as well as lives. We live in a global economy and Americans must be able to analyze cross-cultural realities in a way that gives depth and integrity to the human experience of all people. African Americans in the United States, have long been the subject of master narratives of race that mischaracterize who we are as a people and our rich contributions to the building of a nation that now finds itself more than ever before needing to understand cross-cultural psychology! Rice does an excellent job of the kind of complex analysis required to understand what living race in a racialized society really means!

Jul. 25 2010 11:29 AM
Shani Naima from Atlanta

I like the neat packaging provided by the LeBron case. The LeBron issue was surprising - not because he left or because the "owner" went bananas - but because we, being the free market, capitalist loving Americans that we are, had trouble understanding when Lebron made a business move instead of staying put because of loyalty or emotions. Isn't that what we're all about? And isn't there something a bit empowering about becoming "free" from your "owner."

Jul. 25 2010 10:35 AM
kenneth

a brilliant piece. with the sherrod issue, it is interesting that practically no one in government had done their homework (in researching the full text of her comments) until after she was given the ultimate of resignation. so here, the intersectionality of race and gender (or racism and sexism) may have had a huge role (i.e., could it have been that many showed disregard for her and her full comments because she was a black woman?). the effects of racism may not be equal for black men and women.

Jul. 25 2010 05:34 AM
Gregory from NYC

The conversation has changed from a dreamscape of 'color blindness' and post-raciality to a conversation based on reality. What many of us have known and many more are achknowledging is that race matters, simply and truely. The dramatic and frightenly poorly executed attempts to paint minorities in powerful as weak, incompetent and inherrently racist lot is coming undone by the day. What these status-quo minded people fail to realize is that the 'advancement' of one people is the advancement of all people.

Jul. 24 2010 09:29 PM
Clark

If the Tea Party is concerned with policy and not race then why is this issue leading their cause? The NAACP on the other hand has written in its name, a goal of advancement along racial lines. That's their right and an admirable cause given the many organization that have been for the oppression of black people but I don't see how a pissing contest between the two orgs is advancing anyone.

Both groups need to stop pretending at politics and stick to their bread and butter: race-baiting at the cost of the public.

Jul. 23 2010 04:54 PM
Xavier from ATL

A conversation that needs to be had is about how and why this administration's hands have been tied in dealing with issues that are blatantly racially charged. Why was Clinton allowed to care more about these things than Barack Obama? Does White America not value/trust his leadership on these issues because he is Black or is that a figment of the White House's imagination?

Jul. 23 2010 04:47 PM
Donovan

I think it's becoming pretty evident that White Americans are having to navigate psychologically what Black Americans have dealt with psychologically and in institutionally for hundreds of years.

The diversity of the Obama administration and the future of America has taken what used to be secure (Whiteness and its place in the American caste system) and threatened it.

The fact of the matter is that Barack Obama's very presence in government has raised the question of what ground White America may have to concede next just as the presence only White men in that office has always meant insecurity for women and minorities.

Jul. 23 2010 04:40 PM

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