Prof. Robert Jensen Discusses Racism, White Supremacy and White Privilege (Part 3)

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

In addition to teaching and research, Jensen writes for popular media, both alternative and mainstream. His opinion and analytic pieces on such subjects as foreign policy, politics, and race have appeared in papers and on websites around the world.

His latest book, Arguing for Our Lives: Critical Thinking in Crisis Times (City Lights, 2013), draws on more than two decades of classroom experience and community organizing, and shares strategies on how to challenge "conventional wisdom" in order to courageously confront the crises of our times, and offers a framework for channeling our fears and frustrations into productive analysis that can inform constructive action.

Kathleen Wells: When I watched the video, When Columbus Came, it raised doubt as to whether Columbus "came" to America first. Other explorers came to "America" before him.

Prof. Robert Jensen: Oh yes. There are the disputes about...

Who were the first Europeans to come? Did the Vikings come earlier? I come from a part of the country with a heavy Scandinavian heritage. That was always a big question and people up where I'm from in North Dakota used to love to talk about how the Vikings were here first, but I'm not so sure. But that's not really the central question. The central question is how to understand the European conquest of the Americas, how to understand the terror of that conquest and the implications of that conquest. And I think the question really is, can white America tell the truth about itself? That should be easy if we are really in a post-civil rights society that has come to terms with racism.

But, I think that's where you see how deep the white supremacist nature of the society runs because stories are important. The one thing human beings do, across time and place is tell stories and we invest a lot in our stories. If you look at religious traditions for instance, think about how for hundreds and thousands of years we hold on to stories that helped define us as a religious tradition for instance. Stories are really important, so one way you can see the truth about a culture is to look at the stories it tells about itself. And I think in this one regard, white America comes off looking very badly because, even when we give ground on the political front, we are very, very hesitant to give ground on a what we could call a cultural front on the way we understand ourselves.

Kathleen Wells: So you've also written in your piece "Reclaiming the Radical Roots of Social Justice Movements" that we, America, have been inadequate in our response to justice.

Prof. Robert Jensen: Absolutely. And here I think we see how white America -- as well as the male dominant aspects of the United States - are, very good at recognizing a challenge and co-opting that challenge or trying to divert that challenge. So let's think about what we often just generically call the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, it was not just the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King Jr., it was the Nation of Islam, the very nationalist sentiment in the black community -- it was the Black Panther Party, a much more radical configuration. It was the Chicano Movement that was often very radical. It was the American-Indian movement.

Now those aspects of the challenge to white supremacy that come out of the 1950s and '60s and into the '70s, were not simply asking for a place at the table that is set by white America -- they were challenging the very nature of the table that white America was setting -- they were challenging that history. They were challenging the distribution not only of political power, but the distribution of wealth. A lot of the elements of those movements were very, very radical. Even Martin Luther King himself, throughout his career became a much more radical critic of the fundamental distribution of wealth and power in the United States - all of that tends to get erased in contemporary America.

Just take King himself, Martin Luther King as many would argue, and I would be one of them, has essentially been white washed. He's been turned into a figure to represent the civilized movement but a figure that has been stripped of all his radical politics and analysis. The more militant aspects of those movements have also largely been either ignored or demonized. So when we talk about reclaiming the radical roots, we have to recognize that the movements that's finally forced white America to change were not simply a polite movement requesting that white America give up Jim Crow segregation -- it was a movement that had a lot of different aspects. And one of the things common to most of that movement, was a critique not just of the most egregious white racism, but a critique of a very structure of the distribution of wealth and power in this country.

And I think those radical roots are more important than ever, especially if you look at the economic crisis we are in today -- the political crisis we are in. Where not only people of color, but a whole lot of white people, don't feel like, they're represented by the politicians who are largely bought and paid for by the wealthy. We're in a crisis in this country and if we don't go back to those radical roots of the movements that we're talking about, I don't quite frankly think there's a lot of hope.

Kathleen Wells: I agree with you because we see that with the Wisconsin recall election, we see that with Occupy movements. So, despite having a black president, Obama, things are still not... We're moving in the wrong direction. In fact, we're going backwards, I think.

Prof. Robert Jensen: I think that's definitely true, and it's a reminder that history is not a simple, straight arrow. We have made progress in this country, and we never want to ignore the progress. But, it's also the case that we've lost ground. History is complex. Human affairs are complex, and I think if we don't start dealing with that complexity and recognizing it in some way, I think we're in a deeper hole today than we were during the Jim Crow era.

Kathleen Wells: I agree with you, and a lot white folks will often quote Martin Luther King, "Judge me by the content of my character, but not the color of my skin." You hear that quote all the time, when white people are trying to flip the script so to speak -- take advantage of someone of color.

Well that's their claim of you being a racist -- reverse racism -- one is not judging someone by their character. They actually quote Martin Luther King, but it's a misquote, isn't it?

Prof. Robert Jensen: Well it's an accurate quotation from that one speech, but it ignores everything else King, and all the other spokespeople in the Civil Rights Movement, the points they made. So King himself...

Kathleen Wells: Right, it's not a misquote, it's out of context.

Prof. Robert Jensen: Absolutely. For instance, that line from King, "Judge by the content of character," it's often used by opponents of affirmative action to argue against any program that might give an advantage to people of color in competition for jobs or spots in a university, or whatever. But of course, King himself spoke very clearly in favor of affirmative action programs. He said that you cannot expect after hundreds of years of brutal white supremacy to imagine that tomorrow everything is, all of a sudden, going to be fair. Now, white people love to talk about the need to create a level playing field, and therefore we can't give anyone an advantage because of race. Well if that were the case, if it really were a level playing field, I would agree.

But the problem is that it's not a level playing field. The problem is that white supremacy continues. The problem is unconscious racism, a subject we talked about last week, the way in which even well-meaning whites, who renounce white supremacy, still often have unconscious white supremacist feelings. I certainly recognize that in myself. But as long as that's the case, then there is no level playing field. And affirmative action isn't giving an advantage to people of color, but rather, it's trying to counter the existing advantages that white people have -- that's the way to reframe the question. Affirmative action isn't giving anything to people of color, but rather, it's trying to counter a system that works to their disadvantage.

Kathleen Wells: Exactly. You know, I always say white men have had affirmative action since 1776. We need to reframe these issues and, I feel, the Democratic Party is not being effective in framing this issue.

Prof. Robert Jensen: I think that's a charitable assessment. The Democratic Party is not only not being effective in many ways, but it is part of the problem.

Kathleen Wells: Exactly! I couldn't agree with you more.

Prof. Robert Jensen: So the Democratic Party, let's face it, its roots are ugly. In Texas, where I live, the Democratic Party was at one point a party of white supremacy.

Now in the modern era, in the last three or four decades, there's been a shift and the Democratic Party became identified as the major proponent of civil rights. And that's an important part of that history. But in the contemporary political scene, the Democratic Party has shifted so far to the right, and is so afraid of losing white voters, that none of the major figures of the Democratic Party are willing to talk about racism in any sort of sensible way.

In an ironic fashion, probably at the top of that list is Barack Obama. I don't necessarily fault Barack Obama as a person for that, I think he knows perfectly well that as an African American, if he talked honestly and openly about white supremacy, and in the enduring nature of white racism, I think he realizes he would never have been elected and he won't be re-elected. He would have no future in politics. I'm not critiquing Obama, I'm not critiquing him as a person -- it's just an unfortunate political reality.

Kathleen Wells: So Barack Obama can't talk about race the way we are talking about it.

Prof. Robert Jensen: I think he hasn't talked and he doesn't want to talk seriously about white supremacy. It's quite notable that his campaign engaged questions of race only when it was forced to, around Jeremiah Wright, the pastor -- he was accused of being a follower of this radical black pastor. Again, this isn't so much about individuals, it's about the nature of a system, and the Democratic Party is not likely in this system to be the vehicle for serious progress on questions of racial justice.

When Lyndon Johnson finally did help pass the Civil Rights, the Voting Rights, the Fair Housing legislation of the mid 1960s, that was because the grassroots movement, not just the Civil Rights Movement we associate with King, but the more radical notion, the more radical aspects of those movements -- the Black Panther Party, The Nation of Islam, all of those... Say what you might about any individual figure within it, but those movements forced white America to pass the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing legislation.

To invest in any particular political party, our hopes, I think it's a mistake. It's a mistake that history tells us we shouldn't make, and I think contemporary politics reaffirms that. And I don't see anything that's changed even though the Democratic Party is currently lead by an African-American man.

Kathleen Wells: So, we have our complaints and gripes about the Democratic Party, but that is not to say that the Republican Party is any better either, is it?

Prof. Robert Jensen: Not only not better, but demonstrably worse.

There are elements now in the Republican Party that are close to returning to an overtly white supremacist ideology. Now I don't mean it's the old 1950s style rhetoric. Obviously there are very few people returning to that, but just take a simple fact -- like the Birther Movement. Okay, this notion that Barack Obama may not be an American citizen, the challenge to Obama's authenticity as a natural citizen born in the United States, well, we all know that the Birther Movement, even though it's not getting the same kind of coverage as it once did, is rooted primarily in the Republican Party -- in the conservative wing of that party.

The Birther Movement is overtly racist. I mean let's tell the truth about it. What other president's citizenship has been challenged? Bill Clinton's citizenship was never challenged. The only reason there is a Birther Movement, the only reason that anyone challenges the citizenship status of Barack Obama, is because he's black and specifically because his father was an African. Well, it's insane and the only explanation for it is racism. And that's a part of the Republican Party that we have to contend with. And so I think that whatever the critique of the Democratic Party is, and for me it's a very sharp critique, it doesn't mean that the Republicans and the Democrats are equivalent on this. We have to be able to critique everybody but also recognize the differences between the two parties. I think both things are important.

Kathleen Wells: So, how can we find a remedy? How can we rectify the situation so that there is justice for all Americans?

Prof. Robert Jensen: Well, I think the first thing is to recognize that it's a long struggle -- that white supremacy was built up over hundreds of years and achieved the dominance it has achieved over those years and it's not going to be magically eliminated overnight. As I made the point earlier, human beings love tradition -- we hold on to tradition. That's one way we understand ourselves and in that sense white supremacy is a tradition. It's a tradition that most people won't embrace overtly but it is still, its tentacles are deeply woven into the fabric of this society. So the first thing is to recognize it's a long struggle. The second thing is to start with that open and honest encounter, even though it's extremely painful.

Again, James Baldwin, a real touchstone for me in understanding these issues, talked about this back in the 1960s, that if we're going to talk honestly about race, it's going to mean that, for instance, white people and black people are going to face each other and have to tell some pretty ugly truths about ourselves and that's not easy. And nothing is really possible until that happens. Unfortunately, I think in a kind of paradoxical way, the progress we have made has made it easier to hide. That is because we are no longer an overtly apartheid society. It's kind of a liberal politeness. And I don't mean liberal in the sense of liberal versus conservative and Republican versus Democrat -- a kind of liberal politeness around race that keeps us, ironically, from actually having those kinds of honest conversations.

Kathleen Wells: And in fact, I can make the argument that electing our first black President has even made it more difficult...

Prof. Robert Jensen: Well certainly, and I'll say this without hesitation, what Barack Obama... One function of Barack Obama is to give white liberals a free pass. White liberals who vote for Barack Obama now have a sense that they cannot be critiqued. White liberals are not only voting for Obama, but raising money for him and going to bat for him and defending him. Especially defending him against the either overtly or not so subtle racist attacks and I think we should defend Barack Obama against racist attacks.

But that doesn't mean that all of a sudden liberal white America gets a free pass, that we don't have our own critical self-reflection to do. And so of course we're not blaming Barack Obama for this, we're recognizing that one of the effects of the election of Barack Obama is that liberal white America may have a harder time coming to terms with that deeply embedded white supremacy than ever before. You know, every time I talk to you, Kathleen, I just get more confused [laughter]. The world's so complex. It's not simple. But of course if we don't recognize and start to talk about that complexity there's no hope for any kind of progress.

Kathleen Wells: I wonder what's more insidious? What's more harmful, overt or covert? Is behind my back being a racist, is that more harmful and insidious to me or that overt stuff like John Boehner calling the President a monkey? I can deal with that, but if you're behind my back smiling in my face, that's insidious to me and that's very dangerous and harmful I think. That's my experience.

Prof. Robert Jensen: And in some ways it's not which is worse, because they're both ... They're just flip sides of the same coin. And is it worse to have a broken leg or a broken arm? I don't know, it depends on whether you're trying to type or walk that day. They are both going to constrain you -- they are both going to be part of a system that constrains you. And they're both... I think the important thing that I would say in response to that is that they're both ugly.

That the polite liberal version and the ugly reactionary version are both equally bad... And I say this because for white liberals, it's easy to displace our own responsibility on to the more overtly reactionary kind of character, so that when we see a protester or the Tea Party rally that's got an overtly racist anti-Obama sign, it's easy for white liberals to smile and nod and say, "Oh, those awful racists." And what that does is create a gap between me, the white liberal and them, the white reactionary and of course there is a gap -- there is a difference.

I don't want to say that all white people are the same, but as much as we recognize those differences, we have to also recognize what is similar no matter what a white person says. What is similar about the way in which we are positioned in the world and that's crucial. If we can't talk about that, if white people can't talk about the way we are all the same, then talking about the ways we are different is I think mostly diversionary.

Kathleen Wells: Well, we're going come to a close and I want thank you, Bob, because I loved this discussion. I feel like we're the only people in America having it.


Prof. Robert Jensen: Well, that's important because of course all over the place, in private especially, I think these things are going forward and all we have to do is have the courage to say them on the radio, which you make it so easy to do.

Part 1 and 2 of my Jensen interviews can be seen here and here.