Book Project Overview
Working title: Keeping Our Eyes Off the Prize: How an American Divide and Conquer Culture Pits Racial Groups Against Each Other
This projects starts with the understanding that systemic racism is still a serious problem in this country, and it manifests itself in a variety of ways. There is a disparity in wealth based on race, school segregation is growing, and there are more young men of color in prison than in college. Legal scholars from the field of critical race theory would say that racism is camouflaged by a rhetoric of color blindness and political correctness, but that underneath that surface, structural racism persists. Furthermore, when race is discussed, either in the mainstream media or by scholars, there is a tendency to focus just on blacks and whites or just on one particular racial group. There is a lack of discussion and analysis about the connections and intersections between multiple racial groups. This project argues that looking at the big picture of race is a necessary part of the solution, and one way to do that is to analyze how racial groups have been pitted against each other through a “divide and conquer” mentality.
This approach can provide valuable insight since we can see how potential alliances between groups with similar interests are disrupted because of the threat to the status quo that those alliances pose. The divide and conquer mentality keeps the system and the status quo in place by making the inequities and discrimination that result from racism and classism less visible and by shifting blame away from the power structure. I believe that the divide and conquer mentality has been fueled by the conservative backlash against the civil rights movement and women’s movement. Furthermore, the current stereotypes used to advance the divide and conquer mentality are based on stereotypes from the past, and we need to understand that historical foundation and see how the stereotypes have been manipulated to serve a contemporary context. I not only examine ways in which the “divide and conquer” mentality has been imposed on marginalized groups but also how these groups have perpetuated this mentality when faced with competition and limited access to resources. I am drawing from a variety of academic disciplines and scholars, including the field of critical race theory that I already mentioned, as well as cultural studies and whiteness studies, in addition to scholars like Paul Krugman, Susan Faludi, Naomi Klein, and George Lipsitz.
Furthermore, I also explore how categories of difference are constantly changing, created and re-created in order to serve specific historical needs. As demographics shift, the divide and conquer approach is manipulated in order to position new groups into existing class and race structures, again reinforcing the status quo. For example, the rising Latino population is often pitted against African Americans for resources and political control at the local level. Similarly, the notion of Asian Americans as the “model minority” pits them against other racial minorities while obscuring racism and classism. The stereotype of poor whites as “white trash” operates in a similar fashion, serving as a buffer between whites and blacks while again concealing the power structure.
The way I’ve organized this project is to focus on three pervasive racialized stereotypes that exemplify the divide and conquer strategy: poor whites as “white trash” or “redneck,” Asian Americans as the “model minority,” and Latinos as the “majority minority.” Then, within each of those three parts, I have four chapters that examine the complexity of that particular stereotype, its history and how it plays out in popular culture, the news media, and political campaigns.
The Introduction sets the stage for why analysis of the divide and conquer mentality is so crucial and timely. It also lays the groundwork for some of the key principles that will run throughout all of these chapters, including the role of ideology, the function of fear, the notion that a veneer of color-blindness masks structural and institutional racism, and the power of a hyper-capitalist and conservative backlash against the civil rights movement and women’s movement. It also provides a historical framework for this kind of analysis by turning to early colonial America, when one of the earliest and most important moments of division created the categories of whiteness and blackness. The mid to late 1600s saw the transition from an ambiguously defined status of white servants and black slaves to a clear demarcation between indentured servitude and slavery, and that boundary was marked by race. What was momentarily a burgeoning alliance between blacks and poor whites became antagonism and competition, through a divide and conquer mentality created by the language of laws (slave codes) and maintained by a variety of tactics.
Part One: Poor Whites as “White Trash” and “Redneck”
Chapter 1: The popularity of redneck humor and the conservative backlash
This chapter analyzes the current popularity of “redneck” humor, deemed socially acceptable by self-proclaimed redneck comedians like Jeff Foxworthy and his fellow members of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. However, at the heart of this racialized construct is the “trashing” of whiteness for whites deemed inferior, namely poor whites who are then constructed as above blacks on the racial hierarchy. This dual approach gives white privilege to whites without giving them class privilege, thereby blaming them for their poverty at the same time as pitting them against blacks to help ward off potential alliances with them. At the same time as contemporary redneck humor has prospered, the conservative backlash has also developed, in response to the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Furthermore, poor whites are often blamed for conservative voting patterns over the past few decades, but economists like Larry Bartels shows that that blame is inaccurate, with the exception of the South. The stereotype of the conservative poor white is a convenient way to blame someone without power for a conservative shift, thereby obscuring those in power who are responsible. Redneck humor appears to embrace an anti-elite message at the same time as underneath that surface, lies a conservative agenda that serves an elite power structure.
Chapter 2: Tea Party as redneck?
This chapter builds on Chapter 1 by focusing on the conservative backlash that is currently culminating in the Tea Party movement. However, I begin in 2008, when Obama ran for president. I’m focusing particularly on the press surrounding his comment about white working class voters being “bitter” and how he was accused of being “elitist.” This supposed critique of elitism continues to emerge throughout the Tea Party protests, and there is an important parallel between this focus on elitism and its role as a prominent theme in contemporary redneck humor. Furthermore, this chapter also explores the media’s depiction of the Tea Party as redneck at the same time as polling reveals its members to be wealthier than the average American.
Chapter 3: Redneck humor reinvents the eugenics movement
While current redneck humor presents itself as harmless and innocent, this chapter focuses on its similarity to the depiction of poor whites in the eugenics movement. Family studies published during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century characterized various poor white families as “feeble-minded,” paving the way for legislation about involuntary sterilization as well as immigration policy that privileged those from northern Europe. There are several surprising parallels in the way these family studies and contemporary redneck humor represent poor whites, including genetic inferiority, sexual uncontrollability, lack of intelligence, and poor health. These connections need to be understood in order to recognize the insidious nature of constructing poor whites as “trash.”
Chapter 4: Redneck racists in film
While redneck humor is prevalent today, it focuses almost exclusively on poor whites in the context of economic class and tends to avoid the representation of poor whites as racist, which is fundamental to the redneck stereotype. However, that doesn’t mean this portrayal is absent in contemporary popular culture. It just seems that focusing on economic class is more socially acceptable and therefore appropriate for mainstream comedy, while focusing on rednecks as racist is too sensitive perhaps for such comedy and is instead more common in dramatic films, particularly those that focus on blaming someone for racism. This chapter focuses on the depiction of redneck racists in four films: Mississippi Burning (1988), Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), A Time to Kill (1996), and The Blind Side (2009). These four films explore the problem of racism in various ways. The first two are set in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, while the other two are set in a more contemporary period. I find that the two films focused on the earlier time period are able to portray racism as systemic, as a problem that goes all the way to the top of the power structure. The two films set in a more recent time period, on the other hand, represent racism as no longer systemic but aberrant, and the racists are no longer found in the elite white power structure but rather, the racists are rednecks.
Part Two: Asian Americans as the “Model Minority”
Chapter 5: The creation of the “model minority” stereotype in the news media
Here, I am drawing a parallel between the concept of white trash and the construction of Asian Americans as the model minority, which also promotes division and prevents coalition. From the 1800s to the mid 1900s, Asian Americans tended to be depicted as the “Yellow Peril.” However, during the mid to late 1960s, Asian Americans began to be perceived as the “model minority.” Mainstream news articles set the stage for this depiction by describing Asian Americans (often Chinese Americans) as having gained success due to their own hard work, not to any government “handout.” This construction works on multiple levels. First, it denies the existence of racism; if Asian Americans can achieve the American dream, then racism cannot exist for either other Asian Americans or any other racial minority. Second, if racism does not exist, then members of the civil rights movement and the black power movement have no legitimate claim. Third, if Asian Americans can be successful, then the class system must be fluid. All you need to do is work hard and you will achieve; therefore, class barriers are permeable. The notion of Asian Americans as the model minority has only intensified since its creation in the late 1960s, and this chapter focuses on how this stereotype is represented in the news media.
Chapter 6: What gets erased in a “positive” stereotype
A common perception is often that “positive” stereotypes are harmless. After all, if Asian Americans are being depicted as “the model,” then what’s the big deal? This chapter focuses on several answers to that question, particularly the convenient way that this stereotype erases racism aimed at Asian Americans, as well as racism aimed at any other racial minorities. It also denies the incredible range of people who are collectively thought of as Asian American, some of whom are immigrants, some of whom go back many generations in the US, some of whom are refugees, some of whom are very well educated, and some of whom are not well educated. The demographic range that this one group encompasses is vast and has become more so over the past few decades. This chapter examines the way news articles have depicted these issues.
Chapter 7: Resistance to the model minority stereotype in popular culture
While the novel and film The Joy Luck Club (1989 and 1993 respectively) tended to reinforce some aspects of the model minority stereotype, namely its depiction of Chinese American characters as very successful with little experience of racism, several cultural texts since then resist the model minority stereotype in important ways. The film Better Luck Tomorrow (2003) reveals a provocative shift toward revealing the inner-working of the model minority myth and questioning its purpose. Likewise, the “Average Asian” character on MADtv also draws attention to the absurdity of the model minority stereotype by mocking the other characters who make stereotypical assumptions about Haidiki because he’s Asian. Finally, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay similarly resist the idea of Asian Americans as the model minority. Interestingly, these examples show how humor can be used to resist dominant divide and conquer strategies, whereas Part One shows how humor can reinforce those strategies, which may relate to the level of social acceptability of the stereotype.
Chapter 8: Racial tension
One of the reasons that the model minority stereotype is so powerful is that it demonizes two minorities that are not seen as “model,” namely blacks and Latinos. When the idea of Asian Americans as the model minority was first introduced in the late 1960s, the Latino population was not very large and therefore not perceived as a significant threat, unlike the black population. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that the notion of Asian Americans as the model minority was introduced at the same time as the black power movement was perceived as a growing threat. This depiction constructed Asian Americans as the “good” minority and blacks as the “bad” minority. This served many purposes: to break the burgeoning pan-racial coalition and instead pit Asian Americans against other racial minorities and to serve as an excuse for arguing that racism does not exist and that blacks, in particular, have no legitimate claim of racial discrimination. More recently, we can see ways in which the model minority myth has continued to divide racial minorities, particularly in debates about affirmative action in education. This chapter analyzes articles from the news media to illustrate the perpetuation of these divisions.
Part Three: Latinos as the “Majority Minority”
Chapter 9: Terminology, racial ambiguity, and invisibility
This chapter further builds on the divide and conquer strategies discussed in Part One and Part Two by focusing on the construction of Latinos, who are often left out of discussions of race. The constantly evolving terminology, especially related to the census, reflects Latinos’ ambiguous relationship with race and the resulting invisibility due to that ambiguity. The 2010 Census, for example, continued (like recent Census forms) to ask one question about Latino identity separately from a question about race, which didn’t include Latino as a racial group. Despite this invisibility on the one hand, Latinos also confront hyper-visibility, on the other hand, especially in the context of the stereotype of the “majority minority.” This chapter examines the evolving language of the census over time as well as the representation of Latinos in the news media.
Chapter 10: The hypervisibility of Latinos as a population
The growth of Latinos as a population has been the subject of news stories throughout this past decade, and I’m sure the results of the 2010 census will be no exception. During the summer of 2005, the cover of Newsweek proclaimed “Latino Power” in big letters, with the election of the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in many decades. That same year, the Washington Post reported that “the nation’s largest minority group is increasing its presence even faster than in the previous decade,” reinforcing the tone of threat and competition. The focus on the Latino population as out of control is analogous to the focus on poor whites as an exploding population in the family studies of the eugenics movement. We are constantly bombarded with statistics revealing the increasing Latino population, instilling fear in whites, fear of losing a “way of life.” All of this hyper-visibility is in direct contrast to the invisibility of Latinos in conversations about race.
Chapter 11: Immigration
At the same time as Latinos are constructed as hyper-visible when it comes to the increasing demographic population, especially in the context of births in the US, another aspect of this hyper-visibility is the perception of overwhelming numbers of Latino immigrants. This chapter examines this representation in the news media, in conjunction with the perception that all Latino immigrants are undocumented.
Chapter 12: Racial tension, again
Just like the stereotype of Asian Americans as the model minority serves to divide them from other racial minorities, the stereotype of Latinos as the majority minority also serves to pit Latinos against other racial minorities. It threatens the status of blacks in particular as “the” minority, pitting blacks and Latinos against each other for seemingly limited resources. In January 2003, the New York Times reported that “Hispanics have edged past blacks as the nation’s largest minority group,” as if it were a competition. More recently, the news coverage of Obama’s campaign often included references to his ostensible difficulty appealing to Latino voters due to his race.
While much of this project outlines serious problems in the way we think about and talk about race, I have focused on these problems because I believe raising awareness about them is an important step in helping us take these racial constructs apart. With that in mind, I’d like to focus this conclusion on two cultural texts from the past few years that I think go a long way in contributing toward both raising awareness and taking apart the kinds of racial constructs I’ve been discussing. The first is Obama’s speech on race, given in March 2008, when he was still a presidential candidate. He explicitly got at the kinds of divide and conquer strategies I’ve raised here. Second, the Oscar-winning film Crash (2005) is one of the few cultural texts that directly engages with the interaction between multiple racial groups. It seems like most of the time, whether it is an academic book, a television show, or a film, one rarely sees multiracial representation or a multiracial cast when the topic is race. Television shows that have a multiracial cast don’t explicitly focus on race, and the same goes for films. Crash seems quite unique in that way because it forces the audience to directly engage with ideas of race at the same time as it depicts racial stereotypes and tension between racial groups. However, the film ultimately doesn’t reinforce those stereotypes but forces the audience to question them, thereby revealing the way the divide and conquer strategy operates.