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Lenses and Frames

When we talk about people’s points of views on various subjects, we sometimes say that they see the subject through a different lens than we do. For example, the tourist in a foreign country might be delighted or put off by sights and events that that the locals take for granted. Or a child psychologist looks at a toddler’s public temper tantrum and sees more in it than a supermarket bystander would. A high level athlete will see much more in a video of her sport than an ordinary spectator. And there is an old saying that naïve people who have not experienced hardships look at life through rose colored glasses. Thus a victim of rape will regard aggressive sexual behavior with a far different set of emotions and expectations than would a member of the “boys will be boys” club. Our educations, formal and informal, and our life experiences provide us with the lenses through which we observe and then make judgments about events, places and people.

In the area of sociology, a similar term, “frame,” is used to explain how people can come to express varying points of view. In his book, Racism without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains how people with racist attitudes who engage in racist behaviors can exclude themselves from the category of racist through the use of frames. Dr. Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist at Duke University, holds that in our post-civil-rights struggle era, social norms do not allow the language and behaviors of the Jim Crow era. Few people, he says, want to accept the label of red neck bigot. Instead, the ideal is to be perceived as “color blind,” for wouldn’t a color blind society   meet even Dr. Martin Luther King’s standards? But he also finds that, under his definition of racism (“the totality of the social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege”) that the nation’s white power structure is racist. (For detailed documentation of this position, depress yourself by reading Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow). Members of the institutionalized white power structure merely disguise their racist ideas and statements (perhaps even from themselves). Why bother with the disguise? Because as members of the ruling group, they must convince themselves on the one hand that their place in the social hierarchy is just and earned, and on the other hand that they are not guilty of the racism of their ancestors. Bonilla-Silva presents four frames that white people use to justify and conceal their racism. The four frames that excuse and support institutionalized racism in America are abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and minimization of racism. Let’s consider them one at a time.

Of the four frames, abstract liberalism provides the strongest and most common shield for white racism. But wait – isn’t liberalism good? The term liberal calls to mind Bernie Sanders, democrats sticking up for the middle class, willingness to sacrifice for the good of the community. How can it be bad? For the answer we have to go back to the development of the liberalism that inspired the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Liberalism was a creation of the growing merchant middle class of Europe which was in conflict with the dying ideas around the authority of kings and emperors. In the good old days of royal authority, everything was first of all the possession and right of the king. Recall that the founders of the 13 Colonies had to obtain charters from the crown in order to develop their pieces of the New World. One of the powers of kings was to arbitrarily tax the wealth of his subjects or even to confiscate it entirely. What the original liberals, who were the rising merchant middle class, wanted was trade and commerce free of interference from authority. They valued individualism, equality, and the freedom to move up in society. But their ideas of freedom extended only to white males of property. Women, the poor, and all those of non-European ancestry were excluded, for the purpose of liberalism was to gain power and produce wealth. The liberal idea that all humans are created with equal rights, and unlike serfs and slaves, had the right to improve their standing in society did not gain acceptance in the United States until the mid 20th century and even then only partially. So today the well mannered racist can use liberal terms like equal opportunity, freedom from government control in social policy, individual choice, and self-improvement to appear reasonable and moral while claiming that non-whites are welfare dependent, immoral, and too lazy to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. These claims necessitate ignoring the fact that non-whites have been systematically denied well paying jobs, equal protection under the law, basic education in good schools, and admission to higher education. Polite racists claim the right of individual choice to justify living in segregated neighborhoods and sending their children to segregated schools. At the same time they ignore the many powerful institutional and state-sponsored practices behind residential segregation while claiming that minorities are only expressing their preference “to live among their own kind.”. (Again, see Alexander’s The New Jim Crow or read chapter two of Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists [click here for the free download] if you need to see the evidence.) So the new “stealth racist” hides behind the U. S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the statements of men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and calls upon the philosophy of John Stuart Mill and Emanuel Kant to justify his white supremacy. It looks so intellectual and patriotic, and it is so dishonest and un-American.

Bonilla-Silva calls his next frame naturalization. This frame is used by whites to explain away apparent injustices resulting from differential treatment of minorities. It is done by suggesting that institutions like segregation are natural, a result of our tribal ancestry, because people of all races gravitate toward likeness. No one can claim that white separatism is racism because they (the racial minorities) do it too. Of course this stand ignores the financial and social forces that operate to keep white neighborhoods free of minorities and hence keep the minorities on their side of the tracks.

The next frame, cultural racism, is similar to naturalization. In the days of slavery and Jim Crow, African-Americans, and indeed all non-whites, were held to be biologically and intellectually inferior to the population descended from northern Europeans, the population that came to be called white. Today only the true red-neck will spout that in public, so the inferiority has transferred to the cultures of the minority population. “Blacks are violent, Mexicans are lazy, Vietnamese are sneaky, and don’t call me a racist if I just notice what goes on,” our sophisticated racist says. Of course, when pressed for evidence of these negatives, the racist cites Facebook memes, twisted statistics, and those stories that “everybody knows.”

The last frame is minimization of racism. This frame suggests that discrimination is no longer the force that it used to be; that while there are some racists out there, they are no longer in control. We have made progress. Things are so much better than they used to be that complaining is only “playing the race card.” This frame works best when discrimination is cast as all-out racist behavior, ala the Jim Crow era. It is true that African-Americans today are, as a group, in a better situation than they have been in the past. But Malcolm X, in a 1964 interview, made a great statement about racial progress. “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out five inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made. They [the white power structure] haven’t even begun to pull the knife out, much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”

I think that today many of us know that the knife is there, some of us have tried to pull it out, but few are involved in the healing.

I hope that this little message about frames is helpful. This knowledge has better prepared me to answer, if only in my head, the rational sounding claims of the new breed of racists. And I fear that in the coming four years more and more of them will gain attention and credibility.