The Browning of America

“I dedicate this album to the abused and battered children of the world in hope that we can all make it through…”

             —Garland Jeffreys introduction to the album Ghost Writer

This is the story of a girl named Shaniqua.  Of her exact age I am not sure, but she is young, very young.  One Friday a few weeks ago she was kidnapped.  She was called racially offensive names.  She was defaced, stomped on, driven over by a car, and had her head forced out of a sunroof window.  As a final degradation, she was forcibly posed in various sexual positions.  All of this was recorded in videos and applauded by the participants and onlookers.

This Shaniqua, however, was a doll, not a real person.  But she could have been.  What are dolls anyway?  Like stuffed animals, dolls are given to young children to form their affective relations with others.  Who is to say if or when what was done to Shaniqua the doll could not break out against a real person?

Several Salinas High School students were disciplined after a video surfaced showing a group of them torturing a Black doll they named Shaniqua. The video was posted to an account called “Shaniqua.shs,” which shows a number of students from Salinas High School in Salinas, seemingly using racial slurs while holding the doll. The students abused the doll, stomped on it, ran over it with a fellow student’s car, and put the doll in various sexual positions, according to Newsweek.  The video was filmed by a student before a school football game that was set to take place at the school. After the video went viral, the Instagram account was made private and later and then deleted.  In the account, called “shaniqua.shs” were uploaded images, some of them with racist captions, and videos of the doll being brutalized. Although the account was deleted, screenshots and recordings of the page continue to circulate on social media.  Furthermore, this was not a brief event.  The students in question carried the doll throughout the day on Friday, August 20, 2021, where they drew on it, ran it over, stomped on it and posted it on the Instagram account.  There is also the issue of an ankle monitor which was placed on the doll. To some this is not disturbing, but to others it was.  A biracial senior from the high school anonymously spoke to the Salinas Californian, “When I found out the ankle monitor was drawn, that’s when I knew it was intentional.  People were not doing this as a joke.” She told the Californian that she felt that doll was meant to “degrade Black people.  It was not funny. To me it was kind of sad because I grew up with this class, so it was like, ‘Wow, this is how you guys actually feel?’” she questioned.

During the football jamboree, more students and some parents were made aware of the doll as it was passed around during the game. The following day, the Instagram account had been reported to Salinas Union High School District officials. The account only had about seventy followers when it was deleted, although  screenshots continued to circulate.  On Sunday, a petition demanded that the school address the racist account and students passing around the doll to create harmful images. To balance the injustice with outrage, as of the following Tuesday, over 10,500 people had signed the petition. “Schools are supposed to be a safe place for students to learn academically, and respect should be taught. Students cannot learn and be in a safe environment if they’re surrounded by people who will spread hate towards them because of their skin color,” the petition read.

There is more.  At the Jamboree, some White students also publicly called the opposing Alisal High School students racial slurs (“wetback” and “beaners”). One parent said the slurs “really threw her [daughter] off and really hurt her feelings,” prompting her daughter to leave the event altogether.  But this is not White-only hate.  In the now-deleted social media posts featuring “Shaniqua,” about half of the students enacting the violence are Latino.

Author Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez writes that the incident tells us several things:

  1. Even if White students started the Instagram account for “Shaniqua,” they were not the only ones who engaged in racist activity.
  2. Latino youth can white-identify, mirroring Census data [more about this later]—which may help explain why they participated in Salinas’s normalization of white supremacy to identify with and be racially and class adjacent to the ruling class of affluent Anglo Americans who populate South Salinas.
  3. It’s possible to express anti-Black racism as a Latin person or Anglo person with ease when the Black population of Salinas makes up only slightly more than 3 percent.
  4. Black women and non-White immigrants were made the targets of racial slurring and symbolic violence.

It is tempting to lay the blame directly on these children, but it must be remembered that they have come of age during the past four years in an era which has given them and others not only permission to hate, but encouragement to do so.  This is not open to debate, as much as some may desire to wishfully think it away.  Statistics of racial and personal attacks are out there for all to see and cannot be disputed.  Formerly respectful environments such as school board meetings, airports, restaurants, stores, and other public places [need I mention the U.S. Capitol?] are now filled with brawling and violence.  We are not done with hate yet—the voices of “conservatives” (read “racist reactionaries”) are already rising with false accusations against the Afghan refugees, whose only crime was to help us in our 20 years’ war.  Regrettably, fanning the flames of hatred is sure to infect many more and prolong social unrest.

Salinas may not be unique but it is important to understand its structure and history.  First there is its ethnic composition: White 37.37%,  Hispanic 70.3%, Asian 5.47%, Black 1.51%, two or more races 3.36%.  Racism is part and parcel of its class and race stratification, earning it the title “the richest poor city in California”.  Even with the lucrative multi-billion dollar agricultural industry in Salinas, 21 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Why, then, is it surprising when Salinas High School students violate a Black female doll or hurl racial slurs at racial others.  They are only reproducing the racism which is a part of the community’s historic identity.

Early racism focused on Chinese immigrants who provided farm labor, with Japanese and Filipinos to soon follow. By the time of Bracero Program (1942-1964)—an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments that permitted Mexican citizens to take temporary agricultural work in the United States—a mostly Mexican labor force had replaced Filipinos in the fields.  Mexicans could ascend to the middle class by becoming labor contractors, packing shed crew leaders, business owners who catered to agriculture, and professionals.  They and their families distanced themselves from the Mexican migrants who worked for them with condescending racism, citing their middle class identity and documented U.S. citizenship.

Salinas politics—as Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez’ book, Archiving Mexican Masculinities in Diaspora, documents—always privileges the interests of growers, forcing a racialized class split between Anglos, Mexican nationals (non-citizens) and Mexican Americans (citizens). Guidotti-Hernandez writes that despite the fact many civic leaders were part of the 1970s farmworker movement, that reformism doesn’t show up in the Salinas educational system because the city remains segregated.

Salinas’ history includes the burning of John Steinbeck’s books in the 1930s (where they now fill book racks in many stores) and the jailing of Cesar Chavez during the 1970 Salad Bowl strike (“Keep Cesar out of our salad”).  Both were led by the anti-union business community.  Salinas’ unique form of apartheid is most tellingly recounted in Larry Hosford’s classic song “Salinas”: “The right side of town was wrong, and the wrong side of town was right.”  Hosford spent his life in the Alisal district of Salinas, where his parents settled as part of the 1930s Okie migration.  The Alisal district—a relatively recent incorporation into the city of Salinas—was once a separate town.  Again citing Hosford’s song, it was a place for “Okies and Mexicans”.  This segregation attempt led to the creation of separate school districts where one would have done just fine.  These exist to this day.  I would not say that Salinas is worse than other towns—it is only that its bigotry is more blatantly obvious and out there for all to see. 

Salinas native Christine Castro’s dissertation, “The Lettuce Monster: A History of State Violence, Carceral Geography, and Industrial Agriculture in the Salinas Valley” documents how the 1936 lettuce strike exposed the unequal racialized labor divisions between Filipino and Dust Bowl migrants in the agriculture industry.  Through state-sponsored violence against the striking workers and the differential punishment of Filipino laborers, Castro shows how pushing out these workers because of the strike forever changed the dynamics of the valley’s racial capitalist structure.

For years as a teacher in Salinas I registered adult students, using the categories specified by current Census data collection requirements to qualify them for Federal funds necessary to support our program.  Census data is not a firm set of statistics.  It is manipulated by the governmental power structure to reflect the political realities of the time as they have changed through the decades.  Currently, there are two linked categories which must have a response, those on ethnicity and those on raceEthnicity comes first and must be dealt with before proceeding.  Amazingly, this is concerns only Hispanic identity: Is the respondent of Hispanic origin and, beyond that, is there a more specific identity (Mexican, Dominican, Cuban, etc.).  Write-ins are allowed.  This used to appear later with the race questions but now occupies the first position. The guidance given is this: “In basic terms, race describes physical traits, and ethnicity refers to cultural identification. Race may also be identified as something you inherit while ethnicity is something you learn.” Even after all these years I am not sure that I understand this, so don’t let me try to explain it to you.

Here are the five minimum categories for data on race:

  1. American Indian or Alaska Native
  2. Asian
  3. Black or African American
  4. Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  5. White

Additionally, there is now the category Some Other Race. As might be expected, an increasing number or respondents identify with more than one race.  These responses may be entered in the Some Other Race question.  

The evolution of Hispanic on the Census form carries its own ugly history.  In 1930, “Mexican” appeared on the Census questionnaire as a race. This was during the Depression and it was a time period when the government was rounding up Mexican citizens. The same race data was used in the 1940s to locate Japanese-Americans for internment camps. Predictably, many people didn’t want to be identifiable on the Census because they were afraid of the government.  Is it any wonder that undocumented residents feared the recently proposed question on citizenship?  Its sham intent was to identify undocumented populations in need of support, but any fool could see through that.  Although later eliminated, the Trump administration, not to be deterred, directed the Census Bureau to compile government records on citizenship from the Social Security Administration and other agencies.

In earlier times, people did not want to be racialized. This was when the best avenue for people to fit in was to claim whiteness. In 1929 it was the League of the United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) who led a failed organizing effort to get “Mexican” off the 1930 census. Their argument was “We are White race, we are Americans.” The Mexican government also protested the category because the entire Southwest used to be part of Mexico, and when it was taken over by the United States, they promised Mexico that the Mexican residents there would be treated as full citizens. The issue came about (predating the later ethnicity/race dichotomy) because of Mexicans identifying as legally White but socially not-White.  It worked against them in some ways, because the parties being accused of segregation and discrimination could say, “Well, no, you’re White.” So this history of claiming whiteness has been a strategy that Mexican Americans and other Latino groups have used to try to lobby for acceptance — claiming Americanness, claiming whiteness.   In 1980, the Hispanic identity question appeared on all of the forms. It used to come after the race question, but later became the ethnicity question because it was one of the most unanswered forms on the Census. If you asked people their race, “I’m White or I’m Black,” and they would get this next question, “are you Hispanic?” They would say “I already answered this,” and they would skip it. Latinos have a wide variety of racial diversity. People can be Afro-Latino and be White and be Latino and there are a whole lot of Latinos who are brown, Native American, even Asian.  Researcher Gene Denby writes, “….I looked at it as measure of ideology: those people who checked White were more identified with this ideology of using whiteness as a strategy, while those who checked other were more identified with anti-racist politics, or they identified more or with immigrants with African-Americans. So it wasn’t so much color or assimilation, but what strategy they use to combat the discrimination they faced. Because the overwhelming majority of the people I spoke to experienced discrimination— whether they identified as White or whether they identified as other. Some of the lightest people checked other and some of the darkest people checked White. It wasn’t a skin color issue or an assimilation issue: It’s a strategic issue.”  As expected, an inordinate number of respondents refer to themselves as White.  When asked why they checked this box, many simply stated the most frequent answer: was that there was nothing else to check.  This, incidentally, is what I found as I registered my students.

In the summer of 2019, a Mexican origin manager at a local McDonald’s berated a young Black female employee for seemingly no reason. Because McDonald’s has always been a place of upward mobility for people of color in Salinas to become part of the management class and get an education irrelevant of race, an observer reported the incident because it was so disturbing and indicative of how anti-blackness drives racism in a white-identified, Latino-majority town.

Of course, Mexicans and other Latino youth in Salinas experience racism at the hands of police and others, but this doesn’t mean they must participate in the sanctioned racism Anglo Americans and middle class Mexicans have used to get ahead.

Had the makers of the Shaniqua doll done a little research, they might have thought of another name.  Shaniqua, like the more recently appropriated name Karen, has been used to describe a course, offensive, black woman from the ghetto. This is, of course, belied by several admirable and well-known women named Shaniqua, much as women named Karen who are likewise maligned. Digging back to 2005, the name Shaniqua was already in place as a racial epithet: “(n.) a common name used to mock/describe a Black woman from the inner city…this name would include all of the stereotypes: long fake braids, big butt, ghetto voice.” In 2007 it was further enshrined as a definition, specifically:

  1. The ghettoest of ghetto names.
  2. A stereotypical name used to refer to loud, ghetto African-American females.
  3. Referenced in the movie Bringing Down the House and the song “Shaniqua” by Little T

This is not the original meaning, however.  In African language it means “God is Gracious”, and in Native American it means “Beautiful” or “beautiful spirit”.  One writer has commented, “The negative connotation that comes with having our names is just plain ignorance.”

One of the fascinating things about discrimination is that it knows few boundaries.  It can be “intra-racial” as well as “inter-racial”.  Black residents of Los Angeles, characterized by better education, higher income and, notably, lighter skin, excluded the poorer, less educated, and darker skinned arrivals from Mississippi and other parts of the South, leadership roles in the NAACP, and other participation in the community.  U.S.-born Chicanos discriminate against the racially identical immigrants from Mexico as “mojados”—wetbacks. There is also the derogatory term “pocho/pocha”.  This is a Mexican criticized because he/she has a foot in both cultures and lacks a defined identity.  Strange—I thought that cultural integration was an admirable goal.  Filipinos with established residents laugh at the newer arrivals with the pejorative “F.O.B.—“fresh off the boat”.  And on and on.  Unfortunate as it seems, inter-racial stigmatization appears to be a universal human quality.

Much is made of the current debate on Critical Race Theory.  Forget about using this term—it will only give the bigots a club to use against you.  All that should be asked or required of our students is that they take an honest look at history, open to both the abuses and promise which are part of the American Idea.  While there may be a need for curriculum revision, the key is to empower students to seek the truth wherever it may lead.  Anyone who doubts the reality of historical race repression should consider the number of Oklahoma City residents who, prior to the 2021 centennial, had never heard of the massacre which occurred in their own back yard a century ago. 

Restrictive home deeds, prohibiting sale to persons other than White, still exist in Seaside, CA, a model community created largely by generations of Black families from neighboring Fort Ord, as well as other cities.  Early 20th century deeds in California usually contained these covenants that prevented property owners from selling to someone who wasn’t White. These were created privately — not by the government — and weren’t overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1948. Today, even though they have no legal force and are ignored by buyers, sellers and title companies, they still exist in millions of property deeds.   In liberal, tolerant, progressive Carmel my friend, noted linguist and professor K.C. Chung, was the target of a campaign to drive him from the community when he attempted to buy a home there in the 1950s.  So Carmelites, back off on your finger-pointing self-righteousness.  And before I leave this topic, it was Bakersfield who created a separate school for newly arrived Okie children so that, in Salinas style, the unwashed immigrants would not pollute the other residents.

We are driven, we are defined, by our symbols.  In an anthropological sense, one of the most powerful is that of skin color.  For one thing, it cannot be hidden, along with other racial characteristics.  It is out there for everyone to see. Yet there are what I count as signs of hope.  TV commercials now frequently show mixed-race couples, with their children of an intermediate skin color tagging along, something that was never seen (might I even say prohibited) even a few years back.  Here is a prophecy: America the “Salad Bowl” (mixed but separate identity) will become what America was said to be but never really was, the “Melting Pot.”  The trend is obvious.  It is inevitable.  And, it may be the only true solution.  Over time, the descendants of those now living will have a more uniform set of skin colors and racial features.  Our very DNA will determine our tolerance, our acceptance, our human identity.  And from where I stand, it couldn’t happen fast enough.

A closing note: The image I have selected for this post is Shaniqua in her intended beauty and innocence, not the defaced one which has appeared in the wake of this shameful event.

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