Incomplete Analysis: Why the Black White Binary Fails

Derrick Dawson is a member of the AntiRacism Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, and served as its Co-Chair for three years.  He is a graduate student and teaching assistant in English Composition at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Derrick was also a broadcaster and journalist in the United States Navy, where he served for eight years on ships in Asia and the Pacific.

Derrick Dawson is a member of the AntiRacism Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, and served as its Co-Chair for three years. He is a graduate student and teaching assistant in English Composition at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Derrick was also a broadcaster and journalist in the United States Navy, where he served for eight years on ships in Asia and the Pacific.

Barely a week into Black History Month and I am exhausted. The DVR is already full of black programming, there’s a play, concert or other event every night and two on Saturdays. Someone joked that a cable channel is showing a minstrel marathon in celebration, and a Catholic high school for girls in California has apologized for a Black History Month lunch of fried chicken and watermelon.

The annual debates around the relevancy of Black History Month are emblematic of common discourse around race in the United States; a discourse which is almost exclusively characterized by a black-white binary paradigm. This paradigm is problematic because it masks the connections people of color have to one another and does not address the complexity of American History which has seen the genocide of Native Americans, the genocide and enslavement of African Americans, the systematic deportation of Latinos and the exploitation of Asian Americans and the rounding up of People of Color who threaten the United States.

I confess that I have struggled with the fact that the black-white binary paradigm is problematic in the work antiracism organizing and the work of social justice. This is not an easy admission for me. As an organizer-trainer for Crossroads, as well as its co-chair of the board of directors, I would like to believe that I’d mastered everything there is to know about institutional and systemic racism. I was raised on the far South Side of Chicago in the 1960’s and 1970’s when Martin Luther King moved the civil rights movement to the city to fight segregation. He later referred to this effort, stating ” I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today,” he said.” As a kid in the South Side’s Burnham neighborhood, I unknowingly played on the steps of the Area 2 police station while John Burge and his corrupt policemen beat confession out of dozens of innocent men in one of the nation’s worst examples of abject institutional racism.

My work as an antiracism organizer trainer has shown me that there is a persistent struggle against this binary as those who are neither black nor white often struggle to have their voices heard in the fight against white supremacy. “The reality is that the exclusion of others is a result of a particular black-white normative vision of the American nation as being properly and primarily black and white. The . . . black-white binary is a nativist idea that aids the continued exclusion of Latinos, Asian Americans, and other nonwhite immigrant groups . . . from full citizenship and equal protection.”[1]

Unknown-6I became aware of my own participation in this nativist phenomenon about 3 years ago when Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow. Her book about mass incarceration was better received than even the author anticipated. After reading the book and seeing Ms. Alexander speak at a few readings around Chicago, I began to hear criticisms that she addressed neither the growing presence of women nor Latinos in the conversation of mass incarceration in the United States.  I was surprised when Michelle Alexander acknowledged her own adherence to the black-white binary paradigm on Bill Moyer’s & Company last December, declaring that she had came to realize the need to “change lanes” and see the issue more broadly. It had finally occurred to her that

If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime. If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.”[2]

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And of course she’s right. An illustration is buried in the issue of Mass Incarceration that is the subject of her book even though it has gone largely unnoticed. In 2013, Wall Street Journal journalist Patrick O Connor reported that the harsh immigration laws passed in Arizona last year were written by lobbyists for the Private prison industry, specifically Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group.

Here in Chicago, I have attended any number of rallies and meetings about immigration. It is clear at these events that immigration issues are seen as an issue only important to Latinos just as mass incarceration is seen as an issue concerning only African Americans. Ronald R. Sundstrom illustrates this further with an example from Hurricane Katrina.While Arizona citizens believed they were taking a firm stand in favor of “border control,”they were being duped by CCA and GEO who were selling bodies for the profit and the career advancement of local politicians. Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010.

As the aftermath of the hurricane developed, the image of African-American urban poverty dominated the news and discourse. The discussions of the hurricane and race did not stray from stories about poor African Americans and worked to exclude the news that the Bush administration had used the disaster as an opportunity to apprehend and deport undocumented Latin American immigrants who ended up in Shelters. This move was, of course, paired with widespread exploitation of Latino labor by contractors who sought to take advantage of federal and state monies for the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region. Additionally, the binary blocked from public attention the news of the losses of Honduran Americans in New Orleans and Vietnamese American communities of the Gulf Coast. The race story was simply the black story, and the result was that the nation thought of race in its old black-white terms.[3]

I look at my bookmarks and realize that I turn to some of my favorite sites, like Angry Asian Man, Son of Baldwin and Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources in an attempt to keep up with what’s going on in various communities’ social justice work. While I’m grateful for those resources, I also recognize that those resources exist because of the marginalization of non-Black people of color in the black-white binary paradigm.

The black-white binary paradigm is dangerous because it serves white supremacy by marginalizing, isolating and dividing people of color. Moving beyond the binary might allow us to see more black social justice groups showing up at Reforma Migratoria PRO America rallies and supporting the National Congress of American Indians.

African American demands for justice deserve satisfaction, and those claims do not need the black-white binary for justification.[4] The black-white binary renders invisible the experience of groups that stand outside the binary, makes hyper-visible the experience of African Americans, and diverts attention away from white supremacy. The black-white binary is a fictional representation of race in America and has to be set aside if racial justice work is to be located in a broader human rights context.


[1]                 Ronald R. Sundstrom, The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice, SUNY Press, 2008, 190pp., ISBN 9780791475867

[2]                 “Incarceration Nation” Bill Moyers & Company. PBS. 20 Dec. 2013. Televisio

[3]                 Sundstrom, p82

[4]                 Ronald R. Sundstrom, The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice, SUNY Press, 2008, 190pp., ISBN 9780791475867

Categories:Antiracism Analysis, Commentary, Racial Equity, Racial Justice
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