The Color of the Race Problem Is White

Robert Jensen is one of the best US scholars whose analysis on issues ranging from race, class, media to foreign policy is always insightful and free of dogma.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois suggested that the question white people so often want to ask black people is, How does it feel to be a problem? This program turns the tables and recognizes some simple facts: Race problems have their roots in a system of white supremacy. White people invented white supremacy. Therefore, the color of the race problem is white. White people are the problem. White people have to ask ourselves: How does it feel to be a problem?

Following the ideas in his book The Heart of Whiteness, Jensen argues that — even decades after the significant achievements of the civil-rights movement and with an African-American president — it is still appropriate to describe the United States as a white-supremacist society, in terms of how we think and how we live. Through an analysis of contemporary racial ideology, Jensen presents a framework for critiquing the naturalizing of power and privilege in other arenas of our lives (gender, class, nationality, and ecology). How have we come to accept so easily systems of domination and subordination? How did we become resigned to hierarchy? How can we challenge the unjust and unsustainable nature of the systems in which we live?

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

14 thoughts on “The Color of the Race Problem Is White”

  1. I,

    I’d also add in there gender issues as well. One of my all-time favorite books is Jensen’s “Getting Off: Pornography and the end of Masculinity.” I commend him for writing that gut-wrenching and brave book. He’s a rare male voice in combating porn’s exploitative and demeaning ways.

  2. I am a mut. Native American, Black Portuguese and German. Been on the Rez, on the farm and in the highest circles of the wealthy and powerful. I can say with a life of rich experience behind me that racism — indeed any form of oppression — comes with equal parts responsibility on both sides… in all cases. Yes, none of it would exist but for the willingness to back avarice with violence, but that does not ultimately tip the scale here.

    Your emphasis on the obvious is boring, tending more toward the exaltation of victimhood, which is an outrage on all humanity, and callow in the extreme.

    Do you think something productive can come of your petulant race bashing? Think again.

    How, actually, does it differ from that which you so clearly revile?

    Those are rhetorical questions.

  3. “The Color of the Race Problem is White”- This is simply an attack on Germanic/Celtic people all over the world. When Germanic/Celtic people want to peserve their own culture(land, schools,societies,etc) from being destroyed by people who want to invade and destory Germanic/Celtic peoples, those Germanic/Celtic people are labeled “racist”. Jenson is a Germanic name. Mr. Jenson seems to have accepted the anti-Germanic attitudes that come from certain groups who are angry that Germanic/Celtic people reject being destroyed.
    This docmentary has to be one of the most racist media creations in memory. So to solve “racism”, the Germanic/Celtic peoples have to be destroyed. This is genocide. Is this the attitude of pro-palestinian muslims?

  4. Well, most of us “pro-Palestinians” think preserving culture is very important and with 99 and Phil I too am wary about any race-bashing. I also happen to be a Germanophile and think they have been through enough persecution.

    Jenson is knowledgeable and I don’t doubt his sincerity about seeking the dignity of all peoples and railing against the normalization of power hierarchies and injustice. We need not share his conclusion that the US is still at core a white supremacist society to acknowledge that white privilege existed. I haven’t yet seen the whole lecture but will do so soon and I would be extremely concerned if, as the previously commenter Phil surmised, the lecture’s logical conclusion would result in the destruction of Germanic and/or Celtic peoples.

    Another thing is that the Enlightenment’s universal white male subject is less a product of white supremacist thought and should be seen more deeply as an archetype.

    My past reflections on this dominance-rooted-in- civilisational-archetype includes a reference to one of the most superb books in the social sciences, Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind which I highly recommend.

    Also consider this post about the view from the subaltern.

    In the latter post, I wrote:

    Western civilisation has been fashioned in his [“man”‘s] image, and the white heterosexual male has long been its universal idealised subject at the core of its project. This project is in ever deeper crisis; it is important that this be separated from the misperception that white males themselves are being attacked or should somehow be repudiated. On the contrary, their contributions are much to be valued and so many have offered such canny insights into our current condition as their positionality affords them.

    Rather, it an acknowledgement that in this civilisational architecture of archetypes, white males are endowed with a special role by virtue of their centrality to the western narrative, but it is hardly the White Man’s Burden imagined by racist theories of the past. I put it that it is perhaps that the questing Promothean masculine hero might be illuminated by and take heed of the view from the margins, to be afforded the ability to see with new eyes what has always been there.

    I should add that I highlight these two posts also because of the thoughtful responses added from two white males, amongst my dearest friends in Greater Blogistan.

  5. I don’t think you should put yourself through it, Ann. It’s a white man carrying forward scholarship from a century ago into today. It’s the same old shit… what Parenti calls a liberal complaint… where radical analysis belongs. Liberals are fucking ADDICTED to dissing everyone for their culpability in victimizing people they themselves are victimizing with their fucking glorification of victimization.

    It’s idiocy.

    It’s so shallow it’s not even damp!


    It’s pornography.

    It’s childish and child abuse.

    It’s asinine.

    Dim goddam bulbs who know how to SOUND intelligent, literate.

    It perpetuates suffering and vitality exhausting futility!


  6. Phil says: “When Germanic/Celtic people want to peserve their own culture(land,schools,societies,etc) from being destroyed by people who want to invade and destory Germanic/Celtic peoples, those Germanic/Celtic people are labeled “racist”.”

    Precisely which people, Phil, want to invade and destroy Germanic/ Celtic peoples? What exactly are you on about? The best I can say about this is that your analytical skills are very poor. In other words, yes, I think you’re a racist.

  7. On the Afro-Asiatic roots of Western civilisation Martin Bernal’s Black Athena is a monumental study of how notions of race hierarchy have clouded historical perceptions across centuries.

    On the venerable Du Bois groundbreaking Souls study of African-American life in the Bible Belt.It would be hard to find a better account.

  8. It’s odd that 40 years after the studies of race differences in IQ that Jensen (like his rather dim student audience) seems oblivious to the connotations attached to having a name like Jensen!

    Arthur Jensen published data in the 1960s suggesting that race and intelligence scores were related in such a way as to suggest that whites were inherently more intelligent than blacks.For such claims Jensen was excoriated by SDS as a new “Hitler”.

    The bland politically correct message here in Jensen’s lecture-all who are familiar with life in the post-colonial studies field will recognise-is one that sits ill at ease with the tradition of radical black scholarship to which this Jensen (Robert)with his references to Du Bois pays lip-service in his prefatory remarks.

    Has he actually read The Souls?

    We’d like to think so-but it seems inescapable that this is merely part of a perfunctory genuflection on his part.

    Du Bois was the father of post-colonial studies and cogitated long and deeply about US racism and imperialism long before Jensen,Homi Bhaba,”subaltern” research and “cultural hybridity” had ever been thought of.

    Du Bois was the first African-American to obtain a doctorate.Cutting a lone and perhaps forlorn figure in the white academy he wrote the first history,literature and sociology of his people.

    In The Damnation of Women he was also one of the first scholars to acknowledge the debt owed by blacks to the women of their race.

    Jensen speaks and writes for an academic audience.

    Du Bois wrote for humanity and for all time.

    By the end of his life Du Bois forsook assimilationist pretensions and in 1962 took up citizenship in Ghana where Nkrumah and Marxism seemed the way forward for blacks.

    Like Jensen,Du Bois had begun to see white supremacism as an ingrained and insurmountable barrier to black advancement.

    The black nationalism to which Du Bois gravitated finally has a long tradition of adherents among radical black scholars from David Walker to Paul Robeson.

    Sadly this tradition wherein intellectual curiosity,a willingness to speak the unspeakable-especially if subverts the notions of immutable human difference which underly primitivist and racist stereotypes-remains unacknowledged in the academy.

    Neither Du Bois nor Zora Hurston,a cultural anthropologist who studied with Franz Boas,
    found intellectual fulfilment in the Western academy.Their Africanist perspective put them at odds with their Western academic training.

    Du Bois’s recognition that black history could not be rendered in terms of the factual literalism on which his Western training insisted,and Hurston’s use of humour to make telling political points,were both considered threatening in the white supremacist academies of their day.

    What Jensen seems hardly able to contemplate is that qualities in intellectual work deemed threatening in one culture may be seen as powerfully enabling in another.

  9. Hurston’s take on white supremacism differed markedly from Du Bois who she often obliquely alluded to as subscribing to “the sobbing school of Negrohhood”.

    The venerable doctor’s often elegiac writing about the black condition contrasted with the brash serio-comic take on the same subject that Zora made her trademark during the Harlem Renaissance.

    With an arts sponsor like Nancy Cunard,the shipping heiress,Hurston could afford to lace her speaking and writing- be it in the literary or philosophical vein-with an irresistible electric double-voiced irony.

    Though their approaches were qualitatively different both writers chronicled the perilous challenges to which blacks responded in their engagement with modernity that came with the great migrations after the Civil War and the part they played as servicemen in WW1.

    Hurston’s playful attacks on the venerable doctor are epitomised in Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) where she famously compares Booker T Washington’s form of race leadership to that of Du Bois.A bitter chorus of anonymous folk voices accords priority to Washington’s achievement.

    “Ain’t never been two sho’enuff smart men in these United States-Teddy Roosevelt and Booger T Washington.Nigger so smart he et at the White House. built uh great big ole school with uh thousand dollars,maybe mo’.

    Teddy wuz allus sendin’ fuh ‘im tuh he’p ‘im run de Guv’ment.Yea man,dat’s de way it ’tis -niggers think up eve’thing good and de white folks steal it fro us.Dass right.”

    In the same passage we learn that the venerable Doctor’s “papers and books” are small beer beside Washington’s sandwich at the White House!

    Hurston’s vernacular take on white supremacism is emblamatised here with the classic image of the slave in master’s house.”Verna” comes from the Latin meaning a slave born in the master’s house.And the master’s house,as Hurston was so memorably adept at affirming,could not be what it is without everything it has stolen from the slave.

    It is a thought to ponder for Obama and would make a fit subject for Robert Jensen in his ole papers and books!

  10. I about died of admiration for the very first paragraph in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora Neale Hurston shot immediately up to the very topmost ranks of writers in my estimation on the strength of that paragraph alone. The rest of the book didn’t disappoint. She was a woman of surpassing insight, and every time I think of her I wish hard that I could hug her.

  11. Dr. Jensen’s article has touched a sensitive nerve and he proved his point. Much of the white mind-set has been imbued in them via the Papal Bulls which formulated the manifest doctrines which Europe and Anglo/Latin Christian countries throughout the world have adopted. It’s quite easy to be magnanimous in one’s feelings when their culture, values, economics and heritage supplants other cultures and countries where they have control over through aggressive means. This ethnocentric mindset gives them the upperhand and they expect others to assimilate to their society usurping the host culture of those lands. Colonizers/settlers did not have to give up anything; they brought it with them to other foreign lands for others to conform with.

  12. White supremacy may have been dominant in Old America when things were good for whites and white women and children were much safer but to say the media, goverment, schools, ect. have anything to do with white supremacy is laughable. If anything institutionalized racism is directed against the white race.

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