“Quick Takes” offers a mix of news, opinion, and research related to race, privilege, and inequality.

Today’s “Quick Takes” includes the origins of “Kumbaya,” the politics of black hairstyles, the debate over the problem of race in our society, and one of the largest civil rights settlements in U.S. history.

Readers are encouraged to share these stories and to offer their thoughts at the end of the post.

U.S. Senate approves $1.15 billion payout to black farmers. As I reported was in the works on Friday, the U.S. Senate voted Friday afternoon to approve payment on a $1.15 billion settlement for black farmers who were the victims of widespread racial discrimination by the Department of Agriculture (the Pigford case). The same legislation would provide $3.4 billion for Native Americans based on mismanagement of royalties by the Department of the Interior. This is one of the largest civil rights settlements in the nation’s history, and it demonstrates a path forward for resolving contemporary racial and ethnic discrimination (whether or not the word “reparations” is used), but also, sadly, how highly charged the role of race can be (one Republican senator called objected to the settlement as a “racially-charged measure“) and how long justice can take: the victims in both cases have waited more than a decade for these settlements, and some beneficiaries have already died waiting for their compensation.

“Racism isn’t everywhere we imagine it, but it is in far more places than we admit.” In a column on Saturday, Charles Blow takes on those who believe that our society’s racial ills today stem largely from a “black liberal grievance industry” that trades in victim status, refusing to acknowledge racial progress or to accept personal responsibility. As dramatic evidence of this trend, he cites a poll released days ago, showing that 61% of those who identify with the Tea Party movement (and 56% of Republicans) believe that discrimination against whites has become at least as important as discrimination against blacks and other non-white groups.

As Blow puts it,

There’s a mound of scientific evidence a mile high that documents the broad, systematic and structural discrimination against minorities. Where’s the comparable mound of documentation for discrimination against whites? There isn’t one.

Of course, most educated Americans, which surely includes most of our politicians and opinion leaders, are well aware of this state of affairs. In his most damning critique, therefore, Blow argues that those who peddle in this nonsense are simply “denying the basic facts and muddying the waters around them until no one can see clearly enough to have an honest discussion or develop thoughtful solutions.”

The long, strange history of ‘Kumbaya.’ Despite claims by folk singer Pete Seeger and others, the word “kumbaya” is not African in origin, but is probably how liberal white Americans heard the phrase “Come By Here” in the Gullah patois of blacks in the Georgia Sea Islands, the New York Times reported this weekend. In 1926, a folklore enthusiast named Robert Winslow Gordon recorded a black spiritual sung by an H. Wylie on a state-of-the-art hand-cranked wax cylinder. In the decades to come, “Come By Here,” a moving appeal for God to intercede on behalf of a long-suffering people, would morph in white hands into “Kumbaya” and become, in turns, a popular folk song, an icon of the civil rights movement, a symbol of black liberation theology, a “pallid pop-folk sing-along” in the 1960s, and eventually a dismissive insult.

Is black hair beautiful? There is an exuberant lifestyle essay about black hairstyles making the rounds from the L.A. Times. The story begins with the historic disfavoring of black hair, illustrated by Chris Rock’s film 2009 Good Hair, and argues that the latest trend is towards diversity and individual expression in black hairstyles. The essay cites two YouTube videos: “Whip My Hair,” a joyful music video featuring Willow Smith (daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) flaunting a cornucopia of hairstyles; and “I Love My Hair,” a Sesame Street segment featuring an African-American Muppet singing about all the ways she can style her hair. The author is careful to hint that there is also pushback in the black community against this trend, invoking the idea that wearing black hair naturally as an Afro can be a political act and quoting Rihanna’s stylist worrying that this trend may reflect, more than vanquish, negative attitudes towards natural black hair.

2 Responses to “Quick Takes on Race, Privilege, and Inequality for Nov. 22, 2010”

  1. LizO says:

    Those are some interesting perspectives on the latter subject of black hair.

    I'm not sure how one might define "natural black hair" even when worn in an "Afro" style. During the '70's Afro "blow out" kits were ubiquitous in stores in the African American communities. The kit usually consisted of a lye-based cream, so I'm not sure I would have characterized an Afro as a "natural" hair style for most people who sported one.

    What hairstyle would qualify as natural, one must wonder. Would it mean foregoing applications of any hairstyling product, such as oils, creams or silicons? Would it completely rule out the use of a hot comb, flat iron or curling iron? One must suppose that bleaching one's hair to an interesting shade of red or blonde would be right out.

    Now that I mention criteria, it comes to mind that hardly anyone in my workplace, male or female of any ethnicity, could credibly claim to wear a natural hairstyle of any type.

    As one of the hair-coloring, cuticle-sealing, flat-ironing type, I suppose I must count myself amongst those who could give a fig about making a political statement and are simply never completely happy with what the Good Lord provided. Thank goodness hair grows back. Well, most of the time.

    Anyone for Klingon-style tooth sharpening?

  2. LizO says:

    Ooops. Before the Trek-folk start beating down on me, I meant to say "Ferengi-style tooth sharpening" instead…really.

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