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(DV) Robbins: Richard's ("Kramer's") Crash, or How to Hide Structured Racism







Richards’s (“Kramer’s”) Crash, or
How to Hide Structured Racism
by Christopher G. Robbins
December 12, 2006

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“You can talk, you can talk, you're brave now, motherfucker. Throw his ass out. He's a nigger! He's a nigger! He's a nigger! A nigger, look, there's a nigger!"


-- Michael Richards (November 17, 2006, The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles)


“Kramer’s a racist!” “Kramer’s a racist!” “He’s a racist! He’s a racist! A racist, look, there’s a racist!” Or so it was easy to say after Michael Richards’s racist outburst at The Laugh Factory on November 17, 2006, when he made reference to lynching and repeatedly called African American audience members the “n” word. Thank god! We found a racist and, as a society, the U.S. can have its collective guilt and moral shortcomings concerning the “race question” assuaged by tagging Richards a racist (however justified a moniker) with as much gusto and certitude as he attacked the African Americans in his audience and the African American community more generally. Even Rush Limbaugh -- the angel of tolerance who was canned by Disney/ESPN three years ago for his own racist crash with Philadelphia Eagles’ Donovan McNabb and who achieved notoriety and 20 million weekly listeners for his racist tirades against “lazy single black mothers” who “sponge” off “our hard-earned tax dollars” -- chimed in to condemn Richards, along with the alleged liberals who have let him off the hook because Richards pointed fingers at the great egalitarian President George W. Bush and his administration’s bungling of the response to Hurricane Katrina. [1] Ah, the profound wisdom of Hammurabi: eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth; a tit for a tat, but the equivalencies in this case are patently false and, as will be seen, dangerous. 


The “n” word, let’s be clear, is a painful word that references injustice. It’s a painful word because it signifies a traumatic history of white supremacy that has yet to pass. With this said, it is also painful because it carries the power of white supremacy, a mode of social organization with the formerly expressed, and now implied, intent to harm, subordinate, and exclude people of color from a fair contest over scarce social and economic resources and equal access to and participation in the political realm. Often, modes of oppressive social organization operate, in part, through the mere act of naming -- the process of self- and social definition -- which is structured, in part, by the relationships and conditions concerning who has the power to name, be named, or remain unnamed. As Derek Jennings recently put it in the Carolina Independent Weekly, “In the not-too-distant past, black folks had no control over what others called [them].” [2] For this reason, deployment of the “n” word is clearly about much more than hate. It’s about power, plain and simple, where naming the use of the “n” word as a “hateful” act runs the dangerous line of psychologizing a socio-historical phenomenon: The process(es) by which whites, unintentionally or intentionally, continue to benefit from the structure of racism that was at one time emboldened by the use of the “n” word and is still reproduced deceptively, or even in “smiling” efforts aimed at renaming, whitewashing -- or even hiding -- that structure in Orwellian “civil rights initiatives,” “colorblindness,” or “everyone has experienced oppression” stories that have become popular strategies to reconcile the immense contradiction between an allegedly democratic society and intense racial inequality.


Clearly, Richards’s outburst is inexcusable, but by no means inexplicable. Richards, it is quite probable, has some deep-seated personal problems, as the so-called liberal media was apt to hypothesize in response; Richards’s language is equally as deep-seated but, crucially, it is social -- as all language is. Being social, Richards’s language is a public issue. Richards might be many things, a racist with significant psychological baggage included, but he can hardly be considered the architect of the horrible, power-ridden terms he deployed. Nor did he alone construct the public discourses and contemporary relationships that still give those discourses power, even if they are typically masked by our collective “colorblindness.” While Richards’s outburst might have been attributable to personal shortcomings in an immediate sense (just as Limbaugh’s racist verbal haranguing of Donavan McNabb was framed by popular media as being clouded by the arch-neoconservative’s cavorting with narcotics) [3], it is simply irresponsible for the media to have implied that the underpinnings of this event can be owned solely by Richards, that he could, supposedly of his own accord, reconstruct and redeploy terms in discourses that were constructed over the course of 150 or more years. However, this is a predictable strategy in the neoliberal color-blind era. To divert attention from profound, historical and ongoing structural forms of racism to individuals and, in other cases, to attribute the collective experience of racial oppression to the inability of individuals of color to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is a powerful strategy in the new world neoliberal reordering of things. Reducing social and historical issues to matters of private responsibility and initiative is a critical mechanism for letting the state and its corporate beneficiaries off the hook. It also works as a comfortable fiction for middle- and working class whites who feel the downward pangs and insecurity brought on by an always changing, and rapidly changing, social order in which the key power brokers and forces are highly mobile and the structures in which they operate are equally as shifty, felt primarily in their consequences. If whites have to go it alone (a fiction if there ever was one in the deeply racialized U.S. society), then others should have to do the same, too.


Perhaps, the media response -- so-called liberal and conservative combined -- could be caricatured as, “Look, a racist! Look, a racist. See, Richards and a few other psychologically damaged others are the reason for the U.S.’s continued struggle to deal with (ignore?) the deeply etched colorline!” This seems commonsensical in the colorblind age: Society is no longer racist -- only a few individuals here and there or, to rework the title of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s important book, we somehow have racists without the operative structures, ideologies, and processes of racism. [4] A graduate student/practicing teacher recently told me of this common idea in a reflective account regarding an event that dealt with young African Americans and ongoing, if not increasing, racial inequality and which helped concretize for her the lie at the heart of colorblindness:


I must admit to some skepticism at the beginning of the semester. I felt, ‘I am not a racist, therefore that is all I can take care of or worry about. Yes, I know that the country is full of racists, but we only have to deal with them one (possibly one small group) at a time, so what is the big deal?’ I now see [understand] how it [racism] is embedded in our social structure and institutions. [5]


She was not alone in her initial assessment, for sure. I have had numerous white undergraduate students, who were raised in segregated communities, innocently say that, before reading about racism and racial inequality and hearing from their few classmates of color, they didn’t know racial inequality and racism existed anymore. [6] These students, too, are not alone. The vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Abigail Thernstrom, has claimed (and attempted to argue in various writings) that what we have in the U.S. is not racism, segregation, and racial inequality, but mere “demographic imbalances”! [7] Where Thernstrom (and her colleagues like John McWhorter) recognize racial inequality, it is produced, for her, by the twin dynamics of irresponsible individuals and the “burdensome” public institutions -- e.g., public schools -- in which they are involved.


This colorblindness is a peculiar phenomenon, if not an outright contradiction of terms, that has both animated and stymied public discourse on race and racism most prominently over the last twenty five to thirty years.  Colorblindness asserts at once that race and racial inequality exist and racism is dead, except for the willful or pathological acts of individuals who commit “hate crimes,” [8] or in the beliefs of radical groups that are always “elsewhere.” [9] This is not to suggest that individual acts of racism are inane -- Richards’s rant obviously hurt African Americans and upset many others. Rather, it is to claim that individual racist acts operate within structures and processes of racial power, inequality, and exclusion. To make short-lived spectacles of racist acts often conceals the structure of racism and who benefits from colorblindness’s insistence on the end of racism.  Colorblindness thus supplants the causes of racism with the symptoms, structural relationships with individual behavior, public accountability with private responsibility, state implication with the abdication of the state. Colorblindness, in other words, attempts to erase from public discourse and decision-making the social relationships and economic conditions that make individual acts of racism, like Richards’s, possible in the first place. But since race is the operative category and racial inequality the symptom of the structure and practice of racism [10], colorblindness is in all practical terms an impossibility--until the structures, conditions, and relationships that support racism on any level and under any guise are eliminated. Colorblindness is also rendered impossible simply by way of its proponents’ vociferous insistence on the absence of that to which it always refers and, in part, reproduces: race and, in particular, the social, cultural and, at times, purportedly biological valuations that have been socially and politically ascribed to varying degrees of color. As Glen Beck seemed to insinuate in his discussion of the Richards’s event with Reverend Al Sharpton, racism would no longer be the problem it is, if “you just don’t say it [the ‘n’ word] . . . Don’t say it. Don’t say the ‘n’ word!”


This is the dominant line of thought supported by social relationships in the post-civil rights era: (white) people can go about their daily lives, garnering material and psychological wages from the racist structure of privileging and deprivileging, if they politely avoid calling attention to the system on which their racial advantages are based. The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains that color-blind racism is a carefully coded discourse that functions in a “now you see it, now you don’t” way, which is not completely different than Jim Crow era racism, just more evasive, less explicit. [11] (Less than a week after Richards’s outburst was aired, it has been by and large taken off the media radar. So much for a liberal media.) Under color-blind ideology, racial and racist discourse still circulates openly, but only in “non-mainstream” venues or in “private” spaces, hence the half-hearted, fleeting chitchat that followed Richards’s (and Limbaugh’s) crash, until the discourse turned to private problems only one day after the initial story broke with headlines to the effect, “Kramer Seeks Damage Control,” “Richards Hires Crisis Management Firm,” and so on, shifting from any sustained inquiry into the wider conditions and meaning of Richards’s tirade to how he is attempting to manage the potential career fallout of the debacle. “Kramer’s” crash, like Limbaugh’s, was not the practice of racism, per se, but the space in which it was practiced and the visibility that the space provided: Richards’s outburst was in the popular comedy venue The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, the city, incidentally, in which last year’s racial blockbuster Crash was set; Limbaugh’s on Sunday NFL football. As Larry Wilmore, the Daily Show’s “senior black correspondent,” tellingly put it, “To step on stage and . . . toss a few n-bombs. . . . doesn’t show any respect for the craft of bigotry.” (Here, one might recall how Sen. Trent Lott was similarly deposed of his throne after making the racist reference to segregation at one of the Jim Crow era’s staunchest segregationists Strom Thurmond’s last birthday bashes. [12])


Bonilla-Silva is instructive in another way here. A central facet of color-blind discourse and ideology is the practice of minimization and one might add diversion, where the so-called aberrant racist outburst is reduced to other factors (e.g., personal troubles) and attention is diverted to things that are at best peripheral to the central issue of the racist event and what it might signify about the wider social conditions in which the event took place. [13] The ticker tapes on all cable news networks that ran stories on Richard’s crash on November 21, 2006, failed to name the actual agent of the racist attack -- Michael Richards. Instead, they referred to his fictional character, “Kramer,” in titles like “Kramer Unleashes Racial Tirade.” [14] One might say, “The networks did that in self-interest to appeal to news consumers who would more readily recognize ‘Kramer’ instead of Michael Richards.” This might be so, but it still links the racist act with a fictional character and thus minimizing it, suggesting in no small way that the event, surreal as it was, could hold out the possibility of being fictional, too, because a “fictional” character perpetrated it. Or, for the less critical-minded and -attentive viewers, it could function as an antidote: “This wasn’t really Michael Richards, the person who lives in our color-blind society, who did this, but ‘Kramer.’” The plan clearly backfired as Michael Richards was video-conferenced on the Late Show with Dave Letterman on November 21, 2006, the same night Jerry Seinfeld was a guest plugging the release of the seventh season of Seinfeld on DVD; now, other strategies had to be deployed since the racist act perpetrated by Michael Richards was linked with the potential holiday sales of Seinfeld. Richards had to be divorced from the fictional character “Kramer.” So diversion ensued where, with Michael Richards’s bumbling assistance, he was able to be framed as a “troubled,” “disoriented,” “stunned” individual who possibly had a “breakdown,” “he must have been on drugs,” not simply someone who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar of white power in the color-blind era. All this while the conversation about his event and apology came to be dominated by/diverted to talk of the viability of Seinfeld’s seventh season on DVD, a show that achieved fame by being “about nothing” in a decade when social welfare was eliminated, and the U.S. jailed over 1 million black people (leading to the dubious distinction of incarcerating more people of color than apartheid South Africa) and gleefully rolled back desegregation efforts to the point that public school segregation has fast approached pre-civil rights status.


But the key to understanding color-blind discourse and ideology is the centuries old fact, dating back to slavery itself, of structured racism. Color-blind discourse and ideology, especially post-1964 when the Civil Rights legislation was passed, became so powerful because over 300 years of racial subordination were allegedly erased with the Voting Rights Act and temporarily increased efforts to desegregate schools. This was the claim, begun mildly with Nixon and put into full force with Reagan, who bolstered his racist-sexist claims about social welfare (e.g. “Cadillac-driving welfare queens”) with attacks on affirmative action as being “reverse discrimination” since the field had allegedly been leveled. Structured racism is, as Andrew Barlow defines it, “societywide patterns of privilege and subordination” based on race. [15] It is found in the contradictions of social things small and large, ranging from merely having to pay temporarily inflated gas prices or being abandoned en masse in the Hurricane Katrina human-made disaster, from attending schools in predominantly middle-class and white suburban school systems instead of those attended by predominantly black and Latino students in poor inner cities, from having access to decent hospitals, neighborhood organizations, and community groups or not to voting in taxes for local control over schools rather than having to rely solely on the testing-punishment regime of NCLB to shore up budget shortfalls from the lack of taxable property and industry in urban areas. Turning to structured racism as a frame of reference is not to abdicate Richards’s of his woefully insidious act, but merely to make sense of it; as many observers have asked, sincerely or merely for rhetorical effect, “How could someone act (in public) in such a way at this point in time?” The simple answer is because there are still profound “societywide” patterns of privileging and deprivileging at work in the U.S., no matter how forcefully we insist on being color-blind or renaming those patterns as “demographic imbalances.”


I have a sense, based on the recent election season and other indicators, that Richards’s act was only atypical in form and context, but consistent in content and effects with the racial structures and timbre of the times, that Richards’s act was merely the condensation and vocalization of fairly widespread (and albeit misdirected) anger and racial antipathy that many whites currently harbor when they have lost a self-assured sense of a distinct external enemy and they feel the tremendous downward pangs and economic insecurity brought on by an altered economy and an exorbitantly priced, unjust, and ongoing war of terror. [16] In my home state of Michigan, for instance, my neighbors and fellow Michiganders just voted -- and voted decisively -- to roll back 100 years of democratic social struggle with the passing of Proposal 2: The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a proposal patterned on the equally deceptive Proposition 209, California’s 1996 proposal that ended affirmative action California. Days before the vote, Ward Connerly, an African American backer of the plan and architect of California’s Proposition 209, thanked and blessed the Ku Klux Klan for reaching the point “where reason and logic are being applied instead of hate.” The proposal garnered almost 60% of the vote. Is Richards the only racist?


Tennessee State Representative Harold Ford was the subject of a racist ploy during campaign season. In an ad run by his opponent, an allegedly topless white Playboy model tells Ford to call her, playing on the so-retrograde stereotype of the black man as sexual predator of white women. Ford lost the senatorial bid. This ploy wasn’t new: President Bush I used it against Michael Dukakis in 1988, with his “Willie Horton” series of ads in which his strategists sounded the alarm on “dangerous black men” on parole. Dukakis, obviously, lost the bid for this and other reasons. This stereotype (and public relations strategy) gained much traction nearly 100 years ago in D.W. Griffiths’ 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, where a black-faced white man chases a white damsel in distress until she chooses to jump off a cliff. Is Richards the only racist and are the only conditions in which racism is produced those surrounding individual agents?


For six years, the Federal government has failed to provide promised support for President Bush’s self-heralded education plan, No Child Left Behind. While a clear majority of schools have suffered consequences because of this plan (and an oligarchy of testing corporations have benefited from the plan) [17], rural and inner-city schools have suffered the most, as their already strapped systems have resorted to what Paul Street calls “segregated pedagogies” of drill, grill, and drill and grill, when the students are not being explicitly drilled by military personnel in JROTC programs that disproportionately have stormed the beachheads of poor, urban public schools. [18] As Jonathan Kozol has pointed out in his recent, blistering indictment of a failed society, the U.S. has, in recent decades, produced two distinctly different sets of life chances for students of color and most white students: Children of color get habituated to and regimented for obedience to external authority in a process that not only deadens creative capacities but also models urban schools on a hybrid military/corporate form and often strips children of color of key parts of public memory (e.g., the achievements of civil rights leaders), while (white) children in most suburban schools get the latest educational technologies and engaged pedagogies where they learn to assume authority. [19] Is Richards the only racist? In these examples, can we name individual racists, or do we need, instead, to be reflexive about the temporary collective (white) benefits and the long-term social consequences of color-blinding ourselves to a societywide system of racism?


During President Bush’s tenure, we witness the waging of a war that has been variably coded as a war of terror, a crusade, and a race war as both its direct and indirect targets in military arenas and outside of them have been primarily people who have been coded in xeno-racist ways, that is, not only as culturally different but culturally inferior, in need of acquiescing to the enlightened, lofty Western ideals of Christendom and neocolonialism because their “fundamentalist” and “backward” ways are an affront to humanity. [20] While the context of Richards’s outburst was clearly different, how was the intent and force of his outburst any different than the underlying intent of the military personnel in Abu Ghraib when they posed for pictures, pointing to a dehumanized pile of dark bodies? (“Look! Look! Look at what we did to these evil dark people!”) In the midst of this war, regardless of its basis and consequences, the world watched -- as our government watched -- thousands of people of color swim for their lives in New Orleans, and then pass the buck as to the underlying reasons of this human-made disaster. Mainstream media went so far, in that debacle, as to ask the question, “Katrina: Was Race a Factor?”-- the mere asking of it implying that cynics should not have conjured the idea in the first place in a color-blind era. Further, in addition to any number of deplorable indicators on infant mortality, wealth and income, employment, health, incarceration, and the short-shafting of breakfast and after-school programs in urban schools, it took President Bush five years before he spoke at the NAACP, the key organization that attempts to address myriad challenges facing the African American community (and the wider society). Is racism alive and well only in “liberal” Hollywood?


Exploring the wider contours and effects of racism (individual and structured) is not to detract from Richards’s horrific crash. Nor is it to suggest that Richards and his insidious act shouldn’t be lessoned. He should pay, and pay dearly. At the same time, the reflection and critique cannot stop -- as it has -- with Richards’s potential private troubles, the extreme nature of his act, the politics of his going on The Late Show to apologize, or the potential hit Seinfeld’s seventh season DVD sales will take. Racists do not simply fall from the sky or, in Richards’s case, spontaneously combust and burn themselves and others. Racists need racism, if for anything to make sense of themselves. (White) society needs racists, if for no other reason than to make sense of the irrational benefits they accumulate from being born white into a racialized society and to divert attention from the ways in which those benefits are produced, garnered, and protected. Racism -- as the process and exercise of bias and harm plus social power -- requires the relationships of groups of people in struggles over scarcified resources (material and symbolic) and battles over inclusion and exclusion in the wider society. Racists are agents in reproducing racism as a social relationship and logic that operates at all levels of society -- from individuals to the groups in which individuals exist, to the relationships between groups, to the institutions that mediate relations and allocate resources and life chances between groups, to the wider society that arranges institutions in such ways that allow people to explicitly (in Richards’s case) or implicitly (e.g., the opportunities achieved or lost vis-à-vis segregated schools) to benefit from arbitrary racial power. The media response, in short, had part of the debate right: Richards’s specific mode of expression was likely founded in his private problems. The fact that Richards, a wealthy celebrity hardly suffering the downward push of mobility, could act as he did -- in public or otherwise -- is our collective problem: Its causes and consequences are ultimately social and historical in nature, public issues that indicate we need to eliminate the terror of structured racism with as much force and conviction as the U.S. supports media spectacles of individual racists. 


Christopher G. Robbins is an Assistant Professor in Social Foundations of Education at Eastern Michigan University. Most recently, he is the editor of The Giroux Reader (Paradigm Publishers, 2006). He can be contacted at: crobbin2@emich.edu.




[1] See Rush Limbaugh, “Racist Richards Blames Bush, Liberals Forgive,” November 21, 2006.


[2] Derek Jennings, “The N-Word: Is It ever Ok to Say?Carolina Independent Weekly, November 29, 2006.


[3]Some representative articles in this regard are the following: A. Campo-Flores, “Rush’s World of Pain,” Newsweek, October 13, 2003, p.37. John McWhorter, “Within Bounds,” New York Times, October 4, 2003. A. Tresniowski, S. Morrissey, L. Marx, and A. Billups, “Is Rush Hooked?” People, October 20, 2003, p.87.


[4] See Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).


[5] Anonymous student, personal communication (e-mail), November 18, 2006.


[6] For a trenchant analysis of how white college students explain racial oppression (or their beliefs that is has ended), see Charles Gallagher, “Playing the White Ethnic Card: Using Ethnic Identity to Deny Contemporary Racism,” in A.W. Doan and E. Bonilla-Silva (Eds.) White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism (NY: Routledge, 2003), pp.145-158.


[7] See Abigail Thernstrom, “Have We Overcome?” Commentary 118 (4) (2004), p.49.


[8] See D.T. Goldberg, Racial Subjects: Writing on Race in America (New York: Routledge, 1997), especially pp.17-26.


[9] See T. van Dijk, “Denying Racism: Elite Discourse and Racism,” in P. Essed and D.T. Goldberg (Eds.) Race Critical Theories (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), pp.307-323.


[10] See A. Memmi, Racism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).


[11] Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “'New Racism,’ Color-blind Racism, and the Future of Whiteness in America,” in A.W. Doane and E. Bonilla-Silva, White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism (NY: Routledge, 2003), pp.283.


[12] For an incisive exploration of the Lott incident within the context of “neoliberal racism,” see Henry A. Giroux, “Spectacles of Race and Pedagogies of Denial: Anti-black Racism under the Reign of Neoliberalism,” Communication Education 4(52/3) (2003), pp.191-211.


[13] See E. Bonilla-Silva, White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era, (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001), p.141.


[14] This title is of an MSNBC report on November 20, 2006. Interestingly, despite the clearly racist nature of Richards’s act, MSNBC calls it a “racial tirade.” Further, the reporter in setting up the excerpt to the report calls Richards’s language “racial.” The sum effect here is the conflation of two distinct categories: racial and racist, the difference being the former is a descriptive term used to indicate something having to do with race, the latter indicating something having to do with race and the exercise of social power for harm or exclusion. It’s an important distinction to make, but one clearly lost on MSNBC and other venues.


[15] Andrew Barlow, Between Fear and Hope: Globalization and Race in the United States (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), p.18.


[16] One would not get a sense of this deep-seated anger from the media. However, Youtube provides some telling evidence on this account in viewer responses to the Richards’s incident. See, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9sEUIZsmTOE. Here are a couple prime samples from Youtube’s discussion board to one of the Richards postings. “All you white ass kissing porch monkey lovers can move back to Africa with them. Wake the fuck up these kinds of asshole along with the gays and wet backs are talking over this country and pretty soon there will no real people left in the world just half breeds”

What I find funny is that the hecklers were acting like Niggers. Oh call a Nigger a Nigger and the whole world goes nuts. Oh yeah those hecklers are sophisticated, retaliating by calling him a crackerass white boy, yeah those aren't racial slurs because they came out of the mouth of a Nigger, stupid fucks. Oh yeah, I forget that Niggers only like to be called Niggers by other Niggers. Black people are the scum of the earth.


Haha...fucking awesome. Filthy niggers, LMFAO. It's staged by the way folks. But you guys are too fucking stupid and mesmerized to realize that.


He's not racist, he was under stressed [sic] and cracked because a few assholes from the crowd were heckling him. It doesn't justify what he said, but the word "nigger" isn't as big of a deal as people make it. I live in Indianapolis so most the people I know are black and they agree with me.”


[17] Barbara Miner, “Testing Companies Mine for Gold,” Rethinking Schools 19(2) (2004/2005).


[18] Paul Street, Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (NY: Routledge, 2005). See also, K. Saltman and D. Gabbard (Eds.), Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools (NY: Routledge/Falmer, 2003).


[19] Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (NY: Crown, 2005).


[20] See A. Sivanandan, “Race, Terror and Civil Society,” Race & Class 47(3) (2006), pp.1-8.