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James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.

Teaching and Changing Race Relations

Truthful history lays bare those areas in our social structure marked by continuing injustice. Much of our culture has evolved to “explain” – really, to explain away – injustice. It is up to each of us to change our social structure and culture to eliminate racism, overt and subtle.

Change the Calendar to Promote Better History

Even before Lies My Teacher Told Me came out, Loewen was questioning the ideology that underlies and is reinforced by Thanksgiving.

  • In 1990 Loewen, apparently subconsciously anticipating his 1995 book title, published “The Truth About Thanksgiving.”
  • The artist behind “Blue Corn Comics” shows some of the problems with Thanksgiving.
  • Maya Salam at The New York Times relied on James W. Loewen and Plimoth Plantation for her major article on Thanksgiving.
  • Citizens in some communities have lobbied their town or state to change “Columbus Day” to “Native American Day” or “Indigenous Peoples Day.” Some have pushed school districts to make this change. Here is an example from a small town in California: “Darrell Berkheimer: When will America really be discovered?”
  • If you are a teacher, help your students create a one page (two-sided) “Fact Sheet On Thanksgiving” to give to every student the day before Thanksgiving break. Don’t come out “against” the holiday; merely invite people to consider additional information about it. This article, based on Chapter 3 of Lies My Teacher Told Me, might help you.
  • If you are a teacher, help your students create a one page (two-sided) “Fact Sheet On Syncretism” to give to every student the day before Christmas/New Years break. Don’t come out “against” these holidays; instead, use Christmas as an example of syncretism and invite readers to consider additional examples, like democracy; Italian, Chinese, and other cuisines; jazz; etc. 

Catalog Racism

In the early 1990s, Americans received catalogs in the mail, from Sears, L.L. Bean, REI, and many other companies. Back then, most catalogs used only Caucasian models, perhaps leavened with a tiny smattering of light-skinned African Americans. One exception was Benetton, an Italian corporation that famously hired diverse models and renamed itself “The United Colors of Benetton.”

The most widely distributed catalog was Skymall, found in the seat pocket in front of every person flying on a major airline. (It was also distributed on Amtrak, where it was called Travelmall. It was a catalog of catalogs, including pages from Jennifer Adams (bed linens), Hammacher Schlemmer, Toscano (lawn accessories), Pajamagram, and many other companies.

Here is an example of the problem these catalogs posed: the first 73 pages of the Early Spring 2006 Skymall had 82 photographs of people, every one of whom was Caucasian!  Page 74 included three small photos of girls who might have been Asian American. Then come 48 more consecutive photos of Caucasians.  Even photos of hands or feet were always Caucasian!

No matter why this happened, it was racist. Racism is defined as “treating people from a given racial group differently (usually worse) because of their racial group membership.” A given company may only have two photos in the catalog, so it may never occur to them to diversify the models using, say, their exerciser, but from the point of view of the beautiful black woman or handsome black man, they were completely shut out from the most widely distributed catalog in America, because of their race.

Today, paper catalogs still go out, but more commerce is on line. Again, however, some companies use overwhelmingly white models. Not only does this hurt attractive African Americans. It is called “cultural racism,” because it becomes part of our culture, and it implies to every shopper, of whatever race, that African Americans do not camp, use trampolines, have yards, etc. This invitation to stereotyping hurts us all.

You can assess whether an array of models is racist from your home, with your computer.

If you find statistical significance, then the company is using race (“not black”) as a criterion in choosing models, or something itself correlated with race. Write them, ask them to stop choosing models in a biased way, and cite this fact in your letter. “The preponderance of whites in your catalog cannot be by accident; I did the statistics and found that such a proportion would happen less than one time in 100 owing to chance. Something is going on…”

That’s what I did. Here’s what happenedIn today’s rhetorical environment, who knows what response you’ll get. Better than my results, I suspect (and hope!). Of course, if they blow you off or do not reply at all, you can e-publish the correspondence (and your statistical analysis) in an appropriate on-line medium and perhaps develop traction across the web to get them to change.

Minor Articles that Treat Racism

White Anti-Racist Hall of Fame

As Loewen researched race relations and public history, he discovered that although racist white leaders were well-known and even revered in American history, anti-racist whites for the most part lay forgotten. Coming to the same conclusion, Eddie Moore Jr., founder of the White Privilege Conference, suggested to Loewen that they co-found a White Anti-Racist Hall of Fame. Eventually the White Privilege Conference will take over the Hall and nominate new members every year.

Loewen's First Attempt to Make
Anti-Racist Whites Known

Loewen responded to the dearth of knowledge of white anti-racists by penning the foreword to a book that tried in a modest way to remedy the problem: White Men Challenging Racism. But it was a university press book that did not reach very many people. His foreword, “Challenging Racism, Challenging History,” is a capsule history of a selection of anti-racist individuals, from Bartolomé de las Casas to John A. Logan to the unnamed student in a segregated white high school in Itta Bena, Mississippi, who spoke out against fellow students making jokes about Emmett Till. Hoping for more readership, here is that foreword.

Loewen keynoted the White Privilege Conference in Philadelphia in 2016, to more than 2,700 people.  His address was later reprinted as “Do Stuff,” in Understanding and Dismantling Privilege 6 #2 (10/2016), 1-15. See if it inspires you to … well … do stuff!

Loewen, “The Difference Race Makes,” chapter 2 of Howard Ball, ed., Multicultural Education in Colleges and Universities, is a summary of six major areas of racial inequality. Unfortunately, the statistics all come from the 1990s, so readers may conclude they are outdated. Fortunately, the statistics all come from the 1990s, so students can update them and see for themselves that the problems have not been fixed. Here is one update, as of 2018.

Racial Autobiography

In race relations workshops, white students often say little, either because they don’t want to say anything “wrong” in the presence of nonwhites or white liberals, or because they think they have nothing to add, having grown up in an overwhelmingly white town or neighborhood. This exercise persuades them immediately that they are experts, after all, on their own biography thus far. It also helps others see that their task is to learn about the backgrounds of others, not knock them for being racist or for having limited racial exposure.

After students complete this activity, they can find help analyzing their results here.

Testifying in Court Can Lead to Social Change

Beginning in 1968, Loewen testified as a statistician and social scientist in a variety of cases relating to jury exclusion by race and age, the voting rights of racial minorities, employment discrimination, the provision of city services like street paving and garbage pickup, unequal taxation, and bias in “standardized” tests. Because he taught “Statistics and Social Research” to undergraduate sociology students, he became good at explaining basic concepts and tests to non-sociologists, such as lawyers and judges. In 1982, he published Social Science in the Courtroom:  Statistical Techniques and Research Methods for Winning Class‑Action Suits (Lexington, MA:  D. C. Heath/Lexington Books, 1982). At the time, Loewen had probably consulted or testified using a wider variety of statistical techniques than anyone else. View the entire book. Print it if you wish. It’s especially aimed at lawyers and social scientists who are not expert statisticians.

Testifying in Voting Rights Brought Change

In the period 1970 – 2001, Loewen testified in dozens of voting rights cases. Called to testify before a Congressional Committee hearing witnesses speaking for (or against) the Extension of the Voting Rights Act, on May 19, 1981, Loewen explained why the VRA remained important. It still does.