Archive | April, 2012

Follow The Money: Racism and the Fundraising Congress

30 Apr

I believe that where there is a political problem in America, you can usually trace that problem to racism. Wanna try me? How about the corrupting influence of money in politics? It means corporations control Congress, right? And because there’s so much money in politics, getting into Congress nowadays is often not much more than a job interview for a lucrative future gig as a lobbyist for big business. Representatives don’t even want to govern. They just want to win big for their potential future employers. And in 2008, when an unregulated, out of control financial sector crashed our economy, all that political money and greed played a huge role.

But what does this have to do with race?  Bear with me a minute and read on.

In Republic Lost, Harvard Law Prof Lawrence Lessig tells an interesting story.  From 1933 to 1995, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. In the early part of those years, Democrats gave us the New Deal. They also gave us Social Security, among a host of other programs, the legacies of which we mostly take for granted. Meanwhile, Republicans were the minority party of the rich. They played a powerful role, but mainly as a counter-weight to Democratic liberalism.

But then came President Johnson. He sacrificed himself politically to the project of getting the Democratic Party behind Civil Rights. This started a racist backlash among a key demographic in the Democratic base – white Southerners. To racially conservative white Southern Democrats, many of whose ancestors turned Democrat because Lincoln the “liberator” was a Republican, Civil Rights was a deal breaker.

Evidence that racism could get culturally conservative white Southerners to switch parties gave wealthy corporate interests hope that the GOP might once again become the majority party, even after screwing things up so royally leading up to the Great Crash of 1929. They began investing unprecedented millions into political campaigns aimed at turning economically liberal but racially conservative white Southern Democrats into Republicans.

By 1995, Republicans took the House. Along the way, millions more were invested in eliminating campaign finance restrictions and deregulating corporations. In order to be competitive, Democrats jumped into the money game as well. Once both sides were bought, important regulations on the financial sector like the Glass-Steagall Act, intended to never again allow something like the market crash of 1929 to recur, were repealed (under Bill Clinton, BTW).

To give you some sense of the scale of the change, in 1974, the total of all Congressional campaign expenditures was $77 million. By 2010, it was $1.8 billion.  Between 1995 and 2010, control of Congress changed as many times as it had in the previous 45 years.  During this period, what Lessig refers to as “the fundraising Congress,” was born, wherein leadership is determined by one’s ability to raise campaign cash.

Racism was the fissure in the Democratic coalition that led Republicans to hope that they could rule again, and racist messaging was the wedge Republicans used to turn that fissure into a divide so wide it would split the Democratic coalition that led the U.S. out of the Great Depression. This split caused elites to view conservative campaign contributions as potentially lucrative investments. The success of those investments is what positioned them to deregulate finance, and lack of regulation and oversight is what, in large part, led to the crisis we now find ourselves in – a crisis that has messed up the current financial status of those formerly Democratic, now Republican, poor white southerners for generations to come.

So, why care about race?  I lost a house and my savings to the crash of 2008. What’s your story?

The Privilege Game

27 Apr

In the classic book, Faces At The Bottom Of The Well:  The Permanence of Racism, legal scholar Derrick Bell put forth this proposition: “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.”

I consider Derrick Bell a racial justice hero. To acknowledge the permanence of racism is indeed the ultimate act of defiance because this fact, once we acknowledged, leads necessarily to the conclusion that simple reform (what another great hero, the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, once told me leads only to re-formation of a broken system) will never lift us out of white supremacy. To end racism, we must look beyond reformation to transformation.

It’s a radical notion, but I’m a believer.

On the other hand, I’m also a practical sort. If we are to one day find ourselves at the threshold of radical transformation, we need a map to help us find our way, and then focus on getting there one step at a time.

On any map there are many paths to one’s chosen destination. For racial justice advocates, I think one path is the changing racial demography of the U.S.

By the year 2042, it is predicted that we will be a majority minority nation, with Latinos representing about a third of the population by no later than 2050. That means whites will soon no longer constitute the majority ethnic group. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country and a bastion of whiteness and conservatism, is in decline.

What that means is that pretty soon, white supremacy may meet its greatest challenge. If we can get it together, people of color won’t have to ask whites for permission to create policies that address the destructive legacy of racism. But, the big question is, will we get it together and act as the majority, or will we remain divided and allow whites to remain in control as the largest minority?

To me, all of this hinges on something called privilege.

Racism endures in spite of generations of resistance because it is enforced by violence and intimidation, and empowered by privilege. It’s a carrot and stick situation. Without the carrot, the stick isn’t enough to keep us all doing our little bits to maintain white dominance.

Privilege, as I and and the Free Dictionary understand it, is special permission, special rights, or exclusive benefits granted as prerogatives of status that are exercised in order to exclude or harm others. Because privilege is given, it can also be taken away. And, because privilege always comes at someone’s expense, it keeps the majority of us who don’t have the power to grant privileges acting like a bunch of divided minorities.

Throughout history, white privilege has been granted to folks who didn’t used to be white. They Irish were labeled sub-whites to exploit them, and then were whitened to get their help in exploiting someone else even more. Around the middle of the last century, they decided Jews were white. And not too many years later, they began a process of whitening Asian Americans by granting us the status of “model minority” in order to promote the idea that if Asians can make it, the cause of poverty and lack of opportunity for Black and Brown people isn’t racism, it’s Black and Brown people.

And now they’re trying to do a job on Latinos by playing the good immigrant vs bad immigrant game. If you’re a “bad” immigrant, you’re “illegal.” That’s right, you’re illegal, you know, like crack cocaine or an unregistered gun or something. As an illegal person, you have hell to pay and more. Intimidation, violence, arrest, indefinite detention, deportation, and the list goes on.

But, if you’re a good immigrant, you get… Well, okay, I guess there’s not much of a carrot in this case. It’s mostly all about the stick. But at least you’re exempted from being treated like you’re illegal. So it pays to allow yourself to be cast as the good immigrant and allow the bigots to persecute the so-called bad guys and avoid the label “racist” by calling you “friend.”

You don’t get to have privilege without that nasty downside, whether you want it or not. And that downside is something we all pay for. It diminishes our humanity and it keeps us all vulnerable to being losers in the privilege game.

Race Basics

25 Apr

A  friend of mine sent me an email with a link to an article entitled, The History of Race… And Why It Matters.  The article tells the story about how race was invented out of whole cloth, at a time when African and European immigrants lived in relative harmony in North America, purely for the political purpose of justifying race slavery in the colonies.

This was news to her. She had no idea that long before the Civil Rights Movement, there was a time when Black and white people in North America lived together in integrated communities. They married and created families across race. Africans were considered more capable and knowledgeable than most Europeans in the colonies. In fact, without Africans, the colonies probably would have failed.

The exchange caused me to wonder. In these confusing, supposedly post-racial times, are racial justice advocates mixed-up about race?

You know that expression, “preaching to the choir”? By talking about the basics of race, I might be committing that sin. But suppose the choir is so out of sync that we’re in no shape to be singing in public?

With that in mind, here are some race basics for the choir:

  • Race is not based originally in science; racist science came later
  • Race is not natural, as in, it is in human nature to see people as races
  • Nor is race the same as culture or ethnicity

Race, as we know it in the U.S., is a political system invented to justify race slavery.

From these beginnings, 350 or so years of assorted racist b.s. followed, including apartheid in South Africa (based in large part on “our” system), tribal terminations, Jim Crow, Chinese Exclusion, Japanese American internment, the illegal occupation of Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and the continued impoverishment of Black, Native American, Latino, and certain Asian and Pacific Island ethnic groups in the U.S., among other atrocities too numerous to mention (though I invite you to add your story to the comments section).

And this legacy continues. It shapes our culture, our politics, and our economy, and, just as in the days of slavery, it continues to cause white folks, and some of the rest of us along with them, to act against our own best interests.

Don’t believe me?

White racist ideas about Black people are hundreds of years old, but old as they are, the world lost Trayvon Martin to those ideas in 2012. And you think George Zimmerman acted rationally? He may not be dead but all I can say is, sucks to be him.

And if that’s not enough, consider this:

Racism just might also explain why the welfare rollback picked up serious steam when a lie was told to the public in 1976 about the Chicago Welfare Queen, a Black welfare recipient who supposedly had 80 names and 30 addresses, and four fake dead husbands on whose fictional backs she was collecting veterans benefits. Between that income, food stamps, Medicare, and 12 sources of social security income, she was supposed to have been making over $150,000 a year tax free.  She didn’t exist. President Reagan made her up to win white votes.

By ginning up racism, Reagan powered-up a welfare reform revolution popular among poor white people. That movement eventually messed up Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a benefit program that mainly helped poor white people.

White racism might explain why the U.S. is waging a War on Drugs that is crushing state budgets. It’s not working to stop illegal drugs, but it did lead to a prison building boom to lock up Black folks for selling drugs to protect “our” kids at the cost of letting our kids’ schools go bust. Meanwhile, we’re not doing much to lock up the white people who use drugs at the same rate as Black people (but are a larger part of the population, meaning they drive the U.S. illegal drug market).

And white racism might also explain why we’re fighting a war against Mexican immigrants. Mexico is the third largest trading partner of the U.S. after Canada and China. Money sent home by Mexican immigrants is Mexico’s number 2 source of foreign income after oil exports. The population of Mexico is just over 100 million. About 6 million undocumented Mexican immigrants are in the U.S.

What would happen to the U.S. economy if our 3rd largest trade partner lost its 2nd largest source of income and added maybe as much as 6% to their already high unemployment rate? Undocumented Mexican immigrants, both as workers in the U.S. and as a source of revenue to a major U.S. trade partner, are integral to our economy. Anti-immigrant politicians are just playing us to get votes.

Racism is a political system. And as a political system, it endures to this day. In fact, it is part and parcel of the American way of life.

Why I Rooted For Mitt, Or Rick Santorum Is A Danger…Still

23 Apr

Hallelujah! Rick Santorum is finally out of the Republican primary race! What, you didn’t think I would feel that way?

I’ve been listening to liberal media pundits talk about the unlikely prospect of Rick Santorum winning the Republican presidential nomination as if it would be a “gift” to Democrats all season. Some liberals have even turned out Democrats to vote for Santorum in open primaries. And now, some of them are talking like they’re actually a little sad that he dropped out, boohooing over how good it was for Democrats to have him in the race.

I say they’re nuts. As conservative and elitist as Mitt Romney is, he’s not a right winger. He may be pandering to the right wing, but he doesn’t belong to that movement. He’s neither a theocrat nor a libertarian, and, while it is true that Mormons once believed that Black people are cursed by God, Romney is not an ideological white supremacist.

As much as I disagree with Mitt Romney, I do not by any means consider Santorum a “gift.” Misogyny, and racial fear and loathing are powerful motivators.  In the end, I’m not at all certain Santorum would have lost (which we should keep in mind since he seems to be hoping for another chance in 2016).

But if that’s not enough to get you feeling grateful that all we got was Mr. Etch-A-Sketch, allow me to tell you a little story about Barry Goldwater, aka Mr. Conservative, and the impact he had on all of us by running for president and not just losing, but getting his ass handed to him.

Johnson’s ass-kicking of Barry Goldwater in 1964 appeared to signal the end of racial conservatism in national politics. Sadly, it ended up being a new beginning. With Goldwater’s campaign lists of highly motivated anti-civil rights voters serving as a resource, and his strategy of appealing to racism to win white Southern votes as a template, libertarian economic elites began to build the Republican’s Southern Strategy.

Goldwater exposed the power of racism as a political tool by running against Civil Rights and winning big among white Southern voters, including Democrats who jumped the fence in order to support him. He ran on a platform of turning Social Security into a voluntary program, and eliminating farm subsidies among other schemes that were very unpopular in the South, much as limiting access to birth control is a very unpopular position today. But, because he ran against Civil Rights, he won Southern votes, even from white people for whom the programs he promised to destroy were the most popular.

Goldwater’s strategy turned race into a partisan issue. In 1962, a national poll asked which party would more likely ensure Blacks got fair treatment in housing and employment.  22.7% answered Democrat compared to 21.3% who said Republican. 55.9% said there was no difference. By late 1964, another poll showed that 60% of those questioned said Democrats were more likely to ensure fairness and 7% said Republicans, with only 33% seeing no difference. Such was the suddenness and force of the backlash strategy.

In the 1950s, poor white Southerners were the third most liberal voters on issues of government intervention for full-employment, education, and affordable health care, right behind Blacks and Jews. By the early 70s, they did a values flip. When it came to poverty alleviation programs, they went from being liberals to being statistically indistinguishable from wealthy white Northerners, the traditional base of the GOP. Given the ongoing poverty of the South, this move was akin to poor white Southerners cutting off their toes for want of smaller shoes.

The Republicans, smelling blood, went about breaking the class basis of the New Deal Coalition by appealing to racism. In a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the South, GOP voter rolls shot up from 49% to 76% in Birmingham, Alabama’s poorest white communities between 1960 and 1964. In Macon, Georgia, it went from 36% to 71%. Atlanta went from 36% to 58%, and so on.

The GOP was able to affect this shift by linking federal intervention on economic issues with federal intervention on civil rights. By 1980, Ronald Reagan’s anti-government platform would begin a revolution in our political culture about federal intervention in general.

The current Tea Party protest language against government spending started out as coded language designed to build opposition to Civil Rights. Anymore, most aren’t even conscious of it. They just use the language and achieve the effect of mobilizing race sensitive whites who, themselves, often don’t understand they are responding to calls to racism: it’s just part of the political culture now.

So you think Rick Santorum is a gift to Democrats? Consider the legacy of Barry Goldwater and think again.

BTW: Credit is due to Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall for some of the stats above. I’m not sure I agree with all of the political conclusions they draw, but they do good research!

My First Seder

19 Apr

What you make of liberation, that is the trick. Can you, unshackled, set someone else free?

- from “exodus and after” by Cynthia Greenberg.

I just attended my first Passover Seder.  For those, like me, who are new to this tradition, Seder is a gathering of remembrance of the Jewish story of liberation from slavery.  I’m 50.  One is not supposed to be a racial justice advocate attending his first Seder at 50!

I did once “observe” a Seder in Portland, Oregon circa 1991. It took place on the anniversary of the murder of an Ethiopian man named Mulugeta Seraw by neo-Nazi skinheads .  The setting was a shallow gully in a park chosen because it had been a site of frequent hate crimes.  I didn’t actually see much of the Seder. I mostly looked across and over it to the other side of the gully because I was there with other non-Jewish members of the community who were acting as security.

I have only a vague memory of that Seder in ’91, but share the experience, not to excuse my ignorance of Seder, but as a reminder that the struggle against anti-Semitism is by no means over.

On a walk with one of the hosts in the few hours before the Seder, I admitted with some embarrassment that I’d never attended one and wasn’t sure of the details of the ceremony. He leaned in and said: “what you should know about Seder is that it’s not just about the liberation of the Jews from slavery. It is also about the fact that once freed, the Jews never reached the promised land.” 

You see, to him, Seder is not just a ceremony meant to moor Jews to their history of slavery and liberation. It also acknowledges that the journey toward justice is never ending. Liberation is ours, but justice? It lies just ahead. Keep on.

This notion of keeping on will stay with me long after the details of the evening have been lost to time.  After all, few people have suffered as have Jews.  Their endurance in the face of centuries of persecution stands as one of the great testaments to human endurance and grace.

For me, in my work, it serves as a source of much needed inspiration. After all, struggling against racism is no doubt a life long commitment.  Racism is a defining feature of our society.  Our Constitution and the Federalist compromise were designed to ensure the perpetuation of slavery.  We are a society whose founding document, filled as it is with language about freedom and liberty, was written by men who owned slaves, regarded Native Americans as subhuman savages, and refused suffrage to women. The founders were the initiators of a thousand lies that have been told and retold for hundreds years to the point of being accepted as truth within the bounds of the culture they birthed, and all to justify what they’d done.

The seemingly impossible exodus from Egypt, Moses’s great sacrifice, and the journey toward the promised land lends perspective to what can sometimes feel like an impossible uphill struggle to win racial justice.

So this Seder will not be my last. I was moved and made hopeful, not just by the Jews’ great accomplishment, but by how much we hold in common. Maybe that was the most heartening aspect of it for me.

Racism, and all bigotries, is in a way like a Chinese finger puzzle. The more those who are captured by it attempt to pull away from one another, the tighter the grip of the trap. But if we do what is least intuitive to us and push toward one another, the trap releases, and we are freed.

Homophobia and Racism: How They Are Connected And Why People Of Color Should Care

18 Apr

The recent document dump of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM) internal documents reveals their racist and homophobic strategy to divide the Democratic Party. Among other things, the docs state: “The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and Blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots…”

And, “The Latino vote in America is a key swing vote… Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We must interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity – a symbol of resistance to inappropriate assimilation.”

Ready for more race basics?

Back in the olden days, circa 1990s, one of the right wing’s most successful propaganda ploys was anti-gay documentaries. These were cheaply made and given away for free on street corners, in churches, even in Congress. The videos made quite an impression, especially one called Gay Rights/Special Rights: Inside the Homosexual Agenda. That 1993 tape echos the NOM strategy.

The tape begins with an image of Dr. King and a voice-over: “I have a dream that one day…this nation will rise up, and live out the true meaning of it’s creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

Then, a commentator: “Because of the kind of Constitution we have, it was wrong, just out of pure logic, for Black people to be discriminated against, solely on the basis of color.  The 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Act, um, clearly something that needed to be done, in order to, uh, to hold, uh, to hold this notion of Justice in our country.”  And then, another image of Dr. King and his voice, “One day they will live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.” 

Next, the video features white gay AIDS activist Larry Kramer paraphrasing Dr. King, saying “I may not get there with you, but some day we shall enter the promised land, where men and women will not be judged by their sexual desires but by the content of their character.”

The commentator: “Many failed to notice Mr. Kramer’s substitution of the words ‘sexual behavior’ for ‘skin color’…thus began the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equal Rights.”  

Then, the tape presents images of men kissing men, same sex couples with children, flamboyant cross-dressers, and scantily clad men and women holding militant signs or raising their fists.  Then, the punchline – LGBT people are co-opting the Civil Rights Movement, literally “hijacking the freedom train and taking it from Selma to Sodom,” which, they argue would “completely neutralize the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What it would do is say that anyone, anyone with any type of sexual preference, which would include everyone, is…would be protected under this law, so therefore there would be no protection for minorities specifically…”

Former U.S. Attorney General, Edwin Meese drives the message home saying, “As a white male, I have no rights whatever, other than what is shared with everyone else…” while suggesting that civil rights are add-ons for those who have suffered as a result of certain “benign” characteristics.

The message?

  • that civil rights are bestowed on you as a special privilege, not just because you’re a citizen
  • therefore, white people, especially white males, don’t have civil rights
  • however, Black people do have them
  • therefore, civil rights are “special rights”

The false logic of this message was meant to inspire anti-LGBT activism among whites already resentful of the Black Civil Rights Movement. The tape depicted not the stereotype of the effeminate, middle-class, sweater queen, but a militant, sexually aggressive, and potentially criminal element. Sound familiar?

And they argued that LGBT people were denigrating the Civil Rights Movement by asking for civil rights protection for perverse sex acts, driving a wedge between culturally conservative Black church-goers and (white) LGBT people.

Evil genius, right? They used homophobia as a soft-entry point into Black and white church-going communities and once they were in, they told one of the most potent lies of the post-Civil Rights era; that not just gay rights but civil rights are special rights, and that the contest for special rights is one with winners and losers; that we can’t all be protected at the same time.

The War on Women of Color

17 Apr

The b.s. that passes for news is enough to give a person the information superhighway version of road rage.

Hardly a word of substance had been uttered about moms until  Hilary Rosen‘s statement that work-at-home mom of five Anne Romney never worked “a day in her life” became ammo in the war over women(s’ votes). Now one can barely turn on the TV without seeing the clip of Mitt Romney’s January 2012 quote about forcing women on welfare to work so they can experience “the dignity” of labor.

BTW: Earth to Romney! There’s no “dignity” in forced labor.

But what really frosts me is how a few words directed at a super rich, white work-at-homer with plenty of financial cushion to ease the pain could incite such furor, while downright mean, not to mention racist and untrue things are regularly said about poor women of color and nary a word is spoken in their defense.

Case in point: in order to justify cutting welfare and punishing low/no-income women in general for the “irresponsible” act of having children while poor, policy leaders exploit and amplify the societal stereotypes of poor women of color as lazy, sexually undisciplined layabouts making children to get benefits.

For instance, remember what was said about black women on welfare by Ronald Reagan?  He fabricated a story about a black welfare queen whose criminal gaming of the public benefits system was making her rich at our expense. This iconic image has survived for more than 30  years, delivering the message that “our hard-earned (therefore, deserved) money” is going to women of color who are either playing us or are just hopeless dependents with poor work ethics. And the assault didn’t end there.

In 1996 the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton, ending welfare as we once knew it and replacing it with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), a program with a 5 year lifetime limit and a work requirement.   So much coded and not so coded racism was drummed up between the Reagan and Clinton years in order to justify this eventual reform that by 1996, the public didn’t know fact from fiction.

Folks thought that the black teen pregnancy rate in the 80s and early 90s was skyrocketing out of control, and that black illegitimacy was a major problem, especially because they’d been convinced  that receiving public assistance was a disincentive to work.

In 2002, Francis Fox Piven addressed the racism that drove welfare reform by citing a 1995 National Center for Health Statistics report that challenges some of the arguments about black illegitimacy rates and teen pregnancies used to promote reform.

Here are a couple of highlights:

  • In 1993 the rate of non-marital births among white women over twenty was 42% versus a black non-marital birth rate in the same age group of 25%.
  • The non-marital birth rate of white women under twenty was 18% versus 11% for black women in the same age group.

And, by the way, then as now, the teen birth rate was dropping. The out-of-wedlock rate was increasing as a percentage of a smaller number of teen births in general, but they played us on that one, too in order to raise the specter of a potential welfare boom.

Still think we’re post-racial?  Maybe post-talking about race, but certainly not past creating public policy based on racism.

Oh, and note to leaders of both major parties:  women of all colors will have won the war against them when politicians stop treating their issues like ammunition and their bodies like battlefields, and political leaders start acting like women are people.

I don’t mean just folks, I mean the people who still carry the primary responsibility of raising children with limited services such as daycare, many of whom must also work outside the home where they make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.  A little respect is in order here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: