Archive | June, 2012

Somebody On TV

29 Jun

The news of Ann Curry’s departure from the Today Show hit me surprisingly hard. I get most of my news online, and I almost never tune in to Today or any of its competitors. Sure, I take a look now and then. After all, these shows are among the drivers of American culture – they help to shape the American worldview.

I guess that’s why losing Ann Curry as a host of one of the more watched TV news and entertainment programs felt like a loss to me. Asian Americans are next to invisible in popular media, especially strong, intelligent Asian American women.

Each time an Asian American appears on TV, even as a weather reporter or occasional guest, it feels like a bit of a win. The more visible Asians are, the logic goes, the harder it is to marginalize or vilify us, even when, as in the case of Ann Curry, being Asian and addressing issues of special interest to Asian Americans isn’t the main event.

These appearances remind me of a time when any person of color appearing on TV was cause for excitement. As a child growing up in Hawai’i, I still remember neighbors yelling, “somebody on TV!” anytime a person of color popped up on a national program. As a kid, I was aware of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and farm worker movements because features on black and brown people as real life leaders on national TV were special events.

But my favorite somebodies on TV were people like Gail Fisher who played the character Peggy Fair on Mannix, and Connie Chung, a woman who was in charge of news, making her seem to me to be one of the smartest people in the world. And I remember cheering on Latina tennis star Rosie Casals. I was proud of her victories and inspired by her bold belief that she could climb to the top of a very white and male sport.

Of all the somebodies on TV, my favorites were Kam Fong Chun and Gilbert Lani Kauhi who played Chin Ho and Kono on Hawaii Five-0. I paid very little attention to the details of their characters. To me, what mattered was that they were like us, but they dressed up for work in a fancy office. They helped me see that there was a world outside the little plantation town I grew up in that included people who looked like family, expanding my imagination of the things I could be and the places I could go.

Mind you, this was Hawaii. Even in the 1960s there were lots of images of people of color on local TV, especially on the news. But national TV was special. Even as a child, I understood that what appeared on national TV shaped the nation’s consciousness. Moreover, I understood that the absence of people of color in white dominated media was an indication of something deeply wrong with how we were viewed by society.

It may not be the 60s anymore, but Ann Curry is still somebody on TV to many Asian Americans. That’s why the criticisms driving her dismissal – being cold, aloof, too remote – mirroring stereotypes concerning Asian women, feel personal, hurtful.

So, while I can honestly say I don’t give a rip about the Today Show, and I certainly know nothing about Ann Curry as a person, about her values or her personal commitments, I feel sad that she’s being cast aside. In a world where few visible leaders look like us, people like Ann Curry are important markers of the possible.

Blinkered By Race

28 Jun

No, I don’t mean car blinkers. I’m referring to the kind of blinkers that are used to keep race horses looking straight ahead at the jockey’s goal while blinding them to the distractions on either side.

Racism blinkers us. It imposes a kind of tunnel vision, causing social problems to appear to be related to differences in race and culture (and not racism), while blinding us to the common roots of many of our problems.

The study conducted by the Pew Research Center on Asian Americans that I wrote about in my last post is a good example. In it, Pew reports that 49% of Asian American adults have college degrees compared with 28% of adults in general. In addition, Asian Americans are reported to have substantially higher median household incomes and wealth than the general population, and then describes the relatively high levels of education and financial success of Asian Americans as distinctive racial characteristics.

There are significant problems with Pew’s number crunching you can read about in an excellent article in COLORLINES. But even if we put those problems aside, there’s still the issue of how ascribing relative Asian American success to race blinds us to the real social and economic realities dictating these outcomes, and how those realities affect everyone.

Here’s what I mean. In surveys measuring the educational levels of the most highly industrialized nations, the U.S. is scored at about average. That’s pretty bad news for the nation that is the richest by far, and the former world leader in education. It is for this reason that visas must be fast tracked for certain highly skilled workers, resulting in skewed educational attainment statistics among some immigrant groups, including some of the most educationally privileged of Asian immigrants.

And on that question of higher incomes and household wealth among Asians. Is it more useful to study these indices of success as racial characteristics, or to ask ourselves why the median income for Americans in general is so low?

According to Peter Edelman, 20 million Americans earned incomes less than $9,000 a year. Six million Americans have only food stamps as income. Half of U.S. jobs pay less than $34,000 a year. A fourth pay less than the poverty rate for a family of four. These statistics bring down the median income of Americans, even as that median obscures the reality for those on the bottom of the U.S. economy.

The poorest and most vulnerable are disproportionately people of color, and that’s all about racism. Racism is also at work when we allow negative racial stereotypes to lead us to blame people of color for the problem of persistent poverty. But looking for solutions to poverty in racial or cultural characteristics, as the model minority myth that is tacitly promoted by the Pew report leads us to do, takes us nowhere.

Whites in the U.S. have the highest per capita incomes. With the blinkers on, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that white privilege translates into direct financial benefits for all white people. But then, how do we explain the fact that whites also constitute the majority of those who are poor?

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average CEO of major companies in the U.S. earns in 10 hours what a typical worker earns in an entire year. So maybe the explanation is that income and wealth is not evenly distributed among whites – that the real driver of poverty is how the rich value the labor of the rest of us, regardless of race.

But it’s tough to know the nature of things we refuse to see. Among those things we’re blinded to by racism are our common humanity, our shared problems, and our linked destinies. Time to take off the blinkers. If we don’t, we might find that we’re racing to nowhere while the answers to where we ought to be heading lie in joining forces with our perceived opponents on either side.

Constructing Race: Pew Center Report On Asians

21 Jun

The June 19 release of the Pew Research Center report, The Rise of Asian Americans is generating buzz that is, frankly, giving me a headache.

The report summary opens with the following:

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success….

Asian Americans trace their roots to any of dozens of countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Each country of origin subgroup has its own unique history, culture, language, religious beliefs, economic and demographic traits, social and political values, and pathways into America.

But despite often sizable subgroup differences, Asian Americans are distinctive as a whole, especially when compared with all U.S. adults, whom they exceed not just in the share with a college degree (49% vs. 28%), but also in median annual household income ($66,000 versus $49,800) and median household wealth ($83,500 vs. $68,529).

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) responded with a statement summed up by the line,

We need to move beyond one-dimensional narratives of exceptionalism about Asian Americans in order to better understand and address the diverse experiences facing our community members…

NCAPA’s response is a good start, but I’ll take it a step further.

The problem with the Pew report is that it constructs an idea about race that is very problematic. Bear with me here and I’ll explain.

The racial category Asian lumps together widely diverse groups with no common language, phenotype, or culture who come to the U.S. under vastly different circumstances. How, exactly, do you arrive at a “distinctive whole” from which you can deduce an average experience of, say, Japanese Americans and Laotian Americans?

The first wave of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. came through Hawaii in the 1800s as contract laborers lured by lies about grand opportunity and riches. The more recent wave of Japanese immigrants is being recruited to the U.S. as highly skilled workers or business investors.

The vast majority of Laotian immigrants on the other hand, came to the U.S. since 1973 as refugees of war. Here’s what that means for them, according to the Laotian American organization Legacies of War,

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance over Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. The bombing was part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government…

Today, about one third of Laos, a country about the size of Utah, is contaminated with unexploded ordinance. Civilian contact with these unexploded weapons has resulted in 20,000 casualties since the war ended.

How do you mash together Laotian war refugees and Japanese business investors and come up with an average or mean experience?

Much ink is also spilled on the subject of how highly educated the new wave of Asian immigrants are. But this statistic reflects bias within the immigration system as much as anything else. Visas are fast tracked for highly skilled workers and business investors. The elite immigrants who come to the U.S. on these visas are from economically diverse countries, many with extraordinary levels of poverty. Yet the suggestion is that high levels of education are the product of racial or cultural characteristics.

So let’s get it straight. The term “Asian” in the U.S. was chosen by Asian American activists as an alternative to the pejorative “Oriental.” The Oriental is the creation of Europeans for whom the Orient was an object of curiosity and a source of riches to be studied and exploited. In modern times, the study of the Orient, especially in contrast with the civilized world of the Occident (aka Europe), solidified an idea of Orientals as exotic, potentially dangerous Others.

Activists back in the 1960s decided they wanted to reject the label Oriental and call themselves Asian American instead. Subsequent generations of Asian Americans have gathered as a coalition under the Asian American banner in order to resist being treated like Orientals. But don’t get it twisted, the idea of an Asian or Oriental race is a creation of white people, not of Asians.

There are many problems with the Pew report. Chief among them,

  1.  lumping us together tends to trivialize the very real service needs of those who are less well-off and,
  2. reports like this are powerful molders of Asian racial identity, popularizing ideas about Asian traits, capacities (and threats), and, of course, always in comparison with the supposed failures of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.

On that first point, Hmong and Vietnamese immigrants are among the poorest ethnic groups in the U.S. There are real consequences to characterizing them as part of a “distinctive whole” with more successful groups when it comes time to seek funding for poverty alleviation programs.

That’s not to say that Asians don’t enjoy racial privilege over other groups of people of color. We do. The widely divergent histories of how different people of color entered the U.S. (or in the case of Native Americans, how the U.S. entered them) have resulted in very different contemporary realities. But studies like this marginalize those important historical differences and strengthen racist stereotypes and racism, not just against Asians, but against all our interests.

Whitening the Media

20 Jun

Chris Hayes Speaks

I like MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes. It’s TV for thinkers, at least most of the time. But this past weekend, in a discussion about the collapse of truth in media, Hayes said something that almost had me throwing my coffee at the T.V.

His comment was a response to a plea from good ol’ Amy Goodman of Democracy Now for poor people, especially poor people of color, being able to speak for themselves in media. She said truth in media is “larger than a truth that is yes or no…” speaking to the fact that, even in the midst of an economic crisis that is having a disproportionate and devastating impact on Blacks and Latinos, almost no poor Black or Latino people are able to speak about the economy in the media.

Goodman’s point was well taken. There are many societal “truths” constructed by the media, not least of which is that only educated experts are qualified to speak to issues. Mainstream media, even much of the left media, rarely allows poor people to speak for themselves, neither about the realities with which they live, nor about the solutions they would propose to problems that most directly affect them.

Excluding those most impacted by issues of economic inequality from the discussion among public intellectuals in the media comes at a real cost. When we support a dialogue about the economy absent the perspectives of those who have lost the most, and have the most to gain through deep and lasting change, we reduce real problems facing real people into nothing more than issues to attract the votes of middle-class people.

Hayes responded by saying

“…but here’s the problem with that. Even if you show those folks…a certain portion of the electorate is going to say ‘I don’t trust them‘ or they will be told by the Daily Caller that this is some sort of ridi…”

That’s when I got angry. You don’t get to talk about poor people like they don’t matter.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a community organizer. That means I’ve worked with people on the down side of unjust power relations – folks who need to exercise power in numbers because when we act as individuals we are treated like we don’t matter.

As an organizer, a big part of my job involved gathering people suffering from injustice so we could share our stories with one another. My best memories are of those moments when people listening to the stories of their peers would well up in tears of relief and recognition and say, “that’s just like me.”

Realizing that we are not alone in our troubles helps people who are rarely listened to by “experts” like Chris Hayes lift themselves out of despair. The circle of recognition grows exponentially larger when those who have been vilified as leaches and denigrated as losers are able to tell their stories through the media. Nothing else has as broad and immediate an impact. In fact, not being able to tell our stories via the mainstream media is one of the ways we are swept under the rug and kept out of power.

Believe me, as long as the only audience that counts to media makers is white and middle class, media as a means of advancing racial equity will only yield change in small and mostly superficial increments. The white middle class perceives itself as having too much to lose and not enough to gain through achieving racial justice. And that resistance is magnified by the fact that our invisibility in media means that relatively few middle class whites know our stories.

But when poor people of color are included, we not only open doors to reconciliation and change. Change is created by the simple act of including us.

So the next time Mr. Hayes finds himself bemoaning the lack of movement on issues of justice, maybe he should ask himself what role media plays in writing those most likely to be that movement out of the story.

Building a Bridge Between LGBT Groups and Communities of Color

18 Jun

The Huffington Post reports that at the Father’s Day Stop and Frisk March in New York on Sunday, American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten, made the claim that the march was the first time LGBT groups marched with the Black community for the same cause. There were no quotes around that statement, so I think it’s fair she have a chance to clarify that statement.

But, I’m prone to ranting. It’s an occupational hazard of racial justice activists.  And so I will.

Weingarten’s supposed proclamation, (not to mention the challenges put forward by liberal media pundits who’ve reacted to President Obama’s recent statement on same sex marriage by asking LGBT groups to stand up with African Americans) deserves a response. That response is, get a grip on your history.

In less than 30 seconds of searching the web, I found this story about an LGBT contingent in the Million Man March. That contingent was organized by the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum in 1995. And it wasn’t the first time that LGBT people were a visible presence at civil rights marches.

In 1990, I was an organizer for a group opposing vigilante white supremacist violence. We organized the largest civil rights march in the Pacific Northwest up until that time. LGBT groups like the Lesbian Community Project, the Lesbian Avengers, Queer Nation, and ACT-UP were at our side on that day, as were the Coalition of Black Men, the NAACP, and the Black United Front. Despite bomb threats and police intimidation, LGBT groups and African American groups marched side by side in Portland, Oregon 22 years ago.

As a former organizer of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, I know that some LGBT national groups have been a presence at marches and rallies alongside African American groups for a while now and vice versa. And national LGBT groups are part of the coalition that makes up the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, a group founded by A. Philip Randolph.

The NAACP chapter in North Carolina marched alongside LGBT groups in opposition to Amendment 1, the measure that outlaws same sex marriage. They are among many African American groups that have sided with LGBT rights over the years.

It’s important to know this history because denying it marginalizes the efforts of a committed minority of people of all races in the LGBT community that has been there, fighting on these issues. They are the pioneers of this moment in LGBT history.

LGBT people of color have played critical roles among that human rights minority. We’ve been the ones advocating for LGBT rights in communities of color, and for racial equity in the LGBT community. The bridge that groups crossed Sunday in order to march together was constructed on our backs. I won’t allow statements that step on that legacy to go unchallenged.

But groups like Weingarten’s own union and the mainstream media outlets through which liberal pundits have been putting forth challenges have rarely, if ever, paid attention to LGBT people of color, much less to the multi-issue human rights minority in the LGBT movement. By playing only to power and political expediency, they contribute to the myth that the LGBT community can be summed up in terms of its least controversial and most influential groups. The same groups that tend to marginalize issues of concern to LGBT people of color.

I get that the primarily white LGBT community hasn’t been present enough on racial justice. I became an organizer in the LGBT movement because I wanted to advocate for racial justice in the LGBT community.

I left the national LGBT movement in the late 1990s because I felt that in order to close the gap between people of color and primarily white national LGBT groups, LGBT people of color would have to come to the national movement through broad-based people of color organizations. Power, I realized, only concedes to power.

But flawed as they are, to say that LGBT groups haven’t been present – to claim that the first time LGBT groups marched alongside African Americans on an issue of racial justice was in 2012 – is ridiculous. If she really said it, she needs to take it back. Such statements rewrite history in a way that make us vulnerable to our own prejudices and to the revisionists of the other side.

Adidas Shackle Shoes

17 Jun

Click the image to open in full size.

Just in time for Juneteenth, Adidas announces a new shoe design scheduled to hit stores this August.  It’s a shoe with a shackle, so you too can experience a bit of the fun of serving on a chain gang.

The caption beneath the image of the shoe reads: “Tighten up your style with JS Roundhouse Mids, dropping in August. Got a sneaker game so hot you lock your kicks to your ankles.” An article on Indiewire.com suggests that the whole shackle and chain thing is potentially racist. I’ll take it one step further and say that the shoe with the prison-orange shackle is absolutely racist. Whether the use of the shackle is due to insensitivity or something more sinister, it’s ignorant and offensive.

The shoe is obviously being marketed to communities of color. And the irony of the timing of the advance marketing could not be more stark.

Juneteenth (June 19th) is, after all, Emancipation Day, a holiday celebrating the abolition of slavery. But the end of slavery opened a new era of neo-Slavery.

Soon after the end of the war, vagrancy laws were enacted throughout the South that targeted African Americans, especially men, criminalizing minor law violations, including simply being “idle,” as in, not in the employ of a white man. Thousands throughout the South were imprisoned under these laws and consigned to labor camps. Yup, the chain gang is a black thing, as in, a form of forced labor specifically targeting Black people. You can read more about it here.

Prisoners in shackles built much of the public infrastructure necessary to industrialize the South. Prisoners were also leased to corporations, including Northern businesses like U.S. Steel for whom they labored without consideration of their health and safety. The conditions were, in many ways, worse than they had been under slavery because there was little incentive to keep prisoners alive.

And because of fear of the chain gang, the Black population of the South was terrorized into staying under the control of exploitative employers. For every person enslaved as a convict, thousands more were scared away from changing jobs for fear of going unemployed and being accused of vagrancy.

This is the historical context for the new Adidas shoe. It may be unintentional, but it is nonetheless offensive. Until they take this shoe off the market, none of us should shop with them.

President Obama – Not Ahead of the Curve

15 Jun

Today President Obama acted by directive to provide a 2 year “deferred action” on deportation of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. I’m overjoyed at the change. But am I grateful? Nope. I say it’s about time and, BTW, not enough.

No doubt the directive was prompted by the fact that the Republicans were about to announce a proposal via Marco Rubio meant to build support for the Republican Party among Latino voters.

I know that the Rubio proposal was just a political maneuver with no teeth. I’m not lauding Republicans. But never doubt that they, not human rights advocates, drove this decision. This had to do with the Obama team winning the Latino vote in the upcoming election by outflanking the other side. We deny this at the expense of our ability to get ahead of our national leaders; to get behind the wheel of our policy agenda and not just consign ourselves to the role of political backseat drivers.

The directive was the issue driving discussion on the Dylan Ratigan show today. In the discussion on air, liberal pundit Krystal Ball touted the President’s “courage” on social issues, citing his recent statement of support of same-sex marriage as “ahead of the curve.”

I was frustrated with the too little and, for many, too late directive, but I’ll admit that Ball’s statement was what got me writing. Ahead of the curve on same sex marriage? Courage in regard to immigrant rights? I call b.s.

I mean, if the order today and Obama’s statement in support of same sex marriage are ahead of the curve, we need a new curve.

On the issue of marriage, is the President ahead of the curve by evolving to support in an election year when young voters, overwhelmingly in support of same sex marriage, will be a factor at the polls? Only if that curve is drawn by pollsters, and not by the moral imperative at stake in this issue.

And concerning the deferred action on deportation? I won’t call it courage to finally provide temporary relief for a problem requiring a permanent solution, and years ago.

According to the ACLU:

In 2010…363,000 immigrants [were held] in detention in over 250 facilities… Among those locked up for months or years are survivors of torture, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, families with small children, the elderly, individuals with serious medical and mental health conditions, and lawful permanent residents…who are facing deportation because of old or minor crimes.

In the immigration system, 84% of detainees have no lawyer. They are denied bond and can be held indefinitely. Many are detained for years without ever going to court to determine whether their detention was legal to begin with.

And those with past convictions are not the whole story. In fact, they are a red herring of sorts, distracting us from the fact that nearly half of those deported in 2011 had no past criminal conviction. Their only “crime” was crossing the border without papers. And once arrested, their human rights were not a consideration. Apparently in the U.S., the self described human rights champion, the only people counted as “human” and therefore eligible for rights consideration are citizens.

Krystal Ball should be ashamed of herself, calling out POTUS for being “ahead of the curve.”

How many same sex couples have been dissolved by death, with the survivor being excluded from the last moments of life of their loved one? How many have been excluded from wills? How long have same sex couples had to tolerate being treated as second class citizens, their basic humanity debated, while POTUS evolved?

And how many immigrant families have been torn apart, parents separated from children, husbands from wives, while we’ve waited for this temporary reprieve?

Why do we allow this kind of horse trading on matters of basic human dignity and human rights? And when those with the power to do something act, why does the “curve” get set at the point where they decide to act, and not along the lines of the lives of those for whom these decisions have life changing consequences?

It’s time for us to move the baseline on courage in America. If we don’t, I’m afraid of where following that curve will lead us.

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