Tag Archives: Civil Rights Movement

Politics is a Battle for Position: More Thoughts on the Election

8 Nov

As relieved as I am about the outcome of the national elections, I can’t get the thought of how much we’ve lost in order to “win” out of out my mind. Something an old colleague of mine told me in the 1980s keeps popping into my head: politics is a battle for position.

What he meant by that, I think, is that political fights are won or lost based on how one is positioned vis a vis the public, and relative to one’s opponents. He told me that in order to help me wrap my then relatively inexperienced mind around the idea that fighting the religious right by calling them supremacist bigots was a losing strategy. To the mainstream, religious rightists looked like church-goers exercising their religious freedom and right to speech by protesting abortion and gay rights. To get folks to listen, we needed to pivot and talk about democratic values.

On Tuesday (in addition to deploying a tactically brilliant campaign), Barack Obama won re-election because the GOP blundered spectacularly in the battle for position.

For 50 years the GOP fought to reposition itself among voters as something other than the folks who brought you the Great Depression. They did so by placing their political fortunes in the hands of a coalition of radical factions whose most powerful appeal is among white males. That move was a winner. It positioned them to win the presidency for Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes. But, while conservative white males are still influential, that influence is declining. Romney losing on Tuesday with 59% of the white vote was a clear indication of that reality.

But, too late now. That right wing coalition the GOP built dominates the party’s presidential nomination process. That’s why right wing ideologues with no business working for government much less running for president like Michele Bachman, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum were each briefly GOP frontrunners. Moderate Mitt only won by turning sharply to the right (and being the only one with a real campaign).

And on Tuesday, we, or some version thereof, won. And yes, the influence of people of color, younger voters, and women in this election may be the first few rays of light indicating a new day dawning in American politics. Maybe.

However, there’s another side to this story. It goes something like this.

The GOP wedge strategy – their 50 year campaign of using controversial social issues to split liberal coalitions and push the left out of meaningful influence in politics – did succeed for a good long time. There were a few gaps along the way. The Watergate scandal gave us Carter, Ross Perot gave us Clinton in ’92, and the Iraq War and financial crisis gave us Obama.

The one legit presidential win for the Dems since Johnson was Clinton’s second term. Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992 and re-election in 1996 by figuring out that the Dems had lost the battle for position in a white dominated electorate when it traded white southerners for the black vote. When Lyndon Johnson led the charge to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act he anticipated the backlash, saying to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation.” He could have tripled that and still come up short.

Under Clinton’s leadership, the Dems moderated their message and pivoted on key issues. The Secretary of Explaining Stuff  conceded to racist attacks on welfare, reforming it by imposing benefit caps and a work requirement, but without providing a meaningful path to livable wage employment nor addressing what would happen to those who were pushed off the rolls by those caps without first finding decent jobs. Clinton also gave us the North American Free Trade Agreement. In addition to devastating the Mexican economy, NAFTA did a whack job on American workers and crushed the small farm economy in the U.S. And it was under Clinton’s watch that Glass-Steagall was repealed, and the basic architecture of the economic bubble that finally burst in 2008 was built.

Clinton also showed American voters that a Democratic president could be just as much of a hawk as a Republican one when he signed the Iraq Liberation Act, better known as “regime change,” and led Operation Desert Fox. The Iraq Liberation Act was the trail head leading to the Iraq War.

This is some of what it took to win on Tuesday. Each time the GOP took a step to the right, the Democratic Party stepped to the right to capture the territory it left behind. And the Dems kept moving to the right until, by November 6, 2012, it had made itself nearly indistinguishable from the GOP of the 1970s, with key exceptions on social issues that, as fortune and careful polling would have it, anticipated generational and demographic change.  But those positions do not represent the kind of justice great movements formed to achieve in the years before the rise of the right.

So was Tuesday a new dawn in American politics? Only if we treat the election as the beginning and not the end of our fight, and use the rays of hope it cast to find a path to justice.

Why “Racist” Is Such a Powerful Word

18 Oct

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the term “racist.” Cognitive psychologists, political pollsters, and communications consultants have weighed in about how to talk about racism and advance an equity agenda while not alienating white people by labeling them racists.  Many advise never using the term to describe people, instead suggesting we only criticize actions. Some have gone so far as to argue against using terms like racism and racist at all, calling it a losing strategy and directing us to focus on actions and outcomes that result in unintentional inequities instead.

All of that is fine to a point. I tend to think it’s a good idea to focus on actions and assume the best of people. It’s the right thing to do if for no other reason than that it exercises and strengthens our generosity. Without generosity, coalitions and alliances don’t work, and authentic solidarity across racial differences is impossible.

But even as we try to embrace the best in each of us, we ought not forget that racist actions are attached to racist attitudes. Those attitudes may be so integrated into the common sense of our society that those who harbor them aren’t doing so consciously, but that doesn’t mean those attitudes don’t exist, nor that they aren’t damaging. We need to call those attitudes out and make what’s common exotic. Unless we do, the logic of racism will continue to dictate the pace of progress toward justice, and that disparages the rights and humanity of those who are racism’s victims. It’s an approach that allows whites sensitivity to being labeled racists to dictate that racism with continue to reign.

Whites are about 78% of the American public. According to Gallup, about 19% of whites were opposed to interracial marriage in 2007. That’s a pretty small minority of whites, but in total number, that’s something like 49 million people. There are only 69 million or so non-white people living in the U.S. That means that the number of whites who oppose interracial marriage is greater than all of any one U.S. racial minority group. Why are they so afraid?

I believe what whites have to fear is white people.

When white supremacy was challenged by the racial justice movements of the 1950s and ’60s, white elites pivoted from overt racism and co-opted the language and symbols, but not the substance, of  racial justice. By doing so, they were able to position themselves as champions of a new colorblind code of civility that reduces structural racial injustice to an attitudinal problem. This enabled them to block attempts to reorganize unjust power relations while deflecting responsibility for continuing injustice on overt racists who were cast as ignorant, immoral, and backward.

This move caused whiteness to fracture. The dominant faction of elites adopted a strategy of coded messaging and avoidance of obvious racial conflict, while using overt racists as a foil against which to position themselves as racial egalitarians. When whites are exposed as racists, their anger is in part a reaction to the fear that they will be cast out of the dominant faction of whites and marginalized along with old fashioned racists like the KKK.

If you buy that, what we are up against, at least in part, is a factional fight among whites over how best to maintain supremacy. And for people of color to concede to that by avoiding direct attacks on racism is like cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

The Durability of Race

5 Oct

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the death of racism. Many believe that as the global demographics change and Generation Y rises, racism will fade in significance. Some even suggest that what we are witnessing in the Obama backlash is just death throes.

That argument ignores history.

Here’s what I mean.

Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the abolitionist movement were enough to end slavery. Slavery was defeated in a Civil War that was fought not over race equality nor just for the cuase of freeing slaves, but over federal authority. The cynicism at the root of the “war against slavery” is revealed by the fact that when legal race slavery was finally defeated in 1865, the culture of  white supremacy survived, both in the North and the South.

Southern state governments, determined to maintain white supremacy, pivoted after the war and took advantage of an exception in the 13th Amendment that allowed for the indentured servitude of criminals. They created a set of legal codes that criminalized Black people. Crimes included changing employers without permission,vagrancy, and selling cotton after sunset.

Once imprisoned, African Americans were subjected to neo-slavery in the form of labor camps and chain gangs. But the impact of neo-slavery was not just on those enslaved. The system terrorized Blacks throughout the South keeping them subjugated to white employers who in many cases were their former masters.

The federal government’s unwritten policy through this period was to turn a blind eye, allowing the system to continue unacknowledged for more than 70 years. While many attempted to fight neo-slavery, what finally ended it was World War II. Just days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Francis Biddle, Attorney General under FDR, issued Circular N0. 3591 acknowledging the federal government’s unwritten policy of overlooking complaints of peonage and slavery and directing federal law enforcement officials to enforce the 13th Amendment.

The move was driven by fears that the Japanese and German propaganda machines would use the federal government’s tolerance of neo-slavery to undercut support for the war effort among African Americans. The circular was issued, but it wasn’t until 1948 that federal criminal code was rewritten to explicitly outlaw slavery.

Of course, while neo-slavery was finally abolished, other aspects of Jim Crow survived, as did the culture of white supremacy. Through Jim Crow, white supremacy was exercised by means of legal apartheid, a system that not only held Black people separate and unequal under the law, but that accommodated white terrorism and vigilante violence to suppress resistance.

When Jim Crow fell, it wasn’t just the result of the courageous efforts of civil rights activists. The death of Jim Crow was also brought about by the Cold War, a conflict in which racism in the U.S. could be weaponized by the Soviet propaganda machine.

But even as Jim Crow fell, the culture of white supremacy survived. The federal government, under Richard Nixon, pivoted to maintain white dominance by targeting the War on Drugs at Black communities. Like the Black Codes before it, the War on Drugs and a broader War on Crime would attempt to criminalize Black people, popularizing the idea that the rising crime rates of the 1970s was the result of the alienation of a permanent Black underclass and not, as sociologists suggest, the result of the baby boom.

Whites and Blacks use illegal drugs at approximately the same rate. The sheer numbers of white people puts them in the drivers seat of the illegal drug market. Yet law enforcement efforts target Black and Latino communities with the result that over two-thirds of people in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

Just as neo-slavery affected far more than those who were imprisoned and enslaved, the War on Drugs is having a broad and devastating impact on communities of color. Prisons take wage earners out of families and parents away from children only to return them years later to suffer collateral consequences such as the loss of voting rights, bans against certain types of employment, and banishment from public housing and “drug-free zones” that may follow them for the rest of their lives. And, for some, just for carrying marijuana in their pockets.

That so small an offense could cost one so much also contributes to a climate of fear and a culture of fatalism. A Black woman married to a man in prison on a drug offense once asked me to imagine what it is like to be a parent of a child in a militarized zone. She said, “every day I tell my kids, ‘if you are stopped by the police be still, be polite, and keep your hands out of your pockets.'”

White supremacy is also adapting to a changing world. Today, the criminalization of race affects more than African Americans. Latino immigrants are reduced to a criminal act when we refer to them as “illegals.” We exploit racism to criminalize Muslims to justify a grab for geopolitical control of a resource rich region of the world. And if you doubt that the growing fear and hatred of Muslims is rooted in racism, imagine for a moment the face of the Muslim threat that lives in the mind of Michelle Bachman. I assure you, it doesn’t have white skin and blue eyes.

We can’t just wait for the culture of white supremacy to be swept away by demographic and generational change. History show us that the durability of race will require much more of us than patience.

Another Tip On Countering Racism

7 Sep

Ready For It?

Don’t call racists backward idiots and haters. It’s unflattering to you, and it’s bad politics.

Having a hard time with that? Hang in there with me.

While white privilege is no minor prize, I think it’s fair to say that nowadays garden variety racism isn’t exactly rational. After all, most of the rewards resulting from racism accrue to those on top of the political and economic hierarchy, making the privileges of race enjoyed by wage earning whites pretty poor consolation for being jerked around by self-centered elites deregulating finance, lowering wages, and disenfranchising us by turning our government into an oligarchy.

But irrationality is something we’re all guilty of. And where racism is concerned, matters grow even more complicated. Racism is one of the most deeply held, ideologically integrated traditions in the culture of white folks. And for most of white history, racism was perfectly rational and well within white self-interest.

So you want a fight? Treat racists like knuckle dragging neanderthals. But get ready to lose, because there are more of them than there are of us.

However, if you’re with me on this one, consider this. There’s all sorts of smart. I was raised among illiterates who could take a car apart and put it back together again without so much as an owner’s manual (since they couldn’t read it), and then turn the broken parts into furniture. But, like the conservatives whose prejudice recent studies associate with low IQs, they aren’t all that good at tests.

These same automotive geniuses act like progressives, but won’t formally side with progressive groups. Why? Because they think progressives are a bunch of elitists. And because they’re oppressed as much by culture as by class, cultural elites look like part of the problem to them. And, you know what? They’re right. And their indignation is a distant echo of the kind of resentment we get from white folks who think that we’re calling them bad people and, worse, stupid, when we call out their racism.

So, having regained the calm. Let us proceed.

A Little History Lesson

A couple of generations ago, some folks, particularly white Northern race liberals, made a terrible mistake by trying to popularize the idea that racism was the purview of under-developed slack jawed Rebel leftovers. They did so in order to marginalize racism.

The intent was sincere, but they were twice wrong. Racism isn’t just the purview of Southerners, the poor, and the educationally disadvantaged. And their strategy backfired.

Here’s a statement you may remember from an earlier blog entry:

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.

They didn’t reckon with the fact that, particularly in the South, for hundreds of years the “good” people were racists. In fact, racism was a sign of one’s morality, love of community, and commitment to God and country.

It polarized people across class. And that created a political opening for conservatives.

They labeled us as cultural elitists. And because so many of “us” came from colleges and were led by intellectuals, aided by the media, and, in the end, supported by the federal government, they painted academics, the media, government, intellectuals, and progressive activists with the same brush.

Conservatives, especially in the form of the GOP, were the true power elite. But they were able to deflect poor white Southerners’ anti-elite resentment off them and onto us. Not so tough to do since we were directly insulting them and their most sacred beliefs; beliefs that were, to them, a legacy of their forebears.

By 2008, the strategy had worked so well that Sarah Palin was able to make herself into a political star by exploiting anti-elite resentment through attacking government, the media, and, our intellectual in chief, Barack Obama. And the more we countered by making her out to be a low IQ, rural hick, the more popular she became. She was the symbol of their suffering and the messiah of their cause. She was a moose hunting, rural former beauty queen with a mid-western accent and a political vocabulary you could buy at K-Mart.

In Palin’s own words, the elite are “anyone who thinks that they are – I guess – better than anyone else, that’s – that’s my definition of elitism.” And as someone who comes from stock that is anything but elite, cultural or otherwise, I gotta tell you, I can’t say I totally disagree with the sentiment even if I differ with the analysis.

So word to the wise. Racism is a political problem. Let’s deal with it as such and leave the name calling to their side.

Why History Matters

6 Aug

A while back I wrote a post referencing Japanese American internment during WWII. A number of people have responded by asking why this bit of history matters to us today. The implication was that Americans (and by that I assume they meant white people) aren’t so naive anymore. Such a thing could never happen again.

That mass internment may never happen in the U.S. again is not a prediction I cotton to, though I’ll allow that it’s unlikely. So why tell and retell the story of internment during WWII?

Because we are still afraid. The color of the demons under our beds are still black and brown. And when racism and fear combine, particularly in times of crisis, the mixture is too often lethal. Lethal to our rights, our freedoms, even to our lives.

That we continue to be afraid of those we label The Other was made tragically evident by this weekend’s shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The shooting resulted in the deaths of 6 people. And according to Mark Potok and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the suspected shooter is “a frustrated neo-Nazi who had been the leader of a racist white-power band.” 

Many of the details aren’t known to us. I won’t comment further until they are except to say that bigoted violence is trending upward, especially toward those targeted as Muslims (and Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims though they are not, nor are they a related religion). Also trending upward is the number of organized white supremacist hate groups. Based on the upward trend of conservative Republicans who believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim (double since his election in 2008), I’m guessing racist conspiracy theories are also on the rise.

History tells us that these phenomena are connected. History also shows that encouragement of bigotry in the form of scapegoating, racist pandering, and fear mongering on the part of visible mainstream leaders makes matters worse and may even be the glue the holds all the other trends together – word to Michele Bachman.

So maybe a reminder of history is in order.

During WWII, 120,000 Japanese Americans (JAs) were interned in the name of national security. These 120,000 were pulled out of a population of 127,000 JAs then living on the U.S. mainland. When Japanese Americans were ordered to camps, almost no one spoke up for them. Like the post-9/11 persecution of perceived Muslims by fearful vigilantes and the federal government 60 years later (not to mention the equally irrational declaration of war on Iraq), internment during WWII was deemed reasonable through the fog of fear.

881 Alaska Natives were also interned. Confined to damp, crowded conditions without medical care, one in 10 died in camp. Again, almost no one spoke up.

Yet virtually no evidence of espionage existed. Internment was justified by a better safe than sorry attitude that put white interests and white fears before the civil rights and civil liberties of Alaska Natives and JAs. And I do mean white interests and not national security interests. After all, internment largely excluded German Americans at a time when we were also at war with Germany.

Racism is driven by many things, not the least of which are greed and disdain for difference. But fear is what gives racism it’s dynamism. It is what can, in an instant, turn suspicion and resentment into violent repression.

Today, fear is turning extreme Christian nationalists into jihadists in a new war against infidels, and ordinary Americans into timid bystanders, aware of the growing wave of Islamophobia but afraid to speak out for fear of being labeled apologists for terrorism. Worse, we defend racial profiling, saying it’s not about hate. We just think it’s better to be safe than sorry.

But will whites become fearful and suspicious of white racists if, in fact, Wade Michael Page, the suspect in the Oak Creek, Wisconsin shooting, is proven guilty?

I doubt it. History is, again, informative.

I saw no noticeable uptick in fear mongering concerning white Christian extremists when militia members Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols committed the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. When whites commit acts of terrorism they are considered anomalies. But when brown and black people commit acts of violence, whole communities are pathologized as terrorists.

So it’s time for us all to start speaking up. And I don’t mean about fear alone, but about the way that fear and racism combine to create an explosive brew that has, repeatedly, resulted in violence and persecution.

This is why history matters.

Japanese American and Alaska Native internment, lynching, and the many other violations of human rights throughout our history serve as a reminders that of the power of fear when combined with racism. This is the thread connecting these historical atrocities and, judging by Sunday, that thread remains unbroken.

Asians are the Wedge

29 May

On Sunday before Memorial Day, I tuned in to MSNBC to watch Melissa Harris-Perry lead a discussion about Asian American voters. The show started out with some promise. But as it progressed, I found myself descending into a rant. By the end, I was full-on pissed. For all of the good intentions, one subtle but unbroken thread ran through the discussion – Asian Americans are the model minority.

In response to the relative absence of Asian American stars in Democratic Party politics, panelist William Schneider said, “…they have not relied on politics to get ahead as many other disadvantaged groups have…”

So how is it that we supposedly got ahead? Schneider used the example of another panelist, comedian Margaret Cho, citing her “talent and determination” as the ingredients of her success. He also talked about Asian American success in “business, professions… science…” all, apparently, without working the political system.

I’m not sure what qualifies Mr. Schneider to speak to the issues of Asian Americans, but he’s wrong. Asian Americans are politically active. Asian Americans have also ridden the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement, benefiting from the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action and The Higher Education Act of 1965 among other gains.

While we can’t claim these achievements as our own, they were won through political protest and are among the ingredients of our supposed “success.” We did not just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

In about 15 minutes, I saw a demonstration of the ubiquity of anti-Asian racism. It is so commonplace, in fact, that we don’t even see it as racism, making it a powerful wedge dividing Asians from other people of color while maintaining white dominance of politics.

Here’s what I mean -

First, let’s get it straight. The model minority myth is just that, a myth.

The myth first entered the popular consciousness of Americans in the 1960s, shortly after the passage of federal civil rights legislation. It started with a 1966 New York Times article, “Success Story: Japanese American Style” that argued that Japanese Americans, just 21 years after virtually the entire community was interned, had risen to success through quietly working hard and making sacrifices to create opportunities for their children.

U.S. News and World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” in 1968, and Newsweek’s “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” published in 1971, sealed the deal.

The model minority myth is rooted in the backlash against the Black civil rights struggle. When Federal legislation resulted in programs like Affirmative Action, the media abruptly pivoted from Asians as sneaky foreigners to the model minority stereotype. The myth served the purpose of isolating African Americans in particular, and provided cover to those using coded racism to attack social programs and civil rights gains. The myth allows conservative policy makers to characterize these gains as dependency breeding crutches.

Ever since, the model minority myth has been one of the pillars of color blind racism.

The reasoning goes something like this: Asians (who, after all, are people of color) relied upon hard work and cooperation to overcome racism, and that’s made us especially successful. In fact, overcoming racism through hard work rather than through protest and policy making is the true sign of character, so taking away social programs and civil rights protections is the compassionate thing to do.

On the flip side, the model minority stereotype also makes racial inequity for Asian Americans invisible.

Here’s an example. Asian American household income was higher than white household income in 2011. However, per capita income of Asian Americans is lower than for whites. Asian households make more because they contain more earners, probably as a result of living in households that benefit from the retirement incomes of elders.

More troubling, according to the report A Community of Contrasts, the 2011 per capita income of Taiwanese Americans was $38,312. However, per capita income of Hmong Americans was only $10,949. That makes the Hmong the lowest per capita earners by ethnicity among all Americans. And Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Bangladeshis are pretty much in the same boat, earning even less than African Americans.

Worse yet, the model minority myth is dehumanizing. Casting us as super human is the flip side of casting other people of color as less than human, making all of us strangers to a normative standard that is white.

As long as we are treated as exotic others, the script can be switched, and Asians may find ourselves back where we started, cast again as foreign invaders. Either way, we’re still a wedge in the hands of white supremacy.

Where I Stand on the Color Line

23 May Whites Only

Throughout my adult life, I have struggled over the color line. I’ve never doubted it exists. Rather, my struggle has been over which side of that line I’m on.

This struggle has been on my mind since my 20s, when a Japanese American woman many years my senior told me this story:

She recalled being a young college student in the South in the 1950s. She was 12 years from being released from an internment camp where she and her family were detained during WWII.

She went to school determined to make something of herself. She wanted nothing more than to quietly toil to prove herself as a “good” American. Success would be her way of thumbing her nose at white supremacy.

But in the South she was faced with segregation. One day she found herself in a park wanting a drink of water. There were two drinking fountains – one for whites, and one for Blacks.

She intuitively walked toward the “black” drinking fountain. But just as she was about to take a drink, a police officer stopped her and ushered her to the whites only fountain. Confused and scared, she did as she was told and drank at the fountain for whites. She realized with shock that the police officer considered her white.

Years later, her life was profoundly changed by witnessing the Civil Rights Movement. Here were people who weren’t quietly enduring. They were standing up, making demands, marching. And as she learned about the issues at stake, she came to understand that the principle of the color line. Being pushed onto the white side of the line on that day at the fountains was not an endorsement of her. It was an act meant to stigmatize and isolate Black people.

She told me the story as a lesson in not being too cocky. I heard her and try to live the lesson. But what really stuck was the idea of the color line.

Whether intentionally or not, we reinforce the power of race to define us unless we commit to see life through the lens of race – not just my race, but of race writ large.

Through that lens, the disadvantages built into the menu of choices we are given are obvious to some of us, but less so to others. It depends on which side of that line you live on, and whether or not you are allowed to cross over now and then.

In this age of racist drug wars, roll backs in voting rights, Stand Your Ground laws, and legal licenses to racially profile African Americans as criminals, Latinos as “illegal,” and presumed Arabs as “terrorists,” the color line can be hard to discern. Rather than being colorblind, we are blinded by the absolute ubiquity of racism.

But if you look hard enough, there it is, written in the tears of those who wait for the return of the nearly 900,000 Black men in U.S. prisons. It is drawn with the stories of those pushed off the welfare rolls when assistance turned to punishment. And it is plain in the persecution of undocumented immigrants and Muslims, and the resentment and bullying of Asian school children because of the lie of the model minority.

The color line is as vivid as ever if we only have the eyes to see it. Erasing it will require us to first ask the question, on which side do we stand?

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