Tag Archives: racism

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.

Who Is More Racist, Republicans or Democrats?

17 Sep

Lately, the debate over who is more racist, the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, has heated up, with accusations flying from both sides. The discussion really got going when Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes, said of Republicans, “It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other.”

That got the twitter-verse screaming foul. Hayes himself quickly took back his statement citing economist Alex Tabarrok’s research revealing that where racism is concerned, the parties are pretty much in a tie.  Hayes also cited John Sides‘ research that indicates a slightly stronger lean toward racism among Republican’s. But while the lean seems real, it’s not significant.

I side with Tabarrok and Sides. Racism is a problem for both parties. But, I think the issue is more complicated than what’s indicated by their research.

While I agree that the base of each party is equally racist, at least as measured by the narrow metrics of the research, the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans has to do with how each party’s leadership deals with the racism in their ranks. The Republican’s strategy is to organize, amp up, and exploit racist sentiment for political gain. Where racism is concerned, the GOP is about as manipulative as you can get, and given the history of this country and the affect of that history on our culture, that’s saying something.

One can’t put too fine a point on this difference. The Republicans are inciting a racist movement for political gain. Because of that they are, I believe, more dangerous. However, while they are actively breaking new ground and expanding opportunities for racists and racism, they’re no more cynical nor effective at institutionalizing, or at least accommodating, racism than the other side.

The Democrats present themselves as agents of equity while acting in ways that define what is necessary to achieve equity as nothing more than a bunch of empty platitudes. And that’s not the worst of it. Obama has one upped the Republicans when it comes to xenophobia, not through his words but through his actions, ordering a record number of immigrant detentions and deportations.

The Obama administration has also done next to nothing to end the crisis of mass incarceration of black and brown people in the U.S. They have also failed to directly address the disproportionate impact of the recession and the mortgage crisis on communities of color.

When it comes to race, the Republicans have started a racist movement that is pulling them ever further to the right. But the Democrats have passively played along by following them to the right to capture the political space the Republicans’ rightward march is leaving open. In other words, for the sake of political gain, the Democratic Party has, over the last 32 years or more, grown increasingly conservative on race, not to mention many other issues.

The Obama administration’s policy on deportations is one expression of that growing conservatism. His near silence on the issue of race is another.

I get the fact that being a Black president in a racist society makes talking about race poisonous to Obama’s political prospects. He didn’t create that problem. But, if you buy that, then it’s up to us to be the antidote to that poison by stepping up the pressure and making it more politically expedient for him to speak out than to shut up.

Even in this campaign, with coded and not so coded racist messaging a core strategy of the GOP, the Democrats are leaving discussions of racism to their surrogates. And boy are those surrogates buzzing about Republican racism.

But are they doing so in order to end racism? Nope. They’re doing so in order to make political points.

Now that’s cynicism, and it needs to be called out, not just because it’s bad politics, but because it leads to bad policy.

The Party Of Lincoln

31 Aug

The Republican Convention played like conventions past, perhaps enriched by an unusual number of outright lies, but otherwise, pretty much par for the course. Planks of the platform controversial among undecided voters were avoided, attacks were launched, and the rest was pablum for the base.

So why watch? It’s a habit. I’ve been watching since the early 1990s when my work involved studying the political right wing. Keeping an eye on the GOP was critical to that work because it was then becoming and has since very much become the instrument of power of a right wing movement bent on resetting the social, political, and economic clock in America to a time when women were marginalized, the rich were beyond accountability, and overt racism and racial codes were business as usual.

Sound extreme? Hang in there with me.

The majority of the Republican activist base is made up of ideologically inflexible, overlapping rightist factions. They include the Tea Parties, the religious right, libertarians, white nationalists, anti-communist conspiracy theorists, and assorted more exotic white supremacists. That’s why the Republican primary played like a re-run of Barry Goldwater’s famously far right presidential campaign of 1964.

These various factions keep uneasy company with the GOP’s traditional base of old-fashioned economic conservatives. And while the radical factions may often seem at war with one another, they’re mostly unified in their racism and their hatred of liberals, and liberal ideas, including the notion that government, not the private sector, should be responsible for providing a social safety net. Moreover, for the sake of unity, they appear to have conceded to the baseline notion that anybody and anything not not in agreement with them is an enemy of the state.

How, you may ask, did the Party of Lincoln become home to right wing radicals? The answer is, they were invited.

The invitations started going out about 60 years ago. Back then, the GOP was in serious trouble. White Southerners were holding what appeared to be a permanent grudge against them over the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. The stock market crash of 1929 inspired a healthy cynicism of economic elites, and the GOP was rightly perceived as their party. We’d also successfully waged WWII under Democratic presidents, and all while Democratic policy appeared to have pulled the country out of a depression.

Moreover, the Republican elite were viewed as a bunch of aloof aristocrats and intellectuals whose theories were indecipherable and whose policies were all for the rich. Not exactly how they wanted to be perceived at a time when a burgeoning middle class dominated the electorate.

It appeared as though the GOP would have to permanently settle for a role as a pro-capital counter-weight to Democratic liberalism. But as the 1960s rolled around, the libertarian wing of the party started getting organized. They intuited that the cultural fault lines of the time, especially around religion and identity, could be turned into political battle lines. With that in mind, they began rebuilding the party using a dual strategy of 1) splitting liberal coalitions by raising controversial social issues, and 2) building their base by appealing to racism and religiously-based cultural conservatism.

Among the earliest appeals targeted racially sensitive white Southern Democrats. They learned about the power of racism as a political tool by analyzing the failed George Wallace and Barry Goldwater campaigns for president. Both the Wallace and Goldwater campaigns mobilized white Southerners across party lines and attracted more small contributions than any other presidential campaigns until that time.

The lists of both campaigns were used by rightists like Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation. Weyrich’s pioneering use of direct mail marketing became the fundraising template of many right wing institutions.

So the first invitation was to racists. They constituted a chunk of the early fundraising base for key rightist organizations and their continued importance to the success of the GOP explains all of that dog whistling in this campaign.

From an ideological standpoint, Goldwater in particular showed Republicans that racism is a powerful lever.  This except from a previous post makes the point -

He ran on a platform of turning Social Security into a voluntary program, and eliminating farm subsidies…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…

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.

And as their values flipped, so did their party affiliation,

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… Macon, Georgia, went from 36% to 71%. Atlanta went from 36% to 58%, and so on.

The next invitation was to the born-again Christian movement, the fastest growing social movement in the world at the time. The evangelical movement was driven in part by backlash against the social liberalism of the 1960s, including a growing acceptance of women’s equality, free love, LGBT rights, and Black civil rights. As such, it was almost entirely white, straight, and socially conservative.

By aligning themselves with evangelical leaders such as Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, et al, the libertarian elites of the GOP formed an uneasy alliance the cracks in which are lately becoming more apparent. This alliance produced both a highly motivated base for the GOP and gave them legitimacy as an arbiter of family values. With this base and from this moral position, they launched a wedge strategy that involved raising social issues divisive to the Democratic coalition.

By attacking abortion rights as murder, they were able to peel Catholics off of the liberal coalition built by Kennedy. By attacking affirmative action as anti-white racism, they softened liberal whites’ support of civil rights. And by vilifying gays they split just about everyone else, and all while raising buckets of money for the non-governmental organizations of the movement. Issue by issue, they fractured their opposition until the evangelical base of the GOP rose to power as the most highly motivated and well-organized plurality (the largest minority) of voters.

The GOP also mobilized evangelicals and working class Southerners to win regressive tax reform. They did so in order to weaken government, especially in terms of its regulatory role, and got the help of rightists by claiming government had been taken over by feminists and the civil rights lobby. They attacked public schools as sources of secular liberalism, and preyed on the economic uncertainty caused by a changing economy to raise resentment against public employees whom they vilified as lazy clock-watchers.

But in order to get evangelicals involved in politics, they had to do more than touch on their issues. They needed to get them to commit to politics as an act of religion. To do that, some evangelical leaders turned to post-millennialism, the belief that there will be a 1000 year reign of godly men on earth before Jesus returns for the final judgement. The importance of post-millenialism is that it calls on Christians to engage in a takeover of all societal institutions, making politics a matter of life or death (or life after death) for certain evangelicals.

One of the principle ways that conservative evangelicals have served this mission is as Republican precinct captains, allowing them to achieve a bottom-up take over of many state GOP organizations. They also ran evangelicals as stealth candidates who focused on economic issues while hiding their radical social agendas. Stealth candidates went after every kind of office from judge to dog catcher in order to build the cadres of those with the political experience and name recognition to run for more influential offices (Rep. Michele Bachman, for instance).

These strategies are now the staple of Republican base building. Accordingly, Republicans reacted to the urban uprisings of the 1960s with a tough on crime campaign the centerpiece of which is the war on drugs, premised on the notion that America’s drug problem is a black people problem. They’ve attacked immigration, accusing immigrants of color of stealing jobs and government funded benefits. And they’ve attacked Muslims, equating Islam with Christian-hating and terrorism.

Lest we forget, of course, they’ve also accused liberals of being so limp-wristed when it comes to war and trade policy that in their hands the U.S. will tumble from it’s status as world’s number 1 bully and become the 98 lb weakling of the global schoolyard. That fall, I guess, is something to fear when you do in fact know you’ve been a bully, but I digress.

Because the architects of this movement were, for the most part, libertarians, they’ve all the while used the openings created by their various attacks to popularize a laissez-faire philosophy of capitalism that conflates freedom with commerce. Variants of the ideology of free enterprise as freedom live within nearly all of these factions, and for that reason they are able to hang, however loosely, together. And because of what holds them together, the Republican corporate elites have been tolerant of their more extreme views, including the views that we ought to build an electrified fence on our southern border, and that we should abolish all abortions, even in cases of incest or threat to the life of the mother, as just two examples.

The most recent guests to the Party are the Tea Parties. They’re a hybrid of all of the above, with a dose of anti-authoritarianism and distrust of large institutions in general thrown in for good measure. They weren’t invited guests so much as crashers until Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor extended the invitation.

And now that all of these factions have arrived, Reince Priebus, Mitt Romney, and company have a management problem on their hands. As ye sow, so shall ye reap, as they say, and they deserve every bit of their bitter harvest.

But while a little gloating over Priebus’s and Romney’s dilemma may be justified, never doubt that the movement is bigger than the Party. However the various factions entered the fray, they truly are a movement and they pose a very real threat to all of us.

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.

The Othering of Barack Obama and the Growing of a Movement

26 Jul

Liberal political reporting regarding the Republican’s campaign strategy of exploiting racism to defeat Barack Obama is giving me a serious headache.

I’m sure you’ve heard the rhetoric. Romney’s now said that the Obama philosophy is foreign (which is equated with dangerous). His campaign surrogate John Sununu went further, saying that President Obama needs to “learn how to be an American.”

Liberal news makers are calling this what it is – pandering to racism. But by reducing this kind of pandering to a campaign issue (as if the cure for the racism that makes it effective would be to re-elect Obama), reporters and pundits are trivializing its consequences.

The Republicans’ use of coded racism needs to be seen in the broader context of racist politicking and our particular moment in history.

For instance, we ought to consider rising, hyper-reactionary Islamophobia and the Bush (and now Obama) war on terror. Widespread fear of Islam is driving the growth of a repressive national security state and war machine that is coming at us from the top-down, while simultaneously inspiring a jihadist racism among conservative Christians from the bottom-up.

And, then there’s racist anti-immigrant politicking more generally. That’s a top-down and bottom-up phenomena, too. Conservative politicians scapegoat immigrants for our economic problems, promoting racism and distracting us from the real causes of our woes. Meanwhile, their racist rhetoric is contributing to the rise of a xenophobic worldview at the community level that is contributing to a rapid rise in vigilante white supremacist groups, as evidenced by the SPLC’s report that white nationalist Patriot groups have experienced an almost ten-fold increase since 2008.

Coded racist attacks on public assistance programs and so-called entitlement junkies are causing an uptick in racism as well. These attacks suggest that we, and especially Blacks, have become too dependent on economy wrecking public assistance programs. Some even double-down on this argument, suggesting that this dependency is being fostered on purpose. In this scenario, capitalism-hating left-wingers are promoting programs that get the poor hooked on socialism.

And then there’s a rise in model minority stereotyping of Asian Americans. This rise in stereotyping that suggests that the quality of life and financial success of Asian Americans is rising while the rest of the country is in decline. To make matters worse, this is happening at the same time as we are seeing a rise in Asia bashing, especially targeting China and India.

Finally, in this by no means exhaustive list, there’s the generalized anxiety among whites concerning the changing U.S. demographic. As we tilt toward 2042, when the U.S. is predicted to become a majority people of color nation, conservative white folks are reacting in a way that builds upon the angry-white-man reaction to African American civil rights gains.

And all of this at a time when folks of all races, and especially middle class white folks who believe themselves to be entitled to better, are righteously angry over our terrible economic and political situation.

In this context, the Romney/Republican attack matters because it is the most visible and well-financed effort to use racism to organize white middle class anger for political gain. These aren’t marginal right wingers, but they are using what started out as marginal right wing arguments and, by doing so, legitimizing them and the radical right wing forces who are attempting to use them to build a potentially violent racist movement.

It’s time for racial justice advocates to step up our game.

I won’t pretend to know the right strategies for every community, but I will suggest that Asian American civil rights groups are particularly well positioned to speak out and be heard on this issue. Asian Americans can draw upon our own experiences of exclusion and internment to put contemporary efforts to label people of color as foreign, dangerous, and disloyal in the context of our own long history of persecution.

Overheard in Brooklyn

19 Jul

This past weekend, two middle-aged African American men were sitting on a bench in Fort Greene Park. A white gay couple walked by provoking one of the Black men to complain to the other about LGBT people, comparing homophobia to racism. He said, “…I’m a Black man. You know that the minute I walk into the room. There’s no hiding…”

I guess that’s what I get for being nosy. The idea here is that comparing queer oppression to racism overstates the problem of homophobia because queers can pass while people of color can’t. Michael Steele, the first African American chair of the Republican National Committee, has made this same argument. So have members of my family.

This logic is damaging to the cause of anti-racism and of social justice.

I get that different people experience oppression differently. I’m also not one of those people who thinks everything is relative. Some things are really worse than others, both to the person experiencing them and to our culture and political system.

However, this is beside the point. While we are oppressed in different ways, those differences don’t obliterate the connections that exist between us.

Case in point: about 50 years ago, when white conservative elites were pushed out of power by liberals, they realized that they needed to change strategies. Their main institution of political power, the Republican Party, needed to stop being the party of the rich and become a party of the people.

To accomplish this, they switched from a more purely pro-business agenda and towards opposing the Democratic Party’s rights agenda, then centered on civil rights for African Americans. The audience for this move was white Southerners who’d become Democrats in opposition to Lincoln and the abolition of slavery, and might react to civil rights for African Americans by becoming Republicans. They were right, but simply opposing civil rights was not enough.

Conservatives needed to reach beyond the South and build a national base of power. So they aligned themselves with the then fast growing evangelical movement. To do this, they appealed to the cultural conservatism of evangelicals by attacking reproductive freedom and LGBT rights. This move built their evangelical base while simultaneously splitting liberals. The liberal split cleared the way for a highly politicized evangelical plurality (the largest minority) of voters to seize control of politics.

We do share common cause, and splitting hairs over who is more oppressed doesn’t help us promote that cause. But, I realize that political arguments are not enough. Folks engage in the sort of fighting exemplified by the “queers can pass but we can’t” argument because too many of us are given little else than our survival in the face of oppression on which to hang our dignity. In a society that makes relief for injustice a zero sum game, with protection only going to those who bleed the most, we are all tempted to engage in oppression competitions.

But here’s some food for thought. As a queer who can usually pass, the very fact that passing is treated as a privilege is part of my oppression. The desire to pass is founded in shame and fear of violence. Every time I choose to hide, I must acknowledge that shame and fear. It’s not a privilege to pass. The privilege lies with those we are passing to appease.

And as long as we continue to minimize this sort of oppression, we hurt the cause of justice. After all, from day to day, most of us are not oppressed in ways that are extreme and outrageous as measured by the yardsticks of those with the most privilege. Our oppression is meted out in little humiliations, small hurts, and quiet indignities. We are followed in stores, or assumed to be foreign. We are sneered at or avoided or simply ignored. Every time looks of derision or suspicion are passed between people for whom we are the other, it chips away at our sense of security, of safety, and of peace with ourselves and the world.

While some of us are more horribly mistreated than others, it is the knowledge that we are all vulnerable to mistreatment – knowledge we are reminded of in little ways, every day – that keeps us from claiming our liberation. We need to honor these slights, these dings and scratches on our dignity, because we are human beings and we deserve better. Bottom line. That’s how we raise the standard on rights and respect.

So yeah, maybe I can pass as straight. But that’s just so not the point.

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.

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