Tag Archives: Trayvon Martin

Race Basics

25 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t believe me?

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

And if that’s not enough, consider this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What If Trayvon Martin Was Asian?

4 Apr

In a Daily Kos article, Laurence Lewis asks the provocative question, “What if Trayvon Martin had been white and George Zimmerman were Black?” I’m guessing you to get the point. Clearly, if the races were reversed, things would be very, very different.

But this got me to thinking, what if Trayvon Martin had been Asian, say Japanese American for example? Would he have been profiled as a potential menace? Would he have provoked George Zimmerman to say, as revealed on the 911 recording, “These a**holes always get away”?

I’m guessing, no. Moreover, a Japanese American Trayvon would be exempt from the kind of character assassination being attempted by right wingers. No one would be combing his school records for evidence that he was a troublemaker. And if it turned out he was once caught with a little pot, it’s not likely he’d be labeled a drug dealer.

And would White conservatives be defending the adult Zimmerman by presenting evidence that an Asian minor, described by his teacher as a cheerful A and B student, was suspended from school? I doubt it.

Nor would Bill O’Reilly speculate that an innocent verdict for Zimmerman “could very well lead to violence as we saw in the Rodney King case.” The Japanese American community up in arms rioting is not exactly the nightmare vision keeping conservative white folks up at night.

In fact, imagining the victim of this tragedy as Asian American makes our society’s negative stereotyping of African Americans especially apparent. Why? Because Asian Americans are subject to a different kind of stereotype that was created as a foil to the racist, victim-blaming narrative of African Americans that continues to serve as a justification for attacking the welfare state.

That stereotype casts Asian Americans as the model minority:  a group of mathletic (though not athletic) super-achievers, overcoming prejudice and economic disadvantage not by protest, but through hard work and uncritical patriotism.

The model minority myth popped up in the media during the Civil Rights era in a 1966 New York Times Magazine article entitled, “Success Story:  Japanese American Style.” Until then, Asian Americans were mostly labeled as evil outsiders in order to justify immigration limits and Japanese American internment during World War II. But in the midst of Black uprisings and protests, the  article recast Japanese Americans as a group that had quietly and politely pulled itself up by its bootstraps in spite of terrible obstacles (like being put in a concentration camp because, well, you’re making white people nervous ‘cuz you’re Japanese American).

The article made the claim that Japanese Americans have a strong culture that values work, family and education which prevents J.A.s from becoming a “problem minority.” Problem minority? W.T.F! But the idea caught on, and over time, the myth expanded to Asians in general.

By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan twice publicly congratulated Asian Americans for their success, while smacking down African Americans for supposed dependency on welfare. And in a “some of my best friends are Black” move, Reagan used Black conservative Alan Keyes as a wing man in this strategy. Reagan’s crazy false logic says that if Asian Americans can succeed in spite of terrible obstacles, then persistent poverty among African Americans must be a product of a defect in Black culture or Black people.

And while Reagan was praising Asian Americans, the architects of the Reagan revolution were confounding attempts on the part of Black people to achieve success by ginning up anti-Black racism in order to attack welfare. I’d call Reagan a genius, except, well, that would be a compliment, and I just can’t go there.

Nowadays, the model minority myth is just accepted as truth, even by lots of Asians. In fact, many Asian Americans commit what they presume to be a victimless crime by taking cover behind the myth of the model minority. But there are victims, and they aren’t only non-Asians.  The victims include 54% of Asian American kids who claim to be bullied at school, at least in part, as a result of stereotyping. And, it includes the members of Asian ethnic groups that haven’t been so successful, such as Bangladeshis, Laotians, Cambodians and the Hmong, all of whom have lower per capita incomes than African Americans. The model minority myth marginalizes, even makes invisible, their suffering.

But the greatest danger of anti-Asian stereotyping, whether it is “positive” or not, is that it continues to hold Asian Americans separate from other people. And this makes us vulnerable to the flip side of the myth of Asian exceptionalism:  the idea of Asian Americans as a threat to “American” jobs. It was this kind of stereotyping that led to the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death by displaced auto workers in 1982 during the U.S. vs. Japan auto wars. And, BTW, neither assailant ever did any jail time.

And today, as China’s rise as an economic superpower inspires anxiety, even hatred, of the Chinese, the specter of more Vincent Chin’s ought to get us wondering, is it ever a good thing to be used, no matter what the pay off?

Coopt-upy Wall Street

30 Mar

One of my favorite pundits, Elon James White, recently wrote about How Occupy Wall Street Co-opted the Million Hoodie March, describing the behavior of OWS activists at the recent New York protest over the Trayvon Martin case.

In the post, White describes white OWS’ers taunting the police, which, besides just being insensitive of the always tense relationship between cops and African Americans, appeared to be a ploy to get attention. Many carried Occupy signs, chanted, “We are the 99%,” etc. Hence, White’s complaint that they attempted to co-opt the march.

The following weekend, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes addressed the conflict, saying that this kind of thing goes both ways, citing instances in which African Americans with Free Mumia signs protesting the incarceration of the African American political prisoner, often appear at anti-war demonstrations. I usually like Chris Hayes, but this statement made me squirm.

There are big differences between mostly white OWS protestors who are obviously being targeted for police repression showing up with 99% placards and chanting about economic inequality at a peaceful protest of a white on Black killing, and Free Mumia activists showing up with placards supporting their cause at a mostly white anti-war rally.

One difference, at least as I see it, is that when people of color show up to raise visibility for their causes at mostly white anti-war demonstrations, it’s an opportunity to escape the invisibility that is imposed on us by segregation and the indifference of the white majority, including the white media.

It’s a chance to build support among whites who, because of their concern over an unjust war, might be open to hearing about another kind of injustice. And, let’s face it, in a majority rule society in which white people not only hold the numerical advantage but control the media, you kinda have to get white permission for your cause to become visible.

Case in point: the Martin family tragedy is by no means isolated. Black men and boys die at the hands of people with guns with some regularity, and in those cases where the perpetrators are white, evidence of racially motivated bias is by no means rare. And yet, where are the protests? Meanwhile, a white child goes missing at a mall and it’s not just news, it’s a national crisis.

Not only are the problems affecting people of color happening mostly beyond the view of the white majority; the information necessary to understand these problems as injustice rarely get aired. Unless we can get white folks paying attention, like the white blogger who worked so diligently to bring the Trayvon Martin case to the public, our issues rarely become visible to the mainstream. So show up at a mostly white-led protest of something as big as a war to get some air time? Sure, how else can you get heard? And, BTW, we’re not there to distract media attention from the primary cause.

On the other hand, when white OWS’ers, who have been widely criticized for being isolated in their whiteness, use a march organized by Black people to raise visibility for themselves using distracting tactics, there is cause to complain. Given how polarizing OWS is (and BTW, polarizing is, strategically speaking, just what I think they ought to be), it doesn’t help the Martin family cause to have OWS’ers chanting, “We are the 99%.” In fact, it’s a detriment.

The Trayvon Martin protest isn’t about polarizing, it’s about coming together across race, politics and class to demonstrate broad-based public concern. Demonstrating broad, mainstream opposition to the Sanford police department’s handling of the shooting of Trayvon Martin is essential to achieving a just resolution.

But in the end, that’s not what made me squirm. What made me uncomfortable was that Chris Hayes’ false equivalency dismisses the racial dynamics underlying the conflict described by Mr. White. Too often white activists show up at the protests led by people of color (but not at the doors of our organizations offering to help behind the scenes) to say something, not about our causes, but about themselves. And what they want to say is some version of this: “Some of my best friends are Black.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: