Tag Archives: white supremacy

Afraid of the Dark

15 Oct

Reports of rapid demographic change in favor of people of color in the U.S. seem to have caused a reaction among many whites bordering on panic. Explosive increases in participation in white nationalist groups, the proliferation of vigilante border patrols, and the return of overt racism in mainstream politics all smell like fear to me. This reaction got me to thinking, why? Why are they so afraid of the possibility of becoming a minority?

Here’s my take. But first, a reality check. White fears are of becoming a minority are over-blown. As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, whiteness has shifted to envelope those formerly deemed non-white many times throughout history. The Irish weren’t always considered white, nor were Jews. They were included among whites in order to maintain white advantage.

As racial demographics shift, so-called white Hispanics and certain Asian American ethnic minorities are likely to be enveloped by whiteness. Whether we think of ourselves as white or not, accepting the privileges already being extended to us – being cast as the “good immigrants” or buying into the idea that Asians are a “model minority” relative to so-called “problem minorities,” for instance – will put us on the wrong side of the color line. And when the stakes are so high, we can hope folks won’t take the bribe, but I wouldn’t advise betting on it.

So white folks can rest easy. Armageddon is probably still a way off.

What’s more, even if census projections play out such that whites do become a minority in the U.S., they will still be the largest minority, and they’ll have most of the wealth. It’s one thing to be a numerical minority and another to also be a power minority. Unless the role of money in determining political outcomes is drastically limited by dramatic reforms of our political system, whites will maintain political control. And having the most wealth also means maintaining economic control.

I know most of you have heard the chatter concerning middle class consumers being the real drivers of our economy, but that’s just not true. The disposable income of middle class folk isn’t what drives our economy. It’s just the fuel. Those with great concentrations of wealth are the drivers. As long as the ride remains relatively smooth for the middle class, I don’t expect to see them withholding that fuel anytime soon.

Yet whites are afraid. Why? Because they aren’t just afraid of seeing their political and economic power eroded. They fear losing their cultural advantage. They fear losing their monopoly of control over everything from “pretty” to “innocent,” and from “moral” to “merit.” These assumptions of whiteness are the foundation of white culture and tradition.

I’m not talking about Irish tradition or French tradition. I know too little of those things to speak to that history. When I refer to whiteness, I mean that which was born in slavery and Native genocide along with the very idea of a white race. Cultural traditions help us deal with fear because they define a place where we matter to history and in community. They make us greater than our mortality.

But that’s not all whites fear. Whites also fear that if they lose control, they will be exposed as being undeserving of some of the advantages they enjoy. Americans have deluded themselves into the belief that this country is a meritocracy. If the meritocracy is corrupt, then what? And, when you believe so strongly in a meritocracy that is so full of corruption, what price will those who have been labeled losers and made to pay such a high price for it extract from you if they are able?

For decades now, white elites have expanded social relief to include us in order to avoid programs that attempt to overcome the corruption from which they’ve benefited. But in the ultimate bait and switch, they accuse those who take relief of being moochers. What will happen if those against whom the game has been rigged are able to correct the narrative of history such that it becomes known that the mooching and worse has really been on the white side of the color line?

And why does that scare them? Because racism, while effective for what whites wanted it to do, nonetheless contains a seed of irrationality. It makes them believe we are the monsters they’ve made us out to be. But we know our liberation relies upon us never letting that happen.

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.

Harkening Back to a Whiter Time

5 Sep

On MSNBC’s Up this weekend, host Chris Hayes went after the Republican strategy of using nostalgia to rev up their base. He claimed that a reason conservatives long for the past is that, back then, (white) social mobility, the basis of the American dream, was more possible. He went on to feature a robust discussion of the role of race in this messaging strategy, but all tempered by the sense of some panelists that one ought not go too far in crying racism.

I could not disagree with that sentiment more. Republicans are, in fact, manipulating racism, and when leaders use calls to racism for political gain, history tells us, very bad things follow. White racism is just too much a staple of American culture to ignore that possibility.

I know that kind of talk makes white folks, especially liberal white folks, uncomfortable, but it is the centrality of racism to white identity in America that is the basis of the success of the Republican strategy. So I’m calling it out. White identity in America is rooted in racism. Republicans know it and are manipulating it, while Dems and liberals are saying only as much about it as is politically correct in an election year.

Some History

Since the days of slavery,  privileges have been attached to whiteness at every level of society as an insurance policy on the wealth and power of everyone from Plantation oligarchs to Henry Ford. By extending those privileges to all whites, including access to Indian land, they gave whiteness a pecuniary (according to Webster, consisting of or measured in money) value, even for the least privileged whites.

Because of the pecuniary value of whiteness, before the fall of Jim Crow, you couldn’t sue someone for claiming you were White. But you sure could sue if someone claimed you were Black. Being found out as Black could cost you money, not to mention privileges beyond price like your life, as evidenced by the number of Blacks who were lynched for trying to pass.

Slavery may not have made the vast majority of whites rich, but neither did they suffer the exploitation of field workers (nor of the industrial workers who would eventually take their place as the dominant sector of the workforce after abolition). Over time, entitlement to white privilege became a staple of white identity. Makes sense since white identity was invented as a justification for racism.

Why It Matters Now

Since then, the pecuniary value of whiteness has eroded, or at least changed. For instance, whiteness now is more about what you don’t have to suffer than it is about what you will materially receive to the exclusion of others. So, whiteness in the war on drugs functions like a get-out-of-jail-free card. That’s worth money, but it’s not land in Indian territory. This change makes the value of whiteness less tangible and therefore even less apparent to those who have it. For this reason, sensitivity to and resentment over the perceived erosion in the value of white skin is also a staple of white identity.

The biggest drop in value since the abolition of slavery occurred as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. Though the movement didn’t win equality, it definitely put a ding in the value of whiteness.

The resentment of whites over that sudden loss of status and value is the basis of the Republican’s Southern Strategy. By equating the rise of African Americans and other people of color with a loss of white status, privilege, and control, and then associating that, in turn, with the erosion, especially since the ’70s, of the white middle class, they’ve managed to pull off something like a miracle. They’ve made a political party that for most of the 20th century was branded the party of rich, callous snobs, into the party of the ordinary white man (and woman).

That change, along with the fact that the vast majority of the real political and economic rewards of white supremacy continues to accrue to those on top, have white folks in revolt. Entitlement to white privilege is still a foundation of white identity, and the fact that white privilege isn’t producing for them in the way it used to, and at at time when wealth is piling up as never before, is the reason they’re so pissed off at people of color, especially Black people, and more so by the day.

And that anger, a byproduct of white supremacy, is a basis of the rise of Republicans. And because the GOP is the lever by which rich people are changing the economic rules to make themselves richer than ever, racism still pays off, and big. Never since the antebellum South have we seen anything resembling the global disparities in wealth we see today.

And they’re not done yet. If they’re successful, our own economy may end up looking quite a bit like the plantations of the old South, with rich incompetents at the top (a point made very well in Chris Hayes’ book, Twilight of the Elites, and under-development and poverty all around.

We need to expose white people to their own truth to stop that from happening. Down-playing racism is not going to get that done for us.

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.

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.

Racism is a House…or Something

4 Jun Remodel

When discussions of racism come up, folks are quick to remind me that race is not a real thing – it’s just a social construct. I agree. Race isn’t “real” in the sense that it’s not based in biology and it sure isn’t based on geographic difference. I mean, just check out Asia. What do Japan and Iran have in common other than some idea about the “Orient” invented by Europeans, right?

But this idea of race as a social construct is pretty academic. And folks often preface “social construct” with the word “just,” as if the fact that race isn’t natural (as in, from nature) means we can simply educate it away.

So let’s try that idea another way. Yes, race is a made up idea. But, based on that idea, we’ve built real structures, a whole society in fact, and the inequity created by those structures won’t go away just because we change our minds about race.

In this way, the idea of race is like one’s dream of a house. The dream is just an idea, but if you move from dream to blueprint and then from blueprint to construction, you end up with a real structure – a house, made of bricks and mortar (or wood and nails if you like). And, just like you can change your idea about your dream house but still be stuck in the one you built with your old blueprint, certain attitudinal norms about race can change without changing the structure of white supremacy.

In order for your old house to match your new ideas, you have to remodel or rebuild. In terms of race, what we have on our hands in the 21st century is less a remodel than a renovation. Surfaces have changed, but the structures are, for the most part, the same.

Based on the idea of race, we have, for generations, created blueprints in the form of our Constitution, public policy, and social codes, often enforced with violence. Based on those blueprints, we’ve built real structures like suburbs, ghettos, corporations, whole industries.

The legacy of this history lives on in our politics and our economy. Practices such as convict leasing of Black prisoners and the wide array of racist codes and practices in the South and the North – codes like exclusionary covenants, Jim Crow laws, red lining, immigration quotas and exclusion, etc., – have accumulated through history to create a wealth gap between whites and people of color that persists to this day and cannot be resolved unless we revisit this history and address its legacy. Until that happens, the wealth gap will continue to be an indicator of structural inequities as solid and consequential as that wall you wish you could get rid of between the kitchen and the dining room in your house.

I’m not trying to minimize the importance of voting rights protection and changing social mores. These things make a difference. But, structural inequality still exists because the changes we’ve won renovate, even improve, an existing structure that has built in inequities. And these improvements convince the folks that are the least affected by the structural problems that it’s fine in here, making those of us who continue to complain of real injustice look like a bunch of whiners.

So we’ve gotta focus on the structure. Giving too much credence to the ways in which society has (or hasn’t) been renovated rather than remodeled around race is a distraction. It allows us to avoid seeing and dealing with the need for change.

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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