Race Files Has Migrated to My New Website!

16 Nov

Dear Followers and readers,

Race Files has moved! If you’re a current subscriber, please visit my new website and resubscribe there at the new ChangeLab site. It’s easy. Just look to the right of the posts and you’ll see a place to subscribe by email.

I love having you along and chatting with you on my journey. I’ve come to rely on many of you as sources of inspiration and as teachers whose corrections and comments have helped to shape the way I see some of the issues. So please, please do be sure to resubscribe. It means the world to me to know you’re out there – a bit of reassurance that I’m among friends, and that those of us fighting to erase the color line are many and committed.

But, it’s time for Race Files to go from being about me, to being about the “we” that is ChangeLab.

What is ChangeLab?

ChangeLab is a grassroots lab for developing analysis and strategy to promote racial justice from the bottom-up. I started ChangeLab with a long-time political colleague and friend Soya Jung. ChangeLab is an act of love, both for each other as friends and for the communities in which we’ve worked for all of our adult lives. Race Files has always been a ChangeLab project, and now ChangeLab has a home of its own on the internet.

The Story of ChangeLab:

We started ChangeLab in the way that seasoned community organizers begin any successful project – by listening.  We got on the horn and spoke with colleagues in the racial justice movement whose vision and analysis we’d come to trust. What we heard reinforced what we had both come to believe after more than five collective decades of struggle against racism and American chauvinism. That while there is incredibly courageous organizing happening today, the racial justice movement needs to get bolder. We need to develop a fresh and truly radical vision of change.

We know that the word radical is scary for a lot of people. But we believe we need to reclaim it in its truest sense – meaning proceeding from or getting at the root of things. Over the last two years, organizers and leaders have told us over and over again that they’re hungry for new conversations, those that just aren’t possible within the limited terrain of nonprofits, foundations, government, and academia.

Racial justice organizers yearn for much more than the tools and strategies they have now. The dominance of the political right makes us, on the left, overly pragmatic, too defensive. How do we bust out of our organizational constraints, our funding constraints, our messaging strategies, and our specific issues, to think expansively about what racial justice means today? What gives us hope is that lots of people are asking these questions.

One of the main themes that we heard was the need for honest conversations about solidarity among people of color. What does authentic solidarity require of us? We started with a strategic focus on Asian American identity, not just because we ourselves are Asian Americans, but also because we heard from movement leaders that something crucial has been missing from conversations about Asian Americans and racial politics. While not all Asian Americans have the same access to power and privilege, the idea of Asian Americans has served to prop up white supremacy at the expense of other people of color. In our initial research, we heard from dozens of Asian American organizers that the failure to acknowledge this, the glossing over of the places where we have relative race privilege, gets in the way of campaigns for justice on the ground. Our research is intended to help spark the real talk that we need to move past such barriers.

ChangeLab is, first and foremost, dedicated to ending racism. For us, that is our life mission. If you share it, we humbly ask that you consider us fellow travelers. Being a lab means trying new things, testing new ideas, and making mistakes along the way. We invite you to contribute to this process. We welcome new ideas, including disagreement and debate. It’s the only way for our movement to see clearly where to draw the line in the sand, and to know where we must stand if we are on the side of justice.

An Invitation to Get Bolder!

We hope you’ll keep checking out our site, our blog posts, and our research reports, and will accept the invitation to join the conversation. We couldn’t be more excited to get bolder, especially alongside those impassioned and courageous organizers in the movement today who are eager to do the same.

P.S. ChangeLab has also just released a new research report we created called Left or Right of the Color Line? Asian Americans and Racial Justice.   Check it out. You can download a copy for free. New projects will soon be released including a media study that looks at how political media deals with race and racism.

 

The Original Construction and Intent

13 Nov

According to Webster,  conservative can be defined as: tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : traditional

I start with that definition because a few political colleagues have (gently) called me out for flipping back and forth between using the terms “conservative” and “right wing” to describe the faction of the right wing led by Republican, pro-corporate, anti-regulation, small government elites. They point to this faction’s participation in fomenting a backlash against civil rights laws and attacks on Roe v. Wade as indications that they’re radicals, not conservative; not “disposed to maintain[ing] existing views.”

I concede that point and will avoid helping the right build their own brand. But the way I came to “conservative” as a label, while a little esoteric to most folks in the public, is worth consideration.

Movements, both on the right and the left, serve as compass readings on culture and politics in America. When they form, movements may lean in one direction or another, but how we determine which way they are headed is based on our understanding of the truth North of American politics and society. That true North is rooted in history and, political speaking at least, begins with the original construction and intent of the founders when they created the Constitution. That’s what I mean when I use the term conservative.

If the phrase “original construction and intent of the founders” sounds familiar, it may well be you heard it during the GOP presidential primary debates. Perhaps more than any other candidate Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (click here for capsule account of her belief system) used that phrase to signal her status as an unreconstructed conservative. To her evangelical base, the “original construction and intent” is to politics what the Ichthys motif (the fish sign) is to car bumpers. One look (or listen in this case) and you know, she’s one of them.

That original construction and intent lays out “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but as a privilege, not a right. To right wingers, that privilege is earned by exhibiting certain characteristics, whether it’s adherence to a bigoted moral code or the health of one’s finances. That makes them not unlike the founders (who used race, economic status, and gender to determine who got full rights of citizenship), at least in values and belief if not in the specific groups to be excluded.

So, if you think of the New Deal, Roe v. Wade, and the Voting Rights Act as the true North of American contemporary politics then, yes, these pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation (including regulation against discrimination) types are radicals. But, if you put the current political positions of the Republican elite in a broad historical context, they are, complete with their bigotry and small government ethos, true conservatives.

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.

The Right, The Election, And What’s Next

7 Nov

A while back I wrote a post called “The Party of Lincoln.” In it, I said that the GOP,

[has] 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…

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 [more] 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 [white] 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.

[Some of] the earliest appeals targeted racially sensitive white Southern Democrats. [The GOP] 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…

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 [the] 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.

Last night was part of that bitter harvest. The GOP has moved so far to the right that a growing coalition of younger voters, voters of color, and women were able win the day for Obama. But, before we start patting ourselves on the back, we need to remember that while the GOP is clearly losing the war of position on the political spectrum, that spectrum that has moved far to the right of where it was before the Republican backlash/bigotry strategy push it to where it is now.

The right got knocked, but Romney beat Obama among whites by 20% and won the white vote even in almost all blue states.   Voter suppression efforts though ineffective at stealing the election wove a web of lies about voter fraud that many, especially white voters, have bought into, and indications are that racism against African Americans is rising. We didn’t defeat the right last night. We just kept ourselves in the struggle.

Race v. Class

6 Nov

One of the perennial debates among liberals is the one over which is the more powerful organizer of social and economic inequity – race or class. To those who believe that class is fundamental, racism may be important as a moral issue, but is only strategically significant because it gets in the way of working class unity across race.

Those folks, well-intentioned though they may be, are wrong. They’re wrong because they’ve bought into an interpretation of history that overlooks the structural dimensions of racism, and the roots of American capitalism in slavery and native genocide. Here’s what I mean.

The first Europeans to colonize what would become the U.S. didn’t leave Europe simply to escape religious persecution. They left in order to escape wage labor. And while not all of the early Europeans were landowners, the slave trade provided the necessary capital, and the uncompensated labor of slaves provided the profit margin, to buoy the colonial economy, putting white wage earners in North America among the highest paid wage earners in the world by the beginning of the 18th century.

With these wages, whites bought land and became their own bosses. This was the lure of America to early European immigrants.  Here, whiteness was a golden ticket to independence. Only after the end of the Civil War did a white working class start to emerge in the U.S. And while those white workers were often terribly exploited, most enjoyed a white wage that was higher than the wages of free Blacks and Asian coolies and subsequent generations of low wage workers of color.

American corporations have always relied upon highly exploited non-white labor, either here in the U.S. or abroad. One only need consider what happened to apple growers when immigration crack downs drove Latino migrant workers out of the orchards. What should have been a boom year ended up a bust, with fruit rotting on the trees and no amount of recruitment producing lines of white workers to take the place of Latino immigrants even in the midst of an economic crisis.

The great American middle class was built upon the exploitation of people of color. While many harken back to the immediate post-WWII years as a time of economic growth and prosperity, people of color were almost entirely excluded from the opportunities afforded to white Americans during those years. Much of the prosperity of post-war America was financed through the super-exploitation of workers of color whose low wages depressed the costs of basic goods and services.

In order to address oppression by class, we have no choice but to deal with how we are classed by race.

But the success with which politicians and business leaders are able to exploit white nostalgia for those “good old days”when racist codes protected white privilege, even among whites who abhor racism, speaks to just how deeply engrained racism is in our culture. Everything from the dream of American social mobility to the American obsession with home ownership, our suspicion of “big” government, and our endless fight with ourselves over who is deserving and not deserving of social safety net programs is rooted in racism. In order to make change, you have to change the way we are organized socially, and you need to change culture. In the U.S., our culture and our social relations are color coded.

That’s why for me, the argument is a no-brainer. Race informs my understanding of class, and not the other way around.

The Invisible Minority: Why Creating Myths About Asian Americans Is So Easy

2 Nov

Early in October, the surprisingly high percentage (1 in 3) of undecided Asian voters popped up in the media. It took about a minute for that story to cycle through and then, poof! No further discussion.

Pundits and political analysts have talked about Jewish voters, Black voters, Latino Voters, White Voters, young voters, older voters, low-income voters, gay voters, and voting veterans, ex-felons, and independents. But Asian voters? Almost not at all. Or at least that was my theory.

To test that theory, my firm, ChangeLab, conducted a study. We pulled the transcripts of seven weekly political commentary programs televised between January 1-June 30 of this year. The shows included Face the Nation, Meet the Press, State of the Union, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Fox News Sunday, Up with Chris Hayes, and Melissa Harris-Perry. To be fair, Melissa Harris-Perry wasn’t on the air for the whole period studied.

The shows are diverse in many ways, including by market share, but hold one thing in common – they wrap up and analyze what they consider the most significant trends in politics for the preceding week. For this reason, these shows construct part of the truth about the reality we live in for many Americans. Just how real that so-called truth feels to us is largely dependent upon privilege. The less privilege we have, the more aggressively facts of life (like routinely running out of money days before your next check, or having your beloved and lovable 18 year old sent to prison for a non-violent crime you regularly hear celebrities talk about doing on TV) intrude upon this media constructed truth.

But while poor people, women, and people of color tend to be better at seeing past media biases, even for us that ability diminishes with relative privilege. The more we live inside the privilege bubble, the more easily we are influenced by the filtered realities in the media, and the less able we are to be to see the world from the points of view of those whose experiences those filters leave out or distort.

Ironically, the more inside the bubble we live, the more we are able to influence public policy and the media, even as the media and public policy has the most direct affect on those with less privilege. It’s a vicious cycle that sets the dial on what’s “normal,” and “natural” in the world at middle class, consumerist, white, suburban, etc. That’s why ChangeLab put in the long hours and conducted our study.

Over the 6 month period we looked at, the seven programs we selected aired 169 episodes. Of those 169 episodes, only one included discussion of Asian Americans. That one show was the May 27, 2012 episode of Melissa Harris-Perry (MHP). I watched that show and critiqued the content in a past blog entry. You can follow that link or just take my word for it – it was a nice try, but a miss.

Among other problems with the MHP episode was that it focused mainly on voting power and representation, and not on the complex issues facing Asian Americans. Emphasis was placed on how Asian Americans are concerned with the same issues as non-Asians – jobs, healthcare, education, the economy – but much on those issues that are particular to Asian Americans, like that we don’t generally identify as “Asian” so much as by our ethnic groups, yet we are treated as an undifferentiated mass by others. And while Asian Americans often adopt the term “Asian,” the belief that there is an “Asian” race is a racist one.

For that reason, to the extent that Japanese Americans have anything in common with Vietnamese Americans those commonalities tend to be based in shared negative experiences. Some of those experiences include lumping us together as a race, an act that both negates our diverse cultures and makes it difficult to identify and serve the specific needs of particular Asian ethnic groups. Hate crimes and bullying are other specific issues, as are the many popular stereotypes that trivialize, emasculate, and dehumanize us.

Notice that none of these has to do with shared immigration experiences, shared economic challenges, cross-ethnic cultural similarities, shared values, or a shared sense of racial identification. These commonalities are problems resulting from racism.

The one MHP episode that took on “Asians” as an issue told a story about Asian Americans as though the main thing that matters about us is how we impact you, and the you in question is by no means presumed to be Asian American. And why does this matter? Because only telling the story about Asians that is useful to them will do nothing to deal with the problems faced by us.

A Short Note on Ex-Felon Voting Rights

26 Oct

This may be too little, too late for many, but perhaps it will be of use to people in the future, if not in this election cycle.

It’s commonly believed that all incarcerated people and all ex-felons lose their voting rights. This belief holds true even among the formerly incarcerated, elected officials, and elections clerks in states where those with past felony convictions are allowed to vote.

I once worked for a group that was active in 7 states working with incarcerated people, their families and loved ones to stop new prison building and win progressive reforms of state prisons. Among our many projects was one aimed at informing ex-offenders of their voting rights in those states where voting rights are restored post-release or post-parole.

In order to gauge how widespread the mistaken belief that those with past felony convictions always lose their voting rights is, we worked with a local group in Montana to survey elections and prison officials and elected representatives about the law. What we learned shocked us. Many, in some case most, were certain that those with past felony convictions could not vote or just didn’t know one way or another. This became the basis of a campaign to force Montana to conducted training and education of officials and to include a review of voting rights at the point when formerly incarcerated people are released to the community.

With that in mind, and a bit late in the year, here is a resource that folks may find useful. Ex-offenders can often vote. Even in conservative states like Wyoming, a contortionist act involving a five year waiting period and an application process will win you back your voting rights. It’s a struggle, but consider this: when the reform in the law that made the return of voting rights a possibility earlier this century, 28% of black men in Wyoming had permanently lost their voting rights.

Perhaps more useful to some is the fact that in Vermont and Maine, those who are incarcerated never lose their voting rights and can vote absentee while in prison.  And in New Hampshire, where you can register up to election day, and North Dakota where no registration is necessary, those with past convictions can vote. Even if they attempt to turn you away, don’t let them. Many elections officials don’t know the law. You have a chance to educate them.

While the problem of disenfranchisement of those with past convictions continues to be a crisis of democracy in this country, where those with past convictions can vote we should do whatever we can to make sure everyone understands their rights, from the voter to the elections officials to those making the laws.

A Rising Tide or a Flood?

24 Oct

https://i2.wp.com/schoolworkhelper.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Hawaii-1946-Sugar-Strike.jpg

Visiting New Orleans has me thinking a lot about cross-racial solidarity among people of color. New Orleans, one of the Blackest cities in the country, is also home to one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in the U.S.  That the mainly working class Asian immigrant communities here are increasingly well organized gives me hope. But the color line in the Deep South is so brightly drawn, and the penalty for being on the down side of unjust racial power relations is so steep, that I find myself struggling to remain optimistic.

My worry brings to mind that old saying, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” That saying is often used when talking about the effect of low-income groups rising, but my knowledge of the history of my family in Hawai’i makes me aware that if we’re not careful, what to some of us is a rising tide, can to others simply be a flood.

Here’s what I mean.

Hawai’i was annexed to the U.S. in 1898 following the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, a coup orchestrated mainly by white American citizens. The Territory of Hawai’i was controlled by a white-dominated Republican oligarchy that consolidated power through five corporations known as the Big 5. The oligarchy maintained their power by imposing a system similar in many ways to Jim Crow in the U.S. South on Hawai’i’s labor force. This system weighed most heavily on those who worked on the sugar plantations that were the engine of the territorial economy.

But in 1946, a major, industry crippling strike of sugar workers brought the plantation system to its knees. The key to the success of the strike was that it was multi-ethnic. Previous efforts to force plantation owners to the bargaining table were limited by inter-ethnic conflict encouraged by segregating workers into ethnic labor camps. The ethnic unions that arose from this camp system were too small. But when finally a class-based union was formed, workers won.

That victory was a critical step toward the eventual overthrow of the Republican oligarchy. By 1954, a coordinated campaign of general strikes, civil disobedience, and non-violent protests caused a minor revolution in Hawai’i politics. In the territorial elections of 1954, the Democratic Party of Hawai’i finally overthrew the Republicans and broke the absolute control that the Big 5 had over Hawai’i workers.

The Democratic Party of Hawai’i was a multi-ethnic, people of color majority party, and it has controlled the Hawai’i legislature ever since. Largely via their leadership, Hawai’i became a state in 1959.

Sounds like a nice story, right? By getting on board with the union, Hawai’i’s multi-ethnic, overwhelmingly non-white working class was able to ride the rising tide of U.S. economic growth fueled in large part by the expansion of U.S. empire following WWII. And, the liberal victory in Hawai’i has proven a pretty durable one.

But the organizing that lifted Hawai’i’s working class largely excluded Native Hawaiians. It never addressed the illegal overthrow of the nation of Hawai’i nor the landless and impoverished state of the Native Hawaiian people. As a result, it didn’t really break the power of American elites in Hawai’i who lost absolute power, but continue to enjoy definitive power. And when Hawai’i’ became less profitable, many took their toys and left in search of cheaper labor markets. Today, Hawai’i still suffers food insecurity as a result of land monopolization and insufficiently diversified agriculture. And tourism dominates the economy, producing mostly insecure and low wage service sector jobs.

During the years of the rise of immigrant workers in Hawai’i, Native Hawaiians suffered starvation as a result of the reorganization of land ownership and from diverting water from Native Hawaiian taro farming to plantations and tourist developments. And each step forward for immigrant workers and their children was a step backwards in terms of the hope for a return to a free and independent Hawai’i.

Today, independence for Hawai’i is widely considered a pipe dream, and sovereignty efforts are mainly concentrated on winning treaty rights.

The demographics of Hawai’i are changing as people of color, especially Native Hawaiians, are forced to leave Hawai’i to seek employment on the U.S. mainland. As they leave, they are being replaced by wealthy whites and white retirees, causing Hawai’i politics to drift in a more conservative direction. Government employment opportunities, one of the vehicles non-Native people of color have ridden to middle-class status in Hawai’i, are shrinking. And Native Hawaiians suffer the highest rates of socially rooted disease, suicide, and incarceration of all ethnic groups.

Both the social and environmental costs and the costs of failing to define class interests in Hawai’i across the color line between settlers and indigenous people has been extremely high. And the cost is increasingly being paid by all but the most privileged working people in Hawai’i. Those courageous and visionary workers were blinkered by self-interest and failed to see that, for most Native Hawaiians, the rising tide that was carrying them out of peonage was just a flood.

In the Deep South, as immigration drives demographic change, we would do best to remember that the color line can easily become a flood line if we’re not careful. In our efforts to improve our lives, if we fail to define our interests across race, we may find future generations trapped into choices we would never have wished upon them.

Strength in Our Diversity

21 Oct

I landed in New Orleans last week to visit with racial justice activists, looking for inspiration and innovation. I’ve always believed that where there is unusual adversity there is also extraordinary strength, and that belief holds true in New Orleans.

New Orleans faced two floods in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The first took about 1,500 lives when the levies broke. That flood also displaced a significant percentage of New Orleans’ Black community. In 2003, New Orleans was a city of about 470 thousand people of whom 67.3% were Black and 28.1% were white. Today, the city is home to about 360 thousand people, 60% Black and 35% white.

The second flood came in the form of a deluge of people – some came to help, others came to participate in a land grab of historic dimensions. New Orleans is brimming with New New Orleanians whose invasion of New Orleans most historic neighborhoods has pushed many poor long-time residents out of the city and into its periphery, contributing to demographic change in the city. As the city grows, it is growing whiter.

Among the flood of people are interns, some of whom have replaced public school teachers, a great many of them Black, who were fired shortly after the hurricane in a move many believe was meant to break the teachers’ union. With this act, one of the pillars of the African American middle-class cracked.

The situation here is reminiscent of international disaster relief efforts that send outside workers to communities that have longstanding community organizations and leaders that are often damaged first by the disasters and second by the relief efforts that capture the lion’s share of financial support and marginalize local expertise. Indigenous wisdom, indigenous leaders, and appropriate solutions based on an intimate understanding of community needs and capacities are pushed aside, with funding going to programs to rebuild communities according to blueprints imposed by outside “experts.”.

A couple of leaders I’ve talked to went in search of internships to help rebuild the community they grew up in and found that being native to New Orleans made them ineligible. One was able to take advantage of the fact she’d been away for some time to present herself as an outsider, and the other was disqualified.

The color line is drawn brightly in the Deep South, where I’m commonly regarded as white. This was made apparent to me while I was in an oyster bar early on in my trip. The shuckers were African American, and the barman and almost all of the servers were white. An older Southern white couple were seated next to me. The man ordered “a dozen of the biggest, fattest oysters you got…” As the shucker plated the oysters, he threw a couple out that were below grade. The customer said to the barman “your boy is throwing out perfectly good oysters,” referring to a fully grown man in his 30s.

I glared in his general direction. The shucker caught my eye and I got the very strong impression that it would be best to say nothing. That didn’t surprise me but what did was the couple’s reaction. The woman gave me one of those sweet, crinkly eyed smiles, and the man nodded in my direction and grinned as though we were all in on the “problem” together. The shucker later slipped me a couple of oysters for free with a pat and a look; a prize, I’m guessing, for noticing the slur but not making a fuss over his head.

This is similar to experiences I’ve had on other Deep South excursions. White strangers on past trips have attempted to strike up racist discussions with me about Blacks, or warn me out of certain “darker” parts of town. All reminders of how complicated issues of race and the color line are, and how transient Asian Americans are where that line is concerned.

Thanks to friends who have been generous in sharing their experiences, I’ve learned how the term “people of color” can create problems. While on the one hand the term was coined to create the basis for cross-race solidarity, careless use of the term is having the effect of glossing over important differences among us. Among organizations reliant upon national funding support to accomplish their work, this glossing over has put African American and Native American groups at a disadvantage. When multiracial groups universalize the experience of “people of color,” they inadvertently make it more difficult for groups supporting solutions based in and designed for Black and Native groups. These groups tend often to be more organically rooted in the communities they are advocating for than multiracial groups, but have difficulty receiving support because the problems they are facing are so deeply entrenched.

Universal solutions tend to best serve those who face problems that bend more easily to protest, often because of race-class (what I sometimes refer to as “caste”) advantages. For instance, it’s easier to win translation of government documents to create more access to vital services than to end the war on drugs. Neither comes easy, but one often requires an administrative change, while the other requires a change in national policy, political culture and budget priorities of concern to large sectors of capital.

It reminds me that highlighting the ways in which we are different, and not just what we have in common, is a strength and a responsibility we have to one another. We don’t just need unity, but unity in our diversity.

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.

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