Archive | July, 2012

The Othering of Barack Obama and the Growing of a Movement

26 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read This: Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America

23 Jul

If you’re like me, the bubble economy of the turn of this century, how it burst, the economic crisis that followed, and what it means that those who were behind all this mess were ultimately bailed out at tax payers’ expense, has you by turns confused and angry. We may understand the machinations of elites and the manipulation of the rest of us in broad strokes, but the specifics are enough to make us cross-eyed.

I’ve looked for good reading material to help me decode the whole situation, and have found a lot of it very dense and difficult reading. Then I found Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi.

This is a terrific book! It’s short, easy-to-read, and funny as hell. Matt Taibbi is a good writer with a very good sense of humor and a f-you attitude toward unjust power and the arrogance of those who wield it that I found refreshing. Finally, someone who will just come right out and call Alan Greenspan a short-sighted, selfish, deluded, irresponsible, narcissistic a**hole!

I might have added a few adjectives in there, but for sure that a**hole part is all Taibbi.

If that wasn’t satisfying enough, Taibbi explains the financial crisis with its maze of credit swapping and derivatives, etc., in language that makes these manipulative and totally f’ed up instruments through which corporate types grabbed power and toppled the economy understandable to financial dunces like me. Better yet, he makes the connection between Wall Street and Washington, presenting a bleak but nonetheless instructive and surprisingly inspiring picture of the political circumstances under which we live today in what truly does feel, by the end, like Griftopia.

All Things Considered on NPR did a story on it that you might want to check out before taking the long walk to the library.

There is, of course, a race dimension to this story. For more about racism and the housing market, follow me. I’ll review another book I’ve been reading on the subject shortly.

Meanwhile, check out Griftopia and let me know what you think.

Overheard in Brooklyn

19 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We All Live On Food Stamps

17 Jul

Last week’s Congressional proposal to significantly cut the food stamps program has upped the volume on the debate over the role of government in ending hunger in America. Sadly, while there is much to talk about, most of what’s being said on the issue by politicians is, frankly, dumb, and overlooks the broad, society-wide implications of cutting food stamps.

Among the most idiotic of rants against the program came from Arizona GOP Congressional candidate Gabriela Saucedo Mercer who posted the following on her Facebook page:

Can I get a WTF?

But since Saucedo Mercer is just a candidate, I went looking to see what office holders are saying and found this choice quote from Congressman Rand Paul (R-KY) –

“…we’re now asking to spend $750 billion on food stamps…When we ask this, we need to remember that recently a woman in Chicago faked the birth of triplets in order to receive $21,000 in food stamps.”

“We need to remember that millionaires, including Larry Ficke, who won $2 million, are still receiving food stamps because he says he has got no income. He has got $2 million but no income.”

“It’s out of control. It’s not about helping those in need. It’s about being wise with the taxpayer dollars and not giving people $20,000 a year in food stamps.”

Yup. That’s right. Shades of Ronald Reagan’s Chicago welfare queen.

For the sake of full disclosure, I was once a recipient of food stamps. To add to my already biased perspective as a former recipient, I was also once a food stamps eligibility worker. I am a fan of food stamps. And, I also know a thing or two about the program.

I went online and to a SNAP office to get an update. Here’s what I learned –

About 45 million people receive food stamps. That’s about 14% of the American population. For 6 million Americans, food stamps is their only income. 55% of food stamp households include children. 14% include a disabled member. 9% include someone over the age of 60.

The long and short of it is that food stamps go to the most vulnerable sectors of our population.

It’s estimated that about 1% of food stamps are illegally trafficked. That’s a ratio of 1 dollar trafficked for every 99 spent feeding the hungry.

Given the vulnerability of food stamps recipients (especially children who suffer rather than benefit when food stamps are trafficked), you’d think Congress would address food stamp fraud as a 1% problem rather than propose punishing everyone without any plan b for addressing starvation.

But ridiculousness seems to be the rule rather than the exception in the fight over food stamps. For instance, in order to receive Rand Paul’s “$20,000 a year” in assistance, a family in New York has to have 14 members. Why bother getting a job if you can have 12 kids in order to make to make $119 of food stamps a month per family member, right?

And what are the implications of all this bull that’s being slung by political leaders?

The largest group (about 41%) of people on food stamps is white. That’s about 8% of white folks in the U.S. Meanwhile, a quarter of food stamp households is headed by African Americans. That’s about 9 million people in a community suffering from a 14.4% unemployment rate. Cuts to Food Stamps will hurt poor people in general, for sure, especially those who live in rural areas where food stamps helps to buoy the diversity of foods available at markets. But cuts to food stamps will have catastrophic implications for African Americans in particular who have been living in depression conditions since before the economic crisis.

Yet to hear folks talk about it, you would think that the people most affected by food stamps are business owners and white middle class voters.

So, all long as that’s fodder for debate, let’s be clear. Those folks are also affected. In general, about 10% of groceries in the U.S. are purchased with food stamps. That’s a big deal to farmers and grocers who rely on that income to stay in the game.

And for poor communities, the stimulative impact is magnified. Where I grew up, between 25 and 50% of grocers’ incomes came from food stamps. Those stores would go out of business without the program, costing jobs and worsening the already serious problem of food insecurity in poor communities.

Moreover, given how low the minimum wage is, and how dependent many businesses are on temporary and part-time workers, food stamps ends up being a subsidy to business. How else are workers supposed to be able to make it on low wage jobs if not for government food assistance?

Given this reality, painting food stamp recipients as undeserving (or even as annoying wildlife) may be good for the political prospects of conservatives, but it’s bad for the rest of us.

Time to speak up. We all live on food stamps.

Constitutional Doesn’t Mean “Good”

12 Jul

When the news cycle lit up with stories about the SCOTUS rulings on Arizona Senate Bill 1070 and the Affordable Care Act, I found myself scratching my head. To hear liberal pundits talk about those rulings, you’d think that the Constitution is the gold standard of democracy and good in America.

I get it when law makers go all coo coo for cocoa puffs over the Constitution. Their job, after all, is to protect the Constitution and make and enforce laws based on constitutional principles. But news makers’ uncritical commentary on the Constitution is more troubling. It begins and ends with the assumption that the Constitution is not just the standard of law in the U.S., but the basis of democracy.

Historically, the Constitution was a compromise between the interests, one on the side of capitalists who, at the time, were accumulating a lot of that capital through slavery and Indian removal, and the anti-authoritarian impulses of a newly independent people. Those founding fathers represented both impulses, often in the same bodies. The dominant impulse was for just enough freedom to protect their interests as property owning capitalists and not a whit more.

So here’s a bold statement. We will never achieve true equity under the Constitution as it is currently constructed. Nope, in order for that to happen, we need to muster the mettle, gumption and pluck to one day do like the South Africans at the fall of apartheid and convene a convention to change that baby up. That, to me, is the unfinished business of the human rights movements of the 1960s.

Not there yet? Give me a minute.

George Washington presided over the first constitutional convention. Washington was the son of a wealthy planter who, himself, owned slaves. James Madison is known in history as the father of the Constitution because his Virginia Plan provided the template. He also was a slave owner.

The Constitution was written in order to protect the interests of Washington, Madison, and other slaveholders involved in its framing. Throughout the process of creating the Constitution, slavery, whether in debates over a fugitive slave clause or over including slaves and other property in determining proportional representation, was very much on the agenda. And in the end, the slavery survived as part and parcel of the society whose basic rules the Constitution was created to delineate.

So I’m guessing you follow me. The Constitution is a document that was written by a group of very flawed men in order to protect their own deeply conflicted and often contradictory interests in a society that, at the time, was busily trying to wipe Native Americans off the face of the continent in order to acquire territory on which to expand a nation, the wealth of which was being created by slavery, and all while excluding women from voting and from full protection of the law. Long sentence, I know, but sometimes you gotta get it out in one breath to make a point.

If you think that’s ancient history, consider this. The Constitution allows police officers to stop and frisk people based on “reasonable, articulable suspicion” even when there’s no probable cause and even when that “suspicion” ends up landing a wildly disproportionate percentage of the time on Black people. According to the Supreme Court, you gotta do more than show how African Americans are disproportionately stopped and frisked in order to prove racial animus. You have to show that the folks doing the frisking are doing it specifically because of the race of the person being targeted. That, sadly, is virtually impossible.

Then there’s the case of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. In Hawaii, state funds for programs benefiting Native Hawaiians and revenue generated from certain public lands stolen from the Hawaiian people are administered by an Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). That office was established in 1978.

Until 2000, the OHA board of trustees was elected exclusively by Native Hawaiians. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this restriction by a 7-2 vote. According to Justice Kennedy, “A state may not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, and this law does so.”

Talk about your double edged sword. I get that OHA elections were unconstitutional. But they were also good. Native Hawaiians should have the right to exercise exclusive control over the trustees of resources set aside specifically for Native Hawaiians. If the goal is the serve the needs of Hawaiians, why the hell would non-Hawaiians want a vote unless they have a conflicting interest?

The Constitution is not race neutral. Its guarantee of equal protection is constructed around a notion of the rights of individuals that too often stands as a barrier between aggrieved groups and justice. Equal protection may provide tactical cover in moving forward a racial justice agenda, but it is not the end game. The end game involves moving beyond equal to equity, and equity was never anticipated in the “original construction and intent” of the Constitution.

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