Archive | September, 2012

Voting and the Battle for White Cultural Dominance

28 Sep

Since the beginning of 2011, conservatives have rolled out a broad wave of voter suppression efforts ranging from imposing voter ID requirements and blocking early voting, to the intimidation tactics of groups like True the Vote. Not surprisingly, these efforts to place road blocks, including what amount to poll taxes, between eligible voters and the ballot box are targeted primarily at young people and people of color, the groups that helped make up the margin of victory for Barack Obama in 2008.

But then you probably already knew that.

Some of you also probably know that voter suppression didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s just the latest in a long line of similar efforts that runs all the way through American history.

As I mulled over that history, an ad from my childhood popped into my head.  Here’s that ad.

Looking for it online took me to a video I bookmarked. I’m sure you’ve seen it but here’s another look.

It struck me that the two videos serve well as bookends around a cultural narrative that I believe is at the heart of the voting rights struggle. I bet you’re wondering, “what again?”

It’s not as tortured a connection as it seems. You see, I think the current voting rights fight isn’t just about politics. Instead, I think of it as just one more battle within a larger war over who gets to be an American, and who among Americans gets to control the meaning of America. That war is not just about political rights, it’s about who controls our culture, and that’s something to be very concerned about.

Why? Because culture is at the heart of identity. Our identities, how we are defined, whether or not we are recognized as who we believe ourselves to be and found worthy, drives our politics. When our identities are threatened, we will do almost anything to protect ourselves.

Food, especially food that “swings American,” is a great gauge of American culture and identity. For instance, we think of hamburgers as an all-American food. But hamburger is named after Hamburg, Germany. The hotdog also has German roots. But these are, truly, American foods. Just as American as chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies, all also invented in America but that we, nonetheless, think of as Chinese.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, back when that La Choy commercial was considered about as offensive as selling water softener as an “ancient Chinese secret.” That was a much more naive time for whites. That naivete was rooted in the unquestioned dominance of whiteness. In fact, so dominant were whites that American was synonymous with Caucasian.

But the racial equity movements of my childhood would soon shatter that naivete, pulling whites into a struggle to maintain their cultural dominance that made the contours and vulnerabilities of whiteness visible to whites, perhaps for the first time. Until then, being the assumed racial and cultural norm of America was fundamental to white identity and to the ethos of American exceptionalism.

But when white cultural advantage was challenged, white folk mobilized. KKK membership grew, White Citizens Councils formed, and the Republican Party stepped in to provide a political vehicle for white backlash that is still in effect today.

And now, as the racial demographics of the U.S. and the world turn to the increasing numerical advantage of non-whites, the backlash movement that peaked in the 1990s is resurgent. Membership in racist Patriot groups and vigilante border patrols is on the rise, and Tea Parties and groups like True the Vote are wreaking havoc on our political process. And they’re not nearly done yet. The global scale of white conservative ambitions can be measured by the body count in what increasingly appears to be a permanent war against the so-called Muslim world, the popular support for which is founded in Islamophobia.

It is in this context that the current voter suppression efforts we are seeing around the country should be understood. Overcoming these efforts in this election cycle is only one among many battles. Unless we see that battle as connected to the battles for immigration rights, religious freedom, racial equity and gender equity, reproductive and sexual freedom, and the battle to curtail the ambitions driving the expansion of American empire, we are missing the dynamics of the larger war and may soon find much more than voting rights among it’s casualties.

Preoccupied with Occupy

27 Sep

The recent one-year anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street uprising has me preoccupied with occupy. Here’s what I’ve been mulling over.

First, so we’re on the same page (even if, maybe, with differing opinions), I don’t think of Occupy as a broad based social movement. I know that’s not a popular idea with Occupy activists, but I just don’t, and as a matter of respect, I’m putting it out there.

Instead, I think of Occupy as a cultural uprising rooted in a very specific and limited experience of economic injustice of a particular group. I know that where that group is concerned there are many exceptions, but I’m addressing the norm here, so hang in with me.

This was first made evident to me by seeing Occupy activists in Hawai’i, a place in the midst of a major struggle over the U.S. occupation of the Hawaiian nation. What I saw was an almost entirely white group on the island of Hawai’i holding signs saying “Occupy Hawai’i.” That, I think, is a bright red flag indicating that particular Occupy faction’s cultural isolation.

Regardless, I was then and am still, a fan. Occupy opened up space on the left of the political spectrum for a discussion of economic injustice that had for too long been marginalized. Good for them. Good for us. All around, a very good deal. As an uprising, that is.

It’s as an aspiring movement that I find them problematic. That’s what’s been eating at me lately.

I believe that a truly transformative movement must originate from the imaginations and needs of those on the bottom of the global economy. When people on the bottom stand up, all of us are lifted. And, at the bottom of the global economy, people of color are disproportionately represented, just as we were disproportionately unrepresented in the Occupy uprising.

Occupy is, at its core, an uprising of marginally middle class, downwardly mobile white people, many of whose hopes for upward mobility were riding atop the bubble that burst as the economy crashed in 2008. The rage they express, though righteous, is, I believe, as much about feeling cheated out of a status to which they feel entitled as it is about anger over the arrogance of elites. And that sense of entitlement is something most people of color know nothing of.

African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, were already suffering in a decades long recession before the crash affected white folks. And government inaction, horrible exploitation, and the arrogance of elites is nothing new to us. It is, in fact, the normative experience for most people of color.

For instance, the African American unemployment rate actually went down to 8% from a pretty steady rate of 8.4% in 2007. Before that, it held steady at about double the unemployment rate of whites for 4 years. The  unemployment rate among Native Americans was 7.7 percent in the first half of 2007. By 2010, it rose to 15.2%. Latinos have also historically suffered a higher rate of unemployment than whites. Even Asians, the so-called model minority, are suffering more from long-term unemployment since the crash than white people.

And when it comes to the mortgage crisis Black and Latino households were especially hard hit, and many long before middle class families were impacted. It ain’t right but it makes sense when you consider that the subprime mortgage market was created in order to exploit the lack of mortgage opportunities for African Americans resulting from red-lining, racial exclusion from prime real estate markets, and, for many, bad credit incurred in what has always been a bad economy for Blacks.

Where was Occupy then? And what does their silence pre-crash indicate about how the core of the uprising defines their collective self-interest? All of this nothing to do with the morality or earnest good intentions of occupiers as individuals, but much to do with how white privilege distorts the ability of white folks to define their self-interest in broad terms.

In this instance, that self-interest is far too bound by the color line. You know, that line marking self-interest that runs behind whites people’s heels and in front of other folks toes? I know they don’t have eyes behind their heads, but they could just turn around, that is, if they’re not too distracted by the prizes or problems they see in front of them; prizes and problem made all the more distracting in times of economic hardship.

I’m not suggesting we shun Occupy or deny them our support as one in a broad range of tactics employed by the movement we will, I hope, create with them. People of color and the very poor are no more moral or just than Occupy. We’re just positioned such that when we move, fewer people are left behind. And, because of how we’re positioned within the structural inequities of the U.S. and the world, the solutions we create have the most far reaching and positive stimulative effect, both on our economy and on our political culture.

It’s time for people of color, especially those of us advocating for the poorest among us, to start telling our stories and  leading uprisings around our needs. We can’t expect Occupy to do it for us. If we don’t, our radical politics will be hemmed in by white rage on the right, and white rage on the left, and the spectacle being created on both sides will contribute further to our invisibility.

The UnCivilized World of Sarah Palin

21 Sep

On the September 13, 2012 installment of Hannity on Fox, Sarah Palin made the following comment concerning the uprisings in the Middle East:

Yes, Sean. We have to ask ourselves, and I sure wish that reporters would ask our president, how much longer can we afford to spill our blood and treasure, trying to quote/unquote, “promote democracy” in places that do not have any values for a civilized society, values like respecting minorities and women’s rights and independent judiciary and rule of law? How much longer do we now support and fund Sharia democracy?

Sarah Palin has spent the last 4 years peddling ignorance and bigotry in order to make herself into a multimillionaire. Given that history, her pitbull-with-lipstick performances ought to be viewed as disrespectful caricature.

Sadly, however, Palin’s views are representative of the views of a significant portion of the American public. Her fans, many of whom also believe the president is Muslim (and that calling someone “Muslim” is a slur) share her feeling that the part of the world I was raised to believe is the cradle of civilization is, in fact, uncivilized. Moreover, they seem to believe that what’s happening in the barbaric lands of their imaginations is all about us, our interests, our needs, our security, and not at all about them.

Some would call this belief ethnocentrism, that worldview based in cultural chauvinism borne of ignorance. But there’s a political dimension to this belief that leads me to call it racism.

What else but racism would lead someone to overlook the context for the violence we are witnessing?

Here’s is just one piece of the context extracted from one relatively small slice of the history of U.S. hostility toward the region in question:

In 2003 we went to war with Iraq. Among the justifications offered was retaliation for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Attacks in which no Iraqis were involved.

The principle justification, what the U.S. used to build the coalition war effort, was the claim that Iraq was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. But we all know that this claim was a lie. Not a mistake, but an outright, bald-faced lie.

Based on this lie we invaded Iraq. The language of war among many Americans equated Islam with terrorism. We attacked viciously. During the campaign of “shock and awe” that opened the war, precision was specifically and purposely not among “our” objectives.

The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 151,000 Iraqis died as a direct result of violence related to the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. This death toll excludes those who died as a result of the damage the war caused to public infrastructure and health care delivery systems. Among the many estimates of Iraqi casualties due to violence, the WHO body count is relatively conservative.

The war also took the lives of 4287 Americans. 30,182 more were wounded. U.S. allies also suffered casualties. All based on a lie.

And many within what commentators refer to as “the Arab world” know as we do that white supremacy has always been at the heart of the project of American empire. And they know that American racism has always been rooted in religious bigotry. This has been true since labels like heathen and uncivilized were put on Native Americans in order to justify genocide.

I sometimes find myself breathless in the face of the human cost of American racism and xenophobia. Racism and xenophobia that blinds us to our shared humanity to the degree that in the name of catharsis and plunder we will commit such atrocities as the one described here. And then in the wake of this atrocity, find ourselves unable to fathom why others might distrust, fear, or even hate us as so many among us distrust, hate and fear them.

If this is civilized behavior, perhaps the people of the Middle East should take Palin’s characterization of them as uncivilized as a compliment.

The Racism of Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

19 Sep

PORTLAND SCHOOLS SPEND $500K TO DEEM PB&J SANDWICHES RACIST

The headline above was sent to me as a link by Jack, one of the brilliantly twisted minds behind Two Country Dykes. When I saw it, the first thing I thought was hoax. Then I realized I was on  breitbart.com and hoax turned to bullsh*t. 

And b.s. it is.

PolitiFact Oregon gave the breitbart.com headlines a Pants on Fire rating for being about as far from the truth as you can get, but not before different versions of the same b.s. appeared on the DailyKos and Huffington Post.

The breitbart.com story was written by the Education Action Group (EAG), an anti-union organization. I get why they were on this story. They are, after all, right wingers who want to bust up teachers’ unions. But Huff Post and the DailyKos? How’d they get sucked into believing that Portland Schools are spending half a million bucks to convince kids that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are racist?

Feeling a bit sensitive, perhaps?

PolitiFact Oregon gives us the 411 on this story –

Portland Public Schools has an ongoing contract with Pacific Educational Group, whose founder is author of the book, ‘Courageous Conversations About Race: A Strategy for Achieving Equity in Schools.’ The district has spent more than $1 million since 2007 for diversity and equity training in the classroom. In other words, it’s for more than just the rebranding of a sandwich.

But, according to the EAG, that built its story on the basis of another article appearing in the Portland Tribune (read, did not go to the actual source for confirmation of the facts),

Dr. Verenice Gutierrez, a principal with Oregon’s Portland Public Schools, has become convinced that America’s “white culture” negatively influences educators’ world view and the manner in which they teach their students.

For instance, last year a teacher in the district presented a lesson that included a reference to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Gutierrez says that by using sandwiches as an illustration, the teacher was engaged in a very subtle form of racism.

“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” asked Gutierrez, according to Portland Tribune. “Another way would be to say: ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly, do you have anything like that?’ Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.”

Gutierrez is not the only Portland administrator who has become obsessed with identifying such forms of alleged racism. Almost all Portland school leaders have gone through “Coaching for Educational Equity,” a week-long seminar on race that’s conducted by the Pacific Educational Group.

When the EAG was questioned about the story, spokesman Ben Velderman didn’t know if the principal actually called PB&J sandwiches racist, in spite of the claim in the headline. Instead, he leaned on The Portland Tribune article’s reference to “the subtle language of racism,” saying,

So if a peanut butter sandwich is the ‘subtle language of racism,’ I don’t think it’s a stretch that she thinks a peanut butter sandwich is racist…I try not to be inflammatory.

Thank you for trying.

But, according to a Portland Public Schools official questioned by PolitiFact Oregon, Gutierrez never used the word racist in the staff meeting referred to in the Tribune article. The “subtle language of racism” was the reporter’s wording. The official added that the idea of a sandwich being racist is “just silly.”

I concur with the official, though I’m pretty sure that I once heard a torta refer to me as “chino” while I was in Mexico.

Okay, I know that joke was stupid. But this whole story is stupid. Yet, stupid as it is, I wrote about it and posted it here because it’s a perfect example of how the right vilifies diversity education and liberals uncritically join the choir, as though anything that challenges white as the normative standard of American identity is reverse racism.

In closing, a couple of notes to breitbart.com and Ben Velderman:

  1. Teaching a classroom full of little American kids of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds that PB&J is a “normal” American lunch food has the effect of making them feel less, not more, like normal Americans. Doing that has the secondary effect of undermining their sense of belonging in America. And undermining their sense of belonging, dudes, tends to diminish the possibility of them identifying with the brand of narrow, chauvinistic patriotism you guys espouse.
  2. The system of race was created by human beings, not foodstuffs. Human beings can be racist. Human institutions can be racist. Sandwiches and other foods such as Butterball Turkeys, and french fries can’t be racist. Before going around claiming that educators are teaching kids that sandwiches are racist, you should check out what racism is or you might well end up looking like ignoramuses.

Whitewashing History at the Democratic National Convention

18 Sep

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the word whitewash as,

to gloss over or cover up (as vices or crimes), or

to exonerate by means of a perfunctory investigation or through biased presentation of data.  

I got to thinking about whitewash, and whitewashing history in particular, during the Democratic National Convention. At the convention, a whole lot of whitewash was slopped around.
But what got me writing was the recent news of a bump in the polls for U.S. Senate candidate, Elizabeth Warren. That bump is being attributed to her speech at that convention, and I remembered that speech as very good example of how politicians whitewash history in order to win political points with white voters.
Now, I’m not trying to pick a fight with Elizabeth Warren. She’s no worse, and probably a lot better, than most politicians of both major parties. But consider what she said –
I’m here tonight to talk about hard-working people: people who get up early, stay up late, cook dinner and help out with homework; people who can be counted on to help their kids, their parents, their neighbors, and the lady down the street whose car broke down; people who work their hearts out but are up against a hard truth—the game is rigged against them. It wasn’t always this way….

…I grew up in an America that invested in its kids and built a strong middle class; that allowed millions of children to rise from poverty and establish secure lives. An America that created Social Security and Medicare so that seniors could live with dignity; an America in which each generation built something solid so that the next generation could build something better..

You and I both know that not everyone was able to participate equally in those programs and opportunities. But to hear Warren and other leaders of both parties talk about this rose colored past, approximately the period from 1934 to the mid 1960s, you’d think fairness was the cardinal American value of the time.

But of course they do know better. Elizabeth Warren was born in 1949. That means she was about 16 years old when Jim Crow laws were finally defeated.

Jim Crow laws, for those unfamiliar, started being established just 11 years after the end of the Civil War. They were created for the purpose of upholding white supremacy and, following the logic of slavery, ensuring a ready pool of Black workers who were cheap to hire because they were denied access to government assistance and unprotected by the law.

Elizabeth Warren was also born in Oklahoma, a state that kept its public schools segregated until 1955, when Warren would have been about 6.

Oklahoma was also the final destination for Native Americans subject to forced relocation as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The path by which Native Americans were forced to relocate is known as the Trail of Tears, in part because so many died along the way, including 4,000 members of the Cherokee Nation, a group I assume Warren knows something about.

The game, as Warren refers to it, was always rigged, and to the advantage of white people, especially white men. The great middle class she speaks of is largely a white phenomena, created in part via benefits of the GI Bill, a program that helped provide educations and home ownership opportunities to veterans, but that discriminated against some veterans by race.

Home ownership was a great boon to the white middle class, but even those GIs of color who were able to get mortgage assistance through the Bill faced red lining and restrictive covenants that limited opportunities to buy homes to the poorest neighborhoods. Education is a key to social mobility, but educational opportunity was denied to many vets of color, in spite of their service, and those that did go to school were often forced into separate and unequal institutions.

Social programs like Mothers’ Aid, established in the 1930s (and that eventually evolved into welfare as we now know it) helped many poor women and children rise out of poverty. But many women of color, especially in the South, were denied benefits under this program and its later iterations because they were considered valuable only as workers, not as mothers.

And these are just a few examples. The legacy of racial exclusion from these opportunities continues to this day. It’s time for those of us left out of this grand history of America to speak up. If we don’t, we may in fact return to that whitewashed past.

Who Is More Racist, Republicans or Democrats?

17 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Barney Frank Referring to Log Cabin Republicans As Uncle Toms Is Just Plain Wrong

12 Sep

The recent controversy over Barney Frank accusing Log Cabin Republicans of being “Uncle Toms overlooks some important historical facts. Those facts are significant because his overlooking them reveals a lack of understanding of the differing contexts of oppression of LGBT people and people of color, particularly African Americans, that is widespread in the primarily white LGBT movement.

But first, as a gay man, I gotta give it to Mr. Frank. Log Cabin Republicans (called that in deference to Lincoln) are worthy of criticism. I may, like Mr. Frank, disagree with Republicans who happen to be LGBT, but I have the most profound disrespect for LGBT Republicans who serve as apologists for Republican bigotry.

But to call them “Uncle Toms?” That was just wrong.

Uncle Tom is a reference to a character in a Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in 1861, before the abolition of slavery. In the story, Tom is beaten to death by his master for refusing to expose the locations of two fugitive slave women.

Many have criticized Stowe for her characterization, which presents Tom as saint-like, both for his servility, and his refusal to fight back. And there’s no doubt that Uncle Tom is two dimensional character. He’s subservient in the extreme, and his passivity in the face of injustice made the term “Uncle Tom” into an epithet over the years, especially during the Civil War when it was used by some to refer to African Americans who stayed in servitude after abolition and therefore (forcibly, it is assumed) helped the Confederate war effort.

But whatever he is, both as a literary character and a historical trope, Uncle Tom is not equivalent to Log Cabin Republicans.

Before speaking, Barney Frank should have considered the context of slavery out of which the character Uncle Tom comes. He was not voluntarily in the service of his master as are Log Cabin Republicans. Volition was something slaves were denied.

Moreover, Uncle Tom’s real life equivalents didn’t profit by their support of their masters. Slaves were property. According to the logic of slavery, they were nothing more than units of production. When they didn’t work, they were “fixed” through terrorism and violence, and when they wore out, they were discarded.

Women were regularly raped, and men sometimes castrated at the whims of their masters. Under such circumstances, a servile attitude is a form of self-defense. This survival strategy is not to be compared to Log Cabin Republicans whose agenda is more like self-aggrandizement.

And after the Civil War that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often said to have helped start, Blacks in the South were subjected to neo-slavery, campaigns of terror, lynching, segregation, and humiliating circumstances of labor. To the degree that some of the most egregious offenses against Black people were stopped during the 1940s and 50s (even as others were initiated), it was to a large degree in order to address the public relations needs of the U.S. Cold War strategy to which the mistreatment of Black people was a liability internationally.

Using the term “Uncle Tom” to denigrate Log Cabin Republicans minimizes the history out of which the term came to us. It sanitizes the past by suggesting a contemporary equivalency between the subservient attitudes of people terrorized by slavery and the obsequiousness of conservative LGBT people who, moreover, are on the wrong side of the current fight to address the legacy of injustice of slavery that we live with today.

And politically speaking, it fails to see the differences between the struggles of LGBT people as a sexual minority community (since obviously we aren’t all white), and other communities of color, and that does us no favors. It is in those differences that important strategies for addressing the different ways we are oppressed often exist, and the acknowledgement of those differences is vital to demonstrating the kind of understanding and respect necessary to building bonds of authentic solidarity.

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