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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.

When Welfare Was White: What The Fight Over the Safety Net Is Really All About

8 Oct

Much has been written about the fight over the social safety net. Many say that Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamps president,” and Mitt Romney lying about the President dropping the work requirement in welfare is dog whistle racism meant to gin up a base they’ve spent 50 years building with racist appeals to civil rights backlash.

I agree. But I also think there’s something missing from that argument. We have, it seems to me, become so focused on trying to demonize conservatives as racists that we are missing just how fundamental racism has always been to the structure of the welfare state and, what’s more, what all the fuss over means-based government entitlements is really all about.

In order to understand what’s at the base of all of this fighting, one need only remember back to when welfare was white.

Gary Delgado and Rebecca Gordon write in From Poverty to Punishment: How Welfare Reform Punishes the Poor,

At first, welfare was based on a specific, if unarticulated, ideology of gender roles and race. Its framers expected that white women’s primary responsibility would be child rearing and unpaid domestic labor, while white men would engage in paid labor as their families’ “breadwinners.” Based on this division of labor with the family, paid work was expected to provide a “breadwinner wage” – a wage that would support the paid worker, his wife, and their children. With the introduction of welfare, the government assumed financial responsibility when no other breadwinner was available. White widows were cast as “deserving damsels in distress.”

Aid to Families with Dependent Children(AFDC), what we think of as welfare, was introduced as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, which also provided social security and unemployment insurance. At its inception, AFDC didn’t anticipate the participation of women of color, especially Black women. The intent of the program was to keep white women out of the workforce so they could fulfill their role as mothers.

Whites didn’t consider the value of Black women to their own families, but instead focused on their value to the white-owned businesses and white households that employed them. Black women were expected to work, and in highly exploitative jobs that few whites would ever take. And welfare was designed to avoid interfering with their availability as workers. This is why some welfare offices in the South stopped providing aid to Black families during cotton picking season.

In subsequent generations, as people of color won access to welfare, the program changed, as did our ideas about welfare recipients. The political debate shifted from how to provide for the needy as a way of serving the common good, to how to control the deviant behaviors of recipients who were cast as lazy, dishonest, promiscuous moochers. The sentiment driving the post-integration discussion of welfare can be summed up the by the title of the act that reformed welfare under Clinton: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. That Act assumes that recipients are alienated from work because of their dependency on welfare, rather than because they are denied all but the most onerous, low-paid and humiliating work. To reconcile them to work, time limits and penalties were imposed on recipients to push them into the workforce. But the workforce isn’t where many former recipients end up. Instead they lose their benefits without finding work.

So let’s get it straight. The fight over who does and doesn’t deserve welfare is a fight about race and always has been. In fact, it has roots that stretch all the way back to the days of convict leasing which, after all, was not completely abolished until 1948, 13 years after welfare went national.  It is also very important to recognize the profound and vicious sexism that informs the paternalistic attitude shaping welfare policy, allowing us to talk about recipients but not with them, as though they have nothing to offer to the debate.

But, maybe most importantly, while racism has been used as a weapon to attack welfare, the fight isn’t just about race.

The real fight over welfare is over workers and wages. And while the fight over workers and wages cannot be separated from our history of slavery, coolie labor, and manipulation of immigration policy to maintain a pool of highly exploitable immigrant labor, race isn’t the only thing driving the dynamic.

This is why providing benefits to white widows who would otherwise be housewives was relatively noncontroversial. But when welfare became a program that interfered with the super-exploitation of Black women, all that changed.

That’s why conservatives are so obsessed with welfare when there are so many other areas of spending that are less popular and doing so much more to drive up the deficit. A robust social safety net drives up wages, just as the threat of poverty and unemployment drives wages down. The more vulnerable we are, the more desperate we become. That, to me, is what all the fuss is about.

The Durability of Race

5 Oct

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the death of racism. Many believe that as the global demographics change and Generation Y rises, racism will fade in significance. Some even suggest that what we are witnessing in the Obama backlash is just death throes.

That argument ignores history.

Here’s what I mean.

Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the abolitionist movement were enough to end slavery. Slavery was defeated in a Civil War that was fought not over race equality nor just for the cuase of freeing slaves, but over federal authority. The cynicism at the root of the “war against slavery” is revealed by the fact that when legal race slavery was finally defeated in 1865, the culture of  white supremacy survived, both in the North and the South.

Southern state governments, determined to maintain white supremacy, pivoted after the war and took advantage of an exception in the 13th Amendment that allowed for the indentured servitude of criminals. They created a set of legal codes that criminalized Black people. Crimes included changing employers without permission,vagrancy, and selling cotton after sunset.

Once imprisoned, African Americans were subjected to neo-slavery in the form of labor camps and chain gangs. But the impact of neo-slavery was not just on those enslaved. The system terrorized Blacks throughout the South keeping them subjugated to white employers who in many cases were their former masters.

The federal government’s unwritten policy through this period was to turn a blind eye, allowing the system to continue unacknowledged for more than 70 years. While many attempted to fight neo-slavery, what finally ended it was World War II. Just days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Francis Biddle, Attorney General under FDR, issued Circular N0. 3591 acknowledging the federal government’s unwritten policy of overlooking complaints of peonage and slavery and directing federal law enforcement officials to enforce the 13th Amendment.

The move was driven by fears that the Japanese and German propaganda machines would use the federal government’s tolerance of neo-slavery to undercut support for the war effort among African Americans. The circular was issued, but it wasn’t until 1948 that federal criminal code was rewritten to explicitly outlaw slavery.

Of course, while neo-slavery was finally abolished, other aspects of Jim Crow survived, as did the culture of white supremacy. Through Jim Crow, white supremacy was exercised by means of legal apartheid, a system that not only held Black people separate and unequal under the law, but that accommodated white terrorism and vigilante violence to suppress resistance.

When Jim Crow fell, it wasn’t just the result of the courageous efforts of civil rights activists. The death of Jim Crow was also brought about by the Cold War, a conflict in which racism in the U.S. could be weaponized by the Soviet propaganda machine.

But even as Jim Crow fell, the culture of white supremacy survived. The federal government, under Richard Nixon, pivoted to maintain white dominance by targeting the War on Drugs at Black communities. Like the Black Codes before it, the War on Drugs and a broader War on Crime would attempt to criminalize Black people, popularizing the idea that the rising crime rates of the 1970s was the result of the alienation of a permanent Black underclass and not, as sociologists suggest, the result of the baby boom.

Whites and Blacks use illegal drugs at approximately the same rate. The sheer numbers of white people puts them in the drivers seat of the illegal drug market. Yet law enforcement efforts target Black and Latino communities with the result that over two-thirds of people in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

Just as neo-slavery affected far more than those who were imprisoned and enslaved, the War on Drugs is having a broad and devastating impact on communities of color. Prisons take wage earners out of families and parents away from children only to return them years later to suffer collateral consequences such as the loss of voting rights, bans against certain types of employment, and banishment from public housing and “drug-free zones” that may follow them for the rest of their lives. And, for some, just for carrying marijuana in their pockets.

That so small an offense could cost one so much also contributes to a climate of fear and a culture of fatalism. A Black woman married to a man in prison on a drug offense once asked me to imagine what it is like to be a parent of a child in a militarized zone. She said, “every day I tell my kids, ‘if you are stopped by the police be still, be polite, and keep your hands out of your pockets.'”

White supremacy is also adapting to a changing world. Today, the criminalization of race affects more than African Americans. Latino immigrants are reduced to a criminal act when we refer to them as “illegals.” We exploit racism to criminalize Muslims to justify a grab for geopolitical control of a resource rich region of the world. And if you doubt that the growing fear and hatred of Muslims is rooted in racism, imagine for a moment the face of the Muslim threat that lives in the mind of Michelle Bachman. I assure you, it doesn’t have white skin and blue eyes.

We can’t just wait for the culture of white supremacy to be swept away by demographic and generational change. History show us that the durability of race will require much more of us than patience.

The Party Of Lincoln

31 Aug

The Republican Convention played like conventions past, perhaps enriched by an unusual number of outright lies, but otherwise, pretty much par for the course. Planks of the platform controversial among undecided voters were avoided, attacks were launched, and the rest was pablum for the base.

So why watch? It’s a habit. I’ve been watching since the early 1990s when my work involved studying the political right wing. Keeping an eye on the GOP was critical to that work because it was then becoming and has since very much become the instrument of power of a right wing movement bent on resetting the social, political, and economic clock in America to a time when women were marginalized, the rich were beyond accountability, and overt racism and racial codes were business as usual.

Sound extreme? Hang in there with me.

The majority of the Republican activist base is made up of ideologically inflexible, overlapping rightist factions. They include the Tea Parties, the religious right, libertarians, white nationalists, anti-communist conspiracy theorists, and assorted more exotic white supremacists. That’s why the Republican primary played like a re-run of Barry Goldwater’s famously far right presidential campaign of 1964.

These various factions keep uneasy company with the GOP’s traditional base of old-fashioned economic conservatives. And while the radical factions may often seem at war with one another, they’re mostly unified in their racism and their hatred of liberals, and liberal ideas, including the notion that government, not the private sector, should be responsible for providing a social safety net. Moreover, for the sake of unity, they appear to have conceded to the baseline notion that anybody and anything not not in agreement with them is an enemy of the state.

How, you may ask, did the Party of Lincoln become home to right wing radicals? The answer is, they were invited.

The invitations started going out about 60 years ago. Back then, the GOP was in serious trouble. White Southerners were holding what appeared to be a permanent grudge against them over the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. The stock market crash of 1929 inspired a healthy cynicism of economic elites, and the GOP was rightly perceived as their party. We’d also successfully waged WWII under Democratic presidents, and all while Democratic policy appeared to have pulled the country out of a depression.

Moreover, the Republican elite were viewed as a bunch of aloof aristocrats and intellectuals whose theories were indecipherable and whose policies were all for the rich. Not exactly how they wanted to be perceived at a time when a burgeoning middle class dominated the electorate.

It appeared as though the GOP would have to permanently settle for a role as a pro-capital counter-weight to Democratic liberalism. But as the 1960s rolled around, the libertarian wing of the party started getting organized. They intuited that the cultural fault lines of the time, especially around religion and identity, could be turned into political battle lines. With that in mind, they began rebuilding the party using a dual strategy of 1) splitting liberal coalitions by raising controversial social issues, and 2) building their base by appealing to racism and religiously-based cultural conservatism.

Among the earliest appeals targeted racially sensitive white Southern Democrats. They learned about the power of racism as a political tool by analyzing the failed George Wallace and Barry Goldwater campaigns for president. Both the Wallace and Goldwater campaigns mobilized white Southerners across party lines and attracted more small contributions than any other presidential campaigns until that time.

The lists of both campaigns were used by rightists like Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation. Weyrich’s pioneering use of direct mail marketing became the fundraising template of many right wing institutions.

So the first invitation was to racists. They constituted a chunk of the early fundraising base for key rightist organizations and their continued importance to the success of the GOP explains all of that dog whistling in this campaign.

From an ideological standpoint, Goldwater in particular showed Republicans that racism is a powerful lever.  This except from a previous post makes the point –

He ran on a platform of turning Social Security into a voluntary program, and eliminating farm subsidies…But, because he ran against Civil Rights, he won Southern votes, even from white people for whom the programs he promised to destroy were the most popular.

Goldwater’s strategy turned race into a partisan issue. In 1962, a national poll asked which party would more likely ensure Blacks got fair treatment in housing and employment.  22.7% answered Democrat compared to 21.3% who said Republican. 55.9% said there was no difference. By late 1964, another poll showed that 60% of those questioned said Democrats were more likely to ensure fairness and 7% said Republicans, with only 33% seeing no difference…

In the 1950s, poor white Southerners were the third most liberal voters on issues of government intervention for full-employment, education, and affordable health care, right behind Blacks and Jews. By the early 70s, they did a values flip. When it came to poverty alleviation programs, they went from being liberals to being statistically indistinguishable from wealthy white Northerners, the traditional base of the GOP. Given the ongoing poverty of the South, this move was akin to poor white Southerners cutting off their toes for want of smaller shoes.

And as their values flipped, so did their party affiliation,

In a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the South, GOP voter rolls shot up from 49% to 76% in Birmingham, Alabama’s poorest white communities between 1960 and 1964… Macon, Georgia, went from 36% to 71%. Atlanta went from 36% to 58%, and so on.

The next invitation was to the born-again Christian movement, the fastest growing social movement in the world at the time. The evangelical movement was driven in part by backlash against the social liberalism of the 1960s, including a growing acceptance of women’s equality, free love, LGBT rights, and Black civil rights. As such, it was almost entirely white, straight, and socially conservative.

By aligning themselves with evangelical leaders such as Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, et al, the libertarian elites of the GOP formed an uneasy alliance the cracks in which are lately becoming more apparent. This alliance produced both a highly motivated base for the GOP and gave them legitimacy as an arbiter of family values. With this base and from this moral position, they launched a wedge strategy that involved raising social issues divisive to the Democratic coalition.

By attacking abortion rights as murder, they were able to peel Catholics off of the liberal coalition built by Kennedy. By attacking affirmative action as anti-white racism, they softened liberal whites’ support of civil rights. And by vilifying gays they split just about everyone else, and all while raising buckets of money for the non-governmental organizations of the movement. Issue by issue, they fractured their opposition until the evangelical base of the GOP rose to power as the most highly motivated and well-organized plurality (the largest minority) of voters.

The GOP also mobilized evangelicals and working class Southerners to win regressive tax reform. They did so in order to weaken government, especially in terms of its regulatory role, and got the help of rightists by claiming government had been taken over by feminists and the civil rights lobby. They attacked public schools as sources of secular liberalism, and preyed on the economic uncertainty caused by a changing economy to raise resentment against public employees whom they vilified as lazy clock-watchers.

But in order to get evangelicals involved in politics, they had to do more than touch on their issues. They needed to get them to commit to politics as an act of religion. To do that, some evangelical leaders turned to post-millennialism, the belief that there will be a 1000 year reign of godly men on earth before Jesus returns for the final judgement. The importance of post-millenialism is that it calls on Christians to engage in a takeover of all societal institutions, making politics a matter of life or death (or life after death) for certain evangelicals.

One of the principle ways that conservative evangelicals have served this mission is as Republican precinct captains, allowing them to achieve a bottom-up take over of many state GOP organizations. They also ran evangelicals as stealth candidates who focused on economic issues while hiding their radical social agendas. Stealth candidates went after every kind of office from judge to dog catcher in order to build the cadres of those with the political experience and name recognition to run for more influential offices (Rep. Michele Bachman, for instance).

These strategies are now the staple of Republican base building. Accordingly, Republicans reacted to the urban uprisings of the 1960s with a tough on crime campaign the centerpiece of which is the war on drugs, premised on the notion that America’s drug problem is a black people problem. They’ve attacked immigration, accusing immigrants of color of stealing jobs and government funded benefits. And they’ve attacked Muslims, equating Islam with Christian-hating and terrorism.

Lest we forget, of course, they’ve also accused liberals of being so limp-wristed when it comes to war and trade policy that in their hands the U.S. will tumble from it’s status as world’s number 1 bully and become the 98 lb weakling of the global schoolyard. That fall, I guess, is something to fear when you do in fact know you’ve been a bully, but I digress.

Because the architects of this movement were, for the most part, libertarians, they’ve all the while used the openings created by their various attacks to popularize a laissez-faire philosophy of capitalism that conflates freedom with commerce. Variants of the ideology of free enterprise as freedom live within nearly all of these factions, and for that reason they are able to hang, however loosely, together. And because of what holds them together, the Republican corporate elites have been tolerant of their more extreme views, including the views that we ought to build an electrified fence on our southern border, and that we should abolish all abortions, even in cases of incest or threat to the life of the mother, as just two examples.

The most recent guests to the Party are the Tea Parties. They’re a hybrid of all of the above, with a dose of anti-authoritarianism and distrust of large institutions in general thrown in for good measure. They weren’t invited guests so much as crashers until Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor extended the invitation.

And now that all of these factions have arrived, Reince Priebus, Mitt Romney, and company have a management problem on their hands. As ye sow, so shall ye reap, as they say, and they deserve every bit of their bitter harvest.

But while a little gloating over Priebus’s and Romney’s dilemma may be justified, never doubt that the movement is bigger than the Party. However the various factions entered the fray, they truly are a movement and they pose a very real threat to all of us.

Not Vanquished

22 Aug

I started Race Files after screening 24 hours of political commentary programs. I screened them to test a hunch. That hunch was that if these programs were your only window on the U.S., you’d conclude that people of color are a barely present and politically insignificant part of America.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that my hunch proved correct. To political pundits, people of color are usually (in fact, in the case of white commentators, almost exclusively) mentioned to make points relevant to white people.

But, no matter how minimizing or misleading the rap was on African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos, we were mentioned. Of Native Americans, on the other hand, not a word was spoken.

That was six months ago. Since then, I’ve watched political programs with a pen and paper at my side in order to make note of any reference to Native Americans. Because analyzing how media represents people of color is part of my work, I watch a lot of these programs.

So far, I have yet to fill a third of a page. What’s scribbled in that space refers to only one subject: Republican objections to provisions addressing the special circumstances of Native Americans in the Violence Against Women Act. In this story, Native Americans were mainly used to bash Republicans.

On that same page I have two checks – one for each time that a non-Native person referenced Native Americans as people something really bad happened to a very long time ago.

Ever notice how there are stories, though few and far between, of the plights of indigenous people outside of the U.S.? I have. I noted them as well. They far out-number references to Native Americans. I suppose the issues are a lot more palatable when you and your audience aren’t implicated in the problem.

The absence of Native Americans may not be the result of some evil conspiracy but it is neither minor nor incidental. In fact, this silence is just an extension of a process that began before the American Indian Wars and never ended. We live it everyday and it’s an important part of a historical process of expunging Native Americans from the U.S. consciousness.

This disappearing of Native Americans as real, complex, contemporary people has so successfully naturalized within American culture that we (non-Indians) hardly notice it. It’s part of our national ethos, even a matter of pride, to think of Native Americans as a vanquished and vanishing people and to act accordingly.

Throughout American history we’ve been trying to make Native Americans disappear. Long after early colonists had already destroyed thousands of Native American lives, we waged a war against Native nations as a matter of federal policy. The formal acknowledgement of our intention to make Native Americans disappear continued into the early 1920s, ultimately resulting in the destruction of two-thirds of the Native American population of North America.

But warfare was just one tactic. Cultural assimilation was another. Cruel campaigns to “civilize” Native Americans were waged. The goal was to eventually separate Native people from their land.

And having failed at completely assimilating Native Americans, we have ever since used the tactic of simply making Native people disappear, and, along with them, all of the other complications associated with being a settler nation. To quiet our consciences, to avoid settling up our debts to Native nations, and to ignore the fact that we reside on land and have built a society using resources that were forcibly taken from others in a campaign of genocide, we make them vanish, even call certain tribes “extinct.”

This disappearing act is accomplished in a variety of ways. We terminate tribes, claiming that enrollment has fallen too far to constitute a nation. We appropriate spiritual practices, claiming to be honoring and preserving the traditions of a noble but vanishing people. And we do it by exclusion, especially in media and the world of politics, both of which contribute to the notion that Native people are of no relevance to the lives of the rest of us.

Native American activist and academic Andy Smith wrote about the logic of genocide in Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy, saying “this logic holds that indigenous peoples must disappear…must always be disappearing, in order to allow non-indigenous people rightful claim over this land.”

Smith’s article cites Kate Shanley’s analysis of Native Americans as a permanent “present absence” that, according to Ella Shohat and Robert Stam functions as “an ambivalently repressive mechanism [which] dispels the anxiety in the face of the Indian, whose very presence is a reminder of the initially precarious grounding of the American nation-state itself…”

This is one more for the echo chamber. Native Americans are not vanquished and not vanishing.

Why Don’t We Racially Profile Whites?

10 Aug

A while back I wrote a post called White Identity Politics. In it, I wrote:

Whiteness has a political meaning as much as does Black or Asian or any other racial category. In order to define non-whites as inferior and deviant, whites needed to be defined as superior and normal. By claiming the category “normal,” whites imagined themselves outside the racial paradigm they had created. But, in fact, they were and are at the center of it.

I was trying to make the point that while whites seem to think of themselves as raceless, they in fact are the inventors of the whole system of race. They have a racial identity, and their historic (and contemporary) role in creating and perpetrating racism is as integral to that identity as surviving slavery and facing it’s continuing legacy of injustice is to the identities of African Americans.

In the name of white racial identity, whites have engaged in genocidal warfare against Native Americans. As the victor in this war, whites took land and natural resources not rightfully their own and corralled the surviving Native Nations onto reservations and forced them into inequitable treaty agreements, before attempting to make them disappear entirely through programs of forced assimilation. And ever since, it’s been part of white identity to celebrate white settler history and tout U.S. exceptionalism in spite of the fact that this nation is founded upon genocide.

Whites enslaved Africans – they invented race as we know it for this purpose. Even after a war was waged to end slavery, whites invented convicted leasing. Through this system, they unjustly imprisoned Blacks for the purpose of re-enslaving them. By doing so they not only created a pool of free labor, they terrorized the mass of the Black community of the South into remaining in poor jobs, often for their former masters and their descendents, for fear that they would be imprisoned since unemployment was a crime for Blacks in some jurisdictions. And where Blacks are concerned, much more followed, including Jim Crow and our current war on drugs (notice how I bring that up constantly? I think you should, too).

Whites vilified, persecuted, and alternately exploited and then excluded Asians and waged a war against Mexico and forced them into an inequitable sale of territory that includes all or part of seven U.S. states. And there was Jim Crow, lynchings, mass race riots targeting Black and Asian laborers, and more, and largely with impunity. I would go on, but I think you get the point.

The whole of the U.S. experiment in democracy is marred by incidents of racist brutality, violence, and warfare, and the legal diminution, dehumanization, and exclusion of people of color.  In fact, it is what most characterizes race relations in America.

If an attempt were made to racially profile whites, the picture we would come away with would be anything but pretty. So I’ve been wondering lately, why is it that in spite of the fact that very nearly every modern mass shooting is committed by white males there is still no white racial profile of the mass shooter. One would think that a population, defined by race by their own choosing, that has for so long condoned mass murder, especially in the name of their race, would be, therefore, suspect every time an act of terrorism and mass murder took place in America. But they aren’t.

There is also no federally commissioned Report on White Families that parallels the Moynihan Report. When we think of welfare, we don’t see white people even when welfare was created for white people. When we think of drug crimes, we see Black people in spite of the fact that whites drive the illegal drug trade in the U.S. And we don’t just see them, we arrest them, prosecute them, and imprison them en masse.

A Race Files reader sent me an article by Tim Wise about the 2001 Santee, CA mass school shooting resulting in injury to 13 white children and the deaths of two, asking the same question. In it, he says:

…once again, we hear the FBI insist there is no “profile” of a school shooter. Come again? White boy after white boy after white boy, with very few exceptions to that rule…, decides to use their classmates for target practice, and yet there is no profile? Imagine if all these killers had been black: would we still hesitate to put a racial face on the perpetrators? Doubtful.

In the wake of last Sunday’s mass shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (by no less than a self-professed white supremacist) I think the question needs to be asked again. Why is there no white profile? I’m not saying it’s just, nor that racial profiling is the solution, but as long as law enforcement is going to continue to racially profile people of color, I think we need to create an echo chamber around this issue and say it again and again, white is a race, it has a history and tradition, and mass murder is by no means outside of it, so why aren’t we talking about this?

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.

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