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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.

Constructing Race: Pew Center Report On Asians

21 Jun

The June 19 release of the Pew Research Center report, The Rise of Asian Americans is generating buzz that is, frankly, giving me a headache.

The report summary opens with the following:

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success….

Asian Americans trace their roots to any of dozens of countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Each country of origin subgroup has its own unique history, culture, language, religious beliefs, economic and demographic traits, social and political values, and pathways into America.

But despite often sizable subgroup differences, Asian Americans are distinctive as a whole, especially when compared with all U.S. adults, whom they exceed not just in the share with a college degree (49% vs. 28%), but also in median annual household income ($66,000 versus $49,800) and median household wealth ($83,500 vs. $68,529).

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) responded with a statement summed up by the line,

We need to move beyond one-dimensional narratives of exceptionalism about Asian Americans in order to better understand and address the diverse experiences facing our community members…

NCAPA’s response is a good start, but I’ll take it a step further.

The problem with the Pew report is that it constructs an idea about race that is very problematic. Bear with me here and I’ll explain.

The racial category Asian lumps together widely diverse groups with no common language, phenotype, or culture who come to the U.S. under vastly different circumstances. How, exactly, do you arrive at a “distinctive whole” from which you can deduce an average experience of, say, Japanese Americans and Laotian Americans?

The first wave of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. came through Hawaii in the 1800s as contract laborers lured by lies about grand opportunity and riches. The more recent wave of Japanese immigrants is being recruited to the U.S. as highly skilled workers or business investors.

The vast majority of Laotian immigrants on the other hand, came to the U.S. since 1973 as refugees of war. Here’s what that means for them, according to the Laotian American organization Legacies of War,

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance over Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. The bombing was part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government…

Today, about one third of Laos, a country about the size of Utah, is contaminated with unexploded ordinance. Civilian contact with these unexploded weapons has resulted in 20,000 casualties since the war ended.

How do you mash together Laotian war refugees and Japanese business investors and come up with an average or mean experience?

Much ink is also spilled on the subject of how highly educated the new wave of Asian immigrants are. But this statistic reflects bias within the immigration system as much as anything else. Visas are fast tracked for highly skilled workers and business investors. The elite immigrants who come to the U.S. on these visas are from economically diverse countries, many with extraordinary levels of poverty. Yet the suggestion is that high levels of education are the product of racial or cultural characteristics.

So let’s get it straight. The term “Asian” in the U.S. was chosen by Asian American activists as an alternative to the pejorative “Oriental.” The Oriental is the creation of Europeans for whom the Orient was an object of curiosity and a source of riches to be studied and exploited. In modern times, the study of the Orient, especially in contrast with the civilized world of the Occident (aka Europe), solidified an idea of Orientals as exotic, potentially dangerous Others.

Activists back in the 1960s decided they wanted to reject the label Oriental and call themselves Asian American instead. Subsequent generations of Asian Americans have gathered as a coalition under the Asian American banner in order to resist being treated like Orientals. But don’t get it twisted, the idea of an Asian or Oriental race is a creation of white people, not of Asians.

There are many problems with the Pew report. Chief among them,

  1.  lumping us together tends to trivialize the very real service needs of those who are less well-off and,
  2. reports like this are powerful molders of Asian racial identity, popularizing ideas about Asian traits, capacities (and threats), and, of course, always in comparison with the supposed failures of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.

On that first point, Hmong and Vietnamese immigrants are among the poorest ethnic groups in the U.S. There are real consequences to characterizing them as part of a “distinctive whole” with more successful groups when it comes time to seek funding for poverty alleviation programs.

That’s not to say that Asians don’t enjoy racial privilege over other groups of people of color. We do. The widely divergent histories of how different people of color entered the U.S. (or in the case of Native Americans, how the U.S. entered them) have resulted in very different contemporary realities. But studies like this marginalize those important historical differences and strengthen racist stereotypes and racism, not just against Asians, but against all our interests.

Whitening the Media

20 Jun

Chris Hayes Speaks

I like MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes. It’s TV for thinkers, at least most of the time. But this past weekend, in a discussion about the collapse of truth in media, Hayes said something that almost had me throwing my coffee at the T.V.

His comment was a response to a plea from good ol’ Amy Goodman of Democracy Now for poor people, especially poor people of color, being able to speak for themselves in media. She said truth in media is “larger than a truth that is yes or no…” speaking to the fact that, even in the midst of an economic crisis that is having a disproportionate and devastating impact on Blacks and Latinos, almost no poor Black or Latino people are able to speak about the economy in the media.

Goodman’s point was well taken. There are many societal “truths” constructed by the media, not least of which is that only educated experts are qualified to speak to issues. Mainstream media, even much of the left media, rarely allows poor people to speak for themselves, neither about the realities with which they live, nor about the solutions they would propose to problems that most directly affect them.

Excluding those most impacted by issues of economic inequality from the discussion among public intellectuals in the media comes at a real cost. When we support a dialogue about the economy absent the perspectives of those who have lost the most, and have the most to gain through deep and lasting change, we reduce real problems facing real people into nothing more than issues to attract the votes of middle-class people.

Hayes responded by saying

“…but here’s the problem with that. Even if you show those folks…a certain portion of the electorate is going to say ‘I don’t trust them‘ or they will be told by the Daily Caller that this is some sort of ridi…”

That’s when I got angry. You don’t get to talk about poor people like they don’t matter.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a community organizer. That means I’ve worked with people on the down side of unjust power relations – folks who need to exercise power in numbers because when we act as individuals we are treated like we don’t matter.

As an organizer, a big part of my job involved gathering people suffering from injustice so we could share our stories with one another. My best memories are of those moments when people listening to the stories of their peers would well up in tears of relief and recognition and say, “that’s just like me.”

Realizing that we are not alone in our troubles helps people who are rarely listened to by “experts” like Chris Hayes lift themselves out of despair. The circle of recognition grows exponentially larger when those who have been vilified as leaches and denigrated as losers are able to tell their stories through the media. Nothing else has as broad and immediate an impact. In fact, not being able to tell our stories via the mainstream media is one of the ways we are swept under the rug and kept out of power.

Believe me, as long as the only audience that counts to media makers is white and middle class, media as a means of advancing racial equity will only yield change in small and mostly superficial increments. The white middle class perceives itself as having too much to lose and not enough to gain through achieving racial justice. And that resistance is magnified by the fact that our invisibility in media means that relatively few middle class whites know our stories.

But when poor people of color are included, we not only open doors to reconciliation and change. Change is created by the simple act of including us.

So the next time Mr. Hayes finds himself bemoaning the lack of movement on issues of justice, maybe he should ask himself what role media plays in writing those most likely to be that movement out of the story.

Building a Bridge Between LGBT Groups and Communities of Color

18 Jun

The Huffington Post reports that at the Father’s Day Stop and Frisk March in New York on Sunday, American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten, made the claim that the march was the first time LGBT groups marched with the Black community for the same cause. There were no quotes around that statement, so I think it’s fair she have a chance to clarify that statement.

But, I’m prone to ranting. It’s an occupational hazard of racial justice activists.  And so I will.

Weingarten’s supposed proclamation, (not to mention the challenges put forward by liberal media pundits who’ve reacted to President Obama’s recent statement on same sex marriage by asking LGBT groups to stand up with African Americans) deserves a response. That response is, get a grip on your history.

In less than 30 seconds of searching the web, I found this story about an LGBT contingent in the Million Man March. That contingent was organized by the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum in 1995. And it wasn’t the first time that LGBT people were a visible presence at civil rights marches.

In 1990, I was an organizer for a group opposing vigilante white supremacist violence. We organized the largest civil rights march in the Pacific Northwest up until that time. LGBT groups like the Lesbian Community Project, the Lesbian Avengers, Queer Nation, and ACT-UP were at our side on that day, as were the Coalition of Black Men, the NAACP, and the Black United Front. Despite bomb threats and police intimidation, LGBT groups and African American groups marched side by side in Portland, Oregon 22 years ago.

As a former organizer of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, I know that some LGBT national groups have been a presence at marches and rallies alongside African American groups for a while now and vice versa. And national LGBT groups are part of the coalition that makes up the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, a group founded by A. Philip Randolph.

The NAACP chapter in North Carolina marched alongside LGBT groups in opposition to Amendment 1, the measure that outlaws same sex marriage. They are among many African American groups that have sided with LGBT rights over the years.

It’s important to know this history because denying it marginalizes the efforts of a committed minority of people of all races in the LGBT community that has been there, fighting on these issues. They are the pioneers of this moment in LGBT history.

LGBT people of color have played critical roles among that human rights minority. We’ve been the ones advocating for LGBT rights in communities of color, and for racial equity in the LGBT community. The bridge that groups crossed Sunday in order to march together was constructed on our backs. I won’t allow statements that step on that legacy to go unchallenged.

But groups like Weingarten’s own union and the mainstream media outlets through which liberal pundits have been putting forth challenges have rarely, if ever, paid attention to LGBT people of color, much less to the multi-issue human rights minority in the LGBT movement. By playing only to power and political expediency, they contribute to the myth that the LGBT community can be summed up in terms of its least controversial and most influential groups. The same groups that tend to marginalize issues of concern to LGBT people of color.

I get that the primarily white LGBT community hasn’t been present enough on racial justice. I became an organizer in the LGBT movement because I wanted to advocate for racial justice in the LGBT community.

I left the national LGBT movement in the late 1990s because I felt that in order to close the gap between people of color and primarily white national LGBT groups, LGBT people of color would have to come to the national movement through broad-based people of color organizations. Power, I realized, only concedes to power.

But flawed as they are, to say that LGBT groups haven’t been present – to claim that the first time LGBT groups marched alongside African Americans on an issue of racial justice was in 2012 – is ridiculous. If she really said it, she needs to take it back. Such statements rewrite history in a way that make us vulnerable to our own prejudices and to the revisionists of the other side.

Job Creators or Profit Makers?

13 Jun

Lately a debate about corporations as “job creators” (usually in contrast to government regulation as a “job killer”) has been waging in the media. I’m guessing that most of you can see through the hype to the real issues at stake. But, just in case, here’s my take:

Businesses are job creators, but only in the sense that they hire workers to facilitate making stuff or delivering services that make them money. They don’t create jobs for the sake of providing employment. Creating jobs is just a means to an end, and the end in question is profit.

Profits are produced when goods and services are sold for prices greater than the cost of production. For this reason, profit, at least short-term profit, is maximized by keeping the costs of production as low as possible, including the cost of labor.

And what are those labor costs? Lots of stuff, including wages, insurance, and measures to insure worker health and safety. It’s stuff like protecting workers from toxic chemicals, moderating the pace of assembly lines, and providing proper lighting, protective gloves and glasses, breaks, days off and overtime pay, all of which adds to production costs and much of which is imposed on companies by government.

That’s why the business sector doesn’t like regulations that get between them and their employees. They like determining wages and benefits, and establishing working conditions by private decision in order to serve their private interests. Government regulations force public accountability in the public interest and that adds cost and reduces short-term profit.

That, from my point of view, is what the fuss is all about. Businesses want to operate in private, without the intervention of government ‘cuz government represents the public, and that public is, inconveniently, made up mainly of people who work and see it as in their interests to demand liveable wages and safe working conditions.

So why is all of this basic stuff about jobs and business being written about in a blog about racism?

Because the poorest workers are the most in need of government protection, and the most vulnerable of poor workers include workers of color. That’s been true since the days of slavery. Remember, government, not business, ended slavery.

Back when the government only served white male property owners, our laws protected slaveholders and allowed men to engage in super-exploitation of women whose often uncompensated labor is a huge and largely unexplored contribution to the creation of wealth in America. But the government giveth, and the government taketh away. By abolishing slavery and later neo-Slavery via convict leasing, government, as an instrument of the public interest, forced serious changes that transformed our country.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you will agree that this transformation was for the good.

Bob Wing points out in Race and Nationality: The Racial Formation of Asian Americans, 1852–1965 that,

Until the 1840s or so, European immigrants to the United States or what became the United States had an inviting situation…The Irish and other European immigrants became white the day they landed on these shores…The often neglected dialectical opposite of Black oppression is white supremacy and white privilege: the obverse of the enslavement of Blacks was the monopolization of political power, land, skilled trades, and all other forms of rights, property, and privilege by whites, including immigrants. Combined with the ready availability of land opened up by the devastating Indian wars, until the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of whites…became bourgeois or petit bourgeois property holders of one kind or another.

This system is the historical foundation of structural racial inequality in the U.S. What brought it to an end was government intervention and regulation.

Of course, slavery is only the most heinous example of profit-making gone wild. Since slavery and neo-slavery were abolished, workers, especially workers of color, have continued to be exploited and mistreated. Their best hope? Get organized, join a union, and, if all else fails, get the government involved.

This is why we should all be very concerned about casting business as the job creating heroes on white horses who will save us from our economic woes if only we can get government out of the way. History teaches us that, left to their own devices, business will put profit before people, even if it means treating some people as nothing more than property.

Racism is a House…or Something

4 Jun Remodel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asians are the Wedge

29 May

On Sunday before Memorial Day, I tuned in to MSNBC to watch Melissa Harris-Perry lead a discussion about Asian American voters. The show started out with some promise. But as it progressed, I found myself descending into a rant. By the end, I was full-on pissed. For all of the good intentions, one subtle but unbroken thread ran through the discussion – Asian Americans are the model minority.

In response to the relative absence of Asian American stars in Democratic Party politics, panelist William Schneider said, “…they have not relied on politics to get ahead as many other disadvantaged groups have…”

So how is it that we supposedly got ahead? Schneider used the example of another panelist, comedian Margaret Cho, citing her “talent and determination” as the ingredients of her success. He also talked about Asian American success in “business, professions… science…” all, apparently, without working the political system.

I’m not sure what qualifies Mr. Schneider to speak to the issues of Asian Americans, but he’s wrong. Asian Americans are politically active. Asian Americans have also ridden the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement, benefiting from the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action and The Higher Education Act of 1965 among other gains.

While we can’t claim these achievements as our own, they were won through political protest and are among the ingredients of our supposed “success.” We did not just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

In about 15 minutes, I saw a demonstration of the ubiquity of anti-Asian racism. It is so commonplace, in fact, that we don’t even see it as racism, making it a powerful wedge dividing Asians from other people of color while maintaining white dominance of politics.

Here’s what I mean –

First, let’s get it straight. The model minority myth is just that, a myth.

The myth first entered the popular consciousness of Americans in the 1960s, shortly after the passage of federal civil rights legislation. It started with a 1966 New York Times article, “Success Story: Japanese American Style” that argued that Japanese Americans, just 21 years after virtually the entire community was interned, had risen to success through quietly working hard and making sacrifices to create opportunities for their children.

U.S. News and World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” in 1968, and Newsweek’s “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” published in 1971, sealed the deal.

The model minority myth is rooted in the backlash against the Black civil rights struggle. When Federal legislation resulted in programs like Affirmative Action, the media abruptly pivoted from Asians as sneaky foreigners to the model minority stereotype. The myth served the purpose of isolating African Americans in particular, and provided cover to those using coded racism to attack social programs and civil rights gains. The myth allows conservative policy makers to characterize these gains as dependency breeding crutches.

Ever since, the model minority myth has been one of the pillars of color blind racism.

The reasoning goes something like this: Asians (who, after all, are people of color) relied upon hard work and cooperation to overcome racism, and that’s made us especially successful. In fact, overcoming racism through hard work rather than through protest and policy making is the true sign of character, so taking away social programs and civil rights protections is the compassionate thing to do.

On the flip side, the model minority stereotype also makes racial inequity for Asian Americans invisible.

Here’s an example. Asian American household income was higher than white household income in 2011. However, per capita income of Asian Americans is lower than for whites. Asian households make more because they contain more earners, probably as a result of living in households that benefit from the retirement incomes of elders.

More troubling, according to the report A Community of Contrasts, the 2011 per capita income of Taiwanese Americans was $38,312. However, per capita income of Hmong Americans was only $10,949. That makes the Hmong the lowest per capita earners by ethnicity among all Americans. And Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Bangladeshis are pretty much in the same boat, earning even less than African Americans.

Worse yet, the model minority myth is dehumanizing. Casting us as super human is the flip side of casting other people of color as less than human, making all of us strangers to a normative standard that is white.

As long as we are treated as exotic others, the script can be switched, and Asians may find ourselves back where we started, cast again as foreign invaders. Either way, we’re still a wedge in the hands of white supremacy.

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