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Strength in Our Diversity

21 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why “Racist” Is Such a Powerful Word

18 Oct

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the term “racist.” Cognitive psychologists, political pollsters, and communications consultants have weighed in about how to talk about racism and advance an equity agenda while not alienating white people by labeling them racists.  Many advise never using the term to describe people, instead suggesting we only criticize actions. Some have gone so far as to argue against using terms like racism and racist at all, calling it a losing strategy and directing us to focus on actions and outcomes that result in unintentional inequities instead.

All of that is fine to a point. I tend to think it’s a good idea to focus on actions and assume the best of people. It’s the right thing to do if for no other reason than that it exercises and strengthens our generosity. Without generosity, coalitions and alliances don’t work, and authentic solidarity across racial differences is impossible.

But even as we try to embrace the best in each of us, we ought not forget that racist actions are attached to racist attitudes. Those attitudes may be so integrated into the common sense of our society that those who harbor them aren’t doing so consciously, but that doesn’t mean those attitudes don’t exist, nor that they aren’t damaging. We need to call those attitudes out and make what’s common exotic. Unless we do, the logic of racism will continue to dictate the pace of progress toward justice, and that disparages the rights and humanity of those who are racism’s victims. It’s an approach that allows whites sensitivity to being labeled racists to dictate that racism with continue to reign.

Whites are about 78% of the American public. According to Gallup, about 19% of whites were opposed to interracial marriage in 2007. That’s a pretty small minority of whites, but in total number, that’s something like 49 million people. There are only 69 million or so non-white people living in the U.S. That means that the number of whites who oppose interracial marriage is greater than all of any one U.S. racial minority group. Why are they so afraid?

I believe what whites have to fear is white people.

When white supremacy was challenged by the racial justice movements of the 1950s and ’60s, white elites pivoted from overt racism and co-opted the language and symbols, but not the substance, of  racial justice. By doing so, they were able to position themselves as champions of a new colorblind code of civility that reduces structural racial injustice to an attitudinal problem. This enabled them to block attempts to reorganize unjust power relations while deflecting responsibility for continuing injustice on overt racists who were cast as ignorant, immoral, and backward.

This move caused whiteness to fracture. The dominant faction of elites adopted a strategy of coded messaging and avoidance of obvious racial conflict, while using overt racists as a foil against which to position themselves as racial egalitarians. When whites are exposed as racists, their anger is in part a reaction to the fear that they will be cast out of the dominant faction of whites and marginalized along with old fashioned racists like the KKK.

If you buy that, what we are up against, at least in part, is a factional fight among whites over how best to maintain supremacy. And for people of color to concede to that by avoiding direct attacks on racism is like cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

Afraid of the Dark

15 Oct

Reports of rapid demographic change in favor of people of color in the U.S. seem to have caused a reaction among many whites bordering on panic. Explosive increases in participation in white nationalist groups, the proliferation of vigilante border patrols, and the return of overt racism in mainstream politics all smell like fear to me. This reaction got me to thinking, why? Why are they so afraid of the possibility of becoming a minority?

Here’s my take. But first, a reality check. White fears are of becoming a minority are over-blown. As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, whiteness has shifted to envelope those formerly deemed non-white many times throughout history. The Irish weren’t always considered white, nor were Jews. They were included among whites in order to maintain white advantage.

As racial demographics shift, so-called white Hispanics and certain Asian American ethnic minorities are likely to be enveloped by whiteness. Whether we think of ourselves as white or not, accepting the privileges already being extended to us – being cast as the “good immigrants” or buying into the idea that Asians are a “model minority” relative to so-called “problem minorities,” for instance – will put us on the wrong side of the color line. And when the stakes are so high, we can hope folks won’t take the bribe, but I wouldn’t advise betting on it.

So white folks can rest easy. Armageddon is probably still a way off.

What’s more, even if census projections play out such that whites do become a minority in the U.S., they will still be the largest minority, and they’ll have most of the wealth. It’s one thing to be a numerical minority and another to also be a power minority. Unless the role of money in determining political outcomes is drastically limited by dramatic reforms of our political system, whites will maintain political control. And having the most wealth also means maintaining economic control.

I know most of you have heard the chatter concerning middle class consumers being the real drivers of our economy, but that’s just not true. The disposable income of middle class folk isn’t what drives our economy. It’s just the fuel. Those with great concentrations of wealth are the drivers. As long as the ride remains relatively smooth for the middle class, I don’t expect to see them withholding that fuel anytime soon.

Yet whites are afraid. Why? Because they aren’t just afraid of seeing their political and economic power eroded. They fear losing their cultural advantage. They fear losing their monopoly of control over everything from “pretty” to “innocent,” and from “moral” to “merit.” These assumptions of whiteness are the foundation of white culture and tradition.

I’m not talking about Irish tradition or French tradition. I know too little of those things to speak to that history. When I refer to whiteness, I mean that which was born in slavery and Native genocide along with the very idea of a white race. Cultural traditions help us deal with fear because they define a place where we matter to history and in community. They make us greater than our mortality.

But that’s not all whites fear. Whites also fear that if they lose control, they will be exposed as being undeserving of some of the advantages they enjoy. Americans have deluded themselves into the belief that this country is a meritocracy. If the meritocracy is corrupt, then what? And, when you believe so strongly in a meritocracy that is so full of corruption, what price will those who have been labeled losers and made to pay such a high price for it extract from you if they are able?

For decades now, white elites have expanded social relief to include us in order to avoid programs that attempt to overcome the corruption from which they’ve benefited. But in the ultimate bait and switch, they accuse those who take relief of being moochers. What will happen if those against whom the game has been rigged are able to correct the narrative of history such that it becomes known that the mooching and worse has really been on the white side of the color line?

And why does that scare them? Because racism, while effective for what whites wanted it to do, nonetheless contains a seed of irrationality. It makes them believe we are the monsters they’ve made us out to be. But we know our liberation relies upon us never letting that happen.

Why Affirmative Action Pisses Them Off

11 Oct

The Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin case against affirmative action in college admissions is a subject I’ve been turning over in my mind for a while. Folks who are arguing against affirmative action for people of color are attacking it as if it’s a program meant to address the impact of discrimination on people as individuals, and not as members of aggrieved communities. According to that logic, affirmative action, at least on a case by case basis, puts one form of discrimination over another, as if some people matter more.

Proponents argue that affirmative action exists to address barriers to access resulting from systemic discrimination experienced both by individuals as members of whole structurally disadvantaged communities. This reasoning says affirmative action exists to deal with the harm that occurs when discrimination is not just arbitrary and individualized but instead concentrated upon groups over time.

That pro-affirmative action argument is one I pretty much agree with. But while it seems to be good for the choir, it’s not sitting well in the pews. So, I take a slightly different approach when folks ask me about race-based affirmative action.

I say, before you can understand why we need race-based affirmative action, you gotta understand racism. Racism isn’t just about individual discrimination. And then I ask, do know what a house and racial inequality have in common?

A house is based on a blueprint, much as racial inequality is originally based on a set of racial codes. That blueprint describes a set of aspirations and a lifestyle. It reflects the hopes and dreams, and, yes, limitations and financial considerations, of the builders and those for whom the house is being created. Upon that blueprint, a real bricks and mortar structure is created. And in that structure, just as in a society based on racist codes, how we think, what we are able to imagine, and how we relate to one another are deeply affected by the original design.

Our blueprint for governance is the Constitution. And that document was meant to perpetuate a set of ideas created by people whose definitions of freedom, rights, liberty, and even happiness was shaped by racism. In order to be among the architects, you had to white, male, and wealthy. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the land upon which their wealth was founded was stolen, and Black people were among the property the vast majority of those architects owned.

Based on that blueprint, a system of governance and real political, social, and economic structures were created that, among other things, defined by race those who would benefit from these structures and who would be left outside. That the land and labor of people of color would be used to build these exclusive structures only reinforced, rather than weakened, whites’ sense of exclusive entitlement.

The legacy of these first decisions is perhaps no where better demonstrated than in the racial wealth gap.

In 2009, median white household wealth was 20 times that of African Americans. In specific terms, white median household wealth was $113,149. Black median household wealth was $5,677. It’s not much better for Latinos. And though I couldn’t find statistics, I think we can agree that where wealth is concerned, there could be no more dispossessed a people than Native Americans, no matter what their median household wealth.

For African Americans, U.S. history is riddled with stories of discriminatory laws and customs that prevented them from creating wealth. Discrimination in insurance and mortgage lending as well as racially exclusionary neighborhood covenants prevented African Americans from buying property in neighborhoods considered desirable from an investment standpoint.

Even some of the benefits of the GI Bill that are so often credited with having helped to build the American middle class were denied to African American veterans in some Southern states. Throughout the period so many harken back to as the good old days, when the American middle class was being built, racism ensured that African Americans would be left out of that middle class. Following the logic of slavery, Blacks were excluded so as to avoid interfering with their availability as cheap labor.

So to return to the analogy of the house for a minute. If you think of society as a house, racism in the original blueprint created a structure in which the rooms are too few, even as all of us contribute to it’s maintenance. Far too many of us sleep outside.

As long as we refuse to start over, to create a structure capable of accommodating everyone, and fairly, our only other resort is to remodel. That means taking down walls, making some rooms smaller and generally changing a structure the most advantaged among us have become all too comfortable with. From the perspective of those on the inside, the walls are not barriers, they’re protection. That’s why even those in the poorest rooms are complaining.

And, that’s what all the fuss is about regarding affirmative action. It’s one of those remodeling jobs that’s cutting into structures that whites have come to rely upon to safeguard their privileges. Our only options are to challenge those privileges, or to propose a new plan that can accommodate everyone.

Why “Redistribution” is a Dirty Word to Republicans

9 Oct

Sorry, I couldn’t resist this bit of right wing propaganda. I wish this was an indication that they’re totally out of touch, but, alas, no. In fact, they’re just about in touch with control of the presidency and both houses of Congress.

“Redistributionist,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a term coined in 1961 specifically to refer to one who believes in or advocates a welfare state. If that resource is accurate, then being a redistributionist means being exactly the sort of person who conservatives have no use for.

But, the question remains, why does the term seem to have special power when applied to President Obama?

Neither Reagan nor Clinton nor the Bushes were labeled redistributionists to their political detriment. Yet each promised tax cuts to one or another sector of the public, then caved in to popular support for redistributionist programs like Medicaid, Medicare, welfare, and food stamps, digging holes elsewhere in our economy for future presidents to fill in order to cut taxes while continuing, at varying levels, to redistribute wealth to the poor (and finance the military).

Today, in The Nation, Gary Younge wrote a piece called What’s Race Got To Do With It? that offers an answer to my question.

In the article, Younge explains the continuing relevance of race and racism in national politics, writing,

…race is about power, and it is through power that resources are distributed. Race will disappear as an issue when racism disappears as a material force. In the meantime, it will also be a tool to leverage resentment. For example, GOP ads pitting Medicare (which Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan wants to cut anyway) against healthcare reform claim that the hard-earned benefits of working people will be frittered away on “a massive new government program that is not for you.” Such is the nature of demographics and poverty in this country that more than three-quarters of Medicare recipients are white, while more than half of those without health insurance are not. Thus the specter of racialized redistribution is invoked without being explicitly articulated.

This is the racist appeal of the GOP claim that Obama is a redistributionist.  It’s a coded racist message that fits in very nicely with Romney’s famous behind-closed-doors comments indicating his belief that 47% of the people will vote for Obama because they have a victim mindset and won’t “take personal responsibility or care for their lives.”

Even within the suffocatingly narrow confines of the debate over entitlement programs being waged in this year’s presidential election, Republican’s have found a way to drive a racial wedge, suggesting that resources “earned” by our (white) elderly is being challenged by the man Newt Gingrich indelicately referred to as “the food stamps president.” And they are doing it by telling a lie that President Obama is stealing more than $700 billion from Medicare to finance the Affordable Care Act. In effect, taking money from a program that mostly serves whites and using it to finance a program that will mostly serve people of color.

Putting to one side the false notion that the only people served by either program are direct recipients for a moment, this lie is a play on race. It is an appeal to fear, not just that Medicare benefits to the elderly will be cut, but that this is happening because your Black president is choosing non-white people’s needs over your own at a time when “those people” are growing larger in number, not to mention more addicted to entitlements, everyday.

Why Immigrant Rights are Human Rights

1 Oct

A few years ago, a former Mayor of Portland, Oregon asked me the question “why are immigrant rights human rights?” I responded with a clumsy jumble of words having something to do with the United Nations and about ten other things adding up to a total of about 11 too many ideas all poorly spoken.

5 minutes after leaving his office the answer I wish I’d given came to me. I ran it over in my head all the way home. It went something like this:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. The Nazi atrocities that came to light during that war inspired the United Nations to convene The Commission on Human Rights to draft a the Declaration as a foundation upon which the Commission would create covenants and conventions that aspired to ensure that atrocities like those committed in Nazi Germany could never be repeated.

Approximately 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis. In addition, between 250 thousand and 1.5 million Romani, 25,000 LGBT people, 2-3 million Russian prisoners of war, and as many as 2 million ethnic Slavs were also killed.

In the face of such horrors, it was deemed necessary to acknowledge the right of people to move freely, including the right to cross national borders and seek asylum from persecution and oppression.

That’s why immigration is a human right.

These rights are described in Articles 13 and 14. They read,

Article 13.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  • (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Today, in order to live by the spirit of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if not the original wording of its writers, we have to address the many forces beyond war and political persecution that drives global migration.

For example, consider Mexico. Unfair U.S. trade policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement have devastated the Mexican economy. It is the most powerful force driving Mexicans to immigrate to the U.S. without documents. These people over whose heads we are fighting about “illegal” immigration are economic refugees.

And they are only among the latest wave.

For decades, U.S. agribusiness has laid claim to rich agricultural lands in the global south. Once there they turn farmers into farm workers and inwardly directed economies where people grow crops and make things they themselves consume into outwardly directed economies based on growing single crops such as pineapples, or sugar for export. The people of these communities become dependent on the wages they receive from multinational corporations and their local contractors. Over generations, they may even lose the knowledge necessary to return to what they once were.

Regardless, when more profitable labor markets open elsewhere, companies leave and communities are devastated. People are impoverished and then driven out, forced to follow the money. But though capital is free to cross borders, people are not. By building fences legally or literally, we are banishing them to a kind of poverty most of us in the U.S. could not begin to imagine.

And agribusiness is only one type of enterprise that is robbing people around the world of sovereignty and self-determination.

Our understanding of human rights must adapt to a changing world. As long as capital can move freely, making people dependent on foreign incomes, people should be able to follow the profits they helped to produce, even if it means crossing our national borders.

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.

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