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Another Tip On Countering Racism

7 Sep

Ready For It?

Don’t call racists backward idiots and haters. It’s unflattering to you, and it’s bad politics.

Having a hard time with that? Hang in there with me.

While white privilege is no minor prize, I think it’s fair to say that nowadays garden variety racism isn’t exactly rational. After all, most of the rewards resulting from racism accrue to those on top of the political and economic hierarchy, making the privileges of race enjoyed by wage earning whites pretty poor consolation for being jerked around by self-centered elites deregulating finance, lowering wages, and disenfranchising us by turning our government into an oligarchy.

But irrationality is something we’re all guilty of. And where racism is concerned, matters grow even more complicated. Racism is one of the most deeply held, ideologically integrated traditions in the culture of white folks. And for most of white history, racism was perfectly rational and well within white self-interest.

So you want a fight? Treat racists like knuckle dragging neanderthals. But get ready to lose, because there are more of them than there are of us.

However, if you’re with me on this one, consider this. There’s all sorts of smart. I was raised among illiterates who could take a car apart and put it back together again without so much as an owner’s manual (since they couldn’t read it), and then turn the broken parts into furniture. But, like the conservatives whose prejudice recent studies associate with low IQs, they aren’t all that good at tests.

These same automotive geniuses act like progressives, but won’t formally side with progressive groups. Why? Because they think progressives are a bunch of elitists. And because they’re oppressed as much by culture as by class, cultural elites look like part of the problem to them. And, you know what? They’re right. And their indignation is a distant echo of the kind of resentment we get from white folks who think that we’re calling them bad people and, worse, stupid, when we call out their racism.

So, having regained the calm. Let us proceed.

A Little History Lesson

A couple of generations ago, some folks, particularly white Northern race liberals, made a terrible mistake by trying to popularize the idea that racism was the purview of under-developed slack jawed Rebel leftovers. They did so in order to marginalize racism.

The intent was sincere, but they were twice wrong. Racism isn’t just the purview of Southerners, the poor, and the educationally disadvantaged. And their strategy backfired.

Here’s a statement you may remember from an earlier blog entry:

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.

They didn’t reckon with the fact that, particularly in the South, for hundreds of years the “good” people were racists. In fact, racism was a sign of one’s morality, love of community, and commitment to God and country.

It polarized people across class. And that created a political opening for conservatives.

They labeled us as cultural elitists. And because so many of “us” came from colleges and were led by intellectuals, aided by the media, and, in the end, supported by the federal government, they painted academics, the media, government, intellectuals, and progressive activists with the same brush.

Conservatives, especially in the form of the GOP, were the true power elite. But they were able to deflect poor white Southerners’ anti-elite resentment off them and onto us. Not so tough to do since we were directly insulting them and their most sacred beliefs; beliefs that were, to them, a legacy of their forebears.

By 2008, the strategy had worked so well that Sarah Palin was able to make herself into a political star by exploiting anti-elite resentment through attacking government, the media, and, our intellectual in chief, Barack Obama. And the more we countered by making her out to be a low IQ, rural hick, the more popular she became. She was the symbol of their suffering and the messiah of their cause. She was a moose hunting, rural former beauty queen with a mid-western accent and a political vocabulary you could buy at K-Mart.

In Palin’s own words, the elite are “anyone who thinks that they are – I guess – better than anyone else, that’s – that’s my definition of elitism.” And as someone who comes from stock that is anything but elite, cultural or otherwise, I gotta tell you, I can’t say I totally disagree with the sentiment even if I differ with the analysis.

So word to the wise. Racism is a political problem. Let’s deal with it as such and leave the name calling to their side.

Harkening Back to a Whiter Time

5 Sep

On MSNBC’s Up this weekend, host Chris Hayes went after the Republican strategy of using nostalgia to rev up their base. He claimed that a reason conservatives long for the past is that, back then, (white) social mobility, the basis of the American dream, was more possible. He went on to feature a robust discussion of the role of race in this messaging strategy, but all tempered by the sense of some panelists that one ought not go too far in crying racism.

I could not disagree with that sentiment more. Republicans are, in fact, manipulating racism, and when leaders use calls to racism for political gain, history tells us, very bad things follow. White racism is just too much a staple of American culture to ignore that possibility.

I know that kind of talk makes white folks, especially liberal white folks, uncomfortable, but it is the centrality of racism to white identity in America that is the basis of the success of the Republican strategy. So I’m calling it out. White identity in America is rooted in racism. Republicans know it and are manipulating it, while Dems and liberals are saying only as much about it as is politically correct in an election year.

Some History

Since the days of slavery,  privileges have been attached to whiteness at every level of society as an insurance policy on the wealth and power of everyone from Plantation oligarchs to Henry Ford. By extending those privileges to all whites, including access to Indian land, they gave whiteness a pecuniary (according to Webster, consisting of or measured in money) value, even for the least privileged whites.

Because of the pecuniary value of whiteness, before the fall of Jim Crow, you couldn’t sue someone for claiming you were White. But you sure could sue if someone claimed you were Black. Being found out as Black could cost you money, not to mention privileges beyond price like your life, as evidenced by the number of Blacks who were lynched for trying to pass.

Slavery may not have made the vast majority of whites rich, but neither did they suffer the exploitation of field workers (nor of the industrial workers who would eventually take their place as the dominant sector of the workforce after abolition). Over time, entitlement to white privilege became a staple of white identity. Makes sense since white identity was invented as a justification for racism.

Why It Matters Now

Since then, the pecuniary value of whiteness has eroded, or at least changed. For instance, whiteness now is more about what you don’t have to suffer than it is about what you will materially receive to the exclusion of others. So, whiteness in the war on drugs functions like a get-out-of-jail-free card. That’s worth money, but it’s not land in Indian territory. This change makes the value of whiteness less tangible and therefore even less apparent to those who have it. For this reason, sensitivity to and resentment over the perceived erosion in the value of white skin is also a staple of white identity.

The biggest drop in value since the abolition of slavery occurred as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. Though the movement didn’t win equality, it definitely put a ding in the value of whiteness.

The resentment of whites over that sudden loss of status and value is the basis of the Republican’s Southern Strategy. By equating the rise of African Americans and other people of color with a loss of white status, privilege, and control, and then associating that, in turn, with the erosion, especially since the ’70s, of the white middle class, they’ve managed to pull off something like a miracle. They’ve made a political party that for most of the 20th century was branded the party of rich, callous snobs, into the party of the ordinary white man (and woman).

That change, along with the fact that the vast majority of the real political and economic rewards of white supremacy continues to accrue to those on top, have white folks in revolt. Entitlement to white privilege is still a foundation of white identity, and the fact that white privilege isn’t producing for them in the way it used to, and at at time when wealth is piling up as never before, is the reason they’re so pissed off at people of color, especially Black people, and more so by the day.

And that anger, a byproduct of white supremacy, is a basis of the rise of Republicans. And because the GOP is the lever by which rich people are changing the economic rules to make themselves richer than ever, racism still pays off, and big. Never since the antebellum South have we seen anything resembling the global disparities in wealth we see today.

And they’re not done yet. If they’re successful, our own economy may end up looking quite a bit like the plantations of the old South, with rich incompetents at the top (a point made very well in Chris Hayes’ book, Twilight of the Elites, and under-development and poverty all around.

We need to expose white people to their own truth to stop that from happening. Down-playing racism is not going to get that done for us.

Can’t You People Take A Joke?

27 Aug

This past Saturday, Gawker ran an article featuring Olympic swimming champ Ryan Lochte’s sister Megan yukking it up on a comedy show. Presented as a “field correspondent,” Ms. Lochte describes a trip to China while tossing out some pretty nasty racist stereotypes and slurs, including liberal use of the word “chink.” I won’t get too far into the details as you can see the clip here.

 

Responding to criticism of her performance, Ms. Lochte had the following to say –

This was not a real interview, and it in no way reflects my true feelings or persona whatsoever. The intent was to make fun of the ignorance of people who actually do not have an understanding of other cultures and speak in racist ways. The skit and my character were supposed to be making fun of ignorance.

I’m not sure what’s so funny about racist ignorance, but I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, Megan Lochte is not the source of the problem. She’s just a symptom.

The problem is that we’ve made it okay for white people to behave like racists as a joke, as if, ha ha ha, aren’t racists hilarious? To which I answer, not to their targets.

While this should seem obvious to any thinking person, many comics (Chelsea Handler and, once upon a time, Andrew Dice Clay, being notable among them) play the racist ignoramus for laughs and, ahem, for cash. They shield themselves against accusations of racism by reasoning that by playing with race, they are addressing a societal truth, not just sweeping it under the rug.

This, to me, is the comedy equivalent of white folks making racist “observations” and then using the shield “but don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are…” to deflect the perception that they’re racists. Take away the shield, and all you have is someone trying to avoid being called a racist while providing justifications for racism. Likewise, remove the comic’s shield of playing the racist as an ignoramus, and all you have is someone giving audiences permission to laugh at racist jokes.

Now I know a bunch of folks who argue that what makes this kind of so-called comedy funny is that it makes us uncomfortable and forces us to have to face ourselves. But I call b.s. on that rationale. It makes people like you and me who understand racism is a serious problem uncomfortable, and it might even make us laugh, but that’s not what it’s doing for most (white) people.

For most people, joking of this kind sanitizes racism by reducing racist stereotypes to a bunch of punchlines and racists into socially marginal idiots whose worst crime is looking ignorant.

The fact is, racist words are attached to racist actions that exist on a continuum that includes voting for racist policies, acts of harassment, and even violence, and that’s not the half of it. The climate in which racism thrives is one in which racist social policy can define standards of law enforcement and social programs, education, and commerce and in which racists operate at every level of our society – in academia, medicine, education, even (I’ll go so far as to say especially) in elected offices.

For this reason, where race is concerned, we need to tread carefully.

The extraordinary suicide rate among Native Americans is not funny. The wildly racist way in which drug laws are enforced is in no way hilarious. Armed vigilantes patrolling our Southern border, sex traffickers selling Asian women as “wives,” the falling down horrible standard of schools in communities with high concentrations of poor brown people are not matters about which people ought to be laughing. Whites parodying racists trivialize the consequences of racist people’s attitudes and behaviors.

When people like Ms. Lochte make jokes about “chinks,” they’re opening up a social space for racism that would be better left closed. We fought too long and hard throughout the violently racist history of this country in order to try to close that space by changing the public consensus on racism.

Now, the same opening that Ms. Lochte is stepping into in order to develop her career is the opening that makes it okay for Mitt Romney to make jokes that wink at racist birtherism and that allows someone like Pat Rogers (who thinks New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s staff meeting with American Indians “dishonored” notorious Indian killer and white supremacist Gen. George Armstrong Custer) to rise to the Executive Committee of the Republican National Committee, one of the most powerful political organizations in the world.

So maybe it makes me uncool that I won’t laugh at these jokes. But if being called uncool or a thought cop is the only consequence, let’s let them call us names and say something about it.

And no, the fact that comedians of color sometimes play to similar punchlines is not the same thing. Where white supremacy is concerned, white comics’ racist jokes are gestures of compliance. When people like Dave Chappelle or Margaret Cho make jokes that parody themselves or white racism, those are acts of defiance. There’s a difference.

Not resolved

24 Aug

My last post describing the invisibility of Native Americans in media as a logical extension of our history of U.S. anti-Indian policy needed an exclamation point. I thought more needed to be said about how the idea of Native Americans as disappearing reinforces the notion that the relationship between the U.S. and Native nations is a settled matter, or at least a matter beyond the reach of justice.

Matters aren’t settled. In fact, to consider the matter resolved, if not justly, then at least irrevocably, is one of the ways in which racism against Native Americans (and Native Hawaiians) is expressed most forcefully. Yes, there are denigrating caricatures everywhere and racist slurs and stereotypes galore, but, in my humble opinion, none are as effective in stalling justice as the false notion that the conflict between the U.S. and Native peoples is uneasily but nonetheless finally settled. That even if we acknowledge injustice, reaching a more just settlement is unrealistic, you can’t turn back time.

How unsettled is this matter? I’m no expert, but I have a few stories to share.

As a program officer of a foundation out west, I often visited groups on Indian reservations. On a visit to one group in Montana, I learned that sewage moved through parts of the community in open ditches. People were so poor, they spent each summer in a race to pay off heating bills accumulated over the winter so that they could avoid freezing to death in the next one. The Indian Health Service office was inadequately staffed and so remote that many couldn’t afford the trip.

I found them after driving miles without seeing a single building. As I toured their facility, I became keenly aware of how powerfully problems of isolation are compounded by poverty.

But in spite of having so little, it was absolutely clear to me that the group was having a measurable, positive impact on the community. It wasn’t enough to rectify problems that have persisted for generations, but it was a little miracle of ingenuity, commitment, and hard work nonetheless.

The biggest obstacle to doing better is not a weakness of the leaders. It is the combination of raw deals, dirty crooks, and government neglect of our end of the bargains struck in treaty agreements, not to mention the poor land they have been forced to settle with, and many other injustices. In fact, year after year, the injustices pile up so high that people who suffer from them, no matter how determined, cannot hope to shovel them out of the way alone.

They need help.

In Wyoming, I visited a group working for environmental justice. At the time, their primary goal was the return of their water rights – rights without which the eco-system of the reservation, necessary to the sustenance of the people who reside there, will be destroyed. They’d taken their case to court and lost. The judge held up the rights of white farmers to divert water that would have run through the reservation, declaring that the issue of water rights was long ago decided in a war that “we” won.

Since then, that group has scored a major victory over methane mining on the reservation. They continue to score victories. But will they ever see real justice? That, again, depends on the rest of us.

I received a visit from a representative of the Chinook Indian Nation in Washington, a group that has been described in some reference books as “extinct.” She was seeking support for an effort to win back federal recognition of their tribe that was revoked by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2002, just ten years ago.

A hostile nation has stripped the Chinook people of their sovereignty. Regaining that recognition is necessary to their security and self-determination.

When you work for a foundation that provides funding to those most directly targeted by injustice to lead efforts to find solutions, you don’t often see the people in the communities you serve who are thriving. They exist, too.

But the struggles of Native Americans are real. Moreover, they have far reaching impact, including the creation of grossly unjust concentrations of wealth in the hands of very few people who in turn repress and exploit those of us without wealth in order to retain their riches. The impacts of the exploitation of Native peoples are all around us. They’re like the bars of a cage. If you haven’t noticed them, depending on who you are, it might just be because the downside of an unjust relationship is tough for those on the upside to see.  Our privilege obscures our view.

But whether we see the bars or not, the cage is there, and addressing the situation of Native peoples is necessary to setting ourselves free of it.

Fear of a Brown Planet: Our Majority-Minority Future

16 Aug

Sometimes, you just gotta admit when you’re wrong.

In several posts on this site, I’ve referenced Census projections pointing toward a tipping of the racial scales in the U.S. around the year 2042. The claim is that around that time whites will make up only a minority of the U.S. population. A Race Files reader questioned the accuracy of this claim, pointing me to an AlterNet article disputing that projection.

That article put me on the trail of more information. At this point on my journey, I find myself scratching my head over how easily I got sucked into drinking the Kool-Aid. I guess it was wishful thinking. The optimism I felt over shifting demographics whacked my understanding of how race works right out of my head.

Note to self, race is a political system. Census categories play to the system, not against it.

Because race is all about politics, it is a system that’s flexible, or at least manipulable by the white power elite.

This manipulation is direct in some cases, such as the imposing of a color line through the U.S. by way of slavery and Jim Crow, or indirectly, through extending white privilege to those who, knowingly or not, strengthen white supremacy. Such was the case with the whitening of the Irish and Italians.

The majority-minority projections manipulate race by counting only non-Hispanics among whites. The reality is that around 27,000,000, or slightly more than half of those who identified as Latino or Hispanic in the 2010 Census, also identified as white. If you count them as they count themselves, that alone indicates that whites aren’t headed toward minority status any time soon.

Then you gotta consider Asian Americans. While many disadvantaged Asian ethnic minorities are not being invited along for the ride, there are some pretty powerful indications that certain Asian groups are being whitened.

According to the Pew Research Center’s highly problematic report on the Rise of Asian Americans, 61% of recent Asian immigrants ages 25-64 have at least a bachelor’s degree. This is true in part as a result of fast tracked visas that are provided to Asian business investors and “highly skilled” workers who wish to immigrate to the U.S.

Those coming from Asia on fast tracked visas may not identify as white, but I’m guessing they identify with whites far more than they identify with African Americans or undocumented Latino immigrants. According to the same report, 37% of all recent Asian-American brides wed a non-Asian groom, and in the vast majority of cases “non-Asian” means white, an indication of a powerful trend toward assimilation, and not in the direction of brown folks.

Now, I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here. I’m raising this issue because while many who’ve made the majority-minority claim are, like I was, looking at the upside of that equation, many others are using fear of a brown planet as a dog whistle to agitate older, race sensitive white voters. You know, the group who were young voters in 1963 when 75% of whites responded to polls concerning the Civil Rights Movement by saying the movement was asking for too much? 1963 was the year Medgar Evers was assassinated and the 16th St. Baptist Church was bombed by racial terrorists resulting in the deaths of four Black girls.

For many among this group, the idea of a majority-minority demographic is downright terrifying. So, wanna get them to approve Voter ID restrictions or support tighter border controls? You tell them minorities are about to become the majority any minute.

So best to be careful with the rhetoric, right?

It’s also important to note that the racial system isn’t entirely fluid. Whiteness has expanded over time to maintain white privilege, but Black is and always has been on the downside of unjust racial relations in the U.S. Similarly, Native Americans are treated as a conquered people whose status as political inferiors by race is described in treaty agreements and delineated by the borders of reservations. So far, those realities have remained largely fixed and rigid, even as the identity of the latest group of evil outsiders has shifted around some.

And, as author Joshua Holland pointed out in that article I referenced earlier,

It’s long been argued that various groups of lighter skinned immigrants have only truly been assimilated into the fabric of the nation once they began to see themselves, as a group, as superior to African Americans.

So even as the meaning of whiteness changes, there’s still a color line and we gotta decide which side of it we’re on.

The question as we move towards the future is, I propose, not how many of us there are by color, but how many of us there are by allegiance. And we need to define our allegiances in terms of whether or not we identify with and define our own status in relationship to the political status of Blacks and Native Americans.* If not, I fear, our allegiance defaults to white supremacy, regardless of demographics.

*Note: I said with Blacks and Native Americans, not “as” so please, no white folks turning Native American on us or Asian Americans deciding they’re Vanilla Rice, okay?

More on Racially Profiling Whites

14 Aug

A friend (who I’m lucky to know because he’s so much smarter than me) commented my my post “Why Don’t We Racially Profile Whites?” pointing out that there is a white racial profile.

The white racial profile is the other side of the story of the way people of color are profiled. So, for instance, where welfare is concerned, Blacks are undeserving entitlement junkies, but whites are deserving needy people facing temporary setbacks, and that’s just among those who are able to put “white” and “welfare” together at all. Some would say whites are profiled as over-burdened taxpayers subsidizing freeloaders.

Youth of color who experiment with drugs are profiled as dangerous addicts, while white youth are just going through a rebellious phase. And while Blacks and Latinos are profiled as criminals, whites are profiled as innocents. In fact, where property crime is concerned, whites are profiled as victims. They are the ones who worked hard to have what we Others want but don’t deserve, while our supposed criminal natures make us prone to turning wanting into stealing.

And because Blacks and Latinos are profiled as undeserving, over-entitled whiners while whites are profiled as deserving patriots, that fear of violation of white property rights turns easily towards resentment against whole communities. That seething resentment might just explain the proliferation of Stand Your Ground Laws.

But here’s where the irrationality goes over the top.

At the end of the Civil War, whites created the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee. It was supposed to be a club for former Confederate soldiers but quickly became a movement devoted to upholding white supremacy. The Klan quickly spread across the former Confederate states and played a critical role in ending Reconstruction. Yet, Southern law enforcement colluded with the Klan more than it opposed it.

In the mid-20th century, whites formed White Citizens Councils, often with overlapping memberships with the Klan. These Councils included elected officials and community leaders. Around that time, whites also created the Posse Comitatus, a white supremacist movement organized like the KKK, but inspired by European Nazism. Whites organized the Christian Identity movement, a white supremacist religious sect who believe, among other things, that people of color are subhuman mud people.

White people also founded the Aryan Nations, originally based on a compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho. Aryan Nations is a national center of Christian Identity and home to the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, and also served as a training ground for violent neo-Nazi skinheads.

The core membership of the neo-Nazi skinhead movement of the ’80s and ’90s was alienated middle-class white kids. Racist skinheads were the terrorist arm of a much more sophisticated racist movement guided by professional neo-Nazi activists like Tom Metzger. Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance was sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center for involvement in the murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw.

The most famous domestic terrorist group of the 1980s was the Order. The Order was inspired by William Pierce‘s novel The Turner Diaries, a racist and anti-Semitic manifesto that closes with enemies of the white race strung up on light posts with piano wire.

The Order was responsible for the murder of Alan Berg, a Jewish talk-radio host in Denver. They also started a counterfeiting operation and pulled off the biggest armored truck hold up until that time, taking $3.6 million that they spent on weapons, paramilitary training camps, and material aid to allies.

I probably don’t need to tell you that the Order was all-white.

And, of course, it was whites who created the violently anti-immigrant Minutemen border vigilantes and the currently insurgent white nationalist Patriot movement.

But in spite of this long history, are white racists profiled as potential criminals or domestic terrorists? No. When whites form groups for the promotion of white-only interests, does the public grow suspicious? Rarely. And when young white males gather in groups, does law enforcement see a gang or a college fraternity?

My friend is right. There’s a racial profile for whites. That profile assumes innocence and deflects suspicion and is every bit as wrong as the racial profiles that target people of color as violent political dissidents, gang members, and criminals.

This is paradox for the echo chamber. Let’s call it out.

The Case for Gun Control

7 Aug

The July 20th theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado and last Sunday’s shooting at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin has put the issue of gun control back in the news. The fact that the shooters in both cases used legally purchased guns strongly suggests it would be a good idea to change gun laws. But pro-gun activists argue that the problem is not guns but murderous people.

On the surface, it makes sense. Guns are only tools. If someone wants to kill someone, there are lots of other ways. If we could only mitigate the motivation to kill, we wouldn’t need to be concerned about guns. Some have even gone so far as cite the fact that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, managed to murder 168 people and injure 800 more without using a single gun, suggesting that people bent on murder will conjure other means if guns are unavailable.

Others argue that there is no consistent correlation between the rate of gun ownership and rates of violent crime across societies. One of the more powerful arguments of this sort was made in Bowling for Columbine. Remember that movie? In it, Michael Moore suggests that violence is a cultural problem. He offered the example of Canada where gun ownership is far higher per capita than in the U.S. but that has much lower rates of violent crime to make his case.

If you buy that argument as I do then gun control isn’t a cure for violent crime.

Yet, in spite of these arguments, I remain a gun control advocate. I think hand guns should be banned. I’m not just talking about waiting periods and screening. I mean totally banned. Same for assault weapons.

Here’s why.

First of all, if, as many have argued, the problem is not guns but a culture in which too many people want to use them to do harm to others, the case for gun control is that much stronger. If we are violence prone, we should limit access to tools specifically designed to accomplish violence, especially those that allow violent people to act quickly, even repeatedly, and from a distance, making it more possible for a murderer to act with impunity.

Secondly, most murder is not of the sort recently committed by Timothy McVeigh, nor the shooters in Aurora and Oak Creek. While sensationalist media focuses mainly on murder cases involving famous people who fall prey to murderous plots, or bizarre murders committed by aberrant individuals or groups who plot and plan their crimes, most murder is, in fact, an impulsive act of passion.  And while our retributive criminal justice system likes to paint those murderers as heartless, soulless monsters, most who commit murder are pretty ordinary people.  So ordinary, in fact, that they’re usually remorseful. They wish they could take it back.

So where violence is concerned, the better-safe-than-sorry code of conduct should be founded on the principle that every confrontation will rise to the level of violence possible no matter who is involved. If there’s a gun present, it will be used. Take the gun out of the equation and the possibility of a shooting is eliminated. That piss you off? Punch me. Go ahead. Just don’t shoot me.

Finally, I’ll offer this. I used to train people to work on a suicide hotline. Part of my training rap involved talking about relative rates of suicide among men and women. Men, I informed volunteers, commit suicide more often than women. Why? Not because they try more often than women. It’s because they use guns more often.

Suicide, like murder, is usually an impulsive act. Guns make that impulse a whole lot deadlier. When it comes to killing, it’s exactly the right tool for the job. So just as I would offer trainees the advice that in homes where someone is often depressed or suicidal they should probably not have a gun around, my advice for managing violence in a violence prone society is to make rules so that fewer people have guns.

Why History Matters

6 Aug

A while back I wrote a post referencing Japanese American internment during WWII. A number of people have responded by asking why this bit of history matters to us today. The implication was that Americans (and by that I assume they meant white people) aren’t so naive anymore. Such a thing could never happen again.

That mass internment may never happen in the U.S. again is not a prediction I cotton to, though I’ll allow that it’s unlikely. So why tell and retell the story of internment during WWII?

Because we are still afraid. The color of the demons under our beds are still black and brown. And when racism and fear combine, particularly in times of crisis, the mixture is too often lethal. Lethal to our rights, our freedoms, even to our lives.

That we continue to be afraid of those we label The Other was made tragically evident by this weekend’s shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The shooting resulted in the deaths of 6 people. And according to Mark Potok and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the suspected shooter is “a frustrated neo-Nazi who had been the leader of a racist white-power band.” 

Many of the details aren’t known to us. I won’t comment further until they are except to say that bigoted violence is trending upward, especially toward those targeted as Muslims (and Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims though they are not, nor are they a related religion). Also trending upward is the number of organized white supremacist hate groups. Based on the upward trend of conservative Republicans who believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim (double since his election in 2008), I’m guessing racist conspiracy theories are also on the rise.

History tells us that these phenomena are connected. History also shows that encouragement of bigotry in the form of scapegoating, racist pandering, and fear mongering on the part of visible mainstream leaders makes matters worse and may even be the glue the holds all the other trends together – word to Michele Bachman.

So maybe a reminder of history is in order.

During WWII, 120,000 Japanese Americans (JAs) were interned in the name of national security. These 120,000 were pulled out of a population of 127,000 JAs then living on the U.S. mainland. When Japanese Americans were ordered to camps, almost no one spoke up for them. Like the post-9/11 persecution of perceived Muslims by fearful vigilantes and the federal government 60 years later (not to mention the equally irrational declaration of war on Iraq), internment during WWII was deemed reasonable through the fog of fear.

881 Alaska Natives were also interned. Confined to damp, crowded conditions without medical care, one in 10 died in camp. Again, almost no one spoke up.

Yet virtually no evidence of espionage existed. Internment was justified by a better safe than sorry attitude that put white interests and white fears before the civil rights and civil liberties of Alaska Natives and JAs. And I do mean white interests and not national security interests. After all, internment largely excluded German Americans at a time when we were also at war with Germany.

Racism is driven by many things, not the least of which are greed and disdain for difference. But fear is what gives racism it’s dynamism. It is what can, in an instant, turn suspicion and resentment into violent repression.

Today, fear is turning extreme Christian nationalists into jihadists in a new war against infidels, and ordinary Americans into timid bystanders, aware of the growing wave of Islamophobia but afraid to speak out for fear of being labeled apologists for terrorism. Worse, we defend racial profiling, saying it’s not about hate. We just think it’s better to be safe than sorry.

But will whites become fearful and suspicious of white racists if, in fact, Wade Michael Page, the suspect in the Oak Creek, Wisconsin shooting, is proven guilty?

I doubt it. History is, again, informative.

I saw no noticeable uptick in fear mongering concerning white Christian extremists when militia members Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols committed the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. When whites commit acts of terrorism they are considered anomalies. But when brown and black people commit acts of violence, whole communities are pathologized as terrorists.

So it’s time for us all to start speaking up. And I don’t mean about fear alone, but about the way that fear and racism combine to create an explosive brew that has, repeatedly, resulted in violence and persecution.

This is why history matters.

Japanese American and Alaska Native internment, lynching, and the many other violations of human rights throughout our history serve as a reminders that of the power of fear when combined with racism. This is the thread connecting these historical atrocities and, judging by Sunday, that thread remains unbroken.

Racism for Sale

4 Aug

Baker Skateboards, owned by professional skateboarder Andrew Reynolds (also the owner of Brigada Eyewear), recently released this t-shirt featuring a caricature of professional skater Don “The Nuge” Nguyen. Seriously, this is no joke. They really did go there and do that – right down to caricaturing an Asian accent calling the guys “good orr boys” and naming the car the “General Li.”

Not at all shy about profiting from racism, the Baker Skateboards site responded to criticism of the t-shirt by TMZ by posting the following on their website under a picture of the shirt –

“Roll over to Retard TMZ for how we are damaging the asian community with this new baker tee! goodlooks on the free advertising Tmz!”

Boy, they can dish it out but they sure can’t take it. But retard? Honestly? I guess it wasn’t enough fun to profit off of idiotic racist slurs so they decided to insult people with developmental disabilities, too. I would question their maturity, but I have too much respect for 5 year olds.

But the school yard bully behavior of Baker Skateboards to one side, this t-shirt requires a response. It’s not just an example of profiteering off the misery of others, it’s irresponsible.

Bullying is among the most frequently named problems facing Asian American students. And if you want details about what that looks like, roll over to this.

And it doesn’t stop with kids, as evidenced by the case of 19 year old U.S. Army soldier Daniel Chen. Mr. Chen was subjected to weeks of racial harassment while in training, and then violent hazing once deployed to Afghanistan.

Daniel Chen responded to the hazing and harassment by committing suicide. And, BTW, Asian Americans commit suicide more frequently than members of any other ethnic group in the U.S. excepting Native Americans.

But I’m guessing the folks at Baker Skateboards are aware of the racism facing Asian Americans and simply don’t give a rip. If they did, they might consider for a moment how the controversial t-shirt fits within a larger context of Asian American experiences with racist stereotyping, scapegoating, intimidation, and violence.

Making jokes of the sort featured on their t-shirt  trivializes this context. Worse, it makes racism of this sort cool in the skating subculture by giving it the endorsement of a popular retailer owned by a famous skater.

When we trivialize racism by making jokes about it we contribute to a climate in which folks think racism isn’t such a big deal. And, you know, maybe it wouldn’t be if all racism amounted to was speech. But, of course, we know that racism isn’t just about what folks say. Racist words and images have the power they do because racism is also expressed in actions ranging from political persecution (as in the case of African Americans and the war on drugs) to employment discrimination and even to violence.

When we make jokes like the one on the t-shirt, we are tacitly endorsing the whole range of ways in which racism is expressed in our culture, and that ain’t a thing to laugh about.

Cultural Deprivation Syndrome

3 Aug

Fair warning: this post poses more questions than answers.

I guess you can say that for all of my posts, but this is one I’d really like to hear your thoughts on.

I have for some time pondered the subject of cultural appropriation. A South Asian friend says it’s the result of Cultural Deprivation Syndrome.

She offered the example of a yoga center that features pictures of Hindu Gods in their studio. Some of the pictures were displayed in the bathroom, and as decoration no less. Wrong place. Wrong use. Totally disrespectful, if perhaps unintentionally so, but that’s kind of the point, right? I mean, they are using religious symbols without consideration for the religion or the people who practice it.

Idols and pictures were placed at the front of the studio, and students were asked to point their toes toward them while doing poses. Again, for Hindus, this is simply not done. Perhaps worst of all, students are encouraged to use Hindu slokas (prayers) as meditation chants.

And, mind you, they are charging money for all of this.

But there’s more. She described whites who study South Asian cultures in school who claim to know more about her culture than she does, as if South Asian cultures are objects one can purchase access to at school, rather than dynamic, living constructs created among South Asian people, based on tradition but ever evolving, and only truly meaningful in the context of community.

If you’re a person of color reading this, I bet you are running your own examples through your mind.

Whites appropriating the cultures of people of color is nothing new. Art History is rife with examples of Europeans falling into faddish fascination with Persian, Japanese, and Egyptian art. And adopting spiritual practices, especially of Asia and Native America, has been common among whites since the mid-twentieth century.

Whites get to have their cake and eat it too when they use their privilege in order to study or collect bits of the cultures of others, assigning meaning to their acquisitions that color up otherwise beige and tan realities.

I guess the down side, slight though it may be, to being the ethnic “normal” is that some whites feel they have no ethnicity or culture at all. Cultural Deprivation Syndrome, in this context, is just one of many byproducts of the political system of racism.

And it gets worse. In the recession years of the 1980s, I saw the uglier side of Cultural Deprivation Syndrome when white youth, many raised in suburban cultural wastelands, were drawn to neo-Nazism in order to create culture and give meaning to their lives. They appropriated the the working-class skinhead lifestyle and mashed it together with the philosophy of Hitler (or, in some cases, Japanese fascist Yukio Mishima) to create a subculture that gave them a sense of power and meaning in a world where they believed white skin was losing it’s value as social and economic currency.

So what’s to be done? I’ve seen diversity education programs that help whites claim their ethnic heritages. I’ve also seen these efforts go in the direction of Irish supremacy (not to pick on the Irish since I’ve seen many other variations on the theme). Folks often develop a more specific ethnic identification, but without challenging their white racial identification and privilege.

It’s a frustrating situation and one that needs to be challenged. But, I encourage compassion.

Mine comes from the recognition that I have also appropriated the cultures of others. My political beliefs were first inspired by the words of Julius Lester, Eldridge Cleaver, Che Guevara, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Audre Lorde, Ward Churchill and many others, none of whom share my ethnicity or culture. The experiences of oppression as documented by African American, Latino, and Native American people provides the basic architecture for how I understand myself, my oppression, and my privilege. Because of the intellectual legacy of people not of my ethnicity or culture, I’m sitting at my computer writing this post, and not standing on a factory line screwing widgets to widgets.

So maybe it’s the way in which we use what we appropriate; how we negotiate between who and what we are and do, and the ideas and practices we learn from others that matters. The question, maybe, ought not be “why are you stealing from me?,” but instead, “how will you use what you’ve learned? Is it just for you? Or is it for us?”

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