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.

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

8 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Durability of Race

5 Oct

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

That argument ignores history.

Here’s what I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Preoccupied with Occupy

27 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The UnCivilized World of Sarah Palin

21 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Racism of Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

19 Sep

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

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

And b.s. it is.

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

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

Feeling a bit sensitive, perhaps?

PolitiFact Oregon gives us the 411 on this story –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for trying.

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

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

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

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

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