Tag Archives: Jim Crow

Racism is a House…or Something

4 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Carolina Amendment 1: Racism In Homophobe’s Clothing

9 May

Much has been written about Amendment 1, the referendum to change the North Carolina State Constitution to deny official recognition of domestic unions other than legal marriage between a man and a woman. The amendment was approved by 60% of North Carolina voters yesterday.

The passage of Amendment 1 is a serious defeat for pro-LGBT forces. 60% exceeds the polling estimates and, in the land of ballot issues, a 20% margin is pretty much a landslide.

I worked on a bunch of ballot measure races back in the 1990s, starting with serving on the campaign staff of the 1992 No on 9 Campaign against an anti-LGBT constitutional amendment in Oregon. That proposed amendment tried to equate LGBT folk with pedophiles. We defeated it, but not by much.

Ballots measure like North Carolina Amendment 1 and 1992’s ballot measure 9 are as much about racism and bigotry in general as they are about how folks feel about LGBT people. Here’s why:

First, the organizations that sponsor these homophobic measures are part of a movement with a much broader agenda. Oregon’s ballot measure 9 was sponsored by the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance. They also attacked reproductive choice, and held positions against Affirmative Action and humane immigration reform.

That same year in Colorado, an anti-LGBT constitutional amendment passed by ballot measure. The sponsors of Colorado’s measure were the sponsors of an anti-Latino English Only measure just two years before.

For these groups, homophobia offers a soft-entry point into the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of evangelical Christians. By exploiting a popular prejudice, they build the support necessary to advance much more expansive anti-democratic agendas.

Protestant Pastor Martin Neimoller famously spoke to this dynamic when he stood up in solidarity with German Jews saying:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

But there’s more. The very fact that constitutional rights can be contested in what amount to popularity contests should give us all pause. Our federal constitution, at least in theory, is supposed to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Inviting voters to decide whether any minority group’s rights should be protected does an end run around constitutionally guaranteed protections. Amendment 1 and all similar measures put all of our rights in jeopardy.

Measures like Amendment 1 invite us into the dangerous belief that where our civil rights are concerned the majority should rule. That, in fact, majority rule is the most democratic way to determine whether or not any group is eligible for protection when the opposite is true. It is anti-democratic to permanently limit the ability of any group to air their grievances and seek the protection of government.

Japanese Americans understand the danger inherent in majority rule. During WWII, American citizens of Japanese descent were incarcerated en masse because of their ethnicity.

Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws were imposed on Southern states by majority rule. If the Voting Rights Act had been a left to the whims of state by state popularity contests, African Americans might still be barred from voting in many Southern states because of poll taxes, terrorism, and literacy requirements.

But what’s even worse, in my book, is the damage of measures like Amendment 1 to our culture. I remember distinctly how angry it made me to see measures on the Oregon ballot concerning LGBT rights. My humanity was put up for a vote.

I’m not arguing that you have to like me because or even in spite of my sexual orientation, but debating my humanity through the elections system? All of us who are concerned about human rights should be united in our understanding that this kind of thing is just never, ever okay. It’s the same kind of objectifying, ugly thinking that perpetuates racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and every other kind of bigotry.

Read This Book!

7 May

Today is my birthday. The passage of time has me reflecting a lot on the years behind me, especially as I’m looking down the barrel of 50.

Among the most frustrating yet inspiring experiences I’ve had over the years was the time I spent working on criminal justice reform. During those years I spent a lot of time in juvenile detention facilities, jails, prisons, and courtrooms. From that perch, the racism of the system seemed so plain as to be indisputable. Just as plain was the amazing resiliency of people caught up in the system, many of them non-violent drug offenders whose convictions as “criminals” erased their status as parents, siblings, sons and daughters.

But as close to it as I was, I always struggled for the language to describe the racism of our criminal justice system in ways that got more than a “yeah, that sucks” reaction. Now Michelle Alexander has written a book that’s changed that for me. If my birthday wish comes true, all of you will read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It’s just that powerful.

In just 261 six by nine inch pages, excluding end notes and index (both of which are very useful), the current paperback edition of The New Jim Crow relates the history of the drug war starting with it’s origins in the Nixon years all the way through the present.

In the present, one in 10 black males between the ages of 25 and 29 are in prison or jail, and the majority in the same age group bear the stigma of past convictions. That means they are limited in their ability to contribute financially to their families. Many are unable to live in public housing and may be separated from family members who do. Parolees are in constant jeopardy of being incarcerated again because of parole violations that include not associating with others who have been incarcerated which, I repeat for emphasis, includes an overwhelming number of their peers.Today, a black child is less likely to be raised by both parents than a child born in the age of slavery.

According to a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, 13% of black males lost their right to vote to felony disenfranchisement laws. In some states, as many as one in three lost their voting rights. The report predicted that if the trend continued, 40% of black men would lose their right to vote in states that disenfranchise felons.

In 2000, felony disenfranchisement in Florida very likely cost Al Gore the presidential election.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”

The shame of this reality should be enough to cause a society-wide revolt. Alexander helps us to understand why we have remained largely silent by describing the way racial caste manages to morph over generations, creating a “new normal” of civility that accommodates continued racism and the structural exclusion of African Americans from democratic decision-making.

Make my birthday wish come true. Read this book. Share what you learn. Don’t let yourself be part of the “new normal” that stands in the way of true democracy for all of us.

%d bloggers like this: