Tag Archives: new orleans

A Rising Tide or a Flood?

24 Oct

https://i0.wp.com/schoolworkhelper.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Hawaii-1946-Sugar-Strike.jpg

Visiting New Orleans has me thinking a lot about cross-racial solidarity among people of color. New Orleans, one of the Blackest cities in the country, is also home to one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in the U.S.  That the mainly working class Asian immigrant communities here are increasingly well organized gives me hope. But the color line in the Deep South is so brightly drawn, and the penalty for being on the down side of unjust racial power relations is so steep, that I find myself struggling to remain optimistic.

My worry brings to mind that old saying, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” That saying is often used when talking about the effect of low-income groups rising, but my knowledge of the history of my family in Hawai’i makes me aware that if we’re not careful, what to some of us is a rising tide, can to others simply be a flood.

Here’s what I mean.

Hawai’i was annexed to the U.S. in 1898 following the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, a coup orchestrated mainly by white American citizens. The Territory of Hawai’i was controlled by a white-dominated Republican oligarchy that consolidated power through five corporations known as the Big 5. The oligarchy maintained their power by imposing a system similar in many ways to Jim Crow in the U.S. South on Hawai’i’s labor force. This system weighed most heavily on those who worked on the sugar plantations that were the engine of the territorial economy.

But in 1946, a major, industry crippling strike of sugar workers brought the plantation system to its knees. The key to the success of the strike was that it was multi-ethnic. Previous efforts to force plantation owners to the bargaining table were limited by inter-ethnic conflict encouraged by segregating workers into ethnic labor camps. The ethnic unions that arose from this camp system were too small. But when finally a class-based union was formed, workers won.

That victory was a critical step toward the eventual overthrow of the Republican oligarchy. By 1954, a coordinated campaign of general strikes, civil disobedience, and non-violent protests caused a minor revolution in Hawai’i politics. In the territorial elections of 1954, the Democratic Party of Hawai’i finally overthrew the Republicans and broke the absolute control that the Big 5 had over Hawai’i workers.

The Democratic Party of Hawai’i was a multi-ethnic, people of color majority party, and it has controlled the Hawai’i legislature ever since. Largely via their leadership, Hawai’i became a state in 1959.

Sounds like a nice story, right? By getting on board with the union, Hawai’i’s multi-ethnic, overwhelmingly non-white working class was able to ride the rising tide of U.S. economic growth fueled in large part by the expansion of U.S. empire following WWII. And, the liberal victory in Hawai’i has proven a pretty durable one.

But the organizing that lifted Hawai’i’s working class largely excluded Native Hawaiians. It never addressed the illegal overthrow of the nation of Hawai’i nor the landless and impoverished state of the Native Hawaiian people. As a result, it didn’t really break the power of American elites in Hawai’i who lost absolute power, but continue to enjoy definitive power. And when Hawai’i’ became less profitable, many took their toys and left in search of cheaper labor markets. Today, Hawai’i still suffers food insecurity as a result of land monopolization and insufficiently diversified agriculture. And tourism dominates the economy, producing mostly insecure and low wage service sector jobs.

During the years of the rise of immigrant workers in Hawai’i, Native Hawaiians suffered starvation as a result of the reorganization of land ownership and from diverting water from Native Hawaiian taro farming to plantations and tourist developments. And each step forward for immigrant workers and their children was a step backwards in terms of the hope for a return to a free and independent Hawai’i.

Today, independence for Hawai’i is widely considered a pipe dream, and sovereignty efforts are mainly concentrated on winning treaty rights.

The demographics of Hawai’i are changing as people of color, especially Native Hawaiians, are forced to leave Hawai’i to seek employment on the U.S. mainland. As they leave, they are being replaced by wealthy whites and white retirees, causing Hawai’i politics to drift in a more conservative direction. Government employment opportunities, one of the vehicles non-Native people of color have ridden to middle-class status in Hawai’i, are shrinking. And Native Hawaiians suffer the highest rates of socially rooted disease, suicide, and incarceration of all ethnic groups.

Both the social and environmental costs and the costs of failing to define class interests in Hawai’i across the color line between settlers and indigenous people has been extremely high. And the cost is increasingly being paid by all but the most privileged working people in Hawai’i. Those courageous and visionary workers were blinkered by self-interest and failed to see that, for most Native Hawaiians, the rising tide that was carrying them out of peonage was just a flood.

In the Deep South, as immigration drives demographic change, we would do best to remember that the color line can easily become a flood line if we’re not careful. In our efforts to improve our lives, if we fail to define our interests across race, we may find future generations trapped into choices we would never have wished upon them.

Strength in Our Diversity

21 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: