“Racism still alive/They just be concealin’ it” -Kanye West, Never Let Me Down
Ten years into to the 21st century, the United States is still arguing over the same central problem it faced 10 years into the 20th, 19th and 18th centuries: racism. From the “peculiar institution” to Jim Crow to redlining to anti-immigrant profiling, overt and covert racism has been a consistent foundation for discrimination, displacement and disenfranchisement.
Racism’s tragic legacy is tearing apart families and communities everywhere across the country. Hate crimes are up in Baltimore. Why? Because anti-immigrant vitriol is being dispersed by politicians and media personalities. Because people are translating their economic insecurity into fear of people who don’t look or speak like them. This thinking turns neighbors against neighbors and needlessly forces communities into hiding because they fear for their safety. Worse still, according to the article, people are afraid to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement because of the hate-filled environment. Simply put: they don’t trust the people who are paid to protect them, which makes these already-vulnerable communities even more susceptible to criminals who know their victims are less likely to contact the authorities because they’re afraid of being profiled.
Many Black communities have a long history of being weary of police forces that disproportinately use excessive force and harass them, so they too are often unwilling to cooperate, leery of not being taken seriously or being victimized again. It’s the vile cycle of victimization.
Out of the many implications of the far-reaching impacts of racism, three stand out for me in this current socio-political moment.
1. Demonization of difference
Though this country’s founding was fueled by an imperialist premise, it was based on certain principles that protected the freedom to be different. Diverse religions, diverse sources of wealth, diverse methods of communication, etc. The freedom to be different, however, has been systemically walked back in several respects, as protectors of tradition have cloaked their radical views with nice-sounding thoughts like returning to the “good old days.” What they really mean is the “good old days when non-white people and women were largely subservient and the transfer of wealth and power existed within a homogeneous, incestuous, repetitious vortex.” What they want is a return to the days when it was cool to say “freedom of religion,” but people only used that freedom to choose what flavor of Christian they wanted to be. Kind of like Henry Ford saying that people could have any color Model T they wanted, so long as it was black.
This is the clear rationale behind the clamoring from conservative radicals to repeal the 14th amendment’s clause that grants citizenship to all children born in the United States. That clause was included because, previously, the children of slaves (read: Black people) were not citizens of the United States and could not enjoy the privileges and immunities of citizenship, thanks to the Dred Scott decision. The precedent that the 14th amendment rejected and dismantled was abhorrently racist, and it’s sad that today’s racists want to set us back 150+ years because they are scared of non-white babies.
2. Anti-government sentiment
There is tremendous overlap between the people who are clamoring about how they want to altogether eliminate government and people who are publicly racist. The most dishonest members of this cabal advance the level of government influence on private life in order to achieve this objective. They push for policies that make people more prone to question the motives of their government, such as racial profiling laws, laws that diminish women’s autonomy over their own bodies, cuts to programs that benefit the working class (e.g. unemployment benefits, food stamps), etc. This increases the pool of people potentially open to an anti-government message, which is the point of the strategy: the more people mad at the government, the better.
One of the primary functions of our government is to be the referee that protects factions of the population from injuring each other (see Federalist Paper No. 10 by James Madison). Just because a majority or plurality of individuals want something doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do. A prime example is the Department of Justice suing and winning a preliminary injunction against Arizona’s SB1070 immigration law. Though many polls find most Americans support the Arizona law, it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that the community impacted by that law (in this case, immigrants in Arizona) is treated fairly. Racial profiling, which was what the law sought to institutionalize, clearly is unfair, illegal and morally wrong. It had to be stopped. It’s the same reason that Jim Crow laws were eradicated in the 20th century.
3. Powerful Victim Paradox
An interesting paradox present in racism’s long shadow is that the fear inherent in racist thinking leads those with those views to see themselves as helpless victims, which then motivates them to grind their heels further into the necks of those they seek to oppress. Let’s call this the Powerful Victim Paradox. This is what motivates people afraid of people of color moving into their previously-homogeneous neighborhoods to protect their ‘hood by making sure that the people they are afraid of, even if they move in, are jeered and treated disrespectfully to the point where they’re intimidated into relocating. (Think this doesn’t still happen today? Ask this woman & son in Clearfield, PA who were greeted at home last Saturday by two burning crosses on their lawn.) They think that if new people move in, they’ll steal the power and influence, so they must press their levers of influence even harder. Same is true for the argument that we should continue to destroy the lives of immigrants because they’ll take jobs (for an alternative vision, try this). It’s a great American tragicomedy.
Race has divided people nationally and locally. Nationally, one needs to look no further than the Park51 Community Center flap to see hatred and prejudice, in this case racial, ethnic and religious, on full display. The idea that a community center, run by Muslims can’t be constructed in any NYC neighborhood, near Ground Zero or anyplace else, is preposterous. It’s the equivalent to saying that you can’t build YMCAs in neighborhoods where Jewish people live. The status quo is unsustainable.
How to move forward
We can put an end to racism’s reign of terror, entrenched though it may be. We can and we must because our communities depend on it. Here’s how we can begin:
- Call racism what it is when you see it
Racism persists in part because of silent acceptance. It is amazing, however, how things can be changed when proper attention is paid to them. It is not politically incorrect to call something or someone racists if it is clear that they are behaving in such a manner. Don’t be afraid to do so.
- Remember that community literally means “with unity”
Unity is not the destruction of difference. Instead, it is the embrace of diversity. It’s about alignment, not assimilation. As organizers, activists, policy makers, etc., we may have different paths. That is fine so long as we are clear about our destination. Movements predicated upon assimilation are no match for movements that respect and encourage creative thinking toward a common purpose.
For us, that common purpose is an America and a world where we recognize the dignity and decency of every person. Where we see strength in people speaking for themselves and taking care of one another. Where communities create institutions and craft policy that treat everyone as equally important and powerful. There are no special interests, only human interests.
In order for this to be realized, the long shadow of racism must subside. Turn up the lights. Let’s recommit to this today.
One Love. One II.
Originally posted on the Center for Community Change blog.
Racism still alive/They just be concealin’ it — Kanye West, Never Let Me Down
Hearkening back to the days when American conservatives openly defended the “peculiar institution”, today some conservatives are returning to their prejudiced roots and embracing hate speech and hateful policies across the country. The moral bankruptcy, practical lunacy and political idiocy demonstrated by these short-sighted tactics undermine their future as a palatable movement. Several examples follow: Read More…
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made an unfortunate mistake when he said privately:
Obama, as a black candidate, could be successful thanks, in part, to his light-skinned appearance and speaking patterns with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one…He [Reid] was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.
The comments and the response to the comments have been laughable, disconcerting and indicative of the broader race-related issues that our country continually kicks down the road.
I’m frustrated that the only tellers at the Bank of Apologizing to Black People are still Rev. Al Sharpton and/or Jesse Jackson. Many have used the fact that Rev. Sharpton accepted Reid’s apology as grounds for vindication. Rev. Sharpton is as much a proxy for Black America’s social consciousness as the CEO of Goldman Sachs is a proxy for the interests of community banks. Just like there’s a movement to move our money out of big banks, Black folks should be moving their representation away from Rev. Sharpton and to community voices.
It’s further frustrating to think about how the latent prejudice of our politics has contributed to structural inequity reinforced by public policy.
Take health care reform. Why is there disagreement between the House and Senate over the need for reform to narrow disparities in health care coverage? The House bill does this; the Senate bill does not.
Take unemployment. A community jobs program would work wonders for communities over-represented on unemployment roles: Black and Latino people. Yet the current debate on public job creation has shown little interest in this regard.
Perhaps there is more at work than the latent racism that leads to remarks that are at their best in poor taste and at their worst indicative of utter moral failure. The way to work through a controversy like today’s uproar is to put these incidents into a larger narrative about the consequences of entrenched racism and prejudice. Once that narrative is constructed, we can create a solution.
One Love. One II.
We will have a new Supreme Court Justice by October 2009, and her name will be Sonia Sotomayor. This is a plain, simple fact.
I waited to write about this because I wanted to see the full range of juvenile, senseless, and viperous statements made be conservative critics of this nomination.
A laughable argument
The most ridiculous and confusing argument against soon-to-be-Justice Sotomayor is that she is unfit to be on the Supreme Court because her personal positions, ethnic heritage, and life experience could influence her decisions. Show me a person who’s life experience doesn’t reflect in their decisions, and I’ll show you a person’s life that is a rudderless, abject failure.
Last I checked, judges are people. Persons even. People, like you, me, your mother, your brother, your neighbor and everyone else you know all have histories, opinions and talents. To deny this is to deny the value of life, family, friendship, education, work, and everything else that happens during our time on this earth.
It is beyond ridiculous then to think that people’s decisions are not impacted by the things that they have seen or that have happened to them. Why must judges divorce themselves from their humanity in the name of something as transient and subjective as the law? Are these people saying that they want law machines and not judges? (Note: I’m absolutely not a lawyer, so I’d love to hear from lawyers on this.)
We elect/appoint people
The actual world and the movie world are different. We don’t live in the world of Terminator or iRobot. When we look for ways to solve problems, to explain happenings, or to interpret law, we look to people, not robots. The idea that judges appointed by conservatives apply no personal thought or empathy when deciding cases is as dishonest and supported neither anecdotally or statistically. The most recent example is [current & most recently appointed] Justice Sam Alito’s comments during his confirmation regarding applying his personal and family experiences to his judgements.
Should disagreement disqualify?
Maybe, maybe not. Disqualify is probably the wrong word, but in the real world, this is about more than qualifications. No one has said that Sotomayor is unqualified because that would be the only argument weaker than the laughable one described above.
Elections have consequences. The should have consequences; that’s the point. It is perfectly legitimate to vote against a judicial nominee because you disagree with their ideology as demonstrated in their record. It is not, however, legitimate to vote against a nominee because they do what all other people do: think about their history when making decisions in the present.
I pray that one day we can have an honest dialogue in our government and body politic without the salacious, counter-productive, dishonest rhetoric. If you don’t like her record, say you don’t like her record. That’d be a lot easier on all of us.
One Love. One II.
Many people still think racism is intentional, conscious and personal. It’s not. As the economic crisis shows, we are facing racial inequities that have their roots in the explicit racism of earlier generations but which now devastate communities of color without intent. This is where we now need to turn our attention.
From Stop the Next American Nightmare by Seth Freed Wessler at Huffington Post
- The common argument that “the racism that happened in the past is not important today” is flatly wrong. Some complain that pollution today hurts children in the future. Others say that poor financial decisions will burden our children with unthinkable debts & deficits. In exactly the same fashion, the racism of our forefathers hurts people in the here and now.
- This is further evidence of the myth of the Post-Racial Society. In order for a Post-Racial Society to come into being, the racism and the remnants of that racism, and them impact of that racism must be dealt with justly.
- The problem is racism is at a minimum both moral & economic. Once one agrees that racism [and other manifestations of prejudice] are morally wrong, there are economic questions that must be addressed. The Applied Research Center’s report outlines how racism hurt both the hearts and wallets of people of color during this very recession.
- The solutions to the problem of racism help us all. I’m not a fan of playing the race card unjustifiably. However, when we justly and ethically deal with racist norms, policies and practices, all people benefit.
- Fair lending practices benefit all people looking to qualify for a home or car loan.
- Fair admissions & financial aid policies make college education accessible for all students.
- A more responsible police force better protects all members of community.
One Love. One II.
Take This Hammer is a 1963 documentary film that shows author/activist James Baldwin’s fact-finding mission to San Francisco that same year. His purpose was to answer the question: is the Negro in San Francisco, CA any better off than the Negro in Birmingham, AL? He concluded that:
There is no moral distance between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.
Baldwin presents an extraordinary social critique of America North & South, white liberalism, and the angst of Black teenagers. What’s exceptional are some of the specific barometers he uses to judge young Black people’s view on their future.
Will there ever be a Black President?
There is one exchange where he asks a group of young men if there will ever be a Negro President in this country. They flatly tell him “No, never.” Baldwin retorts with solidly nuanced optimism: “Yes, there will be a Negro President, but this country will be different from the one that exists now.”
Obviously, we have a Black President now. That begs the question: was Baldwin right? Is this a different country than it was in 1963? Yes in many ways, and no in many others.
The failure of Christianity
Near the end of the film, Baldwin opines on the almost comical hypocrisy of American [white] Christianity. Baldwin asserts that:
…these churches are absolutely meaningless and almost blasphemous…more social club than spiritual institution…the Christian church in this country has never, as far as i know, been Christian.
Baldwin is himself a Christian, but he sees and hears the spiritual frustrations of Black youth. One young man told him that the best way for Black people to organize [for revolution] was by “coming together as Muslims.” What does that mean? That spirituality & religion as forces of identification, pride, and community were as important then as they are today. It also speaks to the fluidity of religion, to people’s desire to find a spiritual persuasion that speaks to their needs. Baldwin’s critique on American Christianity shows that many young, militant Black folks rejected a faith they saw as hypocritical and weak. Today’s Christianity is still fighting this battle.
Baldwin shares an intellectual pedigree with Steve Biko with his disdain of “liberals” (in this context, they both mean White liberals). In the film, Baldwin has a lot to say about this:
Everywhere I’ve been in this country, white people think race relations are excellent.
Liberals are looking for an alleviation, a protection of their own consciousness.
Liberals can’t be fake and be heroic too.
White people think of themselves as missionaries…but we don’t want you to do it for the Negro, we want you to do it for you.
His critique is not of liberalism, but of dishonest, half-hearted activism. Activism and organizing are based upon trust, and Baldwin did not trust white liberal activists in many cases.
This tension still exists in some circles today. Most interestingly, it creates a chasm between those arguing over whether the shortest path to equality and freedom in this country is through racial reconciliation or class-based economic struggle. Baldwin, Biko, myself, and others saw this as a false choice, but it creates a very real debate for many activists and thinkers.
Where do we go from here?
Baldwin in the film is neither overly optimistic nor terribly pessimistic. He does offer some thoughts that give insight into his thoughts on the future:
Buildings without foundations will inevitably come down.
I can be fooled, but my kids won’t be…either we will correct what’s wrong, it will be corrected for us.
This is something that’s been hitting close to home with me in recent years. The aspirations and assumptions of one generation are often realized, debunked, and adjusted by the next. Baldwin speaks specifically about ideas such as the “fakeness” of the American dream (i.e. having a garage) and what is actually meant when politicians & developers say “redevelopment” (to Baldwin, that means “remove the Negro”).
As my generation of activists, thinkers, leaders, and citizens chart our course through this dynamic social landscape, we can learn a lot from those that came before us. However, learn means neither repeat nor ignore. Instead, it means absorbing the knowledge and experiences, examining the current context for similarities and differences, applying what we’ve absorbed where appropriate, and innovating where necessary.
One Love. One II.
Photo credit: Ben Wheeler on Flickr
Take a look at this 2 minute video explanation of Thomas Schelling’s Models of Segregation. The model demonstrates that even a mild preference for the colour of your neighbour can lead to extreme segregation.
The moral of the story:
Although we as individuals may be rational and we may be tolerant, the society that we produce together may be neither rational nor tolerant.
Think about this the next time someone tells you that because Barack Obama’s the President, we live in a post-racial society.
One Love. One II.