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Building the World House: One Person at a Time…

Bury the ‘N word’?

I recorded this conversation on the ‘n’ word and structural inequality before Jess and I recorded our mixtape about Nas, race, and hip hop. She brought up the NAACP’s effort to bury the ‘n’ word, and I well, you know (I’m making fun of myself…haha), went off like Biz…I apologize for not really having the time to present a more polished piece (like the last one…).

Beware of explicit language…

Filed under: Politics & Race

UN Report on Racism (Addendum Addressed to the US)

Here’s a copy of the UN’s report on racism. I believe this is one of the outcomes of their controversial conference on racism.

No, scratch that, this is an addendum addressed to the United States…

I’ll need to go through this and the recent Supreme Court decision on the New Haven case…

Filed under: Politics & Race

Keeping Perspective during Martin Luther King Day and The Presidential Inauguration

“Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”: Keeping Perspective during Martin Luther King Day and The Presidential Inauguration

Dr. King’s ability to keep the black liberation movement’s achievements in perspective is one of his most overlooked qualities. In 1968, Dr. King urged his listeners to stay awake through the revolutions unfolding at their time. At the time the movement still confronted what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles despite the gains that civil rights activists had achieved. However, Dr. King concerned himself with not just the evolving social problems plaguing the disaffected people in American society, he worried that one of the biggest challenges of the movement and the nation was to “develop the new attitudes” and find new viable solutions.

This matter of Dr. King’s perspective, his capacity to shift his focus when needed and to look around the corner, resonates with us even more today. America seems to be caught in the swirling winds of social change. Like Dr. King cited in 1968, there are a variety of contradictory air currents: national economic instability, employment and housing insecurity, violence in Gaza, and Barack Obama’s historical presidential inauguration. While there may be an optimistic and hopeful wind at our back, there are plenty of currents that threaten to knock us over.

But I think that if Dr. King had lived to see his eightieth birthday, he would agree that national and global poverty (and war), are the problems that we must confront. The most recent number of people that the U.S. Census Bureau has reported as living in poverty is 37.3 million. Many of us are aware of the over 40 million people who go uninsured in a given year. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Survey on Hunger and Homelessness, twenty-five of the largest cities in the U.S. have experienced a twelve percent increase in homelessness during the years 2007-2008. One only wonders what those types of figures will look like in the next year. This is exactly why we need to keep everything, especially Dr. King’s legacy and the Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama, in perspective.

While activists celebrated the passage of civil rights legislation during the 1960s and some people sought to discredit the movement in the aftermath, Dr. King continued to look around the corner. The goal was shared with many other participants and leaders was not just what people call opportunity, it was to ensure that every person living in the United States achieved a broader vision of human rights that included the right to adequate food, clothes, shelter, employment, and health care as a basis for the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Dr. King’s perspective reflected his aims of developing new ways of seeing the world and acting in it. At times his outlook gets lost in the ritualistic chanting of the phrase, “judge one not by the color of one’s skin but by the content of one’s character.” Many of us tend to overlook a claim that he made in 1967 in his book, Chaos or Community: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Many of us have forgotten his call for people to travel to Washington, D.C. to live as the poor in his Poor People’s Campaign.

Yes, those who participated in the various service projects on Dr. King’s birthday should feel proud to have done so. Everyone should be proud of the election of Barack Obama. However, we should not forget Dr. King’s last challenge. We have to stretch our imaginations once again. We have to challenge ourselves to see the world through the eyes of the beggar rather than with the view of the fortunate. We must develop ways of addressing the problems from the bottom up, because there are more examples of poverty rising to the top than there are examples of prosperity trickling down. We cannot give in to political fatigue and fall asleep during this revolution.

Filed under: Politics & Race

Race, Racism, and the Prospects of Transformation in America

December 30, 2009: The ‘Race’ Entry

I wrote a piece questioning the idea of a ‘post-racial’ America shortly after the election of President-elect Barack Obama. I argued in the short article, and this is a point I still maintain, that determining whether or not the United States had entered into a “post-racial” phase in its development was too soon, even though there are many people today who are persistently still trying to write that narrative. After I published the article in a variety of blogs, I received a response from a gentleman named Ray Zwarich who had some very interesting feedback.

In his response, Mr. Zwarich argued that race and racism are concepts that are were connected to human instinct. He also acknowledged the social, political, and economic aspects of the construction of race in the United States Zwarich maintained that as many individuals who secured resources needed to survive and ascended up the socio-economic ladder, they were less likely to hold onto such views. So, many people in the upper and middle classes were less likely to be racist while the various ethnic and racial groups among the lower classes retained this instinct. Ultimately, he concluded, anti-racist activists should focus more on eradicating poverty among the lower classes because racism is part of human nature and therefore immutable.

I agree with the premise that we should work to fight against poverty and I hope to spend more time talking about solutions later in this piece. However, I do take issue with racism as something that is so natural and ingrained in our consciousness that it is inescapable, and thus, a futile cause. When I hear the human nature argument or someone making the case that racial prejudice has existed everywhere for a long time, we tend to miss the point that racism, along with all of the other –isms, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, etc., are phenomena that people learn (think Jane Elliot’s “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes”). I would be hard-pressed to find a lower class child in the United States who was essentially racist from birth. I concede that humans in the modern periods of history have tended to divide and characterize themselves;, however, much of the categories we deal with today specifically emerged in the age of Western colonization and imperialism. I argue that if these present categories were not instilled in us, but created, resisted, and reproduced over a number of centuries, then why could we not struggle intellectually, psychologically, and mentally, to work through this discourse?

I also disagree with the implicit assertion that the richer someone gets, the less prone they are to prejudice. Racism in America is not just individual prejudice that is bigotry. Many virulent racists in the South and North did not fit the “ignorant, pot-bellied, and backward” stereotype that many people like to associate with individuals holding these views (this is a way for whites who are uneasy about their views on different groups to “other” whites and separate themselves from who they think are the “real racists.”). In fact many of the mouthpieces of racism during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were prominent figures in their communities, some holding office, others wearing a sheriff or police badge, others descendants of prominent rich families. The assertion that racism is endemic in the prison population is not as clear-cut. While there is a history of bigotry inside prison walls, one must acknowledge some of the external factors of its development. At the height of black political imprisonment during the Black Power Movement, bigoted guards helped stoke racial division. As Staughton Lynd has written about, and many observed about the 1993 Lucasville prison rebellion, there are moments of racial solidarity in the fight against oppression. If poverty does not know race, then racial prejudice did not know any class, but neither does solidarity know any race, class, gender, or circumstance. And I’m sure, even in spite of all of the progress, we could find that point to be true. But just as race and racism were created, we must build solidarity across class, race, sex, and gender.

The confusion of systemic racism and individual bigotry also hinders discussion on race and prejudice. Many individuals tend to conflate the two concepts. Racism does not just include the individual bigotry, but it is also the historical and structural disadvantage that was built into American political, economic, cultural, and social systems and institutions. We have all heard the stories of the 3/5ths clause in the Constitution and the various other laws and court cases that solidified the racial boundaries in the US. We have also heard of the false science that was used to reinforce this notion. We all know that American democracy at its founding, was white, male, most likely heterosexual, and upper-class. Since then, however, the US has come a long way, from slave resistance and revolt, abolition, the struggle for respectability, the demands of self-determination, the Brown case, civil rights, black power, black entrance into politics, and finally the election of Barack Obama.

However, despite those gains, the rate of poverty among black Americans is higher than whites, there is a larger proportion of black men in prison than white men, the infant mortality rate is higher, etc., etc. etc. I have not even brought up disparities in education and in the professional arenas (not athletics or entertainment). It would be easy to explain these disparities by telling black people to be more responsible, but individual responsibility can only take a group of people so far. When Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP won the fight against school segregation, many whites in the north and south sought to blunt its impact. Black people still could not choose to go to a nicer school of their choice. Not every single black person had the means to move from a ghetto that was created by a variety of local, state, and federal policies. Only those who were lucky enough to be able to use their individual liberty and prerogative had the ability to get out.

We also tend to forget that, like wealth, poverty also reproduces itself, especially in tax-depressed areas. African Americans have only had the right to vote in reality for forty years and there is still only one, maybe one black person in the Senate, depending upon who ultimately replaces President-elect Obama, and it took the US forty years to elect its first black president. I have not even brought up the amount of governorships that people of color do not have. Ironically, if one wants to bring the idea of institutional racism into bold relief one should look to college football. A majority of the players are black and there are still less than ten black coaches with jobs out of the one hundred and eight Bowl Division schools. Major General William T. Sherman was aware of this after the Civil War (Special Field Order, Number 15 also known as “Where’s my forty acres and a mule?!?!”). President Lyndon Johnson knew that some sort of radical economic and political action would make it possible to shore up these inequalities (Johnson said, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”). I think we forgot this step on our way to electing Barack Obama. This is part of the racial reality that many Americans have discredited and/or refused to face.

So, why did I just spend a lot of time bringing up those examples? Racism, as well as sexism and class prejudice, is embedded in the American system. Yes, Mr. Zwarich is right. Anti-racist activists cannot change the hearts of men, women, and children. But that has not been my intention as one. Anti-racist activists must attack a system that reproduced, and continues to reproduce, inequalities, usually at the hands of non-racists. That is right. This country could be run by a bunch of non-racists and this system would still reproduce the inequalities and the discourse. Why? Because, as a point of agreement with Mr. Zwarich, many non-racists are usually conformists who may not see color, but who are well-adjusted to American institutions and society and are contented with working within the various structures of racial/free-market/patriarchal/heterosexual hegemony (not overt domination), not transforming them. Shockingly, we should be holding ourselves accountable as comfortable Americans for the historical inequalities and present economic mess as the “evil” and “greedy” investors on Wall Street and virulent racists. And another danger of ignoring racial discourse is if there is no one around to question the racial discourse, then there will be people around who would gladly write this post-racial narrative because it only allows those who are interested in these racial divisions to play all Americans, no matter what class, against each other.

The rewriting of racial discourse by conservatives—blacks and whites—has led to the desegregation of many schools, the assault on affirmative action (including the demonization of beneficiaries—except for white women), which helped Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice (and she virtually admitted it), and Barack Obama ascend to the highest political offices in the United States, and it further contributed to the dehumanization of black Americans. This dehumanization has allowed conservative Republicans to declare war on black male youth (the war on drugs) and paint black women as undeserving and perpetual victims (welfare mothers, “too aggressive,” etc.). And we wonder why Katrina happened, or why Michelle Obama was attacked for being “too aggressive”? Unfortunately, racial prejudice is not, as many liberals during the Cold War liked to assume, a disease that could be cured. Racism, or even race talk, in America is manifested in our language and discourse and it is used to discipline any aspiring stakeholders within the system. But, as the struggles against slavery and Jim Crow proved, the persistence of structural and discursive racism can be defeated through talking about race, political protest, and the eradication of (hetero)sexism and poverty.

In essence, I agree with Mr. Zwarich, poverty has to be among the first targets in the fight for political change and racism. We can take an approached that Paulo Friere and Myles Horton used in their book, We Make the Road By Walking. When it comes to eradicating racism, we may have to go through the back door. We take the fight to poverty-stricken areas. When we organize we must encourage people to analyze their immediate situations from not just class-based perspectives, but also race and sexed-based perspectives. Like I said, the fact that many black Americans were trapped in the ghetto in the first place was not just because they were poor, but because they were also black. Many black women found themselves in compromising positions not just because they were poor, but because of the circumstances of being black, poor, and female. Now, our analysis may pivot slightly when we think of a poor white person. But white men, women, and children are also raced and dehumanized by white people for not representing the “best “of America. We have not even brought up the historical circumstances of Mexicans (land taken), Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans (virtually colonized), and Native Americans (land taken, genocide, and hyper-concentrated on reservations). Our analysis of structural poverty would have to pivot along these points. Not one isolated “macro” theory such as Marxism or meta-language such as race, class, or gender, can convince me at this point because every layer of one’s identity helps to shape his/her life chances in America.

Correct analysis and responsible action (”responsible” not to be confused with refraining from mass protest, direct action, or even force) has to be coupled with dialogue (which is kind of indistinguishable from correct analysis) and popular education. Only through dialogue will we all be able to learn how to dismantle the discursive practices of race, class, gender, nation, and sexuality, or at least render those practices incapable of inflicting harm on human beings. (because if most people are on the same page when it comes to the meanings of particular terms, then there will be less conflict and misunderstanding). Political struggle is indispensible to political education and the formation of building solidarity, but discussion should not be dismissed as some sort of “utopian” ideal. We should take a cue from feminists and try consciousness-raising. These real conversations on race could allow us all to get critical, get real with each other, and grow together.

Activists for a more democratic community and union must also hold each other accountable. Today, former Black Panther Party member and U.S. Representative from Illinois, Bobby Rush, challenged the predominately white Senate not to “lynch or hang” Governor Rod Blagojevich’s selection to replace President-elect Obama, Roland Burris. Now, I respect Representative Rush and the contributions he made towards the struggles for black freedom and equality. However, his challenge did nothing to help the cause of black Americans. Why? Because he hitched the cause (that he helped fight for) to the criminal and politically toxic Blagojevich. By standing in front of that podium, Rush endorsed Blagojevich’s alleged attempts to sell Obama’s seat. Rush and Burriss’s attempts to cede Blagojevich’s moral authority is also deplorable and should be denounced. It is like I told someone in a prior conversation, each time a person of color uses race disingenuously, they make it difficult for a person of color victimized by racism to secure justice, it hardens the racial boundaries that we need to be more permeable, and it allows racial conservatives to reemploy their wannabe ‘color-blind’ and soon to be liberal and conservative ‘post-racial’ discourse. And these frivolous attempts to gin up support along racial lines distracts us from creating new knowledge and theories of American structures of domination, fighting poverty and homelessness, and fighting for a more humane health care, education, political and economic system, and sustainable environment.

So, in many ways, I agree with Mr. Zwarich and I hope to discuss the ways in which we can build knowledge and facilitate action in the future. Yes, during these times of economic uncertainty, we must fight poverty. However, I believe we can use the fight against poverty as an entrance point to eradicating racism, (hetero)sexism, and class prejudice from the American system, not necessarily from the hearts and minds of the people. We will win the hearts and minds only through democratic action, discussion, and reflection. If we have made it this far, then that is possible. But, remember, this fight is about the system, it is about the particular language we use to dehumanize different people. It is possible to empty these labels of their negative meanings. That was vital to the cultural flank of the Black Power Movement. “Negroes” made themselves into blacks and African-Americans, and they made “black” beautiful. Black was not beautiful in the “I reject white” way, but in the self-affirming, “this is the manner my higher power made me and I’m proud” way. Race, along with other forms of difference, has not ever been a zero-sum proposition for all groups of people. This is another reality that the comfortable American must come to grips with. Identity and difference does matter to everyone, whether it is a person embracing their racial identity in a self-affirming and non-oppressive way, or a person employing a ”colorblind” language in order to discourage another person from emphasizing their racial self-identification.

Ultimately, this fight must be all-encompassing as dialogue and the many available forms of direct action should never be taken off the table. So, if Zwarich is correct, and the more comfortable Americans who do not hold on to intolerant views actively participate, then we may be able to create the change we can believe in.

Filed under: Politics & Race

The Triumph of Post-racialism?

The Triumph of Post-racialism? The Election of Barack Obama and the Coming Conversation on Race in America

The election of Barack Obama has spurred conversations among politicians, members of the media, and everyday people about the impact of race on American social and political culture. The theme permeating these discussions has been the notion of President-elect Obama embodying a “post-racial” politics. Remarkably similar to the notion of colorblindness where people supposedly don’t “see” race, “post-racialism” is a concept that underscores the willingness of individuals to deemphasize race in their political decision making. Some writers, such as the New York Times Magazine political columnist, Matthew Bai, asserted Obama represented a new generation of black leaders who seek to ground their political ideologies, arguments, campaigns, and overall style, in an admittedly complicated, but transcendent, notion of “post-racial” politics in his article, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics.” Similarly, conservative author, Shelby Steele, has argued in a recent Los Angeles Times article that President-elect Obama ran as a “post-racial” candidate who bargained his racial identity—and all of its political implications—in exchange for white support.

So, now that President-elect Obama will take the oath on January 20 are we living in a post-racial world? I think it is too soon to tell, but not too early to discuss.

However, it is important that we use this unprecedented historical moment to talk about race more generally. How will an Obama presidency alter the perceptions of blacks, whites, and other racial and ethnic groups? While it is vital to consider how an Obama presidency could blur the racial vision and realities of people, we also must not forget that the circumstances and interactions of different peoples remain based upon racialized ideas and assumptions, negative and/or positive. How will our conversations about race change? Will we, anti-racist activists, be open-minded enough to take criticism? Will those skeptical individuals be ready to not just call for an end of affirmative action policies because one African-American—out of forty-four—won the presidency, but think of ways in which we can close gaps between peoples of color and whites in wealth, health, and education, since many of these disparities are due to the racialized organization of American society?

Again, it may be too early to know what kind of solutions we can come up with. One thing is for sure, we must talk. We will have to listen to each other, disagree, and arrive at a semblance of consensus. We must be careful, courteous, humble, respectful, and dignified when addressing one another. We all must talk about our personal experiences that are shaped by race (as well as gender, age, class, sexuality, etc.), whether we are black, white, Mexican, Iranian, Chinese, Korean, etc. None of us will always approve of all our ideas regarding racial issues and/or solutions. Yet, we need to start thinking about converging around one point—that is provoking a thoughtful discussion on race. This is a subject and an endeavor that not one person holds a monopoly. And there is no blueprint for having a conversation on race. We must not just try to get beyond race for the sake of it. Transcending race does not mean looking for that proverbial silver bullet, avoidance, or forgetfulness, it means confronting racial issues head on, excavating and evaluating the history of the United States, and then arriving at a resolution and plan for action.

Many of us hope to begin this process Tuesday night. On November 18, at 7:30PM, Save the World, Black United Students, Harambee, and the Muslim Student Association will sponsor a public conversation on race called Skin Speak: Race Relations, Our Campus, Our World. It will be held in Oscar Ritchie Lecture Hall, room 214, and Idris Kabir Syed, professor from the Pan African Studies Department, will facilitate the discussion. We encourage everyone from all backgrounds to attend, even if you believe we need to get over race. There may be moments of conflict, and hopefully, there will be points of consensus. Ultimately, we may learn something new about race relations, Kent State University, and about each other. But if you cannot make it, or you do not live in the area, then organize your own discussions. Take over your local coffeeshops and encourage others to participate. Start online threads and discussion groups. Create reading groups where you select books that cover a variety of viewpoints. Because, right now, what you now know about American race relations will not be as significant as what we can learn about each other tomorrow.

Filed under: Politics & Race

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