Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My Answer to "An Honest Heartfelt Inquiry"

Last night, an anonymous commentator on this post wrote:

After reading this I must admit, I feel that I've for a long time been, well, ignorant. I am a European-American currently in a very committed relationship with an African-American man who was raised by a European-American family. I sometimes feel that I will unintentionally raise our future children as "white kids", and in turn hurt them. Do I not have enough understanding to properly raise my own children? I don't want to misguide them when they already will have enough odds stacked against them in this white supremest society. How does a European-American mother find out how to raise an African-American child? I admit my ignorance here, but this is an honest heartfelt inquiry.

Because I suspect that there are a number of readers who might be interested in my response, but who might not see it in the comments thread in which it appears, I have reprinted it here:

You probably know more than you think you do, Anonymous. In fact, one of the things I've learned in life is that you can't graft new information onto a closed mind. In other words, when I think I totally understand something, I am usually almost as likely to be close to clueless as if I was too oblivious to even ask the question. So your realization that there is much you had not considered is actually a wonderful place to begin. Read all the links at the top of my blogroll and then proceed forward.

I hang out with, ask for input from, and really listen to people of color. I read. I watch films (both documentary and feature-length). I go out of my way to attend plays and performances by African-Americans. And I have been for decades. Through this process, I have developed what sociologists call Black "reference points" (hooks onto which to put information gathered; codes for organizing life) to supplement the White reference points with which I was raised.

Keep in mind that there's no way you can "become" Black or erase your own background. My bi-racial daughter had to point out to me in a blinding flash of the obvious one day (after she grew up) that despite the African and African-American friends we had and despite the wide range of books and music and art and so on in our home related to the diaspora and despite my work, she believes that she grew up with White reference points. I was, frankly, somewhat disappointed that my best efforts had seemingly been for naught.

Then, she said something that helped: the gifted classes she was in had no other children of color in them, so most of her peers typically looked like me. And most importantly, those were the peers she spent the most time around, the ones she would be most socialized by, and the ones with whom she would be most pressured to fit in.

On the other hand, she may, in fact, have equated class with race. In other words, many of the African-Americans around which she was raised were very poor and even though we were poor during her childhood, as well, our reference points were pretty middle class. And she may have perceived that difference as racial.

Still, neither she nor I can possibly know for certain how she might be different had I raised her without all the exposure to "Blackness."

As you evolve into what I call a bi-cultural personna, various members of society (both Black and White) will put you through changes over the years for being with a Black man and for having bi-racial children. As difficult as this will sometimes be, it will also help more than you can imagine to give you the perspectives you may at this point lack.

It may also help you to read the book I've written and am currently posting on this blog a bit at a time (scroll down to the list of labels on the right and click on "Reduced to Equality"). The book uses my life as a construct to discuss race and so includes my experiences as the mother of a bi-racial child.

The bottom line? Plunge in, love your children when they come along, be open, and expose yourself and them to as much of the gamut of life as you can. And then trust the process. As an older woman who studies humans for a living and raised two children to adulthood -- one of which has a Black father -- I can tell you that, in my opinion, that's all any parent can do anyway.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Prom Night in Mississippi

It isn't often that I watch a movie twice. I don't mean to disparage filmmakers. I do own films that I've seen many times for one reason or another. And documentaries, in particular, can bring me back again and again, especially if I decide to show them in class. But Prom Night in Mississippi, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Richard Saltzman's contribution to the HBO collection, available on DVD from Docurama films, is a rare find, indeed. I liked it even better the second time around.

The film, presented with HBO's usual state-of-the-art finesse, is the story of how, on April 19, 2008, the first ever racially-integrated high school prom was held in what Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman calls at one point, "a little bitty burg" in Mississippi. Charleston, Mississippi, with its population of just over 2000 people, where Freeman often visited his grandmother as a child, is now his home. Even so, and in spite of the fact that the public schools in Charleston were de-segregated in 1970, the local high school students had continued to have a Black prom and a White prom year after year where the groups elected separate Homecoming Kings and Queens.

In 1997, Freeman boldly offered to finance an integrated prom and was ignored. In 2007, he resurrected the offer and this time, was allowed by hesitant school administrators and parents to make a proposal to the students who agreed to the idea of having one prom for all of them on Freeman's nickel.

Describing the segregated festivities as "idiocy," Freeman was confident that the problem did not belong to the young people, but rather demonstrated a need to change the parents and school officials that teach them. The youth -- by and large -- agreed.

Jessica, a young European-American woman with close friends on both sides of the color line, is most direct: "Mississippi needs to get over its racism. And all the country/redneck/hicks can kiss. my. ass." Her White fiance, wearing longish hair and a cocked Dobb, was quick to articulate the same attitude. But not everyone interviewed expressed similar opinions.

Some of the school administrators almost immediately raised their concerns about "safety," assuring the young people (who had asked for no such reassurance) that there would be rules to "make sure you're safe," that they would "watch out for your best interests," and that they would be prepared to "deal with situations."

The first such "situation" occurred shortly thereafter, when a White girl made some flat statements in a classroom about her displeasure over the decision and a Black girl defended it. The altercation escalated until the White student finally made an unsubstantiated claim that the African-American had brought a gun to school. White parents opposed to the idea of "niggers rubbin' up against my daughter," declared that they intended to have "no mixed babies up in this house" and resolutely planned a separate Whites-only "prom" for their children anyway.

Nevertheless, Freeman called it his "prayer" that the youth would be allowed to have social contact, sure that given the chance, they would take it. And in truth, the students articulated very well the difference between being "raised racist" and "being racist." Still, with the very real specter of being disowned hanging over their heads, even a boy nicknamed "White Chocolate" -- the only European-American on the basketball team -- agreed to attend both events, to assuage his parents.

The most poignant story line concerns high school seniors Heather, with fair skin, and her boyfriend of five years, Jeremy, who is African-American. The couple, despite the White supremacist stance of Heather's step-father and the obvious fears of Jeremy's parents for his safety, are almost classically Romeo and Juliet in their camera scenes. Utterly committed to each other and full of maturity and reason, they make most of the rest of the town characters -- students and adults alike -- appear somewhat silly by comparison.

While much of the movie is conversational, it manages never to be sluggish or flat, maintaining a steady pace from start to finish and moving from point to point in such a way that the viewer can see how interwoven human community -- especially in a microcosm like Charleston, Mississippi -- really is. Juxtaposing the drama of parents and students trying to block social change with the drama of young people excitedly planning for their senior prom maintains a delicate tension throughout the film and is one of the primary reasons I enjoyed it even more the second time. The nuances are so many in number, it simply isn't possible to catch them all the first time. White Jessica with tears in her eyes as she recounts what her anti-racist stance has cost her, Black Calvin describing how the police officers who made him drop his pants on the side of the highway in an ostensible search for drugs speak to him on the street as if nothing had happened, or a White lawyer announcing in a lawyerly fashion that his "clients" (the parents who bankrolled, planned and held the Whites-only "prom") refuse to be interviewed for fear they'll be "thought racist" -- the film is loaded with sound-bites that carry the story along.

Still, Saltzman keeps the ultimate focus on the pride the students felt in, as one of them put it, "a few kids from our town changing a little piece of the world." One boy, who chose to speak only anonymously and behind a blurring screen, added: "This generation is gonna do what makes them happy...People that try to stop that are gonna be sadly disappointed in the long run." And I would argue, not just disappointed, but pushed aside and left behind. This is made particularly clear when Chasidy, the Black girl who missed being Valedictorian by a controversial ruling, announces confidently to the camera with a sly grin that her dream is to "come back and take over the high school, the whole school system, and make a difference in the world."

Here's to Chasidy, to the students of Charleston High School who attended the integrated prom in 2008, and to those responsible for bringing us this presentation so resounding with honesty, hope and joy. Because -- one way or the other -- we all live in Charleston. And that's a fact.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mr. Wendal, et al (of us?)

As things get worse and worse in our communities (and unemployment just got worse in 43 states out of 50), more and more of us become increasingly nervous about the future.

My students are worried -- and rightly so -- that the educations they're putting together with so much effort may not save them in a culture on its way to a pit from which we will more than likely not recover. Ever. At least not in the state we dream about.

But Arrested Development knew when they made this song that "civilization" means being more civil, not being more powerful or even richer. Hold that thought.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

To Kill or Not To Kill -- THAT Is The Question

The United States is one of the few countries left in the world that executes people. In fact, more than 92% of the world's executions in 2008 were carried out in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and the United States, putting us solidly in the company of some folks whose governments we often criticize.

One of the reasons the rest of the world has moved in the direction of other options (because there are other options; it's not as though we're deciding between execution and...say...sending the person in question on an all-expense paid vacation to Cancun or something) is that legal systems are NOT fool-proof. Mistakes are made. Judgments are fallible. Politics get involved. Even so-called "eye witnesses" have been demonstrated in far too many cases to be hopelessly incapable of correctly identifying the supposed perpetrator or even accurately describing what actually happened (as opposed to what they thought they saw). So what are we to do? The obvious answer is: nothing that cannot be undone.

Another reason the rest of the world has left execution as a reasonable practice behind is that it is not reasoned. In other words, as "rational" as death penalty proponents want to make it sound, murder is irrational. It is not, in my opinion, a rational act to take a life. Many of us would be hard put to eat meat if we had to kill everything we ate. And the idea of killing a human is so repugnant to most of us that war sends even the most hard core soldier into such a la-la land of psychological and emotional complications that many of those who go to war never fully recover. My work in the prison movement in the 1970's convinced me that people who kill were typically either impaired by alcohol or drugs at the time (which doesn't make it okay, but does suggest the irrational nature of the act) or they were, in fact, straight, but mentally ill enough that they were unable to make a "rational" decision. My point is that, if killing is irrational, then there's no way to make execution rational. It's killing. Hel-lo!

A third reason the rest of the world has moved on from the primitive practice of execution is that it doesn't deter crime. That is supposed to be why it's done, right? To discourage others from killing? But U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics indicate, for example, that the South -- where 80% of the executions in the U.S. occur -- has the highest regional murder rate in the nation. And, conversely, the states where there is no death penalty have the lowest. In fact, my understanding is that, in states that have abolished the death penalty and then reinstated it, the murder rate actually goes down when there are no executions and back up when they begin again. Some think this is because the message to the person in the street is: murder is a way to solve a problem.

But one of the strongest reasons I am opposed to executions is that African-Americans are SO much more likely to be on death row than people who look like me. And, while many fair-skinned folks would like to believe that this means we're just nicer people, what it actually means is that more of us have the money to get decent lawyers and, in a White supremacist system, are simply far less likely to be slapped with the ultimate sanction. It's a matter of public record that the socially-constructed, political notion of race heavily skews what happens to people -- whether guilty or innocent -- caught up in the criminal justice system. African-Americans are more likely to be stopped, rousted, arrested, taken to jail, convicted, sentenced to prison, and sentenced to the death penalty than European-Americans -- even when they've done no more than the White folks do without receiving the same punishments. For example, I have in my file an article from the front page of the Tampa Tribune comparing the cases of two 17-year-old males (one Black, one White) with the same background histories and in the courts at the same time a few years ago. The White boy robbed four crowded stores (one a large grocery store) using a loaded 9mm automatic. His punishment: two years on house arrest and a few more on probation. The Black youth was convicted of robbing two individuals on the street (in separate incidents) with a BB gun and was sentenced to six years in a maximum security adult prison. See what I'm saying? Now apply that same disparity to death row and think about it for a minute.

In any case, the arguments against murdering people and calling it "justice" have been made better elsewhere, but it is in the individual situations that it becomes so agonizing. There is, for example, the case of Troy Davis, on death row in Georgia for the shooting death of a young White boy with no facts connecting him to the crime whatsoever except that he was one of fifty kids on a bus. Why was he -- and none of the others -- charged when none of them had a gun? And, of course, there's the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, edging ever closer to execution for the shooting of a police officer because he is a Black Panther leader and a journalist in a society where either distinction can make you personna non grata. Here's the story:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

The current news in Mumia Abu-Jamal's situation is daunting. The conservative U.S. Supreme Court this week refused to make a ruling that might have brought relief in the matter. So public pressure has become crucial in fighting for this man's life. Consequently, a petition to President Barack Obama has been drafted and is now collecting signatures. The petition asks the President to call for the abolition of the death penalty globally, which would remove from Mumia and all other such prisoners the spectre of impending death by murder. If you agree with this action, please sign the petition today.
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For an astute take on the death penalty, complete with comprehensive citations, read this.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tamara K. Nopper: To White Anti-Racists

As you know, I rarely print a whole essay or post by somebody else and would not, frankly, have done it here except that I couldn't establish a permanent link straight to the essay where it originally appears in Race Traitor so I could post it at the top of my blogroll. The only alternative I could come up with was to transfer and re-post it here and then permanently post that link.

Some of you will blanch at this essay, but those of you who have become regular readers will recognize many ideas as having already appeared in this space over the past four years. This pleases me, of course. But I'm not going to claim that this piece didn't give me some things to consider even more deeply than I have previously. And in any case, it is elegant, insightful and, I think, right on the money.

The piece is clearly not intended for those who haven't a clue about race relations in this country. It is, rather, written for those of us who have been wrestling with the demons of institutionalized oppression in the name of race for some time and have tried to -- and in some cases, may have succeeded in -- making some degree of headway. I, for one, will use it to keep me honest and on-task in the same way I always receive input from people of color in terms of teaching me what I need to know to be of use in this or any struggle for human agency.

I am grateful the author took the time and dedicated the intelligence and energy to craft this work and I present it here with great respect and appreciation.

The White Anti-Racist Is an Oxymoron:
An Open Letter to “White Anti-Racists”

by Tamara K. Nopper

I received an annoying e-mail about white people and their struggle to do anti-racist work. I keep reading and hearing white people talk about their struggle to do anti-racist organizing, and frankly it gets on my nerves. So I am writing this open letter to white people who engage in any activist work that involves or affects non-whites. Given that the US social structure is founded on white supremacy, and that there is a global order in which white supremacy and European domination are at large, I would challenge any white person to figure out what movement or action they can get involved in that will not involve or affect non-white people.

That said, I want to begin with what has become a realization for me through the help of different politically conscious friends. There is NO SUCH THING AS A WHITE ANTI-RACIST. The term itself, "white anti- racist" is an oxymoron. In the following, I will explain why. Then, I will begin to detail how this impacts non-white people in organizing work specifically, along with how it affects non-white people generally.

First, one must realize that whiteness is a structure of domination. As such, there is nothing redeemable or reformable about whiteness. Intellectuals, scholars and activists, especially those who are non- white, have drawn our attention to this for years. For example, people such as Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and many, many others who are perhaps less famous, have articulated the relationship between whiteness and domination.

Further, people such as Douglass and DuBois began to outline how whiteness is a social and political construct that emphasizes the domination, authority, and perceived humanity of those who are racialized as white. They, along with many other non-white writers and orators, have pointed to the fact that it was the bodies who were able to be racialized as "white" that were able to be viewed as rational, authoritative, and deserving. Further, and believe me, this is no small thing, white people are viewed as human. What this means is that when white people suffer, as some who are poor/female/queer, they nevertheless are able to have some measure of sympathy for their plight simply because they are white and their marginalization is considered an emergency, crisis or an issue to be concerned about.

Furthermore, even when white people have been oppressed by various dimensions of classism, homophobia and heterosexism, they have been able to opt for what DuBois, in his monograph "Black Reconstruction" brilliantly called "the psychological wage of whiteness." That is, whites that are marginalized could find comfort, even if psychological, in the fact that they were not non-white. They could revel in the fact that they could be taken as white in opposition to non-white groups. The desire for this wage of whiteness was also what drove many white people, albeit marginalized, to engage in organized violence against non-whites.

Of course, legal cases such as the Dred Scott Decision along with many different naturalization cases involving Asian individuals, has helped to encode a state-sanctioned definition of whiteness. But there are other ways in which white people can be racialized as white by the state. They are not stopped while driving as much as non-white people. Their homes and businesses are not raided and searched as much by police officers, INS or License and Inspections (L&I). White people's bodies are not tracked and locked up in prisons, detention centers, juvenile systems, detention halls in classrooms, "special education" classes, etc. White people's bodies are not generally the site of fear, repulsion, violent desire, or hatred.

Now some might point out to me that white people are followed, tracked and harassed by individuals and state agents such as the police. This is true. Some white women get sexually harassed and experience state-sanctioned discrimination. Queer whites are the subject of homophobia, whether by individuals or by the state through laws and the police. Some queer whites are harassed by cops. Activist whites are stopped by police. White people who play rap music and wear gear are stopped by cops. Poor whites can be criminalized, especially by the state around welfare issues. What I want to point out is that, while I do not condone police violence and harassment, there is a way in which white people will not be viewed as inherently criminal or suspect unless they are perceived as doing something that breaks particular norms.

Conversely, other racial groups, particularly Blacks and Native Americans, are considered inherently criminal no matter what they do, what their sexual identity is or what they wear. Further, it has always struck me as interesting that there are white people who will attempt to wear what signifies "Blackness," whether it is dreadlocks (which, in my opinion, should be cut off from every white person's head), "gear," or Black masks at rallies. There is a sick way in which white people want to emulate that which is considered "badass" about a certain existential position of Blackness at the same time they do not want the burden of living as a non-white person. Further, it really strikes me as fucked up the way in which white people will go to rallies and taunt the police with Black masks in order to bring on police pressure. What does it mean when Blackness is strategically used by whites to bring on police violence? Now I know that somewhere there is a dreadlocked, smelly white anarchist who is reading this message and who is angry with me for not understanding the logic of the Black masks and its roots in anarchism. But I would challenge these people to consider how they are reproducing a violence towards Blackness in their attempts to taunt and challenge the police in their efforts.

Now back to my point that white anti-racism is an oxymoron. Whiteness is a social and political construct rooted in white supremacy. White supremacy is a structure and system of beliefs rooted in European and US imperialism in which certain racialized bodies (non-white) are selected for premature negation whether through cultural, physical, psychological genocide, containment or other forms of social death. White supremacy is at the heart of the US social system and civil society. In short, white supremacy is not just a series of practices or privilege, but a larger social structure and system of domination that overly-values and rewards those who are racialized as white. The rest of us are constructed as undeserving to be considered human, although there is significant variation within non-white populations of how our bodies are encoded, treated and (de)valued.

Now, for one to claim whiteness, one also is invested in white supremacy. Whiteness itself is a political term that emerged among European white ethnics in the US. These European ethnics, many of them reviled, chose to cast their lot with whiteness rather than that with those who had been determined as non-white. In short, anyone who claims to be white, even a white anti-racist, is identifying with a history of European imperialism and racism transported and further developed into the US.

However, this does not mean that white people who go around saying dumb things such as "I am not white! I am a human being!" or, "I left whiteness and joined the human race," or my favorite, "I hate white people! They're stupid" are not structurally white. Remember, whiteness is a structure of domination embedded in our social relations, institutions, discourses, and practices. Don't tell me you're not white but then when we go out in the street and the police don't bother you or people don't ask you if you're a prostitute, or if people don't follow you and touch you at will, act like that does not make a difference in our lives. Basically, you can't talk, or merely "unlearn" whiteness, as all of these annoying trainings for white people to "unlearn" racism will have you think.

Rather, white people need to be willing to have their very social position, their very relationship of domination, their very authority, their very being...let go, perhaps even destroyed. I know this might sound scary, but that is really not my concern. I am not interested in making white people, even those so-called good-hearted anti-racist whites, comfortable about their position in struggles that shape my life in ways that it will never shape theirs. I recently finished the biography of John Brown by DuBois. The biography was less of a biography and more of an interpretation by DuBois about the now-legendary white abolitionist. Now while John Brown's practice was problematic in many ways--he still had to be in control and he had fucked-up views that Blacks were still enslaved because they were too "servile" (a white supremacist sentiment)--what I took from Brown's life was that he realized that moral persuasion alone would not solve racial problems. That is, whites cannot talk or just think through whiteness and structures of white supremacy. They must be committed to either picking up arms for other people (and only firing when the people tell them so), dying for other people, or just getting out of the way. In short, they must be willing to do what the people most affected and marginalized by a situation tell them to do.

Now I am sure that right now there are some white people saying that other people cannot understand what is going on, that they do not have the critical analysis to figure stuff out, or that non-white people have fucked up ideas. This is just white supremacist bullshit because it is rooted in the idea that non-white people have not interpreted their experiences and cannot run things themselves. It also assumes that there are not internal conversations within communities--which I do not think white people need to be privy to or participate in--in which people struggle out their own visions for society and how to go about achieving them. In short, this perspective by whites that non-white people cannot be in control of our own destinies is rooted in a paternally-racist approach to non-white people.

Further, it is also rooted in the idea that white people are not racist or do not benefit from racism. Rather, white people at meetings will often discuss how they feel "silenced" by non-whites, or that they are being "put in their place." Let me make one thing clear: it is impossible for a non-white person to put a white person in her place. This is not to say that non-white people cannot have a sexist or homophobic attitude towards a white person. But to say, or even hint at that as a "WHITE" person someone is being put in their place--whoever says this just needs to shut the fuck up because that is some bull. It is impossible for whiteness to be put in one's place, because that is a part of whiteness, the ability to take up space and feel a prerogative to do so.

Further, the idea that white people are being put into their place relies on the neo-conservative view of reverse racism that has characterized the backlash against non-whites, especially Blacks, in the post-civil rights era. So when you say these types of things you are actually helping to reproduce a neo-conservative racial rhetoric which relies on the myth of the "threatened" and "displaced" white person.

Additionally, white activism, especially white anti-racism, is predicated on an economy of gratitude. We are supposed to be grateful that a white person is willing to work with non-white people. We are supposed to be grateful that you actually want to work with us and that you give us your resources. I would like to know why you have those resources and others do not? And don't assume that just because I have to ask you for resources that it does not hurt me, pain me even. Don't assume that when you come into the space, that doesn't bother me. Don't assume that when you talk first, talk the most, and talk the most often, that this doesn't hurt me. Don't assume that when I see you get the attention and accolades and the book deals and the speaking engagements that this does not hurt me (because you profit off of pain). And don't assume that when I see how grateful non-white people are to you for being there, for being a "good white" person that this doesn't hurt me. And don't assume that when I get chastised by non-white people because I think your presence is unnecessary that it does not hurt me. Because all of these things remind me of how powerless non-white people are (albeit differently) in relation to white people. All of these gestures that you do reminds me of how grateful I am supposed to be towards you because you actually (or supposedly) care about what is happening to me. I am a bit resentful of economies of gratitude.

Further, this structure of white supremacy known as white anti-racism also impacts the larger social world because it still makes white people the most valued people. Non-white people are forced to feel dependent and grateful to white people who will actually interact with us. We are made to feel that we are inferior, incapable, that we really do need white people. And the sad thing is, that given all of the resources that whiteness has and that white people get and control, there is an element of material truth in all of this, I am afraid. But white people need to think of how their activism reproduces the actual structure of white supremacy some--not all whites activists--profess to be about. This structure of white supremacy is not just in an activist space, it actually touches upon and impinges on the lives of non-white people who may not be activists (in your sense) or who do not interact with you in activist worlds.

But consider what your presence means in a community that you decide to set up your community garden in, or your bookstore in, or your meeting space in, or have your march in. What does it mean when you decide that you want to be "with" the oppressed and you end up displacing them? Just because you walk around with your dreadlocks, or decide that you will not wear expensive clothes does not mean that your whiteness does not displace people in the spaces you decide to put yourself in. How do you help to bring more forms of authority and control in a neighborhood, whether through increased rent and housing costs, more policing, or just the ways in which your white bodies can make people feel, as a brilliant friend of mine once asked, "squatters in somebody else's project"?

So what does this mean for the future of white anti-racists? This might mean to first, figure out ways in which whiteness needs to die as a social structure and as an identity in which you organize your anti-racist work. What this looks like in practice may not be so clear but I will attempt to give some suggestions here. First, don't call us, we'll call you. If we need your resources, we will contact you. But don't show up, flaunt your power in our faces and then get angry when we resent the fact that you have so many resources we don't and that we are not grateful for this arrangement. And don't get mad because you can't make decisions in the process. Why do you need to? Secondly, stop speaking for us. We can talk for ourselves. Third, stop trying to point out internal contradictions in our communities, we know what they are, we are struggling around them, and I really do not know how white people can be helpful to non- whites to clear these up. Fourth, don't ever say some shit to me about how you feel silenced, marginalized, discriminated against, or put in your place. Period. Finally, start thinking of what it would mean, in terms of actual structured social arrangements, for whiteness and white identity--even the white antiracist kind (because there really is no redeemable or reformed white identity)--to be destroyed.

In conclusion, I want to say to anyone who thinks that this is too academic or abstract, I write as a non-white person, meaning that from my body, my person, I experience white supremacy. I also draw my understanding of white supremacy from non-white people, many engaged in various struggles of activism, but most importantly just to speak out and stay alive. They did not get accolades from many for speaking out but instead experienced constant threats on their lives for just existing and doing the work that they did. Moreover, I want to know when a discussion of whiteness, white supremacy and domination became seen as abstract and not rooted in the everyday concrete reality that we experience?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ya basta! It is enough!

A friend of mine, watching a special on Martin Luther King, Jr. the other day with her oldest grandson, was startled when he turned to her and asked point blank, "If Martin Luther King died so I can have equal rights, why am I still treated differently in school because I'm Black?"

This child doesn't need a blog post to tell him what his daily experience of life is. And the look of pain in his eyes wounded her so badly, she could hardly discuss the conversation.

The story reminded me of the statement the Zapatistas released when they first rose up against their own government's collusion in signing the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994: "We have nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, no decent roof over our heads, no land, no work, poor health, no food, no education, no right to freely and democratically choose our leaders, no independence from foreign interests, and no justice for ourselves or our children. But we say enough is enough! We are the descendants of those who truly built this nation, we are millions of dispossessed, and we call upon all our brethren to join our crusade..."

The boy's question also reminded me of a post written by Dana Goldstein about school de-segregation and the federal stimulus dollars. Goldstein suggests that fancy federally-funded urban magnet schools are the answer to the problems she so well describes. I don't agree. That may work in Connecticutt, but it hasn't worked most places because "magnet" programs (full of White kids) are typically run like separate schools with different buses, different lunch times, different entrances, and so forth (to make the programs fit the guidelines, while also being palatable to White parents who really want the benefits without having to actually have their children interact with...you know...those children).

Still, the post does draw attention to damning research on the fairness of schools for children of color, something Jonathan Kozol has beaten fairly to death in his many books and articles on what he termed Savage Inequality in one title. Goldstein also links to a new report by UCLA's Civil Rights Project that outlines why Black children are more likely to be attending a majority Black school now than they were in 1988. Sigh.

Martin Luther King, Jr., may have had a dream about little Black children and little White children, but so far, big White parents are managing to make sure those children meet as little as possible under positive circumstances. But then the U.S. Supreme Court only mandated full and speedy de-segregation of all public schools in this country as a matter of constitutional rights in 1956. U.S. citizens of color can't expect to have their constitutional rights recognized and protected -- just because they're U.S. citizens -- in only fifty-four years. Right?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

New Blog: For Want of a Nail

I've recently become aware of and begun reading a new blog named For Want of a Nail. While it covers a broader spectrum of topics than Why Am I Not Surprised?, a couple of posts in particular of late dealt with issues I'd like to highlight here: first of all, the mean-spirited idiocy of kicking the Haitians while they're down; and second, the racial profiling currently being touted as the so-called "solution" to terrorists blowing up planes. It's always great to welcome a new voice to the blogosphere and, when warranted, pass the word along that it's out there. In this case, it's warranted. So check out For Want of a Nail while you have your morning coffee. It's still in its formative stages, but definitely developing all the earmarks of a space worth regular visits as things in the good old U.S. of A. get weirder by the minute.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Help for Haiti

For the past two days, I've been thinking about how to send some financial help to Haiti. There are many organizations scrambling for funds right now and frankly, I don't have much confidence in most of them. Then, Color of Change sent out an email suggesting support of Partners in Health. Partners in Health is a medically-based assistance program that was started in Haiti by Dr. Paul Farmer, one of my heroes. And I totally support their work. So I just made a donation to Partners in Health. After reading what Color of Change has to say and checking out Partners in Health, you may want to donate, as well:

"As you almost certainly know, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of people or more are likely dead, and a third of the country's residents may need emergency aid.

"As we watch images from the region, it's hard not to think of the shock and helplessness we felt after Hurricane Katrina when we watched the lives of large numbers of people, largely Black, torn apart by natural disaster, and in another poverty-stricken and neglected part of the world.

"In response to Katrina, ColorOfChange members stood up by the thousands to help. Today, we're asking you to consider doing so again. Partners in Health is one of several organizations doing good work, and we're confident that dollars contributed to them will go far in providing direct, immediate aid. Click here to help.

"Haiti was the world's first independent Black republic, and many of us feel a special pride in the country's origins. Haiti's former slaves took on Napoleon and declared their independence from France in 1804, decades before the U.S. and the rest of the Western Hemisphere would end slavery. In those years, the small island nation was seen as a thorn in the side of its neighbors in the Americas and Europe. With their act of defiance, Haitians proved that Black people could govern themselves at a time when leaders of the world's most powerful countries considered Africans and African descendants less than human.

"Since that revolutionary moment, the country's residents have often suffered. Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, with four out of five people living in poverty even before disaster struck. More than 3,000 people died because of hurricanes and tropical storms in the last decade, and thousands more were left homeless.

"Tuesday's earthquake dealt the latest and most devastating blow for Haiti. The recovery will be long and hard. And like the Gulf, it will take a long-term commitment. The financial support we give today needs to be just the beginning, but it is a crucial start. Please consider giving what you can, either to Partners in Health or another organization that is providing critically-needed services.

"To give, click here."

Thanks and Peace,

James, Gabriel, William, Dani, Milton and the rest of the ColorOfChange.org team

Things Gonna Change

Things are, as John Lee Hooker tells us here with the help of Carlos Santana, gonna change. And when they do, what are we going to be able to tell the children we did while the change was happening?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tout moun se noun. (All people are human beings.)

The boys and young men in Port-au-Prince that I have come to think of as my sons are quiet now. I don't know what...or how...to think.

I am quiet, too. I weep, but run quickly into a desolation that has no tears.

My friend Karine is alive. Her brother, though, is under the rubble. Not "dead," but "under the rubble." Sociologists call the social rules that develop at a time like this "emergent norms."

I long to have my Skype ring, my phone or my email box receive a cryptic message from Peter. But I know it isn't possible. Not now. Maybe tomorrow, though I don't expect it soon. Or even necessarily ever. He and the other boys live in the slums, which went down hard. I am not willing to use the past tense yet. I am not willing and I won't. As if my refusal will keep a young pair of lungs buried under concrete moving in and out, a young heart beating.

I stay busy because not to stay busy is to stare into the air in front of me as if it has turned to gel and is creeping up my body toward my nostrils where I, too, will stop breathing. Like the hundred thousand Haitians who were there only a day ago. And now are...not.

Peter taught me to say in Creole, "Depi nou gen la vi gen lespwa. " ("Where there is life, there is hope.") But with so much loss of life, I am losing hope, as well.

May we live this day as sacred. With a reverance for its connections between all humans and all other living things. May we remember always that life is not a given. And may we take every opportunity to bless each other with love.

To see some of the first photos that have come out of Haiti, go here.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Call to Action

Sometime last fall, I was making my rounds of the blogosphere (something I've been embarrassingly remiss in doing over the past year), and I came across a post that raised some questions I haven't been able to shake. It was written by Nezua, the Unapologetic Mexican, and while it's taken me a bit of time to get back to it for a response I fully intended to write months ago, I am here and stirred and, after this weekend, more convinced than ever that I must do so.

What caused me to drag out my notes (yes, I do, on occasion, make notes as I read something I know I'm going to have to respond to) and then re-read the post because the notes no longer made sense even to me, was a statement made by a local minister of some renown and great influence as he briefly addressed a group of Black leaders and assorted others at a meeting this weekend. What he said -- quite strongly and more than once in a short span -- was: "We are not activists!"

The "we" he was referring to was a newly formed Interdenominational African-American Ministerial Alliance that has elected him President (a major honor and, from what I can gather, the by far and away most appropriate choice by the organization). The group was formed to address a couple of things. First, the long-standing strangle-hold on all the power and the money in this parish by an elite of White families and individuals since reconstruction or before. And second, the accepted practice by a few Black ministers of knowing which side their bread was buttered on. Business as usual in this parish has long-since come to be represented by a stand-off involving the White power-structure on one side of the tracks and the mostly poverty-stricken African-American community on the other.

But four years ago, a woman named Pat Morris accepted the presidency of the local branch of the NAACP and more or less simultaneously kick-started a renewed commitment to see a court decision from 1979 that was supposed to de-segregate the schools actually de-segregate the schools. Understand, this is about considerably more than de-segregating the schools. In actuality, it's about leveling the playing field by giving children of color in this parish the same education and therefore ultimate access to the same opportunities as White kids. And it's about identifying and redirecting multiple millions of dollars that have either been routed disproportionately to "White" schools or somewhere else entirely. This is a slap in the face to every red-blooded redneck in the region. You're offended by the word "redneck"? Well, I'm offended by the fact that this court order has never been implemented and tens of thousands of U.S. citizens raised in these parts have been hung out to dry for an additional thirty years as if at the end of figurative nooses so that they not only cannot compete with their White counterparts, but worse, believe it's their fault and they don't deserve better.

Anyway, when Morris jacked up the local school board and announced that it was a new day hereabouts, nobody initially took much notice. School administrators didn't feel threatened. Local elected officials didn't look up from their paperwork. The newspapers ignored her. And even the Black community leaders barely shrugged. But eventually, she virtually single-handedly raised enough money to get the lawyer who won the case in the first place to petition successfully for the re-opening of the case (something that has not to date been accomplished anywhere else in the country).

An uneasy ripple made its way across the parish. Hush money was proffered and accepted by some. Not by Pat Morris, though the amount reached $50,000 at one point. Her captains were offered dreams come true, but they also refused. And she put out the word: "I am not for sale, nor are those at my hand."

Even a college degree and some grad school couldn't get her a job flipping burgers anywhere in the parish -- not that she has time to work for pay anyway with all the work she does literally daily keeping tabs on ever unfolding injustices in one school or another, up-dating the website she maintains (that's up to half a million hits a month now), and staying on top of the on-going court proceedings in New Orleans. Her basic needs from month to month either go unmet or get met by friends who manage to keep her head barely above water and not all the time. Why she doesn't give up is a mystery to most. But she hasn't.

And so the threats began. Clandestine and bitter phone calls threatening her life in various ways backed up by occasional attempts. Loosened lug nuts on all her tires at the same time, for example, only discovered because of a flat tire in her driveway one morning. And now sugar in her gas tank, not once, but twice. The threats and harrassment have escalated over time and the pressure of it all takes a toll on Morris' health. She has started quoting Martin Luther King's mountaintop speech about having seen the Promised Land and after two years of following her around, doing what I can to help, I've decided she couldn't stop if she wanted to. And I understand this personally. Which is why I follow her around. And why she lets me.

Morris and a handful of die-hard supporters -- including a legal team with serious flaws, but smart minds, thick skins, and strong backbones -- have, thus far prevailed somehow. Part of it is that we are on the side of right. And part of it is that the time has come. But the opposition is monied and powerful, entrenched, unapologetic and pretty desperate to keep the shadows where they are for a variety of reasons.

More recently though, the aforementioned Ministerial Alliance formed, elected their President and released the news that they were going to work together to implement change across the board, that they were committed to justice and fairness for all in the parish and would seek to see the African-American community organize in its own best interests -- finally. When I watched the news video of the announcement, I was thrilled. For them. For the community, both White and Black. For the children, particularly the children of color. For all of us.

And then, Saturday, the Alliance President made his statements about not being "activists."

I knew where it was coming from and, though surprised to hear it, was not critical of his attempt to clarify their intent. I'm sure phone calls and visits and offers have been made. I'm sure sweet deals appeared in forms that were -- on some level, at least -- acceptable (not that they were necessarily accepted). And I'm sure there were some threats implied wherever a weakness might most easily receive one.

One of those threats is usually the threat to be seen as a "troublemaker." As less than reasonable, less than stable, less than worthy of respect and, worst of all, less than acceptable to the greater community. In other words, as an "activist" rather than a "minister."

Ministers have always been the power figures in the Black community. It's why Martin Luther King, Jr., let himself be talked into studying for the ministry instead of following his first inclination to be a lawyer. And certainly there are those who criticized King resoundingly for speaking out against the war in Vietnam and for getting himself arrested. But, if you look into the Bible (since we're talking here about Christian ministers), almost everybody whose story appears there was way, way out on front street in the era in which he, or even she, lived. And what does activism mean other than taking action, doing something rather than just talking about it?

Which brings me back to the Unapologetic Mexican's post. In it, Nezua asks, "Do you ever feel we are not even having the right conversations?" And I thought when I read it, "Yes!" And he goes on at some length to articulate in grand fashion many of the ideas with which so many of those of us who work for justice struggle.

He talks about the "tiny revolts" inside ourselves so necessary to moving forward, what Bob Marley called "emancipating our minds from mental slavery" because "only we can free ourselves."

"What behaviors do I maintain in thought and action that keep me rooted in one place? Or moving too slow or in the wrong direction? What tiny revolt is needed in my own life?" asked Nezua last fall. It is so easy to see what's wrong -- out there -- and so hard to decide what to do about it and how to get it done without first beginning to do what some of my friends call "the inside job." There is often such a sense of hopelessness when speaking truth to Power or putting my personal fears aside (including the fear that I'll be ridiculed or lose the opportunity to do something else I think is important).

Nezua writes how thankless and ineffectual voting, writing letters to editors or even blogging often seem to be. "Visualizing peace" hasn't brought it, he notes. "Taking shorter showers" won't solve global warming, he suggests. So what combination of actions (because it is only action -- of some kind -- that will accomplish anything) should we try? Even when I speak (and I do so as often as I can), I am urging to action, trying to inspire action. But what action?

Nezua suggests that we need to unleash a virus, a virulent positive undermining correctional therapy that will eat the ugliness and the injustice and the selfishness and the brutality and replace it all with...well...their opposites. But what would this virus look like and how in the world (literally, since it's becoming increasingly apparent when we connect the dots that the survival of the whole human race is at stake here) could it be developed and by whom?

And here's where I throw in my two cents, I guess (or maybe one cent, because it's not a very thoroughly crafted thought yet). I think one crucially needed action (or activism, if you will) is to demonstrate to the young how to walk with integrity, which requires standing (an action) for what one believes to be true. The youth are angry and frustrated and heartsick over the shape things are in. And not just poor youth either. So many of them have watched their elders accept the status quo even when the status quo is desperately damaging to our communities, our society, our environment, and our future well-being as a human race. And they don't respect that. And they don't know what to do about it. Because so much damage has already been done, they're not sure there's any possibility to move in a more positive direction. And they need people to follow.

I have a twenty-eight-year-old daughter. She makes three times what I do in a field she loves. She lives a good life and she tries, I truly believe, to be a good person. She's kind and she's intelligent and she works hard and she cares about pretty much all the right stuff. But she's not sure, she tells me, that the human race has a future because of the decisions and the actions of those who have gone before her.

What am I supposed to tell her? That as long as her life is okay, nothing else matters? That if she just keeps doing the next right thing herself, nobody else is important? That the choices and the decision-making of the Powers-That-Be are unaddressable by the 98% of us who are not making those choices and decisions even when they determine the state of our own lives and the lives of our children?

I cannot sprinkle pixie dust on her world. I cannot wave a magic wand and turn this place we live into a utopia. But I can live in such a credible way that she will have some hope to cling to in the darkness of our present age. I can model for her a kind of humanity I would hope she would want to espouse for herself, one that would reassure her deepest sense of rightness in a world gone wrong. I can demonstrate for her -- and all the children everywhere -- how to invest in a future that would bring to fruition what I believe we are capable of as individuals and as a collective whole.

And all of those are actions. It is this "activism," in fact, that is my legacy to her and to every manifestation of life on this planet we call Earth. It is this activism I dedicate to all who live now and all who came before us and died that we might serve our purpose here more fully. And it is this beautiful activism I offer in partial payment of the debt I owe for the gift of another day of life.

A favorite quotation often repeated by those who press for change dates back to a member of the British Parliament in the 1700's, Sir Edmond Burke: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." What most of us don't realize is that Burke -- whose most famous published treatis was written against the French Revolution -- has been called "the father of conservatism." In other words, those who champion the entrenchment of Power over People know perfectly well the undeniable importance of "activism." When are enough of the rest of us going to grasp to our bosoms this critical -- nay, crucial -- truth?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Mother Jones: Southern Injustice

After all I've read and written about the Angola 3, it amazes me that I can continue to learn more about the men involved, the case and the system in Louisiana. The latest piece I've seen, for example, written by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella for Mother Jones, contains information about an administrative power struggle in the early 1970's that resulted at one point in a group of Louisiana State Prison staff members shoving Deputy Warden Lloyd Hoyle through a plate glass door, after which he very nearly bled to death. And if this is how they treated "their own," it's not hard to imagine what prisoners were up against at the time Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace (seen above) were railroaded for the murder of a young White prison guard because of their activist stance as members of the Black Panther Party.

Whether or not you've read about the Angola 3 case previously here or elsewhere, I highly recommend reading Ridgeway and Casella's superbly written article. It outlines the most comprehensive history of this now famous and on-going case I've seen to date, as well as the latest developments and the current situation involving "Shaka" Woodfox and "Hooks" Wallace.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Here Comes 2010, Ready or Not



"In addition to the traditional concept of true commitment that means you are willing to die for what you think is right, make equal space for the concept of commitment that means you are willing to live for what you believe." -- June Jordan