Monday, March 17, 2008

The problem with progress

Okay, that’s just a catchy headline. The problem isn’t with progress, but our reaction to it. When it comes to social progress, America is like a chronically ill person who stops taking his meds prematurely once the most egregious symptoms are gone.

Regarding racial inequality and black Americans, our country took its “medicine” through civil war, grassroots rebellion and governmental upheaval. As a result, the most egregious symptoms of racism are gone—slavery, lynching “parties,” poll taxes, “sundown towns” and government-sanctioned (or at least ignored) hate crimes against black citizens, are for the most part, sad stories from out past. And so, America put away its medicine. And because we have stopped having substantive racial dialogue, because we have too soon forgotten the sins of yesterday and too long ignored the sins of today, America’s low-grade fever is turning into an infection: a race-torn presidential primary where a nationally-known politician can say without irony that black men are privileged in American culture, and even white progressives are shocked at the anger coming from the pulpit of a black church.

From recent conversations in the media and online, several things are clear to me:

To many people, racism against blacks is something that happened long, long ago. Some folks indignantly point out that slavery ended more than 100 years ago, as if with the stroke of Lincoln’s pen, white citizens embraced their black sisters and brothers as equals, gave them 40 acres and a mule, taught them to read and write, and all lived happily ever after. No Reconstruction. No Jim Crow. It escapes people that a 30-something like me could have a parent who grew up with the specter of lynching, and who was not allowed to attend school with white children, drink from white fountains or ride at the front of the bus; that I could have grandparents who were not allowed to vote until they were well into their 60s. For most black people alive today, egregious racism is not some long ago thing, it a thing that has touched our lives and those of people we know and love.

The mainstream is fairly unaware of the prejudice that black people face daily in this country—from the innocuous, like black women having our natural hair viewed as ugly and unprofessional, to the noxious, like young black men being pulled over by police at gunpoint for driving while black. Black people tend to discuss these things only among ourselves, and covert racism isn’t juicy enough for primetime. Of course, overt racism still exists but even it is more circumspect. There may be no poll tax, but there are other ways of disenfranchising black voters, as we have seen recently in Florida. A black executive may be allowed into the boardroom, but she will likely have to prove far more than her colleagues to get there. As a result, too many people believe the “playing field” is even and that African Americans may even be more privileged than whites.

To the mainstream, acceptance of a people of color means to give them honorary majority status. In other words, acceptance isn’t so much acknowledging and embracing my blackness, but more expecting my experiences to be same as that of the mainstream. It is good, we think in America, to not see race. So, acknowledging race is bad and pointing out racism amounts to “playing the race card.” A black person is much safer in the workplace or, say, running for public office, if they are racially nebulous. Not too black. To show too much ethnicity is to make yourself the “other,” which makes people uncomfortable.

The mainstream is largely unaware of black culture. Unless, of course, black culture means hip hop—that Americans are all too familiar with. But most people don’t know true black culture, in the way black Americans know mainstream culture. I find it interesting how many people were offended not just by the words of Barack Obama’s former pastor, but by his “tone.” I have heard Rev. Wright described as “hysterical” and “angry” by pundits and everyday folk. It confirmed that Sunday really is the most segregated day of the week, because clearly most Americans have never set foot in a black church where thundering from the pulpit is de rigueur. I grew up in a "saditty" black church, far more reserved in culture than Trinity United Church of Christ, but even at First Baptist the preacher knew a good sermon had to build to a rousing, stomping end. People also seem largely unaware of the black church’s ongoing role in the fight for social justice. MLK was a reverend you know. I once took a fascinating class on black radicalism and the church. It traced the role of religion in Africa, in black peoples’ fight against enslavement in America and in civil rights. Incidentally, the class was taught by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. All this shouting and protesting isn’t necessarily part of the mainstream spiritual experience, and so it is viewed as odd and frightening.

The lack of critical discussion about race has allowed these misunderstandings and false notions to stand. As I said in a post back in 2007, race is now theater for the media—a ratings grabber, not an issue to be weighed and dissected. That is why in all the furor over Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments from the pulpit of TUCC, no one has bothered to ask if black Americans agree with his sentiments, and if so, why. No one has bothered to ask why there may be a patriotism gap in our country among the mainstream and the marginalized. That kind of discussion takes too much time and too much patience. Yelling and pontificating is flashier and can be wrapped up by the commercial break.

Bad heirs

My generation has to bear some of the blame for the situation we are in. We black GenXers, born roughly 1965 to 1975, are the heirs of the civil rights movement. We thought our parents and grandparents risked their lives and reputations, faced hoses and dogs, shouldered indignities and limitations, so we wouldn’t have to. And for the most part, we don’t have to. We are free to go to prestigious law schools that our parents would never have been allowed into. We can frequent restaurants that would have forbidden service to our grandparents. We can freely exercise our right to vote; hell, some folks are talking about NOT voting in the November election. You know you are free when you can toss away a privilege your ancestors would have died for, that some in fact did die for.

But that’s the point isn’t it. One of my dad’s favorite admonishments to my siblings and I is: “That’s the problem with you all. You think you’re already free.” Now, my dad is not trying to limit my sister, brother and I. He and my mom raised us to believe that we could achieve anything we wanted to. What he is trying to remind us is that while we are enjoying the considerable fruits of his labor, and the labor of others who were involved in civil rights, we shouldn’t falsely believe the battle is won and be lulled into complacency.

And my generation has been far too complacent.

We have failed to take the reins of the civil rights movement, leaving it in the hands of men like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and organizations like the NAACP that have failed to adequately address new challenges faced by the black community. We have allowed the old voices to be the only voices heard.

We have failed to fight for our history to be accepted as American history, so that slavery and egregious racism and their continued affect on black Americans is not forgotten.

We have failed to speak up about overt and covert racism and its impact on the lives of African Americans, and we have too often let both “isms” be seen as anomalies in a largely-colorblind world.

But it is not all our fault. Sometimes it seems as if, after the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, black "leaders" failed to plan for the work that would be neccessary after our most basic rights were won. After all, we want more than just basic rights; we want the rights that every other American citizen has.

As disappointed as I am with the trajectory of the Democratic primary season, perhaps all the racial tension will be good for us. Maybe it will be the thing that shakes my generation of black women and men, and indeed, the country, from its complacency and reminds us that the battle for equality is not yet won. Maybe this presidential race will be the thing that makes us all get real about racism. Maybe this presidential election is the kick in the pants we need to spark substantive discussion about race. Maybe the battle for a Democratic presidential nominee will force America to start taking its medicine again, before it is too late.

UPDATE: Read The New York Times' article on divisions between races highlighted by the Wright flap.


mrshadow33 said...

Right on with the right on Tami!
You are so right. There are so many things that I am disappointed with so much with what is going on.

However, soldiers in the soldiers in the struggle like ourselves will keep on truckin! (I couldn't help putting in the reference to the Eddie Kendrick song)

Nicole said...

Tami, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I personally have caught myself being lax and thinking that the race was won and all I had left to do was claim my prize - a prize someone else worked for. The older I get, the more involved I've become and I see that in many of my friends (of all races). Perhaps the fight that was in 20 year olds of the 60s/70s is in us too, it's just rearing it's head later for some.

Kandee said...

What a fantastic post!

Colorblindness benefits those who want to dismiss culture, particularly Black culture - where tolerance is just that, tolerance; where acceptance is making majority culture ones own. The reality of cultural separation is evident when social activism via Sunday service is so horrifyingly different from what 'they' know church to be. It seems more about the shock of hearing a cultural voice they thought had died with MLK than the sermon's criticism of foreign policy.

Once again, what a fantastic post.

NOLA radfem said...

I was recently reading Robin Morgan's "Sisterhood is Forever" and she said that "feminism may be a victim of its own success," meaning that feminism achieved some progress, but just enough that people a) think equality is already achieved, and so b) have become complacent about the struggle.

This is what I see happening with race too. I mean, there's great improvement, so mainstream society (read: "white and male") pronounces equality achieved.

And it's so frustrating to some of us who work on these issues, who work with the damage done to real human beings from persistent states of inequality, to STILL keep having to spend time convincing MOST PEOPLE that, yes, we still have a problem. It's exhausting.

When I'm feeling charitable, I assume this blindness to ongoing inequality is simply a function of privilege - male culture doesn't see sexism because it doesn't affect men and white culture doesn't see racism because it doesn't affect whites.

When I'm more pissed off, though, I think somebody is trying to shut us all up. I really do (and by "somebody" I guess I mean society and members of the mainstream, that it's not just a matter of blindness to privilege but something more deliberate, even more malignant). Did you read Susan's Faludi's new book "The Terror Dreams?" The first half was excellent and she explained about how 9/11 spawned an immediate drive to quash feminism. When I say immediate, it was literally within HOURS. Susan Faludi got a call in the morning ON 9/11 by some dude looking for a "cultural reaction" piece from a feminist perspective. And before Faludi could even gather her thoughts, he snickered, "What I mean is, I guess this takes 'women's issues' off the table, doesn't it?" For months afterwards, she kept getting calls from journalists wanting to pronounce feminism dead. Women journalists were by far the majority of those few daring to write pieces questioning the "they hate us for our freedoms" meme, and, as Faludi shows, they were targeted with shocking viciousness and silenced (for example, Barbara Kingsolver). Meanwhile, the mainstream press was writing about how because of 9/11, women were going to start staying home with their kids instead of working (no such trend), how women would rush to marry somebody / anybody (no such trend), how women were lusting after firefighters and "manly men" (no such trend). As Faludi explains it, 9/11 became, within hours, a way to set back women's gains.

I apologize for kind of hijacking the topic - which was race - but I see so many parallels to what happens with feminism. It seems to me that what happened on 9/11 makes a strong case for the fact that SOMEONE - or some someones - is in a big hurry to shut us up by just proclaiming "equality achieved."

Hey, I just had this vision, you know, of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner, but instead it says, "Equality Achieved." Another lie, used to silence any criticism of the toll in human life going on even as that banner is unfurled.

Tami said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Kandee--The idea of colorblindness drives me right up a wall!

Nola--You aren't hijacking the thread. I totally agree with you. The same thing is happening with feminism. I haven't read Faludi's book. I've read excerpts and have picked it up in the bookstore, but on your recommendation, I will put it on my reading list.

Kandee said...

Nola -

I didn't even realize that. But my hubby has been looking into the immediate squashing of the 'Reparations' pursuit and other minority issues just after 9/11. The media was (is) under heavy control at that time. Anyone who breathed an unauthorized question was fired. Now, with your comment, it seems that many issues got squashed. Thanks for your comment!

La ~ msviswan said...

"Maybe it will be the thing that shakes my generation of black women and men, and indeed, the country, from its complacency and reminds us that the battle for equality is not yet won. Maybe this presidential race will be the thing that makes us all get real about racism. Maybe this presidential election is the kick in the pants we need to spark substantive discussion about race."

I agree with this. Also I want to see progress, but I never subscribed to the colorblind rhetoric. It's still not practical, and it's dishonest. Reality has a way of coming back and biting you. This is how things are even up in 2008.

Right now Obama is in a catch 22 set up. You wonder if there is any practical way for him to go about "defending" these "claims" and still come out victorious in a white supremacist society. It's

I don’t know if I’m expressing myself how I wish. I might have to do more thinking to refine my points. Just goes to show.

ac said...

"Maybe this presidential race will be the thing that makes us all get real about racism. Maybe this presidential election is the kick in the pants we need to spark substantive discussion about race."

Hey Tami I was struck by this. I too was wondering that if nothing else came out of all this strife that we would at least start a serious discussion about race in this country. Then I saw this over at Obsidian Wings in the comment thread:

1st commentator: "We really need to have a discussion about race in this Country."
2nd commentator: "We already are, and it isn't going very well."

Those aren't exact quotes but it really reverberated up an down my spine. That's just it isn't it? We WERE having a discussion about race and it wasn't going well. At least not until today (March 18th) at about 10 am central time.

NOLA radfem said...

Kandee, I didn't know the part about reparations issue being quashed post 9/11. That's fascinating! What ELSE did they get away with that we're only just now figuring out (like, for example, dismantling the constitution the Bill of Rights with their illegal spying)?

I'm thinking more and more lately about Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine." In it, she explains how there are these preexisting blueprints for the powerful to consolidate power and wealth in the immediate aftermath of a huge disaster. And she gives examples, like the Indonesian tsunami. She briefly mentions New Orleans.

Believe me, the disaster capitalists have been here picking the meat off our skeletons big time.

Did ya'll know that after Katrina, the government completely dismantled the New Orleans public school system? Completely! What they put in place was a split system of a) privately owned, for-profit charter schools and b) the schools for everyone else under a "Recovery School District." First of all, what this did was immediately wipe the teachers' unions off the map - GONE! Before that, the New Orleans union had a fine, old tradition, ESPECIALLY with African-American teachers (the union was very old and proud; New Orleans is, they say, home to the nation's first black middle class), but the new system got rid of unionization overnight. In charter schools, principals make all hiring and firing decisions, and no one gets to question those decisions. I mean, it's run by a private company and so it acts like a private company.

Realize, charter schools had been discussed here for years, but parents had NEVER agreed. They couldn't get it passed. They - the powerful people, the rightwing capitalists - waited until Katrina and forced that and other controversial things on the city.

In case I sound paranoid, if you read Klein's book, she has the actual documents from the rightwing capitalists, their "shock and awe" plans for how to consolidate power after any disaster and, later, what they were planning in New Orleans before the flood waters had even receded. She has a great website with those documents up too if anyone is interested, just google Naomi Klein.

Tami said...

Nola Radfem,

I believe you. My hubby was reading Shock Doctrine last month and said he had to take a break from it. He said it was fascinating and depressing at the same time.

NOLA radfem said...

Yes, I'm only partway through it (the book, I mean...I'm living the rest of it). The book is really dense. I don't know if the material was too depressing or I needed a bigger print edition or what, but I felt like I was going cross-eyed....I definitely relate to your husband having to walk away from it for a while.


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