Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Racism: An Introduction

Hola! Everybody...
What follows is an attempt to lay the groundwork for my discussion on racism. If you're so inclined read the follow-up to this post, The Denial of Racism, after reading this introduction]

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-=[ Racism: Introduction ]=-

As some of you know, I was recently asked to address a group for a major foundation that will remain nameless (I feel a need to protect myself, since I'm sure what follows will offend almost everyone). The foundation is an international think tank addressing the issue of criminal justice, and its founder heard me speak one day and was moved. I didn't know who he was -- he was just some "older white guy," as far as I was concerned (I did notice wore a slammin' suit! LOL). Eventually, this gentleman, also a CEO at a major financial institution, asked me to address an audience at an awards ceremony. What follows the next two-three blogs are glommed from my remarks.

What I propose is to address racism over several blogs by first by laying down the groundwork supporting my assumption that racism is an integral, permanent, and almost indestructible part of this society. I will show that racism, far from being a thing of the past, is the challenge we all face as a society I feel class will be a harder nit to crack, but we haven't gotten past race). I will argue that the well-being of all people -- black, white, and brown -- hinges on how we respond to racism. For racism is a pathology that infects all of us, not just blacks and other people of color.

Finally, I know many will complain that my writing will not deal with "black racism." From my perspective, black racism does not exist. I conceptualize racism in structural and institutional as well as individual terms. From its inception, racism was a term used to describe a system of oppression of African Americans and other people of color by white Europeans and white Americans. There is no black racism because there is no centuries-old system of racial domination designed by African Americans that excludes white Americans from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of this society.

This is not to say that some blacks are prejudiced against whites. I do, however, differentiate between prejudice, which is individual, and racism, which is institutional. A black racism would require not only a widely accepted racist ideology directed at whites but also the power to systematically exclude whites from opportunities and major economic rewards. While there are blacks and other people of color with anti-white prejudices and instances of people of color discriminating against whites, these are not central to the core operations of this society. Or, as my friend, the poet Rage likes to say, "I'm not a racist, I don't have the resources."

Finally, I will propose a new framework with which to talk about race. As a light-skinned Latino raised rubbing elbows with African-Americans in New York City (a "Nuyorican"), I am neither black nor white, but I strongly identify with the black urban experience since that is part of the culture I most identified with while growing up. Besides, in the three-tiered house of Puerto Rican identity, Africa -- more than any other aspect -- is part of my culture, part of my heritage. It permeates my music, the way I dance and move my body, my literature, and my intellectual inheritance. Having said that, I think the dominant, purely US-style of how race is discussed is narrow-minded and limited and I will propose another way of looking at color.

First, I need to address the issue of "objectivity." The problem with objectivity is that it doesn't exist and never did. One of my journalism heroes, Molly Ivins, disposed of the objectivity question for all time when she observed in 1993, "The fact is that I am a 49-year-old white female, a college-educated Texan. All of that affects the way I see the world. There's no way in hell that I'm going to see anything the same way that a 15-year-old black high school dropout does. We all see the world from where we stand. Anybody who's ever interviewed five eyewitnesses to an automobile accident knows there's no such thing as objectivity."

The historian Howard Zinn also disposes the notion of objectivity when he observes that an individual has to decide which facts are important. That decision-making process is deeply influenced by race, gender, and social status. He then went on to write one of the great histories of the US, A People's History of the United States. And you know how it starts? It starts with the "discovery" of the new world as seen through the eyes of a First Nation native. Zinn's whole work is informed by how "facts" look like when seen through the eyes of the everyday person.

What we need is less "objectivity" and more analysis. And that's what I hope to offer in the following blogs.

I grew up in an extended family in which almost all the colors were represented. While both my mother and father are light-skinned with blue eyes, they both come from families that had the full range of color: from the pinkest of pink (red hair, freckles) to relatives so black, they were blue. While growing up, there were no racial preferences in my family of origin. Everyone, from the whitest to the darkest, where treated the same -- were loved equally.

Then we went to school and from my first interactions with formal institutions, I have been deeply aware that my skin color gave me preferences that my darker cousins did not enjoy. Because I am sometimes considered white, I am also privy to what I call "black holes" of ignorance demonstrated by whites, both liberal and conservative. I guess people assume that because I have blue eyes, it's "okay" to speak "frankly" about blacks. Some of my black friends would refer to me as the "undercover nigger" because though I was allowed to walk through white neighborhoods without fear of bodily harm, I was more radical and militant than anyone else.

And so, this is how I began my speech:

One of the great ironies in the history of the United States is the way freedom and liberty were developed for white Americans on the backs of African Americans and other Americans of color. It is a little-known fact, for example, that the first part of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., for a long time where a white-dominated U.S. congress has deliberated, was built by enslaved African Americans, whose white owners were paid for that labor.

Those who actually toiled on this great symbol of democracy were not paid, nor have their descendants been compensated for their labor.

The situation becomes more ironic when one considers the fact that it was enslaved African Americans who put the statue of Freedom at the top of the Capitol in the 1860s. This statue was of a Native American woman warrior dressed in a flowing robe and helmet. Those who cast the statue, loaded its pieces onto wagons, assembled it, and hoisted it to the top of the Capitol building were African American workers who did not have access to the freedom they were helping celebrate. In addition, the indigenous American peoples represented in this statue to freedom were in the process of being systematically eliminated.

However, this is not a narrative of a racism of old that no longer exists. I am here to tell you that the same forces that oppressed and denied people of color in the past, and which are dismissed or denied by most white Americans (and some conservative blacks) today, still exist. U.S. society and its basic institutions -- indeed, the very rhythm of contemporary life -- are still infected with the elements of racism, a systematic reality with deep roots in the past and major consequences for all Americans in the present. This is the continuing reality I will address.

To be continued



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