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October 13, 2007

In Other News: Race Activists Now Have Superpowers

I got into it with Angry Black Woman guest blogger Nora a couple of months ago in comments on a post she wrote where I accused her of avoiding the racist issues that exist between African and Asian Americans. I won't get into that whole thing right now, but I write this to offer a caveat: there might be some little bit of unresolved tension motivating me, and you might want to keep your salt shaker handy.

(I intend to write a series of long posts about the tension between Asians and blacks eventually, but it seemed at best graceless, not mention divisive, to post those during the Jena 6 controversy, especially when there has been near-silence from the Asian American community--and me--about it.)


So today I read Nora's post from Friday in which she wonders if racism has suddenly surged:

Because it really does seem like there’s been a significant increase in blatant, obvious racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry these days. Is it just me? I’m not talking about the institutionalized stuff; that never seems to fade. But suddenly we’ve got nooses all over the place, racially-motivated rape/torture, and miscarriages of justice so incontestable that even the national media (eventually) comments on it.

Then she gives us a history lesson:

It’s been almost fifty years now since the start of the Civil Rights Movement. I count that time as the start of real, substantive US national dialogue about racial equality. For a brief few painful moments, the whole country talked about how to get along with each other: what not to say if you don’t want to piss people off, what not to do if you don’t want to get arrested or sued. During that time, blatant racism became societally frowned-upon. There was one immediate good result of this change: blatant racism diminished. There was also one very bad result: namely that a lot of people — not just white people — convinced themselves that racism had gone away.

That’s when things got weird. For one thing, the national dialogue all but stopped. With so many people declaring that racism was dead, it seemed strange to keep talking about it, so a lot of people went silent. For those who kept talking, a strange thing occurred: they became societally frowned-upon too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends, particularly friends of other races, apologize to me for mentioning race. Not for making racist remarks — for mentioning race. I bet it’s happened to you, too. WTF? Somehow, somewhere along the way, talking about race has become conflated with promoting racism.

The illogic between these two statements is boggling. First she says that we're talking about racism, nationally, all the time these days, then she says that we're not allowed to talk about racism. Why all this?:

of course, reports of racism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. And lately, I’ve felt it getting worse.

I have no empirical evidence to back up this feeling — just my instincts, that sense of “race-dar” that most PoC develop somewhere in adolescence. My Spidey Senses are tingling more than usual.

Oh, I see. It's not because racist incidents are all over the news right now, it's because Nora's POC "race-dar" is going off. Because her "Spidey Senses" are tingling---those senses that only blacks have in full, but Indians and Latinos in part, Arabs and Asians a little bit, and white people not at all---she "knows" that there's more racism goin' on right now.

With this level of historical understanding, with this level of racial discourse, coming from someone who is promoted to us as a thought leader, is it any wonder that the racial discourse Nora engages in goes nowhere?


First of all: Nora's understanding of the history of racial struggle in the United States (as presented here) is laughably simplistic. Since the mid-nineteenth century--and even before--there have been successive waves of liberation ideology, followed by the enlightenment of a few whites, the uplift of a few blacks, and then a serious backlash.

Anyone who has ever read the Emancipation Amendments to the US Constitution (13th, 14th and 15th), could have no doubt that full citizenship rights for African Americans was on the national table as early as 1865. This period, between 1865-1870 (the passage of the three amendments) and 1877 (the Hayes administration's withdrawal of troops from the South), saw unprecendented freedom in both northern and southern states for blacks, with the election of the country's first black politicians, and even interracial marriages.

The US wasn't ready, and our current stereotypical understanding of what "racism" is---Jim Crow laws, KKK, lynchings, voter restrictions, etc.---arose during the backlash that followed in the next quarter century (until the turn of the century.) A campaign of racial terrorism against blacks--not just in the south but in northern states as well--put a lid on black liberation for nearly thirty years.

Not coincidentally, this period also saw the passing of racist laws excluding the immigration, and restricting the citizenship, ownership, and labor opportunities of Asians, particularly in the west. During the latter half of the century, Mexican Americans in western states were lynched at rate of 473 per 100,000 of the population; gender was no protection. And Native Americans were, in this period, also finally defeated in the Indian Wars, restricted to reservations, and saw their children stolen and placed in Indian Boarding Schools, thus largely destroying their traditional cultures.

Of course that eased up again and in the first decade of the 20th century, a group of African American intellectuals, among them W.E.B. DuBois, started the Niagara Movement, which culminated in the foundation of the NAACP in 1909. The following thirty years saw a slow, steady (with many setbacks) development of black institutions in both the south and the north, as the Great Migration of southern rural blacks to northern cities spurred the Harlem Renaissance of the 20's, creating a second, larger generation of black intellectuals who not only articulated the race problem, but set the terms for a debate that still rages along the same lines today.

The 1920s and 30s also saw Asian and Mexican Americans joining the labor movement and gaining for themselves a measure of respect and power through that association. Native Americans won American citizenship. This period also saw many POC leaders first making the connection among the struggles of their various "races." Although no broad-based POC coalitions happened as a result, in the labor movement meaningful alliances were formed, for example in California between Mexican and Filipino field workers.

It's tempting to dismiss this period as a dark one, since the picture for most African Americans, not to mention other races, was one of poverty, limitation, and the constant potential for racial targeting. But racial issues hit the national discourse periodically, and the slow, upward creep of national racial consciousness never ceased between the turn of the century and the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement was a breaking point, a climax in a tension that had been rising pretty much steadily until WWII, and then had been rising much more quickly throughout the fifties. Naturally, as after Reconstruction, this period of rapid acquistion of civil rights was followed by a serious backlash. Only this backlash was different, and much less successful. For one thing, much of the Movement had radicalized, and focused its energy on building up black instituations within the black communities.

For another, a lot of white liberal energy, as well as white conservative energy, was drawn off of Civil Rights into the antiwar movement. And, just as in WWII when black soldiers gained respect for their entire community, during Vietnam, white and black soldiers serving together did a great deal to change working class attitudes toward the black community.

Also, black civil rights inspired Asian Americans, Chicanos, and Native Americans to form their own pan-ethnic, racial liberation movements. The seventies, far from a conservative backlash, saw the success of the antiwar movement, and the establishment of national Asian American, Latino, and American Indian institutions, which solidified that national understanding of these groups as racial blocs, creating the basis for political power bases. A number of institutional battles for entitlements began during this decade that were ultimately won here or in the eighties: fights for affirmative action in the granting of government contracts, hiring practices, college acceptance, busing, nutrition and health entitlements for children, etc.

The eighties was when idiots like Ronald Reagan declared racism over, but that doesn't mean that racial discourse fell off the table: far from it. National identity-based institutions continued fighting for--and winning--entitlements based on race and ethnicity. This was the decade of "identity politics" and the "culture wars," which revolved not merely around whether or not Congress gets to decide what art is, but whether or not our national culture--both high and low--included the "subcultures" of women, queers, people of color, and immigrants. White artists like to say that we lost the culture wars, but POC and women resoundingly won the culture wars, as evidenced by the periodic grumblings of white men that there are too many unworthy women and blacks (and black queer women!) on reading lists, in magazine articles, in our fiction, nonfiction, national discourse, etc. etc.

The nineties was when Generation X, the first generation raised since the Civil Rights Movement, came of age and seized control of the national dialogue. This is part of the reason why racial discourse was driven, to a certain extent, underground. White GenXers both did and didn't believe Reagan when he said racism was over. They wanted to believe, but knew better than to trust politicians and media. Also, all the institutional entitlements won in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, although constantly embattled, had been so bound up with class, rather than race, entitlements, that--as Nora points out--the Clinton Administration was able to make racial entitlements a question of socialism vs. democracy.

(By the way, today, Bushies have taken advantage of this to shame race activists. It's really hard to argue that blacks, for example, should get more entitlements, when poor whites are losing theirs, too. And yet racial institutions are so used to calling the white man the devil--and I'm talking about all the racial institutions--that they're really hard pressed to form pan-racial coalitions of impoverished and working class. This is particularly hard when conservative working class whites insist on believing that the entitlements they're losing are "socialist.")

The nineties, however, particularly the late nineties, saw a coming of age of GenX POC, who have leveraged new media and the culture/media discussion of the eighties to create a media-savvy, national voice for themselves and each of their groups. Much of the discussion of the nineties was around representation in the media. Anyone who says that discussion of race went entirely underground just. wasn't. paying. attention.

The early "aughts" or "00s" of the 21st Century gave us two things: another racist war, and Katrina. Katrina brought race back into the national consciousness, and also consolidated a new way of leveraging opinions, funds, and action: the internet. And let's not forget moveon.org's move from the internet into face to face activism during the 2006 election, which resulted in a Democratic win. We talked a lot without doing much about race in the nineties because we didn't know how to close the gap between virtual and real communities. But we've learned how to do that recently.

Which brings us to today, black bloggers like ABW and Nora, and the thousands of others who made Jena a household word of shame, and to my second point.


Secondly: it's loooong been a question whether the rape and child molestation rates have really risen over the few decades that they've been collected, or whether recent acquisitions of civil rights for women and children have allowed these crimes to be reported at levels more closely approximating their actual occurrence. This same question dogs every societal malaise and malady that becomes a trend: scientists are currently wondering if we're really having an autism epidemic, or if we've become so sensitized to autism spectrum conditions that people who never would have been diagnosed before are now being diagnosed.

Did it ever occur to Nora to wonder if racist incidents are all over the news right now not because suddenly racism is happening everywhere (it boggles my mind that Nora seems to think that this shit hasn't been happening quietly everywhere all along), but because suddenly race is on the national agenda again for a variety of reasons?

But you have to know history to understand--or even to see--these reasons:

  1. The 21st century is seeing an unprecedented "wiring" of American POC to the internet, and an unprecendented ability to leverage new communications to organize.

  2. The POC rehearsal of the nineties, in which internet-savvy POC practiced outrage by quibbling endlessly with media race portrayals has resulted in broad-based, loose national coalitions of opinion-creating POCs who can activate quickly.

  3. The current antiwar movement, the mobilization of funds and volunteers for Katrina through a blog-led racial outrage machine, and the realization, through moveon.org's successful 2006 election campaign, that online mobilization actually works, has finally culminated in racial groups actually using the internet to mobilize

  4. It's time, historically, for race to come back to the table, as it always does, sooner or later.

Far from it being a bad thing that Nora's supersenses are tingling, it's a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing.

Black voices of our and the next (Gen Y? Echo Boomers? Millennials?) generations are being unleashed on questions of socio-economic equity, and not just on media portrayals. This is why everyone is suddenly so angry and suddenly news of racist incidents is hitting us from everywhere. We have a new generation of POC discovering that racism isn't over. And they're, understandably, pissed. But that's when things get better, Nora, not worse, when people who should get angry, do, and start organizing mass demonstrations.

This is good for everybody, and especially for racial bloggers like Nora, who will suddenly become information portals for mobilized POC, exhilarated by their last---and looking for their next---battle. This is good for the bloggers who are prepared to look at both class and race, to sacrifice their egos and cherished points of view for the sake of a vitally important developing dialogue. Maybe not so good for bloggers who aren't capable of difficult change.

It's up to the bloggers themselves to make sure that they keep their audience ... if they can.


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extremely well put claire.

My personal take on it is that racism is in the media more not because it's happening more often, but because people care more that its happening at all. It's got increased press coverage because people can speak more freely about these kinds of injustices.

As a Cherokee woman who grew up in West Virgina I can tell you for a fact it happened a LOT back then, but no one dared speak of it for fear of being a target. Okay, I can't say no one spoke the truths. I did and others did, and often we faced violence bacause of that.

good for you, moondancer. i'm sure you encouraged others to speak up who wouldn't have otherwise.

I don't know, I've had the same "spidey sense" lately. Not because I think there's necessarily "more" racism than there was before, but because the fact that these things-- Katrina, the Jena 6, the acquittal of the guards who killed a black kid on camera, the rape and torture in WV that's apparently not a hate crime, the nooses turning up everywhere lately-- are happening in front of the world, and still no one's ashamed of themselves or facing real consequences. It's no so much the number of incidents as the lack of response. A justice department that hadn't had it's civil rights department gutted, as Bush has done, would be somewhat more effective in preventing people from blatantly flouting the civil rights laws that are already on, the books, but that's not even so much the point. It's more frightening that after all this time and alleged progress, it's clear that when people are emboldened to act without the threat of legal consequences, or under the cloak of anonymity (the things I've seen on the internet lately...), they still behave with the kind of vitriolic racial hatred of the past few centuries. I mean, we thought fighting the insitutional battles would to some degree make the social battles fight themsleves, that by getting PoC in the door, they're very existence could undo the dehumanizing racism that allows things to get to a state of violence or genocide or enslavement, and that seems not to be the case. So yeah, it scares me that people will do these things with the whole world watching, because maybe they've been done all along,but attention to them ought to make people ashamed, or at least afraid of consequences, and they've been neither. What's the point of celebrating more attention to race and racism if the end result is we can clearly see that black life isn't worth much in this country, and what most people do with that is shrug, and say oh well it's not any worse than it was, and we don't care anyway?

dana, that's a legitimate fear, but i'm seeing two things: the first is that the jena 6 case would have gone the way all such cases go except for the attention of the black blogosphere, which forced the mainstream media to pick up the story.

the protest, where thousands of black activists from all over the country went to jena, had a noticeable positive impact on the outcome of the legal proceedings so far, and right now the jena 6 have the best chance of a ... well not fair, but fairER trip through the justice system than they would have had before all the media attention.

this is a win, and people are going to feel it is a win. THAT's why (the second thing i see) the nooses are appearing all over the country. racists don't show their hands so blatantly unless they think their dominance is threatened. the problem with overt racism is that it reveals the racists to themselves as such, but also reveals them to their neighbors. what looks like polarisation, is actually a process of "are you in or out?"

this is what happened between 1850 and 1861. many, many "moderates" in free states, who were tolerating slavery because they didn't think it touched them, were forced into an "in or out" position by the polarization of abolitionists and slaveowners through incidents in kansas (john brown) and a number of political losses. it wasn't the radicalization of the abolitionists, but rather the outrageous demands and behavior of the slaveowners, that forced them to acknowledge that they either sided with slavery, or didn't.

sound familiar? this new wave of poc activism that jena MIGHT presage has already called out the hidden racists to start hanging nooses. this is a wake up call to white "liberals" who don't really believe racism exists anymore, and that blacks complain too much.

this is also a new front for mass activism: the justice system. the racial inequities of the us justice system have been handled for decades by small organizations of legal professionals, backed by donor funding, of course, but not really working with traditionally grassroots activist methods. now that a mass protest has proven to be effective in curbing the most obnoxious excesses of racist "justice," one of the last governmental bastions of racism has taken a huge hit.

oh, i got distracted and forgot that i had a third point ;P

when a mass protest experiences both a win and a backlash, often it leads to exhilaration among the protesters, a sense of genuine power, combined with the awakening of a longer-term mission that engages the passions aroused by this one-time injustice.

that's what happened with rosa parks. it wasn't that there weren't thousands of activists working on civil rights all along, it was that there were tens of thousands more who just needed a victory to galvanize them.

i'm not saying this is the justice system's version of the montgomery bus boycott, but i'm also not saying that it isn't. i'm very hopeful that something will come out of this.

I must be getting old. It seems like just yesterday that those guys in Texas killed a black man by dragging him behind their pickup truck.

I feel like racist stuff was out of the news for a while, but I never thought it wasn't happening. I remember the churches burning in the South, the affirmative action debate around UC Berkeley, the Amadou shooting, this stuff has been going on pretty steadily.

The noose at Columbia surprised me though. But I'll bet that Arabs and Persians in America could tell us a lot of what the state of racism is right now in the US.

After 9/11 I was talking to some black guys who told me that Arabs are the new blacks. They said they used to get pulled over all the time, but now all the racial profiling is happening to Arab Americans instead of African Americans. That was a few years ago, maybe all the haters remembered to hate the African Americans too, after a brief lapse?

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