Thursday, September 24, 2009

Racism & Prejudice: Two sides of the same coin

I appreciate every comment that I receive and every now and then, one of your comments gives me new fodder for a blog entry. A long time friend (we were teachers together and left the high school where we taught in the same year) left a comment that reflects how well he knows me.

He blogs under the pen name jack-of-all-thumbs (Jack). I began responding to his comment via email but then I got carried away and my email became longer and longer, and I thought, why waste my wisdom on an email when I have the makings of a blog entry!

I think that there are inherent limitations in communicating without the benefit of vocal expression, body language, and tone of voice. I am not engulfed in anger, I still love a good laugh. I haven't buried my off kilter sense of humor but I am grateful for the concern that some of you have expressed for my emotional well being.

I simply wanted to express that I have accepted that anger is a normal response to racism and that I don't apologize for being pissed off royally at times. I actually think that this is much healthier than feeling guilty after the fact because I may have offended someone who expressed some variation of bigotry and I chastised them for it.

Jack and I have had some pretty deep conversations over the years, so I always take his observations seriously. In a discussion that we had about racism many years ago, I do recall stating that I didn't believe that black people could be labeled as racists. However, I don't think that I clearly explained that it isn't because I think that we are genetically incapable of racism. I really was speaking specifically in terms of black and white interactions in the United States, and my comments never reflected any belief in the moral superiority of black people.

During the civil rights movement, leaders of the movement worked to define the issues. I don't recall who proposed it first, but racism became defined as being not only about prejudice or bigotry, but about power. I still believe that racism has a power element that's missing from bigotry or prejudice.

Definitions of racism vary somewhat, but when I checked online, all the definitions had as a common element that racism involves classifying people based on physical characteristics such as skin color and believing in the superiority of one's own racial group over other groups.

They rarely mention power, but I would argue that in this country, black people responded to racism with anger and sometimes prejudice, but that it has never been a common thread of thought among black people to think that white people were inferior. Indeed, the focus of civil rights has been about attaining equality. There is no logic in demanding equality from a group that you believe to be inferior to yourself.

I also think that the subtext to a demand for equality is that the group with whom you desire equality holds the power to block you from achieving that equality. To me this is more than semantics, but I do take full responsibility for never fully explaining why I made the distinction in the first place. I still think that racism is about power and goes beyond prejudice in its ability to impact the lives of victims of racism.

No matter how prejudiced or bigoted an ethnic or racial minority group in this country may be, their ability to impact the majority group is negligible. We cannot block their access to jobs, to economic security or anything of significance. Traditionally, black Americans have been without power to affect the political, social, or economic structure of the US. That's why I make a distinction between racism and prejudice. I know that all people are capable of prejudice, it is certainly not limited to any one group. I also accept as valid that racism is not a uniquely American practice. I think that some of the power struggles in Africa can be ascribed to racism. Racism was a powerful force in the civil war in Bosnia.

I dislike prejudice but I don't waste my time addressing prejudice. I have no desire to interact with people who don't want to interact with me. I address racism because of the power element. If I move into your neighborhood, you don't have to like it. You can complain about it to your neighbors and refuse to speak to me; I'll survive. But when you have the ability to implement and maintain laws and/or policies that prevent me from moving into that neighborhood or the power to drive me out after I move in, then it becomes my concern. The first behavior is prejudice; the second is racism.

I've never intended to suggest that only white people are prejudiced or bigots. When I say that black people have played the cards that we were dealt I mean quite simply that we have reacted to the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws that ushered in racism as an acceptable part of the laws of this country.

My analysis is that the birth of modern racism happened after the civil war. I think that before the war, during slavery, the focus was on maintaining an economical work force. I think that records support that while slaves were regarded as lesser persons than whites, that just as a sensible farmer wouldn't abuse his livestock, that for the most part, the focus wasn't on abuse of black people, but on maintaining control of the large population of slaves in the South. Punishment was used as a method of maintaining control.

Prior to the civil war, the southern states had various laws referred to as Black Codes that were designed to maintain control over the slave population through fear and intimidation. I'm not suggesting that they were benign or not that bad, but their primary purpose was not about denying rights to black people; it was about controlling the slaves to maintain a free labor force. The structure of the society was based on the notion that slaves had no rights; there was no need to deny them what they did not have. (Note that when the civil war ended, the defeated southern states passed a new crop of Black Codes designed to deny rights of citizenship to the freed slave population. )

Reconstruction spurred a growing concern among whites that the newly freed slaves might prove a threat to the social order. Blacks were seeking to become landowners, vote and run for political office, and demanding full citizenship rights. Towards the end of the 19th century, the response was the start of the passage of Jim Crow laws designed to specifically corral us into lives of second class citizenship. The racial prejudice that was the foundation of slavery, that made bondage of other human beings acceptable to the majority, morphed into racism--the systematic, legalized oppression of a people based on skin color. The case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 marked recognition by the highest court of the land of the ultimate in Jim Crow law, that segregation was legal and acceptable; separate but equal remained the cornerstone of legalized discrimination until Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education overturned Plessy in 1954. Jim Crow laws were the original race card, and we've been playing with that deck ever since.

I thank my old friend for his thoughtful comment and for making me take the time to think about the basis for my beliefs. I think that I'm done with writing about race for a bit. I take to heart Jack's advice that I shouldn't loose touch with my fun side. I think that I shall indulge in a bit of frivolity in my next post and write about my love life.

Wearing My Anger Like Armor

My friend Phyllis called just as I was coming into my home this evening.

"Hi Phyllis." (I love caller ID)

"Sheria, when did you start writing for Newsweek?"


Phyllis and I have known each other for 20 years, and she enjoys confusing me. She proceeded to read excerpts from an essay in Newsweek entitled "Play the Race Card," that wasn't written by me but by a black female author by the name of Raina Kelley.

I wish that I had written the article because then I would have been published in Newsweek. Phyllis, who happens to be white, is a really close friend and I shared with her that one of my regular readers characterized me as an angry black woman. He didn't offer it as a criticism, merely an observation. Phyllis and I decided that he was wrong, because I'm Mother Teresa compared to a truly angry black woman.

However, I may have to backtrack on that. I have a subscription to Newsweek, thanks to Phyllis and her husband Steve who have been renewing my subscription every Christmas for about 20 years. Naturally, when I got off the phone with Phyllis, I read the article that she called me about and totally concurred that it was well written and thought provoking. I decided to find the article online and link to it on my Facebook page.

I put in the author's name and the title of the article as search terms and came across a link with the title, "Nigger Raina Kelley Says Play Da Race Card." Needless to say, I was a bit intrigued, so I followed the link and landed at a Word Press blog entitled The Black Plague with the subtitle, "Not a white supremacist, but a white realist." It is not about the bubonic plague.

I read about a dozen entries, all of which featured the word "nigger" in the title. A lot of the commenters used similar language. His or her blogroll includes blogs of similar merit. The author uses the pen name, nigga mortis. Clever.

When I was younger and more innocent, I would have been hurt and wounded by such hatefulness, but although I felt some hurt, my primary emotion was anger. If I were able to confront the author of this piece of trash, I think that I could do a credible impression of an angry black woman and open up a can of whup ass on this ignorant, lowlife excuse for a human being.

As I was contemplating going up beside his or her head, it dawned on me that I should embrace my status as an angry black woman. My righteous anger is my armor. It makes me sharp and protects my soul from the destructive forces of ignorance and racism. You see, I have this notion that I should be able to live my life without repeatedly encountering hateful, racist nonsense.

People who really know me, understand that I never direct that anger at anyone who doesn't deserve it. I don't have a generalized anger towards all white people. My friends know and understand this.

Black people have never been the dealers. we don't play the race card; we play the hand we were dealt. I know that this bothers some of you and that you can't accept it. You want the world to be all Kumbayaish and you desperately want to believe that we have all overcome the nasty little evil of racism. It ain't so; it just ain't so.

Sometimes, I forget that, especially when I'm communicating with my friends who are a very diverse group people. They don't buy into any of this racist nonsense, but invariably, something will pull me up short and I have to look the reality of racism right in the eyes. That's when I need my anger; it keeps me safe and strong.

A few days ago I wrote about feeling weary and hopeless about the racism that continues to work its way into the fabric of American culture. I have my moments of weakness. Dealing with this crap on a regular basis takes a lot out of you. But I only wallow in despair momentarily, I always get back up and continue forward because I am an angry black woman and I will not be broken.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold

My friend Mark Olmsted, who introduced me to the Huffington Post (HP), is now a blogger for HP and a darned good one. If you haven't done so already, go to HP and check out Mark's posts.

Generally when I read anything that Mark writes, I find myself nodding my head and going, "Yes, yes, yes!" However, on occasion, I do find myself in disagreement with his point of view, but our friendship manages to survive.

His most recent post, What's It Going to Take, Barack? A Screed, is everything that I've come to expect from Mark's writing--cohesive, focused, and provocative, but I'm not feeling him on his point of view. It's difficult to accurately summarize Mark's argument in a sentence or two. He is never simplistic and I don't want to misrepresent his views; please read his post for yourself.

I read his post as suggesting that it's time for Obama to take the gloves off and cease his efforts at a bipartisan approach. I don't agree and lay out my thoughts below.

I think that Obama is fighting in the best way that he can; he's the president of the United States, not Mike Tyson. If he loses his cool, comes out swinging, he'll play into the hands of his attackers by becoming the poster child for the angry black man. I think that the president understands that the only thing that frightens white America more than an angry black man is an intelligent black man and he is playing to his strengths.

His detractors continually emphasize that he is dangerous, a secret Muslim sympathizer run amok, a black man who hates the Constitution. What he wisely has chosen not to do is feed those fires by behaving in a manner that allows his attackers to say, "See, we told you he was a loose cannon." It's not the wingnut elected officials that are publicly leading the "Obama is the progeny of Hitler and Mussolini" contingency; it's Don and Ethel from small minded America. Those of us who support Obama, who support his policies, we are the ones who can get into the fray and take on the fight.

Obama has to stay above this. He can't take on Beck or Limbaugh. By even addressing their attacks, he gives them more credibility than they deserve. Rahm can't do it either. The labeling of Obama as a Nazi, the accusations of reverse racism, can't be given any credibility by his administration. To address them directly, to argue that they have no merit, gives them a semblance of merit.

I don't think it's accurate to characterize Obama as wanting to be liked. If the man was shallow enough to be in this because he wants adulation, he certainly wouldn't have chosen to seek the presidency. There has not been a president who wasn't despised by some of the people at all times. It's not about placating people, it's about Obama remembering what the nut cases do not--he's the president of all the people, even the rabid crazies.

There is a serious rift in this country that has the potential to destroy us. Obama's focus is on bridging the rift and moving forward with a policy agenda in the face of opposition. Please don't misread Obama maintaining his cool with being fearful or indecisive. He ran his campaign with the same sense of calm control. Some of his followers wanted him to take a more aggressive stand with his detractors. He won doing it his way. Obama doesn't need to call us to Washington. The tea party folks organized themselves; we can do the same thing.

Confession: I stole the title of this post from the Klingons.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Exploding the Dream Deferred

I have a bone deep weariness that I can't quite shake. No doubt some of my mood arises from commemorating the one-year anniversary of my mother's death this past Tuesday. My father came up for a visit. We spent Tuesday at my sister's home with her husband Bob and their grandson, Donovan. He's not quite nine months old and a total delight. We spoke with my brother and his family via telephone. They live in Charlotte.

However, I am also weary of the unrelenting attacks on President Obama. The attacks go beyond disagreement with his policies; they are personal and vicious. The comments on a variety of Internet news stories are getting worse. The racism isn't at all subtle. The comment inspiring story doesn't even have to be about race or Obama for some commenter to start a thread about how shiftless, no good, etc. black people are and how we should all leave the country. The dittohead chorus immediately begins to add three part harmony. I don't want to read the hateful words, but I know that they are there whether I read them or not. Besides, ignorance isn't bliss; it's dangerous. It's the unknown threat that I fear the most.

Former President Jimmy Carter's assessment that racism fuels the anti-Obama fervor was a bold and honest statement. I've read Carter's books about his life growing up in Georgia; he truly understands racism. He knows of what he speaks.

I'm glad that Carter spoke out and I fully appreciate his doing so, but I'm dismayed that it took Carter stating the obvious for the major media to pick up the story that has been playing out in black media for months--racism in America is not dead. We have had some pretty sorry presidents during my life time but I have never seen such unrelenting hatred directed at any of them; attacks on their policies, yes, but not assertions that they should be killed offered up by a minister!

Years ago, when I was a teenager, someone in the civil rights movement leadership (can't remember his name) made a speech at a rally that I attended in which he directly addressed "our white brothers and sisters" who were a part of the movement, and charged them with the task of calling other white people out on their racists beliefs. He said only when whites challenge the racism of other whites is the challenge heard, because when black people use the term racism, the immediate reaction is to dismiss the charge as being imagined abuse because of black people's hypersensitivity about race. Nowadays, we are accused of playing the race card, but that term wasn't in use forty years ago.That's why I'm glad that Jimmy Carter has spoken up. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, radio personalities like Tom Joyner and Michael Baisden, and pretty much any and all public voices in the black community have been calling the attacks on Obama what they are--overt racism. Carter's speaking out certainly gladdens me because it adds legitimacy to the claims of racism.

However, it still insults and pisses me off that it takes a white man to make people sit up and take notice of the racism that is as obvious as the nose on my face. It also saddens and disgusts me that far too many people don't recognize that the need for white confirmation of what black people have been telling white people for generations is in and of itself a manifestation of racism.

It's not just good ole boys wearing sheets that propagate racism; it's just as likely to be elected officials, soccer moms, or the sales clerk at the convenience mart. I'm not feeling very nice or forgiving any more when it comes to racism. I want neighbors, and co-workers, and family members to start calling each other out on their racist beliefs. I'm tired of a lifetime of not only being the object of racism but also being expected to explain to white people what the problem is over and over again, and possibly help them see the error of their racist ways.

I never tolerate anyone expressing bigotry in my presence. If a black friend characterizes all Hispanics as dirty or all whites as evil, I don't just look away in embarrassment. When I hear homophobic talk in any group which I'm a part of, I speak out, even if it means that I'm not going to be popular with that crowd any more.

Carter did the right thing but in my mind its a great social tragedy that he gets so much praise for doing what should be done. What it says about the rest of this country leaves a really foul taste in my mouth. Does anyone have to tell us that it's child abuse if you throw a baby against a wall? It's a shame that Carter had to state the obvious and that the general public sees it as an astounding observation and if they then believe what Carter says, as a revelation.

In the 1960s, I watched southern law enforcement turn loose the dogs against civil rights protesters on the evening news, and I wondered why they hated us so much. I feel that black folks have been fighting the same battles against racism over and over again from generation to generation, and I, for one, am tired.

I'd like to have the luxury of not thinking about race. When my BFF Sarah and I were in Mexico four years ago, for the first time in my entire life, nothing happened to make me aware that my skin color was anything more than a color. At first I couldn't even define what was different, but after a few days I realized that when I went shopping, no one followed me to see if I was going to steal anything; sales people were actually anxious to wait on me instead of ignoring me in favor of a white customer, at the restaurants, service was always gracious. People assumed that I had a brain and no one asked me to serve them a drink, where the clean towels were, or marveled over how articulate I was. There was no place that we went that I had to wonder if my race had anything to do with how I was treated. It was an amazing experience and I resent that I had to leave my country to find it.

When I was 14, I learned to play the guitar. I cut peace signs out of contact paper and pasted them all over my guitar case. I believed that the world was changing and I really believed that one day we would all join hands and sing about peace, love, and unity. I admit that I've become cynical. I don't believe that I will ever know such a world in my life time. I don't think that Donovan, who is all of 8 1/2 months old will know it in his either. What's really sad is that I don't think that he will even have the luxury of dreaming of such a world.

I've buried the innocence of my youth and I can't resurrect it. All I feel is tired, continually disgusted, and sad because my rose colored glasses have been shattered beyond repair. Obama was my last hope, but this country isn't worthy of him and I truly fear that some hate filled ass is going to make an attempt on his life before his term ends. The yahoos may be just a loud minority, but where are the equally loud and very public countering voices?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Grits Are For Eating, Not Thinking

Is it just me, or has stupidity become fashionable among a lot of Americans? Have so many of us always been incapable of thinking our way out of a paper bag or is this something new? The persistence of people choosing to believe in misinformation and out right lies regarding the proposed health care reforms is bewildering enough, but WTF is it with the folks who have gone into hyper drive complaining about President Obama's plan to address schoolchildren about the importance of education?

The speech and some follow up classroom activities are scheduled for today (Tuesday) at noon. The President will make his speech at Wakefield High School in Northern Virginia. The speech will be broadcast to other schools via C-SPAN and the Internet, should they choose to participate. Some schools have elected not to participate and others have informed parents that they may have their children opt out of hearing the President's speech.

I don't know why I'm surprised, but the outcry against the president's proposed presentation to America's students left me momentarily speechless. Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush (GWB's dad) addressed the nation's school children without having to get prior parental clearance for the content of their speeches. However, it seems that the same grits-for-brains people, aka grits-brain, went into conniption fits because: "I don't think that government should be meddling in our children's lives;" "I don't think that socialism has any place in our schools;" and "Obama is trying to shove his socialist propaganda down our throats through our children;" (all comments read on the Internet). That last one gives me all sorts of interesting visual images.

The ever reliable YouTube has collected news broadcasts from around the nation in which parents express their concern that President Obama is attempting to brainwash their children. My favorite is a brief video in which one woman becomes tearful at the thought of her babies being exposed to the evil power of Obama. The video is at the end of this post.

The White House released the transcript of the speech yesterday (Monday). Let's see, the president plans to tell the students, there is "no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying. Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up. No one's written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future."

He also mentions the importance of regular attendance, doing your homework, working hard, and washing your hands to avoid the flu. Radical stuff that may lead to more children staying in school and getting an education. Of course, a well educated populace might decrease the ranks of the grits-brain contingency, which explains their opposition to their children hearing the president's speech.

What I keep hearing from these folks goes something like this, "I have a right to my opinion. This is a free country. Mumble, mumble...First Amendment...Second Amendment...right to bare arms... (they tend to use the wrong term, substituting "bare" for "bear"). I concede that anyone is entitled to hold an opinion, no matter how stupid that opinion is. However, the rest of us are also entitled to express our opinion that your opinion is stupid.

All of these expressions of stupidity have led me to one conclusion, there are people in this country who have serious issues with having a black president. I've gone through all other possible explanations, and even serious grits-brain stupidity doesn't explain the utter idiocy that falls out of the mouths of these people. This actually gives me some comfort. President Obama won the election with solid support from a cross section of Americans, so I'm counting on that the "I am not a racist" grits-brain folks are a numerical minority who just happen to be very loud.

I suspect that these folks are motivated by fear. For generations they've believed that they were superior based on their status as white people. Then along comes this man that they label black, even though in reality he is just as much white as black. However, as they've pigeonholed him as black, then their superiority is a given. Except, this is one very intelligent man and that really throws a monkey wrench into everything that they've always believed about themselves. Unable to deal with this challenge to their reality, they have descended into a state of cognitive dissonance that has turned their brains to mush and voila, grits-brain.

The woman in this video is a perfect specimen of the grits-brain group.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What If?

“It's an outrageous precedent to set, to have this kind of, I think, intensely partisan, politicized look-back at the prior administration.”-- former Vice President Dick Cheney

Let's suppose that Cheney is right--prior illegal acts, violations of international law and/or the Geneva Convention, violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA)--any and all offenses, including torture of prisoners, that take place under one administration are water under the bridge and off limits to scrutiny by subsequent administrations. Of course, we also have to ignore that these acts were illegal under our system of law when they were committed, and look beyond the previous administration's sanctions, tacit and/or explicit, of practices and policies that were violations of federal and international law. So what's the result of the application of the Cheney policy?

The lower ranked CIA officers, the ones busy inflicting physical and psychological torture on individuals who might be terrorists, get to say that they were just following orders. Of course, the higher up the chain of command that we go, the more that excuse doesn't fly, after all, someone had to give the orders. However, we don't want to make it so that no one wants to engage in illegal activities like torture, and according to the Cheney policy, that's exactly what will happen if Attorney General Eric Holder continues with a preliminary investigation into whether any CIA officers went beyond what they were told was legally permissible in interrogating detainees.

I read a comment posted somewhere in which the commenter said that innocent people weren't tortured, only evil bad terrorists. I've been looking for a provision in federal or international law that permits torture of evildoers. So far, I haven't found it.

Did you ever notice how we referred to the alleged terrorists as detainees, not prisoners? Maybe it's because the majority of these people had never been tried and convicted of any crimes; they were being held as suspected terrorists. We refused to call them prisoners of war, because as such, they were entitled to certain rights under the Geneva Convention. The Bush administration finally settled on enemy combatants, an essentially meaningless term that allowed the indefinite detaining of people without the benefit of trial under military, criminal, or civil law. Of course, if we had proof of their crimes, we wouldn't have needed to attempt to obtain confessions through the use of torture.

I can't live in former VP Cheney's world. His policy frightens me. It makes the law meaningless and powerless. It may sound corny, but I became a lawyer because I believe in the ideals of law. I recognize that those ideals are not always upheld; in fact, those ideals get trampled on a lot but they're still there, the beacon of justice shining in the night. The redemption of this country, our redemption as a people, lies in being unafraid to shine the light of justice into our dark corners and reveal our own failings. To do so, makes us strong; to fail to do so, to hide behind some smug notion that what happened in the Bush administration stays in the Bush administration demeans the very values that we so vociferously shout that we support. Mr. Cheney, you are so wrong.