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Saturday, May 24, 2008

what we say and what people hear

I'm reading everything I can find regarding the Friday remarks of Sen. Clinton and her reference to primary campaign history as she invoked the memory of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Once again, Keith Olbermann's special comment is spot on and covers the issue quite thoroughly.

But beyond the hub-bub, it made me think about what we say and how it is heard by others. Sen. Clinton insisted that she was referring to history, etc. etc. Others heard it as a veiled assumption that in case something goes wrong it would be good to have another nominee in the wings. Obama supporters have a lingering concern that their candidate is a target for our most scurrilous political outfall - assassination. Sen. Clinton insists that was not her intent. Others insist it is what they heard. This is how we get "bogged down" in political correctness. For how can I say anything without the fear that someone will hear it in a negative context?

My take on this is shaped by my experiences of living in my neighborhood, as someone whose very presence invokes being heard differently by my neighbors. We could learn something by being sensitive to the notion that people will hear our comments through their own lenses and come up with different conclusions. White people who try to say sympathetic or endearing remarks in a situation that they see as unjust to people of color sometimes are heard as being condescending. Sometimes it is heard as something hostile or inflammatory by the very people it is intended to aid. Well-meaning intent does not overcome the hurt that people hear. The same goes for people of color. When they speak of oppression and racism, white people hear it through their lens (or ear). If that includes some racism, fear, distrust - then they will "hear" the remarks with that assumption first.

Sen. Clinton could have just been straightforward and said, primary races have lasted until June and named the contests. Raising the specter of assassination was incendiary and either she knew it and tossed it out there like a bomb or she is incredibly naive - which seems unlikely for a politician of her acumen. But sometimes we actually say things unwittingly that are heard as completely insensitive. How do we accomplish the communication we intend?

I had a conversation this weekend with friends and we were talking about poverty, judgments, and politics. The issue was whether people can overcome their own prejudices about poor people and the associated judgment about why people are in poverty and how this translates into race relations. One friend noted that she was poor as a child and held some harsh judgments of poor people today (based on her own disdain for being in a poor family). She recognized her own foible. The question then became how that judgment gets extended to others - moving beyond the bounds of poverty. My friend is white. She grew up poor. As an adult, she does not want to be poor. She found that being able to point at other poor people now was a way to elevate her own esteem and position. That if someone was "beneath" her, then she was not at the bottom. Needing someone to be "below" you on the status ladder means that someone or some group will bear the brunt of your judgment. We got to the point to in our conversation that prejudice against people could be traced to our own fear of not wanting to be at the bottom. Putting blacks and other people of color into that "lower" category of people gives whites a cushion of superiority - even if only in their own mind.

The upshot of this exercise is that prejudice is very hard to overcome because if you are not on the bottom, you have a vested interest in keeping other people there. And it may not be enough to only have the homeless, bag ladies, sweatshop workers, and others of that ilk beneath you. What if they win the lottery, get straight and get a job? They may pass you by. Therefore, it behooves anyone not on the bottom to have a permanent group of people that will forever be below you, preferably according to a category that will never allow them to change positions with you. Hence, race becomes a most convenient classification tool.

My friend could not accept the likelihood that she participated in such a system, mainly because she was certain she could treat people as individuals and not as a group and that she was not caught up in the material race to the top - even though she did admit to not wanting to be poor.

It is this last point that really identified the conundrum of race and prejudice. The notion "I don't have anything against black people" is held separately from "I don't want to be poor." We think there is a difference and there really isn't. What we mean is that we don't have anything against black people unless they are a threat to our status. Imagine if tomorrow a new Bill Gates emerged on the scene and he or she was black. Imagine that this new mogul decided to share their fortune with a cadre of black persons and a new strata of super wealthy blacks emerged overnight. They begin creating corporations and jobs and investments that opens doors to many more black people - because they are not likely to discriminate against people of the same race. In 5 years there is a complete reversal of today's demographics - blacks as a group are now wealthier than whites as a group. If you are white and are reading this, you know what you are feeling. I'm white. I can go there with you - you reaction is from mildly to greatly concerned - because you are now seeing how you could be on the bottom and somebody else will put their thumb on your neck to keep you down - just to keep themselves on top. It's what we do. We assume others would do it to us if given the opportunity.

So when well-meaning whites say they want to help poor people or they want to stand in solidarity with black people or others of color, you must apply the aforementioned litmus test. Does this mean you are willing to forgo your own status (though not your income and quality of life) to make this happen? Are you willing to be the person at the bottom? Most people will not be willing to go there. And, thus, the offer of assistance to the poor and the oppressed is quite empty, for it says - I am willing to help you as long as it doesn't diminish my standing. Or worse, it says, please accept my help for I am confident you will never surpass me. And please, in a competitive, capitalistic world, don't even try to throw out the - everyone is able to achieve based on their own qualities rhetoric, or worse, we could all be rich. Think about it - rich has no meaning unless there are poor.

We must consider that what we say and what people hear are often very different, depending on who we say it to and where they are in relation to the speaker. I have no doubt that there are those that will read this and have a very different hearing of my words than I intend. That's ok. Let's continue the dialog to ensure that what we say is what people hear.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

the suburban suspicion of the city

So I was having a casual conversation with a salesperson the other day, just to pass the time as we waited for some paperwork to be completed. She asked me what I do for a living and once she got the gist of it, started talking about her experience with the Power & Light District in downtown. In fact it was her friend that got car jacked in the parking garage downtown (of course, I have heard this same personal relationship explanation from at least 3 other people. I know this is a small place, but come on.). She gave me the knowing look, ie. "you know...." that downtown just wasn't safe. I never challenge people on these types of comments, I just let them take the string out as far as they want to see where it leads. This commentary meandered around to the homeless downtown, who are hanging around just steps from the P&L District area. Well at least there is security checking ID at the entry points, but then if they get in, they can buy drinks! I guess we don't want drunken homeless people spoiling it for the rest of us.

Anyway, the conversation turned to the Plaza, which she admitted without any prompting from me, was not that safe either, but at least they have private security and more of it. Because once again, if you leave the P&L District, there are no security people there to save you in downtown. At least in the Plaza, there are agents everywhere. At the end of the discussion, however, she told me how satisfied she was to live near Town Center and get everything she needs there. I didn't say it, but thought to myself, how sad that you require so little of your life.

I thought of this conversation in a couple of different ways. One is that this person who I do not know at all, was so freely sharing her ill-informed sentiments and biases. She had no inkling that I would have a completely different point of view. I think this helps confirm the "same race" theory - that people of the same race automatically assume there is a kindred position about race issues between them. Maybe it was a "same gender" theory - that women will share the same assumptions about which places are safe and what constitutes danger. I never agreed with anything she said, but neither did I take exception to her positions or challenge them. Sometimes I just like to listen to get a sense of just how entrenched these feelings and positions are held.

The commentary on the news today is that whites in West Virginia will never vote for a black presidential candidate. That is certainly the point that Hillary is making as a means to sell herself as the "best" candidate. Hey, the Dems can't win without the bigots, so we might as well cater to them. Hmmm. I'm not feeling that strategy.

So what is the appropriate response to someone who says illogical and unfounded things that are steeped in entrenched racial bigotry and they don't even know it? It's not my place to run around "schooling" people and telling them the error of their ways. I don't need my clock cleaned on a daily basis. If someone is being an arse about it, I'll gladly get in their face. But the innocuous ones, I let go.

I got a healthy, meaty comment to a previous post on this blog that I think in part stems from a misunderstanding of something I wrote. I think my previous paragraph could be easily misconstrued. So here are a few boundary markers to help interpret what I write:
1. I feel everyone has to take personal responsibility for themselves. For some, that means you have to suck up a whole lot more than another, but that is life.
2. Life is not fair. Get used to it.
3. Take responsibility for that which you contribute to, even if you don't realize it. Ignorance of your responsibility is no excuse to ignore it.
4. Guilt is useless, action is valuable.
5. We make the world an unbearable, competitive, mean-spirited place. We can undo that.

I realize that people will disagree with me, will criticize my outlook, and think I am full of nonsense. Isn't that what makes the blog world so great?

Monday, May 12, 2008

guns, murder, and the urban dilemma

I heard gunshots in my vicinity this evening. I am nonplussed by it. Ho Hum. Another round of shots fired. Maybe it is just someone popping some caps. Maybe it is someone getting shot. I hear police helicopters and sirens. That's part of the background noise. There have been several shootings by the police resulting in death of the suspect in recent days. These were each situations where the police were face-to-face with someone who had a gun. Who knows if they would have used it on the police. The police shoot first. I read a story about a vicious homicide in Cleveland where 15 gang members beat a man to death on the street. Cops did not get there fast enough to save him. The inhumanity of that slaying is too much even for the jaded to ignore. Guns, violence, inhumanity. Haven't we been down this road before?

I'm supposed to know what to do about urban issues. That's what I have spent a lifetime studying, researching, teaching, working with local governments, working with neighborhood groups, developing policy, crafting ideas, facilitating group dialog, and writing about it. The pundits who write comments have two answers - I'm glad I moved away from the city and good riddance to another thug on the streets. Well, you can run but you can't hide, even behind your electric fences and security systems in your suburban castles. And for every thug killed, two more take his place. It seems so obvious to me that the two are related. But no one in the suburbs thinks they should be held accountable for anything that goes on in the city. And city leaders pretty much ignore the situation and suggest that jobs are the answer, giving them license to subsidize another corporate development downtown.

This blog got noticed by a few people and it got two reactions - the first: I don't need some white chick pointing her self-righteous finger at me, and the second: I (the white person) am not to blame for the crackhead's violent behavior in the city. It is a convenient defense. Attack the veracity of the messenger (me) and deflect all responsibility onto the perpetrator. Yes, I do point the finger. Maybe I am self-righteous. Doesn't make my point incorrect. Just means you don't like my style of delivery. Yes, the perpetrator is responsible for their own actions, but the systemic racism that brought that situation to that person also is responsible. And since white people are the system and the system is racist - then white people bear some responsibility. You didn't put the gun in his hand. I get that. You didn't tell her to pull the trigger. I get that too. You are a party to the lingering dismissal of otherness that leaves people without jobs, home loans, cars, money for food, and the ability to get ahead.

The system is constructed to reflect the white world. If you are white, you probably don't see that. It rewards people who think as white people do, dress and act as white people do, talk as white people do, live in white neighborhoods, and engage socially with other white people. Yes, blacks and other people of color can get ahead in this world. But it is not an easy struggle, nor is it necessarily authentic for them.

Try this on and see if it resonates. Women - you want to earn the same as a man in the same job. You want to get ahead and get promoted. You want to be the breadwinner for your family and send your kids to college. To do this, you must work 60 hours per week and you can't have time off to go attend to your kids and family. Ok. I will make that adjustment, you say. You must enter the culture of male bonding - taking clients to the "club," the golf course, maybe even the "gentleman's club." I shouldn't have to do those things you say. But yes you do if the corporate culture is constructed to reflect men's world view. Men don't see it as right or wrong, it just is. Women are uncomfortable making those adjustments. Well, suck it up sweetie, because this is what it takes. Those that don't tow the line are just whiners. Are you starting to see the picture here?

People of color are expected to curb their accent, straighten their hair, wear "appropriate" clothes, be the minority person at the club and often get mistaken as the waiter, get pulled over by the police in white neighborhoods because it is suspicious for them to be there even if they live there, drive greater distances to stores that stock their hair products and other supplies because the stores in white neighborhoods do not carry it. The list goes on.

There are many, many, many people of color who live in the suburbs. Some are highly integrated places, some people are willing to be the minority family in the subdivision. But don't kid yourself that it isn't a struggle every day to keep it in check and live the life that is defined by white culture. If you can't financially afford to take this on, then you live in other neighborhoods that aren't as safe, that aren't as nice, but have greater authenticity for you as a person of color. What a Faustian bargain people make just to live.

So back in my neighborhood where violence is on the uptick and back in Cleveland where a man got beat to death on the street...what is the solution? Why don't we ask the people who are most greatly affected instead of pontificating that people in the 'hood should do this and not that. It would be a better start.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Clinton and the white blue-collar, lunchbucket voters

Further support for this position can be found at the Wall Street Journal, column by Peggy Noonan May 9, 2008 "Damsel of Distress":

"To play the race card as Mrs. Clinton has, to highlight and encourage a sense that we are crudely divided as a nation, to make your argument a brute and cynical "the black guy can't win but the white girl can" is -- well, so vulgar, so cynical, so cold, that once again a Clinton is making us turn off the television in case the children walk by."

And here is a little something from the NY Times about Hillary's position on who is getting the white vote to help confirm the position I'm taking...

My original post:

As always, Keith Oberman is one of the most brilliant and insightful commentators on politics in this country. Click on his name above and hear his special commentary on Hillary's continuing connection to racism that enables her to keep close to the white blue-collar crowd that harbors some degree of prejudice against blacks. She is using a disgusting wink-wink, nudge-nudge strategy to throw back a brewski with the Archie Bunker crowd, while claiming to be above the fray created by the likes of Geraldine Ferraro. White people must stand up to this type of insidious racism being practiced by the Clinton campaign. (see my earlier posts on Bill Clinton and his notorious South Carolina bigoted comments). Whites wonder why blacks and other people of color don't trust what we say. Hillary is a perfect example. By sliding by she does every one of us a disservice in getting past the racial divides that plague our country. Listen to Barak's speech on race relations again. It is stirring, it is real, it pulls no punches. The same cannot be said for Hillary and her campaign of innuendos and sly racism. Shame on you Hillary. I can't vote for you.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Obama v. Clinton

Check out this very funny youtube vid using Star Wars as the backdrop for the current Democratic primary race. Click on the title above - Obama v. Clinton.

Thanks to Dan at Gone Mild for this link.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Generation Gap

One of my neighbors hustles to do lawn mowing and he does our yard. He's an older guy, works hard, does a good job, and follows up when the lawn gets long again. Today he had some significant words to share with the young guys who hang out on our block and do little in the way of identifiable labor. He put it to them because they messed with him while he is working. He let them know exactly how he felt about them and that he would be happy to school them if necessary. The young guys talk tough, but they won't mess with him. He's scrappy.

Scrappy is a way of life in my neighborhood. Yelling is a way of life in my neighborhood. It takes a little getting used to for those that are unaccustomed. Black people say it's a black thing. Poor people say it's a poor thing. Immigrants say it's an immigrant thing. I guess it's not a white middle and upper class thing...

It brings to mind the Rev. Wright and Obama issue. Rev. Wright is a fiery preacher. Obama has said that black preachers are likely to whoop and holler in their sermons. White people are naturally taken aback by this because there is little whooping or hollering in their churches. So when you add what is perceived to be the inflammatory language of black theology to the mix, white people will feel a whole lot of discomfort. Hillary came to quick judgment and wondered aloud why Obama had not left the church and why he stayed so long. Her discomfort with the Reverend led her to tell Obama to leave his church. Quite a leap. Meanwhile the white media can't seem to let it go. They are incredulous that the whole Rev. Wright thing has happened and then they proceed to go over it again and again and again. What is really bothering the media is that they don't understand this pastor, his message, and his delivery. They understand only that he is different than what they are used to. My conclusions about this have little to do with the content of the Reverend's speech. If that were the heart of the issue, the media would be treating this much differently. Instead, they are focusing on how a preacher could behave so improperly, how a congregation could be so tolerant and unchallenging, how Obama could sit for this! Hrumph! The indignation is palpable.

On my block, the yelling and banter ebbs and flows. Sometimes it goes on longer than it should. There was a nasty altercation involving an inebriated woman, a young man, and a broken bottle that she used to threaten him, and instead only egged him on to new heights of profundity. Sometimes the yelling and anger will become violent and guns are brought out and used. I have seen this only once, but the news is filled with the commonness of this escalation. Perhaps it is this violation of white sensibilities that leads Hillary et al. to be relentless in their criticism of Obama's judgment. For if Obama is allowed to respond without outrage to the pastor, then what next? White culture may not be allowed to set the standard for decorum, propriety, or acceptability. That would be scandalous (as the guys on my block say).