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Thursday, August 28, 2008

A New Day?

August 28, 2008. Remember where you were. Today is an historic day. I watched the speech. I am inspired. I grew up on those segregated streets of Chicago. I was raised on the vitriol of racial hate. I saw Chicago burn as the whole world watched in 1968. And now, 40 years later - on the 45th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech, Barack Obama is nominated as our Democratic candidate for President. I wept. I cheered. I listened with rapt attention. What a day.

I watched the speech in a local bar/restaurant in Camden, NJ at a party hosted by one of my students. The politics watchers were mostly African-American, but it was a healthy mixed crowd. But the other half of the bar was filled with mostly white college aged young people who had no interest other than getting the next round. They were completely oblivious to what was going on. It made absolutely no difference to them. They are not likely to vote. But their abstention speaks volumes about the critical state of politics in our country. What does it say about us that a significant segment of the population opts out of the polity. And you know they have counterparts in the Latino and African-American communities as well. People who just don't think it matters if they vote or not. People who don't care who wins because their cynicism about politics is like granite. People who don't think that anyone cares about them, listens to them, or could do anything for them if they were heard or cared about.

Change in this election means reaching those citizens too. They need to be brought back into the fold. Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Greenie, Socialist, Natural Rights, Constitutional, or whatever - it is important for them to be a part of the process. Without them, we are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But I will revel in the memory of tonight's history. It was awesome. I was moved. I feel connected to my country in a way that I haven't in a long time. I am too much of a realist to be Pollyanna for too long. But let me have tonight to savor. What a time it is.

Monday, August 25, 2008

History to be made this week

Well, here we are on the cusp of an event that not many people predicted. The Democrats will nominate the first African-American candidate for president. This is an historic occasion. Barack Obama will give his convention speech to accept the nomination on the 45th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Folks - 45 years is an instant when you consider that our country hung onto slavery for its first 100 years and took another 100 years for equal/civil rights legislation to be passed. The country has moved at warp speed to come to where we are in this year, in this election, at this convention this week.

Interesting conversation going on around the country. The African-American community is concerned that white America will declare an end to discrimination and racial issues upon the nomination of Sen. Obama. Furthermore, should he be elected, the concern increases that the country will no longer feel that affirmative action is needed, that voting rights no longer need to be monitored, and equal opportunity safeguards will be shelved. After all, if a black man can become the President, then our race relations must be ok. The NYTimes has a good article on this discussion today. read it here.

The discussion made me think of progressive black mayors - notably David Dinkins in NYC and Harold Washington in Chicago. Both were firsts in their city. Both had to deal with the backlash of white voters that basically said - finally, we don't have to talk about race anymore. And when those mayors attempted to provide the support and attention to race-based issues like unemployment and poverty, school performance, and redevelopment - they faced criticism, resistance, and worse. This backlash will be present when Obama is elected. He should prepare for it now.

It's ironic isn't it, that whites would claim "race fatigue" and suggest that the election of a minority to high office will put an end to the issue. Why wouldn't the assumption be, at last we have the courage to step up and deal with race by electing the only person who can directly take it on - a minority president? I imagine that blacks feel they must tread lightly on this issue for fear of scaring off the white voters who fear that a black president will make it open season on whites and give all the resources to blacks and worse. I am quite certain there are white people who will vote for Obama and internalize their understanding of what that means as something like, he will transcend race and it won't be an issue anymore. Because they can't bring themselves to vote for a black candidate in order to support race relations. Because to do so would require admitting that whites could not adequately solve the race issue. Because to do so would require admitting some culpability in discrimination. President Obama will have a tricky road ahead if he is successful in getting elected.

What if this white backlash becomes reality and he is less than successful in his presidency on issues of race relations? Will he be called ineffective by the white media (which woulde really be ironic)? Will he lose favor in the black community for not being able to deliver whatever is assumed he will deliver? Will his election actually retard progress toward racial equality? On these issues, whites must take responsibility and act accordingly. Whites will need to step aside and empower others to lead and make decisions. Whites will need to support Obama's attention to minority issues. Whites will need to back off their expectations that race divisions are over and step up to deal with race relations realistically - meaning take responsibility for the current conditions and make some changes. Who will speak to white America on what they need to do? Will Biden take this on or is his job to tell the lunch-bucket crowd that Obama is ok and he won't mess with the status quo on race relations? The campaign could miss an important opportunity to heal racial divisions, not just pretend they don't exist. Should be interesting.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Suburban angst and Section 8

Woe has come to affluent suburbs. Not only are they facing high rates of foreclosures, but some of the houses are becoming Section 8 rental units. I kid you not. Here is a great article from the NYTimes about Antioch, CA where African-Americans from Oakland are using their Section 8 vouchers to find affordable subsidized housing in the 'burbs. Check it out. There is also a post at Tony's Kansas City with some raging comments here.

The situation is ironic on a number of levels, but let me use some of my insights to sharpen the focus. The Times article pits the poor Section 8 tenants against the hostile and frightened white suburbanites. While that generates a great sympathy angle for the tenants, it does little to get at the deep issues. The Times article touches on some research that has been done on Section 8 dispersal programs where low income minority tenants are moving to the suburbs. The findings suggest that they are bringing their crime with them from the city and bringing down the quality of life in the suburbs. While that "fact" may be true, it is the interpretation of what it means that is very disturbing and it is that interpretation that permeates the Times article.

Having lived in an inner city neighborhood for a couple of years, I have a better sense than most white suburban people about the issues facing residents who migrate to the suburbs. First the section 8 tenants who are black and by necessity, low income, are moving into a neighborhood of white middle and upper middle income residents. This is culture shock for all concerned. But the big difference for the white folk is that they use their position of privilege to define what the suburban community life ought to be. They assume that life as they know it should be the default. And if minority poor people are coming into their neighborhood, they should "assimilate" and adopt the default standard of living. Those that don't are obviously unfit to live in the neighborhood and this leads to the white residents to bemoan how their community has changed. If those same white residents moved to the inner city, they would expect the existing black residents to conform to the expectations that whites bring with them (gentrifiers are known for this). No loud music or cars, no street gatherings, no hustling - because white people believe that their way of life is the way everyone should be living their life.

I am not saying that drugs, violence, and domestic disturbance ought to be tolerated in anyone's neighborhood. On that point whites and blacks agree. No one other than the perpetrators wants that kind of life condition. But whites assume that these life conditions are voluntarily adopted by minorities and/or come with the inner city territory. Bigoted whites assume that any black person who moves into their neighborhood will be violent and do drugs. Well meaning whites assume that now that these poor black folk have been delivered from the ghetto that their lives will turn around and they will live like the white people do. Only the clueless would think either of these two positions are true.

Yes, the inner city is a tough place. It is loud, it can be violent, there are drugs. But what I encountered most is that it is stressful. Stress caused by not having enough money to pay the bills when an emergency comes along. Stress caused by not having a full-time job with benefits. Stress caused by a local economic market that is built on hustling - drugs, stolen merchandise, and the ultimate renewable good - one's own body. Stress caused by being constantly surrounded by boarded up houses that white suburban investors couldn't flip or houses that neighbors couldn't make a go of. Stress caused by vacant lots everywhere filled with trash that no matter how often it is removed, it is replaced by new trash as fast as the weeds that grow high. Winter is the only respite from visual blight because it is too cold for the weeds or the trash dumpers.

Suburbanites are beginning to understand what this stress is like and how it affects your life. The news is littered with stories about rampant foreclosures and the impact it is having on neighborhoods that once were the model of American life. The fact that homeowners from CA to MO are becoming section 8 landlords is producing a lot of stress for their former neighbors! This is a nationwide phenomenon. Someone needs to look at the crime trends in neighborhoods where foreclosures are up and employment is down. You don't think that suburbanites are resorting to domestic violence, pawning their stuff (on craigs list and ebay until they sell their computer, and then the pawn shop becomes convenient). You don't think they will turn to petty crime (maybe at the office or the shopping mall) to help make ends meet?

When low income tenants move to the suburbs on a Section 8 voucher, they come as poor people but not necessarily as ghetto thugs. They bring with them an experience of what day-to-day life is like and their boundaries of behavior are based on the stress and culture that they know. It is not a stress that typically exists in the suburbs and it is not a culture known by white people. Why is it that white people in the suburbs are offended by people gathering outside of their home and being loud? Why do whites or middle class people look at blacks and poor people as being uncouth and barbaric - to the point that they will call the police to take care of the "disturbance." I now live in a mixed neighborhood of middle class and working class people (and student renters) in Camden, NJ. People here sit on their front porches and mingle and talk loudly. They are OUTDOORS. It is ok. The behavior is not just about being social. It is about protecting turf. No one bothers people on my block because we demonstrate that we are attentive to our neighborhood. Two blocks away there is petty theft because transplanted suburbanites don't tend to their street.

In Antioch, CA there are some simple ways to address the tension. Instead of sitting at the Starbucks sipping a $5 latte and complaining about how black tenants are ruining your community, get engaged with your neighbors. In the 1950s and 60s there was a service called "Welcome Wagon" to help acclimate new residents to the neighborhood, give them coupons to patronize neighborhood merchants, and generally set the tone for what the norms were in the community. As a society we let go of that kind of standardization of culture and the Welcome Wagon went the way of the dinosaur. However, many neighborhood groups and community organizations still welcome new residents with a gift of a plant or other housewarming token, just to let the new residents know who to call if they need help, have a question, or otherwise are lost. Imagine who might need this help - maybe new residents that have come from a completely different place and are now in a culturally foreign environment???? Ya think? Instead of complaining that poor black tenants are not living exactly as you think they should and are "changing" your community, and are bringing crime with them...try embracing them in a way that forces you to examine your own expectations and provides some neighborliness.

Now the inevitable conclusion is that there will be nice, white people who embrace their new neighbors and welcome them, only to be rebuffed and deduce that crime follows people from the inner city. "I tried" they say, "but they didn't respond and there is nothing else I can do." Except call the police and join the local latte whiner's club. Whites assert privilege and use the police to enforce their world view. It is laughable that researchers frame this as section 8 tenants bringing crime with them (like it is in their suitcase and they unpack it) or that crime follows them (like a lost dog) to the suburbs. Put people with stress into any situation and crime will ensue. To suggest that a change of geography is all it takes to change behavior, then let's all move to Palm Beach!!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Gender and Race - Still a Perculating Issue

My heroine, Maureen Dowd, has written a fabulous piece comparing Sen./candidate Obama to Mr. Darcy of Jane Austin's novel. Read it here.

The upshot of her thinking is that Sen. Obama is perceived by Hilary women supporters as haughty and not worthy of their vote. Sen. Obama must win them over by demonstrating his caring side and vulnerability. This is not an easy show and sell in a historic political campaign where a lot is riding on the outcome. In previous posts I wrote about the gender vs. race factor and the institution of privilege be it men or be it white. Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton share status as United States Senators but he is considered junior due to length of service. But it is there that the comparisons end. Sen. Clinton's supporters continue to rail against the gender bias that was leveled against Hillary during the primaries. Yet they say nothing about the racial bigotry leveled against Obama. The Hillary-ites want the Democratic Party to include a gender bias issue in the platform, which seems fair enough, only some want the item to be in specific reference to Hillary. Issues now become pulpits for candidates, and it is not the first time. Hillary wants her pound of flesh. Ok. I get it. I support it. But can it be done without casting aspersions at Obama? Can the feminist position cast a narrow net, or must all men be caught up in it. Well, it's kind of like white privilege - do any whites get a free pass just because their heart is in the right place? No. So Obama can't take a pass either.

What he can do is get out in front of the issue and champion it. He could score more points by embracing what the Hilliary folks want than trying to finesse it. Let your guard down Mr. Darcy. Embrace what you are not sure of and take a chance. Millions of whites are afraid to take a chance on a black man. Surely Mr. Obama in this historic setting can take a chance on women and support the cause. It may make taking a chance on him less of a risk than currently is sensed by some.

Face it. If someone is not going to vote for you only because you are black, do you really think you are going to jeopardize their potential vote by supporting women? Doubtful, because you were never going to get them anyway.

Supporting women can be part of the profound change movement, that seems to be ever so slowly ebbing away from us as Sen. Obama seeks to cling to his lead. Hedging bets is not the one that brought you to this dance and leaving with a new admirer is not going to generate the enthusiasm and support that you need to win. Black voters have supported Obama because of his race AND for some because of his hope and inspiration. He can't run from that now and by not giving something to the Hillary camp, he risks being seen as a cut and run guy.

White privilege is so easy to dismiss in our minds and pretend we don't have it. But the very fact of being white is to have privilege. What we can do is refuse to use it and that is hard. Obama has privilege by being a man and he can never shake that off. However, he can refuse is use it and that is what he must do now.

I am finding a similar twist of fate in my new city. While I am living in the city and not the suburbs, and gaining points with other whites who are dazzled at my courage (oh puleeeze), I am not living in a part of town that challenges my privilege. In fact my privilege is on display every day as a kind of I can live here and you have to get used it kind of scenario. I am very conflicted by the position I am in. I need to figure out how to take a bit of my own advice and eschew this privilege in a way that empowers those who are brought down by my position. I don't expect everyone to get my sentiment or to agree with my stance. But it is mine and I have to live it. Wish me luck. I'll keep you posted.