Thursday, July 16, 2015

American Race-baiting

By: Joel Gardner
Executive Director - Whitewashed USA

You called me a race-baiter? What exactly is that? 

I was recently called this name in an online racial equality forum. As a white guy who writes about social justice issues it’s not the first time I’ve been labeled, and it won’t be the last, so I thought I would break down the meaning of the term and more importantly, the history of using that argument while discussing race relations in the United States.
The basic premise of "race-baiter" is that the discussion at hand does not involve race. The person being called a race-baiter is being accused of distracting from whatever real problem might exist with a conspiracy theory that blames the current situation on racial inequality, racial bias, or otherwise trying to bait the listener into discussing race instead of solving the actual problem. In reality, the accusation of race-baiting, like most childish name calling, is a way to avoid discussion, and shame the other person for a topic that makes you feel uncomfortable. The phrase “race-baiter” first appeared in our language around 1961, but the meaning has been around much longer.
“The accusation of race-baiting, like most childish name calling, is a way to avoid discussion, and shame the other person for a topic that makes you feel uncomfortable.”
To put “race-baiter” in context, we also need to understand what “race” means historically. That poses a challenge because race is not actually a thing, or at least it wasn’t a thing until its invention in the mid-1600s when the people that would later be called “Americans” ran into a serious problem. Hang on for some history you might have missed in school. The problem came as the new colonies killed, plundered, and drove existing indigenous civilizations away from the eastern parts of the continent, by the 1630s and 40s this left vast amounts of forested land “free” to be cleared and farmed. Some of these farms were small plots claimed and worked by settler families, while many others were larger lots of 100 acres or more and given to freed planters and larger investment groups from Europe.

The new wealthy land owners and investors needed bodies to do the back breaking work of clearing and farming that land, lots of bodies, so they started offering “free passage” to anyone who would sign on as an indentured servant, usually for 5-7 years. This labor pool quickly proved to be too small for the financial opportunity being presented, not only did these servants leave when their term expired, indentured servants cannot be abused into unacceptable conditions of hard labor based on a system of travel debt, that can only be accomplished by the taking of personhood, by fully taking possession and ownership of the body.
“Indentured servants cannot be abused into unacceptable conditions of hard labor… that can only be accomplished by the taking of personhood, by fully taking possession and ownership of the body.”
By greed and opportunity the land owners also went to poor countries like Ireland and Africa where they could purchase impoverished or kidnapped humans at very little cost, chain, beat, and abuse them until they performed the work. This system had immediate high returns, but eventually as more of the servants were set free, there was a growing poor, non-land owning population asking to be paid to work, wanting to have families, and own land as a part of the colonial dream. The division of classes between wealthy and poor grew to a tipping point, where the impoverished population and the slaves they worked beside began to rise up against the wealthy land owners. In some cases such as the nearby French colony in Saint-Domingue these uprisings eventually caused the overthrow of the colony and the creation of the nation of Haiti, run entirely by the former slaves. In order to avoid this kind of apocalyptic end to the burgeoning business of sugar cane, tobacco, and the newly forming industry of cotton, the land owners slowly crafted a new more sustainable system of labor.

They did this using the method of divide and conquer, by creating a new kind of caste within the classes. This was what was needed to convince a portion of the poor population to fight against the remainder. The traditional way of dividing classes is by wealth, however in this case they devised a way to use skin tone as the separator and called it “race” instead. The land owners told the lighter skinned slaves and servants that they were on the same team, and if they helped keep their darker skinned friends in line, they could get all kinds of perks like freedom and someday maybe land. This didn’t sound right to a lot of people, so to help the story along they started to talk about darker skinned people differently, they said they were less intelligent, lazier, had biblical curses from God on them, or maybe they weren’t human at all, just another animal that needed protection, food, and work to keep them busy.
“The traditional way of dividing classes is by wealth, however in this case they devised a way to use skin tone as the separator and called it “race” instead.”
In this new system the impoverished “whites” were given low paying work as overseers and managers. Poor “blacks” moved quickly from indentured servants to a caste of permanent slave, along with their children’s, children’s, children, etc. This poor white containment system for black slaves worked so well the land owners continued to import thousands of new slaves from Africa for the white managers to contain and abuse for the next 200 years. With a world class economy, free labor, and a labor control system maintained primarily by, and founded in the new invention of race, the slave system even funded a war to make the colonies their own country. With liberty and justice for all… if you were male, and a land owner, and white. Everyone else was excluded.

What does that all have to do with race-baiters? The slave system was working so well, more land was needed for the ever growing farm production. This was acquired again by force, from the already displaced indigenous families by continuously pushing them farther west. New states were formed as speculators, and land owners, flooded into the Shenandoah Valley and down the Mississippi for the longer southern growing seasons, and distance from the rising chorus against race based slavery in the north. They created a new economic center in the Louisiana territory, where slave labor flowed in, and money in the form of cotton flowed out. The slavery itself also changed, it was no longer the slave torn from his or her family, who lived and died in one place, it was if possible more horrible, with human bodies bought and sold from place to place like the cows and pigs that shared the auction block. With sometimes thousands on a single plantation, living in rags, in open shelters, worked with the sun literally into the ground, without proper food or water, a heavy lash always within reach and employed daily. This was the dawning of chattel slavery, this was the shift from “personhood” to “thinghood” for the American slave. The people who opposed this expansion were called abolitionists, they would sometimes sneak down south and free People of Color. The slave owners fought back violently, and legally, they said the abolitionists were trouble makers, and rabble rousers trying to incite rebellion and invent race problems in an otherwise peaceful system. That’s right, abolitionist = race-baiter.
"This was the dawning of chattel slavery, this was the shift from “personhood” to “thinghood” for the American slave"
In 1807 there was another dramatic shift in the American system of slavery, Britain followed the Dutch in banning the transatlantic slave trade hoping the practice, would end with the supply. This challenge to the wealth of our nation was met by the large plantations of the south; a new industry grew within the existing system. With no external source of labor the plantations turned to something more insidious, they shifted a portion of the engine of slavery from producing cotton, to producing humans. Planned and orchestrated breeding of slaves increased to supply human chattel to the desperate market, with some women promised freedom if they produced 15 living children, though there was no legal mandate to honor an agreement with a Person of Color. As stories of this horror slowly leeched to the ears of sympathizers, there was an outcry that we as a nation could not allow this to continue, national laws were proposed but the delegates representing slave states stopped them each time saying that states have the right to determine their own preference on the subject of slavery. The northern politicians were called instigators of revolt and ni**er lovers. Essentially… race-baiters.
"This challenge to the wealth of our nation was met by the large plantations of the south; a new industry grew within the existing system."
For another 50 years the nation seethed under the burden of slavery, this was not just a southern problem, racism was a national cancer, the southern states simply bore the visible wounds. The pressure from multiple abolitionist movements, a violent anti-abolitionist backlash that swept the nation, and lawmakers threatening to force the issue was too much. One by one the southern states seceded from the union, each one saying they were leaving to protect the institution of slavery as a right of their state to continue if they chose. The north fought back to keep the country together, and 750,000 American bodies fell to settle the question. Near the end of the war, President Lincoln freed the slaves by proclamation and used the army to enforce the proclamation as they swept through the south. Those who had enjoyed generational wealth on the backs of slaves, along with the lower classes they employed, continually lashed out at the north, calling it the war of northern aggression, they said there was no race problem or slave problem if the north would just stop inciting it. They also claimed that the war was not even about slavery but states’ rights, accusing the north of being, in other words, race-baiters.

After the war the north sent down a lot of people to fix the race problem that everyone fought and died for. They made sure the slaves were actually freed, built schools for black students, created jobs, put former slaves in positions of political power, and took land from the rich white folks to give to the freed slaves. This time period was called Reconstruction, the land owners and even the poor white folks in the south found this unbearable, they called the government workers, carpet baggers and scalawags, and said there was no racial disparity, the blacks were free and that was fair enough, the carpetbaggers were only there to fix a race problem that didn’t exist. Race-baiters.
"This time period was called Reconstruction, the land owners and even the poor white folks in the south found this unbearable, they called the government workers, carpet baggers and scalawags"
When the reconstruction efforts ended the southern states had to find a way to replace all the free labor they used to get from slavery, but slavery was illegal… so they started writing laws that would let them close the schools, take back the jobs and land, restrict areas and services to whites only, and even arrest and fine black folks for crimes like spitting or loitering.  Then make them “work off” the sometimes growing fine by renting them out to land owners to do hard labor without pay.The laws were called Jim Crow laws and promoted a separate but “equal” way of life. This is also when the Ku Klux Klan was formed by former Confederate officers to reclaim white supremacy by lynching and torturing blacks in terrorist attacks for generations to come. When anyone pointed out the unfairness of all this they were branded trouble makers, disturbing the peace of happy communities and causing a race problem that did not exist. Race-baiters.

These still intolerable social conditions continued for another 80 years, by the time the 1950s and 1960s came along the civil rights movement was sweeping through the south challenging segregation at every turn. Leaders like Gloria Richardson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, and Malcom X along with freedom riders and others were of course accused of being trouble makers, and creating problems. The term race-baiter was coined to throw at these men and women. I still remember my parents talking about them in that light. “Things were peaceful, then these leaders started filling black folks heads with nonsense about how segregation was oppressive” That this country had already come a long way since slavery, and there really was “no racial problems anymore.” Then with the advent of instant news on our televisions, buses were burned, activists were abused and murdered, and Selma happened. The whole country saw it, and like each generation before, could not explain what they saw without acknowledging that race was still a problem.

Today people from all walks of life are talking again, talking about problems like police brutality, mass incarceration, overall justice system bias, education inequality, income inequality, housing discrimination.  All of which target and impact black and other minority communities far more than their white neighbors. It seems like we can’t go one day without hearing someone bring up a social problem wrapped in the context of race. We also can’t hear those discussions without the familiar response that the speakers are troublemakers, pot stirrers, and yes race-baiters, creating a problem by going around talking about it until it exists, if they would just keep quiet this would all go away.
Looking back at this country, ever since race became a thing there were always two sides to the conversation. On one side we see white folks protecting a way of life that allows for the mistreatment of People of Color, but relative peace. The other side has always been black folks and white folks that can see the damage to our society and are demanding change.
“We have a race problem in this country, the solution will be complicated and uncomfortable, and it lies on the other side of our own fear.”
This is it, the day has come for our generation to stand up, face this country’s original sin of slavery, and the ripples of damage still born by us all. There will be no true peace until we heal the open wounds left by centuries of fear and mend the damage that our generation has inherited. It’s time to embrace and honor our differences, it’s time to stop trying to sink the other side of the same ship we are sailing on by hiding, ignoring, and shaming this problem away. We have a race problem in this country, the solution will be complicated and uncomfortable, and it lies on the other side of our own fear.

You called me a race-baiter. With our shared history as the backdrop, that throws me together with all the slaves, abolitionists, reconstruction workers, anti-segregationists, civil rights activists, freedom riders, and social justice advocates from the last 400 years of America that have spoken up to say we have a problem to fix… Thank you, and you’re right, I am a race-baiter. Now get up, come with me, united we stand.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore, Ferguson and How To Stop a Revolution

How many riots do we have left before we see something worse? Will you watch the next one through a television, or a window?

     First, the protests are about race, or rather the social class system we created that we call race. They are about how our society works great for some people in this country but not so great for others, especially if you happen to be born with darker than average skin. This is unjust, it’s obvious to those affected by it, and all the protests, and violence are because people don’t feel represented or respected. It isn’t about any single incident and whether the people involved are racists, it is about a consistent pattern of violent and abusive results that disproportionately affect people of color.
     I also want to point out that the violence playing out on news sources right now is miniscule compared to the thousands of peaceful citizens in Baltimore who are excercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest. That does not remove the fact that the incidence of violence around protests is increasing and we can expect that trend to continue.
     We can all agree that violence is bad, and that innocent people are always hurt when violence is employed, but history teaches us why and when we can expect violence to come. Every revolution in civilized history followed the same patterns of behavior. They all started with some citizens having a strong sense that the social system around them was unjust. Because of social norms, these citizens bore this injustice silently at first, believing that society would notice and correct the problem. When changes did not come, those citizens became vocal, thinking that if those in charge of the country only new of the problem, they would certainly enable change to happen. When this still did not produce improved outcomes, the growing voices would take to the streets to be noticed and be heard. If there was still no change, the protests became increasingly angry and violent, the organization of these citizens grew out of anger until war tore each country apart to decide who would design the next set of laws and social systems. 
     This is history, this is the story of France, England, Russia, and almost any other country you can name. This is the pattern that unfolded through the Arab spring, and is still unfolding right now in Syria and dozens of other countries with great unrest. Even here in our own United States, we are the product of this same pattern of revolution against an unchanging and unjust colonial system, this pattern of rebellion and demand for change is in our blood.
     It was this unstoppable drive for justice that plunged our country into a civil war that buried 750,000 American bodies in our own ground. But not every rebellion ended with that kind of pain and loss. Sometimes we got it right, we saw the pattern unfolding, woke up and changed, and when we did, amazing things happened – wages became fair, women voted, and civil rights were granted, all because we saw violent change coming, and changed in a more peaceable way before it could get here.
     We are watching as this same pattern unfolds in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore, In each historic case that did not change peaceably, the story was the same, those in power did not take the time to understand and fix the problem. From Haitian slave owners who died not understanding how slaves could be so ungrateful, to French aristocrats who went to the guillotine proclaiming that there was no problem with their societal systems, there are plenty of examples of what we can expect down this same road. We don’t have to go that far, we can make a different choice and instead of waiting for violent change to happen, we can  stop, hear the problem, and move quickly to enact peaceful change in its place.

     We are in a sustained and escalating social pattern that has only been resolved historically by either violent change, or peaceful change. Which one will we choose this time?

     If you are ready for peace, get involved, study the problems, realize the broad impact that our racially divided history is having on our country today and push for a peaceful change in our laws. Start with those that govern police, judicial, and prison systems, then move on to education and financial reforms to make them more sensible and equitable for all. Change is coming, we do not get to choose whether it comes, we only get to choose the way we adopt it.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Let’s Talk About White Privilege or Un-earned Social Advantage

People are so offended when the word privilege is used, like I just accused them of holding their pinky finger in the air while they sip tea on the veranda. Put your pinky back down, it’s not like that.

By: Joel Gardner
Executive Director - Whitewashed USA

So to be a little more reader friendly, I will use the term “un-earned social advantage”. Most of the time when someone takes offense to being called privileged, they provide a list of hardships they and their family have been through, along with a list of all the sacrifices they have made, and hard work they have done to get what they have. Everyone can give these examples and should be congratulated, good job! But that’s not the privilege we are talking about. Before we get to the racial part, let me give you an example of the kind of advantage I mean: If I go to college, work hard, get a degree and apply for a job, I will have an earned social advantage over other people that have not put in the same effort and don’t have the same qualifications. Earned advantage is a privilege you get for working hard, and playing the game of life well. But let’s say that a woman with a similar background does the same thing I did, gets the same degree and applies for the same job. Because of the way our society works, I am twice as likely to get that job, even with identical qualifications*. Going a step further - if we both got that same job, I would likely get a %22 higher salary**, not because I was smarter or had a better degree, but just because I happen to be male. This is an un-earned social advantage that men have over women in our culture. It’s a privilege I have, before I even walk in the door.

Of course this example is just one tiny sliver of how our social system advantages men. But think about it –an employment system that was designed primarily by men, would be designed to help men be successful. Not because men hate women or because men are bad, but because we as humans are all naturally bias towards ourselves and others like us. This is because if someone is like you, it is easier to empathize with and relate to their needs. It’s also inevitable that a system you build, will be designed to help your kids succeed, because they are also like you. This is why social systems like our system of employment, which was designed by men like me, will be designed to help me succeed. This is un-earned social advantage; this is also called male privilege.

This is where race and racism come into the conversation, social systems that disadvantage people based on race were not designed by racists for the most part, they were designed to meet the needs of the people who designed them. We happen to live in a country where the social systems were designed by the white, straight, male, Christian, able bodied majority, so if you happen to have been dealt one or more of those cards, congratulations! You won the social lottery and there are thousands of tiny little advantages you have before you even walk in the door.

"Social systems that disadvantage people based on race were not designed by racists for the most part, they were designed to meet the needs of the people who designed them."

Of course every action creates an equal and opposite reaction to balance things out, and no system can create advantage without creating disadvantage at the same time. If you happen to be born with darker skin those thousands of little advantages are now un-earned disadvantages, only it’s different than male female bias. Men didn’t start off the historical relationship hating women, but unfortunately in this country white people started their history here by de-humanizing, owning, beating, working, and breeding black folks for financial gain. When that system was finally outlawed in 1863, white folks were so terrified that the black folks would rise up and start some kind of slavery revenge, that they carefully crafted laws and social systems that would keep black folks from gaining power through social advantages.

Some of these systems have slowly been reformed over the last 150 years, but there are still plenty of things that are just not right, and not right always leads to resentment and anger. Black folks are angry because they have born the burden of living under social systems that were not design by or for them for hundreds of years, and even though there have been vast improvements, they are not fixed yet.

If you happen to have lighter skin, here are just a few of the great bonus features you get from our society for free!

If you are white you can:
  1. Move into any nice neighborhood and not have to worry that you might be harassed because of your skin color.
  2. Go to the store and easily find a Band-aid that resembles your skin tone.
  3. Go shopping anytime and not have to worry about being followed or watched carefully by employees.
  4. Go to a history class and learn about people who look like you doing positive things to help humanity.
  5. Spend most of your time in the company of people from your race, even at work or school if you choose to.
  6. Turn on any media and see people of your race widely represented.
  7. Know that your children will be educated about the history of their race in a positive way in school.
  8. Go to the bank or write a check knowing that your skin color will not be counted against you financially.
  9. Never be asked to speak on behalf of all the people in your racial group.
  10. Remain oblivious to the language and customs of people of color around you without fearing social penalties.
  11. Criticize your government without being thought of as a terrorist or un-American.
  12. Ask for the person in charge and probably face someone of your own race.
  13. Be late for an appointment and be certain it will not reflect on your entire race.
  14. Ask for help from a police officer without fearing that your race might make it a negative or even dangerous interaction.
  15. Feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of life.
Now that I've pointed out a small sampling of daily advantages that people of color don’t get to experience, hopefully you too will begin to recognize the amount of un-earned social disadvantage that people of color do experience daily. To sit back and say it's not my problem is not only apathetic to others, but also no longer an acceptable option. You can help, by becoming more in tune with, and developing an awareness of how others experience the world. Question: If you had the ability to create changes that could repair and heal some of the damage our social structures have caused within minority communities, would you?

Minority communities, especially Blacks whose family introduction to this country was being pulled from those families one by one and sold on an auction block, have never experienced our society collectively reaching out in a loving manner to mend those injuries. One of the reasons I believe we've neglected to reach out, is that same fear of some sort of slavery revenge that generations of Americans have felt before. Isn't it time for us, the collective majority to let go of fear, step out, and step up? Fear is paralyzing, and I am ready to live life fully as a human family without dragging around those kinds of restrictions. No guilt needed, no apologies, just mind your privilege, run towards change, be brave, and open your mouth when you know a situation is just not OK. I believe in the saying "if they knew better, they'd do better". We do know better, we can do better! Right?

Additional reading - White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack – By Peggy McIntosh