Fighting Racism in Higher Education

Throughout the last academic year, incited by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and guided by the energy and example of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, students in colleges and universities across the country have increasingly turned to protest. Over the last few weeks alone, student protests at some campuses have reached important junctures, making headlines and creating a powerful moment of possibility.

The New York Times recently provided a cursory overview of some of the more high profile protests and their inciting events. I’m certain this is only scratching the surface when it comes to chronicling racist incidents at colleges and universities as well as student efforts for change.  Sadly, students and faculty at the community of liberal arts colleges where I work (and, specifically, the campus where I was a student) are facing a very similar example of our own this week.

These student protests have mostly been in response to racist incidents at the local level, but they’re not about those incidents, not really.  They’re about a larger and widely shared problem: 21st century racism in the university.

Each has its own shape and mood, it’s own set of assets and liabilities.  But these varied protests each voice part of a unified chorus of what it is like to be nonwhite in the university.  They’re about the lived realities that exist underneath the word “underrepresented.”  They’re about the feelings of inferiority, anger, and frustration incited by life in an institution devoted to whiteness.  They’re about that whiteness, an ideology our institutions do not see and, yet, can not see beyond.  They’re about the expectation for something better from institutions that sell themselves as places that are welcoming and “inclusive.”

Though these student movements are not formally connected, and while each campus has its own particular context to address, it’s hard not to view them as part of a critical moment in higher education, one forcing a reckoning with how our institutions act on issues of race, racism, and “diversity.”  One of the lessons that’s easy to take away from these (not yet concluded) struggles is that most of those in charge of our institutions of higher education are not adequately prepared to effectively hear (let alone address) students’ concerns.

Members of the student protest group Concerned Student 1950 hold hands following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign.

Members of the student protest group Concerned Student 1950 hold hands following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign.

 

Fundamental to this is the way these institutions view “us”–the underrepresented, the minorities, the people of color.  They languish in the conceit that they are “moving forward” and actualizing “progress” simply by opening their doors to us.  Despite the rhetoric, what is painfully obvious is that they do not understand the most fundamental truth related to their “commitment to diversity.”  That truth is this: we do not need them as much as they need us.

“Diversity” was always made to benefit them, of course.  The university who can paint its portrait with the faces of nonwhite students and faculty wears the hue of modernity and progress.  Through our presence we allow them to embody “the future” by helping them distance themselves from their white supremacist pasts.  What’s worse, we legitimate their most addictive myth–that the ivory tower is home to only the best and the brightest our society has to offer.  Our presence is proof of their contention that entrance is now guided by merit and merit alone.  We alleviate their mid-20th century inferiority complex, incited by the Black Freedom Struggle, that forced those who studied in these hallowed halls to come to terms with the fact that they were the beneficiaries of a racist system.

Our most palpable gift to these institutions is the way we animate their moral purpose.  As they admit and enroll us they are emboldened by what they see as their commitment to the “greater good.”  We’re lucky to be here, they tell us.  And how good are they to let us in!  It’s a paternalism the student of the past will be most familiar with, one that makes “diversity” evidence of their “commitments” and inherent goodness.

Of course, our presence in the university is good and it is meaningful.  We know this.  It is one small step toward something better.  It is this knowledge, in part, that fuels the current protests.  Our real and powerful value is also indicative of the extent to which they need us.  They need us to be their mirror, to show them to themselves as they are.  Only then can they move forward as institutions–as communities–and become more like the places they believe themselves to be.

We are here to give them a chance to understand how their ways of knowing, ways of being, and ways of dreaming are not the only ways.

Our colleges and universities are vessels of whiteness, proponents of an unacknowledged project of conversion.  This is the hangover of a history of formal white supremacy in the US, a system where racial prejudice became the rationale of deciding who could have power.  Even when you alter the system, if you do not actively dismantle the ideology, you risk doing little more than cosmetic change.

The palpable remnants of this ideology course through this conversion project to which most colleges and universities are committed.  They see our value only in so far as we are willing to surrender ourselves to that project and become like them.  It’s a tired notion, laughable if not for its resilience.  It deserves to be laid to rest.  If they can learn to listen to us, to see as as truly equal, they stand to be liberated from it too, from the cage it represents.  To be truly free, of course, they also have to learn to be more like us.  That’s its own struggle, to be sure, one that has few success stories.  (At least not yet.)

The student protests now taking place, and taking shape, are about this kind of liberation. But they can not make it come to fruition.  When it comes down to it, you see, that’s not our job to do.  There is no saving to be done here.  They’ve got to save themselves!  We can speak our truth and let it enable a culture of learning, even a culture of crisis.  But we can not make them learn from it.  That is a choice they have to make.  Let our voices be an alarm bell that the time for that saving is now.

What we can do is frustrate complacency and nurture empathic understanding.  That’s much easier said than it is done, not for the processes it represents but for the context in which we now struggling.  I was a “student of color” once, too.  I remember the epiphanies, the anxieties, the disappointment, and the anger.  I remember the frustration, and the exhaustion.  As a “professor of color” in the same institutions you’re in now, I remember these because they are a part of my present.  Daily I come to terms with the fact that they are also part of my future.

It’s from that place, a place of love and caring and respect, respect for what you feel and for what you know, that I offer these reminders:

Take care of yourself and each other.  Protest can be exhilarating and affirming when we experience it as a real community.  It is also tiring and diminishing.  Respect those costs and seek to care for each other through it.  Listen to each other.  Hug one another.  Make space to learn with one another.

Don’t mistake the symptom for the disease.  We engage oppressive institutions through episodes that wound the soul, instances when the realities it produces are unavoidably clear.  Each is easily removed or reprimanded without altering the system itself.  Do not let them think this is about Halloween costumes.  If we do, we lose. In fact…

The system of higher education is nimble.  It is self-critical, liberal, and able to agree with you as it defends the fundamental core of its problems.  Its reflex will be to co-opt your energy and welcome your protest because it is designed to do so by bending to give the illusion of substantive change.  Only vigilance, and an understanding of its inherent flexibility, can provide a check against this survival mechanism.

Remember that they, like us all, are learners.  Ignorance is our start in life.  Ignorance of these matters, at this point in time…that ignorance is made.  It must be unmade.  Do not let this stifle your need to speak your truth.  Do let it guide the work of finding solutions, real and meaningful solutions.

If I did not believe in the inherent value of education, as well as the ability of institutions of higher education to be better than they are, I would not be in the line of work I am in.  Change is possible.  These places can be the places they think they are, the places they need to be.  That takes work.  Real work.

As students, you have done–and are doing–more than your share, even as you know there is much more still to be done.  Let us hope the others come to realize that most of the work rests on their shoulders.  Let us hope they learn to hear and accept their part.

“Out of Many, Uno”

A piece I wrote was released today on the University of North Carolina Press (UNC) Blog.

In “Out of Many, Uno,” I draw some connections between the history of Latinos in San Francisco–the story of my book, Latinos at the Golden Gate (published by UNC Press)–and the larger, unfolding story of the 21st century United States.

While the political emergence of Latinos surprised many in the mainstream media, it’s been a closely watched process for those who study the nation’s second-largest racial/ethnic group. Mexican American and Puerto Rican voters have played decisive roles in particular local elections for generations. And, for the last decade, in a handful of states that have traditionally served as “gateways” for Latin American migrants to the United States—California, Texas, New York, and Florida in particular—a statewide candidate who ignores Latino voters does so at their own peril.

These local and regional patterns are now playing out at a national level. On a near daily basis we are peppered with evidence that the political establishment is refocusing its future efforts on attracting more Latino voters. In addition to tailoring their messages to Latino audiences (like this 2011 DNC video for the Obama campaign), they are also increasingly concerned about their image among Latino voters. As one conservative put it: “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.”

As with most “new” things, however, the mainstream United States still has a lot to learn about this growing segment of its population. Perhaps the most common misconception that remains, even in this period of increasing attention, is the belief that there is naturally such as thing as a “Latino.”

To read the entire piece, visit the UNC Press Blog.

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Racism, Riots, and “Reality”

When a police officer shoots and kills a person of color, whether in the US or in Britain, most in so-called civil society wait until some sort of formal inquiry or investigation before passing judgment. This is a necessary thing to do from the perspective of any system of authority in a democratic society.

However, the people who plead for patience until “all the facts have been observed,” or who castigate others for “rushing to judgment” before such a process is concluded, and do so while demanding others share their level of faith in the investigatory process must also acknowledge that there are other ways of seeing the situation, other ways of feeling about it.

I don’t pretend to be an expert about what it happening in Britain right now, but I feel my understanding of the same sorts of dynamics in the US does offer me a particular perspective on the ways inequality creates undercurrents of tension and hopelessness which can explode in any “democracy” at particular moments.

While this moment is surely more complicated than few paragraphs of thought can capture, one of the fundamental forces at work is a subjective reality that is not part of the mainstream. This is a reality framed by experience after experience that says when a cop shoots a black man it means race is involved, it means power is using unregulated violence to keep others in check, it means injustice. In this reality whether or not the person of color did something wrong, came from a bad background, or has known connections to gangs is not as relevant as other factors.

Which side it right? The question is as meaningless as any answer you can devise. The significant thing for any society to grasp at a moment like this is that there are competing ways of knowing and understanding what is happening. One might consider for a moment which is worse: riots causing damage to person and property, all with no end in sight; or a reality framed by so much violence, anger, and abuse that mass violence to property feels like a solution.

In any real democracy, the answer to that question should be as obvious as any ever asked.

DWTD: Driving with Tortilla Dough

Or as I like to call it: “Masa-gate.”

From Asheville, North Carolina comes the story of a Latin American immigrant male who spent four days in jail because law enforcement officials mistook tortilla dough (known as “masa” in Spanish) for cocaine.

“The driver had to be forcefully removed from the vehicle and placed under arrest,” [Buncombe County Sheriff Van] Duncan said.

Hernandez said he was given no time to speak and had a knee put in his back and his arm pinned behind him. He was arrested for failing to heed blue lights and sirens and driving while intoxicated; he was jailed under a $1,500 bond.

Breathalyzer tests later showed Hernandez, who said he doesn’t drink, was not intoxicated.

His dog, traveling with him, was taken and his truck impounded.

A drug dog indicated the possible presence of narcotics in the truck, and deputies did field tests. Three tests made by three different companies conducted by different deputies all came back positive for cocaine, Duncan said.

Deputies in contact with Duncan reported, “‘This doesn’t look like drugs, but it is testing positive,’” the sheriff said.

Another thing that caught their attention was shrimp that they said was decaying, since drug smugglers sometimes use decaying food to throw off drug dogs.

Hernandez said he took care to keep the shrimp on ice and stopped occasionally to add more.

Drug trafficking charges might have been warranted, Duncan said, but officers were somewhat leery because the substances didn’t look like drugs. Still, they wanted charges that would carry a bond high enough to keep Hernandez from making bail or getting far, the sheriff said.

They rushed the food to state labs so they could get results quickly. When they got the negative results, they were flabbergasted, the sheriff said.

Duncan said he’s never seen field tests yield false positives in this way.

“I have no idea why they did,” he said.

Duncan is coming under fire from Latino officials and advocacy groups in the South for the conduct of his officers. “When you break down the steps the officers took,” he said, “everything they did was legal and reasonable.”

There’s a whole lot to say here–multiple ways for us to interpret what happened.  Most of them involve race.  There is the way racial and linguistic difference framed officer reactions and assumptions, closing off any possibility that what was unfolding could have been seen as the result of multiple other “reasonable” behaviors.  There is the cultural misunderstanding related to the food he carried and his transport of it to family in another state.  There is the inability of the various parties to communicate clearly in a common language and within a shared plane of equal and open discourse.

Most troubling, of course, is the clearly racialized manner in which officers encountered a tired, non-English dominant Latino.  They assumed he was hiding something, they later assumed he would flee, and–most clearly–they assumption he had drugs.

But there is also a bright side to this–multiple bright sides, actually.  First, there are Latino officials and advocates in the South who can speak out about this episode and help frame it as an opportunity for change.  This is already a sign of change and of the prospect of greater change.

Second, this is being seized as a learning experience by many.  The press is challenging the Sheriff’s Department in some ways and I am largely encouraged by the reader comments to the article. Many if not most of them seem to be empathetic with the falsely-arrested man and troubled by the unwillingness of local law enforcement to fully embrace this as an opportunity for reflection and change.

Finally, While Sheriff Duncan seems a bit hesitant to use this as a learning experience, he does embrace it in some ways. “The good thing is that it will probably re-energize our contact with the Latino advocacy groups,” he said.

I suspect it will.

Diversity in Higher Education

I work at an elite, liberal arts college in southern California. I feel lucky to have a job, and especially lucky to have a job that I love. My students, my colleagues, and my work are constant sources of fulfillment.

But life in the world of higher education–particularly in the small liberal arts college variety–leaves a lot to be desired.

The lack of meaningful racial/ethnic diversity in higher education continues to challenge my existence within academia. Things are, of course, better than they were. I am a product of a movement to increase diversity–a movement which existed since before my birth. My educational training connected me to this movement as a participant, even in some ways a leader at my local levels. My role as a professor has been to foster the continuation of this movement and to assure it takes root in new and substantive ways at my local institution, while continuing to represent a measure of its success.

But change has come slowly. Increasingly, it hasn’t even kept pace with the broader social changes marking the need for even more. Often it feels as though we are moving backwards.

Generally, when we discuss the issue in higher ed, the primary focus is on student populations. This is appropriate. We are in an urgent crisis when it comes to educational equity measured by a diverse student population. (Really, we have never not been in crisis.) The elite liberal arts colleges of the nation have done admirably well in the last 20 years (at my college Latinos comprise about 12% of the student body) but even these advances are not enough. When it comes to faculty diversity, the numbers nationwide are far gloomier.

Let me give you some perspective, based on the recent data from the 2010 Census:

In California as a whole, 37.6% of the population is Latino. Almost 48% of the people in Los Angeles County (where my college is located) are Latino. In nearby San Bernardino County, almost half–or 49.2%–of the population is Latino.

Despite this, on a monthly basis, I am the only Latino in the room at work meetings and/or work-related social functions. Rather regularly, I am one of two.

I am certain the non-Latinos in the room don’t think twice about this fact. Perhaps even, when they see me, they think how my presence imbues the context with diversity. Who knows?

I am never not aware of it.

Latino History Month #2

It’s time for your weekly “Hispanic Heritage Month” history lesson, something with a little more significance and less sponsorship than this.  Plus, you get for free what hundreds of students have to pay a high-priced college for, and I don’t even jack with your transcript when we’re done!

With the debate over Mexican immigration raging, 2010 is a time like no other in our history…or is it?  I wish.  History is a wheel of reoccurrence, a condition which is frustrating for noble-minded historians like myself, but a condition that is so nonetheless.  Among the many instances where this “debate” reared its racially-marked head in the past was the decade of the 1920s.

Back then, a swarm of xenophobes had manged to legislate the most restrictive immigration system in US history, framed by racial quotas which remained the “law of the land” until 1965.  These quotas made it easier for you to immigrate to the US if you were “white” and Northern European than if you were “swarthy” and Southern and Eastern European.  While support was diverse, both in constituency and the interests they sought to protect, a widespread base of support came from those whose goal was to limit the attack on “pure Americanism” which resulted from the infusion of so many not-quite-whites into the US.

Where were Mexicans in this formula?  Well, thanks to the political leverage of agribusiness, among other factors, they were left out of the quota system.  This didn’t sit well with the xenophobes who saw their presence as seasonal pickers in the Southwest as just as much a threat as the Jews or Italians in the East, if not more so.

The result was a regular attempt by some elites to extend the quota to Latin America and an accompanying attempt by other elites to stop them.

That’s the quick and dirty shaping the larger context of this piece, an op-ed written in 1928 and published in the LA Times (Feb. 18, 1928).  Penned by a representative of the agricultural industry, it is titled “Hands Off!” and reads, in part:

Putting up immigration bars at the border to keep Mexicans willing to perform manual labor from securing employment on the ranches and in the orchards of this country is a proposal that would bring injury to many and benefit to none. The Mexicans are good workers, the best as a class we have ever had in the Southwest. Under the present permit system, they come in when they are needed, and go back when their work has been done.

They are not wastrels, are not troublemakers. They create no race problems. They are neither political disturbers nor social menaces.

We of the Southwest know the Mexicans. They are god citizens. Many now living in Los Angeles recall when more than 70 per cent of the population was Mexican born or Mexican descent. Many of our most useful citizens are descendants of the second of third generation of the Mexicans who lived here before California was an American State. There are more than 100,000 persons of Mexican birth or descent now living in Los Angeles. Most of them are American citizens, and good ones.

California’s representatives in Congress asked for the exclusion of the Chinese and Japanese, but they have not and are not asking for the exclusion of the Mexicans. Agricultural, commercial and industrial organizations throughout the State are practically unanimous in their protest against restricting Mexican immigration to the 3 per cent quota…

…Relations between the United States and Mexico are cordial. The good will shown by the last two administrations has aided very materially in the restoration of peace and the promotion of good will in Mexico. Restriction of Mexican immigration would be regarded south of the Rio Grande as inhospitable, as unfriendly, as a reflection on the Mexican people which the Latin blood would be certain to resent

There have been no disturbances, no clashes between class and class, no general protests from California communities against the presence of Mexican laborers in any part of the South or West. Where the Mexican are employed they are welcome. They take part in cultivating and picking the cotton in California, Arizona and Texas. They pick the peaches, oranges, lemons and apricots and prepare them for shipment. They cultivate the beet fields of California, Utah and Colorado.

They are as necessary to our ranches and orchards as are the farm laborers at harvest time in the Middle West. A law prohibiting the movement of farm laborers from one State to another in the season of the wheat harvest would be about as reasonable as one preventing Mexican laborers from coming at seasonable times into the West and Southwest. These Mexicans are accustomed to life in a semitropical climate. They are children of the sun, and they perform a service for which those born in colder climates are neither suited no inclined…

If you’d like to think as a Latina/o historian, then you might want to consider the following questions to begin:

  • What are some of the reasons the author gives for not including Mexican workers under the quota system?
  • What can we infer from this argument regarding the opposition? That is, what does this tell us about how the “other side” is arguing?
  • How do ideas about racial fitness continue to frame the position here? What are those ideas? How do they benefit the argument?
  • How are Mexicans “naturalized” as part of the agricultural production process?

This position was a common one in this era, as it is today.  You might think about the ways this argument resonates with some of the ideas and positions you hear in our current public debate.

Why Repealing Birthright Citizenship is More Difficult Than You Think

In recent months, the “movement” to repeal jus soli–or “birthright citizenship–seems to be gathering steam.

I use the term “movement” cautiously because, at heart, this is really about political posturing by the right. While there are groups of people who have consistently advocated for this kind of revision of the US Constitution, they haven’t done anything in the last half year to warrant this new attention. What has changed is the number of high-profile politicians and pundits who have made this their “cause of the day” in the hope of securing their election, re-election, and/or high ratings.

The most visible evidence of their work is a now mainstream discussion of the danger of so-called “anchor babies,” or children born to “illegal” immigrants. As this rightist argument goes, the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution–which bestows citizenship on anyone born in the US–acts as a motivation for illegal immigration by promoting a wave of pregnant migrants who come to the US to have children and then use those children to secure their own residency.

I want to point out a few things that are missing in the wider debate, “realities” which should guide your understanding of this very important issue. The first one is simple enough–this “movement” has very little chance of ever being successful.

Repealing or amending part of the US Constitution is an extremely difficult thing to do. It is prohibitive by design, since nobody wants a country where the fundamental laws of the land can change with the whims of the age. Accordingly, changing any amendment requires the rarest of political conditions. To do it, supporters of a new Amendment (which is how you amend another Amendment) would need to follow one of two courses: 1) get a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate to pass the Amendment, and then get three-fourths of all States to approve it; or 2) get two-thirds of all States to hold a Constitutional Convention proposing the Amendment, and then get three-fourths of all States to approve it. Neither one of these scenarios has a chance of mustering even the slightest chance of coming to pass relating to the 14th Amendment.

Now, this reality is an important one to grasp, before we engage in any other debate about the issue. The only reason this “movement” has seemingly become so successful is because politicians–from Lindsay Graham to John McCain–are spouting off about “anchor babies” and the reasonableness of having hearings on repealing jus soli. But these politicians know the process that is required of such a move. They know it has no chance of passing, let alone ever being considered by the House or Senate under this (or any recent) configuration. So why doth they protest?

So, before we continue, let’s get our head around the fact that this is an esoteric discussion being led by politicians who are trying to secure their electability among a small yet vocal fringe of their party.

The second reality passing us by is the second point I would like to make: repealing birthright citizenship opens a mess of legal complexities, many of which do not benefit the US. Supporters of this act like the issue is an easy one since all it would do it stop Mexicans from coming to the US and having their babies. What it would really do is provoke a global war on citizenship.

Let’s say a child is born in to an “illegal” parent in a United States where jus soli is not the law of the land. We say this child is not a citizen and they must be deported. But to where? Having been born in the US, they are not a citizen in any other nation of the world. Barring bureaucratic measures taken by the parent on the behalf of the child, they would now be a human being who has no citizenship.

You can’t deport them without the other nation agreeing to take them, which is highly unlikely since they have no vested interest in accepting, en masse, people they consider to be your citizens. So now you have a class of people within your national borders who are neither citizens–ostensibly deprived of rights as basic as the right to exist within your national limits–and yet who are, in fact, legally present within your nation. How do you house them? What do they get to do? What do they not get to do? Do you raise them in federal orphanages? Do they go to school? What happens when they turn 18?

How about this: let’s say we have a child born to an “illegal” mother but the father is “legal.” What about the reverse? Is the child deprived of citizenship or not? Does this differ if the “legal” parent is a naturalized US citizen, a US-born citizen, or a legal permanent resident (LPR)? What if we decide one parent who is a citizen is enough? Are there penalties for pro-creating with an “illegal”? And what about victims of rape? What about women who do not divulge the father’s name or status?

And then there is this complication: what level of “illegality” is necessary to strip a native-born child from becoming a US citizen? Only if the parent is residing in the US without authorization? Do we include people who are here “legally” but working “illegally”? What about people who were once here legally but have overstayed their visa? Does it matter when the migrant gets pregnant? Let’s say they child is conceived when the parent(s) are legal but born when one or both are not? What if the child is born on the exact day a visa expires? What if the migrant has been here for years, unauthorized, but then gets pregnant. Certainly not an “anchor baby.” And what about legal guestworkers who get pregnant and have children while they are working?

These scenarios are hardly far fetched. When you are dealing with a nation the size of the US, who actively promotes the informal importation of as many unauthorized workers as we do, these scenarios are common. They would also clog the US legal system and bring it to a standstill while we worked it all out. Whatever the solution, there would be so many ways around it and/or so many gross violations of common decency as a result, nobody would be pleased with the outcome.

Finally–and I think the most compelling reality that exposes this entire effort for the political smokescreen that it is–the advocates of repealing jus soli are basing their analysis on a bunch of misinformation. When it comes down to it, “anchor babies” do not exist in any measurable fashion. The offensive phenomenon of “stop and drop” is a myth.

This recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center is causing a stir because it estimates that better than 12% of all the children born in the US are born to “illegal immigrant parents.” This seems to statistically demonstrate the level of our “crisis.” But, the report also calculates that as many as 80% of the “illegal” parents have been in the US for one-year or longer. (In case you didn’t know, human babies take about 9 months to gestate.)

Furthermore, because of the data they used, the report does not separate between those children who have one parent who is “illegal” and those who have two. Other fairly recent reports (one, two, three) suggest the number of children with “mixed” parents (in terms of legal status) may be rather high.

So where does this leave us?

If the politicians and pundits know everything that I just described to you, then they are purposefully manipulating the information in order to strike fear in their constituencies. You might ask why they would do such a thing.

If they don’t know what I have just described to you, then they are dumb, uneducated, and/or misinformed. You might ask yourself why people who are elected to represent you don’t do the simple work of research and learning about complex issues before they take stands on them. You might also ask why people who make millions of dollars on TV talking to you about these issues don’t either.

In either case, repealing the 14th Amendment is not only a bad idea, but one that works against any stable democratic republic. And, when it comes down to it, it will do nothing to curb the flow of “illegal” immigration to the US, a phenomenon that exists because of two things: systemic poverty in Mexico and active recruitment and labor needs in the US.

Cosmopolitan San Francisco in 1855

Beginning in 1849, the lure of gold made San Francisco into an “instant city,” and a cosmopolitan one at that, with more than half of its population born somewhere other than the United States.

This quality almost certainly added to its mystery and exceptionalism, while also shaping both the need and the contours of its version of “white supremacy.”   For many accustomed to life amidst a more racially and culturally homogenous population, assumptions of racial difference and fitness proved invaluable tools in an almost natural effort to grapple with newness by “rationally” organizing daily, multiracial interactions marked by difference.   At the same time, life in San Francisco helped to further solidify such assumptions, providing a detailed observer with an avalanche of new “evidence” and expertise.

One early account ( from the The Annals of San Francisco, published in 1855) communicates the combination of exoticism and informed certainty that could result:

The every-day aspect of the plaza and streets was of the most curious and interesting kind. Take the plaza, on a fine day, for a picture of the people. All races were represented. There were hordes of long pig-tailed, blear-eyed, rank-smelling Chinese, with their yellow faces and blue garbs; single dandy black fellows, of nearly as bad an odor, who strutted as only the negro can strut, in holiday clothes and clean white shirt; a few diminutive fiery-eyes Malays, from the western archipelago, and some handsome Kanakas from the Sandwich Islands; jet-black, straight-featured, Abyssinians; hideously tattooed New Zealanders; Feejee sailors and even the secluded Japanese, short, thick, clumsy, ever-bowing, jacketed fellows; the people of the many races of Hindoo land; Russians with furs and sables; a stray, turbaned, stately Turk or two, and occasionally a half naked shivering Indian…

[The] multitudes of the Spanish race from every country of the Americas, partly pure, partly crossed with red blood—Chilians, Peruvians and Mexicans, all with different shades of the same swarthy complexion, black-eyed and well-featured, proud of their beards and moustaches, their grease, dirt, and eternal gaudy serapes or darker cloaks; Spaniards from the mother country, more dignified, polite and pompous than even their old colonial brethren; “greasers,” too, like them; great numbers of tall, goat-chinned, smooth-cheeked, oily-locked, lank-visaged, tobacco-chewing, large-limbed and featured, rough, care-worn, careless Americans from every State of the Union, dressed independently in every variety of garb, not caring a fig what people thought of them, but determined to “do the thing handsomely,” and “go ahead”…

Black Women and HIV/AIDS

A discussion of HIV/AIDS and communities of color on the June 22, 2010 episode of The View is causing controversy for its spread of misinformation relating to the cause of Black women’s HIV/AIDS rates.

On the episode, Sherri Shepherd–who is a regular host of the show–along with comic D.L. Hughley–who was a guest–were discussing the FDA ban on blood donations from gay & bisexual men, when talk turned to men living on the “down low”–men who live straight lives but engage in homosexual sex.  Here’s the exchange:

Hughley: When you look at the prevalence of HIV in the African American Community, it’s primarily young women who are getting it from men who are on the down low.  That’s the thing.

Shepherd: The down low is black men who’ve been going out. They are having sex with men and they’re not telling their girlfriends or their wives that they’re gay and their husbands, as well. And it’s very prevalent with African American women because they come home and have sex with their wives or their girlfriends. And they’re not telling them that they’re gay.

Shepherd: It’s so big in the Black community with women because they’re having unprotected sex with men who have been having sex with… with men.

Indeed, as this story with Dr. Kevin Fenton (Director of the CDC’s’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention) reports, Black women comprise 61% of new HIV infection cases among women.  According to recent research, 80% of those cases are coming from women engaging in heterosexual sex.  This data is but the tip of an epidemic iceberg for African American women.  As the above piece states,

At 61 percent, Black women have an infection rate nearly 15 times higher than White women. Latina[s] represent 17 percent of all new HIV cases among women. White women are only 15 percent.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and these figures trend to perhaps the most startling of them all: AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women between the ages of 25 and 34.

The things is, recent research disproves the “down low” phenomenon as the cause of these high rates.  As Dr. Fenton described: “In fact, we have looked to see what proportion of infections is coming from male partners who are bisexual and found there are actually relatively few. More are male partners who are having female partners and are injecting drugs or using drugs or have some other risks that may put those female partners at risk of acquiring HIV.”

In short, the rates are high largely because of unprotected “straight” sex.

Shepherd and Hughley were undoubtedly reporting what they thought they knew, something akin to contemporary “common sense” knowledge of HIV/AIDS and communities of color.  It is, in part, the result of various campaigns in the 90s to spread awareness of the virus and disease within these same communities, campaigns which largely promoted increased use of condoms.  At the time, HIV/AIDS prevention efforts often targeted segments of these communities which they viewed as “high risk.”  “Straight” men living on the “down low” was one such target.

I recall some HIV/AIDS prevention materials being disseminated throughout San Francisco’s Mission District at the time which were specifically targeted to such men.  From literature in bars and community centers, to large billboards in the heart of the barrio, there was a clear message being spread.  The same kinds of materials were common in my home across the bay, Oakland.  There I saw the results of campaigns directed at both Latinos and African Americans.

Science–and the HIV/AIDS prevention community–knows better now.  This will hopefully make for more effective efforts to stem the spread of the virus.  It certainly needs to find greater purchase within the campaigns that are now being developed to target communities of color.

Yet the effect of these educational efforts of the past–when considered against a sociocultural context that continues to be disproportionately disconnected to current scientific information, as well as far too often nurturing of homophobia–will mean “common sense” understandings like Shepherd’s and Hughley’s will continue to spread within these communities.

The response of GLAAD to this episode (while perhaps lacking in empathy of the larger context) is important.  All organizations who care about these issues–and this should include far more than those who identify as queer organizations–need to confront misinformation with the truth, and do so in a vigilant manner.  More importantly, organizations which already have an authoritative voice within our communities need to step up to the plate and  begin to take a greater interest in the problems that are slowly killing us from the inside out.

For more information visit:

Black AIDS Institute: http://www.blackaids.org/
My Sistahs: http://www.mysistahs.org/
Office of Minority Health: http://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/
National Minority AIDS Council: http://www.nmac.org/home/

When you voted for Obama your work had only begun

One year ago today, on November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.

At the time, and like many others, I celebrated this milestone in US history:

Today I think of all the millions of lives who fought for a fraction of what has just occurred. Today I think of all the lives that were lost in the name of racial hatred and in the struggle for racial justice. Today I think of all their deferred hopes and dreams, the progress they knew could happen but they could not live to enjoy. Today I am amazed at the victory of their words, of their ideas, of their blood.

One year later, the blissful exuberance of the election has begun to temper. Many “progressives” see this as a partial failure of the Obama administration, if not the man himself. I couldn’t disagree more. If the “Obama era” has not measured up to your visions of a healthier government, a more humane nation, and a more just world, put the blame squarely where it belongs: on you, on me, on us.

A day before Obama was elected, I wrote the following:

In the upcoming months, progressive people of conscience (“non-white” and “white” alike) will have to begin the difficult work of checking their own assumptions. Many have this belief that because a black man will be in the White House that everything will magically become better. Many expect Barack Obama to take a leadership role in transforming the political system in meaningful ways. But why? Why should this special burden be placed on Barack Obama when it has not been evenly placed upon all politicians? Of course, he does have a special obligation regarding race, but that is the same responsibility we all share–white, black, or otherwise.

One year ago today was an important day. It was historically significant. It was also emotionally uplifting. But it wasn’t the end of something. It was just the beginning. The act of voting for “change” doesn’t bring it; if it is successful, it merely presents us with yet another opportunity to do what is right, what is best, what is just.

So today is the one year anniversary of a new opportunity. Whether that opportunity will translate into a new reality isn’t up to President Barack Obama. It is up to us. As James Baldwin said “No one else can do it. The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.”

Now, back to work.

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