Invasion Politics

Fox and Friends is a morning show on the “news” station we know as Fox.

As any regular watcher of late-night comedy shows knows, the hosts spend a good chunk of time defending racist-in-chief Donald J. Trump. Today, Brian Kilmeade (who is one of those hosts) had this to say in defense of the wide spread calling out the President for his frequent and habitual use of the word “invasion” when discussing the passage of Spanish-speaking migrants across our border:

What the president has during his two and a half years is a major problem at the border which was not his doing——unless you want to blame President Obama for the unaccompanied minors that streamed through here in 2014. When you have over 110,000 people coming a month, over a million last year and then well over a million this year, if you use the term “an invasion” that’s not anti-Hispanic, it’s a fact. [Source]

The Merrian-Webster dictionary defines the word “invasion” like this:

1: an act of invading (especially an incursion of an army for conquest or plunder)
2: the incoming or spread of something usually hurtful

When you have a million people a year——not one solider but hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children——trying to cross your border and enter your country, the only “fact” is that you are witnessing a refugee crisis. De-humanizing language that portrays poor migrant families in need of refuge as a danger, a threat, and an attempt to “take over” the country are not only wrong, they are openly racist.

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.

The Function of Racism

On May 30, 1975, Toni Morrison spoke at Portland State University, as part of a conference on Black Studies.  Her address was titled “A Humanist View.”

After presenting the audience with a litany of racist remarks from major historical figures in the US past, remarks against African Americans, Asians, Mexicans, and Native Americans, she analyzes their role and purpose:

Racism was never, ever the issue.  Profit and money always was.

And all of those quotations––from William Byrd to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to the New York Tribune––the threat was always jobs, land, or money.  And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you have to have a reason for despising your victim.

Where racism exists as an idea it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence was to define black people as reactions to white presence.

Nobody really thought that black people were inferior, not Benjamin Franklin not Mr. Byrd and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way.  They only hoped that black people would hear “coon” songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign––or become one!  They never thought black people were lazy––ever––not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions.

And they never, ever thought we were inhuman.  You don’t give your children over to the care of people who you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason you work, or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switch blades. They were only and simply and now interested in the acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor.

Everybody knows that if the price is high enough the racist will give you whatever you want. It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is and to know the function, the very serious function of racism which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.

It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

You can listen to the full audio of her remarks at Portland State University or directly from their Soundcloud.

“The People and the Police: Oakland” (1974)

This documentary originally aired in 1974. It was produced by KRON as part of their “Assignment Four” series. It’s narrated by Paul Ryan and was written, produced, and directed by Ira Eisenberg.

Not a Way of Life

“But it is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. The counterstance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and, for this, it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reaching against. Because the counterstance stems from a problem with authority–outer as well as inner–it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. Bt it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.”

–Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987)

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.

Gene McDaniels

I am saddened at the news of the passing of Gene McDaniels. One of the most eclectic, soulful, political, gentle, and passionate talents in modern jazz/soul music, McDaniels was 76.

You can read about his life and career here. I hope you do.

I came to know the work of McDaniels in the early 90s when he started to become a favorite source of sampling in the hip hop world. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, however, that I started to appreciate the full range of his talent. The deep soul of his music, complimented by the thoughtful and intelligent lyrics he penned, made him a rare gem in a world of superstars.

My favorite song of his has always been “Compared to What.” An investigation of racism and US hypocrisy, it was both an angry song rooted in the moment of the late 60s as well as a prescient warning. In the last year, McDaniels took to YouTube to speak to his fans through a series of videos featured on his own channel. Here’s Gene discussing “Compared to What”:

And here is Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ wonderful live performance of the song (as featured on the former’s albume Swiss Movement):

McDaniels had a deep conscience and used his art to speak out on our collective inhumanity to one another. His ability to critically address issues of race, gender, power, and class while still being meaningfully artistic in a golden age of soul music says a lot about the man and his scope.

Beginning in 1970, armed with the freedom that came with his success after a decade of busting his artistic hump, he created two of the most overtly political and smart albums of all time. The first, Outlaw was something new for the once-pop/soul singer some had once compared to Jackie Wilson. A fusion of urban sounds ranging from jazz to funk and rock, the album (his first on the Atlantic label) was a radical coming out party. It’s a hard album to summarize, but this track “Love Letter to America” is suggestive of the unique blend of styles it contained:

“Welfare City”, also from Outlaw, sounds almost like 1967 but contains more than a few of his purposeful hybridity.

His 1971 follow-up, Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse is even bolder than Outlaws. The story of the aftermath of the album is now legend in music. Due to his overt radicalism, someone in the Nixon administration called to complain to Ahmet Ertegun and encourage him to fire McDaniels. Whether that was the cause or not I do not know, but it was McDaniels’ final release for the label.

Here’s “Jager the Dagger” from the 1971 album:

And here is one of my favorites of his from Headless, “Supermarket Blues”:

For all the controversy of his career, McDaniels possessed a beautiful voice, a gift which rivaled his artistry with lyrics and sound. Here he is in a performance from earlier this year, the one of the last videos uploaded to his YouTube channel.

Rest in peace brother…

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.

What is Cinco de Mayo?

If you didn’t know any better, you would agree with the idiot who recently appeared on a late night show and described Cinco de Mayo as a holiday invented in the US “to celebrate our neighbors to the South, by drinking” (see part 5 of this episode of Conan). Long ago seized by the alcohol industry, for far too many people Cinco de Mayo is a day to drink margaritas or Coronas, all while wearing a straw sombrero.

If you fall into this category, you are possibly racist but most definitely a pendejo. Well, profe is here to tell you: ¡No seas pendejo!

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla of 1862, when Mexico successfully defeated the French imperialist army of Napoleon III. The better-equipped and more numerous French forces had invaded Mexico. For that reason the day came to symbolize the victory of the poor but righteous against the more powerful. This historic day in the life of the Mexican nation–a nation which had been severely compromised by the loss of almost half its territory to the equally imperialist United States in 1848–-was celebrated almost immediately as a day of independence and freedom from foreign control.

But the day was not just a Mexican holiday. The events in Puebla also meant something to the growing number of Mexican Americans in places like California.

Spanish language newspaper like La Voz de Méjico provided its delayed coverage of events in the south, including what they described as “our triumph against the French” at the Battle of Puebla. Exclaiming “¡¡Viva Méjico!! “¡¡Viva la Independencia!! “¡¡Vivan los valientes soldados Mejicanos!!,” the paper left little question where its sympathies lie.

As the exiled government of Benito Júarez sought financial and political support from abroad, Mexicans in the States worked to aid the restoration of Republican rule in their homeland. They created Juntas Patrióticas in the US, groups with “the noble desire to directly or indirectly help and defend our country.” Beginning in 1862, that support took the form of monetary donations. At first contributing to a commemorative tribute for the victory of General Ignacio Zaragoza against the French, fundraising campaigns evolved to more directly serve “the war effort” of the exiled government. Juntas “raised funds to provide medical care for wounded soldiers and support for the widows and orphans of Mexican soldiers killed in battle,” as well as secure the passage of former prisoners of war from France and to award medals for distinguished military efforts.

The lasting effect of this was important to Mexican American community formation here, as well as Mexican nation-building in the homeland. Cinco de Mayo became an annual event for commemoration and celebration in the US, uniting the Spanish-speaking in their new homes and creating venues for them to showcase their presence.

So do yourself a favor this Cinco de Mayo and stay true to the past. No! I don’t mean go beat up a Frenchman. I mean recognize that your commemoration of something seemingly corporate and racist can actually involve something much more meaningful than a beer and a hat. You are part of a long history in this country, one that took pride and strength from this day.

Birthers and Brawlers

The White House released President Obama’s “Certificate of Live Birth” today. This “official” document adds to the others, including the “Certification of Live Birth,” which had already been released, as well as the mountain of other evidence which proves the man was born in Hawaii.

This won’t fully extinguish the so-called “birthers” from proclaiming their doubt and continuing their efforts to “free the United States” from the “foreign takeover” that is the Obama Presidency. Simply put: a “movement” based on a preponderant lack of critical analysis can not be defeated by evidence. There is no way to sufficiently disprove something that had no reasonable proof of being true in the first place. Since their “belief” is really based on racial fear and the desire for their myth to be true, many will hold steadfast to their cause.

No matter what we believe about this “controversy” now is a useful time to (re)reflect on what it all means. Why is it this president has had to face this particular charge? Why is there a constituency in this country who continued to believe this myth in the face of evidence to the contrary? Why are there people who believe it now? Why have their been politicians who have used this as a rallying point for their own gain?

We live in a time and place where the effects of racism are palpable and yet hard to fully comprehend. One of the reasons for this is the complexity of some of the ways race acts to frame inequity in our present. Another reason is that we have been robbed of the tools to analyze even the simplest of its manifestations.

This is one of the latter occasions. If we are smart about it, we will use it as a teachable moment for ourselves, a time to critically reflect on the ways racism reproduces itself, generation after generation, because we cling to parts of the past and recast them anew for our present moments.