Uniting a Divided Nation


Dr. Cornel West

Not too long ago, Dick and I joined our local Unitarian Universalist Church, Neighborhood Church in Pasadena.

Shortly after we started attending, the church contacted us about a potluck dinner they were having for the congregation’s “people of color.” Being a newcomer to the church, I tried my best to be gracious as I inquired about this event. I asked if Dick was also invited. For those of you who don’t know us, my husband, Dick, is white and I’m black.

Half joking, I told the person on the other end of the line that Dick was not technically a person of color but he was beige and asked if that would qualify him. She told me the potluck was for people of color but exceptions were made for family members. So, after Dick was cleared, I accepted the invitation and we went to the gathering.

Although the potluck and subsequent “people of color” activities turned out to be delightful, enriching experiences, the racial exclusivity was as strange and as awkward as I’m making it sound.

Throughout my life, I have been invited to join race-based affinity clubs such as the African-American Student Union or the African-American Alliance of Business Managers, etc. But I’ve always felt a under lying resistance to joining such clubs.

Webster’s Dictionary characterizes affinity groups as “groups of people having a common interest or goal or acting together for a specific purpose.” As a progressive activist, I wholeheartedly support this concept. I’m all for people coming together for a stated purpose or cause or to accomplish something that would be difficult or impossible to accomplish as separate individuals. The problem I’ve had with racial affinity groups is that they often bring a subset of people together to discuss solutions to problems that have been created by various parts of the larger society whose members are generally not included in the affinity group.

I can and will write more about affinity clubs in the future, but for now, I wanted to open this essay with a brief discussion of affinity groups because throughout this weekend I was constantly reminded of them.

Did You Miss It?
Dick and I attended two fabulous (emphasis on the word fabulous) events this weekend. The first was hosted by Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad, the director and founder of the Urban Issues Forum. Dr. Samad’s guest this time was Dr. Cornel West, the famed Princeton professor who is an author, lecturer, and frequent guest on the Bill Maher HBO show.

Cornel West spent the morning talking to a few hundred black Angelinos and Dick. Although the meeting place at the California African American Museum where the talk was held was full to overflowing, you could hear a pin drop. West’s oratory skills commanded undivided attention. He enlightened, motivated, inspired, and humored us with his insights.

I will never forget the experience. If I ever have the chance again to hear Dr. West, I will and I’d encourage anyone to do the same. Hearing Dr. West in this venue was different from hearing him when he is on a television panel. A lecture hall is this professor’s natural home, and he won me over as he talked about the kind of progressive issues that we all care about, the corporatocracy, the prison-industrial complex, race and class in America, our presidential race, and more.

Dick and I left the breakfast meeting with our spirits buoyed by West’s fiery rhetoric and warmed by the company of the friends we have made at these monthly sessions over the past several years.

Honoring Progressive Pioneers
The second event was hosted by the Progressive Democrats of the Santa Monica Mountains. Three women were honored: Jody Evans, cofounder of Code Pink; Lila Garrett of KPFK’s Connect the Dots; and Congresswoman Maxine Waters of the 35 Congressional District in Los Angeles.

Each of these woman spoke from the heart as they accepted their awards. Jody Evans told us how she became an activist while working as a hotel maid in Las Vegas. She worked with others to organize a movement that resulted in hotel workers being paid a decent wage.

Lila Garrett told a story of her father giving her a picture book when she was 5 years old that contained grotesque pictures of casualties of war. When she asked him to explain the picture, he told her that she was looking at war and that all wars are fought by one stranger killing another stranger for the power and profit of a third stranger. Garrett told us she never forgot those words. I suspect many in the audience will remember them as well.

And finally Maxine Waters spoke to us of the importance of grassroots activism. She talked of how Congress can become disconnected from its constituency if we the people don’t make our voices heard.

Each of the award recipients were generous with their time, spending as much time as was needed to answer questions and just chat with everyone there.

Held on the grounds of a private home high in the Santa Monica Mountains, with sweeping, moon-swept views of the Marina, Santa Monica, and Downtown Los Angeles, the setting couldn’t have been grander or the company of the people we have come to know there finer. We’re not really party people and usually duck out after an hour or so—the plan last night, too—but we found ourselves among the last to leave, five hours in.

But again, it didn’t take a very sharp eye to see that three awardees were speaking to 100 white people and me – and PDLA co-chair Ricco Ross and his new wife Julie Shannon.

Now, none of these groups—not our church, not the Urban Issues Forum, not the Progressive Democrats—are racially exclusive affinity groups. All of them would welcome more racially diverse audiences and memberships. In fact, the point of our church’s “people of color” group is to figure out ways to make the congregation more inviting to a broader range of people.

But as America barges into the 21st Century, even in these most progressive of circles, we still manage to divide ourselves up along racial lines.

I’m reminded of one of the first articles Dick and I wrote several years ago, “The Iron Rainbow“, observing how election celebrations for three local California Assemblymen—Kevin de Leon, Anthony Portantino, and Mike Davis—attracted audiences almost entirely of their own race: Latino, White, and Black.

We’ve come to know these three officeholders a bit and generally admire the work they’ve done in their first Assembly terms. We’ve also seen them try to reach across racial lines among their constituencies. But like our events this weekend, their celebrations underscore how separate we are in Los Angeles, in California, and in America.

Which Brings Us to Barack Obama
Dick and I got on the Obama bandwagon early on and remain enthusiastic supporters. A part of the reason we support Barack so full-heartedly is that this attractive, thoughtful, inspiring man is being forced to address racial issues in his campaign just as America is being forced to confront race as it decides if it’s mature enough to elect a black man president. Certainly race in America is among its biggest challenges but for reasons too complex to discuss in this short essay, issues of race are rarely central to white candidates campaigns. Nevertheless, the discussion needs to take place.

we_two_bizcard1.jpgDick is old enough to have lived through an earlier era when his suburban Minneapolis neighborhood was at least mildly shocked that he, a Methodist boy then, would play with the Catholic Parochial school kids down the block. John F. Kennedy drove a stake in that kind of bias when he moved his wife Jackie and their two kids into the White House. Since then, it just hasn’t been much of an issue whether a candidate is Catholic or not.

Here’s hoping that when Barack Obama moves Michelle and their two kids into the White House, they’ll at least put a dent in America’s racial divide.

by Sharon Kyle and Dick Price

Sharon is Publisher of the LA Progressive and Dick is its Editor.

Published by the LA Progressive on August 17, 2008
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About Sharon Kyle

Sharon Kyle, J.D. is the Publisher of the LA Progressive which she co-founded with her husband Dick Price. Ms. Kyle is an adjunct professor of law at Peoples College in Los Angeles. She sits on the board of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and is on the editorial board of the BlackCommentator.com. Photo courtesy Wadeva Images. www.wadevaimages.com