Uniting a Divided Nation

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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.

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Comments

  1. Richard Schwartz says

    OK, so yer a black lady. But from your picture, you look pretty good through my Jew eyes.

    If you want to be persecuted, try “coming out of the closet”. You see, I kinda reject the bible. It doesn’t have much tolerance. No freedom of religion– entire nations were genocided upon order of god, simply because they were the wrong religion. Rights of women? Nah, women were chattle property in those days. Slavery? That’s cool. In fact, apostle Paul told an escaped slave that escaping was the same as theft, and had the slave returned to his owner under guard. Gay rights? They have the right to be immediately put to death. Due process? Wives and children of those who refused to follow Moses were crushed in the earth with the men, just as everybody but one family was destroyed in the Noah flood. Tyranny and oppression? Paul teaches that oppressive, corrupt, idolatrous governments like Rome are installed by god and should never be resisted.

    I suspect that my grandpa was in trouble for holding opinions similar to mine, and that is why he immigrated from Ottoman Turkey about 100 years ago. My father really went ballistic when I came out of the closet with my atheistic ideas. This has given me a certain common experience with others, such as gays. I am pretty sure that a lot of the so-called “christians” don’t actually believe in it; they just go with the flow to avoid the hassle.

    As far as race goes, my wife always starts the argument. “We Chinese are better than everyone else.” I reply with, “You’re almost right, but there is one exception…”

    I think the whole concept of race is obsolete. You are what you do, not what your DNA came from. Maybe in 100 years the rest of the ignoranti out there will catch on. Even now, however, there is great progress. We live together, work together, and don’t even kill each other (except once in a while).

  2. Patricia J. Barry says

    Hi. I agree that progressive organizations are generally segregated along racial lines. However,Folks in East LA and South LA will quickly understand and “get” what is going on with Palestinians sooner than white folks of middle class standing will, since black and brown people are segregated, their natural resources stolen by corporations (witness the South Central farmers who had their land stolen by a westside developer with aiding and abetting of LA City Council to build a warehouse for “Forever 21″ dress shops thus reinforcing the hopeless, deadend, consumerism which is causing the destruction of the environment) and subjected to “check points” by cops far, far more often than any white enclave in the city. Although white (although I have never tested my DNA) I belong to Black Women Lawyers of LA and Latina Bar Ass’n, since I support their goals of bringing more women of color into the legal profession and supporting them once they have arrived. Pat Barry

  3. Sharon Kyle says

    Thank you everyone for responding to this article. Dick, my husband, also contributed to this article. Please forward it if you think others would be interested. It is becoming increasing clear to me that we are a community.

    Thank you,

    Sharon

  4. Kevin Lynn says

    Sharon,

    This is a great article and one that should be widely circulated.

    I gladly and enthusiastically attend any Democratic meeting I can. However, two years ago I made the decision never to attend a Democratic Party event that was based either loosely or stringently on race or ethnicity. Sadly, that has kept me from attending the vast majority of Democratic gatherings.

    In my view we are all in this together and affinity groups based on race although well intentioned are ultimately divisive. They are fertile ground for the creation demagogues looking to rise to positions of power by playing to a group’s collective insecurities. We have big problems facing California that are going to require that we all man the oars and get paddling hard in the same direction.

  5. says

    Sharon: Thank you for the courage to speak on something that needs MORE dialogue. I plan to forward this article to some of my friends and colleagues. Great article!

  6. Sharon Kyle says

    Great observation Dan.

    Thank you for posting it.

    I was telling Dick about a practice employed by many black people that many whites don’t know about. It’s called the “Black Man’s Nod”. I didn’t know about it until I was in my thirties and working for a large company that had over 7000 whites and less than 300 blacks. I’ll write about it in another article. But suffice it to say, you’re right about what you’ve observed.

  7. Dan McCrory says

    Great article, Sharon. I’m afraid affinity groups of all kinds don’t do enough outreach. And frankly, when I’m in groups where I’m a minority, there’s a tendency to look for people that look like me. We all do it. It assures us that 1)we’re welcome there and 2)that the organization is making some effort to be inclusive.

    I think we forget that the civil rights movement was not only fueled by African-Americans who had had enough of segregation and second-class treatment. Many gentiles saved the lives of countless Jews in World War II. It take bold thinkers of every stripe to tear down walls and take risks to move us in the right direction.

    I recently pointed out the low percentage of Latinos in the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley. I was told, “Well, they’re working class folks and they don’t have the luxury of coming to meetings in the evening. They’re spending that time with family.” While that may be true to some extent, I’M working class and I’m involved. I just don’t think we’re trying hard enough.

    Good on you, Dick and Sharon, in attempting to break down those invisible barriers. People forget that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, while attempting to better circumstances for one group of people, wanted to erase color as a distinction when folks gather together.

  8. Ruby Medrano says

    on the subject of a divided nation, as a member of the DEMOCRATIC party the issue of immigration and all the violations of human rights by ICE is almost never talked about. It’s about time this type of abuse is addressed. R Medrano

  9. Alan Kobrin says

    Cornel West is wonderful. I’ve seen him live twice, once when he was traveling with Michael Lerner, another at a “State of the African American Union” event sponsored by Tavis Smiley in Miami. I was one of about 6 whites at a several thousand sized congregation.

    You describe West as, “talk[ing] 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.

    Now wouldn’t you like to say your party clearly addressed and supported those unmentioned issues? And how about with others such as the multiple crimes committed in our handling of New Orleans residents during and after Katrina?

    What about the crime of NO and UNDERinsurance in a in a system designed to protect healthcare insurance companies not people. Isn’t enough of the “absurd” of what goes on and passes for laws, legislation, and democracy? Should we bring up torture, and occupation resulting from an illegal war?

    WHY should people be begging, cajoling, messaging, fighting and (I’m sooo tired of this) hoping Congress will do the “right thing”? You and I know in our bones they barely even mention these things, much less represent our interests in them.

    Continued support for this is not only self-defeating (and believe me it IS, as well as demoralizing), it (and this is the worst part), it further enables and emboldens those corporate-money-taking politicians to go on taking stands that do not meet the Peoples’ needs nor will, and keeps THEM feeding and enabling the Right in drive from the New Deal to the New Feudalism.

    It is natural to want to join up with others not only who empathize with your values, but share them and share the desire to move our population in that direction. Why not support those who right now collectively work together to address “the corporatocracy, the prison-industrial complex, race and class in America”, the political party known as the Green Party. Brushing them off is like trying to slice up the life-preserver in a leaky lifeboat. Believe me, even the seemingly difficult task of growing the Green Party to the point of greater influence, is a much easier (and saner) task than waiting (forever) for the Democratic Party to embrace the People again, when each step they take is further from us, and is closer to the abyss.

    I tell people to put their energies and their money where THEIR mouths are, by amplifying those collective voices that mouth their own concerns, and to go about growing those voices.

    That voice is not emanating the Democratic Party. In fact the Democratic leadership specialize in taking people who have such a voice voice, and marginalizing or silencing them. Yup, sad to say, that is their assigned oligarchic chore, and they do it quite well, thank you very much.

    If you want to get from point A to point B, it helps to describe the point B you are seeking, and to join with others aiming to actually get there. There is no Point B worth reaching in the current Democratic Party vision — at best they sell us a world “a little less worse” while simply not addressing or mentioning or even warning us about the underlying cataclysmic machinations that further reduce our rights and participation by the minute. Not saying anything at these times is a crime.

    For as fledgling as it might be, the Green Party boldly proclaims a Point B that is the world we want to live in, a worthy place with respect, caring, equal justice, shared law, diversity, sustainability, global stewardship, wisdom, democratic participation (and representation). It’s time to build that vision alongside others right there with you.

    • Sharon Kyle says

      Alan,

      I believe we need many voices to be heard in the political arena. The two party system is failing us. Many would argue, and I sometimes agree, that we don’t have two parties any more when you look at how congress is voting.

      But the damage done by the Bushites has put us at such great risk that I don’t want to take any chances. We have to get Obama in so that we can start working with him to get this country turned around.

  10. Jane Fellman says

    Thank you very much. How supportive one feels to discover you and your husband representing others who are set on the same track and are so extremely articulate and caring. In peace, Jane

    • Sharon Kyle says

      Jane,

      Some comments are posted directly on this website, others are sent to us directly to our email address — as a result, there are many comments you won’t see on this site. But these comments have taught me that there is a vibrant progressive community in California. Publishing this e-zine has given us a new perspective. I used to feel that the situation was hopeless. I couldn’t believe that people would vote for Bush TWICE! — and they did (well sort of) — But when I hear from people like you, I know there are lots of us that want to make change happen and I am very encouraged.

      We can change this world. Si Se Puede. Yes We Can.

  11. Sabina says

    The best article by far. It’s amazing what one can see and feel when it applies to them; however, was this racism? I think it was jealousy. Discuss.

    • Sharon says

      Sabina,

      I’m not sure I understand specifically what you mean. But sense you’re one of my dearest friends, you can call me when you get a chance. We can discuss then.

    • Sharon Kyle says

      Melissa,

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Thoughtful dialogue is the first step we should take as we move forward towards healthy change. We believe the internet is helping to level the playing field. Thank you for being participant.

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