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Progressive Movement So White

A local activist contacted me to ask how he could be more effective at attracting a diverse group to work within activist organizations like “Indivisible”. Hard as he tried, he wasn't able to make any headway. Everyone in his group was white.

When he reached out, I was in the midst of dealing with a small crisis in my home. We talked a bit about the challenge of engaging racial and ethnically diverse groups. I gave him some examples of the ways that racial and ethnic discrimination contribute to the problem. One such example was being played out right in my home as we spoke.

Here's what I told him --

Two weeks ago, there was a fire in our home. I was brewing a pot of tea, completely forgot the tea and left the house for a meeting. When my husband and I returned home - 3 hours later - we were confronted with considerable fire and soot damage. There wasn't an inch of our home that wasn't impacted.

The insurance company sent an adjuster to the house to see what it would take to bring it back to the condition it was in before the fire. The adjuster said the smoke and soot alone had caused enough damage that the cost could possibly rise to $140,000.

I was surprised but thankful that we had fire insurance. Publishing the LA Progressive brings a lot of rewards, none of which are financial. We were lucky that we had paid the insurance bill.

But this story really isn’t about the fire so much as it is about the crew that the insurance company sent to clean and remove the resulting soot and ash from our home. The team has been at our house for two weeks, removing soot from everything—I mean everything—the contents of every cabinet, cupboard, closet, drawer, and file cabinet. Every stitch of clothing we own has either been taken away for treatment or tossed because the damage can’t be repaired.

This immense undertaking has been handled by a crew of about ten people. The crew is professional. They clearly know what they’re doing. Dick and I have stayed in the house throughout the entire ordeal even though we could have gone to a hotel (the insurance covers that). But leaving home seemed like more trouble than it was worth, especially because we have a cat. Amazingly, the team has been as unobtrusive as possible, under these conditions. You’d hardly know they’re here. Their supervisor and manager have visited a couple of times to check on the progress, but the team doesn’t seem to need any supervision

I was surprised but thankful that we had fire insurance. Publishing the LA Progressive brings a lot of reward, none of which is financial. We were lucky that we had paid the insurance bill because we've had to sacrifice in many other areas of our lives.

But this piece really isn’t about the fire so much as it is about the crew that the insurance company sent to clean and remove the resulting soot and ash from our home. The team has been at our house for two weeks, removing soot from everything—I mean everything—the contents of every cabinet, cupboard, closet, drawer, and file cabinet. Every stitch of clothing we own has either been taken away for treatment or tossed because the damage can’t be repaired.

This immense undertaking has been handled by a crew of about ten people. The crew is professional. They clearly know what they’re doing. Dick and I have stayed in the house throughout the entire ordeal even though we could have gone to a hotel (the insurance covers that). But leaving home seemed like more trouble than it was worth, especially because we have a cat. Amazingly, the team has been as unobtrusive as possible, under these conditions. You’d hardly know they’re here. Their supervisor and manager have visited a couple of times to check on the progress, but the team doesn’t seem to need any supervision.

Dropping the Other Shoe

Sounds like everything is going well? It is but you’re right if you sense that I’m about to drop the other shoe.

So here’s the thing: Every member of the soot removal crew performing the physical labor in my home for these past two weeks is Latinx—both male and female, including a young Latino foreman. The manager and supervisor who have visited a couple of times are both white men, both as helpful and forthright as you could want. There is nothing remarkable about this race/ethnic hierarchy—it’s seen everywhere. That history is long and enduring in spite of the laws that give lip service to protecting certain classes of people from discrimination. The sheer pervasiveness of this pecking order suggests two things to me,

  • there continues to be systemic institutionalized discrimination; and
  • we, as a nation, are pretty much okay with it.

But having this team in my home every day for two weeks really got under my skin because it laid bare one of the ways we, as a society, uphold systemic racism and support white supremacy—oftentimes unintentionally and involuntarily. We basically just go along to get along. I didn't want to do that because that is why this unfairness persists.

The “un-remarkableness” of the racialized pecking order that pervades every industry in this counry leads to my next point.

We all know the oft told story of European immigrants who arrive in the U.S. with not much more than the shirts on their backs achieving the American dream through hard work and sheer determination. But, turns out, the rugged individuals who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps got a lot of help, especially from the United States government.

Left untold in most of our history books are the many benefits the United States granted to European immigrants and their descendants but denied others.

Left untold in most of our history books are the many benefits the United States granted to European immigrants and their descendants but denied others.

It is said that “history is written by the victors.” Since its inception, power in the United States has been concentrated in the hands of white men. Their interpretation of American history has shaped most American’s historical views. School textbooks, public iconography, movies, encyclopedias, historical novels, and a panoply of other mediums convey a perspective of American history that is incomplete and oftentimes inaccurate—witness the “rugged individual” myths.

In his groundbreaking book, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, historian Ira Katznelson painstakingly demonstrates that all the key programs passed during the New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s were intentionally created in a manner that would result in whites receiving the full benefit of rising prosperity while people of color, and specifically blacks, would be deliberately left out.

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Maintaining Internal Colonialism

Thanks to the scholarship of contemporary historians, we now know that federal agencies subsidized white suburban developments by guaranteeing loans to developers of places like Levittown, New York; Lakewood, California; and many other suburban communities that sprang up across the nation after World War II, while often requiring the builders to refuse sales to African Americans, many of whom were veterans who were entitled to benefit from the GI Bill but were precluded.

According to Ira Katznelson, only 100 of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill went to families of color. White families that benefited from these racially exclusionary policies enjoyed decades of equity appreciation that helped finance college for their children and comfortable retirements for themselves.

Policies like land grants for whites, whites-only labor unions, real estate red lining, and immigration policies that excluded people of color were openly sanctioned and enforced by the United States government. We see the legacy of these policies today, not the least of which is the normalization of racial and ethnic discrimination—so normal that racially segregated tiers within the hierarchy of a company barely raises eyebrows at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the organization commissioned by the federal government specifically to enforce discrimination in employment laws.

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These policies have helped to maintain what some refer to as “internal colonialism,” a condition of racial and ethnic subordination as prevalent today as at anytime in this country’s history. Interestingly, the people who have been the most negatively impacted by these policies and practices are those whose ancestors didn’t actually immigrate to this country.

That Nation of Immigrants

As a side note: Every time we refer to ourselves as “a nation of immigrants” we exclude large swaths of the population. The term “immigrant” isn’t applicable to most of the ancestors of today’s African Americans, Native Americans and many Mexican Americans—the three groups subjected to the most enduring subjugation.

Many Mexican-American residents of what is now Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas trace their ancestry back to the 1600s, long before those states were part of the United States. Like the Native American population, the term immigrant does not reflect their history or their relationship to the United States, as is true for the vast majority of the ancestors of African Americans who came to this country against their will in shackles.

2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 14th Amendment yet race and ethnicity continues to be a relatively accurate predictor of where African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans rank in this country’s social, political and economic hierarchies.

Soft White Supremacy

Typically, the type of racism given the most media attention is the overt racial animus that undergirds many of the police shootings of unarmed black people or the violence directed at Native American protestors at Standing Rock. But arguably, the kind of racism that produces the most harm (perhaps because it is so much more pervasive and ubiquitous) is the type that I attribute to “soft white supremacy.” This doesn't require a burning cross or a violent act to be hugely impactful.

Author Charles Blow says soft white supremacy is divorced from hatred and violence. He maintains that detesting violence and cruelty doesn’t mean that one truly believes that all people are equal—culturally, intellectually, creatively, or morally. Blow believes, as do I, that soft white supremacy is the very thing that overt racists need in order to pursue their agendas.

I contend that like most social conditions, white supremacy exists on a continuum. I am a black woman who can count the number of times I’ve encountered overt racism—the type that is unquestionably intentional. The softer varieties of white supremacy and racism are often absent intentional discrimination. It can be seen in the silence of whites in the face of mistreatment of people of color. It can be seen when grave racial and ethnic inequality is attributed to “poor choices” made by black and brown people. And it can be seen when white people lack interest in exploring, researching and understanding racial matters.

Everyday White Advantage

In her book, Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock In White Advantage, UCLA professor and legal scholar Daria Roithmayr provocatively argues that the openly racist policies implemented and enforced by the U.S. Government in the past provided a “return on investment” that has been locked in. She maintains that racial inequality lives on because white advantage functions as a powerful self-reinforcing monopoly, reproducing itself automatically from generation to generation irrespective of an individual's intent.

I’ve written in the past and will likely write in the future on the ways that race and ethnic fracture are at the heart of the failure of the progressive movement to have any significant traction in American politics. Famed progressive activist and member of the Progressive Party, Anne Braden (who by the way was white), once said:

The battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of White people in this country. The fight against racism is our issue. It’s not something that we’re called on to help People of Color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it because really, in truth, they do.

African Americans, Native Americans and the Latinx population in this country have always been involved in this fight as if our lives depend on it. So, in closing, my advice to any organization struggling to understand why it cannot successfully engage a more diverse membership—be it a church, an activist group, a school, an issue-based non-profit—look at where your commitment lies, look to your mission and your actions.

Has your organization demonstrated through messaging and actions that it understands the central role that race and ethnicity has played in building systems of advantage and disadvantage? Is your organization committed to dismantling these systems of inequality?

The test of whether or not your organization has done that will be reflected in the demographics of your membership. If your organization has been intentional, bold, and authentic on this front, you’ll see diversity when you look out at the faces of both your membership and its leaders.

So, where to begin? Here is a list of resources:

  • SURJ - Showing Up for Racial Justice believes that racism and white supremacy keep the many divided for the benefit of the few. They maintain that when those of us who are white realize that racial justice is core to our liberation as well, then masses of white people will withdraw support from white supremacy. Together, as part of a powerful multi-racial, cross-class movement for collective liberation we can force the system of white supremacy to crumble.
  • AWARE-LA - Alliance of White-Anti-Racists Everywhere LA: This organization offers a course entitled, "Unmasking Whiteness". Learn more by going to: Unmasking Whiteness
  • Fakequity.com -- Lots of resources and must read articles like "You Can't Train Your Way to Racial Equity" and "Disabilities So White"
  • Against All Odds -- a documentary by journalist Bob Herbert that every White progressive should see.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive

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