Thinking about Racial Reparations

June 10, 2018

Growing up in the Deep South you get to hear white people say a lot of foolish things. Things like, “I never owned a slave, why are black people angry at me?” And “racism ended with the Civil War. Black people need to get over it!” In 1992, a white student of mine at Reinhardt College (in rural Georgia) said this to me; “Racism ended in 1865. Black people are just complaining.” I asked him, “What day? There had be a day when there was racism and then a day when there was no racism that we can celebrate. There should at least be a stamp or a commemorative plate to honor the day that racism ended and black people just started complaining.” He had no response.

Unless you are Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed “least racist person,” you know that racism didn’t end with end of Confederate slavery in 1865. It folded into brutal lynchings and the madness of Jim Crow, and then institutionalized into the “war on crime” and every type of systematic racial bias you can imagine; housing, health care, hiring, and on and on. People of color know this in 2018. White people, not so much.

Obviously, this country still needs to have an on-going conversation about race, not a one-day Starbucks seminar. Having a successful black president for eight years didn’t solve the problem and kicking Roseanne Barr off ABC didn’t solve the problem. White people can’t switch on a Beyoncé song and proclaim themselves woke. I think some whites are figuring that out. But if you want to talk about racial reparations, all that white liberal wokenness goes right out the window.

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I was one of those who was leery of the call for reparations for a crime from centuries ago but I should have not been so fragile. For decades I have lectured about the legacy of slavery and how the psychological effects of the enslavement of an entire race are still with us all, including with African-Americans. It’s not just rednecks waving the Confederate battle flag, declaring, “the South will rise again!” (That’s code, y’all, for bring back slavery.) It’s not even the persistent brutality towards young men of color by police. The dehumanization of the people of Africa is manifested in daily life. If you are black and your last name is Jackson or Lincoln, you family history starts with slavery. (Something those named Obama could sidestep.) If you’re black and worry that you’re not light-skinned enough or don’t have the “good hair,” that legacy is there. Do you think there might be a price tag for all that trauma?

Another thing you will hear white people say is, “Well, black people can be racist, too!” This is true but not in the way my cracker brethren think. Black people don’t think white people are inferior, but many think black people are inferior. Studies have demonstrated that many African-Americans have internalized the racism that the world has laid on them for centuries. Just ask a little black girl which is better, the black doll or the white doll. “Black is beautiful” tried to undo the imposed self-hatred but it’s still a light-skinned black person’s status that reminds those who are “too black” that not much has changed.

I was lucky enough to (briefly) serve on the dissertation committee of Dr. Joy DeGruy at Portland State University. She’s the author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing and it needs to be assigned reading for white people. She outlines the gut-wrenching inhumanity of slavery and how those deep psychological traumatic wounds are passed down from generation to generation. That blacks are savages, rapists, thugs, or (as Roseanne just tweeted) apes deserving of what pain comes their way persists to this minute. Where is the class action suite on that?

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There is a young black activist in Portland named Cameron Whitten who has really forced me to take the issues of reparations seriously. We are a long way from “40 acres and a mule,” but there are real ways we can talk about making an amends today for the sins of the past. He has started to host “reparation happy hours” (now “Power Hours,” since it doesn’t have to involve alcohol) where white people who get it can contribute to gatherings for black people. At these gatherings black people can build community, political agency, and, yes, leave with a little bit of cash. (There is something poetic about black people being handed a ten spot with abolitionist Alexander Hamilton on it.) It doesn’t make up for the cumulative impact of slavery but it’s a powerful symbolic act that has real, tangible value.

Of course the right flipped their shit. Fox News tried to paint Cameron as a huckster, playing on white guilt to put money in his pocket (a thought I probably have been guilty of in the past). For the record, he is doing this as a non-profit called Brown Hope. Still, the troll army came after him, lampooning the idea of racial reparations. “Get over it!” they screamed. “You had Obama! What more do you want?” Whitten appeared on a local NPR show last week and calmly laid out his case. I was in my car listening and a big ol’ black light bulb lit up over my head. It made perfect sense. Reparations are not some type of sociological blackmail and it is time to talk about it without fear of attack from the same old defenders of white supremacy, be they Fox News trolls or white liberals.

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Think of being black in America as an invisible tax. Whether it’s the poorer health outcomes that come from discrimination in the health care system or decades of tobacco companies targeting black communities with their cigarette ads. Think of lost wages from job discrimination and lost wealth from housing discrimination that has prevented African-Americans from buying homes. (From 1934 to 1968, less than 2% of FHA loans for homes went to people of color.) Think of the cumulative stress of “driving while black” in a country that still sees police use-of-force disproportionately targeting minorities, not to mention all those traffic tickets I don’t have to pay because I’m not the one who is racially profiled. I could go on and on to the break of dawn, but I think you get the idea. There is a financial cost to being a person of color (this goes for brown, red, and yellow people, as well). This is a cost that I don’t have to pay and it translates to more money in my pocket. According to one measure, “for every dollar owned by the average white family in the United States, the average family of color has less than one dime.” My white privilege obscures the real reasons for this massive imbalance but it’s as real as the balance in your bank account.

We can’t undo the hell of racism in one happy hour or one generation. But we can acknowledge the price of racism financially. Don’t expect there ever to be a tax on white people to right the wrong. (You think racists like Trump are popular among “undereducated” white folk now…) But white people can think of ways to give to people of color in meaningful ways, even if it’s just supporting a black-owned business or buying someone lunch. Let’s deal with the actual cost of being black in America.

 

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Get out of your country!

May 15, 2018

Here’s a depressing statistic; only 36% of Americans have a passport. I got my first U.S. passport at age 18 and have kept it current since 1982. You never know when you might need to get the hell out. But, in reality, you should get the hell out. America is not the world. In fact, the United States is only 6% of the Earth’s landmass. How much of the other 94% have you seen?

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I’m in Oslo, Norway now attending another workshop on gender and extremism. (Suddenly, a hot topic it seems.) I spent a few weeks in Denmark in 1986, but this is my first time to Norway and it’s spectacular. Andrea came with me and we are enjoying the long days (Is it 10 pm or 4 pm? Who knows?) and the wonderful people of the vibrant socialist nation where everything seems to work perfectly. Beer, salmon, and discussions of feminist theories of violence with scholars from around the world. I can’t complain about much at the moment.

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That my passport is getting a workout is beside the point. (Toronto is next.) Each time I’m taken out of my American comfort zone, I’m forced to grow a little. It could be just finding my way around a strange city like Oslo where all the street signs look like eye charts. “Get off the Metro at the Forskningsparken station.” It could be not knowing if I should eat the brown cheese (Brunost). Eat it! It could be wondering how expensive a 129 Kroner jazz album is. (I don’t know but I still bought it.) Bonus points if you have to figure out how a bidet works. Like an elder playing Soudoku to stave off the looming Alzheimers diagnosis, all this momentary discomfort is good for your brain, or at least your soul.

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My first trip to Paris was when I was 20 and bumped into a small group of American girls on the Champs Elysees. We were all hungry and I suggested we go get a table at a sidewalk bistro and make fun of tourists. They went to Burger King instead. They came to the the City of Lights but were too intimidated to experience Paris. They went home to their Whoppers. Le Whopper. What did they miss because they went for the safety of the familiar? McDonalds around the world are chocked full of Americans who are afraid to sample the local cuisine. Maybe they should just stay home and watch the Travel Channel while they eat meatloaf on the couch.

I was at a Home Depot once and this white guy started complaining that all the signs were also in Spanish. “They’re still in English, too,” I told him. “Now you know that ‘plumbing’ is also ‘plomería.’ Be glad.” You better bet all those American tourists are pleased as punsj about all those signs that are in the local language AND English. Are they afraid they might have to work a little bit to figure things out, like most everybody else? Or are they “special” because they’re Americans? Aren’t they special?

It’s bad enough there is a Starbucks and a Foot Locker everywhere you go on this planet. It’s like a grand conspiracy to make Americans feel safe and unchallenged wherever they go in the world. Did you go to Morocco or just the Epcot Center version of Morocco and is there a difference? Pretty much everywhere you go, people will speak English and deliver Dominoes pizza. Globalization has done what colonialism only dreamed of – Made the world our Subway sandwich.

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Sometimes it’s good to be out of your element. Know that comes out on your dinner plate might not look like what you expect. That surprise is for you! Know how to ask directions in the local tongue. I can ask how to find the toilet in seven languages. Kde je záchod? We don’t run the world so act like it. I was in a shop in London and this American, when hearing the price in pounds and pence, asked, “How much is that in real money?” It’s okay to show a little humility. The world will actually look on you with favor.

When you come down to it, you can find the familiar in the strange fairly easily.  Everybody everywhere is addicted to their phones. People all love coffee and chocolate.  Parents are all trying to keep and eye on their money and their kids. And everyone makes fun of how Swedes talk. It’s basic. So the little variations are where the action is. Here in Norway, businesses respond to the needs of families instead of the opposite, like in America. That’s pretty cool. I’m different for learning that. The record store is closed.

Go get lost. Get out of your comfort zone. You’ll be better for it.

An Anarchist and a Cop Walk Into a Bar

May 4, 2017

Little Beirut: It’s not completely untrue that May Day in Portland, Oregon is more celebrated than Christmas Day. May Day marches can bring thousands to the streets to show support for workers’ rights around the globe and whatever issue has people’s collective goat that spring. My first Portland march was in 1996 and there were some signs protesting Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence and Bill Clinton’s deregulation of the internet mixed among the calls for worker solidarity. I had my union card in my pocket and probably a Smashing Pumpkins song in my head.

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Portland has long skewed left-of-center. If you’re a registered Democrat, you’ll likely get sneers, not from registered Republicans, but kids in Che Guevara t-shirts. The city was dubbed “Little Beirut” in 1990 by a member of the George H.W. Bush administration after Vice President Dan Quayle came to town for a fundraiser at the Hilton. There had been several anti-Bush demonstrations between 1989 and 1991, but this one unfolded in true Portland style, with Reed College students vomiting in red, white, and blue up-chucks and a man taking a dump on a picture of the Vice President. Now that the city has a rad nickname, each generation of radicals feels the pressure to raise the bar.

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The first May Day of the Trump Administration put Portland back on the CNN map. An initially peaceful protest Monday was quickly hijacked by Black Bloc anarchists, garden-variety trouble-makers, and probably a few agent provocateurs. By afternoon there was a fire burning in the middle of 10th Street, the windows of a cop car had been knocked out, and some 22-year-old  “revolutionary” smashed out the window of the downtown Target and threw a lit flare into the store full of people. I don’t think this is what Karl Marx had in mind when he wrote that capitalism “sows the seeds of its own destruction.” The Portland Police Bureau declared the formerly permitted march a “riot” and most peaceful protestors got the hell out of the sustained barrage. Even Portland State cancelled some evening classes, perhaps depriving some students from a lesson on what anarchy actually is.

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Look, I get the excitement. I have all Rage Against the Machines CDs and used to play them really loud and scream along. “Fuck you, motherfuckerrrrrrs!” I was a punk in the early 1980s and spray-painted my fair share of anarchy symbols around Atlanta, including on a daycare facility. (I’m so sorry about that.) I even took a swing at a cop once. It was after a Clash concert in 1982. After the show, a brawl erupted in the sweaty summer street in front of the Fox Theater between members of the Revolutionary Communist Party and some Nazi-wannabees. Everybody else, charged up by the combat rock (The Clash’s final song was “I Fought the Law”), jumped in. Peachtree Street was full of punks and cops on horseback and 18-year-old Randy, who thought punching a police officer was the appropriate thing to do in such a setting. Luckily, I missed the guy who had more serious threats to attend to and I went off to the punk club and bragged about rioting in the streets to anyone who would listen.

There is a psychology of these events. Lord knows how many we’ve had over the decades. Social scientists have long looked at how angry mobs take on a life of their own and how a “herd mentality” emerges. When a like-minded crowd, excited about roughly the same thing and dressed similarly (whether its sports fans or black-clad anarchists), get together, there is a tipping point where the rational individual mind shuts down and the emotional collective mind ramps up. This is especially true when there is outside confrontation, usually with the cops. And it has to be added that most of the rioters are males acting out a hyper-masculine script in their “us vs. them battle.” I’ve seen it first-hand plenty of times and have been pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed for my observations. “Smash the state! Quick, lets get a selfie first.”

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Monday’s riot took Little Beirut to a different level. It seemed to be motivated by a hatred of the police. Law enforcement officers had everything not nailed down thrown at them, including rocks, bottles, and fireworks. Besides the shop windows that were smashed and the bike tires that were slashed, “KILL COPS” was spray-painted on a street sign. I know these folks are opposed to the militarization of the police, but they’re pretty much encouraging the militarization of the police. It makes you think some of these supposed radicals are on the payroll of a defense contractor.

If you’ve read this blog you know that I’m anti-fascist. And the Trump presidency has moved this country closer to fascism than it has ever been. I also think intellectual anarchists, like Noam Chomsky, offer a path away from oppressive social systems. I get the antifa philosophy of “countering” fascism directly. (The FAQ on the Rose City Antifa website fairly clearly articulates their positions on the matter.) My whole life has been dedicated to countering neo-Nazis. I risked my life for years studying Nazi skinheads to learn how to do this. And I learned the best approach is to turn a Nazi into a former Nazi, not beat them into submission. That tends to have the opposite effect.  I’ve been to Klan rallies, Aryan Nations meeting, and had a couple of skinheads plan to severely beat me in a Portland strip club. I know Nazis and the Portland Police are not Nazis.

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Like most metropolitan police departments, The Portland Police Bureau has had its share of issues, including the shooting of unarmed African-American citizens. (Every time I pass the spot on the Skidmore Bridge where Kendra James was killed in 2003, I get a chill.) And there was one officer who was probably a little too fond of Nazis, which didn’t help the matter. In 2000, the city commissioned a panel to study racial profiling and found, surprise, the bureau did engage in racial profiling. In 2012, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city because of police interactions with mentally ill civilians and the Portland Police are currently engaged in reforms based on the DOJ settlement. That’s a good thing. We’re moving forward together.

There’s no doubt that racism is an issue woven within the institutions of our society, including the various institutions of law enforcement, that devalues non-white lives. Based on our actions, the evidence is clear; all lives don’t matter. But there’s a seriously wide continuum between old school Bull Conner racist cops and harm done by seemingly invisible implicit bias. Post-Ferguson Report, these issues are now out in the open. Although, I don’t have much hope that our new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, will continue the reforms being made in police oversight.

I know an awful lot of Portland police officers who don’t go to work every day to prop up capitalism or put down the little guy. The officers I know have more of a social work approach to policing and probably have more in common with the core values of true anarchists than the “boys in black” might guess. (I will exclude the “Anarchy!” thugs who just want to “fuck shit up” from this observation.) Sgt. Pete Simpson is the Portland cop you always see on TV talking to the local media. He’s a friend and former student of mine and I asked him what he would want the anarchists to know about his line of work:

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“I have been a police officer for nearly 23 years and I have worked with cops from all across the United States. Never once have I met one that said they look forward to going to work to support corporate America and oppress minorities. Quite the opposite really. Most officers I’ve ever been around want to go make their corner of the world slightly better every day — and a lot of those corners are occupied by local businesses and people of color who officers work to protect and serve. At a core level, officers might philosophically agree in some ways with “anarchists” about the things that are wrong in the country — but police officers have a different approach rather than to slash and burn.”

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I also know many anarchists and former-anarchists. They are on their own journey to make sense of the world how to most effectively address the serious problems we face. Like the Nazi skinheads I’ve studied for 25 years, some get pulled into a simple world of black and white with a subsequent action plan of “destroy everything and hope something beautiful arises from the ashes.” When I was 21, that seemed incredibly appealing and romantic. As a 53-year-old parent, I know the black and white analysis (“Capitalism is always evil!”) is problematic, at best. (Starbucks is not 100% evil. I’d say only 40-60% evil, depending on my need for caffeine.) I also know it’s better to get inside the machine and “fix shit up.” Maybe I’m just an optimistic 50-something, but I believe real reform happens.

There was a moment before one of the many Portland marches against George W. Bush’s pointless 2003 invasion of Iraq. We were making signs in the Park Blocks and a young anarchists with a red bandana over his face asked the crowd for some good quotes for his signs. I offered a few. “Government is not the solution to the problem, government IS the problem,” “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” and a few others. He scribbled them down furiously. “These are perfect! Who said them?” he asked.

“An anarchist named Ronald Reagan,” I said. He was not amused.

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Anarchism is a legitimate and important philosophy. I’ve taught its basics for years in my Contemporary Theory class. I’m guessing the rocket scientist who tried to set the Target on fire on May 1st would not pass the test on the subject. When people hear the word “anarchist” now they just think of violent thugs who want to murder the members of our community who work in law enforcement. Black Bloc might not all be agent provocateurs on Trump’s payroll, but they sure are reinforcing Trump’s narrative about the “violent left.” Not the best strategy of creating support for social change. Cool, in a Rage Against the Machine/rebellious youth sort of way, but not effective in reality. The 25 “protesters” who were arrested in the riot can only claim to adding fuel to the fire driving the drivel on Fox News. Capitalism remains unfazed.

On May 2nd, I was having an email chat with PPB’s chaplain. He had a little anecdote that said so much about the situation. “This morning at coffee I had a conversation with a young women who is friends with many of the Antifa people, and who was asking about racism and police brutality.  I think, from a honest position, her friends claim that there is out of control police brutality. And that none of the things the police claim are true, like destruction of property, aggressive actions, etc..  She came over to me and the officers seated at coffee with me and just didn’t know who or what to believe anymore.”

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What if we got the anarchists and cops in a room together? What could they learn from each other? It might serve to humanize both sides. I was on one side of the “battle” until I started actually listening to people I thought I was somehow fighting. Turns out we’re all on the same side. As someone who has pretty much read everything Karl Marx has written (The picture of me at his grave in England in 1991 will surely surface if I ever run for office), let me end with a quote; “Let us seek our salvation through solidarity.” I promise that’s from Karl and not Ronald Reagan.

POSTSCRIPT: I realize this blog post might annoy some police officers AND sone radicals. If that’s so then my mission as a teenage anarchist is complete. Now dig this song.