Sunday, November 04, 2007

Recap for November 4, 2007

Good morning, everyone. We went around with introductions, and welcomed two first-time people.

Next week we will consider a document about our vision and mission [attached below].

This morning we heard Steve’s story. Much of the ensuing conversations focused on the ways people get involved with movements.

We welcomed Bernie Kleina, exec dir of the Hope Fair Housing Center, in Wheaton, Ill. [See their web page here]. An introduction to some of his photographs on display can be read here. [You can read more about Bernie here.]. He shared with us a video about a law professor, tenured faculty at the University of Richmond, an African American woman, who was recently denied rental housing based on color. Her story described the consequences of the personal insult of housing discrimination. “It is not just something that happens, and you get used to it after a while. Who should get used to being degraded? Who should have to get used to that?”

Bernie got involved in civil rights after watching marchers beaten in Alabama, and realized he could not just do nothing. His first visit to Alabama (in which he was arrested for parading without a license, in a party of five—that and black people walking together constituted a parade in those days) helped him realize that discrimination is not a Southern issue—it is for all of us.

He now has a display of photographs traveling the country that describes the situation in Chicago, which is as segregated as ever. [The exhibit is entitled [The Chicago Freedom Movement — Remember Why You're Here, Brother.] Part of the story is about how basic discrimination is still rife—he told a story of lunch counter discrimination. His group has sent out groups of testers, to see if various merchants and public facilities treat people the same regardless of color. One of the things the testers show us is that apparently good treatment at stores is revealed as something else—such as an African American who felt like he was being treated well at a jeweler, but the comparison pointed out that whites were shown several watches at a time, instead of one. Or how polite treatment by potential landlords masks outcomes starkly marked by color.

He quoted another M. L. King Jr. speech, “When the guns of war become a national obsession” that something happens to conscience—it becomes mutilated and deaf to justice. [See King’s most famous speech on Vietnam here, and another of his speeches on the war here].

The task now: Enforce the law. Keep sending out the message that all of us are protected by fair housing laws. And we need to keep working at the obvious inequities, such as in education, that produce very different starting places for people.

We were introduced to a four-page document describing our values, mission and activities. Well, we were going to go into it (at 5 minutes to 12 we had not yet presented it). But Dexter introduced the discussion with an additional topic that emerged out of the last few weeks’ discussion of our values/mission document: What is Whiteness? This was the topic of a lecture he presented at UPS, and at a recent conference. Whiteness is a “discursive formation,” an idea that is widespread—in knowledge, the ways people think we should act, actual practices of the way we live. Historically, whiteness has been framed as an essential part of being American. He shared some quotes from Hector St. John, do Crevecoeur, the third of his Letters from an American Farmer, 1782. American identity is a mixture of white national origins from northern Europe. The melting pot metaphor meant melting Swedes and Germans and English. At the time Crevecoeur was writing, the population of the United States was about 16 or 17% African origins (the slave trade went on for another quarter century). Part of whiteness is to render nonwhites as invisible. We discussed some of the implications of who the Census historically decided to count—some people are missing from those old figures, for reasons (such as trying to exterminate a people). A similar issue arises with regards to crime statistics—the reported figures are a product of a place where whiteness is the norm—so white on white crimes are underreported.

The first black newsletters in the United States, in about 1827, proclaimed that for too long others have spoken for black folks, and that the description of racism need to come from the voices of those not yet heard. More recently, one of the points made by black scholars was that Europeans would be surprised to hear how many people are not part of the white European peoples, and not Christian, either.

One target of the concept of whiteness is to “de-center” it—being white is offered as the default category, as being Normal. And as heard from Bernie this morning, and as several Conversation members have said before, pretty much all white people have to learn they are white. It is not apparent in the general culture, and it is an idea that is warred upon in most social circles. [A discussion of whiteness is appended to the end of these minutes.]

Winthrop Jordan, in his book White over Black (Norton, available as a paperback book—he also wrote The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States.), has traced the origins of whiteness as a concept back to the early 16th century. Whiteness was framed as laudable and glorious, and blackness was framed as base and corrupt. As successive groups came to the USA, they worked to become acceptable—to become white (Irish, Jews, Italians, etc., were not regarded as white). There was one group that could not adjust.
Members of the Conversation brought up several points about the concept of whiteness and its uses, and interpretations. One example that came up—why are crime statistics reported by race? Why not do it by religion (how many crimes committed by Presbyterians?)? Another example—of white America learning to see blackness as a threat, as in the case of a Michigan university that was 70% white but whose white students believed it was 70% black. We also mentioned a couple of times how science, social science, and media are brought into the service of justifying whiteness. Media treatment of whiteness is instrumental in transmitting the ideas—the genre of the Western, for example. We discussed, for a while, the historical construction of whiteness back in the 16th through 19th centuries, such as in the treatment of the native peoples here, the use of biblical interpretation to provide a justification of whiteness as normal. Several people gave examples of treatments of native peoples, such as stories presented in the book 500 nations.

One teacher described how, in her classroom, she had students draw a timeline of the peoples here in North America, over the last 30,000 or so years, which highlights how recently were whites here, how many of the changes that constructed the present situation occurred a very short time ago, as a way of getting at the way we have constructed the present as normal.

One person introduced the idea of what the world would be like, if there were only 100 people in it, but in the same mix as at present. A graphical presentation of that is here, and a text presentation is here.

Another person reported that she hears, over and over again, that here in Pierce County there are no real problems of racism. “Why do you always go on about it?” She described whiteness as similar to a cancer, affecting the whole society and easting away at us at so many levels.

One person attended a Diabetic Association conference yesterday at Stadium High School, and one of the presentations highlighted how the diversity of Pierce County is increasing—and so is the spread of diabetes. This was linked to the gentrification of the Hilltop area—mostly a white phenomenon—and how this distracts attention from the ways poverty is linked to diabetes, and affects so many nonwhite peoples disproportionately.

Does multiplication of diversity, do differences, have us press toward the middle—the middle being white, protestant, and so on? Criticisms of African-Americans for keeping the hyphen are signs of whiteness in action: why can’t you people be like the middle? When we press towards common cultural standards, which ones are we going to use? The standard is whiteness. One example ended with a question--You smell any culture you walk into—the food, the spices, are different—but, what does one say about the difference?


A discussion of whiteness, by a member of the Conversation.

What does it mean to use the concept of white privilege, or whiteness? At one level, it means the set of advantages that accrue to whites simply by virtue of their color (historical ones, such as labor laws that excluded predominantly black occupations, programs to promote home ownership or college attendance that accrued predominantly to whites, or present ones, such as the way people are treated at automobile dealerships). The advantaged group regards its position as the social norm, so that the holders of privileges do not recognize them as such.

This entails a power to name and define issues, such as the way the affirmative action debate is framed. For example, in the recent case of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies, the President and the media almost exclusively focused on the University’s bias in awarding black applicants twenty points (out of one hundred and fifty) based on race. There were other point bonuses that were seldom mentioned. Applicants from Michigan’s upper peninsula area, which is almost exclusively white, received sixteen points. Poor applicants receive twenty points—but the twenty points were not added if the applicant already received the points based on race. Ten points were given to students from top ranked high schools, and another ten for students who took several Advanced Placement courses, and four points if one’s parents attended the University—categories overwhelmingly of white applicants. Whites who scored on all of these categories would receive fifty-eight points, but little was said about this in the public debate. Whiteness is the default category, and goes largely unexamined.
Non-whiteness is defined as the Other, and is suspect if any privilege accrues to it.

Can we admit white privilege exists? The concept is a staple of critical race theory, critical legal studies, and similar academic fields, but it has not penetrated mainstream social science or popular political dialog. One very valuable insight from these fields is apparent from their methodology. Critical race theory, in particular, employs a lot of narrative. This tends to focus on the experience of people who have experienced discrimination. Most accounts of justice in mainstream political theory, by contrast, treat such perspectives in a formal fashion, if at all. So part of systematic ignorance is the methodologies that encourage abstraction as if that covered relevant perspectives, when it clearly does not.

How do we see privilege? What period do we examine? Why not start when I was born? Why not start when my mother was born? Do we want to include a period that will tally the benefits accrued from the 1862 Homestead Act? My family benefited from it, black families did not. Do we want to include a period that will include the benefits accrued from grants of land in the mid-17th century? My family benefited from some of those. Or, what about benefits from the relatively open immigration policies of the mid-19th century? How do these make a difference? My mother’s family was able to take money from these sources out of Massachusetts, and use it to build wealth in cattle and banking in Kansas. They lost most of it in the Depression, but the kids, including my grandfather, went to prep schools and to college. They also had a restaurant and a big house that provided their income and a home during the Depression, and they were in a fairly good position when the economy got better. They could send their surviving child, my mother, to a private college. There she met my dad, whose family had similar wealth that they did not lose during the Depression (although his grandmother gave it all away to the Methodist church). After WWII my dad went to college and got a Stanford MBA, courtesy of the GI Bill. I grew up in a nice home on a ranch my parents bought with a GI Bill loan at less than 6% interest. So there was no question about whether I would go to college, and the professional world was open to me. All I had to do was study and avoid jail. I went through college when public support for education was at its all-time high. A half-time minimum wage job would pay for college and the cheapest apartment in Seattle’s university district. Graduate school was financed completely on scholarships. When I finished school I had no debts. My kids all had the expectation of going to college, and could afford it without too much in loans. These benefits accrued to living persons, people I knew. This is a story not untypical for white families, but very rare for black families.

The important thing to notice here is the role of government policies. New Deal policies of the 1930s that helped workers (such as rights to form unions, minimum wage, and relief to the unemployed) required the support of Southern Democrats, who were able to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from coverage under the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Local administration of relief programs allowed exclusion where racial segregation was the norm. In the South, white privilege grew stronger because of the New Deal. These programs helped make covered workers much better off—while excluded workers were left behind.

The GI Bill opened educational opportunities after WWII, but these went overwhelmingly to whites, in large part because the armed services, colleges and universities practiced segregation. GI Bill home and small business loans, which expanded home and business ownership, operated through lending institutions that discriminated and redlined. The effects of this were bigger than individual decisions about where to live, although those choices were probably influential in Northern Democrat lawmakers’ role in policies.

The major results of these policies are seen in wealth. Average income of black households is about 2/3 that of white household; but average wealth of black households is about 1/10 that of white households. Over 70% of white households own their home, about 25% of black households own their homes, worth about 60% as much as those of white households.

During the lifetime of people I have known, these and similar programs helped white families get ahead in life. The advantages were not available to black families.

(The following are footnotes for the above article, but this blog does not allow for their formatting. I've included them here, though they are not properly identified with the sections which they reference.)

1. One of the most extensive discussions of white privilege is Stephanie M. Wildman,, Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America (NY: New York University Press, 1996), with a definition at p.13. A concise description of white privilege is found in Barbara J. Flagg, “Whiteness as Metaprivilege,” 18 Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 1(2005) pp. 1-12. James Baldwin used the concept in several ways. See his ”On Being White…and Other Lies,” Essence April, 1984, and The Fire Next Time (NY: The Dial Press, 1963), where he argues, for example, that whites expend a lot of energy in order to not be judged by blacks. See also Wells, Revilla and Holme, Op.Cit.; Wildman, 2005.
2. GRATZ V. BOLLINGER (02-516) 539 U.S. 244 (2003).
3.The examples are from Tim Wise, Whites Swim in Racial Preference, Posted on, February 20, 2003.
4. On the failure of the concept to penetrate mainstream political dialog, see Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy 5. This point is made by Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati, BOOK REVIEW: The Law and Economics of Critical Race Theory: Crossroads, Directions, and a New Critical Race Theory. 112 Yale L.J. (May, 2003) 1757.
6. See, for example, Ian Shapiro, Democratic Justice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999). The book is an excellent demonstration of the strength of a democratic understanding of justice, and is at the same time systematic and tied to concrete examples in our politics. Yet it pays virtually no attention to the justice issues connected to the color line. I use it as an example here because it is among the very best recent books in political theory.
7. These examples are suggested in George M. Fredrickson, “Still Separate & Unequal,” a review of Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (NY: Norton, 2005), The New York Review of Books, Volume 52, (November 17, 2005) Number 18.

The Conversation Tacoma

Values and Mission

The Conversation is a group of South Sound residents committed to building just communities. We promote social justice through talk and action. We strive to be one of the just, open, compassionate communities we are working to establish in Tacoma and beyond. The Conversation is a family, an affinity group, a think tank, and a safe house. We work to envision and procure a better world.

Two questions guide our work together: The first is philosophical: what is the meaning of our lives – our relationship to each other, the world, the universe? The second is practical and pragmatic: What are our immediate socio-political responsibilities and how do we fulfill them in a world burdened by bigotry, mistrust, and suffering?

Goals and Process

At the Conversation’s weekly gatherings, we engage with issues, values, tasks, and one another. In order to sustain genuine engagement over the long term, Conversation participants engage in four processes:

We talk purposefully and listen respectfully: share life stories; generate ideas and strategies; learn across difference; seek guidance and renewal from activists, artists, teachers, scholars, wisdom texts, and faith traditions; study root causes of social injustice; learn about peace and justice initiatives.

We take action: create social justice programs for the community; join local struggles for equity and peace; produce venues for artistic expression; support one another’s programs and performances, as participants and as audience.

We provide sustenance: establish a safe place to explore issues misrepresented or shrouded in silence elsewhere; find our voices; nurture social activists; renew our courage; strengthen bonds of friendship and trust.

We seek transformation: recognize and challenge our biases; acknowledge our limits and then go beyond them; align our actions and words with our deepest commitments; develop our resilience, power, and capacity for change; celebrate our achievements.

Talk and Action

Our talk and our action emerge from the interests and expertise of those who attend weekly Conversation meetings. There we engage critically with such issues as the legal system, wages, housing, food, healthcare and education. We also take action through programming and advocacy work in three areas: 1) Education; 2) The Arts; 3) Peace and Social Justice. Like the Conversation itself, all of our activities are open to South Sound residents of every race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, religion, and sexual orientation.

Since it’s inception in January 2006, the Conversation has envisioned, initiated, and brought to fruition:

1) Education
Conversation members have created Tacoma Conversation Education, an interest group meeting bi-weekly to scrutinize Tacoma public education policies, advocate for policy and curricular change, and address the achievement gap through on-going interactions and debate with the Tacoma School Board and local officials. This group will continue to seek equity in education for all Tacoma children through grass-roots involvement in policy change.

2) The Arts
Conversation members produced SoJust 2007, a one day program to promote justice through art, music, and dance, to conduct a food and coat drive for Tacoma children in need, and to share information with the local community on how to make change. This program will be continued as an annual local event.

3) Peace and Social Justice
Conversation members produced “Redeeming the Vision,” an annual program to celebrate Martin Luther King’s prophetic vision and to educate the community regarding the full depth and significance of his liberatory message. This celebration will be continued as an annual Tacoma event.

The Conversation also actively supports local initiatives that coincide with our vision and have been created or actively supported by Conversation members:

1) Education
The on-going initiative on education and the color line emerging from the 2006 Race and Pedagogy Conference and the 2007 Race and Pedagogy Summit

2) The Arts
Attend and promote The New Orleans Monologues

3) Peace and social justice
Participate in and attend United for Peace of Pierce County debates on the Iraq war

Envisioning a Future

To envision a future, we address philosophical and practical dimensions of our work. To respond to the philosophical question -- what is the meaning of our lives, our relationship to each other, the world, the universe? -- we need to develop further in these directions:

Deepen our knowledge of African American history, the history of marginalized groups, and the processes of marginalization

Learn more from one another and from our various cultural perspectives

Deepen our encounters with faith traditions and wisdom texts so that they inform our work and our relationships

Practice forms of challenging one another that allow us to address the hard questions while keeping our bonds of friendship and trust intact

Give each person opportunities to lead, to develop cultural competence, to become more ideologically flexible, more resilient, better prepared for hostilities we encounter elsewhere, better able to work with fear and overcome voicelessness

To address the practical question -- What are our immediate socio-political responsibilities and how do we fulfill them?– we need to sustain our current commitments but also expand beyond them by acting creatively in these areas:

Develop more programming for children and youth at the Conversation and in the community—such as monthly classes (on hip-hop; on artist as change agent, etc.)

Develop more programming for children at the Conversation and in the community, such as visual or written arts programming

Increase our presence in the community, at elections, in schools, at School board meetings, at city council, at anti-war rallies

Serve as a community resource on racial justice: provide programming that engages people in the journey to justice through anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anticlassist practices

Become more intergenerational, more diverse, more supportive

Develop multiple levels of leadership

Grow our volunteer base

Connect with our community through joint programming

Help families and neighborhoods become centers of social justice
Enacting Our Vision

At the Conversation, talk is action because it provides us with momentum and direction for wise action. Action is talk because our actions communicate our values and commitments, our vision for a better world. When we enact our vision, we serve others, and we develop our own resources, physical, moral, emotional, and spiritual.

Our action focus for 2008:

Plan carefully for service and social action

Organize SoJust 2008

Organize Redeeming the Vision 2009

Extend the influence of Tacoma Education Conversation on public education policy

Sponsor a 2008 youth summit

Identify and develop new leaders for the Conversation and the South Sound

Establish a weekly or monthly Conversation youth group that meets in the afternoon

Create a partnership with Lincoln High School or with a classroom there, working with students, teachers, families

Develop a ten-year plan for the Conversation

Increase the Conversation’s education about racism

Prepare a capital campaign

Grow average attendance to 50 by October 2008

Read a text together that speaks to our work and sustains our direction perhaps inviting the community at large to join us

Our Long term focus:

Establish a fully developed program of activities to serve our entire community

Increase regular attendance from 25-30 to 70-75

Increase our multi-cultural diversity

Adapt our schedule to balance whole group meetings with smaller action group meetings