Stop Living in the Past: Colorblind Racism and Ignorance

February 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

I prefer to not be combative. I prefer dialogue over insults and slurs. However, I am often confronted with ideas and coded language that just makes me boil. These discussions happen with folks from all walks of life, mostly white, but sometimes with other people of color. The discussion surrounds the ideas of reverse racism and the post-racial society we are told we live in.

It’ll typically begin with a white person’s anecdote in which they were called something offensive, maybe beat up, or victimized in some other way and how it is reverse racism. The term reverse racism is inherently white supremacist because it assumes that racism is something that can only happen to people of color, and that to do it to a white person is somehow different, special, and warrants an alternate term. Attempts to discuss that are typically met defensively with more anecdotes, calls for personal responsibility, coded language denigrating people of color, and ultimately completely ignoring information that causes discomfort.

Some of the most common retorts go something like this: Stop living in the past. Get over it. Slavery was so long ago. White people were immigrants too. Why is it always about race? But, we’re equal now!

The defenses come up when we begin discussing how white people benefit from white supremacy. This is not an accusation that the individuals’ family were slave owners, stole Mexican lands, killed Native Americans, or serve as minutemen on the border killing immigrants. However, it’s an attempt to hold a broader discussion on how white supremacy has built a system in this country (and around the world) where those who pass for white or give into the system of capitalist exploitation, imperialist nationalism, and patriarchical control reap the most benefits. So, the discussion shifts to how regardless of one’s involvement in building this racist system we are all ultimately caught up in it and many people reinforce it and benefit from it passively.

When people choose to ignore truths that strip away the comforts of their reality it becomes difficult to have an honest conversation. They ignore the reality we live. They ignore the ghettos. They ignore the unarmed black kids being shot by cops. They ignore the millions incarcerated by a justice system heavily stacked against the poor (including whites) and people of color. It’s easy to ignore these things when it is not a part of your reality.

Jay Smooth explains that the best way to confront folks like this is to explain that what they are saying is racist, and that you are not accusing them of being racist. Oftentimes, it is difficult to even get to a point in the conversation where that could happen. I’m not in the business of teaching people to understand their privilege. Yet, it is all of our responsibility to confront ignorance and racism in our own ways. Being combative won’t solve problems, and many times the truth hurts folks who have constructed a colorblind world in which every individual is judged only by the content of their character. Unfortunately, they ignore the fact that the color of our skin still very much effects how this society will chew us up and spit us out.

So, I can’t stop living in the past because my people, my friends, and my family don’t have the option of turning off the consequences of history. People can’t just leave the projects. People can’t just find work in some of the poorest countries in the world. People can’t just follow the law when it is designed to persecute and punish them for the color of their skin and the poverty they live in.

I can’t stop living in the past until you learn from it.

Electoral Politics for Marginalized Peoples

September 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

There’s really no need to go into what was wrong with the Republican National Convention, and this won’t be a post decrying the Democrats and begging folks not to vote Dem this year. This is some real talk.

Thanks to the amazing folks at Black Girl Dangerous for reminding us of some very pertinent words uttered by Malcolm X with regards to a Democratic President (Kennedy) who was supposed to change the world, “…Any time you throw your weight behind a political party that controls two-thirds of the government and that party can’t keep the promise that it made to you during election time, and you’re dumb enough to walk around continuing to identify yourself with that party…aw, I say, you been misled. You been had. You been took.”

Now, yes the Democratic Party is more inclusive of people of color. But, that doesn’t mean it prioritizes the needs of the marginalized. Where are the rallying cries to tackle the black unemployment rate? Which is higher than the national average. Where’s the real immigration reform that doesn’t toss kids and young adults work authorization with no path to citizenship? Where’s the real end to the wars? Including an end to the drone strikes which are breeding more people who hate the US? Where are the trade agreements that don’t facilitate the devastation of the working poor and the environment around the world? Where’s the bailout for the failing schools around the country? Where are the jail cells for the bankers and financial consultants who brought the capitalist world to its knees?

None of this is politically expedient for a party more interested in preserving power than in governing. Now this is true of both parties, which is why we had 2 years of Republican backed anti-choice, xenophobic, and homophobic legislation.

However, I will not sit here and identify as a Democrat when this is the party who convinced its rank and file that promoting the interests of the marginalized who got them into office just isn’t good politics for a President seeking a second term. Now, the argument here becomes that Obama will be a much more honest second term President if we award him with power for 4 more years.

We’ve given into the game. We’ve given into the game where we accept that the priorities of the single Latina mother, working poor black family, transgender folks, the millions of incarcerated people, native peoples, and countless innocent victims of US sponsored violence the world over should just wait until a Democratic President hits their second term to get what they want.

POC, LGBTQ people, wimmin, and other marginalized peoples do have a real interest in voting Democratic: temporary self preservation. The alternative is victory for a party that will actively attack our communities with stand your ground gun laws, racist stop and frisk policies, social policies that criminalize lgbtq people, and the crippling of the safety net for the working poor. However, we are forced to accept the active neglect of the Democrats who have sacrificed their voting base with DOMA, countless free trade agreements which perpetuate the migration of the working poor, welfare reform that penalized the poor, half-hearted healthcare reform, no real immigration reform, the expansion of illegal wars through drone strikes, and the failure to take on tough legislation until it becomes politically expedient.

It’s important for us to vote to stave off those who seek to preserve a wholly unequal, racist, and imperialist nation. Yet, it’s more important to put the fire under those who are considered our allies so we are not merely pawns to utilize come election time but viewed as people who are affected by the life and death decisions they make in their comfy seats in Washington. This is the game we’ve been forced into by a monopolized political system that will continue to sacrifice us.

Let us again remember Malcolm, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it out all the way, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made…”

A snapshot of the fight for NYC’s Car Wash Workers

July 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Make the Road NY members rally outside of LMC Car Wash in Astoria, Queens (photo: Kevin Varela)

Que queremos? Un sueldo justo! Cuando lo queremos? Ahora!

It’s been a long campaign with a coalition of organizations throwing their all behind a team of organizers hoping to find leaders willing to organize and possibly unionize the lawless world of New York’s Car Washes. Illegally low wages, abused workers, unpaid overtime, no spread of hours, hazardous chemicals with no protective gear, and absolutely no job security. These are what await the majority of New York City’s Car Wash workers who are increasingly Latin@ and many times undocumented.

Make the Road NY targeted one of the car washes in Astoria, Queens yesterday. LMC Astoria is owned by John Lage, who according to the NY Daily News, lives in a $900,000 lakefront home in Westchester while most of his workers make less than minimum wage and work with no protective gear surrounded by dangerous chemicals. Lage holds stakes in over 20 car washes in New York City. He and his associates are currently being investigated by NY Attorney General Eric Schneidermann.

In order to show Lage that the community is supporting the organization and unionization efforts of the workers at the Car Wash, members of Make the Road New York rallied in front of LMC Astoria. Four workers from LMC led the rally in front of the car wash yesterday with all of them taking turns speaking out against the conditions they work under. The workers and Make the Road are hoping to put the pressure on Lage to take the demands and concerns of the workers seriously. The process of justice through the judicial system may be prolonged, so allowing Lage to get comfortable with the continued abuse of his workers is not permissible.

A large part of the car wash workers in New York City are migrants, many of them undocumented. This is a fight that is bigger than a car wash, bigger than these workers, bigger than the unions. This is a fight begun by the colonial process in the home countries of so many of these workers that led them to leave home for hope. Now that they are here the struggle for the right to a living wage, safe work conditions, the right to a decent job, and the struggle for hope is far from over but they will not take the abuse.

(Full Disclosure: I work as an employee of Make the Road New York’s Legal Services Department)

Brazilian Truth Commission to investigate crimes of Dictatorship

June 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

After years of deliberation and debate Brazil is set to inaugurate its Truth Commission to probe the abuses committed during the years of military rule.

Ieda Akselrud de Seixas, who survived tortured similar to that inflicted upon Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, stated, “This commission could just be another step [towards justice], but I want the torturers to be judged.”

Dilma Rousseff and her predecessors at the ceremony for the Truth Commission (photo: Tercerainformacion.es)

Akselrud de Seixas, Rousseff, and countless others were tortured, imprisoned, and in many cases murdered by the Brazilian State in a common story of the military’s fight against Communism during the Cold War. President Rousseff, for example, was imprisoned for being an activist with leftist organizations that opposed the military dictatorships of the 1960s and 70s. Rousseff was beaten, tortured, and spent two years in jail.

27 years after the end of military rule in Brazil, a State commission charged with uncovering the truth about crimes committed during the period of 1964-1985 will finally begin its’ work. To aid the commission President Rousseff recently signed into law a bill that would provide the commission with liberal access to documents from the time period.

However, much work on the crimes of the Brazilian military state was completed and published shortly after the transition to civilian rule. Promulgated by the Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Cardenal Paulo Evaristo Arns, and Presbyterian Reverend Jaime Wright, the project titled “Brazil Never Again” was published in 1985. This report detailed the crimes of the dictatorship against activists and citizens. Some of the crimes implicated CIA agent Dan Mitrione who trained hundreds of Brazilian police and intelligence agents on torture methods. The report details that in some cases Mitrione’s torture experiments would use children and activists picked up on the streets of Bello Horizonte.

Rousseff was joined by every living President of the democratic era in Brazil when announcing the beginning of the Truth Commission’s work. Despite such wide approval of the commission there is a lot of push back coming from the Brazilian military and its political allies. Conservative members of the National Assembly see the commission as an attack on the integrity of the Brazilian armed forces and a witch hunt that may only polarize the country. This argument is an affront to those who were disappeared by the armed forces, because their relatives were killed and tortured without impunity, without reason, and no one was ever held accountable.

If those responsible in the military are never held accountable then there will be no precedent should Brazil ever find itself under military rule again. Those in power will have proven to be above the law and beyond prosecution for some of the worst crimes against humanity. Not prosecuting those responsible is an affront to the Brazilian justice system, the democratic process, the survivors of torture, and the families of those disappeared and murdered by the military. The political public relations game being played by those who wish to stifle the commission just proves it’s so much easier to beg for national unity and forgiveness after political enemies have been silenced forever.

Brazil’s commission will be following precedents set in South Africa, El Salvador, Argentina, and Chile among many others. However, a general amnesty passed into law shortly after the transition to civilian rule prevents the prosecution of those responsible for the policies that terrorized the people in the name of fighting Communism.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has pointed to this amnesty as a barrier to justice in Brazil. Yet, President Rousseff and her allies have pointed out that this Commission is only charged with finding the truth to aid in the process of reconciliation in Brazil. There may yet be hope that laws can be changed and those in power may finally be held accountable for their actions.

The Non-Aligned Movement may need a new path

June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of States was created during the Cold War as many southern states began to attempt to throw off the shackles of the Western colonial powers. The NAM began as a political organization meant to not take sides in the Cold War and focus on the development, independence, and pacification of their member states. However, the realities of the Cold War prevented any of this from ever happening.

The NAM is to meet this year in Tehran and discuss the “promotion and preservation of multilaterialism; follow-up to the Millennium Declaration and the outcomes of major United Nations (UN) summits and conferences; the reform of the UN; disarmament; as well as international security.” If the NAM wants to become a real alternative to the Western dominated economic and political system then it would be privy to not allow non-democratic states a prominent role in the promotion of the organization.

Iran has formally invited Nicaragua to the gathering in Tehran. Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua has seen the gradual erosion of the separation of government powers, shady political deals, and the continued economic exploitation of one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere. A truly democratic NAM could pressure Ortega to stay true to the revolutionary principles that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.

While Nicaragua’s participation does not necessarily bring into question the democratic nature of the NAM, the active participation of Syria does. Syria has been systematically murdering its own citizens and preventing a democratic process from taking root in the nation. Just last week a massacre was reported in the city of Houla.

Seeking the input on UN reform, multilateralism, and disarmament of one of the most blatantly violent and repressive state machines on the planet seems counterproductive. The non-aligned movement did not (officially) take sides in the Western Cold War for power and control of the world; It should take sides when a member state is terrorizing its citizens for pursuing what began as a peaceful democratic process.

The end of the Cold War, the beginning of the decline of the U.S. Empire, and the birth of a multipolar world may yet provide a new role for the NAM, if only it can figure out principles with which to hold its membership accountable.

IMF suggests Nicaragua cut higher education funding

May 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

The 6% march that annually runs through Managua is known as a violent rallying cry against government mismanagement of education funding. The marches are typically led by university students and serve as a warning to the politicians in the National Assembly to refrain from cutting the 6% of the national budget that is allocated to funding higher education in Nicaragua. This 6% allocation is enshrined in the Nicaraguan Constitution. However, the march this year was not targeted at the government in Managua, but at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Students and allies march through the streets of Managua (photo: EFE)

The IMF recently completed it’s economic assessment mission in Nicaragua and released a series of recommendations that the government should comply with in order to increase growth of national gross domestic product (GDP). One of the IMF’s recommendations asked the government in Managua to cut funding to higher education and redistribute it to primary and secondary education funding. This appears to be an affront by an international organization on the sovereign interests of a poor nation. In some ways it is. The IMF mission must know that higher education is protected in the Nicaraguan Constitution and that the suggestion of redistribution would be confrontational at the least. Nicaragua is also a nation that has been reeling from IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs since the early 1990s.

A series of conservative governments and the newly neoliberalized administration of former Revolutionary Daniel Ortega have sufficiently sold out the people of Nicaragua to the international monetary organizations and private banks.

While the IMF’s recommendation to cut higher education may not seem entirely offensive and irresponsible, this is another suggestion by one of the organizations that have been facilitating the exploitation of labor and resources in Nicaragua. After 20 years of structural adjustment and neoliberal reforms Nicaragua doesn’t have much to show for it, except for highly concentrated wealth in the hands of a few folks in Managua.

It was striking to many students that the protest was supported by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the former revolutionary party. In the past, FSLN Deputies have been pelted by students and cries against the FSLN and other Nicaraguan political parties would typically ring out from the march.

It is the policies and recommendations of the IMF, World Bank, and the neoliberal government of Daniel Ortega that continue to keep Nicaragua as a periphery state with only two resources worth exploiting: labor and raw materials. The students and the poor of Nicaragua are the ones struggling every day to build new lives among the ashes of neoliberal capitalism, and they will see through the lies and distortions of Ortega. History will not absolve Ortega’s lust for power and how he has sold Nicaragua to get it. The students, the poor, the wimmin, and the children left behind by Chamorro, Alemán, Bolaños, and Ortega will not forget who has dealt them these cards.

Why prosecuting Ríos Montt matters

May 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Guatemalan Civil War spanned 36 years. The casualties of this 36 year struggle that had its’ support from the free and democratic United States? Over 200,000 Guatemalan Maya, including thousands of young wimmin, men, and infants. What was won? A subjugated nation held in check by brutal leaders whose only concern was maintaining power and allowing the free flow of resources to the Western nations.

Efraín Ríos Montt sitting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Now, one of those dictators, Efraín Ríos Montt, may finally have to answer for his authorization of and complicity in the mass killings and disappearances of thousands of people during his 17-month rule between 1982-83. Guatemala’s civil war saw several grabs for power by right-wing Generals; Ríos Montt was unable to keep hold of that power. However, while the other elites were able to compete and wrestle power from Ríos Montt, the indigenous peoples of Guatemala could not compete with the power and terrorism of the U.S.-funded Guatemalan state.

Under Ríos Montt over 1,700 Maya were murdered and over 29,000 displaced. Defense lawyers are claiming that since he was not present during these murders he cannot be held accountable for the deaths and abuse of native peoples. Yet, as leader of the armed forces he is ultimately responsible for all of the actions taken by the military. He has been able to evade prosecution as Guatemalan law provides immunity for currently serving members of the government, and Ríos Montt held a seat in the National Assembly for 15 years. After his failed presidential bid last year, he was put under house arrest and appeared at a hearing in January of this year where Judge Patricia Flores ruled that he must stand trial for genocide.

This will be the first time a former Latin American dictator is tried for genocide. Ríos Montt’s government oversaw some of the most horrific abuses of power, especially in the community of Dos Erres, where 67 children under the age of 12 were brutally murdered. Yet, he was only in power for a little over a year and a half and the crimes of the Guatemalan Civil War span 34.5 more years.

The prosecution has claimed it will use interviews given by Ríos Montt and declassified government documents that prove the entire chain of command condoned, authorized, and was complicit in the displacement and murders in question. Other Guatemalan Generals have used the defense that they cannot keep track of the entire chain of command, yet in an interview for the film Granito: How to nail a Dictator, Ríos Montt claimed, “If I can’t control the Army, then what am I doing here?” A statement like this betrays how tight of a ship Ríos Montt ran when he ruled Guatemala.

Ríos Montt’s prosecution may end the impunity with which some of Guatemala’s worst criminals avoid the justice system, and this may extend to the rest of America Latina. This process may even begin to change the dynamic between race and power in Guatemala. The nation has the largest native indigenous population in the Americas with over 50% of the Guatemalan population being of different Mayan ethnicities. Yet, this is not reflected in the institutions of power nor in the decision making of the leaders at the top. The Maya live as an underclass to the mestizo and ladino populations of Guatemala. Taking down these ruthless murderers will not only begin the healing process for the nation, but hopefully it will also begin a critical debate on how the same notions of racial superiority and unrestrained power not only decimated a people but continue to poison the national discourse.

Guatemala has another hard-line military man in power. Otto Perez Molina was elected last year on a platform of national security against the looming Drug War. Let us hope this General is paying attention to what is befalling his predecessor.

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