Affirmative Action, Immigration & Welfare:
The following article is taken from a speech given at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas by Paul Kivel. The article is based on his book Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice.
I'd like you to imagine a pyramid
We are experiencing large scale cutbacks in social services, tremendous corporate downsizing, exportation of jobs overseas, environmental dumping of toxic wastes, primarily in communities of color, decrease in the standard of living for most of us, hate crimes, including church burnings, physical assaults, and cross burnings, public policy attacks on communities of color, tremendous concentration of wealth and tremendous segregation in society along lines of class and race. Let's look at this political context a little more closely to see what we're up against.
I'd like you to imagine a pyramid and that pyramid will represent 100% of the population of the United States. At the very top of this pyramid imagine a tiny area, 1% of the pyramid representing 1% or 1/100th of the population. These people control 48% percent of the wealth of the richest country in the world. The net worth of each household in this group is over $3,000,000, and the annual income is over $400,000/year.
Now imagine a portion of the pyramid below this very topmost section which represents 19% of the population. This next 19% controls another 46% of the wealth of the country. The average net worth of each household is over $500,000, and the average household income is over $100,000. The total of the 1% and the 19% = 20% controls 94% of the wealth of the country.
Now if you imagine the rest of the pyramid -- 80% -- we get to divide up the leftovers, the remaining 6% of this country's wealth. This leaves us with a net worth on average of $38,000 and an average income of $23,000. In fact there is a sizable segment of the population which would actually be below the pyramid entirely, with a negative net worth. This is one of the greatest concentrations of wealth that we know of among a ruling class at any time in the history of the world. Although anti-Semitic stereotypes would have us believe there are many Jews at the top of the pyramid, a careful look at the distribution of wealth, and at political and corporate leaders in this country would reveal few Jews. Those at the top are primarily white and primarily Christian.
In the midst of this economic and political environment, our ruling class is seizing the opportunity to consolidate and extend its power by trying to rollback the civil rights achievements of the last thirty years, and the social security programs of the last 60 years.
Because of the struggles of working men and women in the streets during the depression years, the government enacted a social contract which provided for basic, minimal support for those in need, particularly for women and children in need, men out of work, the homeless, the hungry. These were safety nets to catch those for whom the economic system was unable to provide jobs and security.
Later, because of the struggles of African Americans in the 1950s and '60s, and women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, and many other groups, we expanded our understanding of who should be included in basic civil rights protections, voting rights, and equal opportunity access to jobs, education and training.
During both periods we and our foreparents fought many bloody battles to achieve those social and political gains. On the other side, from the top of the pyramid, granting those gains became strategies by the political and economic elite to curtail further social rebellion and prevent even greater changes from being made in our society.
When Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980, he stated explicitly that his goal was the rollback of the gains of the civil rights era, and even the gains made during the 1930s. The attack on affirmative action is an example of the former, and the attack of welfare is an example of the latter.
These attacks have continued through today, virtually regardless of who was president and which party they represented. Those policies have had a devastating effect in lowering our standard of living, degrading the environment, exporting jobs, blaming people of color and women, and distorting the very language we use to talk about civil rights, equal opportunity and oppression. I am referring primarily to our domestic situation but I need to acknowledge the even more severe impact these policies have had on the lives of people in third world countries, not limited to but including our military invasions and support of war in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, East Timor, Nicaragua, and most recently Iraq, to name just a few.
During this time racism has flourished
During this time racism has flourished. The reasons are very simple. It has been politically expedient and it ties in with longstanding cultural and social traditions in our country of blaming people of color for our social and economic problems to keep our attention away from those who are getting richer and richer.
Racism works by keeping people of color the center of attention, and white, ruling class men the center of power.
I want to repeat this because it is very important. Racism works by keeping people of color the center of attention, and white, ruling class men the center of power.
I want to be very clear that this is true regardless of our leader's political affiliation. With this kind of concentration of wealth and control by the ruling class we will get attacks on affirmative action, treaties like NAFTA and GATT, welfare bills like that just enacted, and wars and intrusions overseas from Democrats and Republicans alike.
This creates the climate in which hate crimes of all kinds thrive. This creates the climate in which predominately black churches are defaced and burned and abortion clinics are bombed. This creates the climate which allows the media to downplay and minimize the violence and claim that it has been over exaggerated and dramatized. This creates the climate in which we can get distracted by discussions of political correctness rather than having discussions about social justice.
This is the climate in which we must talk about racism, which I now want to do for a few minutes. What is racism? Racism is often described as a problem of prejudice. Prejudice is certainly one result of racism, and it fuels further acts of violence towards people of color. However my assumption is that racism is the institutionalization of social injustice based on skin color, other physical characteristics, and cultural and religious difference. White racism is the uneven and unfair distribution of power, privilege, land and material goods favoring white people. Although we can and should all become more tolerant and understanding of each other, only justice will eliminate racism.
To illustrate just how pervasive racism is, and to give you some concrete examples to work with I want to do a couple of exercises with you. In this first I will read some sentences and I'd like you just to sit back, relax and notice whatever images, pictures or ideas come to mind.
Are all these people white? What ideas or images come to mind when you heard these sentences? I will read some of these sentences again. this time imagine that the people referred to are Chinese Americans. (Reread the ones marked C).
Does that change the meanings?
Try making them Native American. (The sentences marked NA).
How does that change the meaning?
If you are not Jewish, what happens when you make them Jewish? The sentences marked (J).
In reality, we would have to specify they are Chinese American, Native American or Jewish because we would not automatically assume they were. This is an indication of how pervasive and deep rooted racism is--how it goes far beyond our personal attitudes or prejudices.
we have been led to believe that racism is a question of particular acts of discrimination or violence. Calling someone a name, denying someone a job, excluding someone from a neighborhood--that is racism. These certainly are acts of racism. But what about living in a white suburb where people of color are excluded or harassed? What about working in an organization where people of color are paid less, have more menial work or fewer opportunities for advancement? Racism affects each and every aspect of our lives, all the time, whether people of color are present or not.
People of color know this intimately. They know that where they live, work and walk, who they talk with and how, what they read, listen to or watch on TV, their past experiences and future possibilities are all influenced by racism.
So far, we have been talking about language and language is important because it affects the way we see the world. However for those of us who are white, we can understand how pervasive racism is without actually seeing how it affects our own lives and opportunities. Without making the connection to our own lives we cling to myths of equal opportunity, level playing fields, and the belief that hard work makes all the difference.
It is not that white Americans have not worked hard and built much. We have. But we did not start out from scratch. We went to segregated schools and universities built with public money. We received school loans, VA loans, housing and auto loans when people of color were excluded or heavily discriminated against. We received federal jobs, military jobs and contracts when only whites were allowed. We were accepted into apprenticeships, training programs and unions when access for people of color was restricted or nonexistent.
The misconception that we are all given equal opportunities
Much of the rhetoric against more active policies for racial justice stem from the misconception that we are all given equal opportunities and start from a level playing field. We often don't even see the benefits we have received from racism. We claim that they are not there.
I want to do another exercise with those of you who are white here. I'd like to ask the people of color to just observe this exercise. This is called a standup exercise--I'm going to read a series of statements and I'd like you to standup if a statement applies to you. Stand up, notice any feelings you have about the statement, look around to see who is standing with you, and then I will ask you to sit down while I read another statement. I will read each statement twice, figure out for yourself whether it applies to you. I would like to do this exercise in silence so that we can each notice what feelings come up for us without being distracted by comments, jokes, or other sounds. I'd like all the white people to participate in the exercise, although you have the right to pass on particular statements if you don't feel comfortable standing. If you are physically unable to stand please raise you hand for each question that applies to you.
This exercise can make some of us feel guilty for the benefits we have gained from racism. But this is not a useful response. We need to remember that we did not create the circumstances in which we stood for any of those statements. We are not responsible for racism -- it existed long before us. It continues to persist and to be reinforced and therefore we are responsible for what we do about it. Recognizing our full participation in it is a valuable first step in deciding to work against it.
Again, the purpose of this checklist is not to discount what we, our families and foreparents have achieved. But we do need to question any assumptions we retain that everyone started out with equal opportunity.
You may be thinking at this point, If I'm doing so well how come I'm barely making it? Some of the benefits listed above are money in the bank for each and every one of us. Some of us have bigger bank accounts--much bigger. Remember the economic pyramid I talked about earlier.
In 1995, women generally made about 74 cents for every dollar that men made. People with disabilities, people with less formal education, and people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual are generally discriminated against in major ways. Benefits from racism are amplified or diminished by our relative privilege. All of us benefit in some ways from whiteness, but some of us have cornered the market on significant benefits from being white to the exclusion of the rest of us.
Racism has a profound negative effect upon our lives
We have now come to the point of awareness where white people get stuck. We become overwhelmed by our knowledge of the devastating inequality of racism. We may feel upset, confused, angry, sad, frustrated, guilty, hopeless, or helpless. We tend to take it very personally and to indulge in our feelings. This is not about whether you are racist or not, or whether all white people are racist or not. We are not conducting a moral inventory of ourselves, nor creating a moral standard to divide other white people from us.
To avoid being called racist we may claim that we don't notice color and don't treat people differently based on color. However, we all notice color in just about every situation we're in. It's not useful or honest for any of us to claim that we don't.
The only way to treat people with dignity and justice is to recognize that racism has a profound negative effect upon our lives, and therefore noticing color helps to counteract that effect. Instead of being color neutral we need to notice much more acutely and insightfully exactly the difference that color makes in the way people are treated.
Just as it's not useful to label ourselves racist or not, it is not useful to label each other. Because racism operates institutionally, to the benefit of all white people, we are connected to the acts of other white people.
Of course we're not members of the Klan or other extremist groups. Of course we watch what we say and don't make rude racial comments. But dissociating from white people who do is not the answer. We need to dissociate from their actions and challenge their beliefs. We can't challenge them, or even speak to them if we have separated ourselves from them, creating some magical line with the racists on that side and ourselves over here. This division leads to an ineffective strategy of trying to pull as many people as possible over to our (non-racist and therefore superior) side. Other white people will listen to us better, and be more influenced by our actions when we identify with them.
Perhaps more importantly, the people who are more visibly saying or doing things that are racist are usually more scared, more confused and less powerful than we are. (Or, they are trying to increase their own power by manipulating racial fears.) Since racism leads to scapegoating people of color for social and personal problems, we are all susceptible to resorting to racial scapegoating in times of trouble and I will return to this dynamic shortly. Visible acts of racism are, at least in part, in indication of the lack of power that a white person or group of people have to camouflage their actions. More powerful and well off people can simply move to segregated neighborhoods, or make corporate decisions that are harder to see and analyze as contributing to racism. Since the racism of the wealthy is less visible to us, those of us who are middle class can inadvertently scapegoat poor and working class white people for being more overtly racist, just as most white people scapegoat people of color. Scapegoating is devastating to the white community in two primary ways.
People of color have long been portrayed as economic threats to white Americans. We have heard and perhaps used phrases like, "They will do anything." "They work for less." "They take away our jobs." "They are a drain on our economic system, eating up benefits."
In fact, people of color don't make most of the economic decisions that affect our jobs and livelihoods. Closing factories and moving them to "cheaper" parts of the country or abroad, busting unions, blocking increases in the minimum wage, decreasing health care and other benefits--these are all intentional attempts by the wealthy, who are predominately white, to increase profits and personal gain. This results in real decreases in our standard of living. Keeping our attention on people of color, including recent immigrants diverts our attention from the people who have been getting richer while we have been getting poorer.
I should mention here that one way racism and anti-Semitism interconnect is that Jews are also portrayed as economic threats to white Christians. Working and middle class whites are led to believe they are squeezed between better off Jews who will exploit them, and worse off people of color who will rip them off.
The second way racism turns our attention away from real exploitation and danger is by creating myths about family violence and sexual assault. We are taught that men of color and men from other cultures are dangerous. We have stereotypes about rapists being dark i.e. black strangers in alleys, about Asian men being devious and dishonest, about Latinos being physically and sexually dangerous. Racism has produced myths about every group of non-white, non-mainstream men being dangerous to white women and children.
The reality is that approximately 80 percent of sexual violence is committed within the same racial group by heterosexual men who know their victim. Those of us who are white and our children are tremendously more likely to be beat up, sexually assaulted or abused by heterosexual white men than by anyone else.
Despite this reality, we continue to believe that we need to protect ourselves from men who are different. We justify public policies which disproportionately lock up men of color, primarily Latino and African American men, but these changes do not make it appreciably safe for us. Because we are led to believe that we need "our" men to protect us from men "out there," we are slow to respond to the violence of men in our family and dating relationships.
In other words, racism makes us vulnerable to economic exploitation and violence from other white people. Current public policy issues, a couple of which I will talk about in a few minutes, are excellent examples of just how this dynamic works.
(I have been referring mostly to racism but we could be looking at sexism with the same lens. However, I think that it is important to take one issue and look at it in depth to better understand how the whole system works. Once we understand the systematic nature of these issues we can decide how to move past our stuck places to become allies to people of color.)
Allies in the struggle for social justice
Being allies in the struggle for social justice is one of the most important things we can do. There is no one correct way to be an ally. Each of us is different. We have different relationships to social organizations, political processes and economic structures. Being an ally is an ongoing strategic process in which we look at our personal and social resources, evaluate the environment and decide what needs to be done. In order to do this well we must listen to people of color so that we can support the actions they take, the risks they bear in defending their lives and challenging white male hegemony.
I want to suggest 6 general guidelines for being a strong effective ally before I conclude with a look at current public policy issues.
You will not end oppression by yourself. We can do it if we work together. Build support, establish networks, work with already established groups.
Affirmative action and welfare
Let's take a brief look at public policy issues to understand how to critically analyze how they are framed and to demystify the vocabulary that is being used to describe them. I want to look at two issues, affirmative action and welfare because they are good current examples of how racism and sexism operate.
Affirmative action does work. It has produced opportunities for jobs, education and training for tens of thousands of people of color, white women, and poor and working class white men. Although often not enforced strongly, affirmative action programs have broken down longstanding barriers based on persistent and ongoing discrimination that many in our society face. Affirmative action for white males is an old tradition in American society. Veteran preferences, Alumni preferences, homeowner preferences in the form of home mortgage deductions, student deferments during the Vietnam war, and hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies for manufacturers, farmers, mining and logging companies, including a $300 billion bailout of the Savings and Loan industry are all forms of affirmative action for white men. I am not going to argue whether each of these is good or bad. But it is clear that affirmative action is only being challenged as we have extended it to people of color and white women. This kind of double standard is exactly how racism and sexism work.
At the same time, as corporate and political leaders have moved jobs overseas, cut back funding for education and destroyed our communities, the attackers of affirmative action are blaming people of color, recent immigrants and women for the lack of jobs, training opportunities and educational opportunities for all those who need them.
Similarly for welfare "reform". We are directed to blame women on welfare making $4-5,000/year instead of corporate executives making $4-500,000/year. We can see, with Clinton's signing of the welfare bill which the Republicans crafted that we have to go back to that economic pyramid to understand why they stand together on issues like this. We can also see clearly the mystification at work where the coded language of racism leads us to conclude that we are talking primarily about African American women when the majority of women on welfare are white, and the coded language of sexism leads us to blame women when 2/3 of welfare recipients are children.
We need to learn to critically analyze public policy issues like these to understand how race and gender are crafted to distract our attention from the source of our problems and shift blame to those who are not responsible. Some of the questions we need to ask are:
How are people organizing to address this problem in a more progressive way? How are people organizing to resist any racial backlash this issue might represent?
How can I become involved
The final question we need to ask is, "How can I become involved in addressing this problem?"
I hope by now you understand how the issue is social justice, not our personal prejudices, and that if we are to make a difference we need to maintain an institutional focus.
One of the contexts for our coming together here tonight is the ongoing, dramatic events that highlight racial hatred. Uprisings in Los Angeles and Miami, church burnings of predominately black churches in the south and last week the firebombing of the offices of a Black newspaper in Mississippi, police brutality against people of color in LA, Philadelphia, and New York. There is often intense, but brief media attention on these events, brining them into our living rooms on the evening news, making it seem like these are problems elsewhere. There is some danger in that media coverage, although it does bring to our attention important events.
First of all, there have always been black churches burned in the south by white people. There is longstanding, daily violence against people of color trying to go about their business, police brutality is no new occurrence. It is not as if there has ever been a lull in the violence that white people direct at people of color for trying to gain full, equal rights in this country. Every year the lists of hate crimes against people of color (and against women and Jews and Lesbians, gays and bisexuals) includes church burnings, cross burnings, physical attacks, harassment, arson, rape, and murder. Nor are these crimes limited to somewhere out there, which brings me to a second point.
Hate crimes, discrimination, harassment and violence occur regularly throughout our country and we can easily be lulled into thinking they are only a problem somewhere else. I grew up in the late 1950s hearing about the civil rights struggles in the South, and believing that that was where the problem was. It was only when my parents sold our house in a white community in Los Angeles to a Japanese family, and we experienced hate calls, threats and harassment, did I realize that racism is not limited to somewhere else. So, before we all rush off somewhere else to fight against racism we probably have some work to do in our own community.
Our focus should be at home for another reason. We are each most effective where we are already connected in our lives in our workplaces, schools, neighborhood, community organizations and families. For example, most of you are related to this university/college, to this campus, to this community. One place to begin is to evaluate or assess where racism is happening here. Who has power to make significant decisions on this campus? How is hiring done? Who is promoted/who isn't. Is there sexual or racial harassment. What is the curriculum like? What is the composition of the faculty. Talk with other white people, reach out to people of color and make plans, devise strategy, take action. There is probably racial injustice on this campus and people of color can point it out very easily.
In any kind of action start where you are? Build alliances. Don't do it alone. Work with others.
Think to yourself for a moment. Who are family and friends you could talk with about doing racial justice work? Who will you talk with first?
Who are co-workers or fellow students who might help you form a racial justice action/support network? Who will you talk with first?
Name one network, action committee or support group or task force that you are going to join.
I want to share some information about a group that I have been involved with in California. As many of you know, there was a proposition on the California ballot, prop. 209, which eliminated all affirmative action programs in the state. The proposition was labeled the California Civil Rights Initiative in a blatant attempt to co-opt the language of the Civil Rights movement and to confuse people. When this initiative was first proposed a group of white men were talking about the attacks on affirmative action and realized that they had all benefited themselves from such programs. They wanted to do something -- to reclaim this issue as a white issue, and counter the deceptive and divisive tactics of the conservatives. We named ourselves Angry White Guys for Affirmative Action and began speaking and organizing in white communities in the rural and suburban areas of Northern California where we were based. We quickly gained publicity on the issue, dispelled lies and provided information and inspiration for other white people who were also concerned about the issue. We also conducted a walk of hope from church to church to synagogue in the white suburbs of the San Francisco Bay area to speak directly to our white brothers and sisters.
This is just one example of how white people can challenge other white people, starting from where we are and the connections we already have.
Unlearn prejudice, broaden our understanding of racism
I want to conclude with a story. A few years ago my colleagues and I did some training in Ohio and then returned six months later for a follow-up session. To start the workshop we asked the participants to talk about how the previous workshop had affected them.
I sat listening to several people describe how the workshop had changed their understanding of racism, how it had affected their relationships with co-workers and how it had sensitized them to racial injustice in their community. I was pleased that our work had a positive impact, but was a little uneasy without knowing why. Finally a white man, Mark, began to speak.
He said, "That workshop has influenced me in more ways than I can say. But I think it made the biggest difference at work. This fall we needed to hire five new staff (he works at a large county social service agency) and I made sure that three of those five people were people of color because our staff has been mostly white until now.
That's it," I said to myself, realizing what had been missing from the others' accounts.
It is important for us to unlearn prejudice, broaden our understanding of racism and learn to recognize injustice when we see it. But unless we are actively involved in the fight against racism we haven't taken it far enough. We must understand the complexities of how racism works without becoming paralyzed by our understanding. We must acknowledge the depth of our emotional response to racism without becoming paralyzed by our feelings. Mark understood that he needed to take his awareness and turn it into concrete action. He changed his workplace. You can have a similar impact.
This is an election year. I want to remind you to vote and keep the heat and pressure on our politicians. You can also join with the network of peace and justice activists in this area. There are campus based individuals and organizations addressing issues of racial justice.
There is a long and glorious history of white people working as allies of people of color for liberation. You can join and strengthen the efforts of vast numbers of people who have always fought for social justice.
I want to leave you with a quote from my own Jewish tradition. It is from the fifth century Rabbi Tarfon and it goes:
It is not upon you to finish the work.
Neither are you free to desist from it.
Adapted from Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel, ©1998. Used with permission. To order, send $16.95 plus $3.50 shipping to New Society Publishers, 4527 Springfield Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19143, or call (800) 333-9093. To arrange a workshop, call Paul Kivel at (510) 654-3015.
About the author: Paul Kivel has long been an active participant in the movement to end violence. He has developed and conducted hundreds of workshops concerning racism, sexual assault, male/female relations, and alternatives to violence; was a co-founder of the Oakland Men's Project; and is the author of Men's Work: How to Stop the Violence that Tears Our Lives Apart and Helping Teens Stop Violence. He lives in Oakland with his partner and three children.
|Published in In Motion Magazine November 15, 1998.
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