local activist told me that he was having a hard time attracting a
diverse group to join progressive organizations like “Indivisible”
and others. He said that he and many of the members at the local
level had reached out to communities of color but weren’t able
to make any headway. In spite of their efforts, their members
continue to be overwhelmingly white. He wanted advice.
had already started to write this piece when he contacted me. Since
my topic was related to his query, I merged what would have been two
articles. What follows is a sort of stream of consciousness piece
that might give him or others faced with the same challenge some
weeks ago, there was a fire in our home. The fire started because I
accidentally left a pot of tea brewing on the stove and went to a
meeting with my husband.
and I returned to considerable fire damage in the kitchen in addition
to smoke and soot that affected every square inch of the
house—including inside draws, closets, toilets, and every other
place you can imagine. The insurance company sent an adjuster to the
house to see what it would take to bring it back to the condition it
was in before the fire. The adjuster said the smoke and soot alone
had caused enough damage that the cost could possibly rise to
was surprised but thankful that we had fire insurance. While writing
and publishing on issues of social justice and progressive politics
might be gratifying, it doesn’t always pay the bills. We don’t
talk about that much but let’s just say that 99.9% of the
people reading this article will not hit the donate button.
Understanding this, we’ve made lots of concessions in our
personal lives, but one of the things I’ve tried to maintain
over the years is insurance. I haven’t always been successful,
but this time, thank goodness we’re covered - so we just
have to handle the deductible.
this piece really isn’t about the fire so much as it is about
the crew the insurance company sent to clean and remove the resulting
soot and ash from our home. The team has been at our house for two
weeks, removing soot from everything - I mean everything - the
contents of every cabinet, cupboard, closet, drawer, and file
cabinet. Every stitch of clothing we own has either been taken away
for treatment or tossed because the damage can’t be repaired.
immense undertaking has been handled by a crew of about ten people.
The crew is professional. They clearly know what they’re doing.
Dick and I have stayed in the house throughout the entire ordeal even
though we could have gone to a hotel (the insurance covers that). But
leaving home seemed like more trouble than it was worth, especially
because we have a cat. Amazingly, the team has been as unobtrusive as
is possible, under these conditions. You’d hardly know they’re
here. Their supervisor and manager have visited a couple of times to
check on the progress, but the team doesn’t seem to need any
the Other Shoe
Sounds like everything is going well? It is but you’re right if you
sense that I’m about to drop the other shoe.
here’s the thing: Every member of the soot removal crew
performing the physical labor in my home for these past two weeks is
Latinx - both male and female, including a young Latino foreman.
The manager and supervisor who have visited a couple of times are
both white men, both as helpful and forthright as you could want.
There is nothing remarkable about this race/ethnic hierarchy - it’s
seen everywhere. That history is long and enduring in spite of the
laws that give lip service to protecting certain classes of people
from discrimination. The sheer pervasiveness of this pecking order
suggests two things to me,
continues to be systemic institutionalized discrimination; and
as a nation, are pretty much okay with it.
having this team in my home every day for two weeks really got under
my skin because it laid bare one of the ways we, as a society, uphold
systemic racism and support white supremacy - oftentimes
unintentionally and involuntarily.
“un-remarkableness” of it leads to my next point.
all know the oft told story of European immigrants who arrive in the
U.S. with not much more than the shirts on their backs achieving the
American dream through hard work and sheer determination. But, turns
out, the rugged individuals who pulled themselves up by their
bootstraps got a lot of help, especially from the United States
untold in most of our history books are the many benefits the United
States granted to European immigrants and their descendants but
is said that “history is written by the victors.” Since
its inception, power in the United States has been concentrated in
the hands of white men. Their interpretation of American history has
shaped most American’s historical views. School textbooks,
public iconography, movies, encyclopedias, historical novels, and a
panoply of other mediums convey a perspective of American history
that is incomplete and oftentimes inaccurate - witness the
“rugged individual” myths.
his groundbreaking book, When
Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality
in Twentieth-Century America,
historian Ira Katznelson painstakingly demonstrates that all the key
programs passed during the New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s
and 1940s were intentionally created in a manner that would result in
whites receiving the full benefit of rising prosperity while people
of color, and specifically blacks, would be deliberately left out.
to the scholarship of contemporary historians, we now know that
federal agencies subsidized white suburban development by
guaranteeing loans to developers of places like Levittown, New York;
Lakewood, California; and many other suburban communities that sprang
up across the nation after World War II, while often requiring the
builders to refuse sales to African Americans, many of whom were
veterans who were entitled to benefit from the GI Bill but were
to Ira Katznelson, only 100 of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by
the G.I. Bill went to families of color. White families that
benefited from these racially exclusionary policies enjoyed decades
of equity appreciation that helped finance college for their children
and comfortable retirements for themselves.
like land grants for whites, whites-only labor unions, real estate
red lining, and immigration policies that excluded people of color
were openly sanctioned and enforced by the United States government.
We see the legacy of these policies today, not the least of which is
the normalization of racial and ethnic discrimination - so normal
that racially segregated tiers within the hierarchy of a company
barely raises eyebrows at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
(EEOC), the organization commissioned by the federal government
specifically to enforce discrimination in employment laws.
policies have helped to maintain what some refer to as “internal
colonialism,” a condition of racial and ethnic subordination as
prevalent today as at anytime in this country’s history.
Interestingly, the people who have been the most negatively impacted
by these policies and practices are those whose ancestors didn’t
actually immigrate to this country.
Nation of Immigrants
a side note: Every time we refer to ourselves as “a nation of
immigrants” we exclude large swaths of the population. The term
“immigrant” isn’t applicable to most of the
ancestors of today’s African Americans, Native Americans and
many Mexican Americans - the three groups subjected to the most
Mexican-American residents of what is now Arizona, California,
Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas trace their ancestry
back to the 1600s, long before those states were part of the United
States. Like the Native American population, the term immigrant
does not reflect their history or their relationship to the United
States, as is true for the vast majority of the ancestors of African
Americans who came to this country against their will in shackles.
marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 14th Amendment
yet race and ethnicity continues to be a relatively accurate
predictor of where African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans
rank in this country’s social, political and economic
the type of racism given the most media attention is the overt racial
animus that undergirds many of the police shootings of unarmed black
people or the violence directed at Native American protestors at
Standing Rock. But arguably, the kind of racism that produces the
most harm (perhaps because it is so much more pervasive and
ubiquitous) is the type that I attribute to “soft white
supremacy.” This doesn’t require a burning cross or a
violent act to be hugely impactful.
Charles Blow says soft
is divorced from hatred and violence. He maintains that detesting
violence and cruelty doesn’t mean that one truly believes that
all people are equal - culturally, intellectually, creatively, or
morally. Blow believes, as do I, that soft white supremacy is the
very thing that overt racists need in order to pursue their agendas.
contend that like most social conditions, white supremacy exists on a
continuum. I am a black woman who can count the number of times I’ve
encountered overt racism - the type that is unquestionably
intentional. The softer varieties of white supremacy and racism are
often absent intentional discrimination. It can be seen in the
silence of whites in the face of mistreatment of people of color. It
can be seen when grave racial and ethnic inequality is attributed to
“poor choices” made by black and brown people. And it can
be seen when white people lack interest in exploring, researching and
understanding racial matters.
her book, Reproducing
Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock In White Advantage,
UCLA professor and legal scholar Daria Roithmayr provocatively argues
that the openly racist policies implemented and enforced by the U.S.
Government in the past provided a “return on investment”
that has been locked in. She maintains that racial inequality lives
on because white advantage functions as a powerful self-reinforcing
monopoly, reproducing itself automatically from generation to
generation irrespective of an individual’s intent.
written in the past and will likely write in the future on the ways
that race and ethnic fracture are at the heart of the failure of the
progressive movement to have any significant traction in American
politics. Famed progressive activist and member of the Progressive
(who by the way was white), once said:
battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of
White people in this country. The fight against racism is our issue.
It’s not something that we’re called on to help People of
Color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives
depended on it because really, in truth, they do.
Americans, Native Americans and the Latinx population in this country
have always been involved in this fight as if our lives depend on it.
So, in closing, my advice to any organization struggling to
understand why it cannot successfully engage a more diverse
membership - be it a church, an activist group, a school, an
issue-based non-profit - look at where your commitment lies, look
to your mission and your actions.
your organization demonstrated through messaging and actions that it
understands the central role that race and ethnicity has played in
building systems of advantage and disadvantage? Is your organization
committed to dismantling these systems of inequality?
test of whether or not your organization has done that will be
reflected in the demographics of your membership. If your
organization has been intentional, bold, and authentic on this front,
you’ll see diversity when you look out at the faces of both
your membership and its leaders.
So, where to begin? Here is a list of resources:
– Showing Up for Racial Justice believes that racism and white
supremacy keep the many divided for the benefit of the few. They
maintain that when those of us who are white realize that racial
justice is core to our liberation as well, then masses of white
people will withdraw support from white supremacy. Together, as part
of a powerful multi-racial, cross-class movement for collective
liberation we can force the system of white supremacy to crumble.
– Alliance of White-Anti-Racists Everywhere LA: This
organization offers a course entitled, “Unmasking Whiteness”.
Learn more by going to: Unmasking