Our place in history ...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Extended version of submission to Washington Post's "America's Next Great Pundit" contest:

Racism is sin. Not a sin, but the very definition of it. All men and women are guilty, finite, fallible, fallen, and in need of salvation. Unfortunately, the language we need to come to terms with and vanquish it is not that of the Messiah. Even after the elections of Nelson Mandela, Evo Morales, and Barack Obama, there’s nothing messianic or even millennial at play. There are prophets false and true. That is certain. But there is no serpent circling the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to pin the blame on. And there appear to be very few revelations about its genesis in the pipeline.

Racism is sin because history is sin. To paraphrase Jack Kennedy and Tupac Shakur, every generation, every individual, is born into a world not of his or her creation. And that birth is one marked by the pain of parting, as well as arrival. Baptism cleanses the inheritance of original sin, and leaves us with the burden of the sin we generate through the exercise of our own free will. Yet there is no such anointing that can cleanse us from history. And there is no savior to turn to, when our own free will leads us into the terrain of venial and mortal racism. Because confessing to racism fails to absolve us, we deny it.

Joe Wilson’s interruption of the President’s address was racism free, of course. It had nothing to do with Barack Obama’s racial identity. He was upset because a legislative option in the House of Representatives failed to guarantee that undocumented immigrants would be denied access to preventative care. This concern is also one that has nothing to do with the likely race of those without documentation. Those kids were not turned away from that pool in Philadelphia because they were African American and Latino. The well-to-do whites that gave the press conference denied their racism unequivocally. We need not speak of the signs and rhetoric of Teabag, Townhall, and 9/12 event participants, Astroturfers, or Minute Men border vigilantes. Sure blackface appeared on television in Australia, and in the pages of French Vogue, but the only time we show it in the good old US of A is when Mad Men is working to remind us that the 1960s were a different time.

In the time period between discovering the double helix and itemizing its contents, science has repeatedly affirmed and underlined the fact that there is but one race, the human race. Racism is everything that tells us that there are racial categories, every document that introduces a race box for us to check, or allows someone to check one for us. The Census has been racist since the fraction of 3/5, for instance. Yet the Census allows us to identify communities that are underrepresented and underserved, to determine if there are communities disproportionately impacted by public policy. In other words, to ban all mentions or concepts of race for the sake of purging history would prove detrimental in politics, in medicine, in education, in every arena where it is important to identify inequality of opportunity or outcome.

James Crowley arrested Henry Gates in his home. In his patrol car was a computer allowing him to see the Massachusetts Driver’s License of the person residing at that address. But its data was not employed. Crowley chose to proceed uninformed. As a result, two men, aware of little more than their individual assumptions, sparked a national discussion, placing everyone from 911-caller Lucia Whalen, to the President of the United States, under the microscope of public and media scrutiny. I still scratch my head at the overemphasis on the beverages consumed at the Beer Summit, and under-emphasis on the screed Boston Police Department’s Justin Barrett sent to Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham by email. Nevertheless, the arrest serves to remind us that whenever two strangers cross paths they are not free from the weight of history. The micro-history of individuals, their experientially informed biases, unknown, defensive postures are adopted. Crowley assumes he will be accused and dismisses Gates’ objections. Gates assumes Crowley will victimize him. Both are guilty of racism. Everyone is—as we are all guilty of sin.

On an individual level this is the most difficult notion to accept. The empirical evidence is overwhelming that decisions made by elites of European descent from the colonial era to the Cold War, inform the language of our discussion. There is no African Diaspora without the slave trade. There is no pan-indigenous identity or mestizaje without genocide. There can be no denying that being born with fair skin affords privileges similar to those afforded by being born male, or being born affluent. Yet two people interacting are simply that—two individuals with the opportunity to transcend the burdens and responsibilities of history. Each person has the choice to acknowledge racism, and employ free will to build bridges, the opportunity to conquer the divide between whites and people of color, or the divide within communities of color driven by differences in culture, language, religion, skin tone, hair texture, eye shape and pigmentation. Sometimes those two succeed, bridges are built, and sin is vanquished. Or they fail. But it’s not always their fault.

It’s hard to find someone to love—even harder to find someone who loves you back. Sisyphus has a better boulder versus hill success rate than most of us have in the relationship department. And although half of marriages end in divorce, most of us heterosexuals believe that if we can find someone to commit to us, we can get an, “I do,” under our belts before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Yet, when Beth Humphrey and Terence McKay, of Hammond, Louisiana, wanted a license to be wed, Justice of the Peace, Keith Bardwell refused to issue them one. Neither person was underage, or rendered incapable of making an informed decision by reason of intoxication or mental defect. However, as Bardwell told the Associated Press, “I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way… I don’t want to put the children in a situation they didn’t bring on themselves.” In his capacity as a public official sworn to the defend the Constitution of the United States of America, this judge has openly refused to marry four interracial couples in the last two years.

Already frustrated by the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, and the disheartening decision of thirty states to pass same-sex marriage bans, I‘ve spent a significant amount of time since September, preparing for the possibility that melancholy might find me out once Maine voters cast Measure 1 ballots. But I never expected this. In the courthouse where Bardwell dawns his robe, hangs the portrait of Louisiana Governor, Bobby Jindal. Would this justice of the peace deny his own governor a marriage license—the chief executive elected to enforce the laws of his state—should Jindal decide to divorce his current wife, and then seek to wed a woman who is not South Asian? More importantly, in the courtroom where he renders verdicts, this judge presides from a bench beside a portrait of President, Barack Obama. How could this man, how could any public servant, have the unmitigated gall to declare biracial children somehow problematic, when the President of the United States of America is a biracial man?

It knocks the wind out of me to think past battles must be waged again. Especially when I think of my parents. My Mexican mother and father did not witness firsthand the marches to desegregate classrooms, buses, lunch counters, and neighborhoods. They were not participants in or beneficiaries of Freedom Rides to register voters in Jim Crow America. Yet they raised me, their US born child, to believe in the virtue of these social movements. In my experience there are no bigger believers in the principles and popular history of this country, no more die hard proponents of Horatio Alger folklore, and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality than immigrants with kids. But I digress.

I can’t help but return to the idea of racism as the sin of history. A sin for which some looked upon the election of Barack Obama as a moment of salvation. It wasn’t. And to dissect voters via a racial breakdown of widely accepted exit poll data, just makes the whole thing sting worse: 95% of African Americans cast ballots for our current President, 66% of Latinos, 61% of Asians, 65% of the voters from other communities of color, but only 43% of whites—barely better than two out of five. Without confession, repentance, salvation, denying racism seems the only choice.

I know I’m just having a Chicken Little moment, and the sky isn’t really falling. After all, Valerie Willard, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Supreme Court insists that she fielded, “about eight million complaints from the public,” before Friday of last week. Beth Humphrey and Terence McKay married. My mestizo/indigenous father and Basque mother did as well. And even if whatever kids they have don’t make it from Inland Empire, CA to the Ivy League like me, or the White House like President Obama, chances are they will be just fine. Because if there is anything I learned while working as a teacher, or that has been made clear to me since becoming an organizer, it is that Americans of all backgrounds have been, and continue to be dedicated to elevating the capacity of individuals, organizations, communities, and this entire nation to make change. Perhaps providing those with such passions a platform for their voices will allow us to confront the sin of history. It couldn’t hurt.


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