Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 8: Anti-Racism Is Political

Hi friends,

Before we start today, we want to take a moment to acknowledge the legacy of Civil Rights leader and Representative John Lewis. Rep. Lewis was and forever will be a force in this nation. Known for his instinctive vigilance but stubborn hopefulness, Rep. Lewis is the embodiment of what it means to create “good trouble.” A few weeks ago, we embedded this interview between Rep. Lewis and Zak Cheney Rice about Lewis’s resolute hopefulness, despite a deeply troubling world. We encourage you to revisit it today.

It feels like the understatement of the year to call Rep. Lewis a hero but there just aren’t words to express the deep humanity and humility of this brilliant man. We’re writing this on Saturday, July 18, 2020 and our feeds are filled with tributes to Representative Lewis. We love to see it. 

But it also gives us pause. So many of the individuals we see glorify Representative Lewis in his death are the very people working against his interests – restricting access to voting booths in majority Black counties, vilifying protestors, cutting access to social services like food stamps and Medicaid. So often when we look at the Civil Rights movement, we are quick to glorify individual actors and then ignore their messages entirely, shrugging any analysis of the message off because it is “too political.”

We want to take this moment to make this very clear: when John C. Lewis talked about “good trouble,” he was not merely talking about having tough conversations with his racist relatives or using his Instagram presence to spark dialogue. The man was literally arrested 45 times – five of those times while he served in public office. He made it inconvenient to ignore protests and uncomfortable for complacent (white) people to look the other way. When he said “good trouble” he didn’t mean only trouble that was “respectable,” he meant to get in the way, to disrupt the norms, to be political in his strategy, all in pursuit of a more just world. As we delve into our own anti-racism, it is crucial that we don’t shy away from what is political. As Rep. Lewis himself said, “some of us gave a little blood for the right to participate in the democratic process.”

ANTI-RACISM IS POLITICAL

Today we want to talk about this resistance to being “political” in our anti-racism and that thin line between not reducing human rights to “politics,” while acknowledging that racism is largely carried out through acts of legislative policy and judicial holdings; therefore racism is political. While having conversations about race and injustice in our own lives are huge and crucial acts of resistance, we want to push back against any instinct to keep this growth personal. As crucial as it is to call out racism in ourselves, it is a moral imperative that we call it out on the macro-scales of our government policies, too. Being anti-racist does not stop with listening and learning, being anti-racist means we lean into this transformative work in the streets and in the ballot box and every space we enter.

This week, we want to disrupt any desire we have to water down Representative Lewis’s legacy or to shy away from “politics” when we talk about anti-racism, in hopes to fully honor the sacrifices that so many Civil Rights leaders made. 

We’ve seen a lot of commentary online about how “being anti-racist shouldn’t be political, it’s about basic human decency” and while we understand the sentiment, it feels like an incomplete statement. Of course it shouldn’t be political, but substandard treatment toward Black and Indigenous and people of color has always been political. We want to remind ourselves of our first reading, where Peggy McIntosh says, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” Racism does not manifest itself through vile acts of hatred alone. More commonly, racism is deeply embedded in systems of exclusion that cultivate massive power imbalances. 

If you’re still not convinced that being anti-racist means paying attention to politics, here are just a few examples of how, yes, “basic human decency” is, in fact, inherently political:

Both of these examples of explicitly racist policy are deeply political in nature AND deeply personal to the people–who are majority Black and Brown–that they affect. Just because voter suppression and redlining don’t “feel like” they affect us as white people doesn’t mean we haven’t been affected by their existence. For example, generational wealth within white households is largely due to the policies embedded in the National Housing Act of 1934. Similarly, voter suppression through gerrymandering in “red” states has kept the whites-only policies of the GOP in power in many of our suburban communities for decades. And just because we don’t feel impacted by these deeply racist policies doesn’t mean we’re not implicated to do our part in dismantling them. Committing to anti-racist work means we deepen our sense of responsibility to our communities, especially at the political level where so much of the broader harm is done

We also want to note: we are not asking you to align with a particular party in the two-party system. Obviously, there are deeply troubling parts of the GOP in regard to race (the fact that they’re comfortable with their president being friends with the grand dragon of the KKK, for starters), but the Democrats aren’t off the hook either (see: the 1994 Crime Bill! Emily will screech about that terrible, extremely racist piece of Dem policy until she is blue in the face!). Part of being anti-racist in our politics is never adhering so strongly to a political ideology that we overlook opportunities to hold our leaders accountable. We want to combat that “either/or” thinking that we talked about, that vein of white supremacy culture that disallows us from seeing nuance, and instead lean into being political with a purpose: that purpose being a more just, more anti-racist world.


WORDS OF THE WEEK

Word we are learning:
Gerrymandering 

What is gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is the act of manipulating boundaries within an electoral constituency to either favor a specific party or harm their opposition. According to FairVote.org, political candidates, “may seek to help one party win extra seats (a partisan gerrymander), make incumbents of both parties safer (an incumbent-protection gerrymander) or target particular incumbents who have fallen out of favor.” Essentially, gerrymandering traps voters into specific partisan lines that don’t accurately or completely represent the people within a district. 

Why is this harmful? 
Gerrymandering ensures victories for political parties so profoundly that the victories can be predicted before the candidates are even announced (more than 85% of U.S. House districts are completely safe for the party that holds them). It also ultimately punishes voters for registering for a specific party within the two-party system and it gives power to “winner-take-all” voting rules that enable “a single political party or group can elect every office within a given district or jurisdiction.” Gerrymandering prevents elections from being truly competitive and instead practically ensures a candidate has won before they’ve even run. 

Because of gerrymandering and winner-take-all voting rules, reasonable goals will always be in conflict, such as:

  • the more districts are designed to be compact and maintain county voting lines, the more likely they are to be safe for one party;
  • the more districts are designed to be competitive, the more likely that representation will be distorted;
  • the more competitive a state makes its House districts, the more other states gain power in Congress by protecting their incumbents.

Thank you to FairVote.org for offering well-researched and actionable solutions to combat the negative effects of gerrymandering, such as ranked-choice voting, the Fair Representation Act (HR 400), and redistricting. 

Phrase we are unlearning:
“I don’t see color.”

But doesn’t viewing everyone as equals directly align with our values as anti-racists to eliminate discrimination against people based on skin color? 

Much like when we talk about apoliticism, choosing not to “see” someone’s skin color is often viewed as an idealistic solution to racism–as though not “seeing” someone’s skin color somehow means you see all people as equals. However, in a society where “whiteness” is the standard (i.e. flesh-colored Band-Aids are made for white skin), choosing not to see color is also choosing not to see the suffering that our BIPOC friends, neighbors, and loved-ones have experienced because of their race. 

Though it may come from a well-intentioned desire to promote equality, it detracts from the need to discuss that racism exists. In a rather cheeky retort to Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren’s assertion that she doesn’t see color, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah asks, “so what do you do at traffic lights?” Though this is a simplistic metaphor, Noah illustrates the idea that we DO see color in our society.  We live in a white-supremacist culture in which people are not only “seen” for their skin-color, but are stereotyped, profiled, degraded, harmed, and killed for it–so claiming that race doesn’t matter to us only buries the presence of racism further and makes it harder to identify. 

The dangers of the “I don’t see color” mentality: 

  • We can’t fix something we can’t see 
  • It allows us to ignore the complexities of racial issues
  • We’re not actively dismantling our own prejudices
  • It minimizes that struggles of BIPOC in today’s society
  • It limits our ability to appreciate individualism 

@ohhappydani compiled this concise list that illuminates why not seeing color is choosing willful ignorance

PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR POSTS ARE

This week, we’re directing our dollars toward the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who help formerly incarcerated people claim their right to vote by paying their fines and fees associated with their former convictions (for which they have already served their time!!). Donate to the Amendment 4 Fines and Fees Campaign Here

A NON-FINANCIAL WAY TO TAKE ACTION

This week, we’re checking our voter registrations to make sure we’re geared up for the upcoming elections. You can make sure you’re registered here. We’re also marking our calendars with all upcoming elections within our states and local districts and making a plan for voting in each election (do you need childcare? A ride? To vote before or after work hours? An absentee ballot?)

We’re paying particular attention to the state and local elections in the coming months because we know that things like redlining and gerrymandering are deeply local issues, largely affected by who serves on zoning boards and within school districts at a local level!

RESOURCES

Primary Resource:

Supplemental Resources: 

  • C.T. Vivian’s commitment to equality and nonviolence made him a happy warrior for the ages – many of us had heard about Rep. John Lewis before his passing, but we may have been less aware of his friend, fellow speaker at the March on Washington, and fellow Civil Rights giant, C.T. Vivian. Rev. Vivian was best known for his role as a Freedom Rider, leadership within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and for coordinating the Nashville sit-ins in the 1960’s.
  • John Lewis: Good Trouble – we’ll be watching the John Lewis documentary this week (streaming for $6.99 on Youtube and Amazon Prime, we know that’s a little pricey but we have a feeling it’s worth it! If you want to watch but can’t afford that this week, let us know and we can figure out a way for you to watch it, too!)
  • Do Not Call John Lewis a “Hero” If You Stood In His Way – some notes on the utter hypocrisy of glorifying civil rights leaders while actively working against what they fought for. — “But the fight that defined John Lewis’s life, and the people and institutions that stood in his way, blocking progress, undermining rights, were still there, and he knew it. “I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to give in,” Lewis said that day. “We must use the vote as a nonviolent instrument or tool to redeem the soul of America.””

Other Resources We Loved This Week:

  • For some well-deserved but also “OOOPS is THAT ME?!” hahas, here’s A Day at the Church of White Guilt from the New Yorker a few weeks back
  • And on a completely opposite (read: serious) note, we cannot stop thinking about this video of Sistah Souljah responding to comments Bill Clinton made comparing her to David Duke, Grand Wizard of the Knights of the KKK in 1992. 
  • This interview where sociologist Michael Sierra-Arévalo explains the ways that police are trained to expect, and therefore seek, danger and how that expectation increases likelihood of using excessive force — “So even today, when you have a well-meaning officer who just wants to do right by his community and make the world a better place, participating in an institution that has arisen and has been perpetuated as one that systematically creates the disparities in who is stopped, searched, arrested and then killed by police is perpetuating the same inequalities that give rise to racism in the first place, that are both the symptom and a cause of it.”

IN THE NEWS: WHAT’S GOING ON IN PORTLAND?

Since July 2, federal law enforcement officers have been deployed to Portland, OR, following Trump’s 6-month executive order, authorizing federal officers to patrol major cities in order to “protect Federal monuments, memorials, statutes, and property.”

Prior to (and throughout) this federal occupation of Portland, local law enforcement agencies across the country were tear gassing, arresting, and physically assaulting protestors on the ground in over 100 cities, typically making these arrests without masks, and sometimes without complying with habeas corpus (basically meaning that protestors could be arrested without valid reason to be brought before a judge and held for more than 24 hours without explanation). If you don’t believe the stories of extreme police brutality toward protestors, we encourage you to scroll through this compilation of videos, compiled by the New York Times, that might make you think otherwise (trigger warning: state-sanctioned violence).

Ok back to Portland: What troops have been deployed?

So far, the agents from the U.S. Marshals Service, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP – yes, you are correct in thinking “isn’t that Border Patrol?”), and Federal Protective Service have been sent to Portland to target civilian protestors. There were two particular groups created as a result to Trump’s executive order: U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group and DHS task force who have been most present on the ground. They are supposedly tasked with protecting national landmarks and federal property, however, by most accounts, they have been intentionally seeking out peaceful protestors and unloading “less lethal” munitions (think: tear gas, rubber bullets, mace, etc.). Most recently, there have been accounts of federal officerswithout badge numbers, riding in unmarked vans, and wearing full military gear, including face masks making their identities indistinguishable.

On July 16, Chad Wolf, the Chief of Homeland Security, arrived in Portland to more directly lead Federal law enforcement efforts. To justify the Federal presence, both Trump and Wolf have implied an “unlimited power of the military” and need to “restore order” in their tweets. 

It feels important to note that even after weeks of deploying local police to monitor protests, the federal officials are not welcomed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown or Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. In fact, Portland’s mayor has called it an “abuse of federal law enforcement,” urging  Trump to get the federal officials out of the city, very clear that arresting people without probable cause is “extraordinarily concerning and a violation of their civil liberties and constitutional rights.

Why Portland? 

Oregon is an extremely politically divided state and there is reason to believe that by making an example of Portland, Trump is attempting to gain support from Oregonians outside the city, many of whom are ideologically conservative. Portland is a medium-sized city, large enough to be nationally relevant, but small enough for a federal law enforcement “trial run” in other cities. Plus, as I think we all have noticed by now, Trump is never not looking for the spotlight. Making “an example” of Portland is igniting Trump’s base, who are conveniently looking the other way re: their love of small government, contrarily invigorated by individuals being stolen off the streets by nameless, untraceable federal officers. 

And we can’t talk about Portland’s political landscape without talking about Oregon’s history of racism. 

Oregon’s racial makeup has been shaped by three Black exclusion laws that were in place during much of the region’s early history (in the context of the United States. Mind you that Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Suislaw Indians, the Burns Paiute, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, and many other Indigenous groups had long called what’s now “Oregon” home).These exclusion laws: (1) banned slavery but prohibited Black people from living in Oregon territory for more than 3 years; the consequence for which was 39 lashes every 6 months until they left. (2) barred Black people who were not already in the area from moving into Oregon territory. And (3) prohibited Black people from owning property and making contracts, a law which was eventually adopted in 1859 into Oregon’s state constitution when the region became a state

These Black Exclusion laws were intentionally written to discourage Black folks from settling in Oregon early on, fully intending for Oregon to become a white utopia

I feel inclined to donate or volunteer in some capacity — what can we do to lend a hand?

Crisis Kitchen is a free resource for hungry people in the Portland area that provides free homemade meals, personal care items, and free item delivery with no limit on orders. Their goal is simply mutual aid: they’ve been providing resources to protestors and regular people with needs alike. If you feel inclined to give, we recommend supporting their work on Patreon and if you’re in the Portland area, you can sign up to volunteer through this form. And of course, if you or someone you know in Portland is in need, send them this link, which includes a menu of food options and ways to contact organizers.

If reading this week’s newsletter hits a “but I don’t want to believe this, I love my country,” nerve for you,we encourage you to lean into that discomfort. We can love things, acknowledge that there are ways they are deeply flawed, AND want them to do better. We’ve said this before and we’ll say it every single week but our commitment to anti-racism cannot stop at the feelings of overwhelm that arise when we are confronted with information that makes us uncomfortable. It cannot stop when the thing being examined feels too close or too personal to us. It’s okay, even healthy, for feelings of shame, frustration, or sadness to arise as we navigate this work; it’s not okay to let those feelings become the defining feature of our anti-racism. Let’s lean into the discomfort, take off any rosy-colored glasses we might still be wearing, and celebrate that we live in an era that allows us the resources and the opportunities to do better. It is a gift to do this work by choice as people with varying forms of privilege, rather than because our survival depends on it. And in the words of John Lewis himself, “Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.” We can do this work.

When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.
Rep. Lewis in December 2019

See you Sunday at 7 EST on Zoom to talk about Representative John Lewis’s speech at the March on Washington

In Solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

2 Replies to “Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 8: Anti-Racism Is Political”

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