Racial Justice Teamwork Makes the Racial Justice Dream Work

It’s been called a racial reckoning, a social justice movement, and maybe even a rennaissance. In the nearly two years of upheaval since the murder of George Floyd, there has been an effort for change that shows lots of promise.

From my view, however, this movement won’t move without more awareness, and better coordination. Central to this is people giving up their fractured ways of living and getting on the same path.

In my view, the catalyst for all of this uncoordination is social media. Contrary to the conventional wisdome that social media is empowering, what I see is that it is actually the means by which people stay disconnected and efforts for change remain underwhelming. I may sound like an old fogey by saying that, but hear me out

Case in point: this year in Virginia, Republicans won the governorship in large part due to the candidate constantly talking about the imaginary bogey man of “critical race theory” being taught in primary and secondary public schools.

This claim is absurdly false for many reasons, but that didn’t stop Republican voters from falling for it and electing Glenn Youngkin.

Perhaps people fell for the falsehood because of the volume of unsubstantiated accounts they were hearing/reading in their social media feeds. And here’s the thing: there wasn’t nearly enough pushback from others who knew the facts of the matter. Thus, lies spread unimpeded, like a virus. And Youngkin gets elected.

I think one obvious problem is that people advocating for social change are spending time in a social media sphere that does not at all intersect with the bubble of people opposed to social change (let’s call those people “conservatives”).

Recently, I had an experience that left me wondering about this problem. The college I graduated from put a post on LinkedIn that contained reference to “Latina educator” and a fellow alumni commented with the standard conservative bullshit about identity politics and how those who advocate for change in America are “destroying” this country (his word).

I pushed back by pointing out the flaws in his opinion. Unfortunately, I got little support from either my fellow alumni or the college. In fact, the conservative alumni’s rant got more “likes” than my pushback did. He claimed that he “won” the arguement, and perhaps that is the case (I did not intend for it to be a competition).

So I’m left wondering, where were the social justice warriors? Who had my back in this exchange? Maybe they’re off doing whatever on Twitter or Instagram, planning the next phase of the movement with like-minded people. But that doesn’t help this particular situation.

And the situation is this: given that the goal of social justice work is to call out and challenge the misconceptions and misinformation that support the status quo, perspectives such as those shared by this conservative alumni need to be revealed as what they are and challenged at every opportunity. If this doesn’t happen, then change won’t happen.

I’m not saying that people need to join social media such as Parler where people with regressive opinions take comfort in each other’s company.** That would be like joining the Army to try to change it into a pacifist organization. What I am saying is that when regressive conservative opinion appears on mainstream comment forums, it should not be given a pass.

So next time you see someone going to bat for the social justice team, give them support. Because we are all in this together.


**Parler views those who challenge regressive opinions as censoring free speech. I saw this point of view expressed in the conservative alumni’s emotional rant, that being challenged amounted to “defelection” from the “truth”. I have seen this warped view of freedom, social manners, and consitutionality in other places as well, often accompanied by a tactic where it seems they feel they will “win” the argument if they bluff and bluster long enough and loud enough, and with the right smattering of jargon and insults. But when one tries to probe for nuance, they can’t come up with a logical or coherent arguement.

Take This Job and Find a Better Way

About 15 years ago, I was in Reno on a business trip with a colleague. While we were waiting to meet with a client, we ate lunch in a hotel restaurant and had a brief conversation about the nature and value of work.

As we ate, a thin woman who may have been in her late 50s wandered through the dining area and repeatedly announced “Keno” in a high-pitched voice. She was wearing a uniform of some sort that identified her has an employee of the establishment. She gave off a vibe of tedium, which seems understandable if all she did for eight hours a day was solicit wagers on the Keno games inside a windowless hotel casino. (In case you’ve never been to Nevada, pretty much all hotels are casinos.)

Photo: John Sanphillippo

My colleague and I watched her come and go. After a while, my colleague looked at me and said, “Is that the kind of job that makes someone grateful to be employed?”

“No,” I said with a sad chuckle. “She actually seems rather pathetic.”

Employed, but pathetic.

Up until recently, our current president was very proud of the number of people employed in the United States. Whether these statistics portray an accurate picture or not, there was a lot of verve in the economy before the coronavirus brought things to a screeching halt.

Since March, a lot of people have lost their jobs. Some of those job losses will be temporary, but many will likely be permanent. And it is worth asking whether those were jobs really worth having to start with. Perhaps there is something more than the job/no job binary.

There are many in this country who have a point of view that goes something like this:

  • any employment is better than no employment
  • having no job is “bad,” as in “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”
  • all jobs are of equal quality when viewed in the employment/no employment dichotomy
  • any job will be a step up the ladder of progress.

This is a very simplistic perspective that ignores many realities of human interaction. Among them are the fact that employers take illegal (and sometimes immoral) advantage of their employees all the time, day in and day out. One has only to look at the number of lawsuits that employees or former employees have filed against companies to get a sense of the magnitude of the situation.

This also ignores the plight of the working poor, who are employed and yet still unable to afford basic necessities such as decent housing, food, and health care, and have no guarantee that things will improve. Also, freelancers, contract workers, and those stuck in the so-called gig economy have little reason to feel that they’re being paid fair compensation for their efforts.

The job vs. no job view of employment paints a flat picture. It disregards the idea that employment–serving a valued role in society–can be key to one’s sense of self-worth. Once, all employment, with the possible exception of royalty, served a purpose. Today, there are far too many “bullshit jobs.” Perhaps we will actually be better off if many of these just go away, to be replaced by truer, more worthwhile vocations.

This may sound unsympathetic, but I would question how much people really enjoy selling shit on Ebay day in and day out, or taking money from drivers while sitting all day in toll booths, or calling out the next round of Keno betting in a forgettable lunch cafe in Reno. I think there is a better way, and I think we can take some time during this moment in our history allow ourselves to consider the possibilities.

There is a perhaps unsolvable tension between the economic need of having the means to fulfill one’s basic needs and the psychological need for fulfillment and understanding. We’ve created a society where the two are often mutually exclusive. Perhaps we could do better.

Music of Hope and Change

In the summer of 1988 I went to see Steve Winwood in concert, and his opening act was Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In case you’re unfamiliar with the band, they were a South African group formed during the final years of apartheid, but their music seems as relevant today as ever.

I don’t remember much about their performance other than liking what I heard and saw. Years later, I picked up a CD of their greatest hits and each time I listen to it, I find more to like.

Their sound is fairly typical of African rock and roll of the era, with the distinctive guitar tone, steady drum rhythms, and chanting vocals. For comparison, Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” has a similar feel.

Here’s the thing: Clegg was a white South African and say what you will about the “white savior” problem in the arts, but his work shows a profound sensitivity to the issues of apartheid. In the songs that I know, the band sings of a pan-African unity, the heartbreaks of racial injustice, and the resiliency of the African people.

One song in particular jumped out at me as I listened to my CD last week. “Asimbonanga” is a slower tempo song with a lot of Zulu lyrics. But it becomes clear upon repeated listening that they’re singing about Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment on Robbin Island, and also about the many South Africans who suffered and died from the systemic racism in that country. At the end of the song, Clegg recites a few names–Stephen Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett. He is “saying their names,” reminding us that these were people who dedicated their lives, literally, to ending systemic racial oppression. “Asimbonanga” translates as “we have not seen him.”

Johnny Clegg may not have understood apartheid in the same way a black South African would, but he nonetheless risked a lot. According to Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s autobiography, “Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under control. A full compendium of those laws would run more than three thousand pages and weigh approximately ten pounds….”

My ticket to see Nelson Mandela, June 30, 1990.

Under the system, it was illegal for blacks and whites to mingle, and the band risked attracting the attention of law enforcement every time they performed in South Africa. Despite the risk, the band was undeterred in its goals. The band was advocating radical change.

Two years after I saw Johnny Clegg and Savuka in concert, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He made a triumphant tour of America, and my mother, my girlfriend (now wife), and I went to see Mandela live at a large rally in Oakland, California. Even considering the depth of my own white privilege, I understood that the decades of hard work by artists, journalists, and ordinary people had at last yielded results.

I can only hope for the same here in America.

Change Comes from Within

A few years ago, a documentary aired on TV called 1968: The Year That Changed America. It was about how the events, politics, and social movements of 1968, in the words of the producers, “forever changed the modern American landscape.”

Except that, it now would seem that nothing ever really changed at all. America may no longer be legally segregated, but we are as much divided along racial, ethnic, and religious lines as we ever were. The federal government is in chaos and unable to effectively address the real needs of the American people. People are protesting in the streets nationwide. We have a president who is egotistical, unqualified, and more interested in scoring political points than actually governing the country. We have a media industry that is both part of the solution and contributing to the problem. We have an economy that works well for a few people and excludes many. We have people self-destructing through excessive drug use. We have a Congress that appears to be unable to do anything meaningful.

It would appear that we as a country have learned nothing, and it makes me wonder how that happened. It is as if we collectively have an underdeveloped ability to learn, to regulate our own behavior, and to make changes for the better. Perhaps we suffer from multiple personality disorder, that there isn’t just one America but many, many different ones.

Or perhaps we are in recovery from trauma, that the events of 1968 didn’t set us on the road to improvement but rather created the dividing line between before and after. Most people who suffer a traumatic event view it as a pivotal point in their lives, that they are not the same person after that they were before.

Maybe America continues to struggle with coming to terms with this new sense of self, and we’re not there yet. But are we trying? Sometimes I wonder. Many are, but are there enough of us to create true change? Is change gonna come? Or will we just anesthetize ourselves and turn a blind eye to the real work that needs doing.

I would like to think we have it in us to do the work. When we’re at our best, we do. But, as with anything, we have to want to change. And it is our loss of we don’t.

What is new about American police brutality towards black people? Why did it take the death of George Floyd for the people of Bristol to recognize that they had a monument to a slave owner in their city’s midst? The real question is not what should people do but will people go back to sleep or not? Will we have learned? – Dr. Gabor Mate

 

A genuine change must first come from within the individual, only then can he or she attempt to make a significant contribution to humanity. – Dalai Lama

 

What Does Democracy Look Like? Ride the Subway.

I ride the Washington, D.C., Metro trains essentially every business day of the year and have found it to be, quite possibly, the most democratic place in the country.

I have been riding for over two decades, and I have seen much that goes on, or is likely to happen, on this subway system. Like any public transportation, it has both good features and bad. But the one thing that is most remarkable is that it even happens at all.

The Metro carries between 600,000 and 700,000 passengers every day on average, and there are all kinds of riders. There are the rich and the poor. There are blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. There are women and men. There are managers and laborers. There are the young and the old, the athletic and the disabled. There are Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Jews.

All of us each day enter crowded train cars together. We sit or stand next to each other. We sometimes talk but often are silent, minding our own business.

This is normal. But certain types of people would have us believe that this is simply impossible, that there is no way a stable civil society could be maintained that is made up of such diversity. That the only outcome from putting a Muslim and a Jew, or white people and black people–or whichever antagonistic combination you prefer–in a confined space is bloodshed.

Here is the remarkable thing about the Metro: nobody is forcing themselves upon someone else. Nobody is claiming their opinions are correct and that everyone else is wrong. Nobody is trying to kill one another, or injure, or harass. Yes, there are some beggars and hustlers, some thieves and the occasional person who is either drunk, stoned, or in serious need of a shower. But mostly, every day of the year, we get along.

Security is gained by numbers. Everyone behaves better when there are numerous witnesses. Why? Because we all more or less know how to behave in public–I truly believe this. And not just large numbers of people who look like you or believe as you do. Diversity is its own strength. It is only when we are alone or in a crew of too many like-minded individuals that the trouble begins.

As Metro riders, we accept that each person is on the train for a reason and has somewhere they need to be. Deep down, despite our differences, we accept each other’s essential humanity, that everyone has a mother and/or father who is missing them, or has a spouse they kissed goodbye that morning, or children they are looking forward to seeing when they get home. They have work to do, people to meet. lives to live.

In this time when America feels more divided then I can remember in my lifetime, I take comfort from my rides on the Metro. I take comfort from our demonstrated ability to not give in to our negativity, think outside ourselves, and get along. It is an example of an America that finds strength in diversity. It is an example of what America can aim to be in the coming new year.