Wednesday, July 25, 2007

109th Anniversary of U.S. Puerto Rican Colonialism

By Hiram José Irizarry Osorio, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

On July 25, 1898 the U.S. armed forces landed on the Bay of Guánica at the outbreak of The Spanish-American War; the landing represented a military invasion of Puerto Rico by the U.S. On that day Puerto Rican coloniality started a metropolis transition: from Spain’s Empire to the U.S. young Empire in formation.

Why is it relevant to remember this day? Why should non-Puerto Ricans care about this day? Does it have any relevant repercussions beyond the confines of the Puerto Rican archipelago? Does this have anything to do with race?

The honest answer to the first three queries is that it depends. It depends on your implicit or explicit view of life and reality as hierarchical or not. Nevertheless, I would venture to say that it has everything to do with race (i.e., race perceived and defined as an othering process; in which this othering is hierarchical and containing a valuing system of what and who is worth it). The reason I state that the Puerto Rican situation has everything to do with race (i.e., as an othering process) is because in a colonial situation, by definition, there is a hierarchical relationship between the colonizer and the colonized (as eloquently theorized, among others, by Franz Fanon). With this statement I am not arguing that there is lack of internal racial hierarchies in Puerto Rico.

It also matters because Puerto Rico remains a colony of the U.S. in an era where supposedly colonies are extinct. It matters because Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans by international standards are part of the U.S.; however, people from the U.S. tend to have only a vague idea of what Puerto Rico is and who Puerto Ricans are, and how the U.S. ended up with this territorial possession. Furthermore, there tends to be a lack of knowledge of the different changes that the U.S.-Puerto Rico political relationship has experienced from 1898 to the present. My point is not to blame the U.S. population in general, but both the U.S. and Puerto Rican leadership and elites for the lack of knowledge and understanding they have engendered. This has created a stasis on the decolonization process of Puerto Rico, manufacturing a limbo identity for Puerto Ricans which has power, wealth, and status repercussions (see Jorge Duany’s The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States, among other issues, discussion of the 1940s and 1950s mass migratory deal among U.S. and Puerto Rican elites; these “encouraged” migrants came from the marginalized class).

Hence, my call today is for far more than remembrance for remembrance sake. My call is first to inform ourselves of a plethora of situations that might remain hidden unless those who have been marginalized are not given a voice, a space to become recognized. Because from that recognition, from that interest, we complete (or help complete) our day-to-day truncated humanity and by doing so race (as a hierarchical othering) might start to be transcended unto something else, unto something different. And who knows, we might even achieve a democratic society, we might even envision in practice and reality that beloved community…

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Because You’re Worth It (When You’re White)

By Dhriti Pandhi, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

It was recently revealed that cosmetics giant L’Oreal employed a blatantly racist recruiting strategy as part of its marketing campaign in 2000. The company was promoting Garnier shampoos in France, and, as part of its hiring practices, sought women promoters who were between the ages of 18 to 22, size 10-14, and “BBR” – bleu, blanc, et rouge (blue, white, and red; the colors of the French flag). In France, BBR is a not-so-secret term used by employers to mean white people of French descent, not Africans, Asians, or people of a mixed-race background.

While many groups retaliated against L’Oreal, including France’s SOS Racisme, a long road lies ahead for France and its employers to curb their racist practices. In fact, surveys suggest that 3 out of 4 employers prefer white workers. Although France is not known for being a completely integrated society (to say the least), the L’Oreal episode conjures questions of how pop culture in general is fighting against (or standing idly beside) racism. France is historically known for its avant garde art, fashion, and literature, yet it has one of the worst track records in the world when it comes to being a racially progressive society.

Much like in France, both pop culture in the U.S. and our attempts at racial integration have been regressive. TV shows like Survivor have had teams defined by race, dating shows are racially homogeneous except for the “token” black or white person, and very rarely do we see mixed families or non-white families on prime time television. Watching Nick-at-Nite reruns of television shows from decades ago like “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” where racial and other political topics are the central themes of episodes, ironically doesn’t make me think “can you believe those were actually problems back then” but rather “today’s shows need a similar racial commentary.” Perhaps the ultimate question is whether [pop] culture truly fights against society’s faults or if it simply exists to mirror them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Critical U.S. racial history by a Danish director: “Manderlay”

By Yusuf Sarfati, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Last Friday I watched with some friends “Manderlay”, a movie written and directed by the controversial Danish director Lars von Tier. The movie tries to tackle many intriguing questions around the issue of race, by telling the story of a plantation in Alabama in 1933, where slavery is still practiced despite the fact that the institution had been abolished 70 years ago.
Grace, the naïve, White, idealistic American, who is the daughter of a powerful gangster arrives to the plantation, where “slaves” are ruled by Mam’s Law that uses subtle psychological mechanisms to coerce the black residents of the plantation to be subservient in every aspect of life. Full with idealism and power (thanks to his father’s gangsters), she abolishes slavery and Mam’s Law. Next she tries to liberate the minds and the behavior of the slaves in that plantation by creating a democratically self-governed commune. In the movie there are a plethora of social and racial issues. The imposition of democratic rule from the top; the flaws and possible coercion of conceiving majority rule as democratic practice; sexualization of Black male body in the character of Timothy (played by Isaach De Bankolé); victims’ internalization of the oppressors’ worldview are some of the themes that you encounter in the movie.
Yet to me, the message conveyed in the final moments of “Manderlay” was the most mind-boggling statement. At the end of the story, it appears that the ex-slaves choose (by unanimous vote) to live in slavery (under Grace’s mastership in this case) rather than going out to the “free” U.S (outside the plantation), since the life “out there” is much more discriminatory and restrictive.
On the one hand this statement is positive, since the movie acknowledges (at least in the photo slide show at the end) that the era in U.S. history after the Reconstruction (1876-1950) was full of discriminatory practices like the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, the reemergence of Black codes, the creation of sundown towns, the segregation of all public facilities, and the use of intimidation, coercion and lynching against Blacks. Hence this statement debunks the linear progressive reading of U.S history on racial relations that is usually told in the mainstream books. So, it is possible that the writer/director wants to underscore this fact and therefore made the ex-slaves choose “slavery” over this discriminatory, coercive, humiliating reality. He might want to tell us that life after Reconstruction was so awful for U.S. Blacks that it might be compared to (even might be worst than) slavery.
On the other hand, there is still something very troubling about this pessimistic statement. I think it depicts the Black residents of Manderlay devoid of any individual agency to bring social or political change. Obviously we know that this has been historically not correct, at least not so in the U.S. Even in the most oppressive situations, there has been resistance or efforts for change among the victims of oppression. For instance, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States of America” documents very cogently the resistance that Blacks, indentured servants, Indians, and poor people have showed against acts of oppression since 16th century.
Anyway, no matter what you will think about the movie, I am sure Manderlay will provoke a lot of questions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The NAACP Symbolically Buries the N-Word

By Desireé Vega, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

On Monday July 9th, 2007 during its annual convention, the NAACP held a funeral to symbolically bury the N-word. A wooden box with a bouquet of fake black roses was pulled by horses during their march. The coffin will be placed at the historically black Detroit Memorial Park cemetery where it will have a headstone. To read the entire article, visit NAACP Burys the N-word.

As I read through this news article, I wondered what effect this act would have on the Black community. I read reactions and comments posted on the internet; some felt that the NAACP was making a big step in trying to eradicate the usage of the word. Others felt it was a joke and that there would not be any change in the words usage because it is used so commonly and has been popularized by the Black hip-hop community.

Historically the N-word has had negative connotations directed towards Blacks. It was used to refer to slaves in the 1700 and 1800s. Caricatures of Black people in the 1900s encapsulated the definition of the N word- lazy, no self-respect, ignorant, stupid, and did not speak proper English. The Harlem Renaissance era challenged this definition: Blacks were encouraged to embrace their culture and history. Racial pride emerged during the 1960s, the term ‘black’ was taken on by the African American community as positive. The N-word was strongly denounced during this period.

Today though, attitudes are different about the usage of the N-word. The –er has been dropped and the word is used with an –a at the end instead. Many accept this term and use it in their everyday language as it has become so popularized. Others oppose it and do not use it at all. Because the word has been popularized and the connotation used by Blacks is not the same as when Whites use the word, do Blacks really have a problem with the use of the word? If they do, how can an end be put to its usage? Is this symbolic burial by the NAACP meaningful to the young Black community who may not fully understand the history of the word and how it has been used to denigrate their culture? What significance does this event hold to people who are not Black?

Leaders in the hip-hop and entertainment community such as Russell Simmons, Master P., and Paul Mooney have denounced the usage of the N-word, but is that enough? Websites such as ask people to take a pledge to stop using the word and spread the word to other people of color. If black people do not know the history of the word or if they do not see a problem with using the word, how can the NAACP’s actions be taken seriously? If the word should indeed be removed from public and popular vernacular, how can the painful history of the word be taught? And if the n-word was to be eliminated, what effect would this have on opportunities for Blacks and how they are viewed in society?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Less black, less white?

By Christy Rogers, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

When the question of whether or not Barack Obama was “black enough” for the black community cropped up, I was startled to hear an African-American woman interviewed for NPR state that Barack “self-identified as black, married a black woman, and has black children, and that’s black enough for me.” Your race is determined by whom you marry? Sure, I knew the academic term – race is a “social construction.” But it had never struck me in such a stark way before. I wondered to myself, do white women make similar assessments?

I thought back to a conversation I’d had years before, with a colleague in a planning firm. I had admired her, because the construction and development world is largely male, and although she was young she could easily hold her own in a room of “town fathers” trying to patronize her. She was talking about a friend of hers.

“You know, she’s one of those white girls you can just tell will date a black guy,” she said.
“You know – you can tell them. You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t know what you mean. Tell me what you mean.”
“Forget it.”

I guess you aren’t white if you date across the color line. Or if still white, a different “species” -- identifiable like some sort of invasive weed.

Last week when I went to pick up my daughter at daycare, I ran into the mom of my daughter’s best friend. I was really glad to see her, because in the fall, my daughter is starting a new school and leaving all of her current friends. I wanted to propose a weekend play-date. I was relieved and pleased when she seemed committed to maintaining their friendship outside of school. She suggested a joint trip to Lowe’s on the first Saturday of every month, when they have a special kids’ work session. I couldn’t imagine my daughter happier: in a tiny orange apron, clattering around with her best buddy. And most of all, I was relieved because my daughter is white and her son is black, and for the two of them to keep what they have – a delighted friendship – is going to take help, and work. For now, we only have to pick which month we go to Lowe’s. In the years to come, we’re going to have to acknowledge that their friendship, in the eyes of some, will make her son less black, and my daughter less white, and what that means for us, and for them.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Living Wages and Health Care: Ramifications of Communication?

By Alana Krivo-Kaufman, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

I was reminded of the book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich as I watched "Sicko”, the Michael Moore movie critiquing our for profit health care system. Policies regarding living wages and health care obviously have huge intersections with race, ethnicity and gender, and disproportionate affects on these populations due to historical discrimination and structural racism. My question is, how should we conceptualize the methodology through which the issues are addressed, and what effect does including, intentionally ignoring, or portraying an issue within a single demographic frame have on the relevant activism, public opinion and therefore policy? And if the two above examples manage to support the implementation of desirable policy, but in doing so skip over the complexities of the intersections, is that positive or negative?

Both works present their issues within the frame work of ‘white America’. In “Nickel and Dimed” the author, a white woman, does an experiential exposé on the situation of the working poor, and chose the demographics of her living and working environments to portray her story in a predominately white setting. The book aimed to strike fear in the heart of the American dream by pointing out a glitch in the system: people work hard forty hours a week, and still don’t get by. Moore’s argument of the dysfunctions within the healthcare system was set up very explicitly by a similar ‘failure of the American dream’ premise, using clips and pictures of a 1950’s picket fence white suburban family, complete with homemaker, breadwinner, and two golden children. This was followed by a stream of insured people, predominantly white Americans sharing compelling stories of their healthcare woes. (The film does include one African-American woman, as well as an inter-racial couple questioning if the husband would have received the same denial of coverage were he a white man, but they are definitely outnumbered.)

The back cover of “Nickel And Dimed” describes the book’s message as "inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life". Within "the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform”, race is necessarily a factor, either explicitly or implicitly, in description, in statistics, or in public conception. Yet, the book is a one subject piece on the job and life prospects as experienced by a white woman author, which does not portray any structural racism within the system of low income or unskilled jobs, or discrimination and profiling within the system. The health care system is similarly portrayed by Moore through the lens of white Americans, critiquing the underlying flawed system of U.S. health care in a general way, but not really exploring any skewed racial connotations of that system.

Affecting policy implementation is tricky and requires attention from multiple perspectives, including analysis and communication. Neither Moore nor Ehrenreich’s work openly strives to weaken OR address structural racism or discrimination within any of the systems they focus on. They simply point out broader all encompassing flaws within healthcare and non-living wage low skill jobs, and what we expect from them. Avoiding directly addressing issues of race was a deliberate move on both parts, but does this hinder or help policy in the long run? If a story has to be told from a white perspective to garner sufficient attention, does using those modes of communication necessitate the use of the same approach in the future and further disempower people, or is it simply a good way to get things done?