Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Swimming Pools, Harvard Arrests and Flash Point Racism

For the past few weeks, my inbox has been inundated with references to Whites Only swimming pools in Philadelphia, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates and things of the like. With each subsequent email, I've been reminded "this is post-racial America" 1, 2. The type of tongue-in-cheek commentary, I imagine, is meant to elucidate the continued significance of race in America. Unfortunately, I see three issues with this: 1) these emails and posts tend to go to the choir (this is not a new point so I won't go into it), 2) these cases are extreme examples of racism and exclusion in contemporary United States, which makes them easy to dismiss for everyday people and 3) they don't demonstrate the ways that race operates perniciously beneath the surface to include some and exclude many. I do think these cases need to be highlighted so pool owners, police, and everyday people can be aware certain behaviors will not be tolerated, but they're also all to easy to disassociate from for the majority of Americans who identify with the idea of "postraciality." They're rationalized away as the actions of "a few bad apples" rather than be seen as symptoms of the national disease of racism. These incidents become flash points in the media and even talking points in our commentary on race and reality, but the issue with a flash point is that it is the lowest level at which our sensibilities around race will flare brightly, but then they quickly dim. Unfortunately, inequalities of race have not dimmed, nor should our fire to expose and fight them.

Now this is not going to be a "complain and blame" post, instead, I'd like to offer some humble suggestions (or as humble as one can be if they're writing on a blog which is kinda an egotistical thing to start with, but ya'll know what I'm saying). It is critical that we begin to talk about race in ways that expose the subtle fabric of inequality. While it's easy to explain why Skip Gates' harassment and subsequent arrest were wrong and wrongheaded, it's more difficult to explain how policies leave many innocent men and women sitting in jail or on death row due to false accusations and procedural bureaucracy. It's easy to point on the wrongness of exclusion from the Valley Swim club but it's more difficult to explain why suburban schools are almost as and sometimes more unequal than urban schools, in part due to their exclusion of Blacks from equal educational resources. It's easy to suggest that race matters when Sotomayor is berated in her confirmation hearings, but it is more difficult to explain the significance of critical race theory to understanding and interpreting the law. As scholars, as activists, and as citizens we've give up the project of relaying the complex conditions to the masses who need to be reminded not that race still matters, but the various ways that it still matters and what role all can play in racial justice.

I think it is wholly possible to take the flash point moments and deepen dialogue, but its rare that it happens. Instead, we recycle old dialogues on race and its significance when more complex racism(s) exist. The reality is that we've got to get equally complex in our discussions of the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality (to name a few). If we are serious about "justice for all" we must update our discourse and activism. Because as Brother Malcolm said, "The White power structure is just as much interested in maintaining slavery as it was 100 years ago. Only now they use modern methods of doing so." Let's expose the modern methods as well as the old!

*footnote if you've never seen the dialogue between Malcolm X, Wyatt Tee Walker James Farmer, and Alan Morrison do yourself a favor and watch it!

**Shout out to Native Notes for being on the same page with that quote!

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