Racial Justice

Now 
2010Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for. Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers—not to mention president of the United States—causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come. Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. —Michelle Alexander (“The War on Drugs and the New Jim Crow”)

Then 2007

When slavery was legally abolished, a new set of laws called the Black Codes emerged to criminalize legal activity for African Americans. Through the enforcement of these laws, acts such as standing in one area of town or walking at night, for example, became the criminal acts of “loitering” or “breaking curfew,” for which African Americans were imprisoned. As a result of Black Codes, the percentage of African Americans in prison grew exponentially, surpassing whites for the first time. —Jaron Browne (“Rooted in Slavery: Prison Labor Exploitation”)


The 20th Anniversary Issue | Vol. 17, No. 1 | Spring 2010 | Credits

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Rinku Sen: Organizing for Racial Justice

"Gender constructions themselves are racialized. Our overarching notion of what is a good man and what is a good woman, are based on white people being good people and people of color being bad people."

Rinku Sen © 2009  Racewire/ Abigail Campbell.Now  2010

Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and publisher of ColorLines magazine. A leading figure in the racial justice movement, Rinku has positioned ARC as the home for media and activism on racial justice. She has extensive practical experience on the ground, with expertise in race, feminism, immigration, and economic justice. Over the course of her career, Rinku has woven together journalism and organizing to further social change. She also has significant experience in philanthropy, as vice chair of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Advisory Committee member of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity. Previously, she was the co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing.

Jesse Clarke: What kind of organizing for racial justice were you doing in the late ‘80s and early ’90s? How was it different from today?

Rinku Sen: I think the big difference between now and the late ‘80s is that race and racial justice were not considered core factors in community organizing then. It wasn’t something you were supposed to build into your organizing ambitions and your campaign demands. Community organizing took a very race-silent approach then. What we and many colleagues around the country did was change the theory of community organizing to challenge the racial dynamic of the country.

Clarke: How much connection did you experience with the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which by then were historical legacies? Or for that matter, with the activists from the Alinsky stream of the community organizing movement, which wasn’t looking at segregation and economic exclusion as fundamental parts of organizing?

Sen: In my perception, there was distance between us and civil rights players, organizations, and leaders who, partly as a result of the success of that movement, had become establishment people. They were school board members, city council members, members of Congress, and essentially, public sector targets for community organizing. The success of the civil rights movement created a more complicated political landscape. You had people of color as well as white people in decision-making power positions that had to be dealt with by community organizations and labor unions.
Another factor was that the civil rights movement was big, and involved many different kinds of people across the country, many of whom moved into community organizing. The major organizing networks were almost all populated—and many were led in the late ‘80s—by white, black, Latino, and Asian people who had cut their teeth on the civil rights movement. At that point, the key intervention to make was a diversity intervention. It was important to move people of color into organizing and for community organizing networks to recognize that they needed communities of color in their mix to be successful and relevant.

It wasn’t until the latter part of the ‘90s that we, as organizers, got a sense that there was more to the race question than who was in the room. There was an analysis that you couldn’t replace simply by putting a particular set of bodies together because simple diversity doesn’t stand in for the analysis that really defines your organizing theory, your practice, and ultimately, what you can win for whom. Over the last 20 years, the work that I am proudest of is having created, not just a diversity paradigm, but an equity paradigm on race.

Clarke: What were the campaigns of the ‘90s, which brought the kind of analysis into the mix that went beyond just diversity?
Sen: One was a multi-year police accountability campaign that involved about seven organizations in different parts of the country. That effort created a participatory research process and a platform of demands that ran counter to the safety campaigns that mainstream community organizations were running. Community organizations, often with good numbers of people of color, were participating in and supporting the war on drugs. They were making deals with the police to increase police presence and helping to carry out the war on drugs in poor communities of color.

Starting in 1992, we worked with community members to look into the effects of that kind of criminalization. Was it actually keeping drugs out of our communities? It didn’t look that way. Was it driving huge numbers of blacks and Latinos and increasing numbers of women into the criminal justice system? So it appeared. Did it result in policies that gave the police greater power in communities of color? That’s how it looked.

By working on the analysis as well as having the people in the room we came up with a set of accountability demands on police departments, which included citizen review. One of the more creative arguments we made and actually won in a couple of cities was to get police departments to pay out civil rights lawsuits from their own budgets rather than the general city budget. That’s a defensive victory but a pretty important one because it makes the police think about the cost of their civil rights violations.

Clarke: Can you talk about the impact of the shifting demographics in the U.S. and the evolution of what racism means within different communities—as a way of controlling people, distributing the workforce, and organizing the social and economic life to the benefit of the elite. What are some of your experiences of working with coalitions—the strengths and challenges?

Sen: At the Center for Third World Organizing we developed the notion that most communities live in a racial hierarchy. Because of the many different kinds of people in the country now, simple demographics take us beyond black and white, so you can’t make blanket statements about all communities of color occupying the bottom of society. In fact, you might have certain Asian groups at the top of the income chain and others at the bottom of that chain. You might have black communities that have some political power but no economic power and Asians that have economic power but not much political power.

We have tried to develop a more complicated idea about how racism plays out and how we get played off against each other. We could create an ethic that says we don’t all have to occupy the same rung on the racial ladder in order to feel committed to taking that ladder apart. The only reason for participating in racial justice work cannot be: “My people are at the bottom!” because your people are not always at the bottom. That’s not a very sustainable motivation for acting and contributes to some real conflict in multiracial organizing situations. Everybody competes to be at the bottom in order to get their people’s attention and get them involved. But we need a higher level of motivation and a baseline understanding of why we’re all in the work. We need to deal with the realities of the time that we’re living in.

When I was in college, there was the notion that all white people are racist because they’re all racially privileged. I still hear this in a number of anti-racist trainings. Or that people of color can’t be racist because they never had enough power to act on their racism. In a world where you have Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama, it’s insulting to say that every person of color in a position of power is some white man’s tool. It just absolves those people of all responsibility for dealing with racial equity, and I don’t think we can let them off the hook. I think addressing racism is more complicated than just being anti-racist, which is a defensive posture. We need a proactive, affirmative, forward-looking vision of what racial equity means and what the country can gain from establishing it.

Clarke: So, even if you’re a person of color, you can act on behalf of a racist and unjust economic system. But some earlier theories of economic analysis posit the somewhat simplistic idea that “The differences between the African American working class and the white working class are negligible, so we need to work primarily on the class relationship.” In some circles there is a reductionist tradition in racial analysis. Can you share with us your view of the relationship between class and race and how organizing multiracial coalitions and dealing with economic justice are influenced by your class analysis of the situation?

Sen: Call me Pollyanna, but I just don’t understand why class, race, and gender analysis can’t exist together. Why do we have to decide that one thing is really the thing and everything else is tangential? That just isn’t the way things work. I really object to a race-silent class analysis. As a young organizer, the theory of racial solidarity that I used was “We’re all in it together—we’re in the same boat.” As I’ve grown older and had more exposure, I’ve come to understand that actually our boats aren’t designed the same way, so we’re not exactly in the same boat. Understanding those differences is key to solving the problem and to doing good multiracial organizing.

Just to give you an example, we work closely with the Idaho Community Action Network, a statewide organization of poor- and moderate-income white, Latino and American Indian, working people. The organization decided recently to test the signing up system for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Initially they thought, “Everybody has the same set of problems with that system, so we don’t need to have a racial analysis.” But then they decided to try to figure out if there are, in fact, racial differences in how people get screwed by the system. So, they sent in 27 people—nine sets of white, American Indian and Latino families. What they found was that 26 out of the 27 applicants got denied. So clearly, everybody gets screwed by the SCHIP system.

But, Latinos were the only people to be asked inappropriate questions about the immigration status of their kids. “Where did you have your child?” “How did you get across the border?” All the questions that government workers are not supposed to ask. If they hadn’t done that study with a racial lens, they would have simply shortened the application form and changed the hours—problems that everybody faced—but not dealt with the questioning process that targeted only Latinos. Consequently, they would not have solved the problem for everyone and thus strengthened their multiracial relationships by clearly understanding how each party was affected differently.

Clarke: Can talk a little bit about how gender has figured into your analysis of racism, power, and class?
Sen: I did a training in the ‘90s for lead organizers that had a bunch of campaign planning activities to do. Just as a lark, we split the group into men and women. What we found was that the men focused in on the higher level strategy questions and were finished in half the time that I had alloted them. But they didn’t do all of the exercise: they skipped over all of the questions about how to build relationships between people and how to manage the details of the campaign—the scheduling, the tracking of assignment, etc. They just skipped all those things that mostly women end up doing in organizations.Rinku Sen giving a presentation Rinku Sen on the continuing racial  divide at Pop Tech 2009, Camden, Maine. 2009 cc. Kris Krüg

The women, on the other hand, spent so much time on the relational questions and on logistical details that they didn’t have a whole lot to say about the overarching strategy. I think that’s a division of labor that closely mirrors the division of labor among men and women in society. I don’t think that the answer is to let everybody do what they’ve already learned how to do, but rather to train organizers to be good at all of the things they have to be good at. And to be aware of how their societal training and family training or their gendered training affects their ability to take on new skills in that mix.
Gender constructions themselves are racialized. Our overarching notion of what is a good man and what is a good woman, are based on white people being good people and people of color being bad people. So, if you look at the welfare debate, for example, that debate is full of gender judgments: The men aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, the women aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. They are highly racialized definitions of what a man is and what a woman is. What a good man is, what a good woman is.

I do think it’s important not to mush everything together as if race and gender and class all work in the same way. They don’t. There are important differences in the way that the systems get set up and perpetuated. But there are so many more connections between them; so many more fundamental ways in which they influence each other that we tend not to pay attention to. When we don’t pay attention, it really limits our ability to frame the issues that we’re working on.

Clarke: What kinds of issues can and should be organized so that the questions are framed in a way that is also liberationist with respect to gender and which can advance a campaign that would expose gender and sexism as fundamental aspects of our cultural matrix and part of the equity problem?

Sen: I think that most issues have a gender element, a gender dimension, just as I think most issues have a racial dimension. I think a good example is “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military policy around sexuality and being out, which in its actual application disproportionately affects black women. When you hear about the policy, you imagine white Army guys kind of forced to be in the closet and then forced out of the military. That’s not who’s actually getting a four star in the military under “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s black women. That means that there’s a racial and a gender, as well as a sexuality factor. It also means that black communities, particularly black women, might have a real stake in undoing that policy. But hardly anybody even knows that fact and very few people talk about it in relation to that debate. So, whatever stake black communities might have in changing that policy, goes totally under the radar.

Clarke: Can you talk a little bit about the fact that women of color are taking on leadership positions in different places now and have established some solid time under their belts.


Sen: There are lots and lots of really impressive women of color working in the field and taking on critical leadership roles, running big networks. Sarita Gupta is the head of Jobs with Justice, National Network of Labor Community Alliances. Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the head of Green for All. I could go on. I think it’s really important to recognize the accomplishments of those women and the skills of those women. But, at the same time, I also hear many stories of women of color who stepped up into leadership positions in multiracial organizations and are just abandoned by all of the white people.

I have heard lots of stories about organizer training programs that train white graduates and graduates of color—mostly women, because it’s women who do this work. The white graduates of the training program are hired immediately while the women of color either end up starting their own thing because they don’t have another option or, are hired as the outreach person at a white organization, or end up not getting hired at all in organizing.
I think that there are still characteristics that make some of us more palatable leaders in the progressive world than others. You can’t be too confrontational. You can’t be too focused on race, for example. You can’t be too insistent that gender always be in the mix of analysis. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “you can’t be” because I think I’m all of those things, but you have to make every decision extremely strategically. There’s not much room for mistakes to be made, certainly not the kind of room that white men have in progressive politics. You can lose and lose and lose and still be the top strategist of major democratic campaigns, for example. That just would not be true for women leaders of color.

Clarke: Moving forward, what’s the central racial justice challenge for building power for communities of color?
Sen: The environmental justice frame and the intellectual work that that movement did revealed how racism can work as a system even if the individuals within it are not consciously racist. Even if Union Carbide doesn’t have consciously racist executives deciding, “We're going to make sure every community we target is a community of color because we just hate them.” Even if that’s not happening, the activities of Union Carbide have that impact, have the result of not just disproportionately creating health problems and poverty for people of color but actively exploiting those communities so that money can be made by someone else.

I think the biggest problem is that Americans don’t understand how racism actually works today. They define it as interpersonal and explicit and blatant. So, if there’s not a noose hanging somewhere, there’s no racism involved. Communities of color also have that same definition. We’re more sensitive to horrible interpersonal interactions. If we have the experience of discrimination it changes our outlook some, but our essential definition of racism is not systemic, it’s individual. Until you get to a systemic definition, very little is going to change. We need everybody to embrace that systemic definition, regardless of their political position or their color.

I think it has been an enormous mistake to pursue short term gains—to win this election or that ballot measure. We have made lots of decisions about what we will not say because the “public” can’t tolerate it, or is too stupid to understand the complexities of racism. We’ve based all kinds of political strategy—from school board races to budget fights to presidential campaigns—on the idea that Americans are too stupid to understand how a system works.

What we’ve done is let the muscle that can grapple with racism atrophy for 30 years. You know, when you exercise, you have to push yourself, not just maintain your resting heart rate. We have stopped engaging in the exercise and we have lost that muscle. I don’t single out politicians of color as being better or worse than anyone else in this regard. But I do think that we have to pose that challenge wherever we can—to politicians, to government administrators, to teachers, to doctors, and to ourselves as activists.

B. Jesse Clarke is the editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment.Thanks to the National Radio Project for assistance in recording this interview.


The 20th Anniversary Issue | Vol. 17, No. 1 | Spring 2010 | Credits

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Black Political Power: Mayors, Municipalities, and Money

Earlier this winter, Ron Dellums, mayor of Oakland, California did something that spoke volumes about the nature and effect of political power in that Bay Area city. In his annual State of the City address before a packed City Hall, he pointedly avoided using the “b” word—“b” as in black or black people. Instead, Dellums used a word more common in the modern progressive lexicon—the "d" word—diversity. It's a telling difference.

Although many cities have tried to solve their social problems simply by moving some of their residents out of the city, Dellums said that this was not going to happ
en on his watch. In Oakland, the mayor said, we celebrate and welcome diversity.

Dellums, once described by Van Jones as “the legendary congressman who personally helped speed Apartheid’s demise” in South Africa, wanted to go on record as reversing the gentrification policies of his predecessor, Jerry Brown, under whose watch the exodus of African Americans from the city escalated at a rapid pace. But he did not appear to want to spell out that it was African American residents he was looking to retain.

Bobby Seal’s 1973  
campaign for mayor paved the way for later black candidates. Courtesy of
www. jetcityorange.comThe action was no aberration. Four years ago, a multiracial coalition of Oakland citizens began a petition campaign to convince Dellums to come out of retirement as a public official and run for mayor. But it was the African American leaders within that coalition who had begun the original “Run, Ron, Run” chant at a meeting of Oakland black activists, which sparked the petition campaign that was subsequently taken up by other ethnic and racial groups.
“Because Ron was a black politician, if blacks had been prominent in the forefront of the petition drive it would have been identified as a ‘black campaign,’ the press would have jumped on it, his opponents would have attacked it, and it would have hurt Ron’s chances,” explained one activist who had drafted Dellums.

In the city that was once the unofficial capital of black radical political action when it was the national headquarters of the Black Panther Party four decades ago, in an area (San Francisco Bay Area) still considered one of the most progressive in the nation, too close an identification with “black” by black politicians and political activists can sometimes become something of a liability.

In reality, the history of political power in American cities is flush with examples of ethnic solidarity. Communities elect politicians from their own ethnic group who, in turn, dole out jobs, programs, projects, and favors to their community members, thus enhancing the community‘s political clout. The Irish in New York, Boston, and Chicago and the Italians in New York and San Francisco are examples. Even in Oakland, Latinos and Asian Americans are continuing that trend with little contention. In fact, the city only recently ended the practice of treating the At-Large City Council seat as the unofficial Asian seat after Asian Americans showed that they could win seats without such a set-aside. But for African Americans in Oakland, the process appears to have reached a dead-end.

 

The Role of the Black Panthers in Oakland Politics

The root of the problem with African American politics in Oakland goes back to the successful 1977 campaign of Lionel Wilson, the city’s first black mayor, according to Geoffrey Pete, an African American business leader.

Four years prior, after the Black Panther Party sponsored a 1972 voter registration drive that put several thousand new voters on the books for Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale had run for Oakland mayor. He shocked political observers by coming in second in the first round of voting and forcing a runoff against the incumbent white mayor, John Reading. With Reading choosing not to run again in 1977, Wilson won the mayoral election in a runoff.

“The Black Panther Party helped [Wilson] get elected more so than the Democratic Party or the Republican Party,” says Pete. “Lionel admitted that, and his quote was printed in one of the Black Panther Party papers. It was just a fact. They were organized. They were at the pinnacle of their powers and development at that particular time.”

In the normal course of events, the Black Panther Party would have used its organizational power to put pressure on Wilson to address specific African American interests and issues in the city. But Panther co-founder Huey Newton had just returned to Oakland from exile the year of Wilson’s election as mayor, setting off a fierce turmoil and infighting within the Black Panther Party, which led to the ouster of Seale and Elaine Brown—Panther leaders and architects of the party’s foray into electoral politics. Under Newton, the Black Panther Party veered away from electoral politics—including coalition politics with the newly-elected mayor—and the Party itself fell into disarray, eventually imploding and disintegrating.

“Because the Panther Party was gone, they never held Lionel responsible and [they failed] to remind him who he was beholden to,” said Pete. “So Lionel went the other extreme. That’s not to say that he didn’t advocate for African American interests, but the blueprint [for advancing black interests in the city] was never cemented.”


Testing The Limits of Black Power

The strongest indication of the limits of black political power in Oakland came in 1996, when African Americans held a majority on the seven-member Oakland Unified School District board and four of the nine City Council seats, including the mayor’s office. Recognizing that African American students in Oakland schools were falling behind in achievement—in part because many of them spoke a unique dialect known to American linguists as Ebonics—the school board directed the school district to set up training programs for teachers so that they could instruct African American students using Ebonics. The idea was to help the students in learning both, standard English and other subjects, while maintaining “the richness and legitimacy” of Ebonics. The school board suggested that funding for the proposed Ebonics program could come from federal education funds earmarked for students whose primary language is not English. What happened next is documented in a feature article entitled “Double Talk” that I wrote for the San Jose Metro newspaper at the time:

“In a fierce-hot reaction that rolled over the country and back with interwarp speed, Oakland’s Ebonics policy was both ridiculed and denounced on talk shows and op-ed pages and in newsgroups everywhere. A spokesperson for California Governor Pete Wilson called it a ‘ridiculous theory’ and a ‘dubious plan.’ North Carolina Senator Lauch Faircloth called the use of Ebonics as a public teaching tool ‘absurd... It’s teaching down to people.’ State Senator Ray Haynes of Riverside accused the Oakland board of ‘want[ing] to institutionalize bad speech patterns.’ But certainly the most damaging blows to the Oakland plan came from national African American leaders. Jesse Jackson initially called the Ebonics proposal ‘an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace.’ Poet-educator Maya Angelou was quoted as saying she was ‘incensed’ by the plan, and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called it ‘a cruel joke.’”[1]

It was some time after the controversy had died down that American linguists and education specialists  began expressing public support for the Ebonics proposal because, in their expert opinion, the underlying linguistic assumptions and educational roadmap were based on sound fundamentals. But by then the political damage had already been done. The Ebonics program was never implemented, Oakland’s black leadership became a national laughingstock, and no African American political officeholder from Oakland has come out with an overtly pro-black program since.

As a matter of fact, in cities around the country, there is a clear decline in the ability and willingness of African American political officeholders to deliver direct and specific political benefits to the core constituency that largely helped put them in office.

Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson’s  Black Majority

In his New York Times obituary for Maynard Jackson, the first African American mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, reporter David Halbfinger wrote “...it was [Jackson’s] fiery advocacy for the new black majority that had elected him [in 1973]—in particular, by setting up affirmative-action programs for hiring city workers and contractors, and by giving neighborhoods a voice in city planning—that constituted a political revolution in the heart of the South. Seemingly overnight, it transformed Atlanta into a mecca for talented, aspiring blacks from across the country.”[2]

The signature black advocacy event of Jackson’s mayoral tenure occurred during the expansion of the Atlanta airport. As Jackson took office, Halbfinger wrote, Atlanta “was becoming the air travel crossroads of the South, Atlanta’s airport was expanding to meet the needs of a major hub, and Mr. Jackson demanded that black workers and contractors receive their fair share of the business building and operating its new terminals at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport.” Jackson refused to move forward with the terminal building until those demands were met, and though the city’s white business leaders initially balked, they could not outlast the new mayor.

Halbfinger also noted that “Mr. Jackson often boasted that the airport was built ahead of time and under budget, even as the city contracts granted to minorities duly soared from less than 1 percent in 1973 to nearly 39 percent within five years. He also boasted that Atlanta gained dozens of new black millionaires, many thanks to joint ventures of minority-owned and white-owned companies at the airport.”

It was the perfect yardstick for how black political power should work to support black business and black workers who, in return, throw their political support back to black political officeholders who can perpetuate the cycle. But 15 years after Jackson left office, that cycle appears to have been broken.

The Shrinking Black Voter Base

In a December 4, 2009 online piece on Atlanta’s mayoral race, Errin Haines of the Associated Press writes that after four decades of African American leadership, with the election of Atlanta’s fifth consecutive black mayor, “...the fissures in the [city’s black political] machine were exposed, its future viability cast in doubt... Atlanta’s black population has shrunk and its white population grown since its current mayor, Shirley Franklin, was elected in 2001. Its voting rolls are filled with newcomers unfamiliar with Atlanta’s habit of assigning its business interests to whites and its political interests to blacks. The reality is sinking in that black political power here is not as strong or united as it once was, and is destined to weaken as more whites seek office and more blacks shed their civil rights-era sentimentality.”[3]

“A major challenge to the machine is the thought, rapidly taking hold, that black leadership has not always meant black progress in Atlanta—the city still has a poverty rate of 22 percent, far more than the national average of 13 percent,” Haines points out.


In New Orleans, the loss of black political power came directly from the inability of key black officeholders to hold on to black people. Following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Ray Nagin, the city’s fourth consecutive black mayor, was either unable or unwilling to rebuild the communities devastated by the floodwaters, particularly in the city’s majority-black Ninth Ward. Once dubbed “the Chocolate City” by Nagin, New Orleans’ black population dropped by the thousands following Katrina, resulting in this year’s election of the city’s first white mayor since 1978.

Perhaps the best chance to translate black political victories into sustained black political power along the Irish and Italian models was lost with the 1987 death of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington of a heart attack just months after being elected to a second term. Washington—who understood ethnic power politics well—was elected in 1983 after a registration campaign that pulled in 100,000 new African American voters with a thinly disguised Black Power slogan that said, “It’s Our Turn Now.” That the next African American politician from Chicago to emerge into national prominence after Washington is Barack Obama—who represents the very essence of diversity and coalition politics and is the antithesis of a black politics that openly and specifically goes after black-identified issues—is symptomatic of the times.

The reason why black political power has traveled a distinctly different road from America’s other ethnic and racial minorities has been well documented: No other racial or ethnic group suffered the cultural and institutional disintegration that African Americans did under slavery and, therefore, are as vulnerable to continued outside manipulation and disruption. African Americans served as the battering ram to open the door for the rights of other Americans—many ethnic and racial groups, women, gays—but it left the African American institutional and group infrastructure seriously weakened. Whether African Americans will rebound from these setbacks or the direction that that rebound will take is a tale yet to be told.

Jerry Brown’s Promise to Oakland

For the moment, the Oakland experience seems prototypical of the national trend: In 1980, African Americans constituted 47 percent—the largest racial bloc—of this multiracial city. That black plurality resulted in two consecutive African American mayors—Lionel Wilson and Elihu Harris—between 1978 and 1999 and at one point, a majority-black Oakland City Council and Oakland School Board. But those years of black political power in Oakland resulted in a backlash, and an August, 1999 article in the Wall Street Journal reported that Mayor Jerry Brown in his campaign had “promised to dismantle the African American-dominated political machine that presided over much of the city’s decline since the 1970s.”

Brown won with 59 percent of the vote—a large chunk of it African American—against several black candidates. And ironically, though he was the only candidate who openly targeted the power of another racial group, a City Journal article of August 1999 speculated that Brown’s election “may signal the waning of Oakland’s counterproductive race politics.” A Salon.com article from June 1999 notes that “[m]uch of [Oakland]’s black leadership, and a plurality of its black voters, seemed prepared to elect this white man mayor, judging that his track record on issues of concern to African Americans more than made up for his lack of melanin.”

Some of the city’s African American leadership had warned that a Jerry Brown administration with its ambitious plans to move 10,000 new residents into the city’s downtown area would lead to gentrification—and a loss of black lower-income residents. They had a point. Mayor Brown’s development plans became so synonymous with gentrification that Oakland activists began calling the phenomenon “jerryfication.” Though Oakland had already been losing its African American population before Brown was elected—it dropped by 21,000 between 1990 and 2000—during his two terms in office that trend accelerated and the city lost another 34,000 blacks from 2000 to 2008. Many left because of a lack of jobs, others because they could no longer afford the rents in their neighborhoods, yet others because many of the lower-income African American neighborhoods have been unable to rise above the squalor, drug dealing, crime and violence for years. It is one of the largest movements of a population in California since African Americans poured into Oakland during World War II to work in nearby factories and shipyards.

Whites now make up about 37 percent of Oakland and outnumber African Americans by about seven percent. The numbers of Latinos and Asian Americans also rose in Oakland during Jerry Brown’s eight-year term. This is the Oakland that elected former congressman Ron Dellums mayor in 2006.

The Age of Dellums

During his tenure as Oakland’s congressional representative, Dellums was something of a progressive icon because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam and Apartheid rule in South Africa, but was always forced to subvert overtly-black political issues within his own district because he was one of the few blacks to serve in a non-majority black congressional district. Whatever his personal beliefs, Dellums always underplays the black agenda, either from habit or political survival instincts. And while his administration’s programs are often of direct benefit to African American interests—a highly-successful re-entry program that helps find jobs and other support for the mostly black ex-prisoners returning to the city, and reforms within the Oakland Police Department (OPD) that are helping to close the longtime split between blacks and the OPD, for example—Dellums himself rarely, if ever, speaks of the programs as having direct black benefits.

Geoffrey Pete, an Oakland business leader and Dellums supporter who has been active in city politics and African American organizations for many years, and who led the original “Run, Ron, Run” chant that eventually led to the Dellums mayoralty, thinks the current political conditions in Oakland make black politicians leery of being too openly identified with black-specific causes. Pointing out that Oakland runs on coalition politics, Pete says, “Coalition politics means that you work with Asians, you work with Latinos, you work with unions, you work with environmentalists, you work with gays. That’s good, and it’s necessary, and we should be doing it. But the black interests are sometimes swallowed up in that process.”

Endnotes

1    www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/02.27.97/cover/ebonics1-9709.html
2    www.nytimes.com/2003/06/24/us/maynard-h-jackson-jr-first-black-mayor-atlanta-political-force-dies-65.html
3    http://blog.taragana.com/politics/2009/12/04/atlantas-black-political-machine-intact-but-battered-after-narrow-victory-in-mayors-race-4670/

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, California.


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The Role of the Black Panthers in Oakland Politics

The root of the problem with African American politics in Oakland goes back to the successful 1977 campaign of Lionel Wilson, the city’s first black mayor, according to Geoffrey Pete, an African American business leader.

Four years prior, after the Black Panther Party sponsored a 1972 voter registration drive that put several thousand new voters on the books for Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale had run for Oakland mayor. He shocked political observers by coming in second in the first round of voting and forcing a runoff against the incumbent white mayor, John Reading. With Reading choosing not to run again in 1977, Wilson won the mayoral election in a runoff.

“The Black Panther Party helped [Wilson] get elected more so than the Democratic Party or the Republican Party,” says Pete. “Lionel admitted that, and his quote was printed in one of the Black Panther Party papers. It was just a fact. They were organized. They were at the pinnacle of their powers and development at that particular time.”

In the normal course of events, the Black Panther Party would have used its organizational power to put pressure on Wilson to address specific African American interests and issues in the city. But Panther co-founder Huey Newton had just returned to Oakland from exile the year of Wilson’s election as mayor, setting off a fierce turmoil and infighting within the Black Panther Party, which led to the ouster of Seale and Elaine Brown—Panther leaders and architects of the party’s foray into electoral politics. Under Newton, the Black Panther Party veered away from electoral politics—including coalition politics with the newly-elected mayor—and the Party itself fell into disarray, eventually imploding and disintegrating.

“Because the Panther Party was gone, they never held Lionel responsible and [they failed] to remind him who he was beholden to,” said Pete. “So Lionel went the other extreme. That’s not to say that he didn’t advocate for African American interests, but the blueprint [for advancing black interests in the city] was never cemented.”

The War on Drugs and the New Jim Crow

Now 2010Michelle 
Alexander

Over since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.”  Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.
Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality.  There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.
Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

  • There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
  • As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
  • A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
  • If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80 percent.) These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—permanently relegated by law to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

There is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys. 

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades—they are currently at historical lows—but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal—complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers, and sweeps of entire neighborhoods—but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth.  Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data. White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by desegregation, busing, and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes—sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon.  

Facing Facts
But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found? The answer is yes... in made-for-TV movies. In real life, the answer is no.

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or violent offenders. Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80 percent of the cash, cars, and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s—the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war—nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time—a new Jim Crow system. Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.
Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers—not to mention president of the United States—causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come. 

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. Nearly a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that’s with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure—the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.
This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. This is not the promised land. The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare. 

Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness  (The New Press, 2010). The former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California, she also served as a law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Currently, she holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. This article was previously published at tomdispatch.com.


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Rooted in Slavery: Prison Labor Exploitation

Scene in Western North Carolina. Courtesy of Millions for Reparations

The United States has once again surpassed its own world record for incarcerating the highest percentage of its population. According to a report released by the Bureau of Prison Statistics, one out of every 32 adults was in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole at the end of 2005. But the crisis of mass incarceration is not felt evenly in the United States: Race defines every aspect of the criminal justice system, from police targeting, to crimes charged, and rates of conviction. African American men between the ages of 20 and 39 account for nearly one-third of all sentenced prisoners.[1]

Over the last three decades, the explosion of the prison population in the United States paralleled the stagnation in the global economy. In the early 1970s, the United States and the G7 nations began implementing neoliberal policies, moving production from the North to the global South, pushing entire sectors of workers in the United States out of the economy. As the economic role of the working class in the United States shifted from manufacturing to staffing a rising service industry, African American workers faced staggering rates of unemployment. The mid-1970s is also the first period when the incarceration rate in the United States began to rise, doubling in the 1980s, and doubling again in the 1990s.

It may surprise some people that as the number of people without jobs increases, the number of working people actually increases—they become prison laborers. Everyone inside has a job. There are currently over 70 factories in California’s 33 prisons alone. Prisoners do everything from textile work and construction, to manufacturing and service work. Prisoners make shoes, clothing, and detergent; they do dental lab work, recycling, metal production, and wood production; they operate dairies, farms, and slaughterhouses.

United States Prisons mirror Free Enterprise Zones in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; the prison is a reflection of the Third World within the United States. Prisoners are not protected by minimum wage laws or overtime, and are explicitly barred from the right to organize and collectively bargain. In fact, the conditions for the overwhelmingly black and Latino men and women inside the United States prison system are so similar to that of workers in the maquiladoras and sweatshops of the global South that in 1995, Oregon politicians were even courting Nike to move their production from Indonesia into Oregon prisons. “We propose that (Nike) take a look at their transportation costs and their labor costs,” Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix explained in an interview with researcher Reese Erlich, “We could offer [competitive] prison inmate labor” in Oregon.[2]

Rooted in Slavery
To understand the conditions that have allowed such an exploitative industry to develop, we have to look at the origin of the United States prison system itself. Before the abolition of slavery there was no real prison system in the United States. Punishment for crime consisted of physical torture, referred to as corporal or capital punishment. While the model prison in the United States was built in Auburn, New York in 1817, it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War, with the official abolition of slavery, that the prison system took hold.

In 1865, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime and opened the door for mass criminalization. Prisons were built in the South as part of the backlash to black Reconstruction and as a mechanism to re-enslave black workers. In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the racial and economic relationship of slavery.
Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison illustrates this history best. In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working the land—a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.

Black Codes and Convict Leasing
When slavery was legally abolished, a new set of laws called the Black Codes emerged to criminalize legal activity for African Americans. Through the enforcement of these laws, acts such as standing in one area of town or walking at night, for example, became the criminal acts of “loitering” or “breaking curfew,” for which African Americans were imprisoned. As a result of Black Codes, the percentage of African Americans in prison grew exponentially, surpassing whites for the first time.[3]

A system of convict leasing was developed to allow white slave plantation owners in the South to literally purchase prisoners to live on their property and work under their control. Through this system, bidders paid an average $25,000 a year to the state, in exchange for control over the lives of all of the prisoners. The system provided revenue for the state and profits for plantation owners. In 1878, Georgia leased out 1,239 prisoners, and all but 115 were African American.[4]

Much like the system of slavery from which it emerged, convict leasing was a violent and abusive system. The death rate of prisoners leased to railroad companies between 1877 and 1879 was 16 percent in Mississippi, 25 percent in Arkansas, and 45 percent in South Carolina.[5] The stories of violence and torture eventually led to massive reform and abolition movements involving alliances between prisoner organizations, labor unions, and community groups. By the 1930s, every state had abolished convict leasing.[6]

Chain Gangs
As the southern states began to phase out convict leasing, prisoners were increasingly made to work in the most brutal form of forced labor, the chain gang. The chain gangs originated as a part of a massive road development project in the 1890s. Georgia was the first state to begin using chain gangs to work male felony convicts outside of the prison walls. Chains were wrapped around the ankles of prisoners, shackling five together while they worked, ate, and slept. Following Georgia’s example, the use of chain gangs spread rapidly throughout the South.[7]
For over 30 years, African American prisoners (and some white prisoners) in the chain gangs were worked at gunpoint under whips and chains in a public spectacle of chattel slavery and torture. Eventually, the brutality and violence associated with chain gang labor in the United States gained worldwide attention. The chain gang was abolished in every state by the l950s, almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War.[8]

Prison Labor Exploitation in the 21st Century

Just a few decades later, we are witnessing the return of all of these systems of prison labor exploitation. Private corporations are able to lease factories in prisons, as well as lease prisoners out to their factories. Private corporations are running prisons-for-profit. Government-run prison factories operate as multibillion dollar industries in every state, and throughout the federal prison system. In the most punitive and racist prison systems, we are even witnessing the return of the chain gang. Prisoner resistance and community organizing has been able to defeat some of these initiatives, but in Arizona, Maricopa County continues to operate the first women’s chain gang in the history of the United States.[9]

Shifts in the United States economy and growing crises of underemployment and poverty in communities of color have created the conditions for the current wave of mass incarceration, and the boom in prison labor exploitation. In the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, a historically black community with an estimated 50 percent unemployment rate, the community is facing criminalization, incarceration, and mass displacement as a result of gentrification. San Francisco, along with eight other counties in California, is implementing gang injunctions—curfews, anti-loitering, and anti-association laws that function very similar to Black Codes for black, Latino, and Asian youth—using the pretext of gang prevention to track young men into the prison system to become prison labor, while preparing the community for redevelopment and gentrification. People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) is building power among Bayview residents and fighting for economic development that addresses the interests of the black community, which will create alternatives to prison labor exploitation.[10] Struggles like this are being waged all across the country and provide an opening to link the demands for worker rights, community rights, and prisoner rights.

The fight against the exploitation of prison labor is at once a fight against racial profiling and mass incarceration, and also for genuine economic development in black, Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities. The labor movement in the United States has a responsibility to support prisoner unions such as the Missouri Prison Labor Union (MPLU), which is fighting for higher wages and collective bargaining, and to challenge labor unions who dismiss prisoners as stealing jobs from the “good law-abiding workers” on the outside. As Sidney Williams of the MLPU states, “In this struggle we seek to regain our human dignity.” That is the demand of the slavery abolition movement of the 21st century. 

Endnotes

1.     There are more than 46 black men in prison nationwide per 1000 black men in the population, whereas the rate for white men is four per 1000. Democracy Now, “United States prison population jumps 3.7 percent to two million; Increase of 700 inmates every week.” Wednesday, July 30, 2003.
2.     Erlich, Reese, “Prison Labor: Workin’ For The Man.” Covert Action Quarterly #54, Fall 1995.
3.     In Tennessee, for example, African Americans were only 33 percent of the prison population in 1865, by 1877 the number had swelled to 67 percent of the total prison population. Shelden, Randall G., “Slavery in the 3rd Millennium: Part II—Prisons and Convict Leasing Help Perpetuate Slavery.” The Black Commentator, Issue 142, June 16, 2005.
4.    Green, Fletcher M., “Some Aspects of the Convict Lease System in the Southern States.” Essays in Southern History, vol. 31, (Durham: University of North Carolina Press), 1949, pp. 116-120.
5.     Hartnett, Stephen, “Prison Labor, Slavery & Capitalism In Historical Perspective” (c. 1997). Referencing Novak, D.A., The Wheel of Servitude: Black Forced Labor After Slavery.
6.     Lichtenstein, Alexander, “Good Roads and Chain Gangs in the Progressive South: The Negro Convict is a Slave.” The Journal of Southern History, (Athens, Georgia: Southern Historical Association), 1993, p. 87.
7.     Wilson, Walter, Forced Labor in the United States, (New York: AMS Press, Inc.), 1933, p. 68.
8.    Prison Law Office, The California State Prisoners Handbook, Section 3.17, pp. 79-80.
9.     Reuters. “Sheriff runs female chain gang.” www.cnn.com. October 29, 2003.
10. POWER is a San Francisco-based multiracial organization of low-wage workers and tenants. For more information, see www.unite-to-fight.org.

Jaron Browne is an organizer with People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER).   


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