Norma Rae, Get out of the Way! Income Inequality in the 21st Century

Karl Marx is quoted as saying, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Well the sounds of chains rattling were indeed heard last week on September 4th across the nation within over one hundred cities across the U.S. Sponsored in part by the Service Employees International Union, partakers within the cities of San Diego, Chicago, Las Vegas, Little Rock, New York, and Detroit raged “against the machine,” marched, and created civil disobedience while performing sit-ins outside your favorite fast-food restaurants. If you were lucky enough last week to be in line at McDonalds or Burger King waiting for your “McFlurry,” or one of those new “Big King Chicken” sandwiches, you might have had the chance to feast your eyes upon hundreds of fast-food workers and their supports proclaiming in unisons that the current living wages of most fast-food workers, which is approximately 7.25 an hour, would no longer suffice. If you were in a McDonald’s in Los Angeles’ Southland area, you may have had trouble listening for your food order, because 100 workers conveyed inside and chanted, “Get up! Get down! Fast-food workers run this town!” You might have even seen some of them, like others protesters across the country screaming for a 15 dollar an hour increase as local police forcibly escorted many of them to “The Pokie.”

The case of income inequality is back upon the stage of interests. Within the U.S., between 1979 and 2012,

the median wage earner became 74.5 percent more productive but saw just a 5 percent increase in pay, and since 2000, compensation has declined or stagnated for the bottom 70 percent.

Unlike when I was a teen in the late 1980s while working and goofing off at Burger King with my high school friends, today’s employees are disproportionately adults with families. In fact, the largest share of those working within these positions is between 25 and 54 years of age. This makes the findings by the Economic Policy Institute even more haunting. They reported that out of those fast food workers, 16.7 percent live below the poverty line. This number is double the percentage of those that do not work within the industry. On the other hand, CEO’s of these companies, on average earned 26.7 million in 2012.

If you heard of the events described above last week while watching CNN or Fox, you did not hear them broach the topic of race and gender. Importantly, fifty-six percent of those workers who were 20 years or older adults between 2010-2012, as reported by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, were women. In terms of race, 56.2 percent and 17.5 percent were respectively White and Black. One must remember Blacks only account for 13.2 percent of the country, while Whites account for 77.7 percent. The Urban Institute found that for every dollar Blacks earned in 2010, Whites earned two dollars.

Not so long ago, we as a country Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told us that we must challenge the issue of income inequality. He stated,

Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.

In 1956 Rev. Martin Luther King publicly argued for a world in which “privilege and property [are] widely distributed, a world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” It seems nothing has changed.

Regardless, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was an outspoken advocate of unions and workers rights. This is marked within his action to march with the United Workers Association (UAW) in 1963 in Detroit. His position is evident within the speech to sanitation workers in Memphis the night before he was assassinated in 1968. Also, one cannot forget the Poor People’s Campaign that addressed issues of economic injustice and poor housing opportunities, for not only Blacks, but also “all” people. Overall, the campaign stressed to the federal government to take actions that illustrated a strong stance to aid the poor. Sadly, his energies even garnished criticism inside and outside the civil rights movement.

Today, his work is echoed within the current movement to gain rights for food and other service workers. But the question remains, will the gauntlet of King be picked up or are the events last week fleeting and follow the characteristic lazy stance U.S. citizens have taken regarding domestic social justice? I am hopeful, but as Gil Scott-Heron noted in a live performance in France, “Lately there has been on spring, no summer, and no fall, politically and philosophically, and psychologically. There has only been the season of ice.” It truly is “Winter in America.”

The Craziest Person in the Room: Reflections on How a Mediocre White Guy Can Try to Be Useful

[Edited version of a talk at the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education in New Orleans on June 1, 2013.]

I recognize that the title for this presentation—“The Craziest Person in the Room: Reflections on How a Mediocre White Guy Can Try to Be Useful”—is not particularly elegant or enticing, maybe not very clear or even coherent. So, let me begin by explaining what I mean by some of these terms.

First, the “white guy”: For some years now, I’ve begun talks on injustice and inequality by acknowledging my status: White, male, educated, comfortably middle class, and born in the United States—in short, a privileged citizen of a predatory imperial nation-state within a pathological capitalist economic system. Borrowing a line from a friend with the same profile, I observe that, “If I had been born good-looking, I would have had it all.” That approach communicates to people in this room who don’t occupy these categories that I recognize my unearned privilege and the unjust systems and structures of power from which that privilege flows. (It also indicates that I am not afraid to look in a mirror.)

But today I won’t offer much more of that reflexive white liberal/progressive/radical genuflecting, which while appropriate in many situations increasing feels to me like a highly choreographed dance that happens in what we might call “social-justice spaces.” In rooms such as this, such a performance feels like that—just a performance. So, yes, there are some things I don’t know and can’t know because I’m a white guy, and that demands real humility, a recognition that people on the other end of those hierarchies have different, and typically deeper, insights than mine. But after 25 years of work to understand the world in which I live, there are some things I am confident that I do know and that are more vitally important than ever.

This confidence flows from an awareness that I am mediocre. About “mediocre”: Don’t worry, I don’t have a self-esteem problem. I am a tenured full professor at a major state research university, a job that I work hard at with some success. This is not false modesty; I believe I’m an above-average teacher who is particularly good at expressing serious ideas in plain language. I describe myself as mediocre because I think that, whatever skills I have developed, I’m pretty ordinary and I think that most of us ordinary people are pretty mediocre—good enough to get by, but nothing special. If we put some effort into our work and catch a few breaks (and I’ve had more than my share of lucky breaks), we’ll do ok. Too many bad breaks, and things fall apart quickly. I think this is an honest, and healthy, way to understand ourselves.

So, for me, “coming out” as mediocre is a way of reminding myself of my limits, to help me use whatever abilities I do have as effectively as possible. I’ve spent a quarter-century in academic and political life, during which time I’ve met some really smart people, and I can tell the difference between them and me. I have never broken new theoretical ground in any field, and I never will. I probably have never had a truly original idea. I’m a competent, hard-working second-tier intellectual and organizer.

As a result, I’ve focused on trying to get clear about basic issues: Why is it so difficult for U.S. society to transcend the white-supremacist ideas of its founding, even decades after the end of the country’s formal apartheid system? Why do patriarchal ideas dominate everywhere, even in the face of the compelling arguments of feminists? Why do we continue to describe the United States as a democratic society when most ordinary people feel shut out of politics and the country operates on the world stage as a rogue state outside of international law? Why do we celebrate capitalism when it produces a world of unspeakable deprivation alongside indefensible affluence? And why, in the face of multiple cascading ecological crises, do we collectively pretend that prosperity is just around the corner when what seems more likely to be around the corner is the cliff that we are about to go over? Those are some really heavy questions, but people don’t have to pretend to be something special to deal with these challenges. We can be ordinary, average—mediocre, in the sense I mean it—and still do useful things to confront all this. Instead of trying to prove how special and smart we are, it’s fine to dig in and do the ordinary work of the world. But people like me—those of us with identities that come with all that unearned privilege—do have one opportunity to do at least one thing that can be special: We don’t have to pretend to be the smartest, but we can strive to be the craziest person in the room.

Third, and final, clarification, about “crazy”: In this context, I mean crazy not in a pejorative but in an aspirational sense. I want to be as crazy as I can, in the sense of being unafraid of the radical implications of the radical analysis necessary to understand the world. When such analysis is honest, the implications are challenging, even frightening. It is helpful to be a bit crazy, in this sense, to help us accept the responsibility of pushing as far and as hard as is possible and productive, in every space.

I take that to be my job, to leverage that unearned privilege to create as much space as possible for the most radical analysis possible, precisely because in some settings I am taken more seriously than those without that status. If it’s true that white people tend to take me more seriously than a non-white person when talking about race, then I should be pushing those white folk. If I can get away with talking not just about the need for diversity but also about the enduring reality of racism—and in the process, explain why the United States remains a white-supremacist society—then I should talk “crazy” in that way, to make sure that analysis is part of the conversation, and to make it easier for non-white people to push in whatever direction they choose. Once I’ve used the term “white supremacy,” it’s on the table for others who might be dismissed as “angry” if they had introduced it into the conversation.

If it’s true that men tend to take me more seriously than a woman when talking about gender, then I should be pushing the envelope. If I can get away with talking not just about the importance of respecting women but also about the enduring reality of sexism, then I should talk “crazy” about how rape is not deviant but normalized in a patriarchal culture, about how the buying and selling of women’s bodies for the sexual pleasure of men in prostitution, pornography, and stripping is a predictable consequence of the eroticizing of domination and subordination.

I should talk about the violent reality of imperialism, not just questioning the wisdom of a particular war but critiquing the sick structure of U.S. militarism. I should talk not just about the destructive nature of the worst corporations but also about the fundamental depravity of capitalism itself.

As someone with status and protection, I should always be thinking: What is the most radical formulation of the relevant analysis that will be effective in a particular time and place? Then I should probably take a chance and push it a half-step past that. I should do all this without resorting to jargon, either from the diversity world or the dogmatic left. I should say it as clearly as possible, even when that clarity makes people—including me—uncomfortable. This isn’t always as difficult or risky as it seems. Outside of overtly reactionary political spaces, most people’s philosophical and theological systems are rooted in basic concepts of fairness, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people. Most of us endorse values that—if we took them seriously—should lead to an ethics and politics that reject the violence, exploitation, and oppression that defines the modern world. If only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths—incapable of empathy, those who for some reason enjoy cruel and oppressive behavior—then a radical analysis should make sense to lots of people.

But it is not, of course, that easy, because of the rewards available to us when we are willing to subordinate our stated principles in service of oppressive systems. I think that process works something like this:

–The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.
–Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits, and some limited number of people in subordinated classes will be allowed access to most of those same rewards.
–People are typically hesitant to give up privileges, pleasures, and benefits that make us feel good.
–But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of the vast majority of those in the subordinated classes.
–Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.
–One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are “natural” and therefore inevitable, immutable. There’s no point getting all worked up about this—it’s just the way things are.

If this analysis is accurate, that’s actually good news. I would rather believe that people take pains to rationalize a situation they understand to be morally problematic than to celebrate injustice. When people know they have to rationalize, it means they at least understand the problems of the systems, even if they won’t confront them.

So, our task is to take seriously that claim: Is this domination/subordination dynamic natural? Yes and no. Everything humans do is “natural,” in the tautological sense that since we do it, human nature obviously includes those particular characteristics. In that sense, a pacifist intentional community based on the collective good and a slave society based on exploitation are both natural. We all know from our own experience that our individual nature includes varied capacities; we are capable of greedy, self-interested behavior, and we also can act out of solidarity and compassion. We make choices—sometimes consciously, though more often without much deliberation—within systems that encourage some aspects of our nature and suppress other parts.

Maybe there is a pecking order to these various aspects of human beings—a ranking of the relative strength of these various parts of our nature—but if that is the case, we know virtually nothing about it, and aren’t likely to know anytime soon, given the limits of our ability to understand our own psychology. What we do understand is that the aspect of our nature that emerges as primary depends on the nature of the systems in which we live. Our focus should be on collective decisions we make about social structure, which is why it’s crucial to never let out of our sights the systems that do so much damage: white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism. There are serious implications to that statement. For example, I do not think that meaningful social justice is possible within capitalism. My employer, the University of Texas at Austin, doesn’t agree. In fact, some units of the university—most notably the departments of business, advertising, and economics—are dedicated to entrenching capitalism. That means I will always be in a state of tension with my employer, if I’m true to my own stated beliefs.

Education and organizing efforts that stray too far from this focus will never be able to do more than smooth the rough edges off of systems that will continue to produce violence, exploitation, and oppression—because that’s what those systems are designed to do. If we are serious about resisting injustice, that list of systems we must challenge is daunting enough. But it is incomplete, and perhaps irrelevant, if we don’t confront what in some ways is the ultimate hierarchy, the central domination/subordination dynamic: the human belief in our right to control the planet.

Let me put this in plain terms: We live in a dead world. Not a world that is dying, but a world that is dead—beyond repair, beyond reclamation, perhaps beyond redemption. The modern industrial high-energy/high-technology world is dead. I do not know how long life-as-we-know-it in the First World can continue, but the future of our so-called “lifestyle” likely will be measured in decades not centuries. Whatever the time frame for collapse, the contraction has begun. I was born in 1958 and grew up in a world that promised endless expansion of everything—of energy and material goods, of democracy and freedom. That bounty was never equitably distributed, of course, and those promises were mostly rhetorical cover for power. The good old days were never as good as we imagined, and they are now gone for good.

If that seems crazy, let me try again: The central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy—propped up by a technological fundamentalism that is as irrational as all fundamentalisms—is that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social arrangements, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: This high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump. We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.

Does that still sound crazy? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of dead zones in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction). Instead of gently putting our foot on the brakes and powering down, we are slamming into overdrive.

And there is the undeniable trajectory of global warming/global weirding, climate change/climate disruption—the end of a stable planet.

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points (June 7, 2012, issue of Nature) and planetary boundaries (September 23, 2009, issue of Nature), about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.” (Anthony Barnosky, et al, “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” Nature, June 7, 2012).

That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson wrote that, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.

I’m not moving into rapture talk, but we do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life.

All this matters for anyone concerned not only about the larger living world but also the state of the human family. Ecological sustainability and social justice are not separate projects. One obvious reason is that ecological crises do not affect everyone equally—as those in the environmental justice movement say, the poor and oppressed of the planet tend to be hit “first and worst, hardest and longest” by ecological degradation. These ecological realities also affect the landscape on which we organize, and progressive and radical movements on the whole have not spent enough time thinking about this.

First, let me be clear, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society, we should affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability. We take on projects that we realize may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.

Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.” There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.

Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for increasingly scarce resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.

If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.

It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice. To handle it is to be a moral agent, responsible for oneself and one’s place in a community.

Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.

Facing this doesn’t demand that we separate from mainstream society or give up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination. We do what we can, where we can, based on our best assessment of what will move us forward.

That may not be compelling to everyone. So, just in case I have dug myself in a hole with some people, I’ll deploy a strategy well known to white people talking about social justice: When you get in trouble, quote an icon from the civil-rights movement. In this case, I’ll choose James Baldwin, from a 1962 essay about the struggles of artists to help a society, such as white-supremacist America, face the depth of its pathology.

On this question of dealing honestly with hard truths, Baldwin reminds us,

Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” In that essay, titled “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” Baldwin suggested that a great writer attempts “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more. (James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” in Randall Kenan, ed., The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Pantheon, 2010), pp. 28-34.)

He was speaking about the struggle for justice within the human family, but if we extend that spirit to the state of the larger living world, the necessary formulation today would be “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then all the rest of the truth, whether we can bear it or not.”

By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe. All we do is undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability and guarantee the end of the human evolutionary experiment will be ugly beyond our imagination. We must remember, as Baldwin said, “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.”

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Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue, and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (on Kindle)

Jensen is also the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to here. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.

Sweden: No Longer the Exception to Western Racist Rule

Authored by Tobias Hübinette and L. Janelle Dance

Since May 20, 2013, mass vandalism, material damage and outbursts of rioting in the poor and non-white suburbs of Greater Stockholm have dominated Swedish and international news media. This civil unrest was sparked when, on May 12, the police shot and killed a 69-year-old man from Husby, one of the marginalized suburban communities of metropolitan Stockholm. The shooting is still under investigation. The burning of cars, other types of arsons, and attacks on the police erupted in Husby on the evening of May 19th and quickly spread to many other similar suburbs of Greater Stockholm such as Fittja, Tensta, Flemingsberg, Hjulsta, Jakobsberg, Hagsätra, Rågsved, Skärholmen and Skogås. As we write this post, after six nights of uninterrupted suburban unrest, the vandalism and the violence have also spread to other Swedish cities like Gothenburg, Örebro and Linköping. Although the US and UK embassy warnings to keep out from such districts are clearly exaggerated—the scale of the unrest cannot be compared to similar previous waves of riots in for example the US, the UK or France—a feeling of a serious social crisis is gaining ground in the political debate as leading government officials and the Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt urge a stop to the material damage.

This is not the first time that Sweden is experiencing a series of riots; the last time was between 2008-09. However, it is arguably the first time when voices from the suburbs are entering the public debate as a new nascent social movement. At the helm of this movement, which has gained the spotlight in recent years, are teens and young adults who are also usually born and raised in Sweden (the so-called second generation). More than ever before, these youth are denouncing police harassment, the declining social welfare services in the suburbs and the dramatically increasing disparities between rich and poor—a development which is heavily racialized as the proportion of poor white Swedes is below 5% while the proportion of poor Swedes of color hovers around 35-45%. Representatives from this movement have, for example, alerted the media to the use of racial slurs among the police who patrol the suburbs, and above all they have been able to express an unprecedented analysis of a New Sweden, which is becoming heavily polarized along racial lines.

For decades Sweden has proudly viewed itself as the most progressive country in the world, as “the conscience of the world”. Furthermore, Sweden’s antiracist image and radical anti-discrimination, migration and integration legislation are well known all over the world. However, recently Sweden has also become the OECD country showing the highest difference in unemployment between foreign-born and native-born Swedes, while its big- and mid-size cities are characterized by one of the most extreme ethno-racial residential segregation patterns in the Western world. Thus, it is not in the context of the old Sweden of exceptionalism but in the wake of the New Sweden of exclusion that we must understand the frustration, the desperation and the rage that can be found particularly among young people in the suburbs. This second generation has grown up in Sweden but due to stigmatized postal addresses and “non-Swedish” appearances they are not accepted within the majority society at large, without taking into account these worrying statistical correlations.

There are also other political groups that are exploiting the current suburban unrest. A fact overlooked by the media is that these other groups do not live in the suburbs yet exacerbate the unrest. While ignoring these instigators, the media focuses on spectacular videos and photos of burning buildings and cars and policemen fighting with youngsters. Firstly, there are indications that white Swedish leftist activists have encouraged and participated in the riots, something that also happened in 2008-09. Their sole political agenda is to sustain and encourage even more social antagonism at the expense of an even stronger stigmatization of the poor and non-white suburbs among the white majority population. Furthermore, Swedish extreme right-wing activists are also active in the events by portraying themselves as “ordinary Swedes” who want to help the police as “citizen guards”, a popular yet loaded discourse that the media all too often buy into. Saturday night for example, around 200 Nazi activists more or less invaded Tumba in Southern Botkyrka in the southern part of Greater Stockholm, and started to hunt down and beat up any youngster who was deemed to be a “rioter”.

However for ordinary white Swedes reading and watching the news it is highly probable that all the inhabitants in the suburbs are associated with violence and rioting. In the end, the Sweden Democrats (a former Nazi party which has transformed itself into a populist anti-immigration party and which, according to opinion polls, is the fourth or the third largest party in Sweden) will maybe become the biggest political winner due to the suburban unrest. Now, the Sweden Democrats will most probably gain even more support among the voters. Of course, representatives from the party have already made use of the events by calling for stronger police interventions and the introduction of temporary state of emergency measures in certain urban districts.

Once “exceptional” Sweden is no longer the exception to the general Western rule of blaming the racialized victim. On the contrary, white Swedes are remarkably unexceptional as they behave like racist and conservative white Americans. Ordinary white Swedes, who claim to embrace antiracism, equality and social democracy, look at the riots in Stockholm and blame marginalized youths for the institutional discrimination, political marginalization, and structural racism that have become common place in the former “conscience of the world”.

Tobias Hübinette is an Associate Professor and researcher at the Multicultural Centre in Botkyrka, Sweden. L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska and a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. Dance is currently living in Sweden.

The Message of Occupy Wall Street: Return to Social Justice



“We are the 99 percent” – a message powerful in its simplicity and its call for renewed social justice. The Occupy movement took on new dimensions on Wednesday as protesters moved beyond marches and rallies to attempt to disrupt port operations in the nation’s fifth busiest port, while 100 military veterans marched in uniform in front of the New York Stock Exchange to express support for Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran injured in the Oakland protests.

The message of Occupy Wall Street that gave rise to this movement refers to the overwhelming majority of ordinary Americans who have lost economic ground in the recession while corporate profits have reached their highest point since 1950. In this regard, the Congressional Budget Office reports that between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275 percent for the top one percent of households and just 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent. In fact, the United States now has the highest poverty rate among developed countries with 46 million people living in poverty. The stories of lost ground are real, anguishing, and personal: stories of foreclosure, people in debt without health insurance, those who cannot afford to heat their homes, college graduates with student loan debt who cannot find work, and many others whose photos and stories can be found at here. We wonder if this is a new America.

In The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes (2011), Brown, Lauder and Ashton tell us that emerging economies have leapfrogged decades of industrial development and created a highly skilled, low wage workforce that provides cut-priced brain power. This “reverse auction” for jobs has weakened the trading position of American professionals in the effort to attain a comfortable standard of living. In support of their thesis, the unemployment rate for U.S. college graduates over the past year is 9.6 percent, while for high school graduates, the average is 21.6 percent. And corporations have unquestionably contributed to this reverse demand by outsourcing American jobs overseas. A Wall Street Journal study published on April 19, 2011, U.S. multinational corporations employed 21.1 million at home in 2009 and 10.3 million abroad, with increasing numbers of highly-skilled foreign employees.

The recession has unquestionably deepened the racial economic divide to the extent that some are even calling it a “race-cession.” A Pew Research Center analysis based on 2009 data reveals that the median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. The report documents the differential impact of the recession upon minority families, with a decline in median wealth of 66% among Hispanic households and 53% among black households, compared with 16 % among white households. Nearly one quarter of black and Hispanic households had no assets other than a vehicle, compared to 6% among white households. And foreclosures have a disproportionate impact on minority borrowers in 2007-2009, with 8% percent of Hispanics and Blacks losing their homes to foreclosures compared to 4.5% of whites.

The statistics for minority unemployment are sobering. Black unemployment has been at 16% or above for several months, the highest level since 1984, with Hispanic unemployment at 11.3% and white unemployment at 8%. The underemployment rate is at least double the official employment rate, including those working part-time who want full-time work, those who work at minimum wage but seek higher wages, and those discouraged workers who have given up looking for work due to the job shortage. Furthermore, the duration of unemployment for minorities has exceeded the average duration of 40.5 weeks or more than nine months. For some minority groups, such as Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and some Asian American groups, at least one third are either unemployed or underemployed. As a case in point, take the startling report, “Only One in Four Young Black Men in New York City Has a Job” published by the Community Service Society that documents the disproportionately high rates of unemployment among young black men ages 16-24.

Given these stark employment realities, will troubled white workers begin to target minority workers more than they do now as the recession deepens? We have seen minority workers blamed for difficult economic times when white farmers and workers reacted to the large numbers of freed blacks during and after Reconstruction, or with the more recent backlash against migrant Mexican workers taking jobs in America even though Mexican immigration has actually declined over the last few years and few many Americans are not willing to work under the abysmal working conditions associated with the agricultural and non-agricultural jobs held by migrant workers.

As the base for the Occupy Wall Street movement expands, it promises to be a movement that returns us to our democratic ideals and unite us in the cause of social justice across the divides of race, gender, age, and class. A recent press release by Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP articulates this unity of purpose:

We are encouraged by the broad national support and by the great diversity of Americans who have been participating in the Occupy Wall Street campaign. The movement and the peaceful protesters who are a part of the campaign share many of the same goals as the NAACP.”

The NAACP shares the protesters’ concerns about the growing disparity in the access to wealth in America, and the decline of economic opportunity for poor and middle class Americans. For over 102 years we have supported the policies which create, preserve and expand living wage jobs, increase economic opportunity and protect the right of every American to build and retain wealth and equity.

And in poetic terms, Archibald MacLeish captures the importance of this new movement in his description of our living democracy:

Democracy is never a thing done. Democracy is always something that a nation must be doing. What is necessary now is one thing and one thing only that democracy become again democracy in action, not democracy accomplished and piled up in goods and gold.

Thousands March against Georgia’s Nativistic Immigration Law



Here’s a good article on the march in Atlanta by thousands against the new nativistic Georgia law on immigration. Parts of the law have already been voided by a judge, as has been the case in Arizona and Utah:

Men, women and children of all ages converged on downtown Atlanta for the march and rally, cheering speakers while shading themselves with umbrellas and posters. Capitol police and organizers estimated the crowd at between 8,000 and 14,000. They filled the blocks around the Capitol, holding signs decrying House Bill 87 and reading “Immigration Reform Now!”

These nativistic laws, which mostly arch-conservative white legislators are passing in a number of states, always remind me that all of us, except for the indigenous folks, are indeed immigrants or the descendants of fairly recent immigrants to this continent. And they need, I think, to ponder carefully the 1880s poem of immigrant Emma Lazarus on our Statue of Liberty:

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Somehow the mostly white nativists forget we are an immigrant nation, and that these Latino, Asian, and other recent immigrants and their children have constantly saved this country from economic decline by providing a regular infusion of new and usually youthful workers who are willing to work, often in the worst jobs in the country, to build new lives and families–and thus to build up the US as it like many countries would otherwise have an aging population and too few younger workers (as in much of Europe)……. They also constantly bring in new cultures, new ideas, new currents of all kinds. I suggest we remember Emma Lazarus’s fine words on the Statue of Liberty, this July 4th.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Absence of Revolution in 21st-Century USA?



Where is my revolution? Where is our lucid, incensed, uncompromising voice of change? Why are the streets absent of straight-faced people marching with signs bearing rhymes of discontent for injustice, inequality, and oppression? Around the globe, people see Egypt stands in the midst of revolt. Egypt was inspired by the Tunisian Revolution in December 2010, where demonstrators allied together to protest their government’s level of corruption, the present stranglehold on freedom of speech, state of unemployment, food inflation, and disastrous living conditions. Egypt citizens then committed themselves to at times peaceful rallies, marches, and civil disobedience. Revolution is alive in the streets of Cairo, Suez, and northern Sinai area of Sheik Zuweid.

Social networking sites such as Facebook have helped to organize thousands as they protect against a ruling government viewed as corrupt and ignoring the plights of the poor. Like dominos, other countries in the Middle East have risen up to demand change. The U.S. allied autocratic President Hosni Mubarak is currently feeling the pressure of demonstrators who are demanding that he step down from the presidency. In the reported repressive country of Sudan, requests over Facebook, by a group called Youth for Change, in the past two weeks have asked thousands of young Sudanese to come together in order to peacefully protest against the overall “political repression” and rising prices of sugar and fuel.

This increasing demand for governmental upheaval is nothing new to the world. For God’s sake, this country’s budge to become free of the British Empire during the American Revolution sparked the French Revolution of 1848. Within the U.S., history has witnessed numerous accounts of revolt. Social and economic based battles over the directions of government, their rules of law, and treatment toward their citizens have been fought in 1775 in Lexington and Concord, 1831 with Nat Turner, 1863 in Gettysburg, 1965 in Selma, 1970 at Kent State, in 1967 within the streets of Detroit, and on the democratic battlefields of Chicago in 1968.

That was then, what about now? Is everything so good in this country? Has Sir Thomas More’s fictional land Utopia become a reality? If I did not know any better, and under the influence of heavy narcotics, I would assume that 36.5% of children are not living below the poverty line. Maybe racism does not exist within the ever-increasing prison industrial complex that exercises modern day slavery for companies like Nordstrom, IBM, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Boeing, and Revlon in order to turn a profit. Maybe nothing is wrong with the increasing profit international gas companies are taking from people like you, your friends, and loved ones who losing jobs.

I must be wrong to think that something is amiss when it is cheaper to eat food that kills you than natural food free of toxins, hormones, and preservatives. I shutter to even broach the topic of increased state taxes from corrupt state governments (thank you Illinois) who are not even able to pay teachers, universities, and hospitals. But on the other dirty hand, they are able to look out for the business interests of the rich. Am I wrong to see these and other issues of concern that pull at my heart as worthy of discontent? Are they worthy of your anger? Are they enough for you to get out there and demonstrate for days at a time that require you to miss a few hours from texting? Please do not take my call to arms as a call to violence, looting, destruction of property, or beating up poor Anderson Cooper in the streets as done in Egypt.

I am calling for “Us” to step away from the new episodes of American Idol and the latest booty-shaking videos to tune in. I am calling for the so-called highbrow academics to not only write about injustice, but to organize. Volunteer with a group attempting to make a blow for social justice. Tune into the issues that plague our society and take a stance for I feel cheated. My parents had the 60s and 70s. What do I have? The Jersey Shores?

Dis-Commemorating the Greensboro Sit-Ins: Whites’ Continued Rejection of the Movement

Greensboro, North Carolina, is considered the birthplace of the student lunch counter sit-ins of the early-1960s. This Tuesday marked the 51st anniversary of the proactive step planned and enacted by four African American male freshmen students at historically black North Carolina A&T State University on February 1, 1960, to sit resolutely in protest at the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s, one of the city’s prominent five-and-dime stores. The “Greensboro Four” were Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (later, Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond, and a statue of them walking resolutely, shoulder-to-shoulder, has for 10 years now been displayed on NC A&T’s campus.

woolworth sit-ins

(Creative Commons License photo credit: charlie_combine)

Greensboro was not the first site of African American’s sit-in protests against whites-only public facilities; accounts of similar actions reach back decades prior. Nevertheless, the action by McNeil, McCain, Blair, Richmond, and the hundreds of other students who joined them in subsequent days, inspired a rapid implementation of sit-in protests throughout the segregated South within a matter of weeks. After nearly five months of strong resistance to let go of “local custom,” the white management of the Greensboro Woolworth’s finally caved and served its first seated black lunch counter customers (ironically, its own employees) on July 25, 1960.

February 1, 1960 was a historic moment in the American – and global – human rights story. And it is the sit-ins alone that make Greensboro a memorable city in the American consciousness. Many Greensboro citizens, especially African Americans, have embraced this identity of their city as the birthplace of the sit-ins, and this recognition led to the renovation of the original downtown Woolworth’s store into the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which opened in 2010 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebration.

But what I have found in my interviews with older white residents of Greensboro, on the racial past including their memories of segregation and the civil rights era, is that the identity as an important site of civil rights struggles has been largely ignored or rejected by white Greensboro. It clashes with white Greensboro’s long-held notion of itself as epitomizing progressiveness, especially regarding race. In his excellent book on the civil rights era in the city, Civilities and Civil Rights, historian Bill Chafe calls white Greensboro’s delusion about its racial enlightenment the “progressive mystique.”

For my dissertation, I wanted to investigate how ordinary white people recall the racial past, so I came to a city known for its racial history. I’ve been living in Greensboro for a few years and have conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of lifetime white residents of the city, people old enough to have lived through Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights era.

When people described the actions of sit-in protestors, their portrayals were cursory and often dismissive. One woman in her 70s said:

They didn’t make any fuss or anything. They just got together and they just ambled in to Woolworth’s and asked to be served.

Saying that protestors “just got together” and “just ambled in” portrays their organizing as spontaneous, the implementation lackadaisical, and the backlash as insignificant. Virtually no one indicated that many white business owners fought hard, for months in many cases, to maintain segregation policies.

A few people credited the sit-in demonstrators for bravery, but there was very little willingness to promote the organizers to heroes, or people worth celebrating. A woman in her 80s said she would have been a superior protestor:

Had I been born black, I would’ve protested before they did. I would have. I have never understood how they had the patience as long as they did.

While acknowledging the inherent unfairness of segregation practices, this woman belittled those who she thinks waited much longer to act than her fictitious black self would have.

In these ways and more, the older white lifetime residents of Greensboro I interviewed demonstrated that they had not accepted their city as an important site of Civil Rights Movement activism. To fully embrace that identity, they would have to redefine themselves and loose their grasp on this belief that (white) Greensboro had for centuries been “good to the blacks,” a diamond in the rough city that the rest of the region and nation could hold up as a model of racial progressiveness.

This exchange with a married couple illustrates well just how adamantly some white Greensboro residents reject the notion that their city should be known for the sit-ins:

Wife: That museum should be on the campus of A&T, where the students came from, not in downtown Greensboro. . . . And I’m not against the museum . . . but it should be down on the campus where the A&T students were, and have it as a commemoration to them.

Husband: Isn’t that statue of the four down on campus? Me: Mm-hm. Wife: You see, put the museum down there with that.

Me: Do you have any pride that the sit-ins happened here. Wife: No. Me: and that they started sit-ins all over the South?

Wife: I thought it really started out in Omaha, Nebraska, is what I heard and that they did not get the publicity Greensboro got. That’s what I’ve heard. Now I don’t know how true that is. I’ve tried to look it up on the computer, and I hadn’t been able to trace . . . No, I’m not proud of that, no. No, we have other things to be proud of. O’Henry was born here, Dolley Madison was born here. Okay? Yes, Edward R. Murrow was born here. We are very proud of those citizens, absolutely. I admire these four young men that took the initiative for the sit-in. I admire their courage for it.

Husband: Took a lot of guts.

Wife: but these other people are to be admired more for what they did and the legacy that they have left for us.

Me: Why is that?

Wife: Well, Dolley Madison was the wife of our fourth President! And she was born out here near Guilford College. So Dolley was quite a lady. O’Henry is known for his short stories. They’ve been translated into many, many, many foreign languages, and he was born here outside of Greensboro. Edward R. Murrow, who was the leading commentator and correspondent during the Second World War, he was born here in Greensboro. These are the people that really accomplished an awful lot. We had other people that accomplished things. We had another black man who did an awful lot for the city of Greensboro, Charles Henry Moore, who is not very well known, but he was a teacher and professor at the colleges here. He was instrumental in getting Bennett College established in Greensboro. He was instrumental in raising money for the black hospital, L. Richardson Hospital. He opened the door for a lot of the blacks and unfortunately he is not remembered like these other people, but he contributed a lot to improve their way of life.

This woman argued that Greensboro’s sit-ins should not be commemorated because she “heard” they began elsewhere first, and, if commemorations are designed, they should be sequestered on the campus of NC A&T. She refused to view civil rights actions as a movement that significantly improved African Americans’ “way of life” or left a “legacy” for the city and beyond.

In my research I have found that a great many whites today are unable or unwilling to extend genuine respect and admiration for African Americans, especially activists from civil rights and post-civil rights eras. They refuse to acknowledge that black Americans have contributed, perhaps more than anyone else, to the expansion of our most dearly-held American values of “liberty and justice” and that these gains have benefited all citizens, including whites. In rejecting the reality that the Jim Crow society whites had formed was inherently unjust, they can continue to deem whites as virtuous and African Americans as second-class citizens.

It continues to be a radical act to challenge white racism openly in the U.S.A. And, unfortunately, it is also a radical act to commemorate those moments in our history that exposed and weakened the contradictions between our American pride and our American racism. Let us continue, in the spirit of February One, to be radical by remembering well and taking collective action.

Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Visual images are crucial to the struggle for justice.  This was the central theme in the exhibit For All the World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights at the International Center of Photography, which I saw the weekend it closed here in New York City.  The exhibit, guest curated by Maurice Berger, included still photographs, magazine covers, advertisements, newsreels, films, and artifacts with images (such as church fans with Dr. King’s picture).

(Image by Ernest Withers from ICP)

Much of the civil rights struggle for public opinion was fought through the creation of images that captured the struggle in graphic terms.  Montgomery, Alabama-based photographer, Charles Moore, famously said, “I fight with my camera.” His photos of Dr. and Mrs. King being arrested in Montgomery, and the release of the photos over the AP wire helped galvanize support for the nascent civil rights movement.  His photo of dogs and fire hoses turned on civil rights demonstrators, many of them children, ran on the front pages of many newspapers worldwide.   For his part, Dr. King was not simply a passive photographic subject, but was acutely aware of how images of him and the movement were used in the cause of civil rights.  To read more about this, I strongly recommend Sasha Torres’ Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights (Princeton UP, 2003)

I was especially delighted to see some early versions of sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’ magazine, Crisis, the publication of the NAACP, which averaged monthly circulation of 30,000 in 1915.   DuBois was also committed to the use of visual culture as a way to promote civil rights for African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century.  For example, at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, DuBois organized “The American Negro Exhibit” in which he displayed photographs of middle-class blacks dressed in their finest clothes, which was an explicit attempt on his part to represent African American achievement for an international audience.  DuBois was also the target of criticism for the particular way he deployed visual culture on the cover of the Crisis, often using light-skinned black women to draw readers (not unlike the recent controversy over the Elle cover that Joe mentioned). For an excellent analysis of DuBois’ approach to visual culture, see Shawn Michelle Smith’s Photography on the Color Line: W.E.B. DuBois, Race and Visual Culture (Duke UP, 2004).

Unfortunately, there was little of this in the exhibit. While DuBois was an ardent supporter of women’s rights (he said  “every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for women’s suffrage”), there was little mention of the struggle for gender equality in the exhibit.   Even in the curation for the photo above, there was little discussion of the gendered quality of this protest.  In many ways, I found this exhibit much less compelling than the one I saw last summer at PS1 featuring the work of Hank Willis Thomas about the commodification of black bodies.

The other unavoidable shortcoming of the exhibit was that it didn’t deal with the controversy surrounding Ernest Withers, the creator of the image featured above.  Withers was an important photographer in the struggle for civil rights (he took the photo of lynching victim Emmett Till in his open casket.)  And, it’s just been revealed, Withers also worked as an FBI informant.   So while his photographs worked to advance the cause of civil rights and social justice, he simultaneously helped the FBI gain a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis.  Withers deeply mixed legacy troubles our understanding the civil rights photographer who “fights with his camera.”

Overall, I’m glad I caught this exhibit, perhaps most especially for the short news clip of Malcolm X being interviewed.  I’m mostly glad because it reminded me of some of the excellent scholarship, such as Torres’ and Smith’s work, on race, civil rights and visual culture.

Attacks and Expulsions: French Governments against the Roma, Again



The BBC has a news reports on organized French human rights protests against French government expulsions and other negative treatment of French Roma people (so-called “gypsies’):

Thousands of people have been attending rallies in Paris and 130 other French towns to protest at the government’s policy of deporting Roma people.

A majority of French respondents in polls support the government expulsions and other apparent “cleansing” of these mostly working class residents of France:

About 1,000 Roma (Gypsies) returned to Romania and Bulgaria from France last month, while official figures record that 11,000 Roma were expelled from France last year. The League of Human Rights, which called for the demonstrations, said it wanted to counteract government “xenophobia” and what it described as the systematic abuse of Roma in France.

French President Sarkozy has apparently expanded these high-profile campaigns for political reasons, even against opposition in his presidential cabinet:

Prime Minister Francois Fillon hinted that he disliked the crude links being made between foreigners and crime, while Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he considered resigning over the issue.

There have been violent encounters between the Roma and non-Roma police in some cities:

In mid-July, riots erupted in Grenoble after police shot an alleged armed robber during a shootout. The next day, dozens of French Roma attacked a police station in the small Loire Valley town of Saint Aignan, after police shot dead a French Roma man who had allegedly not stopped at a police checkpoint.

French politicians’ expulsion and other policing actions have seen dissent and criticism from international sources like the Vatican and the United Nations, even the European Commission.

The article largely ignores the large scale racialized discrimination that targets the Roma, something Jessie detailed here. I am not very familiar with these recent French events, or the background. Perhaps some of our viewers can add some savvy comments on the situation in France.

David Brion Davis on Slavery and Abolition: Impact on US Wealth



Here is a very good 2009 video lecture (at Emory U.) by a leading scholar of slavery and its economic impact, as well as the resistance to it–Dr. David Brion Davis, of Yale University.

This one is called “American and British Slave Trade Abolition in Perspective.” This would be very good for use in a course on U.S. history, and/or racism/slavery. It is in six parts, and here are the summaries:

The historical contexts of African slavery in the Americas and the relationship with free market forces and the “New World” global economy.

The connections between enslaved African labor, trans-Atlantic trade, and the increasing availability of luxury goods for mass market consumption. How did anti-slavery movements arise in this growing market context?

Three major factors led to the U.S. and British decisions to abolish the trade of enslaved Africans: revolutionary changes in moral perceptions of slavery, Anglo American antipathy towards a growing African American population, and the population growth rate of enslaved African Americans in North America.

The North American “moral luxury” of condemning the trade of enslaved Africans while supporting domestic slavery; the increasing political enthusiasm for white immigration over black enslaved labor; the impacts of the French and Haitian Revolutions on trade abolition developments.

The political and moral debates between delegates from northern states and southern slaveholding states after the Revolutionary War that led to U.S. abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808.

A comparison of the impacts of the U.S. and British decisions to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the debates over what to do with the “contraband” of enslaved Africans intercepted in the newly illegal trade.

Highly recommended.