Sunday, January 29, 2006

"Chocolate City?" (Courtesy of Tim Wise and Z Sustainers)

If you're looking to understand why discussions between blacks and whites about racism are often
so difficult in this country, you need only know this: when the subject is race and racism,
whites and blacks are often not talking about the same thing. To white folks, racism is seen
mostly as individual and interpersonal--as with the uttering of a prejudicial remark or bigoted
slur. For blacks, it is that too, but typically more: namely, it is the pattern and practice of
policies and social institutions, which have the effect of perpetuating deeply embedded
structural inequalities between people on the basis of race. To blacks, and most folks of color,
racism is systemic. To whites, it is purely personal.

These differences in perception make sense, of course. After all, whites have not been the
targets of systemic racism in this country, so it is much easier for us to view the matter in
personal terms. If we have ever been targeted for our race, it has been only on that individual,
albeit regrettable, level.

But for people of color, racism has long been experienced as an institutional phenomenon. It is
the experience of systematized discrimination in housing, employment, schools or the justice
system. It is the knowledge that one's entire group is under suspicion, at risk of being treated
negatively because of stereotypes held by persons with the power to act on the basis of those
beliefs (and the incentive to do so, as a way to retain their own disproportionate share of that
power and authority).

The differences in white and black perceptions of the issue were on full display recently, when
whites accused New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin of racism for saying that New Orleans should be and
would be a "chocolate city" again, after blacks dislocated by Katrina had a chance to return. To
one commentator after the other -- most of them white, but a few blacks as well -- the remark
was by definition racist, since it seemed to imply that whites weren't wanted, or at least not
if it meant changing the demographics of the city from mostly African American (which it was
before the storm) to mostly white, which it is now, pending the return of black folks.
To prove how racist the comment was, critics offered an analogy. What would we call it, they
asked, if a white politician announced that their town would or should be a "vanilla" city,
meaning that it was going to retain its white majority? Since we would most certainly call such
a remark racist in the case of the white pol, consistency requires that we call Nagin's remark
racist as well.

Seems logical enough, only it's not. And the reason it's not goes to the very heart of what
racism is and what it isn't--and the way in which the different perceptions between whites and
blacks on the matter continue to thwart rational conversations on the subject.

Before dealing with the white politician/vanilla city analogy, let's quickly examine a few
simple reasons why Nagin's remarks fail the test of racism. First, there is nothing to suggest
that his comment about New Orleans retaining its black majority portended a dislike of whites,
let alone plans to keep them out. In fact, if we simply examine Nagin's own personal history --
which has been obscured by many on the right since Katrina who have tried to charge him with
being a liberal black Democrat -- we would immediately recognize the absurdity of the charge.
Nagin owes his political career not to New Orleans' blacks, but New Orleans' white folks. It was
whites who voted for him, at a rate of nearly ninety percent, while blacks only supported him at
a rate of forty-two percent, preferring instead the city's chief of police (which itself says
something: black folks in a city with a history of police brutality preferring the cop to this

Nagin has always been, in the eyes of most black New Orleanians, pretty vanilla: he was a
corporate vice-President, a supporter of President Bush, and a lifelong Republican prior to
changing parties right before the Mayoral race.

Secondly, given the ways in which displaced blacks especially have been struggling to return --
getting the run-around with insurance payments, or dealing with landlords seeking to evict them
(or jacking up rents to a point where they can't afford to return) -- one can safely intuit that
all Nagin was doing was trying to reassure folks that they were wanted back and wouldn't be
prevented from re-entering the city.

And finally, Nagin's remarks were less about demography per se, than an attempt to speak to the
cultural heritage of the town, and the desire to retain the African and Afro-Caribbean flavor of
one of the world's most celebrated cities. Fact is, culturally speaking, New Orleans is what New
Orleans is, because of the chocolate to which Nagin referred. True enough, many others have
contributed to the unique gumbo that is New Orleans, but can anyone seriously doubt that the
predominant flavor in that gumbo has been that inspired by the city's black community? If so,
then you've never lived there or spent much time in the city (and no, pissing on the street
during Mardi Gras or drinking a badly-made Hurricane at Pat O'Brian's doesn't count).
If the city loses its black cultural core (which is not out of the question if the black
majority doesn't or is unable to return), then indeed New Orleans itself will cease to exist, as
we know it. That is surely what Nagin was saying, and it is simply impossible to think that
mentioning the black cultural core of the city and demanding that it will and should be retained
is racist: doing so fits no definition of racism anywhere, in any dictionary, on the planet.

As for the analogy with a white leader demanding the retention of a vanilla majority in his
town, the two scenarios are not even remotely similar, precisely because of how racism has
operated, historically, and today, to determine who lives where and who doesn't. For a white
politician to demand that his or her city was going to remain, in effect, white, would be quite
different, and far worse than what Nagin said. After all, when cities, suburbs or towns are
overwhelmingly white, there are reasons (both historic and contemporary) having to do with
discrimination and unequal access for people of color. Restrictive covenants, redlining by
banks, racially-restrictive homesteading rights, and even policies prohibiting people of color
from living in an area altogether -- four things that whites have never experienced anywhere in
this nation (as whites) -- were commonly deployed against black and brown folks throughout our
history. James Loewen's newest book, Sundown Towns, tells the story of hundreds of these efforts
in communities across the nation, and makes clear that vanilla suburbs and towns have become so

On the other hand, chocolate cities have not developed because whites have been barred or even
discouraged from entry (indeed, cities often bend over backwards to encourage whites to move to
the cities in the name of economic revival), but rather, because whites long ago fled in order
to get away from black people. In fact, this white flight was directly subsidized by the
government, which spent billions of dollars on highway construction (which helped whites get
from work in the cities to homes in the 'burbs) and low-cost loans, essentially available only
to whites in those newly developing residential spaces. The blackness of the cities increased as
a direct result of the institutionally racist policies of the government, in concert with
private sector discrimination, which kept folks of color locked in crowded urban spaces, even as
whites could come and go as they pleased.
So for a politician to suggest that a previously brown city should remain majority "chocolate"
is merely to demand that those who had always been willing to stay and make the town their home,
should be able to remain there and not be run off in the name of gentrification, commercial
development or urban renewal. It is to demand the eradication of barriers for those blacks who
otherwise might have a hard time returning, not to call for the erection of barriers to
whites--barriers that have never existed in the first place, and which there would be no power
to impose in any event (quite unlike the barriers that have been set up to block access for the
black and brown).

In short, to call for a vanilla majority is to call for the perpetuation of obstacles to persons
of color, while to call for a chocolate majority in a place such as New Orleans is to call
merely for the continuation of access and the opportunity for black folks to live there. Is that
too much to ask?

Funny how Nagin's comments simply calling for the retention of a chocolate New Orleans bring
down calls of racism upon his head, while the very real and active planning of the city's white
elite -- people like Joe Cannizaro and Jimmy Reiss -- to actually change it to a majority white
town, elicits no attention or condemnation whatsoever from white folks. In other words, talking
about blacks being able to come back and make up the majority is racist, while actually engaging
in ethnic cleansing -- by demolishing black neighborhoods like the lower ninth ward, the Treme,
or New Orleans East as many want to do -- is seen as legitimate economic development policy.

It's also interesting that whites chose the "chocolate city" part of Nagin's speech, delivered
on MLK day, as the portion deserving condemnation as racist, rather than the next part--the part
in which Nagin said that Katrina was God's wrath, brought on by the sinful ways of black folks,
what with their crime rates, out-of-wedlock childbirths and general wickedness.
In other words, if Nagin casts aspersions upon blacks as a group -- truth be told, the textbook
definition of racism -- whites have no problem with that. Hell, most whites agree with those
kinds of anti-black views, according to polling and survey data. But if Nagin suggests that
those same blacks -- including, presumably the "wicked" ones -- be allowed to come back and live
in New Orleans, thereby maintaining a black majority, that becomes the problem for whites, for
reasons that are as self-evident as they are (and will remain) undiscussed.

Until white folks get as upset about racism actually limiting the life choices and chances of
people of color, as we do about black folks hurting our feelings, it's unlikely things will get
much better. In the end, it's hard to take seriously those who fume against this so-called
reverse racism, so petty is the complaint, and so thin the ivory skin of those who issue it.
Tim Wise is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull,
2005) and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge, 2005). He can be
reached at

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Taylorism and Ehrenreich

Note: Taylorism stems from a “scientific management” expert, Frederick Taylor, who most eloquently formulated the modern system of automation and management most exemplified in the fast food restaurant: deskilled workers, simplified tasks, etc. This is an essay discussing Taylor, Adam Smith and Barbara Ehrenreich.

It should be noted, firstly, that there is a myth that Taylorism is about efficiency. This claim seems to be squarely at odds with the fact that Taylorist mechanisms and mechanization are undertaken even when this actually reduces profits, and the note that increasing worker's participation even nominally actually raises productivity. The contradiction is resolved when we remember “efficiency” means efficiency at preserving the interests of the managers, or the masters: Not only profit, but the conditions that stratify power and social mobility to allow them to retain that profit. As Paul Street put it in his article “The Corporation and Frankenstein”, the corporation is the market's Frankenstein's monster: a creature made by it to master itself but that ends up undermining its very logic. Nonetheless, the general rift between Smith, who as a pre-capitalist respected the artisan and the free man, and Taylor, who as a capitalist wished to sacrifice everything for the power and profits of the rich, remains. It is quite clear that the modern era is a Taylorist and not a Smithian one. As Ehrenreich makes clear on p. 210, “...if low-wage workers do not behave in an economically rational way [noting that employers believe they do not], that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in way democratic.” This disdain for workers' ability to be productive and for freedom held by the employers is noted quite clearly by the phenomenon Ehrenreich notes in the Evaluation, one that even conservative economists have commented upon: the stagnation or actual decline in real terms of wages concurrent with quite expanisve increases in productivity: clearly the upper class views the working class as replaceable. One could note, given the Evaluation (particularly pp. 216-217), that for the rich and powerful employers to have any opinion about the poor, they must actually know them, and given the sharp stratification of modern society, that isn't likely. This allows employers to view their workers as stupid and incompetent, rather than blaming institutional mechanisms that propel poor results.

The human consequences of the Taylorist view are quite obvious. If those who control the means of labor construct labor in such a manner as to reduce the skills and intelligence utilized when working, the labor process will become increasingly stupefying to the mass of workers. Even if other inequities of power and wealth are resolved, this is the seed for new inequity, as those with more empowering and intellectually maximizing jobs will inherently gain decision-making advantages, connections and privileges. Note that this has nothing to do with the intents of the bosses: Though Ehrenreich describes many insensitive and even cruel bosses, even kind ones will be forced to do what they must by the exigencies of the market or be forced out. Further, such continued deskilling of workers will raise inequity by lowering wages, which (as Dani Rodrik has noted) lowers growth, and reduce worker participation and usage of intellectual ability, which means those in the best position to evaluate the success of certain policies on the ground will be precisely the people least skilled to do so. However, the Smith view is not adequate. Even a market system that enshrines artisans and skills will never allow the full political and economic participation in decision-making of all parties: even capitalists admit that “externalities” are rife in market systems, forcing costs onto those not party to the direct consumer-producer transaction.

Layers of Identity and Polyculturalism

People identify themselves through many filters: Family, friends, culture, ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, species, etc. Normally, these are not in conflict, nor are they actively in operation at any one time. Yet conflicts between these identities occur frequently. Does one go to war even though doing so harms one's family? Or might one take the longer view and believe that defending one's nation is actually how one benefits one's family over time? To argue that assumes things about what “the nation” is, a belief that one's nation will in fact defend its composite members, a belief that some (Jews in the 1930s, for example) were mistaken in holding.

Belief in nationality is typically, though not always, associated with a belief in some kind of consistent border or homeland. Even the Jews, who have been in diaspora for millenia, view themselves as belonging to a homeland that they believe they can sketch out the borders of. The Kurds demand Kurdistan, the Quebecois an independent nation-state, and so on. Unfortunately, the European combination of the ethno-cultural nation with the political state has created situations where those who were not represented in the initial divisions of power feel underrepresented. Further, to gain resources, other groups typically must suffer a proportional loss of resources or territory. These two phenomena create the foundations of much civil and international war.

It is quite unlikely that such long-standing divisions will cease immediately, even after revolutionary alterations in the economy or polity that admittedly solidifies such divisions. It seems to be human nature to form tribes of some kind. Tribes are combined with borders to create in-out dichotomies, and of a wholly artificial nature. A Californian is, according to the demands of national culture, supposed to be more concerned with the fate of Rhode Islanders who he has no economic or cultural ties with than of Mexicans who he is quite close to and integrated with, and conversely so with the Rhode Islander and Canada. While borders of management do make some sense, nations regularly choose wholly artificial places to put such borders, and even when a logical location such as a river or mountain is chosen, ecological consciousness is regularly forgotten. Pollution does not stop at borders: whether in the air or in the oceans, it ignores human constraints and moves across geographies only. The same can be said for ecosystems that emerge, unified in nature's eyes but divided in men's.

Anarchists such as myself have quite extensive literatures on how to deal with nationalism, statism and other pressures. Roughly speaking, regarding ethno-national identity, anarchists have two solutions.

The first is a political and economic one: federation. Whatever ruling bodies (ruled by the people in direct proportion to the degree to which decisions affect them) emerge should be primarily local at the first level, to allow direct participation; then, if delegation is required, councils formed from layers of delegates to deal with issues of larger and larger scale. If group divisions do remain, such solutions allow them to rule over localities and regions that they view as theirs while still retaining a proportional stake in decisions that still affect them but also affect other groups.

Regarding guaranteed representation: While requiring a degree of guaranteed representation along ethnic lines is an appropriate solution for initial trust-building, the unfortunate consequence is that these ethnic divisions become encoded artificially into ruling structures, acquiring new and distinct meanings even if groups are in the process of fluid shifting. It also artificially undermines the direct rule of people as people.
The second is what Justin Podur calls “polyculuralism”, which is a cultural-behavioral change. The notion here is to recognize precisely this hierarchy of identity that all human beings have and to thus strike a middle ground between assimilation and multiculturalism. Assimilation has the benefit of eliminating certain groups from calculation and thus preventing them from causing trouble. This is fair enough, except, as Podur notes in “Revolutionizing Culture”, “Assimilation gets rid of the problem of a powerful community oppressing a less powerful community by absorbing the less powerful into the more powerful.” Even when it does not do this, keeping equal parts of each culture (and historical examples are few and far between), it eliminates a human component, something that makes people uniquely “them”, and thus would be avoidable. But the alternative, multiculturalism, is typically quite lazy. To assimilation's “melting pot”, it proposes a “salad bowl”, with each component living in harmony but nonetheless separated. This begs the question of a human rights advocate: what of the nasty undersides of each culture, the internal repression? Here we are seeing a identity conflict. Let us take a patriarchal culture. A woman's place in it is a conflict with their ethnic status: one seeks to overwhelm the other. Multiculturalism has the initial appeal that it categorically avoids the issue of cultural imperialism and unwarranted interference or protection of other cultures, but it has the downside of preventing warranted interference. As Podur puts it, ”What is lacking in it is a notion of what happens within these ‘cultures’ and between them. If we have a multicultural society where every ‘culture’ gets to ‘govern itself’, does this mean that ‘culture’ can be used to justify sexism, or homophobia, or capitalism? What rules govern the hundreds of interactions across cultures that will happen every day? How will conflicts between people of different cultures be solved? Multiculturalism doesn’t provide the right tools to understand these problems or to deal with them.” Polyculturalism instead proposes recognizing at least two levels of identity: an area where each culture can safely exist and co-exist as a culture, intermingling and trading insofar as they please; then a shared area, the polity and economy, where cultural conflicts that arise are put aside. In this shared area, every individual has guaranteed rights, and if a certain culture seeks to deprive it, the individual wins.

To introduce such mechanisms would require radical alteration of existing economic and political structures, indeed revolutionary alteration, as it is the imposition of borders, resource conflicts, flags, and power that statism creates, as well as the rush to the bottom that capitalism creates, that helps foist and foment ethnic conflict. But, to quote a culinary advocate of multiculturalism, Alton Brown, “that's another show”.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Brief Post To Get Back Into It!

Oh, ye frequent readers: I apologize for the lack of posting over the last two months. A new apartment, a difficult quarter and other barriers reduced my posting. Let me simply note a few comments that came to mind from my various classes.

The first came when I was in my Multi-Cultural Societies class. Of course when discussing matters of race, racism, culture, ethnicity, etc., especially with undoubtedly one or two conservatives in the class, the possibility for a highly unproductive dialogue to emerge is quite profound. Yet the way most university classes, including this one, have resolved such difficulties is to resort to a, if I may, namby-pamby approach. You know the one: "Everyone has an opinion. You should all listen to each other and respect people from different backgrounds." Yada yada yada.

Now, far be it from me to undermine the importance of dialogue, particularly polite dialogue, or to rebut that people should be kind and non-judgmental to each other. Nonetheless, I am afraid that this tack does not engender critical dialogue. For one thing, it seems to put a Stop sign on actual substantive debate.

You see, in our society, we have created a dichotomy (false though it may be) between "argument" and "dialogue". In part this is a linguistic confusion: The word "argument", except for some logic folks and debaters, typically connotes a caustic 'discussion' filled with interruption, bile, anger and very little substance, listening or alteration of position. Clearly this must be avoided! But I think that there is also a deeper problem here that the linguistic problem covers up. Our society teaches people to accept particular dogmas (ironically, one of the dogmas is "Don't accept dogmas".) Instead of devoting the requisite time and intellectual energy to really gripping an issue, understanding things, resolving disputes (semantic or otherwise), and coming upon some kind of agreement or understanding, we prefer to sit in our hermetic containers and occasionally stick our head up, fearfully looking for crossfire. Unfortunately, America's political climate, filled with bile and rage and very little logic and thought, further propels this difficulty.

And so every University professor, come the start of a new quarter, will march out a string of platitudes and bromides about "discussion" and "respect" and "courtesy". But one should listen to someone not only for what might be quite right, but also what is quite wrong. And one should be listening carefully, without preconception or anger, not only because not doing so is not conducive to anything, but also because doing so is the prequisite to effective rebuttal.

Tim Wise once pointed out that, particularly in the context of classes like I'm attending, this statement that everyone will be safe and protected is in fact not directed at minorities in the classroom but really the majority, saying, "Don't worry, you won't have to step outside of your comfort zone here." Never mind that blacks, women, politically left and poor people have to step outside of their comfort zone practically every day if they wish to offer their political opinion. This point was eloquently and angrily made by someone in one of my discussion groups, who pointed out that there is a fundamental inequity (though this is not a justification for violating freedom of speech) in the situation where the neo-Nazi and the Black Panther discuss. Even in a liberal university, the neo-Nazi can go back home, secure and quiet in his racism and confident that he was the dissident voice of reason, while the supposedly "emotional" Black Panther will be bothered by a tack that says he should not exist, a script s/he has heard every day and often decidedly in decidedly unsafe environments. Even in the rare cases where the Black Panther is saying something akin to "Kill whitey", the white person will rarely feel actually scared, or be in any real danger, because of the innate power relation (magnified in dispro white college campuses).

Yes, if the choice is between an acrid and vicious debate and silence or people sheepishly offering their "opinions", the mature part of me will pick the latter, but that shouldn't be the choice. Administrators have a responsibility to allow the third, actually good alternative: Where people passionately defend positions, with appropriate logic and points being actually addressed and rebutted.

The second note is more for my own comfort. If you find it excessively fatuous, go ahead and skip to something else.

In a discussion about Aristotle and ethics/political philosophy, I proffered my solution to the classic dilemma of order versus freedom: Free people will obviously disagree on many things; ergo, in cases where a decision must be made, various sytems of redress, appeal, individual rights guaranteed by some kind of constitutional order, etc. must be available to allow compromise. In the normal give-and-take of any social unit, no matter how vital and really free, compromises will need to be made. Just think of any family. Few would dispense of it, yet within it people constantly fight and have disagreements. This isn't a problem regarding freedom if there's enough respect for each individual and no one tramples on each other legitimate rights. To which my Professor responded, in essence, "That is basically Aristotle". Aristotle, who believed Plato's pap about "philosopher kings" who, by dint of superior education, would be in a superior way moral and kind; who viewed the vast mass of people as inferior vulgates who need to be indoctrinated by force and order (what he called taxis and noos); and so on.

Though a broader treatment of my anarchist philosophy is still in the works, let me summarize my ethical opinion. In my view, ethics and freedom are not mortal enemies, as we often imagine, but in fact blood brothers. To be free is to have the possibility to act in an ethical, or rather unethical, manner. The only way someone can prove themselves as an ethical entity and acquire the maturity for freedom is precisely to have that freedom in the first place. I view any restriction upon private freedom as a limitation of someone's ability to be free. Unfortunately, a few restrictions to prevent rights conflicts and allow the fullest and freest expression of liberty are essential, but aside from these cases (i.e. legislation against murder and theft), societies should not restrict private behavior, even unethical behavior.

So what makes me different from Aristotle?

1) I believe the common woman has all the requisite intelligence to run their own affairs.
2) Even if they didn't, there is no justification for repealing the solemn rights of free people.
3) Unlike Aristotle, who implies that family and the state of nature is fundamentally a barbaric and brutish one, I view family as not only an economic entity that provides food/shelter/child-rearing, etc., but also a real, organic emotional support network. Everyone can call their mother or father if they feel bad and are likely to get a quite positive and supportive response. This denigration of familial nurturing is, of course, representative of Aristotle's position as a sexist male in a deeply stratified society. Further, I think that tribal and "primitive" forms have much to recommend them, though I don't view them as the best alternatives.
4) My notion of the compromise between the individual and the community includes:
a) Direct democratic participation
b) Guaranteed individual rights
c) The ability to secede
d) Substantial redress, appeal, etc. processes
e) Federation and multiple levels of loyalty