What's the Matter with Picking on Kansas

Last week’s Economist has a book review of Philip Legrain’s Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them. As I understand it Legrain argues that immigration does not do economic harm to receiving countries and is highly economically beneficial for sending countries. The reviewer jumps off from Legrain’s economic analysis to talk about the intersection of anti-immigrant sentiments and racism. In the U.S. most low-skilled immigrants (and I think this is the relevant group to be thinking about since it seems that most of the anti-immigrant sentiment focuses on this group) are non-white. The same is not true in the U.K. where the addition of poorer countries to the EU has lead to an influx of lesser skilled immigrants from Poland and elsewhere. The reviewer contrasts the lack of protest about the incorporation of European immigrants to the reception of muslim immigrants.

In the U.S. the rhetoric around immigration (particularly undocumented immigration) focuses heavily on the effect that they have on our economy and society. They take our jobs. They lower our wages. They leach off our social services that our tax dollars pay for. The evidence suggests that these effects are either entirely non-existent or at the least significantly less strong effects than lots of immigration opponents seem to think. Still, these sorts of images are used to reinforce exclusionary politics. And as The Economist points, racism will likely continue to drive immigration policy in rich countries for the foreseeable future.

So I could take a stand here and rail against the racist hate-mongers who drive these policies of anti-immigrant-who-is-other but the problem of bigotry is an interesting one because eventually you realize that there are a lot of people living in glass houses. A few days ago I pulled into the parking structure at UCLA and noticed a truck with a bumper sticker that displayed the word Kansas in big letters and then in smaller ones underneath “as bigoted as you think.” This strikes me as a pretty typical liberal holier than thou attitude. I have a number of acquaintances all too ready to hold court on what’s the matter with not just Kansas, but the entirety of the midwest. Apparently bigotry is just fine as long as it’s aimed toward “red-necks.” I’m not sure that I have an erudite commentary that would coherently link these two threads of thought. But I am quite convinced that they are linked, that unchallenged denigration of “other” is no more acceptable from the urban coastal elite than it is from the middle of the country. Moreover I remain unconvinced that Kansas (by which I mean any of the “red” states) is particularly more bigoted than anywhere else. Southern California isn’t precisely a uniform tableau of tolerance. There is, perhaps, a more heterogeneous set of hatred here than elsewhere but I’m not quite sure that I’m confident enough in the material my house is constructed of to be throwing stones at others.

No Clemency

I wish I had something insightful to say about Schwarzenegger’s decision to deny clemency to Stanley Tookie Williams. For me it comes down fundamentally to the fact that I am firmly against the death penalty. Given that, I need not delve any deeper into the questions of guilt vs. innocence or whether Williams has legitimately changed. But this case makes me sad at a deep level because it is not just a question of the morality of state sanctioned killing. For me there is something much deeper to this than just the case of a man convicted of murder who will be put to death by a criminal system structured around revenge rather than reformation.

Surrounding all of this are the realities of race and class hierarchies in this country. Williams is a founder of the Crips. Given that fact, it is perhaps easy to understand the bloodlust that this case seems to inspire for some. But it ignores the question of how gangs form and survive in the first place. It’s not my area of expertise so I can’t lay out all the forces involved. But I will suggest that perhaps when society denies you access to resources and infastructure it is logical to form social structures that give you access to other resources. Too often it seems to me that the way violence and crime gets talked falls back to the assumption of actual equality, both under law and in a the reality of day-to-day living. It always surprises me when people assume that all that is necessary to get out of poverty is the desire to get out of poverty. As if somehow wanting an education will change the quality of the school system you are in (on this one I can assure you from my own experience that it does not). As if somehow wanting a job will change the labor market you are in. It’s a pervasive myth. And a dangerous one.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing that we should shrug our shoulders at the activities of gangs. But I think discussions of these things need to face the realities of what the choices for young men of color in poor urban areas are. These boys are not making the choice between gang life and a job on wall street. But who am I kidding? It is precisely the ability to stick your head in the sand that race and class privilege buys.

Tonight I am sad, and angry. I am also mildly concerned that other people’s sadness and anger may be expressed as violence (lots of my friends seem a bit concerned about violence in my neighborhood and surrounding areas but my fear is more generic than personal; perhaps this is naive) . I’m not normally the type to pray in recognizable ways. But tonight I will light a candle and hope.

Not all garden implements are spades

I have great respect for people who are willing to call a spade a spade, particularly when they are willing to do so in situations where the status quo rules supreme. But I’ve become frustrated with what seems to me a tendency among some to call anything that even vaguely resembles a spade a spade (“it has a handle and you can dig with it, therefore it is a spade; the fact that you insist that it is in fact a hoe is a sign that you are not really with us.”) My main complaint with this lately has been in the area of racism, but it’s a danger in all anti-oppression work. Yes, I said a danger. I think that calling things that are not clearly instances of the racism (or other ism) racism (or other ism) weakens an anti-racist (or anti- other ist) movement. Why? Because it reduces your credibility, and because it makes you appear angry, reactionary, and fundamentally impossible to work with. At it’s worse I think it is equivalent to crying wolf.

Let’s step away from racism for a moment and talk about sexism, since that’s something that I’ve thought deeply about for a longer time (and an area where I’m less likely to be hit with “well it’s your privilege causing you to make that argument; if you were of the oppressed group you wouldn’t feel that way”). I once read (or perhaps it was a conversation) a sort of parody of feminist analysis that argued that ketchup is an element of the patriarchy? Why? Start with round tomatoes, clearly symbol of that which is feminine. Boil these tomatoes down and force them into a bottle. Not just any bottle but a bottle that is higher than it is wide (well, I guess that’s the definition of bottle, otherwise it would be a jar). Don’t you see, you’re taking the feminine round essence of the tomato and forcing it into the phallic masculine mold?! We must protest the patriarchal ketchup. Clearly this is satirical right? And you’d probably find yourself taken aback by anyone who seriously argued that ketchup is a tool of the patriarchy used to keep women down right? Indeed, you might even find yourself questioning whether this person could be trusted to ever cogently analyze what is and is not patriarchal, right?

In most cases the sorts of things that annoy me are not as full blown ridiculous as claiming that ketchup bottles reinforce patriarchy. (I’m sorry, I realize ridiculous is a judgmental term, but since I came up with the original argument in the first place I think I am justified in labeling it as patently ridiculous.) And as a result these things aren’t as damaging to the credibility of the analyses they are associated with, but still I find myself looking at a lot of things that seem very dangerous to credibility.

I’m going to cite an example that is contentious among the Unitarian Universalist community (or at least the online community, for various reasons I haven’t talked to anyone in my immediate UU community about the issue), but I think gets right to the core of my frustration. At the end of June there is an annual assembly of UUs called General Assembly or GA (UUs like acronyms). GA this year was in Fort Worth, Texas. Unsurprisingly there were some incidents of racism at GA. I say unsurprisingly not because I think racism is ok, but because as long as we live in a racist society some incidents of racism are inevitable, even among progressive religious people (who, incidentally, I often feel are much better at denying their racism than actually avoiding racist behavior). There was apparently a great deal of hurt surrounding some of these incidents, and a lot of processing went on around them as well, causing the cancellation of one of the social events in favor of time to process.

In the aftermath the board of trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association issued an open letter of apology. The letter doesn’t give much clue about what really happened or what the nature of any of the incidents really was. The discussions I have seen online about the issue have focused almost entirely on an incident that took place during the closing ceremonies. This incident involved some young people outside the hall. Apparently the young people in question did not have their badges that let the ushers know that they were in fact registered for GA. Thus the young people were not admitted to the closing ceremonies. This made them angry and there were unpleasant words exchanged between the youth and the minister who spoke up in the ushers’ defense.

As you can guess the young people in question were not white. And the incident was labeled racist. In the absence of other information that seemed like a potentially accurate analysis. ChaliceChick brought up another perfectly reasonable analysis, suggesting that the youth might have been asked for their badges not because they were black, but because they were youth. Indeed, she suggests that all the ensuing chaos might have had more to do with their age than their color. If you happen to be a UU you probably won’t be horribly surprised to find out that she was quite quickly attacked in a number of places for suggesting that just because an incident involved people of color does not automatically mean the incident was racist. Yes, for a faith that claims to be non-dogmatic, we are awfully vicious in enforcing the accepted group-think when it comes to racism.

And then, the first actual eye-witness account of what occurred appeared (it appeared first on the anti-racist white allies email list, but I’m linking the article on fuuse). According to the usher (who herself happens to not be white) who was present, the kids were not escorted out because they were black. Indeed they were not even escorted out because they didn’t have their badges. They were escorted out because they were rude and disruptive.

At this point, some people began to acknowledge that while racism is a problem within the UU community, this particular incident might not actually have been primarily about race. Many others, though, dug their heels in and continued to insist that this was racist. And maybe it was. We don’t all the details. But given the details that we do have, I have a really hard time with people saying unequivocably that this was racism. To me it’s like standing in a garden looking at a bit of handle poking out of the ground with the rest of the instrument hidden in the dirt and yelling “look, look, it’s a spade.” Much worse than the continued insistence that this is a spade is the names and insults being leveled at the people who reply “well, I suppose it could be a spade, but we can’t really tell so maybe it’s something else entirely.” This accomplishes nothing. It alienates those who are calling into question whether the implement is in fact a spade. And it may make them much less likely to believe someone when they say “I saw a spade lying out by the garden.” I know for me if you tell me that a little bit of handle poking out of the ground is definitely a spade and ridicule me when I say “it actually kind of looks like the handle to the garden weasel I left out here last fall” I’m going to be very hesitant to ever believe you when you tell me you’ve seen a spade.

I believe language is important. And I believe misusing it is detrimental. When you call everything used to dig a spade it lessens the precision of your analysis. When you call every negative incident that involves people of color racist you are undermining the term racism. You are weakening your position opposing racism. And potentially you are putting yourself in a position when people won’t hear you when you do see something that is racist.

I know that a lot of times it feels like incidents are because of the categories we live in. And often they are. But sometimes a jerk is just a jerk. And I think moving forward in our analyses and our actions requires that we be able to not only call a spade a spade but also stop and ask ourselves and others whether it really is a spade at all.

I’ve spent the past two years of my congregational life calling attention to structures and incidents that I feel are racist. And that’s important work and we should all do it. But for one thing it needs to be done in ways that aren’t confrontational or people’s feelings get hurt and they stop listening (and even if you don’t give a flying f*** if people’s feelings are hurt, if you want to get anything done you better care whether they keep listening). And it also needs to be done in a spirit that recognizes that if we think the people around us are wrong, they also might think we are. The minute we stop being able to question and analyze our own perceptions of things we are lost. If we cannot question everything including ourselves we run the very real risk of becoming a source of the very types of oppression we seek to root out.

Historical subdivision?

I live near downtown L.A. in a beautiful reasonably well-maintained Victorian house (see photo). It really is lovely, and it makes me very happy to live here. Our lovely, well-maintained house, however, is flanked by two horrendously dilapidated houses. Since I don’t actually own property, the state of the neighboring houses is only a concern in the sense that for my own comfort I’d rather they not become home to squatters, etc. Actually one of the properties came preloaded with a squatter, a tenant who stuck around after the former owner was indicted for being a slum lord. He lives in an RV in the abandoned lot that adjoins the property and is a bit eccentric, but seemingly harmless.

Until recently the condition of the neighboring properties was not much of a concern. In the past few weeks, however, the new owner of the next door has started remodeling, or should we say gutting, the house. This is annoying due to the noise, but overall an acceptable thing to do with a dilapidated house that one owns. Except two weeks ago he began redoing the roof, at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. I wasn’t actually present for this event but apparently it was loud. Also, apparently illegal. I guess doing this sort of work on a Sunday is illegal (but yet Christians claim their beliefs are persecuted, no comment). The neighbor across the street called the police. Turns out the reroofing of the house hasn’t been approved. At this point the neighbor who called the police tells my roommates that we should show up at the planning meeting where the roof will be discussed.

And thus I found myself Tuesday night in the office space of one of the neighborhood realtors sitting on an uncomfortable bench with one of my roommates. Our house is in a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone, which I would have thought a priori would be something I would approve of. But I left the meeting rather troubled. Being in an HPOZ means that anything that’s done to the outside of one of these old houses has to be approved by the board (I don’t know what the date cut off is, but their authority extends at least to building built into the 1920s or 30s). It’s not like the system elsewhere where you only have to worry if your property is on the historic registry (which generally means its in reasonably good condition anyway, and someone in its ownership trajectory had a personal commitment to its historical value). No, the zones were established by the city. As near as I can tell there’s no way to opt out (short of selling off your property and leaving the zone). And while existing non-historically accurate features are grandfathered in, once you start doing any work on the exterior you’re stuck doing it in a historically accurate way.

The board is made up of architects and planning folks. Some of whom live in the neighborhood. The chair person described the whole process of board selection, but I don’t remember the details. Suffice to say, people with an interest in preservation, at least some of whom also have personal interest in the neighborhood itself. As she was pointing out the residency requirement she noted “so it has a very community feel.” Funny. The people sitting around that table didn’t look anything at all like how I think of this community. First, this community is not a majority white community. And it isn’t composed solely of monolingual English speakers (ok, to be fair some of the board might speak a second language, but I’m willing to bet that English is a first and dominate language for all except possibly the one of them with the Spanish-origin surname). Second, this community is not predominately middle-class, though the proximity to a University means there are incursions. So yeah, forgive me if I felt the only contribution of a “community feel” came from the non-board community members present.

First up on the agenda was the owner of the house next door. My first thought when he started talking was to wonder if translation is available for those homeowners in the area who are not capable of communicating with the board in English. Of course, economic realities being what they are, most of the actual property owners probably are at least fluent enough in English to get by. But one does wonder about provisions for those who are not (and while we’re talking about access, let’s note that the meeting was held in a second floor room accessible only by a set of stairs with an extremely flimsy handrailing that could not actually be used by anyone needing something they could put weight on). Now I’m not going to throw too much support in the direction of this man since it does strike me that he pulled down the roof without permit in a blatant move to guarantee that the board would let him reroof. And there’s something about the man that suggests to me that he might not be a significantly better landlord than the notorious slumlord before him. Still, I have to wonder about a process wherein you need to get permission for your choice of color and material for shingles.

I’m torn. I love these old buildings. I love our porch (which would have been replaced with something much less historically appropriate were it not for the intervention of the HPOZ board) but I have a bit of a problem with the level of control over private property. Usually I’m not of a rabidly individualistic bent. I have libertarian sympathies sometimes, but fundamentally I think for society to function as society there needs to be some attention paid to the good of the collective. But the problem here is that good that is in question is property values. And as much as I’m in favor of thinking about the well-being of the collective, and even the economic well-being of the collective, I have deep problems with the notion that I am obligated to follow certain aesthetic patterns on my property in order to increase the value of yours. I understand that this is, in part, about historical preservation, a love for the past. But the “quality” of a block was invoked at one point during the meeting. And it sent my hackles up.

The couple after our deroofing neighbor claims to have been unaware of the rules of the HPOZ. So they tore down their old porch and started building a new one, without a permit. Granted, had they pulled a permit the way they were supposed to they would have discovered the need to approach the board before doing anything. But right now they’re in the position of having to tear down the new porch they started and start over, in a more historically accurate (and much more expensive) way. It’s just a guess, but I’m betting their budget doesn’t have much room to allow that.

Throughout the whole thing I was a bit uncomfortable but it wasn’t until the third person on the agenda that I realized what it felt like. They were telling him that he had to get paint colors approved, was required to use three colors, etc. And suddenly I felt like I was in the sprawling subdivisions of suburbia, where the board determines that your ranch house (one of four possible designs) must be painted in one of the six community approved colors. And again, I have to admit that a priori I would think that I would be in favor of historical preservation. But there is something about a table of middle-class white people telling a room half full of non-middle class, non-white people what to do with their property that just doesn’t sit well. I can forgive the draconian subdivisions. At least there the boards choosing the range of allowable colors really are representative of the community as a whole. At least there you choose to buy that property with the knowledge of the rules. But here the board is not really OF the communi
ty even if some of them live IN the community. What’s more, at least some of these property owners didn’t opt in. And that strikes me as problematic.

I also wonder if the end goal is well-served by this strategy. It strikes me that the incentives get a little weird in this situation. If you don’t do anything to your property you’re not subject to the jurisdiction of the HPOZ board. But as soon as you start doing any changes, you have to face the board (which means all projects become dramatically more expensive). So basically what we have is an incentive to let your old Victorian house descend into disrepair. Now granted, it’s not that simple since there’s a built in incentive (in the form of your own property value) to make improvements in the ways that the board leads you. But ultimately there’s a payoff question, and particularly for the absentee landlord types (the vast majority of these houses are subdivided) the incentive not to improve is likely higher than the incentive to improve. And hence, the neighborhood retains its gritty slum character despite the gentrifying force of the HPOZ.

I know a middle-class white academic who owns property in the neighborhood. One thing she noted in a discussion about this is that her neighbors who are not middle-class whites don’t seem to have the same aesthetic appreciation for the old houses. And I think it’s worth pointing out that these are Victorian houses, hence by default this is a white upper class aesthetic we are attempting to protect. I’m just saying….

It’s not that I’m against preservation of history (though I’m not sure I believe there’s any inherent need to do so on a grand scale for reasons other than aesthetic ones). I just am suspicious of placing the cost for that preservation on individuals who don’t necessarily benefit from it. If we agree that this is a public good, the cost should be distributed. If we don’t agree that preservation is a public good, then it shouldn’t be legally required. Mostly, my issue is that this seems to be something imposed upon the neighborhood from the outside and the people enforcing the rules are not the ones subject to the cost. And I can’t shake the feeling that this whole thing was probably put together by politicians who wouldn’t be caught dead here.

Revolutionary Petunias

The title of this is taken from an Alice Walker poem that always makes me think of changing the world by changing the landscape, revolution with a spade and garden gloves instead of rifles (ignoring for a moment the fact that the content of the poem itself is rather violent).

My brain these days is circling around the word revolution, around phrases like social justice. I wonder what others mean by these words. I wonder what I mean. A fellow Unitarian Universalist asks of the support of white allies in anti-racist movements: “I wonder if that support is premised on our space in the sun not creating a shadow for them.” I have spent a lot of time pondering this question and pondering whether my answer is consistent with my faith/philosophy or whether it is a hypocritical mark of racist self-interest. Because ultimately my answer is “yes.” Yes, my support for anti-racist movements is contingent upon those movements not merely shifting upon whom the shadows fall. But I would expand my answer beyond that. It is not just along the lines of color where I think my discomfort with this formulation lies. Fundamentally I am not interested in reinforcing hierarchies. I am not in favor of replacing old hierarchies with new hierarchies that simply favor the formerly disempowered. I do not seek to replace white supremacy with non-white supremacy, patriarchy with matriarchy, or rule by the rich with rule by the workers. I haven’t read Rawles in any detail, but I understand him to basically argue that justice requires the feeling that a system is just even if you don’t know where you’re going to end up in it. The way I think of this is that I should be imagining a utopia where I am not penalized for characteristics of my birth. The assumptions of those fighting for their own empowerment, however, often seem to rest on the notion of a zero-sum game, the idea that one cannot come into power without wresting power from another. And that’s a reasonable assumption, certainly. It’s the next step in the logic that puzzles me. Why does a redistribution of power necessitate recreation of hierarchy? Revenge? Where’s the logic there? Why is it any more fair that I should pay the price for my position in a system created by my ancestors than it is that you should pay a price for your position in a system created by my ancestors?

Truly I’m not much of a revolutionary, the way revolution seems to be typically defined. My disdain for violence seems to get in the way. I understand that to say that I am a pacifist is a reflection of my privilege. I understand that when the war lands on your doorstep the words “but I’m a pacifist” will not stop the bullets. On the other hand, I have seen no convincing evidence to suggest that any problem has ever been solved through violent action. I am convinced, having seen it historically and in the personal lives of people surrounding me, that violence begets violence. Of course violent revolution can be successful, but it requires an astounding amount of blood. It requires not merely overthrowing those in power and putting yourself in their place, but killing every last one of those in power or those related to those in power, or those sympathetic to those in power. Essentially it involves killing anyone and everyone who might eventually want revenge. I have to admit that I am at a loss to think of any cause I support strongly enough to endure that kind of bloodshed.

But I realized last night that I have other problems with leftists and revolutionaries, and radicals in general. Tunnel vision, a devotion to one’s own cause that leaves even well-meaning fighters of oppression perpetuating oppressions of their own even as they pat themselves on the back for their progressiveness. I realized in the midst of another conversation that part of my retreat from economic radicalism has nothing to do with my pacifism and everything to do with my feminism. I offer here two historical examples. The first is the United States in the 1960s. Sara Evans offers a nice narrative of the relationship between civil rights activism and the formation of the women’s movement (second wave feminism). Of course, if you want to look back further, you could also make similar arguments about abolitionism and the suffrage movement (first wave feminism). But flash forward a couple of decades and shift your focus a few thousand miles south of the civil rights work done in Alabama and Mississippi. Anna Fernandez Poncela and Jennifer Bickham Mendez both offer descriptions of women’s organizing in Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution that is depressingly familiar. Maxine Molyneux describes the history of women’s organizing in Cuba in ways that again sound all too familiar. And yes, my skepticism is driven largely by self-interest but I have a hard time getting behind the word revolution when it seems clear to me that I risk being put against the wall for the color of my skin (or the privilege of having pursued intellectual pursuits, never mind the ill-logic of punishing people for where they ended up rather than where they started) without even having any hope of overthrowing the particular hierarchal structure that holds me down. And as a feminist I can’t much fantasize about violent revolution if I want humankind to survive. And even if it weren’t for the issue of reproduction, nothing changes the fact that some of the people I love most are people empowered by patriarchy, men.

There is more I could say of course. But really what it comes down to is a conviction that no one should be living in shadows. And a deep underlying suspicion of anyone who would ask me to fight for their right to stand in the sun but be unwilling to fight for my right to the same.