Race & Class

Wow, Iowa!

The first time that I was shown up by residents of Iowa was when I was interviewing for a postdoctoral position at the University of Iowa.  The taxi ride from the small airport into Iowa City passed field after field of corn, playing into my presuppositions of a rural and thus conservative state.  But the conversations that I had were pleasant enough.  And then someone asked me, "What's up with you guys in California and that anti-immigrant law?"  

My supposedly liberal home state of California had just recently passed proposition 187.  Prop 187 was an idiotic bill designed to deny undocumented workers social services, health care, and public education.  I say idiotic because even if you dislike undocumented workers, you wouldn't rationally want to deprive their children of education, nor deprive their families of health care so that they're forced to use the emergency rooms.  The denial of these most basic of necessities would make things even more expensive for everyone in the long run.  187 passed, much to my shame, but was overturned by a federal court.

And here was this guy in Iowa who couldn't understand what had gotten into us.  Neither could I.

So I should have learned my lesson to not discount Iowa.  Yet as the Iowa caucus came around, I didn't say it but I wasn't really expecting much.  It didn't matter what the polls said, I barely paid attention to them, the Bradley Effect was much on my mind.  Perhaps Obama would have a chance of winning in the more cosmopolitan, more progressive states, but surely not in Iowa.  

Color me absolutely and happily mistaken.  The voters of Iowa have sent a challenge to the rest of the United States, especially to the so-called liberal blue states.  Maybe the Bradley Effect is over?  Maybe race will no longer be the dominating factor in public elections?  

She says, hopefully...

The Most Segregated Hour

Welcome to a new year!

My first day back in the office was a slow one, not everyone was back, so there was plenty of time to talk with Lesley, our relatively new office manager.  Lesley is not a UU and so she sees our work from the perspective of a sympathetic outsider - always a good perspective to hear.  She had been working on the "Building the World We Dream About" test curriculum, organizing and sending out packets, and in the process reading some of it.  

For those of you who don't know, "Building the World We Dream About," written by fellow All Soulsian, Mark Hicks, is a proposed UUA curriculum on creating a more multicultural society, starting within our own congregations.  This is something that UUs including myself talk about so much that I take it for granted that it is a desirable goal.  In fact, one of the refrains I often hear amongst UUs, with a bit of embarrassed lamentation is that our congregations are too white.  

But Lesley comes from a background of all black churches, and she observed with a little bit of puzzlement (but no judgment) that it was a very unusual thing that we were trying so hard to do.

And I thought... it is a unusual thing.  11 am on Sunday remains, as Dr. King described it, the most segregated hour of the week.  Not only are there white churches and black churches but also Asian churches and Latino churches and Native American churches...  And I don't know for sure about the Latinos, but I know that amongst Asians, the Chinese and the Koreans have their own churches.  It is <b>normal</b> to worship amongst one's own ethnicity.  And while we lament that UU congregations are "too white," it's never crossed my mind to think there was something wrong with an all-black church or an all-Chinese church.  I have never though, "Oh, they have to change."

So the question is: what is the motivation behind our desire for our congregations to be multi-cultural, multi-racial?  Do we want it for just the sake of it?

Certainly, that is part of it for me.  I personally am thrilled when I experience diversity, the exchange of new perspectives.  It's the same reason why I want people of all genders, orientations, ages, abilities, and views in my congregation too.  

But that isn't the only reason.  There is some part of me that <b>needs</b> it. I've said before that I'm not fully comfortable in a room full of white people, where I'm the only person of color.  It's not that I'm terribly uncomfortable, but my "Asianess" is always in the back of my mind.  Conversely, I'm also uncomfortable in a room full of Asian people. Again, but for different reasons, my "Asianess" is always in the back of my mind.  Only when there's a mix of people does that feeling go away, and I can be just "me," whatever that means.

There is a third reason to want multi-racial, multi-cultural congregations, and that's because we are still such a segregated society, by choice.  Few of us intentionally reach out to learn how to live with (and celebrate) difference.  If someone is to undertake this great experiment, who would be more appropriate than a religious community?

One Step Closer to Equality II

One of the most grievous inequities of our legal system is the drug sentencing laws.  And one of the most blatant examples of bias is the sentencing guidelines for crack versus powder cocaine.  Chemically speaking, there is very little difference between crack and powder. One is not more dangerous nor more addictive.  Yet federal sentencing regulations for possession of crack, used predominantly by blacks, are significantly harsher than for coke, used predominantly by whites.

Last month the U.S. Sentencing Commission finally recognized the unfairness, and recommended that the lengths of sentences be adjusted appropriately.  Kudos to them.

A very closely related issue is the 100-to-1 crack vs powder disparity.  Current federal penalties for selling 5 grams of crack warrant the same prison sentence as dealing 500 grams of powder.  

When a Virginia man pleaded guilty to distributing more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, the Federal sentencing guidelines called for 19 to 22.5 years behind bars.  But the judge only sentenced the defendant to 15, citing the injustice of the law.  Prosecutors appealed.  A higher court ruled that the Federal sentencing guidelines were mandatory.  

Today, by a vote of 7 to 2, the Supreme Court ruled that the sentencing guidelines are advisory only, siding with the first judge and giving federal judges discretion to set crack cocaine sentences below those of the federal guidelines.  It essentially allows judges to use their wisdom and compassion again, to make sure that sentences are <b>just</b> given the circumstances of each case.  

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.  *rolls eyes*  Kudos to the other 7 judges.  This ruling brings us one step closer to true legal racial equality.  And it is another step in restoring my faith in the Supreme Court.

Invisible Bars

For those of you who don't know DC, it is a patchwork of race and class - stately mansions in some areas and rundown rowhouses in others, luxury condos and housing projects, and middleclass, single-family houses.  The conventional wisdom is that you want to live in NW.

For over 3-1/2 years of my DC residency I've lived in Columbia Heights, a NW neighborhood where white up-and-coming hipsters and working class African Americans (and some Latinos) walk warily amongst each other.  The former worried about security and latter worried about being forced out due to gentrification.  It's a strange neighborhood but a convenient one, close to the metro, restaurants and shops, my church, All Souls, and to work.  But when my roommate moved out I realized that rents had risen out of my price range.  I had first moved into Columbia Heights because it was cheaper and now I cannot afford to live there.

So I looked on the metro map and found a neighborhood where both the red and green lines intersect...in NE.  Upon visiting I was so impressed by the cute little semi-detached houses with well-maintained front lawns that I bought a house.  My new neighborhood is almost entirely African American, many families having lived here for decades, raising families and growing old here.  There's a junior high on the corner and a public library.  Instead of cramped, trash-lined streets, the avenues are broad, sunny, quiet, with the main activity being people gardening.  If I have any complaint about the place it's that it's too quiet. Tongue Out

So I was a little surprised when a visiting friend told me that she couldn't live in my neighborhood because there were bars on the windows.  It's true, there are bars on my basement windows, probably because they're low and tucked away, thus easy to climb through unseen.  There are bars on the basement windows of my neighbors' houses for the same reason.  As they are a pretty scroll work and let in plenty of light, I did not find them oppressive.  But I respected that she objected to such barriers.

At least I did until I went to visit this same friend in her new home tonight.  I drove into her ritzy neighborhood in NW, one that's not metro accessible, and I signed in with the guard stationed at the entrance to the gated community.  After parking, I found the front lobby of the luxury condo building, rang the buzzer to be let in, checked in with the concierge at the front desk... by my count that's at least three layers of barred windows.  Invisible bars but bars nonetheless.  The truth is, I couldn't live in her neighborhood.

The Theology of the Privileged

UU World published an article called, Not My Father's Religion in its Fall edition that I didn't think much about. I didn't think much about it because I agreed with what it said and thought it fairly obvious. Ours is a religion of the privileged. It is less likely to appeal to those who are working class. This is something that we need to work on.

But the latest issue of UU World is out and a firestorm of angry letters by supposedly open-minded and enlightened UUs made me take another look. Not everyone was critical, but for those who were the gist of the argument is that UU is welcoming of all folks, and that it's the author (Doug Muder) who is biased for thinking that our message would not appeal to the working class.

This is very similar to how some people accuse us of being racist for wanting to address racial privilege. At the heart of the disagreement is the inability to see how one perspective is just a perspective, not universal. It is invisible to them, so they angrily think we are inventing problems where none exist. They think that it's the messengers who are the problem.

We who have grown up middle to upper-middle class, we who are mostly college educated if not more, we who had family who were able to assist us when we needed it, our experience tells us that the world is full of possibilities and all we have to do is be smart enough to make the right choices and work hard and we'll succeed. And if we do make mistakes there will be other chances. Our experiences influence our world view influence our theology. And our theology is based on the celebration of choice. Mine certainly is.

My theology says that when Adam and Eve chose to eat of the apple, they did not "fall" but rather opened up a world of exciting possibilities. I celebrate the story as our collective claiming of our freedom (and responsibility) to choose and to be responsible for the consequences of our choices. And in our history, early Unitarians emphasized a spiritual practice of "self-culture," believing in our potential to grow to become more and more like God by the choices that we make. Early Unitarians were also the cultural elite of New England, the "Boston Brahmins."

What does this theology mean for whom the next paycheck is the difference between a roof over head and being out on the streets? For whom contemplating a career change at mid-life because the current one "isn't fulfilling enough" is not an option - not if you want to be able to feed your kids. What does the theology of choice mean for someone whose choices are extremely limited?

I am deeply invested in the theology of choice, and yet I also know this theology has little meaning for someone like my parents, who did what they had to do so that my brother and I could be angsty about "personal fulfillment." I don't know how to reconcile these things. But I know these issues are important for us to hold.

One Step Closer to Equality

For years now there has been a gross disparity between the sentencing guidelines for those convicted of possession of crack cocaine versus powder even though the potency of the two forms of coke are not significantly different.  Indeed the only real difference between crack and powder is who uses them - the former being used predominantly by black Americans and the latter being used predominantly by white Americans.  Yet sentencing for possession of crack has been significantly stiffer than for possession of powder.  Go figure.  This is just one of the more obvious ways in which systemic racism continues to oppress African Americans in the U.S.

Recently however, there has been some good news on this front.  In recognition of the unfairness, the US Sentencing Commission reduced the average sentence for crack cocaine possession from 10 years 1 month to 8 years 10 months, making the sentences more comparable. The Commission is also contemplating whether or not to make that sentencing reduction retroactive.  19,500 crack cocaine offenders currently held in federal prisons might be affected; nearly 86 percent of them are black.

Given that the reason why the sentences were reduced is because of the inherent unfairness of the harsh sentences, one would think the early release of people unfairly sentenced to longer jail terms would not be controversial.  Yet it is.  The Bush administration is claiming that making the sentencing reduction retroactive would put hardened criminals on the streets (appeal to fear), put a strain on the courts, and cost the tax payers money (appeal to greed).  Both of these claims are disputed by both advocates and presumably neutral judges and commissioners.

What I want to know is: even if it were true that this would put a strain on the courts and cost money, why would that be a valid reason to not do what is right?

Believing their own Hoopla

One uncomfortable truth that few of us openly talk about is that to be "liberal" usually means to be socially conscious... <i>AND</i> generally (not always) of a higher socio-economic class than those we seek to help.

When people are suffering and we can help, we must help.  That is undeniable.  But in the helping, it is all too easy to start thinking that we are in some way superior instead of remembering our privilege.  Too easy to become elitists.

And it's also too easy to relate to the issues in which we engage with the same bourgeois mindset in which we  were affluently raised.  I'm talking about thinking that we can solve problems by buying things.

In my liberal circles, we buy "organic," "fair-trade," "recycled," and "cruelty-free."  Don't get me wrong.  I believe in supporting the environment, a living-wage, and animal welfare.  It's just that these shopping patterns can become a merit badge or, worse yet, a status symbol.  A market brand.  In my liberal circles, some people scoff when you don't buy the right "brand."

Which brings me to "Hooplas," marketed as an eco-friendly boutique in Adams Morgan.  They sell things like purses made out of "recycled" aluminum can-tabs and wine bottles what have been artistically cut into vases.  As if these things are going to solve our landfill problems.  

I'll be the first one to admit that the items are covetable, so it isn't the selling of these things bought from "third-world" artisans at a healthy mark-up that has drawn my ire.  It's the attitude of the people selling them.

I was in Hooplas earlier tonight, looking at the pretty merchandise, pondering thoughts similar to those expounded above, and vaguely aware of the gossip between two shop-keeps in the back.  Dolly Parton came on over the speaker system and I thought to myself, "Well they can't be all bad if they like Dolly."  At which point the guy interrupted their conversation saying that he just had to change the music.  To which the woman responded, "I was going to say, that didn't seem very 'Hooplas'."  

If Dolly "isn't very Hooplas" then Hooplas can have one fewer customer.  I would have left then and there but was meeting a friend, and so was subjected to the rest of the conversation where they discussed getting rid of the more affordable items in the store because it was driving down their image, making them look "cheap."  It was appalling.

I have no doubt that they view themselves as "good liberals."  I'm sure they vote Dem or Green, and buy all the right things... and scoff at those who don't.  One of the things that we as liberals must ask ourselves, if we oppose racism and sexism, then why are classism and elitism ok?


One thing that continually amazes me about the city in which I live, the nation's capital, is how drastically different the neighborhoods are - grimy poverty side-by-side with opulent excess. I wonder why we allow either one to continue.

I am also struck by how different the "cultures" are in the various neighborhoods. This contrast was particularly stark one humid afternoon in July as I sluggishly walked from the downtown bank where I was applying for a mortgage, up Connecticut Avenue, past Dupont Circle where I work, through Columbia Heights where I (used to) live (until I got the mortgage) and to my church on the border of Mount Pleasant. Four neighborhoods. Let me share with you my DC.

Downtown (near White House):
Big, grand buildings. Wide streets. Men and women in conservative suits of different shades of grey. Mostly white, with either cell phone in hand to ear or bluetooth sets coming out of their ears, which always makes me think they've been assimilated. Often with a Starbucks coffee cup in the other hand, newspaper and briefcase under an arm. They are too busy and/or important to say "thanks" (or even notice) when you hold the door open for them.

Dupont Circle/Adam Morgan:
Funky shops and cafes. Gay and hipster central. Still well-dressed, but not as stuffy. Still mostly white, but a little more diverse. Still with cell phone in hand and Starbucks coffee in the other, but instead of talking to some important somebody, they're talking to friend about last night at the club, or how they need a better-paying job so that they can buy more stuff. Will usually say 'thanks' if you hold the door open, but otherwise everyone tries to avoid eye-contact with each other.

Columbia Heights:
Bizarre mix of luxury condos and run down row-houses and housing projects. Bizarre mix of working-class black folk and 20-something white hipsters with tell-tale ipod buds in their ears. Trash on the narrow streets. Potholes. Trendy restaurants and bars. People asking for money. Drug dealers. Trendy restaurants and bars. People look you in the eye and ask "How you doin?" as they pass by, but they don't wait for an answer.

Mount Pleasant:
Largely Hispanic/Latin. Working-class neighborhood, slightly shabby but maintained. Mothers in brightly colored flea market clothes pushing strollers with other kids in tow. Narrow, crowded streets, bustling with activity. People selling fresh fruit from an ice-cooler on the sidewalk. Others selling cds. Latin music blaring. A taco truck. Short men with a twinkle in their eyes who give me a nod and the once over as I walk by.

Well I Didn't Mean Fire Him

CNN just reported that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, the molecular bio research facility that Jim Watson founded, has fired Watson as a result of the highly unfortunate comments that he made.

Now I kinda feel sorry for the guy. Sure, the comments were ridiculously racist, but he's an old man and he apologized without reservation. Do we not give any recognition to people who apologize? 

And it's not that I think he didn't mean it.  Obviously the careless comments reflect his deep-seated biases. Things like that don't just slip out unless it's there inside.   

But I think these biases are more wide-spread than just a few "bad apples." I think the reason why so many people get on edge about these slips is because deep down they know they have similar biases. When the people who get "caught" get vilified and ostracized, it further confirms the fear that many people have that any slip will cause them to be branded as racist for life.  And so they become even more defensive about even the suggestion of racism, instead of being willing to self-reflect.  

Of course I want people to be held accountable for their words, but I also want real conversations about race - the hard work that delves into why these things happen, as opposed to just covering the "dirt" under a rug, which is what firing him without the dialogue does.

It's too easy to say "He is evil" and not ask "Is that also in me, and what can I do to change?"


Oh Jim, Please Shut Up!

After Charles Darwin, the two most famous biologists are undoubtably James Watson and Francis Crick for their "discovery" of the structure of DNA (it's a double helix).  

Those of us who are (or were) in the scientific community know that they could not have made that finding without the data that was stolen from Rosalind Franklin.  This didn't come out until after Dr. Franklin had died and the Nobel committee doesn't give prizes post-humously so she remains an obscure name.

Those of us with some familiarity with monsieurs Watson and Crick know that their accomplishment kinda went to their heads, leading them to think they were experts in a wide variety of fields.

Those of us in any community get embarrassed when a prominent member of our community says something incredibly stupid.

Watson was quoted in the Sunday Times as saying that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really."  He went on to add that while he hoped everyone was equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true."

Good grief!!

Mr. Watson is apologizing profusely today, acknowledging that "there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

Damn straight, there ain't.

Just goes to show that you can be smart and "rational" and still hold irrational biases.


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