Race & Class

Vick Revisited

Whoopie Goldberg has joined the crew of "The View." I think I've seen a minute part of one episode of that show. It's continuing staff changes would normally be of no concern to me, except that Whoopie has apparently stepped immediately into hot water by "defending" Michael Vick. People across the political spectrum are outraged that she could defend what they consider to be such an obviously heinous man.

Well, what exactly did she say? These are the quotes I could find:

"He's from the South, from the Deep South ... This is part of his cultural upbringing..."

"Instead of just saying (Vick) is a beast and he's a monster, this is a kid who comes from a culture where this is not questioned."

What Whoopie is drawing attention to is cultural context, and it's a valid concern. It was something that nagged at the back of my mind as I posted on Vick last week. The truth is that many cultures think of animals as nothing more than a resource to be used...and discarded when no longer useful. My own parents - while they would never do what Vick did to those dogs - think that cats and dogs are pretty much replaceable. If your pet gets sick, the idea of paying a vet money in order to make it well is preposterous to them. You simply get a new one. Any indignant ranting about animal rights would be met by bemusement and/or befuddlement.

And this makes sense. If you grow up in a culture where resources are scarce and how you chose to use them meant the difference between life and death for humans, then animal rights is a non-issue. While my parents no longer live in that culture, it's through that lens from which they see. And that may be for Michael Vick as well.

I thought about this and wrestled with it last week. Was my own outrage nothing more than cultural imperialism - trying to impose my cultural norms on another?

But in the end, I believe that cultural context only goes so far. Understanding and taking nuance into account cannot lead to complete relativism and the inability to make any kind of moral stand. Slavery is always wrong, even if the current culture allows it. And torturing animals is always wrong even if in some cultures it's condoned. And I'm not sure that torturing animals was condoned in Vick's culture. There's a difference between thinking animals are expendable and thinking it's ok to torture them. To assume that the latter is considered ok in the "deep South" may be yet another kind of bias on our part.

I disagree with Whoopie *if* her intent is to excuse his actions, but I think the concern she brought up is valid. And I certainly agree that we should not just write Vick off as a monster.


Today, August 29th, marks the second anniversary of when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.  Two years since the hurricane and subsequent breaking of the levies devastated one of the most beautiful cities in the country.  Two years since the beginning of the suffering that still has not ended for many Americans. Nearly two years ago the country watched horrified as fellow Americans struggled for food, water, and medicine in the heat and filth, in the supposedly most powerful nation on earth.  Many died.  We saw the ridiculously inadequate response of FEMA, being (not) led by Bush friend/contributor and former horse show organizer, Michael Brown.  And we saw the ugly face of racism laid bare as the network news reported on black Americans "looting" and white Americans looking for resources.

In the weeks and months that followed, Michael Brown stepped down with a huge severance package, and gradually the news stopped reporting on New Orleans.  Horror turned to complacency and neglect, and one year ago today I was surprised and horrified to learn that people were still living in FEMA trailer parks, on concrete lots, surrounded by barbed wire.  I had thought that despite our ineptitude, surely after a year everything would have been made right.  But it wasn't, not even close.

Since that revelation, I've kept closer tabs on New Orleans/the Gulf Coast.  I've heard back from colleagues and friends who have gone down to help rebuild, since our govt seems disinterested in doing so.  And now, two years after Katrina it comes as no surprise to me that people are STILL living in "temporary" housing and the city is still devastated.  Not just housing, the necessary infrastructure has not been rebuilt.

What is the excuse for this?  For essentially throwing these people away?  What justification can the govt possibly have for it being TWO YEARS since the devastation and the only thing that's been rebuilt is the casinos, even bigger than they were before.


The New Minimum Wage

Welcome to an ever so slightly better today. The first phase of the minimum wage increase passed by this Congress takes effect today, raising the minimum that an employer can legally pay an employee from $5.15 to $5.85 per hour.  While I'm happy for this much needed increase, it is painfully obvious that it isn't enough. 

It has been almost a decade since the last time Congress increased the minimum wage, the longest stretch of drought since the minimum wage was enacted in 1938.  Taking inflation into account, the increase to $5.85 is still far less than what it was equivalent to at the time of the last increase,  $6.67 in today's dollars, and far far less than its buying power at its peak in 1968, worth $9.56 in today's dollars.

For now, someone working full-time (2,080 hours a year) earning $5.85 an hour would earn $12,168 a year.  This is well below the 2007 federal poverty line of $17,170 for a family of three.  Think about a single mother trying to support her kids.  Is this just?

The economic disparity is even more stunning when we take into account the increase in CEO wages during this same time period.  Since the 1980s  - three decades - analysts have been saying that CEO pay is out of control and yet it keeps getting worse.

In 1980, the average large-corporation CEO made the equivalent of 97 minimum wage workers. Ten years ago, CEOs made as much as 728 minimum wage workers.  Last year, CEOs made as much as 1,419 minimum wage workers.  On average, CEOs make more in 90 minutes than minimum wage workers make in a year.  I'm not denying that some jobs carry more importance/require more skill and thus should be better compensated.  But I do question whether the head of McDonald's is really worth 1,419 times more than the person who is serving me my french fries.  Is 90 minutes of anyone's time worth a year of another person's? 

It doesn't have to be this way.  People argue that increasing the minimum wage to something that is actually liveable will hurt business, but repeatedly businesses have shown this isn't true.  Compared to Walmart, who is notorious for how badly they've treated their employess, Costco employees start at over $10/hour, and Costco is not hurting for business.   According to Costco CEO Jim Sinegal, "Paying your employees well is not only the right thing to do, but it makes for good business."

A just minimum wage isn't only an ethical imperative, it also makes sense economically. A just minimum wage puts more purchasing power in the hands of consumers, reduces employee turnover, and raises worker morale and productivity.  Higher worker wages benefit business by increasing consumer spending, reducing costly employee turnover, raising worker morale and productivity, and improving product quality and company reputation.


I went to see the new "Hairspray" with an officemate today. If you've lost track, this is the movie version of the Broadway show that started off as a John Water's movie that came out in the late 80s.  Written and directed by Waters, it takes place in his Baltimore in the early 60s, the town and time in which he grew up.  

I had seen the original movie, being a big John Waters fan at the time (still am).  What's shocking to me is how obvious the racial justice theme is in this movie given that I have no memory of this from the original movie.  I'm sure that it was in there; I was just not framing things in terms of racial justice as much as I am now.  It makes me wonder how much we miss due to what we filter.  And it explains why people can be at the same event and walk away with completely different experiences.

If you had asked me what the original Hairspray was about, I would have said, "Well, it's a John Waters film and it stars Ricki Lake (it was her big break) and Divine is in it (love Divine) and Debby Harry and Ric Ocasek and Sonny Bono (you know that John Waters, he's so quirky) and it takes place in Baltimore for some reason in the 60s, and there's a lot of dancing and a rivalry between teens, and it's very quirky."  If I was aware of any social inequity being highlighted in the movie, it was the prejudice against overweight women.  That was all.

In this Hairspray, however, there was no mistaking that dancing for teens of color was relegated specifically to the neatly segregated time-slot of "Negro Day." (In case you're so dense that you need this spelled out for you, Queen Latifah does an excellent job.) And that Tracy Turnblad's fight was not for teen popularity but for equality.  

What I learned from my officemate Taquiena, who grew up in DC at this time, is that Hairspray is based on a true story.  The afternoon teen dance shows that existed in Baltimore and DC and other cities across the U.S. were racially segregated.  And in Baltimore a group of protesting students successfully convinced the producers to desegregate the dance show.  However unlike in the movie, where we are led to believe that the 60s were ushering in a new era of equality and they lived happily every after, in real life the newly integrated show was canceled within a season.

Hairspray, it's amazing what you see with a different pair of lenses.  I will have to rent the John Waters original and give it another look.  Clearly he deserves more attention and credit than I've given him.

Aren't we in the 21st Century?

It's not that I thought that racism was dead in this country. Surely not. But I did think that overt racial hatred and intimidation, such as hanging nooses from trees, was a thing of the past. I thought the only people who would have the nerve to do such things were the guys hiding under the white dunce caps.

It's not that I thought that I thought that our court system was racially fair. One need only look at the "not guilty" verdicts for the cops caught on tape beating Rodney King to see that there is still racial inequity in the courts. But again, I did think that it would be slightly more subtle than this.

On Sept 1st, 2006, some black students of Jena High School in Louisiana sat under what is known as the "white" tree. The next day, hanging from the tree were three nooses in school colors. horror #1.

The school officials dismissed it as a "prank." Nooses, in the South, a "prank." horror #2.

In response to several black students staging a sit-in under the tree, the principal called in the police. The police, to deal with sitting students. horror #3.

In November 2006, there were a couple of attacks on black students by white students. No one was charged. In contrast, when a group of six black teens attacked a white teen who had called them "nigger," they were charged with attempted second degree manslaughter. horror #4.

Attempted second degree manslaughter for teenagers in a fight where no one was seriously injured. I'm not denying that people should be held accountable for their actions. Even with mitigating circumstances, I don't condone violence. But someone explain to me how attempted second degree manslaughter can be a reasonable charge??

To support the Jena Six as these kids are being called, and to support justice, visit Color of Change.

David Ritcheson

David Ritcheson died on July 1st.  His death was ruled a suicide.  He was 18.

I didn't know anything about it until today, ten days later.  Nor did I know anything about the horrific racially-motivated beating he suffered in April of 2006.  

David was at a party with some "friends" in a Houston suburb.  For the "sin" of making a drunken pass at a white girl while Hispanic, two self-proclaimed skin-heads knocked him unconscious, ripped off his clothes, kicked him with steel-toed boots, choked him with a garden hose, burned him with cigarettes, carved a swastika into his flesh, and sodomized him with the broken pole of a patio umbrella. They kicked the pole into him so deeply that his internal organs ruptured, all the while shouting "White Power!" and racial slurs.  Lastly, they doused him with bleach.  

One report speculated that the bleach was to "conceal evidence."  When a white supremacist pours bleach on a person of color, I am thinking there's a different motivation.

The attack lasted for over an hour. No one tried to stop them.  And even after it was over, no one called for help.  Ritcheson lay unconscious for ten hours until he was discovered the next day.  He was hospitalized for more than three months. Two men were convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

In April of this year, Ritcheson testified before Congress in favor of new hate crimes bill.  With his testimony he hoped to help others in the future, tho no one was there to help him that night.

As Ritcheson said before Congress and to our nation:

Not only did I have to face my peers and my family, I had to face the fact that I had been targeted for violence in a brutal crime because of my ethnicity. This crime took place in middle-class America in the year 2006. The reality that hate is alive, strong, and thriving in the cities, towns, and cul-de-sacs of Suburbia, America was a surprise to me. America is the country I love and call home. However, the hate crime committed against me illustrates that we are still, in some aspects, a house divided. 

RIP: Brown v. Board of Education

In the seminal 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.  It recognized that "separate but equal" was a sham.  In 2007, this current Supreme Court struck down two separate cases (KY and WA) in which local school districts were trying their best to stay true to the original ruling, trying to desegregate their schools.  

Now, I realize that their is a difference between 1954 and today.  At that time, segregation of students based on skin-color was official and actively enforced school policy.  At this time, segregation of students based on skin-color is the by-product of continued systemic inequities and social stratification.  Neighborhoods are segregated, and because schools draw from neighborhoods, the schools are segregated.  Supporters of the recent ruling point to this difference and pull out the tired line of "reverse-discrimination," claiming that we should never make decisions based on race either to segregate or to desegregate.

Yes, it's true that if conditions were truly equal, we should not take race into account.  Ideally it should be a non-factor.  But since conditions are continue to be not equal, and school districts where the students are predominantly white tend to be better funded than school districts where the students are predominantly people of color, then ignoring this disparity is essentially condoning continued racial segregation and inequity.  

There were two separate cases that got combined into one ruling - one in Louisville, KY and the other in Seattle, WA. In <i>neither</i> case was race the only factor in deciding who gets to go where, but it was being used as a factor. The purpose in each case was to make the schools racially diverse. In the KY school district, what they decided is that they did not want any one school to have less than 15% people of color or more than 50% poc. In Seattle, students living in the neighborhood applied for the schools they wanted and in the cases where the percentages were already filled - let's say the school was already at 85% white, then the student of color was admitted preferentially.  <i><b>Only</b></i> when all other factors were "equal" was race used as a tie-breaker.  Again, the goal was to maintain numbers that reflected the diversity of the school district as a whole, even tho individual neighborhoods within the districts were not as diverse.  

Apparently the Supreme Court had a problem with that.  And apparently this conservative Supreme Court is not so big on states rights.

GA 06.22.07 - Rethinking Affirmative Action

Attended the Interfaith Alliance Breakfast this morning. Interfaith Alliance was co-founded by Denny Davidoff, a UU powerhouse and former Madame Moderator of the UUA. Its purpose is to provide a counter-point to the Religious Right and to demonstrate a positive role for religion. In partnership with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, one of their main campaigns right now is First Freedom First, in defense of the beleaguered anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment.

I think that the Interfaith Alliance is much needed. But was a little disturbed by the stridency with which they spoke against the Religious Right. (Don't remember that from last year.) I am no fan of the Right, but get wary when the tone gets to be "us good versus them evil." Otoh I understand that we live in times where it's hard not to feel the urgency.

Spent the rest of the day pretty much either in Plenary Sessions or staffing the booth. If you happened to come by the Advocacy & Witness booth, we probably met. Perhaps you were lucky enough to snag a cupcake as we celebrated the 5th birthday of our Social Justice internship program.

By far the highlight of the day was getting to hear Bill Cross speak again. In February, I had the good fortune to be able to attend the Southeastern Conference on Cross-Culturalism in beautiful Savannah, GA. (Yes, it is every bit as beautiful as they say.) Dr. Cross transformed the way that I view black/white race dynamics in this country. Until I heard him talk, I had been under the false impression that slavery had decimated black culture and families, and was thereby responsible for many of the problems today. Dr. Cross meticulously showed us how that wasn't true, that despite slavery, African American culture and families were alive and well in the decades immediately following abolition. Rather, it is the economic and penal systems operating today that are in place to oppress black society.

And he did it again today, showing how the GI Bill that allowed underclass, recently immigrated Euro-Americans to integrate into middle-class white society after WWII was basically a form of successful affirmative action. So if we can have affirmative action (ie - economic incentives for the purpose of integration) for one group, why not another?

Meanwhile, this stirring article came out in the local Portland newspaper.

What Makes an Asian American?

Greetings from Portland OR, home of GA 2007 starting tomorrow.

Today I want to point out that twenty five years ago today a young man named Vincent Chin was murdered.  I remember Vincent's murder the way that others remember Kennedy being shot.  While I didn't know it immediately, it's the day I became Asian American.  

Murders are a common occurrence, unfortunately.  What made Vincent Chin's murder so remarkable was that he was killed for being "Asian" and his killers served no jail time.  None.

On the evening of his bachelor party, Vincent, a Chinese American, got into an argument with two auto-workers - Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz - who accused him of being the reason why Nitz had lost his job (due to strong Japanese car sales).  Both parties were thrown out of the club.  Ebens and Nitz drove around the neighborhood for 20-30 minutes, looking for Chin.  They found him in the parking lot of a McDonalds and then beat him to death with a baseball bat.

The two men were convicted of manslaughter, given three years probation and ordered to pay a fine of $3,000.  According to Judge Charles Kaufman, "These weren't the kind of men you send to jail... You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal."  Apparently murdering an Asian man doesn't make you the kind of person one sends to jail.  

People have on occasion wanted to know why I "insist" on putting a "hyphen" before American.  Why am I Asian American and not just plain American?  It's divisive, they say.  I tell them, I'm not the one who put the hyphen there.  It was put there by others.

I was not born Asian American.  I was born an American of Chinese ancestry, believing in the American dream.  My parents taught me that there was discrimination against Chinese, but if we studied harder, worked harder, and never complained, never made trouble, we would be alright.

When Vincent was murdered, and especially when his murder was judged to be worth only $6,000 total, I and other Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc realized that we were seen as one race by others, even if we viewed ourselves as many different ethnicities.  We also realized that never causing trouble ourselves was not going to keep us out of trouble.  It was Vincent's murder and the perversion of justice afterwards that created the Asian American community.  

Economic & Racial Justice

Affirming the inherent dignity and worth of every person, Unitarian Universalists work to break down the barriers that divide us, including those of race and class.  We recognize that racism is not just personal animous based on race.  More destructive and insipid are the institutionalized inequities embedded in our laws and social norms that perpetuate economic and social disparity based on race and class.

To the right you will find links to wizdUUm resources on issues of racial and economoic justice.  As always, you are invited to contribute to our collection.


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