Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Racism 101: Explaining The Obvious

There was a gathering of intellectuals at a Brooklyn brownstone earlier in April. Coming straight from a vacation in bright, hot and lush West Palm Beach, I walked over not knowing what to expect. The topic was how the economic downturn would increase racial tensions. My question was whether the group would talk tactics or would this be theoretical. Being an American person of color, I don't need theories on the nexus of race and economics. I live the theories. I need tools to survive and thrive.

The name of the research center sponsoring this discussion is withheld but not the happenings. The group was a mix of colors, nationalities, ages and genders. People fell into the category of knowing the host family or being boardmembers. I didn't fit either so my antenna was vibrating--why had I been invited? Would money be solicited at the end of the talk?

The director greeted everyone and restated the theme. There were four presenters. The first presenter spoke about the massive home foreclosures due to the subprime mortgage debacle. He explained that most people who got those loans were persons of color, especially single black women. That's very unfortunate. After getting to a livable income and reaching a respectable social status, these sisters stopped waiting for their knight in shining armor to go for themselves and stake their claim in the American Dream. Maybe their great, great grandma didn't get her 40 acres and a mule, but this grandbaby was about to get hers. But oops, she didn't read the fine print of the contract and actually believed she could pay for a home seven times her salary. Now, the presenter didn't bring the message so "straight ahead." He was dealing with an intellectual crowd that may like theory. He even had to explain redlining. There were people who were astonished as if this was the first time they're hearing that black/communities of color were routinely denied personal and business loans.

The next presenter begged off the racism label to redefine his issue as an immigrant one. No, his problem had nothing to do with his color. It was because he is new to the United States and speaks with an accent. With that foundation layed, he explained the reality of millions who must leave their nations to find employment elsewhere to maintain their households. Money transfer services like Western Union are rich from the plight of others. People sending money back home are charged anywhere from 8% to 20% on a single transaction. His organization is in negotiation with Western Union to address this rip-off.

It's great that they saw a way to gain hegemony. It's sad that they don't understand that it is a racial matter that his country can't financial support its citizenry. The country can't support its people because the country is being discouraged from developing industry. Thus, the country stays a source for raw goods that must be processed elsewhere. The finished good is then imported to the country of origin. Take chocolate: people have come to associate chocolate with France, Germany and Belgium when in fact chocolate or cacao grows in tropical climates. Who lives in tropical climates? People of color do. Tea, rubber, coffee, bananas, coconuts and palm oil also grow in tropical climes. His immigration issue has everything to do with him being from a country other than east/west Europe, Canada or Australia.

The next pair dealt with the restaurant industry. While they explained that the wait staff and bus staff are divided by color, they want to make this an immigrant issue rather than a racial one. If you see that those who clean off the tables and don't get tips are melanated and the people who wait on tables and get tips are primarily white, then you've spotted a racial divide that's eating into families' economics.

This duo goes around the country studying employment trends at the posher restaurants. They seek to unionize the restaurant industry. They established an employee-owned restuarant in Manhattan. An eye-opener is waiters can earn as much as six digits at America's finer eateries.

So how do we really grapple with racism when people of color deny it's affecting them? There are too many trying to go under the radar screen. Some take such positions as: "Yes, my skin is sable but my hair is straight," or "Yes, my nose is wide and lips full but my skin is pale." There ought not be any buts about being alive. Racism--seeking approval from white power structure--has people apologizing, excusing, rationalizing and boot-licking over the right to breathe, work, love and live. If we are to live more abundantly, people of color globally must not fall for "spade pit."

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